Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 9, 2020

The NY Giants new coach and NFL racism

Filed under: racism,sports — louisproyect @ 9:15 pm

I haven’t watched a football, baseball, or basketball game for its entirety in over 25 years at least. But I am an avid listener to the sports talk stations in NY, WFAN and ESPN. I also like to read the sports section in the local papers. Even if football is a barbaric sport that should be outlawed, I am glad to see the hapless NY Jets or NY Giants when they are doing well. For those who follow sports, you are probably aware that they have been doing poorly for over a decade.

Recently, the Giants have been a search for a new coach after having finished the season with a 4-12 record. The sports stations have been following this closely since the outgoing coach Pat Shirmer was blamed for the losing record. Many of the hosts and callers-in blame the team co-owners and general manager as well. The co-owners are John Mara and Steve Tisch. Mara’s grandfather Tim Mara founded the franchise in 1925 with money he had made as a bookmaker—a criminal enterprise. His son Wellington took over the team until his death in 2005. His John Mara functions as the CEO of the team with Steve Tisch mostly operating in the background. Tisch is the son of former co-owner Robert Tisch, who was Wellington’s partner. Tisch bought his share in the Giants with money he made through the Loew’s theater and hotel business. Most of Steve Tisch’s time is spent producing movies, such as “Forrest Gump”. Most fans blame Mara rather than Tisch for the team’s woes since Tisch functions pretty much as a silent partner.

The Giants were prepared to offer Baylor University coach Matt Rhule the job but the Carolina Panthers beat them to the punch, offering Rhule a 7-year, 60 million dollar contract. Just after the Giants learned of the deal, they made an offer to Joe Judge, the special teams and wide receiver coordinator of the New England Patriots, an AFC division team that have up until this year been either Super Bowl winner or at least AFC champions for most of the past decade. With their dynastic record, anybody associated with the Patriots is considered good coach material.

Despite this, WFAN and ESPN hosts were surprised to hear of Judge’s hiring since he was not on the radar for the coaching jobs that were being filled over the past few weeks. But it was only ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, an African-American, who raised holy hell about no blacks being considered. The Giants did interview a couple of black coordinators early on but it was mostly to show that they were honoring the Rooney Rule.

The rule was adopted by the NFL in 2003 as a way of making the GM and coaching positions open to minorities. It was named after Dan Rooney, the head of the league’s diversity committee and a former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Rooney’s and the Mara’s have amounted to family dynasties of the two teams and often considered model owners for their franchises’ stability and excellence. Wikipedia describes the circumstances of the rule’s adoption in the aftermath of the firing of two black coaches:

It was created as a reaction to the 2002 firings of head coaches Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings, at a time when Dungy had a winning record and Green had just had his first losing season in ten years. Shortly afterwards, U.S. civil rights attorneys Cyrus Mehri and Johnnie Cochran released a study showing that black head coaches, despite winning a higher percentage of games, were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired than their white counterparts. Former NFL players Kellen Winslow and John Wooten then put together a self-described “affinity group” of minority scouts, coaches, and front-office personnel, to advocate for the rule’s creation.

As should be obvious, this was prompted by the same resentment of white domination that made Colin Kaepernick decide to take a knee during the national anthem. It is worth mentioning how John Mara reacted to Kaepernick being on the job market after his protest made him persona non grata for the NFL owners, who tend to be rightwing fucks. He told Sports Illustrated that Giants fans would never forgive him for hiring Kaepernick, even though the aging QB Eli Manning needed to be replaced. However, Mara did not fire white kicker Josh Brown after he revealed that he was a wife-beater. In the NFL world, kneeling while the Star Spangled Banner is being played is a cardinal sin while wife-beating is a peccadillo.

John Mara was evidently following the example of his grandfather Tim, who didn’t care for black people very much as well. Like the gentleman’s agreement by team owners that blacklisted Colin Kaepernick, black players were excluded from the NFL between 1934 and 1946 for the same reason that blacks never played professional baseball: racism. Back then it was players getting shafted; today it is potential coaches or general managers. As Project 1619 put it, racism is in the American DNA.

George Marshall, the owner of the Washington Redskins (no connection to the Marshall plan architect), convinced other team owners to organize a two-division league, consisting of five teams each and culminating in a championship game between the two teams with the best records. Marshall stated publicly that he would never employ black athletes. His Redskins were the last NFL team to desegregate, holding out until 1962.

In an article for the Winter 1988 Journal of Sports History titled “Outside the Pale: The Exclusion of Blacks from the National Football League, 1934-1946”, Thomas G. Smith wrote:

Professional football owners, like their baseball counterparts, denied the existence of a racial ban. “For myself and for most of the owners,” Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers explained decades later, “I can say there never was any racial bias.” George Halas of the Chicago Bears declared in 1970 that there had been no unwritten exclusionary agreement “in no way, shape, or form.” Tex Schramm of the Los Angeles Rams did not recall a gentleman’s agreement.”You just didn’t do it [sign blacks] – it wasn’t the thing that was done.” Wellington and Tim Mara of the New York Giants also denied that minorities had been blackballed. Despite the disclaimers, however, blacks had disappeared from the game.


March 29, 2019


Filed under: drugs,Film,sports — louisproyect @ 7:48 pm

Opening today at Cinema Village is a documentary titled “Screwball” that takes a light-hearted look at the performance enhancement drug (PED) scandal that led to the suspension of Alex Rodriguez in 2014. Most of the film consists of interviews with two of the principals: his supplier Tony Bosch reminiscing about the affair and a naïf named Porter Fischer, who introduces himself as a professional tanner and who purloined files from Bosch’s Biogenesis Labs office in order to pressure Bosch into repaying a $4000 debt. As a comic device, there are reenactments of the various players in this scandal by young boys who appear in baseball or business suits, fake mustaches, fake tattoos, etc., and whose dialog is supplied by adult voiceover. All of this takes place with a film score that sounds like the accompaniment to a slapstick comedy, which in many ways it is. Despite the comic intent, there are some genuinely dark aspects including the revelation that Bosch went to prison not so much for supplying A-Rod and other professional baseball players but for supplying PED’s to high school kids who needed them to compete at  a level necessary to get an athletic scholarship. With Bosch often injecting them with their parents’ consent, you get a feel for the generally depraved character of athletic competition, especially in Florida, where Biogenesis was based.

The first wave of steroid abuse was connected with their fairly open use in the Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire era. After they and other players were outed by José Canseco in his 2005 book “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big”, it became too risky to use PEDs openly since drug tests were routinely required. Tony Bosch, a Cuban-American living in south Florida who operated an anti-aging clinic, had devised a protocol that kept drugs beneath the level that could be detected in a urine sample. Once the word got out, players flocked to his clinic to get a leg up on other players, especially fading stars like Alex Rodriguez.

