Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Revolution, Russia.
Tags: anti-capitalism, capitalism, democracy, freedom, nadezhda tolokonnikova, performance art, pussy riot, putin, revolution, roger hollander, slavoj zizek
Roger’s note: I hope you find this correspondence as fascinating as I did. The left/progressive blogosphere these days is publishing more anti-capitalism analyses than ever. I am a life-long Marxist Humanist, so the notion of capitalism is something I have been thinking about for years (decades, actually). What I find troubling is that very few writers either attempt or demonstrate a precise understanding of exactly what capitalism is. Capitalism is not simply an ideology, although there are more than enough capitalist ideologues; and capitalism is not primarily about so-called free markets, nor is state ownership anything less than pure genuine capitalism (prime example: China). To understand what a genuine transformation of society will be, it is important to have a historical understanding of how capitalist economic relations developed. More important is the need to understand exactly what capitalist economic relationships ARE, and that has to do with the basic structure under which goods and services are PRODUCED (again, not marketed). Karl Marx discovered an entire new continent of thought that takes us into the heart of notions of human freedom and exploitation via capitalist economic relations. Much too complex for me to go into here; I just want to point out that being anti-capitalist is necessary but not sufficient. The dialogue below is a good example of revolutionary activist thinking, striving to understand in order to transform.
‘We are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority’ … Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot writing to Slavoj Žižek. (David Levene/AFP)
2 January 2013
I hope you have been able to organise your life in prison around small rituals that make it tolerable, and that you have time to read. Here are my thoughts on your predicament.
John Jay Chapman, an American political essayist, wrote this about radicals in 1900: “They are really always saying the same thing. They don’t change; everybody else changes. They are accused of the most incompatible crimes, of egoism and a mania for power, indifference to the fate of their cause, fanaticism, triviality, lack of humour, buffoonery and irreverence. But they sound a certain note. Hence the great practical power of persistent radicals. To all appearance, nobody follows them, yet everyone believes them. They hold a tuning-fork and sound A, and everybody knows it really is A, though the time-honoured pitch is G flat.” Isn’t this a good description of the effect of Pussy Riot performances? In spite of all accusations, you sound a certain note. It may appear that people do not follow you, but secretly, they believe you, they know you are telling the truth, or, even more, you are standing for truth.
But what is this truth? Why are the reactions to Pussy Riot performances so violent, not only in Russia? All hearts were beating for you as long as you were perceived as just another version of the liberal-democratic protest against the authoritarian state. The moment it became clear that you rejected global capitalism, reporting on Pussy Riot became much more ambiguous. What is so disturbing about Pussy Riot to the liberal gaze is that you make visible the hidden continuity between Stalinism and contemporary global capitalism.
[Žižek then explores what he sees as a global trend towards limiting democracy.] Since the 2008 crisis, this distrust of democracy, once limited to third-world or post-Communist developing economies, is gaining ground in western countries. But what if this distrust is justified? What if only experts can save us?
But the crisis provided proof that it is these experts who don’t know what they are doing, rather than the people. In western Europe, we are seeing that the ruling elite know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with Greece.
No wonder, then, that Pussy Riot make us all uneasy – you know very well what you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to have any quick or easy answers, but you are telling us that those in power don’t know either. Your message is that in Europe today the blind are leading the blind. This is why it is so important that you persist. In the same way that Hegel, after seeing Napoleon riding through Jena, wrote that it was as if he saw the World Spirit riding on a horse, you are nothing less than the critical awareness of us all, sitting in prison.
Comradely greetings, Slavoj
23 February 2013
Once, in the autumn of 2012, when I was still in the pre-trial prison in Moscow with other Pussy Riot activists, I visited you. In a dream, of course.
I see your argument about horses, the World Spirit, and about tomfoolery and disrespect, as well as why and how all these elements are so connected to each other.
Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche’s definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.
We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: “This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath.”
We are the rebels asking for the storm, and believing that truth is only to be found in an endless search. If the “World Spirit” touches you, do not expect that it will be painless.
Laurie Anderson sang: “Only an expert can deal with the problem.” It would have been nice if Laurie and I could cut these experts down to size and take care of our own problems. Because expert status by no means grants access to the kingdom of absolute truth.
Two years of prison for Pussy Riot is our tribute to a destiny that gave us sharp ears, allowing us to sound the note A when everyone else is used to hearing G flat.
At the right moment, there will always come a miracle in the lives of those who childishly believe in the triumph of truth over lies, of mutual assistance, of those who live according to the economics of the gift.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in a single confinement cell at a penal colony in Partza on 25 September 2013. (Ilya Shablinsky/AFP)
4 April 2013
I was so pleasantly surprised when your letter arrived – the delay made me fear that the authorities would prevent our communication. I was deeply honoured, flattered even, by my appearance in your dream.
You are right to question the idea that the “experts” close to power are competent to make decisions. Experts are, by definition, servants of those in power: they don’t really think, they just apply their knowledge to the problems defined by those in power (how to bring back stability? how to squash protests?). So are today’s capitalists, the so-called financial wizards, really experts? Are they not just stupid babies playing with our money and our fate? I remember a cruel joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not to Be. When asked about the German concentration camps in occupied Poland, the Nazi officer snaps back: “We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping.” Does the same not hold for the Enron bankruptcy in 2002? The thousands of employees who lost their jobs were certainly exposed to risk, but with no true choice – for them the risk was like blind fate. But those who did have insight into the risks, and the ability to intervene (the top managers), minimised their risks by cashing in their stocks before the bankruptcy. So it is true that we live in a society of risky choices, but some people (the managers) do the choosing, while others (the common people) do the risking.
For me, the true task of radical emancipatory movements is not just to shake things out of their complacent inertia, but to change the very co-ordinates of social reality so that, when things return to normal, there will be a new, more satisfying, “apollonian statics”. And, even more crucially, how does today’s global capitalism enter this scheme?
The Deleuzian philosopher Brian Massumi tells how capitalism has already overcome the logic of totalising normality and adopted the logic of erratic excess: “The more varied, and even erratic, the better. Normality starts to lose its hold. The regularities start to loosen. This loosening is part of capitalism’s dynamic.”
But I feel guilty writing this: who am I to explode in such narcissistic theoretical outbursts when you are exposed to very real deprivations? So please, if you can and want, do let me know about your situation in prison: about your daily rhythm, about the little private rituals that make it easier to survive, about how much time you have to read and write, about how other prisoners and guards treat you, about your contact with your child … true heroism resides in these seemingly small ways of organising one’s life in order to survive in crazy times without losing dignity.
With love, respect and admiration, my thoughts are with you!
A Pussy Riot protest in Red Square in Moscow in January 2012. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)
16 April 2013
Has modern capitalism really overtaken the logic of totalising norms? Or is it willing to make us believe that it has overpassed the logic of hierarchical structures and normalisation?
As a child I wanted to go into advertising. I had a love affair with the advertising industry. And this is why I am in a position to judge its merits. The anti-hierarchical structures and rhizomes of late capitalism are its successful ad campaign. Modern capitalism has to manifest itself as flexible and even eccentric. Everything is geared towards gripping the emotion of the consumer. Modern capitalism seeks to assure us that it operates according to the principles of free creativity, endless development and diversity. It glosses over its other side in order to hide the reality that millions of people are enslaved by an all-powerful and fantastically stable norm of production. We want to reveal this lie.
You should not worry that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the “real hardship”. I value the strict limits, and the challenge. I am genuinely curious: how will I cope with this? And how can I turn this into a productive experience for me and my comrades? I find sources of inspiration; it contributes to my own development. Not because of, but in spite of the system. And in my struggle, your thoughts, ideas and stories are helpful to me.
