Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Counter-Revolution of 1776

Is the racist far-right the true heir to the ideals of the American Revolution?

The founding father costumes, the Gadsden flags, the rhetoric about “liberty,” the idea that the President of the United States is a secret Muslim who was born in Kenya, liberals often dismiss the Tea Party as “AstroTurf”, as well-funded corporate propaganda that popped up out of nowhere in 2009 after the election of Barack Obama. To people on the left who still admire Thomas Jefferson, slavery was an abomination, but no reason to throw out the Declaration of Independence. What Lexington and Concord began, Gettysburg and Antietam, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King fulfilled.

How then do you explain the persistence of white supremacy in the United States?

In his new book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, African American historian Gerald Horne spells out exactly what the Tea Party means when they say “we want our America back.” The American Revolution, he argues, was not a revolution at all, but a pre emptive coup by what would eventually become “the slave power.” The idea wasn’t life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was to head off a coming push by the British Crown to abolish slavery. The United States was not founded as a democracy, but as a republic of plantation owners. What the “founding fathers” had in mind was much closer to Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence for Southern Rhodesia in 1964 than it was to the French or Russian Revolution.

I found “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” emotionally satisfying but intellectually unconvincing. While it’s tempting to look at the subversion of democracy by the corporations, the corrupt media, the gigantic prison industrial complex, and the brutal police state as as the inevitable outcome of a country founded on slavery and genocide, I also think it’s important to avoid reading our current political failure back into colonial history. The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America is a fascinating attempt to re-frame history, but it’s more of an essay than a book, a proposal to write a PHD thesis more than the finished dissertation you would defend in font of a doctoral committee.

I do, however, think Gerald Horne has laid out the path for future historians of the American “revolution.” He starts by taking the focus off New England. The founding of the United States, he argues, can only be understood by examining the history of the original thirteen colonies in the context of the Caribbean slave trade. The Haitian Revolution was not some bolt from the blue that shocked the colonial elites in 1804. Rather, it was the culmination of a 200-year-long nightmare that had its roots in the basic economic reality of white, settler culture in the western hemisphere. South Carolina, with its black majority and its orientation towards Barbados and Jamaica, was the key. The Spanish, from their strong base in Saint Augustine, Florida were constantly trying to stir up a slave insurrection against their English rivals in what would eventually become the United States. The Stono Rebellion in 1739, the suppressed uprisings in New York City in 1712 and 1741, the growth of maroon and free black communities in Jamaica, Africans in the western hemisphere were far more dangerous, and far more rebellious than mainstream historians usually give them credit for being. The English colonial presence in North America, was a tentative, fragile endeavor that was by no means guaranteed to succeed.

It is, in fact, hard to avoid seeing the Tea Party’s fears that Barack Obama is a secret foreign invader bent on setting up a black dictatorship over whites as the barely suppressed subconscious memory that many southern whites have of a Spanish funded army of free blacks crossing the narrow straights from Havana to set up an African republic in Florida and South Carolina. While the threat from the Spanish and French was eliminated after the Seven Years War — a threat for white settlers but a hope for enslaved Africans — the slave power quickly discovered a new foreign power to fuel their paranoia, the British themselves. From 1763 to 1776, Horne argues, the British crown was laying the foundation for the abolition of slavery in their American colonies. Lord Mansfield’s decision in the Somerset Case in 1772, where he concluded that slavery had no foundation in English Common Law, was the culmination of of everything the planter class feared, and everything the slaves could have hoped for.

The proclamation of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, that Africans in the 13 colonies were free to take up arms against the rebels went far beyond Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. But this is where I found Gerald Horne’s case less than convincing. His arguments are very strong when he maintains that the Gaspee Affair, where Rhode Island slave trader and founder of Brown University John Brown led an attack on a British customs sloop, is more important to the history of the American “revolution” than the Boston Tea Party. Brown was very obviously defending his “liberty” to trade slaves against the coming attempt by the British crown to abolish it. But I don’t think he explains why Lord Dunmore’s attempt to use Africans to suppress the rebellion failed so dismally. He seems to think it was more about smallpox than a lack of British will.

Why didn’t the British make a more earnest attempt to use Africans to suppress the American Revolution? Lincoln, after all, used German and Irish immigrants, and then emancipated blacks to suppress the Confederacy. The Republican war effort, which began as a conservative program to save the union and keep control of the Mississippi, evolved into a genuinely revolutionary war against slavery. My guess would be that the failure of Lord Dunmore’s campaign to arm African slaves had a lot to do with how the incipient British Empire feared “setting a bad example,” of establishing a precedent where a non-white, colonized people successfully threw off their oppressors. Perhaps the British chose to let the white American slave power go rather than do anything beyond a token attempt to stir up an insurrection among their slaves. Horne doesn’t rule out the possibility, but he stops short before he explores it in enough detail to nail down his case that the American Revolution was, in fact, a counter-revolution.

In other words, while I found The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America an interesting attempt to re-frame colonial history, Gerald Horne hasn’t convinced me that the traditional Marxist view — that the American Revolution was a bourgeois revolt against feudalism that laid the foundation for socialism and radical democracy — is worth discarding. Rather, like J. Sakai’s “Settlers” Horne has laid out a “third worldist” case that more orthodox Marxists have to confront. Why has democracy failed so dismally in the United States? Why are we currently sliding back towards feudalism? Gerald Horne asks the right questions. I hope enough people read his book and follow up on his arguments to provide the right answers.

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

As the camera pans down a line of people on a sidewalk in Paris waiting to buy theater tickets, an attractive middle-aged woman approaches Edna Gruber, a Swiss college student played by Juliette Mayniel. The woman, whose name is Louise, has an extra ticket. There’s something a little shady about Louise, who’s played by real-life Italian aristocrat Alida Valli. She’s polite, but pushy, and overbearing. Edna is naive, timid, unaware of just how much danger she’s in, for Louise is not a ticket scalper or a lesbian pickup artist. She’s an assistant to Doctor Génessier, the film’s villain, a cultured French precursor to Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill.

The next morning, Louise and Edna meet in a cafe. Edna’s been looking for a rented room. Louise has one in mind. She offers to drive her new friend out to the house where it’s located. The house, Doctor Génessier’s palatial chateau, is far out in the suburbs. As the two women drive along, Edna finally starts to get suspicious. There’s something not quite right about Louise. The further Louise drives her away from Paris, the more nervous Edna gets. We, the audience, have already seen what evil Louise is willing to do to serve her master. We know that Edna is, in fact, already dead. What makes Eyes Without a Face so terrifying is how her consciousness catches up with ours. During the drive out to Génessier’s chateau, George Franju, the film’s director, has put us into the shoes of the victim. By the time she meets Génessier, all Edna wants to do is go back to Paris and never see him, or Louise, again. Neither do we. The hair on my body stood up as I waited for the inevitable end of Edna Gruber. Get out of there, I kept saying to myself. “Get out of there.” Edna makes a weak protest. “I need to get back to Paris early so I can meet my friend tomorrow,” she says. We know she’s not going to make that appointment. “Tomorrow will be too late,” Louise responds.

What happens to Edna in Génessier’s chateau is a fate worse than death, although it does, of course, include death. At the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1960, 7 people fainted, prompting Franju to remark that “he now knew why Scotsmen wore skirts.” Doctor Génessier, a wealthy bourgeoisie scientist who, like all bourgeoisie, worships his household gods, worships the image of himself in his daughter, Christiane, a young woman whose face had been horribly disfigured in a car crash. Génessier, a renowned plastic surgeon who’s an expert in “the heterograft” — grafting the skin of one living person onto another — has had Louise harvest Edna as the raw material for his attempt to restore his Christiane’s beautiful face. The experiment turns out to be a failure, thank God. Had it succeeded, it would have meant a brave new world for the wealthy and privileged. They would have had been able to exploit the working class, not only for their labor power, but for the very skin on their bodies.

Eyes Without a Face had been carefully written to get by the French, German, and British censors. The Scotsmen who fainted in Edinburgh testify to the power of the uncut version of the film. But Franju could not get his masterpiece by the American censors. For its release in the United States, Eyes Without a Face was butchered, dubbed in English, and re-dubbed with the absurd title “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.” Until 2003, when it was finally restored, and released on DVD with subtitles, the closest an American could get to the original “Eyes Without a Face” was a Billy Idol song.

But why? Americans, even in 1960, have never had a problem with violent horror movies, or with violent movies in general. What about Eyes Without a Face not only made Scotsman pass out, but was considered too disturbing for Americans to see at all? In my opinion it has something to do with how Eyes Without a Face is not only a profoundly creepy and disturbing film, but a profoundly moral film. American horror films like Silence of the Lambs or the endless parade of slasher movies from the 1980s, tend to have a contemptuous attitude towards victims and a not so hidden admiration for the mass murderer. The serial killer/slasher, in many American horror films, is a representation of the patriarchal male, the capitalist, the superman. Jason, in the Friday the 13th series, punishes naughty school girls for losing their virginity. Hannibal Lecter is a culture hero, the civilized white man, the heir to three thousand years of western civilization. If Buffalo Bill in the Silence of the Lambs is taken down by a women, it’s important to remember that the woman, Clarice Starling, is also a cop, an FBI agent in a film that had been part of a series of movie scripts — along with Married to the Mob, Mississippi Burning, and The Untouchables —written to rehabilitate the bureau’s reputation after the Church Committee’s report on Cointelpro. The police in Franju’s film, by contrast, are bumbling fools. They coerce a young woman — who they had earlier arrested for shoplifting — into acting as “bait.” Then they carelessly leave her to her death after they decide that Génessier wasn’t their man after all.

Most importantly of all, is the way Génessier is finally brought down, not by the police, or by a traditional male hero, but by his daughter, the supposed beneficiary of his horrible series of murders. Christiane, played by Edith Scob, last seen as the hero’s tall, elegant, white-haired chauffeur in Leos Carax’s masterpiece Holy Motors, refuses to inherit the earth at the expense of the exploited female proletariat. She becomes, in effect, like all those privileged young people in the 1960s who rebelled against their parents, said that no, they wouldn’t support the French, then the American empire as it committed genocide in Vietnam. The incessant barking, the pack of dogs Génessier keeps in his basement, turns out to be a primal scream for help. The dogs aren’t guard dogs or vicious attack dogs. They’re guinea pigs. Christiane only develops a sense of empathy for her father’s would-be final victim because, all through the movie, she had been listening to the dogs howling in pain, because she had heard the cry of nature against a corrupt, totalitarian scientific “reason.” In the justly celebrated final scene, we completely forget that Christiane is a disfigured monster. As Génessier’s pack of dogs get their revenge, she becomes angelic, a resurrected spirit freed from the clutches of the devil, her father.

Louise, on the other hand, gets what she deserves.

Giant Escape City (2015): First Impressions

I’ve been through quite a few bikes over the past few years. I wore out the drive train on my Trek 7.2. I wrecked my Raleigh Clubman (and wound up spending 3 days in intensive care). I currently have an entry-level road bike, an aluminum Specialized Allez, and a cheap city bike, a Jamis Commuter 1.

Neither the Specialized nor the Jamis is suitable for light touring, the 200 and 300 mile rides I want to do this spring. You can’t mount a rack on a Specialized Allez. The Jamis is made of high-tensile steel. It only has 7 gears, and it weighs a ton.

Last month, I bought a Giant Escape City.

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My requirements were the following.

  1. Cheap. As much as I would like to buy a Trek Madone with full Dura Ace, it’s out of my price range.
  2. My tires of choice are 700 x 28s or 700 x 32s. I don’t like 700 x 23s or 700 x 25s. At 6 feet and 190 pounds, I’m not exactly Chris Christie. But I’m not a waif. 700 x 23s flat too easily.
  3. A rack. A rack adds weight. It guarantees you’ll break spokes. But I never get on my bike without my laptop and a change of clothes, and I loath backpacks.
  4. Fenders. I live in the Northeast. It rains.
  5. Decently fast. I’ll take 30 miles rides on my Dreadnought-like Jamis Commuter 1. But teenage kids on skateboards laugh at me. And if I get caught in heavy traffic, I can’t get enough speed to take an intersection without using the crosswalk.
  6. A good bike mechanic. Where you buy a bike is almost as important as which bike you buy. Assembly is probably more important than the individual components. The closest bike store, Hilltop Bicycles in Cranford, NJ, sells mainly Giant and Cannondale. Cannondale seems overprice.

Over the past week, the snow finally melted. Wednesdays rain storm washed away most of the salt. So I decided to take the Escape City for a test run. I chose my most difficult ride, 25 miles through the Watchung Hills, a course I regularly take on my Specialized Allez, a series of moderately to severely steep hills that will challenge even a good rider on a fast road bike.

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The view from beautiful Summit, New Jersey.  It’s a town full of Ivy League Republican dads and entitled soccer moms with kids destined for Harvard and Wall Street. In other words, if the SUVs don’t get you the BMWs will.

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Some day I’ll be rich and hip enough to live in New York.

How did the Escape City do?

  1. I was worried about steep hills. I shouldn’t have. The SRAM VIA drive train has 24 gears, and is, perhaps, best in the lower gears.
  2. The Escape City is much slower than my Allez going down hill. There’s no way a flat bar hybrid is going to be as fast as a drop bar road bike. But I’m not the type who takes downhills at 40mph anyway.
  3. It’s not as much fun as a road bike. The extra low gears actually make it easier to take steep hills than it is on the Allez. But you don’t feel as cool doing it.
  4. The brakes are excellent, and have plenty of stopping power.
  5. The internally routed cables have a bit of a rattle. This is a well-known issue on the Escape City and really nothing to worry about.
  6. The SRAM VIAs shift smoothly enough, but, once again, this isn’t Dura Ace or Ultegra. The front derailleur takes a bit of getting used to. Shift too quickly onto the second sprocket and the chain occasionally has a bit of trouble catching. But I think this was probably more due to my lack of familiarity with the SRAM shifters than to any need of adjustment.
  7. The aluminum fork doesn’t bother me. They cut corners here and put it into the drive train.
  8. The bike is surprisingly light, much lighter than my old Trek 7.2fx. As such, it’s quite fast. It accelerates well. It corners easily. It’s not as fast as my Allez on flat roads, but it’s fast enough.

In other words, so far so good. This bike will be serviceable for light touring and 50-100 mile day rides. Who knows. Next month I may hate it. But right now I don’t feel as if I missed out on anything paying 585 dollars for the Escape City instead of 1200 dollars for a Trek 720 or a Surly Long Haul Trucker. In fact, the bike feels so solid that over the summer (when I plan to buy a new drop bar road bike) I may look at the Defy 3 instead of another Specialized.

Note: I’m not a bike mechanic or an expert on bikes. I’m simply a guy who likes to ride. So don’t mistake this for a professional review.

Man of Marble (1976)

Andrzej Wajda has always been a difficult filmmaker to pin down ideologically. Almost 90, he made his first film, A Generation, under Poland’s Stalinist government in the early 1950s. His greatest work, Ashes and Diamonds, was released in 1958, two years after the death of pro-Moscow hardliner Bolesław Bierut. He continued to make films in the 1960s and 1970s under Poland’s more moderate form of communism, went into exile in the 1980s, then returned to Poland in the 90s, eventually making the openly anti-communist Katyn in 2007. Wajda knows how to bend with the political wind.

Man of Marble, made at the beginning of the Solidarity era, looks ahead to the fall of communism, yet back to Orson Welles and Leni Reifenstahl. It is perhaps, the greatest film ever made about making a film, if only because it’s a botched film about a botched film. The script, which had languished in pre-production limbo since the 1960s, finally got made in 1976. Yet Poland, in 1976, was still ruled by an authoritarian government, and Wajda had to allude to the fate of his proletarian hero, not put it up on screen. He would fill in the gaps in the sequel, Man of Iron, which he made in 1981, just before Wojciech Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law, but it is the confrontation with censorship and repression that makes Man of Marble such an intriguing failure.

The first thing to keep in mind before you watch Man of Marble is that the Germans completely destroyed Poland during the Second World War. There was barely a structure in place when the Soviet army finally liberated Warsaw in 1945. The old city center had to be restored using using drawings by an 18th Century Italian painter. The iconic Palace of Art and Culture, built from 1952 to 1955 by Russian, not Polish workers, was a “gift to the Polish nation”from Joseph Stalin himself. There was a severe housing shortage.

Man of Marble, which is set in the 1970s, opens with Agnieszka, a film student played by the 23-year-old Krystyna Janda, trying to convince her thesis advisor to let her make a documentary about a man named Mateusz Birkut. In the 1950s, Birkut had been a bricklayer, a young peasant who had moved from his parents’ farm in the country to work on a gigantic industrial housing project just outside of Krakow, the new model city of Nowa Huta — think Coop City in the Bronx, only four times as large, and complete with its own steel mill — a Robert Moses sized project which would eventually house over 200,000 people.

Man of Mable is structured as a series of flashbacks, told from the point of view of the not always reliable narrators Agnieszka interviews for her film. Back in the 1950s, Jodla, the local Stalinist apparatchik, realized that the construction of Nowa Huta had value as communist propaganda. So he allowed Jerzy Burski, a filmmaker, to use Birkut as part of a publicity stunt. The average bricklayer could lay a little under 2000 bricks in one shift. If he could push a team of 5 bricklayers into putting down 28,000 bricks in one shift and film it, Burski explains, it would be a propagandistic coup, a vindication of socialist collectivism over capitalist individualism. Birkut and his team don’t lay 28,000 bricks. They lay well over 30,000 bricks, and Birkut becomes another Aleksei Stakhanov, a genuinely proletarian hero of the  communist party. But then something happens. Burski’s film which he had intended to call Building Our Happiness, never gets finished. Mateusz Birkut disappears from history.

Agnieszka becomes Wajda’s Jerry Thompson, determined to track down the ultimate fate of Mateusz Birkut in much the same way Thompson wants to find out why Charles Foster Kane uttered the word “Rosebud” on his deathbed. But Mateusz Birkut is a faceless construction worker, not a newspaper tycoon, and communist Poland is not the capitalist United States. Where Jerry Thompson was working to satisfy a celebrity culture that wanted every bit of information it could get on Charles Foster Kane, Agnieszka is pushing against an authoritarian government that doesn’t like to admit mistakes. Thompson eventually fails. Kane’s childhood sled, Rosebud, is thrown into the furnace. Agnieszka succeeds, tracking down Birkut’s son, and learning that his father was killed in the massive wave of strikes and protests that erupted in Poland in 1970. That we have to wait for Man of Iron to find out exactly what Agnieszka found out in her quest is part of what makes Man of Marble such a a fascinating movie. Agnieszka’s film, like Burski’s, is buried by the communist authorities. But it’s not the distribution of the finished product that counts. It’s the process of discovery, the making of the film itself, that has value.

Looking back at Man of Marble 40 years after it was made, and 25 years after the fall of communism, what strikes me is that, whether intentionally or not, Wajda managed to predict how the neoliberal Eastern Europe that would follow communist Eastern Europe had its seed in communism itself.  Even if by accident, he made something more than simple anti-communist propaganda. He made a film that demonstrates how secrecy, authoritarianism, and grandiose publicity stunts poison genuine idealism. Birkut, who sincerely believes in the Polish working class, is sent down the memory hole. Jerzy Burski, on the other hand, becomes a famous filmmaker who jet sets back and forth to Caan. Michalak, the sleazy secret police officer who destroys Birkut in the 1950s, becomes a sleazy nightclub owner and pornographer in the 1970s. Wincenty Witek, Birkut’s best friend whom Michalak frames as a saboteur, is rehabilitated and becomes a senior communist official.

Birkut, in effect, becomes a bit like one of those heroes of the anti-Vietnam-war movement who never married Jane Fonda, never got into the headlines, and never sold out to “the man.” Unlike Witek, he won’t compromise his principles. Like Mario Savio, he has brief moment of glory followed by decades of hard work, anonymity, and poverty. He participated in the bricklaying stunt because building Nowa Huta was something he genuinely believed in. But after the Polish communist party reveals itself to be an authoritarian fraud, he chooses an unrewarding life of petty rebellion over opportunism, conformism, and prosperity. Agnieszka, who bears a striking physical resemblance to a young Leni Riefenstahl, had intended to become the anti-Leni Riefenstahl , to lodge a protest against totalitarian propaganda by deconstructing the official legend of the proletarian superman Mateusz Birkut. Instead, she finds a man of genuine integrity.

Final Note: The jazzy techno soundtrack of Man of Marble, which is supposed to represent the shiny new world of the 1970s, is so bad is almost ruins the film.