Hawking Up Hairballs

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Ah, Georgia

I live in the state of Georgia. There are a lot of things to like about this part of the United States, and it is home to me. That said, I have to admit that the state is home to some real nutballs, and I fear that there are a lot of them. Recent events in the state legislature have brought them out of the woodwork again.

One of our benighted legislators has introduced a bill that would permanently proclaim April of each year as Confederate History and Heritage Month. I wrote "permanent" because, as it is, April 26 is officially Confederate Memorial Day and each year the governor proclaims that particular April as Confederate Memorial Month. Oh, hell, yeah, and this new bill is meant to honor the history of the Confederacy, its soldiers and the people who "contributed to the cause of Southern Independence." I included that last phrase in quotation marks because it's lifted from the bill. The illusion cherished by the pro-Confederate reactionaries is that the Civil War, or as they like to call it, the War Between The States, was not about slavery. It was about the South's right to self-determination. The historical evidence says otherwise and, insofar as self-determination is concerned, consider this fact. Prior to the war there were more black slaves in South Carolina than there were white people. If it were a matter of self-determination, who would have been running that state?

Now, in response to this bill, certain civil rights leaders are asking the Georgia Legislature and Governor to issue a symbolic apology for slavery. This too is utter nonsense. In the first place, the people who should have apologized are all dead. The sins of the fathers are not visited upon the children. In addition, there is no continuity between the slavery government of Georgia and the current government. What sense would an apology make anyway? It wouldn't change the material conditions under which so many African Americans live. It won't create jobs for them. It won't increase their educational opportunities. It wouldn't represent even a babystep toward economic egalitarianism between black Georgians and white ones.

Neither of these measures are constructive. The reactionary trogodytes and the involved civil rights leaders are just tweaking each others' noses. At best this is a sound and fury signifying nothing. At worst it will serve only to increase racial tensions.

Now, as if that weren't bad enough, there's Representative Ben Bridges, a Republican from Cleveland, Georgia. He is trying to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools because it is a religious deception that originates in the teachings of an ancient Jewish sect. He also believes that science is wrong and that the Earth is the center of the universe. He has a website devoted to these and other crazy notions. For your amusement, here it is: http://www.fixedearth.com

Thursday, March 15, 2007


"Hitherto, every form of society has been based ... on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes."

Communist Manifesto

I am not a liberal. I say that because I am a leftist and I do not consider liberals to be leftists. I am sure that there are many who would disagree with this characterization, so let me explain.

That which distinguishes the leftist from the liberal is the concept of class struggle. The fundamental explanatory concept for liberals is the individual. Each of these individuals pursues his or her own perceived best interests. Liberals feel that the wealthy, because of the money at their command, are likely to wield undue influence over the political process. Likewise, groups like organized labor might also distort the process because of its numbers and organization. From the liberal viewpoint, one of the functions of the state is to address these inequities so that something approaching a real egalitarianism can be achieved.

To the leftist the fundamental analytical concept is class. To oversimplify, there are oppressing classes and oppressed classes. The oppressing classes enrich themselves by appropriating wealth from the oppressed classes. That leads to an ongoing struggle. The oppressing classes are continually trying to extort more and more wealth from the oppressed. In their turn, the oppressed classes are constantly struggling to get out from under the collective thumb of their oppressors. That struggle can take various forms. The most common form, and one that is nothing but destructive from a class point of view, is common crime. (I say common crime to distinguish it from business or white-collar crime.) That is the attempt of individuals or small groups to grasp some measure of wealth or power for themselves. The large social and political movements are another way in which the oppressed endeavor to improve their lot. For example, the Civil Rights movement in the USA was not just a struggle for equal rights for African Americans. It was also a class struggle. African Americans were the most oppressed group in the USA and they were attempting to ameliorate their condition.

The most common misconception about class comes from the failure to see it as an emergent property. As individuals, each and every one of us may be pursuing what we perceive as our own best interests and, in the process, classes emerge without anyone really intending that it be so. These emergent properties are common throughout nature. An example that might be pertinent to our discussion is the ant colony. Each ant is an autonomous unit that behaves according to a few relatively simple rules. In spite of that, their colonies exhibit very complex behaviors. Some even capture and enslave other species.

The failure to understand class leads to some common misunderstandings. People will ask who is in this ruling class of yours. The usual intent of this question is to impeach the concept because it turns out to be impossible to specify exactly who is in the various classes. In reality, that is quite beside the point. Class isn't just the sum of the individuals who might or might not be members of it. Class is the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Each and everyone of those rich Wall Street investors is pursuing his own personal best interests. I doubt that many would see themselves as representing a class, but given the social position that they occupy and the milieu in which they operate, they collectively act as part of a class that emerges from all of those individuals with similar interests.

Another common complaint about class analysis is that it leads to a conspiracy theory of history. Nothing could be further from the truth, as my comments above should demonstrate. Those who constitute the ruling class in any country are behaving according to their own individual lights and they may even be in fierce competition with some of their fellows, but the class emerges nonetheless. It is not something over which an individual or group of individuals has any control.

One big difference between liberals and leftists comes in their understanding of the role of the state apparatus. As I mentioned above, according to liberals, one of the most important functions of government is to act as an arbiter between the various conflicting forces in society in order to ensure a certain egalitarianism. The leftist sees things differently. From his point of view, the state is primarily a instrument of the ruling or oppressing classes. Its chief function is to suppress the lower classes and to aid in the extraction of wealth from the oppressed. Liberals see corruption is government as a distortion, but leftists see it as endemic.

Now there are times when the oppressors feel the need to make concessions to the oppressed. One of those times was in the 1930's in the USA. The Roosevelt administration made significant concessions in the form of Social Security, the minimum wage, and laws that granted concessions to labor. However, he didn't do it out of the kindness of his heart. Look at the times. The USA was in the midst of a deep depression. Social unrest was high. Not only that but, as a result of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1918, the Communist movement was strong and it had a large sympathetic following among the working class. Many of the social and political struggles for economic and civil rights during the Thirties in the USA were led by open members of the Communist Party. Not only that but a strong Fascist movement had arisen. There were sections of the country where the German-American Bund led large demonstrations that featured the Nazi salute and the singing of "Deutschland ueber Alles". There was real fear among the nation's rulers that parts of the country could descend into social chaos, and Roosevelt's welfare state measures were part of a successful attempt to short-circuit that.

You might wonder what I'm leading up to with all this. It's a fair question, and it's the following. To hear liberals and even some conservatives talk, the Bush administration is a massive distortion of the political process in the USA. From the leftist perspective, this is not the case. They are just doing what the state always does, advancing the interests of our ruling class. The only difference between them and previous administrations is that they are more blatant about what they are doing. If they had not done things like go to war in the Middle East, pass the Patriot Act, and clamp down on individual and civil rights, another administration would have done pretty much the same thing. Historical circumstances demand it. We are living in a world where fundamental resources, like oil, are becoming increasingly scarce. It is in the interests of our ruling class to do whatever it takes to secure those resources for their own use, and that is exactly what they are setting themselves up to do. A lot of the measures that they are going to have to take aren't going to be popular, so they are implementing a state apparatus that will permit them to quickly and ruthlessly clamp down on social protest without legal interference.

How effectively the Bush administration is doing in representing the interests of the ruling class is another question, but I don't believe that they are anywhere near as inept as liberals believe.

Two Disappointing Movies

I watched two disappointing movies recently. The first was Frida. It was the story of the artist Frida Kahlo, and it focussed her stormy relationship with Diego Rivera. It was nominated for a bunch of Oscars and won a couple, but I found the movie to be tedious and boring. The narrative logic was not compelling to me. One scene just seemed to follow the other and I found myself saying, so what. The movie just seemed to be tumbling downhill, and I had to force myself to sit through the whole thing.

The other movie was The Pink Panther. It was nothing but a mindless entertainment, I'll grant that, but the old Blake Edwards' Pink Panther movies starring Peter Sellers were genuinely funny. Sellers played Clouseau as a naif who bumbled into the solutions of the crimes in the movies. In this version, Steve Martin plays Clouseau and it was a poor casting choice. I've never found Martin funny. His comedic work has always struck me as just plain over the top and stupid, and his take on Clouseau is the same. It's too bad because there's some good physical comedy and sight gags in the movie. The ending was a cop-out as well. Clouseau doesn't just bumble into the solution of the movie's crimes. He solves them with a couple of shrewd observations that leave the viewer thinking that he wasn't so stupid after all. The originals were much better.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Pynchon Interrupted

Well, I bogged down in Thomas Pynchon's Against The Day a couple of months ago and I haven't picked it up since. Quite frankly, it just doesn't seem to be worth the effort. I loved Gravity's Rainbow, and compared to that book, Against The Day seems like the work of a pallid imitator. A thought immediately comes to mind. In the '70's or '80's, Pynchon ran off with his best friend's wife. Now, Pynchon is notoriously reclusive and the former friend got his revenge by granting an interview and revealing various things that he knew about Pynchon and his personal life. One particular little story has stuck with me. This former friend said that one day Pynchon was over at his place. A copy of Gravity's Rainbow was on the table and Pynchon picked it up. He paged through the book and remarked that he was so stoned when he wrote most of it that he couldn't remember what he was trying to get at in many places. Now, it's hard to give much credence to such gossip but the contrast between that book and Pynchon's most recent is so stark that I can't help but wonder.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Lost In Translation

I recently watched Lost In Translation for the first time, and I'm sorry that I waited so long to see it, because I loved the movie. In fact, it has been haunting me. My mind keeps going back to it again and again. For those of you who haven't seen it, Lost In Translation is the story of a young woman and a middle-aged man from the USA who encounter one another in a chic Tokyo hotel. The woman, Charlotte, is played by Scarlett Johanssen. Her husband of two years is a fashion photographer and he is very busy on a shoot, so Charlotte spends a lot of time alone in her room. Bob Harris, played by Bill Murray, is a former movie action hero who is now pretty much washed up as an actor. A Japanese liquor company has hired him to shoot some commercials and advertisements. Charlotte and Bob Harris meet and strike up a friendship. Thereupon the story hangs.

Both Charlotte and Harris are at crisis points in their lives. Charlotte is just coming to realize what marriage means. You don't get the idea that she wants leave the marriage, nor that she no longer loves her husband. It's just that the ordinary romantic illusions about married life are evaporating and the mundane realities are coming to the fore. As for Harris, he's about fifty years old and he's going through his mid-life crisis. As is so often the case with many of us when we are experiencing life crises, Charlotte and Harris both feel alienated and alone. It was a brilliant decision by the auteur to set the movie in Tokyo. Given that neither character speaks the language or much understands the culture, this serves only to accentuate the sense of isolation.

In the ordinary Hollywood movie, Charlotte and Bob would have fall into bed and have a fling, but they don't. Nor does either one seem inclined in that direction. Instead a caring, if short-lived, friendship springs up between them, and it's this that really makes the movie. The premise is romantic to be sure. In a world in which everyone is out for himself, this movie argues that it is possible for a man and a woman to enjoy a truly selfless and meaningful friendship.

As I said, I loved this movie. Others haven't liked it, among them someone I know. I found that I was asking myself why. The person in question is outgoing and people-oriented. It occurred to me that it is those who have experienced a profound sense of alienation and isolation who would most appreciate the movie. To others the relationship between Charlotte and Harris just might not seem like a big deal. It is only their intense sense of being all alone that makes the connection they experience so meaningful and poignant.