Sunday, December 25, 2016

Moscow 1991/12/25


    On Christmas Day 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev declared the official end of the Soviet Union. The day had no religious significance in Russian Orthodox tradition, nor in the secular system of the Soviet Union, but for American Christians who had seen Soviet communism as the an evil Godless empire, there was probably some significance in the timing.
The causes of the collapse are still debated, and discussions of counter-factual scenarios express the essential questions of the history. Was the collapse inevitable, or could a reformed system have emerged if certain individuals had acted differently?
Outside observers have always tended to believe the most self-reassuring theory about the collapse, that it was the failure of an ideology, but they were lazy about looking into the more obvious reasons: fierce opposition from another ideological system, bad policy decisions, reckless economic reform, and, perhaps the most influential reason, the centrifugal forces that exist within large federations.
If this factor had been better appreciated, perhaps the governments of Europe and North America wouldn’t have been so keen to accelerate their interdependence under free trade agreements, NATO, the European Union and the Euro common currency. Under the ideology of economic neoliberalism, this integration continued after 1991 toward its present crises, under the mistaken belief that the ideology was superior and infallible and not subject to the same centrifugal forces that broke up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Mikhail Gorbachev believes that the decisive factor was his betrayal by the unprincipled Boris Yeltsin who played a double game in the last year of the USSR.[1] To Gorbachev’s face he went along with the plan to forge the new federation that had been approved recently by a strong majority in every republic, but behind Gorbachev’s back he schemed with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine to end recognition of the Soviet government. Their arrangement had a dubious legal standing which is still debated today, but the withdrawal of support of the three largest members of the union put a de facto end to it. The driving force was pure self-interest. Yeltsin knew that Russia was the member with the most resources, so he believed that if the union held together, Russia would always be making more in transfer payments than it got in return. He neglected the strategic advantages that came from having the other nations within Russian orbit.
His hasty plan was done without much forethought for what would happen to assets strategically important to Russia such as Crimea, which was given to Ukraine in the 1950s when the breakup of the Soviet Union was inconceivable. Nor did he give much thought to the danger of ethnic conflicts and further splintering within each republic, the rise of extremism arising out of economic collapse, or the millions of ethnic Russians who would be exiled outside their ancestral country. Appreciation of the scale of this tragedy is essential for understanding why Vladimir Putin has been so determined to defend Russians in Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea.
Yeltsin would say, however, that he was only hastening what had become inevitable. The crucial cause of the collapse was probably the way market reforms were carried out. Once they started, the ruling elite started to see that everything could eventually be privatized. It was a classic case of not needing a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing. Everyone knew where things were headed, so no one could risk sticking with Gorbachev and the old system. The government, bureaucratic and military classes saw that in an uncertain future, the wisest course was to get in on the action, and grab a piece of the state assets that were being privatized. There were no price discovery mechanisms for these assets, and no one had the cash to pay for their real value. The term privatization didn’t really fit the situation. The new term “grab-it-ization” was coined to describe the outright theft of state assets. The trend continued throughout the 1990s as Yeltsin traded away more and more to the oligarchs in order to gain their support.
Historian Stephen Cohen described the causes this way:

... three "subjective" factors broke it up: the way Gorbachev carried out his political and economic reforms; a power struggle in which Yeltsin overthrew the Soviet state in order to get rid of its president, Gorbachev; and property-seizing Soviet bureaucratic elites, the nomenklatura, who were more interested in "privatizing" the state's enormous wealth in 1991 than in defending it. Most Russians, including even the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, therefore still see December 1991 as a "tragedy".[2]

Writing in The Guardian in December 2016, Paul Mason noted that we should be aware that the Euro-American system could collapse just as suddenly as the Soviet system. However, instead of seeing the problem as failures of leadership, policy and capitalism, he writes that the fall could come from “xenophobic populism” and not valuing “globalization and liberal values” dearly enough. He takes a swipe at the way Putin “stole the election in 2011,” but offers no critique of the recent failings of Western democracy. There is no mention of the way the two American political parties, under to the constraints of American institutions, have themselves for a very long time been an undemocratic two-faction ruling party that shuts out all competition just as surely as the Communist Party did in the Soviet Union. Nor is there any mention of the fact that this troublesome "populism" has arisen because people in the West know that the policies that really matter are now decided by un-elected bureaucracies.
Mason goes on to say:

The dissidents of the late Soviet era fought for democracy and human rights under the general concept of “the west.” For us, if xenophobic populism triumphs, there will be no “west” to aspire to: if liberal, democratic societies begin to go the way of Orb├ín’s Hungary, there will be no external power to help us.[3]

Although Mason writes of having visited Russia since the collapse, he seems unaware of how millions of people suffered under the “help” that came from the West. Yeltsin’s economic policies were a disaster, and the United States failed to provide aid that could support Russian social needs during the transition period. The American economic advisor Jeffrey Sachs tried to help during this period, but he was unable to persuade the IMF and the American government that much more assistance was necessary.[4] Sachs made severe criticisms of Russian government corruption, the IMF, and both the Bush and Clinton presidencies for failing during the transition period to help Russian people secure a basic level of food, health care and pension benefits. Even former president Richard Nixon wrote an editorial in 1992 advising that much more should be done in order to avoid a catastrophe. Many of the current tensions between Russia and the United States can be traced to this failure, to this time when America seemed to be deliberately following a policy that would keep Russia weak and which would allow American interests to exploit Russian resources.
While writers at The Guardian double down on their anti-Russia propaganda with such commentary warning that there will be no one and nothing to help us if the barbarians of Brexit and Trumpism prevail, they ignore one obvious possibility. It may be time to go back to the old toolkit of socialism to look for antidotes to the present crisis of capitalism.
It would also be helpful to look at 1991 and 2016 not as definitive ruptures but as events in a continuum. As Zhouen Lai said in his unintentionally brilliant appraisal of the consequences of the French Revolution (he thought he was answering a question about the upheaval in Paris in 1968), “it’s too soon to tell.”[5] The Soviet Union collapsed, but the transformation of “the Russian sphere” (or post-Soviet space), with effects on the entire world, is still underway, as is the evolution of global capitalism along a path outlined by Marx.
The passage below is from The Fate of Marxism in Russia by Gorbachev’s advisor Alexander Yaklovev. He wrote in 1993 that there were “millions of micro- and macro-Chernobyls” in Soviet society. Now, twenty-five years later, it should be obvious that the West never provided meaningful help or solutions to the crisis. The West loved Russia when it was weak and easy to pilfer, but when Putin started to make Russia stronger and keep the wealth at home, the West had a change of heart. Furthermore, we can no longer delude ourselves that “millions of micro- and macro-Chernobyls” don’t exist in other nations and ideological systems. Instead of lamenting that there won’t be anything like “the West” coming to our rescue, we should feel thankful for the absence of such “help,” and hopeful that we can at least recognize the need for better ideas next time.

