Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 31, 2015

The Penguins Can Fend for Themselves

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm

Source: The Penguins Can Fend for Themselves

October 30, 2015

Sembène and the Spirit of Rebellion

Filed under: Africa,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.

Although I have been following Sembène’s film career for decades, “Sembène” offered new insights into what a genius he was. Born in 1923, his father a fisherman, Sembène fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.

Sembène quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. As the documentary points out, he was to become a modern version of the griot, the travelling storyteller who was to Africa as Homer was to the Greeks. Indeed, the real question is “who was the African Homer”, not Tolstoy. The answer is that Ousmane Sembène comes pretty close.

His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembène decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.

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October 29, 2015

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

“The Price We Pay”, which opens tomorrow at Cinema Village in New York, is the first film that hones in on a deeply entrenched weapon of financial mass destruction, namely the use of tax havens by corporations like Amazon, Apple, and other behemoths of the “new economy”.

While capitalism has always been a global system, advances in automation have made it possible for multinationals to operate almost exclusively outside of the borders of the nation-state. This means, for example, that Apple can produce all its hardware in China while software development remains in Silicon Valley. “The Price We Pay” begins with footage from the Senate investigation of Apple that took place in 2013 that was also featured at the end of Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary on Steve Jobs. In the hot seat is CEO Tim Cook who is getting dressed down by Senator Carl Levin looking balefully down at him through eyeglasses roosting uneasily at the tip of his nose.

Apple had adopted “The Double Irish” strategy, something that requires three companies to pull off. Apple (or Google et al) licenses its intellectual property to a subsidiary based in Ireland. That company connects to an offshore entity in the Cayman Islands for instance, which then licenses the patent rights to another Irish company. The second Irish company receives income from the first but its taxes are low because the royalties and fees paid to the first Irish company are deductible expenses, so no taxes are paid on them. Meanwhile, the U.S. company doesn’t pay any Federal taxes on the income from the Irish companies because the earnings were not made in the U.S. Get it? Well, if you don’t, that’s because you don’t have a battery of tax lawyers and accounts to figure things out for you.

So, the practical effect of all this is to “starve the beast” as Grover Norquist put it. Tax revenues become so depleted that universities are “forced” to use adjuncts. Want to make a decent income in the new globalized economy? Forget about art history or philosophy. Get a degree in tax accounting and you are set for life.

The film is distinguished by expert testimony from the leading lights of NGO’s committed to reform such as Wallace Turbeville of Demos, a former Vice President at Goldman-Sachs. All of these people who have had senior positions in such places became turncoats because they believed that the current system is unsustainable. Like so many liberals, including Bernie Sanders, they are worried about how offshore havens are “silently killing our middle class” as the film’s subtitle puts it.

I can recommend “The Price We Pay” as the best documentary I have seen on the machinations of the financial elite since Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”. Unlike Ferguson’s film, this one deals with a capitalism that is supposedly in a post-crisis mode. Indeed, we are probably witnessing a new normal since both parties are committed to maintaining the status quo. Furthermore, even if Bernie Sanders were elected president by some miracle, there is little he could do to turn the clock back to the time depicted in the early moments of the film when happy wage-earners were washing a station wagon in the driveway of a split-level home in someplace like Cleveland or Detroit. The idea that such cities can become economically viable once again is a utopian fantasy.

How did it come to this? As the film points out through graphics and from testimony from the likes of Thomas Piketty, a social contract was broken in the 1970s when the ruling class put profits first, even if it meant turning its back on the American or British workers whose labor in steel mills or coal mines had made them so wealthy. A new economy had few loyalties to the nation-state, in a way confirming both David Harvey’s analysis of capitalism and putting the kibosh on reformist schemas that welcomed Obama as the next FDR. For the foreseeable future, we will be seeing Herbert Hoovers in the White House, whichever party wins the election.

This was dramatized in a key scene when Sam Holloway, an African-American firefighter from Chicago, recounted what Mayor Rahm Emmanuel told a gathering of firefighters following the death of a number of their brothers in a burning building. After uttering some mealy-mouthed condolences, Emmanuel brought up the topic of the need to cut pensions to balance the budget, In the Q&A, Holloway suggested that a better approach would be to push through a Tobin Tax since Chicago banks were doing great. Emmanuel said he would oppose such legislation, as would just about every politician in Washington.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film was its explanation of how places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands became tax havens. It turns out that the collapse of the British Empire made this possible. As “independent” countries, such islands in the Caribbean were able to serve as fictitious nation-states that gave multinationals the leverage they needed to cheat the population of the countries they were based in. So, in effect, decolonization led to a massive expansion of imperialism. Capitalism is never at a loss for dialectical contradiction after all.

Director Harold Crooks put it this way in the press notes:

The film illustrates how the tax haven system originally put in place by City of London bankers in former colonial dependencies as a replacement for the British Empire is today an unregulated “space of money”. Through this space beyond democratic control flows over half the world’s stock of money, multinationals’ profits and vast amounts of private wealth. But as we reveal this “offshore” world is a legal and accounting fiction. The Caymans and other major tax havens could disappear under the sea without losing their rank as major financial centers. They are artifices that allow their corporate clients to be “citizens of nowhere”. The untaxed trillions of dollars booked here – the so-called “missing” wealth of nations – remains under the control of global finance and big business, which leverages its financial power to dismantle the progressive taxation and social security that once assured rising 20th century equality.


