Mitt and Money
The Triumph of Angels
Reforming the UN
Brian J. Trautman
Edge of the Abyss
Obama Discovers Inequality
Nicolas J.S. Davies
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Film, Music, Books, Photography
Burn Down The Barriers: Some World Cinema At Sundance 2012
Review by John Esther
The third Thursday of every year, filmmakers, cineastes, film critics, film buffs, partygoers, aspiring film producers, and noted heads of “independent” studios descend on Park City, Utah (and other parts of the “Beehive State”) for the annual Sundance Film Festival. The most important film festival in America, as well as the most important independent film festival in the world, Sundance sets the pace for the year as to what films will be highlighted in subsequent film festivals and what films makes the Indie Spirit Awards slate at the end of the year.
This does not necessarily mean films coming out of Sundance are good—and some years are better than others—yet it does largely determine the amount of exposure a non-Hollywood film will receive. If you attend other film festivals or watch independent films, here are seven cinematic texts you can expect to see at an upcoming film festival or independent-friendly venue sometime this year.
Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare - Seeming, and streaming, like a public health service announcement running on a continuous loop, Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke’s documentary interviews one professional expert after another —such as Dr. Wayne Jonas, President and CEO of the Samueli Institute; General David Fridovich, Deputy of the U.S. Special Forces; Dr. Andrew Weil, Founder of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine; etc. They also present personal stories of several sick people—i.e., Army Sgt. Robert Yates and short-order cook Roy Litton—to tell us what many of us already know: in America disease and decay are more profitable than healing and health. Medication, surgery, and fast visits to the doctor are the prescriptions of choice. In other words, we have a disease care system not a healthcare system. It is a story many of us have heard several times before.
The documentary cuts up the pharmaceutical-health industry with the precision of surgeon’s scalpel. However, why and how the system seems to be just about dead appears to be news to some because Heineman and Froemke’s documentary provoked a lot of outrage at Sundance. After each Sundance screening, angry, yet agreeable, testimony for the film came from members in the audience.
Father’s Chair - Just because a film screens at Sundance does not necessarily mean it will have liberal leanings, much less progressive. Co-written and directed by Luciano Moura, this Brazilian film follows a husband, Theo (Wagner Moura), and wife, Branca (Mariana Lima), who have drifted apart over the years. Both are doctors who are incapable of articulating their feelings adequately. Arguments about love and household items remain unresolved. As she makes plans to leave him, the couple’s life is thrown into chaos when their son, Pedro (Brás Antunes) disappears. For those anticipating another intense film about kidnapping in South America, rest assured it is far less thrilling that that. Pedro has not been kidnapped. He is on a horse to some yet unknown destination. As Theo searches for Pedro, he encounters a series of banal adventures: loud poor families; a stubborn old “coot” who will not let him borrow his cell phone; and a flakey young woman having a baby down by the river (good thing there is a doctor in the house). It seems life outside their comfortable cocoon is crazy. Thank goodness we get a happy conclusion where the bourgeois family has been restored to its natural dynamic—replete with a brand new swimming pool—and with everyone a little bit wiser and a lot happier.
Luv - Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) is a smart yet typical 11-year-old kid who happens to live with his grandmother (Lonette McKee) and Uncle Vincent (Common) in Baltimore while his mother gets her act together. Rather than take him to school as promised, one Friday morning Vincent decides to teach Woody some “real-worlds shit” by letting his nephew accompany his recently-paroled uncle (who happens to have a nice Mercedes) for the day. Commencing as an exciting adventure with Woody getting some new clothes and later learning how to drive the Mercedes, the film takes on an increasingly grave tone when Vincent is told by his bank to come up with $22,000 by Monday morning or Vincent will lose his new business venture. School is out.
Woody is no longer learning math or playing ball for fun on the school playground, but rather gaining an understanding of the intricate, cutthroat lifestyle of American entrepreneurship—a la Baltimore criminal underworld—which forces him to play for keeps. “America is not a country, it’s a corporation,” we are told. While co-writer/director Sheldon Candis and co-writer Justin Wilson’s screenplay could have benefitted from a few more drafts (at least a little more sobriety), the acting in Luv—which features Charles S. Dutton, Danny Glover, and Dennis Haybert—makes the skinny script more palatable.
Monsieur Lazhar - Oscar-nominated for Best Film in Foreign Language, writer-director Philippe Falardeau’s film may be more interesting for showing, in general, what a better public school system Quebec has than America, but that is not the point of the film. After a tragic scene of violence at school, the titular character (Mohamed Fellag) shows up to fill in the gap. An immigrant from Algeria his story does not entirely add up, but he seems like a good guy and the school can really use him. After some initial suspicions the class begins to warm up to Monsieur Lazhar. Then accusations begin to fly as the film runs across several education topics such as learning, language, discipline, and affection. While hardly heartbreaking or earth shattering, the film does have its charms, particularly some of the kids’ comments.
The Raid - One morning an elite police squad covertly attempts to enter an apartment complex that is the epicenter of crime in Jakarta, Indonesia. Their primary target is the man on the top floor, Tama (Ray Sahetapy), the crime lord. At first the mission goes well, but when they are discovered, bullets, fists, and feet whirl in a flurry of nonstop violent action for 100 minutes. The only time writer-director Gareth Huw Evans’s film slows down is to illustrate the thin line between cops and crime and how the powers that be are not interested in ceasing the flow of crime in any given city.
Slavery by Another Name - Cheap labor does not die quickly. Directed by Sam Pollard, this 87-minute documentary chronicles the post-Civil War South’s ways and means of maintaining slavery after it was officially abolished by the U.S. Constitution. After the defeat, the South’s elite needed to maintain the economic status quo by enslaving the black masses while appeasing the white working classes who were afraid and intimated by the recently freed black citizens. In response, they created draconian laws where blacks, and a few whites, could and would be forced to do hard labor for months at a time for such offenses as loitering or spitting—often without a trial or judge. Subjecting countless individuals to hard time for decades to come, this chapter in American shame is backed by historical documentation, testimony from descendants (of both slaves and slave owners) and, unfortunately, some rather mawkish historical reenactments. Although the film does make the connection, it does not take much to see how this form of cheap prison labor was a precursor to the current prison-industrial complex where people, usually minorities, are sentenced to years in prison for petty crimes and are put to work at rates below the minimum wage.
Violeta Goes to Heaven - Winner of the Sundance World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic and the best feature I saw at Sundance, this latest film by one of the great filmmakers in the world, Andrés Wood (Loco Fever; Machuca), chronicles the life of Chile’s Violeta Parra (1917-1967), a national singing icon who championed the strife and sounds of the working classes. Featuring a stunning soundtrack, which brought more than a few tears to audiences, and a mesmerizing performance by Francisca Gavilán. This luscious film (courtesy of cinematographer Miguel Ioann Litten) moves back and forth through time, smoothly ebbing and flowing as it posits how a poor half-Indian girl rose to become a musical icon in her country (as well as France and other parts of Europe) while at that same time investigating her inner turmoil. Such investigations are not always pretty but in this case they are certainly rewarding. Keep an eye out for this one.
John Esther writes movie reviews for various publications.
Chimes Of Freedom:
The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring Fifty Years
of Amnesty International
Review by John Zavesky
Amnesty International’s new benefit disc Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring Fifty Years of Amnesty International is a massive undertaking that understandably has both hits and misses. The proceeds from the album go to fund Amnesty International’s fight to free international prisoners.
The project brought together some 80 artists. If nothing else the set clearly demonstrates how Dylan and his material have been a voice for more than just the boomer generation. The 4-disc set contains 73 tracks of Dylan songs with a wide range of diverse artists that include Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Ziggy Marley, Maroon 5 and Kesha. The singular failing of the project is too much material. Some of the tracks feel like filler rather than solid renderings of Dylan’s songs, as if one of Amnesty International’s primary goals was to give the consumer as much bang for their buck as they could.
Throughout Dylan’s career he offered varied and bold interpretations of his songs, from his now infamous Newport Folk Festival performance to his stints with the Band, the Grateful Dead, and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Then there was Dylan’s christian period in the late 1970s when he went full-tilt with a huge band complete with horns and female backup vocalists. Dylan is rock music’s true chameleon, refusing to be pigeonholed.
Much like cutting a film to a viewable length, editing down a number of the cuts would have benefited the project on an aesthetic level. Frankly Pete Townsend performing an acoustic version of “Corina Corina” isn’t what one would call a cutting edge interpretation. Likewise, Sting adds little other than mumbled moodiness with his pedestrian version of “Girl From the North Country.” There are, of course, standouts on Chimes of Freedom. Johnny Cash and the Avett Brothers turn in a solid version of “One Too Many Mornings.” Raphael Saadiq’s take on “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” is a rollicking good time. Patti Smith gives us a stark rendering of “Drifter’s Escape.” Carly Simon’s take on “Just Like a Woman” is one of the standouts.
Amnesty International had a similar project Instant Karma, Campaign to Save Darfur back in 2007. That disc drew on John Lennon’s songs, many of which were recorded by younger artists. Likewise, Chimes of Freedom seeks to introduce a younger audience to Dylan’s songbook by using varied new millennium talent like Miley Cyrus, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” and Kesha on “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.”
Pop purists will certainly have a field day with these and a number of other young artists weighing in on what have literally become sacrosanct gospel from America’s most prominent troubadour. The fact that artists some 40 years younger than Dylan continue to find his songs relevant clearly demonstrates the power of his lyrics.
Bob was never known for being a slick tunesmith. It was always the power of Dylan’s words that stood out. This is never more evident than Flogging Molly’s version of “The Times They Are a Changing.” The band turns the song into a rousing Irish jig that not only demonstrates the universality of Dylan’s material, but transports the listener to the Emerald Isle where indeed the times have changed greatly.
Chimes of Freedom’s strength lies in bringing Dylan’s voice to a younger generation by using younger artists. Pop music literally changed once “Like a Rolling Stone” hit the airwaves back in 1965. Even the Beatles quit writing songs like “She Loves You” after hooking up with the bard from Hibbing. Radio isn’t what it was 50 years ago. It has fragmented into 1,000 different formats: urban, classic rock, soft rock, rap, etc. There was a time when one could hear Dylan played right along with James Brown, Marvin Gaye, the Stones, and Petula Clark. Radio is now big business and exclusively corporate-owned and controlled. It would be nearly impossible for a contemporary artist as unique and singular as Bob Dylan was in 1964 to ever see the light of day on contemporary radio. Clear Channel’s banning of Lennon’s “Imagine” from its playlists after 9/11 certainly makes that argument.
While Chimes of Freedom is flawed due to its size, the very fact that a whole new generation is being introduced to one of America’s greatest songwriters should be something of a celebration.
John Zavesky is a freelance writer/editor covering mainly cutural issues. His work has appeared in Z Magazine, Counterpunch, Palestine Chronicle, Dissident Voice, Los Angeles Times, and other publications.
Blood on the Tracks
The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson:
A Psychohistorical Memoir
By S. Brian Willson with an introduction
by Daniel Ellsberg
Oakland, California, PM Press, 2011
Review by Jeremy Kuzmarov
On September 1, 1987, S. Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran, was run over by a train outside the Concord Naval Weapons Station in Northern California while trying to block munitions shipments to the Nicaraguan Contras. Willson lost both of his legs and suffered brain damage. After his miraculous recovery, he was greeted as a national hero in Nicaragua and also received a letter of apology from Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, who told him that she was sickened by her father’s “aggressively anti-Sandanista rhetoric” and “absurd reference to the Contras as freedom fighters.”
In Blood on the Tracks, Willson discusses his journey from a young conservative to a peace activist willing to sacrifice his body in defiance of the empire for which he once fought. Willson grew up in upstate New York where he had a conventional boyhood and starred on his high school baseball and basketball teams. His parents were religious conservatives who supported the Republican Party, with his father gravitating to extremist right-wing organizations such as the John Birch Society and Klu Klux Klan after losing his job as manager of a flour mill. In 1964, after graduating from a small Baptist college, Willson supported Barry Goldwater for president and advocated “bombing the godless communists in Vietnam into oblivion.”
In the Air Force, Willson’s job was to document bombing casualties in Vinh Long province, which opened his eyes to the terrible suffering bred by the war. Before going overseas, he had heard Senator Ernest Gruening from Alaska give a speech describing the Gulf of Tonkin attack as a fraud. At the time, he had been skeptical but he now began to consider it in a new light, particularly as he witnessed U.S. pilots mercilessly strafe villages, killing women and children. Near the end of his tour, Willson had dinner with a Vietnamese friend, whose family showed him a postage stamp honoring Norman Morrison, the Quaker peace activist who immolated himself outside Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s office. By this time, Willson had come to feel a connection to Morrison who grew up just miles from his boyhood home.
After returning to the United States, Willson participated in Operation Dewey Canyon III, “a limited incursion in the country of Congress” where disgruntled vets hurled their medals over the capitol fence, stating that the medals were “drenched in the blood of the innocent.” Settling back into civilian life, Willson got his law degree and worked as a public defender, penal consultant, and social worker, witnessing first-hand the injustices of the court and penal systems. He became increasingly disillusioned by mainstream politics after having difficulty lobbying for basic penal reforms. Willson’s political perspective was further shaped by his reading about the history of U.S. imperialism and anarchist and socialist philosophies. While living in Washington, he attended lectures by critical thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and encountered non-conformists such as Wally and Juanita Nelson—tax resistors who had been active in the civil rights movement and believed that each person had a duty to consume only what he or she could produce.
During the early 1980s, after experiencing painful flashbacks to Vietnam, Willson worked at a local VA center and aided in the Senate campaign of John F. Kerry, who later disappointed him by voting for the Iraq War. Seeing Nicaragua as another potential Vietnam, Willson became a tax resistor and joined in solidarity missions where he witnessed terrorist atrocities carried out by Contra operatives against rural campesinos who predominantly supported the Sandanistas.
As with the Vietnamese a decade earlier, Willson came to admire the people who struggled valiantly in defense of their revolution. He also became connected with kindred spirits such as Charlie Liteky, a Congressional medal of honor winner turned peace activist; Phil Roettinger, a dissident CIA agent who had participated in the 1954 coup in Guatemala; and Bill Gandall, who had fought with the Marines against the original Sandanistas in the 1920s.
Back in the U.S., Willson gave lectures documenting Contra atrocities and attempted in vain to convince congressional delegates of the immorality of Reagan’s foreign policy. One congressperson, Douglas Wayne Owens from Utah, told him, “why should I believe someone who looks like you,” a reference presumably to his long hair. Devastated by this experience, Willson and several others from Veterans for Peace, including Liteky and Roettinger, launched a 40-day fast on the Capitol steps, which attracted wide-scale media attention and support from celebrities. The group then attempted to block U.S. weapons shipments, leading to the fateful train wreck in which Willson lost his legs (the others were able to escape just before being hit). The conductors, as he later found out, were under orders not to stop for protestors, considered to be “pests.”
After recovering from his wounds and going back to Nicaragua as a hero, Willson traveled to many other countries devastated either directly or indirectly by U.S. imperial intervention, including El Salvador, Panama, Cuba, Palestine, Chiapas, Mexico, and Iraq. Once again he was appalled at the devastation bred by mechanized warfare while taking inspiration from those standing up for indigenous rights.
Willson’s experiences ultimately helped to solidify his belief that the roots of American militarism lay with the incessant consumerism of American society. He continues his work as a peace activist and has decided to opt out of what he calls the American way of life, focusing instead on living a simple, ecologically sustainable life in rural Massachusetts. Like other anarchist thinkers, Willson holds as a model decentralized systems of power and self-reliant communities functioning at one with nature, which he believes hold the key to human sustainability and progress over the long-term.
Willson has emerged strong and defiant and with a vision for the future. Willson’s memoir is inspiring and should be widely read.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is an assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of Vietnam and the War on Drugs and a forthcoming volume on American police training and counterinsurgency and its link to human rights abuses in the developing world.
The Rise of the Tea Party
Political Discontent and Corporate Media
in the Age of Obama
By Anthony DiMaggio
NY, Monthly Review Press, 2011, 288 pp.
Review by Seth Sandonsky
Anthony DiMaggio is a social justice activist who has written a timely book on the myths and realities of the Tea Party, its ties to corporate and GOP interests, and its pretense as a grassroots social movement. He disentangles big money and media errors in The Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama.
DiMaggio looks at the reporting on the Tea Party that includes flawed assumptions, mistaken conclusions, and misinformation. Thus we see how the public got little news on Tea Party incumbents’ role in national legislation that laid the groundwork for the housing crash and Great Recession. DiMaggio also shows how the same media outlets—such as Fox News—portrayed “insurgent” Tea Party politicians as challengers to GOP incumbents.
Political donors from the health care, finance, insurance and real estate industries laughed, no doubt, at this tactic. Accordingly, Tea Party railing against the alleged socialism of President Obama’s corporate-driven, health-care reform has become a standard GOP talking point to deceive and distract.
For six months, DiMaggio and Paul Street, a radical author and commentator, observed local Tea Party chapters in the Chicago metro area. What they uncovered confirmed DiMaggio’s findings from interviews and public polls on the national Tea Party movement.
Locally and across the U.S., it is a GOP-led, top-down, corporate-media-driven phenomenon that uses “falsehoods and propaganda in communicating with their right-wing base.” One favorite is “out-of-control” federal deficit spending—not the shortage of jobs that pay livable wages with benefits—as the main economic problem facing the U.S.
Despite weak local infrastructure and organizing, the Tea Party brand of the GOP has credibility as “an outsider force” to the two-party system. Meanwhile, public dissatisfaction with politicians and the political system grows.
DiMaggio’s analysis of mass media coverage of the Tea Party expands the propaganda model of Chomsky and Herman that centers on official sourcing and U.S. foreign policy. In DiMaggio’s model, domestic groups such as the Tea Party that back investor class interests that buy the ads that fund the corporate media are worthy of news focus. As Tea Party rants against “Obama care” grew, single-payer health-care—or Medicare for all—proponents disappeared from policy and public view. This, of course, was a bi-partisan choice to maintain the profits of the industries that are dominant donors to political campaigns across the U.S.
DiMaggio employs a term to describe a hegemonic process of ruling class power over society via ideology as “mediated reality.” GOP-friendly Fox News is a prime delivery system, selling its journalism as unbiased and “spin-free.” The author’s use of data from the Pew Research Center and scholarly literature amplifies his point that mainstream and left-wing journalism largely missed the Tea Party’s “elitist, top-down organization structure.” Its aim is to “manufacture dissent.”
Next is a chapter on “mediated populism.” Here, DiMaggio sheds light on the significance of the Tea Party in shifting U.S. public opinion to the right. We see how and why mass media’s uncritical reporting after the 2008 financial crash under President Bush 2 enabled a “rebranding” of the GOP as a populist political force. In this way, Republicans nabbed increased support from independent voters for the 2010 mid-term elections.
DiMaggio unpacks the significance of false claims, such as those from Sarah Palin, that President Obama’s health-care reform-compelled “death panels” would ration treatment for elderly patients. Press coverage of Palin far surpassed reporting on single-payer health care, as DiMaggio details. In his conclusion, Dimaggio writes of a genuine grassroots movement in Wisconsin that contrasts with the Tea Party’s activism. Its robust rival has become the Occupy Movement.
DiMaggio serves up a rigorous political analysis of the Tea Party. His book is required reading.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento.
Rulers & Rebels:
A People’s History of Early California, 1769-1901
By Laurence Shoup
iUniverse: NY, 1910, 543 pp.
By Robert Ovetz
The struggle to colonize and exploit California was no easy feat. Although the Spanish began setting up presidios and missions in the 1760s, first native peoples and then a growing working class put up quite a fight throughout the 19th century. The history of this resistance and insurrection is captured in Larry Shoup’s new book Rulers & Rebels: A People’s History of Early California, 1769-1901.
Rulers & Rebels traces the trajectory of colonialism, exploitation, and genocide from the arrival of the Spanish in the 1760s. Shoup meticulously documents the atrocities committed by the Spanish Californios centered in Monterey who used the presidio and mission system to expropriate, enslave and exploit Native peoples of California. He illustrates how after 1845, the arrival of whites seeking gold and fortune had an especially catastrophic impact. According to Shoup, in 1845 native people still made up about 99 percent of the population. By 1900, after decades of outright slaughter, murder, starvation and slavery, 95 percent of their numbers were wiped out.
From the pages of Rulers & Rebels arise the evolving tactics and strategies of resistance of the Chumash, inland Miwoks, Yukots and Modocs first against the sparse Spanish colonists and later the more populous American settlers. By the 1820s, these and other native peoples were increasingly launching guerrilla raids for animals and weapons, to liberate captives, and to burn and even occupy the missions. Take Rulers & Rebels on your next roadtrip in California. It will provide a vivid history of the roadside historical markers and road signs that white out not only the genocide, but also the resistance that took place along the way.
When whites began flooding in from the East in the 1840s they immediately plotted to relieve the Spanish Californios of their vast lands. The Californios soon had their land stolen and their families impoverished. They were persecuted by racism and thievery. The dispossessors became the dispossessed.
Shoup tells a story of the ever-contested class dynamics of early California and the newly emerging white ruling class that would come to rule California, which pitted gold miners and the bankers and railroad barons in internecine battles that kept the business class fractured and fighting one another. As elites fought elites, cliques resorted to coup d’etats such as the 1856 seizure of power by the self-selected San Francisco “Vigilance Committee” which rose to power by the barrel of the gun and the executioner. Armed with thousands of muskets and several cannons, the Committee seized the jails and carried out summary executions in retaliation for the misdeeds of their adversaries.
Most of the Vigilance Committee members, including then-young C. P. Huntington and Leland Stanford, went on to lay the foundations of the great monopolies, making them among the richest men in the world. Central to their network of wealth and power was their eventual dominance over the Bank of California, Wells Fargo, and the Southern and Central Pacific Railroads. This “ring” used its power to buy Senate seats, corrupt populist governors, devise corporate “rights” under the 14th amendment, and defy the 13th amendment that abolished slavery. Faced with rambunctious workers, the ring provoked the 1868 Burlingame-Seward Treaty with China to import tens of thousands of indentured debt “peons” from China to work on the railroads and in the brothels and kitchens of San Francisco.
If California is today considered the spawning ground of progressive reform, in the 19th century it was the base of a capitalist seizure of power. The names of these vigilantes turned ruling class are still household names today. Many streets in San Francisco bear their names to the eternal shame of the “liberal” city.
Among the gems that sparkle in Rulers & Rebels is the story of Archy Lee, California’s little known Dred Scott case. The struggle of Archy Lee against his enslavement had an entirely different outcome from that of Dred Scott, one that demonstrates the impact of a well-organized ungovernable force. In 1858, Lee escaped from his owner, C. V. Stovall, who held him in slavery despite the fact that slavery was illegal in California. When Stovall planned to return him to Mississippi, Lee sued for his freedom. After the state Supreme Court’s ruling for Stovall sparked outrage, 100 armed blacks and whites patroled the docks with a habeas corpus writ from a San Francisco court in hand. The group captured Stovall as he tried to escape with Lee in bondage and freed Lee.
California’s mighty trusts were hardly invulnerable. Shoup illustrates how the class warfare of the 1877 nationwide wildcat railroad strike and the similarly insurrectionary 1894 Pullman strike both swept through California. The later 1901 waterfront strike, unlike the defeat of 1877 and 1894, was led by the recently-established City Labor Council and City Front Federation with surprisingly strong support from Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner (today a rabid right-wing daily) and across racial and ethnic lines. The strike was won when the railroads and the governor refused to join the secretive Employer’s Association.
Unable to find a publisher, Shoup self-published Rulers & Rebels. We are fortunate he did. It deserves far more attention than it has received so far. As a result, Rulers & Rebels is not without its blemishes, albeit minor ones. For example, several critical California historians of this era are surprisingly absent from these pages. And while Shoup breaks new ground on the little known 1901 general strike, his sources are limited to newspaper accounts covering it at the time. These issues should be rectified if and when it is republished.
In contrast to Shoup’s agile analysis of the evolving dynamic of self-organization and contestations of class power, his labor theory of capitalism appears leaden. Although this is a long ferociously debated issue, historian Eric Williams’s monumental book From Columbus to Castro must be noted. Williams extended Karl Marx’s analysis of the European enclosures a century earlier by exhaustively documenting how the vast wealth of the European empires and the U.S. was generated by unwaged labor of slaves and peons in the Americas. The mission system was an analogous process of enclosing the lands of the California native peoples and transforming them into a class of workers. That it took a century to complete is illustrated by the long history of resistance such as that in Rulers & Rebels.
Don’t let these issues discourage you. Rulers & Rebels is an accessible and invaluable contribution to writing the “people’s history” that you will not be able to put down and should be emulated elsewhere.
Robert Ovetz teaches social sciences at several San Francisco Bay Area community colleges. Rulers & Rebels can be ordered directly from the author at rulersandrebels.com.
Play, Creativity, and Social Movements:
If I Can’t Dance, It’s Not My Revolution
By Benjamin Shepard
New York: Routledge, 2011, 330 pp.
Review by Jeremy Brecher
In all the news coverage of the origins of Occupy Wall Street, it has rarely been noted that on September 17, 2011, its very first day, OWS hosted a carnival known as the “New York Fun Exchange.” One of its initiators described its goal as making protests “symbolic and theatrical.” For those who haven’t been paying attention, and I count myself among them, the idea of such apparent frivolity in the midst of a demonstration on such a deadly serious subject as the rise of inequality in America, and in the midst of harassment and even violent attack by heavily armed police, can evoke considerable wonderment.
Play, Creativity, and Social Movements presents the role of “play”—defined as “a shorthand way of describing free activities, often finding expression as a gesture, performance, or ritual”—in 20th century social movements, primarily, although not entirely, in the U.S. It gives the history of “play” as part of “a tradition of organizing that links art with performance and social struggle.”
Shepard has been active in such groups as Reclaim the Streets, ACT UP, and the Bike Lane Liberation Clowns, among many others. To complement his own experience, Shepard interviewed 69 activists who participated in the movements and actions he describes.
While the political use of playful humor and comedy goes back at least to Aristophanes (if not some stand-up cave comic), Shepard picks up the story with the Dadaists whose antic public performances in the World War I-era in Europe embodied a comic but bitter absurdity designed to rival the absurdity of the war-torn world itself. He recounts the Situationists, who, influenced by social theorists like Henri Lefebvre, helped define the French upheaval of the 1960s as a projection of “imagination to power.”
It was, amazingly, a student of philosopher Herbert Marcuse who turned madcap humor into something that could be part of, and/or share many characteristics of, a social movement. While not enamored of the 1960s as a privileged historical moment, Shepard found that many of his respondents saw Abbie Hoffman and the Youth International Party (the Yippies) extravaganza at the 1968 Democratic Convention as a prime ancestor of their own activities. Andrew Boyd, founder of Billionaires for Bush, described his approach as “using artistic strategies, thinking like an artist about doing political action.” He cites Abbie Hoffman’s saying, “All protest is theater.” Shepard also provides, as a counterpoint, an account of the highly theatrical but dead serious contemporary Young Lords.
I remember being bowled over by ACT UP’s famous chant “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Shepard devotes a chapter to ACT UP, the Cockettes, Operation Ridiculous, and other groups associated with gay liberation. He describes how gay men in ACT UP used almost any occasion to “take off their T-shirts and start making out” in “defiant gestures of pleasure.” He argues that for these groups, “play functioned as both a subversive tool and a vehicle for pleasure and personal freedom,” both a “theatrical device” and a “coping mechanism.”
In the 1990s, struggles over urban space burgeoned into culture-jamming pranks combined with corporate disruptions. In New York, a struggle for community gardens from 1998-2002 brought lobbyists dressed as giant sunflowers and tomatoes to the city’s halls of power. The campaign won at least a symbolic triumph when Attorney General Elliot Spitzer imposed a temporary restraining order against the bulldozing of community gardens, saying he did so “because a giant tomato asked me to do it.”
These antic campaigns became intertwined with the struggles against corporate globalization and the Iraq War. Many of them absorbed the spirit of the Chiapas Zapatista Army of National Liberation, who portrayed the movement’s struggle as a theatrical performance.
The book brings the story down through the antic activities that spiced up the 2011 mass occupation of the Wisconsin statehouse rotunda to protest the denial of labor rights by Governor Walker—virtually to the eve of Occupy Wall Street. Many who tell their stories in the book, including Shepard himself, have carried this legacy into OWS.
Shepard fittingly offers a wide range of overlapping views from a variety of related but not unitary perspectives. In the context of a social movement, “ludic activity” can be “a practical response to political repression,” a “device for group solidarity,” a tool “to disrupt what is wrong with the world,” and a way to “generate images of what a better one might look like.” It offers “a counterbalance to forces of alienation.” It can contribute to “meaning creation, struggle, and adaptation.” It can help people deal with pain and tragedy. It can help humanize movements and their members, helping keep them from getting too sanctimonious, moralistic, and full of themselves. Even in the absence of political success, it can help movements attract and keep participants by making participation inherently worthwhile—aka fun.
His conclusion is that, “The fun of social change works best as part of a holistic approach to organizing,” which includes a clear goal, good research, coherent communication, mobilization, legal strategy, direct action, and strategies to sustain the struggle over time. Without a connection to a full organizing schema, play is little more than a way to blow off steam.” But play is more than just an instrumental means for dressing up an otherwise tedious movement with some shiny props and clothes. As John Jordan put it, it can give people “the potential to see another way of being.”
Jeremy Brecher is a historian whose books include Strike!, Globalization from Below, and, co-edited with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan/Holt). He has received five regional Emmy Awards for his documentary film work. He is a co-founder of WarCrimesWatch.org.
Photographs by David Bacon on the Border Wall
On February 2, the Center for Cultural Investigation of the Autonomous University of Baja, California mounted an exhibition of 18 large photographs on the border wall next to the gate between Mexicali, Mexico, and Calexico, U.S. The photographs, which measure about 6 feet by 4 feet, hang on the steel beams that make up the wall. They hang on the Mexican side next to the lanes where traffic lines up waiting to cross into the U.S. At times, hundreds of cars spend over an hour in the lines, giving drivers ample opportunity to look at and react to the images.
The show, called “Beyond Borders,” consists of images that document the process of migration. Some show the life of Mexican migrants in the U.S., while others were taken in migrants’ home communities in Mexico. Three photographs show children working in the fields in northern Baja California, including one taken just a few miles from the Mexicali gate.
In an interview with local media at the show’s opening reception, in a park across the street from the wall, David Bacon explained, “As a photographer, I’ve tried to create images that aren’t neutral. They are, first, a reality check, showing what life is actually like, trying to do it through the eyes of people themselves. But they are also a form of social criticism—of poverty, of the discrimination and unequal status migrants face, especially in the U.S., but also in Mexico. Therefore, they’re also a call for social change. So what better place to show them than on the wall? The Center is taking an object hated on both sides of the border and reclaiming it as a site for developing popular culture and, even more, a space where people can be urged to make changes so that some day we live in a world where the wall will not exist.”
Luis Ongay, director of the Center for Cultural Investigation of the Autonomous University of Baja California, said that many people will see the show, because of its location. “We know this is an open space, it’s bringing the museum into a public space.”
Christian Fernandez, center subdirector, noted that the exhibit uses images that are part of a project of popular art and culture and then shows them in a way that is accessible to ordinary people. “We have a show about migration and the people looking at the images are those who are crossing the border— migrating.” He pointed to two images, one depicting an old labor camp in the Palo Verde Valley, which housed bracero workers in the 1950s, and another of a former bracero in Oaxaca. “Some former braceros, who are very old now, come on Sundays to this park to meet and talk with each other. What will they think of the images that show their own experience?”
Natalia Rojas created the high quality prints, which were made on plastic-coated fabric, stretched across metal frames, and coated with an anti-UV protective film. Fernandez said he hoped that the prints would survive the next three months of the show and that if they did, the center might then bring them to other sections of the border wall. The show continues through April 30.
David Bacon is a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California. He is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and writes for varioud publications. He has exhibited his work nationally and in Mexico, the UK, and Germany. He is author of The Children of NAFTA, and Communities Without Borders.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.