Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 30, 2013

The End of Time

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:20 am

“The End of Time” is a scientific/philosophical/religious meditation on the mystery of time that opens appropriately enough in the bowels of the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland as director Peter Mettler accompanies George Mikenberg on a tour of the facilities. As is so often the case when I hear a theoretical physicist, the words that come out their mouth begin to remind me of what I heard as a graduate student in philosophy some 46 years ago. As Mikenberg put it, space and time is basically the same thing!

As Mettler makes his way through the four corners of the earth interviewing various people on the mysteries of time, his mother provides the most useful definition. As someone closer to her in age than the director, I appreciated her simple statement that time is what you make of it, particularly in the sense of enjoying your time on earth. Carpe Diem—as they put it.

“The End of Time” is the final installment in a trilogy that began with “Picture of Light” in 1996 and was followed by “Gambling, Gods & LSD” in 2002. Like a number of documentary filmmakers who are pushing the envelope in a genre that is generally considered to be a “lesson” on something or another, Mettler’s goal is to force you to come to your own conclusions. With something as enigmatic as the nature of time, this is perhaps the only thing he could have done.

Much of “The End of Time” consists of footage that should speak for itself such as Buddhist religious ceremonies or scenes from outer space mixed with interviews with people who are facing the question of time in an existential sense. One of them is Jack Thompson who lives on Big Island in Hawaii and who saw his house destroyed by lava from an active volcano. Big Island is the youngest island, only a half-million years old. There’s a new island named Lo’ihi that is cropping up 20 miles away and will surface in 50,000 years but Thompson told Mettler: “it’s too much to think about.”

Sometimes late at night I fret over the future of the planet earth. Scientists predict that it will die in 1.7 billion years. What a tragedy. Based on what Christopher Hitchens once said in a debate with the awful Shmuley Boteach (the only words worth quoting from the dissolute warmonger in recent years), the chance that intelligent life exists elsewhere is nil. The existence of life on earth only demonstrates how unimportant we are since it is only through the most unlikely of accidents that evolution paved the way for the emergence of homo sapiens.

Like Big Island, Detroit—the scene of another chapter in this panoramic film—is undergoing destruction in its case the result of an economic rather than a natural disaster. Mettler follows around a couple of young white “settlers” who have bought a house on the cheap and who are growing their own food. Their sense of time is a lot different than the Black unemployed who have fled the city in record numbers. At its height, the city provided enough jobs to sustain a population of 2 million, now it is reduced to 800,000. Despite Mettler’s wise decision to avoid easy political points, there is no doubt that a large part of the motivation in making this film is to document decay, a fundamental aspect of time.

In the press notes for the film, Mettler is asked what conclusion, if any, can be drawn from the film. His answer:

When everything is said and done, when all the philosophy and physics and thinking is over, we still really only have our day-to-day experience to guide us. Our most concrete experience of time is: “We grow old, we die.” This is the basic way we know time acts upon us. I’m just a filmmaker making a film, using a time machine to ponder time. This is my reality and there is no elaborate fiction to hide behind. At some point in this journey we must acknowledge our elders. In the end, we are forced back to basics. As mothers have said to their children for countless eons: “Make the most of your life, because it will pass.”

“The End of Time” opened yesterday at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center. Very highly recommended.

November 29, 2013

The man who brought us the Hunger Game films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

Frank Giustra, the CEO of Lionsgate

Lions Gate ‘Hunger Games’ Sequel Collects $158.1 Million

* * * *

Mining News
Tommy Humphreys | June 28, 2013

Stop taking yourself so seriously, says tycoon Frank Giustra

frank guistra

Yesterday I had another opportunity to hear Frank Giustra speak — this time at BCBusiness Magazine‘s Top 100 event at Hotel Vancouver. In front of a crowd of 1,200, he was interviewed on stage by BCBusiness chairman Peter Legge.

Frank Giustra became a millionaire in his early 20s financing small mining and energy companies. As Chairman and CEO, he went on to build Yorkton Securities into an industry dominator. But at the height of the mid-90s gold bull market, Giustra quit, only to quickly re-emerge as the founder of Lionsgate Entertainment, which is the world’s largest independent film studio today. In 2001, Giustra returned to the commodities world– this time as Chairman of Endeavour Financial. From here, he launched countless resource companies, including what is now Goldcorp, Silver Wheaton, Uranium One, Pacific Rubiales Energy, and others. In 2010, he got into the food sector with Domenica Fiore, now recognized as the world’s best medium blend olive oil.

A stand-out moment of the interview described Giustra detailing how humbled he became as the new CEO of Lionsgate Entertainment; several times in the late 90s, the film company nearly went bankrupt. One winter’s day in Toronto, Guistra explained, he accidentally dropped a stack of Lionsgate brochures into the snow. Looking down, he was suddenly struck by a “Holy shit, what the hell am I doing with my life?” moment. He had been a somebody at Yorkton — people would come to him to get their business plans financed. But here he was, digging a stack of brochures for a fledgling company out of a pile of dirty snow. But Giustra eventually managed to secure the management team that helped grow the company to what it is today. “I couldn’t let it go bust,” Giustra said, betraying to his own pride in the endeavour. Since then, his determination has paid off for Lionsgate. It’s now worth approximately $4 billion.

