Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Viet Damn

“The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

All You Don't Need Is ...

Love or the Alternative

In politics, the slogan of "love" is an overly-used cliché that demands an inordinate amount of emotional attachment to a very large group of strangers. Because of its utopian unreachability, it is a 'religious' or pop idea, not a real one. We do not need to 'love' every American or every human being. At best we need to be able to cooperate.  We do need to tolerate differences among working people, but we don't need to take everyone out for a beer or a coffee. Really!  As to 'loving' the rich, or tolerating the rich, that is where American nationalism (and every other…) tries to weld the rich and working classes of each nation together. No one will 'love' the rich or even tolerate them until they stop being what they are - rich.

Group Hugs are Insufficient
But I digress.  You hear the tactic of ‘love’ from The Beatles – “All You Need is Love” … and now every millionaire musician or athlete.  You hear it from Black Lives Matter.  You hear it from the Peace Corps – a cultural arm of the State Department.  Private equity businessman Mitt Romney believed in love.  Martha Nussbaum, a feminist professor at the U of Chicago, wrote a whole book on it as an essential political tactic, confusing love with empathy.  Even ‘The Atlantic’ and Paul Ryan believe in ‘love’ – as if it is the same as a commitment to community.  Hillary Clinton, a war-maker of the first order, believes in it.  Subarus are even made by 'love.'  Many preachers – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu - espouse this fantasy from their pulpits while never actually creating a force to ‘institute’ this slippery emotion.  Their churches are certainly not it, as they’ve had plenty of time to prove it. And you thought it was only tender-hearted hippies?  The term has been appropriated, folks.

In a word, it is easy American cant.  It is hard enough to actually love those closest to you, let alone a bunch of co-workers or a crowd in a bar.   The people in your union local are unlikely targets.  Even “love’ of the family or romantic or friend kind demands more than that simple emotion.  Anyone who thinks that ‘love’ will solve all problems, let alone class differences or ethnic problems, is a salesman of fake happiness and is undoubtedly unserious. 

But I digress, or perhaps not.  It’s unpopular to come out against love of this kind – self-congratulatory, abstract, sterile, rhetorical love.  We cannot admit the obvious.  Like actors who thank God for winning an Oscar or Grammy or hack song writers who have no other topic, we have to look away.  Like God, apple pie and the military, it supposedly unites us all.   It is the swarmy cat-video of political jargon.  It is the bastard child of pop psychology and the happiness industry.  Flag it when you hear it.  Someone is lying.

What will replace such an august, ostensibly ‘political’ emotion?  What will put love back in its rightful place?  I think a real political movement settles for cooperation.  Ultimately cooperation is based on the organization of the workplace or ties in a geographic area like a neighborhood, not the organization of the family.  The ideology of the family is what is behind the inert propaganda of 'love' pushed by social reactionaries - something not really suited to bind millions of workers across the world.  In fact 'families' can be quite limited.  Disparate people who have little to unite them in their personal lives can agree on certain basics in action.  Marxists don’t believe that every worker has to love every other worker – it is not doable.  Not even in the same organization!   

But uniting together in practice, in cooperation, as a class, will one day result in something much closer to ‘love’ than the fake imitation we are told to engage in.  After all, the sticky issue of those fascists and capitalists we are supposed to embrace to our bosoms gives the love slogan the odor of a contradictory lie.  Instead, make a boss unhappy. Unite against high rents.  Go on strike.  Form a union.  Oppose a pipeline.  Join a revolutionary or labor organization.  Act together for some progressive purpose.  Eventually that turns into going out for beer or coffee, and perhaps more. 

Red Frog
July 19, 2016

Monday, July 11, 2016

All Over the Map

“The Marxist Theory of Art,” by Dave Laing, 1978

This book is an excellent survey introducing the reader to various Marxist’s theories of art.  It includes short surveys of Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Brecht, Luckacs, Gramsci, Mao, Althusser, Baxandall, Barthes, Benjamin – and some post-modernists that attempt to use Marxism like Kristeva.  Laing spends a good amount of time on Mao Tse-Tung, who is usually ignored in these compendiums. Written in 1978 it takes the recent forms of structuralism and post-modernism seriously, but then rejects them. 

The Hungarian Lukacs - one of many
 Basically, in 1978 there was no consensus on what a ‘Marxist theory of art’ is - just different takes on certain themes.  Clearly a synthesis needs to be reached.  The differences seem to mostly revolve around various apparent contradictions: ‘realism’ versus ‘modernism;’  ‘high’ culture versus ‘low’ or folk culture; art as a ‘passive’ reflection of society or as an ‘active’ dialectical part of society; art as materialistic sociology or as revolutionary praxis; art as decreed by the state or as inspired individualism; art as uplifting or as depressing; art as individualist or as communal; art as a purely economic production process or as living in some higher ‘psychic’ location; art’s economic profitability versus its ability to transcend profit.  And so on.

