American playwright Edward Albee: The character of his opposition to the status quo

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By David Walsh
22 September 2016

Edward Albee, one of the most prominent figures in the postwar American theater, died at his home in Montauk, New York on September 16. He was 88 years old.

Albee is best remembered for works he wrote a half century ago or more, including The Zoo Story (1959), The Death of Bessie Smith (1960), The Sandbox (1960), The American Dream (1961), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) and A Delicate Balance (1966). Out of critical and popular favor for decades, Albee experienced a degree of renewed success with Three Tall Women (1991) and The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (2000). During his lengthy career, Albee won numerous awards, including three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and two Tony Awards for Best Play.

Albee was an immensely gifted and articulate writer, with a genuine feeling for the rhythm of language and an obvious flair for the dramatic. His early works, including The Zoo Story, a one-act play, and, most especially, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a full-length work, made a strong impression on the public when they were first performed. In these works, and others of the time, Albee launched fierce attacks on middle-class complacency and hypocrisy, and the moral failure of American society.

The playwright described himself on many occasions as an enemy of the status quo. This was entirely to his credit. However, if Albee’s conception of this enmity remained quite limited, as we shall discuss, this was bound up with the social-cultural environment in which he matured in Cold War America and the milieu in which he circulated.

Albee’s family background is a singular one. He was born in Washington, DC in March, 1928 to a woman who could not support a child. The father had “deserted and abandoned both the mother and child,” according to the subsequent adoption papers. When he was 18 days old, the child was adopted by Reed A. Albee and Frances C. Albee, a wealthy, childless couple. Reed Albee’s money came from his father, the head of the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theaters. The Albees lived in luxury in Larchmont, New York on the Long Island Sound.

The writer later claimed that he always felt like an interloper in the household. “They bought me. They paid $133.30”—i.e., the cost of the adoption services. His “outsider” status in his own family and his discovery of his homosexuality at an early age no doubt helped distance Albee from the American mainstream. He had a difficult time in school, being expelled or dismissed from several high schools and colleges. He left home for good in his late teens. Toward the end of his life, Albee told an interviewer he had been “thrown out” of the family home because he refused to become the “corporate thug” his parents desired him to be.

During the 1950s, Albee lived in Greenwich Village in New York City and worked at numerous odd jobs. He also received money from a trust fund. He wrote poems, plays and novels that were not published.

Albee wrote The Zoo Story in three weeks in 1958. It was first performed in West Berlin in 1959 on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

The short play takes place in Central Park in New York. There are two characters. Peter, a middle-aged man, an executive with a small publishing house, who “wears tweeds, smokes a pipe, carries horn-rimmed glasses.” We eventually learn that he has a wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets, the perfect, contented American family. Peter is peacefully reading his newspaper on a park bench on a Sunday afternoon when Jerry enters into conversation with him. The latter is younger, poorer and suffering, according to Albee’s description, from “great weariness.”

The conversation begins innocently, if oddly, enough, with Jerry’s now-famous line: “I’ve been to the zoo. (PETER doesn’t notice) I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!” Peter responds politely enough, but Jerry becomes more and more intrusive, asking personal questions and revealing the character of his own lonely existence. When Peter has had enough and tries to leave, Jerry becomes aggressive and pulls out a knife. He drops it and tells Peter, “There you go. Pick it up.” The other man does so and Jerry eventually impales himself on the blade. In his final, dying words, he thanks Peter.

Something about the coldness and isolation, and inequality, of modern urban life emerges. Jerry lives in a rooming house, with a “few clothes, a hot plate that I’m not supposed to have, a can opener.” His neighbors are the marginalized. His closest relationship, aside from those with prostitutes, is with his landlady’s dog, about whom he speaks in a lengthy monologue.

Years later, Albee would explain, “Jerry is a man who has not closed down, … who during the course of the play is trying to persuade Peter that closing down is dangerous and that life for all its problems, all of its miseries, is worth participating in, absolutely fully.”

Albee was attacked for his play in establishment circles. On the floor of the US Senate, Prescott Bush (father and grandfather of two US presidents) denounced The Zoo Story as “filthy.”

The influence of Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and the “theater of the absurd” is evident in The Zoo Story, which is to say, Albee was under the influence of some of the same social and intellectual tendencies as those writers. British playwright Harold Pinter, born in 1930, was an almost exact contemporary. Pinter’s first play, The Room, was written and performed in 1957.

The intellectuals of the time, or the more sensitive ones, were appalled by contemporary society, by the giant corporations and institutions that had emerged in the aftermath of World War II, by the Cold War, by the threat of nuclear destruction, by the officially sponsored conformism and pursuit of material wealth.

On the other hand, for the most part they saw no way out of the situation. Stalinism and its crimes, widely identified with communism and socialism, seemed to many to have closed off the possibility of revolutionary change. The various counterrevolutionary “labor” bureaucracies suppressed the working class politically. Existentialism and other forms of irrationalism suggested that the human condition was absurd, but that one had to endure and find some meaning in what was perhaps a meaningless existence. Abstract expressionism in painting and the “Beat” movement emerged from these general ideological conditions.

In The Death of Bessie Smith Albee paid oblique tribute to the civil rights movement and the suffering of African Americans. The short play takes place in Memphis, Tennessee in 1937, in a hospital. An overworked white nurse, a white intern and a black orderly feature prominently. The premise of the play is that Bessie Smith, the great blues singer (who never appears in the play), dies following a car crash because she is refused admittance to a whites-only hospital. This was generally believed at the time. In fact, Smith was taken directly to a hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi where she died seven hours after the accident. But Albee’s play concerns itself with race and class relations in America, and retains much of its power. The character of the Nurse stands out in particular.

Albee reserved much of his venom for the American upper-middle-class, nuclear family. In The American Dream, an absurdist satire, the central characters are Mommy, Daddy and Grandma. The couple, we discover, had once adopted a son. Unhappy with it, they mutilated the child and ultimately killed it. As Grandma, a sympathetic character, explains, “Well, for the last straw, it finally up and died; and you can imagine how that made them feel, their having paid for it and all. … They wanted satisfaction; they wanted their money back.”

A Young Man shows up, whom Grandma names “The American Dream,” who turns out to be the original boy’s twin. The old woman moves out and the psychologically damaged Young Man moves in. He will take the place of the original adopted child. The dialogue consists largely of a series of clichés and banalities. In typical Albee fashion, a well-to-do family conceals all the brutal realities.

Albee later asserted that the play “is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation, and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen. Is the play offensive? I certainly hope so.”

The work for which Albee is best known, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (made into a film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, released in 1966)opened in October 1962, only a few days before the eruption of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the confrontation between the US and the USSR over the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The often intangible and even unnamable psychological menace and paranoia generated by the threat of nuclear annihilation are woven into Albee’s early plays, as they are in many writers’ and filmmakers’ work of the time.

In its framework and episodes, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (borrowed from a bit of “intellectual’s” graffiti found on a wall) is more naturalistic than Albee’s previous efforts. George is a middle-aged associate professor of history at a small New England College; his wife, Martha, six years his senior, is the daughter of the college president. They return home late at night after a party, where they have already had a good deal to drink. Two guests arrive, a younger couple: Nick, a biology professor, and his wife, Honey.

For the rest of the night, George and Martha engage in furious, non-stop and occasionally amusing abuse of one another in front of the younger pair. Martha relentlessly taunts George and humiliates him. She dismisses her husband as “a FLOP! A great … big … fat FLOP!” In response, George breaks a bottle and holds the remains, like a weapon. Martha remarks, “I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You don’t want to waste good liquor … not on your salary.” It goes on like this.

At one point he pretends to shoot her. “GEORGE: Did you really think I was going to kill you, Martha? MARTHA (Dripping with contempt): You? … Kill me? … That’s a laugh. GEORGE: Well, now, I might … some day.”

The hosts play various vicious games, some on each other, some on their guests. When one of his games turns cruel, George explains calmly, “I hate hypocrisy.” George and Martha also claim to have a son, who is coming home that day. In the end, it turns out that they have no child and the fantasy that they do is one of the great lies sustaining their lives and marriage.

The play, above all, suggests America’s decline into something miserable, sick and full of self-deception. Again, the fear and selfishness under the surface of middle class existence come out, along with that social layer’s hypocrisy and servility. Success and stature, the jockeying for position, on this wretched, unimportant little campus absorb much of the time and thought of all four characters. Whatever was promising about America and the American Dream (and George and Martha, of course, are the names of the first president of the US and his wife) has somehow come down to this: stupid, petty and sterile infighting, an endless drunken, malicious quarrel in the middle of the night. All this expenditure of energy … for what?

The characters are not so much hateful, as pitiful. Toward the end of the play, Martha laments, “I do not wish to be happy, and yes I do wish to be happy. George and Martha, sad, sad, sad.”

In A Delicate Balance, a well-to-do couple, Agnes and Tobias live with Agnes’s alcoholic sister, Claire. Their daughter Julia is expected to arrive home soon, fleeing her fourth unsuccessful marriage. Friends of Agnes and Tobias’s, Harry and Edna, arrive and ask if they can stay. A terrible, intangible fear has overtaken them.

What to do with Harry and Edna, whether to ask them to leave or accept them and accept responsibility for them in their plight, becomes a central question in the play. The strongest element of A Delicate Balance, once again, is the contrast between the well-established rules of conduct of these polite, educated people and the painful, contradictory realities of life.

Albee wrote many other plays, including adaptations of works by Carson McCullers (The Ballad of the Sad Café) and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), but these early works contain the most compelling expression of his artistic ideas and social concerns.

Albee insisted until the end of his life that he was an enemy of existing conditions. In his introduction to Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (1968), Albee argued that one of the chief obligations of the playwright was to “try to alter his society,” since, as he explained, “very few serious plays are written to glorify the status quo.” In an interview in 2009, he told a journalist, along the same lines, that “A play should be an act of aggression against the status quo.”

Nor did Albee have much use for fashionable and marketable “identity politics.” Defending his decision to write about a host of characters, he told an interviewer, fellow playwright Craig Lucas, in 1992, “After all, there are a number of things we have not been, you and I. We’ve not been women, we’ve not been 80 years old, we’ve not been black. A lot of things we haven’t been. But its our responsibility to be able to be them, isn’t it?”

Albee attracted criticism for rejecting the term “gay writer.” In a May 2011 speech, he commented, “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay. … Any definition which limits us is deplorable.” After his comments were attacked, he told National Public Radio, “Maybe I’m being a little troublesome about this, but so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers and I find that is such a limitation and such a prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can.”

Albee’s criticism of the “status quo” could be quite fierce. He was quoted in 1980 as saying, “I think television is the destruction of the United States. I mean, that and the Republican Party … And the Democratic Party, for that matter, come to think of it.”

In Everything in the Garden (1967), Albee’s American adaptation of a black comedy by British playwright Giles Cooper, a group of respectable suburban housewives turn to prostitution en masse (although unbeknownst to one another) to supplement their husbands’ incomes. When one of the wives is caught out, she turns on her husband and decries the corrupt, even criminal manner in which each of the men earns a living. She sums it up: “You all stink, you’re all killers and whores.”

Albee’s sincerity was unquestionable. However, when the playwright spoke of opposition to the status quo, he meant primarily the moral, sexual and psychological status quo. To many intellectuals and artists in the US, and this view was encouraged by the various academic left tendencies (the Frankfurt School and so forth), capitalism had resolved its economic contradictions. What remained were the problems of alienation, aloneness, conformism and sexual repression.

Continuing to engage exclusively with these issues and ignoring the explosive questions that emerged in the 1970s and beyond, including the growing impoverishment of masses of Americans and the overall economic-cultural decline of the US, meant that Albee’s work failed to treat much of what was new and challenging, and urgently in need of artistic description, in American life.

Many of Albee’s later plays, and even some of the early ones, are not strong or convincing. Plays like Tiny Alice (1964), Malcolm (1966), Seascape (1975),Counting the Ways (1976), The Man Who Had Three Arms (1982) and others are not particularly engaging. The self-conscious “absurdism” often wears thin. There is a great deal of repetition, between and even within plays. The ideas are often murky and secondary, or commonplace.

Albee was at war with hostile critics for many years, and the critics were often obtuse, but the lack of success of many of his plays with the general public was not principally due to the reviewers’ shortcomings. He wrote numerous tedious and almost pointless plays. He seemed to have run out of important things to say at a relatively young age.

Albee returned time and time again to his early family relations. The ineffectual, “castrated” father, the domineering mother, the victimized son … There are only so many times one can cover the same ground. Did Albee have a childhood that was so excruciating, or that was of such world-historical significance that it needed to be treated over and over again, from different angles, during the course of 40 years?

No, that is not the case. It is rather that there are social and political conditions in which the artist’s individual psychological problems and traumas take on “world-historical” importance to him or her. There are periods when one’s family life dominates, when what one’s mother and father did or didn’t do years ago continues to be a central obsession in later life. This was the type of historical period in which Albee matured, when the class struggle apparently receded into the background.

Albee was no Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, but some of the comments that Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov made on the subject of Ibsen in a 1908 essay (“Ibsen, Petty Bourgeois Revolutionist”) seem appropriate. Plekhanov noted that at the time when “Ibsen’s opinions and ideals were being formulated, a working class, in the present sense of the term, had not yet developed … and was, therefore, nowhere evident in public life.” This encouraged in Ibsen, “individual protests against the hypocrisy and vulgarity which surrounds him.” His was “the revolt of the modern spirit.”

Plekhanov goes on, “Now if a man teaches revolt simply because it is revolt, not knowing himself to what end it should lead, then his teaching will take on a rather nebulous character. If he is an artist, and thinks in terms of images and forms, then the vagueness of his thinking will necessarily result in vague artistic images. An abstract and schematic element will creep into his creative work. … The ‘revolution of the spirit of man’ leaves everything unchanged. The pregnant mountain has again given birth to a tiny mouse.”

Unhappily, for much of his later career, as a result of the nebulousness of his ideas and the formlessness of his opposition to the status quo, Albee gave birth to nothing but “tiny mice.”

Robert Brustein, the distinguished critic, producer and academic, once referred to Albee “as one who sympathized profoundly with the oppressed of the world.” One has no reason to doubt this, but it is not distinctly and sharply present in his work or public utterances. It is worth noting that in Mel Gussow’s biography,Edward Albee: A Singular Journey (1999), there is a single reference to the Vietnam War in the index. According to an August 1968 New York Timesarticle, Albee did lend his name as a sponsor of the anti-war “Summer of Support,” aimed at US servicemen, along with Pete Seeger, Dustin Hoffman, Phil Ochs and others.

Overall, however, as one commentator notes, Albee’s plays in the 1970s spoke to “personal” rather than “social” disillusionment.

One has to look to the general features of Albee’s time, the postwar economic expansion and the Cold War, for the conditions that shaped his thinking. He traveled to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and certainly distinguished himself from the extreme right confrontationists, but his comments on the USSR do not rise above the level of garden variety anticommunist liberalism. His facile use of selections from Mao’s “Little Red Book” in Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, either wooden truisms or Stalinist falsifications, gives some sense of his attitude toward what he took to be “Marxism” and “revolutionary theory.”

The “abstract and schematic element” in Albee’s work also manifests itself in the ahistorical character of his plays, and the often nameless characters: Mommy and Daddy, Young Man and Grandma, He and She, A B and C. He once told an interviewer, “Most of my plays are not tied to time, particularly.” He didn’t care for having the phrase “timeless” applied to his work, he explained, “but I don’t think they [the plays] are beholden to specific dates.”

Unfortunately, there is nothing that becomes dated more rapidly than the “dateless.” Abstract psychological characterizations and speculations and, frankly, the obsession with oneself do not generally lead to the most rewarding, enriching art. “We all wish to devour ourselves, enter ourselves, be the subject and object all at once,” asserts a character in Albee’s Listening (1976). But the artist seriously attuned to the world and life has more compelling things to do.

Albee’s great strength lay in his ability to represent his upper-middle-class figures, to reveal their inner lives. He helped demystify and discredit the affluent layers who thought themselves fully in control. Moreover, his rejection of corruption and cowardice, his insistence on unpleasant truths about American society in the late 1950s and early 1960s unquestionably contributed to the mood of radicalism and opposition that emerged later in the decade.

To paraphrase Plekhanov, drab, postwar American reality showed Albee what had to be opposed, but it could not by itself show him which road to pursue.

WSWS

Trump’s Behavior Similar To Male Chimpanzee, Says Jane Goodall

Well, she’s the expert.

09/17/2016 08:10 pm ET

IAN WALDIE VIA GETTY IMAGES
A Chimpanzee jumps at a glass screen as primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall
holds a press conference at Taronga Zoo July 14, 2006 in Sydney, Australia.

Donald Trump’s antics remind famed anthropologist Jane Goodall of the primates she spent decades studying in the wild.

“In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” Goodall told The Atlantic. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks.”

Goodall added, “the more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”

To date, we’ve not seen Trump drag branches or throw rocks, although anything is possible. Instead of physical displays, the Republican presidential nominee has stuck to verbal ones ― bragging about his penis, launching personal attacks and resorting to racist and sexist insults.

BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Trump is set to debate his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, on Sept. 26. When it happens, Goodall told The Atlantic she’ll be thinking of “Mike,” a chimpanzee she studied that displayed dominance by kicking kerosene cans, creating a racket that sent would-be challengers fleeing.

Unsurprisingly, Trump has already boasted that he will come out on top, telling The New York Times “I know how to handle Hillary.”

Whether his strategy includes childish tidbits has yet to be seen. Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, however, bets it will.

“Trump has severe attention problems and simply cannot take in complex information — he will be unable to practice for these debates,” Schwartz told the Times. “Trump will bring nothing but his bluster to the debates. He’ll use sixth-grade language, he will repeat himself many times, he won’t complete sentences, and he won’t say anything of substance.”

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

Socialism in one galaxy? Star Trek.

Fifty years after it debuted on network television, Nicole Colson considers the legacy of Star Trek–and the idea of a society that meets the needs of the many, not just the few.

Uhura and Kirk during the classic Star Trek episode "Plato's Stepchildren"

Uhura and Kirk during the classic Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”

ON SEPTEMBER 8, 1966, a new show debuted on American television.

Billed by creator Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon Train in space,” for its loyal viewers–and legions more to come over the following five decades–the voyage of the starship Enterprise and its 23rd century crew, as it carried out its mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no [one] has gone before,” would permanently alter the landscape of popular culture.

Star Trek‘s cultural staying power came despite its failure to last on television. The “five-year mission” of the Enterprise lasted just three years–until 1969, when the show was canceled by NBC because of low ratings after 79 episodes.

In fact, the show barely made it to the air at all: In 1964, NBC passed on the first attempt at a pilot, declaring it “too cerebral.” A second attempt was filmed in 1965 when comedy legend Lucille Ball, who owned the studio that employed creator Rodenberry as a producer, personally intervened to persuade NBC to give the series another shot.

Despite its cancelation, the series–which was worked on by some of the premiere science fiction writers of the day–became a hit in broadcast syndication, firing the imagination of a wide audience.

Today, the original series continues to inspire legions of Trekkers, one of the most rabidly loyal fandoms in all of popular culture. It has spawned four syndicated spin-offs (with a fifth planned for next year)–and endless debates about the relative merits of each show’s captain in comparison to William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk.

Along with 13 movies (and counting), a complete language, and a rather unique brand of fan fiction, Star Trek stands as a testament to the desire of people for a vision of the future which is both recognizable to them, and better than the present.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

STAR TREK’S vision of the future was, in a word, cool. Geek toys and tech like tricorders, replicators and transporters suggest a future where technology has been harnessed to make life vastly better for the majority of people.

But as Wired.com noted, the reason Star Trek continues to inspire such devotion 50 years after its premiere is because of what it says about people, not technology:

The original show’s most visionary aspects were social, not scientific, and that had everything to do with the times. The country was in turmoil, embroiled in Vietnam and the growing civil rights movement. Roddenberry said later that these events influenced many of the themes, as well as the multicultural makeup of the crew.

For a 1960s audience, the 23rd century world envisioned aboard the Enterprise was immediately notable for the fact that it was multiracial and included women in positions of importance among the crew.

In the original series, despite the roles for women being somewhat limited–with the exception of Lt. Uhura, they are primarily nurses, junior officers and scantily clad alien and human love interests for Kirk–a vision of the future in which women are defined primarily through their work as opposed to their husbands, children or home-making abilities was rare on television.

(It has to be admitted, however, that the female crewmembers’ uniforms were utterly sexist, as even Roddenberry’s partner Majel Barrett would later concede.)

At the height of the civil rights movement and the Cold War, the fact that a show could assert that a superior, advanced human society was one in which white Americans lived and worked side by side on a mission of peaceful exploration with not only aliens, but Russians (Chekov) and people of Japanese descent (Sulu), as well as African Americans (Uhura), mattered in the larger cultural context.

According to Whoopi Goldberg, who would later play Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the impact of being able to see Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura was life-changing. “[W]hen I was 9 years old, Star Trek came on,” Goldberg said. “I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a Black lady on television, and she ain’t no maid!”

Martin Luther King himself considered Nichols’ Uhura to be “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.” When Nichols was thinking of leaving the show for Broadway, it was King who convinced her to stay with Star Trek. As Nichols recounted:

Dr. Martin Luther King, quite some time after I’d first met him, approached me and said something along the lines of “Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde-haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.”…I saw that this was bigger than just me.

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ONLY THE willfully ignorant could pretend not to see the message Roddenberry was intent on sending, as he frequently and gleefully pushed buttons. In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” an episode broadcast in 1968, Nichols and Shatner shared what is widely cited (though the matter is hotly debated) as the first interracial kiss on U.S. television.

Skittish network executives worried about the audience reaction and tried to squash the kiss, but Shatner hilariously ruined all of the alternative takes with his famous! punctuated! delivery! and even, in one take, crossed his eyes to ruin the shot. Nichols recounted in her autobiography:

Knowing that Gene was determined to air the real kiss, Bill shook me and hissed menacingly in his best ham-fisted Kirkian staccato delivery, “I! WON’T! KISS! YOU! I! WON’T! KISS! YOU!”

It was absolutely awful, and we were hysterical and ecstatic. The director was beside himself, and still determined to get the kissless shot…

The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad it was unusable…I guess they figured we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.

Critics today sometimes declare the scene a “cop out”–since the kiss isn’t a result of genuine desire, but of aliens telepathically forcing Kirk and Uhura to kiss against their will. But that misses the larger context of what it took to even get it on the air at a time when the Supreme Court decision striking down bans on interracial marriage had only just been handed down the year before.

Other episodes, like “Space Seed,” which introduced the character of Khan Noonien Singh–a genetically engineered “ubermensch” who, the show tells us, was part of “Eugenics wars” that broke out on Earth in the late 20th century–raise the specter of racism as a threat to the continued existence of humanity.

(While Kirk fails the “of course you should kill Hitler if you have the chance, you dummy” test, since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan gifted us with one of the best moments of scenery-chewing ever committed to film, however, he can perhaps be forgiven.)

Another episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” famously featured Frank Gorshin (the Riddler on TV’s Batman) in a story about a species divided into two races–and mortal enemies–by skin color. Resembling alien black-and-white cookies, one race has a left side that is white and a right side that is black. The colors are reversed for the other race.

As Roddenberry explained, “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

BUT IF Star Trek’s vision of an inclusive society, in which various races live and work side by side without the specter of racism, is one of its main strengths, its conception of race overall is, paradoxically, sometimes also a weakness. Often, Star Trek–not only the original series, but spinoff series as well–slips dangerously close to essentialist notions of race.

In the 23rd century, racism no longer exists in the advanced civilization of the United Federation of Planets–yet time and again, species like the Klingons are portrayed as “naturally” warlike and violent; the Ferengi are “naturally” greedy; Romulans are “naturally” calculating and contemptuous of difference.

These species-wide characteristics are then used to set the species up as villains–and, more troubling, the audience is told in several instances that such “differences,” whether culturally ingrained or biological, should be respected.

This is where the contradictions at the heart of the Star Trek universe become most pronounced. (Though in the case of Deep Space Nine series, later seasons did at least examine this when it came to the characterization of the Ferengi and the Klingons.)

If Star Wars movies are essentially about the threat of space fascism and the resistance to it, then Star Trek is, at heart, about the hope for a sort of “space socialism”–a liberal, military-style socialism, but nevertheless one in which society is so technologically advanced that the material needs of the Federation’s inhabitants are met, allowing for the free and full development of individuals.

In the world of Star Trek, the availability of replicator technology generally means that anything you need can be beamed into existence. Yet because of the “Prime Directive”–the guiding principle of the Federation, which prohibits its members from interfering in the development of technologically backward alien societies–the Federation ostensibly ignores oppression, slavery and other horrors in less-developed societies, on the theory that working through these processes is part of a society’s internal development.

Since our heroes would never actually condone such oppressions, episodes often hinge on finding a way to skirt the letter of the Prime Directive–or in some cases, to justify inaction when individuals and even entire races, societies or planets face extinction.

The various Star Trek series broadly offer a critique of war and militarism even as they extol the Federation’s brand of liberal military intervention–a kind of United Nations in space. (In fact, the Charter of the United Federation of Planets actually drew text and inspiration from the UN Charter, as well as other sources.)

Though its internal logic is often convoluted or inconsistent–while replication technology has eliminated the need for money, there still are outposts, like that depicted in Deep Space Nine, which are run on a partially capitalist basis and where small businesses thrive, for example–Star Trek presents a vision of the future that is hopeful in its inclusivity and its suggestion of the possibility of a society free of deprivation and want.

As Captain Picard of The Next Generation series explains to several cryogenically frozen survivors of the 20th century when they are awoken onboard the Enterprise in the 24th century: “A lot has changed in the past 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy…We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

In the Star Trek universe, without capitalist class relations to put the same kinds of strictures on people, individuals are free to develop themselves as they see fit. It’s one reason why the Borg–the most compelling villain from the Picard-era series–are so frightening. The Borg also provides for the material needs of its collective component worker members–but extinguishes all individuality among them. Individuals are assimilated, reduced to their work function as part of the hive–and nothing more.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AS RODDENBERRY once explained, the show’s creators resisted the idea that TV audiences were too stupid or backward to appreciate the show’s message:

We believed that the often ridiculed mass audience is sick of this world’s petty nationalism and all its old ways and old hatreds, and that people are not only willing but anxious to think beyond most petty beliefs that have for so long kept mankind divided. So you see that the formula, the magic ingredient that many people keep seeking and many of them keep missing is really not in Star Trek. It is in the audience. There is an intelligent life form out on the other side of that television, too…

What Star Trek proves, as faulty as individual episodes could be, is that the much-maligned common man and common woman has an enormous hunger for brotherhood. They are ready for the 23rd century now, and they are light years ahead of their petty governments and their visionless leaders.

But that creates a problem: How to create compelling characters and stories when the foundation of so much drama is precisely the kind of petty conflict that supposedly doesn’t have a place in the Star Trek universe?

As Manu Saadia, author of the recent book Trekonomics, explained to Wired’s “Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy” podcast:

[The characters] are consistent with the economic circumstances in which they live. Imagine yourself growing up in a society where there is never any want or need or financial insecurity of any sort. You will be a very different person. You will be absolutely uninterested in conspicuous consumption…You will probably be interested in things of a higher nature–the cultivation of the mind, education, love, art and discovery. And so these people are very stoic in that sense, because they have no worldly interests that we today could relate to…

I usually say that they’re all aliens, in a way. My friend Chris [Black], who wrote on [The Next Generation], said it was really hard for the writers, because it’s a workplace drama, but there’s no drama.

That’s similar to what Karl Marx wrote in The German Ideology about the ways in which capitalism constrains human activity by alienating workers from their labor:

For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society…society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

In the Star Trek universe, I can be a ship’s captain in the morning, a detective in the afternoon, a winemaker in the evening, and a flute player after dinner (assuming my ship doesn’t get attacked by hostile Romulans that day, that is).

As the eminently logical Mr. Spock might have put it, the Star Trek universe is one in which humanity has determined that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” (percent, that is).

“The human race is a remarkable creature, one with great potential,” Gene Roddenberry said, “and I hope that Star Trek has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities.”

It’s up to the audience to go boldly–and make it so.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/09/15/socialism-in-one-galaxy

Taking a knee with Kaepernick

Several NFL players have joined in the “quiet insurrection” started by Colin Kaepernick, but the impact is getting louder and louder, writes Nation columnist Dave Zirin.

Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots raise their fists during the National Anthem

Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots raise their fists during the National Anthem

ON SUNDAY, a small group of National Football League players risked their careers, their endorsements, and their livelihoods. They did so through the simple act of refusal. They refused to be a prop for the cameras. They refused to swallow their concerns about racism and police violence in order to please the needs of their employers. They refused to be intimidated by sports-radio talkers bashing their character or an online army of shameless thugs threatening their lives with the casual click of someone ordering a book from Amazon. They stood in the proudest tradition of athletes who have used their platforms for social change, and they have already felt a backlash that would ring familiar, almost note-for-note, to anyone acquainted with what that last generation had to endure.

Before naming the players who chose to stand against the current, it is worth setting the stage. Sunday was less a current than a red, white, and blue tsunami. This was opening day for the NFL–by an exponential degree the most popular sports league in the United States–and it was also September 11, 2016, the 15th anniversary of the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Those attacks killed thousands of innocent people. They also launched an unprecedented assault on civil liberties, the scapegoating of an entire religion, and an illegal war in Iraq that continues to produce an unfathomable body count. The leader of these atrocities, George W. Bush, should have had to answer for his actions. Instead, he was there on Sunday in Arlington, Texas, tossing the coin for the nationally televised game between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. The Cowboys were not alone in bringing out–literally–the big guns. President Obama spoke over the Jumbotron in Seattle and Vice President Joe Biden was live in Philadelphia. Every stadium had troops march onto the field with flags roughly the size of Rhode Island. Warplanes flew overhead. Bald eagles–actual, real-life bald eagles–were even set free to soar for the cameras.

Like those majestic eagles, the NFL has ascended to new heights these last 15 years by pinning the image of their league to our permanent state of war. The Pentagon has made sure that this has been a mutually beneficial relationship, tying military recruitment,staged “salute the troops” events, and a hyper-militarized form of patriotism to the NFL’s brand. Journalist Shaun Scott wrote a masterful excavation of this last week on Sports Illustrated‘s website, in an article titled “How the NFL sells (and profits from) the inextricable link between football and war”:

It didn’t matter that NFL players such as Cardinals safety Pat Tillman and Rams center Jason Brown criticized the war; or that actual veterans detested insulting comparisons between the vicissitudes of combat and the triviality of sport.

What mattered was that subcultures like tailgating, fantasy football, and gambling helped the NFL become more popular than ever, and that this popularity coincided with – and exploited – the escalation of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IN OTHER words, nothing that happened Sunday, with its big-budget patriotic pageantry, should have surprised anybody. It was business as usual. The true shock and awe was the presence of a small group of players who took that moment to instead express dissent. To be clear, these were not gestures against war or the national-security state. They were acts of solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s anthem demonstrations against police violence. They were protests aimed at stating the simple idea that there is a gap between the values that the flag claims to represent and the deadly realities of racism. They were also–whether intentionally or not–declarations that they would not be intimidated by the backlash felt by Kaepernick or Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, who took a knee on Thursday and promptly lost an endorsement deal.

As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played around the country, two players on the New England Patriots: Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty; three players on the Tennessee Titans: Jurrell Casey, Wesley Woodyard and Jason McCourty; and Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs raised their fists during or immediately after the Anthem played. In addition, four players on the Miami Dolphins–Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas, Arian Foster and Jelani Jenkins–took a knee during the National Anthem. The Dolphins’ gesture was all the more dramatic because it took place across the field from the Seattle Seahawks, who linked arms in a gesture of “team unity and solidarity” after their efforts to make some sort of statement about police brutality were snuffed out because, according to the reporting of NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, “#Seahawks originally planned to kneel together, hand over their hearts, during the anthem. But some players close with military objected.”

Never mind that these protests have had nothing to do with the military. But that mere perception was enough to suppress a small group of proudly outspoken Seahawks players who wanted to show Kaepernick that they were on his side. The endless howl that any action on Sunday should be interpreted as being “against the troops” and disrespectful to the memory of 9/11–no matter the words of actual troops or 9/11 families–stretched from a sector of the Seahawks locker room to anonymous Twitter bigots to celebrities Rob Lowe and Kate Upton. It’s an absurd argument, meant to derail and delegitimize the actual issue that’s being raised: the extrajudicial killings of black people.

The best response to this came from Kaepernick last month when he said:

I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.

The pressure to fall in line was strong enough to compel a group of political players in Seattle to back down from their planned protest. But the capitulation of the Seahawks was overshadowed by these other gestures, which defied not only the political agenda of the league but also its top-down corporate structure. They are gestures that stand as a rebuke to those in the NFL audience who cheer for Black bodies on the field, but rage against Black voices. Jay Busbee at Yahoo! Sports called Sunday’s events a “quiet insurrection.” It is an apt description, with one caveat: This is an insurrection we can only see if we get beyond the noise.

First published at TheNation.com.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/09/14/taking-a-knee-with-kaepernick

On the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the Aleppo gaffes show we have learned nothin

The foggy aftermath of Gary Johnson’s “What is Aleppo?” gaffe revealed how little U.S. policymakers know about ISIS

On the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the Aleppo gaffes show we have learned nothing
Men inspect a damaged site after double airstrikes on the rebel held Bab al-Nairab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, August 27, 2016. (Credit: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail)

The 2016 campaign story of the week seemed to be Gary Johnson’s blunder during an MSNBC interview when he shockingly asked, “What is Aleppo?” That story, though, is really only the tip of the iceberg. The real story is the response to his gaffe. Quick to jump on the third-party presidential candidate for being woefully unprepared, political insiders and the media made a far worse error — the exact sort of error that led to our disastrous response to the 9/11 attacks.

Johnson couldn’t answer the question about what he would do about Aleppo. It’s bad news that a presidential candidate, even one from a third party with no shot of winning, could not recognize the name of one of the major cities in civil war-stricken Syria. This suggests that Johnson simply isn’t following the news related to one of most significant international crises today.

He later corrected his gaffe by saying he thought Aleppo was an acronym.  But the good news, is that Johnson didn’t pretend to know what it was. He didn’t just make something up or blather something incoherent as we might expect Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to do.

Johnson confessed ignorance, which shows a degree of integrity.

Not so with the corporate media and political insiders.

The New York Times committed the most egregious of the media mistakes. It chided Johnson for being wrong, then got it wrong itself. It started by describing Aleppo as the “de facto capital of ISIS.” (That would be Raqqa.) The Times then corrected that gaffe to state that Aleppo was the capital of Syria. (It is actually Damascus.) The Times finally changed its description of the city to simply be a “war-torn Syrian city.” As Salon’s Ben Norton reported, “There were five revisions to the Times story from 9:18 a.m. to 12:18 p.m. EST.”

On corporate TV news media, Joe Scarborough of MSNBC brought on Christopher Hill, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who had fun mocking Johnson but also incorrectly identified the city: “But the capital of ISIS — very much in the news, especially in the past two days, but for last two years. And for him to draw that kind of blank — and, by the way, boy was that a blank stare on his face.” To make it worse, he wasn’t corrected.

And Richard Grenell, formerly the longest-serving U.S. spokesperson at the United Nations, also got it wrong and implied that Aleppo is controlled by ISIS, even though the organization doesn’t have a strong presence there. Norton pointed out Grenell, who has also become a prominent pundit, served as the national security spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.”

Both the corporate media and the political insiders it covers were simply wrong about basic facts regarding ISIS and the Syrian civil war. Not a little wrong — completely wrong. What’s worse is that these mistakes then go on to shape public perceptions. They fuel ideas about whether we should have “boots on the ground” in Syria and how we should handle the threat of ISIS.

But if we have no clue what these threats even are, how can we possible come up with a reasonable response?

Which brings me back to 9/11.

The attacks on the United States on 9/11 were a tragedy, but our response to them was a full-blown catastrophe. Even more important, our response was based in large part on a lack of knowledge of the basic players and a mistaken sense of geographical connections.

Consider that George W. Bush — who in 1999, as the Intercept reminds us, failed a pop quiz about the names of global leaders — ordered the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq based on a series of mistaken associations and false “intelligence.” Now there seems to be significant evidence that many members of the Bush administration had been well aware that they were promulgating lies – but they were also surrounded by a team willing to accept the lies as truths.

The Bush administration was enabled by representatives of a corporate media all too happy to swallow their lies and ramp up the public for the war effort. As Raymond Bonner reported for The Atlantic, after the 9/11 attacks “journalists were swept up in the national feelings of fear and outrage — and failed to do their job.”

Recall from media coverage and political spin efforts the almost immediate association made between the 9/11 attackers, al-Qaida, the Taliban and the Afghan people.

Yet not one person on the 9/11 flights was Afghan or affiliated with the Taliban. The majority of the attackers were from Saudi Arabia. But those facts didn’t stop the association between Afghanistan and 9/11.

The rush to connect the Taliban with al-Qaida led to the worst possible outcome, since rather than negotiate with the Taliban, the United States pursued an aggressive push for war. As Foreign Policy Journal reported, members of the Taliban showed significant interest in handing over bin Laden; they just needed to be given a chance to do so while saving face.

Meanwhile, the U.S. media reported that the Taliban were intransigent. CNN, for instance, “reported that the Taliban [were] ‘refusing to hand over bin Laden without proof or evidence that he was involved’ in the 9/11 attacks.” But the truth was, as Abdul Salam Zaeef, an ambassador to Pakistan, explained, “deporting him without proof would amount to an ‘insult to Islam.’” But, “we are ready to cooperate if we are shown evidence,” he added. That interest in cooperation was absent in the media and political rhetoric because the truth of a collaborative Taliban didn’t match the desire for war.

The links between 9/11 and the Iraq War display an even greater breakdown in knowledge. CNN later reported that Bush and his team made 935 lies to the U.S. public in the two years from 9/11 to the start of the Iraq War. Those lies got media coverage, which then led to a massively misinformed public.

In 2003 the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that a significant number of U.S. citizens linked Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi president, to 9/11 and al-Qaida to Iraq. There was also widespread misinformation about hidden “weapons of mass destruction” having been found in the country after the U.S. invasion, when they had not been. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed thought there was worldwide support for the war. Only 30 percent of those surveyed had none of these misperceptions.

It probably comes as no surprise that Fox News viewers scored the worst on misperceptions, with 80 percent of this group having at least one false belief about the war.

Both right after 9/11 and today political leaders and the media are too often misinformed on key facts central to issues being discussed. It’s not that they don’t know; it’s that they are wrong.

Thus, there is a significant gap between expressing Gary Johnson-like lack of knowledge and Christopher Hill-like mistakes. As scholars Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have pointed out, there’s a huge difference between being uninformed and misinformed. Folks who are uninformed can learn. Those who are misinformed are wrong. Nyhan and Reifler explained that misperceptions are extremely difficult to correct. It is far harder to change false beliefs than it is to educate someone in the first place.

As we consider the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we must realize that the problem is not just that so much public discourse is clueless; it’s that it is delusional. It’s not simply that we don’t know; it’s that we make things up then act on false information.

Before we have a chance at coming up with a good answer about we should do about Aleppo, we need to make a commitment to getting the facts right. We certainly blew it after 9/11 and could argue that those mistakes have only worsened the crisis in Syria. If we want to honor the lives lost due to the 9/11 attacks, we should start by getting the story straight.

 

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

This Election Is Hillary Clinton’s to Lose, and She’s Screwing It Up

 Hillary Clinton raised $143 million in August—and still finds herself in a tight race with Donald Trump. (Photo: Andrew Harnik / AP)

You could not pick a worse, more inept, inexperienced or offensive joke of a presidential candidate than Donald Trump. The United States has become the butt of international ridicule over our very own “Kim Jong-Un.” Any candidate running against Trump from the opposing major party with a pulse ought to be beating him in the polls by double digits. But Hillary Clinton isn’t.

The Democratic nominee is barely ahead of “the most unpopular presidential candidate since the former head of the Ku Klux Klan,” and a recent CNN poll puts her at 2 percent behind Trump. Granted, it is only one poll, and several other recent polls have found her a few percentage points ahead. Still, no Democrat could ask for an easier Republican candidate to beat. In the history of American presidential races, it is likely we have never had a more comically unsuitable figure as Trump nominated by a major party. And yet Clinton is struggling to come out ahead.

The Democrat’s ardent supporters—those who have championed her from Day One—claim that we live in a sexist country and that her gender is what is standing in the way of most Americans embracing her. They assert that the media and her critics hold her to an unfairly high standard. But in a country where white women have benefited far more from affirmative action policies, how is it that we easily elected the nation’s first black president twice, only to stumble over a white female nominee?

The problem is not her gender. Of course, many might refuse to vote for a woman (as I’m sure racist Americans refused to vote for Obama simply because he is black), but many more might vote for her because she is a woman. While there is no way to be certain that the two forces cancel each other out, Clinton’s gender is not her biggest liability. Her refusal to even attempt to embrace bold progressive values and her inability to read the simmering nationwide anger over economic and racial injustice are the larger obstacles to her popularity.

In positioning herself first and foremost as what she is not—Trump—Clinton is picking only the low-hanging fruit. My 9-year-old son could make fun of Trump in clever ways, and does so routinely. For Clinton to fixate on Trump’s endless flaws suggests that her own platform has little substance. For example, in a recent speech she said of Trump, “He says he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS. The secret is, he has no plan.” While these kinds of statements might make for funny one-liners, Clinton’s main credential is that she once led the State Department, and she did so with such hawkishness that Americans who are weary of endless wars are not impressed by the experience. (Not to mention that she was caught telling lies about her private email server while secretary of state.) If she proposed diplomacy over war, a plan to exit Iraq/Afghanistan/Syria, a promise to withhold weapons from Saudi Arabia, a commitment to Palestinian human rights, and so on, voters might sit up and take note.

On domestic issues, Clinton is failing to articulate a progressive vision as well. A recently leaked memo revealed that the Democratic Party views Black Lives Matter as a “radical” movement and should not “offer support for concrete policy positions.” Troy Perry, who wrote the memo, now is part of Clinton’s campaign team. Rather than quickly rebutting the memo and affirming her full support for the movement, Clinton has remained silent. Meanwhile, BLM issued a pointed response, saying, “We deserve to be heard, not handled.”

Black voters tend to vote Democratic—a fact the party has taken for granted for decades. But if Clinton wants to earn those votes, she could take a page out of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s book and visit (or send a representative to visit) the ongoing occupation of Los Angeles City Hall by Black Lives Matter activists. BLM is calling on Mayor Eric Garcetti to fire Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck over a spate of killings by officers that has made his department the most violent of all departments nationwide. Instead, Clinton goes to Beverly Hills for a fundraiser to hobnob with wealthy donors and celebrities, including Garcetti.

Clinton has also failed to offer bold thinking on the hot-button issue of immigration. Trump, in a recent controversial visit to Mexico, reiterated his bizarre plan to build a border wall and have our southern neighbor pay for it. Though Clinton stands nowhere near such a plan—and does not embrace Trump’s announcement to ban Muslims—she does share with him some troubling aspects of an inhumane, enforcement-heavy approach to immigration, including the use of biometric data to track the undocumented. She has gone on record as saying, “I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in. … And I do think you have to control your borders.” She also voted for a 2006 bill that called for a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border that’s only a few hundred miles shorter than what Trump is proposing. If Clinton wanted to excite her Latino base, she could take a far bolder stance, admitting that she was wrong on her earlier positions and offering a humane vision, more in line with the one Bernie Sanders articulated that won him broad support.

Rather than reaching out to American voters on such issues, Clinton has been busy pandering to one particular community: the uber-rich. According to a New York Times article, she has made multiple trips to wealthy enclaves over the past month alone. In addition to Beverly Hills, she has visited Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons, rubbing elbows with celebrities and other rich elites. Just in August she raised more than $140 million through such fundraisers—easy fodder for the GOP to criticize in a new set of ads.

While making herself accessible to America’s upper classes, she has made herself almost completely unavailable to the press. Until Thursday, Clinton had not held a single news conference in 2016, inviting the unflattering comparison to President George W. Bush, who came under fire for avoiding interactions with the media. Bush was skewered for acting like he was hiding something, afraid the press might ask hard questions that would invite a blundering response. Clinton, one could argue, does not need to win over the press—most mainstream outlets already embrace her nomination and are pushing hard for her election. A recent article by Paul Krugman in the Times is a prime example. Ordinary Americans, however, continue to be unimpressed.

Perhaps Clinton feels that she can win without trying. After all, she has said publicly to her supporters, “I stand between you and the apocalypse.” She is positioning herself as a better option for president than the apocalyptic one. But that’s not saying much. And perhaps that is the point.

Maybe Clinton thinks she does not need to win over ordinary Americans. She knows she has the support of the Wall Street elite, the Pentagon war hawks and even a growing number of Republicans, one of whom implored his fellow Republicans to save the party by voting for Clinton.

And yet all of that may not be enough, as the polls are showing. What Americans are looking for is bold, visionary thinking that acknowledges how broken Washington, D.C., is at our collective expense. The majority of Americans do not want measured, lukewarm progressive positions that keep systems intact. This is why Sanders, in calling for a “political revolution,” attracted so many new and independent voters, especially young millennials. This is why Trump is gaining traction, because between the two major-party candidates, his pathetic piñata-inspiring figure is offering the bolder rhetoric.

If Clinton loses this election, it will not be because Americans are dumb, racist misogynists who would cut off their noses to spite their faces in refusing to elect a sane woman over an insane man. It will not be because too many Americans “selfishly” voted for a third party or didn’t vote at all. It will be because Clinton refused to compromise her allegiance to Wall Street and the morally bankrupt center-right establishment positions of her party and chose not to win over voters. This election is hers to lose, and if this nation ends up with President Trump, it will be most of all the fault of Clinton and the Democratic Party that backs her.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio, soon to be on Free Speech TV (click here for the campaign to televise Uprising). She is also the Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a US-based non-profit that supports women’s rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of “Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence.”

TRUTHDIG

Che Guevara: A flawed revolutionary icon

Mike Gonzalez looks at the important lessons to be drawn from Samuel Farber’s new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, in a review first published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

FOR TWO generations of activists, Ernesto Che Guevara has symbolized a kind of selfless heroism. His relative youth at his death in 1967 (he was 38) conserved his air of rebelliousness and the image of a man interested only in the struggle, rather than in power.

Yet Sam Farber who acknowledges these qualities, describes him early in his new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, as “irremediably undemocratic.” The contradiction is striking and central to Farber’s critical analysis of Che’s life as a revolutionary.

Farber’s starting point is the understanding of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working classes, with the emphasis on self. In other words, revolution is, as Marx says (in his Theses on Feuerbach) the “coincidence of the changing of self and the changing of circumstances.” It is in acting collectively in the world that the majority come to recognize their own power and become subjects of history rather than merely its objects. That is the central idea of Marxism.

Yet Che Guevara’s politics and his practice were based on a very different idea–that it is revolutionaries who make the revolution. And they do so irrespective of the circumstances in which they operate, because it is the will of the revolutionary vanguard that is the key.

This voluntarist view is not just misguided; it is alien to the revolutionary tradition to which Farber (and myself) belong. The substitution of the leaders for the mass movement, points ahead to a very different future prefigured in the guerrilla method.

Farber explains that Edward Bellamy’s 19th century utopian novel Looking Backward was one of Guevara’s inspirations. Interestingly the future state that Bellamy imagines was modeled on an army.

Farber reminds us that revolutions do not automatically lead either to dictatorship or democracy; their outcome will depend on the “leading politics” of the movement. In the case of Cuba after 1959, the state was shaped around the command model–a pyramid of orders delivered from above and accepted without question–in which democracy appeared as a risk to the authority of leadership.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IT SEEMS curious at first that someone with Guevara’s background should have come not just to accept, but to vigorously advocate that inescapably Stalinist project–to dismiss the right to strike and the independent organization of workers as mere obstacles on the road to revolution and to scorn the “false prophets of mass democracy”.

Born in Argentina to left wing parents influenced by the especially Stalinist Argentine communist party, Guevara grew up as a radical Bohemian, a life-style rebel who spurned what he saw as bourgeois habits, from cleanliness to ostentatious consumption. His protest against that culture took the form of a kind of a puritanical asceticism.

The politics would come later, though he was a visceral anti-imperialist from early on. And by the time he reached Mexico, where he met the Cuban rebels for the first time, he had begun to steep himself in Marxism. But it was a Marxism in the abstract, not linked to activism of any kind.

The members of the 26th July Movement with whom Che landed in Cuba in December 1956 to launch the guerrilla campaign were, as Farber describes them, rightly in my view, “déclassé”–political rebels from mainly middle class backgrounds with few roots in the mass movement. Guevara shared that dislocation.

With the victory of the revolution in January 1959, Che joined the Castro brothers in its leadership. It may surprise many readers that Che was–and Farber marshals a powerful body of evidence to prove his case–together with Raúl, the architect of the new state, though ultimately the political skills of Fidel carried him to the top of the pyramid.

It was not a search for personal power that made Che the unconditional supporter of a one-party state–unlike Fidel, for whom it was his driving impulse. But it reflected an admiration for the Stalinist state in its most sectarian and undemocratic manifestations–the state as the exclusive vanguard.

That model drove Che’s critically important interventions in the economy in the early years, based on rapid industrialization, but taking no account of the realities of the Cuban economy. By 1962, Che acknowledged how mistaken those economic policies were, but by then it was too late to turn the clock back.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

WHAT THIS “economic voluntarism”, as Farber calls it, illustrated was not just the single-minded dedication to the immediate creation of a communist state along Stalinist lines, but also a central feature of Guevara’s politics that Farber calls his “political tone-deafness” or his “schematism”.

It was already implicit in his early (1960) manual on Guerrilla Warfare, and definitive especially in his later activities in the Congo and Bolivia. For Guevara, political strategy was not shaped by the specific circumstances in which it unfolded.

So in a Bolivia with an extraordinary tradition of working-class militancy, and which was in the throes of a bitter strike wave when he arrived in 1966, he was insistent on creating a rural guerrilla force and paid no attention to the working-class movement except to call on its militants to join the guerrillas (which no more than a handful did). A year later Che was dead, together with most of his comrades.

In the Congo the failure of the movement there was attributed by Guevara to the lack of a vanguard leadership. And in his arguments with the French agronomist Rene Dumont over the right to strike, Guevara angrily rejected Dumont’s insistence that it was fundamental to a socialist democracy, just as he did in his famous essay Socialism and man in Cuba, insisting that “a mass party was only possible when the masses have attained vanguard consciousness”.

By the mid-sixties Che was increasingly critical of the Soviet economy’s drift towards capitalism, but at no point did that lead him to a criticism of the bureaucratic state. How could it, after all, when he had been an architect of the one-party state in Cuba?

What impresses in Farber’s book is the way in which he interweaves a critical assessment of Guevara’s politics with general arguments about the meaning of socialism. And at its heart, that socialism is democracy of the most radical and profound kind.

The one-party state that Che forged with Raúl Castro continues in Cuba today, overseeing the restoration of a capitalist economy. The lack of resistance to its inevitable effects are a product of a one-party regime that denied the diversity of working-class politics and imposed a system in which the majority had no freedom to act, criticize or generate alternative socialist projects.

Would Che have been happy with the outcome, and the corruption and manipulation of power it has produced? His role in creating the system suggests that he would, albeit perhaps with some misgivings. And he would have despised the yearning for a materially better life among the majority as the unacceptable infiltration of capitalist values.

So what should we do with this flawed revolutionary icon? Recognize that his high moral standards, his resolute internationalism, and his egalitarianism were qualities to cherish. But the one-party state he favored and its repression of democracy consigned the subjects of revolution to a position in which self-emancipation became impossible, as the self-proclaimed vanguard usurped their role, at first in the name of revolution but soon, and in the absence of any possibility of control from below, in their own self-interest.

First published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/09/08/a-flawed-revolutionary-icon