Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2013

The cinematography of “Breaking Bad”

Filed under: technology,television — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

After having made 28 videos, most of which were made with a prosumer JVC camera that cost me $3000, I have a pretty good idea of the capabilities of digital video and its limitations.

What you can’t get in the run-of-the-mill videocam is the ability to control depth of field as you would with a SLR camera. In other words if you were recording a baseball game, the catcher and the pitcher would get the same degree of focus. If you are using a film camera or the newer and rather expensive videocams that incorporate Digital SLR, you can manipulate the depth of focus for dramatic effect, such as zeroing in on a character. This image from an article titled “Using Depth of Field For Storytelling” should illustrate the effect:

Last night when I was watching the final episode of “Breaking Bad”, it hit me what made the cinematography of “Breaking Bad” so riveting. It eschewed the narrow depth of focus illustrated in the image above even though it was using film. Instead, this was the typical image:

You’ll notice that everything has the same focus. The effect is usually unsettling since it is basically the perspective of the human eye rather than the camera. Neither the objects in the foreground nor background are emphasized. It gives you the feeling of being a fly on the wall. It also lends itself to the non-judgmental POV that made the show so interesting.

An interview with the cinematographer for “Breaking Bad” makes a series of interesting points. The show avoided the use of hand-held cameras, especially in action scenes. By now, the shaky images meant to convey an excited state are a cliché that every smart cinematographer should avoid. The one who worked on “Breaking Bad” was exceedingly smart.

The other thing noted in the article is the use of natural light. The scenes of the New Mexico desert and the streets of Albuquerque are as important to the show as Bryan Cranston’s facial tics and stammer. If you want to see where he picked up these tricks, just watch Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man”.

September 29, 2013

Green heron spotted near Central Park reservoir

Filed under: New York — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

Just spotted one of these while out jogging in Central Park:


The Heron, Theodore Roethke

The heron stands in water where the swamp
Has deepened to the blackness of a pool,
Or balances with one leg on a hump
Or marsh grass heaped above a muskrat hole.

He walks the shallow with an antic grace.
The great feet break the ridges of the sand,
The long eye notes the minnow’s hiding place.
His beak is quicker than a human hand.

He jerks a frog across his bony lip,
Then points his heavy bill above the wood.
The wide wings flap but once to lift him up.
A single ripple starts from where he stood.

September 28, 2013

Utopia in the Catskills

Filed under: Catskills,farming,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

In assembling still photos to be included in a video I am doing on a trip up to my hometown in the Catskills in August, I could find nothing on the net that showed Woodridge in its prime. A visit to the Sullivan County Historical Museum in Hurleyville turned up the intriguing first page of a PM article dated July 20, 1947 with the title “Utopia in the Catskills”. I eventually tracked down the full print version at the New York Historical Society that I scanned in for the results below. PM was a leftist newspaper with heavy Communist Party participation that was published out of NYC from 1940 to 1948 and funded by Chicago millionaire Marshall Field III, a scion of the Montgomery-Field department stores. They don’t make millionaires the way they used to.

In a nutshell, the article was as much of a find for me as the Ark of the Covenant was for Indiana Jones. It told me who I was and where I came from.

The title of the article refers to the strong left sympathies in the village and the importance of co-op’s. My grandfather Louis, who died around the time that this article was written, was president of the Workman’s Circle that is referred to in the article as follows:

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives.

There are lots more that I can say about this article but do not want to interrupt the flow with my observations. As you read through it, you can find my elaborations on both personal and historical matters by clicking various links, starting with a longer introduction on Woodridge and the left here.

PM July 20, 1947

Utopia in the Catskills

Story and Photos by Croswell Bowen

railway_stationThe station platform at Woodridge, which opens on to the town’s main street, is extra large to accommodate summer population of 30,000

Refugees who wanted to be farmers made Woodridge, N.Y., into a prosperous farm-resort town with five co-ops

West of the Hudson River from Poughkeepsie and Highland, beyond the Shawangunk (pronounced shongum) Mountains toward the Alleghany Plateau is the rocky, hilly country of Tom Quick, the Indian killer, and the now virtually extinct Irish tanners, The New York, Ontario, and Western Railroad threads its way among the foothills and mountains of the Catskills and these days its Diesel locomotives sound foghornlike warnings when they come to road crossings and towns.

Twice a day passenger trains stop at the town of Woodridge (population 300 in winter, 30,000 in summer), which looks like most of the other combination farm and resort country towns which sprinkle the Catskill Mountains.

Actually, Woodridge is unique among the neighboring communities, because it possesses five highly successful consumer co-operatives, owned and operated by their members. Three of the five comprise one large intercounty co-operative association. All five are loosely connected with national co-operative groups which furnish over a billion dollars in services and goods to more than 2,500,000 member-owners throughout the United States each year. In practice, the Woodridge co-ops follow along the lines of the Rochdale pioneers. The prices are competitive, that is, in the same range as nonco-op establishments. But the co-op members realize savings through a system of rebates or dividends paid out of what in nonco-op businesses is chalked up as profit and loss to the consumer. In the co-ops the profit is returned to members after small sums are set aside for reserve. Most of the citizens of Woodridge have small chicken farms and take summer boarders. If you were such a citizen, would, in Woodridge, have your farm and buildings insured at the Associated Co-operative Insurance Companies.


