Thursday, August 29, 2013

More War Entertainment - Just in Time

"World War Z,” film directed by Marc Foster, 2013

Brad Pitt has grown some stubble and decided to go beyond pretty boy and into middle-aged – and become a white, tough, smart, good-looking saviour of humanity.  So far, so normal for Hollywood – one guy against the world.  A middle-class family has their perfect homebody day disrupted by the forces ‘outside.’  Another trope.  Children are at risk.  Mom Karin and the two daughters are terrified, but saved by Daddy’s quick thinking.  Trope 3.  And Daddy is an ex-UN / investigator / tough-guy, and so they are rescued off a roof in Newark by a UN helicopter.  This saves them from a ‘rabies’ outbreak that is really a ravenous zombie hoard moving at lightening speed through the cities of the world, biting everyone in their path.  One good reason not to stay in a city when the ‘shit’ starts, yes?  The rural homeland beckons.  Trope 4.   So zombies – those floating signifiers of doom – return.  (See Marxist analysis of zombies, in “Catastrophism,” book review below.)

Instead, the family stays on an aircraft carrier efficiently run by the US army.  Saved by the military.  Trope 5.

Another movie of the apocalypse.  Pitt (Gerry Lane) has to find the ‘human zero’ who first started a zombie rabies pandemic – sort of like looking for the first AIDS carrier.  So Pitt leaves behind doe-eyed Karin and his one sickly little girl and one healthy one, and flies off to South Korea, where reports indicate ‘patient zero’ was first encountered.  That turns out badly.  Our audience laughed when the intellectual doctor searching for the first virus, a young Harvard Med whiz, falls on his handgun and shoots himself accidentally.  So Pitt has to take over.  He hears from a rogue CIA agent that Israel knew enough to ‘finish’ their Wall just in time to keep the zombies out, so perhaps they knew something first.  Another close escape, as the doe-eyed Karin, who is only concerned about family, MUST call him while he’s trying to slip by some quiet zombies, and wakes them the fuck up.  So he flies to Jerusalem with zombies falling out of the back of the plane.  Who fucked up?  The wife fucked up.  And the intellectual fucked up. 

Here Pitt visits the giant wall – evidently the same Wall our dear Israelis are building now to keep the Palestinians out – and which is now keeping the zombies out.  Zombies=Palestinians?  That also ends badly, as some ‘dumb,’ I think, Palestinians start singing after they are rescued, and that maddens the zombies to the point where they climb over the wall on top of each other, roach style.  Another close escape for Pitt, #3.  Who fucked up?  Stupid singing Palestinians.  Who are the zombies?  Mostly Palestinians, it seems. 

In the process, Pitt saves the life of a tough, young Israeli female solider, Segen, and they both escape on a plane bound for Belarus, which they turn to head to Cardiff, Wales.  For the first time in this movie, a woman is not helpless and weak, as this girl can wield a weapon.  Of course, she is also saved by Pitt.  She has her hand chopped off by Pitt, after being bitten in the hand by a zombie, and she doesn’t bleed to death or turn into a zombie.  Little bit of tight tape-wrapping, and she’s good to go.  Right.  They fly to Wales because it has a World Health Organization lab and Pitt has figured out a cure of sorts.  

On the plane, a zombie bursts out of the bathroom after being sussed by a little dog.  (Yeah, how’d that zombie get in there?)  Segen empties her clip, then Pitt throws a grenade into the new-made zombies, after he and Segen put on their seat-belts.  The grenade blows a hole in the airplane, and sucks the zombies – which is now every passenger - clear out.  Escape 4. 

Plane crash.  The army thinks Pitt is dead, and so sends his family to some rural outpost in Nova Scotia, and off the very-safe aircraft carrier. 

Of course, Pitt and Segen survive the crash, he with a long piece of metal sticking through his lower stomach.  Another trope.  They stagger to the lab and he’s patched up.  Remember, he’s a tough guy!  Pitt figures out they have to go into the other building where the deadly diseases are kept, which is full of slow-witted zombified ex-scientists wandering around.  In a needlessly odd and racist scene, a ‘zombie’ black woman who looks like she is Haitian is in a glass cage in the lab, growling.  She has teeth like a wolf.  She is the ‘sample’ zombie.  You notice it is not a rich corporate lawyer in the glass cage.

What did Pitt figure out?  He noticed that the zombies did not attack sick people.  If they inoculate people with some disease, he’s hoping it will ‘camouflage’ them from attack.  So Pitt, one scientist and Segen head over to where the infectious and deadly diseases are kept.  She shoots a bunch more zombies.  He gets in the store room, shoots up one culture at random into his arm, just happening to pick one that won’t kill him right off, waits, and eventually walks right by the clucking zombies.  Escape 5. 

The war against the zombies will go on, but our hero returns to his family in Nova Scotia. Exciting stuff, lots of close escapes, and while the story is stupid in the retelling, it is of course more convincing on screen.  Disbelief is suspended.  What else is suspended, besides your mind? 

Walter Benjamin was a German Marxist, sometimes associated with the ‘Frankfort School.”  As Andrew Robinson recently said in an excellent article in Ceasefire Magazine:  “In Benjamin’s account, fascism is closely connected to the spectacular and epic in film, literature, music and art. There is little question Benjamin would have related modern blockbuster movies to the fascist approach to art, particularly when they use special effects to aestheticise warfare.” 

This film reflects Benjamin's analysis.  The movie glamorizes unrestrained bloodshed, making it ‘cool and exciting.’  And nothing like reality.  As the U.S. prepares to bomb another Middle-Eastern country in some kind of video-arcade bombing campaign, we should keep that in mind.  Benjamin's thesis was that fascism manipulates emotions because it cannot deliver any material benefits, and that is its strength - the delivery of certain emotional states.  Patriotism.  Tribal unity.  Anger.  Dominance.  Hatred.  Fear. 

So what ideas have been suspended in our minds? And emotions inculcated?

  1. The apocalypse is coming.  Yet this one is not believable.  After all, zombies are bullshit.  So what real ‘apocalypse’ are we talking about? 
  2. One guy can save the world. 
  3. The Army Will Save Us.  Especially if you are ‘Connected.’ 
  4. Mothers are sad, helpless cases.
  5. Intellectuals are ineffectual.
  6. Palestinians are zombies.
  7. Haitians are zombies.
  8. The Wall in Israel is good.
  9. Who are the zombies?  Are they a representative of a pandemic of some disease, like bird flu, mad cow or swine flu, transmitted by airplane flight?  Are the zombies the poor rising against capitalist ‘society?’  Are they symbolic of an approaching ecological catastrophe?  Are they the revolution?
  10. In this film, the majority of people in the world are ‘zombies.’  It is necessary to find small safe zones to escape them.  In this case they are no longer ‘mad shoppers’ or ‘stupid people’ or even the drunks of the zombie pub crawl.  It has gone far beyond that.  They are the majority of humans.  They are free-floating signifiers of planetary doom, reflecting a basic social anxiety of a … minority.  You fill in the blank about ‘what’ minority they are talking about.  My guess is Western upper-class whites, at least in this film. 
Nearly all the ideological and emotional subtexts of this film are conservative, even though Pitt is a Hollywood ‘liberal.’  Did he need another pay check?    (Stay tuned for the next apocalypse/dystopia movie, ‘Elysium.’)

