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Archive for November, 2011


[ 15 ] November 30, 2011 |

This story has received very little coverage, but today was nearly the day the National Labor Relations Board, for all intents and purposes, died. The NLRB is supposed to have 5 members, but presently has 3 because of Republican obstructionism. There are 2 Democrats and 1 Republican, Brian Hayes. Angry about new rules designed to limit endless employer appeals of scheduled workplace unionization votes in order to buy more time to defeat unions, Hayes threatened to resign from the board. Had he done so, the NLRB could not have reached a quorum and would have been paralyzed. Had this happened, there’s little reason to believe it ever it would have revived in a meaningful way. Maybe Republicans would have filled the positions when they took over, maybe they would have just let it die, but any chance it could have served as an fair arbiter for American labor would have ended.

Luckily, Hayes decided not to resign, citing his desire to not be an obstructionist (are we sure he’s actually a Republican?) and his respect for the institution. Crisis averted for now. But the long-term future of the NLRB remains up in the air because Hayes could bail at any time.


The perils of Googling on the wall.

[ 45 ] November 30, 2011 |

In one of my classes yesterday, I was trying to make a point about the use of space in Last Tango in Paris but could not, for the life of me, remember who directed it. Because it maddens me when information’s on the tip of my brain, and I can’t be able to pay attention to anything until I figure out what I’m just barely not remembering, I walked over the lecturn to quickly Google the film. Unfortunately, I was currently using the lecturn to display images from another film, and this was what popped up:

Ever wondered what’s really high on my list of “Things I Never Wanted to Discuss in Class”?

Now you know.

(It’s not that I’m averse to discussing rape in class—I do so when I teach Blowup—it’s just that that’s a discussion that needs to be carefully moderated and respectfully handled, i.e. not the sort of thing you want to be surprised by in class.)

Torn in Two

[ 10 ] November 30, 2011 |

I recently visited the Torn in Two exhibit at the Boston Public Library. Using maps at the primary storyteller, this exhibit told the story of the Civil War. Running until the end of the year, I highly recommend it for anyone visiting Boston. Maps are usually used as supplementary material in exhibits rather than as prime storytellers, but this exhibit really suggested the power of these documents. It was most effective demonstrating the differences between North and South in the antebellum period. Seeing a map of Louisiana cotton plantations next to a map of the mills in Lowell suggests both the interconnectedness of the two regions and how they were so very different at the same time. The section on the war itself features a variety of maps, ranging from somewhat fanciful topographical maps produced to help people at home understand the conflict to battlefield maps (which never interest me) to hand-drawn maps from diaries and letters, which are fascinating documents. The exhibit kind of tails off at the end, not really showing how maps helped us understand the end of the war. It’s also quite Boston-centric. This is natural enough, but also slightly limiting. Still, a fine exhibit overall.

In the newer part of the library, there’s a separate exhibit on Bostonians during the war which is also a good way to spend 20 minutes. Consisting of a few artifacts and some video kiosks explaining these various people, it provides good biographies of a variety of interesting people. Although the exhibit is awfully white (they couldn’t have included a soldier from the 54th Massachusetts?), it is more than half women, which is a nice reminder that the Civil War was much more than a conflict of men killing each other.

Good stuff.

Book Review: Joshua Rubenstein, Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life

[ 70 ] November 30, 2011 |

Joshua Rubenstein provides a nice, quick overview to the life of Leon Trotsky that I would recommend for anyone interested in learning a bit more about this enigmatic figure of 20th century radicalism. Often, shorter biographies tend to eschew a unique point of view. Rubenstein avoids this pitfall, firmly placing Trotsky’s life within a Jewish context, no doubt to an extent Trotsky himself would be uncomfortable with.

Among his many hats, Rubenstein is Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA, a background which strongly colors his view of Trotsky. He is completely open about this and I respect him for this. Writing about leftists still leaves authors open to ideological attack and Rubenstein meets this head on. He respects Trotsky on one level, but also sees him as fully capable of murderous violence who used the system he revolted against in order to maximize Soviet power. By the time I read of Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin, I wanted to root for Trotsky, but it’s hard to forget his own actions in the Kronstadt Rebellion, where he brutally crushed sailors protesting the new regime, killing 2000 outright and thousands more slowly in concentration camps.

