Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fwd: SEP Newsletter: The war on terror and the fate of US democracy

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World Socialist Web Site

Socialist Equality Party Newsletter

Below is a selection of articles appearing on the World Socialist Web Site last week. Six days a week, the WSWS publishes on all the major political, social and cultural developments. To sign up for the daily newsletter, click here.
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The war on terror and the fate of US democracy

28 May 2013
The speech delivered by President Barack Obama at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. last week has revealed not only a crisis within the Obama administration and increasingly bitter conflicts within the highest echelons of the state, but also, and most profoundly, a historic crisis of class rule.
Obama's speech is of exceptional political significance. More than a half-century after Eisenhower warned that American democracy was threatened by the emergence, in the aftermath of World War II, of a "military-industrial complex," Obama all but acknowledged that American democracy is approaching a point of breakdown.
A decade after the beginning of the "war on terror," Obama warned, "America stands at a crossroads." He continued, "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison's warning that no na tion could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
In other words, the danger to American democracy comes not from "terrorists"--the catch-all pretext for every action taken by the American ruling class since September 11, including by the present administration--but from within the state itself.
Obama's speech clearly emerged out of bitter conflicts within the state apparatus. He seemed engaged in a debate, without naming the parties with whom he was arguing. At times he would pause, as if he was waiting for a response. He took an almost passive attitude to the actions of his own administration, as if these were somehow external, somehow directed by forces outside of his own control.
This was not the speech of a confident chief executive, but the representative of an administration under siege, torn by internal contradictions, in which his control over the g overnment seems entirely questionable.
The president repeatedly referred to illegal actions taken. The American government had, he acknowledged, "compromised our basic values--by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law."
By designating them as "counter to the rule of law," Obama was effectively admitting that actions taken by the United States government--that have continued under his own administration--were illegal, criminal, unconstitutional.
Obama sought to defend these actions, while openly betraying his own nervousness that he was directly implicated in violations of the Constitution, for which he could be held liable.
Obama repeatedly reminded his audience that there were others involved in making these decisions. "Not only did Congress authorize the use of force , it is briefed on every strike that America takes, every strike," he insisted. "That includes the one instance where we targeted an American citizen."
Hidden from the American people, preparations are far advanced for an open break with democratic forms of rule in the United States. Under the framework of the "war on terror," the American ruling class has brought democracy to the very brink of extinction. Under first Bush and then Obama, the executive has claimed vast powers to wage war, spy on the American people, torture and hold prisoners indefinitely without charge, try them in military commissions, and kill anyone, anywhere, including US citizens, without due process.
Little more than a month ago, following the still unexplained bombings at the Boston Marathon, the entire city was placed in lockdown and virtual martial law. As the WSWS noted at the ti me, "The events in Boston have laid bare the modus operandi for the establishment of dictatorial forms of rule in the US." Once again, as with the attacks of September 11 that set off the "war on terror," the bombers were being closely monitored by sections of the state apparatus, and the events were seized on to implement new and unprecedented attacks on democratic rights.
The breakdown of democracy is tied to an immense growth in the strength of the military and intelligence apparatus. These institutions operate as virtual laws unto themselves.
Confirming that issues of civilian-military relations are being intensively discussed within the ruling class, an article appeared in the New York Times on Monday, penned by retired Army lieutenant general Karl Eikenberry, the former head of Armed Forces in Afghanistan, and historian David Kennedy. Under the headline, "Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart," the two authors worry that the expansion of the military is taking place under conditions of "a minimum citizen engagement and comprehension."

