Monday, March 30, 2015

Not So Glorious

"A Blaze of Glory,” by Jeff Shaara, 2013

Shaara is probably the premier writer on the Civil War right now, following in the footsteps of historians Bruce Catton, James McPherson & Shelby Foote.  His novels of the war are historical fiction, but provide a living picture of the battles, strategy, tactics and personalities involved.   As far as they go, they are accurate.   But it seems that no one has noticed that his books are devoid of politics – devoid of black people or slavery – devoid of any negative background to the especially ‘Southern’ cause.  It looks like he’s trying to sell his books to everyone, including unreconstructed Confederates.
Shiloh Church Today
His father Michael wrote the first in the series, “Killer Angels,” about the battle of Gettsyburg and especially the struggle at Little Round Top.  The son followed with two more books on the Eastern campaigns, “Last Full Measure” and “Gods and Generals.”  The latest series cover the western front - Shiloh (“A Blaze of Glory,”) to Vicksburg (“A Chain of Thunder,”) to the campaigns around Atlanta and Savannah (the latter to be released in May.)  While roundly ignored by some, the western theater was for the most part a long string of victories for the anti-slavery cause, from seizing New Orleans in 1861 all the way to Sherman’s entry into Savannah, Georgia in 1864.  Shaara is attempting to correct that impression – though it is not one that those actually familiar with the war would have. 

This book is about Shiloh in  western Tennessee.  The titles of the books attempt to give a romantic and somewhat gauzy cover to the writing.  The battle of Shiloh was no ‘blaze of glory.’  It was a bloody mess.  But you can’t very well call the book, “A Bloody Confusion” or “2 Days in a Living Hell,” though it would be more accurate.  

Shaara himself attempts to improve upon his father’s original formula which focused exclusively on the actions of the various generals or commanders in the first books.  He has now introduced one enlisted man in each army, and even will include a female civilian in his book about Vicksburg.  In this book on Shiloh it is a union soldier named Bauer from the 16th Wisconsin, part of Prentiss’ division recruited out of Milwaukee.  Prentiss’ division formed the central unit of the ‘Hornet’s Nest’ that crushed ‘secsesh’ attacks for many crucial hours.   For the Confederate army, it is a mounted trooper named Seeley, riding with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the infamous murderer of Fort Pillow and the most successful cavalryman west of the Appalachians. 

Exposed is one of two major conceptual flaws in the book series – the ‘great man’ theory of history. In this book that angle is somewhat mitigated, but still the focus is on Grant, Sherman, Sidney Johnston, the leader of the Confederate Army; Prentiss and a top aide to Johnston, Harris.  That focus gives us a window into the mistakes and successes of the leaders, which is invaluable.  Yet what is involved beyond that – as in any battle, class struggle, mass protest or strike – are the individual actions of thousands of people and lower-level leaders, and the population that surrounds them.  At this point in history, that is not a radical thing to point out, yet so much history, film and ideology in the U.S. is still centered on a select few ‘heroes.’  Even the film “Selma” did that. (‘Selma’ is reviewed below.)

The second major conceptual flaw is the lack of politics.  There are no black people in these books as yet. Glimpsed twice in passing perhaps.  Yet they are the unknown ‘other’ that undergirds the whole war.  The portrayal of Forrest, for instance, praises his daring solo charge into a brigade of union infantry at the end of the battle of Shiloh, in which he grabbed one small man to use as a shield while still riding his horse!  Yet nothing is mentioned of his background – a prominent slave trader and virulent racist, who incidentally went on to murder black and white captives at Fort Pillow.  After the Civil War, he became the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, which was basically the Confederate army in drag – ah, white sheets.  The wives and prostitutes that follow the army are mentioned, but almost nothing about the masses of black ex-slaves flocking to the Union armies.  Nothing about the politics of the various generals is written about – just their allegiance to whatever home state they lived in, north or south.  Shaara has essentially de-politicized the Civil War.  He has neutered it of economics.  He has turned it into a military encounter based on geography and nothing more.  

But on to what Shaara does best.  Shiloh was the collision of two large armies full of mostly green, inexperienced soldiers in a woods just south of the Tennessee River, a thick woods full of deep ravines, minor roads, dotted with a few fields, saturated with water, muddy, wet and cold.  All centered between a little log church, Shiloh, at an unknown crossroads and a pond that became saturated with blood.  The Union army suffered from complacency, slowness and inexperience, the Confederate army from divided leadership, arrogance and slowness too.  Shaara makes you relive this battle as if you were there, and this is his skill as a novelist – all based on deep research.  

It was probably Sherman’s worst day.  Sherman in this book is still fretting over the Union route at the First Bull Run, where he saw the Union army run in panic and fear.  Grant’s army is camped in the fields south of Pittsburg Landing, waiting for Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio to join them so they can move south and attack the Confederate rail head at Corinth, Mississippi and cut that rail line to the east.  Sherman here is trying to keep his soldiers calm and in doing so ignores the increasing number of reports of Confederate cavalry patrols, cannon fire, aggressive captives talking about how the whole Union army would be crushed, even sightings of gray troops in the woods.  There is no reconnaissance in force ordered by Sherman or Grant, as both of them discount a surprise attack. Even the Union cavalry seems not to stray far from camp.  Yet that is exactly what happens – a surprise at dawn on Sunday, April 6th, 1862.  If they had thought about it for a minute from the Confederate point of view, attacking Grant’s army before the arrival of Buell was the only sensible thing to do.

