Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 30, 2021

The Unrepentant Marxist comic book, chapter one

Filed under: The Unrepentant Marxist comic book — louisproyect @ 4:40 pm

(Chapter guide: chap. 1, chap 2, chap 3, chap 4, chap 5, chap 6, chap 7)

In 2009, I worked with Harvey Pekar to write a comic book memoir titled “The Unrepentant Marxist”. I wrote the dialog based on his guidelines (keep ‘em laughing) and Summer McClinton (one of his best artist collaborators) did the drawings. He had a deal with Random House to have it published but it got dropped after his death from lymphoma in 2010.

I’ve decided to begin serializing it in seven installments this week on my blog. Additionally, you can download it yourself from http://www.panix.com/~lnp3//UnrepMarx.pdf. This was a draft copy that Harvey’s editor never got a chance to work on, so you will notice typos here and there.

My old friend Paul Buhle hooked us up in 2009. Paul had worked with Harvey on some great comic books based on the left, including one about SDS, but maybe did not consider the possibility that Harvey would propose working on my memoir. It just turned out that we had a natural affinity based on being the sons of Jewish shopkeepers, jazz fans, leftist politics and an identification with the beat generation.

Paul volunteered to write a preface to the memoir that captures the two of us quite well. Posted below, it will put the project into context. Following it will be the chapter that covers my birth and growing up in the Borscht Belt. Although I was no radical by any stretch of the imagination, my village was filled with 1930s radicals that gave Woodridge the nickname “Utopia in the Catskills” in a 1947 PM newspaper article. PM was a daily that reflected the POV of Communists but was broad enough not to be mistaken for The Daily Worker.

The World of Pekar and Proyect

By Paul Buhle

The passage of time may have taken some of the luster from Harvey Pekar’s reputation in the world of comic art. We could forget that Helen Mirren quipped, at the San Diego Comicon a year following his death, that Harvey had allowed readers all over the world to look at comic art in a new way.  That he scripted a comic art biography of Lou Proyect, drawn by Summer McClinton, might be described, in a number of dimensions, as the perfect project. Some part of Harvey was Studs Terkel, the famously loquacious oral historian. Another part of Harvey was Lou Proyect, hard-bitten master of arguments and avowed revolutionary

A file clerk at a VA hospital and a life-long resident of blue collar Cleveland, Pekar made his own persona the expression of a philosophy, a way of life, of the American Jewish intellectual-radical-critic. He was already known to the followers of jazz reviews in magazines before he launched his own home-made comic series, sold at little comicons and local bookstores, slowing gaining national attention over the course of the 1980s. A young and troubled Robert Crumb, almost literally saved by the friendship of Pekar, devoted some of his most intimate and touching pages to Harvey’s self-described life.

By the later 1990s, Pekar had been on the Letterman Show repeatedly, complaining aloud about the control exerted from the heights of the military-industrial complex aka General Electric, a Letterman sponsor. Harvey was made to seem clownish, in effect the representative of a failed, post-industrial city. He  refused the role, and achieved his vindication in American Splendor (2002), an awarded biopic, the first and perhaps the only film to include the real live protagonist, the actor playing him, and an animated version of the original.

Pekar happened upon Proyect by a curious incident, or perhaps one more story in the quiet comradeship of aging American leftists. As an occasional visitor to New York while giving history talks or attending events for the non-fictional comics that I was bringing out from 2005 onward, I hung out with Lou and spend the nights on a futon in his condo unit. Harvey Pekar came in front out of town for a shared event, an exhibit at CUNY Graduate Center for the release of a comic, and asked Lou if he could put up Harvey instead of me. Done Deal.

A friendship followed and the project that they worked on together. Harvey was a master of biography, and relished writing about a personality so much like his own, avowedly leftwing and irascible, unyielding. In the end, and working with one of the most talented comic artists on hand, a creation emerged. Every reader will have a unique response, based on generation, personal experiences and narrative tastes. There is something here for all. But what I wish to emphasize is the meeting of spirits or souls. The intimacy of the telling holds the charm to this book.

The Unrepentant Marxist chapter one, an escape from the Borscht Belt to Bard College

To be continued tomorrow

June 27, 2021

Deadly Collapse Of Illusions In Miami

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

By now it is clear that the cause of the collapse was the softening of the ground under the building by the infiltration of seawater over the years since the building’s construction. Because such a large building is very heavy, especially in comparison to a simple beachside bungalow, the weight of the structure put tremendously higher downward pressure on the ground below its foundation, diminishing the integrity of the increasingly soaked soil, and thus speeding its ultimate loss of cohesion.

Continue reading: https://manuelgarciajr.com/2021/06/26/deadly-collapse-of-illusions-in-miami/

June 26, 2021

The Genocidal Canadian residential schools

Filed under: Canada,indigenous — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

On May 18, 2021, With help from investigators using ground-penetrating radar, the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation discovered the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the grounds of a former residential school near the town of Kamloops in the interior of southern British Columbia.

As horrifying as this was, it almost dwarfed a new discovery a month later. Investigators working with the Cowessess First Nation using the same kind of radar came across another 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School residential school run by the Catholic Church.

Twenty years ago, I was deeply involved with research about these genocidal crimes and working to get the word out about indigenous people’s efforts to achieve justice. About five percent of Canadian citizens are indigenous so they have more social weight to challenge the racist establishment.

Around that time I reviewed Roland Chrisjohn’s “The Circle Game: Shadows and Substance in the Indian Residential School Experience in Canada”, a ground-breaking book written by a Haudenausaunee (Mohawk) Indian. Keep in mind that the Haudenausaunee were driven into Canada by General John Sullivan for siding with the British. That John Sullivan was the same man my Borscht Belt county upstate was named after, an irony considering that the county’s large Jewish population including many Holocaust survivors.

Just 20 years ago, I attended a tribunal on residential schools at the Blackfoot reservation in Calgary. Beneath you can read the report I wrote for my Columbia University website at the time. This was long before blogs had been developed. It will give you an idea of the fighting spirit other First Nations will deploy when they go up against the Canadian ruling class.

Blackfoot Tribunal

The Blackfoot tribunal on genocide–focusing on residential school abuses in Canada–was held at the home of Sikapii (White Horse) and his wife, Yellow Dust Woman, over July 2-4, 2001. They live a few miles from Brocket, Alberta, which is on a native reserve encompassing some of the most beautiful and resource-rich land in Canada, just as is the case for their US based brothers and sisters in Browning, Montana just across the border. Before the white capitalist conquest of the Blackfoot people, their territory included much of Alberta and Montana. As a fierce and proud bison-hunting people, they viewed their territory as sacrosanct. When Lewis and Clark tried to exchange trinkets with them, the two explorers were sent unceremoniously packing.

