Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 31, 2009

MRZine sinks to new lows

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 2:43 pm

Apparently forced to deal with the almost unanimous opposition to Ahmadinejad by Iranian leftist intellectuals in the West as well as the obstreperous native Iranian commentators on its website, MRZine has printed a breathtakingly demagogic and stupid article by one Bizhan Pouya that links its ideological adversaries to:

  • CIA-sponsored television stations beaming out of Los Angeles
  • George Soros’s Open Society Institute
  • the National Endowment for Democracy
  • the Iranian monarchy in exile
  • Cuban gusanos

Given enough time, I suppose that MRZine will begin accusing the “left” (their scare quotes, not mine) of digging a tunnel into Iran from Iraq so that CIA agents led by Hamid Dabashi can sneak through. If the Moscow Trials could have raised this kind of charge against Leon Trotsky, can the finger-pointing accusers at MRZine be far behind?

Yoshie Furuhashi, MRZine’s editor, must feel betrayed to see Ervand Abrahamian, once upon a time a supporter in her eyes of Shi’ite rule (Ervand Abrahamian: Why the Islamic Republic Has Survived), winding up in the CIA, George Soros, NED camp—at least on the basis of his recent London Review of Books article:

By denouncing children of the revolution as foreign-paid ‘counter-revolutionaries’, Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and their allies have alienated a considerable proportion of the population – maybe even the majority – and could end up transforming reformists into revolutionaries. By moving away from democracy towards theocracy, the regime has removed an important component of its original legitimacy. Some would argue the country has ceased to be a republic and has become a military-backed theocracy – a Shia imamate equivalent to the medieval Sunni caliphates.

Pouya begins his article by mocking Maziar Razi, a London-based Iranian, who has the audacity to criticize Hugo Chavéz for backing Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Razi, a longtime Trotskyist, is condemned out of hand for writing “from the comfort of his flat in London.” This hoary demagogic device goes back to the 1930s at least and was used against the Trotskyists all the time. On one hand you have an effete, rootless cosmopolitan like Leon Trotsky giving interviews to the bourgeois press; and on the other hand, you have the stolid Joseph Stalin universally beloved by the humble workers and farmers of the world’s only Communist country. Who would want to support this “leftist” Leon Trotsky giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the Soviet Union? Of course, the same kind who would back the CIA and George Soros against another stolid leader universally beloved by the workers and farmers of Iran.

Pouya really pours it on with the decadent Western imperialist imagery. The anti-Ahmadinejad leftists“have either been greatly influenced by the West or have been educated in Europe or the United States and tend to be devoutly secular.” They become enraged when “rootless villagers” tell them “how to dress and behave in public”. Oddly enough, this kind of rhetoric evokes the culture wars attack on Barack Obama from the Sarah Palins of the world. No wonder Tariq Ali found it so easy to compare Islamic fundamentalists to the Christian right in the U.S.A. in “The Clash of Fundamentalisms”. People like Bizhan Pouya made it easy for him.

Pouya is most annoyed with the protesters who insist on harping on “freedom” and “democracy” rather than bread-and-butter issues:

Freedom and democracy for Iran is the main (if not the sole) slogan of these Don Quixotes.  This is such a middle-class (or even upper-middle-class) slogan.  Before anything else, the working people need jobs, living wages, affordable healthcare, and free education for their children.  Of course, if you point out to our “leftists” that the Monarchists or the counterrevolutionary Cuban gusanos also operate under the same slogan, they respond: “Naturally, our understanding of freedom and democracy is much deeper than theirs”; or, “We really mean what we say, but they don’t.”

Now despite comrade Pouya and Furuhashi’s sneering at democracy, most of us understand democratic rights as a means to the end of a living wage. Without the right to organize a trade union, an elementary democratic right, a living wage is pretty hard to come by. The workers at Khodro, Iran’s largest car manufacturer went on a hunger strike lately to demand better wages and conditions. They called for:

  • Prohibited entry of security guards to workstations;
  • An end to mandatory over-time;
  • Increases in productivity benefits;
  • Wage increases in line with cost of living adjustments;
  • An end to temporary contracts allowing for the hiring of workers on a permanent basis;
  • An end to the expansion of subcontracting companies; and
  • Participation of workers’ representatives in key decision making committees.

These same workers also backed the protests against Ahmadinejad, in clear defiance of MRZine’s edict that workers not ally themselves with “leftist” friends of the CIA and George Soros.

But despite Pouya’s tendency to associate democracy and freedom with everything evil, that’s not quite the way that Lenin saw it. In “What is to be Done”, Lenin advocated a much different approach:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

Can you imagine that? Lenin getting worked up over the right to publish “obscene” publications and pictures? Didn’t he know that when artists or intellectuals are told “how to dress and behave in public”, they should straighten up and fly right? After all, the state has the right to enforce morality or else we’ll end up with a bunch of unruly, impious people rioting in the streets. The only thing these enemies of Islamic (or Christian) order will understand is a truncheon and a swift kick in the teeth.

As contrary to Marxism all of this hostility to democratic rights is, it pales in comparison to Pouya’s account of the failings of the Iranian left inside the country. Everything is reduced to the left’s failure to do “grass roots” organizing:

The unfortunate truth is that, in contrast to these “revolutionary” Marxists’ intimations and inferences, there really are no organized leftist or Marxist groups inside Iran rallying workers, students, or other sectors of the Iranian society. Contrary to such claims, I suggest that, since the 1953 CIA coup which toppled the democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, there has been no successful effort on the part of the Iranian Left to engage in grassroots organizing (with some minor exceptions), and that Iranian leftist intellectuals, by virtue of their class roots in my opinion, have no idea what grassroots organizing is and have little understanding of the interests, needs, or desires of the Iranian working masses.

Furthermore, Khomeini and his followers succeeded because, unlike the leftists, “the religious forces, on the other hand, were able to conduct serious grassroots organizing and win power.”

You’ll notice that Pouya reduces everything to the ability to do “grassroots organizing” as if the 1300 year history of Islam in Iran and the willingness of the Shah to allow the mosques relative freedom are beside the point. He also ignores the fact that the Shi’ite clerics took part in the overthrow of Mossadegh, something that might undermine the case he is making for clerical rule.

But the worst thing about his muddled history is that it fails to mention the biggest failing of the guerrilla groups, as well as the Tudeh Party (official Communist Party), and that was adaptation to the clerics, the same line that he is advancing today. Fortunately, one of the best histories of this period can be read at least partially on Google Books. Written by Maziar Behrooz, “Rebels with a Cause: the Failure of the Left in Iran” is must reading for those on the left today who are bamboozled by charlatans like Bizhan Pouya.

Although parts of the book can be read on Google, unfortunately you cannot read the passages which hold the various left groups up to close scrutiny. However, there is an article by Behrooz that can be read online that contains the same material on the Fadayan, one of the main guerrilla groups, that appears in the book. It was titled “Iran’s Fadayan 1971-1988: a case study in Iranian Marxism” and appeared in the 1990 “Jusür”, an Iranian journal.

