Who Killed The Disneyland Dream? by Frank Rich in the New York Times

[The key in this story, I think, is the cultural shift in the last 50 years.  The subtext, explored only superficially, is the economic shift in the last 50 years. The economics of the fifties allowed for an expansive view of what was possible.  The economics of today, bred by the decline of the value of labor power, leads inescapably to the conclusion that people are superfluous.  Under those conditions, how is it possible to have access to a "frontierland" or a "tomorrowland," even granting that those entities are worth achieving.  There are a number of barely spoken problems with this story, primarily that, except for noting the lack of black faces in Disneyland Dream, Frank Rich nearly ignores the civil rights context in which the trip to Disneyland took place, ignores the conditions of life that made Langston Hughes write "life for me ain't been no crystal stair."  That contradictory moment both undermines his argument and confirms it -- the Civil Rights movement, an outgrowth both of the post war economic revolution and the post war consciousness that black GIs brought back home with them from the fight against European fascism, could not have developed without the hope to escape the desperate economic and political conditions that African Americans found themselves in.

I don't share Rich's admiration for Sorensen or for Holbrooke.  Both are enmeshed in the reprehensible imperial designs of post war America. One can quibble with a bit of Rich's understanding of history too.  He alludes to the bathrooms in fantasyland, marked "prince" and "princess."  From this he concludes that America of the fifties guaranteed people the dream of becoming royalty.  This of course flies in the face of the constitution itself, which denies royalty any place in America.  But then again, how can one quibble with the de facto royalty that made up the corporate capitalist class then, even more now, and the imperial reach of the government of, for and by the corporations?

Barry Blitt

One can quibble some about his ending as well.  The important thing is to recognize the direction of the shift that is taking place.  Too many of us still believe in the possibility of becoming Bill Gates.  That is one reason why polls showed the numbers supporting the tax cuts for the wealthy.  Surely a good number of folks saw the inevitable “compromise” on the horizon and opted for tax cuts for all versus no tax cuts at all.  But the numbers are diminishing, the ground is being cut out from the center and indeed the center cannot hold. This is not a question about the excesses of the financial markets and their greedy manipulators.  This is a crisis in the system of capitalism itself.

In 1957 I lived in Connecticut, like Barstow, the maker of Disneyland Dream.  I didn’t enter the contest his family did, did not praise the magic of “Scotch Tape,” did not get a free trip to Disneyland.  Instead, my father took an unpaid vacation from his job and paid for 3 tickets on one of those TWA planes with a refueling stop in St Louis to get us to visit my sister who lived in Buena Park, California, a stone’s throw from Anaheim and Disneyland itself.  I still remember the “prince” and “princess” bathrooms, which my family saw with a kind of amusement more than aspiration.  The ride I remember today more than any other is the mad tea party ride, an Alice in Wonderland metaphor, cups swirling so rapidly the centrifugal force drove me against the side of the cup, my head hanging over the side, unable to bring myself in until the ride stopped.  Capitalism’s had us on a whirl like that for the last 30 years, through dem0cratic and republican administrations.  The ride is coming to an end.  What replaces that ride depends on the riders;  either the riders replace the corporate control with a cooperative society, or those controlling the switches will find a worse game in which we may be allowed to be pawns — Lew Rosenbaum]

Op-Ed Columnist

Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?

Published: December 25, 2010 in the New York Times

OF the many notable Americans we lost in 2010, three leap out as paragons of a certain optimistic American spirit that we also seemed to lose this year. Two you know: Theodore Sorensen, the speechwriter present at the creation of J.F.K.’s clarion call to “ask what you can do for your country,” and Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who brought peace to the killing fields of Bosnia in the 1990s. Holbrooke, who was my friend, came of age in the Kennedy years and exemplified its can-do idealism. He gave his life to the proposition that there was nothing an American couldn’t accomplish if he marshaled his energy and talents. His premature death — while heroically bearing the crushing burdens of Afghanistan and Pakistan — is tragic in more ways than many Americans yet realize.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Frank Rich

But a third representative American optimist who died this year, at age 91, is a Connecticut man who was not a player in great events and whom I’d never heard of until I read his Times obituary: Robbins Barstow, an amateur filmmaker who for decades recorded his family’s doings in home movies of such novelty and quality that one of them, the 30-minute “Disneyland Dream,” was admitted to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress two years ago. That rare honor elevates Barstow’s filmmaking to a pantheon otherwise restricted mostly to Hollywood classics, from “Citizen Kane” to “Star Wars.”

