Archive for July, 2010

Peter Camejo

July 31, 2010

    Empty rhetoric is a form of capitulation.
    – Peter Camejo

I have just finished reading Peter Camejo’s memoir, North Star, which is available from Haymarket Books. Camejo is mostly remembered for having run as Ralph Nader’s running mate in the 2004 presidential election. However, he had a long and varied career before that. Although he was born in the U.S., he came from a wealthy Venezuelan family. He was a member of Venezuela’s yachting team at the 1960 Olympics. During the 1960’s, he was active in the anti-war movement. He played a leading role in the Battle of Telegraph Avenue, in which UC students fought with the Berkeley police. He became a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970 (he debated Ted Kennedy) and for the presidency in 1976. (He reports that there were 66 undercover FBI agents working in his presidential campaign.) He was also involved in international work for the Fourth International. He tells of an incident in which he tried unsuccessfully to persuade a guerilla group in Argentina to release a businessman they had kidnapped. As I read about this, it occurred to me that under current “anti-terror” laws that exist in the U.S., he could have gone to prison for this. A striking example of how our freedoms have been eroded in recent years.

In the 1980’s he was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party. He founded a short-lived group called the North Star Network. He then moved into the field of socially responsible investing. In the 1990’s, he became involved in the Green Party. He ran for governor of California three times on the Green Party ticket.

I found the book fascinating. HIs accounts of his anti-war work provide insights into how to build broad coalitions, as well as how to confront police violence. However, I found his account of his time doing investment work less interesting, although he does give a revealing discussion of pension funds. He points out these funds are mostly managed by businessmen who are hostile to workers and to unions. He also points out that many environmental and conservation groups invest their money in companies that pollute, including oil companies. His account of the 2003 California recall election is amusing. (He gives an unflattering portrait of Arianna Huffington. Among other things, he points out that her attacks on Schwarzenegger made it easier for him to avoid discussing the issues.) I was disappointed that he never really discusses why the North Star Network never took off. I would think that might have been enlightening.

There are two aspects of this book that may well prove controversial. The first is his critique of Trotskyism. The second is his discussion of the left’s capitulation to the Democrats during the 2000’s. Camejo argues that during the 1930’s, when the Trotskyists were trying to differentiate themselves from the Stalinists, they became obsessed with having the “correct” interpretation of Marx and Lenin, as well as of events in the Soviet Union. The result, Camejo argues, is that they developed a rigid view of the world. (I have met Trotskyists who did seem to me ideologically rigid and obsessed with having the “correct” line on everything.) However, Camejo does admit that Trotskyists have played useful roles in political struggles – as his own participation in the 1960’s anti-war movement shows.

Camejo sees the left’s capitulation to the Democrats as an unmitigated disaster. It has paralyzed the left and made it easier for the Democrats to pursue pro-war and pro-corporate policies. Camejo has harsh words for Michael Moore, Medea Benjamin and others who threw their principles away to elect politicians whose positions they oppose. On this point, I agree completely with Camejo. It is going to take a long time to overcome all the damage that has been done.

Another of Camejo’s arguments concerns language. He argues that words such as “socialism” have acquired too much political and historical baggage, and that leftists must find new ways of explaining their ideas to people. I think Camejo may be right here, although I’m not sure how we would go about developing this new language. Camejo also urges leftists to study America’s radical history (such as the abolitionist movement) and to draw inspiration from it. I think this is an excellent idea.

One thing that struck me about this book is Camejo’s unwavering optimism, even after the collapse of the 2000’s. He expresses confidence that there will one day be a “Third American Revolution”. I certainly hope he was right about that.

Peter Camejo, presente!

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Arnold’s Audacity

July 30, 2010

Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a bill that would have given farmworkers overtime pay for working more than forty hours a week or eight hours a day. This would have merely given farmworkers the same right that other workers in California have.

Arnold used to get paid millions of dollars just to show up for film shoots. (No acting was required.) Yet he thinks it’s unreasonable for farmworkers who make $10.25 an hour to get overtime.

Some nerve.

