Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 12, 2008

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

Filed under: Film,ultraright — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

The timing of the PBS documentary on Lee Atwater titled “Boogie Man” last night could not be better. As the inventor of the kind of dirty tricks that John McCain used unsuccessfully, Atwater symbolizes the bare-knuckle politics that have worked so well for Republicans since Reagan’s election. Unfortunately for them, the recent financial crisis delivered a knockout punch to such politics–at least until the Democrats succumb to a new round of ineffectual governance that will render them vulnerable once again.

When asked by a PBS interviewer about his views on the 2008 election, director Stefan Forbes responded:

There was an election? I’ve been stuck in the edit room for the last two years, so I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. People ask me if the Atwater playbook is over, if hope has beaten fear once and for all. I’m not so sure. Fear may have actually won. Peoples’ very real fear of losing homes and 401(k)s bested the trumped-up fears that Obama was a Muslim or an elitist socialist in league with Hamas. In future elections, where there’s no urgent issue, these sorts of attacks may regain their powerful emotional hold over the American voter.

Atwater died of brain cancer at the age of 40 in 1990. It is not hard to see his death as punishment for a misspent life. This morality tale even includes well-publicized reports of Atwater going through a death-bed conversion. The riveting documentary surmises that this could have been just another example of Atwater deception since the Bible he requested in his dying weeks remained covered in the cellophane it came in.

You can watch excerpts of the documentary at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/atwater/view/, but the entire DVD must be ordered from the PBS website. For those who don’t want to spend the money, I recommend looking for the printed transcript which should be online in a week or so. Just check: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/atwater/etc/tapes.html

Stefan Forbes skillfully draws out the dramatic class differences between Atwater and the George Bush family that relied on his scuzzy talents. No matter how much Atwater sought to become part of the Connecticut Patrician world that the Bush family inhabited, they never regarded him more than a kind of elevated household servant.

As an authentic redneck from South Carolina, Atwater helped the Bush ’41 campaign define itself as a “good old boy” defense of American values against the effete brie-eating Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, who is interviewed throughout the film. Dukakis offers ex post facto refutations of Atwater’s lies that are quite eye-opening. It was too bad, as one commentator notes, that they were not used during his feckless campaign. For example, Atwater cooked up the infamous Willie Horton ads that blamed Dukakis for allowing the convicted African-American felon to get a weekend furlough from prison that allowed him to go on a killing spree. Dukakis notes that this program was inspired by another governor, namely Ronald Reagan from California.

Atwater also produced ads that charged Dukakis with opposing various weapons systems that would have left America defenseless against the dirty Russians. Dukakis explains that as governor of Massachusetts, he was in no position to vote on any kind of weapons system. In a period of deep reaction, such as the kind that allowed a Reagan or a Bush to triumph, it mattered little if such ads were true or not. American voters allowed their prejudices to take over, a luxury ill-afforded in a period of rising unemployment. Of course, it remains to be seen whether a Democratic administration can do much about this, given its free market fundamentalism.

Despite his racism, Atwater made a big thing about his affinity for Black people that was mostly expressed through his love for the blues. Atwater played backup guitar for Percy Sledge during the 1960s and sat in with bluesmen such as B.B. King. At the night of his greatest triumph, the election of George Bush the elder in 1988, Atwater played guitar with a virtual all-star band made up of Black musicians. You can see him and President-elect Bush mugging on the stage surrounded by Blacks in an updated version of the minstrel show. (Click “At the Top of His Game” on this page: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/atwater/view/) Ishmael Reed, one of the movie’s more adept interviewees, commented on the irony of such a spectacle attending the most racist election campaigns in American history.

Believing his own bullshit, Atwater was invited to serve on the board of Howard University, one of the country’s most prestigious Black colleges, fully expecting the same kind of warm reception he got from blues musicians. He was bitterly disappointed as the Boston Globe reported. The article is worth quoting at some length since it shows the potential of the Black student movement once it gets aroused about an issue, as well as the class divisions in the Black community:

The Boston Globe
March 12, 1989, Sunday, City Edition
Atwater’s approach to black community hits dead end at Howard
By Jerry Thomas, Globe Staff

The appointment of Lee Atwater to Howard University’s board of trustees appeared, at first, to be an easy way for the Republican Party to make inroads into the African-American community.

Howard, a historic black institution that still considers itself a mecca for the black mainstream and that attracts the sons and daughters of some of the world’s most influential and visible blacks, already has strong links to the party. The university has flaunted its conservative views and its Republican student organization, although the majority of its 12,000 students and the faculty are Democrats.

James Cheek, the president of Howard for 20 years, is a Republican who received the “Freedom of Peace” award from former President Ronald Reagan.

Thaddeus Garrett, one of 32 trustees, is a top aide to President Bush. Last year, the school received a $ 179 million appropriation from Congress, which founded the school in 1867 and pays some of the tuition for more than 60 percent of Howard’s students. Atwater would have been one of more than 11 whites on the board of the university, whose first students were five white women.

The university thought Atwater, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, could add to the wealth and prestige of the school named after Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the school’s first president.

Plus, Atwater, busy schedule and all, seemed accessible. He met with students several times after his appointment.

The first meeting, students say, was on a Thursday in February, shortly after 7 p.m. The setting was a nightclub on a ritzy part of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Just several feet from the guitar strings of blues legend B.B. King sat Atwater, waiting for several guests: six students from Howard.

It was politics at first sight, the students said. Both sides played it cool. They shook hands and talked over drinks.

