Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2020

Harper’s Magazine and the culture wars

Filed under: Harper's Open Letter — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

Dinesh D’Souza: the original adversary of cancel culture (and frequent guest of Bill Maher)

Although the term “culture wars” did not get coined until 1991, when sociologist James Davison Hunter came out with “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America”, I’d argue that its origins were in the Reagan presidency. His hatchet men began to demonize the left as intolerant and out of touch with the values of everyday Americans. It is no surprise that the conflict was sharpest in academia where newly tenured 60s radicals had the nerve to defend Marxism in classrooms. While most of the fire was directed at them, postmodernists also took a beating for their “relativism”.

Throughout the 1990s, there were books that defined the turf being fought over. Dinesh D’Souza, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a former domestic policy analyst in the Reagan administration, wrote “Illiberal Education”, a book that grew out of an Atlantic Monthly article of the same title. Despite Atlantic’s reputation as a liberal magazine, they saw fit to publish this crap in 1991:

Each fall some 13 million students, 2.5 million of them members of minority groups, enroll in American colleges … At the university they hope to shape themselves as whole human beings, both intellectually and morally. Brimming with idealism, they wish to prepare themselves for full and independent lives in the workplace, at home, and as citizens of a democratic society. In short, what they seek is a liberal education.

By the time these students graduate, many colleges and universities will not have met their need for all-round development. Instead, by precept and example, they will have taught them that all rules are unjust and all preferences are principled; that justice is simply the will of the stronger party; that standards and values are arbitrary, and the ideal of the educated person is largely a figment of bourgeois white male ideology; that individual rights are a red flag signaling social privilege, and should be subordinated to the claims of group interest; that all knowledge can be reduced to politics and should be pursued not for its own sake but for the political end of power; that convenient myths and well-intentioned lies can substitute for truth; that double standards are acceptable as long as they are enforced to the benefit of minority victims; that disputes are best settled not by rational and civil debate but by accusation, intimidation, and official prosecution; that the university stands for nothing in particular and has no claim to be exempt from outside pressures; and that a multiracial society cannot be based on fair rules that apply to every person but must rather be held together with a forced rationing of power among separatist racial groups. In short, instead of liberal education, what many American students are getting is its diametrical opposite: an education in closed-mindedness and intolerance—which is to say, illiberal education.

If there’s a significant difference between what D’Souza wrote in the Atlantic nearly 30 years ago and the momentum behind the Harper’s Open Letter, I can’t see it.

As someone who has subscribed to Harper’s since the early 1980s, it is disconcerting to see this development. Months before the Open Letter, I sent the editor a brief note of complaint over Thomas Chatterton Williams defense of his memoir “Self-Portrait in Black and White” against a cutting review in BookForum. It was so filled with Pecksniffian self-regard that I felt motivated to do something I rarely do, send a letter to an editor. Now that I know that the editor of Harper’s shares Williams’s centrist politics, I can now see it was a waste of time. The very wealthy owner of Harper’s, John “Rick” MacArthur”, is using his power to turn his magazine into a bully pulpit for the same message Atlantic conveyed in 1991.

Starting in the September issue, Harper’s unfurled its culture wars banner and will likely keep it flying from now on. Once you get this bee in your bonnet, it tends to drill straight through to your brain and take over what’s left of your intelligence.

Taking his marching orders from Rick MacArthur, editor Christopher Beha told readers that he was not happy about the NY Times firing James Bennet who had authorized the publication of an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton urging military strikes on out-of-control BLM activists. This didn’t sit well with NY Times employees, both Black and white, who took to social media to condemn the op-ed and those responsible for approving it. For Beha, this was in line with the cancel culture that the Open Letter attacked. He referred to unnamed people who were “worried that the paper of record was becoming a place of ideological conformity.” As was the case with the Open Letter refusal to give examples of cancel culture, the use of “unnamed” left open all sorts of questions. Who were these unnamed people? Tucker Carlson? Bill Maher?

The rest of the article is a defense of Harper’s Magazine’s ideological diversity. If they can be so open-minded, why can’t some transgender woman be just as tolerant to JK Rowling on Twitter? Beha refers to a forum he organized in Jerusalem with both Israeli and Palestinian speakers. I’ll give him credit for admitting: “I am not suggesting that our Forum made a difference in the conflict.”

In the same vein, the September issue included an article by Cornell University Comparative Literature professor Laurent Dubreuil “Nonconforming: Against the erosion of academic freedom by identity politics”. With a title like that, you knew you were straying into D’Souza territory or at least a leftist version. He complained about trigger warnings, student objections to being assigned texts by racist or homophobic authors, and all the other challenges to professorial authority that get called out regularly on Fox News. Identity politics has even been appropriated by neo-Nazis, according to Dubreuil:

Stormfront, the largest English-language online forum for neo-Nazis and white supremacists, promotes “true diversity” and the interests of the “new, embattled, White minority.” White straight males are already a minority in the United States (though one that enjoys disproportionate representation in power). For many voters, Trump’s affirmation of a wounded white identity is central to his appeal, and, unfortunately, to that of his likely successors.

This is obviously tantamount to saying that Richard Spencer and Malcolm X were both trafficking in racism. In fact, this is exactly what many liberals said when George Lincoln Rockwell tried to create a united front with the Nation of Islam. It turns out that the Nazi did meet with the NoI at one point, a function of the separatist mindset of both he and Elijah Muhammad. It didn’t go very far and Rockwell got a frosty reception at the one meeting he addressed.

Like fellow Harper’s contributor Thomas Chatterton Williams, Dubreuil asks us to pay heed to Ralph Ellison, the author of “Invisible Man”, who rejected “identity determinism”. Ralph Ellison had many interesting insights in this novel that I read forty years ago but I never found his other writings as relevant to the American situation as James Baldwin. Always prioritizing aesthetic individualism over African-American solidarity, Ellison began to resemble Saul Bellow who was his housemate when they both taught at Bard College in the late 50s. During the Vietnam war, Ellison joined Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Ralph Ellison, James T. Farrell, John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos in supporting American intervention in Vietnam.

In a NY Times article dated February 28, 1999, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley reported:

According to Charles Tyroler, a Democratic strategist who recruited prominent writers to sign pro-war manifestoes at Johnson’s behest, Ellison agreed to help the Administration in 1967. ”He told me about his own merchant marine service and how disgraceful he thought it was for peaceniks and draft dodgers to denounce our boys in ‘Nam,” Tyroler said in an interview. ”And he thought it was disastrous for the civil rights movement to hitch its future on the antiwar diatribes of H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael.”

Showing that he has been as much of a victim of Blacks, gays or women, Dubreuil recounts the persecutions he endured growing up:

Have I been ridiculed for being too white, owing to the paleness caused by my chronic asthma? Yes, and incidentally this abuse always came from white people, including far-right extremists. Was I bullied in elementary and middle school by other kids for being fat? Yes, I gained weight after recovering from a near-fatal case of hepatitis at age eight, and the hassle lasted for five years. Have I been bullied for other reasons? Oh yes, many: because I sucked at sports, because my parents were poor, because I did well in school, and so on.

I read such blather and wonder how this nitwit ever managed to get a 4,000 word article published in Harper’s. Oh, I know. It satisfied Rick MacArthur’s culture wars appetite with a most tasty dish.

Turning to the current issue, you get Beha defending the Open Letter with this self-congratulatory note: “Indeed, in the days after we published the letter, I received an overwhelming number of messages from young freelance journalists, graduate students, and adjunct professors—the kinds of people who are not insulated by tenure or staff positions—expressing relief that the letter had spoken on their behalf.” Should I be expecting this kind of preening from the editor on an ongoing basis? I love Harper’s cryptic crossword puzzles but might have to make the ultimate sacrifice to avoid this sort of ideological narcissism.

Turning to the five-star general of the culture wars at Harper’s, we find Thomas Chatterton Williams comparing transgender people writing mean tweets to JK Rowling with Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery” that describes a small town’s yearly ritual sacrifice of one of its citizens. In his eyes, this was just such an irrational act of savagery:

We all remember the case of Justine Sacco, back in 2013, perhaps the Ur-cancellation of the Twitter age. Sacco was an unknown public-relations director who, before boarding a flight from London to Cape Town, tweeted a tasteless joke: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She had only 170 followers, yet by the time her plane landed, her bad tweet had gone viral and her life was in tatters. She had become a world-famous racist—and lost her job. A common paradox of any debate around cancel culture is that those who insist it is not a problem oscillate between dismissing it as a made-up phenomenon and asserting that anyone who has endured such a fate deserved it. If Sacco was in fact canceled, the feeling was, she had it coming.

