Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Society of Denial

"The Maze Runner” a film, 2014

This is another post-apocalyptic ‘young adult’ (teenager!) story about life in a strange new world.  It is similar to the ‘Hunger Games’ series, ‘Divergent,’ ‘Planet of the Apes,’ and ‘World War Z’ and material now showing up on network TV in shows like ‘The 100.’  Older film versions of this trend include ‘Mad Max,’ ‘Terminator,’ ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘The Matrix.'  It resonates with even older written stories like ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Lord of the Flies.’ In this case it portrays boys making a life without adults.  One theory about the massive flood of post-apocalyptic fiction aimed at young people is that it deals with corporate society’s deep denial that anything is fundamentally wrong.  Instead these stories intimate that there is a hidden, dreadful story not being told, examined or dealt with.  In that sense these books and films reflect a form of cultural dissent.

The Maze Runner

Once each month, disoriented boys are lifted up in a rumbling factory elevator into ‘The Glade” – a green oasis surrounded by very high walls.  They remember almost nothing.  There a group of mostly white boys led by a black teenager, Alby, grow crops, make homemade liquor, pledge to work and not to harm each other.   They are divided up into ‘builders,’ ‘slicers’ and ‘runners’ - sort of primitive communism inside a prison.  They have built huts, a tower and oddly enough, have a punishment cell dug in the ground.

Each morning the narrow tall gates of one wall open, and each evening they close.  “Maze runners” have been running the maze that surrounds the Glade for 3 years trying to find a way out.  They have not succeeded.  Yet if they are caught in the maze after the doors close, they do not survive, being attacked by something called ‘grievers’ – which turn out to be huge mechanical spiders.  Into this world of boys comes Thomas, who immediately wants to know how to get out, and can’t understand why ‘they’ have locked them inside.  Who ‘they’ is, is, as usual, unclear. 

In the typical attempt at American 'diversity,' there are no Latinos in this group of boys, just white, black and Asian. White Thomas, the last boy lifted up, immediately rescues Alby and the Asian runner, Minho, and in the process, lures a griever to its death as the maze changes and crushes one.  This is the first griever that has ever been killed.  Like most American movies, in this film 'leader’ worship is high and the stock character arrives.  No one can seem to do anything unless a smart and forceful person tells them to do it.  This pattern reflects the lack of community in the U.S., where single ‘heroes’ dominate film after film and the society at large, when very few have ever been in a democratic group.  Reflecting this, Alby and Minho have hidden from the rest of the boys their realization that there is indeed no exit from the Maze.  Another stock character is part of the group, the thuggish rule-bound authoritarian, this time played by a big kid named Gally.  Gally opposes ever leaving the Glade. There is even the stock chubby/pathetic Piggy / Samwell Tarly stand-in called Chuck.

The final situation is set up when a teenage girl is lifted into the Glade with a note that indicates she is 'the last one.'   With her help, Thomas eventually remembers/understands that this place is not a prison but a test, and that the point IS to get out.  (While they say that the ‘ivy’ does not climb high enough to get to the top of the walls, there are enough trees for wood to build a tower/ladder to the top of the wall, then haul ladders up and make ladder bridges across the walls of the maze and out, but that would have spoiled the story!)

Thomas convinces the majority that he has discovered the way out in an earlier run through the maze.  Gally stays with the minority, fearing the grievers.  The rest take poles and various half-assed weapons and head out, several dying, unbelievably fighting off the giant grievers, until they dial the exit code on some digital panel (a code which has not been discussed until the very last seconds) and race out of the maze. 

This is the first of a 3 part series, so what is outside besides a sequel?  Dead people.  A destroyed lab.  Yes it was an experiment, and all the ‘scientists’ are dead. The point was to find young humans smart or gutsy enough to get out. So it has that creepy bourgeois ‘chosen’ ones vibe going again.  Unbelievably, Gally has somehow followed them out and is intent on stopping them.  At that moment what looks like American soldiers come storming in and shoot Gally just after he kills the saintly loser Chuck, who melodramatically takes a bullet for the chosen Thomas.  Then the soldiers take the kids out on camo helicopters and fly over the Iraqi desert – or some such place.  You see, the world burned up.   Global warming?  No one is telling. 

This film is a rush, and one of the more intense YA films and worth watching.  The author did not want to reveal what caused this situation, unlike more political authors like Edward Abbey, who makes it clear in 'Good News' that it was a corporate civilization that used up nature.  Suzanne Collins, who wrote the 'Hunger Games' series, also makes it clear that inequality is the cause of the misery of most of the districts.  This inability by so many YA authors to identify actual causes reflects their real political cowardice. 

The Hunger Games,” Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” World War Z,” “The Road,” “Cloud Atlas,” and the novel in which the film “Blade Runner” was based on, are reviewed below.  Another post-apocalyptic book reviewed is:  Good News.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
January 27, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Religion is Politics by Other Means

"Annihilation of Caste,” by B.R. Ambedkar, 1936, a response by Mohandas Gandhi, 1936, with a long Introduction “The Doctor and the Saint,” by Arundhati Roy, 2014, with extensive notes by S. Anand

This historic document lays out the rationale for rejecting the Indian caste system and its religious foundation, Hinduism.  By its nature it is a revolutionary book.  It was written by one of the authors of the Indian Constitution, who was born a member of an “untouchable” caste.  Roy’s long introduction, some 124 pages, goes into detail on Ambedkar’s conflicts with Hindu nationalist Mohandas Gandhi.  The introduction stands alone as the best collection of quotes showing the reactionary Gandhi. 

Roy reveals the ‘other’ Gandhi behind his well-crafted image.  Gandhi was a consummate politician who contradicted himself frequently, collaborated and made unprincipled compromises with the British, looked down on South African blacks (Kaffirs) and Indian ‘untouchables’ in South Africa and in India, and was well-funded by wealthy Indian businessmen for his whole career. He was actually a representative of these castes and upper classes, in spite of his cleverly constructed image of the village ‘saint’ in peasant garb. 

At the key moment in Indian history which was to decide if ‘untouchables’ would be given a protected vote, Gandhi said he would fast ‘to the death’ if untouchables were able to get a reserved communal vote status, which would allow them to vote on their own political representatives free of caste Hindus.  Gandhi, a Bania sub-caste of the businessmen caste, did oppose untouchability by praising the jobs ‘untouchables’ were consigned to do – like cleaning latrines or shit-covered railroad tracks. Yet because he was a religious Hindu, he opposed getting rid of the caste system itself, as it is encased in Hindu scripture and practice.  And because he was a politician who claimed all power to the Congress Party for all Hindus, he didn’t want the Hindu electorate split. Muslims and Sikh’s did get communal vote status, but not untouchables.  Gandhi basically black-mailed Ambedkar by threatening to kill himself.  This defeat was memorialized in the signing of the “Poona Pact’ in 1932, something Ambedkar regretted to the end of his days.  Even today, the caste system, while legally weaker, wrecks havoc on the Indian working-classes.  Just on one issue, rape, many rapes are of lower or no-caste women who are supposed to be subservient to any of the higher or designated castes.  The police do not interfere for the most part, and that is the reason why. 

