Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Cops are Cops


“BlacKKKlansman,” by Spike Lee, 2018

This mostly true story is based on the book by Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the Klan in Colorado Springs, Colorado with the essential help of a white fellow police officer, Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop.  Flip had to do the in-person Jew, *igger and homo baiting and put up with the personal danger.  Ron had many conversations with David Duke over the phone, and fooled the Klan until Flip was discovered by the most suspicious Klansman, Felix.  Ron saves him at least once. The actor playing Felix also shows up in The Vikings as a starry-eyed Viking thug, so don’t be thrown. The movie does not detail the period in which it took place, but Nixon re-election posters and Stokley Carmichael changing his name to Kwame Ture tip you off that it is probably 1972. Lots of Afros, lots of Black Power salutes, lots of ‘black is beautiful’ rhetoric.   The 1960’s didn’t end until the mid 1970s, folks.  Saigon was taken by the NLF in 1975 for Chrissakes.

The Real Stallworth With His Klan Membership Card

The cops or ‘pigs’ come out looking pretty damn good.  While the whole film foreshadows conditions now – Black Lives Matter, Trump’s racist appeal, Charlottesville (which ends the film) – the police in Colorado Springs seem like the ACLU.  They hire a black guy, promote him twice, give him a go at the Klan, support him, laugh at the racists and Duke, even setup and ‘arrest’ the one sole racist cop in the department for sexual assault or some such thing.  Believable?  Hmmmm…

Ron falls for the head of the Black Student Union at the local college, Patrice, who is a younger version of Angela Davis.  She’s political to a ‘T’ to Ron’s somewhat clueless approach to politics. They are friendly until she is repulsed when she finds out he is an undercover pig/cop, but he’s just saved her life from a Klan bomb set by an incompetent Klan wife, so …  The black ‘radicals’ look like mostly na├»ve loudmouths waving signs and radical rhetoric.  Ture comes off as somewhat of a phrase master, but not much else.  (Which might be accurate or might not…)  Harry Belafonte appears to tell a story about a lynching thoroughly approved by all the powers of a small southern town. But through it all, the real hero is the black cop Stallworth. You see he’s ‘onboard with the liberation of Black People.’ Yup, same black cops who are busy choking black men in New York or bashing black men in police vans in Baltimore.  I wish hiring black cops made a difference overall, but it has not.

So the choice of this exceptional story ‘colors’ the whole narrative, making cops look like saviours against racism.   Really, at this point Spike?  I think he’s getting soft.

But the ending takeaway is that 1972 looks like 2018.  Which means that racism – which should really be called INSTITUTIONAL racism, is built into the system.  It is not primarily a personal problem.  Given the advent of slavery prior to the American revolution, I’d say it is in-built into the United States and won’t be eliminated until the U.S. is fundamentally changed – maybe when it is called the United Socialist States of America (USSA).

Red Frog

Medora, North Dakota,

September 19, 2018  

Saturday, September 15, 2018

At a Certain Point, You Can Only Laugh

“The Chapo Guide to Revolution – A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts and Reason,” by Chapo Trap House, 2018

In the U.S., ever since Jon Stewart combined serious politics with penis jokes, a new hybrid of wiggling poli-comedy was born.  It is no longer limited to isolated hippie geniuses like George Carlin, who was stomping on billionaires long before Jon Stewart watched his first mythical episode of Star Wars.  Today we have the dialectical raising of the stakes in that spiral evolution, steaming past the spawn of Jon Stewart – lame-ass rich liberals like Bill Maher, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Steven Colbert.  Yes, joining the ranks of Lee Camp, Jimmy Dore and others are the Groucho-Marxists of the Chapo Trap House, in all their revolutionary socialist glory, ready to drop political bombs down the stinking hatches of the booshwahzee and their lackeys.
Real 'Loose' With Those Words, Kid

The Traps do podcasts mostly, which figures for people who were brought up with silver plastic iPhones in their diapers.  It’s a book, not a podcast, which means it’s worth a bunch of podcasts.  Like binge-reading podcasts!  From my information, this is the kind of stuff that keeps young members of various left groups in stitches.  Even a dedicated Marxist like myself couldn’t stop laughing out loud – but only occasionally, as I’m still wondering how deep the Chapo Trap House roots in the proletariat go.  Oh well.  They blend pop culture with class politics with techno-speak to the point where you realize – this is V. 4.0 comedy! After all, it’s written by committee.

The Chapo Sticks

In their first chapter, the Chapos give us a quick history of the storied U.S. capitalist empire, ending with the bad mix tape that is Trump and Clinton.  Then a send up of those hapless hypocrites, the American Liberal.  It is incomprehensible how… “in spite of their strong record of liking ethnic food, bombing ethnic countries, privatizing education and gutting welfare they are somehow loathed.”  (I might add ‘jerking off Wall Street at the Met Gala’ but that would be rude.)   But conservatives do not escape their wrath either.  From early semi-erudite proto-fascists like William Buckley to later muscular versions like “Liberty Babe,” who believes that ‘Gentlemen Prefer Guns,” the Chapos leave no thug-type unturned.  In another chapter, the media are discovered to be a nest of lazy bourgeois elites who follow the ‘propaganda model.’  Amazing!  Like Chomsky on weed but funny.  They take a swipe at various internet commentators like Megan McArdle, someone you’ve probably never heard of.  She’s a blogger who would have been an average Republican social studies teacher in Wyoming, but was catapulted into fronting for Wall Street billionaires at Bloomberg.com.  You don’t even have to read Antonio Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks’ to get their chapter on culture – in fact, it might interfere, as he didn’t know much about Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing.  There is even a heavy chapter on working – you know, making profits for other people and liking it.

Some more bits and quotes from the book before we leave:

* The chapter “The World” includes subheads like:  “7 Habits of Highly Effective Empires” and “The Schlock Doctrine.”

* “Mitt was right after all and that a good way to #resist President Cheeto would be to send antiaircraft missiles to the Babi Yar Reenactment Society in Ukraine.”

* On early liberals:  “Social reformers emerged from these dark, narrow New England glens to champion ‘reality-based’ witch trials.”

