Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 29, 2011

Real Israelites!

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm

Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir,
so that every mouth can be fed.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir,
So that every mouth can be fed.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

My wife and my kids, they are packed up and leave me.
Darling, she said, I was yours to be seen.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

Shirt them a-tear up, trousers are gone.
I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

After a storm there must be a calm.
They catch me in the farm. You sound the alarm.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

Poor me, the Israelite.
I wonder who I’m working for.
Poor me, Israelite,
I look a-down and out, sir.

Libya, the left, and journalistic integrity

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 5:56 pm

On February 25th, the BBC News website published an article by Farai Sevenzo, a Zimbabwean documentary film-maker and journalist, titled “African viewpoint: Colonel’s continent?” that contained the following passage:

One Turkish construction worker told the BBC: “We had 70-80 people from Chad working for our company. They were cut dead with pruning shears and axes, attackers saying: ‘You are providing troops for Gaddafi.’ The Sudanese were also massacred. We saw it for ourselves.”

Now there are several problems with this account. To start with, a global search of Lexis-Nexis for “Libya”, “Chad” and “pruning shears” reveals absolutely no original source, especially problematic since this authoritative database does include BBC.

If a good reporter would be expected to include answers to the questions “who”, “what”, “why”, “when” and “where”, then this hair-raising story would appear to fall beneath the threshold of responsible journalism.

This did not prevent this quote from being spread all across the left wing of the Internet, at least that fraction of the left that subscribes to the idea that the CP might have been on the right track in the 1930s when it bent the truth to “defend” the USSR. As farce follows tragedy, we find the same methodology being deployed today for Qaddafi’s Libya, a country that calls itself socialist but developed close ties with Bush’s White House in the “war on terror” and that expelled all of its Palestinian residents in 1995 in a manner that would have left Avigdor Lieberman green with envy.

A google search on “We had 70-80 people from Chad working for our company” will return 4420 results. Not quite viral but certainly enough to suggest that many people would be willing to suspend disbelief in order to demonize the Libyan opposition to Qaddafi. It was not enough to point to the very real racism that infects Libya, even to the very top rungs of government. It became necessary to spread an unsubstantiated account from the BBC, the very fucking imperialist mouthpiece whose propaganda stoked the fire for wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq. One supposes that it is okay to drink from the BBC’s latrine as long as it fits in with whatever ideological crusade suits your fancy.

Despite their long-term hostility to bias in the bourgeois media, the following outlets found it convenient to cite Sevenzo’s hearsay:

It has now come to my attention that another such account is making its rounds on the pro-Qaddafi wing of the Internet.

Yesterday, a subscriber to the Marxism mailing list recommended that we take a look at this ostensibly devastating Youtube video on the movement against Qaddafi titled “What you dont know about the libyan crisis” [sic].

4:12 into the video, there is the following statement:

Rebels publicly execute 50 black workers in Darna

After having been exposed to the unnamed Turk’s report on the slaughter of Chadians in an unnamed location and on an unspecified date, my bullshit detector went on immediately.

A google search of “Darna”, “black workers”, and “execute” turns up absolutely nothing, nor does a search in Lexis-Nexis. Some moron somewhere, with funding possibly from the Libyan government, decides to make a movie attacking his benefactor’s enemies. To make sure that everyone is lined up against them, he simply concocts a tale about a racist pogrom in Darna that did not take place.

There are 2,230 results for a google search on “What you dont know about the libyan crisis” and so far they seem limited to the more degenerate websites, such as www.axisoflogic.com. Given the state of the “anti-imperialist” left, however, it is not precluded that it will eventually be embraced by MRZine, Edward S. Herman and the usual gang.

Speaking only for myself, I really developed a strong reaction against media bias during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. When a “massacre” in Racak was used as a pretext for a war over Kosovo, it was correct for people like Edward S. Herman to expose the lies. Therefore, it is particularly distressing to see them throw their journalistic scruples out the window when it comes to covering for Qaddafi. They say that the truth is the first casualty of war. I am coming around to thinking that it is also the first casualty in crypto-Stalinist apologetics such as the sort that get deployed on a depressingly formulaic basis for Libya, Iran, Zimbabwe and other mafia states that find themselves turning up as the Orwellian object of hate cranked up by American imperialism. If you have read Orwell, of course, you will understand that the goal is to tell the truth and not to adopt the same shoddy, propagandistic techniques of our enemies.

April 28, 2011

John Nichols’s socialism and ours

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 7:01 pm

While thumbing through the Left Forum 2011 program last month in search of some worthwhile panel discussions, I did a bit of a double-take when I saw that Nation Magazine regular John Nichols was speaking at one titled “Actually Existing Socialism–in U.S. History”. Actually, I did a quadruple-take since I had no idea what actually existing socialism could possibly mean in capitalist America to start with. Beyond that, how did Nichols get himself on such a panel since The Nation has carved out such a niche for itself as the voice of capitalist reform? Of course, the answer is simply that for some capitalist reform and socialism are identical.

Nichols’s talk was most likely drawn from his new book titled “The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism”. It was published by our good friends at Verso who surely could do better than this.

