Thursday, October 20, 2016

Who is Lester Nygaard?

“Fargo,” HBO, Season One

I guess ‘binge watching’ really is a thing.  It occupies the time of many workers, not just kids or college students with too much time on their hands.  Sort of a drug, better than religion, a form of escape.  Escape from what, you might ask?  The present U.S. social reality is certainly one item to avoid by long stretches in the dark room of television.

Yah, its way cold...
I watched “Fargo” on HBO, Season One, a story that takes one season to tell – which is actually an innovation in long-form television, as most stories extend year to year.  The series is inspired by the film of the same name, and bills the Cohen brothers as producers.  The same exaggerated Minnesota accents, snow-scenes and winter highways populate this film, as well as the conventional homey interiors, bad food and mundane lives of small towns in the state.  Hey, it's pretty real! Why the film is called ‘Fargo’ when it is set nearly all in Minnesota is probably a joke.  At least to most Minnesotans, Fargo in North Dakota is a much more benighted place than Minnesota’s Iron Range.  ‘Fargo,’ then, is kind of a feeling.

The key character is a nebbish insurance salesman named Lester Nygaard, a good Minnesota name, who lives in Bemidji, a real northern Minnesota town.  You might remember the prior nebbish in the ‘Fargo’ film was an auto salesman, Jerry Lundegaard.  So ‘sales’ seems to be the province of conventionally nice but wimpy men - who you might have to be on 'guard' for. Mild-mannered talkers, ya know.  These are not exactly working-class jobs but instead are jobs in which men attempt to ingratiate themselves for money.  After watching the whole series, you have to wonder – who IS this ‘typical’ small-town male?   Who is Lester Nygaard?

Into this idyll of conventionality roams death.  The reason Lester breaks the stereotype is he kills his irritating wife, and then is involved with a contract killer in the murder of the beloved chief of police and one of Bemidji’s leading creepy citizens, in a perfect non-conformist trifecta of violence, two of which take place over a few short minutes.  A stain of blood remains on Lester’s living room floor through the whole show, like some Lady Macbeth problem.  In “Deadwood” Swearingen was always wiping up blood stains on the wooden floors too, but here it takes Lester forever to even call a cleaning service.  Lester spends the rest of the series trying to hide his involvement, but then gets ‘too big for his britches,’ as they say in northern Minnesota, and that is his downfall.  How can something like this happen? 

The Cohen’s dark humor meditates on the ‘devil’ in a number of films, like Cormac McCarthy's ‘No Country For Old Men.’  Here there is indication that the devil is involved again, straight from the ‘garden of Eden.’  This is because the other key character is the sadistic killer Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton.  Malvo is a hired gun who is smarter and more ingenious than the slow-witted small-towners he deals with, which he proves while leaving bodies in his wake and not being caught.  Malvo escapes time and time again, making the FBI, some random hired syndicate killers and local Bemidji and Duluth police look like amateurs.  Which they are.  (Mal means ‘bad’ in French.)

Sensing a weak but ‘kindred’ soul, Malvo takes Lester under his wing and helps him cover up his the murder.  Note that the initial dead are all the key authority figures in small towns – the top cop, the richest businessman and the queen of ‘home-life’ – the wife.  The real mystery is why this small-town schlup would work with a big-city assassin.  Evidently Lester’s was a really bad marriage – and Lester didn’t know divorce existed.  Or perhaps … and I think this is the Cohen brothers point here … the ‘devil’ is in superficially ‘nice’ people who are really sociopathic creeps underneath.  So it is a slam against Small Town America, which is populated by criminal syndicates (!) and defective losers.  Anyone reading the news knows that in the racist imagining gruesome murders, abductions and shootings are only the province of black neighborhoods in big cities. But they actually happen in sleepy little white burgs.  Then everyone says – and this happens even in the city: “He seemed like such a nice guy.”  Because it’s usually some ‘nice’ white guy who kept the curtains drawn.

Lester compounds his arrogance by eventually antagonizing Malvo in Las Vegas while Malvo is slickly setting up another profitable murder.  This fit of hubris leads to the death of Lester’s pretty Asian second wife – something Lester saw coming and avoided like a coward, sending his wife in his place.  So who is this detestable coward, Lester Nygaard? 

The pretention of the film is that it is a ‘true’ story, a statement which is part of the introduction for each episode.  This is not true, as nothing like this has ever happened in Minnesota.  A wood-chipping did take place on the East Coast in Newton, Connecticut, perhaps inspiring the initial story. Is this purely a cultural creation to perhaps undermine ‘small town values’ that are so celebrated, even though small towns are some of the most clannish and limited places in the country? No.  The dénouement turns that on its head.  One of the most frightened characters, a former Duluth animal control officer, surprises and kills Malvo on his own. So Small Town America ultimately gets its revenge on the big city and on one of its own – though it takes awhile.

Who is Lester Nygaard?  The people of Bemidji are polite, humane, persistent but somewhat clueless at the same time. He is actually quite devious.  Nygaard himself is desperate to pretend nothing happened, to get back to normality while proving he is a ‘man.’  Lester is ultimately part of the ‘diseases’ of the big city – divorce, violence, self-centeredness, deception.  The Cohens have crafted a conservative morality tale of murder and retribution where ‘small town values’ win. 

A great story, but not quite true.

I’ve lived in a number of small towns.  ‘Small town values’ are what is thrown into the face of leftists and liberals quite frequently by Republican politicians, and even some Democrats.  Given very little of the population of Minnesota and nearly every other state lives in a small town, it is somewhat of an ‘anti-democratic’ plea.  Small towns don’t normally have factories, are dominated by a few wealthy families that own the biggest stores, ranches or farms and work with other small businessmen to run the towns.  The culture is limited to drinking in bars and television and perhaps hunting and fishing.  Young people escape if they can.  Most working-class people are dependent on the boss who ‘gives’ them a paycheck, so they normally see things the boss’s way. Outsiders are just that – outsiders.  Anti-intellectualism is normal.  Religion is still taken seriously.  Mostly these towns in the U.S. are white or white-dominated, as in the South.  There are of course some benefits to small towns, but politics is not one of them.   

So I’m thinking my take on ‘small town values’ really lean more to Sinclair Lewis’s version than the Cohen’s version.

Reviewed below:  Prior Cohen film: “Hail Cesar.”  Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God,” “Suttree,” “The Road” and “All the Pretty Horses.”  Other television long-form dramas reviewed – “Deadwood,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Wire.”    

Red Frog
October 20, 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Religion Scores Again

Female Genital Mutilation  (FGM) II

I am following up on a previous post on this brutal practice directed against women mostly in the global South, but also in diasporas in the global North.  That post took issue with the claim that FGM was a 'cultural' ‘African’ practice, a perhaps racist idea put forward by a celebrated liberal apologist for religion, Reza Aslan.  Aslan is an Iranian-American religious studies scholar that converted to Evangelical Christianity and appears as a liberal Christian on many television programs.  He serves to give an intellectual cover for all religions.  Not coincidentally, he is a member of the Counsel on Foreign Relations, (CFR) one of top organizations which the ruling class uses to … rule.  Odd, that, but shows to what extent the ruling class embraces religion.

200 million women girls have been subjected to various forms of this bloody procedure.  Its effect is deleterious to a women’s physical, emotional and sexual health.  It is meant quite clearly to destroy women’s sexual desire so that they will not ‘stray’ from a marriage.  It is one of the most damaging male chauvinist practices on earth, right up there with honor killings and mutilations and rape.  A recent survey conducted by the Population Counsel, centered only on Africa, shows a very close symbiosis between Islam and FGM in the central African geographic area.  The survey is hampered by lack of information from some countries, and exclusion of other parts of the world, like south and southeast Asia.

Here is the map:
 What does the map tell you about the relation between Islam and FGM?  Here are the percents of Muslim residents, per country, per Wiki.