* * * *

Frank Giustra, President Bill Clinton’s Close Colleague, Joins US Oil Sands Board

By Steve Horn

Frank Giustra – key power broker and close colleague of former President Bill Clinton – has taken a seat on the Board of Directors of U.S. Oil Sands, an Alberta-based company aiming to develop tar sands deposits in Utah’s Uintah Basin.

U.S. Oil Sands – in naming several new members to its Board – also announced it has received $80 million in “strategic financing” from Blue Pacific Investments Group Ltd., Anchorage Capital Group, L.L.C. and Spitfire Ventures, LLC.

The funding will help get the ball rolling on “tar sands south,” a miniature but increasingly controversial version of its big brother to the north, the Alberta tar sands. Giustra will likely help in opening the right doors for tar sands industry interests in the United States.

Giusta is best known for his work in the worlds of uranium mining and minerals mining, though he has dabbled in the Alberta tar sands finance world once before, lending upwards of $20 million in capital to Excelsior Energy. He serves as CEO and President of Fiore Financial Corporation.

full: http://desmogblog.com/2013/10/07/frank-giustra-bill-clinton-colleague-joins-us-oil-sands-board

* * * *

NY Times January 31, 2008
After Mining Deal, Financier Donated to Clinton
By JO BECKER and DON VAN NATTA Jr.

Late on Sept. 6, 2005, a private plane carrying the Canadian mining financier Frank Giustra touched down in Almaty, a ruggedly picturesque city in southeast Kazakhstan. Several hundred miles to the west a fortune awaited: highly coveted deposits of uranium that could fuel nuclear reactors around the world. And Mr. Giustra was in hot pursuit of an exclusive deal to tap them.

Unlike more established competitors, Mr. Giustra was a newcomer to uranium mining in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic. But what his fledgling company lacked in experience, it made up for in connections. Accompanying Mr. Giustra on his luxuriously appointed MD-87 jet that day was a former president of the United States, Bill Clinton.

Upon landing on the first stop of a three-country philanthropic tour, the two men were whisked off to share a sumptuous midnight banquet with Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, whose 19-year stranglehold on the country has all but quashed political dissent.

Mr. Nazarbayev walked away from the table with a propaganda coup, after Mr. Clinton expressed enthusiastic support for the Kazakh leader’s bid to head an international organization that monitors elections and supports democracy. Mr. Clinton’s public declaration undercut both American foreign policy and sharp criticism of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record by, among others, Mr. Clinton’s wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Within two days, corporate records show that Mr. Giustra also came up a winner when his company signed preliminary agreements giving it the right to buy into three uranium projects controlled by Kazakhstan’s state-owned uranium agency, Kazatomprom.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/31/us/politics/31donor.html

* * * *

Counterpunch Weekend Edition March 1-3, 2008
Friend of Bill, George and Dick Meet Mr. Nursultan Nazarbayev

Meet Mr. Nursultan Nazarbayev

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

Herewith an introduction to Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan.

Mr. Nazarbayev was elected president of Kazakhstan by the Supreme Soviet on April 24, 1990. On December 1, 1991, Kazakhstan being on the verge of independence, he was elected by Kazakh citizens with 95 percent of the vote and most recently was elected in 2005 with 91 percent of the vote. The 2005 election was only slightly marred by the observation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an organization he now chairs, that there were “numerous and persistent examples of intimidation by the authorities” and an “overall media bias in favor of the incumbent.” One month before the election Zamanbek Nurkadilov, an opposition leader, was said by authorities to have committed suicide. He did it by shooting himself once in the head and twice in the chest. Two months after the election, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, one of the opposition leaders was killed, reportedly by state security officials.

In May 2007, satisfied with the way he’d been performing, President Nazarbayev signed a constitutional amendment that permits him (and only him) to seek re-election indefinitely beginning in 2012 when his current term expires.

Mr. Nazarbayev presides over what has been called one of the most corrupt regimes in central Asia. He has closed newspapers, banned or refused to register opposition parties and permitted harassment of advocacy groups. Mike Marschall, the regional director of Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization said of the president: “You don’t have free elections, and the press is pretty much controlled by his family and a significant portion of assets in Kazakhstan are directly or indirectly controlled by his family.” Although Mr. Marschall went on to say that the president was making some step-by-step reforms, on the Transparency International Scale of corrupt countries, Kazakhstan is ranked 2.6, 1 being the most corrupt and 10 being least corrupt.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2008/03/01/meet-mr-nursultan-nazarbayev/

Two takes on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:01 pm

Donald Sutherland: ‘I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution’

The veteran actor who plays tyrannical president Coriolanus Snow in the blockbuster series talks about films as political activism – plus cinema villains and happy marriages

The Guardian, Tuesday 19 November 2013 12.48 EST

Donald Sutherland as President Snow in The Hunger Games: Catching Fir

Donald Sutherland wants to stir revolt. A real revolt. A youth-led uprising against injustice that will overturn the US as we know it and usher in a kinder, better way. “I hope that they will take action because it’s getting drastic in this country.” Drone strikes. Corporate tax dodging. Racism. The Keystone oil pipeline. Denying food stamps to “starving Americans”. It’s all going to pot. “It’s not right. It’s not right.”

November 28, 2013

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Filed under: food — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

freedom_from_want

The painting above is titled “Freedom from Want” or “The Thanksgiving Picture”, done by Norman Rockwell in 1943 in honor of FDR’s four freedoms (Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom of Worship were the 3 other freedoms, each one commemorated by a Rockwell painting as well.)

This was obviously a time of much more hope and a much stronger identification with the elites than that existing since the turbulent 60s when a New Left arose to challenge the CP’s facile identification with the New Deal and an American liberalism that was systematically destroying Vietnam. Despite being in complete sympathy with the spate of articles that appear traditionally on leftwing websites this time of year inspired by New Left revisionism about the hypocrisy of a holiday celebrating the feast of colonists and the native peoples they had come to slaughter, I not only look forward to Thanksgiving but even roast a turkey. This year I am trying out a dry brine recipe from the NY Times’s Melissa Clark, who along with the paper’s Mark Bittman, is one of my favorite cooking columnists.

Part of this has to do with the fact that so few people actually think much about the pilgrim’s feast when they sit down at the table to stuff themselves and watch football games afterwards. Mostly it is an opportunity to have relatives over and enjoy each others’ company.

As a nonobservant Jew, I wouldn’t be caught dead at our equivalent for such celebrations—the Seder being the obvious stand-in. When I was young, we’d have the traditional meal with roast chicken instead of turkey plus the herbs that customarily are set at the table with their biblical connection. After I became a socialist, this holiday struck me as singularly barbaric with its celebration of Yahweh’s slaughter of Egyptian children: “About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.”

My family is all gone now so as Thomas Wolfe once put it, “You can’t go home again”. Even when my mom was alive and I was a member of the SWP, there was no sense buying a round-trip ticket from Houston, Texas or Kansas City, Missouri to have dinner with her. At my apartment in such places, I always felt forlorn when Thanksgiving rolled around.

In November 1978, just a month before I would quit the SWP after a number of years of steadily growing disaffection, I suggested to the branch organizer that we organize a potluck dinner for people in the same boat as me. This was a particularly crass individual of the sort who ended up in leadership positions in the party and who once bet my closest friend in Kansas City five dollars that I would not be able to “make the turn”. She won the bet.

A week or so before the dinner was held, she announced to the branch that it would be taking place with words to this effect: “Comrades, we are going to having a Thanksgiving dinner so that anybody feeling homesick like Louis will have a place to go.” This was her way of showing what a tough Bolshevique she was. She wanted people to understand that our mission in Kansas City was not to provide a social framework that would help us make it through difficult times but a grand opportunity to become integrated into the working class and transform the party into a fighting organization of worker-Bolsheviks. She and virtually every member of the branch who were on the leading edge of “colonization” are now ex-members.

Despite the fact that it will only be me and my wife sitting down to enjoy an 11 pound bird, it will feel like a family event since she will be on the phone or Skypeing with her family back in Turkey throughout the day. Her sister was at our place a day ago and it is too bad that she couldn’t stick around to share the meal with us. My in-laws are really my family nowadays and I look forward to their visits.

Of course there is some irony in the fact that I am sharing a turkey with someone from Turkey. Turks don’t call the bird a turkey. For them it is hindi, the same word they use for Indians as in Hindu. However, the connection is not with India but American Indians. According to the online etymological dictionary, this was probably influenced by Middle French dinde (c.1600, contracted from poulet d’inde, literally “chicken from India,” Modern French dindon), based on the then-common misconception that the New World was eastern Asia.

That being the case, how in the world did the bird become associated with the Turkish nation? Although I have written about this in the past, my discussion could not begin to match the op-ed piece that appeared in today’s NY Times under the heading “The Turkey’s Turkey Connection”:

The Turkey’s Turkey Connection

By MARK FORSYTH

Thanksgiving is the all-American holiday. Turkey is the all-American bird. It was here long before Columbus or the Pilgrims. Early explorers reported vast flocks of turkeys nesting in the magnolia forest. Turkeys are a lot more American than apple pie. But they’re named after a country 4,429 miles away.

It’s not a coincidence. It’s not that the two words just sound alike. Turkeys are named after Turkey. But there is a connection. You just have to go to Madagascar to find it. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, English mealtimes were miserable things. There were no potatoes, no cigars and definitely no turkey. Then people began to import a strange, exotic bird. Its scientific name was Numida meleagris; its normal name now is the helmeted guinea fowl, because it’s got this weird bony protuberance on its forehead that looks a bit like a helmet. It came all the way from Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, but the English didn’t know that. All the English knew was that it was delicious, and that it was imported to Europe by merchants from Turkey. They were the Turkey merchants, and so, soon enough, the bird just got called the turkey.

But that’s not the turkey you’ll be serving with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. As I said, that’s an American bird. When the Spanish arrived in the New World they found a bird whose scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. But the Spaniards didn’t care about science. All they cared about was that this bird was really, really delicious. It tasted well, it tasted just like turkey, only better.

They started exporting the birds to Europe, and soon enough they arrived on English dinner tables at just about the same time that the English were setting up their first colonies in America. The Pilgrims didn’t care about any subtle distinctions. They just tasted this great bird and thought, turkey. That’s the way the English language goes.

That’s why the bird you’re going to eat is named for a country on the Black Sea. Other languages don’t make the same mistake. They make different ones. In France it’s called dinde, because they thought it was from India, or, in French, d’Inde. And in Turkey a lot of people thought that, too, so it’s called Hindi.

There was a 19th-century American joke about two hunters — an American and a Native American — who go hunting all day but only get an owl and a turkey. So the American turns to his companion and says: “Let’s divide up. You get the owl and I get the turkey.” The Native American says: “No. Let’s do it the other way round.” So the American says, “O.K., I’ll get the turkey and you get the owl.” And the Native American replies, “You don’t talk turkey at all.”

That’s where the phrase let’s talk turkey comes from. Let’s do real business. Then, in the early 20th century, people got even tougher and started saying “Let’s talk cold turkey.” And then when people tried the toughest way of giving up drugs they went cold turkey.

It’s got nothing to do with the leftovers you’ll be eating for weeks and weeks and weeks. Happy Thanksgiving.

Mark Forsyth is the author of “The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language.”

November 26, 2013

Chico Hamilton, a California Cool Jazzman, Dies at 92

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

NY Times November 26, 2013
Chico Hamilton, a California Cool Jazzman, Dies at 92
By PETER KEEPNEWS

Chico Hamilton, a drummer and bandleader who helped put California on the jazz map in the 1950s and remained active into the 21st century, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 92.

His death was announced by April Thibeault, his publicist.

Never among the flashiest or most muscular of jazz drummers, Mr. Hamilton had a subtle and melodic approach that made him ideally suited for the refined, understated style that came to be known as cool jazz, of which his hometown, Los Angeles, was the epicenter.

He was a charter member of the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan’s quartet, which helped lay the groundwork for the cool movement. His own quintet, which he formed shortly after leaving the Mulligan group, came to be regarded as the quintessence of cool. With its quiet intensity, its intricate arrangements and its uniquely pastel instrumentation of flute, guitar, cello, bass and drums — the flutist, Buddy Collette, also played alto saxophone — the Chico Hamilton Quintet became one of the most popular groups in jazz. (The cellist in that group, Fred Katz, died in September.)

The group was a mainstay of the nightclub and jazz festival circuit and even appeared in movies. It was prominently featured in the 1957 film “Sweet Smell of Success,” with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. (One character in that movie, a guitarist played by Martin Milner, was a member of the on-screen Hamilton group, miming to the playing of the quintet’s longtime guitarist Jim Hall.) And it was seen in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” Bert Stern’s acclaimed documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Cool jazz had fallen out of favor by the mid-1960s, but by then Mr. Hamilton had already altered the sound and style of his quintet, replacing the cellist with a trombonist and adopting a bluesier, more aggressive approach.

In 1966, after more personnel changes and more shifts in audience tastes, Mr. Hamilton, no longer on top of the jazz world but increasingly interested in composing — he wrote the music for Roman Polanski’s 1965 film, “Repulsion” — disbanded the quintet and formed a company that provided music for television shows and commercials.

But he continued to perform and record occasionally, and by the mid-1970s he was once again on the road as a bandleader full time. He was never again as big a star as he had been in the 1950s, but he remained active for the rest of his life, and his music became increasingly difficult to categorize, incorporating elements of free jazz, jazz-rock fusion and other styles.

He was born Foreststorn Hamilton in Los Angeles on Sept. 21, 1921. His father, Jesse, worked at the University Club of Southern California, and his mother, Pearl Lee Gonzales Cooley Hamilton, was a dietitian in the Los Angeles school system.

Asked by Marc Myers of the website JazzWax how he got the name Chico, he said he wasn’t sure but thought he acquired it as a teenager because “I was always a small dude.”

While still in high school he immersed himself in the local jazz scene, and by 1940 he was touring with Lionel Hampton’s big band. After serving in the Army during World War II, he worked briefly with the bands of Jimmy Mundy, Charlie Barnet and Count Basie before becoming the house drummer at the Los Angeles nightclub Billy Berg’s in 1946.

From 1948 to 1955 he toured Europe in the summer as a member of Lena Horne’s backup band, while remaining active the rest of the year in Los Angeles. His softly propulsive playing was an essential element in the popularity of Mulligan’s 1952 quartet, which also included Chet Baker on trumpet but, in a break with jazz orthodoxy, did not have a pianist. The group helped set the template for what came to be known as West Coast jazz, smoother and more cerebral than its East Coast counterpart.

The high profile that Mr. Hamilton achieved with Mulligan emboldened him to try his luck as a bandleader, a relatively unusual step for a drummer in the 1950s. His success was almost instantaneous.

He went on to record prolifically for a variety of labels, including Pacific Jazz, Impulse, Columbia and Soul Note. Among the honors he received were a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 2004 and a Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend Award in 2007.

Although slowed by age, Mr. Hamilton continued to perform and record beyond his 90th birthday. He released an album, “Revelation,” in 2011 on the Joyous Shout label, and had recently completed another one, “Inquiring Minds,” scheduled for release next year. Until late last year he was appearing at the Manhattan nightclub Drom with Euphoria, the group he had led since 1989.

He is survived by a brother, Don; a daughter, Denise Hamilton; a granddaughter; and two great-granddaughters. His brother, the actor Bernie Hamilton, and his wife, Helen Hamilton, both died in 2008.

Mr. Hamilton was highly regarded not just for his drumming, but also for his astuteness as a talent scout. Musicians who passed through his group before achieving stardom on their own include the bassist Ron Carter, the saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Charles Lloyd and the guitarists Jim Hall, Gabor Szabo and Larry Coryell. In a 1992 interview with National Public Radio, the saxophonist Eric Person, a longtime sideman, praised Mr. Hamilton for teaching “how to work on the bandstand, how you dress onstage, how you carry yourself in public.”

