Joris Ivens: Stalin’s and Mao’s Riefenstahl

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Joris Ivens

Today, a quick look at Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens (1898-1989). He started out making short experimental films in which he sought to capture atmosphere, much in the way of an impressionist painter. He also helped establish Amsterdam as an early center of filmmaking, and helped bring directors like René Clair and Sergei Eisenstein to the city.

EH5408P c.1937-1938 Ernest Hemingway with a film cameraman and two soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, 1937-1938. Photographer unknown in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
With Hemingway and two soldiers in Spain

Then, in 1929 and again in 1931, he went to the USSR. He was hooked. And he started making propaganda pictures. Song of Heroes (1931), about industry in the city of Magnitogorsk, promoted Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. In 1936 he relocated to the U.S., where the next year he screened his film The Spanish Earth at the White House. The movie, funded by a consortium of left-leaning writers including Lillian Hellman and John Dos Passos, was a paean to the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Ivens presented the Republicans as uniformly fighting for liberty – ignoring the fact that many so-called Republicans were, in fact, Marxists who enjoyed the support of the Kremlin and who sought to turn Spain into a Communist satellite of the Soviet Union. It was transparent wartime propaganda, but it attracted the participation of many top-flight talents, including Marc Blitzstein and Virgil Thomson, who composed the music, Ernest Hemingway, who wrote and read the voice-over narration, and Jean Renoir, who did the French-language voice-over.

Three years later, Ivens did the same favor for Mao Zedong that he had for Stalin in The Spanish Earth, releasing a film, The 400 Million, that told the story of the Second Sino-Japanese War, emphazing the contributions of Mao, his compadre Zhou Enlai, and their Communist cohorts while underplaying the role played by Chaing Kai-shek and his anti-Communist Nationalists.

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Frank Capra

In 1943, at the height of World War II, American director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life), who had been asked by the U.S. War Department to make a series of films entitled Why We Fight, invited Ivens to direct a movie for the series about the Japanese. Ivens was soon fired, however. Why? For (no kidding) making the movie too pro-Japanese.

Ivens left the U.S. in the 1940s, and before long was living in Stalin’s newly conquered and Communized Eastern Europe. During the Vietnam War, he made a couple of pro-North Vietnam documentaries. In 1967, he won the Lenin Peace Prize. And he spent six years in the 1970s making How Yukong Moved the Mountains, a more than twelve-hour account of China’s Cultural Revolution, in which millions were removed from their jobs, torn from their homes and families, tortured, “re-educated,” and/or killed. As it happened, Ivens – by now a profoundly convinced Communist and close friend of Mao and Zhou – thoroughly approved.

It is telling to observe that Ivens’s lifelong cinematic efforts on behalf of Stalin and Mao did not prevent him from being treated in his homeland as a local hero. In 1989, he received a knighthood from the Dutch government. Shortly afterwards, he died. Such was the life of Stalin’s and Mao’s Leni Riefenstahl.

The staggering ignorance of Sally Kohn

We’ve been talking this week about Sally Kohn, a grassroots community organizer turned CNN commentator who, as we’ve seen, could use a little less ideology and a little more historical perspective – plus (not to be too cruel about it) the kind of general knowledge that you need to get at least one or two $100 questions right on Jeopardy.

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Sally Kohn

Yesterday we mentioned an article Kohn recently wrote after her first-ever visit to the Netherlands. As we noted, she interviewed Tofik Dibi, whom she identified as “one of the country’s leading Muslim political figures.” She quoted Dibi as telling her that Dutch tolerance is a myth, a lie, an illusion, and that he spends every day in the Netherlands feeling as if he’s the object of suspicion just because of his religion.

As it turns out, Kohn left out a few tiny details about Dibi. For one thing, he’s apparently a Muslim only by heritage. He wasn’t brought up in a religious home. His parents divorced when he was a child. He attended a Catholic school, not a madrass. As a young man, he joined the Green Party, which gave him such a great welcome that, within a very short time, his name was placed near the very top of its list of parliamentary candidates, essentially guaranteeing his election. In 2007, at age 26, he entered parliament, where he remained until 2012.

