Monday, September 27, 2004

Laughter is the Best Obituary: Leni Reifenstahl and the Cult of Shamelessness

“Alles was an etwas erinnert, ist Denkmal.”
(‘Everything that reminds us of something is a memorial.’)
- Rudolf Ulrich

I woke one morning last July here in Detroit to hear and NPR broadcaster announcing the death of Walter Frentz, “Hitler’s Cameraman,” and former Luftwaffe film technician. Frentz entered Hitler’s inner circle of associates during the final years of the Reich. He died at age 96 on July 6 in the south German town of Ueberlingen, the announcer specified. During his career with the Reich Frentz visually documented the Nazism’s most powerful and infamous figures; he directed at least one film on a commission he obtained directly from Herr Hitler.

Frentz’s early days as a student in the city of Berlin in the 30’s, were remarkable for the fortunate associations he enjoyed: he met and befriended Albert Speer, who would be “Hitler’s Architect”; He likewise befriended Leni Reifenstahl, who would be “Hitler’s Director” as well as being Frentz’s future mentor. Frentz later worked at Ufa Films, the German film company now famous for having housed and nurtured a cabal of future Nazi cinema’s intelligentsia.

NPR’s report of this unremarkable death caught my attention partly because those of us who have made a study of film history will recall Frentz having worked with the far more celebrated and infamous Reifenstahl on two of her most well-known films. He was her hand-held cameraman on Sieg Des Glaubens ("Victory of the Faith"—1933/34) and Triumph des Willens (“Triumph of the Will”—1934). Frentz worked with her again on one or both of the film pair, Olympia 1. Teil–Fest der Volker (1936/38) and Olympia 2. Teil-Fest der Schönheit (1936/38), a two-part documentary of the Berlin Olympics. He was commissioned on his own by Hitler to do the Nazi propaganda film, Haende am Werk ("Hands at Work"—1936).

Apropos of Rudolph Ulrich (who provided, posthumously, the epigram affixed above), the death of Frentz ‘reminded me of something’, and was therefore of course memorial. The announcement of the death of Frentz reminded me of a similar morning in Miami, on September 9, 2003 when I woke to the voice of an NPR correspondent announcing the death of "Hitler's film maker", Leni Riefenstahl, at age 101.

Hearing of Reifenstahl’s death, who had in her latter days transformed herself into an underwater photographer rather than a documentary artist framing Nazi armies, I had found myself laughing.

When one considers the absurdity, longevity and sheer celebrity of Leni Riefenstahl’s life, the life of a brilliant woman artist whose legacy was forever twisted and sullied by her intimate association with the Third Reich, who outlived Hitler and most of her fellow Nazi groupies, who for fifty years kept popping up in the world media declaring first her disagreement with the racial supremacy doctrines of Nazism, then her regret at having been a Nazi, and then quite shamelessly declaring her refusal to go on apologizing for her own 'youthful indiscretions', considering all of this, perhaps my rueful laughter was the most appropriate response to her long, wasted life, and her ignoble death.

Ignoble, precisely because it was not a death which found her the celebrated Aryan cine frau bestride an awed world under the boot of Nazism; because she was not, upon her death, an intimate of world conquerors, nor the dicumentarianatrix of masculine power, the role she might have imagined for herself as early as her days with Ufa. Rather, she was an old woman whose latter work had featured not grand, mythic mise en scene of endless jackbooted phalanxes storming the Champs Elysees, but underwater flowers against a backdrop of depthless murk.
The Associated Press published this account of Reifenstahl’s Nazi association:

Despite critical acclaim for her later photographs of the African Nuba people
and of undersea flora and fauna, she spent more than half her life trying to
live down the films she made for Hitler and…[live down] having admired the
tyrant who devastated Europe and all but eliminated its Jews. Even as late as
2002, she was investigated for Holocaust denial after she said she did not know
that Gypsies taken from concentration camps to be used as extras in one of her
wartime films died in the camps. (AP, Sept 10, 2003)

Riefenstahl, born in 1902 to an upper middleclass Berlin family, was an artistic dancer in Munich, Berlin, and Prague. But that was only the first of what biographers have called, 'the five lives' of Riefenstahl. After reportedly being thrown into a Nietzschean trance when she saw a German film on mountain climbing in the 1920's, she felt drawn to cinema art. She sought out the 'best' filmmakers in Germany, who happened also to be proto-Nazis (Nazis would be known soon being 'the best', notwithstanding the mediocrity of Goebbels), and so fell in with the German National Socialist Party.

For her 'second life' she became an actress in their films: she tracked down Herr Doktor Arnold Fanck, director of the film that had made her swoon, and presumably danced for him in private. Thus, she charmed her way first into Hitler's outer circles of artists, writers, and filmmakers, then, eventually, into the inner circles of Hitler's heart: he made her official documentarianatrix of the Nazi party.

By 1933, at age 31, she was living out her 'third life' filming the documentaries she is best known for, Triumph des Willens, her documentary film about the 1934 Nazi party congress (a testosteronic cine fantastique replete with fascist rallies, marches, and regimented spectacle), and then Olympia, the Third Reich glorifying documentary record of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Her subsequent 1938 triumphal tour of America—particularly Hollywood—was marred only by the advent of Kristallnacht on November 9. When news of the burning of Jewish synagogues, beatings of Jews in the streets by gangs of SA thugs, the police, and other civic officials, and persecution of Jewish shopkeepers across Germany reached the adoring reporters gathered outside Reifenstahl’s bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, her plans to distribute her award winning films fell through. This of course put a damper on her thus far glorious third life.
It should be noted though, that prior to her sailing back to Germany in disgrace, Walt Disney did grant her a furtive and private interview, and that the LA Times gave her absolutely rave reviews. Disney, though a Nazi sympathizer himself, had backed out of promises to let her screen her films for him in private.

By the 40's of course, her fortunes fell even further, along with the fortunes (and heads) of a great many of 'the best'. The ordeal of going through the Nuremberg trials, an experience which necessitated her briefly having to share a cell block with some of the former big names of the Third Reich, may have been the result of American intelligence suggesting she had allowed her Reich buddies to force concentration camp prisoners to act as labor and as extras in her (it now seems ironically titled) film, Tiefland ("Low Country").

Riefenstahl escaped hanging when the American occupation forces (seemingly in contradiction to American Intelligence) decided that as an artist she should simply be 'de-Nazified' and released; but she soon found herself arrested by the French, who in their own Cartesian way were less forgiving of wayward artists who’d mingled with demons than were the Jeffersonian Americans. The French humiliated her by confiscating her film negatives, her property and possessions, and promptly re-trying her.

They eventually released her, marking her a 'fellow traveler' and Nazi sympathizer whose crimes did not quite rise to the level of earning her a hangman's noose, even if she had earned the distinction of being, ala Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, an artist of severely flawed taste in patrons.

Universally reviled and unable to continue her film career, she spent the 50’s and 60's developing her 'fourth life.' Having fallen into another Nietzschean swoon after reading Hemingway's "The Green Hills of Africa" in her 50's, Reifenstahl decided to go to Sudan to become a still photographer, and produced a series of photographic essays on her favorite African tribe, "The Nuba." Her work focused particularly on the nude bodies of the tall, muscular, and beautiful Nuba men. The overtly and somewhat oddly anthroeugenic tone of the gaze in her work has largely gone uncommented upon by critics, at least in English.

Her ‘fifth life’ was one in which she took to doing underwater photography, learning to scuba dive despite her advanced age (she was reportedly 71 years old by then, though some sources report that she was already in her 80’s). By the 1970's, a controversial discourse had arisen over Reifenstahl: was she an artist worthy of consideration simply by merit of her art, or was she a monstrously flawed woman who’d marred her own artistic contribution with her close association with a few of modern times’ most demonic political figures? As Stefen Steinberg reported on Sept 15, 2003:

To her last days, Riefenstahl…disputed the significance of her role
in promoting Nazi Germany. In memoirs and interviews, she constantly claimed she
was “naïve,” a non-political person who never joined the Nazi party and was only
interested in her art, someone who only did what many others did, and so on. In
interviews after the war, she asserted that the driving force in her life was
the search for “beauty and harmony”—“reality does not interest me.” [1] Her
career clearly shows, however, that far from being just an innocent victim of
Nazi political propaganda, she was instrumental in creating a charade of “beauty
and harmony” for the most barbaric and reactionary regime in modern history.
(World Socialist Website:

The last days of her fifth and final life were filled with her love of, and desire to protect, aquatic life (quite a sharp contrast, this irruption of caring, one must conclude, to her earlier disinterest in the preservation of Jewish, Slavic, Gay, Communist, Anarchist, genetically ‘undesirable’, Lesbian, and Armenian, human life). She joined Greenpeace, and spent her professional energies on the photography of underwater environments. Her fans, keen to reinforce this kinder, gentler ex Nazi, are fond of quoting a statement she made to Cahiers du Cinema shortly after the war, as evidence of her divine dis-involvement in the quotidian realities of a material world:

“I can simply say that I feel spontaneously attracted by everything
that is beautiful... It comes from the unconscious and not from my knowledge...
Whatever is purely realistic, slice of life, which is average, quotidian doesn’t
interest me... I am fascinated by what is beautiful, strong, healthy, what is
living. I seek harmony.”

A more telling quote, however, might be her statement, recounted by Matthias Schreiber and Susanne Weingarten in Die Spiegel in 1997 in their Realität interessiert mich nicht - Leni Riefenstahl über ihre Filme, ihr Schönheitsideal, ihre NS-Verstrickung und Hitler’s Wirkung auf die Menschen (Spiegel 18.08.1997):

Question: ‘When you photograph a Greek temple and at the side there
is a pile of rubbish, would you leave the rubbish out?’
Riefenstahl: ‘Definitely, I am not interested in reality.'

In considering the now global, still revolving debate over whether or not Reifenstahl sufficiently ‘apologized’ for associating with Nazism through her later, more gentle life and later more facile work, and when, if ever, she will be forgiven, it is clear that Reifenstahl still does occupy a peculiar historical position buttressed by a cult of shameless admirers. It is the very
same historical position that Herr Albert Speer had himself occupied for quite some time following Nuremberg. Speer has only recently been deposed from that position. It is, to name the thing, the position of sublime detachment. This peculiar detachment from past association with horror can accrue to certain figures even after death. It bestows unsullied freedom from the harsher judgments of history regarding the figure’s past support for or even participation in mass brutality.