Trotsky is the easiest Soviet revolutionary to romanticize. His fall from power and subsequent life in Mexico where he was sleeping with Frida Kahlo and getting killed by an ice axe to the back of the head make him like an earlier version of Che Guevara. No one is going to look bad on anyone who stood up to Stalin. Trotsky has missed some of the criticism directed at Lenin’s own murderous leadership. Trostkyism because a communist alternative to CPUSA Stalinism. Plus Trotsky is just so damn interesting. Unlike the dullard Stalin or the single-minded Lenin, Trotsky seems like a guy you’d like to spend some time with. He charmed people everywhere he went.

But as Rubenstein reminds us, while maybe Trotsky would have been less brutal than Stalin, maybe he wouldn’t have been. He was as committed an ideologue as Lenin or Stalin and clearly showed his willingness to engage in massive violations of human rights to achieve his goal. As Rubenstein states, it’s almost impossible to put ourselves in the political mindset of the early twentieth century, but it’s striking how utterly narrow-minded the communists were. They were so convinced of their own doctrinaire correctness and the destiny of history that flexible thought seemed impossible.

What makes this book different than other Trotsky biographies is its explicitly Jewish focus. Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, grew up in the atmosphere of official late 19th century anti-Semitism. But he never identified as a Jew. One of the most interesting parts of the book was seeing the communists and the Zionists interact–Russian Jews had many options open to them: emigration, Zionism, revolution. Trotsky rejected his own Judaism and chose the latter as a Russian. But Rubenstein also shows that radical movements were full of Jews seeing violence as their only defense and that Trotsky surrounded himself with Jews all his life. Not to mention that Stalin moved against Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev through stirring up anti-Semitism.

If anything, Rubenstein may overplay the Jewish angle a bit given Trotsky’s own discomfort with it. Sometimes, it feels tacked on. On other hand, the book is part of Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series. In any case, this is a minor critique. It’s a fine and very readable overview.

An Afterword: A few years ago, I visited Trotsky’s home in Mexico City where he was killed. I was hoping for blood stains on the wall, but alas no. It was a very cool tour however. I peaked into the bathroom. I wondered if that was Trotsky’s toilet. I didn’t ask though. I have a sort of fascination with historical toilets. Not long ago, I put a picture on Facebook of a chamber pot in Albert Gallatin’s Pennsylvania home that I visited earlier this year.

Of course, it’s not the toilets themselves I am interested in (though the one in Martin Van Buren’s house is actually pretty cool). I think the interests comes from being not totally comfortable with great man history. The toilet humanizes these individuals. This is more salient in the history of radicalism. Trotsky’s life is supposed to be the story of people rising up against oppression, but like communist rule around the world, it became about a few extraordinarily powerful individuals. Even much of the history of the American labor movement tends toward celebrating Haywood and Lewis and Gompers. It feels like a betrayal. The toilet helps me deal with the failure.

Some Wednesday Links

[ 34 ] November 30, 2011 |

The Roberts Court Will Not Allow Any Justice to Stand

[ 2 ] November 30, 2011 |

Although it’s sort of touching that they think governors and prosecutors will take scientific findings showing evidence to be unreliable into account if appellate courts can’t.    The other salient fact about the case is Kagan joining the majority.

Should noted philanthropist Ndamukong Suh have been suspended for two games?

[ 26 ] November 30, 2011 |


Sometimes we need to look beyond opinions from the usual suspects for a more nuanced treatment of these sorts of questions.

COIN Dead? Probably the Wrong Question

[ 18 ] November 30, 2011 |

I’ve been frustrated by the discussion over counter-insurgency for quite some time.  This week, I took those frustrations out on my WPR column:

Of course, abandoning COIN doctrine would not in itself eliminate the possibility for stupid wars or massive strategic errors. To the extent that U.S. Army doctrine had anything to do with the invasion of Iraq, it was in giving the U.S. the ability to completely destroy fielded Iraqi forces in a short period of time with a minimal footprint. In other words, U.S. conventional capabilities, organized by a doctrine that eschewed serious political or strategic thinking, gave U.S. policymakers the impression that the conquest of Iraq would be cheap and easy. And in the wake of the initial conquest, the response of the U.S. Army to the growing Iraqi insurgency was clearly inadequate. Here, however, Gentile plays a bait-and-switch. He is surely correct to say that good COIN tactics and operational proficiency cannot redeem disaster at the strategic level. However, he does not examine in any serious detail the strategic, which is to say the political failures that led to the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring instead to critique the work of the surgeons trying to save the patient. The worst that can be said of COIN, with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan, is that it failed in an expensive way to remedy a disaster produced by a combination of civilian strategic incompetence and extant U.S. military doctrine in 2001 and 2003.

