Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 30, 2010

Holding the black bloc up to scrutiny

Filed under: anarchism — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

Although the black bloc tactic has been around since the 1980s, it was the Seattle anti-globalization protests of November 30, 1999 that lent it the high profile it would enjoy for an extended period. Around this time, anarchism had become rather trendy as this article from the Style section of the April 4, 2000 Washington Post would indicate:

“Is this the Anarchist Soccer League?” asks the girl with the pierced lip and eyebrow. She catches the eye of a guy whose black T-shirt identifies him as “Poor, Ugly, Happy.”

He informs her that, yes, this is the regular pickup game of the Anarchist Soccer League, held on Sunday afternoons amid the minivan-and-merlot enclaves of upper Northwest Washington.

She surveys the dusty field near Woodrow Wilson High School, where 30 players have amassed to kick a ball around to promote physical fitness, camaraderie and the defeat of global capitalism. They’re mainly college-age men and women–energetic, fairly decent players. They know how to cross and dribble. They wear cleats and shin guards. “It looks too organized to be the Anarchist Soccer League,” the pierced girl says dismissively. She adjusts the black bra under her white tank top, wondering whether to join in.

“I need a cigarette,” she decides, and roller-blades off to find one.

But soon she’ll return to get into the game. She’s a punk rocker, a supporter of an activist group called Refuse & Resist. She wants to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the convicted cop killer.

Her name is Barucha Peller. She wears Abercrombie & Fitch pants and carries a Nine West wallet. She’s not entirely sure that she’s an anarchist–“I’m 17, too young to pick any ideology”–but she definitely doesn’t like The System.

In some respects, the black bloc tactic used by anarchists is something like a team sport, with young people (mostly white males) in uniform fighting over territory with other men in uniform—the cops. Breaking through a fence, stopping a meeting from taking place, inciting the cops to wade in and beat up peaceful protesters in order to educate them how “rotten the system is”—all this amounts to a GOAL in soccer.

For a good introduction to the black bloc tactic, I’d recommend Daniel Dylan Young’s article Masking Up And The Black Bloc: A Pre-Seattle History on Infoshop.org, a key anarchist website run by Chuck Munson, a ubiquitous presence on the Internet who goes by the nom de guerre Chuck 0. Young explains that the tactic was cooked up by European autonomists, a radical movement inspired by the writings of Antonio Negri, the Italian ultraleft Marxist and co-author of “Empire”, a book that ironically praised the penetration of global capitalism into the Third World, as long as it was done with the consent of the penetrated. As disgraced weatherman Tex Antoine once put it: “With rape so predominant in the news lately, it is well to remember the words of Confucius: ‘If rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.'”

Here is the key passage in Young’s article:

From the beginning the West German state did not take kindly to young Autonomen, whether they were occupying nuclear power plant building sites or unused apartment buildings. In the winter of 1980 the Berlin city government decided to take a hardline against the thousands of young people living in squats throughout the city: they decided to criminalize, attack and evict them into the cold winter streets. This was a much more shocking and unusual action in Germany than it would be in the U.S., and created much popular disgust and condemnation of the police and government.

From December 1980 on there was an escalating cycle of mass arrests, street fighting, and new squatting in Berlin and throughout Germany. The Autonomen were not to be cowed, and each eviction was responded to with several new building occupations. When squatters in the south German city of Freiburg were mass arrested, rallies and demonstrations supporting them and condemning the police state’s eviction policy took place in every major city in Germany. In Berlin on that day, later dubbed “Black Friday,” upwards of 15,000 to 20,000 people took to the streets and destroyed an upper class shopping area…

In response to violent state oppression radical activists developed the tactic of the Black Bloc: they went to protests and marches wearing black motorcycle helmets and ski masks and dressing in uniform black clothing (or, for the most prepared, wearing padding and steel-toed boots and bringing their own shields and truncheons). In Black Bloc, autonomen and other radicals could more effectively fend off police attacks, without being singled out as individuals for arrest and harassment later on. And, as everyone quickly figured out, having a massive group of people all dressed the same with their faces covered not only helps in defending against the police, but also makes it easier for saboteurs to take the offensive against storefronts, banks and any other material symbols and power centers of capitalism and the state. Masking up as a Black Bloc encouraged popular participation in public property destruction and violence against the state and capitalism. In this way the Black Bloc is a form of militance that mitigates the problematic dichotomy between popularly executed non-violent civil disobedience and elite, secretive guerilla terrorism and sabotage.

With all due respect to Young’s well-researched article, this does not sound that much different from SDS Weathermen “trashing” that occurred a good fifteen years earlier in the USA. Property destruction was supposed to be an insurrectionary act, a kind of litmus test for whether you were a genuine revolutionary rather than reformist Trots with their peaceful and legal antiwar demonstrations.

From what I can gather, a shift took place in the late 1980s when the modern anti-globalization movement took shape. From that point on, the anarchists would employ the tactic from within the mass protests, like a kind of parasite. These protests were intended to be peaceful and legal like the 1960s antiwar demonstrations. At least back then and in the Autonomen protests in the 1980s, those who wanted to fight the cops went off on their own. At Seattle and elsewhere, including Toronto this week, the trade unions and NGO’s only sought to call attention to rotten trade agreements like WTO rather than get caught up into violent sporting events with the cops that would leave their members beaten and arrested.

There was a certain rethinking of the black bloc tactic when a youthful protester was killed in Genoa in July 2001. It was one thing to throw a riot and get hit by a rubber bullet or tear-gassed. Getting killed was another. This is not to speak of the usual round of beatings and arrests that a working class demonstrator sought to avoid.

But more to the point, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon redirected the movement away from street theater and the propaganda of the deed and in the direction of serious and focused mass antiwar demonstrations. For several years the left was successful in mounting huge protests that limited the power of the warmakers to some extent. For example, Turkey denied the use of its territory to invasion forces.

It is beyond the scope of this article to analyze the shortcomings of the antiwar movement, but I would be remiss if I did not mention several important factors:

1. The Shi’ite leadership collaborated closely with imperialism.

2. The Sunni opposition was religiously sectarian and failed to project a revolutionary alternative to Baathist restoration.