Ambedkar and Roy point out that the official USSR-aligned Communists in India did not know how to deal with caste either, because, as she puts it, these Marxists of the CPI and CPI(M) were ‘people of the book.’  If it’s not literally in the book – ‘The Communist Manifesto,’ ‘Capital,’ etc. – then they could not synthesize it. (Which reminds us of some present Marxists!!)  Ambedkar was a pro-labor socialist who once ran on the Independent Labour Party ticket in Bombay.  He and the CP could not agree on fighting for Dalit rights within the working class movement.  Ambedkar addresses the limitations of the socialists he knew, who only thought about economic issues.  Everything else was not important to them, including social issues like caste.   
I see no real conflict with fighting caste and class together, as they are intertwined yet not identical.   It is similar to fighting racism and sexism in the U.S. as part of the class struggle, where racism and sexism exist partly outside class.  Caste exists in India somewhat in the same way as ethnically-coded or sex-coded labour-force jobs exist in the U.S.  In India these jobs are coded by the religion instead. Caste is hereditary, so the children of Dalits must remain Dalits – even if they become lawyers, as did Ambedkar.  Gandhi wanted ‘untouchables’ respected, but he still wanted them to stay in their social/class place for all eternity.  

To most people, caste seems as absurd as the Hindu religion and all its blue gods, animal slaughtering and bathing in polluted rivers full of human ashes.  Even religious ideas like karma (and not in the “My Name is Earl” sense) justify present oppression as a punishment from another ‘reincarnated’ life.  (If reincarnation is true, why has the world population suddenly expanded exponentially?  Perhaps suddenly more dogs and monkeys have been good and been promoted?)

What are some details of hereditary ‘untouchability’?  Almost what it says….  You can’t touch a person of the 4 main designated castes. (There were 4,000 sub-castes!)  One of those designated castes are ‘shudras’ – menials, who do the work for the other 3 – priest/ intellectual Brahmins, soldier/ warrior Kshatriyas, landowner/ moneylender/ businessman Vaishyas.  The untouchables (called variously in these texts untouchables, Dalits, no-caste, outcasts (where we got the word…), Depressed Classes or untouchable Shudras) are forbidden to walk on the same streets, to enter the same temples, to drink or get water from the same wells, to eat with the other castes, to hold a job outside their role and certainly most of all not to intermarry.  If they objected, they could be killed or shunned and deprived of their livelihood, land, house or belongings.  In a way, it is Indian Jim Crow, yet courtesy of the ‘holy’ Hindu religion, not state law.  Untouchables are not the same as the forest people, the Adivasi, and to Roy, one of Ambedkar’s biggest failures was not to see the Dalit’s struggle aligned with the Adivasi.  The Adivasi are an oppressed indigenous tribal people and the base for the present guerrilla war in India against corporate control of their land.  

Ambedkar is an exponent of reason, but he knows that Hinduism is not reasonable.  This document, a speech to a group of Hindu social reformers, was cancelled by them because it hinted that he was rejecting the whole Hindu religion.  Ambedekar later converted to Buddhism.  The great fear of the Hindu upper castes and the Congress Party was that they would lose clout if millions of Hindu untouchables decided to convert to Islam or Christianity or Buddhism attempting to escape the prohibitions of caste.  Many have done so anyway.

Ambedkar goes into a long polemic against Hindu justifications for caste by using the 150 year-old slogans of the French Revolution - ‘liberty, equality & fraternity.’  He makes fun of the caste designations as not much different than that great reactionary Plato’s 3 ‘natural’ classes of ‘law-givers,’ labouring and trading people,’ and ‘warriors.’   He points out the justifications for caste exist in the Hindu ‘holy’ books and stories, the shastras and Vedas, like the ‘Law of Manu.’ He cites one important Bhagavad Gita story of Rama justifiably killing Shambuka, the latter being a person who wanted to transgress his Shudra caste and become a Brahmin.   He also accuses caste of being anti-female, because Hindu society is particularly resistant to women soldiers and priests.  He points out that the untouchables (and the Shudras) were not allowed to have weapons, and hence could not defend themselves.  (Shudra's seem to have two sides - pure and impure - which fall in and out of the caste system, but it is somewhat confusing.  Ambedekar seems to be a proponent of the caste Shudras too, as they are the majority ‘designated’ menial caste in India.  Menials mean workers and small farmers.)  Socially he thinks that inter-marriage is a key way to break down caste divisions.  He points out that the Marxist slogan, “You have nothing to lose but your chains,’ works only if those with lighter chains, to retain their privilege, don’t oppose those with the heavier ones.  Unfortunately caste works as an excellent way to divide a rebellion, much as racism works in the U.S.

In the debate between the two, Ambedkar makes a crack at Gandhi, pointing out that Gandhi himself was of the businessman caste, a “Bania’, but became an attorney, then promoted himself to ‘Mahatma’ status – a godly man, a Brahmin.  Gandhi’s son married a Brahmin, so both broke caste.  “Saints’ can break cast, but the common people cannot. Ambedkar says, “What Hindu’s call religion is really law, or at best legalizes class ethics.”  Gandhi’s responds about the 'truth' of the Hindu religion: “It lives in the experiences of its saints and seers, in their lives and sayings.”  Ambedkar responds that none of the famous seers cited by Gandhi opposed caste (‘chaturvarna’), in fact they supported it.  Gandhi:  “Caste has nothing to do with religion.  It is a custom whose origin I do not know.”  Ambedkar responds to this willful ignorance by noting that the Hindu holy books are full of support for ‘varna.’  Gandhi ignores the religious mentions of the system of caste, decreed by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi’s favorite book.  Ambedkar points out that earlier in his life, Gandhi was opposed to inter-drinking, inter-dining and inter-marriage as a more orthodox Hindu, and thought of untouchables as ancestrally unclean and stupid.  All typical caste mentality for a religious Hindu, an attitude that did not change fundamentally.  

This book raises the question of the present permeability of castes, which is certainly going on among the higher castes.  But as indicated by Roy’s statistics, the class/caste system in India has not really changed the majority of Indian society.  Caste is a religious justification for the Indian class system, which Gandhi said was needed to ensure ‘social stability’ and ‘order.’  This shows that Gandhi was what Marxists call a bourgeois nationalist, interested in independence from colonial Britain so that the Indian bourgeoisie could exploit their ‘own’ working-class more effectively.  Ambedekar reminds me of WEB Dubois and his discussion of ethnic oppression in the U.S. Ambedkar was opposed to this and this is why he is essential reading for any opponent of the Indian class and caste system.

 Review of WEB Dubois’ classic “Souls of Black Folk,” below.  Other non-fiction books on India reviewed below:  Walking with the Comrades,”The God Market,” Capitalism – A Ghost Story,” “Field Notes on Democracy” and  commentary "Women are the Secret Revolutionaries."  Use blog search box, upper left.  

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 24, 2015

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What They Never Bring Up on MLK Day

"Orders to Kill – The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” by William F Pepper, with a forward by Dexter Scott King, 1995

This book cracks the case of the assassination of Martin Luther King.  It is the powerful result of a 20 year legal search for information and facts carried out by Pepper, James Earl Ray’s defense attorney.  It names the assassin – who is now dead and was a member of the Memphis police department, sharp-shooter Earl Clark.

Pepper describes how they set up Ray as the assassin – luring Ray to Memphis for a gun deal, renting a hotel room for him across from the Lorraine Motel, dropping a bag with a decoy weapon on the street outside.  How the real murder rifle was stashed at a coffee shop, Jim’s Grill, across from the Lorraine.  How King’s room was mysteriously changed to the second floor for a better shot.  How King was also triangulated by Special Forces military sharpshooters and police on two high buildings around the motel, as described by participants.  Witnesses describe someone in the row of bushes in the empty lot across from the Lorraine – a direct shot.  How a key hedge was cut down the day after the murder to make the official story work better, as well as some branches that blocked the view from the ostensible shooter’s window.  How they tried to get Ray to escape from prison so he could be shot.

A civil jury acquitted Ray of the crime, but the award was ignored.  The King family believes that Ray never shot King.  Multiple witnesses admitted to being part of the conspiracy or knowing who shot King, or heard orders to do the shooting.  CIA/NSA people were caught in a photo coming down off the wall across from the motel.  A military intelligence officer was kneeling over King a minute after the shooting.  Shooters and conspirators were tied to the Mob of Carlos Marcello – the same pattern that was used in the Kennedy assassinations.  One contract offered to the Mob was put out by the FBI.  Essentially this was the same MO as the hits on the Kennedy brothers by the same security/military faction inside the government. 

The film “Selma” created a controversy about the ‘mixed’ relationship of LBJ with King.  It is significant that few, except Earl Ofari Hutchinson, have pointed out that LBJ allowed Hoover to continue his known campaign against King, even appointing him ‘life-time’ FBI director.  Quite an endorsement, which shows that LBJ was playing both sides of the fence. 

As the film ostensibly shows, King was not a beloved cuddly grandfather dreaming of better days - but had become a ‘dangerous radical.’  The Right accused King of being a Communist and never backed-off this position.  The minute King went beyond fighting Jim Crow and denounced the Vietnam War, backed striking workers and attempted to bring integration north, he was attacked by hundreds of newspapers and written off by Johnson.  This gave Hoover – and probably James Jesus Angleton of the CIA - all the political cover they needed to participate in the assassination. It should be noted that LBJ was president or vice president, and Hoover head of the FBI during every key assassination of the 1960s - the Kennedy brothers, King, Malcolm X and many Black Panthers like Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.  The fact that Hoover dressed in women's clothes and was a self-hating gay is the least of it.

Just as in a suburb, where the trees they cut down lend their names to 'Aspen Drive," so the man they shot gets his own holiday - after years of resistance to it.  This book is essential reading for an understanding of the 1960s and of the 'deep state' existing underneath capitalism. 

Black Lives Matter, today and yesterday!

Red Frog
January 20, 2015

Saturday, January 17, 2015

World Capitalism is the Breeding Ground

Modern De Facto Slavery - A Crime So Monstrous:  Face-to-Face With Modern-Day Slavery.

Slavery – at least chattel slavery – was outlawed in all of the countries in the world over a long timeline.  For instance, Russia abolished slavery in 1723 but kept serfdom.  Serfdom was abolished in 1917 after the Russian revolution. The slave revolution in Haiti outlawed slavery in 1804.  Mexico got rid of it starting in 1810.  Spain banned human bondage in most of its colonies in 1811 – except some islands in the Caribbean like Cuba.  It was outlawed in the United Kingdom in 1833.  Cuba finally abolished slavery in 1862.  In 1865 after the Civil War it was outlawed in the U.S. with the passing of the 13th Amendment.  Other countries like China abolished human enslavement in 1910, Afghanistan in 1922, Saudi Arabia in 1962, a bunch of Gulf Islamic states in the 1960s and lastly, Sunni Islamist Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 and finally also made it a crime in 2007.  De jure slavery no longer exists anywhere in the world - since 8 years ago. 

However, capitalism still exists. With capitalism, private property and the profit motive, there is an incentive to continue de facto slavery.  Not the chattel slaves of the old days, nor the ubiquitous wage slaves of today – but people forcibly held against their will, mostly in debt bondage, paid little or nothing, and never getting out of debt, or getting away.  This is the sort of slavery that exists between chattel and wage – though some wage slaves have so much debt it can also last a lifetime.  Sort of like modern U.S. prison labor or Jim Crow prisons in the South, but without any bogus legal reasons or sentence limitations.  Debt and forced slavery have arisen to the point that now there are more slaves in the world than there were in 1860 or at any other time in history.  According to reporter Benjamin Skinner, there are 27 million de facto slaves world-wide, based on estimates by NGOs and governments. 

Capitalist neo-liberal India, that most self-congratulatory of countries, has the most (mostly debt) slaves of any country.  Indian Dalit / Advasi workers and farmers of despised 'no-castes’ are born with a debt from their parents and, after working a lifetime for the landlord or owner, their children inherit that debt, continuing the work.  India exports these 'untouchable' workers to other countries – 5.5 million work in the Gulf states.  Narendra Modi, president of India and a (former?) member of the pro-fascist Hindu RSS - which sympathized with Hitler and Mussolini - will be doing nothing for these low-castes.  This is why you find copies of Mein Kampf for sale in newspaper stalls across India.  And why conditions for Indian workers in the Gulf are horrendous.

Romania is a league leader in the trafficking of sex slaves.  Recent news stories have described Asian fishing vessels using slaves locked on boats to harvest shrimp.  Others describe guarded labor camps in Mexico that produce vegetables, especially tomatoes, for the U.S. market.   Sudan has 12,000 people in bondage because of the civil war there.  210 years after Haiti’s revolution led by Toussaint L’Overture, according to Skinner, 300,000 child slaves now live in Haiti.  You can buy one for $50.  Estimates are that in the U.S. there are up to 17,000 women forced into prostitution and held against their will each year.   Not to mention undocumented immigrants held in sweatshops against their will in New York, Los Angeles and other cities.   

The wealthy Islamic gulf states of the Middle-East, notable for banning chattel slavery last, have imposed brutal conditions on migrant workers instead.  These workers do all the manual labor for the Arab Islamic aristocracies. The virtual slavery of female Asian domestics or sex slaves, or blue-collar workers continues, as passports are withheld so workers cannot escape. 

In the Middle East it is called the ‘Kafala’ system - "Under the scheme the employer, to all extent and purposes, “owns” the migrant worker, who cannot change employers unless the sponsor decides to sell them on to someone else.”  In Qatar 90% of the population are migrants.  Many are virtually imprisoned. Many Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepalese and North Korean migrants have died building Qatar's 2022 World Cup facilities - almost one a day in 2014 according to the Guardian. Some reports say Nepalese are dying at 3-4 a day, as they are a mountain people working in desert conditions. The North Korean state pockets 90% of the wages of their forced laborers, as its autarkic economy is desperate for cash.  In Abu Dhabi / Dubai, migrants are 95% of workforce.  Females work as personal servants in a form of indentured servitude.  Women are also forced into the sex trade for jet-set businessmen.  All have their passports confiscated.  Workers are denied payment of their paltry wages for months, and most are shorted at the end.  There are no unions, no health and safety, so heat exhaustion and overwork lead to suicides.  The governments lie about deaths.  A shantytown called Sonapur in Abu Dhabi contains 300,000 workers.  Sonapur means ‘the golden city’ in Hindi.  It contains broken sewage systems, dysentery from bad water, overcrowding and misery.  The gold is for others.

Why has slavery returned?  A lot of modern anti-slavery organizations might not admit it, but its roots lie in modern globalist capitalism.  Capitalism is a petrie dish for modern enslavement.  It endures as the profiteer’s governments look the other way.  Laws are not enforced. The almighty dollar or dinar or euro or peso or rupee rule, not the working classes.  Private property is still the law of most lands and this includes human labor and human beings.   

If the money-people can make a super profit without the 'free' wage system, so much the better!!  They don’t really need chattel slavery anymore.  De facto slavery conforms to the capitalist idea that all things are commodities, including human beings themselves, yet without any of the legal problematics.  Just as chattel slavery dragged down the whole U.S. working class in the 1860s, so this kind of de facto slavery is a dead weight on struggles of workers, especially in India and the Gulf states.  

Coming Soon:  All this is found in a new book by Benjamin Skinner:  A Crime So Monstrous:  Face-to-Face With Modern-Day Slavery.  This book will be ordered by Mayday Books.

Red Frog
January 17, 2015

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Feminist Past is Prologue

"Fortunes of Feminism – From State-Managed Capitalism to Neo-Liberal Crisis,” by Nancy Fraser, 2013.

This is a collection of 25 essays from the 1980s to 2008 by Fraser, a feminist ‘social philosopher’ at the New School in New York.  Like attorneys who use turgid or constipated words and structure instead of clear and simple ones, these essays by a professor are larded with an academic jargon that seems derived from what is called ‘critical theory.’  Which seems a somewhat unspecific name.  There are few books by feminists interested in material theory, which is why I am reviewing it.  Fraser seems to be influenced by the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist sociology and by Max Weber and Hannah Arendt.  In an odd way, it is somewhat of a companion volume to Lise Vogel’s “Marxism and the Oppression of Women” (also reviewed below). 

Here is an example of Fraser’s jargon.  After talking about feminists ignoring the global ‘poor’ she says:  “Naming this second, meta-political injustice ‘misframing,’ I argue for a post-Westphalian theory of democratic justice which prolematizes unjust frames.”  What she really means is:  “I argue for an internationalist perspective which includes the global poor.”  The scary part is that you can understand the jargon by the end of the book.  Her favorite word is ‘androcentrism’ which, from the Greek, means ‘male-centered.’  Her second favorite is ‘late-capitalism,’ a term of triumphalism that has certainly outliving its applicability, given it was first coined in 1902 and later taken up by the Frankfurt School and others after WWII.   Her third is ‘postindustrial’ – a term that is both narrowly nationalist and absolutely untrue.  No society on earth is ‘post-industrial.’

Periods of Feminism

The period covered by Fraser is from the 1970s, when ‘second-wave’ feminism was at high tide, to feminism’s decay into cultural criticism under the neo-liberal/neo-conservative period of Reagan/ Thatcher, the Bushes & Clinton in the 1990’s, and ending in the economic crisis of 2008.  Her estimate is that socialistic economic and material analyses will once again play a role in feminism due to economic factors, and the best aspects of ‘second wave’ feminism will be back. 

What is ‘second wave’ feminism?  Well, that which came after the first wave, which were the original suffragettes like Mary Wollenstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony, and activists like Margaret Sanger.  Suffrage was one main result of the first wave - New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote in 1893, while the U.S. gained it in 1920, 27 years later.  The only two countries in the world where women still can’t vote are Saudi Arabia and the Vatican – both theocracies loyal to U.S. power.  The second wave started in the post-war period with Simone du Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and ended with a ‘New Left’ feminism linked to Marxism.  The gains of ‘second wave’ feminism in the U.S. were the legalization of abortion, making gender discrimination in jobs illegal, making domestic violence and rape in marriage illegal, mandating equal pay for equal work, ending bars against women in certain jobs, the development of contraceptives, Title IX sports equality and full contract authority for women.  These of course are only legal steps and so fall short of actual social equality.

The Chapters

At any rate, if you can get by the sometimes stultifying jargon, the essays track leftish arguments with sociologist Jurgen Habermas, fellow feminist Judith Butler and post-modernists Lacan, Julia Kristeva and Sassure – the founder of structuralism.  I.E. some of the same people that popped up in the book, “Fashionable Nonsense,” (reviewed below.).  Fraser follows the arguments of Vogel on the direct connection of the family to the capitalist economy, linking the ‘domestic’ and personal spheres with the economic, state and political spheres.  Fraser's analysis rejects the low-status identity of women as an ideological component of women’s economic role.  Instead she pictures two areas - cultural and economic - as somehow independent, as 'side-by-side' phenomenons.  Her assertion, which she does not back up, is that women’s inferior cultural role is somehow not ‘super-structural.’  This is to avoid any appearance of obvious Marxism.

Fraser takes on the pragmatic sociological philosophy of Habermas by arguing that his description of society isolates the family and the domestic sphere from the economic and public spheres, which consequently puts many women and their issues in a ghetto.  She also criticizes Habermas for ignoring any gender identification of the various areas of society – though since the 1970s, the sexual identity of certain jobs or roles has changed in the developed capitalist countries, though not decisively. I don’t think many people care about Habermas, but then these essays were written awhile ago.  They are perhaps valuable for pointing out that even world-class intellectuals like Habermas ignored gender in his sociological theory. 

Fraser has an excellent history of the term ‘dependency.’  At present the word “dependency’ downgrades mostly women who do home-based, unpaid ‘carework.’  Carework is defined as taking care of babies, elderly parents, sick relatives or even a husband who does nothing at home.  Part of it features the individualizing process of ‘psychologizing’ many poor women - liberals and conservatives using psychology to avoid a systemic analyses.  Fraser contrasts what she calls two ‘thought experiment’ solutions to this problem in the ‘post-industrial welfare state.’  One is a full employment model and one is a ‘caregiver’ model which compensates those who stay at home to do the necessary work of taking care of others.  She shows the feminist limitations of both models, and suggests a combination of the two.  She then says that, under the present ‘post-industrial welfare state’ they are virtually impossible. Her analysis is completely confined to capitalism and smacks more of academic social work than anything else.

More Secular Mysticism

Fraser’s makes a philosophical attack on feminist disciples of post-modernist language structuralism and neo-Freudian psychology.  She starts with Sassure, moves to Lacan, and ends up with Kristeva, who calls herself a ‘post-feminist.’ (Really?)  Fraser basically takes their structuralist and post-structuralist theories apart as static, individualist, verbally-based theories that have no connection with history, class or movements.  In essence, she points out their idealist nature, unable to actually intersect with the real world and help women.  Sort of a linguistic Platonism to my mind.  She instead supports a ‘pragmatic’ description of language, which does just that. 

