Black [Panthers] Against Empire

Sociologist Joshua Bloom and historian Waldo E. Martin Jr. wrote a long (55-page) analytic history of the rapid rise (1967-70) and almost as rapid fall (1970-71) of the Black Panthers as advocates of black self-defense and as part of a global resistance to US hegemony. They are more willing than I to accept the frame of alliance with very repressive authoritarian regimes (North Korea, North Vietnam, the PRC during the “cultural revolution,” Cuba, and Algeria) as “anti-imperialist.” They ignore the move from the vanguard of world liberation from colonialism of Algeria, which long-harbored Eldridge Cleaner) to increasingly Islamism.


The Panthers also enjoyed the admiration and measures of fiscal support from Old and New Leftists in the United States, mot (in)famously Leonard Bernstein’s “radical chic” fund-raiser.

Bloom and Martin contend that white allies were placated by policies of Richard Nixon, including ending military conscription (the draft), along with the election of black officials, and affirmative action. The latter phrase was coined by John Kennedy 1961 and expanded by a 1965 executive order signed by his successor, Lyndon Johnson. The first black mayor of a major US city was Carl Stokes in 1967, before the rise to national prominence of the Panthers. And the growth of a black middle class primarily occurred after the decline of the Panthers.

The Panthers imploded (with Huey Newton on the ground in the US realizing armed insurrection was not feasible, while Eldridge Cleaver advocated it from the safety of Algiers) in 1970. The ending of the draft could not have been a factor in either the internal or the external loss of influence of the Panthers, since it continued through the end of 1972. And the anti-war movement, far from backing off was radicalizing. The revelation of secret bombing in Cambodia led to a nationwide college student strike in May 1970 (ineffectual as it was in ending US military action in Southeast Asia). There was a subsequent break between armed revolutionary wannabes (the Weather Underground) and the nonviolent anti-war activists. But the anti-war movement was most definitely growing, not contracting in 1970.

(Algeria, which had broken diplomatic relations with the US following the 1967 Arab-Israel war, re-established them in 1974, while Richard Nixon was still president and after the Panthers had returned to being a community organization in Oakland, California. Nixon went to the PRC in 1972, though diplomatic relations were not established until 1978. There are still not diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea. None of these changes in US foreign relations was in time to marginalize the Panthers with black or white allies.)


Bloom and Walsh establish that repression is not a sufficient explanation for the devolution of the Black Panthers and the loss of white New Left allies.  (They stress that the peak of police and FBI repression and outright murder was the time of most robust growth in membership and external support.) But chronology of what the authors consider the all-important “political context” does not fit with the loss of white support. Insofar as this was “radical chic,” fashion’s constant fluctuation probably has some explanatory power in moving on. The Black Panther personalities, especially clashing egos, of the leaders of factions also seems to me to matter, though as a sociologist I well understand the wish to look elsewhere for explanations (we are suspicious of “great man” history, more inclined to look at “social forces,” or on a more micro-level, patterns of group dynamics).

It seems to me that the counter-intelligence operations spearheaded by J. Edgar Hoover, who fits the category “white supremacist” and had long-running campaigns against black leaders (not just black nationalists, but, infamously, Martin Luther King, Jr.), had special hatred of Stokely Carmichael, and claimed the Panthers were the greatest domestic danger to the US, had some slow-poison effects, too. (Hoover died on 2 May 1972, btw, his work of disruption of black power advocates and the Black Panther appeal to white liberals and radicals largely accomplished, along with discrediting Stokely Carmichael, who had been an early influence and, for a time, Panther member., and then decamped to Guinea, serving another very repressive dictator, Sékou Touré)

I find the chronology of political context unconvincing, and the authors eschew consideration of any sociological theories of social movements other than a passing mention of “political process” (more commonly known as “political opportunity theory”). The phrase “resource mobilization (the name of the dominant sociological theory about social movements) does not occur in the detailed index, nor, I am pretty sure, in the text. Where the authors think the case they exhaustively detail fits in theorizing sociopolitical movements is avoided

