Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 31, 2011

A Foreign Affair

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:20 pm

Until now, Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair” has only been available as a BitTorrent download. But now thanks to Youtube, you can watch this fascinating 1948 film in 12 parts.

For those of who are unfamiliar with arguably one of America’s greatest director/screenwriters let me mention a few of the films he is associated with in either capacity: “Ninotchka”, “Double Indemnity”, “A Lost Weekend”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “Stalag 17”, “Some Like it Hot”, and “The Apartment”.

In both his comedies and his serious dramas, you will often find a lead character, either male of female, who can be described as either a cynic or illusion-free. William Holden is the archetypal Wilder hero (or anti-hero to be more exact.) In “Stalag 17”, he plays J.J. Sefton, an American soldier in a Nazi prison camp (Stalag) and opportunistic black marketeer redeemed in the film’s climax through his leadership of the prison break. Here he is challenged earlier on by a fellow prisoner:

Duke: Come on, Trader Horn, let’s hear it. What’d you give the krauts for that egg?

Sefton: 45 cigarettes. Price has gone up.

Duke: They wouldn’t be the cigarettes you took us for last night?

Sefton: What was I gonna do with them? I only smoke cigars.

Duke: Niiice guy. The krauts shoot Manfredi and Johnson last night, and today he’s out trading with them.

Sefton: Look. This may be my last hot breakfast on account of they’re going to take that stove out of here, so would you let me eat it in peace?

This is the same moral universe of “A Foreign Affair”, another film taking place in Germany with a lead character in the American military trading on the black market. But unlike “Stalag 17”, there is not the same moral certitude with Nazis drawn from central casting. While “A Foreign Affair” is not quite on the same plane as “Springtime for Hitler”, it is a shocking attempt at screwball comedy with Marlene Dietrich playing Erika von Schlütow, an unrepentant Nazi cabaret singer. More precisely, Erika von Schlütow is not a Nazi ideologue, just somebody who played ball with the Nazis, just as J.J. Sefton did in Stalag 17.

Set in bomb-ravaged Berlin right after the end of WWII, the American military occupation forces suspect her of being the former mistress of either Hermann Goering or Joseph Goebbels. But now she has hooked up with Captain John Pringle (John Lund) who is protecting her. She tells him: “I have a new Fuhrer now: you. Heil, Johnny.”

In the opening scene, we see a DC-3 flying over a devastated Berlin (documentary footage) with a Congressional delegation that is charged with the responsibility of investigating troop morale. The question of the morality of occupation is very much on the mind of at least one of them, a leftist from the Bronx who tells his colleagues: “If you send a hungry man a loaf of bread, that’s democracy. If you leave the wrapper on, it’s imperialism”.

One of the investigators is Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), a Republican from Iowa and the only female, who is shocked by the open dalliance between American servicemen and German women that she spots on the streets almost immediately. Captain Pringle commiserates with her, even as he is planning to drop off some black market silk stockings later that evening at Erika von Schlütow’s bombed out apartment later that night. In addition to the stockings, he is also planning to favor her with a mattress that he bought on the street. She had been sleeping on bedsprings ever since an allied bomb wreaked havoc on her home.

In keeping with screwball comedy conventions, Pringle develops a romance with the Congresswoman and has to figure out a way to keep her from finding out about his German mistress who symbolizes the decadence she is determined to root out. Eventually, Phoebe Frost she learns that her moral certitude will not work in post-war Berlin and makes adjustments more in line with Pringle’s. In learning to get off her puritanical high horse, the Congresswoman goes through the same kind of evolution that Greta Garbo went through in “Ninotchka”. The 1930 film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-written by Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch—the same team that wrote a number of films directed by Wilder including “A Foreign Affair”. Here’s a summary courtesy of Wikipedia.

Three Russians, Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Buljanoff (Felix Bressart) and Kopalski (Alexander Granach), are in Paris to sell jewelry confiscated from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Upon arrival, they meet Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), on a mission from the Russian Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) who wants to retrieve her jewelry before it is sold. He corrupts them and talks them into staying in Paris. The Soviet Union then sends Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Greta Garbo), a special envoy whose goal is to go through with the jewelry sale and bring back the three men. Rigid and stern at first, she slowly becomes seduced by the West and the Count, who falls in love with her.

The three Russians also accommodate themselves to capitalism, but the last joke of the film is that one of them carries a sign protesting that the other two are unfair to him.

Wilder is not considered a political film-maker as the Wikipedia article on him reports:

Wilder’s films often lacked any discernible political tone or sympathies, which was not unintentional. He was less interested in current political fashions than in human nature and the issues that confronted ordinary people. He was not affected by the Hollywood blacklist, and had little sympathy for those who were. Of the blacklisted ‘Hollywood Ten‘ Wilder famously quipped, “Of the ten, two had talent, and the rest were just unfriendly”. Wilder reveled in poking fun at those who took politics too seriously. In Ball of Fire, his burlesque queen ‘Sugarpuss’ points at her sore throat and complains “Pink? It’s as red as the Daily Worker and twice as sore.” Later, she gives the overbearing and unsmiling housemaid the name “Franco

One wonders how he could have made such a comedy, even if he was determined to soft-pedal the politics that prevailed at the time. When he first started out, he wanted to make Marlene Dietrich much less sympathetic but found himself chafing at the expectations of the American taste-makers who were inclined to paint the Germans as monsters. No matter how tainted Erika von Schlütow is, she still compels our sympathy as a kind of Mother Courage figure who has simply learned how to adjust to whoever is in power.

Indeed, if there is any political message in Wilder’s film, it is that Germany had to return to its Weimar roots. Von Schlütow strikes one as a typical performer of the kind that was depicted in “Cabaret”. She might be amoral but she is not dangerous. Perhaps the ultimate message of Billy Wilder is that any ideology taken to extremes is bad, whether it is National Socialism or Phoebe Frost’s self-righteous Republicanism, a version of which is all too prevalent today.

In this scene from “A Foreign Affair”, Marlene Dietrich performs the song “Black Market” that will remind you of Joel Grey’s “Money Makes the World Go Round”. It also has special significance since Friedrich Hollaender, the pianist who accompanies her and who wrote the song and two others performed in the film, used to work with Dietrich in Weimar cabarets in the 1930s before the two fled Nazi Germany.

May 30, 2011

Costa Rica notes, part 1

Filed under: Central America,Costa Rica — louisproyect @ 10:57 pm

The Unrepentant Marxist in a pleasant locale in San Jose

About halfway to Costa Rica a week ago Sunday on a nonstop TACA Airbus, we ran into some turbulence that lasted a good hour or so. During the worst of it, my wife clutched my arm and said that she hoped the plane would not go down. In my all-so-knowing manner, I told her that most accidents occurred during taking off and landing. She replied that planes do go down in severe turbulence. Not wanting to prolong a stressful conversation, I changed the subject.

After we arrived at our room in the Ramada Inn, about 15 miles from San Jose, I connected my Macbook to the hotel’s excellent wireless network to check my mail and browse through the usual websites, including The Daily Beast.

There I read a story that made my blood run cold. Apparently my wife was referring to an incident in which turbulence brought down an Air France plane over the Atlantic Ocean en route from Brazil to France on June 1, 2009, just about two years ago. An aviation expert by the name of Clive Irving wrote:

It took only four-and-a-half minutes from the moment that the pilots of Air France Flight 447 attempted to fly the airplane manually to the moment when it hit the ocean, falling at the huge velocity of nearly 11,000 feet a minute. The picture of those four-and-a-half minutes as disclosed Friday by French investigators confirms key points:

The Airbus A330 flew into storm-generated turbulence at its cruise altitude of 35,000 feet;

The three instruments relaying the airplane’s speed to its flight management computers and pilots were giving conflicting and false readings;

With the autopilot disengaged and the pilots attempting to regain control the airplane gyrated wildly and then soared from 35,000 feet to 38,000 feet, reaching a fatal stall condition in which the wings were no longer able to provide lift—at one point the nose pitched up to the extreme angle of 40 degrees and at the same time the wings were rolling violently from side to side;

When the emergency began the captain was not on the flight deck but resting. The crisis was being handled by two copilots. The captain reappeared on the flight deck one and a half minutes after the copilots took over manually but was unable to save the situation.

Now I could rationalize all this to myself by looking at it statistically. That’s one accident in two years. In 2010 there were 9,413,000 departures from American airports. Out of all these, there were only 26 accidents and none of them were fatal.

When I was coming back to New York yesterday, I read the superb new biography of Bobby Fischer written by Frank Brady. Brady recounts that after beating Spassky in 1972, Fischer received all sorts of lucrative offers to capitalize on his fame. When a car company offered him a car for life and hundreds of thousands of dollars if he appeared in a commercial, he turned them down. His reason? He said that there were 56,000 fatalities involving auto accidents the previous year and that he did not want to be associated with such an ad campaign, even if he drove their car (he actually was an owner.)

As air-tight as all this logic is, there is nothing more stressful than sitting in an airplane hurtling along at 600 miles per hour 30,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean as violent air currents toss it around as if it were made of paper. This is not to speak of the uncomfortable seats and the general feeling of confinement. The problem, of course, is that it is simply not feasible to take a bus to Costa Rica. But I am slowly reaching the point where I will fly only when absolutely necessary.

Despite the presence of tropical flora all through the Ramada Inn, each with signs indicating the Latin name as if you were touring a museum, my general sense was that of being in the same kind of hotel I have stayed in a dozen times or more when I was getting computer training in the 80s and 90s in places along Route 128 around Boston or in the outskirts of Washington, DC. These hotels are generally located in the suburbs to save money and have absolutely nothing to offer except a clean room, air conditioning and a restaurant. Like its counterparts in the U.S., the Ramada Inn was across the street from a shopping mall that had a food court. If you were looking for a tipica Costa Rican meal, you had to look elsewhere. All you could get there was Burger King, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc.

Fortunately, the hotel offered free breakfast that included lots of local fruits and gallo pinto, a rice and bean combination that was served with any meal, including breakfast. I had eggs and gallo pinto each morning and was in heaven. This was the kind of dish that I used to have in Nicaragua in the late 80s and grew to love, just as I developed a great affection for grits in Houston a decade or so earlier.

Gallo pinto is considered the national dish of Nicaragua and Costa Rica and means “spotted rooster”, words meant to convey the appearance of red or black beans in a bed of rice. Rice and beans, of course, tend to be the fare in poverty-stricken nations where the cost of meat is prohibitive.  This does not mean that it is not delicious. Like grits, a humble dish that is based on corn, it can be truly soul-satisfying when prepared right. And so it was at the Ramada Inn.

Costa Rican gallo pinto

On our first night at the hotel, my wife and I took a bus into San Jose to check things out. The Frommer guide says:

At first blush, San Jose comes across as little more than a chaotic jumble of cars, buses, buildings, and people. The central downtown section of the city exists in a near-constant state of gridlock. Antiquated buses spewing diesel fumes and a lack of emission controls have created a brown cloud over the city’s sky. Sidewalks are poorly maintained and claustrophobic, and street crime is a serious problem. Most visitors seek the sanctuary of their hotel room and the first chance to escape the city.

This jibes with the advice I got from Stan Goff before going down:

Get out of San Jose if you can. I think SJ is boring. Best way to travel is by bus. Get a cab and ask for the “terminal” (tear-mee-NAHL) at the “Coca Cola” (no shit, a zone called the Coca Cola). Buses there leave every half hour for pretty much anywhere. If you want to go to the Atlantic coast (highly recommended), ask the cabbie to take you to Terminal Caribe (not far from the other bus station).

Stan and his wife had been living in Grecia, Costa Rica, a mid-sized town north of San Jose, until recently when her father’s failing health forced them to relocate to northern Michigan. When I asked Stan why he chose Grecia, he told me that it was a question of ecology. All of Costa Rica is on the leading edge of environmentalism and Grecia is apparently on the leading edge of the leading edge.

I recommend that you take a look at Stan Goff’s blog post on Grecia, which is a model of social analysis and personal narrative. It starts off with an epigraph from Sidney Mintz, one of my favorite scholars:

Sugar – the short biography of a commodity

26th August 2010, 07:40 am by Stan Goff

The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things.

— Sydney Mintz, “Sweetness and Power”

In Grecia, Costa Rica, where I now reside, the mountains are checkered with vast coffee and sugarcane fields. The cane has long leaves like corn. It rattles in the wind, and the fields go dark then light again as clouds pass over.

I had my first taste of raw cane in Vietnam, when a local man offered me a stick to pacify my imperial hatred. I still love cane, like a child, the crisp biting off, the chewing out of the melony sweetness, and spitting the bagasse. I still carry the guilt that man’s kindness stamped on me.

Nicaraguans work the cane fields here in Costa Rica. 90 percent of the laborers are Nicaraguans. Nicaragua is Costa Rica’s poor neighbor, and like the US – where our poor neighbors from Mexico and Central America are employed to lower the wage floor – Nicaraguans are the grunt workers. Like the Hispano-Latinas that work in the US, the Nicaraguans here – some working only for food – are reviled by their hosts.

It’s the one ugly aspect of Costa Rican society that contaminates a people otherwise cordial and peaceable in my experience, this national emity against los Chochos.

People seem compelled to strip away the personhood of a lower caste, much as I stripped away the personhood of Vietnamese, because I was obliged by circumstance to control them. It inoculates us from responsibility. We are no longer our bothers’, or sisters’, keepers.

Full: http://www.feralscholar.org/blog/index.php/2010/08/26/a-few-things-about-sugar/

May 26, 2011

Hugo Chavez, Monthly Review, and the Syrian torture state

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:28 pm

On November 2, 2009, MRZine published an article by National Lawyers Guild president Marjorie Cohn that concluded:

The U.S. government should disclose the identities, fate, and current whereabouts of all persons detained by the CIA or rendered to foreign custody by the CIA since 2001.  Those who ordered renditions should be prosecuted.  And the special task force should recommend, and Obama should agree to, an end to all renditions.

Among the victims of extraordinary rendition mentioned in Cohn’s article is a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin who was kidnapped and sent to Syria in 2002. After his ordeal, he used an Arabic expression to describe the pain he experienced: “you forget the milk that you have been fed from the breast of your mother.”

The president of Syria at that time was Bashar al-Assad, who assumed power in 2000 after his father’s death. We do know why his fellow “anti-imperialist” Qaddafi collaborated with the CIA in extraordinary renditions. It was a way to demonstrate that he could be relied on as part of a new relationship with the U.S. that would benefit Libya economically. While sanctions had also been imposed against Syria, they never were as severe as those used against Libya. It appears that both nations had an incentive in working with the CIA since the victims were supposedly al-Qaeda militants who were hostile to the kind of corrupt post-Nasserist politics that Qaddafi and al-Assad represented. While accepting the possibility that any society has the right to protect itself against terrorists, is it too much to ask that those accused have the right to a lawyer and a fair trial? That is what Marjorie Cohn advocates and what we would expect socialists to stand for. When socialists lend their support to torture states, such as the CP’s did in the 30s, they compromise their principles and deserve to be condemned by those who believe that without democracy there can be no socialism.

That is why it is so disconcerting to see the very same publication that printed Cohn’s article now have the same relationship to Syria that the CP’s had to Stalin’s USSR: base apologists. It is doubly troubling to see Hugo Chavez participating in this sordid exercise.

The Venezuela Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Syria that appears on MRZine today. All of it is garbage but this is particularly offensive:

President Hugo Chávez received from President Bashar al-Assad a complete picture of the real situation in this brother Arab nation, where a fascist conspiracy is seeking to sow chaos and disorder, with the goal of subjecting the nation to the dictates of the Western powers.

For those who were politically active in the U.S. during the Nixon presidency, it is mordantly amusing to see the Venezuelans using the “outside agitator” rhetoric perfected by Spiro Agnew:

President Hugo Chávez was able to hear firsthand the important process of reforms that President Bashar has pushed forward for the purposes of responding to the legitimate needs and demands of those who have exercised their right to demonstrate peacefully and who have nothing to do with the extremist groups armed and financed from abroad.

The notion that Bashar al-Assad is some kind of anti-imperialist fighter standing up to the “dictates of Western powers” can only be upheld if one ignores any reports contrary to your own addled worldview.

A cool-headed report by Steven A. Cook appeared on the Atlantic Monthly website that punctures the overheated rhetoric of MRZine and other al-Assad apologists:

As the world (slowly) comes to grips with the horror of Syria and the Assads, there remains a coalition of nations that appear to be acting under the belief that the Assad regime is better than what might come next. It’s an odd group in the rather strange new world of the Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. For the Israelis, already reeling from the loss of a regional strategic asset — Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt — the predictability of Assad’s Syria was some consolation. Israel and Syria may be in a technical state of war, but the Syrians have scrupulously kept the armistice on the Golan Heights and it has been a long time since Syria’s military posed any significant security threat to Israel. The Israelis put a premium on authoritarian stability in the Arab world, where they fear change will almost always rebound to the benefit of hostile Islamist groups. Sitting in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, it is little wonder the Israeli leadership is having serious qualms about the unrest in Syria. Assad may be an implacable foe, but he is better than the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. From the perspective of the Israeli security establishment, at least Assad is doing what Hosni Mubarak should have done: using all available means to save his regime.

Finally, it should be understood that others besides MRZine and Hugo Chavez view al-Assad as a “reformer”. One levelheaded American leader has said that the elements that led to intervention in Libya — international condemnation, an Arab League call for action, a United Nations Security Council resolution — are “not going to happen” with Syria, in part because members of the U.S. Congress from both parties say they believe Assad is “a reformer.”

This is the same administration official that has now acted to impose sanctions on the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela SA for knowing that it was “providing sanctionable goods or services to Iran.” That was from a statement from the U.S. State Department whose secretary—Hillary Clinton—also was the very same official who described al-Assad as a “reformer”.

What a sorry state of affairs when the chief spokesperson for 21th century socialism and a socialist magazine that has been publishing for a half-century can’t figure these things out for themselves.

May 25, 2011

Existential Threat

Filed under: language,middle east — louisproyect @ 5:14 pm

There are 2244 articles in LexisNexis that contain both “existential threat” and “Israel”. The first time that this combination occurred was not surprisingly in a Jerusalem Post article dated March 7, 1989 with reporter Jay Rothman stating:

LET US IMAGINE, instead, that an adequate definition about the underlying causes of the Taba conflict had been derived, privately and beyond the fray of high politics (perhaps in a hidden “peace suite” at the Taba Sonesta). During such pre-negotiations, a diagnosis would be made of the existential threat a dishonourable “retreat” from Taba represented to Israelis.

So what was this “Taba conflict” that posed an existential threat to Israel? Was Taba a PLO-controlled city in the West Bank that was launching missiles at Tel Aviv? Actually it had something to do with a topless beach that had become a problem between Israel and Egypt according to Time Magazine:

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat promised his countrymen that “every inch” of Egyptian territory seized by the Israelis in 1967 would eventually be recovered, but when the Israelis withdrew from the rest of the Sinai in April 1982 under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty, they held on to Taba. The coastal strip, five miles southwest of the Israeli town of Eilat, already boasted a Tahitian-style resort village, complete with topless beach, which had been built by a businessman with a 98-year lease from the Israeli government. Seven months later, in November 1982, another entrepreneur completed a 326-room, $20 million hotel at Taba. The builder, Eli Papouchado, knew that ownership of the land was disputed, but says he went ahead with government approval. Israel bases its claim to Taba on a 1906 Turkish map that delineated the border between Egypt and Palestine, which was then a province of the Ottoman empire. According to that document, the line ran close to three palm trees that still exist. The Egyptian counterclaim hinges on a 1915 map drawn up by British military surveyors, including T.E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia. This map places the border on a hilltop more than half a mile east of the 1906 line — and, as it turns out, in or near the present hotel.

So if Israel could view this squalid dispute over real estate in terms of an “existential threat”, you can imagine how it would view Hamas’s empty bombast.

All in all, this business about an “existential threat” is just a new formulation for what I used to hear all the time when I joined the SWP in 1967. Back then it was stated in terms of the Arabs wanting to “drive Israel into the sea”.

One of the earliest references to driving Israel into the sea was a NY Times op-ed piece dated September 8, 1957 where Syria is described as having such a goal. By the mid-60s, it had become such a stock phrase that Nixon decided to use it in a September 9, 1968 speech. Not surprisingly, he joined it to an appeal to supply Israel with Phantom jets in a pattern that has been repeated for the past 50 years at least.

If Nixon was capable of such bald-faced demagogy, it is not surprising that the current occupant of the White House who shares many of his predecessor’s worst traits (a desire for secrecy, lawlessness, deference to corporate America) takes pretty much the same tack using the buzzwords “existential threat”:

In a 2009 interview with Newsweek occasioned by the last visit of Netanyahu to Washington, the president opined:

I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They’re right there in range and I don’t think it’s my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are.

I find the use of the term “existential” quite troubling. Perhaps I would feel less revulsion if the bourgeois media used the term “threat to Israel’s existence”. By putting it this way, more people would realize how absurd such a claim was. Here is Israel raining phosphorus bombs on Gaza while claiming that the occasional rocket attack on Israel that usually lands harmlessly is the real threat to its existence. One wonders if Israel has been studying the propaganda system of Nazi Germany. In trying to justify his brutal expansion into the Sudetenland, Hitler claimed that he was simply defending Germany from an “existential threat”. Unless the Sudetenland came under Nazi control, the Germans were in danger of being driven into the sea.

Beyond the politics, I cringe every time I hear the term “existential” which for me—a philosophy major who took his Sartre quite seriously—has a completely different meaning from the one that Zionist apologists intend. Existential referred to the living reality of humanity that defied categorization or essentializing. It was a term that overlapped to some extent with Marxism in so far as it understood that being preceded ideas. It was not surprising that some of the principal exponents of existentialism were leftists, such as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.

Coming out of the mouths of an AIPAC official, the term “existential threat” has a particularly sleazy character. Not only does it mask the reality of Middle East politics, it also robs the word of its benign meaning.

I will leave you with a Boston Globe article that sees this verbal sleight-of-hand in comical terms. (It found the use of “existential threat” five years prior to its combination with “Israel”, for what it is worth.) I get the joke but that doesn’t assuage my feelings of disgust with how it came about:

Existentially speaking

By Jan Freeman  |  February 4, 2007

“THIS IS AN existential conflict,” Dick Cheney told Fox News on Jan. 14, describing the war on terror as a fight the West must win. The following week, in an interview with Newsweek, the vice president used the phrase again: “It’s an existential conflict.” And his daughter Liz spread the word in a Washington Post op-ed: “America faces an existential threat.”

Existential isn’t just a Cheney buzzword, though. Bill Frist, then Senate majority leader, called bioterrorism “the greatest existential threat we have in the world” in a 2005 commencement address. Tony Blair assured Britons in 2004 that “the global threat…is real and existential.” Condoleezza Rice warned of the “existential threat” in 2002.

And what is this existential of which they speak? “They’re using the word in a straightforward way to mean ‘our existence is at stake,”‘ e-mailed Christopher Shea, my fellow Ideas writer, last week. “But is that what you think of when you hear existential?” No, it’s not. Like him, I think of Sartre in a Left Bank cafe or Woody Allen on a psychiatrist’s couch, pondering (or suffering) the struggle to create an authentic self in an indifferent and purposeless universe. But that can’t be what the Bush people mean by existential, even if the president did read Camus on his summer vacation.

No, they’re harking back to the existential coined centuries ago — an adjective meaning merely “pertaining to existence” — and putting it to use in what looks like shorthand for “a threat to our very existence.”

This existential formulation doesn’t show up in the Nexis news database till 1984. But once it’s launched, there are “existential threats” all over the place: to Palestinians, Jordan, the Soviet empire, all humankind, and most of all to Israel.

These are generally just “threats to the existence of,” as William Safire’s gloss in a 2001 commentary, weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, makes clear: “Suicide hijackers and bombers do not pose what is coolly called an existential threat to — that is, a danger to the very existence of — the United States….Terror-sponsoring states use these human missiles to implant that debilitating dread in individual American minds.”

It’s possible, of course, that the current deployers of existential believe the word can be made to imply more than those earlier uses — and Safire’s translation — suggest. Maybe they’re hoping that “existential conflict” sounds more profound and meaningful, given its philosophical associations, than “death struggle” or “fight for survival.”

But will the American people buy it? I’m doubtful. Phrases like existential conflict and existential threat may sound grave and gloomy when our leaders wield them, but nothing can protect them, in this land of free speech, from casual or jokey or ironic use. “Being born is an existential threat, because it means you’re gonna die,” noted one blogger, in response to the doomsday rhetoric. “Did existential just become a fancy word for big?” demanded another.

Our version of “existential crisis” was long ago downscaled and domesticated. Hollywood makes “existential comedies” and “existential Westerns” (aren’t they all?). Google coughs up references to “existential dance music,” an “existential Stephen King nightmare,” and an “existential opinion on why people don’t have friends.”

And in California, where a dry winter has left the famously fogbound San Joaquin Valley in the clear, the Stockton Record recently assured readers that the annual fog festival would go on nonetheless: “The absence of fog doesn’t pose an existential threat.”

May 24, 2011

Five animated features from 2010

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting fairly brief reviews of the screeners I received in late 2010 that were intended to help me select winners for the NYFCO annual meeting that was held in early December. Most of these films were Hollywood productions that I would not ordinarily pay money to see but now offer up my reviews as a public service for those leftist malcontents who trust my judgment for some mysterious reason.

I am not quite sure how I am going to group these reviews but at the outset I am confident that it makes sense to look at the 2010 animated films as a group. Like most people who loved animated films as a kid, I continue to be interested in what the studios are turning out even though I have no reason to spend money to see such films in a theater. Perhaps if I had kids, I would. In any case, I am still enough of a kid to figure out which of these movies is worth renting from Netflix at this point (most are.)

These reviews appear in order of preference:

1. How to Train Your Dragon

As it turns out, I decided to write these reviews since this is now running on HBO for the first time. While watching it for the second time last week, I was reminded of how great it is. Among all the Hollywood movies I saw at the end of 2010, this was by far the best.

At first blush, the plot seems to be a retread of all those animated features about a maladjusted youth who comes into a contact with some kind of monster that turns out to be his best friend and constant companion. It is also reminiscent of movies, not necessarily animated, that recount the story of a kid who learns how to tame a wild stallion that he or she then rides to greater glory.

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the young son of a Viking warrior named Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) who sees him as a kind of screw-up whose ability to turn into a dragon-slayer was limited at best. Hiccup is in a training program with other young Vikings who seem much more bloodthirsty than him, including a girl named Astrid (America Ferrera) who eventually becomes his love interest. Despite the fact that the characters are Vikings, they tend to speak in Scottish brogue that actually works well despite being anomalous.

One day Hiccup discovers a flying dragon in the bottom of a ravine that is trying desperately to fly away but keeps failing because part of his tail has been chopped off, courtesy of a Viking no doubt. Seeing the creature as vulnerable, in a way mirroring his own Milquetoast tendencies, he decides to take pity on it and treat it decently. This involves raiding his parents’ icebox (literally) and bringing back a fish that Toothless, his name for the dragon, devours. Showing his gratitude the way that a cat might offer up a dead mouse to its master, the dragon regurgitates the tail end of the fish that Hiccup is expected to eat. This he does to great comic effect. I should add that I found Jay Baruchel, the voice for Hiccup, totally engaging even though I could not stand him in the Canadian indie titled “The Trotsky”. As is so often the case, the script is key. “How to Train Your Dragon” has a great script and “The Trotsky” did not.

At a certain point the Vikings decide to raid the lair of a super-dragon that has the other dragons in thrall. The dragons have only resorted to raids on the Viking camps in order to steal food that they must deliver to their master. In the rousing climax of this movie, a group of Viking youth who have been converted to Hiccup’s pro-dragon orientation join the battle flying the creatures in Avatar fashion. This is about as thrilling a ten minutes of animated action as you are ever going to see and worth sharing with your kids or enjoying on your own, even if you are a 66 year old kid like me.

“How to Train Your Dragon” can be rented now from Netflix.

2. Toy Story 3:

This is another winner. I thoroughly enjoyed Toy Story 2 and assume that the first in the series was also great, even though I haven’t seen it.

I think most people tuned in somewhat to pop culture know that this stars Tom Hanks as Woody, the cowboy doll of a kid named Andy, who is the acknowledged leader of his toy collection that spring to life whenever a human is not around.

In this latest installment, Andy has reached college age and obviously no longer has any use for his toys. When his mother decides to donate them to a day care center, the toys are initially elated since they will be getting a new lease on toy life. Woody, however, holds out hope that Andy will still have a need for them. Being in a minority of one, he is left behind as they are put in a box and dropped off at the day care center.

Not long after the toys are taken out of the box and put on the shelf for the kids to play with, they discover that their new home is a kind of prison camp where the toddlers have more interest in tearing them apart than anything. As a kind of collaborator with the system, a bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) jails Andy’s toys for refusing to adapt. His chief enforcer is a big mute baby doll that is about as scary as any you would see in the prison break movies that this brilliant animated feature is based on, including “The Great Escape”.

Whether a film is directed toward children or adults, whether it is animated or not, what makes it succeed is a good script that includes fresh dialog and interesting character development. There’s plenty of that in spades in “Toy Story 3” that is available on Netflix, including a streaming version.

3. The Illusionist

Strictly speaking, this is not intended for kids. After seeing it, I wonder how many adults will appreciate it either. This is an animated feature that is based on a script by Jacques Tati, the actor featured in numerous Mr. Hulot comedies—films that I must admit having trouble “getting”. Mr. Hulot is a tall, spindly character who never says a word as he keeps getting into compromising situations on a holiday or in other settings. They are a much drier and much more Gallic version of the British Mr. Bean series that are obviously inspired by Tati’s work.

The main character is an older magician forced to perform in smaller and more obscure locations as the popular taste has moved away from such stage shows and much more toward television. All in all, it has the same sort of morose quality as the 1960 “The Entertainer”, a movie that starred Laurence Olivier as an old-time vaudevillian struggling to make a living. In one scene in “The Illusionist”, a long-time friend and fellow performer of the unnamed main character kills himself in a hotel room out of despair. Not really the stuff for kiddies.

While performing at a pub in a small Scottish town, the illusionist manages to convince at least one person that he is still capable of holding his own. A young maid named Alice becomes enthralled with his performance and quits her job to join him on a train bound to Paris where he has lined up a gig at a seedy theater. Even after ends up playing second fiddle to a rock band, just another symptom of changing tastes, he plods on with Alice in tow.

There is something vaguely unsettling about what might be a kind of unrequited romance between a sixtyish man and a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. Supposedly Tati intended that the script for “The Illusionist” to be seen as a reflection of his relationship with his own daughter but in the absence of dialog—a sort of sine qua non for a Tati film or one inspired by it—we have no way of knowing what is really going on between the two.

The main strength of this film is the truly inspired artwork that is like nothing seen in computer-generated films such as those turned out by Dreamworks. What is lacking, however, is a story to go along with the artwork. It is still worth renting from Netflix, even if it fails to deliver what the screenwriters and director intended, namely a work of art that would rival the original.

As a postscript,  I should mention that Tati’s grandson has disavowed the movie as a travesty that effectively purges the original intent of the script, which was a kind of apology to Tati’s daughter for abandoning her during WWII. You can read his open letter here: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/directors/the-shame-of-jacques-tati.html

4. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and Despicable Me

This is a tie for last place. Both of these films are milling affairs with nonstop action, all of which is a poor substitute for a story and character development. “The Legend of the Guardians“ is supposed to convey the apocalyptic “final battle” character of the last of the Fellowship of the Ring movies, but one has lost interest in the drama not 15 minutes after the film has started, largely because of the unremitting and unenlightening staged battles between the two owl armies.

Despicable Me stars the truly unfunny and overexposed Steve Carell as the evil genius Gru, a throwback to the villains in old James Bond movies, who adopts three young girls in a ploy to hatch a fiendish plot to steal the moon. Like Legend, it is nonstop, almost manic, action none of which amuses or enlightens. A.O. Scott of the New York Times nailed it just right:

Gru’s grand criminal scheme, which involves skittering robots baked into the cookies and then ever larger and more elaborate gizmos and flying machines, is as hectic and desperate as “Despicable Me” itself. The filmmakers seem motivated above all by the terror that if things slow or quiet down for even a second, the audience will either fall asleep or throw a tantrum. And so the projectiles (aren’t you glad you paid that extra fee for the 3-D “experience”?) keep coming, interrupted by wisecracks and snippets of teary sincerity.

May 21, 2011

Harold Camping and Jack Barnes

Filed under: religion,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:34 pm

I’m probably one of the few people on the left who actually used to not only listen to Harold Camping on the radio but actually enjoyed it. I am in the habit of listening to all sorts of esoteric radio programs late at night, particularly those that feature religious fundamentalists who take phone calls. A typical Camping moment would involve a caller asking him how to interpret some bit of scripture. Almost inevitably Camping would see it as supporting his hardline theory of predestination. God had already determined who would be saved and who would be damned and it seemed to have little to do with how you led your life. So you might as well go out and enjoy your whisky at the roadhouse rather than work with lepers. I am sure that the True Believers would insist that this was not what they meant, but that’s the way it always sounded to me.

