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Memories of Rubber

[ 4 ] July 1, 2016 |

This is a really powerful piece about how indigenous peoples in South America have integrated the horrors of the rubber baron era into their oral histories and storytelling style.

“After he had put them into a deep sleep, the tigre negro entered the camp and killed them all, slashing their throats. It sucked the blood out of them. Only one saved himself by hiding in the forest. From there he heard his companions screaming. That’s how the tigre negro killed the rubber tappers.”

I heard that story from my father when I was a boy, sitting on the palm wood floor of our house on the island of Sarapanga in the Marañón River in northeastern Peru. With smoke from my father’s pipe wafting around us and the river flowing by just meters away, the tale of the tigre negro (literally black tiger, a reference to the black jaguar) capped his late-afternoon storytelling, after which he’d send us off to bed.

Years later, I heard it again as I visited villages with my colleagues from Radio Ucamara, a small station in the port town of Nauta. The members of the radio station staff (including myself, one of the authors, Leonardo Tello) are of the Kukama people, the Native group that predominates in villages along the lower Marañón. The station primarily serves Kukama communities.

When I first listened to it as an adult, the story struck me as odd. The reclusive jaguar is a selective predator, taking only the prey it needs. But gradually, the tale of the animal that slaughtered humans and drank their blood revealed a terrible truth. The tigre negro was not a feline of the forest but something more sinister—a metaphor for a rubber baron. The story captured the living memories of an era when rubber, the once-precious natural latex that drove the Amazonian economy, led to the death or forced displacement of thousands of Indigenous peoples. That reality is as vivid now as it was a century ago when the rubber boom was at its peak.

“Indigenous mythic histories are often non-linear. They’re not necessarily chronological. They may not be concerned so much with telling exactly what happened but with trying to socialize the events of the past so they can be placed into collective memory in ways that make sense within the Indigenous world view,” says anthropologist Jonathan D. Hill of Southern Illinois University, who has collected stories about the rubber boom era in Venezuela. “I think that’s a healing process.”

Very much worth your time, for the story itself and to learn more about just what terrible things the arrival of capitalism did to indigenous peoples worldwide.


Trump/Tebow ’16!

[ 62 ] July 1, 2016 |


This is just too perfect:

Did Donald Trump violate IRS rules, by using a charity’s money to buy himself a signed football helmet?

Four years ago, at a charity fundraiser in Palm Beach, Donald Trump got into a bidding war at the evening’s live auction. The items up for sale: A Denver Broncos helmet, autographed by then-star quarterback Tim Tebow, and a Tebow jersey.

Trump won, eventually, with a bid of $12,000. Afterward, he posed with the helmet. His purchase made gossip-column news: a flourish of generosity, by a mogul with money to burn. “The Donald giveth, and The Donald payeth,” wrote the Palm Beach Daily News. “Blessed be the name of The Donald.”

But Trump didn’t actually pay with his own money.

Instead, the Susan G. Komen organization — the breast-cancer nonprofit that hosted the party — got a $12,000 payment from another nonprofit , the Donald J. Trump Foundation.

Trump himself sent no money. (In fact, a Komen spokesperson said, Trump has never given a personal gift of cash to the Komen organization.) He paid the bill with money from a charity he founded in 1987, but which is largely stocked with other people’s money. Trump is the foundation’s president. But, at the time of the auction, Trump had given none of his own money to the foundation for three years running.

I’m not sure what’s better, Trump’s scam or Trump going crazy to get that Tebow jersey and helmet. Too bad Tebow isn’t 35, he’d be Trump’s VP!

Critical Questions from The Economist

[ 117 ] July 1, 2016 |


The Economist, as in touch with the struggles of everyday people as always, asks a critical question: Why aren’t millennials buying diamonds? The article claims that it’s about the exploitative conditions of their production, but let’s face it, it’s not. If it were, maybe there would be declines in chocolate and fish consumption due to their use of child and slave labor and a movement to promote Bangladeshi apparel workers’ unions. Of course none of that is happening in any way that affects the industry. The answer is that young people have no money because of a horrible economy, terrible student debt loads, and no good, stable future in an outsourced, franchised, automated, downsized, quarterly profit economy. So they aren’t buying diamonds. But getting at those issues would be far too close to home for The Economist. Better to just wonder about the declining fortunes of the diamond industry.

Save America’s Pastime–From the Minimum Wage and Overtime Pay?

