Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 3, 2019


Filed under: Film,psychology — louisproyect @ 10:40 pm

The first thing that strikes you about Todd Phillip’s “Joker” is its open homage to two of Martin Scorsese’s films: “Taxi Driver” and “King of Comedy”. From “Taxi Driver”, it borrows the main character’s borderline personality and the portrayal of New York City as hell on earth. Travis Bickle, the Vietnam vet evidently suffering from PTSD, puts it this way: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

While “King of Comedy” is not considered vintage Scorsese, it was made to order for Todd Phillip’s main character Arthur Fleck, whose last name even evokes De Niro’s character in “Taxi Driver”. In “King of Comedy”, De Niro plays an aspiring stand-up comedian who idolizes Jerry Langford, the Johnny Carson-like late night host played by Jerry Lewis. To connect with Scorsese’s film, De Niro is cast as late night host Murray Franklin in “Joker” but with much more of a mean streak—think of David Letterman waking up on the wrong side of bed. Now about the same age as Jerry Lewis in “King of Comedy” and endowed with the same kind of geezer cockiness, De Niro is the best thing about “Joker”.

Unlike the muscular and fearless Travis Bickle, Arthur Fleck is a downtrodden sad sack who has been picked on his whole life. We meet him working as a clown on the streets of New York in 1981. He holds an advertising sign above his head meant to draw customers into the shop he dances about in front of. Within a few seconds, a gang of teens (mostly Latino, it appears) grabs the sign from him and runs down the street with him in hot pursuit. When he catches up with them in an alley, they beat the living daylights out of him. One cannot be sure of director Todd Phillip’s intention, but this evokes the “wilding” episodes of the 1990s that gained notoriety through the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five. Or perhaps Phillips simply wanted to indicate that the city was infested with sadistic teens.

More directly related to the period, Fleck is riding the subway home late at night in his clown costume when a trio of drunken “Wall Street” guys (employees of the future Batman’s father Thomas Wayne, as it happens) begin to harass a young woman seated opposite them. Afflicted with a mental illness that turns out to be sui generis, Fleck begins to laugh uncontrollably and inappropriately. This draws the trio’s attention away from the woman and toward Fleck who is carrying a pistol that a fellow clown gave him for protection (and to make a few bucks through the sale.) When they begin to beat and kick him, he shoots two to death on the subway car and pursues the third in the station, who becomes his last victim. This incident will remind any New Yorker of the Bernhard Goetz attack on four black teenagers in a subway car in 1984. Goetz, a white technician, fired bullets from an unlicensed pistol into all four because he felt that they were trying to rob him.

This scene is simply unbelievable. Anybody who works on Wall Street in an obviously well-paying job, drunk or not, is the last person who will harass a total stranger on a subway train. Most New Yorkers, especially those dressed in business suits, simply want to be left alone. To advance his plot, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver, tried to connect the dots between Thomas Wayne and the future Joker by having him kill the three white-collar workers in his employ. If I had been in a writing session with the two, I would have warned them against such an unlikely act of aggression by people who work in cubicles. Then again, they probably calculated that this would make no difference to a theater audience that cared so little about logic. This is 2019, after all.

Phillips’s problem is that he wanted to capture the malaise of New York City in the early 80s, but blend it with the Batman story. In previous films drawn from the comic book, Gotham (i.e., New York) was much more mythical. In Tim Burton’s hands, there was no attempt to draw analogies with the real city. Most of the action occurred indoors with Jack Nicholson as the Joker stealing every scene. In Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight”, we see more of Gotham’s street life but it is even more disconnected from New York (it was filmed in Chicago.)

Unlike Nicholson and Ledger’s Joker, Joaquin Phoenix is no master criminal. He is a pathetic figure who makes Walter Mitty look like a hard-nosed realist. Each night he watches De Niro’s Murray Franklin and fantasizes about making an appearance on his show. He does make an appearance one night but not in the fashion he hoped for. One of Franklin’s assistants gets his hands on a video recording of Fleck bombing at a comedy club. Nobody laughs at his jokes and when he himself begins to have one of his psychotic laughing bouts, he is shown the door. When Fleck sees himself being humiliated on national TV, he begins to plot his revenge.

At this point, he is beginning to resemble Travis Bickle who was humiliated by election campaign aide Cybill Shepherd, who was so aghast at his taking her to a 42nd Street porn movie for a date that she told him never to contact her again. In retaliation, he decides to assassinate the liberal politician she is working for.

What makes Todd Phillips a second-rate director/screenwriter compared to Martin Scorsese, who he obviously reveres, is character development. In “Taxi Driver”, we get to know Travis Bickle intimately. Throughout his haunting voice-over monologues that we hear as he drives across city streets late at night, we understand his pain and alienation. We also learn more about his motivation in his conversations with fellow workers and even the campaign worker who found him physically attractive, if clearly “off”. But most of all, the scenes between De Niro and Jodie Foster, playing a 12-year old streetwalker, are some of the most poignant in any film made in the 1970s. Showing a paternal care for her that makes his ultimate violent explosion logical, we see a consistency that is utterly lacking in “Joker”. Throughout the entire film, there is almost no dialog between Fleck and other characters except his mother who is as disturbed as him. In one particularly grotesque scene, he is shown scrubbing her back when she is taking a bath. The only time he expresses himself is when he begins to laugh uncontrollably, like someone with Tourette’s Syndrome shouting four-letter words out of the blue in public.

