Archive for March, 2013

Rehabilitating the Kingfish

March 25, 2013

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Huey P. Long, a.k.a. The Kingfish.

Mike Whitney has posted an article on CounterPunch titled Our Chavez: Huey Long. There seems to be an effort in recent years on the part of some people to to try to portray the sometime governor of Louisiana and U.S.Senator as a great champion of the people, no doubt because of his ant-capitalist rhetoric. Yet when one takes a closer look at his life, it becomes clear that things were not that simple.

During Long’s lifetime, most of the Left regarded him with deep wariness, if not outright hostility. There were good reasons for that. First of all, he governed Louisiana as a virtual dictator. He even organized a secret police force to keep watch on his opponents as well as on his followers.

Long was also a white supremacist. He maintained Louisisana’s Jim Crow laws. (Long would sometimes smear his opponents by spreading rumors that they had “coffee blood”. This gives a bitter irony to calling him “our Chavez”.) Long’s apologists point out that he didn’t talk about white supremacy in his speeches. This was perhaps because he didn’t need to. In 1935, Roy Wilkins interviewed Long for The Criis. They discussed an anti-lynching bill that Long opposed in the Senate:

    How about lynching. Senator? About the Costigan-Wagner bill in congress and that lynching down there yesterday in Franklinton…”

    He ducked the Costigan-Wagner bill, but of course, everyone knows he is aganst it. He cut me off on the Franklinton lynching and hastened in with his “pat” explanation:

    “You mean down in Washington parish (county)? Oh, that? That one slipped up on us. Too bad, but those slips will happen. You know while I was governor there were no lynchings and since this man (Governor Allen) has been in he hasn’t had any. (There have been 7 lynchings in Louisiana in the last two years.) This one slipped up. I can’t do nothing about it. No sir. Can’t do the dead nigra no good. Why, if I tried to go after those lynchers it might cause a hundred more niggers to be killed. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

    “But you control Louisiana,” I persisted, “you could…”

    “Yeah, but it’s not that simple. I told you there are some things even Huey Long can’t get away with. We’ll just have to watch out for the next one. Anyway that nigger was guilty of coldblooded murder.”

    “But your own supreme court had just granted him a new trial.”

    “Sure we got a law which allows a reversal on technical points. This nigger got hold of a smart lawyer somewhere and proved a technicality. He was guilty as hell. But we’ll catch the next lynching.”

    My guess is that Huey is a hard, ambitious, practical politician. He is far shrewder than he is given credit for being. My further guess is that he wouldn’t hesitate to throw Negroes to the wolves if it became necessary; neither would he hesitate to carry them along if the good they did him was greater than the harm. He will walk a tight rope and go along as far as he can. He told New York newspapermen he welcomed Negroes in the share-the-wealth clubs in the North where they could vote, but down South? Down South they can’t vote: they are no good to him. So he lets them strictly alone. After all, Huey comes first.

In 1934, Long created the Share Our Wealth Society, which had clubs all over the country. He chose as its national organizer Gerald L.K. Smith, an outspoken anti-Semite and a former member of a fascist group called the Silver Shirts. Long also formed a political alliance with the ant-Semitic radio broadcaster, Father Coughlin, who expressed sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini and who claimed that the Russian Revolution was the work of Jewish bankers. Lance Hill has argued that the Share Our Wealth movement was an incipient form of fascism.

According to Wikipedia:

    Long .. planned to challenge Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936, knowing he would lose the nomination but gain valuable publicity in the process. Then he would break from the Democrats and form a third party using the Share Our Wealth plan as its basis … The new party would run someone else as its 1936 candidate, but Long would be the primary campaigner. This candidate would split the progressive vote with Roosevelt, causing the election of a Republican but proving the electoral appeal of Share Our Wealth. Long would then run for president as a Democrat in 1940. In the spring of 1935, Long undertook a national speaking tour and regular radio appearances, attracting large crowds and increasing his stature.