3. The jihadists were even more sectarian than the Baathists and drove the Shi’ites even further into collaboration with the USA.

4. The antiwar movement in the USA was divided between the CP and its allies on one hand and the Workers World Party on the other. The first camp tail-ended the Democratic Party while the second maintained a tight control on its own “coalition” in order to preserve a narrow “anti-imperialist” perspective.

5. There was no draft, nor was there wartime austerity.

Given all these factors, it is remarkable that any resistance to the war was mounted at all.

During this period, the anarchists went into hibernation except for the occasional foray into one gathering of the imperialist ruling class or another. Fences were assailed, Starbucks windows were smashed, rocks were thrown at cops but world imperialism kept on its merry way.

Moving forward, we find a new opportunity for anarchist street theater when Greece was struck by a terrible financial crisis that forced working people into the streets against the austerity drive. We can expect such protests to proliferate given the almost unanimous consensus of the ruling class to follow Milton Friedman type solutions.

When the Greek black bloc contingent threw a fire bomb into an Athens bank resulting in the death of three workers, there was a soul-searching that hopefully would retire this form of machismo politics once and for all. On http://www.occupiedlondon.org/blog/, a repository of anarchist reports from Greece, a penetrating critique was posted just a few days after the tragedy. It said:

Some people during the last general strike march, seeing 200,000 protestors roaring in rage and some even trying to storm the steps to Parliament, could only think of a means to perform their own petty identity as the vanguard of militancy. For that is what this cult has at its core: rituals of performativity, rituals of sustaining and reproducing the equilibrium of “toughness”, of “strength”, of “militancy”, of “fist-readiness”, or what may the symbolic order of rebel-masculinity consist of. Violence, so abstractly demonised by the bourgeoisie, is only a functional component of this process – not the objectified problem but the effect of an acutely problematic relation. A relation of competition for the most “advanced”, the most “dynamic” action, the most aggressive and seemingly uncompromising “attack”, the most one-dimensional being-in-the-world. What connects all these performances of “revolutionary singularity” is not their violence per se, but the vainglorious competitive culture of militaristic machoness. The establishment of a gendered hierarchy of “will” to the exclusion of the open mass-struggles that are developing throughout the country: a new Stalinism.

While this retreat from the madness that resulted in the death of three workers must be welcomed, there is still an unresolved contradiction in anarchist circles that persists to this day. It centers on the role of revolutionaries. In anarchist terms, it is clearly a self-mandated mission to inspire the non-radicalized mass of society into action through exemplary actions. Even if the Greek anarchists have renounced firebombing, there is still a nagging sense that they are in the business of “the exemplary deed”.

An article dated June 16th recounted an anarchist action against a supermarket:

On 14/06/10 we stormed into a super-market of the chain Masoutis on M.Kyriakou street, we took basic need goods (olive oil, pasta, milk etc.) and destroyed the anti-theft systems and the surveillance camera while we also smashed the cashiers and burnt all the money they had inside.

From the beginning we had decided that the goods of the appropriation would be distributed among the comrades who participated, not outside the super-market. With this choice of ours we want to make clear that this, and other practices aim not at promoting some of us as saviours of the society – rather, we want society itself to familiarise itself with such practices and to embrace them without waiting for the “revolutionary” philanthropist/ friends of the poor. Especially in a period like this one, where the rottenness of the present system is pushing it toward collapse. As for the term “Robin Hoodies” (in Greek: Super-market Robins) we believe it consists another typical attempt to twist the meaning of such actions by Mass Media, which present comrades as some sort of elite stealing for the poor. In result, the distribution of the goods is presented in a way that refers to the narcosis and the passivity reflected in the thinking “someone will think-act-take care of us”.

With all due respect to the anarchist comrades, this will not address the burning issue of hunger in Greece as the austerity drive mounts. It will take powerful mass actions to make sure that the bourgeoisie does not slash the social safety net—number one—and then to make steady encroachments on the state power to expand spending for working class needs, including jobs, housing, medical care and food. If it shows itself incapable of meeting those needs, then workers councils should move forward to replace the state with one that is so capable. This will take the spread of revolutionary consciousness and a tightly organized combat party to move all of society together against its sworn enemy, the rentiers and imperialist hangers-on—as well as the rotten social democratic politicians who are keeping the infernal thing going.

Finally, a word or two about the black bloc anarchists in Toronto who through its idiotic provocations gave the cops an excuse to beat and arrest 900 people. While this is likely not the last intervention from this crew, it certainly will serve a useful purpose by alerting the broader radical movement about its reactionary function. Whether or not they are cops in disguise is immaterial. Willy-nilly, they are doing just what the cops want them to do and they have to be stopped. Maybe the next mass anti-globalization protest will have some beefy trade unionists to keep this riff-raff in line.

June 28, 2010

Nixon on the Jews and the Blacks

Filed under: african-american,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:43 pm

Debating the Deacon

Filed under: middle east,religion — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

Deacon Kevin McCormack

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik

As I have mentioned before, the Sunday morning WABC radio show “Religion on the Line” functions as just one more rightwing outlet at the home of Rush Limbaugh and assorted other racist reactionaries. Hosted by Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack, it is a place where you will hear talking points of the Israel lobby on a regular basis. It was where I heard Bard College’s chaplain Bruce Chilton defend Israel’s murderous attack on Gaza in January 2009.

I generally listen for 5 or 10 minutes on Sunday morning just to get up to speed on the latest talking points of the Israel lobby and then switch to WFAN, a radio station for sports fans as the call letters indicate. Once upon a time my radio dial was set to WBAI exclusively but their descent into 9/11 conspiracy-mongering and other such nonsense forced me to look elsewhere.

Generally Potasnik sets the agenda for the show, finding some pretext or another for Muslim-bashing. McCormack tries to appear a bit more reasonable, but is inclined to go along with most of the hate mongering.

Last Sunday I found myself more irritated then usual when Potasnik went on at some length about Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was reported to have said: “White folk and the Jews done took this country. You’re in their home, and they’re gonna let you know it.”

