Archive for October, 2013

Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman

October 27, 2013

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I finally got around to watching that video of the Jeremy Paxman interview with Russel Brand that has caused so much comment on the Internet. Although I’m not a fan of Russell Brand (I find him annoying), I have to say that I found this interview refreshing. You would never hear anyone say these sorts of things on American TV. Here in the U.S., we seem to get an endless parade of washed-up rock singers, over-the-hill movie actors, and former Saturday Night Live cast members all stupidly babbling about how Obama is a “socialist”. Whatever his faults may be, Brand at least pays attention to what’s going on in the world.

Jeremy Paxman starts out by making the idiotic “if you don’t vote, you can’t talk about politics” argument, and then goes to the inane “you can change the world by voting” argument. These are things that I’ve heard American liberals say. These are just ways of evading discussion of how seriously screwed up our world is. Brand is at least willing to acknowledge this, even if his arguments are sometimes confused.

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Dennis Miller: Human Slime

October 21, 2013

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It would be hard to imagine a more repulsive human being than Dennis Miller. For those of you who don’t know who he is, Miller was a popular stand-up comedian and talk show host back in the 1990’s. (Before most of you were born.) His persona was that of a hip, iconoclastic liberal. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, however, he opportunistically reinvented himself as a right-wing twit, an advocate of racism, militarism, and imperialism. (Miller was like Christopher Hitchens on steroids.) This worked well for Miller for a time, but then the public soured on the Iraq War, and his career went south. He is now condemned to the purgatory of right-wing talk radio. On a recent episode of his talk show, he gave a small business owner some advice on what to do about Obamacare:

    If for your purposes you have to let some people go, kind of get the office wrangle of who’s an Obama supporter, who’s an Affordable Care Act – and do the right thing. You can’t go on seniority anymore, there’s some people who think this is crap. Fire a believer, they’ll understand. Just say “we’re all in this together, this is what you wanted, I have to let you go. But at least you’ll have health care in the single payer.

Miller then offered advice on how a boss should determine his employees’ views on Obamacare:

    Go out, into the parking lot, if somebody has to be cut to 29 hours, if somebody has to be fired, you know how proud they are, the Obama-Biden bumper stickers in their original permutation they’re still on five years down the road. Clock who they are, as you have to fire people, call those people into the office. Not somebody who doesn’t believe in it, that’s been there two days less than them, that’s the past, that’s silly. You’re doing the right thing, you’re not being mean. Look them in the eyes and say, “You know,this is your thing. I can’t afford you anymore. So at least you know I’m doing the right thing.

(It’s perhaps an indication of how out-of-touch Miller is that he doesn’t mention Facebook here.)

Miller calls himself a “libertarian”. Miller apparently thinks that “liberty” means tailoring your beliefs to keep your asshole boss happy.

Bait and Switch

October 16, 2013

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I was looking through job ads on Craig’s List under the heading of “general labor”. I found ad for entry-level “event representatives”. This sounded fairly innocuous to me, so I called the phone number that was provided and made an appointment for that afternoon at the company’s office in Carson. When I arrived at the office, I found a waiting room with a large TV set at one end playing inspirational videos. Based on my previous experiences with job interviews, this struck me as a bad sign. However, since I had driven all the way there, I figured I might as well give it a chance. The receptionist asked me to fill out an application form. I had to go outside to do this, because it was impossible to ignore the TV. After I handed the form back, I sat down and waited. After several minutes, a man came out and introduced himself. (I’ve forgotten his name.) We shook hands, and then he showed me into his office. I sat down in an ornate lime green chair. The man sat on the other side of a plain wooden table. He proceeded to describe the job in vague terms. He mentioned going to events and doing demonstrations. He then asked me if I had any questions. After I plied him with questions for several minutes, he finally admitted that it was basically a sales job and that the pay was entirely by commission. If I had been given that information in the Craig’s List ad, I would not have wasted my time driving down there.

I don’t know what these people were thinking. Is the idea to lure people to their office, and then try to persuade them to take a sales job that they don’t really want?

Gravity

October 15, 2013

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Alfonso Cuarón’s Outer Space adventure film, Gravity, is thoroughly entertaining and the best Hollywood movie I’ve seen since Looper.

