Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 9, 2009

Evolutionary psychology and art

Filed under: art,evolutionary psychology — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Over the next week or so I am going to be blogging about evolutionary psychology (the more au courant term for sociobiology) that will involve a return to Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee”, a book that foreshadowed his more well-known works as well as his boneheaded New Yorker article. I will also be looking at Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist who shared Diamond’s Hobbesian take on hunting-and-gathering peoples—in his case the Yanomami rather than the Papuan New Guinea highland tribes.

In chapter 9 of “The Third Chimpanzee”, Diamond writes about the “Animal Origins of Art”. He begins with a discussion of Siri’s drawings that command prices up to $500 and about which Willem de Kooning had this to say: “They had a kind of flair and decisiveness and originality”.

As you might have guessed, Siri is an animal. In most of these animal-as-artist stories, you are dealing with either an elephant or a primate. In this particular case, Siri is an elephant. Oddly enough, Diamond does not bring up the all-important question for those who are focused on “originality” above all else. Has Siri ever represented anything while she held a pencil in her trunk? 32 thousand years ago, cave dwellers in France put images like this on their walls:

I doubt that an elephant or a chimpanzee could come up with something like this in 32 million years. For comparison’s sake, here is one of Siri’s masterpieces:

Diamond is anxious to refute Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “All art is useless”. So to drive that point home, he tries to establish the utilitarian nature of animal art, which is to help propagate the male’s genes—including as it turns out for homo sapiens (homosexuals like Wilde need not apply.)

Diamond proposes that the elaborate bowers constructed by the male bowerbird, a species native to New Guinea and Australia, establish his case since the female bird inevitably gravitates to the male with the most ambitious bowers. In human terms, this would be equivalent to Pablo Picasso who was reputed to have changed wives as often as he changed painting styles.

Needless to say, this understanding of the evolutionary psychology role of art is somewhat male-oriented. As Diamond puts it:

First, art brings direct sexual benefits to its owner. It’s not just a joke that a man bent on seduction invites a woman to view his etchings. In real life, dance and music and poetry are common preludes to sex.

Second, and much more important, art brings indirect benefits to its owner. Art is a quick indicator of status, which—in human as animal societies—is a key to acquiring food, land, and sex partners.

In a nutshell, this might be described as the evolutionary psychology version of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy.

One of the more outspoken defenders of the art as gene-spreading strategy is Denis Dutton, the New Zealand academic who used to run the Bad Writing contest. In light of his recently published evolutionary psychology exercise “The Art Instinct”, one wonders whether he will inspire a critical-minded academic to launch a Bad Thinking contest, especially in light of his appearance on The Colbert Nation.

Getting straight to the point, Colbert asks if people make art in order to get laid.

In a survey of evolutionary psychology and art that appeared in the May 20th Nation Magazine (“Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism”), William Deresiewicz looks at Dutton’s book and 5 others. He begins by trying to explain its appeal:

The appeal of evolutionary psychology is easy to grasp. Just think of Annie Hall. The last few decades have left us so profoundly disoriented about the most urgent personal matters–gender roles, sexual norms, the possibility of creating lasting romantic relationships, not to mention absolutely everything to do with family structure–that it’s no surprise to find people embracing a theory that promises to restore order. Once we had religion to tell us who we are. Then, for a while, we had Freud. Now we have evolutionary psychology, which, as an attempt to construct a science of human nature on Darwinian principles, marshals two of the most powerful ideas in contemporary culture: science, our most authoritative way of knowing, and nature, our highest ground of moral appeal. No wonder the field is catnip to journalists and armchair theorists alike. Equip yourself with a few basic concepts–natural selection, inclusive fitness, mating choice–and you, too, can explain the mysteries of human existence. That evolutionary psychology has no real intellectual credibility, that mainstream biology regards it as a house of sand, rarely seems to come up. EP is the Malcolm Gladwell of science: facile and glib, but so persuasive and charming that no one wants to ruin the fun.

Turning to Brian Boyd’s “On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction”, a work that appears somewhat more informed than Dutton’s (how can it be otherwise?), Deresiewicz challenges the unilinear underpinnings of this rather narrow understanding of art:

But the attractiveness of a theory is no brief for its validity. Because storytelling, absent literacy, leaves no record, Boyd’s reasoning rests entirely on analogy and deduction. Primates do this, children do that, contemporary hunter-gatherers do the other; therefore this is what primitive humans must have done. Fiction serves these functions now; therefore it always has. This kind of thinking may be clever, but it isn’t science. It also overlooks the crucial phenomenon of functional shift. What evolved for one purpose can end up developing many others. It further assumes that we know not only when storytelling began, 40,000 or 100,000 years ago rather than 10,000, but when fictional storytelling began. For the question of fictionality is one of the most vexed in this whole area of study. It is easy to see why ancient hunter-gatherers might have told factual stories: “When Ogg tried to cross the big woods, he was eaten by a pig”; “Wilma found much good eggs beneath the spotted bird.” But why would anyone want to tell stories that don’t have that kind of truth value? More to the point, when did we start doing so? The question becomes sharper when we remember that stories that look fictional to us may not have seemed so to their original audience. Homer did not think he was making fiction. Indeed, when the novel began to re-establish itself during the Renaissance, it took several centuries for European culture to accustom itself to the notion of fictionality–the idea that something can be true without being factual.

Laura Miller has a go at evolutionary psychology in a Salon.com article titled “The evolutionary argument for Dr. Seuss”. She hones in on Brian Boyd, who is based in New Zealand like Dutton:

Boyd’s explanation, heavily ballasted with citations from studies and treatises on neuroscience, cognitive theory and evolutionary biology, boils down to two general points. First, fiction — like all art — is a form of play, the enjoyable means by which we practice and hone certain abilities likely to come in handy in more serious situations. When kittens pounce on and wrestle with their litter mates, they’re developing skills that will help them hunt, even though as far as they’re concerned they’re just larking around. Second, when we create and share stories with each other, we build and reinforce the cooperative bonds within groups of people (families, tribes, towns, nations), making those groups more cohesive and in time allowing human beings to lord it over the rest of creation.

She makes a crucial distinction between biological and cultural evolution, however:

The difficulty is that once culture became the ascendant environmental factor affecting humanity, the game changed fundamentally. It’s true, as Boyd observes, that culture transforms itself in a way that resembles biological evolution; ideas and practices that catch on (such as Christianity or rap music) become more and more prevalent. But natural selection is a mindless process by which random mutations succeed or fail and the successes slowly accumulate. The evolution of culture is intentional, directed by the desires of human beings pursuing certain goals. (Nobody intends biological evolution to happen, unless you believe in God.) That’s why it took 540 million years for the eye to evolve, while the detective story has become culturally ubiquitous in the mere 170 years since Edgar Allen Poe published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

But as useful as Miller and Deresiewicz’s critiques are, nothing can surpass the devastating articles written on evolutionary psychology/sociobiology in the New York Review by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, most of which unfortunately are behind a subscriber’s firewall.

Gould is of particular interest since he was the preeminent Darwinian of our time. Fortunately, a June 12, 1997 article titled “Darwinian Fundamentalism” is available online. He summarizes their presence on the intellectual landscape as follows:

Darwin clearly loved his distinctive theory of natural selection—the powerful idea that he often identified in letters as his dear “child.” But, like any good parent, he understood limits and imposed discipline. He knew that the complex and comprehensive phenomena of evolution could not be fully rendered by any single cause, even one so ubiquitous and powerful as his own brainchild.

In this light, especially given history’s tendency to recycle great issues, I am amused by an irony that has recently ensnared evolutionary theory. A movement of strict constructionism, a self-styled form of Darwinian fundamentalism, has risen to some prominence in a variety of fields, from the English biological heartland of John Maynard Smith to the uncompromising ideology (albeit in graceful prose) of his compatriot Richard Dawkins, to the equally narrow and more ponderous writing of the American philosopher Daniel Dennett (who entitled his latest book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea).[1] Moreover, a larger group of strict constructionists are now engaged in an almost mordantly self-conscious effort to “revolutionize” the study of human behavior along a Darwinian straight and narrow under the name of “evolutionary psychology.”

Some of these ideas have filtered into the general press, but the uniting theme of Darwinian fundamentalism has not been adequately stressed or identified. Professionals, on the other hand, are well aware of the connections. My colleague Niles Eldredge, for example, speaks of this coordinated movement as Ultra-Darwinism in his recent book, Reinventing Darwin. Amid the variety of their subject matter, the ultra-Darwinists share a conviction that natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution, and that adaptation emerges as a universal result and ultimate test of selection’s ubiquity.

