Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Deplorables

The Only Political Question that Matters?

You can’t avoid it.  The presidential election.  Everywhere you turn on the media, endless discussion of a reactionary racist billionaire and a war-mongering Wall Street clone.  Who to choose?  Who to choose?  Such a dilemma! 

The fact that the falsely ‘democratic’ electoral system in the U.S. has given us this choice shows that U.S. capitalism’s façade is dropping.  Really, it is as paper-thin as it has been in 80 years.  Two frankly reactionary candidates, each with their own severe problems that can’t be wiped away by rationalizations, has to give even the ruling class pause.  Why do the majority of people call themselves ‘independents’ in spite of years of propaganda for the Democrats or the Republicans? Why do so few people vote in elections?  The last one in 2014 had the lowest turnout in history.  In the last round of Party primaries in 2016 less than 10% of the people voted. Why do these two candidates have the lowest ‘positive’ ratings in history?  All of this expresses a profound disassociation from the imitation democracy that our country practices by a majority of the population.
Consider the Cow

Then there are the structural problems.  In elections, incumbents almost always win. Money has an inordinate finger on the scale.  Districts are absurdly gerrymandered to the point that Republicans have far more seats than Democrats, even though they have fewer voters.  Voter suppression, since first being exposed in the 2000 election in Florida, has become even more widespread, especially with the destruction of the Voting Rights act by the undemocratic ‘Supreme’ Court.  Even the Constitution limits actual democracy - the Senate is inherently anti-democratic and the Electoral College as well.  Winner-take-all election rules, which mitigate against other parties, are the overwhelming legal rule.  3rd parties are castigated for being ‘spoilers,’ not for promoting democratic choice.  You are spoiling the ruling class machine!  Hacking voting machines is current practice. Wall-to-wall propaganda coverage from cable, network television, public radio, corporate newspapers and websites all back up the same corporate messages.  The list goes on.

Yet the political context is even more sinister.  Anyone who rejects an electoral charade in which the population is expected to believe the utterings of these laughable candidates, just as new-born babes trust their mothers, is ignored. We are to vote our ostensible identity and our pocketbooks, even though neither major candidate actually cares about the working class – which is the majority across all ethnicities, nationalities and genders.  

In reality, it is the current lie of democracy that is being exposed – a situation that bodes ill for the future of this ‘democracy.’   It is becoming clearer – even to non-Marxists - that we do not have a real democracy.  We have a rhetorical democracy.  We have an oligarchy with two wings, running two different parties with tactical differences.  To “Occupy the Democrats” is like getting a suite at the Waldorf Astoria for free.  It is a fantasy, and always has been one. 

The supporters of Trump are actually much higher-bracket Republicans than the press lets on.  His xenophobic, racist and sexist campaign brings to mind the Italian reactionary billionaire blowhard Silvio Berlusconi – not Adolph Hitler.  Right-wing demagogues have a long history in the U.S., so Trump is not something completely new.  Even so, large segments of the Republican capitalist class and their politicians are rejecting him - even neo-conservatives are flocking to Clinton.  Bush I has joined that club.  People wonder where Trump came from?  Political characters like Trump are using politics that have been embedded in prior party platforms for years.  Like the wall to keep out Mexicans?  Already built by both Democrats and Republicans and the Israeli government, but the latter for Palestinians.   Deportations?  Massive practice even now.  And so on.

Trump ‘says’ he wants to take it up to a whole new level, but the capitalist handlers in the deep state will have a sit-down talk with Trump if he wins and let him know how far he can go.

What created the immediate Trump?  The whole 40-year move to the right by the U.S. ruling class, which has ignored poverty, criminalized non-whites, deprived workers of jobs, sidelined unions and lowered wages.  Ultimately the hidden enabler is a Democratic Party that has collaborated with Republicans on many economic and political issues – though not all, as there are still tactical splits.  The Democrats are the ‘more effective evil,’ as Black Agenda Report describes them, that has prepared the ground for this vicious billionaire.  Continuing the tactic of supporting a Wall Street supporting, incarceration-state loving, war-mongering Democrat only guarantees that the next Republican candidate might be even more effectively right-wing.  Both parties leave the majority – the working class – with little more than phrases.  The “green” of money is the real identity we should observe.  Following the ‘green’ is the only way out of this mess to understand who are our real enemies and our real allies.  Follow the money, because it is what unites both parties.

I must comment on the personal proclivities of Clinton supporters.  Clinton called Trump’s base 50% ‘deplorables’ at a $250K a plate fundraiser. You can imagine that THAT audience was not exactly on the front lines of the ‘freedom struggle.’  “Racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, Islamophobic” as the chant goes.  You’d think Hilary was a real leftist with that, right?  Au contraire.  Trump actually used the phrase ‘working-class’ to counter her attack on his base, though some of it was certainly true. 

Lets look at Clinton’s reality about these issues.  Does she have a government-funded program to get rid of poverty and unemployment?  No.  Has she decided to back off the military up-arming of the police?  No. Has she come out clearly for marijuana legalization and against the incarceration state?  No.  Has she decided to reinstate AFDC?  No.  Has she backed off the privatization and re-segregation of charter schools?  No.  Is there a program of paid government child-care in the works?  No.  Or promotion of unions in mostly female workplaces?  No.  Has she pledged to get rid of discriminatory laws against gay people in the x number of states that allow businesses to fire you for being gay?  No.  Will she refrain from arming ‘moderate’ jihadis or bombing another Middle-eastern or African country full of Muslims?  Or pulling the FBI off their practice of ‘terror’ stings in the Muslim community?  No.  It is all hot air designed to fool the credulous, just as Trump’s attempts to pretend he is some kind of working-class hero to whites is a complete fraud. 