This scheme came to naught, as Long was assassinated in 1935. The Share Our Wealth movement quickly dwindled after that. The reasons for this may be that the economic recovery of 1934-36 strengthened support for Roosevelt, and that the revitalized labor movement probably drew in people who might otherwise have been attracted to Share Our Wealth.

It is often tempting to idealize figures from the past, yet if we hope to actually learn from them, we have to look at these people for what they actually were.

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Chinatown

March 23, 2013

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Chinatown, the 1974 film directed by Roman Polanski, from a screenplay by Robert Towne, tells the story of Jake Gttes (Jack Nicholson), a private investigator who mostly handles marital infidelity cases. One day, Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) shows up in his office and hires Gittes to find out whether her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), who happens to be one of the most powerful men in the city of Los Angeles, has been cheating on her. Jake follows Mulwray and finds that he has been having an affair with another woman. When he tells Mrs. Mulwray, she gives the photos to the newspapers, causing a scandal. Then another woman shows up in his office and identifies herself as Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Shortly after this, Hollis Mulwray is found dead in a reservoir. Gittes becomes obsessed with trying to find out who used him and why.

Polanski and Towne were influenced by Raymond Chandler in their making of this film, although Gittes is a more cynical and less polished character than Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. And the film is actually bleaker than any of Chandler’s works. (Although, come to think of it, The Lady in the Lake is an extremely bleak novel.) The film benefits from Polanski’s intimate style of direction. He often has the camera follow people from room to room and from place to place. This has the effect of making one feel almost as if one were being physically drawn into the action. This contributes to the emotionally devastating effect of final scene.

The story of Chinatown was inspired by an actual series of events known as the California Water Wars. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the city of Los Angeles fought with local farmers for control of water in the Owens Valley. Los Angeles eventually managed to acquire the rights to all of the water in the valley, and Owens Lake was turned into a dust bowl. The character of Hollis Mulwray is loosely based on William Mulholland, a key player in the Water Wars. Mulholland, an Irishman, was a self-taught engineer. He was the superintendent of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He deliberately underestimated the amount of water available to the city in order to whip up public support for the idea of building an aqueduct from the Owens Valley. Mulholland also falsely told the residents of Owens Valley the city would only take water for domestic use and not for commercial use. Mulholland conspired with Mayor Frederick Eaton to enrich themselves and their friends at the expense of the public.

Like many other American cities, Los Angeles was built through greed and corruption. Maybe this is a universal phenomenon. In Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams points out that many cities in Britain were built from the wealth generated by the slave trade. Much of the modern world has unsavory origins.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

March 20, 2013

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One of my Facebook friends suggested that instead of drinking green beer and getting violently drunk on St. Patrick’s Day, people should watch The Wind That Shakes the Barley. I decided to take this advice, and I’m glad I did. Ken Loach’s film about the Irish War of Independence is a remarkable work. Not only is it a stirring depiction of armed struggle against oppression, but it is also a disturbing examination of the moral dilemmas that such a struggle entails.

The year is 1920. Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor about to leave for London to work in a hospital there. When a friend of Damien’s is murdered by the Black and Tans, his friends urge him to join the Irish Republican Army, but he dismisses their cause as hopeless. At a train station, however, he sees British soldiers beat up some railway workers who refuse to let them on the train. He changes his mind and joins the IRA, where his brother, Teddy (Pádraic Delaney), is an officer. Together, they fight against the British. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed, Teddy supports it. He argues they have no choice but to accept it, since the British threaten all-out war if it is rejected. (Considering that Churchill was not opposed to genocide, I don’t think this was an idle threat.) Damien, however, sees it as a betrayal of the Republican cause. They find themselves on opposite sides of the ensuing civil war.

It seems that in every revolution, there comes a moment when one group decides that it has gone as far as it can possibly go, while another group is equally convinced that the revolution must go further. The most famous example is the split between the Girondists and the Jacobins during the French Revolution. What is less appreciated is that such a split actually happened three times during the Russian Revolution: first between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, then between Lenin and the Workers’ Opposition, and finally between Stalin and Trotsky. The Wind That Shakes the Barley illustrates how the Irish War of Independence followed this pattern, with tragic results for those involved. This film doesn’t present either side as being entirely right or entirely wrong. Like Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan, it presents us with an open-ended question.

Pope Francis

March 14, 2013

The newly elected Pope Francis I waves to the crowds from St Peter's basilica.

The college of cardinals has selected a new pope. He is an Argentinian named Jorge Bergoglio, but he will rule under the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. The Guradian reports:

    Inside the Sistine Chapel after the final vote was cast, the most junior of the cardinals, James Harvey, a former prefect of the papal household, called in the secretary of the college of cardinals, Monsignor Lorenzo Baldisseri, and the master of papal liturgical ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, to witness the new pope’s acceptance of one of the most daunting jobs on Earth.

Daunting? Really? I imagine being a coal miner would be a daunting job, as would being a factory worker at Foxconn. But being Pope? You mostly just have to wear funny clothes and make reactionary statements. Sounds like a sweet gig to me. The Guardian also reports:

    No indication of how or why the new pope was chosen was expected to emerge. On Tuesday, before the start of the conclave, the cardinal-electors took an oath of secrecy, as had those Vatican employees and officials involved in the election.

    Additional precautions included a sweep of the Sistine Chapel to ensure that no listening devices had been planted inside and the use of electronic jamming techniques.

If history teaches us one thing, it’s that people who obsess over secrecy are usually up to no good. And when one looks into the background of this man, Bergoglio, one can see that he has good reasons for secrecy. According to another article in the Guardian:

    The main charge against Bergoglio involves the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests, Orland Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were taken by Navy officers in May 1976 and held under inhumane conditions for the missionary work they conducted in the country’s slums, a politically risky activity at the time.

    His chief accuser is journalist Horacio Verbitsky, the author of a book on the church called “El Silencio” (“The Silence”), which claims that Bergoglio withdrew his order’s protection from the two priests, effectively giving the military a green light for their abduction.

Actually, the election of Bergoglio makes perfect sense to me. With the church besieged by accusations of money laundering and child abuse, who better to have as Pope than a criminal?

Ratzinger – er, I mean Pope Benedict XVI – got a lot of grief for having been a member of the Hitler Youth as a child. In my view, that’s negated by the fact that he refused to serve in the German army during World War II. But what are we to make of a man who aided and abetted a murderous regime? And what should we make of a church that promotes such a man to its highest position?

Gilad Atzmon Knocks Down Straw Men, CounterPunch is Impressed

March 12, 2013

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It had been a while since I’d seen anything by Gilad Atzmon in CounterPunch, so I thought maybe they had lost interest in him. Unfortunately, I was wrong about that. On March 8, they posted an article by him entitled Is Palestinian Solidarity an Occupied Zone? It begins:

    Once involved with Palestinian Solidarity you have to accept that Jews are special and so is their suffering; Jews are like no other people, their Holocaust is like no other genocide and anti Semitism, is the most vile form of racism the world has ever known and so on and so forth.

Atzmon doesn’t name anyone who says this. I don’t know of anyone in the Palestinian solidarity movement who says such things. Atzmon continues:

    But when it comes to the Palestinians, the exact opposite is the case. For some reason we are expected to believe that the Palestinians are not special at all – they are just like everyone else. Palestinians have not been subject to a unique, racist, nationalist and expansionist Jewish nationalist movement, instead, we must all agree that, just like the Indians and the Africans, the Palestinian ordeal results from run-of-the-mill 19th century colonialism – just more of the same old boring Apartheid.

Again, Atzmon doesn’t identify who is saying these things. No doubt, this is because he can’t. I think I should point out that here in the U.S., simply using the word “apartheid” in connection with Israel can get one in a lot of hot water. Doing such a thing requires a certain amount of courage.

From this, Atzmon segues into an aesthetic criticism of the Palestinian Solidarity movement:

    Can you think of any other liberation or solidarity movement that prides itself in being boring, ordinary and dull?