It is entirely possible that Deresiewicz’s notion that evolutionary psychology functions as a kind of religion might have been influenced by reading Gould’s essay, which contains the following take on the new “fundamentalism”:

Why then should Darwinian fundamentalism be expressing itself so stridently when most evolutionary biologists have become more pluralistic in the light of these new discoveries and theories? I am no psychologist, but I suppose that the devotees of any superficially attractive cult must dig in when a general threat arises. “That old time religion; it’s good enough for me.” There is something immensely beguiling about strict adaptationism—the dream of an underpinning simplicity for an enormously complex and various world. If evolution were powered by a single force producing one kind of result, and if life’s long and messy history could therefore be explained by extending small and orderly increments of adaptation through the immensity of geological time, then an explanatory simplicity might descend upon evolution’s overt richness. Evolution then might become “algorithmic,” a surefire logical procedure, as in Daniel Dennett’s reverie. But what is wrong with messy richness, so long as we can construct an equally rich texture of satisfying explanation?

Although it is a brief work and does not specifically mention art, Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” does provide an alternative to the biological reductionism of Dutton and company, while attempting to engage with Darwin’s recent discoveries. As obvious from the title of the article, Engels sees labor as the dividing line between animals and human beings:

First labour, after it and then with it speech – these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which, for all its similarity is far larger and more perfect. Hand in hand with the development of the brain went the development of its most immediate instruments – the senses. Just as the gradual development of speech is inevitably accompanied by a corresponding refinement of the organ of hearing, so the development of the brain as a whole is accompanied by a refinement of all the senses. The eagle sees much farther than man, but the human eye discerns considerably more in things than does the eye of the eagle. The dog has a far keener sense of smell than man, but it does not distinguish a hundredth part of the odours that for man are definite signs denoting different things. And the sense of touch, which the ape hardly possesses in its crudest initial form, has been developed only side by side with the development of the human hand itself, through the medium of labour.

The reaction on labour and speech of the development of the brain and its attendant senses, of the increasing clarity of consciousness, power of abstraction and of conclusion, gave both labour and speech an ever-renewed impulse to further development. This development did not reach its conclusion when man finally became distinct from the ape, but on the whole made further powerful progress, its degree and direction varying among different peoples and at different times, and here and there even being interrupted by local or temporary regression. This further development has been strongly urged forward, on the one hand, and guided along more definite directions, on the other, by a new element which came into play with the appearance of fully-fledged man, namely, society.

While it is far beyond the scope of this article (and the knowledge of the author) to lay out a historical materialist explanation for the origins of art, but it probably served both would-be utilitarian and spiritual/esthetic needs. A bear or an antelope drawn on the wall of a cave or a tipi was essentially a totem. It helped our ancestors gain a kind of control over the world by familiarizing certain powerful objects in their environment. By painting a bear, you demonstrate a kind of mastery over it.

But more to the point, I would suggest that attempts to extrapolate from such primeval artifacts—or from the animal kingdom—is a very problematic business. The evolutionary psychologists harp on such early history (Diamond, for example, is fixated on the Eastern Islands) in order to essentialize the human condition. They look at bower birds, cave drawings and Miro etchings in a bachelor’s pad in order to turn everything into a quest to disseminate sperm effectively.

Who knows. In their anxiety to render the human condition as a simple working out of biological necessity, people such as Denis Dutton and Brian Boyd might be seeking to control their environment in the same fashion as cave painting artists. Fortunately for humanity, out destiny is not in our genes but in our willingness and ability to challenge the forces of the status quo and transform reality according to our ideals, just as long as economic and social forces have matured to the point where that is objectively possible.

June 8, 2009

Obama and the Iranian elections

Filed under: Iran,Obama — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Favored by American elites

Last night NBC Dateline devoted an hour to an extraordinary tour of Iran by Ann Curry that can be viewed online at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/31156080#31156080.

Wearing a hijab, she spoke to dissidents and supporters of the government alike. The most important aspect of the production was its willingness to combat stereotypes of Iran, including most importantly the idea that it is anti-Semitic or holocaust-denying. She spent a considerable amount of time talking to one of Iran’s most important Jewish leaders who denied that his people were being persecuted. During a fairly lengthy interview, former Iranian President Khatami took pains to distinguish this point of view from that of President Ahmadinejad whose views on the Judeocide were described as those of a “private citizen”. Little doubt was left during the course of this program that NBC favored the election of Ahmadinejad’s rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a member of Khatami’s party.

The Dateline show follows in the footsteps of a series of articles written by NY Times op ed contributor Roger Cohen, who has written things like this:

For all the morality police inspecting whether women are wearing boots outside their pants (the latest no-no on the dress front) and the regime zealots of the Basiji militia, the air you breathe in Iran is not suffocating. Its streets at dusk hum with life – not a monochrome male-only form of it, or one inhabited by fear – but the vibrancy of a changing, highly-educated society.

This is the Iran of subtle shades that the country’s Jews inhabit. Life is more difficult for them than for Muslims, but to suggest they inhabit a totalitarian hell is self-serving nonsense.

One Iranian exile, no lover of the Islamic Republic, wrote to me saying that my account of Iran’s Jews had brought “tears to my eyes” because “you are saying what many of us would like to hear.”

For his part, Obama has demonstrated an ability to get past the mouth-breathing “rogue state” language of the Dubya years:

The third source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons.

This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is indeed a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

Obama’s statement that the U.S. played a role in overthrowing Mossadegh is a striking departure from the Washington foreign policy consensus. On Chris Matthews’s Hardball talk show, there was a clear understanding that Obama’s speech was calculated to entice Iranian voters to reject Ahmadinejad as this exchange between the host and ultrarightist Pat Buchanan would indicate:

OBAMA: None of us should tolerate these extremists. They have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths, but more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam. The holy Koran teaching that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind.

MATTHEWS: There he is, Pat, pretty blunt.

BUCHANAN: He`s saying, We are embracing Islam, but it is not an embrace that includes this element of Islam, and that these we cut out. They`re outside, but we want to embrace the rest of you. I think it`s a necessary presupposition to what he was going to say. Once we get those outside the equation with you, we can work.

And Chris, he was forthcoming on Iran. He said — virtually said, they can maintain their peaceful nuclear program if they demonstrate to us that they are not moving to nuclear — clandestine nuclear weapons. If this fellow Mousavi wins on June 12th, which he could, over Ahmadinejad, I think you`ll see an entente of sorts…


BUCHANAN: … between the United States and Iran…

MATTHEWS: Well, that would be — that would be a bell ringer for this speech, if this president of ours had in some way helped win…

BUCHANAN: I think he has done that…

MATTHEWS: … the battle against Ahmadinejad in Iran.

BUCHANAN: He`s done that by pulling back and saying, We believe you are entitled to peaceful nuclear power. But not pushing hard on him, he didn`t help Ahmadinejad.

MATTHEWS: Well, I think he allowed them to get some national prestige out of having a nuclear capability by saying, But you`re not going to get the weapons.

BUCHANAN: That`s their right.

A détente with Iran would make perfect sense from a foreign policy realist perspective. It would use its influence to the West on Iraq in order to keep a Shi’ite government from becoming too unruly. It would also use its influence in Afghanistan to isolate and punish the Taliban as the Boston Globe reported on December 31, 2001:

The United States was desperately short of on-the-ground intelligence in Afghanistan. So, in addition to Pakistan, the United States turned to an unlikely partner, Iran. For many years, Iran had been an archenemy of the United States, having taken American embassy workers hostage two decades ago and encouraged anti-American sentiment. But the relationship had improved slightly in recent years, and Iran had long supported the Northern Alliance.

Iranian intelligence, supplied to the United States through third parties such as the Northern Alliance, included information about how many Pakistanis were crossing the border to join the Taliban and the frequency of airplane flights filled with Arab fighters landing in Kabul.

“This was clearly a case where Iranians had an interest in Afghanistan,” said Vincent Cannistraro, the CIA’s former counterterrorism chief. “They hated the Taliban. We got information from the Iranians. They did it very quietly.”

Given the eventual winding down of U.S. military presence in Iraq to the point where it will be restricted to the powerful bases currently under construction, it will be more necessary than ever to rely on an Iraqi army under Shi’ite control. Given the close ties between Iraqi and Iranian Shi’ites, there would obviously be some concern in Washington that it might have to contend with a major radical nationalist bloc that would collaborate with Venezuela in making OPEC less obedient to imperialist demands.

There are also worries over Iran’s influence in Lebanon and Gaza, where Hezbollah and Hamas remain staunchly anti-Zionist. If the goal is to neutralize Palestinian radicalism, then perhaps it makes more sense to offer a deal to Iran rather than to confront it at every turn.

The reformist party in Iran appears to be more than willing to adopt a more “sensible” foreign policy in exchange with a relaxation of tensions with the U.S., including an end to sanctions.