Bosch wore a lab coat and a stethoscope in his office to give the impression that he was a physician. His degree came from a medical school in Belize that was not even up to the level of a diploma mill. Tony Bosch was the slacker son of a licensed physician who made himself available to his son for signing prescriptions. As shady as his father was, he was not nearly as criminal as his cousin Orlando Bosch, who in addition to being a physician was a Cuban counter-revolutionary who bombed a Cuban civilian airliner, killing all 73 people on board.

As his business expanded, Bosch partnered with a tanning salon chain run by two brothers. The idea was to draw people in who could get fitter and tanner under the same roof. This was Florida, after all.

The real question is how such a business could get a foothold in Florida. In my review of “American Relapse”, I pointed out that drug rehab centers in Florida do not require a physician to be on staff. This is the true of anti-aging clinics, as well. They will inject steroids into anybody’s arm as long as they have cash on the barrel.

This is what you’d expect in a state with a governor like Rick Scott.

Gov. Rick Scott took responsibility? No, he took $300 million | Randy Schultz

South Florida Sun Sentinel

October 2, 2018

By Randy Schultz

When the federal investigation of Rick Scott’s former hospital company became public in 1997, the board of Columbia/HCA forced him out. Scott left with $300 million in stock, a $5.1 million severance and a $950,000-per-year consulting contract for five years.

What does Scott call that? Taking responsibility.

The governor’s new Senate campaign ad again seeks to rewrite the history of Columbia/HCA, which Scott founded in 1987 and led as CEO. Indeed, the ad is titled “responsibility” and compares Scott’s actions to those of “strong leaders.”

In its settlement with the government, the company admitted to 14 felonies related to fraudulent billing and practices. Most happened under Scott’s leadership.

Read full article

November 10, 2018

Craig Carton and the American malaise

Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

Craig Carton

One of the reasons for a happy marriage now in its sixteenth year is that my wife and I have similar pop culture tastes as well as leftwing politics even when they clash. For example, we have both enjoyed listening to shock jocks in the morning for about as long as we have been married.

First it was Howard Stern, an obvious sexist pig but a very funny one. When Stern moved to satellite radio, we switched to Don Imus, his arch-enemy. When Imus was fired by WFAN in 2007 for a racial slur, we decided to give his replacements a try. Despite being featured on a sports talk radio show, Imus was mostly about interviewing politicians and reporters—and very good at it. Taking over for Imus, ex-NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason and long-time radio talk show host Craig Carton also interviewed politicians but their primary focus was on sports. What made the show worth listening to was Carton’s shock jock antics that were obviously stolen from Howard Stern. Riffs on bowel movements, raising kids, impromptu restaurant reviews, etc. were interspersed with commentary on sports with the typical call-ins from “Vinnie from the Bronx” about a trade the Yankees should make.

Three days ago a jury found Carton guilty of conning wealthy investors into buying bulk tickets to concerts but only used the seven million dollars to pay off his gambling debts plus other personal expenses such as landscaping his 9,345 square foot mansion. He faces up to 45 years in prison but will likely get much less, my guess five years or so.

Carton was making huge bets at casinos. Witnesses told the jury that he borrowed money from loan sharks to fund these outings. One of them was Desmond Finger, the general manager of the Upper East Side strip club Sapphire 39, who testified that he made high-interest loans of up to $500,000 for each of his casino fixes. Carton probably worried much more about the money he owed to someone like Finger than the hedge funds he conned. It is not hard to imagine him getting roughed up or worse from one of Finger’s friends if he didn’t pay up. At least in prison, he won’t have to worry about his legs being broken–at least if he keeps his eyes opened and his big mouth shut..

Carton, like Stern and Imus, made lots of enemies because of his big mouth. Bob Raissman, a sports columnist for the NY Daily News, a one-time far-right tabloid now oriented to the Democratic Party, raked him over the coals. Referring to his attorney’s decision not to put him in the witness box, Raismann wrote:

How ironic that in the fight of his life, Craig Carton could not use his most lethal weapon — his mouth.

The same mouth that took him to radio’s mountain top. Morning-drive in New York City, making over $1 million per year working on WFAN with a celebrity/ex-jock/wheeler-dealer Norman Julius Esiason.

The same mouth that spewed invective, verbal sewage, loved by FAN’s target audience, the miscreants who showed up to watch him walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in a Speedo.

Many people, including me and my wife, could not figure out why someone doing so well would shoot himself in the foot. It was the same question I had about Bernie Madoff. After having made it big as a shock jock or a securities broker, why would anybody risk throwing it all away by committing a crime?

Madoff remains a mystery but it is clear that Carton had a very serious gambling addiction. Like drugs, tobacco or alcohol, it can destroy one’s life. I say this from personal experience having a very close friend who lost well over a hundred thousand dollars over the years betting on horse races. When we were in our late teens, he used to bet hundreds of dollars on the trotters at Monticello Raceway. Some nights he’d win, other nights he lost. I used to accompany him to the races but usually bought a book with me to read during the races. For me, gambling is a complete waste of time and money. One of the reasons I got out of the stock market was that it was too much like gambling.

If you listened to the Boomer and Carton show, you’d be struck by how much gambling permeated the conversation between the two. It was always about whether a team would cover the odds. All of these shows on WFAN have a big focus on the “over-under” on professional sports events especially on Friday, just before the NFL games on Sunday.

On May 14th this year, New Jersey, Carton’s home state, made sports betting legal. This measure had been pushed for years by the former governor Chris Christie, who was one of Carton’s best friends. Christie, a frequent guest, on the Boomer and Carton show, used to love talking odds with the hosts. FanDuel, a sports fantasy website, has also been given the green light for bookmaking.

On top of sports betting, lotteries have become ubiquitous in the USA. Even though a lottery ticket might cost only a couple of dollars, poor people can end up throwing money down the drain in the hope that they can become millionaires. As a vicious cycle, the lotteries only exist because state treasuries have been drained by tax cuts, thus making poor people even more needy.

The Wikipedia entry on “problem gambling” cites medical authorities who see it in the same terms as substance abuse even though it is described as an impulse control disorder rather than an addiction. The gambler can’t help betting when feeling distressed (e.g., helpless, guilty, anxious, depressed). Since this is the normal state of mind for most Americans, it is not surprising that billions of dollars are wasted on betting just as they are on opioids. Of course, gambling will only cost you your freedom while opioids will cost you your life.

Like Boomer Esiason, Craig Carton was a Trump supporter and a racist. The show constantly praised the cops and always took their side whenever someone like Trayvon Martin was killed. It is a crowning irony that a “law and order” man like Carton will end up in a New Jersey prison serving time with Black prisoners who might have heard him on one of his racist rants.

I continue to listen to Boomer Esiason in the morning, now that he has a new co-host, a guy named Gregg Gianotti who is the comic next to Esiason’s straight man just as was Carton. Thankfully, Gianotti does not seem that interested in politics. Mostly, he enjoys talking about sports. Naturally, my wife has bailed on the show since her interest in sports is zero.