The Fadayan was a small military/political organization that had over 500,000 supporters around the country in 1979. It was made up exactly of those middle-class intellectuals that Pouya derided but its class composition did not differ radically from the July 26th Movement at its inception or Lenin’s Bolsheviks for that matter. Its inability to transcend its rather narrow social base must be studied by the left in order to avoid the same kinds of mistakes in the future.

The Fadayan can best be described as Debrayist and had much in common with the urban guerrilla groups operating in Latin America. They sought to be a “detonator” that would facilitate broader political change and to an extent they were vindicated on this. Along with other armed groups, they definitely accelerated the decomposition of the monarchy. Ideologically, they had Maoist leanings but lacked any formal connections to Beijing.

With the overthrow of the Shah, groups such as the Fadayan could finally come out in the open and help organize the mass movement. They were in a unique position to lead since they were the largest Marxist group outside of the Tudeh Party. Almost immediately, the Fadayan was divided along factional lines, one group favoring confrontation with Khomeini who had openly stated his goals in creating a theocracy and the other—a majority–favoring the same kind of position on display in MRZine today.

One of the first confrontations with the Islamic government took place in Turkman Sahra where peasants’ councils had emerged. The Fadayan, notwithstanding Pouya’s allegation that the Iranian left had never taken part in grassroots struggles, found itself in the leadership of these councils. Unfortunately, the struggle in the Turkman Sahra region was far more advanced than in the rest of Iran and the Fadayan leaders became isolated. Four top council members and Fadayan leaders were murdered in Tehran during negotiations with Khomeini’s lieutenants. This, of course, was consistent with the Islamic Republic’s hostility to sweeping land reform. The majority faction in the Fadayan decided to back down from defending the councils after this attack, while the minority advocated continued struggle. Eventually, the minority split and formed a new organization based on the need for revolutionary socialist opposition to Islamic rule.

The majority group argued that the Islamic republic was petty bourgeois in character and, therefore, progressive and anti-imperialist. The IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran) was viewed as passing through a non-capitalist path towards socialism under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini and therefore deserved support. In other words, the same kind of confusion existed back in the early 1980s over whether Iran was like Venezuela.

Ultimately, the line of the Fadayan converged with that of the Tudeh Party that had capitulated totally to the IRI. The Tudeh newspapers were filled with glowing accounts of how Ayatollah Khomeini was resisting imperialism. It anticipated a growing rapprochement between Iran and the USSR, in clear violation of Marxist politics as well as common sense.

Under the pressure of the powerful Islamic state apparatus, the Fadayan continued to fragment. While the only course that made sense was along the lines of independent class action, the Maoist training of its leaders persuaded it to continue along the fruitless path of intra-class alliances with the bazaari bourgeoisie and the clerics.

By 1981, freedom for the Marxist left had come to an end in Iran. Repression plus a failure to come to terms with the class nature of the clerical regime led to one crisis after another. The majority group continued to support the policies of the IRI, including suppression of the Kurdish minority. In August 1981, the leadership issued a statement to the ranks calling upon them to help root out the “counter-revolution”, which included the Kurds. Their support for the government’s chauvinist policies won them a letter of appreciation from Colonel Sayyad-Shirazi who was leading military efforts against the Kurds.

When a pro-Kurd leftist group attacked and occupied the city of Amol, the majority group had this to say:

The Iranian People’s Fadayan (Majority) and the forces of the Tudeh Party of Iran, from the early moments of the attack by counter-revolutionary intruders, participated, shoulder to shoulder with the people, the Basij, and the security forces, in their suppression and defeat.

It should be obvious at this point that the Fadayan majority was guided by the same suicidal logic put forward by MRZine, which fortunately has no influence in Iran today except with the theocratic rulers who reprinted one of their pro-Ahmadinejad pieces in the official press agency website in the same spirit as Colonel Sayyad-Shirazi tipping his cap to the Fadayan majority in 1981.

July 30, 2009

George Russell: one of the greats, dead at 86

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 6:50 pm
NY Times, July 30, 2009

George Russell, Composer Whose Theories Sent Jazz in a New Direction, Dies at 86


George Russell, a jazz composer, educator and musician whose theories led the way to radical changes in jazz in the 1950s and ’60s, died on Monday in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. He was 86 and lived in Boston.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, Alice.

Though he largely operated behind the scenes and was never well known to the general public, Mr. Russell was a major figure in one of the most important developments in post-World War II jazz: the emergence of modal jazz, the first major harmonic change in the music after bebop.

Bebop, the modern style pioneered by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others, had introduced a new level of harmonic sophistication, based on rapidly moving cycles of dense and sometimes dissonant chords. Modal jazz, as popularized by Miles Davis and John Coltrane, sought to give musicians more freedom and to simplify the harmonic playing field by, in essence, replacing chords with scales as the primary basis for improvisation.

Mr. Russell explained the concept in great detail in a book that came to be considered the bible of modal jazz, “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation.” Conceived during bouts with tuberculosis in the 1940s, the book was originally self-published in 1953 and published as a book six years later. A final revised edition was published as Volume 1 in 2001; Mr. Russell had been working on a second volume.

Mr. Russell’s concept could be difficult for readers to absorb. “When you are trying to communicate a new theory of music,” he told The New York Times in 1983, “the whole fight is to put the sentences together so that other people understand them. Sometimes, when I read them back, I don’t understand them.”

full article:  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/30/arts/music/30russell.html

Yanomami Science Wars, part four

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

What Napoleon Chagnon believed

Although it is brief article (7 ½ pages, including 42 footnotes), Napoleon Chagnon’s “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population” has the merit of encapsulating all the themes that would make him famous in anthropological circles. Since it appeared in the February 26, 1988 issue of Science Magazine, a publication that is behind a subscriber’s firewall, I have made it available at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/chagnon.pdf as well.

Because I plan to summarize some of the best-known opposition to Chagnon’s theories in subsequent posts, it only makes sense to establish first what he stood for. He begins by making a distinction between his own approach and more traditional views that centered on the struggle to control scarce food resources:

Violence is a potent force in human society and may be the principal driving force behind the evolution of culture (1). For two reasons, anthropologists find it difficult to explain many aspects of human violence. First, although ethnographic reports are numerous, data on how much violence occurs and the variables that relate to it are available from only a few primitive societies. Second, many anthropologists tend to treat warfare as a phenomenon that occurs independently of other forms of violence in the same group. However, duels may lead to deaths which, in turn, may lead to community fissioning and then to retaliatory killings by members of the two now-independent communities. As a result many restrict the search for the causes of the war to issues over which whole groups might contest-such as access to rich land, productive hunting regions, and scarce resources-and, hence, view primitive warfare as being reducible solely to contests over scarce or dwindling material resources (2). Such views fail to take into account the developmental sequences of conflicts and the multiplicity of causes, especially sexual jealousy, accusations of sorcery, and revenge killings, in each step of conflict escalation.