* Hillary Clinton:  “When we moved in (to the Arkansas state house) I was told that using prison labor in the governor’s mansion was a long-standing tradition, which kept down costs, and I was assured the inmates were carefully screened…”

* After Obama’s smashing victory in 2008, when all of Congress was now controlled by Democrats, “The young and ready president threw off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and declared, ‘Lets find some fucking consensus.’”

* Conservative G.K. Chesterson “inspired C.S. Lewis to believe in God and write a stilted and punishing fantasy series that ruined the tender minds of a generation of children.”

*  “But the arc of history bends towards justice.”

* “The growth of the internet will slow drastically …” (Paul Krugman, 1998)

* “Pellets of nourishing, ideologically agreeable information…” (Huffington Post)

* “… besides the radical Left, virtually all factions’ boats were lifted by a tide of shit:” (The advent of blogging.)

* “Capital has no problem assimilating pop-cultural rebellion and anti-authoritarian imagery.” (With subtextual thanks to The Baffler.)

* “Simple hero journey’s no longer would do.” (Generic good guy/bad guy ‘myths’ fall short.  Take note, Marvel.)

* “…four hundred pages describing the different kinds of knots and ropes that are used on a whaling vessel.” (Moby Dick)

* “Small business owners are, generally speaking, insane egomaniacs who believe enough in their ‘pizza restaurant with a night-club atmosphere’ to borrow $250,000 and lord it over a workforce of desperate people.”

*  After the mutilation of British rebel Wat Tyler by King Richard II’s men, this convinced “the peasants to return home and agitate for incremental change by working within the system.”

Capitalism has gotten so deadly ridiculous that the naked kings wandering by the dikes, and the NPR people who pretend they wear clothes, escape no one’s observation.  It goes way, way beyond easy targets like Trump.  Only problem is, they are holding guns to our heads and asking 'Do you see the clothes now?"  Buy this book because other people are already coming to the store to buy this book.  Or have bought it already. Or ‘borrow this book’ from them, as that old quote from Abbie Hoffman kind of went.

Other reviews on this comic topic, use search terms in blog search box, upper left:  “Jon Stewart” and “Bill Maher.”

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

September 15, 2018

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Winter Soldier

“Citizen Tom Paine” by Howard Fast, 1943

This book stands out for a number of reasons.  One is that hardly anyone knows the full history of Tom Paine, a proletarian from England who wrote some of the seminal agitational works of the American revolution.  Two is that this book reflects the life of a professional revolutionary – a new human species.  Revolution was the only skill he had.  Three is that it illustrates the huge class divide that existed in the U.S. during the war for independence against Britain.
The Professional Revolutionary

Fast is a left-wing historical novelist whose specialty is bringing emancipatory characters and periods to life again.  Paine was a short, broad-shouldered itinerant worker with large hands who gradually realized he wanted to make it his life’s work to encourage revolution.  He was a drinker and not afraid to speak the truth to whatever laced gentleman insulted him. Paine served not just in the U.S. as George Washington’s chief propagandist, but in Britain, where he had to flee, and in France during the French Revolution.

His famous writings – “Common Sense,” various versions of “The Crisis,” “The Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason” were all written while involved in revolutionary activity in those countries – the first two in the U.S., the third in England and the fourth in France.  When he finally returned to the U.S. he was ostracized for being a dreaded atheist, even though he was actually a theist. His old friends dropped away, including Washington.  He died penniless and alone. Hardly anyone came to his funeral in the Tory-loving area of New Rochelle in Westchester County, New York.  His grave was later dug up, his bones stolen and sold or lost somewhere in Europe.  That was how the U.S. finally treated the author of “Common Sense.”

Paine’s main skill before taking up writing was as a ‘stay-maker’ in clothing.  He left the poverty-stricken gin mills of England and sailed to America, with help from Ben Franklin.  He arrived in Philadelphia just as the agitation over independence was gathering steam.  After the battles at Lexington, Concord and later, Breed’s Hill, Paine supported independence.  He began writing “Common Sense” which electrified the whole nascent country.  He signed up for the local Philadelphia militia, which marched to New Jersey to join Washington in New York.  After hearing of the losing battles in Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan, the ignorant and lazy businessman who had been appointed their military leader turned tail with the rest of the recruits.  Only Paine and one back-woodsman remained, and they went forward to join Washington’s army in retreat.

Paine got to know the winter soldiers, stayed in the winter encampments including Valley Forge.  His book “Common Sense” gave them a reason to fight in these dark days.  As loss after loss accumulated, he wrote a series called “The Crisis” dealing with salient issues of the revolution, which were sold or distributed to soldiers and civilians alike. These actually ‘were the times that tried men’s souls.’  From this he made a scanty living. 

Valley Forge today

Some of his struggle was against the bourgeois elements that controlled the Continental Congress - plantation owners, mercantilists, businessmen.  They ignored the starving and unpaid soldiers who were Paine’s friends.  Soldier’s clothing or armament needs were abstract to these bewigged politicians - instead they squabbled about who would get what spoils after the war.  It was clear that it was mechanics, tailors and shopkeepers from the cities and farmers and back-woodsmen from the countryside that did the fighting, while the plantation owners and big businessmen back home haggled over who would control land, money, goods and produce when it was all over.

At one point when Paine returned to Philadelphia he formed a proletarian Commission of Inquiry that discovered the hoarding of boots, attempts to corner the wheat market and other financial schemes designed to enrich the wealthy war profiteering elements.  These were broken up and finally some goods began to be delivered to the beleaguered troops.  In the process, they also started the Bank of Pennsylvania, which finally was able to procure funds for the war, including paying the soldiers.   He made an enemy during this process, a rich bastard named Gouvenour Morris, who later as U.S. ambassador to France refused to ask for his release from the Parisian gaol in the Luxembourg Palace where he was waiting to be beheaded.  Paine knew Washington and Jefferson well, but he opposed slavery.  Oddly, this book does not delve into slavery as does Fast's "Freedom Road," 'perfuming' the U.S. Revolution. 