(At a One City, One Book event at the San Francisco Public Library, I tried to ask about the chronology of events they associate with the decline of the Panthers, but the moderator, “Davey D” Cook, more given to making speeches than moderating, insisted on collecting another question so that mine was forgotten. Nonetheless, Professor Bloom had interesting things to say about the roots of the draft resistance movement in SNCC/Carmichael… and Muhammed Ali—before David Harris and Noam Chomsky pressed and organized it for white students.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray



Romance of a Japanese neurasthenic, ca. 1909

It’s hard for me to imagine that 1909 readers of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun could keep track of (or care about!) the very slow development and shifting consciousness of Daisuke, the hypochondriac slacker protagonist of Sôseki Natsume’s novel Sorekara (And Then), a follow-up (not exactly a sequel) to the 1906 Botchan. I found the book very easy to put down and can’t imagine being eager to pick up the next installment and then the next installment (the paper was — and still is — daily; I don’t know if the serialization was).


Daisuke is quite content to live on the allowance his father and older brother give him. He focuses on any signs of heart problems, grooming, and reading European literature. “Daisuke had never considered himself idle. He simply regarded himself as one of those higher beings who disposed of a large number of hours unsullied by an occupation.” He has a horror of working at a job to pay for food and lodging… and has been able to avoid getting a job because of his indulgent father and brother, whose company may not be as impeccably honest as they lead Daisuke to believe. That is never definitively settled in the text. Not a lot is!

Having turned 30, it is past time for Daisuke to marry. He has rejected every candidate his father, brother, and/or sister-in-law suggest. Now there is one whose marital alliance would aid the company. Daisuke has no specific objection to the young woman, but has come to realize that he is in love with a married woman.

Not just any married woman, but Michiyo, the wife of his university classmate and friend, Hiraoka. Daisuke arranged the marriage himself when his friend said he wanted to marry Michiyo.

Three years later the couple has returned to Tokyo after Hiraoka’s assistant embezzled some funds (500 yen). Hiraoka seeks Daisuke’s help to find a job and to borrown the money he put up to cover his subordinate’s theft.

Daisuke cannot avoid seeing that Hiraoka not only neglects his wife, but doesn’t even provide sufficient funds for her food. They had a son who died after a few months, and Michiyo is sickly.

Daisuke decides he is in love with Michiyo and cannot acquiesce to the marriage his family is promoting. Before he can take Michiyo away, he feels that he must get the permission of Hiraoka, for whom he now feels no friendship. The permission to poach the wife is the same “règle du jeu” as in Jean Renoir’s movie (“règle” has been pluralized in the English title, “Rules of the Game”), which I just tried for the first time to appreciate.

I find Sôseki’s novel even less amusing than Renoir’s film and very, very slow moving. Though open-ended, the denouement is not hopeful. Hiraoka writes an account of Daisuke’s perfidy to Daisuke’s father (who cuts him off), which strikes me as quite caddish. Hiraoka granted permission to Daisuke to take Mishiyo off his hands, admitting he does not love her and knows she does not love him. But she is sick and he says he cannot turn her over in such damaged condition. I think it quite likely she will die and that Daisuke will have squandered his patrimony for nothing. But Sôseki does not reveal what the future (and then!) held for the pair, whose relationship is a scandal even though there has been no physical consummation (adultery). Daisuke seems ill-equipped, especially by inclination, to support himself, let alone a wife, let alone a wife with medical problems (who will not be able to produce an heir).


I guess Daisuke is alienated, though I’m more inclined to regard him as spoiled. Certainly, as he realizes, Daisuke is very ineffectual, partly because he has no assets of his own, only a monthly allowance. Throwing over comfort and everything he has known and valued for love makes him something of a romantic hero, however.

