Muhammad Ali has lost his last fight, but he went down with the courage that characterised his entire life. He is now mourned and celebrated as the athlete of the century and a hero by the media and politicians in the United States and throughout the world – very often the same people who in the 1960s and ’70s villified him for his opposition to the Vietnam war and for his radical black politics. He died a celebrity, and he richly deserved his fame. But it is a bad habit of our age merely to celebrate celebrity.The late Mike Marqusee‘s Redemption Song (Verso, 1999) is by far the best book dealing with Ali’s social and political significance. Marquesee wrote:
We should look at how his celebrity was established and what it means. And I do not believe that his fame rests only on what he achieved in the ring – although if you are a sports fan you have to be awed by that. More important was what he achieved outside the ring.
We must re-insert Ali in his historical context, and that means principally his relationship to the great social movements of the 1960s. The young Cassius Clay was very much a typical patriotic, Cold War chauvinist. Representing the US in the Rome Olympics of 1960, at the age of 18, he won a gold medal in the Light Heavyweight division. And to commemorate the victory he published his first poem:
To make America the greatest is my goal,
So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole.
And for the USA I won the medal of Gold.
A crude start for someone who would travel a long way in the next few years. The key to understanding Ali’s movement away from this unexamined national chauvinism is the impact of the civil rights movement of the first half of the 1960s. In the years between 1960 and 1965, hundreds of thousands of young black people from precisely Muhammad Ali’s background – from working class homes in Southern American cities – took to the streets to challenge Jim Crow, America’s version of Apartheid, and to challenge a century of institutionalised racism of a type we can barely imagine today.
At one point it was estimated that 60% of all black college students from across the South were directly involved in this mass movement. And a terrible price was paid – some were murdered, many were beaten, huge numbers were arrested. It was one of the great battles of our era. Ali was driven by the same social forces which drove his contemporaries into the streets; but he was driven in a different direction. His response to all-pervasive racism was different because – after his Olympic triumph – he met the Nation of Islam (NoI) in the streets of Miami.
Over the next few years, as a promising Heavyweight contender, travelling around the country, fighting his way up the ladder, looking for a title shot, he met many more Muslims. Most famously he met Malcolm X and formed a friendship with him. Through the NoI, this young, quite uneducated man encountered the tradition of black nationalism whose origins go back to the beginnings of the twentieth century and which flourished under Marcus Garvey. Black nationalism had enjoyed a kind of underground existence up to this point and when Cassius Clay encountered the NoI in the early ’60s it was the longest standing, wealthiest, best-organised black nationalist organisation in America (albeit a nationalism of a peculiar kind). Clay kept his interest in the NoI secret – if it had become public he would never have become the Heavyweight champion, he would never have had a chance to face Sonny Liston in the ring and we would not be discussing him today.
He got a title shot in 1964, in Miami, against Liston, who was said to be unbeatable. To the world’s surprise, at the age of 22, Cassius Clay did beat Sonny Liston and became the World Heavyweight champion. Instead of going to a big party at a luxury downtown hotel, as was expected of newly-crowned champions, Cassius Clay went back to the black motel, in the black area of Miami – at that time, effectively a segregated city – and had a quiet evening, without any drink, discussing what he would do with the title he had just won, with his friends, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, the great gospel and R&B singer, and Jim Brown, a famous US football player who later became an actor. The next morning, after these discussions, Cassius Clay met the press – which in those days was exclusively white and male – and told them, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be, I’m free to be what I want.” In retrospect that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but, at the time it was earthshaking. Firstly because sportstars, and particularly young black sportstars, were expected to be what they were told to be; secondly because what Cassius Clay wanted to be was a public member of the NoI – probably the most reviled organisation in America at the time. And at his side was Malcolm X – probably the most reviled individual in the US at the time. In announcing his embrace of the NoI Cassius Clay was repudiating Christianity, in a predominately Christian country, at a time when Islam was an exotic and little know faith in America. He was repudiating the integrationist racial agenda, in favour of a separatist agenda, at a time when the Civil Rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, for whom “integrationism” was a central shibboleth, was at the height of its prestige and power. So Cassius Clay angered both the white and the black liberals – and, most importantly, he was repudiating his American national identity in favour of another national identity, that of a member of the Nation of Islam, a nation whose borders had nothing to do with the borders of the US.
Up till this time, no black sports star or celebrity had attempted to do or say anything like this without being crushed – as had Paul Robeson and WEB DuBois in an earlier generation. This stand was widely seen as a terrible tragedy for the young fighter. After all, he had the world at his feet and here he was, embracing an unpopular cause, thereby narrowing down his appeal. Or so it was thought. The reality is that by joining the NoI and redefining who he was, Clay was walking into a new world – ultimately presenting himself to an international constituency – which changed what he meant to people all over the world and which changed his destiny inside and outside the ring.