As it happens, there are only about a dozen atrocity tales that keep getting recycled by Williams and his co-thinkers. I dealt with this one in a post titled “Bill Maher puts down the red carpet for Bari Weiss and Thomas Chatterton Williams”:

As Maher tries to eke out what Williams and Weiss mean by cancel-culture, they are hard-pressed to identify any of those humble souls who worry about being fired for saying the wrong thing. Williams refers to Justine Sacco as a virtual martyr to today’s version of the Salem Witch Trials. Sacco was a top executive of IAC, a holding company with over a hundred media and internet companies, including Vimeo, where I have a channel. (I didn’t say a word about her.) When Sacco was on a plane in 2014, she passed the time trying to be funny on Twitter. Visiting family in South Africa, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” You’d think after all the people who have gotten in trouble on Twitter, there’d be more caution. This tweet and other stupidities cost her job. Since she was the company’s PR director, how in hell did she think she’d be able to get away with this? The answer. If you want to make racist wisecracks, get a job with the police department. Well, maybe not more recently.

Later on in the article, Williams writes, “Cancellation operates with the logic and velocity of a sucker punch: you can’t protect yourself, and don’t even know where the attack is coming from until it has already landed.” You’d think that someone knowledgeable about the bullets fired into Breonna Taylor’s body by trigger-happy cops would be a little bit more circumspect about harping on surprise attacks. As it happens, Williams practically said that she had it coming in a Tweet:

This is appalling. Breonna Taylor’s ex-boyfriend wasn’t in the apartment that night. She had broken up with months earlier. Who makes amalgams between her and Glover, besides Thomas Chatterton Williams, you might ask. None other than Tucker Carlson, an even bigger white supremacist than Donald Trump:

“They told us that Taylor had nothing to do with her drug dealing ex-boyfriend, who police were investigating,” Carlson said. “That’s why they were there. In fact, intercepted jailhouse communications suggest that Taylor was warehousing that man’s drug money.”


September 29, 2020

Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

Now available as VOD on Amazon, iTunes and Vimeo, “Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” is a film biography of one of the most renowned monumental sculptors in the world, a male-dominated field. That in itself would be extraordinary but Von Rydingsvard rise to the top against odds that would have daunted anybody, male of female, sets her apart.

She was born in Germany in 1942, when her Polish parents were swept into that country after Stalin and Hitler carved up their country. After WWII ended, they lived in displaced peoples camps until 1950. That year, the family resettled in Connecticut at a time when American policy toward refugees was relatively humane. With seven children, her father had a tough time keeping them housed and fed, usually working two jobs. His anger over the hand fate dealt him as well as a mean streak he was born with led him to verbally abuse and beat his children.

There were few signs that Ursula could have transcended such a mean environment other than her being chosen by her classmates to do all the artwork for school functions. Not long after graduated high school, she married a man whose schizophrenia was only latent at that point. After he suffered a number of psychotic episodes, she separated and took their baby daughter with her to New York, where she survived on food stamps and minimum wage jobs until she landed a job as a public school teacher.

With the money she put aside as a teacher, she bought a loft on Spring Street in Soho in 1975, when she was 33 and ready to start a career as a sculptor. Like other artists, she had become disenchanted with minimalism and was ready to take a new approach. Using 4×4 cedar beams of the sort that could be bought at any lumberyard, she began to carve them into an object looking more organic than the typical modern piece, usually attaching them into larger edifices that often looked like inverted tree trunks. Her work drew the praise of art critics and led to major commissions and teaching jobs at Columbia and Yale.

I have to admit that monumental sculpture is not my favorite genre but as a story of a woman defying all obstacles toward achieving her dream, “Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own” is an inspiring documentary.

September 28, 2020

Donald Trump, Project 1619, Howard Zinn, and critical race theory

Filed under: Project 1619,Trump — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

On September 17th, Donald Trump weighed in on Project 1619, Howard Zinn, and critical race theory in a speech surely written for him since this moron never read the articles in Sunday NY Times Magazine section which launched Project 1619, “A People’s History of the United States”, or any critical race theory article. I even admit to being unfamiliar with critical race theory, so it is even more obvious that so is he. I doubt that the only written material he is familiar with appears on the back of a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

One wonders if he has been reading the critics of Project 1619, et al. After all, don’t his words sound like they could have written by Sean Wilentz?

Our Constitution was the product of centuries of tradition, wisdom, and experience. No political document has done more to advance the human condition or propel the engine of progress.

Yeah, you can quibble about Blacks being 3/5ths of a human being but nobody’s perfect.

Wilentz doesn’t believe that defending slavery was a factor in the American Revolution. The Constitution identified the goals of that revolution with Enlightenment values, not crass commercial goals such as forcing African slaves to pick cotton. In a September 16, 2015 NYT op-ed, he wrote:

The Constitutional Convention not only deliberately excluded the word “slavery,” but it also quashed the proslavery effort to make slavery a national institution, and so prevented enshrining the racism that justified slavery.

While I am sure that Wilentz would turn down an invitation to eat cheeseburgers with Trump at the White House, I am just as sure that he is closer to Trump on these matters than those rabble-rousers at the NY Times.

Trump is appalled that children are being given the wrong impression of our country by reading Howard Zinn: “Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”

Once again, Wilentz would be closer to Trump than people like me who valued Zinn’s history. After Zinn died, Wilentz summed up his career:

He saw history primarily as a means to motivate people to political action that he found admirable. That’s what he said he did. It’s fine as a form of agitation — agitprop — but it’s not particularly good history.

Wilentz doesn’t seem to understand that his brand of history is also designed to motivate people to political action, namely lining up behind people like Bill Clinton or Joe Biden, two men who were as capable as Trump of demagogic attacks on Black people.

As for critical race theory, Trump regards it as poisoning the minds of children:

Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.

Guilty of this insidious is none other than the Smithsonian Institute. You’d think he was talking about the Smolny Institute, the way he goes on. It issued a document alleging that concepts such as hard work, rational thinking, the nuclear family, and belief in God were not values that unite all Americans, but were instead aspects of “whiteness.” All I can say is that if hard work, rational thinking, the nuclear family and belief in God were values identified with whiteness, then Trump is not white. Orange, maybe.

The more worthwhile avenue of investigation is critical race theory itself. Wikipedia identifies its main themes, including the following:

  • White privilege: Belief in the notion of a myriad of social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race (i.e. white people). A clerk not following you around in a store or not having people cross the street at night to avoid you, are two examples of white privilege.
  • Microaggression: Belief in the notion that sudden, stunning, or dispiriting transactions have the power to mar the everyday of oppressed individuals. These include small acts of racism consciously or unconsciously perpetrated, whereby an analogy could be that of water dripping on a rock wearing away at it slowly.

So, is critical race theory supposed to be some arcane, pedantic theoretical offspring of postmodernism? I don’t know. To me it sounds like the stuff of daily reports in the media and hundreds, if not thousands, of YouTube videos of Black people getting screwed.

At the end of his speech, Trump introduced Professor Wilfred McClay, who will be part of a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project to support “the development of a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history”.

McClay tried to write a rebuttal to Howard Zinn in a book titled “Land of Hope” that conforms to Donald Trump’s motherhood, apple pie and American flag version of American history. It was reviewed in Dissent by Michael Kazin, who trashed Zinn and might be expected to lean in McClay’s direction, even stating: “Wilfred McClay, a rare conservative historian whose prior work is respected across the political trenches, thinks he can explain what made America wonderful without echoing the nonsense Newt and his ilk hawk to the faithful.” But, he’s even too much for Kazin:

No serious historian could get away with giving the same silent treatment to the long struggle for black freedom, the pivot on which the Civil War and other critical events in the nation’s past have turned. But McClay overlooks the vital role abolitionists played in building opposition in the North to the “Slave Power” of Dixie. And he barely acknowledges the fact that a number of prominent abolitionists were black people who had once been held in bondage themselves. He refers to Harriet Tubman twice briefly—once in the middle of a sentence—Frederick Douglass gets three quick name-checks (one of which is incorrect), and Sojourner Truth is absent altogether.

McClay’s treatment of the post-emancipation black movement is even more careless. W. E. B. Du Bois gets a single mention—not as one of the most influential activists and thinkers in twentieth-century America but as someone who briefly endorsed eugenics. Meanwhile, in the pages of Land of Hope, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, and A. Philip Randolph never existed. McClay does grace Martin Luther King Jr. with a whole paragraph about his life plus a long quote from his iconic speech at the massive civil rights march in the summer of 1963. But then you really cannot ignore someone with a national holiday to his name and a memorial a few blocks from the Mall.

Trump is determined to wipe out all traces of anti-racist scholarship in the Ivies, as well as any other college or high school willing to use Project 1619, Zinn or critical race theory to educate young people about this country’s horrific past. Unfortunately for him, the tides of history are moving against him. People are determined to find out the truth about American history even if he is using executive power to try to censor it. As someone who grew up in the fifties getting spoon-fed McClay’s version, nothing made me happier than to read Howard Zinn when facing the draft. In a period of deep social crisis, you need the truth not an alt-right Hallmark card.

