Monday, August 29, 2016

The Propaganda Model Explains A Lot

Turning Off NPR (National Government Radio)

I haven’t watched the U.S. network news for years. Occasionally I stumble back across Lester Holt or one of the other stuffed shirts giving me the totally predictable and realize nothing has changed.  But I’ve listened to National Public Radio, and its Minnesota affiliate, MPR.  Now I find myself more and more turning it off.  It is really National Government Radio (“NGR”) but tries to convince some listeners to pay for it.  A very small sliver of listeners actually do.  Very clever, that, pretending to be the ‘people’s station!’  Only 16% of the money comes from government funds and a smaller amount from listeners.  Most of the money is from the ubiquitous foundations, grants, investments, sponsorships and station programming fees.  I.E.  brought to you by businesses – corporate executives of whom also sit on the Board of Directors.  It is not actually ‘public’ by any estimate.
Doesn't look like a propaganda fountain, does it?

NGR is the soothing version of propaganda.  It’s like warm milk, if you like that kind of thing – full of bovine antibiotics and growth hormones, fed on corn instead of grasses – but hoping you don’t notice.  Dulcet tones, reasonable personas, chirpy females, familiar voices, low-key propaganda.  The same vanilla stable of ‘reporters’ and commentators fill the mics year after year.  I almost can’t tell them apart.   

Scott Simon is a name that comes to mind – Mr. Smooth, a friendly light-weight who proclaimed after 9/11 that even pacifists must support ‘the war on terror.’  Sylvia Poggioli – someone whose mission it was to report everything the Pope did – and not much more.  She is a far cry from her anti-fascist father, and that must be what happens when you go to Harvard.  Cokie Roberts, a neo-liberal commentator who slides between ABC News, “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” and NPR with ease.  She is the daughter of Hale Boggs, a Louisiana Democrat.  Shields & Brooks, the non-dynamic duo being paraded as the limits of acceptable opinion on NGR and on TV’s Public Broadcasting System (also known as the “Government Broadcasting System (GBS).”  You are allowed two parties and two views, according to NGR. Commentators from every corporate think tank in Washington are a regular feature, from the Brookings Institution on down.  As any review of ‘think tanks’ shows, all of them are in the pocket of some powerful business interest. Or well-paid anti-labor professors, giving their deep, quick thoughts on those uppity issues like $15 an hour, paying farm workers overtime or tax laws in Ireland.  Then there are the generals...
Whether it is the need for ‘no fly zones’ in Syria (getting ready for Hillary!), the evilness of Russia and China, the ‘stupid’ people who voted for Brexit, avoiding Bernie Sanders, loving Wall Street or just about any government position you can name, you know where they stand, now and in the future.  A practiced and well-modulated fake 'centrism' hides right-wing positions dressed up in comfy sweaters.

NGR was notorious for its support for the oil wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, and still toes every single government position, in spite of what its own reporters sometimes dig up. Coverage of any opposition to Israeli invasions of Gaza is limited to short interviews with PLO figures, or a small ‘personal interest’ story, all to ‘balance’ their real position.  They banned the word ‘torture’ when referring to Bush’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ – something only U.S. networks did.  They advertise themselves as presenting ‘only the facts’ to dupe listeners into a pretense of ‘objectivity,’ but as anyone who has studied journalism know, no outlet can claim real objectivity, least of all these pretenders.  The cultural coverage seems to be part of the ‘fluff’ designed to hide their political positions, even though its middle-brow and vapid content can be painful on its own.  Their early morning book sessions seem designed to dig up literature that is as entertaining and marginal as possible.

NGR (and the GBS) are the prime propaganda vehicles aimed at liberals, according to statistics.  After a while, the only way to handle NGR is with satire.  “Mourning Edition” and “Some Things Considered” are their flagships.  Some of the most dreadful programs now?  Christa Tippit wrecking early Sunday mornings with her ersatz ‘thoughtful’ religiosity, hoping liberals can be lured back into the pews.  “The Splendid Table” with Lynne Rosetto Kasper, an upscale glutton’s guide to cooking and obsessing over food too much; “The Puzzle Master” with Will Short – needlessly thoughtful NY Times puzzles, for those of you who don’t live in Manhattan; “The Dinner Party Download,” trivial shit Millennials can talk about when they have nothing to say at a party.   It all screams ‘white middle class’ to the point of irrelevance. 

Shows like ‘On the Media” and “Marketplace” occasionally ask on-point questions, but they never really nail the cow.  The propaganda view of U.S. media or capitalism are not mentioned by either – though both hover in the backgrounds like unmentionable ghosts.  Now that “Car Talk” is gone, and the post-Lutheran Lutheran and creaky singer Garrison Keillor edging into the night, perhaps we can see NGR for what it really is -  warm, but poisoned, milk.  So do this experiment.  Every time you hear some right-wing, faux ‘centrist’ commentary on this station, turn the radio off.  Wait 5 or 10 minutes, turn it back on again. Pretty soon you won’t be listening much.

