Is Trump the Manchurian Candidate?

Themes in the 1950s classic don’t seem so far-fetched in 2016 America

Richard Condon’s iconic 1959 book uncannily anticipated the Trump-Putin bromance

Is Trump the Manchurian Candidate? Themes in the 1950s classic don't seem so far-fetched in 2016 America
Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey in “The Manchurian Candidate;” Donald Trump (Credit: MGM/AP/Richard Shiro/Salon)

Last week, Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, said we should ask “real questions” about whether Donald Trump “is just a puppet for the Kremlin.” By that time, Audible.com was already giving away free audiobooks of “The Manchurian Candidate,” Richard Condon’s 1959 book (transformed into a classic thriller starring Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra in 1962 and a worse remake with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep in 2004) about communists controlling an American presidential candidate.

Hmm. Trump’s advocacy of dismantling NATO over unpaid bills, his continuous and effusive praise of former KGB chief Vladimir Putin (amply reciprocated), his bizarre request of Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, his coming perilously close to supporting Russia’s annexing of Crimea, and his campaign’s redaction of the Republican platform plank in support of arming Ukraine against Russia can’t help but raise suspicions of a hard quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and Russian government. Donald Trump Jr. has said outright that Russians finance much of Trump’s empire, which is also hugely in debt to the Bank of China, while his father continues to hide what we might learn from his income tax returns.

Then there’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort’s lobbying for Russian oligarchs and the deposed Russian-allied Ukrainian president (all former big-time communists), while Trump foreign policy adviser Ret. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn takes money from — and appears on — RT, the English-language cable-news network that beams Russian propaganda around the world.

To be clear, I’m not a Trump-style conspiracy theorist. I’m not suggesting that Trump has somehow been secretly brainwashed by communists; he isn’t “programmed” to do anything but run his mouth and demagogue the election. Hair wash, yes. Brain wash, no. (Or as Eugene McCarthy said, after George Romney’s 1967 claim that the military “brainwashed” him in Vietnam, “a light rinse would have been sufficient.”)

But some “Manchurian Candidate” themes resonate powerfully in this year’s campaign. Condon exposed the cynicism behind right-wing politics for the Cold War Eisenhower years and chillingly his book’s narrative applies today. By articulating how “brainwashing” symbolizes the mass process of humiliation and repetition that the American working-class experiences at the hands of cynical right-wing leaders, the book and film anticipate a time when the radical right subverts American democracy.

Condon’s page-turner features the right-wing mastermind Eleanor Iselin, a red-baiting Republican senator’s wife who works hand in glove with the Kremlin. During the Korean War, Russian and Chinese scientists brainwash a group of American POWs so that they provide Eleanor with an assassin, her son Raymond Shaw, to unwittingly murder his mother’s enemies while in a hypnotic state and eventually turn the White House over to an alliance of right-wingers and communists.

Before Trump’s candidacy, President Ronald Reagan’s sale of arms to Iran and President Richard Nixon’s and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s idolization of Mao, the book called attention to a worldwide power elite that, regardless of surface ideology, work in cahoots. Like Trump today, members of this elite see ideology solely as a means of gaining power. It’s no accident that Trump has changed his political party at least six times.

“The Manchurian Candidate” uncannily anticipated the Trump-Putin bromance. Explaining the affinity between McCarthyite Republicans and Kremlin operatives, Condon, with his signature iconoclasm, wrote that red-baiters and reds alike share “the conviction that the Republic was a humbug, the electorate rabble, and anyone strong who knew how to maneuver could have all the power and glory that the richest and most naïve democracy in the world could bestow.” Six decades later Trump and Putin thrive by convincing resentful voters to embrace fact-free realities. “Paranoiacs make the great leaders,” Condon wrote. “Resenters make their best instruments.”

Fringe conservatives are more prone than impassioned liberals to becoming “Manchurian candidates” because liberals do not think the government of the republic is a “humbug.” The right, distrusting of government, does not see the dangers of toying with it. After all, McCarthyism ultimately undermined U.S. national security by forcing the most capable diplomats out of the State Department on trumped-up charges, leaving no one to check the folly of the Vietnam War.

Like the brainwashing of soldiers in “The Manchurian Candidate,” Trump and the right hold the media and electorate captive through verbal humiliation and repetition. It is not Trump who has been brainwashed. He is not the Manchurian candidate. The American people are.

The communists humiliate Raymond to such a degree that he can only find peace in totalitarian control. Similarly, Trump’s economically and culturally humiliated working-class heroes believe in a leader who believes in nothing.

As a former Hollywood Disney publicist who promoted “Dumbo,” “Fantasia” and many other golden-age Dream Factory products, Condon saw the dangers of Hollywood PR applied to politics. For instance, Eleanor picks 57 as the number of communists in the State Department because “Heinz 57” made that number resonate. The notion that someone could perform a total “brainwashing” as depicted by Condon has long been debunked by experts, but the phrase evokes the malign influence of mass PR first identified in the 1950s.

Despite its dystopian theme, Condon’s novel offered a resolution that the film versions left out: reprogramming the assassin.

In the 1959 book, Raymond is programmed to kill the 1960 Republican presidential nominee so that his stepfather, vice presidential nominee Senator Johnny Iselin, can blame the Soviets, be elected president and then rule together with the Soviets.

In the novel, Raymond’s comrade, Major Ben Marco (the Sinatra character), not only discovers his brainwashing and recovers his sanity. He believes his own memory loss reflects the crisis that America is in. To thwart the conspiracy, Marco reprograms Raymond to shoot his mother, stepfather and self.

Can we Americans reprogram ourselves to a better end?

Anthropoid: A film looks at 1942 assassination of Nazi chief Reinhard Heydrich

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By Fred Mazelis
26 August 2016

Anthropoid deals with a historically important event—the assassination of the leading Nazi, Reinhard Heydrich, in the Czech capital over which he presided as the “Butcher of Prague” during the German occupation of the country in the Second World War.

Heydrich, a main architect of the Holocaust, chaired the Wannsee Conference near Berlin, where the plans for the extermination of European Jewry were adopted. He helped organize the Kristallnacht pogrom throughout Germany in November 1938, before moving on to his post in Prague.

The assassination of Heydrich was followed by the infamous Nazi reprisal attacks and mass executions in the Czech villages of Lidice and Lekazy, totally destroying them and resulting in the deaths of at least 15,000 people.

The new film, directed by Sean Ellis, is a straightforward account of the operation, organized by the Czech government-in-exile in London, that ended with the attack on Heydrich on May 27, 1942. He died a week later from his wounds. Unfortunately, the movie uses suspense and violence not as part of a serious examination of the events, but more as a substitute for such an effort.

Anthopoid

After brief titles recounting the Munich Agreement of September 1938, which allowed German annexation of part of Czechoslovakia and was followed by partition of the country and its occupation by the Nazi regime, the movie opens with the December 1941 parachuting into the country of the Czech resistance fighters who were to carry out the attack some five months later.

One of the paratroopers has been slightly injured, and the film follows the pair as they successfully avoid being turned over to the Germans and make their way to Prague. There they present themselves to the remaining leaders of the gravely weakened Czech resistance, and face the task of convincing these men that they are not spies and agents of the Nazis who have been sent to finish the job of wiping out organized opposition.

Finding shelter in a safe house run by a Mrs. Moravecs, the men sent from London then engage in discussion and debate within the resistance over the merits and tactical advisability of “Operation Anthropoid,” the assassination plot that has been hatched abroad.

Some of these early scenes are effective. The Czech capital provides an evocative backdrop, and an atmosphere of dread and suspense is conveyed by the spare dialogue, as the plans are discussed under the noses of the Nazi occupiers. The two paratroopers, Czech Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Slovak Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy), do a credible enough job with the material they have been given, and Toby Jones as the local resistance leader is strong in his impassive depiction of a man who has already seen too much barbarism but has no choice but to fight on.

This only goes so far, however. There is little characterization of the partisans beyond their patriotic dedication. A romantic angle is introduced, in the form of the two young women (Charlotte Le Bon and Anna Geislerova) who meet the partisans and wind up playing a supporting role in the plans, but this fairly conventional plot device does not lead any deeper.

Hand-held cameras serve the purpose of communicating terror and dislocation, but this is no substitute for broader context and an examination of both the occupation and the resistance.

The last 30 minutes of Anthropoid are designed to deliver a final jolt of excitement, but they end up instead providing the most graphic demonstration of the weakness of the film. The closing titles explain that the resistance fighters, holed up in an Orthodox cathedral in the capital, successfully held out for 30 minutes against a ruthless German assault involving many times their number and far more powerful weaponry. The filmmakers have concluded that the best way to communicate this is to depict a 30-minute firefight on screen. Once again, and most crudely in this case, this literal representation only demonstrates the relative paucity of history and thought in this project.

Anthropoid is not the first film to depict the assassination of Heydrich. In fact, two films, by very well-known German refugee directors, were rushed into production within months of the operation. Douglas Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman and the better known Hangmen Also Die!, by Fritz Lang, were both released in 1943, in the middle of the war.

The Fritz Lang film, from a story by Bertolt Brecht and with music by the famous Hanns Eisler, is one of the famous German-born filmmaker’s weaker efforts. It is an unabashed propaganda piece, in which everything is portrayed in terms of the “good” Czechs and “evil” Germans. The movie also meshed with the Stalinist efforts to portray the war in terms of a Popular Front alliance between the Soviet Union and the capitalist democracies against fascism. Brecht and Eisler, both then in Hollywood as refugees from the Nazis, were later forced to leave the US during the McCarthyite witch-hunt.

Hangmen Also Die! is indeed crude and, having been made even before all the details of the assassination were revealed, is not a faithful depiction of the events. It does contain ideas, however, and has little need for the violence thatAnthropoid delivers in great quantity.

The paucity of ideas is related to conventional and complacent assumptions about the war itself: that is was that between “good” and “evil,” between the Western democracies and fascism. The problem with this explanation is that it evades the issue of where fascism came from, that it was the foul product of the decay of capitalism itself. There is no mention in Anthropoid, for instance, of the role played by the Czech Communist Party during this period, when it withstood far more effectively than others the attempts of the Nazis to infiltrate and destroy the resistance movements.

No doubt in line with the attention drawn by the new film to the events of 74 years ago, a call has emerged in the Czech Republic to accord the assassins of Heydrich the respect they deserve. According to a report in the Guardian, campaigners have called for the remains of Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik to be exhumed from unmarked graves and reinterred with a proper burial.

By itself this would do little to explain the Holocaust and the struggle against Nazi barbarism. In fact, the crimes of Stalinism in Czechoslovakia are being used to obscure the significance of this history. A proposal to make a Prague cemetery a national memorial to “victims of Nazism and communism” avoids the necessary accounting with the source of Hitler and of the Second World War.

Anthropoid is also timely for reasons perhaps not intended by the filmmakers. Today Europe, and not only Europe, is once again the scene of the rise of ultra-nationalist and fascistic movements, testimony to the fact that the defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich did not resolve the contradictions of capitalism out of which it emerged. There are also contemporary occupations, not identical to those of the Nazis, but evoking parallels. Today it is the United States that is the occupying power in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, facing the rage of the population and with the blood of millions on its hands.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/08/26/anth-a26.html

Rio 2016: The “Olympic ideal” and the reality of capitalism

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8 August 2016

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” These words, which appear in the Olympic Charter’s “Fundamental Principles of Olympism,” are supposed to sum up what is referred to with sanctimonious reverence as the “Olympic ideal.”

There has never been a golden age of the Olympic games, which have for over a century served as an arena for the promotion of nationalism. The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was candid in acknowledging that he valued sport not only for its potential for advancing mankind’s development, but also for its use in preparing French men to become better soldiers in war.

With the opening of the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, however, the contrast could hardly be more stark between the supposed Olympic ideal and the reality of a capitalist system mired in economic crisis and social inequality and hurtling toward another world war.

The opening ceremony of the Rio games, held in the city’s iconic Maracana Stadium, was widely covered by the international news media. Less reported was a brutal attack by the Brazilian police against a demonstration organized a half mile away, called against what the protesters termed “the exclusion games.” Police used tear gas, pepper spray and stun grenades to drive the demonstrators off the streets, injuring several.

Earlier clashes were seen along the route taken by the Olympic Torch, which in one case was extinguished by a crowd of workers and youth in the coastal town of Angra dos Reis. They had turned out to protest the expenditures on the Olympics under conditions where public employees and teachers are not being paid and transit service and health care are being cut because of the deepening fiscal crisis.

In 2009, when the Brazilian government secured the 2016 games for Rio, then President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva proclaimed, “Our time has arrived.” During the same period, Lula was boasting that Brazil, whose growth rate had rebounded to 5 percent, was immune from the effects of the global financial meltdown of 2008.

Since then, the world capitalist crisis has devastated Brazil’s economy, driving the official unemployment rate to over 11 percent and sending real wages falling. Millions are threatened with being thrown back into extreme poverty in what is already one of the world’s most socially unequal countries.

Even as the games unfold, the Brazilian Senate is moving ahead with the impeachment of ousted President Dilma Rousseff on trumped-up charges of budgetary irregularities. Those moving against the Workers Party (PT) president are, like the PT itself, implicated up to their necks in the multi-billion-dollar Petrobras bribery scandal. Nonetheless, they are backed by both Brazilian and foreign capital, which wants a full change of regime in order to proceed with sweeping austerity policies under interim President Michel Temer, Rousseff’s former vice president and political ally.

In the run-up to the opening of the games, the Brazilian government heavily publicized alleged terror plots that appeared to have little if any substance. In fact, the massive security operation accompanying the Rio games is aimed not at terrorists, but at the Brazilian population itself. An occupation army of some 100,000 troops and police—twice the number mobilized for the already militarized 2012 London games—has been deployed across Rio, many dressed in combat gear, carrying assault rifles and backed by armored cars and even tanks.

This operation has been supplemented by the United States military and intelligence apparatus, which, according to NBC, has “assigned more than 1,000 spies to Olympic security,” hundreds of whom have been sent to Brazil. In addition to the CIA, FBI and NSA spooks, detachments of Marine and Navy commandos from the US Special Operations Command have been deployed on the ground.

This is the culmination of a campaign of repression that has unfolded over the past few years in tandem with preparations first for the 2014 World Cup football tournament and now for the Olympics. Violent police measures have been used to drive tens of thousands from their homes in impoverished districts targeted for development, while thousands more homeless have been swept from the streets in what amounts to an exercise in “social cleansing.” Police have killed between 40 and 50 people a month in the city over the recent period, while extra-official death squads have murdered many more. So much for the Olympics and “human dignity.”

Against this backdrop, the vast wealth expended on the Olympics, all in pursuit of enrichment and private profit, is obscene. Corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Samsung, Dow Chemical, General Electric, McDonalds and others, have paid hundreds of millions of dollars for exclusive marketing rights and are spending hundreds of millions more to exploit them. TV companies have shelled out $4 billion to broadcast the 19-day event, while marketing revenues are expected to total $9.3 billion.

A relative handful of individual professional athletes will make tens of millions more from product endorsements. The days when the Olympics were a celebration of amateur sports are a distant memory.

Within the games themselves, the overriding atmosphere of social inequality is ever present. While poorer teams are dealing with substandard conditions in hastily constructed Olympic villages, the US basketball “dream team” is residing on the luxury cruise ship Silver Cloud, moored in Rio’s harbor and surrounded by police and navy patrol boats.

Meanwhile, the use of the Olympics to promote nationalism and prepare for war is as virulent in the Rio games as at any time since Adolf Hitler convened the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

On Monday, it was announced that Russian athletes will be banned entirely from the Paralympics to be held next month in Rio in connection with charges of state-sponsored doping of athletes. Earlier, 118 members of the country’s track and field team were banned under a system relegating the decision to the federations of each individual sport.

Washington, the World Anti-Doping Agency, various NGOs and the Western media have waged a virulent campaign to exclude every Russian athlete from the Rio Olympics and prevent the country’s flag from even appearing there, as part of a broader effort to paint Russia as a “rogue” nation that must be stopped by force.

The campaign to bar Russia from the games is inseparably bound up with the growing US-NATO siege of the country’s Western borders, which has been steadily escalated since the US- and German-orchestrated coup that installed an ultra-right, anti-Russian regime in Ukraine in 2014.

The sanctimonious denunciations of Russia for having corrupted an otherwise pristine sporting event reek with bad faith and hypocrisy. The anti-Russian campaign intentionally obscures the wholesale corruption surrounding the entire organization of the games as well as the rampant doping practiced by nearly every country.

The controversy, which has run in tandem with the Democratic Party’s neo-McCarthyite campaign denouncing Vladimir Putin for interfering in the US election, has been pumped up as part of the attempt to prepare public opinion for a military conflict with Russia that could quickly lead to nuclear war.

While this year’s Olympic Games will once again provide a display of astounding athletic ability by participants from across the planet, the entire event is overshadowed by a social system that is founded on inequality and exploitation, and threatens the very survival of humanity.

Bill Van Auken

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/08/08/pers-a08.html

Smearing Stein: Media as Propaganda

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Jill Stein, the Green Party’s nominee for president, has been the sudden target of attacks from all corners of online media since the official end of Bernie Sanders’ campaign at the Democratic National Convention. Outlets like the Washington Post, New York Magazine and Gizmodo have assaulted Stein by using out-of-context quotes to assail her, wrongly, for being anti-vaccination and anti-WiFi, which is a code for being “anti-science.” This allows us a unique opportunity to confirm the structural role of the media as hypothesized by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Manufacturing Consent: that the media is a propaganda arm for the elite and powerful, and is used to condition us to accept the bounds of socio-political discourse as set by the ruling class. It also shows us the desperate need we have for an alternative media culture to counteract mainstream discourse.

The attack on Stein (and not, conveniently, on Gary Johnson), is linked to the need by the elite to de-legitimize A.) critics of neoliberal policies and B.) potential alternatives to the political status-quo. Trump and Clinton have had and will have no discussion about thirty years of neoliberalism and austerity. Sanders gave a voice to those within the Democrats who were willing to question, but since his defeat momentum on the left has shifted to Stein and the Green Party. It is, granted, still early, but the outpouring of support means there is a possibility the left could begin to regroup outside the Democratic Party. Real success for Stein could mean a permanent presence on the national stage for the left, to which a president Clinton or Trump would have to answer and which would be able to build an entirely different ideological discourse in the United States.

What is the role of the media in this scenario, one that explains the current froth about Stein? Although the public is rarely allowed a glimpse behind the curtain, almost all media in the United States is controlled by just a few large corporations. In the era of mass communication, the media has usurped the role formerly played by the Church as a primary source of information and the bounds of discourse. Private corporations are interested in making a profit, and ensuring the economy continues to produce those profits. Marx once opined that “the ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,” and in an era of (potential) mass political upheaval, the media plays an active role in silencing dissent to those ideas. Indeed, they are linked to the continued profits generated by the political order. Political candidates and parties that challenge and threaten to upend this are typically subject to vigorous criticism if they threaten to shift the political discourse or take power: witness the barrage of negative stories and editorials on leaders like Hugo Chávez or new political parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain.

These attacks on Stein are produced and then echoed by a online media constructed to reach an educated, young segment of the population that has nevertheless begun to consider rejecting Clinton (and Trump) on election day.

Chomsky notes that 20-30% of the populace is highly indoctrinated so as to function as system-managers, and that these tend to correspond to the college-educated. The remaining 70-80% are fed a steady diet of entertainment programming to induce sheer apathy in politics, even though today the propaganda fed to the managerial class often takes the form of info-tainment, and news departments are filled with pundits and not reporters.

This is exactly the function of the skewed negative articles on Stein: the huge bloc of people who rejected Clinton (and Trump) are young and only loosely tethered to party affiliation. Much of the rest of the world has seen a sudden explosion in new left-wing parties winning legislative seats because the young generation has seen job prospects vanish and incomes flatline while the 1% continue to enjoy robust growth in wealth. To take quotes out of context and paint Stein as anti-science to a population segment that is highly educated really means A.) her ideas are beyond the pale and B.) she is no better on these issues than the Republican Party.

These scare tactics do not engage with the Green Party or Stein’s platform. Indeed, it is hard to call the people who wrote them journalists, as proper procedure for writing a story on a presidential candidate whose statements require clarification is to engage them or their media team in extended conversation. This is usually how it works for Clinton or Trump, but apparently not for Jill Stein. It is far easier to conduct a smear campaign when the subject is given no chance to respond.

It is important for concerned activists, citizens and voters to treat with skepticism the propaganda campaign being rolled out against Stein in the next three months. Read full quotations and speeches, doubt sensationalist headlines, and let editorial boards know your displeasure at such tactics. Realize we need to resurrect an independent press, and that a century ago papers like Appeal To Reason were not only openly socialist but able to break with established orthodoxy because they weren’t beholden to investors with a stake in the status quo.

Peter A. LaVenia has a PhD in Political Theory from the University at Albany, SUNY and is a member of the New York State Green Party’s executive committee. He can be reached on Twitter @votelavenia and at his website, unorthodoxmarxist.wordpress.com.

Smearing Stein: Media as Propaganda

Lady Dynamite and other Netflix comedies

By Ed Hightower
6 August 2016

There is plenty of room for satire in American life.

“On the nightly television news, after all, one is confronted with politicians and government officials, hirelings of finance and industry, who preach ‘moral values’ with a straight face. Cabinet ministers and generals, responsible for violence and terror around the world, praise peace and global harmony. None of this meets with a challenge in the media. The present situation is unreal, and almost unbearable.”

So wrote WSWS arts editor David Walsh four years ago.

In the cultural or entertainment sphere too, one could rattle off many examples of hypocrisy, the worship of wealth and privilege and a general inclination toward escapism, conventionality and intellectual fraud. A brief flipping through the channels on television indeed confirms the painful fact that “the present situation is unreal, and almost unbearable.”

Such an environment creates a contradictory atmosphere for artists. On the one hand, the pressure to conform, to appeal to the lowest common denominator, can be irresistible at times, as can a certain tendency to create only for the most narrow, insular layers, writing off any possibility of mass appeal. At the same time, and particularly in regard to the art of comedy, the present situation presents tremendous opportunities. The venal corporate executive, the corrupt layers around the legal system, the brazen insincerity of religious charlatans, the banality and brutality in Hollywood—all of these virtually beg for ridicule.

W/ Bob and David

This reviewer welcomed the news last year that Netflix had signed on for a five-episode sketch comedy program called W/ Bob and David, a reprise of the critically acclaimed 1990s series Mr. Show with Bob and David (with Bob Odenkirk and David Cross). Maybe some of the irreverent, anti-corporate satire that marked the old HBO program would emerge to meet the challenges of this decade?

A more detailed review of Mr. Show with Bob and David is beyond the scope of this writing, but this reviewer places that program among the healthier developments in popular culture in the 1990s. A reader so inclined should watch it, if only in clips available on YouTube. The sketches lampooning the right-wing attack on federal arts funding, the phoniness of “gangster rap” music—mimicked with an East Coast versus West Coast ventriloquism rivalry—and even the pseudo-biographical film Amadeus will make lasting impressions.

Sadly, there is almost nothing humorous or healthy in W/ Bob and David. The program feels slapped together, lacking the nuanced dialogue and genuine creativity of its predecessor. Some sketches are recycled from the original program, without improvement.

This alone would be disappointing to a Mr. Show fan, but W/ Bob and Davidalso bears the signs of a movement to the right on the part of the comedians. One episode begins with a faux prohibition on images of the Prophet Mohammed, with imams controlling Hollywood. This display—more in line with propaganda à la Geert Wilders—is painful to watch.

In the same vein, one sketch follows a would-be police misconduct investigator. The big joke is that the police are extremely polite, leaving him dumbfounded. Aside from the “Blue Lives Matter” fanatics, who comprises the audience for this insensitive claptrap?

A retrograde drift also plagues comedian Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None, where the main character, Dev, is a 30-year-old actor making his way in New York City.

Ansari earned fame on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, playing an insecure young government employee who aspires to hip hop mogul glamour and excess. This reviewer always found his stand-up comedy more impressive. However, even in his best routines, Ansari’s criticisms of certain hedonistic lifestyles never goes very deep.

Master of None

Master of None exists almost entirely on the surface, depicting the unremarkable, often clichéd ins and outs of middle class life. Episodes concern quests for the ultimate burrito in New York, breakups, and relationships with friends and parents.

If the show has anything that resembles a saving grace, it is the boldness with which Ansari portrays the self-centered and privileged character of identity politics. This plays out in an episode where a producer makes a double entendre to Dev about curry—an Indian dish and a verb. Dev later feels he is offered a role by the producer as something of an apology. He explains to rapper Busta Rhymes: “I don’t think you should play the race card; charge it to the race card.”

“Everybody’s depressed … it’s called being an adult”

In Lady Dynamite, Netflix has created something more meaningful. Comedian Maria Bamford stars as herself, struggling to maintain a career in Hollywood without destroying her fragile mental health.

Lady Dynamite

The show treads a fine line between comedy and tragedy. In the face of the protagonist’s panic attacks, depressive bouts and fits of bipolar mania, one can laugh at the circumstances and still feel deeply for her even when she is screaming into a sponge. The illness is funny, but it is frightening. The craftsmanship here exceeds expectations.

Maria Bamford successfully mocks the superficiality and excesses of upper-middle class life. In one scene, she humors her best friend who is eager to show off her new luxury condominium. Maria tries to be enthusiastic for her friend’s new purchase, even though she has to use a virtual reality headset to tour the place, which is physically located inside a hot-shot realtor’s office. The illusion makes Maria ill. What a healthy metaphor!

Other notable scenes feature Maria’s cutthroat, foul-mouthed agent and her many mental health professionals (she has a psychologist, a life coach, and even a “loaf” coach to keep from being overwhelmed by all her treatments). The various professional helpers, medicines, self-help groups, etc., are not much aid in a cold, calculating world. The slogan on one of Maria’s tee shirts, “Wake up, be amazing, repeat,” has a welcome irony to it.

The most satisfying and daring scene finds Maria concerned about her ability to interact with African American fellow cast members. She attends a 12-step program for this called PURE, or People United for Racial Equality. Instead of introducing themselves as alcoholics or gamblers, PURE members simply say “I’m so and so, and I’m white.”

Other members nod when Maria confesses to having few minority friends, but desiring to be “more cognizant of racism and white privilege.” When Maria says she does not understand why she is racist simply for being white, the group leader explains, “We believe that interfering or even trying to relate is an implicit insult to people whose struggles we couldn’t possibly understand.”

PURE uses the slogan, “If you’re white, keep it light,” to remind whites not to burden minority people with more suffering by asking them questions about race. Instead, talk about the weather, sports and so forth.

Lady Dynamite has limitations. Bamford’s protest outlook pervades some scenes. Thus, a dull instrument is raised against big corporations, consumerism and so on. One wonders what powerful comedy would result from turning her craft against the union bureaucracy or the left fraternity around the Democratic Party. We can hope that if she does not, others will.

WSWS

Listen, your party is the “neo” kind of liberal

Why do the Democrats always disappoint their most loyal supporters? Thomas Frank’s excellent book helps explains the party’s betraying ways, says Lance Selfa.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

THE NEW York Times headline on July 28 said it all: “After Lying Low, Deep-Pocketed Clinton Donors Return to the Fore.”

Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick’s article proceeded to document the myriad ways in which corporations, from the Wall Street firm Blackstone Group to for-profit college giant Apollo Education Group, peddled influence at fancy parties around Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.

Yes, that Democratic convention. The same one that featured dozens of speakers denouncing Wall Street and crushing student debt? Whose presidential nominee pledged to get big money out of elections?

Turns out that “it’s business as usual,” as Libby Watson of the Sunlight Foundation told the Times writers.

Author Thomas Frank wouldn’t be surprised by this latest glimpse of how the Democratic Party does business. His Listen, Liberal is an engaging and witty demolition of the party, especially its modern post-New Deal incarnation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE DEMOCRATS don’t see it as a contradiction to issue election-year platitudes about supporting “working families” while courting millions from the “rocket scientist” financial engineers behind the Wall Street hedge funds or the self-styled “disrupters” who run for-profit educational corporations.

REVIEW: BOOKS

Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Henry Holt and Co., 2016. 320 pages, $12.99. Find out more at ListenLiberal.com.

As the GEICO TV ad might say, “It’s what they do.”

To Frank, this provides much of the explanation for why the Obama presidency has been such a disappointment for those who believed in candidate Obama’s message of “hope and change” in 2008.

In 2008, the economy was melting down, taking free-market orthodoxy with it. The Democrats swept to power in Congress and the White House. If there was ever a time that the conditions were ripe for a bold reformist program–which would have been massively popular–this was it.

Yet it didn’t happen. Two years later, the Tea Party Republicans took back the House in the midterm elections, and the administration deepened its commitment to austerity and the search for a “grand bargain” for bipartisan support to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Frank rehearses the standard liberal excuses for Obama’s failures, quoting the president himself about how hard it is to get things done (“It’s hard to turn an ocean liner”). Frank then proceeds to knock these down, one by one.

He shows convincingly how, using only executive action, Obama could have unwound the Bush administration bailouts for the Wall Street bankers and pressed bankruptcy judges to reduce or wipe out the mortgage holders’ debt. At the very least, he could have refused to allow executives from the insurance giant AIG to collect their multimillion-dollar bonuses from the taxpayers’ dime.

Instead, Obama and his Treasury team of Ivy Leaguers on leave from Wall Street reassured the banksters that he was on their side. Frank reprises the critical scene from Ron Suskind’s 2010 book Confidence Men: A description of a high-level meeting that began with Obama warning Wall Street that “my administration is the only thing between you and pitchforks”–and ended with a relieved CEO telling Suskind that Obama “could have ordered us to do just about anything, and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t–he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

As Frank concludes:

Having put so much faith in his transformative potential, his followers need to come to terms with how non-transformative he has been. It wasn’t because the ocean liner would have been too hard to turn, or because those silly idealists were unrealistic; it was because [the administration] didn’t want to do those things.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

HOW DID the Democrats come to power amid the worst crisis since the Great Depression and basically operate according to the same-old-same-old model? In trying to explain this, Frank lands on an explanation that is inadequate–more on that below–despite the insights it offers.

To him, the Obama team, like Bill Clinton before him–and probably Hillary Clinton after–couldn’t conceive of a different course because they approached problems from their vantage point as wealthy, highly educated professionals.

Like the whiz kids on Wall Street or health care industry policy wonks, they appreciated complex solutions that balanced multiple interests while generally preserving the status quo. Think of Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, whose enforcement regulations are still being written six years after its passage.

The roots of this worship of professional expertise and support for market-based policies, according to Frank, can be found in party operatives’ desire to build a new Democratic coalition to replace the New Deal coalition of the 1930s through the 1960s. From George McGovern’s early 1970s “new politics” to the Democratic Leadership Council’s “new Democrats” of the 1980s and 1990s, these figures sought to distance the party from organized labor in favor of the “new middle class” of credentialed professionals.

Voting statistics show that college graduates still tend to be Republican territory more than Democratic. But there’s little doubt that a middle-class ideology of “social liberalism and fiscal conservatism” reigns supreme in the Democratic Party today.

To show this in full bloom, Frank considers the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston as exemplars. Both depend heavily on the “knowledge industries” of higher education, finance and health care. And both have been Democratic bastions for generations.

If the Democratic mayors of Boston and a Democratic-dominated statehouse hand out tax breaks to corporations, enact anti-labor pension “reforms,” and promote charter schools or amenities catering to middle-class professionals, it isn’t because Republicans forced them to. It’s because the Democrats actually believe this stuff, and profit from it.

In this “blue state model,” Frank writes:

Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and yet which increase at a pace far more rapid than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, thirty grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.

Left behind are places like Lynn, Massachusetts, a once thriving industrial town, now depopulated and deindustrialized–“engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats,” Frank writes. Or Decatur, Illinois, which Frank revisits 20 years after he had reported on the “War Zone” labor battles that dramatized the death of the American dream for thousands of blue-collar unionized workers

In the mid-1990s, Frank writes:

Decatur was far away from Washington, and its problems made no impression that I could detect on Bill Clinton’s wise brain trust. The New Economy was dawning, creativity was triumphing, old industry was evaporating, and those fortunate enough to be among the ascendant were absolutely certain about the direction history was taking.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AS WITH so much about the Democratic Party today, all this somehow works its way back to the Clintons.

Frank’s assessment of Bill Clinton’s two terms in office in the 1990s is a crucial antidote to the free-flowing Clinton nostalgia of 2016. Frank says that while he was writing the book:

I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for–you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president. Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him– apart from his obvious personal affability, I mean? It proved difficult for my libs…

No one mentioned any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation. His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery– he rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office, he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

Frank concedes a few small positive efforts by Clinton: a small increase in taxes on the rich, a failed attempt at health care reform. But the biggest initiatives Clinton won were things that would have been considered Republican policies of an earlier era: the 1994 crime bill that put the “New Jim Crow” described by Michelle Alexander into overdrive; the destruction of the federal welfare system; free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and various forms of financial deregulation.

Frank notes that Clinton was conducting backdoor negotiations with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a scheme to privatize Social Security. That attempt collapsed during the impeachment battle connected to Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Frank’s crucial point is this. It took a Democrat–one skilled in the double-talk of “feeling the pain” of ordinary people and bolstering those “who work hard and play by the rules”–to push through a wish list of conservative policies that not even Ronald Reagan could win. As Frank writes:

What distinguishes the political order we live under now is a consensus, at least in the political mainstream, on certain economic questions–and what made that consensus happen was the capitulation of the Democrats. Republicans could denounce big government all they wanted, but it took a Democrat to declare that “the era of big government is over” and to make it stick. This was Bill Clinton’s historic achievement. Under his direction, as I wrote back then, the opposition “ceased to oppose.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

MUCH OF what Frank writes will sound very familiar to regular readers of Socialist Worker. But for liberals who might know Frank from his What’s the Matter with Kansas? or The Wrecking Crew, Listen, Liberal might feel like a bucket of cold water. Especially for those who might be “ready for Hillary” in 2016.

For my money, the entire book is worth the price of the chapter “Liberal Gilt,” where Frank skewers the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and, by extension, what he calls the “liberal class’s virtue quest.”

At the center of this chapter is, of course, Hillary Clinton, whose public persona of “doing good” for “women and children” dissolves against a backdrop of her support for ending welfare in the 1990s and pushing poor women in developing countries into debt through “microcredit.”

As Secretary of State, Clinton marketed global entrepreneurship and the endless “war on terror” as crusades on behalf of women. Through “partnering” on these initiatives with the Clinton Foundation or the State Department, the likes of Walmart and Goldman Sachs can win praise for their social consciousness–or what Frank brilliantly describes as their “purchasing liberalism offsets”:

This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue-exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-graduated American professionals, their reassuring expertise propped up by bogus social science, while the unfortunate objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.

Frank weaves this analysis around an unforgettable eyewitness account of a Clinton Foundation celebration–held on the socialist holiday of International Women’s Day, no less! The event, at midtown Manhattan’s Best Buy (now Playstation) Theater, touted entrepreneurship for women in the global South. The Clintons, Melinda Gates, Hollywood stars, fashion magazine editors and Fortune 500 leaders came together for an afternoon of self-congratulation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

YET FOR all that is spot-on in Frank’s critique of the Democrats, the book’s analysis is flawed on two interrelated points.

First, its theory of the Democrats as a party of educated professionals suffers from what might be called a crude class analysis.

When Marxists argue that the Democrats and Republicans are “capitalist” parties, we don’t mean that a cabal of capitalists acts as their puppet masters from behind the scenes. We mean that through various means–from political contributions to expert advice to control of the media–various capitalist interests assure that the mainstream political parties implement policies that allow the capitalist system to thrive and reproduce itself.

Scholars such as Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers have documented why we should understand shifts in the mainstream capitalist parties as shifts in blocs of capital rather than shifts in voting bases. Ferguson has even demonstrated how Obama’s support from Silicon Valley is linked to the administration’s care and nurturance of the surveillance state.

Frank doesn’t cite any of this analysis. Thus, in arguing that the Democrats’ current embrace of Silicon Valley neoliberalism is somehow a product of “well-graduated” Democrats’ fascination with “complexity,” “innovation” and “disruptive” app-driven services like Uber and AirBnB, Frank misses the close integration of the Democratic Party with the capitalist class.

The Democrats may have been capitalism’s B-Team over the last generation, but they’re not the Washington Generals, forever bested by the Harlem Globetrotters.

Second, understanding the Democrats as a party of Ivy League professionals–and not as one of the two big business parties in the U.S.–implies that it can be reclaimed as the “party of the people” or the party of the “working class,” as Frank believes it was in its New Deal heyday.

This characterization forgets that, in many ways, the Democrats were capitalism’s A-Team during that period. And if the Trumpization of the Republicans continues, the Democrats may end up as the first-stringers again. The 2016 Clinton campaign certainly hopes so.

Listen, Liberal is a great read for this election season. While Frank concludes that the state of affairs that brought us to Clinton against Trump “cannot go on,” he’s not sure where to go. Charting that course is a challenge the left faces today.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/04/your-party-is-the-neo-kind-of-liberal

Captain Fantastic: An anti-establishment superhero?

By Joanne Laurier
30 July 2016

Written and directed by Matt Ross

Writer-director Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic is a semi-anarchistic tale about a family’s “off-the-grid” existence in the Pacific Northwest.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen), father of six children aged between eight and 18, more or less, is bent on raising his family away from mainstream society and all its toxicity. In pristine and mountainous woods, the family undergoes rigorous physical exercise by day and vigorous intellectual training by night. They grow their own vegetables, respectfully kill their sources of protein and sleep in a communal teepee.

Captain Fantastic

The brood’s father, a former professor, and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller), a former lawyer, believe they are recreating Plato’s Republic and that their children are destined to be philosopher-kings and -queens. They shun Christmas but mark the anniversary of Noam Chomsky’s birth, celebrating, in their view, a great humanitarian.

The eldest son, Bodevan (George MacKay), chastises his father for using the term “Trotskyite”—a Stalinist-type insult—not “Trotskyist.” The family’s usual call-and-response is: “Power to the people … Stick it to the man.” “Fascist capitalist” is an epithet freely bandied about.

But the family’s seclusion is interrupted when Leslie, who suffers from acute mental illness, must reenter civilization for treatment. Concerning this traumatic event, Ben and his children have the following, fairly typical exchange:

Kielyr (Samantha Isler) “But you said hospitals are only a great place to go if you’re a healthy person and you want to die.”

Zaja (Shree Crooks): “You said Americans are undereducated and over-medicated.”

Kielyr: “And you said the AMA [American Medical Association] are avaricious whores only too willing to spread their fat legs for Big Pharma.”

Ben: “All those things are true. But mom does not have enough of the neurotransmitter serotonin to conduct electrical signals in her brain.”

When Leslie tragically kills herself, Ben and the kids decide to attend the funeral, in another state, traveling in their ramshackle bus named “Steve.” But Leslie’s wealthy parents, Jack and Abigail (Frank Langella and Ann Dowd) have taken over and are organizing a traditional Christian service and interment.

In fact, Jack blames Ben for Leslie’s premature death, and orders his son-in-law to stay away. But, although “the powerful control the lives of the powerless,” the family decides to rescue Leslie’s body from the “Christians.” They intend to honor a mother who had become a Buddhist, despised organized religion and stated in her will she wanted to be cremated.

Interacting with the outside world involves a clash of values for Ben and his children, in the first place with Jack and Abigail, who at one point threaten to file for custody of their grandchildren. Ben and his budding geniuses also find themselves at odds with his sister, Harper (Kathryn Hahn), and brother-in-law, Dave (Steve Zahn). The more conventional couple’s computer game-addicted sons are witless compared to one of Ben’s youngest, who is able to explain the Bill of Rights, as well as the significance of Citizens United—the 2010 Supreme Court decision that abolished restrictions on big business political spending.

The superiority of the education Ben’s offspring have received is further underscored by their ability to speak several languages fluently. Bodevan has been accepted by a slew of Ivy League universities.

Captain Fantastic, whose title obviously spoofs comic book action movies, puts forward its own conception of a hero. Along the same lines, it may be that Ben initially believes he possesses the formula for creating a new race of “super-beings.” However, by the movie’s end it is an open question whether he will continue to espouse his radical views.

Mortensen comfortably and intelligently inhabits the role of Ben, and the actors who play his children are striking and appealing. Langella is convincing as a wealthy man not averse to siccing goons on his grieving son-in-law; Dowd renders an emotionally poignant performance.

Ross, who has been best known until now as a talented actor in series like Big Love (2006-11), seems to have certain good intentions and critical thoughts. Although the politics here is generally not good (indicated by the 1988 Jesse Jackson for president t-shirt that Ben wears at one point), some of the impulses may be. The director is clearly hostile to certain aspects of official American life, including a terribly deficient education system and a generally miserable cultural level.

In an interview, Ross elaborated on his hostility toward the theocratic element in present-day American politics, noting that we “live in a country where no one can be elected president of the United States without talking about their deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ, and yet we are supposed to have a separation of church and state.”

Captain Fantastic

Unfortunately, Captain Fantastic suffers from serious flaws, associated in part with the character and outlook of the middle class radicalism promoted by the film. In this day and age, the notion that running off to the woods embodies “Power to the people” and “Sticking it to the man” seems extraordinarily threadbare. One would have thought that a little ideological water had flowed under the bridge since 1967 or so.

It is simply wrongheaded to identify living in complete isolation with opposition to the status quo, as though withdrawing has ever generated change. As Ross himself observes in an interview, this sort of individualism and semi-anarchism has as much—or more—of a right-wing pedigree (libertarianism, survivalism) as it does a left-wing one, Ben’s admiration for a “left” anti-establishment figure like Chomsky notwithstanding.

Moreover, outside of Ben and his children, the rest of humanity—in their eyes—are either overweight, brain-dead or dictatorial. In general, the family’s sympathies seem reserved not primarily for suffering humanity but for themselves.

A chief difficulty is that figures like Ross are sincerely dissatisfied with the existing state of things, but cut off from any sense of how it might be altered. Not seeing any objective source for change, the writer-director creates a largely fantastic or artificial one. Ironically, his American individualist outlook is closer to that of the comic book moviemakers than he would like to think.

Like other Hollywood liberals and radicals, Ross is far removed at this point from wider layers of the American population, which seethe with anger and discontent. This restive mass of people is the genuine agent of change. But the director’s antennae are not pointed in that direction.

Unable or unwilling to base himself on real life, Ross is obliged to flesh out and dramatize stale conceptions about some latter-day hippie alternative to inhuman capitalism. And along the way, he tends to blame the population for its troubles. Nevertheless, Captain Fantastic contains a dose of healthy disgust, and that is something, despite the rather childish prescriptions.

WSWS