It turns out that Potasnik was quoting from an article in Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post, the print equivalent of WABC, but when you go to the article, there’s no reference to the Jews taking the country, only White folks. In other words, the Rabbi was lying to his radio audience in order to deepen their hatred of uppity Black people, no mean feat given the demographics of this racist radio station.

Of course, it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction in the NY Post, by some estimations the most worthless newspaper in the USA and clearly the sort of soiled toilet paper that constitutes Rabbi Potasnik’s weekly reading material.

As it turned out, Congressman Peter King was to be a guest later on. This mean-spirited bigot is one of their faves. Since I have been feeling more worked up about Zionist hasbara (propaganda) lately than usual after the murder of 9 people on the Mavi Marmara, I could not resist giving the Rabbi and the Deacon a piece of my mind. A while back I had posted another complaint on their Facebook, but it wasn’t quite as “in your face” as I would have hoped. This time I decided to contact McCormack directly through his own Facebook id. Below is a log of our exchanges:

Louis P:
What bullshit, complaining about Reverend Wright, when you and the rabbi use WABC as a bully pulpit. The home of Bob Grant of Dinkins “washroom attendant” fame. The home of Rush Limbaugh’s coon show comedy.

Deacon McCormack:
Louis + thank you for listening. Help me understand how a man of priviledge like Rev wright speaks in such general terms as all whites and all jews are responsible for all ills. Come on louis you got to give me this one. The guy is a racist and a hypocrite

Louis P:
Kevin, did you ever hear about the pot calling the kettle black? Also, don’t you agree with Jesus that those without sin should cast the first stone? WABC is an open sewer of race hatred. Surely, you must understand that you and the good rabbi were hired to help propagate the same hate messages as Rush Limbaugh and Bob Grant? Here’s your pal Peter King complaining about there being “too many mosques” in the USA. I guess its okay for him to say this and get the red carpet treatment from you.

Deacon McCormack:
Louis, frankly I am suprised that you would use the same tatics that you so readily claim some of the right wing radio show hosts do. Louis You really don’t know anything about me and yet you draw a broad brush stroke and say that at best I am a “dupe” of WABC and at worst a willful participant of some evil agenda. Would I be correct to assume that as an unrepentant Marxist you are to be painted with the same brush and as such the same crimes as Lennin, Stalin or Mao? Of course not!

Louis did you know my wife and have worked in the inner city developing summer programs for young kids and teenagers?

– Did you know I have worked with and continue to advocate for the undocumented community?

– Did you know that I have gay and straight, black, latino, jewish, & european friends?

You have every right to say what you want and infact I defend that right. But as I said before, Rev. Wrights words are despicable – especially for a self proclaimed Christian. As I Chriustian – I have a responsibility to speak out about injustice everywhere and anywhere I see it.

whether you are listening or monitoring (what does that mean anyway? & in case you don’t know – Most of the show can be gotten as a MP3 file if that helps you.) I appreciate that on some level the Rabbi and I are important to you. I read your blog from Time to time – (not “monitoring” it) ever sice you called me a “warmonger.” I don’t often agree w/ you, but I find you thought provoking.

Final thought for now – Louis I would very much enjoy meeting you for a cup of coffee or a dram to discuss, as men of passion, our world views. I’ll even buy the first round. Only catch – we have to assume the good will of the other until proven otherwise. Let me know – The offer stands.

Louis P:
Well, look. I don’t see much point in getting together since there is obviously a failure to communicate. If somebody said that there were “too many Catholic churches” or “too many synagogues” in New York, you and the rabbi would riff on that for 15 minutes about the terrible hate campaign against your fellow believers. But when I tell you that Peter King said that there were “too many mosques” in the USA, you have *nothing to say*. In other words, we are dealing with a disgusting double-standard. You guys scream bloody murder about anti-Semitic Blacks and Muslims but when a fellow rightwinger says something hateful about Muslims, that gets a bye from you. My understanding of Judeo-Christian values is that they are universal. Unless you two stop functioning as part of the rightwing racist mob at WABC, then at least drop the piety bit. It has nothing to do with Moses or Jesus. It is more about Rush Limbaugh and Peter King.

June 27, 2010

The New York Times assaults Oliver Stone and the truth

Filed under: Film,Latin America,media — louisproyect @ 6:00 pm

Larry Rohter

In yesterday’s NY Times, there was a most curious article in the arts section, usually devoted to the latest buzz about Tom Cruise or a Picasso exhibition. Larry Rohter, the toad who usually covers Latin American news from the perspective of Fulgencio Batista, weighed in on Oliver Stone’s “South of the Border”. Needless to day, the emphasis was on defending the agenda of the State Department rather than camera angles.

Rohter begins by trying to undermine the credibility of the movie by pointing out factual errors. We learn, for example:

As “South of the Border” portrays it, Mr. Chávez’s main opponent in his initial run for president in 1998 was “a 6-foot-1-inch blond former Miss Universe” named Irene Sáez, and thus “the contest becomes known as the Beauty and the Beast” election.

But Mr. Chávez’s main opponent then was not Ms. Sáez, who finished third, with less than 3 percent of the vote. It was Henrique Salas Romer, a bland former state governor who won 40 percent of the vote.

This is the same ploy that has been used against Paul Buhle and Howard Zinn over the years. Pinheaded liberal professors go over their books with a microscope looking for factual errors when it is really the politics they are after.

Once you get past the Miss Universe slip-up, the rest of Rohter’s article is the same old crap about Hugo Chavez the evil tyrant. To buttress his case, he calls attention to José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, being expelled from the country “in violation of Venezuelan law, after Human Rights Watch issued a critical report in 2008.” HRW is supposedly to be trusted because “has issued tough reports on both” Colombia and Venezuela. Of course, it is necessary to write that Colombia violates human rights, a rather unremarkable observation, if you want to get the upper hand in trashing Venezuela and Cuba. HRW is quite skilled at this game. The problem, however, is that there really is no comparison between the two countries and it is disingenuous to make an amalgam of the two. In Colombia, there are death squads roaming the country that assassinate trade unionists and peasant leaders. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez pushes for an end to term limits. Bad Colombia. Bad Venezuela. And, bad, bad NYT and HRW for linking the two countries.