While the United States and Canada have no qualms about deploying their full military prowess on behalf of “nation-building” in Korea in the 50s, the thought of Blackfoot people trying to re-create their historic homeland across the Canadian and US border sends the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the FBI into a panic.

Sikapii, born George Yellow Horn, is the grandson of Red Crow who was forced to sign Treaty Seven in Canada in 1877 in much the same way that all such treaties were signed–at the point of a gun. When I spoke to the Blackfoot people assembled at Sikapii’s home, you felt as if this treaty was signed last week since the pain was so palpable. They spoke uniformly about the cannons lined up near the fort where the treaty was signed, which fired off volleys each morning to remind them of who was boss.

In 1990, Alberta Indian “leaders” presented Queen Elizabeth with a petition complaining that the federal government was not living up to the intent of Treaty 7, signed in 1877 in the name of Queen Victoria. Meanwhile, only the Blackfoot refused to participate in the meeting because they said doing so would make them look like “Hollywood Indians or tokens,” according to the June 30, 1990 Toronto Star.

Sikapii’s life story encapsulates many of the themes common to the members of this First Nation. Born in 1938, he was sent to a residential school with the understanding that refusal would lead to the arrest of his father. In testimony to the tribunal, he described how native children were lined up day after day in military fashion by the priests. Individual children were then ordered to step forward to be beaten with a cane. He tried to escape from the school on five different occasions.

After leaving school, Sikapii took one back-breaking job after another, both on and off the reserve. In the 1950s he worked as a lumberjack for a white-owned company that was–like many others–systematically denuding the reserve of valuable timber, thus combining ecological with economic super-exploitation. Sikapii showed us cancelled checks from the period in which native wages ranged from $5 to $8 per week, while a typical white worker’s wage was $45. He also had receipts from the local company store whose weekly totals equaled or surpassed Indian wages. This pattern of combined class and national oppression was virtually identical to that suffered by Chiapas lumberjacks before 1910 as dramatized in B. Traven’s “Jungle” novels.

It was during this time that Sikapii spent six months in jail for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. He and a fellow Indian had stopped at a bar in nearby Fort McCloud to slake their thirst after a day cutting logs. After the hulking bartender treated them with disrespect, words were exchanged. Sikapii, who had been an amateur boxer, decked the bartender with one punch, breaking his nose.

This incident was fairly typical of the kind of hardscrabble existence he led for the next twenty five years or so. He picked fruit in California. He rode the rails looking for one job after another until coming back to the reserve. He was stabbed in the gut after another fight. He had also become an alcoholic.

Things began to change in the 1980s, when the patterns of economic and racial discrimination reached such a level of intensity that he was forced to come to grips with them. Like Malcolm X, he put his rowdy past behind him. An important factor in his development was the Wounded Knee occupation of the 1970s that he joined in an act of solidarity. As soon as he discovered that it was taking place, he and a group of other Blackfoot men jumped in their car and took off to Pine Ridge.

It was also in this period that Sikapii became a rancher, which is generally the occupation Blackfoot men gravitate to. He had a herd of 55 steers that had grown rapidly on account of loans that a local bank had pressured him to take out when cattle prices were rising. In 1996, when prices took a sharp nosedive, the bank demanded immediate payment of his debt. When he pleaded for an extension of the deadline, in hope that prices would rise, they sent out a convoy of cattle trucks guarded by the RCMP and seized his herd. Now he subsists on welfare.

Blackfoot men all have bitter tales to tell about how they are cheated by white businesses in league with the sell-out tribal council. Wallace Yellow Face told the tribunal about cattle being rustled by tribal council henchmen, and not being paid for logs he had chopped. The excuse was that he lacked the proper “permit” which is awarded arbitrarily by the tribal council to their lackeys. John Chief Moon, one of the most respected elders, had all his horses impounded because he supposedly was guilty of abusing them. If you spend one minute with this dignified and spiritually-endowed man, you could not take the accusation seriously. Horses were key to Blackfoot culture and economic survival. The notion that a Blackfoot traditionalist would neglect them defies logic.

One of the high points of my visit was listening to John Chief Moon and Yellow Dust Woman conversing in the Blackfoot language. This beautiful language, like all other native languages, is endangered. Despite all attempts by the residential schools to obliterate the language, many younger Blackfoot–including economics professor and activist James Michael Craven–are studying it now. A 3 part series on “endangered tongues” in the Los Angeles Times in January, 2000 described the challenge:

California once had the densest concentration of indigenous languages in North America. Today, almost every one of its 50 or so surviving native languages is on its deathbed. Indeed, the last fluent speaker of Chumash, a family of six languages once heard throughout Southern California and the West, is a professional linguist at UC Santa Barbara.

More people in California speak Mongolian at home than speak any of the state’s most endangered indigenous languages.

“Not one of them is spoken by children at home,” said UC Berkeley linguist Leanne Hinton.

None of this happened by accident.

All Native American languages, as well as Hawaiian, were for a century the target of government policies designed to eradicate them in public and in private, to ensure that they were not passed from parent to child.

Until 1987, it was illegal to teach Hawaiian in the islands’ public schools except as a foreign language. The language that once claimed the highest literacy rate in the world was banned even from the islands’ private schools.

Indeed, there may be no more powerful testimony to the visceral importance of language than the government’s systematic efforts to destroy all the indigenous languages in the United States and replace them with English.

No language in memory, except Spanish, has sought so forcefully to colonize the mind. Of an estimated 300 languages spoken in the territorial United States when Columbus made landfall in 1492, only 175 are still spoken. Of those, only 20 are being passed on to children.

In 1868, a federal commission on Indian affairs concluded: “In the difference of language today lies two-thirds of our trouble. . . . Their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted.” The commission reasoned that “through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment, and thought. . . . In process of time the differences producing trouble would have been gradually obliterated.”

The drive to wipe out a language goes hand in hand with the drive to wipe out a people, something that activists like John Chief Moon, Sikapii and Yellow Dust Woman are determined to resist.

These questions are not abstract to Sikapii. Seven close relations have committed suicide, including his son who hung himself in prison, as well as Andrew Small Legs, whose grave I happened across at the top of a hill across the road from Sikapii’s home. In 1970 Andrew shot himself to death after reaching the same state of economic destitution suffered by many Blackfoot people. He left behind a suicide note calling attention to his own plight and that of his kinsmen. When I reached the top of the hill, I saw the grave which was only distinguished by a small metal marker.

A short walk beyond the grave I came across a dream-like scene. About 20 horses and their colts were grazing peacefully in a pasture. For that moment, all sounds seemed to stop including the chattering of the birds and the rustling of the leaves. The horses, a symbol of traditional Blackfoot culture and self-reliance, seemed completely at peace in their beautiful surroundings. I then walked downhill filled with the hope that the traditional ways of the Blackfoot people can be restored. If it takes destruction of the system that is destroying them, so be it.

June 25, 2021

Defy the Stranglehold of Social Media, Join the New Progressive Economists Mailing List!

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm
Michael Perelman, creator of the original PEN-L


Recently I created a mailing list called the Progressive Economist Network (PEN-L) in order to bring together academics and non-academics to exchange ideas from a left perspective. It honors the memory of Michael Perelman who created the original PEN-L in the early days of the Internet. Dying unexpectedly at the age of 81 in September 2020 before turning over moderation duties, his absence as moderator made it impossible to subscribe to the old PEN-L. It also left the list in limbo since Michael was no longer the helmsman.

When a former PEN-L subscriber asked for my help in getting resubbed, something beyond anybody’s capability, I decided to create a new list that can function as a forum for exchanges on the pressing issues of the day, such as the economic impact of the pandemic, the growing tensions between the USA and China, and prospects for Biden’s ambitious economic program. If the only result of this initiative is to make possible the kind of vigorous and productive discussions that distinguished the original PEN-L, it will have been more than worth it.

Not long after going to work at Columbia University in 1990, I noticed a daily email coming from the library (I believe) that listed dozens of mailing lists. At the time, I had no idea what a mailing list was. I strolled into the next cubicle and asked someone working in Academic Information Services what they were. He smiled at me and said, “Welcome to the Internet”. This was not only long before Facebook but long before AOL. At the time, you generally could not get on the Net unless you had a government or academic job.

As for the mailing lists, most of them were of little interest to me. Typically, they would be within the narrow confines of some academic discipline, such as clinical psychology or Jane Austen studies. Each day I scoured the lists to see if there might be something relevant to my own interests and was happy to spot PEN-L one morning. That was my introduction to the Internet and to Michael Perelman, who I considered a great friend even when I was wreaking havoc on PEN-L’s neo-Keynesians.

Michael was among the academics who helped create a culture of critical Marxist studies in the sixties. He understood that PEN-L could be part of the radical challenge to economics departments in the USA that were peddling liberal nostrums at odds with the reality of racism and imperialism. PEN-L stood arm and arm with the Union for Radical Political Economics, a group that continues to this day and that was an initial sponsor of the magazine Dollars and Sense. Other academics also helped to challenge orthodoxy, most notably those who created Science for the People. Sensing the need for a revival in a time of growing anti-science humbuggery generated by Trump and other Republicans, it began escalating its presence in 2014.

To round out this bird’s eye view of radical academics from the 1960s and their institutions, Monthly Review should be part of the mix. While Marxism and radical economics in general became more and more ingrown as the 80s and 90s wore on, MR always had its eyes on the prize. The magazine and the publishing wing always had an orientation to the working class and the Third World and will remain so as long as people like John Bellamy Foster and Michael Yates are on the editorial board. In addition to writing 19 books, Michael had a prolific presence online both through his blog and articles for various left publications. Six of them are on the Monthly Review website and well worth reading. Although Michael did not have any kind of special ties to MR, I always saw him in the same way I saw Harry Magdoff, Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman. All such intellectuals understood exactly what Marx meant when he said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

As someone who created the Marxism mailing list (aka Marxmail) in 1998, I have given a lot of thought to the value of what some might consider antediluvian when compared to social media. While I am on Facebook and Twitter (barely so), I am still committed to the value of a mailing list. Let me explain why.

To start with, to have an intelligent discussion on Twitter is impossible since there is a 280 character limit. Furthermore, the ubiquitous use of fake names cheapens an exchange since you have no idea who you are really speaking to, a contrarian leftist or someone working in a Moscow basement. I generally use Twitter to circulate my blog posts and find few other uses for it. There are some exceptions to the sterility of Twitter that are worth mentioning. Adam Tooze always has something interesting to say and so do The Nation’s Jeet Heer and New Yorker magazine film critic David Brody. But of what possible value can there be the Tweets of someone identified as “DJ Quik is a goat in human’s clothing” (an Aaron Maté follower)?

With all the knocks against Facebook, I almost feel it is overkill to offer my own thoughts on its uselessness for a serious discussion of serious ideas. But let me indulge in a bit of overkill, anyhow. To start off, it is very difficult to track down a thread that occurred even a couple of days earlier. FB does have a search capability but it is so unfocused that you end up wasting your time. Furthermore, since FB is based on the idea that we are all “friends”, you end up with people having little background in, for example, the early history of the USSR, hijacking the discussion with puerile salutes to Stalin or Trotsky. As is the case with Twitter, I use FB to provide links to my blog posts or articles in the left press, as well as to receive valuable posts from serious contributors who are the counterpart of Twitter’s Adam Tooze. For example, Jairus Banaji’s are priceless. My recommendation is to see for yourself. I am not sure if only his friends can read them but I’d give it a try nevertheless at: https://www.facebook.com/jairus.banaji

Finally, on the benefits of the old-fashion mailing list. To start with, it is much easier to deal with trolls since a moderator controls who is a subscriber or not. While undoubtedly the new PEN-L would attract libertarians just as it did in its predecessor, it would be easy to keep them on a short leash. You also get searchable archives that always make it easy to look up a discussion that took place either yesterday or ten years ago. So, if you are interested in how the left regarded the Obama administration during his two terms in order to understand how his history is being repeated today, the archived messages can be highly revealing.

To subscribe to the new PEN-L, go to https://groups.google.com/g/pen-l/.

To subscribe to Marxmail, go to https://groups.io/g/marxmail

June 20, 2021

A Crime on the Bayou

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,Civil Rights movement,Film — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

I came a bit late to the documentary “A Crime on the Bayou” that opened on Friday at the Quad Cinema in NY and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. Since I am so used to “virtual cinema”, I assumed that this would be available as VOD just like every other film I’ve reviewed during the pandemic. As it happens, this is only being shown in the physical theaters and well worth your time, especially if you’ve been vaccinated (what are you waiting for?) 

Written and directed by Nancy Buirski, it tells  the story of Gary Duncan, a Black teenager from Plaquemines Parish, a sleepy strip of land south of New Orleans. For Blacks, this is about as oppressive an area as any in the Deep South since the long-time political boss was one Leander Perez, a Democrat who made Donald Trump sound like a Critical Race Theory advocate. He once said, “Do you know what the Negro is? Animal right out of the jungle. Passion. Welfare. Easy life. That’s the Negro.”

In 1966, the local high school was forced to integrate. Duncan’s nephew and cousin were harassed from day one once they started school. Nineteen at the time, Duncan noticed some sort of fracas on the sidewalk near the school with white teens lined up against the two boys. He stopped his car and walked over to calm things down. This involved laying his hand on a white boy’s arm.

That night, police came to Duncan’s trailer and arrested him for simple battery on a minor, misdemeanor under Louisiana law that does not require a jury trial. He was convicted and received a 60-day prison sentence and a fine of $150—all for touching a white boy’s arm. By 1966, there was an open battle for overcoming Jim Crow laws throughout the south and Duncan found himself allied with Richard Sobol, a liberal Jewish lawyer from New York like many who threw themselves into the civil rights movement. White southerners tended to see them as they saw the Carpetbaggers during Reconstruction. The term Carpetbaggers was a slander since the overwhelming majority of northerners were idealistic, like sixty men from the North, including educated free blacks and slaves who had escaped to the North and returned South after the war to be elected as Republicans to Congress. Also, the majority of Republican governors in the South during Reconstruction came down from the North.

Clearly, men like Leander Perez feared a second coming of Reconstruction and fought tooth and nail to intimidate Blacks in his parish as well as their white allies. He tried to control their activities by prohibiting outsiders from entering Plaquemines Parish via the bayou ferries, which were the chief way to cross rivers and enter the jurisdiction.

Sobol’s goal was to make jury trials mandatory, whatever the offense. When a judge had the power to decide who was guilty or not and then hand down the sentence, it put men and women like Gary Duncan at a disadvantage. Even if there were racists on a jury, the precedent for jury trials had to be established so that in the future a jury of one’s peers would be a safeguard against racist frameups.

Sobol was a dedicated and highly capable lawyer who fought to bring the case for trial by jury to the Supreme Court. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in favor of Duncan by arguing that the right to a jury trial in criminal cases was fundamental and central to the American conception of justice. Charges were dropped against him and he became a respected civil rights advocate in the parish as well as chairman of the fishing council.

Duncan is still going strong and the documentary benefits from his presence. Although Sobol died last year, there are many excerpts from interviews he gave over the years that help to establish his commitment to Black rights.

While nobody would have ever disqualified him from serving as Duncan’s attorney as if he were a latter-day Carpetbagger, Nancy Buirski cannot help but wondering about the relationship between powerful whites like Richard Sobol and their frequently poor and vulnerable clients. In the press notes, she writes:

As a filmmaker I’ve been engaged in exploring racist assumptions and dismantling them through storytelling. It’s been my privilege to do so; a responsibility I take seriously as a white filmmaker complicit with these acts. It is not just the acceptance of a racist legacy but a recognition of the small and big ways whites reenact aggressions today, unconsciously and otherwise.

There’s an important debate around allyship in the midst of the BLM movement. I’ve looked back over my last three films in this space and hope that they’ve helped culturally. Should they have been made by a white filmmaker – that is an open and lingering question. Do white filmmakers bring worthwhile perspectives in spite of not living the experience of BIPOC or do they simply occupy space and funding that should go to Black filmmakers? Are we allies in a change movement or obstacles?

For me, these questions are secondary when it comes to BLM since the most prominent lawyers involved with prosecuting killer cops happen to be Black. Instead, I see the charges that BLM is a tool of big corporations using their donations to burnish their image as much more important since it allows people like Adolph Reed Jr. to demonize the movement.

I strongly recommend “A Crime on the Bayou” to my readers since the story it tells is about a key moment in the fight against Jim Crow, and it tells it well as the 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes would indicate. Plus, it will be a great opportunity to enjoy your post-vaccination freedom and one far more worthwhile than hanging out in a sports bar.

June 18, 2021


Filed under: Counterpunch,financial crisis,television — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm


Arriving with very little fanfare on Amazon Prime, the Italian TV series “Devils” is easily the most penetrating narrative drama on “banksters” I have ever seen. Set mostly on the trading floor of New York London Investment Bank, an obvious fictional version of Goldman Sachs, it stars Alessandro Borghi as Massimo Ruggero, who manages the hedge fund group and is in line to become the next co-CEO. He is opposed by a rival for the position who views Massimo’s cutthroat tactics as inimical to British banking’s glorious past, when the bank supposedly served the average citizen rather than speculators only interested in making a fast buck. He is not shy about telling Massimo to his face that Italians don’t belong in leading positions in such an august institution like NYLIB.

This 10-part series is based on the novel “Diavoli” that was written by Guido Maria Brera, an Italian who worked for a number of years in the financial industry. His experience help gives the book a palpable reality of the sort that makes ex-attorney John Grisham novels about law firms so compelling. Saying that, it is necessary for those viewing “Devils” to be prepared for financial industry minutiae, especially selling short—Massimo’s specialty. Showing little concern for the consequences of its impact, he left behind ruin everywhere he decided to make profits off ordinary peoples’ losses.

Continue reading

June 16, 2021

Was American Indian Overhunting Responsible for the Near-Extinction of the Buffalo?

Filed under: Counterpunch,indigenous — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm


In the 1990s, there were repeated attempts to debunk the idea of an ecological Indian. Scholars and activists with seemingly little in common all sought to portray the Indian as wasteful of natural resources, if not even worse than the European settlers who have left the USA resembling a toxic dump as the 21st century stumbles forward.

My first encounter with this trend was with Frank Furedi’s sect in the early 90s that published a magazine called Living Marxism, better known as LM. (They still exist as Spiked today, long after dispensing with the idea that they are Marxist.) When I saw an LM article around that time denouncing Survival International as a group that sought to keep the Brazilian indigenous peoples “preserved in amber” like in the Museum of Natural History, I could not believe my eyes. The Yanomami were in danger of extinction as a result of mining and ranching excursions into their territory and these self-described Marxists were attacking the main group trying to protect them.

Furedi’s group in England was called the Revolutionary Communist Party that shared a name with Bob Avakian’s cult in the USA but little else politically except their belief that the left should not believe in the “noble savage”. In a debate with leaders of the American Indian Movement in 1980, Avakian’s spokesman referred to the “second harvest”, a practice from around 7,000 years ago when some indigenous peoples stored dried feces so that in the event of a famine, they could extract undigested seeds and other products for food. In other words, Indians ate shit.

The academic left wasn’t much better. In David Harvey’s 1996 “Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference”, he wrote that stone-age hunters had no way of determining whether they were overexploiting prey. This was the result of their inability to make connections between current and future animal populations. This would account for the disappearance of the Woolly Mammoth, for instance. He also fretted over Indian claims for land that was stolen from them in the 1800s. He feared that such “militant particularism” could  can foster “nationalistic, exclusionary, and some cases violently fascistic” elements.

Harvey’s book attracted little support and he even disavowed it a few years after its publication. But one book stood out for its impact on American Indian scholars, the broader academy, as well as on Jonah Goldberg, the founding editor of National Review Online. That was Shepard Krech’s 2000 “The Ecological Indian: Myth and History” that should have been properly titled “The anti-Ecological Indian”. It was an assemblage of all the charges ever levelled against the Indian, including the business about killing off the Woolly Mammoth.