They are both frauds because it is essential to lie to voters when you actually represent monied interests.

So the support for Clinton by Democratic Party loyalists actually is a form of loving the status quo.  These people do not really want to change anything about the U.S. and never have.  For those who are in the labor movement or the working class, it is self-deception on a very personal level.  Now you may chose to vote for one wing of the capitalist class as a more rational alternative – but understand clearly what you are doing. Don’t dress it up with pretty phrases about ‘fighting racism’ and the rest.  Just admit to yourself: “I love this group of rich people more! I don’t care about fundamental change!”

Words mean something, but policies mean more.  It is the structural aspects of racism, sexism, homophobia & denigration of Middle-Easterners that needs to be addressed, not just reciting clichés about identity. It is these structural aspects that materially maintain the actual experience of oppression, and continue the process of making ‘identity’ real in a capitalist society.

If Trump wins the election, this country will be up for grabs, as a good chunk of the population will go on a ‘war’ footing against him.  If Clinton II wins, things will go on as before.  War, war profiteering, nuclear rearmament, unemployment, precarity, inequality, killer cops, arrests, deportations, anti-unionism, low wages, gentrification – the list is long.  The NYT, Wall Street, the corporate media and the majority of the capitalist class is betting on option 2 as the smoother choice.  Yet for the working class, neither is acceptable.  And so the revolution in the U.S. advances on tiny, many-millioned mouse feet. 

Red Frog
September 25, 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Kitchen Sink

"The Heart Goes Last,” by Margaret Atwood

This is a book with so many angles that it is not really clear what it is about.  The book starts with the United States suffering dystopian conditions similar to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” – the result of a huge financial collapse. People have lost their jobs, live in cars, starve, work odd jobs like bars or prostitution, fear theft and death.  To avoid this dreadful situation, the lead characters join a sinister ‘utopian’ solution to their poverty called the Positron Project.  It is a confinement / prison community where the residents spend 6 months in neat ‘50s bungalows working normal jobs and 6 months in jail raising chickens or knitting blue teddy bears.  The 1950s is the touchstone for this world.  It seems like Atwood is riffing on the incarceration state that the U.S. has become.  It is the beginnings of a good story. 

Largest prison strike in history going on now - but not in this book.
Then the secrets of the comfortable prison are slowly revealed – housing and then murdering prisoners for profit through organ-harvesting; kidnapping for baby-blood infusions; human meat used for chicken feed; the manufacturing of sex robots and to top it off, romantic ‘mind-surgery’ on unsuspecting women.  The prison is like some kind of corporate capitalist conglomerate trying every creepy profit angle - not just earning money from the state to incarcerate criminals and the unemployed, which is creepy enough.  And absolutely accurate. 

Ultimately there is an internal rebellion organized by some high-level insiders (not prisoners...) against the corporate dictator, Ed, who runs the Positron Project.  The story ends by leaving the dystopia of lived-in cars and the poor robbing and killing out of desperation.  It leaves the prison situation in which freedom and confinement are inextricably mixed.  It ends up in a ‘normal,’ somewhat present-day Vegas – with wedding chapels, Elvis and Marilyn impersonators, even the “Green Man” group - with no seeming connection to that past.  As if Atwood lost interest in the earlier story and had just paid a visit to the joke that is Las Vegas and wanted to use it for material.  As somewhat of an odder coda, after the boss Ed is exposed for his more nefarious doings and punished, the prison / bungalow enterprise still continues - but ‘only’ to continue to produce sex-bots and collect money from the state for incarceration.  Like normal, like the situation has improved!

The real story in this book seems to be a somewhat unreal take on romance, love and sex.  It seems to Atwood that all men primarily want sex (somewhat like the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’) and so, indeed, do most women.  The story or themes are window-dressing for an unconvincing story of ‘love’ by somewhat robotic characters – or actual robots. The lead female is a conventional, air-headed blonde married to a brooding but ‘solid’ conventional guy.  She is actually attracted to another man in the compound because her husband is dull, and adultery follows. The boss Ed eventually becomes obsessed with her too and wants to turn her into his sex slave through brain surgery on her.  Meanwhile her husband gets trapped into an adulterous relationship himself while pining for another sexy woman he doesn’t know.  Following this?  Do you care? 

So what we have here are subjects previously touched on by “Cloud Atlas;” by “The Road;” by “Frankenstein," even by any number of romance novels.  The organ harvesting is especially interesting, as this has been going on since the birth of capitalism and the fact that it still plays a fictional (and real) role shows how little has changed.  If there is a coherent point to “The Heart Goes Last?” or even a coherent story within it, it escaped this writer.  In spite of the prominent blurbs on the back-jacket, and as much as I admire Atwood, the answer is no.

Reviews of “The Road,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,”Cloud Atlas” and "Monsters of the Market," below.  Other dystopian books and films are also reviewed. Use blog search box, upper left. 

Red Frog
September 19, 2016

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

“Leviathan, Amalgamation and Capital”

"Deadwood” – The HBO series, directed by David Milch, 2004-2006

If you caught this series when it first aired or as it exists now in digital suspension, it stood out for several very important reasons.  Most people are drawn in by the characters that appear on television programs or in books.  You either love or hate them, are amused by them, admire them, are bored by them, wish they were dead, etc.  It is all about a personal, emotional attachment to an imaginary human being, or a fictional recreation of a real person.  In this series for instance, the hotel owner Farnham is a servile toady, creepy and greedy and ultimately sad.  But riveting in his own way.  Yet ‘character-driven’ stories end up somewhat meaningless, as what is of real import is the framework in which the ‘characters’ labor. 