About that laughing disorder, I checked on it the day after seeing “Joker”. People magazine claims that while the movie never identifies the specific illness, such fits of controllable laughter are based on an actual disorder called the Pseudobulbar Affect, or PBA. When you check Wikipedia on the Pseudobulbar Affect, however, you learn that it has nothing to do with schizophrenia or any other psychosis. Instead, it is connected to a neurological disorder or brain injury. Some researchers look to the role of the corticobulbar pathways. When there are lesions, you can see a failure of voluntary control of emotions.

Obviously, Phillips is not interested in lesions. For him, the laughing goes hand in hand with Fleck’s mental illness that is obviously schizophrenia. Proof of that is his hallucinations of having a romance with a woman who lives down the hall from him. On the day of his appearance on the Murray Franklin show, he walks into her apartment unannounced (the door was unlocked—another touch of illogic in this script) expecting to enjoy some intimacies. When she walks in, she says, “Aren’t you the guy who lives down the hall? What do you want”. When he acts as if she was his girlfriend, she tells him to leave or else she will call the cops.

Obviously this rejection primes him to fire a bullet into Murray Franklin that evening on national TV. His psychosis has finally matured into the condition that will identify him as the Joker from that moment on. This is not the first time that a connection has been made between mental illness and the Joker. In a November 4, 2007 interview with the NY Times, Ledger described his character as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy”.

Schizophrenic? In film today, there are very few nationalities that can still be demonized routinely without pushback. Arab terrorists obviously remain the number one favorite of Hollywood hacks, but “crazy people” come in second with hardly anybody taking up their cause. The reality is that schizophrenics never carry out attacks for revenge, such as was the case with Fleck’s killing of Murray Franklin. By and large, they carry out acts of violence against total strangers who voices in their head direct them to push in the path of an oncoming subway train, etc. Another typical victim is the schizophrenic himself who the voices condemn as not worth living.

The best way to prevent such tragedies that are becoming more and more common as hospitals were emptied of the mentally ill years ago after psychotropic drugs like Thorazine were developed is to develop a support network. If they are taken under supervision in group homes, medicated properly, and have social workers looking after them, the violence decreases. There is an allusion to that in “Joker” in  a scene between Fleck and a psychotherapist but that hardly makes up for the utterly backward portrayal of someone suffering from a mental illness.

My advice is to wait for this movie to show up on Amazon Prime. It is certainly not worth the $15 you’d have to pay for it at your local Cineplex. Why it has garnered such raves, including from those on the left who would have you believe it is the second coming of “Battle of Algiers”, is simply beyond me.


December 14, 2018

That Way Madness Lies

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,psychology — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

The first word that came to mind after watching “That Way Madness Lies”, Sandra Luckow’s documentary about her older brother’s Duanne’s wildly destructive tendencies brought on by paranoid schizophrenia, was courageous. As a film professor at Yale, Columbia and Barnard with a long career in filmmaking, Luckow could have made any number of films that would have been less painful and confessional. However, she surely must have understood that this was not just a bit of family history that would draw an audience in the same way a roadside accident draws the stares from bypassing cars. Its broader interest is in showing the terrible lack of institutional support for families that have to cope with a walking time-bomb like Duanne Luckow. While it is beyond the scope of this article, I can say that I have seen such problems up-close and can empathize deeply with what Sandra Luckow had to endure.

As American as apple pie, the Luckows hailed from Portland, Oregon where her father operated an antique car repair shop. Mechanically gifted, he built a tiny helicopter that he flew for pleasure. Showing the same aptitude as his father, Duanne soon became his partner. In addition to his talent for repairing cars, Duanne also became an avid home movie buff, varying between the typical vacation fare and ambitious works depicting himself as a James Bond type super-spy. He also was an accomplished still photographer who managed to entice young women into cheesecake type shoots that oddly enough substituted for any real intimacy. Looking back at this and other eccentricities, Sandra wonders whether the family might have sought professional help early on. Obviously, those eccentricities were normal enough in a country that is a breeding ground for maladjustment.

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September 13, 2017

My mentally ill troll

Filed under: psychology — louisproyect @ 11:43 pm

This guy has been writing comments for at least a decade. I can’t remember when I put him into a spam filter but it must have been at least 6 years ago when I started writing about Syria. It doesn’t seem to matter to him that all of his comments end up in the trash. Some inner compulsion must force him to write such things that nobody reads except me when I am obligated to remove them from my trash bin like flushing the toilet after a big bowel movement. He must be a lonely soul up there in Boston (an Iranian it would appear based on past communications), who feels that he is defending the mullahs by excoriating me or in this instance my good friend Reza. One of these days when he writes me one of his comments threatening violence, I just might cross class lines and contact the cops. His IP address can easily be tracked down.