Put yourself in Angel Cordero’s shoes. When he was 25 years old back in 1999, he and his brother joined a group of people who were watching an altercation in progress in his neighborhood in the Bronx.

Moments later, the cops appeared on the scene and arrested him for stabbing the man who lay bleeding on the sidewalk. But the perpetrator, a well-known drug dealer and petty thief in the neighborhood, had fled during the melee when cops were pushing people around, as they tend to do. The net result is that Cordero, who had never been arrested before, was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to a thirteen year prison term, this despite eyewitnesses telling the jury that he was innocent.

Even more horribly, when the guilty man feeling remorseful over an innocent man doing time for his crime stepped forward to confess, the judge refused to act on his admission and kept Cordero in prison for the full length of the term.

The documentary “Coming Home” begins with his release from prison as his wife and 16-year-old daughter try to catch up with a man who had disappeared from their life. The wife is ready to pick up with where they left off and their joy at being reunited is palpable.

However, the daughter who was raised by family friends in Florida is conflicted. Although she is happy that her father has finally been released from prison, the absence from her life has caused an estrangement that is difficult to overcome. In a number of scenes between father and daughter, you are struck by their emotional honesty—something that is rare to find in narrative films and that is a reminder of why documentaries remain truer to authentic human relationships in an age of terminal escapism both in the films and in life in general.

Another important player in the film is the man who finally came forward with the admission that he was responsible for the stabbing. Serving time in the same prison at one point with Cordero, he meets with him in a tense confrontation that could have led to violence. It is a testimony to the possibility of redemption that no violence occurred and that the two were finally able to reconcile.

Of course, there is very little possibility of redemption when it comes to the courts and the police department as is indicated in one shocking act of injustice after another, the latest instance being a cop manhandling a teenage girl in a South Carolina classroom.

Director Viko Nikci deserves a lot of credit for making such a film that puts a human face on the crime and punishment controversy that is polarizing the American conversation. Getting the principals of this film to reveal their innermost feelings to the cold and clinical eye of a camera is no easy task. “Coming Home” is a powerful drama about simple people who had the misfortune to be swept up by police actions that could be described accurately as that of a mob. The film opens tomorrow at the Village East Cinema in New York and at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles on November 13th. Strongly recommended.

“The Royal Road” is an hour-long documentary that might be described as an experimental film–the type of offering you would expect to see at Anthology of Film Archives that opens tomorrow.

My first reaction was one of puzzlement since it dispensed with all of the conventions you find in both documentaries and narrative films. My interest was piqued by the publicist’s invitation, which stated:

A cinematic essay set against a contemplative backdrop of 16mm urban California landscapes, “The Royal Road” offers up intimate reflections on nostalgia, the pursuit of unavailable women, butch identity and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo alongside a primer on Junipero Serra’s Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican American War. Featuring a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner.

Although that sounded intriguing, especially the business about Serra who has just been made a Saint by the new progressive pope over the objections of California Indians who resented his forced assimilation of their ancestors into the Catholic faith and the brutal punishment meted out by their Spanish overlords.

However, the film consisted visually of a series of California landscapes mostly in urban settings absent of people. Director and narrator Jenni Olson, a lesbian deeply involved with film activism, is present in a voiceover that begins with the opening frame and continues during the entire film. Her words can best be described as a mixture of a Spalding Gray type monologue and reflections on California history, all worked into the fabric of film history–her speciality. For example, it turns out that Junipero Serra created a mission that figured prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. For Olson, the connection between the film and the new saint is over memory. Her abiding interest is in the presence of the past and the role of nostalgia, one that she associates with Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. She points out that Kim Novak’s character was named Madeleine, just like the cookie that triggered Swann’s recollections in the beginning of Proust’s masterpiece.

If you are up for some offbeat film fare, have a look at “Royal Road”. The film won me over, something I would not have expected in the first minute or two.


October 27, 2015

The Romance of American Trotskyism

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:55 pm

I am currently reading Vivian Gornick’s “Romance of American Communism”, a book that was written in 1974 and that I first read about 5 years later, not long after dropping out of the SWP. I am rereading it for a review in “Revolutionary History”, a British journal put out by people with mostly a Trotskyist past like me. When I first read Gornick’s book, I was struck by how much their experience was like mine—leaving aside the ideology. When I came across this excerpt, I was reminded of that. Substitute the word “Militant” for “Worker” and “Socialist Workers Party” for “Communist” and it pretty much describes our world, especially when I was going door to door in Harlem housing projects in the late 1960s selling subscriptions to the Militant.

