Friday, October 12, 2018

Strange Fruit


“Slavs and Tatars – Red-Black Thread” – Lecture at the Walker Art Center, 10/11/2018

An upscale liberal artsy crowd showed up to hear this presentation by an unnamed member of ‘Slavs and Tatars,” (S&V) an intellectual group that studies cultural life “east of the old Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China.”  Or as they call it, “Eurasia.”  This is the first time this group has addressed a question that relates to the U.S.   What was the question?  The connection between Soviet communism and the black struggle in the U.S.  This is a topic familiar to anyone in the Marxist movement, but was probably total news to the upscale white hipsters and oldsters sitting in the audience, as well as to the black people who attended.

Believe it!

The presenter was a young man who had lived in Moscow and seemed to originally be from one of the ‘southern’ parts of the former USSR – Belarus, Tajikistan, Moldova, Uzbekistan – one of those.  He now lives in Berlin.  The slant of “Slavs and Tatars” seems to be a post-modernist one that relies on linguistic, visual and historical elements to show syncretic connections where perhaps none were seen before.  In this case, the identification of Russians with U.S. black people.  As he pointed out, Russians are not really Europeans, in spite of the efforts of Peter the Great.  He insisted the Mongolian ‘steppe’ dominates – a nowhere land somewhere between desert and farmlands.  What we might call a prairie – Montana on steroids, not Rome replicated.

He cited certain cultural similarities between Russia and the U.S.  Slaves in Russia were white serfs.  This white slavery existed in Russia, but was abolished in 1861, two years before the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.  The ‘black people’ of Russia were known as the peasants – as they were from the black soil.  “Black Russians” were also a reference to the minority people’s of Soviet Central Asia from the Caucasus region, not just a drink of vodka and coffee liqueur.  So the irony is that in this context “Caucasians” are black.  He also insisted that there are emotional similarities between Russians and African-Americans. All together it indicates that both Russians and African-Americans are the ‘Other’ in European, ‘American’ or Atlanticist eyes.

The S&V’s basic contention is that Marxism and Islam are connected and the latter has now replaced the former as the ideology of the oppressed.  He used an example of the revolts in the banlieues (working class suburbs) surrounding Paris in 2014.  In the 1960s and 1970s these Arab youth might have been Trotskyists, but now they drifted to Islam with the weakening of socialism. As Vijay Prashad pointed out in his book, “Death of the Nation...,” this has also happened in the wider Middle East.  He put up pictures of Marx and Mohammed as twins; Lenin as a black man; Claude McKay as a religious symbol; of the somewhat similar images of the Soviet hammer and sickle and the image on the Iranian flag; of the first stamp memorializing Malcolm X, issued by Iran (Malcolm was a Muslim of sorts, after all…).

He related stories of visits to the USSR by Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Claude McKay, all prominent black writers and social activists.  Robeson was considered a ‘rock star’ in the USSR, unlike in the U.S.  Claude McKay (later author of “Amiable With Big Teeth…”) met with Zinoviev and Bukharin, leaders of the Soviet state at the time.  McKay’s anti-racist political works were translated into Russian, and later translated back into English because the originals were lost.  Hughes journeyed to the Soviet ‘south’ – Central Asia – to see cotton production and the minority peoples of the USSR.  Unlike in the U.S., the cotton workers in these republics were in charge of their own work, not sharecroppers working under Jim Crow.

He made a point of showing that ‘affirmative action’ for Soviet minority nationalities and anti-imperialism were first introduced as legal principles by the USSR in the 1920s, through Soviet laws and the documents of the 3rd International.  He also showed how for the first time Muslim women were legally allowed not to wear the veil and to have a higher role in society.  Hughes was most fascinated by older dances performed only by young boys, as Islam would not allow women to dance in public. Hughes, a gay man in the closet, saw some of the last dances like this.