For Chagnon, the real source of violence is the male struggle for control over females rather than food. Since his theory (as we shall see) rests on the assumptions that the Yanomami enjoyed an ample supply of food in the rainforest, the only explanation for “warfare” is a fundamentalist Darwinian struggle for the survival of one’s genetic material. As Chagnon puts it:

Specifically… the mechanisms that constitute organisms were designed by selection to promote survival and reproduction in the environments of evolutionary adaptedness. This implies that organisms living in such environments can be generally expected to act in ways that promote survival and reproduction or, as many biologists now state it, their inclusive fitnesses…

If you want to understand this by analogy, think in terms of a chimpanzee band in the middle of Africa that is in close proximity to an ample supply of food. But no matter how much food there is, the male chimpanzees will fight for dominance in the pack since that assures that his genes will have the best chance to propagate the species. After all, the genes of the best fighters will be of the most use in breeding a chimp troupe that can survive its enemies in the wild. So for Chagnon this is the best way to understand the Yanomami. If this seems far-fetched, it must be understood that this is the core belief of sociobiology that finds expression in Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” (i.e., homo sapiens). Like Chagon who he acknowledges, Diamond views warfare as rooted in our genes—or perhaps man’s need to spread his genes.

The bulk of the article consists of Chagnon’s data in support of his theory. Most of it is pretty much along the lines of:

The number of (living) unokais [killers] in the current population is 137, 132 of whom are estimated to be 25 or older, and represent 44% of the men age 25 or older (15). A retrospective perusal of the data indicates that this has generally been the case in those villages whose unokais have not killed someone during the past 5 years. I have recorded 282 violent deaths during 23 years of studies of villages in the region under consideration , deaths that occurred sometime during the past 50 to 60 years. These include victims who were residents of villages in this area or victims from immediately adjacent areas killed by residents or now-deceased former residents of the groups considered here. Of these 282 violent deaths, the number of victims of living unokais is 153. These victims were killed during approximately the past 35 years. All the unokais come from the villages under discussion, but not all of the victims do; some are from villages in adjacent areas beyond the focus of my field studies.

If you skip ahead to the Discussion section of Chagnon’s article, you will find him once again restating the sociobiological premises of the article without ever using the word sociobiology. Despite his reluctance to use the term, there is little doubt that this trend sees him as a member in good standing, if not a founding figure.

A number of problems are presented by these data. First, high reproductive success among unokais is probably caused by a number of factors, and it is not clear what portion might be due to their motivation to seek violent retribution when a kinsman is killed. I can only speculate about the mechanisms that link a high reproductive success with unokai status, but I can cast doubt on some logical possibilities. For example, it is known that high male reproductive success among the Yanomamo correlates with membership in large descent groups. If unokais come disproportionately from these groups, that might explain the data: both could be caused by a third variable. But unokais do not come disproportionately from larger descent groups. The three largest patrilineal descent groups among the Yanomamo considered here include 49.4% of the population, but only 48.9% of the unokais. The four largest descent groups include 55.9% of the population but only 55.5% of the unokais.

Second, it is possible that many men strive to be unokais but die trying and that the apparent higher fertility of those who survive may be achieved at an extraordinarily high mortality rate. In other words, men who do not engage in violence might have a lower risk of mortality due to violence and produce more offspring on average than men who tried to be unokais. This explanation would be supported by data indicating that a disproportionate fraction of the victims of violence were unokais. The data do not appear to lend support to this possibility. Of 15 recent killings, four of the victims were females: there are no female unokais. Nine of the males were under 30 years of age, of whom four were under an estimated 25 years of age. Although I do not have the unokai histories of these individuals, their ages at death and the political histories of their respective villages at the time they were killed suggest that few, if any of them, were unokais. Also, recent wars in two other regions of the study area resulted in the deaths of approximately 15 additional individuals, many of whom were very young men who were unlikely to have been unokais.

Leaving aside the sociobiology that these paragraphs fairly reek of, there is of course the question of Chagnon’s data. As so often happens in academia, there is a tendency to cherry-pick if not fabricate data to support your theory. In subsequent posts—devoted to Chagnon’s critics—this question will certainly come up.

July 28, 2009

“The Yes Men Fix the World”; “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:15 pm

I received this comment on my “Brüno” review:

http://theyesmenfixtheworld.com/ may be more to your liking. I imagine you’re familiar with these, shall we say, more principled pranksters. Looks like a little bigger budget than the last one about them.

Thanks for a good review. I saw it a few nights ago for similar reasons, and had pretty much the same reaction. Juvenile gross-out jokes and shooting fat fish in a barrel. yawn.

Almost on cue, “The Yes Men Fix the World” aired last night on HBO. The Yes Men are a collective of about 300 people led by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno who have been doing for the past 15 years or so what Sasha Baron Cohen only does on occasion and only lamely: using false identities to expose the rich and the powerful. Here’s the trailer for “Yes Men Fix the World”:

They are best known for setting up a phony website for Dow Chemical, which had recently absorbed Union Carbide, the chemical company responsible for the deaths of over 5000 people in Bhopal, India. Despite its obvious phoniness (“What every company must know: disaster is often prosperity by another name”), the website served as a lure for people in the communications business to get Dow’s side of the story, including a BBC interview that reached over 300 million viewers worldwide.

The BBC’s worldwide reputation for accuracy took a blow yesterday after it broadcast an interview with a hoaxer who claimed to offer a $ 12bn settlement to the 120,000 surviving victims of the Bhopal disaster.

Hopes were raised in India when the BBC’s international news channel, BBC World, interviewed a man identified as a representative of Dow Chemical, which now runs the Bhopal plant after taking over Union Carbide.

He said Dow accepted full responsibility for the world’s worst industrial disaster, which has claimed the lives of 20,000 people over the past 20 years, and left many more with chronic health problems.

But it soon emerged that Jude Finisterra was a hoaxer who has targeted Dow Chemical in the past. His interview, which was picked up and reported internationally, was shown twice on BBC World, and on BBC television and radio in Britain, before it was pulled.

“Today I am very, very happy to announce that today, for the first time Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe. This is a momentous occasion,” he said in the live interview. In public, the BBC said it had moved “swiftly” to correct the mistake and stressed it had been the victim of an “elaborate” hoax.

It condemned the actions of Mr Finisterra as a “tasteless publicity stunt”. But in private, some BBC journalists expressed surprise that the hoax was not identified more quickly: the apology seemed extraordinary because Dow maintains that it has “no responsibility” for Bhopal.

–Guardian, December 4, 2004

“The Yes Men Fix the World” is not yet available in home video and is scheduled for general theatrical release later in the year. But you can rent their 2003 documentary “The Yes Men” that has a lot of the same material, I am sure. Here’s the Youtube trailer for that flick:

* * * *

I caught “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?” on the Sundance Channel just before the HBO Yes Men flick aired. This 2007 documentary, available from Netflix, tells the story of Teri Horton, a retired 73 year old truck driver who lived in a California trailer park, and who bought a painting from a thrift shop for $5 that may be have been a Jackson Pollock.