“What’s happened to you? Have you been kissing ass so long, you’re starting to like it?”

[ 118 ] November 30, 2011 |

The story of Emma Sullivan is, in its small way, inspiring. She stood her ground, Kansas’s WATB-in-chief backed off, and her school administrators seemed to figure out in time that demanding an apology would violate the First Amendment. Sometimes standing up for yourself is not just the right thing to do but actually works.

Not surprisingly, however, someone with a sinecure at Fred Hiatt’s crayon scribble page sees it differently. Via Greenwald, I bring you Ruth Marcus from the David Broder Memorial Fainting Couch, with a column about the “potty-mouthed”* Sulllivan:

Emma Sullivan, you’re lucky you’re not my daughter. (Dangerous sentence, I know: My daughters might agree.)

If you were my daughter, you’d be writing that letter apologizing to Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for the smart­alecky, potty-mouthed tweet you wrote after meeting with him on a school field trip.

Also, that smartphone? The one you posed with, proudly displaying the tweet in which you announced that Brownback “sucked” and added the lovely hashtag #heblowsalot? Turned off until you learn to use it responsibly.


More to the point, as I constantly remind my daughters, parents are not bound by constitutional constraints. The Constitution does not grant teenagers the fundamental right to have a cellphone or use foul language on it. The parental role is to inculcate values of respect for authority — even those you disagree with — and the importance of civil discourse. It’s not to stand up for your little darling no matter how much she mouths off.

It seems worth noting at this point that Sullivan is 18 years old.  And, yet, I actually believe that Marcus would suspend her cellphone privileges for not properly respecting the auhtoritah of a man who, if he had his way, would use state coercion to force Sullivan to carry her rapist’s baby to term. The idea that the relationship between citizen and governor is analogous to the relationship between child and parent is even more baffling, leaving aside the fact that Marcus apparently sees no difference between adults and elementary schoolers. And as Glenn says, it’s not surprising that Marcus’s belief that we should bow down to our “betters” extends to more important issues.

*Seriously, “potty-mouthed.” Verbatim quote from the headline, I swear, and I believe the first time this phrase has been used since my grandfather passed away in 1983.  Are adults even the intended audience of the WaPo op-ed page anymore?

..this was made for Pierce, and he delivers.  I especially commend his analysis of Marcus’s passive-aggressive mealy-mouthed “maybe she has First Amendment rights but” argument.

Consent: A Concept Apparently Unknown to Republicans

[ 47 ] November 30, 2011 |

David Weigel and Kaili Joy Gray hove more on the excellent point Paul raised yesterday.   Not only have a lot of Republicans and journalists conflated sexual harassment and consensual affairs into indistinguishable “sex scandals,” the former seem to think that the consensual conduct is actually worse.   When the Cain story first broke, I saw multiple people bringing up John Edwards and Monica Lewinsky, exemplifying the same mistake.   Consent matters, and while the battle to preserve any substantial privacy for public figures has been lost in my mind it’s also the line where gossip turns into something of actual significance to evaluating a candidate.

See also the inability of conservatives to understand the concept of consent when it comes to torture.

…see also Nona Willis Aronowitz.

Defense Spending as Jobs Program

[ 11 ] November 29, 2011 |

New study out of UMass-Amherst affirms the obvious in a methodologically rigorous way:

Congressional debates on deficit reduction have highlighted the assertion that large cuts in the military budget would produce negative impacts on jobs in the U.S. economy. The Pentagon itself suggested that military cuts in the range of $1 trillion over the next decade would add one percentage point to the U.S. unemployment rate. But whether or not this particular forecast is accurate, the most important question is not the absolute number of jobs that are created by spending a given amount. It is rather whether spending that money on the military creates a greater or lesser number of jobs relative to spending the same amount on alternative public purposes, such as education, health care or a clean-energy economy, or having consumers spend that amount of money any way they choose.