Today the N.Y. Times reported on the supposedly unprecedented free-wheeling character of the Iranian elections:

The leading candidates are accusing each other of corruption, bribery and torture. The wife of the strongest challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has threatened to sue him for defaming her. And every night, parts of the capital become a screaming, honking bacchanal, with thousands of young men dancing and brawling in the streets until dawn.

The presidential campaign, now in its final week, has reached a level of passion and acrimony almost unheard-of in Iran.

In part, that appears to be because of a surge of energy in the campaign of Mir Hussein Moussavi, a reformist who is the leading contender to defeat Mr. Ahmadinejad in the election, set for Friday. Rallies for Mr. Moussavi have drawn tens of thousands of people in recent days, and a new unofficial poll suggests his support has markedly increased, with 54 percent of respondents saying they would vote for him compared with 39 percent for Mr. Ahmadinejad.

But many Iranians say the campaign’s raucous tone is due largely to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s unexpectedly fierce rhetorical attacks, which have infuriated his rivals and their supporters, and drawn some blistering ripostes.

“This campaign is a watershed in the history of Iran,” Sadegh Zibakalam, a political analyst at Tehran University, said. “We’ve had debates before, but nothing like this. Ahmadinejad is accusing everybody of corruption — he is basically saying the same thing the counterrevolutionaries have been saying all along.”

With respect to “the wife of the strongest challenger to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” threatening to sue him for defamation, you can see the origin of this dispute in the debate between the two candidates that is accompanied by an English-translation at: http://irannegah.com/Video.aspx?id=1214. I would urge you to listen to the entire debate, but for those who have an aversion to mud-slinging, you can go straight to the 70 minute point and see Ahmadinejad hold up a dossier on Moussavi’s wife. Apparently she entered a graduate program without taking the entrance exam and was implicated in other petty violations of university policy. From what I see in the higher education trade journals on a daily basis, Mrs. Moussavi was a minor offender by comparison:

Louisville Says Doctorate Earned in Semester Is Legit

The University of Louisville has concluded that a much-questioned doctorate it awarded — for one semester of study — was legitimate, The Louisville Courier-Journal reported. The doctorate was awarded to John Deasy in 2004 — and appears to violate university rules about residency requirements. Deasy, as a school superintendent, had given money to a research center headed by the then-dean of Louisville’s education college, who then went on to chair Deasy’s dissertation committee, leading to questions about the legitimacy of the degree. But the university found that the “totality of the circumstances” indicated an appropriate process. At the same time, Louisville announced that it is tightening the procedures about exemptions from normal procedures for doctorates. The former dean, Robert Felner, was for years popular with administrators even as he angered many professors. In October, he was indicted on 10 counts of mail fraud, money-laundering and income-tax evasion related to charges that he fraudulently obtained grants for Louisville and the University of Rhode Island. He has denied wrongdoing.

Despite the ferocity of the campaign rhetoric, it would be misleading to consider the Iranian election as democratic. In a real sense, the differences between the two candidates take place within the context of the Shi’ite permanent government. The Guardian Council is an unelected body that sits above parliament and chooses who can run in the elections. Ruled by Ali Khamenei, it is totally unaccountable to the Iranian people who must choose between a “conservative” like Ahmadinejad who promotes a relatively anti-imperialist foreign policy and a “reformist” like Moussavi who would certainly be more amenable to American interests in the region.

For the most astute analysis of the Iranian version of our own staged elections, I recommend Reza Fiyouzat’s “The Spectacle of the Iranian Elections”  that appears in today’s edition of Counterpunch. Fiyouzat, who blogs at http://revolutionaryflowerpot.blogspot.com/, has the temerity to reject both politicians:

Searching for and finding similar instances of political brand making committed in wildly different settings and situations can be instructive. Followers of things Iranian may have noticed a couple of parallels between the campaigns of Iranian presidential candidates for the June 12 elections and those of the U.S. presidential elections past.

Most definitely, these are superficial likenesses, but they could also point to deeper parallels. For one, both political systems protect and prolong the rule of an absolute minority. Another deep similarity is that in both political setups, exclusively for the participation of the ruling elites (no matter how many factions they come in), a certain level of ‘democracy’ (meaning here, tolerance) is institutionally allowed/required.

Now to the superficial similarities. In these presidential elections, Iranians have a  ‘candidate of change’ (yes, literally the same slogan) in the person of Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Now, this is very interesting, since Mir-Hossein Mousavi, currently a member of the ‘reformist’ camp, was the prime minister (when the post existed) from 1981 to 1989. Back then he was a member of the ‘left wing’ due to his advocacy for a state-run economy. Nowadays, he has changed indeed and supports all manner of privatization (as do all ‘reformers’).

Mousavi’s premiership coincided with the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), during which his economic management carried the country through very rough times. Among other innovations, he introduced the coupon system that made sure everybody received the minimum ration of needed nutrients during those hard times.

He was also deeply involved in the arms-for-hostages deals with the Reagan administrations in the1980s, and was close to Manuchehr Ghorbanifar, one of the central figures in the arms-for-hostages deals.

Ahmadinejad does not come off much better:

Another trend that has traveled well across the oceans is the ‘Anybody But’ phenomenon. This year, it finally reached our shores, and we now have the much awaited, ‘Anybody but Ahmadinejad!’ In many ways, he is Iran’s George W. Bush. Just as much as Bush was hated by all but the most dedicated American right-wingers, Ahmadinejad is hated by all but the most dedicated Iranian right-wingers (the Basiji’s and the Revolutionary Guards).

And just like George Bush Jr., Ahmadinejad is un-liked so thoroughly that he has split the Iranian conservatives. There are as many (if not more) conservatives against him as there are for him; hence, the decision by another conservative, Mohsen Rezaee, a former Revolutionary Guards chief commander, to run for the presidency in these elections. Some other bigwig conservatives who have chosen to distance themselves from Ahmadinejad include: Ali Larijani (former chief nuclear negotiator), Mohammad Reza Bahonar (first deputy speaker of Majles), and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (current Tehran mayor).

Indeed, Ahmadinejad is so not-liked by some conservatives, that he has driven some to the ‘reformist’ camp, presumably to assure Ahmadinejad’s ouster. According to reports, “some major figures in the conservative/principlist camp, led by Mr. Emad Afrough, the Tehran deputy to the 7th Majles (the parliament), announced the formation of a committee in support of Mr. Mousavi,” (The Hard-Liners in a Panic; ).

In short, just like Bush Jr., Ahmadinejad is too much of a divider, does not play well with others, is an anti-unifier of first degree, and that has become a source of deep worry in the Iranian elite establishment.

In 1968, just a year after I joined the Socialist Workers Party, we launched a highly ambitious election campaign with Fred Halstead and Paul Boutelle running for president and vice-president. Time after time, Fred and Paul reminded their audiences that whoever won the election that year, the American people will be the losers. You can say the same thing about the Iranian elections. If Moussavi wins, the elites will push to privatize industry and slash social spending while at the same time making it easier for women and students to enjoy personal expression. If Ahmadinejad wins, there will be a bit more resistance to Obama’s plans to reestablish American imperialism as an unchallenged hegemonic power in the Middle East and Asia.

If I were running a propaganda campaign as an Iranian version of Halstead and Boutelle, I’d support resistance to anti-working class austerity programs, solidarity with Venezuela and other nations standing up to American imperialism, and the right of citizens to express themselves culturally, politically and spiritually without interference from the state and the clerics. In Iran, such a campaign would likely be crushed because of its potential for support in an increasingly restive society polarized around class and entitlement. For the time being such campaigns are tolerated in the U.S. but in years to come, as the financial crisis drags on, we might have to operate under increasingly restrictive circumstances as the Democrats and Republicans try to keep dissent bottled up in the two party system. Courage and dedication will be required, but the possibilities for thorough-going social and political change will motivate us to face whatever difficulties stand in our path.

June 5, 2009

Macbook Pro: first impressions

Filed under: computers — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

In response to my wife’s demand that I get a notebook computer in order to free up some space in our apartment and my own growing frustration with my 3 or 4 year old Dell Optiflex (or to be exact, with Windows), I plunked down $1899 and bought a Macbook Pro. This is the one that comes with a 15” screen and 2 gigabytes of memory. For another 400 dollars, I could have gotten one with more memory. Since I don’t plan to run lots of applications at the same time, I didn’t see the need for it.

Around a year or so ago I added 512 megabytes to the Dell in order to get it to run less sluggishly. Now it is slowing down once again, although not to the point of making me want to get rid of it. It is more a function of the daily hiccups of one sort or another that get on my nerves. For example, the Linksys wireless adapter I use has a slight incompatibility with Windows XP that while popping up an obscure error message continues to run. Also, if my wife checks her mail on my computer using Outlook Express, my Thunderbird often stops functioning.