To my mind, many of these are false contradictions.  Many can be true at the same time, their contradictions taken into account in a higher unity. Lukacs, writing in the 1920 “The Theory of the Novel,” staked his theory on 19th century bourgeois fiction and ruled out anything after that.   Is then ‘stream of consciousness,’ a modernist style after the 19th Century, impossible in the ‘realist’ novel?  Is a theater performance only an attempt to copy real life?  Is classical music the only valid musical art form, one useful in ‘lifting’ the working class up?  Do we always need heroes?  Is agitprop the only style of theater?  Can a society have only one approved artistic painting style?  Can art both reflect and still have a thrust for change? Just asking the questions answers them.  Of course many of these apparent contradictions also depend on the scale of the difference.

What accounts for the different theories?  Many outlooks in this book seem to be historically-based, reflecting the particular material and working-class culture of the theorist’s moment - or needs.  Television, the internet or film get short shift from many of these Marxists, from Engels on. No doubt, future Marxist theories of art will adapt to the culture of the working class as it exists now, not in 1850 or 1930. In addition, the attitude towards art is different within a capitalist society than after the working-class has conquered power.  In the latter, the working class, along with all other classes, will disappear, and this can change the approach to art.   

It is also quite clear that the complex structure of the working classes in the central capitalist countries will produce a varied material culture not easily ‘boxed,’ while societies in the ‘global south’ have an ethnic or religiously-varied working class, and also a more oppressed one.  Both will produce a different kind of culture.  Yet globally there is a certain amount of blending going on too, in almost every field – painting, music, film, the novel, theater, the practical arts like clothing – reflecting the increasing unity of world cultures as capitalist globalization proceeds.  It is creating the links that might allow proletarian internationalism on a cultural level to succeed as well, something that Marx’s slogan ‘workers of the world, unite’ predicted.  ‘Globalization’ could lead to world socialism in spite of itself. 

To take just the most famous debate, Friedrich Engels and Gyorgy Lukacs have been used to give a theoretical basis to socialist realism.  Vladimir Lenin himself wanted an art of revolutionary action, though parts of socialist realism do not actually inspire that.  Yet socialist realism was bureaucratically decreed the only viable form of art, film, literature, poetry in the USSR and other workers states – thus cutting the ruling party off from many cultural developments, the youth and ultimately the working class.  Lukacs opposed Bertold Brecht in this situation, as the former supported socialist realism and Brecht went beyond it.  Brecht did not believe in heroes or making theater entirely naturalistic, and believed in incorporating tenants of modernism instead.  Brecht was a working artist – Lukacs a theorist.  Lukacs was used by the bureaucrats in Moscow; Brecht, not so much.  They both opposed the capitalist view of art – profitable, overwhelmingly individualist, ‘for its own sake,’ ‘style is paramount,’ as pure decoration or entertainment. 

To my mind, socialist realism is certainly a valid style, but not the only one, and this has been proved in practice.  The leftist writing of John Dos Passos incorporated ‘quick cuts,’ as did the film of Eisenstein – both modernist techniques.  Now, however, capitalist art has taken it to such an extreme that no film image sticks, so technique is not decisive, but it can be ideological as well.  Generally technique should not be decisive if the content transmits and is not buried. 

 Ultimately more modern theorists like Walter Benjamin looked for a synthesis of the various views.  This approach mirrors that of Trotsky, who famously blocked with surrealists like Andre Breton and Frida Kahlo and muralist Diego Rivera when he declared that a workers government could not decree a certain artistic style.  Neither Benjamin nor Trotsky are highlighted in this book, which is odd given their volume of writing on the subject.  Due to the book’s age, a later, more conclusive survey of Marxist theories of art is needed.
See prior reviews on “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin,” “Women in Soviet Art,” “9.5 Thesis on Art & Revolution,” “Desert of Forbidden Art,”  The Red Atlantis of Communist Culture,” “Left in London,” and “The Art of Nothingness.” Use blog search box, upper left.  

And I bought it at the excellent used section at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
July 11, 2016

Monday, July 4, 2016

Mississippi John Brown

“The Free State of Jones,” directed by Gary Ross, 2016

This film is somewhat freely adapted from the book of the same name (reviewed below) that told the hidden story of the South during the Civil War.  The story is one among many that shows that the myth of southern nationalism was just that –  a weak ideology promoted by the planter class and economically based on slave plantation labor, not on free labor or individual farming.  Counties and areas in nearly every slave state – Florida, Texas, Tennessee, North & South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and here, Mississippi – were not that supportive of the war.  Newton Knight and his comrades liberated almost 3 Mississippi counties - Jones, Jasper & Covington - from Confederate control, Jones County being at the center of their temporary ‘free’ state. 
Grave of Newton Knight
This film will open the eyes of many people unaware of this aspect of Civil War history, or the dark history of Reconstruction itself.  It is a class view of the Civil War, not a ‘regional’ or slavers’ view. 