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Dibi in parliament

During those years in parliament, Dibi was considered a major Dutch politician – and a major leader of the Dutch Muslim community. Last year, however, after leaving politics, he wrote a memoir in which he came out as gay, explaining that he hadn’t come out earlier because he knew that Dutch Muslims would never have considered a gay man to be a legitimate Muslim leader.

In short, Dibi, who skyrocketed to political power thanks to the support of non-Muslim Dutch politicians and voters, has little apparent reason to complain about Dutch “Islamophobia.” What he has suffered from, beyond question, is Islamic hostility toward gay people.

sally11Now, there’s no way of knowing whether he told Kohn any of this during their conversation. But the simple fact is that every major detail of his political career is publicly available information. We can only assume either that Kohn didn’t take the trouble to look up even the most basic facts about her interviewee, or that she chose to edit the story of his career – and, perhaps, trim his personal testimony – in such a manner as to ensure that it fitted her narrative. For the unfortunate reality is that Kohn, like so many useful gay stooges on today’s left, prefers not to acknowledge the brutal reality of Islamic gay-hatred – although she’s perfectly happy, of course, to proffer the ugly lie of Dutch “Islamophobia.”

How did Kohn conclude her Amsterdam piece? “In the United States,” she wrote, “I’d come to think of tolerance as a linear progression….Here in Amsterdam, things were spun around. Or maybe just round. Openly gay politicians were rabidly anti-Muslim.…Amsterdam was neither enlightened nor close-minded but constantly shifting, not progressing along a line but simultaneously occupying multiple points on a circle. Like a wheel of cheese. Or maybe spokes on a bike. Constantly turning.”

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A part of Amsterdam that Kohn apparently didn’t visit

We submit that the only spinning was going on inside Ms. Kohn’s head. A bit of unsolicited advice for Ms. Kohn: first, close your left-wing ideological prayer book and open your mind to the facts, whether you like them or not. Read up on Islamic history, theology, and law. Face up to the harsh reality of jihad, going back to the very founding of the faith and the Islamic attempts over the centuries to conquer Europe. Learn about the ways in which the current wave of Islamic immigration has replicated those efforts – and has transformed Europe in ways that threaten the very liberalism for which you claim to stand. Struggle to understand that if “very liberal” and openly gay Dutch people are exercised over Islam, it’s precisely because they’ve lived at close quarters with it long enough to know that it is, at its very roots, the very opposite of liberal, especially when it comes to gays.

Which brings us, at last, to the August tweet with which we kicked off this week. We’ll look at it tomorrow.

Silly Sally

sally9Longtime left-wing activist Sally Kohn, now a CNN commentator, is married to a woman named Sarah Hansen. It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Kohn’s politically and culturally claustrophobic personal history that Hansen, too, is a left-wing activist who for several years was head of something called the Environmental Grantmakers Association and that these two gals met (what could be more romantic?) at the 2003 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Together they have one child, a daughter who would today be about seven or eight years old. In February of last year, that child was the subject, or pretext, of an op-ed published by Kohn in the Washington Post. 

sally-kohn-familyIts headline: “I’m gay. And I want my kid to be gay, too.”

Yes, the headline was deliberately provocative. And just plain silly. In the piece itself, Kohn reassured readers that she’d never actually try to force gayness on her daughter. “[N]o matter what,” she maintained, “I’d want my child to be herself.” Immediately after making this claim, she offered the following example: “If I lived in, say, North Carolina, with an adopted son from Morocco, I’d like to think I would encourage him to be Muslim, if that’s what he chose. I’d do this even though his life would probably be easier if he didn’t.”