Translator Norma Moore Field has appended a biographical sketch with an emphasis on the sort-of “trilogy” of Botchan, Sorekara, and Mon (The Gate, 1910). She sees them as dominated by three A’s: abandonment, alienation, and ambivalence with the protagonist of each older than in the previous book, and argues that they are not especially autobiographical. She notes but does not explain that Japanese consider Sôseki their greatest modern writer, though others (Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, Murakami) have been embraced more by western readers.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray



Black Panther Minister of Culture and Prime Designer of their Graphics Comes to SFPL

In commemoration of a half century after the rise of the Black Panthers (and the selection of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party for One City/One Book), the San Francisco Public Library  hosted what was supposed to be a panel discussion on the art and activism of Emory Douglas (born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1943), the Panther Minister of Culture, who illustrated the Black Panther paper and was one of the panthers who traveled to Algiers, He didn’t talk about that summit or about working with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, starting with the third issue of The Black Panther Community News Serice in 1967. Confident that he understood their anti-imperialist politics, they did not supervise his work, but left him to do whatever graphics he wanted.

Emory_Douglas (Amber Douglas 2014).jpg

(2014 Creative Commons photo by Amber Gregory)

Asked about influences on his art, he denied there were any, citing only the craft of two-color commercial illustration he learned at San Francisco City College. He went on for more than two hours reading any text in the illustrations, talking about the political background of some. He has not forgiven Barack Obama for running for Congress (unsuccessfully) against ex-Panther leader Bobby Rush and is appalled that someone going through a weekly kill list won the Nobel Peace Prize (as did one of his targets, Henry Kissinger). There were few weapons, few guns in his powerpoint presentation (lots of pigs, lots of children), but there are many in his book. Next week, political scientists Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. will talk about the San Francisco Reads current choice, Black Against Empire. I was given a copy and will at least dip into it It has a thorough index. There are images I like, even some with guns, though not the grotesque pigs.


Douglas reported that the icon came out of SNCC work in Lowndes County, Alabama (the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, led by Stokely Carmichael had been using a black panther logo, Carmichael keynoted a Black Power conference in Berkeley 29 October 1966). He worked at the San Francisco Sun Reporter for 30+ years after publication of The Black Panther ceased, and has collaborated with Sandinistas, UFW, Australian aborigine, and Maori activists. He showed some of this later work.

In “The Revolution Will Be Visualized,” Colette Gaiter wrote: “Douglas was the Norman Rockwell of the ghetto, concentrating on the poor and oppressed. Departing from the WPA/social realist style of portraying poor people, which can be perceived as voyeuristic and patronizing, Douglas’s energetic drawings showed respect and affection. He maintained poor people’s dignity while graphically illustrating harsh situations.”

Douglas said that the paper stopped using profanity after Newton communicated from prison that Malcolm X got his message across without it. He denied any influence from Mao, though they sold copies of the little red book to finance their programs.


I doubt that I was the only audience member who would have preferred some reminisces of working with Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver to reading what was on his graphics. I’d have liked to ask him if he thinks Cleaver was always a con-man from Soul on Ice to his Moonie and Mormon conversions. I’m sure there was at least one person who’d have liked to ask his opinion (or knowledge!) of whether Newton became a drug dealer in later years. In contrast with them, Douglas is “keeping the [anti-imperialist, police-monitoring faith of the original Panthers.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Five 1938-39 stories by Okamoto Kanoko, and (more interesting) her own life story

It seems that Okamoto Kanoko (1889-1939) went from being a neglected to a doted-upon wife whose husband acquiesced to her bringing younger men to live in their household. A noted tanka poet and Buddhist scholar, she only began writing fiction in the last three years of her life and only went from narcissistic self-congratulation in the I-novel style to stories about unrequited love during the last year and a half.


Donald Keene who objected to her overblown (quite unJapanese!) style, considered her a “minor but unforgettable writer,” singling out Rōgishō (Portrait of an Old Geisha) for special praise. It seems to me the most autobiographical of the five stories translated by Sugisaki Kazuko in The House Spirit and Other Stories. Not that Okamoto had been a geisha, but she definitely took up a series of younger men to nurture in various ways. Kosono sponsors her all-but resident electrician, Yuki, to do his own work (inventing). Kosono does not goist her foster daughter, Michiko, on Yuki and encourages him to play around, as well as financing his existence. He is chagrined that being freed of the burden of supporting himself, he does not accomplish the great things he thought he would were he free:

“He remembered those days when he had to work on trivial jobs. He didn’t like it, but he could bear it because he had an ambition, a thrilling dream that someday he would have enough money to devote himself to creation of new things. But this living once materialized, living it daily was boring, almost tormenting. Working in quiet isolation he became sometimes frightened with the notion that he might be going in an entirely wrong direction in his research, and thus would be left behind the mainstream of the time.”

