By Eric Lee
Over the course of the last year, millions of Americans voted for Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist candidate who offered a program of radical change. According to public opinion polls, nearly all of them are now going to cast their votes for Hillary Clinton. They will do so even though she remains a widely disliked and untrusted candidate who is often seen as being the candidate of the “Establishment”.
Some polls put the number of former Sanders supporters now backing Clinton as high as 90%. Most expect the numbers to be even higher as the November election draws closer.
Clinton has gone from being the candidate of Goldman Sachs and the one-percent to being the candidate we will vote for.
There are two reasons for this.
The first is that the fear of Donald Trump winning the election has persuaded many of us that any alternative would be preferable. In that sense, many on the American left are echoing the decision by French socialists in 2002 to support the hated Jacques Chirac rather than to allow Jean-Marie Le Pen to win the presidency.
The second is that a full year of the Sanders campaign actually had an impact. This is true even though the candidate fell short of the number of delegates required to win the nomination of his party. Take the Democratic Party’s platform, which revealed how far to the left the party has turned. Sanders himself was the first to point this out. In every speech he gives – including his address on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia – he emphasizes how many of his ideas made it into the final program of the party.
There are counter-arguments to both of these points. But those arguments are gaining little ground among Sanders supporters.
One of those argued that choosing Clinton over Trump is a form of “lesser-evilism.” At some point, one simply has to say “no” and vote for a candidate who is not seen as evil at all, such as the Green Party’s Jill Stein.
Another argument is that all of the Democratic Party’s concessions to Sanders are meaningless. No Democratic politician is obligated to do what the party platform says, including Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton has publicly embraced many of Sanders’ positions in recent weeks, there’s no reason to believe she’ll carry any of it out once elected.
There is little evidence that either of those arguments have had much of an impact on Sanders supporters. They certainly haven’t persuaded me.
Jill Stein’s campaign still languishes on the fringes of American politics, with no chance of reaching the 15% in public opinion polls that would guarantee the Green politician a place in the upcoming presidential debates. (Stein is averaging just 4% in the latest polls, and is likely to receive considerably less than that on election day.)
Sanders supporters in large numbers are embracing the position advocated by the largest left organization in America in the 1960s, the Students for a Democratic Society. SDS supported the Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson over Republican Barry Goldwater. They did so despite all their reservations about Johnson. Johnson ran on the slogan “All the way with LBJ!” SDS answered with “Part of the way with LBJ.”
It was a good slogan that expresses the view of many regarding Hillary Clinton today.
The argument that Clinton doesn’t really believe in the $15 an hour minimum wage, or single-payer health care, or debt-free college tuition (among many Sanders positions she has adopted in recent weeks) misses the point.
The left understands that its job when someone wins the presidency on a left-liberal platform is to mobilize to ensure that they live up to their promises. This is why the civil rights movement came alive in the 1960s. This is why the great March on Washington in 1963 came about to pressure a liberal Democratic administration to live up to its promises. Such protests would have had little impact if the Republican Richard Nixon had won the 1960 election. But the Kennedy-Johnson administration was vulnerable to pressure, and the result was the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Food stamps, the abortive “war on poverty”, various civil rights laws, and more.
If Clinton wins the election on November 8th, all those millions of Sanders supporters who grudgingly voted for her, will need to be mobilized to force her and Congress to enact as much of the Democratic Platform as we can. Sanders has launched a new organization, “Our Revolution”, which is devoted to precisely that.
As for Donald Trump, there is a tendency among some on the left to say that while he’s bad, he’s really no different from Clinton. In some ways, some have said, he’s better. He opposed job-destroying “free trade” deals like TPP and NAFTA, and he’s seen (by some) as being less likely to lead the US into pointless wars in the Middle East.
Such a view of Trump is delusional. Trump is a racist, sexist, and right-wing bully who is America’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. There is more than a whiff of fascism in his campaign. To not see the differences between him and Hillary Clinton is to be blind.