Highest Green Level of FGM:
Somalia – 99% Muslim
Sudan – 97% Muslim
Djibouti – 94% Muslim
Mali – 90% Muslim
Egypt – 88% Muslim, rest Coptic/Orthodox
Guinea – 85% Muslim
Sierra Leone – 78% Muslim, 20% Christian
Eritrea – 48% Muslim per US Govt.

Next Highest Brown Level of FGM:
Mauritania – 100% Muslim
Burkina Faso – 60.5% Muslim
Ethiopia – 33% Muslim, 43% Ortho Christian

Yellow Level of FGM: 
Chad – 53% Muslim
Cote d’Ivoire – 40.2% Muslim

So just starting with Somalia, it is a 99% Muslim country in which 98% of the girls are cut.  A large number of Somalis have moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, my home town.   It is widely known here that some girls are sent back from Minneapolis to Somalia for ‘vacations’ in which they are mutilated, then flown back.  This shows the extent to which this tragic practice is ingrained in the religious/ethnic culture. 

There is missing data on other Gulf countries, but some is available.  In Oman, 90% of females have been mutilated (Oman is right next to Saudi Arabia). Kurdistan has a 72% level of FGM in some areas.  Many Kurds practice Sunnia and Shia brands of Islam.  In Kuwait, 38% of Sunni women have been subjected to the process.  Yemen has 30% rates.  And so on.  These are all Islamic-dominated countries with almost no Africans.  

What is clear here is that Islam plays a major role in the perpetuation of FGM, as mostly Muslim countries rank the highest in its prevalence.  This contradicts Azlan’s contention that it is a purely ‘African’ practice.  Yet it is a practice which is 'unique' to only central Africa where Islam is predominant.  It is not prevalent in all of Africa, which indicates it is not merely 'African.'

If we look at the statistics in south and southeast Asia – which are not on this map, and where there are few Africans or of African descent – the prevalence of FGM there is more obviously linked to Islam. 

India – 97% of Bohra Shia females. 
Pakistan - Overwhelming majority of Bohra Shia females.
Indonesia – 97% of Muslim females.
Malaysia – 93% of Muslim females.
Wikipedia notes that FGM is practiced by many Muslim communities in other south-east Asian countries, but they do not have exact statistics. 

Obviously Christianity and animist religions also play a role in Africa, especially in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya, which says something about religion in general.  Religion itself leaves the door open to the oppression of women, as demonstrated by the practice of FGM by religious groups, but especially Islamic ones.  Mistreatment of women is the Achilles heel of all conservative religious tendencies – including Christian, Jewish, Mormon, Amish et al.  But its high prevalence among Muslim communities indicates a oppressive male attitude towards women on the part of the ruling elite.  This is something progressives and feminists cannot ignore, no matter how much Islam stylizes itself as the ‘religion of peace.’   

This  of course does not negate defending Muslim people from violent attacks and police actions in the U.S. or abroad carried out by imperial or chauvinist forces.  

Red Frog
October 13, 2016

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Mao Holds Up Half the Sky

“Maoism & the Chinese Revolution, a Critical Introduction,” by Elliot Liu, 2016

Liu is a counsel communist who has written a short and concise critique of Maoism, centered on both ideological and historical highlights of the Chinese Revolution.  He is sympathetic to the revolution but hampered by a vague and idealistic understanding of what ‘state capitalism’ is.  Nevertheless this is a valuable book that allows the weaknesses of Maoism to be evident.

Mao Zedong in Feb 1952
Given the majority of people in the world now live in cities; that ‘guerilla warfare’ as a mode of social revolution is now very limited; that ‘national liberation’ for the most part has been formally won; that China itself has the largest working-class in the world, Maoism as a complete ideology has very little future.  Even Maoism’s recent victory in Nepal is chastened by that government’s embrace of neo-liberal methods under the guise of what they might call ‘new democracy.’  The course of the revolution in China to this day also serves as a profound example of its contradictions. 