Stop and roll that around in your mind for a minute or two. Not that Kohn seems to have done so. No, it doesn’t appear to have occurred to her that if she had a son who became a devout Muslim, it might well be her life, and her spouse’s – not his – that would be made considerably more difficult, if not downright endangered, by that development. It’s hardly a public secret – although Kohn seems blissfully ignorant of it – that most young men who decide to convert to Islam, or to begin to take their Islamic faith more seriously, tend to pursue courses of study that, shall we say, inculcate in them attitudes toward homosexuality, toward Jews, and toward independent-minded women that would not make a mother like Sally Kohn feel exceedingly comfortable.

sharia5aThis brings us back to Kohn’s piece about Amsterdam, which we mentioned yesterday. You’ll recall that it came as news to her that Amsterdam is located in the Netherlands. Obviously she knew zilch about the Dutch. So who best to lecture us about them? In her piece, entitled “Is Amsterdam Really as Tolerant as it Seems?”, she started off by telling us that during her visit to Amsterdam, the Dutch kept telling her how tolerant they are. And yet – gasp! – a “very liberal and enlightened” person with whom she had coffee ended up “verbally bashing Muslims.”

Kohn was, needless to say, shocked.

Since she doesn’t quote her interlocutor, it’s not clear what Kohn means by “verbally bashing Muslims.” One strongly suspects that rather than “bashing Muslims” as individuals, her “very liberal” acquaintance was offering honest criticism of Islam as an ideology, a culture, a phenomenon.

islamnethNow, you might think that someone in Kohn’s position would know enough about recent European developments to at least not be shocked by the spectacle of a “very liberal” Dutch person criticizing Islam. As we’ve seen, however, Kohn can’t be counted on to be up on anything outside her own extremely narrow sphere of contemporary political commentary and ideological analysis within a U.S. context.

But you might at least expect that she’d have enough intellectual curiosity to want to understand why a “very liberal” Dutch person would have a problem with Islam. Alas, no. Kohn doesn’t think that way. Indeed, the more one reads her and listens to her, the more one suspects that, strictly speaking, she doesn’t do much thinking at all.

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Tofik Dibi

How did she respond, then, to the trauma of hearing a “very liberal” Dutch person criticize Islam? She reached out to Tofik Dibi, whom she described as “one of the country’s leading Muslim political figures.” Dibi gave her an earful. He told her that Dutch tolerance is “an illusion. Or a delusion. The Netherlands is not actually that tolerant.” He charged the Dutch with having become more “Islamophobic” since 9/11 and the 2004 butchery of journalist Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street by a Dutch-born jihadist. “Tofik,” Kohn wrote, “described feeling like a dark cloud of suspicion was always hovering above his head.”

What Kohn omitted to tell the reader about Dibi was that he’s hardly a typical “Muslim political figure.” Meaning what? Tune in tomorrow.

Amsterwhat?

“When I first found out I was going to Amsterdam, I thought I had been there before, even though I hadn’t, because I’m not very good at geography, and I thought Amsterdam was in Belgium. It’s not. It’s in the Netherlands.”

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Sally Kohn

That’s a direct quote from an article that jejune CNN pundit Sally Kohn wrote last year for a travel website. Her honesty about her ignorance is almost charming. But the ignorance itself is so staggering, on the part of somebody in her position, that it totally cancels out the charm.

This is, after all, as we saw yesterday, a commentator who’s been described as one of “the 100 most influential pundits on television” and as “the 35th most influential LGBT person in the media.” Her professional background, as we further observed yesterday, has been entirely in activism and political commentary. As far as we can tell from her CV, she has spent little or no time studying such topics as history or (as she herself admitted in that travel article) geography.

nethThe thing is this: if Kohn didn’t know that Amsterdam is in the Netherlands, imagine how much else she doesn’t know. It’s one thing not to be able to explain the difference between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, or between Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. But Amsterdam and the Netherlands play a central role in modern history, in Western history, and – indeed – in American history. If she didn’t know that Amsterdam is in the Netherlands, that means that there’s a whole swath of basic Western historical fact that must be a total mystery to her.

sally8Put it this way: if you don’t know that Amsterdam is in the Netherlands, then you can’t possibly have even a vague awareness of the crucial role of the Netherlands in the settling of the New World and the founding of the United States. You can’t possibly be aware of the place of the Dutch Republic in the rise of modern freedom, modern capitalism, and modern commerce – at least not aware enough to deserve a job spouting opinions on CNN. Because if you want to even start to try to understand how the world works today, and why some parts of it work so much better than others, and how things came to be this way, you need to know enough history to be aware, at the very least, that Amsterdam is, in fact, in the Netherlands.

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Belgium?

This is not to suggest that Kohn is alone at the top in her woeful ignorance. All too many young (and not so young) reporters and pundits nowadays seem to know remarkably little about what happened in history before they were, say, in high school. (Kohn’s CNN colleague Wolf Blitzer, for example, is a certified buffoon who put in one of the most humiliating performances ever on a dumbed-down celebrity edition of Jeopardy.) But even in this crowd, Kohn seems to be a special kind of ignorant. In July, she tweeted angrily about “white guys with AK-15s conducting mass shootings.” When some of her followers pointed out that there’s no such thing as an AK-15, she insisted it was a typo and doubled down on the ranting.

In May, Kohn wrote an article for Time complaining about what she called the “Bernie Bros” – in other words, male Bernie Sanders enthusiasts who were being unruly at public events. She couldn’t figure out why Bernie boosters, most of whom by definition, in her view, have “a deep commitment to non-violence,” should be conducting themselves in such a barbaric fashion. After all, she argued, it’s the Donald Trump camp that is “not entirely but definitely largely based on implicitly violent denigration of Mexicans and Muslims.”

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Kohn tweeted this picture in April when she endorsed Sanders’ White House bid

How can a person in her position be so historically unaware? Before the Sanders campaign fizzled out, Kohn was an all-out supporter of the senator from Vermont – a dyed-in-the-wool socialist who’s repeatedly praised the Castro regime in Cuba, who’s hailed the Chávez and Maduro governments (and refused to comment on their utter destruction of the Venezuelan economy), and who, so deep was his faith, even honeymooned in the Soviet Union. The nature of Sanders’s convictions is, and has been throughout his political journey, crystal clear. But instead of recognizing the simple fact that the tenets of Sanders’s ideology have always been utterly inextricable from the most monstrous kind of violence, Kohn embraced in her Time article the absurd claim – which that ideology has always made for itself – that it is ardently anti-violence.

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One of the “Bernie Bros” being arrested

So ideology-bound is Kohn, in other words, that in her piece for Time she simply couldn’t put leftism and violence together and make it compute. So what did she do? She reached for the closest ideologically acceptable explanation for the violence of the “Bernie Bros,” and attributed it to that comfortable bogeyman, “white male anger.”

Here’s how she put it: “in the past and present of America it is impossible to disentangle white male anger from gender and racial bias and resentment.”

Ah, there we go. How sweet, to feel that tension dissipate! How easy, when you consistently place ideology above reality, to be able to sweep away the plain and simple facts with the same old comforting, reassuring lies!

But we’ve only begun to plumb the depths of Sally Kohn’s superficiality. More tomorrow.

Putin’s Dutch rapper

Today, October 7, Vladimir Putin celebrates his sixty-third birthday. To commemorate this occasion, we’re spending a few days here at Useful Stooges looking at Putin – and at a few of his benighted fans around the world. Today: a hip-hop star from Amsterdam.

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Lil’ Kleine

He won’t turn 21 until later this month, but he’s already become a household name in his native country and raked in a boatload of dough. He’s a Dutch lad who was born Jorik Scholten but who is known professionally as Lil’ Kleine. He’s been acting for ten years; now he’s also a top-flight rapper. He and his musical partner, a 23-year-old who calls himself Ronnie Flex, were responsible for this summer’s #1 hit in the Netherlands, a tribute to booze, narcotics, and hook-up sex entitled “Drank & drugs.” The tune is of zero musical value; the lyrics are witless, reflecting the mentality not of two twenty-somethings but of a couple of rather dim, immature 12-year-olds. Here’s a rough translation of the refrain

If you want to chill, bitch, no problem, I’ll go there

I’m not coming alone, because I’ve got booze and drugs

I’ve got booze and drugs

On August 23, the song went triple platinum. As of the morning of August 30, the startlingly puerile and amateurish-looking You Tube video had racked up 15,726,795 views.

The population of the Netherlands is 16.8 million.

In August, Lil’ Kleine sat for an interview with the daily Het Parool. He talked about a number of subjects: his childhood in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, where he became accustomed to the sight of junkies shooting up and prostitutes plying their wares; his teenage years in another Amsterdam neighborhood, the Jordaan, where he and his brother lived in a one-parent home, his mother having taken off and left them in their father’s care; his early professional ambitions and activities (he trained to be a plumber and worked for a time as a carpenter); accusations that “Drank & drugs,” which includes the line “all the teenagers are saying yes to MDMA” (i.e. ecstasy) encourages kids to take MDMA (he denies the charge, but says that if you’re twenty or so and have your act together, MDMA “will definitely be fun”); Justin Bieber, whose ability to churn out hits he admires (“I could see myself chillin’ with Bieber”); gays (when he was little he found them icky, but now he has plenty of gay friends); money (“getting rich is now simply the most important thing in my life”); and, oh yes, Vladimir Putin.

putin23For Lil’ Kleine, it appears, is a big fan of Putin’s. He doesn’t really know very much about Putin, but then again he’s honest about the reason for this ignorance: “I have no time to follow the news because I’m far too busy with myself.” Still, he feels confident about his esteem for the Russian president: “Everybody always says, like, Putin is so bad and this and that, but I admire him. He defends his country and stands up for his people.” And he takes on “everybody in Europe and America” by “giving them the finger.” Lil’ Kleine likes that. He’d rather have a drink with Putin, he says, than with Obama.

Details from Lil’ Kleine’s interview spread rapidly. Dutch pop-culture websites and social media were saturated with choice tidbits from Het Parool. A few people tut-tutted over Lil’ Kleine’s remarks about Putin. But the overwhelming majority of those who summed up and shared and quoted from and linked to his interview were plainly just excited to discover all this new personal information about their hero.

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With Ronnie Flex

Now, why should any of us non-Lil’ Kleine fans care what he thinks? Because countless young people do. Around the Western world, the opinions of chart-toppers like him are saturating the new media and shaping the minds of innumerable young people who (a) are highly impressionable and (b) know next to nothing about the world. As a result, Lil’ Kleine and his counterparts in other countries are immeasurably more influential than any professional political commentator.

lil_ronnThink about it: on any given evening in the United States, the population of which is about 20 times that of the Netherlands, no political commentator – not Bill O’Reilly, not Rachel Maddow, not Megyn Kelly – gets a fraction of the number of viewers that “Drank & drugs” has gotten. On Sundays, Meet the Press is lucky to reach 3 million people. Lil’ Kleine’s comments about Putin may well have been retweeted more times in the course of a few days than anything anybody else has said or written about Putin in a long time.  

The truth is simple – and bleak: in the Western world today, callow stars like Lil’ Kleine steer the culture. They can endorse any product and it’ll fly off the shelves. They can put their names on a perfume and it’ll sell like hot cakes. In 2008, young Americans thought Barack Obama was the coolest guy on the planet, largely because their showbiz idols told them so. Their vote helped get Obama elected.

(FILES) A file picture taken on July 20,
Members of Pussy Riot behind bars (not the same kind of bar Lil’ Kleine wants to visit with Putin)

But seven years is a long time in youth culture. Now, Lil’ Kleine says that he’d rather go out for a drink with Putin than with Obama. His gay friends, if they’re better informed about Putin’s policies than Lil’ Kleine appears to be, might not want to join that pub crawl. And Lil’ Kleine himself might change his mind about Putin if he learned a little bit more. (We wonder if he’s ever heard of Pussy Riot.) Who knows? If he found out enough, he might even awaken to the realization that he himself is a poster boy for precisely the kind of Western, American-influenced cultural product that Putin considers emblematic of the decay of civilization and thus feels justified in punishing to the fullest extent of whatever law he feels like putting on the books.

But in the meantime, Lil’ Kleine has sent out the word that Putin is cool. And for hundreds of thousands of young Dutch people who know no more about Putin than he does, his thumbs-up makes – like it or not – a great deal of difference.