Moving on from HRW, Rohter dredges up the 2002 coup that Oliver Stone gets all wrong, relying on the narrative put forward in the excellent “The revolution will not be televised” that can now be seen online, thank goodness.

What he neglects to mention, however, is how the NY Times became part of the well-orchestrated campaign to rob Venezuelans of their democratic rights. On April 13, 2002, immediately after Hugo Chávez was overthrown, the paper editorialized:

With yesterday’s resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chávez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona.

But a powerful mass movement forced the reactionaries, so beloved of the New York Times, to restore Hugo Chavez to power. Three days later the NYT ate crow:

In his three years in office, Mr. Chávez has been such a divisive and demagogic leader that his forced departure last week drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer.

Of course, these filthy propagandists would have never eaten their words had the coup been successful.

Rohter tries to make his case by “revealing” that Chavez supporters have personal and financial ties that compromise them:

Instead Mr. Stone relies heavily on the account of Gregory Wilpert, who witnessed some of the exchange of gunfire and is described as an American academic. But Mr. Wilpert is also the husband of Mr. Chávez’s consul-general in New York, Carol Delgado, and a longtime editor and president of the board of a Web site, Venezuelanalysis.com, set up with donations from the Venezuelan government, affiliations that Mr. Stone does not disclose.

Anybody who has paid the slightest attention to the revolving door policy of the NY Times that allows their top functionaries to take seats in Republican and Democratic administrations alike can only laugh at Rohter’s smear. In fact, if he were not so dangerous, the best response to his garbage would be a belly laugh. But dangerous he is.

Rohter has been a hard-core counter-revolutionary going back 30 years. In 1980 he wrote an article for Newsweek warning about Grenada introducing “an ominous note of instability into the politics of the eastern Caribbean.” Later that year writing for the same magazine, he honed in on Nicaragua: “Nicaragua’s ambivalent revolution, after two years of internal struggle, slid further toward Marxism last week when a mob attacked the house of opposition leader Alfonso Robelo Callejas and the junta shut down the on-again, off-again opposition newspaper La Prensa. The Reagan Administration has almost abandoned its last faint hopes that Nicaragua’s Sandinistas could be persuaded to follow a pluralist path–and the hard-line U.S. policy toward Central America has turned even harder.”

It was this kind of yellow journalism that apparently recommended him to the NY Times, where he has been functioning effectively as an unpaid (or paid?) agent of the CIA since 1985.

Oliver Stone had it right. There is a media war on Venezuela and Larry Rohter is a first class sniper. The newspaper of record won’t be happy until Venezuela gets the same treatment that Chile got under Pinochet. For all of its fretting over democracy in Venezuela, this is the same newspaper that stated that there was “absolutely no evidence whatsoever of American complicity in the coup” against Allende. An editorial argued that “Dr. Allende’s experiment failed because his Popular Unity coalition, dominated by Socialists and Communists, persisted with an effort to fasten on Chile a drastic socialist system.”

Someday an enterprising documentary filmmaker will get the goods on the newspaper of record itself going back to its gushing profile of Generalissimo Francisco Franco on August 9th, 1936:

Short, black-haired, somewhat round-faced and forceful, General Franco showed no signs of fatigue as be outlined with an occasional easy smile the aims of the Rebel movement, hitherto somewhat obscure. He was working in a tiny room in a palatial Seville home, dressed in a plain tan army uniform with a soft shirt. His aides, wearing every costume from swank uniforms and red staff caps to blue denim, were busy in the magnificent rooms outside.

The Rebel chief insists that every organized force of government has deserted the Madrid leaders and that they should surrender to avoid further bloody civil war. He is willing to promise them safe passage out of Spain and insists the Rebel aims are “to restore peace justice and democracy with favor to no one class.”

“We propose.” he declared, “to see that long-needed social reforms are pushed forward in Spain. As far as the church is concerned, we intend to allow complete freedom of worship, but under no conditions will we permit the church to play a part in politics.

“The trouble with the present Constitution, drafted after King Alfonso left, is that it is more of a dream of what might be than a practical instrument of government. The proof is it has been suspended much of the time since it was drafted, with 30,000 political prisoners jailed and a class war that was a result of its one-sidedness.

“We started the revolt only after it had become self-evident that the government was playing into the hands of the Communists and extreme Socialists and that there was no justice for others. We wanted to halt the daily murder toll and the social disintegration of Spain.”


Another rebuttal to Larry Rohter


Oliver Stone responds to Larry Rohter

June 24, 2010

Peepli Live

Filed under: farming,Film,imperialism/globalization,india — louisproyect @ 3:38 pm

In 2004 the Indian government announced a program to provide cash payments to the family of farmers who had committed suicide because of crippling debt. The federal government would provide 50,000 rupees ($1,136), in addition to the 150,000 rupees ($3,400) compensation provided by the state government.

This bit of recent history provides the plot for “Peepli Live”, an Indian movie that was an official selection at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (a Bollywood first) and that opens in NYC on August 13th.

Natha (Onkar Das) and Budhia (Raghuvir Yadav) are two lower-caste (dalit) brothers who have been eking out a living as farmers on the outskirts of Peepli, a village in Uttar Pradesh. When debt overtakes them–mostly a function of being forced to buy seeds from an imperialist agribusiness–they trudge off to the center of town to throw themselves at the mercy of a local politician surrounded by his entourage. They tell him that unless he lends them the necessary funds, they will lose their land. He and his henchmen find this quite amusing. Just before sending them on their way, he tells them that they should kill themselves and take advantage of the government program.

Afterwards, Budhia and Natha sit down to talk about the feasibility of cashing in on the government program. Since Budhia, the older brother, is a bachelor, it only makes sense for Natha to kill himself. Once they return to the house they share, you can almost understand why Natha would carry out such a desperate act. His wife is a harridan who yells at him constantly, when she is not beating him. Their aged and bed-ridden mother is also a miserable wretch who has as little use for Natha’s wife as she has for him. You are not dealing with the mutually supportive and loving Joad family of “Grapes of Wrath”, to say the least.