All in all, she reminded me of the grandmother in “Napoleon Dynamite,” a feisty, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed survivor of poverty and family tragedy who could not be more different from the art world aristocracy that insisted that the painting was a fraud. Timothy Hoving, the former curator at the Metropolitan Museum and an insufferable snob, keeps insisting that the painting is not the real thing since it lacks “provenance”. For those who watch “Antique Roadshow” on PBS, the term will be familiar. It means documents–such as a bill of sale–that establish an artwork or antique’s pedigree. In the case of Teri Horton’s painting, there is none.

That is, none except for a thumbprint on the canvas that turns out to be identical to one that is found in Pollock’s studio on Long Island. This was discovered by a forensics expert hired by Horton. The art aristocracy refuses to accept the legitimacy of the thumbprint, even though it might have been sufficient to land somebody in prison for the commission of a crime. The art world seems to live by its own standards—that is really the message of this movie.

A NY Times profile on Horton concludes with this highly revealing exchange:

Interviewed over drinks in the back booth of a bar near her hotel on Tuesday, Ms. Horton was clearly having fun in her now-enlarged role as self-appointed scourge of high-dollar high culture, which she calls “the art-world conglomerate conspiracy.” She said, though, that she remained completely confident that she would see herself vindicated, and that she would sell her painting at her price — no less than $50 million — within her lifetime.

And if that does not happen?

She clicked a long, lacquered fingernail on the tabletop.

“Before I let them take advantage of me,” she said, smiling broadly, “I’ll burn that son of a bitch.”

July 26, 2009


Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

Last night my wife and I went to see “Brüno”. I went more out of a sense of duty to my chosen avocation of leftist film critic than any expectation that I would find the movie amusing or progressive. I suppose its failure as comedy is not hardwired to its questionable social message, but all in all it was not a pleasant experience. About half the audience guffawed at the crude jokes that carried the movie along, but the movie has been a flop at the box office, largely a function of negative word of mouth, including via Twitter.

This morning as I was mulling over what I would say about “Brüno”, a profile of Sarah Silverman was airing on CBS Morning News. My wife, who is not familiar with Silverman, chuckled at her jokes, which are largely efforts in poor taste delivered in faux naïf style. Here’s a typical Silverman joke:

My genes are poisoned, and I know that for a fact. My sister Laura is the family historian, you know, and she found out — we’re Russian and Polish, ya know, Jews — she found out that the village that our great-great-great-grandmother came from in Russia was raped and pillaged by — and I don’t even know what pillaged means, but definitely raped — by Mongolians. So I’m, I am part Mongolian rapist.

I explained to my wife that Sasha Baron Cohen’s brand of humor is identical to Silverman’s. It is an attempt to derive humor through outrageous situations and by flouting good taste. In Cohen’s case, there is a pretense that this has something to do with social commentary; with Silverman, it is just an attempt to develop a career. Of course, Cohen’s major interest all along has been identical although one has to wonder what kind of career is in store for him after this latest turkey of a movie.

Interestingly enough, I found that I made the same connection to Silverman in my review of “Borat” from March 2007:

In an interesting article that appears in This Magazine, Pike Wright compares Sasha Cohen favorably to Sarah Silverman, another Jewish comedian who has achieved some notoriety for “political incorrectness”:

During an appearance on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 2002, Silverman recounted how a friend had advised her to avoid jury duty by writing a racial slur on the selection form—“something really inappropriate, like ‘I hate Chinks.’” Instead, sugary-sweet Silverman explained how she wrote “I love Chinks” because she didn’t want to be considered a racist. An Asian-American media watchdog group protested the use of the slur until the network apologized. Silverman did not.

So does she really think it is OK to say Chink? Silverman never breaks character by smiling at her own outrageousness (as in, “Oh my, did I just say that aloud?”), so we’re left wondering who the real Silverman is. Unlike Cohen, her act intentionally cultivates this ambivalence. If we knew, we could decide if her act is full of racist jokes or full of jokes about racism. Couldn’t we?

If the whole premise of “Brüno” is to expose the homophobia of a backward American population, an easy target if there ever was one, the movie does not really deliver the goods. Oddly enough, the most ostensibly bigoted characters seem rather tolerant all in all, despite the provocations of the lead character.

In one scene, as Brüno is embarked on a self-help mission to become straight, he goes on a hunting trip with three men from the rural south who look for all the world like the ones who killed the gay youth Matthew Shepard. But try as he may, he elicits very little in the way of hate speech or behavior. As the four are sitting around a campfire under the stars, Brüno asks them how much they remind themselves of the girls in “Sex in the City”. They really do not take his bait and most likely regard him as an oddball that they will have to put up for a while rather than a threat to their heterosexual identity.

Brüno escalates his provocations by attempting twice to invite himself into one of the men’s tent in the middle of the night, as if in “Brokeback Mountain”. The second time he shows up completely naked. The man says something like “Go away, you queer” but that’s about it.  If that were the extent of homophobia in the U.S., there would not be much need for a gay movement. If anything, the people who are “punked” by Brüno and by Borat before him are pinnacles of tolerance no matter how outrageous Cohen behaves. In “Borat”, when he is at a dinner party in the South, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom. Moments later he returns with a box of his own feces. His hosts take this in stride, assuming that they are dealing with somebody lacking in social graces rather than a movie star trying to provoke people into a state of rage for the benefit of his cameras. If this is satire, it is really pretty toothless.

Another object of Cohen’s supposedly fearless satiric instincts is celebrity worship and the hunger for fame as personified by the Brüno character that comes to Hollywood to make it big in the movies. One has to wonder if this is an unconscious projection of Cohen’s own ambitions as he has plotted out his own ascent to stardom. All this has been orchestrated carefully by his PR team but in a way to make it appear that he rejects being accepted by the tastemakers of the world.

The most notable example was his appearance at the MTV awards when he stuck his bare ass in Eminem’s face, after being dropped into the lap of the has-been white rapper from overhead cables. Afterwards Eminem and his posse stormed out of the auditorium, thus providing fodder for all the stupid show business TV shows the next day. It turned out that the entire event was staged as a publicity stunt. This foreshadowed the movie in many ways since most of the outrageous stunts performed by Cohen were done with the cooperation and foreknowledge of various straight people in on the jokes—such as they were. All of this reeks of the kind of phoniness that the “edgy” entertainer supposedly disdains.

Finally, a word on the “fashionistas” being satirized by Brüno, who is represented as the host of a fashion show on Austrian TV when the movie begins. If the Southerners in “Borat” were easy targets for Cohen, the models and designers who crop up in the latest movie are even fatter fish to shoot in the barrel. When he gets some model to state that walking down a runway is “difficult” or persuades some designer to show his pubic hair, the audience gets a cheap laugh.