October 16, 2015


Filed under: Counterpunch,psychology,television — louisproyect @ 3:59 pm

Hannibal: Television in the Spirit of Buñuel

As a rule of thumb, network television is the bottom feeder in popular culture while the novel, a medium we associate with classics such as “Don Quixote” and “Moby Dick”, dwells in the heavens. In a striking reversal, NBC television has aired a series called “Hannibal” that while based on the novels of Thomas Harris is far more complex and inspired than the source. As each episode begins, we see the words “Based on the characters of the book ‘Red Dragon’ by Thomas Harris”. Having just read “Red Dragon” to help me prepare this review, I would say the relationship between the source and its offspring is close to the one that exists between a banal tune like “Tea for Two” and how Thelonious Monk interpreted it.

The television show also borrows from the novel “Hannibal”, which like “Red Dragon”, was written after “Silence of the Lambs” in an obvious bid to cash in on the massive book sales that followed Jonathan Demme’s blockbuster film. The TV series omitted any reference to “Silence of the Lambs” and to Clarice Starling, a wise move since this overly familiar material would have undercut the goal of seeing the characters with fresh eyes. Once you’ve seen Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins square off, there’s no turning back.

For some Thomas Harris is a novelist to be reckoned with. David Foster Wallace includes “Red Dragon” and “Silence of the Lambs” as two of his top-rated ten novels. That being said, he is a fan of pulp fiction and includes Stephen King’s “The Stand” as well. (A confession: I consider King to be the finest novelist writing today.) In my view, “Red Dragon” is an engaging police procedural that includes lots of chatter about carpet fibers, fingerprints, blood samples, autopsies and the like. If you enjoy CSI, you’ll probably go for this novel in a big way. Given Harris’s background as crime reporter for a Waco, Texas newspaper, he is obviously familiar with the terrain.

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October 23, 2012

Joaquin Phoenix appearance on the David Letterman show

Filed under: Film,popular culture,psychology — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

From Christopher Glazek’s “Phoenixes: Hollywood’s Children” in the Summer 2012 edition of N+1:

“I’ll never forgive Joaquin Phoenix for overshadowing Two Lovers,” complained Richard Brody, the New Yorker’s film editor. He wasn’t the only one offended by Phoenix’s hijinks. In February 2009, shortly after the release of Two Lovers, Phoenix appeared on David Letterman’s show to promote the movie. By that time, however, he had transformed into something different from the hunky specimen of the Two Lovers trailer. As he slid into a chair opposite Letterman, bearded and glutted, chewing gum and wearing sunglasses, he looked less like Johnny Cash than a cross between Borat and Slavoj Zizek.

Phoenix’s comportment was equally bizarre—he was hostile, shaky, and seemingly on the verge of tears. He appeared either drugged or insane, or both. He insisted that he was serious about his rap career—he would perform under the handle “JP”—and asked whether Letterman would book him as a musical act. Caught off guard, Letterman fought back. “Tell us about your time with the Unabomber,” he suggested. Phoenix responded with scary silence.

Eventually, Letterman showed a clip from Two Lovers, a film in which Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a young man suffering from bipolar disorder. In his review of the film, Richard Brody called Two Lovers “majestic,” deeming it the fourth-best movie of 2009, tied with Judd Apatow’s Funny People. Two Lovers begins with a botched suicide attempt. After Kraditor’s fiancee discovers the couple is at risk for conceiving a child with Tay Sachs disease, she leaves him; Kraditor decides to jump off a bridge. The bridge isn’t very tall, and he survives. In the weeks that follow, Kraditor is confronted with two women apparently meant to correspond to the two poles of his personality: the wild side—played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who delivers an older, frumpier version of the crazy-person performance she gave eight years before in The Anniversary Party—and the subdued side—played by Vinessa Shaw, whose character is the scioness of a Jewish dry cleaning fortune.

Neither manic nor depressive, Phoenix’s Kraditor charms his love interests with arty oddness, conveying depths of sensitivity familiar to fans of Russell Crowe’s performance as the schizophrenic game theorist John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Deferring to a Hollywood tradition, Two Lovers in effect confuses bipolar disorder with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that wouldn’t undergo its own official glamorization until later that year with the Hugh Dancy star vehicle Adam.

Phoenix told Letterman he hadn’t bothered to see Two Lovers; Letterman huffed at what he took to be Phoenix’s charade. At the end of the interview Letterman said with disappointment, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”

But Phoenix really was there, and it’s tempting to believe he was telling the truth. To those familiar with the rhythms and cadence of actually existing manic depression, Two Lovers, otherwise a schmaltzy trifle, is indeed quite painful to watch. The irony is that at the same time Phoenix was badly impersonating a crazy person on screens across America, he was very successfully and disturbingly imitating a crazy person in his everyday life. The footage collected in I’m Still Here cannot be described as a mockumentary, not in the genial manner of a Christopher Guest project. In their zeal to uncover the “truth” behind the film, the critics missed the movie’s deeper truth: I’m Still Here exposes its audience to a spectrum of anger and pathos that forestalls the literal-minded question of whether Phoenix’s performance was motivated by a genuine mental breakdown, or by the impulse to recreate such a breakdown and map its public consequences.

