Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 30, 2015

Samuel Farber’s dodgy reference to Cuban per capita income under Batista

Filed under: cuba — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

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A study in mendacity

On June 10th an article titled “Cuba’s Challenge” by Samuel Farber appeared in Jacobin that was sufficiently wrongheaded to provoke me into writing a response. Not long after his book “Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959” was published by Haymarket in 2011 (the ISO publishing wing), I had plans to write a systematic critique but terminated the project after the first installment that dealt with his claim that the government had imposed a Stalinist straightjacket on culture.

Although I find Farber’s scholarship on Cuba always in need of a rebuttal, I had simply lost the motivation for the time being back in 2012 to answer him because of the Cuban government’s wretched support for the dictatorships in Libya and Syria. I was especially upset with articles that were appearing in Prensa Latina that were indistinguishable from the garbage on Global Research et al. I suppose that the naked brutality of the Baathist dictatorship plus Cuba’s rapprochement with the USA might have had the effect of toning down Cuban media. It is too bad that it had not followed an independent and radical editorial position from the start.

Turning to Farber’s article, it makes the case that despite the misery in the countryside, things were pretty good for the urban working class:

On the eve of the 1959 Revolution, Cuba had the fourth highest per capita income in Latin America, after Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina.

In terms of its material reality, the Cuba of the fifties was on the one hand characterized by uneven modernity, fairly advanced means of communication and transportation — especially the high circulation, by Latin American standards, of newspapers and magazines — and the rapid development of television and radio. On the other hand, there were abysmal living conditions in the Cuban countryside.

For those who follow Cubanology, Farber’s article will ring a bell. The notion of Castro’s guerrillas coming in and disrupting an economy that was doing pretty good is widespread. For example, Marianne Ward and John Devereux wrote this abstract for their article “The Road Not Taken: Pre-Revolutionary Cuban Living Standards in Comparative Perspective” that appeared in March 2012 The Journal of Economic History:

We examine Cuban GDP over time and across space. We find that Cuba was once a prosperous middle-income economy. On the eve of the revolution, incomes were 50 to 60 percent of European levels. They were among the highest in Latin America at about 30 percent of the United States. In relative terms, Cuba was richer earlier on. Income per capita during the 1920s was in striking distance of Western Europe and the Southern United States. After the revolution, Cuba slipped down the world income distribution. Current levels of income per capita appear below their pre-revolutionary peaks.

You can find the same sort of thing in Manuel Marquez-Sterling’s  “Cuba 1952-1959: The True Story of Castro’s Rise to Power”:

The image of a country sunk in abject poverty and illiteracy, its people exploited by raw and rapacious American capitalism, together with a bloodthirsty and reactionary tyrant who guaranteed the exploiters the permanency of the status quo is just a grotesque myth. In 1958 Cuba was a rapidly developing country with an enterprising progressive, and well-educated middle class. And no mean part of this development and progress had been achieved during Batista’s years from 1952 to 1959.

There’s not much to distinguish Farber from these accounts except for his customary invocations for the need for democratic socialism and all the rest. It is too bad that he does not understand that in order to build a democratic socialist society, there is a need for honesty and transparency including from intellectuals who are expected to be scrupulously devoted to the truth.

When Farber writes “On the eve of the 1959 Revolution, Cuba had the fourth highest per capita income in Latin America, after Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina”, he sweeps one important detail under the rug, namely the cost of living. It doesn’t matter if the working-class in Havana was earning nearly the equivalent of an Argentine worker if the cost of living was many times greater than it was in Buenos Aires. For someone writing about the Cuban standard of living in such a decontextualized manner this is worse than being sloppy. It is a violation of the kind of intellectual honesty we expect from someone representing himself as a socialist. It rather reeks of Time Magazine or the Miami Herald.

If you want to get the real story on the urban working class in Cuba during the 1950s, I recommend Louis A. Perez Jr.’s “Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution”, a welcome antidote to Samuel Farber’s dishonest, self-serving and ideologically toxic assault on the revolution in Cuba that has largely succeeded despite repeated attempts to strangle it.

From chapter 10 of Perez (The Eclipse of Old Cuba):

Despite this appearance of well-being, the Cuban middle class was in crisis. The decade of the 1950s was a period of mounting instability and growing uncertainty. Middle-class expectations that the return of Batista in 1952 would end political turmoil proved short-lived and illusory. By the mid-1950s, Cuba was again in the grip of political violence and personal insecurity. The malaise went deeper, however, than unsettled political conditions. To be sure, by prevailing measurements of economic development Cuba boasted of one of the highest standards of living in Latin America. In 1957, Cuba enjoyed among the highest per capita income in Latin America, ranked second at $374 after Venezuela ($857). Only Mexico and Brazil exceeded Cuba in the number of radios owned by individuals (1 for every 6.5 inhabitants). The island ranked first in television sets (1 per 25 inhabitants). Daily average food consumption was surpassed only by Argentina and Uruguay. Cuba was first in telephones (1 to 38), newspapers (1 copy per 8 inhabitants), private motor vehicles (1 to 40), and rail mileage per square mile (1 to 4). An estimated 58 percent of all housing units had electricity. By 1953, 76 percent of the population was literate, the fourth highest literacy rate in Latin America after Argentina (86 per-cent), Chile (79.5 percent), and Costa Rica (79.4 percent).

The apparent affluence enjoyed by Cuba, however, concealed tensions and frustrations that extended both vertically and horizontally through Cuban society. The fluctuations of the export economy continued to create conditions of apprehension that affected all classes. The deepening political crisis of the 1950s exacerbated this uncertainty and, together with an uncertain economy, contributed to eroding the security of middle-class Cubans. They found little cornfort in statistical tallies that touted their high level of material consumption and placed the island near the top of the scale of per capita income in Latin America. The social reality was quite different. Cuba was integrated directly into the larger U.S. economic system and the concomitant consumption patterns. While Cubans enjoyed a remarkably high per capita income in Latin American terms, they lived within a North American cost of living index. Cuba enjoyed a material culture underwritten principally by imports from the United States. While Cuban currency and wages remained comparatively stable through the 1950s, consumption of foreign imports, in the main North American products, increased dramatically from $515 million in 1950 to $649 million in 1956 to $777 million in 1958. Cubans paid North American prices at a time when the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar was declining and the U.S. consumer price index was rising. The United States, not Latin America, served as the frame of reference for Cubans. And against this measure, the Cuban per capita income of $374 paled against the U.S. per capita of $2,000, or even that of Mississippi, the poorest state, at $1,000. Life in Havana, further, was considerably more expensive than in any North American city. Havana ranked among the world’s most expensive cities—fourth after Caracas, Ankara, and Manila. In 1954, Havana had the largest number of Cadillacs per capita of any city in the world.

Cubans participated directly in and depended entirely on the North American economic system in very much the same fashion as U.S. citizens, but without access to U.S. social service programs and at employment and wage levels substantially lower than their North American counterparts. It was a disparity keenly felt in Cuba, a source of much frustration and anxiety. Middle-class Cubans in the 1950s perceived their standard of living in decline as they fell behind the income advances in the United States. These perceptions were not without substance, for even the much-acclaimed Cuban per capita income represented a standard of living in stagnation. Between 1952 and 1954, the decline in the international sugar market precipitated the first in a series of recessions in the Cuban economy during the decade. Per capita income declined by 18 percent, neutralizing the slow gains made during the postwar period. In 1958, the Cuban per capita income was at about the same level as it had been in 1947. Increasingly, middle-class Cubans were losing ground, losing the ability to sustain the consumption patterns to which they had become accustomed.

No amount of favorable comparisons with per capita income in Latin America could reduce Cuban resentment over their predicament. Economist Levi Marrero expressed dismay in 1954 that while Cuba’s per capita income was twice as high as Latin America, it was five times lower than U.S. levels, and he asked rhetorically: “Why this Cuban poverty?” Three years later, writer Antonio Llanes Montes expressed a similar complaint: “Although one hears daily of the prosperity that Cuba is now experiencing, the fact is that the workers and the middle class find it more difficult each day to subsist owing to the scarcity of articles of basic necessity?’

June 29, 2015

Greeks rally for “no” vote

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 9:55 pm

From the NY Times:
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Greeks on Monday gathered in Syntagma Square outside the Parliament to support the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his call for a July 5 referendum on whether to accept proposals by European creditors that his government rejected.

An estimated 20,000 people, many waving flags and some beating drums and chanting slogans against austerity measures, rallied for a “no” vote that risks Greece’s exit from the eurozone.

The protest was peaceful, and had been encouraged by Mr. Tsipras’s Syriza party.

Response to EI article (Electronic Intifada)

Filed under: Syria,zionism — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

Response to EI article (Electronic Intifada).


The failure of the Palestine solidarity movement in the West to follow the lead of the Palestinian movement inside Syria, the vast majority of whom oppose the government despite the costs, in offering solidarity to the Syrian uprising or at least the victims of the situation, is something that will be remembered badly in history, although there is still time to change course. (http://beyondcompromise.com/2014/01/23/declaration-of-a-shared-fate/http://beyondcompromise.com/2014/01/18/while-you-were-neutral-about-yarmouk/).

​The “Israel backs Jabhat al-Nusra” fairy-tale and its deadly consequences

Filed under: Syria,zionism — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

​The “Israel backs Jabhat al-Nusra” fairy-tale and its deadly consequences.

June 28, 2015

Israel, the Druze and a murdered FSA rebel

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 12:05 am

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Commentary on Facebook by Sam Charles Hamad: Pro-Assad Druze pulled this fellow out of an ambulance and murdered him as the IDF watched on. He was slandered by Israeli Jews and Israeli Druze, for absolutely no good reason, as being a member of Jabhat an-Nusra, yet his name is Munther Khalil and he was a fighter with the Free Syrian Army. In fact, right-wing Israelis are still slandering him and justifying his murder because some injured Syrian fighter being treated in Israel made sectarian statements in an interview with some Israeli TV channel, which apparently means that murdering any Syrian fighter is perfectly understandable.

June 27, 2015

Runoff; Our Daily Poison

Filed under: Ecology,Film,food — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

Two recent films deal with a topic that is central to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in the midst of, namely the toxic chemicals that are intrinsic to industrial farming, the gains of the so-called Green Revolution.

The first is a narrative film titled “Runoff” that opened yesterday at Village East in New York. It is about the struggle of a family-run farm to stay afloat as agribusiness closes in around them. Their income comes from the crops they sell, including at a roadside stand of the type that was ubiquitous to the upstate NY county I grew up in, and farm supplies—mostly pesticides and herbicides that modern farming relies on.They are just one step ahead of bank foreclosure and forced to consider breaking the law in order to come up with the funds necessary to stay afloat.

