May 27, 2007

Thoughts on Culture, Part 1

Part 1: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it."

Bertoldt Brecht

As is my practice, I woke up this morning, put the coffee on, and fired up the computer to my Google news page. All the usual was there. The Democrats celebrating minor victories while surrendering once again to Bush’s imperial war without end in Iraq, some interesting trade union news that looks like a bit of a victory for the Canadian Greyhound bus workers….

But all that is kinda usual. What really struck was an article about a new theme park opening in Kentucky. Seems what we have here is a project that puts velociraptors on Noah’s Ark, has biblical characters roaming the Middle East alongside a host of long-extinct critters and a display demonstrating the formation of the Grand Canyon as part of Noah’s flood (Reuters, May 26, 2007).

This, by the way, is no small fry crackpot side-of-the-road attraction; the investors are expecting half a million visitors per year…. I mean this puts Disney World up against the competitive wall!

But a Creationist theme park around the Book of Genesis is not what perplexes me. My view is that this Petersburg, Kentucky theme park is another symptom of phenomena that’s been stumping me for the last couple of years. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m baffled. I don’t understand.

What I don’t understand is how a social reality -- a large scale world view -- can be so successfully prolific while at the same time being so absolutely contrary to day-to-day reality. I guess I'm caught inside the dialectic of "seeing is believing" versus "believing is seeing."

What's the Matter?

You are, however, reading this essay on a blogsite dedicated to moving a socialist analysis and building a working class socialist movement. Thus, let me quickly step away from the subjects of science, creationism and theology and get to the meat of the matter.

The matter has more to do with the widespread identification and acceptance of a social reality and social institutions which are downright hostile to the interests, needs and human aspirations of American working class folks.

For a couple of weeks now I’ve been pondering the Bertoldt Brecht quote… "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it."

Brecht, a Marxist playwright and poet, meant to frame art as a tool in the struggle to widen, analyze and make conscious the social reality we live in. For Brecht, the theater was a distancing art, forcing the audience to step back and consciously think about what was happening on the stage. This being contrary to the more traditional approach of the playwright in forming emotionally based identifications between the audience and the play’s characters.

But, this essay isn’t about Brecht either. What I’ve been pondering is the functionality of art in shaping reality regardless of the intent of the playwright, writer, or artist. In other words, the hammer of art shapes reality regardless of whether the artist means to extend and widen our consciousness of reality, or simply make a good return on the investors’ investment.

Whether the hammer is wielded in a socially conscious manner or not, it still shapes.

These days I hear socially conscious people make remarks along the lines of our current reality being more surrealistic than any fiction out there. I’m thinking of an interview I was listening to a year or two ago on NPR, of an author whose book was just about to be released. His book involved the spoofy marketing of calorie-free bottled water. Here was the author in the grocery store just as his book is about to be released, and what does he see but a whole shelf of bottled water, all labeled “calorie-free."

Along these same lines, I’m thinking of our current reality, and I can’t help but to reflect back on a few of the futuristic movies made in the final decades of the 20th century. I’m thinking of such movies as Arnold Schwartznegger’s, “The Running Man” (1987); "The Fifth Element", a film starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich (1997); and Harrison Ford’s "Blade Runner" flick (1982).

There's a common imagery and context that runs through these flicks that seems uncanny in light of the current situation.

The imagery:

All these films are dark. It’s dark out of doors and when the scene is set inside, it’s the foreground that’s lit, creating a dark and amorphous background. These films are all future noir; there’s not a lot of hope or love in the worlds portrayed. Significantly too, all of these films resolve the plot line with individual solutions. There is no possibility of social change in any of them.

All of these films abound in the vertical. "The Fifth Element" is set in a futuristic New York City where buildings rise up by the mile, where traffic moves in three dimensions and the ground floor is so low, so to speak, as to seem virtually bottomless. "Blade Runner" too uses the same imagery, and the opening scene of “The Running Man” has Arnold, a high tech L.A. COINTEL-type cop, in a helicopter preparing to fire on a crowd of food rioters in a futuristic Los Angeles.

The vertical exemplifies the social realities portrayed. This vertical social reality is best portrayed in "The Fifth Element" as it takes us from the absolute heights of power: the office of a galactic consortium’s CEO; down to a futuristic taxi driver's (played by Bruce Willis) mid-level apartment with the all the ambiance and comforts of a World War II U-boat; to the very bottom levels where homeless people huddle around oil drum fires.

"Blade Runner" takes us to a futuristic Los Angeles constructed out of images from an acrophobic’s nightmare. Here, the vertical exemplifies a social reality where one could fall off the city with no sense as to how far down one really could fall.

In each of these films, social and political power is amorphous and corporate. None of these films portray any kind of a government in the usual sense. This is because no matter how corrupt, class biased or nasty a government might be, our current concept of government includes some notion of accountability and responsibility on a society-wide basis.

There’s no such animal in any of the films I’m writing about.

"The Running Man" does portray Arnold as an L.A. cop; cops usually being thought of as public employees. There is, however, no sense of these cops or associated prisons being accountable to any government. Instead, power seems to be concentrated around corporate juntas, and particularly represented in the form of a television network producer who produces America’s number one show, a show where convicts are hunted down and killed by a type of athlete known as a "stalker."

While both "The Fifth Element" and "Blade Runner" make no reference to a government in our normal sense of the word, they both abound with images of current and past corporate logos. It has been a long time, but one of the images that sticks in my mind comes out of "The Fifth Element" where one is whisked to their vacation in space by none other than Pam Am.

It’s "Blade Runner," however, that takes us to the ultimate irony of a corporate future. In this flick, the working class has hit its ultimate commodification in the form of humanoid/androids called “replicants.” Although manufactured, these replicants are conscious and sentient beings. These manufactured workers are so dangerous in their alienation they have been exiled off the planet Earth… Herein lies the plot.

2007: let’s see how far we’ve come:

Since 1980, national economies have become part of a global economy. NAFTA, CAFTA, the European Union Constitution and the whole alphabet soup of trade agreements are all based on one premise: removal of any obstacles -- local, regional or global -- to capital penetration.

Factories are now on wheels (and wings) and can be shifted across continents in a matter of days. Rural economies and their populations are being destroyed as agriculture becomes a global corporate-dominated industry.

The result has been spiraling world-wide poverty, an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, and the dislocation of billions of people as local and regional economic systems are torn apart in the interest of global profits.

The war in Iraq:

For the first time in modern history we are seeing large scale private sector armies fielded by the so-called security industry. Interrogation prisons are contracted out to private consulting firms to avoid any issues of accountability, and a host of corporations seem to be running Iraq and the US military through their handmaiden -- the U.S. government. It is significant the entire U.S. military support apparatus, such as camp construction, sanitation, supply, food services, etc are all privatized.

Hurricane Katrina

The handling of this catastrophe could have been written as a futuristic noir flick in and by itself. Private security services (Blackwater) show up with armed troops in black armored personnel carriers with a license to shoot and kill. Thousands of poor and workers are herded into the Super Dome with no food, water, inadequate sanitation, and no ability to leave. New Orleans’ poor and working class residents did not experience hurricane relief. Instead they were simply contained.

Global Warming

The cat is finally out of the bag! Over the last couple of years it has become apparent that a global ecological crisis is well under way. Here, the power of global capital has combined with the ecological crisis in such a way as to make a futuristic noir world seem an unstoppable inevitability.

Back to "Blade Runner", "The Running Man" and
"The Fifth Element.:

It is no accident that the plot solutions in all three movies resolve around individual solutions to the characters’ dilemmas, thus leaving all three noir worlds unchanged.

In "The Fifth Element" Bruce Willis' cynical and masculine heroics combine with Milla Jovovich’s mystical powers to destroy an evil death star which threatens to push the world into total evil. In the process, the nasty CEO Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg is beaten, and the film leaves us with Bruce and Milla in each others’ arms.

The point here is that by beating total evil, the noir world continues as is and quietly fades into the background as Bruce and Milla find happiness with each other.

"The Running Man" resolves itself as cop-turned-prisoner Arnold beats the stalkers and gets his revenge against the evil television producer. There’s a love solution here too, again letting this noir L.A. slide unchanged into the background.

"Blade Runner" is in many ways the most interesting of the three films. The film begins with Harrison Ford’s character reluctantly agreeing to hunt down a group of terrorist rogue “replicants.” This is accomplished by Harrison Ford with a whole lot of interesting twists and turns in the plot.

What is, however, most interesting in this film is its moral ambiguity and intense sense of individual atomization.

In "Blade Runner" we have a hidden theme of a totally commodisized class of people -- replicants -- yet there is no notion of a collective rebellion by these replicants. "Blade Runner" in lots of ways prefigures the atomized rebellions we see when people "go postal"; that we have seen with Columbine, recent shootings at the University of Virginia, and the roughly weekly news reports of some fired and harassed employee shooting up his boss, office, and co-workers.

Yet "Blade Runner" does "humanize" the replicants. The film ends with the noir world intact and Harrison Ford’s character sneaking off into the future with a young replicant woman. So, replicants are people too, but their humanity becomes evident only in the context of a love affair with a flesh and blood human being.

So, where’s all of this going?

In my opinion, “Blade Runner” and “The Fifth Element” are great flicks. “The Running Man” is pretty good too, but Arnold flicks are just a little too linear for me. Please don’t take this essay as any kind of a put down of these movies.

Nor do I want to suggest some kind capitalist “conspiracy theory” around these movies. In no sense am I suggesting the producers, writers and directors sat down with some kind of intent to lull a population into complacency with these flicks. Reality is far more complicated than that!

Frankly, I have no idea what the producers, writers and directors were thinking as these movies were being made, and frankly, I don’t think it matters. I do, however, think the writers and producers of all three of these flicks had a good sense of the pulse of our modern world.

If nothing else, a major theme of this article is that we have largely become the future envisioned in these movies.

There is a little more I would like to say about these flicks… This is where I want to go back to Brecht, with some kind of idea as to how exactly the hammer of these three movies shaped the reality we made (and are continually re-making).

The concept I’d like to suggest is that these three movies represent a kind of collective post traumatic stress syndrome.

A little psychology:

Post traumatic stress syndrome amounts to a repetition and re-living of a terrifying experience. The repetition occurs over and over again until the mind can adapt and integrate the terrifying experience within the whole of itself, thus allowing the individual to live with this terror.

"Blade Runner," "The Running Man”, and “The Fifth Element” do work; they are all successful and somewhat acclaimed movies. (I think rather under-acclaimed.) These movies work because they are believable to their audiences. The noir worlds portrayed are and were believable worlds even as they were released.

These noir worlds were and are scary worlds too. There’s very little in any of these movies that any sane person could regard as a desirable historical outcome. Thus the movies talked about serve as a kind of post-traumatic (maybe pre-traumatic is the better concept) repetition of our fears of the future. As we watch these movies we become more and more adapted to the futures they portray.

The adaptation is more than the mere repetition. The three movies also provide the audience with a framework (a sort of compass) allowing it (the audience) to cope with such a world. As popular culture pieces, these “coping mechanisms” work because they too are believable and acceptable to the audience.

Getting down to particulars, the coping frameworks that seem to run through these three flicks are:

First, they are all visually and technologically rich worlds. These worlds might not be socially desirable, but they are interesting and provide whole new vistas of technology that are cool!

To what extent we put up with our world now because it gives us such nifty things as cable/dish TV, computers, cell phones, I-pods, all sorts of things we can’t imagine living without, is very much an open question.

Second, all three of these movies resolve around individual solutions. As such, these individual solutions reinforce the notion that there is safety in atomization (specifically a false sense of safety by isolating oneself off from the wider society… the hero always rides into the sunset alone). More specifically still, that sanctuary and happiness can be found in love and in spite of the ugliness of these worlds.

Third, the worst off, those hanging around the oil drum fires way at the bottom, are always portrayed as objective social facts without a subjectivity. The audience might feel the loom of the oil drum world, but it ain’t there yet.

Fourth, all three movies point portray rebellion as evil or pointless and futile. Consider “Blade Runner.” Here, the social context of the rogue replicants being hunted is obscured, thus reducing rebellion to acts of gratuitious violence.

Next time you run across news coverage of an office shooting, pay attention to the portrayal of the shooter. See any similarities to “Blade Runner’s” rogue replicants?

While individual acts of rebellion are evil, collective acts of rebellion are merely pointless. This is done best in “The Running Man” -- the futility of the food riot and prison break.

So, this is all very academic and nice, but who cares?

Good point!

But I keep coming back to one problem…. Even as objective conditions deteriorate for most people, the system remains largely unchallenged. I can’t help but think it’s in the culture.

May 25, 2007

Tito


Today we mark the birth of Tito, born in 1890 in Kumrovec, Croatia. He died on May 4, 1980 in Slovenia. In better times today was known as Youth Day in order to honor the young people of Yugoslavia.

Tito is chiefly known for having led the Yugoslav anti-fascist resistance and for having led Yugoslavia after the war while the country rebuilt. Yugoslav socialism was inspired by the best aspects of socialism in the USSR and by what the heroic Yugoslav fighters in Spain during the Spanish Revolution saw there. Tito was not one of the Spanish fighters, but he helped develop the concepts of self-management. Yugoslav socialism was built under the slogan of "brotherhood and unity."

Tito should also be remembered for his leading role in building and moving forward the Non-Aligned Movement, for his efforts to find a just solution to the occupation of Palestine and for his principled disagreements with the leadership in the USSR.
Two familiar quotes from Tito come to mind:

"We have spilt an ocean of blood for brotherhood and unity of our peoples and we shall not allow anyone to touch or destroy it from within."

"No one questioned 'who is a Serb, who is a Croat, who is a Muslim', we were all one people, that's how it was back then, and I still think it is that way today."
There are many stories about Tito and Tito used stories from his own life creatively in order to express the feelings and striving of his country. One of my favorite stories concerns an argument Tito had with Cardinal Stepinac before the Cardinal's trial and conviction for treason and war crimes. In the heat of their argument Tito said, "As a Catholic I object!" Of course this was not publicized at the time.

Tito and the majority of the Yugoslav Communist leadership overestimated the depth of socialism and socialist consciousness in Yugoslavia, prematurely abdicated their leading roles in Yugoslavia and took out loans and pursued forms of development which later helped break up the country. These mistakes cannot be forgotten or minimized. But Yugoslavia tried to do what no other country has tried to do: construct a form of socialism without bureaucracy in a multi-ethnic country in the aftermath of a war which took the lives of one out of every nine people. Of course there were mistakes and failures.

Speaking to the new Yugoslav government in 1945--full of optimism for the future and sadness from the war in the same moment--Tito said, "The chief credit for all these successes must go to our youth, our workers, our women, our soldiers, who have been working, often without payment, with unparalleled zeal and a desire that our country should be built up as quickly as possible from this devastation. Masses of our best patriots have worked very hard for the welfare of the whole community, and that should be an example to all those who stand on one side with their arms folded, just criticizing, while some are directly engaged in sabotage."

Note that Tito said "our youth, our workers, our women..." and so on. He felt responsible for the people and the fate of his country but also shared this responsibility with others. He is--he remains so even in death--our Tito because he was one of us, a worker who gave us a great example of what we can become and what we can hope for.

May 24, 2007

Portland, OR.: Learning from El Salvador

Learning from El Salvador:
Questioning the Role of Compromise in U.S. Based Organizing


Wednesday, May 30, 6-8:30pm at Liberty Hall, 311 N Ivy St. in Portland

A reportback from El Salvador! We'll have papusas, music, slides and workshop. Including:

  • An overview of the current structure and challenges of El Salvador's organized left illustrated by images from the recent CISPES delegation
  • A workshop: Questioning the Role of Compromise in U.S. Based Organizing. We will compare organizing strategies and tactics from current Salvadoran movements which incorporate grassroots and electoral strategy for complete governmental transformation to our own organizing goals and methods here in the US.

This is a fundraiser for organizations in El Salvador hosted by: Portland Central American Solidarity Committee (PCASC) and the Associated Student Body of Portland State University (ASPSU).

Liberty Hall is at 311 N. Ivy St. (1 block south of Fremont, 2 blocks west of Vancouver Ave) Convenient buses: #40 Mocks Crest, #33 Fremont, #4 Fessenden. www.pcasc.net

Speaker Biographies:

Laura Close, 26, works as an organizer with SEIU Local 503 working with in-home Child Care providers earning around $2.12 an hour caring for the children of working parents on welfare. She first learned to organize through the anti-sweatshop student campaign at University of Oregon and went onto become national organizer for STARC: Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations where she founded the STARC Summer Institute in 2002, which annually trains a class of 10 young people in racial justice organizing. Laura just returned from a 2.5 week political delegation to El Salvador.

Courtney Morse, 21, is a queer, slam-poet, elected student body president at PSU as a college sophomore in 2006. Since beginning student organizing 3 years ago she has re-established a PIRG chapter, coordinated statewide campaigns and used her elected position to rally a committed group of student activists who've convinced their administration to implement ethnic and queer studies programs. Courtney recently brought down the house at the Oregon legislature using slam poet skills on behalf of higher education funding.

May 17, 2007

Salem, Oregon: Socialists Move Forward!

We did our "Across All Borders--Our Future In The Global Economy" forum with Leslie Frane, Paulina Hermosillo and Sid Shniad on May 12. I think that most of us consider the event a great success.

None of the panel members are members of our organization. Leslie is the Executive Director of SEIU Local 503, OPEU; Sid comes from the British Columbia Telecommunications union; and Paulina is an incredibly talented Latina photographer and activist. The group who assembled drew from the working class and from SEIU and union members. Attendance was lower than we hoped because of conflicting events, the novelty of a socialist forum being held in Salem, the lack of communication and contact between labor and the social movements locally and our inability to pull people into the discussion from these social movements and from the left of the Democratic party and the Hispanic communities. Self-criticism aside, this event helped us define ourselves and gave us a good start.

Leslie talked about specific SEIU union organizing campaigns which have reached across borders and she talked about these struggles as works in progress. SEIU and sister unions in other countries are searching for ways to work together and studying models for service worker organizing and representation. She took a nuanced view of the upcoming elections and the present moment in US politics and the labor movement's relations with the Democratic party.

Paulina showed slides of working class people who move between Mexico and the Salem, OR. area. She shared something from their stories and made their lives real to us. She spoke competently about how and why people cross the Mexico-US borders and the impact on families and communities as well as events in France.

Sid's talk was ideologically focused and he could draw on his experiences in Canada and in the US--and especially in the telecommunications industry--to point out where unions are coming up short. He was critical of union ties to the Democratic party and skeptical of the changes proposed by the Change to Win federation of unions.

The back-and-forth which took place between the speakers and the rest of us focused on the elections in France, the legacy of the USSR, the role and standing of the labor movement and how unions are changing. Everyone who spoke brought to the floor some helpful insight and many people stayed afterwards for additional discussion. Lea Spencer, a worker-leader member of our group, did an outstanding job facilitating the event after a stressful week and while struggling with a cold.

While we were meeting at the Salem Public Library the fascist Minutemen organization was picketing a nearby DMV office in attempt to communicate their anti-immigrant message. Our event drew more people than their picketing did.

We will be posting to this blog some of the memorable moments from our forum. We hope to hold future forums and build our organization in the process. We are using Working Class Strategy In The Era Of Capitalist Globalization, written by Scott Marshall, as our point of departure. If you are in Oregon, contact us for a copy by writing to rjrossi@navicom.com. You can also get a copy from the Labor Commission of the Communist Party by writing to LaborComm@rednet.org.

May 8, 2007

May 12 - Salem Oregon Forum on Labor in a Globalized Economy


Don't miss this opportunity to learn and meet others in Salem Oregon.

Saturday, May 12th
2:00 PM
Salem Public Library
555 Liberty Street SE
Salem Oregon
Anderson Conference Room (ground floor)
Free and open to the public

Three presenters will speak to issues that all workers should know about -the current globalized economies, how they are affecting workers, and related social struggles. We will have time for questions and answers, small group breakout sessions, and more.

Speakers are:
  • Sid Shniad of the BC Telecommunication Workers Union

  • Paulina Hermosillo, writer, photographer, social activist

  • Leslie Frane, Executive Director of Service Employees International Union, Local 503

See you there!

May 3, 2007

Salem journalist trivializes workers' May 1 rally

Jeanine Stice, columnist and blogger for the Salem, Oregon Statesman-Journal wrote two columns/blog entries recently commenting on the May 1, 2007 rallies for immigrant workers' rights in Salem.

In her May 2 column, she wrote:
Not that long ago, American May Day activities included children making baskets filled with lilacs or other flowers to hang on doors and cheer up a neighbor. I remember clearly weaving a colored paper basket in school that I was instructed to fill with some flowers and give it either to my mother, or ring a neighbor’s doorbell and leave an anonymous gift.
This tradition has faded. As today’s front page depicts, not a soul was at the Capitol giving out bouquets. Instead everyone seemed to be busy shouting, protesting for themselves caring little about their impact on one another. Those for the rally of solidarity carried flags from many countries, and sometimes shouted words like, “Men-tal” at those against the rally. Those against the rally shouted words like, “Go Home.” Neither group seemed to show much respect or appreciation at all, except for themselves and who they consider “their” people.
It’s sad they couldn’t take a moment to put down their signs, and create an old fashioned May Day basket. As long as we stand around picketing, shouting, and seeing people through “us” and “them” lenses we will not make progress when it comes to needed immigration legislation.
Both sides clearly need to learn to respect one another and to seek understanding rather than to be understood.

The socialist/communist worker wrote back:
Dear Jeanine:
I read your column in today's paper and was somewhat saddened. There are many traditions for the first of May and of the entire month of May. You might want to check out "School of the Seasons" online for ethnic, religious, and folk traditions. There is another May 1 tradition, which ironically started in the US, and is celebrated throughout most of the rest of the world, though not widely anymore in the US, until the recent immigration reform protests of last year and this year. That is International Workers' Day. On May 1, 1884, quoting from Wiki here: there was "the first proclamation of eight-hour workday by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in the United States. May 1st, called May Day or Labour Day, is now a holiday recognized in almost every industrialized country." Two years later, "A general strike (note: many were German and Italian immigrants) begins in the United States which escalated into the Haymarket Riot and eventually won the eight-hour workday in the U.S." Therefore, the choice to currently protest and agitate for workers' rights on May 1 was a apt one.

In her May 3, 2007 column Ms. Stice stated:

Thank heavens the protests have ended. Now we can get back to the serious business of grocery shopping and cooking. I’m not sure when the protestors get this done. It seems like it would be difficult to protest if you’re in the kitchen. But if you want help training kids how to protest, just ask them to help set the table when they’re busy having a good time playing Legos.

The socialist/communist worker wrote back:
Jeanine, In your blog entry yesterday, you state "Both sides clearly need to learn to respect one another and to seek understanding rather than to be understood." Yes that is true; also, in public protests, emotions and feelings may be in a higher pitch than usual. You need to take the broader view when observing these public protests. People who protested took a day off work, and undoubtedly an unpaid day - in order to try to keep the issue of justice for workers alive in the public mind. That is a good thing. It sounds just a little narrow-minded of you to say, from your white privileged point of view, that "thank heavens the protests have ended." Yes, food is serious, certainly, and the abililty to buy food by having a job that is at least subsistance wage, is just as important as missing one day of work, or missing one day in the kitchen. You have the great gift of having your own public forum in the SJ, yet you seem to trivialize the suffering and struggling of others. For instance, you wrote "if you want help training kids how to protest just ask them to help set the table when they’re busy having a good time playing Legos...." Going out to protest was a great act of commitment and courage on the part of these vulnerable people. Please consider: are you are using your position and power as a source of good, or as a way to isolate from others; to make others the "other" (what you criticize in yesterday's blog entry) - in other words, "them."