“Disneyland Dream” was made in the summer of 1956, shortly before the dawn of the Kennedy era. You can watch it on line at archive.org or on YouTube. Its narrative is simple. The young Barstow family of Wethersfield, Conn. — Robbins; his wife, Meg; and their three children aged 4 to 11 — enter a nationwide contest to win a free trip to Disneyland, then just a year old. The contest was sponsored by 3M, which asked contestants to submit imaginative encomiums to the wonders of its signature product. Danny, the 4-year-old, comes up with the winning testimonial, emblazoned on poster board: “I like ‘Scotch’ brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it.”

Soon enough, the entire neighborhood is cheering the Barstows as they embark on their first visit to the golden land of Anaheim, Calif. As narrated by Robbins Barstow (he added his voiceover soundtrack to the silent Kodachrome film in 1995), every aspect of this pilgrimage is a joy, from the “giant TWA Super Constellation” propeller plane (seating 64) that crosses the country in a single day (with a refueling stop in St. Louis) to the home-made Davy Crockett jackets the family wears en route.

To watch “Disneyland Dream” now as a boomer inevitably sets off pangs of longing for a vanished childhood fantasyland: not just Walt Disney’s then-novel theme park but all the sunny idylls of 1950s pop culture. As it happens, Disney’s Davy Crockett, the actor Fess Parker, also died this year. So did Barbara Billingsley, matriarch of the sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” whose fictional family, the Cleavers, first appeared in 1957 and could have lived next door to the Barstows. But the real power of this film is more subtle and pertinent than nostalgia.

Read the rest of this story on the New York Times web site.

Katrina Blues Continues: Just Why Do We Need The Banking Industry?

For some homeowners, disputes with lenders over flood insurance proceeds lead to foreclosure
Rebecca Mowbray, The Times-Picayune
Published: Monday, November 01, 2010, 4:59 PM

New Orleans bluesman and actor Chris Thomas King got a last-minute reprieve Monday evening from Bank of America, which had been set to auction his Uptown home in a foreclosure sale on Thursday.

Ted Jackson, The Times-PicayuneNew Orleans bluesman Chris Thomas King is about to lose his home to foreclosure.

Ted Jackson, The Times-PicayuneNew Orleans bluesman Chris Thomas King is about to lose his home to foreclosure.

King, a Grammy Award winner best known for his work in the movies O Brother Where Art Thou? and Ray, has been stuck in a dispute with the bank over his flood insurance proceeds from Hurricane Katrina. King says he hasn’t been able to get his lender to release enough of his insurance money to finish rebuilding the Willow Street home he bought in 1998, and can’t carry two mortgages.

A spokeswoman for Bank of America, which took over servicing King’s loan when it bought Countrywide Financial Corp. in 2008, sent an email Monday evening saying that the auction had been postponed. “The foreclosure has been cancelled for this week. We are awaiting the inspection results and, if appropriate, (will) release funds accordingly,” Bank of America Spokeswoman Jumana Bauwens said in an email.

King had not heard the news that the auction had been postponed, but on Monday evening was on the phone with the bank trying to find out if it would release his money after an inspection on Friday had deemed repairs on the home 92 percent complete.

“It’s some light at the end of the tunnel. I’m happy at last that they’re not going to do the guillotine this Thursday, but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen next month,” said King, who is now living his own tale of the blues.

