Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of The House That Buff Built, the upcoming fourth volume in the Harry Palmer mystery trilogy whose subject is homelessness and the real estate industry, racial prejudice against the Chinese in Los Angeles, and the power of major media to set the development agenda.

North Sea Connection
Thursday, 10 November 2022 12:24

Social Realist TV: Escaping the Corporate Streaming Bubble

Corporate streaming TV seems to be engulfed in a never-ending chasing of its own tail. Its programming attempts to frantically flee any form of social reality, even as that reality becomes more desperate for those working-class and middle-class viewers living it.

Digital companies use the programming to simply present the virtual world as an ever-expanding source of the abundance so sorely lacking in the actual lives of workers. Take Amazon’s The Peripheral, part working-class Southern rural woman’s struggle, like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, but the larger part, and the inducement for the series, is that same woman roaming freely through time and space in her online gaming life, like Westworld or the much better – because also critical of that dichotomy – Ready Player One.

The Peripheral is by the creators of Westworld, and much like the unwieldy attempts of characters to navigate the “multiverse” in Phase 4 of the Marvel Universe, amounts to a big budget inane leaping from world to world, in a failed attempt to leave this one behind. Facebook/Meta’s own attempt to foster this interior flight from reality – whose exterior equivalent is Elan Musk’s Space X which asserts that a lucky few will start over on Mars when earth is destroyed – is failing. Meta’s projected membership of 500,000 is instead less than 200,000 with company stock falling 62% as for many the $1500 headgear is too high a price for a trip to fantasy land.

This Autumn has witnessed huge investments in streaming production values as the competition between these megacorporations accelerates. The largest among them are using their financial heft to not only beat their close competitors but also to drive other streamers, unable to match the expensive “look” of these productions, out of the business. Thus, HBO’s Throne of the Dragon costs $20 million per episode and $200 million for the season, doubling the cost of its predecessor Game of Thrones. Amazon’s Rings of Power goes one better, at $715 million for Season 1 and $90 million per episode.

Forced to represent reality

The silver lining in this race to oblivion is that both private and public channels around the world, although they cannot match the budgets of these series, are forced to produce series which deal with the actual breakdown of the global system as it affects the lives of the working and middle classes. The best of the current crop of these series are Irish public television’s North Sea Connection, available on Viaplay, and from Australia, which is the current leader in Social Realist TV, Australian public television’s Savage River and Significant Others on Paramount+, Australian Commercial TV’s After the Verdict on Apple TV+, and the Australian Indigenous Network’s True Colours, streaming on the Sundance Channel.

The average cost of a single episode on Australian TV is $760,000. So in a sense, outflanked in the ability to create alternative fantasy worlds and unable to match Amazon’s $90 million and HBO Max’s $20 million, these smaller entities are “forced” to take into account the actual problems facing their lead characters. This is similar to what happened in the Hollywood studio era of the 1940s to RKO, the least wealthy of the Big 5 monopoly studios at that time. RKO embraced film noir eg in Crossfire, whose subject was anti-Semitism, with the “value added” being the social content of the screenplays, rather than lavish production numbers.

North Sea Connection centers on a family fishing business, with the oldest daughter Kiera following in her dead father’s footsteps as the captain of a small fishing trawler. Her brother Aiden who tells her she cannot any longer make a living as an honest fisher – “Those days are gone and you know it” – instead, in language and flashy appearance that mark him as a representative of the “anything goes” neoliberal order, strikes a bargain with a methamphetamine dealer to begin bringing that drug into an Ireland that before, as the local cop says, “doesn’t have a meth problem.” Aiden sucks Kiera into his scheme, explaining his using his fishing processing plant as a dumping ground for drugs as “a business transaction that benefits both of the parties.” He later excuses the death of one of the dealer’s henchmen on Kiera’s boat as a “work accident.” Aiden’s moneymaking frenzy also involves another type of addiction as he gambles on the horses and is late to meet his wife for an adoption interview.

Elsewhere, Kiera’s mother (Sinéad Cusack), married to a Swede, discovers a criminal past that enabled them to buy their house and indicates that, for those living off the land to survive, the only path, in a globalized world organized against them, is the illegal one, a similar theme as that raised in last year’s Irish production A Clean Break. A viewer’s post accompanying the show accuses it of wasting national acting treasure Cusack’s talent in a middling production. The post itself is perhaps the result of the mega-streamer’s creation of the expectation of financial onscreen bombast replacing a more human scale, in a series that centres its critique of the inhuman values that emanate from these outsized productions.

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Katherine Langford in Savage River 

The trope of the convicted criminal completing their sentence and returning to an unforgiving town has already produced two remarkable series in Sundance’s Rectify and Daisy Haggard’s Back to Life – and here in the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Savage River it produces a third. Miki (13 Reasons Why’s Katherine Langford which this series will turn into a megastar) has supposedly killed her best friend and returns after a five-year jail sentence to a small town where all activity is centred around a sheep slaughterhouse and meat packing plant.

Miki quickly finds herself in the midst of another murder she is blamed for and in the later part of the series (episodes 5 and 6 of 6) she transforms from victim to active detective hunting the actual murderer. The slimy owner of the meat works wants to sell the plant to a global enterprise which he knows will mean job cuts, but when the town reacts the corporation pulls out because although they will clearly hollow out the enterprise, “our brand is community engagement not community warfare.”

The female mayoral candidate is opposed by the longstanding mayor who drips corruption from every pore and is in league with the meat works owner in putting across the sale. The female candidate proposes instead that the workers buy the plant, which the owner scoffs at, claiming he could get “4 million” from the corporate buyers and “these idiots don’t have 50 between them.”

On the personal level, Miki is courted by both the local high school teacher, the mayor’s son, who abandoned her when she went to jail and now comes back around and an Indigenous fellow worker who offers her affection and friendship and who, as part of her challenging the power structure, she warms to. Savage River is one of the year’s best series and extremely attuned to the challenges and potential opportunities for collective organization facing the town’s workers.

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Ordinary people in After The Verdict  

After the Verdict, as attuned to the fraying middle class as Savage River is to workers, uses a gimmick to introduce a murder mystery that is fairly apparent from the start. Four ordinary jurors, all beset in various ways with their own problems, free Laura, a wealthy female suspect, who they then suspect may have used her class position and ease with power as tools to convince them she is innocent. The jurors then meet “after the verdict” to investigate whether or not they have made the wrong decision and perhaps been bamboozled by the woman’s wealth and position.

Clara, a Chinese-Australian and mother of two who is negotiating a divorce with a husband who centred the marriage around him, is also underpaid and overworked at her clerical job. Daniel, eminently bribable, is a high school teacher, as in Breaking Bad, who can’t make ends meet as he attempts to provide some kind of life for his teenage daughter. Ollie is a sleazy and seductive real estate agent who has problems with abandonment which have kept him alone and isolated. Finally, Margie, a butcher, is in a relationship with an on-call overnight nurse Trish who distrusts Margie’s ability to be honest.

Budding class co-operation

Flawed characters all, but the flaws of each also have everything to do with a middle class under constant pressure to pretend that all is well as the weight of work pressures, debt and their own family history impinge on them. The relationships each form – two unlikely romantic couples, but also a male friendship of Ollie with Daniel and a female one with Margie that Ollie claims is a first in his life – are the heart of this series. The hopeful interactions of the group, as well as the fact that each is menaced by the wealthy figure of Laura, turn this from a despairing Breaking Bad'  into a show about how fellow-feeling enables budding class cooperation to bloom in a series about the enduring and endearing relationships among these set-upon characters.The mystery thus takes a back seat to the enduring and endearing relationships between these set-upon characters. Less slick on the same subject as Ozark and in the end vastly more hopeful.

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Toni and her mother in True Colours 

The trope of the cop coming home which fuels most Scandinavian Crime Series, or Scandi Noir, is employed in National Indigenous Television’s True Colours to follow an overweight, and we later find out, pregnant cop sent further into Australia’s Northern Territories, the center of Aboriginal life, to discover what has happened to a young girl thrown from a car in mysterious circumstances. The casting is akin to that of the Australian series Significant Others where various flawed and physically mundane family members come together in a rundown home. Likewise, the characters peopling True Colours are anything but Hollywood glamorous. Instead, the series opts for a gritty portrayal of various Indigenous retaining their lifestyle and customs as a way of confronting poverty.

The True Colours of the series are of two varieties. The first is the open racism of the society, as in the opening urban sequence Toni, the plain clothes detective, is confronted by a convenience store clerk who calls her “a f***ing black” and who she then follows and tickets. The other meaning of true colours is the constant array of splendid Indigenous art as Toni, back home, visits a group of elderly female artists painting a mural that will be displayed in Paris – reminiscent of a recent exhibition in that city by Indigenous artist Sally Gabori –though their white broker, a sister in the tribe, will earn 60 percent of the profits.

Each of these series in their own way counter both the big budget “metaverses” of the corporate streamers and the flashy and insincere casting of series such as ABC’s Big Sky, supposedly a slice of life in Montana but is actually an array of beautiful, toned Hollywood types masquerading as ordinary. There is a huge gap between Ireland and Australia’s accurate representations of the working and middle classes, and of Indigenous peoples, and Hollywood’s ‘Montana Hunks’.

Something's rotten in NATO: Dennis Broe's biannual survey of alternative media
Monday, 31 October 2022 10:19

Something's rotten in NATO: Dennis Broe's biannual survey of alternative media

As the world draws closer to nuclear war, led by the United States and cheered on by the vassal countries of the NATO alliance, even as those countries face the prospect of de-industrialization and a frozen winter, it may be time to update Winston Churchill’s announcement of the Cold War in describing the role of Western Media: “From Barcelona on the Mediterranean to Philadelphia on the Atlantic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the West.”

Because of the impenetrability of this Iron Curtain, there is almost no anti-war movement to speak of in the West. To question the war is simply forbidden. Do it and you will end up censored and ostracized, even as it draws us all closer to Armageddon. The European economy tanks, as in France even bakeries close because electricity is too expensive to keep them open. The environmental crisis deepens, and has been made worse, by the massive leaks from the sabotaging of the Russian pipeline, weirdly blamed on the Russians themselves when everyone in the media knows it was probably the Americans. Meanwhile the developing world braces itself for a lack of food, energy and fertilizer, all the result of U.S. sanctions which 87 percent of the world’s population do not support, according to the alternative media site Multipolarista.

Meanwhile U.S. “liberals” champion the cause of a “free” Ukraine while actually turning a blind eye to the constant slaughter of Ukrainians, who are being used as cannon fodder in a useless proxy war between the U.S. and Russia that with any political will from the West could have been solved through diplomacy. They also seem deaf to the omnipresent and ever-growing presence of the fascist Azov brigade where, as Jimmy Dore points out, video after video features its members parading with Nazi regalia and to the hardening of Zelensky’s government in its anti-labor, anti-union stance while refusing any attempt at negotiation.

Illiberal liberals?

A word about what used to be called “liberals” but which today constitute the most adamant warmongers and hawks in the West with, for example, the German Green Party Foreign Secretary Annalena Baerbock betraying the anti-nuclear origins of that party and instead calling for unceasing war with language that would make the always bellicose Boris Johnson blush. Biden’s neo-cons, posing as right thinkers, Secretary of War/State Anthony Blinken, Ukraine coup-monger Victoria Nuland, and stoker of the nuclear flame and security advisor Jake Sullivan, promote a “rules based” order which simply means the U.S. makes the rules and imposes its order.

The order being that proposed in the mid-90s Wolfowitz Doctrine which states that no country, business or entity shall challenge U.S. dominance and hegemony. This self-defined standard stands in sharp contrast to the actual rules-based order, the U.N. charter, which the U.S. has been in constant violation of in its, according to Ben Norton, 251 interventions since 1991 after the demise of its challenger the Soviet Union. It’s a sad state of affairs in the West, and the effect of this Iron Curtain, that the voices of peace and reason are the war criminal Henry Kissinger, the conman Donald Trump and the Ponzi scheme crackpot Elan Musk.

Liberal is no longer a term which accurately describes this group, sanctimoniously hiding behind the patina of human rights which has been converted into, as George Galloway’s guest U.N. scholar and diplomat Alfred de Zayas terms it, “the business of human rights.” These so-called liberals have supported all of these interventions, in fact never met a war or an incursion that furthered the empire’s quest for raw materials they didn’t like. A more accurate contemporary moniker for this group is “imperial neoliberals,” that is, on the foreign front cheering on invasions and, on the domestic occasionally giving lip service to improving the main question of the time in the U.S. income inequality, while actually doing nothing about that continually accelerating disparity except blaming the symptom, the popularity of Donald Trump; that is, upper and upper middle class elites benefitting from this prolonged attack on working and now middle-class people while coyly claiming to support them. (Three weeks before the mid-term elections Democrats had to be “reminded” that voters were hurting and less able to afford food, energy and shelter while the “solution” Republicans proposed, giving bigger tax breaks to the rich, would exacerbate not solve the problem.)  

A superb example of the Iron Curtain was the disparity between the visual and verbal ending of Biden’s speech at the September opening of the General Assembly of the UN. As Biden stumbled hopelessly and helplessly across the stage in danger of teetering off it, a British voice, representing that country’s role as U.S. lapdog, extolled the warlike and aggressive speech Biden had just read from a teleprompter: “Mr. President thank you. At the end of such a momentous event, the word ‘Thank You’ seems kind of inadequate for all the millions whose lives will be saved and for all those whose lives will be transformed. Thank you.”

The U.S.'s fragile empire

This disconnect between the propaganda machine and reality couldn’t better represent the power and the vacuity of the Western Media not only cut off from reality but the rest of the world as well. An apt illustration of a failing and feeble empire, what Noam Chomsky and Indian journalist and developing world historian Vejay Prashad call in their new book “the fragile empire,” propped up by the screeching voiceover of a media whose job it is to proclaim that all is well.

All that was covered of the General Assembly opening in The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC etc. was Biden’s speech (“moderate and tempered”) and the Russian and Iranian speeches (“rabble-rousing and belligerent”). The truth though is that much closer to the majority was that of the Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi who urged, in the face of the pandemic, a collapsing economy, and global warming, peace and an end to war. That majority view was never represented in the imperial media.

The media blackout is so complete, and the defunding and censoring of actual alternative media so thorough, that the very nature of “Alternative Media” has now changed. Just two years ago, when this survey was last published, it was still possible to speak of “progressive media.” Now, most of that media has simply collapsed into the hardly dissenting and not very left wing of the Democratic Party, simply echoing mainstream views while often seeing as its mission to hold the line against actually dissenting opinions in what remains of an independent media.

In the face of this collapse then it is important to highlight the underfunded and viewer sponsored media that maintain a critical view against the Maginot Line which states that anything short of gung-ho acceptance of the escalation of the U.S./NATO proxy war, both in the Ukraine and the coming war in China, is traitorous. With that in mind here are five sites that continue the battle in these bleak times and that have not surrendered their values for whatever institutional funding, scraps from the imperial table, might be available.

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The Mother of All Talk Shows with George Galloway Former British parliamentarian Galloway is now the dean of actual Alternative Media assembling with his array of guests and with his stentorian opening monologue, a nearly Shakespearian rendering of the ignominies of the week on a program that is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise captured media. Listen to Arms Regulator Scott Ritter or Ukraine correspondent on the ground Gonzalo Lira and compare their versions of what is actually happening in the war, both of which concentrate on the needless slaughtering of the Ukrainians in an unwinnable situation, with that of the bright cheery “resistance” stories from Le Monde and The New York Times. The difference is eye-opening and the gap needs to be accounted for. Galloway continues to be the doyen of current actually resistant media. A shout out also to the always on-point Garland Nixon whose no-holds barred take on the lunacy among the corruption of Washington politicians is stellar.

Media War clouds over korea

The Socialist Program with Brian BeckerBecker’s analysis, crisp and on-target, of both the wider implications of this new global war and his historical understanding of the successes and failures of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions is extraordinary. His thoughtful recapping of the history of the current Ukrainian conflict, its origin the U.S.-sanctioned coup in 2014 and the subsequent killing of over 14,000 Russian speaking inhabitants of the Donbass as well as his, and frequent guest Eugene Puryear’s, accounting of the broken promises concerning NATO advancement to the East constantly give the lie to the “rules based” order, as do infrequent appearances by the aforementioned Vijay Prashad. Nothing short of miraculous is his 6-part series with Chinese history scholar Ken Hammond on the twists and turns of that Revolutionary government’s foreign policy now updated with the analysis of Dong Sheng News’ Tings Chak’s recounting of how China has gone from one of the poorest countries on earth to now having a life expectancy for its citizens that exceeds that of the U.S. A must for anyone wishing to have a more full-bodied take on the U.S.-China conflict and the motor driving it, a topic of a recent episode with economist Richard Wolff, a regular guest who explained that a possible effect of the “decoupling” of the U.S. and China, which supplies cheap goods to the American market, might be more deleterious for the American working class than even the effects of the current inflationary spiral, itself the result, as he explained, of a greedy raising of prices by U.S. capitalists.

Media multipolarista

Multipolarista with Ben NortonJournalist Norton split with The Grey Zone which does mostly investigative reporting though with a strong anti-war stance to instead provide a more global perspective on the dawning multipolar world. His analysis is underlaid by the economic wisdom of frequent guest Michael Hudson who on a recent show explained that what we are seeing is not the end of the “greed is good” neoliberal order but rather an acceleration of that order and who also pointed out that it was never a peaceful order, relying for its wealth on a host of military incursions in the Middle East and Africa. Norton’s multipart series with political scientist and historian Aaron Good, author of American Exception: Empire and the Deep State, is a thoroughgoing examination of the dark undemocratic forces that have always vied for contention within American “democracy” and which are now in ascendence, utterly calling the shots in the face of two consecutive presidents, one a conman who could be blackmailed and the other a now feeble minded shell of a man who was in touch with the deepest and darkest forces of American politics and the American state from his long history of racist remarks almost the moment he became Senator Credit Card from the corporate tax haven of Delaware. Multipolarista is where to go to get a different perspective on the global challenge to U.S. hegemony.

Media Jimmy Dore

The Jimmy Dore ShowDore, as he loves to point out, a comedian operating out of his basement in LA, is the funniest and wickedest commentator on American politics and especially on the corruption of the Democratic Party. With the aid of his frequent journalist guests Aaron Maté, Glen Greenwald and Max Blumenthal, he has also made himself an astute truthteller on the global situation as the U.S. draws ever nearer to a simultaneous confrontation with Russia and China. A special part of the show are the “calls” from impressionist Mike MacRae whose spot-on renderings of Hollywood illuminati such as Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Vince Vaughn and Brad Pitt hilariously call attention to the vacuousness and promotional self-serving behind entertainment business trendsetters and do-gooders. The skits the two fashion together are what many decades ago the now totally sold out and cowardly Saturday Night Live was like at its origins.

Media Means morning news

Means Morning News with Sam SacksThis is another show where budget cuts, as more truthful alternative media is defunded, have hurt. The show lost its co-host and is not as strong with a single voice as well as, air-time being cut and now relying for much of its reporting on scanning the internet. Still, it is the place to go for union and working-class news and updates, even featuring a section titled “This week in Working-Class History.” More appropriate than ever in these times when U.S. oligarchs are lionized while those from around the world are demonized is the segment naming the “Rich Dick of the Week,” an honor recently won by landlords in general as rents become unaffordable and the former American dream of owning a house unthinkable and won another week by Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol who, on owner- friendly CNN, called a union of his own workers, which he attempted to halt, “a third party” interceding between “our restaurant teams and our company” and who beat out Apple’s Tim Cook for also engaging in a similar campaign of union busting.

As the world prepares yet another climate summit and the UN calls this last year of global war “a wasted year” in halting the effects, The New York Times weighed in with an article where its climate expert David Wallace-Wells proclaimed the world instead on the brink of heading toward a “less apocalyptic” future. The Times may refuse to capitalize it but there is only one Apocalypse or End of the World. As The Times Style Sheet would say that is like saying “less unique.” But it does the job of softening the blow and letting us all live with the effects of not confronting the ever-expanding profits of the fossil fuel companies, suggesting that the ship of state may be able to totter on the edge for a few more years before tipping over the falls and capsizing.

The reason for The Times exuberance may be found in the same edition where a German analyst admits that the West is providing “just enough” weaponry for Ukraine “to survive” so that “Russia should not win but also not lose,” a tacit admission that one of the points of the war is simply as a dumping ground for U.S. and NATO weapons and a boost to the weapons industry and its direct representative in the Biden Administration former Raytheon Exec and now Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Ukraine was the promised booty after the devastating, for that industry, closing of the 20-year weapons sink hole of Afghanistan.

It is thanks to the five outlets above that any kind of clear-eyed view of the world may emerge in the wake of an almost total collapse of “progressive” media and politicians which could not have been more clearly seen than in the mealy-mouthed, meagre plea of 30 Democrats for the Biden administration, as nuclear war looms, to perhaps consider negotiating. This meek response was meant with a resounding “NO” from corporate media and politicians and then promptly withdrawn as these so-called progressives retreated back under the umbrella of a state whose foreign policy is often dictated by the weapons industry.

These media outlets, often lone wolves crying in the wilderness, are ever more essential today as the Media Propaganda Mill and Iron Curtain props up an empire that with its economic power fading attempts to compete in its last remaining area of clear dominance, weapons and war, and may not mind taking the rest of the world down with it as it goes.

Debates about political art: Documenta 15 and the Berlin Biennale
Tuesday, 27 September 2022 09:48

Debates about political art: Documenta 15 and the Berlin Biennale

Published in Visual Arts

In the second article on Documenta 15, Dennis Broe outlines the criticism of the festival, and reviews the Berlin Biennale. Image above: Group Sharing at the Main Hall 

Documenta 15, the lumbung Documenta, curated by an Indonesian collective and the first major art festival in the West to be given over entirely to a developing world group, has been unceasingly attacked by Western critics as being anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli.

The rationale of this festival is a concerted challenge by various developing world collectives on Western capitalist individual and productivist modes in art and in the world in general. The festival’s early statement about critics characterizing it as “non-art” is that “We refuse to be exploited by European institutional agendas that are not ours to begin with.”

Another art institution operating a concurrent festival, the Berlin Biennale, though at points stridently critical itself of these practices, also worked to some extent as a counter to the more unbridled spirit of the lumbung Documenta.

Education

A major part of Documenta is education, and the opening room of the Fridericianum, the main display area, is given over to an “educational playground for kids” where “children and artists can connect.”

This alternative attempt at education was answered by the West by appointing a panel to conduct a “scientific” investigation of the site. The panel then declared the festival was rife with anti-Semitism, a charge especially in Germany with its horrible history that is designed to be the main way most people hearing of the festival will remember it.

There are several points to make about this charge. The first is that no shred of anti-Semitism should ever be tolerated, especially in Germany which not only has its genocidal past to deal with but also a powerful far-right party, the AFD, where these sentiments may surface.

In the most radical of the groups at the festival, Taring Padi, the inquiry found a distorted representation of a hook-nosed figure in a mural which the group quickly removed. When asked, by the way, where the figure came from, their answer was that they did not know who had drawn it since they were a collective and could not recall, but that there was a strong possibility that the iconography had originated with the Dutch colonizers – i.e. the West.

Other instances are more problematic. The festival has been attacked for a cinematic exhibit by a Japanese group called Tokyo Reel whose found footage of several 1960s and ’70s Palestinian films, transmitted originally to the long-since disbanded Red Army, runs in an clever cinematic display where the footage is the centre of a painted film strip. The films themselves are seen as one of the opening salvos of what was to become a Third World Film Movement, a key part of the filmmaking of that period. They highlight, for example, the treatment of Palestinians in the camps in various parts of the Middle East and call Zionist practice and methods into question. The curators refused to remove the films.

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An exhibit about the role of Algerian women in that country’s struggle for independence, an unearthing of a too-long-forgotten history undertaken by the Hirak people’s movement which has attempted reform in that country, consisted prominently of two blown-up silkscreens of women in the streets together rallying to overturn the 130-year history of French rule. There was also apparently a book with anti-Semitic photos in a table off to the side, which should simply have been removed. But, to find that book, a spectator would have to search mightily and would have to ignore the thrust of the exhibition. In many ways the criticism is designed to have spectators do just that – to ignore 99 percent of the content and focus on the 1 percent that should have been removed. But the critics claim the entire festival is replete with this imagery.

Anti-semitism, anti-Zionism and critiques of current Israeli state policies

This claim is the standard one of attempting to collapse three concepts, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and any critique of the policies of the current Israeli state. The first is loathsome, should be erased and has no place in any festival or in the world. The second, anti-Zionism, in some way depends on one’s perspective and is echoed by the statement by a Jewish commentator that the founding of the Jewish state is the greatest triumph and the worst tragedy of the 20th century – a triumph for the Jewish people but a tragedy in light of the endless war and destruction it has brought to the region.

On the question though of the current policies of the state of Israel, which continues to move further and further to the right, there is no doubt that, as Marx said, what is needed is “ruthless criticism of the existing order.” This is a colonial apartheid state, with its left mostly erased, that brooks no interference.

It is also now perhaps, besides the U.S., the most ruthlessly neoliberal capitalist state which in its digital defence industry supports spyware from companies like Pegasus, developed from surveillance of Palestinians and which recently finally admitted to killing a female Al Jazeera journalist, after first blaming the Palestinians. It said it was sorry and then closed the case with no investigation over whether or not this was a targeted assassination.

The attempt at Documenta, and elsewhere, is to silence any criticism of the Israeli state by conflating the three concepts. There were some errors made at Documenta, foremost among them being that there should have been more participation among Jewish progressive collectives and groups critical of the policies of Israel – for example, Jewish Voices for Peace which supports the BDS boycott. BDS, which essentially attempts to organize a ban on all products coming from the settler-colonial factories of the occupied West Bank, though it is now outlawed in Germany and in many states in the U.S., continues to gather momentum and constitutes a major global challenge to these practices.

The larger thrust of the critique though is that this is the West’s answer to the people in the developing world who critique its institutions. While the lumbung Documenta was in many ways about education, the “scientific” panel convened to “investigate” Documenta was in effect doing a little schooling of its own, that is, teaching this group of collectives that they had better think twice before again launching such a critique.

The Berlin Biennale

A softer, more restrained but in ways no less adamant critique of Western practices, though one solidly contained by the parameters of the contemporary art world, was the recently concluded Berlin Biennale.

Here, as in Documenta, abstraction was minimized as artists confronted the issues of the day with a sometimes obsessive, documentary intensity. Moses Marz’ mapmaking highlights the spirit of Bandung, the Asian and African newly independent states’ conference in 1955 that announced their non-aligned position of independence from the major powers in the Cold War. The work – a maze of arrows, text and circles – is in its intensity a kind of political Art Brut or Outsider Art, an unearthing and charting of colonial cruelty and its resistance with all the painstaking detail of Henry Darger’s Vivian Girls, but here in a geopolitical rather than a psychosexual context.

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India’s Prabhakar Kamble’s ragged feet of agricultural workers with a metal filament then leading to in one case a miniature of a blue cow, points to the fact that that beast is sacred in the country, while poor rural workers form the foundation, the feet of the economy but are ground under by this oppressive inequality.

Likewise, Birender Yadav’s actual worn sandals spread out below photographs of the almost numb feet of workers in a brick factory, their feet as hard as bricks, recall Van Gogh’s peasants’ feet in a global linking of oppressed workers. 

Juan Jacques Lebel’s life-size photos of the torture at the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib with U.S. soldiers looking on amused, interspersed with photos of the Shock and Awe annihilation of the Baghdad, was even more effectively rendered because it was laid out in a maze where it was difficult to keep from getting lost in the “fog of war.”

Dau Chau Hai’s “Ballad of the East Sea” was a sculpture of undulating waves with sharp blades, waves that could kill, as the sea – think of the current U.S. battleships in the South China Sea –becomes increasingly militarized.

Finally, Alex Prager’s “Crowd #4 New Haven” was a crowd scene shot from above where all the individuals in this collective space are exerting every inch of their will to accentuate their own personality – through hair style, dress, and makeup – and deny the existence of the collective. Ultimately, in a way that throws that consumer defined concept into question, they are imprisoned in the very “individuality” that is supposed to mark their freedom.

The Berlin Biennale, a safer art space operating within the more abstract and conceptual framework of the commercial art world, nevertheless like Documenta pointed to the fact that Western modes of production and conceptualizing are not only homogenizing but also destroying the planet. Documenta’s bolder presentation of this case drew fire from outside the art world – though it was strongly supported from within – but both events call attention to a moment of crisis that cannot be resolved by simply shooting the messenger.

Socialising Art: the Lumbung Documenta in Kassel, Germany
Saturday, 24 September 2022 11:32

Socialising Art: the Lumbung Documenta in Kassel, Germany

Published in Visual Arts

In the first of two articles on Documenta 15, Dennis Broe outlines the thinking behind the festival and some of its artworks. Image above: Group Sharing at the Main Hall 

This article will consider the impact of a monumental event in the art world, the turning over of Documenta, Kassel's quinquennial art festival. Documenta has been developed and managed by a series of collectives under the organizational framework of the Indonesian group Ruangrupa, the first such direction of a major art festival in the West by an Asian and Muslim group from the developing world.

Ruangrupa and the 50 participants, mostly collectives, rethought and refashioned the foundational concepts of not only how the art object is presented, but also the place of art in the developing world and in the West. They also addressed the issue of how art is, rather than simply being “consumed,” capable of critiquing the productivist development of the West and of posing new ways of being, and new solutions.

The project has been roundly criticized for daring this wholesale reimagining, mostly under the rubrics of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and criticism of the policies of the Israeli state. This first article will present the critique Documenta poses, and the second will consider the attack on it as well as examining the Berlin Biennale – a more art world friendly, but still cantankerous and challenging simultaneous presentation. Documenta closes this weekend, the Biennale closed last weekend, but both have challenged and in ways tried to upend preconceived perceptions both in the art world and more widely.

Socialising the production of art

Let’s start with the radical slogan of this year’s art festival in Kassel: “We are not in Documenta fifteen, we are in lumbung one.” In Indonesia a lumbung is a rice barn where the surplus harvest is stored to benefit the community in time of need. So Ruangrupa extends the concept of lumbung to this festival and, more importantly, to the world at large, as sharing the fruits of the system of production for the benefit of all. The concept is a developing world answer and a socialist answer to the private and extractive capitalist schemes of the West which have exploited the rest of the world for so long.

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In the art world, the application of lumbung means not only throwing the festival open to collective labour but also viewing the practice of art not primarily as a production of a commodity but rather a means of opening up group participation, education and creativity. Thus, art is not individually made and consumed but rather collectively produced and digested as an opening to changing the world. Ruangrupa thus challenges the old system of state funding and/or free market art systems, or even biennial circuits such as Documenta, which it defines as “highly competitive, globally expansive, greedy and capitalist—in short exploitative and extractive.”

Thus, for example, another Indonesian collective Taring Padi, uses cardboard cutouts in street demonstrations and murals to indict the killing behind the global foundation of Indonesia’s island paradise Bali, financed by Western capital and built on the graves of the dead.

These artworks then resist being torn from their function in their real life social-political context and point the way to an art that is “no longer pursuing mere individual expression, no longer needing to be exhibited in stand-alone objects or sold to individual collectors and hegemonic state-funded museums.” 

Passive spectating versus active participation

“Lumbung calling,” another slogan of the festival, this one adopted from The Clash’s apocalyptic song “London Calling,” is here converted into a plea for humanity to avert the apocalypse. In practice this has meant work that, unlike much of the objects in the Berlin Biennale, does not obscure the issue by hiding behind the patina of making vague statements through a highly conceptual veil of abstraction. For daring to confront these issues directly, for bloodying itself with a confrontation of the actual results of these centuries of Western colonialism, the first critique that this version of Documenta faced by Western critics was that this was “not art.”

The difference was striking between the Biennale, with its more traditional mode of spectators passively contemplating individual works and measuring their comprehension against the artist’s concealed intent, and Documenta, with its groups of students and mostly young people engaging with and working out ways in which the artworks spurred discussion and action. So spectators became participants, they changed from being commodified consumers into activists together groping for means of change.

As in the metaphor of lumbung, the rice collective, many of these means recalled earlier methods of being part of the earth, as in the elaborate Vietnamese garden constructed on the grounds of a well-known local nightclub by a Hanoi collective. But their works also necessarily bore the traces of formerly or still colonized peoples labouring under the burden of being “developing nations,” a sobriquet that conceals the fact not only that they have been vastly underdeveloped and exploited by the West, but also that their path should be itself productivist, always “developing.”

Thus, at the Fridericianum, the main site of the festival, there was a tent labelled “Indigenous Embassy” with the slogan “We want land not handouts” as everywhere on the earth the claims of the original tenders of the earth are gathering steam and being taken more seriously. Their practices are vying for attention against the harmfully extractive methods which are destroying the planet e.g. the battle in Canada for its place as leading mineral miner versus the claims of those on the land whose life will be upended; and Biden’s “Environmental Protection Bill” which opens Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico up to oil drilling. A continual ticker above the festival building like the one in Times Square, New York, kept pacing out the money the Australian government owes First Nations Groups from 1901 to the present day, with the figure reaching into the trillions and still mounting.

Instead of simply locating themselves in the two main halls, as other iterations of the festival have done, Documenta’s collectives have also expanded out into the city, in what Ruangrupa calls “the ekosistem.” The institution itself, begun in 1955, was designed as an antidote and a mea culpa for the place of its site Kassel as a primary manufacturer of the armaments which fueled the Nazi war machine. As such Documenta, the most political of all art festivals, has always taken as its mission to highlight this grievous moment in the city’s past.

This trend broadens in this latest iteration as the lumbung Documenta expands or ‘occupies’ not only various sites in the city but also expands its critique, to encompass the postwar development of what became known as “the city of the car,” with the automobile replacing weapons manufacturing in the 1950s “economic miracle,” a situation globally that has accounted for numerous deaths in densely populated urban areas because of diesel pollution.

Thus, the headquarters of the clothing company C&A, an unadorned and monotonous façade typical of postwar reconstruction, is illuminated with a Taring Padi banner ablaze with colour and featuring a steadfast Karl Marx in the upper corner looking askance at the company. It profited under the Nazi regime, seizing Jewish assets and employing forced labour but it has also been accused in the global neoliberal era of employing sweatshop labour from the developing world.

What could possibly go wrong?

A platz near the centre is covered underfoot with headlines from Romanian Dan Perjovschi’s Horizontal Newspaper, with one containing the slogan WAteR, proclaiming the water wars to come, another ominously announcing that “I am so grateful to be in the last Documenta” and a third picturing a word balloon from an ocean liner whose cheery passengers address those below being submerged in a raft with the comforting slogan “We are all in this together.” Perjovschi’s project, as does much of the work here, democratizes the staid art world convention of Conceptualism, where meanings are obscure and which led not to a critique of art world materiality but only to a new form of commodification, this time focusing on the word as saleable object.

What might have been a plaza, a public place for gathering at the corner of two streets in the centre of Kassel, because of the dominance of the automobile in ’50s city planning became simply a traffic circle, with pedestrians directed underground. So Ruangrupa turned the bleak underground space over to the Black Quantum Futurism collective from Philadelphia, whose lively photo montages with slogans over a slave ship read “Black People Navigate Western Timelines as Our Ancestors Did The Stars” and “Dissolve the Arrow of Progress,” as the collective called attention to the global devastation this “progress” caused.

It must be mentioned also that with the Ukraine war now being the occasion for Germany and Japan to rearm, Kassel is again becoming a site of not only the manufacture of cars but also of weapons building for a new German war machine. What could possibly go wrong?

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The extension out into the city also featured multiple works in the manufacturing district of Bettenhausen, generally ignored in previous Documentas. The Hallenbad Ost, formerly a workers’ swimming facility, was taken over by Taring Padi, the most radical group in the festival. That Taring Padi should install itself in a workers’ facility is fitting since the group, from Yogyakarta, aligns itself with working-class concerns.

The collective traces its origins to its involvement in protests and street demonstrations at the moment when the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis brought down the longtime U.S. supported dictator Suharto. The name itself means “fangs of rice,” suggesting the grain can support a community but also that it can prick opponents.

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The lawn of the Hallenbad Ost, part of an interior and exterior display of over 100 objects from the group’s 22 years of active protest, was filled with cardboard cutout puppets used in street demonstrations, called wayang kardus, which take the more elite form of Indonesian puppet theatre and make it available for expressing people’s political concerns. One cutout had a Suharto figure clutching money bags while hovering over a ballot box and swaying
elections.

There is a gorgeous multitude of murals, often visually citing the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. In one, a woman linking Indonesian and Mexican indigenous peoples bursts her chains. Another mural transposes Bosch’s vision of hell into a modern history of the diabolical world of Indonesia’s historical exploitation by the Dutch, the Japanese, Suharto and the global capital that backed him.

That vision was laid out in a series of murals about the murder of thousands on the island of Bali in 1965-66 and the subsequent decision, even as the killings of the island’s left and any who had an association with them continued, to build Bali into a global “pleasure dome” with money supplied by “the World Bank, The French Tourism Board and the UN Development Program.”

The construction was done, Taring Padi relates, with no input from those on the island and with hotels possibly built over the mass graves, concealing the largest massacre in the country’s history, worse than the Dutch or the Japanese massacres. One black and white mural accompanying this story features an army officer prominently leading and salivating over the killing below him.

Countering this is a stunning full-color mural of an Indonesian princess with a tiger striding majestically across a busy modern intersection. In the background are billboards proposing “Skin Care” and other Western capitalist beauty products which the commanding natural beauty of the princess negates. Her almost mystical presence also recalls Indonesian folklore and its use in sustaining the country against its history of incursions, outlined for example in Eka Kurniawan’s novel Beauty is a Wound.

Mark Zuckerburg as Pinocchio

Finally, there was a more traditional art world presentation in an exhibition about myth by Mexican artist Erick Beltrán in Kassel’s Sepulchral Museum, which contains medieval burial objects. A wall of various mythical representations is introduced with standard late postmodern art world gobbledygook claiming that myths only produce “vacant meaning,” are “unknowable and equal” (so thus why try to understand them).

The one saving grace in a juxtaposition of images which never exceed their place as pretentious collage is that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with a slightly oversized nose as Pinocchio, calling attention to the lies he tells at every congressional hearing to outwit those who would regulate his enterprise.

Documenta 15, the lumbung Documenta, opens the way for a developing world conception of art that directly embraces the current world crisis and that challenges and will continue to challenge Western traditions and institutions. The attack by those institutions will be the subject of the second part of this series.

The Battle at Lake Changjin: China’s Onscreen Contesting of American Aggression
Tuesday, 26 July 2022 11:56

The Battle at Lake Changjin: China’s Onscreen Contesting of American Aggression

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews The Battle at Lake Changjin, the second highest grossing film of 2021. Image above: Jacky Wu as rough and ready commander of the Revolution’s 7th Company

As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi readies an announcement of a state visit to Taiwan that is most likely to stoke calls for Taiwanese independence, China continues to warn the U.S. about upping its level of aggression in a land that both the U.S. and China have affirmed for almost half a century is a part of China.

The U.S. media has been waging a non-stop ideological war against China, with the New York Times including an almost daily obligatory negative story on some aspect of Chinese policy. Likewise, The Financial Times, in a recent review of two books on Hong Kong with invective from both the books and the reviewer, described the Chinese leader Xi Jinping as “ruthless” and Chinese leaders in general as promoting “totalitarian vandalism,” as being living fossils of Leninism as well as “rich, mighty…cruel and corrupt.” The review ended with a final assessment of the leaders of the world’s second largest economy as “thugs.”

Meanwhile Margaret Thatcher, who almost singlehandedly defeated the British working class, is viewed as “refreshingly libertarian.”  The western capitalist corporate media cannot stop chiding China for its “draconian” Covid lockdown policy, which is partly a prod on the part of Western leaders to push China back to full production of the cheap goods needed in the West to assuage populations which, with both a recession and rising inflation, otherwise cannot afford them.

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The Loud American: Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan? 

The media are also keen to keep Western audiences from making a comparison between the “authoritarian” Chinese system and the “democratic” system in its handling of the pandemic. In June 2022, the U.S. attained the horrendous peak of over 1 million deaths, the most in the world, or 3,042 deaths per million, with its allies in Europe not doing much better at 2,434 deaths per million. China meanwhile for the same period registered 5,226 total deaths or 3.7 deaths per million, sharply contesting the old Orientalist adage that “people in those countries don’t value human lives.” Had the U.S. followed China’s “draconian” methods, it would have had 1,307 deaths instead of over 1 million. China’s policy was also better for business because in the Covid lockdown the Chinese economy continued to grow but at a slower rate, while the U.S. economy contracted.

The Chinese though are asserting and defending themselves. Nowhere more prominently perhaps than in the cinema where last year’s box office bonanza The Battle at Lake Changjin, available on Apple TV and soon on Netflix, about Chinese entry into the Korean War for the purpose, according to the film, of defending the successful revolution from American aggression. Lake Changjin was not only the highest grossing film in Chinese history, with a sequel already released this year, but also was last year’s second highest grossing film in the world at $913 million, and that included Hollywood releases.

Chinese audiences flocked to see the film, which is one of the most expensive ever made with a budget of over $200 million. It was commissioned by the Chinese Communist Party and released on National Day, which celebrates the birth of the People’s Republic in 1949. A triumvirate of Chinese auteurs, Chen Kaige, Dante Lam and Tsui Hark whose Taking of Tiger Mountain was a momentous World War II epic, directed the film, which stars Jacky Wu, the lead in two previous action blockbusters, 2015’s Wolf Warrior and 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2.

The differences in the villains in Lake Changjin and Wolf Warrior are instructive in understanding the difference China has travelled in its response to the concerted bellicose intentions of Joe Biden’s neo-con foreign service. The Wolf Warrior battles and bests a rogue ex-NAVY Seal in the former, while the might of the Chinese army faces and routs the superior technology of the U.S. forces in Korea in the latter.

Wu Qianli (Jacky Wu) returns in 1950 from the Chinese Civil War as an honoured commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s rough and rowdy 7th Company. He has been promised a piece of land which he intends to cultivate to take care of his parents. But he and the 7th Company are quickly called back into battle as the Americans are threatening to cross the Yalu River, the border between Korea and China and bring the war to China. The American commander Douglas MacArthur, one of the villains of the piece, is shown at his most aggressive and bellicose, wanting to invade China and crush the revolution.

Wu Qianli and his rebellious younger brother who joins the unit face multiple challenges in battling the superior American air and armoured tank force. From the air, the American bombers, gleeful about raining death and destruction, strike and decimate the train transporting the company and they then have to wade through the mountains in snow and ice to reach the battlefield.

Industrious versus industrial

The film demonstrates on the battlefield what Giovanni Arrighi in Adam Smith in Beijing describes as the “industrious” quality of the overwhelming might of the Chinese population versus the “industrial” might of Western technology. The men of the 7th Company play dead in order to avoid American strafing from the air. Later, in a battle against enemy tanks, one of the company stalwarts sacrifices himself to drive a jeep with a marker for the American bomber pilots behind an American retreating column so the pilots mistake the column for the enemy and bomb it.

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The 7th Company out in the cold

The relative poverty of the Chinese economy in 1950 is stressed as at Thanksgiving the Americans share turkey and stuffing while the Chinese in the mountains above them pass around potatoes, which they divide into quarters in order that they all may eat. Nevertheless, the film shows the Chinese victorious and features an extended scene with the American soldiers in retreat.

Lake Changjin, in its presentation of the colorful characters of the 7th, utilizes many of the tropes of the American World War II Platoon Film (Battleground, Bataan), including stressing the democratic nature of the people’s army. Unlike subsequent American films, where the enemy is often either faceless or vicious, the American soldiers in several scenes are humanized, shown equally as nervous as the Chinese about preparing for battle. It is their leaders, pushing them to fight in a far-off war, who are the problem in the film and not them.

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Battleground and the American World War II Platoon Film 

Nevertheless, the film does make several relevant points clear which ought to, but probably won’t, function as a caution to current U.S. policy makers.

Defending the revolution

The first is that the Chinese will fight to the last man and woman to defend their country and to defend the revolution. Wu Qianli and his cohorts' call to battle is that this is “The War to End Aggression and to Aid Korea.” The film sees the designs of the Americans in approaching the Yalu River as part of a plan to crush the Revolution and the men talk about fighting this war so that future generations won’t have to fight. Indeed, the Chinese intervention in Korea secured, at least for China, over 70 years of peace and the ability to develop its economy.

As such, the Korean intervention, as viewed by the film, may be seen as akin to the Civil War after the Russian Revolution where Lenin, his party and the Russian people had to battle the combined force of European and U.S. Western capitalist states, all bent on crushing their revolution – in Churchill’s famous phrase “strangling Bolshevism at its birth.”

The second point is that there is a new, renewed and more vigorous interest in China today in the origins of the People’s Republic. Mao, a creature of total disdain in the Western media, appears in the film as a reasonable figure who does not want to go to war after the years of the Civil War, but recognizes that it is necessary and allows his son to join the fighting. There is particularly a renewed interest by Chinese youth in Mao and Marxism that is similar to how for U.S. youth, who are watching their future and the future of the planet deteriorate under capitalist war and income disparity, the word “socialism” can now be spoken.

Meanwhile Anthony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Victoria Nuland and the rest of Biden’s neo-cons promote aggressive rhetoric which would make the two Bush administrations blush. American “democracy” descends into the leader of one party flirting with announcing his candidacy for President to avoid being arrested, and the might of the other party using the legislative apparatus to label their rival candidate criminal because they have fulfilled none of their promises and thus cannot beat him any other way. It thus does not appear to the world that American “democracy” is a shining beacon against Chinese “authoritarianism.”

The lesson of Lake Changjin, which enjoyed such widespread support within China that the film set the world record for domestic box office, is that a fading empire had better think twice about continuing on its hell-bent path to a war that may only result in another American retreat.   

Mr. Caruso Goes To Town: Corporate Developer Remade as California Common Man
Saturday, 16 July 2022 09:34

Mr. Caruso Goes To Town: Corporate Developer Remade as California Common Man

Published in Cultural Commentary

This is Dennis Broe's third article in a series based on Frank Capra’s Depression-Era trilogy of films. Image above: Gary Cooper’s tortured builder of homes for the homeless in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

In the first part of Frank Capra’s Depression-Era trilogy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Longfellow Deeds takes his generous heart-of-America, small-town sensibility to the big city, where he becomes the victim of all kinds of cynical manipulation from the media, the law, and wealthy hangers-on. Deeds inherits $20 million and has to face a hearing where he can be declared insane for his scheme to donate all his money to buy farms for the homeless. He invites into his mansion people who who were forced to find food in breadlines, in what was still the height of the Depression in 1936.

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Rick Caruso strolling majestically through a Los Angeles he intends to "clean up"

In the current Los Angeles mayoral election, Rick Caruso, the wealthy developer of a number of Los Angeles projects that recall the innocence of small-town America, presents himself as a modern-day Deeds with all the homespun charm of Gary Cooper’s character in Capra’s film. In his campaign video, Caruso walks calmly in a mythical LA neighborhood with a long white picket fence behind him while he claims to be able to solve homelessness, curb crime, stop corruption at City Hall and “clean up” Los Angeles. His voiceover describes him as from a family of immigrants, “raised to put children and family first,” and “a lifelong builder and job creator,” who will “work for a dollar a year” and “won’t take a dime from special interests” because “my only special interest is Los Angeles.”

He positions himself as a sort of Donald Trump but tempered by the “warmth” and kind-heartedness” of a Mike Bloomberg, a kinder, gentler Trump fit for the Democrats (though before this race he was a lifelong Republican), with the Trump “can-do” quality intact but without the crudeness.

Unaffordable housing creating homelessness in LA

One of the major issues in this campaign is homelessness with the city full of makeshift homeless encampments not only under its bridges but now also on its sidewalks as tents are pitched on many city blocks. An article last summer in The Los Angeles Times, which described the circumstances that led three of those without shelter onto the streets, detailed how in each case it was largely the unaffordability of housing combined with lack of employment or retraining after losing a job, rather than deep psychological problems that created this situation. These victims, who may then suffer psychological disturbances, instead recall the homeless who storm Deeds’ mansion and ask not for a handout but for land and an opportunity so that they may feed and shelter themselves.  

Before the pandemic hit, causing more unemployment and now with rent moratoriums cancelled again increasing the problem, Los Angeles, according to the government agency Freddie Mac, was short of 400,000 homes. This figure counts not only the homeless (a low estimate of which is 29,000 but with 41,000 with inadequate housing) but also multiple families sharing single homes and those living in spaces like garages and attics.

Deeds is dubbed “The Cinderella Man” because he naively believes in people’s goodness and that he can change an extremely cynical system set up to protect the powerful and keep wealth in the same hands. Caruso, on the other hand, is no Cinderella Man. Far from naïve, he is a card-carrying member of the Los Angeles elite, a wealthy real estate developer, who according to his Democratic opponent Karen Bass outspent her by $40 million to $3 million, most of it his own money. He is on the board of trustees of the University of Southern California, that other major developer and land holder in the city.

He is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, a so-called oversight agency which has long white-washed police conduct and maintained the Thin Blue Line. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protest Caruso proposes increasing the police budget and hiring to the maximum allowed. He is also a member of the powerful Board of Water and Power, which in a city adjacent to a desert, with water becoming more than ever a scarce commodity, holds the city’s fate in its hands – as did the scheming and bloodthirsty Noah Cross in Chinatown whose reason for his crimes was to control “The Future.”

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Chinatown’s evil land baron Noah Cross and Caruso? 

Gary Cooper’s soft-spoken man with the common touch is described in his court hearing as “obsessed with an insane desire to become a public benefactor.” The cynics in New York see his embracing of small-town fellow feeling as “cornfed bohunk.”

In his building projects, Caruso has attempted to summon up his own kind of “cornfed bohunk” in creating isolated “villages” that have the feeling of the past, remembered in tranquillity, but which in effect are branded upscale shopping paradises which draw upper middle-class audiences and which generally reflect little of the diversity of the city.

Since Los Angeles culture is so dominated by the automobile, one of the main characteristics of these “utopian” spaces is their “walkability.” The developments are not open to traffic and promote the idea that you can exit your car and supposedly for a block or two be surrounded by others pacing though a Los Angeles that, at least since the postwar automobile frenzy, never was. Caruso’s gift to national architecture is to replace the more middle-class mall with the upper middle-class “nostalgic” branded “neighborhood.”

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The Grove, a fabricated fairy tale with more visitors than Disneyland

The Grove, adjacent to the Farmers' Market, is typical. The area was once a real farm, complete with apple orchard, but is now transformed into a maze of high-end shops, with the apple orchard replaced by The Apple Store and with various relics of a number of bygone eras. A trolleybus loops through the main artery, which contains, especially in the post-pandemic, two relics of American cultural gathering, a bookstore (Barnes and Noble, the largest remaining bookstore chain) and a cinema (AMC, the largest cinema chain).

This is Facebook’s Metaverse and Marvel’s Multiverse materialized as near virtual “nostalgic” space. The Grove, a kind of fairy tale, has more visitors than Disneyland and includes in the centre a conical monument with a nondescript sculpture of two angels at its top titled The Spirit of Los Angeles. This kind of sanitized version of the city couldn’t contrast more with projects such as Judy Baca’s mural history of a city in struggle in The Great Wall on the more contested space of the border of LA and the San Fernando Valley.

What The Grove cannot erase is the online attack on retail stores, as both FAO Schwartz and Abercrombie and Fitch have both closed since the opening of the development. The Grove was also attacked as site of privilege in the Black Lives Matter protests.

The Commons for the rich and powerful

Another Caruso development, Palisades Village in the Pacific Palisades, located adjacent to Malibu, and home to some of the wealthiest in the city, was described by a Caruso architect, noting that a number of public meetings were held before the space was built, as an attempt to “curate, not create, a community.” Residents were wary of the Caruso touch and did not want “a theme park,” though that is still the overall look of the place, with a small bookstore being replaced by an Amazon bookstore, with residents complaining that The Commons, a public space akin to a New England green, kept shrinking as the meetings progressed, and with a recent visit revealing the site as a staging ground for a campaign to remove a councilman who championed affordable housing. Another project, ironically called The Commons, with its 40 high-end retail tenants, is set in Calabasas, thirty minutes from LA amid one of the wealthiest communities in California.

Far from providing sources of income and housing for those most in need, as Longfellow Deeds is nearly labelled insane for doing, Caruso, who claims he can solve the crisis by quickly shuttling the homeless into makeshift shelters, was described by his Democratic opponent Karen Bass, who bested him in the primary and who he will face him in a runoff in November, as someone who “never built a single unit of affordable housing” and in that way helped create the housing crisis. It is a bit like Purdue Pharma, largely responsible for the opioid crisis, claiming that it would then swing over into making a pill that would eliminate the addiction.

More to the point, and closer to Longfellow Deeds, was progressive candidate Gina Viola’s call for steering money away from the police toward both social services and for the city to use to seize empty properties, some of them already occupied by squatters, and convert them into housing for the homeless.

Caruso’s small-town hoaxes for a privileged class while the rest of the city, just outside these tranquil villages, deteriorates marks him instead as part of the greedy power structure that attempted to use the law to prevent Deeds from actual construction for the public good. Caruso’s cynical campaign is the antithesis of Deeds’ populist cry of protest: “Why do people get so much pleasure out of hurting each other? Why don’t they try liking each other once in a while?”

This piece is the third article in a series based on Frank Capra’s Depression-Era trilogy. The first was Mr. Zelensky Goes to Washington, a parody of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about a media figure made into a folk hero, and the second was Meet Juan Guaidó, based on Meet John Doe, about a politician plucked from obscurity and arbitrarily made ruler of his country. All three are available at substack.com, see Cultural Politics For Those Who Care.

How to Organise a Union: 'The Porter' and Black Service Industry Militancy
Saturday, 02 July 2022 21:20

How to Organise a Union: 'The Porter' and Black Service Industry Militancy

There is a contemporary wave of union organising and militancy in the digital and service industries in reaction to crippling inflation. Price rises are double that of any rise in wages, there is a loss of participation in workplace decisions combined with increased algorithmic control where even bathroom breaks are monitored, and overscheduling and underpayment for increased workloads.

Union elections have been won at Amazon, where even a past defeat has been successfully challenged as the union Phoenix rises from the ashes, and also at Starbucks and now at Apple, as well as pushback from drivers at Uber and Lyft. In Britain, the railway workers’ strike, aided by its articulate and media savvy leader Mick Lynch, is supported by the majority of the population, despite the fact that the Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer—he’s royalty—warned Labour members of parliament to “stay away from the picket lines.”

To borrow from a Seth Meyers Late Night feature titled “The Kind of Story We Need Right Now,” The Porter, a joint production of the public Canadian Broadcasting Company and the Black Entertainment Network streaming service BET+, about the organisation of the first black union in North America, is “The Kind of Series We Need Right Now.”

Several factors contribute to making this the best series of the television season. There is the show’s nuanced presentation of both the class and race problems involved in organising the Pullman workers. There is its grasp of the several strands of history of the Jazz Age/Roaring Twenties, ranging from the 1919 Welsh race riots and the outbreak of the Spanish flu to the 1921 destruction of black commerce in Tulsa, all viewed from the perspective of a set-upon black population in Montreal. Finally, the show weaves together four elements of black advancement in both the male service economy of the Pullman porters who its lead character Zeke wants to organise, and the underground gangster economy who his friend Junior works to enter, as well as the female economies of entertainment and the medical and caring professions as Lucy Mae and Marlene, its two lead women, struggle to become singers and doctors.

The series, available in the UK on Sky Go, makes the bitter nostalgia of the BBC’s Sherwood seem tame and tepid in comparison, except for its exposing of Scotland Yard’s infiltration of the 1984 Miners’ Strike.

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Lucy Mae and Zeke in The Stardust Club 

All these struggles centre on wanting to “get out of the box” as Junior puts it, in which these North American and Afro-Caribbean peoples are trapped. The series is set on St. Antoine Street in Montreal (and filmed in Winnipeg) which is made up of the black male Pullman workers who work for double the hours and half the pay of mostly white factory workers, and the glamour of the Stardust Club with its female dancers who also compete with each other for a place on the dancing line. The series is also set in Al Capone’s Chicago, which is the end of the line for the porters.  

The show opens with the death of one of the porters because the train company is too cheap to hire enough labour to do the job safely. Not only does the company not pay for the funeral, forcing the victim’s widow to pilfer the money to bury him, but they also demand that the workers pay for the cost of his ruined uniform. Zeke, the most class conscious of the workers, attempts to negotiate with the company president over having more clean shirts for sweating porters, but instead the owner pleads poverty and “grants” the porters “a water pitcher.”

It is this negotiation, as well as a stirring session with the black organiser A. Philip Randolph, that convinces Zeke that the porters, who can never even work up to being conductors since this is a position reserved for white workers, must organize. The actual motto of the porters was “Fight or be slaves,” recognizing that North American wage slavery was not in the end so different from the actual slavery in the American South.

When the white train workers’ strike, Zeke supports them by revealing the company has secretly cached a trainload of strikebreakers, while a shot of the impoverished, mostly black faces of these even more oppressed workers is overlaid with Lucy Mae’s Gospel song “I’ve been redeemed” in a way that also highlights their underclass struggle.

Zeke is eventually undermined by the white workers, who sell out their black brothers for an extra “15 cents a month” and the ability to hold onto their more privileged positions as cooks and conductors. Zeke gives a stirring but unheeded speech about the debilitating quality of this racism for labour organizing. “I shouldn’t have been looking to my left and to my right for someone to blame, I should have been looking up” he argues, allowing that “We are at war, but the porters are not your enemy.” The speech goes unheeded and, at the end of season one, Zeke comes to the realization that the porters must organise their own union, the potential subject of season two, which has now been given the green light.

While Zeke seeks to organise, his companion from the war Junior seeks to break into the illegal economy, as we are reminded that the “Roaring Twenties” when the economy was booming was not a time of plenty for many black workers and their families. Junior’s struggle to move up in the Chicago gangster world, to turn the train into a rolling crap game and numbers racket and to best a white conductor who attempts to cheat him, are given equal time and weight with Zeke’s organising. The struggles of the two are often intercut, as in the end of the opening episode where Junior is beaten by other gangsters for trying to undersell illegal Prohibition whisky, while Zeke is rousted at a union meeting, with the police breaking up the gathering by yelling “Hands up, Bolsheviks.” The series refuses to condemn Junior’s path, seeing instead his and Zeke’s journeys not as opposed but as two legitimate paths to black prosperity.

Junior’s more violent path though is partially explained by his Peaky Blinders-type PTSD flashback to World War I and his rationale that he would be a different person, “if I didn’t spend all that time fighting the white man’s goddammed war.” He is also from the Caribbean with its longer history of black independence and, when he upbraids the conductor trying to muscle in on his action on the train who tells him his father was probably a slave who would have been whipped for “talking to his master that way,” Junior answers, “I’m Jamaican and no white man has ever conquered us.”

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Alfre Woodward as a tragic and ultimately good-hearted madam 

The series also concentrates on two female paths to success. Marlene, Junior’s wife, has to refute the dictates of Marcus Garvey who wants to send money raised in North America back to Africa whereas she wants to open a clinic in her neighborhood. She instead lodges her clinic in the basement of a house of prostitution, which features Alfre Woodard in a touching turn as the madam, while ultimately realising her best chance to help is by going to a black college and becoming a doctor, a kind of counter to her husband Junior in proposing the long game to his immediate hustle.

The singer Lucy Mae on the other hand has talent galore, as she choreographs and performs a Josephine Baker number shot in Ziegfeld Follies overhead style, but which the crowd dismisses as obscure “back to Africa stuff.” She then contemplates “passing” with makeup to look less African and in the end proves that she will do anything to get ahead. Her excuse for a betrayal is, “Someone’s always gonna profit off our backs, better me than him” which Zeke corrects as a kind of answer to both Junior and Lucy Mae: “In this community we look after each other.”

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Pullman Porters in the 1920s

Finally, the series has a historical sweep that is truly breathtaking. It is set in 1921 and manages either in the present or through flashbacks to integrate the dominant currents of the era all viewed through its black characters. There are cameos aplenty, with the Socialist black labour leader A. Philip Randolph, who Zeke admires, being accused in the wake of the Russian Revolution of being a traitor and a Bolshevik. There is a Tin Pan Alley musical number Lucy Mae watches in a private home in a performance by Irving Berlin and there is Marlene’s dealing with the chauvinism but also the black pride of Marcus Garvey.

A burly white worker glides by in the back of pickup truck with the sign “Stand by your Klan,” reminding us of the resurgence of the Klan in that moment, in the light of the widespread acceptance of D.W. Griffith’s celebration of the heroic valor of the Klan in the South in Birth of a Nation, a film that was hailed by President Wilson as “like writing history with lightning.”

There is a newspaper headline recounting the devastation of the “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa by white rioters, as well as Zeke and Junior enduring both the Spanish flu epidemic after their stint in the war and the race riots in Wales. Episode five opens with the Canadian prime minister vowing to uphold the values of “white dominance” which resulted in a 1923 act banning Chinese immigration to that country. Equally, Zeke observes a Chinese waitress serving white railroad workers and telling them, “You built the tracks the world runs on. It’s just a shame my people died clearing the way.”

The music also is a compendium of many of the styles circulating in the era: popular jazz in the Stardust club; a reggae soundtrack evoking the Caribbean influence on the block; and the insistent sounds of African drumming signalling a link to the past. Besides Lucy Mae’s Josephine Baker number, the Stardust club also features a rhapsodic blues ballad by blind Willie Johnson, a New Orleans musician known at the time as “The King of Crescent City.”

The Porter is a complex series that with its portrayal of organizing, of multiple black economies, and a dense overlaying of historical traces, points the way beyond the ever more limiting standard series with little or no sense of the actual issues confronting us in the present and with little regard for their origin in the past. The Porter’s workers’ struggle stands in sharp contrast to series like Apple TV+’s mega-honoured Severance which simply whitewashes that company’s exploiting of its workers by posing a false problem of a severing of a work and leisure personality while never raising the issue of how digital companies, like Apple, are erasing leisure in pursuit of perpetual work. A problem that can only be solved by its own workers taking a cue from The Porter’s recounting of past organising into unions.

Plains, Trains and Automobiles:  Snowpiercer’s People’s Transport vs. Lincoln Lawyer’s Luxuriating While the Planet Burns
Sunday, 26 June 2022 13:29

Plains, Trains and Automobiles: Snowpiercer’s People’s Transport vs. Lincoln Lawyer’s Luxuriating While the Planet Burns

Dennis Broe compares and contrasts Snowpiercer with The Lincoln Lawyer, from which the above example of product placement is taken

Planes, Trains and Automobiles was the title of John Hughes’ 1987 film where a mismatched duo, the sloppy salesman John Candy and the in-his-mind dapper executive Steve Martin travel across the country in a variety of modes of transportation, to reach Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago. Twenty-five years ago, the film had great fun as all three methods of transport failed in various ways but today, as people become more aware of imminent planetary destruction, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a serious discussion on which mode emits less noxious gasses.

The correct answer by far is trains, which a 2020 European study reported emit 0.4 percent of all EU greenhouse gases, in a sector which accounts for 25 percent of all emissions (27 percent in the U.S.) Planes accounted for 14 percent and by far the worst answer is automobiles which accounted for fully 72 percent of noxious gasses which must be curtailed if the EU is to meet its goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

 

The tailies battling for control of the train in Snowpiercer 

It is in the light of this crisis that the Netflix series The Lincoln Lawyer, whose lead defence attorney is whisked across Los Angeles in one of the great gas guzzlers of all time, a Lincoln Navigator, might be seen to contrast sharply with the TNT series Snowpiercer. Its motley crew of “tailies” are trapped with the middle and upper classes in a train that is the last hope for humanity on a planet frozen because nuclear weapons destroyed the earth’s atmosphere. There is a huge gap in the two series, both ultimately on Netflix, but one originating on the mixed working-class cable station TNT, that shows up in their either maintaining or working to overthrow their respective power structures.

The Netflix original series, produced by David E. Kelley, known for the twists and turns of his TV courtroom dramas (Ally McBeal, Goliath, The Undoing), was proceeded by the 2011 film introducing novelist Michael Connelly’s outrageous defense attorney Mickey Haller. Again, at that point, with the climate crisis just coming to widespread attention, the spectacle of a dynamite defence lawyer who thought best in a luxury sedan still seemed quaintly amusing.

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The lawyer and his black, female working-class chauffeur 

This 2022 iteration goes all out though, emphasizing the gas guzzling attorney being ferried about Los Angeles by a black female chauffeur in his Lincoln Navigator, one of three Lincolns he owns. The Navigator, an SUV with a price tag as high as $109,000, is close to the longest car built by Ford, involving the heaviest production, the greatest cargo space and seating for more than six. In the show it becomes a rolling, corporate law office, spewing pollution as part of the exhaust of Haller’s brilliant court mind. Not to mention the ultimate in product placement, with the product featured in the title of the series and utterly defining the lead character and the cost of running this mobile office with petrol in California, thanks to Joe Biden’s inflation, now costing almost $7 a gallon.

When he gets out of his SUV, if he is not in court, Haller favors steak houses. That is, his polluting and heavy carbon trace continues. Even Forbes is alarmed at this habit, acknowledging that the meat and dairy industries account for 14.5 percent of total human greenhouse gas emissions. Beef, in the form of Haller’s steak, is by far the biggest offender, generating nearly twice the emissions of the next largest animal offender (lamb), with the methane gas produced by cows 34 times more potent as a polluter than CO2.

What was “quirky” in 2011 in terms of Haller’s habits is deadly in 2022. The series in its second week on Netflix was the most viewed on the streaming service, accounting for 108 million hours of watching. Given that Hollywood has long been a promotional house for lifestyles and that Netflix circulates globally, The Lincoln Lawyer is a dangerous advertisement for vastly increasing global destructive consumption, including validating Amazon and the other increasing rainforest destruction to plant food for increased beef production. That process was  described by a Harvard nutritionist, who compared it’s polluting value to that of “coal-fuelled power plants,” as “the worst thing you could do.”

While those on board Snowpiecer, a class and racially diverse crew, struggle to overthrow the system of oppression which binds them and which has created the conditions which has confined them to the train, the Lincoln-based lawyer, who boasts about his prowess on his licence plates which read “NTGUILTY” and “DISMISSED,” in fact defends a tech gaming billionaire with the time-honored cliché that he doesn’t care if he is guilty or not.

In a half-hearted nod to diversity, the lawyer is played by a Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, but his Mexican-ness is only presented on the show as “flava.” His Spanish accent is discernible throughout but only acknowledged in a later episode, where he explains his mother took him to grow up in Mexico and we are to understand that is just a phase of his upbringing.

There is no feel for the struggle of Mexican-Americans in LA, for the lack of education and social services that keeps their wages low and furthers their status as second-class citizens. Garcia-Rulfo explained that he was able to bring his Mexican-ness to the show by in one scene ordering Tequila rather than Scotch and in another stopping by a Taco Truck. This is of course the definition of “flava,” a meaningless stylistic tic unconnected to neighborhood or community customs or struggle, but instead again employed in the service of consumption.

The differences between the two shows also can be attributed to their respective channels and networks. Netflix continues to court a global, depoliticized middle-class audience. Its recent series First Kill, like The Lincoln Lawyer, is solidly in that vein. First Kill is a teen vampire series being compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer but without that series’ attack on the patriarchy, detailed in my Birth of the Binge. Instead, the concentration is simply on teen lesbian sex, which after Killing Eve is simply a cliched “lifestyle” choice.

In contrast Snowpiercer was developed by the most class-conscious director working in the cinema today, South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho. This film will soon be followed by a serialized version of Parasite, his other masterpiece of class antagonism. It was commissioned by HBO, perhaps as an antidote to that network’s doting on the foibles of the rich in Succession.

 

Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal in TNT’s “black space” Inside the NBA 

Snowpiercer is initially broadcast on the TNT cable network which has put together a remarkable, unique programming schedule meant to entice working-class audiences across racial lines. The network boasts the “black space” of National Basketball Association coverage in its perennial Emmy-winning Inside the NBA, where the outrageous and outspoken basketball intellectual Charles Barkley holds court with his companion Kenny Smith and their Anglo counterpart Ernie Johnson, who simply fits in as a member of the team.

Equally, the network now also broadcasts the National Hockey League, beloved of white working-class audiences, and the professional wrestling show AEW Dynamite. Besides Snowpiercer, its original series include the Anglo gangster series Animal Kingdom, adopted from an Australian show and its recently finished series Claws, about the black female owner of a hairdresser and nail boutique who battles white gangsters trying to encroach on her territory.

Thematically, The Lincoln Lawyer, rather than taking up Kelley’s more masterful Goliath about an alcoholic lawyer who contests corporate power, instead reverts to the staider The Undoing, with a rich client who we suspect all along may be guilty but cannot bring ourselves to distrust until the revelation that yes indeed someone that rich could be evil. Justice in The Lincoln Lawyer comes not through the efforts of the lead character but simply by chance.

Season three of Snowpiercer on the other hand ends with a startling and profound development. The revolution in season one by the tailies is beaten back in season two by the appearance of the Richard Branson/Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos capitalist in the fur coat – Mr. Wilford – who then institutes a reign of terror to maintain control of “his train.” Season three has the exiled revolutionary cadre return to retake control. The season flounders in the middle as various factions emerge to challenge this leadership, but the ending is truly remarkable.

A debate emerges between two factions on the train about what direction to pursue in order to best provide for the survival of all. Wilford seizes the opportunity of this squabbling to attempt to reinsert himself as the leader. Instead, the two sides come together and oust him from the train. With the capitalist gone, they are then able to hash out a compromise that has each doing what they think is best for the train and what is left of humanity as a whole.

The final lesson of this season’s Snowpiercer is that if the world is shorn of its capitalist billionaires, its various peoples will find compromises that can yet save humanity. The final lesson of The Lincoln Lawyer is that gas-guzzling and beef consumption trump any consideration of how a more decent, equitable and safe world may be achieved.

Meet Juan Guaidó: Capra’s Depression-Era Comedy Rerun as Imperial Farce
Sunday, 26 June 2022 10:14

Meet Juan Guaidó: Capra’s Depression-Era Comedy Rerun as Imperial Farce

Published in Films

In 1941, Frank Capra directed Meet John Doe, the last of his Depression-era populist trilogy, extolling the virtues of the common man and woman. In this film Gary Cooper, a down-on-his-luck hobo gets chosen by a newspaper magnate as the ultimate symbol of an America still ravaged by the economic failure of the stock market crash.

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The eponymous everyman John Doe, in reality a broken-down, bush-league pitcher named John Willoughby, is built up by the popular media of his day, big city newspapers and radio stations, to unite the country in a wave of fellow feeling that magically puts people back to work and cures social malaise.

However, behind Doe stands the nefarious forces of media magnates wanting to rule the country, along with bought-off politicians, and greedy financiers in a legion of black-suited men holding a Madison Square Garden rally with all the traces of Hitler’s famed Nuremberg lighting.

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That scenario was replayed a few years ago as the U.S. with its own brand of newspaper magnates, military personnel and slinky Trump-era “statesmen” like the C.I.A./State Department’s Mike Pompeo anointed from nowhere and utterly out of the blue their Latin American John Doe, Juan Guaidó. It was one of their many attempts to overthrow the elected head of the Venezuelan state Nicholas Maduro. Elected head of the rival National Assembly in January 2019, Guaidó, barely known in the country outside politico circles, then announced himself president and was quickly recognized by the U.S., Canada and the EU.

Just as in Capra’s fable, this John Doe was built up by the corporate media, and particularly by the financial press, which quickly made him into a hero of the people. In being named one of its “100 Most Interesting People of 2019,” Time Magazine extolled the virtues of a leader who was “"young, energetic, articulate, determined" and possessed with "the mother of all virtues: courage.” The Wall Street Journal quoted a Jesuit priest who claimed this hand-picked man of the people “looks like he belongs in the barrio.” While Bloomberg Financial News hailed him as someone who was engaged in “building unity.”

In Capra’s film, John Doe struggles mightily to live up to the image that is created for him by the media, eventually beginning to believe that he is the common man so fed up with his despondent situation that he will commit suicide on Christmas Eve, but who then believes in communitarian good will. Venezuela’s Juan Doe has also struggled to maintain the image the U.S. press has created for him.

Four short months after he declared himself president, Guaidó called for an insurrection against Maduro which was unsuccessful as the military and those in the barrios have repeatedly backed Maduro, contrary to the testimony of WSJ’s Jesuit. Two months later Guaidó’s representatives in then right-wing Colombia were accused of embezzling up to $60,000, supposedly to pay for soldiers defecting from Venezuela but, so the accusations say, instead spent on “parties and nightclubs.”

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Worse was to come. That September there was a coup attempt led by two American special forces agents, who wanted in return for a successful takeover “$213 million from Venezuela’s future oil revenues” and which envisioned Maduro carted off to a U.S. jail where he would face a Noriega-style trial. It ended with the coup squashed and the two Americans in jail.

The plotters called it “Operation Freedom” but the press quickly dubbed the coup, which was planned by a former Trump security guard, “The Bay of Piglets,” referring to the failed CIA invasion of Cuba. As to Guaidó’s vaunted “courage,” after his failed call for an uprising, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister accused him of hiding out in the French Embassy.

In the film, Barbara Stanwyck’s journalist, who helps create the John Doe myth, succumbs at one point to the rewards offered to a press mercenary by the paper’s owner, played by Depression-era capitalist supreme Edward Arnold, rotund and quaking with a seething lust for power. Stanwyck’s newspaperwoman parades around in her new fur coat, is dazzled by a jewelled necklace and looks to be in line to marry the publisher’s nephew, thus sealing the deal.

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Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó has also attempted to cash in on his new-found fame. The U.S. has handed control of Venezuela’s bank accounts in the U.S. to Guaidó, claiming that this theft of the money from Venezuela’s oil revenues which the country is in desperate need of, would “benefit the Venezuelan people.” In the U.K., Guaidó is now closing in on being the recipient of the country’s $1.68 billion gold reserve though at this moment he is now not only not the president but in a power contest to even be head of the assembly. Last year, the European Union voted to no longer recognize him as the president of Venezuela and his support in the country now stands at a dismal 16 percent.

In Capra’s fable, the Stanwyck and Cooper characters come together, aided by various John Doe’s across the country to avert what is presented in visual terms as a fascist takeover by the power-hungry publisher and people begin to believe in John Doe though they now know his story.

The Latin American John Doe has a different ending. The U.S. and U.K. continue to cling to the now globally discredited myth of the “freedom fighter” his country at first never knew and now regards as corrupt. At the recent Summit of the Americas the Juan Guaidó myth was still being affirmed by Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. The summit was boycotted by Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras and Guatemala largely because Biden refused to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, countries he claims are not democratic, but who instead have had the audacity to elect leaders the U.S. dislikes.

Instead, we were treated to the spectacle of a U.S. backed puppet, a self-proclaimed president with almost no popular support, a John Doe who unlike Capra’s crusader who ultimately sees the light, simply hides behind what for Capra were the forces of an ever-growing threat of corporate fascism.

This is the second in Dennis Broe’s trilogy in honor of Capra’s films. The first was Mr. Zelensky Goes to Washington, about a phony populist. The third is the upcoming Mr. Caruso Goes to Town, about a Republican developer turned California Man of the People.

Despair and the Fading Middle Class in American TV series
Tuesday, 07 June 2022 08:52

Despair and the Fading Middle Class in American TV series

Dennis Broe looks at how Better Call Saul expresses the waning power of the American empire. Image above: Better Call Saul’s narcissistic but clever lawyer 

Better Call Saul is part of the Breaking Bad “universe,” as a prequel to that series. As such it also links to successors to that series, most prominently Ozark, another series admired by mainstream critics. As precursor to Breaking Bad, the series also follows a downward trajectory where a once up-and-coming lawyer ends up working for a drug cartel. Saul is a brilliant but flawed lawyer who cannot escape the whirlpool that seems to engulf the characters of all three series. The crucial questions about these series are: where does this vague whirlpool come from and how does the series regard this destructive descent?

It’s fairly clear that the descent itself parallels the loss of power being experienced by the American empire and the subsequent effect on the American populace by the gradual ending of that empire. This is often talked about as “the end of the American dream,” and what in its earlier iteration, in regard to the British empire, Paul Gilroy refers to as “colonial malaise.” The loss of living standards is real and has resulted in a great deal of pain for the average American, though none for their leaders.

The attitude about this diminishing of a social and economic horizon in series like these amounts to a kind of threefold coping mechanism. There’s a shrug as the situation worsens; a validating of “creativity” in the face of this onslaught as more and more energy is now needed to maintain one’s place in the professional middle-class landscape (and as we watch Saul caught in this miasma); and a wallowing in the mud and embrace of the hopelessness of this position. What is lacking in the Breaking Bad universe, however, is any kind of real critique, any real suggestion of what produces this situation and especially any concrete way of fighting for disappearing economic and social rights.

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Breaking Bad, originator of its own “universe” 

In addition, all three displace the anxiety of a fading imperial power onto the Mexican drug cartels. Instead of embracing the rest of the world and accepting that a diminishing American middle-class position might have positive effects – most notably for that class’s energy consumption which is destroying the planet – these series suggest that although the American middle class is under pressure and must make morally questionable decisions to stay afloat, this is always balanced by the fact that the other, the Mexican cartels, the only inscription of anything outside the American purview, is worse. Thus “America” though now openly becoming a land of cons and cheaters –having elected one as president – is still not as bad as the barbaric hordes outside, who really have no morals at all.

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Looking askance at crooked cops in We Own This City 

It is possible to contrast the glorifying of this downward trend with series that show the corruption in all its forms, but with the underlying Enlightenment-inspired faith in the idea that critique may be able to effect some change. There is a difference between the Better Call Saul universe, adored by U.S. critics, and the extension of The Wire universe in We Own This City about the corruption of Baltimore cops, and mostly ignored by critics or characterized as falling short of The Wire.

Here, the thrust is not to validate and admire the “ingenuousness” of the cops in robbing and looting poor neighborhoods, but rather behind the series is a sensibility that is outraged at their actions and especially in the sixth and final episode, written by Wire creator David Simon, making us aware of the larger implications of the “War on Drugs” as “war” on America’s poor, black communities. This is far different from Better Call Saul’s fomenting of racial tensions in the heavily Mexican American southwest by characterizing Mexicans only as drug runners.

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Ozark’s middle class menaced by those South of the Border 

All three series, and especially Ozark in its earlier seasons, present the American professional class of lawyers, accountants and disgruntled teachers as under increasing pressure to stay afloat and all three lionize those efforts. Ozark at least though, until the final season, looks askance at the damage that class does to its human and physical environment in clinging to its dominant position. But even it in the final season succumbs to the Breaking Bad mould and in the end simply wallows in the destruction, attempting to foist wallowing off as critique. The Breaking Bad universe has established a template for languishing, but never challenging, diminishing expectations as the American “universe” itself shrinks globally.

We Own This City is available on Sky from 7 June; all the other series are on Netflix.

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