[ 40 ] July 1, 2016 |


Did you know baseball evidently needs saving? From what, you might ask? Is it from sluggers using specific drugs that challenge the records of the heroes current sportswriters had when they were kids? Is it from Clayton Kershaw going on the DL? Is it from the horrors of the Yankees winning the World Series? No. Evidently baseball needs saving from the oppressive measures of the Fair Labor Standards Act. But what, you say? Major league players are millionaires! Indeed. This is about making sure that minor league players don’t receive proper compensation.

Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Brett Guthrie of Kentucky introduced the “Save America’s Pastime Act” late last week. The bipartisan legislation—Bustos is a Democrat, Guthrie a Republican—proposes to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and create a specific exemption for minor league baseball players (who are not unionized) so that they are explicitly not guaranteed the minimum wage, and thus not allowed overtime pay.

Minor leaguers are professional athletes, so they’re never going to get widespread sympathy from the public, but MiLB’s wage structure is set up such that that they can barely earn a living while playing baseball. At best, they can break even. It’s tricky to conceive of sports jobs on hourly terms, since the responsibilities of a professional athlete extend so far beyond simply clocking in and out on game days, but minor league baseball players live all of the round-the-clock lifestyle of MLB players, just without getting the pay to justify it.

The bill alleges that MiLB players need their wages locked in at poverty level and that if players start getting paid at least as much as fast food workers, grassroots minor league baseball is at risk:

If the law is not clarified, the costs to support local teams would likely increase dramatically and usher in significant cuts across the league, threatening the primary pathway to the Majors and putting teams at risk.

This is bullshit. Major league owners pay the salaries of their farm teams. MiLB teams don’t need attendance revenue to pay their players, the money comes from the top. As ESPN noted, bumping every minor leaguer’s pay by $5,000 would shake out to 5 percent of Justin Verlander’s salary. MLB made $8 billion in revenue in 2013 (the number is certainly higher now). But the “Save America’s Pastime Act” isn’t about saving money, and it certainly isn’t about saving America’s pastime.

If you are asking why a Democrat like Bustos would be involved in such a horrible piece of anti-worker legislation, the answer is pretty simple. Her father in Major League Baseball’s chief lobbyist. The entire justification is completely ridiculous. Major League Baseball is going to support a minor league system because they require a minor league system to prepare players for the major leagues. The idea that teams in Missoula and Batavia are going to fold because the Yankees and Dodgers have to pay the minimum wage to the players does not hold up to even the first bit of scrutiny.

Outside of the grotesque nature of the arguments for this rather Orwellian named bill, Grant Bisbee explores just how despicable it is by thinking of the minor leaguers themselves. Basically, minor leaguers develop no job skills for the future. If they sign out of high school, they spend their traditional college-aged years learning nothing but to hit and field and pitch. If they do go to college, they probably leave after 3 years without a degree and spend their post-college years, when their friends are starting to find stable jobs and figure our careers, learning nothing but to hit and field and pitch. Most of them will never see a 40-man roster, not to mention actually playing in the major leagues. Far less will become wealthy. For most, this is a career dead-end. This bill is about making sure a 26 year old outfielder with a .700 OPS in Chattanooga doesn’t get paid if he goes to visit a nursing home in a team event, not about protecting players, the minor leagues, or baseball itself.

…Bustos has since withdrawn her support of her own bill in what Bill Shaikin calls “a flip flop monumental even by Washington standards.” Honestly, this is enough that her constituents should seek to primary her out of a job in 2018. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is doubling down and saying that minor league players aren’t really employees–they are creative class people like artists and musicians. Yeah, that makes as little sense as it sounds.

Where’s the Empathy for Istanbul?

[ 166 ] June 30, 2016 |


I am for one am shocked that when terrorists strike the Istanbul airport, there’s not an outpouring of grief and sympathy from the west. Where’s all my Facebook friends changing their image status to the Turkish flag like they did with the French flag after the Paris attacks? Where’s all the talks about the threat to the glorious Turkish civilization? Where’s the 24/7 news coverage? It’s almost as if these things only matter to Americans if they happen to other white countries! If it’s outside Europe or one of its white settler states, it’s just another thing happening to those people.

In related news, there is no residual impact of colonialism and imperialism.


[ 42 ] June 29, 2016 |


As a historian, microfilm is the single greatest invention in human history. You haven’t lived until reading five decades of a union newspaper on microfilm. You should learn more about its history.

Late Stage Out of Sight Publicity

[ 6 ] June 28, 2016 |


A year after its release and long after anyone actually bought the book, there’s still a little bit of Out of Sight buzz here and there. Laura Clawson from Daily Kos asked me to do a Q&A about the book. Here’s one of the questions:

LC: You make the case against the boycott impulse of saying “well, I personally just won’t shop there.” What’s wrong with that and how do we get past it to take action that will put real pressure on companies to change?

