Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 30, 2020

Are riots revolutionary?

Filed under: Academia,ultraleftism — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

About a week ago, someone posted a link to a Verso book by Joshua Clover titled “Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings” that I took a quick gander at on the Verso website. It stated that “Political theorist Joshua Clover theorizes the riot as the form of the coming insurrection.” I didn’t pay that much attention to it except to note that insurrection is a problematic term if you are a Marxist, at least if it is understood as anything like October 1917. There wasn’t much that was violent about the takeover of the Winter Palace or for that matter neither was there much rioting going on in Russia. Mostly, there were mass protests demanding peace, bread and land.

It turns out that Clover, an English professor and poet, is something of an ultraleft jackass. Like many others in the academic left, he is steeped in the kind of cultural theory-mongering that made Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler superstars. I guess that Clover is not in their league, but in the minor leagues. Here’s a sample of his jive:

Thus we might come to understand the tactic of the black bloc, which has achieved such infamy these last years, as itself a kind of pop culture. Not because those who don the anonymizing balaclavas are famous, or believe in a struggle in the realm of images, but because this is an inevitable position within the universalized fame of surveillance. It is Warhol’s wig in negative. From the moment that daily life becomes a screen test, the black mask is inevitable. Every surveillance camera makes anarchy more compelling, more joyous. Pussy Riot’s Day-Glo glory adds a flourish, but the logic is impeccable.

In a discussion with fellow poet Anne Lesley Selcer about the Nation article that generated some controversy, she offers this observation: “If the sixties were about bending the politics of representation toward leftist aims, this tactic [black bloc] embodies a pure, active antagonism.” Jeez, I had no idea that I was involved with the representation toward leftist aims. That almost sounds like I was doing water-colors or something. Clover responded:

It wants to move toward the condition of being numerous, so much so that masks become unnecessary, at which time we will see that the black bloc comprises neither “outside agitators” nor some specially privileged bunch of white boys — as the dovetailing stories of right media right and left counterrevolutionaries have it — but is everyone.

The black bloc wants to be everyone? Really? Did that include the people who came to Washington on inauguration day in 2017 and began breaking bank windows? I imagine that the unmasked bystanders who got gathered up the cops and who left the masked rioters alone would ever bond with them after facing sentences of up to 10 years for felony rioting charges.

You don’t have to read Clover’s garbage book to figure out what he stands for. In an interview with “The Rumpus”, he offered up one stupidity after another. He starts off drawing an equation between the protests that Martin Luther King Jr. led and the riots. MLK Jr. adopted a posture “that is media-friendly, a version of respectability politics.” On the other hand, the riots were taking care of certain practical goals, things like “destroying the power of the police, or making your neighborhood uninhabitable for people you don’t want there.” Since Clover was six years old in 1968, he probably had no direct knowledge of riots making any neighborhood uninhabitable for the cops. On the other hand, MLK Jr. led protests that helped to put Jim Crow in the grave. Toward the end of his life, he was moving toward eliminating de facto segregation once de jure segregation had ended. He was also putting forward a more explicitly anti-capitalist message that clearly made him a target of reactionary elements. That Clover can dismiss King as involved with “respectability politics” shows what an ivory tower dick he is.

Since he attached the label “practical” to riots, Rumpus asked him to explain how it was since it will “just get you thrown in jail or killed, none of which sounds very practical.” To save you the trouble of reading his book, his words tell you all you need to know:

Often people read Riot.Strike.Riot as advocating riots rather than strikes. That is not the case. The book is simply trying to understand what it has meant that people fight where they are, and to grasp shifts in forms of struggle as a story about where people are. It’s also about a great restructuring of what gets called “class composition” at a global level. When people are in a workplace where it’s possible to organize and engage in labor actions, that’s how they fight, and it can be very effective. When people are not in that situation, they fight in other ways. They fight in the marketplace. They gather in the street, the square. One need not prefer one or other. One need only notice that there’s been a meaningful shift in where people are over the last thirty, forty, or fifty years from traditional productive industries—which are easier to organize—toward a kind of work that involves circulation of capital and products, and toward unemployment. People who are in that situation are unlikely to fight somewhere else. They’re going to fight in that space.

He, of course, is missing the entire point. We understand that there is a need to fight. Most fighting in fact is defensive in nature. The real goal, however is how to win. That’s something the clueless professor has nothing to offer. Right now the left is faced with major challenges on how not only to defend the meager conditions of life during economic depression and a plague but how to finally defeat the capitalist class and take power in the name of socialism. Thus, it is imperative to think through tactics that the labor movement can pursue, just as it did in the 1930s when there were very few riots—come to think of it.

In 2018, Kim Moody reviewed “Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings” for Jacobin. The review takes Clover far more seriously than I ever would, trying to engage with his stupidities as if they were on a Historical Materialism Conference panel together, with lots of references to Marxist value theory, his theoretical debts to Brenner-Wood’s political Marxism, etc. The conclusion, however, strikes a fatal blow:

In Clover’s analysis, the rise and convergence of riots, occupations, and other actions in the streets, squares, and highways are to culminate (inevitably?) in the commune — the society that transcends capitalism, the wage relationship, and consumption as a source of profit. Unlike the riots in the streets and squares, however, the commune, Clover says, is “not a place” like the Paris Commune, but a “social relation.”

One doesn’t have to be David Harvey to understand that, even in the internet age, human beings and their societies are spatially as well as temporally rooted even if their places multiply, expand globally, and their inhabitants migrate from one place to another. Place is integral to the human condition.

The problem here, however, is bigger than this idealized commune. Any change in social relations and economic systems requires human “agency.” If the employed core of the working class is no longer in the running for this position, what social force or forces are?

Clover is, of course, clear throughout that the racialized surplus population is the major candidate for change in the new era of circulation. The full answer, however, the culmination of 180 pages of often wordy if well-crafted discourse, is found in the following exceptionally succinct third of a paragraph:

The shape of the double riot is clear enough. One riot arises from youth discovering that the routes that once promised a minimally secure formal integration into the economy are now foreclosed. The other arises from racialized surplus populations and the violent state management thereof. The holders of empty promissory notes, and the holders of nothing at all.