9500 Liberty

July 29, 2010

9500 Liberty is about what happened in Prince William County, Virginia, when the Board of County Supervisors passed an ordinance similar to the SB 1070 bill in Arizona. The law required police officers to question anyone that they had “probable cause” to believe is an undocumented immigrant, a clear invitation to racial profiling. The new law is championed by a group called Save Manassas (Manassas is a town in Prince William), which is headed by a right-wing blogger named Greg Letiecq. The bill is opposed by immigrants’ rights groups, but the Board nonetheless passes it unanimously. The language of the law was written by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). The Southern Poverty Law Center has called FAIR a hate group. FAIR also wrote Arizona’s SB 1070.

After the law is passed, individuals emerge to oppose it. Gaudencio Fernandez, a Mexican immigrant, builds a sign on his property at 9500 Liberty that denounces the law. Two women, Alanna Almeda and Elena Schlossberg, become outspoken and relentless opponents of the law. (Both of them are Republicans, interestingly enough.) The two of them are ignored at first, but when they create a website, they begin to find support in the community. Eventually the law is amended, and the “probable cause” clause is taken out.

The film shows how the law adversely affected the county’s economy. People moved away, fearing harassment from the police. This caused local businesses to suffer. It also caused housing values to go down. The film also shows how the Internet has changed the way political organizing is done. What I found particularly interesting is that it also shows how supporters of the law tried to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. This dovetails with the experiences I had working with immigrants’ rights groups in Southern California. A friend of mine was struck by a car driven by a leader of the local Minutemen. The police never pressed charges against the man.

9500 Liberty ends on an optimistic note. It shows that people can stand up to right-wing hate groups. However, it doesn’t address the larger question of the role that the demonization of immigrants plays in our economy. Still, I highly recommend this film.

The Secret in Their Eyes

July 25, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes is an Argentine film that was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Although I liked this film very much, I don’t think it is a better film than A Prophet or The White Ribbon, both of which it beat out. I suspect it won because it tells a more conventional story than the other two.

The story, most of which is told through flashbacks, is set in the 1970’s. Benjamín Espósito (Ricardo Darín) is a federal justice agent, who works with his alcoholic partner, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). Their boss is Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Benjamin and Pablo are sent to investigate the brutal rape and murder of a woman, Liliana Colotto. The chief suspect, Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino) has disappeared. Most of the first half of the film is taken up with the efforts of Benjamin and Pablo to find Gómez. When they do, the latter confesses. However, after being in prison for only a year, he is pardoned by Argentina’s president, Isabel Peron. It turns out that in prison, Gómez spied on “subversives”, and he is now an armed agent of the government. A government official haughtily informs Benjamin and Irene that Gómez has done the state a great service, and the government doesn’t care about his “personal life”. Benjamin and Irene then begin to fear for their own lives, with Gómez loose on the street with government immunity.

The Secret in Their Eyes manages to build suspense without a lot of action-filled scenes. In contrast to most Hollywood thrillers, it doesn’t romanticize law enforcement. The police come across as barely competent. One of Benjamin’s fellow agents is blatantly corrupt. Most of the film takes place during the beginning of Argentina’s Dirty War. Throughout these scenes there are ominous hints about what is about to happen to the country. The film also touches upon how notions about class and gender affect people’s behavior in Argentina. At the beginning of the investigation, for example, an agent tries to frame two construction workers for the murder. In a later scene, Irene goads Gómez into confessing by insulting his manhood.

Although I mostly liked this film, there are a few weak spots. In one scene the film actually revives the hoary cliché of the woman running after the train that is carrying her lover. (Has anyone ever seen this happen in real life?) I remember back in 1980, the film Airplane! made fun of this sort of thing.

All quibbles aside, this film is highly recommended.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

July 24, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop is brilliant. It’s the best documentary I’ve ever seen about the art world. Some people have claimed that this film is a hoax (a “prankumentary”). Even if this is true, the film would still be the best documentary about the art world. It would be an example of what Picasso called “a lie that reveals the truth.”

