Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Et tu, Debra Winger?

I'm not a fan of the capitalist state, any capitalist state. Especially the state in its purest form, which is its armed bodies of repression, above all the police and the prosecutorial/prison system with which it is linked. These entities have nothing to do with justice, especially class justice or anti-racist or anti-sexist justice. I'm never in favor of strengthening them, of confusing them with some sort of ally which they can never be, of looking to them to do the right thing or intervene on behalf of the workers or members of oppressed groups.

It's necesary to preface any comment about this Roman Polanski business with those disclaimers. To make clear that it's not my wont to support the armed apparatus of the capitalist "justice" system, and that I'm not in doing so in this case either. If I had my way a people's tribunal -- no, a women's tribunal -- no, a tribunal made up of women who were raped and molested during their childhood -- would be the ones to try Polanski and decide his fate. That would be justice. Nobody should expect even a facsimile of it in this case, especially given the hell the police and courts have already put Polanski's victim through over these many years since the day when she was 13 years old and the great director drugged and raped her at his pal the great actor Jack Nicholson's house.

The high dudgeon with which directors, actors and others in the film industry and other arts are rising up in defense of Polanski is a revolting display of many things, but one of those things is how intrinsic misogyny is to bourgeois ideology. How women can be in its grip too. Sure, it's no surprise that the odious Woody Allen tops the list (luck of the alphabetical draw), along with Pedro Almodovar (did you see that film of his a few years ago in which the protagonist repeatedly "has sex with," that is, rapes, a comatose woman?). From their statement:
Roman Polanski is a French citizen, a renown [sic] and international artist now facing extradition. This extradition, if it takes place, will be heavy with consequences and will take away his freedom.

Filmmakers, actors, producers and technicians -- everyone involved in international filmmaking -- want him to know that he has their support and friendship.
Others happily along for the ride include Jonathan Demme, Ariel Dorfman, Stephen Frears, Buck Henry, Martin Scorsese and many more. The fine actor Debra Winger, the not fine but famous actor Harrison Ford and others have also spoken up for Polanski. Liberal arts darlings Paul Auster, Mike Nichols and Salman Rushdie have signed up for Bernard-Henri Levy's pro-Polanski crusade.

They all argue that Polanski is a great artist and it happened a long time ago and the victim wants the case dropped so leave him alone. The first point, the great man (oops, I mean artist) point, is clearly the central one. To call Polanski a great artist is bizarre but the issue, of course, is that it's irrelevant. The implication is that if he were only a mediocre artist (which he is) it would be okay if the state went after him.

The manifest truth is that this guy is damned lucky he's not Black or poor or obscure. Even if he were innocent, which he's never pretended to be. Because he's rich and famous he not only skipped the country and has ever since lived the good life, but is now being celebrated as some sort of martyr to art.

It would be great to see another group of artists organize and disseminate a statement disassociating themselves from, expressing shock at, and condemning the Polanski partisans for defending a rich, famous, artistic rapist. I'd sign on to that.

End the coup in Honduras!

Here are a few fuzzy cellphone shots from yesterday evening in NYC's Union Square, where demonstrators stood in solidarity with the people of Honduras against the fascist coup and demanded an end to U.S. aid to the coup regime. The sisters at left are wearing gags labeled "Resistencia" to symbolize the golpistas' efforts to silence dissent.

Carlos Zelaya, brother of the rightful, elected, president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, attended the demonstration and spoke to those assembled. Here he's with Teresa Gutierrez, a leading organizer and my lover.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How long is that in blog years?

As of today this blog is a year old. Break out the champagne!

Or at least the scissor-sharp left-literary analysis. Let's show 'em what red readers are made of.

That, or something like it, is what I set out to do a year ago, and what I mean to do every time I log in here and start typing. But oh how far short I fall. I didn't get enough sleep the night before. I've only got a half-hour to spend here. I'm bleary-eyed from staring at the computer screen all day at work. I'm haunted by how far behind I've fallen in the hoped-for progress on my novel. I'm wracked with guilt at no longer being active in my union, and riddled with dread at the prospect that I may have to reinsert myself come next contract talks. I'm hoping to go, as I do so much less often than I should and used to, to today's vitally important protest demonstration. I'm hoping to make it home to the couch and a mindless night of TV watching. I just want to read. All I can think about is how wonderful it would be to get one single decent night's sleep.

And so this blog, for which I had and still have high ambition, slogs along, only rarely reaching toward what it ought to be. I'm aware of how often my posts start and end with apologies for not being as sharp as I'd wish; of how frequently lists of links substitute for my own commentary; of how limited my sources of news and information are -- well, that's not my fault, I live in this society like everyone else -- and how often I sink into a sort of default mode of grumbly old sourpuss snarling at the bourgeois establishment and lamenting the limitations of any attempt to live another kind of literary life.

The unanswered question at this point is what purpose Read Red serves. I've toyed with discontinuing it, figuring well that was fun for a year, but I wasn't able to do with it what I'd wished, and it never garnered more than the slightest modicum of interest, so this would be a chronologically neat moment to stop. If it's an ego exercise, well, okay, I got that out of my system, now let's move on. If it isn't only an ego exercise -- if I think a blog like this fulfills some broader purpose as a communist literary outpost on the worldwide bourgeois-literary web -- isn't that a preposterous and therefore ego-driven claim in itself?

Or is it a challenge to which I should keep trying to rise?

To tell the truth, I'm not sure yet. Though I suspect I'll slog on for at least a while longer.