You would stop to buy your groceries from the Mountain Resort Owners’ & Farmers’ Co-op_Inc. If you needed extra beds or mattresses or window shades or garden furniture, this co-op would also supply you.

After this, you would drive your pick-up truck to the feed division of the Inter-County Farmers’ Co-operative Association Inc. for a few sacks of chicken feed. You might stop and chat with young Joe Cohen, the manager of the feed co-op. about poultry and end up taking a gallon of a new kind of disinfectant.

The friendly village

In another building, you’d drop off a crate of eggs at Inter-County’s egg co-op where eggs are processed, packed, shipped, and sometimes put into cold storage. Upstairs in Inter-County’s farm machinery co-op, you’d look over the new poultry equipment and other accessories, and perhaps end up buying a new tire. Leaving town, you’d remember you needed some gas and stop again at the grocery co-op and fill her up.

joe cohen new

Lou YoungThis is Louis Young, the father of SDS leader Allen Young who later on became a pivotal figure in the gay liberation movement. More on Allen here.

egg candlingThe women candled eggs while the men packed them. Not everything was up to date in 1947. It took Betty Friedan to shake things up.

packing new

packing 2 new

When you drive west through Ellenville past Spring Glen on Route 209 a sign tells you that you are entering Woodridge, The Friendly Village. This is not a Chamber of Commerce exaggeration. The summer population of the town, although mostly Jewish, includes a diversified group of nationalities. There are Negro entertainers and household servants, Puerto-Rican, Moslem, Indian, Cuban and Lascar [Indian sailors, an archaic term] hotel workers. A few of the old-time Irish settlers from the Irish tanner days are still there. Everybody gets along. Anybody can check into any hotel regardless of his race or creed.

Max Schwartz, owner-proprietor of The Actors Inn, a restaurant and bar, boasts that “nobody who lands in this town goes hungry or bedless if he’s broke. And we help him get a job if he’s willing to work.” We’re supposed to be a kosher restaurant,” jolly Mrs. Schwartz, his wife, says, “but we got ham for the gentiles and, my heavens, I’ve even had to learn how to get up curry and rice with lamb for the Moslems. And very, very hot stuff for the Puerto Ricans. We’re a regular United Nations restaurant.”

sam katzowitz

Sam Katzowitz, Mayor of Woodridge, sums up the town’s inter-racial  equilibrium somewhat more wryly. Recently, he was asked if the town elections shaped up along the conventional Republican and Democratic lines or were other factors present?

ethel katzowitz

In the Majority

“If you have in mind,” he said, “is there any anti-Semitism here, the answer is no. And, for a very simple reason. Jews in Woodridge are in the majority. But we treat the gentiles pretty good. I guess you might say we’re mostly all liberals.”

“Like liberals everywhere else,” he adds, “we don’t necessarily agree. We have our arguments, too.”

Political discussion in Woodridge is at a very sophisticated level. In any store, on any corner, you can hear talk of the relative merits of the Socialist Party or Communist Party in the trade union movement. The “Russian question” touches off explosive viewpoints.

The character of the town, the co-ops, and the high incidence of liberals were not indigenous to up-state hill country. This Utopia in the Catskills has evolved from a chain of events that occurred in Europe as well as locally during the past 50 years.

During the last half of the past century, the land around Woodridge (or Centerville station, as it was called until 1915) was inhabited mostly by Irish immigrants. The iron-muscled men of Galway and Cork and Mayo and Killarney cut down the tall hemlock trees and hauled them to tanneries which constituted the main industry of the Catskills.

The pay was bad and the work was hard. To eke out a living, they tried to do a little farming, a cow, a pig and some chickens. But the soil is rocky and sometimes solid rock is only a few inches below the top soil. Toward the turn of the century the tanning industry had changed and the hemlocks mostly cut down. The early Irish settlers died off and the young folks went to the cities.

During the 90s, Jews fleeing the terrible pogroms taking place in Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and the Balkans, were arriving in the United States. Many had been farmers in the old country and wanted to be farmers in the new country.

The land in the Catskills was cheap. Much of it was abandoned. Some say the Polish and Lithuanian Jews bought the land because it reminded them of their native countryside. The deciding factor, however, was more probably that the prices of the farms suited what little money these early refugees had salvaged from their old-world homes.

Many of the early Jewish settlers were helped with money and advice by the Baron De Hirsch Fund. De Hirsch, a wealthy Hungarian railroad builder, believed that Jewish colonization was the answer to the terrible pogroms sweeping Europe. He also helped settle Jews in Palestine.

Unite the workers

Another influence among the Jews who settled in the region of what is now Woodridge was the Workman’s Circle. (http://circle.org/) This Jewish organization, called in Yiddish Der Arbeiter Ring, had been formed on New York’s Essex Street in the flat of Sam Greenberg, a cloakmaker. His aim was to “unite by a ring of friendship every worker in the land and with many links unite the workers of every land.”