Shortly after the fight he went to New York and was seen everywhere with Malcolm X. But only a week later Malcolm X announced his departure from the NoI, his famous break with Elija Muhammad. Ali chose to stick with the NoI, and renounced his friendship with Malcolm. Why Cassius Clay did this is an interesting question. Malcolm was moving in a more political direction, away from the conservative and quietistic side of the NoI, towards a direct battle against racism. Ali – who had just been renamed as Ali by Elija Muhammad – was looking for a refuge from racism, and that was what he had found in the NoI. Ali was, ironically, trying to avoid political engagement by sticking to close to the NoI and staying away from Malcolm.
But the 1960s did not allow Ali the luxury of avoiding politics. As the years went by he was drawn deeper into political controversy. Ali went to Africa in 1964, at a time when no American sportstar – of any colour – had even noticed that continent’s existence. He went to Ghana where he was greeted by the President, Kwame Nkrumah, famous anti-colonialist and founder Pan African movement. Nkrumah was the first head of state to shake Ali’s hand. It was to be another eleven years before a US President would deign to shake Ali’s hand (since then, of course, they all want to shake his hand). In Ghana tens of thousands poured out to welcome Ali. They chanted his new name. Observers on this trip say that this was the moment Cassius Clay really became Muhammad Ali. Why did so many Ghanaians came to greet him – after all very few spoke English, almost none had access to a television? Why did they come to see Ali? First, boxing was popular there.
The Heavyweight championship of the world was a pretty transparent idea and people were pleased that such an eminent figure had recognised their newly independent country. More importantly, Ali was a an African American world champ who had repudiated his American identity and taken on an Islamic name and embraced his African patrimony. The Ghanaian masses knew that this was something new and exciting. They understood the meaning of this transformation long before it became apparent to American commentators.
The impact of this trip on Ali was tremendous. It was during this trip that Ali came to understand that he was accountable to a broader, international constituency, a constituency of the oppressed, and this new sense of accountability was to guide him over the next turbulent decade.
The test of his new identity came over Vietnam. By early 1966, the US was finding it difficult to impose its will on the Vietnamese and the draft call was expanded; the Heavyweight champion of the world was reclassified as 1A, eligible for military service. Ali was told the news at a training camp in Miami and, badgered all day by the press, he came out with the line: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” It may have been a spontaneous remark, but he stuck to it over the following years and even turned it into a poem:
Keep asking me, no matter how long,
On the war in Vietnam, I’ll still sing this song:
I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong.
At the time the critics asked: what does Muhammad Ali know about Vietnam? Read the rest of this entry »
… here ’tis:
A A Gill on Autobiography by Morrissey
THE SUNDAY TIMES
AS NOËL Coward might have said, nothing incites intemperate cultural hyperbole like cheap music. Who can forget that the Beatles were once authoritatively lauded as the equal of Mozart, or that Bob Dylan was dubbed a contemporary Keats? The Beatles continued to ignore Covent Garden, and Mozart is rarely heard at Glastonbury; Dylan has been silently culled from the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in English.
The publication of Autobiography was the second item on Channel 4’s news on the day it was released. Krishnan Guru-Murthy excitably told the nation that Morrissey really could write — presumably he was reading from an Autocue — and a pop journalist thrilled that he was one of the nation’s greatest cultural icons. He isn’t even one of Manchester’s greatest cultural icons.
This belief in high-low cultural relativity leads to a certain sort of chippy pop star feeling undervalued and then hoitily producing a rock opera or duet with concert harpsichord. Morrissey, though, didn’t have to attain the chip of being needily undervalued; he was born with it. He tells us he ditched “Steve”, his given name, to be known by his portentous unimoniker because — deep reverential breath here — great classical composers only have one name. Mussorgsky, Mozart, Morrissey.
His most pooterishly embarrassing piece of intellectual social climbing is having this autobiography published by Penguin Classics. Not Modern Classics, you understand, where the authors can still do book signings, but the classic Classics, where they’re dead and some of them only have one name. Molière, Machiavelli, Morrissey.
He has made up for being alive by having a photograph of himself pretending to be dead on the cover. The book’s publication was late and trade gossip has it that Steve insisted on each and every bookshop taking a minimum order of two dozen, misunderstanding how modern publishing works. But this is not unsurprising when you read the book. He is constantly moaning about record producers not pressing enough discs to get him to No 1. What is surprising is that any publisher would want to publish the book, not because it is any worse than a lot of other pop memoirs, but because Morrissey is plainly the most ornery, cantankerous, entitled, whingeing, self-martyred human being who ever drew breath. And those are just his good qualities.
The book falls into two distinct passages. The first quarter is devoted to growing up in Manchester (where he was born in 1959) and his schooling. This is laughably overwrought and overwritten, a litany of retrospective hurt and score-settling that reads like a cross between Madonna and Catherine Cookson. No teacher is too insignificant not to be humiliated from the heights of success, no slight is too small not to be rehashed with a final, killing esprit d’escalier. There are pages of lists of television programmes he watched (with plot analysis and character criticism). He could go on Mastermind with the specialist subject of Coronation Street or the works of Peter Wyngarde. There is the food he ate, the groups that appeared on Top of the Pops (with critical comments) and the poetry he liked (with quotes).