I only wish that WBAI was not as bad as it is. For most of the 1980s and until 2000, I used to listen to it religiously and donate hundreds of dollars a year. A typical morning show would consist of great music and interviews by someone like Will Wilkens, a fellow member of CISPES and a good friend. This was the kind of programming Samori Marksman, a Caribbean Marxist, used to promote.

After Marksman died suddenly of a heart attack in 1999, there was a coup led by Utrice Leid that antagonized most listeners, including me. A listener revolt eventually led to her clique being ousted and the station converted into one based on “community control”. That conversion led to a new type of programming marked by conspiracy theories, medical quackery and tedious leftist sermonizing that was unbearable.

Anticipating this article a couple of days ago, I turned WBAI on just for a sample of what it was up to now. Confirming my worst suspicions, the host was on the phone with someone who was making the case for alchemy as a solution to diabetes, heart disease and other ailments.

The opening sentence of Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” reads as follows:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Of course, Dickens wrote the novel to demonize the French Revolution but some of this rings true as applied to the current period. I would only qualify it by saying that a new “Tale of Two Cities” would be much darker and would begin by simply stating: “It was the worst of times”.

November 8, 2017

Requiem for a running back

Filed under: Film,health and fitness,sports — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

In choosing the title “Requiem for a Running Back” for her profoundly moving documentary about football and CTE, director Rebecca Carpenter, the daughter of its subject Lew Carpenter, might have had the 1956 teleplay by Rod Serling in mind. Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” starred Jack Palance as the boxer Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, who is at the end of his career and already showing signs of dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk syndrome”. In telling the story of her father, who was a halfback with the Green Bay Packers and other teams from 1953 to 1963, she conveys the same kind of dramatic intensity Serling brought to his teleplay. As is so often the case, the truth of a documentary reaches heights that no fiction can reach. The film, which opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in New York and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, now has the inside track for my pick as best documentary of 2017.

Jack Palance played Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, someone for whom boxing was all he ever knew and terrified of trying something new—so much so that he signed up for a fight even though doctors warned that it might kill him. After Lew Carpenter’s football career came to an end, he started a new career as a coach under Vince Lombardi who he idolized. As he approached middle age, Carpenter began to exhibit the traits that all CTE sufferers display: loss of memory, depression, fits of anger, and intellectual deficits. But when he was coaching, they were kept under control. It was only when he could no longer coach that they escalated radically to the point of breaking up his marriage and creating a deep estrangement with his daughters, one of whom was Rebecca Carpenter destined to graduate from Harvard University and begin a career in television, film, and education. With a mission to discover who her father was through interviews with former players who knew him probably better than she did—his surrogate sons—and her obvious grasp of the art of the documentary, she has made a film for the ages.

Lew Carpenter was born in 1932 to dirt poor farmers from Hayti, Missouri but grew up in nearby West Memphis, Arkansas. He understood that unless he made a career in football, he’d end up chopping cotton like his parents who lived in a shack. After starring on the University of Arkansas team, he began his career with the Detroit Lions and then moved on to the Green Bay Packers. Despite the director’s obvious aim in putting football out of business, she has made a point of communicating what makes the game so fulfilling for those who play it, including Green Bay Packer wide receiver James Lofton who was coached by Lew Carpenter. Lofton makes clear that even though both Lombardi and Carpenter could be as mean and even as degrading as a drill instructor, he and his teammates looked at them worshipfully because they helped them excel. He describes professional football as a place where ethnicity and class make little difference because the sport is only interested in what you can bring to the game. In fact, the same thing can be said about the military.

Carpenter also interviews a number of medical researchers who testify as to the indifference of the owners about the health of the men who toil for them. When Houston Texans owner Robert McNair described the protests of men like Colin Kaepernick as “inmates running the prison”, he blurted out what has been true for a very long time. In one eye-opening interview with attorney Ed Garvey, who represented the players in a number of confrontations much sharper than that going no now, we learn that they insisted on using AstroTurf even though it risked injury to the brain. At one point, an owner growing tired of Garvey’s advocacy warned him that for only a $100 he can find someone to stuff his corpse into a trunk.

In keeping with the most recent research on CTE, Carpenter reveals that some experts do not regard concussion as its cause. It happens that although Lew Carpenter endured the usual number of collisions on the field over a 10-year career, he had never suffered from repeated concussions. It is entirely possible that he was a victim of “brain slosh”, a term used by some medical researchers to describe the effect of having a brain floating normally in cerebrospinal fluid and not connected to the skull being hurled against it when a player is tackled. No helmet can prevent this. Furthermore, it is also possible that it is only exposure to “minor” hits during a career in football can be the culprit. That is why some analysts are predicting the demise of the game.

In one of the more jaw-dropping interviews in Carpenter’s film, we hear Mike Ditka state that if he had a son, he would not allow him to play football—the very same Mike Ditka who was once described by Mike Duerson as a coach who never “gave a damn about the players or their injuries when he was coaching.” Although it is understandable why Carpenter would find Ditka’s renunciation of football worth filming, it must be said that the grizzled icon of brutality on the football field has not seen fit to defend Colin Kaepernick’s protest as Dave Zirin pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:

Ditka is the guy who berated his own Bears players for not crossing a picket line when the NFLPA was on strike in 1987. He’s the guy today who—after a lifetime of supporting right-wing candidates—shills for another dubious product: Donald Trump.

And now, true to form, he’s coming out against Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests. On Friday, he said on the Shan & RJ radio show, “I think it’s a problem. Anybody who disrespects this country and the flag. If they don’t like the country they don’t like our flag, get the hell out. My choice is, I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on,” Ditka said. “I see opportunities if people want to look for opportunity. Now, if they don’t want to look for them then you can find problems with anything, but this is the land of opportunity because you can be anything you want to be if you work. If you don’t work, that’s a different problem.”

Eventually, professional football players will connect the dots between the racism of a Robert McNair and the continuing efforts of the owners to shortchange the former players who are in desperate need of support as they wrestle with the onset of early dementia and the other demons CTE submits them to.

September 10, 2017

The six degrees of separation between WBAI and Craig Carton

Filed under: radio,sports — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

Craig Carton under arrest by FBI agents

When I found out on Thursday that Craig Carton, a shock jock who co-hosts a morning show on WFAN with Boomer Esiason, had been arrested for running a Ponzi scheme, that was a bigger shock than I ever got from any words coming out of his mouth. Boomer and Carton had been on the air since September 4th, 2007 when they replaced Don Imus, another shock jock. Imus’s show was focused on politics rather than sports but sprinkled with the kind of racist and pro-cop palaver that Boomer and Carton specialized in. Of course, it is never naked racism but typically bad-mouthing Colin Kaepernick or complaining about Black Lives Matter.

WFAN knew what they were getting when they hired Carton.Wiki reports that when he was a DJ in New Jersey, he and his co-host Ray Rossi allegedly made numerous hostile and racist remarks directed towards then Edison mayoral candidate, Jun Choi, as well as the Korean, Chinese and Indian populations of the Edison area. And just before coming to WFAN, he was confronted by a Polish Holocaust survivor Paweł Zenon Woś, for propagating anti-Polish stereotypes.

