Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 31, 2010

Two gangster movies

Filed under: crime,Film — louisproyect @ 11:34 pm

Just by coincidence, two very flawed but interesting gangster movies came my way recently, taking entirely different approaches to their anti-heroes. Both open soon in New York and are worth the price of admission, especially if you can get a senior discount like me.

Jean-Francois Richet’s Mesrine: Killer Instinct is the first part of a biopic about Jacques Mesrine who was public enemy number one for many years in France until he was ambushed and killed by 80 cops in August, 1979. It is deliberately and forcefully anti-romantic. Played skillfully by Vincent Cassel, this is a Mesrine lacking entirely in the bogus chivalry of the Corleone family in Francis Coppola’s classic. You sit through 113 minutes of sheer brutality, mesmerized by Cassel’s ability to convey malevolence and little else.

Quite the opposite, Johnnie To’s Vengeance is a highly romanticized fantasy about Chinese triad gangsters being willing to sacrifice their own lives in a quest to take vengeance on another group of gangsters who left a French restaurateur’s daughter mortally wounded, while killing her Chinese husband and children in a raid. Johnny Halliday, a French rock-and-roll musician from the 1960s–not a very good actor, I’m afraid–plays Francis Costello, the restaurateur who has hired the three hit men he ran into at his hotel just after they finished a contract killing. Yes, friends, Hong Kong movies dote on coincidence. The main appeal of the movie is its stylized camera-work and noirish touches that To has mastered to the point of perfection.

Abdel Raouf Dafri, the son of Algerian immigrants who wrote the screenplay for Mesrine, told the Independent: “The honourable bandit is a meaningless notion.” One can understand why he might be more repelled by Mesrine than the average screenwriter since Mesrine was a veteran of the French army in Algeria, who is seen torturing FLN captives in the beginning of the film. After he returns to France at the end of the war, he joins a gang led by Guido (played brilliantly by Gerard Depardieu who has achieved late Brando proportions) who is an operative in the fascist OAS.

After a crime spree in France has made Mesrine a marked man, wanted both by cops and rival gangsters, he flees to Quebec where he takes a job as a structural ironworker high on top of buildings under construction. One day he strikes up a conversation with a fellow worker up on a girder who turns out to be an operative in the Front de libération du Québec, an urban guerrilla group. Before long they start robbing banks together.

Now all of this might suggest that there might be some interesting political dimensions to the film, given these connections to the ultraright and ultraleft. However, despite the words of the director in the press notes that Mesrine was “a true rebel” who didn’t like the laws, because “they are made for the rich”, none of this can be found in the movie. Perhaps that is because the screenwriter did not see him this way at all. The Independent quotes him:

And Mesrine as a political activist? What a joke! His revolt against the high security prisons? An imposture. [When in prison] he had the screws lighting up his cigars for him…. Let’s get real. Mesrine was a clown.”

Mostly the movie is content to unfold as a series of vignettes, none lasting more than a couple of minutes, that show Mesrine carrying out bold robberies and beating up or killing people who get in his way. Some of this is done with panache, but mostly it is repellent. One scene in particular struck me as the Algerian screenwriter’s manifest desire to portray Mesrine as a disgusting animal. After an Arab pimp has slashed the face of a prostitute that Mesrine had a relationship with, he and Guido take him for the proverbial ride. Sitting between them, the Arab listens to them tell one racist joke after another until they tie him up and shoot him. This bid for realism is commendable, but the net effect is rather like listening to Rush Limbaugh especially in light of everything we know about how Arabs have been treated in “the war on terror”.

Vengeance, the fourth film I have seen by Johnnie To, displays the usual themes and preoccupations of the veteran director. They all involve male bonding, primarily between cops and/or gangsters, and a fatalistic journey toward martyrdom as the main characters give up their lives for some code of honor. A typical To movie includes at least 3 or 4 gun battles that are as choreographed as a Balanchine ballet.

His primary influence would appear to be the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, which also featured stylized gunplay and male bonding. In order to take a Johnnie To movie seriously on its own terms, it is necessary to buy into the idea that a triad gangster would be capable of selfless behavior. In Vengeance the plot revolves around something of a gimmick. The French restaurateur, who was a cop long ago, has a bullet lodged in his head that threatens to erase his memory in Alzheimer fashion. At some point there is a question of whether he remembers that his daughter’s family has been killed, thus allowing his hired assassins to take their money and go on their way. They decide to carry on the struggle nevertheless. I had a hard time believing that a gangster would act in this fashion, but would probably prefer to see this kind of fable most days of the week than sit through another movie featuring the disgusting pig Jacques Mesrine.

The most memorable scene in Vengeance takes place in a park near the seaside late at night, when Costello and his three henchmen corner the hit men who killed his son-in-law and grandchildren. Just when they are ready to take out their guns and open fire, the killers’ wives and kids join them at the picnic table where they are sitting. Costello’s gang sits on top of a hill, waiting to be alone with their rivals. An enormous full moon can be seen in the sky above as the children throw brightly colored Frisbee-like toys in the air that hover like flying saucers as the tension mounts.

There’s nothing like this in Mesrine, a movie that does not flinch from depicting the sheer ugliness and brutality of gangster life. One imagines that it will be harder and harder to romanticize gangsters in movies, given the revulsion felt toward criminal behavior in a period dominated by what some liberal pundits call banksters.

While this is commendable, I am not sure whether this can facilitate fully realized drama based on characters that the audience can identify with. When looking through the press notes for Mesrine, I noticed that Abdel Raouf Dafri was also the screenwriter for A Prophet, a highly touted (97 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) movie about prison life and gangsters that I received countless press invitations but never got around to seeing. An early “rotten” review had convinced me that I probably would have ended up experiencing it with the same sense of dismay as Mesrine:

If you want your melodrama red in tooth and claw, Jacques Audiard’s prison movie A Prophet has been wowing critics and winning awards around the world. I’m only sorry I can’t join in the chorus of wholehearted approval.