* * * *

Sarah Gordon clutches her head and moans: “My God! How I hated selling the Worker! I used to stand in front of the neighbor-hood movie on a Saturday night with sickness and terror in my heart, thrusting the paper at people who’d turn away from me or push me or even spit in my face I dreaded it. Every week of my life for years I dreaded Saturday night. And then canvassing! An-other horror. A lady would shut the door in my face before I’d gotten three words out—and if she was a socialist she’d slain the door—and I’d stand there sick. I’d tell myself a thousand times: It’s not your face she’s shutting out. .. God, I felt annihilated. But I did it, I did it. I did it because if I didn’t do it, I couldn’t face my comrades the next day. And we all did it for the same reason: we were accountable to each other. It was each other we’d be betraying if we didn’t push down the gagging and go do it. You know, people never understand that. They say to us, `The Communist Party held a whip over you.’ They don’t understand. The whip was inside each of us, we held it over ourselves, not over each other.”

For countless people, ringing doorbells or handing out the Worker was an agony but, as Sarah says, the Party and all the people in it had become a source of moral accounting to each of them. Sarah, during her years in the Party, would have done any-thing that was demanded of her—up to and including going to jail—because not to have done so would have been to become a pariah in her own eyes. The same was true for Ben Saltzman and Selma Gardinsky and Diana Michaels, as well as Jim Holbrook and Paul Levinson and Mason Goode.

Beyond and connected up with the moral accounting lay the in-credibly concrete vision of “the revolution around the corner” most Communists carried within themselves during the Thirties and Forties. Selma Gardinsky describes how when she first joined the Party in New York, the leader of her branch took her for a walk one day around New York’s Central Park. “Do you see those fancy, beautiful houses?” he demanded, waving his hand in the direction of Central Park West. “Workers built them with their blood and bones,” he railed, “but do workers live in them? No!” But, the branch organizer assured Selma, the revolution would correct all this. “When?” Selma asked. “In ten years,” the organizer replied calmly. Years later, Selma adds, she met this same organizer in Washington at a demonstration to save the Rosenbergs. “It’s been a long ten years,” Selma said.

Blossom Sheed tells a similar story about a well-known Left lawyer who in a court case during the Thirties said nonchalantly in court: “Everyone knows the revolution is around the corner.” During a recess someone from the Party said to the lawyer: That was an error We never say that.” The lawyer went back into court and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I was in error this morning. I said the revolution was just around the corner. The revolution probably won’t come for another ten years.”

But he didn’t really believe that. He believed the revolution was around the corner. And most Communists did. The sense of political time was so urgent people could taste it in their mouths. Fascism abroad, the New Deal at home, socialism surging up all over the world, Edgar Snow coming back from China, announcing, “There, too!” Every twenty-four hours seemed to send the pulse of the world racing toward Marxist revolution. The worse things got in Europe, the better it seemed for imminent socialist explosion. . . .

And the wholeness of the CP world was so complete, so deeply felt, that it was impossible not to believe it capable of making the revolution not in some unforeseeable future but right now, today, tomorrow, certainly within one’s own lifetime. That wholeness: its depth, its dimension, its utter circularity are almost impossible to describe. Very nearly, one had to have lived through it to understand its holding powers.


October 26, 2015

Seymour Hersh vindicated on sarin gas attack? Not really

Filed under: journalism,Syria,Turkey — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

Fethullah Gülen: should we take his newspaper reports at face value?

As I pointed out in my article on “Baathist Truthers”, most members of the amen corner simply operate on a different basis than Marxism. Their method can be described as conspiracism and has a long history on the left. In its latest permutation, it boils down to a bastardized form of “investigative journalism” in which there is an almost obsessional need to find out the key piece of documentation—a Wikileaks cable, etc.—that will finally prove that the USA is responsible for everything bad that has happened in Syria rather than acknowledge it as the result of a bitter conflict over rival class interests. Syrian society? Don’t bother me with such irrelevancies, our conspiracists would maintain. The only thing that matters are CIA plots.

You get the same thing with Ukraine. From the minute the Euromaidan protests erupted, they were looking for the “proof” that the USA was behind the unrest. A phone call made by State Department Official Victoria Nuland was to blame, not corruption or police brutality. In such a schema, the Ukrainian or Syrian workers were marionettes sitting motionlessly on their behinds until the puppet-master began pulling their strings.

It should be mentioned that it is not just people on the left who have upheld conspiracy theories about Syria. Antiwar.com, a popular website run by Justin Raimondo who was the San Francisco coordinator of Proposition 187 that would have banned undocumented workers from using health care, public education, and other services in California, can usually be counted upon to spread the latest talking points of the conspiracist left.

As a key element of conspiracism, the false flag narrative crops up over and over. Early on, Global Research’s Tony Cartalucci was reporting that it was not Baathist snipers firing on peaceful protests but men recruited by the CIA or Saudi Arabia to make the progressive, tolerant and democratically elected Baathist state look bad.

Of course, the most infamous use of the “false flag” argument was that advanced on behalf of Bashar al-Assad immediately after the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta in August 2013. Ever since Assad surrendered his chemical weapons and began relying on impeccably clean conventional weapons to level apartment buildings and everybody who lived inside them, there hasn’t been much discussion about who was responsible.

But the topic reared its ugly head in the Oct. 23-25 weekend edition of CounterPunch with Peter Lee’s article “Hersh Vindicated? Turkish Whistleblowers Corroborate Story on False Flag Sarin Attack in Syria”. On most topics, Lee can be counted on to present logical arguments based on hard data but like most non-Marxists on the left, he makes a fool out of himself when it comes to Syria.