I have met a number of people in the Palestinian solidarity movement, and they are among the least boring people I have ever met. One must admit here that Atzmon is not boring himself. Unfortunately, that is the only thing one can say for him.

    Palestinian Solidarity is an occupied zone and, like all such occupied zones must dedicate itself to the fight against ‘anti Semitism’.

Ah, now we see what’s really bugging Atzmon. It seems that his tender feelings have been hurt by all those people who have called him an anti-Semite. Of course, that does tend to happen when you say things that are anti-Semitic. Life can be funny sometimes.

Atzmon then delivers his knock-out punch:

    Dutifully united against racism, fully engaged with LGBT issues in Palestine and in the movement itself, but for one reason or another, the movement is almost indifferent towards the fate of millions of Palestinians living in refugee camps and their Right of Return to their homeland.

That’s right! All those people who have dedicated their lives to the Palestinian struggle – sometimes at great personal cost – have done so because they basically don’t give a shit about the Palestinians!

What a brilliant insight!

Why the hell do the editors of CounterPunch insult the intelligence of their readers by posting such gobbledegook? I am at a a complete loss to try to explain this.

As for Atzmon, I can’t see why he’s being so petulant. Things are actually looking up for him. At a special conference held by the Socialist Workers Party of Britain this past weekend, the leadership defeated motions put forward by the opposition, causing many of the latter to resign. This means that Atzmon’s good buddy, Martin Smith will soon be back on the SWP’s Central Committee, and they will soon be again sponsoring concerts featuring Atzmon playing the saxophone in front of empty seats. Good times!

Hangmen Also Die

March 9, 2013

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Hangmen Also Die is an entirely fictionalized account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the leaders of Nazi Germany. This 1943 film was directed by Fritz Lang, from a screenplay by John Wexley, based on a story by Bertolt Brecht and Lang. This was the only Hollywood film that Brecht worked on for which he received an on-screen credit. Lang had originally intended to have Brecht write the screenplay, but he apparently changed his mind due to aesthetic, political, and personal differences between himself and Brecht that made it increasingly difficult for them to work together.

The film is set in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) has just assassinated Heydrich, and he is fleeing down a street. Mascha (Anna Lee) sees him. When the Gestapo ask her where he went, she points them in the opposite direction. Svoboda, who is hiding nearby, observes this. Desperate for a place to hide, he follows her to her home, where he manages to persuade her to take him in, even though he knows that by doing so, he is placing her and her family in danger of retaliation by the Gestapo.

Lang and Brecht did not get along well when they were working on the story for Hangmen Also Die. Brecht thought some of Lang’s story ideas were unbelievable. He complained, for example, of one scene in which Lang had the leader of the Czech resistance evade the Gestapo by hiding behind a curtain. (I found this hard to believe myself.) Yet Lang was right to reject Brecht’s idea that the mistakes of the underground “are corrected by the broad mass of the people”. Brecht’s, influence, however, can perhaps be seen in the fact that one of the film’s chief villains is a Czech collaborator who is also the wealthy owner of a beer brewery. And there is some dark Brechtian humor in the moment when, in the midst of interrogating someone, a Gestapo officer pauses to squeeze a pimple on his face. (That’s something you don”t often see in Hollywood movies.)

John Wexley and Hanns Eisler (who composed the music) were both later blacklisted. Eisler was eventually deported because of his left-wing political views. Brecht left the country after being questioned by the HUAC.

Despite its contrived and melodramatic moments, Hangmen Also Die does touch upon some complex moral and political questions, such as whether terror tactics, like assassinations, are ever a good idea. In the film, the Gestapo begin carrying out random executions in retaliation for the assassination. What happened in real life was even worse. The Nazis destroyed the Czech city of Lidice, killing most of its inhabitants or sending them to concentration camps.

Although it is not one of Lang’s best films, Hangmen Also Die is nonetheless one of the more interesting films to come out of World War II.