Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 30, 2014

Three Independent Films: “The Wind Will Carry Us,” “Age of Uprising,” and “Night Moves”

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Trailers for films under review

Counterpunch Weekend Edition May 30-Jun 01, 2014

Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?

Jonathan Rosenbaum named “The Wind Will Carry Us” as one of the ten greatest movies of the past 50 years while Martin Scorsese identified its director Abbas Kiarostami as representing “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” Those accolades should be sufficient to motivate New Yorkers to see a revival of the 1999 masterpiece opening today at the IFC Center. If not, let me add my two cents.

Even if the audio died as the film began, you would be mesmerized by the steady procession of images on the screen before you. When he was 18, Kiarostami won a painting competition that helped him be admitted to Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. After graduating, he made a living as a commercial artist. It is only when he began making films that his early passion for the fine arts began to be satisfied. On strictly a visual basis, sitting through the 118 minutes as the film unwinds is equivalent to seeing a photography exhibit at the MOMA by one of the great masters.

Since I anticipate no problems with the audio at IFC, I can promise you that the dialog will match the visual elements. Kiarostami’s film can best be described as magical realism but without the magic. The sense of wonderment does not come from characters and objects defying the natural order but from their own unique relationship to the natural order so at odds from the film’s major character, a sophisticated documentary filmmaker from Tehran who has come to a tiny mountainside village populated by Kurds. They live as they have lived for hundreds of years, tending their herds of cattle and goats, while he is tuned into the latest technologies including a cell phone. The running gag of this bone-dry comedy is his need to get into his Land Rover to scale a nearby hilltop to receive an in-coming call whenever his cell phone rings. By contrast, communications in the village are strictly from one windowsill to the next.

read in full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/05/30/is-abbas-kiarostami-the-worlds-most-talented-film-maker/

May 28, 2014

Thoughts prompted by the coup in Thailand

Filed under: Thailand — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

Protesting rice farmers in Thailand

For journalists like Seumas Milne and Andre Vltchek, the anti-government protests in Venezuela and Thailand are cut from the same cloth. They are middle-class movements fueled by resentment against government programs that favored the poor. If this is the case, you would expect the NY Times and the Murdoch-owned London Times to throw its support behind Thailand’s “Yellow Shirts” after the fashion of their support for the anti-Maduro student protesters. As is so often the case, reductionism does not serve political analysis very well.

Because in fact Thomas Fuller of the NY Times has been consistently in support of Thaksin Shinawatra’s “Thais Love Thais” party. On May 22nd he filed a report that stated “The coup was seen as a victory for the elites in Thailand who have grown disillusioned with popular democracy and have sought for years to diminish the electoral power of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who commands support in the rural north. Unable to win elections, the opposition has instead called for an appointed prime minister and pleaded with the military for months to step in.”

If anything, the London Times’s Richard Lloyd Parry was even more gung-ho for the Thais Love Thais party, even using “99 percent” type rhetoric against Akanat Promphan, a leader of the “yellow shirts” opposition:

For all his talk of a national movement acting on behalf of all Thais, Mr Akanat is not an obvious man of the people. His parents were both members of parliament and, like a surprising number of opposition leaders, he received an expensive British education. He attended the £31,680-a-year boarding school Charterhouse and the University of Oxford.

After a day of marching on the streets of Bangkok, he retreats not to a tent pitched beneath a flyover, like those inhabited by many of his fellow demonstrators, but to the five-star sanctuary of the Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok, overlooking Lumphini Park.

Like Fuller, Richard Lloyd Perry stressed Thaksin’s FDR type love for the common people:

Mr Thaksin was a billionaire telecommunications tycoon who, on the face of it, also had little in common with Thai farmers. His cavalier attitude to human rights and his manipulation of state institutions and the media drew the loathing of educated, urban Thais.

However, his rural development programmes, which bestowed cheap loans and subsidised healthcare on Thailand’s villages, won him the loyalty of a far larger voting population.

That loyalty has been severely tested by a government program that subsidized rice farmers. A couple of years ago, it seemed like a safe bet since Thailand was the world’s leading exporter of rice. Subsidies were seen as a way of motivating farmers to grow more rice and help consolidate one of Thailand’s major exports. Unfortunately for the Thais Love Thais party, the world market for rice became glutted and demand for the overpriced Thai variety took a nosedive. With tons of rice sitting in warehouses and beginning to rot, the sales that would have paid for the subsidies failed to materialize.

Growing desperate, the unpaid farmers resorted to measures found frequently in the Indian countryside:

BAN NON SON, Thailand—Attempts to steer markets seldom end well.

In this village in northeast Thailand, Thongma Kaisuan’s family and neighbors are trying to come to terms with the death of the 64-year-old farmer, who slipped out into his backyard and hanged himself from a tree late last month. The suicide, they say, is in large part due to the Thai government’s bid to control the world’s price for its best-known export: rice.

Investors and governments often have fantasized about controlling global markets for commodities to drive up prices and profits. In the 1970s, the Hunt brothers, American oil billionaires, attempted to corner the world’s silver market, only to see their position collapse. Sumitomo Corp.’s 8053.TO -0.52% chief copper trader, Yasuo Hamanaka, in the 1990s bought up to 5% of the world’s copper supply. His position also collapsed, losing $2.6 billion. Other debacles include efforts to corner gold, tin and even onion markets.

Now add Thailand to the list of the world’s frustrated speculators.

An attempt to set global rice prices has stripped the country of its position as the world’s top exporter, left its prime minister facing a potentially ruinous investigation into the management of the plan, and thrown thousands of farmers like Mr. Thongma into a deep hole of debt.

Mr. Thongma’s tale began two and a half years ago. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra launched a gambit to shift more cash into the rural economy by buying up rice from farmers at about 18,000 baht, or $550, a ton, around 50% higher than the market rate.

Across the country, Thais started to buy new televisions, along with smart-phones to tap into the 3G networks springing up across the country. Household debt crept up past 80% of gross domestic product, a dangerously high level, according to the central bank.

Mr. Thongma, for his part, borrowed 400,000 baht, or about $12,000, from an agricultural cooperative to help pay for a minivan for his son-in-law to start a small transport business.

“We were confident about borrowing the money because the government program appeared to guarantee a stable income,” said Mr. Thongma’s widow, Thongbai Kaisuan, as Buddhist monks in orange robes chanted prayers for her departed husband.

Reality quickly sank in.

The timing of the government’s rice program could scarcely have been worse. Just as Thailand began withholding rice from the international market, India resumed exports after a long absence. Major importers such as the Philippines, stung by the 2008 price spike, also began producing more rice. Instead of rising, global prices for rice fell from a peak of more than $1,000 a ton in 2008 to the current level of around $390 a ton for the most commonly traded grades.

–Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2014

You would think from the NY Times and the London Times that the movement against the government was made up of white-wine drinking and brie cheese-eating yuppy computer programmers and civil servants, a trope heard frequently in the past when it comes to “color revolutions”. In fact Yingluck Shinawatra’s undoing probably had more to do with farmer discontent than anything else as Reuters reported on February 17th:

Hundreds of unpaid Thai rice farmers swarmed around the temporary office of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Monday, threatening to storm the building if the beleaguered premier did not come out and speak to them.

The escalation of the protest by farmers, who have not been paid for crops sold to the government under a state rice-buying scheme that helped sweep Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party to power, came as thousands of demonstrators seeking to unseat the prime minister surrounded the government’s headquarters.

Live television pictures showed farmers climbing over barbed wire fences and barriers at the Defence Ministry compound in north Bangkok where Yingluck has set up temporary offices. They pushed back a line of riot police, who retreated from confrontation, but did not enter the building.

“The prime minister is well-off but we are not. How are we going to feed our children? I want her to think about us,” said one protesting farmer.

On May 7th Yingluck Shinawatra resigned after a high court found her guilty of transferring a National Security chief from his office in an irregular manner. It was clear that the real reason was to remove a politician who had lost the ability to govern after the fashion of Yanukovych in the Ukraine.

If the assumption is that the army will now go full blast ahead with an attack on the poor, it might be worth noting that the General in charge has declared that the rice farmers would be paid the money owed them. Thomas Fuller reported on this today but could not help but remind his readers that the army was only acting on base Machiavellian considerations:

Other reports showed farmers marching to army bases to hand over red roses and holding up banners proclaiming appreciation for the general who led the coup, Prayuth Chan-ocha. Identical banners, featuring rice stalks and the same image of General Prayuth raising his hand in the air, were paraded by farmers in Phuket, Lopburi and Ubon Ratchathani, provinces that are separated by hundreds of miles.

