Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 30, 2012

Early in the morning

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 7:09 pm

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: beatniks,Ecology,fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Reviewed below:

–“Beat Hotel”

–“God Save My Shoes”

–“Surviving Progress”

In catching up with AMC TV’s terrific “Mad Men” series (Season Five began last Sunday), I was watching an episode from Season Two the other night. Peter Campbell, a copywriter from a very Waspy family, went to a doctor with his wife to find out why they were having trouble procreating. Set in 1962, it was natural for the doctor to ask Campbell in his one-on-one discussion with him: “Do you really want to have a child?” Campbell replied vociferously, “How can you ask such a question? Everybody wants to have children.”

As part of its ongoing attempt to reflect different aspects of American society, the show depicts the burgeoning counter-culture—even including the bearded hipster copywriter named Paul Kinsey.

As I watched the exchange between the doctor and Peter Campbell, I could not help but think of the opening lines of one of my favorite poems from the early 60s, Gregory Corso’s “Marriage”:

Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?
Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries
tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
and she going just so far and I understanding why
not getting angry saying You must feel! It’s beautiful to feel!
Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky-

When she introduces me to her parents
back straightened, hair finally combed, strangled by a tie,
should I sit with my knees together on their 3rd degree sofa
and not ask Where’s the bathroom?
How else to feel other than I am,
often thinking Flash Gordon soap-
O how terrible it must be for a young man
seated before a family and the family thinking
We never saw him before! He wants our Mary Lou!
After tea and homemade cookies they ask What do you do for a living?

For countless numbers of young people, Corso’s poem symbolized an alternative path for living in America by one’s own rules. Instead of buying into the suburban utopia with its split-level houses and two-car garages, we would make life into an adventure—smoking dope, hanging out in Lower East Side tenements listening to Charlie Parker records, working as clerks in bookstores, and trying to finish a novel or that next poem.

Just two nights after watching the “Mad Men” episode I had the exquisite pleasure of watching what might just be the best documentary on the beat generation, a film titled “The Beat Hotel” that opens at the Cinema Village in NY this evening.

Like the Chelsea Hotel in NY in the 1960s and 70s, the fleabag, no-name hotel at 9 rue Git le Coeur in Paris became a beacon for cultural rebels during the 1950s. Three of its leading denizens were the aforementioned Gregory Corso, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg who shared his tiny room with Peter Orlovsky.

The film relies heavily on the photographs of Harold Chapman who lived there as well. Chapman also supplies invaluable recollections of what life was like in the hotel, including fascinating details about its seediness. There was only one bathroom on each floor, each featuring a “Turkish” (or squat) toilet that evoked those Gahan Wilson cartoons from an old New Yorker Magazine.

“Beat Hotel” also includes some absolutely fantastic animation based on the paintings of Elliot Rudie who also lived there. Like Chapman, Rudie has plenty of great anecdotes about hanging out with Burroughs and the gang.

The hotel was owned and run by Madam Rachou who was sympathetic to political as well as cultural rebels. During the Algerian war of independence, she provided a haven for leftists being pursued by the French cops.

In contrast to the opulent but spiritually bereft environment of “Mad Men”, “The Beat Hotel” was a fertile oasis that brought great pleasure to the men possessed by a vision of a better world, even if it was not based on any kind of economic or political program. Allen Ginsberg, who put in some time as a copywriter himself, put it this way in “Howl”:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,

Now, 57 years later after this poem was written, young people not that different than me continue to look to the beat generation as an inspiration. They, and people of any other age, should go see “Beat Hotel” to get an idea of how it all got started.

Also opening tonight at the Quad Cinema in NY is “God Save My Shoes”, a fascinating examination of women’s high heels. For those who have read my posts on Sex and the City, both the television show and the universally despised part 2 movie (except for me and WBAI’s resident Marxist film critic Prairie Miller), this review should come as no great surprise. As Karl Marx once said—quoting Roman playwright Terrence—”Nothing human is alien to me”. The same goes for me, including high-heel shoes.

Despite the film’s nod to Sex and the City as having inspired the explosion of sales in high-heels over the past decade or so, it has as much in common with a Modern Language Association convention as it does with pop culture. It interviews Manolo Blahnik, the shoe designer whose beautiful but largely unwearable commodities were favored—if not fetishized—by lead character Carrie Bradshaw. Indeed, the documentary shows outtakes from several fashion shows as runway models trip over their own feet bedecked in 5 inch heel shoes. A similar scene takes place in Sex and the City when Carrie tries modeling as a PR stunt.

Shoe designers like Blahnik are artists in their own right, even if their work might have the effect of confining women just as feet-binding and corsets did in an earlier age, as observed by Valerie Steele, the curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum (a school where my wife has taught political science classes for over 5 years.) In addition to Steele, we hear from Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, whose grasp of the history, the esthetics, and psychological and social implications of high heels is just as penetrating.

The academic experts allow for the possibility that such shoes empower women insofar as they raise their wearers to the same height as men. At the same time they fret over the obvious health hazards and their sexual objectification of women. This contradiction, of course, is at the heart of the film’s message and makes it such compelling viewing.

In keeping with the “Mad Men”/”Beat Hotel” times-are-changing motif expressed above, it occurs to me that the high-heels fad among young women is related in some ways to the almost universal tendency for African-American women to straighten their hair using toxic chemicals as pointed out in Chris Rock’s fascinating “Good Hair”. If the 60s was all about being “natural”, the late 70s onwards is much more about appearance—a repeat of the awful fifties in many ways. Let’s hope that the financial crisis might have a useful side-effect just as the 1930s Great Depression did, namely an impulse toward reexamining what the “good life” is all about.