That support and participation is minimized by fervent supporters as being mere indiscretion. It is a position enjoyed into posthumous perpetuity by Speer, Heidegger, Paul de Man, and lately Ronald Reagan, to name a few.

Yet, Somewhere in my wandering research after Reifenstahl’s death I stumbled across a bbs internet site devoted to holocaust survivors, which contained this (apparently anonymous) trenchant reply to the question of when her apology will be accepted:

"When the ashes of the Warsaw Ghetto rise again as flesh
and blood, she can apologize to them, and wait to hear their verdict."

On the morning I learned of her death I laughed. I laughed at a cold, brutal, sad truth occasioned by the death of one of the twentieth century's 'best' artists and filmmakers: that artists cannot, any more than politicians or generals can, escape taking responsibility for the things they do, the people they support, or the ideologies they devote their artworks to.
Now, some years later, with the death of the far less renowned, far less artistically gifted, and far less reviled cameraman, Walter Frentz, I am once again struck by the leveling force of evil; a force that is irresistible such that it can move even the immovable object of the cult of shamelessness. Evil can tear down not only lives and love, but can even tear down meaning, value, and significance that might have been garnered and wielded by artists such as Reifenstahl, and yes, Frentz. For, in death as in life, both were equally guilty of betraying their own talents, their own art, and by extension guilty of betraying art itself.

Perhaps the fact that Hitler was a frustrated visual artist ought to somehow illuminate the irony, tragedy, and deeper implications of all this.Yet, what I must conclude is that the ultimate tragedy, as always, is that of the victims of Nazism, and not with the venal, hapless, stupid, selfish, or mediocre fascists, artists or not, who enabled Nazism’s rampage.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Regina Rodriguez

Regina Rodriguez is the sister I always wished I'd had.

That doesn't mean I don't love my own sisters, Katherine and Regina Rene. They're both intelligent, beautiful, and hard-working, like good working-class sisters ought to be. The only thing is that both of them are very typical working-class Black women with bourgeois aspirations in that they both are very preoccupied with money, status, security, and conventionality. They and the rest of my family love me, but both of them and most of my family too, are a mystified by the fact that I have college degrees but that I never used them to get a good, cut throat corporate job: I have no Mercedes, I don't live in the suburbs of Detroit and have no plans to ever do so (Regina has been in a suburban apartment for a few years now). I don't spend much money on clothes, and I don't own a pastel tuxedo for weddings (I don't even go to weddings and if I did go to weddings, the last one I would want to go to would be a working-class Afrikan-American wedding. Before you assume that statement is self-hating just think about the fact that I mentioned 'pastel tuxedos' just a moment ago. Yeah. Get my point?).

I work as a low-paid journalist ( a step down from the professor posts I held at several universities and walked away from recently--not that 'professor' wasn't already questionable in my sisters' minds, but at least I made more money). I spend all my time reading books, going to museums and films, and sitting in my apartment writing.

My sisters' attitude toward me is vaguely disapproving. I can tell what they and others in my family are thinking: is this why we struggled to make a way in America, guarding our Mandinka/Malian/Choctaw Indian heritage? So that Ray can be a bum? Is this why we rose from slavery, survived the Ku Klux Klan, suffered through Jim Crow? Is this why our family, the Wallers and the Dukeses, left Alabama and migrated to the North to sweat in the factories, steel mills, and streets of Detroit? So Ray can sit around reading books?

Regina probably doesn't remember, but I asked her this question one day thirteen years ago or something like that, standing with her in the kitchen of "Stuart Little", the group house where she lived with various other neo-hippies, vegetarians, pacifists, and humanists, at the edge of Cornell University's campus. She lived  there for years, back when we were graduate students at Cornell. At one point before I left Cornell I lived in my own collectivist, socialist group house--"The Watermargin" down on West Campus at the foot of Libe slope. When I asked Regina the question, a question I knew she could relate to because she too, had grown up on the shoulders of her own Mayan-Aztec ancestors, and ethnic grandparents and parents who fought civil rights battles, overcame racism, and struggled to send her to school and support her in her journey off to an Ivy League paradise.

"Did our ancestors suffer, sacrifice and struggle just so we could come here and read books, Regina?" I asked her.

She stopped chopping vegetables,  turned to me, and stared at me with that blank, dark-eyed gaze of her's, and after a long moment, said, "Damn, Ray. I don't know." Then she turned back to chopping vegetables for the dinner she was cooking that night for the house. 

That was the lesson Regina, my sister, was always teaching me: that the answer to the question of life is life itself, is to live. Breathe (as Marcel Duchamp would say), listen to music, and dance. Philosophy is only as good as what it can do for you. Like Emma Goldman, Regina was always the kind of woman who wouldn't want to participate in any revolution that wouldn't allow her to dance. There were times I would be standing in line with dozens of other graduate students outside of a lecture hall waiting to see some luminary like Jacques Derrida, Ali Mazrui, or Tama Janowitz. Off down the line I would hear funk music. I would look in the direction of the jams and see Regina, in her red dress, her boom box sitting on the ground, blasting funk music, and Regina would be dancing. Students, faculty, and the errant, peripatetic intellectual dead-heads that used to shuttle back and forth between Ivy League campuses following the luminaries, would all be staring stupidly at her, not joining in, but not able to look away from her either. She was so alive, so lacking a shit to give about them all that they just had to look. 

She sat through those seminars, classes and lectures just like me, taught by people like Henry Louis "Skip" Gates (he was my doctoral chair, and I think he might have been Regina's too, for a while), Biodun Jeyifo, Jonathan Culler (for such a brilliant, famous man, he was also a kind man, and a Harrison Ford look-alike), Satya Mohanty (give some people a colonized British accent and they think they ain't colored no more), and Wole Soyinka (Soyinka, a humble and gentle man, that Nobel prize winning rascal; he was somewhat like Regina--he'd wander the campus in that blue jean jacket of his, in worn pants and shoes, demanding of every face in the crowd he thought he recognized from his graduate seminar classes, in that Downing Street and Savile Row British accent of his, 'You there! See here, where's Skip Gates' office??' He was definitely an unassuming man, British accent notwithstanding). She sat through all those classes, studied with a bunch of those famous people, so she was not anti-intellectual, or any less smart than the rest of us. She just had no patience for bullshit, and she was very, very preoccupied not with becoming a professor and getting tenure and a corner office, but with being alive.

She and I shared secrets, hung out, laughed, and backed each other up. We did a few things that nobody knows about but us, and could have ended up in jail if anyone had found out. Despite she and I both being in relationships with other people, I thought for a while that I was in love with Regina. But the closer I got to her, and the more I loved her, the more I realized that she was simply the sister I'd always wanted. She was my buddy, my confessor, my partner, my homegirl. She too, had been consecrated in the fire of President Johnson's "Great Society," and she too, had felt the heat of revolutionary culture around the edges of her childhood in California. With me, it had been my childhood in Michigan. With her, it was La Raza she grew up under the protection of. With me, it had been Black Power.

She was all about courage; about being herself, speaking in her own voice, wearing her own face, no matter what. I took that courage with me when I finally left Cornell, took it everywhere I went. Though Regina and I were not in touch for a decade, she was always with me, I took her with me in my heart. She went with me to Paris and the fifth arrondissement, to Durban and the Transkei bridge, and to Toronto up and down Dundas Street, and to Brixton where I ran into some cats who'd been in Cornell's Africana Studies program and who asked me, "Whatever happened to that little woman with the big heart, that friend of yours, Regina?"

One day I sat on Libe Slope with her under that beautiful blue, high above sea-level sky which disappeared off into the distance over West Campus and seemed to drop downward onto Ithaca Route 13, way down below at the bottom the hill. Off further were the mountains, gleaming in the sunlight. She was crying, because of some stupid, cruel, racist thing that had been said to her by some petrified, dried-up, classist hag on the faculty who felt it her precious duty to put a dark haired, dark eyed brown Chicana down lest that Chicana, and all the other pickaninnies on campus began thinking we were as important or that our cultures were as important as Chaucer or whatever. Regina seemed to bring out cruelty in some people, because she was so unwilling to stop being alive. Because so many of them had become zombies and wanted to use young people to replicate their academic, zombie culture. After I'd become a professor myself  I was even more  appalled to see this process on university campuses than I'd been to see it as a graduate student.

I held Regina in my arms as she cried, and felt all that life, passion, and vulnerability. One thing I'd come to understand about and learn from Regina was that vulnerability is always the price we pay for courage, and not just the courage of rushing into a burning house to rescue babies, but the far more difficult courage of walking around speaking in your own voice, unashamed. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, somebody will always come along trying their best to break your back just because they think they see an opportunity to do so. She had been a model for courage to me for all the years we were together on that campus. So I held her, and lied to her that everything would be okay, and in that moment I had the sister I had always wanted. The sister I could look up to, and depend on, and stand by, who'd always stand by me.

I'll always remember the times I would drop Regina off at Stuart Little on the way home to my apartment. Just before I would turn to head off down the steep 45 degree angle hill that led down off the hill downtown to Ithaca and my place on West Buffalo Street, she would call out to me, "stay black", and I would call back, "stay brown", and then I'd head off down the hill.

Happy Birthday, Regina, and stay brown.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

Viva Brando!

1. For Brando
With Marlon Brando dead, I’ve a dull ache in my chest at the thought of a man of such genius, energy and talent having joined the long line of souls who’ve passed through this place on their way back to the dust that all flesh is heir to. If Marlon can die, I thought when I heard the news, if Marlon can lay down and die then it really is true that we all, we writers, artists, musicians, and the like, are someday really going to lay down for that long dirt nap. So we aren't immortal after all, are we?

Sure, Orson Welles dying with Kikki in his arms back in 1985 was a kick in the head, but we had always suspected, hadn’t we, even way back around the time of A Touch of Evil (1966), that Orson was just such stuff as bye-bye was made of? Orson's life was always a way too hot medium. He was intense and reckless, an enfant terrible burning up years of creativity with hustling and globe trotting with that state of panic he was always in; always trying to raise funds to make his movies by hook or crook, fighting the noose around his neck but somehow always tied to the very forces that he’d rebelled against. He payed a long, hard price for having stuck his young thumb into William Randolph Hearst’s wealthy eye with Citizen Kane (1941). And in the end, once he'd grown fat, he was like a burned out acetyline torche—spent, resigned, creeping around Burbank in that stage shawl of his, clutching a huge unlit Cuban cigar, a ghost sitting on Johnny Carson’s couch even if still in possession of a sharp wit and venemon.