Meanwhile, Indian television and newspapers have begun to take notice of the suicide epidemic. When a newspaper reporter (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a job that can almost be described as lower-caste in relationship to television reporting, overhears the two brothers discussing their plans, he writes an article that is picked up by a glamorous and cynical TV reporter (Malaika Shenoy), who is a female version of Anderson Cooper. She, the print journalist, and just about every other news outlet swoop in on Peepli to provide ongoing coverage of the first farmer to kill himself just to collect a cash award.

Once the movie takes this turn, it is much less about the plight of impoverished farmers and much more about the chicanery of the news media and politicians. The TV cameramen follow Natha relentlessly even when he goes out into the field to take a crap. Of course, the big question is when he will finally do it. Committing suicide becomes as compelling a story as winning the jackpot in “Slumdog Millionaire”. As such, the movie’s closest relative is Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe”, a 1941 movie about a newspaper columnist who prints a fake letter from an unemployed “John Doe,” threatening suicide in protest of society’s ills. The letter generates a national John Doe movement that the paper’s publisher uses as a catapult for his own political ambitions, just as transpires in “Peepli Live”.

While it is of some significance that such a film has been produced, given the urgency of the peasant suicide phenomenon in India, it is hobbled by a lack of strong and sympathetic characters. The two brothers are depicted as inarticulate pot-smoking slackers who almost seem responsible for their own financial ruin, while the media people are as repulsive as the film makers intended. All in all, you feel alienated from the entire world they live in. In some ways, there is a misanthropic streak in this movie that reminds me a bit of Billy Wilder’s work, especially “The Big Carnival”, a 1951 work that stars Kirk Douglas as a newspaper reporter about as repulsive as the television personalities in “Peepli Live”. IMDB summarizes “The Big Carnival” as follows:

Ex-New York reporter Charles Tatum lands a job on a Albuquerque newspaper in hopes that a sensational story will return him to the big time. When a man is trapped in an Indian cave, Tatum conspires with an unscrupulous sheriff to keep him there until the story can build to national proportions, which it does.

The cynical, unethical and unscrupulous journalist Chuck Tatum arrives at a small New Mexico newspaper asking for a chance. He was fired from famous newspapers because of drinking, lying and even for having an affair with the wife of one of his bosses. His real intention is to use the small newspaper as a platform to reach a bigger one. After one year without any sensational news and totally bored, Chuck travels with a younger reporter to cover a story about rattlesnakes. When they arrive at an isolated gas station, he is informed that a man called Leo Minosa is trapped alive in an old Indian mine in a nearby place called the Mountain of the Seven Vultures. Chuck manipulates the local corrupt sheriff, the engineer responsible for the rescue operation and Leo’s wife Lorraine Minosa, so that a rescue that could have been made in twelve hours lasts six days using a sophisticated drilling system. Chuck Tatum uses the time to create a media circus. Everybody profits from the accident – everybody except the victim.

“Peepli Live” was produced by Aamir Khan, the star of “Lagaan“, the likeable movie about Indians challenging the British colonizers to a cricket match. If the Indians win, they will not have to pay an onerous land tax (lagaan). Obviously Mr. Khan has his heart in the right place when it comes to struggles by poor peasants. He also starred in “The Rising“, a thrilling epic about the Sepoy rebellion.  “The Rising” is available from Netflix, but not “Lagaan”. Fortunately, you can buy a copy for very little money on amazon.com. Both are highly recommended.

June 23, 2010

Hugo Chavez interview (part one)

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Mark Weisbrot, co-writer of “South of the Border” debunks BBC interviewer here.

Rules of Engagement and engaging with a NY Times reporter

Filed under: Afghanistan,war — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

CJ Chivers

A key part of the Vietnam syndrome has been how to win American objectives in one armed intervention or another without antagonizing the local population. This has meant fine-tuning the “rules of engagement” that separate normal killing from out-and-out war crimes. James Webb, the Virginia Democratic Party Senator who was Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy (go figure), was executive producer and co-writer of the 2000 movie “Rules of Engagement” that is a convoluted defense of war crimes under extenuating circumstances, including a slaughter of Yemeni protesters who apparently had it coming to them, based on this NY Times review of the movie:

When Childers [Samuel Jackson] becomes involved in a situation in Yemen that seems a contemporary My Lai, he seeks out Hodges [Tommy Lee Jones] as legal counsel. ”I don’t want some Starbucks drinker who’s never seen combat,” Childers growls. In rescuing the United States ambassador (Ben Kingsley, employing the same dead-voiced American accent he used as the vice president in ”Dave”) and his family from the embassy while under attack, Childers ordered a retaliatory strike on a crowd. He’s the only surviving member of his unit to have witnessed the crowd’s fire on the defenders, but to the rest of the world it looks as if he initiated an attack on innocent civilians.

Yes, you don’t want to be associated with a Starbucks drinker who has never seen combat. That’s more or less the vibe I got from NY Times reporter CJ Chivers, a former Marine who has more journalism awards than James Webb has medals. When I took him to task for today’s article that drew attention to American GI’s chafing under the rules of engagement established jointly by Obama and McChrystal, he asked me if I had ever been in a firefight. I replied:

I have been in zero firefights. In 1967 I came to the realization that the USA has no right to police the world and did everything I could to stay out of the army. After reading so many articles in the NY Times about Afghan weddings, etc. being bombed by drone attacks, it just shocked me to see your article. Too bad Chris Hedges is not overseeing what gets printed rather than Pinch Sulzberger.

To Mr. Chivers’s credit, this is the first time I have ever heard back from a NY Times reporter after sending them email. Generally, I don’t expect a response when I do so. For me it is mainly a way to relieve frustration, more or less the function that a “close” button serves in many elevators. The elevator will not go anywhere until a certain amount of time has elapsed, like 30 seconds or so, but allowing the passengers to press the button gives them the feeling that they have some control over their environment. That’s pretty much the function of emailing a NY Times reporter, I’m afraid.