I have a different take on people in the fashion industry, largely out of input from my wife who teaches at Fashion Institute, one of the most prestigious schools preparing people for the garment industry in New York. She says that despite their desire to crack into an industry without any redeeming features, they are as sensitive and idealistic as kids preparing for any other profession.  They are for peace and for social justice in overwhelming numbers. And, just as importantly, they see designing clothes as an outlet for artistic impulses that might never have gotten an opportunity to be expressed in the highly competitive fine art markets. Frankly, I would rather spend a few hours of my time with any of these kids than the insufferable Sasha Baron Cohen.

July 25, 2009

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson: flunkies for Ahmadinejad

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm


Edward S. Herman

David Peterson

Over on MRZine you can read a 10,000-word attack by Edward S. Herman and his writing partner David Peterson directed at a statement on Iran made by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy.  It is an application of a methodology that has by now become so familiar. Identify the latest target of American destabilization and then try to burnish the reputation of the government under siege. The CPD is the perfect foil for Herman and Peterson since it has a sorry “third camp” record inspired ideologically by leader Joanne Landy’s guru, the late Julius Jacobson. Jacobson put out “New Politics” for many years, a journal with a seething hatred for anything connected with the USSR. So by targeting the CPD, the job is much easier than it would be if they had to deal with the Iranian leftists in exile who are much harder to stigmatize as tools of the U.S. State Department. Indeed, if you go through their 47 footnotes, you will find none that cites an Iranian leftist, a rather breathtaking example of the use of blinders.

The article consists, as might be expected, of one example after another of U.S. meddling in Iranian politics. One paragraph should suffice to show what they are about:

The CPD ignores the existence, let alone the impact, of multiple, large, and overlapping governmental and nongovernmental programs devoted to developing the media and expertise necessary for “democratic movements” in other countries, and to “strengthen the bond between indigenous democratic movements abroad and the people of the United States,” as the National Endowment for Democracy describes its mission.  Despite President Obama’s semi-apologetic admission in his speech at Cairo University the week before Iran’s election that the United States once “played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” USA Today reports that “The Obama administration is moving forward with plans to fund groups that support Iranian dissidents, . . . continuing a program that became controversial when it was expanded by President Bush.”  Part of the purpose of the $15 million Near Eastern Regional Democracy Initiative, a Senate Appropriations committees spokesman told USA Today, “is to expand access to information and communications through the Internet for Iranians.

The other goal of the article is to refute the idea that the elections were rigged. It repeats a number of points that were made early on, including a Western poll that reflected preference for Ahmadinejad. In my view, both things can be true. The elections were marred by fraud and Ahmadinejad was favored by a majority of voters. But the basic flaw in approaching the Iranian elections in this manner is that it accepts the existing parameters. In other words, it assumes that democracy exists because voters had a choice between a “populist” like Ahmadinejad and a “reformist” like Mousavi. They have their own 2-party system over there as well. Why an American leftist would get caught up arguing for the lesser evil over there beggars the imagination.

In Iran the Guardian Council, an unelected body, has the power to disqualify candidates who do not pass their religious/political litmus test. While voters could have chosen from 6 candidates in the latest election, they were out of luck if they preferred one of the 475 others that the clerics had excluded including 42 women. This of course does not even address the question of socialist or secular politicians who are barred from participating openly in Iranian politics. The revolt that began in June might have been sparked by anger over perceived charges of fraud, but they soon evolved into a challenge to the clerical system as a whole. Unfortunately for the street protesters, they will not be accepted as legitimate by characters like James Petras or Edward S. Herman as long as there is a single NGO funded by George Soros or a CIA agent on the ground in Iran that is still functioning.

Herman and Peterson’s methodology only works if you reduce the playing field to imperialist states and those that are under attack from imperialism. As such, these Znet geniuses are analogous in some ways to the Guardian Council in Iran which also decides who gets to play in politics or not. So you are bus drivers in Tehran trying to form a union? Sorry, Herman and Peterson have no interest in your plight as long as George Soros or Freedom House issues statements on your behalf. The implied prescription for the Iranian left is just to disappear, since they give aid and comfort to the “reformist” politicians who are clearly pawns of American imperialism.

There was a time when I identified with what Edward S. Herman was up to politically. During the war in the Balkans, I made the same kinds of points and still feel that they needed to be made for if you compare Ahmadinejad to Milosevic, there is no contest. It is sometimes forgotten that Belgrade had a lively political culture and that Milosevic abided by election results that required a run-off. It was the opposition candidate supported by U.S. imperialism who decided to organize a coup rather than take part in an election in which his victory was not assured. This is not to speak of the economic questions involved with the Serbs trying desperately to hold the crumbling edifice of Titoism together while it was being pounded by Western banks, sanctions, and bombs. The project eventually collapsed because the relationship of forces was so overwhelmingly against it, mirroring what had happened to Sandinista Nicaragua some years earlier. None of this has anything to do with Iran, however, a country whose current government descended from a clerical coup in the early 1980s that had as much animosity toward the left as NATO and the U.S. State Department. Thousands of leftists were murdered, jailed or tortured for simply defending the types of property relations that existed in Tito’s Yugoslavia. The fact that American imperialism resented Iranian control over precious oil resources was sufficient in some circles on the left to give the reactionary clerics a stamp of approval.

It took me a while to figure out that the “anti-imperialist” methodology was lacking, but I owe it to Jared Israel, the creator of the Emperor’s Clothes website, to help me crystallize my thinking. When he was on the Marxism mailing list, he began defending Putin’s war on the Chechens along the same lines as Serb intervention in Kosovo. It was a pretty mechanical exercise, dredging up all the reactionaries who had backed the Chechens in much the same way that Herman and Peterson ferret out tarnished backers of the “Green revolution” in Iran.

It was, of course, the same story in Zimbabwe. You could always find sanctimonious statements on behalf of the domestic opposition there, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, the Mousavi of Zimbabwe. As is the case in Iran, revolutionaries were forced to operate within a limited political space. In the best of all worlds, the Movement for Democracy would have called for land reform rather than opposing it. It would have rejected IMF style neoliberalism, as well. But given the crushing weight of Mugabe’s armed forces and cops, all serving to prop up a deeply corrupt system cloaked in “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, work inside the MDC had to be considered by the Zimbabwean left. Since revolutions almost always involve wresting more and more space for the working class to operate as an independent force, Marxists must consider struggles for greater parliamentary freedom even though our goal is not a parliamentary system. Lenin fought for a more representative Duma in Czarist Russia even though his final goal was to supersede it with workers councils, called Soviets.

On the Greenleft mailing list, there was a comment from Pakistani leftist Farooq Sulehria that caught my eye. It really captured the dynamics of this kind of struggle for democratic rights:

Like any social movement on mass scale, we see convergence of interests. Hence, rivals joining hands (Rafsanjani and Mousavi in fact Rafsanjani was pivotal in helping Khomenai get present position of strength).

The problem is: official Iranian media, official opposition (so called reformists) and western media reduced the whole movement to election fraud.