The second is a documentary titled “Our Daily Poison” that is available as a DVD from Icarus films. Although it is an English-language feature, it was directed by a French woman named Marie-Monique Robin who also wrote a book of the same title. It is an investigative report on the incestuous ties between big business and the government regulators who are charged with protecting the public when in fact they are far more interested in protecting profits.

In “Runoff”, the questioning of chemicals is only implicit as the husband and wife lead characters rely on questionable sales to keep a roof over their head. As mom-and-pop business owners, their nemesis is not the agricultural-chemical complex but a competitor that has systematically wooed away all their old customers and is now angling to buy their land from beneath their feet. After a banker pays them a visit to demand the mortgage payments they owe him, the wife decides to resort to desperate measures. She agrees to dispose of chemicals illegally on behalf of a farmer who used to be their customer in order to save him some money. The money she makes from dumping the chemicals into a nearby river will help keep the roof over her head and presumably allow the family to continue doing a business that although legal is a crime against nature and humanity.

Director Kimberly Levin was trained as a biochemist and worked in Kentucky where the film was made on a shoestring budget (she also attended NYU film school.) She had a project lined up with HBO that starred James Gandolfini as a mob-affiliated New Jersey restaurant owner who becomes a government agent conspiring against North Korea (shades of “The Interview”) but his death put a kibosh on it. Maybe her enthusiasm for that project carried over into this film since dumping toxic chemicals into a river is so…Tony Soprano.

I can recommend this film but only as a fascinating study of how farms operate today. Filmed on location near Louisville, chemicals seem ubiquitous with an airplane crop duster reminiscent of “North by Northwest” and the male lead injecting hogs with antibiotics administered through something that looks like a pistol.

In a way, the film reminded me of “Promised Land”, the Matt Damon vehicle about fracking that deliberately avoided any kind of “message” about the dubious technology but preferred to tell a story about how the main character got deceived by a company plant whose dishonest advocacy undermined a local struggle against fracking. As an unrepentant Marxist, I guess I prefer the message.

Message aplenty is what lies in store for you in “Our Daily Poison”, a movie whose title should tell you were its heart is.

The film is divided roughly into three parts. The first takes you to a farming region in France where the director grew up and where local farmer’s health has been ravaged by exposure to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides (mushroom killers) whose use became widespread after WWII when the Green Revolution arrived in France as part of a Marshall Plan meant to bring prosperity to farmers and the people who consumed their products. Of course, a certain amount of prosperity was enjoyed even if it cost people their physical well-being. We meet a group of farmers who have been plagued by one health problem or another, including Parkinson’s which seems to be an epidemic among those who used chemicals.

Part two shows the impact of the crops that come out of industrial farming on the general public. In some truly eye-opening scenes, we see the director pressing regulators in the FDA or their European counterparts to defend their arbitrary guidelines for ADI (Admissible Daily Intake). This is the amount of chemicals you can ingest with your apples or green peas, defined as a percentage of your body weight. The Europeans, despite their reputation for being less bought off by evil corporations, are much worse than the Americans with people serving on regulatory bodies who are serving as consultants to outfits like Monsanto.

Part three deals with chemical additives that become part of the circulation of commodities after they are harvested, either as sweeteners, preservatives and the like as well as the plastic that encases them.

One of the more egregious examples of how government and big business conspire against the consumer is how Donald Rumsfeld greased the slids that made the deployment of aspartame on a massive scale possible. That word might not ring a bell but you probably know it as Nutrasweet, the sweetener in Diet Coke, a drink that will never pass through my lips again, and a million other foodstuffs.

A Huffington Post article on all this is quite useful:

In 1985, Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle, the chemical company that held the patent to aspartame, the active ingredient in NutraSweet. Monsanto was apparently untroubled by aspartame’s clouded past, including the report of a 1980 FDA Board of Inquiry, comprised of three independent scientists, which confirmed that it “might induce brain tumors.” The FDA had previously banned aspartame based on this finding, only to have then-Searle Chairman Donald Rumsfeld vow to “call in his markers,” to get it approved. Here’s how it happened:

Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president January 21, 1981. Rumsfeld, while still CEO at Searle, was part of Reagan’s transition team. This team hand-picked Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., to be the new FDA commissioner. Dr. Hayes, a pharmacologist, had no previous experience with food additives before being appointed director of the FDA. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Reagan issued an executive order eliminating the FDA commissioners’ authority to take action and Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use aspartame in food sweetener. Hayes, Reagan’s new FDA commissioner, appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry’s decision. It soon became clear that the panel would uphold the ban by a 3-2 decision. So Hayes installed a sixth member on the commission, and the vote became deadlocked. He then personally broke the tie in aspartame’s favor.

One of Hayes’ first official acts as FDA chief was to approve the use of aspartame as an artificial sweetener in dry goods on July 18, 1981. In order to accomplish this feat, Hayes had to overlook the scuttled grand jury investigation of Searle, overcome the Bressler Report, ignore the PBOI’s recommendations and pretend aspartame did not chronically sicken and kill thousands of lab animals. Hayes left his post at the FDA in November, 1983, amid accusations that he was accepting corporate gifts for political favors. Just before leaving office in scandal, Hayes approved the use of aspartame in beverages. After Hayes left the FDA under allegations of impropriety, he served briefly as Provost at New York Medical College, and then took a position as a high-paid senior medical advisor with Burson-Marsteller, the chief public relations firm for both Monsanto and GD Searle. Since that time he has never spoken publicly about aspartame. FYI, here’s Rachel Maddow on Burson-Marsteller: “When Evil needs public relations, Evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.” Evil, thy name is chemical food additives.

In the closing moments of the film that was shot in Orissa, an Indian state, I found myself troubled by the implications of its critique of industrial farming—not that I would ever take the side of Monsanto but finding myself wondering about how we can move to a healthier world.

It seems that the people of Orissa never get cancer. That we are told is a function of their healthy lifestyle—they grow their own food and have no environmental problems to deal with like air pollution from factories or automobiles. What the film does not mention is that nearly 3000 farmers committed suicide in the last 10 years, victims of the same sort of economic desperation depicted in “Runoff”. Nor does it consider what it means for the world to adopt the mode of production in a place like Orissa even if it means avoiding cancer. Minutes after watching the film, I told my wife that for people accustomed to urban life in an industrial society, where cancer is a virtual epidemic, the life of an Orissa farmer might be a fate worse than death.

Somehow there must be a resolution of the environmental/capitalist crisis that promotes healthy living in a setting that is far less “advanced” than the one that we live in now. Surrounded by luxury buildings in New York City that are becoming homes to Russian oligarchs and CVS stores on every block, that would be the best outcome for me even if it was a disaster to the superrich who live a few blocks to the west of me on Fifth Avenue.

June 26, 2015

Gunther Schuller Dies at 89; Composer Synthesized Classical and Jazz

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

The NY Times obituary  for Gunther Schuller is must-reading for anybody interested in contemporary music. It pays tribute to him both as an avant-garde composer of atonal music but also as a pioneer of what was known as the “Third Stream” in the 1950s and 60s, an attempt to bridge the gap between classical music and jazz that was epitomized by the Modern Jazz Quartet. To some extent, Schuller was merely expanding upon earlier works of synthesis such as George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” that was written for Woody Herman, and Darius Milhaud’s “Creation of the World”, a ballet score that the composer wrote after being exposed to jazz in Harlem in the 1920s.

Although I have no deep insights about Schuller’s politics except that he hated racism, the MJQ saw the Third Stream as a way of breaking with the notion that jazz was “entertainment” served up for white audiences as some kind of “jungle music”. Ironically, Duke Ellington, one of the men most responsible for attempting to bridge the gap between classical and jazz, performed “jungle music” in the 1920s himself. Who said that popular culture and race were not complicated matters?

Schuller certainly was aware of the cognitive dissonances in his discussion of Paul Whiteman and Jimmy Lunceford, who was about as close to Duke Ellington in his mastery of the big band style even if he never reached Ellington’s prominence. To some, the aptly named Whiteman was the prototypical white appropriator of a Black style, in effect the Elvis Presley of his day who was the first to perform “Rhapsody in Blue”. In Schuller’s indispensable “The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945”, he ties the strands together in a brilliant synthesis:

Paul Whiteman in his biography Jazz writes of his father that he was “the best-balanced man” he ever knew—”He never had a drink until he was fifty-five and never smoked until he was sixty”—and he added that he was always “keen on athletics.” That happens to be also a perfect description of Lunceford.’ After taking a bachelor’s degree in music at Fisk University, followed by graduate work there and at New York’s City College (while working with the bands of Elmer Snowden and Wilbur Sweatman), Lunceford went to Memphis and taught music and athletics (sic) at Manassa High School. Here he met Wilcox and Smith, and when they went on to Fisk for further study, Lunceford followed them, and became an assistant professor of music at Fisk. By the time Wilcox and Smith graduated, the band, conceived back in Memphis, developed further at Fisk, and having added in the meantime two outstanding rhythm men—Moses Allen (bass) and Jimmy Crawford (drums)—had already acquired a considerable reputation throughout the South.

It is clear that Lunceford tried to emulate his teacher, Whiteman, Sr., in the same way that Wilcox and Smith at heart regarded Lunceford as their teacher and emulated his sense of discipline and exacting musicianship. Lunceford in fact was in some ways a black Paul Whiteman—down to leading his band with a long white baton.

But the similarities go further. Like the Whiteman orchestra, Lunceford’s band carried a whole retinue of arrangers; he insisted on painstaking rehearsing to achieve the highest possible technical and musical proficiency; he insisted further on playing a wide variety of that music most favored by audiences, developing among other things, like Whiteman, a superb dance orchestra. Lunceford also stressed in the band’s on-stage behavior—as John Lewis was to do with the Modern jazz Quartet twenty-five years later—that music was a profession to be respected and that, if musicians wanted to be considered respectable, they might begin by treating their music and their profession with respect. This was in startling contrast to the conduct ascribed to jazz musicians, then—and, alas, even now—as rather vulgar gin-guzzling inebriates, disreputable Don Juans, and worthless spendthrifts.

Lunceford would have none of that attitude in his band and cultivated a quite different image. As Wilcox said of Lunceford: “He didn’t like anything done sloppily, and that carried into his music.”

I am aware that for many jazz fans to link a musician to classical and “serious” training and, worse yet, to portray him as a disciple of Paul Whiteman amount to absolute anathema. But that is another myth that jazz in its maturity might finally dispense with. The notion that a black musician “tainted- by formal training of one kind or another is thereby inherently less of a jazz musician reveals a special inverse racism, as deplorable as its opposite. The theory of pedigree in jazz is simplistic at best. A man, a musician, is what he is; and what he produces as a musician is the sum total of all his talents. A musician’s antecedents and heritage neither guarantee nor preclude talent and quality, although they certainly may define and predetermine some of its characteristics. It is precisely those specific personal. intellectual, emotional, and psychological qualities in Lunceford’s makeup, influenced by his background and early training, that determined to a very large measure the quality of the Lunceford band’s music-making—its strengths as well as its weaknesses. That it was for some years one of the very finest jazz orchestras of its time is undeniable; and we cannot rewrite history in order to reconcile it with some preconceived premise. Not all white influences on black music are automatically negative in impact—starting with the early black ragtime and jazz musicians’ assimilation of white European harmony.

