Thursday, September 27, 2018

It's Rocky!


 Oh Canada! – Reflections on Canada

FINALLY, A HEADLINER

Canada finally gets into the headlines!  Just because it borders the U.S. for thousands of miles doesn’t mean it isn’t invisible.  “Psst!  Hey Bud, there’s this semi-European social democracy just north of us.  Pass it on…”  Justin Trudeau, that Liberal scion of a famous father, handsome and young – is a bit discombobulated by the hostile “America First / Deutschland Uber Alles” rhetoric coming out of the Trump White House over renegotiating the excrable NAFTA treaty.   

After all, like some countries, Canada’s milk business (or pick your product ) has a guaranteed price support program so milk farmers don’t go bankrupt.  The U.S. protects its various farm industries heavily through its farm bill, but not in that way.  Buying milk and cheese surpluses, paying for fallow land, mandating milk products in its welfare programs – the list of welfare to farmers and the Ag industry goes on.  Steel and aluminum have certain similar protections. And does any country want U.S. cultural products like "Everybody Loves Raymond" shoved down their throat?  Capitalist rivalry is built into the nation-state system and various forms of ‘war’ are its result.  Including trade war.  After all, the Japanese entry into WWII was preceded by a cutoff of gas and oil by the U.S.  So…the soft war has begun, even on ‘allies’ and ‘enemies.’  The Gargantuan ogre below the border must have its way. 

Tourists on one side, Mountain and Glacier on the other.

Poor Trudeau has another problem.  Like most Liberals and liberals, he is still wedded to a complete market approach to the environment.  So…the Trans Mountain Pipeline through British Columbia must continue!   The oil must be freed from the Alberta tar sands! The Liberals have said this pipeline ‘will be built’ no matter what, sounding like the Republican Party about Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Ignore global warming, ignore First Nations, ignore environmentalists, the Green Party, a ‘green jobs’ economy, the left in the New Democratic Party (NDP) and your own ‘pledges’ on the environment.  After all, the 566 fires in British Columbia this summer didn’t really happen.  The Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park (and every other one) is not actually receding.  Only pay attention to the Canadian banks loaning money to tar sands companies and the oil companies involved.  Hear them roar!

Oh Canada…  The main problem with Canada is that it is too American.  In my study of the history of the NDP, every time they listened to union leaders in the U.S. or their social-democratic co-thinkers in the U.S., they lost support among the Canadian people.  Their election shares plummeted.  But then the U.S. does not even have – to this day -  any sort of a Labor Party.  The coming legalization of marijuana on a federal level in Canada shows that it is light years ahead of the U.S. and even liberal ‘lower Canada’ states like Minnesota.  The U.S. is so politically backward that the very existence of the NDP – and programs like low-cost higher education, socialized medicine and socialized car insurance – rebuke the weak ‘left’ in the U.S.  And I mean the Sanderites, the union ‘leaders’ and organizations like Democratic Socialists of America who prefer to work through the bourgeois Democratic Party.

TOURISM

Tourism is starting to become a problem all over the world.  Just as the capitalists are gentrifying every premier city, tourism is starting to gentrify and destroy local economies and environments.  Except for the sole function – pleasing the monied tourist.  Crowds from ships throng Barcelona, Venice, London – any city within reach of a tour boat.  Highly desirable National Parks in the U.S. like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and others have become over-priced parking lots in the summer.  Here in the Canadian Rockies it is off season, but still campers and cars throng some of the key spots like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.  The process forces prices up to ridiculous levels, especially in motels and hotels.  Following that is the introduction of million-dollar cabins and lodges and it is all up hill from there.

Tourists here in Canada are from all over the world – mostly from the former English empire of course.  Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, Mericans and Canucks.  But the biggest influx of tourists is coming from China.  Large tour buses and privately driven vans full of Chinese noveau riche are descending on Paris and famous tourist venues – including the Canadian Rockies.  Some people might be offended by the insularity of Chinese tourists – who have probably become the new ‘ugly American.’  But this is only a function of the growth of the Chinese middle class, which has ballooned in the last 10-20 years.  “Enrich yourself” means travel.  And so they do in their own mass group way, bringing their rice cookers, all picture and pose crazy, just as clueless ‘Americans’ thronged Europe many years ago and pissed most everyone off.