All of this takes quite a lot of time due to the amount of curlicues, falderals and bibelots he insists on dragging along as authorial decoration. Instead of adding colour or depth, they simply result in a cacophony of jangling, misheard and misused words. After 100 pages, he’s still at the school gate kicking dead teachers.
But then he sets off on the grown-up musical bit and the writing calms down and becomes more diary-like, bloggish, though with an incontinent use of italics that are a sort of stage direction or aside to the audience. He changes tenses in ways that are supposed to be elegant but just sound camp. There is one passage that stands out — this is the first time he sings. “Against the command of everyone I had ever known, I sing. My mouth meets the microphone and the tremolo quaver eats the room with acceptable pitch and I am removed from the lifelong definition of others and their opinions matter no more. I am singing the truth by myself which will also be the truth of others and give me a whole life. Let the voice speak up for once and for all.” That has the sense of being both revelatory and touching, but it stands out like the reflection of the moon in a sea of Stygian self-justification and stilted self-conscious prose.
The hurt recrimination is sometimes risible but mostly dull, like listening to neighbours bicker through a partition wall, and occasionally startlingly unpleasant, such as the reference to the Moors murderers and the unfound grave of their victim Keith Bennett. “Of course, had Keith been a child of privilege or moneyed background, the search would never have been called off. But he was a poor, gawky boy from Manchester’s forgotten side streets and minus the blond fantasy fetish of a cutesy Madeleine McCann.”
It’s what’s left out of this book rather than what’s put in that is strangest. There is an absence of music, not just in its tone, but the content. There are emetic pools of limpid prose about the music business, the ingratitude of fellow musicians and band members and the lack of talent in other performers, but there is nothing about the making of music itself, the composing of lyrics, the process of singing or the emotion of creation. He seems to assume we will already know his back catalogue and can hum along to his recorded life. This is 450 pages of what makes Morrissey, but nothing of what Morrissey makes.
There is the peevishness at managers, record labels and bouncers, a list of opaque court cases, all of which he manages to lose unfairly, due to the inherited stupidity of judges. Even his relation with the audience is equivocal. Morrissey likes them when they’re worshipping from a distance, but he is not so keen when they’re up close. As an adolescent he approaches Marc Bolan for an autograph. Bolan refuses and Morrissey, still awkwardly humiliated after all these years, has the last word. But then later in the book and life, he does exactly the same thing to his own fans without apparent irony.
There is little about his private life. A boyfriend slips in and out with barely a namecheck. This is him on his early sexual awakening: “Unfathomably I had several cupcake grapples in this year of 1973… Plunge or no plunge, girls remain mysteriously attracted to me.” There is precious little plunging after that.
There are many pop autobiographies that shouldn’t be written. Some to protect the unwary reader, and some to protect the author. In Morrissey’s case, he has managed both. This is a book that cries out like one of his maudlin ditties to be edited. But were an editor to start, there would be no stopping. It is a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability. It is a potential firelighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrhoeic dullness. Putting it in Penguin Classics doesn’t diminish Aristotle or Homer or Tolstoy; it just roundly mocks Morrissey, and this is a humiliation constructed by the self-regard of its victim.
Above: Prof Ramadan
Comrade Coatesy draws our attention to the unspeakably depressing fact that Tariq Ramadan (Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford and poster-boy for supposedly “moderate” Islamism) has been chosen deliver this year’s Orwell Lecture.
Now, Orwell was no saint, and certainly had his prejudices and blind-spots. He can reasonably be accused of a degree of sexism and homophobia. There are passages in his writings that have been considered anti-Semitic. He was a child of his time, and did not always rise above the prevalent backwardness of that time. But he was aware of his weaknesses and seems to have made genuine efforts to fight his inner demons. He was nothing if not scrupulously honest, self-critical (to a degree that sometimes played into the hands of his enemies), and humanist. He was also hostile to all forms of totalitarianism, religion and spirituality, despite a sentimental soft spot for the rituals of the C of E. All of which makes the choice of Professor Ramadan to deliver the lecture named after him, especially unfortunate.
The French revolutionary socialist and Marxist Yves Coleman wrote a trenchant critique of Ramadan back in 2007, published by Workers Liberty. We republish it below, preceded by Workers Liberty‘s introduction. Given Ramadan’s evident popularity not just on sections of the “left”, but also with Guardianista-liberals, and his selection as the Orwell lecturer, this is a timely reminder of just how unpleasant his underlying politics are:
“40 reasons why Tariq Ramadan is a reactionary bigot” was written by the French Marxist, Yves Coleman and has been reproduced by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). The text presents factual information about the politics of Tariq Ramadan.
There are many issues the Left must address.
First is the question of honest polemic.
Useful political debate requires clearly presented political positions and an attempt to honestly engage with opponents.
And yet Yves Coleman believes that it almost impossible to either ‘catch’ or ‘corner’ Tariq Ramadan. He is difficult to pin down. The reason is simple: Tariq Ramadan often says one thing to one group, and something different, or contradictory, elsewhere.
This slipperiness connects with the second issue for the left.