Deadwood, Black Hills South Dakota, 1876
The real Deadwood itself exists now as a cheesy and cheap casino town in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Its main legend, besides gold, is the murder of ‘Wild Bill’ James Butler Hickok at Saloon #10, and the graves of both Hickok and ‘Calamity’ Jane Canary on ‘Boot Hill” just up from town.  This is what might make you tune in at first.   In the series, Hickok is a somewhat admirable but deeply troubled character who haunts the rest of the series after being shot in the back in the first season.  Jane and his companion, Charlie Utter, never forget him.

What becomes obvious is that this is first of all a story of small businessmen.  Every key character runs a saloon, a bordello, a hardware store, a transport business, a hotel, a newspaper or a bank in this booming gold town, saturated in mud and whiskey.  These owners also predictably run the town as an informal group that gather at the GEM saloon. We are supposed to admire them.  This is not so much different as the control small businessmen still have over real small towns in the U.S.  The proletarian miners and the entrepreneurial individual claim owners – the ‘hoople-heads’ as they are referred to by Al Swearengen, the key saloon and whore-house owner – are mostly invisible.  Bit players.  Background scenery, even though they are the overwhelming majority.    

Given his name, Al swears a lot, as does almost everyone else.  ‘Fucks’ fly (over 4,000 times) and ‘cocksucker’ is the biggest insult – giving homophobia and anti-woman attitudes a constant mantra.  Women are mostly represented by abused prostitutes, until a rich woman and a wife come into evidence.  The buck-skinned drunk Jane ultimately finds solace with another woman.  But the language that really captures the ear is the archaic and formal way with words used by everyone in 1876 – even in a frontier town where you’d think only grunts and a vocabulary of 150 words would be appropriate.   The language alone – as in T.C. Boyle’s books ‘Water Music” and “World’s End” – is a treat to hear and follow, especially spoken at high speed.  This is a version of American Shakespeare on the frontier.  But again, the language is another layer on a deeper cake. 

What lies behind the murders and scheming of the town’s small businessmen are even bigger businessmen – the “Comstock Syndicate” and representatives of the big mining owner, George Hearst, another real person, as were many other lead characters.  Appropriately, Hearst’s key man in Deadwood is a bright psychopath and sexual deviant.  And working with this Syndicate are crooked representatives of the ‘government’ of Dakota in Yankton, which plans to work with Hearst to steal mining claims by creating a panic about ownership of those claims.  The Black Hills, while taken from the native Americans, had not yet been taken from the placer miners.  Or the town’s leading citizens.    

Dead people die without much problem while the ‘holy’ hardware store owner and appointed sheriff Bullock deals with the obvious and sometimes avoids the criminal.  After all, he’d have to arrest at least 3 or 4 of the town’s businessmen if he enforced all the laws.  Even the murderer of Hickok is declared innocent in a farcical trial.  So what we have here is what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’ – fortunes built on violence, law-breaking and fraud.  As one person said, this is really the story of the founding of ‘America.’

‘Chinks’, ‘niggers’, Jews and Native Americans are merely problems for the mostly white and male Deadwooders.  The series shows the bigotry of some of the white population, with exceptions of course, as even Swearengen has his own Chinese guy named Wu, who he is allied with.  One drunken loudmouth gold-claim owner, Steve, instead of taking out his anger against the real suspects behind the scheme to invalidate claims, ultimately directs it at a helpless black man in town.  He keeps up his absurd racism until the end.  He's certainly not an accidental character.  

Being the in U.S., elections are a required part of the political stew.  Hearst wants a sheriff elected who ignores his bold-faced killing of 3 Cornish union organizers.  Accompanying this plan is the stuffing of election boxes with imported soldiers who vote the way they are told, the way Hearst and Yankton want.  This makes it clear that election theft is a long-time tradition in the U.S.

Hearst wants everyone in the ‘camp’ under his thumb, even every other businessman.  So it’s ‘war’ between them.  And so we get to the real ‘framework’ of the characters – money and capitalism. Or ‘amalgamation and capital,’ Hume and Marx, the pursuit of monopoly in the face of not-so free enterprise; the conflict between small and big capital; the conflict with labor; the Leviathan in their midst. 

Inevitably the anti-union and violent Pinkerton’s make an appearance on Hearst’s side.  And Hearst wins his bloody fight to seize all the valuable gold claims through murder and intimidation.

Later the Deadwood and Lead area became a stronghold of the Socialist Party and the IWW, and had its own widely-read Socialist papers because of the strength of the miners’ union.  However, this series ignores the miners all around.  The camp’s businessmen failed to recruit them in the fight with Hearst - something that would have made sense.  Instead a motley collection of hired ‘guns’ arrive from Cheyenne, as well as armed Chinese – all too late. The capitalist Leviathan wins because the miners are not brought into play, even in the smallest way.

(Other long-series reviews below:  Game of Thrones,” “The Wire.”  Use blog search box, upper left.)

Red Frog
September 14, 2016

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Propaganda ‘Free’ Press

"Manufacturing Consent,” by Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky, 1988

This 1980s classic of detailed media deconstruction set the tone for future leftist criticism of the corporate media, especially over international affairs.  The authors’ methods of counting mentions, noting locations in newspapers, counting ‘reporting’ that merely mimics government talking points, trying to locate (missing) countervailing views, and noting lack of context or tone or terminology has been adopted by many, including people like Glenn Greenwald, one of the most prominent media critics at present.
The Propagandists

Catching lies, omissions, distortions and stenography from the U.S ‘mass media’ is a full-time job.  Chomsky/Herman’s method of understanding what is actually going on is to consider all of it based on a ‘propaganda model’ that has the media essentially parroting the view of the U.S. ruling class and their government.  To prove this, they look at some case studies: reportage on the conflicts in Central America in the 1980s; the “Bulgarian” plot to kill the Pope in 1981 and media coverage of the American invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.  Their studies affirm that the propaganda model most closely describes the international performance of the U.S. mass media almost across the board – ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS; the New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Readers Digest, The Washington Post, etc. during these events.  Now cable news and internet ‘news’ outlets accomplish the same mission – providing propaganda, misinformation or plain entertainment in an even more breezy and witless form. 