September 27, 2020

Public Trust; The Ground Between Us

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

By sheer coincidence, two documentaries have both begun showing as VOD with identical subject matters, the privatization of publicly owned land—mainly in the west. I first became interested in this topic after reading Christopher Ketcham’s article in the February 2015 Harper’s titled “The Great Republican Land Heist: Cliven Bundy and the politicians who are plundering the West”. When I saw that Christopher had written a book titled “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West”, I reviewed it for CounterPunch. If Donald Trump ever stands trial for crimes against the public interest, I’d love to see Christopher as prosecuting attorney with the two documentaries serving as evidence.

Executive produced by Robert Redford, “Public Trust” can now be seen for free courtesy of Patagonia. When I sent Christopher a link to the film, he responded, “No, this is the first I’ve heard of it, and thanks for sending. BUT…it’s produced by fucking Patagucci, bro, arch-despoilers of the public lands with their promotion of endless wreckreation. Now that’s capitalist penetration!” As much as I agree with Christopher’s take on Patagonia, the film is still worth watching since it allows you to get an overview of the despoliation taking place without investing the kind of time and effort I have made. The other film is “The Ground Between Us” that is available as Virtual Cinema, a way of seeing films by buying tickets through selected theaters forced to close down because of the pandemic. This film, as the title implies, is an attempt to allow both sides of the conflict to present their own arguments. Unfortunately, the men and women taking the side of opening up to commercial exploitation are a retired lumberjack and a small rancher, not exactly the main enemy.

Both films cover two of the key battlefields involving privatization. One is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in northern Alaska that is the homeland of the Gwich’in Indians, who have the same relation to the Porcupine Caribou that the Lakota and Blackfoot had to the Bison. They fear that a pipeline connecting their land to the Prudhoe Bay port 800 miles eastward will destroy the ecosystem that the Caribou have lived in for thousands of years, just like them. In both films, we hear from Bernadette Demientieff, who is Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

The other battlefield San Juan County in southeastern Utah, where the Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument are found. These are holy lands for the Indians whose artwork can be seen on walls throughout the region. Like the Gwich’in Alaska, they have lived there for thousands of years. The Navajos, Hopis, Utes  the Zunis, all have ancestral ties to the region. You get an idea of what they are up against when you hear one Republican official saying, “I’d drill for oil in a cemetery if there was oil”. This is literally what the Indians are up against.

In “The Ground Between Us”, we hear from the Redd family that has been ranching in San Juan County for generations. They resent government interference in their right to make a living but much more amiably than fellow San Juan County rancher Clive Bundy who has been leading quasi-militias in his crusade against public ownership of land in Utah and in Oregon. The Redds, looking like Marlboro men, insist that they are the best stewards of the land since they are so close to it. In his Harper’s article, Christopher debunks this notion. In a series of environmental studies, the Bureau of Land Management described “overstocked cattle, which had filled the riparian areas with dung and urine and gorged on what little grass was available…wreaking ecological havoc.”

Both films refer to Obama’s executive orders protecting Bear’s Ears and ANWR, as well as Trump’s executive order favoring the ranching, mining and oil interests. In the final moments, both urge you to register to vote with the clear implication that a vote for Biden is necessary. Biden is on record as saying that he’ll reverse the changes to Bears Ears and also ban new oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters. Is this a good enough reason to vote for Biden? To start with, if the Democrats did not pick a candidate who was a liberal alternative to Trump, the two-party system would fall apart like a house of cards. Despite George Wallace, it is not true that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties, especially on environmental questions.

However, don’t expect any Democrat to hold the line under deepening capitalist crisis as “the economy” takes precedence over environmental justice. Read Steve Horn’s September 29, 2016 article and you will discover:

As eyes turned to the most viewed presidential debate in U.S. history, the Obama administration meanwhile quietly auctioned off thousands of acres of land for oil and gas drilling in national forests, opened up 119 million acres for offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico, and delivered a blow to the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act rule change followed a multi-year lobbying campaign by the oil and gas industry and occurred the morning before the debate unfolded.

The leasing decisions came just weeks earlier, with the most recent one taking place as an online rather than in-person drilling lease auction, the product of industry and U.S. government backlash against efforts such as the Keep It In The Ground campaign which aim to block fossil fuel project development.

September 25, 2020

The Sinking Middle Class

Filed under: Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm


On September 22ndPolitico reported on how rank-and-file union members were snubbing Biden for Trump. Perhaps inadvertently, the second sentence reveals what kind of trade unionist this means: “To rank-and-file members in some unions, especially the building trades, it doesn’t matter. They’re still firmly in Donald Trump’s camp.” Historically, construction unions have operated as a white-only job trust and would be naturally part of Trump’s hard-core support. While Anthony DiMaggio debunked the myth of Trump’s “blue-collar” populism in CounterPunch, Democratic Party pundits insist that unless it connects with these types of workers, it will lose to demagogues like Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump.

Just hot off of OR Books press, David Roediger’s “The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History” digs deep into the origins of this line of thinking and concludes that it is time to put it to rest. Despite the book’s title, the subject is a demographic that academics and journalists describe interchangeably as the middle-class or the white working-class. Since Black people tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democratic Party politicians, Roediger’s chief concern is to interrogate how this obsession developed.

Roediger has been writing about race and class in the U.S.A. ever since his 1991 “The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class” that paired him with Theodore Allen and my good friend, the late Noel Ignatiev. For these three scholars, the task was to explain how the white working-class could identify with ruling-class values. Speaking for myself, I always attributed that to the phenomenon Karl Marx described in “The German Ideology.”

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.

Continue reading

September 21, 2020

The Swerve; We are Many

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:48 pm

In 1995, before my unpaid career as a film critic began, I saw Todd Hayne’s “Safe”. It told the story of a conventional middle-class housewife played by Marianne Moore, who decays both physically and psychologically from an unspecified illness related to the environment. Since “Safe” is set in Los Angeles, it rang true. Moore was unforgettable as a woman trying to hold it together. As the film progresses, the symptoms become more and more severe. Although I saw the film 25 years ago, the nightmarish scenes remain vivid.

Yesterday, I saw “The Swerve”, a film that also depicts the physical and mental breakdown of a middle-class woman. It has the same mixture of horror and personal drama as “Safe”, as well as a stunning performance by Azura Skye as a high school teacher whose life begins falling apart at the seams. In this instance, it is not the environment that is sickening her. It is her family that is the toxin.

Skye plays Holly, a woman in perhaps her early 40s who teaches high school English in some unidentified American city. Her husband Rob has a floor manager job at a supermarket who is anxious to find something better. Rounding out the family are two teen-age sons who seem normal enough even though their potty-mouth tendencies and their readiness to mouth off to her might be just corrosive enough to explain the pills she takes each morning presumably for her nerves.

Like most women, she has two jobs. In the morning and evening, she has to prepare meals. She is also responsible for keeping their respectable two-story house neat and clean. Although the film does not try to connect her plight to broader social questions, you can’t help but feel that her two jobs, one paid and the other unpaid, were enough to make her “go postal”. The conclusion of the film depicts her violent revolt against myriad assaults on her well-being without any commentary from a cop or a doctor surveying the wreckage. Unlike Moore’s character in “Safe”, who simply withdraws into herself at the film’s end, Holly goes ballistic. Literally.

One day as she is puttering about in her kitchen, she is startled to see a mouse running across the floor. This has an unsettling effect disproportionate to the actual threat of a relatively harmless creature. She almost sees it as threatening as a rat and even becomes convinced that a small bite from the creature will lead to rabies.

As for human vermin, she has plenty on her hands as well. Her husband has been cheating on her unabashedly. She catches him making out with one of the supermarket women and suspects that he is also sleeping with her sister, who is younger and more attractive than her—as well as being even more psychologically troubled. While Holly is passive aggressive, her sister Claudia is simply aggressive. At a dinner at their mom’s house, Claudia wisecracks about Holly’s weight issues in high school without a care about the pain she is causing. Meanwhile, Claudia has her own problems as an alcoholic who has undergone repeated rehabs and two failed marriages.

Nothing seems to bring joy to Holly, not even a fling she has with one of her students who works in the same supermarket as her husband. After the boy is caught drawing sketches during her class, she seizes the sketchbook and sends him to the principal. At home, she becomes mesmerized by the skillfully drawn erotic drawings, including one of her. As problems deepen at home, sex with the teen becomes a lifebelt but hardly enough to keep her afloat.

The film was the first feature ever directed by Dean Kapsalis and certainly merits my nomination for debut director if NYFCO can ever get it together during this pandemic to have our awards meeting. “The Swerve” is every bit an achievement as Todd Haynes’s “Safe” and might even get my nomination for best picture of the year as well. As for Azura Skye, she gets my nomination for best actress hands down. I am usually not into award ceremonies but I look forward to casting my vote for an outstanding indie film. Hollywood might be dead in the water but a film like “The Swerve” convinces me that VOD more than makes up for it.

In the press notes, Kapsalis names his influences. I can only say that if he continues to make films such as this, he will get the same kind of recognition as they did:

I drew on mythology and tragedies in literature to give narrative shape and tension to Holly’s psychological desolation and longing. Through her, what I felt emerge was a view of a society that is just as alienated from itself as it is from the fragile reality through which it sleepwalks. We go on about our daily lives, our routines, often unaware (or willfully ignorant?) that the people around us can break at any moment.

Similar to the female protagonists of the classic tragedies, Holly is a dutiful wife and mother, underappreciated and overlooked for her efforts. But as she goes on, and as we settle into her world, the cracks in her already damaged psyche give way.

Many artists inspired me along the way. Filmmakers like Nicolas Roeg, Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman. Photographers William Eggleston and Gregory Crewdson. Playwrights Harold Pinter and Edward Albee. Poets Dante and Shakespeare. But in a way, it was the ancient Greeks that proved to be the most inspirational.

Starting tomorrow, the film can be rented from iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube and Amazon. It is not to be missed.

Starting tonight at 8pm EST, there will be a virtual cinema premiere of “We are Many”, a documentary about the massive antiwar protest that took place on February 15, 2003. Directed by Amir Amirani, it allows leaders of the peace movement such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Leslie Cagan in the USA to describe what amounted to the largest single-day protest in history ever to take place.

For people such as myself, there’s a sense of déjà vu. At the time, I was keenly aware of the opposition to George W. Bush’s pending invasion of Iraq as well as the lies that were used to justify it. In addition to the activists, Amirani gets members of the elite to look back in anger at a war that might have cost the lives of a million Iraqis. We hear from U.N. Arms Inspector Hans Blix as well as Patrick Tyler, who covered the war for the N.Y. Times. Unlike Judith Miller, Tyler probably opposed the war at the time even though he was forced to echo the paper’s ambivalent attitude toward the build-up to the war. Surely, the publisher must have known that Judith Miller was lying like a rug.

The film will be especially interesting to people who were too young at the time or even not having been born. The film joins Robert Draper’s recently published “To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq” as an autopsy on an imperialist onslaught that has had a lasting effect on American politics. You might even say that some of the votes for Donald Trump in 2016 reflected his demagogic disavowal of the war just as Hillary Clinton’s vote for the war cost her about the same number.

The film grapples with the problem of how Bush was able to continue the war despite worldwide opposition. Why did the movement collapse like a cheap suitcase after the initial days of “shock and awe”?

None of the interviewees have an answer for that except to say that we should have done more. There is an implicit case made that demonstrations alone could not have stopped the war but another explanation could have sufficed. We used to hear the same frustrations during the Vietnam antiwar movement. Why should we keep going on peace parades when Nixon ignores them?

To start with, there was no alternative to mass action. In the USA, the antiwar movement was led by United for Peace and Justice that was all too ready to switch gears in 2004 to unseat George W. Bush just as their counterparts are eager today to unseat Donald Trump. It would have taken nonstop opposition to the war to have an effect but the coalition was far too connected to the Democratic Party to sustain a non-electoral strategy.

It is also important to acknowledge the difference between the Sunni opposition to the Shia puppet government installed in Baghdad and the NLF. While many Sunnis simply wanted to drive the USA out of Iraq, a significant minority were committed to a holy war against infidels. The car bombings that killed Shias inside or nearby a mosque were enough to make many Americans consider Iraq as a place where solidarity could only go so far. By contrast, the Vietnamese were in constant contact with American peace activists in the 60s and 70s and helped stiffen our backbone.

Director Amirani tries to take the sting out of our failure to preempt Bush’s war by pointing to Obama and the British Parliament’s opposition to a Bush-style invasion of Syria. As should be obvious from the last 10 years of “anti-imperialist” opposition to a repeat of the Iraq war, there was very little interest in opposing Assad’s war on his own people and the lethal assistance he got from Putin, whose hands were still bloody from hiswar on Chechnya. You had the spectacle of the Stop the War Coalition organizing a conference with Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix as an invited speaker. Mother Agnes was an outspoken defender of Assad’s savage war on his own people and was only disinvited after Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones said they would not speak at the meeting if it meant sharing a platform with Mother Agnes.

Notwithstanding these qualms, I recommend the film since it does at least point to the kind of power in the streets we need to take on the Republicans and the Tories who are waging war on their own people right now.

September 20, 2020

Notes on the passing of Stephen F. Cohen

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

This article will be a political assessment of Stephen F. Cohen, who died of lung cancer two days ago rather than an obit. I am including the NY Times obit at the end in order to put my remarks into context. My advice is to read the NYT obit first since it overlaps to some extent with my own attempt to assess his contribution to Marxist scholarship and the left.

In 1980 or thereabouts, when I had some time on my hands, I attended the deliberations of the SWP’s suit against the FBI. Because of Watergate and outrage over FBI harassment, the party filed suit against the FBI for $40 million in damages and an end to Cointelpro, which caught a small fish like me in its net. Cointelpro, which was short for Counterintelligence Program, was used to disrupt socialist and other radical organizing efforts. Supposedly, the government was trying to forestall the violent overthrow of the government but the real intention was to weaken civil rights, antiwar and other social struggles.

I can’t pin down the exact day but I happened to hear the SWP’s star witness that day, Stephen F. Cohen. I had no idea who he was other than that he was a Princeton University expert on Soviet Russia and apparently on the left. Our attorney was Leonard Boudin, the most respected constitutional lawyer on the left. He sought to make the case that the SWP was exercising its constitutional rights as a legitimate political party in the same way the party tried (and failed) in 1940 when the leaders were charged with violations of the Smith Act.

You can read a summary of the case here. We never got the $40 million, which Barnes might have stashed in a Swiss bank anyhow, but Griesa ordered the FBI to stop harassing us. Our victory was instrumental to putting an end to Cointelpro. If you want to find out more about this struggle, you can read Ward Churchill’s book about it here. Although it only has a single reference to Cohen, you can assume that his role was very important for the SWP victory.

Trotskyists argue that the undesirable features of Soviet government are largely the fault of Stalin, Trotsky’s rival. However, realizing that the establishment of the totalitarian state and the suppression of democracy occurred under Lenin, with the assistance of Trotsky, the Trotskyists contend that the anti-democratic developments were forced upon the regime by the civil war which broke out in 1918. Professor Stephen Cohen of Princeton testified at the trial and advanced this view.

Against the charges that the SWP was plotting a coup, Cohen testified for the plaintiffs that the Russian Revolution was a democratic movement against a minority that was determined to use violence against the soviets to preserve the status quo. He was so brilliant that Judge Griesa, a life-long Republican, kept overruling objections being made by the FBI attorneys.

Not long after listening to Cohen’s testimony, I grew disaffected from the SWP and hooked up with Peter Camejo whose opposition to sectarianism convinced me to catch up on readings that were outside those blessed by the SWP. I took out a subscription to The Nation, which proved to be a great asset when I got involved with Tecnica in 1986 during a visit to Nicaragua. We used to run ads in the back of the magazines that helped draw in many talented technicians anxious to support a revolutionary society. With my subscription, I used to look forward to Cohen’s articles since they made the case for Gorbachev who most people on the left supported, even if his goal was hardly consistent with Marxist ideology.

In 2002, I married a Turkish graduate student and went to meet her parents in Istanbul a year later. I brought some books along with me to read on the plane and in her home in-between socializing. One of the books was Cohen’s “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution” that floored me in the way that Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” did. It opened my eyes to Bukharin’s brilliance and allowed me to forgive his unfortunate alliance with Stalin. I recommend Tendance Coatsey’s blog on Cohen’s passing that is mainly about the book. He writes:

It is both a study of Bukharin the theorist of Imperialism and World Economy (1917) and political career from left-communism, alliance with Stalin against the left, champion of the New Economic Policy (NEP) that allowed some private business to continue, and then, the last independent figure to Stalin He emerges as a figure  both accommodated to the Egocrat and, finally, pushed to resisting, tried to mitigate the worst. Fully aware of the depths of mass killing and famine that went with forced collectivisation, Bukharin was, he argued, a far more formidable opponent to Stalin that Trotsky, who had been exiled without great difficulty from a party which did not hold him in high regard.  Out of power the one-time ‘darling of the party’, continued to offer an alternative to totalitarian rule by forced labour and mass murder, a (relatively) moderate ‘right’ Communism.

With the arrival of Perestroika, Cohen became an informal adviser to Gorbachev largely on the strength of his book. For Cohen, it must have seemed like a return to the NEP policies with Gorbachev keeping it together, a task that was beyond any Soviet leader’s capability in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, they were just as doomed as they were in the 1920s when a layer of the former bureaucracy conspired with Western imperialism to turn the USSR into a Wall Street banker’s wet dream. Using Jeffrey Sach’s shock therapy, Yeltsin made plutocrats wealthy and the rest of the country miserable.

The best thing would have been a worker’s revolution against Yeltsin but, as so often turns out, you only had a reversal of the worst aspects of the Yeltsin years but within the overall neoliberal framework. Tony Wood described this evolution in his “Russia Without Putin” that I reviewed in CounterPunch:

What about Sachs’s shock therapy? Would a nationalist like Putin make sure to secure a social base for his new administration by easing up on the working class? Wood debunks the idea that Putin was a left-populist back then or ever for that matter:

Putin’s first administration, from 2000 to 2004, was perhaps the most energetically neoliberal, introducing a series of measures designed to extend the reach of private capital: in 2001, a flat income tax set at 13 per cent; in 2002, a labour code scaling back workers’ rights; tax cuts for businesses in 2002 and 2003. These moves were widely applauded in the West at the time: the right-wing Heritage Foundation praised “Russia’s flat tax miracle”, while Thomas Friedman gushed about Russia’s embrace of “this capitalist thing”, urging readers of the New York Times to “keep rootin’ for Putin”. His second presidency, too, was marked by moves to increase the private sector’s role in education, health and housing, and by the conversion of several in-kind social benefits to cash payments — a ‘monetization’ that prompted popular protests in the winter of 2004-05, but which was carried through in modified form all the same.

While I am not privy to the particulars, it soon became obvious that Cohen began to support Putin as a lesser evil to Yeltsin and the West. Like liberals in the USA, this meant downplaying the evil, even if it was lesser. If Trump is evil incarnate, shouldn’t the left support Biden? If the CIA and the IMF were evil incarnate, shouldn’t internationalists rally behind Putin? It should be added that Cohen was not the only prominent and highly respected people in the West who followed this logic. The list is endless: Tariq Ali, Robert Fisk, David Bromwich, Seymour Hersh, Julian Assange, ad infinitum.

Once I figured out that Cohen was committed to this kind of bastardized anti-imperialism, I had no choice other than to call him out.

In 2014, I wrote an article titled “Stephen F. Cohen is not the man he used to be” that was focused on his support for Russian intervention in Ukraine. I wrote:

I was terribly disappointed to hear Cohen making the case for Putin the other night on George Noory’s “Coast to Coast” radio show on WOR, an AM talk radio station in NY that is now home to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. There was a time when Cohen’s usual venue was someplace like the PBS News Hour or Charlie Rose. How the mighty have fallen.

Cohen told Noory that people had to understand that Russia was the only nation in the world that had suffered two collapses in the 20th century, one in 1917 and one in 1990. I could understand the reference to 1990 but 1917? I wonder if the SWP filed suit this year instead of in 1981 whether  Cohen would be such a reliable witness. The only thing that collapsed in 1917, after all, was Czarist oppression.

Noory’s show is just one small step above Alex Jones. I usually turn it on for a minute or two late at night to hear some guest talking about vapor trails, flying saucers or why global warming is a myth. I invite you to check out the website for Coast to Coast and see for yourself. There’s a story on “Polaroid Ghost Pictures” and one on Noory’s appearance at a UFO fest.

In his zeal to defend Putin of all charges, Cohen went on John Batchelor’s AM radio show on a regular basis. Batchelor is the author of “Ain’t You Glad You Joined the Republicans?: A Short History of the GOP” and a solid supporter of Donald Trump, even if his rhetoric is not as inflammatory as Tucker Carlson’s. During the years that Cohen was a weekly guest on Batchelor’s show, the only other men who made an equal number of appearances were Malcolm Hoenlein and Gordon Chang. Hoenlein is a member of the Israel lobby as hateful as Abraham Foxman, while Chang is an advocate of economic warfare against China and North Korea that makes Donald Trump pale in comparison. I should add that in all the years I’ve been monitoring the Batchelor show, I’ve never heard a single African-American guest, not even a righwing one.

One of Cohen’s appearances on the Batchelor show was so appalling that I was forced to correct the record in an article titled “Stephen F. Cohen on the 2001 Ukrainian shoot-down of a civilian airliner”:

If you don’t have the time (or the motivation) to listen to the podcast, let me summarize Cohen’s “high” points.

    1. “Some people” say that the men seen firing the missile were in Ukrainian uniforms. I wonder if these Ukrainian men were the same ones that Parry reported as being surrounded by empty beer bottles. Of course, the use of unnamed sources allows Cohen to play the same game as Robert Parry and Seymour Hersh—to raise suspicions without the need for evidence.
    2. He reminds listeners that in 2001 Ukraine accidentally shot down a Russian jet filled with Jews headed for Israel. So clearly the country has a record of incompetence when it comes to deadly firepower.
    3. He advises that when such incidents occur, the first thing to ask is cui bono; he uses the words “who had a motive?” but he means the same thing. If you Google “MH-17” and “cui bono”, you will get 59,500 results—the top of which is Michel Chossudovsky’s website. Now there’s a big surprise. Just as was the case with the sarin gas attack in Syria, the Putinite left takes the position that a “false flag” operation was required to deepen the war on Russia.
    4. The US has been in a new Cold War with Russia since the proxy war in Georgia of 2008, which the conflict in Ukraine continues.

You get the picture, right?

The 2001 shoot-down was news to me. This morning I did a little bit of checking. It turns out that it took weeks for Ukraine to fess up that it was at fault, even though it was obviously just an accident as is obviously the case with MH-17.

In 2001 the president of Ukraine was one Leonid Kuchma. Remember him? He was widely regarded for improving Russian-Ukrainian ties in the aftermath of Ukrainian independence. He won office in 1994, mostly on the basis of strong support from the Russian-speaking East of the country. His prime minister was Viktor Yanukovych. Like Yanukovych, Kuchma favored co-integration with the EU and the Russian trading bloc.

Kuchma, like Putin, was not the sort of ruler to put up with critical reporters, including Georgiy Gongadze who was kidnapped and then beheaded in 2000. Four cops were eventually arrested and found guilty.

It was this abuse of power and rampant corruption that led to the Orange Revolution of 2004. For Cohen the Orange Revolution had lots in common with Euromaidan, a movement that resulted in a “coup” that overturned the democratically elected Yanukovych government. In 2005 he referred to “very large and well-organized pro-Yushchenko crowds in the streets” who “intimidated the Supreme Court into ruling in his favor and the Parliament into changing the electoral laws while the electoral process was still under way.” I guess the CIA must have manipulated them into taking to the streets after an investigative reporter was kidnapped and beheaded, the filthy imperialist tools. Didn’t they understand that Kuchma was defending the nation against imperialist predators?

On October 13, 2001 the NY Times reported on how Kuchma had finally come around to admitting his military’s responsibility.

In strained language that acknowledged only a ”tragic coincidence,” Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma, stated today that he accepted investigators’ preliminary finding that his military accidentally destroyed a Russian airliner over the Black Sea last week with an errant missile.

Kuchma’s written statement, released tonight, did not explicitly state that the military was at fault. ”Obviously, final results of the commission’s inquiry will be known after experts complete their in-depth investigation and make appropriate assessments public,” he said. ”But even today it can be said that a big tragedy took place.”

But of paramount interest is this:

Both Ukrainian and Russian officials insisted for days after the crash that a Ukrainian missile could not possibly have been involved. Ukrainian military experts said a re-examination of data from the launchings for that day showed that all missiles had been accounted for and that none had flown more than 25 miles off the Crimean coast before plummeting into the sea.

Kuchma called an accidental aircraft strike impossible. Mr. Tkachyov said all Ukrainian data showed that a missile could not have struck the plane. Relying on these assurances, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, dismissed speculation about a missile strike as a ”so-called” theory.

Cohen was right to bring up the 2001 incident but obviously not in the way he intended. I think the facts will bear out that not much has changed when it comes to the Kremlin and its stooges’ tendency to dig in their heels when involved with such gross displays of incompetence.

I was not the only person who found Cohen’s evolution inexplicable. In 2017, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article titled “Is This Professor ‘Putin’s American Apologist’?” that chronicled his descent. It was quite damning:

But even among fellow scholars, things have changed since Cohen emerged as the foremost public intellectual pushing back against accusations that Russia helped elect Trump. He has appeared on shows like Tucker Carlson’s on Fox News and called Trump “politically courageous” and “demonized” for trying to establish good relations with the Russians. “He’s gone from being a terrific Soviet historian to a commentator, to [talking] more about U.S. policy debates and what he sees as the corruption of those debates. But that isn’t his academic field; his contributions aren’t scholarly,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at Columbia.

Since the Chronicle article is behind a paywall, I include just below the NYT article.

Stephen F. Cohen, Influential Historian of Russia, Dies at 81

He chronicled Stalin’s tyrannies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he was an enthusiastic admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Credit…Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Stephen F. Cohen, an eminent historian whose books and commentaries on Russia examined the rise and fall of Communism, Kremlin dictatorships and the emergence of a post-Soviet nation still struggling for identity in the 21st century, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

His wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and part owner of The Nation, said the cause was lung cancer.

From the sprawling conflicts of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the tyrannies of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vladimir V. Putin’s intrigues to retain power, Professor Cohen chronicled a Russia of sweeping social upheavals and the passions and poetry of peoples that endured a century of wars, political repression and economic hardships.

A professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, he was fluent in Russian, visited Russia frequently and developed contacts among intellectual dissidents and government and Communist Party officials. He wrote or edited 10 books and many articles for The Nation, The New York Times and other publications, was a CBS-TV commentator and counted President George Bush and many American and Soviet officials among his sources.


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In Moscow he was befriended by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who invited him to the May Day celebration at Red Square in 1989. There, at the Lenin Mausoleum, Professor Cohen stood with his wife and son one tier below Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership to view a three-hour military parade. He later spoke briefly on Russian television to a vast audience about alternative paths that Russian history could have taken.

Loosely identified with a revisionist historical view of the Soviet Union, Professor Cohen held views that made him a controversial public intellectual. He believed that early Bolshevism had held great promise, that it had been democratic and genuinely socialist, and that it had been corrupted only later by civil war, foreign hostility, Stalin’s malignancy and a fatalism in Russian history.

A traditionalist school of thought, by contrast, held that the Soviet experiment had been flawed from the outset, that Lenin’s political vision was totalitarian, and that any attempt to create a society based on his coercive utopianism had always been likely to lead, logically, to Stalin’s state terrorism and to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse.

Professor Cohen was an enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Gorbachev, who after coming to power in 1985 undertook ambitious changes to liberate the nation’s 15 republics from state controls that had originally been imposed by Stalin. Mr. Gorbachev gave up power as the Soviet state imploded at the end of 1991 and moved toward beliefs in democracy and a market economy.

Mr. Cohen first came to international attention in 1973 with his biography of Lenin’s protégé Nikolai Bukharin.

A prolific writer who mined Soviet archives, Professor Cohen first came to international attention in 1973 with “Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution,” a biography of Lenin’s protégé Nikolai Bukharin, who envisioned Communism as a blend of state-run industries and free-market agriculture. Critics generally applauded the work, which was a finalist for a National Book Award.

After Lenin’s death, Mr. Bukharin became a victim of Stalin’s Moscow show trials in 1938; he was accused of plotting against Stalin and executed. His widow, Anna Mikhailovna Larina, spent 20 years in exile and in prison camps and campaigned for Mr. Bukharin’s rehabilitation, which was endorsed by Mr. Gorbachev in 1988.

Ms. Larina and Professor Cohen became friends. Given access to Bukharin archives, he found and returned to her the last love letter that Mr. Bukharin wrote her from prison.

In “Rethinking the Soviet Experience” (1985), Professor Cohen offered a new interpretation of the nation’s traumatic history and modern political realities. In his view, Stalin’s despotism and Mr. Bukharin’s fate were not necessarily inevitable outgrowths of the party dictatorship founded by Lenin.

Richard Lowenthal, in a review for The Times, called Professor Cohen’s interpretation implausible. “While I do not believe that all the horrors of Stalinism were ‘logically inevitable’ consequences of the seizure of power by Lenin and his Bolshevik Party,” Mr. Lowenthal wrote, “I do believe that Stalin’s victory over Bukharin was inherent in the structure of the party’s system.”

As Professor Cohen and other scholars pondered Russia’s past, Mr. Gorbachev’s rise to power and his efforts toward glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) cast the future of the Soviet Union in a new light, potentially reversing 70 years of Cold War dogma.


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As Mr. Gorbachev arrived in Washington for his 1987 summit with President Ronald Reagan, The Times wrote, “With an irreverence for precedent and an agility uncommon in Soviet leaders, he has disrupted old assumptions about Soviet impulses, forced reappraisals of Soviet purposes and rendered less predictable the course of East-West competition.”

To widen the focus, Professor Cohen and Ms. vanden Heuvel published “Voices of Glasnost: Interviews With Gorbachev’s Reformers” (1989).

Professor Cohen affirmed his support for Mr. Gorbachev in a March 1991 Op-Ed article in The Times. “He has undertaken the most ambitious changes in modern history,” he wrote. “Their goal is to dismantle the state controls Stalin imposed and to achieve an emancipation of society through privatization, democratization and federalization of the 15 republics.”

As 1991 ended, the Soviet Union was dissolved and Mr. Gorbachev resigned, giving way to Boris N. Yeltsin’s tumultuous elected presidency. Mr. Yeltsin tried to transform the state economy into a capitalist market by imposing a “shock therapy” of nationwide privatization without price controls. Inflation and economic calamity ensued.

Credit…Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images

By 1997, as Professor Cohen saw it, the Russian economy had become “an endless collapse of everything essential for a decent existence.” He became a persistent critic of Mr. Yeltsin, who survived an attempted coup and tried to promote democracy but resigned in 1999 amid growing internal pressures. He was succeeded by his deputy, Mr. Putin.

In his book, “Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia” (2000), Professor Cohen laid the blame for Russia’s post-Communist economic and social collapse on the United States, for providing bad advice; on academic experts, for what he called “malpractice throughout the 1990s”; on Western journalists; and on Mr. Yeltsin, for a range of sins: abolishing the Soviet Union, creating a bureaucratic vacuum and generating hyperinflation with his economic shock therapy.


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“Cohen’s thesis is that Yeltsin, rather than Russia’s first democratic leader, was a neo-czarist bumbler who destroyed a democratization process that, in fact, should be credited to Mikhail Gorbachev,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in a Times review. “Cohen is particularly scathing toward American journalists, whom he depicts as overly influenced by the prosperity of a small, rapacious upper class in the major Russian cities, and who seldom ventured out into the countryside to see the terrible price of the reformers’ handiwork.”

Stephen Frand Cohen was born in Indianapolis on Nov. 25, 1938, the older of two children of Marvin and Ruth (Frand) Cohen. His father owned a jewelry store and a golf course in Hollywood, Fla. Stephen and his sister, Judith, attended schools in Owensboro, Ky., but Stephen graduated in 1956 from the Pine Crest School, a private school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

He loved the novels of Hemingway. As an undergraduate at Indiana University, he went to England on a study-abroad program. He had saved $300 for a side trip to Pamplona to run with the bulls. But an advertisement he saw for a 30-day, $300 trip to the U.S.S.R. changed his life.

Back at Indiana University, he gave up plans to be a golf pro and took up Russian studies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and public policy in 1960 and a master’s in Russian studies in 1962. In 1969, he received a doctorate in that subject from Columbia University.

Professor Cohen’s marriage in 1962 to the opera singer Lynn Blair ended in divorce. He married Ms. vanden Heuvel in 1988. In addition to her, he is survived by a son, Andrew, and a daughter, Alexandra Cohen, from his first marriage; another daughter, Nicola Cohen, from his second marriage; a sister, Judith Lefkowitz; and four grandchildren.

His Columbia dissertation on Mr. Bukharin’s economic ideas grew into his first book, copies of which reached Soviet dissidents, the K.G.B. in Moscow, and eventually Mr. Gorbachev, who put Professor Cohen on his guest list for the 1987 Gorbachev-Reagan summit in Washington.

Professor Cohen taught at Princeton from 1968 to 1998, rising to full professor of politics and Russian studies, and at New York University thereafter until his retirement in 2011. His last book, published in 2019, was “War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate.”


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Many journalistic colleagues accused Professor Cohen of defending Mr. Putin, who curtailed democratic freedoms but boosted the economy, which grew for eight straight years. Wages for ordinary Russians tripled, poverty was reduced, and national growth jumped fivefold as rising prices of Russia’s plentiful oil and gas overcame a depression.

In a recent interview for this obituary, Professor Cohen denied that he had “defended” Mr. Putin.

“He holds views that I also hold,” Professor Cohen said. “It’s the views that I defend, not Putin.

“From the moment Yeltsin came on,” he continued, “Americans thought the Cold War was over. There was disappointment with Putin as a more rational leader. I see him in the Russian tradition of leadership, getting Russia back on its feet. He frightens some of our observers, but I didn’t see it that way.”

Julia Carmel contributed reporting.

Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books. 

Is This Professor ‘Putin’s American Apologist’?

How Stephen F. Cohen became the most controversial Russia expert in America

The Winter 1


Here is a picture of Gorbachev with Steve. Here is another picture of Gorbachev with Steve, this one with some Russian dissidents. And look, there is one of Gorbachev and Katrina, Steve’s wife, holding their infant daughter. There is even a Gorbachev magnet on the refrigerator.

Walking around this book-lined apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on an August evening, it is almost as though the man with the world’s most famous birthmark is the third partner in the marriage of Stephen F. Cohen and The Nation editor-publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel.

For more than four decades, Cohen has been a leading voice on Russian affairs, pinballing between the academy, where he is now emeritus at Princeton University and NYU, and the media, influencing world events along the way. Few scholarly works can be said to have equaled the direct political impact of Cohen’s 1973 biography of the Soviet founding father Nikolai Bukharin. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (Alfred A. Knopf) didn’t just suggest a new understanding of the Russian Revolution when it was released in the middle of the Cold War — it profoundly affected the course of that war. Mikhail Gorbachev’s chief foreign-policy adviser, Anatoly Chernyaev wrote, “Some of us had already read the book, and we encouraged Gorbachev to do so. He took the book on vacation with him. He read it closely and kept quoting it to me. … The re-evaluation of Bukharin’s role and personality opened the sluice gates to reconsidering our whole ideology.”

Gorbachev’s affection for Cohen’s ideas — and for Cohen himself — turned a lowly scholar of the Russian Revolution into an intellectual VIP who sat in meetings with heads of state. Eric Alterman, a journalism professor at Brooklyn College and a Nation columnist who has known Cohen for decades, calls Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution “one of the most consequential books of the past century.” It realized “the dream of all writers to have an effect not only on world leaders but also on history itself.”

But these days, Cohen is better known for his views on a different Russian leader. In his columns and media appearances in recent years, he has become perhaps the most prominent defender of Vladimir Putin. “Putin is not a thug,” he declared on CNN. “He’s not a neo-Soviet imperialist who’s trying to recreate the Soviet Union. He’s not even anti-American.” The defense extends to the U.S. president, who has had some nice things to say about Putin. “The number-one threat to the United States today,” Cohen told Fox News, is the continuing investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia: “There is no evidence there was any wrongdoing.”

Perspectives like that have attracted the ire of a wide array of critics. Writing in The New Republic, Isaac Chotiner called Cohen “Putin’s American apologist.” Jonathan Chait in New York magazine labeled him a “dupe” and “a septuagenarian, old-school leftist who has carried on the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism seamlessly into a new career of anti-anti-Putinism.” Cathy Young in Slate said Cohen was “repeating Russian misinformation” and “recycling this propaganda.” And there are many others who share those views, even at the magazine his wife runs.

Cohen’s ideas about Russia, which once got him invited to Camp David to advise a sitting president, now make him the most controversial expert in the field. His enemies and friends ask the same question: What happened to Stephen F. Cohen?

When Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution was published, détente between the United States and the Soviet Union was well underway. But Russian studies was still dominated by the view that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, immune to reform because the logic of total control was embedded in the Soviet DNA. “The Western view [is] of Stalinism as the only outcome of Bolshevism,” Cohen wrote.

His book exploded that notion. It showed that Bukharin, a Marxist theoretician and member of the Russian Communist Party, offered a programmatic Soviet alternative to the Stalinism that eventually triumphed. “It was a huge statement,” says Eugene Huskey, a political scientist at Stetson University. Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution did what scholarly history should do: Use primary source materials to revise the understanding of the past. But it had obvious implications for the present and future as well. If the Soviet Union had become a tyrannical regime as an accident of history rather than as the inevitable end of a deterministic ideology, then perhaps reform was possible.

The book might have remained merely well regarded if not for Gorbachev. For those Russians looking for an alternative between capitalism and Communist dictatorship — and members of Gorbachev’s cabinet were foremost among those who were — Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution suggested one. “During the years of perestroika, many of my acquaintances were literally engrossed in reading his book,” Gorbachev wrote in an essay that was included in an anthology featuring 35 prominent Russian political, cultural, and media figures marking Cohen’s 70th birthday. “I remember that this book, which in many respects resonated with the social changes of that time, became a best seller in the Soviet Union.”

There was a brief, glorious period in the late 1980s when humane reform of Russia seemed possible, and Cohen was a hero to Gorbachev and his fellow reformers. He was seen as a man who offered an intellectual blueprint for a democratic socialism that could save Russia. Cohen visited Camp David at the request of President George H.W. Bush, squaring off against Harvard’s Richard Pipes in a scholarly battle to influence U.S. foreign policy and determine the course of the Cold War. He wrote frequently for The New York Times, almost leaving Princeton to become the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent.

But that was decades ago. Gorbymania is passé. Now it’s Putin. Putin, Putin, Putin. And Cohen is not friends with Putin, though he downplays the Russian leader’s failings. Presidents are no longer interested in the opinions of Cohen. But at least he can do his best to ensure that what he has for years been calling a second Cold War does not become a hot war. Cohen thinks we are closer than we have ever been, closer than we were during even the Cuban missile crisis or Able Archer. And the idea that he is unable to stop the downward spiraling of U.S.-Russian relations is nothing short of agonizing. A nuclear war between Russia and the United States is his biggest fear. (Well, that and irrelevance, if you believe his critics.)

Not that any such anguish is immediately evident when we meet in his apartment. He’s from Kentucky, he says, and retains “a skepticism about everything except horses and bourbon.” Dressed in jeans and a black-and-gold shirt, he smokes Marlboros on his living-room couch. The view of Central Park from here is of green treetops at sundown. At 78, he is still handsome, with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. Vanden Heuvel, who walks in and out of the room, is 20 years younger and looks like a dark-haired heroine out of Tolstoy.

Cohen spends much of his time writing for The Nation. Their daughter, Nicola, who is here for dinner tonight, attends Columbia Law School, going into criminal-justice reform. Which, if you had to guess what a child of Cohen and vanden Heuvel would be doing with her life, is pretty much what you would come up with. “I’m very proud talking about my daughter’s passion for justice,” he says, listing off her accomplishments. It’s not a bad life.

But the attacks in the media have stung. Vanden Heuvel can recite the worst of them. And they have also started to come from inside The Nation, where editors and reporters wonder if Cohen’s influence is responsible for the country’s leading left-wing magazine taking the side of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on U.S.-Russia policy.

In academe, Cohen gets more regard. He has a chest of good will stored away, for his Bukharin biography primarily, but also for his essays on Russian history, collected in books like Rethinking the Soviet Experience (Oxford University Press, 1985) and Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives (Columbia University Press, 2009). “He’s well-respected as a sort of historical political scientist,” says Ronald Suny, a Russianist at the University of Michigan.

But even among fellow scholars, things have changed since Cohen emerged as the foremost public intellectual pushing back against accusations that Russia helped elect Trump. He has appeared on shows like Tucker Carlson’s on Fox News and called Trump “politically courageous” and “demonized” for trying to establish good relations with the Russians. “He’s gone from being a terrific Soviet historian to a commentator, to [talking] more about U.S. policy debates and what he sees as the corruption of those debates. But that isn’t his academic field; his contributions aren’t scholarly,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at Columbia.

“I would say he’s not in the mainstream,” says Huskey. “He’s clearly an outlier” in absolving Russia for its military excursions and electoral interference. “Many have the perception that his comments make him out to be an apologist for Russia.”

That perception has tarnished Cohen’s name. In 2014, vanden Heuvel initiated discussions with the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies on funding a dissertation fellowship named after Cohen and his mentor, Robert Tucker. But the association delayed approving the fellowship when some board members complained about establishing one with Cohen’s name. Stephen Hanson, the group’s president at the time, told The New York Times, “It’s no secret that there were swirling controversies around Professor Cohen. In that context, consulting with a wider community of scholars was the prudent thing to do.”

Cohen and vanden Heuvel withdrew the offer. The association later asked if the couple would take Cohen’s name off the fellowship but still provide funding, a request that further insulted them.

In January 2015, David Ransel, an Indiana University professor and former editor of the American Historical Review, wrote a letter to the association, saying that its handling of the matter “reeks of a censuring of public discourse and should be regarded by all decent people as a profound embarrassment to our association.” It was signed by more than 60 scholars. A few months later, the group finally approved the Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship Program, which is still in existence.

The affair left Cohen dismayed. “I went ballistic,” he says. Vanden Heuvel calls it “a poke in the eye.” Cohen thinks that young scholars are afraid to voice views similar to his. He says he gets email to that effect. “They’re going to be careful. And you can’t be a good scholar and be careful.”

On a Tuesday evening, Cohen arrives at the WABC studios in midtown. He appears weekly on The John Batchelor Show, a talk-radio program, for a 40-minute discussion, highlights of which are summarized on The Nation’s website. He sports a light beard (the legendary Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once called Cohen’s facial hair a “rusty, biblical unshaveness”), and he smokes from a vaporizer on the elevator up to the studio.

Winding our way through the halls, he brings up several times appearing on the show with Oliver Stone to discuss Putin. “It was shown all over the world,” he says. For his segment, a giant image of Putin is displayed on the studio wall. Cohen, fluid and articulate, is comfortable here, cracking jokes with the host. He was a CBS commentator during the 1980s and appeared regularly on television. His smooth, deep voice, the product of decades of cigarettes, is made for broadcast. Vanden Heuvel shows up and lovingly takes a few photos of Cohen before scrolling through her emails.

On the show, Cohen unleashes the opinions that have turned him into one of the least popular Russia experts in America. Speaking about the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that led to Russia’s invasion, he asks: “If you’re sitting in the Kremlin, and you see this as surreptitious NATO expansion, and Ukraine, which is virtually a kinship of Russia, do you do nothing?” Putin “is reacting. … He had few alternatives.” He continues: “If we’re going to ask who undermined Ukrainian democracy, it wasn’t Putin.” It was Western leaders.

He similarly blames America for panicking about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “Why did America embrace what is clearly, or seems to be, a fiction for which there is no evidence?” He speculates on the answers: Putin was an obstacle to global American hegemony. Another scenario: “Sinister forces, greedy forces, high in our political system and in our economy, need Russia as an enemy because it’s exceedingly profitable.” U.S.-Russian relations “didn’t go wrong in Moscow.” They “went wrong in Washington.”

Not many scholars concur with those views. But even those who think Cohen is wrong now have to acknowledge that he has been right about a lot in the past. In addition to his views in the 1970s on the possibilities of Soviet reforms, he was proved correct in his assessment in the late 1980s that Gorbachev was a genuine democrat, in contrast to those who, like Richard Pipes, believed he was merely a kinder, gentler Soviet apparatchik. In the 1990s, Cohen was among the first to identify Boris Yeltsin as someone doing deep damage to Russia through his corruption. “Much of the academy were pro-Yeltsin,” recalls Suny. And Cohen was prescient in observing that post-Cold War NATO expansion would revive Russian nationalism.

Suny says Cohen “tries to fight all windmills at once” but adds that he is “rather courageous” and “covers for more timid colleagues” in countering the standard U.S. narrative about Russia. Robert Legvold, a Columbia University political scientist, says serious Russian experts “see him as wrong, but not as a traitor.” He notes, “Anybody who thinks he’s a tool of the Soviets or Russia is a fool.”

Vanden Heuvel offers her own frame: “If you have to define Steve, he’s an alternativist. This idea of don’t accept — seek the alternative.” Cohen’s views have made life difficult not only for him but also for vanden Heuvel. With his support of Putin and Trump (at least on Russia) “now there’s double toxicity” regarding him, as he puts it.

Staffers at The Nation are openly revolting against the magazine’s pro-Russian tilt. “There is a widespread feeling that he has always been involved and had lots of influence on vanden Heuvel, but that it ratcheted up with [the Russian invasion of] Crimea,” says the longtime Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. “He has a view that we are on the edge of World War III, and it’s not a view that I or other people hold.”

Vanden Heuvel points out that Cohen’s tenure at The Nation preceded hers and finds claims of his control over her insulting. But it is undeniable that the flagship magazine of the American left supports the Russia policy of Donald Trump. In June, some Nation writers told vanden Heuvel in a letter that “the magazine is not only playing into the hands of the Trump administration, but doing a dishonor to its best traditions.”

Cohen is insouciant about the controversy, except insofar as it hurts vanden Heuvel. His time working with Russian dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s inspired his nonchalant attitude. “There’s no real price for dissent in America compared to what it was in the Soviet Union,” he says. “I’m emeritus at two universities. That means I’m old and I got a lot of health care. What are they going to do to me?”

But the flashes of defiance can’t obscure the heartbreak. The tragedy for Cohen is that Gorbachev’s democratic Soviet alternative never materialized. Instead he lost control of the Soviet empire, and Yeltsin came to power, dissolved the Soviet Union, and oversaw a transition to a country based on hyper-capitalism devoid of the rule of law. And then Yeltsin selected Putin as his successor. None of the rest is history.

As I left their apartment, Cohen gave me a copy of his book The Victims Return (PublishingWorks, 2010), about survivors of Stalin’s gulags. On the train ride home, I looked at the inscription he wrote inside:

For Jordan —

Wishing you a happier fate.


Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle Single Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-PresidencyHis writing has appeared in The New York Times MagazineThe Washington Post, and The Atlantic.

September 18, 2020

Review of John Bellamy Foster’s “The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology”

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Working my way through John Bellamy Foster’s magisterial “The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology,” it dawned on me that there was a gap in my knowledge. I knew that Marx and Engels were consumed with ecological problems, even though the word wasn’t in their vocabulary. To a large extent, my awareness came from reading another great Foster book, “Marx’s Ecology.” However, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that in between Marx/ Engels and Rachel Carson it was mostly a blur. The failure of the socialist states to support Green values reinforced that feeling. From Chernobyl to the shrinking of the Aral Sea, there was not much to distinguish capitalist and socialist society.

After finishing “The Return of Nature,” that blur gave way to clarity. Foster’s intellectual history shows a chain of thinkers connecting Marx/Engels to today’s greatest ecological thinkers, from Rachel Carson to Barry Commoner. To use a cliché, they stood on the shoulders of giants.

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September 17, 2020

The Julius Krein/Adolph Reed Jr. Correspondence

Filed under: Adolph Reed Jr. — louisproyect @ 9:22 pm

September 16, 2020

For They Know Not What They Do

Filed under: Film,Gay,religion,transgender — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

After having reviewed well over a dozen narrative and documentary films over the years making the case for gay, lesbian and transgender rights, none has moved me as much as “For They Know Not What They Do” (Jesus’s words at his crucifixion) that opened yesterday on iTunes, Amazon and virtual cinema. The documentary tells the story of four young people growing up in strict Christian households, who face both opposition from their families and society as a whole. They say that the key to a successful documentary is choosing subjects that an audience can relate to. That being the criterion, director Daniel Karslake, a gay man, is a pure genius. We meet in turn:

  • Linda and Rob Robertson, fervent evangelicals who put their 12 year-old son Ryan into conversion therapy.
  • Life-long Presbyterians, David and Sally McBride, who were shocked when their youngest boy came out to them as a transgender female.
  • Coleen and Harold Porcher, a mixed-race couple whose child suffered endlessly until they accepted her transitioning to a male identity.
  • Victor Baez and Annette Febo, whose Catholic tradition and Puerto Rican family values put them at odds with their gay son Vico, who was one of the survivors of the homophobic mass murder of people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

In “Anna Karenina”, Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” His classic novel created fictional characters whose pain spoke for the human condition universally. Karslake’s film speaks to the particular pain of both parents and children coping with the contradictions between the religious beliefs that sustain them and the right of their children to live as fulfilled human beings.

In 2007, Karslake directed “For the Bible Tells Me So” that covered the same territory. It featured interviews with several sets of religious parents with gay children, including former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and his wife, Jane, and the parents of Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Robinson is featured in “For They Know Not What They Do”, making the case for tolerance. Robinson is famous for being the first openly gay priest to be consecrated as a bishop in a major Christian denomination, in his case the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Although the film says nothing about his background, one gleans that Robinson’s class background disposed him toward a genuine Christian sensibility based on the notion that the meek shall inherit the earth. His parents were poor sharecroppers working the tobacco fields in Kentucky. Wikipedia reports that the family used an outhouse, drew water from a cistern, and did laundry in a cast-iron tub over an open flame.

Although I found the story of all four families compelling, Sarah McBride’s store brought me close to tears. Born as Tim McBride in 1990, he sat at his computer when he was 12 years old sending an email to his mother announcing that he wanted to be a girl. Despite society’s animosity toward trans people that the film rightly likens to the attitudes gay people had to put up with before Stonewall, Sarah was self-assured and willing to put up with abuse. While the abuse hurt, it even hurt more to be trapped in a body that does not feel you belong in.

McBride is currently the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign. Today the New York Times reported that she is set to be the nation’s highest-ranking transgender official, having won a primary for a safely Democratic seat in Delaware. As much as I detest the Democratic Party, I was happy to see footage in the film of her  being the first transgender person to speak at a major party’s national convention in 2016. Hint, it wasn’t the Republican convention.

The film includes a segment that would likely inspire guffaws from Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. While working at the Center for American Progress, McBride met a staff lawyer named Andrew Cray who she felt attracted to and vice versa. As it happens, Cray was born a female and transitioned into a male. When you watch the two walking hand in hand, you wonder what makes people like JK Rowling tick, whose new novel makes an amalgam between crossdressing and its main character, a serial killer. Not long after the two were married, Cray developed multiple forms of cancer and died in 2014. Just before his death, the two got married with the ceremony led by Bishop Gene Robinson.

There was a time when Hollywood made movies about gay people, largely as a nod in the direction of diversity. None were any good, no doubt a function of the dominance of straight people in the driver’s seat either as director, screenwriter or lead actor. It takes a documentary like this to not only do justice to gay and transgender identity but to tell a totally involving story. Not to be missed.

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