No doubt, given the support Ramadan has on the “left”, there will be further “left” attempts to refute the damning contents of this document. However, it will not be good enough to answer Yves Coleman by producing further quotes from Ramadan.
It just won’t do to reply to the reactionary statements Ramadan has made on the issue of women’s rights, for example, by presenting other quotes suggesting he is a liberal on the question (and so implying Ramadan can’t have made the statements cited by Yves Coleman without having to address the quotes directly). Ramadan might well have made both the reactionary and the liberal statements. As Yves Coleman shows, on many issues Ramadan has done exactly that.
It will not do to protest that Ramadan is more liberal-minded, less rigidly reactionary than extreme Islamist groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir. He is. Mainstream Catholic ideologues are less rigidly reactionary than the Tridentines. They are still not allies for the left.
Nor will it do to try to change the question by saying that the left has also had Christian preachers sometimes share platforms with it to denounce apartheid or war. The left will work with campaigners who may be Muslims on the same basis. But Tariq Ramadan’s left-wing friends promote him not because he has campaigned on some progressive political issue (and despite his Islamic ideas), but because he is a (sometimes left-sounding) Islamic ideologue, regardless of him doing nothing for progressive politics other than making bland statements against poverty and so on.
The only possible “left” responses to this document are: to attempt to prove Coleman has mis-quoted Ramadan; or to attempt to explain away Ramadan’s statements (by claiming some sort of special privilege for Muslim bigots); or to accept Ramadan is a reactionary.
Third is the peculiar fact – one which Yves Coleman notes in his text – that the left finds no problem in condemning Catholic reactionaries, but often praises and promotes Islamic reactionaries such as Ramadan who have similar views. Criticisms of Tariq Ramadan are often called “Islamophobic”. But we do not say that Ramadan is worse than a Catholic reactionary because he is Muslim rather than Catholic. We only say that a Muslim reactionary is no more defensible than a Catholic reactionary.
The problem is that large sections of the left have degenerated and decayed to such an extent that they become unable to differentiate between critics of existing society who offer a positive alternative to capitalism (the working-class, class-struggle left), and those critics who are backward-looking reactionaries.
The kitsch-left has – seemingly – forgotten what it positively stands for, and can only remember what it is against (Blair, Israel and, most of all, America). Since Islamists are against Israel and the USA, and Catholic reactionaries generally are not, the kitsch-left thinks the Islamists are progressive. Or that Ramadan, a Swiss university professor, is the best person to invite to be a “Voice of the Global South” at the European Social Forum, precisely because he is an Islamic ideologue.
It is organisations such as the SWP – which found itself unable to condemn 9/11, and which supports the so-called resistance in Iraq – that promote Ramadan.
Forth is to understand Ramadan’s project.
Yves Coleman writes: “The basic thing is that Ramadan wants is to enlarge the power of control or religion on society. Ramadan always invokes French racism (which exists and can not be denied) and colonial history to explain the hostility he provokes in France. In this he is partly right, but what is at stake is the meaning of secularism. For him (as well as for the SWP and its French followers) secularism means that all religions are treated equally by the State and are respected. For the French Republican tradition, it means something different: it means (in theory) that people should not express religious views in the public sphere (in their job, in the schools, in Parliament, etc.) and should keep their religious views to the private sphere. That’s where the difference lies.
“Ramadan may not be a fundamentalist of the worst sort but he is clearly training a whole generation of religious cadres who are trying to change the content of secularism in France in a more pro-religious direction.”
Fifth is to understand the role Ramadan is playing in NUS.
Behind Ramadan – urbane, reasonable sounding – stand the Islamists of the MAB/Muslim Brothers.
Ramadan is the reasonable face of Islamic politics, and he is the thin end of the wedge.
Finally, we need to understand that attempts to shout down Marxist critics of Ramadan with demagogic accusations of “Islamophobia” and even “racism” are absurd.
Discrimination and even violence against Muslims are real. We oppose such bigotry.
However we also demand women’s liberation, gay liberation. The AWL is an atheist organisation, and fights for secular values. Therefore we will not ignore Ramadan’s bigotry or backwardness.
40 reasons why Tariq Ramadan is a reactionary bigot
By Yves Coleman
Tariq Ramadan often complains that the media accuse him of being two-faced. He considers that this critique is a plain racist slander in the line of the eternal cliché about so-called Arab “deceitfulness”. If we read Mr Ramadan’s writings we reach a much simpler conclusion: Tariq Ramadan is a sincere Muslim who defends reactionary positions on a number of issues, but that does not prevent him from holding critical views on many injustices, while being fundamentally a moderate in politics.
Just as Pope John Paul II condemned the “excesses of capitalism”, unemployment, greed, poverty, the war in Iraq and the way Israel treats the Palestinians.
Only somebody who has never thought about about the function of religions (of all religions) can be surprised by this coexistence of different interpretations of the world: a faith in myths (as in the Bible, Torah, Quran, Upanishads, etc.) and absurd superstitions; a use of reason in many daily (manual and intellectual) activities ; a sincere revolt against all injustices; a misogynist and homophobic moralism; a need for dreams and utopias, etc.
Revolutionaries do not question Tariq Ramadan’s right to defend his religious beliefs, or to proselytise. After all, as he rightly notes, nobody in France is scandalized by the constant propaganda waged by missionaries like Mother Teresa or Sister Emmanuelle in Asia. Nobody protests against the repeated presence of Sister Emmanuelle, Cardinal Lustinger (former cardinal in charge of Paris) and other priests, nuns and monks in all sorts of French TV shows and programs.
Nor is this a matter of a theological dispute with somebody who is always going to know Islam better than any “Western” atheist.
What we insist on is that there are other interpretations of Islam, from Muslims who are much more democratic and secular than Ramadan.
And we reject the dishonest gambit used by this Swiss philosophy lecturer to deflect criticism: each time a Muslim intellectual defends an opinion which is different from his, it is because she or he is “westernized”, has adopted a “West-centred vision”, or worse, has sold out to imperialist, colonialist and racist Western powers.
Revolutionaries do not claim that Tariq Ramadan holds reactionary positions on all issue. We simply ask his “left-wing” friends not to knowingly dissimulate his obscurantist positions and not to dismiss in advance the positions of other Muslims who are much less conservative than him as regards morals, secularism and all the issues of daily life.
This dissimulation comes sometimes from a unworthy paternalism (“he will shift as he comes into contact with us”), sometimes from a manipulative approach (“we are not interested in him, but in the immigrants he influences”), and sometimes from a political vision which blurs all class divisions (“the confluence of all anti-capitalist movements”, the “revolt of the multitudes”, and other such rubbish), sometimes from the cynical relativism of disillusioned former adherents of dialectical materialism (“after all, no-one knows whether scientific truths exist”), and sometimes from a “Third Worldism” which has still not given up on the Stalinist illusion of “socialism in one country”.
In all these cases, such hypocritical attitudes to Ramadan’s bigotry do a disservice to workers who still believe in Islam but who also want to fight against capitalism. And after all, as revolutionaries, it is those “Muslims” who interest us.
Tariq Ramadan does not approve of flirting, sex before (or outside) marriage, homosexuality, women’s contraception or divorce. He thinks that Muslim women should submit to their husbands if they are “good” Muslims. He believes that men must be financially responsible for the well-being of their family, and not women. In other words, Tariq Ramadan is opposed to or equivocal about feminism, women’s rights, gay rights and sexual liberation. One should also have strong doubts about his respect of the freedom of speech and thought: in Switzerland he contributed to a campaign against a Voltaire play, and he wants Muslim parents to control the content of State school programs according to “Islamic values”, to give only two examples. But that does not prevent him from constantly using the key words of today’s public relations industry: “respect”, “tolerance”, “communication” and “dialogue” in the manner of a cynical politician.
What a strange friend for the Left! Read the rest of this entry »
Having watched, pondered and re-watched Paxman’s interview with comedian Russell Brand on last night’s Newsnight, I’m still not sure what to make of it. My initial response was that Brand is a pretentious, incoherent idiot, spouting a lot of pseudo-revolutionary hot air and half-digested anarchistic platitudes. But several people I’ve spoken to today told me they were impressed by him. So I’ve watched it again and have to admit that, after a facetious start, he becomes more sympathetic as he gets angrier. But I still think he’s a prat – and a banal prat at that – and wonder what the hell the New Statesman is playing at, hiring him as a guest editor this week.
Judge for yourself…
…and feel free to let us know what you think.
The Perverts Guide to Ideology, reviewed by Matt Cooper at the Workers Liberty website:
It is difficult not to warm to a film that places a radical left wing philosopher into mock ups of various film sets to lecture on his theory of ideology. That is what film maker Sophie Fiennes has done with Slavoj Žižek.
So we have Žižek dressed as a priest talking about the ideology of fascism in the mother superior’s room from The Sound of Music, about the vampiric attitude of the ruling class towards the working class in the lifeboat from Titanic and about the nature of political violence in Travis Bickle’s single iron bed from Taxi Driver. All of this is amusing enough and makes a long and in places opaque lecture pass pleasantly enough, but the ideas that underlie it are rotten.
Slavoj Žižek has been proclaimed by some as the greatest political philosopher of the late twentieth century — there is even an International Journal of Žižek Studies. His work is popular with a layer of the radical left, although maybe the kind who consumes rather than acts on their politics.
He has somewhat replaced Chomsky as the author of the coffee table books of choice for the armchair radical, and he sold out the Royal Festival Hall when he spoke there in 2010.
His ideas have been developed in a series of books since the late 1980s, and fit with the themes of anti-globalisation, Occupy, and other radical struggles that are often one side of class struggle.
It is noticeable that Žižek does not attack capitalism as such. The exploitation of workers as workers is notably missing from this film. Rather he attacks consumerism, particular in its Coca-Cola/Starbucks form. This is despite, or maybe because, his philosophy is obtuse.
Although Žižek places himself in the revolutionary tradition and draws on Marx, he does not see himself primarily as a Marxist. He says he wants to reinvigorate German idealist philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, through the application of the French post-Freudian, Jacques Lacan.
There is no feeling in this film (or in Žižek’s numerous books) that this view emerges from a study of society and the forms of ideology in it. Rather, consistent with his idealist philosophical approach, the ideas emerge from the realm of pure thought, albeit cut with some empirically based psychoanalytic theory The world is sampled, squeezed and (mis)interpreted to fit this theoretical view.
His evidence about society is what many of us would not think of as evidence — mainly film. This is not an affectation, but central to Žižek’s view of the world. Ideology is fantasy, and film is the purest form of the projection of such fantasy. Film is not the mirror which we hold up to ourselves, but feeds us the fantasies by which we constitute ourselves. The films are, for Žižek, reality. Thus M*A*S*H and Full Metal Jacket are used to understand the American military, Brief Encounter the nature of social control, and Jaws, fascism!
To say that the shark in Jaws stands for nothing other than fear itself is hardly a startling insight. Alfred Hitchcock spoke in similar terms about how the purpose of his films was not essentially narrative or plot, but to create an emotional response in the viewer. To say this kind of work gives us an insight into how the Nazis scapegoated the Jews is little short of ridiculous.
Onto his argument, Žižek bolts some bits of other people’s theories as if they were his insights. So he goes on to say that underlying the fantasy of Nazi ideology was one of a modernising revolution that preserved tradition. But the idea of fascism being “reactionary modernism” was asserted by Jeffrey Herf in 1984, and has antecedents stretching back to the 1930s.
Similarly, Žižek’s assertion that the riots in the UK were driven by consumerism (the “wrong dream”) is both unoriginal and, in Žižek’s case, seems to be based on the most casual of acquaintance with the evidence.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology also demonstrates a wilful failure to engage with a Marxist understanding of ideology. In this film (and elsewhere) Žižek has dismissed the Marxist theory of ideology which he claims can be summarised by Marx as “they do not know it but they are doing it”. The line is a rather obscure one (from the first German edition of volume one of Capital, but not in future editions).
Nor is the line directly about ideology; the “it” here is people producing exchange values for the market. For sure, this has a relationship to ideology, Marx argues that it obscures the real nature of production to satisfy human needs, a veil that will only be lifted by once production is carried out by “feely socialised man under their conscious, planned control.” But the Marxist view of ideology based on the nature of social life is not understood, far less developed, by Žižek.
For Žižek both the nature of ideology and the liberation of humanity is based on the idea of fantasy. For him, people’s relation to ideology-fantasy is “I know very well what I am doing but am I still doing it.” The project of liberation is not to end fantasy, but to replace it with a better fantasy, or to dream with the right desire.
Thus Žižek goes down the road of anarchist cliché, we should “be realistic, demand the impossible”, and he argues that the dream should not be of wanting the working class to awake, but that new dreams and revolution become a subjective act of will.
Žižek’s politics are, ultimately, mere fantasy.
For many years the writer Michael Rosen has been a fairly uncritical fellow-traveller of the SWP. Now, he’s broken with them over the ‘Comrade Delta’ affair, and has had this exchange with SWP loyalist John Rose and others:
Michael Rosen (above) writes
My old friend John Rose has asked me to put this letter up on my blog. Here it is:
You and I have been good friends for years – more or less since that great year of ’68. You have not only been a trusted friend – but a trusted comrade as well, even if your disagreement with our ‘Leninist’ model of organising inhibited you from joining us. Your close and critical reading of all of the chapters before publication for my book The Myths of Zionism helped guarantee its success.We recently spoke together at the Bookmarks Holocaust Day event at Bookmarks, the Socialist Bookshop on the subject of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Bookmarks tell me that you have kindly offered to help promote the new 70th anniversary edition The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelman which I/we launched at our Marxism Festival last week. Over the last few months you and I have had furious e mail and text exchanges about the swp’s internal developments. More recently in the light of important changes that are now underway in the organisation which address all the issues that you raise, I offered to meet you and discuss them. I pointed out to you that only a face to face discussion can clarify matters in a way that is simply not possible by relying on e mail and text exchanges, given the proper necessity of respecting principles of confidentiality. For reasons best known to yourself, you have felt unable to do so, but I be obliged if you would let readers of your blog know that that my offer remains open. Many thanks John
My reply: Hi John
Thanks for this.
The problem here is that I’ve become the story. I’m not the story. The story is a) the mishandling of a dispute b) the mishandling of the mishandling c) the lack of an open approach to your friends and allies in what we call the ‘movement’.
As you’ve asked for this letter to be made public, I can only think that you feel that some part of it makes a point to the outside world. I’m guessing that this is the part where you ask me, in effect, why I haven’t discussed this matter whilst ‘respecting principles of confidentiality’. Aha – surely this shows that Rosen has not been totally honest in his open letters…he could have heard the whole truth…he would then have not needed to go public about all this…etc etc.
I can explain. It is precisely because you wanted to have a ‘confidential’ talk about this that I found myself resisting your suggestion. I’ll be blunt, I don’t want to be the recipient or owner of any confidences in this matter. That’s the last thing in the world I want. The dispute has been played out in various kinds of public forums. The consequence is that many of us who’ve been involved in eg Marxism, LMHR, UAF, Respect, ANL, Stop the War etc etc feel that we are entitled to be told what’s going on – but not in terms of confidences – only in terms of why a proper procedure wasn’t followed, why the SWP couldn’t have admitted that it should have followed a proper procedure, why it couldn’t have admitted that its committees were the inappropriate means by which this dispute was heard, why it hasn’t hurried to put a proper procedure in place and why the person we call Delta went on being involved in LMHR and UAF long after the dispute was underway. And, I hasten to add, this is not because I am prejudging him as guilty. I repeat: I am not prejudging him as guilty. It is because this would have been the right way to proceed – for the benefit of all parties: the accusers, the accused, the SWP and the rest of us on the outside. I repeat, the SWP has set out its stall in relation to sexual oppression, liberation and equality. It can hardly complain if people on the outside ask how this dispute matches the principles and analysis that the SWP has put before us.
You mention ‘The Ghetto Fights’. In fact, my offer was more than the one you mention. I said to Bookmarks that if they wrote an appeal I would kick off some crowd-funding with a contribution.
Flavorwire Interview: ‘We Steal Secrets’ Director Alex Gibney on Julian Assange and the Wikileaks Backlash to His Film
In his riveting new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, director Alex Gibney (the prolific Oscar winner behind Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer) tells two stories: the thriller-like ascendency of the organization and the troubling questions it asks about government transparency, and the crumbling of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, which plays like something out of Greek tragedy — the transformation of an admirable idealist to a paranoid propagandist, injecting his own legal woes into the lofty aims of his organization, and conflating them. Gibney was unable to procure an interview with Assange; “Julian wanted money,” Gibney explains in the film, though Assange was willing to exchange his interview for information on the other people Gibney was talking to. (UPDATE: The organization has disputed this claim. Mr. Gibney notes that they’re working from an “incomplete and inaccurate transcript based on non-final version.”) The filmmaker refused, and We Steal Secrets has been under fire from Wikileaks supporters since it was unveiled at Sundance last January. I asked Gibney about that backlash, the importance of the story, and related troubling matters of transparency in the Obama administration
Flavorwire: When and how did you first become aware of Assange and Wikileaks, and when did you decide you wanted to make this film?
Gibney: I first became aware of him through the collateral murder thing when it was posted on the website before the Afghan and Iraq war logs, and I took note of it as a kind of cool new publishing mechanism for this kind of material. I thought, “Wow, that’s interesting.” I read the piece by Raffi Khatchadourian in The New Yorker and then it really exploded, obviously, when the Afghan and Iraq war logs broke, and then the state department cables. It was after that that [producer] Marc Shmuger called me and said, “Would you be interested?” Frankly, I was busy doing some other things. I was just following it as a civilian because I was interested in it and I couldn’t resist. I said, “Yeah, sure. If you can raise the money, I will do it.” Then he went to Universal and we got the money, and off we went.
I really admire the fairness of the film — it champions what Wikileaks is about, while being deservedly critical of Assange himself, or at least the recent iteration of him. How closely does the evolution of the narrative within the film mirror how your own feelings evolved about the story?
I think it did evolve and it did change, and frankly, while we were following the story, the story changed. When we came onto it, Assange was still living in the Norfolk mansion, not yet in self-imposed exile in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, so a lot of things were yet to happen. Based on Raffi’s piece in The New Yorker and my first meeting with Assange, I liked him a lot, and I thought it was a pretty simple David and Goliath story. At the same time, it was kind of peculiar because when I came into the story, in media terms, he was becoming a kind of Goliath, he meaning Assange. He was surrounded with a number of lawyers and agents and press people that I had to wade through. It was like trying to talk to a movie star, and so that I think also was tough. I wish I’d met him when he was in Iceland.
Walk me through your communications with Assange during the production — and if you’ve had any since.
One of my executive producers, Jemima Khan, put up some of the bail money for Assange, and so that helped to plug me into his group. And so from the very start, I approached him and told him I wanted to talk to him. I think I may have put him off in the sense that most people [who] were coming to him wanted to make some kind of a deal, like, “Give me access and I’ll go raise the money to make a film about you,” and then Julian would put conditions on the access. I came to him and told him that I was making the film whether he participated or not. I didn’t put it in a crude way — I just said, “I’m doing the film now, I hope you’ll participate.”
I don’t think he liked that very much. He likes to have control. He likes to feel like he’s the puppet master, so nevertheless, I hung on and kept trying over the course of time. You know, he did agree — I have a number of emails saying, “Yeah, sure, we agree to the interview, let’s do it,” and then later on, he decided not to agree. I kept going, so I kept making the film even as I kept trying to get him to talk and [it] was very late in the game when we were close to finishing that I tried one last time and he said, “Well, let’s talk about it.” So I flew over from New York to England and went and visited him at this Norfolk estate that is owned by Vaughan Smith and we had this six-hour conversation where we explored whether or not he would do the interview.
I walked through it, but he wanted certain guarantees, like he wanted to know if he could see cuts. I said, “Look, I don’t do that. That’s not how it works. I don’t work for you.” And then he responded huffily, “Well, I don’t work for you either.” I said, “Yeah, I know, I get it!” I think he wanted a spin doctor. He wanted to be able to say or believe that he could control the message and the messenger. And while I told him that I really wanted his unvarnished views about these issues and really wanted him to dig into detail into the story… ultimately, editorial control rested with me. End of story.
Have you heard anything from him or anyone that’s still in the organization since? Read the rest of this entry »
Enjoy your little moment of shameless piggy-backing, Fish-heid…
…before it all goes “tits up”:
From The Scotsman (31/03/13):
HE FEARS for his country. Tennis star Andy Murray yesterday warned Scots not to make an emotional snap decision on going independent because it might go “tits up”.
The World No 3 made his colourful intervention in the independence debate in a wide-ranging interview.
But although the Dunblane-raised sportsman did not indicate which way he will vote in next year’s referendum, he made clear that his head would rule his heart.
“You need to figure out what’s best for the country and then come to an opinion,” he said. “I want to read more about the issue. I don’t think you should judge the thing on emotion, but on what is best economically for Scotland. You don’t want to come to a snap decision and then see the country go tits up.”
P.S; Murray’s words yesterday:
“I understand how much everyone else wanted to see a British winner at Wimbledon, so I hope you guys enjoyed that. I tried my best.”
Reblogged from Tendance Coatsey:
Galloway for London Mayor: “Real Labour versus a Transvestite.”
George Galloway has announced on Russia Today (where else?) that he intends to fight Boris Johnson for the job of Mayor of London, despite the present incumbent already insisting he will not stand for a third term.
The Respect MP for Bradford West said he had a team of people looking into the idea.
More on the Huffington Post.
He has also said,
“Labour, I understand, is contemplating selecting a transvestite comedian, Eddie Izzard, which would also be an interesting contest. Real Labour versus a transvestite.”
There is, as yet, no word on the Respect Party website on this important battle.
But the International Business Times cites Galloway’s first ideas,
Galloway said it was too early to discuss any specific policies but insisted that alongside his ‘real Labour’ stance: “I would also have an internationalist relationship – ensuring for example that London has a relationship with China, giving China a base in the West.
“China doesn’t have that because many countries fear them but London doesn’t fear them. I’d want Chinese investment as a basis [for my policies].”
We learn that Galloway has just backtracked on this significant initiative – Here.
But a spokesman (that is, not the man himself) for Mr Galloway yesterday told the Telegraph & Argus it was a “not-too-serious response to a rather facetious question”.
“George is committed to Bradford, to fighting the seat in 2014, helping the Bradford East candidate (not yet selected) defeat David Ward, and in the meantime assisting in getting a serious number of councillors elected in 2014 to be the official opposition and holding the balance of power,” he added.
Bradford West Labour councillor Shakeela Lal added: “He’s only been an MP here just over a year but already George Galloway’s bored of Bradford and looking for his next challenge. He’s more interested in running for Mayor of London than standing up for his constituents.”
“We hardly ever see Mr Galloway in Bradford anyway so this hardly comes as a surprise.”
Ilkley Conservative MP Kris Hopkins said: “To be fair to George, the London Mayoral election is not due to held until 2016, the year after the next General Election.
“A lot could happen between now and then and, knowing George, it probably will.”
Matt Hill, writing at the New Statesman website, makes some very interesting comments on the Hawking “boycott” and the BDS movement in general. It’s well worth reading the entire article, but this section is especially telling:
The problem with the BDS campaign is that the message it sends Israel is anything but clear – and, as a result, it risks being counterproductive. In his letter to the conference’s organisers, Hawking wrote about his concerns about “prospects for a peace settlement”, saying that “the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster”. But Israel’s supporters claim that the BDS movement has little to do with the occupation, peace, and government policy, and is instead intended to bring into question the Jewish state’s right to exist.
It’s true that Israel’s supporters throw the word ‘delegitimisation‘ around to portray fair-minded criticism of Israel as invidious and sinister. But when it comes to BDS, the fact is that they have a point. The BDS movement doesn’t have a single leadership with stated goals, but most of the biggest groups within it make little secret of their preferred outcome to the conflict. Instead of a two-state solution, they support a single, Palestinian-majority state that would mean the end of Israel’s existence. Don’t take my word for it. Norman Finkelstein, the heroic pro-Palestinian author and activist, recently launched a blistering attack on the BDS movement, telling an interviewer: “[The Israelis] say ‘They’re not talking about rights. They want to destroy Israel.’ And in fact, I think they’re right. . . . There’s a large segment of the movement that wants to eliminate Israel.”
And just in case any readers haven’t yet seen the clip of Finkelstein (someone this blog would not describe as “heroic”) accusing the BDS movement of fundamental dishonesty about Israel, here it is: