Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Winter's Bone

Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl named Ree Dolly who lives in the Ozark Mountain region of southern Missouri. Ree’s father, a methamphetamine manufacturer, has signed away the family’s land for his bail bond and then disappeared, leaving her to take care of her incapacitated mother and two younger siblings. To keep from losing the land, Ree must find him before his court date, but she finds herself opposed by her own extended family as her investigation touches on closely guarded secrets.

The story is a sharp observation of what might be called rural decay. Most obviously, it could be taken as a cautionary tale about how the drug trade ruins families and communities. The film wisely does not foreclose this reading, since it is true as far as it goes. Winter’s Bone goes deeper, however, avoiding a simplistic “blame the drugs” message and touching on a number of related issues that ought to be considered.

The 2007 documentary American Drug War: The Last White Hope described a community that was similar in many ways—Compton, California during the height of the “crack epidemic.” Hysteria over that particular form of cocaine led to the enactment of notoriously harsh laws, some of which are only now beginning to be reformed. The war against crack had predictably harsh consequences for black communities like Compton, where lifelong residents were driven away. Their properties were quickly snapped up and later resold as a new, gentrified community emerged. Today, many people whose families lived there for generations can scarcely dream of affording a house in Compton.

Too often scenarios like this are dismissed as symptoms of a characteristically African-American problem. As the story goes, young black men without good role models are drawn into the drug trade by the lure of easy money. Others condone their behavior or at least turn a blind eye. Without family values and a strong work ethic, a sense of entitlement prevails, and the community pays the price as a result. We can hope that the subculture will change for the better, but ultimately there’s nothing we can do since everyone is responsible for their own actions and decisions. Case closed.

This has long been the mainstream attitude toward black communities plagued by unemployment. Winter’s Bone presents us with a white community in very much the same circumstances responding in very much the same way. Other than the drug business, few opportunities exist. The best option is the military, and indeed the film portrays the public school as little more than an intake facility for the Army. But parents (especially single parents), would-be entrepreneurs, those with an independent bent, or anyone who wants to stay close to home for whatever reason may well find that choice unworkable.

As in Compton, there is a great deal of potential value in the land that the families own. Here the value is not in location but in timber. And as always, wealthy interests are ready and waiting to buy up the property forfeited by the ne’er-do-wells. As Ree’s uncle warns her, they’ll cut down a hundred years’ growth in a matter of weeks when her father misses his court date. Best to have it done right away if she wants a share in it.

The film shows a culture in which family loyalty has almost completely died and been replaced by a gangster code of conduct. It's a transformation far too deep and too frightening to have been accomplished by home-cooked stimulants alone. In urban black communities it was accomplished by powerful institutions, both private and public, that disregarded human values and wrote off unemployment, crime, and poverty as externalities of business. In Winter's Bone, we see the same disregard at work in a different setting. We're left with no excuse to continue believing it's someone else's problem.

Democracy And Coke

A common myth holds that when Coca-Cola was first invented, the recipe included not only caffeine but also another stimulant called cocaine. This ingredient is what gave the drink its name, and it’s the reason why today the two products are both known as “coke” (or “Coke,” depending on whether you’re referring to the illegal or the legal substance).

Like a surprising number of myths, this one happens to be quite true. Cocaine was legally available in the 1880s, when Coca-Cola was introduced, and the soft drink originally contained a significant dose. It still contains coca flavoring extracted from the same leaves that yield the drug, but except for trace amounts that may linger in the flavor extract, the name on the can is all that remains of the original ingredient. This doesn’t stop us from referring to Coke Classic as the original Coke, which is understandable enough. Cocaine was removed from the recipe in the early 1900s. Coke Classic is the “original” as opposed to New Coke, which was introduced about 100 years after the real original.

Coca-Cola is perhaps the supreme corporate symbol of free markets and the American way of life. Only McDonald’s arguably stands ahead of it. When a smiling Arab or African or Latin American child holds a can of Coke and poses for a photograph, the image says all that needs to be said about America’s relationship with the world. We export joy and vitality, and deep down, everyone wants to buy.

Of course many cannot afford to emulate our lifestyle. Luckily, we have the formula for prosperity as well as refreshment. That formula is, of course, democracy. It’s the type of government that has made us what we are, and it’s primarily the lack of democratic values and institutions that mires the Third World in violence and poverty. So serious is this lack that it is in our vital interest, as well as everyone else’s, to liberate those people who don’t yet have democracy. Coke, McDonald’s, Apple, and the like are all symbols of our mission. Where they go freedom follows, and indeed, it already has a foothold.

As a physical substance, Coke is relatively easy to define, although as we’ve seen even that definition is somewhat complicated. Not surprisingly, the idea of democracy turns out to be even more problematic. It’s generally understood as a type of government in which the people choose leaders to represent their interests and limit the state’s power through laws and a constitution. It stands in opposition to dictatorship, for example, in which an executive holds power indefinitely, or the police state, in which there is no due process.

One would expect the history of American involvement in the Third World to show a pattern of support for democracy and opposition to dictatorships and police states. Interestingly, the actual pattern is somewhat the opposite. Since at least 1953, when we helped the British overthrow the government of Iran, the United States has tended to oppose rather than support democratic movements. The pattern has continued even through the occupation of Iraq, as we found ourselves attacking elements of the elected parliament that refused to vote our way on the question of oil interests. Our arch-enemy, Al Qaeda, has its origins in the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical organization formerly nurtured by Western powers as a counter to emerging nationalist (read democratic) trends. Hamas was nurtured in the same way for the same reasons, until we and Israel decided they had become too powerful and suddenly threw our support to their nationalist rivals. It remains to be seen how long that support will last if Fatah threatens to make any significant gains on behalf of its constituency.

While claiming to promote democracy, mostly by military conquest, the US seems to work tirelessly against actual populist movements and in favor of despots who cater to our interests. Nor can this be explained on the grounds that the populists are radical Islamic fundamentalists; in fact we’ve shown that we’ll even support the fundamentalists rather than risk ceding our influence to the popular will.

What then is the relationship between the kind of democracy we export and our signature brand, the red and white Coke can? A few parallels come to mind. Both are aggressively “marketed.” Neither contains what its name suggests. And in both cases the substance advertised is not only not being offered, it’s being actively suppressed, largely because it’s considered too dangerous in the hands of non-whites. “Democracy” still functions as a brand name, its associated good will providing a sense of continuity with the best of our civic values. But the content of the brand has changed. Instead of representative government, liberty, or the rule of law, it now means simply this—compliance with American wishes. Call it New Democracy, or if you’re a bit more savvy and audacious, perhaps Democracy Classic. But whatever you do, make sure you don’t get caught peddling any unapproved substitutes.

Friday, June 10, 2011


This is my first post written specifically for the new blog. For the previous entries, I've imported some posts from social sites over the last few years and dated them according to when they were written. I hope many old and new friends will enjoy reading here.

Why the name "Marxa~Cola," especially for a blog written by a non-Marxian? I hope it will serve as a hint to some of the issues that interest me. I hope it's catchy. Most of all, I hope it suggests contradiction. It was chosen because it's problematic. The older I get and the more I learn, the more questions I have and the more difficult it is to apply political labels. I see this as a good thing. In some ways I've gotten more "conservative," in other ways more "liberal." Part of what I'd like to do is challenge others to question the labels they apply to themselves.

I don't mean to say that categories are useless, or that all values are relative. But what seems important to me, before anything else, is to know the nature of the paradigm through which one views the world. Is it fashioned from experience and observation, or was it fabricated for sale and picked up from a shelf like any other item offered for consumption? Do we engage with the ideas that make us who we are, perhaps even participate in fashioning them, or do we merely pay our money and put them on?

Most of all, I'm interested in the unthinkable, the outdated, the yet-to-be-tried, that which is not worthy of consideration. Most problems have unworkable, discarded solutions that are buried in footnotes and warrant no more than a blank stare or perhaps a polite shrug on the rare occasions when they are mentioned at all. It seems to me that the more contentious and confusing our times, the more likely it is that these solutions are the right ones. I hope you'll feel free to challenge my solutions and offer new ones of your own.