Archive for October, 2009

Pavlov’s Dogs

October 29, 2009

The ISO held a meeting the other day at the University of Oregon campus entitled “Socialism: What It Is and Why We Need It”. About a half-hour into the meeting, a group of campus Republicans showed up, one of whom was carrying a US flag. During the discussion, someone made the point that the working class was created when peasants in Europe were driven off their land at the end of the Middle Ages. One of the Republicans said, “No one’s being driven off their land now.” A woman then pointed out that 600 farmers are driven off their land every day.

“That’s because they’re lazy,” said the guy with the flag.

Some people have it easy in life. They can sleep soundly at night, knowing that all the world’s problems are because people are “lazy”. If farmers are forced off their land, it’s because they’re “lazy”. If people can’t afford health insurance, it’s because they’re “lazy”. If people are homeless, it’s because they’re “lazy”. If a levee breaks and people’s homes are destroyed, it’s because they are “lazy”. The world is falling to pieces, but they can rest assured that it’s just a matter of people being “lazy”.

It was actually a good thing that Republicans showed up at this meeting. People got a chance to hear just how vacuous are the arguments that are made in defense of capitalism.

Divided Heaven

October 24, 2009

In an effort to round out my required credits, I am currently taking a college course devoted to German cinema during the Cold War. There is one film that I saw recently that I found particularly interesting. It is called Divided Heaven (1964). It was made in East Germany and was directed by Konrad Wolf, based on a novel by Christa Wolf. It tells the story of a young woman, Rita (Renate Blume), who falls in love with Manfred (Eberhard Esche), an ambitious chemist. Rita spends part of her time attending a training institute for teachers and part of her time working at a factory that makes train cars. Manfred gradually becomes frustrated with the reluctance of authorities to adopt a new process he has developed for making dyes. He leaves for the West. Rita soon follows. She eventually becomes disenchanted with what she regards as the aimlessness of life in the West; she misses the sense of purpose she had in the East. She reluctantly decides to leave Manfred and return to the East.

One of the things I found most interesting about Divided Heaven was the portrayal of the factory workers. It quickly becomes clear that there are tensions between individuals: resentments, rivalries, petty jealousies. There are suspicions that the foreman, Meternagel (Hans Hardt-Hardtloff) is too eager to please management, and one of the workers, Wendland (Hilmar Thate) is regarded as a loud-mouth and a show-off. This is very different from the standard Stalinist portrayal of heroic workers selflessly devoting themselves to the cause of socialism. Another way in which the film departs from Stalinist “art” is that it doesn’t take a worshipful view of the Communist Party. For example, Manfred is contemptuous of his father, who was a Nazi during the Second World War, but joined the CP afterwards. (When Manfred departs for the West, his parents regard this as a good career move.)

In the scenes at the teachers’ institute, problems are caused by a student, Mangold (Uwe Detlef Jessen), who is a self-appointed enforcer of political orthodoxy. He tries to have a student expelled simply because she concealed that fact that her father had fled to the West. It takes an impassioned intervention by the institute’s director, Schwarzenbach (G√ľnther Grabbert) to defeat his witch-hunt. Interestingly, political orthodoxy is not an issue for the factory workers. Perhaps because of the concrete nature of their work, it is simply impossible for them to concern themselves with ideological nit-picking. They are more concerned with practical questions, such as how much labor is reasonable to expect of people in a single day. The students at the institute, on the other hand, perhaps because of the more abstract nature of their concerns, are sometimes prone to drift into dogmatism and phrase-mongering.

Divided Heaven provides a sharp contrast to the cartoonish depiction of East Germany in another film I saw for this course, One, Two, Three (1961), an American film made in Germany , in which East Germans are shown marching around with signs saying “Yankee Go Home”. From what what I’ve read about this film it appears that, at the time of its release, critics thought this was brilliant satire.