After the revolution was successful, Paine went to England and there saw the same signs of class oppression as he did in the U.S.  Paine then wrote “The Rights of Man” which angered the English nobility, capitalists and government.  Workers from various parts of England came to him for direction, as he was now world famous, on a first name basis with Franklin, Jefferson and Washington.  They formed revolutionary cells in various parts of England and gathered weapons, even though they only knew tools.  But at some point the cells were discovered and Paine was threatened with execution for being the author of seditious literature.  By the narrowest of margins, he escaped across the channel to revolutionary France.

Upon arriving in Calais Paine was made a deputy to the revolutionary Convention by the citizens there.  Paine said the whole world was his village, and so he now found himself in the large ‘village’ of Paris, just after the storming of the Bastille. It was a heady time and he defended revolutionary France in his writings.  He made friends with the Girondins – middle-class liberals who were one of the largest factions in the Convention – and this was almost his undoing.  The other main faction – the Jacobins – were closer to the sans-culotte masses of Paris.  Paine had always been inspired by the proletarian and small farmer, while the Girondins were appalled by the rabble, as was typical of the middle-class.  He never bridged this contradiction because he did not want to encourage violence.

This is when he wrote “The Age of Reason,” which advocated a belief in God and Jesus, but denounced organized religion of any type – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic.   In those days, few could discern the difference.  He was attempting to counter the hard atheism of many French radicals, who were attacking God and the collaboration of the Catholic Church with royalty.

The ultimate debate was over the fate of the king and queen.  The Jacobins argued for execution, given the royals role as a rallying point for reaction.  The Girondins opposed it, along with Paine in his terrible French.   The Jacobins won the argument, and soon the Girondins, then Paine, then others were imprisoned in the Luxembourg, with many going to the guillotine.  As an older man, Paine stayed for 9 months and was freed when the ‘Bonapartist’ reaction set in, as St. Just, Robespierre and Marat were now dead.

Napoleon came to visit him at his country room to recruit him to the cause of invading England.  When Paine said ‘bad idea’ – only attack England's extended empire – Napoleon turned cold.  And Paine was free to leave France and return to the ungrateful U.S.

In the process of revolution, Paine had turned down a rural domestic life with a woman who wanted to marry him.  His worldly possessions were one suitcase and a fallow farm given to him by the U.S. government.  He was ragged, old, tired, many times drunk and had nothing more to write when the end finally came.

One day Tom Paine will be remembered in a much more profound way then he is now – if the proletariat which he championed have their way.

Paine’s collected works are for sale at May Day.

And I got it at the Library!

Red Frog

September 12, 2018

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Conundrum


Climate Emergency

You only have to follow the facts to know that the climate is changing quickly across the globe.  The highest temperatures in recorded history over years.  Heat deaths at record levels.  Methane releases across the tundra, in Canada and in Siberia.  Melting and retreating glaciers on mountains and in Greenland and open water in the Arctic Ocean.  More icebergs, even massive chunks falling off Antarctica.  Heavy flooding rains across the globe, swelling rivers.  Fires raging for months in the U.S. and Canadian west clogging the air with smoke and death.  Dead fish from unusually warm ocean waters and killer red and green tides.  The movement of marine life into cooler, deeper waters.  Drought leading to starvation, refugees and civil war.  Farmers the world-over committing suicide or moving to cities.  Massive tsunamis or hurricanes crashing into coastal communities.  Rising ocean waters flooding isolated islands and low-lying cities.  All leading to food insecurity for many. 
2010 Floods in Pakistan

None of this is news except to people with their head in the sand.  Even most of the capitalists know this is happening, but the profit system ‘must continue.’  Even if they have to individually escape to New Zealand or an artificial island somewhere.

What do eco-Socialists do?  

The liberal panacea is shopping for the environment.  Or an ‘all energy’ approach, as used by the Obama administration.  He figured he could negotiate a compromise with Mother Nature... Trump denies reality, in league with the vicious oil, gas, coal and auto industries.  Technology buffs say that sustainable energy – wind, solar, wave, hydroelectric, bio – will work – but only in the context of a market economy.  Now they are actually thinking that geo-engineering will work too. Cap-and-trade has proved to be a failure in Europe, just moving emissions around.  The last UN climate change conference – and its goal of ‘only’ a 2 degree rise in temperatures – is too high. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change actually underestimated what was needed.  Carbon and methane, even with all the paper resolutions, the huge changes towards solar and wind in the U.S., Europe and China, is still increasing in the atmosphere, and sinking into the ocean.  Because capital requires unrestrained profitable growth…
                     
What do eco-Socialists do? 

In the U.S., some organizations, like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Socialist Action, explicitly call themselves eco-Socialists.  Other socialists and communists certainly understand that the problem is capitalism, not just some mean people. The main demand, certainly, is to immediately nationalize under workers' control every corporation closely involved in creating carbon.  Not just the banking system which pauperized a good chunk of the proletariat just recently.  The energy and auto industries are first on the list, but the massive agribusiness sector is also a culprit due to meat production.  The U.S. military is one of the biggest users of energy in the world, and certainly any environmental push would mean making the U.S. military an actual ‘defensive’ force, not one extending across the globe. 

Yet no political force – including the Democratic Party leadership or the supporters of Bernie Sander’s type politics – believes in nationalization, or makes it a programmatic point.  Civil disobedience by a militant minority is the result, trying to stop the pipelines in Louisiana, in North Dakota, in Minnesota, in British Columbia through civil disobedience.   Here in Minnesota, the Enbridge 3 pipeline will be a main focus. This has to become a mass movement of tens of thousands, not like the four people recently brutally arrested in Louisiana and charged with felonies for trying to stop their pipeline.  Or putting all the burden on isolated indigenous tribes.  Even the recent climate actions across the world did not call for nationalization.

What do eco-Socialists do? 