The main thing I liked about Camping was his deep baritone voice and his rather old-fashioned enunciation. It was like listening to a character in an early 1930s movie. When he didn’t have me chuckling about hellfire and brimstone, he had me drifting off to sleep through his mellifluous and soporofic tones.

Camping, of course, has been in the news lately with his predictions about the world coming to an end. He made the same kind of prediction back in 1994 that Mother Nature ignored. At the age of 90 I doubt if he has any future in the apocalypse business.

I was on the Internet back in 1994 when he made his last prediction. Around that time I posted something about it that I can’t find now but I am pretty sure it refers to the same scholarly study about this business that Alexander Cockburn referred to on Counterpunch:

It’s a safe bet that Camping and his disciples will be saying on May 22 that his math was merely a year or two off, and the end is still nigh. His congregation will have its faith fortified. Membership will probably increase, as it did after the failure of Camping’s last prediction of the Second Coming, which he scheduled for September 6, 1994.

Sociologists call the phenomenon of increased commitment to a batty theory, at the very hour of its destruction by external evidence, “cognitive dissonance.” The theory was developed by three sociologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, who infiltrated a group headed by Dorothy Martin of Chicago who had received messages from the Planet Clarion that the world was scheduled for destruction by flood in the predawn hours of December 21, 1954. A flying saucer would save the group, whose members had abandoned, often at considerable expense and upheaval, all terrestrial commitments, pending transfer to Clarion.

The sociologists theorized that, when neither spaceship nor flood materialized, the group’s best strategy to avoid public humiliation would be to dismiss the failure of the prophesied events as due to minor miscalculations and then to proselytize vigorously, advertising a re-dated flood and interplanetary rescue. Dissonance between nutty theory and reality would be diminished amid growing popularity of the nutty theory. Anyone following the growth of the Christian religion in its early decades, or the Lesser of Two Evils crowd advocating support of a Democratic candidate, will recognize the dynamics.

Back in 1994 I was still in the throes of my SWP post-traumatic stress and tended to talk about this cult more than I do today. I am quite sure that I read about the “cognitive dissonance” theory back then and drew upon it to comment on the SWP that was just as batty in its own way as Dorothy Martin’s flying saucer cult. I can understand Cockburn’s reference to the Lesser of Two Evils cult but demur on one key point. That cult never put the kinds of demands on the faithful that the SWP did. Being a Progressive for Obama might require you to vote on election day while being in the SWP required you to donate $50 per week to the party and sell totally worthless newspapers in front of Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in Houston, Texas. That’s some difference.

Like Harold Camping or Dorothy Martin, party leader Jack Barnes never skipped a beat when one of his millenarian predictions did not pan out. In 1979, the epoch of disco dancing and cocaine, he told his followers that proletarian revolution was imminent. When it turned out that the 80s were a time of political retreat for the working class and the left, he simply wrote off his predictions as being based on “slight miscalculations” and plunged ahead with new end-of-capitalism scenarios. As it turned out, the only that came to an end is his own sorry cult.

May 20, 2011

Encounters with Louis R. Proyect

Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

Now that I have reached old age, I find myself in a strange place with respect to my relatives both on my mother and father’s side. When I was young, I had no interest in contacting any of them. Now in the winter of my life, I yearn for some kind of connection, knowing full well that it is unachievable. Fortunately, my wife’s relatives in Turkey have a warmth and openness that, except for my mother, did not exist among blood relatives.

My grandfather Louis Proyect is the bald one

On the maternal side, the only surviving relative is a cousin who I never really knew and who I have no way of contacting. It is not much better on the paternal side. I particularly grieve being cut off by my cousin Joel who I visited in both a Connecticut and Pennsylvania prison during his 4 year mandatory minimum term for growing marijuana on his upstate property. About a year before my mother died and long after Joel had been released, I called him up to get some advice on work I was doing on her house. He was so cold and hostile to me over the phone that I wondered what the problem was. I subsequently learned from my mother that Joel was angry at me for not having lent him some 30 or 40 thousand dollars to make a down payment on his house that had been seized by the government. Even though I was working for Goldman-Sachs at the time, I couldn’t put that kind of money together. As it turned out, he got the money he needed by doing legal work for a fellow white collar prisoner.

This is not the first time that money issues had led to a feud on my father’s side of my family. My father had a brother named Mike who was the oldest among eight children. During WWII all the brothers except Mike went into the army or navy while he stayed home running a lumber company that he inherited from my grandfather Louis, who died during the war and after whom I am named.

Apparently Mike made a fortune in the black market during the war while my father Jack was dodging bullets in the Battle of the Bulge. (I have no idea how Mike avoided military duty.) When my father got back to Woodridge, our little village in the Catskills, he discovered that Mike was refusing to chip in for my grandmother’s living expenses. I have also been told that his siblings suspected him of forging my grandfather’s will so that he would end up with the lumber yard, my grandfather’s most lucrative business, while the other brothers were left with small shops, in my father’s case a fruit store.

Tensions finally boiled over to the point where my father drove over to Mike’s lumber yard where a shouting match led to a bloody fist fight that the cops had to break up. Since my father boxed in the army, I suspect that Mike got the worse of it.

My father Jack Proyect (l) with a fellow GI

From that day forward, Mike never spoke to my father or any of his other brothers or sisters.

On January 26th 1945 I–Louis Nelson Proyect–was born. About a week later Mike’s son Louis Reynolds Proyect came into the world. It is not unusual for Jewish sons to be named after a deceased grandparent but it is unusual for there to be multiple occurrences. I suppose that this might have happened because there were no open lines of communication between Mike and Jack, even before their legendary brawl.

When we were toddlers, we had nicknames to distinguish us. I was “cho-cho” and he was “da-da”. Don’t ask me how we ended up with these names but we didn’t enjoy hearing them after we reached the age of 7 or so.

In class, our teachers used to refer to us as Louis N. and Louis R. Despite our feuding fathers, we became very good friends. While he was a so-so student, Cousin Louis had a quick wit and a lively personality. As kids with “maverick” personalities, we liked to hold ourselves above the other students who we regarded as “boobs” and “conformists” in H.L. Mencken terms.

In 1960 we decided that we were opposed to John F. Kennedy, mostly because the other students were for him. To be really different, we decided to back Barry Goldwater who was running against Nixon in the primaries. Eventually, what started out as a joke became serious. I read William F. Buckley’s “Up from Liberalism” and became converted to the conservative cause. Louis and I started a Young Americans for Freedom chapter, with only two members of course. Cousin Louis had a material incentive to be a conservative. His father was getting richer and richer each year and had become a typical Republican. Louis R. understood the class advantages of being a right-winger while I was just being callow.

I should mention that Rick Perlstein interviewed me and Doug Henwood for his book on the conservative youth movement titled “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus”. I don’t know about Doug, but my rightwing rebellion was not that much different from what Charles Bukowski did when he told his fellow high school students in the late 30s that he admired Hitler. He was only interested in pissing people off. Trust me, telling the sons and daughters of Jewish FDR voters in 1960 that you were for Goldwater had the same effect.