For example, his “proof” that Turkey mounted a false flag operation in cahoots with al-Nusra and ISIS relies on the testimony of sworn enemies of the ruling AKP:

I find the report credible, taking into full account the fact that the CHP (Erdogan’s center-left Kemalist rivals) and Today’s Zaman (whose editor-in-chief, Bulent Kenes was recently detained on live TV for insulting Erdogan in a tweet) are on the outs with Erdogan.

“On the outs”? That is like saying that Abe Lincoln was on the outs with Jefferson Davis. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been jailing Kemalist politicians and military men for years now. None other than chief conspiracist Eric Draitser considers Erdoğan to be the head of a “country that has given over to violence as a political tool, repression and censorship as standard government practice.” If you were a member of a party that was being hounded into submission by the Turkish ruling party, wouldn’t you be willing to make things up to embarrass Erdoğan or even to make him step down? This is especially true given the Kemalists’ own sleazy modus operandi. This is a party, after all, that backed one coup after another and that tortured and killed leftists and Kurds with a zeal that would make the typical Arab dictator green with envy.

Let’s assume that these sources are worth listening to for the moment. Do their reports make any sense? Lee offers up an article in “Today’s Zaman” in its entirety as evidence. This is the newspaper of the Gülen movement that has built charter schools in the USA to further its credibility with a wing of the ruling class whose favor it is attempting to curry. It shares the AKP’s goal of liquidating the Kemalist party. The relationship between the Kemalists, the AKP, and the Gülenists is quite byzantine. Prosecutors and judges sympathetic to Gülen were instrumental in railroading Kemalists to prison on behalf of the AKP. Now that the Kemalists have been tamed, the same prosecutors and judges are involved in cases being made against AKP leaders for corruption as the NY Times reported on February 26, 2014:

Many of the prosecutors and investigators in both cases — the corruption inquiry and the old military trials — are followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. The adherents in his network were once partners in Mr. Erdogan’s governing coalition, but the government now considers them a “parallel state” to be rooted out through purges of the police and the judiciary.

A circular firing squad indeed and not conducive to impartial reports on sarin gas or much of anything else.

Basically, the Zaman report recapitulates the details of an arrest made in Adana, Turkey in May 2013, two months before the attack in Ghouta. In a nutshell, a group of 13 al-Nusra front members in Turkey had conspired with AKP officials to send sarin gas to Syria that would be used in a false flag operation meant to provoke the USA into a “regime change” invasion of Syria:

Taking the floor first, Erdem stated that the Adana Chief Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into allegations that sarin was sent to Syria from Turkey via several businessmen. An indictment followed regarding the accusations targeting the government.

“The MKE [Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation] is also an actor that is mentioned in the investigation file. Here is the indictment. All the details about how sarin was procured in Turkey and delivered to the terrorists, along with audio recordings, are inside the file,” Erdem said while waving the file.

Erdem also noted that the prosecutor’s office conducted detailed technical surveillance and found that an al-Qaeda militant, Hayyam Kasap, acquired sarin, adding: “Wiretapped phone conversations reveal the process of procuring the gas at specific addresses as well as the process of procuring the rockets that would fire the capsules containing the toxic gas. However, despite such solid evidence there has been no arrest in the case. Thirteen individuals were arrested during the first stage of the investigation but were later released, refuting government claims that it is fighting terrorism,” Erdem noted.

Over 1,300 people were killed in the sarin gas attack in Ghouta and several other neighborhoods near the Syrian capital of Damascus, with the West quickly blaming the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Russia claiming it was a “false flag” operation aimed at making US military intervention in Syria possible.

For Lee, this reporting “supports Seymour Hersh’s reporting that the notorious sarin gas attack at Ghouta was a false flag orchestrated by Turkish intelligence in order to cross President Obama’s chemical weapons ‘red line’ and draw the United States into the Syria war to topple Assad.”

If you have access to Nexis, you can check out what other newspapers were saying at the time.

To start with, the cops who arrested the 13 men reported that the two kilograms of sarin gas were going to be used against government offices in Turkey, not targeted at Syria. “The reports claimed that the al-Nusra members had been planning a bomb attack for Thursday in Adana but that the attack was averted when the police caught the suspects.” (Cihan News Agency, May 30, 2013) Things get even weirder as the same article indicates that the AKP blamed Syria for recent attacks by the terrorists. Now, there’s something you don’t see every day. Al-Assad using the al-Nusra Front in terrorist attacks on Turkey. Oh, by the way, the agency responsible for this rather incoherent article is also a Gülenist property, just like Zaman.

It should be stressed that this same news agency never claimed that ISIS was supposed to be the beneficiary of sarin gas supplied by some conspiracists either inside or outside the Turkish government. Instead it claimed that it was Ahrar al-Sham. So what’s the big deal, some might ask. They are Islamists, after all. Well, maybe so but Ahrar al-Sham was a bitter rival of ISIS so much so that it was targeted by the latter in suicide bombings. Well, who cares about such petty details when you are trying to make a bigger point, even if it is mindless conspiracism?

Later on the authorities changed their story. There was no sarin gas but only the ingredients that go into its manufacture.