Mr. Hamilton taught those lessons both as a bandleader and, for more than two decades, as a faculty member at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. Teaching young musicians, he told The Providence Journal in Rhode Island in 2006, was “not difficult if they realize how fortunate they are.”

“But,” he added, “if they’re on an ego trip, that’s their problem.”

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.

Crystal-ball gazing ain’t what it used to be

Filed under: Iran,Syria — louisproyect @ 3:41 pm

Eric Draitser: no Nostradamus

Eric Draitser, “The war on Iran begins…in Syria”, August 28, 2013

In the decades since the revolution of 1979 which created the modern Islamic Republic of Iran, the US policy toward that country has been antagonistic and belligerent to such a degree that Iran has been forced, out of sheer necessity, to rely very heavily on its few regional and international allies. And so, given the political posture of Bashar Assad, like that of his father before him, Damascus has been viewed as Iran’s key political partner, providing Iran with a crucial ally along the border with Israel and a bridge to the Hezbollah organization in Southern Lebanon. Additionally, a multi-ethnic society like Syria with a dominant Shiite-Alawite demographic presents itself as a natural friend to Shiite Iran. However, the importance of this relationship does not stop at mere similarities.

When one looks at the players involved in the war in Syria, it becomes clear that the Sunni monarchies – Saudi Arabia and Qatar primarily – have committed to the war in order to ensure their own continued hegemony, especially in terms of energy production. Qatar, being one of the world’s wealthiest gas exporters, views the growing relationship between Iran and Syria, especially the gas pipeline deal, as an existential threat to their own standing. The Saudis, long since mortal enemies and rivals of the Shia Iranians, also have come to view Syria as merely a battleground in the larger proxy war with Iran.

And then of course, there’s Israel. Perched comfortably on Syria’s border, Israel has played a key role in stoking tensions and fomenting unrest on the other side of the Golan Heights. Not only did Israel carry out a number of blatantly illegal bombings inside Syria’s borders, there have been dozens of mainstream accounts, including videos, of Israeli Special forces commandos inside of Syria. Naturally, Israeli intentions are to further their own interests which for decades have been centered on the destruction of Iran, their main regional competitor and rival.

 * * * *

NY Times November 25, 2013

U.S. and Saudis in Growing Rift as Power Shifts

By ROBERT F. WORTH

WASHINGTON — There was a time when Saudi and American interests in the Middle East seemed so aligned that the cigar-smoking former Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was viewed as one of the most influential diplomats in Washington.

Those days are over. The Saudi king and his envoys — like the Israelis — have spent weeks lobbying fruitlessly against the interim nuclear accord with Iran that was reached in Geneva on Sunday. In the end, there was little they could do: The Obama administration saw the nuclear talks in a fundamentally different light from the Saudis, who fear that any letup in the sanctions will come at the cost of a wider and more dangerous Iranian role in the Middle East.

Although the Saudis remain close American allies, the nuclear accord is the culmination of a slow mutual disenchantment that began at the end of the Cold War.

For decades, Washington depended on Saudi Arabia — a country of 30 million people but the Middle East’s largest reserves of oil — to shore up stability in a region dominated by autocrats and hostile to another ally, Israel. The Saudis used their role as the dominant power in OPEC to help rein in Iraq and Iran, and they supported bases for the American military, anchoring American influence in the Middle East and beyond.

But the Arab uprisings altered the balance of power across the Middle East, especially with the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, a close ally of both the Saudis and the Americans.

The United States has also been reluctant to take sides in the worsening sectarian strife between Shiite and Sunni, in which the Saudis are firm partisans on the Sunni side.

At the same time, new sources of oil have made the Saudis less essential. And the Obama administration’s recent diplomatic initiatives on Syria and Iran have left the Saudis with a deep fear of abandonment.

Full: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/world/middleeast/us-and-saudis-in-growing-rift-as-power-shifts.html

November 24, 2013

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

A couple of days ago the N.Y. Times ran an article about Columbia University’s football team, the perpetual doormat of the Ivy League. Nick Melka, a political science major and defensive lineman, probably was typical of those ready to endure ignominy on the field:

Melka interned for a financial services firm last summer and hopes to land a job there after graduation. That is the upside of being a Columbia football player: While the football may be terrible, the job prospects are fantastic. The network of former players gives students personal access to chief executives, lawyers, doctors, Wall Street traders.

Ironically, that is how college “amateur” athletics was originally intended at its birth in Great Britain at the turn of the 20th century. Amateurism was a device to keep the working class out of sports—that according to Frank Deford, one of the very knowledgeable people interviewed in “Schooled: the Price of College Sports”, which is now available from Amazon.com both as a DVD and through streaming.

That model was adopted by the United States early on, where football was the essential Ivy League sport played by people like Nick Melka. But after WWII both basketball and football became big business on campus largely through the shrewd planning of Walt Byers, who ran the NCAA from its inception in 1951 to his retirement in 1988. Byers understood that basketball and football could become a cash cow for universities by perpetrating the hoax of the “student-athlete”. In exchange for providing room, board, and tuition, the school would reap millions in television revenue, deals with Nike, and sales of gear with the team’s logo.

When a poor African-American came to play for a Division A basketball or football team, he frequently lacked the money to pay for food or clothing as one athlete reveals. This puts enormous pressure on them to supplement their income by taking money under the table or worse.

The NCAA not only sought to generate fortunes both to the schools and itself, it also saw the “student-athlete” hoax as a way to protect a university from liabilities due to accidents on the field. One of the landmark cases involved a Texas Christian University running back named Kent Waldrep who broke his neck in a game with the University of Alabama in 1974 and was left a quadriplegic. When he filed suit in 1997 to establish his status as a wageworker rather than a “student-athlete” and thus be eligible for workman’s compensation, the university and the NCAA fought him tooth and nail. Waldrep lost the case but the battle continues.

While some of the experts interviewed for the film such as Dave Zirin and Frank Deford, a regular on the very hard-hitting HBO series “Real Sports with Brian Gumbel”, were to be expected, it was a bit of a surprise to see Taylor Branch making the forceful case for paying athletes like Waldrep and providing insurance.

Branch, who produced the film, has been a long-time advocate for the rights of such athletes, likening their situation to indentured servants. As some of you surely must know, Branch is the author of a series of books on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

He is also the author of an Ebook titled “The Cartel” (http://taylorbranch.com/ncaa/the-cartel/) that can be ordered from his website. As the film explains, the NCAA is a classic cartel with one important difference. As opposed to OPEC, another well-known cartel, the goal is to keep wages down rather than prices up. In either case, the goal is profit—even when a place like Penn State or Notre Dame tries to maintain the fiction that it only has the interests of the student at heart.

I recommend a shorter version of Branch’s book on the Atlantic magazine website titled “The Shame of College Sports” that does not mince words:

Educators are in thrall to their athletic departments because of these television riches and because they respect the political furies that can burst from a locker room. “There’s fear,” Friday told me when I visited him on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill last fall. As we spoke, two giant construction cranes towered nearby over the university’s Kenan Stadium, working on the latest $77 million renovation. (The University of Michigan spent almost four times that much to expand its Big House.) Friday insisted that for the networks, paying huge sums to universities was a bargain. “We do every little thing for them,” he said. “We furnish the theater, the actors, the lights, the music, and the audience for a drama measured neatly in time slots. They bring the camera and turn it on.” Friday, a weathered idealist at 91, laments the control universities have ceded in pursuit of this money. If television wants to broadcast football from here on a Thursday night, he said, “we shut down the university at 3 o’clock to accommodate the crowds.” He longed for a campus identity more centered in an academic mission.

“Narco Cultura” opened on Friday at the AMC Empire 25 in New York, followed by a nationwide rollout (http://narcoculture.com/showtimes). It is as the title implies a close look at Mexico’s drug wars focused on the city of Juarez, within spitting distance of El Paso, Texas, and one of its “success” stories—a Narcocorrido singer named Edgar Quintero from Los Buknas de Culiacan. Although the music is fairly indistinguishable from the accordion-based corridos that have been a staple of Mexican pop music since the 1920s, the lyrics have more in common with gangsta rap in the USA. This is from the supergroup El Movimiento Alterado: “Con un cuerno de chivo / y bazuka en la nuca / volando cabezas / al que se atraviesa” (With an AK / and a bazooka taking aim / blowing off the heads / of whoever gets in the way).

The film focuses on contrasts, juxtaposing Quintero’s braggadocio with the sites of dead bodies on the streets of Juarez, often-innocent bystanders, as well as the cops who are routinely assassinated by cartel thugs. The people who are narcocorrido fans like to “party”, which means getting drunk and or high while singing along with their favorite bands. The musicians are big favorites of cartel bosses who often pay someone like Quintero to compose a ballad in their honor. Whenever I hear Libya described as a “failed state”, I wonder if those who accept that definition understand that Mexico suffered 60,000 casualties during the drug war that began in 2006. That would be equivalent to 150,000 in the USA.

While the film is compelling, there is not much in the way of analysis. It is content to interview Quintero, who is a tiresome lout, or the cops in Juarez but somehow decided to omit any kind of expert testimony on how this drug war came to be. For this you have to look elsewhere.

On this score, I recommend Dawn Paley, who has been researching a book. A preliminary article “Drug War Capitalism” can be read here: http://dawnpaley.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/dawn.pdf. I also recommend Anabel Hernandez’s “Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords And Their Godfathers”. Hernandez is a Mexican journalist who understandably always travels with two bodyguards.

A Guardian profile on Hernandez describes the sordid connections between the USA and Mexico, not distinguishable in any way from what existed during Colombia’s drug wars:

The release last month of the cartel boss Caro Quintero by a Mexican federal court made headlines across the world; Quintero had been convicted of a part in the torture to death of a US Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena in 1985. It’s a murder which, in Hernández’s account, throws light on both Mexican government and CIA complicity in drug trafficking, a narrative that exposes a deep root of the present drug war.

The court released Quintero on a legal technicality, but Hernández says now: “Mexico’s government did nothing to prevent his release. On the contrary, they contributed cover for the release. The one thing nobody wants is Quintero talking about the roles of the Institutional Revolutionary Party [returned to power, and in government during Camarena’s murder] and the CIA in the origins of Chapo Guzmán’s cartel.”

A documentary that uncovered these ties would be a blockbuster. In the meantime, “Narco Cultura” is not a bad place to get a feel for the personalities involved in a tragic waste of life and treasure.

When I first heard that the documentary “Blood Brother” was about a young American going to India to work with HIV-positive orphans, the first thing that entered my mind was “another Mother Teresa”. The only question is what would motivate someone to take what amounted to a vow of poverty and devote himself to people he barely knew and who were in such desperate straits. Was it religion? Was it a kind of AIDS activism that was prevalent in the USA during the early years of the outbreak?

It turns out that the protagonist, a lean and handsome youth named Rocky Braat who grew up in Pittsburgh, remained as much of a mystery as the film ended as when it began. This, however, is what makes it appealing. You are both impressed with his dedication but at a loss to figure out what makes him tick. In an age when people his age are desperate to find a job—any job—it is a mystery (in the original sense) as to why Rocky would reject that path and choose to live a Christ-like existence. As the press notes state: “Rocky endures a daily diet of rice, a rat infested hut, visa problems.”

Although there is not a single reference to Jesus in the entire film, you cannot but help ponder the similarity:

Luke 17:11-19

11 And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.

12 And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off:

13 And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.

14 And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.

Steve Hoover, Rocky’s old friend from Pittsburgh who is seen visiting him in India with a film crew, directed the film. It is Hooper’s first film and done with great sensitivity and with an artist’s eye for the stunning beauty of the countryside around Tamil Nadu, the site of the orphanage. For information on how to provide material aid, go to http://www.givethemlight.org/.

Perhaps the most appropriate recommendation for this film is to confess that I am not its ideal viewer. Immersed as I am in social and political issues, it took some adjustment to realize that “Blood Brother” is an old-fashioned character study. That being said, it is a reminder that if one individual can learn to serve humanity in a selfless fashion that there is hope for the rest of us.

This note from the producer will serve as a reference to how you can see it:

Screenings are listed here: http://www.bloodbrotherfilm.com/screenings and info on how to host a screening can be found here: http://www.bloodbrotherfilm.com/host-a-screening-theater/. The film will be broadcast on PBS Independent Lens on January 20th and then released on DVD/VoD/Digital soon after through Cinedigm (http://www.cinedigm.com/)

November 23, 2013

Jonathan Cook proves my point

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 10:58 pm

This a brief reply to a short part of Cook’s latest post that mostly tries to prove that the Palestinians and Syrians are unalike. I only wish he had devoted half of his attention and energy to the question of Mother Agnes and the “false flag” narratives that were really at the heart of the STWC conference dispute. Until he begins to realize that taking a skeptic’s position on the Sarin attack in Ghouta flies in the face of the evidence and humanitarian/pacifist principles, he will remain terribly compromised. He must understand that the Baathists have a powerful public relations machinery, much of it on a pro bono basis from places as diverse as Global Research to the London Review of Books, and that Mother Agnes and many others help the war aims of Bashar al-Assad by blaming the rebels for the killing of their supporters.

But let me turn your attention to this:

This brings me to my main point in responding to Proyect. Like a lot of interventionists, he wants to undermine the position of non-interventionists like me by accusing us of hypocrisy – or at least implying it.

I really wasn’t aware that I was an “interventionist”. For example, if you google “Kristof Syria intervention”, you will get 5,290,000 results. The article at the very top of the list—written by Nicholas Kristof—states:

In Syria, it seems to me that cruise missile strikes might make a modest difference, by deterring further deployment of chemical weapons. Sarin nerve gas is of such limited usefulness to the Syrian army that it has taken two years to use it in a major way, and it’s plausible that we can deter Syria’s generals from employing it again if the price is high.

But if you substitute Proyect for Kristof in that search, you will find nothing like this. It might take a little bit of work, but if you went to my blog and clicked “Syria” on the right-hand side of the home page, you will find an article titled http://louisproyect.org/2013/09/08/in-the-court-of-leftist-public-opinion/ that states:

My position is that Obama must be opposed. I have not written anything to that effect for the same reason I have not written anything lately about opposing drone strikes. Because I have not blogged about drones, one should not draw the conclusion that I favor what Obama is doing to the Yemenites. Basically, what he wants to do in Syria is a drone strike on steroids.

In my initial post on Cook that was only prompted by his taking me to task for speaking out against Mother Agnes, I stated “One of the gravest side effects of the war in Syria for those living outside its borders has been a decline in journalistic standards.” This is just another example. To refer to me as an “interventionist” without bothering to take fifteen minutes or so that was necessary to establish a basis for the assertion is a sign of bias and/or laziness. Being linked to someone like Nicholas Kristof is a slander but I really can’t get very bothered by that since I know what I  stand for and what my readers stand for—at least those who don’t send me hate mail once or twice a week about being a ZioNazi.

My primary interest all along has been to defend the living heart of the revolution that has been facing two mortal threats: the Baathist dictatorship and the jihadists, a number of whom were released from Syrian prisons in order to create the very image that Global Research, the London Review of Books, and Rush Limbaugh are anxious to cultivate—namely that Syria is trying to quell an al-Qaeda uprising. That so many on the left are willing to lend credence to this filthy lie is not my business to analyze or psychoanalyze for that matter. My only interest has been and will remain to get out the truth.

Gilbert Achcar: Syria in the context of the Arab uprisings

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 3:15 am

November 22, 2013

Who was Lee Harvey Oswald?