It’s the story of Malik (Tahar Rahim), a 19-year-old French thug with Arab origins, coming of age within a brutalising prison system. It’s partly a story of self-education, partly a tale of a man descending into a kind of amoral hell. Most reviews emphasise the first aspect.

Very few point out that the behaviour of the protagonist – which includes several gruesome murders – makes him extremely hard to identify with.

Just around the time that A Prophet was garnering rave reviews, I made the mistake of sitting through another movie about a man descending into a kind of amoral hell. Like Mesrine, this was a biopic about a psychopathic criminal and jailbird.

I am referring to Bronson, a movie about the British criminal Michael Gordon Peterson who named himself after the American movie star famous for his hard-boiled characters, especially in the Death Wish series about an urban vigilante.

The movie consists of one scene after another showing Bronson beating up prison guards or being beaten by them. Like Mesrine, Bronson was a master at manipulating the press in a fashion best known by leftists through the example of Abby Hoffman.

There are a number of set scenes in the movie that pit Bronson against a gang of prison guards determined to beat him into submission. In one confrontation, Bronson strips naked and covers himself with grease, the better to fend up his captor’s fists and clubs.

As is the case with Mesrine, who like Michael Gordon Peterson came from a respectable middle-class family, you don’t have a clue to what drives him to such anti-social behavior. The movies are far less interested in psychology than they are in spectacle. All in all, you are dealing with a carnival freak show reformatted as art movie.

This is what I wrote about Bronson last November:

A major disappointment. Directed by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who brought us the incomparable Pusher trilogy about the dregs of Copenhagen society, this is a character study of a British psychopath named Michael Peterson who spent 34 years in prison (he is still there), 30 of them in solitary confinement. He calls himself Charlie Bronson in homage to the American b-movie actor who practically defined what it means to be a tough buy. An attempt is made to make him interesting in a kind of Jean Genet fashion, but mostly you are left wondering why you spent $10 or so watching a violent prisoner who lives for the day when he can get naked and fight prison guards six at a time. I wasted nearly two hours trying to figure out why I was wasting my time at no expense other than my customary irritation at crappy movies.

Living in a period of diminished cultural as well as economic expectations, one would hope for but remain pessimistic about the rise of a new generation of film makers who first of all understood that if you are going to make a movie about gangsters, you have to make them three-dimensional characters. With the virtual retirement of Francis Ford Coppola and the decline of Martin Scorsese who turned out a pale imitation of “Infernal Affairs”, a Hong Kong masterpiece about triad gangsters, you really have to wonder who is up to the task. There are of course lots of biopics that would be a lot more interesting than Mesrine, even if they fail to include any gunplay. With characters like Bernie Madoff sitting on the throne once occupied by Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel, you’d think that a budding screenwriter would leap at the opportunity to dramatize a real public enemy.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (part one) opens August 13th at the Angelika Theater.

Vengeance will be available as an IFC download from Time-Warner cable on August 4th.

July 30, 2010

Glen Ford: breaking the Obama spell

Filed under: antiwar,Obama — louisproyect @ 2:39 pm

July 29, 2010

Justin Raimondo, the America First Committee and the antiwar left

Filed under: antiwar — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

Justin Raimondo

I think most people who read my blog are aware of a website called antiwar.com that is run by someone named Justin Raimondo. It was launched during Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans and has promoted the same non-intervention principles with respect to the military adventures that appear like clockwork during a period of declining capitalist fortunes.

Unlike such groups as Workers World Party and the CPUSA that have played a role in one antiwar coalition or another since the “war on terror” began, Raimondo identifies with the old right, the isolationist current in American society that found expression in the America First Committee at the beginning of WWII. Raimondo is a libertarian as well and obviously has a strong affinity with the positions taken by Congressman Ron Paul who has been opposed to foreign interventions despite his pro-capitalist politics. For that matter, it is also the orientation of the comedian Bill Maher who wears his libertarian politics proudly.

On the “about us” page at antiwar.com, there’s a tribute to Murray Rothbard, an interesting character who I ran across doing some research on a study of the New Deal that like so many of my projects never came to fruition. One of the books I looked at in conjunction with this project was “A new history of Leviathan; essays on the rise of the American corporate state”, co-edited by Rothbard and Ronald Radosh. At the time (1972) Radosh was still a leftist while Rothbard was at pretty much the same place as Raimondo today. Fortunately this book is downloadable from Scribd and I recommend it strongly as an antidote to the kind of mush-headed liberalism that puts people like Woodrow Wilson and FDR on a pedestal, especially Radosh’s “The Myth of the New Deal”. Rothbard has a couple of essays, including one that makes the case that FDR simply expanded on Herbert Hoover’s own “corporate liberalism”. One wonders if Barack Obama might have been inspired by Rothbard’s essay, but putting the emphasis more on Hoover than FDR after taking office.

Like Radosh, Rothbard grew up as a Red Diaper baby. In the 1950s, he took classes with von Mises at NYU and became a convert to the Austrian school of economics, while politically calling himself an anarcho-capitalist. The wiki on Rothbard establishes the link between him and Raimondo:

During the 1970s and 1980s, Rothbard was active in the Libertarian Party. He was frequently involved in the party’s internal politics. From 1978 to 1983, he was associated with the Libertarian Party Radical Caucus, allying himself with Justin Raimondo, Eric Garris and Williamson Evers.

Rothbard died in 1995 and I guess it is safe to say that Raimondo is carrying a torch for him. It is worth mentioning that he is also openly gay but has derided gay marriage as being “based on a heterosexual model of sexual and emotional relationships, one that just doesn’t fit the gay lifestyle.”