One thing that is not mentioned in the NY Times obituary was at least for me one of his greatest accomplishments—hosting a show in the early 60s on WBAI called “Contemporary Music in Evolution”. You can get a feel for how much the station has degraded by looking at program guide from 1960:

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It was that year that I first heard about WBAI and became determined to listen to it in my tiny village in the Catskill Mountains, a hundred miles from NYC. I had read somewhere, probably in Time or Newsweek, that there was this radio station in NY that had some daring offbeat programming. So hungry was I for something like this that I persuaded my father to have our local TV repairman mount an FM antenna at the top of a telephone pole in our backyard. You can imagine my glee when the signal came through loud and clear.

Up until I started listening to  “Contemporary Music in Evolution”, my knowledge of classical music was limited to the records I got from the RCA Victor Record Club or occasional jaunts into NYC to pick up vinyl at Sam Goody’s near Times Square. Mostly that meant listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, et al. Schuller’s goal was to illustrate how late 20th century atonal music, including the 12 tone style he favored, had antecedents in Debussy, Ravel, Mahler, and other composers who were still wedded to tonality. This meant serious and discussion on the air of excerpts from a piece like “Afternoon of a Faun” to point out how chromaticism opened the door to atonality. It was the most mind-blowing education I got in music that a lower middle-class child of high school graduates could have possibly gotten.

God bless Gunther Schuller. May he rest in peace.

New York Asian Film Festival 2015

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:57 pm
The New York Asian Film Festival 2015

Turning Oppressive Reality Into Great Art


In 1956, when I was 11 years old, I saw my first Japanese film or more accurately a parody of a Japanese film shown on the Sid Caesar show. Called “U-Bet-U”, it was obviously a take-off on “Ugetsu Monogatari”, a 1953 film that along with “Rashomon” helped introduce Japanese films to American audiences.

Three years later I saw the original at a special screening at my local high school one evening. My mother had heard that it was a masterpiece and brought me there to see an alternative to Martin and Lewis comedies and John Wayne westerns. I can’t say that I understood “Ugetsu” but it was my first inkling that a hipper world existed. The appearance of the SUNY New Paltz film professor who came there to introduce the film made more of an impression on me than the movie. With the suede patches on his tweed sports jacket and his closely cropped beard, he was the first bohemian I had ever laid eyes on.

Fast forward two years later and I am a freshman at Bard deeply immersed in some of the greatest films I have ever seen, including masterpieces made by Akira Kurosawa who was in his prime. Ever since those days, Japanese films have remained the gold standard for me, joined in later years by those made in China and Korea. I was never quite convinced that Andre Gunder Frank’s “Re-Orient” was correct in its projections that the East would become a global hegemon just as it was before Europe’s rise in the 15th century, but when it comes to film, I need no convincing—most often after I have seen some of the films offered at the annual New York Asian Film Festival whose latest installment runs from June 26th to July 11th (http://www.subwaycinema.com/nyaff15/). The four films under review below should persuade anybody in the greater New York area to check the schedule and buy some tickets. If the term “race to the bottom” is most often associated with factories moving to Asia, suffice it to say that it is just as applicable to the current morass in a bottom-line oriented Hollywood.

read full article

Trailers for reviewed films:

Whistleblower — unavailable with English subtitles

June 25, 2015

The Jewish Voice for Peace Attack on Alison Weir: JVP Loses Its Balance

Filed under: Palestine,zionism — louisproyect @ 1:11 pm

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A guest post by Amith Gupta, NYU Law Student

Feel free to forward this widely. Contact me if you would like to publish some or all of it.

A personal note: I did not intend on sending this or discussing this any further. But, for the last three years, I have been pushed and pushed to speak about Alison Weir, not out of support for her politics, but out of alienation by those who have attacked her.

Below is a consolidated version of some of the things I have written to associates on organizing lists about the recent statement by Jewish Voices for Peace to malign Alison Weir, which was mass-mailed to various chapters and list-servs. I did not intend to write anything further, but I have had ten people contact me to tell me to spread this further in 24 hours.

These comments are NOT made out of support for If Americans Knew NOR out of opposition to Jewish Voice for Peace. These comments should NOT be read as a defense of any unnamed persons who have separately been accused of anti-Semitism, nor should they be interpreted to suggest that anti-Semitism is not a problem or that it does not exist.

These comments are ENTIRELY PERSONAL and do not constitute endorsement from ANY organization with which I have worked or currently work with, and do not necessarily imply agreement from any of the individuals mentioned or cited. They should not appear as an endorsement of any particular individual or group that shares or circulates them.

These are made for the movement, as a whole, which desperately needs internal criticism of its increasingly problematic and racist politics.

1) Disclaimer: I do not have any formal or organizational affiliation with Alison Weir or her organization, If Americans Knew.

2) My personal experience with the smear campaign against Weir.

3) JVP’s entire accusation against Weir is based on guilt by association and could easily apply to some of the most prominent voices in the movement for Palestine solidarity, including Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Dilip Hiro, Ilan Pappe, Jennifer Loewenstein, Ray McGovern, Joseph Massad, Norman Finkelstein, Glenn Greenwald, Pete McCloskey, Philip Weiss, Richard Falk, John Mearsheimer, Lenni Brenner, and Rachel Corrie’s parents.

a. Alison Weir has not endorsed nor agreed with the racist views expressed by those with whom she has been associated

b. It is unwise to expect Weir or anyone else to completely ignore the communities that are vulnerable to such racism (see below).

4) Inaccurate and hypocritical accusations of ethnic chauvinism

a. Losing Balance: While JVP alleges that IAK downplays the value of Palestinian voices, it is JVP which is constructed on seeing Jewish voices as “particularly legitimateaccording to the JVP website.

b. If Americans Knew and Alison Weir have been principled and expansive in working with Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinian/Arab-Americans, including the Al-Awda Right to Return Coalition and the Beit Sahour-based International Middle East Media Center; both organizations are run and staffed by Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans. The organization has publicly and explicitly supported the full Palestinian-led call for BDS since at least 2006.

c. JVP has not been principled in working with Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinian/Arab-Americans, barring its chapters from working with groups of any ethnicity that take overtly anti-Zionist slogans and politically vetting those Middle Easterners and Muslims with whom they work. It also took JVP ten years to endorse the full BDS call.

d. JVP ‘s statement appears to suggest that Jews alone can define anti-Semitism, despite knowing that such accusations can implicate racism and violence against Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian communities. This is a form of ethnic chauvinism.

e. JVP’s statement suggests that all Jews are somehow personally or familially connected to Israel, a restatement of Zionism

f. JVP’s statement suggests that American imperialism and warfare benefits Americans as a whole, undermining the American anti-war movement and contradicting prior stances that JVP has taken

5) JVP has taken at least 4 different positions on Zionism, implying a lack of any principle regarding racism and colonialism against Palestine in particular and the Middle East as a whole.

a. Open-Ended: JVP’s guidelines state a refusal to state their beliefs in terms of the word “Zionism”

b. Restricted: JVP’s guidelines state that their chapters are banned from working with organizations that use “anti-Zionist demands or slogans”, presumably including Al-Awda and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network

c. Pro-Zionist: JVP interprets Jews, as a group, to be connected to the Middle East, which is Zionism (see above).

d. Anti-Zionist when condemning anti-Semitism: JVP has recirculated letters that explicitly argue that Zionism is a form of racism in the context of disavowing a British-Israeli author for his apparently anti-Jewish statements. The statement against this man is included in their statement against Weir. The implication is that condemning Zionism as a form of racism is acceptable, provided the condemnation is made while disavowing someone for anti-Semitism.

e. JVP’s statements imply a lack of principled positions regarding racism against Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims, while taking a staunch position against perceived racism toward the Jewish community. This is a racist double-standard.

6) Racism, Colonialism, and Identity Politics

a. Optics & the White Gaze: JVP and IAK are both “identitarian” groups that have sought to navigate the maze of racism in the United States.

b. The racist and colonial roots of anti-Semitism allegations against Palestine solidarity organizers per se.

c. While neither group has navigated perfectly, JVP’s position in particular is highly problematic and warrants serious criticism.

7) JVP has taken an inconsistent position on engagement with “the Right” and those who are in danger of being misled and exploited by xenophobic, right-wing racism.

a. My personal experiences with right-wing racism as a person of color and the son of immigrants.

b. The roots of “the right” and the dangers of ignoring their misguided flock.

c. JVP has not opposed engagement with right-wing elements of the Jewish or Israeli communities.

8) Other Resources that I consider informative.

a. Noam Chomsky on accusations of anti-Semitism within left-wing and anti-racist movements.

b. Joseph Massad: “Sartre, European Intellectuals, and Zionism”

c. Philip Weiss: “Conservatives for Palestine”

d. Norman Finkelstein on ADL anti-Semitism survey and what qualifies as anti-Semitism

e. Louis Proyect: “The Anti-Semitism Canard”

f. Lenni Brenner, “The Demographics of American Jews”

g. Jacobin Magazine: Checkered History of Palestine and the Left

9) Addendum: Spencer Sunshine’s PRA attack on Alison Weir and “Campus Anti-Semitism”

a. The original report

b. The attack on Weir

I) Disclaimer

I have no association with Alison Weir outside of meeting her a few times at activist summits/conferences. I recommended her website to others in the early 2000s when If Americans Knew and electronicintifada were the only pro-Palestinian news sources I knew of, and when I was in college I constructed a banner with the website on it. The last time I saw her, I believe it was when she was the keynote speaker at the convention for Al-Awda, the Right of Return Coalition, which is a large-scale, broad-based Palestinian anti-Zionist organization.

Nonetheless, I find JVP’s statement highly, highly problematic.

II) The Smear Campaign

I’ve never seen someone’s name dragged through the mud as with her. In the past, I worked with an organization at the national level. At the time, I did not know that there was any real controversy regarding how she was perceived; I had only ever heard one person suggest she was an anti-Semite, and I assumed it was just a personal difference. I had seen Alison Weir give a short workshop at the 2012 “Occupy AIPAC!” summit that was organized by Code Pink, so I contacted Weir’s organization about either giving a workshop or tabling at a conference with the organization I was working with. I let the other organizers know, some of them flipped out, claiming she was an anti-Semite. I asked why they believed so, and they responded by accusing me of lacking trust (even though I didn’t know any of these people except via internet), and it was a long, drawn out, angry battle from there.

I was never given any actual reason why they believed she was anti-Semitic. It honestly intimidated me that a people whom I barely knew were willing to label someone else I barely knew an anti-Semite, without being able to at least explain why they felt this way. It scared me, because it made me think that these organizers could have easily made the same accusations against me, no reasoning necessary. It reminded me of COINTELPRO.