It is much preferable to have hidden censorship rather than ‘legal,’ open censorship for the purposes of capitalist governing.  Which is why U.S. censorship IS hidden. Chomsky / Herman describe 5 filters that distill the ‘news’ down to what is acceptable to the government and corporate rulers - sort of like vodka or gin. This you are not supposed to know!  1. 9 corporate oligopolies control most of the news and other media – Disney, AOL Time Warner, Viacom, News Corp., Bertelsmann, GE, Sony, AT&T & Vivendi.  Film studios, TV networks, music companies, newspapers, cable networks, magazines, book publishers – all under their wing.  Their directors sit on interlocking directorates for many other corporations.  2. Corporate advertising. Anyone who does not have capitalist advertising has a difficult time surviving financially.  Advertisers exert direct and indirect influence over content and generally the ‘news’ organizations will not threaten the money flow. 3. Unquestioning reliance on government, think tank, business and military ‘experts’ and handouts by ostensible journalists. 4.  Flak when any news outlet steps out of line, as did CBS when airing their findings that little Bush II joined the National Guard to evade Vietnam and then barely showed up. The ‘venerable’ Dan Rather lost his job on that one.  5.  “Anti-communism as a national religion and control mechanism.”  While the USSR is no more, anti-socialism continues to be a well-spring of Republican and UnDemocratic Party talking points and actions.  Chomsky looks at the murder of a pro-Solidarnosc Polish priest in 1984 and compares that coverage to the almost non-existent media take on the murders of numerous leftist priests in Central America during that same period.  In the same context, the authors mention that the Pittston strike in the U.S. coalfields got less publicity in U.S. media than a miners’ strike in the then-existing USSR.

Words are important in media.  Chomsky/Herman show how the word ‘genocide’ is carelessly and loosely used for actions by enemies of the U.S., but never for allies or itself. The double-standard was especially in play in descriptions of NATO’ war on and dismemberment of Yugoslavia – Kosovo particularly.  They describe how Cambodia’s Pol Pot went from genocidal enemy to ally when the Khmer Rouge were ousted by a Vietnamese intervention.  The media flipped the script virtually on command. ‘Fledging democracy’ is another tip-off that a fake exercise in voting is about to begin. Friendly dictators are always ‘moving towards democracy.’ “Reform” is almost universally meant to mean going backwards, not its original usage, so Orwell would be proud.  You will note that no country has the right to self-defense (or self-determination) against U.S. interests.  This is a pillar of the Beltway media consensus and is never mentioned.  The media role of ‘victim’ is separated by ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ ones in the press – the ‘worthies’ being victims of political enemies of the U.S.  The propaganda model always claims the ‘center’ and excoriates the ‘right’ and the ‘left’ - even when it actually supports the right-wing.  It essentially operates as a ‘veil’ for the right.  Protesters against elite opinion are either denigrated or ignored, as was shown during the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.  Recently Jill Stein’s views on Hillary Clinton were censored from a taped broadcast on television’s PBS “News Hour”, (with the grim Judy Woodruff looking on in disgust), which basically gutted the rationale for why Stein was running.  So her one chance at an interview was bowdlerized. 

Marginalized facts are allowed sparingly, as small stories in the back pages of papers.  Occasionally an event like Watergate is used to show how ‘free’ the press is, when that was an exception to the rule – and the break-ins’ discovery actually beneficial to one wing of the ruling class. As the authors note, numerous FBI break-ins in the offices of the Socialist Workers Party were ignored by the media.  The Iran/Contra scandal, another example of the ‘free’ press, was centered on the fact that Congress was not informed, not that the government was illegally backing Contra terrorists trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.  My Lai was also used to proclaim how ‘free’ the press was – catching this exceptional brutality and pinning it on one low-level officer.  What no one but anti-war protesters noted was that My Lai was the rule, not the exception, for U.S. policy in Vietnam.  The story became a cover for that reality.

Lies and distortions by the media that later prove to be erroneous are never corrected.  So when Ali Agca, the Turkish fascist who shot the Pope in 1981, is shown by exhaustive research and an Italian court to NOT be connected the Soviets, the trial result is ignored.  When Salvadorean military officer Roberto D’Aubuisson was ultimately linked to the murder of Romero, the media ignored it.  They had fuzzily blamed it on leftists or on rogue rightists, not a prominent member of the general staff.  The acquittals of bête noire Serb leader Slobodan Milosevec and rightist Vojislav Seselj on charges of genocide or atrocities by a UN War Crimes tribunal were also buried, as they contradicted the central narrative created by NATO and the U.S.  False suppositions rarely get corrected – and that is because they were intended as propaganda in the first place.  Even the notorious “Tonkin Gulf” incident and the absurd Kennedy assassination ‘lone shooter’ theories are never reevaluated by most media. 

The Carter administration backed the El Salvadoran junta that later murdered Archbishop Romero and many others.  Reagan just continued that policy, as did the media. In that process, elections carried out by ‘our enemy’ Nicaragua were vilified by the media, while elections in those ‘developing democracies’ El Salvador and Guatemala – U.S. allies – are heralded.  Even though more objective election observers from other countries said the Nicaraguan elections were far more fair.  El Salvador and Guatemala had no democratic rights at all at the time of the ‘elections,’ being countries where the governments used murderous terror to control the population. 