Knight himself was a Primitive Baptist and owned no slaves, nor did many in these piney woods counties that contained many swamps and streams.  Knight and his fellows were drafted into the Confederate Army and were camped in Corinth, Mississippi during the bloody battle of the same name.  The news reaches them that anyone with 20 slaves could exempt one of their sons from serving in the Confederate army, and the more slaves you had, the more sons you could exempt.  As Knight puts it, they are fighting a ‘rich man’s war.’ Which sounds like Vietnam and every war since, with little shits like George Bush hiding in the National Guard while claiming patriotism. “Why fight for another man’s slaves?” Knight asks.  Quite right. 

Knight deserts back to Jones County, the main reason to bring back the body of a young relative killed in Corinth to his mother. He meets his white wife (who had left him) and they nurse their child back to health with help from a black slave, Rachel. His neighbors tell him about the depredations of the official Confederate foragers and recruiters, who impress men into the army and take much more from poor local citizens than the allowed 10% of corn, hogs and anything else they can grab. He stands up to a group of them, then disappears.  Desertion can be punished by death, so eventually Knight ends up hiding in the swamp with a group of black men who have run away from their owners.

It is a small camp of black slaves and white small farmers.  Knight’s religion tells him that all men are men, and he does not look down on black people.  Eventually more slaves and deserters join the men and the camp grows.  At a certain point, critical mass is reached and all the men decide to confront the Confederates with arms.  After several armed or violent confrontations (which are not all historically based) with the local Confederate commanders and their white slave-owner allies, they take over Ellisville, Mississippi and the bulk of 3 counties.  They ask for aid from Sherman, but only some rifles come. Knight and his neighbors go ahead anyway and proclaim a “Free State of Jones” that abolishes slavery, gives anything grown to the man who grows it (share-cropping and foragers be damned) and several other populist planks.  The Stars and Stripes fly over Ellisville.  A whole Confederate brigade marches on Ellisville after a time and the rebels go back to hiding in the swamps.   Then they hear the war is over.

Knight has to fight simmering ethnic hostility against the blacks by some of the most backward whites.  At this point he has a relationship with that black woman, Rachel, who earlier cured his own child of pneumonia and later led him to the hidden camp.  She is a slave on one of the biggest owner’s plantations.  After the war, Knight and his black lover and former white wife move into the woods as far from these ex-Confederates as he can get, and a ‘mystery’ of the part black/part white boy begins. Newton and Rachel have a mixed child, which was illegal in racist Mississippi. He also deeded Rachel his 160 acres after his death, so she became one of the larger black landowners in Mississippi!  The trial of Knight’s mixed son for miscegenation (trying to marry a ‘pure’ white woman) in the 1960s plays counter-point in the film to the historical scenes, indicating that under Jim Crow 100 years later, nothing much has changed. 

Rachel & Newton
Reconstruction follows the end of the war and Knight is one of the few white men who vote Republican.  The film shows scenes of black people attempting to vote at the point of a gun at polls run by former Confederates officers, while white landowners do their best to replicate the conditions of slavery by impressing black boys as ‘apprentices.’   These anti-democratic crimes led to Northern troops occupying the Confederacy to guarantee the ballot to blacks.  What is not shown is the subsequent interregnum of mostly black and Republican rule in the South, as schools were developed for black people and blacks could own land.  After all, slaves outnumbered the whites!  Then the northern capitalists got sick of having troops in the South and the Klan (the Confederate Army in sheets) and former planter aristocracy came back into power through violence and terror.

Viewers know the rest.   

Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, which may attract movie-goers, though you never forget you are watching the self-obsessed McConaughey.  The film needs a bit less sentimentality and more editing, but than this is a Hollywood production.

The South is still the most politically backward part of the U.S., partly due to its history of racism and slavery.  But the insistence on a reactionary regional or ‘national’ identity by white Republicans and neo-Confederates is wearing thin, as the Confederate flag symbol controversy attests.  White workers in the South who line up politically with their rich bosses are some of the most deluded people in the U.S., as scape-goating of blacks or Latinos has also hurt their economic status.   This film shows that even in the 1860s not all white people bought into this perspective but understood who their real enemy was – the plantation owners, their government and their wars, not each other.

Nothing much has changed, except we can exchange plantation owners for oil bosses, coal bosses and corporate bosses at Delta, Coca-Cola, US Steel, the auto-makers producing in the southern U.S., Tyson Foods and the many fast-food companies that are headquartered in the south.  Together with their northern brethren, they make up the new wage-labor plantation system – open to all, but still making more money off black and Latino labor – just like the good ‘ol days.    

Review of the book, "Free State of Jones," below.  Use search box, upper left. 

Red Frog
July 4, 2016