I ruled out getting a Windows notebook computer since Windows Vista is considered such a crappy operating system. Windows 7 supposedly will be an improvement but I couldn’t wait around until 2010 to buy a new computer equipped with it. I also had a queasy feeling that this would be a repeat of Windows ME, Microsoft’s version of Howard Hughes’s “The Spruce Goose” or that bridge in Washington State that collapsed immediately after it was built, the victim of poor engineering and high winds. I bought a Dell with ME in 2001, a year of other disasters far worse than this purchase, and replaced it with another Dell running XP in less than a year. $1000 down the drain.

A Mindset winning an award at a Vintage Computer Show

This will be the first Mac I have ever owned, although I bought two for my mother over the years. My first computer was a Mindset, a company that began with much fanfare in 1984 but went out of business a couple of years later. The machine was an IBM compatible with advanced graphics capability that supposedly would allow it to compete with Atari. I bought it because it looked cool and because I had succumbed to the hype. I wasn’t the only one. The Museum of Modern Art has one in its permanent collection.

After I took a job with Goldman-Sachs, I took advantage of a low-cost offer to buy an IBM computer for home use that supposedly would make me a more productive employee. That was a Model 50 that I kept for a couple of years until I upgraded to a Dataworld, a 386 Intel machine that was considered powerful at the time.

After that, it was 3 or 4 Dells. I really can’t keep track. I do know that I have gone through just about every Windows operating system since the beginning and have frankly gotten tired of dealing with problems that stem from what appears to be at the heart of the architecture. I use a Dell with XP Professional at work that I have no problems with, but will be forced to use Windows 7 if I went that route. The fact that Columbia University does not support Vista makes me wary of 7, which apparently is nothing but an improved Vista.

If I were true to my socialist beliefs, I suppose I would have looked into a notebook running Linux, an open source operating system based on Unix, the operating system I use at work. However, I need to continue to run Windows since some of the applications I use at work, and will need to run occasionally from home, have never been available on a Mac. It is also important for me to use Finereader, an OCR program that is the best available and only works with Windows. The Macbook is using something called Boot Camp which allows you to bring it up either as a Windows machine or as a Mac using OS-X (pronounced OS Ten).

OS-X has this much in common with Linux. They are both based on Unix, in the Mac’s case something called Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) or Berkeley Unix. I use AIX at work, an operating system based on Unix that runs on the IBM servers I have been supporting for around 15 years or so.

The inventors of Unix

Computerworld, a trade publication, reported yesterday that Unix just celebrated its 40th birthday:

June 4, 2009  (Computerworld) Forty years ago this summer, a programmer sat down and knocked out in one month what would become one of the most important pieces of software ever created.

In August 1969, Ken Thompson, a programmer at AT&T subsidiary Bell Laboratories, saw the month-long departure of his wife and young son as an opportunity to put his ideas for a new operating system into practice. He wrote the first version of Unix in assembly language for a wimpy Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) PDP-7 minicomputer, spending one week each on the operating system, a shell, an editor and an assembler.

Thompson and a colleague, Dennis Ritchie, had been feeling adrift since Bell Labs had withdrawn earlier in the year from a troubled project to develop a time-sharing system called Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service). They had no desire to stick with any of the batch operating systems that predominated at the time, nor did they want to reinvent Multics, which they saw as grotesque and unwieldy.

After batting around some ideas for a new system, Thompson wrote the first version of Unix, which the pair would continue to develop over the next several years with the help of colleagues Doug McIlroy, Joe Ossanna and Rudd Canaday. Some of the principles of Multics were carried over into their new operating system, but the beauty of Unix then (if not now) lay in its less-is-more philosophy.

“A powerful operating system for interactive use need not be expensive either in equipment or in human effort,” Ritchie and Thompson would write five years later in the Communications of the ACM (CACM), the journal of the Association for Computing Machinery. “[We hope that] users of Unix will find that the most important characteristics of the system are its simplicity, elegance, and ease of use.”

Apparently they did. Unix would go on to become a cornerstone of IT, widely deployed to run servers and workstations in universities, government facilities and corporations. And its influence spread even farther than its actual deployments, as the ACM noted in 1983 when it gave Thompson and Ritchie its top prize, the A.M. Turing Award for contributions to IT: “The model of the Unix system has led a generation of software designers to new ways of thinking about programming.”

While I couldn’t begin to explain in technical terms how the Macbook makes the best advantage of an operating system so lauded above, all I can say is that my experience with the machine for the past month has been a delight. It is not only lightning-fast, it practically defines the term user-friendly.

The latest version of the Mac notebooks uses a buttonless trackpad. While at first this seems to present problems (and it did take some getting use to), it is far better than the pad on my wife’s Dell. For example, in order to scroll up and down on a website or in a word processing program, you don’t need to use the scroll bar at the right of the screen. You simply put two fingers lightly on the trackpad and move them either up or down to navigate the pages. Here’s more on the trackpad from a guy who looks like a much younger version of Jeff Goldblum:

The Macbook also has an illuminated keyboard which is just what my failing eyesight requires. Furthermore, the keyboard is easier to use compared to the Dell, not to speak of individual keys tendency to dislodge on the latter from time to time. I guess that’s what you get for $500, a bargain but not without its drawbacks. Since I plan to use the Macbook for the next 10 years, I am willing to pay a premium price up front to be spared hardware and software inconveniences.

Oddly enough, the biggest problem I have had with the Macbook is the Windows XP Mr. Hyde partition. To begin with, it took 3 attempts to get XP installed through boot camp, even with the assistance of a technician at Columbia University who works in my department.

After I got XP installed, I went about the business of reinstalling Finereader and the Symantec anti-virus program. During the Symantec installation, the machine shut down with the notorious Windows Blue Screen of Death that I hope was caused by Symantec rather than Finereader. The Blue Screen indicates a fatal error that can only be surmounted by reverting to an earlier version of your environment. I can live with the occasional worm but I can’t get by without having the ability to scan from books or articles.


Bill Gates demonstrating a  Blue Screen of Death

June 4, 2009

Pyongyang International Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 1:23 pm
Sight and Sound, January 2009
In a Lonely Place
By James Bell

Any visit to the world’s most secretive country was bound to be remarkable, but it was the cinemaqoers themselves that most fascinated at North Korea’s Pyongyang International Film Festival. By James Bell

Travelling to the Pyongyang International Film Festival in North Korea was going to be a trip like no other. What greeted me at Beijing airport to fly me to the world’s most secretive country confirmed this: waiting on the runway, in the otherwise ultra-modern airport, was an ageing Tupolev that had seen its best days in the 1970s. Its thick, pile carpet and wooden interior were reminiscent of an early Bond movie.

The rigorously controlled nature of any North Korean visit was made clear as soon as we arrived at Pyongyang Airport. Mobile phones are banned, so we handed ours to customs officials who assured us they would be returned upon leaving; laptops are allowed but there is no internet access for foreigners – or the majority of North Koreans.

In the arrivals lounge I got my first glimpse of the two smiling faces that proved inescapable at the festival: the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, and his son, the Dear Comrade Kim Jong-il (Dear Leader since 1994). Pictures of the pair hang outside buildings and on indoor walls across the country; every citizen wears a tiny Kim Il-sung badge on their left breast and all locally made films refer in some way to the glory of their achievements.

Pyongyang is immediately and strikingly different from any other city I’ve visited: few cars traverse the meticulously clean roads and every street is lined with bushes and trees. We passed huge squares and towering monuments, including a 60-foot bronze statue of Kim Il-sung. The mostly white buildings are free of advertising – except for the many murals that remind us of the need to resist American imperialism, and the ubiquitous portraits of the Kims, of course.

The hotel that houses all foreign guests is cut off from the rest of Pyongyang on Yanggakdo Island, which sits in the middle of the city’s Taedong river. Just in front of it is the Pyongyang International Cinema, a looming concrete structure straight out of a sci-fi set where the festival’s opening ceremony takes place. As the mix of wide-eyed foreign guests and sombrely suited Korean men made their way into the ceremony, an all-female marching band dressed in dazzling white-and-blue costumes sang stirring songs and performed a tightly choreographed dance routine. In contrast with the suited men, most women wore a traditional, flowing, primary-coloured dress known as the Hanbok. Our hostess wore a yellow Hanbok and delivered her introductions in a high-pitched, near-ecstatic tone. Atrociously soppy and predictable, the opening Chinese film, The Tender Heart, prompted many foreign guests to skip out early. For me the film was worth staying put for, if only to see how moving the Korean authence found it. My mission, in any case, was not to assess the latest international releases on the festival circuit; I was there to see what function cinema plays in the world’s most repressed and secretive society, and what locals might take from films offering them rare glimpses into other countries.