Robert Turner, a senior from New Orleans and vice president of the Howard University Student Association, said that there appeared to be strategy behind Atwater’s approach. Turner recalled in his own words Atwater’s introduction, “Hey! How are you doing? I’m Lee Atwater, a down home country boy; I even like rhythm and blues.”

Atwater introduced the students to two of his black aides. He agreed to talk to the students again.

The aides took over the next night, meeting some of the same students at a local dance club for “upscale blacks,” the students said. The aides spoke highly of Atwater and the Republican Party. They noted that Atwater could do good things for Howard. They told the students that supporting Atwater’s appointment would not hurt job contacts and could strengthen their networking at graduation.

Atwater had a second meeting with the students. It was the following Sunday at his Capitol Hill office, where he told them how he keeps abreast of some issues, including black concerns.

The political magic was working, and the students were willing to consider what Atwater might offer. But within weeks, the Republican strategy would backfire.

What the party did not anticipate was a backlash from Howard students – many of whose parents and teachers participated in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s – who saw the appointment of Atwater as an insult to the student body and a bad signal to the black and African community worldwide.

On Friday, March 3, shortly before 10 a.m., things took an unusual twist on the campus.

Bill Cosby, the actor and author, was to give the Founder’s Day address in the school’s Cramton Auditorium, where the trustees, the administration, the faculty, students and alumni were to gather to commemorate the school’s 122d birthday. Instead of hearing Cosby, 1,500 students took over the ceremonies and announced “The Black Agenda.”

The protesters’ key demand was that Atwater, who they say was handpicked by Cheek and who was appointed unanimously by the board of trustees in January, step down. Atwater was accused of using racist tactics as Bush’s presidential campaign manager. He was the architect of the furlough issue, which focused on the release of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer, from a Massachusetts prison. The students argued that Atwater’s campaign methods portrayed blacks in a negative manner and fueled the successful campaign of David Duke, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, in Louisiana.

“We are here to oppose Lee Atwaterism,” Ras Baraka, a junior from Newark, told a crowd of protesters. “It is not the man, Atwater, but the ideologies he represents. It’s the conservative view he represents. It’s the Borks that he represents and the David Dukes he represents.”

Baraka, one of the protest leaders, is the son of Amiri Baraka, a poet and 1960s activist.

The students, much to the Cheek administration’s dismay and embarrassment, remained in the auditorium for several hours. They demanded that Cheek address the crowd on several issues, including the appointment of Atwater, requests for a graduate department of African-American studies, improved security and student involvement in school governance, but Cheek never did. The annual Founder’s Day ceremony was canceled.

The following Monday, hundreds of protesters moved from the auditorium to the Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Administration Building, where they barricaded themselves inside.

The protests forced Atwater to resign Tuesday. He said that he was “deeply saddened” by the resignation and that he had been miscast as a racist. He said that he had hoped, as a Howard trustee, to help the university administration and aid fund-raising efforts among GOP donors.

The film concludes with Atwater’s illness and death, including grotesque images of his face blown up twice its normal size due to steroids used to treat the effects of radiation therapy. It is not a pretty sight.

As might be expected, the documentary relies heavily on the analyses of liberal commentators such as Eric Alterman, Joe Conason, and Howard Fineman. For them, the Lee Atwaters and Karl Roves of the world serve as convenient demons whose expulsion will lead to a kind of re-establishment of Camelot with the Obamas as the new Kennedy’s. Such is the state of our degraded electoral politics that both factions in the ruling party of capitalism can keep people mesmerized by celebrity of the right or the left. Since the entire society is drenched in advertising, it is no surprise that this is the kind of politics we get with an Empire in its dotage.

November 11, 2008

Obama wins over the ‘decent left’

Filed under: cruise missile left,imperialism/globalization,Obama — louisproyect @ 4:22 pm

When candidate Obama selected Samantha Power to be his foreign policy adviser, this was a clear signal that he endorsed the idea of liberal imperialist intervention that she embodied. In contrast to Bush’s “failed” interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Power stood for a more adroit application of imperial power. Like Obama, she thought that the invasion of Iraq was ill-advised but did little to offer resistance to it. Indeed, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy that she has long been associated with has collaborated with the Pentagon in figuring out how to deploy anthropologists and other academic experts into the battlefield in order to deal with restive native populations.

Among the first proponents of liberal imperialist intervention, best known as the ‘decent left’ in Great Britain, to get on the Obama bandwagon was Marc Cooper, an enemy of the Latin American revolution who has cheered on outfits like the National Endowment for Democracy bent on subverting genuine democracy in Venezuela and elsewhere.

(UPDATE: Just to avoid any confusion, I have replaced the words “labored mightily on behalf of” with “cheered on” in the sentence above. I have never accused Cooper of working for the NED, the CIA or any other such agency of the US government. I have only claimed that he shares their desire for regime change in Venezuela and Cuba.)

The British “decent left” has also shifted its allegiance from the Republican Party to Obama’s muscular liberalism. His more obnoxious supporters can be found at “Harry’s Place”, a blog infected with hatred for political Islam and the radical left. One of them, a Likudist who signs his posts David T., recently chided Alice Walker in an entry titled Nutters: “We’re Already Disappointed by Obama” for her temerity in stating:

Each time Mr Obama has said “we will kill” Osama bin Laden I have felt a testing of my confidence in his moral leadership. And I support him, and demonstrated that support, to the very limits of my finances and my strength. Could it be that, like millions of children around the globe, who are taught “Thou shalt not kill”, I am reacting with disappointment and shock to someone blatantly declaring their intention to kill a specific person?

