Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 31, 2020

Queens Noir

Filed under: Counterpunch,literature — louisproyect @ 2:59 pm


As a long-time fan of Nordic Noir detective stories, I never expected to see a home-grown version. You might call Michael Elias’s “You Can Go Home Now” Queens Noir since it is set mostly in that dreary stretch of two-story houses and strip malls that will be familiar to anybody who has left Manhattan on their way to the airport. I confess never having stepped foot in this wasteland and only know it as the place that Archie Bunker personified in the 1960s and 70s. I even wonder if Elias knows this area except as a background for his breakthrough novel. To render it accurately might have taken the same kind of dedication that would go into a story about a serial killer in the French Riviera, except with a lot less opportunity to savor local restaurants. For some of the characters in “You Can Go Home Now”, McDonald’s is a night on the town.

Written in the first person singular, “You Can Go Home Now” tells the story of Nina Karim, a cop working in the Long Island City police department. Like just about every cop featured in a Nordic Noir novel or a TV series based on one, Karim is not typical. She reads the refined short stories of V.S. Pritchett rather than the pulp fiction of V.C. Andrews that is ubiquitous to airport bookstores. After Andrews died, a novelist named Andrew Neiderman became her ghostwriter and a very successful one at that. I should add that Neiderman and Elias were a few classes ahead of mine in Fallsburg Central High school in upstate New York.

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July 29, 2020

The Shadow of Violence

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

Opening on Friday, July 31, “The Shadow of Violence” is noteworthy both as a film and as a turning-point in cinema since it will be the first film I’ve reviewed since March 13th that is opening in physical theaters rather than as VOD, or what they call “virtual cinema” (venues listed below).

Based on Joe Murtagh’s adaptation of Irish author Colin Barrett’s “Young Skins,” first-time director Nick Rowland has made a somber film about the plight of Douglas “Arm” Armstrong, an enforcer for an Irish drug gang based in the western Irish countryside. From the beginning of the film, you expect things to end predictably on a tragic note but stay tuned in to Arm out of compassion for a man trying to break the chains fate has cast.

Acclaimed as an amateur boxer, Arm found it hard to resist going on the payroll of the Devers brothers. For doing nothing much except beating people up, he had job security and enough money to live on. Unlike Italy, the USA, Mexico or Colombia, the drug trade in rural Ireland will not make you rich. The two kingpins of the Devers family might be better labeled as pawnpins with their ratty clothes and shabby homes. Whatever they lack in wealth, they more than make up for in viciousness.

Early on in the film, Arm and his partner Dympna, a nephew to the Devers, are dispatched to punish an old man who came to a party they threw. When there, he supposedly raped a young female guest. With what appears to be a total absence of police in the town, punishment is dealt out as if it were the Old West and like in the Old West, men, especially rustlers, get lynched.

Arm has little trouble beating the living daylights out of the old man but is dismayed to discover that the Devers brothers view that as only the prelude. They order Arm to kill him, specifically by throwing him over a cliff. Arm might be capable of beating someone up (although he seems to get no pleasure out of it) but he has never killed anybody before, except in an amateur fight. He felt terrible remorse over a ring accident, so much so that he never went pro. With that trauma in his past, he was not up to the task of killing someone in cold blood. Of course, the consequence of defying his bosses’ orders could be fatal.

If he didn’t have enough on his hands dealing with the Devers, he is in one skirmish after another with his ex-girlfriend Ursula and their autistic son. Arm loves the boy but has trouble getting through to him. When we see him lose patience with the child, we chalk that up as a moral deficit but at least give him credit for wanting to be part of his life. Since Ursula would rather see him disappear because of his job as a drug gang’s enforcer, he has to work extra hard to get time with his son.

Arm is played by Cosmo Jarvis, a brawny British actor who has the same handsome but menacing features as Dwayne Johnson. For most of the film, he is impassive.  In hot water with his bosses over his failure to carry out a hit and his ex-girlfriend for his low-life ways, his anguish becomes hard to mask. Nick Rowland does an excellent job drawing out top-rate performances from his actors. In the director’s notes, he states:

The world of THE SHADOW OF VIOLENCE is energetic, eccentric and beautiful as much as it is dark and threatening. It is a place where violence or laughter could erupt at any moment. I loved how the audience are propelled forward by the youthful energy and spirit of the central characters. Above all else, I wanted to take the audience on a deeply emotional journey, as we explore this brutal world through the eyes of our deeply vulnerable protagonist, as he grapples with his conscience and desire to do what is best for his son.

I’d say he has succeeded admirably.

“The Shadow of Violence” can be seen in the following venues:


Sarasota: Burns Court

KC: Screenland Armour

The Promenade at Bollingbrook
The Arboretum of South Barrington
Emagine Frankfort

Ipic Theatres River Oaks District
Star Cinema Grill Baybrook
Star Cinema Grill Springwoods
Star Cinema Grill Richmond
Star Cinema Grill Cypress

Dallas  The Village at Fairview

The Domain Austin
Lake Creek 7

Oklahoma City: Rodeo Cinema

Winchester VA: Alamo Winchester

Emagine Eagan 15
Emagine White Bear 17
Emagine Willow Creek 12

Fayettville AK: Razorback 16

Owensboro KY: Owensboro Cinema Grill

Southhaven MS: De Soto Cinema Grill

Ft Collins CO: Lyric Cinema

Salt Lake City:
Megaplex at The Gateway
Megaplex 18 at Thanksgiving Point
Megaplex at Jordan Commons

Ogden UT: Megaplex 13 at The Junction

July 28, 2020

Chapo Trap House and Matt Taibbi crack down on the antiracists

Filed under: Harper's Open Letter — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

Chapo Trap House, from left: Felix Biederman, Matt Christman, Amber A’Lee Frost, Virgil Texas and Will Menaker.

The deeper I dig into the controversy provoked by the Harper’s Open Letter, the more convinced I am that it reflects a faultline on the American left. First and foremost, it involves race and class with people such as Thomas Chatterton Williams and Matt Taibbi, two of the leading figures leading the charge against “cancel culture”, contending that Black “identity politics” has become an infection almost as deadly as COVID-19.

There are perhaps two degrees of separation between these two high-profile pundits and the campaign waged by Adolph Reed Jr., Cedric Johnson and Walter Benn Michaels against “antiracism”.

And another two degrees separates them and their frequent interventions on Jacobin and Nonsite from Project 1619, which Reed and some blue-chip historians regard as an insidious propaganda campaign that has the audacity to claim, for example, that Abraham Lincoln was a racist. When Boston decided to remove a statue depicting Abraham Lincoln with a freed black man at his feet, this just became the latest example of cancel culture’s threat to both art and our historical legacy.

Within this boiling cauldron of charges and counter-charges, Jacobin, the DSA and the Sandernista left are at the center, just like the eye of a hurricane. This became obvious to me after listening to their fellow-traveler Chapo Trap House’s podcast number 435, titled “Let’s Get Cancelled”. Made on July 9th, just two days after the Harper’s Open Letter appeared, it featured two Chapo members, Will Menaker and Amber A’Lee Frost, interviewing Matt Taibbi. Like all such podcasts, there is uniformity of opinion to the point of becoming so tedious that you can barely stay awake. For people on such a high horse about the need for free and open debate, you’d think that they’d do a podcast with a range of opinion.