In the collection, “Old Geisha” is preceded by the later “Sushi,” a piece about a man named Miyato who as a boy was so fastidious that he would only eat eggs and seaweed. His mother made sushi for him and coaxed him into eating. At the time of the story a young woman, Tomoyo is trapped, literally caged, as a cashier in the family sushi shop, where Tomoyo is a regular. He tells her how he came to be able to tolerate sushi and then ceased to patronize the shop. Yes, that is the whole story. I preferred the novella “Food Demon,” (my favorite of Okamoto’s fiction available in English translation that was paired in another translation with A Riot of Goldfish) also centered on food preparation and presentation.


(1919 photo with her son Taro)

Okamoto’s stories are plotless. One might say that they are character-driven, though I’d say they elaborate situations of unhappiness, often self-defeat, though class differences also figure prominently.

“North Country” (Michinoku), the shortest, describes a young woman, Ran, who takes pity on a young man called “Shiro, the Fool,” who refuses to marry. Shiro does not realize she is waiting for him and disappears.

“The House Spirit” (Karei) also centers on a restaurant. It is patronized — if that word is appropriate for someone unable to pay for his meals — by an artisan (Tokunaga) who makes exquisite metal ornaments that have gone out of style. The mother of Kumeko, the current owner, accepted occasional masterpieces from him and supplied him the loach soup and rice that kept him going. Kumeko decides to continue her mother’s charity, though Tokunaga withers away.

“The River” (Kawa) features an unnamed daughter of a traditional, prominent rural family. Naosuke, an employee of her father, pines for her and drowns himself after she marries (and he builds a bridge for her wedding). This story resembles that of the hopelessly smitten lower-class worker in “A Riot of Goldfish.”

The collection is filled with unfulfilled yearning from both sexes. Some of the scene-setting is overwritten (I’m pretty sure not just in translation). Though Okamoto experienced considerable anguish early in her marriage, she eventually had the love not only of her prodigal-returned husband, and two sons (all artists), but her physician and other young protégés. Sugisaki’s biographical sketch, which does not even allude to any of the stories in the book, is probably the most interesting story in it.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Flat Ishiguro detective story

When We Were Orphans (2000) Kazuo Ishiguro ’s fifth novel is not the incomprehensible, nightmarish (ersatz Kafka) mess that his previous novel, The Unconsoled 1995), was. But it is also far from returning to the mastery of an unreliable narrator (who does not understand what he is relating) of his superb Booker Prize-winning novel Remains of the Day, or his earlier, also quite accomplished The Artist of the Floating World. All three are set in the days just before World War II (which began earlier in China than in Europe). The earlier ones were set in Japan and England. A large (and not very interesting!) chunk of When We Were Orphans is set in England, but even there, the narrator (Christopher Banks, called “Puffin” for no discernible reasons) is preoccupied with the relationships of his childhood: relationships to his parents, both of whom mysteriously disappeared when he was ten, to the Chinese woman who cared for him (his amah), and to his Japanese playmate Akira.


Seemingly even before Akira and he began playing detective imagining resolutions for the kidnapping of Christopher’s father. In England he develops a reputation as a discerning sleuth, though this is asserted rather than credibly illustrated by Ishiguro. Inevitably, he returns to Shanghai to try to solve the mystery of the successive disappearances of his parents. To put it mildly, 1937 is a particularly difficult time to do this, as the Japanese invaders are fighting in the streets of the Chinese city of Shanghai (though leaving in place the international concessions where Christopher grew up).

The most vivid part of the novel involves getting to a house Christopher is convinced that it is where his parents have been held for two decades. However, it is on the front lines of the battle with first Chinese and then Japanese help. He also gets an earful about the Kuomintang’s greater concern with fighting communists than with fighting the Japanese invaders. .

