Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 3, 2011

The Sikh struggle through the prism of film

Filed under: Film,india,religion — louisproyect @ 8:14 pm

Like most people, before 2007 I only knew Sikhs by their appearance—and particularly the physically imposing men with their turbans and beards. But in May of that year, I saw something that turned me around–Shonali Bose’s “Amu”,  a dramatization of what amounted to genocide in India in 1984.

In the press notes for the film, Shonali wrote:

Such a history cannot be buried and forgotten. Young people cannot make their future or understand their present without knowing the past. Today, twenty-two years after an elected government massacred its own people in full view of the world, no one has been punished. And as a result, the cycle of violence has continued against other communities. What kind of political system is this in which those in power can get away with such crimes again and again? This is the question Amu leaves the young protagonists with as they walk down a railway track into the future. This is why I made Amu. So that people all over the world will ask the question.

Now, four years later, I return to the Sikh struggle once again through the prism of film.

On October 14th I attended the opening night of the Sikh Film Festival in New York and saw two documentaries that went to the heart of the problems facing this 25 million strong religious group, three-quarters of whom live in Punjab, India, as well as other South Asians suffering from economic oppression.

Harpreet Kaur’s “A Little Revolution: A Story of Suicides and Dreams” featured the director in her campaign to win justice for the surviving family members of Punjabi peasants who have killed themselves out of desperation. Like so many peasants in India, Sikh and non-Sikh, the industrial transformation of Indian farming has condemned many to crushing debts.

Obviously related to the first documentary in terms of its economic focus, Alberto Garcia Ortiz and Agatha Maciaszek’s “The Ulysses” tells the story of Bangladeshi undocumented workers who are living in limbo. Deceived into thinking that they were destined for Europe and gainful employment, they are stranded in Ceuta, Morocco, a European enclave, where they construct a shanty-town and look after each other’s needs.

It is an obvious testimony to the ecumenical character of Sikh society that a film featuring the plight of non-Sikh peoples is featured on opening night.

Arguably, the Sikh religion is rooted in the same kind of belief in social equality that marked the early days of Christianity, long before that religion became associated with imperial power and intolerance. In Purnima Dhavan’s “When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition, 1699-1799”, a book that can be read in part on Google, we learn:

The creation of the Khalsa [initiated Sikh] is important for many reasons. Its foundational texts questioned every facet of the social and political hierarchies that dominated peasant life in the seventeenth century. Other than challenging the moral right of the Mughal emperor to rule, Khalsa Sikhs, who were among the first to describe appropriate Khalsa practices, also questioned the hierarchies of caste and inherited privilege that dominated their world.

In one of the talks given at opening night of the Sikh Film Festival, a Sikh leader gave a brief overview of this formative period that involved some legendary battles of vastly outnumbered Sikh fighters against the Mughal army. Unlike the Old Testament, these heroic encounters were true and did not involve divine intervention. In point of fact, the Sikh religion has little use for such deus ex machina miracles or any other superstitions, as the Sikh wiki points out:

Superstitions and rituals should not be observed or followed, including pilgrimages, fasting and ritual purification; circumcision; idols & grave worship…

Sikhism does not have priests, they were abolished by Guru Gobind Singh (the 10th Guru of Sikhism). The only position he left was a Granthi to look after the Guru Granth Sahib, any Sikh is free to become Granthi or read from the Guru Granth Sahib.

Over centuries, and largely driven by a need to defend themselves against those who would crush their religion, Sikh men became accomplished fighters and actually built up a sizable empire of their own that straddled Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India.

Eventually the Sikhs encountered an enemy army that they could not vanquish, namely the British colonists of the mid-19th century who fought two wars of subjugation that eventually led to the loss of Sikh power in Punjab. Once they were conquered, the Sikh warriors were heavily recruited into the British army because of their fighting skills.

While much of Karl Marx’s writings on India is problematic, relying on specious secondary sources, his 1858 Tribune article on “The Revolt in India”  is worth noting:

A conspiracy to murder their officers and to rise against the British has been discovered among several Sikh regiments at Dera Ismael Khan. How far this conspiracy was ramified, we cannot tell. Perhaps it was merely a local affair, arising among a peculiar class of Sikhs; but we are not in a position to assert this. At all events, this is a highly dangerous symptom. There are now nearly 100,000 Sikhs in the British service, and we have heard how saucy they are; they fight, they say, to-day for the British, but may fight to-morrow against them, as it may please God. Brave, passionate, fickle, they are even more subject to sudden and unexpected impulses than other Orientals. If mutiny should break out in earnest among them, then would the British indeed have hard work to keep their own. The Sikhs were always the most formidable opponents of the British among the natives of India; they have formed a comparatively powerful empire; they are of a peculiar sect of Brahminism, and hate both Hindoos and Mussulmans.

As I said, Marx did not get everything right. Although I am no expert on the Sikh religion, the idea that they are a “sect of Brahmanism” sounds wrong. But from what I have been reading lately, the notion that “The Sikhs were always the most formidable opponents of the British among the natives of India” seems indisputable.

Indeed, Marx was right on this. As the fight for Indian independence grew apace, the Sikhs became vanguard fighters. Launched in part to break the hold of corrupt Mahants (custodians) over Sikh Temples, who were often in fact not even Sikhs, it turned into a fight against the British who propped up the Mahants in their typically colonizing mode of operation.

Agnes Smedley wrote an article for the July 2, 1924 Nation Magazine titled “The Akali Movement—An Heroic Epic”. These are the concluding paragraphs:

According to the official statement of the S. G. P. Committee, published throughout the Indian press, the massacre at the Gangsar shrine in Jaito was deliberately prepared by the British Government. In the immediate vicinity of the shrine, declared the committee, and concealed behind some buildings, the authorities erected a special barbed-wire in-closure to serve as a trap into which the Akalis were to be driven and beaten. The scene leading to the temple looked like a European battlefield. The road leading to the shrine was inclosed by a barbed-wire barricade on the one side and on the other bullock carts chained together. Behind the carts, villagers, armed with clubs and drunk with liquor which had been freely supplied them, were stationed in three rows. According to the statement of Pundit Malaviya, organizer and founder of the great Benares Hindu University, in a speech before the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi, and according to the statement issued by the S. G. P. Committee, these villagers had been recruited from the surrounding villages, one from each family, on the threat of confiscation of land and expulsion from the state of any family which did not send one representative. A platoon of infantry, two detachments of cavalry, and sappers and miners were ready to receive the Jatha. Lewis guns were fixed at various places. And, more significant still, a, trench had been dug around the temple, filled with water, and then strewn with grass and twigs to give it a deceptive appearance.

The Jatha realized its fate as it approached, but it was under a sacred pledge. In a calm and devotional mood, and singing hymns, it advanced. The English commander gave a signal with a flag, and fire was opened. The Akalis did not waver, but marched forward, with hands upraised and with voices raised in a mighty religious hymn. As their comrades fell about them they picked them up and marched on. Realizing that to stop them meant to kill the last man, the cavalry surrounded them. Some thirty Sikh women in the procession, one whose baby was killed in her arms, attended the wounded; upon their refusal to withdraw they were lashed and beaten. The dead and wounded lay for twenty-four hours without any medical assistance. Some of the dead bodies were piled on pyres, drenched with kerosene oil, and burned. Others were finally loaded on carts like so many sacks of grain, and taken to the fort where the prisoners were detained.

Since the Jaito massacre five more Jathas of 500 have reached Jaito, only to be arrested. As they leave Amritsar on their long march the streets and housetops are jammed with people crying “Sat Sri Akal.” Each night they rest and educate the peasants. Crowds of people wait for hours along the routes, ready to offer them, free of all charge, food and drink.

The Akali epic is not yet ended. It has again raised India from the depression which followed Mahatma Gandhi’s arrest. It has ceased to be purely one of religious reform. It is a social and political movement led by men who prefer martyrdom to surrender. Almost every Sikh now claims the honor of being an Akali, a name drawn from the deep wells of Sikh persecution which means one who is pure in spirit, “the Deathless.”

Last Thursday I attended a press screening for “I am Singh” that opened yesterday at Big Cinemas in NY, a theater specializing in Asian films. This is a film that dramatizes the struggle against racist attacks on both Sikhs and Muslims that took place in the aftermath of 9/11.