I jokingly say that the only thing that will work is if a 100 armed workers invade the boardrooms of every single one of these criminal corporations and occupy their boardrooms, citizen’s arrest their management and hold them hostage.  Of course, that could only happen if we were on the verge of an actual revolution.   Which, maybe by 2040 or 2050, we might be.  By that time it will be much later…

And so we come back to this issue.  Without seizing these corporations in some manner right now, through politics or mass action, the environment will head south.  The holy ‘market’ is too slow to work, nor will band-aid regulatory moves actually stop this process.  You cannot negotiate with Mother Nature – or indeed with reactionaries like the Republican Party or the neo-liberal leaders of the Democratic Party in the U.S.  Nationalization of criminal corporations has to be one of a group of transitional demands taken up by millions.  It has to always be accompanied by another transitional demand - guaranteed jobs or income for those who lose their livelihood due to this energy transformation.  Or we are toast.  Not just vulnerable people living in the most exposed parts of the globe – but sooner or later, everyone. 

This is a bind that the small groups of eco-Socialists in the U.S. are unable to make much progress on.  Anti-capitalist radical action will not happen soon enough if present politics go the way they are going.  Most people cannot deal with issues in the near or far future, but are still staring at their shoes.  Should I buy a new pair or not?  So the real issue is that the Gen Xers, the Millennials, the Gen Z and the toddlers are going to have to join or form revolutionary organizations to handle a capitalist world heading into oblivion.  And not try to prop up the politics of the past.  Best to start now.  Because ORGANIZATION and a real program, not generalities, are the real political issues of our time.  'Love,' 'hope,' 'jobs,' 'education,' 'freedom,' 'democracy,' 'America,' 'the Environment,' 'peace,' blah blah blah mean nothing alone.  Beware the peddlers of cliches.

Red Frog
September 9, 2018

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

“It is No Light Thing to be Free”

“Spartacus,” by Howard Fast, 1951

This is one of the greatest revolutionary novels ever written.  It is a historical tale of the massive slave revolt led by Spartacus against the Roman empire.  At the same time, it never lets you forget that the conditions of the past continue into the present.  It is about our capitalist world too. It especially resonated with the Jim Crow era in the U.S. and the former U.S. slave system. Then and now, a new empire continues.  Slavery in its various forms continue.  Military power and war continue.  The class system continues.  Dispossession continues.  Fast wrote this as an inspiration to the present that even revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Rosa Luxembourg appreciated.
Beware the Arming of Slaves

Conditions for gladiators, peasants, tribesmen, miners, perfume workers and slaves that lived under Roman rule were horrendous. The Roman patrician class had tied the empire together with roads.  Which might make someone recall the Interstate Highway system created in the U.S. in the 1950s.  The patricians and the new money nouveau riche dispossessed Italian peasants and took their land, and created massive latifundia farms tilled by slaves.  Former peasants were forced into the cities like Rome to barely live by crime or the dole, forming the plebian class.  The new money rich built tall and crumbling tenements to house the most profitable amount of people in the smallest space – the forerunners of our modern gentrifiers and apartment builders.  Tax collectors and religious collectors took their cuts, sending the wealth to Rome.  The empire was essentially a huge slave state, with a history of a bit more democratic “Republic” in its past.  It was held together by centralized organization and construction projects and a half a million men under arms.

The book takes the form of remembrances by various characters on the rebellion and Spartacus himself – the gladiator trainer Batiatus of Capua, where the revolt started.  The Roman general Crassus, who finally defeated Spartacus and the freedman armies.  Spartacus’ Germanic fictional wife Varinia, who was a former slave.  The fictional political power of Rome, Lentelus Gracchus, who controlled many city wards.  The crucified gladiator David, a Judean (Jewish) knife fighter close to Spartacus.  The book weaves these and other characters together to create a picture of the terror with which the gladiator and slave rebellion inspired in Rome, ending with 6,000 rebels crucified along the Appian Way. The cross was borrowed by the Romans from their destruction of Hannibal’s Carthage.  I guess that was ‘cultural appropriation’ in its day.

There were many slave revolts before and after Spartacus, but his 3rd Servile War was the closest to toppling the empire.  Spartacus and his tens of thousands of rebels (120,000 at one point) destroyed 5 Roman armies in battles in the south of Italy, with former slave women sometimes fighting alongside their men.  The slaves fought for their freedom, something that confounded the Roman patricians, who did not consider them human.  The Roman ruling class thought the world was a meritocracy, with some born to rule and others to be ruled.  To them slaves, women, peasants, gladiators, plebians were just meat – just commodities.   In this book, the slaves want a world of equality, where everyone shares the goods of the world.  Their forces were an international army made up of Thracians, Gauls, Germans, Africans, Egyptians, Judeans, Greeks – all those dominated by the empire.  God has disappeared in this world for both gladiators like Spartacus and the Roman ruling class, though the latter would not admit it in public.  Religion still had its uses.

One giant Gaul, Crixus, wanted to march on Rome or continue raids on the latifundia, while Spartacus wanted to leave Italy completely.  This split in the army was fatal to the rebellion, though that is not clear in the book. Crixus took part of the army and was destroyed in battle.  The book ends with a somewhat odd episode of Crassus and Gracchus being obsessed with Spartacus’ wife, the Germanic slave Varinia, who was captured after the last battle.  This is their way of somehow conquering Spartacus again, by controlling his wife.  Oddly Gracchus, one of the richest and most powerful political figures in Rome, buys Varinia’s freedom and secretly sends her north to the Alps, then commits suicide.  This book assumes some individuals in the ruling class will desert their role, and turn on their own system.  It is a strange coda to the book.

This dramatic book is written in grand literary cadences that borrow something from the style of the Bible.  The book became the inspiration for a 1960 movie starring top actors like Kirk Douglas, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis and Jean Simmons, directed by one of the best directors in the U.S., Stanley Kubrick.  Others followed.

Fast is one of a legion of forgotten proletarian and leftist writers of the early to middle 20th century.  Fast wrote many books, including “Citizen Tom Paine,” about the revolutionary role of Paine in the American Revolution; “Freedom Road”, about the black struggle after the Civil War and “The Unvanquished;” a detailed story about the first battles of that Revolution.