The film tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant living in Los Angeles, who is obsessed with videotaping things. His cousin is a French street artist who calls himself Space Invader, through whom Guetta becomes interested in the shadowy world of street art, also known as graffiti. He videotapes his cousin making art on the streets, often at the risk of arrest by the police. (The film makes it clear that part of the attraction of street art is the element of risk, including the risk of injury.) Through Space Invader, Guetta gets to know other street artists, and he persuades them to also let him videotape them making their art. He films such people as Shepard Fairey, Buffmonster and Borf, surreptitiously making their art at night (and sometimes in broad daylight). Guetta eventually meets the elusive Banksy, the most famous figure in the street art scene. He videotapes Banksy and gradually earns his trust. Banksy is concerned about the growing acceptance of graffiti in the high-end art market. He urges Guetta to make a documentary out of his videos, so people will have a record of what street art was like in the early days. Guetta spends six months laboring on his film. When he shows it to Banksy, it turns out to be an incoherent mess. Not wanting to be too negative, Banksy suggests that Guetta try doing street art himself. Guetta returns to L.A., where he does as Banksy suggested. He styles himself, “Mr. Brainwash”. Soon, he wants to have his own gallery show like all the other street artists. Guetta is not much of an artist, but he turns out to be a genius at self-promotion. His heavily publicized opening is a huge hit. Collectors eagerly buy up his pieces, oblivious to the fact that they’re all derivative of other artists’ works.

Exit Through the Gift Shop touches upon several themes. Most strikingly, it’s about how hype shapes people’s perception of art. A clever promotional campaign turns an exhibit of mediocre art into a huge sensation. The film is also about how the art market has transformed the world of street art, which started out as an art of rebellion, but has now become part of the mainstream.

There are street artists here in Eugene, however their works are not appreciated by the Eugene Police. A few years ago, a couple of University of Oregon students were arrested in their dorm room for having done street art. The EPD are apparently unaware that in UO classes students are taught that graffiti is a legitimate art form, worthy of admiration.

From what I gather, the police in much of the rest of the country have the same attitude as the Eugene Police. Last year, the well-known Japanese pop artist, Yoshitomo Nara, was arrested in New York for doing graffiti. A newspaper article reports:

    Nara, 49, who lives and works in Tochigi Prefecture, was in New York for a solo exhibition of his work at the Marianne Boesky Gallery that runs Feb 28 through March 28. The online edition of Art in America magazine said Nara was caught tagging a graffiti portrait of two Japanese friends in the subway station and he was optimistic about his two days in lockup.

    It was ‘‘a nice experience in my life,’’ the artist was quoted as saying. He said the environment in which he found himself was like something in the movies.

Well, I suppose if you watch enough movies, eventually everything will seem like something in the movies.

I Am Love

July 18, 2010

Before I went to see I Am Love, I heard someone on the radio refer to it as an “Italian potboiler”. That seems to me to be a fair description of the film. It tells the story of a Russian woman, Emma (Tilda Swinton), who has married into a family of Italian industrialists, the Recchys. She has a cold relationship with her husband, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), who is out of town much of time. She throws fancy parties that she doesn’t attend. Her son, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), runs the family business along with his father. He doesn’t like some of his father’s decisions, such as laying off workers. When his father, along with the rest of the family, decide to sell their textile business, Edoardo objects. He argues that the Recchys have always been about more than just making money.

Edoardo’s best friend is Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef who makes exquisite dishes with skimpy portions. The two of them want to open up a restaurant. One day, Emma bumps into Antonio on the street. He invites her up to his cottage in the mountains, where he grows all the vegetables he uses in his dishes. (His garden looks small. No wonder his portions are skimpy.) There the two of them begin, without much dialogue, a torrid affair. During the love scenes there are lots of cutaway shots of flowers and insects. I take it that this is supposed to indicate that nature is following her course. From then on, Emma and Antonio keep their affair secret. However, Edoardo eventually finds out about it. As you might expect, he becomes deeply upset. During an argument with his mother, he accidently falls into a swimming pool. Since this is an Italian movie, he hits his head on the edge of the pool and dies. Edoardo’s death plunges Emma and the entire Recchy family into a profound crisis.

Emma’s eventual rejection of her family’s cynical venality in favor of Antonio’s bohemianism is clearly meant to be seen as a form of self-liberation. (The film links eating with sex in a way that reminded me of Like Water for Chocolate.) However, I didn’t like the fact that Edoardo is killed, since I found him the most sympathetic character in the film. I guess his death is supposed to be the shattering of Emma’s last remaining illusions about her life.