After I went off to Bard in 1961, I pretty much lost touch with Louis R. Finally, in 1968, just after I joined the SWP, he got in touch to meet for dinner in Greenwich Village. He was going to St. John’s Law School at the time, after having graduated Syracuse University. Unlike me, Louis R. still stuck to his conservative principles—so much so that we ended up arguing about Vietnam rather than discuss old times. When we ready to head our separate ways back home, he told me that that he hated Communism so much that he was thinking about joining the FBI after he got his law degree. He probably would have been pleased to learn that I was the victim of an FBI Cointelpro operation to get me fired at Met Life a few months after our meeting. That was the last time I ever saw my cousin.

In the late 80s a woman named Nina Proekt called me out of the blue. She wondered if we were related since her father seemed to recall that his father had some relatives named Proyect. After consulting my father’s relatives upstate (he had died in 1970), we discovered that the Proekts were mishpocheh, the Yiddish word for family.

We organized a family reunion upstate that was pretty nice. Needless to say, the conversation revolved around pretty trivial stuff but I was happy to feel some connection to my father’s side of the family. In the past, I was much closer to my mother’s. I was especially pleased to learn that a Russian relative of the Proekts had been a fighter pilot during WWII and had died in combat against the Nazi invaders.

Of course, my uncle Mike did not show up even though he was invited. I did take the opportunity to survey my aunts and uncles on Mike, who I had never spent five minutes talking to. I should add that this was true for my own father as well, who never bonded with me. Who can blame him, I guess. My aunt Becky had a great story. When Mike was a student at Columbia University in the 1930s (he was obviously a lot smarter than my father), he had a part-time job in a Kosher slaughterhouse cutting the throats of chickens. Before going to class, he had to bathe first to get the blood off. Not quite the Columbia University student of today.

My curiosity piqued by what I heard from Becky, I called Mike up and asked if I could come over and do some oral history with a tape recorder. I especially wanted to find out more about my grandfather and namesake Louis Proyect. Mike refused to meet but did continue speaking with me on the phone for about a half hour. Two stories will stick with me forever. He said that my grandfather, who built hotels as part of his business empire, used to come back with his all-Russian construction crew to his farmhouse when work was done on Sunday. There they would take out their instruments—tuba, balalaika, etc.–and play Russian dance music, drink Schnapps and eat herring.

The other story had to do with Mike’s break with Judaism. He used to accompany my grandfather to synagogue each and every Saturday but noticed that a number of men who he saw dovening (praying) were playing Pinochle for money in the afternoon, a violation of the Sabbath. When my grandfather could not account for this hypocrisy, Mike told him that he was done with religion.

Unlike me, my cousin Louis was not forced into taking Hebrew lessons. Since he was not going to be bar mitzvahed, there was no use for the torture that the characters in “A Serious Man” and I had to endure. Not only did his father defy the mores of our small town on this question, he created an even bigger controversy when he returned from Europe on a summer vacation in 1960 with a gift for my cousin, a Mercedes Benz 190SL Roadster. This was the first German car seen in a village that was 80 percent Jewish and still had bitter memories of Nazi death camps.

A few months ago I learned that my high school class was having its 50th anniversary reunion. An email went out to those of us who were still alive and who were using a computer. One of the addressees was my cousin Louis who I emailed, “How are you doing?” Surely he would not be holding a grudge after nearly a half-century? He did not write back.

Out of curiosity, I did some online research to piece together what he had done with his life. Not surprisingly he had gone to work on Wall Street as a lawyer for an investment company. Around twenty years ago I ran into someone at the last high school reunion and asked if he had heard anything about my cousin. He replied that all he knew is that he had married a religious Jew. That surprised me but what surprised me even more was the fact that Louis had become religious himself.

After retiring from Wall Street, he and his wife Fredi moved to Santa Fe, Mexico where his older stepbrother, another Wall Street lawyer, lived. There Louis got involved with Beit Tikva, a Reform Synagogue just like the one my mother belonged to in upstate NY. For a period of years in the 1980s, my mother would mail me books with titles like “The Meaning of Reform Judaism” and articles from the ADL or AIPAC. I put up with it because she was my mother, just as she put up with my anti-Zionism. Blood is thicker than ideology.

I was puzzled by this turn of events. I can see my cousin marrying a religious woman but why in the world would he be wasting his time praising god on Saturday mornings when that time could be better spent playing golf? When I sent news about my cousin’s conversion to a high school classmate who was avoiding the reunion like me, he sent back a one word comment that summed things up: Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff had secular Jewish parents like Louis R.’s, but became an orthodox Jew in high school as a way of protesting the trend toward secularism and liberal values in American society that had been strengthened by the 1960s. Sitting in a synagogue on Saturday morning must have been a way for my cousin to affirm traditional values. If you are going to vote Republican, you might as well waste time praying to god.

Louis eventually moved to a neighborhood in West Palm Beach, Florida that likely contained many of Bernie Madoff’s victims. I don’t have a picture of my cousin but his son Andrew who was president of the Republican club at Colgate looks just like him:

The Richard L. Stone ’81 Civic Freedom Awards were presented by Professor Kraynak at commencement 2005 to Andrew Proyect (l) and David Peters (r)

They received the award from “The Center for Freedom and Western Civilization at Colgate University” to recognize students who “have made outstanding contributions to promoting the ideals of freedom and Western civilization.” Andrew Proyect got his for being president of the College Republicans, and David Peters for his participation in the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School while attending Colgate and his commissioning as a second lieutenant in the US Marines.


After doing my research on cousin Louis, it became obvious why he did not write back. Like me, his life was committed to a certain ideology: survival of the fittest. As America’s Jews become more and more differentiated by ideology, they will begin to lose the sense of a common ethnic identity—not to speak of a shared sense of family as in this particular instance.

I feel connected to all of these people, from my uncle Mike to my cousins Louis and Joel, who loom large in my psyche even though we are not on speaking terms. In digging through the attic of my memory that contains the detritus of my conventional childhood and my revolutionary adulthood, these personalities remained preserved in Proustian fashion. As they take on a greater definition through the miracle of the pixel and TCP/IP, just as they did a century ago with the fountain pen or the typewriter, something like permanence will be achieved. Blogging might never achieve the elevated status of “Remembrance of Things Past” but they will certainly help me sort out and make sense of the various strands of an uncommon life.

May 19, 2011

The Big Uneasy

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

Best known as a comic actor, and especially for his performance as a maladroit heavy metal musician in the mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap”, Harry Shearer is also one of the entertainment industry’s most trenchant social critics. Sometimes he combines comedy and social criticism in the same package. His radio show “Le Show” (is this where Stephen Colbert got the inspiration for the French pronunciation of his last name?) is archived at http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/ls and will introduce you to his sharply honed satire.

As a part-time resident of New Orleans, Shearer was understandably traumatized by the Hurricane Katrina flooding and began blogging about it on Huffington Post a while back. On August 29, 2010 he filed an item titled President Obama Speaks to New Orleans From Planet Zarg that pretty much sums up the subject of his powerful documentary “The Big Uneasy” that opens tomorrow at Cinema Village in New York (screening information for other cities is at http://thebiguneasy.com/showtimes.php):

Sorry, can’t be sure that’s the planet he’s living on, but this intelligent, well-informed man surely can’t be living on this orb. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to start off his speech at Xavier University Sunday afternoon with this reprise of his town-hall remarks here last October:

“It was a natural disaster but also a manmade catastrophe; a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, women, and children abandoned and alone.”

Note that the “manmade catastrophe” and “breakdown” are linked only to the response to the flooding of New Orleans, not the cause, as if this intelligent, well-informed man is unaware that two separate, independent forensic engineering investigations of the disaster, conducted over a period of a year or more, agreed on this conclusion (in the words of UC Berkeley’s ILIT report): the flooding of New Orleans was “the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl”.

My guess is that Shearer was trying to avoid losing his gig at the HuffingtonPost (unpaid?) by referring to Obama as “intelligent” and “well-informed” because the level of anger he has reached over the New Orleans flooding would have produced a much less charitable characterization otherwise. Indeed, his documentary eschews comedy and goes straight for the jugular. There is no attempt to interject himself as a whimsical Michael Moore type. Instead, he narrates a straightforward investigative journalism type work that is heavily reliant on interviews with the scientists and civil engineers whose decision to become whistle-blowers put them on a collision path with some of America’s most powerful and most self-serving institutions.

The three heroes of “The Big Uneasy” are Ivor van Heerden, who was director of a hurricane research center at LSU, Robert Bea, a civil engineer at U. Cal Berkeley, and Maria Garzino, an engineer who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers. They all risked their reputations and their careers by speaking out against the pattern of neglect—especially at the hands of Garzino’s employer—that led to the flooding. As the report that Bea supervised points out, this was “the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl”.

Watching the film is almost like being on a jury. As the evidence mounts, especially through the use of aerial footage of New Orleans, you can only vote to convict. The guilty parties are a dysfunctional Army Corps of Engineers that is only too anxious to do the bidding of powerful politicians and the politicians themselves who put the short-term commercial gains of their major contributors over the needs of the average citizen.

Van Heerden was the first to figure out that the flooding was not the result of the levees being too short or vulnerable to a storm of the kind that only comes along in a 150 years or so (not that this would be any excuse.) The flooding occurred because the foundations of the levees were in soil that was far too sandy and hence too weak. If they had been rooted in the denser soil some feet below, they would have withstood the flooding. Instead they gave way in a number of spots like doors that had been ripped from their hinges by a battering ram.

You might think that LSU, Van Heerden’s employer, would have been proud to have someone like that on the faculty. Given the university’s connection to powerful forces in New Orleans society, LSU decided to silence the whistle-blower by firing him. An op-ed piece at The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which has been doing some excellent investigative reporting on the Katrina disaster in its own right, depicted Van Heerden as a victim of injustice:

In the days immediately after Katrina, the world thought New Orleans had been ravaged by a huge storm simply too large for the high-tech flood protection system built at great cost by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And according to some members of Congress and many media commentators, that’s just what we deserved for living here, below sea level.

In fact, that was the official story being put out by the corps.

But about a week after the storm, as van Heerden and engineers on his staff began inspecting the deadly breaches in that system, the story began to change. They were expecting to see evidence of over-topping, signs Katrina was just too big for the system, the very scenario the center had predicted the day before the storm came ashore.

What they found was something else: Signs of catastrophic engineering failures.

In other words, the floodwalls and levees failed not because they were too small, but because they had been either poorly designed, poorly built — or both.

The world’s media immediately gravitated to van Heerden not just because this was shocking news, but also because it came from a hurricane expert with a staff of geotechnical engineers qualified in the science of flood protection.

And he was the only person from this area even talking about the issue.

Incredibly, the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans — the two political entities most grievously damaged by the disaster — showed no inclination to launch their own investigations. They were content to leave the examination of the tragedy to the same outfit that built the system in the first place: the Corps of Engineers.

Thankfully, van Heerden wouldn’t let this happen. He put together a group of engineers and scientists from LSU and the private sector and convinced the state attorney general and the Department of Transportation and Development to give “Team Louisiana” official status.

You’d think the university would take pride in one of its own leading such important work. Just the opposite happened.

From the start, van Heerden was pressured by LSU administrators to go easy. At one point he was issued a gag order. It seemed the more problems Team Louisiana uncovered, the more intense the sniping from Baton Rouge.

Some of that was due to classic campus politics: jealousies, rivalries and professional disputes. Some of it was self-inflicted; even van Heerden’s admirers admitted he could be difficult to work with, due to an often uncompromising style and a penchant for going public with results before final drafts were approved.

But van Heerden’s real danger to LSU was his threat to funding.

The federal government is the largest source of research funding for universities, and LSU was lining up tens of millions of dollars for coastal and wetlands work — much of which might be partnered with the corps. Having one of its professors lobbing bombs at the feds made some at the university fear for the LSU pocketbook.

That’s why members of Team Louisiana, as well as researchers from other universities, were warned to shut up or risk their careers. Fortunately for all of us they decided their ethics — as professors, engineers and citizens — compelled them to continue to work for the public good.

“The Big Uneasy” describes a criminal pattern of behavior consistent with the BP spill and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. In each case, you get failures of oversight that are directly related to the incestuous relationship between the government and the captains of industry who use their influence to bend the rules in their favor. The overwhelming majority of society, the tax-paying and hard-working citizens, ends up getting screwed each time either from flooded homes, the destruction of marine life and the livelihoods associated with it, or nuclear radiation.

If Shearer’s film is meant to honor whistle-blowers, one cannot feel too hopeful about the political climate that is being fostered by the current occupant of the White House. In an article titled “The Secret Sharer” by Jane Mayer that appears in the latest New Yorker, we learn that Barack Obama and the LSU top brass probably see things eye-to-eye:

When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks—more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined. The Drake case is one of two that Obama’s Justice Department has carried over from the Bush years.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history—even more so than Nixon.”

One imagines that the only way we will be able to protect ourselves from corporate malfeasance in the long run is not to vote “the lesser evil” into power but by destroying the profit system that makes such malfeasance possible.

Crashing the Jewish National Fund

Filed under: zionism — louisproyect @ 1:50 pm

May 17, 2011

Choreography by Jean-Luc Godard

Filed under: dance,Film — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

Much cooler than John Travolta and Uma Thurman

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