Fortunately, if the polls are right, the vast majority of Sanders supporters understand this. Given a choice between Hillary Clinton, who has been forced against her will to run on the most progressive platform the Democrats ever had, and Donald Trump, most liberals and leftists know what needs to be done.
From the US rank-and-file trade union magazine and website Labor Notes
Where’s our economy headed? Soon every factory worker will have to start driving for Uber, and the trucks will drive themselves—at least so the business press tells us.
But Kim Moody, co-founder of this magazine and the author of many books on U.S. labor, paints a different picture. Chris Brooks asked him to cut through the hype and describe what’s coming for working people and the opportunities for unions.
This is Part 1 of our interview with Kim Moody. Watch for Part 2, coming next week. —Eds.
Labor Notes: We read a lot about the “gig economy,” where workers cycle through multiple jobs using app-based companies like Uber, TaskRabbit [for everyday tasks such as cleaning or moving], and Mechanical Turk [for online tasks such as labeling images]. Is this really the future of work?
Kim Moody: One thing to notice is that, aside from outfits like Uber, most of these are not employers. They’re digital platforms where you can find a job.
The apps are not determining the hours and pay, or even the technology used on the jobs. It’s still employers that are calling the shots. So if jobs are getting worse, it’s not because people can find them digitally as opposed to reading them in the newspaper.
Also, discussions of the gig economy often assume that suddenly there are all these people who are multiple job-holders. But the fact is that the proportion of the workforce who have more than one job hasn’t changed much in 40 years.
The vast majority of them are people with regular full-time jobs who are also moonlighting, which is a very old thing. There are a lot of multiple job-holders, but there have always been a lot of them.
There’s also been talk of the “1099 economy.” Are we really moving towards a future where 40 percent of workers will be freelancing?
The idea that freelancers can become 40 percent of the workforce is science fiction.
There are two kinds of self-employed. The greatest number are the “unincorporated self-employed,” or independent contractors. Their numbers have been dropping for years.
The other group, the incorporated ones, are people who run a small business. They have grown somewhat, but they are still just 4 percent of the workforce.
You argue that the “gig economy” and “precarious work” concepts miss the mark because they don’t get at the most concerning change: the rise of the crappy-job economy. Can you talk about what’s changed for workers and why?
The first change is work intensification. Work has gotten dramatically harder in the last 30 years or so, and continues to.
That’s happened through lean production, which reduces the amount of labor to produce the same or greater amount of product or service and is tied to just-in-time production. Lean production began in the automobile industry in the 1980s, but now it is everywhere. It’s in hospitals, it’s in schools.
Another aspect is electronic and biometric monitoring, measuring, and surveillance, which allow employers to see how to get more work literally out of each minute. Another aspect is that the amount of break time has fallen dramatically since the ’80s.
Whether you are working full-time or part-time, in a precarious job or not, chances are you are going to experience some of this.
The other side is income. Wages have been falling since the early 1970s. More and more people are actually working for less, in real terms, than they used to. This also impacts everybody, although part-time and precarious workers are likely to get paid even less than full-time people.
And if you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for the fastest-growing jobs, millions of new jobs over the next decade or so, 70 percent are projected to be low-skill, low-pay jobs.
In other words, we are not heading for some big high-tech economy. Instead we are heading for a low-paid workforce with crappy jobs. The end of good jobs is nigh.
While app-based “just-in-time” gigs have gotten lots of media attention, far less attention has been paid to “just-in-time” production. Can you talk about why massive logistics hubs have emerged, and what they mean for union organizing?
In order for globalization to be efficient, low pay isn’t necessarily enough, because you have to move products from one location to another. That required a change in the way products are moved—the “logistics revolution.”
The time it takes to deliver a product to the point of sale is an important factor in competition. Like production, transportation now operates on a just-in-time basis. Products move faster.
The speed of trucks, planes, and trains did not change. What did was the way things are processed. Goods don’t stay in warehouses very long. Products arrive on rail and are cross-docked and moved out by truck in a matter of hours. This process has really only taken shape in the 21st century.
You might think, “Well, this is all very high-tech.” But it turns out that it still requires thousands and thousands of workers. In the U.S. there are 60 of these clusters, but three stand out: the Port of New York and New Jersey, the Los Angeles and Long Beach port area, and Chicago. Each of these employs, in a small geographic area, at least 100,000 people.
Now, the whole idea of outsourcing back in the 1980s was to break up the concentrations of workers in places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, or Gary. But what these companies have done now, inadvertently, is to recruit incredibly massive concentrations of manual laborers.
It has evolved in a way that might shoot these companies in the foot—because here you have the potential to organize vast numbers of poorly paid workers into unions. And there are attempts to do just that.
The other thing is that these clusters are tied together by just-in-time systems—which means you have hundreds, maybe thousands, of points in the transportation system that are highly vulnerable. If you stop work in one place, you are going to close down huge areas.
Media commentators and even presidential candidates blame the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs on trade and outsourcing. You’re skeptical. How do you explain it?
Outsourcing, if it is in the U.S.—which most of it has been—can break up the union, it can be very inconvenient to the people who lose their jobs, but it doesn’t necessarily eliminate jobs in the U.S. The jobs are just moved to a different, lower-paid group of workers.
Offshoring is another thing, but it’s not as widespread as people think. While moving production abroad has definitely impacted certain industries like steel, textile, and clothing, it cannot account for the loss of jobs we have seen. I estimate that between a million and 2 million jobs have been lost since the mid-’80s to imports and offshoring.
Manufacturing output, from the 1960s to just before the Great Recession in 2007, actually grew by 131 percent; the manufacturing sector more than doubled its output. If everything was going abroad, you couldn’t possibly have that kind of growth.
How can this be? I believe the answer lies in lean production and new technology, as we talked about earlier. Productivity literally doubled, and manufacturing jobs dropped by 50 percent or more. It’s the productivity increase that explains the loss of jobs.
It is very difficult for politicians to deal with this question, because it means attacking employers. It means saying, “You are taking too much out of your workforce.” And of course since most economists, politicians, and experts think that productivity growth is a wonderful thing, it’s beyond criticism.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing about the future of automation. Former Service Employees President Andy Stern has been making the media rounds claiming that driverless trucks are going to replace millions of drivers.
You can sell a lot of books with this pop futurology. It reminds me of the great automation scare of the 1950s. It was popular then to make predictions that there wouldn’t be any factory workers left.
And automation has reduced the number of factory workers, but there are still 8 or 9 million of them lingering around—despite all this technology, which is much greater than anything they predicted in the ’50s.
I have a shelf of books predicting “the end of work.” And yet we have millions more workers than we used to—the problem being that they are worse off than they used to be, not that they don’t exist.
There’s more! We also asked Kim Moody about workforce demographics and outsourcing to the South. Stay tuned for Part 2.
Read more: Everyone in this auto parts plant was a temp—until they all joined the union and threatened to strike.
Read more: The Cargo Chain is a beautiful poster/pamphlet that maps out how ship hands, longshoremen, truck drivers, railroad operators, and warehouse workers move goods across North America.
Eric Lee reports (28/07/2016) from Philadelpia. Republished from Eric’s blog:
A few years after the second world war, a strange book was published in New York City. It was called The Russian Menace to Europe and judging by the title, one would imagine it was one of many books which focussed public attention on the threat posed by the emerging Soviet superpower.
The book’s authors, however, were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
It was a collection of essays, mostly newspaper articles, written by Marx and Engels in the 19th century. The Russia they were concerned about was not the Soviet Union, but the tsarist empire.
And yet there were very strong parallels between the two periods, a point Marx himself made (without knowing the future) when he described the unchanging character of Russian foreign policy.
Marx was especially concerned with the way Russia manipulated Western leaders, especially certain British politicians such as Lord Palmerston. Palmerston’s actions during the Crimean War seemed to benefit Russia so often that Marx was convinced he was the tsar’s agent.
The idea back in the 1950s that Communist Russia and tsarist Russia had so much in common was quite daring. Today, the idea that Putin’s Russia continues historic patterns stretching back centuries seems less controversial.
Putin’s foreign policy is simply a 21st century version of traditional Russian imperialism, constantly poking and probing its neighbors for weakness.
In 2008, he brazenly launched a war on Georgia, an independent country to Russia’s south. He continues to occupy two Georgian provinces with Russian troops. A few years later, his soldiers seized control of Crimea from Ukraine. And then they triggered a civil war in eastern Ukraine, causing thousands of deaths.
Putin’s 21st century Russian imperialism has its foreign policy too and just like the tsars and the Communists, it seeks to influence Western politicians and public opinion.
In the American elections, the Russians are playing both sides with a considerable measure of success. The relationship between Putin and Trump is an increasingly transparent one. Trump has long expressed his admiration for Putin. And yesterday, he stunned the political world in America by publicly calling on the Russians to release some 30,000 deleted emails from Hillary Clinton’s server which they may have hacked.
But it is not only the far-right Republicans that Putin seeks to influence and control. For several years now, Putin’s satellite TV news channel Russia Today has tried to influence public opinion in the West by pretending to offer an alternative view of the world. It is has had a certain limited success.
I spent yesterday not at the Democratic National Convention but at alternative events hosted by both democratic socialist groups and the far Left here in Philadelphia. Green Party presidential candidate Dr Jill Stein spoke at one of them. In a packed, airless and extremely hot hall, I saw a number of participants wearing “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts. It seemed to strike no one as odd that Donald Trump’s slogan had a place at a left-wing meeting.
I imagine that most of the people in the room would broadly accept the world-view espoused by Russia Today — that the United States is the cause of global instability, that Russia threatens no one, and so on. These views are certainly reflected in the platform of the Green Party.
So we find in America a century and a half after Marx and Engels wrote their essays that on both political fringes, right and left, the influence of the Russian state is clearly felt. Obviously it is Donald Trump, and not Jill Stein, who needs to worry us. But both are part of the same broad current who distrust American foreign policy, demonize Hillary Clinton, and have no problem with the autocrat in the Kremlin.
Those groups and individuals, whether they support the Tea Party or are self-styled Communists, are the members of Putin’s Party.
The US Socialist Worker (not connected with the British SWP) comments:
Black Lives Matter is under attack after the killing of five police officers in Dallas, but that isn’t stopping demonstrators from taking to the streets, reports
THE POLICE KILLING of two Black men–Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, a suburb of the Twin Cities in Minnesota–last week horrified people around the world and brought protesters into the streets in large numbers across the country to proclaim that Black Lives Matter.
Yet just as quickly, in Dallas, a man who shot and killed police officers as BLM supporters were demonstrating–killing five officers and wounding several more before being killed himself by police–provided the means for the media and law enforcement to shift the spotlight away from the epidemic of police violence and blame those who have risen up to protest.
Micah Xavier Johnson, an African American veteran, opened fire on police during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Dallas on July 7. There was zero evidence, even in the immediate confusion surrounding the attack, that Johnson was connected to the protest.
But authorities immediately used the opportunity to smear the movement, suggesting that the attack was part of a coordinated plot–involving as many as four shooters, the police initially claimed–and a willing media went along.
Political leaders and media commentators immediately lumped protest against racist police harassment and violence together with Johnson’s shootings–and called on the Black Lives Matter movement to accept some kind of responsibility for Johnson’s rampage.
Typical was the New York Times, which warned that “Black Lives Matter now faces perhaps the biggest crisis in its short history. It is both scrambling to distance itself from an African-American sniper in Dallas who set out to murder white police officers and trying to rebut a chorus of detractors who blame the movement for inspiring his deadly attack.”
Of course, neither the Times nor anyone else in a position of power makes the same call for law enforcement to accept collective responsibility for the police murders that take place several times a day across the country. In those cases, we’re told, it’s just “one bad apple.”
CNN’s Chris Cuomo had the gall to ask Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, about her reaction to the shootings in Dallas–before bothering to ask a single question about the loss of her son or the gut-wrenching aftermath captured on video as he lay dying in front of his girlfriend her 4-year-old daughter.
The grieving mother set Cuomo straight:
Me? I don’t know anything about what happened in Dallas. My son died just the other day, and I haven’t had sleep in almost 48 hours. So no, I haven’t been watching any television, so I can’t answer that…
No one has reached out to me as far as anything concerning [Philando]. As a matter of fact, since my son has been killed–murdered, executed by the state of Minnesota’s police officers–I have not yet to see his body.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
THE GUT-wrenching video footage of the deaths of Sterling and Castile–Sterling as he laid subdued on the pavement, and Castile in his car as his fiancé and her 4-year-old daughter looked on–brought home once again the daily reality of racist police violence.
Their deaths–one day and 1,000 miles apart, but immediately joined in the minds of people around the world because they were captured on video–spurred a new round of protests.
You need to watch, and listen to, this:
Above: Nakia Jones, a black female police officer with the Warrensville Heights Police Department in Ohio, wants the world to know that she is outraged by the conduct of her fellow officers who killed Alton Sterling in Louisiana.
“If you are white and you work in a black community and you are racist, you need to be ashamed of yourself,” Jones said, in a powerful message addressing other police officers that has gone viral. “You stood up there and took an oath. … How dare you stand next to me in the same uniform and murder somebody? How dare you? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
From The Guardian:
Fatal shootings by police in Minnesota and Louisiana have revived protests about the treatment by officers of black Americans who appear to be carrying firearms legally or unthreateningly.
Philando Castile was shot dead by an officer in St Paul, Minnesota, late on Wednesday as demonstrations continued 1,100 miles away in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, over the killing by police of Alton Sterling. Both incidents were partially captured on cellphone video.
Sterling, 37, appeared to have a pistol inside his pocket when he was fatally shot during a struggle with two officers.
Their deaths are the latest in a series of controversial cases including those of Tamir Rice and John Crawford, two young African Americans who were separately shot dead by police in Ohio in 2014 while handling pellet guns in a park and a Walmart store respectively. In both cases, officers fired within seconds of seeing them.
Campaigners said African Americans were treated unfairly to deadly effect. “No matter how well you follow the rules, you can still be dead because you’re black,” said Brittany Packnett, an activist and former member of Barack Obama’s White House policing taskforce. “Compliance has never guaranteed our safety.”
I’m not Owen Jones’s biggest fan, but on this occasion I can completely understand his anger and frustration at the refusal of Sky News presenter Mark Longhurst to recognise this as a homophobic attack. Longhurst told him “you cannot say this is a worse attack than what happened in Paris”, which Jones did not say. Eventually, Jones walked out, and good for him:
The US Socialist Worker (no longer related to the UK organisation/paper of the same name) at least makes an attempt at a serious analysis, but is not entirely coherent and verges, towards the end, on a version of “blow-back”.
Donald Trump is all too predictable … and loathsome.
Owen Jones explains himself at greater length here
Leave.EU has wasted no time in cashing in:
I’m not sure whether or not it’s entirely seemly to bring this up just at the moment; but I really do think that as well as honouring a heroic, courageous human being, we also need to ponder what boxing did to Mohammed Ali in the end, and has done to thousands of other fighters over the years.
I wrote this nearly ten years ago, on the occasion of Ali’s 65th birthday:
Above: a bloodied Henry Cooper battles Cassius Clay (as he then was) in 1963 (Getty images)
Muhammad Ali is 65 today and suffering from Parkinson’s disease – a cruel fate for a man once renowned for his physical and mental speed and agility. Perhaps surprisingly, the most fulsome tribute to Ali I’ve seen today is from the Daily Telegraph, which devotes five pages of its sports section to a splendidly illustrated tribute, plus part of the main paper’s leader column:
“…Who can rival him as a sporting hero? His achievement in a sport of which some disapprove was not just to knock men out. He was an artist, not a psychopath; knocked down by Henry Cooper in 1963, 40 years later he telephoned him to reminisce. Psychic presence and witty self-promotion brought him double success in the ring and as a civil rights champion.
“Ali showed moral as well as physical courage. He refused to serve in Vietnam out of religious principle, he explained, but added ‘No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger’. His career seemed at an end, yet he made an amazing comeback in 1974 in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. More recently, when asked why he thought he would have beaten Mike Tyson, Ali simply tapped his temple: he was always the cleverer fighter.
“We need heroes, and Ali really is the greatest”.
Once over the shock of the voice of the retired colonels of Tory middle England praising a black, Muslim, civil rights activist and opponent of the Vietnam war, I have to say that I don’t dissent from any of that. Ali most certainly was (and is) a brave, generous and thoroughly admirable human being.
But the “sport” at which he excelled (and that may also be responsible for his Parkinson’s) is a foul business. I don’t think it should be called a “sport” at all: the object of boxing, unlike any other sport (including dangerous sports), is to render the opponent unconscious by repeated blows to the head and body. Since 1945 there have been 361 deaths in the ring, and the number of boxers reduced to shambling, punch-drunk wrecks by brain damage is uncounted. That’s not to mention permanent eye damage (up to and including blindness), ruptured eardrums, broken noses and jaws, smashed teeth, the famous ‘cauliflower ear’ and renal damage.
It has long amazed me that so few liberals and lefties seem at all concerned about boxing, and some even support it. The main reason for this is, I suspect, because boxing is traditionally a proletarian “sport” and a way for poor young men (often black or from other ethnic minorities) to achieve something in life. But that’s exactly the reason that socialists should oppose boxing: we want a society where that sort of barbarism simply isn’t required as a way to escape poverty, prejudice and lack of opportunity.
One of the few socialists to write extensively opposing boxing was the American Trotskyist James P. Cannon. Commenting on the death of 20-year-old Georgie Flores in the ring at Madison Square Garden, he wrote:
“It is a commentary on the times and the social environment out of which the boxing business rises like a poisonous flower from the dunghill, that nobody came forward with the simple demand to outlaw prize fighting, as it was outlawed in most states of this country up till the turn of the century. Cock-fighting is illegal; it is considered inhumane to put a couple of roosters in a pit and incite them to spur each other until one of them keels over. It is also against the law to put bulldogs into the pit to fight for a side bet. But our civilisation – which is on the march to be sure – has not yet advanced to the point where law and public opinion forbid men, who have nothing against each other, to fight for money and the amusement of paying spectators. Such spectacles are part of our highly touted way of life”.
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 »
Above: the trailer for Vaxxed, promoting the discredited claims of a quack
Robert De Niro’s support for the fraudulent quack Andrew Wakefield, struck off by the GMC in 2010 for “callous disregard for the distress and pain of children” has raised fears that American parents will be unwilling to give their children the MMR -measles mumps and rubella – jab, needlessly putting thousands of children at risk.
Although De Niro has withdrawn Wakefield’s film Vaxxed from the Tribeca Film Festival, De Niro has continued to back Wakefield and told the Today show: “I think the movie is something people should see … There is a link [between the MMR jab and autism] and they are saying there isn’t and there are … other things there.”
In this age of conspiracy theories (especially prevalent, it seems, in the US), the very fact of the film being withdrawn in response to an outcry against it by the scientific and medical “establishment” may well only serve to give publicity and credibility to the dangerous, dishonest fraud and quack Wakefield and his discredited claims of a link between the MMR jab and autism.
Below is an open letter by film director Todd Drezner, who is himself (like De Niro) the father of a boy with autism, to the distributors of Vaxxed. It was first published at left brain right brain:
Dear Cinema Libre,
I’m writing to explain why I’m so disappointed in your decision to distribute “Vaxxed.” I have three main objections:
1) Perhaps of most relevance to Cinema Libre is that Andrew Wakefield has assembled his film using unethical and dishonest editing techniques. As documented here, the “Vaxxed” trailer splices excerpts from two different phone calls together and then inserts a narrator giving an interpretation of those calls that is not supported by the facts. And this is merely one example from a brief trailer. Who knows how many misleading edits Wakefield has made in the full film?
Given Cinema Libre’s commitment to the idea that documentaries can make a social impact, I would think you would want to be associated with filmmakers who follow ethical practices and journalistic standards when making documentaries. When a dishonest filmmaker like Wakefield receives distribution and a theatrical release, it undermines all documentary filmmakers. We depend on the trust of our audiences. Your decision to support a dishonest film like “Vaxxed” destroys that trust. Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane outlines these issues nicely here.
2) Cinema Libre’s blog post about “Vaxxed” refers to “the suppression of medical data by a governmental agency that may well be contributing to a significant health crisis.” This is, I’m sorry to say, no more than a fever dream. First, as you will remember from watching “Loving Lampposts,” the autism “epidemic” can be explained by a combination of changing diagnostic criteria, increasing awareness of autism, and the benefits of receiving a diagnosis (in terms of the access to services and support the diagnosis provides).
Secondly, the CDC “whistleblower” around whom the trailer (and I assume the film) revolves did not reveal anything nearly as sinister as the trailer suggests. It is true that William Thompson of the CDC revealed to Dr. Brian Hooker that a 2004 study of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism supposedly found an association between the vaccine and autism in African American males.
Before I say anything about that finding, let’s note what that finding rules out: any association between the MMR vaccine and any other group besides African American males. Even if Thompson’s assertion were true (it’s not), it still doesn’t support the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism in the many people who are not African American males.
But what about the supposed link between the vaccine and African American males? It’s nothing. Basically, the original study of the association between the vaccine and autism did not leave out African Americans on purpose. Rather, it did so to eliminate “confounders” — that is, any factor other than the vaccine that could have been associated with autism. The authors of the study wanted to be sure that any effect they saw was caused by the MMR and not something else. Dr. Hooker’s “re-analysis” of the study does not account for confounders properly and even if it did, the population of African American males in the study is too small to support any broad conclusions. And one more time, even if the supposed link between African American males and the MMR vaccine were significant, it still rules out any link between the vaccine and all other groups. You can read about these issues in much more detail here and here.
It’s well known that Andrew Wakefield’s research into the MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. His film is based on equally poor science.
3) Despite Richard Castro’s statement on your blog that the Tribeca Film Festival succumbed to “pressure to censor” “Vaxxed,” there was no censorship. As I’m sure you’re aware, the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech prohibits the government from restricting speech. The Tribeca Film Festival is not government. It is a private organization that is free to screen, or not screen, any film it chooses for any reason. Indeed, Tribeca rejects the work of thousands of filmmakers every year. I’m sure Cinema Libre rejects many filmmakers as well. Are they being censored? Of course not.
On the “Vaxxed” website, Andrew Wakefield and Producer Del Bigtree claim that they were “denied due process” when Tribeca decided not to screen “Vaxxed.” This is absurd. There is no such thing as due process when it comes to the decisions of a film festival selection committee. Nor should there be. If such a thing existed, every prestigious film festival would spend all its time sifting through complaints from unhappy filmmakers. There will always be unhappy filmmakers who are denied admission to film festivals. Andrew Wakefield is now one of them. But he is not a censored filmmaker.
On a personal note, I was and remain grateful for the work Cinema Libre did to promote “Loving Lampposts” when it was released. You got the film screened at venues I could not have and publicized it through news coverage I did not have access to. I hoped and believed that along the way, you came to appreciate the film’s message that autistic people can thrive when they are accepted and when they receive the support they need to function in a world not built for them. Apparently, and much to my dismay, this message did not sink in.
By releasing “Vaxxed,” Cinema Libre is actively harming thousands of autistic people. While we should be discussing ways to best support autistic people and help them lead fulfilling lives, you would instead have us follow a discredited scientist and dishonest filmmaker down a rabbit hole that leads only to long debunked conspiracy theories. I am profoundly disappointed.
I don’t expect that Cinema Libre will change its decision. But given our long business relationship, I felt I owed you this explanation of where I stand. I hope that sometime in the future you may find ways to undo the damage you are about to cause.