The title of this film is almost the same as “I am Sikh” since the name Singh, which means lion, is automatically given to Sikh boys just as Kaur (princess) is given to girls. The main character is Ranveer Singh (Gulzar Chahal) who is summoned to Los Angeles from India by his mother. In the parking lot of their restaurant, skinheads have attacked his father and two older brothers. After accusing them of being behind the 9/11 attack, they begin beating them with baseball clubs. The father is in a hospital, one brother is dead, and the other is in jail falsely accused of attacking his own relatives. In this film, the Los Angeles police department is depicted as riddled with racists. No, it is not a documentary.

After Ranveer comes to Los Angeles to investigate, he finds two allies in the fight to achieve justice. One is a barrel-chested long-time Sikh member of the police force who is fired for refusing to remove his turban while on duty (played by Bollywood veteran Puneet Issar, the film’s director). The other is a Muslim from Pakistan who witnessed the skinhead attack and was also falsely accused of being a 9/11 plotter simply because his father had the same name as someone who sold a cell phone to Mohamed Atta. Once again, I have to remind you that this is not a documentary.

For those who have never seen a Bollywood film, be prepared. The actors act in a way that is a throwback to cinema’s early days, long before there was such a thing as “method acting”—something that probably never made much of a dent in Indian film to begin with. People went to movies in order to enjoy something that was about as far from “natural” as could be expected. Think of Kabuki and you get an idea of the stylized manner of Bollywood that I personally enjoy immensely.

At the press screening, there were a number of my film critic colleagues who were guffawing at the histrionic delivery of some of the actors. I had to restrain myself from going over to one of the louder ones and giving them a piece of my mind. The provincialism of some New Yorkers can be shocking.

I can recommend “I am Singh” as a powerful statement of Sikh resistance to attempts to scapegoat them. That people can be beaten or killed for simply wearing a turban is a threat to some of our most basic rights as Americans, rights that were not handed down by the rich and the powerful but won through struggle. (The Sikh community, including youth who are involved with The Sikh Activist Network, is carrying out the social struggle depicted in “I am Singh” in real life. )

Finally, the song-and-dance numbers in “I am Singh” are about as breathtaking as in any Bollywood movie I have ever seen. Trust me, unless you have seen 6’5” Sikh men dancing with swords, you haven’t seen nothin’ Here’s a clip from the movie’s official website that will give you an idea of the treat that awaits you.

October 24, 2011

Steve Jobs, Zen Buddhism and LSD

Filed under: computers,religion — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Back in 1987, when I was working at Goldman-Sachs, I sat next to a consultant named Barbara who had the loveliest violet eyes. I think she was attracted to me as well but I could never warm up to her since her values clashed with mine.

No, she was not a Republican. She was a “New Age” person who had been through the 60s counter-culture, eventually becoming a computer programmer just like me. But her real ambition was to start a business treating people with the Feldenkreis Method, a kind of low-key physical and mental exercise that was supposed to deliver health and happiness. I went to one of her evening workshops once and found it pointless, preferring to remain my neurotic, snarling anti-capitalist self.

But the real stumbling block was her often-stated desire to find a husband and move to Mamaroneck, a wealthy Westchester suburb. How had a 1960s free spirit become so bourgeois? That was a question that preoccupied me at the time.

I thought about Barbara while watching the extended segment on Steve Jobs last night on “Sixty Minutes” featuring Walter Isaacson, his authorized biographer. Isaacson went on at length about the “New Age” aspects of Jobs’s personality that were critical to his success in the business world.

Isaacson harps on Jobs’s long hair and his aversion to taking baths, a sure sign of his being “hip”, I suppose. But it was his trip to India, his Zen Buddhism, and most of all his use of LSD that made him atypical of the Silicon Valley world.

He goes on to explain that if you dig a little deeper, it was exactly those things that made Apple the big success that it was and is. The Zen Buddhism supposedly made him attuned to a kind of elegant minimalism that characterized all of his products, to the point of making him averse to on-off power switches.

The LSD was the big thing, however. It “opened his mind” in a way that he never thought possible. While not quite a prophet of the drug as Timothy Leary, Jobs is on record as stating that Bill Gates would have been much more successful if he had dropped acid himself.

I for one do not see any big contradiction between becoming a vicious captain of industry (Apple is the second most valuable corporation in the world, next to Exxon-Mobil) and embracing all of these “New Age” insights.

Despite beat poet Allan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder’s Zen training, as well as that of countless 1950s and 60s bohemians, the actual history of the religion (broadly defined) is one that includes exactly the kind of martial attitude that made Jobs into the top dog he was at the time of his death.

That is what you learn from reading Bryan Victoria’s “Zen War Stories”, a book that reviewer Stephen Heine described  in the following terms:

Brian Victoria’s work, following on the heels of the highly acclaimed but also highly provocative Zen at War (Weatherhill, 1997), continues his withering attack on the embracing of wartime ideology by leading Zen masters and practitioners in Japan. Victoria seeks to show that the attitude characteristic of numerous examples of prominent Zen monks and scholars was not a matter of only benignly resisting, or even of passively accepting, the rhetoric of Imperial Way Buddhism by clergy who were pressured and powerless to stand up to the authorities. Nor was it an example of innocently recognizing historical and ideological affinities between Zen monastic discipline and military training.

On the contrary, the Zen masters discussed here eagerly and enthusiastically endorsed some of the most excessive and reprehensible aspects of imperial ideology in the name of a corrupted vision of spiritual realization as a tool to spread the doctrine of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. They also used Zen wedded to hypernationalism and imperialism as a tool to misread the historical records of their own tradition and to help transport Japanese supremacy to China and Korea, while refusing to acknowledge or repent for their actions with the defeat of Japan. This outlook also infected numerous politicians and military figures who turned to Buddhism as a way of explaining away or masking their roles leading up to, as well as during and after World War II.

In part 1 of Zen War Stories Victoria documents several masters who have become icons in the West for their apparent adherence to Zen tradition linked with an ability to address contemporary culture. After showing in chapter 4 that Omori Sogen, praised for his prowess in swordsmanship and other arts, had a fascistic, “Mr. Hyde” side as manifested in the founding in 1932 of the Kinno Ishin Domei (League for Loyalty to the Emperor and the Restoration), Victoria turns to the case of Yasutani Haku’un. In chapter 5, “Zen Master Dogen Goes to War,” we find that Yasutani, known as the teacher of Philip Kapleau and inspiration for The Three Pillars of Zen, wanted to smash all universities for being traitors. He was a fanatical militarist who “transformed the life and thought of Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253), the thirteenth-century founder of the Soto Zen sect in Japan, into a propaganda tool for Japanese militarism” (p. 68).

In particular, Yasutani tried to argue that Dogen’s famed pilgrimage to Song China in 1223 was triggered not by a longing for Buddhist Dharma but by disgust with the new Shogunate and infatuation with preserving the Imperial House. According to Victoria, Yasutani’s corrupted spirituality did not end with a support for militarism. He was also even more “ethnic chauvinist, sexist, and anti-Semitic” (p. 68) than his teacher Harada Daiun Sogaku, whose “most memorable wartime quote is: ‘[If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of enlightenment]” (pp. 66-67).

The LSD story is even more against the grain of the New Age love-in sensibility. For the full story you need to read Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond”, all of which can be read here.  Like Zen Buddhism, LSD fit in well with the designs of the national security state that started off experimenting with it as a way to drug enemy armies into mass confusion and helplessness.

But it became even more important as a way to disorient America’s enemies within during the Vietnam War, namely that sector of the left that was open to the idea that LSD was as necessary in transforming the individual as radical politics was in transforming society.

I particularly recommend the chapter on “The Great LSD Conspiracy” that includes these revealing paragraphs:

Nearly a decade before Kesey was introduced to psychedelics as part of a government-funded drug study in Palo Alto, the CIA embarked upon a major effort to develop LSD into an effective mind control weapon. The CIA’s behavior modification programs were geared toward domestic as well as foreign populations; targets included selected individuals and large groups of people. But in what way could LSD be utilized to manipulate an individual, let alone a subculture or a social movement? LSD is not a habit-forming substance like heroin, which transforms whole communities and turns urban slums into terrains of human bondage. Whereas opiates elicit a predictable response, both pharmacologically and socially, this is not necessarily the case with psychedelics. The efficacy of acid as an instrument of social control is therefore a rather tenuous proposition.

The CIA came to terms with this fundamental truth about LSD only after years of intense experimentation. At first CIA researchers viewed LSD as a substance that produced a specific reaction (anxiety), but subsequent studies revealed that “set and setting” were important factors in determining its effects. This finding made the drug less reliable as a cloak-and-dagger weapon, and the CIA utilized LSD in actual operations — as an aid to interrogation and a discrediting agent — only on a limited basis during the Cold War. By the mid-1960s the Agency had virtually phased out its in-house acid tests in favor of more powerful chemicals such as BZ and related derivatives, which were shown to be more effective as incapacitants. But that did not mean the CIA had lost all interest in LSD. Instead the emphasis shifted to broader questions related to the social and political impact of the drug. A number of CIA-connected think tanks began to examine the relationship between the grassroots psychedelic scene and the New Left.

An accurate investigation would have shown that sizable amounts of street acid first appeared around college campuses and bohemian enclaves in 1965. This was an exceptionally creative period marked by a new assertiveness among young people. LSD accentuated a spirit of rebellion and helped to catalyze the expectations of many onto greatly expanded vistas. The social environment in which drugs were taken fostered an outlaw consciousness that was intrinsic to the development of the entire youth culture, while the use of drugs encouraged a generalizing of discontent that had significant political ramifications. The very expression of youth revolt was influenced and enhanced by the chemical mind-changers. LSD and marijuana formed the armature of a many-sided rebellion whose tentacles reached to the heights of ego-dissolving delirium, a rebellion as much concerned with the sexual and spiritual as with anything tradition ally political. It was a moment of great anticipation, and those who marched in that great Dionysian rap dance were confident that if they put their feet down on history, then history would surely budge.

But the mood had changed dramatically by the end of the decade, and the political fortunes of the New Left quickly plummeted. There were many reasons for this, not the least of which involved covert intervention by the CIA, FBI, and other spy agencies. The internecine conflicts that tore the Movement apart were fomented in part by government subversion. But such interference would have been far less effective if not for the innate vulnerability of the New Left, which emphasized both individual and social transformation as if they were two faces of an integral cultural transition, a rite of passage between a death and a difficult birth. “We had come to a curious place together, all of us,” recalls Michael Rossman.

As politics grew cultural, we realized that deeper forces were involved than had yet been named, or attended to deliberately. We were adrift in questions and potentials. The organizational disintegration of the Movement as a political body was an outer emblem of conceptual incoherence, the inability to synthesize an adequate frame of understanding (and program) to embody all that we had come to realize was essential for the transformation we sought.

An autopsy of the youth movement would show that death resulted from a variety of ills, some self-inflicted, others induced from without. There was the paramilitary bug that came in like the plague after Chicago, a bug transmitted by provocateurs and other government geeks who were welcomed by the Movement’s own incendiaries. A vicious crackdown on all forms of dissent ensued, while domestic violence played on the TV news as a nightly counterpoint to the appalling horror of Vietnam. It was the war, more than anything else, that drove activists to the brink of desperation. If not for the war, the legions of antiauthoritarian youth would never have endured the totalitarian style of the dogmatic crazies and the militant crazies who combined to blow the whole thing apart.

“What subverted the sixties decade,” according to Murray Bookchin, “was precisely the percolation of traditional radical myths, political styles, a sense of urgency, and above all, a heightened metabolism so destructive in its effects that it loosened the very roots of  ‘the movement’ even as it fostered its rank growth.” In this respect the widespread use of LSD contributed significantly to the demise of the New Left, for it heightened the metabolism of the body politic and accelerated all the changes going on — positive and negative, in all their contradictions. In its hyped-up condition the New Left managed to dethrone one president and prevent another from unleashing a nuclear attack on North Vietnam. These were mighty accomplishments, to be sure, but the Movement burnt itself out in the process. It never mastered its own intensity; nor could it stay the course and keep on a sensible political track.

Now of course Steve Jobs never had any radical politics to begin with. His use of LSD was different from that of the Weathermen who took it in order to get them even more fucked up than they were. By 1970 a deep streak of nihilism had impacted the left making people like Mark Rudd look just six degrees of separation from Charles Manson.

For budding entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, the drug probably had something of the same benefit as EST therapy had for others. If you wanted to succeed in business in the post-60s era, I suppose that some kind of rocket fuel was necessary. The old-fashioned Max Weber Protestant Ethic was inadequate for a changing world.

Back in 1967 when I applied for membership in the SWP, I understood that I had to stop taking illegal drugs. That was not much of a problem for me since I had grown bored with marijuana—a drug that I had loved when I first began using it in 1961. I had only taken LSD a couple of times. I had no idea why people like Timothy Leary or Steve Jobs could view it as some kind of mind-transforming breakthrough.

The second time I took it was at my neighbor Chip’s apartment on West 92nd Street, just a few months before joining the SWP. I was sitting on the sofa waiting for the drug to take effect when I noticed a painting on the wall that had a fish jumping out of the water—literally jumping out of the water. I smiled at Chip and asked him to open his hands which were clasped on his lap. I thought he was playing a joke. He had some sort of remote control device that made the battery-powered painting “come alive”, the kind of novelty that you might have picked up on 42nd Street. At least that’s what I thought at the time. When he opened his hands, I was stunned to see no such device and even more stunned to see hallucinogenic images all across the wall and ceiling. For about an hour and a half, I sat there enjoying my own private version of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” until the drug worked itself through my bloodstream.

As a tool that would help me see the world in new ways, I have to confess—unrepentant Marxist that I am—that it was Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” that did the trick for me instead.

August 30, 2011

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

Filed under: crime,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 6:04 pm

On August 20 the New York Times reported on the freeing of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., commonly known as the West Memphis Three. Imprisoned seventeen years ago for allegedly murdering three young boys in a satanic ritual, their freedom was won through DNA evidence as is so often the case nowadays. The article mentions a 1996 documentary about their case that led to a national campaign to win their release:

An award-winning documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” was released after their convictions, bringing them national attention.

Benefit concerts were held, books were written, a follow-up documentary was made and a movement to free the “West Memphis Three” grew in size and intensity, drawing those intrigued by the case and those who saw a kinship with the men at the heart of it.

“I was kind of going through the same clothing style: long hair, dark clothes,” said Mecinda Smith, 30, one of the hundreds of supporters who had come to the courthouse, holding posters and wearing “Free the WM3” T-shirts.

“We were just trying to stand out and be different,” said Ms. Smith, who was 12 when the murders took place.

Last night I watched it on HBO and like all their documentaries, it can be also bee seen on-demand from Time-Warner or on your computer using HBO Go. Additionally, you can rent it from Netflix, as well as a follow-up documentary made in 1999 titled Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Meanwhile, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” which was shown at this year’s New York Film Festival and scheduled for HBO next year, brings the case up to date.

These films were co-directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who also worked on “Brother’s Keeper” together, another film about marginal members of society being accused of a capital crime. In that film, a mentally impaired brother is accused of a mercy killing of his own brother on a dilapidated farm that he shared with another brother. Despite the fact that the three elderly men were reclusive and shabby-looking, this did not prevent their neighbors from pitching in to help them find a lawyer and build solidarity for the accused brother. It is a singularly inspiring film and also available from Netflix, including a streaming version.

Berlinger is also the director of “Crude”, the courageous and radical story of Chevron’s attempt to force the people of Ecuador to accept the toxic waste legacy of Texaco, a company absorbed by Chevron, that has left land and water despoiled and thousands ill. He has been in a running battle with Chevron over the oil company’s demand to see his outtakes as part of a bid to prove that they have no responsibility for the damage.

There is an obvious affinity between the characters in “Brother’s Keeper” and the West Memphis Three. The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Jessie Misskelley Jr., who had an IQ of 72 and who was grilled by the cops for 12 hours after being arrested. He was pressured to testify against his two friends Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, who—like him–came from poor and dysfunctional families. Echols in particular was the easiest to demonize since he listened to heavy metal music, dressed in Goth style and described himself as a Wiccan. In a rural Arkansan town in the early 1990s, this was not the way to endear you to the community, least of all the cops. Like many towns in the Bible Belt, it was also a breeding ground of Baptist churches that took the idea of Satan very literally.

When the local cops could not find the actual killers of the three boys, they victimized Echols and his two friends who they calculated a jury would find guilty just on the basis of their appearance. While Misskelley and Baldwin did not share Echols’s Goth lifestyle, guilt by association could be relied on by local prosecutors. As Echols states in the film, West Memphis was a modern version of Salem, Massachusetts.

With a complete lack of physical evidence, the prosecutor is forced to rely heavily on questions to Echols on the witness stand about his reading habits, particularly the Satanist Aleister Crowley who the youth has actually never read, only heard of. On his Wiccan beliefs, Echols states that he was drawn to them because they stressed the eternal female principle. One can only wonder how he survived growing up to the age of 17 in West Memphis, an ordeal by fire equal in some ways to the next 17 years he would spend in prison.

The Salem-like hysteria that pervaded this trial overlapped with the “repressed memory” sexual abuse cases of the period that were documented in another powerful HBO documentary titled “Capturing the Friedmans”, about a gay computer programming trainer who supposedly sexually abused dozens of his students in his basement classroom on Long Island without them ever telling their parents. Although Satanism was not a factor in the trial, it relied completely on the “repressed memories” of his students who described wild orgies in the basement prompted by the suggestions of the investigators.

The two themes of ritual satanic abuse and repressed memories, however, did come together in the infamous McMartin preschool case of 1983. Young children were pressured into “remembering” that the satanic teachers and care-givers at the school lured them into orgies as wild as that took place in the Friedman basement. The wiki on the McMartin case states:

Some of the accusations were described as “bizarre”,[6] overlapping with accusations that mirrored the just-starting satanic ritual abuse panic.[4] It was alleged that, in addition to having been sexually abused, they saw witches fly, traveled in a hot-air balloon, and were taken through underground tunnels.[4] When shown a series of photographs by Danny Davis, the McMartins’ lawyer, one child identified actor Chuck Norris as one of the abusers.[2]

Some of the abuse was alleged to have occurred in secret tunnels beneath the school. Several investigations turned up evidence of old buildings on the site and other debris from before the school was built, but no evidence of any secret chambers was found.[4] There were claims of orgies at car washes and airports, and of children being flushed down toilets to secret rooms where they would be abused, then cleaned up and presented back to their unsuspecting parents. Some children said they were made to play a game called “Naked Movie Star” in which they were photographed nude.[4][1][21] During the trial, testimony from the children stated that the naked movie star game was actually a rhyming taunt used to tease other children—”What you say is what you are, you’re a naked movie star,”—and had nothing to do with having naked pictures taken.[4]

Although I have been harshly critical of Alexander Cockburn in recent years, this Wall Street Journal piece on the McMartin miscarriage of justice reminds me of how his writings back then inspired me to take up the cause of the left after 11 brutal years in a Trotskyist sect:

Wall Street Journal

February 8, 1990

The McMartin Case: Indict the Children, Jail the Parents

Ray Buckey is a man whose life has already been effectively destroyed. The first charge of child abuse against this teacher at the McMartin day-care school in Manhattan Beach, Calif., was laid against him in the summer of 1983. The allegations against him had been extorted from her two-year-old by a mother — now dead — with a history of mental illness who also claimed that an AWOL Marine had sodomized her dog.

It was not long before Ray Buckey had direct experience of the operations of the justice system. The Manhattan Beach Police Department sent a letter to 200 families whose children attended McMartin that read in part, “Any information from your child regarding ever having observed Ray Buckey to leave a classroom alone with a child during a nap period, or if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child, is important.”

By spring 1984, Mr. Buckey, his mother, grandmother, sister and three fellow teachers had been arrested, and the police now claimed no less than 1,200 alleged victims of abuse. Briefly released, Mr. Buckey was rearrested and jailed for five years. On Jan. 18 of this year, after a trial that lasted more than two years and cost $15 million (making it the most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history), a jury acquitted Mr. Buckey and his mother on 52 counts of molestation. On 13 remaining counts of molestation and conspiracy against Mr. Buckey the jury was deadlocked (though it seems a majority was convinced of his innocence) and a mistrial on these counts declared.

Any sane society would have granted the Buckeys peace to recover as best they could from this horrible ordeal. But on Jan. 31, Los Angeles County District Attorney Ira Reiner announced that Ray Buckey would be retried on at least some of the 13 counts. The decision came after a period of grotesque agitation by the parents of the supposedly abused McMartin children. They appeared on talk shows, and terrorized the Los Angeles Board of County Supervisors into voting 4 to 1 to urge the district attorney to a new trial. (If he did not, they wanted the board to call upon the state attorney general to take the decision out of Mr. Reiner’s hands.)

Mr. Reiner, who is running for the office of state attorney general this year, has in the recent past lost well-publicized cases. The McMartin verdict was another blow, and he obviously felt he had to put Mr. Buckey back in court or face taunts for being soft on child abusers. Mr. Reiner was also presumably under great pressure from Attorney General John Van de Kamp to retry Mr. Buckey, since Mr. Van de Kamp is running for governor and public sentiment is strongly against the jury’s verdict of Jan. 18. So here are two men with tremendous incentives to put Mr. Buckey back in the dock — in an atmosphere so polluted with hysteria it must be doubtful whether any jury could be assembled to assure Mr. Buckey a fair trial.

The psychological squalor is even more disturbing. The McMartin case was but one in nearly 40 episodes across the country between 1983 and 1987 in which prosecutions against teachers or supervisors in day-care centers were prompted by children’s accusations.

Many of these accusations, taken seriously by parents, social workers and the justice system, were of the most fantastic nature. McMartin children said they had been marched to cemeteries to dig up bodies. One child said he had seen his teacher fly. In 1985 children in Pennsylvania said teachers had forced them to have oral sex with a goat. In 1986 children in a preschool in Sequim, Wash., said they had been made to watch animal sacrifice in a graveyard. In Chicago, the kids said they had watched a baby being boiled.

Terrible injustices were done in this extraordinary replay of the 17th-century Salem witch trials. People were tossed into prison for years, on the say-so of infants. In all 50 states children as young as two or three can testify to abuse, without corroboration from adults and without physical evidence. In many states they can make charges without having to endure cross-examination, being bounced up and down on a judge’s knee in private chambers. In some states the charges can merely be repeated as hearsay by adults.

What was the reason for this wave of self-evidently preposterous stories about a satanic network terrorizing infant schools, and other tales of ritual abuse?

Society seems to have a periodic need for witch trials. At the onset of the Reagan era there weren’t really any Communists around to persecute, so the hunt went back to the traditional exorcism of Satan, whose horns and cloven feet assumed the form of the local day-care teacher.

The 1980s also brought the great onslaught against Freud, arguing against Oedipal fantasy and in favor of the reality of physical abuse. These days many people like to claim they were “abused” as a child. It’s a way of absolving yourself for screwing up by shifting the blame to your infancy, when you can’t be blamed for anything. From these gymnastics, by which “therapists” make their money, the adult emerges guilt-free.

Also, the charges were quintessentially Reaganite, in that they took child abuse out of the family, which is where 99% of it occurs, and put it into day-care centers, which in the Schlaflyite scheme of things are abodes of Satan. Again, some parents probably feel a fair amount of guilt for dumping their children in day-care centers anyway, and are obviously ready by way of compensation to support passionately whatever their children may claim. Of course, any considerate parent, social worker or sane therapist (as opposed to the hysterical self-promoters who mostly feature in these cases) would realize that months and years of interrogation and court procedures are the very last things a child needs after a genuine case of abuse. The public investigation and litigation merely magnify the hurt.

The trouble is that these parents now have a huge emotional investment in “the case,” whether it be McMartin or similar episodes. Indeed, in some of these court trials the parents also have a strong material interest, in the form of very substantial awards by insurance companies that cover day-care centers.

So now the McMartin parents can triumphantly torture poor Ray Buckey again, abetted by the cowards and opportunists in the justice system. But if people can be prosecuted on the words of children, then children should take full responsibility for what they are saying. If a child says he saw Ray Buckey kill a horse with a baseball bat (which one did claim) and if this charge is disproved (which it was), then the child should be indicted for perjury, with present prohibition against such infant indictment removed.

If a parent abetted the child in this false accusation, then this parent should be indicted for perjury, too. If the court then establishes that parent and child were lying, at least the parent should suffer the consequences. A few well-publicized sentences of imprisonment of parents (along with “therapists” and social workers, it goes without saying) and we would see a speedy end to these disgusting miscarriages of justice.

May 21, 2011

Harold Camping and Jack Barnes

Filed under: religion,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 8:34 pm

I’m probably one of the few people on the left who actually used to not only listen to Harold Camping on the radio but actually enjoyed it. I am in the habit of listening to all sorts of esoteric radio programs late at night, particularly those that feature religious fundamentalists who take phone calls. A typical Camping moment would involve a caller asking him how to interpret some bit of scripture. Almost inevitably Camping would see it as supporting his hardline theory of predestination. God had already determined who would be saved and who would be damned and it seemed to have little to do with how you led your life. So you might as well go out and enjoy your whisky at the roadhouse rather than work with lepers. I am sure that the True Believers would insist that this was not what they meant, but that’s the way it always sounded to me.

The main thing I liked about Camping was his deep baritone voice and his rather old-fashioned enunciation. It was like listening to a character in an early 1930s movie. When he didn’t have me chuckling about hellfire and brimstone, he had me drifting off to sleep through his mellifluous and soporofic tones.

Camping, of course, has been in the news lately with his predictions about the world coming to an end. He made the same kind of prediction back in 1994 that Mother Nature ignored. At the age of 90 I doubt if he has any future in the apocalypse business.

I was on the Internet back in 1994 when he made his last prediction. Around that time I posted something about it that I can’t find now but I am pretty sure it refers to the same scholarly study about this business that Alexander Cockburn referred to on Counterpunch:

It’s a safe bet that Camping and his disciples will be saying on May 22 that his math was merely a year or two off, and the end is still nigh. His congregation will have its faith fortified. Membership will probably increase, as it did after the failure of Camping’s last prediction of the Second Coming, which he scheduled for September 6, 1994.

Sociologists call the phenomenon of increased commitment to a batty theory, at the very hour of its destruction by external evidence, “cognitive dissonance.” The theory was developed by three sociologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, who infiltrated a group headed by Dorothy Martin of Chicago who had received messages from the Planet Clarion that the world was scheduled for destruction by flood in the predawn hours of December 21, 1954. A flying saucer would save the group, whose members had abandoned, often at considerable expense and upheaval, all terrestrial commitments, pending transfer to Clarion.

The sociologists theorized that, when neither spaceship nor flood materialized, the group’s best strategy to avoid public humiliation would be to dismiss the failure of the prophesied events as due to minor miscalculations and then to proselytize vigorously, advertising a re-dated flood and interplanetary rescue. Dissonance between nutty theory and reality would be diminished amid growing popularity of the nutty theory. Anyone following the growth of the Christian religion in its early decades, or the Lesser of Two Evils crowd advocating support of a Democratic candidate, will recognize the dynamics.

Back in 1994 I was still in the throes of my SWP post-traumatic stress and tended to talk about this cult more than I do today. I am quite sure that I read about the “cognitive dissonance” theory back then and drew upon it to comment on the SWP that was just as batty in its own way as Dorothy Martin’s flying saucer cult. I can understand Cockburn’s reference to the Lesser of Two Evils cult but demur on one key point. That cult never put the kinds of demands on the faithful that the SWP did. Being a Progressive for Obama might require you to vote on election day while being in the SWP required you to donate $50 per week to the party and sell totally worthless newspapers in front of Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in Houston, Texas. That’s some difference.

Like Harold Camping or Dorothy Martin, party leader Jack Barnes never skipped a beat when one of his millenarian predictions did not pan out. In 1979, the epoch of disco dancing and cocaine, he told his followers that proletarian revolution was imminent. When it turned out that the 80s were a time of political retreat for the working class and the left, he simply wrote off his predictions as being based on “slight miscalculations” and plunged ahead with new end-of-capitalism scenarios. As it turned out, the only that came to an end is his own sorry cult.

December 25, 2010

Christmas Truce 1914

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 2:34 pm

November 3, 2010

The Prosperity Gospel

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

Valentin de Boulogne, “Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple,” c. 1618

Back in the fall of 1978, a month or so before I would turn in my resignation from the SWP—a victim of the “turn”—I was selling the Militant newspaper at the entrance to a grocery store in Kansas City on a Saturday afternoon as a middle-aged, matronly looking woman approached. She looked at me and smiled, then pointed to a Buick sedan in the parking lot, and announced “See that car? Jesus got me that car.”

This was my introduction to the “prosperity gospel”, the subject of an eye-opening article (Mammon from heaven: The prosperity gospel in recession) by Benjamin Anastas that appeared in the March 2010 Harper’s. Like most articles in this very fine magazine, it is behind a subscriber’s firewall but you can read it on the Jehovah’s Witnesses website, of all places. Here’s a key passage:

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Jesus slept in animal stalls and lived off the charity of women. He left the world with no possessions, and he cared especially for the least among us and the “poor in spirit.” His only act of violence in the Gospels occurs when he overturns the tables of the moneychangers and drives them out of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem. “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” He said. “But you have made it a den of thieves.”

In America—and, increasingly, around the world—an alternative gospel has emerged, one in which Jesus was a small businessman and entrepreneur, his disciples were men of relative wealth, and when the Son of Man traveled, he didn’t go coach. This theology is known as the “prosperity gospel,” and among its most common tenets is the belief that God wants His children to enjoy health, happiness, and wealth now and not as an eternal reward in Heaven.

The gospel of wealth in American religious life dates to the late 1800s, when the Robber Barons sought to reconcile their industrial fortunes with a Bible that warned against the pursuit of wealth. One of the most prominent exemplars of this new creed was Russell H. Conwell, a Baptist minister from Massachusetts and author of the best-selling inspirational tract “Acres of Diamonds”—originally a speech that he delivered in churches, social clubs, and meeting halls across the country. Conwell had a vision of the Gospel in which to “honestly attain unto riches” was nothing less than a godly duty for any Christian American. “Money printed your Bible,” Conwell wrote, “money builds your churches, money sends your missionaries, and money pays your preachers.”

During the economic boom that followed World War II, the prosperity gospel was embraced by the prophets of the Holy Spirit, particularly two giants of the Pentecostal tradition: Kenneth E. Hagin, father of the Word of Faith movement22. The evangelist E. W. Kenyon (1867-1948) developed the Word of Faith theological principle known as “positive confession,” which holds that whatever promises you find in Scripture and “confess” to God, you can have. and founder of the RHEMA Bible Training Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Oral Roberts, the pioneering media evangelist and founder of Oral Roberts University. The white Pentecostals of the Dust Bowl era had been among America’s poorest people. After the war, though, they gained a foothold on the American dream: houses, cars, leisure time. The uncompromising Pentecostal faith—based in firsthand encounters with the “gifts of the spirit,” such as speaking in tongues, healing, and prophecy—adapted itself to this new influx of money and opportunity. In the popular telling, Oral Roberts claimed he felt the divine hand of guidance one day in the late 1940s when his Bible miraculously opened to a passage from 3 John: “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” Roberts used this scriptural insight to boil the joyful news of the Gospel down to a simple promise: Something good is going to happen to you.

Roberts’s most enduring theological principle, and his greatest innovation as an evangelist and religious entrepreneur, was the “seed-faith” gospel. Inspired by Napoleon Hill’s 1937 handbook, Think and Grow Rich, Roberts transformed the Parable of the Sower, which for Jesus was a metaphor for the abundance of faith, into a miracle investment opportunity for believers. If they planted a “seed” in “good ground,” they were guaranteed an exponential return: “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” Seed-faith theology sanctified the human desire for wealth by converting it into a tithe or an offering to Roberts’s ministry. Versions of the seed-faith gospel are still extant in many of the largest media ministries. Whether it’s Joel Osteen’s promise of a more “abundant” life or T. D. Jakes’s coaching his followers on how to “reposition” themselves to find success, the underlying message is clear: The more freely you give, the more generously you will receive.

The connection between prosperity and Jesus has been made in the pages of Harpers before. In May 2005, there was an article by Gordon Bigelow titled Let There Be Markets: The Evangelical Roots of Economics that detailed the connections between evangelical Christianity and Victorian era economics. Fortunately, this article can be read in its entirety here even if you are not a subscriber. Bigelow writes:

These were middle-class reformers who wanted to reshape Protestant doctrine. For them it was unthinkable that capitalism led to class conflict, for that would mean that God had created a world at war with itself. The evangelicals believed in a providential God, one who built a logical and orderly universe, and they saw the new industrial economy as a fulfillment of God’s plan. The free market, they believed, was a perfectly designed instrument to reward good Christian behavior and to punish and humiliate the unrepentant.

At the center of this early evangelical doctrine was the idea of original sin: we were all born stained by corruption and fleshly desire, and the true purpose of earthly life was to redeem this. The trials of economic life—the sweat of hard labor, the fear of poverty, the self-denial involved in saving—were earthly tests of sinfulness and virtue. While evangelicals believed salvation was ultimately possible only through conversion and faith, they saw the pain of earthly life as means of atonement for original sin. These were the people that writers like Dickens detested. The extreme among them urged mortification of the flesh and would scold anyone who took pleasure in food, drink, or good company. Moreover, they regarded poverty as part of a divine program. Evangelicals interpreted the mental anguish of poverty and debt, and the physical agony of hunger or cold, as natural spurs to prick the conscience of sinners. They believed that the suffering of the poor would provoke remorse, reflection, and ultimately the conversion that would change their fate. In other words, poor people were poor for a reason, and helping them out of poverty would endanger their mortal souls. It was the evangelicals who began to see the business mogul as an heroic figure, his wealth a triumph of righteous will. The stockbroker, who to Adam Smith had been a suspicious and somewhat twisted character, was for nineteenth-century evangelicals a spiritual victor.

Even though the prosperity gospel can be found in mega-Churches all over the United States, Anastas’s article takes a close look at one manifestation, those found in the Black community in Georgia, including one called The Prophet’s House led by Bishop Thomas Weeks III. Anastas describes a typical prayer session at the church:

“If I told you that there was a trust set up for you two thousand years ago that had endless supply,” Weeks said, “would you act like you were broke?”

“No!” a few people answered.

“I can hear you!” someone yelled.

“Bless the Lord,” someone else called back.

“If you don’t know what a trust is,” Weeks continued, “a trust is an amount of money set aside for an eternal or a working purpose reset to set itself between fifty-five and one hundred and ten years.” The energy in the sanctuary faded. “That is a legal document that says it cannot be touched unless the trustee of the trust authorizes it to go any other place.” Someone clapped and the murmurs rose again. “Which means it calculates, it reproduces after its own kind. It pools the factors of its resources from worldwide areas. I don’t even have time to go into it. . . . God says I put a trust together called inheritance. And I put it in every believer.”

When the moment came to share his Global Entrepreneurial Anointing, Weeks carried a vessel filled with oil to the podium and picked up a business-card holder. One of the keyboard players in the worship band set a romantic mood. “I’m going to anoint you tonight,” Weeks said softly, “that the eyes of your understanding will be enlightened.” He started shuffling through a stack of blank business cards. “Do you not know that there is going to be wealth around this room like never before?”

“Glory!” a woman called out.

“Amen!” someone else answered.

“Brother Philip,” the Bishop said, “stand up.” Brother Philip did as Weeks asked. “Brother Philip is one of the great young men of this ministry,” the Bishop explained, still shuffling the business cards. “Some of you that need your carpet cleaned? You know, the children act up, other things were messed up? I trust this man. And today, Philip, I want to be able to say to you that your business is going to take off like never before.” The room erupted in applause for Philip’s good fortune, drowning out the soundtrack for a moment. “You clean the floor of the Prophet’s House. And you serve the prophetic spirit of this house. May the Lord give you for every foot that trampled in and out, may he return it back to you with open doors in your life.”

Although it is not reported in Anastas’s article, Weeks was arrested in 2007 for wife-beating and sentenced to three years probation. Here he is in better times showing off a McMansion that he is about to put on the market:

Fifty years ago the Black church in the South stood for Black liberation and for some of its leaders a life in struggle. As it happens, the same social and economic forces that have robbed the trade unions of its fighting spirit have also undermined the bonds of solidarity that made the Black church a primary agent of progressive change in the U.S.

It is something of a paradox that as the capitalist system offers fewer and fewer people—especially Blacks—a path upward into a solid middle-class existence, it simultaneously entices more and more to seek individualistic solutions either of the “prosperity gospel” kind or charter school lotteries.

As desperate as these times look, there will be a brighter future since the power of bourgeois illusions wear thin in an epoch when they cannot be realized.

September 27, 2010


Filed under: economics,Film,religion,workers — louisproyect @ 3:40 pm

Since I was familiar with Peter Davis’s “Hearts and Minds”, the definitive documentary about the war in Vietnam, I was anxious to view the Icarus Film’s rerelease of “Middletown”, a PBS documentary series that aired in 1982. As producer of the series and director of the episode “Second Time Around”, about a downwardly mobile couple about to be married, Davis sought to create a film analogue of the classic sociological study conducted by Robert and Helen Lynd in 1929. I had always assumed that the name Middletown referred to the Ohio city, but as it turns out the subject of their study and Davis’s PBS series is Muncie, Indiana. The Lynds were the parents of long-time radical scholar and activist Staughton Lynd, who shared Davis’s passionate opposition to the war in Vietnam as well as his parents’ socialist beliefs. In a PBS interview, Staughton described how his parents went about the project:

I don’t want to present myself as an expert on Middletown, but I will add this fact to the stew. The most powerful employers in Muncie, Indiana at the town were the Ball family, who made glass jars for putting up preserves. And my father, in conducting the original Middletown study, kind of went everywhere and met everyone. He talked to the Rotary Club. He sang in church. He shot the breeze with the local socialists, or one of them. And he had a cordial relationship with the Ball family. And again the kitchen table story is that after the second book appeared the Ball family stopped sending Christmas cards. So there came a time when I suppose you would say my dad had to pick sides or at least was perceived by others as picking sides. And certainly his choice was with those who worked, who did manual work in Muncie rather than with the owning class.

Davis clearly was just the sort of person who could adapt the original material to the film medium. In the booklet that accompanies the Icarus package, he writes:

Looking at the Middletown films a generation after their completion, I find it striking – embarrassing really – that a single word not only binds but flows like a rushing stream through all six films. It is a peculiarly American word that seems to apply to us as it would not if a similar study were made in Italy, China or even among our cultural progenitors in the British Isles. The word is wanting…

My embarrassment is that I didn‟t see the wanting much earlier. When the academic advisors and I formed the Middletown Film Project in 1976, my own aim was to look at a single American community for what it could tell us about our society. Writers and observers as far apart as Alexis de Tocqueville, Saul Bellow, and Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd have looked at America and seen the wanting. “The Indian,” de Tocqueville wrote, “knew how to live without wants,” while the new American man was “constantly on the move” trying to improve his lot, “and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to increase his comfort.” In Henderson The Rain King, Bellow‟s protagonist is assailed by the refrain, “I want, I want, I want,” which also haunts the main character in his late novel Ravelstein. The reprise is neither lazy nor accidental; it was Bellow, born a Canadian, on American yearners.

While all six films in the series are powerful statements about the American psyche, I want to single out “Community of Praise”, which was directed by Richard Leacock. Leacock, now 89, is one of the giants of documentary film-making, serving as cameraman with Robert Flaherty on “The Louisiana Story” in 1946. Leacock, like Davis and all the other directors, used a cinéma vérité style to show how a family’s life revolved around their Christian fundamentalist beliefs. Although Indiana is a northern state, it has many features in common with Bible Belt states like Texas and Oklahoma. Indeed, in “Seventeen”, another episode in the series (PBS refused to air it because it was deemed too controversial), we see an interracial couple being persecuted for breaking taboos. A cross is burned on the white girl’s front-yard.

In the Staughton Lynd interview alluded to above, he stresses that his parents’ intention was to focus on the role that religion plays in Muncie, something that “Community of Praise” lays bare. The main thing that comes across is the sheer desperation that drives ordinary people to the church, much like a drowning person clings to a life-preserver. The husband tells Leacock that he always had a bottle at his side when he was in the barn working on drag racers. He might not have gone to taverns like other men, but he got drunk every night just like them. His wife confesses that she went through a bad period when she was getting drunk, taking valium and suffering from insomnia and depression. She got involved with a local church first and then convinced him to come along. The church, which appears to be Pentecostal, has members and pastors speaking in tongue and rolling around on the floor in divine inspiration. There is very little talk about spirituality or social justice. The main preoccupation appears to be getting rid of demons inside the body that can manifest themselves along a spectrum, from alcoholism to the scoliosis that afflicts a teen-age girl. How will they know that a demon has been expelled? You might experience it either as a sneeze or a passing of wind, the veterinarian faith-healer advises.

A while back when I was studying the controversy around Napoleon Chagnon’s “fierce people” hypothesis on the Yanomami, I imagined a scenario in which a couple of Indians would come to the United States and begin knocking doors in a New Jersey suburban bedroom community to ask people about the most intimate details of their private lives. “Community of Praise” might have been the documentary that embodies this spirit of inquiry into one very superstitious and backward group of people.

The Middletown films, a 4 disk DVD package, can be purchased from amazon.com for $29.99 and is worth every penny. For people trying to understand the stresses of American society that are generating phenomena like the Tea Party, Peter Davis’s series are eye-opening reminders that the process has been deepening every since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the very year that these documentary films were being filmed. As the hammer blows of a post-prosperity economy rain down on the working class families of Muncie, they turn to either a faith in the marketplace or the god in the sky to help them see things through. Now that we are in an economic downfall that makes the early 80s look tame by comparison, it should not come as a surprise that all sorts of bizarre religious beliefs are embraced by those who have been hammered the worst.

While Davis, Leacock and the other obviously progressive-minded film-makers who worked on this project could find no answer to these contradictions within Muncie itself, it is good that they embarked on this project because it gives scholars and activists an accurate picture of the state of the American mind, one that Peter Davis characterized as wanting. Our job is to persuade them that a radical transformation of the economy is the only thing that can address their hunger for security and well-being.

June 28, 2010

Debating the Deacon

Filed under: middle east,religion — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

Deacon Kevin McCormack

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik

As I have mentioned before, the Sunday morning WABC radio show “Religion on the Line” functions as just one more rightwing outlet at the home of Rush Limbaugh and assorted other racist reactionaries. Hosted by Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Deacon Kevin McCormack, it is a place where you will hear talking points of the Israel lobby on a regular basis. It was where I heard Bard College’s chaplain Bruce Chilton defend Israel’s murderous attack on Gaza in January 2009.

I generally listen for 5 or 10 minutes on Sunday morning just to get up to speed on the latest talking points of the Israel lobby and then switch to WFAN, a radio station for sports fans as the call letters indicate. Once upon a time my radio dial was set to WBAI exclusively but their descent into 9/11 conspiracy-mongering and other such nonsense forced me to look elsewhere.

Generally Potasnik sets the agenda for the show, finding some pretext or another for Muslim-bashing. McCormack tries to appear a bit more reasonable, but is inclined to go along with most of the hate mongering.

Last Sunday I found myself more irritated then usual when Potasnik went on at some length about Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was reported to have said: “White folk and the Jews done took this country. You’re in their home, and they’re gonna let you know it.”

It turns out that Potasnik was quoting from an article in Rupert Murdoch’s NY Post, the print equivalent of WABC, but when you go to the article, there’s no reference to the Jews taking the country, only White folks. In other words, the Rabbi was lying to his radio audience in order to deepen their hatred of uppity Black people, no mean feat given the demographics of this racist radio station.

Of course, it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction in the NY Post, by some estimations the most worthless newspaper in the USA and clearly the sort of soiled toilet paper that constitutes Rabbi Potasnik’s weekly reading material.

As it turned out, Congressman Peter King was to be a guest later on. This mean-spirited bigot is one of their faves. Since I have been feeling more worked up about Zionist hasbara (propaganda) lately than usual after the murder of 9 people on the Mavi Marmara, I could not resist giving the Rabbi and the Deacon a piece of my mind. A while back I had posted another complaint on their Facebook, but it wasn’t quite as “in your face” as I would have hoped. This time I decided to contact McCormack directly through his own Facebook id. Below is a log of our exchanges:

Louis P:
What bullshit, complaining about Reverend Wright, when you and the rabbi use WABC as a bully pulpit. The home of Bob Grant of Dinkins “washroom attendant” fame. The home of Rush Limbaugh’s coon show comedy.

Deacon McCormack:
Louis + thank you for listening. Help me understand how a man of priviledge like Rev wright speaks in such general terms as all whites and all jews are responsible for all ills. Come on louis you got to give me this one. The guy is a racist and a hypocrite

Louis P:
Kevin, did you ever hear about the pot calling the kettle black? Also, don’t you agree with Jesus that those without sin should cast the first stone? WABC is an open sewer of race hatred. Surely, you must understand that you and the good rabbi were hired to help propagate the same hate messages as Rush Limbaugh and Bob Grant? Here’s your pal Peter King complaining about there being “too many mosques” in the USA. I guess its okay for him to say this and get the red carpet treatment from you.

Deacon McCormack:
Louis, frankly I am suprised that you would use the same tatics that you so readily claim some of the right wing radio show hosts do. Louis You really don’t know anything about me and yet you draw a broad brush stroke and say that at best I am a “dupe” of WABC and at worst a willful participant of some evil agenda. Would I be correct to assume that as an unrepentant Marxist you are to be painted with the same brush and as such the same crimes as Lennin, Stalin or Mao? Of course not!

Louis did you know my wife and have worked in the inner city developing summer programs for young kids and teenagers?

– Did you know I have worked with and continue to advocate for the undocumented community?

– Did you know that I have gay and straight, black, latino, jewish, & european friends?

You have every right to say what you want and infact I defend that right. But as I said before, Rev. Wrights words are despicable – especially for a self proclaimed Christian. As I Chriustian – I have a responsibility to speak out about injustice everywhere and anywhere I see it.

whether you are listening or monitoring (what does that mean anyway? & in case you don’t know – Most of the show can be gotten as a MP3 file if that helps you.) I appreciate that on some level the Rabbi and I are important to you. I read your blog from Time to time – (not “monitoring” it) ever sice you called me a “warmonger.” I don’t often agree w/ you, but I find you thought provoking.

Final thought for now – Louis I would very much enjoy meeting you for a cup of coffee or a dram to discuss, as men of passion, our world views. I’ll even buy the first round. Only catch – we have to assume the good will of the other until proven otherwise. Let me know – The offer stands.

Louis P:
Well, look. I don’t see much point in getting together since there is obviously a failure to communicate. If somebody said that there were “too many Catholic churches” or “too many synagogues” in New York, you and the rabbi would riff on that for 15 minutes about the terrible hate campaign against your fellow believers. But when I tell you that Peter King said that there were “too many mosques” in the USA, you have *nothing to say*. In other words, we are dealing with a disgusting double-standard. You guys scream bloody murder about anti-Semitic Blacks and Muslims but when a fellow rightwinger says something hateful about Muslims, that gets a bye from you. My understanding of Judeo-Christian values is that they are universal. Unless you two stop functioning as part of the rightwing racist mob at WABC, then at least drop the piety bit. It has nothing to do with Moses or Jesus. It is more about Rush Limbaugh and Peter King.

January 12, 2009

Pious warmongers

Filed under: bard college,Palestine,religion — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

As someone who tunes in to WABC AM from time to time in order to get a handle on what the rightwing is up to, I was not surprised to hear Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and Catholic Deacon Kevin McCormack blathering on about Gaza yesterday morning. What did surprise me, however, was the identity of one of their guests who was invited on to help them make their warmongering case: Bruce Chilton, the chaplain at Bard College, my alma mater.

Protestant minister Bruce Chilton: cheering on the IDF in Christ’s name

Chilton is on the board of directors of Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, just one part of the sleazy web of advocacy groups connected to the Israel Lobby. It was founded by Sister Ruth Lautt (pronounced lout, I wonder?), a Roman Catholic nun who was profiled in a June 14, 2008 NY Times article. The article makes the specious claim that she has no contact with AIPAC, as if she needed marching orders from them.

Sister Ruth Lautt: used to work for Israel’s high-powered legal firm

A former litigator for the noxious corporate law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Lautt works hard to defend Israeli interests at religious conventions, especially to defeat divestment motions that are increasingly being adopted by mainstream Protestant denominations. In fact, her office is in 475 Riverside Drive, the Interchurch Center (aka “The God Box”), where many of these denominations have offices. I eat in their basement cafeteria from time to time. The NY Times reports:

“We are informed by the Christian mandate to stand for justice and to raise our voices when we see someone being falsely accused,” Sister Ruth, 44, said in an interview at the God Box. “The issue isn’t divestment. Divestment is a symptom, a symptom of bias against the state of Israel and an attempt to lay the blame on the shoulders of Israel.”

Such a viewpoint collides with the political and theological direction of the mainline Protestant churches. Influenced by a version of liberation theology espoused by the Palestinian Christian activist Naim Ateek and his organization Sabeel, which likens Palestinians to the persecuted Jesus, all five of the mainline denominations in the United States (Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Evangelical Lutheran and United Church of Christ) have debated and in some cases adopted policies intended to bring direct or indirect economic pressure on Israel to compromise.

Now I wouldn’t want to question the depth of Sister Lautt’s conversion but I would be remiss in not pointing out what Skadden, Arps states on their website:

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and affiliates (“Skadden, Arps” or “Skadden”) is one of the leading U.S. legal advisers to Israeli companies doing business and raising capital outside of Israel and to U.S. and other non-Israeli companies doing business in Israel or investing in Israeli companies. Many of our attorneys are thoroughly familiar with the legal structure, business environment and political system of Israel, and several have been admitted to the bars of both Israel and New York and are fluent in Hebrew and English.

Returning to Bard College’s good chaplain, the very reverend Bruce Chilton, I could not refrain from dashing off a note to him not long after his appearance on “Religion on the Line”:

What’s next? Drinking the blood of Palestinian children?

Louis Proyect, Bard College ’65

Usually the recipients of such emails from me are smart enough to ignore me. I have written George Packer numerous times but have never gotten a reply. For me these emails just serve as a way of blowing off steam but every so often they do seem to get under the skin of their recipient, in the case of Bruce Chilton fairly deeply. It appears that good Christians like him don’t want to be accused of bad faith-especially when they know deep down that it is true.

While “Religion on the Line” does not have transcripts, you can read what Chilton has to say about Gaza on the Christians for a Fair Witness on the Middle East Website:

Qassam rockets are deployed by their namesake, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas. Fired over the border between Gaza and Israel at civilian centers, they put into action the stated aim of the Hamas Charter of 1988: “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.” By intent and impact, Qassam rockets terrorize Israeli civilian populations in an attempt to galvanize action across the Muslim world in order to eliminate the State of Israel.

Israel’s attacks in Gaza involve civilian casualties, although that is not their purpose. At every stage — deployment, preparation, and design — Qassam are in such proximity to residential populations that even well targeted strikes bring calamitous results. But the aim of Israel is not the elimination of Gaza, but the end of Qassam attacks. The willingness of the Israeli authorities to halt their attacks in the hope that Qassam sites will be dismantled is a positive development.

It reads, as you would expect, as if it were written by the Israeli consulate.

For most of Sunday, emails went back and forth between Chilton and me and began including a host of other characters including the president of Bard College who usually ignores me but sometimes rises to the bait. (This time he didn’t.) Chilton probably should have known better to take a sarcastic tone with me since I practically invented sarcasm. After I began cc’ing other interested parties at Bard, he took me to task:

To save you the trouble, I have already written to my colleagues in the Departments of Religion and Theology, and to Joel [Kovel, a professor at Bard who is a well-known Marxist]. If you like, I can give you my mother’s e-mail address, as well.

To which I replied:

Sure, send it along. I am sure she’d want to know that her little boy has wasted all the money that was spent on divinity school by becoming an apologist for an apartheid state.

September 8, 2008

Constantine’s Sword

Filed under: religion — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

With its seamless blend of compelling autobiographical material and laser-sharp political analysis of Christian fundamentalism past and present, “Constantine’s Sword” impressed film critics almost universally when it was released last year. This was one of those rare occasions when the movie was even better than the praise lavished on it. Available on Netflix and other venues after September 16th through the auspices of First Run Features, a distribution company specializing in bold independent fiction and documentary film, this movie is an absolute must for anybody concerned about the growing influence of rightwing Christian sects on the body politic today, including the world’s most powerful and sinister sect: the Catholic Church.

Based on narrator and co-script writer James Carroll’s 750 page book of the same name, the documentary flows from the personal and political transformation of a most unlikely critic of organized religion. Born in 1943, Carroll had two passions as a youth: the Air Force and the Catholic Church. As a teenager, he was obsessed with Jesus Christ in the same way that others his age were with Mickey Mantle.

His father was Joseph P. Carroll, a working-class Irish Catholic Chicagoan who went to night school after his shift in the stockyards ended. After getting a college degree, he went to work for the FBI as an Elliot Ness type gang-buster. His crime-fighting renown attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force which recruited him as a Lieutenant General to head up their newly formed top-secret intelligence-gathering unit after WWII. General Carroll was the Pentagon official responsible for alerting President Kennedy to Cuban missile bases in 1962, thus unleashing a chain of events that came close to ushering in nuclear Armageddon.

James Carroll’s mother probably would have been ready for Armageddon given her fanatical devotion to the Catholic Church. In 1959 he accompanied his mother on a trip to Trier in Germany in order to witness a rare unveiling of the robe that Christ allegedly worn during the crucifixion. This garment was the theme of the cheesy 1953 movie titled “The Robe”, excerpts of which are seen in the documentary. I distinctly remember Victor Mature as a muscle-bound convert to the Cross.

As Carroll explains, the Cross was not the original symbol of the Christian church. In its earliest years, it was the fish or the loaf of bread that symbolized eternal life, an altogether positive image in comparison to the blood-soaked icon that inspired Mel Gibson and the Roman Emperor Constantine as well.

Selecting Christianity for geopolitical reasons more than anything else, the Roman Emperor found the Cross a more useful symbol for his conquests against the heathen than a loaf of bread or a fish. He instituted a new type of state that integrated the sword and the Cross that came to a bloody climax in the Crusades.

Carroll explains that one of the first targets of mass slaughter in the Crusades was the Jews of Trier who had been invited in by the Christian nobility because of their mercantile skills. This act and others to follow should remind any Jew that it has been tormented by the Christian church and not Islam.

The documentary operates on multiple levels, almost like a novel. In addition to telling his own compelling story, Carroll introduces the viewer to Mikey Weinstein, a Jewish air force veteran who had taken vocal exception to the pressure mounted on his son Jason at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado by Christian fundamentalists. Jason could not understand why he had to see leaflets on the chairs in the dining commons for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion.” What had happened to separation of Church and State? The elder Weinstein was no Michael Moore. He too had graduated from the Air Force Academy and had served in the Reagan administration as a loyal Republican.

Making the case for proselytizing at the academy was Colorado Springs mega-Church pastor Ted Haggard who tells Carroll that it is in the interest of free speech to be able to put leaflets for Gibson’s anti-Semitic screed on cadets’ chairs. He had to watch Coke ads on TV even though he liked Pepsi, so why should a Jewish cadet object to such material or presumably people asking him why his people killed Christ, for that matter.

For those who have difficulty keeping track of fundamentalist Christian corruption, as well they should, this is the same Ted Haggard who resigned his post after revealing that he was a speed freak who had conducted a two year affair with a gay man.

The movie is particularly excoriating when it comes to the popes, particularly Pope Pius whose close even affectionate relationship to Adolph Hitler is revealed in all its sordid detail. Carroll shows in eye-opening detail, even to an old adversary of Christian hypocrisy like me, how the Vatican sprang to the head of the line when it came to recognizing the criminal, anti-Semitic dictatorship. Carroll also reveals how the current Pope, a rightwing German, is working overtime to cover up for Pope Pius as well as preparing his Church for new crusades against Islam.

Carroll entered the priesthood in 1969 and became a pacifist opponent of the war in Vietnam almost immediately. When he delivered a service decrying the use of napalm (without even using the word Vietnam), his father became incensed. Eventually Carroll left the Church, became a writer, and now has a regular column in the Boston Globe. Here is a sample of his writing:

The “surge” is touted as proof that American armed might can improve things, even though daily news reports say otherwise. That is because American “success” is not the same thing as success for the people of Iraq. By itself, the US military will never prove capable of providing them with stability and security. Worse, the US occupation will continue to prevent the development by Iraqis themselves of authentic, trans-sectarian security forces.

The occupation is the mistake that keeps on taking.

The healing of Iraq would be far more readily achieved by an American acknowledgment of failure, and by the engagement of other nations that such an acknowledgment would immediately invite. But insanely holding on in Iraq until Washington can claim something like “victory” means that this globally oriented geo-political ambition – America’s standing in the world – is being bought at the price of Iraqi blood.

Not that I aspire to be an arbiter of who is a good Christian or not, this seems far more in keeping with these words from the martyred rabbi than anybody from Ted Haggard’s neck of the woods:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven; for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

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