As Pollin and Garrett-Peltier show, in comparison to alternative uses of funds, spending on the military is a poor source of job creation. They find that $1 billion spent on the military will generate about 11,200 jobs. By contrast, spending those funds on alternative purposes would create 15,100 jobs for household consumption, 16,800 jobs for clean energy, 17,200 jobs for healthcare, and 26,700 jobs for education.

Here’s the “but.” Defense spending is a radically inefficient way of generating jobs through government spending. However, it’s by no means certain that any money cut from the defense budget will actually be applied to, well, anything. Defense spending acts as a mild stimulus; when stimulus is hard to come by, policymakers have to take this effect seriously. Moreover, substantial cuts to the defense budget (which I heartily favor) will without a doubt eliminate many solid, well paying manufacturing and service jobs. No such thing as a free lunch, and all that.

An Example of the Problems with Higher Education Today

[ 41 ] November 29, 2011 |

I should preface this post by saying that I rarely complement higher education administrators. I am naturally suspicious of people in power anyway and I always question the motives of faculty who love meetings and the minutia of academia so much that they choose to turn their backs on research and teaching for it. I have found most college/university presidents duplicitous corporate gladhandling hacks. One excellent example of the new species of university president is the University of New Mexico’s David Schmidly, probably the most loathed individual in the Land of Enchantment. Schmidly embodies everything I dislike about the new university–a corrupt man who is “business-friendly” in the sense that he has used his time in the job to destroy much about the university, particularly within the liberal arts, social sciences, and university press.

That said, there are some good ones out there. One is the current (until yesterday) president of my alma mater, the University of Oregon, Richard Lariviere. As Farley can confirm, the University of Oregon was not exactly a great institute of higher education when we were there in the early to mid 90s. Property tax limitations copied from California had severely undermined university funding. The school shut down many programs, including most of the education program. Tuition began rising. In order to make up funding, the university began recruiting heavily out of California. That might sound fine, but in reality, we were getting students who were not smart enough to get into the UC system but had enough money to not have to suffer the Cal St. schools. Rich, lazy Californians, sounds awesome. And indeed it was.

The school has improved some since then, but still ranks very low in pretty important metrics. It has sunk to the lowest per student funding of any American Association of Universities school, and in fact could follow the University of Nebraska in getting kicked out of the organization, which would be a huge blow to the institution. It also paid its professors significantly less than its peer institutions, leading to 15 leaving last year for other jobs. The state was not going to fix. In fact, the state ordered the schools to not give pay raises, saying the state couldn’t afford it. So Lariviere decided to act on his own.

Realizing state funding was never going to come and knowing that the state only provides 5.8% of the school’s funding anyway, Lariviere combined tuition increases, enrollment increases, private funding, and research grants to give employees a 4.5% raise, a huge jump in this day and age. He did this without 1 cent from the state and without asking the state’s permission.

For this, he was canned yesterday.
There are ancillary issues. First, salaries for administrators jumped too. And that’s bad given how much they make. But let’s be honest, it’s not like state governments really care about this unless it’s convenient for them. Administrator salaries are skyrocketing across the country at schools that are eviscerating their faculty. If we want to run our institutions of higher education like a business, we have to concentrate 99% of our resources in the top 1% of employees, right? Second, for whatever reason, people with ties to UO are underrepresented on the Oregon Board of Higher Education (essentially it’s board of trustees) while the regional schools like Western, Eastern, and Southern are highly represented. The Board was outraged that the state’s flagship institution might outpace its regional schools. Third, Lariviere totally bucked Governor John Kitzhaber’s orders on this so I don’t know what he expected.

Maybe Lariviere didn’t care. Unlike most university presidents, doing the right thing by his faculty took priority. I like Kitzhaber. His stand on rejecting the death penalty is to be lauded. But he is wrong here. If the state isn’t going to provide a majority of funding, or anything even close to a majority, why should it have such power over the institution? Last year, the state of Oregon provided $62 million to UO. This year, it is providing $47 million, the lowest number since 1986 and that doesn’t even count for inflation or the much larger student body today.

More here.

Plus, it’s hard to not like a man who not only wears a hat like that, but who kind of looks like John Huston circa-Chinatown.

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