Either Mike has gone soft, or I'm more skpetical than he is!

Capitalism: A Love Story
Directed by Michael Moore
2009, 127 mins.
* * *

You know times are tough when reviewers are more pessimistic than Michael Moore. His latest is, essentially, his breakthrough Roger & Me twenty years later with financial corporations occupying the heavy’s role that General Motors occupied in 1989. Moore leaves Flint, Michigan and travels to Manhattan, where he turns up the heat on the pirates of Wall Street. (Flint, of course, does show up as Moore can’t resist using it as metaphor for economic collapse.)

I went to this film prepared for a ho-hum-been-there-done-that experience. By now we know Moore’s shtick. He’s going to take a film crew to the lobby of some corporate giant, announce he’s there to interview the CEO, and get unceremoniously bounced from the premises by humorless underlings and officious cops. He’ll then stand outside with a hang-dog expression on his face and plead his case as amused bystanders gather. Moore’s guerilla film tactics are shopworn, but his gift for letting arrogant power holders hoist themselves on their own petard remains an potent tool. Moore gets accused of doctoring footage to create propaganda, but that’s too convenient. He doesn’t need to do this because people like Sarah Palin, Baron Hill (D-Indiana), and William Black (R-Illinois) are so smug that they do Moore’s work for him.

So far, so familiar. After an unsurprising first half, things begin to pick up. Moore asks us to consider a distressing question that’s too easily glossed: What is the human cost of capitalism? In our post-Cold War self-congratulatory rush to declare socialism a failed ideology, few pause to consider whether socialism died of natural causes, or whether it was murdered. And speaking of high crimes, one reason why Moore arouses such negative sentiment is that he takes us places we’d rather not go: decaying tract houses where sheriffs evict people from homes nobody—including the bank—wants; to profitable businesses closed down because a handful of greedy stockholders figured an angle to make more money; to hospital emergency rooms filled with people without health insurance…. In other words, Moore shows us the United States as it really is for millions of people, not one bathed in the sunny nostrums of Fox News demagogues, free-market apologists, and Ronald Reagan worshippers.

Moore scores big time in his incisive decoupling of capitalism from democracy. He depicts an economic system so out of control that corporate heads actively discuss democracy as a “problem” that has to be overcome. This isn’t Michael Moore’s paranoia; he produces the actual memos detailing discussions of how to disempower the electorate. The internal attitude towards the poor and unemployed is basically one of “Who gives a damn?” The average American might as well be a Chinese peasant for all they care. Moore shows how the move toward autarky permeates the highest levels. Want to see democracy subverted? Check out Moore’s coverage of how the people’s will was subverted over the Wall Street bailout in less than 48 hours. Those who still think Nancy Pelosi is admirable after this film are probably brain dead! Heed the words of Representative Nancy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who pulls no punches in calling Wall Street’s actions criminal and the Congressional bailout irresponsible, perhaps even itself criminal.

Just when you think Moore has the biggest expose of the decade going, he turns mushy on us. He shows us an inspiring story of a sit-in that forced a runaway employer to pay his workers, yet downplays the fact that all they got was their back pay and a bit of severance; the jobs are gone. And Moore get’s misty-eyed sentimental about Barack Obama’s election in November of 2008. The film’s closing moment of Moore wrapping Wall Street with crime scene yellow tape is funny, but I couldn’t help but think, “My God, Mike Moore actually thinks the American people have risen up and are taking back the country.” To hear Moore tell it, Obama’s election was act one of a second American Revolution. Capitalism: A Love Story is not, ultimately, agit-prop; it’s an inspiring tone-poem to democracy. Michael Moore has been called many things, but until now I didn’t think that “na├»ve” would be among them.--LV



What do these images have in common? Read on!

If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise, we do not believe in it at all.—Noam Chomsky

Last week’s debacle at the University of Massachusetts over a planned speech by 60s activist/terrorist Ray Luc Levasseur should be studied by future students as an exercise in which idiocy, demagoguery, and hypocrisy collided with the messy force of a ripe November pumpkin dropped from the 26-story UMass library.

Ray Luc Levasseur, the offspring of a Maine farm family, was radicalized by his experience as a soldier in Vietnam, his observations of the civil rights movement, and the antiwar movement. From 1976 to 1984, he was involved with the United Freedom Front (UFF), a motley group whose members styled themselves revolutionaries. They committed at least 19 bombings of courthouses, corporations, and military installations, and they pulled off ten bank heists (absconding with about $900,000) in Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, New York, and Virginia.