Fraser’s next target is Judith Butler, another somewhat leftish feminist who disagrees with Fraser’s take on the ‘two’ (actually three) areas of struggle for Fraser – economic, cultural and political.  Fraser refers to the low-status of women as the key feminist cultural issue - something that has an independent life from the economy.  They argue about the roots of gay oppression, which Butler thinks is caused by the capitalist economy, while Fraser says it is both economic and cultural.  Fraser points to the fact that modern capitalist corporations are all for hiring gay workers and getting gay customers.   To buffer her own analysis, Fraser makes fun of the old-time Soviet description of the ‘base’ and the ‘superstructure’ as a description of the relation between economy and culture/ideology - as if all Marxists describe battleships instead of a living system.  Yes, these heavy terms are not nimble enough to capture the interrelations between the material life of a society and its cultural or political expressions, but they certainly allocate economic and material reality the ultimate role. Fraser uses the 'proof' of Soviet and eastern European workers' states to make her point, but the political limitations of those states are obvious.  Fraser disputes this and thus flies into idealism – as culture in her theory becomes an equal entity to economic and materiel reality.

It all comes to a head in her last chapter, written during the economic crisis of 2008, in which she posits that the dominant cultural and liberal versions of feminism have intersected and actually merged with the new form of capitalist neo-liberalism.  Instead of taking on the economic roots of women’s oppression, feminism has focused on other issues more palatable to the capitalist economic system.  This is quite a stunning observation from Fraser, as she was invested in seeing the economy as just one of 3 ‘equal’ aspects of society.  Which shows that Fraser actually pays attention to historical development and that she is serious in wanting to revive what she calls ‘socialist-feminism.’   

I can only point out that advances in women and gay rights in the workforce and the army - absolutely justified as they are - still do not undermine either the profit system or imperialist militarism.  What I call the neo-liberal family – gay, married and childless, single, living together, divorced, as well as married with children – does not weaken capitalism significantly, though it does free people culturally.    I think the reason is that the big capitalists can get labour from all over the world now, and do not need some U.S./ European families to produce as many babies to reproduce the U.S. working class.  Just as globalized corporations do not need all consumers to be U.S. citizens. The big capitalists also desire, as Vogel pointed out, to extract women and every group from the family into the labour force, which can then replace baby-making.  Ultimately capital wants to privatize every function of the family and in exchange, institute wage labour for everyone in it.  Even children!  That is, if it can’t get the work for free.

Fraser says “Henceforth, feminist theorists cannot avoid the question of capitalist society.” She still shys away from Marxism, thinking it all ‘economist’ - and instead grasps for Karl Polyani, who incorporates certain feminist ideas in his views in a book he wrote in 1944.  Fraser’s subsequent solutions are vague, professorial and seem disconnected from any actual struggles going on in the world.  She repeats her desire to take up the battle for economic, cultural and political struggles for women, but how this will actually work is left unsaid.  She ignoes the class and ethnic basis of different kinds of feminism - which will generally lead women from different classes to focus on certain separate issues.  Her tripartite theoretical approach actually splits the movement.  What feminism needs now is a 'monist' struggle that is keyed on anti-capitalism - and uses every political and cultural angle to carry out that struggle, including fighting sexism.

I slogged through this academic jungle so you don’t have to … or perhaps you do.

Guardian comments on upper-class feminism 1/21/2015 -  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/21/feminists-obsessed-elite-metropolitan-lives-low-paid-females

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 13, 2015

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Je Suis Le Enragé

The Left and Islamic Literalism

The homicidal attack in France on the editorial offices of Charlie hebdo was an attack on the Left.  Albeit an odd, funny, anarchist version.  While nearly all Americans have never heard of it, reports indicate this magazine was anti-capitalist, anti-religion, anti-nationalist and an opponent of a long string of bureaucratic French governments.   They made fun of Christian Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam. Charlie hebdo did not support the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – a decision also made by the French government of the time.  This earned the latter the reactionary ire of the American Bushites – which included numerous insults like changing the name of French fries to ‘Freedom’ fries, as well as insults about the fighting capacity of ‘surrender monkeys.’  Nor did they support other invasions of the Middle East.

In 2004 the editor at the time, Val, was quoted as saying about Charlie hebdo: (hebdo meaning 'weekly.")
"It demands loyalty to laicite, the defence of ecology, democratic principles, the ideals of the Enlightenment, the struggle against racism and anti-Semitism, and the condemnation of cruelty to animals." In essence, it was what the French call, "la resistance joyeuse."
According to various news reports, one or more suspects visited Yemen and were probably trained by Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula.  One of the men claimed in a 2005 video shown on French TV that they were radicalized by the 2003 invasions of the Middle East, led by the Americans.  An inman later showed them Islamic texts that called for violent jihad against unbelievers and infidels. A recent recording of the 'IS' hostage taker at the kosher supermarche indicates he thought that all French taxpayers are guilty. There is clearly an element of ‘blowback’ here, as that invasion was an international crime.  However, here the ‘blowback’ is directed not at the military forces responsible for the decimation of so many Muslim societies but at civilians who made fun of Mohammed.  This is two different things.  The French government did not support the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, though they agreed to support the ‘NATO’ invasion of Afghanistan.  Death threats for any public figure 'insulting' Islam are common – remember Salman Rushdie.  This follows the assassination of Theo van Gogh by right-wing Dutch political Islamists for a film he did exposing the violent anti-female sentiments in the Qur’an and in Islamic-dominated societies.

Fascist and nationalist elements in France immediately seized on the incident and there are now reports of scattered attacks on mosques, Muslim-owned shops and Muslim civilians.   It seems that the best allies the National Front and Marie Le Pen have are the religious fascists of Al Qaeda.  And that is perhaps what both sides want.   The French government probably won’t be far behind.  Al Qaeda and IS will use this as a recruiting tool, and hope that the reaction will increase a false polarization in France & Europe.  This will only play into their hands of bourgeois governments to carry out repressive policies.

Some reformist leftists in the U.S. see only the ‘blowback’ side and do not see the reactionary, anti-working class side of Islamic reactionaries.  Back in 1979, several socialist groups in the U.S. uncritically supported Khomeini's leadership of that revolution because he was ‘anti-imperialist’ by opposing the U.S. – this while he smashed Iranian unions and jailed and killed Communists in the Tudeh party and others.  Any opposition to the U.S. from any source is not the same thing as ‘anti-imperialism.’ To call it so is to abandon any understanding of the class component of anti-imperialism.  It can be a form of reactionary nationalism – which the Khomeinite leadership of the revolution was.  Socialists have an international perspective and have to base their analysis on what class-conscious workers in each country would do, even one dominated by state-sanctioned Islam. 

