Friday, September 25, 2009

An anti-fascist response

Fighting Words won’t eschew from addressing actual points.

We expected a defense of Joe Allen’s review of Inglourious Basterds from Socialist Worker. Elizabeth Schulte valiantly took up this mantle with an article that exceeded twice the length of our own. However, we still await the response she said we deserved.

If Tarantino lacks anything “new or useful’ to offer to the “tedious” genre, Schulte adds even less to Joe Allen’s initial review. We called Joe out for his strange insistence that terrorizing Nazis could be equated with Nazis murdering everyone else. And in her article, she promises to reveal how socialists really view “torture, war crimes, and the Second World War.” But she does none of it. Other than offering up articles to reference, we’ll do the reader one better and quote a well-known socialist, Leon Trotsky, on the same issue, “nothing increases the insolence of the fascists more than ‘flabby pacifism.’ “

Okay so Trotsky was talking about forming workers militias, and not so much about a band of Jewish Americans and German defectors dispatched by the United States. But this gets to the other troubling aspect about Schulte’s response. She insists, "there are a number of war films that depict violence with the horror that it deserves.”

Demanding that art “should have done this” or “should have been about that” misses the point. The basis of legitimate art criticism starts by taking it at its own merit and revealing its place in the particular moment. Sure, the film could’ve been about a Red partisan or the “Red Orchestra,” but it wasn’t. Art, especially pop art, owes nothing to Marxism. Quoting Trotsky again, “Art must find its own road. The methods of Marxism are not its methods.” What we provide is an appraisal of what’s unconscious in the work and give interpretations a historical footing.

But Schulte is more concerned with the film’s violence. She particularly recoils at the sight of swastikas carved into the foreheads of Nazis. But imagine if Col. Hans Landa (the Jew Hunter) was able to make his deal with the United States and live a life of anonymity. In reality, many Nazis did and all they had to do was take off their uniforms.

Films can be celebrated in particular historical moments. What we’ve seen are far-right political parties and right-wing militia activists seeking to legitimize themselves and their history. Just as “Red Dawn” gave ammunition to anticommunism in the 1980s, the success of this film can intimidate fascist sympathies. When a white supremacist shoots up a Holocaust Museum, or militiamen march on Washington, taunting Obama with, “We come unarmed…this time,” a film like “Inglourious Basterds,” a film that revels in fascist intolerance, should only be embraced. 

Thursday, September 10, 2009

On veganism (a polemic)

 I’m sure you’ve come across some variant of “with the amount of grain used to fatten animals for human consumption, we could, if we all became vegetarian, eliminate world hunger.” The “case” for veganism suffers from the same limitations particular to consumer politics. In that it fails to understand capitalist production, the “air tight” arguments are shown to be nothing but non-sequiturs. 

First, world hunger has nothing to do with scarcity. We continue to produce enough grain and other foodstuffs for human consumption to feed double the human population. Economists who speak of a “grain glut” mean that literally tons of grain is wasted and unused, not because people aren’t in need of it, but because they can’t afford it. Second, it speaks to incredible naiveté to assume that world agribusiness would give away any excess grain left over if the meat industry suddenly collapsed. When I say political veganism doesn’t understand capitalism, this is what I mean.

While there’s nothing wrong with seeing it as simply a moral issue, there is something incredibly obnoxious and self-aggrandizing about puffing out your chest, believing your diet will change the world. While the number of vegetarians and vegans has grown into sizeable minority, you would think that meat consumption would’ve shown a slight decline. But the opposite is true. Total meat consumption has increased. With food costs rising, meat has become more practical (in terms of calorie intake) and affordable. There is absolutely no substance to the claim that going vegan saves any animals. Capitalism does not plan production based on a one to one correspondence of a supply demand. In fact, its key feature is overproduction. A general lowering of demand will then likely mean two things: 1) animals not consumed will just be wasted 2) the price of meat becomes cheaper, increasing total consumption.

There is also no precedent for a boycott strategy that has shut down an entire industry the way it’s being described (and it would require a boycott of all supermarkets and restaurants). That’s because the consumer has very little power. One can “choose” to drive a fuel-efficient car, but can’t choose why cities lack efficient public transportation. One can choose to buy energy efficient light bulbs, but has no say about planned product obsolescence. No one can dispute that the factory farm model creates tremendous amounts of waste, contributing to environmental catastrophe. It does so because capitalism forces every industry to accumulate and capture as much of the market as it can, in the most cost effective way. It functions to maximize profit, not to meet needs or work rationally. So every industry is structured unsustainably. 

But what if for the sake of argument, veganism got what it wanted? The world adopts a vegan diet, the meat industry collapses, then what? This is where their militant rhetoric unravels. The system can shed whatever it needs to, or create a small niche (which it has), but the drive toward exploitation, war, and environmental destruction will always be essential. "Animal Liberation" may sound radical, but instead of challenging the free market, it politically affirms it. Having said that, I find the term “Animal Liberation” to be as meaningless as the politics behind it.  That’s not to say that a being’s capacity to suffer is not worth ethical consideration, but that the term literally means and amounts to nothing. 

The inevitable charge of “anthropocentrism” or “speciesism” revels in anthropomorphism. This in no way is a claim to superiority, but to accuracy and intellectual seriousness. Human liberation is not abstract. Our species distinguishes itself by organizing into social and productive relations. Liberation is historically conditioned and defined by which social and productive relations are being overturned. The factory farm is part of those productive relations and can be dramatically altered, but animal liberation? Claims to the contrary are nothing but ahistorical nonsense. Rather than pointing to the rise of class society, some AR activists argue the root of human oppression (slavery, sexism, etc) can be traced to the domestication of animals. In Vasu Murti's "Politics of Vegetarianism" he even goes so far as to say that people commit "crime" not because of inequality, but because they never owned a pet. As Murti explains, “none of them had this opportunity to learn respect and care for another creature’s life and to feel valuable in so doing.”

These ideas in no way offer anything useful to the liberation of anyone.

a socialist reponse to Joe Allen's review of "Inglourious Basterds"

In his review of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Joe Allen presumes we have asked ourselves who the heroes are in this movie. He’s wrong. It’s pretty clear to us, Joe. The heroes are the ones killing the Nazis.

The Basterds exist to terrorize and undermine the morale of a genocidal fascist army occupying France. By recounting their exploits as “war crimes,” Joe displays shameful moral equivalence. We unapologetically defend the violence committed against fascists in Spain, during the Jewish resistance, and we should celebrate it on screen.

Far from a “bedtime story” reaffirming the U.S. as the “benevolent defender of freedom,” Tarantino’s film makes a point of setting U.S. racism next to Nazi fascism. In the middle of a drinking game, a Gestapo officer easily confuses the capture of King Kong with the story of American slavery. The King Kong reference, a film notorious for its racial undertones, is Tarantino’s challenge for film history to acknowledge itself. Similar to Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, a response to the racism in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers.

Like so much else, this point was lost on Joe.

But what we can’t lose sight of is that liberal pacifism is no response to fascist barbarity.

“Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin', mass murderin' maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed.”