One of the reasons this movie succeeds so well is its simplicity. It’s basically about Sandra Bullock falling out of the sky. The problem with many Hollywood movies nowadays is that they end up getting lost in their own needlessly convoluted stories. One of the things I hated about The Dark Knight Rises (and there were many things I hated about this movie) was the fact that it was filled with all sorts of pointless subplots. There is, for example, a seemingly interminable sequence in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt tries to rescue an orphanage. I remember thinking, “Why the hell do I have to watch this when all I really want to see is Anne Hathaway in her Catwoman outfit?” The best of the Terminator films is the first one, which is basically just Arnold Schwarzenegger destroying things. In the later films we get Arnold doing dialogue. Not fun.

Gravity deals with the theme of an individual struggling to survive in a relentlessly hostile environment, a theme that has been dealt with by writers such as Coleridge, Poe, Melville, and London. It is a theme that touches the very core of our existence.

The Lives of Others

October 14, 2013

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The East German Stasi were cavemen compared to the NSA. Their low-tech and labor-intensive bugging of individuals’ apartments seems crude and childish compared to the NSA’s wholesale monitoring of the Internet. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others is an un-nostalgic trip back to those more primitive days of government spying.

Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a Stasi agent who has been assigned to spy on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) a highly regarded East German playwright whom the Culture Minister, Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), suspects of having disloyal thoughts. The Stasi plant listening devices in the apartment that Dreyman shares with Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler proceeds to listen in on their private conversations. At the beginning of the film, Hempf tells Wiesler that “people don’t change”. (This is about as un-Marxist a statement as one could possibly make.) Yet as Wiesler learns about the tender relationship between Georg and Christa-Maria and about Georg’s grief over the suicide of a friend who was blacklisted by the government, he begins to change. He ends up falsifying his records to conceal the fact that Georg is planning to smuggle a document out of the country.

The Lives of Others is an understated film that creates suspense through the emotional states of the characters. It is also a film that affirms the possibility of human redemption. I consider it one of the best films of the last decade.

The film critic, Carrie Rickey, has claimed that The Lives of Others influenced Edward Snowden, but I have not been able to find any statements by Snowden that confirm this. In a way, though, this film does bear a similarity to the Snowden case, in that it depicts a government spy who comes to realize the wrongness of what he is doing.

The ISO and the Future of the US Left

October 4, 2013

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I was a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) for many years. When I left, it was because of health problems I was having, not because of any disagreements I had with the group. However, the recent crisis in Britain’s Socialist Workers Party (which the ISO models itself after) has caused me to have second thoughts about the viability of democratic centralism as an organizing principle. This is a question I am still grappling with.

Up until now, all of the critiques of the ISO that I have read have been either ill-informed or downright dishonest. However, a recent article on the To the Victor Go the Toils website is a refreshing change. Although I don’t entirely agree with the article’s arguments, the author, a former ISO member, makes some shrewd observations about how the group operates. This article should be read not just by people interested in the ISO, but by people who are trying to come to grips with the question of how the Left should organize in the current political climate.

Victor Toils says that the ISO places a heavy emphasis on recruitment, which jibes with my own experience with the group. The argument that was made to me by “cadre” members was that the ISO needed to have many members to accomplish its goal. And what is its goal? Victor Toils succinctly explains it:

    The goal of the ISO is to create a vanguard party. That is, a mass organization of the most militant members of the working-class, the best and most consistent fighters who know how to build workplace resistance and mass struggles but also have their eye on the larger goal of societal transformation.

    Nonetheless, the ISO does not claim to be a vanguard party, not simply because of its size but because the vanguard of the working-class does not yet exist. It will be created, they say, not by the ISO, but by the working-class itself, which will throw up leaders as class struggle increases. The goal, then, is to have an organization sufficiently large, experienced, sophisticated and rooted in the working-class in order to help shape and organize the vanguard as it is created and launch a vanguard party in the future.

If the goal of the ISO is not to become the vanguard party, but rather to influence the creation of such a party, does it really need to have a large number of members? Relatively small groups of people can sometimes have a surprisingly large amount of influence during political struggles. The Workers World Party, which is much smaller than the ISO, has (unfortunately) exerted a remarkable amount of influence in the various anti-war movements that have come and gone over the years. Even the shriveled up Communist Party has sometimes been able to exert influence in certain struggles. (Again, with unfortunate results.)