The main reason I went to see this film is because the musical score is by John Adams, a composer whose work I’ve always admired. Adams’s music is glorious, though the movie uses it in a way that is melodramatic.

I Am Love is not a bad movie. However, it didn’t strike me as being particularly good, either. I didn’t care that much about the characters, and there were moments that struck me as self-consciously artsy. However, it did keep me interested for two hours. That’s more than I can say for some films that have won Academy Awards.

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

July 17, 2010

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Harvey Pekar, one of my personal heroes. I knew he had been having health problems for a long time, but still the news of his death came as a bit of a shock. I was hoping that he would still be with us for quite a while.

Pekar’s American Splendor comics broadened the art of storytelling. He had a remarkable ability to find humor and poignance in every-day situations. His comics make “minimalist” short story writers look pathetic. One of the things I like about him is his willingness to talk about what it’s like to work in a mind-numbing, dead end job and about what it feels like to be poor. These are things that usually aren’t talked about in our culture.

I can’t quite recall how I first learned about Harvey Pekar. I dimly remember being aware of who he was back in the 1980’s, though I’m not sure exactly how. (I didn’t see any of his appearances on the Letterman show until years later.) When I lived in New York in the 1990’s, I would read jazz commentaries of his in the Village Voice. However, I didn’t really become deeply interested in his work until I saw the film, American Splendor, several years ago. I then plowed through a chunk of his comics as well as the books, Unsung Hero and Ego & Hubris. I realized in retrospect that the film had somewhat depoliticized him. It also glossed over some of the darker aspects of his writing.

I just finished reading The Quitter, and I was struck by Pekar’s unwillingness to romanticize or justify himself in any way. In one anecdote, for example, he admits he deserved to be fired from a job. He also recounts a humiliating incident that led to his being discharged from the Navy. There is something bracing about this kind of honesty.

Pekar will be missed.

Hitting the Oregon Trail

July 11, 2010

I have just begun receiving food stamps for the first time in my life. This is something I have resisted doing for a long time. However, two weeks ago my unemployment insurance was taken away from me. (It has recently been restored.) That gaze into the abyss put the fear of God into me.

In Oregon, you get food stamps from the Department of Human Services. You would think that their Eugene office would be in the downtown area, which people can get to easily. No, their office is located in an office park out in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t have a car, you would have to take a long bus ride out to this place. The people who run this state apparently think that unemployed people have nothing better to do with their time than take long bus rides. I must say, though, that the people who worked in the office were kind and helpful to me. I liked the fact that some of them were very cheerful. When you’re struggling to get by, it’s nice to be around people who are cheerful.

It’s curious how people still refer to it as “food stamps”, when it’s now a plastic card that they give you. In Oregon, it’s called an “Oregon Trail Card”. (I swear, I’m not making this up.) The face of the card features a depiction of a covered wagon facing a mountainous landscape. I suppose that the example of those hardy Oregon pioneers is supposed to inspire me to better myself.

I took the card to my local supermarket. They told me that in the deli section, one can use the card to buy cold food, but not to buy hot food. Well, that makes perfect sense! We certainly don’t want to encourage people to eat hot food now, don’t we? I’m sure those Oregon pioneers never ate hot food.

Years ago, when I lived in L.A., I did apply for food stamps during a prolonged period of unemployment. I spent a whole day sitting in an office waiting for a counselor to see me. At about four o’clock in the afternoon, I got disgusted and left. This episode fits into a pattern in my dealings with the state bureaucracy in California. Their philosophy seems to be: “If we make things as difficult and as unpleasant for people as we can, then maybe they’ll go away and leave us alone.” I remember when I moved there in the 1990’s, they refused to give me a driver’s license, because, they said, the copy of my birth certificate that I had was not an “official” one. (Funny, this was not a problem for me when I got licenses in New York and in Massachusetts.) I had to apply to Los Angeles County (where I was born), to supply me with an “official” copy. I waited three months for them to mail it to me. During that time, if I had been pulled over by a cop, I could have been fined for having an out-of-state license while being a resident of California. (They’re very strict about these things in the Golden State.)

All I care about now is finding a job. However, the economy is in the toilet. I may have to go to the DHS office, just to have those people cheer me up again.

Socialism 2010

July 8, 2010

This last weekend I went to the ISO’s Socialism 2010 in Oakland. I went with four friends of mine, in one person’s car. Two sat in front, and three of us crammed into the back seat. It takes about seven hours to drive from Eugene to Oakland. This experience taught me a lesson I will always remember: never cram three people into a car seat for a seven-hour drive. It didn’t help that we drove through California’s broiling hot Central Valley. (We could have gone down the coast, but it would have taken a lot longer.) Even with the air conditioner on, we were sweating.

I’ve driven through Oakland many times, but I’d never really looked at the place before. I found it to be a very charming and pleasant city, one that has been unfairly overshadowed by its neighbor, San Francisco. The convention center was right on the edge of the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. Only a couple of blocks away from my (over-priced) hotel was a Vietnamese restaurant that served delicious sandwiches for $2.75 each. (I swear, I’m not making this up.)

One of the speakers I saw was Chris Hedges. I was surprised when I first learned that Hedges would be speaking at this event. I recall him making disparaging remarks about Trotsky in one of his books. (I guess this just shows that we shouldn’t immediately dismiss people just because they have some disagreements with us.) He attracted a larger audience than anyone else at this event. (Poor Josh Frank was scheduled to speak at the same time as Hedges. Boy, he must have been pissed.) Hedges’s talk was mostly good. He gave an absolutely devastating criticism of capitalism. (And this guy used to work for the New York Times!) However, he ended his talk by basically saying that revolution is impossible and there’s nothing we can do. (As Jerry Garcia famously said, “Bummer”.) Not surprisingly, during the discussion section, the speakers all took him to task for this. In his wrap-up, Hedges’s response to this was very interesting. He said he had been a reporter in war zones, and that he had learned that in a war zone it makes no difference whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.

One other thing I didn’t like about Hedges’s talk is that he spent a lot of time talking about Michael Jackson’s funeral. Hedges apparently regards this event as a metaphor for all the false values in our society. Perhaps so, but did he need to spend almost 15 minutes talking about it?

I also saw the environmentalist, Heather Rogers, speak. She criticized the idea that it’s enough to have people making “green” choices. This is an idea that’s quite popular in Eugene, so it was interesting to hear a critique of it. Rogers emphasized the fact that it is capitalism and the need for profit that ultimately decide what choices we are allowed to make.

Wallace Shawn also spoke. He read an essay titled “Why I Became a Socialist”. It is a simple, non-political argument for socialism. It was also rather poignant. He talked about how our current society wastes people’s potential. I think this shows we can talk to people about socialism without having to quote Marx and Lenin.

After his talk, Shawn signed books for people. A friend of mine wanted to get Shawn’s autograph, so he grabbed a book that was one of Shawn’s earlier works and brought it to the table. Shawn looked at the book and said, “God help you if you read this. It’s such a depressing book.”

On the drive back, I immediately fell asleep, because I had gotten no sleep the night before. (I was coming down with a cold.) I woke up suddenly and found that we had left the highway. We were in a town that was nestled in those amazingly beautiful rolling hills that surround San Francisco Bay. My friends had decided that they wanted to sample free wine at a wine cooperative. The man who waited on us at the counter owned one of the local wineries. He told us that his great-grandfather had started making wine in the nineteenth century. The wine was very good. My friends bought some bottles, but, since my financial situation is tight right now, I declined to do so.

Next to the cooperative was a trailer, where a Black family sold barbecue. Their only sign was a board that had “Bar-B-Q” written in magic marker on it. It looked a little incongruous sitting next to this upscale wine place. After buying wine, my friends and I went over there to order some food. They advertised their barbecue as “Alabama style”. I don’t know enough about regional barbecue styles to be able to say whether or not that was simply a gimmick. It was quite good though. So there I was with my friends, sitting at a picnic table under a warm late afternoon sun, eating good barbecue and drinking good wine, surrounded by a beautiful landscape. I have to admit, there are times when I do miss living in California.