The characterization is very poor; all the main characters seem cardboard. Certainly, Ishiguro has drawn unsympathetic protagonists before, but they are more interesting and more plausible than Christopher is. Although most of the loose ends are tied up (one irritatingly is not), at the close of the novel I have no clear idea about what Christopher felt about what he learned, or, for that matter, what he remembered from his childhood. “Uncle Philip,” the novel’s most interesting character seems to have prefigured Christopher in the role of male English spinster, and is indeed emotionally stunted, but at least he feels and communicates some emotions. Uncle Philip’s final scene is extremely melodramatic, but in it he almost comes to life, The reader is, however, given no indication of what Christopher feels about what he learns about the central mystery of his past.

I’m not sure whether he becomes more unreliable as the book progresses, though early on his dissent from the recollections of him at school are suspect. Even Christopher considers that he may have hallucinated some other Japanese soldier into a reunion with Akira in an hour of great need for both. (Why doesn’t he try to follow up and contact Akira’s son after the war?)

The other orphans (both females) are underdeveloped and implausible. Christopher’s behavior toward Sarah at the end of her stay in Shanghai and toward a driver and a KMT lieutenant who has aided him in getting close to the house he seeks are particularly ill-conceived and unlikely, or, at least, are badly executed. The expectations of what Banks can accomplish that are held by the Shanghai Europeans bewildered by the beginning of war are ludicrous, but not implausible. And what Ishiguro writes about the politcal economy of opium seems quite accurate. Although it gets hallucinatory, the background setting is mostly deftly drawn.


(Ishiguro in 2005, photo by Mariusz Kubiki )

Ishiguro’s masterpiece of an emotionally blocked, politically blind “unreliable narrator” is clearly still Remains of the Day. Although Ishiguro has a talent for recreating the 1930s and writes often limpid descriptive prose, I have found his work since Remains disappointing, particularly deficient in character development, which was what was most impressive about Remains.


©2000, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Second-guessing the Oscars for 2016

Though I am a fan of long standing of Tarell Alvin McCraney, I think the best picture was the more conventional “Hidden Figures.” Theodore Melfi, the director of the latter was not nominated, so I’d have voted for Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight” if I had a vote.


The best actor award should have gone to Viggo Mortensen in “Captain Fantastic.” Not that Casey Affleck was bad, but Mortensen was astounding. (Until I saw “Captain Fantastic,” I thought Ryan Gosling should have won the award, rather than Affleck.)


Isabelle Huppert (Elle) was also astounding; the best actress winner, Emma Stone, merely likeable (which Huppert was not).


Mahershala Ali was not really a supporting actor in “Moonlight.” It’s just that he was only in a third of the movie. I have the same qualms about Dev Patel in “Lion” and Viola Davis in “Fences.” She was great, but was the lead actress, and the second lead (after Denzel Washington). In the same part she got a Tony for best lead actress. I’d have given the award to Naomie Harris for her chilling performance as the drug-addled mother in “Moonlight,” though especially after her acceptance speech, I’d be very reluctant to try to wrest the Oscar from Davis!

I think that Chris Pine should have been nominated for best actor in “Hell or High Water” (in which Jeff Bridges was very good and was nominated. And I think that Taraji P. Henson should have been nominated for best actress.

Though I don’t buy the rationale that it was adapted (from an unproduced play), I admire the screenplay for “Moonlight”  by McCraney and Jenkins that won the adapted screenplay award. Also Kenneth Lonergan’s one for “Manchester by the Sea,” though David Birke’s “Elle” adaptation and Martin Zandvilt’s original screen play of “Land of Mine” deserved at least nominations.


“Elle” should have been nominated for best foreign-language film along with “Land of Mine.” I’d have voted for the bewitching Vanatau movie “Tanna” and, if not it, the harrowing “Land of Mine,” rather than “Salesman.” I thought that writer-director Asghar Farhadi, second Oscar-winning film failed to consider (let alone show!) what Rana (Tareneh Alidoosti) was thinking, just as in the earlier Farhadi-helmsed (misnamed) “About Elly,” also starring Shahab Hosseini. Having Rana and Emad (Hosseini) playing in an amateur production of “Death of a Salesman” seemed pointless to me. (Yes, I know that Miller’s play is about a man’s humiliation, but the basis and the difference in characters’ ages makes it and Hosseini’s character’s frustrations not very comparable.) I also thought it unbelievable that the assailant of Rana left behind both his cellphone and his keys, and, thus, the van AND that Emad was so slow to track down the assailant with such evidence (and then got it wrong…). I had difficulty with the final deliverance in “Land of Mine,” but thought it more harrowing and more cinematic. “Tanne” is plenty harrowing and very cinematic, too.