The leader of Al Qaeda was a fundamentalist Saudi millionaire upset about U.S. bases in the ‘holy’ land.  The leadership of IS was formed in the vicious jails of Iraq during the second war.  Instead of being ‘anti-imperialist’ they decided to slaughter Shiites, Kurds, Yazidis, American reporters and Sunni tribalists who did not agree with their version of Islam.  Now this kind of Islam is after cartoonists.  Friday one of their compatriots seized hostages in a Kosher grocery and 4 were killed, so we can add Jews to the list. Who are their main targets though?  Actually not French cartoonists or Jews, but Muslim children in a Pakistani school or women and children in 5 villages in Nigeria - all horrifically murdered.  Muslims are the main targets of these 'rebel' Muslims.  Lots of civilian killing to be done.

Charlie bedbo is not the only leftist target, of course.  The lynchpin of conservative world Islamism is Saudi Arabia, a staunch U.S. ally.  Most of the attackers on 9/11 were from that country, and money for Al Qaeda came from Saudi millionaires and billionaires.  Saudi Arabia is a theocratic petroarchy dominated by a Royal Family that uses Salafist and Wahabbist Islamic ideology to justify their rule. They know religion is politics by other means.  The Saudi’s propagation of fundamentalist Sunni Islam is the ideological mainspring of their rule – and of terrorist jihadism.  Reza Aslan reported today that the Saudis have spent over $100 billion dollars promoting Wahabbism around the world.  The Iranian government does their best to spread Shiite Islam as well, as it strengthens their national goals.  The Saudis have funded various Islamist currents like the Muslim Brotherhoods, who have opposed Marxists and nationalists in the Middle East for years.  This has included opposing the PFLP and DFLP and even the PLO in Palestine.  They undermined Nasser in Egypt and continue an endless (and successful) opposition to the state-nationalism of the Baath parties in Syria and Iraq.  They also funded the war against the Barbak Karmal / CP governments in Afghanistan in 1978, which led to the killing of almost every secularist in that nation by U.S. and Saudi-backed jihadis and warlords. In essence, the U.S. and Saudi’s created ultra-rightist Islamic terror groups. 

Muslims who don’t support this kind of violent action say these people ‘are not Muslims.’  This facile statement doesn’t fly.  They cannot recognize that a wing of Islam based on texts and money is very much ‘Islamic.’  There are 164 jihadist verses in the Qur'an and fewer about peace, so it is similar to the Bible in that sense.  It is a 'pick and choose' religion in fact.  It is as if an American liberal Christian says that the killers of abortion doctors for religious reasons are ‘not Christians’ - instead of admitting that they are inspired by the conservative worldview of the Bible and various Christian churches.  Ideology can become a material force, given certain material preconditions.  It is politics by other means. 

Islamic literalists take the written words of the Qur'an and various hadiths as is, even though the texts reflect a tribalist understanding based on a material culture 1,500 years old.  This archaic religious ideology is dying in the face of capitalist modernism and the influence of the internet, though many of its proponents are not consciously aware of it. This I think is part of the reason that fundamentalist elements in every religion are getting aggressive and violent across the globe.  But it really reflects the dying material role of dominant theocracies, the bazaar economy and rural landlords, which are based on the extreme subjugation and exploitation of workers and women.  

Its 'soldiers' are mostly impoverished men who want to fight oppression in some way, but fall prey to a false opposition. 80% of the prison population in France is Muslims, so they are a great part of the underclass.  The left in Europe needs to recruit people of Middle-eastern origin to fight this counter-revolutionary force, forming Middle-Eastern sections.

‘Terror’ is not similar in all ways.  The ultra-left in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s and beyond used violence to terrorize individual capitalists, military figures, relevant installations and capitalist government bureaucrats.  Fascists and reactionaries on the other hand direct their terror against broad populations – bombing trains, public events, attacking national or ethnic groups or individuals.  This approach goes far back into the 1920s.  The reasons for these two approaches to ‘terror’ are political.  Leftists think the enemy is the army or the capitalists and their state, not the population.  Rightists are racist or nationalist and also authoritarian and against ‘rights’, and hence have no ideological problem with attacking national, religious or ethnic populations of workers or people, or ‘soft’ free-speech targets like satiric magazines or filmmakers.  Or taxpayers. 

It is, ultimately, a two-sided struggle. Nous Sommes Aussi Charlie!

History Note:   By the way, during the French Revolution ‘Les Enragés’ were a revolutionary group to the left of the centrist Jacobins.  Les Enragés attacked property rights and wanted the revolution to go beyond formal legal rights.  They represented the sans-culottes and the workers and were fore-runners of class-oriented anarchism and Marxism. 

Red Frog
January 10, 2015

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Child Of The Future

Three Essays by Alexandra Kollontai - “Communism and the Family,” 1918, “Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle,” and “Love and the New Morality,” 1919

These essays connect with TV shows like ‘The Bachelor.’  Really!  The first of these essays was part of an address to the 1918 Russian Women’s Congress, attended by 1,000 delegates. Kollontai had been named the Commissar for Social Welfare, the first women to hold a government post like this in Europe.  The second two were interventions in the intra-party debate, in which Kollontai attempted to bring up women’s issues during the Russian Civil War. 

This is very modern stuff.  Seriously.  Marxists are the children of the future, and as such, Kollontai seemed to have a crystal ball. 

Kollontai's first address describes the legal steps the Bolshevik government immediately took to help women.  It legalized divorce and abortion.  It legislated equal pay and equal job opportunities.  Protective legislation was enacted for pregnant women and nursing mothers.  Forced marriage was outlawed.  Distinctions between legitimate and ‘illegitimate’ children were banned.  Laws governing sexual behavior were repealed.  A system of daycare was setup at government expense.  A plan was laid to socialize the ‘private’ domestic tasks of the family.  

Kollontai addresses worries many had at the time that the family was changing too fast.  She basically says the old patriarchal family found under capitalism and serfdom is dead.  As she put it:  “…all the superannuated rubbish which has been bequeathed to us by the cursed epoch of servitude and domination which was characteristic of the landed proprietors and the capitalists … shall be swept aside…”  Kollontai declares that the goal was ending, not the ‘double shift’ but the ‘triple shift’ that many women worked – 1. paid work, 2. housework and 3. baby care.  The best wife in the past had been one ‘with hands of gold.’  She points out that many things that were formerly produced in the family by women – like clothing – are now done in a factory instead.  Central kitchens and restaurants, socialized house cleaning and laundries, child care after the children are weaned – were to be made available and lessen women’s burdens (and mens' too).  She especially poured scorn on the drudgery of housework.  In essence, the nuclear family was not being abolished – many of its ostensibly eternal roles would just wither away by choice. 

She understands that capitalism makes use of the free labor of the family every day – another ‘take’ it indulges in, just as it takes from the environment for ‘free' and hides the reality of surplus value stolen from workers.

Kollontai does not avoid  the sexual issue – marriage.  She thinks that marriage should be a ‘civil’ one of affection and comradeship.  The old marriage – based on the church marriage, “until death do us part,’ saturated with monetary considerations – is done.  Today under neo-liberal capitalism civil marriages are the most common – yet the monetary issue still stands, and an unknown number of people still intend to live by that stupid phrase.  Arranged marriages and ‘covenant’ marriages exist for nearly all Hindus and some conservative Christians, for instance.  Marrying outside your class is still verboten in many societies.  Kollontai then declares that marriages of (sexual) affection will do away with prostitution.  As we can see, prostitution still exists in the U.S. because marriage is still a monetary and conservative institution which many times kills sexual desire.  She says that a generalized ‘free love’ can only come about through true social equality of men and women.    