According to Mr. Chivers, the troops in Afghanistan are tired of having their hands tied behind their back:

The rules have shifted risks from Afghan civilians to Western combatants. They have earned praise in many circles, hailed as a much needed corrective to looser practices that since 2001 killed or maimed many Afghan civilians and undermined support for the American-led war.

But the new rules have also come with costs, including a perception now frequently heard among troops that the effort to limit risks to civilians has swung too far, and endangers the lives of Afghan and Western soldiers caught in firefights with insurgents who need not observe any rules at all.

Young officers and enlisted soldiers and Marines, typically speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, speak of “being handcuffed,” of not being trusted by their bosses and of being asked to battle a canny and vicious insurgency “in a fair fight.”

Who knows what it means to stop “being handcuffed”? More wedding parties getting blown to smithereens? After 8 years of war, the only thing that makes sense is for the U.S. to withdraw immediately. The controversy over McChrystal’s “insubordination” is practically beside the point. The real question is imperialism, the 800 pound gorilla that the newspaper of record prefers to ignore.

Everything going back to September 11th is related to American imperialism. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was the inevitable outcome of a foreign policy that is designed to safeguard oil resources and uphold American hegemony in Central Asia. I think that Mr. Chivers knows this, like all clever ivy-league educated reporters at the NY Times, but will have to wait until he is retired from the bourgeois media to tell the truth—that is, if he has 1/100th of the guts and integrity that Chris Hedges has.

Finally, it should be understood that despite the undeserved reputation that the newspaper of record has for upholding liberal values after a fashion, it has been the source of many articles in the past that adhere to the “being handcuffed” narrative. This one by Hanson Baldwin titled “The Case for Escalation”, written on February 27, 1966 will live in infamy:

What any military man who is not Genghis Khan must do is to try to wage war as to hurt the enemy the most at the least possible cost to his own men and to innocent bystanders. The United States is trying to do this in Vietnam. This does not mean that there are not lapses, vicious divergences from the norm. But those who shed tears over the horrors of tear gas, the poor, bound Vietcong captives, the children, the civilians wounded and killed should look at the other side of the coin. The American soldier maimed by a grenade thrown by a 10-year old child, the village chief whose family was murdered by the Vietcong—are these, too, not worthy of tears?

Log of exchanges with CJ Chivers:

1. LP:

Unleash the military in Afghanistan? Really? This is the same nonsense I used to hear in the 1960s but not so much from the NYT. It tended to come from people like John Wayne, Georgie Jessel, Al Kapp and my barber.

2. CJ:


i’m surprised you read that article that way. no one said they want to see the military “unleashed.” the troops do have strong concerns that they are being asked to work in ways that neither pressure the taliban nor allow them to protect themselves. you might not like that point of view; fair enough. but it’s a point of view in play on the ground and part of the ongoing discussion about the workings of the war. how many firefights have you been in? do you think those who are in the fighting should have any input in the rules guiding how they fight? things to consider.

thanks for writing, and keeping an eye on our copy.


3. LP:

I have been in zero firefights. In 1967 I came to the realization that the USA has no right to police the world and did everything I could to stay out of the army. After reading so many articles in the NY Times about Afghan weddings, etc. being bombed by drone attacks, it just shocked me to see your article. Too bad Chris Hedges is not overseeing what gets printed rather than Pinch Sulzberger.

4. CJ:

i respect your sense of this, louis. i just would hope that you might differentiate between the troops thinking through, and asking aloud, whether the rules are too tight and advocating bombing weddings.

war is a fucked-up and terrible thing; it presents problems of all forms. some of its miseries and horrors happen to be experienced by soldiers. whatever you think of them or the decisions that send them to afghanistan, their voices have a place in the conversation. that the nyt has covered errant strikes and civilian casualties — i have covered many myself — shows we clearly see the ground-level perspective of the afghans, too. and whoever will be commanding this war going forward faces unrest from the ranks, which is news.

thank you again for writing. really.


June 22, 2010

South of the Border

Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

With a screenplay co-written by Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot, Oliver Stone’s South of the Border promised to be a good movie. I am pleased to announce that it is much better than I expected and a must-see for people knowledgeable about the Latin American left as well as those who only get their information from CNN. Indeed, part of the pleasure of watching the movie is seeing the talking heads at Fox and CNN get exposed as the lying idiots that they are. The movie opens with three dorks from Fox discussing Hugo Chavez’s “drug problem”, which is described as starting his mornings with cocoa. You can’t make this shit up.

The movie consists of footage from television and old newsreels, largely intended to demonstrate the willingness of the media to serve State Department ambitions, as well as interviews with key Latin American leaders. It dawned on me during Oliver Stone’s sit-down with Ecuador’s Rafael Correa that I have never seen him interviewed on American television, nor were Argentina’s Kirchners, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, or Cuba’s Raul Castro ever given a moment on “Sixty Minutes” or any other news show. By allowing them to speak for themselves, Stone breaks a news embargo that is almost as vicious as that Cuba faces on the economic front.

About half the movie is devoted to Venezuela and provides a bird’s eye view of the roots and dynamic of the Bolivarian revolution. Hugo Chavez serves as a guide to these events in some very moving as well as comical moments. He recounts being on an island surrounded by his captors just after the 2002 coup, when a bishop arrives to demand that a letter of resignation be signed. By this point, Chavez has learned that the coup has failed and informs the bishop of that fact who thereupon decides to fly back to Caracas with Chavez on a military helicopter, all the while stating his happiness with the turn of events. In this anecdote, the Latin American church is exposed for its opportunist role but without the usual anti-clerical rhetoric. Chavez is too smart for that.

All in all, the time spent with Chavez is pure entertainment. He is the most unlikely president in all of Latin American history. He grew up in a mud shack and has an obvious affinity with the slum dwellers that are the base of his presidency. He appears to genuinely enjoy coming in contact with the people who are genuinely determining the country’s future, unlike the typical politician who sees them as potential votes and nothing else.

