Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2014

Founder/editor of Swans is incapacitated

Filed under: swans — louisproyect @ 4:18 pm

Gilles d’Aymery with Jan Baughman, his wife and co-editor

This morning an old friend and–like me–a former contributor to Swans, an online magazine, informed me that a notice appeared on its home page announcing an uncertain future due to the incapacity of its founder and long-time editor Gilles d’Aymery:

Note from the Editors: Dear readers, contributors, and friends. We are sorry that we haven’t been able to publish since July 28, 2014. Gilles has suffered three cerebral concussions that have left him impaired. He’s lost most mobility. He cannot walk at all and moves on a chair. He’s lost much ability with his two hands and has a difficult time to type on the keyboard. On top of this he has suffered some brain damage. Therefore, it is a condition that makes it impossible to maintain Swans until his health improves. We apologize for the inconvenience. We will try to put together an end of the year review, but we certainly cannot promise that it will happen. Same for our Infamous Predictions.

I wrote for Swans between 2003 and 2011 but resigned after d’Aymery wrote an intemperate attack on Paul Buhle who had begun writing for Swans. Over the years I had never gotten used to his tongue-lashings at people who were writing for the magazine over trivial offenses. Since nobody was getting paid, it took some gumption to call them on the carpet as if they were your employees.

I had resigned from Swans once before, I can’t remember exactly when but I do remember why. Not long after I began blogging as the Unrepentant Marxist, d’Aymery wrote some rude comment about how I was wasting my time in some narcissistic enterprise or words to that effect. It was the first and last time he had been rude to me. He learned that I am more than happy to contribute articles but would not stand for verbal abuse. Other Swans contributors were much more willing to put up with it, possibly writing it off as “oh, that’s just Gilles blowing off steam”.

Of course, there was another side to Mr. Hyde. In a hundred different ways, d’Aymery was extremely warm and supportive to me over the years and to other members of the Swans “flock”. He was deeply appreciative of what I wrote and took great care in editing and offering suggestions to make the articles better. At his best, he could be a writer’s gift from heaven.

Despite his evidently professional skills as editor, d’Aymery’s background was in business:

Gilles d’Aymery was born in 1950 in France. Educated at the Universities of Economics & Law of Toulouse and Paris, and at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, he’s traveled extensively and speaks several languages. Aymery has worked in the international oil & gas industry, moved to the U.S. in 1982, eventually changed course to become a computer consultant to small US businesses, and created Swans in 1996. He has been dedicating his time to Swans since January 2001.

I knew little else about d’Aymery except that he had a bad motorcycle accident some years ago that resulted in serious injuries to his legs. When I learned about his round of concussions, I speculated that it might have been the result of this disability combined with old age lack of coordination that might have led to repeated falls. One of the reasons I was so anxious to lose weight and reduce my blood pressure was to avoid medications that could make me lose my balance and injure myself.

In August 2012 I began writing for CounterPunch, an act that d’Aymery considered a betrayal. He always saw CounterPunch as a rival even though I doubt that Alexander Cockburn and Jeff St. Clair viewed Swans in the same fashion. Swans had an approach that was much more rooted in print culture than the Internet. It came out on a biweekly basis and refused to allow articles to be crossposted elsewhere. D’Aymery was okay with a couple of paragraphs and a link to Swans but would get tough with anybody who violated his rules.

He approached me in 2003 because I had become a fairly high profile opponent of NATO’s war in Yugoslavia and the post-911 “War on Terror”. At the time Swans was a pole of attraction for people like Edward Herman whose anti-imperialism was based on cold war divisions. Since Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were figures with long-standing ties to the Soviet bloc, it was natural to take your stand with them even if you were forced to admit that they violated human rights.

My background was different from Herman’s. As a Marxist, I would have had no problem backing individuals and movements that had the blessings of the US State Department. But in the intense propaganda war over Iraq that pitted us against “laptop bombardiers” like Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Bérube and Norm Geras, it was easy if not necessary to play down our differences with someone like Saddam Hussein.