Compared to Orson, Marlon's life though, was a cool medium. There was never a noose around Marlon’s neck. He was not tied to anyone or to anything, at least not as a cinematic artist he wasn’t, and never could be. He was never in ‘rebellion’, he merely played rebels on screen. He never cared enough about cinema or about Hollywood and the money-men running it to bother to rebel. Where on some level Orson always wanted in his heart of hearts to be taken seriously, even to be accepted on his own terms, Brando never gave a rat’s ass who did or did not accept him. He made his own terms, and he lived with them, on his own. Rather than being in rebellion against stati quo, he was in and maintained always a profound sense of disinterest, like Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Dean Martin, Doris Lessing, and Miles Davis. That’s what made Marlon 'dangerous': his will toward freedom. And once he had grown fat he was still 'dangerous'. We still talked about him, speculated about his intentions. We held our breath waiting for him to 'come back' (and he did, twice, when he acted a post modern patiche of Vito Corleone in The Freshman (1990) with Mathew Broderick and when he acted his own dissipation in The Score (2001) with Deniro). Sean Penn still hung out with him on Marlon’s Pacific island. He was never brought to heel by the pezzonovante (Italian, translation: 90mm gun--'big shot') who tried all his life to domesticate him. He didn’t crawl into court when his son, Christian bit off a prison sentence for murder, but rather held his head up with dignity and humanity as he testified before the jury as a character witness. Critics still venerated him, and he never lowered himself to living as a has-been in the Hollywood colony of retirees who would wander down the steep, goatway of Mulholland Drive in early model Bentleys to turn up pasty faced on Johnny’s couch.

He came out of retirement for the last time to do The Score, an overtly allegorical story about a retired thief (Deniro) forced out of retirement by a young upstart thief (the powerful, then young Ed Norton) in order to steal a priceless (get this) scepter. The overt allegorical material has to do of course with the lineage of the grandfather (Brando), the son (Deniro), and the grandson (Norton). The resonance is obvious but nevertheless poignant thanks to the generosity of Deniro and Brando, whose scenes strip bare the old thief's (that is to say, the actor's, the father's) anxiety over usurpation. The scepter represents, of course, the primal, and sovereign claim to patriarchal authority, youth, and power. It is the son’s by natural right (Ed Norton's natural right), and the father and grandfather both know it. Even as they plot together to defeat the boy-thief Deniro and Brando know they are only buying time which must be repaid. Deniro and Brando both play on the implied anxiety of loss of celebrity, of youth, of life force. Even fat, Brando languidly twists the heads off his scenes and, in Brando fashion, turns mundanity and cliché inside out, investing the role and his lines with a self reflexive display of what a has-been would be like as an underworld mover and shaker all out of moves with nothing left but the shakes. With Deniro giving him plenty of room without a hint of genuflection, Marlon invests his lines with a laconic anomie. As he uses his own body, his own dissipation and fatigue to draw a character whose bathos underscores the pitiable end that thieves and actor alike must sooner or later accept if they fail to die young, as James Dean did.

But it isn’t really pity Brando is trying to conjur with the performance, it’s dread. In the character Brando sketches here (for it is just a sketch, not a wrenching, fully realized Method creation of the type Brando had constructed in his youth) we recognize the mortality we all have got to take a gut full of someday, and a Method actor like Brando clearly couldn’t have passed up the chance to tap into even this final portion of his life and to burn it as creative fuel—to burn even his own aging, mortal body, his own loss of vanity, dignity, and pride. This quiet, mundane role is, for all the mundanity of it, one of the the scariest screen performance I ever saw him in, almost as scary as Orson Welles’ incredibly courageous performance in A Touch of Evil (1958), wherein he bares his own personal vulnerabilty, rot, and aging pain. Brando’s grandfather thief is a sort of companion to the aching vulnerabilty of his earlier characterization, in Aurther Penn’s The Chase (1966), of an ethical small town police chief who undergoes a gang beating by corrupt citizens outraged at his ethics.

That gang beating in fact raises the semiotic of gang rape, and gives pictorial representation to a type of feminine vulnerability in Brando which I suspect was always an undertone to his film image as well as an element in the odd cruelty that critics and fans alike heaped upon him during his career (a symbological misogeny?). There was a soulful trait to him, at times even a pulchritude and full-lipped handsomeness to Brando in his youth—a beauty just dangerously short of female which was, as with Dean and Sal Mineo before him, a key to his ability to tap into deep seated audience responses. To this day his work taps into both our capacity to love him and to hate him. It was something he played upon not to enhance his ‘celebrity’ but rather to enhance his ability to construct characters we couldn’t help but feel something about—ergo the sadness he can evoke with his characterization of the grandfather thief, his final role.

* * *

It occurs to me that many of the myths about Brando will ineluctably be rolled out now, but he has made his final escape—he won’t hear any of in death just as he ignored it all in life. Because he remained aloof from it all, he died free and clear, his own man, his own human being. So it is left to us who admired his art to respond to the dehumanized, demonized, simulation Brando the Hollywood power structure will be rolling out in the wake of Brando's escape, supported by the mass media and entertainment journalism. Let’s start with the myth that Brando was a ‘failed genius’ who squandered his gifts; an actor with a tragically flawed filmography. With this first set of myths we’ll look at, critics and fans were prone to see Brando’s filmography as uneven, as sloppy. As an actor he was seen as being in some cases, and more and more after the 50's, wild, foolish, undisciplined, self-indulgent, doing work which failed to fulfill he potential genius, and which would have come to more merit if only someone had been better able to take him in hand, to control his raw energies. When one think about it this line of reasoning sounds a much like the attitude Vatican flaks took toward Michelangelo when he refused to act as they wanted him to, doesn’t it?

2. Post Modernity and Brando’s Film Roles
First of all, Godfather (1972) and Apocolypse Now (1979), while brilliant roles, were and are not true markers of the depth and the breadth of Brando’s work, nor are they the truest keys to understanding the greater implications of the evolution of his project as an actor. Brando, like Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Kubrick, Richard Pryor, and Dean Martin, was a post modern artist. If one does not know why I should choose to conflate these particular and diverse artists and does not understand why Dean Martin would included, one ought to study Umberto Eco, Venturi, Frederick Jameson, and well, to listen to Dino, Sammy, and Frankie.

Godfather and Apocalypse though they had certain post modern elements, were not films that could have contained or absorbed Brando’s deliberate, post modern distortions, not in the sense that Burn! (1970), The Missouri Breaks (1976), or Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) could. Nor did Brando deign to distort these two roles in a post modern manner, as he had distorted many of his earlier roles. He deliberately did not carry out post modern distortions of his acting of Corleone and of Kurtz, and I believe that this was so because he and director Francis Ford Coppola must have decided that the characters ought to be played with an orthodox dramatic treatment. The gestalts of The Godfather and of Apocolypse Now were more important to their cinematic a-ffect and execution than was the single element of Brando’s acting of his own individual characters. The Godfather in particular, was an ensemble work of art consisting of multiple contributions from a host of powerful actors, and from several technical artists.

That is to say the dialectical conjunction of screenwriting and direction (Puzo and Coppola), production design (Dean Tavoularis), editing, mise-en-scene, soundtrack, score (Nino Rota), and editing was equally crucial in creating a whole artwork. Brando as a result did not innovate very much in the two roles most often identified with him. Because he played these roles very straight, Hollywood and the mass media have always displayed a willingness to mytholize the two portrayels. These two films were eventual commercial and critical successes, yes, but Brando had already done the bulk (though not all) of his most radical and most challenging work by the time the two films came along, and so in a very real sense, the roles of Vito Corleone and Colonel Kurtz were, like his scenes with Dinero in The Score, merely examples of the traces of his more radical self.

Again, Brando was a post modernist. Early on. I mean fresh out of the Stella Adler method acting stable. He was post modern even in the original stage production of Streetcar. Many critics early on, and some even now mistakenly call Brando the inheritor of the inarticulate rage and angst of James Dean, but despite the outward resemblences between them (after all, Dean too, came out of Adler’s Method mill) Brando was neither inarticulate nor was he angst ridden or raging. He merely played those things. Dean lived them. Thus Dean turned his Porsche Spider over on September 30, 1955 turned it into mangled wreckage, and in the process killed himself. Brando’s cinematic portrayels of plakangst were always rationalized, planned, and executed as artistic statements or even as artistic experiments or artistic whims. His art was not crazed, wild, or self-indulgent, because he never took film or himself that seriously in the first place. Though he could play very orthodox, Adlerian and Stanislovskian roles, as in the film version of Streetcar (1951), The Chase (1966), and On the Waterfront (1954), and though he could even play classical with the best Shakespearian actors, as in Julius Caesar (1953), he conciously twisted, distorted, and turned inside-out many of the characters he played and many of the lines he delivered. At least some of the time and particularly early in Brando’s career critics felt the need to take (or simply were too stupid to avoid taking) this as being evidence of Brando’s ‘primal energy,’ his ‘youthful power’ and ‘masculine energy’, as if he were the reincarnation of Dean, or brother to the unbalanced, emotionally disheveled Sal Mineo (another Hollywood, agnst ridden martyr).

Later, of course, and in direct proportion to the degree that they were invested in the supposed ‘integrity’ and ‘coherence’ of the particular characters Brando had played, distorted, or deconstructed, critics felt the need to denounce this ‘wild energy’ as ‘self desructive’ and to denounce Brando himself as a reckless killer of dramatic a-ffect and of the dramatic quality of the films he ‘wrecked’ with his ‘antics.’ He was depicted as willfully destroying his own artform.

Even the brilliant and insightful film critic, Pauline Kael who invented literate American film criticism with her insistance upon intellectual rigor in the analysis of cinema just as if it were an artform on par with painting, dance, literature, and music (artforms that film in fact subsumes in a dialectical gestalt) denounced Brando as a ‘self parodying comedian’ for his post modern antics on screen in Mutiny on the Bounty, though she later rescinded her denunciation after seeing him in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), saying of Brando’s performance, “"Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form". In reaction to Mutiny however she’s written of Brando, in a March 1966 Atlantic Monthly article entitled, “Marlon Brando: An American Hero” that the ideal 1950’s Brando had disappeared and that the disappearrance ought to be mourned becaused of the virtues of what the 50’s Brando had represented:
Brando represented a reaction against the post-war mania for security. As a protagonist, the Brando of the early fifties had no code, only his instincts. He was a development from the gangster leader and the outlaw. He was antisocial because he knew society was crap; he was a hero to youth because he was strong enough not to take the crap. (In England it was thought that The Wild One would incite adolescents to violence.) There was a sense of excitement, of danger in his presence, but perhaps his special appeal was in a kind of simple conceit, the conceit of tough kids. (©. 1966 P. Kael)

The irony here of course is that the very qualities Kael here romantically idealizes in Brando (the James Dean-esque, Method inspired rebellion against authority, the excitement, and the quality of being ‘strong enough not to take the crap’) are the very qualities that drove him to leave the 50’s behind, and to deconstruct the Method, to parody his earlier persona. Brando, unlike the Dean of the 50's, did not die, did not turn over his car. In fact he climbed off the motorcycle of The Wild One (1953), unzipped the leather jacket and went on, something that entailed his going beyond Dean and Stella Adler. Kael further writes of Mutiny on the Bounty that,

In the action sequences he's uninteresting, not handsome or athletic enough to be a stock romantic adventure hero. He seems more eccentric than heroic, with his bizarre stance, his head held up pugnaciously, his face unlined in a peculiar bloated, waxen way. He's like a short, flabby tenor wandering around the stage and not singing: you wonder what he's doing there. (©. 1966 P. Kael)

Which is Ironic, actually, because if one thinks a bit about it one realizes that given both the class history and maritime history of Great Britain, Brando's choices in playing Fletcher Christian this way could arguably be said to ring true. It is at least possible to imagine that Christian might have been a spoiled, priviledged aesthete. British officers, who wielded the power of life and death over seamen in the British navy due to strict class priviledge in the time period Mutiny focuses upon might very well come off to us now as frilly, pouting, and effete (Brando's Mr. Christian). Likewise, Christian, a truly highborn British officer could certainly be imagined as a man who might be in conflict with a lowborn superior officer like Bligh, who might resent his junior officer being simultaneously his social better. Thus, Bligh the pompous bully. At the very least, the dramatic tension Brando's portrayal creates takes a cliché role and injects it with energy that is even now memorable. And that is the point: Brando often sought to create tension through counter point, obtusion, negative capability, and through unexpected treatments of his roles. He varied tone, rhythm, pace, and pitch, sometimes abrasively so, in the way a jazz musician would, using improvisation, humor, and even atonality to destroy and recreate his roles, and destroy and recreate ours and his own expectations of those roles. In the jazz aesthetic, which values rigorous technical ability yet also decisively priviledges the innovative over the orthodox, this is called improvisation and interpolation. Like Miles Davis did at times, Brando would do the equivalent of turning his back on the audience.

Looking up at that broad back on the wide screen, Kael is as offended as her counterpart jazz critics were over Miles Davis. To add epitaph to injury, she goes on further to say of Brando's very next role in The Ugly American (1963), that "When he submerges himself in the role, the movie dies on the screen." Both Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Ugly American, indeed, were inaugural performances for Brando, introducing that parodic, "head held up pugnaciously, face unlined in a peculiar bloated, waxen way" as well as the prominence of "his bull neck, so out of character," as Kael calls it and as the neck first appears in Ugly American. This parodic use of his own body became a sort of trademark look for the larger parodic project Brando invented for himself in the 1960's. It became also, the image that a thousand cartoonists, critics, and detractors reduced Brando to in their rush to declare him a burn-out, a sell-out, and a has-been. Mutiny, in which Brando plays British naval officer Christian as a sort of peeved and put upon fop rather than a strong, virile tragic hero as, say, Clark Gable had played him earlier, is one of the signal moments of the agony critics expressed over Brando's antics. Further, the sincerely classical actor Trevor Howard's interpretation of Captain Bligh's brutal demeanor was based on Howard's attempt to play Captain Bligh's class antagonism, arising from Bligh's identity as an insecure, lowborn Brit who has risen to class legitimacy but is not quite confident enough in his authority and so must underline his military power with cruelty. Howard's is a nuanced, insightful performance, one which critics felt made Brando's reductio ad absurdum all the more insufferable inasmuch as it ruins Howard's more manly display of orthodox acting skills.

Perhaps what is most disappointing about Kael's admittedly understandable chagrin with Brando's choices is the unfortunate truth that, for all her candor, wit, and penetrating insight, for all her intellectual girth, Kael's 60's critique of Brando nevertheless offers an example of the critic typically lagging behind the artist: Brando took an artist's leap out far past the scope of Kael and her critic's vision, and into a post modern consciousness that she perhaps did not reach until 9 years later when she raved about the very same mercurial, parodic, bull-necked (and bare-assed) Brando of Last Tango In Paris. Still, Kael definitely wrote for an entire generation of critical response (albeit far more articulately than most of the critics she spoke for) when she wrote that,

Brando's career illustrates something much more basic: the destruction of meaning in movies: Perhaps Brando has been driven to this self-parody so soon because of his imaginative strength and because of that magnetism that makes him so compelling an expression of American conflicts. His greatness is in a range that is too disturbing to be encompassed by regular movies (©. 1963 P Kael).

That leads to the second set of myths critics and fans erected around Brando and his work: that he was insane, unstable, emotionally disturbed, that he was, in short, indistinguishable as a person from the film roles he created.

3. Post Modernity and Brando's Psyche
While the Hollywood system, backed by critics of varying sophistication needed to pretend that the essence of the meaning of Brando's work was to be found in the fact that he'd begun his career as some sort of furious and brutal savage who stunned audiences with a primordial energy in The Wild One, the truth, as I have argued above, was far more interesting than that and far more complex. Brando was a thoughtful man and a thoughtful artist who sought, like a jazz musician would, to overcome cliché, to create new ways of feeling and thinking in his work, and to synthesize new cinematic experience and indeed, to simply have a good time in the act of play. All this he did through what was partly a new approach to The Method and its technique of plundering the actor's psyche.

What I mean in fact is that The Method, which allowed actors who studied and practiced it to create intense cinematic possibilities through the use of the technique of 'emotional recall' and through the application of raw emotion the actor has delved into her own memories and neuroses to find, was, for all its energy and innovation, a dead end for Brando. He knew, one suspects, one should think he absolutely did know in fact, that James Dean had taken the more obvious, raw, and more powerful points of Method acting to it's ultimate and extreme end with Giant (1956-released after Dean's death) and with Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Brando was smart enough to know that he could not and should not wish to, replicate, out shout, out miserate, and out contort James Dean's emotionally wrenching, over-the-top kamikaze performances. If James Dean was Charlie Parker (with Sal Mineo perhaps as Dean's Chick Webb) then Brando was certainly, as I've already implied, a lot like Miles Davis. Though Miles was present at the birth of Bebop he had no desire to spend his artistic career in the wake of the meteoric vector of his compatriot, Charles Parker. As he himself has indicated in interviews and in his autobiography, Miles saw little value in continuing with classic Bebop after Bird's death, though critics all expected him to carry on Bird's project. Bebop's conceptual, aesthetic, and technical possibilities had been exhausted for for Miles, and so not so much abandoning it but deconstructing it, he used the pieces to make something new. Miles abstracted Bop, slowed it to a crawl, and ultimately tossed it away in order to create 'Cool.' The artistic parallel between Miles and Bird, and Brando and Dean seems clear.

I won't attempt to argue that Brando was not a troubled, emotionally brittle man, nor that there was not a sort of bathos in his morbid obesity at the end of his life. I won't even point out the obvious truth that many actors of his generation who forged his or her self on the crucible of the emotionally devastating Adlerian version of The Method exhibited lifelong excesses of emotional turmoil, many of them dying of it (Dean, Marilyn Munroe, and Mineo most visible among the casualties). Instead, I'll argue something more human, having to do with a more mundane and ordinary truth: that like most artists, and certainly like most artists who become wealthy, world famous and worshipped as icons at a very young age, Brando exhibited signs of megalomania, paranoia, obssessiveness, emotional infantilism, and, as he grew older, dissipation. I would argue however, that none of this adds up to his having been in any way illegitimate as a cinematic artist, any more than Miles Davis' own idiosyncrasies, bizarre behavior, misogyny, and bouts of agoraphobia meant that he was somehow lesser in his musicianship. His musicianship was fine, though just as with Brando, critics accused him of losing his chops, of degenerating into a has-been and sell-out, and of betraying jazz first when he abandoned Bop and adopted Cool, and then again and again as he moved on through more metamorphoses to play electric, and to play Fusion.

Indeed, as with nearly every other citizen of complexity, value, and large spirit America's 20th century was blessed with, Brando's deeper complexity and significance both as an artist and as a man of conscience, is silenced amidst the noise of obnoxious and cynical ridicule of his personal life: bad father, abusive husband, and failed celebrity. Tinker, tailor, deadbeat, fatty, is the declension steadfastly held against him, it seems.

Dave Zirin, editor of the Prince George's Post, explodes that cynicism quite deftly in his recent eulogy, "Our Marlon Brando", published on July 2, by

The Brando I want to remember, especially now, is the actor who pulled back in the 1960s to focus on supporting the Civil Rights Movement and the broader struggles against war and oppression. In 1959, he was a founding member of the Hollywood chapter of SANE, an anti-nuclear arms group formed alongside African-American performers Harry Belafonte and Ossie Davis.
In 1963, Brando marched arm in arm with James Baldwin at the March on Washington. He, along with Paul Newman, went down South with the freedom riders to desegregate inter-State bus lines. In defiance of state law, Native Americans protested the denial of treaty rights by fishing the Puyallup River on March 2, 1964. Inspired by the civil rights movement sit-ins, Brando, Episcopal clergyman John Yaryan from San Francisco, and Puyallup tribal leader Bob Satiacum caught salmon in the Puyallup without state permits. The action was called a fish-in and resulted in Brando's arrest.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Brando announced that he was bowing out of the lead role of a major film and would now devote himself to the civil rights movement. Brando said "If the vacuum formed by Dr. King's death isn't filled with concern and understanding and a measure of love, then I think we all are really going to be lost."
He gave money and spoke out in defense of the Black Panthers and counted Bobby Seale as a close friend and attended the memorial for slain prison leader George Jackson. Southern theater chains boycotted his films, and Hollywood created what became known as the 'Brando Black List' that shut him out of many big time roles.
After making a comeback in Godfather, Brando won his second Oscar. Instead of accepting what he called "a door prize," he sent up Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse befuddled presenter Roger Moore and issue a scathing speech about the Federal Government's treatment of Native Americans.
Even in the past several years, he has lent his name and bank account to those fighting the US war and occupation in Iraq.
So how do we remember Brando? He was a celebrity, an artist, an activist, and at the end an isolated and destroyed old man.
It is tragic that we live in a world where most people's talents never get to see the light of day. It is equally tragic that those like Brando who actually get the opportunity to spread their creative wings, can be consumed and yanked apart in process. (©. 2004, D. Zirin)

The political dimension of the lives of American artists is habitually occluded, lost, and denied; hidden from our consideration and buried even before the artists themselves are. Indeed, the political dimension of the lives of just about everyone of significance in America (even of politicians!) is hidden from our consideration in order to foster a trivial, commercial culture of consumption of celebrity, and to facilitate the chronic memory loss Americans suffer from. It is what makes us all so monstrous in the eyes of the rest of the world: like belligerent children we inflict damage and pain upon those around us but then are mortified and confused by the hostility and disgust directed at us by those who feel hurt, neglected, and wronged by our crude abuses, abuses we cannot even manage to remember. How much more mortified must the French, the Russians, The Chinese, and the Arabs feel about our inability to recognize their histories, their cultures, their artists given the fact that we cannot even recognize our own? After all, no less luminary a philosopher than Jean-Paul Sartre, in his 1947 essay, "Jazz in America" had announced the existential dimension of jazz which, if one reads the essay closely, would at least contextualize if not explain Miles Davis' future personality disorders and his future antics with regard to jazz form. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir saw in jazz not am exotic, primal form arisen from primitive voodoo nor a dead, staid classical music, but a living, complex existential art form of global significance tied to philosophy, history, psychology, economics, humor, and even to biography. Thus, the French preoccupation not with measuring artists against public expectation and moral cant, but against the details of the artist's own life and material reality.

I disagree with Zirin in only one respect. It is not so much that we live in a world "where most people's talents never get to see the light of day." Instead, it is very certain that we live in a country (the United States) driven by a degenerate Capitalist profit motive that erects a fetishistic cult of 'celebrity', diverting our attention and that of adherants abroad, away from depth, meaning, and historical detail in order to train us to consume. Among the things we thoughtlessly consume as merchandise, is the depth and human complexity of our artist's lives, particularly our great artists.

Of course, It little matters to Brando now that we consumed him rather than understanding and appreciating him. He is where we can no longer harm him now.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Remember Heidegger

Back in 2002-2003 I was a professor of English at Barry University. 'Professor' was actually a sort of honorary, titular identity for me then; more like 'professor-at-large,' because by 2002 I'd left my orthodox faculty position at Florida International University (FIU) in West Miami to go to Barry, located in Miami Shores. I was not really teaching anymore at Barry. I had grown disgusted with being in the classroom due to the growing illiteracy and politically reactionary attitudes of students who came to class resenting the idea of democracy and of public discourse, and determined to avoid free thought. I was also disgusted by administrators who were growing more and more brazen in their attempts to redact, censor and control the classroom curricula of professors.

Barry is a private Catholic college in Miami Shores, Florida. I went there because Barry allowed me to work as a tutor and graduate level academic consultant to students doing term papers, portfolios, and dissertations. I worked a bit on campus in a "Writing Center" there, but I was able to do most of my work online. I could choose to not even set foot on campus if I did not want to.

I was disgusted with professors and with being one, though everyone then, and even now, seemed and seems to spontaneously call me "professor" when they encounter me, even people who don't know me, as if that identity were somehow tattooed onto my head. It's peculiar. But then, my own demeanor, my rhetoric, and my attitude are probably such that, given the severe lack of any frame of reference in American culture for encountering people who read books and are public intellectuals and philosophers, 'professor' is likely the only context into which people can place those who argue (as opposed to bickering), who debate, and who analyze culture, politics, and history.

Even Socrates, dirty, ragged bum that he was, walking the streets of ancient Athens barefoot as a public philosopher as he did, would probably be dubbed 'professor Socrates' were he to stand on a given street corner in America babbling about the problem of forms or the infinite regress. That is, if he were not arrested and forced into a homeless shelter.
At any rate, it was back in the period of 2002-2003 that a sort of half-baked debate erupted between myself and a friend, Cuban-American Professor, Tony Rionda.

* * *

That debate was over the fascism of German philosopher and professor, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger lived from 1889 to 1976. He was born in Messkirch, Baden, on September 22, 1889. He was a fascist.

The debate crackled between Tony and I as we walked around the streets of Miami, at restaurants and café tables across the city, and via e-mail messages. Most of the debate is gone now, disappeared forever into thin air, which is the fate of most personal conversations and oral exchanges. There was no slavish, doting peon like Plato around to dogmatically write down everything Tony and I said to each other for future reference.

Some of the e-mail messages between he and I on the subject of Heidegger still exist, however. down below, those messages are reproduced and only lightly edited for sense (e-mail is a facinating medium: it has the spontaneity and personal tone of conversation which may be witty, sparkling, and vibrant, yet inasmuch as it is written down, it often presents a visual effect of dumbness. There are usually misspellings, half-finished thoughts, and strange, often surrealistic mixing of metaphors, twisted grammar, and tortured syntax). I have not edited most of those absurdities, so that the original ebb and flow of our thoughts are retained. I only edited what would not have made any sense at all were I not to have done corrections (private codes and symbols or jokes between Tony and I, for instance).

At the time we wrote these messages to each other Tony was teaching in the English department at FIU. We had been faculty together there, and we shared a circle of friends who were professors, intellectuals, and cultural workers. Tony and I often found ourselves sitting across the table from each other in various Japanese, Cuban, Chinese, and Thai restaurants around Miami, and at these gatherings someone was always talking, arguing, or debating something or other. Given that most of us were no longer allowed to do this in class or on campus due to the steady creep of corporate realism into the curricula of universities, we were arriving at the point where a restaurant was one of the few places where we could actually act like intellectuals and argue ideas.

As for me, I had remained defiant of the corporatized administrators at the universities where I taught, and I was in constant conflict with those administrators because I was ignoring their rules and strictures. I did and said in the classroom whatever I deemed appropriate to the task of teaching critical thought, literacy, and material analysis. I was labeled an anarchist/Marxist/black nationalist due to my refusal to knuckle under to the power structure of the university. I refused to even acknowledge their supposed 'power'. For all that, I was always one of the most popular professors with politically aware, engaged students. There are for more engaged students on American university campuses that our blind and dumb media might lead one to believe.

I suspect that Tony in fact felt goaded by what many people regarded as my intellectual radicalism. As a Cuban-American living in the city of Miami, a very culturally and politically conservative, even reactionary Cuban-American controlled city, he fancied himself a free thinking intellectual, yet in many ways, I would always tell him, he was failing to challenge himself or his cultural milieux, or so I felt then. Our debate was struck through, therefore with very fascinating, even illuminating racial, cultural, political, and economic dialectical conflicts that often were not openly articulated. My own messages come off as overly serious, maybe even Marxist (gasp!). Tony comes off, probably unfairly, as lazy, when in reality I think most of his writings in the exchange are actually a series of masks. Many of us practice masking in our discursive encounters, taking on voices and repeating formulas in order to avoid the risk of exposure or vulnerability. If anything is significant about the debate whose leftover bits are printed below, it is that reading such records of intellectual debates tell us so much not about the writers but about the cultures they speak from and of.

It is for those reasons that I decided to reproduce the leftover bits here. I did not get Tony's permission to publish his words, though I did inform him years ago that I was saving them for future use, including possible publication, which he did approve.

Perhaps readers will find the following interesting; psychologically even if not culturally. Or maybe the reader will find the following totally uninteresting. So be it. Well, you know what Freud said: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


Sept 23, 2003, Tony Rionda wrote:
Hi Ray,
I have my semesters divided up into waves and particles and you caught me at a wave stage. Soon I will be back to particle status (all papers graded, just coasting and doing what I want), then I will address your email and read Perri's. I had no idea that you did not know about the Heidegger Nazi controversy.

Most who like H do and have a very "president's men" attitude about it. Anyhow, I remembered that I have a book that deals with these issues. It includes H's infamous Rectoral (?) address and his Der Spiegel interview. It is followed by essays by his students on the matter. He had a problem with one of his Jewish students, Jona (?) who is famous for writing about Existentialism and Gnosticism, but I don't remember if he went as far as turning him in.

In a few weeks I will fetch it from my friend's house and lend it to you. And, no. I don't expect to spend too much time talking about Heidegger. Say hi to Perri.

Sept 23, 2003, Ray Waller wrote:
Well, you know, I think Nazism actually is more a wave than a particle. We like to pretend that it is located in Germany in the 30's when in actuality it is a continuity--it is now very much rooted in the United States, and soon enough we will be doing all the very same things the Nazi academics did (if we are not doing it already, given the atrocities our government(s) has/have sponsored in Latin America, the Caribbean, North Africa, etc. Already, American college textbooks are full of fascistic pseudo history and propaganda, and our students are as jingoistic and 'patriotic' as the German youth were near the bitter endof the Weimar Republik).

Having read up now on Heidegger, I put that information together withthe information I had drilled into me at Cornell by a Professor Bathrick, who taught a kickass course called "Nazi Culture". That course taught me that Nazism was so widespread and gained so much legitimacy in the culture of Schiller and Mozart and Goethe not because the Germans were evil people, but because Nazism was shrewdly designed by a collection of political thugs (such as the ones now running our government) who cynically, step by methodical step, NATURALIZED nazi culture so that by the time people woke up to the severe, incremental distortion of politics, economics, culture, education, and even family, (sound familiar) it was too late.

I quit teaching in fact, not so much because the universities are fascist as because the universities are now about midway along the same route of Nazification as a PROCESS that Germany took in the early 1930's (lies in textbooks, the valorization of past nationalist wars of conquest, the sickening mytholization of old veterans of the previous, 'great war', corrupt, and cowardly academics who are not questioning the corporate takeover of curricula, the dumbing down of student intellect, the spread of contempt for art and philosophy in favor of 'blood thinking', and casual racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-semitism--in the form of patronizing, 'Jew-grubbing/Israel worshipping'(in the phrase of Dr. Jim Nadell) masking thinly the underlying viscious contempt in our society for Israelis, Jews, and particularly intellectual Jews)

Unless one is into hokey, 'moralistic' outrage toward people like Heidegger, which I myself do not indulge in--I do not believe in the existence of a 'personal God' and so I prefer ethics to morality--then one would naturally see Heidegger as sympromatic of something much deeper and far more familiar to us, than as a moral abberation. Besides, how the hell could any AMERICAN have the nerve to speak of moral outrage, given the uncounted crimes against humanity on our hands which actually dwarf the scant 13 years and ten million lives of Nazism's run? When I say Americans I include you and me. Lord knows, BLACK people are included, thanks to both Farrrakhan (populist Black bigotry) and Condoleeza (official, Black bourgeois fascism).

I guess I just try hard to remain connected to material reality, being the great grandson of a literal, actual SLAVE (my great grandmother was born a slave on an Alabama plantation and I met her in the 1970's before she died at more than 100 years old), and try to avoid he kind of dementia that passes as analysis and discourse in America. Americans have achieved an advanced case of schizophrenia and profound dementia associated with the very sociopathology that the Fench certainly recognize in us--in fact, the whole world recognizes it at this point, because we have finally produced our very own Nazi PArty (the Republikanische--the Republicans).
Yeah, "OLD EUROPE" has the blood of Colonialism and the very FIRST nazism on its hands, but anybody who has bothered to READ thirty damn years of history (Frank Snepp, Gore Vidal, Bertram Gross, Ward Churchill, Henry A. Wallace, Angela Davis, etc., etc.) knows that the inheritance (technological, cultural, even geneological) of the Nazi party was handed down directly from bombed out Berlin to Washington DC by way of the OSS which later became the CIA and FBI (Old Dulles, and Old Hoover).

Given all that, why the hell would I get worked up about Heidegger's bullshit before getting upset about the bullshit past and future, of those FIU 'professors' I used to call my colleagues. And that's not moral outrage I'm expressing. Black men who are into 'moral' outrage (like that friendly fascist, Bill Cosby, for instance) are the ones who end up as Colin Powell. Give me James Brown abd Dexter Gordon any day.
By the way, Dexter, living in France in the sixties, said to a French journalist, "America is so very sick that I fear she shall never wake up to her own brutality. Particularly with so many qestionable fellows whispering lies to her about how fine and good she is. She is not. She is a witch, my good man. And anyone who wishes to lose their soul, is welcome to her."

Dex's words are not at all undone by his eventual move back to the US. Typically, Black artists moved to France, lived there several years to recuperate, to build self determination, to make some actual money for the first time, to lay down some new roots, gain a wider, international audience, and then came back to the US for the first time with real safety and power. They usually kept right on being vocal about American fascism, too (like Dizzy Gillespie was late in his life, which is actually what ended the friendship between him and Bill Cosby. Cos' wasn't gonna stand still for niggers insulting his beloved Fatherland).

What Dex had to say about American fascism was nothing compared to what Abbie Lincoln (when she was living in France) said about Americans, and of course, Richard Wright (in France), Bud Powell (in France), Chester Himes (while in France and in Germany), Cecil Brown (while in Germany! Dig the big ass clue to some deeper truths involved in THAT irony, huh?), Buddy Bolden (while in France), and even Louis Armstrong (while visiting England--see, the truth about how vocal negroes like ME have always been about American fascism has been censored from the public record. What Americans get to hear from Pops is not his 'London Denunciations' of Hitlerian American government crimes against jazz musicians, but his smarmy, bathetic rendition of "What a Wonderful World"---ohhhhh, yeeeeeeahhhhhhhh.....), and the list goes on and on.

So you see, my original testiness with you over Heidegger was not a white liberal cop-out since I ain't a white liberal, nor could I ever be--America would never let me be. Just because Colin has deluded himself into thinking he's white does not mean his butt is not still Black. No, my testiness was in a context, historical and cultural. To talk about anything related to me outside of that contextr would be insane, brain dead, a-historical and--well, a university discussion seminar.....Well, you know what I mean.

Sept 24, 2003 - Tony Rionda wrote:
I'm not morally indignant over H. The question is to what degree his philosophy justifies Nazism. One of his students, for example, points out that Heidegger's early philosophy extolled commitment without specifying commitment to what. Hence, he claims to not have been at all surprised at his Nazi involvement. I believe he was Nazi till the end. If that is the case, then how can he offer such a radical critique of modernity and have been so totally untouched by it himself, personally? Could anyone have been that Schizoid? I don't believe so. When I deal with the US I do see the Nazi streak in it. However, I consider it to be quite overt and fairly limited (but am open to changing my mind). What I fear with Europe and H is that there is a much more insidious form of Nazism.. One that is never acknowledged as such, and that passes itself of as something new and different. Hence, ensnares even those who claim to be sophisticated intellectuals. As Angelou has pointed out, Europe was very accepting of Baldwin and Wright, but who wouldn't be accepting of blacks if they were all like that? If Europe couldn't even handle living with a bunch of Jews what would they have done with the descendants of slaves?

Now what European intellectual hasn't put down the US? Freud said the US was big, but a big mistake. Einstein complained about his mistake of having come here because of the "freedom thing." I believe that Europe doesn't like us because we are not all white. And, that much of what many here think is left wing criticism from Europe is actually right wing in disguise. I didn't think anyone saw it that way, but recently I saw Benard Henri Levy (had never heard of him before) on Charlie Rose saying that the French anti-American feeling comes from the right and not the left as many Americans believe. I would say that is true for other European states.
Last, I don't believe you will ever get rid of racism or Fascism. The best we can do is get it out in the open and try to keep it from getting out of hand, like we do with disease.

Having said that, I am not sure of the degree problem. I mean, we could be running a fever these days and must try to bring it down to a more tolerable level. But there is a difference in procedure if you accept the containment theory than if you go with the all or nothing view.

Sept 24, 2003, Ray Waller wrote:
Are you going to bother to define, even for yourself, exactly what the hell you mean by "Heidegger's (early) philosophy"? You were a philosophy major! Your professors taught you better than that. You are talking about philosophical discourse in the chunk-handed way that students do--the ubiquitous and naive assigning of possessive locutions to authors and thinkers as if those people own their writings and their thoughts. Also, you are stubbornly repeating the same fallacy (affirming the consequent) over and over again, as if it were an irresistable compulsion rather than an actual analysis.

WHICH of H' s ideas about commitment SPECIFICALLY are you referring to? To be precise, WHICH of the five-or-so specific theories I mentioned in my e-mail message to you last month are you (or was H's student) referring to when you say 'commitment'? What exactly do you MEAN by 'commitment" it sounds almost as if you are making assumptions about the concept in an almost Anselmian sense. Or Aquinas, against the radical delimitationism of Descartes.

Which reminds me, it never really did make much sense for any of us to go about even using the term 'modernity' or 'modernism' with such confidence, because the modern impulse really began in the 1200's, if not earlier--this is exactly the original impetus behind Post Modernism, right? Frederick Jamison, in discussing architecture makes the point that through architecture we can recognize the falsety of epochs, and the CONTINUITY of philosophical ideas (remember what I was saying about continuity vs, particularism in my last e-mail?) In short, the very same dispute between Andre Breton (modern) and Richard Wagner (Classicist) was always already going on between Aquinas (Classicist) and Descartes (POST-modernist). Are you a closet Scholastic?

Remember how in undergrad Shakespear class the professors made a big deal out of the 'mystery' of the rage against the storm scene in "KingLear"? A bizzarely modernist scene which somehow pops up in the middle of an Elizabethan auhtor's works? How? Why? Shakespeare, they taught us, was in no other way modernist, yet this scene presages modernity (rejection of Nature, God, predestination, and the humanist urge against fate. blah blah). Of course, as we got older, and as we became grad students we came to recognize that this is a typical flattening of the continuity of history and culture.

Hell, what were the Hellenic Greeks, but moderns? What was Athens, if not the first modernist city in the West? What was Shakespear if not an inheritor of Hellenic tradition?

Seeing him this way, it becomes possible to suddenly see other so-called 'anomolies' in his othersie Elizabethan ouvre: the radical disunity of Hamlet's psyche (post modernist, which I think even Stanley Fish has suggested); the odd irruptions of modernist amoralism in "Richard II"; the startling, disturbing, even bestial anarchism and wholly ANTI-elizabethan impulse behind "Titus Andronicus" (post-modernism), a play which in some ways anticipates Fassbinder!

Don't be so intellectually lazy, Tony. Hasn't Perri taken you to task time and time again for just that? Maybe you were a little hasty in giving away so many of your books a few years back--BOOKS, man. That is our meat and matter as intellectuals, not bank accounts, cigars, and TIAA CREF portfolios.

Clearly we would have to sit down and have a face-to-face talk about these subjects. I find that your last message is full of half-baked critiques, and outright platitudes, and considering the dire nature of our culture right now, I think I fear for YOU as much as I fear for ME in reading how far your analysis falls short of material rigor. Just one point though: I've spent time in France, and it is straight up baboon reasoning to say that anti-Americanism comes from the French Right and that's that.

For God's sake, the French left is stocked with people whose parents were brutalized by American CIA agents during the cold war (see the books of Le Carre, and even some of Graham Green's writing, both of whom fictionalize the more or less open history of American brutality toward Europe beginning with the Marshall Plan)...geez, it's like saying there's a sun in the sky to say that Europeans are not simply peeved with America, but FRIGHTENED of America, and it would be demented (and a typical example of the 20th century's use of anti-black and latin racism to hide from political and cultural truths that have nothing to do with race) to say that Europeans are afraid of America because it has negroes in it.
That is so unbelievably dumb, which describes Charlie Rose and the awkward intellectual fumbling that goes on between he and his 'guests' to a tee.

For instance, nearly 3 million Europeans (Germans, Italians, French, and Spaniards) engaged in some of the most massive street protests in European history between 1988 and 1998 over the sheer terror they felt about nuclear waste, nuclear fallout, and nuclear war! See Helen Caldicott's latest book about details on this massive movement, which itself fed into the younger European anti-globalist movement currently driving the success of European Green Party politics.

I could go on. But I won't. This is an example of exactly what I wrote to you: to understand anything, it is necessary to examine history, not TV news drivel. The principle way in which we do that, as intellectuals, is through BOOKS. I cited several books and authors in my last message, and I cited some more just now. What is wrong with discourse in America right now, and what in fact makes it fascist is the disappearance of history, and of historians and BOOKS.

Also, what it the world are you talking about, Richard Wright and James Baldwin? I cited some fifteen various Black artists in one of my recent messages. I am not sure what you could possibly mean by saying 'if they were all like that'. Gee, I always thought we WERE 'all like that,' though we don't all live up to it--isn't that what anyone's culture ultimately is about? Identity? Who wouldn't love white people if they were "all like" Noam Chomsky and Emma Goldman? But of course, it's terribly dumb and bigoted to subject a whole race of people to some arbitrary idea like that. White people have no obligation to all be like those two people, nor can we banish those whites who fail to rise to the level of those two people to the margins of dispised whiteness. Most of the white people I know and love DON'T rise to that level, and they are all the more human, interesting, and challenging as human beings precisely because they don't.

Well, be that as it may, I have to say I think that it is an insult to the French to imply that they are so shallow and stupid as to be a culture whose complexity of disaffection could be boiled down to an action news report caption saying that they are really right wingers in disguise. It must be the cheese? Finally, American fascism will indeed be 'out in the open' soon enough. When a cancer grows large enough, it always ends up bursting through the skin. See Albert Speer's "inside the third Reich." He was a Nazi, but he wrote this crucial book which offers invaluable insight into the process by which Nazism grows, and grows, and then finally bursts through the skin.

Sept 24, 2003, Ray Waller wrote:
PS, Tone-
By the way, you ought to know that James Baldwin is a poor example to use of negrows who went to Europe and was a hit. He was a miserable failure in Europe, and the Europeans were quite disgusted with his hardned, little frog-faced ass. He nearly starved to death in Paris, and wandered around the Isle St Louis behind Wright begging for money.
He was ill tempered, self-loathing, and spiteful while there, and Wright tried to distance himself from him while the Parisians were flatly appalled by his wretchedness. He had similar experiences while living in Switzerland or some such godawful place, in a Chateau above a little Swiss Village where they treated him like he was the Frankenstein monster; and he acted the part, in fact. His wretchedness in Switzerland was a continuation of the horrific rage, despair and self loathing he had undergone while living in upstate New York which had driven him, in his words, to come perilously close to hurling a pitcher of beer at the face of a white female barmaid. It was at that point that he felt he needed to get out of America and move to Europe.

Hey, all this is in his writing, and in the various better biographies of Baldwin. You know, I don't insult you by mentioning the same two Cuban writers that all ignorant Americans know (of)--Zoey what's her face, and Jose Marti. I've actually read Cuban authors (in addition to the deep love African Americans feel for Jose Marti, we also look up to Nicolas Guillen, and I personally like the young Cuban-American playwright, Nilo Cruz, and...well, lots of others).

My point is that you should go off somewhere and read some books if all you can do is repeat the tired old stuff of academic white dudes who couldn't pull off a Socratic session if you spotted them six triremes and a hundred and twenty oarsmen to row them. Like for instance, the only two African American writers you (seem) to know are Wright and Baldwin (so that tired assRalph Ellison can't be far behind) and you think I'm not going to take a shot at you?

My mentors would put you on your ass so fast your media noche would spin, my brother. Okay, so what's my REAL point? Am I just being macho, or just being vindictive? Well, it's like this: my prime mentor, Kofi Natambu taught me that it's wrong to kick the cane out from under a blind or crippled man. It's in bad tatse, too. But if you catch a cat who's walking around PRETENDING to be blind or crippled, when you KNOW he can read and stand on his own two feet, you kick him.

Talk to you soon, Brother.

Sept 28, 2003, Tony Rionda wrote:
Baldwin was not accepted by Europeans because he was gay, he was open about it, and he partied. He was not a "good European". like Wright. In fact, Baldwin is the only black author I have read to any extent. The incident you descriibe is in Native Son, and is also described by Baldwin himself in a documentary about him. He threw a glass of water at a waitress (and smashed a mirror) because she wouldn't serve him, because of segregation. That is when he went to Europe, because he realized he would kill someone if he didn't.

Baldwin has helped me to better understand myself, something few authors have ever done for me, and even fewer people. I would have been dissapointed if he was loved in Europe. He was a parriah. But I will always love him, like a brother.

Marti is a waste of time. I read him because I had to, but did not enjoy his writings much. I think he is only of historical interest.

The only Cuban author I have read and ejoyed is Jose Lezama Lima. I think, am not sure, that he is a darling of the revolution. In any case, in only a few pages, "La_Expression Americana, he does some amazing things! I have rarely felt the sense of liberation that I feel when I read that essay. I fear, however, that it might not translate well. There is still much for me to learn about myself, personally and intellectually, from him. Even, if I never get to adopt his philosophy.

My idea of black intellectuals is West and Gates. The latter is much more to my taste. I have read about four of his essays. The Kitchen was really a pleasure to read and I am grateful for his brief, but enlightening exposition of European intellectual's lack of insight into the new world and its inhabitants.

You are the only Kneegrow, intellectual or not, that I have had any extensive contact with, in Miami or anywhere else. I still have to catch up on reading your Heidegger and "black intellectual" messages, as well as, Perri's, "she can hear me" message. However, I am limited as to what I can read because my spare time is devoted to reading linguistics. The other stuff I read by either working them into my courses (Native Son, Hamlet, King Richard III, among others) or just for curiosity, depending on the time constraint.

However, I do not belong to that European intellectual tradition that you do. If I were to read an Existentialist, other than Nietzsche, which I don't read as an Existentialist, I would pursue Jaspers. Once in a while, I read his intro to Existentialism. However, I sometimes get into reading Heidegger, if only for a few days, usually when I am on vacation at Christmas. I must confess that I get nothing out of reading either Heidegger or Jaspers, i.e, nothing that furthers my understanding of myself or the world around me. Yet, for some reason, I sometimes feel like giving them a new chance. Unlike, say Kierkegaard, whom I will probably never read again. In fact, it's possible that I will never read Nietzsche agaiin, come to think of it.

It's hard to get a Cuban to shut up . . .

Sept 28, 2003 - Ray Waller wrote:
Well, at least now you're getting specific. I'm not sure that one ought to say a poet is 'only' of historical interest--that's a pretty high mark to hit indeed! See the collection of Central American poets from the 80's, Volcan: Poems from Central America. The editors were Murgia, Alejandro & Paschke, Barbara. It was published by City Lights Books 1983. Remember that Pablo Neruda was often referred to as 'of historical (or poliical) significance only, and boy, what a strange thing to say, as if a fistful of gold is somehow inherently inferior to a fistful of diamonds. Both are handy in a recession.

Besides, both Marti and Neruda were heartbreakingly beautiful lyric poets when they wanted to be. This is a talent you don't get much in 19th and 20th century revolutionary poets, and these two were just plain good poets.

Don't you think it would be good to read a little more widely in Black literature? If you had, maybe you wouldn't make that same, tired old white liberal claim: that Black, working class (post Aesthetic, in fact, is what we are referring to here) Black intellectualism is 'European'. Like dullard white hipsters who kept thinking that Rock music is the 'white' opposite of Jazz, which is the 'black' music. Too many foolish assumptions to even go into there, so let's just say that kind of thinking is foolish (both American history AND the history of the Black and the Irish are way more complex than that--if you have to ask 'why Irish' by the way, you'll never know).

Classical music, for instance. So called 'European' concert music is actually national peasant musics adapted by people like Smetna (Germany). Rimsky-Korsakov (Russia), Rossinni (Italy), and Ravel (Spain). The "European" tone poem is rooted in the Cossack Muzurka. So the first thing we have to do is let go of that lame old misconception about what EUROPE is (see Reginald Martin's "New Black Aesthetic"), and then we'll be able to clearly see Black thought, Black aesthetics, and Black arts in a clear light free of cultural arrogance.

So don't 'shut up,' keep talking. And try to pull your head out of your linguistics every now and then in order to keep up with what's happening in the culture around you. REMEMBER HEIDEGGER.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Ray Waller Posted by Hello

Back to School

I think it's time to get Olde School up in here.

Because I am insulted every time I hear someone in the media or in the streets, or even in the halls of the various universities I've taught at uttering the words, "the failure of liberalism" or "the failure of the public education system." The moronic argument goes something like this: that LBJ's liberal, 'Great Society' programs such as the "War On Poverty", the urban education initiative, and Affirmative Action threw money at social problems such as poverty, racism, sexism, and illiteracy, rather than...well, rather than enforcing 'values' or something like that, some vaguely Reaganesque crap, and so the programs 'failed'. Public education 'failed.' The War On Poverty 'failed.'

Oh, Really.

Then where did I come from? How do these shallow, reactionary blowhearts account for a tall, large, Black male from a Detroit ghetto (me) who received health care in his childhood so that he didn't die from the TB, pneumonia, and malnutrition that one in seven of the people in his family had tended to die of just one generation earlier, just ten years before the election of John F. Kennedy? How account for the fact that this ghetto child learned history, biology, sociology, chemistry, Shakespeare, music, civics, geometry, macro-economics, human reproduction, simultaneous offense and defense in football, cinematic analysis, home economics, psychology, etc., all before college?

In the years that I taught at the university level, many of my students, Black, white, and other, came to college straight out of high school so bone stupid that they lacked essential knowledge and basic literacy skills that I'd acquired by the time I'd finished jr. high school.

Where did I, and at least 40 other black men and women my age whom I've met over the years who also went through the public education of the LBJ/Nixon years, get a merit scholarship to a state university and then win a fellowship to go to an Ivy League school (Cornell University)? How did I teach at two private schools (University of Miami and Barry University), and why, if public education and liberal democracy failed, have I become a published writer and journalist?