A few years after World War II, leftist writers in the U.S. were intimidated into silence or oblivion during the McCarthyite purges of the 1950s.  A new, more acceptable middle-class form of fiction was encouraged by the bourgeois cultural establishment.  Enter John Updike and company - no Spartacus for him!  Updike and company became the suburban reflection of the temporary high-point of managed American capitalism – a period that some people yearn for but will never return.  The U.S. is actually running backwards towards the prior period of robber barons, nativism and the direct rule of Wall Street.  Literature itself will have to change to reflect this - the Howard Fast’s will be back!

And I bought it at Chapman Street Books!

Ely, MN, USA

Red Frog

September 5, 2018

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Old New York


“Hell’s Kitchen,” by Jeffrey Deaver, 2001

What is the hottest part of hell?  Evidently a neighborhood in New York named “Hell’s Kitchen” on the west side of Manhattan.  West of 8th Avenue, north of 34th Street, south of 59th.  It’s not a cooking show, it only features the cooking of buildings and people by fire. It doesn’t have some abusive British chef yelling at everyone in the streets.  In this book it is a neighborhood full of Puerto Rican gang-bangers, poverty-stricken black and Latino people, homeless gays, youth drop-in centers, alcoholic lawyers and pyromaniac crazies.  But thank god or not, it is slowly being gentrified by one of the biggest real estate developers in New York.  Sort of a ‘Trump’ like fellow ...
Light My Fire

This is genre writing by an author who has written almost 50 books.  Even Dostoevsky and Steinbeck didn’t write that many. It is like a band that releases perhaps too many albums. We are taught that there is ‘literature’ and then there is this stuff.  Thrillers, romances, westerns, mysteries, war stories, detective novels, legal conundrums, fantasy and science fiction, YA dystopias, spy narratives. Familiar, titillating, formulaic, easy to read, full of improbable heroes or heroines, but fun.  

Well, hold up there pardner…maybe, maybe not.  People love this stuff, especially those not addicted to only the ‘high culture’ version of writing. These types of books are the most popular, no doubt.  Remember, Shakespeare wrote perhaps 40 plays. Dickens wrote 15 mostly fat novels, some that were serialized week after week.  Balzac wrote a connected series of 36 novels and 12 novellas.  Balzac may have been the melodramatic genre writer of his time.  Volume is not always a crime.  So are there redeeming qualities here? 

Writers like John Grisham and Scott Turow have made legal thrillers into a respectable genre, given their books concentrate on social and political issues.  Young Adult fiction has forecast fearful dystopias like “Mazerunner,” “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” forecasting the dark future many young people see. Ursula LeGuinn projects progressive ideas into the future while Margaret Atwood describes a more dystopian version. 

Other genres, like the western, are dying because Louis Lamour and John Wayne are no more.  Rugged Indian killers and settlers are fading into the colonial past. Newish westerns from people like Cormac McCarthy indicate the darkness actually taking hold across the U.S. west.  Many books in the spy or war genres laud the CIA or parts of the CIA or the military, and are mostly reactionary.  Though the movie versions done for mass audiences – the Jason Bourne series originally written by rightist conspiracy writer Robert Ludlum – put the CIA partially in the shade.  Even the latest filmic version of right-wing writer Michael Crichton’s book “Jurassic Park” has become a pro-nature, pro-animal story.  It is a recreation of the Frankenstein myth for modern times, shadowing the original socialist leanings of Mary Shelley.  But now dinosaurs have replaced monsters built of body parts.

This book shows the strengths and weaknesses of the thriller genre. Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard made noir thriller’s hip.  Crime writing generally concentrates on the seamy, sleazy side of human beings and always includes lots of death and violence.  There is a reason why they call it ‘noir.’  It’s dim conservative view of ‘human nature’ shades into a dim view of society sometimes - but not always.  Hammett himself was a leftist and his book ‘Red Harvest’ can be read with a Marxist slant.  But mostly the genre focuses on the personal stories of bad or weak people who the reader can be appalled by.

Instead this particular book, Hell’s Kitchen, humanizes the people who live in the neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen.  It features a tall, tough videographer who worked as a stunt man, did time in prison, carries a large handgun, was a big-shot art film director and is now a sensitive documentarian interested in the neighborhood.  He’s ‘got it all’ and is as unreal as other thriller heroes.  Later we find out he has an unlikely personal interest in the interviews he is shooting with his BetaCam.  

The ostensible ‘bad guy’ in this book turns out NOT to be the Trump-like real estate magnate, but a crazed pyromaniac who has developed his own formula for napalm.  The idea that New York real-estate developers might hire some thug to torch buildings so that they can profit slips away.  The ‘nice white lady’ who runs the Hell’s Kitchen charity-funded drop-in center is not what she seems either.  Instead the book makes non-white folks the sympathetic centers of the book – loyal people you definitely want on your side when things get tough.  One Irish gangbanger gets props too.  But the book ignores New York real estate shenanigans and the social context of why Hell’s Kitchen was what it was.  There is a bit of neighborhood history here that provides a back story, with the neighborhood coming off as a product of nature, not a creation of political economics.  I.E. this one is not an explicitly political noir but it’s human perspective is progressive.

There is a bit of ‘poverty porn’ here too, as suburbanites can peek into the hard lives of the dispossessed proletariat as if they were actually there.  But they are not. 

Genre fiction is a game of literary American roulette.  Play at your own risk!

Relevant reviews of “Divergent,” “Hunger Games,” Handmaid’s Tale,” “Future,” “Westerns,” “Monsters of the Market,” and John Grisham novels.

And I got it at the library!
Red Frog
September 2, 2018

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Are You Afraid of the Big, Bad "M"?


“A Marxist Education – Learning to Change the World,” by Wayne Au, 2018

I’ll bet you didn’t think Marxism had anything to do with teaching?  Well, think again.  Au is a prominent activist in Seattle who is influential in fighting ‘one size fits all’ testing, charter schools, profiteering, Bill Gates and rote, hegemonic corporate education.  This book fleshes out his ideas, using dialectical materialism and people like Paulo Freire, Lev Vigotsky and V.I. Lenin to make the case for a transformational form of teaching.
Dialectic Spirals...

Au starts with a brief introduction to dialectics and materialism.  He shows that these did not just originate in ‘ancient’ Greece or with Hegel or Marx, but in early Chinese philosophy, with some Egyptian concepts and in Aztec ideas of the universe.  As any one who has studied the development of ideas, they arise in different places because they respond to something universal in human society.  You only have to look at the Chinese ‘yin-yang’ symbol to see several aspects of dialectics in visual form.  He challenges those who see Marxism as a ‘white man’s’ philosophy, given its reality among the proletariat in every country in the world, including U.S. black and Latino/a communities.  As you might imagine, he is a rarity as an education professor in the U.S.

In the process, Au takes on neo-Marxism or bad readings of Gramsci and Althusser which attempt to downplay Marx’s emphasis on economics, as false readings of Marx.  This debate centers around arguments about ‘base,’ ‘superstructure’ and the supposed consequence of ‘economic determinism.’  Au concludes that schools are both sites of indoctrination and control, but also resistance. Yet in the end, Au states that “…the general functioning of schools cannot contradict the capitalist economic base.”

On to the specifically educational material!

CHARTER SCHOOLS

Au’s statistics indicate that 60% of outcomes in U.S. education are determined by the social environment children live in.  Only 20% is due to the schools themselves.  This should be  a ‘duh’ fact, but it is ignored in the clueless hysteria against teachers and public schools.  His stats also show that charter schools either do as well as or worse than public schools.  That is not counting their segregationist, anti-democratic, fraudulent, anti-union, privatizing, real estate or ‘exclusive’ sides, where they pick their student body and still have a higher rate of expulsions than public schools.  He shows instances of charter schools that even after failing are allowed to keep all the public assets they purloined.  This is another example of the ‘enclosure of the commons’ - which is still going on.

TESTING

Neo-liberalism is the prime culprit in our present educational system, as it is everywhere else.  A market-driven approach to education fails society and students, and only enriches corporations and a strata of education profiteers.  Students become ‘consumers’ instead of learners.  Au sees ‘quantification’ as key to neo-liberalism, which is why “No Child Left Behind” and ‘Common Core’ testing is pushed.  Studies show that the conditions in which the test is given influence 50-80% of student performance on that test.  Testing companies use shabby,  quick piece work methods to score those tests.  Unlike the bogus concern for minorities, standardized tests are actually constructed to make minorities and economic disadvantaged students fail.   The NAACP and BLM have both come out against charters and this kind of testing.  Au led a struggle started at Garfield High in Seattle against corporate testing and it was successful.  In this context, the ‘benevolent’ Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was key in bringing rote testing and charter schools to the U.S. and to Washington state.  When you see the Gates Foundation involved, run.

THEORY

Au studied both Lenin and Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky.  He makes a somewhat labored case that ‘learning’ in either the class struggle or as a student occur in similar ways.  Most people start at a spontaneous or emotional level, and only through dealing with the increasing contradictions and challenges that develop can they rise to a more broad view of what is actually going on.  In the same way, the job of a teacher or a revolutionary is to guide students or workers towards a greater, more scientific understanding.  At the same time the teacher or revolutionary is also learning – it is a dialectical, feedback process for both.  This process also flows into an understanding of auto didacticism, where people learn on their own through books, film or experiences.

Au seems to think there are only two stages of understanding, which actually hides a whole ‘process’ that might leave someone in the middle, at a partial point.  Much as various kinds of ‘reformism’ are midway points between the status quo or economic labor struggle only, and a revolutionary position.  Or a partial understanding of some academic topic, like algebra, which a student feels he will never need to know in full.  Refusing to learn can also be a part of directed learning.

FREIRE

Brazilian Marxist educator Paulo Freire wrote “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and “Education for Critical Consciousness” long ago, and both books are now foundational to some forms of teaching.  Au tries to rescue Freire from liberal educators who don’t understand Freire’s basis in dialectics and materialism.   Essentially, Freire thought that seeing the submerged structure of society allows students to possibly break free from its constraints, and even … change it.  In this chapter, he uses an example of teaching ‘whiteness.’  Au seems not to have realized the biologic fact that there is only one race, the human race.  So his Freire-like example for students of deconstructing ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ as social constructs is marred at a very definitional level.  Accepting the concept of ‘more than one race’ actually plays into the hands of racists.

Freire borrowed from Soviet literary and communications theorist Mikhail Bakhitin’s theory of the ‘dialogic’ – a dialogue method based on dialectics.

In another example, Au takes apart a white woman teacher who claimed that she could not teach or discuss racism with her students because she was white.  Au counters his kind of guilt-laden identity politics, which actually reinforces racism.  He points out that if ‘intersectionality’ is true, then being ‘white’ is not a prohibition from either understanding parts of racism or fighting institutional racism.  Of course, intersectionality is only a half-way point to understanding that some 'intersections' have much more weight than others.

CURRICULUM

Au notes that curriculum is a crucial battle-ground nationally, in school districts and in individual schools.  He makes the point that there is no neutral curriculum.  As such objective reality exists as part of our ‘standpoint’ perceptions, and the goal is to encompass that reality from that standpoint.  In one instance, Au shows how fossil fuel companies used Scholastic Magazine to push a coal-mining agenda and how green organizations and individuals got the magazine to stop distribution.

Au is an Asian-American and his final chapter lists the various struggles he has waged over educational practices in the U.S. – some successful, some not.  His father was a communist – probably a supporter of Mao - and taught his son some foundational truths.  One of these is that ideas and action go together, and Au has certainly done that.

Other reviews on this topic:  “Latest Developments in Hungary,” “In and Out of the Working Class,” “University in Chains,” “There is Only One Race…” “The Servant Economy,” “The God Market,” “Monopoly Capital.”

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

August 29, 2018

Friday, August 24, 2018

When Coherence was a Thing

“When Journalism Was a Thing,” by Alexandra Kitty, 2018

This paperback book is a long (375 pages), expensive ($38.95 USD), rambling and repetitive screed whose point is correct, but which is written in such a poor manner that the point gets lost in the weeds.  It makes one start to ask questions about the qualifications of the author.  Few journalists or editors would structure a book in such a disjointed way.  The chapter titles mean nothing – you could swap them around randomly and there would be no loss in clarity.   Kitty is the author of two prior books on the failures of journalism, is a professor and a news columnist, so it’s a bit of a mystery.  But then she’s the one who says the experts are wrong and she certainly bears out this theory splendidly.
When Propaganda Is A Thing

Scattered throughout the book are the remains of every single journalistic scandal or terrible journalist in the U.S. and Canada in the last 15 years, which is its main benefit.  Perhaps a book of case studies would have made her point better. Noam Chomsky did that in the book “Manufacturing Consent” and it worked.  Most maddening of all, the book has no theoretical framework above and beyond a reverence for Watergate reporting, Walter Lippman and a love of ‘objective facts’ to frame events.  The 'propaganda model' is nowhere to be seen.  Media ownership and consolidation is almost invisible. As is billionaires buying news organizations.  Her grasp of politics is vague, as she can’t seem to understand why some journalists link up with one faction of the capitalist class or another. A class analysis of journalists is missing. Her definitions of “Left” and “Right” are off. Quite honestly, I read most of it so you don’t have to.  After the first 200 pages I skimmed, looking for actual new content and finished those 175 pages quite quickly.

Kitty is neither a clueless upscale liberal nor a vicious conservative propagandist.  She tries to steer between the conventional political poles of North American journalism, but in a conventional way.   All to the good.  Her holy grail is ‘objectivity’ – more of a goal than a reality, as nothing is fully objective.  She is basically seeing present journalism as a step back into an older era of ‘partisan political journalism.’ She laments its fall from the time when ‘the center held’ and facts from wire services actually made a difference.  This period is nebulous in the book. It is perhaps after the penny press in the 1830s, or after World War II or in the 1960s or until the advent of Fox News and/or 9/11.  The endpoint is clear - the election of Trump put the final nail in the coffin.  This timeline is dubious, as if propaganda didn’t exist until Rupert Murdoch invented it or ‘the global war on terror’ started, leading to Trump’s ‘post-factual’ authoritarian world and the Democrat's Russia-gate conspiracy.  I only have to recall the good old days of the ‘Red Scare’ or the Tonkin Gulf incident to know that proposition is false. Though both Murdoch and 9/11 certainly made things worse…

According to Kitty, the national journalistic collapse in social understanding and the subsequent devolution into outright propaganda by liberals (MSNBC & CNN) joining conservatives (FOX) was Trump’s election.  That, preceded by Brexit and the election of Rob Ford in Toronto, is seen as the final turning point.  What she does not see is that these battles reflect an open faction fight within the ruling classes in various countries, and between countries.  So facts be damned! Increased class conflict with the working class in the U.S. is another source, as the massive open sores of U.S. society won’t heal and that is now more obvious.  Since the 2007 economic crash, the fall in belief in institutions, ‘experts’ and authority figures is across the board. The desperate capitalist logic of depoliticization has led to journalism by scandal and journalism by celebrity or filler.  Kitty is trying to drag the ‘profession’ back to the ostensible days of street-wise, grounded journalism, instead of understanding why it won’t go there.

Kitty knows that many top journalists have become ‘stenographers,’ a point Glenn Greenwald made much more effectively. Or are psychologically unprepared to deal with lies, deception, propaganda, news releases, media massages, public relations, ‘experts,’ important people and what passes for sources or witnesses nowadays.  This laziness in journalism Kitty dubs ‘pseudo-journalism.’  She seems to lament the passing of investigative journalism from most major outlets.  She has disdain for the ‘amateurs’ that crowd the internet, though her hostility is suspect.  As if every site is a replica of The Drudge Report or Breitbart News.  As if ‘partisans’ cannot find facts.  She says the onset of ‘social media’ helped kill journalism.  She specifically looks at the druggie Rob Ford election in Toronto, and how the Toronto Star supported Ford’s establishment opponent on hypocritical grounds, as both admitted to using drugs.   She is even perceptive enough to see how public relations shaped the violent Western regime change narrative that intentionally destroyed Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  In this war public relations firms spoon-fed journalists the ‘news.’

Kitty’s obsession with ‘objectivity’ is standard practice.  In the past, every beginning journalism student is hammered with the idea of ‘objectivity.’  Yet as experience and later philosophy tells you, ‘objectivity’ as a god-like, all-seeing perspective is a chimera.  Every story makes choices.  The headline, the sub-head, the quotes, the pictures, the narrative of the story, the facts chosen, down to the words or phrases used – all slant it in one way or another.  Hiding behind many stories is a political perspective, even in the ‘golden age’ of journalism. Almost any story but the most bland can be taken apart to find its political slant. At best, journalists might try to be ‘more’ objective.  Total objectivity is impossible.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Kitty seems unaware of internet sites beyond mainstream ones like Buzzfeed or Huffington Post or Gawker.  She does respect Glenn Greenwald, Wikileaks and “hacktivists’ for their contributions to actual fact-based journalism.  Yet the book reads like 22 similar windy lectures to large university classes.  Journalism freshman or journalism nerds might want to read this book, but I doubt any would actually finish it properly.   I could not.

Other reviews on journalistic issues:  “The Post,” “Southern Cultural Nationalism,” “Empire of Illusion,” “Manufacturing Consent,” “Ken Burns … Whitewash of the American War,” “Turning off NPR,” “Kill the Messenger,” “NPR Completes Editorial Assassination,” “Doublespeak,” and Bernay’s classic “Propaganda.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

P.S. - Truthdig/Paul Street, with today's more coherent piece on our propaganda state:
https://www.truthdig.com/articles/trump-and-the-corporate-media-are-both-enemies-of-the-people/

And unfortunately I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

August 24, 2018

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Prisoners are Workers

PRISON Strike Against Modern Slavery

The second prison strike since 2016 starts today, the anniversary of the start of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831 and ends September 9th, the anniversary of the Attica revolt in 1971. 

https://incarceratedworkers.org/campaigns/prison-strike-2018
Florida Prison.  This looks very familiar.

There are 10 demands, with getting rid of 'solitary' and the issues of private prisons and capital punishment missing.  It is quite a mild document, but does include the right to vote denied to 6 million former felons. What I'd like to focus on is the U.S. Constitution.  The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned slavery and involuntary servitude, with one vital exception: “as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted."

In other words, servitude or slavery is allowed in prisons, legally.  It is all 'legal.'  And many prisoners are black or brown, so it seems very familiar. Right now millions of prisoners are working for free, or pennies an hour, for capitalist corporations, for various states or governmental institutions, for local companies, and sometimes in for-profit prisons.  Since the abolition of slavery, this became one of the main methods of labor control and exploitation of non-white populations, especially in the U.S. South.  It accompanies the institutional racist police and court practices of the drug war, killer fines, police shootings, militarized police and the incarceration state.

The books 'Slavery By Another Name ... ' and 'The New Jim Crow' made this obvious. They both describe a 'prison-industrial complex.'
Labor is Power, even in Prison

So our U.S. Constitution, which is treated as almost a religious text by liberals and conservatives alike, has an additional flaw.  We can add this line from the 13th Amendment to the undemocratic Electoral College, undemocratic Senate and undemocratic Supreme Court; the misinterpreted 2nd Amendment to the Bill of Rights; the misinterpreted 1st Amendment, which says money is now 'free speech' and the rubber-stamp Grand Jury system.   

Time for a new set of laws.  These are done. 

Alternet on progress of strike, 8/24:  https://www.alternet.org/us-prison-strike-fourth-day-reports-hunger-strikes-and-work-stoppages-nationwide
The South Rises Again

Prior reviews on this topic:  "Are Prisons Obsolete?" "The New Jim Crow," "Slavery by Another Name," "Clandestine Operations," "Kolyma Tales," "The Unseen."   And on the law:  "Loaded," "Witty Lightweight Attacks Marxism," "The Appeal," "The Trial Before the Trial," and "3 Days in the Jury Pool."

Red Frog
August 21, 2018

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Time on Your Hands?


The Golden Age of U.S. Television

This is actually the ‘golden’ age of U.S. television, hackneyed as that phrase is.  Never thought it would happen.  I’ve always revered Bruce Springsteen’s lyric about "57 channels and nothing's on…”  But now, not all channels have 'nothin on.'  Though the modern equivalent could be '500 channels and nothin's on... '

TV - KGB  Handles Washington, D.C.

It all started with the thug show, “The Sopranos.”  No one I knew watched it.  I didn’t as I have no love for the Mafia.  Then “The Wire” came out, and I didn’t watch it until much, much later, as others were recommending it.  It was too much focused on black crime in Baltimore to convince me.  Then the advertising soap opera “Mad Men.”  Only one couple I knew watched it.  I didn’t for obvious reasons.  But then came “Game of Thrones” and something changed.  The high school teacher and his drug business -  "Breaking Bad" - was also in the mix, though I didn't watch that either.  I also found a cheap way to view all these shows…as there is a price barrier to this kind of television.

What changed is that the depth of television has just vastly increased.  Series that last years begin to resemble fictional novels.  Novels are a superior form of fiction over film because of their depth, their detail, the world’s they create that do not appear and disappear in 2 hours.  I’m a novelist, so that is my first understanding. The serialization of novels, as Dickens or Balzac practiced, has now been replicated in a visual form.  This has created a new depth.  The stories, unlike PBS productions, have broken out of their conventional British straight-jacket.

Like bad beer, bad TV is not worth it.  Stop watching the junk.  Here are some of my long form TV recommendations, which lean to popular history.  Are they all historically accurate?  Of course not, but you can uncover what is true and what is not yourself.

The Americans – Undercover Russian KGB in U.S.

Babylon Berlin – Events in Wiemar Germany.

Black Mirror – Surreal stories of modern tech England.

Black Sails – Caribbean pirates fight colonial powers and ally with ex-slaves.

Britannia – Roman invasion of England versus Celts and Druids.

Deadwood – The creation of a western mining town.

Fargo - Evil comes to Minnesota.

Game of Thrones – Fantasy which reads more like medieval and modern fact.

Handmaid’s Tale – American theocratic dystopia, centering on the oppression of women.

Mayans - Social rebels fight a Mexican drug cartel with a motorcycle gang in the middle.

Outlander – Fight against English oppression in Scotland, leading to Culloden.

RomeFriendship between two soldiers, Julius Caesar, his assassination and the power struggle in its aftermath.

Treme – Musicians, food and politics in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Vikings – Ragnar Lothbrok and sons roam the world.

The Wire – Crime, dysfunction and corruption in 1980s Baltimore.

The Americans is the latest series we’re watching.  It is about a secret Russian KGB cell in Washington D.C, a deep cover family who work to defend the ‘motherland’ during the Reagan years.  Season One is focused on the U.S. escalation of the nuclear arms race by Reagan through the ‘Star Wars’ space shield.  Bodies pile up, mostly the work of the KGB agents, which makes you think they are the most bloodthirsty.  But they are also smarter than the FBI, at least in fiction.  Given the couple are excellent fighters and masters of disguise, the KGB agents survive.  Agents and double-agents are recruited.  Yet right now the political subtext is that hysteria over improbably good 'sleeper' Russian agents feeds into the Democrat's Russian-gate conspiracy mongering and war plans.  

We feel sympathy for the Russian couple, who live in a suburban house with two kids.  Yet the series has almost no politics.  The only motivation for the KGB officers is to ‘defend their country.’ A black ally of theirs is shown without the motivation of systemic institutional racism in the U.S.  The show hides the actual aggressive nuclear strategy of the U.S. during this time -  somewhat similar to Trump's present "Space Force" plans. 

You are not supposed to feel much sympathy for the Russian agents while watching this series, but I do.  It does humanize them a bit, but then ignores 'why' there was a cold war in the first place.  (tvonline.cc)

Prior reviews on long-form television:  “Game of Thrones,” “Deadwood,” "Black Sails," "Who is Lester Nygaard?" and “Vikings” are below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog

August 18, 2018