Wednesday, December 6, 2023

2023's "Kaisers, kings & czars", as Carl Sandburg called them, brought war and destruction, but the year also brought union solidarity on the labor battlefield

(Carl Sandburg)

A little more than a century ago the poet Carl Sandburg, young and radical at that time, had this to say about the world situation:


“And what scientist or clairvoyant can go farther and tell us

when the working class of the world

will kick all Kaisers, kings & czars

out of the palaces?”


The famed poet and Lincoln biographer could be speaking about modern times when the Kaisers, kings, and czars occupy corporate boardrooms as well as government palaces. As 2023 draws to a close, war rages on in Ukraine, Israel is ethnically cleansing the Gaza Strip of Palestinians, lunacy reigns in Argentina with the election of Javier Milei as president, and Americans face the prospect of choosing between a brain-fuddled warmonger and a loudmouth, potentially convicted felon for president in 2024.


“The stink of the world’s injustice and the world’s indifference is all around us,” Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day once wrote. “The world has lost a sense of sin. Not personal sin, but social sin.”

(To the right, Dorothy Day)


Yet there’s good news from 2023, too. Major strikes by the United Auto Workers (UAW), the Writers Guild of America (WGA), and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) resulted in major agreements that may be less than ideal but which proved the power of worker solidarity and which, in the case of the UAW, promised to reverse the trend of union concession after concession to Big Industry.


Workers at Starbucks cafes across the country staged a “Red Cup Rebellion” in November, a major walkout on the union-busting company’s annual Red Cup Day to protest working conditions and the lack of a contract two years after they joined a union.


Joe Biden’s claim to become the nation’s most pro-union president ever rang hollow in late 2022 when he sided with the railroad companies and forced workers to accept a contract that did little to end their servitude to profit-obsessed executives.  In 2023 he tried to repair the damage to his image by publicly declaring solidarity with the UAW in its strike against major automakers Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis. He actually appeared on the picket line with workers. Still wondering if this was mainly a photo-op.


Nothing can window dress Joe Biden as the world’s leading warmonger, however. He and the warlords in his administration knowingly pushed Russia into its invasion of Ukraine, breaking promise after promise, creating a border threat to Russia that the United States itself would never tolerate. Today Ukraine is in ruins with a large portion of an entire generation of men dead on the battlefield or suffering lifelong injuries. And for what? The same greed and desperation to hold on to world hegemony that left Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan in ruins.


Given the excuse of Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israeli citizens, Israel’s own chief warmonger, Benjamin Netanyahu, unleashed his long-wanted war of destruction on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, bombing hospitals, killing women, children, and old men indiscriminately. Meanwhile Israeli settlers attacked Palestinians in the West Bank while the Israeli military looked the other way. What Netanyahu has done is sow the seeds of hate and rebellion for generations to come.


And what did Joe Biden do? Stand by his friend Bibi and pledge undying support. Back in Washington, Under Secretary of State Victoria Nulend and other bloodthirsty neo-cons in Biden’s administration are drooling at the prospect that all this will finally lead to a war with Iran.


Facing potential war on three fronts, Biden tried to offer a fig leaf to China, inviting Chinese leader Xi Jinping to San Francisco. I can imagine Biden’s words: “Forget all the saber-rattling earlier, Xi, those promises to defend Taiwan if you attacked. Sure, you’re a dictator, but let’s be at least friendly until we resolve this Ukraine thing and this Gaza Strip thing.”


Biden’s behavior in this Middle East crisis has cost him much-needed re-election support in the Arab and Muslim community in the United States. All the indictments his Justice Department and local prosecutors have hurled at Donald Trump have done little to dampen support for the former president.


What is likely is that many Americans will stay home on election day next November, and that’s not good for Joe Biden.


Looking to the deep south of the continent below, many are scratching their heads at the election of the Trump-like Javier Milei as president of Argentina, a nation this Labor South blog has long watched with interest.


It’s not so hard to understand. Argentines are deeply frustrated at the failure of successive administrations to end out-of-control inflation and wrest their nation from the deadly grip of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the giant loans that become impossible to pay back, the austerity measures demanded by these neoliberal institutions that gut government programs serving the working class and poor. This frustration led to a shot in the dark, one that is sadly bound to make their lives even worse.


Milei promises to make the U.S. dollar Argentina’s currency, to privatize a wide swath of government services, to break relations with China and other important trading partners. In other words, he’s doing the will of the neoliberals and neoconservatives—I truly don’t know the difference any more—back in Washington, D.C., New York, and European capitals whose behind-the-scenes efforts likely helped propel his ascendancy.


(Carl Sandburg's office in his later years in Flat Rock, North Carolina)

Poor old Carl Sandburg. Few in the United States listened to his harangue against the “Kaisers, kings & czars.” He saw his nation plunge into war and economic Depression as Wall Street ruled while Kaisers, kings and czars fell elsewhere in the world. World War I ended and a decade later the working class gained power under a friendly president, but soon enough Kaisers and kings re-emerged and so did war. By that time, however, the poet was completing his highly praised biography of Abraham Lincoln, a leader who saw and hated the savagery of war and was determined to keep it from destroying his nation.


Thursday, November 9, 2023

A call for values, dialogue, and compromise from Norwegian peace advocate Henrik Syse when all so many political leaders seem to want it is war

(To the right, Henrik Syse)


Norwegian philosopher, peace advocate, and former vice chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Henrik Syse smiled and quipped jokes with his audience at the University of Mississippi this week, but his subsequent lecture proved somber.


“We live in a time of very serious challenges to peace,” he said. “We are living in a time of crisis, of great polarization.”


Recalling the horrific wars of the 20th century and the brutal regimes of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, he asked the question: “What stands between us and that nightmare scenario?”


His answer was values, dialogue, compromise, diplomacy. “We have certain values that we need to protect.” Then, “the mystery of dialogue. Look at Plato’s dialogues. In conversation, you have to pay attention to others.”


Giving respect to the human dignity of the other is key. “The mystery of the other person. If you know them, you don’t want to destroy them.”


Words of wisdom at a time when the world seems teetering toward what the old 1960s ballad sung by Barry McGuire and written by P.F. Sloan called the “Eve of Destruction”.


“If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away

There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave.”


A murderous attack by the Hamas terrorist group on Israeli citizens followed by what appears to be the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by Israeli armed forces, the bloody proxy war between USA-led NATO and Russia on the increasingly scorched earth of Ukraine, the dangerous saber-rattling by both Democrats and Republicans against China and Iran—not much dialogue, compromise, or diplomacy there.


“You cannot negotiate with evil,” GOP presidential candidate Tim Scott said during the most recent televised debate with fellow candidates. Essentially calling for war against Iran, Scott said, “You have to destroy it.”


Scott merely echoed what Republican U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina has been saying. When CNN asked him whether the U.S. and Israel should “bomb Iran even in the absence of direct evidence of their involvement” in the Hamas attack, Graham said, “Yeah.”


Syse’s answer? “Compromise is not a four-letter word. Most people are not evil. (Former Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and (former U.S. President Ronald) Reagan saw you have to build bridges. They spoke with each other and publicly praised each other. … We must try to sit at the same table.”


Paraphrasing Pope Francis, Syse said, “One doesn’t come out of a crisis the same as one was before. We’re either better or worse.”


Yet look at the first point Syse made: the necessity of protecting values. According to the New York Times, abortion has become the major issue of the modern-day Democratic Party and was a key reason for victories in this week’s elections. What about the values of the Democratic Party of Franklin D. Roosevelt: workers’ rights, limits on unhinged capitalism, the positive role that government can play in people’s lives, help for the desperate and needy?


