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The Cinema of Mass Hysteria

Sexual Witch Hunts, Here and There

by LOUIS PROYECT

Made in 2012, “The Hunt” is Denmark’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards ceremony scheduled on March 2nd with all the usual red carpet, tuxedo and designer gown nonsense. Apart from “Philomena”, it puts all the other English language Best Film nominees to shame. Considering that film’s British provenance, one can state that American films continue their steep decline based on the evidence of this year’s nominees, topped off by the inclusion of Martin Scorsese’s woeful “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

Now available on Netflix streaming, “The Hunt” is the first narrative film to deal with the “repressed memories” sex abuse witch-hunts of the Reagan years that inspired some of Alexander Cockburn’s best reporting. It was not the first film, however, to tackle the topic. That distinction was earned by Andrew Jarecki, who made the documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” in 2003, a film that was marred by a certain degree of ambivalence by its director. In the years following its release, Jarecki stopped being a fence-sitter and became a passionate defender of Jesse Friedman, one of the film’s subjects whose attempts to clear his name are ongoing.

“The Hunt” is set in a rural Danish town where the main pastimes of the adult male population seem to be hunting, drinking and acting childish. In the opening scene, we see members of the local hunting club skinny-dipping polar bear style in a local pond in late autumn, including Lucas, a kindergarten teacher who has just gone through a painful divorce.

Perhaps it is a bit of a stretch to call him a teacher since his main role appears to be roughhousing with the boys, and even called upon at one point to wipe the rear end of one who has just made “number two”. No matter what he is called upon to do, Lucas appears to love his job and has even begun an affair with a co-worker named Nadja. What will make his life complete is being reunited with his son Marcus, who with his mother’s permission is moving back in with his father. That will go a long way to relieve the loneliness Marcus feels and that is only relieved by his outings with fellow huntsmen and walks with his beloved spaniel Fanny.

Mads Mikkelsen, one of Denmark’s most talented actors, plays Lucas. While he might be made to order for the role of the warm-hearted and gentle Lucas, Mikkelsen was also brilliant as Tonny, the dimwitted small-time drug dealer in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Pusher Trilogy”.

Clara, a flaxen-haired and picture-pretty kindergarten student who is the daughter of his best friend Theo, adores Lucas. Although I confess to being no expert on the topic of a young child’s sexuality, it seemed obvious to me when Clara joins a pile of boys attached to a prone Lucas like Lilliputians. When she plants a kiss on his mouth, it is apparent that he has become an object of desire no matter how inchoate her feelings. Once her lips leave his, a visibly stunned Lucas tells her that she should never kiss him like that again, only her family members.

The day before the incident, Clara’s older brother had come barreling through their home with a friend sharing his merriment over a pornographic picture that they could not resist sharing with her. Look at the big dick standing up in the air, he tells his confused but clearly fascinated kid sister. Little did he know that sharing such information would lead to Lucas being falsely accused of sex abuse because the day following the kissing incident, Clara tells the headmistress that Lucas had shown her his penis using the same words her brother had shared with her. His reprimand had alienated her and now she was retaliating.

The headmistress takes Clara’s words at face value even after telling her a day later that she had been lying. That has no effect on the headmistress’s decision to fire Lucas and bring in the cops. In the course of the investigation, virtually the entire kindergarten class testifies that Lucas has sexually abused them as well, including in the basement of his house—a basement that in fact does not exist.

Director Thomas Vinterberg creates vivid drama out of Lucas’s attempt to clear his name against the town’s hysterical attempts to destroy him. In some ways, the film harkens back to earlier traditions of northern European drama that pit the forces of ignorance against an innocent victim such as found in Ibsen and Strindberg. ”The Hunt” was co-written by the director and Tobias Lindholm. Lindholm wrote the screenplay for “A Hijacking”, a much less lurid tale about Somali pirates than “Captain Phillips”, and the teleplays for “Borgen”, a “House of Cards” type series on Danish politics that has much sharper teeth than the original—either British or American versions.

Thomas Vinterberg co-founded the Dogme 95 school of filmmaking with Lars von Trier in 1995 but abandoned the methodology long before the making of “The Hunt”. The idea for “The Hunt” arose out of a visit to the director’s home by a psychiatrist who lived on Vinterberg’s street and who was concerned about a rising incidence of “repressed memory” cases in Denmark. Ironically, Vinterberg’s 1998 “The Celebration”, made under strict Dogme 95 guidelines, dealt with sex abuse issues as well but played as black comedy. Suffice it to say that the gut-wrenching “The Hunt” is not played for laughs.

Unlike Lucas, Arnold Friedman was a pedophile. This Long Island man who taught computers to neighborhood kids in his home never laid a finger on any of them but he was caught sending child pornography through the mail in 1987 as part of an FBI sting operation.

Determined to turn a minor offense into the crime of the century, the cops pressured the boys into testifying against not only the father but also his two sons. Only Jesse was sent to prison along with his father. Arnold Friedman committed suicide in prison in 1995 and Jesse was released in 2001 after spending 13 years behind bars.

All the children who took computer classes at the Friedman’s were pressured by cops into providing lurid testimony about violent orgies out of the Marquis De Sade, even though no physical evidence was ever provided in court.

Jarecki’s film is good at revealing the inconsistencies and judicial bias that led to the convictions of father and son but was weighted down by the director’s desire to make the Friedman family look like a poster child for dysfunctionality. Much of it consists of the voluble members of the family justifying themselves as they badmouth each other. It has a compelling character even if it undermines what would have been a more worthwhile goal, namely to document the injustice done to two men. The Friedmans come across as so weird that one might be inclined to judge them harshly, no matter the evidence. But being oddballs is not punishable by long prison terms, needless to say.

Jarecki was obviously susceptible to a postmodernist tendency in documentary filmmaking to avoid taking a clear stand. The tension between truth and fiction is the stuff of film schools today, as I sadly learned from a survey on documentary films at Columbia University. But the Friedmans deserved better than this.

Fortunately Jarecki decided to prioritize the political over the esthetic and became an advocate of Jesse Friedman’s cause, using every means at his disposal to clear his name. He tracked down 10 of the 14 original complainants in the Friedman case. From Salon.com we learn that “of those 10, four have recanted the accusations on tape, and another five would or could not affirm their earlier accusations. Only one still stood by his original accusations — accusations, he says, he only remembered through memory-recovery techniques like hypnosis. Furthermore, 11 more of the complainants’ classmates have provided affidavits or recorded statements saying  the abuse, which was supposed to have happened in the open and during Arnold Friedman’s computer class, never happened in their presence. (Jarecki published snippets of the evidence assembled in the past 10 years online.)”

Despite such compelling evidence, the district attorney has refused to overturn the original verdict. To keep current with this critical struggle for human rights, bookmark Jesse Friedman’s website (http://www.freejesse.net/).

In 1990 I had a subscription to the Wall Street Journal at a time when I had more money to waste than I do today. My sole interest in the paper was Alexander Cockburn’s column that appeared every third week. Some of the WSJ reporting was first-rate but a visit to the editorial pages was enough to induce projectile vomiting.

At the time Alexander’s attention was riveted on the “repressed memories” cases that included Ray Buckley and his mother Peggy McMartin Buckley who ran the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. They were accused of abusing children but on even a more surreal basis than the Friedmans. On February 8, 1990 Alexander had these choice words for what was happening to mother and son:

The psychological squalor is even more disturbing: The McMartin case was but one in nearly 40 episodes across the country between 1983 and 1987 in which prosecutions against teachers or supervisors in day-care centers were prompted by children’s accusations.

Many of these accusations, taken seriously by parents, social workers and the justice system were of the most fantastic nature. McMartin children said they had been marched to cemeteries to dig up bodies. One child said he had seen his teacher fly. In 1965 children in Pennsylvania said teachers had forced them to have oral sex with a goat. In 1986 children in a preschool in Sequim, Wash., said they had been made to watch animal sacrifice in a graveyard. In Chicago, the kids said they had watched a baby being boiled.

Terrible injustices were done in this extraordinary replay of the 17th-century Salem witch trials. People were tossed into prison for years, on the say-so of infants. In all 50 states children as young as two or three can testify to abuse, without corroboration from adults and without physical evidence. In many states they can make charges without having to endure cross-examination, being bounced up and down on a judge’s knee in private chambers. In some states the charges can merely be repeated as hearsay by adults.

What was the reason for this wave of self-evidently preposterous stories about a satanic network terrorizing infant schools, and other tales of ritual abuse? Society seems to have a periodic need for witch trials. At the onset of the Reagan era there weren’t really any Communists around to persecute, so the hunt went back to the traditional exorcism of Satan, whose horns and cloven feet assumed the form of the local day-care teacher.

After 11 years in the Trotskyist movement, it was such reporting that I first encountered in 1979 that convinced me that there was still a need for revolutionary politics. Now, 320 years after the Salem Witch Hunt, it is clear that with the state’s stubborn resistance to Jesse Friedman’s just claims we are still living in the dark ages when deviance of any sort is punishable within the parameters of a sliding scale from social ostracism at the bottom to long prison terms at the top.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.