But even if there was, what possible connection could that have with the East Ghouta attack that left over a thousand Syrians dead? Unless you are Mint Press that wrote at the time that the sarin gas seeped out from a storage area under rebel control due to an accidental breakage of containers, you need to be able to weaponize the stuff. This means having the technical means to construct rockets, delivery systems and the quantity of sarin gas required to disperse over a wide area.

This does not even get into the question of why al-Nusra would be involved in a “false flag” operation to precipitate a massive US intervention. Unlike the FSA, this group could not count on a free-fly zone or any other supposed benefit of intervention. It was considered a far more deadly enemy than the Baathists and one that the US has already targeted in lethal raids. I suppose that because all of these groups are “rebels” in one sense or another, it was easy for Hersh and anybody else in the amen corner to paper over the differences. Such sloppiness is endemic to the conspiracy-minded.

In April 2014, Elliot Higgins and Dan Kazseta wrote a Comments are Free piece in the Guardian taking issue with Seymour Hersh’s LRB article that remains as current as ever.

After mustering a wealth of video evidence that Baathist Volcano rockets were the means of delivery, the authors pose seven issues that had to be addressed. It is a total shame that none of the conspiracists in Assad’s amen corner has the scruples or intelligence to deal with them. Instead they would rather circulate the incoherent Gülenist press or rely on Seymour Hersh’s unnamed sources in spookworld. You are asked to take his word even if one CounterPunch contributor had this to say about him: “When there are serious political repercussions in the Middle East from Hersh’s much-read pieces, it would help for him to know better what he’s talking about.”

Firstly, sarin is difficult to make. Anyone who claims otherwise is oblivious to both history and chemical engineering. Germany, the US and the former Soviet Union took years to perfect the process. Its production requires a number of complex steps and the ability to handle highly dangerous chemicals at very closely controlled high temperatures and pressures. There is no evidence anyone has come up with any sort of streamlined method to manipulate the molecules to make sarin.

Second, quantity. Perfecting the process isn’t enough – there is a difference between making a spoonful and enough for the August attacks, which would have needed about half a ton. This assumes a scale only reached by big state production programmes. To put it in perspective, the one verified example of non-state production of sarin was the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. Their many millions of dollars, very large purpose-built manufacturing facility and highly qualified staff got them the ability to make single batches of perhaps 8 litres of short shelf life Sarin. The alleged Aleppo plant wouldn’t need to be the size of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in the US, but it would have needed to be closer to that than the size of a house.

Third is the choice of weapon. Of the panoply of chemical warfare agents available to modern science and engineering, sarin is one of the hardest to make. So why was this one chosen? Even its nerve agent kin, Tabun and VX, are arguably easier to produce; mustard or lewisite are easier and use less technology. Numerous toxic industrial chemicals which might “fly under the radar” of non-proliferation regimes could be used as weapons. So why pick the hardest?

Fourth, economics. To make this operation work it is going to take a lot of highly trained people, raw materials, and specialised equipment, as well as a facility. It would cost many tens of millions of dollars. When the rebel factions are so stretched for resources, does it make any sense to spend, say, $50m on a weapon of limited utility? Lavish expenditure must raise a paper trail somewhere; there would be order books and receipts. Let’s see them.

Fifth is logistics. You don’t turn precursor material magically into sarin: you need about 9kg to end up with 1kg of sarin. This stuff has to come from somewhere, but where? Hersh omits these details, as do most of the alternative narratives. It is simply assumed that things like phosphorus trichloride and thionyl chloride just get summoned up in vast quantities without someone noticing. Most commentators on this issue have also forgotten about something called conservation of mass. If you use 9kg of material to synthesize 1kg of sarin you end up with 8kg of waste, rather a lot of which is very dangerous, smelly and corrosive. This waste stream has to go somewhere, and someone will notice. There are also the logistics of getting a lot of sarin into rockets and getting those rockets from Aleppo to Damascus.

Sixth, concealment. How do you hide all of this? The building, the supply chain, the people, the money, and the very smelly waste stream. Where are they? They need to be concealed not just from the Syrian regime but from other rebel factions, western intelligence agencies, the Russians, and perhaps even your own people who might desert, get captured or say silly things on YouTube videos. There is deathly silence from Aleppo and we only find out about it from Hersh?

Lastly is the specificity of the product. There are important physical clues found in the traces of sarin at the impact sites of the 21 August rocket attack. One of these is the presence of hexamine, a chemical with no history of use in nerve agent production. But hexamine can be used as an acid scavenger, and thus its presence could be explained due to its use as an additive to the sarin. This idea has been reinforced by both the admission of the Syrian regime that they used hexamine as part of their formula, and by Syria’s declaration to the OPCW of an inventory of 80 tonnes of hexamine, specifically as part of their chemical weapons program. Surely, as an uncontrolled substance, they could have omitted it from their declarations. But they didn’t. Hexamine in field samples plus hexamine in Syrian inventories, plus an admission that hexamine was in their recipe, seems a compelling case for tying the Sarin in the field to the Syrian regime. How would an Aleppo-based rebel factory somehow come up with the same exact idea?

Taken cumulatively, all these points add up to a very high degree of improbability. Isn’t it more probable that the Sarin came from the people who confessed to having a Sarin factory, fired from areas controlled by the government 2km away from the impact sites, in munitions the government had been using since 2012?