Today, Democratic President Joe Biden is a warmonger who ended the war in Afghanistan only to launch one in Ukraine, albeit with only Ukrainian and Russian lives at stake, no Americans. He and the other warmongers in his administration are already preparing for possible war against China primarily to prevent that nation from outdoing the USA as the world’s premier economic power. Biden gave Israel’s right-wing leader, Benhamin Netanyahu, carte blanche support when he launched his vengeful attack on not just Hamas but also the Palestinian people.


Republicans aren’t any better. A few have begun to be critical of the war in Ukraine, but they march in lockstep support for Israel’s reckless bombing of Gaza.  


(Fedor Chaliapin)

These times are reminiscent of what the great opera singer Fedor Chaliapin saw when he returned to his native Russia from war-torn Europe. He sensed that his homeland, caught between the senseless destruction of World War I and an impending revolution, stood at the brink of something overwhelming and that it would never be the same afterward.


“Chaliapin started to think that what was happening was nothing other than collective madness,” his biographer, Victor Borovsky, wrote. “In a world which has visibly run amok, stifling the voice of reason, calls for new sacrifices and for new victories grew increasingly vociferous.”


A major reason was political corruption and the performance of the media, as is the case today. “The widespread corruption and confusion, the blaring manifestos, the boastful claims of newspapers too revolting to soil your hands with, the reports of successes when in reality military debacle was complete.”


And in Chaliapin’s own words: “When war is declared, it is not the people who want it, but the leaders.”

Friday, October 6, 2023

In Navajo land's Monument Valley, where the people look to Father Sun for harmony, something often hard to find on a reservation

(Monument Valley)

MONUMENT VALLEY, Navajo Nation, Utah - Navajo guide, philosopher, mystic, musician Duffy Holiday points to the ground and then stretches his hands toward the sky as he explains Navajo thinking to the eight non-Indians standing around his makeshift guide truck.


“We are connected,” he tells them. “At the end of our toes, we have these swirls, and that is how we are connected to the earth.” Then he opens the palms of his hands--“See these swirls?”—and reaches toward the sky. “We are connected to the heavens like that. So when we are standing, we are standing to the east.”


Facing east is important to Navajos. They build their homes facing east so they can greet the sunrise. For the Navajo, Father Sun represents universal harmony, something often difficult to find on an American reservation where poverty is widespread and so is U.S. and state government neglect.


(To the right, Duffy Holiday)


My wife Suzanne and I met Duffy Holiday during a 17-day, 4,400-mile road trip across the Great American West in September. We traveled from Oxford, Mississippi, across the Mississippi River and Arkansas into the Great Plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, stopping in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, at the museum dedicated to the great Western character actor Ben Johnson, and on to a wedding in Golden, Colorado, where we also visited Buffalo Bill’s gravesite.


Then we traveled through the Arches, the Painted Desert, Monument Valley, the north rim of the  Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park in Utah and Arizona before stopping to visit friends in Mesquite, Nevada. Through the Mohave Desert we drove en route to Los Angeles and Palm Springs. On the road back through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, we took every chance we got to drive Route 66, the Mother Road of the Joads, Tod and Buz, Jack Kerouac, Bobby Troup, Nat King Cole, and the Rolling Stones.


The beauty of the Great American West is breathtaking, and amid the vastness and seeming emptiness of all those mountains, mesas, buttes, bluffs, plateaus, and deserts you find not only millions of years of earthen history but a very important history of the these United States as well.


Some of that history is etched in Duffy Holiday’s sun-darkened face. The grandson of one of the Navajo tribe’s legendary code-talkers (who developed a secret code of communication during World War II that the Japanese could not break), he’s a proud man who makes a point to contrast the Navajo sense of family and community with Western man’s strident individualism.


Also speaking to that history are the small communities that dot the Navajo Nation—a reservation the size of West Virginia that stretches across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  In an overall population of 400,000, 160,000 of whom live on the reservation, the Navajo Nation has 13,500 reservation families who live without electricity—and thus no lights and no refrigeration--and 17,000 homes have no running water.


(A Navajo woman singing at a sandstone formation called "The Sun's Eye" in Monument Valley)

These and other grim statistics, reported by journalist Elyse Wild in a recent edition of the Navajo-Hopi Observer, are reminders of centuries-old greed and lack of concern toward the American Indian. The unemployment rate on the reservation is 50 percent. Half of all adult Navajos suffers from Type 2 diabetes. Their mortality rate—fueled by heart disease--is 31 percent higher than that of the rest of the nation.


With such statistics, of course, come drugs, suicide, domestic violence, crime, and the other ills that always attach themselves to poverty.


“Lack of electricity exacerbates disparities that have long had a foothold in Indian Country,” Wild writes, “driven by a federal legacy of forced removal and assimilation, the U.S. government’s neglect of treaty agreements, and systemic apathy for Native Americans living on reservations.”


The sordid trail of broken agreements with American Indians by the U.S. government is a shameful national legacy that continues today in our nation’s foreign relations—witness the empty boasts of protecting democracy as the CIA supported dictatorial coups in Latin America, the broken promises to Russia not to expand NATO eastward that led to the current war in Ukraine.


The Navajos are resilient, however, a point of pride for Duffy Holiday and his people. “In Navajo, we have this kinship,” Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) official Deenise Becenti told Wild. “We are related to one another through these clan systems. A lot of people I am related to and people that I know don’t have electricity. That is part of what keeps me here.”


A four-year-old “Light Up Navajo” program has brought electricity to 662 families thus far, including 159 just this past summer. Light Up Navajo is a joint operation between the NTUA and a coalition of nonprofit, community-owned utilities called the American Public Power Association. Electrical workers from across the country volunteer to travel to Navajo Nation to help build lines that can finally bring electricity and refrigeration to families on the reservation.


When Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to help the poor in regions such as Appalachia, it excluded Indian tribes. Even today, political resistance to Navaho pleas for such basics as water rights can be fierce, particularly in Republican-dominated Arizona, which requires a maze of bureaucratic hurdles to be crossed.


At a time in the United States when newspapers everywhere have either died or shrunken to near worthlessness, this old journalist found two worthy newspapers in Navajo Nation—the Navajo-Hopi Observer and Navajo Times. In the editions I read were well-written, well-researched, longform stories that delved deep into the issues that affect Navajos today, stories also with a keen sense of history.

(My wife Suzanne and me with Duffy Holiday)

For example, Wild’s story on efforts to bring electricity to residents of Monument Valley included a poignant reminder of a past that included the forced migration in 1863 of 10,000 Navajos from their home in the Canyon de Chelly to Fort Sumner some 300 miles away in what is today New Mexico. In what writer Nicky Leach has called “the first concentration camp on American soil,” these Navajo were held in slave-like conditions without clean water, provisions, or proper shelter. Many died before a public outcry forced the U.S. government to allow them to return home in 1868.


As I scanned the vast and mystical beauty of this amazing landscape—made famous in all those John Ford Westerns starring John Wayne and Ben Johnson—I pondered the story of our American nation and of the Navajo Nation. It’s a sweeping story of courage, resilience, and sacrifice, but also one of the suffering, sadness, and tragedy that violence, selfishness, racism, and greed make inevitable.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Hollywood writers on strike, and the actors joining them in solidarity--the latest battle in a struggle with a long history

(William Faulkner, from a photograph by Carl Van Vechten)

OXFORD, Miss. - Here in the heart of Yoknapatawpha I think about our favorite literary son, William Faulkner, during his time as a screenwriter in Hollywood and how he would feel about the current strike by members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), now past the 100-day mark, and members of the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union.


Faulkner tended to keep his political cards close to his chest, but perhaps he might remember Warner Brothers’ exec Jack Warner’s boast that he had hired the world’s best writer for “peanuts”. While Faulkner saw his Hollywood wages rise and fall depending on the mood of his benefactors, his main goal always was to earn enough money to get back home to Oxford to do some real writing.