While many New Orleanians got into cash crunches trying to get their lenders to release flood insurance proceeds as they repaired, King’s battle has gone on long enough that his Katrina bureaucratic nightmare has morphed into today’s foreclosure crisis. He has had trouble getting the department that is holding his insurance proceeds to communicate with the department that handles loan delinquencies, and says his situation is crazy because there’s more than enough insurance money to pay the portion of the loan that is in arrears, or to allow him to complete his house, move home and resume paying the mortgage. In short, there’s no reason for him to lose his home.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the National Flood Insurance Program, said that flood checks are required to be made out to both the homeowner and the lender when there’s a mortgage on the property, but there are no rules on governing how or when the lender must release the money.

Laura Bartlett, a staff attorney specializing in foreclosures at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services Inc., said that King’s situation is not uncommon. Two or three foreclosure cases out of the 60 to 70 she handles at any given time hinge upon the disposition of insurance proceeds from Katrina, she said, down from six or seven cases at a time a few years ago.

Different mortgages have different rules about how lenders are supposed to handle insurance proceeds, Bartlett said, and often, the lender doesn’t even know. But the incentives are strong for mortgage servicing companies like Bank of America to play hardball. Banks make money on fees from initiating foreclosure proceedings even if it might be a better deal for the homeowner and the investor who ultimately owns the loan to avoid foreclosure, Bartlett said. And if a foreclosure like King’s actually goes to auction on Thursday, the bank will get to keep the insurance proceeds.

King’s experience of having trouble getting the insurance escrow and foreclosure departments to communicate is also common, because the banks are completely overwhelmed in dealing with bad loans, Bartlett said. She advises anybody in a dispute with their mortgage lender to communicate in writing and make their wishes clear about what they would like to happen. If it gets down to the wire, filing bankruptcy could be the best option, because the filing will stop the auction of the property and bring in a third party who can help sort through the issues. “This has been a constant issue,” she said.


After evacuating to Houston for Katrina, King bought a home in Prairieville so his family could remain in Louisiana while they repaired their soggy New Orleans bungalow. By spring 2006, his flood insurance policy had come through with $166,000, an amount King considered adequate to repair his home.

That summer, he signed up a contractor to rebuild and elevate the home for $197,000, and King, whose real name is Durwood C. Thomas, said he was prepared to go out of pocket for the difference until an elevation grant came through. Bank of America’s predecessor, Countrywide, approved the contractor and gave King about $65,000 of his flood money for the first installment of work. But as the contractor moved into the middle of the job, King says the lender wouldn’t release the next installment of money.

The contractor got angry and sued King for not following through on the deal. Although King says he eventually prevailed in court, he spent about $35,000 of his own money defending himself and didn’t recuperate his losses.

In August 2007, Countrywide inspected the house and deemed it 70 percent complete. That same month, King hired another contractor to do $24,500 of work on the house. Countrywide approved the contract, and told King to pay the 10 percent deposit for the job. King wrote the check and expected to his lender to fork over the rest, but Countrywide again left him holding the bag. Not wanting to risk getting sued again by his contractor, King canceled the deal and lost his $2,450 deposit.

Frustrated that the situation was going nowhere, King sued Countrywide to try to force the lender to release his flood money. Countrywide responded by canceling the forbearance that it had granted King on his mortgage after Hurricane Katrina, and won the right to initiate foreclosure proceedings, even though it didn’t actually do so until recently.

Unable to carry mortgages in both Prairieville and New Orleans and angry at his lender, King never resumed paying the mortgage. He said it didn’t make sense to sink more money into an asset of declining value, especially in tough economic times, so the mortgage has been unpaid since the hurricane.

If he could repair the home, King said he and his family could move back in and sell the home in Prairieville, or they could refinance the house on Willow Street to get a more workable deal. But with the home in disrepair, refinancing or buying out the bank loan isn’t an option. At some point, he offered Bank of America a short sale, but he was $7,000 shy of what he needed, so it didn’t work. “As long as the house is damaged, I have no options,” he said.