After Putin invaded Chechnya, I began to part ways with the Edward Hermans of the world. My Trotskyist training kicked in, especially the article the Old Man wrote in 1938 titled “Learn to Think” that warned against Manichean politics:

If the French fascists should make an attempt today at a coup d’etat and the Daladier government found itself forced to move troops against the fascists, the revolutionary workers, while maintaining their complete political independence, would fight against the fascists alongside of these troops. Thus in a number of cases the workers are forced not only to permit and tolerate, but actively to support the practical measures of the bourgeois government.

In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases however they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.

Despite the preponderance of articles in Swans that did indeed automatically placing a minus sign where Samantha Powers put a plus, I never considered resigning. For that matter, I never would consider resigning from CounterPunch even though most articles follow the Edward Herman anti-imperialist methodology. Swans was important to me in the same way that CounterPunch became important. Both publications were stocked with well-written and interesting articles that could not be found elsewhere, especially those covering the cultural beat. I was always proud to share writing credits with Peter Byrne at Swans, a man who focused on the cultural and who was hip enough to describe himself in these offbeat terms:

Born in Chicago, Peter’s wandering has never lessened his affection for that American city par excellence. He had his anti-American period just after his bout of acne. But he was surprised to discover, as he changed addresses, that there were creeps and non-creeps in roughly equal proportions around the globe. Though curious about history, his own bores him. He was once heard to murmur, “Stuff your index cards and the assumption that the teacher always knows best.” The past is passed and he’s only concerned about what he’ll write tomorrow morning.

In the evening he may look into what the local thespians are up to or bolster the dwindling public at one of the fleapits. Sometimes he stays home and ponders the lives of all those other Peter Byrne’s that live in Google-land. He once thought about singling himself out by signing P. Tecumseh Byrne, but discarded the idea when it caused a laughing fit in Gabriella. In the small hours he’s prone to wrestle with his principal metaphysical problem: How to outwit the airline officials who insist on charging him excess baggage fees for all the books he brings back from abroad.

Peter, who is even older than me, stopped by my apartment six or seven years ago where we had a stimulating conversation. He reminded me a lot of the bohemians I ran with at Bard College and who were my kind of people long before I went through the largely unproductive experience of Trotskyist sectarianism. My politics, like many of my favorite writers at Swans and CounterPunch, is joined at the hip to art and culture. In a way I regret having lost my connection to Swans, a place that no matter how much Gilles d’Aymery got on my wrong side always made me feel at home.

August 1, 2011

Henry’s Demons: a review

Filed under: health and fitness,swans — louisproyect @ 3:06 pm

Henry’s Demons: A Review
by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Cockburn, Patrick, and Cockburn, Henry: Henry’s Demons: Living with Schizophrenia: a Father and Son’s Story, Scribner, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4391-5470-0, 238 pages.

(Swans – August 1, 2011)   Three weeks after Jared Loughner shot six people to death in Tucson, Arizona, and wounded another 14 including US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Henry’s Demons hit the bookstores. So dismayed was I at the time by the level of ignorance on the left about mental illness, including, I am afraid, an article by Sam Smith that appeared on Patrick’s brother Alexander’s CounterPunch, I only wished that every single subscriber to the “Tea-Party-made-him-do-it” theory could read Henry’s Demon. (Smith opined that Loughner drew “bizarre conclusions” from the books he read, a function of not developing “critical thinking” in school or college. This completely ignores the question of brain chemistry, as if sending Loughner to Philips Exeter and Yale would have made any difference.)

As someone who has studied this issue in some depth because of both a close friend’s and a relative’s struggle with schizophrenia, I can say that Henry’s Demons is a book that will go a long way in illuminating one of society’s most intractable public health problems. By making the personal political, Patrick Cockburn has made an enormous contribution to our knowledge about a disease that is subject to the most ignorant prejudices, unfortunately even from our most educated classes.