Filed under: JFK — louisproyect @ 3:28 pm

Twenty years ago PBS Frontline aired a fascinating documentary on “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?” that can still be seen online. This show would have had a special resonance with members of the Socialist Workers Party, past or present. In the course of his determined but questionable attempts to establish some kind of leftist credentials, Oswald subscribed to the Militant newspaper, the organ of the SWP. In one of the most famous pictures of Oswald, you can see him in his backyard with a rifle in one hand and the Militant newspaper in the other:

backyardphot

Oliver Stone and other conspiracy theorists argue that the photo is bogus, but I have no reason to question its authenticity. It simply strikes me as just one of a number of gestures on Oswald’s part to look like some kind of leftist, but with the predictable wrong note–in this case, holding the rifle that killed JFK in all likelihood.

When I applied for membership in the SWP in 1967, it was only 4 years after the assassination of JFK and the events were still very much alive in the party leadership’s mind. After I received a notice to report to the draft board for a physical, a meeting was set up between Ed Shaw, the branch organizer in NYC, and me. He was to explain the party’s proletarian military policy to me. In 1967 this meant trying to find a way to avoid going into the army, although not out of any moral opposition. We were simply more valuable on the outside. Eventually some SWP’ers did go in and made a big “free speech” stink about the right to have antiwar discussions at Fort Jackson. From that point on, the draft tended to pass us by.

Ed was a lot different than any of the party leaders who would eventually assume the mantle of leadership. He was a merchant seaman during WWII and sported a large tattoo on his bicep. He was also plainspoken and endowed with a salty wit. During the course of our meeting, the question of the Kennedy assassination came up. Ed said that when he returned to his Washington Heights apartment the day of the assassination, shortly after an APB had gone out for Oswald, his building was surrounded by cops looking for him.

I seem to remember Ed saying that Lee Harvey Oswald actually applied for membership, but was turned down because he gave out all sorts of wrong signals. The Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which the SWP played a key role in forming, also kept its distance from Oswald. As the PBS website points out:

“He shows an interest in guns. But Marxist politics are still his ruling passion and his hero is Fidel Castro. He writes to the leading pro-Castro group in the U.S., the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), offering to start a New Orleans chapter. The committee discourages him, but he ignores them and begins printing his own pro-Castro leaflets and phony membership cards. He asks Marina to help him disguise the fact that he is the only member of his organization.”

I can only say that I am not surprised that Frontline can state that “Marxist politics” are Oswald’s ruling passion since PBS has only the foggiest notion of what Karl Marx stood for. If hero worship for Fidel Castro and brandishing firearms is supposed to amount to Marxism, I guess I was wasting my time reading all that Leon Trotsky stuff.

There was so much heat on the SWP that party chairman Farrell Dobbs sent Jackie Kennedy a telegram offering his condolences. This defensive and eminently logical move sent youth leader James Robertson into orbit. From his ultraleft perspective, the telegram was something akin to Christopher Hitchens backing the invasion of Iraq. In a couple of years he would bolt from the SWP and start a group called the Spartacist League which is devoted to this kind of batty contrarianism.

When I was in the Houston branch of the SWP in 1974, I had the assignment of forum director. Even then I had an appetite for reaching as wide an audience for socialist ideas as possible–something that clashed with the insular culture of the local party leadership. Since the JFK assassination was always a hot topic for Texans, I had the bright idea to invite somebody down from Dallas who gave talks on Zapruder’s film, something that he brought with him and which we showed as part of the meeting. He gave a talk that was in the spirit of Oliver Stone’s movie. Afterwards our branch organizer Stu Singer spoke. He made the obvious points about JFK being a capitalist politician who would have dragged us into Vietnam if he had lived, etc., but in such a strident and obnoxious way that anybody considering socialism would have probably run the opposite direction after his presentation.

The PBS documentary tried to straddle rival interpretations of Oswald. Gerald Posner, who wrote a book titled “Case Closed”, defended the findings of the Warren Commission. To the show’s credit, it did not give a platform to some of the more kooky conspiracy theorists like Mark Lane. It also came up with new documentary evidence that tended to poke holes in some of Posner’s claims. For example, Posner states that even though David Ferry (played by Joe Pesci in Stone’s film) and Lee Harvey Oswald were both in the Civilian Air Patrol cadets, they never knew each other. Frontline counters that with a photo of Ferry and Oswald at a training session and even interviews two men who were there with them. They affirm that Ferry and Oswald did know each other.

My own view is that Oswald did not act alone, but I would be loath to offer an interpretation. In general, assassinations of heads of state are extreme measures that only take place in conditions approaching civil war. No matter the dislike of elements of the national security state for the president, it is entirely implausible that they would risk everything in a foolish bid to murder him. It is especially foolish to speculate that the CIA had something to do with this since the agency is largely made up of people who saw the world in exactly the same terms as JFK, namely Yale and Harvard graduates who spent their time listening to Schubert string quartets and reading John Updike when they weren’t dreaming up ways to subvert the colonial revolution.

I have pretty much the same attitude toward September 11th, 2001. Why would the US government go to such lengths to whip the US population into a war frenzy when it took so little for them to intervene in one nation after another for the past 50 years or so? All you really have to do is claim that a country is a threat to our security and the war machine goes into action. It did not take a suicide bomber attack on a NYC building to justify the wars in Central America after all.

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