The film’s effect is distressing. Its reality-style scenes resemble footage from Jackass or Cops rather than the fastidiously wrought images we associate with “cinema”—but instead of inducing the usual schadenfreude, these pranks leave the viewer feeling prickly and unnerved. The creatures who slither around Hollywood are insulated by fame, not oppressed by it. They worry about each other, not the public. Like other tacky rich people, they live in large and unglamorous structures in the hilly sections of Los Angeles. Actors, PR professionals, club promoters, TV reporters, hangers-on, and YouTube critics are all shown to be callow predators who flatter the powerful and devour the vulnerable.

In other words, Hollywood is exactly as depraved as any other sector of society.

“I live a really boring life,” Phoenix told a reporter in 2007. “I’m much more cliched, pathetic, and pretentious than you would probably give me credit for.”

Critics resented the stunt because they thought Phoenix and his codirector Casey Affleck were having a laugh at their expense. They were right to feel targeted, wrong about the hoax. There’s no cynicism in I’m Still Here. The film is an act of revenge.

May 22, 2012


Filed under: Film,psychology — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

From time to time I get complaints on my blog or on the Marxism list about my movie reviews that are supposed to be some kind of diversion from the really important topics like the declining rate of profit or torture in Bahrain, etc. In my own defense, as if any were needed, I write about popular culture because I am a student of CLR James who was not above writing a book on cricket. And there’s also Ernest Mandel, who wrote a book on spy novels. Plus, who wants to stay limited to the nitty-gritty of the class struggle? There’s more to life than that.

That being said, it is not like I am writing reviews of the latest Adam Sandler movie. Indeed, despite being hairshirt sectarians, the World Socialist website is not above reviewing something like “Titanic”, even though David Walsh dismissed it as “a bad piece of work—poorly scripted, poorly acted, poorly directed.” One thing I’ve learned after having written over 600 reviews in the past 20 years or so, there’s no need for me to weigh in on something like “Titanic”. Life is too short and I’d rather just ignore the “poorly scripted” and focus on offbeat, worthy material that I think lefties would get something out of.

That should suffice as an introduction to “OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie”, a documentary that opens on May 25th at the Village East. OC87 refers to the mental state of Bradford “Bud” Clayman, the subject of the film and one of its directors:

The title OC87 refers to a state I was in in 1987 when I tried to control my whole world. I literally tried to be independent of everyone and everything around me. If someone would go to make small talk with me, I would remain silent. If someone would try to help me, I would refuse that help. This film is my coming out party, so to say. It is a rebirth for me which I think everybody should have. It is a letting go of the shackles and demons that have haunted me most of my life. It is my personal liberation.

The OC stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the “shackles and demons” that Clayman sought to overcome by working with a group of dedicated professionals to tell his story. OC does not cover all the bases, however. As indicated in the film’s title, Clayman also suffered from depression, bipolar, and Asperger’s, a Job-like assortment of ailments that kept him confined to a group home for 8 years. While the film is inspirational to the degree that it shows Clayman coming out of his shell, there is little expectation of a happy ending. Instead, the prevailing sentiment of all concerned, especially Clayman, is that life will remain a struggle—something to be expected given the brain chemistry that fate dealt him.

“OC87” follows Clayman around as he meets with medical experts, old friends and with fellow OC sufferers. When he is by himself, he talks into the camera about all the trials that daily life imposes, mostly trying to not give in to his symptoms. While the popular perception of OC–known to many through Martin Scorsese’s biopic about Howard Hughes, a Larry David episode or the detective series Monk—mostly consists of frequent hand-washing and the like, the variety that Clayman suffers from is far more insidious, as the press notes indicate:

Through video diaries, Bud reveals eye-opening glimpses of his inner world, including OC87, an altered state of mind named by Bud and his therapist. “My mind becomes filled with intrusive thoughts that over-analyze every action and idea,” he says. “As my awareness becomes dominated by themes of control and mental commands, OC87 causes me to lose touch with not only my feelings, but also social connection.” It also gets in the way of ordinary living: riding a bus, getting in an elevator, unclogging a drain. As a long standing struggle, OC87 is embedded in Bud’s pent-up confrontation of a former mentor—a moment that‘s been brewing for thirty years.

Clayman’s interaction with others suffering from mental illnesses is filled with both his and his acquaintances good sense of humor. Despite the burden imposed on them, they make the best of their lives, including a psychiatrist who had Schizophrenia (Dan Fisher, MD-PhD), a television daytime drama star with Bipolar Disorder (Maurice Benard, General Hospital), and a radio news anchor with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Jeff Bell).

Despite the obvious focus on getting through life with a major mental illness, “OC87” is also about the redemptive power of art, specifically film. From an early age, Bradford Clayman was passionate about television and movies, enough so that this became his major at Temple University. After graduating, he moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a scriptwriter or editor, an attempt that was hobbled by his disability. Finally now, after a quarter-century, he has arrived as a documentary director. One hopes that with his success, he will be able to move on to other projects.

Returning to the question posed at the beginning of this review, I would say that I review films like OC87 for the same reason I have been involved with radical politics for 45 years. It is my way of connecting to interesting people whose values I share. While I have never had any interest in getting to know the directors of the garbage now playing at my neighborhood Cineplex, I am delighted to have found out about someone like Glenn Holsten, one of “OC87”’s directing team. In the press notes, he had this to say:

How have I changed? I have a deeper understanding of and sensitivity to the perhaps hellish journeys that fellow travelers in life may be experiencing in the most common of places—buses, elevators, diners. I have a heightened sensitivity to people I pass on the street who might not be able to look me in the eye when I greet them. I don’t assume to understand how someone receives a message, until they tell me. I have a greater appreciation for my own ability to navigate different social situations. And, as Buddy says in the film, I live with the risk. Working on the film has reminded me of how delicate life is.

Well said.

January 1, 2012

Public opinion polls and the left

Filed under: anti-capitalism,financial crisis,press,psychology — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

On December 12th the Gallup Poll issued a press release about their latest findings: fear of “big government” was at a near record level. And even more strikingly, Democratic voters represented the largest uptick since the last poll was taken. In 2009 32% of Democrats told Gallup that they were afraid of big government, now the number is 48%. As might be expected, conservative pundits embraced these findings as proof that the country was tired of Obama, tired of liberalism, tired of socialism, etc. David Brooks, the oleaginous NY Times op-ed contributor, wrote:

The members of the Obama administration have many fine talents, but making adept historical analogies may not be among them.

When the administration came to office in the depths of the financial crisis, many of its leading figures concluded that the moment was analogous to the Great Depression. They read books about the New Deal and sought to learn from F.D.R.

But, in the 1930s, people genuinely looked to government to ease their fears and restore their confidence. Today, Americans are more likely to fear government than be reassured by it.

According to a Gallup survey, 64 percent of Americans polled said they believed that big government is the biggest threat to the country. Only 26 percent believed that big business is the biggest threat. As a result, the public has reacted to Obama’s activism with fear and anxiety. The Democrats lost 63 House seats in the 2010 elections.

My first reaction to all this was to laugh at the idea of using a pejorative term like “big government” in a poll. This of course is the commonly used buzzword of Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the talk radio right. Like a bell being sounded with Pavlov’s dogs, who would not salivate?

Even more laughable is the idea of getting a clear idea of what the term means to different people being polled. For example, one of the hallmarks of “big government” are entitlement programs such as social security. But according to a Lake Research Partners poll taken in November 2010, 67% of all Americans oppose cutting Social Security to help make the government more solvent with 51 percent of Tea Party supporters being opposed.

A few days later those of us who were disheartened by the findings might have been convinced to come down off the ledge after hearing from Pew Research that young people are more positive about “socialism” — and more negative about “capitalism” — than are older Americans.

My first reaction to this was to wonder what young people think of when they hear the word socialism. Back in the 1960s, when I used to sell subscriptions to the Militant newspaper door-to-door in college dormitories, my opening pitch for a “socialist newsweekly” elicited more often than not the query “you mean like in Sweden or Israel?” That in fact is what the word meant to most young people. I guess we could have called the newspaper “communist” to avoid confusion in the same manner that the SWP eventually began to refer to itself but wiser heads back then understood that the choice of such a word would have resulted in the incredible shrinking party, something that its Wise Leader evidently intended.

Polling dominates the political sphere since it serves as entrails for those of us with a soothsaying bent. Back in the 60s SWP members would fixate on every poll taken about the Vietnam War, looking at the numbers as closely as a physician looking at a patient’s chart. Part of the problem in interpreting such numbers is that the question attached to them was often phrased in such a manner as to undercut the antiwar movement. While not quite using the words “Do you favor a precipitous withdrawal in order to guarantee a communist victory that will lead to gulags in Indiana”, they often were nearly as bad.

David Moore was a vice-president of Gallup for 13 years and knows the tricks of the trade. In 2008 the leftwing Beacon Press published his “The Opinion Makers: An Insider Exposes the Truth Behind the Polls”, the first chapter of which can be read on their website. As it deals with the war in Iraq, it has many of the same lessons I learned about polling during the Vietnam War. Moore writes about an experiment he conducted with a fellow Gallup professional about the way that the polls were being used to create a war hysteria:

In the February 2003 poll, we asked a standard version of the question that all the other pollsters asked, “Would you favor or oppose sending American ground troops to the Persian Gulf in an attempt to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq?” And like the other polls, we found a substantial majority in favor of the war—59 percent to 38 percent, a 21-point margin. Only 3 percent said they did not have an opinion. We followed up that question with another, which essentially asked if people really cared that their opinion might prevail. And the results here revealed a very different public.

To people who said they favored the war, we asked if they would be upset if the government did not send troops to Iraq. And to people who opposed the war, we asked if they would be upset if the government did send troops. More than half of the supposed supporters and a fifth of the opponents said they would not be upset if their opinions were ignored. The net result is that 29 percent of Americans actually supported the war and said they would be upset if it didn’t come about, whereas 30 percent were opposed to the war and said they would be upset if it did occur. An additional 38 percent, who had expressed an opinion either for or against the proposed invasion, said they would not be upset if the government did the opposite of what they had just favored. Add to this number the 3 percent who initially expressed no opinion, and that makes 41 percent who didn’t care one way or the other.

These results from the follow-up question reveal the absurdity of much public opinion polling. A democracy is supposed to represent, or at least take into account, the “will” of the people, not the uncaring, unreflective, top-of-mind responses many people give to pollsters. If people don’t care that the views they tell pollsters are ignored by their political leaders, then it hardly makes sense for pollsters to treat such responses as the Holy Grail. Yet, typically we do, making no distinction between those who express deeply held views and those who have hardly, if at all, thought about an issue.

Maybe it is because of my unrepentant nature, I have stopped paying attention much to polls ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ascendancy of Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis. Frankly, I could care less if I was the last person in America who thought that the capitalist system was insane. My inspiration would remain Henry David Thoreau who when jailed for refusing to pay taxes that would have supported a war with Mexico was visited by Ralph Waldo Emerson who asked him what he was doing in there. Thoreau’s reply: “And what are you doing out there?”

It has taken two decades but a good portion of America has come to conclusions similar to my own, especially the young people who braved cold weather, discomfort and police brutality to demonstrate their opposition to the One Percent. They had the good sense to occupy Zuccotti not on the basis that a Gallup Poll thought it would be a good idea but because social justice demanded it. And once they started raising hell, the poll numbers reflected sympathy for their action.

In an article titled “Polling Prejudice” in the American Prospect, Taeku Lee wrote:

Some of the earliest public-opinion polls in the 1940s found that an overwhelming majority (about two-thirds) of whites were willing to support segregated schools. By the mid-1990s (the last time questions on school segregation were asked), only one out of every 25 whites held to the same view. Similarly, on interracial couples, polls from the late-1950s and early-1960s found nearly universal disapproval among white Americans; by the 1990s, only a small fraction of whites favored anti-miscegenation laws and a majority actively indicated their support of interracial marriages. Over an even shorter time period, the prevalence of invidious stereotypes of African Americans as less intelligent and less industrious than whites declined between the early-1990s and the mid-2000s.

What do you suppose accounts for the declining poll numbers for racism? Isn’t it obvious that the bold and determined action of civil rights activists is key? Like the OWS, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups threw caution to the wind and went into the belly of the beast to confront Jim Crow. Their actions galvanized public opinion and made it inevitable for voting rights and desegregation to prevail.

In order to challenge the capitalist system, we have to assume that we are swimming against the stream. With a superstructure controlled by the rich, “public opinion” will inevitably reflect that of the dominant class as Marx wrote 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. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.

However, when the “dominant material relationships” begin to fail, more and more people will be open to alternative ideas about the social order.  That time has arrived. With support for the political classes in Washington at an all-time low, this is an invitation for us to raise all kinds of hell. And when Gallup reports that such support continues to slide, you can bet that I will take them at their word.

August 19, 2011

Programming the Nation

Filed under: Film,media,psychology — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

One of the most stunning revelations—at least for me—in the eye-opening documentary “Programming the Nation”, a history of subliminal messaging in America that opens today at the Quad Cinema in NY, was the fact that Edward Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Bernays, the father of public relations who collaborated with Walter Lippmann to craft WWI propaganda, was eager to utilize Freud’s insights into the subconscious to seduce the American public into backing a bloody imperialist war, or, as the need arose, buying Kellog’s corn flakes. In essence, this is the point of a documentary 7 years in the making—to show how American society is saturated with subliminal messages to feed the consumerist machine, and when necessary to get young men and women to violently defend the machine against all threats.

Bernays’s Freudian predilections reminded me of “Mad Men” with its constant chatter about how a particular cigarette or whiskey ad will appeal to the consumer’s libido. As a show steeped in the late 50s/early 60s zeitgeist, it might have easily dramatized subliminal advertising, the much discussed but poorly understood phenomenon of the period. We learn from “Programming the Nation” that its first occurrence was more of an urban legend than a reality. In 1957 market researcher James Vicary conducted an experiment in which messages such as “Drink Coca-Cola” or “Buy popcorn” were flashed rapidly during showings of the movie “Picnic”. After he produced statistics that demonstrated sales shot up, he was forced to admit that they were falsified. The Vicary experiment was the centerpiece of a best-seller in the late 50s by Vance Packard titled “The Hidden Persuaders”. Packard also wrote “The Status Seekers”, a book that along with “The Organization Man” gave young people like myself the first inkling that not all was right during the heyday of the “American Century”.

A film with a title like “Programming the Nation” could have easily turned into a lurid conspiracist tale about mind control in line with a number of pop culture references that were alluded to at its beginning. One of these is John Carpenter’s terrific “They Live”, in which the hero (wrestler Roddy Piper) sees messages like “No independent thought … Consume … Conform … Stay asleep … This is your God  … Do not question authority … No parking” on building walls through special glasses given to him by a rebel. But director Jeff Warrick, who has a background in marketing and decided to make the film after developing the suspicion that the “war on terror” launched in 2001 was fueled by subliminal messaging, utilizes a much more interesting and useful approach. He allows experts on both sides of the question to express their opinions without stating his own. Indeed, one gets the sense that he is not entirely persuaded that subliminal messaging strictly defined (in other words, words or images that are barely perceptible) is as much of a problem as the messaging that is much more in your face and that makes fairly explicit connections, for example, between sexual fulfillment and a Lexus sedan.

The film relies heavily on experts in the field of subliminal messaging, including Wilson Bryan Key, the author of “Subliminal Seduction”, the definitive treatment of the practice. Key, like Vance Packard, considered subliminal messaging a real threat to American society even though he had doubts about the cruder version of the practice symbolized by Vicary’s “Drink Coca-Cola” messages. You also hear from media critics of the left like Mark Crispin Miller, Noam Chomsky and Amy Goodman who are far more concerned about the more obvious messaging techniques that are turning America into a consumerist nightmare bent on world domination.

Whether or not subliminal messages actually work, powerful forces in advertising and politics continue to use them. One of the more notorious examples was reported by ABC news in 2000:

Vice President Al Gore is accusing Republicans of dirty tricks for running a television ad that flashes the word “RATS” on screen for a split second.

“I’ve seen the pictures from the ad,” the vice president told reporters as he campaigned in Ohio today. “I find this a very disappointing development. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I think the ad speaks for itself.”

In a Republican National Committee commercial criticizing Gore on health care, the word “RATS” appears on screen for a brief moment before the full word “bureaucrats” appears.

But GOP nominee George W. Bush dismissed the notion that the visual effect was intended to subliminally manipulate voters, as the Gore campaign has suggested.

“The idea of putting subliminal messages into ads is ridiculous,” Bush told reporters this morning in Orlando, Fla. “One frame out of 900 hardly, in my judgment, makes a conspiracy.

You can see Bush speaking to reporters in the film but the last paragraph does not quote him accurately. Bush said, “The idea of putting sublimanible messages into ads is ridiculous…” That pretty much sums up the difference between Bush and Obama, who never would have mispronounced the word subliminal. In fact, it has now become obvious that Obama is merely the latest product to roll off Edward Bernays’s assembly line:

ORLANDO, Fla. (AdAge.com) — Just weeks before he demonstrates whether his campaign’s blend of grass-roots appeal and big media-budget know-how has converted the American electorate, Sen. Barack Obama has shown he’s already won over the nation’s brand builders. He’s been named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008.

Mr. Obama won the vote of hundreds of marketers, agency heads and marketing-services vendors gathered here at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference.

Mr. Obama won the vote of hundreds of marketers, agency heads and marketing-services vendors gathered here at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference.

“I think he did a great job of going from a relative unknown to a household name to being a candidate for president,” said Linda Clarizio, president of AOL’s Platform A, the sponsor of the opening-night dinner attended by 750 where the votes were cast.

“I honestly look at [Obama’s] campaign and I look at it as something that we can all learn from as marketers,” said Angus Macaulay, VP-Rodale marketing solutions “To see what he’s done, to be able to create a social network and do it in a way where it’s created the tools to let people get engaged very easily. It’s very easy for people to participate.”

Finally, I would ignore the negative reviews that this splendid documentary has received, especially from the NY Times.  This film is essential viewing for those trying to get a handle on the Orwellian world we are living in today, including a newspaper that saw fit to publish Judith Miller on the war in Iraq, an example of Edward Bernays media manipulation second to none.

December 7, 2009

Among the Freudians

Filed under: Gay,psychology — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

This year I worked with a couple of people on a comic book memoir about my comic life that should be out in 2011, god willing.

That exercise has triggered a Proustian examination of key episodes facilitated more by Google than a Madeline dunked into a cup of tea. Pretty much all of my strange encounters will be covered in the memoir but one slipped my mind entirely. When I was 14, my parents shipped me off to summer camp for neurotic children. Yes, I know that sounds funny but that’s what it was. Just like there are summer camps for fat kids, Jewish kids, rightwing Christian fundamentalist kids, there are summer camps for neurotics. At least there was in 1959.

Around the time I turned 14, my mother became worried that I never smiled. I suppose if she asked me why, I could have told her that I was tired of being bullied by bigger kids in school and by the mindless materialism and conformity that I was growing disenchanted with. I still didn’t have a handle on my malaise, but reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg a year later would help me figure it out. And then a year later, when I turned 16, I went off to Bard College where I became acquainted with 400 other neurotic youth newly liberated by the school that Walter Winchell had called “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson”.

My loquacious mother was asking around about what to do with me, especially during the summer when vacationing Jews from New York flooded into our village, bringing their big-city sophistication up with them. We were rubes by comparison. One of these Jews was Kenny Gottlieb, an Amherst undergraduate who was working summers at the Olympic Hotel. Like thousands of other young men depicted in movies like “Dirty Dancing”, the summer earnings as camp counselors, waiters and busboys helped pay tuition and expenses at places like Amherst and Columbia. Kenny’s uncle was Sam Weiser, the owner of a famous occult bookstore in New York that has since moved to Maine. After I became a fledgling beatnik, I used to make pilgrimages to the bookstore to browse titles in Gnosticism, Kabbalah and other “hipster” religions.

Kenny was introduced to my mom by the people who ran the hotel, who were locals like us. Sizing up my situation, he recommended that I be shipped off to Camp Quakerbridge in Croton-on-Hudson that was run by a psychiatrist named Samuel Kahn whose sister owned the Olympic. So in the summer of 1959, I went to summer camp for the first time in my life. Instead of playing pinball machines, fishing for pickerel in nearby ponds or shooting off firecrackers with my hooligan pals, I was going off to be “cured”.

Most of the kids there were Jews like me and seemed to be suffering from the kind of emotional burdens associated with middle-class life as documented in the novels of Philip Roth. Whether they could be described as “neurosis” or not is open to debate but that did not seem to deter the counselors and social worker/therapists who were steeped in Freudian theory and camp director Samuel Kahn’s particular interpretations of the man he studied with.

A typical day might consist of playing softball from 9:30 to 11 followed by a session with “Mrs. Rabinowitz” (I can’t remember any of their names except Kahn’s) who explained to us kids what was wrong not only with us, but most of the human race. Using a blackboard, she went through terms like “ego”, “superego” and “id” to bring us up to speed. When she came to the Oedipal Complex, most of us had trouble wrapping our minds around that. The idea of having erotic feelings toward one’s mother seemed most improbable, especially when you had a look at some of them who came up to visit on weekends.

I didn’t take the lectures that seriously but was happy to get away from my father’s fruit store for the summer. I was expected to put in a few hours a day waiting on customers who asked in thick Yiddish accents “you got some nice tomatoes maybe?”

In early July, having spent about a month there, I wandered over to the main building where I spotted a group of the counselors and other staff members sitting around in a circle while the camp’s drama director walked up and down in the middle. For a few moments, he was talking about things that were troubling him that would not be of much interest to a 14 year old—like a sense of inadequacy, etc. You have to become an adult for such things to get you down, especially in bourgeois society. But what happened next was totally unexpected. The counselor began to sob uncontrollably about his problems, the tears falling down his face. I had never seen a grown man cry, an act that was particularly rare in the self-controlled masculine world of the 1950s.

A few days later, I received an even greater shock. Dr. Samuel Kahn wanted to meet with me, about what I had no idea. We sat on a bench near the main building and he presented a proposal to me. He thought that I would benefit from living with a couple in Croton-on-Hudson who would be able to “rescue” me from the misery my parents were inflicting on me. Although I was happy to be away from them for a summer, the idea of going to live with people who cried in public and whose lives revolved around discussing the superego was not my cup of tea. I called my mom that evening and demanded to be brought home. Since my father’s fruit store was doing a booming business that summer (the Catskills would collapse only 6 or 7 years later), they didn’t think twice about bringing me home to wait on customers.

Just out of curiosity, I did some investigation on “Samuel Kahn” and “Quakerbridge” on the Internet. This is what I came up with. The NY Times reported on December 28, 1981:

Dr. Samuel Kahn, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had studied with Freud, died Thursday at Westchester County Medical Center in White Plains. Dr. Kahn, who was a resident of Croton-on-Hudson, was 84 years old.

He was born in Atlanta and was a graduate of Emory University where he also received his medical degree. Dr. Kahn interned in various New York City hospitals and studied in Vienna.

He was a clinical psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital and served as an associate professor at Long Island University. He was the founder and a director of the Quakerbridge School, a youth camp in Ossining, N. Y.

Dr. Kahn was the author of more than 30 books of psychotherapy, of which the most recent was ”Practical Child Guidance and Mental Hygiene.” Among others were ”How and Why We Laugh,” ”Anxieties, Phobias and Fears,”, ”Master Your Mind!” and ”Thanks for a Better Memory.”

He is survived by his wife, Karen; two daughters, Dr. Janice Kahn of Island Park, L. I., and Susannah of Ossining, N. Y.; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Of even greater interest was a website called http://quakerbridgecamp.com/ (now defunct) that has a bunch of the good Doctor’s musings. The first one that caught my eye was called “Acting Out” – Homosexuality and Bisexuality, a talk he gave exactly 52 years ago to this day. He explains:

A passive homosexual is one who can be made into an active homosexual by special circumstances. Under ordinary circumstances he prefers heterosexuality, but supposing he would get drunk and be locked up in a room with a homosexual, he would have homosexual relations. When the drinks wear off, he again prefers heterosexuality. The largest numbers of homosexuals are the passive unconscious homosexuals. These don’t know that they are homosexuals and they are the ones who get mentally sick. The way to find out whether one is a passive unconscious homosexual is to interpret the dreams. Many times these dreams are symbolic so that the individual himself cannot interpret the dreams and hence, may not recognize his homosexuality or the kind it is. Once in awhile a passive unconscious homosexual may have an overt homosexual dream. This may happen, but it is not so common. These dreams may or may not be remembered. The exact situation may happen to females.

The first time I got an inkling how stupid this was from the comedians Jack Burns and Avery Shreiber who did a skit called “The Conventioneer and the Cabdriver” around this time on television. Burns played the conventioneer as a thick-necked Rotarian from someplace like East Jesus, Nebraska who was in NY for a convention. Shreiber, the cabby, was taking him to his hotel and answering his anxious questions about the visit. Somehow, the conversation turned to ballet dancers that the Rotarian heard thrived in New York. He told the cabby that if any of them ever got smart with him, he’d punch them out. Everybody understood how stupid he sounded, even if the reference to gays was only veiled. 10 years later, with the Stonewall rebellion, most intelligent people in the U.S. would have nothing to do with the prejudices of the conventioneer played by Burns or by Dr. Samuel. As backward as American society can seem sometimes, I have to remind myself from time to time that we are making progress.

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