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Best Leftist Films

[ 222 ] May 6, 2015 |


I just watched Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer and was blown away by it. One of my favorite leftist films. Then I wondered what the best leftist films are. I brought this up on Twitter today and thought it would be a good conversation here.

What are the best leftist movies? These come in 2 basic forms I think, which are films that display left activism and films that analyze left activism from a perspective that is basically sympathetic. Obviously people are going to define what makes a leftist film differently, which we can argue about.

Anyway, here are 20 I like a lot, more or less in order.

1. The Battle of Algiers
2. The Organizer
3. Modern Times
4. The Battleship Potemkin
5. The Grapes of Wrath
6. A Generation
7. Z
8. Man of Marble
9. I Am Cuba
10. Matewan
11. Punishment Park
12. The Baader Meinhof Complex
13. The End of St. Petersburg
14. Que Viva Mexico
15. Grin Without a Cat
16. The Times of Harvey Milk
17. The Decline of the American Empire
18. The China Syndrome
19. Norma Rae
20. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks

Interestingly, when I think of the greatest leftist directors, Ken Loach is one of the first to come up. But his most overtly political films are often his worst (that terrible SEIU Justice for Janitors film with Adrien Brody) while his relatively apolitical portrayals of the English working class are his most powerful (Sweet Sixteen, Throwing Stones, etc).

What am I leaving out?


Pedestrian Malls

[ 115 ] May 6, 2015 |


I think the general LGM consensus on urban planning is pretty similar to many progressives today, which is that cars are mostly bad for cities and walking is mostly good for them. But this piece and video on the disaster that is Fresno’s pedestrian mall and how tearing it up and allowing some auto access might be a good idea rings true to me. That’s because I remember Eugene’s pedestrian mall which turned downtown into a no man’s land except for skaters, junkies, and the homeless all the way from when I remember the city as a small child until I left after I graduated from college in 1996. Some years later, the city tore up the mall, allowed auto traffic, and downtown exploded into a hub of activity that shocks me every time I visit. I don’t know why precisely it worked, but it surely did work. So there may well be times where introducing cars might help a dead downtown revitalize. Obviously that’s not the same as turning everything into a Dallas suburb, but I think the relationship between cars and downtown is complex.

The Serious Candidate

[ 82 ] May 6, 2015 |


Lindsey Graham is a very smart man:

“Everything that starts with ‘Al’ in the Middle East is bad news,” Graham said at a dinner in Boston on Monday with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, according to investigative journalist Uri Blau.

Graham was referencing the Arabic word for “the.”

“Al-Qaida, Al-Nusra, Al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula,” he continued. He went on to discuss U.S. relations with Israel and the Arab world, threatening the funding of the United Nations if it “marginalized” Israel.

Graham has been considering a presidential run, and recently laughed while saying that he has so much pro-Israel funding that he would assemble an “all-Jewish cabinet.”

“If I put together a finance team that will make me financially competitive enough to stay in this thing…I may have the first all-Jewish cabinet in America because of the pro-Israel funding,” Graham reportedly said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

To be fair, open fealty to the whims of Benjamin Netanyahu might actually win one the Republican nomination in 2016.

Liberation Theology and the KGB

[ 11 ] May 6, 2015 |


I’m sure the KGB would like to take credit for liberation theology, planning the world’s rebellions against capitalist exploitation from the Kremlin, but no one should take the claim of an ex-KGB agent on this issue seriously at all. Liberation theology is a complex movement that had many roots, including the deep injustices faced by the workers and peasants of Latin America who were revolting against imperialist oppression before the KGB was a gleam in Stalin’s eye. I’m sure the KGB supported liberation theology but to claim it created it even more spurious that the American side of the Cold War saying Reagan defeated communism.

Book Review: Jason Scott Smith, A Concise History of the New Deal

[ 11 ] May 6, 2015 |


Cheyenne women with mattresses they made, Federal Emergency Relief Administration project, 1940

I was a bit skeptical about reviewing Jason Scott Smith’s new overview of the New Deal because it is part of a series edited by Donald Critchlow, noted paid hack of the Koch Brothers and man who has claimed that any history that discusses race is “revisionist” and bad because it takes away talking about how awesome America is. But the book is published by Cambridge University Press and those standards apply regardless of editor, which is good because Smith has written a solid overview useful for most readers.

The most important thing about this book is how Smith positions himself within the mythology around the New Deal. For a long time, people criticized the New Deal from the left, asking why it was so tame and moderate in a time of leftism. “Did FDR undermine the potential for workers to take over the state through his corporatist policies” might be a leftist view of the New Deal. But those days are long gone in the national discourse. Rather, Smith sees his book as responding to the conservative attacks on the New Deal that perhaps dominate narratives of the period today. He attempts, convincingly of course since the original claim is absurd, to repudiate those who claim that New Deal were “radicals who were deeply opposed to capitalism or the vitality of the market economy.” Rather, they were “reformers who were deeply interested in fixing the problems of capitalism” (2). To me this thesis is so obvious as to be self-evident. But for a book written primarily for the classroom rather than scholars, that thesis is not so obvious. Certainly I run into students who know nothing about the New Deal except that FDR was an awful socialist who got in the way of American corporations running the economy in the natural laissez-faire ways they believe in like a religion. Since there’s a whole right-wing machine pushing this propaganda out, it’s probably more important to correct myths about the New Deal being a crazy leftist program rather than that it undermined real leftists, as it might have the argument 40 years ago.

Sad times, but there we are.

As for the heart of the book, largely it’s a fairly standard overview of the period that is useful for the general reader, while also providing a valuable addition to the surveys of the New Deal for scholars. Smith compares the Great Depression to Hurricane Katrina in that both are perfect storms of a series of factors leading to a true disaster: in the case of the Depression, “a combination of horrifically bad timing, the outcome of dimly understood economic changes and partially perceived structural changes, and the product of poor decision-making by American elites in government and business.” (15) Herbert Hoover has good intentions, but his voluntarist ideas during the Depression are “a dead and rotting ideology.” (24) Yet the early New Deal built on many of Hoover’s programs and attempted to shore up capitalism without creating enormous structural changes in society that FDR was uncomfortable with until 1935. It wouldn’t be until after the 1934 elections that using government to fundamentally reshape society would become a key part of the New Deal, a move created not only by the Democrats’ overwhelming victories in those elections but the strikes of earlier that year and the failure of the National Recovery Administration to right the lurching ship of American capitalism because it concentrated power too much in the largest firms and did nothing concrete for workers.

Smith strongly urges readers to see the New Deal as much as a political campaign as an economic program. The personal appeal of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were “a foundational component of the New Deal electoral coalition.” (66) Roosevelt and his advisers openly sought to use New Deal patronage to build the Democratic Party. WPA projects were intended to promote Roosevelt’s preferred politicians, both in primaries and general elections. Western states particularly benefited from public works projects because they were swing states as opposed to the old post-Reconstruction electoral map that still held through the early 20th century in much of the country. While court-packing was a major reason for the conservative reversal of the New Deal after 1938, as was the leftward tilt of the New Deal after 1935 that scared the South, the clear relationship between politics and public works projects also went far to alienate many, especially those not favored by Roosevelt.

The book is almost entirely political in nature, which is OK except that the “society and culture” chapter becomes something of a catch all for everything from the CIO and John Steinbeck to how liberals marginalized non-whites from the period’s populist cultural forms and the forced repatriation of Mexicans, including American citizens of Mexican descent. Such a chapter is a natural result of a book focused on politics and government, but one ideally wishes he had integrated these topics into other chapters rather than the standalone chapters that never quite mesh with the rest of a book.

Ultimately, the New Deal not only saved American capitalism but also shaped the postwar world in ways that include the creation of the middle class, the rise of the Sunbelt, and the creation of the nuclear state. It also helped build up the military before World War II, as both FDR and George Marshall saw the need for preparedness and viewed WPA projects as a way to build that infrastructure. Marshall routinely lauded the WPA in the press, giving it room to grow in a period of backlash to the overall New Deal. Smith closes the book by reiterating his major point–unlike what conservatives claim, government can and does create jobs, stimulate the economy, and improve the lives of everyday Americans. It’s sad we have to rescue these obvious points from right-wing mythology in 2015.

Finally, in an important bit of trivia to my life, Philadelphia was granted a new professional football franchise in 1933 after its previous team had gone bankrupt. It was named the Philadelphia Eagles after the blue eagle of the NRA because the New Deal was so popular. I did not know this.

Tex Logan, RIP

[ 3 ] May 5, 2015 |

I had no idea that Tex Logan, noted fiddler for Bill Monroe, was also an engineer who worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Dead at 87.

Frack, Frack Away!

[ 12 ] May 5, 2015 |


I’m sure that plunging ahead with fracking will have no unintended consequences or deleterious effects on the environment. Going forward with the procedure without proper testing, oversight, or regulation is a brilliant idea.

A study released Monday on a rural Pennsylvania county’s drinking water found traces of toxic fluids used in the controversial oil and gas drilling technique, fracking. The study, published in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles head on the fear that fracking could contaminate the water supply. “‘This is the first documented and published demonstration of toxic compounds escaping from uncased boreholes in shale gas wells and moving long distances’ into drinking water,” Susan Brantley, one of the study’s authors, told the Associated Press.

The researchers collected drinking water samples in 2012 that contained traces of a chemical commonly used in fracking, as well as in paint, cosmetics, and cleaners. “The industry has long maintained that because fracking occurs thousands of feet below drinking-water aquifers, the drilling chemicals that are injected to break up rocks and release the gas trapped there pose no risk,” according to the New York Times. “In this study, the researchers note that the contamination may have stemmed from a lack of integrity in the drill wells and not from the actual fracking process far below.”

Of course, defenders of fracking will cling to the uncertainty expressed by the researchers as to precisely how these chemicals got in the water supply. On one level, that’s fine because the question clearly calls for additional research. That’s what scientific research does. But on the other hand, the very people who might say that are also those absolutely don’t want to see any restrictions on fracking no matter what scientific research says, such as the overwhelming evidence that fracking causes earthquakes. Scientific research should not be a one-way street, but in a nation that both fetishizes technology and capitalists and in a nation that needs jobs and has not put nearly enough resources into non-fossil fuel energy, it’s hardly surprising.

Reconsidering The Wire

[ 206 ] May 5, 2015 |

Freddie Gray Protest in Baltimore

Dave Zirin has an excellent essay about reconsidering The Wire in the wake of the police murdering Freddie Gray. And he’s right–one thing missing from the show is how the police are actively part of the oppression of the poor and African-Americans in Baltimore and a second thing missing from the show are community activists and people standing up to make their own lives better. Doesn’t mean it’s not a great show, but it really is far from a complete view of the problems that have create modern Baltimore.

Workers Unite Film Festival

[ 6 ] May 5, 2015 |


With Out of Sight’s official release on June 2, I’ll be doing some publicity events here and there, which I will announce here. The first is next Monday, May 11, when I will be speaking at the Workers Unite! Film Festival in New York. It will be a Q&A after a couple of films on the global production system.

The whole WUFF schedule looks great as well.

We Shall Overcome

[ 4 ] May 4, 2015 |

On the death of Guy Carawan, I’ve been poking around various folk music sites and the like today and I thought this video of Pete Seeger explaining the development of We Shall Overcome was really interesting and I think a lot of you would find it worthy.

Texas Sex-Ed

[ 98 ] May 4, 2015 |


Abstinence only sexual education works great.

A small Texas high school has notified parents that it was dealing with a chlamydia outbreak.

Officials from the Crane Independent School District confirmed to KWES that the state health department was sending a letter to Crane High School parents informing that at least 20 cases had been reported. The school has an enrollment of about 300 students.

While chlamydia can be cured, it can cause permanent damage to the reproductive system if left untreated.

According to the Crane Independent School District Student Handbook for 2014-2015, the district “does not offer a curriculum in human sexuality.” In 2012, the district’s School Health Advisory Committee had recommended Scott & White’s “Worth the Wait” Abstinence Plus curriculum if a sexual education policy was adopted.

In fact, Texas state law requires any sex-ed course to devote more attention to abstinence than any other behavior. And students must be taught that abstinence until marriage is the best way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

No doubt all those young sluts are to blame, infecting those good clean boys just looking to blow off some steam.

Hog Drives

[ 36 ] May 4, 2015 |


I confess I knew nothing about 19th century hog drives, which were like cattle drives except with much more independent minded animals and generally took place in Appalachia and not the Great Plains. Pork was the staple meat of the nation before the rise of packaged beef in refrigerated rail cars. So I guess such events are not surprising. Anyway, this is your historical read of the day.

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