While Clover acknowledges the difficulties of bringing these two elements together, that isn’t the major problem. The major problem is that while both participants in the “double riot” may disrupt society for a time in one or more places and play a role in broader movements for social change, neither group has much social power, or indeed staying power, over the long haul. Their very separation from production underlines their relative social weakness.

Furthermore, youth are divided by class with different aspirations and possibilities even today. Are frustrated graduate students with diminishing prospects for university tenure, or those seeking their MBA, in the same position as the less-educated youths trapped at McDonald’s or worse?

More importantly, even together youths and those in the active reserve army are a minority of the broader proletariat, even of the racialized proletariat, and even insofar as young people as a generalization are part of the proletariat at all or share its experience.

Is Clover looking at revolution won or a commune realized by and for a minority? Is this a First World urban version of Regis Debray’s 1960s guerrilla “foco,” albeit writ large and minus the central discipline? What about the democratic majoritarian political vision of socialism from below, the political form of which was suggested to Marx by the place-specific Paris Commune?

As a suffix to this article, I want to cite some Facebook posts by FB friend Rick Sklader, who experience on the left is considerable, going back to the 1960s, followed by one by David Miller, another Minneapolis resident. They make it clear that the left has to grapple with the problem of riots from now on since the capitalist class and its cops are now calculating that its goals can be met by sacrificing a few buildings. A Target store can always be reconstructed but once socialist ideas are implanted in person’s mind and he or she begins acting on them, there’s no turning back. Take it from me, I became a socialist in 1967 and am more convinced on the need for revolution than I have ever been:

Rick Sklader:

MORE BREAKING NEWS Wells Fargo Bank in Uptown neighborhood of. Minneapolis currently on fire. There’s been a lot of needless destruction and mindless vandalism, with a US Post Office now on fire. Minneapolis Police nowhere to be seen.At least two neighborhood restaurants on fire with additional stores being attacked. This has nothing to do with Floyd’s Murder. There appears to be no politics being articulated here, which will likely have negative consequences.

12:06AM Massive show of force used solely to disperse crowd and to allow firefighters in to do their jobs. According to WCCO (CBS affiliate) no arrests made. Police cars leaving Nicolett area with reports Mayor has police moving downtown to next hotspot. Additional reports of multiple fires throughout the city and that the Black barbershop owner called Fire Department and was told they’d put him on their list. Three hours later no business left to save.

Someone burned down a Black Barber’s Barbershop on the near NorthSide the oldest Black neighborhood in the city of Minneapolis and the only place Black people could buy houses for the longest period of time. This used to be a predominately Jewish Area until around 1950. This is the kind of mindless anti-social behavior I have been referencing. This is not nor has anything to do with fighting institutional racism.

BREAKING NEWS assholes set 2nd Library on Fire in Uptown at 28th and Hennepin Avenue. This is fucked up

Neighborhood grocery store also set on fire as well as Minneapolis’ oldest White Castle Restaurant.

1:50AM Governor Walz reported shots exchanged with cops and improvised munitions used as well. Governor is increasing National Guard troops by adding an additional 1,000 soldiers.

David Miller:

5/30/20 South Minneapolis:

While there is legitimate anger and rebellion against the Minneapolis Police Force and the City Government of Minneapolis, most people I know who live in and around Lake Street on the Southside, and in and around Broadway on the North Side were out trying to help people last night.

Help calm things down, doing mutual aid, like getting people and their animals out of burning buildings.

And they did this, heroically, in a situation where armed White Terrorists from out of State rode around in out of State Cars/Trucks (looking at YOU Texas) shooting people.

We are under attack by right wing forces who are burning post offices (we would not do that/trust me) and beloved community institutions (Gandhi Mahal/Migizi Communications).

They are taking out whole blocks with military level training arson tactics in under an hour.

While protesters target major corporate chains, these guys reduce everything to ash.

Last night it got real personal, because they started burning residential homes, over here on the Southside.

Their goal is to push us all over the edge where this spirals into an actual war.

Where people feel so abandoned that we all start shooting at each other. Where the chaos grows so great that Trump has to send in the army and declare martial law, and start shooting.

And guess who they will be shooting? Not the heavily armed White Guys from Texas. No it will be who they always shoot…Black, Brown, Native, PoC…our neighbors.


May 29, 2020

Does neo-feudalism define our current epoch?

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:42 pm


Is there anything feudal about Mark Zuckerberg?

When I learned that we were entering a new period called neo-feudalism, my first reaction was to wonder if that was any worse than what we have now. After all, the serf might have suffered from a lack of freedom but at least had lots of time off as Michael Perelman pointed out in “The Invention of Capitalism“:

Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria.

Then again, I wondered if they were using the term feudalism in the same way I do. When I first began to hear about Trump as a “neo-fascist,” I stubbornly insisted on using the term fascism in a strict sense. I didn’t find him that different from past American presidents, including F.D.R. who threw Japanese-Americans into concentration camps in defiance of constitutional guarantees to citizens.

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Global Warming is Nuclear War

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:03 pm

By Manuel Garcia Jr.

The average global surface temperature rose by 1°C during the 110 years between 1910 and 2020.

During the 50 years between 1910 and 1960, the average global temperature rose by 0.25°C, an average rate-of-increase of 0.005°C/year. Another 0.25°C of biosphere heating occurred during the 25 years between 1960 and 1985, a rate-of-rise of 0.010°C/year. During the 20 year span between 1985 and 2005 another 0.25°C of temperature was added, a rate-of-rise of 0.0125°C/year. During the 15 year span from 2005 to 2020 another 0.25°C of temperature rise occurred, with an average rate-of-rise of 0.0167°C/year.

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May 27, 2020

Was Keynes a socialist?

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

John Maynard Keynes

The latest issue of Catalyst, a journal that is published by Bhaskar Sunkara and edited by Vivek Chibber, has an article by economics professor Gary Mongiovi titled “Was Keynes a Socialist?” It is a gushing review of “Keynes Against Capitalism: His Economic Case for Liberal Socialism”, a new book by James Crotty. Crotty, a 79-year old economics professor emeritus, is a post-Keynesian just like Mongiovi. Among the left professorate, post-Keynesianism is a way of being on the left but not too far left. It puts you in the same camp as the staff of the Jerome Levy Institute at Bard College, a school well-known for its housebroken faculty. At such places, Hyman Minsky is taken in large doses and a smidgen of Karl Marx is thrown in just to add some spice to the stew. After all, you don’t want to go too far with the Marxism stuff in light of Keynes’s take, which is cited by Mongiovi:

Keynes was highly antipathetic toward Marx. He characterized Das Kapital as “an obsolete economic textbook which [is] not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application for the modern world.” To George Bernard Shaw he wrote in 1934: “My feelings about Das Kapital are the same as my feelings about the Koran. I know that it is historically important and I know that many people, not all of whom are idiots, find it a sort of Rock of Ages and containing inspiration. Yet when I look into it, it is to me inexplicable that it can have this effect. Its dreary, out-of-date, academic controversialising seems so extraordinarily unsuitable as material for the purpose.”

Interesting that Keynes would confide in Shaw. Both of them were members of the Fabian Society, a reformist gathering of intellectuals that was sort of the equivalent of the Jacobin editorial board in the 1930s. Despite their disavowal of revolutionary politics, they absolutely doted on Joseph Stalin, whose show trials and mass executions Shaw defended:

But the top of the ladder is a very trying place for old revolutionists who have had no administrative experience, who have had no financial experience, who have been trained as penniless hunted fugitives with Karl Marx on the brain and not as statesmen. They often have to be pushed off the ladder with a rope around their necks.

Keep in mind that admiration for Stalin’s ruthlessness was widespread among the intellectual elite in the 1930s. The NY Times’s Walter Duranty defended the show trials, as well. To his credit, Keynes never fell into this trap. He called Stalin “terrifying” and guilty of eliminating every critical mind in the USSR.

That being said, Keynes never believed in the power of ordinary working people to control their own fate. Like the rest of the Fabians, he saw socialism as a project to be carried out by a modern version of Plato’s philosopher-kings who would administer a mixed-economy state. In the 1930s, the closest anything came to this ideal was the New Deal and Sweden’s social democracy, two of the Sandernista models. In a shrewd analysis of Crotty’s book, Michael Roberts identified the elitist bent:

As Crotty puts it, Keynes’ central point was that the emerging importance of the system of public and semipublic corporations and associations combined with the evolution of collusive oligopolistic relations in the private sector already provided the foundation for a qualitative increase in state control of the economy.  Crotty concludes “Keynes was unabashedly corporatist.”  Indeed – I would add that his concept of corporatism was not dissimilar to that actually being implemented in fascist Germany and Italy at the time.

And who was to run this corporate capitalist/socialist state?  According to Keynes’ biographer, Robert Skidelsky, it would be “an interconnected elite of business managers, bankers, civil servants, economists and scientists, all trained at Oxford and Cambridge and imbued with a public service ethic, would come to run these organs of state, whether private or public, and make them hum to the same tune.”

It is beyond the scope of this article to offer a critique of John Maynard Keynes or James Crotty’s new book. Given all the projects I have taken on, it would not be worth my time or that of my readers. Instead, I want to hone in on Mongiovi’s review as another indication of Sunkara and Chibber’s slow but inexorable retreat from Marxism. By implicitly endorsing Keynes’s doctrines that Mongiovi describes in the subheading of his article as “indeed more radical than commonly thought” and of “considerable relevance for the Left today”, they are repositioning themselves as Brooklyn hipster versions of Dissent magazine.

At the start of his review, Mongiovi recapitulates what most of us, including me, think of Keynes. He cites Lawrence Klein, an early champion of Keynesian economics and a future Nobel laureate: “Marx analyzed the reasons why the capitalist system did not and could not function properly, while Keynes analyzed the reasons why the capitalist system did not but could function properly. Keynes wanted to apologize and preserve, while Marx wanted to criticize and destroy.”

Apparently, Crotty’s book is a corrective to this false characterization. Instead, Keynes “Keynes was building a case to replace it [capitalism] with a form of democratic socialism in which most large-scale capital investment spending would be undertaken by the state or by quasi-public entities.” All this would unfold in a “gradual transition, through a process of trial and error, to a planned economy.” This sounds pretty much like how Jacobin described a Sanders presidency, doesn’t it?

Perhaps realizing that the grounds for calling Keynes a socialist are tissue-thin, Mongiovi takes the tack that labels are not that important:

I doubt that there is much to be gained by trying to pin a label like “liberal” or “socialist” onto Keynes — he was too exuberant a thinker to be put into a box. And inasmuch as these particular labels can mean vastly different things to different people, the exercise is doubly futile.

But these sorts of labels are used to describe an ideology, something that can be extremely difficult to pin down. Instead, it is more important to define socialist in terms of a criterion that can be applied to a state like Cuba or the former Soviet Union. This is a function of examining who owns what. Of course, it can sometimes be difficult to come to such a decision when the data itself is in transition, like Cuba in 1960 or Yugoslavia in Tito’s early years. Frankly, it matters little to me whether you want to call Keynes a liberal or a socialist. I am far more interested in what positions he takes on a particular capitalist state itself.

For Mongiovi and Crotty, Keynes was on the left. “He was not mainly preoccupied with taming the business cycle: his ultimate objective was to bring about a radical transformation of our economic system.” So, what does such a radical transformation entail? Mongiovi attempts to answer that question in a section titled “Keynes as a Theorist of Structural Change”.

After making the case that Keynes, like Marx, saw capitalist crisis as rooted in its own contradictions, Mongiovi—speaking for Crotty—refers to the measures Keynes saw as moving toward socialism:

Since the effective demand problem was fundamentally structural, Keynes advocated a structural solution: a permanent expansion of the state. The idea was that a mechanism needed to be put in place to provide a permanent stimulus to the economy. Crotty describes at considerable length Keynes’s proposal to expand public control over investment. The central institution Keynes envisioned for this function was a Board of National Investment, an idea he first put forward in the late 1920s when he helped to draft a Liberal Party report on Britain’s Industrial Future. He pushed for such a board again in the early 1930s when he served on the famous Macmillan Committee to formulate a response to the problems confronting the British economy. Crotty describes the proposed role of the board as “very ambitious indeed — to help recreate long-term boom conditions similar in vigor to those of the nineteenth century through public investment planning. This definitely was not a short-term government stimulus program designed to ‘kick-start’ a temporarily sluggish economy and then let free enterprise take over.” One significant achievement of Crotty’s book is its demonstration beyond a doubt that Keynes’s overarching objective was to make a case for a program of national economic planning. Crotty marshals all of the available evidence and sets it out in an exceedingly clear way.

What’s entirely missing from Mongiovi’s review, and presumably in Crotty’s book, is any engagement with the class struggle. This paragraph is riddled with class-neutral terms. For example, take the “permanent expansion of the state.” If this in itself was a positive good, you might ask whether there was much difference between the New Deal and the corporatist state of fascism. Indeed, Michael Roberts pointedly refers to Crotty’s admission that “Keynes was unabashedly corporatist.”

Lynn Turgeon, the heterodox economist who died in 1999, saw corporatism as a system that was not inherently progressive. Influenced by Paul Sweezey and a frequent contributor to MR, he argued that FDR’s Keynesianism and Nazi economics had something in common, namely strong state intervention, especially using a military build-up to offset the Great Depression:

Some wag has defined an economist as someone who has seen something work in practice and then proceeds to make it work in theory. In some respects, this may have applied to Keynes, who was certainly aware of the tremendous economic miracle of Adolf Hitler in reducing unemployment from over 30 percent when he took office in 1933 to 1 percent by 1936, the year in which the German edition of the General Theory appeared. In his special introduction to the German edition, Keynes recognized how “thirsty” the Germans must be for his “general theory,” which would also apply to “national socialism.”

(From “Bastard Keynesianism: The Evolution of Economic Thinking and Policymaking Since WWII”)

Is it possible that beneath the rah-rah attitude of the Democratic Party left toward a Green New Deal, there’s not much beyond the kind of formulas encapsulated in Mongiovi’s paragraph above? All this salivating over government boards has little to do with the socialism I’ve defended since 1967. On Biden’s website, there is this:

Biden believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face. It powerfully captures two basic truths, which are at the core of his plan: (1) the United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge, and (2) our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected.

At the risk of sounding like an anarchist, isn’t it time to stop dwelling on how the state can be expanded into a beneficent agent of economic and ecological change? Why not figure out how to smash the fucking state that will continue to kill us, if it remains in the hands of the bourgeoisie?

There’s a cognitive dissonance in the latest Catalyst. Probably sent to the press before the pandemic kicked in, it smacks of the Fabian habits of the social democratic left and light-years away from our grim pandemic and economic free-fall realities. The sclerotic and stultifying Dissent magazine of the 1960s and 70s being the prime example. It would be a shame if Sunkara and Chibber continue traveling down this road but we can compensate for this by getting our shit together as we used to put it in the 1960s.

May 26, 2020

Dinner Party, Becky: Grindhouse masterpieces on virtual cinema

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:20 pm

Although the two films under consideration here are obviously not political, I am taking the trouble to review them out of solidarity with an industry that is on the ropes, just like restaurants, health clubs and beauty salons. Since the movie industry is so gargantuan, you might ask why I am bothering. It is because the two films are very smart, indie films that probably cost $5 million each to make. Originally intended for theatrical release, they are part of the “virtual cinema” offerings I am covering until the pandemic winds down.

Just by coincidence, “Dinner Party” and “Becky” share the same type of main character, a female seeking revenge. In “Dinner Party”, it is the wife of a playwright seeking funding for a Broadway production from super-wealthy people living in a mansion in the countryside. Little did the couple realize that they were going to be victims of a cannibalistic ritual performed by a devil-worshipping cult. After her husband’s head has been chopped off, she takes matters into her own hands. In “Becky”, it is a 13-year old girl who takes on a quartet of neo-Nazi escaped prisoners who have already killer her father. To put it succinctly, it is similar plot-wise to “Home Alone” but with gory attacks mounted by the heroine rather than childish pranks by Macaulay Culkin. Both films had my wife and I floating on air after they were done. We both love leftist politics and horror movies, so there.

Despite being a grindhouse special, “Dinner Party” incorporates some commentary on class distinctions. The five hosts are all terrible snobs, looking down on the couple they are planning to eat. Behind their backs, they make snide comments about the wine they brought as a dinner gift. They probably only spent $12 on it, one of them says sneeringly. That happens to be the ceiling on what I spend on wine so I was looking forward to see them get their comeuppance.

Although the playwright has his own character flaws, including a patriarchal attitude toward his wife, he was a lesser evil to the hosts. Even if they weren’t homicidal, cannibalistic devil-worshippers, they were the biggest snobs I’ve ever seen in a film. I couldn’t help but remembering back to a great French film called “Ridicule” whose hero was a modest landowner and farmer who goes to Versailles to get approval for draining a swamp. He is advised that the only way to get close to the king is to attend dinner parties where the invitees challenge each other vying for the best put-down. He is humiliated for weeks until he develops the verbal skills to triumph. The film ends in the midst of the French revolution with him pissing on one of the aristocrats who humiliated him. In “Dinner Party”, the revenge is served up hot rather than cold.

To give them some credit, the hosts are very cultured even if steeped in a decadent culture at that. At the dinner table, the two guests are lectured on opera by one of the hosts, a real expert who regales them with expositions of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” and Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”. That’s something you don’t see very often in a grindhouse films but what might be expected from director Miles Doleac who holds a PhD in Ancient history from Tulane University. His dissertation was on Pope Gregory I’s role “in developing permanent ecclesiastical institutions under the authority of the Bishop of Rome to feed and serve the poor.” I bet Quentin Tarantino couldn’t have done that.

Doleac began making movies in 2014, most of them horror films like “Dinner Party” and often including him as an actor. In “Dinner Party”, he plays Vincent, a British snob that is the most obnoxious of all the hosts. Doleac has also acted in FX’s marvelous American Horror Stories, a series my wife and I dote on.

I don’t want to give away much of the plot except to say that the playwright’s wife is able to deal with the hosts effectively only after being given super-powers by one among them whose ancestry goes back to the snake in the Garden of Eden. If you are looking for mindful entertainment in these terrible times, the publicist advised that “The Dinner Party” will hit theaters June 5 (doubtful, IMHO) and as VOD” from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now, Xbox, Dish Network, Direct TV and through local cable providers.

“Becky” was scheduled to have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2020, but the festival was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It opens in theaters, drive-ins, on demand and digital starting June 5, 2020.

It stars the 14-year Lulu Wilson in the titular role, a veteran of 22 TV and movie appearances, her first as Louis CK’s daughter, a horror show in itself.

The film begins with her going with her recently widowed father to his country house, where the two will spend “together time”. Not long after she arrives, she is shocked to see that his new girlfriend and her young son will arrive soon in order to get her used to the idea that they are engaged.

When she hears the news at dinner, she denounces her father and his bride-to-be and storms off to a playhouse about a hundred feet away and out of view from their country home. Inside the playhouse, she throws a major tantrum, giving you a feel for the pent-up anger her character harbors.

In a little while, the house is invaded by four, merciless neo-Nazi escaped prisoners who have come to the house to retrieve a key hidden in the basement by their leader Dominick who has a very large swastika tattooed on the back of his bald head. He is played against type by Kevin James, who played a UPS-type driver in Queens in the situation comedy “The King of Queens”. He is great at reprising the kind of role Joe Pesci played in “Home Alone”, except not for laughs. His character is terrifying.

After he and one of his lieutenants torture and then kill Becky’s father, she is ordered to give them the key she had discovered in the basement in order to prevent his girlfriend and her son from being killed as well. By this point, her anger has not only reached a boiling point but spilt over like molten lava. As she approaches the heavily muscled neo-Nazi murderer who towers over her, she grabs the key out of her pocket and stabs him in the eye with it. Later, he and his henchman go back to the house where they use a kitchen shear to detach it from the socket. Like “Dinner Party”, the violent attacks are beautifully orchestrated.

Horrified by the world we are living in? Then immerse yourself in “Dinner Party” and “Becky”. They will take your mind off these miseries as they did for my wife and I.



May 25, 2020

Dariush Mehrjui’s “The Cow”, the film that launched the Iranian New Wave

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

About a month ago, Shalon Van Tine, the young and brilliant Marxist film critic that joined me in an interview by Eric Draitser, messaged me on FB: “I had a lot of fun talking to you on the podcast today! Since you like Iranian cinema, have you ever seen The Cow? I absolutely love that one.” I messaged her back: “Never saw ‘The Cow’ but am familiar with its importance. Loved doing the show with you, btw. Our tastes are very similar.”

About a week ago, I decided to see if the film was available as VOD. Not only was it available, it was just one of a vast library of Iranian films, many with subtitles like “The Cow”, that are archived on the IMVBox website. It is entirely free without subtitles and only $2.49 with. There are 323 films with English subtitles, including “The Cow”. For anybody with the least bit of interest in one of the world’s great filmmaking industries, IMVBox is indispensable.

Made in 1969, “The Cow” (Gaav, in Persian) was like the ship that launched a thousand new wave films in Iran. Well, maybe not a thousand but certainly a hundred. Directed by Dariush Mehrjui and based on a screenplay by his good friend Gholam-Hossein Saedi, it is set in an impoverished farming town in southern Iran. It is so poor that Masht Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami) is considered wealthy because he owns just one cow. It is not even clear if the cow is productive in the conventional sense because we never see Hassan milking her. She is much more of a pet that he dotes on. When he feeds her hay in the barn (more of a shed, really), he always puts some straw in his mouth to encourage her. It is almost as if he is worshipping the cow like a Hindu.

Perhaps, Mehrjui had the films of Satyajit Ray in the back of his mind since “The Cow” evokes the Apu Trilogy. As is the case with Ray, Mehrjui refuses to idealize rural life. At the start of the film, we see children hazing the village idiot with none of the elders chiding them. It is only when the most respected of them, a man named Islam, steps in that they back off.

When Hassan goes off for some business in a nearby town for a couple of days, the villagers are shocked to see in his absence that the cow has died unexpectedly, with a pool of blood close to her mouth. Dreading the impact this would have on him, they bury her and agree on telling him a story about her running off when he returns. No matter how many of them reassure him that this is what took place, he simply refuses to believe them. She had no reason to run off, he insists. Like someone in mourning, he retreats to the barn and sits inconsolably next to her stall. After a day or so, he snaps psychologically and assumes her identity, even to the point of consuming straw this time for real. It is up to Islam and two other villagers to seek help for him. They tie a rope around his waist, as if he were a farm animal, and begin on a long trek to the closest city where they hope to find a mental hospital to take him in.

I should add that although Mehrjui is often viewed as a disciple of Satyajit Ray or the Italian neo-realists, there is one scene toward the end of the film that reminds me of the very end of Ingmar Bergman’s “Seventh Seal”, at least visually. It is a long shot of the three villagers hauling Hassan by a rope toward the city, like Death leading Bergman’s characters off in the distance in a macabre dance. Bergman is on top, Mehrjul below:

Although funded by the Shah’s film company, he refused to allow it to be seen abroad since it went against the grain of his “modernization” posturing. After the Shah was overthrown, Ayatollah Khomeini gave the film his blessing, thus allowing this first seed of the new wave to grown into many new flowers.

If you are familiar with the work of either Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi, you will recognize the similarity immediately. Like Mehrjui, they made films on location in remote rural villages with nonprofessional actors. However, for key roles such as Hassan and Islam, Mehrjui chose professionals with distinguished careers. Ezzatolah Entezami, who played Hassan, would have had 56 credits as an actor when he died in 2018 at the age of 94. “The Cow” might have been in his first film but he began as a stage actor in 1941.

In addition to being tuned into Western culture as director and writer, Mehrjui and Saedi were the Iranian counterparts of the 60s radical movement, with hopes that they could put an end to the monarchy alongside the political radicals.

As for Western culture, Mehrjui was less than impressed with the UCLA film school where he enrolled back in 1959. He dropped out and began learning how to make films on his own. His take on UCLA was most astute: “They wouldn’t teach you anything very significant… because the teachers were the kind of people who had not been able to make it in Hollywood themselves… [and would] bring the rotten atmosphere of Hollywood to the class and impose it on us.”

Like many of the movement activists, Mehrjui initially welcomed the “anti-imperialist” Ayatollah Khomeini, who was much more supportive of “The Cow” than the deposed monarch. It didn’t take him long to figure out that Khomeini was about to impose clerical rules on the film industry. In 1981, he went into exile in Paris but returned to Iran four years later after deciding that he could still make films with integrity in Iran where clerics ruled—unlike Hollywood, where the dollar ruled.

Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi was much more of a revolutionary than Mehrjui and paid for it dearly. Wikipedia reports that in 1953, after Mohammad Mosaddeq was toppled, he and his younger brother were arrested and imprisoned at Shahrbani Prison in Tabriz. As members of the Tudeh party, they were prime suspects of “subversion”. He got in trouble again as the editor of Alefba, a literary magazine with fearless political independence, when he was arrested in 1974 and then tortured by SAVAK, the Shah’s version of Bashar al-Assad’s Mukhabarat. Once Khomeini came to power, Sa’edi continued to be a defender of political freedom and working-class power, but in exile. In 1985, when he was living in exile in Paris, he suffered severe depression over his political disappointments and became an alcoholic, dying of cirrhosis in 1985.

May 24, 2020

St. Marks Place

Filed under: art,bard college,Film — louisproyect @ 8:07 pm

Click to play

As I watched Richard Allen’s six-minute film “St. Marks Place”, I couldn’t help but remembering what I wrote about the old New York of my youth in a piece about the pandemic:

Slowly but surely, everything that endeared New York to me has died largely because of the predatory nature of real estate development as symbolized by the evil presence in the White House.

Jeremiah Moss, who blogs at Vanishing New York, just posted about the photographer Robert Herman, who jumped to his death from the 16th floor of his Tribeca apartment building last Friday night. Herman’s suicide note read, “How do you enjoy life?”

Like Jeremiah, Richard has the old New York in his heart, reflected not only in the film but in his book of photography titled “Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s” that captures the vitality of the city before it became gobbled up by CVS’s, HSBC’s and 75-story condos filled with hedge fund managers. I am not sure about the availability of the book but if it piques your interest, drop me a line at lnp3@panix.com and I’ll put you in touch with Richard. The last time I saw him in NY, he had a carton of the books that he was dropping off at local bookstores, at least those that hadn’t been put out of business by Amazon.

Photos from Street Shots/Hooky: New York City Photographs 1970s:

Of all the people I knew at Bard, there were only three that I have been in touch with in recent years. One was the great poet Paul Pines who died of lung cancer in 2018. Now there are two people I remain in touch with, Richard who will be making films until he dies and Jeffrey Marlin, my chess partner who will be writing fiction until the grim reaper carries him away. All three of us are prime candidates for a COVID-19 torpedo attack but we hope that social distancing will keep us going.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that the four years I spent at Bard College and the eleven in the Trotskyist movement were very intense. In the first instance, spiritually and socially. In the second, politically. And at Bard College, my memories of Richard are most vivid.

He was part of a crowd that included Kenny Shapiro, Blythe Danner, Lane Sarasohn, and Chevy Chase. I loved Blythe and Chevy but couldn’t take Kenny, who died in 2017. Despite my distaste for Kenny, I have to admit that he was very talented. When he graduated Bard, he moved to NY and developed an off-off-Broadway show called “Channel One” that featured Lane, Chevy and Richard’s satire on network TV. Eventually, that became a movie called “Groove Tube”.

If you go to Richard’s Vimeo channel, you can see Richard bouncing off a brick wall in a brief film (this was in the days of Super-8) followed by a very young Chevy Chase in bell-bottom jeans performing in a homage to the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

But for the best slapstick comedy, I recommend Richard’s “One-armed bandit” that won the Sony Pictures Classic Short Film prize at the 2018 Asbury Park Music and Film Festival. Look carefully and you’ll see Chevy playing a cop in the final moments.

May 23, 2020

COOKED: Survival By Zip Code

Filed under: COVID-19,Film — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

Although Bullfrog Films did not allude to this in their publicity about “COOKED: Survival By Zip Code”, this documentary demonstrates that the class divisions at work in the pandemic are nothing new. Directed by Judith Helfand, it examines the worst heat disaster in American history. During the heat wave of 1995, 739 mostly elderly and Black residents of Chicago died during a seven-day period.

Like Michael Moore, Helfand went to Chicago to get to the bottom of the story and interviewed key analysts who had studied the heat-related disaster, as well as holding people who were the counterparts of Donald Trump back then to scrutiny through archival footage. As it happens, they were Democrats like Mayor Richard Daley Jr., whose father was infamous for ordering the cops to beat up peace demonstrators in 1968. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree apparently. The Mayor followed the Trump tactic of self-congratulation: “I think that the city did a very good job…”

As the film titled indicates, it was a matter of which zip code you lived in. If it was one for a mostly white middle-class part of the city, you had air conditioning. If you lived in a Black and poor neighborhood, you had a target on your back if you were elderly or had underlying conditions. If you had both, your chances were maybe 50-50. Poverty made an air-conditioner unaffordable. On top of that, many old folks were not in communication with family for one reason or another. After their corpses were discovered, they were trundled off to a funeral parlor. When the funeral parlors couldn’t handle the traffic, the city dispatched refrigerated trucks to keep them warehoused until the heat wave was over.

There are two remarkable figures who are interviewed throughout the film. One was Steve Whitman, who was born into a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn in 1943. Through hard work, he earned a PhD in biostatistics at Yale in 1969. As head of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s epidemiology program, he played a major role in studying and explaining the 1995 Chicago heat wave. He saw the deaths as unnecessary. The city should have been better prepared to relocate those at risk to air-conditioned shelters. Whitman died from cancer in 2014. At the time, he was heading up Sinai Urban Health Institute (SUHI), a group he founded to promote health equity.

The other expert is Eric Klinenberg, the author of “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.” Wikipedia describes him as a public sociologist, a term I’ve never heard before. I would say that if there’s ever a left movement in the USA that can get past sectarianism and reformism, he belongs in the leadership. His commentary on the Chicago poverty-induced massacre are both informed and passionate. In an interview (https://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/443213in.html) with the U. of Chicago Press that published the book, he said something that foreshadowed what we are facing today with Trump in the White House, Chicago 1995 writ large:

In 1995 there were no uniform standards for determining a “heat related death,” so officials had to develop them. Edmund Donoghue, Cook County’s chief medical examiner, used state-of-the-art criteria to report 465 heat-related deaths for the heat wave week and 521 heat deaths for the month of July. But Mayor Richard M. Daley challenged these findings. “It’s hot,” the mayor told the media. “But let’s not blow it out of proportion.… Every day people die of natural causes. You cannot claim that everybody who has died in the last eight or nine days dies of heat. Then everybody in the summer that dies will die of heat.” Many local journalists shared Daley’s skepticism, and before long the city was mired in a callous debate over whether the so-called heat deaths were—to use the term that recurred at the time—“really real.”

“COOKED: Survival By Zip Code” can be rented from OVID.tv. If you haven’t subscribed to OVID yet, this is a great reason to start. For group and academic purchase or rentals, check with Bullfrog.

May 22, 2020

What Stanford University and Fox News Have in Common

Filed under: Counterpunch,COVID-19 — louisproyect @ 1:33 pm
Dr. John Ioannidis is director of the Stanford Prevention Research Center. He is also one of the highest profile skeptics of COVID-19’s deadliness


On April 21, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham, one of Donald Trump’s most vociferous supporters, spoke to Stanford University physician-professor John Ioannidis about COVID-19. She prefaced the interview with reference to the pandemic as a nothing-burger:

And new antibodies testing on the West and East Coast shows that the true infection rate may be 55 times higher than previously thought by the, quote, “experts.” Meaning, the true fatality of the virus is somewhere below that of seasonal influenza.

As an architect of the testing, he concurred. He said that all of the “evidence points to an infection that is very common, that typically is very mild.”

Continue reading

May 20, 2020

A Child’s Christmas in Woodridge

Filed under: Catskills,literature — louisproyect @ 11:10 pm

No matter how old I get, I’ll always have vivid memories of being a small boy in Woodridge, NY and doing all the things small kids do. Like walking in the woods, swimming in the ponds and rivers, riding my bike, flipping baseball cards, and playing ringolevio.

But winter had its special pleasures. Back then, the snowstorms were long before greenhouse gases tamed mother nature. After a big snowfall, we’d build forts in downtown Woodridge and throw snowballs at each other. We’d also have free rein sledding on the village’s hills, with no worries about cars since the roads were barely passable.

In this chapter from Robert C. Harris’s 2008 “Collection of Autobiographical Stories”, you’ll get a good taste of the excitement of wintertime. Robert’s mother Eleanor and mine were very close. Eleanor wrote a column called Woodridge Whirl for the local paper and my mother took it over after the Harrises moved to Florida.

Half of Robert’s book deals with his misadventures in the US army during the Vietnam war. The other half is reminiscences of being a young boy in Woodridge. I enjoy every chapter but this one about sleigh-riding the most. If you’ve read (or better yet, heard the author recite) Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, you’ll appreciate Robert’s ability to render a long-ago experience. I imagine he wrote this primarily in the same way I have blogged about Woodridge, to recapture my past—sort of an amateur version of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. Woodridgites will probably enjoy this more than the average person but I am sure that it will bring back your own favorite memories of playing in the snow, an experience that future generations will never enjoy as much as us—largely because of climate change. This year in New York City, there was virtually no snow at all.

And, going one step further, the conditions that created climate change are largely responsible for the pandemic that keeps us house-bound today.

Chapter 9

The happiest time in any man’s life is the time before he becomes a man. Now take me. Today I am a man and when I see Woodridge as it is today, I am not giddy with joy, but giddy with souped-up memories. Back then, to my childish and fun-loving libido, I saw Woodridge as the fairyland playground of the nation, Disney Lands notwithstanding, and we kids didn’t even have to pay to get in. Like commercial playgrounds everywhere, each season offered its special attractions.

In the spring, sweaters and jackets strewn along the grounds, we boys ran rampant among the rocks and crevices of Dead Man’s Canyon, our pop guns cocked for action. In the summer, there was Kaplan’s Lake. The cowboys and Indians of the spring were now deep sea divers in the four to six feet of water, splashing, dunking and grabbing ankles or higher. Girls were now a part of the summer attraction and their squeals from our underwater attacks gave meaning to the summer. In the autumn, we boys became habitués of the Ford Dealership yard, racing across imaginary tapes and then moving across to The Tree where, in the bracing air, we were defending Fort Germac from the invaders with our BB guns and apple grenades ready for action.

But it was winter that gave meaning to the winter wonderland songs I remember. Even if one shivered in the cold, nature’s artwork was awesome. The scraggly trees of autumn were now covered in white and adorned with sparkly icicles hanging from the branches like so many fashionably gowned and jewelled women at the Oscar Awards waiting to be admired. But to us, the three Fox boys, Bobby Ritter, David and Paul Kaplan, Ivan Katz, Stuey Novack, Steve and Bobby Wasserman, Steve Gerson, Jay Weinstein and the Sapersteins and every kid still breathing, it was the blinding snow and biting cold that activated our adrenalin. We would embark on a mass exodus from our homes to slosh through the snow, the deeper and wetter the more exciting. Our mittens and gloves were soaked through within minutes as we hurled snowballs at each other and anything else that moved, mostly girls. With our noses running before us and our sleds trailing behind us, we made our way to the slopes. We had two unforgettable hills in Woodridge which nature undeniably devised for exuberant and risk-taking kids. As we trudged uphill, pulling our sleds, one of us was sure to yell ‘up yours’ or some such local witticism, about snow and the upper crust of the down-hillers. Fickle nature. It lures us out of our homes with promises of adventure and then slaps us in the face with icy pellets. But we didn’t care, we had two of the greatest hills in the world. The one at the Alamac Hotel was the smaller of the two. The other, aptly names Little Mt. Everest, was located on acreage behind the Kaplan properties. Subsequently, this property was developed into spacious, expensive single family homes. But at this time in my youth it was the longest, widest, steepest mountain on the planet. Woodridge’s challenge to the Alpine peaks.

It was easier to use the Alamac hill because the hotel was closed for the winter and there was no one to yell at us. It was located just across from Barry Saperstein’s house and it took no more than a fifteen or twenty second zoom to the bottom of the hill. The idea was to grab the tree at the bottom of the hill or risk bouncing across the street to be hit by an oncoming car or, as an alternative, crashing into the Saperstein porch. We kids were lucky, none of us were killed. But sometimes, less lethal but awfully insulting, an irate driver would question the functionality of our brain matter by screeching to a stop and yelling, “What the hell’s the matter with you? You kids nuts or something?”

Most of us were good at grabbing the tree for braking but it was my brother, Walter, who excelled at dreaming up schemes for stunt riding, urged and seconded by Carl Novick and Steve Wasserman. Stunt riding as defined by our group was anything that would scare the hell out of our parents and medical advisors. One of the milder stunts was to stand up on the sled, rope in one hand for stability, while hurtling down the slope waving the other hand and yelling, “Hi ho Silver!” Or, cross one sled with another to resemble an airplane with one kid sitting in the middle steering with his feet, rope in hand, while two more boys stood on each of the ‘wings’ for balance. The goal was to make it to the bottom of the hill without crashing and with all three intact, which never happened—except that one time. On New Year’s Day our snow plane went into action. Our three made it to the bottom, in one piece and in perfect formation. The sled followed sometime later. There we were, the three of us, Steve Gerson, Barry Saperstein and me, lying splayed in the snow in perfect formation, with everyone whooping and cheering around us as if we just won the World Series.

But the greater adventure, the most Evel Kneivelish daring-do was on the slopes of Little Mt. Everest. Gliding down this mountain (to our unformed, ungeological minds this was truly a mountain) was the ultimate test of courage. In our little town, comprised mainly of Jewish families, the villagers naively believed a boy became a man at his Bar Mitzvah. We kids knew better. A boy became a man on the ride down Little Mt. Everest. Unlike the twenty second downhill zoom of the Alamac, downhill on the Everest was an endless, death-defying, marathon race that only the hardy need attempt. We were all hardy.

Racing down hill was the number one game. With at least ten sleds tearing down the long, interminable slope at any one time, it was not so much a race to the finish as a finish to the racer. Sleds crashed into each other, kids went flying, bloodied but unbowed; some actually un-bowelled, as it scared the crap out of us. But we carried on and once in a great while we were carried off.

Then there was our two-man sled exchange. Picture it, Stevie Gerson is lying face down on the sled and Jay Weinstein is kneeling on Stevie’s back. Stevie’s lying down because he has to steer; this was how the expression “Get off my back” entered the English language. Anyway, on the way down, in mid-ride, Jay would jump up into the air and onto a companion sled which was being operated by Ivan Katz. With arms flailing and feet moving wildly, similar to that portrayed in cartoon movies where the guy absent mindedly walks off a cliff and keeps walking in space, the sled exchange occurred. It was risky stuff. There was always the possibility that one might break the neck of the driver—in such cases it was better to jump to the ground for then one was likely to suffer only from snow burn—or slightly worse, loss of face if not of blood.

But we kids were adept at timing our jumps. Snow burns, bruises and other injuries were as natural to our age group as acne would some day be to our aging group. As to the one whose back was used as a springboard, well, what’s an aching spine when one is contributing so much to cultural achievement?

The excitement created by Little Mt. Everest was in its width, its clear course going all the way down without obstacles aside from a few dips and bumps. It was the stone wall at the bottom of the hill that gave meaning to the expression that death is always a surprise. On the same line with the stone wall, near its end, was a mammoth Coca-Cola sign, once impressive in its prime but now bent at a 45 degree angle obscuring its message of promised refreshment. The tin back of the sign made a dandy landing-strip for us when we steered towards it and used our feet as brakes. When this worked, as it normally did, we kids found it as refreshing as promised. Although we were adept at this foot-dragging-braking method, we decided to build snow barriers as an extra precaution to ensure we stopped successfully on our tin landing strip and didn’t go bounding off into the next county. To this end the snow barriers were built just beyond the wall and the sign; the ice on the tin was covered with stones and whatever sharp, jutting material we could find. I notice that building contractors today lack the gusto and ingenuity our team exhibited. Our bulldozer was us. Man, we dug, we tossed, we slid. We froze. All this before we climbed to the top. We kids had it together in the 5os. Energy, sleds, running noses and frozen feet—and an occasional enthusiast with wet pants.

On one beautiful, clear day following the Christmas holidays, we were out in full force, many of us with newer and more powerful sleds, some even with skis. We were racing down Everest, about nine sleds, towards the finish line. It was a close race with Walter in the lead. As we began to slow down near the finish line, the Coca-Cola landing strip, Walter decided to keep going. He had this determined look on his face, not unlike the look of someone daring to go where no man has dared to go. While the rest of us came to a stop, he kept going—over the snow barrier, over the sign, over the wall. As we turned our startled gazes upon Walter, it was like a slow motion movie with Walter hovering in space about forty feet above the ground, holding on to his inverted sled, which had done a complete turn in mid-air. All sound ceased as we witnessed this bizarre scene—Walter hanging on to his upside-down sled with his back towards the ground. Suddenly the reel sped up and down he hurtled into the snow below. The dreamlike sequence was over as everyone realized what had happened and rushed down to the road. My heart was in my mouth. My big brother was not supposed to get hurt; I was.

We had to run about 200 yards down to the street next to the hill, then climb through a barbed wire fence that was located in the back yard of the Kaplan property as a barrier between their yard and the hill. Then we had to step through snow that was about four feet deep. After what seemed like a deathly ten minutes, we located the sled. All we saw protruding from the pile of snow were the rudders but no sign of Walter. Frightened, we all tugged the sled free—and

there lay Walter, still holding on to his sleigh with that glazed, disbelieving look in his eye.

He stared at all of us and with his eleven year old face lit up with a strange and abstracted smile he announced: “I was flying! I was actually flying!”

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