Sunday, April 28, 2013

What Foodies Don't Know


“Behind the Kitchen Door,” by Saru Jayaraman, Forward by Eric Schlosser, 2013

Jayaraman is another progressive female Indian voice, who took her professional attorney background and used it to help create a workers’ rights organization for restaurant workers, the “Restaurant Opportunities Center.” (“ROC”), firstly in New York.  ROC is now a national organization – sort of a semi-union for restaurant workers.   I think they are involved in the recent walkouts in New York by fast-food workers.  This book tells the story of how they did it, and what they found out in the process.

Jayaraman started out as a typical middle-class foodie who delighted in eating at restaurants, and of course latched onto the organic/local/sustainability/slow food mantra pushed by executive chefs like Alice Waters.  This view is based on how food is prepared in many countries outside the U.S., and opposes the corporate methods of processed and ‘fast’ food.  However, for her there was a basic disconnect between the food going into her stomach and the workers in the establishment she was eating in.  (See the reception of the book, “The Jungle,” which resulted in food safety laws, but not worker safety laws or union - reviewed below.)

Then 9/11 happened.  A union restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, the “Windows on the World,” was destroyed, and some of the early arriving staff died.  Jayaraman was asked to be an organizer for these restaurant workers, who had no jobs anymore.  ROC is now the leading organization for restaurant workers, having created 2 cooperative restaurants in New York and Detroit; started a school for staff to learn how to move up in the restaurant world; pressured high-end and other restaurants to change their practices; did many detailed surveys showing the inequalities and oppression of the 10 million workers employed in this U.S. restaurant industry; initiated lawsuits; and is instrumental in opposing the $2.13 U.S. national minimum wage for ‘tipped’ workers right now.  ROC’s painfully gathered research statistics alone are worth the price of the book, showing the numbers of restaurant workers, their incomes, their sexual and ethnic make-up, sickness and injury rates.  ROC also has a website that lists restaurants that attempt to treat their workers well. 

Every restaurant worker should read this book.  Anyone who eats in restaurants should read this book.  It is written in kind of a naïve and positive tone, with an analysis that only concentrates on the restaurant industry.  She has a kind of 'kumbaya' attitude, that if workers, good restaurant owners and consumers could all just hold hands and agree, this problem would be solved. ROC does collaborate with organizations that represent workers down the ‘food’ chain, so to speak – slaughterhouse workers and migrant laborers for instance – but that is it.

Jayaraman learned that working conditions are not separate from food, but intimately connected to it. Nearly all restaurant workers do not have sick pay, and most do not have health insurance, so that food-born illnesses come from the restaurant staff because they work while sick, or injured.  Low pay and lack of opportunities creates turnover, which also affects food preparation.  Most restaurant managements don’t care, of course, since saving money is almost the only motivation.  I suspect that some restaurants are organized in such a way that they would go out of business if they provided decent working conditions and decent pay, because they are fundamentally built on cheap wages and poor conditions.  As we used to say in the factory, if you can’t pay us, then you don’t deserve to be in business.  

The U.S. restaurant industry is based on tips, actually.  Almost no other country demands such large tips from customers to float restaurants.  This has allowed a profusion of fast food joints and middle-market places that can get away with paying only minimum wage and less than minimum wage.  Even in high-end restaurants, this affects part of the staffs.  Staff incomes re tips become based on the vagaries of the type of restaurant you work in, the shifts you get, your skin color and ethnic background, your sex, the type of customers you encounter and the quality of your management, or lack thereof.  Various forms of wage and tip theft are practiced, even given all that.Which means restaurant work can be very unstable and precarious. 

Jayraman’s book tells the miserable restaurant working stories of various organizers for ROC in New York, Washington D.C., Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities.  She cites working-class people in LA and Detroit who became restaurant owners and who pay better wages, provide health care or sick days, promote from within without regard to ethnicity or sex, and still try to serve healthful, quality food. 

She pays special attention, as have others like David Roediger, to the very close correlation between skin color or accents and your job at the restaurant.  White people are in the ‘front of the house,” darker people are in the ‘back of the house.” There are exceptions, like Latinos that pass for white or mixed black folks that pass for Latino – but generally restaurants ethnically type-cast every job – waiter, hostess, busser, runner, bartender, barback, cook, sous chef, chef and dishwasher.  The dishwashers in Miami are all Haitians, as you might expect.  They also sexually type-cast every job, for instance limiting female cooks to pastry or salad prep positions, having most waitresses be white women, etc.  Sexual harassment by all-powerful chefs or managers can become the norm in some restaurants. 

Of course, our whole society, even in this supposedly ‘post-racial’ climate, type-casts jobs outside of the restaurant industry.  Who’s driving a cab?  Who puts on roofs?  Who empties the wastebaskets at work?  Who’s a security guard?  Who works at the parking ramp?  Class variation and ethnicity are tightly bound.  

Jayraman’s analysis puts a great emphasis on consumers who pressure restaurants by boycotts and threatened boycotts, which have worked for ROC a number of times.  Given the specific nature of restaurants, this can work on a one on one basis perhaps, but large chains and the hundreds of thousands of establishments cannot all be boycotted.  Which is why social policy has to change.  To do this, the National Restaurant Association, which argues against sick pay, minimum wage increases for tipped workers, health care or any other benefits, would have to be completely defeated on the political terrain.  In so far as the Democratic Party has yet to become very aggressive in almost any pro-labor issue except unemployment extensions and some timid efforts at increasing the minimum wage, what really needs to happen is that unions need to step forward and organize restaurant chains, types of restaurants and geographic restaurant areas.

Jayraman does not talk about unions much, which is suspect. While she might think she competes on the same terrain, ultimately an organization within the restaurant like a union can protect workers better than only outside pressure. It is also doubtful that the character of the U.S. restaurant industry can be changed by paying higher wages, posting jobs internally, ending discrimination based on ethnicity or sex or allowing sick days or health care - since these are some of the very items that have made it what it is today, a profitable behemoth.

(Read prior reviews on this industry, the funny ‘Waiters Rant"; a more general analysis of unstable and low-end employment, “The Precariat,” and the granddaddy of them all, “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, all reviewed below.  “Fast Food Nation,” by Eric Schlosser has not been reviewed.)

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
April 28, 2013

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

“The Weak Are Meat; the Strong Do Eat.”

“Cloud Atlas” (the book) by David Mitchell, 2004

Texts and film are two different mediums, but they intertwine frequently.  Most good films are based on the work of an author, and then a screenwriter.  While film is a more visual, emotional and auditory medium, it is surprising how few good ones are written directly for the screen – almost like the medium has not fully matured yet.  “The Tree of Life” by Terry Malick is one example. (“Tree of Life” reviewed below.) 

Cloud Atlas, (the movie) is one such film based on a book.  (The film was reviewed below, in “What is Under This Movie’s Hood?”)  The film was far more successful in Russia and China than in the U.S. – perhaps because the immediate Hollywood payoff American audiences look for was not there.  The simpleton lag I call it.  Some foreign film audiences are more trained in something other than cliché.  It was a bit too vague and complex to become a ‘must see’ American film, and got almost no nominations for Oscar - which might be a good thing.

Rarely do people see a film before reading the book, and the experience is actually somewhat dilatory if it happens to you.  Reading a book before seeing the film is the better end of the periscope, as you are aware of the whole story, not the Cliff’s Notes ‘short story’ you are seeing in celluloid.  After all, most films are like short stories – and the longer ones like ‘romans a clef’ – novellas at best.  Anna Karenina?  Les Miserables?  Forget it.  Two different planets.

Reading a book after seeing the film makes the film intrude into the book.  It lessens it.  It flops its images over the ones your mind might have seen.  You seek to find something the film didn’t cover.  And they pop up – but smeared over by the filmic residue.  In this book, the ‘point’ seems to be different than the film.  This book is somewhat more comedic and popular, more cynical and entertaining, not as mysterious or rebellious as is the film.  And that is usually the reverse story bout books and film.  

“Cloud Atlas,” the book, fills in the missing factual spots in the film.  The IslandHawaii’s big island itself.  The stowaway came from Polynesian islands to the southwest of New Zealand, the Chathams.  The big composers house was outside of Bruges in Belgium.  City that housed the nuclear plant was north of LA, south of San Francisco.    

The book does allow you to delight in the language, because in a book, there is more of it!  Mitchell’s invented a good dialect for the island folks – the mouthfuls that Tom Hanks mumbled out.  He brings the stilted English verbosity of a ship in the 1800s out of the archives – like Melville’s Typee.  For the less traveled, the English slang and jargon of an old English crank in our time.  Or for the imaginative, the futuristic hybrid language of a South Korean slave/robot ‘fabricant,’ Gagnam style. 

The links are there.   Comets appear on the skin of one character in each story.  The boat that crossed the Pacific in 1830s is sitting restored in a 1970s California harbor.  The female Seoul rebel from 2100 becomes a god figure on the later Hawaiian island.  A comical movie about 2010 old British publisher locked in a nursing home becomes a movie watched in Seoul.  The 1930 composer’s letters appear in 1970s California, as does the person he was writing to.  So does the composer's sextet, in a record store.  The diary of that old pacific journey is found by the composer in 1930. The exciting story of the fight against nuclear power is read in 2004 Britain by the aging publisher after he gets out of the lockup.  Yet all these vague connections still seem artificial and are not convincing in telling us that ‘all things are linked together.”

The vaguely poetic phrase ‘cloud atlas’ reoccurs in several stories.  It is a guide to some kind of 'land of joy' in the sky, or some such thing.  Mitchell:  “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies.” The Cloud Atlas sextet contains six movements, just like the chapters in the book.  Beginning to end, then end to beginning – a circle – just like the book.  The book is an atlas of these souls, evidently, six of them.

The most important thing, besides the story or the writing, is the ‘point.’  I’m didactic that way.  Errant ‘enjoyment’ and ‘entertainment’ can be gotten in many places.  “Entertain Me Until I Die” should be the slogan of American life.  What is the point of this book?  It was somewhat hard to decipher the film, and the book is no different.  Oddly enough, the film is more radical and less cynical than the book.  So props to the film. In the book, the composer never shoots his older beneficiary and leech.  He just kills himself.  The fabricant rebel in Seoul reveals that the “Union” underground was a set-up by the police, and that she was created to provide a target for the dominant Corpocracy.  (A combination of corporate, copraphage, hypocrisy and necromancy - love that word.)  The islanders never get off the planet, but are instead mostly slaughtered by crueler Hawaiians.  The sailing ship reveals progress – the white man does decide to become an Abolitionist because his life was saved by a ‘black’ Polynesian.  The reporter finally does expose the deadly criminals running two nuclear power plants in California.  And the old English publisher does escape from the nursing home lockup. 

Given its whole trajectory, the book is clearly a post-apocalyptic look at history, ending in violence, isolation and defeat.  Here is how Meronym describes the cause of this apocalypse, or ‘who tripped the Fall,” in pidgin English: 

“…o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.  “Oh, more gear, more food, faster speeds, longer lifes, easier lifes, more power, yay.  Now the Hole World is big, but it weren’t big ‘nuff for that hunger what made Old Uns rip out the skies and’ boil up the seas an’ poison soils with crazed atoms an’ donkey ‘bout with rotted seeds so new plagues was borned an ’babbits was birthed.  Fin’ly, then quicksharp, states busted into bar’bric tribes an’ the Civ’lize Days ended, ‘cept for a few folds’n’pockets her’n’there, where its last embers glimmer.” 

Or as one Korean rebel describes the dystopian present: 
“The Media is keen to scorn colonies such as theirs, comparing them to tapeworms; accusing them of stealing rainwater from WaterCorp; royalties from VegCorp patent holders; oxygen from AirCorp.”  And more description:  “The lake water stunk of effluent from its salmon net ponds.  Crosswater hills displayed mighty corp logos.  A malachite statute of Prophet Malthus surveyed a dust bowl.”

As the Fabricant rebel tells her interviewer:
"Nea So Copros is poisoning itself to death.  Its soil is polluted, its rivers lifeless, its air toxloaded, its food supplies riddled with rouge genes.  The downstrata cannot buy drugs to counter these privations. Melanoma and malaria belts advance northward at forty kilometers a year.  Those production zones of Africa and Indonesia that supply Consumer Zones are now 60-plus percent uninhabitable.  Corporacracy's legitimacy, its wealth, is drying up." 

It doesn’t take much imagination to know that Mitchell is talking about today.  But his language is deeply sunk in the vocabulary of fiction, as if we lived in a society where self-censorship was necessary in order to slip present truths through the censor’s door.  The British author probably has a cozy place in the countryside with 2 kids and a Volvo.  So there it is.  I rarely say this, but the film is, in regards to its message, better than the book.  Although there would have been no film without the book. So - a worm eating its own tale.

And I bought it at Cheapo Books!
Red Frog
April 23, 2013

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Industrial Murder

Tale of Two Slaughters

Boston Marathon

The U.S. news has seen wall-to-wall coverage of the brutal bombings at the Boston Marathon, and its aftermath – car chases, dead police and suspects, bombs and finally a collar of one suspect. Two Islamist Chenchen nationalists were involved.  The Chechens have waged a bloody and violent campaign for independence in Asia by killing many innocent Russian civilians –hijacking airliners in 2001, seizing hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002, taking over a grade school in 2004 & being involved in two subway bombings in Moscow in 2010.  Of course, the Russian government has responded with overwhelming military violence as well.  The Islamist leader of the Chenchen rebels, Dokka Umarov, is sometimes called the “Russian Bin Laden.”  This is the gruesome political atmosphere these two punks were weaned on and adopted. Russian civilians know Chechen 'tactics' well.

How they are going to explain how killing ordinary people watching a marathon in Boston, U.S. will help Islam or Chechnya is beyond nearly everyone. Of course, that hasn't stopped fundies before.

What is notable about the events in Boston from a left-wing point of view is the ‘lockdown’ of a whole city by the Governor of Massachusetts, after a request by the police.  The police were only searching a 20 square block area in Newtown, mind you.  Again, hysterical government overreach.  Virtual martial law in a whole city over one 19 year-old kid.  Bostonians might have felt not only danger from the shooters - but danger from the police and national guard if they ventured outside.  Yet the suspect was only discovered when a civilian went OUT of his house and discovered blood on his boat cover, looking inside to see an injured man.

Another issue is that of the ‘first responders.’  The majority of first responders in Boston were not police or fireman but ordinary civilians, just as in Minneapolis when the bridge went down.  Civilians are the first responders.  Cops and firemen are the ‘second’ responders.  The press never recognizes this.  Nor was the initial evidence of the suspects gleaned from security camera video like some cool episode of “Person of Interest” or image on Reddit, but from an eyewitness whose legs were severed, but saw one suspect put the bomb bag down next to him, and looked into his eyes.

Now the FBI says that Miranda is not needed for the younger brother - some kind of 'immediate danger' exception! The FBI had been aware of the older brother for 3-5 years, and has been in 'contact' with him during that whole period.  They were tipped off by Russian intelligence long ago.  So speculation is swirling that this might not just be two vicious religious nationalists going 'off.'  For me, it looks like a self-generated attack.


Robert W Schaefer, former Green Beret, military analyst, said in Salon: 
Laura Miller:  "Nevertheless, it’s very hard to see what the point of an attack like the Boston Marathon bombings would be for the Chechen insurgency.
Robert W Schaefer:  "I agree with you. I think those boys were probably used by somebody. They were probably told they were supporting one cause, and who knows if the people who were using them had anything to do with that cause?" 

Death toll:  5 dead, around 141 injured.

Texas Fertilizer Plant

Now, over in West, Texas the next day, an enormous explosion killed 15 workers and firefighters, injured 200 and damaged the surrounding neighborhood, including a nursing home and an intermediate school – some 75 buildings. 

Which of these incidents is more severe?  Which is more damaging?  Which does the bourgeois press cover?  Because the Boston bombings were the work of ostensible religious or political terrorists who ‘chose’ to do what they did, while the explosion in West, Texas was an ‘accident’ – somehow we are to believe Boston should be the focus.  Another industrial accident?  Move along folks, nothing new to see here.

It was not an accident. 

AP Reports:  OSHA last inspected this plant in 1985.  OSHA issued a $30 fine (!) for a serious violation for storage of anhydrous ammonia.  OSHA cited the plant for four other serious violations of respiratory protection standards but did not issue fines.

The facility stored anhydrous ammonia, which the company insisted was not “flammable.”

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined West Fertilizer/Adair Grain Inc. $10,000 last summer for safety violations that included planning to transport anhydrous ammonia without a security plan.  In a risk-management plan filed with the EPA about a year earlier, the company said it was not handling flammable materials and did not have sprinklers, water-deluge systems, blast walls, fire walls or other safety mechanisms in place at the plant.  However, state officials require all facilities that handle anhydrous ammonia to have sprinklers and other safety measures because it is a flammable substance.  But inspectors would not necessarily check for such mechanisms, and it’s not known whether they did when the West plant was last inspected in 2006.  That inspection followed a complaint about a strong ammonia smell, which the company resolved by obtaining a new permit.


The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which is ostensibly in charge of investigating industrial accidents based on chemical issues, is so far behind in its work that it has yet to issue findings on explosions from 4 years ago, and many times neglects one ‘accident’ for another.

According to the Guardian, last year, the fertilizer plant stored 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger safety oversight by the US Department of Homeland Security, yet did not tell the DHS.  Evidently DHS did not even know the plant existed.  DHS is 7 years behind in 'approving' disaster plans. 

I.E. the Texas and Federal officials in charge of overseeing safety at this plant really did not.  There is no union at the plant of course, so union safety officers could not monitor and flag issues within the plant.  After all, Texas is a ‘right to die’ state.  And the capitalists who own West Fertilizer certainly weren’t going to bite into their profits by treating anhydrous ammonia as explosive.  Instead they lied, and workers died.


Why don’t we see helicopters circling the roofs of the owners of West Fertilizer, while their neighborhood is put on lockdown, and SWAT teams surround their mansions?  Or state and federal officials in charge of chemical safety being dragged out of their offices in handcuffs?  And 24 hour, wall to wall coverage from CNN on the criminals who created far more destruction than Boston?  A Presidential address?  And a great push in Texas for card check and the closed-shop, so that unions can once again return to these Texas backwaters and improve safety.

Don’t hold your breath.  One thing to do is observe Workers Memorial Day on April 28.  Workers Memorial Day originated in Canada in 1984, and in 1991 the Canadian Parliament passed a “National Day of Mourning” for workers injured or killed on the job. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), across the world:
  • Each year, more than two million women and men die as a result of work-related accidents and diseases
  • Workers suffer approximately 270 million accidents each year, and fall victim to some 160 million incidents of -related illnesses
  • Hazardous substances kill 440,000 workers annually – asbestos claims 100,000 lives
  • One worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide. 6,000 workers die every day. More people die whilst at work than those fighting wars.
  •  
According to the AFL-CIO … “in 2010, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,690 U.S. workers were killed on the job—an average of 13 workers every day—and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. Workers suffer an additional 7.6 million to 11.4 million job injuries and illnesses each year.”

So who is the real terrorist?

P.S. - More industrial murder.  April 23rd in Bangladesh, over 1000+ workers were killed and hundreds trapped and injured when a garment factory building collapsed.  That morning, management sent workers to work, even though the building had developed big cracks, and so they went inside. The owner defied the police who had closed the building, and said it was OK.  The Gap & Walmart are opposing building standards in the 'free trade' zone in Dahka.  This disaster came after a modern "Triangle Shirtwaist" factory fire in 2012 burned 112 workers alive at Tarzen Fashion in Bangladesh  There were several smaller fires in a garment plants before that.  So far, 700 have died in these kind of accidents.  The Bangladeshi government is a version of dictatorial Islamic capitalism, but Bangladeshi workers are becoming more militant.  May they overthrow this criminal government.

Red Frog
April 20, 2013

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

May Day Events - Since the Site Has Been Declared 'Infected" by Google (Our internet host can find no problem, but ...)


This Month - April 2013 Calendar

Monthly Review Discussion Group— Latest issue of Monthly Review, lead story: “Marx, Kalecki & Socialist Strategy.” Second story:  “Failure of the Falling Rate of Profit Theory.”   Will be on sale at Mayday.  Also partly available on-line.  3:00-4:30 PM, Sunday, April 28. 

Next Month - May 2013 Calendar

May Day!  May 1.  Celebrate International Workers Day.  May 1, Wednesday, 3:pm.  March, Rally, 4 PM.  Central Presbyterian, 500 Cedar St, St. Paul.  May 5th, Sunday, 1:00 PM.  HOTB May Day Parade, Powderhorn Park

“Going with God Against the Swords,” video sponsored by Vets for Peace, 7:00 PM.  Friday, May 3.

“May Day , May Day Bookstore—Party, Fundraiser and Book Sale.”  3:00-6:00 PM.   Food,  beer, books 20% off.  Come and socialize with the radicals!  May 4, 3:00-6:00 pm, Saturday.


"From Hiroshima to Fukushima:  Is Nuclear Power a Viable Alternative to Fossil Fuels?"  Talk by Michael Rogge. Sponsored by Socialist Action.  May 11, Saturday, 2:00-4:00 PM.  

Peak Oil,” Presentation on the present status of peak oil.  A Ryan & Dean Production. Sunday, May 19, 3:00 PM. 

3CTC—"The Struggle to Stop Silica Frac Sand Mining the N.E. Iowa Driftless Area," Speakers Jeff Abbas & Robert Nehman, farmer activists in the Allamakee County Protectors, Monday, May 20, 7:00 PM.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Mayday site is down

Mayday site has been down for at least a couple of days -- apparently infected with some malware that could compromise the computer of any user attempting to access the site.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Fake Movie Inside A Fake Movie


The Worst Picture Award

‘Argo’ and ‘Zero Dark 30.’  Two patriotic uber "American" movies that were nominated for an Academy Award as best picture in 2012.  Now coming to a $3 theatre near you.

I refused to see the film “0D30” because it was filmed using CIA input.  It was denounced by many mainstream politicians, leftists, military officials and film reviewers as justifying torture.  Kathryn Bigelow also made “The Hurt Locker” – an ambiguous film that she said was ‘anti-war’ but could actually also be seen as a glorification of brave and humane U.S. bomb diffusers in Iraq, and by extension, the war itself.  0D30 got no awards except a shared one, which no one should lament.  Bigelow first said 0D30 was ‘almost documentarian,’ than retreated behind the canard that ‘it was only a movie’ after her misrepresentations of the role of torture in Bin Laden’s execution came in for criticism.

Film makers that make films about actual events in history have a special responsibility.  The film version of history actually becomes the ‘real’ version in the minds of most people - the popular 'truth.'  Just as books exist in film more than in print in the minds of the majority of people, since most people have not read the book ... or know the real history.

“Argo,” a film by Ben Affleck, won the Academy Award for best picture.  It centers around a fake movie called “Argo” set up by the CIA to get 6 Americans out of Tehran after the Iran embassy crisis during the Carter administration.  It has been praised as a well-crafted patriotic ‘seat-of-your pants’ thriller, that lets ‘you’ – the film goer – imagine yourself as one of the potential Iranian hostages.  Yes, you!

Ironically, nearly everything about the actual Affleck film “Argo” is also false.  The plan was not developed by a competent and handsome CIA agent – played by Affleck in this picture.  Affleck is famous for his narcissism, so directing and starring should be no problem.  It was really developed by the Canadian ambassador to Iran, named Ken Taylor.  The whole premise that we cheer for the creative “American” idea, with a little Canadian help, was pure patriotic pulp.  The real story would not contain much for the ‘gutsy’ American CIA officers to do, as they basically sent a CIA agent to pick these people up with a script and some storyboards.  Almost nothing was actually done in Hollywood to create a fake movie.  The Argo scenes of reading scripts, opening an office, hiring a publicist and director to help, and getting a story in the paper – all Hollywood razzle-dazzle.  All the “Hollywood to the Rescue” crap?   Didn’t happen – until now.

The finger-nail biting last day in the ostensibly real movie ‘Argo,’ when the Americans leave the Canadian ambassador’s house in Tehran, is also completely fabricated.  No 3 checkpoints.  No phone call to Hollywood.  No last minute plane reservations. No script discussion or scene drawings fawned over by Iranian guards.  No trucks crashing through the residence gates.  No familiar pictures taped together by little Iranian kids at the embassy.  No chase on the tarmac.  In reality, just a bored Iranian custom’s official stamping their fake passports and they were off.

Almost every Iranian in the film is an angry, scary, hostile foreigner – except for the Ambassador’s nice maid.  Allusions are made to torture by the American-supported Shah of Iran, his greed, his SAVAK, the overthrow of Mossedegh to control the oil, but this back-story stays well in the back.  The logic here seems to be ‘Oh well. Sorry. We are still nice people!’    Let’s think about this a little.  No one who works in an embassy is there for the health of the country they are in.  They are hired to carry out the interests of their government and their country’s corporations and businessmen.  They are there in a military or official government capacity, not as a holiday in the sun.  So if things go wrong, I’m not so sure I feel sorry for them.  You chose to work for these people? Cluelessness is its own punishment.

Argo was in fact a fabricated, nationalist, pro-CIA, anti-foreigner, self-contratulatory Hollywood film.  Yet “Rotten Tomatoes” gave this film a 96% positive rating, based on reviews by mostly U.S. film critics.  To top this off, who gave the Oscar for Best Picture to this film?  Michelle Obama, the U.S. President’s wife.  Now if Brezhnev’s wife had honored the winner of the Leningrad Film Festival in 1982 by presenting the top award, all the American ‘critics’ would have scoffed.  Or if King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s wife was allowed outside of the mansion long enough to present the award for best Wahhabist or Salafist film, everyone else would scoff but the fundie Muslims.  But we have cute Michelle Obama giving the award, and many people, especially naïve liberals, going, “Ah, isn’t that wonderful?!”  One of the greatest sources of donations for the Obama campaign came from the U.S. film industry, so this was payback.  Although it is quite evident that Hollywood, the U.S. military, the CIA and the U.S. government all work together – no matter what party is in power.

Affleck failed at respecting history or truth.  For that he should be relegated to romantic comedies, where his talents might be more useful.  Although he might only be able to convincingly direct a romance about himself.  Call it, "The Solipsist." 

And I saw it at the Riverview Theater
Red Frog
April 13, 2013

Monday, April 8, 2013

The South – Our Very Own Third-World Country


“Guerillas, Unionists and Violence on the Confederate Home Front,” edited by Daniel Sutherland, 1990.

This book is a compendium of academic articles about guerrilla warfare and violence in the southern states during the U.S. Civil War.   It is what put the ‘civil’ in Civil war.   As this book demonstrates, it was not just a ‘war between the states.’ 

Countering the lying stereotype of the “Cause” that all southerners were loyal Confederates, this is another book that shows the resistance that developed among white non-slave owners, poor farmers, workers and hill people against the war and the Confederacy.  I’ve already covered some of this ground in a review of the “Free State of Jones” and “Why the South Lost the Civil War,” both reviewed below. 

The resistance was for many reasons – unionism, anti-slavery sentiments, class antagonism, anti-war feelings, misery due to the privations of the war, hatred of the Confederate draft of poor farmers, opposition to army impressments and the seizures of property and lastly, revenge for the killing of relatives, friends and community members.  Many were deserters from the Confederate Army, and a few became brigands to survive. Free blacks joined the men in the swamps, woods and mountains, and helped the resistance. But this book only touches on black people tangentially.

The reason this resistance is so important is because it is precisely the southern states, as geographic areas, that hold back social progress in the U.S.  The south primarily provides a cheap labor pool for U.S. and other manufacturers, and every social issue goes back to this economic one.  It is not enough to hold your nose or curse the south.  It is essential, as the head of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, Ken Riley, says, to ‘organize the south’ – now more than ever.  It is not just black & Latino workers who have been super-oppressed there and can undermine the neo-Bourbon aristocrats, but many white workers too. They have made few financial or social gains under these modern day wage-slave owners, in spite of the religious, ethnic and sectional pixie dust thrown in their eyes.  Conditions in southern states are the worst in the U.S. in nearly every category of life, and that does not just apply to black or Latino workers.

These conditions are now being imported into the north.  (See commentary below, “A Snake Slithers Up the Mississippi”) See Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin as the new ‘right to work for peanuts’ states.  Now that the Republican Party has made the South their home base, they have become the full-fledged party of the New Confederacy.  The “northern” party – the Democrats – has basically collaborated with them for years on the labor issue.  Which is why we need a very large fifth column in the south.  This book helps undermine one of the key myths used to bind white southern workers to their overlords who try to enforce southern ‘patriotism’ and regionalism.

However, it is also a book that talks about ‘guerilla warfare behind Confederate lines” which also means talking about Confederate guerillas in Kentucky, Tennessee and other states.  This part, of course, is not news.  The book attempts to look at the situation from the local or town angle, to see what it means when guerilla warfare and violence break out among civilians.   And its not pretty.  Your ‘neighbor’ could become a bloody enemy.

Here is the 'news':

In Mississippi:  To start off, the book follows up on the segregationist ‘controversy’ over the ‘Free State of Jones,’ one of several Mississippi counties in the piney woods that resisted the Confederacy and worked with the Union army.  Newton Knight was the leader of the largest anti-Confederate military group.  One of Newton Knights distant segregationist relatives tried to attack Newton, and to do that, wrote a book that was for the most part a fabrication.  The author here takes that book apart.

In Georgia:  The book discusses events in Lumpkin County in the mountains of northern Georgia around Dahlonega.  The author, a professor from Appalachian State University, uses the insulting term of “Tory” to describe the Unionists and deserters who dominated the county for the length of the war, the same term used by the Confederates.  In his text, he attempts to prettify the hanging of 3 local Unionists for deserting the Confederate Army in apologetic, academic, legalistic jargon.  The term ‘Tory’ appears in a few other essays, taking on the language of the Confederacy.  Tory, of course, was the name applied to supporters of Britain in the American Revolution.  The Confederates styled themselves as new supporters of ‘freedom’ and against tyranny -  an irony of all ironies. 

In North Carolina:  The book focuses on the activities of poor white workers and farmers in Lenoir County, North Carolina near the ocean, who deserted to the Union army.  Upon being captured in battle, 21 were hung around the town of Kinston on George Pickett’s orders.  Pickett was the chivalric ‘hero’, who, acting on orders of the infallible Robert E Lee, led his men into slaughter on the 3rd day of Gettysburg, against his better judgment.

In West Virginia:  The book describes the full-fledged rebellion in mountainous western Virginia, which resulted in the formation of the State of West Virginia as a state free of slavery, and allied with the union. 

In Virginia:  The author and editor tries to make a point by describing the conditions of intimidated land-holding supporters of the Union in Culpepper County, Virginia.  The point of his article is to say that class was not the only motivation of opposition to the Confederacy – sometimes just a desire for peace and profit.  And that violence did not always result – at least not overt violence.

In Tennessee:  Unknown to many northerners is that there was overwhelming support for the union in eastern Tennessee, near the mountains.  The Unionists there waged war on the Confederacy and its supporters, and also to get Union armies to back them up – a promise which was not speedily fulfilled, much to their disadvantage. Many wanted to separate eastern and some central Tennessee counties from the rest of the state, as West Virginia had done.  This was not to be.

In Kentucky:  The book tracks the back and forth struggles between Union and Confederate supporters in Kentucky, as both sides operated against each other in guerilla formations.  Kentucky was not a 100% ‘rebel’ state by any means. 

In Texas:   The Confederate government had to try to dominate many counties in north and eastern Texas populated by German farmers loyal to the North.  The Texas Confederates never could pacify those counties, which undermines the Texas claim to being 100% “Reb.”  This harks back to one of the first battles of the Civil War, where radical German socialists in St. Louis attacked the slavers in downtown St. Louis and ejected them from the city.  Texas was no different, and the Germans mostly stood their ground against military and civilian pressure.   

In Louisiana:  The Union occupied New Orleans and the Mississippi early on, and was able to repel guerilla war with somewhat brutal methods.  There is not much information on pro-union militias and guerrillas at all in this article.

In Arkansas:  The Union army recruited 10,000 Arkansas men to the Union forces, and used them effectively against Confederate bush-wackers and guerillas. 

In Missouri:  The author investigated original atrocity stories recorded by Union staffers, the documents of which were sent to the Library of Congress.  These describe everyday fratricidal conflict in Missouri mostly perpetuated by southern partisans, which went on for the whole war and afterwards, involving bloody criminals like Quantrell. 

There seem to be more atrocities committed by Confederates than Unionists in this book.  In slave states that the union conquered, corruption and scorched-earth policies actually hurt the Union, as it would in any geographic confrontation, because it repelled civilians instead of winning them over. 

Truly, we need a modern, working-class Sherman to conquer the south – from the inside.  And Nat Turner.  And John Brown.  And Demark Vesey. And many more white working-class ‘guerillas’ and activists like Newton Knight, who can send the modern spawn of the Confederacy packing. 

And I bought it in the fine used/bargain book section at May Day Books!
Red Frog
April 8, 2013

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Fantasy of the Real

Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and William Morris

If you’ve been watching the top fantasy series, “Game of Thrones” you’ve been treated to an escapist, yet convincing and human, feast of blood, beheadings, sex, breasts, honest men, strong women, tame wolves, various forms of magic and slimebags everywhere.  The series is based on the books by G.R.R. Martin, which track the fight for the “Iron Throne” by at least 5 contenders.  As historian Tom Holland pointed out in the Guardian, this is a convincing medieval historical mash-up of the War of the Roses, Hadrian’s Wall, Cromwell, the siege of Constantinople, the Vikings, the Mongols, Rome and … the 100 Years War, Icelandic epics and the Italian Renaissance. Not to mention heavy resonance of Shakespeare. 

The obvious comparison is ‘Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkein.  LotR was voted the most popular book in the English language for the 20th Century by the Guardian – though I don’t know how the voting was done.  Tolkein was a scholar who created a world that had eerie parallels to our own.  Tolkein suffered through World War I, and most definitely, LotR is diffused through the lens of that war.  To me, the book is a war novel more than anything else. 

How do these two compare?  Well, GoT is actually longer by several books, though I am told the books after the third go downhill fast.  It is really a mostly amoral clash of wills, backed by archaic oaths of allegiance, of various houses – the Starks, the Targaryens, the Lannisters and the Baratheons in the land of Westeros.  All of them, however, are haunted by the possible advent of an environmental disaster referred to as the ‘long winter’ and presumably also Scotch or Pict barbarians who take the shape of zombie phantoms, or work with them.  I know, I know, cliché #8.  For the most part the series plays the unreal elements down, and that is its strength.  The dragons are still tiny and the phantoms are mostly hidden. 

In watching, you actually begin to pull for some of these characters to succeed.  It is the ones that are the least crooked that most people favor.  Jon Snow, the bastard son of the head of the Starks; Daenerys Targaryen, the beauty queen with 3 little dragons; pre-teen  Arya Stark, who shows more courage than most adults and lastly, Tyrion Lannister, the wise and cracking midget.  Individual characters like the hulking lesbian warrior Brienne of Tarth and the versatile “The Hound” startle.  The Starks are the house of the most character, and the least crooked.  Robb Stark, who inherited its throne, even says, ‘I do not want to be king.”

And here is the link with LofR, which GoT is obviously modeled after.  LotR’s whole point was a moral one – a ring of power has to be destroyed by someone who is so pure of heart that they would not use it for so-called ‘good’ or evil.  It has made Gollum crazy, and Sauron too.  Even Gandalf refuses to touch the ring – as do Aragon and the Elves.  Only a man of Gondor, Boromir, attempts to take it, and quickly dies.  The whole story is about the corruption of uber-kingly power – a somewhat hackneyed idea – but one that still holds true.  Which is why LotR is still a riveting story.  Can they destroy this menacing source of world-wide, totalitarian control?  And they do.

In the second book of the LotR trilogy, the Two Towers, the attack of the Ents (tree-herders) plays a role in defeating Saruman, the ally to the evil Sauron, by flooding his underground workshop with water.  Saruman had cut down and destroyed many trees, and the Ents knew that the whole forest would be cut down eventually.  Merry, a hobbit, finally understands that the Shire is not safe unless Sauron is robbed of the ring - they just cannot go back to the Shire and hide from reality.  As anyone who has read the books knows, Hobbit Town in the Shire represented small town England, which was being destroyed at that time by, well, quite clearly industrialism.  And here we have the link to William Morris.  (“News From Nowhere An Epoch of Rest - Being some chapters from a Utopian Romance," by William Morris (1890), reviewed below.)   Morris was a Marxist in the late 1800s who developed a somewhat unique perspective, combining scientific Marxism with his own utopian and environmentalist version of socialism, based on artisanal production and village life.  Tolkein liked his view, and probably read “News From Nowhere” while in school.  The Shire is full of Morris’ socialist village communities.  The Ents were defending England's vanishing trees.

Tolkein was formed in the crucible of World War I.  Morris created his vision out of the English class struggle in the latter part of the century.  Martin seems to have been formed in a bordello fantasy next door to a library.   Perhaps because of the author's background, at least at this point, Game of Thrones, unlike Lord of the Rings, has no moral center.   It may develop one, but odds are it will continue to reflect the brutality and ‘honor’ of medieval Europe and also perhaps the modern imperial world, where the ‘game of thrones’ is still being played.  And this puts it at odds with LofR.  Where one tried to make a general point, applicable to a whole society, right now GoT at best encourages individual people to develop some character in a world flooded by the sewage of war, wealth and power.  And that is it.  Will it too, destroy the ring?  I am doubtful.

Red Frog
April 4, 2013