After the episode was resolved, one of the organizers posted a link to the letter referenced in the JVP statement in which several Palestinians disavow racism, as if to suggest that those of us who did not agree with the accusations against Weir were ourselves guilty of racism.

III) Guilt By Association

So it is worth giving JVP credit for at least explaining why they feel that Alison Weir is bigoted. But I think the reasons they have given are problematic. JVP points out that Weir gave interviews to a right-wing extremist, and, in their view, failed to properly challenge racist and bigoted statements made by the host.

But appearing on someone’s radio show, including a bigot’s, doesn’t exactly imply an endorsement. Weir also claims that she did express disagreement when those bigoted ideas were voiced, but in either case, it seems like JVP is quite openly admitting that the entire claim is based on guilt by association.

Reading the transcript of her interview with the right-wing extremist, Weir sounds like she is doing her best answering questions from a person who does not sound as though he is “all there”. Interrupting this individual any time he made racist comments would require interrupting him virtually every other sentence. But that is not a reason to completely avoid this individual’s listener base, especially as that base is particularly vulnerable to the sort of racist and violent propaganda that is regularly pushed by both anti- and pro-Israel segments of the far-right against Arabs, Muslims, immigrants, and others (see section VII below).

The rest of the accusations are similarly based on association, pointing to writing and publications rather than radio interviews. With regard to publications, is it even Weir’s obligation to go around checking what seedy groups might have exploited her work and then disavow them?

Would JVP suggest that Norman Finkelstein is an anti-Semite, because many of his earlier works criticizing the exploitation of the Holocaust have appeared in genocide denial publications?

Would they suggest that Chomsky is some sort of anti-Semite because he has appeared on all sorts of right-wing media for odd reasons? Would they claim Noam Chomsky is a racist for “failing to disavow” people who have used his writing for nefarious purposes?

How about Joseph Massad, whose Al Jazeera piece “The Last of the Semites” has shown up in nasty places?

Weir has separately – and correctly — pointed out that JVP’s attacks would also implicate prominent American peace activist Ray McGovern; Palestine solidarity activist and journalist Jennifer Loewenstein; Israeli professor and author of “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” Ilan Pappe; journalist Dilip Hiro; Edward Said; Noam Chomsky; and parents of slain ISM activist Cindy and Craig Corrie.

JVP’s statements also appear to implicate award-winning journalist and publisher of the Snowden leaks Glenn Greenwald, Jewish historian Lenni Brenner, MondoWeiss blogger Phil Weiss; anti-war Congressman Pete McCloskey; and a slew of others.

IV) “Ethnic Chauvinism”

A) JVP alleges that IAK and Alison Weir have expressed the nationalistic and chauvinistic view that only “Americans” who aren’t ethnically associated with Israel/Palestine can make meaningful or “objective” conclusions. It is a strange criticism to hear from a group calling itself “Jewish Voice for Peace”. But compare the positions the groups have taken: IAK has been expansive and principled in engaging and working with Palestinian and Palestinian-American communities — more so than JVP.

Here is what JVP said in their message about Weir:

“For example, in IAK’s “Our Story” on their website it reads:

[Alison Weir] founded an organization to be directed by Americans without personal or family ties to the region who would research and actively disseminate accurate information to the American public.

In other words, according to Weir and If Americans Knew, only non-Arab, non-Muslim, non-Palestinian, and non-Jewish voices can be trusted to speak the truth, based solely on their ethnic or religious identity.

Notions of objectivity are routinely used to discredit the experiences of those most directly affected by oppression. But no one is objective, least of all Americans who benefit from the U.S. government’s destructive interventionist and white supremacist policies around the world [emphasis added]”

Compare this with what JVP says on its own FAQ page:

“Q: Why are you a Jewish group? Can’t you just be a peace group?

“A: …

“Because we are Jews, we have a particular legitimacy in voicing an alternative view of American and Israeli actions and policies. As Jews, we can make the distinction between real anti-Semitism and the cynical manipulation of that issue to shield Israel from legitimate criticism. [emphasis added].

How is founding an organization directed by Americans who aren’t tied to the region any less chauvinistic than suggesting — and then exploiting — that Jews have a “particular legitimacy” in speaking out? Contrast that with JVP Director Rebecca Vilkomerson’s own statements on the matter:

“…So we have to be aware of the privileging of Jewish voices, and the racism and Islamophobia that underlay that privilege. It’s a balancing act and not an easy one. Its about an awareness of playing into notions of who is entitled to speak out about Israel and Palestine and making sure we are not replicating the very systems of privilege there that we are working so hard to break down, while also being willing to use our voices as Jews to change and challenge some very deep preconceptions.

In practice, both JVP and IAK are constructed on forms of identity politics, knowing full well that a thoroughly racist society would view their organizations with greater “legitimacy” due to their ethnic identifiers (“Jewish” and “American” respectively). Both groups have used such identifiers while also attempting to open spaces of dialog and speech for Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian organizations. How can JVP condemn IAK for pursuing the same “balancing act” that JVP works to navigate? There’s one easy answer: JVP has lost its balance.

B) In reality, If Americans Knew has gone even further than JVP in promoting Palestinian voices and organizations. If Americans Knew has embraced the Palestinian-led call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions as one of its strategies of “resistance” since at least 2006:


“By Mazin Qumsiyeh

“…In July 2005, more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations issued a historic document. It articulated Israel’s persistent violations of international and humanitarian laws and conventions and called upon “international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.”

The call stated that “these non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by: ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194”[emphasis added].

IAK’s Executive Director was also keynote speaker at the convention for Al-Awda, the Right of Return Coalition, which is a large-scale, broad-based Palestinian anti-Zionist organization. Finally, IAK’s primary source of news promotion is the Beit Sahour-based Palestinian media collective, the IMEMC. Even a brief perusal of the If Americans Knew website makes it clear that IAK’s media campaign relies heavily on promoting Palestinian and Arab voices, including the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency, Qatar-based Al Jazeera, and various podcasts and live broadcasting from Palestine.

C) In contrast, JVP took over ten years to endorse the Palestinian BDS call. Here is what their “Guidelines” page currently states:

Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) endorses the call from Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as part of our work for freedom, justice and equality for all people. We believe that the time-honored, non-violent tools proposed by the BDS call provide powerful opportunities to make that vision real [emphasis added].

We join with communities of conscience around the world in supporting Palestinians, who call for BDS until the Israeli government…By endorsing the call, we make our hope real and our love visible and we claim our own liberation as bound with the liberation of all [emphasis added].

But here is the position JVP took prior to March 25th, 2015:

The boycott/divestment/sanctions movement (BDS) encompasses a variety of tactics and targets.  JVP rejects the assertion that BDS is inherently anti-semitic, and we encourage discussion both within our own community and outside of it of the growing BDS movement. JVP defends activists’ right to use the full range of BDS tactics without being persecuted or demonized. We support divestment from and boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. This includes companies operating in or from occupied Palestinian territory, exploiting Palestinian labor and scarce environmental resources, providing materials or labor for settlements, or producing military or other equipment or materials used to violate human rights or to profit from the Occupation [emphasis added].

In other words, until a few months ago, JVP was willing to defend other people’s right to promote “freedom, justice, and equality of all peoples,” but they themselves were only willing to mobilize their resources toward the freedom, justice, and equality of some. JVP is invoking concepts like “freedom for all” but only when convenient. It is like saying “I promote equality all of the time, 60% of the time.

Furthermore, JVP appears to work almost entirely with left and liberal segments of the Palestinian-American community that are politically acceptable to them — for example, JVP bans its chapters from joining in coalitions with groups that use “anti-Zionist slogans,” which would presumably bar their leadership from working closely with Al-Awda.

JVP has also taken inconsistent positions on the subject of Zionism (see Section V).

D) JVP’s FAQ page also reads, “…As Jews, we can make the distinction between real anti-Semitism and the cynical manipulation of that issue to shield Israel from legitimate criticism.” What does this statement mean to imply, if not that Jews and only Jews are entitled to define what is anti-Jewish? JVP appears in its own statement to be fully aware that accusations of anti-Semitism can be used to “shield Israel from legitimate criticism”. Considering much of the “legitimate criticism” in question is about Israel’s racism against Arabs and others, this statement amounts to little more than ethnic chauvinism. Despite knowing that accusations of anti-Jewish bigotry can be used to shield racism against Arabs, JVP believes that Jews alone are entitled to draw the line with what amounts to legitimate criticism, as opposed to “anti-Semitism”. In the process, Arabs, and others who identify with the Palestinian cause can be muzzled if they disagree with the limits set by a Jewish group — which is what has happened here.

E) Note also that the JVP statement against Weir interprets the phrase “without personal or familial ties to the region” to imply the exclusion of Jewish voices. Is JVP suggesting that every Jew has personal or familial ties to Israel? This is Zionism.

F) JVP’s statement also alleges that “Americans” have benefited from the US’ interventionist and white supremacist policies. This is a very strange position for a peace group to take. While there is no comparison between the situation of American victims of imperialism and those of its citizens, American warfare abroad has resulted in thousands of Americans being maimed and killed; a massive increase in international threats to the American public; and the waste of billions of dollars that could have been spent on social resources. Indeed, JVP appears to be very committed to the notion that Israeli policies of aggression against Palestinians harm Israelis; so why does JVP feel differently about US policies, of which support for Israel is one?

It is also difficult to imagine that JVP can make any in-roads within the United States if they are opposed to policies which they mistakenly believe to benefit Americans.

V) JVP on Zionism.

JVP has taken at least four different positions on Zionism.

A) First, JVP refuses to condemn Zionism as a form of racism in order to pander to racist people within the Jewish community to form a “big tent”. While admitting that Zionism is a form of racism in other releases and admitting anti-Zionists as individuals, the group says the following about Zionism:

The terms, “Zionism” and “Jewish state,” are emotionally loaded and defined differently by different people. [JVP] do not articulate our positions in these terms, but instead in terms that affirm the values we endorse: equality, human rights, democracy, and respect for international law.” [emphasis added].

Despite condemning Weir for reaching out to groups with problematic and racist ideas, JVP’s own views on Zionism — the most obvious form of racism relevant to the Palestinian struggle — are explicitly based on pandering to racist people in order to form a united front. It is difficult to imagine that JVP can effectively promote “equality, human rights, democracy,” etc. while explicitly seeking to pander to those who identify so closely with the colonial enterprise of Zionism that they would refuse to work with JVP if it condemned Zionism as racism.

B) JVP even goes further to bar its chapters from working with groups that use “anti-Zionist slogans or demands”:

A JVP group may join in coalition with pro-Zionist or anti-Zionist groups.  JVP groups may not participate in a coalition whose demands or slogans are pro- or anti-Zionist.

That would presumably include principled organizations like the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and Al-Awda, which condemns Zionism as a form of racism in its points of unity.

It is also difficult to imagine that JVP could ever work with any Palestinian organization that is remotely representative of the Palestinian struggle if it demands that its coalition partners effectively sanitize Zionism in their sloganeering or in any political demands that they make. The effect of this is that organizations cannot critically oppose the colonial ideology that underpins the ethnic cleansing of Palestine or stigmatize this enterprise in public fora. If JVP was around prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, JVP would not have been able to rally support behind the infamous and powerful UN resolution defining Zionism as a form of racism.

C) As noted above, JVP’s statement on IAK  also interprets Jews, as a group, to be personally and familially connected to the Middle East. This is a frank admission that JVP believes in and endorses Zionism.

D)  Ironically, while JVP refuses to use the term “Zionism” to articulate its message and bans its chapters from joining in coalitions with groups that use anti-Zionist slogans, it did not mind circulating a letter by Palestinians disavowing controversial British-Israeli writer and alleged anti-Semite Gilad Atzmon, which explicitly rejects Zionism as a form of racism. In other words, when disavowing people like Weir (or Atzmon), it is apparently okay to stretch these arbitrary rules.

E) JVP’s varying stands on Zionism, when contrasted with the group’s ideas of anti-Semitism, exhibit a racist double standard. With regard to racism and colonialism being carried out against Palestinians and Arabs, JVP will take varying stances depending on the circumstances, although it appears that the usual stance is to apologetically write off Zionism as a touchy subject while barring its chapters from coalition-building with groups that are both principled and more likely to be representative of Palestinian demands. In contrast, when discussing anti-Semitism, JVP will go out of its way to launch a behind-the-scenes “whispering campaign” before publicly disavowing a fellow activist, solely based on a guilty association with anti-Semitism. While there is pragmatism in reaching out to those with ignorant or apologetic views within the Jewish community, it does not make sense that JVP would go out of its way to attack others in this fashion except out of a failure to confront their own internal racism.

VI) Racism, Colonialism, and Identity Politics

Overall, this is not about disavowing racism, which is unfortunately pervasive in American society, including its activist organizations. It is about optics. Knowing full well that the “white gaze” of American society views only certain groups with ethnic legitimacy, JVP and IAK have charted out different political strategies in terms of how to navigate the maze. Accusations of anti-Semitism against Palestine solidarity organizing per se are entirely based on the colonial construction of Jews-as-civilized and Palestinians-as-savages whose rights and existence threaten the civilized (AKA Jews).

JVP appears to have taken the strategy of mobilizing liberal and left Jewish voices, even if it means pandering to racism within the Jewish community.

IAK has charted out a different strategy, based on a much wider tent for which the centerpiece is “national interest” and American-centric rhetoric that portrays Zionism as a deviation from the interests of the average American. JVP appears to think this is apologism for America’s crimes (see Section V). But American policy is largely undemocratic, driven by interest groups and donors, and disconnected from the average person. If anything, IAK’s position is a recognition that colonialism/imperialism are driven by elite interests, rather than the reductionist view that suggests there is something inherent about “America” that makes its regime support Israel in a vacuum, removed from the institutional interests of ruling elements (including lobbies).

In any case, without endorsing Alison Weir’s politics as a whole, I think JVP’s position is highly problematic for those reasons. I have removed myself from their list-serv. Personally, I do not find the idea of a distinctly “Jewish” organization that opposes Zionism to be problematic. I am a fan of groups like the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. But JVP’s criticisms of Weir appear less to be motivated by any nefarious associations that Weir (or anyone else) might have and more based on their own highly problematic identity politics.

Additional subjects and resources below.

VII) Avoiding the Right — Sometimes

I think it is worth discussing a major organizing flaw that seems to permeate well past Palestine-organizing: not engaging the communities that are most likely to be exploited by the right:

“The enemy is laughing at you. You can wear a t-shirt with the hammer and sickle, you can even hold a huge flag, many, many feet long and go back home with your flag while the enemy is laughing at you because the people, the workers, prefer the enemy, they believe in the enemy. They understand the enemy when he talks, and they don’t understand you. And it’s possible that you’re right, and you can ask your children to put a placard on your grave: “He was always right, although nobody knew.” But when you study the successful experiences of the movements of transformation, you realize that the key to success is to achieve a connection between the reality you have diagnosed and what the majority actually feels and that is very difficult, that means engaging in contradictions…”

As far as I can tell, JVP’s statement correctly labels the radio host in question anti-Semitic. He appears to be a Neo-Nazi, supports former KKK leader David Duke, and appears to be primarily concerned with what he perceives as the decline of the white race. As a person who was raised in California to two non-white immigrant parents, I find that kind of politics to be, quite frankly, scary.

But I also know that in the past, many of the people who listen to such people are not committed to such hateful messages. They buy into it because those kinds of hateful people are the only ones that speak to their sense of frustration with real problems, like the economic crisis. It is very easy for a poor white person from the middle of America who sees the economic collapse take his job to start blaming ethnic cabals and conspiracies for his problems — you know, like that Muslim socialist President we have that was born in Kenya and is secretly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood? That is not because he is an avowed racist, it is because he is vulnerable to such messages from people like the radio host in question.

I know this because in my own personal experience of meeting people with, quite frankly, ignorant views on host of race-related subjects, I have found that many of them are not hateful or violent but simply misled. Properly engaging people in a way that they will actually understand and be placed on the right path is important, even if tricky. If even one person stopped listening to the radio host in question and started reading If Americans Knew, where they would hear not only from white American voices like their own, but also from Jewish voices, Palestinian and Arab voices, the United Nations, and the like, that is in my mind a small victory. That would not be possible if Alison Weir did not go on his bizarre radio show or interrupted him every time he said something racist, which was every other sentence.

Most importantly and ironically, it appears that JVP already knows this: that is why they have gone out of the way not to condemn Zionism, knowing (correctly) that to do so would immediately alienate Jewish people who have been brought up in communities where Zionism is a prevalent form of racism. There is wisdom is telling those segments of a society that are committed to various forms of racism to take a hike, but there is also wisdom in trying to put them on the right path, even if it means not always being able to shame them in the strongest terms.

As Weir pointed out, JVP would not be foolish enough to condemn Weir for appearing on Israeli right-wing radio shows, because they know as well as she does that there is at least some strategic wisdom in engaging the people who are most vulnerable to racist messages. There is plenty of historic similarity between poor white segments of American society and some parts of the Israeli settler movement which are also made up of poor and marginalized segments of Israeli society. It is no coincidence that the marginalized Mizrahi Jewish population of Israel also happens to be among the strongest of advocates for Israel’s proto-fascistic movements.

Finally, if the real issue is “justice for all,” then why did it take JVP ten years to endorse the boycott, and why do they bar their members from working with groups that use “anti-Zionist slogans” (see section V)? The answer is that they know that such decisions are not always easy to make when engaging a hostile, racist population. Alison appears to be aware of the same issue, albeit for a different population, and it is not right to publicly shame her for it.

VIII) Other Resources

A) Noam Chomsky speaking on accusations of anti-Semitism within left and anti-racist movements, mostly by left-liberals, SUNY New Paltz:

Q: “Incidents of anti-Semitism have come up at the Occupy protests. Why is anti-Semitism starting to rise among the left, and what is your advice to young Jewish activists?

Chomsky: As far as I know, it’s not true. [applause]

If you’re out to look for it, you can find things. When you take a big mass of people, you can find a little bit of almost anything.

On the other hand, this claim that there’s anti-Semitism on the left, just look at its history. Look at the early 1960s-70s. There was practically an industry of left-liberals, including the Democratic Socialists who were among the worst, trying to show that Dan Berrigan was an anti-Semite, that everyone who opened their mouths were anti-Semites. There were literally efforts — Seymour Martin Lipset well known sociologist, was running big studies to run through Black Panther newspapers to see if he could find a poem by a twelve-year-old kid which maybe had some anti-Semitic implications. Okay, that shows they’re all anti-Semites [sarcastically].

The cry of “anti-Semitism” is a good way to shut people up [applause] because nobody wants to be charged with that. I’d be pretty cautious about those charges. But if it’s real, then you respond to it. Whatever it is, anti-Semitism today isn’t even a toothpick on a mountain compared to anti-Muslim hysteria [applause].

A lot of the states in the Union here in [the United States] passing constitutional amendments to prevent the courts from using Halakha, Talmudic law [sarcastically]. If they did that, people wouldn’t even laugh. But there are states doing something equally laughable and ridiculous — except that it’s dangerous — which is trying to institute constitutional amendments to prevent the use of Sharia law. This is about as likely as an asteroid hitting the state [laughter]. But this is all over the place. That’s real.

The FBI is breaking into people’s houses and arresting them for what’s called “material support to terrorism” — meaning they said something favorable to Palestinian movements or something. Nothing like that is happening to the Jewish population. If there are any bits and pieces of anti-Semitism, then fine, shout at them or argue against it. But I think it’s extremely slight if it’s there at all, in comparison to major movements of hatred and repression, hatred of immigrants, blacks, racism, anti-Muslim racism which is an extraordinary and really major phenomenon. [applause]

B) Joseph Massad, “Sartre, Left Intellectuals, and Zionism”

“What is it about the nature of Zionism, its racism, and its colonial policies that continues to escape the understanding of many European intellectuals on the left? Why have the Palestinians received so little sympathy from prominent leftist intellectuals such as Jean- Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault or only contingent sympathy from others like Jacques Derrida, Pierre Bourdieu, Etienne Balibar, and Slavoj Zizek? Edward Said wrote once about his encounters with Sartre and Foucault (who were anti-Palestinian) and with Gilles Deleuze (who was anti-Zionist) in this regard. The intellectual and political commitments inaugurated by a pro-Zionist Sartre and observed by Said, however, remain emblematic of many of the attitudes of leftist and liberal European intellectuals today…”

C) Phil Weiss, “Conservatives for Palestine”

The national-interest crowd was traditionally silenced by the anti-Semitism charge. Scott McConnell showed how anti-Semitism charges were used to marginalize writers Joseph Sobran and Pat Buchanan when they took strong stands against Israel. Steve Walt said that the overuse of the charge by the lobby had helped undermine its power to blacklist speakers and arguments.

D) Norman Finkelstein, “Quick Thoughts: on the ADL Global 100, An Index of Anti-Semitism”

…I would also find it alarming if anyone except Abe Foxman (and perhaps the New York Times) gave a hoot about the poll’s conclusions [in which the ADL found that one quarter of the world is anti-Semitic]. Personally, I am alarmed by genocide and war, death from preventable diseases and from hunger, global warming and massive unemployment. I see no cause for alarm if not everyone loves by far the wealthiest and most successful ethnic group on the planet. Back in the day, most sensible people detested WASPs.

…is it even true that a quarter of the world’s population is anti-Semitic? I am actually surprised at how low the percentage is, in light of the calculated absurdity of the questions…

E) Louis Proyect, “The Anti-Semitism Canard”

There was a time when Jews suffered from institutional racism. At the turn of the century, Jews lived in the slums on the Lower East Side and could easily identified by their Yiddish accent. They suffered from discrimination and poverty on a level that matched that of Blacks or other oppressed groups historically. In Germany they were less oppressed despite the specious arguments of Daniel Goldhagen. It was only the Great Depression and the massive influx of Eastern European Jews into Germany that allowed Hitler to make use of the Jews as a scapegoat.

All that changed after WWII when Jews moved out of the tenements and into the mainstream. The second generation (my mom and dad’s) opened small businesses, went to colleges (most often state universities), lost their Yiddish accent, and even changed their last name to fit in. Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis and Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. If you were fortunate enough to make big bucks on Wall Street, you didn’t even have to change your name.

To put things into perspective, the Anti-Defamation League issued a report on anti-Semitics attacks in 2013 that covered the entire world. Not a single death was reported. Most of the incidents were of the sort that turns up in New York routinely, a swastika scrawled on a Synagogue wall or a gravestone overturned. Compare that to the fate of Muslims who face racism and murder every where they look, from Burma to Kashmir.

F) Lenni Brenner, “The Demographics of American Jews”

In 1991, I interviewed Harold Seneker, then the editor of the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, for an article in The Nation. I told him that I found Jews, 2.2% of the population, to be about 25% of the 400. He told me that he thought this a success story, both for American capitalism and for the Jews, and that he wanted to write a story on it. But Forbes wouldn’t let him. The then publisher had gone thru the Hitler era, when talking about Jewish money was an anti-Semitic specialty.

This mentality is still common on the left as well, and it is wide spread among elderly Jews. Forbes, much of the left, and old Jews share what must be called a ‘folk Marxist’ mentality. Despite the differences in their politics, they all believe that history repeats itself. Someday there is going to be another 1929 Depression. The capitalists will, once again, call up central casting and get another Hitler to smash the left.

This is fantasy. Its a projection of the past, and Germany’s past at that, into America’s future. In reality, journalists constantly turn out articles for Zionist publications about how Jewish campaign contributors play a major role in funding both parties and, very rarely, the topic is touched on in the mainstream media. “The Political Future of American Jews,” a1985 American Jewish Congress pamphlet by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, declared that “While there have been few reliable statistics on the subject — and some reluctance to gather any — the journalistic and anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that more than a majority of Democratic funds on a national level, and as much as a quarter of Republican funds have come from Jewish sources.” They were referring to private contributions, as was an article in the 1/5/93 NY Times announcing that “Jews contributed about 60 percent of Mr. Clinton’s noninstitutional campaign funds.”

G) Jacobin Mag, “Palestine and the Left”

VIII) Addendum: Spencer Sunshine & PRA attack on Alison Weir and “Anti-Semitism”

Although it was not a part of my original conversations with others regarding Alison Weir, a piece written by a CUNY Graduate student and anarchist, Spencer Sunshine, has found its way to me. The piece, attacking Alison Weir and If Americans Knew, was commissioned by Political Research Associates, a liberal think-tank affiliated with Chip Berlet, and released originally in a 2014 report about what Berlet, Sunshine, and the others at PRA believe to constitute “campus anti-Semitism”. While the piece was written in 2014, it has resurfaced on the front page of Political Research Associates, implying that the piece has been posted to double-down on JVP’s attack on Weir. Sunshine’s attack on Weir is tagged on to the end of the report, so it is worth discussing the report in full.

The Report

The report is largely stacked. From its beginnings, it appears that Berlet relies heavily on pro-Israel advocacy groups and Zionist ideologues to construct varying definitions of anti-Semitism, including  Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League, and the like. The report also spends much ink analyzing the varying and arbitrary definitions of anti-Semitism supplied by Israeli Minister for Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky. While the report is quick to point out dissenting sentiments, the underlying assumptions of these organizations’ views largely color the rest of the report’s conclusions, in which anti-Semitism is defined in such a way as to include various forms of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel activism.

Elsewhere, Chip Berlet gives a lengthy interview to UK sociologist David Hirsh, who has separately written that BDS is “arguably antisemitic in itself,” and that eyewitness testimonies of disgust with Israel’s massacre in Gaza or John Mearsheimer’s comments about the Israel lobby are “reminiscent of classic antisemitic blood libels or conspiracy theory”. Hirsh has written, “…if you organize an academic boycott of Israeli Jewish academics but no one else in the world, that is an anti-Semitic policy”. In his interview with Berlet, Hirsh argues that Nazi analogies made by campaigners against Israel are motivated solely by “Jew-baiting,” ignoring of course that there is a subversive element to reclaiming the Holocaust from a state which has never ceased to exploit its memory.

Hirsh, like Berlet and Sunshine, are often quick to emphasize that anti-Semitism does not necessarily require intent. Instead, they emphasize that anti-Semitism, like other forms of racism, can be institutional. The concept of institutional racism can be useful. The basic gist of institutional racism is “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture, or ethnic origin”. This idea is useful in particular interventions dealing with racism, in which discrimination is system-wide and it may be difficult or impossible to single out an individual’s personal prejudices.

But with so much discussion of institutional racism, none of the individuals in the report carry out any institutional analysis regarding discrimination against Jews at all. Indeed, those who have done so have found that Jews in the United States and Western Europe do not suffer institutional discrimination, but rather have the qualities and traits of the country’s most elite ethnic groups.

Instead, the three individuals have separately and concurrently misused this conception of institutional racism to engineer definitions of anti-Semitism that are vast, vague, and, overall, useless for anti-racist organizers and dangerous for Palestinian rights campaigners.

In the report itself, Berlet argues that any form of “othering” and conspiratorial or populist rhetoric, even when unrelated to Jews or Israel, is potentially anti-Semitic or dangerous to Jews. While the report contains many such examples, one running theme is that virtually any opposition to Israel that involves populistic rhetoric about Israeli power is conflated with anti-Jewish canards. Failing to look at historic, European anti-Semitism within any historical context, the authors instead conflate any discussion of Israeli political power in completely different contexts with canards about Jewish power from different times and places in a completely ahistorical fashion.

After smearing Alison Weir, Norman Finkelstein, and others alongside the likes of notorious racist and Islamophobe David Horowitz, the report closes with interviews with individuals praised for “challenging bias,” including, surely enough, a Hillel leader. But perhaps more troubling is the praise the report reaps on Temple student April Rosenblum, responsible for an anti-Palestinian propaganda pamphlet circulated on the left. The pamphlet, “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” is appropriately titled, given that the pamphlet is devoid of any historical grounding. The pamphlet repeats the sophistry of the report, in which various incidents, commentaries, and the like revolving around Jews or anti-Semitism in separate parts of the world are knitted together as a sort of international anti-Semitism, which is apparently to be found any time anyone uses strong rhetoric against Israel. The pamphlet suggests that activists avoid suggesting that Zionism is racism, and that various kinds of strongly-worded or exaggerated criticisms of Israel are anti-Semitic. In order to give it credibility, the pamphlet is littered with cheap activist sloganeering and lip-service concerns about Palestinians.

In a separate, hour-long rant that Sunshine gave in Portland, in which he also attacked Weir, Sunshine elaborates on the rhetorical scheme found in the PRA report. Sunshine defines a vast array of varying types of commentary as anti-Semitic in nature, many of which are unrelated to Jews or Israel, including populistic rhetoric against financial capitalism, any sort of rhetoric about national self-interest in light of foreign lobbying, and the like. He suggests that anti-Semitism is a sort of exceptional racism, and as a result, he constructs it in such a way that it can be found virtually anywhere.

Bizarrely, Sunshine believes that referring to the Israeli consulate “the Zionist consulate” is anti-Semitic, that condemning normalization with Israel is anti-Semitic, that refusing to see Israel’s settler population as victims of anti-Semitism is anti-Semitic, that using the image of a “snake” in anti-Israel writing is anti-Semitic even when the artists’ intention was not anti-Semitic and the symbol shares no genealogy with anti-Semitic symbolism of the past, and so on. Sunshine manages to see anti-Semitism in condemnations of Zionism as a form of imperialism, and the like. He also cites fringe Marxist theorist Moishe Postone, the intellectual influence of the right-wing, anti-Palestinian and pro-war Anti-Germans tendency in Germany.

In tandem, it appears that Sunshine, like Berlet, have little expert knowledge of the Middle East itself.  At one point, Sunshine falsely repeats the cheap Western misconception that there “always has been” a conflict between Arabs and Jews, and that the veneer of anti-Semitism has been laid over the situation. Elsewhere, he suggests falsely that Israel did not invade Lebanon until the end of that country’s civil war; in reality, Israel occupied Lebanon for most of that country’s civil war and continued for ten years thereafter.

There is a running theme behind the rhetoric that Berlet, Sunshine, and other left-liberals who churn out witch-hunting propaganda about anti-Semitism. While managing to construct anti-Semitism as an ever-present, grossly exaggerated, abstract threat, found in various kinds of rhetoric and symbols, violence and inequality against Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims are downplayed, misunderstood, or ignored, and attempts to address the institutions responsible are themselves reduced to part of the abstract specter of attacks on Jews.

The effect of this rhetoric is to whitewash one of the most blatant inequalities on the face of the earth, in which the Middle East’s foremost military power, armed with nuclear weapons, carrying on a decades-long protracted war of aggression against people under occupation, with the one-sided support of the world’s primary superpower, using blatant racism, is downplayed, and various forms opposition to this extreme situation are presented as toxic and threatening.

Attacking Weir

It is from this context that Sunshine has written a separate hit-piece on Weir. Sunshine has no problem citing rabidly anti-Palestinian propaganda organizations like CAMERA, which he writes off as a “watchdog group,” in order to condemn Weir. Sunshine also accuses Weir of promoting a blood libel by reporting on accusations of organ-harvesting by Israeli troops — a disturbing but real phenomenon in places of armed conflict. Sunshine also finds fault with Weir’s suggestion that Israel has started all of its wars except one [aside: she is correct].

To add to this, Weir has separately responded to my questioning by forwarding me a copy of the “interview” Sunshine carried out with Weir. Many of the questions are loaded, accusing Weir of suggesting that “the Zionists pushed the US into WWI and WWII”. Sunshine also suggests that Weir’s commentary about links between US reporters and Israel are an attack on those reporters’ families and Jewish identity. He attempts to bait Weir into describing Zionists as parasites, and to describe the organ-harvesting scandal as a Jewish ritual.