 To address this situation, they call for the institution of the draft in some form, before concluding, "While the armed forces retool for the future, citizens cannot be mere spectators. As Adams said about military power, 'A wise and prudent people will always have a watchful and jealous eye over it.'"
The advanced state of the breakdown of bourgeois democracy, under conditions of perpetual war, has generated intense conflicts among different factions of the ruling class. Within and between various branches of the military, the CIA and FBI, there are continuous factional wars, in which the conflicts within the ruling class are worked out behind the backs of the American people.
While there are sections of the ruling class tha t would back an open military dictatorship, the break with legality and bourgeois democracy is also fraught with immense dangers. The legitimacy of the American political system is defined by the Constitution.
The American ruling class is destroying the political foundations upon which it has based its rule. They cannot invoke legality when they are confronting challenges to the state from the working class when they are the greatest law-breakers. The more they dispense with constitutional legality, the more illegitimate the ruling elite appears before the great mass of the population, within the United States and internationally.
Yet, despite these concerns, neither Obama nor any sections of the ruling class has anything else to offer. This explains the strange, contradictory character of Obama's speech.
While voicing concern over the state of American democracy, one of the central aims of Obama's remarks was to defend the most egregious violation of democratic principles thus far taken--namely, the assassination of US citizens without due process. These operations would continue, he said, with at most a pseudo-legal fig leaf, one or another form of Star Chamber proceedings to rubber stamp the decision of the executive.
As for militarism, while urging an end to a "boundless war on terror," Obama outlined a series of military operations all over the world. He called for stepping up the arming of the Syrian "rebels," many of which are tied to Al Qaeda, as part of the campaign to unseat President Bashar Al Assad. At the same time, sections of the American ruling class are trying to extract some of their forces from the Middle East in order to shift towards Asia and a more direct confrontation with China.
In the end, whatever Obama's public displays of self-doubt, he has neither t he will nor the ability to change anything. Efforts by the apologists of the Democratic Party, including the New York Times and the Nation magazine, to present Obama's speech as a transformative event combine complacency, deceit and naiveté. As if to confirm this fact, Obama stressed on Memorial Day yesterday that the nation was "still at war."
Moreover, if the most powerful sections of the bourgeoisie and the military/intelligence apparatus ever seriously considered for a moment that Obama was abandoning the program of global hegemony, his administration would come to a brutal and rapid end.
A crisis of bourgeois rule is one of the most important indicators of impending revolutionary upheaval. History substantiates a general political rule that revolutions arise not only because the oppressed classes cannot live in the old way, but that the ruling classes cannot rule in the old way.
The crisis of class rule and the collapse of American democracy are rooted in, on the one hand, endless war abroad, and, on the other, the uncontrollable and historically unprecedented degree of social inequality.
These developments pose grave dangers for the working class. Not only is it possible for a dictatorship to emerge in the United States, it is already emerging.
The defense of democratic rights is more than ever a class issue. Democracy on the basis of capitalism and imperialist militarism is impossible. To defend its interests, the working class cannot rely on any section of the bourgeois state apparatus or its auxiliary organizations.
The independent political mobilization of the working class, based on a socialist program, is a matter of the highest urgency. This means above all the building of the Socialist Equality Party.
Joseph Kishore

The FBI murder of Ibragim Todashev--the man who knew too much?

By Bill Van Auken
31 May 2013
FBI and other law enforcement officials revealed Wednesday that Ibragim Todashev, the 27-year-old Chechen immigrant who was shot and killed after being interrogated for days about the Boston Marathon bombings, had been unarmed.
The killing of Todashev, and the rapid disintegration of the government's official story--that he was shot after lunging at interrogators with a knife--is an extraordinary event. It casts into further doubt everything that has been said so far about the Boston Marathon bombings.
The report that Todashev was unarmed was followed Thursday by a press conference in Moscow, where the murdered man's father, Abdulbaki Todashev presented a series of photographs of his son's body taken at a Florida morgue showing that he had been shot six times in the torso and once in the crown of his head.
"I would like to say that looking at these photos is like being in a movie," he said. "I only saw things like that in movies; shooting a person, and then the kill shot. Six shots in the body, one of them in the head."
He added: "Maybe my son knew something, some information the police did not want to be made public. Maybe they wanted to silence my son."
Todashev, a mixed martial arts fighter, was acquainted with Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston bombing suspect killed by police on April 19, as they were both ethnic Chechens and used the same gym when Todashev lived in the Boston area.
In breaking the story, the Washington Post reported that "An air of mystery has surrounded the FBI shooting" since it happened in Orlando, Florida on May 22. This is a gross understatement. The entire affair reeks to high heaven of an extra-legal execution and coverup.
The admission that the FBI shot to death an unarmed man led to calls by civil rights groups and Todashev's widow and family for an independent investigation into the killing. The Council on American-Islamic Relations held a press conference in Orlando calling for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to launch a probe into how "an unarmed man who had not been charged or convicted of anything was shot seven times, once in the head."
Meanwhile, at the press conference in Moscow, Zaurbek Sadakhanov of the Moscow Interterritorial Bar Association stated his belief that the case was one of extrajudicial execution and urged Todashev's friend, who had taken the morgue photos, to return to Russia. "Being a witness in the US is not safe," he said.
At the time of his death, Todashev had undergone prolonged interrogation by a team of FBI agents accompanied by Massachusetts state troopers and counter terrorism officials. The marathon questioning took place in Todashev's own apartment, where he was held prisoner while denied representation by a lawyer.
After the killing, FBI and other police sources fed the media a story that Todashev had been shot after trying to attack an agent with a knife. Some media outlets went so far as to report that the young immigrant had stabbed an agent before he was brought down in a hail of gunfire, an amazing feat given that he had no knife.
All of this now is revealed as a deliberate lie that has been dutifully repeated by the media. The New York Times, it bears pointing out, has not published a single story on Todashev since the immediate aftermath of the killing in Orlando. As of late Thursday afternoon, the Times had not even posted an update on the acknowledgment that Todashev had been unarmed. No doubt, as on previously sensitive stories involving the national intelligence apparatus, someone from the Times editorial board was consulting with the White House, the FBI and other agencies on how best to handle the matter.
FBI and other police sources also put out the story that Todashev had verbally confessed that both he and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston bombing suspect, were responsible for a triple homicide that took place in Massachusetts in 2011. He was shot, the law enforcement sources claim, just before signing the alleged confession.
There is even less reason to believe this tale--also dutifully repeated as fact by the corporate media--than there was to accept the claims that Todashev had somehow concealed a knife from his heavily armed captors and then tried to attack them with it.
Todashev's housemate, Khusen Taramov, has told the media that he had been questioned together with Todashev up until the last eight -hour session in which he was murdered. He said the issue of the murders in Massachusetts was never raised. "They were asking different questions like how did we meet these guys [the Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger bother Dzhokhar], the kind of relationship we had with the guys."
Similarly, Todashev's widow, Reni Manukyan, 24, said that all of the questioning, to which she too was subjected, was about the Boston bombings, and no one asked her or her husband about the killings in 2011. "The interviews were always about Tsarnaev and the bombings," she said. "How did we know him and what was the relationship with him."
As Todashev's father put it in an interview with the Boston Globe from Russia, "They killed my son and then they made up a reason to explain it."
Why would the FBI and other intelligence and police officials lie about the killing o f Todashev? The "air of mystery," to use the Post's phrase, surrounding this state murder is bound up with the unanswered questions and murky explanations for the Boston bombings themselves. The coldblooded killing in Orlando only underscores that nothing reported by government officials or the major media regarding this case can be accepted uncritically.
This includes the identity of the bombers themselves. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who survived the shoot out with police, has, according to his mother, spoken with her for the first time and has denied involvement in the bombing. Dzhokhar was severely injured after a boat he was hiding in, unarmed, was shot up by police. He is currently being held in a Massachusetts prison hospital facing the capital charge of using a weapon of mass destruction.
One thing is certain, as with the attacks of 9/11 and virtually every other real or manufactured terrorist incident since, the alleged perpetrators were known to US intelligence. In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it is known that Russian security officials alerted both the FBI and the CIA in 2011 to what they said was evident danger that he was involved with Islamist terrorism. There have also been reports that Russian agencies provided their US counterparts with a dossier on Tsarnaev's contacts with such elements in 2012, following his six-month visit to the North Caucasus, and that Saudi authorities had issued a similar warning.
Yet, the FBI claimed it found nothing to warrant keeping open an investigation on Tsarnaev, and he was allowed to return from the Russian region, which includes Chechnya, where Islamist separatists waged two wars with Russian forces in the 1990s, without being questioned by immigration, customs or other officials.
Moreover, the FBI failed to share any of the information that it received about Tsa rnaev with either state or local police in Massachusetts, despite working together with them on a joint terror task force.
Now, it emerges that one of the only individuals in the US who could have potentially shed light on Tsarnaev's ties to Chechnya was shot to death execution-style by US agents.
Was it a case of a man who knew too much? Could Tsarnaev have shared information with Todashev that compromised covert operations by US intelligence?
The involvement of US intelligence agencies both in promoting Islamist separatist forces in the former Soviet Union and utilizing such forces as proxy troops in countries like Libya and Syria is well known. Is it possible that Tamerlan Tsarnaev became involved somehow in these links?
On the other hand, virtually every major terror incident on US soil since 9/11 has been orchestrated by the FBI using agent provocateurs, who provided everything needed to carry out an attack before arresting their patsies and announcing another victory in the "war on terrorism." Was this such a staged incident that got out of hand, or, perhaps, allowed to proceed?
The Boston bombings served as the pretext for carrying out an unprecedented lockdown of an entire US metropolitan area in which basic democratic rights were suspended and security forces carried out what amounted to a dry run for a military coup.
The FBI murder of Ibragim Todashev is symptomatic of a country in which the military and intelligence apparatus exerts ever greater control, and the democratic rights of working people, the great majority of the population, are under relentless assault. Such state killings are a warning that preparations for dictatorial forms of rule are already well advanced in America.

Lessons from history: the 2000 elections and the new "irrepressible conflict"

This lecture was given by David North, chairman of the World Socialist Web Site editorial board and national chairman of the Socialist Equality Party of the US, at a public meeting of the SEP of Australia held on December 3. Less than two weeks later, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in Bush v. Gore, handing the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.
North reviews the historical background and social and political significance of the collapse of bourgeois democracy in the United States. He writes:
"What the decision of this court will reveal is how far the American ruling class is prepared to go in breaking with traditional bourgeois-democratic and constitutional norms. Is it prepared to sanction ballot fraud and the suppression of votes and install in the White House a candidate who has attained that office through blatantly illegal and anti-democratic methods?
"A substantial section of the bourgeoisie, and perhaps even a majority of the US Supreme Court, is prepared to do just that. There has been a dramatic erosion of support within the ruling elites for the traditional forms of bourgeois democracy in the United States."
This lecture is essential reading for understanding the decay of democracy over the past decade. For the full lecture, click here

Imperialism, Syria, and the threat of world war

31 May 2013
The US-backed proxy war aimed at ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is entering a new and dangerous phase. The possibility of a major international war, with incalculable consequences for the world's population, is very real.
Yesterday, Lebanon's Al Manar television quoted Assad as saying that Syria had "received the first shipment of Russian anti-aircraft S-300 rockets. All our agreements with Russia will be implemented, and parts of them have already been implemented." These missiles, which Russia has pledged to deliver to defend Syria from possible US air strikes, have provoked an international crisis. Israeli officials have declared they will attack missile shipments.
If Israel acted on such a threat, Russian lives were lost, and Russia carried out retaliatory strikes on Israeli targets, the world would rapidly face a military confrontation betwee n Russia and the United States--a situation that has not existed for more than a half century, since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Assad has also announced major victories in southern Syria after the intervention of the Lebanese Shia-based militia Hezbollah--together with Iranian forces, according to some reports--in support of the Syrian army. These forces have rapidly defeated the US-backed Sunni Islamist opposition, exposing the lack of popular support for the Al Qaeda-linked elements that make up the bulk of the opposition.
As terror bombings and fighting between US-backed Sunni forces and Iranian-backed Shia forces spread from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq, the Syrian war is emerging as the center of a broad sectarian war. The Obama administration and its allies are using the most reactionary forces to restructure the entire Middle East. The resulting conflict is becoming ever more bloody and dangerous, as the imperialist powers move to shore up the faltering position of the opposition by escalating their own intervention.
In a New York Times comment, "In Syria, Go Big or Stay Home," Ray Takeyh of the US Council on Foreign Relations expressed the thinking of significant sections of the American ruling class: "The sort of intervention needed to bring about a decisive rebel victory would require more than no-fly zones and arms. It would mean disabling Mr. Assad's air power and putting boots on the ground ... Moreover, rather than intimidating Iran, a less-than-decisive American intervention would do the opposite: convince Iran's leaders that America doesn't have an appetite for fighting a major war in the region."
Takeyh's comment spells out the implications of the policy--shared by Washington and its major European allies--of constantly threatening Iran, Syria, and other Middle Eastern regimes that eve ry option, including war, is "on the table." Desperate to control an oil-rich, geo-strategically critical region torn by decades of US wars and interventions, the imperialist powers are driven to ever more reckless threats and wars.
Sections of the ruling class in the United States and Europe are actively considering options to massively increase their troop levels. Another New York Times comment, "Americans and their Military, Drifting Apart," advocates restarting a draft lottery--a move aiming to conscript cannon fodder for the wars the United States is planning in the Middle East and beyond.
Russia and China, the major powers against whom Washington and Europe aim to seize and hold the Middle East, can themselves be targeted for war and regime change. The same methods--provocations based on stoking ethnic and sectarian conflicts in Chechnya in Russia, Tibet in China, and so on--could easily be tu rned against the governments of these countries or any other power whose interests come into conflict with those of Washington and its allies.
It would be deeply complacent to downplay the immense dangers facing the international working class. The social interests that dictate policy in the centers of imperialism are, if anything, even more rapacious and reckless than their counterparts a hundred years ago who set off two world wars that killed tens of millions of people.
The fight against imperialism depends on the independent mobilization of the working class in opposition to all the forces of bourgeois politics. The political establishment in North America and Europe has proven completely impervious to the mass popular disaffection and opposition towards war that has only grown since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
A critical component of the pro-war political bloc are the pseudo-left organizations. The International Socialist Organization in the US, the New Anti-capitalist Party in France, and similar groups internationally have promoted the war in Syria as a "revolution." These parties, speaking on behalf of privileged sections of the upper middle class, have worked quite consciously to block opposition to war, while functioning as mouthpieces of imperialist intelligence agencies.
They supported the 2011 NATO war in Libya, which served as a trial run for the US-led intervention in Syria. When the NATO powers intervened to support opposition Islamist militias fighting Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime, the pseudo-left parties demanded that the imperialist powers arm the opposition.
They supported the destruction of the Gaddafi regime--through the seizure of Libya's oil industry, the confiscation of its oil revenues, the carpet-bombing of major Libyan cities such as Tripoli an d Sirte, and finally the murder of Gaddafi. They then promoted similar Islamist forces in Syria as the NATO powers turned their gun sights on Assad.
In its most recent statements, the ISO praises the escalating imperialist intervention in Syria as a "people's revolution for freedom and dignity."
The evolution of these forces underscores that the basic social force capable of opposing war is the working class--in the United States, Europe and around the world. Nearly five years after the crash of 2008, the growing crisis of world capitalism is immensely exacerbating international tensions.
The ruling class, led by the US, is once again bringing the world to the brink of catastrophe. To prevent this requires the building of an international socialist movement against imperialism and war.
Alex Lantier

The threat to sell off the works in the Detroit Institute of Arts

29 May 2013
The threat by Detroit's unelected financial tsar, Kevyn Orr, to sell off the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, or major pieces from it, to help pay the city's creditors has provoked widespread anger and revulsion.
The DIA is a beautiful museum, from its 1920s' beaux-arts building to the breathtaking courtyard of Diego Rivera murals and its collection of more than 65,000 works. It is a source of legitimate pride to Detroit's population.
If Orr has his way, works by Van Gogh, Delacroix, Degas, Monet, Hals, Rubens, Correggio, Hogarth, Rembrandt, Courbet, Bellini, Titian, Velasquez, Bruegel, Cassatt, Whistler, Homer, Eakins and many others could go on the auction block to satisfy the greed of Detroit's wealthy bondholders.
No doubt, investors are already salivating over the possibilities in the present inflated art market for making fortun es over the priceless art collection.
The claim by Kenneth Buckfire, the investment banker hired to oversee the plundering of Detroit, that "the cultural and emotional value of the DIA's treasures must be weighed against the needs of 700,000 largely poor residents of Detroit who desperately need safe streets and a capable city government not drowning in debt" is cynical and contemptible.
If the modern-day Vandals in business suits have their way, Detroit residents will have neither "safe streets," public services and jobs nor a significant art museum, while asset-stripping creditors, lawyers, politicians and consultants will walk away with their pockets bulging.
What the US and the world have witnessed in recent years is the return of the aristocratic principle. According to our present-day rulers, in Detroit, Greece (where the Acropolis was briefly up for sale in 20 11) and elsewhere, all important social policy and official decision-making should be subordinated to making sure that a handful of individuals go on accumulating immense wealth. Turning Jean-Jacques Rousseau's phrase upside down, the present motto is "The very rich constitute the human race."
The working population, in the eyes of the financial aristocracy, are riff-raff who have no rights. Art is for the super-rich to buy, sell, view or dispense with at their leisure.
According to this logic, whether the people have hospitals, libraries, schools or museums will increasingly depend on the whim of this or that multi-billionaire. While the population waits, cap in hand, society's great ones--the Warren Buffetts, Bill Gateses, Mark Zuckerbergs and others--will consider bestowing, or not bestowing, favors and gifts as they see fit.
Theorists of the "social contract," like Rouss eau and John Locke, who influenced the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century, argued that only the will of the people gave legitimacy to government. The modern museum or gallery, accessible to the public, emerged as a product of these democratic revolutions.
The first major public art museum, the Louvre in Paris, came into being as an event of the great French Revolution. The imprisonment of Louis XVI in 1792 meant that the royal art collection became national property. French revolutionaries viewed the museum's opening in 1793 as a demonstration of the superiority of republican government over "the administration of despotism."
Museums proliferated after the Russian Revolution of 1917, which made the collections of the old nobility accessible to the population to enjoy for the first time. The Bolshevik regime also decentralized and democratized art collections and took them out into worki ng class neighborhoods and provincial cities.
In the US, the emergence of public museums in the first half of the 19th century was bound up with the struggle for public education and other progressive causes, conceived of by their advocates as the best defense against European-style tyranny. "The late 1800s," following the Civil War and the destruction of the slavocracy, "were a boom time for American museums," one commentator notes.
The Detroit Institute of Arts, founded in 1885, has come under attack by reactionary forces more than once before. Rivera's murals, "Detroit Industry," which illustrate automobile production and place the workers at the forefront, came under attack in 1933 from reactionary Catholic priest Father Coughlin as blasphemous, materialistic, communistic, etc. Workers mobilized to defend the murals, and 10,000 people visited the DIA on a single Sunday.
In recent years, the DIA has found itself at the mercy of state and city budget crises. The politicians declare "there is no money" for education, health care and culture, even as the financial markets are awash with cash and corporations hoard tens of billions.
The American ruling elite is crude, predatory and criminal. Whatever does not funnel money into its bank accounts is reckoned useless. In any event, the powers that be have every interest in desensitizing the population and inuring it to violence at home and abroad. Art always represents a danger from that point of view. Better, all in all, to lock it away or sell it off!
That goes for all sections of the elite, not simply the hedge fund managers and the like. The Democratic Party, the trade unions and the desiccated remains of American liberalism will not lift a finger to defend culture. In Detroit, black Democrats are leading the charge.
The popular feeling aroused by the threat against the DIA already points to the fact that the only constituency for art, as for democratic rights, is the working class. Many Detroit residents, although they may not realize the full implications of the situation, sense they are being deprived of something by the rich and powerful. And they are right.
In its program, the Socialist Equality Party includes "The Right to Culture" as one of the basic social rights of the working class: "Access to art and culture is a basic component of a healthy society. Yet, like everything else, it is under relentless attack. ... The subordination of culture to the profit motive has led to an immense degeneration."
The threat to sell off the art works of the DIA, whether it is carried through or not, is a declaration by the powers-that-be of their determination to steal everything from the people , to reduce it to a benumbed mass without rights or knowledge, to ruin the country and its institutions in order to protect their vast wealth. The rich will have to be dealt with, through the building of a mass movement consciously aimed at doing away with their selfish, irrational and destructive system.
David Walsh

WSWS Arts Section: Review of season four of Arrested Development

By Joanne Laurier
1 June 2013

Season four of Arrested Development

The much anticipated new season of the comedy television series Arrested Development was released in the US in its totality, 15 episodes, by Netflix on May 26. Launched seven years after the original program (2003-2006) was dropped by Fox, the Bluth family saga's updated version, unhappily, is a disappointment (although perhaps not a surprising disappointment).
Much of Arrested Development's popularity and reputation developed in the wake of its cancelation in 2006, until it became recognized as one of the funniest, best-scripted situation comedies in American television history. After its early demise, the show developed a devoted, even fanatical following.
The slightly surreal activities of a wealthy family "that lost everything" always spoke to something real and convincing. Although everybody and everything in the show was slightly off-kilter, it was all rooted in real relations, in real human beings.
In its own genial and empathetic fashion, Arrested Development pointed to various aspects of a collapsing American society in the 2000s. Flimsiness and instability were motifs throughout, as houses, businesses, vocations, reputations and relationships--and even communication and language--gave way far more often than they held up.

Arrested Development
Viewers watched as a relatively well-meaning group of people, albeit spoiled and more than a little silly, navigated a series of cave-ins, some of them entirely of their own making. The earnest goofiness and indefat igable resilience in the face of almost continuous disaster was not bad as a metaphor for the way a good many Americans conduct their lives.
The distance between the series and everyday realities, in other words, was large enough to allow for comedy, which depends on that gap, but not so great as to make virtually any of the absurd goings-on inconceivable.
Along the way, with a fresh and disarming ingenuity, Arrested Development poked fun at lawyers, real estate agents, corporate malefactors and government officials, as the bankrupt Bluths tried to keep up appearances within the walls of a model home that was as ill-constructed and ill-equipped as they were.
There were the imperishable scenes of George Sr.'s (Jeffrey Tambor) hucksterism in prison, an incarceration that had something to do with Halliburton-like dealings in the Iraq war. Who can forget the immortal "c hicken dance"? The family stair-car? Or Buster's stint in the army and his unfortunate encounter with a man-eating seal? Lindsay and Michael's on-again, off-again relations, transparently manipulated by their mother? GOB's unwilling and unwitting fatherhood? The state fair's "inner beauty" contest entered by George-Michael's girl-friend Ann (whose name and presence everybody always forgot)? The family frozen banana stand? The mock trial presided over by Judge Judge Reinhold? ...
The first three seasons delivered a good many insights in a lively and irreverent manner. Through it all, the show did not take itself too seriously, which only aided its comic efforts.
The core cast, including Tambor, Jason Bateman, Jessica Walter, Tony Hale, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Portia de Rossi, Alia Shawkat and David Cross, were assisted by guest stars, among them Martin Short as lecherous, paraplegic "Uncle Jack"; Martin Mu ll as private investigator Gene Parmesan; Judy Greer as Kitty the conniving secretary; Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as a "blind" defense lawyer; Henry Winkler as the family's vaguely corrupt, bumbling attorney, Barry Zuckerkorn; James Lipton as "Warden Gentles" and Liza Minnelli as the vertigo-stricken Lucille 2.
Each Bluth had a distinct character and personality that only became truly three-dimensional within the hothouse family unit. Hale as Buster Bluth ("mother-boy") was hilarious in relation to his impossibly domineering mother, the incomparable Jessica Walter, who was nastily sharp in relation to her lazy, self-absorbed daughter Lindsay (de Rossi), her foolish magician son GOB (Arnett) and criminally-minded, self-promoting husband (Tambor).