Yesterday Raimondo published an article on antiwar.com that took issue with a small Trotskyist group called Socialist Action that had played a key role in organizing a conference in Connecticut that sought to revivify the antiwar movement. His main objection is that some of the speakers attacked the Tea Party movement and other rightist forces. Since Ron Paul has garnered a great deal of support from the Tea Party, Raimondo was naturally offended. He writes:

Now, I did not attend this conference, and have no idea what the upshot of the discussion was; however, Benjamin and Zeese have expressed their support for such a coalition (the former somewhat tentatively, and the latter with more conviction). [This is a reference to a workshop titled “The Rise of Right Wing Populism & the Tea Party: Do We Need a Right-Left Coalition?”] On the other hand, one can easily imagine that [Glen] Ford, who has called the Ron Paul movement and the tea partiers “racists,” and advocates of “white nationalism,” and Gauvreau, a leftist who spent much of this speech mouthing all the expected slogans, see a left-right coalition as a deadly threat to “their” movement.

Kevin Zeese has advocated building an antiwar coalition with conservative groups in—surprise, surprise—antiwar.com. There is some logic to this since he ran as a Libertarian candidate in 2006, despite his close ties to Ralph Nader. Of course, this makes some sense since Nader’s Jeffersonian embrace of small-town shopkeeper American values overlaps to some extent with far right populism. At times, it would be difficult to distinguish between passages in a Pat Buchanan and a Ralph Nader speech when it comes to “globalization”.

For her part, Medea Benjamin raised the possibility of building an alliance with the Tea Party as reported on Huffington Post last April:

Perhaps the Tea Party and peace folks–unlikely allies–can agree that one way to shrink big government is to rein in military spending. Here are some questions to get the conversation going:

* At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on April 10, Congressman Ron Paul — who has a great following within the Tea Party — chided both conservatives and liberals for their profligate spending on foreign military bases, occupations and maintaining an empire. “We’re running out of money,” he warned. “All empires end for financials [sic] reasons, and that is what the markets are telling us today….We can do better with peace than with war.” Do you agree with Congressman Paul on this?

Now I might be missing something, but I have seen no evidence of Tea Party opposition to the war in Afghanistan, despite Ron Paul’s laudable opposition to that war. Furthermore, it is his son Rand Paul who is much more of the darling of the Tea Party than his dad. You also have to consider that Rand Paul is on record:

Washington Wire: Your father opposed the war in Iraq.

Paul: I would have voted no on the Iraq war and yes to Afghanistan. The main thing I say on war is that we need to obey the law and formally declare war.

This does not seem very promising in terms of coalition building, does it?

Of some interest to me as an amateur historian of American imperialist wars was Justin Raimondo’s praise of America First, a group I knew only by reputation—and not a very good one, I’m afraid. Raimondo writes:

Their [Socialist Action] account of the America First movement repeats all the old Stalinist canards about the biggest peace movement in American history: it was run by big businessmen, it was “anti-Semitic,” it wasn’t really for peace, just pro-Hitler. The article cites the considered opinion of James P. Cannon, the Trotskyist leader at the time, as saying “the ‘isolationists’ in elite circles merely held a tactical difference with those of their peers who were for sending U.S. armaments to Britain.” Their real goal, he thought, was to consolidate their control over the Western hemisphere in preparation for intervening in Europe.

Cannon’s view is nonsensical, as anyone who has read the writings of America First leader and top activist John T. Flynn would readily understand: Flynn was a principled opponent of US intervention abroad, because he understood what turn of the century liberal Randolph Bourne meant when he said “War is the health of the State.” Flynn and his co-thinkers wanted to limit the power of the American state – a goal not shared by Trotsky’s disciples.

In any case, what the Socialist Actioneers fail to note, in their endless polemic, is that the America First Committee mobilized millions against the war: it had 800,000 members (dues-paying members, I might add), and a Washington lobby that very nearly sunk Roosevelt’s ever-accelerating drive to drag us into war in Europe. Massive rallies conducted on a nationwide scale kept the Roosevelt administration in check, right up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The War Party had to take the “back door to war,” as one historian put it, in order to get us in.

In a way, all of this is moot for a couple of reasons. Raimondo fails to point out that America First was opposed to building any kind of coalition with the left, including the CP when it was dovetailing politically with isolationists during the short-lived Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact. If, by the way, you want to get a good idea about CP thinking during this period, you should watch the movie “Woman of the Year” that starred Spencer Tracy as a left-leaning isolationist and Katherine Hepburn as an ardent interventionist, evoking women like the awful Samantha Power. Or you can listen to the Woody Guthrie song “Washington Breakdown” that included this lyric:

Franklin D., listen to me, You ain’t gonna send me across the sea, ‘Cross the sea, ‘cross the sea. You may say it’s for defense, It’s that kind of talk I’m against…

But even more importantly, America First fell apart almost immediately after Pearl Harbor. In an article titled “The America First Committee”, written by Wayne Cole for the Winter 1951 edition of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, we learn:

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the death blow for America First. The Committee statement on December 7 urged its followers “to give their support to the effort of this country until the conflict with Japan is brought to a successful conclusion.” On December 11, 1941, the national committee voted to dissolve the America First Committee, and its followers were again urged to support the war effort. All that remained was the dreary task of dissolution.

Apparently the America First Committee was just as capable of turning on a dime politically as the Communist Party. Whether that turn is based on the exigencies facing the Kremlin or America’s corporate brass—an element of which that largely comprised the America First Committee—hardly matters when it comes to the all-important question of war and peace.

July 28, 2010

Israel, South Africa and the single state non-solution

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

Ali Abunimah

For well over five years, there has been a steady stream of articles in the liberal and radical press—both online and in print—for a “one state” solution in the Middle East. In contrast to the revolutionary socialist call for a democratic and secular Palestine, this one-state solution grants either implicitly or explicitly the Jewish character of the state and the participation of Palestinians in the occupied territories as citizens with the same rights as those now living in Israel proper. More recently, these advocates of what amounts to a Greater Israel have been encouraged by support for a single state solution by rightist politicians, seeing this as analogous to De Klerk coming around to the idea of ending apartheid. Do these ideas have any merit? I don’t think so.

One of the more prominent spokesmen for this approach is Tony Judt, who has evolved into a target of the Israel lobby. Judt, like many other American Jewish intellectuals, has understandably become appalled by the realities of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the punishment of Gaza. He expressed his hopes for an end to this nightmare for the Palestinian people in a 2003 New York Review article titled Israel: the Alternative.