On April 6th, a week from tomorrow, “Surviving Progress” opens at the Cinema Village in NY, the same locale as “The Beat Hotel”. This documentary can best be described as a look at the same phenomenon covered in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, the tendency of civilizations to destroy themselves over time through unwise economic and environmental practices—but without Diamond’s crappy politics. Probably the first and best overview of this tendency was stated by Frederick Engels in “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man”:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries … Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

Unlike Diamond, directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks make the link between the capitalist economic system (even though they refrain from using the term) and environmental despoliation. In answering the question why the Amazon rainforest keeps getting chopped down even as it threatens to undermine humanity’s future, they call on left economist Michael Hudson who explains that Brazil was simply acting on the suggestion made by the IMF to pay off debts through the rapid and extensive use of agricultural exports. The general thrust of the film is to put the blame on the international financial system for a possible extinction of life as we know it. What makes this all the more interesting is Martin Scorsese’s role as executive director. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the great artist of personal crime is beginning to understand that the biggest problem is corporate crime.

“Surviving Progress” has a stellar cast of academics like Michael Hudson (Stephen Hawking among them) and people in the political arena charged with the duty of saving the planet from predatory financial interests. Among them is Marina Silva, a Brazilian senator who was formerly Minister of the Environment, who is shown in the Amazon at a logging factory and at the small towns that house the desperately poor loggers and farmers encroaching on the forest. They plead their case, stating that if the Amazon is the lungs of the north, it is also the heart of the Brazilian poor. Without an Amazon to exploit, there is no future for them.

While the film does not get into alternative ways of economic development, it is fairly obvious that the future of the planet can only be guaranteed through the elimination of private property and the profit motive. As Hollywood fictional films continue their sorry descent into the cesspool, we can at least be assuaged by the determination of courageous directors like Mattieu Roy and Harold Crooks to tell the truth without worrying about whether their film will be the next blockbuster. For intellectual and political stimulation, and as well as to respond positively to an imperative to make such documentaries worth making, I urge you to put “Surviving Progress” on your calendar.

George Galloway victory speech

Filed under: Britain — louisproyect @ 3:32 pm

Who made Libya’s revolution?

Filed under: Libya — louisproyect @ 1:52 pm


Who made Libya’s revolution?

by Renfrey Clark

If you want to get historical questions right, there’s nothing like going back to documentary sources. Conversely, if you neglect to do this, even when the sources are a mere mouse-click away, there’s no end to the silliness you can utter.

Latest to make an ass of himself? Patrick Cockburn, who wrote this on March 26 about the war in Libya: “…military victory was almost wholly due to the NATO air assault. The militiamen were a mopping-up force who occupied territory after air strikes had cleared the way…”

We have the chance to test this against the record. NATO provides a daily log of its air operations over Libya, including total overflights, “strike sorties”, and details of targets hit, for almost all of the period from March 31 last year, when the air assault officially became a NATO operation, through to late October. It’s at http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/news_71994.htm.

There aren’t figures for the first days from March 19 to March 30, when the attacks were particularly intense and consisted largely of cruise missile strikes designed to knock out Gaddafi’s anti-aircraft missile defences. These strikes against the ground-to-air defence system made things safer for the imperialist air crew (none of whom were lost), but weren’t of immediate help to the rebels on the ground.

From early April, operations most of the time were proceeding at the rate of 40-55 “strike sorties” per day. NATO says of these missions:

“Strike sorties are intended to identify and engage appropriate targets, but do not necessarily deploy munitions each time.”

If we compare “strike sorties” with targets recorded as hit, then it’s clear that on average, aircraft fired off ordnance on fewer than half the “strike sorties” flown. From mid-April through to late August, when Tripoli had fallen and Gaddafi was on the run, the number of discrete targets destroyed each day was generally in the range of 20 to 25.

Twenty to twenty-five effective air strikes per day, across three main fronts spread over some 800 km, is anything but an intensive bombardment. Also, we need to take account of the fact that a good deal of the bombing was still aimed at suppressing anti-aircraft defences, taking out targets recorded as “3 radars” ,“7 surface to air missile transloaders” or “9 surface to air missile launchers”.

Many of the targets were ammunition storage bunkers. Gaddafi, though, had laid up huge reserves of munitions. Press reports suggest strongly that shortages of ammunition were nowhere near as great a problem for his forces as they were for the insurgents.

For all that, my view is that for some months the bombing was an indispensable condition of the rebels surviving and carrying on their fight. Crucially, the air attacks in their first days forced the abandonment of Gaddafi’s assault on Benghazi, an assault which in my view the rebels could not otherwise have withstood.

A key lesson which the regime learnt early in the air war was the vulnerability of its armoured vehicles to modern laser-guided bombs. NATO’s “hits” during April, the record shows, included significant numbers of tanks. Gaddafi’s armour – international military experts in 2009 put it at more than 2000 tanks, plus more than a thousand armoured personnel carriers – was not significantly depleted. But a decision seems to have been made that with armoured vehicles so vulnerable to air attack, they had for the most part to be kept concealed and out of action.

On open desert terrain –and, for that matter, in the relatively open urban areas typical of Libyan cities – possession of armoured vehicles confers a crucial advantage. The bombing cost the regime this advantage. Press reports indicate that Gaddafi’s forces resorted to using armed pick-up trucks, which NATO was said to be reluctant to bomb because of the difficulty of distinguishing them from similar vehicles on the rebel side. The mobile skirmishing that made up much of the combat thus became relatively equal in strictly military terms.

Gaddafi nevertheless kept an important advantage in another key area of desert warfare – long-range heavy artillery, largely ground-to-ground missiles. The regime is estimated to have had more than 2400 multiple rocket launchers and other artillery pieces, which are only occasionally noted as having been destroyed by the bombing. Gaddafi’s forces had rockets in abundance, and used them effectively, until late in the war.

The air strikes were clearly significant in deciding the outcome of the siege of the city of Misrata between February and mid-May. Air raids on Misrata and its environs are recorded as having taken place on 30 of the 39 days between 12 April and 20 May. The crucial effect seems to have been in preventing the regime from mounting massed armoured assaults on rebel-held areas of the city; some 43 armoured vehicles are listed as having been destroyed, including 38 tanks. Meanwhile, the besiegers remained well able to bombard Misrata, keeping their artillery under cover in built-up areas.

Misrata, the evidence indicates, was liberated in very much the fashion the militias said it was: in fierce house-to-house combat.

I made a particular point of checking the NATO logs for the period in August that saw the rebels “break out” from the Nafusa mountains south of Tripoli and mount their decisive push on the capital. Wikipedia reports here:

“…due to an intense NATO bombing campaign of loyalist forces, pro-Gaddafi troops had to pull back from the mountains. This gave the chance for the rebels to go on the offensive toward the coast west of Tripoli.”

This “intense NATO bombing”, however, seems to have been mythical. There is no record of anything more than a few sporadic air strikes in the region of the mountains around the beginning of August. In general, the Nafusa front was only very sparsely bombed.

By August 5 the offensive was under way, focused on the strategic town of Bir al Ghanam, 85 km south of Tripoli. The NATO logs have the following record of targets struck “in the vicinity of Bir al Ghanam”:

5 Aug: 0

6 Aug: 1 ammunition storage facility, 1 command and control mode, 1 multiple rocket launcher system, 1 military vehicle.

7 Aug: 0

8 Aug: 0

9 Aug: 0

10 Aug: 1 multiple rocket launcher.

11 Aug: 2 armed vehicles.

12 Aug: 5 armed vehicles, 2 anti-aircraft guns.

13 Aug: 1 military vehicle.

Whoever routed Gaddafi’s forces from Bir al Ghanam during that week, it’s hard to believe it was NATO.

By 13 August rebel columns were inside the coastal city of Zawiya, 35 km west of Tripoli, and heavy fighting had begun. Targets destroyed by bombing in and around Zawiya on that and subsequent days are recorded as follows:

13 Aug: 2 tanks.

14 Aug: 1 anti-aircraft gun.

15 Aug: 3 tanks, 1 armed vehicle, 1 military vehicle.

17 Aug: 2 armed vehicles, 1 military boat.

18 Aug: 1 command and control node, 2 armed vehicles, 1 transloader, 5 tanks.

The bombing played a significant role here by knocking out Gaddafi’s tanks. But given the scale of the fighting and the forces involved, NATO’s contribution was not decisive.

Tripoli, apart from small enclaves, fell to the insurgents during three days of heavy fighting from the evening of 20 August. During the previous week, bombing “in the vicinity of Tripoli” had destroyed 5-10 targets most days, many of them anti-aircraft weapons and infrastructure. A peak was reached on 20 August, with the following targets hit:

“Three military facilities, 1military storage facility, 7 surface to air missile transloaders, 1 radar, 1 surface to surface missile, 2 armed vehicles, 2 armoured fighting vehicles, 3 command and control nodes, 2 multiple rocket launchers.”

For the main days of fighting in the capital, the targets destroyed by the bombing are given as follows:

21Aug: 3 command and control facilities, 1 military facility, 2 radar, 9 surface to air missile launchers, 1 tank, 2 armed vehicles.

22 Aug: No targets hit in Tripoli.

23 Aug: 2 armoured fighting vehicles, 2 military heavy equipment trucks, 3 surface to air missile systems, 1 radar.

24 Aug: 2 military storage facilities, 1 military heavy equipment truck, 2 anti-aircraft guns, 1 surface to air missile support vehicle, 1 multiple rocket launcher, 1 radar.

As indicated earlier, I regard the NATO military intervention, over some months and arguably as late as the “break-out” in the first half of August, as having been a condition for the success of the insurrection. Without the bombing, the tanks would have rolled and the outcomes on the various fronts would have been very different.

There’s a fundamental distinction to be made, though, between recognising NATO’s air strikes as a requirement for the rebel victory, and identifying imperialist intervention as the primary cause of Gaddafi’s overthrow. In my view, the key reasons for the revolutionary victory were political, lying in the hatred felt for the regime by the masses in most parts of Libya and the readiness of hundreds of thousands of Libyans to take part in armed struggle.

By offsetting at least partially Gaddafi’s advantages in terms of armaments and military organisation, and allowing the fighting to proceed on less unequal terms, NATO’s intervention allowed the revolution’s strengths in terms of popular allegiance and political will to act as determining factors.

The bombing didn’t need to be intensive for this to happen, and as the record of NATO’s operations shows, its actual scale was rather small. Very plainly, the main burden of grinding down Gaddafi’s forces was borne by the Libyan people in arms. As the Libyans see it, they’re the ones who made their revolution, not NATO. And that’s correct.