On a smaller level it reminds me somewhat of Stalin disbelieving months of reports from his own spies and military sources that the Nazis were planning military action against the USSR. Which almost led to the loss of Leningrad and Moscow.  

So if you can imagine mostly new Union troops encamped in their white tents, getting up from bed, preparing breakfast only to have long lines of Confederate infantry suddenly sighted coming out of the woods to your south – well, a partial route ensued.  No emplacements had been dug, no trees felled, no defensive positions prepared.  Sherman finally realized he was under attack by seeing the butternut uniforms of the enemy infantry himself.  Only Prentiss had advanced in force to meet the Confederate threat.  

Ultimately over a whole day of confused and desperate fighting the union forces are pushed to the high bluffs overlooking Pittsburg Landing when P.T. Bureaugard calls off the last Confederate assault just before evening. He is confident that the next day he can route Grant. Evidently he is unaware that the first units of the Army of the Ohio are coming across the Tennessee and that Lew Wallace’s division of Grant’s army is also coming as reinforcements.  The next day the story is reversed over the same bloody ground.

Ambrose Bierce was in this battle on the Union side and wrote “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” about it. Owl Creek ran along the north-western edge of the Shiloh battlefield. That ghastly story captures the mood of this morbid and cruel encounter.  The Shiloh battlefield is now a federal national park.  Bloody Pond is a shrunken body of water from what I saw 40 years ago.  The wagon trail, the fence along the Hornet’s Nest, Duncan Field, the Peach Orchard, Shiloh Church and the spot where Sidney Johnston died are still to be visited.  This is ‘hallowed ground’ for the blood shed to crush the slave economic system.  Ultimately, while the Union lost more soldiers, the Confederates retreated to Corinth and even abandoned that rail line.  The battle was declared a ‘victory’ for the “North.” but the Union unpreparedness and the stupid Confederate frontal assaults were not victories for the soldiers involved.  

Many books about the civil war are reviewed below, mostly concerning the support for the Union among southerners in nearly every ‘Confederate’ state – i.e. the failure of southern nationalism. Use blog search box, upper left.

P.S. - In the next book on Vicksburg, Shaara finally has one short scene involving an old black man on a Mississippi plantation and one particularily vicious rich planter's wife.  And a single female civilian in Vicksburg tending the wounded. 

Red Frog
March 30, 2015
Commune de Cortona, Italia 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Maleness That Failed

"Affliction,” the Book and Film.  Written by Russell Banks. Film directed by Paul Schrader.  Cast:  Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn and William Dafoe. 

This film is based on one of the most powerful stories by one of the top fiction writers in the U.S. – Russell Banks.  Banks concentrates, not in a political way, but in a graphic way, on the life of working-class people in New England and Florida who live in trailer parks or under bridges, troubled men and boys who drive buses, engage in theft and petty drug dealing or are the town snow-plow driver and cop.  “Affliction” itself is set in a small cold New Hampshire town, Lawford, in forests and mountains covered in snow, where summer never seems to appear.  It's sort of like a Fargo deathscape with hills.

Wade Whitehouse is the prototypical working-class male of a certain generation who grew up thinking ‘macho’ was the same as being a man.  His ‘pop’ is a massive and abusive drunk; his mother a meek woman who puts up with it.   Their father verbally and physically abused everyone, including his two ‘pansy’ sons, until they got out of the isolated house.  Both Wade and brother Rolfie still share the scars – they are ‘afflicted.’  Wade became somewhat like his father, though he doesn’t fully realize it.  Rolfie retreated into timidity and books. 

This book is a fitting sequel to Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” That book was also the a story of the failure of a working-class male in the face of wealth.  These books are more than the light-weight stories of “The Great Gatsby” – they truly are the great American novels. 

Class plays a role in this book, as you would imagine.  The men who run this small town – especially Gordon LaRiviere – hire everyone, control who is elected, who becomes police chief, who makes the money, who owns the land.  Wade never really understands how things work, except he’s at the bottom.  When a rich hunter dies in the woods while trying to shoot a buck on the first day of hunting season, Wade absurdly blames his buddy Jack who was the hunting guide.  Really without any proof, just an idea that Jack did it for the money from some mysterious Mafioso - money Wade never has.  This obsession leads to a violent denouement.

Wade’s ex-wife is now married to a guy that drives an Audi, while Wade is still in a beat-up old truck or car.  She won’t let their daughter Jill spend time with Wade, and Jill is afraid of her father, whose anger and rough ways are just below the surface.  She always wants to go home to her upper middle-class household, where bad things usually don’t happen.   Wade can’t make appointments to pick her up on time, can’t deal with his car problems or tooth problems, drinks and smokes weed at the drop of a hat, disappears, has no concept of time – he’s basically poor father material.   

The most gruesome scene is Wade and his girlfriend Maggie’s arrival at the isolated Whitehouse home in wintertime.  In it sits Pop drinking whiskey as usual.  The house is freezing cold, as the furnace has died and Pop has not fixed it.  They ask where Ma is.  Gradually it dawns on them – and not through anything Pop has said – that Ma lies dead upstairs in bed, wrapped in blankets.  Did she die of hypothermia?  At the pre-funeral family meeting, their sister, who is a born-again Christian, tries to lead a prayer.  Pop growls like an angry bear at certain lame Christian clichés, then loudly ends the prayer meeting – which even Wade is scoffing at. 