Thai newspapers quoted farmers praising the military in highly formal language.

“We, on behalf of all farmers, would like to thank you for your true kindness and understanding of the hardship of the people,” a man who was described as a farmer was quoted by the ASTV Manager news website as saying. “We are here to offer moral support and flowers to thank you, the military of the entire people.”

All this might be true but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If buying votes is considered to have something to do with a progressive agenda, then Boss Tweed might be due a revisionist make-over since traditionally machine politics in big cities revolved around favors to working-class voters such as a turkey in November or lining up a construction job on a city project.

Some argue that the Red Shirts will emerge as a true radical movement after the Shinawatra clan has left the building. I hope that’s true but after reading about Thailand on and off for the past few months, I am a bit skeptical. In the final analysis, Thailand needs the same thing as Ukraine does, a mass socialist movement that can unite the anti-corruption urban dwellers with the rural agrarian population. That was symbolized by the hammer-and-sickle of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The iconography might be dated but the political imperative remains.

May 26, 2014

Herb Jeffries, Singing Star of Black Cowboy Films, Dies at 100

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

NY Times, May 26 2014

Herb Jeffries, Singing Star of Black Cowboy Films, Dies at 100


Herb Jeffries in 2006.
Credit Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

Herb Jeffries, who sang with Duke Ellington and starred in early black westerns as a singing cowboy known as “the Bronze Buckaroo” — a nickname that evoked his malleable racial identity — died on Sunday in West Hills, Calif. He was believed to be 100.

The cause was heart failure, said Raymond Strait, a writer who had worked on Mr. Jeffries’s autobiography with him.

Mr. Jeffries used to say: “I’m a chameleon.” The label applied on many levels.

Over the course of his century, he changed his name, altered his age, married five women and stretched his vocal range from near falsetto to something closer to a Bing Crosby baritone. He shifted from jazz to country and back again, and from concert stages to movie theaters to television sets and back again.

He sang with Earl Hines and his orchestra in the early 1930s. He starred in “Harlem on the Prairie,” a black western released in 1937, and its several sequels. By 1940, he was singing with the Ellington orchestra and soon had a hit single, “Flamingo,” which sold more than 14 million copies after being released in 1941. (His name had been Herbert Jeffrey, but the credits on the record mistakenly called him Jeffries, so he renamed himself to match the typo.)

He moved to Europe and performed there for many years, including at nightclubs he owned. He was back in America by the 1950s, recording jazz records again, including “Say It Isn’t So,” a highly regarded 1957 collection of ballads. In the 1970s he picked up roles on “Hawaii Five-O” and “I Dream of Jeannie.” In the 1990s he performed at the Village Vanguard. In the 2000s he performed regularly at Café Aroma in Idyllwild, Calif.

Deep into his 90s, he was still swinging.

“He called me over once and said, ‘Is this your place, kid?’ ” recalled Frank Ferro, who runs Café Aroma in Idyllwild, Calif. “He said, ‘I’ve had two nightclubs in Paris, and let me tell you, kid, you’re doing it all just right.’ ”

Mr. Ferro also recalled Mr. Jeffries saying: “You know, I’m colored. I’m just not the color you think I am.”

Mr. Jeffries’s racial and ethnic identity was itself something of a performance — and a moving target. His mother was white, his father more of a mystery. He told some people that his father was African-American, others that he was mixed race and still others that he was Ethiopian or Sicilian.

In the crude social math of his era, many people told Mr. Jeffries he could have “passed” for white. He told people he chose to be black — to the extent that a mixed-race person had a choice at the time.

“He told me he had to make this decision about whether he should try to pass as white,” the jazz critic Gary Giddins recalled in an interview for this obituary. “He said: ‘I just knew that my life would be more interesting as a black guy. If I’d chosen to live my life passing as white, I’d have never been able to sing with Duke Ellington.’ ”

In 1951, Life magazine published an extensive feature on Mr. Jeffries that dwelled heavily on his racial heritage.

“Jeffries’s refusal to ‘pass’ and his somewhat ambiguous facial appearance have let him in for so many cases of prejudice and mistaken identity that he is practically a one-man minority group,” the article said. It described his “smoky blue eyes” and noted that he was frequently mistaken for Mexican, Argentine, Portuguese “and occasionally a Jew,” but that he had chosen to be “what he is — a light-skinned Negro.”

Mr. Jeffries cited his race as Caucasian on marriage licenses. (All five of his wives were white; his second wife was the stripper Tempest Storm.)

Late in life he said that his father, Howard Jeffrey, was actually his stepfather, and that his real father was Domenico Balentino, a Sicilian man who died in World War I.

In a 2007 documentary about him, “A Colored Life,” Mr. Jeffries said that the name on his birth certificate was Umberto Alejandro Balentino, and that he was born on Sept. 24, 1913, two years later than he had sometimes told people. The documentary included a mock birth certificate bearing that name.

Firm evidence of Mr. Jeffries’s race and age is hard to come by, but census documents from 1920 described him as “mulatto” and listed his father as a black man named Howard Jeffrey. They give his birth year as 1914, which matches what he told Life in 1951.

“It’s always been the big question, you know — where do we really come from?” Romi West, one of Mr. Jeffries’s daughters from his first marriage, said in an interview.

Herbert Jeffrey was born in Detroit on Sept. 24, in either 1913 or 1914. In addition to his wife, Savannah, and his daughter, Mrs. West, his survivors include two sons, Robert and Michael; two daughters, Ferne Aycock and Patricia Jeffries; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Mr. Giddins, the jazz critic, noted that people tend to think of Mr. Jeffries primarily as a black cowboy star or as a man with a complicated racial story. But what was most remarkable about Mr. Jeffries, he said, was his voice.

“ ‘Flamingo’ was a really important recording,” Mr. Giddins said. “Partly because of that, RCA gave Ellington carte blanche in the 1940s. I don’t think he would have had that kind of complete authority in the studio if ‘Flamingo’ wasn’t making so much money for them.”

Mr. Giddins said Mr. Jeffries never seemed consumed with being successful. He noted that even as he became a star while singing with Ellington, Mr. Jeffries chose to leave to pursue other endeavors.

“He has these gorgeous tones, and he really knows how to phrase a ballad,” Mr. Giddins said. “The mystery is why that didn’t lead to a bigger career.”

This is Russia, get it, faggot

Filed under: homophobia,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:09 pm

Early this month Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision Song Contest, a TV show similar to “American Idol” but covering the European continent. Wurst is the stage name of Thomas Neuwirth, a bearded transvestite who wowed audiences with a number he wrote called “Rise Like a Phoenix”.

If you forget about the gown he wears, he would be indistinguishable from other androgynous stars like Prince or Turkey’s Tarkan. Strictly speaking, he performs as a man rather than in the female impersonator style of “La Cage aux Folles”.

Wurst is not very popular in Russia or Belarus, a neighbor of Russia that is even more committed to traditional values. In Belarus, a petition campaign directed to the very Orwellian sounding Ministry of Information complained:

The popular international competition will see our children filled with European liberals become a hotbed of sodomy! Belarus, one of the few countries in Europe that was able to maintain normal and healthy family values based on love and mutual support between men and women!

The Russian petition had just about the same wording. For Russians, the clear choice was the Tolmachevy sisters, twins who were the very picture of wholesomeness. They sang a treacly ballad titled “Shine” (I suppose the same thing can be said about Wurst’s song.)

Vladimir Yakunin, who runs Russian Railways and is close to Putin, stated: “This vulgar ethno-fascism from the distant past has once again become part of our lives. The ancient definition of democracy had nothing to do with bearded women but with the leadership of the people.” When asked why a handful of votes for Wurst were cast from Russia, Yakunin replied: “In Russia we also have people with different psychology or abnormal psychology so those [are the people] who voted for this person, the bearded lady.” (Financial Times, May 15)

Meanwhile, his boss told a dinner audience in St. Petersburg that he had nothing against gays just as long as they aren’t too pushy about it: “For us it is important to reaffirm traditional values…. I personally am very liberal (on matters of personal morality). People have the right to live their lives the way they want. But they should not be aggressive, or put it up for show.” That being said, he reminded them that: “The Bible talks about the two genders, man and woman, and the main purpose of union between them is to produce children.” (Telegraph, May 26)

Meanwhile, down in Iran, another country that doesn’t put up with sexual deviancy, the government was cracking down on some youngsters who made a Youtube clip of themselves dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy”. I confess to being ignorant up to that point of Pharrell or his song but subsequently learned that he is quite popular with young people and that he had invited his fans all around the world to create such videos.

The lyrics to Pharrell’s song are as vapid as Wurst’s or the Tolmachevy sisters. You’d think that the Iranians had danced to Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”:

Pissing the night away
Pissing the night away
He drinks a whiskey drink
He drinks a vodka drink
He drinks a lager drink
He drinks a cider drink
He sings the songs that remind him
Of the good times
He sings the songs that remind him
Of the better times

Tehran’s top cop said: “After a vulgar clip which hurt public chastity was released in cyberspace, police decided to identify those involved in making that clip. Following a series of intelligence and police operations and after coordinating with the judiciary, all the suspects were identified and arrested.” Thankfully, the miscreants “confessed to their criminal acts”. (AFP, May 20)

After Iran’s “reformist” president twittered something that was interpreted as the need to cut the “Happy” dancers some slack, they were released. Some analysts view the arrests as an attempt to put the reformists on the defensive by hardliners who preferred Ahmadinejad. For those so disposed, it is probably reassuring that Putin has been able to keep the riffraff at bay, more or less after the fashion of the “kettling” tactic used by cops in the West.

For some on the left, the Russian and Iranian rulers are among the world’s best hope. As a counter-hegemonic bloc, the BRICS and their lesser allies in Syria and Iran, are just what is needed as an alternative to the IMF, NATO, Wall Street, and the EU. Probably nobody articulates this better than Asia Times’s Pepe Escobar whose May 19th article “The Geopolitical Earthquakes Reshaping Eurasia’s Economy” was ecstatic over a “new global architecture”:

Right after the potentially game-changing Sino-Russian summit comes a BRICS summit in Brazil in July. That’s when a $100 billion BRICS development bank, announced in 2012, will officially be born as a potential alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank as a source of project financing for the developing world.

More BRICS cooperation meant to bypass the dollar is reflected in the “Gas-o-yuan,” as in natural gas bought and paid for in Chinese currency. Gazprom is even considering marketing bonds in yuan as part of the financial planning for its expansion. Yuan-backed bonds are already trading in Hong Kong, Singapore, London and most recently Frankfurt.

So if you are the kind of leftist who gets a frisson of excitement over a $100 billion BRIC development bank, it makes sense that you would be hostile to anything that undermined Brazilian, Russian, Indian, Chinese and South African ambitions. So what if Brazil’s World Cup hosting cost billions that could be better used to build hospitals and schools? Or that India is now being run by a man regarded by many as a fascist or that the ANC gunned down miners at Marikana? After all, you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs.

I got my first glimmer of a tendency of the left to adopt an authoritarian attitude when it came to the clash between a BRICS figurehead and the riffraff shortly after Pussy Riot was jailed for sacrilege in a Russian Orthodox Church. Mike Whitney cheered Putin on in an August 8, 2012 article:

The truth is Putin kicked ass. But what does that prove? It proves that the Russian people are either very gullible or that the western media is just spreading more lies. So which is it?

The elections also prove that most Russians don’t share Pussy Riot’s views on Putin. Most people don’t want to “send Putin packing” as the girls said in their so-called “protest prayer”. And that’s understandable, too, because Putin has raised the standard of living for most Russians. He’s reduced poverty, increased literacy, and cut the number of people living in extreme poverty in half.

Let me try to explain the mindset of people like Mike Whitney. It is actually quite interesting in psychological terms. I assume that he, like many people on the left who have become part of the BRICS brigade, were long-haired, dope-smoking freaks who hated Nixon’s “silent majority”. But years of frustration on the far margins of the American left were difficult for many to endure. Such a lonely and thankless task it was to promote a socialism that so few workers were likely to embrace.

Salvation came in the form of the BRICS. If you never would have dreamed of going to a Richard Nixon rally, now you could rally around a Russian president who is about as close to Nixon as you are going to get. What makes Putin attractive, however, is his quarreling with the USA. If you are tired of knocking your head against the wall trying to win working people to socialism, the next best thing—at least for people like Whitney—is backing the “other side” in a geopolitical chess game. What does it matter if they are capitalist oligarchs? As long as they are “anti-American”, that’s good enough for him—goddamnit.

The fervor for Russia is really quite remarkable. On some twitter accounts that belonged to pro-Putin anti-imperialists, there were queries about how to get St. George Ribbon’s, the WWII commemorations worn by separatist militias in east Ukraine. For alienated cyber-leftists who never made a leaflet in their life, let alone passed one out, this was made to order. Wear a St. George’s Ribbon to a college class and you will be making a real statement, just like Pat Buchanan, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama wearing one on their lapel.

I suppose I am inoculated against such a psychological transference because my personality was shaped by the tail end of the beat generation. When I became a Trotskyist in 1967, I never was able to shake the feeling of being an existential outsider that had been with me since high school. I always felt a certain distance from the ranks of the party, young people shaped more by student government than Jack Kerouac.

So that predisposed me to identify with the Pussy Riot type people in Russia rather than the Richard Nixon wannabes like Vladimir Putin. I like angry, alienated people who are driven to sacrilegious behavior. I especially like Kirill Medvedev, the Russian socialist poet who has translated Charles Bukowski—an unbeatable combination in my eyes.

After the Russian Duma passed a law on June 11, 2013 against “the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”, Medvedev joined a protest as he recounts in N+1:

I came to the Duma today to protest the homophobic legislation. On the Mokhovka side of the building I found an impenetrable wall of OMON troops and a girl with a sign that said, I think, “Lesbians are people too.” I came around the other side, along Giorgievskiy Pereulok. OMON, a bunch of journalists, a mass of young “religious activists,” and a small group of protesters, without signs. There’s a guy standing at the entrance to the Duma with a sign denouncing pedophiles. I saw a friend, Gleb Napreenko, and came over to him; he said they’d arrested four people so far. A few guys were standing next to us; one of them had a backpack, and his buddy took an egg out of the backpack [to throw it at the protesters]; there was a whole bag full of eggs in the backpack.

I thought about it for a couple of seconds, then stuck my hand into the backpack, pulled out the eggs, and stomped on them. The guys were confused, at first they didn’t say anything. Then one of them came over with an egg in his hand. We started wrestling, sort of like bulls. I was shaking. I decided that he could easily smear his egg all over my face, so I ripped the egg out of his hand and threw it on the ground. He became very angry, but he kept himself under control. I thought, maybe they’re under orders, you can throw eggs but no actual fighting. We came closer to the bus with the protesters in it. A group of young Christians followed us, and were joined by a few other people.

The guy who’d had the egg comes up to me again. “You gay?” he asks me. I say, no, I’m not gay. Cut it out, he says. You’re gay, right? No, I say, I’m not. Then why are you here? I say I came here to support these people, I don’t want eggs being thrown at them. He says to me, You got egg all over my hand, I want to wipe it off on you. I say, No, don’t wipe it off on me. Gleb says, Let me give you a napkin. The guy says, OK, give me a napkin, but I’m still going to wipe my hand on him. Gleb starts looking in his bag for a napkin, the guy and I start pushing and pulling one another, in the end my shirt is of course covered in egg. Another, bigger guy comes up and says, What, you want gay marriage? I say, Yes, I do, but I’m not really going to discuss this with you right now, in this situation. He says, This is Russia, get it, faggot?

This is Russia, get it, faggot? Yes, we get it.

May 25, 2014

Fishing on the Pole Star

Filed under: animal rights,literature,Paul Pines — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

My Facebook friends know that lately I have been posting poems on my timeline. It has been many decades, five at least, that I have read poems—let alone try to write one. After getting radicalized in 1967, my life took a rather prosaic turn.

Most of the poets I like to read are long dead, including Herman Melville who was damned fine even if he is best known for his prose. As might be expected, his poems share the subject matter of his best-known prose:

The Maldives Shark

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Just by coincidence it seems, I got a copy of Paul Pines’s latest book of poems titled “Fishing on the Pole Star” that also has a great poem about sharks:

Screen shot 2014-05-25 at 4.08.58 PM

Like Herman Melville, Paul Pines was not a product of the Iowa Writers Workshop but a life of wanderlust including time spent as a deckhand on merchant ships. In the introduction to “Fishing on the Pole Star”, he explains the book’s origin:

As a boy in Brooklyn I fished for crappies in Prospect Park with my brother Claude, and later bottom-fished on party boats out of Sheepshead Bay and Boston Whalers on Long Island Sound. When I owned a bar and restaurant, several of my staff, including our chef, Nathan Metz, fished out of Montauk for blues and stripers which we brought back to feed our patrons. While living in Belize my buddy Ted Berlin, a peerless hand-line fisherman and free-diver, showed me how to scour coral heads for crab, lobster, conch and snapper. But nothing can convey the mystery and challenge of those weeks at sea tracking the great marlin south through the out-islands of the Bahamas—and to those who opened that world to me, starting with my father, I will be forever grateful.

I never did any salt-water fishing but growing up in upstate NY, there were many days spent fresh-water fishing including on the Neversink River, one of the state’s legendary trout streams a couple of miles from my home.

But the fondest memories were of fishing for pickerel, perch and crappies (we called them sunfish) in Silver Lake in Woodridge, my hometown. My father was about as distant from me as could be imagined. Since I was born in January 1945 when he was off fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he never bonded with me. I suppose even if he had been around, he still would have been a distant figure—that’s the way that Jewish men who lived through the Depression were so often. But when we were on the dock watching the red-and-white float bobbing on the surface, it was like a scene from The Andy Griffith Show, with me playing Opie.

Despite my overall prosaic mindset, there’s something that still touches my mystical inner eye when it comes to water. I don’t think I could ever live very far from the water. When I did so in Kansas City, I was miserable most of the time. Of course that was just as likely a function of belong to a cult that was forcing me to get an entry-level factory job at the age of 33.

When I croak, I will have my wife cremate me and dump the ashes into the Hudson River, for me an especially holy body of water—my Ganges in effect.

It is so easy to take water for granted. But did you ever stop to think about where it came from? When the planet earth was born, there was no water (and no god to create it either.) Although it is only a theory, there’s a good chance that it came from a water-laden comet or meteor crashing into our planet was responsible.

The other thing that intrigues me is our connection to the fish itself. While we are obviously far removed from them on the evolutionary ladder, they are our great-grandfathers and grandmothers. Despite our terror of the shark, they are in some ways our closest relatives since they are at the top of the aquatic food chain just as we are at the top of the entire food chain. Unlike us, the shark poses no danger to the survival of the planet, however. In a very real sense, the shark in “Jaws” was a lot less scary than BP or Exxon-Mobil.

I recommend the website of Thomas Peschak, a National Geographic photographer, conservationist, and author of “Sharks and People”.  Peschak has a few videos there, including one of the Manta Rays on a feeding frenzy in the Maldives, the same place that Melville’s poem was set in.

I have no idea how the world will end, whether with a bang or a whimper but I’d hold out hope that the sharks and other swimming creatures will survive our wickedness and give evolution a chance to start all over. Those beasts at least know how to participate in the great circle of being, unlike our own sharks on Wall Street who will certainly destroy us given the chance.

Paul’s very fine new book can be ordered from the publisher’s website. Not only are the words great, the accompanying seascape collages by Wayne Atherton are priceless. Paul dedicated the book to his late brother Claude who was a good friend of mine during the halcyon days before the Vietnam War. The book is a fitting tribute to Claude as well as a major contribution to the poetry canon by a true original. Waste no time. Buy the book and get spiritually elevated.

May 24, 2014

Right-left convergence? Phooey

Filed under: antiwar,conservatism,tea party — louisproyect @ 6:54 pm

Wants to hook up with the right

Maybe because unlike most leftists I actually went through the experience of being a conservative, the prospect of a right-left convergence leaves me cold. This project has been around for a long time, exemplified by Justin Raimondo’s antiwar.com. Since I remember all too well what an asshole I was back in 1960 as a 15-year-old member of the Young Americans for Freedom, my tendency is to avoid anybody with even a glancing similarity to what I once was, starting with the creepy Raimondo. There, but for the grace of god and immense peer pressure from Bard College classmates, go I.

A couple of days ago I found out that David Bromwich, a big-time literature professor at Yale, has decided that he has lots in common with the right—at least what used to be called the isolationist wing of it. You got a glimpse of what that was about when Rush Limbaugh, who always puts a minus where Obama puts a plus, told his listeners that the USA had no interest in supporting the Islamic radicals in Syria. Guess what website he cited in support of this? Global Research. What strange bedfellows…

People are probably aware that Bromwich has been one of the more vocal defenders of the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship in snooty venues such as the NY Review of Books and the London Review of Books. Here’s an excerpt from an interview that might put that into context:

Q: Who, specifically, are the “right-wing libertarians” you just mentioned and whose intellectual and political company you’re finding increasingly congenial?

A: Some of the political commentators you find in The American Conservative—for example, Daniel Larison. Some of the sharpest critiques of American imperialism under Bush-Cheney and now under Obama have come from Patrick Buchanan. In some ways he’s a very bad man, but he’s a consistent anti-imperialist. When I say this to liberal friends, they say, “How dare you read this man!”

The aforementioned American Conservative is a big favorite with those favoring a left-right convergence including Ralph Nader who reached out to its editor for a conference in Washington 3 days from now. Both Bromwich and Nader are infatuated with a libertarian right that at least on some issues is to the “left” of Obama even as its economics are pure Ayn Rand and its racial views White Citizens Council.

Unstoppable Right/Left Convergence Event on May 27th

Join us Tuesday (May 27, 2014) for an unprecedented one day gathering that will convene leading experts from the Left and Right (such as Jim Hightower, Judson Phillips, Medea Benjamin, Bruce Fein, Ron Unz and more) to find common ground on many of the key issues of our time.

In his new book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, Ralph Nader explores the emerging political alignment of the Left and the Right against converging corporate-government autocracy and crony capitalism.

The purpose of the gathering is to convene unlikely allies to tackle the bold ideas of convergence presented in Unstoppable and turn them operational.

Call me dogmatic or something but I would not have anything to do with the likes of the Cato Institute or the Tea Party, whose representatives will be speaking there. Again, unlike most people on the left, I pay close attention to what these people are saying on AM Talk Radio and it is truly toxic. A close look at some of the speakers from the right at Nader’s conference should persuade you why it is dead wrong in its approach.

I am sure that Nader invited Daniel McCarthy, the editor of the American Conservative magazine, to speak on a panel about the defense budget because he is for shrinking it and for staying out overseas wars. The magazine extols Edward Snowden and opposes torture, so what’s not to like? At first blush, their praise of Walter Jones, a Republican Congressman from North Carolina might make sense since Jones is “antiwar” in the approved manner.

But somehow there’s some disgruntled Black people in his state that are unhappy with his appearance on a white nationalist radio show as Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy pointed out:

A North Carolina Republican congressman appeared on a notorious white nationalist radio program on Saturday to talk up legislation he coauthored accusing President Barack Obama of committing impeachable offenses. Rep. Walter Jones, a fiercely anti-war congressman who often breaks with his party on key votes, appeared on the Political Cesspool, a Memphis-based program hosted by ardent white nationalists James Edwards and Eddie Miller.

An avowed white nationalist who says David Duke is “above reproach,” Edwards has referred to African Americans as “heathen savages” and “subhuman” and suggested that slavery was “the greatest thing that ever happened” to blacks. The show’s mission statement is blunt: “We represent a philosophy that is pro-White and are against political centralization,” it declares. It then outlines a series of issues the show exists to promote. “We wish to revive the White birthrate above replacement level fertility and beyond to grow the percentage of Whites in the world relative to other races,” reads one plank. Another bullet point endorses the Confederacy: “Secession is a right of all people and individuals. It was successful in 1776 and this show honors those who tried to make it successful in 1865.”

Maybe the fact that there is not a single panel on race issues or a single Black speaker at Nader’s confab is related to the fact that Daniel McCarthy’s nod to a slug like Walter Jones gets overlooked.

Moving down the line, we see that Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips was invited to speak at a panel on trade that is moderated by Nader. I wonder if Nader will be motivated to ask Phillips some questions not exactly about trade during the Q&A. Or if anybody would, for that matter?

Phillips is on record as favoring the vote for property owners exclusively, a key weapon of the Jim Crow south. He also urged a vote against Keith Ellison because he is a Muslim. Finally his website publishes articles like “Cliven Bundy Racist? So What?” that asserts “there is no institutionalized racism in the United States.” Oh, right. But I guess this is outweighed by his opposition to NAFTA. This, of course, is old news with Nader. Ten years ago he courted the Right over their shared protectionist views.

Bruce Fein is probably the most prestigious rightwinger invited to speak there. On the final panel, he shares his views on Empire that are about the same as you can find on antiwar.com or American Conservative. Fein was Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Attorney General and now works with the Future for Freedom Foundation, among other libertarian-oriented causes.

It takes a little bit of digging to find out more about Fein’s opinions on different matters that require some consideration by the left beyond his “antiwar” views. Going through the NY Times archives, I discovered:

Right wingers? You can keep ‘em as far as I am concerned.

May 23, 2014

Godzilla; Captain America

Filed under: Film,popular culture — louisproyect @ 9:45 pm

Godzilla, Captain America, Fukushima and Drones

Filming the Fear Index


Taking a break from my customary fare of small-budget radical films that get short shrift in the mainstream media, I decided to check out “Godzilla” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, two films playing at Multiplexes everywhere. While my primary motivation was to soak up some mindless entertainment, there was the added incentive of the films as apparently having something in common with my regular agitprop diet.

Director Gareth Edwards told the Telegraph that his remake of Godzilla was supposed to reflect the questions that the incident at Fukushima raised. This would not be the first attempt by Edwards to use a monster movie as a vehicle for politics. Filmed near the Mexican-US border, his 2010 “Monsters” was widely interpreted as a comment on the immigration debate.

As for Captain America, he is trying to preempt a cabal taking over the planet through the use of drones. Sound familiar? Well, this is what co-director Joe Russo told the NY Times: “We were trying to find a bridge to the same sort of questions that Barack Obama has to address. If you’re saying with a drone strike, we can eradicate an enemy of the state, what if you say with 100 drone strikes, we can eradicate 100? With 1,000, we can eradicate 1,000? At what point do you stop?”

read full article



May 22, 2014

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors; A World Not Ours

Filed under: Film,Palestine — louisproyect @ 11:01 pm

At this point any young independent filmmaker looking for funding would probably be advised to work with a screenplay that reflected what was fashionable in film festivals. Mumblecore with its deadpan fixation on the petty affairs of bored white middle-class youths is the most marketable genre, with “dark” narratives about sexual obsessions a close runner-up.

Given the market realities, it was extraordinary to see a film like “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” today that opens tomorrow, May 23rd, at the IFC in New York. As is the case with a number of indie films being made today, seed money came from Kickstarter ($35,000) rather than Harvey Weinstein’s piggy bank. What is even more extraordinary was its defiant embrace of humanist values, a throwback to the golden age of film in the late 50s and early 60s when Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray saw fit to make films about society’s underdogs.

“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is about the two days spent in New York’s subways by a mildly autistic 13-year-old named Ricky from the poorer section of Rockaways whose Mexican immigrant mother cleans apartments for a living. The fact that the director and co-writers of the marvelous screenplay attended film school, including the dreaded NYU, indicates that there is hope for independent film.

The film begins just a few days before Hurricane Sandy hit New York, with the most devastating damage to the Rockaways. (I made a 10 minute documentary a few days after the storm ended that you can watch here: https://vimeo.com/53102549.) When Ricky’s older sister fails to escort him home from school, he decides to take off on the subway—destination unknown. Problems at school and at home probably was a factor in his running off but as with the case of most autistic children, motivation is difficult to ascertain.

For those who live in New York or follow news stories there, the plot will obviously resonate with recent events. Last year Avonte Oquendo, an austistic 14-year-old wandered off from a special education school in Queens. His remains turned up in the East River a couple of months later. More recently, another autistic Latino 14-year-old wandered off as well, this time fortunately discovered after three days. But as it turns out director Sam Fleischner got the idea for the film in 2010 when previous such incidents had occurred. One can only conclude that cutbacks in health services have made such “accidents” possible.

The film cuts back and forth from Ricky’s mother trying desperately to find her son with the assistance of a Jamaican shoe-store owner who had grown used to the boy spending time in her store gazing at the sneakers. As is the case with many autistic children apparently, they become fixated on certain objects.

But most of the film consists of slices of life from New York’s subways: break dancers on a subway car with a captive audience (a scene I know only too well), people exchanging small talk on their way to and from work, mothers tending to their young, panhandlers, street preachers—in other words, a world onto itself. Director Sam Fleischner takes this material, which are commonplace to New Yorkers—at least those who take the subways—and transforms them into something quite magical, both threatening and transcendental at the same time. Although I am quite sure the young filmmakers did not have this in mind, I could not help but be reminded of “Black Orpheus”, the 1959 Brazilian film that has its musician lead character wandering through Rio De Janeiro’s slums in the dead of night in search of his beloved Eurydice.

The screenplay was co-written by Rose Lichter-Marck, who earned an MFA from Columbia University 4 years ago, and Micah Bloomberg who graduated from NYU in 2004 with a BFA.

Although the film has the look of something that had been gestating in the creative team’s minds for years, it actually verged on the improvisational, starting with the use of Sam Fleischner’s home in the Rockaways for some scenes. Considering the Hurricane Sandy element, one might conclude that the screenplay included it to ratchet up the dramatic tension. But in fact the intention was originally only to tell a story about a lost autistic child. Just by coincidence the storm hit during filming and Fleischner decided to incorporate scenes of the devastated peninsula at the conclusion.

At the risk of sounding like an establishment film critic, let me say that “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is a stunning achievement. It is artistically accomplished as well as a testament to the social consciousness of young independent filmmakers today who care more about dramatizing the human condition rather than fame and fortune. Let’s hope that the filmmakers do eventually enjoy fame and fortune because they certainly deserve it and this will ensure that they have the clout to open up Harvey Weinstein’s piggy bank rather than relying on Kickstarter next time.

The title of Mahdi Fleifel’s “A World Not Ours”, a powerful documentary opening at the Cinema Village on May 23rd as well, derives from a book with the same title written by PFLP leader Ghassan Kanafani who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1972. We see the book toward the end of the film when its chief subject, a bitter and disillusioned Fateh militant with the nom de guerre Abu Iyad, is deciding which books to keep and which to discard. Kanafani’s makes the cut but much else ends up in a bonfire.

If there is anything good that has come out of the dispossession of the Palestinian people, it is the body of film work—both documentary and narrative—that represent engaged art at its highest level, this film ranking at the apex.

The film opens on an understated note, with director Mahdi Fleifel introducing us to his family through decades old home movies. It turns out that his father was a compulsive Super-8 guy who filmed birthdays, holidays and all the other events such cameras were meant to record. Since the Fleifels were denizens of Ain al-Hilweh, a sprawling refugee camp in Southern Lebanon, some of the footage was also about the living struggle that almost every Palestinian supported passively or actively.

Fleifel refers to David Ben-Gurion’s observation that after the old Palestinians die off, the young ones will forget. “A World Not Ours” is about as good a refutation of that as can be imagined. No matter how demoralized the denizens of Ain al-Hilweh have become, they will never relinquish the dream of regaining their homeland.

As grim as all this sounds, the film is actually a celebration of Palestinian daily life with weddings, celebration of World Cup victories (the camp dwellers adopt foreign teams in the competition, about as close as they come to identifying with a state power), raising pigeons, and hanging out on the street shooting the breeze.

Abu Iyad might seem like an exception to the rule of Palestinian national aspirations since he repeatedly refers to being conned by the likes of Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas. At one point, he states that he wishes the Israelis would come and kill us all since there is no point in going on living. But in a way his nihilistic rage is a sign that the ember of the nationalist dream remains burning since someone who has given up hope entirely would probably not be given to fits of rage.

Mahdi Fleifel left Ain al-Hilweh at a young age and went with his family to Dubai where his father tried to make a living. When that hope failed, the family returned to Ain al-Hilweh for a few years more until they relocated to Denmark. Fleifel made regular trips back to Ain al-Hilweh to reconnect with Abu Iyad, his crusty grandfather who dreams of returning to Palestine, and his uncle Said who has been driven a bit mad by living as a refugee. Said’s brother Jamil was a celebrated fighter whose participation in the resistance to Israel was so celebrated that they made a comic book about him. At the age of 23, he was shot in the throat by an Israeli sniper and finally died after convalescing in a hospital for 16 months.