Sorry – I forgot. There’s been no revolution in Libya. Gaddafi is still alive and in power, and his thieving children are in their mansions. The press is still tightly censored. There’s no independent women’s movement. Democratic municipal elections are inconceivable. Trade unions are still banned, and the penalty for trying to set up a political party remains death by hanging.

March 29, 2012

Who is John Galt?

Filed under: Academia,capitalist pig,Columbia University,mafia — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

If you’ve read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, as I did as an enthusiastic high-school rightwinger back in 1960, that’s a no-brainer. Galt was the hero of Rand’s novel who symbolized her own reactionary beliefs by leading a “strike” of creative, free-market geniuses against a regulation-burdened system that was controlled by the grasping, needy 99 percent of society.

It is also the name of the corporation that did the demolition work on the Deutsche Bank tower that was rendered uninhabitable after the 9/11 attack as a subcontractor to Bovis Lend-Lease, the huge multinational in charge of Columbia University’s Manhattanville’s expansion. On February 20, 2008 the NY Times reported:

Federal safety regulators have accused the contractors who were taking down the former Deutsche Bank tower in the summer of indifference or intentional disregard for dangerous conditions that led to a fatal fire there, and of a host of other serious safety violations, officials said on Tuesday.

The regulators cited the project’s general contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, an international construction management company, and its former subcontractor, the John Galt Corporation, for 44 safety violations, and proposed fining them nearly half a million dollars.

A year earlier (8/23/2007), the Times provided its readers with some background on the company obviously named after Ayn Rand’s regulation-hating hero:

The  John Galt Corporation of the Bronx, hired last year for the dangerous and complex job of demolishing the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street, where two firefighters died last Saturday, has apparently never done any work like it. Indeed, Galt does not seem to have done much of anything since it was incorporated in 1983.

Public and private records give no indication of how many employees it has, what its volume of business is or who its clients are. There are almost no accounts of any projects it has undertaken on any scale, apart from 130 Liberty Street. Court records are largely silent. Some leading construction executives in the city say they have never even heard of it.

That may not be as surprising as it seems. John Galt, it appears, is not much more than a corporate entity meant to accommodate the people and companies actually doing the demolition job at the emotionally charged and environmentally hazardous site at the edge of ground zero.

The companies and project managers who have been providing the expertise, the workers and the financing for the job are Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting Company, which is not in business to demolish skyscrapers, and former executives from Safeway Environmental Corporation, a company that was already removed from one contract at 130 Liberty because of concerns about its integrity…

In the 17 months since Galt took shape — and as problems mounted at the demolition site, including repeated safety violations — city and state officials have made announcements about the work and problems at 130 Liberty referring to John Galt as if it were a fully established corporation, and never mentioning by name the more controversial and less than perfectly qualified people and companies doing the work.

(John Galt, by the way, is a central character, an engineer, in Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” The book begins with this line: “Who is John Galt?”)

John Galt’s stationery puts its headquarters at 3900 Webster Avenue in the Bronx, near Woodlawn Cemetery, the same address as Regional Scaffolding’s. The two companies also share many of the same officers…

Safeway first surfaced on the scene at 130 Liberty when it, along with Regional Scaffolding, won a $13 million scaffolding contract in 2005 for the bank building.

But Safeway, its former owners, Harold Greenberg, 61, and Stephen Chasin, 56, and another company they long operated, Big Apple Wrecking and Construction Corporation, had a troubled history.

Mr. Greenberg, of Staten Island, has gone to federal prison twice for crimes related to the industry.

Identified by federal investigators as a Gambino crime family associate, he was convicted in 1988 of bribing a federal inspector to overlook asbestos-removal violations while Big Apple was demolishing Gimbels department store on East 86th Street in Manhattan. Three years later he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a bid-rigging scheme involving other contractors.

Safeway’s failure to disclose his criminal history and the accusations of mob ties led the authorities to bar the company from working on city schools in 2003. School investigators contended that Mr. Greenberg and his partner in Big Apple and Safeway, Mr. Chasin, sought to disguise their roles in companies in order to obtain public contracts and other work from which his convictions would bar them.

(Safeway Environmental was one of the subcontractors used in the development of a new headquarters for The New York Times, across Eighth Avenue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.)

Although I was aware of the Deutsche Bank tragedy and the pattern of neglect that led to the death of firefighters there, I had no idea that Bovis Lend-Lease was held responsible.

History seemed to be repeating itself last Thursday when I arrived at my office on W. 131rd Street to encounter a small army of police cars, fire engines and television reporters gathered there on account of a building collapse across the street from where I work. Earlier that morning a partly-demolished building had collapsed on some workers, killing one.

The workers were employed by Breeze Construction, whose president Toby Romano was convicted in 1988 of bribing inspectors investigating health violations on asbestos-removal jobs. As opposed to Greenberg’s Gambino affinities, Romano was tied to the Luchese crime family. When I brought this fact to the attention of Robert Kasdin, a powerful officer at the university in charge of the “back office”, later that day when he was addressing our staff on the accident, he assured us that Breeze is now run by Toby Romano Jr. and not his criminal father. Anybody who is familiar with how the mob does business will not be assuaged by this, especially in light of another report that surfaced the next day in the NY Daily News:

THE TRAGIC death of a hardhat who was demolishing a building owned by Columbia University came after the school and its contractors racked up a slew of safety complaints, the Daily News has found.

The Ivy League institution has been hit with 59 code violations and has been forced to shut down work 13 times since launching its controversial campus expansion two years ago, building records show.

The complaints were spread across the 64 properties located on the 17-acre site, which runs from 125th to 133rd Sts., and between 12th Ave. and Broadway.

My guess is that Bovis Lend-Lease and Breeze will pay no penalties, either in cash or jail sentences, based on the outcome of a criminal trial related to  the Deutsche Bank fatalities: all those charged were found not guilty. In cases such as these, it is very difficult to establish guilt given the often highly problematic nature of the physical evidence. The Times reported:

The prosecution theory revolved around one pipe in a maze of pipes in the toxic tower’s basement. Mr. Alvo was accused of ordering cut a standpipe that provides water to a high-rise in an emergency. When the blaze struck, firefighters could not get water on it for more than an hour.

Prosecutors argued Mr. Alvo and his co-defendants knew it was a crucial pipe for firefighters, that it shouldn’t have been cut and that they did nothing to repair it.

This sounds very much like the kind of defense that Breeze would adopt if its officers were ever brought to trial, as the Columbia Spectator reported on Monday:

Century-old beams, and not safety oversights, led to the death of a construction worker when a Manhattanville building collapsed on Thursday, according to the contractor responsible for the building’s demolition.

The building—which was being torn down as part of Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville—was built about 100 years ago, and it collapsed when demolition workers from Breeze National cut a structural beam. Breeze National said in a statement that while most structural beams that run horizontally are joined together at a vertical column, the beam that the workers cut had an “unknown, unusual, latent condition.”

The beam, Breeze said, “carried past the column and was joined to the other horizontal beam by a splice with bolts” that was encased in two feet of concrete. Breeze said that because the building is so old, no available structural drawings revealed this unusual structure, and the bolts failed when the beam was cut, causing the collapse.

Even under the best of circumstances, demolition is a very dangerous business like firefighting, coal-mining or lumberjacking. Unlike firefighting, which is not subject to the dictates of the market, the other job categories operate under a very tight logic of time = money. Whether or not the accident would have occurred last Thursday, Columbia University has an obligation to make sure that Bovis and Breeze are kept on a tight leash. Given the school board of trustee’s domination by real estate developers and hedge fund managers, there is probably no reason to be optimistic.

The building collapse at Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion and the criminal past of Bovis and Breeze are reminders of the deep tentacles of the construction industry penetrated by the mafia. And as was the case with Deutsche Bank and Columbia’s expansion, time equals money. If shortcuts must be made at the expense of human life, so be it. This was the verdict of another construction “accident” that occurred on East 91st Street in 2008 just a few blocks from where I live. Last month, when the manslaughter trial began, the prosecutor used words almost the same as those used in the Deutsche Bank trial, as the NY Times reported on February 21. The article also pointed out the difficulties faced in rendering a guilty verdict:

A tower crane collapsed and killed two men on the Upper East Side in 2008 because the crane’s owner put profit ahead of safety, prosecutors said Tuesday as his manslaughter trial began.

An assistant district attorney, Eli Cherkasky, said the owner, James F. Lomma, had hired an unqualified Chinese company to do a critical repair that predictably failed, an “outrageous” departure from industry standards that was “criminal in every sense of the word.”

Mr. Cherkasky said repeatedly that the low price and quick turnaround by the Chinese company, RTR, had driven Mr. Lomma’s decision-making, causing the deaths of Donald C. Leo, who was operating the crane when it collapsed on May 30, 2008, and Ramadan Kurtaj, another construction worker.

“They were killed because of one man’s greed,” Mr. Cherkasky told Justice Daniel Conviser, who is hearing the case without a jury in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. “He was content to risk other people’s lives so he could collect $50,000 a month in rental fees.”

Mr. Lomma’s lawyers presented a different story in their opening remarks. They said that a heavy “headache ball” on the crane’s line was hoisted into the boom, ostensibly by the operator, causing the line to snap, and that the heavy ball fell straight down, forcing the suddenly unbalanced crane to tip over backward.

James Kim, a defense lawyer, said the risk of such an event was well known and referred to as “two blocking.” But he said officials had missed the true cause of the accident because they had focused on RTR’s welding work early in their investigation.

Mr. Kim also said that Mr. Lomma, the owner of New York Crane and Equipment Corporation, was not unduly concerned about the repair cost and lost revenue from the crane’s being out of service because a contract required the renter, Sorbara Construction, to keep paying the monthly fee during the crane’s repair, and insurance covered the cost of the repair itself.

The collapse of the crane at East 91st Street and First Avenue was the second fatal crane accident within a few months at the end of a tremendous cycle of building in the city. The acquittals from the earlier crane collapse, as well as from the 2007 blaze at the former Deutsche Bank building, show the difficulty of prosecuting such cases.

What the article does not mention is the role of the DeMatteis Corporation, who happens to be my landlord and also like Bovis not above doing business with mob-related outfits. I invite you to read what I wrote about all this back in 2008.

Finally, some words on John Galt. Back in 1960, when I was an Ayn Rand (and William F. Buckley) fan, I really had no idea what was going on in the world. My rightwing beliefs were mainly a reaction against the Kennedy liberalism that was popular at my school. In some ways I was no different from Charles Bukowski who used to talk up Adolph Hitler in his Los Angeles high school in the 1930s just to piss other students off.

Facing the draft and working for the welfare department in Harlem in 1967 was a cold glass of water thrown in my face. Not only was I averse to Ayn Rand-style libertarianism, I would have no use for Democratic Party liberalism of the sort that was ready to send me to Vietnam to kill or be killed. My last vote for a Democratic Party politician was for LBJ in 1964. That was that, as far as I was concerned.

My ideals clashed with the brutal reality of a criminal war and the criminal treatment of Black Americans. Perhaps I am just naïve, but as long as corporations like Bovis, John Galt and Breeze bend or break the law, they must be shunned. I will not forsake the ideals of my youth that were pumped into me by the teachers and journalists who never tired of reminding us how wonderful democracy and good government were. If their lectures turned me into the dirty commie that I am today, there’s not much I can do about that. It is the rulers who must be changed, not me. And that’s that.

When it was okay for Iran to have nuclear power

Filed under: nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

Am I suspicious?

Filed under: racism — louisproyect @ 2:17 pm

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:13 pm

NY Times March 29, 2012

Earl Scruggs, Bluegrass Pioneer, Dies at 88


Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass banjo player whose hard-driving picking style influenced a generation of players and helped shape the sound of 20th-century country music, died on Wednesday in Nashville. He was 88.

His son Gary said his father died at a hospital of natural causes.

Mr. Scruggs was probably best known for performing alongside the guitar-playing Lester Flatt with the Foggy Mountain Boys. Among their signature songs were “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which was used as the getaway music in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song of the 1960s television sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Mr. Scruggs began developing his picking style at an early age. Born on a North Carolina farm to a large family of musicians, he took up the banjo at age 4, about the time his father, who also played the banjo, died. He also learned to play guitar, modeling his style after Mother Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family.

With little else to do but chores on a Depression-era farm, he became obsessed with the banjo. He depended mainly on a two-fingered picking style until he was about 10. Then one day, alone in his bedroom and brooding about an argument he had just had with an older brother, he found himself picking a song called “Lonesome Reuben” (or “Reuben’s Train”) using three fingers instead of two — the thumb, index and middle finger. It was a style, indigenous to North Carolina, that he had been trying to learn.

By tuning his banjo in different keys, he found he could play any tune, but the notes sounded undifferentiated at first. “I can’t hear the melody,” his mother would tell him, he said. So he learned to emphasize melody by plucking it with his strong thumb in syncopation with harmonic notes picked with his first two fingers. The sound was like thumbtacks plinking rhythmically on a tin roof.

The technique lent a harder edge to the bluegrass sound — named after Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys — which Jon Pareles, writing in The New York Times, characterized as “a fusion of American music: gospel harmony and Celtic fiddling, blues and folk songs, Tin Pan Alley pop and jazz-tinged improvisations.”

Earl Eugene Scruggs was born on Jan. 6, 1924, in Flint Hill, near Shelby, N.C., to George Elam Scruggs, a farmer and bookkeeper, and the former Georgia Lula Ruppe, who played the pump organ in church. He attended high school in Boiling Springs, N.C.

As Earl’s mastery of the banjo grew, the demands for his performance increased, and he soon found himself playing at dances and on radio shows in the Carolinas with various bands, among them Lost John Miller and His Allied Kentuckians.

In December 1945, after Mr. Miller’s group disbanded, Mr. Scruggs quit school and took the first major step of his career by joining the Blue Grass Boys for $50 a week plus $10 extra if he worked on Sundays. Besides Mr. Scruggs, the band came to include Mr. Monroe on the mandolin and singing; Mr. Flatt playing guitar and singing duets with Monroe; Howard Watts (a k a Cedric Rainwater) on bass, and Chubby Wise on fiddle.

With them Mr. Scruggs helped the group achieve the hard-driving “high, lonesome sound” that Monroe, called by many “the father of bluegrass,” was striving to achieve. When Mr. Scruggs stepped up to the microphone to play an instrumental break, “listeners would physically come out of their seats in excitement,” Richard Smith wrote in “Can’t You Hear Me Calling: The Life of Bill Monroe.”

Mr. Scruggs stayed with the Blue Grass Boys for two years as they starred on the “Grand Ole Opry” radio show and recorded classics like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Blue Grass Breakdown” and “Molly and Tenbrooks (The Race Horse Song)” for Columbia Records. He also sang baritone in the group’s gospel quartet.

Early in 1948, he and Mr. Flatt, weary of the low pay and exhausting travel, decided to strike out on their own, despite Monroe’s pleas to stay. In a famous feud, he did not speak to them for 20 years.

Although the two said they hadn’t planned to get together when they quit, they ended up forming a band called the Foggy Mountain Boys, after the Carter Family song “Foggy Mountain Top,” which they took as their theme song. With other musicians joining them, they moved bluegrass away from Monroe’s stronghold in Kentucky and central Tennessee to North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and Virginia.

Aided by the former Louise Certain, whom Earl had married in 1948 and who acted as the group’s manager and booking agent, and by the corporate sponsorship of Martha White Mills, they not only survived the onset of Elvis Presley and rock ’n’ roll but also surpassed Monroe in popularity. In 1954 they traveled to New York to appear in a Broadway show, “Hayride,” and Mr. Scruggs’s banjo-picking style began to spread among young folk musicians.

In 1955 they finally joined the “Grand Ole Opry,” thanks to pressure from Martha White Mills. In 1959 the group appeared at the first Newport Folk Festival, an offshoot of the Newport Jazz Festival. The Foggy Mountain Boys entered the folk-music revival, and the band began to play the college folk-festival circuit. As Mr. Scruggs broadened his musical interests he began to work with his growing sons, Gary Eugene, Randy Lynn and, during school vacations, Steve Earl, and to record material by Bob Dylan and other folk-rockers.

Mr. Flatt, by contrast, disliked the new music and felt it was alienating the band’s grass-roots fans. In 1969 the two broke up. Mr. Scruggs formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, a mostly acoustic group with drums and electric bass, which further broadened its repertory to include rock and touches of modern jazz, sometimes combining genres in a single number. The group stayed together for the remainder of Mr. Scruggs’s career, during which he performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Wembley Festival in London as well as in films and on television specials.

Mr. Flatt died in 1979. Mr. Scruggs’ wife, Louise, died in 2006; his son, Steve, died in 1992. Besides his sons Gary and Randy, his survivors include five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.


March 28, 2012

Paul Baizerman— ¡Presente!

Filed under: nicaragua,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

Like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea, Google has always helped to stir up remembrances of things past: high school, Bard College, the SWP, etc. I pop a name into the search field and a flood of hyperlinked associations wells up.

Paul Baizerman on an delegation to observe the Nicaraguan elections in 2001

Yesterday I googled “Paul Baizerman” to check on my erstwhile compañero from Tecnica, a technical aid volunteer project for Sandinista Nicaragua and the liberation movements in southern Africa that existed from the mid-1980s to the early 90s. During my stint as president of the board of directors, I had come into contact with many good people, including Paul.

I was sad to discover that he died last December, a month after suffering a heart attack. A paid announcement in the NY Times stated:

BAIZERMAN–Paul, 67, died December 6, in New York City. Teacher, activist, leader, organizer, community builder, friend, mentor in New York City, Cuba and Central America. Survived by wife Yudalmy Llanes Jenky, brother, and loving family and friends.

There was also this communication from Shelley Sherman that showed up on a Yahoo mailing list dedicated to slain American volunteer in Nicaragua Ben Linder who worked with Tecnica:

We just got news that Paul Baizerman died today in New York City, accompanied by his wife Yudi and his brother, Mike. He had been really sick and in the hospital about a month. He had lost a lot of weight and was quite weak. Apparently he had a heart attack, and wasn’t strong enough to rally. We had been hoping to see him at the end of December, but only found out this weekend that he had really taken a turn for the worse. Paul was a hard worker and a committed friend. We don’t have more news yet, and I am not sure who to notify, but thought I’d start with you. Please pass the word along.



Shelley ran the Tecnica office in Managua and, like Paul, was someone I hadn’t had contact with for over 20 years.

Despite all the time I spent in conversations with him about Nicaragua work, I never asked Paul once about his political background. My tendency is to impute CPUSA affiliations to any Jew from Brooklyn (racial profiling?) but looking back in retrospect, it is probably more accurate to see Paul as not much different than me—someone who got radicalized by the war in Vietnam.

Indeed, doing a bit of research on Google yesterday led me to this conclusion. A book titled Justice, justice: school politics and the eclipse of liberalism by Daniel Hiram Perlstein mentioned Paul:

Whereas the class-based, organizationally disciplined politics of the Communist Party lacked appeal, the civil rights and peace movements animated the young activists. In the late 1950s, Susan Metz participated in the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools organized by Bayard Rustin, and later she picketed northern Woolworth’s branches in support of southern sit-ins. In college Metz was campus chairwoman of the Student Peace Union. While in college, Bronx elementary school teacher Vivian Stromberg joined campaigns against strontium-90 and bomb tests. In the early 1960s, Stromberg went south as a freedom rider. Brooklyn teacher Paul Baizerman became involved in protests against racism and the Vietnam War while attending Brooklyn College between 1961 and 1967.

I should add that Vivian Stromberg became deeply involved with Central American issues in the 1980s, serving as the executive director of MADRE.

Paul went down to Nicaragua on a Tecnica delegation mainly to support his brother-in-law Mark who was an electrician but who did not speak a word of Spanish (Paul was fluent). The two of them came back to New York totally fired up with a commitment to recruit other skilled trades people and line up material aid for state-owned enterprises that were desperately in need of spare parts and tools. Somewhere along the line I suggested to Paul that he set up a Skilled Trades Task Force to organize the work and he embraced the idea. Long after Tecnica folded, an outcome almost guaranteed by the loss of Sandinista power in Nicaragua, the task force continued providing material aid to those enterprises that clung to the revolutionary ideals of the past.

Michael Urmann

From the very moment Paul got involved with Tecnica, he clashed with the founder and executive director Michael Urmann, an economist from the University of Utah who founded Tecnica. Michael was resented by Tecnica volunteers in Berkeley who preferred a more “horizontal” model for the project. He insisted that in order for the project to do any good, it had to have a professional apparatus run like a nonprofit. I agreed with his perspective and defended his approach to people like Paul. My guess is that there would have been a lot more static if I had not served as his defender in the organization.

I grew fairly close to Michael in this period, mostly because we had a similar past. As a member of the Progressive Labor Party, he had “colonized” an ILWU-organized warehouse in the Bay Area long before my own ill-fated attempt at joining the industrial working class in 1978 and with pretty much the same results. Backbreaking work and working class indifference to his “communist” message convinced him to resign from the PLP and concentrate on an economics degree.

Despite his academic pursuits, Michael’s real passion was entrepreneurialism. After arriving in Salt Lake City to begin teaching, he was disappointed to discover that there were no good movie theaters. This led him to start his own, a decision influenced by his father-in-law’s own entrepreneurial drive.

Hari Dillon in 2004

Perhaps in an effort to buffer his own top-down and even haughty manner from the displeasure of the Tecnica rank-and-file, Michael hired Hari Dillon to serve as project director for Tecnica. Like Michael, Hari was a former member of the PLP but unlike Michael had remained an activist over the years, earning respect particularly for his anti-apartheid work.

Hari co-authored a book with Jim Dann, another PLP ex-member, titled The Five Retreats: A History of the Failure of the Progressive Labor Party. Their analysis was shared by Michael Urmann. Moreover, they came to conclusions not that different from my own. This made collaboration between the three of us all the more possible, even when Hari and I were troubled by Michael’s stubborn refusal to work with others as a team.

In November 1968, PL’ers at San Francisco State led one of the most important student strikes of the time. One of its main demands was to create a Black Studies Department, something that university presidents were far more reluctant to satisfy back then than today. For his part in the protests, Hari spent a year in prison on riot charges. One of the other key leaders of the struggle, although not a PL’er, was fellow student Danny Glover who became close friends with Hari.

In 1991 Michael Urmann’s unilateral decision-making went too far. He began making financial decisions that went against Tecnica’s board of directors’ oversight and was fired. He was replaced by Hari Dillon who tried to keep the organization going until a shortfall of donations traceable to the collapse of the Sandinista project shut our doors.

Not long after Tecnica collapsed, Hari landed a job as executive director of the Vanguard Foundation, a Bay Area funding source for many different left causes. Every so often I googled “Hari Dillon” to see what he was up to, just as I do for Michael Urmann (he appears to be a retired professor.)

After discovering that Paul had died, I checked to see if I could find a current email address for Hari to tell him the news. He probably had much less interest than I did in a figure from his past, but I felt obligated to spread the word.

What I discovered truly shocked me:

Glover fraudster faces prison

By WENN.com | Friday, November 11, 2011

Samuel Cohen, 53, approached Lethal Weapon star Glover when the actor was a director of the Vanguard Public Foundation in 2002, offering to allow the organisation to profit from a Microsoft buyout of his software company.

Glover introduced Cohen to Vanguard president Hari Dillon, and they eventually invested a total of $30 million in Cohen’s company – but the Microsoft deal didn’t exist and Cohen was no longer even working for the business he claimed was about to be sold.

A court in San Francisco, California heard Cohen spent the profits of the scam on flashy cars, priceless gems, private jets, and a luxury home.

On Wednesday (09Nov11), he was found guilty of 29 counts of fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. He is due to be sentenced in February (12).

This scandal has sent shock waves through the liberal and leftist foundation world. You can find a three partanalysis by Richard Cohen (not the dreadful Washington Post columnist) on the Blue Avocado website (part one, part two, part three) that is devoted to nonprofit issues.  To put it mildly, Hari Dillon’s mishandling of finances made Michael Urmann’s look like stealing a dollar or two from a cookie jar by comparison.

Under a subheading titled Character Counts, Cohen observes:

Dillon and many of the Vanguard people are hard to find now or won’t speak on the record, but Mouli continues to issue self-congratulatory pronouncements on his website. It’s hard to imagine that the philanthropic values of Mouli Cohen (or his wife, the author of the Kosher Billionaire’s Secret Recipe) were any kind of comfortable match with those of the foundation.

For instance, representative of Mouli’s philanthropic activities were support for the European Center for Jewish Students, which works to increase the Jewish population of Europe against the threat of intermarriage and assimilation; a Jewish orphanage in Odessa; facilities development at the Ukraine tomb of a Lubavitcher Hasidic rabbi; and a library and museum in Israel affiliated with the Lubavitcher Hasids. In addition, he claims to be a leader and donor to several organizations which mention him nowhere on their websites, including Camp Okizu, Seva Foundation, and Soroko Medical Center.

Doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who would identify with the goals of a foundation that donated money to the ANSWER coalition, does it?

Cohen adds that Dillon’s ambitions, ironically mirroring Michael Urmann’s back in the early 90s who gambled that work with the ANC would pay huge dividends, amounted to political hubris:

Hari Dillon and the donors were frustrated with what they saw as relatively little impact through making small grants to others. Instead, they dreamed of the impact and profile they could have with millions of dollars deployed directly on Vanguard’s own staff-led initiatives.

Poignantly, donors and Dillon even became convinced that they had “converted” Mouli into a progressive left-winger. They brought him to a program of “urban peace awards” for the opportunity to observe his reactions. Later they congratulated one another on Mouli’s solemn statement that he was “moved.”

Back in the early 90s, after Tecnica’s collapse, I made a mental note to myself never to get involved with the world of liberal foundations again. There is something rotten at the core of such enterprises since they are based on values that run contrary to my own socialist beliefs. When you have to rely on the generosity of millionaire liberals, who might decide that Nicaragua is not “sexy” enough for them, you are at their mercy.

Paul Baizerman, with his pronounced Brooklyn accent and love for the average Nicaraguan worker, was about as far from that world as can be imagined. The future of humanity rests on the gathering together of such people into a powerful movement that can eliminate the profit motive and usher in true democracy for the first time in our history.

Paul Baizerman— ¡Presente!

Tecnica at work in Nicaragua

March 27, 2012

Harvard hoodies

Filed under: racism — louisproyect @ 4:51 pm

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