The dominating political view among the people of the Workman’s Circle was socialist. The Circle carried out its idealistic aims along three lines of endeavor: 1. Mutual aid in time of need and misfortune. 2. Education for membership. 3. Organization of workers’ co-operatives. There were “Sunday schools” for children; dramatic and choral groups for elders.

But the settlers around Woodridge as well as in other parts of the Catskills did not prosper. The few natives left in the region did not welcome the strange-speaking newcomers.

The settlers found it as hard to farm the land as the Irish who’d perished before them. To help make ends meet they began taking in boarders. Mostly, the Jewish farmers took fellow Jews in from New York City. This was logical. They had friends in the city and these friends had other friends.

Jews who came into the farm homes in the Catskills found respite from the toil of the New York sweatshops. They knew they would find no discrimination. And further, the meals at the farmhouse were in compliance with the dietary laws of their religion. In this way the region became one of the great resort centers of the East.

Almost prohibitive

About the time of the first World War, the new farmer-hotelkeepers discovered they couldn’t get any fire insurance on their places. If a farmer took in one hoarder even for one week, be was charged a “hotel rate” for every room in his house, regardless of whether he rented it out. The hotel rate made the farmers’ insurance almost prohibitive.

The result was that the farmer-hotelkeepers organized their own insurance co– operative and on April 1913, the first policy was written. Each member put up a certain sum of money and at the end of the year, they were assessed a sum of money to pay as premiums. The insurance Department of the State of New York was puzzled by the new kind of insurance company and for a time the organizers, Philip Thomas and Victor S. Kogan had a hard time operating within laws which had been put on the books to cover oldline insurance companies that worked entirely for profits.

But the company grew and grew so that today it has 35 million dollars worth of insurance in force and 2300 policy-holders. On October 31, 1940, George N. Jamison, Superintendent of the Department of Insurance of the State of New York, addressed 1000 policyholders of the Associated Co-operative Insurance Co., the first sizeable policyholders meeting he’d ever heard about. “This,” he said, is a real policyholders’ meeting. We in the Department know your directors have rendered service to the community, one which in holders could go nowhere else to obtain. The co-operative deserves the praise for performing this function.

The insurance co-operative at Woodridge owns its own fireproof building today. Its 24 directors are elected for terms of three years. It saves its policyholders from 20 to 80 per cent of the cost of insurance in the nonco-op companies. The next big co-operative in Woodridge was organized in 1938. Twenty members put up $25 to form the Inter-County feed and grain co-operative. Today there are 400 members and the co-operative does business in Sullivan, Ulster and Orange Counties. New members are accepted after a probationary period of six months “to see if the hi suer is co-operatively minded and to make sure he is nut a disrupter.”

As the feed and grain co-operative grew its scope has been enlarged to include a farm machinery co-operative and an egg co-operative.. The gross business is a million and a quarter dollars. Feed and grain accounts for $1,100,000; farm machinery for $50,000; and egg storage and marketing for $50,000. Most of the members are poultry men. Lately, many GIs with Gl loans are becoming members.

The most recent co-operative to come into being in Woodridge is the Mountain Resort Owners and Farmers’ Co-operative. It was organized in 1944 when scarce hardware and grocery items were turned on the black market and the hotelkeepers had to pay premium prices or do without merchandise. Two hundred and fifty shareholders, each owning one share, put up $25. A building, railroad siding and warehouse were purchased for $4000. They are worth $10,000 today. Last year the gross business was $55, 000. This year it will gross $75,000. Gum sells for three cents a pack, motor oil for 15 cents a quart and $1.25 window shades sell for 81 cents. Its officers are a president, secretary-treasurer, and a board of directors of nine. A paid full-time manager handles the actual operation of the business. We asked all the people in key jobs in the co-operatives how they accounted for their success. All said virtually the same thing: “We try to sell the best merchandise at the lowest prices. We stick strictly to business and avoid political quarrels that might divide and disrupt us.”

September 26, 2013

My Alexa rating

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

I just heard from the head moron at TNS who told me that my Alexa rating was 17,913,494. He was looking at an out-of-date link. Here’s the current information for louisproyect.org, a domain I pay $100 per year for since the old one was being treated as spam by the fucked-up Facebook software. For comparison’s sake, Richard Seymour’s blog is ranked 1,534,088 globally. Kasama Project is 974,688. You’d think that a group blog like TNS would rank closer to Kasama that has similar aspirations. My guess is that most people on the left are not that interested in grad student drivel and Baathist propaganda.

Screen shot 2013-09-26 at 5.13.18 PM

Miasma on Syria at The North Star

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm

Joseph de Maistre: the namesake of The North Star’s Baathist ideologue


Apparently the knuckleheads at TNS got really upset by this post. I just took a gander to see if there were any comments on Red Maistre’s article and saw this, a first for me on the Internet. I have been banned from commenting on many blogs but have never been from blocked from looking at one!

