“Moorehead cannot pause to celebrate performances of Adele and the fabulous Shirley Bassey because they contradict her depiction of the Oscars as an unabated mudslide of anti-woman vulgarity; she does not discuss the implications of Michelle Obama’s appearance, either. Why?”
The 85th Annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Awards were held in Los Angeles on February 24, 2013. On March 1, Workers World Party leader Monica Moorehead gave her yearly speech about the event in New York: “Sexism, Class, Society, and the Oscars.” Moorehead is a regular WWP commentator on the Oscars [“Why Viola Davis Was Robbed of an Academy Award,” and “Two Black Actors Make Oscar History“] and celebrity culture [obituaries of Whitney Houston and Don Cornelius] in general.
Moorehead opened her speech with a brief review of the Frankfurt School theory of the “culture industry.” Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer explored this topic most notably in the chapter “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” of their joint work Dialectic of Enlightenment. (Published in 1944, the anti-communist Dialectic of Enlightenment was a foundational text of New Left literature and activism. Useful critiques of the Frankfurt School can be found here and here.)
This is a clear and up-to-date gloss on Adorno and Horkheimer. Indeed, the only thing they would disagree with (for their reasons) is the point I as a communist disagree with: the 1% business. 1%-99% rhetoric today, over a year after Occupy Wall Street, strikes more sharply as pandering and oversimplifying than ever toward the working class. In 2011, when Adbusters germinated OWS, there was at least a novelty factor behind communists (who should have known better anyway) joining in the carnival chorus of anarchist bombast: for the first time in nearly a decade, a chant unrelated to Obama’s electioneering found an echo among tens of thousands in the United States. Workers World Party even tried to politically out-do OWS: giving fatherly advice to its initially white cadre, then merging their own Popular Front political perspective with the brand recognition of “Occupy” in the group Occupy for Jobs.
The 1%-99% dichotomy is all well and good for anarchists of all stripes, who rely on subjectivity and individualistic lifestyle radicalism for their thinking. But today it is unacceptable for anyone speaking in the name of communism and a communist party. In an article published in 2012, U.S. Socialist Workers Party leader John Studer pointed out that our capitalist rulers are more than 1%. He wrote:
The 1 percent/99 percent is an arbitrary division that serves to obfuscate real social classes, which are based on irreconcilable interests. It dovetails perfectly with the demagogy that permeates the 2012 Democratic election campaign, part of the bosses’ two-party sham.The propertied rulers and their allies represent much more than 1 percent of the population. The capitalist class, in many gradations of size, includes the owners of all the factories, mines, mills, real estate, transportation and shipping, retail and commercial distribution, banking and finance, media, legal and illegal drug manufacture and distribution, etc, etc.They include owners and co-owners of the 1.3 million firms that employ 10 or more workers, more than 2 million top corporate executives and the board members of some 6,500 banks.Maintaining “order” on the shop floor for the capitalist owners are millions of supervisors, foremen and other management personnel.The bosses are backed by the armed power of their state: over 800,000 federal, state and local cops; some 518,000 prison guards and jailers; and another 100,000 parole and probation officers; a military officer corps of 200,000; 58,000 agents and support personnel in the FBI, Secret Service and Defense Intelligence Agency; tens of thousands more in the CIA and National Security Agency, whose exact numbers the rulers keep “top secret”; 41,000 immigration and border patrol personnel; 10,000 in the Drug Enforcement Agency; 5,000 Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents; and more.Add to this the millions who comprise a substantial section of middle-class “professional” layers not directly associated with production, but whose primary function is connected in one way or another to maintaining the social relations of capitalist production. These include lawyers, professors, think tank and non-governmental organization functionaries, etc â€” the self-styled “enlightened meritocracy.”Rather than a “greedy” 1 percent, we confront the capitalist class and its allies representing far more than 10 times that – all of whom utterly depend on maintaining the exploitation of our labor, the source of all wealth. We are then confronted with the real class relations under capitalism, as well as the necessity and possibility of proletarian revolution to bring it to an end.