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

Perhaps I haven’t been paying attention carefully, but the world has not moved on when it comes to individual rights and open frontiers, especially during a period of declining economic indicators. Judt seems to have pinned his hopes on an outcome that is virtually excluded in an epoch that is generating the same kind of xenophobia that victimized the Jews in the 1930s.

The London Review of Books, a journal inspired by the New York Review but with politics more closely aligned with the left, hosted a like-minded article by Virginia Tilley that appeared in late 2003 as well. Tilley is an American professor who has contributed to the New Left Review and is now working for a progressive think tank based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Titled One State Solution, Tilley reprises Judt’s argument and provides some policy recommendations that would make the new state more equitable:

The long-established role of the Jewish Agency, which administers Jewish national resources and privileges in Israel, would have to be re-examined. Electoral politics and Knesset representation would also be transformed, to permit legislative debate on the basis of equal ethnic standing. Alterations to the Basic Laws, or the creation of a secular constitution, could ensure that Israel continues to safeguard Jewish lives and rights, providing the sanctuary which many Jews in Israel and abroad remain anxious to preserve. But the same basic law would have to ensure Muslim, Christian and, indeed, agnostic/ atheist rights, and eliminate – at least juridically – any institutionalised hierarchy on ethnic or religious lines. Such a transition would require years of debate and struggle – and a political will now glaringly absent. Truth commissions and/or a general amnesty might eventually surmount the legacy of violence and hatred, but as in all such aftermaths, the process will take generations.

While these changes in and of themselves are not objectionable, they do not address the fundamental cause of inequality in the region, namely the ethnic cleansing that robbed Palestinians of their land and houses, in some cases owned by families for hundreds of years. It would be analogous to a post-Civil War Reconstruction in the USA that failed to grant land to the former slaves.

Perhaps the highest profile on the left for the single state solution is Ali Abunimah who wrote One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse in 2007, a book that can be read on Google Books, with the customary omissions, including all of chapter four “Learning from South Africa”.

Fortunately, we can look elsewhere to understand the basis for his comparison. In 2006, Abunimah wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune titled South Africa as a model for one state in Palestine that argued:

Allister Sparks, the legendary editor of the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail newspaper, observed that the conflict in South Africa most resembled those in Northern Ireland and Palestine-Israel, because each involved “two ethno-nationalisms” in a seemingly irreconcilable rivalry for the “same piece of territory.” If the prospect of “one secular country shared by all” seems “unthinkable” in Palestine-Israel today, then it is possible to appreciate how unlikely such a solution once seemed in South Africa. But “that is what we did,” Sparks says, “without any foreign negotiator [and] no handshakes on the White House lawn.”

Now, four years later, Abunimah finds events moving slowly but perhaps inexorably in the direction of a post-apartheid Israel:

By the mid-1980s, whites overwhelmingly understood that the apartheid status quo was untenable and they began to consider “reform” proposals that fell very far short of the African National Congress’ demands for a universal franchise — one-person, one-vote in a nonracial South Africa. The reforms began with the 1984 introduction of a tricameral parliament with separate chambers for whites, coloreds and Indians (none for blacks), with whites retaining overall control.

The fact that it is elements of the Israeli hard right like Moshe Arens who are raising the possibility of a one-state solution rather than the Labor Zionists convinces Abunimah that Israel might be on the same track:

That proposals for a single state are coming from the Israeli right should not be so surprising in light of experiences in comparable situations. In South Africa, it was not the traditional white liberal critics of apartheid who oversaw the system’s dismantling, but the National Party which had built apartheid in the first place. In Northern Ireland, it was not “moderate” unionists and nationalists like David Trimble and John Hume who finally made power-sharing under the 1998 Belfast Agreement function, but the long-time rejectionists of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, and the nationalist Sinn Fein, whose leaders had close ties the IRA.

Am I the only person troubled by such analogies? If there is anything that can be learned from the South African and Northern Ireland experience, it is that the oppressed nationality gained very little except for formal democratic rights. If South African blacks, except for a privileged and decadent minority, still lack property, what good is the right to vote? Furthermore, being part of the “peace process” in Northern Ireland is not very reassuring when it comes to the role of one David Trimble, named to the committee established by Israel to whitewash the murder of 9 peace activists on the Mavi Marmara.

Trimble was a leader of the Unionist Party in Northern Ireland who amounted to the Irish De Klerk. Since being named to the panel, Trimble got involved with another project:

Initiated and led by Spain’s former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, a group of international leaders is to meet in Paris on Monday night to launch the “Friends of Israel Initiative,” a new project in defense of Israel’s right to exist.

The leaders – who include the Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble, Peru’s former president Alejandro Toledo, Italian philosopher Marcelo Pear, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and British historian Andrew Roberts – say they seek to counter the attempts to delegitimize the State of Israel and its right to live in peace within safe and defensible borders.

Their launch meeting Monday will be addressed by the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold. On Tuesday, they will release a formal manifesto at a press conference in the French capital.

The initiative is being launched now, its sponsors said in a statement, because of their outrage and concern about the “unprecedented delegitimation campaign against Israel, driven by the enemies of the Jewish state and perversely assumed by numerous international authorities.”

Just the right man to sit in judgment on whether or not Israel was guilty of war crimes or not.

Unfortunately, what is missing entirely from the calculations of Tony Judt, Virginia Tilley and Ali Abunimah is the question of class. Analogies with South Africa and Northern Ireland are most unfortunate since they elide the basic question of who rules. As long as a society exists on the basis of social and economic inequality, there can be no true democracy. Institutional racism in South Africa, Northern Ireland and Israel effectively precludes the possibility of true equality.

July 25, 2010

Suze Rotolo’s “A Freewheelin’ Time”

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

If there’s any kind of book that makes it to the head of the line on my reading queue, it is one that deals with the folk music revival. When I got to Bard College in September 1961, it was in full swing as this frame from my memoir illustrates. I am the nerdy 16-year-old in suspenders to the left. Don’t ask where the artist got the idea for the suspenders.