After Venezuela, Stone’s next stop is Bolivia where he meets with Evo Morales who gives him some coca (not cocoa!) to help him fight off nausea and fatigue brought on by the high altitudes.

Perhaps the most interesting moments, at least for me, are those spent with the Kirchners of Argentina. Néstor Carlos Kirchner was president from 2003 to 2007 and has been succeeded by his wife Cristina. They are witty and urbane like most Argentinians I have known throughout my life, plus they provide some insights into the thinking of the more progressive wing of Peronism, a current that has obviously influenced Hugo Chavez. At one point, Cristina Kirchner sends an aide into a nearby room to bring back a photo that she is proud of. After a moment or two, before the aide has returned, she turns to Oliver Stone and asks “what makes men so slow?” Priceless.

It turns out that the photo was Hugo Chavez, Néstor Carlos Kirchner, Lula and Fidel Castro in a group portrait. It is a sign of the times that the heads of Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil are proud to be photographed with American imperialism’s most hated enemy. What the movie reflects more than anything else is the tidal wave that is sweeping Latin America. While it might not result in the immediate overthrow of capitalism in the countries that are part of this change, it does make it a lot easier for country following that path to resist American domination. Arguably, if the Sandinista revolution had triumphed today rather than in 1979, when Reaganism was triumphant, it might have had a chance for survival. For this reason alone, it is a mistake to sneer at the Latin American left for not living up to Bolshevik norms.

Just a word or two about the technical details of how this film was made, a subject becoming more interesting to me as I entertain notions of doing my own documentary some day. The legendary Albert Maysles served as a cameraman. Now 84, Maysles is best known for movies about popular culture (Gimme Shelter) and eccentrics (Grey Gardens). Considering his advanced age, my first impulse was to wonder why he would endure the hardship of filming on location in a place like Bolivia with its high altitude. And then I remembered what a 92 year old Harry Magdoff told Michael Lebowitz: “If I was only in my 80s again, I’d be down in Venezuela.”

Stone used a bare-bones film crew that shot with two Sony Z-7U HD cameras, costing less than $6000 each. In keeping with the relaxed and DIY character of South of the Border, which often feels like a home movie, there is no attempt made to hide the cameras or the mikes. Despite the film’s modest means, it is more successful than any of Oliver Stone’s recent movies. Good work all round for Tariq Ali, Mark Weisbrot and Oliver Stone.

South of the Border opens nationwide on June 25th. Schedule information is here.

June 20, 2010

Bay Area picket line stops Israeli ship from unloading

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 11:38 pm

Protesters prevent unloading of Israeli ship

David R. Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer

Sunday, June 20, 2010

(06-20) 12:35 PDT OAKLAND — Hundreds of demonstrators, gathering at the Port of Oakland before dawn, prevented the unloading of an Israeli cargo ship.

The demonstrators, demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, picketed at Berth 58, where a ship from Israel’s Zim shipping line is scheduled to dock later today. The day shift of longshoremen agreed not to cross the picket line.

International pressure to end the Gaza closure has increased since Israeli commandos stormed a flotilla of ships attempting to run the blockade on May 31, killing nine people. Last week, Israeli officials announced that they would loosen but not lift the blockade, allowing more goods to enter the impoverished area.

“Our view is that the state of Israel can not engage in acts of piracy and kill people on the high seas and still think their cargo can go anywhere in the world,” said Richard Becker, an organizer with ANSWER, one of many peace and labor groups involved in Sunday’s action.

Becker estimated that 600 to 700 people joined the demonstration, many of them arriving at 5:30 a.m. Oakland police, who estimated the crowd at 500 people, reported no arrests.

The demonstrators want to block the unloading of the Zim ship for a full day. After convincing the day shift of longshoreman to honor the picket line, the demonstrators dispersed around 10 a.m., Becker said. The ship is scheduled to arrive in mid-afternoon, and the demonstrators plan to gather again around 4:30 p.m. and re-establish their picket line before the evening shift of longshoremen arrives at 6 p.m.

E-mail David R. Baker at dbaker@sfchronicle.com.


South African and Israeli apartheid: some comparisons

Filed under: middle east,South Africa — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

Bernard Avishai

Offering left cover for the Obama administration once again, the Nation Magazine provides a platform for Bernard Avishai to attack the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel. Avishai, an adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University and author of “The Hebrew Public”, can best be described as an Israeli dove, an avian species that should probably be replaced by a dodo given its track record.

Despite its rotten politics, Avishai’s article offers some interesting points to consider in its case study comparison of the two campaigns that targeted South Africa and now Israel. He complains that unless the left adopts the strategy used against South Africa, it will fail:

In 1987, when I was an editor of the Harvard Business Review, I interviewed Tony Bloom, CEO of the South African food processing giant Premier Group. Early on, Bloom rejected apartheid’s foundations, and his company hired political detainees after they were released from prison. He had been among the small group of white business leaders who risked all in 1985 to meet with ANC leaders in Zambia—a great turning point. He befriended future South African President Thabo Mbeki and worked to support the transition to democracy. Though he eventually moved to London, he continued to transform his conglomerate into a model postapartheid firm.

Since I have access to the Harvard Business Review, I tracked down this interview and found a key exchange between Avishai and Bloom that anticipated where South Africa was headed after the end of apartheid:

Avishai: Are you worried that “one man, one vote” in South Africa will end free enterprise?

Bloom: The government argues that black independence in the rest of Africa has resulted only in coup and countercoup, chaos, and starvation. This may be true in many cases, but the comparisons get us nowhere. But the results of “one man, one vote”-actually “one person, one vote”- surely depend on when the vote comes and under what conditions. Black rule in South Africa is historically inevitable. The question is, under what conditions is change going to take place? If it comes about at the end of a war of attrition in which racial enmity has escalated to civil violence, then I think the chance of our getting a government of retribution and revenge, a government that might be Marxist-Leninist in its policy, is much greater than if we sit down today to negotiate a joint future with black leaders. Unless whites and blacks find each other, free enterprise will become a victim.