Pyongyang’s festival was founded in 1987, and has been held every two years since 1990. Initially known as the Film Festival of Non-Aligned and Other Developing Countries, its selection was limited to films from the Communist bloc and a handful of other sympathetic nations (didactic documentaries from Libya were reportedly a staple). With the fall of the Soviet Union, the festival slowly began to widen its reach, and this year’s edition was the most open yet. There were of course no films from America, Japan or South Korea, but the selection included works from Iceland, France (The Page Turner), Australia ( Unfinished Sky), the Czech Republic (Empties), Britain (Atonement, Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Germany (The Counterfeiters – somewhat ironic given North Korea’s reputation as a source for forged dollars) and many more. In all, 108 foreign films from 46 countries were screened. Outside sponsorship was also allowed for the first time, with DHL contributing $16,000 to assist in the transportation of prints, and there were other signs of new openness; whereas in previous years separate cinema entrances had been insisted on for foreigners and locals, this time everyone queued up together.

The propaganda programme

The first few days were like finding your way through a fog, until I worked out who to approach for information. A personal guide accompanied me at all times and I was forbidden from exploring the city alone; I would have to wait for the many trips to the various national monuments, shows and museums that made up a tight schedule. Strangeness was never far away. At one point my guide told me, “Tomorrow the delegation from Earth arrives.” She was referring to the Attenborough-fronted BBC nature-documentary Planet Earth, but in the island’s bubble-like confines, one could easily imagine a more fantastical scenario.

With no press office on hand to answer questions and arrange interviews, getting a sense of how films had been chosen proved difficult. Eventually, discreet interviews were arranged, and I spoke to a representative from Korfilm, the organisation with sole responsibility for theatrical distribution in North Korea. On trips to the Shanghai and Berlin festivals, she and her colleagues had made an initial selection of 500 films, which was then whittled down by a small committee of filmmakers, government officials and academics to the 108 screened. Pressed on what this committee were looking for, she answered, “Films that suit the feelings of the Korean people.”

Though there was no single obvious theme linking the selection, there were many sentimental films about families. Large-scale period dramas were also popular- Chinese director Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly, set in 1948 during the Chinese civil war, took the festival’s top prize. British costume pics proved especially welcome – perhaps because they don’t show the contemporary reality of life in the west. There was an angry crush at the doors of the sell-out screening of Elizabeth: The Golden Age. British films had apparently also been the hits of previous festivals; the 2006 festival screened Bean, Billy Elliott and Bend It Like Beckha m, and the 2002 festival featured a fondly recalled programme of classic Ealing comedies.

Apart from this festival, the vast majority of the population have almost no access to films from the west. They are limited mostly to a diet of the older Soviet, Cuban or Chinese films that can be bought at DVD stalls in the city, and occasional screenings on the Mansudae television channel. Accurate information about viewing habits was scarce, though some was gleaned by quizzing the guides, many of whom were English students or teachers at one of Pyongyang’s three universities and therefore had uniquely privileged access to DVD collections of English-language films. (Pirated DVDs smuggled over from China are now rumoured to find their way to the general population, much to the government’s dissatisfaction.)

Choice, therefore, isn’t as restricted as you might expect for some film lovers. Nearly all of the guides had seen Titanic (which has an added symbolic significance in North Korea because late President Kim Il-sung was born on the same day the ship sank, April 15, 1912). Most of the others had at least seen Gone With the Wind and Braveheart – both films that could be seen as examples of oppression at different times in western history. One guide had a more surprising list of films she had enjoyed at university: as well as Pride S- Prejudice and Great Expectations there was the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. There were American films, too. Tom Cruise was “cute” in The Firm, while the English-language film she had seen most recently was National Treasure, with Nicolas Cage.

As well as foreign titles, the festival hosted a programme, organised especially for foreign guests, of what they deemed to be classic films from North Korea’s 60-year history. Virtually all studios and archives were destroyed during the three years of the Korean War. After 1953, the studios had to be rebuilt from scratch. Like Stalin and Mao, Kim Ilsung extolled the propaganda value of cinema, and ordered films reflecting “socialist reality” to be made: “Like the leading article of the Party paper, the cinema should have great appeal and move ahead of the realities… it should play a mobilising role in the revolutionary struggle.” From the 1960s until the early 1990s, an average of 20 films were made each year, but it was frequently as many as 100. The Soviet Union and China supplied money and technology and, in turn, North Korean films were screened across the communist territories.

The Flower Girl(1970), adapted from a 1930 play written by Kim Il-sung, is a perennial favourite – it is referred to as North Korea’s Gone with the Wind. Set in the late 1920s and 1930s, when Korea was under Japanese occupation, it follows the misfortunes of a poor family brutalised by their Japanese landowners. Two sisters sell flowers to pay for medicine needed by their ailing mother who refuses to allow them to degrade themselves. The horrors of Japanese occupation are laid on heavily – in one scene the younger sister is blinded by hot grains. There’s a clear message for younger audiences about the suffering their elders endured, and of heroic female sacrifice, both recurrent themes in the programme. The Flower Girl was a hit in China, and is still remembered affectionately. In a Beijing taxi on my way to the airport with a fellow British journalist, we mentioned that we were heading to Pyongyang. “Ah, Flower Gir!.” the driver exclaimed before breaking into the film’s title song.

Older films in the programme usually referred even if only allegorically – to the wars with Japan and America and to the collective effort needed to rebuild the country. Bellflower(1987) told of a man’s regret about his youthful decision to leave his lover and follow a wandering, indulgent life. The lover had selflessly stayed behind and helped to rebuild her village. Despite the sloganeering (workers sing lines such as “Happiness is not a windfall, but is created by our hands”), Bellfiower was the most cinematic film in the programme. There were on-message genre films too. The 1986 kung-fu film Hong hi dong aped the Shaw Brothers, but also told of a fight against foreign invaders: “It’s clear they are from abroad,” a local hero says. “As a nation we must rise up and defeat them.”

Since the 1990s, North Korean cinema has displayed a more realist aesthetic. Topics such as the generation gap and the devastating famine of the late 1990s come in for relatively serious treatment. Yet like all North Korean films, they suggest the answers are devotion to the state and the leadership of Kim Jong-il. As North Korean cinema expert Antoine Coppola has noted, political repression aside, North Korean cinema has typically been propaganda by instruction, not omission.

Party not personal

The economic realities of the post-Soviet world have been harsh on film production, with only five or six films produced annually since 2000. Only one new feature was screened at this year’s festival, the unremarkable The Kites Flying in the Sky another story of female sacrifice, based on an apparently real-life case of a woman who abandons her promising career as a marathon runner to take in orphaned children. More interesting was the veteran director Jang In-hok’s film A Schoolgirl’s Diary (2006), about a student unsure whether to follow her father into a life devoted to scientific research. In an impromptu interview at the hotel bar, Jang described how in 2007, Kim Jong-il, concerned at the failings in North Korean film, personally called a temporary halt to film production and installed Korea’s directors in a hotel (“Not quite like this one”) where they were apparently put through an eight-month course that involved watching 250 films handpicked by the Dear Leader himself. These included films by Zhang Yimou, Japanese film-maker Yamada Yôji and even Steven Spielberg. A representative from Korfilm corroborated this far-fetched sounding story to explain why only two features have been released in the past two years. She added that seven films, all beneficiaries of the Dear Leader’s scheme, are due for release in 2009.

Kim Jong-il is well known to be a film fan. He is said to have a personal collection of 20,000 DVDs, and would have become a director if he hadn’t been called upon to lead the country. Many people shared admiring anecdotes of his visits to film sets, where his timely advice to the director on the shooting of key scenes proved decisive. His fascination seems genuine; bookshop shelves groan with pamphlets and books reportedly written by him, such as On the Art of Cinema from 1973, on how films can and should support the revolutionary ideas. The entries range from directing and acting, through to make-up and music.

Cinema in North Korea can only really be understood in relation to the state. The directors and actors I spoke to denied that their work had anything to do with personal expression. An ‘underground’ of unsanctioned locally made films is simply impossible. There are five key agencies responsible for producing films: a documentary studio, a ‘youth-film’ studio, an animation house (the few examples of North Korean anime I saw were surprisingly bold), a body for ‘military’ films, and the studio for feature-film production.

We visited the feature-film studio lot at the end of the programme, a wander through mocked-up Japanese, western and South Korean streets, complete with decadent bars and misspelled posters for western films. There were historical Korean castles and villages, too. That day a scene was being shot for a period film, with women in traditional dress sifting rice. Whether it was for show or not was unclean the crew seemed quite unconcerned at the guests peering into shot and letting off flash bulbs.

