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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Illusions Breed Disillusionment

I read this week in the voice of liberalism, The New York Times, that President Obama’s supporters have been “punked” and “duped” by the Administration. Both liberal icons Frank Rich and Paul Krugman expressed outrage – as much as prominent, officially acceptable liberals can be outraged – by the Administration’s retreats on health care reform. The word “betrayed” is spreading like a wild fire through the liberal blogosphere.

This expression of anger is entirely misplaced. Once bitten, twice bitten, thrice bitten, ad infinitum, one wonders how many bites it takes before so-called progressives will study the history of the two-party system and its sordid, ever-expanding corruption and draw some sane conclusions. Perhaps it takes a dose of Marxism to heal the myopia of our liberal and progressive allies who rise to every Democratic Party electoral victory and see a new day dawning.

This is no defense of Obama: he is no worse or better than his counterparts over the last many decades. In fact, given the continued debasement of US democracy, he may well be marginally better than his Party's predecessors. Surely no one realistically believes that a Clinton, Edwards, Biden, or any other prominent, sufficiently funded, Democratic Senator or Governor would offer a more progressive Presidency.

Now is not the time for bitterness, anger, blame (or even “I told you so”). It is the time, however, for thinking hard and seriously about alternatives to the two-party monopoly of political power. It is the time to press aggressively for an independent people’s agenda, beginning today with an all-out effort to force single-payer, universal health care – an urgent and immediate need – on to the legislative front burner… with or without President Obama.

Mindful of the spreading cynicism among liberals, I offer below an article posted on MLToday some time between the November election and the Obama inauguration, where I forecast the trajectory of the incoming Administration and warn of the danger of illusions and a blank check. See also The Political Economy of the Elections ( written during the primary season.

Let Obama be Obama?

Written by Zoltan Zigedy for Marxist-Leninism Today

Disenchantment is setting in... Among those who describe themselves as "progressives" (an umbrella-term re-invented to avoid the pejoration of "liberal" and to encompass liberals and the non-Marxist left), the infatuation with President-elect Obama has began to sour. As thousands prepared to join the inaugural celebrations in DC, the announcement that Reverend Rick Warren would invoke the ceremonies sparked a decided outcry from progressive Obama supporters. The right-centrist Cabinet appointments - earlier indications of Obama's governing posture - were largely sloughed off by left supporters as Lincoln-esque maneuvers or practical accommodations. But honoring Warren stretched the credulity of even the most smitten. While Warren has shown a tad more tolerance and compassion than the worst of the evangelical right, he is still a member-in-good-standing of the cabal of fire and brimstone reactionaries.

Who is Obama?

Has Obama betrayed his progressive promise? Obama never made a progressive promise. The idea of Obama as a water-bearer for liberal or progressive reform came not from Obama's mouth, but from the sheer wishes and dreams of the left. They took the vacuity of the "change" slogan as something more than the usual hyperbole of two-party politics despite the fact that it is hurled at every lame duck or incumbent. They saw rhetorical, fuzzy commitments to constituents of the Democratic Party base as more than they have been in every previous Democratic campaign. They took youth, energy, and elequence as a mark of liberalism in a way not seen since the JFK campaign. In short, Obama ran a predictable, well executed Democratic Party Presidential campaign and the left took it to be a people's crusade.

The "democratic" component of the campaign - the internet engagement - was seen as a departure from business-as-usual even though it was used effectively by Howard Dean four years earlier and spawned no new, progressive movement. It is not yet clear how the post-election internet pollings will differ from the numerous Democratic Party postal fund-raising appeals that I receive, masquerading as polls. Republican strategists are now planning a similar "grass roots" strategy for coming elections. The mass mobilizations may well have surpassed previous ones, though, as in past campaigns, the organizers asked for no programmatic commitments or concessions. The efforts were gratefully received as "gifts" and not leverage.

Obama has effectively postured as his political career demanded. His social agency beginnings in Chicago coincided with the mayoral incumbency of an authentic progressive and reformer, Harold Washington. Yet there were no strong ties to either Washington's program nor his legacy.

Obama took liberal positions while dependent in his political advancement upon the liberal Hyde Park constituency and, at the same time, courted moneyed interests in Chicago - interests that would boost his advancement even more. His subsequent career generally followed these lines, balancing policy positions with constituency and fund-sourcing. In this regard, Obama's career parallels that of other centrist Democrats, no better or worse. But certainly nothing in Obama's career would warrant counting him among the Democratic Party's more progressive leaders, for example, Dennis Kucinich or John Conyers.

In fairness, Obama has betrayed no one. His vast centrist following and the Democratic Party Old Guard have shown no fear of Obama's perceived "progressive" agenda, an agenda that appears to be more and more in the minds of a self-deluding left. Obama's appointments and positions have produced no panic among big capital, which showered an unprecedented amount of financial support onto his campaign.

Seventy-six years ago, Walter Lippmann, an astute political observer, made similar observations about a Democratic Party nominee named "Franklin Roosevelt". As cited in Frederick Lewis Allen's Since Yesterday:

Walter Lippmann warned those Western Democrats who regarded Roosevelt as a courageous progressive and an "enemy of evil influences" that they did not know their man.

"Franklin D. Roosevelt" wrote Lippmann, "is an amiable man with many philanthropic impulses, but he is not the dangerous enemy of anything. He is too eager to please.... Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President".

Lippmann's assessment of Roosevelt before his election loosely fits our President-elect. Of course Roosevelt went on to be celebrated as the father of the New Deal and the symbol of the US welfare-state, such as it was. But as every careful read of the Great Depression history shows, the New Deal reforms were the result of independent mass pressure enabling and forcing these changes (see The Real Lesson of the New Deal for the US Left MLToday).

Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, August 17, 2009

Budd Schulberg’s Legacy

Zoltan Zigedy is on vacation. Billy Dannreuther authored the following in his absence. Please address any comments to ZZ's e-mail:

Writer Budd Schulberg died on August 5, 2009 at the age of 95. Schulberg was one of the last of a generation of writers who achieved fame as screenwriters in the 1940’s and 1950’s at a tumultuous time in Hollywood. His two most notable works were On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd – the former film lavished with praise and the latter languishing, apart from a cult following.

If one reads the Washington Post obituary of Schulberg, one would never know of the storm of controversy surrounding his Communist Party membership and his friendly testimony – naming the names of CP members – before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He, like his collaborator on On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan, offered open testimony vilifying the Communist Party and identifying Communists in Hollywood. As a result of their testimony and that of others, “un-friendly” witnesses were to be publicly ostracized and blacklisted from working in Hollywood by the Congressional inquisition. Those - like Schulberg and Kazan - who cooperated were allowed to continue their film industry employment. Those - like Ring Lardner Jr., Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, and many, many others who refused to cooperate - were denied employment for a decade or so. Some never returned to the industry.

For those victimized by the HUAC hearings, the friendly witnesses were viewed as “snitches” or “finks” – the labor movement term for those who informed on fellow workers to the boss. They bought continued employment by groveling before an “un-American”, rabidly anti-Communist Congressional committee determined to destroy the left and the progressive labor movement in the US. Friendly witness collaboration not only shattered the left in Hollywood, but, in the broadest sense, crippled the left and the labor movement to this day. After the inquisition, political, social, and economic opposition was reduced to pro-imperialist, corporate-friendly liberalism and timid “bread and butter” unionism. And in Hollywood, film production was similarly reduced, with only a few exceptions, to conventionality, commercialism, and unchallenging entertainment until the rise of independent filmmaking in the 1960’s.
It is in this context that we should view and assess the work of Budd Schulberg.

Many will, however, argue that the politics of the time have nothing to do with the quality of Schulberg’s work. They represent the extreme aestheticism of film criticism that attends only to the formal aspects of film making: visual beauty, creativity and a good story. In its crudest form the aestheticism position would find no fault with Citizen Kane if Charles Foster Kane were a stereotypical Jewish banker hostile to flag-waving patriotism and a promoter of liberal policies. For them, the innovative directing and clever writing trumps any consideration of politics or ethics.

A variant of this view, more common today than in the Cold War era, argues that politics or topicality have no place in film making, reducing a pure art form to “preachiness” or propaganda. For adherents of this view, telling a story is everything, making a point is a distraction.

Still others would argue that the content of film – the kind of story told, its message - is everything in judging film. The old left bromide that “art is a weapon” falls into this category. Though never a dominant Communist standard, some have urged this, especially in revolutionary situations, and of other revolutionary artists.

None of these views is coherent. The dialectics of form and content are complicated, but suffice it to say that it is impossible to separate the two elements of film making without doing violence to the pleasures of film viewing. Too often the formalists forget that viewers always bring their understanding of the world to the experience of viewing film. To pander to the lowest understanding is crass commercialism; to enrich that experience is good film making. Think of two hours of The Lion King without human-like behavior and human dialogue to direct the narrative. Where would we find the illusive ingredient: meaning?

Similarly, to ignore the role of craft in film making is to lose the distinction between good technical film makers and bad ones. Bad craftsmen fail to enrich by reducing content to the clumsy narrative of bar room tales.

So, yes, it is legitimate and appropriate to consider Schulberg’s political status, motives, and the historical context of his writing in judging his legacy. To fail to frame his work in the historical moment of its production would give a distorted view bereft of any interpretive meaning.

On the Waterfront enjoyed great critical acclaim, dominating the film industry’s Academy Awards in 1955, just three years after Schulberg’s HUAC testimony. With his best screen play award, Schulberg reached the pinnacle of his career. His screen play told of a corrupted longshoremen’s union led by gangsters and the heroics of a tough dockside priest successfully coaxing a young, confused worker into breaking the code of silence to expose the gangsters. Marlon Brando’s performance as the dock worker – a frustrated boxer – was deservedly praised, though a bit overwrought and stylized. Compare “Terry Malloy” to a similar character, “Rocky Balboa”, of Rocky fame and one’s appreciation of Brando soars. Elia Kazan’s directing highlights his superior craftsmanship.

And yet the film is deeply flawed in its content, its writing. The film is basically a typical Hollywood gangster movie, but corrupted by what the writer adds to the usual formulae. Unlike nearly all other films of the era, On the Waterfront incorporates a working class theme. But the workers on the docks are essentially wooden, simple and, except when shamed by Malloy’s severe beating, cowardly. As a heroic figure, Malloy displays even more ignorance, simplicity, and naiveté then his fellow workers. Brando’s stylized mumbling exaggerates this characterization. Like African-Americans in The Birth of a Nation, workers are little more than ignorant sheep. Of course, Kazan and Schulberg knew of better images of working people from their Communist past, but they chose to serve up a depiction more in step with middle-class critics and anti-union viewers. For a more balanced, realistic view of working people and class solidarity one could do no better than the much later work of blacklisted, “unfriendly” witnesses Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein (The Molly Maguires, 1970).

Schulberg’s script has no bosses. While the gangsters are vile, there is no indication of who determines the wages and working conditions of the employees. The Schulberg image of dock work gives no understanding of why the workers leave their homes and families and unload cargo everyday. There is no indication of the historical truth that bosses and owners welcome, if not encourage, gangster-led unionism in order to restrict wages and benefits. This failure leaves the script and storyline one-dimensional. Imagine a boxing film without managers and promoters. Again Kazan and Schulberg knew better, but chose to pander to the backwardness of the time.

Lastly, the film legitimizes the role of an informer precisely at a time when the nation was consumed with anti-Communist hysteria and widespread suspicion of everyone from the President to the school janitor. Insofar as Terry Malloy glorified the role of informer, he performed the same role as hip hop thugs do in promoting “gangsta” culture or Jack Bauer does in the television series 24 in justifying torture. All pander to the most backward sentiments of the moment.

For Schulberg and Kazan, both notorious informers, to structure the film around commending informing was an unabashed act of crass self-justification unequaled in cinema history. It would be as if George W. Bush commissioned a film on preemptive invasions. Nor was it unnoticed that On the Waterfront appeared just two years after screenwriter, “unfriendly” witness, and later blacklistee Carl Foreman’s High Noon, a thinly-veiled condemnation of mass hysteria, group fear, and betrayal. Where Foreman used a metaphorical Western to swim against the tide of diminished freedom of speech and undemocratic bullying, Kazan and Schulberg added legitimacy to an element of that tide and earned Academy awards in the process.

Paradoxically, the elite film establishment – a staunch defender of the pure, non-political art form – heaped praise upon this decidedly political and contemptible film.

Three years later, Kazan and Schulberg collaborated again on one of the most remarkable films of the 1950’s, doubly remarkable because most likely only they could have made it. A Face in the Crowd appeared with little fanfare and little critical support. With On the Waterfront under their belt, they had earned the right to go beyond the constraints of Cold War mythology and strike deeply at the hypocrisy and corrupted power relations of the era. Ostensibly television was the target, an arch enemy and fast emerging competitor to the film industry. But A Face in the Crowd is subversive: the real target was media manipulation and the corruption of power.

Where On the Waterfront exploits a popular, but twisted image of working people, A Face in the Crowd launches from the depths of the lumpen-proletariat: a Southern jailhouse. Schulberg’s script brings the drunks and petty criminals in contact with an Eastern-educated, patronizing, and sensation-seeking radio reporter, Marcia Jeffries, played effectively by Patricia Neal. In her quest for sensation, she encounters a shrewd, suspicious, talented, but manipulative drifter, Lonesome Rhodes. Andy Griffin soars in this role – the best performance of his life – exposing a complexity of personality and challenging motivation that far exceeds the simple character of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Blinded by class prejudice, Jeffries and the media figures who nurse his career see Rhodes as a raw and naïve talent who can be manipulated into a media success. Instead, Rhodes demonstrates a far deeper understanding of the media game and adroitly steps on and over all of his handlers while taking Jeffries along for the ride. Along the way, Rhodes encounters – and outfoxes – all the forces determined to exploit his celebrity: media executives, advertisers, public relation managers, Madison Avenue corporate figures, and hypocritical, cynical right-wing politicians. In short, the rich and powerful, the bosses who are so glaringly missing from On the Waterfront.

In the end, Rhodes is brought down, a fall that permits conventional, mainstream critics to view the film as a trivial story about unbridled ambition and arrogance resulting in deserved failure. Speculation abounded over whether Lonesome Rhodes was a surrogate for Arthur Godfrey, Tennessee Ernie Ford, or Will Rogers. But this completely misses the force of Schulberg’s writing and turns the film into a shallow bi-optic. In truth, A Face in the Crowd is a scathing critique of the media machine and the money, greed and power that lubricates and fuels it; it pulls that curtain back to expose the manipulation and hypocrisy employed to exploit the consumer society; and it reveals the cynicism and brutal treachery of those engaged in this ruthless game.

No film of the 1950’s rivals A Face in the Crowd for its cultural criticism of the wasteland of conformity and shallowness left in the wake of post-war US reaction. Nonetheless, someone else will have to forgive Schulberg for his betrayal of his comrades and appeasement of the dark forces that dominated the US in those ugly times.

Billy Dannreuther

Footnote: Interestingly, two other exceptional films of the era were based upon screenplays by another ex-Communist and friendly witness, Clifford Odets. With Sweet Smell of Success and The Big Knife Odets also lanced the boil of decadent culture in that period.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Remembrance of Things Past: The GDR

For an old Cold-Warrior like Der Spiegel – the influential German newsweekly, recent opinion polls in Germany brought considerable alarm. After nearly two decades of German re-unification, pollsters found that a majority of citizens living in the former German Democratic Republic – what Westerners call “East Germany” – defend the former socialist state.

In the face of a continuous onslaught of triumphal propaganda demonizing the GDR, eastern Germans still hold a positive view of that country. In Germany – as in the US – every aspect of life in the GDR is painted as evil: GDR border guards killed border-crossers, as though US border guards never killed border-crossing Mexicans (the crucial difference, I guess, is which direction they are going!). The Stasi spied on GDR citizens, as though the odious berufsverbot and political snitching never occurred in The Federal Republic (not to mention the many domestic surveillance and blacklistings that have befallen US citizens). It was not enough that the achievements of German socialism were never acknowledged in the West, the end of the Cold War brought a savage assault on every feature of life under the “dictatorship”. Even The GDR’s most celebrated cultural gems – like Bertolt Brecht – were transformed into unhappy captives of Communism (in spite of the consistent content of his works).

But the people of the Ost, after a constant bombardment of thought control and twenty years of capitalism, think differently. According to Der Spiegel:

…57 percent, or an absolute majority, of Eastern Germans defend the former East Germany. “The GDR had more good sides than bad sides. There were some problems, but life was good there,” say 49 percent of those polled…

Instead of taking these results as a serious reflection of popular sentiment – perhaps re-examining some of the Cold War assumptions – author, Julia Bonstein, embarked on a mission to diminish the poll results. She found a ready ally in Klaus Shroeder, director of an academic institute that studies the GDR. He, too, is alarmed that “Not even half of young people in eastern Germany describe the GDR as a dictatorship, and a majority believe the Stasi was a normal intelligence service” – a finding he relays from his 2008 study of school children. He faults them for defending the GDR based upon family conversations rather than the official textbooks. Imagine challenging textbooks! “These young people cannot, and in fact have no desire to, recognize the dark side of the GDR,” he remarks.

Schroeder received over 4000 responses to his study, many outraged at his outrage. A sampling provided by the Der Spiegel article:

"From today's perspective, I believe that we were driven out of paradise when the Wall came down," one person writes, and a 38-year-old man "thanks God" that he was able to experience living in the GDR, noting that it wasn't until after German reunification that he witnessed people who feared for their existence, beggars and homeless people.

Today's Germany is described as a "slave state" and a "dictatorship of capital," and some letter writers reject Germany for being, in their opinion, too capitalist or dictatorial, and certainly not democratic.

The audacity of these former citizens of the GDR! Undeterred by these rebuffs to the official media line, author Bonstein sought some personal responses to the unpalatable poll results. In the cock-eyed contemporary media version of “balance and fairness” she located some prosperous former GDR citizens who would surely share her shock at the attitudes of the misguided multitudes. Surely Germans who were successful after the Wall came down would see the vast superiority of capitalism over the “drabness” of socialism.

Not so.

Thorsten Shoen, a 51 year old with creature comforts sufficient to impress Bonstein, vigorously defends the GDR:

"In the past, a campground was a place where people enjoyed their freedom together," he says. What he misses most today is "that feeling of companionship and solidarity." The economy of scarcity, complete with barter transactions, was "more like a hobby." Does he have a Stasi file? "I'm not interested in that," says Schön. "Besides, it would be too disappointing."

His verdict on the GDR is clear: "As far as I'm concerned, what we had in those days was less of a dictatorship than what we have today." He wants to see equal wages and equal pensions for residents of the former East Germany. And when Schön starts to complain about unified Germany, his voice contains an element of self-satisfaction. People lie and cheat everywhere today, he says, and today's injustices are simply perpetrated in a more cunning way than in the GDR, where starvation wages and slashed car tires were unheard of. Schön cannot offer any accounts of his own bad experiences in present-day Germany. "I'm better off today than I was before," he says, "but I am not more satisfied."

Schön's reasoning is less about cool logic than it is about settling scores. What makes him particularly dissatisfied is "the false picture of the East that the West is painting today." The GDR, he says, was "not an unjust state," but "my home, where my achievements were recognized." Schön doggedly repeats the story of how it took him years of hard work before starting his own business in 1989 -- before reunification, he is quick to add. "Those who worked hard were also able to do well for themselves in the GDR." This, he says, is one of the truths that are persistently denied on talk shows, when western Germans act "as if eastern Germans were all a little stupid and should still be falling to their knees today in gratitude for reunification." What exactly is there to celebrate, Schön asks himself?

Hmmm… This is not the picture paraded in the media. But, of course, who knows more about life in the GDR, Cold-warriors or the citizens of the former socialist country?

Another younger man, Birger, interviewed in a café, also defends the GDR: "Most East German citizens had a nice life… I certainly don't think that it's better here." He goes on to subtly prick the smugness of the Der Spiegel writer: "I know, what I'm telling you isn't all that interesting. The stories of victims are easier to tell… In the public's perception, there are only victims and perpetrators. But the masses fall by the wayside." Indeed, they do, especially when viewed through the eyes of privileged capitalist commentators who find a cause in every dissident, every unpublished poet, or every café intellectual crowing about the lack of freedom. But dry figures of income distribution, employment, social security, education and cultural participation make for boring copy… except to the masses.

The Cold Warriors at Der Spiegel will never grasp the meaning of the poll results, but hopefully their message will not be lost on those who seek a better life for working people in the US.

(The full Der Spiegel article is available on-line at the MLToday website:

Zoltan Zigedy