CULTURE

Did I say that the problem with Canada was that it was ‘too American’?  I did.  Like most of the rest of the world, the homogenizing force of capital creates suburbs, malls and businesses that are the same all over the world.  Even the music in the stores in Banff is 1960s U.S. rock and roll, not Joni Mitchell, Neil Young or the Guess Who. Driving in this part of Canada, Alberta, you might not know you weren’t in Montana or Colorado.  Until you read the speed limit for freeways is 90-110 kilometers an hour – about 62-67 MPH.  Laughable, but it’s the law.  In Montana it is 80 MPH, in North Dakota 75 MPH.  Welcome to the tame, safer west.  This certainly benefits their National Parks, which are better organized than the U.S. park system. They have memorials to 'internment camps' used in WWI, when illegal immigrants, mostly Ukrainians, were sent to harsh labor camps to build these national parks.  Something U.S. parks would not do.  Edmonton has the biggest Mall in the world – indoors, of course.  Outside its downtown, this government and now finance city on a cold prairie could be anywhere.  Unfortunately. 

IMPERIALISM

Then there is the Canadian attitude to world imperialism.  Canada ended up being a junior military partner to the U.S., with troops still in Afghanistan.  Even the social-democratic tradition in Canada has played along many times.  That other part of the old empire, England, will soon be not just the U.S.’s poodle, but its slave after Brexit.  England will become even more like the U.S., especially if it loses Scotland and Northern Ireland if they try to stay with the EU.  Aping the U.S. is a disaster.

Long ago in the 1990s when I was a member of the Labor Party in the U.S., I suggested somewhat humorously that Minnesota should secede from the U.S. and join Canada.  That essay is re-posted below (“A Less Modest Proposal”). I still think so, but obviously that would not solve the real situation, as imperialism is a world system.  Secession would weaken the U.S. politically.  The environment, human movement, capital flows, supply chains and military sorties never stop at national borders and never will.  The nation-state still exists, but in practice only when ‘needed’ by capital.

Prior reviews on Canada:  “Tar Sands,” “Cornell West in Toronto,” “A Traveler’s Tale,” “Blue Covenant,” “This Changes Everything,” and “A Less Modest Proposal.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
Edmonton, Canada

September 27, 2018

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Cops are Cops


“BlacKKKlansman,” by Spike Lee, 2018

This mostly true story is based on the book by Ron Stallworth, a cop who infiltrated the Klan in Colorado Springs, Colorado with the essential help of a white fellow police officer, Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop.  Flip had to do the in-person Jew, *igger and homo baiting and put up with the personal danger.  Ron had many conversations with David Duke over the phone, and fooled the Klan until Flip was discovered by the most suspicious Klansman, Felix.  Ron saves him at least once. The actor playing Felix also shows up in The Vikings as a starry-eyed Viking thug, so don’t be thrown. The movie does not detail the period in which it took place, but Nixon re-election posters and Stokley Carmichael changing his name to Kwame Ture tip you off that it is probably 1972. Lots of Afros, lots of Black Power salutes, lots of ‘black is beautiful’ rhetoric.   The 1960’s didn’t end until the mid 1970s, folks.  Saigon was taken by the NLF in 1975 for Chrissakes.

The Real Stallworth With His Klan Membership Card

The cops or ‘pigs’ come out looking pretty damn good.  While the whole film foreshadows conditions now – Black Lives Matter, Trump’s racist appeal, Charlottesville (which ends the film) – the police in Colorado Springs seem like the ACLU.  They hire a black guy, promote him twice, give him a go at the Klan, support him, laugh at the racists and Duke, even setup and ‘arrest’ the one sole racist cop in the department for sexual assault or some such thing.  Believable?  Hmmmm…

Ron falls for the head of the Black Student Union at the local college, Patrice, who is a younger version of Angela Davis.  She’s political to a ‘T’ to Ron’s somewhat clueless approach to politics. They are friendly until she is repulsed when she finds out he is an undercover pig/cop, but he’s just saved her life from a Klan bomb set by an incompetent Klan wife, so …  The black ‘radicals’ look like mostly na├»ve loudmouths waving signs and radical rhetoric.  Ture comes off as somewhat of a phrase master, but not much else.  (Which might be accurate or might not…)  Harry Belafonte appears to tell a story about a lynching thoroughly approved by all the powers of a small southern town. But through it all, the real hero is the black cop Stallworth. You see he’s ‘onboard with the liberation of Black People.’ Yup, same black cops who are busy choking black men in New York or bashing black men in police vans in Baltimore.  I wish hiring black cops made a difference overall, but it has not.

So the choice of this exceptional story ‘colors’ the whole narrative, making cops look like saviours against racism.   Really, at this point Spike?  I think he’s getting soft.