You can read a Nichols article titled “How Socialists Built America” in The Nation that like his talk is drawn from the book.  His use of the term socialism has little to do with Marxism as should be obvious, even though it pays lip-service to the idea that “Marxist tracts” can be a guide to political action:

Borrowing ideas and approaches from socialists would not make Obama any more of a socialist than Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower. All these presidential predecessors sampled ideas from Marxist tracts or borrowed from Socialist Party platforms so frequently that the New York Times noted in a 1954 profile the faith of an aging Norman Thomas that he “had made a great contribution in pioneering ideas that have now won the support of both major parties”—ideas like “Social Security, public housing, public power developments, legal protection for collective bargaining and other attributes of the welfare state.” The fact is that many of the men who occupied the Oval Office before Obama knew that implementation of sound socialist or social democratic ideas did not put them at odds with the American experiment or the Constitution.

Socialism should not be confused with the welfare state, especially since many of its innovations were associated with powerful despots who sought to preempt socialism through measures like social security. Reading Wikipedia, we learn it was not FDR who invented the welfare state but Otto Von Bismarck:

Bismarck implemented the world’s first welfare state in the 1880s. He worked closely with big industry and aimed to stimulate German economic growth by giving workers greater security.[56] A secondary concern was trumping the Socialists, who had no welfare proposals of their own and opposed Bismark’s. Bismarck especially listened to Hermann Wagener and Theodor Lohmann, advisers who persuaded Bismarck to give workers a corporate status in the legal and political structures of the new German state.[57] On 20 March 1884, Bismarck declared:

The real grievance of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is not sure that he will always have work, he is not sure that he will always be healthy, and he foresees that he will one day be old and unfit to work. If he falls into poverty, even if only through a prolonged illness, he is then completely helpless, left to his own devices, and society does not currently recognize any real obligation towards him beyond the usual help for the poor, even if he has been working all the time ever so faithfully and diligently. The usual help for the poor, however, leaves a lot to be desired, especially in large cities, where it is very much worse than in the country.[58]

Under Bismarck, the following pieces of legislation were enacted:

  • Health Insurance Bill of 1883
  • Accident Insurance Bill of 1884
  • Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889

It should be added that FDR created the New Deal for exactly the same reasons that Bismarck pushed through such bills. They were aimed to undermine the possibility of a proletarian revolution that could create the basis for genuine socialism and not crumbs from the bosses’ table.

Nichols also has a rather disturbing soft spot for Harry S. Truman who—unlike Barack Obama—did not run away from the “socialism” label:

Truman did not cower at the mention of the word “socialism,” which in those days was distinguished in the minds of most Americans from Soviet Stalinism, with which the president—a mean cold warrior—was wrangling. Nor did Truman, who counted among his essential allies trade unionists like David Dubinsky, Jacob Potofsky and Walter Reuther, all of whom had been connected with socialist causes and in many cases the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas, rave about the evils of social democracy. Rather, he joked that “Out of the great progress of this country, out of our great advances in achieving a better life for all, out of our rise to world leadership, the Republican leaders have learned nothing. Confronted by the great record of this country, and the tremendous promise of its future, all they do is croak, ‘socialism.’”

With all due respect to John Nichols, who strikes me as someone rather innocent of the realities of the Cold War, Truman initiated a program that deeply damaged socialism even if it was carried out in the name of defeating the wicked Stalinists and preserving the New Deal after a fashion.

It was Truman after all who pushed through Executive Order 9835 that laid the basis for McCarthyism. This diktat was an attempt to define parameters for what constituted a “loyal” American with firings and jail terms for those who fell outside them. In fact it was just this order that set into motion a fear of the Other that is still manifested today in ultra-right obsessions over Obama’s birth certificate and his supposedly “socialist” goals.

In the final analysis, Nichols is expressing nostalgia for a social democratic movement that pretty much disappeared after the trade unions stopped being an effective foundation for activists who labeled themselves socialists but who were really liberals. He writes:

A young writer who had recognized that it was possible to reject Soviet totalitarianism while still learning from Marx and embracing democratic socialism left the fold of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement to join the Young People’s Socialist League. Michael Harrington wanted to change the debate about poverty in America, and perhaps remarkably or perhaps presciently, he presumed that attaching himself to what was left of the once muscular but at that point ailing Socialist Party was the way to do so. In a 1959 article for the then-liberal Commentary magazine, Harrington sought, in the words of his biographer, Maurice Isserman, “to overturn the conventional wisdom that the United States had become an overwhelmingly middle-class society. Using the poverty-line benchmark of a $3,000 annual income for a family of four, he demonstrated that nearly a third of the population lived ‘below those standards which we have been taught to regard as the decent minimums for food, housing, clothing and health.’”

Unfortunately for John Nichols (and the entire crew at the Nation Magazine for that matter), the economic basis for a New Deal and a War on Poverty does not exist. Hoping that a section of the bourgeoisie will respond to the dulcet tones of Katrina Vanden Heuvel on MSNBC is utopianism of the highest order. Right now the Democrats are playing soft cop to the Republican Party’s hard cop. The Republicans demand that the social legislation that came out of the New Deal be 100 percent repealed. Meanwhile, the Democrats provide a spineless opposition. Vote for us and only 50 percent will be dismantled and all the while The Nation will be providing arguments about why it is necessary to vote Democrat.

The real need today happens to be for a genuine socialist movement. The left took an unfortunate detour in the 1920s after the inspiring victory of the Russian Revolution. Stalinism became synonymous with socialism and the possibility for a Debs type Socialist Party weakened. Ironically when it began to revivify in the late 30s, the Trotskyists helped to sabotage it through their “entryist” tactic that left leader James P. Cannon crowing over the virtual elimination of the SP.