In Kabul on February 8, 2002, Patrick Cockburn received a phone call from his wife Jan informing him that a fisherman had pulled his twenty-one-year-old son Henry fully clothed from a freezing cold river in Brighton. Suffering from hypothermia and just one step ahead of death, the youth was taken to a local hospital and then shortly transferred to a mental hospital. This was the beginning of an ordeal that lasted for the better part of a decade. It is almost impossible to imagine how Cockburn continued to function as one of the world’s top foreign correspondents while coping with his son’s never-ending dalliance with death. Although many people associate psychosis with violence against others, the greatest risk for the mentally ill is that they will do harm to themselves.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/lproy72.html

June 6, 2011

Michael Lebowitz’s “The Socialist Alternative”

Filed under: socialism,swans,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

Michael Lebowitz’s The Socialist Alternative
by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Lebowitz, Michael A.: The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, Monthly Review Press, New York, ISBN 978-1-58367-214-3, paperback, 191 pages.

(Swans – June 6, 2011)   Despite his identification with the Venezuelan revolutionary process, Michael Lebowitz differs from “20th Century Socialists” who hitched their wagon to an “actually existing” system. For obvious reasons, Soviet, Maoist, and even Cuban socialism has too often tended to foster the rigid pursuit of a certain kind of model, either economically or organizationally. There was an unfortunate but understandable need to elevate Soviet-style planning or “Bolshevik” party-building methods (even if they were never actually pursued by Lenin) into some kind of catechism for the Marxist faithful to follow.

Obviously, none of this applies to Venezuela — a country that is still capitalist by strict definitions. Marxist theory is challenged to describe the ever-shifting reality of a society permeated by working-class power and institutions that represent profound challenges to the existing system. Co-ops, for example, are a principal medium for economic development outside the profit system. If one has no patience for explaining contradictions, then one might be advised to avoid Venezuela.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/lproy70.html

March 14, 2011

Taking Obama’s Measure

Filed under: Obama,swans — louisproyect @ 6:10 pm

Taking Obama’s Measure
by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Hodge, Roger D.: The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, HarperCollins, 2010, 259 pages, ISBN 978-0-06-201126-8

Ali, Tariq: The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad, Verso, 2010, 153 pages, ISBN-13 978-1-84467-449-7

Street, Paul: The Emperor’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power Paradigm, 2010, 274 pages, ISBN 978-1-59451-845-4 (paperback)

(Swans – March 14, 2011)   Starting in 2005, just after things had turned completely sour in Iraq, a visit to your local bookstore would reveal a plethora of books about how rotten George W. Bush was. Eric Alterman’s The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America and David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush were fairly typical offerings, amounting to the printed version of what could be heard any evening on MSNBC.

While people like Alterman and Corn viewed Barack Obama’s election as a kind of Second Coming, it took not much longer than a year for disillusionment to sink in. Criticisms of Obama, however, do not go for the jugular as they did with Bush. No matter how many terrible things he does, there will be a lemming-like march in 2012 to line up behind him in order to stave off Republican control of the White House. Liberals have trouble understanding that it is exactly the “centrist” politics of the current administration that will lead to its ouster, if such an ouster takes place.

Given the abysmal record of the Obama presidency so far, which amounts to Bush’s third term in many respects, it is testimony to his continued hold on liberal America that only three critical books have emerged from the left. (The ones emanating from the right are exclusively crackpot exercises making the case that Obama is spearheading a drive toward socialism.)

Of the three, Roger Hodge’s The Mendacity of Hope is likely to be the only one for sale in Barnes and Noble or Borders. Published by HarperCollins, it has been widely reviewed in the mainstream press. The author was formerly an editor at Harper’s Magazine, which has no connection to the publisher HarperCollins although they were initially part of the same company launched in the early 1800s by James and John Harper. Today Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns HarperCollins, an outlet obviously calculated to make money based on whatever sells — right or left.

