Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 31, 2013

Carla del Ponte and the “anti-imperialist” left: an unprincipled combination

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

Contrary to subsequent insinuations that she did not know what she was talking about, Del Ponte had chosen her words carefully. She had said that witness testimony made it appear that “some chemical weapons were used, in particular nerve gas.” And it appeared to have been used by the “opponents, by the rebels.” There is “no indication at all that the Syria government … used chemical weapons.”

Deepak Tripathi, Counterpunch May 13, 2013

On March 15, Mandel sent another complaint to Justice Carla del Ponte, the new chief prosecutor for the tribunal, who replaced Justice Louise Arbour in October. Mandel’s sharply worded letter protests the tribunal’s refusal to investigate NATO’s actions, saying that del Ponte has turned “the investigation into more of a farce than a judicial proceeding.” Mandel’s letter makes a solid case that far from being an independent investigator, the tribunal has conducted itself “as if it were an organ of NATO and not the United Nations.”

Alexander Cockburn and Jeff St. Clair, Counterpunch May 22, 2000

When I broke ranks with Fidel Castro in 2011 and chose to back the Libyan rebels, a lot of my old pals wrote me wondering why I was turning into the new Christopher Hitchens. After all, wasn’t I the guy who wrote all those articles attacking NATO’s war in the Balkans? I suppose I was. And I wouldn’t take back a word I wrote. One of the things that really struck in my craw back then was the way that people like Carla del Ponte were using the Hague to persecute Slobodan Milosevic, a politician who was demonized by people like Christopher Hitchens. History will record, however, that Milosevic stepped down after he lost an election in Serbia, something that did not assuage the opposition. They used violence after the elections to cement their rule. Meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad, who won 97 percent of the vote in the last “election” in Syria, uses MIG fighters against poor people simply demanding the right for true democracy. I haven’t changed. It is the rest of the left that now has the gall to cite del Ponte as a trustworthy expert that has changed.

Carla Del Ponte

It is not just Tripathi who takes Carla del Ponte seriously. You also have the spectacle of Marjorie Cohn, a past president of the National Lawyers Guild, and Jeanne Mirer, Co-Chair of the NLG’s International Committee, telling ZNet readers: “Indeed, in May, Carla del Ponte, former international prosecutor and current UN commissioner on Syria, concluded that opposition forces used sarin gas against civilians.” I understand that lawyers are trained to defend people in court even when they are guilty but this is ridiculous.

In 2002 Cohn wrote an article for http://jurist.law.pitt.edu on the deportation of Milosevic that began:

The deportation of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was a direct result of blackmail by the United States. Desperate to rebuild its economy, the Serbian government capitulated to U.S. threats: deliver Milosevic to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, or the U.S. would see to it that Yugoslavia didn’t get the foreign aid it critically needs.

Del Ponte became chief prosecutor in the following year at the International Criminal Tribunal, a body that broke laws in the name of enforcing international law. Del Ponte was so zealous in satisfying the policy needs of the nations that wanted to destroy Yugoslavia that she eventually came under investigation for prosecutorial misconduct as the Guardian reported on August 18, 2010:

Carla Del Ponte investigated over illegal evidence

Former war crimes prosecutor accused of allowing bullying and bribing of witnesses in trial of alleged Serbian warlord Vojislav Seselj

Carla Del Ponte, the former war crimes prosecutor who put Balkan warlords and political leaders behind bars, is to be investigated over claims she allowed the use of bullying and bribing of witnesses, or tainted evidence.

Judges at the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague today ordered an independent inquiry into the practices of Del Ponte and two prominent serving prosecutors, Hildegard Ürtz-Retzlaff and Daniel Saxon, after complaints from witnesses that they had been harassed, paid, mistreated and their evidence tampered with.

It is the first time in the tribunal’s 17 years in operation that top prosecutors have faced potential contempt of court rulings.

During her eight years as chief prosecutor, Del Ponte, a determined Swiss investigator now serving as her country’s ambassador to Argentina, was a combative and divisive figure. She left her post in 2007.

The allegations against her concern the working practices of her team of investigators in the ongoing prosecution for war crimes of the Serbian politician, Vojislav Seselj, a notorious warlord.

“Some of the witnesses had referred to pressure and intimidation to which they were subjected by investigators for the prosecution,” said a statement from the judge in the Seselj case. “The prosecution allegedly obtained statements illegally, by threatening, intimidating and/or buying [witnesses] off.”

One Serbian witness said he was offered a well-paid job in the US in return for testimony favourable to the prosecution.

And now this is the person that the former president of the National Lawyers Guild asks us to believe when it comes to the origins of chemical warfare in Syria? Really?

Not long after del Ponte raised these charges about the rebels using chemical weapons, blogger Clay Claiborne conducted a thorough examination. He points out something that never gets mentioned by all those who raise Carla del Ponte’s findings as proof that the rebels are likely behind the massacre in East Ghouta, namely that the UN, in whose name she spoke, ultimately repudiated her charges:

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. As a result, the Commission is not in a position to further comment on the allegations at this time.

Well, who would want to mention that when you are busy defending Bashar al-Assad. That messy detail would only get in the way of your political goals. What does it matter if the truth gets impaled on the sword of political exigency? We are trying to fight imperialism, after all.

As it turns out, del Ponte’s accusation was tied apparently to an incident at Khan al-Asal that, like East Ghoutia, had the Syrian dictatorship raising the same sorts of accusations. And, most interestingly, it turns out that del Ponte and a Russian documentary filmmaker named Anastasia Popova working in Khan al-Asal at the time of the attack and looking to promote the Putin policy agenda in Syria, met not long after the incident. Guess what, the two saw eye to eye, as Popova stated:

I was surprised to receive a letter from Carla del Ponte said she had watched my documentary and is interested in further cooperation. In my opinion, it was a very useful meeting and I hope to see positive results soon.

I suppose none of this matters to the “anti-imperialist” left. Didn’t Lenin write once that you had to lie in trade unions controlled by rightwing bureaucrats or something like that? Who cares if you look like Judith Miller when you string together a bunch of bullshit? We have a big job on our hands in defending Bashar al-Assad. If the Communist Party could have done the job in 1938 of making Leon Trotsky look like a Nazi agent, then surely the “anti-imperialist” left can make Bashar al-Assad look like an innocent victim of a conspiracy between Barack Obama and al-Qaeda.

Just leave me out.

August 30, 2013

Whither North Star?

Filed under: Pham Binh,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

varnC. Derick Varn, North Star’s new editor

This morning when I checked in on the North Star website, I spotted a Youtube clip of George Galloway’s speech to parliament opposing British intervention in Syria. As much as I enjoyed Galloway’s debate with Christopher Hitchens and as much as I am opposed to Obama launching missiles against Syria (or anywhere else in the world), my reaction was similar to the one I would have had if after turning on my favorite classical radio station, I heard the strains of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” instead. What the fuck? George Galloway? The guy who gets paid 80,000 pounds a year by the Syrians and the Iranians to make their case?

As some of you may know, Pham Binh resigned from the North Star editorial board three days ago, stating that he was “retiring from political writing to take care of long-neglected problems and people in my personal life”. This leaves C. Derick Varn and Pavel Dubrovsky as co-editors in chief. Despite lip-service they are paying to the idea of continuing with the mission of North Star, I doubt that this will be possible even if that is their stated opinion. I know nothing about Dubrovsky but Varn’s political past sets off all sorts of warning bells even if I cannot regard him as politically retrograde. In fact, it is hard to get any kind of fix on his political views, something that obviously was not the case with Pham Binh. I will be returning to the question of North Star’s future but will now take a look at its past—starting with its birth.

I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but about a year before I retired I alluded to some projects that would be possible after I retired. One of them was an online newspaper that would be in the spirit of Lenin’s Iskra, a place where socialists could post articles, interviews, Youtube videos, etc. as well as debate with each other.

In late 2011 Pham Binh broached the subject of launching a website along these lines but focused on the Occupy movement. Since I was impressed with Binh’s writings and since we had agreement about the “party” question, I gave it the green light. As far as I was concerned, this was Binh’s baby. I put up the three or four hundred dollars for the WordPress template and the hosting. I also provided technical support early on. That was my total involvement.

The website was called “The North Star” in honor of Peter Camejo’s network that I was part of in the early 80s, and ultimately in honor of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper whose name Peter had adopted. He was committed to the idea that American socialists had to dump the icons of the Russian (or Chinese past) like the hammer-and-sickle and utilize images and themes that resonated with our own history.

Binh and I had high hopes that the Occupy movement could develop into something long-lasting and powerful but a combination of factors led to its demise. After the repression that Obama helped to organize wrested the activists from the public spaces, they had trouble refocusing their energy. Despite some successes around opposing evictions and aid to Hurricane Sandy victims, the movement wound down. This meant that the North Star would have to change focus. Binh made the decision to take up party-building questions more directly, as well as the dynamics of the Arab Spring. The articles he wrote about “Leninism” for North Star were extremely valuable, especially the one that made the case rather convincingly that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were never separate parties but factions of the same party—an analysis that Lars Lih came to support.

With respect to the Arab Spring, Binh and the North Star became lightning rods after his articles defending the right of the Libyans to call for a no-fly zone put him in the same category as Christopher Hitchens for the “anti-imperialist” wing of the left. To his credit, Binh defended his views against all comers. His willingness to debate anybody who dared to cross swords with him reminded me of the viral Youtube video of the honey badger, the one that shows the beast sticking his snout into a beehive with the narrator saying, “Honey badger gets bit but he doesn’t give a shit. He wants his honey.”

In the course of participating in Occupy Wall Street, not far from his workplace, Binh came in contact with Ben Campbell, a Canadian neuroscience PhD student who had become radicalized in the struggle and had begun studying Marxism in earnest. Ben, like Binh, was both brilliant and a quick learner. Unfortunately, like Binh, he had personal problems that would eventually make it impossible for him to continue with North Star.

In his naiveté, Ben joined the Platypus Society, a group that consists of highly educated graduate students and professors who are self-avowed enemies of the left today in the name of rescuing Marxism from itself. It is a curious mixture of the philosophy of Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt school doyen, and the Spartacist League. The founder of the Platypus group, an art historian named Chris Cutrone, was a member of the Spartacist League and has never gotten over their kibitzing style. The approach is to sit on the sidelines castigating the left for its failures. Back when it was still on the left, Frank Furedi’s sect in Britain had the same illness.

Since I had become detached from the internal workings of the North Star, I can’t be sure about this but I have a strong suspicion that it was through Ben Campbell that connections with Platypus members was made, including C. Derick Varn—a former member. Here’s an interview of Ben Campbell by Varn in February 2013, when he was still a member, on the blog of Ross Wolfe, another Platypus member.

Just around the time that Varn became an editor along with Binh, Binh’s personal situation began to deteriorate. I can’t be sure when Varn came on board, but my impression is that Binh was so deluged by personal woes that having any kind of support was welcomed even if Varn’s provenance had little to do with the North Star’s mission. I think perhaps in Varn’s mind, there was a connection between the two projects since they both involved sweeping attacks on the existing left. The key difference, however, was that Binh had an activist orientation and sought more than anything to lay the groundwork for a new left, in the same manner as Peter Camejo in the early 80s and Bert Cochran in the early 50s. In a way, it is unfortunate that just at the time that the conditions are most propitious for such a development, Binh’s personal situation has forced him to retire from writing.

Turning back to the North Star website, I really have no idea what Varn and company intend. The sad fact is that not a single one of the editors has ever written an article there. Varn and fellow editor Dario Cankovich have posted interviews there from time to time but unlike Binh have never written a single article. Of course, a preemptory search turned nothing up and I accept the possibility that I might have missed something but to be sure their views were not dominant.

Frankly, I would not have a problem with them using the North Star for their own ends, even if they were opposite Binh’s. If I can get something out of Crooked Timber, I can surely get something out of a rival band of well-educated grad students. Maybe Varn will tire of this venture and move on to other things. As he put it once:I have the nasty habit of flirting with various ideological tendencies, going through a myriad of variations of each, and seemingly changing colors with each of them like a demented chameleon.”

Syria: The story of the reluctant king and his very beautiful wife

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 4:14 pm

(By Jeff Richards, a FB status.)

I actually find the story of Bashar al-Assad quite a sad Shakespearian tragedy. He was lumbered with his fathers appalling and murderous legacy and then forced into office when his charismatic reformer playboy brother was killed while driving his Mercedes in a fog on his way to Germany. Bashar was an opthamologist who wanted to escape the barbarism of Syrian politics and enjoy the pleasures of a very wealthy European life and the company of beautiful women (Can you blame him? You would have to be a fool not to want that if it was handed to you!). But such are the ways of clans and families all over the world, he is made the leader in place of the dead heir apparent. But as a leader, he is just a puppet of the military apparatus. He earns his spurs in the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in the 1990s (before the Lebanese decide they were sick and tired of being Syrian puppets.) and after that he is crowned as president, a little puppet in the hands of a military apparatus that reeks with the stench of its torture chambers.

Bashar Assad then begins his presidency with great hopes of liberal reform, in the company of a very -classically- beautiful, intelligent and talented wife, Asma. Asma -who grew up in London and studied computer science in Kings College, started her career in Deutsche Bank’s hedge fund management division and then the investment banking division of JP Morgan, where she worked on a team that specialized in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.(source WP). It was a presidency that first looked like it was fully oriented to integration to the liberal democracies of Europe and the US (after all, we must never forget Syria was a major partner of George Bush 1 in the first invasion of Iraq. Syria sent troops to invade Iraq). But Bashar Al-Assads masters in the senior ranks of the Syrian military had different ideas, especially when the treasure that the generals had stolen from their people were suddenly threatened by the Arab spring.

In retrospect, what Bashar could have done -with some risk of course- when the Arab spring erupted in Syria was ride the democratic wave and used the opportunity to imprison and /or terminate the existence of the military elite that ran the show in Syria. But did Assad have the organisational capability to be so decisive? Possibly not. Instead he chooses to go with the military elite and its murderous crusade to end the democratic uprising. A few hundred heads of mass murders in the Syrian military elite rolling from the guillotine would have been a small price to pay when compared to the years of utterly horrendous suffering that the men, women and children of Syria are now facing. Perhaps if his charismatic reforming playboy brother had lived they might have made a team that could have organised the necessary forces to ensure a decisive victory over the old guard. We shall never know.

Abraham Marx article about the North Star website

Filed under: revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

(I plan to write my own commentary today.)

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

-Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

 I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. … I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. …

-William Lloyd Garrison

For millennia, brave navigators of sea and land would reckon their position, distance, and direction by the stars above. One of the most reliable for reckoning was the North Star. It had many names. Polaris was one. Few held as constant a place in the sky; nearly all the other stars and constellations wobbled in parallax. The night sky was a sure map and a calming expanse to untold numbers of humans caught up in strife, enduring the evils of wicked kings, lost at sea or far from home; it was the very presence of the divine, revealing secrets of the harvest, hints of the future.

In human affairs, there are few such constants. One of these is the enduring threat of slavery, one human in undisputed legal and psychological mastery over another. A slave put in the carriage of every Roman Emperor leading a triumph, an incarnated reminder of this threat. Another constant, dialectic-diametric, is opposing slavery for what it is, an unmitigated evil allowing every other possible cruelty and injustice. The lengths to which a master must go to ensure the submission and obedience of the slave, and the lengths to which a slave will go to win his freedom, are competing parallels of will.

Slavery is a wicked darkness, a night sky without starlight; freedom’s glimmer as steady a light in darkness as the North Star. This must have been the basic thinking behind Fredrick Douglass’ creation of an abolitionist newspaper called the North Star. His paper was small and struggled on for a few years. It tried to avoid attacking the reputation or sway of larger abolitionist papers like The Liberator. It later merged with another small abolitionist paper, and continued publication up until the Civil War.

The masthead of its first issue is unequivocal:

“The object of the North Star will be to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate universal emancipation; exalt the standard of public morality; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people; and hasten the day of freedom to the three millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen.”

What the North Star can teach the North Star I leave to the proprietors and supporters of the North Star. I infer that this name was chosen to move past sectarianism and scholasticism, and point the way toward a broader movement. The about page of the website says sort of the same thing, though it chooses to lead with Camejo (who?) instead of Douglass…

A paper that takes up the abolitionist mantle is striving to earn and exercise the authority of a distinctly American radicalism. What would that mean?

It might mean cleaning house –purging the American left of the fetish jargons and hobbyhorses of Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Gramsci, Hardt and Negri, et al.  Extinguishing instead of fueling an endless quibble over sects, Camejo and Schachtman, SWP, ISO WSWS, etc etc etc etc.

It might consider narrowing its focus, covering only the United States of America, and its domestic and foreign policies. Striving to do so in a way that is competitive and threatening to mainstream outlets. This narrow focus would incubate constructive and cohesive coverage. And it would invite similarly disciplined outlets to carve into different niches. The earliest waves of articles (February 2012-a little past May Day 2012) the North Star published were reports of local Occupy movements and debates over future strategy. Trying to serve as ‘catch-all’ for grievances and radicalism (similar to Counterpunch or Truthout) is light pollution making navigation by stars more difficult.

It might consider going over to the offensive, engaging hostile blogospheres and news outlets, chronicling the movement and debates of genuine enemies. Enemies like the officer class, like the Republican fringe, like the neoreactionaries. There is just as much diversity and factionalism on the other side of the barricade; only they know how to march in lockstep against anything to their left, which often includes people like Romney. Engaging them, either to provoke further division among them, to fight hand to hand, or merely to understand the enemy, would focus the Marxist mind and bring clear consensus.

It might consider that publishing articles confirming stereotypes of the left can’t help, further embroiling it in a circular logic it needs to escape. For example, the animal question, or revisiting old slogans like democratic centralism, Leninism, anti-imperialism et al. Then there are the oh so clever academic flavored canards like anti-philosophy, and anti-politics. Eschewing high theory, debates over left liturgy, actively ignoring sectarian nonsense, and staying out of problems it can have no influence over, like Syria, would lead to editorial focus, longer-sighted strategy, and practical goals.

I may yet write a devil’s advocate criticism of the Left. It would be withering. Perhaps that is the only way to bring faults to light. But for now it suffices to say that many of the subjects of the merciless criticism of radicals are hobbyhorses – outgrowths of academic interests from college, emotional responses to a social-engineered divisiveness over cultural values, an intellectualized form of venting steam or of transposing personality politics onto ideological hairsplitting. The name-calling the left resorts to among itself exemplifies this: someone is racist or sexist or homophobic or imperialist or conservative or reactionary or –ist as soon as disagreements arise.

Make no mistake, the North Star could outdo the North Star. Given a clearer self-concept, functional alliances with other left outlets, and acquiring the taste for drawing blood from real opponents.

It could simply sneak into the powerful arsenal that is American history and arm the slaves with knowledge of their unfreedom. Abolitionism is powerful precisely because of its simplicity.

The basic framing of Abolitionism basically writes its own ticket, its own messaging. It dispenses with the need for Europhilic-Marxical language. Marx makes use of the two key terms ‘emancipate’ and ‘abolish’ in exactly the same sense as abolitionists did. This is no accident, it is how to smuggle Marx into the country by hiding his accent. Abolitionism brings the instincts and aims of political radicalism into the mainstream of American discourse. Furthermore, it outflanks the naïve hagiography of the Civil Rights Era, takes MLK off his pedestal, and leads him and his cohorts into the larger pantheon of heroes who fought for emancipation in the broadest possible sense.

Slavery is evil. Every form of support for slavery, especially the passive or implicit support, must be revealed and destroyed. There is no grey area, no middle ground, when it comes to slavery. Abolitionists are the only force strong enough to tear down every single legalistic, institutional, or patriotic argument that slaveowners or their mouthpieces could offer forth. Bolsheviks were the only force strong enough to dismantle Tsarism, refuse castration by liberal loyalties and apologia, and crush White forces.

Here we hit onto both the problem and its solution. Capitalism has revealed itself to be merely a slightly abstracted form of slavery. Whatever progressive content it had died in World War One, and was only propped up by the postwar Golden Age of welfare statism. We now have the worst of all possible worlds; neo-feudalism for the poor, communist solidarity among the wealthy, and we call it capitalism. Our bondage has become less abstract as it has become more and more concrete as mortgage, student, and medical debt-slavery.  Chains have become heavier and heavier in the form of wage-slavery, a wage slavery without even the illusion of savings, growth, or progress. Ashworth argues that budding capitalism and slave-labor could one coexist in America, but became incompatible as the republic expanded. We are now reaching an era in which capitalism and democracy are becoming increasingly incompatible.

Boiling it down to this, debt slavery or wage slavery, the country a company store or a debtor’s prison, means we don’t need to bring in anything other than a demand for emancipation. We must abolish slavery. (This is of course overlooking the ‘invention of capitalism’ that Perelman chronicles, that Marx called ‘primitive accumulation, that Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession. If we wrap capital, dripping blood from every pore, up in the finery of neoclassical economics, it still has no manners and begins ordering us about as if we were its slaves, because we willingly and freely decided to enter the workforce and get onto its payroll.)

In Freehling’s book on secessionists, he devotes the opening chapters to portraying the day-to-day struggle balancing the status of the slave, tricky, deceitful, or de facto independent, with how masters endlessly refined methods to ensure maximum compliance, and the appearance of consent. Every social and institutional aid was necessary to ensure that the slave-owner’s will was sovereign. “Guns and books must never reach slave hands.” (61) The amount of rules, regulations, protocols, and ‘suggestions’ a slave had to abide by were innumerable. As Tacitus says, “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government.” Who among us is not caught between juggling which (immigration, narcotic, sexual, labor) laws we violate, how often and when? Is that not the status of someone who is legally unfree?

If we are all slaves to pieces of paper called money or debt (or stocks or treasuries) then who are the slaveowners and how do we characterize them? They are the ultra-rich, a ruling class composed of people like Bloomberg and Soros and Murdoch and the Koch brothers. These are the owners of the United States, a plantation-state at best. They gladly suffer a coterie of fools in the media to think that they are free by making sure they have more money than they could reasonably spend (but not enough to build up a power base). Reporters, actors, popstars and the like.

And then of course there are the house slaves, the cops and bureaucrats and officers of the armed forces, the administrators of hospitals and schools. They fiercely uphold their cherished place in the house and vent all their rage and fear on the slaves out in the field. That is, those of us without a state sinecure, excess wealth, or raw power. Malcolm X made much hay with society as a plantation.

If it isn’t clear enough to anyone. Liberals have lost their way. They are very lame. They are stuck in a weird obsessive relationship with their masters – conservatives. As such they are by turns seeking the approval of these slaveowners, who will never give their approval, will never admit slavery is ‘wrong,’ and so liberals will never win its everlasting ‘argument’ or ‘debate’ with the slaveowning elite (who see this ‘argument’/’debate’ for what it really is – a ‘fight’ for their survival – and so have no limit to their ruthlessness). Perhaps more could be said about this in a different article, reminding us how liberals behaved in 1848, 1917, 1933.

The antebellum era has other useful insights. A government held in perpetual crisis, in large part because an elite class uses all its clout to muddle every other issue, as thin edge of the wedge or as bargaining chip to entrench and perpetuate its dominance.

The basic principle behind the Homestead Act, cheap housing which encourages social and geographical mobility AND individual initiative, is antithetical to what housing policy has been since at least Herbert Hoover, a debt-chain of obligation discouraging socialistic politics. The basic purpose of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and its remarkable effectiveness in the face of Congressional hostility and miniscule funding, could point the way to what a 21st century Reconstruction would be like. There is more too, if you care to look for it: protectionism, state funding for infrastructure projects, strong Federal intervention in critical spheres.

Abolitionism also has the benefit of revealing what lies behind the arguments for ‘State’s Rights,’ continued Southern dominance over American politics. Volume 3 of Robert Caro’s LBJ should make this point clear enough. The Senate is “‘the South’s unending revenge upon the North for Gettysburg’ not just revenge, unending revenge.” (xxiii) The South rules through state-houses, the Senate, and through party unity. (HEY! Abolitionists were some of the founding fathers of the GOP, and some of its strongest supporters and backers in the run-up to the Civil War; this threads the needle of what I said in my first article.)

To stand against a slaveowning elite requires a hard and uncompromising strength. It requires unbending principles that cannot be diluted, bought off, or misdirected. The Bolshevik stands against the Tsar because he cannot bend the knee. The Abolitionist stands against the Slaveowner because he will not become a slave.

The last and greatest benefit to the abolitionist frame is that emancipation is the goal. Every single individual who begins the process of self-emancipation is a victory. Self-expression is not the goal. Self-discipline and willpower grow, and become means to still greater ends. The slave who flees captivity, across the field or in his mind, becomes an example to other slaves, and a greater threat to the slaveowners. Enough of them go free, and a revolution occurs.

The North Star has given itself big shoes to fill simply by virtue of aligning itself with a name from the past. Can it live up to its name? Or will it meet Marx’s dictum about things that happen twice in history?

An open letter on Syria to Western narcissists

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 2:10 am

(I very rarely crosspost but this is worth it. This blog should be bookmarked.)


On the eve of what seem to be ineluctable strikes on Syria, I’ve been struggling with what my position on Syria should be. Before I get to that though, I should say that while I’m not Syrian, I too have some skin in the game, as it were. On our way to donate blood for a friend’s mother’s surgery last month, my wife got a call from a friend telling us to avoid the neighborhood of Bir al-Abed in Beirut’s southern suburbs, since there had just been a large explosion there. At Bahman Hospital, my wife and baby daughter and I saw ambulances speeding toward us carrying those who had just been wounded. And a few days after I’d left for southern Turkey to conduct interviews with Syrians who had fled the war in their homes, I found out that a car bomb had just gone off a few blocks from my mother in law’s home in the “Hezbollah stronghold” of Rweiss. It kills me that my daughter has heard the sound of a car bomb before her first birthday.

Extended family from Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp outside Damascus, have been displaced and are forced to seek refuge yet again in Lebanon, a country that doesn’t want them. And even now, we’re making plans for what might happen if the impending strikes on Syria fuel an escalation in Lebanon, where living in the southern suburbs can get you killed if there’s a war with Israel. And yet all of this pales in comparison to what my Syrian friends continue to go through on a daily basis.

All that to say that the current conflict in Syria isn’t just of academic interest to me; it’s personal as well. This is partially why I have so little patience for some of the rhetoric I’ve been seeing from Western leftist circles, where this conflict seems like nothing more than a rhetorical bludgeon for scoring ideological points. This has been illustrated by the passing around of an article by Robert Fisk, who asks, “Does Obama know he’s fighting on al-Qa’ida’s side?” This lazy and facile opinion piece assures us that if the US attacks Syria, then “the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida.” It is the flip side of the rhetoric that was so evident in the run-up to war in Iraq that equated any opposition to an idiotic war with support for Saddam Hussein. Well, guess what? There are lots of perfectly fine opinions that might put you on the same side as al-Qa’ida. Just to name one: if you’re against drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, as I am, then you’re also “on the same side as al-Qa’ida” according to this logic.

This is the caricature of knee-jerk leftism, where everything is always and everywhere about the United States. The narcissism of such a position boggles the mind. In such an ideological stance it’s not enough to be critical of Washington’s actions and motivations, as well we should be, it is necessary to parrot the talking points of Washington’s enemies. (The same phenomenon can be seen in certain Islamophobic and right-wing circles.) In this narrative, the militarization of the uprising in Syria was an American plan, not a foreseeable reaction to a brutally violent crackdown on a predominately peaceful opposition movement by the security forces of the Ba’ath regime. This conflict is, so the argument goes, a creation of Washington, and perhaps Riyadh, and the opposition is made up of only of blood-thirsty sectarian Islamists who are generally seen as but tools of malicious statecraft. Such a narrative, of course, denies the agency of Syrians, seeing them as so many lifeless puppets waiting for a tug from the imperialist American hand.

This is why discussions of Syria in such quarters tend not to be discussions of Syria. They’re actually discussions of “American capitalism” or “American imperialism” – take your pick. So let me be clear: if your opinion of Syria is actually an opinion about the United States, I have no interest in hearing it, and it’s probably safe to say that most Syrians (or at least all of the ones I know) who are faced with the business end of the regime’s ordinance don’t either. I can’t think of a single Syrian who’s willing to get killed so you can flaunt your anti-imperialist street cred from the comfort of your local coffee shop.

Lest I be accused of shilling for American intervention here, let me set a few things straight. In addition to endangering my family’s lives, the proposed “punitive strikes” that are all but inevitable probably won’t make anything better on the ground, and may make things worse, which is why I’m against them. My opinion on American intervention in general and in this conflict in particular (about which more in a subsequent post) is that the US is not to be trusted to act in anything but what it sees as its interests, and often a woefully short-sighted understanding of those interests to boot. So no, Washington does not really care about those children killed last week in a chemical attack, just as it didn’t care about the Iranians or Kurds killed in previous ones. Consequently, my feeling is that a vicious, and viciously short-sighted, realpolitik in Washington would probably like nothing better than to let its enemies fight indefinitely in Syria, burning the country to the ground as they do so.

But please, don’t let the conflict in Syria be about opposing America. Let it be about Syria, and what might actually help Syrians – you know, the actually existing people who are dying by the tens of thousands in this brutal war. But if you can’t do that, then do me a favor, and please shut up.

August 29, 2013

The Political Economy of Comanche Violence

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

Comanche man, photo taken in 1892

I just got a copy of the latest Capitalism Nature Socialism journal (Volume 24, Number 3, September 2013) that should be available on JSTOR before long. I was somewhat dismayed to see that a single issue of CNS costs $121 and that a purchase of my article on “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence” is $37. I used to get upset over Historical Materialism’s price but was startled to see such an escalation. In any case, if you do have JSTOR access, I urge you to look at this special issue on “Bridging Indigenous and Socialist Perspectives” that includes a piece by Hugo Blanco as well. In the section on “Cleansing and Renewing”, you can find an article by David Bedford and Thomas Cheney on “Labor, Nature, and Spirituality”. I am not familiar with Cheney but I regard David Bedford as one of the sharpest scholars in the field of Marxism and indigenous society. You can read his Marxism and the Aboriginal Question: The Tragedy of Progress on the North Star website for free.

I will be including an excerpt from my article below but want to preface it with some background on how I came to write it.

In November 2007, after seeing the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”, I was left deeply unsatisfied by the movie’s ending. When I learned that it followed the plot of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, I decided to look further into his work, especially “Blood Meridian”, a work that some of his boosters in the academy compare to Melville. I wrote:

If I had more time on my hands, I might take a look at McCarthy’s novels to try to extract out the rotten core and examine it under a strong light, especially the 1985 “Blood Meridian” that is described on the official website of the Cormac McCarthy Society as a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.” The write-up continues:

In one celebrated scene, a column of mercenaries the kid has joined encounters a Comanche war party herding stolen horses and cattle across the desert. The kid barely escapes as the Indians, still vividly dressed like eldritch clowns in the garments they have stripped from their last white victims, annihilate his companions.

Just what the world was waiting for, a Faulkneresque novel that depicts American Indians as wanton killers.

In early 2008 I got around to reading “Blood Meridian”. The best way to describe it was a marriage between McCarthy’s patented overwriting style and a portrayal of the Comanches that is a mixture of George Romero and early 50s cowboys and Indians cliché. You almost expect the Comanches to come lurching across the plains with their arms outstretched hungering for human flesh.

Then, a year after I read McCarthy, Pekka Hämäläinen’s “Comanche Empire” came out. As the title implied, the author argued that in the decades before the Mexican-American war of 1847, the Comanches ruled over what amounted to as a pre-state empire. Not only did whites live in fear, so did other Indian tribes including the Apaches who were driven out of Texas into the lands now coincident with the state of New Mexico.

So what was the truth about the Comanches? Were they part of the “myth of aboriginal victimization” or were they victimizers? I felt the need to get to the bottom of things.

I was moving closer to writing something but I needed a bit of a kick in the ass, something I received from Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, the new editor of CNS who took over from Joel Kovel. Salvatore had sent me email early this year inviting me to write an article for the issue that finally came out. I told him that I was reluctant to write for any academic journal, particularly CNS since James O’Connor had decided not to publish an article that he too had invited me to write. My wife has to put up with refereed journals but as a public intellectual I enjoy the freedom to say what I want when I want.

Fortunately, Salvatore broke down my resistances and I spent a good three months writing a 7000 word article that in my not so humble opinion is one of the best things I have ever written on indigenous issues. I invite you to track it down on JSTOR as soon as it is available. Here’s how it starts:

The Political Economy of Comanche Violence

Louis Proyect

Despite Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’s affinity for Lewis Henry Morgan’s pro- indigenous studies, Marxism has had a troubled relationship to native peoples. As hunters and gatherers were they destined to be superseded, a tragic but ineluctable function of their economic backwardness? Despite Engels’ admiration for the Iroquois, he deemed them doomed because of “an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area” (Engels 1902, 119). Similarly, José Carlos Mariátegui’s later related attempts to reconcile Incan institutions with socialism are widely admired (Mariátegui 2011), but evidence of a lasting impact on revolutionary theory or organizing in Latin America is mixed. In the current context, despite Evo Morales’s commitment to indigenous rights, there have also been clashes between the revolutionary left and the Awa, the Maya, the Miskitos and other Indian nations in years past.

Meanwhile in North America the record is worse. The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party submitted a paper to a conference organized by the American Indian Movement at the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1980 in which Russell Means was charged with adopting a “noble savage” stance geared to the “insipid fantasies” of the bourgeoisie (Churchill 1983, 39). They probably spoke for most of the left, which despite its sympathies for AIM’s struggles tended to view factories, cattle ranches and wheat farms as progressive in comparison to the Indian’s “extremely undeveloped state of production.” For example, in “America’s Revolutionary Heritage”, the Trotskyist philosopher George Novack wrote that the bourgeois revolution had to “rid American society of its precapitalist encumbrances (Indian tribalism, feudalism, slavery)” (Novak, 1976, 250). It probably never occurred to Novack that the Lakota resistance to General Custer was worthy of support, just as was in turn Custer’s to the rebel army. Cruder readings of the work of Engels (1902), based on the schema of social development proceeding through discrete linear stages like a larva being transformed into a butterfly, continue to haunt the movement. It probably never entered Novack’s mind that Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development could be applied to the United States with slavery and capitalism coexisting organically until the contradictions that heightened in the 1850s made that impossible. While Eric Williams (1994) drove home that point, it is safe to say that there is no counterpart to his study that pays attention to the role of the Indian in the earliest stages of American capitalism. Without indigenous peoples’ participation in the fur trade, the merchant capital of a Hudson Bay Company might not have led to the industrial capital of the 19th century.

Comanche Imperialism?

And perhaps even more importantly, the role of the American Indian in procuring horses for agriculture and commerce has never been fully understood until the publication of Pekka Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire in 2008. The portrait of the Comanche that emerges in this study is no noble savage. If anything, it echoes sociobiology’s claim that the Indian was just another player in a Hobbesian drama pitting one vicious tribe against another, including the greater Anglo-Saxon tribe that ruled America.

If Hämäläinen errs on the side of perpetuating the myth of an “ignoble savage”, then at least he is more scrupulous than most scholarship or than the more egregious demonizing attempts by such novelists as Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985). Acclaimed in the May 21, 2006 New York Times as one of the most important novels of the past 25 years, Blood Meridian was the product of the author’s extensive research into Texas history of the pre-Civil War period, when the Comanche Indians were still a force to be reckoned with. When the Comanche make their initial appearance, the effect is ghastly:

Already you could see through the dust on the ponies’ hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of the unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones … a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brim-stone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools. (McCarthy, 2008, 52)

This is a reference to the August 6, 1840 Linville Raid when 600 Comanche killed and kidnapped many settlers, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter. What struck McCarthy’s literary fancy was the raiding party’s looting of the town’s general store, resulting in a sinister costume party: “one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil” (McCarthy, 1985, 52).

While McCarthy’s account of the raid is accurate if overwrought stylistically, it leaves out an important element. This was not an unprovoked attack but vengeance for the killing of 12 of the top Comanche leaders at a peace negotiations meeting in the San Antonio Council House on March 19th of that year. The Indians sought agreement on the boundaries of their territory—the Comancheria—and the Texans the return of some captives. When the Texans learned that only one captive was being returned at the meeting, they told the chiefs that they would be held hostage until the rest were returned. A pitched battle ensued leaving all the chiefs dead as well as a number of warriors, three of their wives, and two children.

As is so often the case with long-standing clashes, it is difficult to establish the initial casus belli. Yet it is far more important to understand the underlying social and economic contradictions that made armed conflict inevitable. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in Comanche-related scholarship to practically reduce them to having warfare in their genes, thus rendering historical context superfluous. According to Barcley Owens (2000), the primary resource for Blood Meridian was T. R. Fehrenbach’s Comanches: the Destruction of a People. Despite the ostensibly pro-indigenous title, the study inspired the novel’s Walpurgisnacht scene. The chapter titled “The Blood Trail” begins with an epigraph by the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber: “War was a state of mind among the Indians, and therefore never terminated.” This connects to Fehrenbach’s observation: “The first drive of the Amerindians was a biological imperative, the hunt for food in the struggle to survive. Their one great social imperative, however, was war.” He adds, “…it is reasonably certain that warfare and killing between men is as old as the symbolic story of Cain and Abel, and that the Amerindian war ethic, like the scalp pole, came with the race from the Old War.”

August 28, 2013

Closed Circuit; Inch’Allah; Estudiante

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

If seriousness of intention and fidelity to some progressive tenet or another were the exclusive criteria for judging a film, three fictional arrivals this August would pass with flying colors. Opening today at theaters everywhere—as they put it—and boosted by prime-time TV commercials, “Closed Circuit” is a thriller about how the MI5 kept an informant on its payroll who eventually became instrumental in a terrorist attack that left over a hundred Londoners dead. Now playing at the Laemmle in Los Angeles, “Inch’Allah” is a film set in the West Bank that is as committed to the Palestinian cause as any documentary I have ever seen. Finally, having just concluded a brief run at Lincoln Center, “Estudiante” takes up the political terrain in Argentina with dialog over Marxism, Peronism, liberalism that rings true—this is I can attest to as someone who has followed Argentine politics for four decades now.

Unfortunately all three films lack a serviceable script. While I tend not to review films that fail to qualify as fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (a rigid category that leaves no room for half-fresh or half-rotten), some discussion of where the films go wrong might be helpful for the two or three aspiring directors and screenwriters who have this blog bookmarked.

To start with the worst news first, “Closed Circuit” is a film that cannot decide whether to be John Le Carre or Robert Ludlum. In trying to be both a serious and realistic examination of the increasingly star-chamber character of British courts during the never-ending “war on terror” and the standard thriller with romantically-linked hero and heroine trying to elude hit-man working for the secret police, it fails on both end. It must be said, however, that even if screenwriter Steve Knight had made his mind up to go with only one of the genres, it is doubtful that much would have been gained given his track record. As the screenwriter responsible for “Amazing Grace”, an awful biopic about the British abolitionist William Wilberforce, Knight has a propensity for clichés and illogic second to none.

Shortly after a truck bombing near a subway stop in London, the cops arrest one Farroukh Erdogan, a Turk who supposedly was the mastermind. After his state-appointed lawyer commits suicide, Martin Rose (Eric Bana) steps in as his replacement. In addition to being represented by a defense attorney, Erdogan has a Special Advocate—a lawyer named Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall) who is entitled to hear evidence and testimony in closed court that involves national security. Even his defense lawyer is not permitted to hear the testimony. When a defense attorney and a Special Advocate are paired up, they must sign a statement that they have had no ties either professional or personal. The two lawyers, who were lovers once (the affair ended unhappily), agree to lie to the review board since they are both eager to take part in what is regarded as the trial of the century. So far so good, right?

About 15 minutes into the film, Rose learns that Erdogan was a snitch working for MI5—forced to take the job in exchange for having a drug charge taken off the books. His suspicions are confirmed by a NY Times reporter who tells him that the trial is meant to cover up his connection to state security, an monumental scandal if word got out. When Rose’s predecessor figured this out, MI5 threw him off the roof and made it look like a suicide. A day or so after she reveals this to Rose, she is killed as well. Okay, I said to myself when I saw this in the screening room, what are the chances that British secret police are killing defense lawyers and NY Times reporters? If it was a Bourne movie, obviously very good.

When the film goes into full-bore Bourne mode, it draws upon every cliché in the book. Nighttime chases down dark alleys. A break-in at the Special Advocate’s apartment by an MI5 agent who tries to choke her to death. She gets away by sticking him in the arm with a scissor. Right. Sure.

Coming down in the elevator, I was so discomfited by the film that I asked the man and woman in the screening room what they thought. Generally, film reviewers are solitary folk disposed to musing over the films privately as they exit. But in this case, both the man—from ABC News—and the woman—from the Huffington Post—shared my take. It made me feel good to be in touch with reality even if the screenwriter wasn’t.

“Inch’Allah” was filmed in a refugee camp near Ramallah on the West Bank with its cameras riveted on its most squalor-filled parts, in particular the Palestinian side of a wall that separates it from a settler village. You see women and children picking through the garbage trying to find something to salvage for a few dollars. It is a grim portrait.

The Palestinians rely on a clinic funded and staffed by the Quebecois, including a doctor named Chloe who has become close to Imad, a Palestinian man who runs an advocacy office, and his sister Rand who is pregnant. The sister’s husband is in an Israeli jail awaiting trial. The film begins with news that the village on the other side of the wall has been the target of an armed raid. Everybody, including Chloe, is happy to hear that some settlers have tasted lead. We have to assume that the film was set in the period of the last intifada when such attacks, including suicide bombs, were an everyday occurrence.

Besides her work in the clinic, Chloe relies on the occasional tryst with Imad and Ava, a female Israeli border guard who doesn’t like what she is doing but accepts it as her duty.

What’s missing in the film is any sense of drama. As a character, Chloe is eerily detached from her surroundings and incapable apparently of expressing a single political opinion except for the fact that she doesn’t like how the Palestinians are being treated. Since she is wiling to paste up posters in the village about a young boy being run over by an Israeli truck, it seems odd that in the entire time she spends with Ava, there is not a single demonstration of conflict. When Palestinians tell her that she is a kind of missionary, she has a blank reaction. One is not sure whether the screenwriter intended her to be so affectless or—like Knight—simply lacked the ability to develop the character. In any case, the movie just floats along somewhat aimlessly until a highly melodramatic scene involving Rand’s delivery in the back seat of a car takes place. It feels tacked on.

The director and screenwriter, a young Quebec woman named Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette described her perspective in the press notes:

My perspective on Israelis and Palestinians is not political. I’m telling the story of a woman caught between a rock and a hard place.

Maybe that’s the problem.

Finally, there’s “El Estudiante”, a film that I doubt will ever make it to Netflix. This is a distinctly Argentinian product that had its moments but ultimately left me cold.

The student in question is Roque, a somewhat older lad from the countryside who has enrolled at a Buenos Aires university that is being roiled by elections for the university senate that have ramifications far beyond the campus. Old-time political parties, including the Peronists, view the campus as an important part of their power base.

When we first meet Roque, he comes across as a party guy with a taste for cocaine and oral sex. A week or so into the semester, he runs into Paula, an assistant professor about his age, whom he feels attracted to. Happily for him, the interest is mutual.

To speed along their relationship, Roque professes interest in the slate she supports in the campus elections, a party called Brecha (Opening). Paula has been politically involved since her teen years and views the elections as key to the university’s well-being.

The campus is politically charged to say the least. In one of the more interesting scenes, a professor whose politics are hard to define gets into an argument with a Marxist student about Latin America and colonialism. The professor calls his analysis simplistic, pointing to the Aztec domination of lesser tribes. They go at it for two minutes until the student storms out.

Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of that. Mostly it is discussions between members of different parties about what kind of deals that they can cut, with the Peronists looking more opportunist than the rest. Surprise, surprise.

Roque is a singularly uninteresting character whose easy accommodation to this sordid environment lacks dramatic intensity. It is like watching ninety minutes worth of a student government election campaign. The film is obviously a metaphor for Argentine society but I would have preferred less metaphor and a deeper engagement with the broader social and political issues.

In the press notes, director/screenwriter Santiago Mitre states:

When we started traveling with the film, we couldn’t help but notice that despite the specifics of its setting, it struck a chord with young people from many cultures, who are questioning the long-held traditional ways and means of political life. The recent events in the U.K., Spain, Greece, the Middle East and Chile are a contemporary reflection of the film’s core question: How can young people in civil society today work with, reinvent or reset the mechanisms and objectives of political activism.

Now that sounds like the basis for a fascinating film. One wonders how Mitre lost his way in trying to develop one.

Louis/Louisa Jo Killen, English Folk Singer, Dies at 79

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

I can swear this is the same melody as the Chieftan’s “Women of Ireland” that was part of the score for “Barry Lyndon”.


NY Times August 25, 2013

Louisa Jo Killen, English Folk Singer, Dies at 79

The English folk singer known for most of his life as Louis Killen was a bawdy, bearded pioneer of the 1950s British folk revival, a member of the Clancy Brothers and a soloist admired for giving voice to forgotten miners and sailors in traditional ballads.

In 2010, when he was 76, Mr. Killen surprised his fans and many of his friends by resolving to give voice to another sort of lost life. He began living openly as a woman, performing in women’s clothing and a wig. In 2012, he underwent a sex-change operation.

Adopting the name Louisa Jo Killen, she continued to perform for almost two years, by most accounts winning over most of Louis Killen’s fans and all of his friends. She died at 79 on Aug. 9 at her home in Gateshead, England, from a recurrence of a cancer diagnosed six years ago, the singer’s former wife, Margaret Osika, said.

As Louis, Ms. Killen had been among the most influential voices of England’s postwar folk music scene, as both a collector and performer of 19th-century ballads and folk songs chronicling the working lives of seamen, coal miners, mill workers and laborers. Folk archivists still consider the dozen recordings made by Louis Killen in the late 1950s and early ’60s for the British folk label Topic Records to be the definitive versions of traditional English songs like “Black Leg Miners,” “Pleasant and Delightful,” “The Flying Cloud” and “The Ship in Distress.

Singing a cappella or accompanying himself sparsely on the concertina, Louis Killen was known for his lyrical tenor — a “terrifying decibel rate,” as one British critic described it — and a haunting ability to capture the aching loss at the heart of many traditional songs.

“A lot of his songs are not of the jolliest in content,” a reviewer for The Living Tradition, a music magazine published in Scotland, wrote in 2002. “But in his hands, you are impressed by the dignity, rather than the misery.”

Moving to the United States in 1966, Mr. Killen met and became friends with fellow folk singer and archivist Pete Seeger, with whom he performed often over the years. In 1969 he was enlisted as a member of the maiden crew — along with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Len Chandler, Don McLean and a half-dozen other singers — on the first voyage of Mr. Seeger’s sloop Clearwater.

During the seven-week journey from South Bristol, Me., where the sloop was launched, to the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan, performances by Mr. Seeger and the crew basically paid off the mortgage on the boat, which has since become the floating soapbox and standard-bearer of Mr. Seeger’s Hudson River Sloop Clearwater environmental organization dedicated to cleaning up the river.

“Louis was my education about the music of the United Kingdom,” Mr. Seeger said in an interview on Wednesday. “He knew all the dialects, taught me many songs.” Mr. Seeger sang one over the phone. It was quite bawdy — another genre of traditional song in which Mr. Killen was expert.

In 1970, Mr. Killen joined the popular Irish folk singing group the Clancy Brothers. Fluent in the dialects and song catalogs of traditional Celtic, Scottish and English music, he was drafted to replace Tommy Makem, who had left for a solo career. He stayed for six years, making four albums with the group, including a two-disc “greatest hits” set “ in 1973.

In all, Mr. Killen contributed to more than 60 albums in his half-century career, including about a dozen in which he was the featured artist. Until returning to England about five years ago, he performed continuously at small clubs and was a mainstay at folk and maritime music festivals. He lectured widely on English traditional and folk music.

Louis Joseph Killen was born on Jan. 10, 1934, in Gateshead, one of four sons of Mary Margaret and Frank Killen. Both parents and all the brothers sang in the church choir and played stringed instruments or the concertina by ear.

Mr. Killen was studying carpentry at Catholic Workers’ College in Oxford when he attended his first folk concert. Enthralled by the music, he came under the influence of the traditional-music revivalists Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd, and by 1961 he had quit his job making cabinets and coffins to pursue music as a career.

He described his early attraction to folk music in a 1993 interview with The Los Angeles Times. “To me,” he said, “folk music springs from the unconscious reflection a community has of itself. It’s their music, their experience. My survival is based on how the audiences respond to my singing and stories. When we ‘connect,’ I can’t even describe the charge I get.”

His decision in 2010 to live as a woman followed almost 30 years of agonizing debate with himself. Ms. Osika, who was married to Mr. Killen from 1979 to 2000, knew about the conflict early, but fans and friends were surprised, she said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, “because Louie had been a very masculine man,” known for his pub exploits and racy stories. She is one of three former wives; the others are Shelly Estrin and Sally Jennings. A brother, Martin, also survives.

Ms. Killen told friends in her last days that she had never regretted her life as a man — or her life, however brief, as a woman. Her only disappointment was in not having acquired a more feminine voice. The trademark strapping tenor remained a constant.

“That part of the change didn’t work, I guess you might say,” Ms. Osika said.

August 27, 2013

Sir Bashar?

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm


The Sunday Times (London)
July 1, 2012 Sunday
by Dipesh Gadher

Assad close to being knighted under Blair

The decision to court Assad came despite the Syrian leader attacking Israel and comparing pro-Palestinian terrorists to the French resistance at an event attended by Blair.

Discussions about the honour took place ahead of Assad’s visit to Britain in 2002 during which he sought “as much pomp and ceremony as possible”. The Arab leader was granted audiences with the Queen and the Prince of Wales, lunch with Blair at Downing Street, a platform in parliament and many other privileges.

Documents obtained by The Sunday Times under freedom of information laws show for the first time the lengths to which the government went to accommodate Assad. The red carpet treatment he and his entourage received is embarrassing given the bloodbath that has since taken place under his rule in Syria.

The documents outline in candid detail:

  • Blair’s willingness to appear alongside Assad at a joint press conference – even though the Syrians would probably have settled for a farewell handshake for the cameras.
  • British officials seeking to manipulate the media to portray Assad in a favourable light.
  • Efforts by Downing Street aides to help Assad’s “photogenic” wife boost her profile.

Blair invited Assad to London in December 2002 after meeting him the previous year in Damascus. At the time, the West hoped the Syrian leader would be a moderniser.

The courtship has parallels with Blair’s friendly relations with Muammar Gadaffi, the Libyan despot who was killed by his own people last year. Plans for conferring an honorary knighthood on Assad are discussed in an exchange of emails between unidentified government officials.

They followed reports that Blair, on a tour of the Middle East, sat at a press conference with Assad in Damascus in November 2001 as Assad hit out at “Israeli terrorism” against the Palestinians and sharply criticised the US war on terror.

On November 14, 2002, a desk officer covering and Lebanon at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, writes: “You should be aware that President Bashar of Syria will visit the UK as a guest of government … This will include an audience with the Queen. I have been advised that we need to consider whether the Queen should bestow an honour on him.”

The official, whose name has been redacted, asks a colleague from the protocol division for examples of other visitors who have recently received awards.

On November 22, the colleague replies: “Other heads of state who got honorary GCMGs while on [official] government visits were the presidents of Portugal and Mexico in 2002. The presidents of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela did not get any.”

A GCMG is a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George. The order is the sixth most senior in the British honours system and denotes distinguished service in foreign affairs. It is jokingly referred to as “God calls me God.”

An email written by a third official on November 25 states: “In view of Syria’s human rights record and the fact that our relationship with them is not particularly cosy, we do not believe it would be particularly appropriate for an honour to be bestowed on Bashar.”

Despite this conclusion, the documents show the government was eager to please. One FCO official writes: “It is quite clear what the Syrians are looking for: as much pomp and ceremony as possible.”

Media management was crucial. Henry Hogger, then British ambassador to Damascus, told officials in London on November 12: “I know that our main concern is to try and fix in advance the handling of difficult media issues (eg why are we cosying up to this nasty dictatorship that locks up its own MPs?).”

Hogger later wrote: “At No 10, I don’t think the Syrians would mind Bashar having to brief the press alone (in the street?) but is there a chance the prime minister would appear at the door for a photocall/formal farewell?” As it turned out, Blair was willing to go much further, conducting a joint press conference with Assad in front of the world’s media after emerging from talks at Downing Street.

As well as his royal audiences, Assad was treated to a banquet at Mansion House by the lord mayor of London and dinner at Lancaster House hosted by the lord chancellor.

A separate programme was organised for the president’s British-born wife, Asma, including an invitation to tea at No 10 with Cherie Blair.

Another email reveals how Downing Street aides were prepared to help Asma raise her profile. A press officer at No 10 wrote to a Syrian official: “I have been exploring the ideas we discussed concerning a possible interview with Mrs Assad … I do not think The Guardian’s women’s pages would conduct the kind of interview you indicated you would want.”

Despite causing anger in Israel, Assad’s visit was seen as “highly successful” in Damascus. Hogger reported: “Bashar and particularly Asma generally a hit in PR terms.”

Yesterday, a spokesman for Blair said: “Engagement with Syria and Assad in 2002 was absolutely right at the time to encourage change. Mr Blair has said many times since that the situation has changed and Assad now has to go.”

Hogger, who has retired from the diplomatic service, said: “Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Were we to have known then what we know now, some of the advice and decisions might have been different.”

Do’s and don’ts for progressives discussing Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:08 pm


Do’s and don’ts for progressives discussing Syria

on August 27, 2013

With Syria back in the news due to the horrific chemical weapons attack last week that killed hundreds and threats from the US to engage in military strikes, below are some do’s and don’ts for progressive/radical anti-war organizations/activists in the US as you figure out a proper response.

1. DON’T in any way say or imply both sides are wrong and it’s not clear who we would be supporting if we get involved militarily. This is an insult to every Syrian who has and continues to go out in the streets and protest both the regime and those forces who are looking to use this time of war to assert their own power over others. It is a shame how many progressive groups in the US just jump on the “both sides are bad” wagon so we shouldn’t get involved. There are one million children who are refugees and that is the fault of the regime. It is the regime who is bombing cities with jets; it is the regime that has ruled the country with brutal force for decades. Any statement that doesn’t acknowledge this is again an insult to those who have sacrificed so much.

2. DON’T over conflate Iraq and Syria. Just as ludicrous those who look to Kosovo as an example of military intervention to support it in Syria are, it is quite pathetic when so many progressives and leftists are just obsessed with supposedly false chemical weapons claims. There are 100,000 Syrians dead, majority killed by conventional weapons. So there are a million and one excuses for the US to intervene and faking chemical weapons attacks is not needed. There is also no basis I believe in claiming al Qaeda has access and uses such weapons. Al Qaeda fought the US for a decade in Iraq and not once deployed such weapons. But all of a sudden they’re using them in Syria? And if the rebels had these weapons, the regime would’ve fallen a long time ago.

3. DON’T obsess over al-Qaeda, Islamist extremists, jihadists, etc. Since 9/11 progressives have rightly shunned the use of all these labels when it comes to the US War on Terror, yet we now use them freely when it comes to Syria and actually believe it. The overwhelming majority of Syrians, both those who have taken arms and those who continue to resist through nonviolent means, have nothing to do with the extremist groups and are rising up against all forces who are destroying their country, whether they be regime or supposed “opposition” groups. It is also important to understand that the Free Syria Army is not a central command army with orders given from the top. It is a loosely affiliated group of different battalions and anyone can claim to be part of it.

4. DO point out all the US failures toward Syria and how dropping bombs on the country is not what is needed. I personally don’t believe that US is going to get militarily involved. They promised weapons to the rebels and have yet to deliver. No way is the US getting in because as has been pointed out by Gen. Martin Dempsey and in a NYT opinion piece, it is so much for useful for US “interests” for Syrians to kill each other. I think taking a position of the US should not get involved through a military intervention is fine. DON’T put it as “Hands off Syria” implying this is some kind of American conspiracy. DON’T argue this is about US not having a right to taking sides in a civil war. DON’T make it all about money for home since we do want more humanitarian aid. DO frame it as what will help bring the suffering of Syrians to an end.

5. DO point out US hypocrisy as it judges Russia for sending weapons to the regime. Just last week a story came out that the US is sending $640 million worth of cluster bombs to Saudi. Weapons continue to flow to Egypt, Bahrain, and Israel despite massive human rights violations. DO call for an end to all sales of weapons to all regimes in the region.

6. DON’T let genuine concerns with US imperialism, Israel, Saudi, etc make you look at pictures and videos of dead children and think conspiracy. Bashar is an authoritarian dictator and his record of resistance is a bit sketchy. Just remember he collaborated with the US on things such as CIA renditions. Just because the CIA is training a few fighters in Jordan or some anonymous rebel leader is quoted in some Israeli paper doesn’t mean this isn’t a legitimate Syrian uprising against a brutal regime.

7. DO highlight the continued bravery of the Syrian people who take to the streets and protest against the regime, extremists, and all others looking to destroy their struggle for freedom and dignity. As in with everywhere, coverage of violence trumps coverage of continued nonviolent resistance.

8. DO strongly urge people to donate for humanitarian aid. Between deaths, imprisonments, internal displacement, and refugees, I think 30-40 percent of the Syrian population is in one way or another uprooted.

9. I have no actual solutions to suggest that you encourage people to support. Perhaps pushing for an actual ceasefire might be an option, which would require pressure on Russia to tell Bashar to back down. I know my not having answers about how to resolve anything is a shortcoming, but sometimes the best course of action is to just be in solidarity with folks in their struggle through simply recognizing it.

10. Syrians deserve the same respect for their struggle as all other struggles in the region: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and always Palestine.

About Ramah Kudaimi

Ramah Kudaimi is a Syrian-American activist in DC. You can follow her on Twitter @ramahkudaimi. View all posts by Ramah Kud

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.