And I saw it at the Riverview Theater!
Red Frog
August 29, 2013

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Of Motorcycles and Men

"The Outlaws – One Man’s Rise Through the Savage World of Renegade Bikers, Hell’s Angels and Global Crime,” by Tony Thompson, 2013

I am a motorcyclist.  33 years.  I started with a little Honda, then some fast or big Yamahas, now a touring Triumph.  I once attended a Marxist internal party meeting in Chicago where we chatted about ‘gangs.’  Somehow the topic came up, and it’s a good thing.  One of the black comrades said his gang in the ‘hood’ was a young group that hung together, protected each other and was dedicated to ‘camaraderie.’  Well, some gangs are like that.  And then there are other gangs – like Chicago’s Black P-Stone Rangers – who eventually had an economic and political rationale.  And others, who are purely criminal.  

This book by Thompson, a British ‘crime reporter,’ looks at some motorcycles clubs and their evolution into mostly criminal organizations.  At first, motor-cycle clubs were formed by working-class men who were probably tired of just being wages slaves.  A few business owners also joined the clubs.  What evolved over time is that the big clubs became businesses selling drugs or weapons, practicing extortion, running prostitution rings or engaging in motorcycle theft, with a veneer of ‘anti-establishment’ PR and love of motorcycles and male bonding as their ostensible reason for existence.  Not all members are in criminal activities – and can selling and transporting weed even be considered ‘criminal’ at this point?  But those members can still be called upon to defend those who do things far worse than selling weed.  And the numbers are what count many times. 

Thompson covers the motorcycle club world (“MC”) of working-class ex-soldiers fresh from World War II looking for booze, drugs, sex and fights, to young bikers (and even non-bikers) now invested in gang warfare and criminal activities.  To do this, Thompson interviews Daniel ‘Snake Dog” Boone.  Boone describes his origins in the British Midlands MC club, the Pagans, to his membership in the international MC club, the Outlaws - covering the period 1986 to around 2010.

Its pretty fucking amazing.  The first book to cover the biker world, in 1966 by Hunter Thompson, “Hell’s Angels – A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs,” gave the Angels and Sonny Barger the most massive PR lift any bunch could get.  It covers many of their founding myths – like the ‘rape’ in Monterey, and the confrontational run to a small town in California in the mid-60s.  This book actually catapulted the Angels into believing they could dominate the whole world of motorcycle clubs.   And they have tried, which is part of the story of this book.  Barger followed with his own pretty good book, 2012’s “Hell’s Angel – The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels MC,” which incidentally made fun of Harley-Davidsons as crap bikes the Angels were stuck with.  Barger and many Angels were excellent mechanics, and there is a reason why.  

So some facts that you might not know, from this book.  An “MC” is a motorcycle club with a geographic presence.  Two MCs cannot inhabit the same space without eventually fighting or killing each other.  Groups like our local “West Bank Motor Cycle Club” are MCCs – just groups of guys (and women) who like to go on runs and drink.  An MC and an MCC are not in competition normally.  The goal of every newbie MC biker – a ‘prospect’ – is to gain an MC patch.  Clubs that join other clubs are ‘patched over.”  The patch is very important, evidently.  If you have your patches torn off – and everyone in your club does too – your MC is over.  You have to protect your colors, sort of like in the Civil War, protecting your flag.  However, the patch allows other clubs to identify hostile bikers – and so to keep geographic dominance.  MC’s are organized on a military basis, and the colors are a key part of the uniform.  This ‘band of brothers’ calls themselves ‘one-percenters’ – they are the one out of 100 who has given up on society, not the one out of 100 who rules the other 99%.  No women are gang members from what I could tell, only ‘old ladies’ of the formal members.  So it is a completely sexist and macho world.

MC’s started out somewhat like MCCs – but they liked to fight, to have gang-bangs, to have tighter loyalty – and eventually, to bring in money by any means necessary.  In England, the different gangs would initially host large biker rallies and even music concerts to raise money.  Boone traces the path of a group of bikers, the Warwickshire Pagans in the Midlands of England, who got into bloody and sometimes deadly scrapes with gangs from other parts of the Midlands.  However, with the arrival of the Hell’s Angels in England, every group in the Midlands combined into a group called the Midland Outlaws to prevent the Angels from controlling their turf and the whole country.  This ultimately led the Midlands Outlaws to joining an American-based club, the Outlaws, who were in direct competition with the Angels on a world-wide scale. 

Four MCs now dominate world motorcycle gangs – the Angels, the Outlaws, the Bandidos and the Mongols.  Just like world capitalism, the biker oligarchy forces other gangs to merge or die, or at least cooperate.  The Angels are sort of the premier corporation, the Microsoft – or should I say Apple – of this underground economy.  The unintentionally funniest parts of this book are stories of hostile groups of bikers stuck on the same planes together as they jet-set around the world making contacts and partying – and then fighting it out in airports when they arrive together.  Executives in leather jackets and knives, so to speak.

One of the most interesting stories was how the Angels tried to take over the indigenous clubs in Ireland in the late 80s.  When the IRA Provo’s got wind of that scheme – as the Angels had been intimidating local MCs – they told them to get out of Ireland or they would all die.  The Angels left…though now they have made a somewhat of a comeback. 

Violence, of course, is how drug gangs control territory, whether they ride motorcycles or not.  Not that much different from capitalist corporations using capitalist states to do their bloody work.  The Outlaws have an “SS” patch that identifies a member who has killed someone for the gang.  Members would be backed up, no matter what they did – rape, assault, kill – because they were a member.  Now some newer chapters in Europe made up of Turkish or Middle-Eastern members don’t even ride motorcycles, because evidently they have too many accidents.  Don’t laugh.  They drive cars instead – something most bikers consider a retirement vehicle.  Boone, who enjoyed the drinking and cocaine, punch ups and sex with clueless young women, eventually got tired of the constant violence and vigilance, as the war with the Angels and the police got more severe.  Guns were rare in the 1980s in England, but now all the large gangs are heavily armed – with rocket launchers, bombs, hollow-point ammo and sub-machine guns, and high-tech, armored ‘clubhouses.’ 

Boone knew his chapter would not let him go easily.  In order to get thrown out of the Outlaws, Boone had to point a gun at the chapter president’s head, and the club members beat him up, tearing off his patches.  They might have killed a guy who had been in the group for less years, but he’d spent 23.  Not easy to exit this bunch.  Sort of like the Cosa Nostra on 2 wheels.  At least he lived to tell the tale - so far.  

Of course, the interesting question is, what do you do with MC clubs?  Like the major gangs, the majority of members are part of illegal business operations that use violence to protect their ability to make money in illegal ways.  In Cuba, the revolutionaries chased the Mob out of Havana, and jailed or shot those who they knew were criminals.  Many had collaborated with Batista, just as MC gangs in the U.S. would collaborate with the police.  Much as they hate the cops, if there was something in it for them like immunity, they would do it.  Winning them to a revolutionary movement would be almost impossible.

However, the vast majority of motorcyclists are not in MCs.  MC clubs perhaps can count in the mid-thousands world-wide.  Independent bikers are mostly working class - and some middle-class people who enjoy the ride.  These bikers can be our allies.  Middle-class people usually shy away from cycles because for the most part they shy away from anything they perceive as ‘dangerous.’  Since they have few mechanical or physical skills or experience, ‘danger’ in their sensitive view is carrying heavy objects, using power tools or chainsaws, shooting guns, cutting trees, walking through alleys, working with electricity or gas - and riding the iron horse.  Even participating in picket lines, demonstrations, occupations and confrontations of any kind is foreign to their outlook, but not so much for working-class people.

During one of the rallies for the Austin P-9 Meatpackers strike in the ‘80s, about 75 motorcycles formed an honor guard at the front of the rally, all ridden by strikers and at least one supporter – me.  Unlike the prescribed roar of a Harley pack, the meatpackers were all driving quiet Japanese bikes, which was pretty funny.  But they still ‘roared’ because they stood for something – the old Wobbly slogan, “An Injury to One is an Injury to All!”  There is, as you may know, a variant used by the English MCs – “Its one in, All in.”    