The other two, “A Man Called Ove” (from Sweden with a Iraqi female lead and her son) and “Toni Erdmann” (from Germany, though mostly shot in Romania) have outsized, flamboyant older male leads (Rolf Lassgard and Peter Simonischek, respectively). The latter film is less predictable than the former. Both touch on larger issues (as, of course, do “Land of Mine” and “Salesman,” and in a remote context, “Tanne”).


I can only provisionally approve the cinematography award going to Linus Sandgren for the often artificial “La La Land,” not having seen two of the other nominees’ work (Silence, Arrival).

The best documentary feature choice, “O.J.: Made in America” is solid, with strong competition from “13th.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Two novellas about young male creators by Okamoto Kanoko

Okamoto Kanoko (née Ohnuki Kano, 1889-1939) was a scholar of Zen Buddhism and a tanka poet who wrote fiction during the last three years of her life. Being of upper-class origin, her fiction tends to focus on resentful working-class males. Whether males from lower classes of the early Showa-era idealized her peers as she portrays them as doing is a question I can’t answer, though I am suspicious.


The protagonist of her novella Riot of Goldfish (Kingyo Ryōran), Mataichi is the son of a goldfish-seller who is enchanted by Masako, a shy girl whose rich father (Teizô) underwrites Mataichi’s fishery studies. Though distant glimpses of Masako, up the hill above his family’s fishponds, enchant him, he has no chance of wedding her and sublimates his desire into trying to breed a goldfish as beautiful as (he thinks) Masako is. The breeds he engineers (life he creates) keep being washed away in floods. Masako has no idea he is trying to recreate her in piscine form, or, for that matter, that he has been in love with her for most of their lives.

“The Food Demon” (Shokuma), Besshirô, is also smitten by the beautiful daughter of his patron, Okinu, and desperate to be regarded as a master artist, to be addressed with the honorific “sensei.” He alienates those who had admired his knowledge of and skill at painting and calligraphy, though what he produces is dismissed as “tasteful,” lacking the spark of genius.

His genius is for the less exalted “art” of cooking, which has lower prestige but gives very tangible pleasure. He gives cooking lessons to the pampered Okinu and her drudge sister Ochiyo, but only the latter really notices how handsome and gifted he is.

Their father provides Besshirô and the meek wife he has been pressed by the aunt of his dead painter/restaurant-owner friend, Higaki, to marry a small house and a small stipend, and Besshirô takes out his frustrations mostly on his wife, Isuko (Higaki’s only cousin).


There are no female characters developed at all in either novella. The only one who is not a drudge or an impossible fantasy is a female Buddhist scholar (what Okamoto was) who delivers the “no more than tasteful” verdict on his paintings, but genuinely appreciates his culinary skills. Even she is little developed.

The protagonists bring Zola (especially L’ouevre) to my mind with his fatalism in the traditional Buddhist guise of karma. Mataichi is more focused (beyond the point of obsession!) than Besshirô, who writhes in disappointment and resentment of his social superiors.

Goldfish has something of a plot, Food-Demon fills in the background of its protagonist, including the harrowing cancer death of Higaki). In the story’s present Besshirô gives a demonstration of handling endive, leaves his female students in their mansion, goes home, rails at his wife, and drinks a lot of beer as he watches hail fall, and while his wife keeps their son quiet in the bedroom.

Food-Demon is more about attempts to integrate Eastern and Western art and aesthetics than the aesthetic of Mataichi, though he is even more intent on creating beauty than Besshirô is.

The two novellas, translated by J. Keith Vincent were published in 2010 by Hesperus with an enthusiastic foreword by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray