The movie Whiplash and the ugly truth of the American Dream

Morning Star

Of the movies nominated for Best Picture at this year’s upcoming Oscars awards ceremony on February 22, American Sniper and Selma each offer a different perspective of America and US society. The former depicts the war in Iraq via the prism of US exceptionalism, a ‘window’ inviting its audience to participate or collude in a revisionist history in which the Iraqis are portrayed as a barbaric horde and the US troops as patriots trying to bring civilization and democracy to an ungrateful populace.

Selma, meanwhile, holds a ‘mirror’ up to the ugly truth of America’s past, a recent past whose wounds remain open given the ongoing issue of police brutality against young black men and social indicators that reveal the gap between whites and blacks is the same as it was when MLK declared “I have a dream” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in 1963.

It is arguable, however, that another nomination for Best Picture comes closest to understanding America, its psyche, and the ethos upon which it was built and exists. Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, takes us on a journey into the dark heart of ruthless ambition, individualism, and the insatiable hunger for success that describes the reality behind the myth of the American Dream.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young man with a dream. It is to become one of the “greats” as a jazz drummer, emulating those who’ve gone before such as Buddy Rich. He is a student at a prestigious music school in New York, where he initially moves between its dimly lit corridors to and from classes with a minimum of fuss or interaction with his fellow students. In his spare time he practices alone, emphasising his dedication to his craft and determination to master it.

But then Neiman encounters one of the teachers at the school, Fletcher (JK Simmons), a man who literally and metaphorically arrives into his life out of the shadows. When he does everything changes. If Nieman thought he’d been dedicated to his goal up until now, he soon learns that he’s only been skimming the surface, as Fletcher – demonic, lean, and muscular in his uniform of tight black t-shirt and black suit, a vision of tough, single minded asceticism at odds with his genteel and preppy environment – proceeds to climb inside his head and exert the complete and utter domination of his being.

Being great involves more than mere dedication, the movie through Fletcher informs us. It involves total sacrifice, obsession, and the absence of morals. In the process, Neiman metamorphoses from a friendly, quiet, balanced, and shy young man who still enjoys regular trips to the movies with his loving and regular dad (Paul Reiser), into a monster of his Svengali Fletcher’s creation.

Nieman thereafter embarks on an existential struggle to rise from the herd towards the summit of fame and, with it, the status and respect without which life is not worth living in a society that separates humanity between winners and losers. “The two most harmful words in the English language are ‘good job’,” Fletcher instructs him, and in a pitiless war against the mediocrity described in those words the teacher’s every waking breath is focused on cultivating the next Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker. As Fletcher has it, Parker is a jazz legend whose defining moment came when a conductor launched a cymbal at his head during a gig in some backwater jazz club in Reno for this very crime of mediocrity. It was the seminal and defining moment of Parker’s life and career, launching him into a relentless quest for the greatness he would go on to achieve, involving hours and hours of practice to the exclusion of all else. It informs the moment in the movie when Fletcher does likewise to Nieman during a rehearsal, hoping to galvanise his student with the same motivation that propelled Parker to greatness.

By now the inference is clear: talent does not underpin achievement and success in life, practice and all consuming dedication does in a society ruled by the values of machine-men in which everything is reduced to numbers on a graph.

Neiman is a willing student. In fact more than willing he is absolutely committed, trusting Fletcher as a dog trusts its master. He drums and drums and practices and practices, even until his hand bleed. Then he practices some more. Nothing except death will deter him from reaching his goal of emulating Buddy Rich, an objective now indistinguishable from doing whatever it takes to win Fletcher’s approval.

Along the way he proves he has what it takes by sacrificing/ending his relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoit) and pulling away from his father, whom Fletcher continually reminds him is a “loser”, and the balance and normality they both represent.

By the time Nieman crawls from the wreckage of a car crash while attempting to keep his place in the school band, after forgetting his drumsticks and driving like a madman to retrieve them before they go onstage to perform, we are following him through his own personal hell, a young man literally willing to die in the attempt to win Fletcher’s approval.

