Saturday, May 8, 2021

Spike Lee's "Da 5 Bloods" and a writer's flashback to Vietnam and Old Saigon


Watching Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020) last night was like a flashback for this old Vietnam veteran. I lived vicariously through his characters’ return to the country where they had fought decades before. Lee filmed on location, and I soaked in the sights of modern-day Saigon—pardon me, I mean Ho Chi Minh City—with its skyscrapers, McDonald’s, and, well, its vibrant sans war life.


No more armed solders patrolling the major thoroughfares, no more roads, sidewalks, and storefronts pockmarked from past shellings. The old Saigon—and I was there many times—was a war-torn big city of two million (nine million today), French colonial still, with whores and black marketeers everywhere, poverty at every corner, armies of lambrettas and bicycle riders waiting at every intersection, many of them ridden by beautiful women in their traditional ankle-length Ao Dai dresses, little alleyways where old men offered you reefer, opium, and their granddaughter.


Big as it was, there was a leisurely pace to the city, something the tropical heat required, a place where you could sip your Biere 33 at a sidewalk café and only intermittently worry about danger coming out of those shadows around the corner.

(To the right, yours truly in the center with my buddies Bob to my right and Parker to my left. Saigon, 1971.)

Spike Lee’s film, compelling but flawed, follows four vets through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and into the countryside, where they search for the remains of their wartime squad leader and a cache of gold that they had buried near those remains. The issue of race is at the heart of the film, of course. It is, after all, a Spike Lee film, and indeed race lay close to the heart of the conflict in Vietnam, where GIs, black and white, regularly joked about killing “gooks” as if the Vietnamese people were something less than.


The Vietnam War was about more than race, however. Race is usually a symptom of a much larger problem. Vietnam came after more than a decade of Cold War-mongering, witch hunts by Joe McCarthy and the U.S. House for Un-American Activities Committee, the constant saber rattling of the military-industrial complex Ike warned us about. Greed usually can be found in the shadowy origins of every war. We left Vietnam with our tails between our legs, our first official loss but not our last. We keep wanting to relearn the old bitterly learned lessons.


(Saigon in 1971. No skyscrapers)

I was a war protester, a veteran of so many marches and anti-war rallies that I was burned out by the time I got drafted. So I became a soldier. I didn’t want to go to Canada. The whole time I was in the Army and in Vietnam I worried my protester days might come back to bite me in uniform, but I gave the Army too much credit. I’m glad I went to Vietnam. It’s a beautiful country even in war. I met some amazing people—my girlfriend Hanh, my Army buddy Bob (we remain in regular contact), the old Mama-San at our base who was always wanting me to get her cigarettes from the PX so she could black market them.

(To the right, a movie theater in 1971 Saigon)


In my mind, Da 5 Bloods begins to unravel somewhere along the search for that hidden gold. Maybe that was appropriate. This nation went on a similar kind of misguided search when it went to war in Vietnam, and that, too, unraveled at the end.


Monday, April 26, 2021

Monte Hellman, a master of "the language of the cinema"


(Monte Hellman in 2013)


Monte Hellman, one of the best but also least well-known of the New Hollywood directors of the 1960s and beyond, died last week at the age of 91. With films like the ultimate road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Cockfighter (1974), the twin existential Westerns The Shooting (1966) and Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), and the neo-noir Road to Nowhere (2010), Hellman established himself as a daring minimalist in Hollywood, the Samuel Beckett of the Big Screen.


Hellman was trained in the theater, an intellectual whose Theatergoers Company  brought Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to the Los Angeles stage in a premiere production in the late 1950s. Working with producer/director Roger Corman early in his film career, Hellman cut his teeth on biker and terror films as well as in radio and television productions before emerging as a truly unique force behind the camera.


I spent a couple days at Hellman’s Airbnb in Hollywood’s Laurel Canyon back in March 2018. I was doing research for my biography of actor Harry Dean Stanton, whom Hellman had directed in three films: Ride in the Whirlwind, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Cockfighter. He wasn’t feeling well the day I interviewed him, but he sat down with me for probably an hour and talked about movies.

(Yours truly at Monte Hellman's Airbnb in Laurel Canyon in March 2018)


As he talked, I looked at our surroundings--books everywhere, a wide collection of Asian art, a workout machine, pool outside, a framed photograph of a young Jack Nicholson, whose career got its start via both Corman and Hellman.


“When I look back at my movies, I basically made movies unconsciously,” he told me. “I am an intellectual in other areas, but not in making movies.”


He said he never thought of his filmmaking as art. “We didn’t think of it as anything. The problem was getting through each day, getting your pages shot.”


I learned during the interview that Hellman could be contradictory, or maybe he was also playing with me a bit. He told me he hadn’t read British film writer Brad Stevens’ book on the director’s life and work, yet Stevens in his Acknowledgements thanks Hellman for his “thorough proof-reading/fact-checking of the manuscript.” Hellman frequently downplayed his own legacy. “In reality, I have always been a hired gun,” he said back in 1987. “I have usually taken whatever job came my way.”


Yet, in an interview with Notebook in 2017, he was quite critical of much modern filmmaking. “They aren’t learned in the language of the cinema," he said. “American films these days are designed by committee, by a team of people. … It’s true even in Europe nowadays. You’ve got a lot of people involved in making a lot of decisions, when it used to be one person’s call to make.”


As for independent filmmakers? “Of course, there are exceptions, but most independents are just another arm of the studio.”


Born Monte Himmelbaum in Brooklyn, New York, and educated at Stanford University and the University of California at Los Angeles, Hellman went to the South for two of his most important films, Cockfighter and Two-Lane Blacktop, the latter of which begins in California but ends up in Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Cahiers du Cinéma called it “one of the greatest American films of the 1970s.” For Cockfighter, a film based on Charles Willeford’s novel, Hellman went to rural Georgia to tell the story of cockfighting champ Frank Mansfield, played by Warren Oates.


Hellman told me he had always been fascinated by subcultures like the rural South’s cockfighting world. “The people who were the cockfighters were really interesting. They actually contributed a lot to the screen. They were cockfighters, a lot of them.”


Hellman chuckled about the film’s alternate title Born to Kill. “I like to say `Hatched to Kill’.”


Hellman’s success as a director—a success that didn’t translate to big Box Office earnings—can in part be attributed to how he worked with actors like Warren Oates, Jack Nicholson, Millie Perkins, Laurie Byrd, and Harry Dean Stanton. “I think in order to make an actor comfortable in doing all the things they have to do to expose themselves in the process of acting, you have to make them feel like you are not going to hurt them, that you will protect them,” he told me. “Except for the very beginning, when nobody knew anything about me, I have managed to convey that to actors I’ve worked with.”


Hellman put his actors in austere settings—the American West, the rural South, the Philippine jungle—where everything is primitive, stripped down to its essentials.  Even the language is stripped down. It’s a stark, clear-eyed way of looking at life, a cinematic language as practiced by Hellman’s own favorite directors—Samuel Fuller, John Huston, Carol Reed—and one he mastered in his own life.


Saturday, April 10, 2021

A battle was lost but not the war in the union defeat at Amazon's Bessemer, Ala., warehouse

(A photo from the 1934 Southern textile workers' strike)

 The woman’s face still haunts me. Lined from many years of work on the farm and then in the cotton mills, she is nameless in my memory, just another “linthead” in the eyes of the mill owners, “white trash” others might say, someone off the cow patch and now in a factory in some Southern backwater working 12-hour days.


In her eyes, however, was a spark of something, a flicker of hope, and it came from the union she and countless other cotton mill workers were desperate to join back in the 1930s. “We began to feel we could be a part of a great movement,” she said in filmmakers George Stoney, Judith Helfland, and Susanne Rostock’s landmark 1995 documentary The Uprising of ’34.


The film details the massive uprising of textile workers in the South against the medieval work conditions imposed on them by the mills that had lured them off the farms in the hope for a better life. They first struck in the late 1920s and then again in the 1930s, only to be brutally beaten down by gun thugs doing the will of the mill owners and their investors up North.


It would take decades and Crystal Lee “Norma Rae” Sutton before unions successfully organized in the textile industry in the South, forcing giants like J.P. Stevens finally to recognize workers’ legal rights to join together in a united voice in seeking a fair wage and decent working conditions.


It’s a lesson in history worth remembering now that the workers at Amazon’s giant Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse have voted down a union by a 2-to-1 margin. Organizing in the South requires a commitment for the long haul. It needs homegrown warriors like Sutton and back in the 1920s and 1930s like Ella Mae Wiggins, Howard Kester, and Lucy Randolph Mason.


The South has a long and tortured labor history, something not taught in the classroom, not preached from the pulpit, not discussed in legislative halls, news pages, or in the coffee shops. It’s a hidden history because that’s the way the phalanx of Southern anti-labor forces—the politicians, businessmen, preachers, and publishers—want it.


The effort by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to organize the Bessemer workers only began last June. Amazon responded with the virulent anti-union campaign one expects from any company. Only this is a $1.7 trillion giant that is the veritable symbol of modern-day capitalism. What followed were forced anti-union sessions with workers, anti-union placards everywhere, online spying to see which workers are supporting the union, the hiring of Morgan Lewis & Bockius, one of those piranha-like law firms that specialize in destroying organizing campaigns.


The pandemic created a ton of stress on Amazon workers with sharp demands to deliver and deliver faster growing daily while safety conditions deteriorated. Amazon is organized in other parts of the world but like the foreign auto companies that dot the South tolerates no union in Dixie.


As in the United Auto Workers campaign at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, that failed by a wide margin in 2017, the workforce at the Bessemer warehouse is mostly black. President Joe Biden, prominent black Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams and Black Lives Matter came out with strong support for the Bessemer workers’ effort, but precious little was heard from the NAACP. Perhaps Amazon’s largesse to their pet projects played a role in that silence. Amazon has boasted of contributing some $27 million to the NAACP and other organizations fighting racism.


Some strong condemnations from the NAACP and Black Congressional Caucus of Amazon’s treatment of its workers might have made a difference. Big corporations today are every bit as brazenly anti-union as J.P. Stevens was, but they’re scared to death of being called racist. That’s the kind of bad press that shakes them to their foundations.


I mean, my gosh, the NAACP is silent when even troglodyte Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida came out in support of the Bessemer workers?


Amazon head honcho Jeff Bezos is a kind of corporate hero these days, but his company recently got slapped with a $62 million fine for stealing tips from Amazon delivery drivers over a two-year period. Yes, that’s the kind of company Amazon is.


Some speculate that the union loss in Bessemer may give momentum to efforts to pass the so-called PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act in Congress, a piece of legislation that would undo a lot of the damaging effects of the Republican-spawned Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, ending things like right-to-work laws and forced corporate anti-union sessions. The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed the bill, but at this point a small handful of Democratic senators, including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, have yet to sign on. Ending the filibuster is key to its passage, since Republicans are bound to use the filibuster to try to kill it.


The Bessemer workers, by and large, bought Amazon’s line that they don’t need a union, that the company will look out for their best interests, that things will get better. They may for a while, then it’s back to what works best for the bottom line.


That’s why organizers need to stick around, not give up, keep their eyes on the prize, even if it looks like a distant phantom that may never become real. Workers need that flicker of hope in their eyes that I saw in that woman in The Uprising of ’34. Without hope, what is life?


Friday, March 19, 2021

"Go, Johnny, Go!" offers a glimpse into the day before "the day the music died" in early rock 'n' roll. Co-hosting a showing on TCM Sunday, March 21



Rock ‘n’ roll fans and old movie lovers might want to check in at the Turner Classic Movies channel this coming Sunday, March 21, at 11 a.m. CST (12 noon EST) for a showing of the 1959 classic “Go, Johnny, Go!” with yours truly, Labor South’s Joseph B. Atkins, co-hosting along with regular host Alicia Malone.


Along with keeping track of labor and working class issues in the U.S. South, this ink-stained wretch has always been a film lover and that’s the why of my recent book Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel (University Press of Kentucky, 2020) and articles such as “Nehemiah Persoff – Intensity in-Depth” in TCM “Noir Czar” host Eddie Muller’s Noir City magazine back in 2016.


 “Go, Johnny, Go!” offers a glimpse into the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, the day before “the day the music died,” as Don McLean would sing in “American Pie”. Rock ‘n’ roll’s first Latino star, Ritchie Valens, makes his sole screen appearance in it, an appearance that came just months before he’d die in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. That crash took place before the film was even released.


(Eddie Cochran)

Eddie Cochran, the solid for-real rocker who gave us “Summertime Blues”, made his third and last film appearance in “Go, Johnny, Go!” He died in a car wreck the year after the film came out. Chuck Berry, a co-star with legendary disc jockey Alan Freed in the film, would be charged with taking a teenager across state lines for “immoral purposes” the same year of the film’s release. That charge would eventually put him in prison.


Freed is a major reason the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland, Ohio. That’s where he gained fame playing rock ‘n’ roll—evening coining the term for the music—as well as R&B and blues before he moved to the Big Apple. A pioneer in bringing black and white artists together on the same stage, he became a target for his race-and-music mixing, one of the reasons his career would begin a downward spiral in 1960 because of a payola scandal.


“Go, Johnny, Go!” also features Jackie Wilson, The Flamingos, Jo Anne Campbell, The Cadillacs, and, of course, “Johnny” himself, Jimmy Clanton. Clanton was often dismissed as yet another milquetoast Fabian or Pat Boone type, but the Louisiana native studied at the feet of Dr. John and Allen Toussaint in New Orleans, recorded for Ace Records in Mississippi, and wrote many of his songs.


Another treat for this writer is the collection of great character actors in the film. Faces you’ll recognize, but names like Frank Wilcox, Barbara Wooddell, Herb Vigran, Milton Frome, William Fawcett, Phil Arnold, Joe Flynn, Dick Elliott, and Robert Foulkk that you won’t. Harry Dean Stanton would've fit right in.

(Harry Dean in the 1985 film "Fool for Love")


Yours truly got this gig Sunday as a charter member of TCM’s “Backlot” club, an organization of fans and film buffs. I entered a competition by naming 10 films I’d like to co-host. Of course, I named four Harry Dean Stanton films, a handful of noir films, and slapped “Go, Johnny, Go!” on as number 10. That’s the one they picked, along with me!


I first saw “Go, Johnny, Go!” back at the old Temple Theater in Sanford, North Carolina, in the early 1960s, probably a third or fourth run of the film. Restored today to beauty and prestige, the Temple back then was a musty old movie house, the kind where your shoes stuck to the floor as you walked down the aisle, a time when blacks sat in the balcony and whites below.


Years later I found an old DVD of the film at a Memphis flea market and would slip it in and wade through waves of nostalgia every now and then.


The plot’s pretty thin, the singers are lip syncing, and the guitars aren’t even plugged in, but it’s a fun romp that seems innocent through today’s world-weary eyes but which also provides a whiff of the rebellion rock ‘n’ roll truly was back in the day, a music that scared parents, preachers, and politicians, and drove racists through the roof for making both whites and blacks want to dance, and maybe even on the same dance floor!


Friday, March 5, 2021

Joe Biden's endorsement of the union drive at Amazon's Bessemer, Alabama, plant is a needed breath of fresh air for the U.S. labor movement

(President Joe Biden)

President Joe Biden’s endorsement of the union drive at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse is a shot in the arm for the labor movement in the U.S. South and in the country as a whole. He’s the first president to go full-scale public with his support of unions since Franklin Roosevelt, who was president when Biden was born in 1942.


Voting is underway at the 6,000-worker plant, and Amazon has pulled out all the stops to kill the union drive, subjecting workers to anti-union meetings and videos, using social media to identify labor activists. This is a drive even more historic than the United Auto Workers' Nissan campaign in Canton, Mississippi, when the most prominent politician to support that effort was Bernie Sanders. Amazon is the very face of modern-day capitalism.


Every four years Democratic leaders have paid lip service to labor, one of the party’s strongest constituencies, but more often than not they failed to follow up. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has waged a relentless anti-union war ever since it pushed through the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 over then-President Truman’s veto. That act made union organizing even more difficult by allowing states to outlaw the closed shop and thus allow workers to benefit from union contracts without joining the union. Every Southern state took advantage of that law to try and kill unions.


As reported recently by Labor South and also in The Atlantic, Donald Trump loved to boast his populist credentials and claim he was pro-worker. He lied about that just as he lied about a lot of things. He gutted the National Labor Relations Board and was your typical CEO in his attitudes toward labor.


Of course, Biden has played the neoliberal game for years, a game that generally put corporate interests on top and labor on the bottom. He worked under Barack Obama, who could speechify wistfully about the grand traditions and history of the U.S. labor movement but who as president showed limited interest in continuing those traditions and history.


Still, Biden has always had a working-class edge in his public persona, talking his Scranton, Pennsylvania, roots, moving easily among the strap hangers and other blue-collar folks in the crowd. From a close perspective as vice president, he witnessed the failed promises of the Obama administrations, the loss of Congress under Obama, GOP virulence, the rise of a progressive movement under Bernie Sanders, and he sees himself in an important moment of history, here as he moves toward the end of a long career that finally put him in the top job.


His strong endorsement of labor not only on the campaign trail but now as president of the United States is a breath of fresh air. Labor needed that.


Saturday, February 20, 2021

Why are so many black politicians and civil rights leaders silent about the union vote at Amazon's Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse, where a majority of the workers are black?


(As a Feb. 22 addendum to this piece black Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who made a strong bid for governor in 2018, posted on Saturday, Feb. 20, the same day the editorial below appeared, a strong endorsement of unionization at Amazon's Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse. That's a welcome show of support that the workers need. It'd be nice to hear from Vice President Kamala Harris, too, wouldn't it?)


Why is there a deafening silence among many black politicians and civil rights leaders regarding the historic union vote taking place at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse?


On Feb. 8, the 5,805 workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse began receiving ballots on whether to vote in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Most of them are black in a 70 percent black city.  Ballots must be filed by the end of March.


Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont and erstwhile presidential candidate, and a group of U.S. House members led by House Education & Labor Committee member Andy Levin have been vocal in their support of the workers, who’ve been on the front lines risking their own health during the pandemic while frantically getting merchandise to customers who can no longer shop without fear of the COVID 19 virus.


Long-brewing issues with their working conditions and warehouse safety at the bustling plant have fueled a union drive that has deeply frightened anti-union Amazon even in a right-to-work, Deep South conservative state. The massive company has waged a bitter war against the effort that has even included an online campaign to determine who might be pushing for the union.


Levin got 50 members of the U.S. House to sign a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos expressing support for the union drive and asking the company to desist in its anti-union campaigning. Missing from that list of members are prominent Democratic black congressmen such as Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and James Clyburn of South Carolina, the self-styled kingmaker who helped Joe Biden make a sweep of the South in the Democratic presidential primaries.


Also little or nothing has been heard from the NAACP and the Black Congressional Caucus about the Bessemer vote.


Could the reason be Amazon money? The company boasted last July that it was matching the $8.5 million that its employees across 33 companies had donated to programs and organizations aimed at fighting racism. With an earlier donation of $10 million, the company said its contribution would total $27 million.


Recipients of that largesse included: the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, National Urban League, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and the United Negro College Fund.


Did Amazon’s money buy silence?


During the United Auto Workers’ drive to organize workers at Nissan’s giant plant in Canton, Mississippi, some years back, the company funneled plenty of cash into the NAACP, which partnered with Nissan for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013. That same year Nissan gave $100,000 to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute to commemorate the life of martyred Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Although Hollywood actor and strong UAW supporter Danny Glover had been a featured speaker at past annual Medgar Evers dinners, he was significantly not invited at the 2013 event.


The NAACP’s Murfreesboro, Tennessee, branch was so thankful for Nissan’s monetary help in 2016 that it named the company’s North American operations “Organization of the Year”.


Yet Nissan, like Amazon, waged a fierce campaign against the organizing effort at its Canton plant, yet again an operation with a majority black workforce.


Friday, February 5, 2021

The late labor troubadour Anne Feeney called for grassroots power, and Southern workers are hearing that call

(To the right, Anne Feeney) 

The American Labor Movement lost one of its greatest troubadours this week to Covid, Anne Feeney, the Pittsburgh songbird, activist, protester, and granddaughter of a violin-playing, labor organizing mineworker.  A trained lawyer as well as musician, she once lamented how workers in this country have lost a sense of labor tradition.


“So many lessons that we have learned—both bitter and glorious—are remembered in labor songs,” she wrote in a May 2008 column in The Guild Reporter. “One of the reasons we don’t know our history is because we don’t know our songs.”


Knowing history is to know that movements rise from the bottom up, not the top down. “Professionals, politicians and philanthropists are helpless to effect social change without mass movements behind them. … France has a fantastic labor movement even though its union density is lower than ours. But French workers have something that we do not have—class consciousness. This is something that has been drilled out of us by corporate America.”


A lot of labor buzz has been created by Democrat Joe Biden’s rise to the presidency. Calling himself “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” Biden has promised that “unions are going to have increased power.”


As Anne Feeney told us, however, real power is going to depend on grassroots organization and mobilization. Here in the South, where workers have always faced what I call the “phalanx” of opposition by big business, politicians, religious leaders, and corporate media, such grassroots efforts have been paying off, paying off in a region with a proud-but-tortured-and-largely hidden labor history and one with its own strong musical tradition as well.


On Feb. 8, the 5,805 workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse will begin receiving ballots on whether to vote in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Although Amazon’s facilities in places like Germany and elsewhere in Europe are fully organized, the company is fighting like hell to make sure its Bessemer warehouse stays non-union. A pro-union vote in the Deep South, of all places, might inspire workers at other U.S. Amazon sites to go union. It’s enough to make billionaire Jeff Bezos have nightmares even if he’s relinquishing some of the reins of his power.


Organizers at Bessemer are “cautiously optimistic,” as people like to say when they want to remain clear-eyed even as they see rays of hope. Workers get paid comparatively well at the plant, but many feel the company needs to do more to protect them during the pandemic and that management makes too many arbitrary decisions about shifts and working hours without notice to employees.


Farm workers in the South these days tend to come from Mexico or farther south, and that makes them the most vulnerable of workers. Federal programs like the H-2A visa program put them under the control of employers who too easily and without consequence break promises on wages as well as living and working conditions. In recent years, however, organizations such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and Southern Migrant Legal Services have used class-action lawsuits and pressure tactics on the long-insulated corporations that contract with growers and buy the products the workers produce to achieve significant gains for those workers—better wages and a better system to voice and resolve complaints.


As reported earlier in Labor South, nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, overwhelmingly won their union drive last September, a historic milestone for the allegedly anti-union South. Over the past 10 years, union membership here in Mississippi grew 2.6 percent, according to the Institute for Southern Studies' Facing South. Neighboring Louisiana saw a 1.6 percent increase. The Carolinas saw increases from 2019 to 2020.


(Ella May Wiggins, martyred labor troubadour and activist during the textile mill strikes in North Carolina in the 1920s)

What if these workers knew more about Southern labor heroes like Ella May Wiggins, Mother Jones, Lucy Randolph Mason, Howard Kester, Scipio Jones, H.L. Mitchell, or songsters like John L. Handcox, Hazel Dickens, Florence Reece, and Zachary Richard? They’re not taught in the classroom or played on the radio, but watch out once their words and their music are heard.  There’s a newly arrived songbird in heaven who knows what would happen.


Thursday, January 14, 2021

Trump as Citizen Kane, and the challenge to the Left to prove to workers that it, not right-wing populists, truly represents them and will fight neoliberalism


(Orson Welles in Citizen Kane)


Watching the recent film Mank about the 1941 classic Citizen Kane and the writing of its script by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles got me in a mood. Having seen Citizen Kane many times, I bought a book that included a copy of the script. As I read it, I was struck by how much Charles Foster Kane there is in Donald Trump.


“You don’t love anybody!” Kane’s paramour-turned-second wife Susan Alexander tells him.  “Me or anybody else! You want to be loved—that’s all you want! I’m Charles Foster Kane. Whatever you want—just name it and it’s yours! Only love me! Don’t expect me to love you—“


Psychoanalyzing Trump is beyond the scope of this column, but like most demagogues he revels in the cheers and applause he gets from his people at rallies. He talks of how he “loves” them and would do anything for them. As seen in the recent takeover attempt of the U.S. Capitol by thousands of Trumpsters, what he truly demands is that they will do anything for him.


Still, Trump’s appeal has always reached far beyond what the naysayers at CNN, MSNBC, NBC, the New York Times, and the Democratic National Committee claim. Sure, many of his followers are racist, narrow-minded Neanderthals. Others, however, found in him—however falsely—a voice in the wilderness left by the neoliberal Democratic and Republican parties, beyond the rhetoric of austerity and the utter obeisance to Wall Street and global capitalism.


Trump promised them jobs in 2016. He promised to stop the bleeding of U.S. manufacturing into the cheap-jobs world that is Mexico, China, and Vietnam. His speeches bristled with their same contempt for the elitists on either side of the flyover zone who told blue-collar workers to take computer classes and who made empty promises how that would redefine their lives.


And those workers—many of them in former union strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin—voted for him. They sure weren’t going to vote for Hillary Clinton, the elitist war-mongering neoliberal who didn’t even deign to campaign in those places.


Of course, Trump never delivered on those promises. The be-all and end-all of Donald Trump is the rich huckster born with a silver spoon in his mouth, trained at the feet of Joe McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, and thus providing a link between two of the most fascistic eras in American history. Trump did everything he could over the last four years to undermine worker rights and protections, including the complete neutering of the National Labor Relations Board.


“Remember the working man?”  the once-raging populist Kane is asked at one point in Citizen Kane. “You used to defend him quite a good deal. Well,--he’s turning into something called organized labor and you don’t like that at all.”


Workers’ dilemma in the United States is a reflection of the same dilemma around the neoliberal world, a world in which global finance has triumphed, co-opting left-leaning as well as traditional conversative parties, undermining labor unions and workers’ rights, and sending Marxists and much of the hard-core Left into an ideological spiral—Do they support the internationalism Marx preached even if it means abiding by an utterly compromised European Union that preaches austerity, the elimination of the welfare state, and the gospel of free market economies along with the mass immigration that such economies require to ensure cheap labor? Do they look at Brexiters as just a bunch of nationalistic bigots, or recognize legitimate concerns that workers have about job threats from masses of immigrants who were forced from their homelands by neoliberal policies and the endless wars that global capitalism promotes?


So where have those workers outside the United States turned? To the new, anti-establishment parties that, unlike Trump, have indeed delivered on promises even as they preach a new kind of nationalism and refuse to get bogged down in the endless identity politics that have undermined the Democratic Party’s credibility with much of the U.S. working class.


In Poland, the so-called “right wing” and since-2015 ruling Law and Justice Party (PIS) may be jingoistic, proudly Christian, fiercely pro-life, and sharply critical of immigration, but it has also created a child allowance for poor families equal to one-third of the minimum wage while also increasing the minimum wage, lowered the retirement age from 67 to 65, and “significantly improved” the lives of workers and the poor in Poland, according to writer Adam Rogalewski in London-based International Union Rights magazine.


In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of the ruling (since 2010) Fidesz party rose to power bemoaning the disappearance of “national sovereignty, autonomy” and warned that unelected international powers like the EU and International Monetary Fund have practically destroyed democracy.


“According to the threat presented by the ruling party, the traditional local elites and left … are amoral, serve foreign interests, that of international companies, organisations (sic), local comprador bourgeoisie, and as their `agents’ help the settling of multinationals and their parasitism,” writes Hungarian trade union leader Károly György in International Union Rights.


The response of political parties and organizations on the Left in Europe thus far has largely been to fight among themselves and ultimately to fail to respond to the challenges posed by these populists on the right. Many of their members vote for those populists. Add to this a 50 percent decline in trade union membership in Western Europe between 1980 and 2015.


“The Left has become increasingly cut off from its historic constituency, the workers and the poor of Europe, who have naturally sought a political voice elsewhere,” says University of London economics professor Costas Lapavitsas in the Monthly Review, an independent socialist magazine.  “Inevitably the vacuum created by the Left has been steadily filled by some of the worst political forces in European history, including the extreme right.”


Here in the United States, the incoming Biden Administration faces the same challenge. The neoliberal background of Biden and the establishment Democratic Party raises strong concerns, but memory of the losses they suffered in the 2010 mid-term elections could force them finally to work seriously to re-establish the strong working class ties that the party of Franklin Roosevelt once enjoyed. On the campaign trail Biden indeed talked a lot about the need for good union jobs, and he will have Bernie Sanders looking over his shoulder.


Here’s hoping. Hope. Maybe I’ll make that a New Year’s resolution.