For now, I'm off to Union Square to stand with the Honduran sisters and brothers fighting for the downfall of the fascist coup in their country. Which in the scheme of things matters a millionfold more than anything in the blogosphere.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stand with the anti-fascist resistance in Honduras

I'm pasting here in full the call for emergency demonstrations tomorrow in solidarity with the Honduran resistance to the fascist coup. Sorry for the problems with the fonts, which I can't seem to fix, but it's worth reading through.


Candlelight Vigils & Protests to Occur Across the country on






Today, Sunday September 27, 2009, a coalition of progressive forces supporting the demands of the people of Honduras learned that the situation in that country is becoming more and more critical. As a result of the growing dire situation in Honduras, peace and social justice activists are calling for another round of protests and vigils to take place around the United States on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

Furthermore, the coalition is issuing an emergency alert as a result of developments learned on Sunday, September 27.

At this very moment, a delegation of officials representing the Organization of American States (OAC) are being detained by Honduran immigration officials at the Toncontín international airport in Tegucigalpa.

By order of the fraud and illegal government of Robert Michelet, the delegation of diplomats cannot enter into the country. This act violates all international laws and conventions with respect to the sovereignty of foreign countries. The officials had left Honduras in rejection of the illegal government. But in light of the fact that the Constitutional President of the Republic, President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales had returned to the country, the officials returned to express their solidarity as well as support the Arias plan proposed by the U.S. State Department and the President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias.

The Honduran Ambassador in Washington has stated that the Secretary of the OAS, Mr. Insulsa is informed of the situation in Honduras. The leaders of the Coup d’état have managed to block all Internet service.The detention of OAS officials comes after several days of Michelet aggression against the Brazilian embassy. Michelet ordered the Embassy attacked when it was reported that President Zelaya was staying there.

It has been confirmed that coup leaders have dropped chemical gas on the Embassy and are using LRAD’s (Long Range Acoustic Devices) against President Zelaya, his wife and other supporters at the Brazilian embassy. This is another violation of international law and conventions and can be interpreted as a blatant act of war. LRAD’s are manufactured in the U.S. and can cause permanent hearing damage. A photographer captured the use of LRAD’s, which emit an acoustic beam so offensive and painful that it can cause serious damage to hearing. The sound is similar to a car alarm but dramatically more intense. At full capacity, the LRAD emits a 150 decibel sound wave, journalists report. This weapon has frequently been used by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Zelaya reports from the Brazilian embassy that they have been subjected to "bombardments with chemical products and ultrasound waves that provoke illness and make people very nervous."

The coalition of forces supporting the people and resistance of Honduras are urging everyone to come out Tuesday in cities around the country to protest this act of aggression, to demand that the White House condemn this aggression and to support the demands of the Honduran people.

The coalition includes IFCO/Pastors for Peace, Hondurans in Resistance U.S.A, the International Action Center, San Romero Church, Rev. Luis Barrios, La Peña del Bronx, Local 1199 SEIU, Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle; NALACC, Bayan USA, Ramsey Clark, Artists and Activists United for Peace; Peruvians in Action; Human Rights Project of the Urban justice Center; Colectivo rebel Diaz, Cuba Solidarity New York, Red de Organizaciones Afro-Centroamericanas-USA, Human Rights Project of the Urban Justice Center; Millions 4 Mumia; International League for Peoples Struggle; Comité Dominicano de Solidaridad con los Pueblos, Troops Out Now, Jersey City Peace Movement, NJ Action 21; Trabajadoras por la Paz, Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN, Red de Comunidades Salvadoreñas en el Exterior, Empresarios por el Cambio, Centro de Derechos Laborales and others.

On Atwood's dystopia

Today on my lunch hour, which isn't quite over yet, I finished reading Margaret Atwood's new novel The Year of the Flood. I had not read her earlier Oryx & Crake, to which this one is apparently a prequel of sorts, because I just couldn't get into it, found the writing somehow off-putting. No such difficulty here. I liked this book a great deal. Yet when I think about it I can't help conclude that I really shouldn't have.

From my political perspective, the big problem with all these speculative fictions whose speculation consists primarily of prophesying doom is that when they look at the current state of human society and conclude that it's all downhill from here, they don't take into account the most important variable of all: the class struggle. It's as though the workers and oppressed have no role in the world's future, whereas in fact the opposite is true--we have the decisive role. The fate of the planet, of the many species threatened with extinction, our own above all, is in the hands of working class, the oppressed and all those who end up as allies. Will we succeed? In time? No one can foresee the future so no one knows. But to simply omit the possibility of real revolutionary change seems to me to be a failure of the literary imagination. A failure to recognize workers and poor people as central to the story, as, not to put too fine a point on it, the agents of history. Which failure is to be expected, sure, from any but the most explicitly class-conscious writers, and can be chalked up to the death-grip bourgeois ideology has on most, but still registers as a disappointment each time I come upon it.

Especially with a writer as good as Atwood, and one so obviously political in her own well meaning way. This book is a warning. Here is what capitalism has brought the world to, or rather what it will bring the world to if things continue this way, she's saying, here are the results of the rule of profit, here are the even worse horrors to come. Yet she doesn't delve all that deeply into the implications of what she does clearly identify as the cause of the crisis. Nor does the fact that capitalism is the root of the problem seem to have set off any light bulbs for her about what direction to look for the solution.

Given this major failing, it's not surprising that page by page there are lots of littler ones. Like the names of those she chooses to have named as saints by the more-or-less heroic grouping at the center of the story, "God's Gardeners." Why in tarnation, for example, would she include the Arctic and Antarctic "explorers" Shackleton and Crozier? They ought rather to be included in a tally of those whose colonialist exploits helped lead the way to the mess the planet is now in. Then there's the fact that the main rebellious faction, the locus of most of what little hope is on display, is an at least partly religious sect. Curiously, though, this didn't bother me all that much. Partly, I think, because it's so silly, so manifestly silly, and such an unoriginal trope for this sort of story, that I was able to sort of shrug off its godly aspects. But also partly because at several places late in the book she has several key characters rather undermine their own ostensible supernatural beliefs with some more sensible talk about the human brain, so I wasn't all tied up in fuming knots over the goofiness of it all. The bigger issue is why this sort of grouping, rather than a militarily and politically organized class-struggle-oriented mass movement, is the only scenario that occurred to her. Ah well, I know the answer.

I started this post by saying I liked Atwood's book a lot. How so, despite all these objections and frustrations? Well, it's a darned good read, and, again despite all the protestations above, despite, that is, my efforts to maintain revolutionary optimism, the truth is that I'm disturbingly susceptible to this kind of creepy scary sad all-is-lost story. At least when it's this well written, this compelling--and, and here I think is the key, as imbued as this book despite everything is in an odd, contradictory way with undercurrents of sweetness and hope.

UPDATE: Please check out the post of May 16, 2010, on Margaret Atwood's shameful embrace of Israeli apartheid in defiance of appeals to her by Palestinian artists and students. I'm leaving my note on her book here but I do urge everyone to stop buying her work as she has aligned herself with racism.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pittsburgh police state

Martial law was in effect on Thursday and Friday in Pittsburgh, where not only police but also National Guard troops attacked anyone and everyone--folks protesting the G20 imperialist confab, University of Pittsburgh students who hadn't started out as protesters but ended up joining once their campus was besieged by police attackers and tear gas fumes seeped into their dorm rooms, trade unionists and unemployed workers.

The week had started on Sept. 20 with a march for jobs, seen here, which was followed by a weeklong tent city encampment in the Hill district, the center of Pittsburgh's Black community, which has been hit hardest by this latest economic crisis added on top of the earlier decimation of the steel industry. Full coverage in Workers World newspaper.

I'm having trouble loading any of them here, but you can watch scenes of the Setp. 24-25 police attacks in any of the many videos that have been posted at Youtube. Something over 140 people were arrested, some for exercising their first amendment right to peacefully assemble and many others simply for being alive on a Pittsburgh street.

Friday, September 25, 2009

More e-reader maunderings

This being payday, I took myself out to lunch. While I ate I was reading The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, which I took out of the Queens library yesterday. As I paid the bill the server nodded at the book and said, "How is it, the new Atwood?" Naturally, then, as I walked back to the office I was off upon reveries about books and reading and readers, and it reminded me of an article I read recently (sorry, can't remember where) pointing out yet another shortcoming of e-readers as compared to old-fashioned books. With e-readers no one can see what anyone else is reading. I loved that the waiter asked me about my book. I really really love looking at what my fellow riders are reading every morning and evening on the subway. I've struck up many a conversation -- and I find that people never seem to mind the interruption to their reading -- when I couldn't stop myself from commenting on a neighbor's book. You know, along the lines of, "Oh, I read that, loved it, how are you liking it," and so on. Once paper-and-glue books are obsolete, these conversations will be too.

Now, granted, I've also of late been striking up conversations with e-reader users: "Sorry to interrupt, but if you don't mind my asking, how do you like that Kindle?" But it's not the same query at all, now, is it?

Because I live in Queens and because Queens is the most multinational patch of land on Earth, the books (and newspapers) my fellow #7 riders read are in many languages. I'm surrounded every day by words, news, ideas, poetry, stories in Urdu, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Greek, Creole, Spanish, Farsi, Hindi, Tagalog, Croatian and dozens of other tongues. So there's reason #513 why the Kindle, in particular, does not point the way to the future of reading--or if it does, it's a dystopian future of the sort that might fit right into this new Atwood novel I'm reading: not only is it prohibitively expensive, not only does it force you to buy books and buy them from only one source, not only is the list of titles it offers quite limited, but the books are only in English! Ye gods what a backward step it altogether seems to be.

Insert here my usual disclaimers that I am not in principle opposed to the newly developing e-reading technologies. But I've begun thinking more about the various ways these technologies currently exclude most readers; the way they delineate their owner/users as of a higher class than the rest of us slobs shlepping around our archaic leafy content-delivery devices; whether this, the class distinction that e-reader ownership signifies, isn't intrinsic to them, isn't in a certain sense the whole point; and even, then, whether this development, hailed as a reading revolution by the literary elites, isn't actually counterrevolutionary in the class sense, that is, a push back against the egalitarianism of the book, a wedge, an edging of worker-readers outward toward the margins of irrelevance.

As is too often the case, these maunderings are only the tentative and not deeply thought out groping toward some ideas to which who knows whether I'll ever get a chance to devote some lucid attention. There's lots more that needs to be included in the mix for any serious class-conscious consideration of this topic. For one thing, the e-reader manufacturers of course want to broaden the market so it's not as if they want to limit their customer base through price and snob appeal, it's not as if they wouldn't like eventually to sell to everyone across the class divide. It comes down basically to the whole question of technology in class society, its development, its purposes and uses, who's in control of it, who profits, etc. Every commodity, no matter how apparently innocent or potentially beneficial, is tainted by capitalism. Every thing is produced for profit. On the flip side, in a classless society, everything might be made: every thing that might be of worth based on all sorts of criteria involving the common good. Which I'm guessing would mean much less stuff, but it would be fun to give some thought to what this might lead to in the way of reading. After the revolution, what combination of old and new technologies will the workers forge to enhance the reading experience and at the same time save the planet?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

They will find people's fists

On this day in 1973, the great poet of love and revolution Pablo Neruda died. Most biographical material reports that he succumbed to leukemia. And yes, he was sick. But the better likelihood is that he was killed by the Pinochet junta that had taken over Chile 12 days earlier in a coup, assassinating President Salvador Allende and ushering in a bloody fascist era that claimed some 30,000 lives. Ramsey Clark, U.S. attorney general under Lyndon Johnson who had moved swiftly to the left after leaving government, went to Chile on a fact-finding trip in those early days after the coup. He has told of visiting Neruda's house soon after the poet's death and finding it in the sort of violent disarray--furniture thrown about, file drawers open and emptied, etc.--that obviously resulted from a military assault. Did the fascist thugs murder Neruda, did he have a heart attack as they assaulted him and his household? The answers lie buried with the 30,000, but one way or another the Pinochet forces killed this people's poet.

Today in Honduras another fascist junta is trying desperately to hold onto power nearly three months after its coup ousting the popularly elected president, José Manuel Zelaya. The workers, students and progressive movements of Honduras have been in the streets every day of these three months fighting the golpistas. The situation is now at a crisis point, as President Zelaya has returned to his country and is currently, along with his immediate family and staff, barricaded inside the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Yesterday golpista troops assaulted the tens of thousands of Hondurans massed outside the embassy in support of Zelaya, with tear gas and bullets, injuring and killing an at this point unknown number of people. The people, despite the attack, remain, and so does Zelaya.

Urgent demonstrations in support of the struggle in Honduras are set for this afternoon in cities around the country. Here in NYC, it'll be at 48th Street and First Avenue from 5 to 7 p.m.

By way of inspiration as we fight yet another counterrevolutionary assault, here is Neruda's poem "To Fidel Castro."

Fidel, Fidel, the people are grateful
for words in action and deeds that sing,
that is why I bring from far
a cup of my country's wine:
it is the blood of a subterranean people
that from the shadows reaches your throat,
they are miners who have lived for centuries
extracting fire from the frozen land.
They go beneath the sea for coal
but on returning they are like ghosts:
they grew accustomed to eternal night,
the working-day light was robbed from them,
nevertheless here is the cup
of so much suffering and distances:
the happiness of imprisoned men
possessed by darkness and illusions
who from the inside of mines perceive
the arrival of spring and its fragrances
because they know that Man is struggling
to reach the amplest clarity.
And Cuba is seen by the Southern miners,
the lonely sons of la pampa,
the shepherds of cold in Patagonia,
the fathers of tin and silver,
the ones who marry cordilleras
extract the copper from Chuquicamata,
men hidden in buses
in populations of pure nostalgia,
women of the fields and workshops,
children who cried away their childhoods:
this is the cup, take it, Fidel.
It is full of so much hope
that upon drinking you will know your victory
is like the aged wine of my country
made not by one man but by many men
and not by one grape but by many plants:
it is not one drop but many rivers:
not one captain but many battles.
And they support you because you represent
the collective honor of our long struggle,
and if Cuba were to fall we would all fall,
and we would come to lift her,
and if she blooms with flowers
she will flourish with our won nectar.
And if they dare touch Cuba's
forehead, by your hands liberated,
they will find people's fists,
we will take out our buried weapons:
blood and pride will come to the rescue,
to defend our beloved Cuba.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Good work, Yes Men!

"SPECIAL EDITION" NEW YORK POST from The Yes Men on Vimeo.

Update: The New York Postpolice Department arrested folks distributing the parody paper this morning!

Ralph Nader's super-rich fantasy life

Prepare yourself, ugh, for a rash of publicity marking tomorrow's release of Ralph Nader's novel--that's right, novel--about a cadre of uber-yet-somehow-benevolent capitalists fixing their system so it works for the masses of the people. The title is Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! and it's published by Seven Stories Press. Now here's the thing: the story, apparently, fulfills the title's claim. It's not a satire, as I at first assumed. No, unless the whole thing is one big April Fool's type joke, Nader actually believes in his conception of achieving peace and equality within the framework of imperialism via the kindly intervention of the very parties who profit from, that is, depend upon, war and inequality.
Not all the super-rich are craven greed hounds, dominators and bullies. Some of them take on their counterpart greed hounds, dominators and bullies. ... Fiction is a way to liberate the imagination, to see what could happen if 17 billionaires and super-rich people really put their minds to it, along with a parrot, and took on the existing business power bloc and the politicians in Washington who serve it.
The spectacle of such a bizarre, twisted delusion being promulgated by someone who used to present himself as a fighter for progressive change might strike some as sad. It ought in any case to expose him once and for all as no legitimate leader in the cause of the class struggle.

1 million in Havana for 'Peace w/o Borders'

Colombian superstar singer Juanes called it "the most beautiful dream of peace and love." Over a million Cubans filled Revolution Plaza for the Peace Without Borders concert in Havana yesterday. What a gorgeous sight.

One of the greatest experiences of my life was spending May Day 1996 at this same site watching a million Cubans marching for the revolution. We in the international guests' bleachers sat across from the stand where Fidel and the other leaders greeted the marchers. When everyone stood still and sang The Internationale it was spine-tinglingly moving--being there, singing it alongside a nation of people who were actually making a revolution, singing it across the way from one of the greatest revolutionaries in history, and, because I was surrounded by international delegations, hearing it sung in many different languages at once so that the very essence of the song as an ode to international solidarity rang out loud and clear.

Kudos to Juanes and the other artists who withstood counterrevolutionary pressure and performed yesterday in Havana.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Because-they're-all-I-have-time-for links

Upon his release from the Iraqi prison where he was tortured, Mutadhar al-Zaidi tells "The Story of My Shoe."

Ellen Meeropol mulls the challenge of political fiction,
the mulling occasioned by Barbara Kingsolver's new novel The Lacuna, which I've added to my to-read list.

Another play
I'd like to see and probably won't: Aftermath.

Last Sunday's New York Times Book Review
included a reactionary spew against a Korean novelist for what sounded like a pretty damned good book. Now Hwang Sok-yong's U.S. publisher, Seven Stories Press, is offering up the first 62 chapters of The Old Garden in its newly published English translation online. This is a generous and welcome move.

Motes Books has published We All Live Downstream, an anthology of writing about the coal industry's putrescent program of mountaintop removal.

Washington Post reporter David Finkel's book The Good Soldiers details how U.S. troops killed two Reuters journalists in Baghdad in 2007 and how the Pentagon has been covering up the crime ever since.

Teresa and I watched Lifetime TV's much-anticipated (in our household) movie Georgia O'Keeffe last night. And oy gevalt: it was breathtakingly bad! We were sputtering with outrage throughout. The usually fine actors in the two lead roles--Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz and Joan Allen as O'Keeffe--were, um, awful, Irons especially. Due at least in part to the dreadful writing and directing. The whole thing was so ill-conceived and insulting, though why we expected anything better from Lifetime I do not know. It was not a movie about the great artist Georgia O'Keeffe. It was a movie about some pitiful woman's fucked-up relationship with some giant dickhead of a man. The sexism is staggering: the film is all and only about O'Keeffe in relation to Stieglitz. What few, fleeting minutes are given over to O'Keeffe's art, fewer and even more fleeting to her creative process, are hackneyed and shallow. There's lots else wrong with it, including the occasional passing into the frame of an actor playing the great author and leading light of the Harlem Renaissance Jean Toomer with nary a line, just there for window dressing apparently. Overall, this movie is one hot mess, and watching it was a waste of two hours we'll never get back.

Speaking of movies, I'm sure I'll see it, either at the theater or on DVD, but I don't have especially high hopes for Michael Moore's upcoming Capitalism: A Love Story. I'll enjoy some of it. Some of it will annoy me. The title, of course, is coy. Moore is not anti-capitalist. He's of the please-let's-return-to-a-kinder-gentler-capitalism ilk. Aside from the fact that there never was a kinder gentler era, this never-ending effort to accommodate to a system whose essence is exploitation actually holds back the struggle in many ways. And by the way, what was Michael Moore doing showing his film at the Toronto Film Festival? Why didn't he boycott the gathering for its promotion of Tel Aviv along with truly progressive filmmakers like Ken Loach?

Oliver Stone's new film South of the Border, on the other hand, looks pretty good.

Friday, September 18, 2009

FU very very much, GWB

Late to the party as usual, I only just heard about, and heard, Lily Allen's wonderful goodbye message to George W. Bush, "Fuck You." And have just been watching various videos set to its terrific political lyric and bouncy pop tune. Here's one, the "Big Fat Gay Collab" by steviebeebishop. It's not quite complete, stopping before the last verse, which is about Bush's war, but you'll get the idea. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mary Travers

No, she was no revolutionary and so yes, I know, I'm inconsistent in my admirations ... but I've always had a soft spot for them, and for her in particular. She was after all a political artist who devoted her life to progressive culture. I'm sad and sorry to hear of her death.

Also I'm sorry for the gap in substantive posts. It will be filled as soon as possible.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Farewell, Norma Rae: killed by U.S. health system

She went two months without possible life-saving medications because her insurance wouldn't cover it, another example of abusing the working poor, she said.
That's from a report about Crystal Lee Sutton from about a year ago, when she was battling cancer of the meninges. She lost the battle on September 11 at age 68. And so we workers, especially we working women, have lost one of our heroes, the leader of the 1970s struggle to unionize textile workers at JP Stevens, known as "the real Norma Rae" ever since Sally Field played a character based on her in the movie of that name.

As to the insurer's delay in providing her coverage, she said, "It is almost, in a way, like committing murder." It is murder, exactly. Another working-class hero, killed by capitalism.

Crystal Lee Sutton, presente!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

City of Refuge

Having just finished reading Tom Piazza's Hurricane Katrina novel, City of Refuge, I'm now spending some quiet time reflecting and recovering. Yes, it is one of those books that engulfs you and leaves you wracked, wrecked. At least it was for me. I've read several reviews that say otherwise, but it seems to me that for the most part the criticism is of the same sort leveled at The Grapes of Wrath, at Steinbeck and Sinclair and Morrison, Zola and Baldwin and Hugo and every other novelist whose fiction takes a stand, exposes social injustice, grabs the reader's heart and squeezes it not with fake sentimentality but with wrenching reality, which is the most honest stuff of story. So I reject the "spare me this overwrought and obviously slanted sob story" critique that is, intentionally or not, reactionary. One of the reviews that took this approach was, shockingly (not!), in the New York Times Book Review.

Now, if the book has been widely criticized by Black reviewers, that of course is a different story and I would stand corrected in my admiration of City of Refuge. But I have not found any African American commentary on this novel.

My own take is straightforward. This is not a radical book. The story of two New Orleans families, one white, one Black, and how Hurricane Katrina hits them, it has many imperfections, political and literary. Among other things, it's too male-centered for my taste. Among a fairly big cast of characters, most of whom are well drawn, the focus is on two protagonists, the paterfamilia of the Williamses and Donaldsons. Why couldn't one of the familia have a mater at its head? Also, the otherwise progressive narrative refers to the horribly exploited and ill-treated undocumented workers brought in afterward as "illegal aliens."

There's more along those lines but they feel like quibbles because my overarching reaction to this book is that it is good and true, deep and necessary, beautifully written, spare in places, in others a shatteringly painful spill of words, all of it successfully getting at the core questions of what happened, how it could have happened, who it mostly happened to, and what it did to them. Although the story gripped me from the first paragraph and I read the book through pretty quickly, there were also several times when I could have read on but had to take a break because it was just too hard. Turned on the TV to numb my mind for a while instead. Had to regroup, gather my strength, before entering again. That's how raw, how dead-on it is.

Maybe I'm wrong. I'm not from and have never lived in the South--I've only been to New Orleans itself once, in 1991, when I spent two weeks there organizing against the Ku Klux Klan gubernatorial candidate David Duke--and I am of course white. All this and more may mean there are nuances of weaknesses in City of Refuge that I failed to grasp. Short of having such pointed out I'll stand by my read, which is that this is a fine, fine novel.

There are currently 32 copies of the original hardcover edition available for only $6.95 at the Strand bookstore. That means it'll soon find its way to the remainders shelves. A damned shame. Katrina was a natural disaster. What it did to New Orleans was a crime. Here is a work of fiction that exposes what happened. It deserves to be read.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The bloodiest September 11

On this day in 1973, a fascist military coup led by Augusto Pinochet and backed by the United States government, with direct involvement by Henry Kissinger, ousted and assassinated Chilean President Salvador Allende. Starting on September 11 and continuing for weeks and months, the Pinochet regime rounded up and killed tens of thousands -- best estimate is about 30,000 -- students, workers, trade unionists, communists, progressives of all stripes.

My comrade Greg has a good summary at his blog Absent Cause. It includes some information about the case of Victor Toro, currently fighting Homeland Security's effort to deport him. Victor was a leader of the MIR, the Left Revolutionary Movement, who was imprisoned and tortured by the Chilean fascists. He managed to get out of Chile and come to New York, where he has lived for over 30 years. Now the government is trying to kick him out of this country based not only on his undocumented immigrant status--but also, outrageously, based on a claim that he is a terrorist! He, the victim of the terrorist Pinochet regime! Yes, say the feds, Victor and the MIR and all who were trying to build a socialist society in Chile were terrorists.

It's no wonder Victor Toro, a fighter for revolutionary change, is still seen as a threat. Salvador Allende, though he was not a revolutionary, was a beloved leader and the democratically elected president was extremely popular for his efforts on behalf of the workers--and he was killed for it.

Here, set against powerful images of events before during and after the coup, are President Allende's final words to the people of Chile.

Because this is supposed to be a lit blog, I'll also note the book Chile: The Other September 11 by Ariel Dorfman and others. I doubt that it's got any useful, i.e., Marxist, political analysis but it may have some worthwhile reporting.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

This book interests me ... I think

I've been seeing enough here and there about the new book of essays titled, you guessed it, Essays, by Wallace Shawn, that I'm feeling myself dragged over toward the neighborhood of one eyebrow raised in possible interest. Shawn is the gnomish writer and actor and, famously, son of William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker for most of the latter part of the 20th century. I saw Wallace Shawn's movie My Dinner with Andre many years ago and loved it, and have been meaning to rewatch it because I'm curious about what I'll think now. I have never seen or read one of his plays but have read about them with interest. Especially his 1997 play The Designated Mourner; I recall that when that one debuted on Broadway and I read the reviews I was surprised to discover that it was very political and that Shawn is a progressive, politically minded artist.

All of which is to say he's been sneaking up on me a bit and now, with this book and the fact that it's published by Haymarket, a left political press, he's just about got me ready to read the thing. I did just read this over at the Huffington Post. I believe it's excerpted from the introduction to the new book of essays. I found it ... well, I'm not completely sure what I found it, but it did not make me feel less intrigued about reading the whole book. He seems to be trying to get at something about the role of the artist in bourgeois society. He's clearly nowhere near a revolutionary; I think it's possible nonetheless that he has some worthwhile thoughts on these questions of art and class and the state of the world. Maybe.

From book to movie

Most serious readers are used to Hollywood's propensity for turning good or great books into, well, let's be gentle and just say not as good and pretty much never great movies. (My most recent personal experience with this was Revolutionary Road but there have of course been scores of others over the years.) I have a small private hunch about why even cinema artists with the best intentions, even those unbound by studios' and producers' profit requirements, not that such artists exist, but even if they did, why they would, generally speaking, not be able to make a movie that achieves what a book can. I call it a hunch because it's not thought through enough, I don't think I could make an unimpeachable enough case for it, to call it a theory. I've no right to be theorizing anyway, never having studied cinema or literary theory. But in my own groping way this miasma of inchoate inklings has over the years been trying to cohere around a core notion that has something to do with (how's that for a string of advance mea culpas for knuckleheadedness!!) the role of the literal in art. The extent to which creativity has to soar free of the literal to reach great heights. And how just maybe film is necessarily too chained to the requirements of the literal to ever be able to break free in the way that writing can. Oh I don't know. I'm babbling. And this isn't even what I came here to talk about!

I want to talk about not the adaptation of books into movies, but rather the making of movies about historical figures or events. As in the case of the new movie about Charles Darwin, Creation. Olivia Judson at the New York Times is happy that it focuses on Darwin's grief over the death of his daughter and thus shows the humanity of the great scientific thinker. I can't say till I see it, but I'm guessing my reaction will be different, that I'll be left frustrated that here the filmmakers had one of the most fascinating topics of all in their hands--evolution itself, as well as the story of how Darwin and others formulated their theories about it--and instead of doing something original and groundbreaking like making a movie about world-historic ideas they made a movie about the same thing almost every movie is about, love and relationships.

Maybe it's sort of the same complaint about literalness. Here you have the stuff of the ages. Ideas, human progress vs. religious reaction, and so on. You could make a movie that soars, that makes viewers think, that grapples with great questions. Instead you make a movie about husbands and wives and daughters and sons and the dailiness of the lives lived, instead of the anything-but-daily essence of what this life, Darwin's, was lived about. Please. Please, won't someone make a movie about the grand matters that truly move this world forward?

For example, next month is the 150th anniversary of the raid on Harper's Ferry led by John Brown. Wow (and here, just so no one can accuse me of consistency, I drop all complaints about cinema literalness)--what a fantastically exciting, action-packed movie this could be. But also, of course, a movie about the clash of classes, the effort to overturn feudalism, the battle against slavery, the struggle against racism. I can think of so many more examples of the great movies that could be made that would be about so much more than love love love, have such a broader scope than the individual lives the focus on which blinkers out the big picture, but still with all the drama, all the human stories, that can make movies come alive.

Has there been a movie about Harriet Tubman? About Eugene V. Debs? The Bonus March? The Flint sit-down strike? Great characters, great stories. Oh how I want to see them.

There was one such movie not long ago that just came to mind. Not out of Hollywood, of course. It is Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley. It brings the Irish republican struggle to vibrant, gripping life. There's lots of deep emotion portrayed, and there's an utterly wrenching clash between two brothers, but it's not over women or money or whatever else most movies tell us most brothers might break over. The brothers stake out opposite positions on a most vital political question. What I really love are the scenes where the brothers and their comrades argue out this issue. It is so real, so accurate, in its portrayal of these revolutionaries trying to forge forward, and how the split happens, and what it means--for these two young men but also for their whole nation, and the emotion that grips the viewer is about both, these individual lives but also the lives of the whole Irish nation. Now that's great filmmaking, in my opinion.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In Pittsburgh, in 12 days

Initiated by the Bail Out the People Movement. Cosponsored by the United Steel Workers. More information here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Link-o-licious long weekend

I'm allowed to come here and post this unrelated aggregation of links because I just had a pretty good writing session. That's one for two on this three-day weekend; yesterday I just had to crash. If I can pull off another couple hours of putting words together in some semblance of story tomorrow, I'll be able to head back to work Tuesday more or less content. Now for the links.

For several weeks now I've been seeing lots of comment about Rebecca Solnit's new book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. The thing is, by now I've learned to be skeptical, to understand that this sort of noise is generally the result of a coordinated public relations campaign. Too often some author or book hailed as vital and progressive turns out to be too flawed, or worse, for me to be able to join in the huzzahs. In this case caution has seemed appropriate also since I've had time to only skim, not carefully read any of the pieces that have been popping up. With all that, I'm now intrigued--and gosh darn it, hopeful--enough to want to read this book. Reading today's NYTBR review was one push. As was reading this exchange of letters between Solnit and the guy who reviewed her book for the Washington Post. It sounds like this book--which apparently makes the argument that people tend to come together and work together for the common good in time of crisis, that that, not every-asshole-for-him-or-herself panic and mayhem as depicted in every disaster movie, is human nature--may well be a genuine contribution to a struggle-oriented perspective on the challenges that face the workers and oppressed. A contribution as well to truth telling about what happened four years ago in New Orleans. I'm going to give this one a shot.

An event to honor the brilliant writer, actor, singer and communist Paul Robeson and mark the 60th anniversary of his historic concert that was brutally attacked by rioting KKKers, anticommunists and police was set for Friday Sept. 4 in Peekskill, NY. I haven't heard from anyone who went but I hope it was a great success.

Kudos to Jane Fonda, Ken Loach, Alice Walker, David Byrne, Wallace Shawn, Eve Ensler and Danny Glover. They and other artists signed a letter of protest against the Toronto Film Festival for its pro-Israel "spotlight on Tel Aviv." Film maker John Greyson pulled his movie "Covered" from the festival, noting writer Naomi Klein's characterization of Tel Aviv as "the smiling face of Israeli apartheid" and adding,
Isn't such an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now akin to celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chilean wines in 1973, Nestle infant formula in 1984, or South African fruit in 1991?
Actually, he got the Montgomery date wrong. The great bus boycott led by Rosa Parks was in 1955-56. But the point is right.

The Brooklyn Book Festival is next weekend. I'm telling myself to go, as I have each of these few years since the first (told myself, that is, not gone). Will I actually go? Doubtful.

The latest, welcome as always, salvo from authorJames Kelman.

I don't often resort to such undainty language, but jeez, fuck you Mike Judge, and I hope your movie Extract is a box-office dud (though I know it'll probably be a hit). The plot, in one sentence or less? Workers are lazy idiots, heroic business owners are the hope of humanity. Did I say fuck you?

And finally, although it's not literary or artistic news or commentary, it must be said. American Apparel? No thank you.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Gonzales Cantata

If I were going to be in Philadelphia this weekend I'd head over to the Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe to take in what looks to be an amazing new short opera: The Gonzales Cantata by Melissa Dunphy. The libretto is taken entirely from transcripts of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings at which Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified. And the role of Gonzales is sung by a woman. This looks hot.

The New Yorker & other horrors

Not long ago I commented here that I've slighted the New Yorker, which deserves ranting against every bit as much as the New York Times Book Review. Maybe more, since the NYTBR and its Buckley-lovin' editor Sam Tanenhaus make no bones about their right-wing stance, while the New Yorker more or less epitomizes bourgeois liberalism. Those darn liberals think they're so lovable but really, no, they're not so much. It's their casual clueless racism, their invariable if sometimes guilty support of the boss class, and most of all the way their every expression reeks of the bourgeois consciousness in whose sway they are utterly, by whose light they unswervingly navigate.

Gimme an example, you say? OK, here are two.

The first is from the Aug. 10 issue. It's that week's "Shouts and Murmurs" entry. The humor piece, in other words. "A Guide to Summer Sun Protection" by Zev Borow. Go read it if you think you can stomach it after ... no, wait. I was going to include an excerpt here, but I think I won't. It's disgustingly racist, which is my point, but I don't want this blog to ever house such writing, even in quotes. There's lots that's wrong about this piece, but check out the entry for "SPF 175" if you want to see for yourself what I'm talking about. This is the sort of thing these folks think is funny.

Then, in last week's (Aug. 31) issue, came this frontal attack on NYC teachers, their union, and, really, public education by Steven Brill. I became apoplectic reading it, sentence by sentence just about every one of which is in its essence a lie. As no doubt did every teacher who read it, every trade unionist, every NYC parent whose child has not been provided a desk, a chair, textbooks but is subjected to an ongoing reign of testing terror, every supporter of public education which means everyone who knows that public education, that most basic of rights under bourgeois democracy, is under relentless assault in this country (in no small part thanks to the sainted Ted Kennedy and his support of the atrocity that is the No Child Left Behind Act). I've been wanting to post a thorough analysis and rebuttal but I'm sorry to say that I just don't have the time.

Short the evisceration to which I ought to subject this Brill character and his Bloombergian allegiance to the destruction of the NYC schools, here's the digest version: he's a boss, he's a shill for the bosses, he's written a boss's manifesto against school workers and school unions. In the bizarro world of the New Yorker, what's wrong with this city's public schools? Not that they get no funding--no, Brill asserts, citing one study by a reactionary think tank, oh no, funding isn't the issue at all.* What's wrong with the schools, this business journalist explains, is that (1) they haven't yet been entirely and officially privatized and handed over to Wall Street; (2) the millionaires and their minions who nevertheless are now basically in charge are still subject to some slight restraints like, oh bummer, due process clauses in the union contract; and (3) teachers can't be booted out based on their pupils' low test scores, which are, again, caused not by all the horrors of the underfunded, overcrowded schools but simply by bad teachers.

*Note to the bankers and their mouthpieces who say, surprise surprise, that the problems of the city's schools wouldn't be solved by, uh, funding them, that money isn't the issue: um, yes, it largely is. Kindly refer as always to the body of work of the brilliant, devoted and tireless advocate of working-class children and their right to a decent education, Jonathan Kozol. Especially his latest book, The Shame of the Nation: the Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, much of which is about the NYC schools and reading all of which would be an education to those in thrall to the Brill/New Yorker School of Boss Journalism.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Six of 21: a recap

I read 21 books in July and August. None was the dregs because if a book is wretched, politically or artistically, I stop reading. I also stop if a book is not wretched but isn't my cup of tea stylistically. Or if it isn't wretched and ought to be my cup of tea stylistically yet somehow doesn't draw me in. This means that all 21 were good or very good and kept me reading till the end. Even so, the truth is that I don't remember most of them. Perhaps this is an unavoidable result of reading so many books. Perhaps they'll always blur into one another. Perhaps there's such a thing as reading too much.

Oh come on now, don't be silly. There's no such thing as reading too much, except of course as it carves away time from everything else you ought to be doing, like writing your own masterpiece that will never blur into another in any reader's memory. No, I didn't read too many books. It's simply that some stand out. Some you want to shout about and press into everybody's hands. The others were fine, but the standouts are the ones I'm still thinking about.

I'm pretty sure I've already posted some sort of note about each, but I want to call these six remarkable books back onstage for another bow. These are the books that lit up my summer.

Alphabetically by title:

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
In the Kitchen by Monica Ali
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
Like Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard

Oh I could kick myself!

Early this past spring, I saw a couple pieces pointing to a major exhibition of the paintings of Alice Neel that was coming to NYC, and I made a vague mental note to go see it. Too vague, because now I see that the exhibit came and went and I missed my chance. Damn damn damn! I've always liked what little I've seen of her work in magazines and books but have never seen any of the actual paintings in person. What I didn't know is that she was a communist throughout her adult life, throughout her artistic career, and that this world view directly influenced her art, her ideas about art. I would have definitely gotten myself to the exhibit if only I'd known.

I know now, thanks to this very interesting Political Affairs interview with author and CUNY professor Gerald Meyer. The whole is worth reading but here are some snippets.
When we think of portraiture, it seems like an elite genre of art. Portraits are painted of kings, of very rich people, people who want themselves memorialized. There is often an element of glorification in it. But Neel takes that art form and applies it to poor and working-class people, minority people, dignifying them, individualizing them, and immortalizing them. It is very moving. You get a sense of them as social actors, as part of what is going on in society, and that they are, in fact, part of something that commands our attention. ...

In social realism, there is something beyond description which points in a certain direction, in a direction that makes us say that what we are seeing is unacceptable and therefore requires change. Or perhaps in what we are seeing or reading about, or watching in the theater, we get the sense that the subjects themselves are going to do something about the situation they are in, that it is not tolerable. Therefore, the art becomes critical of reality, so it is not just a description of reality but a description that embodies a criticism of it. I think you have that in Neel. There is a sense that these people don't deserve to be poor, and that they are capable of doing something about it. They are not just victims.
I find this last point particularly refreshing, since social (or socialist) realism is so uniformly trashed by prevailing trends of bourgeois cultural criticism. It buoys me too, since it fairly well describes what I'm mostly trying to do in my own writing. And of course it all makes me desperate to see Neel's paintings next chance I get.

Meyer has a longer piece,"Alice Neel: The Painter and Her Politics," in the Columbia Journal of American Studies, which I'm going to read when I can grab the time.