Sunshine makes it clear that his primary knowledge about the region is based on Zionist historiography. He chastises Weir for not making it clear that Arabs rejected the 1947 UN partition plan, a plan which would have in fact resulted in the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. He is doubtful that Israel attacked the USS Liberty on purpose, citing a lack of motive and ignoring the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He also appears to believe, despite several decades of scholarship on the subject, that the early Zionists were concerned about the Holocaust when in reality many in their ranks took highly irresponsible positions with regards to the genocide in Europe.

The gist of Sunshine’s problem is as follows: “IAK’s criticisms of Zionism and Israel dovetail with traditional antisemitic narratives…IAK narratives are consistent with the antisemitic conspiracisms of the past century, including the claims that Jews are clannish and cabal-like, have dual loyalties, control the media and the government, steal the body parts of non-Jews, and start wars…”

None of these claims are accurate. Instead, Weir has consistently targeted Israel and its supporters. But due to the Sunshine’s ideologically-motived, ahistoric association of European anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, he manages to find blood libels, canards, and conspiracisms where virtually all of IAK’s commentary has targeted Israel’s state-sanctioned racism against its victims and the behavior of American institutions and communities in providing impunity.

It would be difficult to take Sunshine seriously if one were to see Palestinians as people. If that were the case, it would not be a surprise that Israel’s racist state institutions, its undue levels of support in the United States, its lobbying efforts, or continued racist support for Israel by Jewish community organizations, would come under fire from campaigners. But having refocused his attention on the alleged threats to the community associated with Israel’s campaign of colonization (i.e. Jews), Sunshine, like Berlet, is able to reduce anti-Zionist and anti-Israel rhetoric to canards from completely different time periods with no historical or institutional analysis whatsoever. Mired with dishonest questioning, cheap reductionism, and poor knowledge of the Middle East, the report as a whole, and Sunshine’s comments in particular, amount to sophistry.

June 24, 2015

When Junius Scales went into industry

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 1:39 am

Today I started reading “A Red Family: Junius, Gladys and Barbara Scales”, a review copy of a book that had been sitting on my shelves for about five years. I wish I had gotten to it sooner since it is a great read, especially for the parts of this essentially oral history that is devoted to Junius who I had the great pleasure to meet and interview a couple of years before his death in 2002. He was a leader of the CPUSA in the south and a scion of a very wealthy North Carolina family and the first CP’er to be convicted on the Smith Act.

What follows below is my write-up on my meeting with Junius long before I began blogging followed by an excerpt from his memoir “Cause at Heart”, which for my money is the best memoir ever written by a radical. It concludes with an excerpt from “A Red Family” that deals with him “going into industry” as we used to put it in the SWP. I imagine that when I went into industry in 1978 if I had anything remotely similar to his experience in a textile company town in 1940, I would have stuck with it. In the back of my mind I knew that the whole thing was a fantasy in contrast to Junius’s transformative experience.

My meeting with Junius Scales:

I had a grand old time yesterday with Junius Scales at his country home up on the side of a mountain near Pine Bush, New York. We sat on the porch while he offered pointed observations about well-known and not so well-know figures on the left.

The question of how people shift to the right after leaving Marxist-Leninist groups has come up on this list time and again. Junius’s trajectory seems far more typical. After leaving the CPUSA in disgust back in the mid 1950s, he has continued to embrace socialist or progressive values which were very much in evidence when he recently spoke at a conference at the University of North Carolina on campus radicalism in the 1940s. He was in the thick of things back then as the leader of a 150 member (!!!) party club there in 1947.

We spoke some about Trotskyism which he never had the pleasure of encountering until he left the CP. When he was a proofreader at the New York Times, he met Dave Weiss who worked in the same department and who was the brother of Murray Weiss, married to Myra Tanner Weiss. These were two SWP leaders in the 1950s. Dave Weiss, a rank-and-filer, eventually became a documentary film-maker of some repute while Murray and Myra were typical party leaders, intolerant to a fault and convinced of their own intellectual and political superiority to everybody else.

At a big cocktail party in the 1950s, Junius was having a pleasant chat with Alger Hiss who spotted Myra Tanner Weiss. Also at the party was a left-wing Labour Party MP who Hiss mischievously decided to introduce to Myra. He brought the two together and within a matter of minutes the two of them were castigating each other loudly and had drawn a circle of onlookers about them, as if a fist-fight was going on. Hiss stood on the sidelines enjoying the spectacle thoroughly.

Junius was pretty close to the Robeson family and is convinced that the psychological collapse of the great man was linked to his bad faith over Stalin. Robeson had enormous affection for the dean of the Yiddish stage in the Soviet Union, Isaac Pfeffer, who Stalin had executed. Robeson found a way to justify this. A lifetime of making excuses must have taken its toll. Junius visited Robeson in the 1950s when the psychosis was in full sway. They sat in the living room chatting pleasantly with Robeson’s wife and children when all of a sudden Robeson himself emerged from the bedroom and confronted the group with a wild, unrecognizing look on his face.

Junius became very close to Earl Browder after Browder was expelled from the CPUSA. He says that despite Browder’s support for a more open and less dogmatic socialism, that he personally was extremely dogmatic in the way he promoted these beliefs. It was impossible to disagree with him.

As we discussed politics and personalities, we watched large birds soaring in the skies above the mountain-tops. Were they hawks, I asked him? If they flap their wings every five minutes or so, they’re hawks. If not, they are buzzards. He had become an expert bird-watcher living in the mountainous wilderness over the past twenty years or so. Black bears were frequent visitors to his property.

My mother sat in the living room reading the Sunday New York Times while Junius and I chatted. When we broke for lunch, my mom announced that she had found an interesting quote. The judge in the Vincent Gigante trial had once presided in a case against the terrorist Jewish Defense League. He told the accused that it was more Jewish to uphold the book rather than the bomb.

I informed my mom that it was a small world, since Gigante had saved Junius’s life when he was at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary doing time for a Smith Act violation. Junius had mentioned to a Mafia prisoner that Daniel Bell’s new (at the time) book “The Decline of Ideology” had a chapter making the case that there was no such thing as organized crime. This chapter was read by all the Mafia prisoners who passed the information on to their lawyers. Gigante, a boss of the Mafia both in prison and outside, felt that a debt was owed to Scales. When a hulking, murderous prisoner threatened to kill Junius, Gigante stepped in and told him to lay off and that was that.

I will take up Junius Scales’ book “Cause at Heart” in a subsequent post.

From “Cause at Heart”:

Suddenly I remembered a bright autumn morning fifteen years before, when I had been a Communist for only a few months. I had been going cheerfully to my job in the tax office in the county courthouse in my native Greensboro, North Carolina, when I looked up at barred windows on the top floor of the white stone building and stopped in my tracks. “My friends and I will go to jail someday,” I had imagined in my idealistic innocence, “because our belief in the socialist world is something that these grim lawyers and smug pillars of society I work among will never tolerate; they will hunt us down and box us in, even though what we advocate they hear preached in church and even mad about in the New Testament.” I had felt a twinge of fear raise gooseflesh on my neck and scalp, even as I felt it then in Memphis, waiting that evening to take my lumps at last, like many another radical “do-gooder” and “bleeding heart.” I had a fleeting moment of self-doubt during which I wondered how I could have allowed my adversaries to entangle something as beautiful as the advocacy of a better world in criminal proceedings; I myself must have botched the job somehow.

It was 7:28. As I walked past the apparently empty FBI car at the next intersection, I was overwhelmed with the helplessness of my situation. I was like an animal surrounded by hunters and with no bushes to hide in. Inside the peaceful lower-middle-class houses around me, people were finishing dinner, washing dishes, reading the paper, watching TV. Meanwhile, ahead of me, the gathering FBI cars were making their own traffic jam in the otherwise deserted, rainswept streets.

From “A Red Family”:

But when I got back to North Carolina I was really a “professional revolutionary” and completely committed. I had no intention of going back to college. I went to see my mother, and she was very distressed.

I went to live in the mill village in High Point and boarded with one of the families I had met with Bart [CP organizer for North Carolina] I liked them tremendously and lived with the man, his wife, and three daughters in a miserable three-room company house.

You could tell if the stars were out at night by looking through the cracks in the wall. In the wintertime, a thread would stand almost horizontal from the breezes through the cracks. There was no water inside and a cold-water faucet out back. Twenty-five feet back of the house was a little outhouse. When you got off, the seat flew up, and an automatic flush business occurred.

The entire family slept in the same bedroom. There were beds jammed into this one room: the mother and father the older daughter in one, and the two youngest daughters shared the other. The living room was mostly for ornament. It was a wasted room, because in the wintertime the only room heated was the kitchen. ‘The kitchen was the social room, and both stoves were needed to keep it warm it didn’t stay warm for too long because the house wasn’t insulated. But that’s where the whole family lived during the entire winter. And all the houses in the village were about the same.

They were a lovely family. The husband and wife were about thirteen years older than I. She was always very motherly to me, and he was like a big brother. He was quite sophisticated, a worldly sort of guy, and she was a woman of wonderful courage and drive, very strong and yet very tender. And their kids were absolutely delightful. I got a tremendous case on the older daughter. I didn’t know her age at the time, and I assumed she was at least seventeen, because she sure looked it. I swear, it absolutely frightened me when, after we’d been going together pretty steady for about six months I discovered that she was only fourteen. I was twenty at the time. Her mother told me, and I nearly died. Then she had her fifteenth birthday and I felt a little bit better.

I even liked their dog. Through this family I got to know most of their relatives, and it was a big family on both sides. I must have stayed there for three or four months, and it was darn cold when I left. The mother didn’t think I was going to survive the winter in that living room, so she switched me over to her sister’s house.

Like many people’s, the sister’s marriage had broken up, and I lived there with her mother and son for what seemed like years. In spite of everything I survived the first winter there. I had so many covers on that if Ir tried to raise my feet upright I’d have broken my toes off. I had two sets of overalls: I’d work in one and sleep in the other. There’d be frost in the house sometimes, and I’d make a mad dash for the kitchen in the morning. They kept the stove going. And the lady of the house had the most marvelous breakfasts. Country food. Sunday morning would usually be pork chops and hominy grits, eggs, and biscuits.

I got a job in the Burlington mill in walking distance of the village. I worked the night shift at Hillcrest and devoted all my days to Party activity. I just got wedded to life there. I got to know practically everyone In the plant where I worked. I just loved the people there. Burlington was pretty hopeless for a union. They had about  eighty mills, and if anyone tried to organize a Burlington mill, they just closed the mill down and transferred operations to another. They’d leave four or five hundred people out of work and desperate, and then blacklist them. You couldn’t get a job anywhere. So we had no intention of organizing at Hillcrest. I just had to get a job someplace, and that was fine.

I made thirteen bucks a week, the minimum wage, thirty-two cents an hour, and had money to spare. I was in awfully good physical shape, but it was fantastically hard work. And what amazed me was that guys my age working there had faces like they were thirty-five or older. I’d find out some of them were younger than I. They were used to hard work, and they were wiry, but they absolutely couldn’t take the pace.