That being said, it is doubtful that HarperCollins would have had the slightest interest in Tariq Ali’s The Obama Syndrome or Paul Street’s The Empire’s New Clothes, the two other books reviewed here. Ali and Street approach the Obama administration from the standpoint of Marxism, an ideology that will not get you in the front door at HarperCollins. Ali’s book was published by Verso, where he has been an editor for decades. Street comes to us courtesy of Paradigm Publishers, a left-oriented scholarly imprint that will likely never be able to afford a quarter-page ad in The New York Times Book Review or The New York Review of Books. That being said, readers trying to make sense of arguably the most reactionary Democratic president since Grover Cleveland should seek out all three books.

full: http://swans.com/library/art17/lproy66.html

December 14, 2010

Autumn of the Hegemon

Filed under: financial crisis,swans — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

Perspectives: A Review of 2010

The Autumn Of The Hegemon

by Louis Proyect

FUNDRAISING DRIVE: Green is the color of hope and hope means meeting a fundraising goal of $4,000 for 2010. That money, evidently, does not pay for wages, only the operating costs of the endeavor and the opportunity to keep bringing original humanist and radical thoughts to the wider realm. Jan Baughman and Gilles d’Aymery have sacrificed for 15 years to make this “sweetest dream” a reality. Unfortunately, they never had a wealthy mentor or someone willing to match funds — a sad happenstance, but a plain reality…

Thank you very much to Beverly Holley and Phil Fine for their enduring friendship and their recurring generosity. Still, another $650 are needed. If you want to make a difference and help Jan and Gilles carry on, please Donate Now! Thank you for your attention and for reading Swans.

(Swans – December 13, 2010) This was the year that the war in Afghanistan became the longest in American history. It was also a year in which a jobless recovery was threatening to spiral out of control, turning into a double-dip recession. For those with even the most underdeveloped capacity for making historical analogies, it should be rather obvious that the U.S. is facing the same kind of intractable contradictions that brought down the USSR.

Clearly, there are major differences between the U.S. and the USSR over the Afghan wars. The USSR at least had the merit of intervening on behalf of a progressive government that was attempting to emancipate the countryside from the kinds of misogynist and feudal-like social relations that both the current government and the Taliban-led resistance support to one extent or another. The war cost over 13 thousand Soviet lives over a ten year period while the U.S. has managed to keep losses at relatively low levels, a function of the low-intensity warfare it has developed ever since the end of the Vietnam War.

However, the costs of sustaining this war, as well as the low-intensity occupation of Iraq and the maintenance of military bases all over the world, are undermining the financial health of the republic. While Randolph Bourne was correct to identify war with the health of the state in terms of it being able to delivering “a tremendous liberation of activity and energy” to the citizenry, it comes at a significant monetary cost. In July of this year, the House passed an additional 33 billion dollars for the war in Afghanistan. The ability of legislators to grant the Pentagon’s every wish will soon become understood as in violation of the “guns and butter” formula of the Vietnam era when the American economy enjoyed super-hegemonic status. Now it is really a question of “guns, not butter” as the economy sputters along on two cylinders.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy65.html

November 16, 2010

Guest post: the economy is not coming back

Filed under: financial crisis,oil,swans — louisproyect @ 1:53 am
The Economy Is Not Coming Back 

Part III: The Reasons it Shouldn’t

by Gilles d’Aymery

Fundraising Drive: If rants appeal to you, dear readers, then turn your attention to MSNBC, Fox News, Antiwar.com, other news aggregators, and the myriad noisy outputs that emphasize either the status quo or some reactionary future. If not, and you wish to keep thinking about real matters like, say, working to change the socioeconomic system, and you consider that culture is an intrisic component of society, then Swans is directed to you. If a few original thoughts (and original work not found anywhere else) are your call, then Swans is for you. Understand the difference. Whether a donation of $5, $75, or $100, they all are welcome, but again — if our approach is worthy of your interest — you need to up the ante. $180 in the past cycle were much appreciated. Still it won’t be enough to keep Swans going in its current form. Please, friends and comrades, help us. We need another $1,700+ to keep providing you with real content. Do Donate now!

