Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 20, 2015

Christian Parenti, William Cronon, Alexander Cockburn

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

William J. Cronon

Christian Parenti, Truthout Interview, May 17, 2015 (http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30756-christian-parenti-on-the-state-humanity-as-part-of-nature-and-the-malleability-of-capitalism)

Anthropogenic fire has long played an important role in the universal metabolism of nature. It was our ancestor Homo erectus that tamed fire, used it to cook, and most likely to shape the landscape either intentionally or by mistake. Homo sapiens have used fire on a vast scale. Native Americans and pastoralist societies in southern Africa used fire to create fecund, hunt easier, open forests and grazeable grasslands. A lot of this goes back to William Cronon’s first book Changes in the Land in which he examined the environmental history of New England before and just after White settlement. Pre-contact New England was not some sort of pristine, natural place.

* * * *

Alexander Cockburn, “Beat the Devil”, Nation Magazine, April 8, 1996

Until a new president is found, the daily operations of the Wilderness Society will be overseen by Kim Elliman, a Rockefeller heir, and former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, the Strom Thurmond of the environmental establishment. But don’t expect the Wilderness Society to change into an aggressive environmental advocate anytime soon. The Society recently invited onto its governing board the historian William Cronon, who is the general editor of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books Series at the University of Washington Press. (Don’t be shocked. In Oxford, Balliol College is welcoming a Flick Chair, endowed by German slave labor and death camp sponsors.) Cronon kgues that the focus on wilderness protection has been a misguided and counterproductive endeavor. After all, Cronon muses, wilderness is really just a state of mind.

 * * * *

William J. Cronon, letter to the Nation, June 7 1996

Alexander Cockbum implies that I am an enemy of wilderness protection and of environmentalism in general. I trust that those who , know my work will recognize how unfair this is. Cockburn’s complaint is twofold. He correctly notes that I edit the Weyerhaeuser Endronmental Books series for the University of Washington Press but fails to point out that the Weyerhaeuser Corporation has no relationship to the series andnothing whatsoever to say about its editorial content. I would not have accepted tlhis editorship had there been any ideological constraints on what I could publish. In this, I am no different from the thousands ofAmerican academics (and journalists) who accept financial support from philanthropies with names like Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon or Guggenheim or who teach at universities with names like Stanford or Duke or Cornell-names whose environmental records are far from spotless. Cockburn asserts that I believe wildemess io be mere& a state of mind. This grossly dislorts my position. Although I strongly support protecting biodiversity and wild land, I believe this is best accomplished by seeing such things as part of a larger system in which “the human” and “the natural” are not set in stark opposition to each other. Cockbum and Susannah Hecht ‘eloquently make a similar point when they criticize First World fantasies about tropical rainforests as “Edens under glass.” Like them, I believe we should pay close attention to the troubling linkages that sometimes exist between environmental advocacy and elite class politics. If these views render me ecologically suspect, then I have a feeling that many.environmentally committed Nation readers may wish to be suspect in precisely the same way.

 * * * *

Alexander Cockburn’s reply

I thank Bill Cronon for his kind words about The Fate of the Forest, and indeed he wrote a marvelous book about Chicago and the West, Nature’s Metropolis. But Uncommon Ground, a collection boiled down from a seminar at U.C., Irvine, was a pretentious mess, full of banalities about nature as a human construct, as if Marx had not said it better and shorter more than a hundred years ago: “The nature that existed before man no longer exists anywhere.” Its politics were bad too. Anent Cronon’s series under the sponsorship of the Weyerhaeuser timber company: As the Chinese proverb puts it, Do not adjust your hat under a plum tree or tie your shoes in a melon field if you wish to avoid suspicion.

May 18, 2015

Socialist revolution in Greece–easier said than done

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

As bad as Alex Callinicos’s analysis of Greece has been, at least you can give him credit for not issuing the kind of calls for socialist revolution that landed in my inbox last Wednesday, courtesy of Alan Woods’s “In Defense of Marxism” (IDOM) website. Woods and company are “old school” Trotskyists who have perfected the art of outflanking “fakers” like Syriza from the left even though—to their credit—they have had remarkable patience with the Chavistas in Venezuela. In an article titled “Greece: Neither ‘honourable compromise’ nor ‘accidental rupture’ – the only way forward is a Socialist policy – part one”, Stamatis Karagiannopoulos, a member of the “Communist Tendency” in Syriza, makes the case for socialist revolution:

Comrades of the SYRIZA leadership are accustomed to deriding the Communist Tendency’s patient defence of an anticapitalist-socialist programme with their metaphysical aphorism that: “this isn’t the time for socialism”. We – the communists – respond in this way: “life itself indicates exactly the opposite to what you claim! Never has capitalism been so incapable of satisfying even the most basic of human needs, and never has socialism been so necessary to satisfy those needs”! The fact that the voice of SYRIZA’s communists is incomparably weaker than those of the leadership’s ‘celebrity’ ministers does not mean that our positions, perspectives, and warnings are incorrect. On the contrary, these are the only positions that are based on a realistic evaluation of reality and of the prospects of a system doomed to go from crisis to crisis.

Well, who can argue against positions that are based on a “realistic evaluation of reality”?

At the risk of defying reality, I think it would be worthwhile to think about what it would mean to “build socialism” in Greece. In fact, there’s very little engagement with that question in the IDOM website. Mostly there are calls for radical action such as the following: “Rather than requesting a European debt conference with bourgeois governments we should hold directly in Greece an international conference of the mass organisations of the working class and of the youth against capitalism!” (The comrades are fond of the exclamation point.)

There’s a bit of a disconnect here. If you wash your hands of the “bourgeois governments”, how exactly are “the mass organisations of the working class and of the youth against capitalism” supposed to come up with the dough to keep Greece functioning? In 1960 it was one thing for Cuba to kick out the Western corporations when the USSR existed. It is another thing, however, when the USSR no longer exists and Putin—despite his anti-imperialist bluster—is in no position to support Greece.

Maybe I am a bit more hesitant to take calls for socialist revolution in Greece seriously since I saw what happened in Nicaragua in the late 80s when the USSR still existed but was getting ready to close shop. Forced to rely on its own devices, the FSLN could not survive. Years later, there would be a new upswing of radicalism in Latin America but the left would be careful not to break with capitalism after the fashion of the Cuban model. Leaving aside Venezuela’s future prospects, I have never heard it described as socialist.

It would be useful to review what classical Marxism had to say about socialist revolution especially in light of the problems encountered in peripheral societies like Vietnam, Cuba, and China et al.

Karl Marx’s emphasis was on advanced capitalist countries like Britain, Germany and France. So was Engels. In an 1847 article, he answered the rhetorical question “Will it be possible for this revolution to take place in one country alone?” His answer:

No. By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth, and especially the civilized peoples, into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others.