These are the books that I have read that cover this period. Except for the first one, I have also written reviews.

1. Robbie Lieberman, “When We Were Good: the folk revival”

2. Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald: “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” (Dave van Ronk bio)

3.  David Hajdu: Positively 4th Street (About Dylan and Joan Baez, and Richard and Mimi Fariña. Mimi was Joan’s sister.)

(2 & 3 were reviewed here: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy38.html)

4. Bob Dylan “Chronicles volume 1”, reviewed here: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy29.html

I am now reading Suze Rotolo’s “A Freewheelin’ Time: a memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties”, which is absolutely first-rate. If you are a Bob Dylan fan, you’ll know that she was his girl friend when he was first coming up in the early sixties. You can see her on the cover of “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, hence the title of the book.

Rotolo’s book is not really the typical book written by someone fortunate or unfortunate enough to be the lover or mate of a celebrity. The book is much more of an attempt to capture the spirit of the age and to put Dylan into that larger context.

Furthermore, Rotolo was a red diaper baby and in a unique position to describe the role of people like Pete Seeger in helping to create an alternative to mainstream culture, in much the same way that the beat generation had done.

Finally, as should be obvious from this excerpt, Rotolo is a first-rate writer:

McCarthyism reigned supreme during the 1950s, its influence—like a slowly retreating flood—permeated the decade, and the damage left in its wake was evident in the beginning of the next one. In the span of ten years Stalin had died and the Rosenbergs had been sent to the electric chair. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, was elected president in 1952 and served two terms. A notable act he was responsible for, in addition to deny­ing executive clemency to the Rosenbergs, was completely desegregating the armed forces.

Since we didn’t own a television set until 1957, the radio and the phonograph held sway. The music we listened to included recordings of folk music from around the world, the Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday records my mother loved, opera arias my father sang along with, classical music, and Toscanini conducting the NBC Radio Or­chestra. A program called Make-Believe Ballroom delivered mostly bland popular music until the day the DJ placed a single titled “Sh-Boom” on the turntable, inaugurating the arrival of rock and roll on mainstream radio.

Folk music had been sidelined as being for radicals, especially after the nationally known folk group the Weavers, with the Communist Party member Pete Seeger on banjo and vocals, had become victims of the blacklist, making it impossible for them to appear on TV or in concert halls and clubs. The Cold War had hit its stride.

My sister Carla was seventeen in 1958, in her first year at Hunter College. She had a group of friends whose families had a political background similar to ours. I was a with­drawn fourteen-year-old, and our mother might have asked her to take me under her wing. For whatever reason, she de­cided to bring me along to a party she was going to. She and a girlfriend put a few tissues in my bra, undid my ponytail, and gave me a cute skirt to wear so that I’d look less like a kid. I was still very awkward, but progress was being made. They schooled me in a few dance moves and made sure I knew the words to the Gene Vincent song “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” I was happy. Usually my sister treated me like a bug she needed to swat away, but life had radically changed a few months previously with the death of our father, and now I was getting some friendly attention.

I had a great time at the party. There was no way to hide in a corner with this group. Right away a few boys headed my way, to my amazement. In school I was another sort of bug, to be avoided by boys and even some of the girls. In con­trast, this party was heaven. I felt less like an outsider with these people. We actually had things to talk about. One boy read the same poetry I did and told me he was learning to play classical guitar. The other boy liked opera; I didn’t think anybody knew about opera but my family, some of our friends, and the man who played it on the radio. He invited me on a date (a date!!) to go to the Amato Opera House on the Bowery to see a performance of La Boheme the following week. The boy who read poetry looked a little miffed. I lied and said I was fifteen when he asked my age and for my phone number. He was sixteen, and I thought he was very intelligent.

After that life definitely improved. I was more confi­dent and my circle of friends gradually grew over the next few years. Most of them lived farther out in Queens than I did or out on Long Island. Because we went to different high schools, we would arrange to meet in the Square (as Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village was called) to listen to the folk musicians who gathered there to play on Sundays. Folk music was the antiestablishment music, the music of the left. In addition to traditional folk songs there were songs about unions and fighting fascists, about brotherhood, equality, and peace.

Most of us were children of Communists or socialists, red-diaper babies raised on Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Pete Seeger. We had listened to Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festi­val on the radio while still in our cribs. The pop radio stations played ridiculous treacle, the worst of which was a song called “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” sung by Patti Page.

Late at night Carla and I would listen to WWVA, a coun­try music radio station out of Wheeling, West Virginia. We heard Les Paul and Mary Ford, Hank Williams, Faron Young, the Everly Brothers, and others on a program called Grand Ole Opry. This was new and exciting for us; I adored the Everly Brothers and Hank Williams, especially.

The atmosphere in Washington Square Park was lively. Groups of musicians would play and sing anything from old folk songs to bluegrass. Old Italian men from the neighbor­hood played their folk music on mandolins. Everyone played around the fountain and people would wander from group to group, listening and maybe singing along. A banjo player gave me an ebony banjo peg and I wore it on a string around my neck for a long time. There were poets reading their poems and political types handing out fliers for Trotskyist, Communist, or anarchist meetings and hawking their newspapers. Children played in the playground while their mothers talked together on the benches. The occasional re­ligious zealot held forth, waving a Bible, haranguing sinners about redemption. Everything overlapped nicely.

1 looked forward to Sunday in the Square with my friends and to that particular atmosphere. On Friday or Saturday nights we would meet and go to folk concerts—hootenannies—at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall, and a concert hall that no longer exists and whose location I no longer remember, the Pythian. Pete Seeger, who personified the power of folk song, was the draw, heading the roster of a list of perform­ers that included his sister Peggy Seeger and her husband, Ewan MacColl, who sat on a chair on the stage with his hand cupped around his ear singing Scottish ballads and sea chanties a cappella.

July 24, 2010

Are recessions better for the right or the left?

Filed under: aging,economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

Phil Gasper

Doug Henwood

This is a contribution to the debate between Phil Gasper, a philosophy professor and long-time member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and Doug Henwood who really needs no introduction.

In the latest issue of International Socialist Review, the ISO magazine, Gasper has an article titled Economic crisis and class struggle that poses the question whether recessions are better for the right or the left, which is directed at Doug’s article on MRZine that begins:

For a long time, I’ve been critical of the left-wing penchant for economic crisis.  Many radicals have fantasized that a serious recession — or depression — would lead to mass radicalization, as scales simultaneously fell from millions of pairs of eyes and the imperative of transcending capitalism became self-evidently obvious.  I’ve long thought that was nonsense, and now there’s empirical support for my position.

Doug bases his conclusion on a paper by Markus Brückner and Hans Peter Grüner that shows “recessions boost the vote for extreme right-wing and nationalist parties.” The authors promised to send Doug statistics for left-wing parties but he has not posted anything about it yet on his website. I doubt if those numbers will do anything to change Doug’s mind but my sense of European politics is that both the extreme right and the radical left are growing. In France, the NPA has probably quadrupled in size in the past 5 years or so, while Die Linke in Germany and other such parties are making headway. Meanwhile, Greece is going up in flames even if there is no meaningful way of correlating that to the growth of the electoral left, a questionable criterion perhaps in light of the tendency of the mass movement to vote with its feet.

Doug concludes his article with a warning about a repeat of the 1930s, which many socialists have an attachment to as the last hurrah of the industrial working class:  “And that Great Depression didn’t do much for the left in Europe.  So please, let’s put this one away and stop hoping for the worst.”

In a sense, it is difficult to answer something like this since it turns the economic meltdown of the 1930s into some kind of catalyst that is expected to produce predictable results, like throwing a match into a jar of gasoline. It doesn’t work that way. Economic crisis simply polarizes society into warring camps, as the street battles of the Weimar Republic bear out. The victory of the left rests on its ability to fight intelligently. As Phil Gasper pointed out, the left could have triumphed over Hitler in Germany if it had simply run a common electoral slate.

In some ways, attempts to establish a direct link between economic collapse and the triumph of socialism err on the side of economic determinism and its second cousin vulgar Marxism. That being said, it is understandable why Marxists would be riveted on economic crisis since it does have an impact on the way people view society. In Marx’s own writings, there are frequent references to the connections between crisis and revolution, including an article co-written with Engels that appeared in the 1850 Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue. They write a bit breathlessly, sounding like our friend Patrick Bond:

The results of the commercial crisis now impending will be more serious than ever before. It coincides with the agricultural crisis, which began with the abolition of corn tariffs in England and has increased as a result of the recent good harvests. For the first time England is experiencing at the same time an industrial and an agricultural crisis. This dual crisis in England will be accelerated, widened in scope and made even more explosive by the convulsions, which are now simultaneously imminent on the Continent; and the continental revolution will take on an unprecedentedly socialist character as a result of the repercussions of the English crisis on the world market. It is a known fact that no European country will be hit so directly, to such an extent and with such intensity as Germany. The reason is simple: Germany represents England’s biggest continental market, and the main German exports, wool and grain, have by far their most important outlet in England. History is most happily summed up in this epigram addressed to the apostles of order: while inadequate consumption drives the working classes to revolt, overproduction drives the upper classes to bankruptcy.

Now as it turned out this was a bit simplistic. The first genuinely socialist revolt took place 21 years after this article was written and the immediate cause was working-class unrest in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war that was not specifically related to an economic crisis. The revolt grew out of long-standing grievances over exploitation in general.

If economic suffering, such as the unemployment and home foreclosures taking place today–what Marx and Engels refer to as the “inadequate consumption” that “drives the working classes to revolt”–can lead in some cases to radical action, then perhaps recessions are “good for the left” in a perverse sense.

There is a long-standing tradition that leans in that direction, a tendency that might be described as “the worse, the better”. If Doug is taking aim at that mistaken view, then I am with him one hundred percent.

The man likely to have coined this phrase is one Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, a founder of Russian populism who lived from 1828 to 1889 and who was a major influence on Lenin and Emma Goldman, among others. He is reputed to have used the phrase “the worse the better” to indicate that the worse that social conditions became for the poor, the more inclined they would be to launch a revolution. Chernyshevsky wrote a novel “What is to be Done” whose title Lenin borrowed for his 1903 pamphlet. The highly informative wiki on Chernyshevsky states:

The novel was an inspiration to many later Russian revolutionaries, who sought to emulate the novel’s hero, who was wholly dedicated to the revolution, ascetic in his habits and ruthlessly disciplined, to the point of sleeping on a bed of nails and eating only meat in order to build strength for the Revolution. Among those who took inspiration from the character was Lenin, who wrote a work of political theory of the same name, and who was ascetic in his personal life (lifting weights, having little time for love, and so on).

I never knew about Lenin lifting weights or having little time for love. Is that an urban legend possibly, like him saying that the “Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”? Hmm, I wonder.

If there is one thing that militates against “the worse, the better”, it is the experience of Africa over the past 25 years or so. In country after country, the standard of living has dropped precipitously but without leading to revolution anywhere. Mostly you see internecine warfare, xenophobia in South Africa, and a general social atomization. In this respect, I think that Doug is quite correct. Immiseration is generally a guarantee of one thing and one thing only, that people will become miserable. How they react to that misery has a lot to do with pre-existing political conditions, which in Africa have been fairly weak.

Finally, I want to address the question of what Doug calls “hoping for the worst”. In my view, it is insane to welcome an economic crisis in the “worse, the better” sense. When the stock market tanked in 2008 and homes began being foreclosed at a record rate, I reacted the same way I reacted to the start of the war in Iraq in 2003 or to the news of the BP spill—with horror.

On a personal level, it has touched one of my oldest and closest friends in the most devastating fashion. This is a guy one week younger than me that I grew up with in the Catskills. Just over six months ago he lost his job as a salesman and went on unemployment. A year before he lost his job, he lost 50 percent of the value of his retirement plan. And two months ago when he was up in my apartment using my high-speed connection to look at some job-related websites, I noticed a tremor in his left hand. Perhaps being in denial, he had been ignoring it. When I asked him about the tremor, he said that he would make an appointment right away. He has since learned that he is in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease.