Not only was there an affinity between the three over politics, there was also an affinity over their preening self-image of themselves as fearless and funny social commentators. Like eXile, the Russian magazine where Taibbi wrote many “satirical” articles joking about rape and humiliating women, Chapo Trap House has exploited its left-liberalism and “shock jock” sensibility to make money. Raking in $115,000 a month, their podcasts allow the Sandernista left to enjoy takedowns of people high and low. Hillary Clinton at the top and gays at the bottom are both grist for their mill as this song illustrates:

I am gay and I voted for Obama
I am a shill for the Clinton campaign and the leftwing mainstream press
I’m a pussy who gets fucked right up the ass
I am a cuck
I am a libtard
I am a fag who was blessed to live amongst us
And Arabs to have equal rights.
I have no love of country and the white folks are not all bad
And the Albright folks are tacky
It makes me sad

There’s no need to get offended by this since it is only “satire”, just like the eXile. If you do get offended, then you are one of those snowflakes turning the USA into a totalitarian society where Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” will be required reading just as Mao Zedong’s Red Book was in China. Get caught disagreeing openly with DiAngelo will lead to you being incarcerated for many years. Think I am kidding? Matt Taibbi said that DiAngelo’s philosophy is “Hitlerian”.

Sixteen minutes into the podcast, the subject of Project 1619 came up. In Taibbi’s view, this was an attempt by the NY Times to demonize Donald Trump after Russiagate had fallen flat on its face. He described it as something that never would have made it into the Times if Clinton had been elected. Taibbi was appalled by the idea that anybody would have the gumption to refer to the USA as a white supremacist project. Yeah, they killed the Indians and enslaved Africans but it also produced the Bill of Rights and coca-cola. With Trump in the White House, it became necessary to depict the USA as essentially racist so they printed a bunch of lies in the NY Times, presumably like in the article “Sugar” by Khalil Gibran Muhammad that stated:

The trade was so lucrative that Wall Street’s most impressive buildings were Trinity Church at one end, facing the Hudson River, and the five-story sugar warehouses on the other, close to the East River and near the busy slave market. New York’s enslaved population reached 20 percent, prompting the New York General Assembly in 1730 to issue a consolidated slave code, making it “unlawful for above three slaves” to meet on their own, and authorizing “each town” to employ “a common whipper for their slaves.”

Yeah, the nerve of the NY Times to cancel Trinity Church. What’s next? St. Patrick’s Cathedral?

Menaker and Frost agreed completely with this analysis, with Frost characterizing it as being supported by “annoying” and “ridiculous” people. Like Adolph Reed Jr., she found herself in total agreement with the long-in-the-tooth professor emeriti who were interviewed on WSWS and saw this country as committed to freedom and democracy, at least on paper.

This pile of crap assumes that the Black reporters at the NY Times were in on this conspiracy to demonize Donald Trump and that it required the publisher’s green light to make it possible. Chapo and Taibbi just don’t get it. Over the past decade, the newsrooms have become more reflective of the diversity of American society. Given their social weight, they are likely to raise a fuss over the lack of representation both in promotions and in what is reported. Yes, someone like Walter Benn Michaels would regard their demands for more representation as just another example of petty-bourgeois indifference to class issues but don’t they have a right to ask for an explanation why Tom Cotton’s racist op-ed piece could have shown up, with its call for shooting down BLM protesters? Taibbi weighed in on this, calling James Bennet’s departure as another example of cancel culture’s totalitarian tendencies.

After denouncing Project 1619, the three compadres next voiced their disgust with how protesters were for abolishing the police and prisons, with calls like “kill the cops” at protests showing how out of touch they were with Americans. Like Reed and Johnson, they referred to African-Americans demanding police protection and described defunding the police as a knuckle-headed demand of the left academy and ultra-leftist rioters. Taibbi felt that he was on solid ground making such points since he had written a highly-regarded book about how the cops killed Eric Garner on Staten Island. Yes, it was a good book but it doesn’t compensate for Taibbi’s more recent forays into law and order apologetics. He told Menaker and Frost that the problem was “bad eggs”, not institutional racism. Apparently, he hadn’t gotten the word that the police didn’t exist in the USA until a need arose for rounding up runaway slaves.

For his part Menaker rued the call for abolishing the police since it distracted attention away from a really popular demand like Medicare for All. Perhaps, abolishing the police became a popular demand when the video of George Floyd having a knee on his neck for 8 minutes made the population rethink the role of the cops. This was not your father’s “Miami Vice” or “NYPD Blue” after all.

You might describe Chapo Trap House as Dustin Giustella politics + Don Imus jokes. Like Joe Rogan, it has a distinctly anti-establishment flavor but without any serious consideration of the deeper realities of capitalist society. Taibbi, Rogan and Jacobin pinned all their hopes on a Bernie Sanders presidency and when it failed to materialize, they looked for a scapegoat. Sanders’s failure to win Black voters to his cause was blamed on Hillary Clinton’s exploitation of identity politics rather than his own class-reductionism that continues to this day. Like Taibbi and company, he is for professionalizing the police department, not abolishing it.

As for demands to abolish (or defund) the police and prisons, they certainly push the envelope and have a certain susceptibility to being dismissed as impractical. You might as well dismiss the idea of socialism while you are at it, for that matter. In the 1960s, the SWP used to raise the slogan of Black Control of the Black Community. There was no real chance of that happening as long as capitalism was in firm control of the country but given a certain level of instability, it might begin to seem reasonable. Fifty years ago we overestimated the mood of the country. Given the fact that the BLM protests are the largest in American history, it is high time to think big—ie., revolutionary.

Despite the title of the podcast, the three don’t really get into it until close to the end, at 47:00. Like Harper’s, they aren’t very specific. They talk about all the people being intimidated by the political correctness mob but who exactly has been fired or silenced by hostile tweets from the left?

As mentioned above, they offer up Sanders as someone who was cancelled but there is zero acknowledgement of his own gaffes, which included a failure to go for the jugular in his debates with Biden. In any case, presidential campaigns are nasty business and there’s little evidence that anything Clinton said in 2016 that could be legitimately be described as cancel culture. The Clintons played dirty in every campaign they ever ran. Although I never had any intention of voting for Sanders, I would have like to see him confront Biden over his bromance with Senators James Eastland and Herman Talmadge. It was left to Corey Booker and Kamala Harris to put Biden on the spot. However, the Washington Post anticipated where Sanders was heading with such charges in a June 20, 2019 article:

In recent weeks Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as well as several lower-polling candidates, have begun criticizing Biden’s track record and campaign messaging. But for the most part, those critiques have been broad and theoretical, without mentioning Biden by name.

Without mentioning Biden by name? Don’t blame cancel culture for Sanders’s miserable showing in the Black community. Like Biden’s friendship with the southern racists, Sanders’s friendship with Biden compromised him. It’s too bad that Sandernista chumps like the Chapistas and Taibbi don’t get it.

Taibbi did come up with a couple of cancel culture incidents that might have qualified as censorious unless you dig beneath the surface. He alluded to the tragic suicide of a Dartmouth administrator named David Bucci who had “nothing to do with anything” but was driven to this desperate act by the typical politically correct mobs on campus. According to Taibbi, some “weird sex scandal” took place in his department. He initially “tried to help” the people who came forward with sexual harassment complaints, but after Dartmouth included him as a plaintiff, he ended up killing himself. Like Taibbi’s support for Evergreen State College’s Bret Weinstein, this is decidedly one-sided. The NY Times reported:

But to the women, Dr. Bucci was a central part of a system that enabled abuse and harassment. He was named 31 times in the 72-page legal complaint, which said that after receiving the initial grievance, the college had been slow to protect the women from further abuse, and that Dr. Bucci had called a department meeting where he browbeat the women who were planning to sue.

The 72-page legal complaint included this finding:

Jane Doe [the unnamed plaintiff] told Chair Bucci [current Chair of Psychology David Bucci] that the culture and harassment perpetuated by the Department’s professors and the poor fit with the lab she had been assigned had left her without a safe scientific home to complete her work. Chair Bucci trivialized Jane Doe’s experiences of harassment and displacement by comparing them with a time when he was inundated with administrative work, stating “I had a hellish year, too, but was able to do my work.”