Many thanks to Brandon Haleamau, Dimitri Oram, and Philip Fornaci for their generous contributions.

Read the first part of this essay, “A Short History of the Maelstrom.”
Read the second part of this essay, “The Reasons it Won’t [come back].”

“This meeting is part of the world’s efforts to address a very simple fact — we are destroying life on Earth.”

—Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Program, Nagoya, Japan, October 18, 2010

“We are nearing a tipping point, or the point of no return for biodiversity loss. Unless proactive steps are taken for biodiversity, there is a risk that we will surpass that point in the next 10 years.”

—Ryu Matsumoto, Japanese Environment Minister, Nagoya, Japan, October 18, 2010 (1)

(Swans – November 15, 2010) The first part of this long essay presented an abridged history of the road to the current deep socioeconomic crisis that some observers had predicted, even though no one could pinpoint the exact timing of the implosion. The second part submitted that there are objective factors that explain why the economy is not going “to come back” any time soon. But, more importantly, profound and intensifying environmental and ecological crises militate in favor of not having the economy revert to the shape and form it had. Some of these crises are the object of this third part. In short, to return to business as usual will lead to collective suicide, which Mother Nature will trigger in the not so distant future.

According to the WWF (2) 2010 Living Planet Report, “human demand outstrips nature’s supply.” “In 2007,” the report states, “humanity’s Footprint exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity by 50%.” The Global Footprint Network (GFN) has calculated that on August 21, 2010, the world reached Earth Overshoot Day — that is, “the day of the year in which human demand on the biosphere exceeds what it can regenerate.” As GFN president Mathis Wackernagel stated: “If you spent your entire annual income in nine months, you would probably be extremely concerned. The situation is no less dire when it comes to our ecological budget. Climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, water and food shortages are all clear signs: We can no longer finance our consumption on credit. Nature is foreclosing.” Though these environmental organizations are promoting policies that are essentially based on demographic and increasingly economic Malthusianism — independent researcher Michael Barker has written in-depth analyses, particularly in regard to the WWF, in these pages (3) — they do acknowledge the gravity of the situation. As the WWF report states, “An overshoot of 50% means it would take 1.5 years for the Earth to regenerate the renewable resources that people used in 2007 and absorb CO2 waste. … CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are far more than ecosystems can absorb.” In other words, the world, or to be more precise, some parts of the world, over-produces and over-consumes natural resources that are being depleted at an exponential rate. That’s the main reason for not having US (and other rich nations’) households “spend again at pre-crisis levels.” (4) The socioeconomic paradigm built on capital accumulation, perpetual material growth, and financial profits for the infinitesimal few must be not just overhauled but buried, and replaced by an equitable new arrangement that takes into account all natural ecosystems.

read full

October 22, 2010

Please contribute to Swans

Filed under: swans — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

This is a pitch for Swans Magazine that is having its yearly fund-drive. Yesterday I told Gilles d’Aymery, the editor, that donations might be slow coming in since there is a widespread assumption that everything is free on the Internet.

That is simply not true. To maintain a website like Swans involves monthly payments to an ISP, yearly registration for a domain, and lots of other costs involved with infrastructure. Before Marxmail was made part of the U. of Utah economics department network, I was paying up to $200 per month so I know what I am talking about here.

This of course does not begin to address the hard work that Gilles puts into a very fine magazine. I don’t think that this fund-raising effort will amount to a yearly wage, since the goal is $2500 as opposed to Counterpunch’s $75,000 goal for its own fund drive taking place now.