Yes, it became a pretext. Like recently in Pakistan, democracy movement unfolded by a highly unlikely event i.e. forced retirement of highest judge by General Musharraf. What started as a movement for the restoration of this judge, finally made Musharraf resign. And from day one, this movement was a movement for democracy and not for a single judge regardless what colour every participant was giving it. From far left to orthodox islamists as well as Bhutto’s party (at one stage) joined this movement.

This is what we need to understand. Many say, in Iran, they are seeking cover behind Mousavi. But with the passage of time, slogan raised is: death to dictator (and dictator is grant ayotollah) and a slogan from 1979 (with a slant): Ahmedinejad Pinochet, this is not Chile.

July 24, 2009

Yanomami Science Wars, part 3

Filed under: Yanomami — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

Yanomami film documentaries

Documentaries about the Yanomami became a hot commodity not long after Napoleon Chagnon and Jacques Lizot established beachheads in the Amazon rainforest. Since they were one of the few peoples in the world who lived in primitive conditions, as opposed to the modern primitives who used B-52’s, there was a big market for films that depicted their reality. The question as to whether this was the documentary maker’s reality or that of the indigenous peoples remained open.

Chagnon decided to make movies based on the model of Robert Gardner whose “Dead Birds” documentary on Papua New Guinea warfare became an instant classic. In Gardner’s movie, you actually saw people being killed but in Chagnon it only occurs off-screen. For example, in “The Feast”, a documentary about two villages coming together in a military alliance cemented by the exchange of food and gifts, Chagnon announces as the movie concludes that they went to another village and killed a woman.

It is no coincidence that both the Papua New Guinea highlands and the Yamomami villages were the subjects of documentaries with an identical focus. Anthropologists, either professional like Chagnon or amateur like Jared Diamond, with a sociobiological bent see these two areas as overflowing with confirmation of their Hobbesian analysis.

Chagnon initially approached Gardner to work with him on a film, but was told to contact Timothy Asch instead. Chagnon and Asch went on to make a number of films together that became staples in anthropology classrooms. Unfortunately, “The Feast” is not online but you can watch a trailer here.

You can watch “The Ax Fight” below, however:

This is 12 minutes of mayhem with males beating each other with staffs at first and then escalating to machetes and axes. Nobody is actually wounded, however. The final minute or two consists of a Yanomami woman cursing out the visiting villagers who have provoked their wrath. Originally, Chagnon explained the violence as arising over an act of incest but discovered subsequently that he had mistranslated the Yanomami word yawaremou as sexual incest when it really meant something like improper behavior toward a blood relative. The final seconds of the movie acknowledge this misunderstanding but not quite in terms of Chagnon’s lack of linguistic expertise.

The improper behavior in this particular instance was a young man hitting his aunt who had refused to give him some plantains, an altogether less dramatic violation than incest to be sure.

All in all, the documentary has the lurid quality of a “Cops” episode on Fox-TV, with one group of neighbors cursing out another group over perhaps a dog crapping on their lawn. Since there are no cops in the Amazon rainforest, the clear implication is that the violence could have escalated into homicide.

A few years after the movie was made, Chagon developed a new explanation for the conflict, one more in line with his sociobiological theories. One group of disputants was composed of individuals more closely related to each other than that of the other group. Family ties, you see, were critical just like with Tony Soprano. Chagnon drew upon the skills of a mathematician who mapped out their genetic connections like something out of a calculus seminar.

Timothy Asch, who was not political at all, never felt comfortable with “The Ax Fight” even though it was one of his most famous films. He thought that the whole thing was staged by Chagnon who promised the Yanomami trade goods like machetes and pots and pans in exchange for whooping it up.

In an interview, Asch said:

You know the joy of “The Ax Fight” is that because Chagnon was so stuck in simple theories that, right away, the film became a real joke. It is funny with its simplistic, straightjacketed, one-sided explanation…I was feeling, you know, halfway into making the film, this great suspicion of the whole field beginning to fall apart before my eyes as I was putting “The Ax Fight” together. I had a powerful piece of material and it was suddenly looking kind of foolish… I felt it was a little bit like a gargoyle at Chartres…one of those strange things that stick out and you way, what’s this?

One Yanomami villager named Gustavo Konoko, who was an adolescent when the film was made, reflected back on the events that day. He says that Chagnon paid them a machete, a knife and some red cloth to start “una pelea horemu”, or fake fight–kind of like professional wrestling. Tierney quotes Konoko:

He [Chagnon] said, “Fight with poles! We’re going to film, and then I’ll pay you. I’ll give you whatever you want.” When he said that, many young men bloodied each other, playing. “Hit each other! Be fierce! Argue! When the young men play, let the women begin to scream at them.” That’s what he said.

After Tierney’s book was published, Chagnon and his defenders attempted to spin the film’s meaning in a more pacifist direction. They claimed that the ax fight was not a sign of violence but of the Yanomami’s ability to blow off steam, hence staving off a more bloody conflict. If this was the intention, it clearly failed based on the impression it made on anthropology students. Student surveys found that a large majority saw “The Ax Fight” as a traditional chronicle of savagery. A sophomore at USC reacted this way:

The only thing I know about the Yanomami is that they act on their raw passions. They are very primitive people. It seems that they don’t even think before they act. They are very violent people that just go raiding other villages. They take drugs and they freak out on drugs, and on drugs they’ve been know to attack people.

Using more elevated language, of course, this is exactly the impression that Napoleon Chagnon sought to convey.

In April 1996 PBS premiered a documentary titled “Warriors of the Amazon” on Nova. Directed by Andy Jillings, it was an attempt to create an alternative to Chagnon’s documentaries on Yanomami fierceness. A shorter version of the show can be seen in 7 parts on Youtube under the title “Spirits of the Rainforest”. Part one appears below, but it is missing the audio for some reason. It is also necessary to scan forward about 10 seconds to get the video going. For some reason, the other 6 parts work just fine.

As it turns out, the village featured in the documentary was the one presided over by the sexual predator Jacques Lizot. Understandably, he was not part of the documentary but he is credited as a consultant. While Lizot was clear that the village had not been involved in hostilities with other villages for a very long time, he was not averse to staging a feast with a visiting village that played up the ritualistic combat dances that typify Yanomami fierceness. Nova provided an introductory monologue to the movie that begins, “This is the world of the Yanomami; it is a world marked by aggression and revenge.” It was also marked by “the threat of warfare” that requires their men to “go off and fight two or three times a year”.

When Tierney arrived in Yanomami-land, he tracked down the village in order to verify what takes place in the movie. In fact, the village was involved in nearly no killings between 1968 and 1976. After that it got drawn into a war between Chagnon’s village and another village ruled by Lizot. (More about that to come.)

Basically, the film crew induced the villagers to perform “fiercely” on camera in exchange for trade goods and even cash. Since these Indians were fairly well acculturated, the cash made sense. To make the movie seem realistic, it was necessary to get them to go about naked. Up until the filming, people tended to wear clothing bought at missionary stores.