One can understand why David T. would be upset by Alice Walker given his complaint on October 30th: “I’m sorry, but I have now completely lost faith in this Government’s ability to counter the Islamism in the United Kingdom.”

One of the earliest “Marxist” supporters of the invasion of Iraq was Norm Geras, who helped write the Euston Manifesto. He too is smitten with Obama and has also rebuffed Alice Walker in a November 6th entry. It appears that the “decent left” and the Republican right are both wedded to the methodology of “talking points”. Time after time, I have seen some salvo directed against Hugo Chavez repeated by Cooper, Geras, Harry’s Place and the like. Apparently, a dispatch from the Israeli press helped wean Geras away from Dubya into the “change” camp:

Here you can listen to some former generals of the IDF and Mossad officials getting behind Obama for the presidency. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, the video – made by the Jewish Council for Education and Research – is misleading, with some of those concerned now saying that their words have been taken out of context. But with the exception of the contribution of Uzi Dayan, quoted to that effect by the JP, it’s hard to see the context that would make what these men say anything but a warm endorsement of Obama’s candidacy.

Probably the highest-profile endorsement from the pro-war, pro-intervention “left” came from Christopher Hitchens. On October 13th, Hitchens advised his Slate readership to vote for Obama, stating:

I used to call myself a single-issue voter on the essential question of defending civilization against its terrorist enemies and their totalitarian protectors, and on that “issue” I hope I can continue to expose and oppose any ambiguity. Obama is greatly overrated in my opinion, but the Obama-Biden ticket is not a capitulationist one, even if it does accept the support of the surrender faction, and it does show some signs of being able and willing to profit from experience.

Perhaps the best way to understand Hitchens’s conversion is just as another sign of neoconservative disaffection from the McCain-Palin ticket. From that perspective, he might be grouped with David Brooks, Christopher Buckley and other Republican Party apostates who shared his view that Sarah Palin is “a deceiving and unscrupulous woman utterly unversed in any of the needful political discourses but easily trained to utter preposterous lies and to appeal to the basest element of her audience.” Given Hitchens’s performance over the past 7 years, this only confirms once again that it takes a thief to catch a thief.

But there is probably no better example of the politics behind all this than George Packer’s long article in the current New Yorker magazine titled “The New Liberalism“.  Like some other supporters of the war in Iraq, Packer has had a change of heart no doubt inspired by the failure of the intervention to produce the desired results.

Packer frames his discussion in terms of two different perceptions of what an Obama administration might hold in store. The first comes from Cass Sunstein, the Harvard law professor and author who was Obama’s long-time colleague at the University of Chicago Law School. Looking into the Obama ink-blot, Sunstein sees a “visionary minimalist”:

Sunstein’s Obama is the post-partisan one. He calls Obama a “visionary minimalist,” meaning someone who wants to pursue large goals in a way that offends the deepest values of as few people as possible. Governing in this way would make him distinctly un-Rooseveltian. F.D.R. entered office with broad good will and a platform that offered almost all things to all people, but by the time he ran for reelection in 1936 his Presidency had become aggressively partisan: he attacked “economic royalists” and said of them, “They are unanimous in their hate for me-and I welcome their hatred.” In 2007, Paul Krugman, the Times columnist who recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics, commended these remarks to Obama, advising him to sharpen his ideological edge, and warning that his search for common ground with Republicans would be his undoing. But Sunstein said of Obama, “I think he believes-and this is his big split from Krugman-that if you take on board people’s deepest commitments, or bracket them, show respect for them, then you make possible larger steps than would otherwise be imagined.” It would not be Obama’s way to trumpet the arrival of a new era of liberalism-a word, Sunstein said, that is too laden with baggage, and too much of a fighting word, for Obama’s taste.

Sunstein had a debate with Robert Kuttner at Harvard University in September. Probably more than any other Democrat, Kuttner is associated with the idea that Obama should carry out a new New Deal. Packer reports:

“Sunstein’s minimalism is exactly what’s not called for,” Kuttner told me, and he later added, “We’re on the verge of Great Depression Two. All bets are off. The people who talk about post-liberal, post-ideological, they have been completely overtaken by events. It’s the same abuses, the same scenario, that led to the crash of ’29. It’s the same dynamics of the financial economy dragging down the real economy-these are enduring lessons. Everybody who was talking about being in a kind of post-liberal world, they’re the ones who don’t have much purchase on what’s going on. The question is whether Obama will come to this.” The answer will depend in part on the advisers he chooses. In Kuttner’s mind, the deficit hawks and deregulators of the Clinton Administration-Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers-have been discredited by the financial crisis, and he thinks that it would be a big mistake for Obama to give them powerful roles in his Administration. (Summers is considered a likely candidate for Treasury Secretary, and his top economic advisers are connected with the Hamilton Project, a center-left affiliate of the Brookings Institution.) But, beyond macroeconomics, Kuttner, who plans to hold a conference in Washington called “Thinking Big,” shortly before Obama’s Inauguration, thinks that the Democrats have a clear political agenda: “the reclamation of an ideology.”

Oddly enough, Packer has little to say about the foreign policy imperatives that Obama is expected to obey. The words Iraq and Afghanistan are not mentioned once. Given his tarnished reputation about such matters, one supposes that the less said the better.

Leaving aside Obama’s “change” mantra, the foreign policy of the new administration will most certainly hew closely to that of the Clinton administration. If you keep in mind that much of the “decent left” emerged out of the pro-war fervor during the Clinton years among Western journalists and intellectuals who convinced themselves that Milosevic was the new Adolph Hitler, it is not that surprising that the same people are coming home like the Prodigal Son. After all, in the final analysis, it has been the blood-drenched Wilsonian idealism of the WWI era that has united hawk and dove alike in its determination to police the world in the interests of multinational corporations under the banner of human rights.