Although UFF targets included multinational giants such as IBM, Union Carbide, and Motorola—companies whose losses engender little sympathy—it was hardly a collection of gallant Robin Hoods. A 1976 bombing of the Suffolk County Courthouse left twenty-two people injured, and a shootout in New Jersey killed patrolman Philip Lamonaco. Levasseur went underground for many years before he was arrested in Ohio and was put on trial for sedition. He defended himself in the longest and most expensive trial in Massachusetts history and was acquitted of what in retrospect was a patently ridiculous charge in the first place. (The UFF was indeed violent, but to see them as a threat to overthrow the United States is risible.) Levasseur was, however, convicted for his role in a 1989 anti-apartheid bombing. He spent eighteen years in federal prison before his 2004 parole back to his native Maine.

Here’s where the dummies took over. Levasseur was invited to speak at UMass as part of an ongoing series on social change. As posters went up, the most common reaction was: “Who the hell is Ray Luc Levasseur?” (I too had forgotten him. I vaguely recalled a few of the bombings, but before the controversy I couldn’t have told you which were done by the UFF and which were committed by other radical groups such as the Weather Underground.) Like so many campus events, on its own the Levasseur talk would have drawn a few dozen people—mostly professors, grad students, and three undergrads seeking “extra credit.”

One of the things dummies never get is that any publicity is good, and negative publicity ensures massive interest in whatever is being banned. Want Levasseur to go away? Shut up! Enter two Massachusetts demagogues—UMass President Jack Wilson and desperate Governor Deval Patrick (who stands out in a crowded field of contenders as one of the most inept politicians in recent MA history). Bowing to pressure from police unions and conservative groups, both worked to withdraw Levasseur’s invitation to UMass.

Let the fun begin! Numerous UMass professors and campus groups rightly viewed this as an assault on freedom of speech. They re-invited Levasseur to speak at a non-official forum. Not to be outdone, cops and others pressured Levasseur’s parole board, which denied permission to leave Maine. So the event took place without his presence. Instead of several dozen attendees, several hundred showed up. And so did lots of anti-Lavasseur protestors, including New Jersey state troopers with Officer Lamonaco’s widow in tow.

I’m sorry for her loss and in no way condone what happened, but she and the cops were demagogues of the very worst order. Ray Luc Levasseur did not kill Lamonaco; he was nowhere near the scene. Two other UFF members, Thomas Manning and Richard Williams, were convicted of the shooting. Manning remains in jail and continues to claim he shot in self-defense. (Recall the 1969 ritual murders of Black Panther leaders Mark Clark and Fred Hampton by Chicago police, and you’ll realize there was plenty of craziness on all sides back in those days.) Whatever one thinks of Levasseur, to hold him culpable for Lamonaco’s death is unfair to the point of libel.

Wilson’s bumbling served only to bring UMass into disrepute. Levasseur was languishing in obscurity but—courtesy of the Wilson-induced controversy--a Google search of his name now generates 583,000 hits, more than half of which reference UMass. I guess this is what happens when you put a Boston hack in charge of a system whose flagship is two and a half hours away. He might want come to visit it every now and again. If he did, he might find that the Levasseur debacle is symptomatic of bigger problems that go beyond simplistic liberal/conservative divides. It is free speech itself that is jeopardy on college campuses.

Let us contrast L’affaire Levasseur with what happened at Columbia in 2006 and 2007. In 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at Columbia, only to have university President Leo Bollinger pull the invitation. At the time, Bollinger argued that Ahmadinejad was a vicious anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier, and an active supporter of terrorism. Never mind that all of Bollinger’s charges are true, in the name of free speech a chastened Bollinger allowed Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia in 2007.

It makes one wonder if the UMass hue and cry would have been so great if Levasseur was a mere anti-Semite. Probably not; and here is where the political left gets hoisted on its own hypocritical petard. UMass is an anti-Israel/pro-Palestine hotbed. In March of 2009, a Student Alliance for Israel rally was disrupted by leftist groups such as the Pioneer Valley Coalition for Palestine (PVCP), the International Socialist Organization, and the Campus Anti-War Network. Just days after the Levasseur-less talk, a PVCP poster in the campus center called upon Israel to negotiate with Hamas. What am I missing here? A former terrorist who did his time can’t speak at UMass, but a bunch of UMass lefties thinks it has the right to demand that Israel negotiate with active terrorists? Good grief!

The Levasseur embarrassment at UMass suggests several things. First of all, if you want something to go away, don’t give it free publicity. Second, both UMass and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts lack intelligent leadership. Third, and most importantly, free speech is either the domain of all or the domain of none. It cannot be parsed into liberal and conservative, right and wrong, or acceptable and unacceptable. But don’t take my word for it; listen to the words of another former terrorist who once oversaw the killing of thousands: “If freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” The terrorist’s name? George Washington.


Looking for a great non-fiction read? Look no further.

The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth-Century America. By Gretchen Adams. University of Chicago, 2008.

The tragedy of the 1692 Salem witch trials has been told often. What makes Gretchen Adams’s study a revelation is that she picks up the story after the final witches were hanged. Hers is a look at the ways in which 1692 was a metaphor for nineteenth-century Americans. As such, Adams looks more at the deliberate construction of memories of Salem rather than the history of the witch trials.

Various groups evoked Salem for their own purposes, but the consistent theme is that Salem—and by extension, the Puritans—became shorthand for intolerance, bigotry, and superstition. Gone from the nineteenth-century analysis were serious discussions of Puritan ideology or the conditions that led to social collapse; Cotton Mather and Samuel Parris reemerge as inquisitors and “cautionary tales” (7) on the dangers of fanaticism. The great illogic of this is that one person’s fanaticism is another’s piety. We are this treated to the delicious irony of antebellum Protestant ministers evoking Mather’s fanaticism in zealous campaigns against Roman Catholicism; and perplexing scenarios in which both pro- and anti-slavery apologists evoked Salem to tar the other with superstition and intolerance.

Adams deftly notes that the malleability of Salem is linked to the fact that the new American nation arising at the end of the 18th century lacked “history, memory, or tradition” and needed “to invent all three too transform Revolutionary ideology into national values.” (11) New Englanders were placed in a particularly difficult bind—at the very moment in which peripatetic former residents sought to promote the idea of “New England as nation” (44) they faced charges that they embodied the narrow-mindedness of their Puritan forbearers. They countered this through intellectual legerdemain. First New Englanders led the country in public education and thus controlled the content of school books. This allowed them to rewrite Salem “as an opportunity for a related lesson about American moral progress.” (55) As the century progressed, writers carefully delineated virtuous Separatist Pilgrims from bigoted Puritans mired in British—read foreign—customs, religion, and legal systems. This afforded psychological projectionist opportunities in which Spiritualism, Mormonism, Catholicism, and ‘wrong’ forms of Protestantism could be attacked as Salem-like returns to superstition—acts of zealotry cloaked as protecting the nation and public interest!

The fly in the ointment was sectionalism. Southern slave-owners began to attack abolitionism as a “mania,” (107) cast New Englanders as intolerant, and charge (correctly) that Northerners were eager to engage in “cultural forgetting” (113) by ignoring their own slaveholding past. Southerners even used “witch-burning” tropes to whip up fears of Northern bigotry, an ahistorical allegation, but one effective enough to allow serious men to see Abraham Lincoln as the second coming of Cotton Mather. During Reconstruction Southerners such Henry Grady evoked Salem in pleas for a non-prejudicial reconciliation, code for leaving racial equality off the political table.

Adams ends her analysis with Reconstruction, leaving room for a future study of how Salem was understood in the Gilded Age. She did, however, add an epilogue that touches upon the various ways Salem was evoked from the 20th century on: to attack prohibition defenders, to belittle the persecutors of John Scopes, to resist the Red Scare, and even to cast Ken Starr as Cotton Mather during the Clinton impeachment proceedings. In her concise and compelling coda Adams makes several astute observations—that Salem has been a more resilient code for intolerance than McCarthyism; and that how we view Salem owes more to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller than to the lived past. More than three hundred years later, Salem continues to warn Americans “that there [are] limits both to liberty and to power.” (158)

This slim provocative volume comes highly recommended. It is proof that the usable past exists, albeit not always in ways that make historians comfortable with liberties taken in the telling.--LV



Does anyone know this woman?
Katalin Varga
Directed by Peter Strickland

84 mins

* * * * *

A remarkable first feature by a young British writer/producer/director. Set in Romania with a Romanian cast this is part folk tale, part mystery, and part horror film but it brilliantly transcends all of these. As the film opens we see Katalin Varga (played by Hilda Peter) being confronted by her husband after he discovers he is not the father of their ten-year-old son Orban. He banishes them from their remote village and they embark on a journey on a horse-drawn wagon across the desolate countryside like refugees. She tells Orban her mother is ill and needs her, but he becomes more and more suspicious. They meet various people on the way but do they know Katalin? What are their connections with her? Bedding down in various outhouses on quiet remote farms it feels like the Middle Ages until she hauls out a cell phone. Peter’s face is astonishing – her neck muscles tense, her large eyes unblinking, staring terrified into the black forest where she sees images of Orban. The significance of the undergrowth becomes apparent much later on.

She meets a man in a bar. They may know each other. She may be egging him on. They go back to the barn; they make love in the dark. Things do not work out as he expected. All the people she meets on the journey are suspicious of her. One farmer appears to her wearing just a neck brace and tiny underpants. It looks both funny and unnerving as he asks her about her bar visit. Two men appear to be following her. They’re calling at remote houses knocking on doors in the middle of the night claiming they are the police, asking if Katalin has been seen. They always seem two steps behind as she takes off quickly. In a field, some men are working. Katalin seems to know one of them, starts talking and he offers to give them shelter. The next day, in a boat on a lake, her awful secret is unveiled in an unbroken monologue to her new friends resulting in tragic consequences. Orban then discovers his father is not who he thought and runs into the forest in anger. Katalin runs after him, her dread of the forest still in her eyes. She gets caught by the two policemen who are not the police at all. Things look grim.

This is a sombre, psychologically intricate narrative, drawing on influences like mid-1970s Werner Herzog, Tarkovsky around the time of ‘Mirror’ and ‘Nostalgia’ and in particular the Hungarian Bela Tarr with a dark electronic score reminiscent of ‘Eraserhead’ or Popol Vuh’s music in ‘Nosferatu.’ It’s particularly effective when the score takes over from the ambient noises and smothers the film in an ominous shroud. The almost static silent countryside peppered with occasional birdsong is contrasted with her mysterious journey into a hell of her own making and she becomes as morally compromised as anyone else she meets. A great surprise at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, this won a Silver Bear. Strickland had no support from the UK Film Commission, it was all financed by him alone and it cost just €30,000 to make. An amazing achievement.

Lloyd Sellus


Michael Chabon

Gentlemen of the Road

Random House, 2007, 206 pp.

* * *

Novelist Michael Chabon has moxie. He’s written about bisexuality (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), about a flamed-out wunderkind (Wonder Boys), and followed these with his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the early years of the comic book industry in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The latter book also saw Chabon dip into questions of Jewish mysticism and became the springboard into subsequent looks at ethnic and religious identity. Gentlemen of the Road is a good example of where this has taken him.
Chabon often uses history to fashion fanciful, even alternative narratives—as he did in 2004’s The Final Solution. In Gentleman of the Road he takes a somewhat different approach: he recovers a little-known past. His book is set in 10th century Khazaria, a kingdom that once ruled over much of modern-day southern Russia in the Black Sea/Caucasus area. Few people have heard of it and fewer still know that, in the 7th century, much of its population converted to Judaism and fashioned the largest Jewish state in history. Chabon sets his action at a time in which the Rus—from whence we get Russia—were Viking raiders, when the Byzantine Empire was shrinking, militant Islam was on the rise, and the Seljuk Turks who would destroy Khazaria loomed in the immediate future.
Do you need to be a historian to enjoy this book? No. It’s billed as “swashbuckler” novel, but comparisons to Don Quixote would be more appropriate, if Quixote and Sancho Panza were smarter and more dangerous. It follows the adventures of two conmen: Zelikman, a wiry, moody Frank skilled in medicine; and Amram, a muscular, dark Abyssinian Jew who wields a powerful battle-axe. With no intent on their part they find themselves enlisted in a dynastic struggle. I’m not giving anything away to say that, among other things, their escapades involve elephants, gender identity, detective work, and prostitutes. And, because it’s the 10th century, there’s plenty of bloodletting, intrigue, pillaging, and enough double-dealing to make a card sharps’ convention blush.
The book is, at turns, charming, laugh-out-loud funny, and chilling. It’s also very culturally Jewish. The latter, coupled with the fact that its obscure historical setting will confuse some readers, probably limits the novel’s overall appeal. But this Gentile enjoyed the book, though I do wonder if Chabon has put himself on a slippery path in which he’s working out personal identity issues on the pages of his novels. Many writers do this, of course, but few keep our attentions for very long. Luckily Gentlemen of the Road strikes a balance between Chabon, history, and vivid imagination.