This is, after all, the woman who wrote, “The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Woman.”  These 1919 essays were published in a Soviet book, “The New Morality of the Working Class.” 

Sex, like eating and drinking, defecating, physical exercise or work, is essential to the human animal.  This fact religions try to hide and so does economic bourgeois society, which needs restraints on sexuality in order to get the most work out of us. Sex’s prime use under capitalism is as a sales tool, to increase buying.  As Marx noted, sex and drink were about the only pleasures the British working class had. Kollontai argues in the first essay on sexual relations that developing the seeds of the new society now, even in the midst of war, is essential to winning women and building that society.  She feels it is necessary to find the ‘magic thread.’ 

What is the ‘magic thread’?  Kollontai first points out that sexual problems are not private.  And by ‘sex’ she does not just mean conflict between men and women.  She posits the problem of modern marriage in that it leads one person – usually the man – egotistically ‘possessing’ the married partner in an unequal relationship.  While this seems a bit over the top today in the U.S. or Europe, this is still true for many modern marriages, especially conservative ones.  Watch the U.S. TV program ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘The Bachelorette’ if  you can stand it.  Here marriage has been turned into a reality show – a fake dream-world holding the new Cinderella or Prince Charming.  It caters to a very archaic image of marriage.  In this season, the mostly desperate big-city women have to plan to marry a rich farmer from rural Iowa, move to his big farm and have children.  That is what he wants.  Talk about ‘possession’! 

Kollontai says the real solution is to increase ‘the potential for loving.’  She calls for ‘new relationships between the sexes that are deeper and more joyful.'  Pretty vague, right?   She continues: 

“The attempt by the middle-class intelligentsia to replace indissoluble marriage by the freer, more easily broken ties of civil marriage destroys the essential basis of social stability of the bourgeoisie.  It destroys the monogamous property-oriented family.  On the other hand, the greater fluidity in relationships between the sexes coincides with, and is even the indirect result of one of the basic tasks of the working-class.  Rejecting the element of submission in marriage…”

Which is what is going on now in U.S. society, in Europe & Japan, due to the rise in divorce and the putting off of marriage.  In bourgeois Japan, the rise of working women is putting a crimp on marriage and baby-making because, as the Guardian stated: “Japan …still has some of the worst systemic gender inequality in the world” because it “has a European economy and South Asian social family mores.” I.E. women in Japan have to choose to have sex=babies=stay home=quit job=imprisonment. 

In her last essay on love and a new morality, Kollontai lays her cards on the table.  She discusses a book by the German Grete Meisel-Hess about sexual issues.  Kollontai thinks that the reality of the ‘soul mate’ or the ‘perfect love’ is few and far between.  She discusses 3 kinds of sexual relationships and suggests a fourth.  1, she takes apart the ‘marriage is forever’ thesis, as it mainly cripples the family members, especially the woman.  2, she points out that prostitution is the commodification of sex – the perfect capitalist plan.  3, she discusses the ‘free marriage,’ pointing out that ‘free unions” (today’s civil marriage of sexual love) still have a problem.  Though the partners spend more time together, these unions demand a greater amount of time and emotional energy than most people have left after working.  “In a society based on competition … there is not room left for the cult of the demanding and fragile Eros.”  Which is why even these marriages disintegrate or cripple. This kind of marriage usually involves 'full possession' as well. 

So what to do?  Kollontai:
            “…a person, in the course of his/her long life and in the process of the development of his/her personality, will change sexual partners.” 
            “When two people live on top of each other all the time the tender spring flower of even the most loving attachment will be killed.”

According to Kollontai, still given the need for a socialist society, the most frequent relationships in the new society (and by implication the present) should be ‘game love.’  What is this?  “Game love,” from what I can tell from this text, is sort of like ‘friends with benefits.  An ‘erotic friendship’ as she calls it, ‘light and carefree.’  “Or “F*ck buddies” to put it really crudely.  Sort of a considerate relationship in which each party doesn’t try to get ‘undisputed possession’ of the other person.  Kollontai thinks that relationships like this can train people for those very rare ‘greater loves.’  She thinks humans need to “overflow with erotic inspiration without having to lose freedom and give the future as payment.”  Which they do in most marriages.

And you thought all Marxists were prudes.

Reviewed below, a book on “Soviet Women –Walking the Tightrope,” and an art show on “Women in Soviet Art,” – use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books in the used section
Red Frog
January 8, 2015

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Afrossippi Crossroads

"The Blues – A Visual History – 100 Years of Music That Changed the World,” by Mike Evans, forward by Marshall Chess, 2014

This book is a delight if you are a blues fan.  Stitching together the history of the genre and its connections to ragtime, jug band music, jazz, country, gospel, folk, skiffle, boogie-woogie, R&B, soul, rock & roll, blues-rock, heavy metal and rap, it compliments the narrative with pictures of blues performers, album covers, concert posters, records, period scenes, and what-have-you.  For once, a coffee table book that will actually be looked at.

The blues has been born, lived, forgotten, revived, beaten to death by cliché and repetition and still linger on mostly behind the scenes.  In blues bars, the ‘party blues’ have replaced the sad ones.  If you think Led Zeppelin is a roots band, think again.  Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have brought heavy blues-rock into the present, but they are in a minority.  Music kids and musicians study older music styles, but most popular styles pushed by corporations are distanced from roots music of any kind. Roots music like the blues continues in the nightclubs, bars, festivals and coffee shops of the modern day, in the interstices and corners of popular life. 

Dominant present styles like pop, rap, country, EDM and alternative rock only distantly reflect the roots and are more and more denatured.  Heavily processed reality-singing shows like “The Voice” and “American Idol” would not let a voice with excessive character ever win.  Even ‘country’ has become a bro cliché of girls in short-shorts, pick-up trucks, beer and partying, sung by almost identical singers.  There is no real ‘country’ left – at least not in that pushed by corporations. Artists based on the blues are now relegated to the ‘Americana’ sub-genre. To this day about half the visitors who come to Clarksdale, Mississippi – the musical heart of the Mississippi Delta - are from outside the U.S.  What this says about the cluelessness of the ordinary American music fan is voluminous.  In fact, the last old ‘jook’ joint in Clarksdale (from a West African word ‘joog’ meaning disorderly, rowdy or wicked), Red’s Lounge, closed last year, according to reports.  Thanks a lot, America.

The book connects your favorite blues songs to who actually wrote them, not to who made them famous.  It digs up the origins of the blues around 1900 in obscure 12-bar songs with 3 chord changes and the first lyric repeated, played by unknowns.  It tracks the birth of rock and roll in 1949 or 1953 out of earlier styles like blues.  It details the different blues – country, folk-blues, Piedmont, rhythmic New Orleans-style, Chicago electric, West Coast LA blues, Mississippi Hill Country, highlighting the players.  Be they pioneering standout women like Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Ida Cox or Ma Rainey; country-blues performers like Charlie Patton, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson; the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, the folk blues of Lead Belly & Josh White, or the guitar blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Joe Turner & T-Bone Walker, they are all here.  It describes the pioneering fusion of rock and blues by the Rolling Stones, the psychedelic blues of Jimi Hendrix, the blue-soul of Janis Joplin and the heavy blues of Cream & Led Zeppelin. 

Modern blues musicians like Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, Keb Mo, Susan Tedeschi, Joe Bonamassa and Gary Clark Jr. are mentioned as continuing the blues tradition into the present.  Hell, there is even an African blues genre. But none of these musicians has the weight that earlier musicians once had.

Among many different book sections, there is a one on the political nature of blues and one on ‘working man’ blues. Many players started by busking on the streets. Playing blues paid better than sharecropping or working on a plantation, or some shitty job in the city, especially if you were blind.  As a result, blues players had more money and dressed better than most.  After all, blues makers are known for their iconic clothes and hats.  The problems of the police or jail, the 1927 flood or bad bosses are accompanied by songs about racism.  These got especially pointed in the 1950s and 1960s, starting with the influence of proletarian leftists like Seeger and Paul Robeson.  Josh White was black-listed just like Seeger for being too political.  Here is a lyric from J.B. Lenoir:

“They had a huntin’ season on a rabbit
If you shoot him you went to jail
The season was always open on me;
Nobody needed no bail.”
J.B. Lenoir – Down in Mississippi, 1966

 “My brother was taken' up for my mother, and a police officer shot him down…”
            J.B. Lenoir – Alabama Blues, 1965

Ferguson is not new.  There is another section on ‘The Great Migration’ – when millions of black people voted with their feet and left the south to move to places like Chicago, Detroit and New York.  Pullman Train Car porters were key in this migration, and sneaked the banned ‘Chicago Defender’ newspaper back into the South.  The blues went on the trains north with them.

One of the arguments about blues is the appropriation of blues music by white musicians.  There is no doubt of this.  For instance, a white singer’s voice, Frankie Ford, was over-dubbed on top of a black backing band, replacing the black singer Huey ‘Piano’ Smith on the vocal of “Sea Cruise.”  Elvis Presley did Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s songs, “That’s All Right,” and “My Baby Left Me,” making them bigger hits, then copied Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.”  Led Zeppelin made money off of “When the Levee Breaks,’ a song originally done by Memphis Minnie, long dead.

Yet what is ignored is that some of the white players and producers, at least in the 50s and 60s, brought the blues back from oblivion.  With that came money.  This volume notes the contribution of leftists around the Almanac Singers and the Weavers - principally Pete Seeger.  They touched off a folk-blues revival in the 1950s that fed into the blues revival of the ‘60s.  By bringing Lead Belly, Josh White, J.B. Lenoir, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee to a wider audience - all of whom did some political songs - they laid the ground work for the huge blues explosion of the 1960s.  The efforts of Alan and John Lomax at the Smithsonian or Moses Asch at Folkways Records in recording and publishing original blues songs and lyrics helping bring musicians back into public view.  Sam Phillips at Sun in Memphis, Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic in New York and the Chess brothers in Chicago all played a role in early recordings.  Massive shows of blues musicians titled “The American Folk Blues Festival” toured Europe from 1962 to 1970, events that were never repeated.  After that individual blues players still found an audience in Europe and Japan for years.

In essence, there is no way to create a wall of separation between music styles, as music becomes an inspiration to whomever listens to it.  In a way, the ‘color barrier’ was partly broken around this music. It was born from black work songs, gospel and the problems of poverty.  It grew to encompass much more than that.
Mayday Books carries a good selection of books about music. 
Books that reference blues music that are reviewed below:  Love, Janis,” “In Search of the Blues,” “33 Revolutions Per Minute,” “Rising Tide” and “Life – Bio of Keith Richards.” Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
January 6, 2015

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Feminist Memoir-Travelogue

"Wild,” directed by John Marc Vallee, 2014

This film is hard to watch.  Even with Reese Witherspoon as ‘eye’ candy for male viewers, the dangers women face are only highlighted by being out in the woods or deserts or mountains alone.  It relates to the film “Into the Wild,” about a young man who camped out alone in the Alaskan semi-wilderness, only to die in a wrecked bus due to several small miscalculations. (Reviewed below. Use blog search box, upper left.)  Yet here we have more vulnerability and the chances of a small miscalculation are greater.  Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, who wrote a memoir about hiking most of the length of the Pacific Crest Trail, ("PCT") from the Sonora desert near Mexico to a bridge on the Columbia River gorge in Oregon. 

This film is not merely a travelogue of beautiful vistas, quirky characters, cold, heat and grueling trails, full of hunger, thirst, being lost and falling.  Strayed is fucked up due to her recent divorce because of her own behavior, her mother’s death from cancer, abuse concerning her father who she never sees, and her own inability to create a real life in Minneapolis.  Instead sex and heroin fill in the gap.  Between the bad boots, over-filled pack, inadequate preparation, over-determination and naiveté - plowing through mountain meadows of heavy snow with only a compass - this hike was a bold but also potentially suicidal move on her part. 

Yet it is as a woman that this hike resonates.  Strayed (her ironic made-up name) has no protection – no gun, hatchet, not even pepper spray.  No skill in self defense.  She is wary of men on the trail – and while friendly, always suspects something of them.  In one case, she is almost raped by a bow hunter packing a knife, but he is fortunately called away by his buddy.  She also takes advantage of being a ‘poor’ woman on the trail.  Some guys she meet call her the “Queen of the PCT” because many people go out of their way to help her – mostly men.  So it cuts both ways.  Beauty can be a disability - or a help.  She meets only one other woman on the trail, but does not hike with her.  She prefers to do it alone, and quite clearly it is a tremendous achievement to finish the trail, especially as a woman.  Women are many times not taught wood's skills, survival skills, physical toughness or being on their own.  This film proves that to be a form of chauvinist social and class conditioning that can be overcome.

Is Reese Witherspoon a good choice for this part?  Given her past performances as a chirpy, comedic light-weight, I’d have to say no.  To me it was always Reese Witherspoon on that trail, not Cheryl Strayed.  And nothing bad can ever happen to Reese Witherspoon.

Memoirs have been called the ‘neo-liberal’ format of choice, as they revolve around individuals, and usually involve personal addictions or disfunctionality of some kind.   The memoir format is especially pitched to American women by the ‘literary’ schools, I think as a way to short-change their experience and writing skills. This film partially recreates the memoir format, writ large.  Yet because it takes place along a physical trail greater than any individual, it allowed Strayed to extract herself from her own self-misery.  If it had only been a memoir, few would care as much. After all, we all experience death and many of us experience divorce and some experience family abuse.  Loss is essential to the experience of living, intrinsic to understanding reality.  Even addicts can recover.  Most of us go on, no matter what.  But few of us hike the PCT.

Books about survival issues – “Deep Survival,” “Into the Wild,” “All is Lost,” and “Five Stages of Collapse.”  Also recommended, though not reviewed, is the hilarious book, "A Walk in the Woods," by Bill Bryson, about walking the Appalachian Trail.
Red Frog
January 3, 2015