Further, it has co-ordinated the social development of the civilized countries to such an extent that, in all of them, bourgeoisie and proletariat have become the decisive classes, and the struggle between them the great struggle of the day. It follows that the communist revolution will not merely be a national phenomenon but must take place simultaneously in all civilized countries – that is to say, at least in England, America, France, and Germany.

But towards the end of his life Karl Marx seemed to reverse himself when he began looking closely at Russia since it was home to rural communes that could have served as the foundations for a communist society—at least based on the letters to Zasulich. However, it should never be forgotten that he saw Russia in terms of a peasant revolution that could only succeed in partnership with the West as this preface to the Second Russian Edition of the Communist Manifesto should make clear: “If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for proletarian revolution in the West, then Russia’s peasant communal land-ownership may serve as the point of departure for a communist development.”

You’ll notice the if-then formulation. This was pretty much the outlook of Russian Marxists as well, including Lenin. Many people on the left believe that Lenin was for a socialist revolution from the get-go and not just a bourgeois revolution that aimed for radical land reform and democratic rights—the sort of thing we associate with France in 1789. I was never convinced of this. There were just too many formulations such as this that was contained in the March-April 1905 article “A Revolution of the 1789 or the 1848 Type?” (emphases in the original):

Only history, of course, can weigh these pros and cons in the balances. Our task as Social-Democrats is to drive the bourgeois revolution onward as far as it will go, without ever losing sight of our main task—the independent organisation of the proletariat.

Or “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution“:

Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does this mean? It means that the democratic reforms in the political system and the social and economic reforms, which have become a necessity for Russia, do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, they will, for the first time, really clear the ground for a wide and rapid, European, and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.

Leaving aside the question of whether Lenin abandoned this outlook in 1917, there is little doubt that following Marx’s if-then, Lenin saw the USSR’s survival as utterly dependent on the success of Communist Parties in Western Europe.  In a “Speech on the International Situation” delivered to the 1918 Congress of Soviets, Lenin said, “The complete victory of the socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands the most active cooperation of at least several advanced countries, which do not include Russia.”

Despite the differences he had with Lenin on the character of the approaching revolution in Russia, Trotsky was in accord with the reliance on more developed nations. In “Results and Prospects”, written in 1906, he stated: “But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty–that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship.”

Keeping in mind that Russia was richly endowed with oil, timber, coal, iron ore, fertile soil, and a powerful army that had defeated the imperialist invaders, Lenin continued to worry about the USSR’s future without that help. In “Better Fewer, But Better”, written in 1923 a year before his death, he wrote that “It is not easy for us, however, to keep going until the socialist revolution is victorious in more developed countries…”

Stalin of course decided that it was possible to build socialism in the USSR even if it took subordinating the CP’s to the foreign policy exigencies of the Kremlin. History teaches us that the results were inimical to socialism in the long run. Despite the lessons of failure in the USSR and repeated retreats in the Third World, the comrades in Alan Woods’s Fourth International invite the Greeks to go full steam ahead.

Before Alexis Tsipras took office, I wrote the following:

Of course the real question is whether Syriza can deliver such reforms given the relationship of forces that exist. Germany, its main adversary, has a population of 80 million and a GDP of nearly 4 trillion dollars. Greece, by comparison, has a population of 11 million and a GDP of 242 billion dollars, just a bit more than Volkswagen’s revenues. Given this relationship of forces, it will be a struggle to achieve the aforementioned reforms. To make them possible, it will be necessary for the workers and poor of Greece to demonstrate to Europe that they will go all the way to win them. It will also be necessary for people across Europe to demonstrate their solidarity with Greece so as to put maximum pressure on Germany and its shitty confederates like François Hollande to back off. But if your main goal in politics is to lecture the Greeks about the need for workers councils, armed struggle and all the rest, you obviously have no need to waste your time on such measly reforms.

In my view, the best thing the left can do is to organize demonstrations of solidarity with Syriza—not write the sort of junk that appears in the British SWP and IDOM press. Yes, we know that they are weak-tea social democrats and that the Greeks deserve fearless leaders like Alex Callinicos and Alan Woods who will never retreat an inch. But for those on the left still moored to the “realistic evaluation of reality” alluded to above, my strongest recommendation is to hound the filthy bankers who are trying to make the Greeks cry uncle just as Reagan did to the Nicaraguans. There were those on the left who were all to anxious to point out the FSLN’s shortcomings in 1989 but I was content to do what I had been doing for three years—raising money and volunteers to keep a revolutionary experiment alive. With all proportions guarded, this is the way we should look at Greece in 2015.

Gilles d’Aymery ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 3:28 pm

From the NY Times obit page:
Screen shot 2015-05-18 at 11.22.47 AM


My tribute to Gilles written last December

May 16, 2015

In response to Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd

Filed under: Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

Makah whalers, circa 1900

Yesterday Paul Watson wrote a commentary on my review of the documentary about Edward Abbey. Before replying to him, let me post what I said about him:

There are also contradictions between some deep ecologists and native peoples over their right to hunt and fish using traditional methods that are often related to their cultural survival. Among the people interviewed in “Wrenched” is Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, a group that carries out civil disobedience to protect whales. Unfortunately, Watson decided to challenge the Makah in Washington State, a small Indian band that traditionally relied on whale hunting for both its sustenance and spiritual identity. One can understand Watson’s brave fight against Japanese industrial versions of Captain Ahab’s Pequod, but couldn’t an exception have been made for people who have suffered genocidal attacks?

Just in case it was not emphatic enough, let me repeat that I value Watson’s activism highly. The fight to protect whales is one that matters a great deal to me as should be obvious not only by what I wrote above but in other articles I have written over the years, including reviews of “The Whale” and “The Cove”. But I must insist that Watson was wrong to campaign against the Makah, as I will explain below his comments.

A Prejudiced Review by Louis Proyect of Wrenched.

Commentary by Captain Paul Watson

In the Review of Wrenched by Louis Proyect, he criticized me for our campaign against illegal whaling by the Makah Tribe of Washington State in 1998. He says it was unfortunate that we opposed the Makah although he endorsed our opposition to Japanese whaling.

Proyect’s understanding of the situation is very shallow. He does not understand that Sea Shepherd was not in Neah Bay to oppose the Makah Tribe but to oppose the Japanese fish buyers who pushed the Makah to kill whales. Japan simply needed to use the Makah to further their own agenda of commercial whaling.

We secured documents through FOIA to prove that the Makah along with the Japanese had discussions to use the Makah to set up a commercial whaling operation in the USA for profit and to embarrass the U.S. position of opposition to whaling.

Proyect also failed to see that we were invited to intervene by some Makah Elders who saw the truth of the scheme and it had little to do with reviving ancient traditions and everything to do with money. He ignored the fact that other First Nations people supported us and some supported the Makah. On my crew were Kwakutl, Haida, Gitksan-Wet’suwet’en, Cree, Mohawk and Kwakwaka’wakw. He ignored the fact that I participated as an activist with the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee in 1973.

He voiced the prejudiced position that all First Nations speak in one voice about all issues. They do not.

I knew at the time that we would open ourselves up to criticisms for challenging the killing but I also knew that it would be racist of us to ignore a violation of whaling by the Makah and not by the Japanese or Norwegians.

Sea Shepherd represents the interest of the nation of whales and to whales, the color of the skin or the language spoken means nothing. All that matters is the harpoon and it is the harpoon that Sea Shepherd opposes by anyone for any reason anywhere.

Whales are highly intelligent, socially complex, self aware sentient beings and no human has the right to kill a single one of them.

Makah Elder Alberta Thompson spoke to this in 1997 when she said at the IWC meeting in Monaco that “the men who wanted to kill whales had no interest in other Makah cultural practices, they did not even have any interest in learning the Makah language. All they wanted to do was murder a whale with an anti-tank gun. And that” she said, “is not a part of our culture.”

Ed Abbey was a Sea Shepherd advisor and a friend and I know he would have supported our position to go up against the Japanese puppets posing as traditional whalers yet armed with modern technology and weapons to blow away a whale they had no intention of eating themselves.

In fact during the campaign I said if the Elders asked us to leave we would leave. The Elders who invited us replied they wanted us to stay. So we stayed. One whale was killed by the Tribe, and none since, except for one that was illegally killed by Wayne Johnson, a crime for which he was sent to prison.

We will continue to oppose any plans to resurrect whaling by the Makah as we will continue to oppose whaling by anyone, anywhere for any reason.

My response:

On the FOIA documents

On October 9, 2006 Eric Scigliano wrote an article for the alternative Seattle Weekly that takes up this matter. I urge you to read the entire article but will recapitulate his main points:

–One document purports to show that the Makah sought to operate a whale-meat processing plant but Scigliano explains that the proposal came from a non-Makah official instead who they disavowed.

–Supposedly the Makah were combining with the Japanese industrial fishing firm Maruha to build a whale-meat processing plant but Scigliano states that Maruha was pretty much out of the fishing business when they were approached. The Makah were primarily interested in ship that could process whiting, a fish that they were invested in commercially. As such, Maruha was a likely contact.

On the Makah and wildlife preservation

The Makah voluntarily stopped whale hunting a full decade before it was outlawed in 1937 because they were concerned about their dwindling numbers. It was only when gray whale numbers increased in the 1990s that they requested an exemption from federal law to begin hunting again. Furthermore, they requested the right to hunt up to 5 gray whales a year and no more. Since there are between 20,000 to 22,000 gray whales in the north Pacific, it is doubtful that the Makah hunt would have any impact on their survival even if the meat of all 5 whales were sold to the Japanese.

Paul Watson’s reliance on Congressman Jack Metcalf for pushing through a ban on Makah hunting

This is probably the most troubling aspect of his activism around this issue. Jack Metcalf is a rightwing Republican who has a long history of opposing Indian fishing rights. He was the founder of S/SPAWN, a group that occasionally used violence against Washington State Indians trying to exercise their legal rights to fish for trout and salmon. While Watson claims that his efforts on behalf of whales is part of his overall commitment to the environment, the Sierra Club ranked him as among the lowest in environmental legislation.

Wounded Knee?

Paul Watson claims that he was there. If so, nobody on the front lines has any awareness of this. In an article by Jim Page on Watson at Dark Night Press, he got feedback from Ward Churchill who would have been in a position to know:

…it’s not just that his name doesn’t come up in any of the literature on Wounded Knee. I’ve queried Ron Rosen, who was in fact a medic at the Knee, and he doesn’t remember Watson being there. Uncle Wallace [Black Elk] doesn’t remember assigning any white guys to save a bunch of “buffalo of the sea.” Neither Russ [Means] nor Aaron Two Elk recall Watson as having been there.

More importantly, being at Wounded Knee does not give Paul Watson a license to crusade against the Makah. Nor does the fact that a Makah elder opposed whale-hunting. There is an element of self-aggrandizement in Watson’s use of such tropes that helps you to understand why he has been disavowed by Carter Camp, an AIM leader at Wounded Knee, even if Watson was there: “Whatever he did (if he was there), I am deeply offended by his assertions that he was guided in his misdeeds by a ‘vision’ he was given at WK’73. We who were there would like to re-interpret his vision for him to show him the Makah, not eco-terrorists, are the ones saving our whale relatives. His view is insulting to those of us who fought at Wounded Knee ’73 and more importantly it is insulting to the spirits of those buried there because of people like Watson himself.”

Finally, my own views on wilderness protection and indigenous rights

I first became interested in indigenous rights when back in 1996 or so when I ran into a magazine called Living Marxism that was put out by the people who became Spiked Online. Using Marxist jargon, they essentially came out in favor of forced assimilation. They were also against environmentalism, a cause that I had embraced long before I became committed to indigenous rights.

In the course of expressing my views on the latter, I became friends with James Michael Craven, an economics professor in Washington State of Blackfoot descent who was deeply involved with the right of the Makah to hunt whales. I recommend an article he wrote that came out of that struggle that was also written for Dark Night Press.

As I began researching Blackfoot history, I became aware that the same clash that took place between the Makah and Paul Watson had taken place in Blackfoot territory. This excerpt from an article I wrote for “Organization and Environment”, a scholarly journal formerly edited by John Bellamy Foster until it became hijacked by the publisher and turned over to a more mainstream editorial team, should make this clear:

I want to conclude this article with an examination of an obscure moment in American history that involves the Blackfoot and the environmentalist movement. It is, as far as I know, one of the first instances of eco-imperialism on record and evokes more recent clashes between outfits like Sea-Shepherd and the Makah, or Greenpeace and the Innuit. The facts on this appear in Mark David Spence’s “Crown of the Continent, Backbone of the World: The American Wilderness Ideal and Blackfeet Exclusion from Glacier National Park,” an article in the July, 1996 edition of “Environmental History.”

The eastern half of Glacier National Park was once part of the Blackfoot reservation and the tribe insists that an 1895 treaty allowed them certain ownership privileges. These lands are of utmost importance to the Blackfoot because they contain certain plants, animals and religious sites that are of key importance to the cultural identity. The federal government considered the land to be one of its “crown jewels” and thought that the Blackfoot would tarnish it through their intrusions. This separation between man and nature of course goes against Indian wisdom. The park founders idea of “wilderness” owed more to European romanticism than it did to the reality of American history. The indigenous peoples and the forests, rivers and grasslands lived in coexistence and codetermined each other’s existence thousands of years before Columbus–the first invader–arrived.

The mountains within Glacier National Park contained powerful spirits such as Wind Maker, Cold Maker, thunder and Snow Shrinker. One of the most important figures in Blackfoot religion, a trickster named Napi or Old Man, disappeared into these mountains when he left the Blackfoot. The park is also the source of the Beaver Pipe bundle, one of the “most venerated and powerful spiritual possessions of the tribe.” “Chief Mountain, standing at the border of the reservation and the national park, is by far the most distinct and spiritually charged land feature within the Blackfeet universe.”

While pre-reservation life was centered on the plains and bison-hunting, the resources of the mountains and foothills contained within the park were also important to their livelihood. Women and youngsters dug for roots and other foodstuffs in the parklands at the beginning of the spring hunting cycle. At the conclusion of the bison hunting season, which was marked by the Sun Dance ceremony, the various bands would retreat to the mountains and hunt for elk, deer, big horn sheep, and mountain goats. They would also cut lodge poles from the forests and gather berries through the autumn months. All of these activities were as important to them spiritually as economically. By denying them this, the park administrators were cutting them off from something as sacred as the whale is to the Makah.

What gives the banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park a special poignancy and sadness was that its architect was none other than George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was not only a park administrator, but a friend of the Blackfoot. He won the trust of Blackfoot story-tellers and this allowed him to put into print the “Blackfoot Lodge Tales.” Although Grinnell said in the preface to the collection that “the most shameful chapter of American history is that in which is recorded the account of our dealings with the Indians,” this did not prevent him from declaring Glacier National Park off-limits to a people he supposedly admired. Of course, without any self-consciousness he also states in this preface that “the Indian is a man, not very different from his white brother, except that he is undeveloped.” Also, “the Indian has the mind and feelings of a child with the stature of a man.” When you stop and consider that Grinnell was a leading supporter of American Indian rights, it is truly frightening to consider the depths of racism that must have existed during the late 1800s, when he was collecting his tales from the Blackfoot while banning them from the park.

Spence has an astute interpretation of Grinnell’s contradictory attitudes. He says that for Grinnell the parks represented a living resource for American civilization. It would be a place for tourists to come and take photographs of the natural splendors. As for the Blackfoot, they were an important part of America’s past. They would live on through the “Blackfoot Lodge Tales” and dioramas at places like the Museum of Natural History.

Spence concludes his article with a description of how the clash between park administrators never really went away:

“By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

“By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty. In conjunction with the ‘Red Power’ movement of the 1970s, these concerns arose again as Blackfeet leaders pushed for recognition of tribal rights in the park. Their efforts met strong opposition from both park officials and environmentalists, who resisted the Blackfeet ‘threat’ as fervently as they did plans to mine coal and explore for oil in the park. The state of near-war that once characterized relations between the Blackfeet and park officials resurfaced in the early 1980s; the two sides only narrowly armed conflict on several occasions. Ultimately, continued Indian protests, ongoing risk of violence, and Blackfeet proposals for joint management of the eastern half of Glacier forced the National Park Service to revisit issues its leaders had been buried in the 1930s.”

A program for sweeping social and economic change in the United States has to put indigenous rights in the forefront. If the Indian is the canary in the mine, whose survival represents survival for everybody, then no other group deserves greater solidarity. Part of the enormous job in allying all the diverse sectors of the American population against an increasingly reactionary and violent government is explaining that the Indian comes first. This means that Sea-Shepherd and Greenpeace activists must understand that preservation of the “wilderness” makes no sense if the Indian is excluded.

The best way to restore the United States to ecological, economic and spiritual health is to reconsider ways in which the pre-capitalist past can be approximated in a modern setting. Just as it makes sense for the Makah to use whatever weapons they deem necessary in pursuit of the whale, it might make sense for the entire northwestern plains states to be returned to the bison under the stewardship of the Blackfoot Indian. They have a much better track record on taking care of resources than do the agribusiness corporations who despoil the land for profit. Timothy Egan thinks that this makes sense, as does Ernest Callenbach, the author of “Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains.” (Island Press, 1998) I will conclude with his suggestion for a new relationship between indigenous peoples and the land and animals that were once theirs:

“The basic Indian goal is the reestablishment on the reservations of the natural ecological balance or reciprocity among humans, plants, and animals that existed before Euro-American occupation. On the Plains, a restored population of bison would be a sign that things had been put back together again on a sustainable basis. As Fred DuBray puts it, ‘We recognize that the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity and that as we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back to health.’ In Mark Heckert’s view, this could be called sustainable agriculture ‘because you can get what you need to survive without inordinately disrupting the system,’ and the result would be self-governing tribes in which the bison are thriving again, the ceremonies have been revived, and the bond between Indian people and the bison has been reestablished. At Pine Ridge there is an ongoing program of teaching stewardship: grandparents go into the schools and explain to the children that all the parts of the natural order are necessary and interrelated; they pass on the store of traditional knowledge that has been kept in the memories of the elders of the community The comeback of the sacred bison–and, more specifically, the appearance of a one-in-a-million white bison–would ‘mean a spiritual recharge for our people,’ as Alex White Plume puts it. ‘There’s talk locally that the time is approaching, so people are beginning to get ready, learning the old songs and revitalizing the ritual that they need to go through. It might be within the next ten years. I hope it’s during my time.'”

May 15, 2015

My days in Houston on assignment for the Socialist Workers Party

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,Texas,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

In the May 4th issue of the Militant, there’s a peculiar article but probably not that much more peculiar than many that have appeared there in recent years, as the tiny cult enters its death throes.

Titled “SWP’s 45 years of rich political history in Texas”, it gives the impression that the party is stronger than ever even though the article is basically a farewell to Texas:

“We can join in increasing labor resistance today,” Warshell said, “like the strike by Steelworkers in area oil refineries and widespread proletarian struggles against police brutality. There are new openings for communists today to build our movement and recruit.

“We’re leaving Houston and closing the branch here,” he said, “but as the class struggle deepens and the party grows, we will be back.”

Increasing labor resistance and leaving Houston? How do these two things go together? Who knows? Who cares?

The SWP once did have a remarkable presence in Houston and the rest of Texas that is referred to briefly:

The SWP and Young Socialist Alliance in Texas grew out of the fight against Washington’s war against Vietnam in the 1960s, said Joel Britton, an SWP leader from Oakland, California. Party branches were built in both Houston and Austin.

As a result of the party’s growing public presence, it became a target of the Ku Klux Klan, as were Black rights’ fighters, anti-war activists, and KPFT, the local Pacifica radio station.

“Houston’s KKK operated with true impunity, tied in with the police force, the sheriff’s department,” and other parts of the so-called justice system, Britton said.

“One of the high points in the fight against Klan attacks was when Debbie Leonard, SWP candidate for mayor in 1971, debated a top Klan leader — not once but twice,” Britton said.

But most of the article is the standard recitation of the party’s “turn to industry” that in fact has left it not only incapable of continuing in Texas but has sealed its doom everywhere else. In a normal organization, there would be feedback mechanisms to allow it to reverse course but in this bizarre cult that is led by someone more than a bit tetched, there is no turning back.

I arrived in Houston in the winter of 1973 in order to help organize a faction fight against a sizable minority in the branch that supported the Ernest Mandel-led wing of the Fourth International that supported guerrilla warfare in Latin America. After a year or so in Houston, the sixties radicalization began to disappear before our very eyes as we scrambled around for new sources of recruitment. It was around this time when I began to feel more and more alienated from the party and its stifling peer pressure both socially and politically that the thoughts of dropping out began to take shape. I only regret that I hung around for another four years.

In any case, you will see the pages from my unpublished memoir about the time I spent in Houston. As is always the case, I am free to post this material under the provisions of fair use legislation, plus rights afforded me as the copyrighted author of the text and the full permission of the artist to circulate the memoir.

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The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey

Filed under: anarchism,Counterpunch,Ecology,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 12:56 pm
Monkeywrenching the Machine

The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey


Fifty-three years ago, long before I had heard of Edward Abbey and Abraham Polonsky, I saw a film titled “Lonely are the Brave” that was based on Polonsky’s adaptation of Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. The film remains one of my favorites of all time with Kirk Douglas’s performance as a fugitive on horseback trying to elude a sheriff played by Walter Matthau permanently etched into my memory.

Many years later I would have the pleasure of hearing Abraham Polonsky speak at Lincoln Center at a screening for “Odds Against Tomorrow”, a film for which he wrote the screenplay three years before “Lonely are the Brave” but for which he did not receive credit. Using a “front” of the sort Woody Allen played in Walter Bernstein’s very fine movie about the witch-hunt, Polonsky was taking a first step toward reestablishing himself as a screenwriter.

In the panel discussion following the screening, Polonsky was asked whether he had problems writing a script with criminals as central characters when he spent so many years in the Communist Party and still retained progressive politics even after his resignation. He replied that American society itself was criminal and that the film’s characters were just trapped within the system.

“Lonely are the Brave” was by contrast a film with a most sympathetic character, a cowboy named Jack Burns who provokes a bar fight just to land in jail to help break out his old friend, a sheep rancher who has been arrested for sheltering undocumented workers from Mexico. I had no idea at the time how radical the film was, an obvious result of Edward Abbey’s ability to make such an outlaw look like a saint compared to the corporate malefactors that were destroying America’s greatest asset: its wilderness.

The very fine new documentary “Wrenched” that is available from Bullfrog Films is a loving tribute to Edward Abbey’s life as an artist and activist as well as a very astute assessment of Earth First!, the radical environmentalist group that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. Directed by ML Lincoln, a young female director and activist since her teens, it is a follow-up to her first film “Drowning River” that recounts the struggle against the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona that found a fictional counterpart in Abbey’s most famous novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, from which her new film derived its title.

We learn that Abbey, who was born in 1927, became drawn to anarchism at a very early age under the tutelage of his aptly named father Paul Revere Abbey who was both a socialist and an anarchist—and obviously from a different ideological tradition than the one to which Abraham Polonsky belonged. As he matured and began to develop his own worldview, the son obviously aligned completely with anarchism, a result of his commitment to preserving wilderness—a goal unfortunately that has not been fully appreciated by Marxists, as I will explain later on.

Read full article

May 14, 2015

Seymour Hersh, Saudi Arabia and the truth about al-Qaeda

Filed under: indigenous,Islam,journalism — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

Since I don’t have access to retired intelligence agency officials either in the USA or Pakistan, I am not in a position to judge most of Seymour Hersh’s 10,000 word article in the LRB but I do want to weigh in on one paragraph:

A worrying factor at this early point, according to the retired official, was Saudi Arabia, which had been financing bin Laden’s upkeep since his seizure by the Pakistanis. ‘The Saudis didn’t want bin Laden’s presence revealed to us because he was a Saudi, and so they told the Pakistanis to keep him out of the picture. The Saudis feared if we knew we would pressure the Pakistanis to let bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida. And they were dropping money – lots of it. The Pakistanis, in turn, were concerned that the Saudis might spill the beans about their control of bin Laden. The fear was that if the US found out about bin Laden from Riyadh, all hell would break out. The Americans learning about bin Laden’s imprisonment from a walk-in was not the worst thing.’

As should be obvious, Hersh is repeating a claim that he has made for some time now and that is embraced by most of the left, at least that part of the left that views Saudi Arabia as behind al-Qaeda. The words “what the Saudis had been doing with al-Qaida” resonates with perhaps 30,000 articles that have appeared in places like WSWS.org et al. It is part and parcel of an analysis that Saudi Arabia used al-Qaeda as a proxy in Syria and that its ultimate goal was war with Iran, its Shi’ite enemy.

You can read a 2007 New Yorker article in which Hersh argues along those lines:

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Really? Hadn’t Hersh noticed that the USA had spent trillions of dollars installing and then bolstering a Shi’ite government in Iraq that had close ties to the Iranian clerics? Was Maliki a secret Sunni? Who knows? Since Hersh has a way of unearthing conspiracies, maybe there’s an article he wrote somewhere that identifies Maliki as a secret Sunni operative.

This is not to speak of Osama bin-Laden’s attitude toward US relations with Saudi Arabia. Has Hersh forgotten what turned bin-Laden against the USA? It was the presence of American (as well as British and French) troops in the spiritual heart of Islam that apparently led to the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda was in fact a dagger aimed as much at the Saudi royalty as it was American interests. That is why, of course, Osama bin-Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991.

In addition, Hersh does not seem to be aware that the Saudis fought a pitched battle against al-Qaeda militants in May of 2005 that left 18 dead in a 3-day battle. Furthermore, the violence has continued up until this day. Just this month the Saudi police arrested a number of al-Qaeda members for their role in organizing a suicide bomb attack in Riyadh.

Maybe the confusion is that some Saudi businessmen have given money to jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda, and that a number of the 9/11 terrorists had Saudi citizenship. If that is the criterion for judging “Saudis” to be behind al-Qaeda, then you might as well claim that “America” was aiding the Sandinistas since Tecnica brigades regularly brought tons of equipment to Nicaragua in the 1980s and even provided volunteers to government agencies—including me. I never would make such a claim myself but then again I don’t write for the New Yorker Magazine and other blue chip journals (except CounterPunch.)

Perhaps the confusion is over the actual national identity of bin-Laden and the 9/11 “Saudi” terrorists. Yes, it is true that they had Saudi citizenship but their relationship to the ruling families is not what it might appear.

The bin-Ladens were originally from Yemen and had a strong sense of identity with the Qahtani tribe that was based there and that resented the Adnan tribe that dominated the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Yemeni connection was very strong in al-Qaeda, according to Akbar Ahmad, the author of “The Thistle and the Drone”, 95 percent of al-Qaeda was Yemeni or Saudis who were born and raised in Yemen, particularly the Asir region. Ten of the 9/11 attackers were ethnically tied to the Asir tribes, including Mohammad Atta—the mastermind. The 9/11 Commission stated that a number of the men who formed the reserves for the attack were Yemenis as well.

If you want to learn more about the Yemeni connection, I strongly recommend Ahmad’s book that argues that tribalism rather than Islam explains the particularly violent revenge motif that runs like a red thread through Sunni-based jihadi movements globally. He explains that the tribes of Asir are largely nomadic and trace their origins to the Qahtanis.

The royal family in Saudi Arabia that was descended from the Adnans annexed the Asir region in 1934 through a bloody war that cost the lives of 400,000 people. The annexation was followed by an invasion of Saudi clerics who forced their Wahhabi beliefs on the conquered tribesmen. Ahmad’s description of the vanquished Asiri tribes is striking:

The Asir men wore skirt-like apparel revealing much of their legs, and they went without socks. Famously known as “flower men”, they kept their hair long and adorned it with flowers. Even their turbans were decorated with flowers, grass and stones.

An Asiri tribesman

Within decades the Asiri tribes were forcibly assimilated into the dominant Wahhabi/Adnan culture just like American Indians being forced to become “white”.

Although he was from a different part of Yemen originally, Osama bin-Laden’s father felt at home in Asir. He was there to lead a construction crew that was building highway 51 from the north into Yemen with Saudi funding. Although he got rich, the Asiris got nothing from the oil wealth that was lubricating Saudi society. In 1980 the province had only 535 beds for 700,000 residents. The Asiris regarded the Saudis as arrogant and resented their vulgar displays of wealth.

In 1979 the resentment boiled over into an armed takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. 127 Saudi cops were killed and 117 Asiri rebels died as well in the fighting. A further 63 were beheaded after being captured.

Like the Chechens, another conquered people, the Asiris soon found international outlets for their anger. In the 1980s it was the primary recruiting ground for foreign fighters joining the Afghan resistance. Many of them would go on to join the group that bin-Laden formed in 1988: al-Qaeda. In the following decade, these militants would form the backbone of the resistance to the Saudi royal family and its American backers.

I doubt that any of this would be of interest to Seymour Hersh who thrives on reductionist conspiracy theories but if you are in the least bit curious about such realities, I urge you to read Akbar Ahmad’s very fine study of tribal Islam.

May 12, 2015

Metropolis has arrived

Filed under: computers,workers — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-12 at 1.58.24 PM

Whenever you drive up to a McDonald’s window, or push your grocery cart to a Stop & Shop checkout line, or head to the register at Uniqlo with a blue lambswool sweater in hand, you, too, are about to be swept up into a detailed system of metrics. A point-of-sale (P.O.S.) system connected to the cash register captures the length of time between the end of the last customer’s transaction and the beginning of yours, how quickly the cashier rings up your order, and whether she has sold you on the new Jalapeño Double. It records how quickly a cashier scans each carton of milk and box of cereal, how many times she has to rescan an item, and how long it takes her to initiate the next sale. This data is being tracked at the employee level: some chains even post scan rates like scorecards in the break room; others have a cap on how many mistakes an employee can make before he or she is put on probation.

Until recently, most retail and fast-food schedules were handmade by managers who were familiar with the strengths of their staff and their scheduling needs. Now an algorithm takes the P.O.S. data and spits out schedules that are typically programmed to fit store traffic, not employees’ lives. Scheduling software systems, some built in-house, some by third-party firms, analyze historical data (how many sales there were on this day last year, how rain or a Yankees game affects revenue) as well as moment-by-moment updates on the number of customers in the store or the number of sweaters sold in the past hour or the pay rate of each employee on the clock—what Kronos, one of the leading suppliers of these systems, calls “oceans of valuable workforce data.” In the world of retail, all of this information points toward one killer K.P.I.: labor cost as a percentage of revenue.

In postwar America, many retailers sought to increase profits by maximizing sales, a strategy that pushed stores to overstaff so that every customer received assistance, and by offering generous bonuses to star salespeople with strong customer relationships. Now the trend is to keep staffing as lean as possible, to treat employees as temporary and replaceable, and to schedule them exactly and only when needed. Charles DeWitt, a vice president at Kronos, calls it “the era of cost.”

from “The Spy Who Fired Me: The human costs of workplace monitoring” by Esther Kaplan. The article is behind a paywall in the March 2015 Harpers but thankfully can be read in its entirety here: http://populardemocracy.org/sites/default/files/HarpersMagazine-2015-03-0085373.pdf

Three Hot Docs films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:21 pm

Despite the fact that the three documentaries under review here have already been shown at the Hot Docs Film Festival that ran from Apr. 23 to May 3 in Toronto, they deserve your attention since there is every possibility that they will be shown at other festivals and—best of all—receive distribution at finer movie theaters. As is so often the case, the documentary is a worthy alternative to the rancid feature films churned out by Hollywood if for no other reason that they are grounded in reality and as such tend to engage with the sort of issues that engage my readers. To wit, “Peace Officer” is about the militarization of police departments in Utah; “A Sinner in Mecca” is about a gay Muslim on a hajj; and “Speed Sisters” is about three young Palestinian women who have become famous for racing cars in the West Bank and elsewhere. Not only are these three films penetrating looks at social reality, they are entertaining especially for their ability to tell stories about remarkable individuals—a task that commercial filmmaking subordinated long ago to special effects and cheesy formulas geared to the adolescent mind.

“Peace Officer” begins with its subject William “Dub” Lawrence emerging from a septic tank with some wadded toilet paper wrapped around a pump—not exactly a scene that promises anything to do with SWAT teams and their abuses, although Lawrence goes on to say that cleaning septic tanks is a more honorable profession than politics. As the former sheriff of Davis County in Utah, an elected post, he is certainly qualified to make such comparisons.

In 1974, Lawrence decided that Davis County, which is in the northern suburbs of Salt Lake City, needed a SWAT team. As the film explains, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units were created first in Los Angeles by Darryl Gates in the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965 as a kind of heavily armed response to that urban uprising and others that might ensue such as the 1974 shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) that had kidnapped Patty Hearst.

Fast forwarding to 2008, Lawrence—long since his departure from police work—was horrified to discover that the very SWAT unit he had created had taken the life of his son-in-law, a 36-year-old firefighter named Brian Wood who had physically assaulted his wife during a mental breakdown and was threatening to kill himself with a revolver inside his pickup truck. The cops held a press conference after his death claiming that he had shot himself in the heart but a skeptical Dub Lawrence eventually discovered that he was shot by a sniper cop during a frenzy that had been mounting ever since the SWAT team surrounded the distraught target of a mission utterly unlike the confrontation with the SLA or any other urban uprising that the SWAT teams had been created to overcome. What Lawrence discovered to his dismay is that the cops had begun to think of themselves more as soldiers putting down an enemy combatant rather than peace officers in the film’s title.

After analyzing the evidence of spent bullets and their trajectory at his son-in-law’s house, Lawrence charged the cops with not only lying about how Brian had died but of covering up their extrajudicial killing. The cops had claimed that he was a threat to both them and to the neighborhood as if the dozens of heavily armored and armed marksmen could not contain a single man with a revolver.

So traumatized by his son-in-law’s killing and the example that this botched military intervention had set, Dub Lawrence made himself available to other families that had lost a son or daughter to SWAT teams, including Matthew Stewart, an army veteran who had been growing marijuana in his basement for his personal use. The cops came to his house in the middle of the night, just as American GI’s had done in Iraq as standard practice, and began firing their weapons at him when they spotted him with a revolver in his hand, evidence in all likelihood of Stewart defending himself against a home invasion. In the melee that followed, one cop was killed by “friendly fire” and Stewart shot one other. Charged with murder, Stewart hung himself in a jail cell rather than face execution or life imprisonment—all for growing weed in his basement.

Dub Lawrence’s son-in-law and Matthew Stewart were about as “white bread” as you can imagine and cut from the same all-American cloth as other Utah natives but ultimately victimized by the same homicidal tendencies that have been on display in Ferguson and elsewhere as the film makes abundantly clear. On November 23rd 2014, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that cop killings in Utah outpaced drug, gang and child-abuse homicides.

Now 70, Dub Lawrence has become a fearless, principled and savvy critic of the illegal and fatal police practices that have sparked a new civil rights movement. As the “star” of this documentary, this defender of the idea that the first obligation of a cop is to “keep the peace” is a real hero as opposed to the never-ending references to cops as heroes in the mainstream press.

As is so often the case with documentaries, they have only an outside chance at theatrical distribution. It is my hope that not only will it make it to the usual venues but also get picked up by the broader movement and shown at college campuses and high schools where the new activists involved with “Black Lives Matter” can be found. This is a film that holds out the hope that a broad-based movement committed to the right of a citizen to live in peace and to be protected from death squads in uniform will be respected.

I urge you to check the screenings page for “Peace Officer” from time to time to see if it is arriving in your neck of the woods since this is about as timely and as moving a documentary film as you will see this year or any year.

In 2007 Parvez Sharma, a gay Muslim originally from India, made a film titled “A Jihad for Love” that was the counterpart to “Trembling Before G-d”, a documentary about gay orthodox Jews trying to reconcile their faith with their religion’s official homophobia. Sandi DuBowski, who directed “Trembling Before G-d” served as Sharma’s producer so the two films were obviously linked in the minds of both parties.

Sharma has followed up with “A Sinner in Mecca”, a very personal film about basically the same subject but focused on his own experience. It cuts back and forth from New York City, where Sharma lives with his husband, and Saudi Arabia where he has gone for a hajj. Despite his faith, he has trepidations about traveling in Saudi Arabia where supposedly you can be beheaded for being gay as the film asserts in the opening moments. It must be said that although gays are hounded and frequently receive corporal punishment, some experts claim that beheading or any other form of capital punishment does not take place.

In a way, this was not something that the director had to worry about since he was in Saudi Arabia to pray and not to play (especially since he is happily married.) Indeed, the primary emphasis is on the rituals that attend a hajj, something that ultimately makes the film so compelling.

Poised on the razor’s edge, we accompany Sharma in places such as Medina, Mecca and in the desert as he tries to fulfill his obligations as a Muslim all the while second-guessing his faith, especially when he slaughters a goat as the culmination of his spiritual cleansing. In his blood-spattered garments, he wonders what this has to do with holiness.

This is a particularly important question facing all the “sky religions” that originate from the Old Testament. As the film explains, this Muslim ritual is tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac (referred to as Ishmael in Islam). God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son but at the last minute told him that he was only testing his faith and to sacrifice a goat instead:

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

I never considered this strange biblical tale until I began reading Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” at Bard College as part of my voyage through existential literature. As it turns out, you can read the entire text at http://www.whitenationalism.com/etext/fear.htm. Although the owner of the website does not explicitly state what this ghastly tale has to do with white nationalism, you can surmise that as a defense of blind obedience to God, it strengthens the case that authority in and of itself is a good thing. As a guide to spirituality—whatever that means—it seems useless.

Despite all the attempts to wed “sky religions” with progressive values, it is always tales like Abraham and Isaac or God visiting plagues on the Egyptian people for the misdeeds of the tyrant who ruled over them that make me leery of all the god stuff. I can understand Parvez Sharma’s need for faith but ultimately the only belief that can sustain me as I grow older and more thoughtful about the big questions of life and death is that our salvation is in revolutionary change even though that requires a greater leap of faith than any story in the bible.

As might have been expected, the women who race cars in “Speed Sisters” are hardly involved in anything resembling Le Mans. The cars they drive are indistinguishable from ordinary road cars except for the fact that they have been stripped of extra weight and have souped-up engines.

The races are based not on head-to-head competitions on an oval track or a racecourse such as Le Mans but in contained spaces not much larger than a football field where the driver has to navigate through narrow paths on frequent right angles without straying off course. It is roughly analogous to an event like Le Mans as a miniature golf course is to the Masters in Augusta.

The three women in “Speed Sisters” are hardly what you imagine as the typical Palestinian. They are relatively affluent and altogether secular. Their main obstacle would seem to be the sheer difficulty of paying for a mixture of profession and hobby. The chief reward appears to be trophies they receive for turning in the best time at one of these events.

That being said, they run into the same challenges as any Palestinian, including hours spent trying to get through a checkpoint or dodging rubber bullets or tear gas during one of the many confrontations between activists and the IDF.

The story being told in “Speed Sisters” is not the same as a typical documentary about the Palestinian struggle but rather one of a group of women trying to achieve normalcy in highly abnormal conditions. As such they have an affinity with the gay people lining up to get married in “A Sinner in Mecca” during one scene taking place in New York that includes Parvez Sharma standing on line with his husband to be.

In trying to make it as a racer, the women have much in common with their counterparts in NASCAR country except for the fact that they are living under an occupation. Parvez Sharma makes films about gay Muslims being accepted on their own terms, including his own mother who was pleading with him to “find a nice girl” until her death from cancer.

As a dimension of revolutionary change in the 21st century, isn’t it about time we recognized that when people struggle to enjoy the same rights as those afforded to white, heterosexual Christians, the results can be explosive? That’s the ultimate contradiction of the struggle for democratic rights that the left has to cope with if it is to have any impact on the social struggles in the Middle East for sexual and political freedom.

May 10, 2015

Accident at Indian Point

Filed under: Film,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-10 at 3.25.37 PM

Just by coincidence, I got an email this morning from Michael Meeropol at the very minute I was watching a TV news report on an accident at Indian Point nuclear power plant. His email had nothing to do with the accident but it reminded me that I had planned to say a word or two about his daughter Ivy Meeropol’s documentary on Indian Point that I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival last month.

I should mention that this is not one of my favorite film festivals because a few years ago I was prevented from seeing a documentary about herring—of all things—by the festival staff because I had neglected to register for that showing but one later in the week. Even when the publicist intervened to tell them I was okay, I still could not get past them—as if I had a suicide bomb under my shirt or something.

There’s a certain irony, of course, in Ivy Meeropol making such a film since her grandparents were none other than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the subject of her first documentary in 2004. As the “atom spies”, they were charged with giving Russia “the secret” of how to make a nuclear weapon. For the longest time the left upheld the analysis of Walter and Miriam Schneir that they were wrongly accused. When it was revealed that Julius was passing information to the Soviets, the left had a feeling of being had. I always felt that the best tack would have been for them to admit it and defend it as necessary for the survival of the USSR. My strong suspicion is that if the Soviets lacked such a self-defense, WWIII would have taken place in the mid-50s with genocidal results.

As for the accident, a representative from Entergy, the vultures who own the plant, told viewers that the transformer fire took place in a building separate from the reactor and posed no danger (except of course, for the toxins that poured into the air and the water). CNN’s report was par for the course:

A transformer failure at the Indian Point nuclear power plant caused an explosion and fire at the facility Saturday evening, sending billows of black smoke into the air near Buchanan, New York.

The fire broke out on the non-nuclear side of the plant, about 200 yards away from the reactor building, according to Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi.

“The fire is out and the plant is safe and stable,” Nappi said. Federal officials said one reactor unit automatically shut down.

Meeropol’s film had unprecedented access. Not only does she take you through a guided tour of the innards of Indian Point, she was also able to take her crew through the Fukushima wreckage in what was obviously a risk to her health and safety. In addition, she managed to gain the confidence of the guy at Indian Point who was responsible for maintaining safety in the same fashion as Jack Lemmon in “China Syndrome”. Since the guy rides a motorcycle to work rather than a Prius, that struck me as less than reassuring.

Gregory Jaczko


Corey Stoll

The star of the movie is Gregory Jaczko, who was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Corey Stoll who played the Congressman was used as a tool by Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”. While not quite an anti-nuclear convert after the fashion of Jack Lemmon’s character, Jaczko became convinced after Fukushima that tighter safety standards were required in the industry. For this, the NRC decided to dump him but not on the basis of his call for safer procedures but for alleged misconduct as a manager. After he was dismissed, they were able to document that none of the charges such as verbal abuse to underlings had any merit. It was simply the case that the industry, including Entergy, did not want to pony up the extra money to make the plants safer.

There is some question whether any amount of money could make Indian Point safer. By everybody’s admission, the plant was already obsolete in the 1970s so not only were power transformers ready to blow, so was just about everything else in the plant. The New York Daily News, a rightwing tabloid, reported four years ago:

Federal inspectors found “near-miss” accidents at Indian Point on the Hudson and 13 other U.S. nuclear power plants last year, a watchdog group charged on Thursday.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission data, claimed that “many of these significant events occurred because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerated known safety problems.”

In the inspection of Indian Point about 25 miles from New York City, NRC auditors found that “the liner of a refueling cavity at Unit 2 has been leaking since at least 1993.”

The USC report charged that “By allowing this reactor to continue operating with equipment that cannot perform its only safety function, the NRC is putting people living around Indian Point at elevated and undue risk.”

In addition to interviewing industry officials and Indian Point personnel, Meeropol put the spotlight on an activist named Marilyn Elie, a retired schoolteacher who lived only a few miles from Indian Point. Understandably, she and other local folk would worry about a potential Chernobyl in their midst. For that matter, given the plant’s proximity to New York City, all of us should get involved with shutting the plant down since a catastrophe just thirty-five miles from Manhattan would be a threat to our lives as well.

As someone with a longstanding concern about saltwater and freshwater life, I was particularly outraged by the plant’s cooling method, which is to suck in water from the Hudson to cool the reactors and then cycle it back out to the river at many degrees higher than is safe for fish. In fact, this is the Achilles Heel of the plant. It has been denied a license renewal because the water cooling technology has been deemed inimical to the river’s health and safety—leaving aside the whole question of a Fukushima type meltdown. Given the likelihood that Entergy will not spend the money to replace the cooling system and that Governor Cuomo is opposed to it in toto, there is a good chance that the reactor will be history after 2015. Let’s hope that Meeropol’s documentary gets shown on PBS, where it will scare the bejeezus out of New Yorkers who wouldn’t cotton to the idea of a Fukushima type meltdown ruining their runs in Central Park and Sunday brunches at outdoor tables.

Speaking of which, the film took us on a tour into the area where spent fuel rods are kept. This, to put it as gingerly as possible, is a disaster waiting to happen. Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek reporter of longstanding and hardly a Marxist “catastrophist”, informed his readers of the risk:

The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima reactors has set off calls to close nuclear power plants around the world. But closing reactors alone would do nothing to address what caused the real damage in Japan—the spent fuel rods that are supposed to be cooling in pools. When three of the seven pools were damaged, and in one case entirely drained, by the tsunami, the spent rods began emitting high levels of radiation.

The United States has about 100 such spent fuel pools. I visited one a few years ago at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which sits up the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York. Indian Point is back in the news because it operates a mere 35 miles outside New York City. More than 20 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the plant. Getting out in the case of a disaster would be a nightmare.

Getting in wasn’t easy either. But after taking a course called “radiation training,” undergoing a “dose assessment” (to be measured against my readings afterward, which showed less exposure than to an X-ray) and passing a written test on how to handle myself in a confined space, I was finally allowed to enter the facility. Clad in the jumpsuit, helmet, goggles, and booties made famous by Homer Simpson, I expected to be transfixed by the fully operating core of the reactor just a few feet in front of me.

Instead it was the 38-foot-deep pools, with the spent rods lying at the bottom, that scared me. Unlike the reactor, the pools aren’t “hardened targets” protected from earthquakes or terrorists by a concrete containment dome. At least at Indian Point, the pools lie in bedrock. In the Fukushima facility, and at many American plants, they are above ground, with roofs not much thicker than those at your local swim meet.

I learned that day of a process called “dry cask storage” that seems to offer a safer alternative. In dry casking, a technology that dates to the 1980s but has only been adopted in recent years, the rods are housed outdoors in storage pads 3 feet thick and 100 feet by 200 feet wide. While this sounds promising, it turns out dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.

Dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.

At Indian Point, authorities only began dry casking in 2008 because the pools were so crowded that there wasn’t room for newly spent rods coming out of the reactor. According to Entergy, the company that owns the Indian Point plant, “reconfiguration of the spent fuel pool is not part of the dry cask storage project.” In other words, the pools won’t be drained any time soon, at least not intentionally.

Finally, I recommend that you acquaint yourself with the Riverkeeper website, a group that has been spearheading opposition to Indian Point and whose members are given a platform in the documentary. I especially urge a look at their “Ten Reasons to Close Indian Point” that should gain the widest attention alongside Ivy Meeropol’s documentary.

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