The time-spot opened up for Boomer and Carton because Don Imus had been fired for referring to the Rutgers woman’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s”. His stooge Bernard McGuirk, an ex-Marine and passionate Trump supporter, chimed in, referring to them and an opposing team as “”jigaboos versus the wannabes”.

So, you might ask why I ever bothered to listen to Imus, Boomer and Carton or Howard Stern who pandered to the same backward white male audience. As it happens, my wife and I enjoy listening to shock jocks in the morning. 90 percent of it is innocent chatter about politics, sports or bowel movements but the 10 percent that is intolerable usually motivates me to turn to CNN. My preference would be for WBAI but the station lost its entertainment value about 20 years ago.

Ironically, it was WBAI that provided one of the inspirations for Howard Stern, who was arguably the father of shock jock radio. He is reported to have listened to Bob Fass religiously as a teenager. Fass and fellow Pacifica talk show host Larry Josephson were the first to begin exploring their psyches on the radio in a free association manner as if they were on a psychiatrist’s couch.

Stern was also a big Bob Grant fan. Grant, who died in 2013, was one of the first rightwing zealots on the radio. He likened Mayor Dinkins to a washroom attendant and was finally fired from WABC, the fountainhead of rightwing talk radio, for telling listeners that he hoped that Ron Brown, the African-American Commerce Secretary in the Clinton administration, wouldn’t have been a survivor in a plane crash. (He wasn’t.)

On a good day, Boomer and Carton can be very entertaining especially when they are interviewing sports figures. Like Howard Stern, Carton is an excellent interviewer not afraid to ask what might seem to be tactless question. Here’s an example of Carton at his most likeable.

Seinfeld, who is a big-time sports fan like me, was honing in on Carton’s problem—an inability to accept the responsibilities of fatherhood. If you listen to his anecdotes on the show about going to Las Vegas or having bromance type dinners with sports celebrities, you get little sense that he is the father of four children.

Apparently, Carton loved going to Las Vegas because he had a gambling addiction. He had racked up $2 million in gambling debts and was desperate to find a solution. Like Bernie Madoff, he ran a Ponzi scheme but one based on the resale of concert tickets for A-list performers like Beyonce. He and his two partners told a hedge fund in NYC that they had access to huge blocks of tickets for such concerts direct from the promoters that could be resold online for a huge profit. Typically what happens is something like this. A ticket to a Beyonce concert might cost $100 but on the secondary market it can go up to a $1000. Carton never had such tickets and conned the hedge fund guys into fronting him millions of dollars that he used to pay off his debts.

They say that he faces up to 45 years for breaking various laws. As tempting as it would be to feel schadenfreude for Carton, I felt nothing but sadness. He has four young children who will likely be damaged by his absence both materially and psychologically. If you’ve seen the excellent biopic of Bernie Madoff on HBO that starred Robert DeNiro in one of his best performances in years, you’ll realize how much of a tragedy it was for him and his family. (One son hung himself in shame and likely fear that he too would be arrested eventually.)

A little bit of this has a personal resonance. One of my closest friends growing up had a gambling addiction just like Carton. I used to go with him to the Monticello Raceway where he would bet hundreds of dollars on harness races. He worked as a waiter in his father’s hotel and blew away all his money every summer. On occasion I’d have to loan him money just to pay his tuition in a local community college.

Last September Scientific American published an article titled “How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling” that identifies gambling as an addiction rather than a compulsion.

Research to date shows that pathological gamblers and drug addicts share many of the same genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward seeking. Just as substance addicts require increasingly strong hits to get high, compulsive gamblers pursue ever riskier ventures. Likewise, both drug addicts and problem gamblers endure symptoms of withdrawal when separated from the chemical or thrill they desire. And a few studies suggest that some people are especially vulnerable to both drug addiction and compulsive gambling because their reward circuitry is inherently underactive—which may partially explain why they seek big thrills in the first place.

Even more compelling, neuroscientists have learned that drugs and gambling alter many of the same brain circuits in similar ways. These insights come from studies of blood flow and electrical activity in people’s brains as they complete various tasks on computers that either mimic casino games or test their impulse control. In some experiments, virtual cards selected from different decks earn or lose a player money; other tasks challenge someone to respond quickly to certain images that flash on a screen but not to react to others.

A 2005 German study using such a card game suggests problem gamblers—like drug addicts—have lost sensitivity to their high: when winning, subjects had lower than typical electrical activity in a key region of the brain’s reward system. In a 2003 study at Yale University and a 2012 study at the University of Amsterdam, pathological gamblers taking tests that measured their impulsivity had unusually low levels of electrical activity in prefrontal brain regions that help people assess risks and suppress instincts. Drug addicts also often have a listless prefrontal cortex.

Further evidence that gambling and drugs change the brain in similar ways surfaced in an unexpected group of people: those with the neurodegenerative disorder Parkinson’s disease. Characterized by muscle stiffness and tremors, Parkinson’s is caused by the death of dopamine-producing neurons in a section of the midbrain. Over the decades researchers noticed that a remarkably high number of Parkinson’s patients—between 2 and 7 percent—are compulsive gamblers. Treatment for one disorder most likely contributes to another. To ease symptoms of Parkinson’s, some patients take levodopa and other drugs that increase dopamine levels. Researchers think that in some cases the resulting chemical influx modifies the brain in a way that makes risks and rewards—say, those in a game of poker—more appealing and rash decisions more difficult to resist.

Speaking only for myself, gambling couldn’t be less interesting. When I was at the race track with my friend, I’d bring along a book to read. I won’t even spend a dollar on a lottery ticket. Drugs are even less tempting, except if you consider alcohol a drug. After reading Marxist literature all day, nothing relaxes me more than glass of Famous Grouse, the scotch that most Scottish people prefer.

I suppose the only bet I took in life was revolutionary socialism. In some ways, that makes me a total loser. But I had fun doing it most of the time.

August 9, 2017

Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem

Filed under: jingoism,sports,war — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm

As someone who listens to a lot of sports talk radio, I have been struck by the steady drumbeat of all the white callers who make the same point, as if they were almost reading from a script. It goes something like this:

I understand that football players have free speech but when they are on the job, they have no right to go against their employer. It would be okay with me if Colin Kaepernick had called a press conference to speak about Black Lives Matter or anything else but when he is on company time, he had no right to kneel during the Star Spangled Banner.

The first thing you have to ask yourself is what kind of job requires you to sing the national anthem when the workday starts. People working for Walmart are expected to stock shelves, not stand at attention and sing the Star Spangled Banner so why would someone being paid to throw a football or hit a baseball go through a patriotic ritual before they begin working?