I have been writing for Swans since 2003 and consider it the only place worth my time and effort. After seeing the capriciousness of both high-profile websites like Counterpunch and Znet, as well as academic leftist publishers, Swans continues to impress me as an essential vehicle for both political and cultural thought on the left. It is a place where you will find Michal Barker’s ongoing investigations of how Soros-style philanthropy undermines the left, while supposedly supporting it. It is also where you will find a new contributor Paul Buhle writing about comic book art, his latest passion in a life-long career writing about popular culture from a Marxist perspective. You simply could not find better writing in print or electronically no matter how hard you tried.

With a modest goal of $2500, it should not be hard to meet with relatively modest contributions. I am about to donate $25 through Paypal (http://www.swans.com/about/donate.html) and urge you to do so as well. $5 or $10 would hardly make a dent in your budget but it would certainly matter a lot to the Swans editors when received from a large number of people. Like many Americans, Gilles and his wife and co-editor Jan Baughman are going through some hard times now and every little bit will help.

Thanks for your consideration.

October 4, 2010

History of the passport system

Filed under: immigration,swans — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Che Guevara's false Uruguayan passport

(Swans – October 4, 2010)   When I learned about the decision by the good folks who publish Swans that they intended to produce a special issue on immigration, I saw this as an opportunity to investigate the origins of the passport and visa system — something I regarded as a recent phenomenon. After reading John Torpey’s very useful The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State, I was disappointed to discover that such documents have been around for a very long time in one form or another. Upon further reflection, I might have realized that this was the case since state formations — be they feudal, capitalist, or bureaucratic socialist — have been around for over a millennium. The only exception to this rule has been primitive communal societies or nomadic herders. Ironically, it will be up to an aroused and enlightened humanity to reintroduce communal social forms but based on advanced technology to finally put an end to the dungeon that such papers represent.

It is a sign of how little we have progressed that the Roma being persecuted across Europe today for their refusal to abide by the norms of “citizenship” were being persecuted for the same refusal in the 16th century. A police ordinance from 1548 Prussia stipulated that “gypsies and vagabonds” (Landstreicher) had to be issued passes to travel within the feudal state. Furthermore, in all feudal entities the lower classes needed traveling papers, a way of tying a serf to his lord’s manor.

Despite Britain’s reputation for being freer and more “enlightened,” things were not much different. A 1381 statute prevented anybody but aristocrats from leaving the kingdom. (A point on terminology: passports are required to leave a country; visas are needed to enter one.) Britain also had the same determination to keep the peasant tied to his master’s land. A member of the lower classes could migrate from one part of the kingdom to another only if he had a certificate issued by a court official or a cleric.

Read full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy64.html

August 9, 2010

Tony Judt: an appreciation

Filed under: antiwar,cruise missile left,middle east,swans — louisproyect @ 1:07 pm

(Swans – August 9, 2010)   Tony Judt, a courageous and principled social democratic intellectual, died on August 6th after a two year struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Despite being almost totally paralyzed in his last few months of life, he continued to write about his illness and political beliefs, which had been growing more and more critical of American capitalism and the Zionism of his youth.

In his next to last essay that appeared in the New York Review, Judt referred to the final stages of his paralysis that would effectively rob him of his ability to communicate with the world — his voice:

I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts — the view from inside is as rich as ever — but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing.

Now that he is gone it is appropriate to assess the legacy of “the view from inside” that Judt externalized over a lifetime of writing.

Judt came of age intellectually as a Cold War intellectual after the fashion of Albert Camus, a natural outcome of his scholarly concentration on French radical politics. As has often been the case, identification with Albert Camus has gone hand in hand with “humanitarian interventions” of the kind supported by other self-styled Camus disciples such as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens. In a New York Review piece on Ronald Steel’s Temptations of a Superpower, Judt made the case for war in the Balkans, comparing the Serbs to pre-WWII fascists:

In the Thirties this was preceded by the effective end of the League of Nations on the occasion of its inability to punish or even inhibit Mussolini from his brutal occupation of Abyssinia; today the death toll of the United Nations has perhaps already been rung in Srebrenica and Zepa, where the UN forces first promised security to thousands of refugees, then betrayed them to the Serb forces.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy63.html

May 31, 2010

The Snake Charmer

Filed under: science,swans — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

The Snake Charmer: a Life and Death in the Pursuit of Knowledge, by Jamie James, Hyperion Books, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-1-4013-0213-9, 260 pages.