The real reason for the ISO’s need for heavy recruitment is its high turnover rate in members. I know about this from personal experience, as well as from conversations with other ISO members. During the time I was in the Los Angeles branch, it underwent an almost 100% turnover in members. There are probably a number of reasons for this. Some people eventually decide that they don’t really agree with the ISO’s politics. Others strongly disagree with a particular position the ISO has taken. Others decide that they simply don’t like having to sell the newspaper. Another reason, though, may be what Victor Toils calls the “Big Bang Theory”:

    …at some point the American working-class would explode as it did in 1934–with three mass strike in three different cities, all led by radicals–and then newly-radicalized workers would flood the organization, especially since the Stalinists were no longer an alternative. Therefore, it was necessary to urgently build and recruit and grow to meet this future challenge.

This strikes a nerve with me. When I joined the ISO in the mid-1990’s, it had a perspective that said there would soon be a huge upsurge in working class struggle. To help prepare its members for this, the leadership urged them to read Teamster Rebellion, Farrell Dobbs’s account of the 1934 Minneapolis General Strikes. (I have heard many people speak highly of this book, but I must confess that Dobbs’s turgid prose defeated me. I was unable to get more than halfway through it.)

The leadership was so impressed by this book, that they adopted the dubious “buddy system” that Dobbs describes in it. In this system, party members are divided up into groups of two. Each of these couples are required to spend a certain amount of time each week discussing Marxist theory with each other. The “cadre” assigned to me as a buddy was a person who, they said, was an experienced member who could answer all my questions about the ISO’s politics. My “buddy” turned out to be a painfully shy little man who seemed to have to force himself to look me in the eye. We met in a Manhattan coffee shop. (I joined the ISO when I was living in New York.) I found that getting him to discuss ideas of socialist politics was like pulling teeth. I remember this as one of the most awkward and uncomfortable experiences of my life. A week after this meeting, the guy quit the ISO. To my relief, I was never assigned another buddy. For months afterwards, though, I would always feel a vague sense of alarm whenever I heard someone utter the words “buddy system”.

The successful UPS strike of 1997 seemed to confirm the ISO’s perspective. However, it was not followed by an upsurge in labor struggle. Instead, Ron Carey, the leader of the strike, was railroaded out of the union on trumped up corruption charges and replaced with the genuinely corrupt Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. Even so, the ISO carried out paper sales outside UPS hubs around the country. In the Los Angeles branch, which I was then in, we managed to recruit a UPS driver after months of selling papers. It turned out, however, that what he really wanted was to shack up with one of our female members, which he succeeded in doing. The two of them then quit the ISO. The UPS paper sales were eventually discontinued because members were finding them demoralizing.

The Battle in Seattle and later the Occupy movement both raised similar hopes that were similarly dashed. The expectation of the Big Bang can lead to disappointment and in some cases demoralization. (An interesting question here is why the Big Bang hasn’t come. That is something I will have to take up at another time.)

Victor Toils also comments:

    The same leading member who renounced “The Big Bang Theory” has also praised the ISO’s work around the death penalty, in which individual members have built up real relationships with family members of death row inmates. This slow, patient work actually built up networks and relationships with working-class Blacks and Latinos who are fighting around real political issues dear to their lives. And yet, year after year, this work is deprioritized. Why? Because it is so much easier to recruit college students.

This jibes with my own observations. The Los Angeles branch was able to build strong alliances in the black community in that city because of its anti-death penalty work. It’s worth asking if that type of organizing is more valuable in the long run than recruiting college students.

Victor Toils also argues that the ISO’s “bigger and broader” approach to movement building sometimes results in it siding with liberals against radicals. This is true, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the particular circumstances and the particular arguments made by the contending parties. There are self-styled “radicals” out there who have some dubious ideas (conspiracy theories, support for dictators, etc). Just because someone calls himself a radical doesn’t automatically mean that he is right about every issue.

This article has caused a good deal of discussion both inside and outside the ISO. Debate and discussion are always healthy things, despite what some may say.