I am happy to correspond with you. I await your reply and I wish you good luck in our common cause.
10 June 2013
I felt deeply ashamed after reading your reply. You wrote: “You should not worry about the fact that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the ‘real hardship’.” This simple sentence made me aware that the final sentiment in my last letter was false: my expression of sympathy with your plight basically meant, “I have the privilege of doing real theory and teaching you about it while you are good for reporting on your experience of hardship …” Your last letter demonstrates that you are much more than that, that you are an equal partner in a theoretical dialogue. So my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched is male chauvinism, especially when it is masked as sympathy for the other’s suffering, and let me go on with our dialogue.
It is the crazy dynamics of global capitalism that make effective resistance to it so difficult and frustrating. Recall the great wave of protests that spilled all over Europe in 2011, from Greece and Spain to London and Paris. Even if there was no consistent political platform mobilising the protesters, the protests functioned as part of a large-scale educational process: the protesters’ misery and discontent were transformed into a great collective act of mobilisation – hundreds of thousands gathered in public squares, proclaiming that they had enough, that things could not go on like that. However, what these protests add up to is a purely negative gesture of angry rejection and an equally abstract demand for justice, lacking the ability to translate this demand into a concrete political programme.
What can be done in such a situation, where demonstrations and protests are of no use, where democratic elections are of no use? Can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but also to offer the prospect of a new order?
The Pussy Riot performances cannot be reduced just to subversive provocations. Beneath the dynamics of their acts, there is the inner stability of a firm ethico-political attitude. In some deeper sense, it is today’s society that is caught in a crazy capitalist dynamic with no inner sense and measure, and it is Pussy Riot that de facto provides a stable ethico-political point. The very existence of Pussy Riot tells thousands that opportunist cynicism is not the only option, that we are not totally disoriented, that there still is a common cause worth fighting for.
So I also wish you good luck in our common cause. To be faithful to our common cause means to be brave, especially now, and, as the old saying goes, luck is on the side of the brave!
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in court in April this year. Photograph: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA
13 July 2013
In my last letter, written in haste as I worked in the sewing shop, I was not as clear as I should have been about the distinction between how “global capitalism” functions in Europe and the US on the one hand, and in Russia on the other. However, recent events in Russia – the trial of Alexei Navalny, the passing of unconstitutional, anti-freedom laws – have infuriated me. I feel compelled to speak about the specific political and economic practices of my country. The last time I felt this angry was in 2011 when Putin declared he was running for the presidency for a third time. My anger and resolve led to the birth of Pussy Riot. What will happen now? Time will tell.
Here in Russia I have a strong sense of the cynicism of so-called first-world countries towards poorer nations. In my humble opinion, “developed” countries display an exaggerated loyalty towards governments that oppress their citizens and violate their rights. The European and US governments freely collaborate with Russia as it imposes laws from the middle ages and throws opposition politicians in jail. They collaborate with China, where oppression is so bad that my hair stands on end just to think about it. What are the limits of tolerance? And when does tolerance become collaboration, conformism and complicity?
To think, cynically, “let them do what they want in their own country”, doesn’t work any longer, because Russia and China and countries like them are now part of the global capitalist system.
Russia under Putin, with its dependence on raw materials, would have been massively weakened if those nations that import Russian oil and gas had shown the courage of their convictions and stopped buying. Even if Europe were to take as modest a step as passing a “Magnitsky law” [the Magnitsky Act in the US allows it to place sanctions on Russian officials believed to have taken part in human-rights violations], morally it would speak volumes. A boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 would be another ethical gesture. But the continued trade in raw materials constitutes a tacit approval of the Russian regime – not through words, but through money. It betrays the desire to protect the political and economic status quo and the division of labour that lies at the heart of the world economic system.
You quote Marx: “A social system that seizes up and rusts … cannot survive.” But here I am, working out my prison sentence in a country where the 10 people who control the biggest sectors of the economy are Vladimir Putin’s oldest friends. He studied or played sports with some, and served in the KGB with others. Isn’t this a social system that has seized up? Isn’t this a feudal system?
I thank you sincerely, Slavoj, for our correspondence and can hardly wait for your reply.
• The correspondence was organised by Philosophie magazine in cooperation with New Times. Longer versions can be found in German at philomag.de or in French at philomag.com. Tolokonnikova’s letters were translated from Russian by Galia Ackerman
© 2013 The Guardian/UK
Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Canada.
Tags: abby, anarchism, Canada, canada music, canadian music, godspped you!black emperor, montreal music, music, polaris music, polaris prize, protest music, quebec music, roger hollander
09.25.13 – 1:05 PM
Intriguing news from Canada’s music scene, where Montreal’s anarchist, anti-war, anti-capitalist collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor has won this year’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize for their album Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, released after a ten-year hiatus when they decided they couldn’t take part in “this horrid music-business mess” while the Iraq War and “greater class injustices” were ongoing. In their music and (rare) interviews, they regularly cite “the terminally disenfranchised” and “the demeaning outcomes of debauched governance: random traffic stops, collapsing infrastructure, corrupt bureaucrats and milk-fed police with their petty intrusions”; they also use radical cover art that, for example, draws the connections between music companies and arms manufacturers.
The band accepted the prize from their “Troubled Motherland” with a singularly charming, grateful, conflicted, outraged “HOLY SHIT AND HOLY COW” statement suggesting that holding a corporate-sponsored gala during a time of “normalized decline…doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all,” and that “asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet is fucking insane,” which is one reason they plan to use the prize money to buy instruments for prisoners in Quebec. Great stuff.
“All music is political, right? You either make music that pleases the king and his court, or you make music for the serfs outside the walls. It’s what music (and culture) is for, right?…We started making this noise together when we were young and broke. Whatever politics we had were born out of living through a time when the dominant narrative was that everything was fine. Clearly this was a lie. But Clinton was president, the Berlin Wall was down, our economies were booming, and the internet was a shiny new thing that was going to liberate us all. The gatekeepers gazed upon their kingdom and declared that it was good. Meanwhile so many of us were locked out, staring at all that gold from the outside in.”
A FEW WORDS REGARDING THIS POLARIS PRIZE THING
hello kanadian music-writers.
thanks for the nomination thanks for the prize- it feels nice to be acknowledged by the Troubled Motherland when we so often feel orphaned here. and much respect for all y’all who write about local bands, who blow that horn loudly- because that trumpeting is crucial and necessary and important.
and much respect to the freelancers especially, because freelancing is a hard fucking gig, and almost all of us are freelancers now, right? falling and scrambling and hustling through these difficult times?
so yes, we are grateful, and yes we are humble and we are shy to complain when we’ve been acknowledged thusly- BUT HOLY SHIT AND HOLY COW- we’ve been plowing our field on the margins of weird culture for almost 20 years now, and “this scene is pretty cool but what it really fucking needs is an awards show” is not a thought that’s ever crossed our minds.
3 quick bullet-points that almost anybody could agree on maybe=
-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.
-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.
-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.
these are hard times for everybody. and musicians’ blues are pretty low on the list of things in need of urgent correction BUT AND BUT if the point of this prize and party is acknowledging music-labor performed in the name of something other than quick money, well then maybe the next celebration should happen in a cruddier hall, without the corporate banners and culture overlords. and maybe a party thusly is long overdue- it would be truly nice to enjoy that hang, somewhere sometime where the point wasn’t just lazy money patting itself on the back.
give the money to the kids let ‘em put on their own goddamn parties, give the money to the olds and let them try to write opuses in spite of, but let the muchmusic videostars fight it out in the inconsequential middle, without gov’t. culture-money in their pockets.
us we’re gonna use the money to try to set up a program so that prisoners in quebec have musical instruments if they need them…
amen and amen.
apologies for being such bores,
we love you so much / our country is fucked,
godspeed you! black emperor
Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Civil Liberties, Education, North Carolina, Racism.
Tags: abby zimet, banned books, censorship, education, first amendment, invisible man, north carolina, racism, ralph ellison, roger hollander
09.22.13 – 5:30 PM
Last week, good ole North Carolina, whose wacko right-wing majority has been some busy passing laws that hurt women, minorities, the poor and the environment, got a nice jump on National Banned Books Week by banning of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which Ellison described in his speech accepting the National Book Award as “a return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy.” Ellison’s classic about American racism, about being “a man of substance, of flesh and bone,” who is not seen because he’s black, was evidently banned after one parent complained it was “not so innocent…filthier….too much for teenagers”; school board members agreed it was “a hard read” that “didn’t (have) any literary value.” Banning books is a time-tested, spirit-deadening tradition in fearful communities; there were 464 challenges to books reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2012, with The Bluest Eye and Persopolis perhaps the most recently banned. In the past, almost half of what are widely viewed as the top 100 novels of the 20th century have been banned or challenged, including The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Color Purple, 1984, Ulysses, Sophie’s Choice, Rabbit Run, Slaughterhouse-Five, A Farewell to Arms, and An American Tragedy, which it is.
“I am an invisible man…No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Posted by rogerhollander in 9/11, Art, Literature and Culture, Canada, Chile, Criminal Justice, Democracy, Foreign Policy, Imperialism, Latin America.
Tags: 9/11, almudena bernabeu, amy goodman, Canada, canadian government, Chile, chile coup, chile dictatorship, chilean military, chilean refugees, david heap, Democracy Now, derrick o'keefe, history, joan jara, Latin America, Pedro Barrientos, pinochet, roger hollander, salador allende, torture, U.S. imperialism, victor jara
Last night, Barack Obama spoke in defence of his threats to launch U.S. air strikes against Syria. In justifying his push for an attack illegal under international law, the constitutional lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner appealed explicitly to American exceptionalism. Obama also prefaced his case for bombing Syria with a stunningly ahistorical assertion of American benevolence:
“My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements. It has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world’s a better place because we have borne them.”
Imagine how this nonsense sounds to Chileans, who are today marking the 40th anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup in Chile against the democratically elected government led by Salvador Allende. More than 3,000 were killed in Chile; tens of thousands were jailed, tortured and exiled.
Chile bore the heavy burden of all those who have shown leadership in fighting for a better world. For over seven decades — was Obama’s metaphorical anchor of global security the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945? — any people combining too much democracy and some measure of national development or socialism that threatens U.S. interests has been met with blood and suffering imposed by that enforcer of global capitalism, the U.S. Empire.
I’ve learned a lot about Chile’s tragedy through my wife and her family. She was born in a refugee camp in Buenos Aires, and came to Canada as a baby after activists in this country agitated and successfully pressured the Liberal government of the day to admit Chileans fleeing the coup (for more on this history, read David Heap’s piece.) Both of her parents were social activists and part of the resistance. So I have some knowledge of the almost unimaginable human toll of the coup.
However, on this anniversary, I don’t want to just repeat a denunciation of the U.S. and the neoliberal economists and their generals who plunged Chile into darkness. I’d rather think about the light that has emerged over the past decades from Latin America, against all odds.
Henry Kissinger et al carried out the coup in Chile because they couldn’t countenance the union of socialism and democracy. An elected Marxist president just could not be tolerated. Allende was a strict constitutionalist and democrat. The coup was a bloody reminder that the ruling classes will never fight fair. They killed thousands in a vengeful attempt to forever separate socialism and democracy. But you cannot kill an idea. Forty years later, they have failed. Socialism and democracy have been reunited. That’s why we can say today: Allende vive. Allende lives.
Allende lives in the governments of countries like Bolivia and Venezuela; Allende lives in the vibrant social movements all across Latin America; Allende lives in ALBA, a regional integration and mutual benefit alliance the likes of which could barely have been fathomed in the 1970s; Allende lives in the steadfast refusal of Latin America to accept U.S. isolation and demonization of Cuba. In fact, it’s the U.S. and Canada who are isolated in Latin America these days, notwithstanding recent coup d’etats in a couple of ALBA’s weaker links, Paraguay and Honduras. And Allende lives in the massive student movement in Chile, which has challenged Pinochet’s legacy of privatization and nudged the whole political spectrum in that country to the left.
Latin America today is the only part of the world where the political left has made concrete gains and broken the stranglehold of neoliberalism. It’s the only part of the world where the left can consistently run in elections as the left — and win.
Today’s resurgent left in Latin America poses a real challenge to timid mainstream social democracy in North America and Europe, not to mention to the small constellation of sects clinging to the certainties of 1917 and other similarly dogmatic or scholastic leftists.
On this 40th anniversary of the coup in Chile, progressives would do well to recommit to learning about and defending the myriad left movements and elected governments of Latin America.
So don’t remember Allende just as a martyr. His descendents have learned from his terrible fate, as Greg Grandin outlined in his London Review of Books article, ‘Don’t do what Allende did.’ The headline refers to reported instructions from Fidel Castro to Hugo Chavez during the hours after the (thankfully failed) coup against Venezuela’s elected leader in 2002.
Emir Sader, the Brazilian left scholar and activist, has summed up the new generation’s political project in his essential book, The New Mole, which looks at the trajectories of today’s Latin American left. Sader explains that, having learned from the Allende government’s failure to “prepare to confront the right’s offensive with strategies for an alternative power,
…processes like those in Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador — at the same time as they try to implement an anti-neoliberal economic model — seek to combine this with a refounding of the state and the public sphere… it is still a process of reforms, but one that leads towards a substantial transformation of the relations of power that underpin the neoliberal state.”
It’s an enormous and worthy undertaking. We should learn from Latin America and we should join them. That’s the best way to honour the legacy of the Chileans who fell forty years ago to the enforcers of global capitalism.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Civil Liberties, Constitution, Criminal Justice, Torture.
Tags: Afghanistan War, forced feeding, Guantanamo, Guantanamo detainees, hunger strike, ionnocence project, john grisham, nabil hadjarab, obama torture, roger hollander, torture
Roger’s note: I am an unrepentant Grisham addict. In addition to being a page-turning novelist, he writes about and combats injustice.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A restraint chair used to force-feed detainees at the military hospital at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
By JOHN GRISHAM
Published: August 10, 2013
ABOUT two months ago I learned that some of my books had been banned at Guantánamo Bay. Apparently detainees were requesting them, and their lawyers were delivering them to the prison, but they were not being allowed in because of “impermissible content.”
I became curious and tracked down a detainee who enjoys my books. His name is Nabil Hadjarab, and he is a 34-year-old Algerian who grew up in France. He learned to speak French before he learned to speak Arabic. He has close family and friends in France, but not in Algeria. As a kid growing up near Lyon, he was a gifted soccer player and dreamed of playing for Paris St.-Germain, or another top French club.
Tragically for Nabil, he has spent the past 11 years as a prisoner at Guantánamo, much of the time in solitary confinement. Starting in February, he participated in a hunger strike, which led to his being force-fed.
For reasons that had nothing to do with terror, war or criminal behavior, Nabil was living peacefully in an Algerian guesthouse in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 11, 2001. Following the United States invasion, word spread among the Arab communities that the Afghan Northern Alliance was rounding up and killing foreign Arabs. Nabil and many others headed for Pakistan in a desperate effort to escape the danger. En route, he said, he was wounded in a bombing raid and woke up in a hospital in Jalalabad.
At that time, the United States was throwing money at anyone who could deliver an out-of-town Arab found in the region. Nabil was sold to the United States for a bounty of $5,000 and taken to an underground prison in Kabul. There he experienced torture for the first time. To house the prisoners of its war on terror, the United States military put up a makeshift prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Bagram would quickly become notorious, and make Guantánamo look like a church camp. When Nabil arrived there in January 2002, as one of the first prisoners, there were no walls, only razor-wire cages. In the bitter cold, Nabil was forced to sleep on concrete floors without cover. Food and water were scarce. To and from his frequent interrogations, Nabil was beaten by United States soldiers and dragged up and down concrete stairs. Other prisoners died. After a month in Bagram, Nabil was transferred to a prison at Kandahar, where the abuse continued.
Throughout his incarceration in Afghanistan, Nabil strenuously denied any connection to Al Qaeda, the Taliban or anyone or any organization remotely linked to the 9/11 attacks. And the Americans had no proof of his involvement, save for bogus claims implicating him from other prisoners extracted in a Kabul torture chamber. Several United States interrogators told him his was a case of mistaken identity. Nonetheless, the United States had adopted strict rules for Arabs in custody — all were to be sent to Guantánamo. On Feb. 15, 2002, Nabil was flown to Cuba; shackled, bound and hooded.
Since then, Nabil has been subjected to all the horrors of the Gitmo handbook: sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, temperature extremes, prolonged isolation, lack of access to sunlight, almost no recreation and limited medical care. In 11 years, he has never been permitted a visit from a family member. For reasons known only to the men who run the prison, Nabil has never been waterboarded. His lawyer believes this is because he knows nothing and has nothing to give.
The United States government says otherwise. In documents, military prosecutors say that Nabil was staying at a guesthouse run by people with ties to Al Qaeda and that he was named by others as someone affiliated with terrorists. But Nabil has never been charged with a crime. Indeed, on two occasions he has been cleared for a “transfer,” or release. In 2007, a review board established by President George W. Bush recommended his release. Nothing happened. In 2009, another review board established by President Obama recommended his transfer. Nothing happened.
According to his guards, Nabil is a model prisoner. He keeps his head down and avoids trouble. He has perfected his English and insists on speaking the language with his British lawyers. He writes in flawless English. As much as possible, under rather dire circumstances, he has fought to preserve his physical health and mental stability.
In the past seven years, I have met a number of innocent men who were sent to death row, as part of my work with the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongly convicted people. Without exception they have told me that the harshness of isolated confinement is brutal for a coldblooded murderer who freely admits to his crimes. For an innocent man, though, death row will shove him dangerously close to insanity. You reach a point where it feels impossible to survive another day.
DEPRESSED and driven to the point of desperation, Nabil joined a hunger strike in February. This was not Gitmo’s first hunger strike, but it has attracted the most attention. As it gained momentum, and as Nabil and his fellow prisoners got sicker, the Obama administration was backed into a corner. The president has taken justified heat as his bold and eloquent campaign promises to close Gitmo have been forgotten. Suddenly, he was faced with the gruesome prospect of prisoners dropping like flies as they starved themselves to death while the world watched. Instead of releasing Nabil and the other prisoners who have been classified as no threat to the United States, the administration decided to prevent suicides by force-feeding the strikers.
Nabil has not been the only “mistake” in our war on terror. Hundreds of other Arabs have been sent to Gitmo, chewed up by the system there, never charged and eventually transferred back to their home countries. (These transfers are carried out as secretly and as quietly as possible.) There have been no apologies, no official statements of regret, no compensation, nothing of the sort. The United States was dead wrong, but no one can admit it.
In Nabil’s case, the United States military and intelligence agents relied on corrupt informants who were raking in American cash, or even worse, jailhouse snitches who swapped false stories for candy bars, porn and sometimes just a break from their own beatings.
Last week, the Obama administration announced that it was transferring some more Arab prisoners back to Algeria. It is likely that Nabil will be one of them, and if that happens another tragic mistake will be made. His nightmare will only continue. He will be homeless. He will have no support to reintegrate him into a society where many will be hostile to a former Gitmo detainee, either on the assumption that he is an extremist or because he refuses to join the extremist opposition to the Algerian government. Instead of showing some guts and admitting they were wrong, the American authorities will whisk him away, dump him on the streets of Algiers and wash their hands.
What should they do? Or what should we do?
First, admit the mistake and make the apology. Second, provide compensation. United States taxpayers have spent $2 million a year for 11 years to keep Nabil at Gitmo; give the guy a few thousand bucks to get on his feet. Third, pressure the French to allow his re-entry.
This sounds simple, but it will never happen.
Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Latin America, Media, Race, Racism.
Tags: Alisa Valdes, devious maids, entertainment, Eva Longoria, film, imperialism, Latina, Latina identity, latino, los angeles, mexican, mexican-american, novelist, racism, roger hollander, stereotypes, television, tv
Topics: Alisa Valdes, celebrity, celebrity_rewind, entertainment, Eva Longoria, film, Latina, Latina identity, latino, Los Angeles, mexican, Mexican-American, novelist, politics, stereotypes, television, tv
When it was a Telenovela, Devious Maids had an all-Latino cast, even the employers. Not so in English, where only the maids are Latina now.
When it was a Telenovela, Devious Maids had an all-Latino cast, even the employers. Not so in English, where only the maids are Latina now. (Photo/Courtesy Lifetime)
Opinion: The problem with “Devious Maids” goes far beyond Hollywood
by Alisa Valdes, @mizalisa
12:14 pm on 06/07/2013
Six years ago, I had a deal with Lifetime Television to develop my bestselling novel, The Dirty Girls Social Club, as a TV series. It soon became clear that the relationship wasn’t going to work, when two executives insisted that my pilot outline “wasn’t Latin enough,” because it told of middle class, educated American women who happened to be Latina.
“This reads as if it were about me and my friends,” complained one executive in disgust.
I didn’t know how to respond, so I asked her what she’d prefer.
“Why don’t we make the girls debating whether or not to date men in prison? I know that’s what Latinas talk about, just like it’s what black women talk about.”
Right. Because all middle class, college-educated professional women talk about dating prisoners.
In her dreams.
I got out of that deal because of this idiocy, and never looked back.
Fast forward to two years ago. I get a call from my agent, asking if I’m interested in writing a TV series about “Latina maids and nannies in Beverly Hills.” He said a network wanted a story about “exotic” Latina maids who knew all about their employers’ vices. I declined the offer.
Unsurprisingly, Lifetime has now come out with a show about Latina maids in Beverly Hills, called Devious Maids. It was originally in development at ABC, but that network had the good sense to pass on it after seeing the pilot.
I am not the only Latina to be annoyed by the perpetuation of stereotype in Devious Maids. Tanisha Ramirez wrote a scathing critique on the Huffington Post, only to be attacked in return by the show’s co-producer, Eva Longoria. Cosmo for Latinas editor Michelle Herrera Mulligan responded to Longoria by diplomatically telling her she was a big fat sellout. The Devious Maids camp responded with the weak argument that the show puts Latinas to work in an industry with embarrassingly few roles for them, and that it is based on a Telenovela and must therefore be Latino approved.
Many of my readers have asked me to opine on the matter, so here is what I think.
It is not wrong to be a maid, or even a Latina maid, but there is something very wrong with an American entertainment industry that continually tells Latinas that this is all they are or can ever be.
My grandmother was a maid in Cuba; my biological grandfather was her employer. My father, never claimed by his bio-dad, was a janitor when he first began working in the United States, as a teen immigrant. My father went on to get his PhD, sort of a real-life Good Will Hunting, and became a leading sociologist. He raised me to believe in myself and my voice; I went to Columbia, and I’m a bestselling author Tom Wolfe called one of the most important social critics of our time.
We don’t see stories about people like me or my dad. Indeed, network executives say to my face that I don’t exist. That’s the problem.
Ten years ago, Mexican American actress Lupe Ontiveros lamented to the New York Times that she had been cast as a maid 150 times in her career. The astounding number of times this one (outstanding) Latina actress has been cast as a maid destroys Longoria’s defense of Devious Maids as “Latina maids deserving to have their stories told, too.” According to academic research on Latino roles in mainstream US film and TV, the maid is pretty much the only Latina story being told, other than seductress, whore, dying immigrant and gang member.
There is more to stereotyping of Latinas than laziness or lack of information.
Longoria and others like to try to brush off criticism by telling us we’re all giving Hollywood too much credit, or that we’re overly sensitive, or, worst of all, by trying to paint critics as anti-maid elitists. The thing is, this isn’t just about maids. And it isn’t just about entertainment.
In his groundbreaking work At the University of Texas at Austin, on stereotypes of Latinos in film, professor Charles Ramirez Berg explains that Hollywood’s stereotypical “construction of Latinos in this country [is done] to justify the United States’ imperialistic goals. U.S. imperialism was based on the notion that the nation should control the entire hemisphere and was willing to fight anyone who disagreed. For centuries, the precepts underpinning the Monroe Doctrine have been used as a rationale for the U.S. interference in the internal politics of Latin America. On the whole, Hollywood endorsed North American dominance of this hemisphere, and as often as it depicted that hegemony uncritically, movies helped to perpetuate it.”
It is no mistake, and it is not mere happenstance, that Lifetime refused to allow me to make a show for them about complex, nuanced Latinas, yet greenlit a show about Latinas as sexy domestic servants. It isn’t a matter of me being too sensitive and lacking a sense of humor, and it isn’t a matter of me not liking maids. It is about the way the Latina maid stereotype beautifully cleaves to the time-honored imperialistic way this country has dealt with its Spanish-speaking neighbors in the Americas. My vision of us – as autonomous human beings – is simply too threatening to be considered realistic. How else to explain that a business supposedly built around making money continues to refuse to make money off of people like me, continues to refuse to meet our demands in its supply and demand spreadsheet?
It’s not just that Hollywood sees Latinas as one-dimensional, subservient sex objects; it is that this is how our nation has historically viewed all of the native peoples in the Americas, including the vast portions of this country that were once part of Mexico and Spain. You cannot colonize or occupy the lands of human beings you respect or view as your equal; it is better to simplify them in order to dehumanize them.
Nothing determines how people are viewed more than pop culture. The US government has spent fortunes researching film and TV as tools of propaganda, discovering, to no one’s surprise, that what people see in movies or on TV is what they believe to be true about the world. There is a reason an editor was yet again surprised this week to learn that I, an American by birth, did not live my life in Spanish. Movies and TV never show him people like me; in film and TV, women like me always have a Spanish accent. It is no coincidence, either, that the New York Daily News, when writing about my books, accused me of bringing chick lit to “the third world,” even though I write for an American audience. I am strong enough to fight this nonsense off. But what about the untold millions of women who aren’t as pugilistic as I am? Who is fighting for them? Not Longoria. Not Lifetime.
Most disappointing is how several Latino rights organizations have jumped to defend Devious Maids, because Longoria, a contributor to their bank accounts, asked them to. They have all decided that telling stories of maids who, as the network describes it, “have dreams of their own,” is somehow a step up for all of us. We’re not just maids in the background anymore, they tell us, now we get to be maids in the foreground, with dreams of our own.
That executives, actors and others continue to view the stereotypes as inevitable, that they continue to construct them subconsciously, that they accept them as fact without any justification, makes the predicament all the more overwhelming.
Longoria’s argument conflates race/ethnicity with socioeconomic status; sociology tells us quite clearly that these are not the same thing.
Yes, Devious Maids was a telenovela before Lifetime borrowed it. But in the Spanish-language version, all of the characters – the maids and their employers – were Latinos. The telenovela, approaching Latin Americans, allowed for class distinctions among Latinos, something that is utterly unthinkable in the imperialistic paradigm of the English-language side of the industry. Latinos are never nuanced human beings on the English-language side, because in order to maintain the American exceptionalist status quo race, ethnicity, and class must be simplistically conflated and assumed to be interchangeable. In truth, they are not. But that truth is a Latin American and Latino truth, and to allow us our own truth is untenable. People like Longoria choose, cynically perhaps, to make a living within these narrow confines, to justify them in every way they can, to perhaps even lend humanity and depth to the roles of maids, and you cannot blame them; they are actors, not activists. But I am a writer. I don’t interpret the stories, as an actor does, I construct them. In today’s Hollywood, my story of us, my story of me, stories of Latinas with dreams of their own who aren’t maids, or hookers, or sultry in some dominated way, remains too damn threatening.
Hollywood is still choosing to remain clueless about how to reach the 60 million Latinos in America.
Again and again in Hollywood I have heard networks invoke “telenovelas” as what they are after. “We want an English-language telenovela,” they say. But they don’t actually want a telenovela, because they don’t know what that means. Telenovelas often have powerful Latina protagonists. Class distinctions among Latinos are not only present, they are required and fuel the narrative.
Hollywood doesn’t actually want an English telenovela, because I wrote one, and it was a huge hit, yet they don’t believe that I know what Latinas want, because my story is not stereotypical and, to their eyes, therefore untrue. Devious Maids is as much about mental laziness and fear as it is about stereotypes.
I am building an empire on a new paradigm, and hope you’ll join me.
After disappointing deals I’ve had with NBC, Columbia Pictures and, of course, Lifetime, I have taken control of my book. I’m producing it as an indie film. Watch. I will prove to Hollywood that the key to reach Latinos is in ditching stereotypes. Period. It’s time for a change. New technology is quickly dismantling the omnipotence of the old paradigm, making it possible for a writer like me to reach my audience without help of a middleman studio or network. I know my audience is there, because I’ve met them. In cities all across the nation, I have heard their stories, accepted their gratitude for being the first to give them characters they could relate to.
I used to view Hollywood’s insistent imperialistic attitudes as an obstacle, but then I realized something wonderful. They weren’t an obstacle at all, but an opportunity to build our own media empire, right next door to theirs.
There goes the neighborhood.
Interestingly, my decision to eschew the US mainstream entertainment industry comes at a time that global economists are starting to announce the decline of the United States as a global power, and the rise of a Latin America independent of it — a Latin America that, as we speak, has four female presidents within it, an accomplishment this nation has yet to achieve. Not a one of these president women is…a maid.
Writing for economic thinktank Project Syndicate this week, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami had a piece whose headline read, simply, “Is the US Losing Latin America?”
“It is a mantra increasingly heard around the world: US power is in decline. And nowhere does this seem truer than in Latin America. No longer is the region regarded as America’s ‘backyard’; on the contrary, the continent has arguably never been so united and independent.”
The same could be said for the 60 million Latinos living in the United States. And we’re ready for our own movies now.
If you understand what I’m saying, and you want to be part of this new empire, please visit my Kickstarter campaign to support my film, and tell everyone you know about it.
Alisa Valdes is a novelist of mixed Cuban, Mexican, Spanish and European descent. Her first book, “The Dirty Girls Social Club,” earned critical acclaim and became a New York Times bestseller. Her eighth book, “The Feminist and the Cowboy” was released earlier this year. She resides in New Mexico.
Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Chile, Latin America.
Tags: Chile, chilean poet, cia, cia agent, history, michael townley, Pablo Neruda, Pablo Neruda Death Investigation, Pablo Neruda Exhumed, Pablo Neruda Killer, Pablo Neruda Murdered, Pablo Neruda Murderer, Pablo Neruda Poisoned, Pablo Neruda Price, pinochet, pinochet dictatorship, roger hollander, Who Killed Pablo Neruda, World News
SANTIAGO, Chile — Forty years after the death of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, a judge has issued an order for police to make a portrait of and find the man who prosecutors allege may have poisoned him.
Neruda’s death was attributed at the time to prostate cancer but the case’s plaintiff lawyer, Eduardo Contreras, says there is new evidence showing he was likely murdered by agents of dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Contreras said Dr. Sergio Draper, who originally testified that he was with Neruda at the time of his death on Sept. 23, 1973, is now saying there was another doctor named “Price” with the poet.
But Price did not appear in any of the hospital’s records as a treating doctor and Draper said he never saw him again after the day he left him with Neruda. Moreover Price’s description of a blond, blue eyed, tall man, matches Michael Townley, the CIA double agent who worked with Chilean secret police under Pinochet.
Townley was taken into the U.S. witness protection program after acknowledging having killed prominent Pinochet critics in Washington and Buenos Aires.
For Contreras, whoever the man was, “the important fact is that this was the person who ordered the injection” that allegedly killed Neruda.
Neruda’s former assistant Manuel Araya also said he believed the poet was poisoned by Pinochet’s agents.
The Nobel Prize winner’s body was exhumed on April 8, and is being analyzed by Chilean and international forensic specialists.
Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture.
Tags: cat in the hat, children, children's books, children's literature, curtis rush, dr.seuss, green eggs and ham, roger hollander, seuss birthday, theor seuss geisel
Dr. Seuss, author of popular children’s books such as ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ is having a birthday on March 2.
TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO
Dr. Theor Seuss Geisel.
By: Curtis Rush
News reporter, Published on Fri Mar 01 2013
Around the world today school children are paying tribute to Dr. Seuss’ birthday (which is actually March 2).
Dr. Theor Seuss Geisel, the acclaimed author of dozens of popular children’s books such as “Green Eggs and Ham,” was born March 2, 1904 and died Sept. 24, 1991 of throat cancer. He was 87.
The American writer and poet was born in Springfield, Mass., and later adopted the pen name Dr. Seuss. He died in La Jolla, Calif.
His birthday has been adopted as the annual date of national Read Across America Day.
Photos View gallery
Here are the five most important things you should know about Dr. Seuss.
- He came up with the pen name Dr. Seuss after he was caught drinking in his room at Dartmouth College and was banned from extra-curricular activities, which included writing for the college humour magazine. He came up with Seuss to hide his identity. He added the “Dr.” title afterward.
- Dr. Seuss made a point of not beginning the writing of his stories with a moral in mind. “Kids can see a moral coming a mile off,” he once said.
- Mulberry St. in Springfield, near where he grew up, was made famous in his first children’s book “And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” That book had been rejected by around 30 publishers.
- He completed “Cat in the Hat” after receiving a challenge to write a book that children couldn’t put down and to use only 250 words that were important for first-graders to recognize. Seuss used 236 words to complete the book.
- Although he was so devoted to producing children’s books all his life, Dr. Seuss never had any children of his own. When asked about this, his stock answer was: “You have ’em. I’ll entertain ’em.”
Dr. Seuss trending worldwide as world marks his birthday
March 2 is the birthday of acclaimed children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel, kicking off celebrations in schools across North America and around the world today. Dr. Seuss’ birthday has been adopted annually as the day of National Read Across America Day. Dr. Seuss died Sept. 24, 1991 at 87.
Teachers and students are paying tribute to the “Green Eggs and Ham” author for his remarkable stories and inspirational quotes.
Here’s how people on social media sites are reacting to Dr. Seuss’ birthday.
Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. -Dr. Seuss
Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Iran.
Tags: addullar antipli, argo, best picture, film criticism, imam antepli, Iran, iran history, iran hostage, islam, islamic revolution, muslim, oscar, roger hollander, stereotype
Roger’s note: Here is another analysis of Argo. I am afraid only the critical minded see the pernicious subtext of this movie. An intelligent and fairly progressive friend said, “what is all the fuss about, it only portrayed what really happened.” One critic I read alluded to the eerie scene where Michelle Obama appears on a huge screen to award the Oscar, comparing it to Big Brother/Sister watching. Chilling.
By Abdullah Antepli | February 26, 2013
Imam Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain at Duke University. He writes a regular column for the Duke Chronicle.
I wonder if I am the only one deeply disturbed and troubled by the recent Hollywood movie, “Argo.” My increasing sense of loneliness and alienation with “Argo” has been fed by the movie’s overrated fame, its undeserved success in the movie theaters and now more painfully by the multiple Oscars that it has won. To me, “Argo” and the response it has created shed light on larger problems that we face in our society, especially in our movie industry. “Argo” demonstrates how out of touch we are with crucial global realities and how disconnected we are from how we come across to the rest of the human family through these kinds of expressions.
I welcomed the news of “Argo” when I first heard of it, hoping that it would help us face one of the ugliest chapters of our recent U.S. history with Iran. I was misled by the initial publicity of the movie and excited to see how the movie would unveil our government’s miserably failed foreign policies prior to the Islamic revolution in 1979. I was eagerly waiting to see how the movie would enable an honest, self-critical assessment of Uncle Sam’s—especially the CIA’s—shameful involvement in the toppling of the democratically-elected government in Iran in the early 1950s and the empowering of a reprehensibly corrupt and oppressive regime in the country for over four decades. More importantly, I hoped the movie would show how, in part, these ethical and moral failures helped the conception and the birth of the so-called 1979 Islamic Revolution that ruined Iranian society.
After giving a puzzlingly brief lip service to my expectations at the beginning of the movie, “Argo” moved on to be another embarrassing “Rambo III” movie in many despicable ways: an innocent, white, Western David beating up ugly, exotic, monstrous oriental Goliaths and emerging as victor despite all odds. It caters to its home audience’s starvation for self-glory and self-serving, happy endings. More troublingly, the movie does all of that by distorting the obvious facts about one of the most important events in our recent history and dehumanizing a rich civilization irresponsibly. Film critic Kevin B. Lee expressed my heartache best when he recently reviewed “Argo” for Slate:
“Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: a cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans.”
“Argo” also disturbingly caters to the biased, post-9-11 image of Islam, Muslims and Middle Easterners and effectively serves to re-assert existing stereotypes. The movie skillfully markets once again the newly found international enemy of Western civilization. The movie describes and pictures the monolithic, black-and-white, pejorative, primitive, archaic, vengeful, unforgiving, irredeemably ignorant and forever dangerous nature of this new and scary enemy.
Since the release of the movie, many of my friends from all over the world, both Middle Eastern and otherwise, expressed their dismay and distaste about “Argo.” Much of what they said can be summarized in the following questions: “Who the heck do these people think they are?” “Who will buy this self-serving, biased and inaccurate propaganda in 2013?” “Do they (the filmmakers) not realize they make fools of themselves? For God’s sake give us a break!”
I also wonder how many Americans watched Argo and asked these kinds of questions. My friends’ rightful frustrations over “Argo” mirror certain realities of us as a society. It is no longer the 1980s, the Reagan days where movies like “Rambo” can fly. This kind of self-glorifying distortion of history can no longer go unnoticed or unpunished. What will it take to wake up from our self-delusions and express ourselves as we are, not what we wish to be? Again, Slate’s Kevin B. Lee puts it perfectly:
“We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this—not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.”
I can’t agree with him more and I fully share his disappointment and deep sense of embarrassment over “Argo.” U.S. society in general and our movie industry in particular have so much to catch up on with modern day realities and global responsibilities. Let’s stop making fools of ourselves.
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Abdullah on Twitter @aantepli.
Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Iran.
Tags: american exceptionalism, argo, ben affleck, best picture, cia, film criticism, iran hostages, iranians, ken taylor, oscar, political movie, roger hollander
Posted by Nima Shirazi
One year ago, after his breathtakingly beautiful Iranian drama, “A Separation,” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, writer/director Asghar Farhadi delivered the best acceptance speech of the night.
“[A]t the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians,” he said, Iran was finally being honored for “her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.” Farhadi dedicated the Oscar “to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”
Such grace and eloquence will surely not be on display this Sunday, when Ben Affleck, flanked by his co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, takes home the evening’s top prize, the Best Picture Oscar, for his critically-acclaimed and heavily decorated paean to the CIA and American innocence, “Argo.”
Over the past 12 months, rarely a week – let alone month – went by without new predictions of an ever-imminent Iranian nuclear weapon and ever-looming threats of an American or Israeli military attack. Come October 2012, into the fray marched “Argo,” a decontextualized, ahistorical “true story” of Orientalist proportion, subjecting audiences to two hours of American victimization and bearded barbarians, culminating in popped champagne corks and rippling stars-and-stripes celebrating our heroism and triumph and their frustration and defeat. Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir aptly described the film as “a propaganda fable,” explaining as others have that essentially none of its edge-of-your-seat thrills or most memorable moments ever happened. O’Hehir sums up:
The Americans never resisted the idea of playing a film crew, which is the source of much agitation in the movie. (In fact, the “house guests” chose that cover story themselves, from a group of three options the CIA had prepared.) They were not almost lynched by a mob of crazy Iranians in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, because they never went there. There was no last-minute cancellation, and then un-cancellation, of the group’s tickets by the Carter administration. (The wife of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor had personally gone to the airport and purchased tickets ahead of time, for three different outbound flights.) The group underwent no interrogation at the airport about their imaginary movie, nor were they detained at the gate while a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard telephoned their phony office back in Burbank. There was no last-second chase on the runway of Mehrabad Airport, with wild-eyed, bearded militants with Kalashnikovs trying to shoot out the tires of a Swissair jet.
One of the actual diplomats, Mark Lijek, noted that the CIA’s fake movie “cover story was never tested and in some ways proved irrelevant to the escape.” The departure of the six Americans from Tehran was actually mundane and uneventful. “If asked, we were going to say we were leaving Iran to return when it was safer,” Lijek recalled, “But no one ever asked!…The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way. We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador’s residence in Berne. It was that straightforward.”
Furthermore, Jimmy Carter has even acknowledged that “90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA…Ben Affleck’s character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.”
Taylor himself recently remarked that “Argo” provides a myopic representation of both Iranians and their revolution, ignoring their “more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn’t just a violent demonstration for nothing.”
“The amusing side, Taylor said, “is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he’s talking about.”
O’Hehir perfectly articulates the film’s true crime, its deliberate exploitation of “its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological.” Not only is it “a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue,” but “[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.”
Such an assessment is confirmed by Ben Affleck’s own comments about the film. In describing “Argo” to Bill O’Reilly, Affleck boasted, “You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it’s a thriller. It’s actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It’s a complicated CIA movie, it’s a political movie. And it’s all true.” He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he “absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story.”
“It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened,” Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo’s BFI London Film Festival premier, “This movie is about this story that took place, and it’s true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we’re taking a cold, hard look at the facts.”
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, “I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that’s another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible — because I didn’t want it to be used by either side. I didn’t want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them.”
For Affleck, these facts apparently don’t include understanding why the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and occupied on November 4, 1979. “There was no rhyme or reason to this action,” Affleck has insisted, claiming that the takeover “wasn’t about us,” that is, the American government (despite the fact that his own film is introduced by a fleeting – though frequently inaccurate1 – review of American complicity in the Shah’s dictatorship).
Wrong, Ben. One reason was the fear of another CIA-engineered coup d’etat like the one perpetrated in 1953 from the very same Embassy. Another reason was the admission of the deposed Shah into the United States for medical treatment and asylum rather than extradition to Iran to face charge and trial for his quarter century of crimes against the Iranian people, bankrolled and supported by the U.S. government. One doesn’t have to agree with the reasons, of course, but they certainly existed.
Just as George H.W. Bush once bellowed after a U.S. Navy warship blew an Iranian passenger airliner out of the sky over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 Iranian civilians, “I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.” Affleck appears inclined to agree.
If nothing else, “Argo” is an exercise in American exceptionalism – perhaps the most dangerous fiction that permeates our entire society and sense of identity. It reinvents history in order to mine a tale of triumph from an unmitigated defeat. The hostage crisis, which lasted 444 days and destroyed an American presidency, was a failure and an embarrassment for Americans. The United States government and media has spent the last three decades tirelessly exacting revenge on Iran for what happened.
“Argo” recasts revolutionary Iranians as the hapless victims of American cunning and deception. White Americans are hunted, harried and, ultimately courageous and free. Iranians are maniacal, menacing and, in the end, infantile and foolish. The fanatical fundamentalists fail while America wins. USA -1, Iran – 0. Yet, “Argo” obscures the unfortunate truth that, as those six diplomats were boarding a plane bound for Switzerland on January 28, 1980, their 52 compatriots would have to wait an entire year before making it home, not as the result of a daring rescue attempt, but after a diplomatic agreement was reached.
Reflecting on the most troubled episodes in American history is a time-honored cinematic tradition. There’s a reason why the best Vietnam movies are full of pain, anger, anguish and war crimes. By contrast, “Argo” is American catharsis porn; pure Hollywood hubris. It is pro-American propaganda devoid of introspection, pathos or humility and meant to assuage our hurt feelings. In “Argo,” no lessons are learned by revisiting the consequences of America’s support for the Pahlavi monarchy or its creation and training of SAVAK, the Shah’s vicious secret police.
On June 11, 1979, months before the hostage crisis began, the New York Times published an article by writer and historian A.J. Langguth which recounted revelations relayed by a former American intelligence official regarding the CIA’s close relationship with SAVAK. The agency had “sent an operative to teach interrogation methods to SAVAK” including “instructions in torture, and the techniques were copied from the Nazis.” Langguth wrestled with the news, trying to figure out why this had not been widely reported in the media. He came to the following conclusion:
We – and I mean we as Americans – don’t believe it. We can read the accusations, even examine the evidence and find it irrefutable. But, in our hearts, we cannot believe that Americans have gone abroad to spread the use of torture.
We can believe that public officials with reputations for brilliance can be arrogant, blind or stupid. Anything but evil. And when the cumulative proof becomes overwhelming that our representatives in the C.I.A. or the Agency for International Development police program did in fact teach torture, we excuse ourselves by vilifying the individual men.
Similarly, at a time when the CIA is waging an illegal, immoral, unregulated and always expanding drone execution program, the previous administration’s CIA kidnappers and torturers are protected from prosecution by the current administration, and leaked State Department cables reveal orders for U.S. diplomats to spy on United Nations officials, it is surreal that such homage is being paid to that very same organization by the so-called liberals of the Tinsel Town elite.
Upon winning his Best Director Golden Globe last month, Ben Affleck obsequiously praised the “clandestine service as well as the foreign service that is making sacrifices on behalf of the American people everyday [and] our troops serving over seas, I want to thank them very much,” a statement echoed almost identically by co-producer Grant Heslov when “Argo” later won Best Drama.
This comes as no surprise, considering Affleck had previously described “Argo” as “a tribute” to the “extraordinary, honorable people at the CIA” during an interview on Fox News.
The relationship between Hollywood and the military and intelligence arms of the U.S. government have long been cozy. “When the CIA or the Pentagon says, ‘We’ll help you, if you play ball with us,’ that’s favoring one form of speech over another. It becomes propaganda,” David Robb, author of “Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies” told The Los Angeles Times. “The danger for filmmakers is that their product — entertainment and information — ends up being government spin.”
Awarding “Argo” the Best Picture Oscar is like Barack Obama winning a Nobel Peace Prize: an undeserved accolade fawningly bestowed upon a dubious recipient based on a transparent fiction; an award for what never was and never would be and a decision so willfully naïve and grotesque it discredits whatever relevance and prestige the proceedings might still have had.*
So this Sunday night, when “Argo” has won that coveted golden statuette, it will be clear that we have yet again been blinded by the heavy dust of politics and our American mantra of hostility and resentment will continue to inform our decisions, dragging us closer and closer to the abyss.
***** ***** *****
* Yes, in this analogy, the equivalent of Henry Kissinger is obviously 2004′s dismal “Crash.”
1 The introduction of “Argo” is a dazzingly sloppy few minutes of caricatured history of Iran, full of Orientalist images of violent ancient Persians (harems and all), which gets many basic facts wrong. In fact, it is shocking this intro made it to release as written and recorded.
Here are some of the problems:
1. The voiceover narration says, “In 1950, the people of Iran elected Mohammad Mossadegh, the secular democrat, Prime Minister. He nationalized British and U.S. petroleum holdings, returning Iran’s oil to its people.”
Mossadegh was elected to the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) in 1944. He did not become Prime Minister until April 1951 and was not “elected by the people of Iran.” Rather, he was appointed to the position by the representatives of the Majlis.
Also, the United States did not have petroleum interests in Iran at the time.
2. After briefly describing the 1953 coup, the narrator says Britain and the United States “installed Reza Pahlavi as Shah.”
Wow. First, the Shah’s name was not Reza Pahlavi. That is his father’s (and son’s) name. Furthermore, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was not installed as Shah since had already been Shah of Iran since September 1941, after Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran and forced the abdication of his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi.
During the coup in 1953, the Shah fled to Baghdad, then Rome. After Mossadegh had been forced out, the Shah returned to the Peacock Throne.
This is not difficult information to come by, and yet the screenwriter and director of “Argo” didn’t bother looking it up. And guess what? Ben Affleck actually majored in Middle East Studies in college. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t graduate.
The rest of the brief intro, while mentioning the torture of SAVAK, glosses over the causes of the revolution, but lingers on the violence that followed. As it ends, the words “Based on a True Story” appear on the screen. The first live action moment we see in “Argo” is of an American flag being burned.
So much for Affleck’s insistence that “Argo” is “not a political movie.”
Still, as Kevin B. Lee wrote in Slate last month, “This opening may very well be the reason why critics have given the film credit for being insightful and progressive—because nothing that follows comes close, and the rest of the movie actually undoes what this opening achieves.”
Instead of keeping its eye on the big picture of revolutionary Iran, the film settles into a retrograde “white Americans in peril” storyline. It recasts those oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde, the same dark-faced demons from countless other movies— still a surefire dramatic device for instilling fear in an American audience. After the opening makes a big fuss about how Iranians were victimized for decades, the film marginalizes them from their own story, shunting them into the role of villains. Yet this irony is overshadowed by a larger one: The heroes of the film, the CIA, helped create this mess in the first place. And their triumph is executed through one more ruse at the expense of the ever-dupable Iranians to cap off three decades of deception and manipulation.
And brilliantly concludes,
Looking at the runaway success of this film, it seems as if critics and audiences alike lack the historical knowledge to recognize a self-serving perversion of an unflattering past, or the cultural acumen to see the utterly ersatz nature of the enterprise: A cast of stock characters and situations, and a series of increasingly contrived narrow escapes from third world mobs who, predictably, are never quite smart enough to catch up with the Americans. We can delight all we like in this cinematic recycling act, but the fact remains that we are no longer living in a world where we can get away with films like this—not if we want to be in a position to deal with a world that is rising to meet us. The movies we endorse need to rise to the occasion of reflecting a new global reality, using a newer set of storytelling tools than this reheated excuse for a historical geopolitical thriller.
February 25, 2013 - On the heels of Oscar Night’s unsurprising coda (made all the more bizarre by the inclusion of Michelle Obama, surrounded by awkward-looking military personnel, presenting the Best Picture to “Argo” from the White House, providing a deeply disturbing governmental imprimatur to the entire proceedings), The Los Angeles Times published a report Monday morning about how “Argo” is being perceived in Iran by Iranians themselves.
The conclusion is clear from the headline: ‘Argo’s’ Oscar gets a thumbs-down in Iran. Journalists Ramin Mostaghim and Patrick J. McDonnell quote several Iranians who have seen the movie, bootlegs of which are widely available, all of whom clearly have a better grasp on, not only the politics, but also the art (or lack thereof) of cinema itself. ”The perception that the film portrayed Iranians uniformly as bearded, violent fanatics rankled many who recall that Iran’s 1979 revolution had both secular and religious roots — and ousted a dictatorial monarch, the shah of Iran, reviled as a corrupt and brutal puppet of Washington,” Mostaghim and McDonnel explain. Here’s what we hear from Iranians themselves:
“I am secular, atheist and not pro-regime but I think the film ‘Argo’ has distorted history and insulted Iranians,” said Hossain, a cafe owner worried about business because of customers’ lack of cash in a sanctions-battered economy. “For me, it wasn’t even a good thriller.”
“I did not enjoy seeing my fellow countrymen and women insulted,” said Farzaneh Haji, an educated homemaker and fan of romantic movies who was 18 at the time of the revolution. “The men then were not all bearded and fanatical. To be anti-American was a fashionable idea among young people across the board. Even non-bearded and U.S.-educated men and women were against American imperialism.”
“As an action film or thriller, the film was good, but it was not believable, especially the way the six Americans escaped from the airport,” said Farshid Farivar, 49, a Hollywood devotee, as he stretched his legs in an office where he does promotional work. “At any rate, it was an average film and did not deserve an Oscar.”
The piece ends with the reporters speaking with Abbas Abdi, one of the revolutionary students who planned the seizure of the American Embassy in 1979 and who spent some time in prison a decade ago for criticisms of the Iranian government:
In a brief telephone interview on Monday, Abdi said the Oscars had plummeted to the feeble level of Iran’s own Fajr Film Festival, not exactly one of the luminaries on the international movie awards circuit.
“The Oscars are now vulgar and have standards as low as our own film festival,” he said. “The Oscars deserve ‘Argo’ and ‘Argo’ deserves the Oscars.”
USA Today also has an Oscar follow-up entitled, “Tourists see a different Iran reality than ‘Argo’ image,” which details the warmth, generosity and hospitality of Iranians experienced by travelers when visiting Iran.