On March 12, 1996, Denver Nuggets point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (neé Chris Jackson) refused to stand for the national anthem with his teammates. As a convert to Islam, this was counter to his religious beliefs. Additionally, he stated that the flag was a symbol of oppression. He was suspended by the NBA for one game but after a compromise worked out with the league, he agreed to stand but would also be permitted to recite a Muslim prayer instead of singing Francis Scott Key’s harmonically tortuous song that included a verse that condemned slaves fighting for the British in exchange for their freedom.

Unlike the NBA, the NFL has no rules about standing for the national anthem, and the Collective Bargaining Agreement does not mention it as well.

The roots of singing the anthem before sporting events go back to the 1918 World Series when WWI jingoism ruled. This was the same year that Debs made a speech denouncing American participation in World War I, which led to his conviction under the Sedition Act of 1918 and a 10 year prison term. The September 6, 1918 NY Times was clear about the nationalist impulse behind the singing of the anthem, which actually occurred during the 7th inning stretch rather than before the game started:

Far different from any incident that has ever occurred in the history of baseball was the great moment of the first world’s series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, which came at Comiskey Park this afternoon during the seventh-inning stretch. As the crowd of 10,274 spectators—the smallest that has witnessed the diamond classic in many years—stood up to take their afternoon yawn, that has been the privilege and custom of baseball fans for many generations, the band broke forth to the strains of ” The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The yawn was checked and heads were .bared as the ball players turned quickly about and faced the music. Jackie Fred Thomas of the U. S. Navy was at attention, as he stood erect, with his eyes set on the flag fluttering at the top of the lofty pole in right field. First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the vary end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.

The mind of the baseball fan was on the war. The patriotic outburst following the singing of the national anthem was far greater than the upheaval of emotion which greeted Babe Ruth, the Boston southpaw when he conquered Hippo Jim Vaughn and the Cubs in a seething flinging duel by a score of 1 to 0. The cheers for America’s stirring song were greater even than the demonstration offered Vaughn when he twice made the mighty Ruth whiff the air.

Nowadays, baseball owners are not content to have such a display before the game begins. During the seventh-inning stretch, the crowd is expected to sing “God Bless America” on various holidays like Fourth of July. Like 1918, it was an outburst of jingoism following September 11, 2001 that led to it being included as part of the nationalist drumbeat in baseball stadiums. It is only in Yankee Stadium and the Atlanta Braves stadium where “God Bless America” is sung at every game during the seventh-inning stretch.

Also like the “Star Spangled Banner” first being played in 1918, “God Bless America” was composed by Irving Berlin that same year as a way of rousing public opinion in favor of fighting in the trench wars “over there”. The USA suffered 116,708 casualties in WWI, which was 0.13% of the population. That’s a considerable figure considering the fact that the USA only entered the war on April 6, 1917. By comparison, American casualties totaled 58,209 in the Vietnam War, which was 0.0003% of the population.

Most of you are probably familiar with how the song usually starts: “God bless America, land that I love” but the lyrics that precede it will give you a better sense of Berlin’s intentions:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:

Woody Guthrie hated the song, which was sung ceaselessly on the radio in the 1930s by Kate Smith. He decided to write “This Land is Your Land” as a way of answering Irving Berlin’s pro-war lyrics.

Norman Lear, who just turned down an invitation to be honored at the Kennedy Center because of his disgust with Donald Trump, created “All in the Family” in the early 70s as a way of protesting the Vietnam War and racism. Archie Bunker was the head of the family and about as ignorant and backward as Trump. His son Michael Stivic was a stand-in for people like me, although he never expressed anything remotely sounding like Trotskyism on the show. This argument between Archie and Michael was repeated a million times across America over dinner tables and sounds very much like the reaction to Colin Kaepernick:

July 19, 2017

The Fencer

Filed under: Film,sports,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

Opening at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, “The Fencer” is an Estonian-language film made in 2015 by Finns that tells the story of a fencing instructor named Endel Nelis who led an underdog team of children to victory in a competition held in Leningrad in the early 50s. In doing so, he took considerable risks since he had been drafted into the Estonian contingent of the Nazi army after Hitler invaded Estonia. Torn between self-preservation and dedication to his students, he chooses them. There was a real person named Endel Nelis who died in 1993 but the film’s plot takes liberties with his story. There is no evidence that he was wanted by the KGB even though Estonians paid dearly for being dragooned into Hitler’s killing machine. While the film has a fictional narrative, there is a larger truth about the USSR and Estonia that I will address after saying a few words about this altogether stirring film.

As a genre, “The Fencer” has a lot in common with both documentary and narrative films I have seen about kids from poverty-stricken circumstances winning chess tournaments, especially “Dark Horse” that came out the same year as “The Fencer”. “Dark Horse”, a New Zealand film, was about a troubled Maori man named Genesis Potini who trained Maori children to compete and win in chess tournaments against children from elite schools. “The Fencer” will also remind you of “The Karate Kid” since fencing and karate are both one-on-one combat sports.

However, the focus is mostly on Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) who has arrived in the poor and rural village of Haapsalu, Estonia from Leningrad in order to avoid detection by the Soviet police. He interviews with the principal of the local school for a sports instructor position that he hardly looks forward to. The gym lacks equipment and the children are not very athletic. In an early scene, 1 out of 5 boys run around vaulting equipment rather than leap over it. When Nelis decides to take them out skiing, the principal informs him that the skis are currently being used at a military base for training.

Missing the fencing competition he excelled at in Leningrad, he begins working out with a fencing foil on his own in the school’s gym in his spare time only to be discovered by a pre-teen girl named Marta who becomes totally fixated on his balletic moves.

Can you teach me to do that, she asks. Finally discovering something that might motivate his students, Nelis begins a fencing class that starts out on the most elementary basis. The children are lined up like they were recruits in basic training and put through the abc’s of fencing—except without a weapon. Once he realizes that they are determined to become fencers, he takes them into a nearby forest where they cut down branches that are the length of a fencing foil and equips them with an ersatz handle.

The film includes a romance between Nelis and the school librarian who stands behind his work, even though that puts her at odds with the principal who regards fencing as “feudal”. In a PTA type meeting, he urges the parents to support his decision to drop the program using Stalinist rhetoric about the “needs of the proletariat”. The grandfather of Nelis’s star student stands up to remind him that Karl Marx was a fencer when young.

“The Fencer” is an old-fashioned film with a script that borders on the melodramatic. What makes it compelling is the performances by the leading characters and enough of the actual art of fencing to carry you along. In plucky underdog films such as this, you can surely expect a happy ending.

As someone who had just finished a survey on the films of Andrzej Wajda, I found myself wondering about the historical backdrop for the film. As I had mentioned in my review of “Katyn”, how was it possible for the USSR to organize the execution of 22,000 Polish officers for the crime of being officers? By the same token, what kind of justice is it to put men in concentration camps who had been forced to fight on the side of the Nazis? In a key scene between Nelis and his librarian lover, he tells her that he managed to flee from the army not long after being drafted without being caught. The other men in the unit, who were friends and neighbors from Estonia, were not so lucky. They were apprehended and killed.

According to Wikipedia, the majority of Estonian men volunteered to join the Nazi military and comprised a 70,000 strong force. An Estonian Legion was led by Franz Augsberger, a high-ranking German SS commander. In a key battle between Soviet and Nazi forces in the Battle of Narwa in January, 1944, Estonian soldiers were key to holding off the Red Army. Soviet scorched earth tactics helped to keep Estonia in the Nazi camp. Two months later, Soviet bombers attacked the capital city of Tallinn and left 40 percent of the homes burned to the ground.

If your knowledge of Estonia is based on these bare facts, you would tend to regard its citizens as a reactionary mob despite what is depicted in “The Fencer”. Indeed, whenever I heard about Estonia in the 1960s, it was always written off as hotbed of fascism in the same way as Ukraine, another Nazi ally supposedly. But like Ukraine, Estonia was not reflexively predisposed to anti-Communism. In some ways, writing Estonians off as “bad seeds” reminds me of Daniel Goldhagen’s argument that Germans were innately anti-Semitic.

Like Poland, Estonia was ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. After forcing the Estonian government to accept Soviet military bases and 25,000 soldiers on its soil, the country quickly came under total Soviet control when an additional 90,000 Soviet soldiers were sent in as reinforcements. A puppet government was installed and a Red flag replaced the Estonian flag over the nation’s capital. Shortly afterwards, tribunals were set up to try “enemies of the people” against a backdrop of demonstration elections that recorded a 92.8% preference for the Communist Party, the only one on the ballot of course. Economically, the country was transformed overnight. Everything, including small shops, was nationalized and trade with the West came to an end.

During the first year of Soviet occupation over 8,000 people, including most of the country’s leading politicians and military officers, were arrested and 2,200 of those arrested were executed on the spot in Estonia. The rest were sent to prison camps in the USSR, from which very few returned. 8,000 doesn’t sound like very much but in 1939 Estonia had a population of 1,122,000, just a bit larger than San Jose, California. Can you imagine the trauma suffered by such a city if 8,000 of its residents were killed for no other reasons than being “enemies of the people”? Or think of it this way, if Estonia had a population as large as that of the USA’s today, the proportionate number of victims would have been 2,400,000.

Considering the fact that the Nazis had never killed a single Estonian until it invaded the country on its way to the USSR, it is understandable why many young men who were politically naïve might have seen them as the lesser evil.

Last Thursday, RT.com published an article titled “‘Perversion of history’: Russian officials blast NATO film glorifying Nazi collaborators” that attacked an 8-minute film produced by NATO about the Forest Brothers, a Baltic-wide guerrilla movement that fought alongside the Nazis against the Red Army. Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova wrote: “Don’t remain indifferent, this is a perversion of history that NATO knowingly spreads in order to undermine the outcome of the Nuremberg Tribunal and it must be cut short!” She also correctly stated that many of the Forest Brothers were former Nazi collaborators and members of the Baltic Waffen SS.

The problem with much of RT.com reporting is that it operates in a time-tunnel that begins with, for example, Nazi alliances with Estonian nationalists but not with the secret protocols that gave the USSR free rein to seize control of Estonia and murder tens of thousands of its citizens only because it saw that as necessary for securing a buffer against the West, which at that time did not include Adolf Hitler.

As difficult as it is for some people on the left to understand, the best defense of the USSR was working-class solidarity across borders, not the Metternichian foreign policy of Stalin in the past and of Putin’s Russia today. After WWII, Stalin retained control of the Baltic States with the full approval of the USA but as the Cold War began, they began to be courted by the CIA as possible allies. Instead of maintaining its domination of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, the Kremlin should have granted them the right to self-determination and offered them total political and economic support as independent states. That, in fact, was the original policy of the Soviet Union even though it is virtually unknown to people who rely on RT.com.

It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.

–V.I. Lenin, The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”



August 25, 2016

The Business of Amateurs; At All Costs

Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 1:28 am

That first Olympic marathon caught the public’s imagination to a startling degree, especially in Greece itself. Incentives included clothing, wine, a vast amount of chocolate and free haircuts for life at local barbers.

–David Arscott, “The Olympics”

What you read above is the solution to last Sunday’s NY Times acrostic, something that echoes what David Wallechinsky said in the must-see documentary “The Business of Amateurs” that opens as VOD, including ITunes, on Friday, August 26th. Wallechinsky, the president of The International Society of Olympic Historians, points out that even the original Olympics were hardly an amateur affair. The participants were supported substantially by patrons and lived a life of comfort.

Amateurism, to put it bluntly, was an innovation of the British upper crust that sought to keep the working class riffraff out of sports in the late 1800s. It included many different incentives to the wealthy boys who took part in sports, especially crew. A typical award might be a silver cup that was equivalent to a year’s wage for a factory worker.

“The Business of Amateurs” addresses all of the major crises facing collegiate sports today, including the corporate greed of the NCAA, the hardships faced by football and basketball players—the big ticket gladiators—whose scholarships are mere crumbs compared to the profits they generate, and most critically the risks that football players take in a violent sport that can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the damage to the brain that can lead to early onset of dementia, Lew Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), Parkinson’s, and depression so deep that it can force men to kill themselves as linebacker Junior Seau did.

Among the athletes interviewed by director and narrator Bob DeMars is Scott Ross, who played linebacker alongside Seau for the University of Southern California. Throughout the film, we hear from Ross who is battling the same kind of depression that Seau faced and for the same reasons. The only relief he can get from his symptoms is alcohol that can temporarily quiet the demons that plague him. Before the onset of the symptoms, he was making a good life as a businessman with a wife and kids. Toward the end of the film, we hear the message from Ross’s current girlfriend (his alcoholism had destroyed his marriage) that she had left on DeMars’s answering machine. He was found dead in a car next to a church, the result of a toxic mixture of alcohol and pain killers.

DeMars was uniquely qualified to make such a film since he was a defensive lineman at USC from 1997 to 2001. Not only has he the insider’s knowledge of how the NCAA exploits football players; he is concerned about the possibility that he too might be experiencing the consequences of one concussion too many. We see him talking to his psychiatrist about the panic attacks he had begun to experience. She replies that this could definitely be connected to brain damage.

DeMars is a big blonde bear of a man whose presence in the film has a Michael Moore quality. If Moore found it nearly impossible to meet with Roger Smith, the CEO of General Motors, DeMars has the same problem setting up an appointment with Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA. A phone call does not get through after repeated tries and when DeMars goes into the lobby of their headquarters, they throw him out.

Compared to the NCAA, the NFL is practically saintly. Or maybe, it is just that it is more honest since it openly operates as a profit-making enterprise. If you get injured in a football game at the pro level, you will still be paid. If you get an injury playing for a big-time athletic program on the Division One level, you just might lose your scholarship. The football players are at the total mercy of the administration that despite all the blather about student-athletes considers them to be virtual slaves of the university. You get room and board and the adulation of fans but that hardly pays the bills. When one student tells a radio interviewer that he can’t pay for groceries, some good Samaritan leaves a bundle on his doorstop. That picayune gift got him thrown off the team.