November 10, 2008

Now for something completely different

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:08 pm

Departing from my usual political obsessions, I want to say a few things about two of the obsessions of my pre-political youth: motorcycles and drag racing. This is prompted by the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian” that I watched on the Showtime channel yesterday. While the movie is ordinary by all standards, I found myself quite moved as it related the true-life story of a New Zealander Burt Munro (played by Anthony Hopkins) who broke land speed records on a highly modified Indian motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967 when he was 68 years old.

The film stays away from melodrama completely and concentrates mostly on Munro’s efforts to convince race officials that he and his equally elderly bike (it came off the assembly line in 1920) were up to the rigors of the track. Both man and machine defied the expectations of the racing world in 1967, at least as represented in the movie. Munro did not race in a flame-proof suit but in ordinary street clothes (he did tuck the bottom of his trousers into his socks.) The bike was also devoid of the usual high-tech parts found in a custom bike and relied on Munro’s improvisatory skills that were mostly focused on reducing the weight of the bike. For example, he stripped the treads of his tires to reduce weight. He also did not bother with a parachute. It is difficult to know whether the movie was totally faithful to the true story on such matters, but (as we shall see) the accomplishments of Burt Munro were certainly the stuff of legend.

The thing I loved about the movie is that it reminded me so much of another maverick in the racing world that I had the good fortune to know at Bard College in the early 1960s. Paul Gommi was an art major who spent much of his free time, especially weekends, on the drag racing tracks of the Northeast. Like Munro, Paul defied convention when he won the national championship in the sports car class when he was at Bard. Cars entered in this class were expected to be something like a Triumph or MGA whose engine had been highly altered but only within certain parameters. (In other words, you could not put a Chrysler Hemi in a Triumph.) Paul had the brilliant idea to enter an antique English Ford into the competition since it fell within the guidelines for sports cars even though officials fumed at the idea of such a car making a travesty of the event. Paul, like Burt Munro, was a genius at souping up engines and managed to get the English Ford engine to pump out more horsepower than his competitors ever dreamed of.

At Bard we had senior projects, which were something like a BA thesis. Mine was an awful mess, trying to analyze St. Augustine’s “City of God”. Don’t ask me why I picked such a stupid topic. I was a religion major with the typical fascination in Zen Buddhism, etc. of the time. I would have been better advised to write about beat poets and religion, but somehow convinced myself that St. Augustine was worth considering after reading his admittedly fascinating confessions.

Paul made a huge splash with his senior project, which was a group of oversized paintings of drag racers done in a style reminiscent of Leroy Neiman but with a lot more flair. As soon as he got his degree, Paul put school behind him and entered the world of drag racing as a professional.

Paul Gommi crash

In 1989 Paul had a terrible accident at Bakersfield that is immortalized on youtube. As this excerpt from www.nostalgiadrags.com indicates, Paul got out of the racing business soon afterwards and devoted himself to working on engines:

Paul Gommi crashed his nostalgia front engine fueler just before the lights at a Hot Rod Reunion meet. Before impacting the guardrail at over 180-mph. Paul told me over the phone that he knew that it was going to be “catastrophic” but for some reason his system shut down, and he doesn’t even remember anything before the initial crunch. We sent him the sequence at his request during his recovery. This “old timer” to the sport was “banged up” pretty good and the car totally destroyed. He has not returned to driving since.

Early days of drag racing

Drag racing is not the sport it once was. Once the realm of diy-inspired characters like Paul Gommi and Burt Munro, today it is as corporate as NASCAR. From time to time, I will watch five minutes or so of an event on cable TV but find absolutely nothing of interest. So-called “funny cars”, which are fiber class replicas of the kind of stock cars that spectators drive on but with powerful non-stock engines, are descended from the dragsters of the 1950s which used neither replica bodies nor non-stock engines. Typical entries for a race might be a 1955 Hudson matched against a 1956 DeSoto that were actually driven to the track by men or women racing them. All in all, watching these kinds of cars hearkened back to movies like “Rebel Without a Cause” or even “American Graffiti”.

A Jawa like mine

I developed a passion for motorcycles almost as soon as I arrived at Bard College in 1961. Back then Japanese motorcycles had not yet taken the U.S. by storm (neither had cars for that matter) and the typical bike was English-made like a BSA or Triumph. I finally scraped together the money for my own machine in my senior year but could only afford a measly 175 cc two-stroke engine Jawa made in socialist Czechoslovakia. Even though it could only go 55 miles per hour, I loved riding it everywhere, especially along the country roads near the Hudson River that were close to Bard.

For those whose eyes have not glazed over completely reading this piece, I strongly urge you to look at the wiki entry on Burt Munro. And also at “Offerings to the God of Speed”, the documentary on Munro made by Roger Donaldson (the director of “The World’s Fastest Indian”) back in 1971 when Munro was still alive, which is now on youtube (watch below).  Wonderful stuff!

November 8, 2008

Progressives for Obama: still intoxicated

Filed under: Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 9:26 pm

Now that the intoxication of the Obama victory is over (or should be over), one wonders how long it will take the pro-Obama left to wake up to a hangover. For the last few days, news reports should have given them an Excedrin-sized headache. Instead of ushering in a new New Deal, Obama seems to be all about ushering in Bill Clinton’s 3rd term but in this case we are dealing with America’s first real Black president rather than the claim made on Clinton’s behalf by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson in 2001 that he “took so many initiatives he made us think for a while we had elected the first black president.”