(Swans – May 31, 2010)   Last January, while idly channel-surfing on my television set, I stumbled across a show titled Venom in Vegas that featured snake expert Donald Schultz spending 10 days in a glass box with 100 venomous and constrictor snakes. Schultz is from South Africa, where he competes with fellow snake handler and countryman Austin Stevens for publicity.

In 1986 Stevens pulled off a similar stunt in the name of generating awareness about gorillas, an endangered species. He set a Guinness World record by spending 107 days and nights in a cage with 36 of the most dangerous African snakes. On the 96th day, he was bitten by a cobra, but refused to leave the cage after being treated with anti-venom.

Of course the most notorious of these snake handlers was the Australian Steve Irwin who died in 2006 after being stung in the heart by an aptly named stingray. Unlike Schultz and Stevens, Austin handled all sorts of poisonous creatures, including the ocean-dwelling stingray.

After finding my curiosity jogged by Schultz’s stunt (an excerpt is here), I decided to read a book about the late Joe Slowinski that came out in 2008. Titled The Snake Charmer: a Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge and written by Jamie James, it tells the rather sad story of a legitimate scientist — rather than a showman — who was bitten by a many-banded krait in September 2001 during an expedition in Burma, just before the WTC attacks. The many-banded krait’s venom is rated 16 times more powerful than a cobra’s. Slowinski died right around the time the buildings collapsed.

Although I am by no means fixated on poisonous snakes, I do find myself drawn to exceptional human beings, particularly those with tragic flaws. That described Joe Slowinski to a T. A July 13, 2008 review of James’s book accentuated the dark side:

No matter how hard James tries to make Slowinski sound roguishly charming, how often he mentions his “disarming, gap-toothed smile,” how earnestly he swears in the epilogue that he sorely feels the loss of someone he never met, I could not help reading between the lines: intentionally or not, he makes his subject sound like a Class A jerk.

It isn’t Slowinski’s redneck genius persona — meeting academy donors in a baggy T-shirt, smuggling reptiles without permits, kicking down his own door to impress a date when he forgets his keys. That was just snake shtick. Nor is it his earlier “starving graduate student my work is everything” ethos, even when he shouts at his not-well-off father for offering to buy him a table so they don’t have to eat while sitting on the stairs. Nor is it the poses James puts him in: the boy Hercules, age 5, brandishing a rat snake “as thick as his own little arm,” or the carnival man dazzling Burmese villagers just before his death, the sun “glinting penny-bright” on his goatee as he “free-handled the dangerous serpent they called ngan taw kyar (‘royal tiger snake’) with cool bravado.”

Rather, it’s his ruthlessness. His toying with snakes while drunk, terrifying friends. His treatment of his only long-term girlfriend, whom he dumps over the phone. His theft of the prize specimens of a Brazilian herpetologist; caught with her snakes dead in his freezer, he blames the language barrier, claiming he thought she’d granted permission. And the coup de grace is his final, fatal blunder. Relying on bribes and half-truths, he smuggles an expedition of 16 scientists and 130 porters into one of the most remote and malarial corners of the world without official permission or a doctor — just a first-aid kit so meager it wouldn’t have served a Boy Scout camp-out.

While all of reviewer Donald G. McNeil Jr.’s points are true, he leaves out the more admirable sides of Joe Slowinski, not the least of which is a dedication to the pursuit of knowledge. In an era of creationist obfuscation and backwardness, it is necessary to pay tribute to Slowinski as someone totally dedicated to evolutionary science.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy61.html

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