And I bought it at Cheapo Books!
Red Frog
August 25, 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013

Are you in the real 'democratic' party?

Is the U.S. an Actual “Democracy,” Even by its Own Standards?

Noam Chomsky has a commentary on this issue in Salon.com this week, but it is so over-buried with extraneous points that I thought I’d make it clearer.  His key point is that American opinion, as measured by issue polls, is routinely ignored by the government and the parties.  And that has been true for years.  If the population was convinced the Earth revolved around the Sun, it would not matter, as the ruling Congress and President would still act like the Sun revolves around them and their wealthy benefactors - and act on that principle. These are the people some of us voted for!  For them, ‘democracy’ is damned.  Why?  Because the logic of the system overrides any concerns of the population, and the Congress and the President mostly know that, but will never breathe it aloud.  It is their secret.

Marxism has a powerful critique of bourgeois democracy.  The “legislative’ form of political power was the weapon of choice by the rising bourgeoisie against royal rule.  Voting was key in its ability to defeat its absolutist opponents, because of course any system of voting that allows people other than royalty to ‘vote’ would be democratically superior to a system that doesn’t –at least to the majority.  This political point still works for U.S. imperialism in combat with various kinds of authoritarian regimes, and to some extent it is true, which is why it still works.

To this day, the U.S. uses ‘voting’ as its measure of democracy, and a grand cudgel against dictators it doesn’t like.   Dictators it does like – like the Royal House of Saud and their Wahabbist fundamentalist minions - are ignored.  The U.S. has a long history of ignoring dictators it likes, and denigrating votes that do not go in the direction of U.S. imperial interests.  Even though others wave the ‘cudgel’ against the U.S. when it does this, it doesn’t really care.  Hypocrisy is the air they breathe.

As five sterling international examples illustrate, ‘voting’ doesn’t matter unless you vote for who the U.S. wants.  The CIA finally openly admitted on Monday that they overthrew the democratically elected government of Mossedegh in Iran in 1953.  In Vietnam it was obvious, when the U.S. and their South Vietnamese puppets scuttled a national election that Ho Chi Minh would have won, an election mandated by the Geneva Convention of 1954.  Or in Chile, when the elected socialist Salvador Allende was overthrown by the CIA and its military allies in 1973 and thousands were massacred.  Then there is the 2009 military coup against progressive Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, which was another American ‘wink/nod’ coup, with no consequences for the Honduran military and elites.  The last example is from last week, when the elected Morsi government in Egypt was overthrown by our long-time allies in the Egyptian military, with another ‘wink’ from the U.S.  Morsi was no socialist but a reactionary Islamist, but the principle still stands.  A small bloodbath has ensued.  Arbenz, Lumumba, Goulart, etc. are just other elected targets on the U.S. list who were successfully overthrown.  There is also a long list of unsuccessful attempts –in Nicaragua, Venezuela and in Ecuador. 

Internationally, there is really not much of an argument over American ‘democratic’ hypocrisy.  It is a given.  However, let us look at the situation domestically.  Are they hypocrites here?  Are ‘we’ here in the U.S. even a 'representative' democracy?  The answer is no - and it is built right into our Constitution. It is all legal.  

Take the Senate.  It is an undemocratic institution – EVEN under a so-called representative democracy.  The Senate allows a tiny state like Wyoming, with a little over 500,000 people to have two senators, while the state of California, with over 38 million people, has 2 senators.  This is blatantly undemocratic.  The Senate should be abolished.

Take the Electoral College that ultimately elects the President.  The Electoral College removes the right of direct election of the president from the hands of the electorate, and replaces it with a group of ‘chosen’ hacks dominated by the two standing parties. They could unseat a President who got the most votes, if needed.  What happens if in the unlikely scenario a socialist won the popular vote?  No need to wonder.  This is blatantly undemocratic.  The Electoral College should be abolished. 

Take the present legal ability to ‘gerrymander’ – change voting districts into whatever shape or population the state legislatures want.  In the 2012 election, the Democratic Party won 1 million more votes in elections to the “House of Representatives” but the Republican Party maintained a large majority in the House – due to gerrymandering.  Of course, the Democrats do this too – here in Minneapolis they gerrymandered two wards to remove Greens from the City Counsel.  It shouldn’t be legal that ‘elected’ officials do undemocratic things.  Gerrymandering is blatantly undemocratic.  Gerrymandering should be abolished.

Take the Supreme Court, the third ‘leg’ of the U.S. government.  The people serving on this institution are not voted on, but appointed … for life.  They are essentially political appointees, not objective 'legal' appointees.  The Supreme Court is not a democratic body, it is a permanent body.  They are not beholden to anyone except those who appointed them, and only for that moment before appointment.  This is blatantly undemocratic.  After all, who has a job for life except the Pope?  The Supreme Court should be abolished in its present form.  

All three ‘branches’ of U.S. government are, by law, undemocratic, even in this ‘representative democracy.’ 

And then there is the issue of voter participation.  According to one former Connecticut senator, only 45% vote for president, 35% for Senate and 25% for Congress.  The majority of possible voters are staying home.  If you can win 13% of the votes in a Congressional election - you are in!   This has all the relevance of those votes for the powerless but partly popular high school president.  The population as a whole has given up on the 'voting' game.

Now add to this the myriad legal and political rules and controls that guarantee that only two parties are represented in the Congress.  These rules ultimately mean that these two parties have been institutionalized as ‘official’ - and that is undemocratic. 

Whose parties are they?  Both parties represent different wings of American capital, with different voting bases.  The Republicans attract small businessmen.  The Democrats appeal to various ethnic and sexual constituencies.  However, both are owned by different capitalists, and sometimes the same capitalists.  The present Republicans are a vicious, backward minority party, and only retain their inordinate influence in government because of the above-mentioned undemocratic methods.  The Democrats preserve their political influence because they can say, “Look how fucking crazy the Republicans are!”  This has allowed Democratic Party neo-liberalism to flourish for years, a neo-liberalism that is just a gentler Republicanism.  So we get stuck with two official forms of Republicanism.  Again, all because of the legally undemocratic nature of the state we live in.

Now add to this the influence of capitalist money and the capitalist class on elections and current representatives. This is all legal - even before ‘Citizens United.’  The overwhelming majority of money in U.S. elections and donations comes from a tiny segment of the capitalist class, and nearly always has – something like .04%.  These are not ‘peoples elections” and ultimately the elected officials are not 'people's officials either.  Concentrations of money are legal.  This is so well known at this point, I won’t belabour it.  Then we add the media – which is controlled for the most part by 6 giant mega-corporations – the same oligarchic capitalists who are funding the elections directly, or manipulating public opinion.  They are also the ones choosing what to present regarding elections or issues between elections.  TV is the heaviest investment most candidates make.  Private property in the media, and virtual private ownership of the public airwaves, is also legal.  

Add to this the ability to hack computerized election machines and the increasing attempts at legal voter suppression of various types – mostly by Republicans - and you get a picture of an electorate that is not in control at all – even in a so-called ‘representative democracy.’ (See review of “Armed Madhouse” below, on election fraud.)  Some countries use a simple national identity card to allow all to cast a vote, yet here that is off the table because the States control this issue.  A whole sector of the electorate is banned from voting to various degrees – so-called felons and ex-felons.  This is also legal.  (See review of “The New Jim Crow,” below.)

So if all these abridgements of democracy are legal – in-built into the Constitution and the basic system of laws and ‘states’ rights, in-built into the very existence of private property – it means that you cannot defeat these measures by piling more legalities on top of legalities.  Liberal legal tinkering will not change the deep and wide un-democracy of the U.S. form of government and law, which has existed for almost 250 years at this point.  We are no spring chicken at this, much as our leaders think they sprang out of the head of Medusa yesterday.

Rosa Luxembourg, in her battle with the Social-Democrats of Germany in 1919, pointed out that workers councils, in geographic areas and in worksites, were far more democratic than the farce of German ‘representative democracy.’ (Read review of “All Power to the Councils,” below.)  Just as union meetings are far more democratic than the corporate farces called ‘annual shareholder meetings’ – where those with the most money have the most votes.  True democracy – closer to direct democracy - involves the majority of people voting and speaking where they work and where they live, in workers’ councils, farmers’ councils, soldiers’ councils, regional councils and other grass-roots political formations.  Councils are the form of political power that a rising proletariat uses against the capitalists, much as the capitalists used ‘legislatures’ against royalty.  Why?  Because they are MORE democratic. 

The ‘parliamentary’ form is coming to the end of its lifespan – certainly it has reached it here in the U.S.  In many other countries, it will never even attain this flawed state, as stability of the generic voting mechanism is many times based on a level of economic prosperity.  Every actual socialist, communist and proletarian anarchist endorses the council principle, though bureaucratic / Stalinist elements do not. 

In order to usher in actual, deeper democracy, we need a new socialist Constitution here in the U.S.  This is the way to attain workers’ democracy, not this ‘phantasm,’ which the rich and their cretinous allies call democracy.  It is really ‘their’ democracy, not ours.  In a way, what Socialists want is to deepen the original revolution against royalty – this time against the economic royalists.  So the question becomes, are you a modern Tory … or not?

Red Frog
August 20, 2013

P.S. - The Obama administration has been turned down by the African Union, the UN, NATO, the British poodle (not yet the French social-democratic poodle) and even opinion in the U.S. about the usefulness of missile strikes against Asad's military over the 'red-line' invented by Obama.  Yet you can still see that American opinion has no effect on the leaderships of our oh-so-democratic 'parties.'  Both party leaderships now support a bombing campaign - Obama and Boehner.  A 25% minority of the population want one, so the ruling-class media has geared up to change that.   LIsten to NGR - National Government Radio - and almost all you hear is government officials explaining why we need to bomb Syria.  None of them admit that the collateral damage alone will kill 1,000 civilians easily.  And now the plan has morphed into 'regime change' as another goal.  All you Democrats - look who your best friend is now and ... again.  And you call yourself  'anti-Republican!'  There is no greater secret ally of the Republican Party than the Democratic one.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Stockyard Athens

“The Rise and Fall of the Dil Pickle Club – Chicago’s Wild ‘20s!” edited by Franklin Rosemont, Intro by Paul Durika, 2013

Time passes, and things change, or end.  Buildings are destroyed, neighborhoods are destroyed, and in some locations – corporations take over.  This book is a collection of powerful reminiscences of a unique place and time – Chicago’s near-north Bohemia in the teens and twenties.   Now it is a center of upscale shopping, skyscrapers and condos.  But at the time, H.L. Menken in 1920 called Chicago, ‘The intellectual capital of the U.S.”  Like Paris’ Montmartre, the Latin Quarter or New York’s Greenwich Village, Chicago provided a place of political, cultural and intellectual fermentation – once again proving that ‘places’ can serve as more than just a ‘place.’  That period in Chicago has been referred to as the “Chicago Renaissance’ – though the bourgeois critics like to bury the proletarian and bohemian side of that revival.  This book does no such thing.  While it focuses on the key place and people through which so many things happened, the near north “Dil Pickle Club” – it really gives you a whole picture of the hopeful intellectual ferment generated by the Russian revolution, the labor, women’s and black movements – and also by modernism itself – in regard to theatre, painting, sexuality, religion and science. 

The “Hobohemian” sector, "Towertown,” was in the blocks between Grand & North, Lake Michigan to LaSalle.  The “Dil Pickle” was in this area, founded sometime around 1915 by a group of IWW agitators who needed a larger place to meet other than someone’s living room or the nearby Radical Book Shop on North Clark Street.  (Sound familiar, May Day Bookstore goers?)  The Dil Pickle was first on Pierson Street near Bughouse / Washington Square, then moved closer to the park, to a barn in Tooker Alley off of Dearborn. (Nowadays, this ‘might’ be called Tooker Place.)  People would squeeze through a tiny gap between two buildings on State, or enter from Dearborn past a bunch of garbage cans in a narrow alley, and come to a very small orange door with a green light, telling them to, “Step High, Stoop Low, and Leave Your Dignity Outside.” 
Started by Wobbly agitator Jack Jones, Irish Revolutionist Jim Larkin and Anarchist doctor Ben Reitman, they founded a place where the political soap-boxers on Bughouse Square could come inside and continue their trade.  The Dil Pickle had sandwiches, soft-drinks, coffee, a stage and a ‘little’ theatre, a printing press, art rooms and even people lounging on the roof.  It could hold 700 people and normally 60-70 were in attendance.  Later in Prohibition time, you could bring your own booze or, it seems, get some special ‘ginger ale’ from under the counter.  Jones, a burly man with long black hair and a black tie, became the impresario, and would put up hobos and radicals who needed a place to stay for a bit.  He was a showman and drummed up business for the Dil Pickle, so it could charge from $.25 to $1.00 to attend. 

So who frequented this Barn in the Wall?  Labor radicals, hobos, criminals, prostitutes, professors, proletarians, college and high-school kids, bourgeois slummers, soap-boxers, artists, newspapermen, even an occasional cop – just about every class and fragment of a class.  One commentator mentioned that many women crowded the club - he called it a 'women's place.  Over time it went from being a place of anarcho-syndicalism to a place where artistic types were also present.  Who spoke?  What plays were put on?  What bands played?  What artists decorated the walls?  Much is obscure.  Rosemont, the Surrealist, has attempted to patch it together.

Chicago was in a high political and artistic ferment at the time. Some of the top socialist and anarcho-syndicalist radicals, the unknown – “Red” Martha Biegler, Trip-Hammer Johnson, Chief Soapboxer John Loughman, Hobo Queen Lizzie Davis, Slim Brundage; and the known – Big Bill Haywood, Lucy Parsons, Nina Spies, Charles H Kerr, Dorothy Day, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Clarence Darrow -  all attended.  Some of the top names in literature visited or spoke or read – Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht, James O’Farrell, Carl Sandberg, Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, even John Reed.  Writers like Nelson Algren and Jack Conroy contributed their reminiscences about the scene.  It was even the home of Chicago Dada.  

Sophisticated lectures about politics, literature, science, philosophy, religion, women’s rights, sex, homosexuality and birth control were Sunday night features, some by prominent professors from Northwestern and the University of Chicago.  Heckling and argument were arts here – this was not a church where everyone meekly agreed.  The first play every written by Ben Hecht –about a hobo who sees an image in the window, thinks it is Jesus, only to realize it is his own reflection - premiered here.  Hecht later became one of the best Hollywood screenwriters.  Early plays by Eugene O’Neil were first put on at the Pickle.  For the one-acts, Jones made up the set, wrote scripts and got the actors.  It was part of the origination of the ‘little theater’ movement.  Black agitators from the Wobblies, black trade unions and the African Blood Brotherhood spoke.  One woman talked about the men she had sex with.  Mae West appeared. Even con men like Yellow Kid Weil gave talks. 

It was an education, a ‘stockyard Athens,” a place to dance, to hear Dixieland jazz and folk guitar, many poetry readings and odd declamations.  Modern art was on the walls, as well as scrawls and graffiti, newspaper clippings and even sculpture.  It became a forerunner for every artsy-place in the U.S.

The Pickle died when mobsters started to crowd the club in the ‘30s, because they could smell money.  Jones couldn’t keep them or the next door New England Congregational Church out, and had to close it in 1933.  By then it had become a tourist trap, and had lost its originality.  Institutions like this do not return, as they are unique to their times.  In spite of many attempts to bring back the “Pickle’ – it will not happen. 

Rosemont also prints some negative comments about the Pickle from across the board, from fascists, Communists and bourgeois art critics.  One odd one from James Cannon, the leader of the American Trotskyists, threatened members who were lazy 'Picklers' with expulsion. 

What can we learn from the Pickle, and the environment surrounding it?  One, a changing political climate does not limit itself to politics, but affects everything.  People who think revolution will be made solely by political action - without cultural action - will not be able to mobilize enough people.  Two, oral skills are very useful, and only in public gatherings can people hone them.  Three, Minnesotans are too polite.  Forums here at Mayday or at other venues are held and most everyone agrees.  If anyone does disagree, it is ‘unpleasant,’ and sometimes the speakers even avoid the point of questions.  Disagreements are muted, or stifled.  There are no actual debates between factions or varying points of view on almost any topic – vegetarianism, environmentalism, anarchism, the Democratic Party, culture, economics, Islam, Stalinism, you name it.  As a result, there is no growth in the intellectual level of the left. It is a culture of repetition.  It is un-dialectical.  A living left will actually not be afraid of useful conflict.  And in Chicago, in the teens and 20s, the clash of ideas is what brought out the folks - useful and not. 

And I bought it at MayDay Books!
Red Frog
Former Chicagoan
August 18, 2013

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Cheap Trip to Miami - Dios Mio! Na Zdrovia!

“Back to Blood,” By Tom Wolfe, 2012

Well, Tom Wolfe has helicoptered into another city, Miami this time, and written another book about it.  The City has become a main character in his fiction.  Long ago it was San Francisco, then Atlanta, then Charlotte – of course when he wasn’t hanging in Nu Yawk, his home.  By the way, NYC is now rated as the most unequal place in the U.S., and has the income disparities of a third-world city, close to the country of Swaziland.  No wonder he can’t top “Bonfire of the Vanities,” his book about that city's clash between poor blacks and Wall Street kings.   This book clocks in at over 700 pages, but it is a quick read nevertheless - though perhaps an editor should have visited Wolfe's manuscript in the dark of night.

Wolfe is the guy who looks like a dandy and attempts to dress like Mark Twain and fails.  One of his first books in the 60s, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” took on the hippies from a jaundiced, right-wing point of view. (Hippies are stupid!) Another, “Radical Chic & Mau Mau’ing the Flak Catchers” earned him the title of cynical wit. (Yes, the Black Panthers are just a style joke.)  This title, “Back to Blood’ means that at bottom, at least in Miami, everything is ethnic.  Which is what you’d expect from a WASP.  For the most part, Wolfe sees everything as a ‘type’ – and ethnicity is his biggest type of all.  As one character says, “Everyone in Miami hates everyone else.”  That is every ethnicity hates every other. 

Wolfe makes fun of ‘almost’ everyone, and in the process, does reveal something about the various classes and ethnicities.  Overtown?  Incredibly poor black people – slave shacks in the city.  White or Cuban cops?  Racist morons.  Cuban Hialeah and Little Havana?  Isolated, reactionary, working-class and conflicted.  Americano rich people on Star and Fisher islands?  Fucking pathetic.  Young white bourgeois party-goers on their yachts?  A Roman bacchanalia.  The Haitian middle class?  Trying to pass.  Russians in Hallandale?  Mostly crude and backward, or crooked.  White billionaires and their diseased penises?  Look what our ruling class is like under the sheets.  The emperor has no clothes.   

For some reason … the gays on South Beach and along Collins Avenue are missing from the comedy. Workers are put down for their shabby clothing and bodies – befitting a dandy – but are respected by mostly being ignored.  Otherwise, nearly everyone else can be bought and made fool of. 

Wolfe is obsessed with women’s asses and breasts, even if he himself has an indistinct sexual persona that leans gay.  He writes like a cartoon sometimes, as in ‘Pow, Pow,’ interior monologues hanging off rows of colons, or in Technicolor.  Stereotypes are his expertise, and here he indulges again. He crucifies stereotypes, so if you are one, beware.  The hero, Nestor Camacho, is a young, ‘ripped’ Cuban cop having troubles with the older, right-wing generation in Hialeah.  Nestor performs feats of incredible strength and heroism, and they nearly always turn out bad.  The heroine, Magdelena Otero, is an upwardly striving Cuban nurse who is trying to get away from Hialeah.  However, in the process, she hooks up with gringos and Russians who are only interested in her body, much to her dismay.  Nor can she understand half of what the gringos are talking about  Other young people, like the almost white French Haitian Ghislaine, come off better than the billionaires, cringing professors, smooth politicians, status-conscious editors and creepy doctors that inhabit and run a city that will some day sink into the ocean.    

Wolfe does a hilarious send-up of the Art Basel Miami show, which exposes its shallow cultural appeal and its monetary grotesqueries. It reminds me of the first art show ‘opening’ I went to at a local art museum, the Weisman at the University of Minnesota.  The gallery viewers were more interested in slobbering down the free food and slurping up the alcohol shooting off the ice sculpture than looking at the art. Art Basel Miami is 10 times worse. (For a review of art in the U.S. read the review, “9.5 Thesis on Art and Class,”  below.)  The sub-plot involves $70 million of fake art - Kadinsky’s, Malevichs and others - given to the Miami Museum of Art, which didn’t really have a collection worth a dime until the fakes show up. The funny part is that the rubes in the Miami power structure fell all over the rich Russian who donated them, Sergei Korolyov, in gratitude – even naming the museum after him.

It is up to a disgraced Nestor and a blushing white boy reporter from the very Anglo “Miami Herald” newspaper to solve this riddle.  

Wolfe also does depictions of the duplicitous world of ‘reality TV;’ a drunken sex-obsessed suburban-boy boat party; the sad interior of a crack house; a boisterous Russian restaurant; a drunken artist in a loft in Wynwood making fun of abstract art; an old Jewish person’s run-down ‘adult living facility’; a Cuban family pig roast in Hialeah; a strip club full of Ukrainian blondes; a confrontation between the power-hungry mayor and the tough black police chief.  All memorable to some extent. 

In the end, the powers that be – the experts, the rich, the powerful – are a laughing-stock.  Much like we consider them in reality - though the real laughing-stocks also have guns, which means they're not so funny.  The experts, the rich, the powerful have fucked up so many times and have said so many stupid things that fewer and fewer believe anything they say or do anymore.  They are a dying, calcifying class, and Wolfe, with humor, helps them die a little more.  

And I did not buy it at Mayday Books.
Red Frog
August 15, 2013

Friday, August 9, 2013

Drinker's Politics

Russia, Snowden, Stoli & the Gay Movement

I don’t usually comment on the flavor of the day, but so many things came together at the same time, I had to.

It started with sex columnist Dan Savage advocating a boycott of Stolichnaya Vodka because of the anti-gay policies passed by Putin’s legislature.  High-profile gays in LA and San Francisco poured Stoli into the gutters as a nice picture opportunity.  Elsewhere – like in Minneapolis – Stoli is not being boycotted by the bars, even though Minneapolis has a large gay community. 

Putin’s policies are reactionary, as are the policies of many other countries and religions on the gay question.  How about boycotting U.S. ‘southern’ products because they are made in the bastion of anti-gay sentiments in the U.S.?  Or the Catholic Church, home of so much anti-gay theology?  The targets are endless.   7 U.S. allies punish homosexuality with death - and these countries - Kenya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Uganda, Qatar, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan - can sentence gays and lesbians to long jail terms or punishment.  70 countries ban homosexuality outright.  You don't see the U.S. complaining about them.

The Russian legislature should grow up on sexual politics and leave discrimination behind. But developing capitalist nations need to oppress women – and gays oppression is directly linked to women's oppression.  Demonizing 'female' characteristics, and keeping 'male' characteristics the prerogative of men only is how its done.  However, the gay movement should grow up too.  Dan Savage is a columnist and he reflects the middle-class bias of the gay movement’s leadership.  We saw this stunningly displayed when the San Francisco Gay Pride parade refused to honor Bradley Manning, the most heroic gay person at present.  It would have offended their corporate sponsors.  And so it goes. 

Columnists are not political leaders, as much as they try to explain the nature of ‘santorum.’  Savage actually has no ties to any Russian organization that could affect this situation, nor has he reached out to organizations in Russia to do so.  Yet that is what is necessary.  Marxists actually have organizations in Russia because they are not merely nationalists.  Russians will ultimately decide these questions, not Americans.  Marxist organizations and others in Russia will weigh in on these reactionary politics.  Secondary boycotts like this without primary boycotts are pathetic attempts to influence policy.  Consumers do not control capitalism, much as those with wallets wish they could.  (See reviews of “No Local” and “Reviving the Strike,” below) 

So how is Stolichnaya involved in this situation?  Because it is “made in Russia?”  This seems to make it the liberal’s version of ‘freedom fries’ and of American right-wingers pouring French wine into the gutters over the French government’s correct opposition to the Iraq War.  However, the truth is somewhat different.  Stolichnaya was developed somewhere between 1938 and 1944 in Samara in the Kalingrad region, according to Wiki.   Here is what Wiki says about Soli bought outside Russia:  “If bought outside of Russia, the product is produced by the SPI Group and the label reads: Premium Vodka, produced and bottled in Latvia for SPI Cyprus and is labeled as Imported Premium Vodka.”  In other words, like the fake Irish beer Guinness, American Stoli isn’t even made in Russia, though perhaps some of the ingredients come from there.  Bloomberg reported that Stoli made outside Russia is actually owned by SPI, which is based in Luxembourg.  The CEO even says his company supports LGBT rights.  So its not just made outside Russia, its owned by a company outside Russia!  This even our local paper figured out.

Perhaps Savage needs a research associate.

And if Stoli was made in Russia?  The logic still  doesn't stick.  The Russian legislature passed these harsh, fascistic, anti-gay rules.  Not the workers at Stoli.  At bottom, Savage's logic is nothing but crude nationalism - just like his Republican fellow-travelers.  

Now how easy is it for dumb fuck Americans to hate on Russia?  Pretty damn easy, and that crosses both Party lines.  Yesterday, Democratic Party and MSNBC blowhard Lawrence O’Donnell attacked Russia expert Julia Ioffe from the New Republic – a right-wing liberal magazine – for being insufficiently hostile to Putin.  Anyone who doesn’t roll over for American imperialism is suspect to O'Donnell, you see, even people that agree with him.  Ioffe thinks Obama boycotting the summit was a good idea too. The issues?  Syria, Snowden or … Stoli?  President Obama declined to participate in a summit with Putin over … Snowden!  The U.S. dictat is refused on one little issue – and suddenly, no dialogue, no diplomacy.  If Bush had done this, the Democrat Party chorus would have been up in arms. But it shows how important they think their surveillance state is.

The bloodbath in Syria between a minority Shi’ite Alawite dictatorship and a majority Sunni population has become, not a class war, but a religious war with class overtones, with the U.S. on one side and Russia on the other, with Sunni Al-Qaeda on the side of the U.S.  Go figure. I can’t say which side I support – as I don’t - but I know that there is some nationalized property in Syria that the U.S. would love to privatize – with or without Al-Qaeda.  And I know that dictatorship is not in the interest of any labor movement, and oppression of a national religious majority is just another form of apartheid. Unspoken is Syria’s opposition to Israel in this situation, but certainly, a U.S. geopolitical goal is to eliminate immediate enemies of Israel.

Then we have Snowden, a whistle-blower who has exposed illegal spying on Americans, and everyone else in the world.  You bet those power-loving neo-liberals in the Democratic Party are pissed.  Their big, high-tech, hipster surveillance-state, hoping to save every piece of digital information in the world, has been exposed.  Why do we have more spies, billions of dollars, technology, government security clearances and SWAT teams now then we ever had when we were competing with the USSR, way back in the 80s?  The USSR had nuclear warheads, millions of soldiers, many allies, etc.  Certainly not because of a tiny group like Al-Qaeda, which the U.S. has incidentally now militarily-allied with in Libya and Syria.  And now, Al-Qaeda is stronger in Iraq than it ever was, after being ‘liberated’ by American bombs.  It didn't exist before then. After all, the original home of Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and it’s Sunni Wahabist sect, is our number 2 Mid-East ally.  Given this, I think the American people are the ultimate target, as is everyone else in the world.  Not 5,000 loose Al-Qaeda members.  They are only the patsies, the excuses, the sacrificial goats, bloody reactionaries as they might be. 

Russia let Snowden stay in their country because the U.S. would have sentenced and tortured him like Bradley Manning, another whistle-blower.  If the U.S. had a “Russian” Snowden, they would have protected him too.  Manning is, without a doubt, the most heroic gay person in the world right now.  Which is why the middle-class gays and the official Democratic Party gays hate him.  They should be called State Department Gays.  Call them that. 

Glenn Greenwald is another heroic gay figure, who has supported Assange, Snowden, Manning and other whistle-blowers as a journalist for the Guardian and Salon.com.  He has been offered legal protection by the Brazilian government, where he lives, if he returns to the U.S. This is because of possible threats against Greenwald by certain U.S. lawmakers and also possibly by the U.S. Justice Department under Eric Holder, which is in the process of criminalizing journalism as an ‘aid to terrorism.’  (Greenwald’s book, “With Liberty & Justice for Some” is reviewed below. A commentary on Holder, "Fire Holder," is also below.)

And that brings us back to Stolichnaya – which I am drinking at this very moment, mixed with tonic - so the Latvians will be happy.  Hey, Lativia!  Let’s look at what the gay movement has accomplished in the U.S.  Against the explicit policy of the Democratic Party, whose leadership is full of heterosexual mainliners like Obama, they tripped the trigger in so many states on gay marriage, gays in the military and even DOMA – that the Democrats caved.  Now the Democrats don’t cave on war or Wall Street or poverty or foreclosures or unemployment or surveillance or what-have-you – the non-culture war issues.  But they did cave on gay rights, and that is because their base pressured them – and also because they had to throw a bone.  A BONE.   Remember, Clinton passed DOMA and DADT. 

Bone, you say?  Don’t get suggestive now.  Let’s look at the economic roots of gay oppression.  There are many homeless gay youth who have run away from home, many for good reason.  Gays are subject to physical attack.  Gays actually have less money than heterosexuals overall.  They can also be fired for being gay in over 20 states here in the U.S.  Most are not wealthy or middle-class.  Yet the leadership of the gay movement is full of gay businessmen and is primarily middle-class.  So, like the women’s movement, there are class differences among gays, and this results in different class strategies and interests.  No surprise, as this is the same in the black and Latino movements too. Class is universal, and cuts across all lines – religious, national, every single one.  Working-class gays need their own leaders, not light-weight columnists like Savage. 

However, unlike blacks, Latinos or women in the U.S., gays are not oppressed as an economic stratum or segment of the class, but as a cultural stratum.  Super-exploitation of the economic kind, as far as I know, is not practiced on gays as a group.  Which is why ethnic or gender discrimination, where money is made, is fundamentally different from gay discrimination. Gay rights involve democratic rights.  Women's rights involve democratic rights - and economic issues like exploitation in the home or lower wages.  Capitalism is not economically thriving on keeping gays in the labor shithole.  This is why the Democratic Party can throw-a-bone on this issue. It is financially a wash.  And finance is what makes those boys get up in the morning, no matter what they tell you during elections.

Gay discrimination relates to the institution of the capitalist family, the military and masculine culture.  Democratic rights should be extended to GLBT people in every country in the world.  However, insecure males get self-important mileage out of not being gay, and of hating those who are.  They are ‘men,’ you see, and conservative culture wants them to feel good about themselves – even if they might be unemployed or uneducated. This is part of the 'male bribe' paid to some men.  And oddly, the recent gains in gay rights, which should be supported, relate to the two most conservative institutions in society – marriage and the military.  The capitalist state needs more people getting married and needs more skilled people in the military – and gays can provide both.  Watch the sad marriage statistics leap up as gay marriage is legalized.  Watch our military become even more skilled and intelligent – as long as they can keep the Bradley Mannings of the future out.  Conservatives of certain kinds will actually be happy. When they are not sad.  Poor souls. 

Red Frog
August 9, 2013

P.S. - Glenn Greenwald's companion, David Miranda, was detained by UK police for 9 hours at Heathrow on August 19, and all his electronics taken from him.  He had come back from a visit in Berlin with Laura Poitras, a filmmaker who is working on a film about the NSA.  This is a blatant attempt at intimidation of the press by Obama's Poodle, David Cameron. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

In Search of Creative Dark Matter

“9.5 Thesis on Art and Class,” by Ben Davis, 2013.

Davis is an activist New York visual arts critic who has been involved in social movements for about a decade. He’s also a rigorous and knowledgeable art critic who has absorbed the best elements of Marx and later, Trotsky.  The first point, 1.0, of his ‘thesis” on the visual arts is:  Class is an issue of fundamental importance to art.”  And so it goes from there.  He deconstructs the various strands of ostensibly edgy and progressive art theories and practice – anarchist, utopian, Frankfort school, ‘outsider’ art, street art, graffiti, Situationist theories and post-modernism, to arrive at a realistic and progressive position that still reveres quality art, but understands that it can be combined with a political movement to really change society.  In other words, he has not yet given up.

One of Davis’ fundamental points is that actual artists occupy a position in the class structure in the ‘middle’ class – i.e. between capital and labor. He bases this on, not the amount of money they earn, which is always a crude and inaccurate measure of class position – but their control over their artistic work.  In that, they are, as the economic expression goes, ‘independent contractors’ or small businessmen – setting their own hours, topics, style, audience, materials, location, and every other input into the creative process.  In this they are not working-class, as workers lives are for the most part strictly controlled by the circumstances of their job and their bosses, but more like free-lancers.   Artists attempt to attract buyers through galleries, museums, universities, art shows, foundations, grants and corporate or non-profit involvement.  

While the vast majority of artists also work other jobs to survive (the heralded ‘day job’) – they still ultimately see themselves and their position as middle-class.  And of course, this analysis can be easily transferred to the lives of other artists, like actors or writers, photographers or film-makers.  Davis pooh-poohs the actual economic impact of ‘creative economy’ enclaves, (see review of North East Minneapolis art crawl, “The Minneapolis Spectacle,” below) and also distinguishes ‘creative’ people that work for corporations from actual artists. As such, Davis never lets the real material foundation of the ‘art world’ hide under some kind of academic or social fantasy, and this grounds the book.  It should be required reading for all art students.

Davis has some fascinating figures on the amount of artists in Florence during the Renaissance – only 30; the amount in Paris and France in 1780 - 500 entered a gallery competition then; in 1860 the number entering the same competition was 5,000.  Now there is such a surfeit of art MFA’s in the U.S. that a new gallery PHD has been created to allow one to ‘stand above the crowd.”  As this shows, art is no longer the province of the isolated painter who taught himself or learned from a ‘master’ but is another product of academe, ‘bought’ by tens of thousands of students. “Art” has become a more mass phenomenon in numbers – but not in remuneration.  However, these numbers have not changed the class character of the people who create most art, or their subjects or involvement, and this is one of Davis’ points.

In one chapter he addresses the gender disparities in New York shows, which now run less than 20% female artists, while more than 50% of art graduates are female.  Could it be that most art buyers are men?  Could it be that female artists are dealing with the same counter-revolutionary backlash that exists in the rest of society on abortion rights, rape and employment? (See commentary on ‘Rape, Really? below”)

In the process of his polemics, one of his sweetest jabs is at the Situationist International based in Paris, led by Guy DuBord.  (Dubord’s book, “Society of the Spectacle,” reviewed below). They advocated a ‘revolutionary’ approach to art and culture.  A group that called itself the ‘society of equals’ after the French Jacobins was actually a personality cult around DuBord, which threw people out on the flimsiest of pretences.  It never amounted to more than 70 people.  As Davis points out, in 1968 they spent more time attacking John Luc Goddard than DeGaulle. As a group that substituted artistic intellectualism for the class struggle, they couldn’t be beat, but they are a present inspiration for various anarchist art collectives.  And they mirror many present attempts at ‘revolutionary’ art.

Davis does, like many others, describe the present ‘art market’ as dominated by billionaires, Russian oligarchs, oil sheiks, hedge fund managers, corporations and a handful of extremely wealthy auction houses, museums and galleries.  As you can see, these institutions cannot provide a democratic or progressive content to art, no matter their statements to the contrary about the ‘openness’ of the art world.  Nor, by their very nature, can they decrease inequality in the art business.  Because of this, Davis does not see gaining access to the ‘art market’ as the key question – it is impossible in the present set-up.  Ultimately, the key question is what class is involved in the art, how is it involved, and how it connects with the general population and social movements.  And ultimately, presumably, how it ends the ‘market’ in art.

He does not address the issue of the government hiring people to paint, similar to what happened in the workers states or during the Depression in the U.S. This would indeed end the art market, intellectual property and instead provide thousands of artists a decent living.

Nor does Davis address Latino muralism, Soviet art or Soviet Constructivism (see review of MORA show, “Soviet Women,” below), older styles like surrealism (see review of Walker show, “Frida Kahlo,” below), various world-artists or what visual art IS useful and emancipatory.  He picks isolated artists here or there, though he praises some feminist and gay art from the near past. As a 'school,' he does highlight ‘Tropicale’ in 1960s Brazil as one of the styles he sees as significant.  This was a style of painting, later spreading into other disciplines, that reacted against the 1964 military coup and dictatorship in Brazil.  Yet that is far in the past.

Davis knows of the New York-centric nature of his work, and that it might limit his understanding.  In this book, his ‘inside-the-art-beltway’ approach is somewhat limiting and off-putting, as nearly all of his examples come from New York galleries and New York artists.  However, this has an advantage, because New York is where the bourgeoisie lives.  The Guardian printed a column August 7, 2013 titled “New York Still Capital of Art World Cool,” waxing ecstatic on how New York has again become the center of world art once again, by combining popular culture figures like Jay-Z and Lady Gaga with …  well, its not quite clear.  In that essay, Jonathan Jones writes, “To see a Mark Rothko painting at New York's Museum of Modern Art and then walk the streets outside is to experience a perfect match of art and life.”  Rothko died in 1970, so ‘modern’ art evidently is really not very modern.  Nor is ‘walking the streets of New York” the closest thing to ‘life’ unless you don’t get around much.

My contention is that American art is almost dead, which is why Davis’ book is so difficult.  His thesis is that movements influence artists, and if movements are at a low ebb - at least in the U.S. – then ‘art’ in the U.S. will be at a low ebb.  At most, art in the U.S. is either expert decoration or pointless shock.  Many young artists were drawn to the Occupy movement, but its life was so short that a 'scene' could not fully develop.  Even his thin references to Trotsky’s, “Art and Revolution,” “Literature and Revolution” and “Problems of Everyday Life” are sketchy.  Really, Davis seems to have only a glancing acquaintance with working-class movements, but then, things like that can change. 

The influences from world movements or ‘painterly’ societies like Cuba, central Europe, Latin America and other peripheries could revive working-class and progressive visual art here in the U.S. - IF some kind of working-class mass movement develops.  In the U.S., working class Latino or black artists still exist, but only the edges.  Most working-class people have been barred from the ‘art world’ and given their lack of time and inculcated desires, cannot devote the necessary energy or skills to painting, let alone achieving acceptance from upscale New York gate-keepers.   Painting in the U.S. has also been ghettoized as an upper-middle class preoccupation, so museum attendance is actually down among working-class people.  This is no surprise.  

Attempts to break out of this ghetto are usually not successful.  “Banksy,” the anarchist street artist, who’s work now goes for millions, is the exception.  Davis points out that the financial ‘blue chip’ styles of impressionism, the “Old Masters” and slightly recent artists like Warhol are now so rare that ‘contemporary art’ is now the up and coming ‘speculative stock’ of the art world.  And Banksy figures in this.  The rest of the artists?  Not so much.  Indeed, the main outlet for most artists seems to be neighborhood ‘art crawls,’ not Sotheby auctions in New York. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
August 7, 2013

Addendum:  Banksy is now in 'residency' in New York City.  One of the political theater events he has staged is this:  In the middle week of October, Banksy went to Central Park and set up on the sidewalk, anonymously selling his works for $60.  He made about $400+ that day, not bad for a sidewalk artist.  However his normal work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet no one recognized who he was, or recognized the art.  Thomas Frank made the same point this week.  The art establishment decides what is valuable art, not the people.  And that art is then primarily determined and 'marked' by its price.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Society of Magical Thinking

"Bright Sided – How Positive Thinking is Undermining America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, 2009

Ehrenreich is a well-known progressive journalist, who’s prior book, “Nickel & Dimed” took her undercover into the world of the service-sector precariat.  Now she is tackling something that started as a personal issue – breast cancer – and evolved into an insight into American conservative psychology and propaganda.  Eternal optimism, unfazed by facts, reaches into the most personal corners of our lives, and also into our meta-political lives. 

In one way, this is a philosophic broadside against idealism and magical thinking on an internal level.  In another, it is an explanation of why ‘pessimism’ (actually, realism) is such an enemy in a capitalist society.  She tracks, chapter by chapter, the sources of the ideology of ‘positive thinking’ in the U.S. – in academics, in religion, in politics and economics, at work, even in the world of cancer.  If you have suddenly noticed a raft of ‘scientific’ studies in the mainstream news (‘lamestream’ wasn’t far off…)  promoting the uber-happiness of conservatives, married people, religious people and optimists, you know something is afoot.  If you have been denounced as ‘cynical’ or ‘pessimistic’ or ‘negative’ for saying somewhat accurate things, by family members, friends or co-workers, you know what I’m talking about.

Ehrenreich challenges these studies, and also the promoters and business firms behind them.  She reveals the personal coaches, ‘scientists’ and success gurus who people the best-seller lists, corporate functions, academic sinecures and mega-churches.  She writes a surprisingly interesting history of the development of ‘positive thinking’ as a reaction to the dour Calvinist philosophy of the early U.S.  She traces it through its various permutations, from the early Christian rumblings of Christian Science, to Norman Vincent Peale’s mid-20th century classic, “Power of Positive Thinking,’ or Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” (which Charles Manson read cover to cover) and on to books like “The Secret” and the present corporate and political leaders of today.  Yeah, the ones who’s ‘optimism’ and ‘animal spirits’ led us into the 2007-2008 economic crash.  As she puts it, if ‘optimism’ is all we need to change reality, why is reality getting worse – more poverty, more unemployment, more foreclosures, more government militarism and less health? 

In this, you can see nothing changes in the U.S. – absolute positivity has been around since the development of industrialism.  It is an essential philosophic tool of social control.

This book started out when Ehrenreich got breast cancer and, in the process of dealing with the disease, entered the world of The Komen Foundation, pink ribbons and the ‘positive’ outlook thought necessary to fight the disease.  Of course, there is no scientific link between a mere outlook and staying alive.  That didn’t stop the message that, if you die of cancer, it is your own fault for having a poor outlook.  Survivors are winners – and dead losers are, well, insufficiently positive.  The onus is taken off corporate or environmental or food sources of cancer, and onto each individual’s attitude.  Sound familiar?

After that, Enrenreich first encounters are with the life coach industry, which believes that positive visualization, the ‘law of attraction” (pin a dollar bill to your wall and more will gather around it!) and thought re-programming will make reality accord with your thoughts!  This is covered in a veneer of misunderstood quantum mechanics that would make a scientist squirm, as ‘scientism’ is necessary nowadays to cover up the essentially magical thinking underneath.  She spies the essential underlying connection between Calvinism and ‘positive mental attitudes’ – a relentless focus on internal thinking, ideas and emotions in need of discipline.  After all, reality has a tendency to be negative sometimes.  PMA must turn those episodes into ‘opportunities.’  She cites evidence that this practice can actually make people … more unhappy when they fail, as they will do.  She also discovers, according to some life coaches, that ‘negative’ people must be shunned.

She takes a tour of religious ‘success gospel,’ and comes up with some interesting data for us atheists.  3 of the 4 largest ‘Christian’ mega-churches do not have crosses, bibles, stained windows, spires or other religious symbols in their buildings.  They are more like comfortable corporate environments with lots of pop music and uplifting sermons.  Their services do not dwell on guilt, sin or evil – negative things - but more on the ‘prosperity gospel’ – words fit for a middle-class audience or a desperate working-class one.  Jesus wants you to be rich!  It seems Calvin is missing even from some modern Protestant-derived non-denominational environments.  The smiley face has replaced the cross.

Ehrenreich’s next stop is the corporate CEOs that hire ‘life’ and success coaches, and rely on ‘hunches’, ‘instinct’ and snap decisions to make major changes – not dry statistics or numbers.  She especially highlights Tom Peters as one of the leading business gurus of ‘creative destruction’ and chaos – chaos that seems to have somewhat negative consequences, like mass layoffs.  Corporate workplaces, especially white-collar ones, are overrun with ‘team-building’ and positivity training, and ‘negative’ people are shunned and even fired.  Many ‘positivity’ coaches say, “Throw the negative people in your life out.”  While many ordinary people were deluded into buying impossible mortgages, what about the many deluded CEOs and firms that sold them to them?  Their delusions were even greater.  And that went all the way to the top, even to the Randian Alan Greenspan. (see commentary on Greenspan, “Who is Ron Paul?,” below, as well as 4 book reviews in which he is mentioned).

Her last stop is the academic environments that churn out ‘happyness’ studies, and college programs in ‘positive’ psychology.  (Really!)  While the scientific foundation of this branch of ‘psychology’ is so flimsy even the academic leader of this movement, Martin Seligman, is dubious, it soldiers on with help from corporation donations.  The Templeton Society, a right-wing foundation that also promotes creationism, has donated.  Seligman even explicitly opposes trying to change society, but instead wants you to ‘change your mind instead.’  This, ultimately, is the extremely conservative message of ‘positive’ psychology.

This environment is not limited to conservative religious, economic, political and corporate figures.  It extends to some liberals, like Oprah Winfrey, whose positive ‘feel-good’ philosophy is merely a gentler rehashing of the same magical idealism dished out by the prosperity gospel’s religious figures.  Though at least if you sit in her audience, you might win a car.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
August 5, 2013