First and foremost, Obama’s selection of Rahm Emanuel is a clear indication that he will promote DLC type politics of the sort that characterized the Clinton-Gore years. While some liberals are surprised by this choice, they should remember that Obama came to Connecticut to back Joseph Lieberman in 2006.

On the economics front, the possible choice of Lawrence Summers as Secretary of the Treasury is just as disgusting. When he was president of Harvard University, Summers became notorious for claiming that women did not succeed in science and math careers because of their genes. He also called African-American professor Cornel West on the carpet and lectured him about how his scholarship was not up to snuff, thus convincing West to find work elsewhere.

But perhaps Summers is being considered for the job because of his experience as chief economist of the World Bank. If so, Obama is obviously insensitive to the rights of his fellow Africans in light of the fact that Summers once proposed exporting pollution to poor African nations stating “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that”. For all of the talk about Obama being the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr., I doubt that King would have ever had anything to do with the Lawrence Summers of the world.

None of this seems to have made any impact on the “Progressives for Obama” blog, a home to a number of 1960s radicals including former SDS leaders Tom Hayden and Carl Davidson, as well as Bill Fletcher Jr., a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the past president of TransAfrica Forum, and former education director of the AFL-CIO.

Fletcher, who is African-American, is an occasional contributor to Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a group that emerged out of the Maoist “New Communist Movement” described by Max Elbaum in “Revolution in the Air”. Most of the leaders of this movement came out of SDS, including one Bob Avakian.

It is important to understand that the Maoists of the 1960s, while rejecting the “revisionist” CPUSA, grew to accept many of its key ideas, including working in the Democratic Party. Irwin Silber, who is a bit older than the SDS radicals but who wrote for the SDS-aligned Guardian newspaper (the American radical weekly that went out of business some time ago-not to be confused with the British daily), helped to form a New Communist group called Line of March. As its principal spokesman, Silber wrote a series of articles directed to the CPUSA that could only be described as love-hate. He had the seemingly impossible task of convincing the party to return to its revolutionary roots, which is tantamount to asking the Republicans to become the party of Lincoln once again.

My first contact with this milieu occurred shortly after joining Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador in 1981 when I ran into an African-American member of the Communist Workers Party, a number of whose members were shot by the Klan in North Carolina 2 years earlier. Ron had gone to work as an assistant to a Black Democrat in Brooklyn, an act that struck me as rather disjoined from his ultraleft politics at the time. The CWP eventually folded and many of its members simply continued as Democratic Party activists.

Turning to the first of the post-November 4th blog entries at Progressives for Obama, you can find Tom Hayden explaining why Obama’s campaign marks the beginning of a new New Left:

I haven’t heard any of the Obama grass-roots supporters proposing that we expand the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, extend NAFTA or tinker around with global warming. They are our newest best hope for creating the climate and the pressure necessary to achieve social change, and we need to listen, follow and work with them. A new New Left is at hand, and we need to avoid the irony of becoming the Old Left.

Unlike the activists in the New Communist Movement, Hayden went straight from SDS into the Democratic Party without passing go. He ran as a Democratic candidate for Senate in California in 1976 and never looked back. Currently he serves on the board of the Progressive Democrats of America alongside ex-Demogreen Medea Benjamin and a host of other left liberals.

Unfortunately, all those years in the Democratic Party have served to eat out that portion of Hayden’s brain that might have memories of the real New Left. SDS was a genuine radical movement that challenged capitalist injustice across the board, while the people who went out to canvas for Obama had much more in common with the Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy campaigns of 1968 that were designed to get young people off the streets into safe, acceptable, time-wasting electoral operations.

One day after Hayden’s piece appeared, Fletcher weighed in with a call to lend “critical support” to Obama. One imagines that the need for criticism of any support must have been prompted by the spectacle of the President-elect’s DLC trajectory. Fletcher admits:

With regard to foreign policy, this is extremely complicated and quite troubling. While Obama has emphasized the need for negotiations as a first step in international relations, when confronted by forces to his Right, he has tended to back down and often suggest highly questionable military and crypto-military options in handling crises, e.g., unilateral attacks on Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan. Some people around Obama seem to be advocating a get-tough approach toward Iran, which itself could lead to hostilities.

Fletcher also suggests that “there will more than likely be outreach to Africa, though the character of that outreach is as yet to be determined.” Well, perhaps with Summers as Secretary of the Treasury, we might see toxic radioactive waste being shipped to Africa. After all, there will be a need to deal with such material if Obama’s pro-nuclear appetites are satisfied over the next four years.

Fletcher tries to fill in the details on what “critical support” means:

President Obama will need to be pushed on many areas, including foreign policy; healthcare; housing; jobs; and in general, the need for a pro-people approach to addressing the economic crisis. Taking this approach of critical support means, tactically, pointing out what has NOT been accomplished in the Obama agenda on the one hand, and, on the other, challenging the new Administration when it advances policies that are regressive, e.g., threatening Iran or Cuba and compromising with the insurance companies on healthcare.

One cannot be exactly sure what Fletcher is referring to when it comes to the matter of “compromising with insurance companies on healthcare”. There is not a single post on the Progressives for Obama blog analyzing Obama’s inadequate healthcare proposals or calling for single-payer, a solution adopted by the Nader campaign. I suspect that any criticisms of Obama’s healthcare proposals will be offered hat in hand, as is typical of the pro-Obama left. With a general absence of criticism during his campaign from Hayden and company, one would be hard put to imagine much of it taking place from now on. What you are likely to see is the sort of thing found on Huffington Post and Air America, stale barbs directed at Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.

