Saturday, February 28, 2009

Notes on the Way

JUST about the only spark of interest generated during one of the most boring Academy Award ceremonies on record were Sean Penn's remarks about equal rights for gays. Penn, a straight man, was apparently convincing enough as a gay man in Gus Van Sant's Milk (1) to win him the Oscar for Best Actor. The guy he was playing in the film was Harvey Milk, a political activist in San Francisco who was what they like to call "openly gay".(2) He was murdered by a gay-hating colleague. A few years ago we were treated to Ang Lee's classically tragic film Brokeback Mountain, which told the story of two gay men (played beautifully by - you guessed it - two straight actors, one of whom was the late Heath Ledger) whose unhappy lives were the result of their having to conceal their gayness or risk being killed. One of them eventually meets this fate, although his official cause of death was an "accident".

Unlike Sean Penn, I am not altogether certain that gay marriage would be a panacea. Civil Rights certainly did not put an end to racism or race discrimination. And women's suffrage decades before gave women the vote but failed to put a dent in sexism and sex discrimination. Gay rights would seem to be little more than the latest in a long line of cudgels our young and shaky democracy takes up every now and then with which to beat itself into a just and fair society.

Where custom is lacking, only the law, apparently, can protect people from the more blatant forms of intolerance. And even if gay marriage is a legal issue rather than a moral one, a fact of which the defenders of the "sanctity of marriage" are oblivious, it does not obscure the obvious inability of Americans to accept diversity and common civility unless they are compelled to do so.

Somehow in the Philippines, probably having to do with cultural standards, gays - or baklas as they are popularly, if stereotypically, called - are both more open with their differences and more accepted, perhaps, because of it. Gay women, known as tomboys, are less prevalent (at least to my foreign eyes) but no less accepted. Philippine society is relatively straight-laced, but the presence of effeminate men in popular entertainment (films, television comedies and dramas, reality shows and game shows) is a kind of acceptance. Gay marriage, in a Catholic country in which divorce is still illegal, is a fairly dim prospect. But there is at least a rock bottom understanding that prohibitions are useless and that merely opposing a personal difference will never stop it or make it go away.

(1) Van Sant has made one film - Gerry (2002) that has interested me. The rest are terribly arch or silly or both.
(2) George Carlin made nonsense of this stupid terminology when he swapped it with the equally stupid "happens to be", as in "he happens to be black", viz: "Colin Powell is openly white, but happens to be black".

IN other Oscar news, everyone is hailing Slumdog Millionaire as a triumph for "Bollywood". The only Indian to win an award for the film was the composer of the film's musical score. All the other awards went to Englishmen. Exploitation?

THE United States government has at long last (sixty-four years late) recognized the service that thousands of Filipinos did to the American war effort in World War II, fighting with American forces for the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation. A small episode in that liberation was recently dramatized in the painstakingly factual and utterly lifeless film The Great Raid (2005). The U.S. government's recognition includes monetary compensation, a lump sum of $9,000 (420,000 pesos). However that curious number was arrived at, I am certainly not alone in the Philippines in saying it is far too little and far too late.

Just watching the sad parade of old men walking or, in many cases, being wheeled, into the U.S. Veterans Affairs stations to file their claims, some of them wearing their medals and the Veterans of Foreign Wars hats, gets me steamed at my government. Already, I hear, there are thieves descending on some of the unwary to "help" them file their claims and collect their checks. President Arroyo announced that her government will assist in the processing of claims. However pure her intentions may be, I think that this is a matter that the U.S. Embassy and Veterans Affairs should handle by themselves. It is the very least they can do for these heroes.

IN 1955, a film was released called Marcelino pan y vino, about a little boy adopted by Catholic monks who discovers a life-sized crucifix in an attic and has conversations with Jesus. I saw the film when I was attending parochial school in South Carolina, and I was profoundly disturbed when Jesus found it necessary to take the little boy with him back to heaven. Not to be outdone, the Philippine TV network, ABS-CBN is currently airing a series called May Bukas Pa during prime time in which a little boy adopted by Catholic monks discovers a statue of Jesus on the monastery grounds and has conversations with Him. The boy even calls Jesus "Bro". In the 1955 film, we never actually see the Savior or hear His voice. In the Filipino series, we see a very white-skinned Jesus, his face discreetly averted from the camera, and hear his conversations with the boy. The boy is also equipped with miraculous healing powers, which brings the monastery alot of unwelcome publicity and trouble. I only hope the series will follow the example of the film and allow Jesus to take the little tike with Him back to heaven, where he obviously belongs.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

As He Pleased

From 3 December 1943 until 4 April 1947, George Orwell contributed a weekly column called As I Please to the Tribune newspaper. He was allowed ample space to comment on, as you can guess, whatever he wished. His column appeared in eight editions of the paper and shortly before his abrupt departure from the post - to enter a hospital in Glasgow - he wrote a summation of his relationship with Tribune, which had gone through a few changes since the end of the war and the election of a Labour government in England, in a column he called "As I Pleased." On a cheerily optimistic note, he wrote: "I hope that in 1957 I shall be writing another anniversary article." He was writing, of course, as much about his own survival as the paper's.

This is from his thirteenth column, published on 25 March 1944:

Looking through Chesterton's introduction to Hard Times in the Everyman Edition. I note the typically sweeping statement: 'There are no new ideas.' Chesterton is here claiming that the ideas which animated the French Revolution were not new ones but simply a revival of doctrines which had flourished earlier and then been abandoned. But the claim that 'there is nothing new under the sun' is one of the stock arguments of intelligent reactionaries.* Catholic apologists, in particular, use it almost automatically. Everything that you can say or think has been said or thought before. Every political theory from Liberalism to Trotskyism can be shown to be a development of some heresy in the early Church. Every system of philosophy springs ultimately from the Greeks. Every scientific theory (if we are to believe the popular Catholic press) was anticipated by Roger Bacon and others in the thirteenth century. Some Hindu thinkers go even further and claim that not merely the scientific theories, but the products of applied science as well, aeroplanes, radio and the whole bag of tricks, were known to the ancient Hindus, who afterwards dropped them as being unworthy of their attention.

It is not very difficult to see that this idea is rooted in the fear of progress. If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar. At any rate what will never come - since it has never come before - is that hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings. Particularly comforting to reactionary thinkers is the idea of a cyclical universe, in which the same chain of events happens over and over again. In such a universe every seeming advance towards democracy simply means that the coming age of tyranny and privilege is a bit nearer. This belief, obviously superstitious though it is, is widely held nowadays, and is common among Fascists and near-Fascists.

In fact, there are new ideas. The idea that an advanced civilization need not rest on slavery is a relatively new idea, for instance: it is a good deal younger than the Christian religion. But even if Chesterton's dictum were true, it would only be true in the sense that a statue is contained in every block of stone. Ideas may not change, but emphasis shifts constantly. It could be claimed, for example, that the most important part of Marx's theory is contained in the saying: 'Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.' But before Marx developed it, what force had that saying had? Who had paid any attention to it? Who had inferred from it - what it certainly implies - that laws, religious and moral codes are all a superstructure built over existing property relations? It was Christ, according to the Gospel, who uttered the text, but it was Marx who brought it to life. And ever since he did so the motives of politicians, priests, judges, moralists and millionaires have been under the deepest scrutiny - which, of course, is why they hate him so much.

* "Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us." Ecclesiastes, 1:10

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Des Moines of the Soul

For so many reasons, film is sometimes not worth taking seriously. Some of the finest minds of the 20th century never did, despite occasional proof that it was worthy of their attention. Nearly as bad as the vast majority of films themselves is the abysmal level of film commentary, which would be hilarious if it were not so disheartening. Hollywood, chosen by some of the medium's earliest entrepreneurs for its invariably sunny climate, bears much of the blame. With unintended sarcasm, D.W. Griffith summed up the place that he helped to create, an industrial assembly-line of hoary ideas, as "a Detroit of the mind."

Every year since 1928, AMPAS - the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - bestows its imprimatur on what its members consider to be the best work of the year within the reach of the industry. And, just as diligently, the annual denunciations of the Oscars provide a shrill accompaniment to the award ceremony, which is now seen live around the world in some places that never saw and will likely never see most of the films under consideration. That a family living somewhere along the Mekong or the Amazon may be gathered around their TV set to see if Mickey Rourke will win for Best Actor is both a wondrous and an incredibly sad gauge of Hollywood's grip on the world's imagination. But, every year, against odds that seem insurmountable, a handful of films are made in some of those distant places, like Sri Lanka or Chad or right here in the Philippines, that represent the most powerful rebuke to everything that Hollywood and its Institute for Self-Congratulation stands for. And if the Academy recognizes one of those films at all, it is under the rubric "best film in a foreign language," which is nothing but Hollywood's admission that these films are from another realm and not at all in the same line of work.

I am by no means enchanted with the Oscars. But the worst one can say about them is that their criteria for competitive eligibility are far too narrow and arbitrary for their choices to be considered authoritative in any realistic sense. But the people who are most vocal in their opposition to the Oscars are guilty of passing critical judgements that are at least as absurd as those made by the Academy. The Golden Globes has committed at least as many gaffes in their history, as has the New York Film Critics Circle. Sight and Sound, a film journal operated by the British Film Institute, published a critics' poll in 2002 of the Ten Best Films that includes at least five turkeys.* So if the Oscars simply want to keep their money and their honors in the family, why shouldn't they? The only people who have any right to object are the sheep who pay the overinflated price of admission to a Hollywood movie. It is, after all, their money Hollywood will be throwing around on Sunday night. The ceremony will be broadcast live via satellite on Monday morning here. And I will be watching with the same grim sense of duty with which an opponent of the death penalty watches an execution.

*It was also the first of the six polls conducted every ten years since 1952 to restrict its choice of foreign films to - ridiculously - just four.

Friday, February 20, 2009


One of the more agreeable constants of my abbreviated life here in the Philippines has been my electric fan.* It is not just the coolness it provides on which I have become dependent. At night its constant hum drowns out the incidental noises of the barangay I have been living in these past several months - dogs who think they are fulfilling their function by barking at shadows, the occasional trundle of buses on the highway some distance from my house, or roosters momentarily confusing a shining light bulb with the morning sun. Because the quiet is so deep here in the sticks, these little noises are enough to wake me. But my electric fan neutralizes them all.

Sometimes, however, I am deprived of this coolness and hum by what the locals call, in English, a brownout - an unannounced interruption of electrical power. A brownout is technically defined as a "scheduled" blackout. But scheduled or not, the distinction is quite meaningless if one has not heard the announcement of the power outtage, which is made on this particular island either on the local radio station or on a loudspeaker mounted on a truck owned by the power cooperative and driven around the port city, informing the lucky few who happen to be in town to hear it of the impending blackout.

This is by no means a local phenomenon. It is a problem that is endemic to the entire country, from the heart of Metro Manila to the farthest atoll. These brownouts can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. The shorter brownouts are spent rummaging for batteries and candles, and for the deck of cards that is customarily used to help while away the brownout. During the longer brownouts, one watches helplessly as the refigerator defrosts of its own volition and as perishables slowly perish. And if one has not fully charged one's cellphone, texts and calls will have to kept to a minimum to spare the battery.

There are some who are unaffected by brownouts either because they somehow manage to live without electricity (there are some in my own barangay) or because they have gone to the trouble of acquiring generators. Resort hotels, restaurants and clubs all ensure that tourists, in whose countries brownouts simply do not exist, should never notice the interruption of power. The ordinary Filipino, sans generator, is not so lucky.

The president and CEO of Meralco, which powers Manila, promised in TV ads last Christmas fewer brownouts in 2009. His promise was worth about as much as a smile from a whore. I live a considerable distance from Manila and I have been assured by another expat who has lived here for several years that the power supply is actually rather more dependable here than in many other parts of the archipelago. And yet there were eight brownouts in January and so far this month there have been eleven. One would think that the electric cooperative is bracing itself for the upcoming typhoon season. In fact, these untimely and exasperating brownouts are a kind of dry run, designed to give the residents of this island an ominous foretaste of the powerlessness to come. And global warming, whether one believes in it or not, is promising a rising sea level and more numerous and fiercer tropical cyclones in the future.

*Incidentally manufactured by a company called Mitsuno.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No More Words

I am always, it seems, so far behind the curve that news of significant events can sometimes elude me for days or even weeks. This is partly by design when one is living, as I am, in self-imposed exile. But it can be aggravating. When I was living here in the Philippines in 1995, I heard about the Oklahoma City bombing at a friend-of-a-friend's birthday party three days after the event. So it did not surprise me, however much it grieved me, to find out on Valentine's Day that John Updike had died on January 27.

Most of the people who marked his passing in print knew him for his novels, which he turned to after becoming celebrated for his short stories. I first encountered his writing in the short form and I must have read every one of his story collections one after another in my middle twenties. I found his first novel, Of the Farm, a comedown from his stories. He got better at novel-writing, but I was never attracted to them. He was much like John Cheever, another great American short story writer and fellow contributor to The New Yorker, to whom Updike was a kind of spiritual successor.

But because writing was as much of an avocation as a vocation for him, he was sometimes guilty of writing too much, of turning his beautifully turned voice, which I would liken to John Gielgud's sonorous speaking voice, to subjects that were clearly beneath him. His essay collections are a disappointing grab bag of sometimes serious, but too often frivolous opinions and arguments. And because he could not seem to avoid striking beautiful poses, some of his more sincere professions of taste were unconvincing. He wrote poetry, which was dutifully published, even if it showed more intelligence than poetic talent.

Increasingly, as he grew older, he used his novels to explore an American scene that, as always, cried out for a literary intelligence to chronicle. But for all the substantial gifts that he lavished on them, and for all that the era, which is also my own era, needed and deserved his loving attention in prose, I feel certain that it will be his stories to which readers will return, time and again, as long as English is still a living language. He was easily one of the finest American writers of the latter half of the 20th century, like Bellow and Roth. I am only sorry that I did not discover him at an age when he could have meant so much more to me.

Monday, February 9, 2009



`What sound awakened me, I wonder,
For now 'tis dumb.'
`Wheels on the road most like, or thunder:
Lie down; 'twas not the drum.'

Toil at sea and two in haven
And trouble far;
Fly, crow, away, and follow, raven,
And all that croaks for war.

`Hark, I heard the bugle crying,
And where am I?
My friends are up and dressed and dying,
And I will dress and die.'

`Oh love is rare and trouble plenty
And carrion cheap,
And daylight dear at four-and-twenty:
Lie down again and sleep.'

`Reach me my belt and leave your prattle:
Your hour is gone;
But my day is the day of battle,
And that comes dawning on.

`They mow the field of man in season:
Farewell, my fair,
And, call it truth or call it treason,
Farewell the vows that were.'

`Ay, false heart, forsake me lightly:
'Tis like the brave.
They find no bed to joy in rightly
Before they find the grave.

`Their love is for their own undoing,
And east and west
They scour about the world a-wooing
The bullet to their breast.

`Sail away the ocean over,
Oh sail away,
And lie there with your leaden lover
For ever and a day.'

-A.E. Housman

Someone I knew in the Navy, who is now retired, sent me one of those emails that are eventually circulated throughout what is known as the military community. It related how, at the Pentagon, an unusual ritual was begun a few years into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Friday afternoons, just before everyone quits work for the weekend, a soldier or marine who has come back from action with one leg, or both, missing, or with some disfigurement from an IED, hostile or friendly fire, is escorted past the offices in the Pentagon. The escort pushes his wheelchair, and the generals and the strategists come out of their offices to watch him and applaud as he passes by. The email closes on the noise of the applause rising to a crescendo. . . .

A startling picture. Quite frankly, I found the story, true or invented, repulsive. And my repulsion increased when I expressed it to some fellow veterans on an online message board. I was met with some quite hostile responses. When I wondered aloud to them that it should be coffins wheeled through the Pentagon, one of them suggested that perhaps it should be my coffin.

The story was repulsive to me because what it failed to point out was that the wounded soldier or marine was most likely somewhere between 18 and 25 years of age, and that the people who applauded him, with his missing limbs, were middle aged or old men. But what further repulsed me was the assumption that. as a military veteran, I should have been delighted by the story, that it should have filled me with some sort of pride and that something much deeper, like patriotism (assuming that patriotism is something deep within oneself), should have come to the fore.

So what was so objectionable about the story and why did those other veterans get so hostile when I objected to it? What are commonly known as military virtues, and are now being called core values, include such things as loyalty, or what the marines use as their motto, semper fi - semper fidelis (always faithful). This carries the implication, which is a kind of promise in the military, that one's service in never-ending, that once a serviceman, always a serviceman.

As a disabled veteran, I suppose I am particularly obliged to be loyal to the service and to my country. The trouble with this notion is that it takes into account all of the terms of my oath of service except one - that it is limited to the length of the term itself. If this were not the case, I would not have had to take the oath four times during my eleven-and-a-half years of service. Eric Hoffer wrote that "pensions are pay for the work we keep on doing in our dreams after we retire." But no matter how often I may dream of re-enlisting, which I still do every now and then, I am by now hopelessly unfit for duty.

When I was in the service, I bore some resentment towards civilians because they were oblivious of the values by which I was obliged to live. But, I must admit, I was also a little envious of them. But therein lies the whole point: they were free to be oblivious of the military virtues because my service was making it possible for them to do so. And now that I am a civilian, enjoying civilian virtues, I can be sympathetic to those on active duty without either envying or pitying them. It is, after all, their continued service that makes my freedom to think and to speak as I please - and be repulsed by the story in that email - possible.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Cry in the Dark

[An old (2001) Senses of Cinema piece that I felt needed resurrection. The file is certainly one of the greatest illustrations of the fallibility of justice even in a relatively civil country. Fred Schepisi never quite convinced me that he should ever have left Australia. I liked Barbarosa (1982) and Plenty (1985), but his best films - The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and the one discussed below - were, like him, all Australian.]

A Cry in the Dark (1)

"A lie goes 'round the world while the truth's still putting its boots on."

"I don't think a lot of people realise how important innocence is to innocent people."

A Cry in the Dark was released in Australia November 4, 1988, less than two months after Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were exonerated by a Northern Territories Court of Appeals of all charges in connection with the disappearance of their daughter Azaria near Ayers Rock eight years prior. Fred Schepisi, the film's director and co-author of the screen adaptation of John Bryson's book Evil Angels, was in at least as quick a "rush to justice" as the Australian media had been when Lindy was tried and convicted by a Northern Territory court of the murder of Azaria in 1982. Countering the anti-Lindy sentiment that prevailed among the Australian public and media at the time of the Court of Appeals acquittal, Schepisi attempts in his film to "set the record straight". That his artistry reigned over his resentment toward the media and its distortion of the facts ensured A Cry in the Dark never descends into dogmatic preachiness. The evidence against Lindy Chamberlain was flimsy, supported by dubious "scientific" evidence. Nevertheless, the Northern Territory court, along with the far more ruthless Court of Public Opinion, didn't like Lindy's tough, almost defiant testimony and sentenced her to a life sentence of hard labor, despite her being eight months pregnant.

A bit of the baby's clothing, called a matinee-jacket, wasn't found until a tourist discovered a badly decomposed body at the base of Ayers Rock - that of a man who had fallen from the rock and had been partially eaten by dingoes. Nearby, 150 meters from where the rest of the baby's clothing had been found six years earlier, a game warden found the matinee-jacket, buried in a dingo lair. Lindy had frequently mentioned the matinee jacket in her testimony. Its discovery on February 2, 1986 - the one bit of direct evidence yet produced by either side - forced the courts to release Lindy "on compassionate grounds" just five days later.

The Chamberlains were Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian religion whose only exceptional beliefs are in the imminence of Christ's Second Coming and an observance of the Sabbath on Saturday. In 1980, however, just two years after the "Jonestown Massacre" in Guiana, South America, in which over 900 cultists committed mass suicide at the order of their leader, Jim Jones, many Australians viewed Seventh Day Adventists as a sort of religious cult, replete with apocalyptic prophesies as well as sacrificial plots. Much was read into the supposed meaning of the name "Azaria," such as "sacrificed in the wilderness." Lurid tabloid stories even portrayed Lindy as a witch and her fellow Adventists as devil-worshippers.

The dingo, one of Australia's many indigenous animals, is also, like the kangaroo, something of a national mascot. When Lindy Chamberlain claimed that a dingo had made off with her baby (the phrase made famous by the film's ads: "That dingo's got my baby!"), many Australians felt it as a personal affront. Legal arguments were presented questioning the ability of a dingo - the size of a spaniel - to carry a 10-pound baby in its jaws. Such an accusation also threatened the tourist trade: warning signs, which prohibited the feeding of dingoes, would now have to include warnings to keep children at a safe distance.

Media interest in the Chamberlain case was unprecedented, and television cameras were allowed in the courtroom to cover the murder trial in 1982. The presiding judge's advice to the jury was careful to warn them against being swayed by the storm of gossip raging outside the courtroom, despite the fact that jury members were screened to prevent bias and sequestered for the duration of the trial. But the media had already eliminated Lindy's chance for a fair trial. Journalism, which has a proud tradition, has long since degenerated from accounts of "what happened" into "what the butler said happened." Truth itself has become a matter of opinion. And lies have become so ubiquitous that many people mistake them for the truth. The Chamberlains were not only victims of a flagrant misprision of justice, which Lindy's release from jail did something, however small, to redress, they were condemned just as ruthlessly by the public.

Although he presents the facts of the case, Schepisi makes it clear to us whose side he's on. One of the controversies in the case was that Lindy was the only person who saw the dingo in the tent at the campsite, which supposedly carried Azaria off into the night. Schepisi staged the scene of Azaria's disappearance very carefully, using eyewitness accounts. But when Michael Chamberlain hears the baby's cry a few meters from the tent and Lindy walks back to see what's wrong, Schepisi shows us what Lindy saw - the dingo, both inside the tent and carrying off something in its mouth. So, Lindy was not the only one who saw it. We saw it, too.

The media are presented by Schepisi for what they are - cynical mediocrities whose only moral law is "what sells is good." The predicament raised by A Cry in the Dark is not simply that we are dupes of the media, accepting their sneering half-truths and boldface lies as actuality, but that the truth is only as perfect or imperfect as the media which supposedly serves it. Self-fulfilling prophecies have replaced the truth when newspapers and television compete for a "market share" rather than narrating the news - not distorting information, but manufacturing it.

The acting in A Cry in the Dark is excellent. Meryl Streep, bad hair and all, manages to bring off another of her transformations - this time as a middle-class Australian. Though her accent sounds a little broader than everyone else's (to my American ears), she makes Lindy Chamberlain into a vital, powerful human presence (part of the real Lindy's problem during cross-examination). Lindy was tried and convicted of her daughter's murder, suffered imprisonment while pregnant, had to deliver her baby in jail, and was given a whole hour to hold her newborn daughter before she was taken from her. And yet, it was obvious which of the Chamberlains was the stronger, since no one seems to suffer more than Michael, her husband. Sam Neill convincingly shows us something of the spiritual travail that Michael Chamberlain had to undergo during his family's ordeal. Michael is driven to doubt his faith, even ascribing the capricious swings in public opinion to the Almighty. He is puzzled by what happens to him because he cannot understand why God would let it happen. Like a latter-day Job, Neill shows us an unwitting victim of fate, replete with sackcloth and ashes. And dozens of other actors use their brief time on screen to demonstrate the depth of feeling the Chamberlain case provoked in Australians, whether as protagonists or antagonists or simply as concerned onlookers.

Schepisi makes much of the average Australian's point of view. (In virtually every scene involving a gossiping Australian, there's a beer in somebody's hand.) On what A Cry in the Dark says about Australians, I, an American, am in no position to comment. What it says about us all is both chilling and enraging. Still, after the media frenzy which the film presents in all its disgusting verity, and the quite fickle surge and subsidence of public interest in the case, what the film will forever remind us of is borne out in its very title: one peaceful night in Australia's boundless outback, a ten-month-old baby girl was killed by a dingo.

Postscript: In 1992, the Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal awarded the Chamberlains $1.3 million in compensation. Lindy and Michael have since divorced.

(1) The film was released in Australia under the title Evil Angels.
(2) Cliff Murchison (Brian James) to Lindy when they learn that a rumor of Michael's arrest made it all the way to New Zealand.
(3) Michael Chamberlain (Sam Neill) speaking to the press at the end of the film.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The End of the Beginning

Whatever your political leanings, the rise and fall of communism in 20th century Russia is a fascinating subject. So many historical forces were aligned against it from the very beginning, from within and without, that its survival for seventy years is astonishing. Perhaps Lenin himself would have doubted the survival of the State he helped to create when he died a little more than six years after the revolution. (1) The two principal players who were left, Stalin and Trotsky, fought, or at least believed they were fighting, for the "soul" of the revolution. But the power struggle that followed, culminating in Trotsky's exile from Russia in 1929, have favored Trotsky's legacy only because he lost to Stalin. In an epigram quoted in Isaac Deutscher's great biography of Trotsky, he summed up his fate: "Of Christ's twelve Apostles Judas alone proved to be traitor. But if he had acquired power, he would have represented the other eleven Apostles as traitors and also all the lesser Apostles whom Luke numbers as seventy." Power was to be the ultimate undoing of Stalin, whose abuses snuffed out what was left of Bolzhevism in Russia and elsewhere, as Trotsky's assassination in Mexico in 1940 seemed to demonstrate. In college I wrote a poem for Sergei Eisenstein, a legendary filmmaker who was among those whom Stalin put under such rigid creative limitations that his last film, Ivan the Terrible, had become an obvious allusion to Uncle Joe, and was consequently butchered and suppressed. Eisenstein died at the unripe age of fifty - my age. The first part of the poem went like this:

In your fleabag communist cubbyhole
Where the rat shit belongs to the state
You lie on your cot and rot.
While Stalin snores
With his Trotskyite whores
And dreams of the Marxist he's not.

The following paragraph from Deutscher's biography encapsulates the principal reasons that the communist revolutions in Russia and China became corrupted. (2)

Socialist revolution made its first, immense conquests not in the advanced West but in the backward East, in countries where not the industrial workers but the peasants predominated. Its immediate task was not to establish socialism but to initiate 'primitive socialist accumulation'. In the classical Marxist scheme of things revolution was to occur when the productive forces of the old society had so outgrown its property relations as to burst the old social framework; the revolution was to create new property relations and the new framework for fully grown, advanced, and dynamic productive forces. What happened in fact was that the revolution created the most advanced forms of social organization for the most backward of economies; it set up frameworks of social ownership and planning around underdeveloped and archaic productive forces, and partly around a vacuum. The theoretical Marxist conception of the revolution was thereby turned upside down. The new 'productive relations' being above the existing productive forces were also above the understanding of the great majority of the people; and so the revolutionary government defended and developed them against the will of the majority. Bureaucratic despotism took the place of Soviet democracy. The State, far from withering away, assumed unprecedented, ferocious power. The conflict between the Marxist norm and the reality of revolution came to permeate all the thinking and activity of the ruling party. Stalinism sought to overcome the conflict by perverting or discarding the norm. Trotskyism attempted to preserve the norm or to strike a temporary balance between the norm and reality until revolution in the West resolved the conflict and restored harmony between theory and practice. The failures of revolution in the West were epitomized in Trotsky's defeat.

(1) Trotsky always claimed, from personal knowledge, that Stalin had poisoned Lenin.
(2) Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940 (London: Verso, 2003)