Archive for May, 2010

The Joneses

May 28, 2010

In The Joneses, Steve Jones (David Duchovny), his wife, Kate (Demi Moore), and their two teenage children, Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mick (Ben Hollingsworth) move into a wealthy suburban neighborhood. They seem to be a happy family, except for one thing: they’re not really a family. They’re actors who’ve been hired to ingratiate themselves in the local community, in order to get people to buy certain products. They soon become hugely popular, but they have their greatest impact on their next-door neighbors, Larry (Gary Cole) and Summer (Glenne Headly). Summer works for an Amway-like company that get people to sell beauty products to their neighbors. (Summer does openly what the Joneses do secretly.) At the company’s behest, she memorizes insipid platitudes about positive thinking. She refuses to have sex with Larry, because she wants to only have the company’s positive bromides on her mind before she falls asleep. Unhappy with his marriage, Larry envies the seemingly happy Steve. He tries to emulate Steve by buying all the products the latter shows him. As a result, Larry eventually finds himself carrying a mountain of debt that he can’t sustain.

The individual members of the “Jones family” are themselves corrupted by the insincerity of their actions. Mick, for example, promotes an alcoholic beverage by getting a bunch of teenagers drunk, while Jenn pursues a rich man who doesn’t love her. At the end, Steve quits in disgust, but only after he and his “family” have done terrible damage to people’s lives.

The Joneses is a satire on undercover marketing. (I must confess I didn’t know about this phenomenon until I saw this movie.) It is a criticism of how advertising permeates our society and encourages false values and reckless behavior (such as getting into debt). I thought the acting was very good. I especially liked Glenne Headly, who brought a sense of vulnerability to a character who might otherwise have seemed unsympathetic.

Although I mostly liked this film, there were a few false moments. At the end, for example, Mick, who is gay and has just come out of the closet, tells Steve that “I don’t have to pretend any more”, even though he’s still working for the company. This is apparently not meant to be ironic. Also, a scene in which Jenn tries to seduce Steve is just silly. However, such flaws don’t harm the overall impact of the film.

More Thoughts on Rand Paul

May 22, 2010

In an article that not quite defends Rand Paul, Alexander Cockburn puts forth a sophisticated form of the “lesser evil” argument that he used to reject. He points out that Paul’s opponent, Jack Conway, is a neo-con Democrat of the worst kind. He argues that because of his libertarianism, Paul is more likely to be a “wild card” in the Senate, one who might do such things as filibuster a bank bailout. I can’t really buy this. Since Paul has been willing to defend BP, I think it’s a bit optimistic to expect him to stand up to the banks. He will more likely devote his energies to trying to pass anti-immigrant and anti-abortion legislation and to shredding what little is left of the social safety net. Having a wild card doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a winning hand.

This latest argument by Cockburn is related to one that he has made from time to time over the years: that there can be a “left-right” alliance. If I remember correctly, he first brought up this idea during the 1996 election. Cockburn got all excited when Pat Buchanan made some vaguely populist noises during the primaries. He started to suggest that Buchanan could be some sort of ally. This idea was a non-starter, because of Buchanan’s rabid anti-immigrant stance, not to mention his hatred for the left. It’s absurd to think that immigrants and minorities can march side-by-side with racists and xenophobes.

Cockburn says that “liberalism is in awful crisis”, which is true. However, that is precisely why the left doesn’t need to make any cynical deals with the far right. Now more than ever is the time to put forward a genuinely left program.


May 21, 2010

Libertarianism is the belief that capitalists have a right to do to the rest of us whatever they please, and we are obligated to let them do it to us. It has nothing to do with any notions about personal liberty. Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senator from Kentucky and a self-professed libertarian, says that a business has the right to turn away Black customers. (Although he hastens to add that he personally disapproves of racial discrimination. How reassuring.) He is also opposed to a woman’s right to choose. Since a woman is not a corporation, she clearly has no right to discriminate against a fetus.

Here is what Paul says on his website about immigration:

    I do not support amnesty. Those who come here should respect our laws. I support legal immigration and recognize that the country has been enriched by those who seek the freedom to make a life for themselves.

    Immigrants should meet the current requirements, which should be enforced and updated. I realize that subsidizing something creates more of it, and do not think the taxpayer should be forced to pay for welfare, medical care and other expenses for illegal immigrants. Once the subsidies for illegal immigration are removed, the problem will likely become far less common.

If I’m reading that last paragraph correctly, Paul seems to think that some immigrants come to this country so they can receive welfare and free medical care. Since native-born Americans can’t get these things, immigrants clearly can’t get them either. This raises the question of whether or not Paul has any idea what he is talking about.

Ah, but there’s more:

    I support local solutions to illegal immigration as protected by the 10th amendment. I support making English the official language of all documents and contracts.

    Millions crossing our border without our knowledge constitutes a clear threat to our nation’s security. I will work to secure our borders immediately. My plans include an underground electric fence, with helicopter stations to respond quickly to breaches of the border. Instead of closing military bases at home and renting space in Europe, I am open to the construction of bases to protect our border.

An underground electric fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border! How libertarian! (By the way, this fence would be partially paid for by the income taxes of undocumented immigrants.) And won’t it be pleasant to observe the scenic vistas of the American Southwest with all those helicopters hovering overhead? By the way, why the hell should a libertarian care about whether or not the U.S. has an official language?

I can’t help but point out that many undocumented immigrants come from Asia and from Europe. (When I lived in Boston, I knew some Irishmen who were undocumented.) Paul says nothing about this. He treats the issue as being entirely about people crossing the Mexican border. I think we can assume then that Paul thinks the problem consists of Mexicans and Central Americans, and that therefore Paul is a racist.

People who think that leftists can make common cause with people like this are sadly deluded.

The Persistence of the Old Regime

May 19, 2010

An interesting article in the New York Times argues that there is a “generation gap” when it comes to people’s attitudes towards immigration. The article tells of studies that show that people 45 years or older are much more likely to have anti-immigrant views, while younger people are more likely to have a positive view of immigrants. As the article puts it:

    Boomers and their parents … spent their formative years away from the cities, where newer immigrants tended to gather — unlike today’s young people who have become more involved with immigrants, through college, or by moving to urban areas.

    “It’s hard for them to share each others’ views on what’s going on,” said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. “These older people grew up in largely white suburbs or largely segregated neighborhoods. Young people have grown up in an interracial culture.”

This dovetails with my own observations. I saw anti-immigrant demonstrations when I lived in Southern California, and the people who came to them were mostly old people. Arizona has a large population of retired people. These are the people who elected the Republican legislators who are turning the place into an apartheid police state. These are the same kind of people who support the Tea Party movement. They are angrily lashing out at an America that no longer fits their prejudices.

I grew up in an all-white suburb, and since I have no fond memories of the place, I have no sympathy for people who want to cling to that way of life. We have a generation of Americans who want to spend the final years of their lives pissing all over the rest of us.

Thought Control Comes to the U.S.A.

May 13, 2010

Arizona seems determined to become the worst state in the Union. Not satisfied with making Latinos into second-class citizens, the state government just passed a law targeting ethnic studies programs in schools. Among other things, “the measure prohibits classes that advocate ethnic solidarity, that are designed primarily for students of a particular race or that promote resentment toward a certain ethnic group.” This is clearly meant to bring an end to ethnic studies programs, which inevitably touch upon the issue of racism in our society.

It seems to me that if fascism ever comes to this country, it will come not from the federal government, but from state governments. There are several state governments getting ready to pass anti-immigrant bills modeled after the one just passed in Arizona. And recently some governors have been expressing nostalgia for the days of the Confederacy. This would fit in with a historical pattern. The notion of “state’s rights” was used to first defend slavery and then racism. It’s often in state governments that the most reactionary ideas are found.


May 11, 2010

Vincere (Win) is an Italian film that tells the story of Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who was the first wife of Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and who bore him a son. During the First World War, she became estranged from Mussolini, and he married another woman. After he rose to power, Mussolini had to hide the embarrassing fact that he was married to two women. He sought to discredit Dalser and to destroy any evidence of their marriage. He had their son taken away from her, and he had her placed in an asylum. She died in 1937.

The film largely depicts Dalser’s life in mental hospitals and asylums, and the brutality and indifference she experiences in these places. Throughout she struggles valiantly, but futilely, to have herself recognized as Mussolini’s wife, and to have her son recognized as Mussolini’s son. I have to admit, I found the film hard to follow at times. It doesn’t always make clear what is happening, and it jumps back and forth in time. Also, I found it a bit hard to sympathize with someone who was essentially a fascist. However, I was impressed by the acting. Both Mezzogiorno and Timi turn in very strong performances.

Strange to say, the film leaves out two historical details that are very interesting. At one point, Dalser accused Mussolini of being a traitor, claiming that he had taken money from the French government to agitate for Italy’s entry into the First World War. (In the film, Dalser is portrayed as remaining loyal to Mussolini in spite of everything.) And although the film mentions that Dalser’s son, Benito, who claimed Mussolini as his father, died in an asylum at the age of 26, it doesn’t show that his doctors had given him coma-inducing drugs.

Still, at a time when fascism has undergone a revival in Italy, it’s good to see an Italian film that portrays Mussolini as a scumbag.

No Immigration Bill

May 9, 2010

Obama has indicated that he will not try to pass an immigration bill this year. This should come as no surprise. Obama wouldn’t want to touch a divisive issue like immigration reform during an election year, especially since he failed to politically benefit from “health care reform”. However, this news has provoked dismay among some pundits, who want the federal government to pass an immigration bill ASAP, in order to head off any more toxic state legislation, like the awful bill that was just passed in Arizona. To be honest, I can’t see our government passing an immigration bill that isn’t terrible. As I pointed out in my last post, the only practical solution to this problem is to grant legal status to undocumented workers. Neither of the major political parties is willing to call for this. No one in the mainstream media is willing to advocate for it. Instead, we get endless delusional talk about “sealing the border”.

What’s more, because the Democrats won’t abolish the filibuster rule, the Senate is now virtually controlled by two right-wingers: Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson. (Lieberman seems to be going off the deep end. His demands are becoming more and more capricious every day. I’m waiting for him to have his Joe McCarthy moment.) If the Senate ever passes an immigration bill, you can bet it will have all sorts of “anti-terrorism” amendments, vastly increasing the powers of the police.

An interesting side note: according to some reports, the Tea Party movement seems to be on the wane. I don’t think this should be surprising, considering that there’s no real political substance to the movement. I bet some of these people really believed the sky was going to fall if the “health care reform” bill was passed. Perhaps they’re feeling a little foolish right now, as well they should.

Stop the Racist Attack on Immigrants

May 1, 2010

Recently I was asked to give a talk on immigration. It’s been a long time since I’ve been asked to give a talk on any topic, and the first time I’ve been asked to talk about immigration. Below is the talk I gave at the University of Oregon campus on April 29th:

During the past decade, more than 3,000 people have died crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. These are people coming to look for work. They come here because the economies of Mexico and Central America have been devastated by NAFTA and other “free trade” agreements. These agreements are meant to under-develop these nations so they can serve as sources of raw materials and cheap labor. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called these immigrants “criminal aliens”.

The state of Arizona recently passed a law making it a state crime for immigrants to not carry authorization papers. The bill also requires the police to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant for papers, a sure-fire invitation to racial profiling. The bill makes it possible for people to sue police who refuse to do racial profiling. Meanwhile, in Maricopa County Arizona, Sheriff Arpaio keeps arrested undocumented immigrants in tents 110-degree heat. In 20009, thousands of workers at American Apparel, American Building Maintenance and Overhill Farms lost their jobs because they purportedly lacked proof that they were legally eligible to work in the U.S. When Obama was running for president, he promised to reform the country’s immigration system and offer undocumented workers a path to citizenship. (67 percent of Latino voters voted for Obama.) Instead, the Obama Administration has expanded the 287(g) program. This is part of the 1986 Immigration and Control Act (IRCA) that was passed under the Reagan Administration. This bill enabled three million undocumented immigrants to acquire legal residency. However, it also contained a clause, 287(g), which enabled the U.S. government to deputize local and state law enforcement officials to enforce immigration laws (something that previously only the federal government could do). As a result of this expansion, police have been able throw immigrants into jail after traffic stops. In 2009, immigration prosecutions were up 20 percent over the previous years.(1) A third of all filings in U.S. district courts are immigration cases.(2) Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), has said:

    We’ve seen racial profiling practices that we haven’t seen in a generation, perhaps since Jim Crow. Obama ran on an agenda of inclusion… He wants equality. He said that we have to promote understanding. Well, guess what – the 287(g) program is not promoting that kind of understanding. It’s promoting division. It’s giving ammunition to all those anti-immigrant organizations, to all those groups with strong white supremacist ties. Day laborers all over the country have experienced it… the men and women who every day defy the odds to find a day of work – they’ve seen what hatred looks like.(3)

The Obama Administration has also announced that it will only award federal contracts to companies that use E-Verify to check employee work authorization. E-Verify is a program started by the Bush administration. It is on-line system by the government that allows companies to verify whether employees have work authorization. Journalist David Bacon has described the effect of this policy:

    Workplace immigration enforcement is filled with examples of employers who use audits and discrepancies as pretexts to discharge union militants or discourage worker organization… Overhill Farms has a union. American Apparel pays better than most garment factories. In Minneapolis, the 1,200 fired janitors at ABM get a higher wage than non-union workers–and they had to strike to win it… If anything, ICE seems intent on punishing undocumented workers who earn too much, or who become too visible by demanding higher wages and organizing unions.

    And despite Obama’s notion that sanctions enforcement will punish those employers who exploit immigrants, at American Apparel and ABM the employers were rewarded for cooperation by being immunized from prosecution… No one in the Obama or Bush administrations, or the Clinton administration before them, wants to stop migration to the U.S. or imagines that this could be done without catastrophic consequences…Instead [e]nforcement is a means for managing the flow of migrants, and making their labor available to employers at a price they want to pay. (4)

Bacon touches upon a point that is often misunderstood by both the Right and the Left. The government does not want to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants into the U.S., rather it wants to manage it. This is because the exploitation of undocumented workers is an essential element of how the U.S. economy works. Undocumented workers can be paid lower wages and forced to work longer hours than other workers, and forced to work in dangerous conditions, and they don’t have recourse to any labor laws in the U.S. What’s more, it’s difficult for undocumented workers to form unions, because organizers can be easily targeted and fired by companies. Let me use the case of Overhill Farms as an example. Overhill makes processed foods that are served on airlines and in other places. The workers at Overhill are unionized. Overhill has used the firing of workers as a way to weaken the union. Last year, the company fired 254 unionized workers, claiming there were discrepancies in the Social Security numbers. They then replaced the workers with “part-time” workers who receive no benefits, even though they sometimes work up to thirteen hours a day.(5)

Currently the Democrats in Congress are considering legislation that would create a guest worker program here in the U.S. This is not a solution to the immigration problem. Such a program would merely allow employers to do legally what they have so far been doing illegally, that is, exploiting immigrant workers. Workers who complain or try to organize can be fired, and they would have to leave the country under the terms of the guest worker program. The real purpose of this legislation is to provide U.S. companies with cheap labor. It has nothing to do with helping immigrant or native-born workers. The best way to protect the rights of both of these groups is give legal status to undocumented workers. According to Phil Gasper:

    A UCLA study conducted a few years ago concluded that if undocumented workers were given legal status, wages for all workers would immediately increase by approximately 5 percent in agriculture, 2.75 percent in services, and 2.5 percent in manufacturing.(6)

The legislation being considered by the Democrats would also call for stricter law enforcement along the border including the erecting of a fence. This would merely make things more dangerous for immigrants, forcing them to cross in more isolated areas in the desert and mountains, resulting in more deaths and suffering. The only real solution to the immigration problem is an open border policy that would allow the free flow of people across borders. The outrageous anti-immigrant bill passed in Arizona has provoked an angry backlash among Latinos and other groups. In the days following the bill’s passage, thousands marched through the streets of the state capitol angrily calling for repeal of this bill. Some protestors plastered swastikas made of refried beans on the windows of the state capitol building. Since the politicians are intent on only serving the interests of the capitalist class, only a movement of the people can bring any real change. Last month, 200,000 people marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. to demand an end to raids and deportations and a better immigration system. This Saturday, May Day, people will be marching in Portland and in Salem. We should stand with those people.

1. Orlando Sepulveda, “Is the Gutierrez Bill Good for Immigrants?” Socialist Worker, immigrants, p. 3.
2. Ibid.
3. Quoted by Brian Tierney, “Standing Up to Immgration Police”, Socialist Worker, September 20, 2009, Issue 706.
4. David Bacon, “The Brutal Dark Side of Obama’s “Softer” Immigration Enforcement”, Znet, by-david-bacon.
5. “Standing Up to Overhill Farms”, Socialist Worker,
6. Phil Gasper, “Scapegoating immigrants”, International Socialist Review, Issue 50, November– December 2006,