So here we have a sixty-five year old guy with a major medical condition who needs to work since the Social Security payments and unemployment are insufficient to make ends meet. He has lost over $100,000 in the Wall Street casino through no fault of his own. And lately he has been worried about whether Washington would extend unemployment benefits.

This is happening in one form or another all across the country. It is suffering on a mass scale. I have no idea whether this will lead to the growth of the left. All I know is that the left has an obligation to put forward a strategy for the unemployed and the working class that is in their interests rather than big capital.

We do not “hope” for such disasters. All we know is that they occur with alarming frequency in the period of capitalist decline. Rather than speculating on whether such events are to our benefit or not, we should think about how to get off the treadmill once and for all, so that everybody—including my old friend—can lead decent lives without worrying where their next meal is coming from.

Red Jackman

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 12:52 am

Scandalize my Name: Stories from the Blacklist

So I’m sitting in the third row at the Brecht Forum last Thursday night waiting for Michael Yates to begin his talk on his new book “Why Unions Matter” and guess who I run into? None other than Red Jackman, the barfly and Shachtmanite I haven’t seen since 1975 from Club 55 down on Christopher Street in the Village. The Club 55 was where Red held court. It was a hangout for beatniks and 1950s radicals, especially those with connections to the Trotskyist movement. I used to drink there with my friend Nelson, who was editor of the Trotskyist newspaper The Militant, whose offices were 5 blocks away on the Hudson.

Red was a raconteur and a ne’er-do-well charmer, who was either being thrown out of his apartment by a girlfriend or wife, or out of the Club 55 by the bartender. After Michael’s talk, Red went up to him and told him how much he appreciated it. He told a funny story about some Shachtmanites he knew who had ended up in the International Department of the AFL-CIO reporting to Jay Lovestone. When the Bolivian revolution broke out in 1953, these two ended up down there like Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern trying to promote AFL-CIO influence, even though they were still left-wingers.

They ended up getting kidnapped by the miners, who took them back to their clandestine headquarters. They plead their case with the miners, in fear of their lives. Who could blame them for being scared, since the miners were fierce-looking Quechuans who carried around dynamite sticks to throw at the army. When the miners learned that the two Americans were Shachtmanites, the mood changed completely. Drinks were served and a convivial debate opened up which lasted through the night about the class nature of the Soviet Union, with half the miners insisting in orthodox Trotskyist fashion that it was a degenerated workers state and the other half defending Shachtman’s “third camp” position. It turned out that the miners union was a Trotskyist stronghold.

I was so surprised to see that Red was still alive after a lifetime of drinking that when I got home that evening I called Nelson to tell him the news.


* * * *

Just received a minute ago:

Hello Louis,

I am writing a profile of Red Jackman who lives on Staten Island now and came to the attention of Beth Gorrie who directs a community reading project called Staten Island OutLOUD. I am sure that does not need much explaining. Having met him once, it seems like he comes to the attention of someone everywhere he goes.

But here is a bit of explanation. He was at a Fourth of July reading of the Declaration of Independence and so captivated the crowd with his part that Beth tapped him to come to the next event, a reading of “Moby Dick” to read the part of Ahab.   My story is being timed with the upcoming annual Moby Dick reading of OutLOUD in which he will reprise his role.

I read your piece from Scandalize My Name that mentions Red with an affection that resonated with my interview of him in which he talked about “21” , the March on Selma and NY Times photo, as well as his coming around to being a Christian Marxist, all told with good humor and good storytelling while sitting on his porch.

It sounds as if his drinking kept him from being taken too seriously, but having met him sober, the intelligence and idealism behind the humor and storytelling is something that has stayed with me.

I guess I just wanted to touch base to see if my impression resonates with you.

Kathryn Carse
People and Places
Shores section
Staten Island Advance

July 22, 2010

The Dry Land; Tirador

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Distinguished by gritty naturalism and compassion for society’s underdogs, “The Dry Land” and “Tirador” should be on the a-list of New Yorkers unwilling to waste money on the latest Hollywood summer blockbuster. “The Dry Land”, which opens on July 30, is the story of a Iraq war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, while “Tirador” examines a different kind of stress, that which faces Filipino slum dwellers on a daily basis.

I was prepared to be disappointed with “The Dry Land”, assuming that it would be filled with clichés about burned out ex-soldiers. After seeing the overhyped “The Hurt Locker”, I had made up my mind that unless a movie had some politics about the war, it was probably not worth my time. I was wrong. Despite sticking pretty much to the formula of “Stop Loss”, another movie about Iraqi war veterans suffering from PST, as well as earlier exercises such as “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Best Years of our Lives”, “The Dry Land” is distinguished by its verisimilitude and avoidance of pat redemptive “messages”.

The movie begins with James (Ryan O’Nan) landing at the El Paso airport, the West Texas “dry land” alluded to in the title. He is greeted there by his wife Sara (America Ferrara, the star of the ABC show “Ugly Betty”), who drives him to their trailer home where friends and relatives come for a return home party. When he is asked by his brother-in-law how many terrorists he killed, he winces and says he doesn’t know. In fact James has no memory of the traumatic rocket attack on his humvee that left two of his buddies dead.

On his first night in bed with Sara, he puts her into a choke-hold while he is asleep. She only saves herself by biting his arm.

Returning to civilian life entails getting a job at the cattle yard run by his father-in-law. The film shows James looking in horror at a steer getting killed by an electric baton and then being gutted. After a couple of days on the job, he goes out drinking with a couple of co-workers who decide to go out shooting rabbits afterwards. James, who has nodded out in their pick-up truck, awakens to the sound of gunfire and goes berserk and pummels one of them into unconsciousness.

The remainder of the film is devoted to James’s desperate search to figure out what is troubling him, including the loss of memory over what happened in Iraq. He decides to make an odyssey to Walter Reed Hospital, where one of the survivors of the attack will hopefully fill him in on what happened.