I found Divided Heaven a bit hard to follow at times. The film jumps back and forth in time, and the characters are constantly referring to events in the distant past. (The voice-over narration doesn’t help much.) The fogginess of this film might at least be partly due to the fact that five different people worked on the screenplay. Nevertheless, Divided Heaven provides an interesting glimpse into that strange and evanescent place known as East Germany.

The Police State Continues to Grow

October 17, 2009

Those of you who believe that civilian review boards are the solution to the problem of police violence should consider this: on October 1, a civilian review board in Eugene, Oregon ruled that a police officer “did not break department policy” when he tased a man who was pinned to the ground. (You can read about the board’s decision here and here. You can find a detailed account of the tasing incident here.) Now, obviously, if someone is pinned to the ground, there’s no need to use a taser. This simple logic is apparently beyond the comprehension of three of the five members of the Eugene Civilian Review Board.

The Eugene Weekly article I linked to above notes: “…the Eugene mayor and City Council recently expanded and packed the CRB with appointees that appear opposed to the concept of civilian review that voters passed overwhelmingly.” The mayor, Kitty Piercy, is a liberal Democrat, who has spoken at anti-war rallies. The City Council is dominated by liberal Democrats. These high-minded liberals apparently can’t bear the thought that police officers should abide by any kind of ethical standard. This is the state of democracy in the US today.

Update: the Eugene City Council has refused to reappoint Richard Brissenden to the Eugene Civilian Review Board. Brissenden, a municipal court judge, was one of the two CRB members who dissented on the board’s ruling on the tasing incident. At the above-mentioned meeting, Brissenden criticized the behavior of the Eugene Police. The council members who voted against his reappointment were: Andrea Ortiz, Alan Zelenka, Mike Clark, Jennifer Solomon, Chris Pryor and George Poling. (Remember this when these people are up for re-election.) The Eugene Weekly comments:

    Credible independent oversight of police review in Eugene now appears dead. Resurrecting oversight could take citizen action in recalling officials who oppose police review or defeating them at reelection, citizen ballot initiatives, intense public pressure on city government, and lawsuits. We also join conservatives on The [Eugene} Register-Guard editorial board in calling for an immediate moratorium on the use of Tasers by Eugene police until the department ends its secrecy and develops a meaningful policy that actually restricts this dangerous, excruciating weapon.

A Peace Prize for Obama?

October 10, 2009

It seems that everyone is baffled by the decision to give President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. Even the sycophants in the media have been unable to hide their surprise. A few people have suggested that this is meant as a slap at George W. Bush. This seems to me to be the most plausible explanation. Certainly, Bush was never popular in Europe. His sneering comments about “Old Europe” and his proposal to put a “missile shield” (that nobody wanted or needed) in Poland didn’t win him any friends. The hapless Gerhard Schroeder’s approval ratings skyrocketed when he merely thumbed his nose at Bush. Perhaps if Dubya had been nicer to our friends across the pond, they might have given him the Peace Prize. After all, they’re not too picky about whom they give these things to.

I heard a TV reporter ask someone if the Peace Prize had been “degraded” by giving it to Obama so early in his administration. Actually, it was degraded a long time ago. In 1906, they gave the Prize to the arch-imperialist, Theodore Roosevelt, who presided over the bloody suppression of the Philippines. (The Nobel Prize for Literature has been similarly degraded. In 1953, they gave the prize to Winston Churchill for his ghost-written history of the Second World War.) In fact, giving the award to Obama actually elevates it somewhat, since he hasn’t killed nearly as many people as Nobel Laureate Henry Kissinger did.