What is really going on in town is that LaRiviere and a rich businessman are buying up all the property around the mountain for a ski resort, which will destroy the little town of Lawford.  Wade is told that this property grab is going on - and it might even involve his father's house.  But never understands that this is not why the hunter died or was shot.  This ‘conspiracy’ is over his head.  His inability to think logically and instead to react emotionally dooms him. 

The story ends in fire, death and disappearance into Canada.  You will never forget it, nor the ‘maleness’ that fails. 

Other great books by Russell Banks – "Cloudsplitter" (about John Brown),“The Sweet Hereafter,” “Continental Drift,” “Trailer Park,” “The Reserve," "Lost Memory of Skin" and “Rule of the Bone.” (The last reviewed below.)  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought the book at Mayday Books excellent sale / used section.
Red Frog
March 24, 2015

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Exile From Main Street

"American Vandal – Mark Twain Abroad,” by Roy Morris Jr.,  2015

Mark Twain was the quintessential American in the 1800s.  He was probably also the funniest man on many continents.    He proved that by his travels, where he spent an incredible 12 years living outside the U.S., and also moved incessantly within the U.S.  Twain crossed the Atlantic dozens of times in the process.  Travel was essential to Twain, not only as the direct topic of many of his books, but also as a way to earn money on speaking tours.  He literally ‘lit out for the territory.’ 

The Travelin' Man - A Citizen of The World
Direct works about travel included “The Innocents Abroad,” “Roughing It,” “Following the Equator,” “Life on the Mississippi,” and “A Tramp Abroad.”  Even novels that are not about ‘travel’ per se were influenced by it, like “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.”  “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a raft ride down the mighty Mississippi – something every kid in his right mind had a ‘hankering’ to do.  (In fact, cruises from St. Paul are now being arranged to travel the length of the river…)

Twain wanted to be at home anywhere in the world, and was intimidated by none of it.  Much he found unpleasant, but some wonderful.  He commented on the dirty poverty of the ‘Holy Land,’ the thievishness of the citizens of Naples, the backwardness of Tangiers, the ‘adulterous’ behavior of the French.  However, he loved Hawaii and Bermuda, was fascinated by his long sojourn in India, felt comfortable in England and Berlin, lived all over Europe, including for many years in Florence, Italy with his family. 

The word ‘vandal’ in the book title comes from the methods some tourists employ to bring home every artifact they can.  This book backgrounds Twain’s travel stories and aphorisms, and in the process provides a picture of his home life that is not always pretty.  Twain’s bankruptcy forced him to leave his ship-like home in Hartford and go into financial exile outside the U.S. for almost 9 years.  He lived in many places restlessly even while in the U.S., so his traveling rarely stopped.  He lost two daughters and a wife before dying himself in 1909 – not surviving to see the horrors of the 20th century, but perhaps anticipating them. 

Twin was a life-long religious skeptic and was not afraid to express it.  His first major trip on the steamer “Quaker City,” which traveled through the Mediterranean to Palestine, formed the basis for his humorous take on the follies of the ‘old world’ in “The Innocents Abroad.”  He joked about the multiple relics and Catholic sites in Italy that all seem to have the bones of the same saint.  In Palestine, he said of Bethlehem it was full of ‘troops of beggars and relic-sellers;’ Jerusalem was ‘mournful and dreary and lifeless.”  He called the ‘holy land’ a “howling wilderness instead of a garden.”  And perhaps it is still today.

Twain also slowly became an anti-imperialist – opposing the U.S. wars against Spain, in the Philippines and Cuba, even the Boer War.  “I left these shores, at Vancouver, a red-hot imperialist. … But since then my eyes have been opened.  I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines.  We have gone there to conquer and not to redeem. … And so I am an anti-imperialist.”  Twain enjoyed the Republic of Switzerland and in 1891 compared it to Russia:  “It seems to me that a crusade to make a bonfire of the Russian throne and fry the Czar in it would be some sense.”  A pre-Bolshevik? 

Most important was his post-bankruptcy trip to earn money to pay his many creditors. He even visited Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth on this trip, where he was described as a ‘short, slightly-built man with a mass of iron gray hair.”  He and his family continued on a lecture tour through India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, mostly English-speaking colonies of the largest colonial power of the time, Great Britain.  This trip furnished the material for the book “Following the Equator,” though as the author argues, it really followed the Tropic of Capricorn.  In this book, Twain is a witness to the brutality of the English colonial mission. He wanted to dynamite a statute to English soldiers who had died subduing the native New Zealanders, the Maori.   He watched a German-born hotel owner in Bombay punch a porter as he’d seen people do to slaves in Hannibal. He notes the extermination of the indigenous people of Tasmania, who had been killed by “fugitive gangs of the hardiest and choicest human devils the world has seen.”  The ‘true’ Tasmanian devil was a white-man.  Twain saw the remaining 16 Tasmanian tribesmen kept behind a fence on an isolated corner of the island, where they all eventually died, the last in 1876.

The book also records Twain's flawed ethnic stereotyping - something he was not in the habit of doing normally.  Twain had a life-long antipathy towards Native Americans, something the author never explains.  He also hated Paris and the French, evidently because of their sexual ‘promiscuity.’  At one point he wrote an attack on the French called “The French and the Comanche,” which comparing the two despised ethnicities.  This is perhaps why “Injun Joe,” the fearsome and evil character in “Tom Sawyer,” has no resemblance to the person he was based on, Joe Douglas.  Douglas was ugly due to facial damage from small pox.  He was a decent person of mixed-ethnicity from Hannibal who lived to be 102, dying not trapped in a cave but from bad pickled pigs feet. 

Twain started his life as a small-town lawyer’s son in shackadelic Hannibal, MO, and eventually had the money to build a gigantic dream house, meet all the prominent writers of his day, travel incessantly, putting his family up in hotels, mansions, spas and villas all over the world and in the U.S.  He met a Russian Czar, the Queen of England, the Viceroy of India, and the American President Teddy Roosevelt – even though he opposed the latter on the issue of war.  His class position changed but his opinions and attempts at ‘truth-telling’ did not, which is why he was so popular across the English-speaking world.  His travels formed an integral part of his humanity and his writing.  Twain knew that without travel, the world remains in many ways ‘a closed book.’ 

And I got it as a gift.
Red Frog
March 21, 2015

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bikers Unite

"Spring is Here and the Time is Right for Riding in the Streets, oh…”
Magic Bike
Not quite the same sentiment of the Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man.’  There was a time during the summer of the Republican convention in 2004 when the police were stopping young people on bicycles as suspicious ‘terrorists’ of some kind.  Terrorizing motorists, Republicans and sex stereotypes evidently.  Now Minneapolis is one of the top bicycle towns in the U.S.  Number two maybe? The bicycle/pedestrian Greenway cutting across the south side in a deep rail ditch has more traffic than most city streets.  It’s not all just because there are few hills in this town. People ride in the winter and ‘fat wheel’ winter bikes owe Minneapolis their status as birth mother.  I remember when this storm of two wheels started, and one of the local right-wingers was virtually threatening to run over bicyclists with his SUV.  He didn’t of course – another blowhard.  Fewer bicyclists are dying because drivers are getting used to them.  This is true in every city where bicycling picks up – accidents lessen.  But pickup truck drivers are still the worst, the most aggressive, the most hostile.  The white bikes still show up as memorials, lashed to street-side poles.

Young people are tried of the car culture and nature is tired of the car culture.  The auto companies are running scared, just like the churches. The Democrats have had to make being ‘bike friendly’ part of their cultural platform in dozens of cities, as they have little to offer beyond easy decisions to paint white lines down some streets.  Go to Amsterdam or Copenhagen.  There cars are #5 on the roads, after bicycles, scooters, buses, delivery trucks and then cars.  Or Hanoi, where the destructive car culture of China has still not appeared so strongly. Scooters are king in that old city.  Or Phnom Penh – tuk tuk’s and scooters rule with bicycles.  Even in China the bicyclists are making a comeback through the thick smog and traffic jams. 


Right-wing motorists argue that bicycles should be governed by the laws of automobiles.  Yet the bicycle rider is closer to a pedestrian than a car driver.  Are people on skateboards, push scooters, roller-blades or wheelchairs all like autos because they also have wheels?  Just to ask the question, answers it.  What really distinguishes the two is not the wheels, but the motor.  Bicycles are human-powered like the others, and can be carried into elevators, ridden on sidewalks, thrown over fences and ridden on walking trails.  Anything with a motor – including those tiny short scooters kids get for off-roading – cannot do that.  Which is why bicyclists – except for who I call the ‘spandex boy-scouts’ – ride through red lights and stop signs when no one is there.  It’s called jay-riding and its similar to jay-walking.  A misdemeanor ‘crime’ not enforced, a ticket not written.  A law ginned up by automobile drivers for bike riders 60+ years ago.  The reason bicyclists do this evil deed is because the most precious asset of a bicyclist is forward motion.   


Did you know that bicycles are a gateway drug?  Yeah, to good physical and mental health, inexpensive commuting, zero emissions and being grounded in the places you pass through.  It will also get you places faster than walking.  My 5 mile round-trip to work gives me a 40 minutes workout, building exercise into the day.  Not relegating exercise to some concrete building separate from daily tasks. 

Metamorphosis (CGG)
However, that shiny two-wheeled thing with a seat can be a gateway drug to motorcycles too.  Lurking behind every limber lumber-sexual on his or her single-gear bike is a scooter, and behind that, a 2-wheeler with a bigger engine.  Now why would I want to spoil this paean to idyllic pastoralism?  Because sometimes you need an engine and the most environmentally friendly in general is a good motorcycle.  Look throughout the world – scooters and motorcycles out-number cars.  They are cheaper and use less gasoline.  They certainly need to be engineered better to cut emissions even more, but they are a start.   In many countries they carry as much as a small truck.  They can haul trailers as part of being work vehicles – though bikes can do that too, but not quite on the same scale.  They are easier to fix than any car, with fewer parts.  Bicycles are even easier to maintain, and with a spare inner-tube you are set for most road problems.  


I’ve had leftists rag at me because I don’t wear a helmet all the time - alleging that I’m filling up the emergency rooms on the tax-payers dime.  My mother’s only question for years always was, “Aren’t they dangerous?”  Nothing else.  I’ve had people compelled to tell me about someone who was hurt while riding - this is the only way they can talk about motorcycles. Maybe they were jealous.  35 years of riding and that is their only conversation.