The thread that runs through the whole book is that Mao Zedong's ideas of socialism and class struggle was always dependent on control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – and that anything that got outside of its control had to be ultimately squashed.  This contradictory strategy ultimately allowed a bureaucracy in the Communist Party to strangle the activity of the working class and substitute itself, instead of leading that struggle.  This, as we have seen from counter-revolutions in the USSR and Eastern Europe and the recent trajectory of the CCP, results in the strengthening of capitalism, even within a workers state. 

Liu traces a direct line from Stalin's bureaucratic ideas derived from the USSR to Mao’s adoption and also rejection of some of those same methods and ideas.  In essence Liu understands that Mao used Stalinist methods to critique bureaucracy and Stalinism.  This is especially seen in the experiences of the 1949 military victory, the “Great Leap Forward,” the “100 Flowers” campaign and the Cultural Revolution itself. 

Mao broke with the flawed strategy of the USSR after the Comintern’s representative, Mikhail Borodin, forced the CP to make a popular front with the Kuomintang (“KMT”), the party of the Chinese bourgeoisie, in the 1920s. The KMT was even inducted into the Comintern!  This led to the slaughter of the cream of the Chinese working class in Shanghai in 1927 by the KMT. This was depicted in the book “Man’s Fate” by Andre Malraux and included the destruction of many Trotskyist cadres.  After that awful defeat, Mao made his turn to the peasantry, declared independence from the KMT and perfected guerilla war.  As Liu notes, the CCP that Mao built at that time was only made up of 1% working-class cadre.  This essentially changed a key class component of the CCP. 

Liu critically discusses  Maoist ideas like ‘new democracy,’ the ‘mass line,’ the ‘united front,’ guerilla war, his flawed struggle against bureaucracy and Mao’s idealist version of dialectics.  Liu especially discusses the ambivalent practice towards women's liberation by the CCP.  Mao’s concept of ‘new democracy’ meant uniting with the ‘progressive’ or ‘patriotic’ elements of the capitalist class to govern society.  His concept of the ‘united front’ was not a unity of proletarian, middle class or peasant forces, but also included the same elements of the Chinese bourgeoisie.  These were essentially cross-class ideas that grew out of the war against the Japanese invasion of China, but also existed before that – just as Stalin had moved to the same position, really called the ‘popular front.’  The CCP prevented land and factory takeovers and the formation of Soviets or counsels by the militant Chinese working class and peasantry.   In the process of the national liberation war against Japan, the CCP had to militarily fight the KMT as well, showing another flaw in the theory.   This was similar to the Stalin's method in Spain, which resulted in the victory of counter-revolution there.   

The revolution in 1949 was won under the banner of 'new democracy' but the CCP did nationalize the majority of capitalist enterprises, thereby breaking that compact.  Liu compares the 1950s “Great Leap Forward” to the forced collectivization seen under Stalin, especially as it relates to the mass blood and damage caused. 
Shanghai Commune - Independent of CCP
The most interesting parts of the book are events during the 1960s Cultural Revolution – a failed attempt by Mao and the ‘Gang of Four” to restrain bureaucracy in China (which Liu calls ‘state capitalists’).  Liu describes a mass workers Commune that formed in Shanghai in 1967, to Liu a form of ‘dual power.’   Mass working class and peasant organizations developed in various parts of China, especially in Hunan, led by the “Red Flag Army,” “Xian River Storm” and a united front called ‘Shengwulian.’  However these were outside the direct control of the CCP and so Mao opposed them, and came up with a plan that all control should involve the CCP, the Army and representatives of the workers or peasants.  Of course, any vote would be lost by the latter in these ‘committees of three.’  And so the Cultural Revolution was buried by its author.  Liu saw it as an attempt to build one wing of the CCP – Mao’s - not ultimately to ‘correct’ the bureaucracy. 
In 1971 Mao decided the USSR was the ‘main’ enemy of the world’s working classes and began blocking with the U.S. after the Nixon visit.  Chinese support for international revolutions were paltry to non-existent during this period, given their theory they could build socialism in China alone.  After Mao died in 1976 the conservative bureaucratic faction of the CCP took over, led by Deng Tsiao-ping, and have retained power since.  The Chinese working class is still massive, restive and able to organize.  However they have been consistently demobilized by the CCP majority.  Without that class coming into actual direct power, hopefully with a wing of the CCP coming along, the descent of China into full counter-revolution and full capitalism is far more possible. 

Other valuable books on this topic:  Problems of the Chinese Revolution” by Leon Trotsky; “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution” by Harold Isaacs & Liu Renjin.

Other books on China reviewed below:  The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy,” “The Fall of Bo Xilai & the Chongqing Model,” “The End of the Revolution. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
October 8, 2016

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Real Thing

"Night Shift – 270 Factory Stories,” by David Macaray, 2015

This entertaining book can be read in chunks, which makes it easy reading.  It contains scrambled anecdotes from almost 30 years of working at a union paper mill in San Remo, California, from 1972 until the late 1990s.  The stories reflect on the odd people and conflicts found in blue-collar factories.  Some of them center on Macaray's experiences as a union shop steward and union president.  They paint a picture of the cultural life of workers during that time and the attitudes of management and the white collars – the ‘suits’ and ‘shirts’ – to all this.  Anyone reading it who worked in factories will be hit with the familiarity.  It also tracks how factory life changed from the wide-open 1970s, when workers were far more free to be themselves, to the constricted corporate control exercised in the 1990s, as corporate management gained power.  Macaray calls the present situation ‘industrial fascism’ to indicate the change. 
Break Time Stories
Macaray has a good sense of humor and structures some of these incidents around some surprising joke or comment involving a co-worker.  Bad relationships, drug and alcohol use, sexism, the importance of food, inter-union conflicts, odd ideas floating through the plant, the freedom to say whatever you want, personality quirks, misplaced anger, physical fights between employees, the problems of actually going on strike, hard work, long hours, accidents, obnoxious managers and union members – the whole human mess.  As Trotsky once remarked, nothing human is foreign to Marxists and this book is proof. 

Macaray started as a steward and ended up being union president for a time.  He details some of his personal mistakes based on his opinionated personality.  He also makes some very astute but small points about what it takes to actually do those jobs well.  He is evidently versed in socialism but was really a liberal Democrat, and seems to have brought a kind of realist progressivism to his job.  His union, the ‘WCPA’, (which seems to be a non-existent moniker, perhaps really the ‘Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers Union’) was more progressive and democratic than most. It came out of a west coast split in the 1960s from a more conservative paper-workers union.  Macaray and some opinions about union work.  His comment about contract negotiations?  They were a ‘study in deprivation,’ where the union gets less than it wants or needs.  He notes that federal  mediators have no other interest except ending a strike. Regarding the dreaded OSHA, unlike their supposed role of making factories safer, instead tells workers they will just have to protect themselves.  He points out that strikes, even in an industry like paper, do not actually work well unless many other things are in play.

During Macaray’s working days there were 700 factory workers and 300 white collars in the paper plant, making diapers, toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, paper towels and tissue, 24 hours a day, running 3 shifts.  The white collars are at times pictured as arrogant and clueless towards the plant workers.  He pictures essentially a large human community in which the union plays a key role in handling the most trivial issues to the most complex.  The company - an unnamed ‘Fortune 500” entity - is not always hostile or insensitive, but Macaray points out that at contract time they were never afraid to threaten a shut-down due to the ostensible ‘cost’ of the mill.  He emphasizes that, barring a few lumpen criminals, the workers there were proud of their skills and hard work, and always tried to do their best in trying circumstances – especially when the archaic or high-speed machinery broke down.  They were well-paid and had good union benefits, which is why so few quit.

I’ll retail one story:  Some young white engineers were sitting in the lunch-room, drinking Cokes on a Saturday.  3 young Latino janitors sat down at a table across from the engineers.  The janitors bought tuna sandwiches from the vending machines (the kitchen was closed that day)  and put hot sauce on the tunafish.  The look on the engineers faces said it all:  “If you can’t even eat a fucking tuna sandwich without desecrating it, you have no business in this country.”

And another:  A veteran of the Korean war was kept on by the company because of his service, even though he was an alcoholic.  He wore the 2nd thickest glasses in the factory.  However he was late or missing once a week.  The union couldn’t do anything about this, nor did they want to.  Ultimately new managers fired him and he ended up selling t-shirts at festivals or buying TVs and raffling them off in bars.  He died after being beaten in a bar fight at the age of 60. 

Macaray makes blue-collar workers ‘visible’ and human – no small feat in this time of bourgeois consumerism, not proletarian laborism.  According to him, the San Remo plant is still there and this community continues to this day, unlike so many others.   

Many similar themes also pop up in the fiction book ‘Factory Days,’ announced below.   

Books on similar topics reviewed below:  Reviving the Strike,” “Class Against Class,” “Save Our Unions,” “Embedded With Organized Labor,” “Chavs”, “Class Action" and “Southern Insurgency.”  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
October 1, 2016 

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.  It's 'close'!  It's 'close!'  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 really dropping.  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 smarter members of 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 with this imitation democracy 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 and seems to be getting worse.

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 without thinking, even though neither 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. 

The supporters of Trump are actually much higher-bracket Republicans than the press lets on, as his real base is white small businessmen and the self-employed.  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 and supporting Clinton.  Even neo-conservatives are flocking to Clinton, including Bush I, who has joined that club.  Perhaps it is Trump's reluctance to make war on Russia?  People wonder where Trump came from.  Political characters like Trump are using politics that have been embedded in prior party platforms for years, just putting them on steroids.  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 and the military will have a sit-down talk with Trump if he wins and let him know how far he can go. Or else.

What created 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.  And that is why the Democrats are the ‘more effective evil,’ as Black Agenda Report describes them, preparing the ground for this vicious billionaire.  Continuing the tactic of backing 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 but empty phrases.  The “green” of money is the real identity we should keep track of.  Following the ‘green’ is the only way out of this mess to understand who are our real enemies and our real allies.

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 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.  Trump attracts bigots like shit attracts flies, but not all his supporters are bigots. In a way, this was Clinton's version of Romney's '47%' statement.

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 29 states that allow businesses to fire you for being gay?  No.  Will she stop proclaiming "America" the essential country?  No.  Will she restrain herself from a warring on Russia?  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.

In actuality support for Clinton by Democratic Party loyalists is a form of preserving the status quo.  These people do not really want to change anything - they just fear that things might get worse for them.  For those who are in the labor movement or the working class, it is self-deception on a very personal level because they know that Clinton will do little for them, and Trump also.  Now you may chose to vote for the Clinton 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 back this group of rich people more. I don’t care about fundamental change."

'Lesser Evilism' is a permanent strategy in which the ruling elite limits any challenge to their two parties.  It is permanent because there will never be a time when there is not a supposed 'greater evil.'  Every election is always 'crucial' in this way - from LBJ/Goldwater on down. So in essence it says, 'shut up and get in line...forever."  It is essentially politically totalitarian.

Words mean something, but actual policies mean more.  It is the structural aspects of racism, sexism, homophobia and denigration of Middle-Easterners that need 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 - and that is all to the good.  If Clinton II wins, things will go on as before, though the right will also go on a 'war' footing - but it might be something more violent then before.  The rightist development of the "Tea Party" into the "Alt Right" might lead to proto-fascist attacks on forces like Black Lives Matter and others.  This should be met with force if it occurs.  The NYT, Wall Street, the corporate media and the majority of the capitalist class is hoping and betting on the Clinton option 2 as the smoother choice for them.  However a split like this in the bourgeoisie makes capital very vulnerable. For the working class, neither candidate 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