Chasing shadows: Europe’s misguided war on smugglers

By Carlos Delclós On April 25, 2015

Post image for Chasing shadows: Europe’s misguided war on smugglersBy declaring war on the smugglers, the EU is not just ignoring the root causes of the Mediterranean drownings, but threatening to make matters worse.

Photo by Ahmed Jadallah.

There are tears that burn and tears that heal. There are tears that are recurring because we forget why we cried them, or never knew to begin with. They come back in waves. Finally, there are the crocodile’s tears, which he sheds as he consumes his victims. They are not unreal, but they come back as shadows.

Take, for instance, the weeping of the European Commission after every spectacular disaster in the Mediterranean. For two decades, reports of capsized boats and deaths by the dozens or hundreds have been followed by somber statements from European leaders and calls for “urgent” action. This emphasis on urgency, often echoed by activists and human rights organizations, can be useful in forcing political decisions that address the most immediately distasteful aspects of a systemic problem. But by reducing that problem to a seemingly manageable scale, it can also sideline necessary considerations of its root causes. And that, in turn, can lead to bad ideas.

When nearly 400 people died en route to Lampedusa in October of 2013, Europe’s urgent response was spearheaded by the Italian government via the Mare Nostrum operation. This search-and-rescue program was recently scrapped and replaced by Operation Triton, following arguments that Mare Nostrum encouraged irregular migration by making it safer. Smaller in scope, Triton is oriented not towards protecting lives, but towards surveillance and border protection. The result of this change, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has been a dramatic increase in deaths, while the flow of arrivals has increased only slightly according to figures from the Italian Ministry of the Interior. As sociologists have argued for years, more securitization has made migration more dangerous and done nothing to reduce the flows of people.

In response to the massive number of deaths in the Mediterranean between April 13 and 19, many have been quick to call for the return of a humanitarian search-and-rescue program like Mare Nostrum. Yet even this program, though undoubtedly more humane than Triton, was unable to prevent thousands of deaths at Europe’s southern border during its period of operation. The fact of the matter is that the border is doing exactly what it is intended to do, namely channel and protect the accumulation of global capital in the North by filtering and excluding the people from the South through bureaucracy and the selective application of violence.

It is thus misleading and counterproductive to treat the horrific deaths in the Mediterranean as the result of an uncaring administrative decision. What they are is a disturbing manifestation of the European status quo. Not a deviation, but a moment of truth in which we see that the world’s deadliest North-South border (28,000 deaths since 2000 according to the IOM) is situated in the world’s most unequal North-South border zone.

What framing the moment as an emergency does is produce a state of exception that opens the way for oppressive, reactionary legislation. European leaders seemed to have this in mind on April 23, when the Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos announced, “Our response is clear and unequivocal. Europe is declaring war on smugglers.” He went on to announce member states’ broad support for the ten-point action plan on migration that was proposed three days earlier. Aside from promising to carry out more search-and-rescue activities, the plan allocates more funds to FRONTEX (the EU’s border control agency), extends European authority into third countries and suggests a possible military mission to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats.

This sudden shift of focus from a politically damaging humanitarian disaster to a discussion about shadowy networks of smugglers is a common rhetorical device in political discussions about irregular migration. It allows politicians to adopt a moralistic discourse that depicts people who migrate as helpless victims preyed upon by a dark and criminal enemy. But the reality is hardly so clear-cut. As Patrick Kingsley points out in a recent article for The Guardian:

“Smugglers do not maintain a separate, independent harbor of clearly marked vessels, ready to be targeted by EU air strikes. They buy them off fishermen at a few days’ notice. To destroy their potential pool of boats, the EU would need to raze whole fishing ports.”

It seems unlikely that European leaders are unaware of this: journalists, migration analysts and human rights organizations have argued for years that the criminalization of people smuggling may be doing more to globalize harm than prevent it. Ultimately, smugglers are simply part-time players in a transnational informal economy created around and sustained by the European Union’s failure to provide safe, legal and affordable pathways for people to seek asylum or simply try out a life in a new setting. By declaring war on them, European leaders are not just ignoring the root causes of the thousands of deaths each year in the Mediterranean, but actually threatening to make things worse by adding more of the violence and instability that is driving more and more people in the region to take increasingly desperate measures.

Carlos Delclos is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. Currently he collaborates with the Health Inequalities Research Group at Pompeu Fabra University and the Barcelona Institute of Metropolitan and Regional Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

An entire industry is dedicated to getting your privacy back.

The Anti-Surveillance State: Clothes and Gadgets Block Face Recognition Technology, Confuse Drones and Make You (Digitally) Invisible


Last spring, designer Adam Harvey hosted a session on hair and makeup techniques for attendees of the 2015 FutureEverything Festival in Manchester, England. Rather than sharing innovative ways to bring out the audience’s eyes, Harvey’s CV Dazzle Anon introduced a series of styling methods designed with almost the exact opposite aim of traditional beauty tricks: to turn your face into an anti-face—one that cameras, particularly those of the surveillance variety, will not only fail to love, but fail to recognize.

Harvey is one of a growing number of privacy-focused designers and developers “exploring new opportunities that are the result of [heightened] surveillance,” and working to establish lines of defense against it. He’s spent the past several years experimenting with strategies for putting control over people’s privacy back in their own hands, in their pockets and on their faces.

Harvey’s goal of “creating a style that [is] functional and aesthetic” has driven several projects and collaborations, including a method for “spoofing” DNA, and via the Privacy Gift Shop, his drone-thwarting Stealth Wear line (clothing he claims “shields against thermal imaging…[which is] used widely by military drones to target people,” seen below) and the OFF Pocket phone sleeve, able to keep out unwanted wireless signals.

His CV Dazzle designs for hair and makeup obscure the eyes, bridge of the nose and shape of the head, as well as creating skin tone contrasts and asymmetries. Facial-recognition algorithms function by identifying the layout of facial features and supplying missing info based on assumed facial symmetry. The project demonstrates that a styled “anti-face” can both conceal a person’s identity from facial recognition software (be it the FBI’s or Facebook’s) and cause the software to doubt the presence of a human face, period.

Harvey’s work is focused on accessibility in addition to privacy. “Most of the projects I’ve worked on are analog solutions to digital challenges,” he said. His hair and makeup style tips – a veritable how-to guide for how to create “privacy reclaiming” looks at home – are “deliberately low-cost.” His current project – software to “automatically generate camouflage…that can be applied to faces” – will allow a user to “create [their] own look and guide the design towards [their] personal style preferences.”

Other low-tech protections against widespread surveillance have been gaining ground, too. Though initially designed as a tongue-in-cheek solution to prying eyes and cameras, Becky Stern’s Laptop Compubody Sock offers a portable, peek-free zone to laptop users, while the CHBL Jammer Coat and sold-out Phonekerchief use metal-infused fabrics to make personal gadgets unreachable, blocking texts, calls and radio waves. For people willing to sport a bit more hardware in the name of privacy, the Sentient City Survival Kit offers underwear that notifies wearers about real-life phishing and tracking attempts, and its LED umbrella lets users “flirt with object tracking algorithms used in advanced surveillance systems” and even “train these systems to recognize nonhuman shapes.”

Large companies are also getting in on the pushback against increasing surveillance. Earlier this year, antivirus software leaders AVG revealed a pair of invisibility glasses developed by its Innovation Labs division. The casual looking specs use embedded infrared lights “to create noise around the nose and eyes” and retro-reflective frame coating to interfere with camera flashes, “allowing [the wearer] to avoid facial recognition.” In early 2013, Japan’s National Institute of Informatics revealed a bulky pair of goggles it had developed for the same purpose.

A spokesperson for Innovation Labs claims its glasses represent “an important step in the prevention against mass surveillance…whether through the cell phone camera of a passerby, a CCTV camera in a bar, or a drone flying over your head in the street.” Innovation Labs says that, with a person’s picture, facial recognition software “coupled with data from social networking sites can provide instant access to the private information of complete strangers. This can pose a serious threat to our privacy.” Though AVG’s glasses are not scheduled for commercial release, Innovation Labs said that individuals can take a number of steps to prevent their images from being “harvested”:

“First and foremost, make sure you’re not allowing private corporations to create biometrics profiles about you. When using social networks like Facebook, be aware that they are using facial recognition to give you tag suggestions. Facebook’s DeepFace was already tested and trained on the largest facial dataset to-date (an identity labeled dataset of more than 4 million facial images belonging to thousands of identities).”

Holmes Wilson of nonprofit Fight for the Future, which works to defend online privacy and freedoms on various fronts, is more concerned with other types of privacy invasion than real-life image harvesting. “It’s pretty unlikely in most of the world that you’ll get followed around using a network of street cameras with face recognition,” he said. “It’s probably pretty likely, though, that you’ll get filmed by police at a protest. But [there’s] not much you can do about that other than wearing a mask.”

Wilson advises people concerned about privacy breaches through surveillance to first focus on the ways in which their gadgets are supplying info to third parties. “The place where it’s easiest to fight back against surveillance is in protecting the security of your messages,” he said, adding that message security “can be a problem for activists, too.” He said apps like Textsecure, Signal, and Redphone can make it “a lot harder for people to spy on you.” Wilson added:

“Phones are the biggest thing. Lots of people think of smartphones as the big privacy problem, but old-fashioned phones are just as bad, and worse in some ways. All cellphones report on your location to the network as you move around. That’s just how they work, and they need to send that information or the system won’t know where to send your call. There’s no way to turn that off, other than by turning off the phone and, for good measure, taking the battery out.”

In collaboration with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future recommends a variety of options for encrypting messages, password-protecting accounts and securing a user’s various communication and browsing activities via Reset the Net. Wilson encouraged those with specific privacy concerns to check out tutorials, resources and break-downs of privacy issues from Surveillance Self-Defense.

Last year, Facebook announced that its DeepFace facial recognition technology can detect a person’s identity from photos with 97.25 percent accuracy, only a hair below the 97.5 percent success rate for humans taking the same test. Currently, a congressional front is preparing to extend surveillance powers granted to legal bodies by Section 215 of the Patriot Act—the NSA’s legal foothold of choice with regard to mass collection of US phone records since 2006, and set to expire on June 1—with the light-on-reform USA Freedom Act.

It seems likely that a growing number of both tech-wary and tech-savvy people will continue weighing how best to ensure their personal privacy, whether by putting stark makeup on or by turning their phones off.

Janet Burns is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her website is

“Montage of Heck” captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain — and the America that shaped him

Smells like doomed genius: 

Yes, it’s Courtney-approved, but this documentary is a moving and powerful portrait of Kurt Cobain’s America

Smells like doomed genius: "Montage of Heck" captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain -- and the America that shaped him

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Credit: Sundance Institute)

I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.

Fourteen years later, I was with my kids at a beachfront amusement park when my friend Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic, called to tell me that David Foster Wallace was dead. I got out of the roller coaster line to talk to her – Laura knew Wallace, but I didn’t – and one of the first things to swim into my brain, addled as it was by sunshine and a friend’s grief, was Kurt Cobain. At the time, I understood the connection as a personal commandment to have this experience, complete with all the Cobain-like and Wallace-like ironic introspection it might require; I took it as an edict not to insulate myself against the shared emotion, and potential shared meaning, of this moment of collective mourning. It took longer to see that the linkages between Cobain and Wallace go much deeper than that, and that many other people registered the connection in approximately the same way.

For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)

But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.

Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.

He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.

Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”

Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.

If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.

All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.

As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.

I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.

The Big Shift Needed for Humanity to Protect the Earth: Restore the Commons

On Earth Day, let’s talk about making the commons the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life.

Photo Credit: Garry Knight/Flickr

At a time when ecological destruction is more dire than ever, the work of protecting the planet depends on dreamers just as much as of scientists, activists, public officials and business leaders.

Earth Day, when millions of people voice support for environmental causes, is the perfect time to recognize this. While it’s critical to wrestle power away from those who believe that corporate profits are all that matter, we won’t achieve a sustainable, just future without serious attention to imagining a different kind of world. That’s why it’s great to see artists playing an increasingly active role in the climate justice movement today.

What bold blueprints for a green planet will arise if we unleash the full power of our idealism and ingenuity? What visions of new ways to lead our lives would turn the public’s indifference about climate change into enthusiasm for building a society that is more sustainable and fair for all?

The focus for most people’s dreams would be the familiar places they love—neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, villages and countryside. Think what could happen if we declared these places commons, which belong to all of us and need to be improved for future generations. Citizens would stand up, lock arms with their neighbors and demand new political and economic directions for our society. They would open discussions with business leaders, government officials, scientists and design professionals on how to create resilient, equitable, greener communities. But the conversation wouldn’t stop there. We’d plan for less carbon and waste and poverty, but also for more fun and joy and conviviality—which are equally strategic goals.

The chief obstacle to taking action on climate change and global inequality is fear of the economic sacrifices involved for people who are relatively well off today. The decline in the West’s material consumption could be more than compensated for by a richer life filled more human connections and natural splendor. We can look forward to a world with more congenial gathering places like parks, plazas, museums, playing fields, ice cream parlors and cafes—lots and lots of cafes. Millions of acres and hectares of pavement would be torn up and transformed into gardens, performance spaces, amusement parks and affordable housing.

Cities would be greener. Suburbs would be livelier. Rural communities would be more robust. You’d see folks of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities as well as social and political inclinations sharing the same spaces, talking with one another even if not always agreeing. In short, the world would be a lot more interesting for everyone. I can’t think of many folks—from free market zealots to ardent political organizers, religious fundamentalists to confirmed hedonists—who wouldn’t jump at the chance to experience more pizzazz and spirit of community in their lives.

But the biggest change we’d see if the commons became the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life would be felt in our own hearts and imaginations. These days, most of us experience modern life as a fragmented and alienating, which makes us retreat into ourselves as a defensive posture. We feel a growing sense of loneliness—quiet desperation in Thoreau’s phrase—that renders us passive and withdrawn at a time when it’s more important than ever to reach out.

Creating stronger, friendlier, more engaged communities is not a sideshow in the urgent cause of saving the planet. It is a central strategy. Because when people connect, roll up their sleeves and get down to work protecting the places they care about, anything is possible. There’s a whole world of people out there ready to dream big and then put it into action.

Jay Walljasper is a writer and speaker who explores how new ideas in urban planning, tourism, community development, sustainability, politics and culture can improve our lives as well as the world.

Libya’s boat refugees and “humanitarian” imperialism


By Johannes Stern and Bill Van Auken

21 April 2015

The horrific death toll of African and Middle Eastern refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe is a damning indictment of all the major imperialist powers, and most particularly the United States.

The American president, Barack Obama, and his former secretary of state, Hillary “We came, we saw, he died” Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, have blood up to their elbows. They set the present catastrophe in motion through brutal wars for regime change waged under the hypocritical and discredited banner of “human rights.”

At least three more boats packed with refugees from North Africa and the Middle East were reported to be in distress in the Mediterranean on Monday, with a minimum of 23 more people said to have drowned.

This adds to the many hundreds of people, perhaps 1,400, who have lost their lives over the past week in a desperate bid to escape military violence by the US and its European allies, civil wars stoked by Washington and the European Union, and pervasive poverty exacerbated by the machinations of imperialism in the region.

On Monday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said distress calls had been received from an inflatable life raft carrying 100 to 150 migrants and a second boat with some 300 people aboard. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said a caller reported that 20 people died when one of the vessels sank in international waters.

In a separate incident, at least three migrants, including a child, died when a boat, apparently coming from Turkey, ran aground off the Greek island of Rhodes. Video footage showed the wooden boat, with people crowded on the deck, heaving in the Aegean Sea just off the island. Eyewitnesses told the local radio station that there were many Syrians, but also people from Eritrea and Somalia.

The latest drownings follow the deaths of close to 950 people on Sunday in the sinking of a refugee boat off of Libya. According to the Italian Coast Guard, the completely overloaded boat capsized about 130 miles off the Libyan coast.

“We were 950 people on board, including 40 to 50 children and 200 women,” a survivor from Bangladesh told the Italian news agency ANSA. Many people were trapped in the hold of the ship and drowned under horrible circumstances. “The smugglers had closed the doors and stopped them leaving,” said the man.

Over 500 more people died the previous week in two separate sinkings of boats attempting to reach Europe across the Mediterranean.

Since the beginning of the year, at least 1,700 people attempting to immigrate to Europe have died in transit, 50 times the number for the same period last year. According to the IOM, the number of people dying in the attempt to reach the shores of Europe rose by more than 500 percent between 2011 and 2014.

Of course, 2011 was the year that the US and its NATO allies, principally France and Britain, launched their war for regime change in Libya, under the fabricated pretext that they were intervening to prevent a massacre by the government of Muammar Gaddafi in the eastern city of Benghazi.

This “humanitarian” mission initiated a six-month US-NATO bombing campaign that killed at least 10 times the number who died in the scattered fighting between government troops and armed rebels that had preceded it. This imperialist intervention, which utilized Islamist militias with ties to Al Qaeda as its proxy ground forces, left Libya descending rapidly into chaos and destruction.

Nearly two million Libyan refugees—more than a quarter of the population—have been forced to flee to Tunisia to escape an unending civil war between rival Islamist militias and two competing governments, one based in Tripoli and the other in the eastern city of Tobruk. According to the web site Libya Body Count, some 3,500 people have been killed just since the beginning of 2014—three years after the US-NATO intervention.

The escalating barbarism in Libya has included mass executions. The latest, made public in a video released Sunday by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was of some 30 Ethiopian migrants. This follows by less than two months the similar mass beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIS, which has seized Libya’s eastern port city of Derna as well as parts of the city of Sirte.

There were no such mass sectarian murders in Libya before the US-NATO war for regime change, nor for that matter did Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias exist as any more than a marginal force. These elements were promoted, armed and backed by massive airpower after the major imperialist powers decided to topple and murder Gaddafi and carry out a new rape of Libya.

The disastrous consequences of this predatory neocolonial intervention are now undeniable. It is only one in a growing number of imperialist wars and interventions in the oil-rich Middle East and North Africa that have destroyed entire societies and turned millions into refugees. These include the wars in Iraq, Syria and now Yemen, as well as interventions by the imperialist powers or their regional proxies in Mali, Somalia and Sudan.

According to Amnesty International, the escalating conflicts in Africa and the Middle East have “led to the largest refugee disaster since the Second World War.” Amnesty estimates that 57 million people have been forced to flee worldwide in the last year, 6 million more than in 2012.

The American press, led by the New York Times, writes of refugees fleeing poverty and violence in the Middle East and North Africa without so much as mentioning the actions of the United States and its European allies that have caused the humanitarian catastrophe. What is unfolding in the Mediterranean is not a tragedy; it is an imperialist war crime.

In defense of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry frescoes

“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts

By Tim Rivers and David Walsh
21 April 2015

“Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, March 15-July 12, 2015 The current exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” treats the 11 months the famed Mexican artists spent in the city, between April 1932 and March 1933.

The exhibition contains much that is fascinating and even sublime. However, the overall approach taken by the curators, which exalts art concentrated on the “self,” is troubling and, in some places, wrongheaded and even reactionary.

Diego and Frida Rivera, Frida Kahlo, 1931

Rivera (1886-1957) and Kahlo (1907-1954) were married in August 1929, and spent much of the years 1930 to 1933 in the US, in response, in part, to an anti-communist witch-hunt in Mexico. A socialist and supporter of the October Revolution, Rivera had been expelled from the Communist Party of Mexico in 1929 for speaking out in opposition to Stalin.

While in Detroit, Rivera painted his magnificent Detroit Industry frescoes, which remain the centerpiece of the DIA. The murals depict industrial production in all its facets, with workers at the center of the imagery, as well as the natural and social processes that culminate in modern human life. This complex work directs the viewer to many of the great dramas and dilemmas of the 20th century.

The DIA show contains full-sized cartoons, the preparatory drawings for the murals, as well as documentary videos, paintings and drawings by both Rivera and Kahlo from before, during and after the time the artists spent in Detroit. The cartoons, in particular, are spectacular, but fragile. They have not been seen for thirty years.

A brief video of Rivera at work is riveting. The great care, precision and enthusiasm with which he and his collaborators carried out the mural work are evident. Often working eighteen hours at a time, the Mexican artist lost a great deal of weight in the course of the Herculean physical and mental effort.

Another video clip shows workers in soup lines, and then, on March 7, 1932, Dearborn police and Ford company thugs attacking the Hunger March of 3,000 unarmed, unemployed people as they approached the Ford Rouge Plant. Four workers were shot to death in the infamous incident, a fifth died of his injuries three months later and 60 more were wounded in the bloody attack.

The funeral procession five days later, estimated at 60,000 people, shook the city’s foundations as chorus after chorus of “The Internationale” echoed for miles. That took place only weeks before Rivera and Kahlo arrived.

Emiliano Zapata, revolutionary peasant leader, Diego Rivera, 1932

A series of works illustrates Rivera’s art prior to his stay in Detroit. There is the iconic portrait of Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary peasant leader, and a lithograph of a peasant, “Boy with Dog,” from 1932. The unforgettable paintings “Flower Day” from 1925 and “Flowered Barge” (1931) in his mature, glowing, monumental style, appear as well. “Sawing Rails,” done in Moscow in 1927, and “Soviet Harvest Scene” are also on display.

Frida Kahlo’s “Portrait of Eva Frederick” from 1931 is appealing and shows the influence of Rivera. Her painting “Frieda and Diego Rivera, 1931” uses a flattened, primitive approach. Kahlo’s “Window Display on a Street in Detroit” (1932), the first painting she completed in Detroit, is quite touching.

Flower Day, Diego Rivera, 1925

Rivera’s pieces, “Juanita Rosas,” “Self-Portrait” and “Nude with Beads,” all from 1930, and “Friend of Frida,” from 1931, along with Portraits of Edsel Ford and DIA director William Valentiner, responsible for Rivera’s coming to Detroit, are included as well.

On May 24, 1932, Valentiner wrote in his diary with deep respect and admiration: “Today Rivera made a sketch of me in profile, with finest red and black chalk. While other artists usually waste a lot of paper, he used only one sheet. With the greatest assurance he drew the outlines with fine and even lines. It was at its best after half an hour, when the sketch was finished… Contrary to other great artists, he immediately brings out the likeness between the portrait and the model. With his mathematically inclined mind he immediately hits upon the right proportions.” (Margaret Sterne, The Passionate Eye, The Life of William R. Valentiner)

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit, 1933, DIA archives

Unfortunately, as noted above, the remarkable character of many of the works in “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit” does not compensate for the exhibition’s real and significant weaknesses, which tend to compromise and undermine its important material.

At the center of the difficulties lies the organizers’ unjustifiable attempt to elevate Kahlo’s artistic stature and, more generally, to make the case for art that primarily explores the individual artist’s “anguish and sense of suffering,” in the words of a DIA press release. This effort is in line with contemporary identity politics and upper-middle class self-absorption. This inevitably involves, implicitly or explicitly, diminishing or dismissing the significance of theDetroit Industry frescoes and its subject matter.

To understand why the frescoes are so offensive to contemporary art museum officials and critics alike, one has to grasp the driving forces in Rivera’s artistic life in the early 1930s, which animated the painting of the murals. The Mexican painter was inspired by great events, especially the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, in the production of his most important works.

North Wall, Detroit Industry Murals by Diego Rivera, 1932-33

It will come as a revelation, and one hopes an inspiration, to many who attend the exhibition that there is a history and tradition of revolutionary art. It has proved possible in the past to develop the highest forms of creative expression wedded to the aspirations, struggles, sufferings and trials of the masses. Rivera and his work were perhaps the greatest demonstration of this possibility in the field of fine art in the 20th century.

Leon Trotsky, whose supporter Rivera became for a number of years, wrote in 1938: “In the field of painting, the October revolution has found her greatest interpreter not in the USSR but in faraway Mexico… Nurtured in the artistic cultures of all peoples, all epochs, Diego Rivera has remained Mexican in the most profound fibres of his genius. But that which inspired him in these magnificent frescoes, which lifted him up above the artistic tradition, above contemporary art, in a certain sense, above himself, is the mighty blast of the proletarian revolution. Without October, his power of creative penetration into the epic of work, oppression and insurrection, would never have attained such breadth and profundity.” (“Art and Politics in Our Epoch”)

Leon Trotsky, Rivera and Andre Breton in Mexico

Rivera defended Trotsky against the vicious attacks of Stalinism and was instrumental in the Russian revolutionary’s obtaining asylum in Mexico in 1937. They collaborated, together with André Breton, on an important “Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art.” The omission of Trotsky’s name from the exhibition can hardly be an accident.

One of the extraordinary videos on display at the DIA shows a mass of workers battling police, as well as Rivera and Kahlo in front of a banner advertising works by Lenin and Marx in English. “There remained one thing left for me to prove,” said Rivera, speaking of his trip to the US. “My theory of revolutionary art would be accepted in an industrial nation where capitalists rule.” An overhead view of the DIA courtyard when the murals were opened to the public in March 1933 shows the space packed wall to wall.

Both in the mural work and in the video footage, a powerful sense of the industrial working class in Detroit emerges. Museum-goers perhaps used to the often demoralized and irrationalist outpourings of postmodernism, racial politics, feminism and other trends in recent decades will be struck by the massive and creative force of the working class.

The viewer must also be struck by the striking parallel, despite the changes over many decades, between present-day Detroit and the situation described in one of the videos of growing popular anger over the mass poverty at one pole of society and the immense wealth at the other, in the midst of the Depression. Many must see this and think, “So it remains today!”

The Industry frescoes are the greatest draw at the DIA and have always held a special place with the most conscious elements of the population in Detroit and beyond. The threat to the DIA two years ago, in connection with city’s filing for bankruptcy protection, aroused popular outrage. On the one hand, DIA officials are obliged to pay nominal tribute to the frescoes, describing the work as a “masterpiece” in their promotional material. On the other hand, the current show contains a sustained and consistent attack on Rivera and his work.

Before the Detroit Industry murals were made public in 1933, right-wing forces and religious bigots were howling for their destruction. Rivera’s artistic response was powerful and enduring. The frescoes depict the emergence of the working class, drawn like minerals from all regions and races and formed in the cauldron of industrial production into the central creative force of a bright future.

Now, however, a new kind of attack is under way, proceeding from within, as it were, from the DIA hierarchy and the art world.

Along these lines, certain aspects of the current exhibition’s organization are significant. The room containing Rivera’s breathtaking cartoons, for example, is followed by one almost entirely devoted to Kahlo’s miscarriage, or abortion, that occurred while she was in Detroit.

Three weeks before Rivera began to paint his murals, his wife entered Henry Ford Hospital. Evidence suggests, according to the exhibition catalogue, that Kahlo induced the loss of her pregnancy on July 4, 1932 by ingesting quinine. A few weeks later, with Rivera’s encouragement, she made the lithograph “Frida and the Abortion, 1932” to memorialize the event.

The end of her pregnancy figures prominently in Kahlo’s work and may have influenced Rivera’s decision to replace an agricultural scene, which appears in the exhibition as a full-sized cartoon, with a healthy infant curled in a plant bulb. This remarkable series of cartoons of the images that surround the infant is at the center of the current show. Root systems extend into rich soils and subterranean aquifers. Plowshares cultivate the surrounding terrain.

The artist said the image represented the museum “as the central organism for the development of the aesthetic culture of the community.” (“Dynamic Detroit–An Introduction,” Creative Art, April 1933). Giant, exquisite female nudes cradle fruits and grain on either side and lovingly watch over the child–the picture of a rich and satisfying future for all.

In any event, the loss of the unborn baby was traumatic for Kahlo and Rivera, but the curators’ decision to raise this personal tragedy to the level of a world-historical event strikes a false, tasteless and disoriented note.

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, Frida Kahlo

In Kahlo’s “Henry Ford Hospital, 1932” we are confronted with a stricken woman, in a pool of blood, connected by multiple umbilical cords to a fetus, a snail, a pelvis and several other objects. The curator’s argument that somehow this agonizing, intimate experience must supplant the grand conception of a harmonious future for all mankind is deeply disturbing.

This sort of imagery becomes the basis for the claim, for example by the New York Times’ Roberta Smith, that “Kahlo emerges in the final galleries as the stronger, more personal and more original artist.” Kate Abbey-Lambertz headlines her piece at the Huffington Post, “How Frida Kahlo’s Miscarriage Put Her On The Path To Becoming An Iconic Artist.”

One of the foulest efforts to denigrate Rivera, Michael H. Hodges’ “Kahlo trumps Rivera in popular fame,” recently appeared in the Detroit News, a chief organ of Detroit business circles. There is a certain appropriateness here. The new, slightly more sophisticated, assault on the murals is taken up by the newspaper that was at the center of the original attacks.

Baby in a plant bulb from the east wall of the Detroit Industry Murals, Diego Rivera

On March 19, 1933, a News editorial argued that the Rivera murals were “psychologically erroneous, coarse in conception and, to many women observers, foolishly vulgar.” The News further asserted that the work was “un-American, incongruous and unsympathetic,” recommended that DIA director Valentiner be fired and concluded that “perhaps the best thing to do would be to whitewash the entire work and return the Court to its original beauty.”

Hodges’ piece in March 2015 takes a different tack, assembling fashionable and snobbish contemporary attacks on Rivera. The News journalist first notes that in 1932 Rivera was one of the most famous artists in the world. “How times have changed,” he observes, and then carries on: “Kahlo, the subject of the hit 2002 movie ‘Frida,’ has morphed into a pop-culture superstar and feminist icon, her fame today easily swamping Rivera’s. To explain this, curators and art historians point to changing fashions and the compelling nature of Kahlo’s personal narrative, which resonates with our self-obsessed age.

“For Rivera, one-half of the current Detroit Institute of Arts blockbuster… it’s been quite a fall from grace,” he writes.

Hodges calls on none other than the current, soon-to-retire, DIA director Graham Beal to help make his case. Beal terms Kahlo “an international superstar,” adding, “you often have to explain to people–particularly anyone under 40–just who Rivera was and why we should care.” (Who talks like this, using terms like “international superstar?”)

The News article continues: “‘When I first visited here in the early 1970s,’ he [Beal] adds, ‘Rivera looked hopelessly old-fashioned and wrong-headed–realistic, political, and in a way, propagandistic. Her art is much more in keeping with today–highly personal and intimate, full of pain and uncertainty.’”

These comments speak to decades-old processes that are now coming to a head. Wide layers of the so-called intelligentsia, who have become affluent and moved far to the right, no longer feel the need to conceal their social indifference and outright hostility to the working population… and their utter obsession with themselves. It’s repugnant.

They latch onto Kahlo because what they read in her art corresponds to their own unease, interpreted in purely existential and individual terms. Rivera’s challenging and carefully conceived imagery of people at work or engaged in epic struggles against war and disease, ignorance and prejudice is compared unfavorably to a series of pictures focusing on one individual’s physical and psychic injuries.

The attack on art that addresses great social questions is relentless. On the audio guide, for example, guest curator Maria Cotera, a Women’s Studies professor at the University of Michigan, asserts that we now know that “the minor is where we find the big ideas” and that “big ideas became deeply personal.” Wall texts celebrate Kahlo’s subjectivism and criticize Rivera for advocating and explaining political principles and big historical and intellectual conceptions.

The curators write, for example, “Her [Kahlo’s] intellectual and artistic interests hinged on defining and representing herself,” while “Diego Rivera wanted his murals to become part of a dialogue about society that supported his intellectual and artistic agendas.”

The line of the exhibition, never stated in an honest manner, is that Rivera may have had some justification for his social art given the conditions of the 1930s, but we have long since transcended the period when art and politics concentrated on the working class. Kahlo’s critique of life is far more profound, “more thorough” than the class struggle conception promoted by Rivera because it is not fixated on changing the external world. Instead, it focuses on the inner being and “deeper” questions such as gender, sexuality, etc.

These views inevitably raise more directly the question of Kahlo’s art and career, a subject far too large for extended treatment here. It is evident that the discovery of Kahlo coincides with the emergence of gender politics and postmodern ideology in the 1970s and 1980s.

As “Made in Her Image: Frida Kahlo as Material Culture,” by Lis Pankl and Kevin Blake, points out: “It is certainly no accident that Kahlo’s popularity rose with the linguistic and cultural turn in the humanities and social sciences. With a greater emphasis on representation and identity politics, the academy found in Kahlo a perfect subject for analysis. Kahlo’s complex ethnicity… artistic autoeroticism, and evident links to gender construction are of much appeal to poststructuralists.”

One cannot place all the blame for the uses to which she and her work are put on Kahlo, but there is certainly some basis in the art itself for the current infatuation. It does violence to the history of art and helps no one to reduce Rivera, a colossal figure who drew upon a profound study of art and conveyed powerfully the impact of the Russian and Mexican Revolutions, to the benefit of Kahlo, a figure identified with extreme subjectivity. Such a readjustment in the artistic-intellectual world’s opinion must give one pause.

The victim of a serious accident at the age of 18 that required her to undergo dozens of surgeries over the course of her lifetime, Kahlo was no doubt a gifted artist, but her work is strikingly dominated by considerations of herself and her difficulties. She produced 143 paintings, 55 of which were self-portraits. Why so many? “Because I am so often alone,” she explained, “because I am the subject I know best.” Yes, but did she truly understand herself? An immense focus is hardly a guarantee that one understands a subject all that well.

There is something static, unchanging, in Kahlo’s self-portraiture, even immature. Of course, she died quite young and she came under various influences, not all of them happy or helpful ones. But in the self-portraits of Rembrandt and van Gogh, for example, one feels an unending intellectual and aesthetic development, the result of a bottomless curiosity about the world, history, society, resulting in an intense and compassionate realism.

A self-portrait is more than a picture of an individual. In its psychological depth and rigorous objectivity, a great self-portrait points beyond itself to something about the human situation in general, and perhaps the artistic personality in particular. Kahlo’s self-portraits are unusual and distinctive, but they tend to refer the viewer always back to Kahlo and her immediate situation. They seem often to be a reminder of her anguished presence more than a window onto something broader. One cannot help but have the feeling these paintings are intended in part to impress and even to shock.

The subject cannot be removed from art, nor should it be, but there is a distinction between dealing honestly and vividly with oneself and one’s circumstances and self-obsession. If a work becomes excessively personal, the universal may be lost in the process.

At a certain point, if the representation becomes too particular, why should anyone else care a great deal? Kahlo was neither the first nor the last person to suffer physical ailments and complications. Pankl and Blake write, “Kahlo’s depictions of bodily pain are the most widely explored elements within her work.”

Art also requires a certain detachment, and the most compelling artistic figures have treated suffering, including their own, with restraint and dignity, not self-pity.

Uncritical admirers of Kahlo are miseducating the public and aspiring artists as well when they suggest, by implication, that wholeheartedly embracing one’s afflictions or perhaps one’s biology by itself is a possible route to artistic greatness. If such were the case, there would be no need for a serious study of art or society, or a concern with the fate of anyone other than oneself. And, indeed, such an outlook helps account for the largely desiccated, angst-ridden and self-centered art that predominates today.

All in all, the DIA’s “Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” a peculiar and contradictory event, raises a host of pressing issues.

Much of the imagery, including video imagery assembled by the curators themselves, tends to direct the museum-goer toward the big events of the 20th century, to the revolutionary role of the working class and, by implication, to a consideration of what point society and the human condition have now reached. After all, the exhibition is being held in an economically devastated city, where tens of thousands of people face the possibility of having their water shut off in the near future!

Yet the show’s organizers and museum officials, along with their media apologists, are waging a ferocious ideological campaign in opposition to such concerns—even at the expense of the DIA’s own centerpiece—in favor of art, in the words of the New York Times ’ Smith, suffused with “existential torment.”

The defense of the Detroit Industry frescoes falls once again, as it did in the 1930s, to the only social force with an interest in the cultural development of the population as a whole and in art that looks at life and reality critically, the working class.