In the closing scene, when after being publicly humiliated by Fletcher during a performance in revenge for his role in having him kicked out of the school, Nieman has a choice to make. He can either chose to return to the loving, balanced world of his ‘loser’ father, where mediocrity reigns, or man up and prove to himself, the world, and most of all to Fletcher that he has what it takes.

When he breaks away from his father’s sympathetic hug and solace offstage to return to the arena and face Fletcher again, Nieman is Nietzsche’s superman come to life. The magnificent drum solo he performs is not only the culmination of a process that has seen him go from ‘nobody’ to ‘somebody’, it is an expiation of weakness and the assertion of strength. Fletcher, like the audience, is rendered awestruck as Nieman – reaching a frenzied climax – touches that all-elusive summit of greatness that no mere mortal can ever hope to reach.

Now, finally, the Frankenstein’s monster Fletcher created has been let loose upon the world.

The America depicted in and through Whiplash is a country whose mask of innocence and idealism is ripped away to reveal a sordid truth. The nation of the Bill of Rights, Abe Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Jimmy Stewart is horseshit. Instead we come face to face with the real America, a nation and society founded on slavery, violence, injustice, and crippling inequality. It is the America of Dick Cheney, Enron, and Wall Street – corrupt, brutal, ruthless and shallow – a dark, soulless place hurtling towards its own doom, driven there by those machine-men for whom the sine qua non of meaning is the abandonment of humanity in service to the objective of escaping humanity.

Whatever Nieman has won, in the end it is nothing to what he has lost.

The enemy of black people in America is America

Black-Power-GossipNot Russia, not Iran, not Syria or Cuba, not even North Korea. Recent events make the argument that the enemy of black people in America is America itself. What other conclusion can be drawn from the decision of two grand juries in the space of a week not to prosecute police officers responsible for killing unarmed black men under dubious circumstances?

Not only were the parents of Michael Brown – shot seven times by white police officer Darren Wilson in the majority black town of Ferguson, Missouri – denied their right to see Officer Wilson answer for his death in court, they were forced to listen to their son’s character being assassinated in the media.

Similarly the family of Eric Garner, killed by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in July after being placed in a chokehold during his arrest in Staten Island for selling illegal cigarettes, have just seen a grand jury determine that no criminal charges should be brought against the officer responsible; this despite the incident being caught on video, with Garner clearly heard repeatedly pleading that he couldn’t breathe.

The facts don’t lie: Michael Brown and Eric Garner were unarmed when they were killed, and in each case a grand jury refused to indict the police officer responsible.

As in the case of Officer Darren Wilson over the killing of Michael Brown, the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Pantaleo over the killing of Eric Garner met with a wave of protest across America. Black leaders such as Al Sharpton have put out a call for the establishment of new civil rights movement. When it comes to race relations America remains stuck in an ugly past, one that renders the claim of it being the land of free eminently hollow.

The original civil rights movement, led by Dr Martin Luther King, has long been the stuff of legend and folklore. The March on Washington, the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, the footage of civil rights marchers being attacked by racist cops and thugs across the segregated South are part not only of US history but world history, exemplifying a struggle for justice that is universal.

Less familiar is the history of the black power movement in the United States, which ran parallel to the civil rights movement and was committed to a much more radical response to the injustices being endured by the nation’s blacks. It comprised those who believed that a strategy of non-violence and reform of the system would effect no meaningful change.


Some of the young militant leaders who emerged from the black power movement of the sixties and seventies blazed a trail across America’s political and social landscape. Malcolm X, Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael), Huey Newton, Fred Hampton, Bobby Seale, George Jackson, Angela Davis and others gave voice to the indignity, injustice, and despair suffered by an entire community and people. Not for them a call for reform or appeals to liberal America for succour. Instead they called for a revolutionary response with the objective not of reforming the system but bringing it down.

In his Ballot or the Bullet speech in 1964, Malcolm X said, “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanisation. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy…I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”

Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) rose to prominence as a leading activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Radicalised as a result of his experiences marching for civil rights in the racist South, he joined the Black Panther Party, becoming a fierce critic of the Vietnam War and drawing links between the oppression suffered by his own people in America and the anti-colonial struggles being waged throughout the developing world. Carmichael travelled extensively, visiting revolutionary leaders in Africa, North Vietnam, Cuba, and China, offering solidarity and receiving the same against what he considered was their common enemy – US imperialism.

He later moved to Africa, where he became an aide to the then Guinean prime minister, Sekou Toure, and a staunch supporter of exiled Ghanian President, Kwame Nkrumah. It was in honour of both men that he changed his name to Kwame Toure. During his African years, Toure was an ardent supporter of the Pan-Africanist movement, a cause he espoused until his death in 1998.

It was Carmichael, as he was known then, who first coined the phrase ‘black power’, explaining it as “a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognise their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for Black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organisations.”

The Black Panther Party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 with the aim of building an organisation to struggle for civil rights and justice. The Panthers devised a Ten-Point Program of demands, designed to deepen raise consciousness within black communities across the United States. Those demands included land, bread, housing, clothing, justice, and equality. However it was the seventh point in their program, demanding an end to police brutality and calling for black people to arm themselves in self defense against the police in their own communities, which succeeding in bringing them to national and international attention.

In his article, ‘In Defense of Self Defense’, written in 1970, Newton revealed the political awareness that made him a threat to the status quo. “Men were not created to obey laws. Laws are created to obey men. They are established by men and should serve men. The laws and rules which officials inflict upon poor people prevent them from functioning harmoniously.”

Further on in the same article, he writes, “Penned up in the ghettos of America, surrounded by his factories and all the physical components of his economic system, we have been made into the ‘wretched of the earth,’ relegated to the position of spectators while the White racists run their international con game on the suffering peoples.”

Newton wrote extensively and was an important thinker, but the Panthers are best known for daring to challenge the police, utilising their constitutional right to bear arms to brandish weapons. This, along with their breakfast clubs and other community programs, earned them the respect and affection of people in poor black communities.

Their growing influence prompted the director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, to describe the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Using COINTELPRO, the program devised by the FBI in the sixties to investigate and destroy homegrown dissident groups, the Bureau set about effecting the destruction of the Panthers. The campaign reached its peak in 1969 with the murder of leading Panther, Fred Hampton, in Chicago. The organisation was able to continue, however, and in 1973 Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, coming in second of nine candidates with 43,170 votes.

George Jackson joined the Black Panther Party while he was in prison. He’d been given a sentence of one year to life for the theft of $70 from a gas station at the age of 18. Jackson was radicalised in prison. A book of his prison letters, ‘Soledad Brother’, was published in 1970 to international acclaim.

He writes, “The new slavery, the modern variety of chattel slavery updated to disguise itself, places the victim in a factory or in the case of most Blacks in support roles inside and around the factory system (service trades), working for a wage. However, if work cannot be found in or around the factory complex, today’s neoslavery does not allow even for a modicum of food and shelter. You are free – to starve.”

Soledad Brother is not so much a compilation of letters as a scream from the bowels of the US justice system. It is a call to action and the assertion by a young man of his humanity in the face of the inhumanity and barbarity suffered by his people. Jackson died in prison in 1971 of gunshot wounds after prison guards fired on prisoners during an uprising in the yard. Allegations that he was purposely assassinated due to his growing influence, both within and beyond the prison walls behind which he was incarcerated, were never satisfactorily refuted in the eyes of his supporters.

Today, within black communities, it must seem that the sixties and seventies never ended. There is a black president in the White House, yes, but recent events suggest that those who believed that Obama’s election heralded a post-racial America were mistaken. As Malcolm X said in response to Martin Luther King being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, “He got the peace prize, we got the problem.”

Though segregation no longer exists de jure in the US, the racism that underpinned it does, with the reality for a disproportionate number of the nation’s black population a future of poverty, alienation, incarceration, and the very real risk of police brutality.

What defined yesterday’s champions of black power was the understanding that the oppression of black people in America was not only a race issue it was also a class issue. Martin Luther King himself arrived at this understanding in the course of the struggle for civil rights, an understand that cannot be denied in the face of any serious analysis of that oppression.

It led to MLK, murdered in 1968, evolving almost out of recognition from the 1964 version. In ’64 he still retained illusions in the status quo, which by ’68 he had all but abandoned, having come to the conclusion that, “The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.”

This shift in consciousness made him a threat not only to white privilege but to the economic system it rests upon; turning him, incontrovertibly, into an anti capitalist. Consequently, MLK would not have received the Nobel Peace Prize in ’68.

They tend not to give out awards to anti capitalists.







George Zimmerman’s acquittal is a reminder that Malcolm was right

Trayvon MartinIn the end there was a banal inevitability to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Perhaps it was because the jury comprised six women, all but one of whom were white (the demographic in the United States that feels most threatened by young black men), in a state – Florida – not known for its warmth towards black people. Or perhaps it was due to the history of race relations in the US and the nature of a society in which blacks continue to fare worse than every other racial group according to social indicators when it comes to poverty, education, housing, health, crime, and life expectancy. Most probably it was both of the aforementioned combined.

The point is that the tragic and senseless killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida on the night of February 26 2012 – and the acquittal of the man responsible, George Zimmerman – confirms that race remains an ever-present corrosive in US society, despite the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008. Indeed, rather than the culmination of Martin Luther King’s dream of an America shorn of racism and prejudice, an America where men and women are not only created but also treated equal, Obama’s election merely papered over the cracks for an all too brief moment. In truth – much more than the Ivy League patina of opportunity, enterprise and dynamism with which the nation prefers to identify itself – the United States is defined by social and economic injustice and the racism with which it is closely connected.
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The anger sweeping the Muslim world

The explosion of anger over the anti-Islamic film produced and posted on YouTube by a bigot living in the United States should have been entirely predictable.

Yet the shock in Washington that met the killing of the US ambassador to Libya along with members of his staff in Benghazi after ‘liberating’ the country is evidence of the arrogance and ignorance that has defined the approach of the US to the region for far too long.

The riots and protests we’ve seen in Libya in particular call to mind the words of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who, in response to the widespread looting and lawlessness that enveloped Iraq during the heady initial days of the US occupation, said: “Stuff happens… and it’s untidy and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

The product of hubris and ignorance, those words have returned to haunt the US repeatedly since they were spoken.

In truth a decades-long policy of military and political intervention throughout the Arab and Muslim world lies at the root of these events. And, crucially, it is not and never has been a policy motivated by the desire to spread freedom and democracy, or by the objective of upholding human rights, but by a desire and determination to retain an iron grip on the region’s natural resources and ensure strategic hegemony as part of an overarching global reach. It is a policy that has demonstrably failed and will continue to fail to achieve anything other than instability and a growing reservoir of anger among the millions who’ve suffered the consequences.

In Iraq there is chaos. In Afghanistan there is chaos. In Libya there is chaos. In Syria there is chaos. Wherever the West intervenes, either directly or indirectly, chaos is the result. The historical charge sheet is just too long and damning to refute in this regard.

The insult felt in response to what for non-Muslims may seem a relatively minor attack on a religion, reflects the humiliation and powerlessness felt throughout the Muslim world in the face of this long history of domination. The effect has been to drive more and more Muslims to express their resistance to it via the conduit of religion. The result is that today Islam does not only connote a religious identity, but also political, cultural and physical resistance to western hegemony.

Compounding this process is the ongoing injustice of Israel’s dogged refusal to budge one inch from its policy of apartheid, occupation and expropriation vis-à-vis the Palestinians, able to do so with the unconditional backing of the United States. It is in this context that the raw anger that’s been unleashed has to be considered and understood. Yet for all that the blinkers will no doubt remain fixed firmly in place when it comes to dealing with the fall out from this latest eruption of anti-western sentiment.

When Obama was elected in 2008 hopes for a new approach by Washington to the Arab and Muslim worlds were great. His conciliatory rhetoric and pledges to the region were unlike those spoken by any of his predecessors. Yet four years on the first black president has proved less the reincarnation of Martin Luther King as Al Capone, with his weekly kill lists and regular drone attacks on suspected militants in Pakistan slaughtering many hundreds of innocent people – men, women, and children – while maiming and terrorising many more. Judicial murder, the violation of sovereignty, and a blatant disregard for the lives and human rights of innocent people in Pakistan’s tribal areas is the Obama administration’s contribution to peace during his first term in office. Yet compared to his rival for the White House in November, Mitt Romney, he appears like Ghandi.

Romney and the Republican Party he leads are committed to joining with hawks within the Israeli political and security establishment in pursuing a hard line policy towards Iran, making the prospect of full scale war more likely than it is now if he’s elected. The Republicans believe there is no problem that can’t solved by reference to the Old Testament. The idea of diplomacy is anathema to a party of right wing, God fearing extremists in a political culture that has grown increasingly polarized over the past decade between the very mad and very bad.

When are western governments going to wake up to the fact that the only way to prevent terrorism is to cease practising or supporting it? State terrorism begets non-state terrorism, yet there seems little appetite on the part of those in positions of power to do anything other than repeat the same old lies and justifications for the West’s self evident manifest destiny – its role as the ‘decider’ in the inimitable words of George W Bush. This is why nothing will change anytime soon. One set of extremists have forged another set of extremists, with the scale and scope of the carnage caused by the former exceeding that of the latter by a gigantic margin.

These violent protests and scenes of uncontained anger are not only in reaction to a bigoted, anti-Islamic film. They are the latest manifestation of a world in which the doctrine of might is right is lent legitimacy by the word democracy.

Neo(conservative) Anti-Americanism

If you ask the right question of a neoconservative you just might (admittedly, the odds are fantastically low) get an honest answer. In an absolutely bizarre Radio 4 programme repeated yesterday, entitled “Death To America”, Justin Webb, a very silly man who masquerades as the BBC’s Washington Correspondent, opined that “to be anti-American is to be anti-human”. Well, yes and no. Yes, because to be, say, anti-Palestinian is to also be anti-human. And no, because, evidently, Webb would not have thought of putting it in the same terms for, say, Palestinians, or indeed any other nation. American exceptionalism, again, or should that be acceptionalism?

Webb got a rather odd answer from Richard Perle, neoconservative Ayatollah and self-styled Prince of Darkness. Discussing U.S. support for the totalitarian Mubarak regime and the rise in support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the jihadi cause, Perle muttered, somewhat chastened in the realisation of what he was about to say, that American foreign policy is “a root cause of terrorism”.

Add to this the new policy of engaging with all but Al Qaeda in Iraq (that is to say, all the “fascists and Islamo-fascists” the neoconservatives and liberal imperialists have said constitute all of the insurgency and with whom there could be no negotiation). Incidentally, just in case you’ve been living under a rock since 2001 (or are neoconservative or liberal imperialist, which is pretty much the same thing), this is what the anti-war Left has been saying all along, but at which time was considered “fascist”, “pro-fascist”, “objectively pro-fascist”. At the time this was said the churchyard in the English village of Sutton Courtenay experienced an earthquake as Geoege Orwell’s grave shook.   

Given that the only people in the Islamic world who support the neoconservatives liberal imperialists are the chauvinistic jihadis, it is a mystery why anyone in the liberal and democratic West would listen to these anti-American bozos.

Even in their own warped terms, especially as the number of U.S. deaths in Iraq rapidly approaches the 4000 mark, for the noconservatives and liberal imperialists to now accept what was allegedly “anti-American” as part of the solution in Iraq is, of course, not only “anti-American” but also “anti-human”. That it was “anti-human” was never a consideration as long as the humans dying weren’t the exceptional Americans.