October 25, 2015

CounterPunch fund drive

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 3.13.38 PM

Twenty-two years ago I took out a subscription to a newsletter that was advertised in the back pages of the Nation Magazine. It was called CounterPunch and edited by Ken Silverstein. It was the same back pages where I had found out about Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer a few years earlier. In the early 90s such newsletters were carrying on the tradition of I.F. Stone’s Weekly. Even though the Internet was gathering momentum, it was still a time when the worldwide web was still in its relative infancy.

After Ken had written an article about Goldman-Sachs, I sent off an email (the only use of the net for most people at the time) letting him know about a mass firing that took place at my old workplace. In the next issue he recounted my story about how a bunch of managers with names ending in vowels had been sent home in town cars because the new manager, a scumbag West Point graduate named Rick Adam who would also be fired later on, decided that they lacked the proper credentials. Years later I ran into one of these ex-managers at Columbia University who told me that he was washing windows there. I was delighted to see CounterPunch spilling the goods on those rotten bastards at Goldman.

A year later Alexander Cockburn joined Silverstein as the City Paper reported. The opening grafs pretty much sum up the spirit of CounterPunch to this day:

Hitting Back
CounterPunch Editors Ken Silverstein and Alexander Cockburn Assail the Right—and the Center
By Lisa Gray • October 21, 1994

“The left in general tends to be wimpy,” rages journalist Ken Silverstein, himself a confirmed leftist. He quivers with indignation: “They’re chickenshit about going after people.” To remedy that ill, Silverstein last year founded CounterPunch, a bloodthirsty little newsletter that covers official Washington from a shamelessly radical perspective. “Rush Limbaugh is not a role model,” he says. “But the idea of actually going after people and hitting hard makes sense.”

Back in 1989, while an intern at the Nation, Silverstein had discussed such a fiery newsletter with his mentor, columnist Alexander Cockburn. Cockburn knows fire: A master of invective, he has for years positioned himself to the left of the left, championing Maoist values, admitting that he preferred Brezhnev to Gorbachev, and writing that Stalin didn’t kill all that many people. Cockburn liked the idea of a feisty newsletter, a fortress from which to attack the “bipartisan blotch of evil.” He laments, “Even the Nation feels it necessary to defend Clinton occasionally.” As editors of a newsletter, he and Silverstein would feel no such compulsion.

Two years later Ken would move on and Jeff St. Clair took his place in a project that would become an exemplar of radical journalism on the worldwide web. Ever since it premiered online, I read it every day as most of you certainly do as well. Like many of you, the experience of reading CounterPunch is probably akin to drinking a double espresso for the first time after a lifetime of drinking PBS or HuffingtonPost warm milk. It will be a hair-raising experience as Ken and Alexander certainly intended.

Just over three years ago, I began writing for CounterPunch after a decade of fulminating against Alexander Cockburn. After reading my complaint about how people like Mike Whitney were trashing Pussy Riot, Jeff St. Clair invited me to write a response, which I did. Contrary to the view that some have that CounterPunch is some kind of “line” publication, nothing could be further from the truth. It is instead a voice for the radical movement as well as some non-radicals like Paul Craig Roberts who have valuable insights into economic malfeasance.

Over the past three years I have written close to 200 articles for CounterPunch. I am very proud to be writing for a publication that includes Arno Mayer, Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, Clancy Sigal, Ruth Fowler and Kim Nicolini as contributors. If there is any recommendation that can be made on behalf of CounterPunch, it is its amazing variety of voices such as these.

I have just donated $100 and strongly urge you to chip in. As some guy once said, from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. The other day I posted a complaint that someone had sent to Jeff St. Clair about my writing for CounterPunch. The malcontent thought it was some kind of trick that I was allowed to write film reviews since the net effect would be to encourage Obama to bomb Syria (Russia got a green light obviously.)

This led someone to post a comment: “I’ve no objection to Proyect’s articles, from what I’ve read. Always food for thought. But I also pass on contributing to Counterpunch, because they do not pay writers.”

In fact I would pay CounterPunch just to publish not only me but also all the others who appear there on a daily basis. In the entire 11 years I was in the Trotskyist movement, I had the same relationship. I paid my dues in order for the Militant to get published. At this stage of my life, after the accumulated wisdom of 48 years on the left, I can assure you that anything you contribute to CounterPunch will be the best investment you can make for a more just world.

Please be generous.

October 24, 2015

The Pearl Button; Bering: Balance and Resistance

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Opening yesterday at the IFC Center in New York, Patricio Guzman’s “The Pearl Button” is my pick for best documentary of 2015 and very possibly the best I have seen in the past decade. Guzman, a Chilean born in 1941, is best known for his documentaries about the Allende period, including “The Battle of Chile” that I saw forty years ago when it came out and the 2004 “Salvador Allende” that I reviewed eight years ago. Since my view of the director’s work was informed by these newsreel-like films, I was not nearly prepared for the astonishing experience of a work of art that combined politics and art and that can be likened to Eduardo Galeano at his best. Narrated by Guzman, “The Pearl Button” is a meditation on the ontological mystery of water, the extinction of the Patagonian Indians who had a unique connection to the ocean, and the persecution of Allende’s supporters whose corpses were often dropped by helicopter into the very waters of the Pacific Ocean that the indigenous peoples regarded as essential to their being.

The eponymous pearl button is a reference to Jemmy Button, as the British colonizers called him. He was a Patagonian Indian that Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle—the same ship that Charles Darwin sailed on–brought back to England in 1830 under circumstances typical of the unequal power relations of the day and that continue now. When the natives stole one of Fitzroy’s boats, he took a group hostage. Jemmy’s price was that of a single mother of pearl button. Christianized forcefully, dressed in respectable garments (his people preferred to walk about unclothed with their bodies painted), and taught English, he was nothing more than a kind of curiosity for the British to gawk at. Once he returned home, he discarded their clothing and sought to be reintegrated with the Yámana people who never quite accepted him. Being lost between two worlds, as we shall see in the discussion of another film below, is generally the fate of indigenous peoples today unfortunately.

When Guzman learned that the Chilean government had commissioned a task force to retrieve the bodies of Pinochet’s victims, he went along to film their work. As was the custom, Pinochet’s goons tied the corpse to a six-foot section of rail to weigh it down in the Pacific. On one dive, the cops retrieved such a rail but the corpse had washed away long ago. The only thing remaining was a shred of the victim’s clothing and a single mother-of-pearl button.

As a kind of prelude to these stories, Guzman explores the significance of water—a part of nature that it is all too easy to take for granted. It turns out that if had not been for the landing of a comet on earth quite by accident billions of years ago, the oceans might not have come into being. The director interviews a number of scientists who appear to be on the same political and artistic wavelength as him. They explain that water permeates everything we see and touch, including our own bodies, the soil, the sky, and the food we eat. Citing scientist Thedor Schwenk who founded the Institute of Flow,a research center on water, Guzman notes that “…the act of thinking resembles water due to its capacity to adapt to everything. The law of thought is the same as that of water, always ready to adapt itself to everything”.

Such observations are accompanied by the stunning images of the heavens, the oceans and the earth as only a gifted director could summon. His words, spoken slowly and clearly in the tone of a seer, the film score and the images combine to both educate and inspire.

The high points of the film consist of a group of elderly indigenous survivals of the genocide including Gabriela Paterito who speaks in her native tongue. They believe that there were eight thousand Patagonian natives in the 18th century with only twenty surviving including Paterito who is described in the press notes:

Gabriela was born near an island called “Calao”, in the Picton fjord. She is about 73 years old. She learnt to row and dive under water when she was just six years old. Gabriela travelled hundreds of miles in a canoe, from Punta Arenas to the Gulf of Penas together with her family. She’s the last descendant of the kawéskar ethnic group, able to recount her life and that of her family with total lucidity and precision. Thanks to her son, Juan Carlos Tonko, who has brought Gabriela’s life into the public eye, it is no longer one of anonymity. She lives in Puerto Eden and earns a living making handicraft. During the filming we met other of her fellow countrymen, Alfredo Renchi, Francisco González and Yolanda Mesier.

The connection between the Indians of Patagonia and the socialists in Chile could not be more obvious. We learn from Guzman that among the accomplishments of Allende was a kind of affirmative action for indigenous peoples, a policy that must have angered a ruling class that like those throughout the Americas considered them to be less than human. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Although unfortunately I am a bit late on this, Lourdes Grobet’s “Bering, Balance and Resistance” that premiered this morning at the Margaret Mead film festival at the Museum of Natural History, is a perfect companion piece to “The Pearl Button”. If it ever shows up in your neck of the woods or on television, grab it since it is very much in the tradition of Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” but like many of the films about Inuit today is much closer to the truth.

The film documents the daily existence of the people who live on the Little and Big Diomede Islands who have been there for more than ten thousand years. Modern civilization so to speak has separated them, however. Little Diomede is American territory and Big Diomede is Russian. If Sarah Palin lived in Little Diomede, her comment about being able to see Russia would be true.

Interestingly, the native peoples refer to themselves as Eskimos, not Inuit, thus showing a certain indifference to political correctness. That being said, they are completely committed to preserving their traditions that are under assault from capitalist society. One man in his forties observes that when they had native dances in the local assembly hall in the past, you could not find a seat. Today the hall is half-empty for such events. Children do not speak their native tongue, watch television addictively, eat canned food and talk about relocating to Nome where assimilation can be consummated.

There are elders who are intent on preserving what they call their “subsistence” way of life. They are dubious about Christianity even though that is the only religion in both islands, something that must be reassuring to both the Russian and American yahoos who see eye-to-eye on the church. Those old enough to have lived before “civilization” settled in report that in the old days there was no money. They went out on hunts together and shared what they killed. They made everything they needed and exchanged fur or carvings for manufactured essentials such as knives or guns. You can see a couple of men in their thirties, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, going through the steps of a hunting dance that was probably performed ten thousand years ago.

Their way of life and that of the Patagonians is what Marx called primitive communism. In order to assimilate hunting and gathering societies into bourgeois society, force is necessary as well as ideological pressure. The tragedy of the Inuit, who were separated by dint of the conventions of the modern state system, is that they are caught between two worlds.

But so are we in a very real sense. Our fate is to live in a system based on commodity production that is undermining our very existence as I pointed out yesterday in my review of “Racing Extinction”. The goal is the same as it was when Engels wrote “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”: to unite the disdain for money that most people in Grobet’s film share with the modern productive forces that capitalism has forged.

October 23, 2015

Somebody doesn’t like me

Filed under: CIA,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 2.29.18 PMLouis Proyect

(Sent to Jeff St. Clair by one of my detractors who apparently thinks that my film reviews are more dangerous than a TOW missile.)

To whom it may concern:

Why aren’t your revenues and dispersements/expenditures totally transparent and easy to find and revenue?

Different opinions are valuable, but clumsy disinformation agents and sleazy attack dogs like Louis Proyect as a regular contributor on your magazine seems like something is incredibly amiss in your fundamental mission.

Honest critique is valuable–but Proyect’s style isn’t principled or even coherent.

It seems that you have made a bargain with this guy–where you only let him post essays in a narrow parameter (reviews of film and literature).

This seems an unseemly arrangement.

I don’t mind right wing views on issues–but only if the writer is cogent and ethical.   Thus my objection is not left/right ideological.

Regrettably,  I have watched a huge swath of what passes for left/progressive media dissolve into humanitarian imperialists and propagandists for US state violence abroad.

Libya , Ukraine, and now Syria have torn the mask off the left intelligentsia.

You featuring this dishonest man, Proyect, among your your cast of thinkers at Counter Punch is simply so incongruous that there is no way I will donate any money.

If you allowed this Proyect close to actually debate his absurd propositions it would be valuable–but your venue doesn’t even allow comments.

Eric Draitser’s work is compelling, and I especially like the one hour a week podcast.

Why only one hour a week?

Not worth my donating money for so paltry an offering.

You could arrange three or four hour podcasts per day, and generate revenue for providing cogent analysis on timely domestic and world events.

But you and the so-called “left” totally drop the ball when it is in your court.

Pacifica and Democracy Now! are horrendous–again, Libya, Ukraine, Syria.

It is as though they know they function as propagandists for the US empire on these topics so they choose to avoid compelling and regular discussion of these topics.

But back to my major point:  why would I contribute money to an organization of the way money is spent is hidden?

Part of the left being almost extinct is that people that pose as critics become cooped, commodified personalities–and this lends them to become corrupted cynics, propagandists for US humanitarian imperialism.

If you had guts and imagination, you would dare to become radically different that the dozens of suspect left/progressive media sites that offer up weak tea as a matter of course.

You would analyze the failure of Pacifica and develop a hub for information that is transparent and valuable for democratic and cultural renewal.

But, first, your money structure would have to be totally transparent.

That this isn’t axiomatic simply makes people like me assume that there is standard corruption operating behind the scenes.

Steven H.

Racing Extinction

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

The Politics of Extinction

Those dolphins that are slaughtered end up in Japanese supermarkets labeled as whale meat. Technically, this is true since dolphins are small whales. But the meat is hazardous to one’s health. Laced with mercury, an inevitable by-product of factory emissions, they can potentially cripple or kill you.

To his everlasting credit, Louie Psihoyos joined Rick O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer and subject of his film, in guerrilla raids on the dolphin killers using hidden cameras rather than AK-47s. “The Cove” can be seen on Youtube  for just $1.99 and is must viewing for anybody concerned about the massive threat industrial-fishing poses not only to the whales but to humanity as well. If the ocean becomes empty of sea-life, the earth itself is threatened since there is a delicate balance between the two biospheres.

This is essentially the theme of “Racing Extinction”, a film that Psihoyos has been working on for the past six years. I saw it on Wednesday night at a press screening introduced by Susan Sarandon and the director. He warned the audience that the film was a bearer of bleak tidings but that it was not too late to avert a Sixth Extinction, the subject not only of the documentary but one omnipresent in print and electronic media.

Read full article

October 22, 2015

Gaddafi and the jihadis

Filed under: Jihadists,Libya — louisproyect @ 2:03 pm

But the bloody joke is on all of us; Gaddafi knew what he was talking about; right from the get-go, he accused the so-called Libyan rebels of being influenced by Al-Qaeda ideology and Ben Laden’s school of thought; no one had taken his word for it of course, not even a little bit. I mean why should we have? After all, wasn’t he a vile, sex-centric dictator hell-bent on massacring half of the Libyan population while subjecting the other half to manic raping sprees with the aid of his trusted army of Viagra-gobbling, sub-Saharan mercenaries? At least that’s what we got from the visual cancer that is Al Jazeera channel and its even more acrid Saudi counterpart Al-Arabiya in their heavily skewed coverage of NATO’s vicious conquest of Libya. Plus Gaddafi did dress funny; why would anyone trust a haggard, weird-looking despot dressed in colorful rags when you have well-groomed Zionists like Bernard Henry Levy, John McCain and Hillary Clinton at your side, smiling and flashing the victory sign in group photo-ops, right?

Ahmad Barqawi, The Future Gaddafi Foresaw: Libya, ISIS and the Unaffordable Luxury of Hindsight


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