But the ending takeaway is that 1972 looks like 2018.  Which means that racism – which should really be called INSTITUTIONAL racism, is built into the system.  It is not primarily a personal problem.  Given the advent of slavery prior to the American revolution, I’d say it is in-built into the United States and won’t be eliminated until the U.S. is fundamentally changed – maybe when it is called the United Socialist States of America (USSA).

Red Frog

Medora, North Dakota,

September 19, 2018  

Saturday, September 15, 2018

At a Certain Point, You Can Only Laugh

“The Chapo Guide to Revolution – A Manifesto Against Logic, Facts and Reason,” by Chapo Trap House, 2018

In the U.S., ever since Jon Stewart combined serious politics with penis jokes, a new hybrid of wiggling poli-comedy was born.  It is no longer limited to isolated hippie geniuses like George Carlin, who was stomping on billionaires long before Jon Stewart watched his first mythical episode of Star Wars.  Today we have the dialectical raising of the stakes in that spiral evolution, steaming past the spawn of Jon Stewart – lame-ass rich liberals like Bill Maher, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Steven Colbert.  Yes, joining the ranks of Lee Camp, Jimmy Dore and others are the Groucho-Marxists of the Chapo Trap House, in all their revolutionary socialist glory, ready to drop political bombs down the stinking hatches of the booshwahzee and their lackeys.
Real 'Loose' With Those Words, Kid

The Traps do podcasts mostly, which figures for people who were brought up with silver plastic iPhones in their diapers.  It’s a book, not a podcast, which means it’s worth a bunch of podcasts.  Like binge-reading podcasts!  From my information, this is the kind of stuff that keeps young members of various left groups in stitches.  Even a dedicated Marxist like myself couldn’t stop laughing out loud – but only occasionally, as I’m still wondering how deep the Chapo Trap House roots in the proletariat go.  Oh well.  They blend pop culture with class politics with techno-speak to the point where you realize – this is V. 4.0 comedy! After all, it’s written by committee.

The Chapo Sticks

In their first chapter, the Chapos give us a quick history of the storied U.S. capitalist empire, ending with the bad mix tape that is Trump and Clinton.  Then a send up of those hapless hypocrites, the American Liberal.  It is incomprehensible how… “in spite of their strong record of liking ethnic food, bombing ethnic countries, privatizing education and gutting welfare they are somehow loathed.”  (I might add ‘jerking off Wall Street at the Met Gala’ but that would be rude.)   But conservatives do not escape their wrath either.  From early semi-erudite proto-fascists like William Buckley to later muscular versions like “Liberty Babe,” who believes that ‘Gentlemen Prefer Guns,” the Chapos leave no thug-type unturned.  In another chapter, the media are discovered to be a nest of lazy bourgeois elites who follow the ‘propaganda model.’  Amazing!  Like Chomsky on weed but funny.  They take a swipe at various internet commentators like Megan McArdle, someone you’ve probably never heard of.  She’s a blogger who would have been an average Republican social studies teacher in Wyoming, but was catapulted into fronting for Wall Street billionaires at Bloomberg.com.  You don’t even have to read Antonio Gramsci’s ‘Prison Notebooks’ to get their chapter on culture – in fact, it might interfere, as he didn’t know much about Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing.  There is even a heavy chapter on working – you know, making profits for other people and liking it.

Some more bits and quotes from the book before we leave:

* The chapter “The World” includes subheads like:  “7 Habits of Highly Effective Empires” and “The Schlock Doctrine.”

* “Mitt was right after all and that a good way to #resist President Cheeto would be to send antiaircraft missiles to the Babi Yar Reenactment Society in Ukraine.”

* On early liberals:  “Social reformers emerged from these dark, narrow New England glens to champion ‘reality-based’ witch trials.”

* Hillary Clinton:  “When we moved in (to the Arkansas state house) I was told that using prison labor in the governor’s mansion was a long-standing tradition, which kept down costs, and I was assured the inmates were carefully screened…”

* After Obama’s smashing victory in 2008, when all of Congress was now controlled by Democrats, “The young and ready president threw off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and declared, ‘Lets find some fucking consensus.’”

* Conservative G.K. Chesterson “inspired C.S. Lewis to believe in God and write a stilted and punishing fantasy series that ruined the tender minds of a generation of children.”

*  “But the arc of history bends towards justice.”

* “The growth of the internet will slow drastically …” (Paul Krugman, 1998)

* “Pellets of nourishing, ideologically agreeable information…” (Huffington Post)

* “… besides the radical Left, virtually all factions’ boats were lifted by a tide of shit:” (The advent of blogging.)

* “Capital has no problem assimilating pop-cultural rebellion and anti-authoritarian imagery.” (With subtextual thanks to The Baffler.)

* “Simple hero journey’s no longer would do.” (Generic good guy/bad guy ‘myths’ fall short.  Take note, Marvel.)

* “…four hundred pages describing the different kinds of knots and ropes that are used on a whaling vessel.” (Moby Dick)

* “Small business owners are, generally speaking, insane egomaniacs who believe enough in their ‘pizza restaurant with a night-club atmosphere’ to borrow $250,000 and lord it over a workforce of desperate people.”

*  After the mutilation of British rebel Wat Tyler by King Richard II’s men, this convinced “the peasants to return home and agitate for incremental change by working within the system.”

Capitalism has gotten so deadly ridiculous that the naked kings wandering by the dikes, and the NPR people who pretend they wear clothes, escape no one’s observation.  It goes way, way beyond easy targets like Trump.  Only problem is, they are holding guns to our heads and asking 'Do you see the clothes now?"  Buy this book because other people are already coming to the store to buy this book.  Or have bought it already. Or ‘borrow this book’ from them, as that old quote from Abbie Hoffman kind of went.

Other reviews on this comic topic, use search terms in blog search box, upper left:  “Jon Stewart” and “Bill Maher.”

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

September 15, 2018

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Winter Soldier

“Citizen Tom Paine” by Howard Fast, 1943

This book stands out for a number of reasons.  One is that hardly anyone knows the full history of Tom Paine, a proletarian from England who wrote some of the seminal agitational works of the American revolution.  Two is that this book reflects the life of a professional revolutionary – a new human species.  Revolution was the only skill he had.  Three is that it illustrates the huge class divide that existed in the U.S. during the war for independence against Britain.
The Professional Revolutionary

Fast is a left-wing historical novelist whose specialty is bringing emancipatory characters and periods to life again.  Paine was a short, broad-shouldered itinerant worker with large hands who gradually realized he wanted to make it his life’s work to encourage revolution.  He was a drinker and not afraid to speak the truth to whatever laced gentleman insulted him. Paine served not just in the U.S. as George Washington’s chief propagandist, but in Britain, where he had to flee, and in France during the French Revolution.

His famous writings – “Common Sense,” various versions of “The Crisis,” “The Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason” were all written while involved in revolutionary activity in those countries – the first two in the U.S., the third in England and the fourth in France.  When he finally returned to the U.S. he was ostracized for being a dreaded atheist, even though he was actually a theist. His old friends dropped away, including Washington.  He died penniless and alone. Hardly anyone came to his funeral in the Tory-loving area of New Rochelle in Westchester County, New York.  His grave was later dug up, his bones stolen and sold or lost somewhere in Europe.  That was how the U.S. finally treated the author of “Common Sense.”

Paine’s main skill before taking up writing was as a ‘stay-maker’ in clothing.  He left the poverty-stricken gin mills of England and sailed to America, with help from Ben Franklin.  He arrived in Philadelphia just as the agitation over independence was gathering steam.  After the battles at Lexington, Concord and later, Breed’s Hill, Paine supported independence.  He began writing “Common Sense” which electrified the whole nascent country.  He signed up for the local Philadelphia militia, which marched to New Jersey to join Washington in New York.  After hearing of the losing battles in Brooklyn Heights and Manhattan, the ignorant and lazy businessman who had been appointed their military leader turned tail with the rest of the recruits.  Only Paine and one back-woodsman remained, and they went forward to join Washington’s army in retreat.

Paine got to know the winter soldiers, stayed in the winter encampments including Valley Forge.  His book “Common Sense” gave them a reason to fight in these dark days.  As loss after loss accumulated, he wrote a series called “The Crisis” dealing with salient issues of the revolution, which were sold or distributed to soldiers and civilians alike. These actually ‘were the times that tried men’s souls.’  From this he made a scanty living. 

Valley Forge today

Some of his struggle was against the bourgeois elements that controlled the Continental Congress - plantation owners, mercantilists, businessmen.  They ignored the starving and unpaid soldiers who were Paine’s friends.  Soldier’s clothing or armament needs were abstract to these bewigged politicians - instead they squabbled about who would get what spoils after the war.  It was clear that it was mechanics, tailors and shopkeepers from the cities and farmers and back-woodsmen from the countryside that did the fighting, while the plantation owners and big businessmen back home haggled over who would control land, money, goods and produce when it was all over.