As it turns out, the African National Congress was effectively robbed of its power to wage an armed struggle just around this time. While most of us are familiar (or should be familiar) with the USSR’s determination to throw Nicaragua overboard as part of its “perestroika” adaptation to US imperialist pressure, the ANC was just as much a victim.

As a result of the Tripartite Agreement that ended the war in Angola, the ANC was forced to abandon its bases in Angola and Namibia. Without them, the armed struggle against South Africa was much more difficult to continue. Furthermore, even if the ANC had decided to continue the fight from within South Africa, the USSR would no longer provide arms, a fact that a right-wing newspaper gloated over:

The Washington Times
July 31, 1990, Tuesday, Final Edition

ANC ‘disgusted’ by Pretoria-Moscow amity

The African National Congress is in a fury over the way the Soviet Union, its former ally and arms supplier in the struggle against Pretoria, is now rushing toward reconciliation with the white South African government.

First the Soviet Union ignored its warning against sending the world-famous Moscow Circus to South Africa. Then the Soviets announced last week that they had accepted a $1 billion loan from the South African De Beers group to develop their diamond industry.

De Beers Centenary, the offshore arm of the South African gem giant, will in return get exclusive rights to sell all Soviet rough-diamond exports over the next five years in a contract worth more than $5 billion.

Asked about the diamond deal, the ANC’s official spokesman in Zambia, Tom Sebina, said, “We are disgusted.”

Moscow’s blatant disregard of the international sanctions campaign against South Africa has caught the ANC off guard. It not only demonstrates that the Soviets are totally uninterested in sanctions, but also shows the ANC can no longer count on Soviet assistance in the supply of arms.

Perhaps the South African ruling class and its friends in the West understood that it had little to fear from an end to apartheid since there were signs early on that the ANC leadership’s bark was worse than its bite. One of the most far-sighted imperialist rulers was Britain’s Margaret Thatcher who understood that the ANC could be co-opted with relative ease despite her past intransigence against the BDS campaign of the 1980s.  On July 5th, the Independent reported:

NELSON MANDELA emerged from a three-hour meeting with Margaret Thatcher yesterday praising her stand against apartheid and racism, and thanking her for her help in securing his release from prison.

Mr Mandela said that they did not agree on everything, but there was no hint of criticism of her stand in the past. He said that they concentrated on what they had in common, not what they disagreed about. ”We have never had any quarrel with the British. We have taken different positions on different questions but there was never any enmity or quarrel.”

Mr Mandela added: ”I accept that she is an enemy of apartheid and all kinds of racism. Our differences are in the methods used to dismantle apartheid. From the outset I pointed out that we had a common approach, which we can use in order to seek solutions in regard to our country.”

Clearly Thatcher understood that South Africa would be in safe hands under Nelson Mandela.

So the question is, returning to Bernard Avishai, why could not such an outcome prevail in the Middle East? A kind of one-state resolution based on one person, one vote and even the right of return could bring down the curtain on Zionist conflict with its neighbors. A layer of Palestinian leaders, to use the term loosely, could be co-opted just as the ANC had been. Even the Hamas contingent could probably be assuaged with the proper combination of funding and formal democracy.

To some extent, Avishai’s policy recommendations amount to pure casuistry. He writes, “Is United Technologies bad because one division, Sikorsky, makes Israeli attack helicopters—or is it good because another division, Carrier, makes Palestinian air conditioners?” I would say that if put up to a vote, Palestinians would gladly trade their air conditioners for disabling IDF helicopters, especially after the raid on the Mavi Marmara.

Instead, Avishai recommends a ban on “consumer products like fruit, flowers and Dead Sea mineral creams and shampoos.” Now I have no problem having a rally in front of Ricky’s or Brenner’s chocolate shop in Greenwich Village, but I doubt that this will have much impact on Israeli apartheid.

Indeed, Avishai and other addled liberals at the Nation Magazine (especially Eric Alterman who wrote a letter complaining about the magazine’s failure to take a swipe at Hamas in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara murders) fail to see an essential difference between South Africa and Israel. In Israel, there has been an inexorable transformation of the state into a kind of religious/authoritarian regime that makes it particularly resistant to outside pressure of any sort. The Afrikaners were of course a cauldron of “god gave us this land” zealotry but the big banking and industrial interests were less prone to bible thumping. In the final analysis, they worked behind the scenes with Margaret Thatcher and  Soviet bureaucrats to seal the fate of post-apartheid South Africa, a country now governed by economic rather than racial apartheid.

In a brilliant analysis of the flotilla incident, Norman Finkelstein raised the possibility that Israel had become a lunatic state.

What happened with the Gaza flotilla was not an accident.  You have to remember that the Israeli cabinet met for fully a week.  All the cabinet ministers discussed and deliberated how they would handle the flotilla.  There were numerous reports in the Israeli press, numerous suggestions, numerous recommendations about what to do.  At the end of the day, they decided on a nighttime armed commando raid on a humanitarian convoy.  Israel is now a lunatic state.  It’s a lunatic state with between two and three hundred nuclear devices.  It is threatening war daily against Iran and against Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Hezbollah in Lebanon has already stated on several occasions: if Israel attacks it will retaliate in kind.  Things are getting out of control.  We have to ask ourselves a simple, basic, fundamental question: can a lunatic state like Israel be trusted with two to three hundred nuclear devices when it is now threatening its neighbors Iran and Lebanon with an attack?

Our consciousness tends to lag behind events. With the unemployment rate remaining at 10 percent, with the Gulf of Mexico being turned into a vast dead zone, and with the number one recipient of American foreign aid acting more and more like Nazi Germany after the debacle on the Eastern front, the world cries out for a major challenge to the existing status quo. It is by no means assured that such a challenge will be forthcoming given the reversals of the radical movements for the past 35 years or so. While the Communist Manifesto reads like a breathlessly optimistic vision of the future, we should never forget that includes this warning at the very beginning of chapter one:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

With two to three hundred nuclear bombs, Israel has ever possibility of fulfilling Marx and Engels’s grave warning.

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