Here in Eugene, where I live, there’s a group called The Nobel Peace Laureate Project. Their stated aim is to build a monument to Amercian winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in one of our city’s parks. (Why only Americans? War criminals from other countries aren’t good enough?) Their website gives a revealing list of these laureates. There’s Woodrow Wilson, who maneuvered the US into World War I. (In the cause of peace, of course.) Then there’s Frank Kellogg, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, who negotiated the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which “outlawed war”. (Hey, we all know what a roaring success that was.) There is Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, who “proposed to Frank Kellogg the idea for the Kellogg-Briand Pact”. ( And where did he get the idea from? I want to know!) Then there’s Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State, who was an “advocate of freer international trade by means of reducing trade restrictions.” (This has resulted in people working under sweatshop conditions for Nike. Nice job, Cordell.) And there’s Henry Kissinger. (Any comment here would be superfluous.) Then there’s Elie Wiesel, cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq. (Truly, a man of peace.) And, of course, there’s Jimmy Carter, who gave the CIA the green light to supply arms to right-wing mujahedeen in Afghanistan – before the Soviet invasion – leading to the destruction of that unfortunate country. (But, hey, Jimmy supports women’s rights!)

Please, don’t get me wrong: I don’t doubt for a moment that the people in the Nobel Peace Laureate Project are completely sincere and well-intentioned. My point here is that it’s not enough to say that one is in favor of peace. (I don’t doubt for a moment that even Gen. McChrystal believes that peace is a worthy thing.) The problem is that nations go to war for specific reasons, not because they believe that war is an end-in-itself. The abstract notion of “peace” can mean different things to different people. This is why the Nobel Peace Prize is meaningless.

School Spirit

October 7, 2009

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently went to see Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story. I got to the cinema early, so I had to watch commercials on a giant movie screen. (That’s right. To see an anti-capitalist film, you have to watch advertisements.) As I was starting to zone out, an image of a huge green “O” against a yellow background suddenly appeared. This is the copyrighted symbol of the University of Oregon, where I work part-time and take classes. I roused myself from my stupor, thinking that this must be some important public service announcement. How else could one possibly explain the appearance of this hallowed emblem of my beloved school under such cheesy circumstances? I then saw a series of images of people in various stages of exultation. A male voice-over solemnly informed me that it is a tradition for Duck sports fans (the UO’s mascot is a duck) to wear green and yellow (the school colors) every Friday. (I must guiltily confess that this was the first time I had ever heard of this tradition. Lest the reader think me utterly clueless, let me say that I did cannily notice that the people in the photos were all wearing green and yellow.) The voice then informed me that, while it was nice that I was wearing the school colors every Friday, I needed to take my school spirit to “the next level”. I don’t quite remember what he said next. Perhaps I became a bit delirious from seeing all these images of happy, smiling people showing their school pride.

Afterwards, when I had recovered my senses, my first thought was: how much money is the university spending to run these announcements in movie theaters? This is not an idle question. In recent contract negotiations with employees, the school has proposed that they be required to take 24 unpaid furlough days every year. (You can read about it here.) This obviously amounts to a cut in pay. Recently I had to pay $300 for my yearly campus parking permit. This is about three times what I had to pay last year. So, the school is saying that it has to cut wages and raise fees, but it can nevertheless find the money to run announcements in movie theaters that we need to take our school spirit to “the next level”.

Every year the UO rents billboards all over the city of Eugene, promoting the school’s various sports teams. Now, does anyone really believe that if they didn’t do this, people would stop coming to the games?

I might add here that the UO is currently spending millions of dollars to build a new basketball arena. I discussed this in an earlier post.

Now, we all know that school spirit is important. It’s important because…well, because it’s important. Clearly, if all people are doing is wearing green and yellow every Friday, that shows a shocking lack of school pride. We must take it to the next level, but how? Perhaps we should have our skin and hair dyed in the UO colors. Perhaps we should have our teeth coated in alternating green and yellow enamel. Perhaps we should have the words “Go Ducks!” tattooed on our faces and on our genitalia. Perhaps each one of us should have the trademark “O” branded on his or her buttocks with a red-hot iron.

Perhaps then we shall finally achieve that nirvana of complete, unexcelled Duckness!