Red Frog
August 29, 2016

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Name the Twin Cities Factories - Come to the Author Talk

Stinson Blvd Honewell, SE Mpls
Ford Plant, Highland Park, St. Paul, now leveled.
Site of 1934 Shootings, north warehouse district, Mpls
Strutwear Knitting, East Downtown, Mpls
Hiawatha Metalcraft, Seward Mpls
Former Ford & Honewell Plant, downtown North Mpls
Former Jeune Lune and Warehouse, Warehouse District Mpls
Power plant, downtown North Mpls
Metalmatic, Mpls along the river
Power Plant along the river, Mpls
ADM Mill #1, Longfellow Mpls
ADM Mill #2 - Longfellow, Mpls
Successful Author Event

Sunday, August 14, 2016

“16 Tons and What Do You Get?”

“White Trash – the 400 Year History of Class in America,” by Nancy Isenberg, 2016

This book has been on the NYT best seller list for weeks, which shows that the idea of class is no longer taboo in the U.S.  The real ideological battle right now is between identity politics and class politics.  This book is a large weight on the class side of the equation. 

It lambastes the upper class conservative and liberal disdain for the lowest strata of the white working-class, called by the last acceptable insult - ‘white trash.’  Isenberg here refers to this layer as generically ‘poor’ and rarely points out that low-paid white workers actually have to earn a living.  Over these 400 years Isenberg hints that they have been indentured servants, hunters, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, convict labor, small farmers, general laborers, textile workers, migrant laborers, slaughterhouse and construction workers, even illegal alcohol producers.  Most of her textual pictures in this book consist of drunks sitting around shacks doing nothing – having no economic role at all.  These pictures come from the ruling elite of the day, not from the populists.

Every suburbanite's nightmare
Ultimately this study is a political and cultural one.  It is not filled with statistics or economics.  Isenberg’s idea of class is based on income and wealth, not the economic role people play.  As such, she seems to divorce this ‘underclass’ from the rest of the working class.  Isenberg understands that both liberals and conservatives do not want a unity of black, Latino and white workers in the U.S., which is the cause for their focus on ethnic ‘identity’ instead.  Being ‘white trash’ even became a cultural identity in the 1980s, conforming to the times.    

She has compiled, I think, the longest list of insulting terms for this strata of any historian, from the old and arcane to the recent.  Scourings, waste-people, mudsills, lubbers, squatters, swamp dwellers, bog-trotters, clay-eaters, scalawags, tackies, crackers, mongrels, hillbillies, white niggers, rednecks, trailer trash - white trash.  Or as one theorist put it, the “reserve army of the unemployed.’  You get the idea.  The problem is that this barrage of invective does not have much of a response in her text, so you start to believe it.  She cites the first use of the term ‘redneck’ in the late 1800s based on its usage by right-populist politicians, not from the 1920s coal field wars on Blair Mountain when radical coal miners wore red kerchiefs around their necks. 

Isenberg is relentless in her focus on this working-class strata, showing how it closely intersects with ‘racial’ ethnicity and especially the conditions in the rural U.S. south.  As she puts it:  “The Civil War was a struggle to shore up both a racial and a class hierarchy.”  The planters were afraid that an end to slavery would also impel landless whites to rise up.  In the Civil War non-slave owning whites were dragooned into fighting for the slave-owners and planters … until they deserted or were killed.   Union generals and ‘Red’ Republicans also understood the class nature of the war.  Isenberg points out that these 'waste' white people mostly owned no land - so like black slaves and freedman, they had no power, no money, no education, no nothin’.  If they did own land, it was unproductive – sandy, rocky or in the hills.

After the Civil War, ‘white trash’ were still treated almost as poorly by the Southern aristocracy and businessmen as were the super-exploited victims of Jim Crow – no education, no land, no real wages, no respect.  The south was studied by Howard Odum later during the 1930s and he concluded this about sectionalism’s destructive legacy: “The straitjacket of ‘states rights’ has suffocated southern progress long enough.” As Isenberg puts it, the south had squandered land to erosion; it tolerated poverty and illiteracy; it had little technological training or even basic services.  Much of this continues to this day.

Ultimately Isenberg shows the passivity and docility of white workers in the South has deep historical roots.  However Isenberg ignores any labor struggles in which white workers in textile mills or lumber camps or mines united with black workers and fought against the capitalists - in the south or in the north.  There are many examples during the progressive period around the turn of the century and again in the 1930s.  This lack paints ‘white trash’ as hopeless and again emphasizes that this is a political study centering on views ‘from the top.’

Isenberg paints a cultural and political history that exposes the class snobbery of our more progressive ‘founders’ – Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Adams and even Andrew Jackson.  Harriet Beecher Stowe and Thoreau also held hostile opinions about ‘poor’ whites.  She clearly shows how the British class and colonial system permanently stamped the U.S. and especially the South.  This is something that the U.S. still retains, like a permanent birthmark.  Davy Crockett, who became a politician, stands out as one of the few people to stand up for the landless and forgotten folks, as did the “Free Soil” party that preceded the Republicans.   

She delves into the later eugenics movement, which was not just directed against black ‘rednecks,’ but principally aimed at ‘slatternly’ white women who couldn’t stop having babies.  The Supreme Court ‘Buck v Bell’ ruling allowed 4 southern states to pass sterilization laws.  As she puts its:  “The major target of the eugenicists was the poor white woman.” Marriage, kinship, pedigree and lineage were thought to determine a person’s class – an idea from Britain which continued strongly into the 1920s.  Humans were seen as the same as horses – subject to ‘breeding.’  This view saw class as genetic hereditary, not based on economics or capitalism at all. 

Isenberg covers the 'redneck' cultural scene of our recent memory, from Elvis to ‘good ‘ol boys’ LBJ and Carter and “Billy Beer;” Tammy Faye Baker and Dolly Parton; ‘Elvis’ Clinton and Wasilla’s Sarah Palin and now, Duck Dynasty.  Everything from redneck chic to redneck stupid.  This is one of the weakest parts of the book, as little new information is added, especially for people who lived through this period.

Occasionally Isenberg looks into the background of events or culture that impacted the American view of lowly-paid white workers.  The villains in “To Kill a Mockingbird?”  They were the white trash Ewells, though Harper Lee wrote that they picked through the town dump and had no indoor plumbing. This is something not shown in the film, allowing them to appear even more awful.  Another is the book and film “Deliverance” by James Dickey, the son of rich north Georgia landowners.  In once scene a deformed young albino boy ominously plays banjo, bringing out all the fear and loathing of suburban whites. The actor who played the boy was pulled out of high-school and paid almost nothing.  A boy then, that man today works at Wal-Mart for very little pay, and has for many years.  

An American cultural/political follow-up to Piketty's work on class, "Capital," "White Trash" puts another nail in the coffin of identity politics.

Prior reviews on these subjects:  Slavery By Any Other Name,”The State of Jones,” (film and book); “Jacobin #18, 2015 on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War;   Also a small book, not reviewed that reflects on this topic:  They Were White and They Were Slaves.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
August 14, 2016

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Children of Men

“Ivan’s Childhood,” directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962

In the face of the incredible avalanche of reactionary red-baiting and war-mongering by the Clinton campaign against Russia, Trump, Jill Stein and the Green Party, Wikileaks, Julian Assange and anyone else who doesn’t want to fight two more wars in Syria and Ukraine, I figured we needed a bit of a response to this shit-storm.  (See Glenn Greenwald’s excellent take-down of the Clinton campaign’s Russian-hating methods dated 8/8/2016 on the ‘Intercept’ site.

(Assange has announced that a recently killed DNC employee, Seth Rich, was the actual leaker.  Rich was murdered during a 'robbery.'  Another convenient death?)

Ivan in ruins
It consists of an appreciation of Soviet and Russian culture.  This is the first film by the great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, who later did “Solaris” and “Andrei Rublev.”  Jean Paul Sartre defended this film when it was attacked by the Italian CP in their paper ‘L’Unita,’ which accused Tarkovsky of using ‘petit-bourgeois’ artistic methods like dream sequences and character complexity (!) You are usually in good company when you side with Sartre on cultural matters.  A young Ingmar Bergman was influenced by the film as well.  This is a touching film showing the deep impact of WW II on the Soviet youth of their day.  It displays the humanism of the Soviet soldiers, who adopt a young boy who works as a spy for them behind Nazi lines.  They know this is a very dangerous job, which can only lead in one direction.  The young Ivan (and yes, all Russians are called ‘Ivan’ in slang…) has lost his parents in a fascist massacre.  He is tough, skinny, blond and just a kid, but now prematurely aged by the war, which is all he thinks about. 

The scenes of floating across the river are some of the most beautiful in Soviet film.  The war is shown, not in the American way by constant combat, explosions, battle, etc. but as a looming presence infusing every scene, however quiet, with fear and dread.  Combat is not always about fighting, as any soldier knows. Dreams (dreams!) and flashbacks intrude.  This gives the film the feel of actual human reality, not that of an American war cartoon or of social-realist hero worship.  It uses long takes, not the hyper-jumpiness of present ADD advertising or Hollywood film. 

The film ends with actual Soviet war footage shot in Berlin, first focusing on a newsreel of the 6 poisoned children of Goebbels lying in a row.  Then there is a film scene of one of  Ivan’s protectors discovering his fate in the Reich’s efficient basement archives.  In this war wives, mothers, sisters and girlfriends not only lost their loved-ones - this film shows men losing their emotional sons.  The film does not wallow in the glory of war, as did Soviet films prior to 1956.  It was produced in the Khrushchev period during a ‘thaw’ in cultural control and was extremely popular in the Soviet Union. 

Given the Russians have experienced war on their land in recent memory, while the U.S. has never experienced it since 1865, I’d say Russians are a bit less eager than Americans to do it again.  This was the real story throughout the ‘cold war’ and the nuclear threat, and is no less true today.  It is certainly reflected in this film.

Red Frog
August 9, 2016