Monthly Archives: February 2016

Brooklyn (2015)

That Brooklyn, the story of a young Irish immigrant to the United States in 1952, was nominated for a Best Picture award is a good argument for the Twitter hashtag #oscarsowhite. Brooklyn isn’t a great movie. It’s not every a very good movie. It’s a poorly written film with a schmaltzy overbearing sound track, and a star “so white” she’s almost translucent. It’s the kind of treacly and reactionary exercise in nostalgia made popular by films like The Notebook, a retreat into an idealized past that even Bill O’Reilly of Fox News could love.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way let me tell you what about Brooklyn I liked.

First of all it was a history lesson. I had no idea that there was a massive wave of Irish immigration in the 1950s. According to Linda Almeida Dowling “between 1946 and 1961, 531,255 people, almost 17 percent of the population, left Ireland.” She also notes that “most of the migrants went to Great Britain, but 68,151 left for America during and after World War II (1941–1961). It was the largest migration of Irish to the United States since the 1920s.” Considering that I was born and raised in New Jersey and grew up with the children and grandchildren of Irish and Italian couples like Brooklyn’s Eilis Lacey and Anthony “Tony” Fiorello, it’s probably a history lesson I should have learned a long time ago.

The second thing I liked about Brooklyn was the lead performance. The 21-year-old Saoirse Ronan, for whom the film marks a successful transition from child to adult actor, is perfectly cast in Brooklyn’s coming of age story. Ronan, who looks like a figure from a painting by Botticelli or Dante Gabriel Rossetti, gives a performance that seems peculiarly representative of the Irish people while simultaneously remaining free from the kind of stock ethnic cliches you might expect from the badly written screenplay. If her own personal coming of age mirrors her character’s coming of age, that doesn’t mean any 21-year-old Irish girl could have played the same role. Ronan knows how to convey the longing underneath the conservative facade of a young woman brought in small-town Ireland during the grey, repressive years of Éamon de Valera’s government. Eilis Lacey’s own story ends with a happy marriage and the promise of upward mobility, but she’s also well-aware that she’s one of the lucky ones.

That brings me to the third thing I liked about Brooklyn. When I refer to the film as “reactionary” I mean “aesthetically not politically reactionary.” If you read between the lines, you realize that Brooklyn’s treacly aesthetics, its sugary nostalgia, are also a way of helping you swallow a rather bitter, anti-capitalist pill. People are dispensable, the film is telling us. Whether you end up with a nice Italian American husband who works in construction, and a future as part of the Long Island, suburban petty-bourgeoisie, or spend decades as a lonely old maid in a rooming house, depends more on luck than on any kind of “personal responsibility.”

Brooklyn opens with the idea that Eilis Lacey is a superfluous woman. While educated and intelligent, there’s no place for her in Enniscorthy, a small town in southeast Ireland. The only work she can find is a part-time job in a bakery owned by an abusive petty tyrant. So her older sister Rose, a bookkeeper at a local textile company, arranges to find her a job at a department store in New York City. In 1952 the American economy was booming. There are plenty of spots for new workers in Brooklyn, but even in the dynamic, urban world of the United States there are people who capitalism simply leaves behind, the lonely single woman at Eilis’ boarding house, the impoverished old men at the Catholic soup kitchen where she volunteers. “These men built the bridges, tunnels and the roads,” Father Flood, her American sponsor, tells her, but in their old age they’re no longer needed.

Everything changes when Eilis’ sister Rose dies of an unnamed ailment, and Eilis goes back to Enniscorthy to visit her mother. Where she was the unwanted younger sister, a overlooked young woman with a part-time job as a shop girl in a bakery, now she’s not only wanted. She’s needed. The entire town of Enniscorthy conspires to prevent her from going back to the United States. Jim Farrell, a young, eligible bachelor, a member of the local elite, wants to marry her. The textile firm that employed Rose all but demands that she take her older sister’s place as their accountant. The road to a prosperous, middle-class life in Ireland has opened up before her as if by magic.

Eilis’ morally questionable behavior during her visit home – she leads poor Jim Farrell on without telling him she’s already married – partly reflects her youth and inexperience. Eilis’ cannot tell her mother, her best friend, or her Irish suitor about her Italian American husband back in the United States because, as a proper, conservative Irish Catholic, she’s been trained to do as she’s told, not to question authority. They’ve laid out her future. Who is she to say “no?” But it’s also a subtle form of “fuck you,” a subconscious way of letting her old friends and family know how much she resented those 19 or 20 years when she was the neglected extra daughter. Oh now you want me around? Well let me lead you all on a wild goose chase for a couple of weeks before I go back to Brooklyn. Let’s see how you like that.

Final Note: Jim Farrell is played by the Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson, who also plays the villainous General Hux in The Force Awakens. I guess getting rejected eventually made him turn to the dark side of the force.

Trumbo (2015)

Trumbo is a conservative movie with a communist hero.

Except for the film’s opening, where Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter behind classic films like Spartacus and Roman Holiday, supports a strike at one of the studios, communism almost never enters into the equation. Instead you have a battle between two individuals, Trumbo, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, great man, genius, natural screenwriter who can crank out a script for a movie in three days, against the anti-Semitic, red-baiting Hedda Hopper and a horde of mediocrities (for whom red-baiting is a good career move).

Trumbo prevails because he’s the better capitalist.

The film’s most satisfying moment is probably John Goodman going all John Goodman on a mousy little McCarthyite stooge who tries to bully him into firing his talented leftist screenwriter.

“I do this for the money and the pussy. Try and take that away from me.”

Like the Big Short, Trumbo captures some of the rebellious feelings of 2016. It’s not really a socialist movie per se, but it’s willing to line up behind a socialist or even a communist if he’s willing to take on the hated establishment. Watching Dalton Trumbo prevail against Hedda Hopper — Helen Mirren hamming it up like a Disney villain —  was almost as satisfying as watching Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.

Political Economy, Global Order, Fed Hikes and Recession

Introduced as having held every significant position in economics within the United States Government, former Secretary of the Treasury and former Chief Economist of the World Bank Dr. Lawrence H. Summers gave a talk in Washington D.C. last week titled “Economic Statecraft and Global Order”.

Lawrence Summer’s talk was considered “provocative” by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The event consisted of a 45 minute talk followed by another 45 minutes of questions. Advancing in staccato rhythm, each paragraph by Summers unfolded a systematic approach to reasoning about the significance of foreign economic policy. Citing the history of the World Wars, the Great Depression and the fall of the Soviet Union, his unfurling thesis implied theories of how economic policy contributes to global outcomes: Summers advocates that more aggressive economic warfare between the 1880s and 1920s would have stopped the industrial advancement of Prussia, ultimately preventing World War I, and that the Third Reich and World War II was only made possible by The Depression and the oppressive terms purposefully advocated in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.

This thesis culminates in our former Secretary of Treasury laying down his cards. Seventeen minutes into the talk he lays waste to the notion that political capital should be spent trying to advocate for US companies – he argues that at stake in trade negotiations and economic diplomacy is something higher than the mere success of American businesses. He criticises “competitive ‘win-the-game’ theory” and even posits that “Almost every policy sentence that uses the word competitiveness is misguided. It conjures the competition between companies, but that doesn’t apply to countries.”

And then says some curious things:

“There’s no a priori logic even in the narrow economic realm where we can assume we do well if another country’s economics prospects diminish.

“Any paradigm around the notion that we want to win and we want others to lose is misguided in narrow economic terms and catastrophic in broader political terms. It is hard to imagine having harmonious relations with those whose economy it is our desire to suppress.

“The objective of policy should be to foster a more integrated global economic system in which more nations and more people within nations have a stake in collective success.
In a phrase. It should be the promotion of shared prosperity.”

“Shared prosperity strategy that offers the best prospect for a successful integration of China into the global order.”

“The American posture, having designed a Pacific Trade Agreement, that was crafted in a way that whatever was legally possible made it not practically realistic for China to participate.

“Having done that when China sought to create an institution that invested in Asian infrastructure; for the US to allow an appearance to develop that it was working hard not just to not to participate but to discourage others from participating and then have our longest standing ally the Brits lead the charge of repudiation constituted one of the darker days of US economic diplomacy.”

“This I would submit is a matter of particular urgency at the current time when we are seeing for the first time this year capital flows from south to north – from downhill to uphill – on an unprecedented scale; complicating the matters of macroeconomic management through capital flight from emerging markets and current account deficits.”

In a real sense the remainder of this decade emerging markets will probably be submerging markets.”

– Lawrence Summers, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C.
(emphasis ours)

What is Summer’s talking about? The United States strategy to destroy China’s economy, flirting with global economic collapse in the process, his argument entails, is neither a good strategy that advances US values nor a strategy that has gained us many allies.

The Asia Pacific arena in particular, and developing economies in the Asia Pacific more broadly, are projected to overtake the United States and the Atlantic as the center of the global economy. Soon the very vast majority – two thirds of all world trade – will be passing through the South China Sea.

The United States strategy has been, not colonialism or theft or international espionage, but abject destruction. Wielding the powers of the world’s most powerful lending, monetary and financial institutions, every measure has been taken to styme the rising power’s economy that left unchecked is certain to overtake the US. To deal with China, the United States has architected the Trans Pacific Partnership, which as Summers states was “crafted in a way that whatever was legally possible made it not practically realistic for China to participate.”

Of course, it isn’t just Summers saying these things. Robert Blackwill, former ambassador and National Security Council deputy for Iraq reporting to Condolezza Rice, and Ashley Tellis, National Security Council staff as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Strategic Planning and Southwest Asia, codrafted a Grand Strategy Document Toward China out of the Council for Foreign Relations – an influential policy thinktank in Washington DC created after the First World War.

The opening paragraphs of this Grand Strategy Toward China quickly summarize its content:

“It has become something of a cliché to say that no relationship will matter more when it comes to defining the twenty-first century than the one between the United States and China. Like many clichés, this statement is true but not terribly useful, as it tells us little or nothing about the nature of the relationship in question.”

“Some point to history and argue that strategic rivalry is highly likely if not inevitable between the existing major power of the day and the principal rising power.”

“A number of policy prescriptions follow, including the adoption of policies designed to produce more robust economic growth in the United States; new trade arrangements in Asia that exclude China; a stricter technology-control regime affecting exports to China…”

– “Revising US Grant Strategy Toward China”, Council on Foreign Relations
(emphasis ours)

Summers also discusses how the United States sought to crush international investment banks organized by China – but lost face with the rest of the world and saw the international community rally against it. The United States has been rallying a whole-of-government effort to prevent China’s rise.

Statesmen, partnered with private hedge fund managers, are currently spending fortunes trying to deflate China’s currency so that the country implodes into an era of recession. They calculate that by around the middle of 2016 they can deplete China’s foreign currency reserves to the minimum levels required to operate trade and that after this they can devalue the Chinese currency by up to 40-50%, preventing China from graduating from a developing country to a developed one – what would represent the largest move of lower income people into the Middle Class in all of history.

The United States Fed continues to promise repeated rate hikes despite the danger that poses to the domestic economy. When these rates are hiked, a stronger US dollar makes it more difficult for US-dominated debt around the world to be paid off, as it effectively multiplies the cost of the loan. The anticipation of hikes, the burden they will cause for government budgets, and the relative devaluation of holding capital outside US dollars, causes capital flight increases out of China, Brazil, India, Turkey, Russia and other countries. Wealthy individuals who fear their fortunes may be ruined from the combinations of devaluing currency, increasing debts, and geoeconomic warfare delist their investments from the home countries. This flight of capital causes further complications for the victimized countries.

As a result of America’s policies, globally, for the first time in world history, investment capital will net be leaving developing countries for the developed world. Larry Summers calls this ‘downhill-to-uphill’, and pains that it deeply complicates the stability of the global economic system.

Harry B. Harris, Admiral and Commander of the United States Pacific Command, in a report to the same Washington institution says:

“If [China] were to build out Scarborough Reef like they have Firey-Cross Reef, like they have built out Woody Island, they would control the South China Sea against all of the militaries out there except for the United States military in all scenarios short of war. This has operations implications for me as military commander and strategic implications for the United States: when you consider the $5 trillion dollars of trade pass through the South China Sea every year.”

“Economics: I’m a supporter of TPP, I think it’s critical to our economic power. And at the end of the day The Rebalance [to Asia] is about economy. It’s not about China. It’s about us and the values we hold dear and what matters to us. And the biggest piece of The Rebalance is the economic piece.”

– United States Admiral Harry B. Harris

Harris goes on to note that we also have deployed the most sophisticated weapon systems the United States has developed to the region. China’s primary defensive weakness to external threats in modern warfare – were one to arise between it and the United States – is its dependence on easy-to-blockade ports and trade straits, the most important the Strait of Malacca. The United States regularly enumerates the foreign strategic assets it seeks to control: the Strait of Malacca made the 2008 list.

In addition to crippling China’s economy, which has in turn set the tides for a global and domestic recession, Harris explains that the United States is simultaneously committed to complicating China’s plans to build military outposts that protect its trade waters from blockades.

Lest one think the United States is not the aggressor in this exchange the high level strategies enumerated within the Grand Strategy Toward China report China as: pursuing maintenance of internal order, sustained high economic growth, peace around its periphery, and cement international status.

On the other hand the United States is recommended to “permit successful U.S. power projection even against concerted opposition from Beijing”, “U.S.-Asian alliances should be rebooted for offensive and defensive geoeconomic action. This intensified alliance focus should be as concentrated on geoeconomics as on political-military instruments”, “Strengthen the U.S. Military”, “increase the frequency and duration of naval exercises with South China Sea littoral states”, “working with the ROK (and Japan) to develop a comprehensive strategy for regime change in North Korea”, “substantially loosen its restraints on military technology transfer to India”, “regard Indian nuclear weapons as an asset in maintaining the current balance of power in Asia”, “possible future arms sales to Taiwan could include signals intelligence aircraft, transport aircraft, upgraded engines for F-16s, upgrades to frigates and other ships, and/or land-based missile defense systems.”

Lawrence Summer’s talk was considered “provocative” by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Not provocative because he wanted to export more pollution into developing countries. Not provocative because he wanted to sidestep sovereignty, impose rents, privitize resources, and collect profits from emerging nations.

Lawrence Summer’s talk was considered provocative by the Center of Strategic and International Studies because he reasoned that the US ought to allow the peaceful and uninterrupted development of China into a modern economy – even if that means losing global economic primacy. Provocative because he criticized the destructive measures the United States is taking to inhibit world growth for its own selfish and paranoid justifications.

P.S. The Washington Times published a report on these events, but with severely questionable journalistic ethics and standards: “Official: China stock crash is U.S. economic warfare“.

Reading Lugard and Adam Smith

Lugard’s The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa was published in 1922. It discusses indirect rule in colonial Africa. In this work, Lugard outlined the reasons and methods that he recommended for the colonisation of Africa by Britain. Some of his justifications included spreading Christianity and ending ‘barbarism’ (such as human sacrifice). He also saw state-sponsored colonisation as a way to protect missionaries, local chiefs, and local people from each other as well as from foreign powers.

Also, for Lugard, it was vital that Britain gain control of unclaimed areas before Germany, Portugal, or France claimed the land and its resources for themselves. He realised that there were vast profits to be made through the exporting of resources like rubber and through taxation of native populations, as well as importers and exporters (the British taxpayers actually always made a loss from the colonies in this period). In addition, these resources and inexpensive native labour (slavery having been outlawed by Britain in 1834) would provide vital fuel for the industrial revolution in resource-depleted Britain as well as monies for public works projects. Finally, Lugard reasoned that colonisation had become a fad and that in order to remain a super power, Britain would need to hold colonies in order to avoid appearing weak.

Wikipedia – The Dual Mandate

Lord Lugard of England was a “colonial administrator” for the British Empire tasked with establishing and maintaining control of African and Asian colonies. While direct military occupation of foreign territory was successfully employed by the Empire, it had found that indirect rule through corrupt local officials and clandestine intelligence activity and by establishing international businesses like the infamous East India Company let it obtain foreign resources and cheap labor without having to bear the costs of suppressing the revolutions that direct military occupation were known to incite.

Fredrick Lugard discussed in his handbook the Dual Mandate the methods of indirect occupation of territory, the strategic and business reasons and moral justifications for the activity. Of England’s occupation of Africa – which the region still has not recovered from today – Lugard argued that “England is in Africa for the mutual benefit of her own industrial class and of the native races in their progress to a higher plane.” Ultimately the conquer of Africa was justified by the argument that, since Africa was not as able to mobilize its raw resources as the more highly industrialized superpowers, these resources were wasted on the natives and justifiably owned by the British. The British, in turn for taking the resources, would presumably give some wealth back to Africa as a sort of reparation. Thus the “Dual Mandate”: to do good to Britain and good to the colony.

This analysis was not unique to Lugard or to the British. Every European colonial power justified their colonial ambitions to secure foreign resources and cheap labor with facades of ‘mutual benefit’. In Franch, the term was “Mission Civilisatrice.” In Spain it was called the Spanish Requirement. In reality colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas were plundered and subject to systemic abuse including genocide, their women subject to rape, and their cultures subject to eradication.

According to Wikipedia, global society has moved on from colonialization. Though colonies existed in their old forms until the late 1900’s, common wisdom is that they have been eradicated – replaced with the nobler and kinder gift of free market liberalization espoused by economic thinkers like Adam Smith, who gets credit in the United States for “being against colonialization, broadly”.

However, reading of The Wealth Of Nations is necessary to understand exactly what this means. In Book IV, Chapter VII Smith argues that colonialization is a wonderful idea but that the way it was practised in the 1700’s required too much regulation and taxation; and that the forms of control used by mother countries to get monopoly access to colony output all together dragged these new economies down. Adam Smith argues that the reason colonies generate so much wealth is because:

The colony of a civilised nation which takes possession either of a waste country, or of one so thinly inhabited that the natives easily give place to the new settlers, advances more rapidly to wealth and greatness than any other human society.

The colonists carry out with them a knowledge of agriculture and of other useful arts superior to what can grow up of its own accord in the course of many centuries among savage and barbarous nations.

Every colonist gets more land than he can possibly cultivate. He has no rent, and scarce any taxes to pay. No landlord shares with him in its produce, and the share of the sovereign is commonly but a trifle. He has every motive to render as great as possible a produce, which is thus to be almost entirely his own. But his land is commonly so extensive that, with all his own industry, and with all the industry of other people whom he can get to employ, he can seldom make it produce the tenth part of what it is capable of producing. He is eager, therefore, to collect labourers from all quarters, and to reward them with the most liberal wages. But those liberal wages, joined to the plenty and cheapness of land, soon make those labourers leave him, in order to become landlords themselves, and to reward, with equal liberality, other labourers, who soon leave them for the same reason that they left their first master. The liberal reward of labour encourages marriage. The children, during the tender years of infancy, are well fed and properly taken care of, and when they are grown up, the value of their labour greatly overpays their maintenance. When arrived at maturity, the high price of labour, and the low price of land, enable them to establish themselves in the same manner as their fathers did before them.

In other countries, rent and profit eat up wages, and the two superior orders of people oppress the inferior one. [But in new colonies]… waste lands of the greatest natural fertility are to be had for a trifle. The increase of revenue which the proprietor, who is always the undertaker, expects from their improvement, constitutes his profit which in these circumstances is commonly very great. But this great profit cannot be made without employing the labour of other people in clearing and cultivating the land; and the disproportion between the great extent of the land and the small number of the people, which commonly takes place in new colonies, makes it difficult for him to get this labour. He does not, therefore, dispute about wages, but is willing to employ labour at any price. The high wages of labour encourage population. The cheapness and plenty of good land encourage improvement, and enable the proprietor to pay those high wages. In those wages consists almost the whole price of the land; and though they are high considered as the wages of labour, they are low considered as the price of what is so very valuable. What encourages the progress of population and improvement encourages that of real wealth and greatness.

Adam Smith arrives at a theory where a colonizing mother country should not tax, impose rent or take profit from developing lands – preferring instead to allow the land to develop as quickly as possible and benefit only from the trade generated by the quickly advancing land.

This “free market system” of freeing colonies of the burden of externally imposed rents, debts, taxes, and profit-seeking is what gets associated with post-colonial international development.

However, it wasn’t long before Smith’s message – even though he hadn’t even opposed colonization itself – was subverted and so-called “free markets” in the so-called post-colonial age became bereft again with the same problems of the old system. The rent of land mother countries used to extract was replaced with rent-seeking privatization of mother country institutions, expats and patriots. Developed country corporations sought the profits that ate the wages necessary for the developing countries to grow in a manner Smith had hoped. Development loans were issued to countries at rates that prevented them from maturing beyond the cheap resource and labor economies beneficial to developed nation needs and Structural Adjustment Programs replace local government public works with ones whose tax goes to the developed world.

The combination of debts, rents, and profit have eaten up wages and opportunities to flourish in developing countries. The most valuable natural resources and infrastructure have become owned by foreign rent collectors. The promises from Adam Smith that quickly industrializing and developing foreign nations should be free from foreign rent were never taken very seriously, even by those who claimed to espouse it.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Whether or not MKULTRA — the CIA’s mind control program that was shut down in the late 1960s and later revived as “enhanced interrogation” by the Bush administration after 9/11 – was developed as a response to the “brainwashing” of American prisoners of war in North Korea is largely an academic debate. Torture and mind control are as old as the Roman Empire and the Spanish Inquisition. How and when Americans found out their government used drugs, sleep deprivation, electric shock, hypnosis and solitary confinement on unwilling and often unwitting subjects is another, and more interesting question. My guess is that few Americans have heard about MKULTRA. That’s no accident. Richard Helms, the Director of the CIA, had most of the records destroyed in 1973. We know about the tip of the iceberg. We fill in the gaps through fiction, speculation, and conspiracy theory.

The Manchurian Candidate is clever right-wing propaganda with an even more clever surprise ending that appears to flip the script over to the left. It is also – whether or not its director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod were working for the CIA – a controlled dump of information about MKULTRA. By 1975, when the Church Committee launched its investigation, and began to uncover some of the truth about the “deep state.” most Americans had already been conditioned to associate “brainwashing” with Communist China. Having been written as “sophisticated” Cold War Propaganda, parts of The Manchuria Candidate have aged badly. You can drive a truck through some of the plot holes and gaps in logic. The Chinese and Russian villains are so over the top they work mainly as high camp. Nevertheless, in 2016, after the Republican Party has thrown up twisted, pathetic, and flat out weird candidates like Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, The Manchurian Candidate now reads like an acid, and dead on satire of the far right.

The Manchurian Candidate opens in Korea at the end of the Korean War. Major Bennett Marco, Frank Sinatra, and Sergeant Raymond Shaw, Laurence Harvey, are leading a patrol that is betrayed by their translator Chunjin and captured by the Communist Chinese. In the next scene, Raymond Shaw is getting off a plane in the United States where we learn that he’s not only a member of a prominent right-wing Republican family but that he’s been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. What happened? Did Shaw, Marco and their patrol manage to escape the Chinese? We will have to wait to find out. First we get to meet Raymond Shaw’s mother, “Mrs. Iselin,” a domineering political matriarch in the style of Barbara Bush, and his stepfather, Senator Johnny Iselin, a red-baiting buffoon who’s so clearly meant to evoke Joseph McCarthy they should have just called him Joseph McCarthy. For anyone watching the Manchurian Candidate in 2016, Raymond Shaw will immediately evoke a combination of Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio. That the tall Anglo Lithuanian actor Laurence Harvey has nothing even remotely resembling an American accent is never remarked upon, but it’s quite appropriate for his character. There’s something foreign and downright weird about Raymond Shaw. A 6’4” boy man with a cold, almost robotic manner,  falls into a lump of ineffectual jelly at the sound of his mother’s voice. Even before he had been captured by the Communist Chinese and reprogrammed into an easily manipulated puppet, almost everybody he knew thought he was a young man without much of a soul or a personality.

While we already have our suspicions about what the Communists have planned for Raymond Shaw – a psychologically disturbed son of a United States Senator was obviously a valuable prize for his Chinese captors – we only find out what went on in North Korea, then Manchuria, when the film switches over to Bennett Marco. Marco, a career army office played by Frank Sinatra, and a far more human, down to earth character than Shaw, has been having nightmares. Marco’s nightmares become our window into the CIA’s MKULTRA program. To be honest, Marco’s dream almost tempts me to go the full Alex Jones route and imagine some kind of government conspiracy behind the making of the film itself. Not only are are clearly witnessing a fictionalized dramatization of a MKULTRA brainwashing session, but if The Manchurian Candidate is in fact a CIA production to gradually — frog in slowly boiling water style — accustom us to the idea of government torture and brainwashing, the script almost seems to be letting us in on the joke. Raymond Shaw and Bennett Marco are brainwashed by a group of Chinese and Russian communists but that’s not the way they remember it. While we the film’s viewers see see a Russian officer named Berezovo and a Chinese scientist named Dr. Yen Lo, Marco and Shaw imagine a group of old woman in New Jersey, a ladies home and garden club. We know that Marco and Shaw are having an illusion, but what if the film is playing a joke on us. What if it’s convinced us that we’re watching cartoonish Chinese and Russian villains instead of the kind of WASP preppies who founded the CIA? It’s something to think about, and it would be downright unimaginative to watch The Manchurian Candidate without at least considering how it might be just another level of a consciously manipulated hallucination.

In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate was startlingly new, the template for the paranoid conspiracy film genre that would reach its height in the 1970s with movies like The Parallax View. In 2016 the whole concept feels played out. Why Jonathan Demme decided to do a remake is anybody’s guess. I won’t “spoil” the movie by telling you who Raymond Shaw’s “American Handler” is. I’m sure you’ll see it coming from a mile away anyway, but watch the movie not only for its surreal, revealing dream sequences, but also for its two great villains, and for their ability to enslave the mind of the upper-class American boy man. They are the heart and soul of a film that sees deeply into the rot of the American political system.

Open Letter to Park Slope Food Coop Gazette

Dear Gazette:

This letter, originally submitted on June 23, 2015, was intended as a response to Barbara Mazor’s June 11 letter, which claimed that BDS allegations regarding Soda Stream were unsubstantiated. Mazor’s claim, however, runs contrary to the body of letters published in the Gazette, which were replete with factual references. Nevertheless, I’m again providing a list of reports documenting SodaStream’s violation of labor, environmental, and human rights laws.

I have served as Liaison Officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington, D.C, was a volunteer for 8 years with Human Rights First in New York, and a member of the National Lawyers Guild. The Guild issued “In The Name of Security” in 2002, following its fact-finding mission to the West Bank along with Amnesty International, which detailed the destruction of Palestinian culture and civil society by Israel:

First, there is “SodaStream: A Case Study for Corporate Activity in Illegal Israeli Settlements”.

Next, the Italian BDS website cites Kav LaOved’s report criticizing SodaStream for its labor and environmental violations.

A 2011 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report linked the decline in Palestinian agricultural and industrial sectors and dire humanitarian conditions with Israeli government policies, in particular the confiscation of land and natural resources, restrictions on the populace’s mobility, and isolation from international markets.

The UN also issued a report regarding SodaStream’s relationship to the occupied territories.

The fact that the Palestinian territories are occupied, and not “disputed”, has been legally recognized by the International Court of Justice, the International Red Cross, and the Conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention, among others.

A 2009 B’Tselem report, “Foul Play: Neglect of wastewater treatment in the West Bank“
, noted that Israel fails to enforce environmental laws in the settlements or in industrial areas in the occupied West Bank. See, also, Corporate Watch- Tracking Corporate Complicity in the Occupation of Palestine.

As for “surprise inspections”, according to Bloomberg Businessweek and Corporate, the Sodastream Factory in Mishor Adumim is “the most heavily protected in the area, with multilevel electric fencing protecting its perimeters and cameras monitoring everything going on outside of them.”

Regarding the credibility of human rights lawyers, and international human rights workers, many anti-BDS letters have characterized these independent sources of information as being inaccurate and untruthful, without producing any evidence demonstrating their lack of integrity.

Yet, Stop BDS has received huge infusions of cash from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, a GOP kingmaker with ties to organized crime. Last May, Adelson convened a secret meeting in Las Vegas that reportedly raised $150 million for distribution to local Stop BDS chapters. Are we to believe that their information is unbiased, accurate, and credible?

Cooperatively yours,

Carol Lipton

The Leopard (1963)

Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate Pozzolo, the renowned Italian filmmaker and theater director, was born into the family that had ruled the great northern city of Milan since the time of Dante. Who better, therefore to direct the film version of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gattopardo, “The Leopard.” That Lampesusa died before he saw the book become an international success lends an added poignancy to the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, a middle-aged Sicilian nobleman coming to terms with his unfulfilled life during the time of the Italian Risorgimento. It also makes it impossible to know whether or not he would have approved of Visconti’s translation of The Leopard onto the big screen. While generally considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, Visconti’s work is not without its difficulties.

First of all, you have to know the history of the Risorgimento, the extraordinarily complex process that led to the unification of Italy in the 1860s. Until 1871, the Italians, an ancient people with a culture as old as western civilization itself, did not have a central government. Fought over and occupied at various times by France, Spain, and the Austrian Empire, they entered the modern world divided by into the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, a state that had been founded by the Congress of Vienna after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, and the House of Savoy, which ruled the Kingdom of Sardinia, and who had their capital in the Northern Italian city of Turin. In 1860, the Papal States still controlled Rome, which would not become the Italian capital until 1870, and the Habsburgs still controlled large parts of the far north.

Enter Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi, while not widely studied in the United States, is one of the most important men of the Nineteenth Century. A dashing, romantic figure, and a military genius, he looms large, not only in the history of his native Italy, but the world. He spent most of the 1850s in South America. The Lincoln administration tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade him to command an army during the United States Civil War, and he ended his career defending the French Republic against Germany and Otto Von Bismarck. Two episodes in Garibaldi’s life figure in The Leopard, the first well known, the second much less so.

The Leopard opens during the Expedition of the Thousand, when Garibaldi, who invaded Sicily in March of 1860 with a small army of volunteers. There he managed to defeat a much larger Bourbon force of Francis II, and hand most of southern Italy over to King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia, who thereafter became King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy. Only three years later, Garibaldi would mount another expedition to capture Rome from the Papal States. Garibaldi was a radical secularist who planned to abolish the Papacy. This time he wasn’t successful. Victor Emmanuel opposed his most famous general. He had General Enrico Cialdini dispatch a division of the regular Italy army under Colonel Emilio Pallavicini,which defeated Garibaldi’s small band of volunteers at the Battle of Aspromonte. Garibaldi, who refused to allow his men to fire on the King’s troops, was shot into the foot and sent into exile until he was recalled to fight the Austrians in 1866. Rome finally became the capital of Italy in 1870 with the Papacy, quite obviously, not abolished.

The Leopard spans the three years between the Expedition of the Thousand and the Battle of Aspromonte. The first scene takes place at the palace of Prince Fabrizio, who’s participating in a private religious service conducted by the family priest. As the family prays in Latin, a ritual that goes back centuries, agitated voices outside, the racket becoming louder and louder until it all but overwhelms the religious ceremony. Only the commanding presence of Fabrizio, a charismatic and physically dominating Burt Lancaster dubbed into Italian, is able to hold everything together until the final “amen.” When he goes outside to ascertain what all the fuss was about, he learns that the servants have discovered a body in the palace garden, a dead Bourbon soldier who crawled onto the property after being mortally wounded. Garibaldi, he realizes, has invaded Sicily. History has rudely intruded into the serene reality of the Prince of Salina. Salina’s wife panics, but Fabrizio himself, who’s ready to switch his political allegiance from the Kingdom of Two Sicilies to the Kingdom of Sardinia, understands that a political upheaval does not necessarily mean a social upheaval, that if they play their cards right the aristocracy will end up on top, whoever winds up in control of the unified Italy. The Prince of Salina has also hedged his bets, bankrolling his nephew Tancredi, who’s played by a very young Alain Delon, who has joined The Expedition of the Thousand as one of Garibaldi’s red shirts.

That the unification of Italy will not lead to a complete social transformation along the lines of the Chinese or Russian Revolutions does not necessarily mean that it won’t involve drastic social change. The 45-year-old Prince of Salina, aware of his own mortality, also knows that the days of his class are numbered, that the landed aristocracy will be replaced by the bourgeoisie, men like Don Calogero Sedara, the socially vulgar, but extremely wealthy Mayor of Donnafugata. The intelligent and progressive Fabrizio sees an opportunity. When he realizes that Don Calogero has a daughter of marriageable age, he decides to fix her up with Tancredi, a match the social climbing Don Calogero is more than happy to go along with. It is in fact the perfect match. Don Calogero wants to push his daughter into the nobility. The spendthrift Tancredi needs her money. Fabrizio’s own daughter Concetta, who’s in love with Tancredi, is brusquely pushed aside along with Fabrizio’s other six daughters, about whom we learn very little. In some ways The Leopard is the anti-Jane Austen. Young women, unless they are very rich and very beautiful, don’t really count, and Fabrizio, the middle-aged patriarch, clearly values even a surrogate son like Tancredi above his seven biological daughters. If there are no feminist deconstructions of of Viconti’s film, there probably should be.

Fabrizio considers the match between Tancredi and Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica to be the perfect social coup. Then a disaster happens. He sees her. Played by the young Claudia Cardinale, Angelica Calogero represents everything in life Prince Fabrizio realizes he’s missed. Were he not a married man twice her age he would propose to her himself. Fabrizio’s own wife, the Princess Maria Stella of Salina, is a devout Catholic. Even though she’s born the prince seven children, he’s husband has never seen her naked. Suddenly aware that he was born 20 years too early for the revolution and now crushingly aware of his own mortality, it takes all of Fabrizio’s aristocratic self-control to hand the woman he’s fallen in love with — Is there anything sadder than a 45-year-old man falling in love for the first time? — to his nephew.

Yet he does, not only in spite of how the opportunistic Tancredi is unworthy of the beautiful Angelica, but because of it. Prince Fabrizio realizes that he’s too inflexible and uncompromising to make it in the new Italy, that men like his nephew, for good or for bad, are the future. During the final hour of The Leopard, which is one extended set piece, a grand ball for the local aristocracy, probably the last of its kind, the Prince painfully comes to terms with the way time has passed him by. He’s gotten a glimpse of what he could have had, not only Angelica, but the future of Italy, had he only been a younger man. Like Moses, he gets to see but never enter the land of milk and honey. He has one dance with his nephew’s fiancee, then leaves the ball to walk back home to his palace, a man out of joint with the age into which he’s been born.

Tancredi and Angelica are married in 1863. At the ball we notice a group of army officers, including Colonel Emilio Pallavicini, the commander of the royalist troops who fired on Garibaldi’s volunteers at the Battle of Aspromonte. Fabrizio can barely hide his disgust with Pallavincini, whom he considers a tedious bore, but Tancredi, who has already jumped ship and switched his allegiance from Garibaldi to the King of Sardinia, has no such scruples. Like his uncle, the younger man understands that revolution has given way to reaction, that the Italian ruling class has co-opted Garibaldi’s patriotic uprising to consolidate its own power and privilege. Unlike his uncle, he approves. What’s more, thanks to Fabrizio, Tancredi will take his place, along with Don Calogero, inside Italy’s new governing elite. He’s too hard headed and realistic to regret the lost idealism of the revolution. Indeed, as he rides home with Angelica and his father in law, we hear gunshots, the King’s troops executing Garibaldian holdouts. Tancredi turns to his wife and remarks with pleasure how efficient the new Italian army has become. Suddenly we remember how, earlier in the film, Prince Fabrizio had given his nephew a piece of advice. The Leopard’s most famous line, it also sums up in one sentence how every ruling class that survives a revolution survives a revolution.

If we want everything to stay the same, everything has to change.”

Reading Mein Kampf (1925)

Is there any other nation so completely identified with one man as Germany with Adolf Hitler? We don’t necessarily think of Napoleon when we think of a Frenchman or Mussolini when we think of an Italian. Winston Churchill, a bombastic liberal imperialist and wildly overrated military leader, has earned his place in history mainly because of his opposition to the Nazis. That American historians regularly conduct poll about who was the “greatest president” is proof that there is no one representative American head of state. When we imagine the typical German, on the other hand, we don’t conjure up Luther or Goethe, Beethoven, Mozart, Karl Marx, or Frederick the Great. Adolf Hitler has taken the entire history of a great nation, and swallowed it whole.

The American misconception that Hitler was “Austrian not German” points to some of the reasons why. Unlike the British or the French, the Germans do not have a nation state with a history that goes back to the Middle Ages. The Prussian Reich that Bismarck founded in 1870, and which was destroyed in 1918, is only one of many political entities that have, at one time or another, represented the German people. To argue that Hitler wasn’t a “real German” because he was born in Braunau am Inn instead of Berlin or Königsberg is simply another way of fetishizing the dead Prussian state, the ghost of which haunts the late German dictator’s well-known but infrequently studied autobiography.

Mein Kampf is not a well-written book. If anybody needed a good editor it was Adolf Hitler. Getting through all 525 pages of James Murphy’s unabridged translation felt a little bit like fighting the Battle of Stalingrad. Hitler doesn’t argue. He simply asserts, a style of writing best taken in small doses, not gulped down in long turgid paragraphs written by a man determined to make us sit through the history of every thought that’s ever come into his brain without explaining why we should care. Nevertheless critics like George Orwell who spend time criticizing Mein Kampf’s literary inadequacies miss a point that Hitler makes over and over again in the book itself. He knows he’s a shitty writer. He doesn’t care. Unlike many of his critics, he also understands that there’s a difference between “literacy” and the ability to read and write. Most Germans in 1925 could read and write. Very few were “literate.” The typical citizen, even in an advanced first world country like Germany or the United States, responds, not to the written word, but to the spoken word, not to logic, but to personal charisma and the ability to create an aura of power and authority.

In other words, think of Mein Kampf the way you’d think of the screenplay to a movie. The words are only a small part of what makes the entire production. In 1925, José Ortega y Gasset announced the death of the traditional bourgeois novel. That same year, Adolf Hitler proclaimed the death of the traditional, literate, bourgeois politician. If you can get through the bad writing, Mein Kampf is a cogent analysis of the politics of a post-literate society, well-worth looking at, if only because so little has changed. Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan have replaced Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln even as Star Wars and Lady Gaga have replaced Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. If you think you’re ever going to see anything like the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence again in your lifetime, think again. Turn on the TV instead. Look at a meme on Facebook, or go to a rap concert. Adolf Hitler figured out the way our brains work all the way back in 1925. It’s just too bad he used his insights for evil, and not good.

Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 to a lower-middle-class family in Braunau am Inn, a small city in the northwest corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father, an authoritarian government employee wanted his son to follow him into the civil service. Hitler himself, convinced he had real artistic talent, wanted to be a painter. In 1907, after both his parents had died, the 16-year-old Hitler moved to Vienna, and quickly descended into the underclass. Like any would-be artist or writer, the young Hitler got through his semi-homeless days as a casual laborer thinking of his future success. His sense of identity fell apart in 1908 when he was rejected by the Vienna Academy of Art on the grounds that he was “clearly unfit for painting.” His personal disintegration reflected the political disintegration of the sprawling, multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire, a mostly Slavic state governed by an elite minority of Germans and Hungarians. I don’t think Hitler mentions the Hungarian people in Mein Kampf, not even once, but his hatred of Slavs, of Czechs, Slovaks, Serbians, Poles, and Russians becomes an obsession.

In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist, and Hitler, baffled that a Slavic nationalist would murder the pro-Slavic crown prince of the Habsburg Empire, crossed the border into the German Empire to volunteer for military service. Terrified that he would be drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army, and quite possibly have to serve in a multi-ethnic regiment, he was overjoyed when he was accepted into Kaiser Wilhelm’s Army, and sent to the western front to fight the French. For many men of Hitler’s generation, the trenches of northern France, the Battles of Ypres and Verdun, were the definition of hell on earth. Hitler, on the other hand thrived. The Imperial German Army and the powerful, majority German Hohenzollern Reich replaced the disintegrating multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire even as the idea of being a soldier replaced the idea of being a painter. Hitler’s sense of identity became so tied up with fate of the German Empire that in 1918, after German offensive against Paris was turned back — largely because of fresh troops from the United States — and the Hohenzollern monarchy fell apart, he took it as hard as he would have taken the loss of his arms or legs. What’s more, since the French, British, and American armies never pushed their way into Germany and occupied Berlin, He was convinced that the Imperial German Army would have won the war had it not been for a “stab in the back” by Jewish Marxists.

Like hundreds of thousands of other demobilized veterans, Hitler went back to Germany to swell the ranks of a newly emerging radical right. What finally distinguished him from the crowd of so many radical German nationalists was his instinctive understanding of the way propaganda works, his eccentric yet powerful reading of German history, and, quite frankly, his genius. To read Mein Kampf, to plow through hundreds of pages of turgid, badly written prose, is to realize that Adolf Hitler was essentially a brilliant advertising man who put himself in the service of a radically authoritarian political ideology. Had he been born in the United States sometime in the 1930s, he might have ended up as just another Don Draper, a Madison Avenue advertising executive selling Lucky Strikes and Coca Cola instead of anti-Semitism and mass murder. Instead, he was born in Europe in 1889. As if to fulfill his youthful dream of becoming an architect, wound up building a totalitarian state on the smoldering ruins of the Habsburg and Hohenzollern Empires.

As I read Mein Kampf, I tried to look at it from the point of view of someone reading the book in 1925, not 2016, someone who had not yet witnessed the Second World War and the Holocaust. Going through the autobiography of one of the greatest mass murderers in human history felt a bit like reading hard core pornography, something vaguely shameful, but fascinating, if only because of its forbidden quality. So I resisted the impulse to loudly and moralistically condemn the book in order to prove that I’m not a Nazi, to declare that I don’t have any latent fascist or anti-Semitic biases. Instead, the question I kept asking myself was “is the ideology in Mein Kampf harmful in and of itself or was it simply a reflection of the violence that came out of the First World War?” I also kept noting the disturbing similarity between Mein Kampf and the views of a lot of contemporary 9/11 conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, even as I reminded myself that no 9/11 conspiracy theorist has ever committed mass murder or started a world war. The conclusion I came away with was that everybody should read the book at least once, if only to be able to see through the propaganda on the radical right.

There are about 5 or 6 basic tenants to the Nazi worldview:



Conspiracy Theory


Pseudo-Scientific Racism


In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, the largest political party in the German Reichstag was the Social Democrats. It’s important to remember that the German Social Democrats in 1914 were not simply liberals by another name like Bernie Sanders or the British Labor Party. Instead, they were a genuinely revolutionary movement officially devoted to the teachings of Karl Marx. That made it all the more shocking, therefore, when their leadership decided to support the monarchy and vote yes on declaring war against the British, French and Russians. Marxist Leninism, a more radical, and anti-parliamentary, version of social democracy came to the mainstream during the First World War, largely as a protest against the more orthodox German and French socialist surrender to militarism and nationalism. Trotsky and Lenin were allowed free passage into Russia by the German government precisely because of their anti-war views, to give them the opportunity to take Russia out of the war and free up German troops on the eastern front to join the offensive against France. Sending Trotsky and Lenin into Russia worked, but it was too little, too late. In 1918, the German monarchy, which had been starved by the Royal Navy’s blockade, and which was now facing the United States in addition to the British and the French, collapsed. The same Social Democrats who voted for the war credits in 1914, now led the German Revolution against the Kaiser. In October of 1918, Germany was an empire. In November of 1918, it was a democratic republic. Sadly for the fate of Europe, however, the vindictive French government, still resenting their defeat 50 years before in the Franco Prussian War, decided to push for a hard peace, for the return of Alsace and Lorraine, and for massive reparations that would make it difficult, if not impossible for the Weimar Republic to establish itself over the long term.

For Adolf Hitler, and for many radical German nationalists like him, the Social Democrats who led the German Revolution in 1918 were nothing more than front men for an international Jewish conspiracy. Marxism, for Hitler, was not only Judaism by another name, but a dagger aimed at the heart of the German nation itself. History was governed, not by economic forces, but by an eternal, and largely ahistorical struggle between the “Aryan” and the “Jew.” Other peoples, Slavs, blacks, Asians, the French, and even the majority Germans, were a mongrelized, easily manipulated, and degenerate mass, raw material to be fought over by the creative Aryan and the destructive Jew, the Christ and Satan of Hitler’s atheist theology. The disagreement I have with most reviews of Mein Kampf, from Adam Gopnik’s clueless and snobbish article in the New Yorker to Kenneth Burke’s classic examination of Hitler’s rhetoric as a demonic appropriation of Roman Catholicism is that they deny just how sincerely Hitler believed in what he was saying. Hitler wasn’t simply the low-class malcontent of Adam Gopnik or conscious propagandist of Kenneth Burke. He was a man of his age, a Social Darwinist who built an entire world view out of a distorted reading of natural selection and the idea of the death of God, and then built an army to put his ideology into practice.

Hitler’s fundamental insight was the idea that the only way to defeat a revolutionary ideology was with another revolutionary ideology, that the German bourgeoisie was too tame and conservative to defend its class interests against revolutionary socialism. What won Hitler the support of the German ruling class, in spite of his pretension to being anti-capitalist, was that he replaced the Marxist emphasis on economics, the idea that capitalism produced its own gravedigger in the form of the revolutionary proletariat, with a radical right wing nationalism and an ahistorical, biological essentialism. For Hitler, Germany was not a political entity like the Habsburg Empire or the Hohenzollern Reich. It was not defined by the German language, but by “blood.” The idea of forcing Poles, Czechs, and Serbians to speak German, to assimilate into a traditional Germany way of life, was horrifying. A Pole or a Czech, even if he spoke German and worshipped at a Lutheran church, was still a Pole or a Czech, a biological inferior species who degraded the German race as a whole. Human beings did not have souls, did not stand apart from or above nature in any way. For Hitler, the idea that we can master nature is Jewish, and Marxist propaganda. Like any other animal, humans are locked into a biological process that they do not control. Different races, like different species, cannot and should not interbreed. A Pole or a Czech having children with an Aryan is like a pig having a litter with a goat, an abomination of nature orchestrated by the demonic Jew.

To reduce humans to just another animal makes the idea of genocide inevitable. Whether or not someone has the power to kill 6 million Jews or not, the argument Hitler makes in Mein Kampf is that it’s his duty to try. What makes Hitler different from just another racist, anti-Semite, or conspiracy theorist is the radical break with the Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) assumption that we have souls, that we cannot be reduced to our “blood.” For the capitalist ruling class of the 1920s and 1930s, who also believed that humans could be reduced to objects, to “hands” or “human capital,” Hitler’s ideology was a useful weapon to use against revolutionary Marxism. It still is. Whether in the form of the radical French proletariat of the Paris Commune of 1871, the German Social Democratic masses of 1918, or the third world refugees of 2016 desperately streaming into fortress Europe, a class society always produces its own gravediggers. A revolutionary conservative reaction is never far behind.

Nosotros los pobres (1948)

I decided to watch Nosotros lo pobres, directed by Ismael Rodríguez, and one of the most popular films of the Mexican Golden Age of Cinema, mainly to improve my Spanish. I had no idea what to expect, and for the first half-hour, I found the aesthetic stagy and artificial. It felt like a movie written by a member of the Mexican bourgeoisie, someone who had studied film in Hollywood, and then decided to apply what he had learned to the slums of Mexico City. Compared to Los Olvidados, a contemporary film about the Mexico City slums by the brutal, cynical genius Luis Buñuel, Nosotros los pobres felt like sentimental schmaltz. As the film progressed, however, I began to realize that underneath the surface was a reality every bit as desperate as the one Buñuel portrayed, that the plot hinged on the kind of incident everybody in the working class knows all too well, but which rarely, if ever makes into the cinema of any country.

Pedro Infante, the star of Nosotros los pobres, was a matinee idol of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Here he plays Pepe “El Toro”, Pepe the Bull, a poor carpenter, and a single father trying to keep his head above water in the the slums of Mexico City. The 1940s in Mexico were a time of rapid urbanization, and many of Mexico City’s poor were only a generation or two removed from the village. Pepe’s neighborhood, where he lives with his paraplegic mother “La Paralitica” and his adopted “Chachita”, feels like a small town transplated to the capitalist megalopolis. His neighbors, who include Celia, a would be girlfriend, a pair of drunks nicknamed La Tostada and La Guayaba, a beautiful insomniac played by Katy Jurado – who you will almost immediately recognize from Amreican films like High Noon —and a mysterious consumptive prostitute named named “La Tisica”, not only know one another. They all seem to share a common past, to have unspoken ties that bind them together, almost in spite of themselves. What exactly is La Tiscia’s relationship to Pepe the Bull? What happened to Chachita’s mother? We immediately dismiss the gossipy rumors by La Tostada and La Guayaba, who think he killed her, but it’s clear that Pepe is hiding something from his daughter.

Pepe’s life begins to unravel after a rich lawyer hires him to do repairs on his house. When the lawyer, who also has designs on Celia, begins to write Pepe a check for 400 pesos to pay for the wood he will need for the job, Pepe asks for the money in cash. Pepe, like so many poor people, like me for several years in the 1990s, doesn’t have a bank account. He keeps his money in a hole in the wall of his tiny workshop behind an icon of a saint, and, of course, it’s stolen right out from under La Paralitica’s eyes. Since she can’t move, and can’t speak, all she can do is roll her eyes in desperation when Celia’s vindictive stepfather, who Chachita accidentally tipped off to the location of the hiding place, puts his hand in the wall and pockets the 400 pesos. This begins a chain of events that will unravel all the secrets of Pepe El Toro’s secretive life. Pepe is unable to pay for the shipment of wood, he has to send it back. He also looks like a thief. After all, he made a point of asking for cash instead of a check. He has to find a way to get 400 pesos quickly, or go to jail for embezzlement. Pepe’s problems don’t stop with his professional life. After Celia takes Chachita to the cemetery on the “day of the dead” to visit her late mother’s resting place, a strange woman accidentally reveals to Chachita that the grave contains, not a grown woman, but a ten year old girl. Chachita realizes that her father, or at least the man she thought was her father, had lied. But why? Are the rumors about his being a murderer true? La Paralicita, the only character in the film who knows the truth, both about the theft and about the circumstances of Chachita’s birth, cannot speak. Chachita’s real mother, on the other hand, is closer than anybody but La Paralicita and Pepe know.

It was when I realized that La Tisica the consumptive prostitute was Pepe’s sister and Chachita’s biological mother that I began to understand the greatness of Nosotros lo pobres. If La Paralicita had to watch helpelessly as Celia’s stepfather stole the 400 pesos from Pepe, then La Tisica has had to endure an even greater agony. For over a decade she’s had to watch her brother raise her daughter, to whom she has not been able to make herself known, lest she taint her only child with the stigma of having a sex worker for a mother. Even though Pepe is a sympathetic character, and he feels for his sister, he and La Paralicita nevertheless both collude in keeping La Tiscia locked up inside a purgatory. Like Hawthorne’s Wakefield, La Tiscia is a living ghost, condemned by the hypocritical conservatism of Mexican Catholicism to live on the same block as the family with which she’s allowed no contact.

In his song Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen talks about “having debts no honest man could pay” and about how he “met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him.” After Pepe goes to a moneylender to borrow the 400 pesos and is rejected because he has no collateral, he finds that guy who wants him to do him a little favor, Ledo, the local crime boss, who emerges from the shadows like Satan with an offer. Pepe did not get the 400 peso loan, but he did get an offer of a job for 15 pesos, which he accepted. This gives him access to the moneylender’s house, which Ledo proposes they rob together, and split the money. Pepe indignantly refuses, but for Ledo, the goal was never really to split the money with Pepe, but to set him as the fall guy.

Pepe, poor single father, debtor, one step away from going to jail for embezzlement is the perfect fall guy. After Ledo robs and kills the moneylender and Pepe discovers the body, Pepe is sent to jail for murder. Alone, without protection, and now responsible for Pepe’s debt of 400 pesos, Chachita and La Paralicita watch as debt collectors come to their home, and confiscate all of their positions, right down to the old woman’s wheel chair. If all of this sounds melodramatic to you, then you would be correct, but it’s only the beginning. I won’t spoil the ending of Nosotros los pobres, except to say that it’s one part reconciliation, another part heartbreak. On the way there, Ismael Rodríguez piles one melodramatic convention upon another, takes it all so far over the top that at some point the film, like Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, becomes almost indistinguishable from the climax of a grand opera. Nevertheless, in spite of itself, it’s realistic.

It all started because a poor man in the slums didn’t have a bank account.