from:
Alexander Yaklovev, The Fate of Marxism in Russia

The time was “merciless,” but also, “tragic and cleansing,” a “great time of a great sobering. It has been a tortuous and contradictory path from the hopes and illusions of the Social Experiment of the Twentieth Century to an understanding of the depths of the abyss of our national fate, most of all for those who sincerely believed, sincerely hoped, sincerely blundered.
Our country is now morally and physically exhausted. Naturally, various people assess the reasons for this exhaustion in various ways and see different paths out of the situation. Right-wingers of all stripes have constantly reiterated that perestroika has brought the country to a state of collapse. If we get rid of perestroika, they say, we will live like human beings again, as we lived in the good old times of stagnation.
But how did we live? Irresponsibility, lack of discipline and elementary order, and unrestrained drunkenness litter the landscape of both our private and our public existence. There are millions of micro- and macro-Chernobyls, from the actual tragedy of the nuclear power station, to pollution of the sea, air and land, to the lack of nitroglycerine in our drugstores. Time bombs are constantly going off and will continue to explode until normal economic relations prevail.
For decades, cast iron, coal, steel and petroleum had priority over food, housing, hospitals, schools and services. The claim that “it had to be that way” is fallacious. Because of the economic re-feudalism of management, the price of industrialization has been disastrously high in both human and material terms. Disregard for the individual has known no bounds.
We will not brag about the absence of employment under the old system. There was no unemployment under serfdom, either...
The country, the people, and the young generations are having to pay for the past. That is why there is no turning back, no restoration of the past in new forms is possible--with or without perestroika, with the reforms or in spite of them, with democracy or dictatorship. Those who maintain otherwise either do not understand what is at stake or understand and are deliberately deceiving the people... History may be maimed, mutilated, falsified, concealed, rewritten or treated in any fashion whatsoever, but it cannot be deceived.[6]

Notes


[1] Mikhail Gorbachev, The New Russia (Polity, 2016), Chapter 1: After Perestroika.
[2] Stephen Cohen, “The breakup of the Soviet Union ended Russia's march to democracy,” The Guardian, December 13, 2006.
[4] Jeffrey Sachs, “What I did in Russia,” Jeffsachs.org, March 14, 2012.
[5] Dean Nicholas, “Zhou Enlai's Famous Saying Debunked,” History Today, June 15, 2011.
[6] Alexander Yaklovev, The Fate of Marxism in Russia (Yale University Press, 1993).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Big Lebowski: A Pardoner’s Tale from the Post-Cold War Interregnum and Beyond

The Big Lebowski (1998)
directors and writers: Ethan and Joel Coen
cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Huddleston, Tara Reid, Julianne Moore

Introduction


There are many obvious comments one could write on the irony of the American-led neo-liberal system falling apart a quarter century after Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Donald Trump may be an American version of Boris Yeltsin, who assaulted his own parliament with tanks less than two years after coming to power. We may soon be seeing Trump too, either literally or figuratively, firing heavy artillery at Congress and other American institutions. Yet rather than editorialize further on this point, I examine this historical moment through the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski, a superficially un-serious film that proved to be one of the most incisive political commentaries in the past twenty years.

 
Synopsis (spoiler alert)

Setting: Los Angeles, September 1990. 
Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) is a wealthy “self-made” businessman and philanthropist. Due to a war injury inflicted by a “Chinaman” in Korea he is confined to a wheelchair. He has a young wife whose behavior has proven a little problematic because she owes money to a businessman who deals in pornography and other shady enterprises. The businessman sends two of his minions to rough up Lebowski and threaten graver punishments if he doesn’t settle his wife’s debts, but the simple-minded thugs go to the home of a different Jeffrey Lebowski, referred to hereafter, to avoid confusion, by his nickname The Dude (Jeff Bridges). They assault and threaten him, and urinate on his prized carpet, then leave after realizing that the humble surroundings must mean they have the wrong guy.
When The Dude meets with his friends at their regular bowling game, they discuss the incident. Walter, a traumatized, volatile Vietnam War veteran, convinces him to stand up to unchecked aggression. He must go to the other Lebowski and demand justice. A tale of confusion and woe ensues.
The wealthy Lebowski denies any moral obligation to compensate The Dude, and The Dude knows he has a rather tenuous claim that no court would recognize. The elder Lebowski is responsible for his wife’s debts, but not for the thugs who assaulted The Dude and pissed on his rug. Lebowski quickly sizes The Dude up as an unemployed bum, so he goes on to berate him with moral authority because in his own case he didn’t spend his life with a victim mentality. He prides himself for being a wealthy, self-made philanthropist who succeeded in spite the physical handicap inflicted on him during military service to his country. His parting shot is a comment on the entire history of late 20th century American life—the triumph of the Reagan era, the defeat the counter-culture and the fall of the communist bloc, and the rise of the new world order based on American supremacy: “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. The bums will always lose.”
In a surprise twist, The Dude is soon called by Lebowski because his wife has been kidnapped and he wants The Dude’s help in solving the case. He believes the thugs who beat up The Dude might be the kidnappers, so The Dude could help identify them if he drops off the ransom. After many confusing turns, with “a lotta ins, a lotta outs” as The Dude describes the case, he gets closer to Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), an avant-garde artist, and he learns from her that her father took advantage of the kidnapping to embezzle funds from his own charity. His trophy wife has become too much of a problem, so he doesn’t care if she never returns, and he knows her lazy nihilist friends, whom he suspects of the crime, probably wouldn’t follow through on their threats anyway. It turns out that Lebowski is a fraud in more ways than this. Maude tells The Dude that his wealth came from his wife, and it exists in the present only because of the careful management of the foundation by the mother and daughter.
Meanwhile, the group of nihilists whom the young trophy wife associated with claim the ransom. They have the false understanding that The Dude has the ransom money, while The Dude himself believes, until Maude corrects him, that he lost the ransom money. In the end, the case is closed when the hostage returns safely from a holiday in Palm Springs and The Dude learns there never was any cash in the suitcase entrusted to him to deliver to the kidnappers. There was only the emergency transfer of the cash from the foundation to Mr. Lebowski, who planned to hide the money after claiming it was used for paying the kidnappers.
As the story comes to its conclusion, Maude seduces The Dude because she has been in search of the perfect male to father the child she intends to raise alone. It helps that he is someone she won't have to see socially later on, but she chooses him also because she finds in The Dude an honest man with a commitment to peace, lacking all tendencies toward aggression and domination, capable of enjoying healthy relations but not suffering from the widespread anhedonia and misogyny she finds all around her in the wasteland of L.A. The story wraps up with the narrator, a mysterious cowboy observer of the tale, telling us there is “a little Lebowski on the way.”
_____