For the screenwriters and actors today striking for better wages and conditions in Hollywood, this is their livelihood as well as their home, and they want the security that pensions and health care plans bring. Launched by some 11,000 screenwriters on May 2 and joined a month ago by the 160,000-member SAG-AFTRA, the strike is one of the largest in Hollywood history.


The strikers are demanding fair wages from the residuals that streaming media bring plus guarantees that the expanding artificial intelligence technology will be used in positive ways such as helping research and story ideas, not in ways to take their jobs. The writers also want guarantees on minimum working hours as well as pension and health care plans.


Thus far, these demands have met a stone wall erected by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which has dismissed their complaints and accused them of striking at a particularly vulnerable time for the industry. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher, famous for her role in the television series The Nanny, has become a rousing spokesperson not only for the strikers but for labor as a whole.

(To the right, Fran Drescher)


“What’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor,” Drescher said during a recent press conference. “When employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run, we have a problem.”


A strike “is a very serious thing that impacts thousands, if not millions, of people around this country and all over the world,” she continued. “We are the victims here. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity. … How they plead poverty, that they are losing money left and right, when they are giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs.”


Indeed, nearly 90 percent of SAG-AFTRA actors make less than $26,470 a year, the required minimum to qualify for health care insurance. Screenwriters have seen their pay decline by as much as 23 percent over the last 10 years. By contrast, in the corporate offices of the $43 billion Warner/Discovery/CNN company, Warner Brothers CEO David Zaslav earned $500 million between 2018 and 2022. His company fired 1,000 workers in 2022. At the $120 billion Comcast/Universal/NBC outfit, top executive Brian Roberts raked in $170 million over the past five years.


The gap between what AMPTP is offering and what the WGA is demanding is wide. AMPTP has offered a plan totaling some $86 million. The WGA wants $429 million.


Writers have never been particularly valued in Hollywood even though their work is central to the film industry. The great director and screenwriter Billy Wilder talked about the particular challenge and importance of a writer in Hollywood. “Writing is just an empty page. You start with nothing, absolutely nothing, and, as a rule, writers are vastly underrated and underpaid. It is totally impossible to make a great picture out of a lousy script.”


(To the right, Darryl F. Zanuck)

Hollywood mogul Jack Warner called writers “schmucks with Underwoods.” Darryl F. Zanuck so despised the union activity that was growing in movieland in the late 1930s that he threatened, “if those guys set up a picket line and try to shut down my studio, I’ll mount a machine gun on the roof and mow them down.”


In the late 1920s, another powerful mogul, Louis B. Mayer, was key in the creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in part as an effort to quell labor activity. He pushed for a “writers division” within the Academy that would deal with writer disputes and issues. In other words, a company union. The Academy’s nod to a 50 percent pay cut in 1933 helped inspire a resurrection of the Screen Writers Guild, an early version of the WGA.


It’s the Academy that awards the world-famous Oscars. Is Oscar in reality just a gold-plated union buster?


(Louis B. Mayer)

Hollywood disdain for writers showed its ugly face throughout the industry’s “Golden Years”. One Thanksgiving during the 1930s, the Republic studio fired every writer on the lot to avoid holiday pay and then re-hired them the following Monday.


During the post-World War II purge of left-leaning sympathies across the country, the notorious U.S. House for Un-American Activities focused its attention on Hollywood and suspicions that closet communists were sneaking their propaganda into the motion pictures Americans were watching. The Hollywood Ten, all but two screenwriters, stood up to the HUAC demagogues and paid the price of prison and blacklisting as a result.


Even after the HUAC rampages lost momentum, writers had to face the next challenge of so-called “auteur” theory, which insisted directors are the true creators of film, the true artists responsible for what is seen on the screen, further diminishing the role of the screenwriter. Screenwriters “had weathered the contract system, they had survived the blacklist, and then—in the early 1960s—they found themselves more or less eliminated from the critical-historical map,” writes Ian Hamilton in his book Writers in Hollywood: 1915-1951.

(To the right, the Hollywood Ten and supporters)


What is happening today is the latest battle in a long struggle for writers, and the actors who speak their words on screen stand in solidarity with them. Fran Drescher says that solidarity speaks to the importance of this moment. “At some point, the jig is up. This is a moment of history, a moment of truth. AMPTP, you have to wake up and smell the coffee. You can’t exist without us.”


Thursday, July 27, 2023

Avast ye hearties, was the pirate a bloodthirsty brigand or perhaps a revolutionary who defied the system?

(N.C. Wyeth's 1911 depiction of pirates on the cover of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island)


I’ve always been fascinated by pirates. Maybe it started way back in the mid-1950s when as a child I first saw the film Treasure Island starring Robert Newton as the incorrigibly lovable one-legged pirate Long John Silver.  Maybe it was a few years later when I read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” about Captain Kidd’s lost treasure.


Or was it when I discovered Jack London, who as a teenager became an oyster pirate after meeting French Frank in the Last Chance saloon in Oakland and buying the sloop Razzle Dazzle? He even got French Frank’s girlfriend in the deal, Mamie, queen of the oyster pirates.


From there I went on to adopt the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team as my own—despite the fact that I grew up hundreds of miles away in central North Carolina—and I rooted for the East Carolina University Pirates as an undergraduate there! I’m still a Pirates fan. (curiously, I'm not a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Just can't seem to get into them.)

(a 1909 drawing of the Pittsburgh Pirates)


All this is to note the recent publication of the graphic novel Under the Banner of King Death: Pirates of the Atlantic by David Lester (author and illustrator), Marcus Rediker (author), and Paul Buhle (editor). This wonderful book, an adaptation of Lester’s Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, tells a different story of pirates from the ones I heard growing up.

(To the right, Robert Newton as Long John Silver in the 1950 film Treasure Island)


Not sure I felt any guilt at my fascination with pirates—I wanted to be one! Still, these were bloodthirsty brigands and cutthroats, right? Didn’t Edward Teach, the pirate who called himself Blackbeard, tie little lit fuses at the end of his beard to scare the wits out of his enemies? I remember going to some of Blackbeard’s old haunts off the eastern North Carolina coast when I was at ECU. I loved it.


(Frank Schoonover's 1922 depiction of Blackbeard)

It was hard not to be drawn to the pirates in the depictions of artists like Howard Pyle, Frank Schoonover, and N.C. Wyeth, pictures that helped make Treasure Island and other books about pirates come alive.


What Under the Banner of King Death tells us is that the pirates of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy (1660 to 1730) “were almost all common working sailors, poor men from the lowest social class, who crossed the line into illegal activity, most of them bearing the scars of a dangerous line of work,” Buhle, Rediker, and Lester wrote in their article “Why We Need Pirates” in Yes! magazine this past January.


Furthermore, they were “routinely maimed in the course of their work, bilked of their wages, fed rotten provisions, and beaten around the deck by captains with tyrannical powers.” In their rebellion against those conditions, they turned to piracy, commandeering Jolly Old England’s ships and raising the Jolly Roger over them! Buhle, Rediker, and Lester describe how they created a remarkable form of democracy on those stolen ships.


They elected their captain and officers, organized a redistribution of goods, and shared booty in what Buhle, Rediker, and Lester call “a rudimentary social welfare system” that came in handy when a pirate was injured or fell ill. They were racially inclusive—a significant point in Under the Banner of King Death—given that pirates came from all races and ethnic groups--from the rum-swilling denizens of the pirate capital, Port Royal , Jamaica, to Chinese pirates in their virtual navies of junk ships (now hard to find, but I saw countless Chinese junks in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor back in 1972) to the Barbary Coast corsairs of the Mediterranean and the buccaneers off the coast of Madagascar. No glass ceiling for female pirates either. Arabella Drummond, Mary Read, and Anne Bonny bowed to no man in their fierceness and ability to lead a ship’s crew.


“Gentleman, piracy is damaging the economy of England,” a loyal servant of the Royal Court tells his colleagues in a London coffeehouse in Under the Banner of King Death. “England’s power, even civilization itself, depends on mastery of the seas.”


“Piracy is first and foremost a crime against the property of merchants,” says a judge in the novel just prior to sentencing the three pirates in front of him to hang. “Because piracy damages maritime commerce it also damages the interests of the state.”


Indeed, the Royal Navy ultimately succeeds in hanging countless pirates and making a spectacle of their dangling corpses as a warning to all who dare threaten the power of the monarchy and certainly its economic wellbeing. The warlords of 18th century commerce and industry won the war.


None of this should be interpreted as a blanket pardon for all piracy, of course. Jean Lafitte in New Orleans was an active slave-trader as well as a smuggler before he won a pardon from General Andrew Jackson in order to help Jackson defeat the British in the Battle of New Orleans. The colorful Lafitte, whose blacksmith shop in the French Quarter is a popular bar today, was, in the words of writer Herbert Asbury, the “Moses of the freebooters” in the Big Easy of his time, a charmer who spoke four languages fluently and was the toast of the town before the charm wore off and he had to relocate to the Texas coast (he helped found the city of Galveston) and finally to the Yucatan Peninsula.


Lester, Rediker, and Buhle remind us, however, that it’s indeed the victors who write history. Who will write the history of today? Will it be the descendants of the hedge fund operators and arms dealers and deep-pocketed lobbyists who run our world? Or will it be the handful of rebels who challenge that rule and refuse to let them continue to exploit and leave ruin and havoc in their wake?


In the end, who are the real pirates? Maybe it’s how you define “pirate”. Is the pirate the bloodthirsty brigand we always thought he—or she—was, or perhaps a revolutionary?

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Children are under assault in the United States--from both the Left and the Right. Republicans won't protect them from guns or exploitative bosses. Democrats put them in the middle of the sex wars.


(To the right, Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1872 portrait by Vasily Perov)

The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky considered crimes against children as the ultimate human sin. He wrote about it in his landmark novel The Brothers Karamazov in 1880.


“Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels,” says the Russian monk, Father Zossima, the spiritual guide of the religious novice Alyosha Karamazov in the novel. “They live to soften and purify our hearts and, as it were, to guide us. Woe to him who offends a child!”


How needed are those words today in the United States, where children are under assault from both the Left and the Right. Where are the Father Zossimas to stand up to the political leaders and activists who would put children back to work into what writer Edwin Markham once called the “Bastilles of Labor”, the factories and farms where they could work cheap and fill the gaps left by adult workers no longer willing to slave away at unlivable wages?


Where are the Father Zossimas who would protect children from the crazed attackers who shot their way through dozens of schools in 2022, killing 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and continuing their assaults today while politicians argue the sanctity of the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?


Where are the Father Zossimas who would protect children from sexualized performances in kindergartens and grade schools by Drag Queens who want to push a Queer theory agenda that would reformulate “children’s relationship with sex, sexuality, and eroticism,” in the words of North Carolina therapist and author Paula Rinehart?


Bastilles of labor


Recent reports by In These Times, the New York Times, and the U.S. Department of Labor show that hundreds of underage children are working at fast food outlets, construction projects, food processing plants, farms, and factories across at least 20 states. “Some were working 12 hours a day and many were not attending school,” Sonali Kolhatkar wrote for In These Times.


Many of these children are undocumented migrants from Central America, the victims along with their parents of neoliberal economic and trade agreements and policies that have impoverished small farmers and blue-collar workers across the Global South and forced them to migrant into foreign lands like the United States in search of jobs and sustenance.


This past March Arkansas’s Republican governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, signed into law a bill that eliminated requirements by employers to verify the age of children before hiring them. Republicans are leading the charge to eliminate such requirements, and they’ve succeeded in Iowa and Wisconsin, and are pushing similar bills in other states. The U.S. Department of Labor reported this month that some 300 children in Kentucky worked illegally at McDonald’s franchises.


Post-pandemic demands by workers for better wages and working conditions have led profit-obsessed employers to seek other sources of labor, rather than simply paying workers what they deserve.


(Child coal miners in West Virginia in 1908. Photograph by Lewis Hine)

Nearly 120 years ago, during the great Muckraking era in journalism, poet and teacher Edwin Markham raged in Cosmopolitan magazine against the child labor practices of the day. “An army of one million seven hundred thousand children are at work in our `land of the free’ … many of them working their ten or fourteen hours by day or by night, with only a miserable dime for a wage!”


Both the robber barons and the preachers of the day defended the practice of sending children off to “the ogre scream of the factory whistle” where they worked so hard that at night “they fall asleep with the food unswallowed in the mouth.” Many of these children were young daughters of the South, sweating away their childhood in textile mills and subsceptible to the desires of their overseers if they happened “to be cursed with a little beauty.”


Markham’s public outrage helped spark widespread condemnation of child labor and passage of laws that largely eliminated it—for a time.


In a land where the 2nd amendment is more important than children


Between 2019 and 2021 the United States reported more than 1,700 mass shootings. Hundreds more came in 2022, and the numbers are climbing in 2023. Children are often the victims of these shootings, and schools are especially vulnerable.


Last month thousands of students in the Nashville area walked out of their schools and  to the Tennessee State Capitol to protest the state’s lax gun laws in the wake of a March 27 shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school where police said 28-year-old Audrey Hale killed three children and three adults before being shot and killed.


Republican Governor Bill Lee pledged $155 million toward increased security at schools but he’s done nothing to repeal the 2021 statute he championed that allows 21-year-olds to carry handguns in public with no requirement for a permit. The state Legislature is considering a bill to lower the age to 18.


Meanwhile in Uvalde, Texas, mourners this month marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Robb Elementary School that left 19 children and two teachers dead. They also watched in despair as proposals to tighten gun laws in Texas floundered before the state Legislature.


 Their fellow mourners in Tennessee can understand their frustration. “We all want to live through high school,” Amy Goetzinger, 17, told the Chalkbeat Tennessee publication as she protested her state’s inability to make guns less accessible to potential murderers.


Drag queens and young children


Democrats and left-leaning liberals don’t get off the hook in the multi-faceted assault on children taking place in the United States.


A video filmed in 2022 by BlazeTV host Sara Gonzales showing a Texas drag queen dancing to a sexually provocative song in front of a young girl at a restaurant in Plano, Texas, not only went viral but also sparked outrage by politicians in the state who vowed legislation that would crack down on such performances. Leading the charge were Republicans, not Democrats.


The video was an early volley in a growing battle not only over children and exposure to highly sexual drag queen performances but also to questions of the propriety of allowing children to undergo life-changing gender transition procedures.


A commitment to equality and fairness in the treatment of people who are not strictly heterosexual is admirable, but should such a commitment include allowing blatant sexual demonstrations in front of young and vulnerable children who have enough challenges in their lives without a premature push to assess their sexuality? That includes allowing them to make or be part of decisions that they don’t have the maturity to make?


Paula Rinehart, a therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina, says drag queen culture ultimately attempts to “deconstruct childhood” and thus rob “children of the innocence that protects their maturing process” in the name of liberating “society from the oppression of gender.”


“Children are neither hormonally nor psychologically inclined to explore their sexuality,” Rinehart writes. “They don’t naturally worry if they are `nonbinary’. They must be primed, stimulated, dragged in that direction.”


A final word


A key word in Rinehart’s comment is “dragged”--children forced into back-breaking labor, exposed to life-threatening assaults at schools where they are supposed to learn and not hide under desks, and drawn into adult sexual wars. We adults have a responsibility. We should be not only protecting, educating, and preparing children for adulthood. We should also, as Father Zossima says, admire, appreciate, and love them for their ability “to soften and purify our hearts.”


Friday, May 12, 2023

Atkins gives his "Last Lecture" with a sharp critique of mainstream media and praise for I.F. Stone and today's truthtellers in the alternative media


(Yours truly giving the "Last Lecture" for the Mortar Board May 5. Photo by my student Eva-Marie Luter)

On May 5, with a hundred or so colleagues, peers, family, friends, and students in attendance, I gave what is called the "Last Lecture" to the University of Mississippi Mortar Board chapter (a National College Senior Honor Society), an honor generally given to a retiring professor. Yes, I'm retiring after 33 years of teaching (a reason for the long delay since my last post!) but will continue to write and do my due diligence as a journalist (a writer never retires!). Asked to discuss my "legacy" as well as my message to students, I did so, but I also talked about media and society today, and how mainstream media have failed the public, leaving it to alternative media to fill the gap and strive to bring truth to the people.


This is a great honor for me, of course, and a privilege to be able to give this, my last lecture, before my peers, colleagues, students, and friends and family, including my lovely wife Suzanne. I’ve said I would talk about media and its role in society, and my understanding is I’m also to address what I might consider my own legacy as well as message to students.


I should here acknowledge a few people who greatly influenced the trajectory of my life at key moments: Charles Overby, who brought me to Washington, D.C. to be a congressional correspondent with Gannett News Service, and five years later Will Norton, who hired me to teach at the University of Mississippi when my first wife Marilyn was suffering from cancer and wanted to return to her native Mississippi. I also need to thank my cousin-in-law Marsha Tapscott, who recommended me to Will. When I got here, I wasn’t really sure how long I’d stay, but this university and this town get into your blood, and this became home.


I feel I’m leaving the journalism and new media program at a very exciting time with our Dean Andrea Hickerson and a fine faculty on the brink of great and positive change. Expanding into a school with three departments, and more students and faculty than ever in the program’s history.


My retirement this summer comes after a 33-year career here. For 15 years prior to that, I was a practicing daily journalist working at newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi and finally with Gannett News Service. Over the years I’ve criss-crossed many times the U.S. South that I’ve long considered my “beat”, and I’ve traveled as far away as Singapore and Hong Kong in pursuit of stories about real people living real lives. I’ve been a business reporter, a political reporter, a labor reporter, a theater critic, a feature writer, and more recently a film writer of all things. Over my career I’ve interviewed a long list of the good, the bad, and the ugly—from Rosa Parks, Hazel Brannon Smith, Bill Monroe, B.B. King, Ted Kennedy, and Gerald Ford to Jim Eastland, Orval Faubus, Strom Thurmond, and Ross Barnett, to notorious murderers Willie Horton during the 1988 presidential campaign, and Roy Bryant, one of the two men who murdered Emmett Till.


My focus as a journalist was usually on regular folks and their struggles. I come from a blue-collar family. My father was a World War II veteran and a tool-and-dye maker. My mother was a German war bride and a seamstress. From that German mother I learned to love philosophy, classical music, and appreciate the value of religious faith. From my father I learned the value of good, hard, honest work. I hope my concern for the Average Joe and Jane, the working class, is a legacy of sorts—their worthiness, their struggles, their untold stories, their lack of voice in our politics, economic, and cultural life today. Note I said “working class”, not the increasingly meaningless term “middle class”. As a teacher, I never tried to preach to my class. That’s not my job. Confession: I may try to preach a little today. I am, after all, the grandson of a Pentecostal Holiness preacher, a street preacher, no less. In my classes, however, I have tried to make sure students knew our real history, the full breadth of issues in our society, and the ramifications of the decisions of our leaders, the importance of good writing and reporting, and our duty as journalists to tell the truth as best as we can. I’ve wanted them to know that everybody’s got a story. I remember my own encounters—the farmer who still plowed with a mule, the Pentecostal preacher and his tent revival, the Lumbee Indian and his visions of past glories, the Delta blues singer who dug graves on the side. Sometimes, maybe even most times, the loser’s story is better than the winner’s story. The baseball player who never made it out of the minors after 12 years of trying may be a hellavu lot more interesting than this year’s MVP. These were reasons I developed courses in how social issues affect film and documentaries, and finally this last semester, a brand new course on Alternative Media.


I look back across the many classrooms I have faced, and the faces among them—too many to name all, but including a couple of our current faculty members as well as highly successful journalists like Nancy Xu from China and Takehiko Nomura from Japan, those successive waves of Bangladeshi graduate students, my American-born-and-bred students like Barrett Welch, and the Gang of Five—Allie Watson, Lila Nakaidinae, Jaylin Smith, Eva-Marie Luter, and Hayden Wiggs—who’ve followed me through three courses over the last two semesters—and, of course, Rhodes scholar Jaz Brisack and Evan Morrisey in the Honors College, where I was able to teach my beloved Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Chicago writer Nelson Algren, as well as the great writers of nonfiction. I hope these bright young people learned as much from me as I did from them.


As a professor here, I have also continued to practice journalism—to practice what I preach--and it has gotten me in trouble at times. A couple decades ago, there was an effort in the state Legislature to get me fired because of opinion columns I had written that some politicians disagreed with. This was the year I was up for tenure. Jackson (Mississippi) Clarion Ledger legislative reporter Andy Kanengeiser called me and said, “Damn, Joe, they’re coming after you.” Let me say this, then-Liberal Arts Dean Dale Abadie (we were under them at the time) and the University of Mississippi stood with me, however, and that effort ultimately failed. Dale said to me, "Don’t you worry about a thing, Joe Atkins.”


I want to talk about the media. As both a journalist and a professor of journalism, I am very concerned about the state of media in our society and our world today. I love the democratic potential our technological advances promise, but I also know how powerful forces in the past circumscribed the promises of earlier technological revolutions such as radio and television and even as far back as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. A real commitment has to be made to protect the public’s rights as beneficiaries of these advances, yet how difficult that is today when both our major political parties as well as our courts seem to be in the hands of those circumscribing powerful forces.


Perhaps like many of you, I feel sometimes like a stranger in a strange land when I turn to the media to try to understand the world. Mainstream media today—everywhere, not just here in the United States—too often are what crusading journalist Patrick Lawrence has called “merely mirrors reflecting the established ethos of the polity in which they operate. They do their best to keep Americans ignorant. If the ruling cliques wanted America to boast an intelligent populace, the press and broadcasters would do their part—as Jefferson understood this part to be—to inform them.”


I may rub some people the wrong way today—like I did with my 35 years of newspaper columns--but I’m going to weigh in on a few things. While we fight among ourselves, retreating to our tribes, bickering and fussing ourselves into blind corners, our nation and world inch toward nuclear war. Look at the superficial coverage of the current war in Ukraine, our proxy war with Russia, and the warmongering and saber rattling of our government toward China. Much of our mainstream media today remind me of the time the New York Times told us Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Where is there a discussion of the history that led up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our own complicity in helping prompt that invasion? Not giving Russia an out here, but we simply aren’t being told the whole story. And why are we preparing to go to war—what would be a nuclear war--with China? Hasn’t the U.S. agreed for many years with a “One China Policy” that essentially asserts Taiwan is indeed part of China? I’ve been to Taiwan and loved the place and its people, and I don’t want to see it invaded, but I also don’t a nuclear war.  What has China truly done other than threaten U.S. economic hegemony over the world and thus the treasure chests of our own nation’s oligarchs? Do we have more right being in the South China Sea than China? I mean isn’t that a legitimate question?


Where are the in-depth reports into the civil war in Sudan? Isn’t it interesting that not long before the current civil war the government agreed to have a Russian naval base on that country’s Red Sea? Do you think the CIA might have something to do with this civil war?


Let us remember that in the last 50 years, our own country has invaded Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. Since World War II we’ve helped overthrow governments in most of those countries, plus Iran, Chile, Honduras, who knows where else.


I love my country but I am not blind to its faults or to its potential to be better.