Bateman as the straight-laced Michael Bluth had the Sisyphean task of holding the family together, while George-Michael (Cera) and Maeby Fünke (Shawkat) were the oft-negle cted offspring--who occasionally and all too willingly became "kissing cousins." Maeby's standard response to opposition (including during a stint, marvelously, as a 15-year-old film studio executive--who fits right in!) or a vexing question was the cheerful, "Marry me!"
Every fan, including this one, wanted this comedic roller coaster ride to continue. So, by popular demand, as it were, a new season was developed by creator Mitchell Hurwitz.
Under the most favorable conditions, it is probably best not to try to "go home again." Not surprisingly, the show's relaxed and zany light-heartedness is gone, making season four somewhat tired and strained. Out of the gate, the artistic challenges were bound to be significant. It appears the creative talent and social insight to overcome them were not sufficient.
The new Arrested Development, a "semi-original series," tag-lin es the Bluths as a "family whose future was abruptly canceled." Indeed, the show's updates include references to the economic crisis and the sub-prime mortgage scam (the NINJA loan--no income, no job or assets). It features an anti-immigrant black politician, who campaigns on "low taxes for high-income earners" and supports the Bluths' money-making scheme of building a "Mexican-proof" wall on the US-Mexico border.
As in the original series, organized religion is a major target. Back are the glassy-eyed Pastor Veal and his Church of the Holy Eternal Rapture. Then there is Lucille 2's Austerity Clinic.
Episode 10 of the new season skewers the noxious trend of reality television shows, with "Real Asian Prison Housewives" dominating an upscale, boutique prison ("four-star hellhole") in which "they hold no prisoners because they are prisoners." Another reality television knock-off is "To Entrap a Local P redator." A greasy real estate agent boasts that, "I'm a predator. I sell giant houses to people who can't afford them." Some of this is amusing, much is not, or only mildly so.
Reportedly, the series' creators had difficulties coordinating the schedules of the leading actors who play the Bluths. This meant a format change in which each main character had to carry an episode (or more) essentially on his or her own--in some cases, doubles shot from behind stood in for other lead performers. Whether the problems were strictly logistical-budgetary, or the show's own creators did not really understand why the original series worked so well, the results are not effective. Ripped out of the dynamic of the core ensemble, individual cast members are not able conjure up their former magic--or energy. While some scenes are funnier than others, no episode is entirely successful and most are plodding and rudderless.
Essentially it becomes a series about a family--but without the family. Largely lost was the opportunity to lampoon the political elite, through the character of the toxic Herbert Love, fond of "red heads and greenbacks." The premise is good, his name is great, but the dialogue is simply not sharp-witted or hard-hitting enough.
In addition, the insertion of actors to play a younger Lucille and George (Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen) falls flat. It was more amusing when Walter and Tambor played younger versions of themselves donning ridiculous wigs and other props. It was also better when Tobias' (Cross) sexuality was ambiguous. Also, while actor/director Ron Howard again provides effective narration, his on-screen presence is less welcome, as the script does not adequately support this modification.
There is also the matter that the problems of American society have qualitatively worsened and deepened since 2006. That a television series would keep up--in tone and content--with events, all while remaining manically and confidently comic ... is a great deal to ask under the present circumstances.
However, major flaws and all, season four of Arrested Development is better than 90 percent of current television offerings. It's just not nearly as good as its original self.

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