If you watch the movie closely, you will notice a number of the men and women coughing. As it happens, the village was ravaged by disease—including the common cold—that they had no resistance to. During this period, when gold miners and film crews were flooding remote areas where no immunity existed to various infectious diseases, the Indians were suffering the same fate as their North American brothers and sisters in the 18th and 19th centuries. In one key scene a young woman dies from an unnamed illness and is burned at a pyre in a touching ritual. As sensitive as Jillings was to native concerns, the filming of a burial ritual went against their traditions. They don’t allow snapshots let alone filming at such events.

July 23, 2009

Iranian government takes note of MRZine support

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 12:01 am

posted as a comment on MRZine by Ramin:

“Monthly Review Reported: Collaboration of Iranian capitalists, Americans, and Zionists against Ahamadinejad.”

This the headline of today’s front page of the Islamic Republic News Agency’s website that is the voice of Ahmadinejad government. What follows is the Farsi translation of a long excerpt of Phil Wilayto’s article, together with his picture, currently posted on MRZine.

Who would have thought that Ahamadinejad government would one day resort to an article on “Monthly Review” to justify its legitimacy? Let’s hope anyone who has ever been in trouble with respect to Monthly Review in Iran, receives an official pardon. Good job Yoshie. Keep posting to make “Monthly Review” a household name in Iran.


July 21, 2009

Sociobiology in the Nation Magazine

Filed under: evolutionary psychology — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

(I recalled that I had written about sociobiology in the Nation Magazine some years ago before I began blogging. In light of what I have been writing about the Yanomami science wars and to complement an excellent review of “André Pichot’s The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler” on Lenin’s Tomb, I thought it would be appropriate to recycle them now.)

Barbara Ehrenreich on war

(I do not know when this was posted)

I guess I have gotten used to how bad the Nation magazine has become, but every once in a while I run into something so rancid that I have to pause and catch my breath. This was the case with a review by DSA leader Barbara Ehrenreich of 3 books on war. This review was accompanied by a review by Susan Faludi of Ehrenreich’s new book on war titled “Blood Rites”. All this prose is dedicated to the proposition that large-scale killing has been around as long as homo sapiens has been around and that it has nothing much to do with economic motives. Looking for an explanation why George Bush made war on Iraq? It wasn’t over oil, “democratic socialist” Ehrenreich would argue. It was instead related to the fact that we were once “preyed upon by animals that were initially far more skillful hunters than ourselves. In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator…but that of a creature which has learned only ‘recently,’ in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night.”

In a rather silly exercise in cultural criticism, Ehrenreich speculates that the popularity of those nature shows depicting one animal attacking and eating another are proof of the predatory disposition we brutish human beings share. I myself have a different interpretation for what its worth. I believe that PBS sponsors all this stuff because of the rampant oil company sponsorship that transmits coded Social Darwinist ideology. Just as the leopard is meant to eat the antelope, so is Shell Oil meant to kill Nigerians who stand in the way of progress.

One of the books that Ehrenreich reviews is “War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage” by Lawrence Keeley. Keeley argues that material scarcity does not explain warfare among Stone Age people. It is instead something in our “shared psychology” that attracts us to war. Keeley finds brutish behavior everywhere and at all times, including among the American Indian. If the number of casualties produced by wars among the Plains Indians was proportional to the population of European nations during the World Wars, then the casualty rates would have been more like 2 billion rather than the tens of millions that obtained. Ehrenreich swoons over Keeley’s book that was published in 1996 to what seems like “insufficient acclaim”.

I suspect that Keeley’s book functions ideologically like some of the recent scholarship that attempts to show that Incas, Aztecs and Spaniards were all equally bad. They all had kingdoms. They all had slaves. They all despoiled the environment. Ad nauseum. It is always a specious practice to project into precapitalist societies the sort of dynamic that occurs under capitalism. For one thing, it is almost impossible to understand these societies without violating some sort of Heisenberg law of anthropology. The historiography of the North American and Latin American Indian societies is mediated by the interaction of the invading society with the invaded. The “view” is rarely impartial. Capitalism began to influence and overturn precapitalist class relations hundreds of years ago, so a laboratory presentation of what Aztec society looked like prior to the Conquistadores is impossible. Furthermore, it is regrettable that Ehrenreich herself is seduced by this methodology since she doesn’t even question Keeley’s claims about the Plains Indian wars. When did these wars occur? Obviously long after the railroads and buffalo hunters had become a fact of North American life.

The reason all this stuff seems so poisonous is that it makes a political statement that war can not be eliminated through the introduction of socialism or political action. For Ehrenreich, opposing war is a psychological project rather than a political project:

Any anti-war movement that targets only the human agents of war — a warrior elite or, on our own time, the chieftains of the ‘military-industrial complex’ – risks mimicking those it seeks to overcome … So it is a giant step from hating the warriors to hating the war, and an even greater step to deciding that the ‘enemy’ is the abstract institution of war, which maintains its grip on us even in the interludes we know as peace.

Really? The abstract institution of war maintains its grip on “us”? Who exactly is this “us”? Is it the average working person who struggles to make ends meet? Do they sit at home at night like great cats fantasizing about biting the throats out of Rwandans or Zaireans in order to feast on their innards? The NY Times has been reporting more and more concern among Clinton administration officials about Kabila’s drive toward the overthrow of Mobutu, our erstwhile puppet. It is not out of the question that Clinton and his European allies would put together an expeditionary force to protect “democracy” in Africa. Who would be responsible for this war? The ruling class or the poor foot soldiers who get drummed into action?

Sociobiology in the Nation Magazine

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on Nov. 4, 2002

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to get a trial subscription to the Nation Magazine. What the hell, I said. This would give me a chance to see what the red-baiters were up to first-hand, as well as work on their nifty crossword puzzles. When my last subscription was winding down during the beginning of Clinton’s second term, the puzzles and Cockburn’s column were the only things that kept me going. When they cut Cockburn back to one page and then went into a full-tilt boogie for Clinton, I said to hell with them.

When I got my first complementary copy this morning, I was reminded why I let this awful magazine lapse. Starting out with an editorial admonition to its readers against wasting a vote for the Green Party in tomorrow’s elections, it then proceeds to a defense of sociobiology of a kind that I’ve never seen in a left publication.

In Steven Johnson’s review of Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”, we discover that E.O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker and Richard Dawkins were right all along. Biology is destiny. Women’s brains differ from men’s, hence accounting possibly for men’s superiority in theoretical physics among other things. (Don’t worry, gals, your brains might just as easily prepare you for “social interactions” and “empathy”.)

While reading through this crapola, one gets no sense of what Pinker stands for politically. Johnson assures us that Pinker presents his views on the political and social implications of neo-Darwinism with his characteristic “eloquence” and “humor” but one would get no sense from the review what ideas this humor and eloquence is actually mustered to support.