Burlington was the most rationalized of all the mills down there. They knew how to take every last drop of energy out of you on an eight-hour shift. To survive I rationalized my job, too, and it didn’t crush me. It’s true I wouldn’t have a dry seam in my clothes when I’d come out of the place. You’d have to take salt pills all night to keep from sweating yourself into heat prostration. It was about ninety degrees most of the time and very humid because of the rayon yarn.

These working-class guys my age would be old men by the time they made forty, if they made it, and they were just drained most of the time. The women had it even worse. A girl who started at nineteen was an old woman by twenty-nine. Usually the height of the machine was such that the women would have to sort of stoop their shoulders forward and poke their abdomens out, and the same was true in the cotton mills. The spinners had the same business: a pooched-out abdomen and slumped shoulders. It was the most frightful thing, and they all looked really old by the time they were thirty.

This place was organized by time-study experts. The speedup was incredible. One girl was twenty-five, and when I think back, she looked more like she was thirty-five. She was the star operator. She could do almost twice as much work as anybody else, their “show” operator. My God, she’d go around like she had six hands. It was just dizzying to watch her. Then one day she went stark-raving mad right at her machine, and it took five people to haul her out screaming and kicking. And she never came back. She ended up in a mental institution.

Even though I was working in another plant, I joined the cotton mill union so I could edit the monthly union paper and attend all the meetings. The chairman used to make me his parliamentarian, and I used to help smooth the meetings out. And I was always willing to do any kind of leg work.

After every union meeting on Saturday night, there’d be a big social gath-ering. In these days, you worked a half-day on Saturday, and that afternoon all the men in the village would go to the barbershop. This was the only bath you could take during the whole week, so we all lined up and tackled their six stall showers. They gave you a little bar of Lifebuoy soap and a towel for quarter.

Meanwhile, back in the houses, the women moved into the kitchens. No man could go into the kitchen because all the women, from infant to grandma, would be bathing. Every house had a huge corrugated iron tub, and hot water would be heated in everything that could hold it. Everybody would use this big tub. They couldn’t go dumping it out, and you couldn’t give everybody a new tub of water. So you’d just add water to it, and it’d get pretty raunchy by the time the last one got their turn. But, one way or an-other, everybody would go to the union meeting all sweet and clean.

Saturday night was always a light dinner, and about half the village would show up at the union meeting. The meeting would begin about seven o’clock, and we’d usually try to get the business over by eight-thirty. There would be very wide participation, and if it was near strike time, there’d usually be some pretty fancy oratory, mostly delivered by women. They were much more , verbal than the men, generally, and God, they were effective. I’d love to have been able to record some of those speeches.

As soon as the gavel pounded, the meeting adjourned, and a little string band would strike up, usually of union talent, with a couple of banjos, guitars, and a fiddle or two. The chairs would disappear like magic, and the whole huge hall became a dance floor. For a nominal fee, anybody could come to these marvelous dances, and we had our committee to keep things orderly and throw out the drunks.

I didn’t know how to square dance worth a hoot, and some of these real tough textile women took me in hand. I swear to God, there was one woman there who was a little five-by-five but strong as an ox, and every time I’d find myself in the wrong place, she would absolutely pick me up and put me where I belonged. I had to learn in a hurry in self-defense. She’d have killed me or at least taken my arm out of the socket. I got to be a real good square dancer and used to enjoy it immensely.

I think the social part of the evening was actually more important than the meetings, because those square dances were just unforgettable, and probably did more than anything to solidify the union. Everybody from toddlers on up would take part. The old folks would sit and watch the young’uns and relive their youth, and the little squirts would be dancing with each other just so they wouldn’t get trampled. The young squirts were dancing for real. The older folks up to forty or fifty were just having a marvelous time, and, of course, the teenagers were romancing like crazy. It was an extremely wholesome and delightful business. Some of my student friends from Chapel Hill would come over, and they absolutely got hooked. They’d be back every time they could.

These textile workers were about one generation, if that much, off the farm, and they had come to the city because life on the farm got tough. They had all of the country ways. One of the problems in the mill village was to try and stop people from keeping hogs in their small yards. Much of their charm and lingo was strictly farm and country. Yet they had acquired new ways, and many of them had been proletarianized by a lifetime in the mills.

The trade-union movement had really created a social revolution in the South, and I saw it in this mill village. This had been a place where the fore-man reigned supreme. It was a company town with a company store and a company church. The company paid the minister, and the minister preached that the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] was the antichrist. And if anybody fell afoul of the company, his credit was stopped at the company store. The company owned all the houses in the village. And if someone re-ally fell afoul, he could be evicted from his company house. So they lived under a real reign of terror.

Well, the organizing drive was undertaken with great risk and difficulty, and a lot of people joined together and pulled a strike. The strike staggered the company, and they put on a lot of police pressure. It was a tremendously educational thing for the people there, who thought if they stayed on the good side of the foreman they would make out pretty well.

The village split down the middle on whether or not to go to church. The union people didn’t want to hear the company say that the CIO was the agent of the devil, so a great many of them quit going.

The WPA at the time had some educational programs going, so the union (and the Party had considerable influence in the union) began encouraging and organizing adult-education classes on everything you can think of. People who had never finished sixth grade were enrolling and just getting the biggest joy out of it. Some learned things like typing and were able to get part-time jobs. It gave everyone a tremendous sense of self-confidence, and they were able to hold their heads up. It was a true social revolution, and most of these people became missionaries for unionism. It’s true that it lost most of its momentum after a while, but at that time it was a tremendously exciting thing to participate in. The union became the social center of the whole village.

Of course, it’s easy to remember the pleasant events and forget the horrors of poverty. One Saturday, I’d just gotten paid and had so much money I didn’t know what to do. I decided I’d take the three kids in the family to the movies. Well, next door was a family named Tysinger, and Ot and Mary Tysinger were probably in their late thirties and had nine children. They both worked in the mill. But Mary had been sick and hadn’t been able to work,which meant that Ot’s salary—he’d been working there for twenty years, since his teens, and was making fifteen dollars a week—had to support the family of eleven. The entire family was surviving on fifteen dollars a week.

When the kids, naturally excited, announced that Junius was taking them Iii the movies, I saw these nine Tysinger kids next door looking at me with big sad and dejected eyes. So we got hold of the Tysinger kids. I think the bus fare was a nickel each way, and the kids could get in for a dime at the movie, so I spent quite a bit. But it was the first time any of these Tysinger kids—and the oldest was twelve—had seen a movie. So I got to see the horror of living on this kind of a wage in a textile village. The oldest Tysinger child, Carrie, was a lovely little girl, but she was skinny, and her color was bad. She had a kidney ailment, and the doctor said she should have a lot of fresh vegetables, and this and that and the other, you know, an elaborate diet, which on Ot’s fifteen dollars a week was about as feasible as a snowball in hell. They ate white beans, the staple. They had biscuits sometimes, corn bread, cabbage, and fatback, but that was about it. If they had anything else, they considered it a gala occasion. And for Carrie’s kidney ailment, this was not the thing.

One day, these God-awful screams came from the Tysingers’ outhouse, and I ran over to find that Carrie’s guts had collapsed, and she had eight inches of intestines hanging out of her. I pushed them in with the handle of a hearth broom. This was the horror this poor kid lived with. Later I heard she was married and had moved away, but it was just nip and tuck whether she would grow up or not. And I bet you anything that by the time she was thirty she was a physical wreck, if she even lived that long. You’d see kids with rickets from undernourishment, bowed legs toddling around.

What poverty and those incredible wages did to these people was horrible. And, yet, the mill owner was always putting on the dog, as we would say, flashing his money, and you’d read about all his doings, all about his family, in the society section of the High Point Enterprise, and here were these poor people, and it was all wrung out of them.

If anyone could doubt the existence of the class struggle, you surely couldn’t while living in a mill village. It was unforgettable, especially when somebody stopped being a case and became a person. They weren’t welfare cases: they were people you lived with and loved and spent your time with. It just increased my dedication and determination to do anything and everything I could to change this kind of thing.

The union grew and prospered and in the winter of ’41 I was named chair-man of the organizing committee of the Textile Workers’ local. Actually, we had one little foothold of organized workers in a sea of unorganized workers. And seamless hosiery, men’s socks and cheap women’s hose, was one of the largest industries at the time. I began to collect names and contacts in various hosiery mills to see if we couldn’t eventually stage a drive to organize some of those unorganized workers. I was planning to leave Hillcrest to get a job in a hosiery mill.

I was going with a girl at the time, a southern Jewish girl, a sophomore at Chapel Hill, and began courting her pretty seriously. In June of ’41, the day after the invasion of the Soviet Union, we got married.

Back at Hillcrest, the company had gotten on to me and had discovered I was a union bug. The day after my wedding weekend, they fired me. I got a job in an unorganized cotton mill, and we got a two-room apartment nearby the village. It had a toilet outside in the hall, and the walls were painted a shit brindle, the most horrible color I have ever seen. But we were happy, and I was working day and night building up my contacts among seamless hosiery workers in about thirty different textile mills. I had a little file case of names on three-by-five cards, which I kept hidden in the chimney.

It was an easy walk to the Pickett Cotton Mill, but it was a killer of a job. I lasted about three months and learned to do most of the jobs there. They fired me for union activity.

Then, with elaborate phony references, I got a job at Thomas’s Hosiery Mill, a long bus ride away. And, of course, working in a seamless hosiery plant made it that much easier to make contacts. There were about eighty mills in the vicinity of High Point and something like five thousand seam-less hosiery workers. Anybody with twenty thousand dollars’ capital could go into business and get a couple of knitting machines.

The American Federation of Hosiery Workers had been eyeing this area because it was such a wide-open shop and ripe to be organized. The wages were so terribly low and the working conditions awful. But It was tough to organize because the companies were blacklisting right and left. They soon found out that I had made contact with all the best and likeliest union people. So in the fall of ’41, our union and the American Federation of Hosiery Workers decided on a joint organizing drive.

A busload of hosiery workers came in from Roanoake, Virginia, and the president and several vice presidents of the national union and a whole crew of organizers came down. We had a big meeting in the High Point union hall officially launched the drive. I was to quit my mill job the next day and join the union payroll as an assistant chief organizer.

The meeting adjourned Sunday afternoon in early December, and as we got downstairs, somebody told us Pearl Harbor had been bombed. And that watt the end of the hosiery drive because, within forty-eight hours, the government had frozen all the raw rayon and silk. By the end of the week, practically all the seamless hosiery workers were heading for Norfolk, Virginia, and Wilmington, North Carolina, to get jobs in shipbuilding and other port-related industries. It was a major exodus, and one hosiery mill after another dosed down. The industry just melted away, and all my contacts and my little card  file just went to pot. It didn’t take me more than twenty-four hours to realize that all my organizing plans had gone down the drain, and the following day I volunteered to enlist in the army.

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