Because...ready for this? The public education system did not fail. Believe it or not, throwing money at social problems, or at just about any damn thing else you can name, does a hell of a lot to end suffering and to enhance the success and well being of whatever or whoever you hit with the money you threw. You better believe that all the money Henry Ford tossed at his sons contributed mightily to their health, education, and welfare. Wealth equals well being. It facilitates power, self actualization, and material development. The rich are not miserable at all. I know. I went to school with them. What the rich are is well fed, clean, healthy, and well dressed. And they sure as hell don't die of gum disease that poverty has allowed to develop into mouth cancer.

Take the Marshall Plan, for example. $11,820,700,000, and $1,505,100,000 in loans, were spent over a four year period in Europe following the war to rebuild the infrastructure, institutions, environment, and political apparatuses that had been destroyed by WWII. This almost obscenely exorbitant tossing of money at a very real problem (urban destruction, mass starvation, social collapse, and the looming threat of political disintegration in the major European cities) worked quite well at solving the problem.

Marshall Plan Expenditures between April 3, 1948 and June 30, 1952, according to the Statistics & Reports Division of the Agency for International Development, formed a crucial component of the Truman Doctrine, which was President Truman's attempt to shore up Europe against the 'threat' of Chinese (and later Russian) Communism. A starving, brutalized, ill educated, tragically crippled European population would never make good allies in the continuing war against Marxism that Truman visualized and which later in fact became the 'Cold War'. So, you see, the Marshall Plan, incredibly successful in it's execution and application, was not undertaken out of benevolence, but out of political expediency. Perhaps that is why a similar plan has not been conceived to do for Cleveland, Philly, Detroit, and Montgomery what had been done and worked so well for Paris, Rome, and London.

One example within the United States of this sort of buying off of social unrest that was comparable to Truman's motivation to appease a European population in danger of slipping into intractable rebellion against capitalism, was in fact the War On Poverty itself, undertaken largely in response to the threat of endless race riots, feminist agitation, civil rights agitation, urban rebellions, Black nationalist inspired mass disobedience, and even radical Marxist and Maoist consciousness which increased exponentially among the poor and working class Blacks, Latinos and women of the 1960's and 1970's. The model for this of course had been the far more sweeping, and far more long lasting "New Deal" policies of the Roosevelt administration, attempting to buy off the American working class and to appease the forces agitating throughout the 1930's for open class war against America, Inc.

The War On Poverty, though far less expansive in scope, far less unitary, and far less ambitious in expenditures than either the New Deal or the Marshall Plan, nevertheless led to the spending of billions of dollars (or more accurately the redistribution of those billions) over the period of a few years of actual implementation and two decades of the programs' effects on people's lives. The genius and the ultimate human effectiveness of the Johnson Plan was not so much in its gross expenditure, but in Johnson's far more transformative restructuring of federal government and of social institutions themselves, all of which had a powerful impact on the individual lives of the poor at an immediate, individual level and in long term implication.

Johnson brought the poverty rate from 22 percent to 13 percent - largely through the modification or creation and entrenchment of state bureaucracies such as AFDC (Aid to Families of Dependent Children), whose payments to dependent families such as my own, he drove up to $577 for a family of four (in 1980 dollars). Infant mortality among the impoverished had remained constant from 1950 to 1965, and fell by one-third after 1965 due to Johnson having expanded federal programs to deliver medical and nutritional support to the poor. Medicaid and Medicare altered the fact that 20 percent of the poor had never seen a doctor or dentist, and had never been exposed to the FDA minimum daily nutritional requirements model. When Johnson left office the number had gone from 20 percent to only 8 percent. Poor families consigned to having to live in housing of the rural areas and of the inner cities with no indoor plumbing, no heat, no insulation, and no ventilation, went from 20 percent in 1960 to only 11 percent by 1970.

In 1961, at the end of Eisenhower's presidency, there were 45 so-called "social programs". The number rose to 435 by 1969. Federal expenditure on such programs which delivered meals to school children, clothing and medicine and housing to the poor, and state institutionalization of health, education, and welfare, went from $9.9 billion in 1960 to $25.6 billion by 1968.

What the poor got a taste of you see, a taste only mind you, was the reality I just explained to you regarding the rich: the rich are well fed, clean, healthy, and well dressed. And they sure as hell don't die of gum disease that poverty has allowed to develop into mouth cancer. Did programs which extended these privileges of health, education and welfare 'fail'??

No. Want to know what failed? The United States did, gentle reader. The democratic party, and the spineless university faculties who rolled over for Reaganomics, and the corrupt local politicians who abandoned their urban constituencies, and the gutless women and Blacks who opted for middle class comfort rather than continued social protest did. The corrupt union leadership did. Jimmy Carter did. America Inc. did.

Crucial components of Johnson's War On Poverty were desegregation, a restructuring of the educational system the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, and Fair Housing legislation. The War On Poverty was a tripod: one leg was food, health care, and housing. The second leg was affirmative action to rectify a hundred years of structural economic impoverishment. The third leg was education. Due to the betrayal of the education component of the plan, the short term benefits (to me, for example) did not translate into long term social transformation.

The ruling class overturned democratic liberalism and public education because it was successful, because the G.I. Bill allowed hundreds of thousands of 1st and 2nd generation white ethnics (this means you, you Italians, Irish, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, etc.) who'd been locked out of the mainstream of the institutions and the economy to gain access to education following WWII.

The ruling class (The Trilateral Commission, the pentagon, the corporate sponsors of McEducation ('would you like fries with that business degree?') and the co-opted senators who serve them overturned democratic liberalism because Blacks and women, on the treads of the feminist and civil rights movements were allowed into state universities (into law schools, medical schools, and political science programs, not just agriculture, nursing, and education) in massive numbers from the 60's on, reversing one hundred years of social control by a monied elite, and because affirmative action, which was not a system of preferences as LBJ conceived it but rather a redistribution of social and economic opportunity in such a way as to engineer equality for women and so-called 'minorities', changed the reality of a White, male 12 percent within the population controlling 85 percent of the country's social, intellectual, and economic capital.

Though it was mostly White women who benefited economically as a group from affirmative action, both women and Blacks undeniably benefited socially and intellectually in what Howard Zinn has called the greatest reversal of social capital and the most effective undercutting of social hierarchy and or political elitism in the history of the west. Of course, where social and intellectual equality exist, it cannot be long before economic equality will be achieved as well anyway.

Which is why the Reagan administration began an era (continued throughout the hideous Bush years, with a slight break under Clinton, then roaring right back into gear under President Doofuss Jr.) of relentless, remorseless attacks on unions, on funding for federal enforcement of civil and constitutional rights, on public education, public health, public access, public power, public assembly, and public media.

So yeah. Please don't say that public education 'failed', not around me, as if I were a ghost or invisible, as if my very life had not been spared by it and as if these thoughts inside my head were not actually happening(thoughts which I am able to formulate, organize, and express because I was given the gift of literacy by scores of wonderful, white ethnic public school teachers who swarmed into the country's ghettos in the 60's and 70's to teach in the public schools, allowing me to be able to push a verb effectively against a noun). It was good enough for the monied elite who attended Harvard for a hundred years, so why, pray tell, would it not be just as useful, just as beneficial, and just as empowering for the grandson of a Black, Alabama dirt farmer (my grandfather, Charner Dukes, Jr.) to be allowed to stroll amidst the ivy?

Public education 'failed'?? The War On Poverty worked just fine for me, thanks. I recall the steel jawed bite of that beast easing off me and my family considerably under LBJ.

Dig: the infant mortality rates, death rates from child malnutrition, homeless rates, and illiteracy rates among Black Americans were significantly reduced during the period of 1960-1977. The massive and needless bureaucracy that came along with the incredibly empowering social and educational programs of the 60's did a lot to retard that forward progress, but the progress was nevertheless real. That progress was arrested only by the advent of the brutally backward economics of Reagan (may he rest in pieces). But don't tell me that something that saved me from poverty, illness, illiteracy and death 'failed'.

I'm insulted by the ignorance and the unction of such a claim. This is a new Dark Age in which Americans assess reality not on the basis of historical and material analysis or even by evaluating opposing arguments, but by the consumption of visual imagery, and the regurgitation of jingoistic bytes.

Though I was originally inspired to create a web log ('blog') by my friend and partner in ethnic trangression, Regina Rodriguez, I think I will go on writing this thing simply to contribute to what I hope will be the public record of this Dark Age once the last Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Powell has finally dropped dead and we get our society back.

Olde School.

Just another internet blog that only the Germans will read very closely? (hello, Berlin!) What is "Olde School"? It's a deliberate attempt at memory. It's remembering John Lenon, Arlo Guthrie and his daddy Woody, Paul Robeson, Joe Hill, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Aunt Emma Goldman, James Brown, Robert Kennedy in the last year of his life, Cesar Chavez, Noam Chomsky, Public Enemy, John Belushi, Kofi Natambu, Buckminster Fuller, Maslow, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Stimsonian democracy, Amiri Baraka, Orson Welles, Stella Adler, Jim Starlin (whodat??) Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Joe Louis, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra demanding that Sammy Davis Jr. be allowed to walk into the front door of the Sands alongside them, Pam Grier in "Coffy", The Pentagon Papers, Xam Cartier, Marvin Gaye, Helen Caldicott, the real Martin King (the one who considered renouncing civil disobedience just before he was shot in the neck) and oh, yes...Heisenberg and his incompleteness theorem.

Step off, DMX (mediocre). Step off, Jay-z (no content). Step off, Colin Powell and Condi Rice (Mr. Step and Ms. Fetchit). Step off, Bill Cosby (Uncle Tom). Step off, Laura Bush (Texas hick and neo-con moll). Olde School is in the house. Someday they'll dust off the radioactive debris and uncover this blog and see that somebody was thinking in the dark days of the 'war-shington' oil barony just prior to the advent of the anti-Christ and the tribulation (the anti-Christ being of course Dick Cheney, and the tribulation being all those nasty Soylent Green burgers they will be forcing us to eat once genetic engineering has destroyed the nutritional value of all our natural food sources). Our descendants will dig beneath that radioactive rubble and find blogs that prove that the 'silent majority was not so silent. They will find our words.

Or maybe not.

Waller is a professor, writer, and journalist. He writes for The "Michigan Citizen", a weekly newspaper in Detroit found at and is a columnist for "Corporate Mofo", and online journal found at More of his journalism can be found in the archives of the Miami online bilingual journal of political and cultural affairs, "Progreso Weekly", found at He is a regular guest on the Miami radio talk show, "Shock to the System" on WAXY AM 790. WAXY can be found at