Sure enough, they are not retirement vehicles.  Believe me, riders know.  The question is, though, who is doing the killing?  Mostly, it is car and truck drivers.  Whose record of killing each other isn’t too shabby either.  The stats in the U.S. are worse than the murder rate.  Yeah, the nice folks behind the masses of steel thousands of pounds of heavy.  Texting, eating, talking on their phones, reading the map or GPS, playing with their entertainment center.  The ones wagging their fingers at bikers.  The same people who also threaten bicyclists.  That little helmet you’ve got on?  Perhaps if you fall on the top of your head, you might be somewhat cushioned.  Everywhere else?  Hmm…  Bike and MC helmets are a sugar pill placebo to make you feel a bit safe.  And they help – but not enough in many circumstances.

At any rate, safety is mostly about the intersection of those who drive.  The ones on the bicycles and motorcycles and the ones in the cars.  The more vehicles, the more danger.  The faster the vehicle, the more danger.  The more a road is set up for speed, the more danger.  The more drunk the driver – including those on motorcycles – the more danger.  The more in a hurry we are – the more danger.  So we are all in this together.  The best thing for everyone would be to keep the car in the garage as much as possible.  The best thing for nature would be to keep the car in the garage as much as possible.  Or never need a car in the first place.  Winter makes this difficult and then there is mass transit, which is also part of this story.

But enough of the public service announcement. 

Bicycling is a little like flying through the air.  Motorcycling is a lot like flying through the air.  Like in a dream.  Flying in dream analysis means ‘freedom.’ Happy is what you get motorcycling.  Happy.  Motorcycling is not about having a ‘death wish’ but actually having a ‘life-wish.”  Oxygen in the nostrils, wind and sun, contact with the road around you, easier to pull over and ‘smell the flowers,’ easier to pick roads that are beautiful, not just fast.  To hug the one driving and to be hugged.  Then there are subcultures.  When was the last time the car drivers hung around a scooter outing or at Whiskey Junction, Bobs 33 Hut or the first Thursday at Dulonos Pizza and just enjoyed the camaraderie?  Or went on a Critical Mass rolling protest? Or participated in a ‘ride your bike to work’ day?  Almost never.  Get out of the glass box, the rolling retirement home, which is more like a moving TV looking at the world. Ride your bike(s).  Spring is here and the time is right for riding in the streets.

Mayday has a good selection of practical DIY books on bicycle maintenance, bike maps of the city, gardening, fixing things and other down-to-earth skills we need to survive. 

Prior related reviews include “The Outlaws – One Man’s Rise Through the Savage World of Renegade Biker,”and  Shop Class as Soulcraf.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
March 18, 2015

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Zizek Crushes Liberalism

"Violence,” By Slavoj Zizek, 2008

This is not a pacifist book.  Zizek is the post-modern philosopher who feeds at the banquet table of ethical dialectics via Hegel and Kant and the secret trough of Marx.  He operates in the ‘post-left,’‘post-idealist,’ 'post-modern,' 'post-ideological,' 'post-racial' world – yet since history did not end, those terms are in themselves suspect.  While at times wrapping himself in Lacanian psychology, in this book he produces an analysis that a Marxist could be proud of.  Violence in his meaning here is that done by religion, by identity politics, by liberalism, and ultimately by ‘the system’ - capitalism, that great ‘universalizer.’ 
In other books the contradictory Zizek calls Marxism some ‘old’ and ‘ancient’ idea.  Yet he cannot help but use it.  He starts a discussion of the post-Katrina New Orleans by highlighting the alleged role of poor people ‘looting’ and murdering after the ‘breakdown of law and order.’ He later points out that hardly any of this happened.  The looting that did take place was to get necessities.  The murders were by police or the storm.  He seems to criticize the 2005 Arab outbreaks in the French suburbs against police brutality as ‘blind violence’ yet later says this kind of violence has emancipatory potential.  Zizek usually says a few good things about the alleged positive characteristics of Christianity (as opposed to other religions) but here he takes a stone cold opposition to religion by looking carefully at Islam.  At one point he sounds like a Republican talking about how the lower classes or the ‘losers’ suffer from psychological and financial ‘envy,’ citing Nietzsche’s philosophy.  Then Zizek turns the idea upside down in a later chapter by accusing the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives of actually being envious of the revolutionary project itself, envious of those who are not happy with the present.

Zizek is the center of his own quirky philosophy - a personalism that attempts to universalize itself on its good days, and descends into isolated ‘thought’ provocations on its worst.  He dots the book with film references, especially Hitchcock, some of which seem somewhat forced.  One chapter goes on an on about ‘liberal communists’ who turn out to be people like George Soros and Bill Gates – billionaires with charitable capitalist goals.  Thus turning the whole concept of ‘liberal communist’ into a worthless phrase.  Yet this book might be his most consistent. 

While usually keeping mum about his ‘native’ Slovenia, Zizek here talks about Slovenia for a page and a half!  Slovenians are the first in the former workers’ states to reject bourgeois attempts at dividing the working class through religious or ethnic appeals.  They did this by electing a leftish government in 2014 based on votes from many different religious and ethnic communities.  Zizek’s efforts against particularism and identity politics must be in the water in Ljubljana. 

Zizek does this by coming out unequivocally for the Palestinians.  He says the answer to the question, ‘Are you a Jew or a human” is the latter.  He does this by indicating that ‘tolerance’ of Islamic intolerance, as liberals are prone to do, is paternalistic and a form of liberal racism.  Muslims (and others) are not held by Western liberals (even when they call themselves ‘radicals’) to the same universal standards as anyone else – as if they are incapable.  Abu Ghraib demonstrated to Zizek, not a strange departure from American morality, but an exhibit of the actual underside of American culture, an unconscious ‘id’ expression of its habitual unspoken culture.  Not enshrined in law, yet adhered to more rigorously – such as other unwritten rules, like the ‘blue code of silence.’ 

Zizek focuses on the ‘solipsistic speculative dance of capital, which pursues its goal of profitability in blessed indifference to how its movement will affect social reality.’  Capital throws off systemic, objective violence every day, yet this goes unnoticed by pro-capitalist pacifists.  Only ‘violence’ in the abstract (which can involve the oppressed…) is condemned by them.  In this light he highlights the Brecht quote: “What is the robbery of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” to illustrate this point.   

In a chapter cleverly titled, “Fear Thy Neighbor As Thyself,’ Zizek describes modern liberal politics as ‘post-political bio-politics’ which dwells on cultural issues alone, as represented by different religions, nationalities, genders or ethnicities – never classes.  Your family, biological group, sex, local and geographical community are all that matter.  These are the roots of a narrow ‘particularism’ which divides humanity.  The ‘neighbor’ is really not everyone. These identity politics actually promote violence between communities or religions or nations.  As Khomeini pointed out when Iran killed some dissidents – they were ‘animals’ not Muslims. Zizek wants to politicize culture instead of accepting the culturalization of politics.

Zizek takes on Muslim fundamentalism by wondering why some have to kill or prohibit expressions of non-belief regarding their religion IF they are secure in their religion.  The answer, obviously, is that they are not, and in fact fear the criticisms are correct.  Even the concept of the ‘veil’ is based on the 'fact' that Muslim men are evidently so helpless and incapable of sexual restraint that they will violate any woman who does not wear one.  He points out that only atheism rises above the particular narrow allegiance to one religion or another, and is the road to the universal.  He calls atheism ‘Europe’s most precious legacy.”  The place where people are no longer ‘Christian” or “Muslim” or “Jewish” but humans.  As Marxists understand, even the concept and reality of ‘the working class’ will some day become obsolete, just as religion has now become obsolete. 

Zizek calls for confronting Islamic fundamentalist ideas, not running away claiming ‘cultural relativism.’  He identifies this ‘tolerance’ with the racism and conservatism of the Western liberal.  In his clever contradictory way he says: “The failure of all the efforts to unite religions proves that the only way to be religious in general is under the banner of the ‘anonymous religion of atheism.’”  He says that Muslims ‘must be treated as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.’  Regarding Christians, he points out that the Catholic Church’s paedophilia problem is actually inherent in the church itself, and not just related to ‘some’ wayward priests.  It is the unwritten rule within the Church, and I might add, many undemocratic / personalist organizations.  Sexuality is a material force and it will out, and the more repressed, the worse will be the manifestation.

Zizek books always include funny moments where he stands our knowledge on its head.  He has ridiculous takes on the narcissistic culture of self-fulfilment that is hoisted on everyone – to hedonistically ‘enjoy’ everything one consumes.  The ‘enjoy’ of the waiter at the restaurant will haunt you.

Zizek ends the book with a chapter discussing Marxist culture critic Walter Benjamin’s idea of ‘divine violence.’  Seemingly it is unavoidable that some theorists (and writers) must use Christian or religious ideas in order to give their thought some kind of ostensible weight. After much torturous reasoning, Zizek comes around to conclude that ‘divine’ violence is really revolutionary / emancipatory violence.  It is the one form of violence he supports.  Its divinity has nothing to do with being sanctioned by some ‘big Other” – like God, a Church, a religion or the government, but issues directly from ‘the people’ themselves.  Why divine?  Only in the sense that ‘the people’ are the only real divinity that exists.  This is the divinity of the French Revolution.

I’ll leave you with a good Zizek quote that reflects the world-wide struggle for emancipation:  “”The formula of revolutionary solidarity is not ‘let us tolerate our differences,’ it is not a pact of civilizations, but a pact of struggles which cut across civilizations, a pact between what in each civilization undermines its identity from within, (and) fights against its oppressive kernel.  What unites us is the same struggle.” 

Mayday Books has a large selection of Zizek and other political philosophers.  Zizek books reviewed below are:  Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?”, “First As Tragedy, Then as Farce” and “Living in the End Times.”

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
March 14, 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

“I Owe my Soul to the Company Store”


So who has a target on their backs now?

Many towns and cities have their rulers.  They are those who own the biggest companies in town.  The University that dominates a city.  The one factory, mine or mill that employs most everyone in the ville. The industry that has settled in an area, like tech in Silicon Valley, Route 10 in Boston or Austin, TX.  Mining in Appalachia or oil in Williston, ND.  William Domhoff, in his ground-breaking 1967 work (for the U.S. that is) ‘Who Rules America?’ described just such a situation for the whole nation. (Domhoff updated the book in 2009.) It detailed the interlocking directorates and families that dominate the largest corporations of the U.S. and hence the capitalist economy.  Every country, city and small town has a profile like this.  Even in your one-horse town, you know the businessmen who seem to run everything.  And many times they are elected mayor.

Almost 50 years after Domhoff’s book first came out oligopoly and corporate dominance are even more apparent, and they have gone world-wide. No corporation worth its salt operates in just one country.  Most recent profitable expansions for U.S. corporations have been overseas, or in Mexico or Canada, thus belying a simple-minded Keynesianism that bases its analysis on purely national economies - which no longer exist.

International expansion does not always work.  It becomes over-expansion – a tendency built into capitalist functioning.  Target, one of the corporations that rules Minneapolis, MN, USA, attempted to expand in Canada after buying a retail chain there, Zellers.  Now they are pulling out of Canada, declaring the Canadian version of bankruptcy, laying off 17,000+ workers in Canada and another 2,000 in the Minneapolis area. Yesterday, the slaughter happened here in town – 1,700 let go after meetings every hour in the morning.  1,400 empty jobs will not be filled – for a total of 3,100 missing jobs in the U.S.  Remaining workers, as is normal in the U.S., will pick up the slack through forced ‘productivity’ gains.  Still a drop in the bucket compared to the carnage in Canada but it hurts no less. 

Our Democratic Party governor, Mark Dayton, is part of the family that started Target – which shows you the transparent intersection of commerce and politics in the U.S.  He just had a PR talking-to with the present Target CEO Brian ‘Hatchet’ Cornell about Target’s intentions.  He got a toothless pledge from them to ‘stay in Minnesota.’  Just like the one Northwest Airlines / Delta gave Minnesota and then ignored.  (Delta is one of the ruling anti-union corporations in Atlanta, along with Home Depot, Turner Broadcasting and the granddaddy of them all, Coke.)  The invisible mayor of Minneapolis, liberal Democrat Betsy Hodges, was nowhere to be heard in this situation.  After all, it is ‘at will’ employment, as no one at Target was covered by a union.  No long warning was needed either.  ‘At will’ is the legal term for the bourgeois employment dictatorship where you can be dismissed ‘at the will” of your liege lord.

The prior CEO of Target, Gregg Steinhafel, who planned the over-expansion into Canada, also presided over the first large data breach for a retailer and ran an organizationally-troubled ship.  He got a $61M golden parachute for screwing up, according to Barrons.  How many Target employees facing the axe now will be getting that?  At best a severance check will be theirs.  The corporate press reported an ‘average’ check of $60k, which if true across the board from admin assistant to IT person, would be generous. "Average' can vary from high to low, so more info might be needed on these bonuses. However it is a drop in the bucket for a billion-dollar company - a readjustment cost.

Which shows you how different classes are treated under modern capitalism.  This has been obvious for years to anyone paying attention.  Criminals in Wall Street firms, the military, the government or law 
enforcement go free.  Everyone else pays – and pays – and pays. 

Mass layoffs or business closures like this have probably happened in your own town, and you are familiar with the ramifications.  One of these is the effect on small businesses.  These events expose the lie that small business is some kind of ‘job creator’ and the main engine of capital.  Every sandwich shop, rental property owner, retail outlet, sub-contractor, bar and restaurant in downtown Minneapolis is thinking about reduced business.  Target’s vendors are also looking at reductions in business.  This is because most small businesses are just feeder ramps for large capital.  They are the pilot fish around the sharks.

Target is the semi-hip version of Wal-Mart, with better advertising and ‘cooler’ designer products.  They use the same poverty-stricken labor in Asia and low-paid wage workers in the U.S. as Wal-Mart to make their profits, but that doesn’t come out in the ads.  Several years ago they got an exemption from the City of Minneapolis so they did not have to adhere to affirmative-action standards.  Recently Betsy Hodges, who is basically a front-person for Target and other corporations in the city, declared that she was against the $15 an hour wage in Minneapolis.  Which Target certainly applauded, as they have several stores in town.  The workers in ‘beige and red’ won’t be getting any support from Hodges. 

Monday some middle-management got the axe and no one is probably crying about that except their families.  Layers of useless management are legendary signs of inefficiency.  On Tuesday it was the turn of what is reported to be mostly older workers, some with 20 years of service.  They will find it hard to find a new job in this economy. Some young and enthusiastic Millenials hired at Target headquarters right out of the universities, like the University of Minnesota business school and the design and textile schools also were let go.  These schools serve as feeder-ramps for corporate work.

Welcome to capitalism.  Being laid off, being on welfare, using food stamps, going to jail, getting arrested, getting divorced, getting injured at work, being fired from a job or tear-gassed by police are all just part of growing up in this society.  Maybe if you are lucky you’ll even get to strike.  It is not your fault.  Draw the conclusions if you want.  Take it from someone who has been laid-off too many times.  You are unfortunately cogs in a machine – just another commodity to the rulers.  Like the stuff sold on the shelves at Target.  And when not sold, sent to the reseller. 

(Commentary on $15 an Hour campaign, below.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

Revised 3/14/2015)
Red Frog
March 11, 2015

Saturday, March 7, 2015

50 Years Ago Today

Memorial at Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (CGG)
"Selma,” film directed by Ava Duvernay, written by Paul Webb and Duvernay, 2014

Given there are so many reviews of this film already, I’m going to give the film a ‘bullet-point’ review.  Duvernay is a black woman and Webb is a white guy that looks like Garrison Keillor.  Webb has this one film to his credit.

1.                  MLK’s speeches in this film might be more radical and less churchy than the actual ones he gave.  (The MLK family would not allow the actual texts…)  Even the conversations with LBJ sound more fraught than they were in reality.
2.                  It shows that this 1965 movement was a mass movement, not just preachers.
3.                  The film is a hagiography of King.  Beware of uncritical worship.  There were many other forces in the Civil Rights movement.  Boiling it down to one man is an inaccurate idea, one which this film and the bourgeois press promotes.
4.                  The film helps us remember the violence surrounding the vote protests – not just the beatings on the Pettus Bridge but the cold-blooded handgun murder of a black youth by an Alabama state trooper in a Selma café; the beating death of a white northern preacher at night on the streets of Selma by racists; the shooting of Viola Luizzo by the Klan after the Montgomery rally.
5.                  Malcolm X is portrayed as humble and apologetic when he visited Selma.  He was not.
6.                  SNCC loses every argument to King and the SCLC in the film.  They are browbeaten and shown to be just ‘one person’ in the end – James Forman.  Yet SNCC was the organization that called for the first Pettus Bridge protest march.  Over the long term, King could not succeed nationally because racism was not just about southern Jim Crow.  It ultimately involves the whole capitalist class/ethnic caste structure of society.  Which King was beginning to recognize, and which is why he was shot in 1968 by the Memphis police, with support from the FBI.
7.                  SNCC organized the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County just south of Selma.  It was an explicitly anti-Democratic Party organization that believed in self-defense, and not being a passive victim.  After all, at that time all the politicians in the Jim Crow South were DEMOCRATS, including George ‘Stand in the Doorway” Wallace, Alabama governor.
8.                  The film accurately shows that King wanted to use protesters and bloody beatings as sacrificial victims to sway the hearts of white people, ‘especially the white person in the White House.’  This was the same method used by Gandhi to influence the British imperialists to hand over power peacefully to the new Indian ruling class. (See review of Ambedkar “Annihilation of Caste,” below.)
9.                  When King turns away from the second unauthorized march across the Pettus bridge, the rationale is that “God” told him to.  King had no real evidence of an ambush  and none is shown in the film.  An ambush was a distinct possibility but that could have been anticipated.  Historians since have found it was not ‘God” that called the march off, (the explanation in the film) but a deal made behind the scenes with the federal government. 
10.              The eventual successful 3rd march to Montgomery was made under U.S. military protection.  As the film shows, it was a federally-sanctioned and protected march full of American flags. 
11.              LBJ clearly says several times that he wants King as the ‘leader’ so that the ‘militants’ will not lead the civil rights movement.  Again, the government was backing King at this point.
12.              The film shows quite accurately that even within this alliance, King pushed LBJ.  LBJ would not have initiated a ‘voting rights’ act if not for the events on the ground in Selma.
13.              LBJ worked with Hoover, giving him a life-time appointment as FBI director.  He did not shut down the FBI scandal mongering and attempt to break up King’s marriage, and certainly never investigated the FBI’s role in King’s assassination.  LBJ played both sides.
14.              The national historical context is that in 1964-1965 urban riots happened in Harlem and Watts.  Black self-defense groups like the Deacons for Defense, the Black Panther Party and Robert Williams’ ‘NRA” chapter were organizing in the south.  The pacifism of King was an outlier.
15.              The connection to Ferguson and other recent police shootings is implicitly and explicitly made several times, especially at the end through the theme song “Glory.”  Legal segregation has been ‘overcome,’ but that leaves many things still 'to overcome.'
16.              Today the questions of black, Latino and youth voting rights are again being curtailed. Economic and cultural conditions for the black working class have deteriorated.  Police murders continue, as they did in the 1960s.  The incarceration state is still functioning.  A thin layer of the black middle class exists, mostly based on the gains of the 1960s.  In this film Oprah is their signifier.  50 years later reality now shows that SNCC, the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X and the later MLK far better understood  the real underlying issues in the U.S. These are issues this film glosses over – settling only for the issue of formal democratic voting rights.  It will take more than tolerating beatings and killings or ‘moral witness’ to change this rigid and reactionary society. 

P.S. If you think I was pulling your leg about the memorials to the Selma struggle, here is the accurate report of David Masciotra, who recently went to Selma for the anniversary.  This is present Selma:
                     "At the foot of the bridge, and next to a sign welcoming visitors to Selma, sits a small park of dirt and gravel. Empty soda bottles and fast food wrappers litter the ground where plaques paying tribute to John Lewis and Hosea Williams stand, showing visible decay. It is the size of a children’s playground in a tiny village of the Midwest, and there is hardly anything there to indicate its meaning in American and world history. The edge of the park connects with a vacant strip mall, giving visitors a connection between the disgusting state of the park and the disrepair of the American economy. Across the street is an abandoned used car lot. With its broken surroundings, its dirty trappings, and its placement among the wreckage of bankruptcy, it is ugly; there is no other word for it. But far exceeding the aesthetic wound of the memorial is the grotesquery of the betrayal it represents. If America cannot pay proper respect to its bravest citizens, the citizens who cried and bled to give their country credibility, it belongs on a map far outside the moral universe." 

Red Frog
March 7, 2015