      When The Big Lebowski had its first run in the cinema in 1998, it was, like many classics, not immediately recognized as such. People left the theater mildly amused but shrugging off its weirdness. It took time and deeper reflection, and repeated viewings on DVD, for audiences to appreciate everything that was packed into it and elevate it to its classic and cult status, attested to by the annual Lebowski Fest since 2002.

The film is a mix of several genres: Western, crime, noir, surrealist, buddy film, holy quest, comedy, and subversive socio-political commentary. At first glance it appears to be just a comedy about fools mixed up in a kidnapping caper. Yet for reasons that became apparent upon later contemplation, the writers set the story in September 1990, a  month after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and a year before the declared end of the Soviet Union. President George H. W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, the Gulf War and the Vietnam War play important roles in the story.

The Historical Context

After launching political and economic reforms, and achieving momentous agreements with the United States to reduce both nuclear and conventional weapons, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made his famous speech at the United Nations in 1988. He announced the end of Cold War hostilities and the possibility of a new peaceful and balanced world order. The assembled international audience reacted with stunned applause, but the US government soon came to take this as a cue to establish unipolar American supremacy.
In the summer of 1990, shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait, president George H. W. Bush was also making frequent mention of a new world order, but he remained vague about whether he agreed with Gorbachev’s vision of a lasting balanced order. Six months later, the historic overwhelming display of American military strength was made in the Iraqi desert. From then until September 2015, the United States made a long series unopposed unilateral interventions, sometimes under the flag of NATO or a “coalition of the willing.” The US launched these wars and regime change operations without any need to worry about opposition from a rival superpower or the international community. When the use of military force was inconvenient, tools of economic warfare and political interference were employed without any concern for international law.

Lebowski Studies

Subversive Carnivalesque Humor


One analysis of The Big Lebowski’s political themes by Paul Martin and Valerie Renegar states that it is a highly subversive film. They argue that the film:

... explores the ability of carnivalesque rhetorical strategies to challenge hegemonic social hierarchies and the social order in general. Working through grotesque realism, the inversion of hierarchies, structural and grammatical experimentation and other tropes, the carnivalesque encourages audiences to achieve a critical distance through laughter and realize the constructed nature of the social world.

They say the genre helps audiences “reflect on, and ultimately reject, their fears of power, law and the sacred.” The story features “multiple dismembered body parts, an outwardly wealthy and successful character who turns out to be neither,” and an “intentionally confused plot interrupted by dream sequences” to achieve its effect on the viewer.[1]
In their book The Big Lebowski, J.M. Tyree and Ben Walters note the film specifically “subverts traditional notions of masculinity” with a morality tale about what happens when male ego is challenged.[2] The film examines what happens when one must “draw a line in the sand” or decide whether a certain unchecked aggression “will not stand.”
Contemporary observers believe that it was the second president Bush, the son, who was prodded by Oedipal doubts to overcome his father’s reluctance to go to war, but the story of the two president Bushes is really one of doubling down on masculine insecurity and the readiness to make war. Bush Sr. was mocked during the election campaign of 1988 for being a wimp, for being the boring type who is “every woman’s first husband,” and this insecurity lay behind his decision to draw a “line in the sand” and announce that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a transgression that “will not stand.”[3]
The film refers to the way Bush succumbed to the threat to his masculinity, and connects it to the same problem faced by The Dude. In the opening scene, he is shown, pathetically, buying a quart of milk with a post-dated check. Behind the cashier, as he writes the check, a small television plays news footage from August 1990, right after Iraq invaded Kuwait, of President Bush saying “this aggression will not stand.” On the check we see the date: September 11, 1991—exactly one year after Bush gave his “toward a new world order” speech to Congress. The filmmakers couldn’t have known, but of course, this became an uncanny premonition of the infamous day ten years later when Bush Jr. launched the endless “war against terror.” In the next scene, The Dude’s landlord asks him for the rent check because “tomorrow’s the 10th,” and thus this scene delivers for the careful observer the joke that in addition to not having enough cash for a quart of milk, he had to buy it with a post-dated check.
     Furthermore, the writers created confusion about what year it actually was. In the opening the narrator says imprecisely "it took place in the early 90s, just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis." It is much more likely that it is September 1990, which would explain why video footage of President Bush speaking in August 1990 is on the television behind the cashier. If it is 1990, then The Dude is committing a petty fraud by post-dating his check not just a few days but one year in the future, hoping the clerk doesn't notice. This puts him on the same moral level as the other Lebowski, with the only difference being that between sixty-nine cents and a million dollars. Near the end of the story Walter is heard mumbling about the upcoming invasion and the difference between desert and jungle warfare, so the writers left a well-hidden but clear indication that The Dude is going to battle for his rug concurrently with the president's declaration that "this aggression will not stand":