At one point when Paine returned to Philadelphia he formed a proletarian Commission of Inquiry that discovered the hoarding of boots, attempts to corner the wheat market and other financial schemes designed to enrich the wealthy war profiteering elements.  These were broken up and finally some goods began to be delivered to the beleaguered troops.  In the process, they also started the Bank of Pennsylvania, which finally was able to procure funds for the war, including paying the soldiers.   He made an enemy during this process, a rich bastard named Gouvenour Morris, who later as U.S. ambassador to France refused to ask for his release from the Parisian gaol in the Luxembourg Palace where he was waiting to be beheaded.  Paine knew Washington and Jefferson well, but he opposed slavery.  Oddly, this book does not delve into slavery as does Fast's "Freedom Road," 'perfuming' the U.S. Revolution. 

After the revolution was successful, Paine went to England and there saw the same signs of class oppression as he did in the U.S.  Paine then wrote “The Rights of Man” which angered the English nobility, capitalists and government.  Workers from various parts of England came to him for direction, as he was now world famous, on a first name basis with Franklin, Jefferson and Washington.  They formed revolutionary cells in various parts of England and gathered weapons, even though they only knew tools.  But at some point the cells were discovered and Paine was threatened with execution for being the author of seditious literature.  By the narrowest of margins, he escaped across the channel to revolutionary France.

Upon arriving in Calais Paine was made a deputy to the revolutionary Convention by the citizens there.  Paine said the whole world was his village, and so he now found himself in the large ‘village’ of Paris, just after the storming of the Bastille. It was a heady time and he defended revolutionary France in his writings.  He made friends with the Girondins – middle-class liberals who were one of the largest factions in the Convention – and this was almost his undoing.  The other main faction – the Jacobins – were closer to the sans-culotte masses of Paris.  Paine had always been inspired by the proletarian and small farmer, while the Girondins were appalled by the rabble, as was typical of the middle-class.  He never bridged this contradiction because he did not want to encourage violence.

This is when he wrote “The Age of Reason,” which advocated a belief in God and Jesus, but denounced organized religion of any type – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic.   In those days, few could discern the difference.  He was attempting to counter the hard atheism of many French radicals, who were attacking God and the collaboration of the Catholic Church with royalty.

The ultimate debate was over the fate of the king and queen.  The Jacobins argued for execution, given the royals role as a rallying point for reaction.  The Girondins opposed it, along with Paine in his terrible French.   The Jacobins won the argument, and soon the Girondins, then Paine, then others were imprisoned in the Luxembourg, with many going to the guillotine.  As an older man, Paine stayed for 9 months and was freed when the ‘Bonapartist’ reaction set in, as St. Just, Robespierre and Marat were now dead.

Napoleon came to visit him at his country room to recruit him to the cause of invading England.  When Paine said ‘bad idea’ – only attack England's extended empire – Napoleon turned cold.  And Paine was free to leave France and return to the ungrateful U.S.

In the process of revolution, Paine had turned down a rural domestic life with a woman who wanted to marry him.  His worldly possessions were one suitcase and a fallow farm given to him by the U.S. government.  He was ragged, old, tired, many times drunk and had nothing more to write when the end finally came.

One day Tom Paine will be remembered in a much more profound way then he is now – if the proletariat which he championed have their way.

Paine’s collected works are for sale at May Day.

And I got it at the Library!

Red Frog

September 12, 2018

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Conundrum


Climate Emergency

You only have to follow the facts to know that the climate is changing quickly across the globe.  The highest temperatures in recorded history over years.  Heat deaths at record levels.  Methane releases across the tundra, in Canada and in Siberia.  Melting and retreating glaciers on mountains and in Greenland and open water in the Arctic Ocean.  More icebergs, even massive chunks falling off Antarctica.  Heavy flooding rains across the globe, swelling rivers.  Fires raging for months in the U.S. and Canadian west clogging the air with smoke and death.  Dead fish from unusually warm ocean waters and killer red and green tides.  The movement of marine life into cooler, deeper waters.  Drought leading to starvation, refugees and civil war.  Farmers the world-over committing suicide or moving to cities.  Massive tsunamis or hurricanes crashing into coastal communities.  Rising ocean waters flooding isolated islands and low-lying cities.  All leading to food insecurity for many. 
2010 Floods in Pakistan

None of this is news except to people with their head in the sand.  Even most of the capitalists know this is happening, but the profit system ‘must continue.’  Even if they have to individually escape to New Zealand or an artificial island somewhere.

What do eco-Socialists do?  