Screen shot 2013-09-26 at 2.52.10 PM



I am not sure how many of my readers ever paid much attention to The North Star, a website formerly run by Pham Binh. Since his retirement from political activity two out of the three pieces appearing there have represented a 180-degree turn on Syria–one from supporting the rebels to now supporting the dictatorship. Well, maybe not 180 degrees, but certainly at least 140.

Since Alexa ranks TNS at 1,410,867, I am not sure that it is worth mentioning what appears there one way or the other but I can’t resist commenting on the second part of an interminable pro-Baathist essay (14,192 words!) by one “Red Maistre” (let’s call him RM for short) who describes himself as a “traditionalist Catholic” with Marxist-Leninist leanings. Gosh, that’s something you don’t see every day. Joseph de Maistre, by the way, was an arch-reactionary foe of the French Revolution who believed in the authority of the pope over civil matters. I can easily understand why someone who styles himself as a “red” version of de Maistre would be enamored of the Baathist dictatorship.

At any rate, RM’s article is your run-of-the-mill “colored revolution” analysis that has appeared in one form or another on countless blogs and websites, with Stephen Gowans’s “What’s Left” being a prime example. The interest is never in the social and economic contradictions that led to a mass movement but rather in any connections between imperialism and the mass movement. Once you discover that the State Department or George Soros had a training session for some organizers, that’s the kiss of death. To give credit where credit is due, Global Research stands head and shoulders over the competition. In a breathtaking analysis of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, Michel Chossudovsky found both to be mere puppets of dark forces in Washington:

In Egypt’s “Arab Spring”, the main civil society organizations including  Kifaya (Enough) and The April 6 Youth Movement were not only supported by US based foundations, they also had the endorsement of the US State Department. (For details see Michel Chossudovsky, The Protest Movement in Egypt: “Dictators” do not Dictate, They Obey Orders, Global Research, January 29, 2011)

Several key organizations currently involved in The Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) movement played a significant role in “The Arab Spring”. Of significance, “Anonymous”, the social media “hacktivist” group, was involved in waging cyber-attacks on Egyptian government websites at the height of “The Arab Spring”.

You can see the same looking for spooks under the bed mentality in part 1 of RM’s essay:

Finally, the most damning fact against the LCCs (besides their endorsement of the SNC) is found by following the money trail: the LCCs receive funding from The Office for Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS), a creature of the State Department and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as the U.S. founded “Friends of Syria” group. In fact the OSOS seeks to provide training to “activists” in how to be the next “governing class” in post-Assad Syria.

Actually the most revealing facts about the Local Coordinating Councils can be read in Anand Gopal’s Harper’s Magazine article from August 2012.

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”

It was a phrase I heard many times, even from landowners and merchants who might otherwise bristle at the revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric—they cannot ignore that many on the front lines come from society’s bottom rungs. At one point in March, the citywide council enforced price controls on rice and heating oil, undoing, locally, the most unpopular economic reforms of the previous decade.

This is the real story of the Syrian revolution, something that can only be gleaned from following a mine-laden trail from Turkey into Syria in the dead of night, not by “following the money trail”.

Since RM is obviously new to radical politics (and innocent as a virgin of Marxism altogether), it is no surprise to see the two epigraphs affixed to part two of his essay for their abstract “anti-imperialist” rhetoric yet with no inkling as to alternative readings. The first is from Mao Zedong: “When imperialism launches a war of aggression against such a country, all its various classes, except for some traitors, can temporarily unite in a national war against imperialism.” This obviously means that it was correct for the Communist Party  in Syria to take its stand with Bashar al-Assad and for people like RM to fall into lock step. The second is from Samir Amin: “States want independence, Nations want liberation, and Peoples want revolution.” Well, gee whiz, who can argue with that?

Let’s take a look at Mao first. If you are one of my regular readers, you are probably aware that I drew attention to Ho Chi Minh’s ties to the OSS during WWII. What we also must recognize is that the same kind of relationship obtained with Mao. This is from “OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency” by Richard Harris Smith:

Soon after Hurley’s arrival in China, the Communists had invited him to visit Yenan. He flew to their stronghold for the first time on November 7 and was given a warm greeting. Hurley’s meetings with Mao led to the Communist acceptance of five principles of “coalition government.” Returning to Chungking in the company of Chou En-lai, the ambassador presented the proposal to the Generalissimo. He rejected it and suggested a counter-offer which was refused by the Communists. The Yenan leaders also declined participation in any further negotiations. While this political jockeying was in progress, the military situation had deteriorated so badly that Army strategists were secretly discussing contingency plans for the evacuation of Chungking. Wedenmyer’s headquarters also framed new proposals for military cooperation with the Communist armies. These were dutifully discussed with central government officials who just as dutifully rejected them out of hand. At the end of November, Colonel Heppner’s headquarters received word that General Donovan would soon visit China. Wedemeyer planned to take the occasion to present the OSS chief with some comprehensive ideas for assistance to Communist guerrilla forces. Two separate proposals emerged. The Army recommended that Five thousand American paratroopers be sent to north China to work with the Communist partisans. OSS set forth its own plan to dispatch Special Operations officers to the north on sabotage missions against the Japanese. In return for the complete cooperation and support of the Communist forces, OSS was prepared to train and outfit 25,000 Yenan guerrillas and to furnish Mao’s Army with an additional 100,000 pistols This proposal was strongly endorsed by Captain Colling at Tenan. He had already requested the immediate dispatch of two plane-loads of medical and demolitions equipment for the Communist troops.

About Samir Amin’s “States want independence, Nations want liberation, and Peoples want revolution”, all we can say is that he would be ill-disposed to hoisting the Baathists on his shoulder as is the case with RM, Michel Chossudovsky, ST McNeil/Musa al-Gharbi and countless other scoundrels in light of this comment made by Amin in an MRZine interview:

The Ba’ath regime, which enjoyed legitimacy for a long time, is no longer what it was at all: it has become more and more autocratic, increasingly a police state, and, at the same time, in substance, it has made a gigantic concession to economic liberalism. I don’t believe that this regime can transform itself into a democratic regime.

September 25, 2013

Bill de Blasio and the left

Filed under: Counterpunch,New York,parliamentary cretinism,real estate,zionism — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm
Bill de Blasio: talks left, walks right
Counterpunch September 25, 2013
The Big Apple’s Obama?

De Blasio and the Left


On August 16th I wrote an article for my blog titled “A Dossier on Bill de Blasio”  that mentioned in passing his occasional appearance at NY Nicaragua Solidarity steering committee meetings nearly 25 years ago, something I likened to Obama’s overtures to antiwar activists on Chicago’s South Side—an investment that could pay future dividends. As de Blasio escalated up the electoral ramps in New York, he was careful to retain his liberal coloration even though he became an ally of Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn pol who once belonged to Meir Kahane’s terrorist Jewish Defense League.

When Hikind spearheaded a drive to force Brooklyn College to add a speaker reflecting Zionist policies to a meeting on BDS, de Blasio issued the following statement: “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is inflammatory, dangerous and utterly out of step with the values of New Yorkers. An economic boycott represents a direct threat to the State of Israel–that’s something we need to oppose in all its forms. No one seriously interested in bringing peace, security and tolerance to the Middle East should be taken in by this event.”

Despite his anti-landlord rhetoric, he also endorsed Bruce Ratner’s downtown Brooklyn megaproject that ran roughshod over the local community’s needs. Originally based on a design by superstar architect Frank Gehry, the project so appalled novelist and Brooklynite Jonathan Lethem that he was inspired to write an open letter to Gehry calling the project “a nightmare for Brooklyn, one that, if built, would cause irreparable damage to the quality of our lives.”

There’s lots of excitement among liberals about the prospects of a de Blasio mayoralty. As might have been expected, the Nation Magazine endorsed him in the primary election as “reimagining the city in boldly progressive, egalitarian terms.” Peter Beinart, a New Republic editor who has gained some attention lately for veering slightly from the Zionist consensus, wrote an article for The Daily Beast titled “The Rise of the New New Left” that was even more breathless than the Nation editorial. Alluding to German sociologist Karl Mannheim’s theory of “political generations”, Beinart sees the de Blasio campaign as “an Occupy-inspired challenge to Clintonism.”

Most of Beinart’s article takes up the question of whether de Blasio’s momentum could unleash broader forces that would derail Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2016. Perhaps that analysis can only be supported if you ignore the fact that de Blasio was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager when she ran for senator from New York in 2000. The NY Times reported on October 7, 2000: “At the White House, the president, Mrs. Clinton and her campaign team can often be found in the Map Room or the Family Theater, drilling for her debates, or fine-tuning lines in some speech.” One surmises that Bill de Blasio was there.

read full

September 23, 2013

Can regional powers bring peace to Syria? A response to Vijay Prashad

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

Vijay Prashad

Before looking at some of the policy proposals found in Vijay Prashad’s recent Jadaliyya article titled “Malaise Over Syria”, one observation on his role in the ongoing debate that pits Tariq Ali on one side (there are others, of course) and someone like Gilbert Achcar on the other is in order. Unlike many scholars staking out positions, Vijay at least makes the effort to spend time in places like Lebanon and Libya, making an effort to get the perspective of some of the primary actors. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, you have to give him credit for doing the spadework.

For some time now, Vijay has been arguing for an international agreement hammered out by outside powers to bring the bloodshed to an end. For example, in a Jadaliyya piece titled “Letter to a Syrian Friend”, he decries the “messianic” view that the rebels can triumph militarily. Instead, he advocates a “mediated peace alongside a process for genuine democratization guaranteed by your neighboring states” that would “strengthen the chances for the renewal of your national ambitions.”

The more recent article offers more details. To start with, it opens with an epigraph by Lebanese journalist/novelist Sahar Mandour:

During the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, we took a clear position against [imperialist] war and against dictatorships: la li-al-harb, la li-al-dictatoriyat. Today, no such simple slogan is possible. That slogan is old. We need new positions, new slogans. We need to find our way out of the confusion of today.

I wonder why there should be any confusion over the need to take a position against imperialist war and against dictatorship. This is an honorable position for the left to adopt and one that corresponded to articles that appeared in the ISO, Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative press along the lines of “No support for Obama’s war. No support for Assad’s dictatorship”.

Vijay describes a situation in Syria in terms of “disarray”, one that evokes Matthew Arnold’s immortal lines from “Dover Beach”:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

He has little use for Gilbert Achcar, whose “effusions” that the rebels alone must overthrow Assad appear unmatched by their capabilities. As someone who has been confronted by Achcar’s reprimands over how I paraphrased him in the past, I was not surprised to see his comment under Vijay’s article on Jadaliyya:

This is not the first time that Vijay Prashad distorts what I say. What he calls “Gilbert Achcar’s *effusions* that [the rebels] must alone overthrow Asad” is a very peculiar way of reading what I wrote. Fortunately, the link provided clearly shows that he is misrepresenting my statement.

Anyone reading it honestly will find that what I explain is that “the regime [has] no incentive whatsoever to make any concessions” as long as it manages “to keep the upper hand militarily and thus to believe that it can win”.

Toward the conclusion of the article, Vijay offers up a kind of deus ex machina that can resolve the pain and suffering in Syria thus allowing a “salvation” that transcends Baathist tyranny as well as jihadist terror. It rests upon the possibility that a “regional approach” can be permitted to succeed, something that the US and Russia conspired against in the past.

The first part of such a plan would involve a Regional Syrian Refugee Crisis Team consisting of Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan that would tackle logistical problems and aid coordination but also get to the “political root” of the the refugee crisis. At the risk of appearing “simplistic” to Sahar Mandour, one might surmise that the “political root” is nothing less than the scorched earth policy of the Baathist dictatorship.

The next part is even more troublesome. Vijay writes:

Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, and Iraq voted against the Gulf Arab proposal at the Arab League meeting to give backing to the US strike. These countries need to now push for a regional solution based on their refusal to allow an armed strike. Pressure needs to come on them to involve themselves as a bloc to push the Asad regime and the rebels to recognize that there is no path for either toward total victory. Negotiation is the only way.

Maybe I am missing something here but not a single one of these countries is likely to adopt any measure that would undermine Bashar al-Assad. While Lebanon’s government is a product of horse-trading between the various confessional factions in the country that went through a brutal civil war some years ago, the balance can be upset by any move that favors one camp at the expense of the other. With Hizbollah’s powerful presence in the country as an independent organization and its penetration of major state institutions, including the army, it is doubtful that Lebanon can be entrusted to act as a decisive outside arbitrator.

Since Algeria’s “secular” government conducted a reign of terror against its native “takfiris” in the 1990s that had the temerity to demand that the people’s vote for an Islamist party be respected, it is not surprising that it blasted the Arab League’s decision to seat the rebels instead of the Baathists last April.

And Egypt? The dictatorship that conducts pogroms against Syrian refugees right now? They can be expected to “push” Assad? Not likely, I’m afraid. And finally, a Shi’ite government, whose indifference to Sunni participation in all spheres of public life, has sparked a new wave of car bombings rules Iraq. It is not likely to discomfit Bashar al-Assad to the least degree.

Of course, they can be counted on—like Iran, Russia, Global Research and Mint Press—to oppose American military intervention.

Finally, there’s an ostensibly reasonable reference to Iran’s new president who might be less committed to al-Assad’s survival than his predecessor. I can certainly imagine that the dictator might be an easily sacrificed pawn in the calculations of a government suffering from the effects of punishing sanctions.

Unfortunately, what’s missing from Vijay’s calculations is Russia, the 800-pound gorilla. I have long considered it a strong possibility that Putin persuaded al-Assad to adopt the same strategy he pursued in Chechnya, one in which massive air and artillery power would be used to reduce entire urban neighborhoods to rubble and to cause civilian populations to flee for their lives and resettle in refugee camps.

In terms of horse-trading, there’s little that the US can offer Russia. With little left of the 1960s arms race and an oil export economy that affords the country a modicum of independence, Putin can thumb his nose at the West for the foreseeable future. And, just as importantly, al-Assad appears to have no problem with his country being reduced to rubble from one end to the other. Like the Adolph Hitler of “Downfall”, he is in a cocoon of his own making, the rest of the world be damned.

Just to clarify, if Achcar is anxious to dispel any notion of being effusive over a rebel victory, that goes for me as well in spades. I am deeply pessimistic about anything good coming out of the civil war in Syria. It was exactly al-Assad’s intention to militarize the conflict as quickly as possible, to transform it into a sectarian struggle, and to allow jihadist groups free rein despite claims to the contrary.

The general laws of history under late capitalism favor the powerful minority against the more populous but weaker poor. In some ways we are paying for the early “success” of the Russian Revolution that led to a counter-revolutionary movement with a revolutionary coloration. Although there is little left of the Stalinist monolith that allowed one disaster after another to unfold, there is like farce following tragedy a new kind of Stalinism that rallies around poor substitutes for the Kremlin. At least the rank-and-file CP’er of the 1930s could not be blamed for believing that they were defending socialism but the appalling intellectual and political prostitution that is conducted on behalf of the Qaddafi’s and al-Assad’s of the world is enough to make you sick. I suppose I should not insult the honorable profession of prostitution, however. A more useful analogy would be with the law.

September 20, 2013

Mint Press article repudiated by supposed co-author

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm


Retraction and Apology to Our Readers for Mint Press Article on Syria Gas Attack

Eric Garris, September 20, 2013

On August 31, Antiwar.com reprinted an article from Mint Press News: “Syrians In Ghouta Claim Saudi-Supplied Rebels Behind Chemical Attack.” We originally linked to it, but then reprinted on our site at the request of Mint Press because traffic on their site was crashing their server. The validity of the story was primarily based on the fact that the supposed co-author (Dale Gavlak) is a reporter for Associated Press.

Many other articles have been written which refer to the information contained in the Mint Press piece, including ones appearing on Antiwar.com.

Dale Gavlak has issued a statement saying she did not co-author the article and denies that she traveled to Syria or contributed to the article in any way. Here is his statement:

Mint Press News incorrectly used my byline for an article it published on August 29, 2013 alleging chemical weapons usage by Syrian rebels. Despite my repeated requests, made directly and through legal counsel, they have not been willing to issue a retraction stating that I was not the author. Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece.   To date, Mint Press News has refused to act professionally or honestly in regards to disclosing the actual authorship and sources for this story.

I did not travel to Syria, have any discussions with Syrian rebels, or do any other reporting on which the article is based.  The article is not based on my personal observations and should not be given credence based on my journalistic reputation. Also, it is false and misleading to attribute comments made in the story as if they were my own statements.

The staff of Antiwar.com sincerely and deeply apologizes for being a part of spreading this article. We also apologize to Dale Gavlak.

September 19, 2013

Under the Dome

Filed under: literature,television — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

Counterpunch September 19, 2013
Remarks from an Ecosocialist

Under the Dome


In 2003, after the National Book Foundation presented Stephen King with a distinguished career award, a big hue and cry went up from all the snobbish critics and authors who regarded him in much the same way that Dumbo was viewed by the other elephants. King’s acceptance speech was an eloquent testimony to his belief in a people’s art:

Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.

Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: “What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.” And that’s always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I’ve told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.

Most people are aware that King writes horror stories but the reference to the muckraking Frank Norris hints at a side of the author that many of his fans never considered. King is also an outspoken liberal who takes on social and political issues but without the sterile didacticism so pervasive in leftist fiction.

When I discovered that CBS had adapted “Under the Dome” as a 13 episode series, whose finale aired last Monday night, I was eager to watch it not only as a long-time King fan but as an ecosocialist anxious to see how what some regarded as a parable on the environmental crisis would play out. Although I had not read the novel, I assumed that with King serving as executive producer it would ensure that the TV series would remain faithful to the novel. But only after watching the finale, a dreary conclusion to an altogether dreary series, did I begin to consider the possibility that King’s intentions would be subverted by another big-name executive producer: Stephen Spielberg as well as the show’s major creative force, one Brian K. Vaughan.

Before dealing with the novel and its original agenda, some thoughts on what was likely the worst adaptation of the author’s work ever made. Since King is on record as hating Stanley Kubrick’s masterful “The Shining”, I would love to get him alone for five minutes to find out why he did not leave this TV show on the cutting room floor in its entirety.

“Under the Dome” sticks to the premise of the novel, namely that a mysterious transparent dome lands on a town called Chester’s Mill cutting it off from the outside world. Nobody can get in and nobody can get out. If you were unfortunate enough to be on the perimeter of the dome at the moment it landed, you would be sliced in two. Each week the show begins with the shot of a cow being cut right down the middle and a small plane bursting into flames as it crashed into the dome. It goes downhill from there.

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Examining the Piccinin/Quirico testimony on a false flag operation

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

Quirico (l), Piccinin (r)

The first time I ever post something on my blog or on Facebook or Marxmail that takes the word of a defector from the Baathist military that it used chemical weapons as good coin you have permission to seize my computer. There’s an article in the September 19, 2013 Times of Israel that begins:

High-ranking Syrian regime officials ordered soldiers to use chemical weapons against fighters and civilians in rebel-occupied areas, a former Syrian army officer and chemical warfare expert has declared.

In an interview with Abu Dhabi newspaper The National, Brigadier General Zaher Saket, a commander in the military’s 5th division who defected from President Bashar Assad’s army in March, claimed he had been instructed to attack rebels with poison gas on numerous occasions.

“I am a witness and received orders three times to use chemical gas last year,” Saket said.

I would reject this out of hand for two reasons. To start with, anything printed in an Israeli newspaper (except Haaretz, but only certain conditions) is suspect. But more importantly, aren’t defectors likely to “deliver the goods” on any military that they have fled from? During the contra war in Nicaragua, there were articles every few months about some high-level defector from the Sandinista military attesting to war crimes ordered personally by Daniel Ortega. It does not matter to me if the defector is saying something that on first blush might help me win the ongoing debate about the source of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. I only look foolish in lending credibility to such a dubious source.

Apparently the pro-Assad left has no such qualms.

A jihadist group released Domenico Quirico, a reporter for the Italian daily La Stampa, and Pierre Piccinin, a Belgian academic, from captivity on September 8th. Upon their release, they claimed that they had overheard rebels taking credit for the Ghouta chemical attack. Since the wsws.org credibility is so low to start with, it is hard to imagine the editors worrying about how inquisitive minds would react to such an obviously ridiculous tale. (I should add that MRZine tweeted links to articles that also took these characters seriously.) WSWS reported on September 12:

Speaking to Luc Gilson of Belgium’s RTL television, Piccinin said: “It is a moral obligation to say this. It is not the government of Bashar al-Assad who used sarin or other military gases in the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta. We are sure of that, after having listened to a conversation that we overheard. I say it even though, since May 2012, I have ferociously defended the Free Syrian Army in its just struggle for democracy.”

Piccinin said he and Quirico overheard a Skype conversation, in which a Farouq Brigade commander and an FSA general took part from the facility where they were being detained. He explained, “According to the statements of officers of the opposition, it is not the regime of Bashar al-Assad that is responsible.”

I imagine that this is the same Piccinin who wrote an article lustily defending Bashar al-Assad on March 6, 2012:

The main reported cases of unrest are linked to regular attacks from Salafist bands which are of an extremely violent nature and more importantly, the Free Syrian Army. The latter counts amid its ranks numerous Qataris and Libyans, all whom have been trained in the art of urban guerilla warfare by the French army in refugee camps, which provide perfect bases from which to operate and orchestrate attacks.

So what likelihood is there that the “academic” who wrote these words in March would two months later become a “ferocious defender” of the FSA? Less than zero, in my opinion. He is what we might call a big, fat, liar to put it bluntly.

In fact Piccinin has a long record of open and virulent hostility to the rebels in Syria. On January 24, 2012, the BBC painted a portrait of a man slavishly devoted to the Baathist dictatorship:

Piccinin added that he spent a whole day with an armed group as their guest, indicating that they were 20 individuals, and that each one has certain kinds of firearms to snipe people from their hideout.

He stressed that the authorities used no force or suppression in dealing with protesters as alleged by some opposition sides, adding that no live ammunition was used except in certain circumstances, and that all that has been used was tear-gas.

He said that the government troops were strictly committed to the instructions of not using weapons against the protesters.

Piccinin concluded that what he has read in the western newspapers over months about events in Syria was not true as the country does not live in a catastrophe and the Syrian leadership is not weak to the extent that it may give up as media circulated.

One is surprised that he did not accuse the rebels themselves or shooting the protesters.

Turning to Domenico Quirico, it seems he has a penchant for getting kidnapped during civil war. Qaddafi’s troops kidnapped him in Libya in 2011 rather than the rebels but he along with some other journalists were released unharmed.

Quirico’s newspaper was one among a handful that published the Danish cartoon that depicted Mohammad as a bearded terrorist with a bomb in his turban. His own views, however, are a bit harder to pin down. In a May 1, 2012 article about the growth of Islam in Africa, he concluded:

The fundamentalism of the US Protestant sects, the Christian capitalism that seeks to buy souls by putting dictator Presidents on their payroll. In response to the interminable repetition of dilapidation, and the huge pressure of poverty which flows, branches out, and extends throughout the continent like flood water, we have proposed not an identification with those that are suffering, but the preaching of free market policies: which profits mostly us. In this world of poverty and losses, man has a hunger for faith and irrationality. But capitalism is not a credo, and is not a magnet. It is only a way of living which we, and only we, have got used to.

Maybe this relatively nuanced analysis foreshadowed Quirico’s distancing himself somewhat from the rabidly counter-revolutionary Piccinin. On September 9 the Lebanon Times reported Quirico as saying that it would be “madness” to say for sure that Assad was not culpable. Referring to the Skype conversation, in English no less, that the two captives overheard and that supposedly revealed rebel culpability, Quirico said: “I have no evidence to confirm this theory and I do not know who these people were or if they are reliable. It is impossible for me to say if this conversation was based on real events or on rumours and hearsay. It is not my habit to hold true conversations overheard through a door.”

Then there is, of course, the sheer unlikelihood that their captives would be having a Skype phone call in English within earshot. Does this make any sense?

Frankly, the supporters of Bashar al-Assad keep clutching at straws to make their case. First, the Ghouta gassings were the result a rebel accident according to Mint Press. Next, we heard from Ray McGovern that they were a false flag operation intended to cross Obama’s red line. Then, we heard from McNeil and al-Gharbi that it was no false flag, just jihadist terror directed indiscriminately at Christians in Ghouta. The latest installment jibes with McGovern but on the flimsiest basis—a Skype phone call conducted in English within earshot of two captives.

The way to proceed obviously is for the Syrian government to present the counter-evidence to the UN report or for al-Assad’s fans in the West to painstakingly gather together the evidence in the manner of Brown Moses, an independent and respected researcher. Instead, it relies on gossip and rumors, a function no doubt of the hazards to one’s mental health when carrying the Baathist banner. It rots your brain out like an advanced case of syphilis.

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