The Big Lebowski is set in September 1990, not September 1991 as suggested by the check that The Dude writes in the opening scene. Operation Desert Shield, the buildup of troops, lasted from August 2, 1990 to January 17, 1991. In the film, Walter talks in the future tense about the upcoming combat phase, Operation Desert Storm, which lasted from January 17, 1991 to February 28, 1991:

Sure, you’ll see some tank battles. Fighting in desert is very different from fighting in jungle. Nam was a foot soldier’s war, whereas this thing should, you know, be a piece of cake. I mean, I had an M16, Jacko, not an Abrams fucking tank.... Whereas, what we have here... Fig-eaters wearing towels on their heads, trying to find reverse on a Soviet tank.

By the time of the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was able to win by focusing on the message that it was “the economy, stupid,” so the post-dated check is a way of referencing America’s accumulated debt, the post-dated checks Presidents Reagan and Bush had written to “win the Cold War” and display American military supremacy to the post-Soviet world. War is money. Money is debt. War is debt.
Nonetheless, the story does much more than just condemn the US leadership. More importantly, it shows how the entire country went along for the ride. Even the liberal and pacifist extremes of opposition were pulled into the whirlwind, and what was left of the counter-culture of the 1960s was too weak, or it capitulated like the story’s protagonist from a haze of self-indulgence and withdrawal—drinking White Russians, smoking pot and bowling. (It is a philosophical question as to whether The Dude's apathy puts him on a path toward the nihilism of the gang of cretins attempting to extort the ransom.) Roused from his withdrawal from the world to face an aggression, The Dude reluctantly takes up the challenge, and of course it ends in tragedy. Donny, symbol of the passive populace, dies in the crossfire, and compensation for the urine-soaked carpet is never obtained.
Late in the story it is revealed that The Dude was one of the drafters of The Port Huron Statement, the founding manifesto of the 1960s radical student movement. He adds that it was the original one, “not the compromised second draft.” He also mentions that he was part of the Seattle Seven, a line which ties the character to the creators’ actual inspiration for the story, Jeff Dowd, a member of the Seattle Seven who later worked in Hollywood and befriended the Coen brothers.[4]
The Dude, in spite of his past commitment to pacifism and his self-declaration in the opening act as a pacifist still, is urged on by his Vietnam veteran friend and drawn into conflict to right an aggression against his prized possession. In making his claim for justice to his namesake and adversary, he even inadvertently uses the president’s statement to Saddam. “This will not stand,” he utters lamely, simply because it was a meme of the time, a line on everyone’s lips. He restates it in counter-culture argot by meekly adding “man” to the phrase with a telling embarrassment and hesitation. “This will not stand... man.” There are other instances in the film that show how the characters have unwittingly become conveyors of propaganda terms as they re-use phrases they've overheard for their own purposes. They talk about a "line in the sand" that can't be crossed, and by the end The Dude ends up demanding from his namesake, "Where's the fucking money?" just as his tormentors had said to him.
     Not only does The Dude succumb to the challenge to answer the aggression (while later facing a threat of castration from the nihilists and another of getting "fucked" by a bowling league rival), he gets pulled into Walter's scheme to keep all of the ransom money rather than merely settle for the $20,000 handling fee. They conclude they might as well keep it if they are sure that the whole thing is a scam and the trophy wife kidnapped herself. After this, Maude offers him 10% if he can recover the ransom, which has gone missing in The Dude's stolen car, yet even after this offer he attempts play both sides by trying to collect the $20,000 in advance from Lebowski. Like the characters in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale who set out to meet the grim reaper and kill him, Walter and The Dude forget their higher purpose and are overtaken by greed.

The Dude, Walter and Donny





Many fans of the film have debated the meanings of the trio of bowlers that includes The Dude, trigger-happy Vietnam veteran Walter (John Goodman), and the passive Donny (Steve Buscemi). A common reading of this trio is that The Dude and Walter represent two opposing political wings of American life: liberal pacifism and reactionary militarism. Donny represents the ignored and uncomprehending masses who must simply be spectators in the political theater of these polarized elites. Thus it is the war party (Walter) who continually berates Donny to “shut the fuck up” and stay out of political and strategic discussions of how to respond to the aggression and the kidnapping. The Dude hardly seems to acknowledge Donny’s presence. Donny never interacts with any characters besides Walter and The Dude, which led to speculation that he is a figment of their imagination.
The odd-couple pairing of The Dude and Walter says many things about the uneasy co-existence of political opposites within America. If anything good has come out of their ill-advised quest for justice, it is in the hint that Walter’s traumatized soul has healed just a little. In the final moments The Dude explodes in anger and finally gets Walter to face the truth that nothing in this misadventure has had anything to do with his traumatic experiences in Vietnam.
A curious aspect of Walter’s biography is that he converted to Judaism when he married his wife, but she has divorced him. He now sticks with his adopted faith and looks after his ex-wife’s dog while she goes on vacation with her husband. As Walter represents American militarism, the Coen brothers may have wanted to imply something here about the United States’ relationship with Israel. Julian Assange provided some perspective as the American government and media were making frenzied allegations in December 2016 that Russia interfered with its domestic politics:

... there is, however, another country that has interfered in U.S. elections, has endangered Americans living or working overseas and has corrupted America’s legislative and executive branches. It has exploited that corruption to initiate legislation favorable to itself, has promoted unnecessary and unwinnable wars and has stolen American technology and military secrets. Its ready access to the mainstream media to spread its own propaganda provides it with cover for its actions and it accomplishes all that and more through the agency of a powerful and well-funded domestic lobby that oddly is not subject to the accountability afforded by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938, even though it manifestly works on behalf of a foreign government. That country is, of course, Israel.[5]

Holy Quest

In a work of collected essays on The Big Lebowski,[6] Andrew Rabin writes that that The Big Lebowski is a version of the quest for the Holy Grail, with Los Angeles presented as the Medieval wasteland:

As bowlers, Lebowski’s grail knights seek to master a game which idealizes repetitive, cyclical movement in a confined, constructed and utterly controllable environment... Bowling offers them an escape into a predictable world isolated from the chaotic nihilism of late-20th-century culture.[7]

Their quest forces them to leave these confines and contend with the wider world where they find deception, avarice, violence, duplicity and manipulation—everything the counter-culture opposed in the 1960s. For The Dude there was no escape in bowling, White Russians (Kahlua, vodka and milk), marijuana and refusal to accept “gainful employment.” We are all captives of our era.

Victory for Matriarchy


The most ambiguous question left by the story is what to make of Maude’s seduction of The Dude. She obviously represents the establishment of a matriarchal order in which women may wisely rule with the cooperation of a new kind of “successful” man—a selected breed of evolved dudes who will help women lead in a new peaceful era. The inversion of sex roles is portrayed comically in the dream sequence in which The Dude dances and shakes his ass before Maude's female gaze. But the film leaves open the question of whether Maude is a benign force. She made restrained but unnecessary use of violence on a few occasions, which makes her less of a pacifist than her chosen man. She could be a power-hungry usurper, conqueror of a race of men who have become lost boys condemned to living in perpetual adolescence. They have no parental responsibilities, and seem to be needed only for friendship, occasional heavy lifting, and sperm donation.

Conclusion

The Coen brothers don’t seem interested in commenting on their films or making sequels, but The Big Lebowski is one that screams out for follow-up during this time when America is reaping the whirlwind of what it started in 1990. The question about Maude’s true nature and the potential of matriarchy could be answered by showing us how The Little Lebowski has turned out a quarter century later. It would be good to know how the progeny of Maude and The Dude (and grandchild of the other Lebowski) would face this historic turning point when the Democratic-Republican one-party order, along with its propaganda machinery, is crumbling just as surely as the Communist Party disappeared under Gorbachev’s deliberate and, by comparison, honest and purposeful demolition that he ultimately lost control of.
But perhaps the sequel is not necessary because The Big Lebowski is the story of 2016 as much as it is the story of 1990-91. The capitulation of the American people is represented by the defeat of “the bums” and The Dude’s long absence from the struggle. When he is finally roused to action, he goes to war not to defend life, family or community, but to restore his pride and obtain compensation for an offense against a mere possession that could be easily replaced. He was “a man for his time and place,” as the narrator states in the opening. He abides much and the audience abides him, pardons him, and elevates him to cult hero status, but his story is not uplifting. He is a tragic hero whose defeat foretold the next quarter century of third-way politics of compromise, with its belatedly recognized consequences.

Notes

[1] Paul “Pablo” Martin and Valerie R. Renegar, “‘The Man for His Time’ The Big Lebowski as Carnivalesque Social Critique,” Communication Studies, 57 (September 2007): 299-313,
[2] J.M. Tyree and Ben Walters, The Big Lebowski (BFI Publishing, 2007).
[3] Curt Suplee, “Sorry George, but the Image Needs Work,” Washington Post, July 10, 1988.
[4] Colin Patrick, “The Dude, the Port Huron Statement and the Seattle Seven,” Mentalfloss, January 10, 2011.
[5] “Assange: Forget Russia, The Real Threat to America comes from Israel and the Israel Lobby,” Another Western Dawn News, December 18, 2016.
[6] Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, editors. (Indiana University Press, 2009).
[7] Andrew Rabin, “A Once and Future Dude: The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail-Quest,” in Comentale and Jaffe. Some of the sources listed here (Martin, Renegar, Tyree, Walters, Rabin) were found in an article by Tom Jacobs entitled “Scholars and The Big Lebowski: Deconstructing The Dude,” Pacific Standard Magazine, July 11, 2011.


Other essays in Lebowski Studies found in
Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, editors (Indiana University Press, 2009):

Metonymic Hats and Metaphoric Tumbleweeds: Noir Literary Aesthetics in Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski
Found Document: The Stranger’s Commentary and a Note on His Method 
A Once and Future Dude: The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail-Quest
The Big Lebowski and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism
“I’ll Keep Rolling Along”: Some Notes on Singing Cowboys and Bowling Alleys in The Big Lebowski
The Really Big Sleep: Jeffrey Lebowski as the Second Coming of Rip Van Winkle 
The Dude and the New Left
No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism, and the Oil Industry in The Big Lebowski
Dudespeak: Or, How to Bowl like a Pornstar
Lebowski and the Ends of Postmodern American Comedy
LebowskIcons: The Rug, The Iron Lung, The Tiki Bar, and Busby Berkeley
Logjammin’ and Gutterballs: Masculinities in The Big Lebowski
Holding Out Hope for the Creedence: Music and the Search for the Real Thing in The Big Lebowski
Professor Dude: An Inquiry into the Appeal of His Dudeness for Contemporary College Students
What Condition the Postmodern Condition Is In: Collecting Culture in The Big Lebowski
On the White Russians
Size Matters
“Fuck It, Let’s Go Bowling”: The Cultural Connotations of Bowling in The Big Lebowski 
Abiding (as) Animal: Marmot, Pomeranian, Whale
Enduring and Abiding
The Goofy and the Profound: A Non-Academic’s Perspective on the Lebowski Achievement

A note on the title:

pardoner: a medieval preacher delegated to raise money for religious works by soliciting offerings and granting indulgences


The Pardoner’s Tale is one of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The Pardoner initiates his Prologue—briefly accounting his methods of conning people—and then proceeds to tell a moral tale. Setting out to kill Death, three young men encounter an Old Man who says that they will find him under a nearby tree. When they arrive they discover a hoard of treasure and decide to stay with it overnight to carry it away the following morning. It goes without saying that they find Death but do not kill him. None of them survives the night. The tale is concerned with what the Pardoner says is his theme: Radix malorum est cupiditas (Greed is the root of all evil).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Bookends


TRUM__: illegitimately chosen, racist, unqualified mediocrity with a nuclear arsenal at his command

How to complete the spelling of the name above? Perhaps I am first to note the irony in the fact that the post-war American era is now bookended by two presidents whose names begin with the same four letters. It’s just a strange co-incidence, but it helps in tying things together for an instructive comparison.
In spite of the glowing hagiographies that have been written about Harry Truman, and the conventional view that he was one of the great presidents, the description in the header above can be pinned to both Truman and Trump. Aside from the similarities in the spelling of their names, they both won narrow victories at a time when many Americans felt that democracy had been hijacked by big money and party bosses. The similarities extend to other presidents, but the historical record and the nature of American politics seems to have been forgotten in this season of hysterical reaction to the electoral victory of Donald Trump.
Aside from the similarities, Truman and Trump have very different personalities and biographies. Truman was regarded as sincere and decent, while Trump has been diagnosed as a narcissistic and vulgar hedonist. Yet both have been called racists and failed businessmen, although Trump has the magic touch that enabled him to grow richer after each bankruptcy. Interestingly, polite society was very forgiving of Truman’s faults and deeds, while today’s establishment has tried very hard not to see any redeeming qualities in Trump, in spite of the evidence that his character and behavior are within the normal range for Americans of his class (crass, arrogant, fun-loving, gregarious, family man). He has been fiercely feared and condemned even though he has no record as an elected official. Why is the American establishment suddenly so intolerant and unforgiving of this one individual? Is there really that much space between Truman and Trump, or between Trump and all the other flawed men who were presidents in the past?
Although Truman is regarded as one of the great presidents, there are historians who have taken a harsher view. Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, in The Untold History of the United States, saw his presidency as a tragic turn in world history. They viewed him as a mediocrity, unprepared to lead America at the end of WWII and into the post-war era.[1] The decisions he made led to the Cold War and the nightmarish dread of the nuclear arms race. Truman went into politics because local party operatives found him, down on his luck after one of his bankruptcies, to be an ideal placeholder for a seat in the US Senate. Tom Pendergast, his handler in the party machinery, boasted that he wanted to prove that they could take any “office boy” and get him elected to the Senate.
As a Democratic senator from Missouri, Truman held the typical racial prejudices and anti-Semitism of southern Democrats of that era. Like Donald Trump this year, many Democrats at the time refrained from denouncing racist supporters.
In 1944, with war still on, Franklin Delano Roosevelt easily became the Democratic presidential nominee for the fourth time (there was no two-term limit at that time), but the real contest came down to the one for the vice presidential nominee, who was at that time chosen by vote at the convention and not simply appointed by the presidential nominee.
It was well known at the time that FDR’s health was not good, so the contest for VP carried the implicit understanding that the winner would likely become the president before the next four-year term was finished. In a rigged process led by party bosses, reminiscent of what happened to Bernie Sanders in 2016, the obvious popular choice, the current vice president Henry Wallace, was edged out in favor of the inexperienced cipher Harry Truman. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick wrote in a CNN editorial:

Despite the opposition of the conservative Democratic Party bosses, Roosevelt had the moral authority and political muscle to insist upon Wallace remaining on the ticket as... the majority of Americans desired. The Gallup Poll--a US public opinion survey--released on July 20, 1944, the first day of the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, reported that 65 percent of potential Democratic voters wanted the enormously popular Wallace back on the ticket as vice president. Two percent wanted Truman. The internal machinations that resulted in Truman's selection are a sordid tale with which few Americans are familiar.[2]

Based on what is known of Wallace’s record, the pacifist policies he favored, and his knowledge of Roosevelt’s wartime relationship with Stalin and Churchill, Stone and Kuznick conclude, “Had Wallace become president upon Roosevelt's death in April 1945 instead of Truman, there would have been no atomic bombings of Japan and possibly no Cold War.”
The right wing of the Democratic party, which got Truman into the White House, was getting ready to fight the Cold War, and the progressive Wallace, who wanted to end British imperialism and coexist peacefully with the Soviet Union, was too much of an obstacle to those who were planning to establish a post-war world of American supremacy propped up by the revived British and French Empires.
With an almost total lack of outrage from elite American opinion, Truman committed the atrocities of dropping two nuclear bombs on a soon-to-be-defeated nation.[3] He held racist views, and he helped the right wing of the Democratic Party move away from the achievements of FDR’s presidency. He went along with his cabinet and advisors as they created the paranoia and existential dread of the Cold War.
71 years later, it is interesting to note that both then and now, in the way America looks back at this time, Truman’s presidency is not regarded as a national trauma or crisis of conscience for journalists, historians and government employees. He is more highly regarded now than he was then, thanks to hagiographic films and biographies and the preferences of the “greatest generation.”
In the 1940s there was dissent at the margins of society over the atrocities committed against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Wallace ran as an independent in 1948 and picked up a small percentage of the popular vote, but was damaged by accusations of having communist sympathies. Intellectuals and artists expressed great pessimism and fear about the direction of the country, but mainstream media and liberal opinion did not suffer, as it does now, from vaporous fainting spells and dread fears that democracy had been hijacked, the president was capable of dropping nuclear bombs, and the nation was heading down a path to fascism—all of which was actually the case. This might have been the time for Americans to start worrying, not 71 years later when the problem has taken deep root and emerged in more sinister form.
In the 1940s, few professionals and civil servants wondered whether they should cooperate with this new, morally reprehensible regime. In contrast, the East Coast American literati is now in a quandary about whether they should refuse to collaborate with President Trump when he begins “making America great again” or whether they should go along to get along in order to prevent the worst from happening. There were no such qualms about drone warfare and Hillary Clinton’s record as Secretary of State of destroying Libya and Syria, or about other items in a long list of entrenched outrageous practices that have been normalized in recent decades. Civil servants didn’t go on strike when the US government was establishing and supporting fascist dictatorships throughout the world, but now elite opinion suggests it is time for the intelligentsia to search the depths of their souls for the right way to respond to the Trump presidency.
There is certainly an unprecedented ugliness in the rise of Trump. He and his campaign drew out the worst elements of America (that have always been there) and gave them license to express themselves. Yet Trump was simply traveling the frontier wild country, picking up votes where Hillary Clinton feared to go. He wanted votes the way a carnival barker selling snake oil wanted dollar bills, taking votes with no questions asked and no judgment made on the character of his customers. If the suckers had ugly motives and false hopes of a cure for what ails them, that was their problem.
Trump may be reckless, vulgar, ignorant and unprepared to lead, yet again it is not as if this is the first time that America has elected a deeply flawed and mediocre talent as president. Many presidents also exhibited dubious personal behavior. Yet in the big picture, what does it matter if the man who signs off on the drone kill list is a good father and husband, or whether he has a scandalous personal life? The public actually used to expect that naturally only men with the most alpha male and aggressive traits would rise to power. It was par for the course. The quick rise of a clean, upright family man such as Barack Obama was a phenomenon that should have aroused suspicion that the party machinery had chosen its necessary illusion—a figure meant to be an eloquent and charming distraction so that business and politics could continue as usual.
One sample of the fraught new obsession with how to react to Trumpism was written by Rick Perlstein in the journal In These Times:

Now comes the test of our institutions: the bulwarks that outlast elections, meant to stand between strongmen, mobs and their awful instincts. How will they fare? … And from the evidence of Clinton’s concession speech, those atop the commanding heights of the Democratic Party clearly lack the will for the heroic fight ahead to resist the lawless madman who commands the executive branch. Who will lead the resistance? More fundamentally: Can a nation that cannot acknowledge genuine trauma even resist?”[4]

The problem is that such questions are a century late and a few trillion dollars short. America has never acknowledged the genuine trauma it caused in other lands or to large segments of the domestic population, so it is no surprise that the capacity for resistance is lacking now. The obvious answer to Perlstein’s question is that the bulwarks—the institutions--may be the problem. There are too many structural constraints on the voting system, to cite just one example.  More radical solutions are necessary, but mainstream liberals act as if there haven’t been any far left or radical movements crying in the wilderness for a very long time about the need for drastic reform and the danger of fascism coming to America. Bill Ayers, veteran of the radical anti-war movement of the 1960s, said in a recent interview:

Today what we need more than anything is an ability to step outside the frames that are given to us for reasonable legitimate debate and say there is something else. What could be and what should be stand just on the horizon. I refer back to Emily Dickinson: imagination is what lights the slow fuse of possibility. I think we have to remember that in a war of fixed positions we always lose. In a war of the imagination, people from below can win.[5]

Educated elites should have known that the American system was as vulnerable as any other great power in history. The universities that produce Washington’s management class perhaps stopped teaching Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, with its fundamental lesson that the tyranny inflicted abroad eventually comes home to feast on the homeland. Alan Ryan summed up the modern relevance thus:

The importance of the Peloponnesian War for our purposes is obvious. First, ... Thucydides’s account of it exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of democracy in ways that every succeeding age has seized on. On the one side, the resourcefulness, patriotism, energy, and determination of Athens were astonishing; on the other, the fickleness, cruelty, and proneness to dissension were equally astonishing. ...Second, it reveals one major reason for the ultimate failure of the Greek states to survive the rise of the Macedonian and Roman empires. Greek city-states were conscious both of being Greek and of their own narrower ethnicity: Athenian, Theban, Spartan.[6]

Another example of the recent concern with ethical behavior in journalism and public service appeared in an essay by Masha Gessen in The New York Review of Books shortly after Trump won the election:

It is not impossible that if the Times and the political establishment follow Friedman’s advice and shower Trump with praise whenever he is so much as civil, he will respond positively... Perhaps, if hundreds of federal employees stand firm and do their jobs exactly as they should be done in the face of breaking norms—and assuming they don’t get fired—Trumpism will fail. Or perhaps it will fail if they refuse to do their jobs. We cannot know.
Similarly, we cannot know whether Western sanctions have kept Vladimir Putin from invading more neighboring countries or shedding more blood in Ukraine—or, on the contrary, have caused him to be more stubbornly brutal and militaristic than he would otherwise have been. In other words, we cannot know whether economic punishment of the Russian government has been, in the realist sense of the word, “effective.” What we do know is that sanctions were the correct response from a moral standpoint—even if it is a response we have applied inconsistently elsewhere—simply because it is right to refuse to do business with a dictator and his cronies.[7]

Such liberal class soul-searching was never done when Truman dropped the atom bomb, nor during the long list of atrocities carried out or enabled by US military and economic interventions since then. There is also something hyperbolic in the Gessen’s comparison of the present era to Jews who cooperated with the Nazis in the hope of forestalling and minimizing suffering. Why not discuss the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s instead? What sort of moral dilemmas did people face then when the American-backed coup sub-contracted the killing to a nation-wide militia of street gangs?
The evoking of Nazism in a discussion of what may come from a Trump presidency overlooks the fact that the authoritarian nightmare that Trump might bring on would probably come with many original features that couldn’t get very far in the present American demographic, and others that would be accepted merely as incremental changes in what already exists. Furthermore, it’s doubtful that Donald Trump, a man who has operated for decades in multi-cultural New York City, with a predilection for revelry and luxury, has any interest bringing about such atrocities—which is not to say his recklessness won’t cause unintended disasters.
As some commentators have astutely noted, Trump’s opponents take him literally but not seriously; while his supporters take him seriously but not literally. Yet elite opinion likes to tells us there is a class of deplorables which supposedly lacks the mental sophistication to perceive the nuances of the situation.
The sad fact is that with the NSA spying on everyone and a long list of eroded civil rights, America may have already installed its optimal form of fascism, adapted to its modern circumstances. Terror and repression happen away from the view of a populace that is kept entertained, distracted and financially insecure. The elites were just not interested in taking note of the problem until a bogeyman arrived to make it look frightening. As comedian Lee Camp remarks about this time of late-stage capitalism:

A cruel and morally bankrupt elite, backed by the organs of state security and law enforcement, will… bankrupt the citizenry through state-sponsored theft, war, austerity and debt peonage…’ That sounds really scary, but relax. They’ve pretty much done most of it.[8]

If there were anything convincing in Gessen’s argument, the insertion of an irrelevant and erroneous comparison to Vladimir Putin gives away the game. For some, Putin has become what Vietnam was for Walter in The Big Lebowski. Whatever anyone was talking about it had to have something to do with his time in “Nam.”
Any small effort to learn about what has happened in Ukraine in recent years would reveal that the overthrow of the government in 2014 was aided and abetted by US interference and false promises of prosperity if Ukraine joined the EU and NATO—two hopes yet to be realized, ironically, at a time when the “populist” revolt threatens to dissolve the EU like an echo of the Warsaw Bloc collapse a quarter century ago.[9]
President Yanukovich was overthrown without the constitutionally required impeachment, so the new regime is technically illegitimate, but that doesn’t seem to bother any Western mainstream journalists.[10] Once in power, the new regime began to threaten ethnic minorities, which provoked the predictable Russian response to protect them. What a moral dilemma! Should Russian minorities have cooperated and held out hope that these threats were idle passing expressions of extremism, or should they have chosen to pursue support from Russia? “We cannot know,” to quote Gessen, but Putin and the Russian minorities within Ukraine made their choice. Russia supplied weaponry to the eastern provinces, and mercenaries from Russia came to assist, but there was no invasion. If there had been, the conflict would have ended quickly. Likewise, there was no invasion in Crimea where 25,000 Russian troops were already in place because of a pre-existing treaty.
If Gessen wanted to express concern about Nazism and the “correct response from a moral standpoint,” there is a long list of American crimes to choose from. If we should be so concerned about the possible rise of another fascist regime targeting Jews, we could look not to Trump but to the historical revisionism now approved by the illegal regime in Ukraine. Since the new government came to power in 2014, history textbooks have been rewritten honoring as national heroes the Nazi collaborators who exterminated Ukrainian Jews.[11] It is inconvenient when the enemy of your enemy is your enemy, but the silence of the global Jewish community on this issue is extremely curious.
The author Charles Hugh Smith observes that the new, hyperventilating theme expressed by American mainstream journalists is a reflection of their unmanageable contradictions and their losing control of the narrative that supports the status quo:

... the mainstream media that was once the defender of the free press is now merely an extension of elitist propaganda… Democracy has the implicit responsibility of the citizenry to be able to sort out who benefits from the narrative that’s being pushed… The narrative that is being pushed to support the status quo does not benefit the bottom 95%, and the people are awakening to this...[12]

So what are journalists and the intelligentsia, or “management” class, to do at this juncture in American history? Before they become overly obsessed with the profound moral dilemmas of cooperating with their new overlord, they could repent for their obedience to the previous ones and consider what forms of protest would really be necessary to turn things around. Ted Rall is on the right track when he summed up in his essay Ameri-Splaining:

The United States has always been corrupt, savage and brutal. It has always been wildly dysfunctional and hypocritical. But now, thanks to a president-elect who is loudly ignorant and utterly devoid of impulse control, the mask is off. The horrible truth about the United States can no longer be denied. Trump epitomizes truth in advertising.[13]

As of this writing there is an obscure plot afoot, arising out of an apparent alliance among the Washington political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence establishment. The media is playing a willing role in the psy-op that alleges that Russia poisoned the minds of Americans through hundreds of “fake news” sites and hacked the election in Trump’s favor. It should come as no surprise that the Russian government favored the candidate who didn’t want a war with Russia, and it is not news that governments are involved in cyber espionage, but is ludicrous to state that a foreign nation’s interests in its foreign relations could amount to a noticeable influence over America’s elections. Countries do exert pressure on each others' domestic policy. How could that not be the case in a globalized economy? However, this media campaign is promoting the absurd notion that Russians succeeded in running Trump as their Manchurian candidate and also succeeded in parasitizing the minds of millions of voters, as if they could be zombified and body-snatched by Vladimir Putin himself. The Washington propaganda effort seems headed toward a coup via an electoral college rejection of the president elect, or at the very least it will serve to teach Trump that the Pentagon budget and foreign policy are off limits, even for a president. Liberals and progressives are going along for the ride, deluded that cooperation with a CIA plot is the brave protest that is going to save the Republic. And without a trace of irony they say it is Trump supporters who are dupes.

Further reading on this theme:
Sam Kriss, "The Rise of the Alt-Center," 
Slate, December 16, 2016. 

Notes
[1] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Simon and Schuster, 2012), in Chapter 4: The Bomb: The Tragedy of a Small Man.
[2] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, “Without Pearl Harbor, a different world?” CNN. December 9, 2016.
[4] Rick Perlstein, “The Rush to Normalize Trump,” In These Times, December 1, 2016.
[5] Chris Hedges, On Contact: Restrained Resistance with Bill Ayers, November 7, 2016.
[6] Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present (2012), in Chapter 1: Why Herodotus?
[7] Masha Gessen, “Trump: The Choice We Face,” New York Review of Books, November 27, 2016. 
[8] Lee Camp, Redacted Tonight, Episode 126, 08:40~ . Lee Camp was quoting an essay by Chris Hedges.
[9] Steve Weissman, “Meet the Americans Who Put Together the Coup in Kiev,” Reader Supported News, March 25, 2014.
[10] “Hawai‘i and the Crimean Crisis – Obama is not a Legitimate President,” Hawaiian Kingdom Blog, March 9, 2014.
[11] Josh Cohen, “The Historian Whitewashing Ukraine’s Past,” Foreign Policy, May 2, 2016.
[12] Keiser Report Episode 1000, 11:00~ . Interview with Charles Hugh Smith. See also www.oftwominds.com
[13] Ted Rall, “Ameri-Splaining,” Counterpunch, December 8, 2016.