November 5, 2008

President Obama, Governor Paterson and Ayn Rand

Filed under: economics,Obama,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 3:42 pm

Last night as I was listening (or trying to listen) to Obama’s vaporous victory speech, I heard a steady procession of young people walking up Third Avenue cheering and yelling “Obama” over and over. For all practical purposes, it was just the kind of display that attends a World Series or Super Bowl victory by a New York team. This is understandable given the way that the presidential campaign is understood by the average person. Their candidate is like the home team and the primaries amount to playoffs leading up to the championship game.

I almost felt like putting on my clothes and going down to the street to ask people why they were celebrating. What does the average young person living on the Upper East Side think that they will get from an Obama presidency? If they believe that he can’t be anywhere as bad as McCain, they are certainly correct since that is a sine qua non for the continued functioning of the 2-party system. If after Obama took office, he named Alberto Gonzalez to the Supreme Court, the system will blow up in his face. Instead, he will probably nominate some corporate hack like Stephen Breyer.

Other than the expectation that Obama will be better than McCain, I wondered what else would they hope for? Obviously the number one issue is the economy. Since many of these young New Yorkers probably work in FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate), they must fear for their jobs. But it is doubtful that Obama will be able to stave off unemployment even if he had the desire to do so, given his professed free market pieties. Even FDR found it impossible to break the back of the Great Depression. In the final analysis, it was war production rather than the Civil Conservation Corps that put people back to work.

Did they think that Obama was going to finally pull out of Iraq? Since he is likely to retain the services of Robert Gates and David Petraeus, this seems unlikely. Some of the more perceptive takes on Obama’s handling of national security issues have been blogged by Robert Dreyfuss on the Nation Magazine website. Here is his latest:

Barack Obama will be getting off on the wrong foot, to put it mildly, if does what seems likely now: allow Robert Gates to stay on a secretary of defense.

For reasons that are unclear to me, many in Obama’s inner circle seem to believe that it’s important to bring so-called “moderate” Republicans into the president-elect’s national security team. That is an awful idea, for two reasons: first, even though many of the names being floated — such as Gates, Dick Lugar of Indiana, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska — come from the traditional wing of the GOP, and they are not neoconservatives, they are almost guaranteed to push for an expansion of the US military budget and a bigger armed forces. And second, by doing so Obama would be conceding many critics’ argument that Democrats are somehow not suited to control the national security apparatus.

Gates has reportedly already been working on the transition to an Obama administration and he certainly hasn’t done anything to damp down speculation that he is a candidate for the job under Obama.

Dreyfuss, an expert on the Middle East, also worries about whether Obama will deliver on the promise to get out of Iraq. In fact, he debunks a portion of an Obama speech dealing with Iraq that even had me bamboozled:

In his most recent speech, yesterday in Sarasota, Florida, Obama didn’t mention at all his plan to end the war in Iraq. He said nothing — yes, nothing — about withdrawing US forces. Here is the full text of what he said about Iraq in that speech:

When it comes to keeping this country safe, we don’t have to choose between retreating from the world and fighting a war without end in Iraq. It’s time to stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while the Iraqi government sits on a huge surplus. As President, I will end this war by asking the Iraqi government to step up, and I will finally finish the fight against bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. I will never hesitate to defend this nation. From day one of this campaign, I have made clear that we will increase our ground troops and our investments in the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Watching our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines fight in Iraq and Afghanistan has only deepened my commitment to invest in 21st century technologies so that our men and women have the best training and equipment when they deploy into combat and the care and benefits they have earned when they come home.

I won’t stand here and pretend that any of this will be easy – especially now. The cost of this economic crisis, and the cost of the war in Iraq, means that Washington will have to tighten its belt and put off spending on things we don’t need.

Let’s analyze that.

First, he doesn’t reiterate that he is pulling US forces out. Instead, he appears to say that the key is to get Iraq to pay for the war, to get the Iraqis to use their surplus. That may appeal to budget-conscious US voters, but — especially with the price of oil dropping fast — Iraq, which is a poor, Third World nation with a devastated economy, isn’t going to pay for the war.

Second, he says that he wants “the Iraqi government to step up,” meaning, presumably, to fight its own war. That, of course, is exactly what President Bush can been saying, namely, that the US will “stand down” when the Iraqis “stand up.” Problem is, the Iraqis need to be handed an unconditional timetable that doesn’t depend on what they do or don’t do. Iraq doesn’t need President Obama to “asking” it to step up.

Third, and most troubling, Obama says that Americans will have to tighten their belts because of the “cost of the war in Iraq.” Doesn’t that mean that the war will continue?

Laying in bed working through these thoughts, I suddenly realized that it was one o’clock in the morning-long past my bedtime. I figured that the best way to get past the thoughts was to turn on WFAN, the all sports talk radio station that surely would be focused on the NY Mets utterly inexplicable decision to retain the services of Luis Castillo rather than on world politics.

As it turned out, the overnight host Tony Page, who is African-American, started his one a.m. show by announcing that he had a special guest: David Paterson, the African-American governor of New York who took over from the disgraced Elliot Spitzer who was caught purchasing the services of $1000 per hour call girls. Page told his listeners that there was more to life than politics and that he wanted to discuss Obama’s victory with Paterson, who is a big NY Mets fan and an occasional guest on WFAN.

That’s when I turned off the radio and went to bed. I did not to hear for the 10,000th time that night about what an historic victory it was. I get it already.

Taking the subway to work this morning, I thumbed through the pages of the Village Voice, a New York weekly that is only a pale shadow of its illustrious past when it had contributors like Alexander Cockburn and Jules Feiffer. As I turned to Tom Robbins’s column, which is one of the few that still has some substance among the Generation X fluff that dominates its pages, I encountered Governor Paterson once again. It is worth quoting at length:

Governor Paterson Means Business

Spitzer’s successor disses his bad old radical self

By Tom Robbins

The Republicans’ toughest rap in the election’s final days was that Democrats and their leaders want to plunge the nation into “class warfare.” Of course, this is laughable. Everyone knows that Democrats don’t have the guts to wage class warfare. There is no better evidence of this than in Albany, where the party of the people has a new African-American leader who gets all wobbly these days whenever someone suggests taxing the rich.

Last week, Governor David Paterson announced that, thanks to the Wall Street meltdown, the state faces some $47 billion in budget shortfalls over the next four years. No one’s ever heard these kinds of numbers before. But the accidental governor insists that he will cut his way out of this morass rather than impose any new taxes. Since much of the state’s spending is on education, health, and assistance to those less well-off, this means that Albany must start whacking away at those parts of the budget. The governor has summoned legislators to do so at a special session on November 18. He has refused to name his own targets, but he is adamant that that’s the way to go.

“Spending cuts are the only ones we can achieve right now,” he said last week, immediately after a trip to Washington to push for federal aid. “We can’t tax anybody.”

Not that Paterson is opposed to people voluntarily paying more taxes if they so choose. Take gambling, for instance. Proving that he is an agile fiscal player, the governor recently called for turning lovely Belmont Park into a massive gambling emporium, something called a “racino.” This came just a week after he approved 4,500 video gambling machines for Aqueduct Racetrack just down the road. It will generate millions in new revenues, the governor said.

Back when he was a lowly politician from Harlem and his party’s minority leader in the State Senate, Paterson saw this business of government-induced gambling quite differently. “Gambling is the tax on the addicted,” he said in 2003 when then Governor Pataki called for putting thousands of these same dollar-sucking machines into city OTB parlors to raise revenues. “And believe me, that is job-killing, and family-killing.”

Of course, that was before Paterson could see the big picture, and before he had to worry about getting elected in his own right to the job he now holds. To do so, he believes he must prove to business leaders that he is not that radical from Harlem he pretended to be for so many years. What better proof than to give thousands of working-class New Yorkers the opportunity to smooth out any $20 bills they may still have in their pockets and feed them into these brilliant new machines?

The governor has also scored points with the business class by rigorously insisting that “everything is on the table” when it comes to cuts. This includes slices to school budgets in the middle of the school year. Even Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos-desperate for teachers’ union support for his members’ re-election-ruled out this approach. Whatever you think about the union, most parents get a bit concerned when school districts start cutting staff while kids are sitting in the classroom. Paterson dismissed this complaint as mere “poetry.”

He got literary again in Washington, where he began his testimony last week by citing novelist Ayn Rand, patron saint of capitalist entrepreneurs. Paterson praised Rand and invoked her advice that “the greatest country in the world was founded on the basis of individuals, where people were encouraged to adventure, not to be complacent.” He said that “an infection of greed and mismanagement” had distorted that fine trait. But his chief message to business leaders was this: New York’s governor reads Ayn Rand!

The Fountainhead did not appear to be on his reading list when he was still that elected official from Harlem, one of the state’s poorest districts. The same year that he lanced Pataki’s gambling gimmicks as a tax on working people, Paterson called for a tax on the rich to help close what was then an $11.5 billion budget gap (slightly less than what Paterson projects for next year). He believed then that a 1 percent surcharge on incomes over $300,000 a year, and an added 1 percent bite on those above $500,000, were perfectly fair.

And he got his way. He helped the legislature impose-over Pataki’s veto-a temporary, post-9/11 surcharge bumping the 6.85 percent top income-tax rate up to 7.7 percent on incomes over $500,000.

These days, the governor winces when legislators suggest that such a hike is again in order. Some people believe he is only performing his designated role in Albany’s Kabuki dance of the budget, where all is shadows and gesture. If so, he’s doing an excellent job.

Mark my words. This is the same thing we can expect from President Obama, even if he doesn’t quote Ayn Rand.

November 3, 2008

Jared Diamond on tribal warfare in New Guinea

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

Jared Diamond

Recently somebody who shares my distaste for Jared Diamond alerted me to an article that appeared in the April 21, 2008 “New Yorker”. Titled “Vengeance is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?”, it is focused on his account of so-called tribal wars in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where Diamond has conducted many field trips studying the flora and fauna, as well as the bestial tribesmen apparently.

Papuan native: key to unlocking wars and ethnic cleansing?

Using interviews with an ostensibly self-confessed killer, who is a member of the Handa clan, the innocent reader is led to believe that the highlands of Papua are a kind of a Rosetta stone for understanding wars and ethnic cleansing. The feuding in the highlands, which usually involve slights such as a pig belonging to one clan ruining the garden of another clan, leads to a steady escalation of Hatfield-McCoy type confrontations that remind Diamond of the worst crimes of the 20th century:

Indeed, his Papuan “confessor’s” bloodlust triggers memories of Diamond’s late father-in-law Jozef Nabel (a Jew) who refused at the list minute to wreak vengeance on Polish villagers who had killed his wife, sister and niece in pursuit of loot. Nabel, who served in a Polish division attached to the Red Army, eventually caught up with the perpetrators but decided at the last minute not to wreak vengeance since the new Polish government would be expected to carry out justice. But by relinquishing control to a higher body, a kind of primitive, almost animal-like satisfaction is lost as Diamond puts it:

My conversations … made me understand what we have given up by leaving justice to the state. In order to induce us to do so, state societies and their associated religions and moral codes teach us that seeking revenge is bad. But, while acting on vengeful feelings clearly needs to be discouraged, acknowledging them should be not merely permitted but encouraged. To a close relative or friend of someone who has been killed or seriously wronged, and to the victims of harm themselves, those feelings are natural and powerful. Many state governments do attempt to grant the relatives of crime victims some personal satisfaction, by allowing them to be present at the trial of the accused, and, in some cases, to address the judge or jury, or even to watch the execution of their loved one’s murderer.

The first thing that leapt out at me when reading Diamond’s article is how devoid of social or economic context it is. You feel that you are reading something out of the Old Testament-but without the deity instructing the Israelis to punish the Egyptians, etc. Diamond makes it clear that such considerations do not interest him. He writes:

Anthropologists debate whether the wars really arise from some deeper underlying ultimate cause, such as land or population pressure, but the participants, when they are asked to name a cause, usually point to a woman or a pig.

Unfortunately, I find Diamond’s reliance on the testimony of his subjects somewhat unreliable given what appears his tendency to put words in the Papuan’s mouth. Now I might be wrong, but somehow I find it far-fetched that a Papuan would have expressed himself to Jared Diamond in the words attributed to him in the New Yorker article:

I admit that the New Guinea Highland way to solve the problem posed by a killing isn’t good. Our way disturbs our day-to-day life; we won’t be comfortable for the rest of our lives; we are always in effect living on the battlefield; and those feelings go on and on in us. The Western way, of letting the government settle disputes by means of the legal system, is a better way. But we could never have arrived at it by ourselves: we were trapped in our endless cycles of revenge killings.

Just try to imagine a Papuan self-confessed killer using these formulations. I can’t. Frankly, it smacks of Jared Diamond using this unfortunate individual as a sock-puppet for his own sociobiological predispositions. Lurking beneath the surface of his article are certain assumptions about a “killer instinct” that fit neatly into the “naked ape” nonsense that flourished once upon a time in the pages of Time Magazine and elsewhere. Despite Diamond’s reputation as a scrupulous biologist, his career involves making exactly the same types of speculations as a Robert Ardrey as I pointed out in one of the installments in my dissection of “Collapse”:

Diamond showed his sympathy for this trend with the publication of “The Third Chimpanzee” in 1993. This exercise in sociobiology (an updated version of the 19th century social Darwinism) includes a chapter titled “The Golden Age That Never Was”… Diamond has many other interesting things to say about any number of subjects. He argues that since animals have an evolutionary imperative to pass on their genes, art must be a clever stratagem by men to lure women into bed. This led Tom Wilkie to drolly observe in the May 22, 1991 Independent that this lesson must have been lost on Tchaikovsky, Andy Warhol and other homosexual artists. Diamond also believes that sexual jealousy is an important cause of war: ”It was the seduction (abduction, rape) by Paris of Menelaus’s wife Helen that provoked the Trojan War”. In light of the fact that the Iliad also claims that gods and goddesses took part in the fighting, Wilkie wonders how reliable a guide to history it is.

Unrepentant Marxist that I am, it is incumbent on me to bring up those oh-so-boring issues of land or population pressure. In an article titled “Ol I Skulim Mipela: Contemporary Warfare in the Papua New Guinea Eastern Highlands” that appeared in the Oct. 1984 issue of “Anthropological Quarterly”, George D. Westermark pointed to the introduction of capitalist farming in the region as a prime aggravator of tensions between native peoples forced to compete for fewer and fewer resources. Coffee plantations and cattle ranching promoted by Australians led to less land available for subsistence farming. In other words, the same kinds of pressures that made Rwanda a living hell have also increased in-fighting in the highlands of Papua.

Furthermore, if Jared Diamond was truly interested in reducing the level of violence in New Guinea, he should start with the imperialist companies that have put these kinds of pressures on the indigenous peoples. As somebody with the kinds of connections he has with Chevron, which has seen its profits fattened through drilling in New Guinea, Diamond might persuade the owners of Freeport Copper to take their operations elsewhere given the impact they have had had on the lives of Papuans.

In the 1960s, the Indonesian government sent its troops in to destroy resistance to the Freeport mining that led to the death of at least 45,000 people. Villages were bombed and burned in an effort to break the back of the movement. Any tribal fighting is dwarfed by this kind of wholesale bloodshed.

Another copper company based in Bougainville was just as vicious. Indigenous peoples armed with nothing but bows and arrows went into battle against the multinational that once again relied on the Indonesian government for protection. Forests were cleared in order to establish the copper mine in 1969, leaving hundreds of native peoples landless. Further “economic development” left others without fishing rights. Altogether two hundred and twenty (220) hectares of local forests were poisoned, felled and burnt, and then bulldozed into nearby river, along with tons of rich organic topsoil.

All in all, the people of Papua New Guinea have been subjected to the same kinds of quasi-genocidal onslaughts from Indonesia that the people of East Timor have suffered. Amnesty International and most other human rights organizations agree that at least 100,000 Papuans (one sixth of the total population) have been killed during the occupation. In an effort to exploit the region’s riches, native peoples have been slaughtered and driven into submission. This is the real story, not the Hatfield-McCoy scenario that Jared Diamond titillated his New Yorker audience with.

« Previous Page

Blog at WordPress.com.