In late August, he had a breakthrough. King figured out that while Bank of America serviced his loan, Fannie Mae actually owned the loan. He started contacting Fannie Mae, and found a sympathetic woman in the research department who checked out his situation and seemed shocked at his tale. On Oct. 15, Bank of America released $10,400 for repairs, the first money he had received from that institution.

King signed a two-month contract with yet another builder for $31,000 to complete repairs, and says he can be home by Christmas in a financially viable property if Bank of America releases the remainder of his money. But there’s one problem: even as the insurance department is writing him checks, the foreclosure department had already filed the paperwork for the Nov. 4 auction.

If the bank forecloses before the work is complete, King will lose his home and will probably will get sued by his latest contractor. “I have no confidence. I just have to keep struggling,” he said.

King, who wrote about the strength involved in rebuilding of New Orleans in his 2006 album Rise and performed benefit concerts to try to help others, is depressed that his home is the only blighted one on his Uptown block, and is dumbfounded that he’s at risk of losinghis home. He said he thought he was doing the right thing by purchasing flood insurance and by standing up to the bank when it gave him a hard time.

“I hate to be another bluesman that got beat,” he said. “It’s an injustice. If you have an insurance policy and you can’t collect it, then what the hell are we doing?”

Don’t Step on Superman’s Cape!

Thanks to Daniel Wolff for sending this along.  He notes the huge publicity push  for the just released movie, “Waiting for Superman.” It’s not surprising that the same folks who made Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” ignore inconvenient truths about education while pushing  charter schools, attacking teacher unions, encouraging privatization while supporting closing more ‘public’ schools.

This review comes from a New York education blog (Independent voices of New York City public school parents).

Waiting For Superman is in theatres now

Would Superman really stand in the way of improving the system as a whole?

See the NY magazine article by John Heilemann about “Waiting for Superman,” the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim and the latest example of charter school porn.
The article retreads the well-worn points made by countless other articles in the mainstream media, predictably focusing on the teacher unions as the scapegoats, adds in the tired nostrum of how “adults” are being favored over the kids, ignores all the factors that go into low-performance in our urban schools, and drools all over Geoffrey Canada.
But it also contains a startling quotation from Joel Klein, about the students who remain in the regular public schools:

“It’s gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives,” Klein says. “It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.”

It’s amazing to me that Joel Klein says the kids in the schools that he is responsible for running are “dying.” If he feels that way he should resign immediately and let someone else be in charge — preferably an educator who knows something about how to improve schools.

Geoffrey Canada’s charter schools have class sizes of twenty or fewer in all grades, and yet the administration refuses to reduce class size to similar levels.

The Bloomberg/Klein administration has consistently refused to provide class sizes comparable to those in Canada’s charters, despite hundreds of millions in state funds supposed to be used for that purpose. Essentially, by Klein’s own malfeasance, he is creating a system in which many charters will outperform the schools he is responsible for improving.

Canada also claims that teacher unions have not added anything to the quality of education, yet without unions, class sizes in NYC would be essentially uncontrollable — rising to 30 or more in all grades. The only thing that is keeping them from exploding are the union contractual limits.

Charter schools enroll far fewer special education, immigrant, poor and homeless kids than the districts in which they are located — another reason for their relative success. Teacher attrition rates at charter schools tend to be sky high, because of lousy working conditions. This is not a model we want to replicate, as experience matters hugely in terms of teacher effectiveness. Student attrition also tends to be very high. I doubt that the Guggenheim film explores any of these factors.

Altogether this article, like the movie it profiles, is a simplistic and one-sided look at a complicated problem.

Louder Than A Bomb — Poetry Hits the Big Screen in NY & LA

This is louder than a shout out!  This is a SCREAM OUT to all my friends in NY & LA — you MUST NOT miss Louder Than A Bomb, the youth poetry slam documentary from Chicago.  And, “tell whoever you send [this info to] that if they go, we guarantee three things: 1.) they will laugh, 2.) they will cry, and 3.) they will leave the theater thinking the world is a better place than when they walked in.”


“Louder Than a Bomb will be screening in New York City and Los Angeles as part of the 2010 DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which is designed to qualify films for consideration for the Academy Awards.

The film will have a weeklong run at the IFC Center in Manhattan (July 30-August 5), followed by a weeklong run at the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles (August 6-12),” Kevin Coval writes. “It’s an amazing opportunity, but in order to take advantage of it, we need to pack the house at all 28 screenings.”

Read about Kevin Coval here.

Read more about the film here (and see a trailer too)

A Few Words From the US Social Forum — Lew Rosenbaum

First, full disclosure: I am reporting from my safe position behind an information table for the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA).  I say this because I want to make clear that I only had the opportunity to attend one of the sessions, so I am not giving anything like a rounded impression of all that went on.  Also, I’m confining my remarks to some publications I sold or bought during the Forum, and why I think they are important. On Tuesday afternoon, while waiting in the lobby of the COBO Hall convention center, where the bulk of the events took place, I had a chance to catch up with General Baker, one of the founders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers

General Baker (photo courtesy of Speakers for a New America)

(LRBW).  Gen was one of the first to refuse induction to fight in Vietnam, famously proclaiming that he would be happy to serve if the army deployed to fight for the rights of Blacks in Alabama or in Detroit.  Now a retired auto worker and LRNA member, Gen has been advocating for the rights of those destroyed by the implosion of the auto industry. He calls them part of a growing class of dispossessed, a new class permanently separated from connection, through the “point of production,” to capital. While he makes clear Detroit (and the world) is facing something new in history, he respects the legacy of the LRBW.  To this end, he showed me two remarkable documents.  He is selling DVD copies of Finally Got The News a documentary of the formation of the LRBW which creates a compelling visual excitement about the period. (The film was made in 1970 by the Detroit NewsReel group and reviewed in Cineaste by Dan Georgeakas), To complement this cinematic recreation of the LRBW era, Gen also has a cd that contains hundreds of pages of the print documents that provide a treasure trove of research materials unavailable elsewhere.  Later, at the LRNA table, Gen brought down posters of the original DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) slate for union election, a poster which sold out at the convention.  Finally Got the News is available for $20 and the Documents for $25 from the People’s Tribune. One of Gen’s retiree colleagues, who goes by the nickname Waistline, wrote a pamphlet  welcome to Detroit which became the hit of the People’s Tribune table next to me.  I picked up a copy, was immediately pulled in and read it, and was delighted with what I read.  When Waistline came down to the table to autograph copies, I jumped in line to tell him how much I enjoyed it, as much for the engaging writing as for the information it conveyed.  Detroit: A History of Struggle, A Vision of the Future lays out its perspective from the first page: “Detroit is the rise and fall of the heavy metal — the industrial working class.  Our rise was as spectacular as our fall.  Our rebirth will change human history.”   Waistline’s reborn Detroit does not come from urban gardens, though that may play a part. It comes from a class becoming conscious of itself in response to the economic polarization of society, and organizing itself against the corporate takeover of the government.  Waistline’s report comes from the grass roots, from below, from analyzed experience, not from an academic think tank. The pamphlet is available for $3 from the People’s Tribune web site. A couple of years ago I saw a film that simultaneously made my blood boil and chilled me to the bone.  Called The Water Front,  this documentary showed how people living by the side of one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world had no access to drinking water.  The people were residents of Detroit, the victims of privatization of public resources.  The

Image from "The Water Front"

consequences were huge water bills and utilities shut-offs.  Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) spearheaded the fight to preserve the right to clean water, as captured on that film.  Marian Kramer was one of the organizers of the US Social Forum and the water issue was prominent in discussions leading up to the Forum.  I was delighted to find on our literature table a pamphlet inspired by the Detroit struggle,  Water Wars — Coming Soon to Your Town!, written by good friends Steven Miller and Danny Alexander.  According to the authors, “Humanity is up against a global system of private property that is doing a really good job of wrecking the world and not much else.”  Miller has reported elsewhere extensively on how private property is destroying education;  Alexander is intimately familiar with the way the recording industry violates the rights of listeners to and performers of music, in the name of private property.  Here they extend their already detailed knowledge to the privatization of our natural resources, something that faces many cities.  In Chicago, we have lived with encroachments on our public services, and the mayor is threatening to privatize water, the consequences of which we can predict from this excellent pamphlet, available for $3 from the LRNA web site. Another LRNA pamphlet on our table that was extremely popular was entitled Foreclosures: The Reasons, The Results, and The Remedy. The authors of this pamphlet are not willing to accept that banks need to be bailed out.  They are also acutely aware that nationalizing the banks can simply lead to protection for the banks.  In their words, “The struggle for bank nationalization is therefore inseparable from a struggle to remove our current government which is run by and for corporations and replace it by one that is run by and for the dispossessed who are now the majority of our people.”  This pamphlet is available for $2 from the LRNA site. Both Water Wars and Foreclosures include a good list of sources and further readings. Last, but not least,  Rally Comrades! (the political paper of the LRNA) produced a selection of articles over the last two years which, taken together, provide an excellent estimate of our current situation.  It grounds the concept of revolution not solely as a mental construct, an idea around which people fight (although new ideas play an extremely important role).  Instead, On the Edge of History starts with a understanding of a decisive point in the economic revolution that takes place independently of the will of human beings.  The editors posit that unlike previous revolutionary periods, the motion of this revolution is toward a cooperative society.  It is, however, a motion that capitalism is resisting.  The interesting contribution that this pamphlet makes is that just as the existence of the working class is undermined by laborless production, so too is its contradictory pole, the capitalist class.  The reorganization of society must take place — but will it be around the distribution of goods and services according to need?  Or will fascism reorganize society to protect private property at the expense of the people? This pamphlet is available for $3 from the LRNA site as well. Taken together, this series of pamphlets and materials goes beyond the question of individual or small group defensive, survival patterns which our political system encourages.  There is no doubt, for example, that people or communities faced with food that is poisoned or not available will turn to cooperative or individual gardening to help themselves survive.  However the key question left unresolved by these defensive measures is related to class, the state, and the rule of the corporations.  Whether we are talking about the history of Detroit; foreclosures, housing and the banking crisis; or privatization of public resources, all roads lead in the same direction.  If the people do not take over the corporations, then fascism will overtake the people.

Listen: A Video From Sacramento’s Safe Ground

I’m often asked about the connection between labor and art, and what is that.  Here is a concrete manifestation of that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJ25M1c3V9s

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing requested a statement from Safe Ground Sacramento. This is their statement, “Listen”, as presented to the U.N. in November 2009, a film by Costa Mantis, written by Mona Tawatao, Joan Burke and John Kraintz.

Teatro Chicana: A Book About A Movement

This video is a remarkable presentation from several of the women involved in the theater movement.  Even more, the video gives us a small insight into the book, which, among other things, tells us something about how people decide what they need to know in life, how learning is part of what we do all the time rather than simply in school.  Click here to see the video.

Don’t Mess With Robert Rodriguez: Soraya Roberts in the NY Daily News

Robert Rodriguez cuts ‘illegal’ trailer for ‘Machete’ to protest Arizona immigration law

By Soraya Roberts

Thursday, May 6th 2010, 10:39 AM

Lindsay Lohan in a scene from Robert Rodriguez's "Machete." The director released an "illegal" version of the trailer to protest Arizona's immigrant laws. WATCH THE TRAILER below.

Lindsay Lohan in a scene from Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete.” The director released an “illegal” version of the trailer to protest Arizona’s immigrant laws. WATCH THE TRAILER (click the link below – Ain’t it Cool News).

Don’t mess with Robert Rodriguez.

The Mexican filmmaker recut an illegal trailer for his new Mexploitation flick, “Machete,” for Cinco de Mayo – as a message to Arizona.

Rodriguez passed along the re-edited film promo to AintItCoolNews.com to denounce the state’s recently passed immigration legislation, which makes it a crime for immigrants not to carry their documents.

“This is Machete, with a special Cinco de Mayo message… to Arizona!” star Danny Trejo says, before unleashing a slew of violent expletive-filled and sexy scenes from
Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/2010/05/06/2010-05-06_robert_rodriguez_cuts_illegal_trailer_for_machete_to_protest_arizona_immigration.html#ixzz0nXpUa1hH

Witness to Canadian Harvest Pilgrims

This video gives the impressions of photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo about the subjects of his more than 20 years visiting farms in Ontario. These are not pictures steeped in pity or sorrow.  They evoke the lives and strengths of workers placed in an impossible position. In these

Harvest Pilgrims, published by Between The Lines press.

photographs you see workers who labor to put cabbage, cauliflower, corn and other vegetables on the Canadian table, only to return to their families in the off season.  Their visas require that they remain on the farms of the employer who hires them — there is no free market for labor here.  And they cannot bring their families with them, thus stabilizing the need for transience. The grief and the joy express themselves in the Mexican worker, caught in the act of crying on his return after 8 months separation from his family.  Bitter tears over separation, tears of joy on seeing his sister again.  The video can be seen here: The book Harvest Pilgrims is available through Between The Lines Press

Avatar is a Dangerous Film — George Monbiot in The Guardian

[In this essay, George Monbiot gives a sweeping indictment of Europe's involvement with peoples of the Americas -- including, of course, the relationship of those who settled in the Americas with the indigenous populations.  In this, he says, James Cameron's Avatar tells a half truth, bending the story to achieve a happy ending. But in a striking reversal, Monbiot takes the lessons drawn from Avatar by the "right" and declares that the film is more dangerous than any art house flic that might have been more "correct." -- Lew Rosenbaum ]

The Holocaust We Will Not See

Posted January 11, 2010

Avatar half-tells a story we would all prefer to forget

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 11th January 2010

Avatar, James Cameron’s blockbusting 3-D film, is both profoundly silly and profound. It’s profound because, like most films about aliens, it is a metaphor for contact between different human cultures. But in this case the metaphor is conscious and precise: this is the story of European engagement with the native peoples of the Americas. It’s profoundly silly because engineering a happy ending demands a plot so stupid and predictable that it rips the heart out of the film. The fate of the native Americans is much closer to the story told in another new film, The Road, in which a remnant population flees in terror as it is hunted to extinction.

But this is a story no one wants to hear, because of the challenge it presents to the way we choose to see ourselves. Europe was massively enriched by the genocides in the Americas; the American nations were founded on them. This is a history we cannot accept.

In his book American Holocaust, the US scholar David Stannard documents the greatest acts of genocide the world has ever experienced(1). In 1492, some 100m native peoples lived in the Americas. By the end of the 19th Century almost all of them had been exterminated. Many died as a result of disease. But the mass extinction was also engineered.

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they described a world which could scarcely have been more different from their own. Europe was ravaged by war, oppression, slavery, fanaticism, disease and starvation. The populations they encountered were healthy, well-nourished and mostly (with exceptions like the Aztecs and Incas) peacable, democratic and egalitarian. Throughout the Americas the earliest explorers, including Columbus, remarked on the natives’ extraordinary hospitality. The conquistadores marvelled at the amazing roads, canals, buildings and art they found, which in some cases outstripped anything they had seen at home. None of this stopped them from destroying everything and everyone they encountered.

The butchery began with Columbus. He slaughtered the native people of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) by unimaginably brutal means. His soldiers tore babies from their mothers and dashed their heads against rocks. They fed their dogs on living children. On one occasion they hung 13 Indians in honour of Christ and the 12 disciples, on a gibbet just low enough for their toes to touch the ground, then disembowelled them and burnt them alive. Columbus ordered all the native people to deliver a certain amount of gold every three months; anyone who failed had his hands cut off. By 1535 the native population of Hispaniola had fallen from 8m to zero: partly as a result of disease, partly as a result of murder, overwork and starvation.

The conquistadores spread this civilising mission across central and south America. When they failed to reveal where their mythical treasures were hidden, the indigenous people were flogged, hanged, drowned, dismembered, ripped apart by dogs, buried alive or burnt. The soldiers cut off women’s breasts, sent people back to their villages with their severed hands and noses hung round their necks and hunted Indians with their dogs for sport. But most were killed by enslavement and disease. The Spanish discovered that it was cheaper to work Indians to death and replace them than to keep them alive: the life expectancy in their mines and plantations was three to four months. Within a century of their arrival, around 95% of the population of South and Central America had been destroyed.

In California during the 18th Century the Spanish systematised this extermination. A Franciscan missionary called Junipero Serra set up a series of “missions”: in reality concentration camps using slave labour. The native people were herded in under force of arms and made to work in the fields on one fifth of the calories fed to African-American slaves in the 19th century. They died from overwork, starvation and disease at astonishing rates, and were continually replaced, wiping out the indigenous populations. Junipero Serra, the Eichmann of California, was beatified by the Vatican in 1988. He now requires one more miracle to be pronounced a saint(2).

While the Spanish were mostly driven by the lust for gold, the British who colonised North America wanted land. In New England they surrounded the villages of the native Americans and murdered them as they slept. As genocide spread westwards, it was endorsed at the highest levels. George Washington ordered the total destruction of the homes and land of the Iroquois. Thomas Jefferson declared that his nation’s wars with the Indians should be pursued until each tribe “is exterminated or is driven beyond the Mississippi”. During the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, troops in Colorado slaughtered unarmed people gathered under a flag of peace, killing children and babies, mutilating all the corpses and keeping their victims’ genitals to use as tobacco pouches or to wear on their hats. Theodore Roosevelt called this event “as rightful and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier.”

The butchery hasn’t yet ended: last month the Guardian reported that Brazilian ranchers in the western Amazon, having slaughtered all the rest, tried to kill the last surviving member of a forest tribe(3). Yet the greatest acts of genocide in history scarcely ruffle our collective conscience. Perhaps this is what would have happened had the Nazis won the second world war: the Holocaust would have been denied, excused or minimised in the same way, even as it continued. The people of the nations responsible – Spain, Britain, the US and others – will tolerate no comparisons, but the final solutions pursued in the Americas were far more successful. Those who commissioned or endorsed them remain national or religious heroes. Those who seek to prompt our memories are ignored or condemned.

This is why the right hates Avatar. In the neocon Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz complains that the film resembles a “revisionist western” in which “the Indians became the good guys and the Americans the bad guys.”(4) He says it asks the audience “to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency.” Insurgency is an interesting word for an attempt to resist invasion: insurgent, like savage, is what you call someone who has something you want. L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, condemned the film as “just … an anti-imperialistic, anti-militaristic parable”(5).

But at least the right knows what it is attacking. In the New York Times the liberal critic Adam Cohen praises Avatar for championing the need to see clearly(6). It reveals, he says, “a well-known principle of totalitarianism and genocide – that it is easiest to oppress those we cannot see”. But in a marvellous unconscious irony, he bypasses the crashingly obvious metaphor and talks instead about the light it casts on Nazi and Soviet atrocities. We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing.

I agree with its rightwing critics that Avatar is crass, mawkish and cliched. But it speaks of a truth more important – and more dangerous – than those contained in a thousand arthouse movies.



1. David E Stannard, 1992. American Holocaust. Oxford University Press. Unless stated otherwise, all the historical events mentioned in this column are sourced to the same book.

2. http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-miracle28-2009aug28,0,2804203.story

3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/09/amazon-man-in-hole-attacked

4. http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/017/350fozta.asp

5. http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/2802155/Vatican-hits-out-at-3D-Avatar.html

6. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/26/opinion/26sat4.html


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