(To the right, I.F. Stone)

In the early 1980s, when I was a graduate student in journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., I was fortunate to get a much-prized internship with the Baltimore Sun’s Washington bureau. Many great journalists came through the doors of that relatively small newsroom—Thomas Edsall, whom I shadowed as an intern, bureau chief Pat Furgurson. These were largely Old School, Gentlemen of the Press journalists, some of whom I believe still banged out their stories on typewriters. One day I was at my desk in my tiny cubbyhole when a little old man with thick glasses walked up to the desk next to me and picked up the phone. “Hello,” the little old man said into the receiver, “this is I.F. Stone, and I’d like to speak to” ….. well, I didn’t hear any of the rest of what he said. “I.F. Stone,” I said to myself. “My gosh, I. F. Stone is standing a few feet from me.” One of the great crusading fathers, along with his mentor George Seldes, of modern-day independent journalism in America, Stone was writing a column for the Sun at the time. After his call, I immediately went up and introduced myself. I’ll never forget that he took notes as I did. “Joe Atkins, huh,” he said as he scribbled on his notepad. I later interviewed him for a story.


To me, in many ways, Stone represented the best of American journalism. He told the stories the mainstream media wouldn’t touch. His “I.F. Stone Weekly” never reached mass circulation, but those who wanted to be in the know read it religiously. He wrote and reported with a passion, a search for the unvarnished truth, and let the chips fall where they damn well may.


“You’ve got to wear your chastity belt as a journalist,” Stone used to say. The seducers are everywhere out there to get you to spin the story or simply not tell the story. We have a few I.F. Stones in our midst today—Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Patrick Lawrence, Eva Bartlett, perhaps the lone Western reporter actually reporting from the Donbass in Eastern Ukraine, and bless his Pulitzer Prize-winning heart, Seymour Hersh, who told us it was the U.S. that bombed the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea last September, an act of war not only against Russia but against our own ally, Germany. His report was met with complete silence by his former employer, the New York Times. No surprise there, I’m afraid.


As a journalist and journalism professor, I stand with the Stones and Hershes of my profession, the storytellers of truth. The great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose works I taught in my International Journalism class, said once, and I paraphrase, “All the intellectuals who sip their tea from their safe posts in Paris and New York look down their noses on us lowly journalists out there in the mud trying to get our stories,” but it’s we, when we do it right, who help our readers and viewers, the regular Joes and Janes, make sense of their world. What a mission to undertake. This is a noble profession, journalism, even reaching the level of an art, when it is practiced the way it should be, the way our nation’s founders meant when they adopted the First Amendment. What a glorious gift it has been for me not only to try to practice but also to be able to try to teach such journalism. I hope I have. What I can say is I deeply appreciate the opportunities this university has given me, and I’ll never forget it.


Friday, March 31, 2023

Making "The Killing", the 1956 classic film noir: "Auteur" Stanley Kubrick's shameful treatment of hardboiled writer Jim Thompson

Labor South looks at film and culture as well as politics, and thus here is an article I recently published in the amazing online film magazine, Vague Visages, about the making of the 1956 noir film The Killing. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the film was co-written by the legendary hardboiled writer Jim Thompson, an Oklahoma Territory native and former IWW/Wobbly who became the first of many writers the would-be auteur Kubrick shamefully cheated or tried to cheat out of their proper writing credits. The film's marvelous cast is a Who's Who of great character actors, the working stiffs of the Big and Small Screen, long a fascination of yours truly. This is a tribute to them as well as to film noir and Jim Thompson. A link to the Vague Visages article is also below.  




I can see it just as clearly as if it had really happened. The gathering at the table midway down the left aisle at Hollywood’s Musso & Frank Grill is getting emotional.  They’re hovering over their cigarettes, their glasses of bourbon and wine and beer, their half-eaten plates corned beef and cabbage, chicken pot pie, and sauerbraten.


A waiter whispers to Gustav Hasford and points to a table across the room. “That’s where Faulkner sat,” the waiter says, knowing this is Hasford’s first time at Musso & Frank. The Alabamian nodded appreciatively. The other writers at the table—Jim Thompson, Calder Willingham, Frederic Raphael, Terry Southern, and Dalton Trumbo—have been here a thousand times.


“He thought you were verbose and self-important,” Raphael says to Trumbo.


“And you know what Kirk Douglas said about him,” Trumbo answers after another sip of his wine. “He’s `not a writer.’ He’s `a talented shit’ who tried to steal credit for my screenplay and keep me on the Blacklist.”


“He gave me some of that same strange love, too,” Southern rejoins.


“He nearly ruined my film trying to rewrite it,” Willingham says. “The auteur. It was all him and nobody else, whether he deserved it or not.


Hasford drinks deep into his Budweiser. “He and Michael Herr wouldn’t even let me meet with them, and I not only helped write the script, I wrote the goddamn book.”


“Directors are often unpunished serial killers who appropriate credit from writers whom they have jettisoned,” Raphael says.


Big Jim Thompson waves a big paw, polishes off his whiskey and motions to the waiter for another. He leans across the table, long-held anger and hurt and resentment embedded in his rutted face.  “You all came after me. I was the first he betrayed. You fellows just followed in my footsteps.”

 (To the right, Jim Thompson)


Hardboiled writer Jim Thompson never forgave director Stanley Kubrick for denying him screenwriting credit in the 1956 noir masterwork The Killing. It was just one of many historic precedents of Kubrick’s first major feature film.


Hailed by Noir Czar Eddie Muller as “a monument to the classic caper film and a fresh gust of filmmaking in one clever package,” The Killing would go on to influence filmmakers ranging from those of the French New Wave to New Hollywood filmmakers like Martin Scorsese to today’s Quentin Tarantino.


The Killing also marked a special moment in film history. It heralded the arrival of a film world enfant terrible. It featured a collection of some of film’s greatest character actors, a star wrestling with deep self-contempt for his earlier testimony before the U.S. House for Un-American Activities Committee, and a compelling story of a racetrack heist that becomes an existential probe into the meaning of life.


Even 67 years after its release, The Killing resonates. Tarantino talks about the “non-linear plot,” how The Killing “changed the movies you love.” This low-budget—it cost $320,000 to make—box office failure “boldly” announced “the stylistic and thematic preoccupations that would become important constants” in Kubrick’s career, Haden Guest writes in an essay for the Criterion edition of the film. Scenes like Johnny Clay hiding a gun in a flowerbox later inspired a similar scene in The Godfather. The mask Johnny uses during the heist shows up later in films like Batman: The Dark Knight (2008).  Timothy Carey’s sharpshooter, though hidden from view, is even among the crowd on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

(Stanley Kubrick)

The Killing anticipated the films of the French New Wave—and with “its jagged time structure and doubling back over past events” marks Kubrick as not only “a bridge between the studio genre picture and the European art film” but as a “key transitional figure between Old and New Hollywood,” Guest says.


(Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr.)

Casting was another key to the genius that was The Killing. No noir film ever boasted a greater gathering of character actors—Elisha Cook Jr., Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, Timothy Carey, Marie Windsor, and Coleen Gray. Sterling Hayden got the lead role as Johnny Clay after Frank Sinatra never could commit to a film version of the Lionel White novel Clean Break that became the basis for The Killing. The studio, United Artists, wanted Victor Mature, but Kubrick and producer James B. Harris refused to wait the eighteen months Mature needed before he became available.  They got Hayden for $40,000, but the studio then only committed $200,000 to the project. Harris had to raise the rest from his own savings account plus a loan from his father.


Hayden’s performance was masterful, and driven in part perhaps by the inner tensions that had always created misgivings about choosing acting as a career, tensions then exacerbated by the former seaman’s caving and naming of names of suspected Communist sympathizers before the House for Un-American Activities Committee. He had briefly joined the Communist Party after fighting with the Partisans in Yugoslavia during World War II.

 (To the right, Sterling Hayden)

“The sense of disturbance prevails—deep-set, its roots in self-contempt,” he writes in his autobiography Wanderer. “I’ve lived with such torment for years and maybe I always will.”


In the film, Hayden’s Johnny Clay has just gotten out of prison and believes he has a plan for the perfect crime, a $2 million heist at a racetrack. What’s perfect, he believes, is the fact he’s assembled a five-man team of non-criminals, including a cop, a wrestler buddy, sharpshooter, and one of the window tellers at the racetrack, none of whom would likely raise suspicion from the law. His sharpshooter Nikki Arcane, played by Timothy Carey, is assigned to shoot the lead horse in the race, creating enough havoc to allow Clay and the others to pull off the heist.

(Timothy Carey)


The weak link proves to be the window teller, who lets his cheating wife find out enough about the plan to tip off her gangster lover. The lover decides he wants that $2 million and ends up in a deadly shooting match with Johnny’s team. Johnny manages to slip away with the loot and his girlfriend but before they can fly away they see the suitcase carrying the money fall off the airport baggage wagon and two million dollars scatter in the wind across the tarmac. 


It was a chance meeting on a New York City street between Harris and Kubrick, both in their mid-twenties at the time and still fledglings in filmmaking, that planted the seed that became The Killing.  Kubrick was a former Look magazine photographer who had turned to film and had a couple low-budget minor films to his credit, including the feature film Killer’s Kiss, a noir with haunting and promising cinematography but amateurish dialogue and plot.


The Killing, a brilliantly paced story about a racetrack robbery, is the work of a professional filmmaker,” writes Foster Hirsch in his book The Dark Side of the Screen. “Killer’s Kiss, that of a talented amateur.”


James B. Harris had made training films for the Signal Corps during the Korean War. A founder of Flamingo Films, he learned about Stanley Kubrick from his partner and fellow Signal Corps member Alexander Singer, who invited Kubrick to the set of a film they were making after the war. Harris would go on to work as a producer with Kubrick not only on The Killing but also Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962) before pursuing his own career as a director.


It was Harris who found the crime novel Clean Break by Lionel White in the Scribner’s Bookstore on New York’s Fifth Avenue and decided it would be a great vehicle for the new company he and Kubrick had just formed, Harris-Kubrick Pictures. He liked the book’s flashbacks and unusual nonlinear structure. He gave it to Kubrick, who agreed and asked Harris to pursue getting the rights for it. They learned that the Los Angeles-based Jaffe Agency was already negotiating with Frank Sinatra for a film version, but no decision had been reached. Harris bought the rights with $10,000 out of his own pocket.


After getting United Artists on board to back the project, Kubrick, an avid reader and lover of literature, suggested crime novelist Jim Thompson as a writer for the script. Thompson today is a legend in the hardboiled world of noir—a former IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) Wobbly and author of chilling tales such as The Killer Inside Me--but at the time he was on a downward, alcoholic spiral working at tabloids and strapped for cash. “Stanley Kubrick rescued Thompson from an early retirement into hackdom,” writes Robert Polito in his 1995 biography of Thompson, Savage Art.


Thompson, unfamiliar with the screenplay format, went to work for Harris and Kubrick. They worked at their company’s 57th Street office before Thompson migrated to a nearby hotel.


“Jim Thompson had made him nervous when they were working together on The Killing,” writer Michael Herr recounts in 2000 memoir Kubrick, “a big guy in a dirty old raincoat, a terrific writer but a little too hard-boiled for Stanley’s taste. He’d turn up for work carrying a bottle in a brown paper bag, but saying nothing about it—it was just there on the desk with no apology or comment—not at all interested in putting Stanley at ease except to offer him the bag, which Stanley declined, making no gestures whatever to any part of the Hollywood process, except maybe toward the money.”


One of the first big hurdles in the project was the fact no racetrack would agree to be the setting of a movie about a racetrack grand robbery. Kubrick’s biographer Vincent LoBrutto writes about this. Knowing it was be impossible to secure such an agreement, “sets were being designed and built for the interior sequences. Other exterior sequences could be achieved using second-unit footage and rear-screen projection.” Still, an agreement was reached with San Francisco’s Bay Meadows Racetrack to allow the filming of “second-unit material of a race in progress.”


Union restrictions (Kubrick could not both direct and be director of photography) forced camera-savvy Kubrick to hire veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard. He and Ballard locked horns a number of times during the filming, however, as Kubrick challenged Ballard’s time-honed methods with untested innovations, such as using a hand-held camera and a 25mm lens for certain shots when Ballard wanted a more standard 50mm lens. However, Ballard’s contributions made the film better, Haden Guest writes. “Ballard’s diagrammatic hot-spot lighting transforms dingy apartments and hidden back rooms into dramatic extensions of the robbers’ feverishly claustrophobic lives,” and it points to elements seen in future Kubrick films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980). 


(To the right, Ted de Corsia)

The supporting cast of The Killing is a Who’s Who of noir character actors. Elisha Cook Jr. firmly established himself as a founding father of Noir World in his role as the gunsel Wilmer Cook in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon in 1941.  Further roles such as hopped-up jazz drummer Cliff March in Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944) cemented his status. Ted de Corsia, who plays corrupt policeman Randy Kennan, looks “like a guy who’d spent his whole life in boxing gyms and bookie joints” with his barrel chest, beady eyes, and “hair glistening with a hard shell lacquer of Wildroot Cream,” writes Eddie Muller in his 1998 book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir.  


Timothy Carey’s sharpshooter character, Nikki Arcane, completes his task of killing the thoroughbred Red Lightning in the race allowing Johnny Clay’s gang to do the heist. However, his surly, racist behavior toward the African American parking attendant sets the stage for his own ultimate demise. “Played with reptilian charm,” as Haden Guest describes the performance, Carey’s Nikki Arcane “leers and grunts and groans out of his permanent death-mask face,” writes Barry Gifford in his 1988 book, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir.


Carey was one of the most unusual of Hollywood character actors. Notorious for scene-stealing and his unexpected improvisations—such as his extended crying and moaning “I don’t want to die” during the execution scene in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957)—he had one of those  “difficult to work with” reputations in Hollywood, yet directors from Kubrick to Cassavetes to Coppola to Tarantino recognized his talent and repeatedly sought him out for supporting roles in their films.  


“He was unrivaled in the 1950s in expressing his nuttiness in unexpected ways,” Eddie Muller says.


Marie Windsor and Coleen Gray provide the feminine challenge to all the testosterone in the film. Gray is Johnny Clay’s long-suffering girlfriend. Gray brought noir credits to the cast with roles in classics like Kiss of Death (1947) and Nightmare Alley (1947), but she was “always the lone ray of light in noir’s dismal demimonde,” according to Muller, the lone good girl amid a crew of criminal ne’er-do-wells.


Windsor’s Sherry Peatty is the classic femme fatale, the cheating, scheming wife of Elisha Cook Jr.’s  henpecked cuckold George Peatty, yet another gem of a role that established Cook as “the avatar of weak-willed weasles,” in Eddie Muller’s estimation.  Windsor’s noir credits included Force of Evil (1948) and The Narrow Margin (1952).


(Kola Kwariani)

Add to these other cast members such as Jay C. Flippen as the heist’s homosexual underwriter Marvin Unger, Kubrick’s chess-playing buddy Kola Kwariani as strongman Maurice Oboukhoff,  and, of course, Sterling Hayden, whose noir creds included his role as Dix Handley in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and you’ve got what Eddie Muller calls “a hand-picked rogue’s gallery,” and “ample proof that Stanley Kubrick loved film noir.”


The film was shot quickly—less than the 24 days scheduled--in Los Angeles on an independent’s budget with UA providing only $200,000. Kubrick took no salary and lived off loans from Harris. Kubrick’s directing—the 27-year-old director had never acted himself--was largely low-key.  “He didn’t direct in front of anybody else,’ Marie Windsor recalled. “He’d say, `Marie, come over here a minute.’ We’d go behind the scenery, and he’d say, `In this scene, I want you to be really tired and lazy.’ I’d had some stage training, and he was trying to get me not to use my big voice.”


Once filming ended, Hayden’s agent, Bill Shiffren, and other industry previewers weren’t impressed and insisted Kubrick re-shoot the film in a more traditional linear fashion. Kubrick re-edited it, but he and Harris decided they had to go with their original version, which more closely matched the structure of Lionel White’s book.  “We put it back the way we had it at the preview and delivered it that way to United Artists,” Harris later recalled.


With a score that featured André Previn on piano and Shelly Manne on drums, the re-constituted film got through UA executives, but the studio released the film on May 20, 1956, earlier than scheduled and with minimal publicity. Plus the studio gave it second billing in a double feature with Bandido starring Robert Mitchum on top.  The Killing thus got little attention and lost money, but it caught Hollywood’s eye. MGM’s Dore Shary liked it enough to bring Harris and Kubrick under his studio’s wing for future productions, and the following year it led to a huge career boost for Kubrick with the director’s job for the war film Paths of Glory (1957) starring Kirk Douglas. 


The Killing would prove pivotal to Kubrick’s career. Douglas had seen the film and “was so taken” by it that he asked to meet Kubrick, who also wanted Douglas for the lead role of Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory. The Killing “was an unusual picture, and the studio had no faith in it and handled it poorly,” Douglas writes in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son. “I was intrigued by the film, and wanted to meet the director.”


Douglas, a big star at the time, was key in helping to get financing for Paths of Glory. He told Kubrick the film was important and needed to be made even though it was unlikely to turn a profit. During filming, he was impressed with Kubrick’s talent but also found him frustrating. Kubrick tried to change the screenplay written by Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson—whose anger at Kubrick over the credits in The Killing didn’t prevent him from signing on to another film with him—and turned “a beautiful script” into a “cheapened version” with dialogue that was “atrocious.” When confronted by Douglas about the changes, Kubrick retorted, “I want to make money.”


Douglas said Kubrick’s rewritten script included lines like “You’ve got a big head. You’re so sure the sun rises and sets up there in your noggin you don’t even bother to carry matches.” The film was shot with the original script and is today a classic.


Douglas later would hire Kubrick to replace Anthony Mann as director of his 1960 epic Spartacus.  With an all-star cast that included Lawrence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, and Peter Ustinov as well as Douglas in the lead role as the Roman Empire-era slave Spartacus, the $12 million film would win four Academy Awards and become a huge box office success for Universal Studio. However, Kubrick hated working under studio and Douglas’ own restrictions, and Douglas would never forget how Kubrick was willing to steal screenwriting credits from HUAC blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. Douglas’ decision to credit Trumbo on the big screen effectively restored Trumbo’s career and brought an end to the dreaded blacklist that had ruined so many lives and careers.


Douglas recalled the discussion he, producer Edward Lewis, and Kubrick had about screenwriting credits for the film. “Use my name,” Kubrick told them.


“Eddie and I looked at each other horrified. I said, `Stanley, wouldn’t you feel embarrassed to put your name on a script that someone else wrote?’ He looked at me as if he didn’t know what I was talking about. `No.’ He would have been delighted to take the credit. … Stanley is not a writer. … All this proves that you don’t have to be a nice person to be extremely talented. You can be a shit and be talented and, conversely, you can be the nicest guy in the world and not have any talent. Stanley Kubrick is a talented shit.”


Kubrick, the lifelong lover of books who couldn’t write, would go on to a heralded career as a director but one haunted by his obsession with being the “auteur” who bears sole responsibility for a film and shadowed by the same treatment he gave writer Jim Thompson in The Killing.   


“Even then a self-styled auteur, Kubrick was notorious for his cavalier use of writers,” Woody Haut writes in 2002 book Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood. “Some authors would buy into the Kubrick myth to such a degree that they would come to thank the director for mistreating them.”


Writer Calder Willingham would get similar treatment in his work with Kubrick on Paths of Glory as would Terry Southern on Dr. Strangelove (1964). Gustav Hasford’s book The Short-Timers became the basis for Kubrick’s 1987 war film Full Metal Jacket. The author also worked with Kubrick and writer Michael Herr in crafting a script out of the novel. A little known writer of a little known book with no agent or lawyer, however, he only met Kubrick in person once and was relegated to communicating with him only via phone, fax, or e-mail while Kubrick and the better-known Herr worked more intimately together.


Both Herr and Kubrick’s biographer, Vincent LoBrutto, tend toward hagiography in their books about the director, but Hasford’s dissatisfaction with his treatment was obvious when he showed up unexpectedly on the set of Full Metal Jacket during filming. “I wanted to see in fact whether the film was being made,” he said later in an interview. “I was contemplating legal action at the time, and it would’ve been pointless if there were no movie.”


Hasford won equal screenwriting credit with Kubrick and Herr on Full Metal Jacket but it took a small war to get it. “In the cynical world of L.A., where show ‘biz’ deals are conducted in the back alleys of cocktail parties like self-parodying out-takes from a comedic film noir, you might want to interject this lively note of (transitory) optimism,” he later wrote. “I won my credit battle with Stanley. I beat Stanley, City Hall, The Powers That Be, and all the lawyers at Warner Bros., to and including the Supreme Boss Lawyer. As a little Canuck friend of mine would say, I kicked dey butt.”


Michael Herr stopped speaking to him as a result, however.


Kubrick’s treatment of Jim Thompson left the writer scarred for life. “That Stanley Kubrick `cheated’ him out of his credit on The Killing became another of Thompson’s personal myths in the sense that for the rest of his life he rehearsed his grievance to all who would listen,” Robert Polito writes in his biography of Thompson. “His `betrayal’ by Kubrick is an anecdote that everyone who knew him after 1955 can recite.”


Although Thompson’s family insists that the writer took his case to the Writers Guild and won concessions plus the opportunity to work on the Harris-Kubrick production of Paths of Glory, Polito challenges that story, pointing out that Thompson didn’t join the Writers Guild until two years later. Nevertheless, Thompson didn’t let Kubrick’s betrayal prevent them from indeed working together on Paths of Glory, for which he did receive joint credit with Kubrick and Calder Willingham for the screenplay.


James Harris insisted that Thompson only deserved his “additional dialogue” credit, that the writer didn’t deserve more credit for the script. Associate producer Alexander Singer, however, disagreed, telling Polito that Thompson was “the person who wrote the script.”


In his 1999 book Eyes Wide Open, a sharp critique of the director from a writer who’d worked with him on his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), screenwriter Frederic Raphael describes Kubrick as a gifted director with no ability to write. “Longing to deserve the accolade of auteurship, directors often seek to append their names to the writing credits. Their habit is to be empowered to embellish scripts which they were powerless to begin.”


Kubrick, with all his love for literature, had little respect for screenwriters, Raphael writes. He recalled a conversation he once had with Kubrick who told him the following: “No writer who’s really good is ever going to invest his full ego in work that some other guy is going to come in and direct. It’s a psychological impossibility.”


Nonetheless, The Killing “ranks … among (Thompson’s) crowning accomplishments,” Polito writes, while also marking the emergence of one of Hollywood’s greatest modern directors. Thompson never became a Hollywood insider. “Jim Thompson loved the idea of Hollywood, especially the old Hollywood that endured around such vintage establishments as the Musso & Frank Grill—Hollywood’s oldest restaurant, a dark, woody chop house, fortified with two matching bars, on Hollywood Boulevard.”


Kubrick eventually left Hollywood and moved to England to make his movies. However, he was in many ways the embodiment of a new Hollywood--brilliant, creative, and perhaps a bit ruthless, words that could also be used to describe his first great film, The Killing.