Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Once Friendly Tribeca Film Festival Prices the Rest of Us Right Out

I just checked the Tribeca Film Festival program to find that the once fun & public friendly film-fest has changed its ticket pricing policy. Last year, tickets were $12.00 with a $1.00 internet surcharge. This year, most screenings are $18.00 - with $2.00 internet surcharges. Indiewire has a piece about it, and notes that festival promoters in other cities, where ticket prices remain similar to those in local theaters are "surprised."
My reaction is more like disgust - and I see that I'm not alone in that. It already annoys me that the TFF uses the building that I work in and does not give a discount to either students or teachers there, but does give discounts to people who live in Tribeca, among the most expensive zip codes in the United States. Given the facts that many of the good movies shown at the festival will eventually make it to major distribution on DVD or in theaters, that there are many other things to do in NY, that there are a number of good film venues that regularly show better films (Film Forum/MOMA/Anthology/Walter Reade) and that critics have often responded with skepticism to the programming choices at TFF, I can't think of this as a smart business move. I will suck it up and pay to see the restored print of "Attica", & possibly the new Forgacs movie if they have a "cheap" daytime screening. Otherwise, I'll just be waiting for their releases, just like I waited for "Who Killed the Electri Car?"; "Jesus Camp" and that Jonestown doc. to come out on DVD. So for my big festival fun, perhaps I'll be hitting the NY Underground Film Festbefore it's over and then waiting for the Sundance at BAM.
Too bad, too bad! It's really too bad that the prohibitive ticket prices will keep local kids from getting a chance to see Melvin Van Peebles in person at the first screening of "Blackout."
Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Polemicists Parry: The Cockburn- Berube Rumble

Alexander Cockburn has started a fracas with blogger and liberal academic, Michael Berube with his article about the Laptop Bombadiers which lambasts "progressives" who supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In one particularly lyrical paragraph he says:

But today, amid Iraq's dreadful death throes, where are the parlor warriors? Have those Iraqi exiles reconsidered their illusions, that all it would take was a brisk invasion and a new constitution, to put Iraq to rights? Have any of them, from Makiya through Hitchens to Berman and Berube had dark nights, asking themselves just how much responsibility they have for the heaps of dead in Iraq, for a plundered nation, for the American soldiers who died or were crippled in Iraq at their urging ? Sometimes I dream of them, -- Friedman, Hitchens, Berman -- like characters in a Beckett play, buried up to their necks in a rubbish dump on the edge of Baghdad, reciting their columns to each other as the local women turn over the corpses to see if one of them is her husband or her son.

Berube has responded to Cockburn at the blog "Crooked Timber." In his response, he calls Cockburn intellectually dishonest, primarily offering evidence of this dishonesty by quoting articles by Ed Herman, which is OK for him, because according to Berube, everyone in the "Z/Counterpunch crowd" is interchangeable. (Herman responds to Berube here.)
After reading both articles, and the original article by Berube, which, before the war, ignited the ire of anti-war activists, I'd say that Cockburn is more honest than Berube.
Both are polemicists and employ a similar style of argument; Berube attacks everyone associated with the anti-imperialist left as being oddly obsessed with the notion of "sovereignty"- which is a neat way of avoiding the words empire and imperialism. Cockburn writes that everyone who supported the Clintonian sanctions regime, the bombing of Kosovo, and the attack on Afghanistan is also, regardless of their stated opposition to it, essentially responsible for the current debacle in Iraq.
While I do think it's weird to refer to "anti-imperialists" as the "sovereignty left," I don't think that's intellectually dishonest of Cockburn to make the argument that support for other US military interventions paved the way for the current one, or that public condemnations of the anti-war movement such as the one that Berube wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education, effectively amount to support for US imperialism - and therefore for the current war.
I also think that it's an important argument to make as we talk about solutions to the current crisis. As Gilbert Achcar pointed out redeployment is not withdrawal, and as CODEPINK is currently arguing, funding the war is not an anti-war strategy. Most democratic policy proposals, as they did in the case of the war in Vietnam, have opposed the Bush administration's bad strategy in Iraq, not the immorality, criminality, etc. of the war in the first place.
So, why be a non-interventionist and why does it matter for the current situation? I opposed the 1990s sanctions regime and I opposed the bombing in Kosovo, not, as Berube suggests in his response to Cockburn et al, because I loved either Saddam or Milosevic, but because I thought "no good can ever come from US-led military intervention." In my study of history, no matter what the US may say about its reasons for intervention, it has never really been humanitarian (nor has any major empire) and it wasn't in those wars. Berube suggests that a humanitarian intervention is possible, and says that he wouldn't sign major anti-war statements in 2002 and 2003 because they opposed interventions generally. I also read enough about the specificso each situation to believe that neither was any good. The sanctions regime was devastating to the Iraqi people and actually strengthened Saddam Hussein's power, while the Kosovo campaign has not, even according to one of my enthusiastic Albanian students, done much to "liberate" the Kosovar Albanians.
From the point of the view of the anti-imperialist left, those who, like Gitlin, Berube, and others on the "right wing" of the opposition to war in Iraq in 2003, hurt the anti-war movement because their public critiques of the left were more both more audible and more meaningful than their arguments against the war itself; they gained the public ear by echoing what was said in the corporate media. While they may have argued that they opposed the war in the "right" way, what was heard publicly was not "I oppose the war," but "I am a well recognized liberal and I oppose the anti-war movement because it is composed of a bunch of far-left wingnuts."
Criticizing the left publicly in the same terms that one can find in the "mainstream" news organizations, the "Dissent" crowd, has helped marginalize critics of US imperialism by calling them anti-Semites, lovers of Milosevic, supporters of Islamic fundamentalism, Stalinists, etc. etc. THEY argue that members of ANSWER discredit the anti-war movement with their bad politics. However, I would argue that the public condemnations of ANSWER (of whom I'm no fan) and Not in My Name (a slightly better group) by this crowd have done much more to discredit and dissmiss the left in the public's eye than anything you will see at an ANSWER demonstration, particularly if you don't listen to the speeches, as most people don't. In addition to that, despite their bad politics, ANSWER has done more to build the anti-war movement than have Gitlin, Berube, et al.
Those who have insisted that the anti-war movement should NOT talk about the Clinton era as part of the history of the current crisis, should NOT talk about US imperialism, and should NOT talk about Israel, would narrow the terms of debate and limit the range of critique because they see making the opposition to the war about opposing ongoing US policies in the world, not just the current war, as narrowing the number of people who can join the anti-war movement. They worry that being too left will marginalize the movement and keep it tiny and ineffective. Pragmatism, they say, demands building bridges on the narrow issue of...well, not exactly pulling the troops out NOW.
Those who oppose the war as part of a larger imperialist project would argue that just opposing the war as the Bush debacle will not stop the larger problems, and might, if it is done in such a way to reduce opposition in the US while continuing the exploitation of the region, actually make things worse. This demand that anti-imperialists shut up in order to stop imperialism doesn't make sense to anyone who knows anything about US foreign policy in the long term, nor does it make sense as a strategy to anyone who's ever been "radicalized" in the process of political organization. It would mean that instead of offering people who are new to an anti-war movement arguments about the deeper roots of the conflict, that people in the anti-war movement just...
wait a minute, I think I know the answer:
agree that the answer to our problems is ANYBODY BUT BUSH.
I suppose that if you really, really believe that Bush is the *only* reason that the US is in the current mess that it is with the rest of the world, or that the real problem with the war in Iraq was that it was "unilateral" (as Berube's earlier argument suggests) anything else is just beside the point and a bunch of sectarian nonsense.

In some cases, "sectarian" arguing of this type is important for clarifying the issues and can't be avoided. Perhaps you disagree? Let me know, oh commenters....

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Posted by Picasa

The 2007 garden begins. I thought the crocuses would all be dead, but it looks like at least one made it through the late frost.
Posted by Picasa

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Teaching the Alien and Sedition Acts in the Age of 9/11....

Since I've been teaching American history survey courses, I've noticed very strong student reactions to three pieces of legislation that I always include in the primary sources for particular topics. They get agitated about The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, The Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1918, and The Korematsu decision.
The sedition act includes the following:
That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

When I teach this document, I also have the students read excerpts from the newspaper "The Aurora," a partisan paper from Philadelphia whose editors were thrown into prison under the terms of the Sedition Act because of their opposition to the Adams administration. The "Alien Acts," of which James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, On May 20, 1798, the "Alien bill proposed in the Senate is a monster that must forever disgrace its parents" gives the President the authority to deport people from nations with whom the US is at war, and also to deport "Alien Friends". Since there was no war between the US and France in the 1790s, it was actually against Irish and English supporters of Thomas Paine, who had fled Britain's suppression of the political clubs, that the Federalists used their handy law.
Three years ago, I recall that my entire class was united in opposition to the law, and that they were highly critical of the one person in the classroom who thought it was a valuable piece of patriotic legislation. Ironically, perhaps, the one person who supported the law was an immigrant. She may have been, as some anti-immigrant activists of the 1890s would have argued, unfamiliar with American "institutions" and therefore not appreciative of just how directly these laws undermined the basic freedoms provided in the Bill of Rights. She might have just been trying to impress her teacher, not realizing that advocating everything those in power have ever done was not the way to do so. Last Fall, when my classes were discussing the similar Espionage and Sedition Acts passed during WWI, my class was so unified in opposition to the laws that the only person creating controversy later admitted that he was just arguing for the laws to "stir things up, like in Professional wrestling."
Nonetheless, this semester, the balance of the class has shifted. While many of my current students found the sedition bill puzzling, and asked "how can they pass this law? Doesn't it violate the Bill of Rights?" several students responded by defending the laws, arguing that it was necessary to protect the government from "alien enemies" and to curtail the freedom of the press. One student, clearly thinking of present day issues, made a big point of hidden, alien subversion of the government. I wonder who he thought these alien enemies were in 1798? Would he have had the same reaction if he'd known the immigrants being subjected to interrogation and deportation were the Irish supporters of Thomas Jefferson?
Immigrant students tend to be the most vehement in their opposition to the laws, which they associate with current anti-Immigrant sentiment, while native born Americans seem more likely to support them. I find this all very interesting. I see it as a sign of the times that students, even in a school with a large percentage of immigrants, would be willing to deny rights to "aliens" as a matter of course, but I am shocked that they are so willing to trust the government wih the suspension of freedom of the press, even though I am aware that ACLU poll results sometimes show that about 60% Americans would probably scrap the First Amendment if they could.
Most of the time, I hold back from expressing my own views in the classroom when students are discussing documents, in order to let the conversation play itself out among the students. This time, however, partly due to time considerations, I had to just come out and say that OF COURSE the Sedition Act of 1798 violated the First Amendment. I wish I didn't have to come in and settle that particular question. These are indeed, strange times, and I may have to come up with some kind of lesson on the rest of the amendments that addresses this other problem that Americans seem to have with the Constitution.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Left Forum Part Two: Frances Fox Piven Still Rocks

I have to say something about my second day at Left Forum, even if I'm almost a week late in doing so.
I recovered enough from the stomach flu to return for the Sunday 10am Iraq panel with Gilbert Achcar, Anthony "support the resistance!" Arnove, Christian Parenti, and the ever-pompous AK Gupta. Parenti and Achcar were interesting, though I wouldn't say that anyone there said anything I hadn't already heard before. Experts agree: The situation in Iraq is terrible, and the question that they mostly wound up discussing was whether it would be possible to force the Democrats to take some meaningful action to stop the war. This year, LF had the audience put their questions on slips of paper and pass them to the front. So, predictably, one of the anonymous questions, probably from someone from the ISO, was why people had "stopped supporting the Iraqi resistance" recently, and Achcar explained in detail why he thought there was no national resistance movement in Iraq, but only sectarian resistance that couldn't be supported. If you stop talking about a "mythical, fantasy" "so-called" resistance, Achcar said, and look at what's there, you won't be able to support it. There's a difference between the right to resist and calling the militias currently killing Iraqi civilians a national liberation movement. Parenti said that the Iraqi resistance today is like what would happen in the US if we were occupied by an Islamic fundamentalist power. Iraq, more so than the US, had a completely demobilized left that Hussein had effectively driven underground. So, their resistance is comparable to what would arise here: groups of former CIA and DEA operatives, heavily armed and trained in counter-insurgency on the one hand, and the evangelical Christian right on the other.
Arnove (who has never been to Iraq), had been the featured speaker in a debate two years ago that called on the US anti-war movement to "support the Iraqi resistance." It seems to me that the ISO as a whole has backed down from that position since, but Arnove said, "imagine if there was no resistance and the US had achieved their agenda!" So, even a vicious sectarian resistance that mostly kills Iraqi civilians is better than none? Hmmmm.
* * *
The next session I went to was about globalization, corporatization and public education. I arrived really late, almost at the end of Janelle Scott's fascinating talk about the actual evidence on "school choice" policies. Based on what I've seen of her previous work, it looks as if she moved to her current position, which is highly critical of charter schools, from seeing them as an experiment in democracy. This panel also featured a lively discussion from the audience, almost all of whom were women, and were either parents or teachers, and one of whom was involved in an interesting public ed. project. From there I went to the 3pm session sponsored by the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE) on the subject of "financialization." The centerpiece was a talk by Chris Rude, who suggests "financialization," a term which describes the increasing percentage of money made through financial transactions in overall profits, is capital's solution to economic crises. The conclusion of one of the speakers was that in such a context, it might make more practical sense to fight for actual socialism than to try to squeeze out reforms like national health care under the existing system.
Finally, I went to the plenary session on the future of the left. This began with a highly "postmodern" keynote address from Boaventura de Sousa Santos suggesting that people in the "global North" should adjust their paradigms, abandon the search for an overall theory of resistance and follow the lead of the "global South"; and continued with responses from Anarchist anthropologistDavid Graeber, FRSO-soft/Democratic party hopeful, Bill Fletcher Jr, and best of the bunch, as usual: Frances Fox Piven who spoke in no-nonsense terms of practical politics in the current moment of crisis. My fried, D. reflected that she was great as a speaker in the same way that she was great as she blew by us in the crowded book exhibit on her way to the session. She was firm and to the point, not mean. Dr. Piven impressed Bill DiFazio too, and he had a long interview with her on his WBAI show City Watch the following week.
* * *

While the panels were informative and interesting, I was disappointed by the low turn-out at this year's Left Forum. It was dispiriting and felt as if the only participants were members of FRSO, the Brecht Forum, various IS tendencies, members of the CUNY grad center faculty, and the Black Radical Congress. In other words: the usual suspects. I think this was probably an organizing failure from the center and not a reflection of the lack of energy for social movement at the current moment. It's too bad, because this is the moment of peak opportunity for people on the socialist left to reach out to the growing number of people who are unhappy with the war and the current administration.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Left Forum Part One

I didn't succeed in a making it through a marathon day at the Left Forum. I was interrupted by the stomach flu (perhaps its this one)that seems to be making its way through most of my friends. Really, I wasn't vomiting in the women's room at Cooper Union just because I didn't like Curtis Mohammed'stalk about his good work in New Orleans; I did feel I had to wait to run out of the lecture hall until he was done, however, for fear that he might see a small white chick running from the lecture hall as confirmation of his view that everyone at the LF was probably a phony, white, academic poseur. He may be right, I only mind a little that he began his talk by raising his eyebrows and playing at what he assumed was the audience's fear or guilt in the presence of a genuine a Black radical. In a room full of Trotskyists, Maoists and old-guard Stalinists he asked, "Did you know that everything won for Black people was won through bloodshed?" as if this were the first time they'd ever heard it. It's all for the good though, because after all, what is a good conference of lefties without an insult to the audience for its lack of commitment, knowledge, and its disconnection from real people's struggles?
The panel on which Mohammed spoke was called "What's Left and Who's Left in New Orleans"? I did wish that the flu hadn't rushed me out the door, because I was curious to hear the third speaker, Gary Younge . I went to the whole thing because I really wanted to hear the real deal, of what it's been like to have members of every sectarian left organization in the world descend on New Orleans to help out, and to find out what these groups are doing, and whether they feel they are getting anywhere.
Jordan Flaherty, who's done some of the best writing on NOLA since Katrina, has written an indictment of the poverty pimpingin NOLA that probably comes from the same general place as Mohammed, who recently participated in a trip to Venezuela with members of his organization. I'm sure the audience discussion was enlightening,because the speakers started out from a more moral position and I hope that the conversation became more informative after the initial presentations.
The first talk I went to today was sort of like that. Gilbert Achcar talked about Lebanon, Bashir Abu-Manneh talked about Palestine and Hamas, in what was the most informative talk of the day for me, and Sabah Alnasseri, who talked about Iraq, insisted that there was no "civil war" in Iraq, and that the Shiite/Sunni division was irrelevant. All these talks are connected to papers that will eventually show up in the journal The Socialist Register, where we can find more explanation of Alnasseri's argument, which seemed to veer between the Maoist and the Post-modern, at least in my fever-addled brain. Achcar and Nasseri looked as if they might be in for an argument, but time was up.
Unfortunately, the flu led me home so that I could watch some cheerful movies while sucking down a bottle of ginger ale. As a result, I am missing the 5pm Iraq panel featuring Achcar (who, as he was last year, is on appearing in several different sessions), Phyllis Bennis, and Nir Rosen, whose book In the Belly of the Green Birdis one of the more interesting descriptions of Iraq under occupation. If anyone reading this does go this evening's Iraq panel, please post a little comment here saying how it was.
Over all, I'd say that the conference wasn't particularly well-attended in comparison with last year's, but I didn't try to go both days then, so I may find more people in the crowds tomorrow. And, now, well, I think it's time for me to head to the bathroom.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Crony Chronicles: The Latest Bush Admin Scandal

If I didn't get those Portside emails, and if I hadn't been actually looking at them today, I probably would have missed this news item about the corruption in "No Child Left Behind's" Reading First program.
Although this latest expose of the direct use of a federal program to funnel money into the hands of Bush's friends in the corporate world, shows a less capital-intensive scheme than say, the selling-off of Iraq, it's still pretty damn scandalous. A dept. of education audit revealed that:

the conferences promoting Reading First were overtly biased toward two particular approaches to reading instruction: Direct Instruction, an intensively structured literacy program, and a related program known as Open Court. Both teaching methods are marketed by publisher SRA/McGraw Hill. The report concluded that the Department of Education had violated prohibitions to control or endorse any specific curriculum.

Surprise, surprise, the people getting the cash at McGraw-Hill are big Bush donors.
According to public records, the McGraw and Bush families are longtime friends. McGraw company head Harold McGraw III served on President Bush’s White House "transition team." And Voyager’s co-founder, Randy Best, has been a major financial supporter of Bush.

Another, more in-depth piece at San Francisco's "BeyondChron" points out that
The impropriety not only clearly breached ethical norms, it serves as a clear example of the privatization goals of NCLB and of the underlying philosophy that profit making is of greater importance than educating our society’s kids.

All this is happening just in times for the major assessment of the NCLB act as a whole. Bush is touring the country trying to sell his "standards" package, while ten senators have just called for the law to be significantly revised. The folks at the Forum for Education and Democracy are also holding a conference on "Fixing NCLB" in Washington, DC next week.
Bush's latest craven cronyism doesn't refute the general testing philosophy of the NCLB program (you can find that here), but it certainly undermines any effort by Bush to proclaim that his law is well-intended. It also reveals a larger pattern in educational reform policy that dates back before NCLB. Most education reform efforts could be better called schemes than programs.
These schemes, such as Edison schools, typically are private initiatives that promote "fix-it" curricular solutions that can be plugged in with relative ease. They are popular because they involve less federal spending than larger, more expensive comprehensive strategies emphasizing such global issues such as economic inequality, and system-changing solutions such as support for teachers, smaller class sizes, integration efforts, intensive early education programs, and they certainly make messier, more creative, more student-directive and more long-term learning/teaching efforts nearly impossible in public school environments.
Every few years, I hear from my friends in the public schools about some new curriculum that they are supposed to use to revamp their classes. These curricula are meant to help them pass the new methods of "assessment" (ie, tests) on which their future increasingly hangs. This superficial approach does little but throw money at testing institutions and textbook companies, while limiting the freedom of teachers and stressing-out generations of school kids.
Let's hope that the recent expose of Bush's malfeasance will fire up congress to take meaningful action to change our federal education policies.