None of this sounds particularly compelling, I imagine, in comparison to the high drama of something like “The Hurt Locker” but you realize within a few minutes that “The Dry Land” is a much more compelling story about painful adjustment to civilian life, since it is told with scrupulous attention to how Iraq war veterans really live. First-time director Ryan Piers Williams began researching the case studies of returning soldiers in 2005 and only put together a story after he was sure that had a story right. He clearly did.

The movie is steeped in authenticity, including the west Texas drawl that the actors were coached in. Among the top-notch cast, Ryan O’Nan must be singled out for an amazing performance delivered mostly through facial gestures and body language. He is eminently believable as an Iraq war veteran and will earn my NYCO nomination as breakthrough actor of the year, as will Ryan Piers Williams for directing debut.

“The Dry Land” opens at the Empire 25 Theater in NY and at the UA 14 Theater in Los Angeles on July 30th. Highly recommended.

Opening at the Indiehouse Theater (http://www.producersclub.com/indiehouse-cinema.html) on Friday, “Tirador” (Slingshot) is directed by Brillante Mendoza, the winner of the best director award at Cannes last year against a competition that included Ang Lee and Quentin Tarantino.

The movie is unlike anything I have ever seen before in my 50 year search for innovative and inspired film-making. It is an utterly unstinting look at the lives of poor people in a Manila slum who we first meet in a police raid on their ramshackle tenement as the film opens. In keeping with the kaleidoscopic character of the entire film, the hand-held cameras follow the cops as they wend their way through each room, each with their own drama.

We see a man lying in bed with a pained expression on his face and his anxious companion at his side. Get up and come downstairs, the cops order them. The cops are told that he is too sick with arthritis to get up. A minute after the cops leave, the “sick” man jumps to his feet and gathers together his stolen merchandise with his henchman. Everybody in “Tirador” is some kind of petty thief, including the cops who beat and torture a teenage boy until he discloses the location of his loot.

The moral landscape of “Tirador” will remind you of Luis Buñuel’s 1950 masterpiece “Los Olvidados”, a portrait of youthful delinquents in Mexico City’s slums. Ironically, Mexico City and Manila have identical histories, originating with the Spanish Empire of the 17th century. Indeed, the characters in “Tirador” (a Spanish word) all have Spanish names, as does the director. Despite Buñuel and Mendoza’s sympathies for the wretched of the earth, their characters are not beautiful souls like the Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath”. Their immediate relatives would be the thieves of “Threepenny Opera”.

Unlike nearly all movies, there are no central characters in “Tirador”. Instead, we meet a dozen or so figures who we spend no more than 10 minutes with until the action proceeds elsewhere. In this breathlessly paced movie filmed on location in a Manila slum, you see oblique social commentary that is much sharper than found in movies with a more heavy-handed propaganda goal, including most neo-realist works. In one scene, as one of the characters is fleeing with a necklace that he has stolen from a young woman on the street, you see a couple of pale-faced Mormon missionaries in his path. You can only assume that they have about as much chance of converting Satan in this god-forsaken slum.

Some critics have linked Mendoza to the Dogme 95 movement, which includes precepts such as the need to film on location and the use of hand-held cameras, both of which “Tirador” adheres to. However, the sensibility of “Tirador” could not be more unlike the irony-laden works of people like Lars Von Trier. This is a cry from the heart rather than a postmodernist smirk.

The main inspiration for Brillante Mendoza would be the great Filipino director Lino Brocka who died in 1991 at the age of 52. Openly gay, Brocka sought to tell the story of his country’s downtrodden, even though—ironically—he was a convert to Mormonism. Imprisoned during the Marcos dictatorship, he continued to oppose Cory Aquinos’s government for failing to redress the country’s inequalities.

Both Mendoza and Brocka’s movies are available from Netflix and stand head and shoulders over the “new releases” crap highlighted there. Unfortunately, Mendoza’s “Lola” is not yet available there. From this interview conducted with the great director by the World Socialist Website’s Richard Phillips, you would presumably be as anxious as me to see it:

RP: What inspired Lola?

BM: My stories are all about real people. For example, my writer and I saw a television news item about a grandmother seeking help for the release of her grandson who had been jailed because he had accidentally killed somebody. And then we heard about another item about an old lady begging for money to be able to bury her grandson. We tried to connect these two stories and put them into a narrative and that’s how the story developed. There were some revisions along the way, of course.

Lola was developed about three years ago but I was unable to find a producer. I submitted it to several international script development funds but without success until I won at Cannes [for Kinatay (2009)]. After that I was able to persuade my producer that we had to do this film.

RP: Could you further elaborate on the story?

BM: It’s about of two women in their twilight years who are trying to help the people that they really love. It’s not just about poverty but also the resilience of these old Filipino women who might not have great physical strength but have tremendous will power.

When you’re poor you really don’t have many choices and that’s what you see in the film. For the less fortunate and less privileged, life is very difficult and I want to show this reality in my films—even if it goes against what official society perceives to be right and good.

This is my approach because I believe in the truth and trying to make my films as honest as I can. Not only must the acting be truthful, but the cinematography, production design and all other aspects. And I always try to have the particular communities playing a major part in all my films. This is necessary in order for us to understand what their lives are really like. For instance in Lola there’s a lot of rain and I did this in order to show what difficulties this creates for these communities. I wanted this ambience and the constant movement of water. Rain is a metaphor for life and for death. It is the source of life but at the same time it can be the source of destruction and catastrophe, which not only happens in Manila but many parts of the world.

July 21, 2010

Turks hanging out, playing music

Filed under: music,Turkey — louisproyect @ 9:21 pm

From Jeff Newelt, the editor of the Pekar Project

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

Harvey Pekar to be buried next to Eliot Ness — If any fans of Harvey would like to donate needed funds to help defray the costs of everything from groceries to granite, they can PAYPAL a donation to Harvey’s wife Joyce Brabner, and donate to HPEKAR@aol.com at PAYPAL.

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