Few films screened in the programme had much to offer western authences other than historical or exotic interest. It’s doubtful that there are countless treasures in Pyongyang’s archives waiting to be discovered by intrepid cinéphiles. Nevertheless these films provide an insight into a country of which most in the west know little, and so deserve to be seen. Paris-based distributor Pretty Pictures released Schoolgirl’s Diary into French cinemas last year, and are planning on releasing it as part of a four-DVD set with The Flower Girl, Bellfiower and the two-part The Tale of Chun Hyang. As yet no UK distributor, exhibitor, festival programmer or broadcaster has expressed any interest. Will anyone take up the challenge?

June 3, 2009

North Korean movies

Filed under: antiwar,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

This is a clip from a 1991 North Korean movie titled “The Girls in my Home Town”. It is not included in the four films discussed below, but it is the only North Korean movie that can be seen on the Internet—or more accurately, an excerpt of that movie. It will give you a flavor of the combination of sentimentality and overheated rhetoric that can be found, however,  in practically all North Korean movies. A review of the movie can be read at http://www.socialistfilms.org/2007/12/girls-in-my-hometown-dprk-1991.html


When I received an invitation from the Korea Society in New York to attend a 4-part screening of North Korean films, I jumped at the opportunity for multiple reasons. To begin with, I am a huge fan of Korean movies, admittedly those that come from the south exclusively. As a relic of the cold war, North Korean movies–like Cuban cigars–are hard to come by. I assumed that they would be much different than the deeply ironic, sophisticated and urbane South Korean movies that I had become devoted to, but was curious to see whether the national culture that had been developing for millennia could still be detected in the dogmatically Marxist north.

While many of the finest South Korean movies are unavailable on home video, you can rent “Save the Green Planet” from Netflix, which summarizes the movie thusly:

Believing that aliens in human form are systematically destroying the planet and all humankind, Byung-gu sets out to capture an alien leader and force him to confess. Because all the aliens look like humans, Byung-gu makes an educated guess and kidnaps the head of a chemical company.

Now, how can you resist such a movie!

I also wondered if North Korean movies would give me insights into one of the two remaining socialist countries in the world, giving the word socialist its broadest interpretation of course. As a long time supporter of the Cuban revolution, my attitude toward North Korea was probably like most leftists. We did not want to see North Korea victimized by economic sanctions or military attack, but there was little to identify with in a society that was bound together by an odd combination of 1930s style Stalinism and centuries old Confucian beliefs.

To understand North Korea would be more imperative than ever given current events. Just as the film series began, an underground nuclear device was detonated in the north and once again the threat level escalated, including the possibility that freighters would be intercepted on the high seas if they were deemed to be carrying nuclear material.

In a move that seemed calculated to deepen the perception of North Korea as a family dynasty, it was reported today that Kim Jong-il had designated Kim Jong-un, his youngest son, as his successor. Although comparisons with Raul Castro taking over from his brother Fidel might be raised by pundits hostile to socialism across the board, one can at least acknowledge that Raul Castro was a central leader of the armed struggle that toppled Batista. But why would the 23 year old grandson of North Korea’s version of Fidel Castro become head of state unless, of course, North Korea was governed as a kind of immense extended family in which blood ties mattered more than talent?

Events in South Korea also reflected the impact of the north. On May 26, former president Roh Moo-Hyun committed suicide Saturday by leaping to his death from a hill behind his house. Roh was the first South Korean leader to cross the demilitarized zone and meet with Kim Jong-il and believed in the tension-easing “sunshine policy” of his predecessor, Kim Dae-Jung. He killed himself after being implicated in a bribery scandal. Street protests by his supporters blame the ruling conservative party for hounding him to the point of no return.

For a summary of the four North Korean movies, go to the Korea Society website. Unfortunately, my own brief takes on the films below cannot be accompanied by a Youtube clip for obvious reasons. But after seeing these four most interesting movies, it did occur to me that North Korea could do itself a big favor by simply making them available on the Internet. Despite their obvious propaganda purpose, they are all distinguished by a charm that would go a long way in breaking down stereotypes about the “rogue state”.

1. Traces of Life (1989)

This is the story of Ji Jun, the widow of a sailor who swims out to an American warship with a mine in his hands and destroys it Kamikaze fashion during the Korean War. The sailor is a true believer in the revolution, while his wife cares more about what goes on in the household. In a change of heart, she decides to return to his farming village and work with the other beneficiaries of land reform to produce food for the revolution. The movie climaxes with her being awarded for presiding over a bumper crop.

Obviously, this movie owes a lot to the Stalinist “people’s hero” movies of the 30s and 40s but it is redeemed by surprising admissions that a collective farm is no paradise. When a disabled sailor is rejected as a member, he reacts bitterly and drowns his sorrow in alcohol. The ties between Ji Jun and her two children are also fairly complex, given the propaganda parameters. They feel that she has not given proper respect to her dead husband, but in the end family and nation are reconciled.

2. The Tale of Chun Hyang (1980)

This is a socialist retelling of a Korean folktale set in the feudal era about a woman from the lower classes who marries a member of the gentry despite her mother’s warning that aristocrats will always betray the poor. At the end of part one of this 148 minute epic, the mother appears to have been vindicated since the husband moves with his parents to Seoul leaving her behind.

Part two of the movie finds the heroine in the clutches of the local magistrate who is bent on turning her into his concubine. Meanwhile, he is oppressing the local peasants by stealing their grain and acting for just like the landowners who made life miserable for the Korean peasant in real life before the revolution. The husband, now a secret royal commissioner, returns in the nick of time to lead a peasant revolt and rescue his wife.

The movie makes liberal use of song, even to the point of approximating an opera. In its synthesis of ancient themes about love and faith and modern ones about the class struggle, it is essentially North Korean.

3. Wolmi Island(1982)

When I was growing up in the 1950s, there seemed to be a Korean War movie about once a month. I still remember “Bridges at Toko-Ri” that resulted in a nomination for best director by the Director’s Guild in 1956. (The director, Mark Robson, was also involved with the liberal McCarthyite “Trial” made two years later.)

Given the flag-waving character of these productions, the perfect antidote is “Wolmi Island”, based on a battle that took place in 1950 which the movie represents as a heroic effort by a small garrison of sailors near Inchon to hold off an American fleet as the bulk of the North Korean army organized an orderly retreat to the North.

I found the battle scenes far less interesting than the interaction between the various characters, including a young female recruit who sacrifices her life in order to restore a communications line that will allow the North Korean guns to resume counter-attack. In all the scenes she appears in, she manages to upstage the male actors.

4. The Flower Girl (1972)

This was my favorite. Set during the Japanese occupation during the 1930s, it tells the story of an impoverished family consisting of a widow and her two daughters that relies on the meager income of the older daughter’s flower sales on the street. The other daughter was blinded by a vicious landlord when she was a tot. There is also an older brother languishing in a Japanese prison. The Japanese rely heavily on the wealthy landowners and their cops to keep the peasants and poor urban dwellers in line.

The most moving part of “The Flower Girl” is her trek to visit her brother in prison. Upon arriving there, she is told that he has died. As it turns out, he has actually escaped from prison and joined the guerrillas. The film ends with a rousing attack on the landlords and the reunion of brother and sisters. All in all, the movie reminded me very much of “Sansho the Bailiff”, a Japanese movie from the 1950s about the cruelty of landlords and the separation of a brother and sister.


Along with a number of other North Korean movies, “The Flower Girl” is analyzed by U.C. Santa Barbara professor Suk-Young Kim in a lecture titled “Kim Jong-il and North Korean Films” that can be seen online at http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4103. (But not in Firefox. You have to use IE or Safari). Kim also gave a talk at the Korea Society on the opening night of the mini-festival that is not online, however. I cannot recommend her lecture highly enough since it is both illuminating for its insights into the role of North Korean movies and the video clips she discusses in the course of the lecture. You will see a longish excerpt from “The Flower Girl” as well as one from a remarkable Robin Hood/socialist type movie drawn from Korean legend that includes Hong-Kong type martial arts.

In framing her approach to North Korean movies, Kim explains why Kim Jong-il was so keen to promote the medium:

Now, why was film so important for Kim Jong-il, in addition to all the reasons that I laid out here? We tend to think that Kim Jong-il is a leader who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, which is true because he was the biological son of the founding father of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. But we have to think that North Korea is the first hereditary socialist country, where power to rule was passed down from father to the biological son. And before this was officialized, we did not know who the next leader of North Korea would be. I mean, it was certain that Kim Il-sung would handpick somebody before he passed away, but it wasn’t sure if it was going to be his son or somebody else in his political retinue.

So in a way, Kim Jong-il had to really work his way through — he had to use whatever talent he had to really pave the road to power. And he was — he is known to be an extremely talented artistic person by all accounts, and he tapped into his artistic talent to really prove his filial piety for his father, Kim Il-sung. And this is an extremely interesting fact if we consider how North Korea is still observing traditional Confucian values of patriarchy, and in this light, the nation itself is seen as an extended family structure. So to respect and preserve the authorial power of the patriarchal national leader was extremely important.

And another factor that plays into this rationale is that Kim Il-sung, the founding father of North Korea, lived long enough to have witnessed de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union, and whatever happened to the Maoist legacy after the Culture Revolution. So he was extremely keen on preserving his legacy after death, and in this sense Kim Jong-il effectively used film to really create this mythical aura about his father and perpetuate his legacy by creating these everlasting images.

Whatever one thinks about North Korean society, surely it makes sense to reduce the tensions between the U.S. and the beleaguered state. In going through Bruce Cumings’s essay “Decoupled from History: North Korea in the ‘Axis of Evil’” that appeared in the 2004 “Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth about North Korea, Iran, and Syria”, you are struck by how the potential for war has always been heightened by U.S. refusal to accept a non-capitalist system on its own terms. Given the hostilities that have existed since 1945, the defensiveness of the North Koreans begins to seem normal. As someone once put it, even the paranoid have enemies.

Most leftists probably have the same impression that I do, namely that the U.S. intervened on behalf of the south after war with the north began. Cumings makes a convincing case that the conflict dates back much earlier, when the U.S. decided to back the landlords and corrupt officials who had collaborated with the Japanese during the 30s and 40s–in other words, the same villains who made life miserable for the poor in “The Flower Girl”. Considering the brazen disrespect shown for Korean independence, it is no wonder that the propaganda movies of the 1980s exhibited such passion. Despite being propaganda, they were rooted in the lived experience of the nation.

In 1945 the U.S. occupied southern Korea and set up a three-year military government that was directed from the Yongsan military base in Seoul that the Japanese built in 1894. James R. Hodge, the American commander, took over the executive mansion known as “the blue house” that the Japanese governor-general had occupied.

Hodge then decided to build up a bureaucracy using the same discredited civil servants who had been trained for military government in Japan, a complete slap in the face to Koreans who had fought on the side of the allies in helping to liberate East Asia from Japanese rule.

During Japanese occupation, a powerful leftwing movement had developed in the south that was completely independent of Kim Il-Sung. This mattered little to the U.S. which considered all grass roots movements together as pawns of the Kremlin. Merrell Benninghoff, chief political advisor to Hodge, reported:

Southern Korea can best be described as a powder keg ready to explode at the application of a spark.

There is great disappointment that immediate independence and sweeping out of the Japanese did not eventuate.

[Those] Koreans as have achieved high rank under the Japanese are considered pro-Japanese and are hated almost as much as their masters.

All groups seem to have the common ideas of seizing Japanese property, ejecting the Japanese from Korea, and achieving immediate independence.

Korea is completely ripe for agitators.

The most encouraging single factor in the political situation is the presence in Seoul of several hundred conservatives among the older and better educated Koreans. Although many of them have served with the Japanese, that stigma ought eventually to disappear.

William Langdon, another State Department hack, appeared to agree with the North Korean propaganda film’s assessment of the old regime but put a plus where the Communists put a minus:

The old native regime internally was feudal and corrupt but the record shows that it was the best disposed toward foreign interests of the three Far Eastern nations, protecting foreign lives and property and franchises. I am sure that we may count on at least as much a native government evolved as above…

South Koreans rose up against the quisling government without any assistance from the North and were brutally repressed throughout 1946 to 1948.

Eventually, an anti-Communist government stabilized in the south and the two parts of the country found themselves on a collision course. The George W. Bush’s of the day who advocated preemptive war saw the Korean War as an opportunity to roll back the revolution in both the north and in China, Korea’s main ally. Carpet bombing of the north, as well as other punishing measures, left two million dead half of whom were civilians. With a population in the north of just under 10 million at the time, this was the equivalent of 60 million dead Americans. Considering the response of the U.S. to the loss of just 3000 of its citizens on 9/11, the North Koreans appear almost Gandhian by comparison.

In 2000, during the final days of the Clinton administration, it appeared that a thaw between the U.S. and North Korea was developing as reported by the NY Times on October 20:.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said tonight that “important progress” had been made in her talks here with North Korea’s leader toward persuading North Korea to “restrain missile development and testing, as well as missile exports,” though any final agreement will have to await further talks.

Missile specialists from the United States and North Korea will meet next week to explore further the specific ways in which North Korea will limit its missile program, she said.

In particular, a quid pro quo of shutting down the missile program in exchange for launchings of North Korean satellites by foreign governments will be discussed further, a senior official said.

The idea was first raised in talks in July between President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the North Korean leader.

The six hours of talks between Dr. Albright and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, were the first between such a high-level American official and a North Korean leader.

“Everyone leaves here rather struck by the breadth and depth of the discussions,” the senior official said. This was largely because the Americans heard firsthand from Mr. Kim, the only decision maker who counts in this country, “what he was prepared to do.”

The two-day visit ended on a cordial note. As a parting gift, Dr. Albright presented a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan to Mr. Kim, who turns out to be an ardent fan.

As they said their farewells in the lobby of a government guest house tonight, Dr. Albright encouraged Mr. Kim “to pick up the telephone any time,” an American official said. And Mr. Kim, — the leader of one of the few countries to deny its people Internet access but who is himself a keen Internet browser with three computers in his office — replied, “Please give me your e-mail address.”

One of Dr. Albright’s goals on this trip was to plan for a possible visit here by President Clinton, but she declined to be drawn out on whether Mr. Clinton would come. Instead, she said she would report to Mr. Clinton on the results and it was up to him to make the decision.

Another goal was to assess the North Korean leader who, in his six years in office, has remained virtually unknown as a personality or a policy maker. His father, Kim Il Sung, founded the Communist Party here and ruled the country with an iron hand until his death in 1994.

Dr. Albright said that after negotiating with Mr. Kim and socializing with him at two dinners and at the performance in honor of the 55th anniversary of the North Korean Communist Party, she found him a “very good listener, a good interlocutor.” And she added, “He strikes me as very decisive and very practical.”

Not a year later, the WTC and the Pentagon had been attacked by Islamic terrorists and a new more aggressive foreign policy based on “preemptive” warfare was implemented. Along with Iran, North Korea became a “rogue state” whose leader was depicted as a madman rather than the “very practical” official that she was ready to exchange email addresses with.

It is difficult to predict whether Obama will ratchet up tensions with North Korea given all the other foreign policy adventures he has on his plate revolving around the need to subdue the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One only hopes that the antiwar movement in the U.S. will have the internal resources to oppose war across Asia given what is at stake. While one can have all sorts of opinions on the North Korean social system, we can all agree that another Korean War would be a disaster for its people as well as for working class Americans who will bear the brunt of the fighting.

June 2, 2009

Obama and mountaintop removal

Filed under: Ecology,Obama,workers — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Although I have become somewhat inured to Barack Obama’s continuation of the second Bush term, I felt an almost virginal sense of being violated by his latest thumb in the eye of the Democratic Party base. I am speaking of his giving the green light to 42 more mountaintop removal permits, thus proving his fealty to arguably the most viciously anti-environmental sector of American private enterprise.

So disgusting was this action that even Daily Kos, which tends to grovel at Obama’s feet, was forced to take notice. Dgil, a Kos contributor, directed his or her readers to a Los Angeles Times article that broke the story:

With the election of President Obama, environmentalists had expected to see the end of the “Appalachian apocalypse,” their name for exposing coal deposits by blowing the tops off whole mountains.

But in recent weeks, the administration has quietly made a decision to open the way for at least two dozen more mountaintop removals.

In a letter this month to a coal ally, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.), the Environmental Protection Agency said it would not block dozens of “surface mining” projects. The list included some controversial mountaintop mines.

Dgil added his own two cents at the end of the post:

So why has the current administration quietly moved forward with a huge expansion of an ecologically destructive mining process? The end result is expansion of an energy source campaigned against, and whose additional mined energy output can be created in ways with little (wind) or no (hydro) additional environmental impact.

The gist of the LAT article is that this decision was made for the crassest of reasons-political expediency to get votes. Additionally, why would an administration that has positioned itself as determined to move forward on trimming atmospheric carbon emissions, purposefully expand the production of highly polluting coal? What benefit will this actually bring the residents of this area? More health problems? A devastated ecology? Destroyed recreational opportunities?

With all due respect (well, maybe half respect) to Markos Moulitsas and company, the real goal is not to get votes. Instead, this decision would have been made even if it cost votes. Obama’s calculation was, is it has always been, to act on behalf of the interests of the bourgeoisie, if I might put it in such crass, unrepentant terms. It goes along with putting a shiv in the back of UAW workers, bombing civilians in Afghanistan, catering to Goldman-Sachs and all the rest. It is called capitalist politics and acts independently of the wishes of the gullible voter. Indeed, despite EPA director Carole Browner’s reputation in liberal circles as being a committed environmentalist, I found her record questionable but I suppose that is what recommended her to Obama.

As a long time environmentalist, converted to the cause after hearing Joel Kovel liken capitalist growth to a metastasizing tumor, there are two issues which grab my attention more than any other. One is overfishing and water pollution, a function no doubt of my love for the lakes and streams of upstate New York growing up. The other is mountaintop removal, a crime that has stirred me from afar. Although I have never been to Appalachia, I cannot help becoming outraged by what strip mining does to people and nature alike. It represents the fanged, merciless and total victory of profits over human need.

I was introduced to mountaintop removal in an article that appeared in the April 2005 Harpers Magazine, a publication that I have been subscribed to for about 30 years. Written by Erik Reece and titled “Death of a Mountain: Radical strip mining and the leveling of Appalachia”, it is one of the most powerful environmentalist critiques I have ever read. (Reece’s expanded his article into a book in 2006 titled “Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness”.)

Since Harpers (regrettably) makes very few articles available to non-subscribers, we are fortunate to be able to read it at http://www.wesjones.com/death.htm. Reece writes about one activist who symbolizes the kind of working class resistance that is on the front lines against polluting corporations across the entire country. Her name is Teri Blanton and she is definitely not the chardonnay drinking, Arugula munching type:

Coal operators are not an easily intimidated bunch. But there is probably no one in the state of Kentucky who rattles their cage like a forty-eight-year-old grandmother named Teri Blanton. A former chairperson of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the state’s largest social-justice organization, Blanton has spent the last two decades helping coalfield residents fight the corporations that have turned so much of eastern Kentucky into what she calls a toxic dump.

One can get a real education in environmental corruption and smash-mouth class warfare by tracking the last twenty years of Blanton’s life. She grew up in a small town called Dayhoit, in Harlan County, where four generations of her family had lived along White Star Hollow. It was the kind of community where neighbors shared their coal in the winter, and on a rare piece of flatland, one man, Millard Sutton, grew enough vegetables to feed nearly everyone in town. Families took turns helping out in his garden. Blanton moved to Michigan in the seventies to start a family, then moved back to Dayhoit in 1981 as a single mother of two. Her career as an activist started shortly afterward, when she phoned the highway department and asked for someone to clean up the large puddle of black water and coal sludge that stood in front of her trailer where her children caught the school bus. The highway department called the coal company that was mining around White Star Hollow, and the company responded by sending a coal truck to slowly circle Blanton’s trailer all day. “That really burnt my ass,” Blanton recalled, “that they thought they could shut me up by intimidation.” That coal company, owned by two brothers, James and Aubra Dean, never did clean up the mess, and in the end, after Blanton’s relentless badgering, the highway department built a new road up to her trailer.

Blanton would seem to have much in common with Maria Gunnoe, another female, working-class activist from the region who is featured in the documentary “Burning the Future” that I reviewed in February 2008 and whose Youtube trailer is linked to at the top of this article. In the review, I take note of the kind of resistance that is sweeping the coal region and that has taken to the streets once again to protest Obama’s sell-out:

Remarkable enough as a muckraking indictment of the coal industry, the movie is also a real breakthrough by showing the capacity of ordinary Americans, most of whom conform to the “Red State” stereotype of country music, NASCAR races, hunting and the Baptist church, to resist the onslaught that has turned their water wells into receptacles of filthy, toxic strip-mining run-off. The documentary, directed by David Novack, is a reminder that political activism is nearly never the result of preaching from above but the experience of daily life under a social, economic, or–in this instance–an environmental crisis. When your children suffer one health emergency after another, it is of no use to tell the parents that this is balanced by “economic progress” in their home state.

Sadly enough, the UMW has endorsed Obama’s mountaintop removal permits, despite the fact that it is a threat to their health and to the natural beauty of the region. Jeff Biggers, a journalist and author of “The United States of Appalachia” was interviewed on Democracy Now on May 29th and spoke about the sad state of the coal miner’s union:

JUAN GONZALEZ: How has the American labor movement dealt with this issue? Clearly, obviously, at least for the mine workers and others, this has meant a loss of jobs. But have they taken a firm stand with their political leaders around this?

JEFF BIGGERS: You know, the United Mine Workers—and I should say, you know, I’m a grandson of a coal miner, and my granddaddy was a union coal miner. He suffered with black lung. And I appreciate the work of the United Mine Workers. They’re the people who gave us our eight-hour workday. You know, we struggled for a hundred years to have a great union movement.

But that movement has been broken really since the 1980s. In West Virginia, in particular, they’re still struggling just to survive. And what I don’t understand is, instead of looking at the ramifications of mountaintop removal that has taken their jobs, that has absolutely plundered the industry and led to skyrocketing poverty rates, the United Mine Workers are hanging onto the scraps, and they’re supporting mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Think about this. There are less than a thousand jobs for the United Mine Workers in mountaintop removal. Less than a thousand jobs. You know, they’re really trying to hang onto the last crumbs of this industry, as opposed to saying, “Let’s come up with another form of underground mining, or let’s actually—let’s shift into some sort of clean energy that we can relocate and we can reeducate and retrain our miners to do.”

One is of course struck by how much another once-powerful union has departed from its militant roots, namely the UAW which has seen its pay and benefits stripped as part of a deal to rescue GM. Perhaps all this is inevitable. Maybe we have to turn back the clock to the early 1930s when industrial union did not exist in the U.S. With the UAW and the UMW functioning like the class-collaborationist craft unions that Samuel Gompers led, a vacuum will open up for a new trade union movement that is committed to the revolutionary ideals that many rank-and-file activists of the 1930s shared. This time, however, we should keep our eyes on the prize and not be tempted to settle for half-measures that leave capitalism intact, as was FDR’s aim. Of course, given Obama’s tendency to operate like Herbert Hoover, the task of educating the left will be a bit less difficult than it was in the 1930s.

June 1, 2009

Are we in a post-racial America?

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 2:25 pm

David Roediger

Swans Commentary, June 1, 2009
Are We In A Post-Racial America?
by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Roediger, David: How Race Survived U.S. History: from settlement and slavery to the Obama phenomenon, Verso 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-275-2, 240 pages.

(Swans – June 1, 2009)   As part of the euphoria surrounding the election of Barack Obama, members of the punditocracy speculated that the U.S. had entered a “post-racial” epoch. Typical was The Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland who editorialized on Election Day last year:

Barack Obama has succeeded brilliantly in casting his candidacy — indeed, his whole life — as post-racial. Even before the votes have been cast, he has written a glorious coda for the civil rights struggle that provided this nation with many of the finest, and also most horrible, moments of its past 150 years. If the results confirm that race was not a decisive factor in the balloting, generations of campaigners for racial justice and equality will have seen their work vindicated.

After deploying data in his introduction to How Race Survived U.S. History to the effect that racism continues unabated (one in three children of color lives in poverty as opposed to one in ten of white families, etc.), David Roediger poses the question: “How did white supremacy in the U.S. not yield to changes that we generally regard as constant, dramatic, and, in the main, progressive?” The remainder of his brilliantly argued and researched book gives the definitive answer to this question. As such, it belongs on the bookshelf next to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and other such works that offer a “revisionist” history of this country in accordance with truth and — more importantly — justice.

The theme that Roediger keeps coming back appears initially in Chapter One on colonial Virginia in the 17th century (“Suddenly White Supremacy”); namely, that a white identity was created in order to unite men and women of conflicting classes against the most exploited groups of the day: the slave and the Indian. And when necessary, blacks were also recruited to the master’s cause against the Indians. As has always been the case, the British — including the freedom-loving colonists who would form a new republic in 1776 — have been adept at dividing and conquering. Roediger writes:

The most spectacular example of revolt, Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, took Virginia to the brink of civil war. Broadly arising from the desire for good land among European and African servants and ex-servants, the rebellion therefore also had anti-Indian dimensions, demanding and implementing aggressive policies to speed settlement onto indigenous lands. Bondservants joined those who had recently served out “their time” under the leadership of the young English lawyer and venture capitalist Nathaniel Bacon, laying siege to the capital in Jamestown, burning it, driving Governor William Berkeley into exile, and sustaining insurrection for months. Authorities offered freedom “from their slavery” to “Negroes and servants” who would come over into opposition to the rebellion. Rebels, meanwhile, feared that they would all be made into “slaves, man, woman & child.” Both the promise of liberation and the language registering fear of retribution suggest how imperfectly class predicaments aligned with any firm sense of racial division.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/lproy55.html

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