Regarding the “Bulgarian” plot to kill the Pope, the authors pin the blame on the media itself for running with this ball, by relying on information from fascists in the Italian secret police and CIA journalists at Readers’ Digest in 1982.  The only link to Bulgaria was that Ali Agca visited Bulgaria, along with 20 other countries.  But it was politically useful at that point to attempt to inflame Catholic / Solidarnosc opinion in Poland against the USSR.  This section is a beautiful individual case study of how U.S. propaganda is disseminated.  Facts are optional. 

The authors show that the rightist idea that ‘television’ lost the war in Vietnam was pure hooey. This was really a plea for censorship, which has now been carried out in the Iraq & Afghanistan wars through ‘embedded’ reporting.  Prior to 1967, even with all the war violence on TV, the majority of the U.S. population supported the war according to the polls.  After the 1968 Tet offensive, the U.S. government itself changed its policy to one of ‘Vietnamization’ and bloody ‘pacification’ programs like ‘protected hamlets’ and the Phoenix assassination squads. They realized the Tet offensive, carried out by the southern Viet Cong, had retaken the majority of the countryside back from the U.S. and their puppets.  The U.S. population actually became MORE pro-war for awhile after Tet, thus undermining the whole argument about press 'betrayal' at the time of Tet. 

As opposed to U.S. propaganda, the NVA had very few units in middle or southern Vietnam, nearly all fighting being done by southern NLF guerrillas.  NVA numbers matched the violent mercenaries from South Korea, Australia and other countries the U.S. had imported into South Vietnam - another untold story. In 1973 Tom Wicker, one of the media’s Vietnam ‘doves,’ bought into the Nixon/Kissinger thesis that the “Communists” broke the 1973 Paris Peace accords, not the U.S.  This led to 2 more years of blood-soaked warfare.  Evidently he didn’t read the agreement, which was a replay of the Geneva accords of 1954 calling for elections and recognition of the NLF.  Again, elite opinion across the board only differs in tactics or costs, not in goals. 

In the new introduction, Chomsky/Herman do not think the internet has enhanced democracy or freedom, but has ‘tended on balance to enhance the applicability of the propaganda model.’ Studies of internet sites or cable are absent from this book, given its dating.  What is also missing from the book is a look at U.S. journalism schools, where this book is not taught, even though it should be in Journalism 101 courses across the country.  Which is saying something right there.  It seems many U.S. journalists today are bright, empty-headed careerists who want their face on TV or their name on a byline, and not much more. 

Chomsky and perhaps Herman are liberal anarchists and so their description of the former USSR and the degenerated workers states shares some of the fifth filter - anti-communism. The book constantly compares Pravda to the NYT or other U.S. media, trying to convince readers to apply their understanding of Pravda to the U.S. situation.  This is illustrated by their discussion of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.  Both papers are outlets for propaganda, but one of them did not represent a capitalist class, which is a bit significant.  This Chomsky/Herman ignore, choosing to be the academic ‘owls’ that see all 'objectively,’ basing themselves on ‘international law.’

Nevertheless this is an essential book for those attempting to understand how the U.S. media works.  While a bit dated, a new forward in 2000(?) incorporates new information.  I will end with a quote from the authors: “… a propaganda model suggests that the ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state.  (They do this by…) The distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.”

Not ‘news’ anymore to probably the majority of politically-aware people in the U.S. 

Red Frog
September 5, 2016

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Propaganda Model Explains A Lot

Turning Off NPR (National Government Radio)

I haven’t watched the U.S. network news for years. Occasionally I stumble back across Lester Holt or one of the other stuffed shirts giving me the totally predictable and realize nothing has changed.  But I’ve listened to National Public Radio, and its Minnesota affiliate, MPR.  Now I find myself more and more turning it off.  It is really National Government Radio (“NGR”) but tries to convince some listeners to pay for it.  A very small sliver of listeners actually do.  Very clever, that, pretending to be the ‘people’s station!’  Only 16% of the money comes from government funds and a smaller amount from listeners.  Most of the money is from the ubiquitous foundations, grants, investments, sponsorships and station programming fees.  I.E.  brought to you by businesses – corporate executives of whom also sit on the Board of Directors.  It is not actually ‘public’ by any estimate.
Doesn't look like a propaganda fountain, does it?

NGR is the soothing version of propaganda.  It’s like warm milk, if you like that kind of thing – full of bovine antibiotics and growth hormones, fed on corn instead of grasses – but hoping you don’t notice.  Dulcet tones, reasonable personas, familiar voices, low-key propaganda.  The same vanilla stable of ‘reporters’ and commentators fill the mics year after year.  I almost can’t tell them apart.   

Scott Simon is a name that comes to mind – Mr. Smooth, a friendly light-weight who proclaimed after 9/11 that even pacifists must support ‘the war on terror.’  Sylvia Poggioli – someone whose mission it was to report everything the Pope did – and not much more.  She is a far cry from her anti-fascist father, and that must be what happens when you go to Harvard.  Cokie Roberts, a neo-liberal commentator who slides between ABC News, “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” and NPR with ease.  She is the daughter of Hale Boggs, a Louisiana Democrat.  Shields & Brooks, the non-dynamic duo being paraded as the limits of acceptable opinion on NGR and on TV’s Public Broadcasting System (also known as the “Government Broadcasting System (GBS).”  You are allowed two parties and two views, according to NGR. Commentators from every corporate think tank in Washington are a regular feature, from the Brookings Institution on down.  As any review of ‘think tanks’ shows, all of them are in the pocket of some powerful business interest. Or well-paid anti-labor professors, giving their deep, quick thoughts on those uppity issues like $15 an hour, paying farm workers overtime or tax laws in Ireland.
Whether it is the need for ‘no fly zones’ in Syria (getting ready for Hillary!), the evilness of Russia and China, the ‘stupid’ people who voted for Brexit, avoiding Bernie Sanders, loving Wall Street or just about any government position you can name, you know where they stand, now and in the future.  A practiced and well-modulated fake 'centrism' hides right-wing positions dressed up in comfy sweaters.

NGR was notorious for its support for the oil wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, and still toes every single government position, in spite of what its own reporters sometimes dig up. Coverage of any opposition to Israeli invasions of Gaza is limited to short interviews with PLO figures, or a small ‘personal interest’ story, all to ‘balance’ their real position.  They banned the word ‘torture’ when referring to Bush’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ – something only U.S. networks did.  They advertise themselves as presenting ‘only the facts’ to dupe listeners into a pretense of ‘objectivity,’ but as anyone who has studied journalism know, no outlet can claim real objectivity, least of all these pretenders.  The cultural coverage seems to be part of the ‘fluff’ designed to hide their political positions, even though its middle-brow and vapid content can be painful on its own.  Their early morning book sessions seem designed to dig up literature that is as entertaining and marginal as possible.

NGR (and the GBS) are the prime propaganda vehicles aimed at liberals, according to statistics.  After a while, the only way to handle NGR is with satire.  “Mourning Edition” and “Some Things Considered” are their flagships.  Some of the most dreadful programs now?  Christa Tippit wrecking early Sunday mornings with her ersatz ‘thoughtful’ religiosity, hoping liberals can be lured back into the pews.  “The Splendid Table” with Lynne Rosetto Kasper, an upscale glutton’s guide to cooking and obsessing over food too much; “The Puzzle Master” with Will Short – needlessly thoughtful NY Times puzzles, for those of you who don’t live in Manhattan; “The Dinner Party Download,” trivial shit Millennials can talk about when they have nothing to say at a party.   It all screams ‘white middle class’ to the point of irrelevance. 

Shows like ‘On the Media” and “Planet Money” occasionally ask on-point questions, but they never really nail the cow.  The propaganda view of U.S. media or capitalism are not mentioned by either – though both hover in the backgrounds like unmentionable ghosts.  Now that “Car Talk” is gone, and the post-Lutheran Lutheran and creaky singer Garrison Keillor edging into the night, perhaps we can see NGR for what it really is -  warm, but poisoned, milk.  So do this experiment.  Every time you hear some right-wing, faux ‘centrist’ commentary on this station, turn the radio off.  Wait 5 or 10 minutes, turn it back on again. Pretty soon you won’t be listening much.

Red Frog
August 29, 2016

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Name the Twin Cities Factories - Come to the Author Talk

Stinson Blvd Honewell, SE Mpls
Ford Plant, Highland Park, St. Paul, now leveled.
Site of 1934 Shootings, north warehouse district, Mpls
Strutwear Knitting, East Downtown, Mpls
Hiawatha Metalcraft, Seward Mpls
Former Ford & Honewell Plant, downtown North Mpls
Former Jeune Lune and Warehouse, Warehouse District Mpls
Power plant, downtown North Mpls
Metalmatic, Mpls along the river
Power Plant along the river, Mpls
ADM Mill #1, Longfellow Mpls
ADM Mill #2 - Longfellow, Mpls
Successful Author Event

Sunday, August 14, 2016

“16 Tons and What Do You Get?”

“White Trash – the 400 Year History of Class in America,” by Nancy Isenberg, 2016

This book has been on the NYT best seller list for weeks, which shows that the idea of class is no longer taboo in the U.S.  The real ideological battle right now is between identity politics and class politics.  This book is a large weight on the class side of the equation. 

It lambastes the upper class conservative and liberal disdain for the lowest strata of the white working-class, called by the last acceptable insult - ‘white trash.’  Isenberg here refers to this layer as generically ‘poor’ and rarely points out that low-paid white workers actually have to earn a living.  Over these 400 years Isenberg hints that they have been indentured servants, hunters, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, convict labor, small farmers, general laborers, textile workers, migrant laborers, slaughterhouse and construction workers, even illegal alcohol producers.  Most of her textual pictures in this book consist of drunks sitting around shacks doing nothing – having no economic role at all.  These pictures come from the ruling elite of the day, not from the populists.

Every suburbanite's nightmare
Ultimately this study is a political and cultural one.  It is not filled with statistics or economics.  Isenberg’s idea of class is based on income and wealth, not the economic role people play.  As such, she seems to divorce this ‘underclass’ from the rest of the working class.  Isenberg understands that both liberals and conservatives do not want a unity of black, Latino and white workers in the U.S., which is the cause for their focus on ethnic ‘identity’ instead.  Being ‘white trash’ even became a cultural identity in the 1980s, conforming to the times.    

She has compiled, I think, the longest list of insulting terms for this strata of any historian, from the old and arcane to the recent.  Scourings, waste-people, mudsills, lubbers, squatters, swamp dwellers, bog-trotters, clay-eaters, scalawags, tackies, crackers, mongrels, hillbillies, white niggers, rednecks, trailer trash - white trash.  Or as one theorist put it, the “reserve army of the unemployed.’  You get the idea.  The problem is that this barrage of invective does not have much of a response in her text, so you start to believe it.  She cites the first use of the term ‘redneck’ in the late 1800s based on its usage by right-populist politicians, not from the 1920s coal field wars on Blair Mountain when radical coal miners wore red kerchiefs around their necks. 

Isenberg is relentless in her focus on this working-class strata, showing how it closely intersects with ‘racial’ ethnicity and especially the conditions in the rural U.S. south.  As she puts it:  “The Civil War was a struggle to shore up both a racial and a class hierarchy.”  The planters were afraid that an end to slavery would also impel landless whites to rise up.  In the Civil War non-slave owning whites were dragooned into fighting for the slave-owners and planters … until they deserted or were killed.   Union generals and ‘Red’ Republicans also understood the class nature of the war.  Isenberg points out that these 'waste' white people mostly owned no land - so like black slaves and freedman, they had no power, no money, no education, no nothin’.  If they did own land, it was unproductive – sandy, rocky or in the hills.

After the Civil War, ‘white trash’ were still treated almost as poorly by the Southern aristocracy and businessmen as were the super-exploited victims of Jim Crow – no education, no land, no real wages, no respect.  The south was studied by Howard Odum later during the 1930s and he concluded this about sectionalism’s destructive legacy: “The straitjacket of ‘states rights’ has suffocated southern progress long enough.” As Isenberg puts it, the south had squandered land to erosion; it tolerated poverty and illiteracy; it had little technological training or even basic services.  Much of this continues to this day.

Ultimately Isenberg shows the passivity and docility of white workers in the South has deep historical roots.  However Isenberg ignores any labor struggles in which white workers in textile mills or lumber camps or mines united with black workers and fought against the capitalists - in the south or in the north.  There are many examples during the progressive period around the turn of the century and again in the 1930s.  This lack paints ‘white trash’ as hopeless and again emphasizes that this is a political study centering on views ‘from the top.’

Isenberg paints a cultural and political history that exposes the class snobbery of our more progressive ‘founders’ – Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Adams and even Andrew Jackson.  Harriet Beecher Stowe and Thoreau also held hostile opinions about ‘poor’ whites.  She clearly shows how the British class and colonial system permanently stamped the U.S. and especially the South.  This is something that the U.S. still retains, like a permanent birthmark.  Davy Crockett, who became a politician, stands out as one of the few people to stand up for the landless and forgotten folks, as did the “Free Soil” party that preceded the Republicans.   

She delves into the later eugenics movement, which was not just directed against black ‘rednecks,’ but principally aimed at ‘slatternly’ white women who couldn’t stop having babies.  The Supreme Court ‘Buck v Bell’ ruling allowed 4 southern states to pass sterilization laws.  As she puts its:  “The major target of the eugenicists was the poor white woman.” Marriage, kinship, pedigree and lineage were thought to determine a person’s class – an idea from Britain which continued strongly into the 1920s.  Humans were seen as the same as horses – subject to ‘breeding.’  This view saw class as genetic hereditary, not based on economics or capitalism at all. 

Isenberg covers the 'redneck' cultural scene of our recent memory, from Elvis to ‘good ‘ol boys’ LBJ and Carter and “Billy Beer;” Tammy Faye Baker and Dolly Parton; ‘Elvis’ Clinton and Wasilla’s Sarah Palin and now, Duck Dynasty.  Everything from redneck chic to redneck stupid.  This is one of the weakest parts of the book, as little new information is added, especially for people who lived through this period.

Occasionally Isenberg looks into the background of events or culture that impacted the American view of lowly-paid white workers.  The villains in “To Kill a Mockingbird?”  They were the white trash Ewells, though Harper Lee wrote that they picked through the town dump and had no indoor plumbing. This is something not shown in the film, allowing them to appear even more awful.  Another is the book and film “Deliverance” by James Dickey, the son of rich north Georgia landowners.  In once scene a deformed young albino boy ominously plays banjo, bringing out all the fear and loathing of suburban whites. The actor who played the boy was pulled out of high-school and paid almost nothing.  A boy then, that man today works at Wal-Mart for very little pay, and has for many years.  

An American cultural/political follow-up to Piketty's work on class, "Capital," "White Trash" puts another nail in the coffin of identity politics.

Prior reviews on these subjects:  Slavery By Any Other Name,”The State of Jones,” (film and book); “Jacobin #18, 2015 on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War;   Also a small book, not reviewed that reflects on this topic:  They Were White and They Were Slaves.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
August 14, 2016

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Children of Men

“Ivan’s Childhood,” directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962

In the face of the incredible avalanche of reactionary red-baiting and war-mongering by the Clinton campaign against Russia, Trump, Jill Stein and the Green Party, Wikileaks, Julian Assange and anyone else who doesn’t want to fight two more wars in Syria and Ukraine, I figured we needed a bit of a response to this shit-storm.  (See Glenn Greenwald’s excellent take-down of the Clinton campaign’s Russian-hating methods dated 8/8/2016 on the ‘Intercept’ site.

(Assange has announced that a recently killed DNC employee, Seth Rich, was the actual leaker.  Rich was murdered during a 'robbery.'  Another convenient death!)

Ivan in ruins
It consists of an appreciation of Soviet and Russian culture.  This is the first film by the great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, who later did “Solaris” and “Andrei Rublev.”  Jean Paul Sartre defended this film when it was attacked by the Italian CP in their paper ‘L’Unita,’ which accused Tarkovsky of using ‘petit-bourgeois’ artistic methods like dream sequences and character complexity (!) You are usually in good company when you side with Sartre on cultural matters.  A young Ingmar Bergman was influenced by the film as well.  This is a touching film showing the deep impact of WW II on the Soviet youth of their day.  It displays the humanism of the Soviet soldiers, who adopt a young boy who works as a spy for them behind Nazi lines.  They know this is a very dangerous job, which can only lead in one direction.  The young Ivan (and yes, all Russians are called ‘Ivan’ in slang…) has lost his parents in a fascist massacre.  He is tough, skinny, blond and just a kid, but now prematurely aged by the war, which is all he thinks about. 

The scenes of floating across the river are some of the most beautiful in Soviet film.  The war is shown, not in the American way by constant combat, explosions, battle, etc. but as a looming presence infusing every scene, however quiet, with fear and dread.  Combat is not always about fighting, as any soldier knows. Dreams (dreams!) and flashbacks intrude.  This gives the film the feel of actual human reality, not that of an American war cartoon or of social-realist hero worship.  It uses long takes, not the hyper-jumpiness of present ADD advertising or Hollywood film. 

The film ends with actual Soviet war footage shot in Berlin, first focusing on the 6 poisoned children of Goebbels lying in a row.  Then there is a film scene of one of  Ivan’s protectors discovering his fate in the Reich’s efficient basement archives.  In this war wives, mothers, sisters and girlfriends not only lost their loved-ones - this film shows men losing their emotional sons.  The film does not wallow in the glory of war, as did Soviet films prior to 1956.  It was produced in the Khrushchev period during a ‘thaw’ in cultural control and was extremely popular in the Soviet Union. 

Given the Russians have experienced war on their land in recent memory, while the U.S. has never experienced it since 1865, I’d say Russians are a bit less eager than Americans to do it again.  This was the real story throughout the ‘cold war’ and the nuclear threat, and is no less true today.  It is certainly reflected in this film.

Red Frog
August 9, 2016

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Viet Damn

“The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015

This biting historical and satirical novel examines the Vietnamese experience after the American War ended – that of the refugees, the ARVN hardcore and the Communist victors.  Nguyen is a sympathizer of the Vietnamese revolution that overthrew capital and kicked the U.S. out of Vietnam, but he also sympathizes personally with the experience of all of the Vietnamese, even the sad cases that were thrown onto the U.S. mainland after April 1975.  Hence the double meaning of the title.

The Satiric War
The central character is a Communist agent who has been assigned to spy on the ARVN secret police and military.  He (a man with no name) is a spy embedded with a top General in the ARVN security services, feeding information to his Viet Cong contacts and later the CP government through invisible ink on the pages of a ridiculous right-wing book.  Scenes portray the last days of the Saigon regime and the downtrodden lives of the Vietnamese exiles in Los Angeles.  It closes with a doomed and pathetic military attempt to infiltrate back into Vietnam through Laos to start a guerilla war.

He’s conflicted because he likes free love, drinking, good novels, rock music and aspects of the U.S. like air-conditioning, while still making merciless fun of American racism and reactionary cultural clichés. These are best expressed in quotations from William Westmoreland and the making of the film “Apocalypse Now” – both portrayed through aliases in this book.  Nguyen writes the book from the Vietnamese ethnic perspective, looking at the odd customs and ideas of white Americans from the outside.

As a product of the rape of a Vietnamese woman by an American priest (perhaps symbolic), his own body is marked by this conflict.  The Vietnamese continually call him a ‘bastard’ – and that starts him on a critical look at Vietnamese culture too.  He is forced by the General to participate in the killing of a fat major suspected of being a ‘red’ spy – fingered by himself to deflect attention. He is also forced to kill a liberal Vietnamese journalist who thinks the Vietnamese should get over the war.  Both of these acts weigh on his conscience and politics. 

He has two ‘blood’ brothers – Man and Bon - who attempt to take care of each other throughout the whole book, even though Bon supports the Saigon government and Man and he support the Communist Party.  This odd personal thread makes him even more conflicted due to his personal loyalties.  And perhaps that is the nature of reality, according to Nguyen. 

Ultimately the spy is sent to a re-education camp after being captured by his own people.  He had joined a reactionary guerilla incursion into Vietnam against orders, something he ostensibly did to save his buddy Bon.  Earlier he had not stopped the rape of a female Vietcong agent, and for that they seek a confession.  In the camp he is tortured by his friend Man (!) using CIA/Phoenix/MKUltra methods of sensory deprivation, designed not to mar the body but to break down the mind – loud music, sleeplessness, nakedness, lack of human contact, sight or hearing.  These methods the Communists learned from the CIA – methods used by the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.  He eventually is released by parroting one of Ho Chi Minh’s most important sayings, which Nguyen interprets as having a double-meaning. 

Nguyen (unlike Ralph Ellison in “The Invisible Man,” who Nguyen points out, retreated to individualism) still believes in the revolution, but is aware of its fallibility – especially the growth of bureaucratic oppression like re-education camps and confessions forced on many citizens.  This method was based on psychological criticism/self-criticism theory imported from Maoism.  The whole book is actually slyly structured as a ‘confession.’  Yet Nguyen is an anti-imperialist even with his broad sympathies, and thus an outlier in the right-wing, gold-bar Vietnamese Diaspora.  Here is one of his quotes from the book:  "Not to own the means of production can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death."  Hence his writing...

This is the funniest ‘black humor’ book to come out of the American war – if humor can exist in such a context.  It is a great first novel that aims most of its fire at the U.S. and its crapulent allies.   

And did he recently win the Pulitzer Prize for this very work?  I think so.

Other books about Vietnam reviewed below:  People’s History of the Vietnam War,” “What it is like to go to War,” “Kill Anything That Moves,” “Matterhorn,” “Soldiers in Revolt,” “In the Crossfire,”  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought it a Mayday Bookstore's excellent fiction section!
Red Frog
July 26, 2016