The presenter flashed an election poster of the Black Belt through the south, which was at one time a strategy of the U.S. Communist Party in their 1932 presidential campaign, when they ran steel leader William Z. Foster and James Ford, a black man.  The ‘black belt’ was a connected geographic area through the south that held a majority black population.  The CP at this time saw black people as a separate ‘nation’ that could declare self-determination and independence.  This line was later changed after ‘3rd Period” Stalinism ended due to the sectarian failure in Germany, and the party swung to the popular-front strategy – an alliance with the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie that it follows to this day.

What the lecturer did not talk about was the pressure put on the racist U.S. policy of Jim Crow by the USSR internationally and domestic socialist forces, including the Communist Party.  The treatment of the U.S. black population became an international embarrassment for the U.S.  This is one of the reasons why local favorite son Hubert Humphrey finally proposed a civil rights position for the Democratic Party at the 1948 convention, causing the delegates from Mississippi and Alabama to walk out of the convention.  Humphrey was at the time Mayor of Minneapolis.  Humphrey said it was time to “get out of the shadow of states rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunlight of civil rights.”  Of course, it wasn’t until the 1960s that black people’s movements forced Jim Crow segregation and voting rights barriers to begin to be lifted – almost 20 years later.  While liberals pat themselves on the back for a small section of Democrats to finally – in 1948 – decide to oppose Jim Crow, it was the internal and external pressure of black people themselves, the domestic socialists and the international USSR which finally forced the liberals’ hand under Lyndon Johnson.  The role of the USSR in promoting national liberation struggles in Africa also played a role.

As can be seen, Communists were ahead on this issue, as on the issue of women’s rights.  “Strange Fruit” indeed … by the way, written by a Jewish Communist, Abel Meeropol.

The presenter discussed the intersectionality of ethnic and gender issues as related to developments in Soviet Central Asia, and rejected neo-liberal and capitalist ‘multiculturalism’ as a solution to ethnic differences.  He contended that multi-culturalism is merely a melting pot, while the old Soviet policy of ‘multi-nationalism’ allowed communities to exist without being forced to disappear.  This was also how so many religious, linguistic and ethnic groups across the world co-exist successfully.

All in all, a somewhat leftward event put on by the Walker, which probably signals a small shift in the appreciation of Marxism – even though the speaker thinks Marxism is old hat and most of this middle-class audience finds Marxism to be laughable.  Well, the jokes on them...

Other posts related to this subject:  “Amiable With Big Teeth…,” “Death of the Nation…,” “Souls of Black Folk,” “Southern Cultural Nationalism…,” “33 Revolutions Per Minute…,” “Malcolm X…,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “Things of Dry Hours,” “Black Radical – the Education of Nelson Peery,” “I Married a Communist.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog

October 12, 2018

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Look Out for the Federalist Society Majority

What is Behind Rape, Assault and Harassment

The outpouring of anger over sexual assault, rape and harassment by many women and some men after the Kavanaugh hearing reveals a dark secret about the U.S.  And if this is happening in the U.S., what is the scale in the rest of the world?  Cairo, Egypt was just named the sexual assault capital of the world, as 99% of the women there have been affected in one way or another.  And then there is India…where statistics show 39,000 reported rapes per year and the unbelievable figure that 99% of all Indian rapes go unreported. (That is almost 4M rapes if you do the math.)
Constitutional Drunken Frat Boy and Federalist Society Member

A friend who lived in Hungary for many years pointed out that ‘rape’ was almost unknown in Hungary when it was a workers’ state.  Drunk husbands beat their wives but sexual predations on wives, co-workers, friends and acquaintances, neighbors or strangers were almost unknown.  In other workers’ states this was also true. This is significant and being missed by the ‘concern’ liberals and media who seek only to have everyone tell their ‘story.’  “Telling your story” has become the main liberal method of fighting back in this capitalist society.   It is as if psychology is the only issue.  It is as if no one has remembered that the U.S. does not even have an equal rights amendment, while other capitalist countries do.

Telling stories is a start, but only that, yet that is where NG(P)R/ G(P)BS/ CNN/ MSNBC media stops.  But why are women, even in the ‘liberated’ U.S., second-class citizens that men can do with what they will?  Why do many institutions in the U.S. turn a blind or partly-blind eye to sexual predations?  The military, colleges and frats, employers, religious institutions and cults, health clinics and doctors, the mass media, the film industry - and most of all the judicial system, including the police - all play a role.  It is pretty clear that sexual assault is a systemic and institutional problem, not an individual problem of drinking or nasty, vicious men.

Brett Kavanaugh is part of the legal system that is asleep at the wheel, and now he runs it.  Right now, hundreds of thousands of rape kits lie mouldering in police basements.  Many more rapes are not reported for this reason and the fact that police and prosecutors don’t treat sexual assault as a crime.  “He said, she said” seems to nullify any serious attempt to bring rapists to justice, even though statistics show that only a very small number of accusations are untrue.  It should be “She said…” like any other crime.

But over and above the institutional support for women’s second-class sexual position is something even deeper – the profits to be made off of women’s second-class labor situation.  The most obvious is that sexual aggression is a non-financial reward for some men. And that divides the working class from itself.  It also enforces the class position of upper-class men, as in Kavanaugh’s instance or those of other rich misogynists too countless to name, many that have been in the news.  But most immediately, in a profit-based society the lower cost or free labor of countless women is an immediate boon to the bottom line of capital.  THAT is the real secret to why women under capital are second-class, and why the example of Hungary and other former workers’ states is so germane.  Women in the former workers' states were legally equal, economically advantaged and the culture of the country promoted their interests to a certain extent, even given the relative consumerist poverty and the time period.

In the U.S. the free labor provided by mostly women in human upkeep, reproduction and caring activities around family or the sick or elderly at home is something not born by capital.  The lower wages paid to mostly female-staffed jobs like waitresses, home-health care aides, cooks, teachers, nurses, sex workers, child-care workers, secretaries, clerks, bank tellers, cashiers, paralegals, receptionists, house-cleaners, sales people, maids, nannies, personal shoppers, female prisoners, garment workers and others is no accident.  The material needs of the profit system entail a certain level of caste-like ethnic and gender-based job coding, which is both profitable and also divides the working class as an added bonus.  ‘Male privilege’ is useful to capital, both culturally and economically.  It is not a cultural problem alone.

If the movement against sexual harassment, rape and assault only stays at the level of ‘telling stories’ it will not be able to confront the systemic forces behind the stories. It has to look at the institutions involved, especially the prosecutors and police who have given repeat rapists a license to continue.  (Many rapists continue if they are not caught…)  And it has to go beyond that to the economic benefit of women’s second-class status to the economic system.  Which is why unionization and workers power on the job is essential.  But this will certainly never enter the dialogue of the mass media or the Democratic Party, as it undermines their whole reason for being.  

As to the Kavanaugh hearing itself, as pointed out by others, the outcome was a forgone conclusion.  However, if the Democrats had not shown up to produce a quorum in the 'Justice' committee, no hearing could have proceeded on this reactionary Constitutional dinosaur.  That is, if they were really serious...which they are not.  Nor are they serious about fighting sexism except in the most symbolic or  bourgeois ways.

Other reviews on this topic:  “Missoula,” “FGM,” “Really, Rape, Still?” “Revolt She Said. Revolt Again,” “Celebrate Indian Women,” “Class Action."