Another athlete, a Black wrestler from Minnesota, puts up a rap video on Youtube complaining about exploitation. He is told to take it down by the school because his name belongs to them, not him. Years after a UCLA basketball player has retired from the game, he learns that the NCAA sold his image to a video game manufacturer without his permission. He files suit against the game maker and wins. Although everybody hates Johnny Manziel for obvious reasons, the documentary points out that he was outspokenly against the NCAA’s cartel control over his labor. Texas A&M made millions off of his stardom but he got in trouble for earning small change selling memorabilia with his signature.

Probably the most disgusting aspect of this big business pretending that it was a nonprofit is how it short shrifts poor black men from getting a decent education when they are at a place like the University of North Carolina that set up classes in African-American studies exclusively for their mainly Black athletes, some of whom were reading at a 3rd grade reading level. Through the connivance of various professors, they always got passing grades even though they were meaningless. One U. of North Carolina professor named Mary Willingham got fed up with the charade and went public. Needless to say, the school initially denied her charges just as they would deny any responsibility for CTE. In essence, the top administrators only cared about raking in the dough. Although the film did not get into the problem of athletes and sex crimes, Baylor University is a prime example of how administrators look the other way when athletes are guilty of crimes. As long as they are generating revenue, who cares if a coed gets raped. Ken Starr, who went after Bill Clinton for getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky, was the president of Baylor college when the football team was acting practically like ISIS in a Yazidi village. Starr tried to keep the sex assaults a secret to protect the school’s revenue generating machine. The hypocrisy reaches biblical proportions.

Towards the end of the documentary, there’s a hopeful note about athletes forming a union that can stand up for their rights, something that got started at Northwestern University, which ironically has the highest graduation rate of any major school. In March 2014 the NLRB decided that the athletes were really employees of the university and gave them the green light. Unfortunately, the board reversed itself a year later. This was a unanimous overruling that included the members of the board appointed by Democratic presidents.

As it happens, I saw “The Business of Amateurs” the very day this same NLRB decided that Columbia graduate students had the right to unionize. Let’s hope they don’t change their mind a year from now. Not only is this a good thing for grad students. It might have ramifications for football players. Columbia might have a crappy football program but the initiatives taken by student activists might have the beneficial side-effect of helping our modern day gladiators.

If you’ve seen “Hoop Dreams”, “At All Costs” will seem familiar at first since it is focused on African-American high school basketball players competing to get an athletic scholarship. But unlike “Hoop Dreams”, the subjects of this worthy documentary that opens as VOD on September 20th are relatively middle-class. If the “Hoop Dream” players are desperately trying to find a way out of poverty, those in “At All Costs” are much more trying to achieve a dream that they have nourished since the age of six in some cases. Like trying to win “The American Idol” contest, landing a starting position as a point guard for the aforementioned University of North Carolina might lead to a multimillion dollar contract with an NBA team right after freshman year if the athlete takes his team to the NCAA final four.

In this instance, the players are competing in the AAU, which has become the primary audition spot for top players. Have you heard of the AAU? I hadn’t and I say that as someone who has sports talk radio on at least two hours a day. It stands for the Amateur Athletic Union that was formed in 1888 and that is much of a fiction when it comes to amateurism as the NCAA. Under the auspices of the AAU, companies like Nike and Adidas organize tournaments during the summer when stand-out players compete before the watchful eyes of people like Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who coached the American professionals who trampled over the competition in the Brazil Olympics.

The film is focused on one AAU team called the Compton Magic that is coached by Etop Udo-Ema, a former Division One basketball player and quite open about his involvement in the AAU. It is all about the money. He gets all sorts of perks from Nike and Adidas and preaches to his players about doing well in the summer games in the AAU circuit. It is their big chance to get rich and famous. At least you can give Udo-Ema credit for being honest, as opposed to the bullshit artists running big-time basketball programs.

Among the players profiled in the film is Parker Jackson-Cartright, a soft-spoken and appealing personality whose father treats him in the same way someone might treat a racing thoroughbred. It is his ticket to success as well as his son’s.

The Jackson-Cartright family’s life revolves around the basketball programs in high school and the AAU. The dad attends all the games and is philosophical about his son continuing to compete after a bad foot injury. He muses, “We have to put it all on the line” even if putting it all on the line might mean a permanent injury.

For athletes like Parket Jackson-Cartright, school is simply a place where he can ply his trade. With every waking hour devoted to shooting hoops, there is not much time to spend on enjoying his youth or getting deep into his studies. If the injury to his foot would have kept him out of a top sports program, he would likely end up in a state school and in an uncompetitive position academically.

Even worse is that focusing every fiber of his being on basketball makes such players one-dimensional as Michael Connor, an African-American psychology professor at Cal State, Long Beach, points out in the film. Upon hearing this, I wondered if this was why Michael Jordan is so apolitical. If your body and soul are consumed by basketball, maybe you lose track of what they once called keeping your eyes on the prize.

It also made me wonder if Connor was referring to Herbert Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional-Man”, a book that was popular in the 1960s and influenced many young radicals including Angela Davis who was Marcuse’s student at Brandeis.

Have you read “One-Dimensional Man” that was written in 1964 and that can be read online? It holds up rather well.

The society of total mobilization, which takes shape in the most advanced areas of industrial civilization, combines in productive union the features of the Welfare State and the Warfare State. Compared with its predecessors, it is indeed a “new society.” Traditional trouble spots are being cleaned out or isolated, disrupting elements taken in hand. The main trends are familiar: concentration of the national economy on the needs of the big corporations, with the government as a stimulating, supporting, and sometimes even controlling force; hitching of this economy to a world-wide system of military alliances, monetary arrangements, technical assistance and development schemes; gradual assimilation of blue-collar and white-collar population, of leadership types in business and labor, of leisure activities and aspirations in different social classes; fostering of a pre-established harmony between scholarship and the national purpose; invasion of the private household by the togetherness of public opinion; opening of the bedroom to the media of mass communication.


April 12, 2016

How the LA Times reported on UCLA athlete Jackie Robinson in 1939

Filed under: racism,sports — louisproyect @ 1:29 am

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(Hat tip to Ken Burns documentary that started this evening on PBS.)

April 8, 2016

Havana Motor Club

Filed under: cuba,sports — louisproyect @ 9:18 pm

“Havana Motor Club” is a vastly entertaining documentary about the underground drag racing scene in Cuba that is also about as informative a take on the social and economic reforms being pushed by Raul Castro as you can find anywhere. It opened at the Village East theater in NY today and is by far the best documentary I have seen thus far in 2016. (Also available on Amazon and ITunes.)

In 1959 the triumphant Cuban revolution declared that since automobile racing was decadent, it must be abolished along with prostitution, gambling and other vices associated with the Batista dictatorship. Even before the dictator was toppled, the rebels struck a blow against car racing by kidnapping and holding for ransom Juan Fangio, the Argentinian who was the greatest racer in the world and regarded by some as the greatest ever. When I was at Bard College, I was part of a circle that was heavily into racing and as such worshipped Juan Fangio. I remember the night in 1961 when we showed Juan Fangio racing films in the school gym where we burned Castrol motor oil, a British brand that was favored by professional racers. The distinctly pungent scent of the burning Castrol gave the film showing authenticity.

Fangio was in Cuba to compete in the 1958 Cuban Gran Prix. Because of the kidnapping, another driver substituted for him at the last minute. During the race a Cuban competitor skidded off the track and plowed into a crowd, killing 10 and injuring 40—an event that is seen in “Havana Motor Club”. So Fidel Castro had two reasons to ban auto racing. It was a plaything of the rich as well as dangerous. As for Fangio, he issued a statement after being released: “It was one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it.”

The film begins with a look at the racing scene in Cuba when director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt arrived with his crew. There were no Ferraris, but merely the antique cars that dot Havana’s streets today but with an important difference. The engines were souped up in order to compete in illegal drag races on the Cuban back roads. In a drag race, two cars compete against each other with the goal of reaching the finish line first. In the USA drag racing is a highly popular sport in which speeds of over 300 mph can be reached under 5 seconds routinely down a quarter-mile track. In Cuba, it is doubtful that the fastest cars can reach speeds of more than 140 mph. Despite that, watching Cubans race a ‘55 Chevy or a ‘62 Ford can provide ten times more excitement than an American drag race, especially when you understand the challenges that faced them.

Not only was the sport illegal, it was difficult to get parts such as a supercharger that is essential for racing. One of the drivers featured in the film has a friend in Miami who comes to Cuba frequently to help his Porsche compete. It is not explained how a Cuban could have gotten his hands on a Porsche but we can assume that his friend had something to do with it. The film focuses on the competition between the Porsche that is equipped with an oversized Chevy engine and a highly modified 1955 Chevy that belongs to a garage-owner nicknamed “El Tito” and is driven by his son.

The ingenuity some drivers show in procuring parts is awe-inspiring. When a boat that was being used to smuggle people into Florida breaks apart near the beach in Havana, a scuba diver goes beneath to salvage the engine that is then used to soup up a ’51 Ford, one called the “Black Widow”. It is not hard to imagine that once the barriers to such items are lifted, the Cuban economy has the possibility of soaring to new heights. Maybe those possibilities have finally persuaded Jose Madera, the owner of the Black Widow, to finally remain in Cuba after 5 unsuccessful attempts to reach Florida by raft.

One racer, who competes with a ’56 Ford, is a perfect symbol of the Cuban revolution today. He resents the government’s refusal to lift the ban on drag racing but appreciates the benefits that socialism has brought, including the free medical care that allowed him to receive treatment for cancer that not only left him alive but capable of doing what he loved most—racing.

In the course of the film, the government lifts the ban on drag racing as part of the reforms being spearheaded by Raul Castro. Just before a big race is scheduled, it is suspended because the barricades necessary for crowd control (they remember the 1958 disaster) are being used for the Pope’s visit. When racers become discouraged, one remains hopeful. He says that the government will see its way to seeing the benefits of a sporting event that can go against the grain of capitalism that he admits is calling the shots everywhere in the world today. Cuba will take an institution that serves capitalism and show how it can be transformed into benefiting the people.

The film concludes with an official race sanctioned by the government that pits the Porsche against El Tito’s Chevy. I won’t tell you which car wins.

Despite his name, director Bent-Jurgen Perlmutt is a Brooklynite who became interested in Cuba as a college student. He enrolled in a study program there in the spring of 2000 just before the Elian Gonzalez custody battle took place. His take on that confrontation will give you a good understanding of how he was able to see Cuba in such a balanced fashion:

This incident piqued my interest even more in this “axis-of-evil” nation and its contentious relationship with the United States. In order to learn more about Cuba/U.S. relations from a Cuban perspective, I started taking research trips to Cuba on my own. This led me to develop several different film projects over the years, all focusing on how Americans live and survive in a country that (since recently) has been officially off-limits to most of them. HAVANA MOTOR CLUB is the culmination of all my work in Cuba over the years, and I intend it to shed light on the conflicting sides of the changes happening in Cuba today.

With Havana in a kind of timewarp, its streets looking like the year 1958 preserved in amber, there are obvious reasons why many people would enjoy returning to a less complicated time. We learn that as part of the reforms, the Cuban drag racers are now permitted to take tourists around town for a fee. If that’s the kind of capitalism that is overtaking Cuba today, I for one would be amenable to it especially since I was just another 13-year-old in 1958 with a passion for the same kinds of cars.

On a Friday night in the late 1950s after the movie let out in South Fallsburgh in upstate NY, we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Rialto Theater and took in the same kind of illegal drag racing you see in “Havana Motor Club”. The cars would not exactly compete with each other since it was a two-lane road heading out of town but they would line up in front of the traffic light and rev their engines until the light turned green. Watching a ’57 Chevy or Ford tearing up the street was a way to get the testosterone flowing.

My car racing circle at Bard included a student named Paul Gommi who was the typical Bardian of that time, which is to say an atypical American youth. Paul used to compete in a drag races in a class that was designated for modified sports cars like MG’s or Triumphs, popular at the time for people on a budget. Reading the fine print in the regulations, Paul discovered that it would be possible for him to compete with a 1932 Ford Phaeton that he had equipped with a bored and stroked English Ford engine. Over the years he has developed versions of this combination that have earned him accolades. This is a recent example as featured in a Hot Rod Network magazine article:

His latest creation is this original American ’32 Ford DeLuxe V-8 Phaeton (only 974 produced). He set about improving its performance exactly like he would have in 1955, using all pre-’55 parts, materials, machinery, tools, and even methods.

According to Paul, “A hot rod is all about the engine. Modifying the engine is the greatest improvement you can make in performance.” He chose a ’37 Ford 221ci 21-stud Flathead engine. For performance, he took a ’49 S.Co.T. supercharger and adapted the 21 studder by designing and making all the pulleys, drive, and modifying the manifold with the help of his friend Tom Taros.

Paul was an art major whose 12 feet tall paintings of drag racers lined the walls of the dining commons in 1965, done to fulfill the Senior Project required of all Bardians for graduation. Paul told us that he was done with art at that point. It was ready to move on to full-time racing and car-building as a profession.

In 1989 Paul’s drag racing career came to an end as his car spun off the track and resulted in a serious accident that nearly cost his life.

All I can say is that when the film shows officials warning the crowds at Cuba’s first drag racing race to keep a safe distance from the track, they had ample reasons to stick to their guns. Unless the people stood back, the race would be suspended. They surely understood the dangers of a car hurdling toward a crowd at over 100 miles per hour can pose. The top man representing the Cuban government in this emerging new sport is 72 years old and had vivid memories of the 1958 bloodbath. Whatever flaws the Cuban government has, neglect of the safety and health of its citizens is not one of them.

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