Let’s look at a few of them:

  • Males have a stronger tolerance for physical risk and a stronger drive for anonymous sex.
  • Women have stronger emotions and are better at reading emotions on the faces of others.
  • Pinker states “A variety of sexual motives, including taste in men, vary with the menstrual cycle.”
  • He also states that “in a sample of mathematically talented students, boys outnumbered girls by 13 to one” but that women maintain more eye-contact, and smile and laugh more often.
  • Humans are hard-wired to think in stereotypes and to prefer kin.
  • Some people, most of them men, are born with criminal tendencies.
  • Turning to the big questions of social transformation that have vexed Great Thinkers for the millennium, we learn from Pinker that “Biological facts are beginning to box in plausible political philosophies.” Communism may work for insects, but humans are programmed for economic exchange and “reciprocal altruism.” (Is that the reason I used to climb across the ceilings and consume a pound of sugar at a time when I was in the Trotskyist movement, I wonder?)

When you stop and think about it, the title of Pinker’s book sets up a straw man, namely that radicals of one sort or another believe that the mind is a “blank slate” and that human nature is infinitely malleable.

It is of no small importance that Pinker ultimately finds backing in Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, mediated through anthropologist Donald Brown who adapted Chomsky’s idea of a “universal grammar” to “social patterns, beliefs and categories” shared by all human societies. We discover that Pinker (and presumably the feckless reviewer) are so impressed by Brown that he devotes an entire appendix to such categories worked out in alphabetical order. The c’s include cooking, cooperation, and copulation (all of my favorite activities, it turns out.)

With such basic activities underpinning all human societies, and human nature implicitly, one might easily conclude that it is risky business to tamper with the eternal nature of things, like sending your daughter to MIT. You might end up with Pol Pot, Stalin, the Animal Farm or women running around burning their bras. Pinker quotes Chomsky just to show that this kind of hostility to revolution has respectable defenders:

A vision of a future social order is based on a concept of human nature. If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping of behavior’ by the State authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement and participation in a free community.

While respect must be paid to Chomsky for his fearless critique of US foreign policy, it would be a big mistake to write a blank check for his ideas on human nature, etc. As his biographer Robert Barsky has pointed out, many of Chomsky’s ideas on human nature and society owe much more to 18th century rationalism than any more recent emancipatory philosophies, including Marxism. Indeed, what permeates much of sociobiology and Chomsky on his worst days is a kind of Hobbesian skepticism about the human animal, who would need to be restrained from wanton violence, rape and warfare by a protective state.

For all of Pinker’s animosity to radicalism and Marxism in particular, there is very little evidence that he understands how historical materialism deals with the question of human nature. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace its development through the years, suffice it to say that Marxism views the nature-nurture relationship dialectically.

It does not really challenge the existence of biologically determined traits, but simply places the whole question of equality, justice and freedom in a materialist context. In other words, revolutionary socialism strives to create the conditions in which all human beings can reach their full potential. Within the context of such a challenge, Pinker’s “Blank Slate,” with its discussions about the difference between the appearance of male and female brains (according to Pinker, they are “nearly as distinct as their bodies”) seems little more than “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” geared to readers of the New York Review of Books.

Dry Summer

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

Film buffs should check out the Auteurs website, which is still in beta. I am not that thrilled about them charging $5 to watch warhorses like Pulp Fiction but there is a section curated by Martin Scorsese under the rubric of World Cinema Foundation that has a handful of obscure and neglected classics that can be watched for free. There are only 4 there now but if current and future offerings are as compelling as “Dry Summer” (Susuz Yaz), a 1964 Turkish film, there is a lot to look forward to.

“Dry Summer” takes place in the Turkish countryside. The main characters are Osman, his younger brother Hasan, and Hasan’s bride Bahar. Osman has decided to irrigate his lands before the other villagers can get access to the water which emanates from a spring on his land. He reasons to himself that since the water belongs to him, he has the right to control it. Even though the movie was made nearly 50 years ago, it deals with an issue that cuts to the heart of Middle East politics today.

Throughout the marshes, the reed gatherers, standing on land they once floated over, cry out to visitors in a passing boat.

”Maaku mai!” they shout, holding up their rusty sickles. ”There is no water!”

The Euphrates is drying up. Strangled by the water policies of Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey and Syria; a two-year drought; and years of misuse by Iraq and its farmers, the river is significantly smaller than it was just a few years ago. Some officials worry that it could soon be half of what it is now.

The shrinking of the Euphrates, a river so crucial to the birth of civilization that the Book of Revelation prophesied its drying up as a sign of the end times, has decimated farms along its banks, has left fishermen impoverished and has depleted riverside towns as farmers flee to the cities looking for work.

N.Y. Times, July 14, 2009

Hasan and Bahar warn Osman that blocking access to water will only lead to a “nasty situation” with the other farmers who live beneath them. He blusters that this is his decision to make and that he can handle any situation that comes his way with his ample supply of firearms.

Osman’s selfishness reminded me of the character Squarciò played by Yves Montand in Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Wide Blue Road”, a movie that is every bit as good as “Burn” or “Battle of Algiers”. Squarciò is an Italian fisherman who uses dynamite in clear violation of the law and the right of his brother fishermen to have equal access to the marine life that they rely on for their existence.

It takes a while to adjust to Osman’s cruelty and base nature since he comes across initially as a buffoon. But after he convinces his brother to take the rap for Osman’s murder of a villager who had blasted a hole in the dam on his property, and then afterwards forces himself sexually on Bahar when Hasan is in prison, you begin to hate him thoroughly. Unlike Squarciò, who is tormented by his decision to shaft the other fishermen, Osman is utterly remorseless.

Despite its obvious social and political concerns, “Dry Summer” is a movie with affinities with more psychologically-oriented and symbolist works such as those of Ingmar Bergman. In one of the more compelling scenes, Osman clings to a scarecrow in his field as if it was Bahar, pouring out his love. It is almost as if he were snuggling up with a life-sized inflatable doll as seen below:

Born in 1929, director Metin Erksan started out as a newspaper columnist before launching a career in film, helped along by his film director brother Cetin Karamanbey. The Auteur website provides this background information on Erksan:

With the advent of the social realist movement following the 1960 Coup d’Etat in Turkey, Erksan established himself as the “enfant prodige” of the post 60 era. Among the best films made during this period (including the Golden Bear Awarded Susuz Yaz (Dry Summer)) Erksan’s works occupy a central place. His films are the fruits of an eclectic mixture of modernist themes (i.e. individual loneliness), metaphysics (the fight of good vs evil), and notions of Marxism. As other “engagé” directors of the era who did not only see themselves as artists but also as “social engineers”, Erksan played a major role in the foundation of the Union of Turkish Film Workers and the Association of Turkish Filmmakers. He was also the Turkish Labour Party’s [Hoxhaite] candidate of Istanbul in the General Elections of 1965. But it is important to stress that Erksan’s films are primarily praised for their aesthetic maturity which coexisted (until 1965) with a firm social commitment.

Unfortunately, Erksan stopped making political films after 1965 and focused on mainstream entertainment, including a Turkish version of “The Exorcist”, a snippet of which can be seen below:

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