Something like the SP is sorely needed today and might even come into being as the ruling class becomes more and more aggressive in its attacks on the trade unions and basic social legislation like Medicare. Like sharks that have tasted blood in the water, they will continue to attack. When workers finally understand that their class interests are being threatened, they will finally begin to act. As someone in the Trotskyist movement once said, the student radicalization of the 1960s was like leaves shaking on a branch under the impact of a strong wind. But when the wind reaches tornado-like intensity, the trunk of the tree—the working class—will finally begin to move. When that happens, all you rich bastards better watch your god-damned asses.

April 26, 2011

Make Believe

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:23 pm

Admittedly, the only reason I requested a screener for “Make Believe”, a documentary about teenage magicians competing in Las Vegas, is because I wanted to send it along to Can (pronounced Jahn), my wife’s nephew in Istanbul, who is a practitioner. After watching this movie that opens in a couple of weeks around the country, I can happily report that this is a winner. While it is a genre film like “Spellbound”, a 1999 documentary about a spelling bee national championship, it transcends the genre by providing some fascinating and dramatic insights into the typically maladjusted teen that gets involved in magic. Apparently such youth can be found everywhere as we see finalists from a remote mountain village in Japan (the winner) to a couple of Black South Africans from the slums of Capetown (another winner.)

Watching these kids perform throughout the film is far more exciting than watching “real magic” being performed in the latest Harry Potter fiasco that was one of a handful of 2010 screeners that I simply could not watch to the conclusion. When you see a 13 year old produce cards out of thin air, it is much more compelling than watching Harry Potter flying about town on a broomstick in CGI fashion. I would add that although the film appears geared more to adult audiences than to the typical Harry Potter fan, it will certainly entertain young and old alike.

As is generally the case with documentaries versus fiction films nowadays, the latter suffer by comparison since they are so poverty-stricken in terms of character development. By definition, a documentary deals with the real problems of real people so it has a leg up to start with.

The film begins wordlessly as we see Hiroki Hara, an 18 year old from the tiny village of Kitayama, sitting on a bus as it wends its way down a mountainous road, a the while fiddling idly with a deck of cards. Nonchalantly he makes the cards disappear and reappear at will. After a while, he grins at the camera as if strutting his stuff. Like just about every principal in this marvelous film (and like Can in Istanbul), this is how such kids feel validated.

Hiroki was at a disadvantage starting out in a tiny village in Japan where there were no magic training academies (interestingly enough, there was one in Capetown where the other winners got their start). So he got started with a used book from the town’s only bookstore. Once he got the hang of it, he began developing tricks using the natural objects he found all around him, like pebbles from the beach.

The thing that becomes clear after watching Hiroki and the others at their craft is how much it is like a fine art. In developing the concept for a new trick, you have to think creatively and in order to pull it off you need to practice, practice, practice like the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall put it.

Screening information is here.

April 24, 2011

Carlos (uncut version); My Life as a Terrorist

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:27 pm

Taking advantage of some days off from work courtesy of a brutal head cold, I watched the last batch of screeners that were sitting in a box underneath my new Samsung HDTV. Yes, I know, I am really quite decadent.

Speaking of decadent, the last movie I watched was the three-part uncut version (339 minutes) of “Carlos”. I had seen the theater version (2 hours, 45 minutes) in November and can’t really say that the uncut version is that much of an improvement. Indeed, it exposed some flaws that I had not really noticed in the shorter version.

In my review of the theater version, I wrote:

The last hour or so of the film depicts Carlos wandering from country to country trying to ingratiate himself with one “rogue state” or another as either a provider of goods and services or as an instructor in the fine arts of urban guerrilla warfare—or terrorism to be more accurate. In Khartoum, his last residence before being kidnapped and taken to France to stand trial, he is seen as a slatternly, overweight and decadent figure. One imagines that there is some kind of moral to this movie but I couldn’t detect it.

With the uncut version, the sense of repetitiousness deepens. I would estimate that well over half the action following the OPEC attack involves Carlos and his partners meeting either with Arab or Soviet bloc officials wrangling either over an arms deal or their right to do business on some turf that the officials are in charge of. Most of the dialog begins to sound like this:

“You know, our friends in Moscow will not be happy with this.”


“You just make the money available to us and we will make sure that the weapons will be delivered as diplomatic cargo by the Libyans.”

It begins to have all the urgency of one of those reality shows on Bravo, with real estate or marriage brokers. Or even Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice”. “Mohammad, you got us AK-47’s that were cheap but they misfired. You’re fired.”

The other problem that is more noticeable to me now is that it is virtually impossible to make interesting drama about a character who does not go through some crisis that forces him or her to rise to a new level ethically or psychologically to resolve that crisis. Carlos goes through no changes in the entire 339 minutes. All he is capable of is bluster toward his followers and disgusting machismo toward the women in his life. After hearing him say for the tenth time that “I am the commander, you will follow my orders”, you begin to feel like you have wandered into a WWII warhorse despite director Olivier Assayas’s efforts to gussy up his movie with trendy ironic touches.

I also found the character of PFLP leader Wadi Haddad increasingly grating. Like Carlos, he only seems capable of throwing tantrums at Carlos when he feels his authority has been challenged, saying things like “I give the orders here, not you.” Between these two, you feel like you have walked into a scene out of movie titled something like “Red Star over Ohio”. You almost expect them to say things like “Vee have ways of making people talk, you know.”

In the uncut version you meet some characters that were not present in the theater version. One of them is the famous French lawyer Jacques Vergès (Nicolas Briançon) who defended Carlos’s wife and comrade Magdalena Kopp who was arrested along with Bruno Breguet before the two had a chance to detonate a bomb at the Paris offices of a Syrian anti-Assad newspaper.

Vergès was the subject of a documentary titled “Terror’s Advocate” that was made by Barbet Schroeder and that I reviewed as part of a 2007 wrap-up (it is available now from Netflix). I wrote:

A documentary on French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who is that country’s version of Ramsey Clark but even more defiant in his willingness to stand up to the warmongering pieties of people like Bernard Kouchner. Vergès, a WWII veteran, was born to a French father who was serving as a diplomat on Réunion island and a Vietnamese mother. He became a lawyer after the war and defended Djamila Bouhired, the woman who was depicted blowing up the Algiers café in Pontecorvo’s movie. They later married and had two children. Vergès, no exemplary as a human being, abandoned his family and returned to Paris, where he began practicing law after a 7 year “disappearance” and on the same basis as years past. He agreed to defend some of the imperialist world’s most hated enemies, from Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein.

He even decided to defend Klaus Barbie, but on a completely unexpected basis. Rather than trying to prove his innocence, he turned the tables on the prosecution, pointing out that Barbie did nothing different in France than they did in Algeria. One of director Barbet Schroeder’s main goals is to prove that Vergès is some kind of crypto-Nazi. Not only is the defense of Barbie held against him, there is an amalgam made with Francois Genoud, a Nazi sympathizer who financed Barbie’s defense as well as donating money to Palestinian resistance groups that Vergès was defending in court. Basically, Schroeder has made a film that is consistent with the “Islamofascism” narrative spun out by Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens and others.

Finally, some words must be said about the character Hans-Joachim Klein (nom de guerre ‘Angie’), who is played by Christoph Bach. Shortly after the raid on the OPEC conference that resulted in the death of several innocent men, Klein decided he had enough of terrorism and broke with Carlos and his past. Unlike most people who got involved with the German urban guerrilla warfare movement, Klein was a working class youth who joined the Frankfurt squatter movement after running away from home. He also had a Jewish mother who was in a concentration camp during WWII and committed suicide in 1948. One of the things that turned him against Carlos’s group was its willingness to adopt anti-Semitic measures, such as separating Jewish passengers from non-Jews at Entebbe.

After watching Klein’s exchanges with Carlos over these matters in the uncut version, I realized that I had reviewed a documentary in which he had a leading role. Directed by Jessica Yu, “Protagonist” (available from Netflix) is a study of four men whose lives followed the pattern of “hubris” in Greek tragedy. One of them was Klein about whom I wrote:

Klein was the son of a German cop with Nazi sympathies and a Jewish mother who committed suicide in a concentration camp. He was radicalized during the Vietnam War and eventually joined the Revolutionary Cells (RZ), an offshoot of the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang. He joined Carlos the Jackal in the 1975 kidnapping of eleven OPEC ministers that led to the death of three innocent bystanders and nearly his own death by a bullet in the stomach.

Of course, I was mistaken when I wrote that she killed herself in a death camp. She took her life 3 years after the war had ended, a victim obviously of psychic damage.

Although I strongly recommend “Protagonist”, I can also recommend a 70-minute documentary about Klein that can be seen on the Net. Titled “My Life as a Terrorist”, it is structured as an interview with Klein as he visits his old haunts in Frankfurt. He recalls hanging out with Joschka Fischer who was quite the militant himself as a youth. An old newsreel shows Klein and Fischer kicking the crap out of a Frankfurt cop.

There are also interviews with Danny “the Red” Cohn-Bendit, who of course is not so red nowadays. Cohn-Bendit became a solid supporter of Klein when he was trying to come in “out of the cold”. Eventually he served 9 years for his role in the OPEC raid and has lived in Normandy in recent years, working as a farm hand. Unlike Carlos, he is an attractive figure whose transformation would be much more suited for dramatic treatment. Until a fictional film is made on his life, this documentary and “Protagonist” will do just fine.

Watch “My Life as a Terrorist” here.

April 23, 2011

Hazel Dickens, dead at 75

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 2:18 pm

New York Times April 22, 2011

Hazel Dickens, Folk Singer, Dies at 75


Hazel Dickens, a clarion-voiced advocate for coal miners and working people and a pioneer among women in bluegrass music, died on Friday in Washington. She was 75.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, said Ken Irwin, her longtime friend and the founder of Rounder Records, her label for more than four decades.

Ms. Dickens’s initial impact came as a member of Hazel and Alice, a vocal and instrumental duo with Alice Gerrard, a classically trained singer with a passion for the American vernacular music on which Ms. Dickens was raised. Featuring Ms. Dickens on upright bass and Ms. Gerrard on acoustic guitar, Hazel and Alice toured widely on the folk and bluegrass circuits during the 1960s and ’70s, captivating audiences with their bold, forceful harmonies and their empathetic approach to songs of struggle and heartbreak.

They recorded four albums during this period, the first of which, “Who’s That Knocking,” for Folkways in 1965, is considered one of the earliest bluegrass records made by women. All-female string bands like the Coon Creek Girls had been popular before the emergence of bluegrass in the 1940s and ’50s, and female country singers like Rose Maddox and Jean Shepard occasionally released bluegrass-themed projects. But Hazel and Alice were expressly a bluegrass act, using the same tenor- and lead-vocal arrangements as many of their male counterparts.

Ms. Dickens reflected on her early days on the bluegrass circuit with Ms. Gerrard in a 1999 interview for the American roots music magazine No Depression. “I’m not sure if they looked at us as a novelty, or if they took us seriously,” she said of the male acts with whom they shared bills. But, she added, “There were a lot of them, especially down through the years, that gave us respect.”

The influence of the staunchly traditional duo extended beyond bluegrass to commercial country music. Hazel and Alice’s arrangement of the Carter Family’s “Hello Stranger” became the blueprint for Emmylou Harris’s version of the song, and their adaption of “The Sweetest Gift (A Mother’s Smile)” inspired Naomi Judd, then a single mother in rural Kentucky, to start singing with her daughter Wynonna.

Long revered by feminists, Ms. Dickens’s music, and especially her songwriting, assumed an even more political cast almost as soon as she began pursuing a solo career in the wake of the duo’s breakup in 1976. Several of her songs, including “Coal Tattoo” and the rousing organizer’s anthem “They Never Keep Us Down,” served as the musical voice of conscience for Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning 1976 documentary, “Harlan County, U.S.A.”

Whether she performed solo or with a country-style band, Ms. Dickens’s atavistic mountain inflection and delivery were inimitable, and never so much as when she sang a cappella on “Black Lung,” a harrowing dirge she wrote for her oldest brother, who died of that disease. In 1987 she sang another a cappella ballad, “Hills of Galilee,” during a funeral scene in “Matewan,” John Sayles’s movie about coal mining in Appalachia.

Hazel Jane Dickens was born June 1, 1935, in Mercer County, W.Va. One of 11 children, she grew up in a family whose survival depended on the coal industry. Her father, a Primitive Baptist preacher and a forceful singer, hauled timber to feed the household. Her brothers were miners and one of her sisters cleaned house for a supervisor at the mines. The music they sang in church and heard on the radio, particularly the music of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, offered one of their few diversions.

She moved to Baltimore in the early 1950s and worked in factories there. City living was hardly more prosperous than the life she’d known in the coal fields of Mercer County, but it did afford her exposure to the larger social and political world. She met and started playing music with the singer and folklorist Mike Seeger, who eventually introduced her to Ms. Gerrard.

In 1994 Ms. Dickens became the first woman to receive the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Merit Award for contributions to the idiom. She was later inducted into the organization’s Hall of Honor. Ms. Dickens received many other awards, including a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2008. She also collaborated with Bill Malone on a book about her life and music, “Working Girl Blues,” published by the University of Illinois Press the same year.

No immediate family members survive.

A reluctant feminist role model, Ms. Dickens said she was originally scared to write about issues like sexism and the oppression of women.

“I can remember the first time I sang ‘Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Here There,’ ” she said in her 1999 No Depression interview. “I was at a party standing in the middle of all these men. It was here in Washington. Bob Siggins was playing banjo, and when I got done, everyone just looked at each other, and Bob said, ‘That’s a nice song, but I won’t be able to sing it.’ And I said, ‘Of course you can.’ ”

“We were writing about our own experience,” she explained. “They were things we needed to say.”

Don Redman

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 2:15 am

Just caught the last 3 minutes of this on TCM. Figured that it would also be available on Youtube as well. Don Redman led one of the great swing bands of the 1930s and was a bit of a showman in the Cab Calloway mode. He was  the uncle of saxophonist Dewey Redman, and thus great-uncle of saxophonist Joshua Redman.

He started off writing arrangements for Fletcher Henderson in 1922 and soon led his own band. The novelty performance of “Nagasaki” is some of the best scat you will hear outside of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

Great stuff.

April 21, 2011

Is Qaddafi an anti-racist?

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 3:33 pm

Professor Maximilian Forte

Over on MRZine (where else, of course) you will find a lengthy article (The War in Libya: Race, “Humanitarianism ” and the Media) by a Professor Maximilian Forte from Concordia University in Canada that is a tortured defense of the idea that Qaddafi and his opponents represent the best and worst of Libyan society. Qaddafi is painted as a kind of John Brown fighter for African liberation and those fighting to overthrow him are a Libyan version of the Ku Klux Klan. To give you an idea of how loaded this article is, you will not find a single reference to “Berlusconi” throughout.

It starts with a reference to the BBC report that quotes an unnamed Turk to the effect that 70 or 80 of his co-workers from Chad were cut dead with pruning shears and axes. As I have pointed out before, this managed to escape the attention of other reporters. A search of Nexis for articles containing references to Turk, Chad and Libya reveals absolutely nothing but that does not seem to prevent pro-Qaddafi leftists from repeating this charge. This is especially ironic given that Forte is complaining about media bias in this article. Imagine if the BBC had the same kind of report about Serbs butchering Kosovars that was unsubstantiated. Well, it did as a matter of fact. That’s how the war in Kosovo started.

Although Forte is a tenured professor, he seems rather averse to providing footnotes for statements such as this:

First, it was right from the intended start of the national protests (that is, Feb. 17 — although protests in fact began two days earlier) that several opposition spokesmen, anonymous “Libyan” Twitter accounts, and other persons who would become associated with the insurgents’ “Transitional National Council” (TNC) produced the paradox of racial/racist hysteria and humanitarian intervention.

Who are these opposition spokesmen that were calling for intervention on February 17th? Again nothing turned up in Nexis. As for anonymous Twitter accounts and “other persons”, the less said the better. Now it is possible that there were media reports to back up Forte’s allegations but without providing citations, one is at a loss to figure out what he is talking about.

But things go downhill from here. He quotes from articles that appeared in The Economist and the LA Times in 2000 about the well-known mistreatment of sub-Saharan immigrants. However, any responsibility on the part of Qaddafi is denied:

While Gaddafi denounced the violence in 2000, members of the state’s own security forces reportedly took part in some of the attacks.  The UN also noted that over the years members of the state security forces have been complicit in attacking African migrants.  One would like to know if they did so, spontaneously, on their own initiative, or were ordered to do so from higher ups.  We should note that the former Libyan Interior Minister, and a former Minister of Public Security, Abdul Fatah Younis, is now a rebel military commander.

In other words, Qaddafi stood apart from the pogroms unleashed on sub-Saharan Africans in 2000 and all the blame rests on his subordinates who have now unleashed the Benghazi rebellion whose true aim is to persecute Blacks rather than get rid of a family dynasty. One wonders if Professor Forte was resurrecting the refrain heard so often in the Soviet Union in the 1930s: “If only Stalin knew”. We are led to believe that the racist attacks were orchestrated by Qaddafi’s subordinates and without his approval. This is a convenient fiction that will only be believed by those who continue to view Qaddafi as some kind of anti-imperialist leader despite all the evidence to the contrary.

One of the signs that you are dealing with a cruder form of propaganda is if the author does not bother to address evidence that contradicts his or her own. To be taken seriously on the question of Qaddafi’s commitment to pan-African values, you have to take a close look at his overall record, something that does not interest Forte who is so anxious to tilt the scales in favor of Qaddafi that he does not bother to conceal the fact that his hand rests upon the scale.

As I said at the outset, Forte’s article does not contain a single reference to Berlusconi or Italy. Does he think that people are unaware of the sordid connections between Qaddafi and one of Europe’s most racist politicians? While there is a mountain of evidence that would lead to the verdict that Qaddafi is no John Brown, this one should suffice:

The Guardian
Comments Are Free,
June 14, 2009

Treating refugees as refuse

Berlusconi’s deal with Gaddafi to use Libya as a dumping ground for migrants who arrive in Italy rides roughshod over their rights

by Bill Frelick

With the visit of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to Rome this week, Italy and Libya are celebrating their recently ratified Friendship Treaty. But this pact, which has already resulted in joint naval patrols that run roughshod over refugee and migrant rights – as Tana de Zulueta commented – is hardly cause for celebration.

About 500 migrants have already been summarily returned to Libya since early May, and boat departures from Libya have been sharply curtailed. Today, the migrant detention centre and asylum reception centres on Italy’s outpost island of Lampedusa are empty, a dramatic contrast to the way they looked in January, when 1,850 people were crammed in space designed for 800, with many sleeping on the floor. But asylum seekers don’t simply disappear. Many will be denied the opportunity to seek asylum from war and persecution and almost all will be subjected to indefinite detention, poor conditions and perhaps abuse.

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi promised to provide $200m (£121m) a year over the next 25 years through investments in infrastructure projects in Libya. Italy provided three patrol boats to Libya on 14 May, and has promised three more. Italy has also said that it will help construct a radar system to monitor Libya’s desert borders, using the Italian security company, Finmeccanica.

In building their friendship agreement, Berlusconi and Gaddafi seem to be regarding migrants and asylum seekers from other countries as expendable. The deal enables Italy to dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations while Libya gets investment, bolstered security infrastructure and acceptance as Italy’s friend and partner.

April 19, 2011

The Extra Man; Hung

Filed under: Film,television — louisproyect @ 5:04 pm

Before long I will have completed viewing over 60 screeners for movies made in 2010 that I received as a member of NY Film Critics Online. Some I have written full reviews of (“Last Train Home”); others I plan to deal with in a “consumers guide” that will include brief commentaries on some very good films (“Hereafter”) as well as some that are dreadful.

Having seen one of the most dreadful last night—“The Extra Man”—I intend to deal with it in some length since it is about male prostitution after a fashion and lends itself to a comparison with “Hung”, a far more successful treatment of the same subject. Kevin Kline plays Henry Harrison, either an asexual man or a repressed homosexual—it is not articulated, who has a job as a “walker”. He escorts very old women, widowers most often, to social functions in the same manner that Jerry Zipkin accompanied Nancy Reagan.

While watching this mess of a film, a disappointment from the same team who made “American Splendor”, it occurred to me how it suffered in comparison to “Hung”, the HBO TV series that stars Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a Detroit high school baseball coach who turns to male prostitution to make ends meet. It reminded me that some of the best writing in popular culture today is done within television, and especially HBO.

“The Extra Man” is a typical Sundance type comedy, one in which the creators make the fatal mistake of thinking that eccentricity in and of itself is amusing. The other major character besides Henry Harrison is one Louis Ives who after losing a non-tenured college teaching job decides to move to New York to make it as a writer. Paul Dano, who gets my vote for the worst actor in Hollywood today, plays Ives. He was made for this role, a neurasthenic insecure young man who is a cross-dresser. As is with the case with Henry Harrison, his sexual orientation is not revealed as such although the indications would lead to that conclusion.

Dano is basically playing the same type of character he played in “Little Miss Sunshine”, a maladjusted post-adolescent trying to find himself. Eventually this entails becoming Harrison’s apprentice as an “extra man”.

As is with the case with “Little Miss Sunshine”, he is meant to be “funny” because he does weird things. There are several scenes in which he dresses in drag that are utterly bereft of the kind of sexual madcap energy that you found in “Some Like it Hot” or even “La Cage Aux Folles”. The audience is expected to laugh at him and feel sorry for him at the same time, a miscalculation on the part of screenwriters Robert Pulcini, who worked on “American Splendor” and Jonathan Ames, whose novel the film is based on.

Although I am about to give a ringing endorsement for HBO’s “Hung”, I have to qualify this by saying that Ames is the head writer for the network’s “”Bored to Death”. At the risk of making a cheap joke probably made by every reviewer who has ever endured this show, I was the one who was bored to death. Like “The Extra Man”, this is an exercise in whimsy that must have had the writers in stitches. Everyone else would have to wonder how such crap gets through the front door at HBO.

If you go to Ames’s website, you can get a flavor of his comic sensibility:

Introduction to Michael Wood’s Essay About the Mystery of Henry James’s Testicles

A long time ago, I heard a rumor that Henry James had injured his testicles.  In my novel The Extra Man, I used this rumor in the following bit of dialogue between the characters Louis Ives and Henry Harrison (the first speaker is Louis; he is  also the narrator):

“It’s really very strange that I’ll be moving to New York.  It’s all because I was looking at the cover of Henry James’s Washington Square and I thought I should be in New York.”

“I can’t stand James!” Henry proclaimed.  “He’s unreadable.”

“I know what you mean.”  I was worried that I had said the wrong thing, but then I stood up for myself and James a little bit by saying, “But the earlier books are quite good, like Daisy Miller, or Washington Square.”

“Yes, that’s true, his style did change.  I wonder why.  He burned himself, you know.  Sat on a stove and shriveled his testicles.  That may account for the change in style.”

My reaction. One, it is not Henry James who is unreadable. Two, when it comes to comedy I’ll stick with Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, thank you very much.

“Hung” is one of the best things coming off the HBO assembly line since “The Sopranos”. More so than anything with the HBO imprint, it casts an unstinting view of the realities of America’s rust belt. Like nearby auto plants from an earlier period, the high school in “Hung” is rife with rumors about layoffs.

Ray Drecker has just gone through a divorce and now lives in the burnt-out shell of the house on a lake that he inherited from his parents. Doing the reconstruction himself, he sleeps in a pup tent on the water’s edge. He has twin children who are as familiar with rejection as him. His son is into Goth culture and sexually unresolved while the daughter is dealing with a weight problem. They could not be more unalike than Ray, who is a handsome and well-built stud of a man.

At a workshop on Becoming Successful, Ray runs into Tanya Skagle (Jane Adams), a contingent worker in a Detroit office who dreams of becoming a poet. After sleeping with Ray, who women find irresistible, Tanya suggests to him that they could Become Successful if they market his main asset, his large penis.

This leads to a fitfully successful business in which Tanya often finds herself trying to keep Ray Drecker half as ambitious as she is. He often fails to drive a hard bargain with the women he “dates” and is leery of her plans to market his goods on the Internet in Craigslist fashion.

Our friends at wsws.org, whose cultural reviews puts their strictly political analyses to shame, had this to say about the show:

Hung is an exploration, through the distorted lens of television, of how far people will go when driven by circumstances to take desperate measures.

The production and marketing of a series such as Hung is a complex business, requiring a combination of ingredients, including humor, an element of impiety, as well as some social insight and a considerable degree of talent. It is no secret that television is a ruthlessly competitive enterprise driven by and with large fortunes at stake.

Hung plays heavily, and valuably, on its viewers’ sense of the uncertainty and instability of life in this era. It can’t be accidental that the industrially, socially devastated city of Detroit is the backdrop for the story. Lipkin’s characters struggle along in the suburbs, largely unconscious of the bigger picture, most of them shallow and self-centered. To what extent the program is criticizing their self-involvement remains somewhat ambiguous.

There’s not much I can add to this except to say that Season One is now available from Netflix and well worth watching.

April 18, 2011

The Battle of Misurata

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 4:31 pm

Piecing together the narrative of the anti-anti-Qaddafi left, we would be led to believe that the eastern portion of the country that they often refer to as Cyrenaica is a tribal redoubt that was never fully assimilated into the socialist society Qaddafi had been building in the name of Jamahiriya. Like Scrooge’s visitations that were attributed to “an undigested bit of beef”, the unruly Easterners were always a wild card in the ambitious move toward a New Society, kind of like the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua who were also backed by the CIA. Not only did blood rather than class define these Eastern tribes, they were also anxious to restore the monarchy as evidenced by the proliferation of flags from the pre-Qaddafi era. Unlike their “good” brothers in Egypt and Tunisia, these were the “evil” twins that had been exposed to black kryptonite or something.

This narrative begins to collapse, however, if you look at the media coverage of the Libyan revolution prior to NATO’s intervention. While it might be convenient for some to brush this under the rug, the fact is that although the revolt started in the eastern part of the country, it had spread throughout the country one week after it began in February. It was not NATO no-fly zones that were responsible for toppling Qaddafi’s rule, but popular support for an end to his family dynasty that was far more monarchical than any flag. On February 24th, the Independent reported:

FORCES LOYAL to the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi were fighting last night to consolidate control over what appeared to be the rapidly diminishing parts of the country not yet overrun by protesters in rebellion against his 42-year rule.

Colonel Gaddafi’s weakening grip on power came as a number of countries, including Britain, launched missions to rescue citizens stranded in Libya.

Opponents of the regime said they had taken the town of Misurata, outside the eastern area of the country already under rebel control, as the Libyan leader appeared increasingly confined to his redoubt in the capital. An audio statement reportedly posted on the internet by armed forces officers in Misurata proclaimed “our total support” for the protesters.

Here’s a map of Libya just to put things in perspective:

As you can see, Misurata is 130 miles east of Tripoli but far west of Benghazi. So somehow Misurata and other cities—except for Tripoli—fell victim to some kind of hysteria that had transformed everybody into monarchical tribalists anxious to collude with the CIA.

Of course the question is how Tripoli remained immune from this disease. Clearly the charisma of Qaddafi—the “Bolivar of Libya”—would explain this, or would it? Now of course nobody can possibly believe anything that the NY Times prints and we are fortunate to have such scrupulous publications like MRZine and Counterpunch aggregating just the information we need to make an intelligent decision about world events, but perhaps there is something else going on besides popular support for Libyan “socialism”. The March 4 NY Times reported:

A state of terror has seized two working-class neighborhoods here that just a week ago exploded in revolt, with residents reporting constant surveillance, searches of cars and even cellphones by militiamen with Kalashnikovs at block-by-block checkpoints and a rash of disappearances of those involved in last week’s protest.

As rebel fighters in the country’s east celebrated their defeat of a raid on Wednesday by hundreds of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s loyalists in the strategic oil town of Brega, many people in Tripoli said they had lost hope that peaceful protests might push the Libyan leader from power the way street demonstrations had toppled the strongmen in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

The climate of fear suggests just how effectively the government’s ruthless application of force in Tripoli has locked down the city and suppressed simmering rage, even as the rebels have held control of the eastern half of the country and a string of smaller western cities surrounding the capital.

“I think the people know that if they make any protest now they will be killed, so all the people in Tripoli are waiting for someone to help them,” one resident said. “It is easy to kill anybody here. I have seen it with my own eyes.”

Ah, the filthy bourgeois press. Everybody knows that nothing like this could possibly be happening in Libya, even if somehow the liberal establishment in the West seduced Saif Qaddafi into making a speech to the Libyan National Youth Conference in 2006 stating: “We have no free press. There is no press in Libya at all. We deceive ourselves when we say that we have press. Does Libya have people’s authority and a direct democracy really? … All of you know that the democratic system that we dreamed of does not exist in the realm of reality.”

As everybody knows by now, the rebels made a mistake by employing a purely military strategy. With Qaddafi’s overwhelming advantage, it was only a matter of time before raw power began to drive the rebels out of the cities they had won to their cause.

In Misurata, Qaddafi deployed helicopters on March 1 in order to blow up the local radio station that had been taken over by the revolutionaries but they drove the helicopters off with small arms fire.

The Los Angeles Times, which has not been particularly kind to the rebels, reported on March 7th:

Attacks by tanks, guns and helicopters on Zawiya and Misurata continued to kill scores of civilians, but witnesses widely reported that the cities were retained by rebels at the end of the day.

In Misurata, one of Libya’s most significant economic engines, Salah Abdel Aziz said that “they got nothing from us.”

“They brought tanks inside the city and found themselves trapped,” the 60-year-old architect said. “All you need is light guns and Molotov cocktails to defeat them. People jumped inside the tanks and killed the people inside with knives.”

To this day, Misurata is still a liberated zone. The people under attack from tanks and heavy guns (and very possibly cluster bombs) continue to resist. The New York Times reported yesterday on why the people of Misurata have remained unconquered to this point. Again, accepting the possibility that all this is a filthy capitalist lie, I think that the more persuasive conclusion is that Qaddafi is having a hard time defeating a united people who will never be defeated in the long run:

In eastern Libya, the Forces of Free Libya, as the rebels call themselves, have been woefully unprepared for warfare along the highways and open desert, where the pro-Qaddafi’s forces have advantages in organization, training, numbers and firepower.

But on the streets of Misurata, the Qaddafi forces’ upper hand has been at least partly negated by advantages realized by local men fighting in the neighborhoods where they have lived their lives.

Where Tripoli Street runs through the neighborhood of Beera, for example, the men have hidden themselves in concrete buildings against the shelling and formed a defense-in-depth, with knots of fighters in the street’s storefronts supported by others many blocks back.

The rebels move back and forth on familiar streets, disappearing quickly into buildings and reappearing in courtyards, possessing an intimate knowledge of their own terrain.

They have so few weapons that many men on the front at any given moment are unarmed, and share weapons in shifts or stand ready to take up the rifle of a comrade who falls. Their ammunition supply is short enough that fighters in the second and third ranks often carry a single magazine, so that those in the storefronts might have enough.

But they have shown signs of organization and adaptability that have given them an unexpected endurance.

Rebels here have a modicum of communication equipment. One local commander, a former professional soccer player whose troops said had no previous military experience but became a leader because he was respected, weaved through the streets in a sedan with a pair of two-way radios and two antennas.

War can be a ruthless teacher, and in Misurata the rebels have also learned something that the rebels of eastern Libya mostly have not: that dirt is their friend.

Throughout the neighborhoods, rebels have piled up sand to block roadways and to force the Qaddafi forces’ armored vehicles to slow down or change course.

The rebels have also parked lines of dump trucks heavy with sand at exposed intersections, to impede the movement of pro-Qaddafi armored patrols and to provide cover from snipers.

“One of our guys thought of this idea,” said Abdul Hamid, a fighter who said he was 64. “Qaddafi guys were coming in here, so we started doing this with sand. It stops the tanks.”

As he spoke, in a doorway, long bursts of gunfire snapped by. A few mortar rounds landed a few buildings away. Then a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into a wall about 50 yards away. It exploded, and shrapnel fell to the street. He seemed not to care.

“That’s music,” Mr. Hamid said. “Our music.”

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