Red Frog

October 7

Gilette, Wyoming

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

I Read It So You Don't Have To


“We’re Doomed, Now What? – Essays on War and Climate Change,” by Roy Scranton, 2018

This seems to be another academic’s quota filler for a research/publishing requirement.  Scranton is a volunteer military soldier in Iraq, who drove trucks and military vehicles through Baghdad for 1 year.  He’s also a pessimist on the environment.  He’s now also a literature professor.  So he’s put together this series of essays on both topics from 2010 to 2018, adding a literary analysis of ‘traumatized military hero’ literature.  He stuffs in an unrelated essay on a poet who irritated some by ‘tweeting’ “Gone With the Wind” to try to get the Margaret  Mitchell Foundation to sue her.  Odd. And another about the protests around Eric Garner and Michael Brown and being in Moscow.  For my money, the only original stuff is the essay on ‘trauma heroes,’ which could be seen as another branch of the disfunction memoir.
Point of No Return Noted

Scranton took some kind of upscale cruise to the Arctic to report on the melt - like many other people have already done.  If repetition was one of the keys to knowledge – which it is – then maybe his reporting might be interesting.  He also takes a tour through toxic oil-and-gas -saturated Galveston, Texas neighborhoods, where ‘environmental racism’ is not a phrase.  The key takeaway here is that Scranton feels that the point of no return has passed on the environment. This is no doubt now true.  Initially he endorses no plan of action, except believing in ‘neo-humanism’ or ‘post-humanism.’ Really.  This seems more like some form of bad Buddhism or apocalyptic Catholicism than anything else.  But it is definitely post-modernism.  Is he a ‘Deep Green’?  No.  He joins ‘adaptionists’ like Dimitry Orlov, who at least has some skills to pass on for the environmental apocalypse while he floats around on his yacht.  Scrantion sees that reliance on ‘the market’ is already failing.  Only at the end does he state that an eco-socialist solution is the only way to stop runaway climate change.  So the book title is never really answered fully.

Scranton’s take on war is also blurred.  Initially he promotes war as normal, inevitable and manly and describes his experiences.  He goes on to show how veterans are now holders of impressive ‘cultural capital’ that vets can bask in.  After all, he was a kid when he joined, and it proved a lasting event in his life. Then he turns hostile to the destructive invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which is the position he maintains now.  He covers the bases and everybody should love that - or not.   His journalistic return to Baghdad during a trip for Rolling Stone 10 years after his tour of duty in 2004 exposes the U.S. sectarian approach in the first election there, but this is not news either. He intersperses these musings with poetic paragraphs that only induce rolling eyes. 

What is missing by Scranton is an understanding of the economic system that promoted the war on Iraq or the war on nature – capitalism. He’s the goldfish who doesn’t know he’s in an aquarium.  He mentions capital in passing, but is more concerned with the moral and ethical ramifications of doom.  He says he’s a terrible environmentalist, who can’t give up meat or flying and ignores many other personal issues like over-buying or recycling.  But then he's in the professional middle-class. Scranton should know he is not the source of global climate change, but stoping meat eating is not really that hard. Ah, guilty people are so plentiful and useless.  On a similar tangent, do white people who oppose institutional racism moan about how difficult it is to not be a bigot?  Or men fighting sexism complain that they still think women are only sex objects?  Not normally.
I’m being a bit unfair, as he redeems himself with his review of certain celebrated ‘wounded warrior’ books like “The Yellow Birds” (reviewed below) or right-wing movies like “American Sniper.”  Essentially they personalize the war down to the misery of the returning U.S. soldier, ignoring the greater misery of the Iraqi and Afghani people.  Politics and economics fly out the window for this accepted form of ‘the war story.’  Scranton calls this “the trauma hero myth.”  He even takes a crack at how literary MFA’s perpetuate this myth, a position dear to my heart.  His Iraq war experience tells him that war is not a 'mystical' event, unable to be understood normally.  Nor can you 'aestheticize' war and turn it into something culturally acceptable.  These points are also invaluable in combating imperialist pro-war literature or film.

If you are interested in war or environmental essays, and haven’t had your fill yet, this book may interest you.

Reviews related to this one: “The Yellow Birds,” “Matterhorn,” “Soldiers in Revolt,” “The Five Stages of Collapse,” “Reinventing Collapse,” “Marx and the Earth,” “Catastrophism,” “This Changes Everything,” “Collapse.”

And I Bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

October 2, 2018

Ashland, Oregon