Continue reading

June 15, 2021

Joel Kovel spills the beans on Leon Botstein

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 2:52 pm

Joel Kovel

Leon Botstein

Long-time readers of this blog probably recall that I have written numerous articles in opposition to Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College since 1975. My first reaction to Botstein was positive. But after Martin Peretz had joined the Board of Trustees, I changed my mind. As president of the board of Tecnica, a sort of small-scale radical version of the Peace Corps that sent volunteers to Nicaragua, the murder of Ben Linder in Nicaragua in 1987 hit home since we were providing material aid to his project. Ben was working on a weir—a small scale dam—that would produce electricity for peasants in the north. Meanwhile, Peretz was promoting the contras in The New Republic. That led me to write an angry letter to Botstein about the mockery he was making of educational values. While Peretz was attending Board meetings, his “freedom fighters” were burning schools and killing teachers.

Botstein wrote back taking great offense at having his values held up for scrutiny. Since he has an ego bigger than the Grand Canyon, the idea that he wasn’t perfect got his juices flowing. Within a few years, I went to work at Columbia University and began writing further critiques of Botstein around a number of questions including the addition of Pom Wonderful CEO Stewart Resnick to the board. Using his great wealth, Resnick got preferential treatment for his farms in California even at the expense of nearby people not being able to flush their toilet because the farms were sucking up all the available water.

A year after I wrote my letter to Botstein, Bard hired my old friend and comrade Joel Kovel to become the Alger Hiss professor, a post funded by his family. For a number of years Joel enjoyed an idyllic existence at Bard, not that different from what I experienced as a student. But when he began criticizing Israel, he got on Botstein’s wrong side. Botstein was a Zionist, a stance that probably had a lot to do with him adding Peretz to the Board. Peretz once said, “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.” He further questioned whether Muslim-Americans deserve the “privileges of the First Amendment.”

After he wrote “Overcoming Zionism” in 2007, the University of Michigan publishers decided to drop it after powerful Zionist donors to the school threatened to end their support.  A campaign around this censorship was mounted but Botstein did not say a word, implicitly siding with the move against him. Two years later, his contract as Alger Hiss chair was not renewed and his supporters, including me, began taking up his cause. Joel once told me that I should avoid using the word “fired” because he was in delicate settlement talks with the school that would be jeopardized by claims of their liability. When they arrived at a settlement, it included a non-disclosure agreement that he keep his views on Botstein and Bard College to himself.

In 2017, his memoir “The Lost Traveller’s Dream” appeared. A year later he was dead.

Recently, I got around to read it in the hope that he would spill the beans on Botstein and Bard despite the non-disclosure agreement. He did not disappoint. He must have got Leon even more pissed than my letter about Peretz. Below are 3 excerpts from the memoir that showed his utter contempt for Botstein but also revealed the rancor the relatively apolitical faculty held toward his haughty manner of running the school as if he were a feudal lord.

Bard had a leader who preached pure progressivism while ruling like a despot (pages 233-236)

BUT WOODSTOCK WAS NOT ALL that gave me hope after 1988. I now had an academic home base, a nine-hundred-acre campus overlooking the Hudson River. There were magnificent trees, a few traditional buildings and a few modern ones, a pathetic library, and a lot of peace and quiet. As a boy in love with learning I used to fantasize about a place like this (though not the library), where I would walk about—in academic garb, no less—and talk of high things with high-minded people. There would be no father yelling imprecations, no strife-torn world invading the Arcadian sanctuary of learning. I had nearly forgotten this dream since I stepped into the turbulence of medicine and for many years thereafter. Now it seemed I had arrived in Arcadia, and at a senior level, no less. It was a glory to drive there from my Willow home across the gorgeous Hudson River. I could teach what I wanted and how I wanted, with no more than seven classroom hours a week for two courses, and students of a generally progressive disposition. There were no departmental limits, as I belonged to no department yet circulated through all; there was nobody looking over my shoulder, no need to jockey for aca-demic turf, no need to get caught ij in the endless minutiae of committee work, no bureaucracy in my way, plenty of tennis courts, and parking so abundant that I never had to worry about getting a place in my whole twenty-one years at Bard College, in the ghost town of Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. What could go wrong?

The man presiding over this riverine Shangri-La was tall, of a frowning, owlish aspect and formal ways. Reason tells us that Leon Botstein once must have been a tiny baby who needed his diaper changed. But sometimes one thought Leon might be a space alien planted in storied Annandale complete with bow-tie and Adorno-esque affectation, sent by the Gods to rule over the little fiefdom of Bard. This he did by the time-honored means of artful control over the funding process, by which the mainstream of the college’s fiscal blood supply originated from a hand-picked Board of Financiers held in place by his charisma, to be dispensed by Leon according to an ethos of Liberal Reason and Academic Freedom.

Bard therefore had a leader who preached a pure progressivism while governing a pure despotism. It was an excellent web to ensnare the liberal will, and it made Botstein larger than life in the eyes of the Bard community. Many a time in my early years did I wonder how the college would ever get by if he were hit by a bus, or was lured to another institution (indeed, it was rumored that he was being considered for Secretary of Education in the Gore administration). Would not the financial spigots be immediately turned off?1 Would not our tycoons go elsewhere? How helpless the school was against Botstein’s power; how fortunate that he was so enlightened. And how ridiculous that power was so centralized in one executive’s hands; how much would a decent new-fashioned bureaucracy have been appreciated instead of this arbitrary exertion of authority.

Soon after my arrival Leon and I had a few lengthy and interesting conversations in which we staked out, so to speak, the ground between us. I found him to be always on stage, always wary, and very bright—though not so bright as he thought. It also seemed that Botstein was trying to recruit me as a kind of agent to report to him about the Social Studies Division to which I belonged. He professed a considerable contempt for the hacks working there as he tried to set me up as a trusted insider working with him in a strategic way. So I inferred, and so I desisted—and after a while our intimate conversations wound down and I settled into a long and, for the first twelve years at Bard, pleasant routine.

I soon noticed that the first-rate circumstances of the college had done little to improve the esprit of the faculty. A cheerless bunch, they were united only by discreet hatred of their President, which they mainly shared endlessly with each other. By and large, I liked them and they seemed to like me, though there was quite a bit of circumspection in our interchanges, and none of the passion that bubbled so often through cracks in my rambunctious soul. Politically they were mostly on the left-liberal side of things, and seemed grateful for my presence and vicariously sympathetic to it, calling me “the conscience of Bard” and such for my various enthusiasms and outrages.

Hatred of Leon welled forth from his exploitation of the tenure process. I assume it is any college president’s prerogative to intervene in tenure. But no one I know of routinely turned this into a show trial, in which, after all the evidence had been painstakingly gathered, the college community would bate its collective breath and wait the definitive decision of the Lord High Executioner concerning the wretch whose career had been placed in presidential hands. It was impossible to avoid the conclusion that every so often Leon would perversely overturn a tenure decision that had seemed overwhelmingly positive according to all the recognized criteria of academic virtue, simply to show everybody who was boss and in whom all the power lay as to the future of Bard. Never did any importuning or petitioning move the Liberal King to reverse an opinion of strategic importance. The inevitable results of these manipulations were, first, to stimulate a coterie of toadies and in-formers who would sidle up to mid-level administrative posts in the Permanent Botstein Administration; and, second, to secrete the elixir of fear and loathing that flowed through the collective veins of the faculty.

Tycoons like billionaire George Soros (pages 311-313)

As an active member of the Jewish community, I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education. For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.

— Leon Botstein, Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan 5, 2014

Bard College, where I spent the last 21 years of my academic career, was touted by the gaming pages that announce such things as the school that had “put the ‘liberal’ in liberal arts.” in this spirit the college’s van was turned over to students to drive the 250 miles to Washington, DC for a hearing ensuing upon arrest for protesting on the steps of the Supreme Court. As for myself, during my years as its Alger Hiss Professor, the college generously supported my race for the Senate in 1998, essentially giving me a leave of absence so long as I made it an open tutorial for students who wanted some rough and tumble exposure to the harsh world of electoral politics. The name of Bard College and that of Leon Botstein, its “President for Life,” may be regarded as freely interchangeable. It was Botstein cum Bard who saved my floundering career when I was down and out. This gave me the space to teach what I pleased no matter how contrary to established wisdom, to publish four substantial books, and do interesting things like march against the Apartheid regime of South Africa, cross the U.S. blockade of Cuba, or take over the reins of a quirky journal with the modest goal of bringing down the capitalist system to save the world from ecological degeneration and collapse. And it was Bard cum Botstein that crushed the selfsame career, In remarkably short order, hard times befell me: first, estrangement around the turn of the Millennium, then increasing exclusion, and finally, in 2009 upon return from the Belem Social Forum where we had launched the Second Ecosocialist Manifesto, outright expulsion.

THE BATTLE TOOK PLACE ACROSS two fronts. The first evolving from a funding mechanism to keep Bard afloat by turning the Board of Trustees into a reliable year by year source. Wealthy folk we needed, generous and eager to be swayed by a charismatic president; not old money then, but new and fluid money, such as comes from finance. In this way, small, dreamy Bard became an instrument of finance capital, the most dynamic sector of the Number One society of the United States of America.

Capitalism, based in the endless accumulation of money, itself the “liberal” society. The same word is advanced by “progressives” who stand for modernity, for example politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, philosophers like Karl Popper, and tycoons like billionaire George Soros — notwithstanding that capitalism widens the gap between rich and poor, leaves nature in ruins and for the last forty years, has inflicted upon our world the devastation we call “neoliberalism.” Thus liberalism breeds upon itself and turns into nightmare.

Soros was introduced to Bard, along with my Senate campaign of 1998, when Botstein announced association with the acclaimed financier as a structural change for the once lethargic college directly (though his wife was to join the Board of Trustees), but sort of a Godfather, with Leon Botstein as consigliere to carry out the global agenda of Soros’ Open Society Foundation and its numerous projects of “democracy enhancement.” It was not long before the Open Society college combined with the far more powerful forces of the Council on Foreign Relations, the beachhead for which was created when James Chase joined the faculty in 1989, a year after I assumed the Hiss Chair. Now poor Alger had to endure the further indignity of being posted on the ground taken over by the National Security State that had made him an outlaw. Soon, CFR was joined by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, just across the Hudson River, the combination transforming the school that put the liberal in liberal arts into a bastion of neo-conservatism. It got worse. Early in the new Millennium I returned from a leave of absence to learn that one Walter Russell Mead had occupied my office while I was gone. Mead was, believe it or not, the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, a post he held until 2010. Quel Honneur! He became full-time at Bard after 2004 as the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities, a redoubt from which he could cheer on the invasion of Iraq.

Joel says goodbye to Bard College (pages 329-331)

MEANWHILE, IN ANNANDALE ON HUDSON, the denouement of my Bard career was bring prepared as the calendar crept up on 2009 and the days of my contract dwindled down to a not-so-precious few. Having endured the first course in Zionism I had taught at Bard, I was off to Belem over Christmas for the World Social Forum and the Second Draft of the Ecosocialist Manifesto. I looked to my six months off campus coming up, but my five-year contract was expiring, and Bard had prepared a reckoning: too dreary to detail but necessary to ponder and in any case, to document. And so I will compress my version of what occurred to supply a selection of bulleted points before turning to the next stage of my travels.

My situation differed from most others of this kind in that the last thing I wanted was to have my job back, a fate akin to a prison sentence. My best hope was modest, a gracious departure, without rancor; and I tried to make this wish known. Whether because of sensitivity that any separation agreement might be seen as prejudicial on their part, or from sheer vindictiveness—or more likely, from both of these motives—Bard elected to claim that of course there was no question at all of any political motive by the college, and chose to get rid of me by alleging incompetence and irrelevance at a time of budgetary hardship (the “Great Recession” was then raging). It appeared a hastily prepared letter from Dean Michele Dominy with all the charm of a Pink Slip telling me to leave my identity card at the door.

I refused to accept what amounted to an allegation of senility and protested. This triggered a Blitzkrieg on the college’s part in which vindictiveness was rampant and all stops were pulled. Botstein turned a routine full-faculty meeting which I missed, in to character assassination, alleging my lying, psychopathy and paranoia; similar charges were launched over the faculty email list serve. Dean Dominy and Professor Amy Ansell from the Social Studies Division called a meeting of students in which my defects were laid forth. This provoked a revolt among sectors of the student body, my only ally in the furor, which included allegations from students assigned to the committee handling my case, that there seemed to be actual tampering with the evaluations used as evidence.

THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN VERY INTERESTING evidence for a lawsuit I could have brought alleging defamation of character. There were other major irregularities, for example, the fact that the faculty committee evaluating me was chaired by Prof. Bruce Chilton, an arch Zionist who among other things had spoken on national radio during the destruction of Gaza taking place at this time, opining that the havoc could be legitimated by Just War theory. Yes, that’s what tin. man said; after all, he was a theologian, the Episcopal chaplain at Bard (a fact of some interest in view of my forthcoming religious turn) and director of Bard’s extensive programs in this area. In better times at Bard, Chilton had been supportive of my work, including History and Spirit. He even said that he had supported my rehiring and had been deeply offended by my hostile reaction to his role, poor fellow.

All of this (and there is more) requires no further comment. My position was that I was being subjected to what amounted to an inquisition and that I had the option to seek recourse in a law suit that won, could be devastating to the college. I also had a lot of people on my side, including the group founded during the 2007 fracas with Overcoming Zionism. Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, which contained a number of fine and prestigious lawyers, for example, Michael Smith, Michael Ratner (deceased, a great loss to humanity, in 2016), Abdeen Jabara, Barbara Harvey, and Dennis James, the latter of whom who served admirably as my first-line legal adviser, and added top-notch anti-Zionist intellectuals like Terri Ginsberg and Jonathan House, a psychoanalyst who had organized The NY Hospital System when we both were House Officers. ‘

PERSONALLY, I THOUGHT THE SUIT could be won, and that it would have positive political impact aside from the settlement itself. I was emotionally disposed to do so, having been driven into a fine rage by the treatment I had received over the years. Weighing against the decision to sue was a definite prospect: that suing would almost certainly ruin the later years of my life. I knew this myself and all my legal advisers felt the same—and that was that. So I had to forego the fond dream of seeing Leon Botstein, Bruce Chilton, et al. squirming in the Dock under oath. I wanted to be Free from Bard, Free at Last!, and a lawsuit of this kind is at base, nothing but a set of leg-irons.

I even wanted to be free from writing and talking about that desolate place, but not so free as would have been the case had I accepted the final terms demanded by Bard’s legal team, namely, that in exchange for a package of unspecified paltry “benefits” that is, “an “amicable settlement,” all I needed to do was to pledge: a) to never write or speak publicly about anything that transpired between the college and myself regarding this affair; and b) that in the spirit of this, I would see to it that all references to it as had found their way onto the internet, would be deleted. Rather akin to peeing while bathing in the ocean and removing all traces from the briny waves. Oh, and also: that I could never write this memoir. Next case!

June 10, 2021

Report from Colombia #1

Filed under: Anthony from Colombia,Colombia — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

(Written on June 1 by Anthony, a long-time resident of Bogota)

On Sunday, the national strike committee decided that it would work to remove road blocks throughout the country as a measure of goodwill toward the government in an effort to get substantive negotiations started

On Saturday, the Colombian government had announced, and had begun carrying out, a major increase of military/police/paramilitary repression against the National Work Stoppage (Paro Naciónal). President Ivan Duque announced the militarization of eight departments: Valle de Cauca, Cauca, Nariño, Huila, and Caquetá in the southwestern corner of Colombia, Risaralda which is closer to the center of the country, and  Norte de Santander which is in the north of the country on the Venezuelan border. Key cities which have been epicenters of the struggle are located in this region. They include Cali – the country’s third largest city and a major transshipment and industrial center, Buenaventura – the most important port on the Pacific, Tumaco – another Pacific port, and provincial captials and cities of Pasto, Popayan, Huila and Perira plus other cities which have been important centers of protest such as Yumbo and Tulua.

A spokesperson for the strike committee characterized the government’s announcement as “an internal coup d’etat.” Lawyers say the government has no real legal basis for the measures, since the law they are based on is designed for natural disasters and emergencies.

At the same time as the government announced this escalation, it also announced that it had rejected the pre-agreement on negotiations with the strike committee that had been mediated by the Catholic Church and the United Nations. Instead it announced a set of conditions for negotiations which amount to a rejection of all negotiations: a complete end to all demonstrations and road blockades.

The government has focused on the road blockades as its most important target. Thousands of roads have been temporarily or intermittently blockaded all over the country. At first, they caused many local shortages and panic buying that were accompanied by widespread local price gouging. Since then, the strike committee has modified its policy to allow food, medical supplies, gasoline and other essential items to pass through humanitarian corridors, and blockades have become intermittent rather than continuous. Nevertheless, the strike committee does not have control over all blockades which often are local demonstrations by working class youth, are sometimes organized blockades by masses of truck drivers, and are sometimes imposed by masked groups of “encapuchados.”

The government’s announcements came in the middle of a major increase of police, military, and paramilitary repression, especially in the city of Cali and in the southwestern corner of the country. The internet is full of videos of police escorting armed men dressed in civilian clothes who are firing at demonstrators. In one case, a man in civilian clothes shoots two protestors and is subsequently, chased, caught and killed by other protestors. They pulled out his wallet and discovered his ID cards showing that he was an agent of the Fiscalia (equivalent to the office of the prosecuting attorney general). Subsequently, the Fiscalia confirmed his identity but disclaimed knowledge of, or responsibility for, his activity.

Nobody knows exactly how many people have been killed so far, nor how many have been wounded, arrested or simply disappeared. Over the weekend a strike committee spokesman said that the government had killed 70 demonstrators. As of May 20, the government admitted that 26 people had been killed, including 25 demonstrators or bystanders and one police officer. Indepaz, an independent NGO said that as of May 18, there had been 2,387 cases of police violence and 51 killings, 43 of which were presumably at the hands of the police.

The protest movement shows no signs of abating despite the repression. Over more than one month of mobilizations it has evolved but not relented.

The major demonstrations and work stoppages happen every Wednesday, but the strike committee has called other major events on other days, including last Friday. In between, the protests continue on a smaller, local and decentralized basis. It is truly impossible to keep track of.

One day walking day the street, a group of young people march by chanting and blocking the right of way of the bus mass transit system. That night there are reports of a major confrontation in a small town fifty miles from Bogotá. The next day, a conflict erupts between the riot squad and youth blockading a main thoroughfare in a previously quiescent working class neighborhood.

Road blockades occur on a stretch of highway at an unannounced hour of the day. The police and army show up to push the demonstrators back and remove the obstacles. The next day a blockade appears a few miles down the road.

The movement is large, but not really cohesive or well organized. It has numerous sectors. There are the unions: FECODE the teachers union, the CUT and CGT – the main union federations, and the USO – the petroleum workers union, there are various truck drivers’ and truck company federations, and there are small farmers’ organizations, LGBT organizations, indigenous communities, student organizations, pensioners and others.

There are also the unnamed armed participants collectively called the “encapuchados”. They include various anarchist groupings and presumably the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – National Liberation Army) and what are known as the dissident factions of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC dissidents are those parts of the FARC who rejected the peace agreements from the beginning, or who accepted them at first but later rejected them.

There are also armed groups of common criminal gangs that join in the protests, especially in the looting of stores and ATM machines.

In Cali, the “primera linea” – the first line of militant youth in the protests, close down road blockades at 8:00 PM, but after that time unidentified armed men – nobody knows whom – police provacateurs? Paramilitaries? The ELN?  FARC dissidents? move into occupy the contested streets. The nighttime gun battles that ensure have been falsely attributed to the protestors.

Together, the encapuchados and armed groups have been responsible for a lot of the massive destruction of property that has occurred. They target small community police stations, ATM machines, mass transit systems, and government buildings.

Most, or all, of these groups have been infiltrated by the police to one degree or another. For the last century, the Colombian police and military have built up a clandestine machine to infiltrate the left, the guerrilla movements, and opposition political parties. The budget for these operations is large, but secret. Infiltration is backed up by electronic surveillance which was vastly increased under Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia.

In between the mass peaceful protest movement and the armed groups there is a growing layer of angry, militant urban youth who have manned the road blockades, control the urban street blockades, and who have engaged in confrontations with the police.

These groups have established “resistance points” at mass transit bus depots, major intersections, and parks in many of the main cities including Bogotá, Medellin and Cali.

In Bogotá, where I live, there are two main focal points: the Portal Resistencia (officially the Portal de las Americas), and the Los Heroes monument. These are twenty-four hour demonstrations with loose-knit organizations of thousands of young people who come and go and take turns. The Portal is one of the major mass transit bus depots serving the whole city of Bogotá. The youth there have not only renamed it Portal Resistencia, they have changed all the signage, too. They control whether the buses can enter or leave.

At the Los Heroes monument, there is a major traffic interchange and a major mass transit bus interchange, both of which can be opened or closed by the demonstrators at will.

The police attack these youth, especially at night, using rubber bullets and tear gas. The youth respond with rocks, sling shots, and improvised defensive gear including makeshift shields and bicycle helmets. The Red Cross and other NGOs have set up first aid stations for those injured in the exchanges.

Other points of resistance have formed throughout this city and u in other cities,  especially in working class neighborhoods. Some are momentary and ephemeral, some have taken on a semi-permanent existence.

There is a lot more to say, and I hope to write about some of it in future updates. Here are some of the topics I hope to write about:

–La Minga (the indigenous resistance)

–Neighborhood assemblies

–The “Reconciliation” march in Cali

–The May 2022 elections

–Political pressures and factions within the government

–Political parties and their positions

–The roles of the IMF, World Bank, Standard and Poor´s

–ANDI and Colombian business

–Drug dealers/Paramilitaries/trucking

–The media

–Human rights Inter American commission

–Appointment of retired Colonel in Cali by Green Mayor

–Duque’s loan program

–The hang over of guerillerismo

–The notion that this is an insurrection floated by Forrest Hylton (It isn’t)

–A discussion of the tactic of road blockades


June 6, 2021

Edge of the World

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 10:49 pm

“Edge of the World” is a biopic about James Brooke, the British ex-officer who became the Rajah of Sarawak in 1842. The film allows you to have a look at an obscure figure who was something of an outlier in the emerging British Empire even if it is through a funhouse mirror. He is portrayed as a benign figure who only agreed to become a Rajah to put an end to the slavery and beheading in a region in the northwest corner of the island of Borneo.

When he read a reference to Brooke in a footnote in a George MacDonald Fraser novel back in 2009, screenwriter Rob Allyn became consumed by the idea of making a film about a “good” colonist. When the film begins, Brooke and several other British army veterans arrive on the beach in Sarawak with the sole intention of collecting rare plants and animals, not extending the rule of Queen Victoria. If you’ve seen “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, you’ll be struck by his similarities with Russell Crowe’s ship surgeon who was far more interested in discovering new species than in seizing territory on behalf of the Crown. Not only that, Allyn’s Brooke repeatedly referred to his disillusionment with the role the British played in India—like Daniel Ellsberg breaking with imperialism after seeing the reality of Vietnam as a Marine.

Despite being an obscure figure, Brooke excited the imagination of writers far more important than Allyn. He was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”, a 1888 story about two British soldiers who become “kings” of Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan. A very good John Huston movie based on the Kipling story starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine came out in 1975. Ironically, despite Allyn’s Brooke denouncing the idea of a “white man’s burden”, his character has far more in common with colonialism than Kipling’s grifters.

Brooke also became the model for Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”, even if only in the second half of the novel. Despite any reference to Conrad having prior knowledge about Brooke, the similarities between his plot and the White Rajah are so pronounced that scholars will always be looking for hard evidence. Unlike Brooke, Jim is a common sailor like Kipling’s characters, endears himself to Malaysian villagers by fending off a bandit that has been terrorizing them after who the fashion of “Seven Samurai”. For his efforts, they begin to refer to him as “tuan” Jim, or Lord Jim. Postcolonial scholars don’t see the novel as advanced politically as “Heart of Darkness”, but they do see Jim as an example of Kipling’s “civilizing mission”.

Allyn not only portrays Brooke as renouncing imperial ambitions but as someone who “goes native” after the fashion of “Dances with Wolves” or the disabled lead character in “Avatar” who chooses to leave his human shell to become a big blue avatar. A key feature of the film is Brooke’s bromance with a Sarawak prince who clearly has a homosexual desire for the British Rajah that is never requited. However, most Brooke scholars surmise that he too was a homosexual who enjoyed sex with his subjects.

The main conflict in the film is between Brooke and Mahkota, a Sarawak warlord who coveted the title of Rajah and routinely beheaded the pirates that preyed on the island’s villagers. Law and order hardly meant very much in a place that was marked by a very loose interpretation of Islam and animistic beliefs. In the concluding scenes of “Edge of the World”, Brooke learns that he has to abandon his semi-pacifist ideals and destroy Mahkota to save “his” Sarawak. He ends up beheading the warlord and making Sarawak an idyllic place both for the natives and British investors exploiting its resources. Brooke and his descendants ruled Sarawak until WWII when the Japanese occupied Borneo.

Suffice it to say that most of “Edge of the World” is pure hokum. Brooke wrote a letter in 1846 in which he revealed his true goals. “Sarawak is very flourishing, and I look forward to a fair revenue from it in a few years without distress to its inhabitants”. In the film, the White Rajah’s mansion Astana is anything but. It sits on stilts and is about the size of a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, but windowless and sans indoor plumbing. In reality, Brooke’s mansion looks like this:

As for Allyn’s fixation on Brooke after reading a reference to him in a George MacDonald Fraser novel, I wonder if it is the one below since his character is obviously consistent with Fraser’s shrewd assessment:

 Brooke was one of the Victorians who gave empire-building a good name, whose worse faults, perhaps, were that he loved adventure for its own sake, had an unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race, and enjoyed fighting pirates. His philosophy, being typical of his class and time, may not commend itself universally today, but an honest examination of what he actually did will discover more to praise than to blame.

Of course, Allyn chose to ignore the business about Brooke’s “unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race” when writing his screenplay. That would only undermine his hagiographic film.

However, even his superiors in Queen Victoria’s court found him taking advantage of his power, even charging him with using what amounted to war crimes against the indigenous pirates who were far less lethal than the ships the Europeans sent around the world. After all, Brooke arrives on the shores of Sarawak with a sloop appropriately named “Royalist” with its six cannons used to subdue both pirates and warlords.

“Edge of the World” is available as VOD on June 21. Only recommended for those like me with a morbid curiosity.

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