The liberal panacea is shopping for the environment.  Or an ‘all energy’ approach, as used by the Obama administration.  He figured he could negotiate a compromise with Mother Nature... Trump denies reality, in league with the vicious oil, gas, coal and auto industries.  Technology buffs say that sustainable energy – wind, solar, wave, hydroelectric, bio – will work – but only in the context of a market economy.  Now they are actually thinking that geo-engineering will work too. Cap-and-trade has proved to be a failure in Europe, just moving emissions around.  The last UN climate change conference – and its goal of ‘only’ a 2.7F/1.5C degree rise in temperatures – is too high. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change actually underestimated what was needed.  Carbon and methane, even with all the paper resolutions, the huge changes towards solar and wind in the U.S., Europe and China, is still increasing in the atmosphere, and sinking into the ocean.  Because capital requires unrestrained profitable growth…
                     
What do eco-Socialists do? 

In the U.S., some organizations, like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Socialist Action, explicitly call themselves eco-Socialists.  Other socialists and communists certainly understand that the problem is capitalism, not just some mean people. The main demand, certainly, is to immediately nationalize under workers' control every corporation closely involved in creating carbon.  Not just the banking system which pauperized a good chunk of the proletariat just recently.  The energy and auto industries are first on the list, but the massive agribusiness sector is also a culprit due to meat production.  The U.S. military is one of the biggest users of energy in the world, and certainly any environmental push would mean making the U.S. military an actual ‘defensive’ force, not one extending across the globe. 

Yet no political force – including the Democratic Party leadership or the supporters of Bernie Sander’s type politics – believes in nationalization, or makes it a programmatic point.  Civil disobedience by a militant minority is the result, trying to stop the pipelines in Louisiana, in North Dakota, in Minnesota, in British Columbia through civil disobedience.   Here in Minnesota, the Enbridge 3 pipeline will be a main focus. This has to become a mass movement of tens of thousands, not like the four people recently brutally arrested in Louisiana and charged with felonies for trying to stop their pipeline.  Or putting all the burden on isolated indigenous tribes.  Even the recent climate actions across the world did not call for nationalization.

What do eco-Socialists do? 

I jokingly say that the only thing that will work is if a 100 armed workers invade the boardrooms of every single one of these criminal corporations and occupy their boardrooms, citizen’s arrest their management and hold them hostage.  Of course, that could only happen if we were on the verge of an actual revolution.   Which, maybe by 2040 or 2050, we might be.  By that time it will be much later…

And so we come back to this issue.  Without seizing these corporations in some manner right now, through politics or mass action, the environment will head south.  The holy ‘market’ is too slow to work, nor will band-aid regulatory moves actually stop this process.  You cannot negotiate with Mother Nature – or indeed with reactionaries like the Republican Party or the neo-liberal leaders of the Democratic Party in the U.S.  Nationalization of criminal corporations has to be one of a group of transitional demands taken up by millions.  It has to always be accompanied by another transitional demand - guaranteed jobs or income for those who lose their livelihood due to this energy transformation.  Or we are toast.  Not just vulnerable people living in the most exposed parts of the globe – but sooner or later, everyone. 

This is a bind that the small groups of eco-Socialists in the U.S. are unable to make much progress on.  Anti-capitalist radical action will not happen soon enough if present politics go the way they are going.  Most people cannot deal with issues in the near or far future, but are still staring at their shoes.  Should I buy a new pair or not?  So the real issue is that the Gen Xers, the Millennials, the Gen Z and the toddlers are going to have to join or form revolutionary organizations to handle a capitalist world heading into oblivion.  And not try to prop up the politics of the past.  Best to start now.  Because ORGANIZATION and a real program, not generalities, are the real political issues of our time.  Vague cliches like 'love,' 'hope,' 'jobs,' 'education,' 'freedom,' 'democracy,' 'America,' 'the Environment,' 'peace,' blah blah blah mean nothing alone. 

Red Frog
September 9, 2018

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

“It is No Light Thing to be Free”

“Spartacus,” by Howard Fast, 1951

This is one of the greatest revolutionary novels ever written.  It is a historical tale of the massive slave revolt led by Spartacus against the Roman empire.  At the same time, it never lets you forget that the conditions of the past continue into the present.  It is about our capitalist world too. It especially resonated with the Jim Crow era in the U.S. and the former U.S. slave system. Then and now, a new empire continues.  Slavery in its various forms continue.  Military power and war continue.  The class system continues.  Dispossession continues.  Fast wrote this as an inspiration to the present that even revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Rosa Luxembourg appreciated.
Beware the Arming of Slaves

Conditions for gladiators, peasants, tribesmen, miners, perfume workers and slaves that lived under Roman rule were horrendous. The Roman patrician class had tied the empire together with roads.  Which might make someone recall the Interstate Highway system created in the U.S. in the 1950s.  The patricians and the new money nouveau riche dispossessed Italian peasants and took their land, and created massive latifundia farms tilled by slaves.  Former peasants were forced into the cities like Rome to barely live by crime or the dole, forming the plebian class.  The new money rich built tall and crumbling tenements to house the most profitable amount of people in the smallest space – the forerunners of our modern gentrifiers and apartment builders.  Tax collectors and religious collectors took their cuts, sending the wealth to Rome.  The empire was essentially a huge slave state, with a history of a bit more democratic “Republic” in its past.  It was held together by centralized organization and construction projects and a half a million men under arms.

The book takes the form of remembrances by various characters on the rebellion and Spartacus himself – the gladiator trainer Batiatus of Capua, where the revolt started.  The Roman general Crassus, who finally defeated Spartacus and the freedman armies.  Spartacus’ Germanic fictional wife Varinia, who was a former slave.  The fictional political power of Rome, Lentelus Gracchus, who controlled many city wards.  The crucified gladiator David, a Judean (Jewish) knife fighter close to Spartacus.  The book weaves these and other characters together to create a picture of the terror with which the gladiator and slave rebellion inspired in Rome, ending with 6,000 rebels crucified along the Appian Way. The cross was borrowed by the Romans from their destruction of Hannibal’s Carthage.  I guess that was ‘cultural appropriation’ in its day.

There were many slave revolts before and after Spartacus, but his 3rd Servile War was the closest to toppling the empire.  Spartacus and his tens of thousands of rebels (120,000 at one point) destroyed 5 Roman armies in battles in the south of Italy, with former slave women sometimes fighting alongside their men.  The slaves fought for their freedom, something that confounded the Roman patricians, who did not consider them human.  The Roman ruling class thought the world was a meritocracy, with some born to rule and others to be ruled.  To them slaves, women, peasants, gladiators, plebians were just meat – just commodities.   In this book, the slaves want a world of equality, where everyone shares the goods of the world.  Their forces were an international army made up of Thracians, Gauls, Germans, Africans, Egyptians, Judeans, Greeks – all those dominated by the empire.  God has disappeared in this world for both gladiators like Spartacus and the Roman ruling class, though the latter would not admit it in public.  Religion still had its uses.

One giant Gaul, Crixus, wanted to march on Rome or continue raids on the latifundia, while Spartacus wanted to leave Italy completely.  This split in the army was fatal to the rebellion, though that is not clear in the book. Crixus took part of the army and was destroyed in battle.  The book ends with a somewhat odd episode of Crassus and Gracchus being obsessed with Spartacus’ wife, the Germanic slave Varinia, who was captured after the last battle.  This is their way of somehow conquering Spartacus again, by controlling his wife.  Oddly Gracchus, one of the richest and most powerful political figures in Rome, buys Varinia’s freedom and secretly sends her north to the Alps, then commits suicide.  This book assumes some individuals in the ruling class will desert their role, and turn on their own system.  It is a strange coda to the book.

This dramatic book is written in grand literary cadences that borrow something from the style of the Bible.  The book became the inspiration for a 1960 movie starring top actors like Kirk Douglas, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Tony Curtis and Jean Simmons, directed by one of the best directors in the U.S., Stanley Kubrick.  Others followed.

Fast is one of a legion of forgotten proletarian and leftist writers of the early to middle 20th century.  Fast wrote many books, including “Citizen Tom Paine,” about the revolutionary role of Paine in the American Revolution; “Freedom Road”, about the black struggle after the Civil War and “The Unvanquished;” a detailed story about the first battles of that Revolution.

A few years after World War II, leftist writers in the U.S. were intimidated into silence or oblivion during the McCarthyite purges of the 1950s.  A new, more acceptable middle-class form of fiction was encouraged by the bourgeois cultural establishment.  Enter John Updike and company - no Spartacus for him!  Updike and company became the suburban reflection of the temporary high-point of managed American capitalism – a period that some people yearn for but will never return.  The U.S. is actually running backwards towards the prior period of robber barons, nativism and the direct rule of Wall Street.  Literature itself will have to change to reflect this - the Howard Fast’s will be back!

And I bought it at Chapman Street Books!

Ely, MN, USA

Red Frog

September 5, 2018

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Old New York


“Hell’s Kitchen,” by Jeffrey Deaver, 2001

What is the hottest part of hell?  Evidently a neighborhood in New York named “Hell’s Kitchen” on the west side of Manhattan.  West of 8th Avenue, north of 34th Street, south of 59th.  It’s not a cooking show, it only features the cooking of buildings and people by fire. It doesn’t have some abusive British chef yelling at everyone in the streets.  In this book it is a neighborhood full of Puerto Rican gang-bangers, poverty-stricken black and Latino people, homeless gays, youth drop-in centers, alcoholic lawyers and pyromaniac crazies.  But thank god or not, it is slowly being gentrified by one of the biggest real estate developers in New York.  Sort of a ‘Trump’ like fellow ...
Light My Fire

This is genre writing by an author who has written almost 50 books.  Even Dostoevsky and Steinbeck didn’t write that many. It is like a band that releases perhaps too many albums. We are taught that there is ‘literature’ and then there is this stuff.  Thrillers, romances, westerns, mysteries, war stories, detective novels, legal conundrums, fantasy and science fiction, YA dystopias, spy narratives. Familiar, titillating, formulaic, easy to read, full of improbable heroes or heroines, but fun.  

Well, hold up there pardner…maybe, maybe not.  People love this stuff, especially those not addicted to only the ‘high culture’ version of writing. These types of books are the most popular, no doubt.  Remember, Shakespeare wrote perhaps 40 plays. Dickens wrote 15 mostly fat novels, some that were serialized week after week.  Balzac wrote a connected series of 36 novels and 12 novellas.  Balzac may have been the melodramatic genre writer of his time.  Volume is not always a crime.  So are there redeeming qualities here? 

Writers like John Grisham and Scott Turow have made legal thrillers into a respectable genre, given their books concentrate on social and political issues.  Young Adult fiction has forecast fearful dystopias like “Mazerunner,” “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” forecasting the dark future many young people see. Ursula LeGuinn projects progressive ideas into the future while Margaret Atwood describes a more dystopian version. 

Other genres, like the western, are dying because Louis Lamour and John Wayne are no more.  Rugged Indian killers and settlers are fading into the colonial past. Newish westerns from people like Cormac McCarthy indicate the darkness actually taking hold across the U.S. west.  Many books in the spy or war genres laud the CIA or parts of the CIA or the military, and are mostly reactionary.  Though the movie versions done for mass audiences – the Jason Bourne series originally written by rightist conspiracy writer Robert Ludlum – put the CIA partially in the shade.  Even the latest filmic version of right-wing writer Michael Crichton’s book “Jurassic Park” has become a pro-nature, pro-animal story.  It is a recreation of the Frankenstein myth for modern times, shadowing the original socialist leanings of Mary Shelley.  But now dinosaurs have replaced monsters built of body parts.

This book shows the strengths and weaknesses of the thriller genre. Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard made noir thriller’s hip.  Crime writing generally concentrates on the seamy, sleazy side of human beings and always includes lots of death and violence.  There is a reason why they call it ‘noir.’  It’s dim conservative view of ‘human nature’ shades into a dim view of society sometimes - but not always.  Hammett himself was a leftist and his book ‘Red Harvest’ can be read with a Marxist slant.  But mostly the genre focuses on the personal stories of bad or weak people who the reader can be appalled by.

Instead this particular book, Hell’s Kitchen, humanizes the people who live in the neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen.  It features a tall, tough videographer who worked as a stunt man, did time in prison, carries a large handgun, was a big-shot art film director and is now a sensitive documentarian interested in the neighborhood.  He’s ‘got it all’ and is as unreal as other thriller heroes.  Later we find out he has an unlikely personal interest in the interviews he is shooting with his BetaCam.  

The ostensible ‘bad guy’ in this book turns out NOT to be the Trump-like real estate magnate, but a crazed pyromaniac who has developed his own formula for napalm.  The idea that New York real-estate developers might hire some thug to torch buildings so that they can profit slips away.  The ‘nice white lady’ who runs the Hell’s Kitchen charity-funded drop-in center is not what she seems either.  Instead the book makes non-white folks the sympathetic centers of the book – loyal people you definitely want on your side when things get tough.  One Irish gangbanger gets props too.  But the book ignores New York real estate shenanigans and the social context of why Hell’s Kitchen was what it was.  There is a bit of neighborhood history here that provides a back story, with the neighborhood coming off as a product of nature, not a creation of political economics.  I.E. this one is not an explicitly political noir but it’s human perspective is progressive.

There is a bit of ‘poverty porn’ here too, as suburbanites can peek into the hard lives of the dispossessed proletariat as if they were actually there.  But they are not. 

Genre fiction is a game of literary American roulette.  Play at your own risk!

Relevant reviews of “Divergent,” “Hunger Games,” Handmaid’s Tale,” “Future,” “Westerns,” “Monsters of the Market,” and John Grisham novels.

And I got it at the library!
Red Frog
September 2, 2018