Moorehead on the Nominees
Moorehead quite correctly starts her Oscar speech disparaging the movie Argo: “Iranian actors, directors, and movie critics have condemned the Academy for giving this award honoring the fictitious enactment of a U.S. movie crew helping U.S. hostages escape from Iran during its revolutionary upheaval in 1979. Three years ago, The Hurt Locker, a pro-war film on Iraq, won the best picture award. Ironically, Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director, was the first woman to win the best director Oscar in Academy history.”
But while Moorehead comes from the correct direction on Argo, it must be asked: did she see the movie? Her description, “a U.S. movie crew helping U.S. hostages escape from Iran during its revolutionary upheaval in 1979,” is incorrect, and obscures the true, and far nastier, story. Argo is actually about CIA agents posing as a film crew to rescue U.S. embassy officials from revolutionary Iran. The CIA, a bureaucratic spy/police apparatus of Wall Street and Washington, assisted the Shah of Iran in creating one of the most brutal capitalist regimes in the world. When the Iranian revolution triumphed in 1979, the people rightly demanded the United States be held to account for ensuring decades of murderous oppression. U.S. hostages were taken in order to prevent a military assault by Washington on the new government. This was the context for the events Argo depicts.
When Moorehead says Argo is an anti-Iranian film, it must be said in good conscience that she only scratches the surface. Since 1979’s “hostage crisis” hysteria engineered by the U.S. government, war to “take back” Iran for imperialism has been an active option, sometimes closer to realization than others. Today the war talk against Iran among Washington and its allies is more active than at any time since 1979. Argo celebrates the daring of the CIA, but it also digs up the old martial emotionalism of 35 years ago to support new outrages.
After misrepresenting Argo’s plot, Moorehead goes on to misapprehend Django Unchained. In a section of her speech disparaging the lack of Oscar statues for black artists, she says:
In what universe — to put it mildly — can Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained be considered an “anti-slavery” film? The latest installment of Tarantino’s — to borrow a useful phrase of Georg Lukacs — “permanent carnival of fetishized inwardness” is a celebration of exactly the opposite: the egomaniacal retributive masturbatory fantasies of vigilante daydreamers. It has nothing to do with the historical reality of U.S. slavery, or the sober programs and tactics of abolitionists, which motivated collective action by real anti-slavery fighters of the caliber of Harriet Tubman and Osborne P. Anderson.
Many on the left, enamored of Tarantino’s hip and sardonic style, want to prove they can take a joke. They make claims for Tarantino’s supposedly progressive political subtexts, as though the revolting misanthropy on display in movies like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Death Proof (2007), and Inglourious Basterds  might actually be smuggling critiques of capitalism, misogyny, and imperialist war.
When Moorehead decries the Oscar nomination to Christoph Waltz as opposed to Jamie Foxx or Samuel L. Jackson, she should reflect. Spike Lee long ago denounced the supposed artistic license that allows Tarantino’s characters to spout violent and racist language as modern-day Shakespearean diction. Now Tarantino exercises his rights to this language in public, as well. The black actors Moorehead extols in Django Unchained portray the hoariest and most demeaning caricatures, the only characters Tarantino is capable of creating on his own. Christoph Waltz, a fine technical actor, disappears into his role, an opportunity Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson are not permitted.
Identity Politics; or, the Biter Bit
Moorehead’s speech continued: “The sexism at the Oscars was both covert and overt. During the ‘In Memoriam’ segment, an annual tribute to those in the movie industry who died over the past year, one serious omission was that of Lupe Ontiveros; this received major publicity. Born in Texas and of Mexican descent, Ontiveros had been an actor for 35 years. One of her most recognizable movies was the 1997 film, Selena, which starred Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the popular Tejano singer shot to death by Ontiveros’ character.”
Of course the “In Memoriam” portion of the AMPAS TV broadcast only presented a portion of industry personnel who had died in 2012. At the Academy website, the complete slide-show is available. While Moorehead makes an important point about the absence of Ontiveros, in honesty it must be stated that “In Memoriam” includes dozens of men and women of many races, sexual orientations, and gender identities.
One of the most important of these, far more important artistically and politically than Ontiveros, excluded from the “In Memoriam” portion of the TV telecast, was Gore Vidal. This exclusion, and the fact that it went unremarked by Moorehead, speaks volumes; for here was a defender and promoter of gay/lesbian/bi/trans rights and identity, and a stalwart anti-war and anti-imperialist voice for over 50 years. His novel Myra Breckinridge was the first mainstream novel to explore trans life in a positive way. The fact that it also skewered the mores and moral nullity of Hollywood explains the reason for the author’s blacklist from TV on 24 February as much as his radical (in the petty bourgeois sense) political stands. Moorehead lets this exclusion go unremarked.
When one plays the game of identity politics to land a blow against the culture industry, it is best to begin by covering one’s flanks. The example with the greater and more telling political weight is always the politically correct choice.
Is Gone with the Wind Pro-Slavery?
Ontiveros had publicly denounced the movie industry’s forcing her to play the stereotypical role of a “maid” more than 300 times in films. It is a similar situation that African-American actor Hattie McDaniel faced during her career, especially when she was the first African American to win an Oscar for playing “Mammy” in the 1939 pro-slavery film, Gone with the Wind.
The cadre of Workers World Party are often caricatured as humorless movementarians whose eyes are covered in a black nictitating membrane in times of stress or emotion.
In attempting to trump those whom they take to be opponents during political discussions or actions, they sprint to be the first to land charges of racism or sexism against opinions or political lines they disagree with.
I remember once, in a study group promoted by the party in Cleveland, Ohio, listening to a member condemning the book Reading Lolita in Tehran not because of its reactionary political content, but because it promoted interest in child pornography, vide Nabokov’s masterpiece. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined needing to defend Lolita from attack by a member who, as he bravely admitted, had never read the novel.
The necessity of defending Gone with the Wind from charges of being pro-slavery is apparently the next chapter in an unexpected tussle against philistinism.
Who, among presumably thoughtful movie fans like Monica Moorehead, could read the film of Gone with the Wind so crudely? Is this another example of a WWP leader letting a reductionist “skin game” approach to politics block all-sided understanding and judgment? It’s rather like thinking it is sufficient to call George W. Bush a racist when opposing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Dialectical materialism is the science of nature, society, history, and the individual. It explores and explains the many-sided contradictions of each. The working class, the only class today capable of bearing the world’s cultural heritage against the destructive and inhuman program and consequences of capitalism, has the privilege and the obligation to understand this heritage both aesthetically and as the product of human labor. To caricature this heritage, to traduce its products simply to prove one’s supposed moral superiority, is a slap in the face to millennia of exploited producers in the culture industry.
To characterize Gone with the Wind  as pro-slavery, as Moorehead does parenthetically in her post-Oscar speech, is an example of this process. Unless products of capitalist moviemaking are promptly tarred as racist, sexist, and pro-war, and thus requiring no further explication, what place is there in academia and the mass movement for Moorehead-style reductionism?
Were David O. Selznick, George Cukor, Sidney Howard, and Victor Fleming intentionally turning Margaret Mitchell’s novel into pro-slavery boilerplate? Watching Gone with the Wind today, the idea is laughable. The movie depicts a society in revolutionary transition, though the movie itself is no more consciously revolutionary than the characters it depicts. Scarlett O’Hara begins as calculating inheritor of the bounties of a slave-owning society. As she reaches adulthood, though, this society is torn apart by its own contradictions. In the post-war world, the “rosy dawn” of “free labor” begins in the south, and Scarlett O’Hara, educated in the realities of class society by the war, becomes its champion. Her paramours, who cannot live beyond the mental and economic landscape of the old world of chattel slavery, die or fall away. Even the free-booter Rhett Butler cannot match Scarlett’s entrepreneurial zeal, which includes use of convict labor to build a thriving lumber business. With glee the filmmakers take the idealised world of antebellum Tara and grind it under the heel of History [(not Marx’s history, but perhaps Hegel’s.) Scarlett is not set up to be admired or emulated as heroine, but beheld as monster spawned of the law of value.
When Gone with the Wind presents us with the founding of the KKK, it is a far cry from Birth of a Nation . Griffith’s film was produced in the heyday of a resurgent Klan, a period of global class war, of violent backlash against labor militancy and draft protests. It denigrates Reconstruction as usurpation by blacks depicted as untermensch. Gone with the Wind, conversely, is the product of Fordian Hollywood collaboration at the height of the Popular Front, the same kind of collective studio working arrangement that later produced Casablanca (1942). In Gone with the Wind, the KKK is depicted as a men’s club for ineffectual fools like Ashley Wilkes, and falsified as wilding against lumpen proletarians, not black workers and farmers. This contradiction seems inexplicable, considering the film was to be premiered in Atlanta. But this was the period of the March on Washington Movement as much as it was the period of FDR’s war drive against Japanese and German imperialism and defense of Jim Crow.
Moorehead correctly points out the dire professional circumstances of actors like Hattie McDaniel in Jim Crow Hollywood; only one of her hundreds of film roles is remembered today. That role was the one in which her character is morally superior to every other character, in which Mammy is portrayed (and consciously acknowledged by Rhett Butler) as demiurge.
Gone with the Wind depicts the destruction of U.S. slavery, but most of its time is spent exploring the rise of Gilded Age monopoly capitalism. As a film, it is far less patronizing to its black characters than supposedly positive depictions in Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Green Mile (1999), and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000). Hollywood today can produce a Götterdämmerung like Django Unchained, but is incapable of an honest approach to U.S. history.
Sorrows of Seth, Quvenzhane, and Peeling The Onion
After describing, incorrectly, Argo; after not decrying the exclusion of pro-trans anti-war writer Gore Vidal in the televised version of “In Memoriam”; after mischaracterizing Gone with the Wind, Moorehead continues her speech with what she sees as the main critique that can be made against the 85th Academy Awards telecast:
He also made a glib remark about domestic violence involving the much-publicized incident that occurred several years ago between Black singers Rihanna and Chris Brown.
In 15 years as a TV producer, Seth MacFarlane has skewered and satirized most of the cliches promoted by the kulturindustrie, of which he is a leading figure. MacFarlane is no Voltaire, much less Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce; a sardonic cretin, on February 24th he was placed before all the targets of his venom and collapsed into the broken posture of Uriah Heep. This is the chief reason, I think, why there were so few shots of the audience during his songs and patter.
Satire usually is not intentionally progressive in its work exposing contradictions and hypocrisy. But political consequences of satire can be guided by conscious communists in a progressive pedagogical direction. Presented with such an opportunity, Monica Moorehead fails. She gives an incredibly self-congratulatory reading to MacFarlane’s sending-up of Hollywood as “sexist and misogynistic” in the song “We Saw Your Boobs.” Moorehead never addresses the double-standard exposed in the song: that nudity is only required of women actors, and that Oscar-winning films and performances [The Accused and Boys Don’t Cry] require nudity from women actors as a mark of authenticity. Does “We Saw Your Boobs” promote sexism and misogyny or expose with absurdity Hollywood’s absurd depths of sexism and misogyny? Does the song promote sexual exploitation and violence or underscore the fact that there is so much of it, and so much money depending on it, in Hollywood? Denouncing MacFarlane’s song leaves communist Moorehead in the uncomfortable position of defending the cynical pretensions toward “seriousness” and “authenticity” of Hollywood itself.
MacFarlane, as the voice of “Ted,” an offensive animated teddy bear character he created in a movie with the same name, once again made a not-so-subtle, insulting reference to director Roman Polanski’s real-life rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Polanski, who admitted to this violent act, fled the country to avoid trial and prosecution. Ted commented that he wanted to attend an orgy at actor Jack Nicholson’s house, where the 1977 rape reportedly took place.
Moorehead here scrambles the February 24th telecast’s sequence of events. Ted asks co-star Mark Wahlberg where the after-party orgy will take place. It is Wahlberg who informs him it will be at Jack Nicholson’s house. Moorehead’s conclusion that this refers to l’affaire Polanski strikes me as overreach, but then I do not know the gossip around this scandal as well as Moorehead. I assumed the punch line about an orgy being held at Jack Nicholson’s house referred to the annual Oscar broadcast portrayal of Nicholson as pet bad boy, and nothing else. Given the role Nicholson would play at the end of the broadcast, there is a certain Kenneth Anger-ish piquancy to Moorehead connecting him to the most scandalous event in the film colony since the death of Virginia Rappe. Was MacFarlane seeking to subconsciously remind viewers of this connection, and so undercut Nicholson and his co-presenter of the Best Picture statuette?
Moorehead continued: “Ted also made anti-Semitic statements, saying it’s important to have a Jewish name because Jews ‘dominate’ Hollywood.”
Can Moorehead honestly not see that a teddy bear who believes in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories works to demolish these theories by taking them to their most absurd heights for the purpose of ridicule? The droll skewering of Jew-hatred is a staple in MacFarlane’s stable of TV programs. The idea that Jews run Hollywood, or have a fundamental influence in its operations, is as preposterous a libel as the Amiri Baraka conspiracy theory that 911 was a plot by the U.S. and Israel, or the Walt and Mearsheimer thesis that a Jewish “Israel Lobby” controls U.S. foreign policy.
From a teddy bear, Moorehead shifts target to The Onion:
Of all the anti-woman, anti-worker newspapers in the United States, does Moorehead seriously think the censorship must start with The Onion?
The actual tweet said: “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a c*nt, right? #Oscars2013”
Outrage at The Onion using the “c” word to describe Wallis is correct. But it also opens Moorehead to charges of hypocrisy, given her lack of condemnation in the same speech of films produced by the likes of Tarantino, rife as they are with the “n” word and stereotypical roles as thugs for Black actors. The Onion‘s use of the “c” word bespeaks its white, privileged sensibility as well as a frustration with the months-long propaganda campaign promoting the actress.
Moorehead would also have been better positioned to demand permanent censorship of The Onion had she spent time in her speech discussing the Academy’s slapdown delivered to Wallis’s film Beasts of the Southern Wild on awards night.
Does The Onion deserve permanent shutdown? Do barometers? Or canaries in coal mines?
What Moorehead Does Not Discuss; or, the Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime
Early in her February 24th speech, Monica Moorehead relates the culture-industrial complex to the military-industrial and prison-industrial complex. But in her narrow and undialectical explication of what offended her about the telecast, she does not mention the evening’s pivotal event, which demonstrably tied together her point about the interconnection of the culture industry and the capitalist state.
Because Moorehead dares not, I will leave it to David Walsh:
The icing on the cake was the appearance of Michelle Obama in the White House, before a line of decorated military personnel, to read out the title of the winner of the best picture award. The wife of the man who presides weekly over the preparation of illegal “kill lists,” those targeted for assassination by drone, explained that she was there to “celebrate the movies that lift our spirits, broaden our minds, and transport us to places we have never imagined.”. . . Official Hollywood liberalism, to judge by Sunday’s ceremony and related events, is bombastic mediocrity in alliance with the military-intelligence apparatus. These circles, engorged with wealth and self-satisfaction, can think of no higher achievement than recognition by the American state – especially with an African American president in the White House â€” as it goes about its business of attempting to subjugate the globe.
In the final paragraph of her speech, Moorehead speaks of “reaction” that emanates “from Wall Street, the White House or even the powers-that-be in the Academy.” Why, if this is her understanding of class reality in the United States, does she defend the cultural-industrial complex from Seth MacFarlane’s ridicule? Why does she defend an alliance of Hollywood and the Obama administration with her silence?