In fact, there is evidence that the young women who came forward with their complaint suffered cancel culture as well, as an op-ed by two female Dartmouth professors indicated:

The Times article cites friends and family members who see Bucci as “a casualty of a scorched-earth legal strategy to pin blame on the Ivy League college.” But sadly, his heartbreaking death is not the only tragedy that followed in the wake of these events. Several of the plaintiffs became suicidal. Their careers were thrown off track. They were disparaged, threatened and discouraged from speaking out. They were “slut-shamed” by Dartmouth College’s response to the lawsuit, which can be seen as a scorched-earth legal strategy to pin the blame on 17- to 23-year-old female students groomed for abuse by professors who were supposed to mentor them.

Finally, Taibbi drops the name of Canadian novelist Hal Niedzviecki who was forced to resign as editor of a the journal Write after endorsing the idea of cultural appropriation in a special issue featuring indigenous authors. In his editor’s introduction, he wrote: “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities” and advised writers to try to “Win the Appropriation Prize”. If you knew nothing about indigenous culture in Canada, this might sound reasonable. After all, as Taibbi points out, writers have an obligation to travel outside their comfort zone, even if this lesson would be lost on the people cozying up to each other on these various podcasts.

For a different take on Niedzviecki being “canceled”, I recommend this astute Vice article. It gets to the heart of the Harper’s Open Letter’s Pecksniffian posturing and Taibbi’s nonstop dismissal of Black attempts to gain equality with those born with a white skin [emphases added]:

Like all media controversies, this could have ended pretty quickly. While TWUC [The Writer’s Union of Canada that publishes Write] released the only type of statement they could have after messing up that badly, Niedzviecki could’ve offered a lengthy and selfless public apology alongside his resignation. But it didn’t take long for white Canadian writers to jump to Niedzviecki’s defense. The Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Renzetti offered the lukewarm argument of the piece being insightful—in that it created a debate. The National Post’s Christie Blatchford went full Blatch and argued that Niedzviecki was being “silenced” and that he joined the ranks of white people who’ve been bullied into apologizing (something he actually never did publicly).

But just as it almost fizzled out thanks to the vicious half-life of the news cycle, a bunch of high-ranking members of Canadian media—all white—decided to go lose their shit on Twitter.

Ken Whyte, former Senior Vice-President of Public Policy at Rogers came up with the novel idea to start the actual award proposed in Niedzviecki’s piece. He was soon joined by Maclean’s editor-in-chief Alison Uncles, and the National Post’s editor-in-chief Anne Marie Owens as well as a growing list of other members of Canadian media. What do they all have in common? They’re white and they’re as powerful as Canadian media gets. As more people dragged these tweets, a few of those who were a part of creating the “Appropriation Prize” admitted they were being stupid or “glib.”

When it comes to the world of literature and media, “controversies” like this one are expected by any person of colour. In my experience, being a writer in Canadian media means being reminded of exactly who the gatekeepers are and exactly what they think of anyone who isn’t white and powerful. It happens often, most recently with the Joseph Boyden controversy, Walrus editor Jonathan Kay took it upon himself to defend the author against Indigenous people with valid concerns over the author’s identity. Again, Kay is the editor-in-chief of a publication that positions itself as Canada’s New Yorker.

The obvious solution would be to encourage the minorities they so deeply want to see in stories to, you know, write their own stories—but clearly that’s not their priority.

The thing is, Canadian media seems to be getting more diverse. I see it myself with my colleagues and peers, increasingly I’m seeing that emerging writers who aren’t white get recognition. I see fellow women of colour get more bylines than I did three years ago when I began writing professionally. While it’s great to see at the lower rungs, I question the significance of these slow changes in who is telling what stories when those at the top are still extremely white and male. When our editors are tweeting about funding and creating prizes for white people to pretend to be us, it only shows us we matter in terms of optics.

In Niedzviecki’s piece he argues that in order to see non-white stories better represented in Canadian media, white Canadian authors need to go beyond “what they know” and write from the voices of those who aren’t like their white middle-class selves. What does it show us when the only solution these high-ranking journalists, executives and editors have is to create an award for white people who want to write stories that aren’t their own? The obvious solution would be to encourage the minorities they so deeply want to see in stories to, you know, write their own stories—but clearly that’s not their priority. Their response seemingly shows their real fear—people of colour speaking for themselves and white voices being relegated to the sidelines.

July 25, 2020

Days of the Whale

Filed under: Colombia,Film — louisproyect @ 6:33 pm

Now available as virtual cinema, “Days of the Whale” is set in Medellin, Colombia and tells the story of two young street artists contending with street gangs. Given the provenance of both factions, it is not surprising that nearly the entire film takes place on the gritty streets of a city that will always be associated with Pablo Escobar and violence.

When I was in high school, my English teacher Fred Madeo, who was just one of a number of radical-minded faculty members keeping his politics close to his vest, clued us in on “Hedda Gabler”. He said that in act one, you see a pistol being handled by Hedda Gabler. Whenever you see a pistol, a knife, etc., in act one of a play, you are primed to expect some kind of tragedy by the final act.

In “Days of the Whale”, instead of a weapon, you get a gangster warning Simón (David Escallón Orrego), one of the film’s young co-stars, that unless he pays for the “right” to do art on the city’s walls, he might get killed. His girlfriend and fellow artist Cristina (Laura Tobón Ochoa) both put up brave fronts against this threat but you cannot help but feel that they are doomed. Even though most of the film shows them happily at work in an art form that is truly proletarian, you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Despite the threat of violence, this is really much more of a love story and a very good one at that. As much as they love each other, another threat hangs over their head, namely one of being separated through no fault of their own. Cristina’s mother is an investigative reporter whose opposition to the city’s gang world has forced her to move to Spain because of threats on her life. Simón, who comes from a working-class background and who even was a gang member when younger, is torn between loving her and anger over being abandoned. To fight against both threats, they put their heart and soul into their artwork as if each day was their last.

Neither of the co-stars are professional actors. The director-writer Catalina Arroyave Restrepo decided that this would give the film authenticity and she was right. In the press notes, she said that John Cassavetes’s films were an influence. It shows. Her statement on what motivated her to make “Days of the Whale” conveys the hunger of young Colombians for a different way of living in a country degraded by almost a century of dictatorship, corruption, and criminality:

I have always been obsessed with freedom, and that took me to write a story about my discontempt [sic] with that criminal reality and the desire of rebelling against it. I started fantasizing about using the stories that my graffiti artist friends told me about their adventures in the streets, dealing with the owners of each territory, and also with using the colors, rhythm and textures of this universe to make a film. That’s how Days of the whale was conceived.

Highly recommended.

July 24, 2020

Matt Taibbi, the Harper’s Open Letter, and the Intellectual Dark Web

Filed under: Counterpunch,Harper's Open Letter,journalism — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm


Just a day before the Harper’s Open Letter appeared on July 7th, Osita Nwanevu wrote an article for The New Republic on “The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism” that made Matt Taibbi sound as if his name would show up there the next day. Indeed, in a convivial Rolling Stone podcast that Taibbi and his partner Katie Halper did with Thomas Chatterton Williams, the godfather of the letter regretted that he didn’t have Taibbi’s email address otherwise he would have been invited.

Nwenevu’s article addressed the widespread assault on identity politics that makes it sound like the greatest threat to American democracy is diversity training seminars by Robin Diangelo, the author of “White Fragility.” Indeed, Matt Taibbi described the philosophy behind her book as positively “Hitlerian.”

This furor over “cancel culture” or what used to be called “political correctness” is not exactly new. I saw it as early as 1991 when Nat Hentoff was on the warpath against efforts to reduce racism at universities and the media, just as is happening today:

For 2 1/2 years, I have been interviewing students and professors across the country for a book I’m writing on assaults by orthodoxies — right and left — on freedom of expression. Many specific incidents of political correctness — with names — have been printed in this column from those interviews.

One very bright young man at Brown, for example, told me he finally gave up offering his questions on affirmative action — like “What has it done for poor blacks?” — in class. He got tired of being called a racist, in and out of the room.

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July 21, 2020

Transgender people and the Harper’s Open Letter

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,Harper's Open Letter,transgender — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

A number of critiques of the Harper’s cancel culture open letter have referred to the presence of transphobic signers such as JK Rowling, the British author of the Harry Potter novels. Less well-known is Atlantic contributor Jesse Singal, who is into “concern-trolling” against trans kids. In other words, seeing teens as not having the capacity to decide whether they can make the right decision about transitioning. Of course, when 40 percent of them attempt suicide out of misery, maybe there should be some leeway. Another is Katie Herzog, a freelance writer who was focused on “detransitioners”, those small number of people who regretted their decision and then began identifying with their birth sex again. All three have been “cancelled” for their positions but none has suffered any professional consequences.

Five days after my critique of the open letter appeared on CounterPunch, which had virtually nothing to say about transgender, an article by Robert Jensen appeared there as well. Jensen, a professor emeritus from U. of Texas best known for his articles on foreign policy, defended the open letter and particularly the grievances of people like JK Rowling who have been supposedly victimized for their opinions on transgender issues. A local radical bookstore in Austin cut all ties with him and other speaking engagements have been canceled. In the past, I haven’t gainsaid such actions since they are a democratic right. No matter how much Max Blumenthal complained about bookstores canceling a reading because of his support for Assad, this was not “McCarthyism”. McCarthyism would be, for example, Hollywood screenwriters or professors being fired for signing a petition for the Popular Front in Spain.

Jensen has been writing such articles over the years for CounterPunch and other magazines. In 2014, he wrote one that labeled transitioning medical procedures such as surgery and hormones as contrary to ecological principles as if someone desperately trying to change their sexual identity had something in common with climate change. You might get the idea from such a claim that Jensen has his head up his ass. If you look at his newest article, that take will be reinforced. He writes:

One of the basic points that radical feminists—along with many other writers—have made is that biological sex categories are real and exist outside of any particular cultural understanding of those categories.

If you click the “radical feminist” link, you’ll arrive at an article in Spiked Online titled “The trans ideology is a threat to womanhood” by Meghan Murphy. I guess you can tell from the title that this is openly transphobic. In November 2018, Murphy got booted from Twitter after referring to a trans woman as “him”. She had consistently been using the wrong pronoun and using pre-transition names for transgendered people. I haven’t been following the JK Rowling controversies but I doubt that there’s much difference between her and Murphy.

As for “other writers”, that link takes you to the Wall Street Journal article titled “The Dangerous Denial of Sex”, an opinion piece by Colin M. Wright and Emma N. Hilton. The brunt of the article is to establish that there are two biological categories for sex and that is anti-scientific to accept a transgender person on their own terms. Of course, it wasn’t too long ago when psychologists and scientists held the same rigid views on heterosexuality as a norm.

I come to these discussions not as a theorist but as someone who developed an appreciation for transgender issues as a film critic. Although I never got around to reviewing “A Fantastic Woman”, this great 2017 Chilean film tells the story of a transgender female whose older male companion dies unexpectedly. Excluded from his funeral and left without any support that a married woman might benefit from, the titular character asserts her rights both as the man’s significant other and as a human being deserving respect in her own right”. The film is available on Amazon Prime. More recently, I saw “The Garden We Left Behind” that, like the Chilean film, stars a transgender actor. My review begins:

For most people on the left who are supportive of transgender rights, including me, there’s still little understanding of the realities of transgender life. Having gay friends and comrades is ubiquitous but unless you count a transgender person as part of your social circle, your knowledge tends to be based on what you’ve read about the well-known such as Chelsea Manning. To get that understanding, there’s no better place to start than Flavio Alves’s “The Garden Left Behind” that will be available as VOD on December 13th (Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc).

It stars Carlie Guevara as Tina Carrera, a transgender, 20-something, undocumented Mexican immigrant living and working as a gypsy cab driver in Queens, a far cry from the superheroes, mafia gangsters, ingenues, and cops that you can see in the typical Hollywood movie. Even though Tina’s grandmother Eliana accepts her without qualifications, she still calls her Antonio, a function more of long-time family ties than prejudice.

Unfortunately, the film is not yet available on VOD.

Finally, there is “Changing the Game”, a documentary about transgender teens competing in various sports and putting up with the resistance from parents who feel that they are cheating. This is one of the major issues facing such kids today. My review began:

Like Flavio Alves’s narrative film about a transgender female, “Changing the Game” is a much-needed documentary that will open your minds to one of the most despised minorities in the USA. In this film, we meet a trans male and two trans females who are high school students competing in wrestling and track respectively. As you may know, this has become a major controversy lately as parents of cisgender athletes demand their expulsion from competitions. Mack (born Mackenzie) has been forced to compete with cisfemales even though his deepest desire is to wrestle other boys. That mattered much more to him than becoming the 110-pound class Texas state champion in 2017 and 2018. What makes this film so great in addition to the utter honesty and magnetic personalities of its principals is the support they get from their parents or, in Mack’s case, the grandparents who adopted him after his mom could not provide adequate financial support. They are quintessential Red State personalities but utterly on his side. The grandmother is a cop and the grandfather is a good old boy in bib overalls but don’t let their appearance fool you. Every word out their mouth spells compassion in capital letters.

Like “The Garden We Left Behind”, the film is not yet available on VOD. Keep on the lookout for them.

Most of the articles on the left written about transgendered people involve a lot of theorizing about gender, the biology of sex, psychoanalysis, etc., with references to Judith Butler and a lot of professors writing for specialized journals. I can recommend Richard Seymour’s article in Salvage titled “None Shall Pass: Trans and the Rewriting of the Body” that is roughly divided into two parts. The first part I found most useful since it answers people like Robert Jensen. The second part was an attempt to apply Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to transgender people, which was above my pay grade, I’m afraid. But this snippet from the first part should motivate you to look at the article:

For many who style themselves as ‘trans-critical’, however, being trans is either a delusion or a pretence. “The physical transformations created by hormones and surgery,” Sheila Jeffreys, asserts in Gender Hurts, “do not change the biological sex of the persons upon whom they are visited.”
Jeffreys makes no attempt to argue for this point, but in the past she would not have been expected to, as the state would have agreed with it on the grounds that ‘natural’ sex was the only legitimate basis for heterosexual marriage. Jacqueline Rose recounts the case of April Ashley at length for the London Review of Books, in which the judge made exactly this distinction, claiming that Ashley’s vagina was simply not big enough to accommodate a penis. Anne Fausto-Sterling, in Sexing The Body, describes a similar case in which a marriage between a man and “a woman born without a vagina” was annulled on the grounds that the artificial vagina was only two inches deep, and sex of this kind was a “quasi-natural connexion” to reduce a man to. It is notable that this unexpected convergence of heterosexist, patriarchal reaction with the politics of a militant lesbian feminist takes place around the ‘naturalness’ of the body.

Needless to say, these issues will remain with us for the foreseeable future since the Republican Party will exploit transphobia to win votes for a losing cause.

It is not only the Republican Party that is transphobic. The Socialist Workers Party, a group I belonged to for 11 years, has the same reactionary politics as Robert Jensen. In a recent issue of the Militant newspaper, you can read this assessment of the Supreme Court ruling on a LBGT case:

The decision as issued strengthens the hand of those transgender campaigners who argue that sex is a subjective feeling, not an objective fact, and seek to pillory and threaten anyone who says otherwise. It deals a counterrevolutionary blow to the fight for women’s emancipation.

It also weakens the overall fight to end discrimination against gays and lesbians.

None of these fucking stupid articles take into account the massive sympathy that is developing for the right of people to adopt a sexual identity that allows them a certain amount of gratification as opposed to the daily torture that leads so many of them to suicide. I’ve been retired from Columbia University for nearly a decade but stop occasionally for yearly “international luncheons” in which employees bring meals from their home countries. Yeah, Columbia is big on diversity. Get used to it, Walter Benn Michaels.

When I stop in to take a pee, I get satisfaction out of seeing a sign on the door asking people to use the bathroom whose gender they identify with. As you might expect, an Ivy school is going to be ahead of the curve on something like this. But what if you were a transgender female with a factory job? What would it be like to be forced to use the men’s room because you still had a penis? In most cases, you might get a punch in the mouth. Even worse, if you walk down the wrong street, you might get killed. A March 28th article in the Daily News was titled “Transgender woman fatally stabbed in the neck in Harlem; friend believes she was killed over a wig” Can you believe that? Killed over a wig?

Some commentators took issue with the Harper’s Open Letter showing up during a massive movement against killer-cops. As good liberals, they probably support it but for the kind of support that really matters, you have to appreciate the massive outpouring for Black transgender people at a BLM protest in Brooklyn shown in the video above. It took place on June 14th, the day before Jensen’s wretched article appeared. The NY Times reported:

One speaker at the rally was Melania Brown, sister of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who was found dead in 2019 in a cell at Rikers Island.

“Black trans lives matter! My sister’s life mattered!” Brown said in her speech. “If one goes down, we all go down — and I’m not going nowhere.”

Black transgender people not only bear a disproportionate burden of police violence but also face high rates of violence and harassment on the street. The American Medical Association said last fall that killings of transgender women of color in the United States amounted to an epidemic.

Two more black transgender women nationwide were killed in less than 24 hours while the event was coming together. Dominique Fells, 27, known as Rem’Mie, was found with stab wounds in Philadelphia on June 8, Rolling Stone reported. A day later, Riah Milton, 25, was found shot multiple times in Liberty Township, Ohio.

None of these realities impinge on the articles written by the Open Letter signers, Robert Jensen or any other transphobic leftists. From now until a socialist revolution triumphs in the USA, you can bet that transgender people will be on its side. Just as long, of course, if our movement has the wisdom and the courage to stand up for their rights.

July 19, 2020

Japan Cuts 2020

Filed under: Film,Japan — louisproyect @ 9:46 pm

Like other film festivals I’ve reviewed since the pandemic began, this year’s Japan Cuts is virtual. While nothing will ever match the experience of see a film on the big screen among other film buffs, the show must go on as they say in a Busby Berkeley film—can’t remember which one. At $99 for the entire festival or $7 per film, it is certainly worth it. In the past, when I have covered a NY film festival, I always regretted that many of my out-of-town readers will never be able to take part. Fortunately, for them and for the filmmakers who put so much time, money and energy making leading-edge cinema, virtuality has its benefits. Time constraints did not allow me to cover more than four films but based on what I have seen, this festival is a must for film buffs. Japanese films have been a mainstay of serious cinema for the past seventy years and it is still going strong.


i -Documentary of the Journalist

Isoko Mochizuki is Japan’s Helen Thomas. Until she died in 2013, Thomas was famous for stubbornly asking tough questions during press conferences at the White House. Mochizuki is Thomas on steroids. The documentary follows her around collecting information for her next article in the Tokyo Shimbun, usually focused on corporate an governmental malfeasance. Under Shinzo Abe’s administration since 2012, corruption has been rife and she has been practically the only reporter with the guts to take on the establishment.

What you will discover in this mostly cinéma vérité work, which follows her about on her rounds and at press conferences, is that the Japanese government is shielded from the most part from gadflies like her. To get access to a press conference, you have to be part of an old boy’s network that keeps trouble-makers out. It is not so much ideological as it is institutional. Picture McNeil-Lehrer at its most soporific and you’ll get a sense of the typical Japanese reporter.

You can’t help but think of Kurosawa’s “The Bad Sleep Well” as the film progresses. She has discovered that the USA has been expanding the Henoko military base in Okinawa at the expense of the people living there, which has been the case since 1609 when Japan colonized the island nation. To make room for its partner’s war machine, the government conveniently covered up how red dirt was being used for a landfill into the bay. Since red dirt upsets marine ecology, regulations do not permit using earth with more than 10 percent of red clay. In her interviews with environmental scientists in Okinawa, Mochizuki learned that it was closer to 70 percent.

Much of the film consists of her trying to pin down Abe’s chief spokesman at press conferences, Yoshihide Suga. Suga is a master of stonewalling, making most of Trump’s mouthpieces looking transparent by comparison. Unlike the American press corps that has any number of reporters willing to challenge Trump or his lackies, it devolved upon Mochizuki to challenge the lies.

Although most of us, including me, tend to associate Trump with people like Duterte and Bolsonaro, an argument can be made that his real soulmate is Shinzo Abe. After seeing the film, I was convinced that I had to allocate time for getting up to speed on Japanese politics since the Abe government has vowed to make Japan a first-rate military power. As part of its increasingly nationalistic military and economic posture, Japan has targeted South Korea in the same way that the USA has targeted China. An article titled “Forget Putin and Kim. Trump’s real soulmate lives in Tokyo” describes the bromance between the two nationalistic and corrupt politicians:

That Abe is now borrowing from Trump’s playbook on trade should come as little surprise. The two leaders have established a positive chemistry that is evident during their long and frequent meetings. When Trump visited Japan in May for the enthronement of the country’s new emperor, the two leaders embraced each other, sharing a round of golf, sushi, sumo wrestling and exchange of MAGA-inspired caps. Abe is known to be one of a few Western leaders Trump is fond of.

Reiwa Uprising

Although I didn’t plan my coverage this way, this film is a perfect companion piece to “i -Documentary of the Journalist”. It is a four-hour mostly cinéma vérité look at the election campaign of the Reiwa Shinsengumi (“new squad”) party that fielded 10 candidates to run against the Abe machine in 2019.

Reiwa can best be described as Japan’s version of the sort of guerrilla theater Abby Hoffman made famous in the 1960s. If Abe’s party was determined to represent itself as the embodiment of Japan’s largely militaristic and authoritarian culture, Reiwa turned that culture upside down and ran candidates who were the country’s outcasts and underdogs.

The star of the film is candidate Ayumi Yasutomi, a female transgender Tokyo University professor whose hobby is horseback riding. To show her love for horses that represent the natural world disappearing beneath Japan’s feet, she was accompanied by a horse at all her campaign appearances. Yasutomi’s politics are not exactly ideological. At one point she says that Marxism, liberalism and conservatism have failed Japan. If she was referring to the Japanese Communist Party, I suppose she had a point.

Two of the candidates were quadriplegics, who also happened to be the only two that were elected to the Diet, thus making Reiwa an official party.

The film was directed by Kazuo Hara, who like Isoko Mochizuki has no use for Shinzo Abe’s retrograde social and economic policies. Like Werner Herzog, Hara is drawn to those who are square pegs in bourgeois society’s round holes. Made in 1972, his first film “Goodbye CP” featured men and women with cerebral palsy. His 1987 “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” features Kenzo Okuzaki, a 62-year-old WWII veteran who searches out those responsible for the unexplained deaths of two soldiers in his old unit. Errol Morris listed it as one of his Top 5 Favorite Films for Rotten Tomatoes. After seeing his latest, I hope to see more of his work. Highest recommendation for “Reiwa Uprising” that at four hours goes quicker than 90 percent of the films coming out of Hollywood.

Narrative films

The Murders of Oiso

Although people are killed in this film, it is really not a murder mystery. Instead, it is a character study of four high-school students who represent the kind of toxic values that might explain to some degree how Shinzo Abe has become longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history.

Their time is spent hanging out, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and playing cards. Perhaps, they are no different than most teens but it is their indifference to anything outside their narrow frame of reference that makes you wonder about the health of Japanese society. Indeed, a large part of Reiwa’s success at the polls has to do with the country’s moral and spiritual rot.

The leader of the pack is a kid named Kazuya, whose father and uncle are partner’s in a crooked construction company, probably one not much different than the one pouring red dirt in to the water near the US military base in Okinawa. Kazuya gets his three pals jobs with the company but they seem to spend about as much time working as the guys that Tony Soprano placed in various New Jersey unionized shops.

The film does not have a conventional narrative arc and dispenses with the kind of suspense you expect in a murder mystery. (Not a single cop shows up in the entire film.) Like the two documentaries above, it is much more of a critical eye on Japanese society that is very much watching if you forgive its defiance of conventional filmmaking gestures.

Tora-san, Our Lovable Tramp

The festival includes three of the Tora-San films as part of a retrospective. I was especially interested in them since I regard the director/screenwriter Yoji Yamada as one of Japan’s greatest. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had hopes that it might have been in the same vein as his samurai trilogy that I regard as a masterpiece.

I guess I should have realized that any film with “our loveable tramp” in the title is not going to be about sword fights. Instead, it features Kiyoshi Atsumi as Toro-san in just one of the 48 films Yamada did with him in this series from 1969 to 1995. Perhaps the only thing that Toro-san has in common with the samurai, especially after the Meiji restoration when they became itinerant swords-for-hire, is that he is rootless. He is a traveling salesman who owns nothing but the clothes on his back and his suitcase filled with dubious wares, none of which would qualify for an ad on a cable TV commercial at 3am in the morning.

As for being “loveable”, that’s used ironically since like Charlie Chaplin, Toro-san is anything but. Just as the little tramp was not above turning a dinner party into a food-fight, Toro-san always finds a way to antagonize people, always with no awareness of the consequence of his actions.

After returning to the town where he was born, he reunites with his long-lost sister who he hasn’t seen in twenty years. When he accompanies her to a dinner party hosted by the boss of the company where she works (she is soon to become engaged to his son), Toro-san gets drunk and starts to tell off-color jokes and generally embarrassing his sister. If you’ve seen Borat in action, you’ll get an idea of what kind of mischief his character is capable of.

Unlike Borat, Toro-san has an epiphany toward the end of the film when he discovers that the woman he loves has plans to marry someone much higher-up on the social ladder. Although the Toro-san films are comedies, they do reflect Japan’s strict class-based social codes that the anti-hero defies with abandon. Ironically, in his own way, he was the kind of film character that prefigured the Reiwa uprising. A man sick and tired of hierarchy, materialism and hypocrisy.

July 17, 2020

Thoughts on Bayard Rustin nostalgia

Filed under: african-american,class-reductionism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

Bayard Rustin


A Dustin Guastella article on Nonsite dated July 9th generated controversy because it opposed defunding the cops. Like Bernie Sanders, another opponent of defunding, Guastella proposed reforms that would satisfy everybody since they would lead to less crime. If there were massive increases in federal social spending, there would be more jobs and hence less desperation leading to crime. Such “class-based” measures might have made it possible for George Floyd to avoid being killed as Cedric Johnson argued in Jacobin: “His alleged use of counterfeit money reflects the criminally inadequate provision of income support.”

What caught my eye in Guastella’s article was his reference to Bayard Rustin, who warned about activists’ “psychic inability to fend off leftwing slogans which result in right-wing policy.” One of those slogans is defunding the cops. Since polls indicate that defunding is unpopular with Blacks and whites alike, we are cutting off support. Of course, black lives matter wasn’t very popular a few years ago as well. For Guastella, the need is to rebuild the alliance between the Black movement and labor of the early to mid-1960s when Rustin was a key organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. This march concluded in a rally where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Just as importantly, Rustin helped pull together the conference that met in the fall to adopt a Freedom Budget. In many ways, the Freedom Budget was the Green New Deal of its day. Just as the Green New Deal would abolish climate change, so would the Freedom Budget abolish poverty—both Black and white. To move forward with such ambitious projects, it was necessary to elect politicians who understood their needs.

Continue reading

July 14, 2020

Antibodies and anticapitalists

Filed under: COVID-19,Jacobin,two-party system — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm

On May 22nd, a Quest Diagnostics serology test revealed that I had COVID-19 antibodies. In other words, I was supposedly immune. In writing about this experience for CounterPunch, I tried to convey how perplexing these results seemed. I had no symptoms associated with the disease, like a dry cough or fever, nor did I have any idea how long the immunity would last. The scientific consensus was that the antibodies were not permanent.

I assumed that the antibodies were from a coronavirus cold, which can also produce antibodies according to the CDC. Were they from a nasty cold that I had last September that evolved into bronchitis? That didn’t seem to make sense since I caught it from my niece whose own serology test turned out negative for COVID-19 antibodies. On top of that, the Quest website is pretty specific about the antibodies being a result of COVID-19 and not a coronavirus cold. “This type of test detects antibodies that show if you have had a prior COVID-19 infection—even if you never experienced symptoms. Detection of antibodies means you may now have some level of immunity to the virus.”

Since I had no idea when the statute of limitations would expire on the antibodies, I have made sure since May 22nd to stick to the practices recommended by the CDC: masks, social distancing, and washing my hands or using a sanitizer. My wife and I are pinning our hopes on her college sticking with online classes for the fall term. Given the huge spike in infections over the past few weeks outside of N.Y., there is a good chance we’ll be okay. The City University of New York suffered 38 deaths in its system during the pandemic and there is considerable resistance to taking any chances now. CUNY’s chancellor has said that the school is considering a hybrid approach but we haven’t heard how that will affect my wife.

Just yesterday, Business Insider reported on a number of studies that found that COVID-19 antibodies have a short shelf-life. A study conducted in Spain left me feeling vulnerable:

The recent study on this topic in Spain found that one in five people lost detectable levels of antibodies within five weeks.

That research, published last week in The Lancet, involved 60,000 people in Spain. They were tested for antibodies three times between April and June. About 7% of the participants who had antibodies during the first phase of the study (April 27 to May 11) no longer had them in the second phase (May 18 to June 1), according to CNN. About 14% of participants who had antibodies during the first stage no longer had them by the third phase (June 8 to 22).

In some ways, this doesn’t surprise me. The common cold, either the rhinovirus or coronavirus type, produces antibodies but they don’t last very long. That is why someone like me has had over fifty colds in my life. None would kill me but they do make me feel miserable.

The Business Insider reporter tried to be upbeat. She quoted Florian Krammer, a vaccinologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, that antibodies don’t disappear all at once. At five weeks, you might have lost half of them but they may be sufficient to preserve your immunity. That’s of little consolation to me and anybody else worried about the disease.

The overarching question is whether a vaccine can produce antibodies for COVID-19. The goal is to produce antibodies in enough people to build up herd immunity within the population. Krammer is not deterred by the possibility by people having to get vaccinated every year, just as you do with the flu. Unfortunately, however, flu has transparently obvious symptoms early on unlike COVID-19. When I’ve had the flu in the past (I’ve never been vaccinated), it hits me like a two-by-four. The last thing that I’d be up for is going to work and infecting others, especially since I’d be throwing up constantly on my way there.

In 2003, there was another coronavirus epidemic called SARS. It was deadlier than its close relative SARS-2 (or COVID-19) but it died out on its own in just a few months. Because it no longer posed a threat, researchers stopped trying to find a vaccine.

On May 22nd, the day I got my Quest Diagnostics antibody report, the Guardian published an article titled “Why we might not get a coronavirus vaccine” that warned against high expectations. Probably, the best we can hope for is a vaccine that might lessen the impact of the disease but not so much so that old folks would still be highly vulnerable. The article contained this sobering note:

People will have to adapt – and life will change. Heymann says we will have to get used to extensive monitoring for infections backed up by swift outbreak containment. People must play their part too, by maintaining handwashing, physical distancing and avoiding gatherings, particularly in enclosed spaces.

That’s not very reassuring when tens of millions of Americans are in open revolt against such threats to their “personal liberty”.

For the foreseeable future, American society will be roiled by a combination of ills that make the idea of returning to “normalcy” improbable. You have what amounts to a mass movement increasingly willing to use violence against antiracist protesters and to defy all measures intended to reduce the impact of COVID-19. Indeed, there will be an increasing tendency for the cops and the ultraright mobs to blend into each other. There have been sixty incidents of cars being driven into crowds of protesters, including by cops in both Detroit and New York.

You will also see corporate America driven to make workers pay for the economic consequences of the pandemic. In an article by Robert Brenner in the latest NLR that thankfully is not behind a paywall, he writes about “Escalating Plunder”, namely the way in which the bourgeoisie is using this calamity to defend its own class interests. Like the 2008 bailout under Obama, the underlying motivation was “too big to fail” but this time the billions were funneled to non-financial corporations as well. Pelosi and Schumer offered virtually no opposition and showed a cold indifference to unemployed and hungry people.

When I and my wife go out on our daily exercise walk, we see more and more boxes of food being distributed in front of churches. And those lining up to get them are not those who you’d regard as the underclass. The NY Post reported on April 19th:

The vast ranks of newly unemployed are straining the capacities of food banks, soup kitchens and pop-up services across New York City.

One user, Brittany, a 35-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Teachers College at Columbia University, who declined to give her full name, says she started visiting food services at Salem United Methodist Church in Harlem a few weeks ago after her partner lost his bartending job.

“I’ve been going two or three times a week for lunch,” she told Side Dish. “The fresh air makes it seem a little less scary.”

The next act in this pandemic tragedy will be a dramatic increase in homelessness. There had been a moratorium on evictions in N.Y.C. but that expired on the weekend of June 21-22. Housing rights groups estimate that 50,000 to 60,000 cases can end up in New York City’s housing courts.

It is just as dire in the rest of the country. Urban Footprint, a housing rights group, warned about the pending disaster:

The results are staggering. Across the country, nearly 7 million households could face eviction without government financial assistance. These are heavily rent-burdened households that have likely experienced job loss as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. This level of displacement would be unparalleled in U.S. history and carries the potential to destabilize communities for years to come.

In June 2019, Joe Biden reassured his wealthy donors at the Carlyle Hotel that he would be looking after their interests when president. He promised not to “demonize” the rich and that “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.” The only change since he made this speech is that the standard of living for Jeff Bezos has grown higher while for the PhD student cited above, it has plummeted.

This is the same Joe Biden who Bernie Sanders predicted a Biden administration would be the “most progressive since FDR” after his team worked out a series of compromises through a “Unity Task Force”. You can get an idea of who gave up more from the position on climate change. Even though A. O-C headed up the panel on climate change, the end result is merely a pledge to end carbon emissions by 2035. Something tells me that Biden won’t be around by then. As has been the case with capitalist environmentalism all along, you make big promises but fail to deliver. Even Dissent Magazine was able to see what a liar Barack Obama had been.

Given the irreconcilable class differences between Joe Biden and the people facing unemployment, hunger and eviction, it is depressing to see “lesser evil” politics coming into play as if Biden could deliver on his promises. If it took WWII to break the back of the Great Depression, how can we possibly expect people like Biden, Pelosi and Schumer to make the USA resemble a Scandinavian welfare state.

Because the DSA voted to endorse Bernie Sanders at its convention in 2019 and nobody else, especially Joe Biden, it is not easy—maybe impossible—to reverse itself. Even though Bhaskar Sunkara says that he will vote for Howie Hawkins, a N.Y. Times op-ed included this circumlocution:

I share the belief that having Joe Biden in the White House would be far less damaging to most workers than another four years of Donald Trump. Mr. Biden is at odds with the progressive, labor-oriented wing of his party, but every poor and working person in America, along with every socialist, would be better off butting heads with a White House filled with centrist Democrats than one filled with Trump appointees.

If this doesn’t give DSA’ers the green light to vote for Biden, I don’t know what else would. Bill Mosley, the editor of the Washington State DSA’s “Washington Socialist”, evidently got the message. He wrote an article titled “DSA Isn’t Endorsing Biden. That Doesn’t Mean Members Can’t Work for Him”. He writes:

No, DSA will not and cannot endorse Biden, but individual DSA members can and should help him win. It’s not clear that all of the traditional pre-pandemic methods of campaigning will be possible by the fall, but there is much else to do – if nothing else, phone banking, posting on social media, making contributions. The campaign should have ideas for how volunteers can contribute. And DSA members must work not only for Biden, but for a Congress that will undo the harm of the Trump administration and make meaningful strides forward, which will mean turning the Senate blue.

You can even see where Jacobin might be going on Biden as November draws near. Branko Marcetic, a Jacobin staff writer and author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, has been positively excoriating on Biden. In February, he wrote no less than five articles raking Biden over the coals. However, in April, there was one titled “I Literally Wrote the Case Against Joe Biden. But I’ve Got Some Free Advice for Him” that represents an escape valve for Sunkara’s magazine. Marcetic made Biden an offer he couldn’t refuse if he wanted the “democratic socialists” to get behind his campaign:

Biden initially ran as a New Deal liberal and upset a long-serving, beloved senator using an economically populist platform tailored to the times. As the waning “liberal consensus” of the postwar years was replaced by a neoliberal one aimed at cutting taxes and shrinking government, Biden moved to the right to win reelection, transforming into an anti-busing fiscal conservative who wanted to put every federal spending program on the chopping block every four years. This is the path he’s followed ever since.

Biden and the people running his candidacy need to recognize a similar political shift is happening again. The neoliberal order is on its last legs, and is in much worse shape than the liberal one it replaced in the late 1970s when Biden was coming up. When the Trump administration is offering to pay for millions of people’s health care, and when a conservative Republican is taking his policy cues from Denmark, it’s a sign the political winds are rapidly changing. But don’t take it from me: listen to the capitalist-to-its-bones Financial Times, which recently argued for “radical reforms” aimed at “reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades.”

Something is obviously going on in the Jacobin editorial meetings. In May, June and July, there has not been a single article on Biden. What do they say? Silence is golden? They must be slapping themselves on the shoulder since the Unity Task Force has purged his campaign of all traces of the Obama and Clinton presidencies—at least on paper. Marcetic says that “When the Trump administration is offering to pay for millions of people’s health care, and when a conservative Republican is taking his policy cues from Denmark, it’s a sign the political winds are rapidly changing.” So, don’t worry about being a tax-and-spend liberal.

Yeah, the political winds are changing. Right. Any fool would understand that the Tucker Carlson wing of the Republican Party is adopting the rhetoric of the left.

A Truthout article titled “’New Right’” Leaders Are Co-opting Progressive Language to Mislead Voters” sees this clearly:

In general, this faction holds true to the extreme cultural stances that have long united most American conservatives. But they distinguish themselves by rebuking the mainstream right’s cozy relationship with financial elites, a relationship they (correctly) see as both politically unwise — because it alienates working- and middle-class voters — and societally disastrous — because it promotes and reproduces extreme inequality. They oppose asset stripping, stock buybacks, and other economic practices that further empower and enrich financial elites; and they support redirecting wealth toward the growth of American industry.

Are the Democrats any better? At least I know that they are not as evil. Anyhow, my vote will go to the genuine anticapitalist:


July 12, 2020

Pecksniff and the Harper’s Open Letter

Filed under: Harper's Open Letter — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Although I have run into very few supporters of the Harper’s Open Letter on Facebook and even less on Marxmail, I was still trying to figure out why there were any. The consensus was that no matter how hypocritical the signers were, it was still necessary to defend free speech. You’d have to wonder what people would make of an open letter in defense of world peace that was signed by Henry Kissinger, John Bolton, George W. Bush, and Madeline Albright. After all, it can’t hurt. Right?

My guess is that most people would not support that letter because the reputation of the four named above precedes them. On the other hand, the Harper’s letter has some good people signing it like Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, and Gloria Steinem. Maybe, that was all it took for someone posting their endorsement of the letter on FB, where superficiality reigns supreme.

From what I have seen, the main explanation for such gullibility is a lack of familiarity with some truly awful signers who have the same relationship to liberal principles that Henry Kissinger has to world peace. For a professor who has been steeped in his or her narrow scholarly bailiwick for their entire career, it might be understandable that the lofty sentiments expressed in the letter might take precedence over the signatures of people who showed contempt for them in practice. It could also be a function of youthfulness. Some people in their 20s might not have any clue what George Packer represents except being the author of a biography of Richard Holbrooke that got mixed reviews.

I belong to neither category. I am neither a cloistered professor, nor am I young. Over the past thirty years since I got on the Internet at Columbia University, my exposure to a variety of Pecksniffian figures has made my antenna highly sensitized to their pretensions. If the term Pecksniffian does not ring a bell, it comes from Charles Dickens’s “Martin Chuzzlewit”. A character named Sam Pecksniff is a greedy architect who pays his staff about the same that Scrooge paid Cratchit, and, even worse, passes their work off as his own. This is how Dickens characterized Pecksniff:

His very throat was moral. You saw a good deal of it. You looked over a very low fence of white cravat (whereof no man had ever beheld the tie for he fastened it behind), and there it lay, a valley between two jutting heights of collar, serene and whiskerless before you. It seemed to say, on the part of Mr Pecksniff, ‘There is no deception, ladies and gentlemen, all is peace, a holy calm pervades me.’ So did his hair, just grizzled with an iron-grey which was all brushed off his forehead, and stood bolt upright, or slightly drooped in kindred action with his heavy eyelids. So did his person, which was sleek though free from corpulency. So did his manner, which was soft and oily. In a word, even his plain black suit, and state of widower and dangling double eye-glass, all tended to the same purpose, and cried aloud, ‘Behold the moral Pecksniff!’

If I had more time, I’d like to prepare a much longer dossier than this but if by some chance you still take the open letter seriously, you should at least consider the records of some of the worst signers. You have to keep in mind, after all, that ignorance is not a defense in the court of law, nor in the moral judgements of the left.

Martin Amis—Best friend of Christopher Hitchens who shared his Islamophobia. In a 2007 interview, he said, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.”

Anne Applebaum—This historian and journalist is an unreconstructed cold warrior. In her review of Robert Harvey’s “Comrades: the Rise and Fall of World Communism”, she begins: “Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Salvador Allende, Mengistu, Castro, Kim Il-sung: the list of murderous communist leaders is long, diverse and profoundly multicultural.” Salvador Allende? Murderous communist leader? WTF?

Roger Berkowitz—He’s a Bard College professor that runs the Hannah Arendt Center. He wrote an article that charged Occupy Wall Street with racism since Atlanta protesters refused to allow Congressman John Lewis to speak. As you can see, he was on the lookout for cancel culture before the term existed. As it happens, the protesters were in no mood to listen to any Democrats, especially one who used his civil rights credentials to legitimize his corporate connections.

Paul Berman—During the war against Nicaragua, Berman used to write a weekly column in the Village Voice that frequently called for the overthrow of the Sandinistas. When Adam Hochschild instructed Michael Moore to publish a Berman article in Mother Jones, Moore refused and then got fired. Cancel culture strikes again. Later on, Berman became a supporter of the invasion of Iraq and wrote a book titled Terror and Liberalism that was a polite version of what Martin Amis said.

David Bromwich—Highly acclaimed Yale professor who spent much of the last 8 years defending Bashar al-Assad in various high-toned magazines.

Ian Buruma—Another Bard professor of ill-repute. He was fired as editor of the New York Review of books after publishing an article by the Canadian talk show host Jian Ghomeshi, who had been acquitted in 2016 of one count of choking and four counts of sexual assault. Over twenty women complained either to the police or the media. When asked why he decided to publish the article, Buruma said, “The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”

Todd Gitlin—He chastised radicals in 1968 for not supporting Hubert Humphrey and had a particular animus toward Ralph Nader for running as a Green and then as an independent.

Malcolm Gladwell—He is a New Yorker magazine contributor. In “Talking to Strangers”, he argues that Sandra Bland, a young black woman who committed suicide in a Texas jail after a pointless traffic infraction, was the victim of a “failure to communicate”. Racism wasn’t to blame. Instead, since she and the policeman were strangers to each other, they couldn’t bridge a social divide.

Adam Hochschild—Fired Michael Moore for refusing to publish Paul Berman (see above.)

Michael Ignatieff—He was one of the most vociferous supporters of the invasion of Iraq in 2002. His 2003 book Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, argued that America had to create a “humanitarian empire” through military force.

Laura Kipnis—She was a FB friend I had to let go because she kept trolling me. She is also celebrated some for writing articles claiming that date rape incidents on college campuses were overblown and for criticizing Ian Buruma’s firing.

Nicholas Lemann—Dean emeritus of the Columbia Journalism School who derided net-based citizen journalism in a New Yorker article.

Mark Lilla—Another Columbia professor. His claim to fame is writing a book urging the Democrats to dump “identity politics”. Katherine Franke, a Columbia law professor compared Lilla to David Duke and charged him with “underwriting the whitening of American nationalism, and the re-centering of white lives as the lives that matter most in the U.S.” Maybe he signed the letter because she “canceled” him.

Yascha Mounk—He teaches at Johns Hopkins and is best-known for his book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It that some regard as a swipe at “cancel culture”. He has created a website devoted to these ideas called Persuasion. The New Republic that published an excellent article critiquing this trend even before the Harper’s open letter appeared also published one that asked whether his website was “obsessed with cancel culture.”

Cary Nelson—Nelson is a professor emeritus at the U. of Illinois. In 2013, its board of trustees sent Steven Salaita a letter stating they were hiring him for a job teaching American Indian studies. Behind the scenes, Nelson and major donors connected to the Israel lobby had already begun a campaign to persuade the board to rescind the offer because of Salaita’s pro-Palestinian views. He had already resigned a tenured position when the board caved into Zionist pressures. That left Salaita unemployed. Today he drives a school bus and will likely never teach again.

George Packer—Like Paul Berman and Michael Ignatieff, this New Yorker magazine writer was gung-ho for the invasion of Iraq.

Steven Pinker—Pinker is arguably the worst person who signed the letter. My interest in him was focused on his reactionary sociobiological theories that I described as a mixture of Hobbes and Pangloss. I also recommend a new Jacobin article titled “It’s Official — Steven Pinker Is Full of Shit”. I guess Jacobin was guilty of cancel culture.

Michael Walzer—Despite being a social democrat and long-time Dissent Magazine contributor (or maybe because he was so connected), he was another supporter of the invasion of Iraq but argued more Talmudically than the others.

Sean Wilentz—Like Walzer, he has been associated with Dissent for decades. Recently, he has been leading the charge alongside the WSWS sectarians against Project 1619. (Some people commenting on the Harper’s letter question its timing, as it implicitly connects all of the tumult about white bias in the media as cancel culture.) He also hates radical history, both Howard Zinn’s, and the film that Oliver Stone made with Peter Kuznick.


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