Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 15, 2011

I Saw the Devil; Poetry

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Two new South Korean movies deepen my conviction that this country is producing some of the finest in the world. Furthermore, one of them, “Poetry”, is directed by Lee Chang-dong who I am now convinced should be grouped with the greatest directors of the past half-century, including Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembene and Akira Kurosawa. Given the names of these three directors, it should be obvious where my preferences lie. I have a deep love for films that display an affection and respect for the salt of the earth, especially when they reach the level of fine art.

While not quite ascending to this rarefied level, Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil”, which opens on March 4th at the IFC Center in New York, is a roller coaster ride of a thriller that features two of Korea’s top actors in a cat-and-mouse revenge tale of the kind that Korean audiences dote on. Kim is a master of genre-bending, with a horror movie (A Tale of Two Sisters) and a “Western” (The Good, the Bad and the Weird) that takes place on the Mongolian steppes in the 1930s to his credit.

“I Saw the Devil” is a mixture of Hollywood serial killer movies, particularly those based on the Hannibal Lecter tales, and a genre that is unique to Korea in many ways, the revenge tale that was perfected by Park Chan-wook in his Vengeance Trilogy, of which “Oldboy” is the most popular installment.

Choi Min-sik, who was the tormented victim seeking revenge in “Oldboy”, plays Kyung-chul, the serial killer in “I Saw the Devil”. The husband of the woman he has killed in the opening moments becomes his relentless pursuer seeking revenge. When a search party turns up his wife’s severed head in the marshes not far from Kyung-chul’s home, Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hyun, a star of “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) vows to make the killer suffer just as much as his wife did in Kyung-chul’s torture chamber. Soo-hyun is surely capable of inflicting such punishment since he is an elite special agent of the Korean security forces. It turned out that Kyung-chul picked out the wrong person to kill.

Not only is Soo-hyun determined to track the killer down, he will not be satisfied by taking his life. Instead, after he finds and beats him into unconsciousness, he puts an electronic tracking device down his gullet that will allow him to follow his every step. When the spirit moves him, especially when Kyung-chul is about to take a new victim, Soo-hyun steps in and delivers a new round of beatings to the mystified serial killer. How does that guy keep finding me?

Director Kim Jee-woon proclaims deeper philosophical goals for his latest genre-bender, even quoting Nietzsche in the press notes: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” But—thankfully—the film is much more about action than meditation. From the moment it starts until its macabre conclusion, this is an exciting, often darkly comic, movie that Hollywood is no longer capable of making.

If you are looking for an escapist joy-ride that will send shivers down your spine, then I can’t recommend “I Saw the Devil” highly enough.

Defying conventional expectations of how to write a lead character, director Lee Chang-dong’s screenplay revolves around Yang Mija, a 66-year-old woman living on a government pension and working as a part-time maid for an elderly male stroke victim. Not only is she not rich and powerful, she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Imagine trying to sell such a script to the Hollywood studios that foisted “Inception” and “The Social Network” on us.

Mija cares for her teen-age grandson Wook, who returns her maternal care with one insult after another. His room is filthy and he expects to be waited on hand and foot by granny.

In the opening scene, young children playing by a nearby river spot a dead body floating toward them, a local high school girl who has committed suicide. After leaving a doctor’s office at the city hospital where she is first told that she might be senile, Mija spots the mother of the dead girl crying inconsolably near the ambulance that contains the body. When she returns home, she asks her grandson if he knew the girl. He shrugs his shoulders and says he does not, expressing no sorrow over the suicide of a classmate. He is obviously missing some basic human feelings.

A day or so later, Mija notices a flyer for a poetry workshop at a nearby adult learning center and decides to enroll in the class, even though the enrollment period is past. She tells the registrar that she might be good at poetry since she was supposedly saying “odd things” all the time when she was young. The class is one of the few places in her dreary suburban neighborhood that provides an escape from caring for her lout of a grandson and the elderly man who relies on her for his most basic needs, including baths, while verbally abusing her.

When she asks the instructor where an inspiration for a poem should come from, he tells her to look closely at objects in nature and try to see them for the first time and find words to express her wonder over them. Since she loves flowers, this does not seem impossible. She begins to carry around a notebook with her and finds words to describe camellias and other beautiful objects even though the word “bleach” has escaped her, as she confides to a doctor. She can only remember “Clorox”.

Some days later, a father of one of Wook’s high-school buddies shows up at Mija’s home and mysteriously tells her that she has to come with him to meet with four other fathers of members of Wook’s clique. They meet at a private room in a restaurant, where she is informed that 6 boys, including Wook, had been serially raping the girl whose body had been floating down the river in the opening scene. Their cruelty and her shame had made her decide to kill herself. But not all is lost, the men tell Mija. The girl’s mother has agreed to a pay-off. As long as the boys’ parents can come up with the cash, she won’t go to the cops. This presents Mija with a dilemma. A welfare recipient and a part-time maid, she would never be able to come up with her share.

There are elements of “Poetry” that can be found in earlier movies by Lee Chang-dong. Like his most recent Secret Sunshine, this is a tale about a woman suffering from a mental impairment in a small, conventionally minded if not stifling, provincial Korean city whose illness sets her apart from her neighbors. Also, like Peppermint Candy, it is a powerful indictment of sexism. With the fathers discussing the settlement as if their sons were in an automobile accident and toasting each other with bottles of beer once they learned that the girl’s mother had accepted, there is not much to distinguish them morally from their rapist sons. Indeed, it is implicit that they are accessories after the fact.

Yang Mija is a character of enormous complexity, even though she is what one might consider a most ordinary human being. As a symbol of the director’s worldview, her yearnings for another more aesthetic experience are in sharp, if not tragic, distinction from the confinements of a meager social existence. This is compounded by her status as an older woman suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Lee Chang-dong’s development of this character is a major accomplishment, ranking in some ways with the classic fiction of a Chekhov or a Tolstoy. Perhaps his prior career as a novelist gives him a leg up. In any case, he has a special genius for creating powerful drama out of the lives of people who live ostensibly undramatic lives.

In one of the most astonishing scenes, Mija visits the mother of the dead girl in order to convince her to accept the payoff. The mother, a farmer, is working in the nearby fields. When Mija approaches her, the sheer beauty of the mountains and the flowers that surround the fields overwhelm her and she forgets to bring up the topic that brought her there, a function no doubt of the Alzheimer’s as well. The poignancy of the exchange between the two women will linger with you after seeing the film, perhaps for decades.

Yoon Jeong-hee, who was born in 1944 and who was one of Korea’s top actresses in the 60s and 70s, plays Yang Mija. She came out of retirement to work with Lee Chang-dong in a film for the ages.

Usually, I don’t quote other film reviews here but I was struck by what the New York Times had to say. If you aren’t ready to accept the word of the Unrepentant Marxist, then at least be guided by the newspaper of record. It might get war and unemployment wrong, but on movies it can be reliable–some of the time.

Out of pain, Mija finds a way to see, really see the world, with its flowers, rustling trees, laughing people and cruelties, and in doing so turns reality into art, tragedy into the sublime. It’s an extraordinary transformation, one that emerges through seemingly unconnected narrative fragments, tenderly observed moments and a formal rigor that might go unnoticed. Yet everything pieces together in this heartbreaking film — motifs and actions in the opening are mirrored in the last scenes — including flowers, those that bewitch Mija outside the restaurant and those in a vase at the dead girl’s house. The river that flows in the opening shot streams through the last image too, less a circle than a continuum.

At one point, Mija asks her poetry teacher with almost comic innocence, “When does a ‘poetic inspiration’ come?” It doesn’t, he replies, you must beg for it. “Where must I go?” she persists. He says that she must wander around, seek it out, but that it’s there, right where she stands. In truth, there is poetry everywhere, including in those who pass through her life, at times invisibly, like the handicapped retiree (Kim Hira) she cares for part time, a husk of a man whom she will at last also see clearly. The question that she doesn’t ask is the why of art. She doesn’t have to because the film — itself an example of how art allows us to rise out of ourselves to feel for another through imaginative sympathy — answers that question beautifully.

“Poetry” is now playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and elsewhere around the country. It is not to be missed.

February 14, 2011

George Shearing is dead

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

NY Times February 14, 2011
George Shearing, ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ Jazz Virtuoso, Dies at 91

George Shearing, the British piano virtuoso who overcame blindness to become a worldwide jazz star, and whose composition “Lullaby of Birdland” became an enduring jazz standard, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 91.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his manager, Dale Sheets. Mr. Shearing had homes in Manhattan and Lee, Mass.

In 1949, just two years after Mr. Shearing immigrated to the United States, his recording of “September in the Rain” became an international hit. Its success established him as a hot property on the jazz nightclub and concert circuit. It established something else as well: the signature sound of the George Shearing Quintet, which was not quite like anything listeners had heard before — or have heard since.

“When the quintet came out on 1949, it was a very placid and peaceful sound, coming on the end of a very frantic and frenetic era known as bebop,” Mr. Shearing said in a 1995 interview on the Web site newyorkcritic.org. What he was aiming for, he said, was “a full block sound, which, if it was scored for saxophones, would sound like the Glenn Miller sound. And coming at the end of the frenetic bebop era, the timing seemed to be right.”

The Shearing sound — which had the harmonic complexity of bebop but eschewed bebop’s ferocious energy — was built on the unusual instrumentation of vibraphone, guitar, piano, bass and drums. To get the “full block sound” he wanted, he had the vibraphone double what his right hand played and the guitar double the left. That sound came to represent the essence of sophisticated hip for countless listeners worldwide who preferred their jazz on the gentle side.


* * * *

Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”:

Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o’clock. Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer’s-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go!” Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. “That’s right!” Dean said. “Yes!” Shearing smiled, he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. “God’s empty chair,” he said. On the piano a horn sat; its golden shadow made a strange reflection along the desert caravan painted on the wall behind the drums. God was gone; it was the silence of his departure. It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night. Dean was popeyed with awe. This madness would lead nowhere.

What is the connection between Otpor and the Egyptian youth movement?

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

On February fourth, I blogged about different aspects of the Egyptian revolution, including its challenge to those who might possibly explain it as fomented by the State Department, the CIA, or Soros-type NGO’s. I wrote:

Ever since the Balkan Wars, many leftists have understandably fallen victim to a kind of mechanical anti-imperialism in which politics is reduced to looking for clues of American support for dissidents overseas. While there is no question that such a methodology works well for Yugoslavia, Lebanon, or Georgia, it cannot do proper justice to the movement against Ahmadinejad in Iran or against Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Imperialism, for its own reasons, will often place money on a horse. It will also place money on two different horses in the same race, in an effort to hedge its bets. Considering how Goldman-Sachs routinely doles out millions to Democrats and Republicans alike in the same presidential race, this should not come as any surprise.

In a remarkable article in the NY Times today (A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History) detailing the origins of the protest movement in Tunisia and Egypt, there’s much more information on the NGO tie-in:

The Egyptian revolt was years in the making. Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, first became engaged in a political movement known as Kefaya, or Enough, in about 2005. Mr. Maher and others organized their own brigade, Youth for Change. But they could not muster enough followers; arrests decimated their leadership ranks, and many of those left became mired in the timid, legally recognized opposition parties. “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said Mr. Maher, who has since been arrested four times…

For their part, Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp. The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability.

The April 6 Youth Movement modeled its logo — a vaguely Soviet looking red and white clenched fist—after Otpor’s, and some of its members traveled to Serbia to meet with Otpor activists.

Another influence, several said, was a group of Egyptian expatriates in their 30s who set up an organization in Qatar called the Academy of Change, which promotes ideas drawn in part on Mr. Sharp’s work. One of the group’s organizers, Hisham Morsy, was arrested during the Cairo protests and remained in detention.

If you are susceptible to mechanical thinking, the connection to Otpor would automatically lead you to conclude that the revolt in Egypt was tainted. After all, Otpor was in the vanguard to overthrow one of the few opponents of NATO in Eastern Europe, Slobodan Milosevic’s government in Serbia.

On November 26, 2000 an article by Roger Cohen titled “Who Really Brought Down Milosevic?” appeared in the Magazine section of the Sunday NY Times. Cohen wrote:

American assistance to Otpor and the 18 parties that ultimately ousted Milosevic is still a highly sensitive subject. But Paul B. McCarthy, an official with the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, is ready to divulge some details. McCarthy sits in Belgrade’s central Moskva Hotel, enjoying the satisfaction of being in a country that had long been off limits to him under Milosevic. When he and his colleagues first heard of Otpor, he says, ”the Fascistic look of that flag with the fist scared some of us.” But these feelings quickly changed…

”And so,” McCarthy says, ”from August 1999 the dollars started to flow to Otpor pretty significantly.” Of the almost $3 million spent by his group in Serbia since September 1998, he says, ”Otpor was certainly the largest recipient.” The money went into Otpor accounts outside Serbia. At the same time, McCarthy held a series of meetings with the movement’s leaders in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and in Szeged and Budapest in Hungary. Homen, at 28 one of Otpor’s senior members, was one of McCarthy’s interlocutors. ”We had a lot of financial help from Western nongovernmental organizations,” Homen says. ”And also some Western governmental organizations.”

The National Endowment for Democracy first came to prominence during Reagan’s war against Nicaragua. It poured millions into the coffers of the anti-Sandinista parties and generally operated as a wing of the counter-revolution. It has tried to destabilize Venezuela and Cuba in the recent past.

If the NED operates as governmental body against states deemed inimical to U.S. interests, Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution seeks more or less the same goals operating as an NGO. Sharp receives major funding from Peter Ackerman, a leveraged buyout operator at Drexel-Burnham in the 1970s who was Sharp’s student at Tufts. Ackerman set up his own NGO with ambitions similar to the Albert Einstein Institution. It calls itself the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and has played a prominent role in “colored revolutions” in the recent past. Venezuelan activist Eva Golinger has written about its role in her own country and elsewhere:

In 1983, the strategy of overthrowing inconvenient governments and calling it “democracy promotion” was born.

Through the creation of a series of quasi-private “foundations”, such as Albert Einstein Institute (AEI), National Endowment for Democracy (NED), International Republican Institute (IRI), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House and later the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC), Washington began to filter funding and strategic aid to political parties and groups abroad that promoted US agenda in nations with insubordinate governments.

Behind all these “foundations” and “institutes” is the US Agency for Inter- national Development (USAID), the financial branch of the Department of State. Today, USAID has become a critical part of the security, intelligence and defense axis in Washington. In 2009, the Interagency Counterinsurgency Initiative became official doctrine in the US. Now, USAID is the principal entity that promotes the economic and strategic interests of the US across the globe as part of counterinsurgency operations. Its departments dedicated to transition initiatives, reconstruction, conflict management, economic development, governance and democracy are the main venues through which millions of dollars are filtered from Washington to political parties, NGOs, student organizations and movements that promote US agenda worldwide. Wherever a coup d’etat, a colored revolution or a regime change favorable to US interests occurs, USAID and its flow of dollars is there.

How Does a Colored Revolution Work?

The recipe is always the same. Student and youth movements lead the way with a fresh face, attracting others to join in as though it were the fashion, the cool thing to do. There’s always a logo, a color, a marketing strategy. In Serbia, the group OTPOR, which led the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, hit the streets with t-shirts, posters and flags boasting a fist in black and white, their symbol of resistance. In Ukraine, the logo remained the same, but the color changed to orange. In Georgia, it was a rose-colored fist, and in Venezuela, instead of the closed fist, the hands are open, in black and white, to add a little variety.

Given all this irrefutable evidence, how can one possibly distinguish the revolt against Mubarak from Otpor or any other reactionary student/middle-class movement seeking to promote “civil society” and oppose “dictatorship”, even when the targets are like Hugo Chavez who has been elected time after time without using intimidation of any sort?

On first blush, the Egyptian youth movement has the same class composition as Otpor or the anti-Chavez movement in Venezuela. Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing director who has emerged as a leader of the movement, told the Wall Street Journal that after meeting with military leaders: “In summary of our meeting, I trust in the Egyptian army.” This would lead you to think that such middle-class activists are already lining up behind the counter-revolution.

But things are not that simple. In the N.Y. Times article discussed above, we learn that the April 6th Youth Movement has what we in the Trotskyist movement used to call a proletarian orientation:

The Egyptian revolt was years in the making. Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, first became engaged in a political movement known as Kefaya, or Enough, in about 2005. Mr. Maher and others organized their own brigade, Youth for Change. But they could not muster enough followers; arrests decimated their leadership ranks, and many of those left became mired in the timid, legally recognized opposition parties. “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said Mr. Maher, who has since been arrested four times.

By 2008, many of the young organizers had retreated to their computer keyboards and turned into bloggers, attempting to raise support for a wave of isolated labor strikes set off by government privatizations and runaway inflation.

After a strike that March in the city of Mahalla, Egypt, Mr. Maher and his friends called for a nationwide general strike for April 6. To promote it, they set up a Facebook group that became the nexus of their movement, which they were determined to keep independent from any of the established political groups. Bad weather turned the strike into a nonevent in most places, but in Mahalla a demonstration by the workers’ families led to a violent police crackdown — the first major labor confrontation in years.

Just a few months later, after a strike in the Tunisian city of Hawd el-Mongamy, a group of young online organizers followed the same model, setting up what became the Progressive Youth of Tunisia. The organizers in both countries began exchanging their experiences over Facebook. The Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent. “We shared our experience with strikes and blogging,” Mr. Maher recalled.

If the ostensible goal of any group supported by Gene Sharp or the NED is to support capitalist stability, this support for workers strikes would defy expectations. This, of course, is not a problem for those Marxists who understand that society is pervaded by what Hegel called contradictions.

In one of the best attempts to explain such phenomena in the Marxist movement, Leon Trotsky’s Learn to Think challenges mechanical attempts to simply reality. He writes:

Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.

Is there any real difference between such a hypothetical situation and the NED or Gene Sharp throwing their support behind the student youth in Egypt? I would say no.

Trotsky’s warning about the need to understand contradiction is one of my favorite quotes from the great Russian revolutionary:

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.

That is our task as well. We have to orient ourselves independently and not on the basis of the class enemy’s bet-hedging strategies. While it is true that the U.S. has funded Mubarak’s opposition, it has given much more to the Egyptian kleptocracy. In a 2009 article in Foreign Policy (Don’t Give Up on Egypt ), Andrew Albertson and Stephen McInerney pointed out:

The Obama administration has drastically scaled back its financial support for Egyptian activists fighting for political reform. US democracy and governance funding was slashed by 60 percent. From 2004 to 2009, the US spent less than $250M on democracy programs, but $7.8 billion on aid to the Egyptian military.

For those who harp on the 250 million dollars while ignoring the $7.8 billion on aid to the military, my only advice is to “learn to think”.

February 12, 2011

WikiLeaks versus OpenLeaks

Filed under: Wikileaks — louisproyect @ 10:48 pm

Julian Assange

Daniel Domscheidt-Berg

In the very week in which Julian Assange is in court to block being extradited to Sweden to stand trial for sex crimes, a tell-all book titled “Inside WikiLeaks” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former associate who grew estranged from the WikiLeaks founder, will be released in Germany and in the USA. As might be expected, the author has been given ample coverage in the bourgeois press. His charges against Assange are obviously intended to accelerate the process of destroying WikiLeaks. In addition to his accusations against Assange, which jibe with NY Times editor Bill Keller (paranoid, etc.), Daniel Domscheit-Berg has launched his own website called OpenLeaks that promises to be more “responsible”. I, for one, am in favor of irresponsibility—at least as defined by people like Keller and Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

Given the steady drumbeat of bad publicity, it is not surprising that even the left has piled on. In Truthdig.com, a ‘zine that has written favorably about Assange in the past, you can find a review of Domscheit-Berg’s book that I find credulous. The author is one Laurel Maury, who is described as having written for the LA Times and NPR in the past—something that sets off an alarm for me right off the bat.

The review takes Domscheit-Berg’s accusations at face value:

The litany of lies, low-level abuse and social transgressions that the author attributes to Assange is disturbing. He claims that this notoriously peripatetic soul has always been deeply paranoid. His accusation is probably true; in reacting to an article on WikiLeaks that ran in Wired, Assange accused the article writer of calling for his assassination. And if Domscheit-Berg’s retelling of facts is correct, the WikiLeaks founder has a “free and easy relationship to the truth,” and is cagey and secretive concerning money. He’s also sexually profligate, and turns vicious toward anyone who criticizes him, even when that criticism is well-meaning and constructive, and he seems to have difficulty relinquishing control.

To Truthdig’s credit, they have a rather lively commenting community—far better than anything I have seen on the leftwing of the Internet by far. I have put in my own two cents from time to time, especially after I read some particularly annoying pro-Obama piece by E.J. Dionne. Here is a representative comment on Maury’s article:

The article states that the author of this book himself claims to have sabotaged Wikileaks’ ability to receive documents. If true, then the author has sabotaged one of the world’s most vital journalistic enterprises. If false, then the author is a liar who is trying to undermine the credibility of…one of the world’s most vital journalistic enterprises. Yet the author of this review fails to point this out, and in fact seems to promote the book as some kind of credible “insider’s view.” How distressing that such a review should appear on a site called “TruthDig.” Does the author think that this name means “dig a hole for the truth and bury it there?”

At least one website has failed to be as impressed by Domscheit-Berg’s accusations as Ms. Maury. The Raw Story reports:

Daniel Domscheit-Berg accuses WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of many things in his book presented Thursday, but perhaps the oddest allegation is that he abused the former insider’s cat.

“Julian was constantly battling for dominance, even with my tomcat Herr Schmitt,” Domscheit-Berg says in his book “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website.”

“Ever since Julian lived with me in Wiesbaden he (the cat) has suffered from psychosis. Julian would constantly attack the animal. He would spread out his fingers like a fork and grab the cat’s throat.”

Well, who knows. Maybe the cat reminded him of Paul Wolfowitz.

With respect to the charge of espionage above, Ms. Maury reported:

Also, WikiLeaks was turned into a strong, secure system not by Assange, the book alleges, but by the mysterious architect, whom Domscheit-Berg described as the real “in-house genius.” It was the architect who locked up the submissions platform and left at the same time as Domscheit-Berg. A perceptive reader might suspect that, if these two men used high-end encryption protocols and locked up documents as well, it may be that the WikiLeaks system must be rebuilt from the ground up, and that some leaked data will be forever lost to the site.

No wonder Domscheit-Berg is getting such favorable attention in the bourgeois press. What the CIA and its friends worldwide could not accomplish, these creeps managed to pull off: a locked-up submissions platform.

For the best report on how Domscheit-Berg seeks a housebroken version of WikiLeaks, I refer you to a blog entry by Andy Greenberg on Forbes Magazine, a publication that obviously has a vested interest as a “capitalist tool” in shutting down WikiLeaks. Greenberg writes:

The German Domscheit-Berg, along with several other former Wikileaks staffers, plans to launch a website they’re calling OpenLeaks as early as next week, Domscheit-Berg told Forbes in an interview. Like WikiLeaks, the new site will allow leakers to anonymously submit information to a secure online dropbox. But unlike its parent site, it won’t publish that information itself. Instead, it will allow the source to designate any media or non-governmental organizations he or she chooses and have that information passed on for fact-checking, redaction and publication. That difference, argues Domscheit-Berg, will allow OpenLeaks to accomplish much of the transparency achieved by WikiLeaks, without drawing the same political fury and legal pressure.

Without drawing the same political fury and legal pressure? Right. Just what we need now. Why put up with all the street demonstrations in Tunisia that were triggered in part by Wikileak revelations on the profligacy of the country’s rulers. The revolt in Tunisia only served to provoke “political fury” in Egypt and we can’t have that, can we. I can just imagine OpenLeaks turning over a bunch of leaked documents to the New York Times about, for example, the CIA operating secretly in Venezuela and saying, “Here, Mr. Keller, please considering publishing this if it passes muster. I am sure your readers would be vitally interested in finding out the truth.”

Make no mistake about it. The powers that be do not want anything like WikiLeaks operating out there. Not only does the CIA want to put it out of business, so do major corporations who worry about their dirty linen ending up on WikiLeaks. So desperate they are to keep things secret that they have effectively organized their own private CIA to subvert the whistle-blowers, as today’s New York Times reports:

A fight between a group of pro-WikiLeaks hackers and a California-based Internet security business has opened a window onto the secretive world of private companies that offer to help corporations investigate and discredit their critics.

This week, hackers said they had penetrated the computers of HBGary Federal, a security company that sells investigative services to corporations, and posted tens of thousands of what appear to be its internal company e-mails on the Internet.

The documents appear to include pitches for unseemly ways to undermine adversaries of Bank of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, like doing background research on their critics and then distributing fake documents to embarrass them.

The bank and the chamber do not appear to have directly solicited the spylike services of HBGary Federal. Rather, HBGary Federal offered to do the work for Hunton & Williams, a corporate law firm that has represented them.

Considering the impact that Wikileaks has had on world affairs in the past few months, there is little question that something like it is needed. Whatever Julian Assange’s sins, he had the foresight to launch a whistle-blowing outlet that has had a role in massive social change. The left has a responsibility to support him in his ongoing efforts until someone more credible and more mature comes along. Considering the willingness of OpenLeaks to accommodate itself to the status quo, it is urgent that people with technical skills step forward and help overcome the temporary damage that Domscheit-Berg and his co-conspirators have wrought. We are at a moment in history when the ruling class has shown how vulnerable it is to the truth. With the failure of the bourgeois press to fulfill its responsibility to its readers, we need an alternative media with WikiLeaks in the vanguard.

February 11, 2011

Bard College luminaries: enemies of democracy in the Middle East

Filed under: bard college,middle east — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Jonathan Cristol

Sari Nusseibeh

Despite Bard College’s admittedly fading radical reputation, the school has made it its business to hire professors with conventional State Department outlooks for key social science positions. They all fit neatly into the New York Review of Books/New Republic/Atlantic Monthly constellation of received wisdom. Those who stray outside this framework of liberal pieties, like Joel Kovel, are likely to incur the wrath of President-for-life Leon Botstein, the school’s dear leader.

A friend alerted me yesterday to a blog article on the American Interest website written by Jonathan Cristol, the director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs (BGIA) Program. A careful study of Cristol’s writings will lead you to the conclusion that the department is dedicated to promoting globalization, or what we Marxists call imperialism. On January 29th, Cristol offered this opinion on developments in Tunisia and Egypt:

Am I really arguing that these states should brutally suppress the protestors and that the United States should encourage them to do so? Not really. The optics of America supporting brutal suppression would not be good for Washington. However, if these governments wish to stay in power, the best means of doing so is to scare the people sufficiently enough to stop them from marching through the street.

Cristol puts forward the same arguments heard from John Bolton, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and all of the other cruddy right-wing pinheads who pollute the airwaves from their roost at Fox-TV or the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal:

Maybe liberty and justice are indeed for all, but these particular protests are not necessarily good for the United States. America’s love of democracy sometimes blinds us to the potential results of the democratic process (re: Gaza) and to the fact that liberty and democracy do not always go hand in hand.

What a pig.

It should be noted that Cristol got his B.A. at Bard College, proof that the school is turning out clones of board member Martin Peretz under the Botstein regime. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s, most students aspired to be beat poets or advertising copy writers—at worst. Now it turns out open enemies of democracy.

Cristol first came to my attention last May during the course of some research on the school in conjunction with a movie I made about going to an alumni weekend. I discovered that he was responsible for a joint studies program with the U.S. Military Academy:

In the program’s first year, Bard and West Point students took joint seminars each semester on international relations theory taught by Jonathan Cristol, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, and Scott Silverstone, Associate Professor of International Relations at the United States Military Academy. The classes met jointly several times during term, with Bard students visiting West Point and cadets traveling to Annandale-on-Hudson. In the fall, Silverstone gave a well-attended public lecture at Bard entitled ‘Preventive War, American Democracy, and the Challenge of a Shifting Threat Environment.’ In May, six Bard seniors attended West Point’s Project’s Day, and presented the findings of their senior theses to West Point faculty and cadets.

Frankly, I have a different idea about what constitutes a “Threat Environment” than Cristol or Silverstone. For me, it is the Pentagon, where Silverstone once worked in the department of Naval Operations, and the ideological apparatus run by warhawk intellectuals like Jonathan Cristol or Paul Wolfowitz.

Cristol has a most interesting CV. Before coming to Bard in 2003, he was an analyst of Middle Eastern politics for the Intellibridge Corporation. I bet you can guess what kind of outfit Intellibridge is. It was founded in 1998 by David Rothkopf, formerly the managing director of Kissinger Associates and co-run by Anthony Lake, the U.S. Vice Consul in Vietnam from 1963 to 1965 and Clinton’s National Security Advisor.

Back in 2002, our friends at Counterpunch wrote about Intellibridge’s work with Enron:

In the wake of the California electricity “crisis” last year, Enron hired a Washington, D.C., consultancy, headed by a former Clinton administration official, to improve the public image of the giant energy trader. From early last summer until Enron filed for bankruptcy on Dec. 2, 2001, Intellibridge Corp. essentially served as an independent “propaganda” arm for Enron, developing a news Web site and organizing conferences, which brought regulatory, political, media and business leaders together to discuss the merits of Enron’s vision for restructuring the electric power industry across the United States.

Prior to the revelations of its off-balance-sheet partnerships last October, Enron’s biggest concern had been fallout from California and how other states may become scared to enact their own forms of electric and gas restructuring programs that possibly would benefit Enron and other non-utility energy marketing companies. Through its connections in D.C.’s closely tied political and international business world, Intellibridge landed the multi-million dollar contract with Enron.

Is there any doubt that Enron picked out exactly the right firm to advance its interests in Washington?

When Al-Quds University in Jerusalem formed a partnership with Bard College in 2008, this became a convenient defense against charges that the school was hostile to the Palestinian cause. Those who were upset with Joel Kovel’s termination were told that the ties with Al-Quds proved that Kovel’s pro-Palestinian writings were beside the point.

A deeper reading of the Al-Quds partnership will reveal that it was actually consistent with what happened to Kovel since there is ample evidence that Sari Nusseibeh, the school’s president, is a willing partner in denying the rights of the Palestinian people.

In the latest New York Review of Books, David Shulman reviews Nusseibeh’s What Is a Palestinian State Worth? The book defends a one-state solution that would leave Palestinian with civil rights, but forgo anything resembling self-determination. Shulman comments:

What this means is that Palestinians would renounce political rights—such as voting for the Knesset and serving in high government office and in the army—but receive basic civil rights: health insurance, social security, freedom of speech and movement, education, legal self-defense, and so on. They would be subjects but not citizens of the joint Israeli-Palestinian entity, which would be owned and run by the Jews. As Nusseibeh notes, there is already in place a precedent for some such arrangement: the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in East Jerusalem have lived like this for the past forty-three years.

How remarkable that a Palestinian notable would look to the situation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem as a model for anything except second-class citizenship. Shulman, by no means a Kovel type commentator, notes:

Nusseibeh’s proposal is clearly meant to challenge the political elites on both sides to think seriously about what lies around the next turn in the road or after the next terrible explosion. Even so, it seems not a little disingenuous. Booker T. Washington famously proposed something rather like it for African-Americans—the so-called Atlanta compromise—in 1895; it was, of course, almost immediately superseded. Can one really separate political from civil rights? Is that what most Palestinians want or need?

So that’s what a Bard College globalization professor and a Palestinian hireling of the school amount to: apologists for dictatorship and dispossession. What a sad state of affairs for a school that once had a very good reputation but poor finances. It is to Leon Botstein’s everlasting shame that he has turned this upside down. With every new million dollars he raises, the school’s good name goes deeper and deeper into the sewer.

February 10, 2011


Filed under: crime,Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

Over the years, automobile crashes have become apt symbols in a group of movies attempting to make big statements about society. Perhaps the most profound was Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend” that featured a long tracking shot of a traffic jam on a French country road that culminated in a shocking car wreck with mangled bodies strewn across the road. That pivotal scene was an introduction to the remainder of the film that depicted a France descending into barbarism.

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s Paul Haggis’s “Crash”, a movie that preaches “understanding” as a way for the races to reconcile. Orchestrated over a series of fender benders, the film exhibits Hollywood liberalism at its most meretricious. Apparently, Haggis just resigned from Scientology after 35 years in protest over the cult’s opposition to gay marriage. Now that would be a plot for a movie I’d much prefer to see.

The most recent entrant into the field is Carancho, an Argentine film directed by Pablo Trapero that opens at the Angelica Film Center in NY tomorrow. I have seen Trapero’s Crane World, a powerful neorealist study of a crane operator, as well as El Bonaerense, a documentary-like feature about police corruption in Buenos Aires. Crane World is available from Netflix and I recommend it highly.

Carancho is the Spanish word for vulture and refers to the main character, an ambulance-chasing lawyer who preys on the families of the dead and those injured in car crashes. While Trapero is aspiring for social commentary in the same way as Godard and Haggis, he is also insistent on the more mundane aspects of a problem which is decimating Argentina. The film opens with words to this effect on the screen (these were taken from the press notes):

In Argentina, more than eight thousand people die every year in road accidents at a daily average of twenty-two. More than a hundred and twenty thousand are injured. Only the last decade has seen one hundred thousand deaths. The millions of pesos that every victim represents in medical and legal expenses produces an enormous market, supported by the compensations of insurance companies and the weakness of the law. Behind every tragedy, there is an industry.

We first meet the lawyer Sosa at a funeral where he is being punched and kicked by a couple of burly surviving relatives for representing himself as a friend of the deceased and a fan of the same soccer team the dead man followed religiously. Suspecting rightly that he was a shyster, the relatives ask him to name the team. After Sosa answers incorrectly, they pummel him. Lying on the ground, he keeps naming other teams—incorrectly—and receives fresh blows for his efforts.

His shady business brings him into contact eventually with a young female doctor named Luján who works the night shift in an ambulance. Without wasting any time, the two end up as passionate lovers even though she understands that he is a carancho. Her own social isolation working at nights might have something to do with this, but Sosa has a real charisma despite his tawdry background. On their first date, he bets her that if two cars go through a red light at the nearby intersection, she will have to let him kiss her. She ups the ante to four. After 6 cars ignore the red light, they kiss. In the very next scene, they are undressing each other in Luján’s bedroom.

Sosa is played by Ricardo Darín, one of Argentina’s most respected actors. He plays Sosa as a kind of tarnished Bogart-like figure. Darín was Marcos, the senior partner of younger con man in “Nine Queens”, a similar role. Middle-aged and a bit overweight, Sosa has an insouciant charm that Luján finds irresistible. She is played by Martina Gusman who has starred in other Trapero movies, including El Bonaerense, and co-founded a film production company with him in 2002. She is excellent.

In the press notes, interviewer Michael Guillén asks Trapero for his thoughts on a comment by Eduardo Galeano:

Galeano argues that there is nothing accidental about car wrecks; that, in fact, from the moment cars were manufactured and set loose on the roadways car wrecks were inevitable. He said a better word to describe a car wreck would be “a consequence”, rather than “an accident”.

If Trapero is intent on describing the consequences of the automobile on Argentine society, he seeks to it not as a documentary film-maker would. Instead, his approach is that of the film noir director for whom the crashes—always occurring at night—serve as a kind of deux ex machina that drives the plot forward, with ever-increasingly ghastly results. When Trapero decides to break with the gangsters who employ him, they threaten both his life and Luján’s. In the stunning climax, the conflict between man and man, and man and machine is resolved in chilling fashion.

February 8, 2011

Stieg Larsson’s prescience

Filed under: financial crisis,literature — louisproyect @ 11:58 pm

Stieg Larsson

To start off, this is a spoiler alert. The passage cited below comes from the final pages of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, the first in a series of 3 manuscripts turned into a Swedish publisher in 2004, just before the author died. If you plan to see the excellent Swedish movie based on the novel or read the novel itself, be forewarned that this passage amounts to a kind of surprise ending. When I read it today, I was struck by how much it anticipated the collapse in 2008, even though the triggering event was the exposure of a Swedish financier running a criminal enterprise rather than subprime mortgages. It would have been lovely to see Stieg Larsson commenting on all this, as well as the Wikileaks maelstrom. Computer hacking plays a major role in this novel, as well as the author’s leftwing sympathies.

* * * *

Blomkvist was especially pleased with one exchange when he watched a video of his appearance. The interview was broadcast live at the very moment when the Stockholm Stock . Exchange found itself in freefall and a handful of financial yuppies were threatening to throw themselves out of windows. He was asked what was Millennium’s responsibility with regard to the fact that Sweden’s economy was now headed for a crash.

“The idea that Sweden’s economy is headed for a crash is nonsense,” Blomkvist said.

The host of She on TV4 looked perplexed. His reply did not follow the pattern she had expected, and she was forced to improvise. Blomkvist got the follow-up question he was hoping for. “We’re experiencing the largest single drop in the history of the Swedish stock exchange—and you think that’s nonsense?”

“You have to distinguish between two things—the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day. There are telephones from Ericsson, cars from Volvo, chickens from Scan, and shipments from Kiruna to Skovde. That’s the Swedish economy, and it’s just as strong or weak today as it was a week ago.”

He paused for effect and took a sip of water.

“The Stock Exchange is something very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people from one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions, more or less. It doesn’t have a thing to do with reality or with the Swedish economy.”

“So you’re saying that it doesn’t matter if the Stock Exchange drops like a rock?”

“No, it doesn’t matter at all,” Blomkvist said in a voice so weary and resigned that he sounded like some sort of oracle. His words would be quoted many times over the following year. Then he went on.

“It only means that a bunch of heavy speculators are now moving their shareholdings from Swedish companies to German ones. So it’s the financial gnomes that some tough reporter should identify and expose as traitors. They’re the ones who are systematically and perhaps deliberately damaging the Swedish economy in order to satisfy the profit interests of their clients.”

Then She on TV4 made the mistake of asking exactly the question that Blomkvist had hoped for.

“And so you think that the media don’t have any responsibility?”

“Oh yes, the media do have an enormous responsibility. For at least twenty years many financial reporters have refrained from scrutinising Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. On the contrary, they have actually helped to build up his prestige by publishing brainless, idolatrous portraits. If they had been doing their work properly, we would not find ourselves in this situation today.”

February 6, 2011

Walk like an Egyptian

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 3:55 am

February 5, 2011

Mad Men

Filed under: feminism,repression,television — louisproyect @ 11:15 pm

Having finished watching season one of “Mad Men” a week or so ago, I had made plans to write something about it eventually. After reading a rather provocative attack on the AMC series–now in its third season–in the New York Review of Books, I decided to move it to the front burner.

Although this cable TV show has garnered lots of attention, I suppose it would make sense to provide some background on the show for readers who do not have cable. Season one of “Mad Men” begins in 1960 and takes place in the office of a mid-sized advertising agency in Manhattan and in the homes of its major characters.

The main character is Don Draper, who is the creative director of the agency and the most sympathetic member of a largely unattractive cast ensemble. Played to a tee by Jon Hamm, Don Draper is a strong silent type who would have been played by Robert Mitchum in bygone eras. He is the typical alpha male constantly putting down challenges to his authority from those lower in the pecking order.

His nemesis is a sniveling Ivy Leaguer and junior copywriter named Pete Campbell whose sense of privilege collides with his lowly status and constantly brings him into conflict with Don Draper who grew up in poverty but managed to climb his way to the top through dint of his ability to dream up ads that would seduce an American population hungry for consumer goods.

Two equally obnoxious partners, each in their own way, run the agency. Roger Sterling Jr. (John Slattery) is a fortyish roué who suffers a heart attack in season one. Since he is a chain smoker (like practically everyone else in the office) who eats red meat every chance he gets, his heart attack is practically anti-climactic.

The other partner is Bert Cooper, a seventyish character played by Robert Morse, a veteran stage actor. Cooper is an Ayn Rand fanatic who is devoted to everything Japanese. Employees are expected to remove their shoes before entering the office.

Two of the three lead female characters work at Sterling-Cooper and have to endure the sexism of all the male employees that is either expressed either through a smiling paternalism toward the “gals” or through growling viciousness and/or sexual harassment that would get any man fired on the spot today. One is Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), the voluptuous office manager who has been conducting a long-time affair with Roger Sterling. Her main role is to teach new female employees the ropes; this boils down to pleasing the men in the office.

The other is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a Brooklynite who started season one as Draper’s secretary but who is promoted to junior copy writer after offering some shrewd advice about how to pitch cosmetics to women. Peggy, who is a bit overweight and a frumpy dresser, worships the men at the agency and views her job at Sterling-Cooper with starry eyes. In many ways she is like John Travolta’s dancing partner in “Saturday Night Fever”, a working class girl who idolizes everything about Manhattan even when the objects of her worship are pigs.

Finally, there is Betty Draper, Don’s wife, who appears to have stepped out of the pages of “Feminine Mystique”. She is a former model who spends her day worrying about what to cook for the evening meal or which earrings would go nice with her hat. The emptiness of her life and Don Draper’s affairs with other women have brought on a deep depression that leads to psychoanalysis by a coldly aloof practitioner who advises Don that his wife is making progress when in reality their marriage is falling apart.

I will have a bit more to say about this momentarily but the show is basically a high-class soap opera like some of my other television favorites, including “Desperate Housewives” and “The Sopranos”. The show’s kinship with the latter should be obvious given the fact that the show’s creator—Matthew Weiner—also wrote for “The Sopranos”. In some ways, it is very much “Mad Men” and “Made Men”. If you like colorful characters, broad humor, a modicum of social satire, solid performances, and snappy dialog, then I strongly advise renting the series from Netflix as I plan to do.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s assault in the New York Review seems to be an exercise in knocking the show down to size. Perhaps he felt impelled to do this since tastemakers in all the usual places have hyped it. For example, in a long piece on the show that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on June 22, 2008, Alex Witchel spoke for most sophisticated television viewers when she wrote:

Weiner’s achievements with ”Mad Men,” which is produced by Lionsgate, are plentiful, starting with the storytelling. Setting it in the early 1960s, on the cusp between the repression and conformity of the cold war and McCarthy-era 1950s and the yet-to-unfold social and cultural upheavals of the 60s, allows Weiner an arc of character growth that is staggering in its possibilities. It also gives him the opportunity to mine the Rat Pack romance of that period, when the wreaths of cigarette smoke, the fog of too many martinis — whether exhilarating or nauseating — and the silhouettes specific to bullet bras only heightened the headiness of the dream that all men might one day become James Bond or, at the very least, key holders to the local Playboy Club.

Deepening the tension between that fantasy and reality, Weiner has put Sterling Cooper, the fictional ad agency that employs the show’s characters, on the old-school, WASP side of the equation, letting them revel in their racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. It was during that period that the creative revolution in advertising was taking off at agencies like Grey and Doyle Dane Bernbach, where Jews and some women held leadership positions. That Sterling Cooper’s creative director, Don Draper, is played by Jon Hamm, a leading man in the Gregory Peck mold who manages to make his sometimes oblique and often heartless character into a sympathetic figure (and won a Golden Globe for best actor), eases the pain.

Mendelsohn would have none of this. He writes:

As I have already mentioned, the actual stuff of Mad Men‘s action is, essentially, the stuff of soap opera: abortions, secret pregnancies, extramarital affairs, office romances, and of course dire family secrets; what is supposed to give it its higher cultural resonance is the historical element. When people talk about the show, they talk (if they’re not talking about the clothes and furniture) about the special perspective its historical setting creates—the graphic picture that it is able to paint of the attitudes of an earlier time, attitudes likely to make us uncomfortable or outraged today. An unwanted pregnancy, after all, had different implications in 1960 than it does in 2011.

To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing). It’s not that you don’t know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; it’s just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.

Mendelsohn grudgingly admits: “I am dwelling on the deeper, almost irrational reasons for the series’s appeal—to which I shall return later, and to which I am not at all immune, having been a child in the 1960s…” He also is a fan of Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights, two shows geared to the cognoscenti whose appeal somehow eluded me.

Despite his characterization of the show’s writing as “extremely weak”, he has no problem comparing it unfavorably to “The Sopranos”, a paradox given the fact that Matthew Weiner was a major creative talent in both series. For my money, the writing is the best thing about the show. For example, one of Don Draper’s flings is with a Jewish department store CEO who has come to his agency in search of talent that can help transform the store from a discount house into something more contemporary and upscale. For those who keep track of such ephemera, this was clearly inspired by the transformation of Barney’s. Without attempting to recreate the dialog between Draper and Rachel Menken, those who have tended to trust me on such matters should understand that the combination of attraction and revulsion between the two is sharply conveyed. Although Draper is no anti-Semite, he manages to put his foot in his mouth frequently with Rachel Menken—a function of his unfamiliarity with Jewish sensitivities rather than hatred. Their relationship is finely nuanced and a credit to Weiner’s ability to express psychological depth.

That being said, I don’t think that “Mad Men” is in the same league with “Revolutionary Road” or “Far From Heaven”, two movies that cover the same terrain: 1950s suburban angst, petty prejudices, and the straight-jacket of social convention.

For anybody who is curious about the 50s and early 60s, “Mad Men” is a great introduction. No matter how broad the characterizations and crude the satire, this is a show that will bring a smile to your face almost constantly. While most of us got into politics to oppose the war in Vietnam or fight racism in the 1960s, we should never forget how much our battle was one over the right to define ourselves freely.

The main thing that comes across in “Mad Men” is the invisible chains that drag each character down. Men are slaves to commodity fetishism and women are slaves to men’s expectations. You can’t escape the feeling that the characters are deeply impoverished no matter how much money they are making. All of them appear to be having a great time getting drunk and eating 16 oz. steaks, but they are on a slow march to ruin.

Although I never worked in advertising, this world was still very much the norm in 1968 when I went to work for Metropolitan Life Insurance in New York. Fellow programmers told me that the movie “The Apartment” was filmed there. In season one of “Mad Men”, there is an allusion made to Billy Wilder’s classic since it is very much about the world that they inhabit. “The Apartment” is about executives sexually exploiting women in the office, a norm before women’s liberation put such practices into the ashbin of history.

My boss at Met Life was a guy named John Falzon who came to work in a fedora every day, just like Don Draper’s. He was the kind of guy who referred to “gals” in the office and who probably enjoyed a martini or two at lunch.

But by 1968, the old ways had begun to change. There is nothing about the red scare in “Mad Men” but it would not be hard to imagine it coming up in one of the episodes, especially with a character like Bert Cooper who worshipped Ayn Rand. One day I got a postcard at work that came through office mail. It had been sent to me by the FBI but was written as if by an SWP organizer reminding me to the next meeting. As the FBI put it in the file that I retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act, it was an attempt to “embarrass” me and possibly get me fired (although they did not state this.)

When Falzon heard about the postcard, he called me into his office and told me that if I ever got a postcard like that again, he should be the first to know. He would find out who sent it and have them fired. Things had definitely changed, thank goodness.

Cairo Intifada

Filed under: Egypt — louisproyect @ 1:59 pm
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