I urge you to read the interview with Mahdi Fleifel and his co-producer Patrick Campbell on the World Socialist Website (the only thing reliable there are the film articles). Here is an excerpt that should whet your appetite to see this stirring film. David Walsh, who sadly appears to have retired from reviewing films there, conducted the interview. I don’t admire his politics but his film mastery is obvious in everything he writes:

DW: The third personality, and in some ways the most complex, is Abu Iyad, the former Palestinian militant. His situation speaks most directly to some of the present-day difficulties.

MF: He’s very smart, he has a sixth sense. From a very young age, he became involved in intelligence work, they would send him out to sniff out this or tell them about that.

DW: His disillusionment is not simply a personal discouragement, something is at a dead end there. There is a Palestinian elite that wants to get rich. They are envious of the Saudis and others, they want to have their own country so they can exploit the population and make lots of money.

MF: Exactly. When the PLO left Lebanon in ’82, then went to Tunisia, and eventually found themselves settling back in Ramallah, everyone forgot the people in Lebanon. The expatriates, the ones who accumulated a lot of money in exile, doing whatever they did, whether it was in Tunisia or Eastern Europe, or wherever, found their way back and now they’re opening hotels and bars, and sending their kids off to study in the US.

PC: The diaspora became a bargaining chip. With the Oslo agreement in 1993, it became “I’ll give you this for that.” The “right of return”—we were just speaking about the suspended reality of the older generation—is a bargaining chip between the Palestinian elite and the Israelis, or the US, or whoever. That’s part of the reason for Abu Iyad’s disillusionment. He’s essentially been betrayed.

MF: His whole history, his sacrifices have made him feel, “Hang on, I’m genuinely interested in going all the way, and everywhere I look, I see leaders and people chickening out. My god, I’ve given everything for this. I dropped out of school, because I really believe in this, and yet no one is actually doing it. Where do I go from here?” That’s essentially how I see it.…

May 20, 2014

National liberation and Bolshevism reexamined: A view from the borderlands

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 5:09 pm

This article jibes with mine on the Riddell-Kellogg exchange.

John Riddell

By Eric Blanc . ( Eric Blanc is an activist and historian based in Oakland, California. ) A view from the Czarist empire’s borderlands obliges us to rethink many long-held assumptions about the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, as well as the development of Marxist approaches to national liberation, peasant struggle, permanent revolution, and the emancipation of women.

The following paper analyzes the socialist debates on the national question up through 1914. I argue that an effective strategy of anti-colonial Marxism was first put forward by the borderland socialists, not the Bolsheviks. Lenin and his comrades lagged behind the non-Russian Marxists on this crucial issue well into the Civil War—and this political weakness helps explain the Bolshevik failure to build roots among dominated peoples.

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Why NYU does the things it does

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 4:55 pm

Screen shot 2014-05-20 at 12.50.26 PMYesterday’s NY Times carried a blockbuster report on the mistreatment of the predominantly East Asian construction laborers hired as virtual indentured servants to build the New York University satellite campus in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Although I have grown inured to leftist complaints over the years about the Times, it is reporting like this that makes me uneasy about calling the paper our Pravda, even if the removal of editor Jill Abramson smacks of Kremlin intrigues. These are the lead paragraphs but I urge you to read the entire article that will make your blood boil.

The strike had entered its second day when construction workers at Labor Camp 42 got word that their bosses from the BK Gulf corporation had come to negotiate. Mohammed Amir Waheed Sirkar, an electrician from Bangladesh, scrambled down the stairs to meet them. But when he got to the courtyard, he saw the truth: It wasn’t the bosses who had come. It was the police.

They pounded on doors, breaking some down, and hauled dozens of men to prison. Mr. Sirkar was taken to a Dubai police station, where officers interrogated him. After a while, new officers arrived. That’s when things got rough.

“They beat me up,” he said through an Urdu interpreter, “asking me to confess I was involved in starting the strike.” Others were slapped, kicked, or beaten with shoes, a special indignity in Arab culture.

You can understand (but not forgive) how American garment corporations screw workers in Bangladesh–the same country that supplied many of the NYU indentured servants. Except for an outfit like Benetton, most of those companies have no pretenses about social justice or progressive values. The Abu Dhabi campus is part of NYU’s Global Network, an initiative meant to express a “good” globalization. On the university’s website, the Global Initiative is hyped with allusions to Karl Jaspers and Teilhard de Chardin:

As we begin a new millennium, a Second Axial Period has begun. Though first described by theologians like the Jesuits’ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I believe it also has a secular, progressive dimension (quite separable, for those who prefer, from religiosity) which is useful in understanding what we see unfolding in our time.

Right, a secular, progressive institution that is built on the super-exploitation of the most desperately poor workers in the world. NYU has the brass to describe Abu Dhabi in these terms:

NYU’s early experience at its portal campus in Abu Dhabi provides support for the claim that the global network structure will be attractive to talented cosmopolitans. Abu Dhabi is a crossroad city, containing in microcosm (but in different proportions from New York) a blend of all the world; it is blessed with a visionary government, economic dynamism, and an increasingly tolerant and welcoming society; and, it is both a repository of a great culture and a symbol of that culture’s adaptation to modernity.

Three years ago the Nation Magazine reported on the crackdown on quite moderate critics of the government who only plead for it to clean up its act. This is what happened to them:

On April 8, at 3 am, several police asked Ahmed Mansoor, one of the signatories, a blogger and a member of the Human Rights Watch advisory committee, to come down to “answer some questions about his car.” (Incidentally, this was the same approach that security officials used to take Naji Hamdan, a United States citizen who allegedly was tortured in custody.) Fearing a trap, he refused to come down, but was taken away by a second group of security officers that same afternoon.

Two days later Nasser bin Ghaith, a prominent Emirati economist and lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris-Sorbonne, was also carted away. His ostensible crime was urging the UAE, on television shows and in panel discussions, to become more transparent, as a means to further economic development. In subsequent days, three other online activists, Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali al-Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq, were arrested.

NYU was untroubled by the arrests: “The school itself does not take public stands on issues and policies that fall outside of its core mission of operating a world-class university.”

Forget all the bullshit about a Second Axial Period and a benign globalization. NYU is expanding because there is money in it. Back in 2007 a UAE investor named Omar Saif Ghobash promised NYU $50 million if it opened a campus in Abu Dhabi. NYU’s President John Sexton welcomed the opportunity to set up a satellite campus there since the school was discovering that a tsunami of applications from foreign students was symptomatic of emerging markets as the NY Times reported on February 10, 2008:

In a kind of educational gold rush, American universities are competing to set up outposts in countries with limited higher education opportunities. American universities — not to mention Australian and British ones, which also offer instruction in English, the lingua franca of academia — are starting, or expanding, hundreds of programs and partnerships in booming markets like China, India and Singapore.

The demand from overseas is huge. At the University of Washington, the administrator in charge of overseas programs said she received about a proposal a week. “It’s almost like spam,” said the official, Susan Jeffords, whose position as vice provost for global affairs was created just two years ago.

If NYU’s expansion into places like Abu Dhabi is a kind of external colonization, who could be surprised by its ambitions to colonize internally at the expense of its Greenwich Village neighbors. Sexton has been rebuffed—at least for the time being—over his bid to turn beautiful sections of a historic neighborhood into NYU territory.

In January of this year a judge ruled that half of the planned expansion would have to be scrapped, a decision that led opponents of the university to call for its total ban. The City Council had voted 44 to 1 in 2012 in favor of the expansion. Unsurprisingly, the one nay vote came from Charles Barron, a former member of the Black Panther Party, while our current mayor voted in favor along with a bunch of other liberals who feed at the real estate industry’s trough. (A comrade just dropped me a line: And, unsurprisingly, the key vote in favor (from the Councilmember “representing” the affected area) came from Margaret Chin, a former member of the Communist Workers Party.

While by no means as exploited as the construction workers in Abu Dhabi, NYU’s graduate student part-time instructors felt that they had no other recourse than starting a trade union to protect their interests. In what has become routine at this point, the university filed a brief that opposed the organizing drive in words that smack of utter hypocrisy: “Petitioners [ie, the grad students] urge a cynical view, that the university is just another big business, that graduate students are no more than wage earners, and that using graduate student teachers and researchers is merely a cost-saving measure.” Well, how dare they claim that the university is just another big business? What are they? A bunch of commies?

To help you decide whether NYU was a big business or not, consider who it picked to lead the anti-union drive, its Executive Vice President Jacob Lew who got a $685,000 exit bonus to become Obama’s Treasury Secretary. By comparison, a teaching assistant at NYU could expect $1,327 per month.

A cursory glance at the officers serving on the NYU board of trustees will help you understand why it does the things it does.

William R. Berkley:

The founder and CEO of WR Berkley Corporation, an insurance company with over $5 billion in revenue. In 2006 this mutt got permission from the Greenwich, Connecticut town board to put an antique carousel in his 58 acre backward. Let me repeat that with emphasis: a 58-acre back yard. Do you know what that amounts to? That’s the same as fucking 15 blocks in New York City. Why would someone like William R. Berkley care about some Bangladeshi construction worker? Berkley paid $15,000 to the wife of former governor John Rowland in Connecticut for a speech she gave to his company bigwigs in 2003. Do you think making such a huge fee had anything to do with the business dealings his insurance company had with the state, you cynic you? Who knows? I can only tell you this. Not long after this incident, John Rowland was found guilty of taking bribes and sentenced to fourteen months.

Lawrence D. Fink:

The founder and CEO of Black Rock, a privately owned investment company that is considered the most powerful money management firm in the world. Fink belongs to Kappa Beta Phi, a secretive private club made up of plutocrats. In 2012 a reporter from New York Magazine crashed their yearly gala and witnessed the acts performed by new inductees, who were required to wear leotards and gold-sequined skirts. One of them told “jokes” like this:

Paul Queally, a private-equity executive with Welsh, Carson, Anderson, & Stowe, told off-color jokes to Ted Virtue, another private-equity bigwig with MidOcean Partners. The jokes ranged from unfunny and sexist (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Hillary Clinton and a catfish?” A: “One has whiskers and stinks, and the other is a fish”) to unfunny and homophobic (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Barney Frank and a Fenway Frank?” A: “Barney Frank comes in different-size buns”).

I imagine that nearly all the members of Kappa Beta Phi sit on the board of places like NYU.

Kenneth G. Langone:

The founder of Home Depot, who was put on trial with Richard Grasso, the former head of the NY Stock Exchange for arranging a $139.5 million parachute for Grasso. The judge declared a mistrial while D.A. Elliot Spitzer ended up disgraced for using prostitutes. Not surprisingly, Langone formed a group called “Republicans for Cuomo”. Seeing the NY state’s governor tilt toward the plutocrats, you can say that Langone’s efforts were amply rewarded just as Berkley’s were in Connecticut. Two months ago Politico interviewed Langone. When the question of the one-percent came up, the billionaire responded: ““[I]f you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Larry Silverstein:

A real estate developer best known for owning the World Trade Center. While the 911 Truthers obsess over his alleged conspiracy to bring down the towers with the aid of Mossad, his most likely crime is helping to shape NYU’s expansionary onslaught.

Leonard Wilf:

Like Silverstein, this guy is a real estate developer and like most members of this tribe something of a crook. Last year he and his cousin Zigmund, who owns the Minneapolis Vikings football team, had to pay $84.5 million in damages over chiseling their business partners in a New Jersey apartment complex. The judge ruled that ruled the Wilfs committed fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty by such practices as charging the partnership unauthorized management fees and interest payments. Perfect. Just the sort of person who belongs on a university board of trustees and one who can be relied upon to protect the rights of Bangladeshi workers.

Martin Lipton:

I have save the worst for the last. Lipton is the chairman of the board and a first class scumbag. He is the founder of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a law firm serving the needs of the one percent corporate bigwigs. Last year NYU professors issued an open letter calling for Lipton’s resignation, mostly prompted by the university’s buying vacation homes and NY apartments for the top brass. It stated:

The same day that you notified the faculty of your report, you also re-affirmed the Board’s embrace of Pres. Sexton in a letter to the New York Times, about the recent scandal over NYU’s “vacation homes program.” Casting all those lavish gifts to NYU’s top bureaucrats as a way of “building a community of outstanding scholars,” you used “N.Y.U.’s loan programs” to make yet another statement of trustee support: “We are wholly confident in N.Y.U.’s president, John Sexton, whose own innovative leadership has done so much at the law school and the university to maintain the university’s upward trajectory.

In many ways, Lipton is really the boss of NYU who uses Sexton as a puppet for his long-range strategies. A NY Times article from April 10, 2014 revealed the close relationship between the two men. It was titled perfectly: “The Power Broker of NYU” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/education/edlife/the-power-broker-of-nyu.html). Since the article is behind a paywall and since it really sums up why NYU does the things it does, I will reproduce it here:

Martin Lipton, chairman of the board of New York University, recently took a trustee to lunch at San Pietro, a pricey Manhattan restaurant frequented by the city’s C.E.O.s. Over a meal that lasted several hours, they discussed Mr. Lipton’s plans to step down next year, after 16 years at the helm. “Marty wants his own replacement there a year in advance,” recalled Evan R. Chesler, chairman of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, a leading New York law firm. The reason, he said: “The new chairman would be responsible for the process that selects the president who will replace John Sexton.”

It is Mr. Lipton, though, who will appoint the group of trustees, students and faculty members who will search for the next president of N.Y.U.; he also sits on the committee to select his own replacement as head of the board he created.

More than a decade ago, Mr. Lipton handpicked Dr. Sexton without any systematic search process — and for years the board could congratulate itself on its choice. During Dr. Sexton’s tenure, admission applications have risen 45 percent, and N.Y.U. has attracted top-level professors and administrators.

But under a cloud of faculty unrest, Dr. Sexton announced in August that he would step down at the end of his term, in 2016. In the past two years, faculty anger at Dr. Sexton and the board has marred the university’s increasingly high profile. Much as corporate boards came under public scrutiny in the 1980s, university boards are under pressure from faculty as they grapple with the same questions: Do they look too much like businesses and less like places of learning and to what extent should they globalize? But at N.Y.U., tensions have been particularly visible.

Dr. Sexton has been widely criticized for an aggressive expansion program in Greenwich Village and for erecting campuses in parts of the world with oppressive governments. Faculty members, claiming to be underpaid and excluded from decision making, have struck out at what they view as lavish pay and perks for a few star employees: loans for vacation homes; executive exit bonuses of $1.23 million and near $700,000; a $1.5 million compensation package for the president plus a $2.5 million “length of service” bonus due next year, making Dr. Sexton among the highest paid college presidents in the country.

While Dr. Sexton has taken the heat — five schools passed votes of no confidence last year — the person who has largely escaped attention is Mr. Lipton, who has wielded enormous power at N.Y.U. His tenure provides insight into just how important a chairman can be in shaping a university’s agenda, given that the board’s mandate includes choosing a president, approving salaries for top administrators and overseeing expansion.

At N.Y.U., where Mr. Lipton has headed the highly influential compensation committee since 1998, the board’s approval of generous compensation packages and intense loyalty to management parallel Mr. Lipton’s views in the corporate world.

Even as he retires as chairman, N.Y.U. will continue to bear his imprint. Mr. Lipton, who will remain on the board, is also on the committee that nominates new trustees, and has had a major role in choosing a majority of the 65 members (and two honorary members). That board is 1.7 times as large as the average private research-university board, according to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and many of its members are, like Mr. Lipton, scrappy self-made entrepreneurs.

Along with a clutch of other N.Y.U. law school graduates, Mr. Lipton formed Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in 1965. The upstart firm lacked the pedigree of white-shoe rivals. Nevertheless, in the ensuing decades, it muscled its way into the top ranks by representing corporations in some of the business world’s biggest takeover battles. Mr. Lipton is best known for creating the “poison pill defense,” a strategy to protect existing management by making the company’s stock less attractive to a hostile bidder.

Mr. Lipton sat for an interview in a small conference room in his unpretentious suite of offices at the firm’s West 52nd Street headquarters. A portly 82-year-old with disappearing curly white hair, he talked passionately about his commitment to the university.

Mr. Lipton joined the law school board in 1972, and four years later was named a trustee of the university, working, he said, to help “bring N.Y.U. back from the brink of insolvency and help create a modern global research university.” In 1998, he took over the board from Lawrence A. Tisch, who he recalls telling the trustees: “I am stepping down and proposing Marty as my successor before Marty gets too old to succeed me.”

Over the past dozen years, Mr. Lipton has been deeply immersed in Dr. Sexton’s agenda for growth, making visits to N.Y.U.’s new Shanghai campus and helping establish its Abu Dhabi campus in the United Arab Emirates. He seemed as outraged by the attacks on Dr. Sexton as he might be over efforts to remove a corporate chief. (Dr. Sexton declined to be interviewed for this article.)

“You would think the faculty would recognize the fabulous accomplishments he has made,” Mr. Lipton said. “They thought that by having a vote of no confidence, they would panic the trustees,” he said, just as a vote of no confidence led to Lawrence Summers’s dismissal as president of Harvard.

Mr. Lipton’s indignation does not surprise Jonathan R. Macey, a professor of corporate law at Yale and author of “Corporate Governance: Promises Kept, Promises Broken.” “He has built a reputation for work that is firmly of the view that incumbent management should be protected and that the incumbent board of directors is the only entity whose opinion matters in corporate governance,” Professor Macey said.

“In effect, John Sexton is the C.E.O. of N.Y.U.,” he added. “So if you are facing a revolt of the faculty you can’t be in a better position than John Sexton to ward off no-confidence votes.”

To Mr. Lipton, N.Y.U.’s approach to compensation is entirely logical at a university in one of the world’s most expensive cities. “You have to recognize that N.Y.U. is the largest private university in the country,” he said, “and I don’t think we pay outside the normal rate for similar institutions. You can best say that the policy of the university is to maintain a faculty of excellence and do what is necessary to attract distinguished people to the faculty.”

He added: “It is necessary and good for the institutions, just as it is good for corporate giants.”

Mr. Lipton practices what he preaches. Partners at Wachtell Lipton are routinely the highest paid in the country, according to The American Lawyer magazine. In 2012, they earned an average of $4.95 million.

His board, too, includes hugely wealthy individuals, some of whose own pay has attracted headlines. Barry Diller, a U.C.L.A. dropout and Wachtell Lipton client, was in one year the highest paid executive in the country, with compensation of $295 million. Several board members say they have virtually never seen him at meetings. “But he is a contributor and is always available to me for advice,” Mr. Lipton said.

Other boldface names include Lisa Silverstein, daughter of the real estate developer Larry A. Silverstein, a longtime Wachtell Lipton client. The hedge fund moguls John Paulson and Michael H. Steinhardt are also trustees, as are Daniel R. Tisch, William C. Rudin and Constance J. Milstein, all members of powerful New York clans. Kenneth G. Langone, a co-founder of Home Depot, is on the board. Mr. Langone donated $200 million to the medical center, which was renamed in his honor. (He was recently in hot water himself for sending mass emails to medical school staff, soliciting donations to politicians who had helped the center after Hurricane Sandy.)

The roster includes at least one eyebrow-raising trustee, Leonard A. Wilf. In September, Mr. Wilf and two cousins were ordered to pay $84.5 million to former business partners after a New Jersey judge ruled they had committed fraud, breach of contract and violated civil racketeering laws in a 1980s real estate case. An appeal has been filed. Mr. Lipton declined to comment but William Josephson, a lawyer who specializes in nonprofit institutions, said this: “I cannot recall an iconic American university having a board member with such a history.”

One might argue that a board so loaded with money moguls has lost touch.

In September, a group of faculty activists sent out a “dear colleague” letter complaining that compensation to a select few was excessive relative to what most academic staff earned. Compensation to 25 top administrators rose 20.4 percent from 2010 to 2012. They noted that the average salary increase to faculty was just 2.5 percent at the university and 3 percent at the medical school. The administration’s counterattack: many of the high earners are with the medical school, which operates separately from the university and with a different salary structure.

Board members say compensation issues are carefully examined. “The idea of housing has been our greatest difficulty, and there have been substantial discussions about it,” said William R. Berkley, chairman of an insurance holding company and member of the compensation committees at both N.Y.U. and the medical school. “It is complicated because young, terrific people coming to N.Y.U. have families who have to live in New York, and it is not an ordinary environment.”

In some cases, the university has bought homes for stars, including a $6.5 million apartment for the head of its medical center. N.Y.U.’s newest celebrity hire, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whom it lured away from Princeton, is getting university-owned housing — paying rent, according to the N.Y.U. spokesman John Beckman, that is “proportional” to what other faculty members pay in university-owned residences.

To end the “disruption,” as Mr. Lipton refers to the tension gripping N.Y.U. last summer, he announced that the board would no longer make loans for vacation homes. The university has never divulged how many got those loans, though Mr. Berkley said it was fewer than 10 people. Mr. Lipton said he would continue to pay top talent what he views as necessary and to find ways to sweeten the pot.

If there is controversy over how N.Y.U. spends its money, there can be no criticism of how effective the board has been at bringing it in. Since Mr. Lipton took over, it has raised $5.97 billion.

Given the wealth on the board and the amount it has raised, some observers call it a “money board.” Mr. Lipton laughed and said: “Bring us more money.”

While Mr. Lipton has successfully solicited gifts from board members — Shelby White has given $200 million, Helen L. Kimmel $150 million — there is a difference of opinion as to whether he has solicited their viewpoints as well. Mr. Berkley said, “Marty was always open to a dialogue about issues.” Mr. Chesler concurs. But several other board members, who would not speak for attribution, said that Mr. Lipton ran the board with an iron hand. “It is Marty’s board and he controls it,” said one. Another added: “I would go so far as to say that the board has been a near rubber stamp board. And since they are not rubber stamp types, I scratch my head as to why. I think there is a long tradition of the board being quiescent with a management that it feels good about.”

Perhaps confidence in Dr. Sexton left the board blindsided to the degree of unhappiness among faculty. Faculty members have called on Mr. Lipton to resign, citing governance without faculty inclusion and failure to improve the conversation. They also object to how Mr. Lipton embraced Dr. Sexton. He sent out emails from the board supporting the president after the faculty had expressed concerns in no-confidence votes. “That is not listening,” said Robert Cohen, a professor of history and social studies at N.Y.U. “That is broadcasting.”

Mr. Berkley conceded: “John antagonized a lot of people trying to move a large institution into the 21st century. But we believed it was more of a fringe group than it ended up being. The straw that broke the camel’s back was 2031” — the controversial expansion plan, named for N.Y.U.’s 200th birthday. “It was a great idea that was not put forward in a way people understood,” he said.

Over the past several years N.Y.U. faculty members have joined with Greenwich Village preservation groups, celebrities and elected officials to fight the “Sexton plan” — to add roughly two million square feet of space in the Village and six million over all. While Mr. Lipton and others say faculty members were consulted about the expansion, Mark Crispin Miller, who heads N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, counters that they were not consulted during the planning process.

In the latest development, in January, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled that the university must get state approval for roughly half its plan because it involves removing parkland — a decision that will, it appears, at least slow the timetable. Both sides have appealed the decision. At a news conference shortly after the ruling, Mr. Miller urged Dr. Sexton’s team to “rethink its policy” and “mend fences with its neighborhood and also with its professional body.”

The faculty group continues to fight. To help finance its agenda, it recently held an auction of donations, like a script reading by the author Peter Gethers and an acting lesson with Philip Seymour Hoffman (since Mr. Hoffman’s death, Liev Schreiber has assumed the pledge).

As Mr. Lipton attempts to seal his legacy, the board is scrambling to look more responsive to the issues that have roiled the campus and grabbed headlines. It will involve faculty and students in the search for a new president, and it has announced a drive to raise $1 billion for scholarships.

N.Y.U.’s cost of attendance is about $64,000, and it ranks among the country’s most expensive colleges and universities. On the federal Department of Education’s list of nonprofit private institutions with the highest net price — cost of attendance minus financial aid — only the New School and seven art and music academies cost more than N.Y.U. Asked about students’ ability to afford his university, Mr. Lipton responded: “We do everything we can to provide financial assistance to our students. Our students are not begging in the streets.”

As for his retirement as chairman, Mr. Lipton said, somewhat facetiously: “I am getting too old and have served too long.” Mr. Chesler and Mr. Berkley are leading candidates to replace him.

He seems certain the global mission will not change, in part because his board has been so enthusiastic. “The critics,” he said, “are shortsighted.”

Richard Chait, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and consultant to nonprofit institutions, has been watching the events at N.Y.U. unfold over the last year and sums it up this way: “If you believe youpainted the Mona Lisa, you don’t want someone to put a mustache on it.”

“At the same time,” he said, “part of what the faculty is saying is: This has been a two-man show; that is not how you run a university.”


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