LOOMIS: The problem with individuals choosing to boycott companies for a given behavior like using sweatshops is that it doesn’t really accomplish anything for the workers involved. Kalpona Akter, a leader of the Bangladeshi apparel workers movement, has explicitly asked westerners not to boycott the factories. These workers need jobs! If we decide to go buy clothing at the thrift store, we might make ourselves feel good and morally righteous for not supporting an exploitative system, but the reality is that we are doing nothing to change corporate behavior. What we have to do is organize to demand the companies making this clothing be held accountable for their actions. That’s what workers want.

There is an exception to my position on the boycott and that’s when the affected workers ask for one. The United Farm Workers most famously used the boycott during the grape strikes of the 1960s and 1970s. In other words, being an ethical consumer means learning about what workers need and want from you and trying to accomplish those aims to help them, not to make yourself feel good.

Real pressure on the companies can come through movements like the United Students Against Sweatshops, who organized on college campuses in the 1990s to force colleges and universities to contract for their school-sanctioned clothing under ethical guidelines. USAS is still around today. Reinvigorating these sorts of movements that use our power in the organizations to which we belong—schools, churches, social clubs—to place pressure on apparel companies or other industries that use child labor or forced labor or sweatshop labor is how we start to make that change. There are already groups like the Harry Potter Alliance doing this sort of work, in this case on Harry Potter-themed products like chocolates that are produced without child labor.

There will also be talks in the fall at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania and Eastern Washington University, if anyone is around those areas. And I can give a talk at your college and/or university and /or social group for a shockingly low price!

Today in the Party of Calhoun

[ 133 ] June 28, 2016 |


It’s nice that Congressional Republicans tried to use the Zika funding bill for the all-important goal of reversing the ban on flying the Confederate flag in national cemeteries.

Previewing the Next Term

[ 34 ] June 28, 2016 |

I am no Supreme Court expert, but this preview of the next term looks promising, primarily because of what the Court is not going to hear. First and most importantly to me, the Court refused to rehear Friedrichs, meaning that the anti-public union fanatics have to start over at the lower courts. So that’s one piece of good news. The second is how apoplectic Sam Alito is that the Court refused to hear a case that will almost certainly reject religious liberty arguments that would allow pharmacists to choose whether they distribute birth control. He’s already whining about the future of the Court and his precious religious liberties that apply only to right-wingers seeking to oppress women or gays. Maybe he should go ahead and flounce off the court.

“The demand for the larger apartments with baths far exceeds the supply”: Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (IX)

[ 8 ] June 28, 2016 |


As a response to growing labor unrest, in 1916, major corporations decided to create the National Industrial Conference Board to undertake investigations of their own to show how much families needed to live, labor conditions, and the like, from a pro-business perspective. The Wilson administration valued this effort and used it during World War I to support various economic plans. That gave it greater legitimacy, despite the corporate taint. This is its 1919 study on the cost of living in Fall River, Massachusetts. It’s doesn’t explicitly try to undermine unions, although certainly the companies opposed the unions trying to organize the city’s large textile mills in the years before those employers would move to the South to avoid unionization. It mostly just presents facts and figures about the cost of living, changing prices of goods over time, and other raw economic data. Kind of interesting as a primary source, not that exciting as a read.

“Never again must this Thing happen”: Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (VIII)

[ 25 ] June 28, 2016 |


Most of these posts have discussed texts that there really isn’t much point for normal people to read. This post is an exception. Edward Carpenter’s furious 1916 pamphlet Never Again!, a plea to the people of Europe to never allow such a horrible war to happen in the future, is quite a good read. It’s a powerful statement that still has value today. What is a more powerful statement against war than:

That peasants and artisans, and shopkeepers and students and schoolmasters, who have no quarrel whatever, who on the whole rather respect and honour each other, should with explosive bombs deliberately blow one another to bits so that even their own mothers could not recognize them; That human beings should use every devilish invention of science with the one purpose of maiming, blinding, destroying those against whom they have no personal grudge or grievance; All this is sheer madness.

Carpenter was English and he is sure to cover himself against charges of being anti-patriotic. He says it’s fine to blame Germany for its policies, but also that each nation must look inside itself for its own responsibilities. He is sure to marvel at the glories of the British Navy and note the great heroism of the British armed forces. And ultimately, this is not a particularly political tract. It’s not Marxist or anti-democratic. It’s certainly not pro-German, nor does it resort to a plea for patriotism. Everyone is brave, everyone is patriotic to their own country, everyone is fighting the Fatherland or the Mother Country, and everyone is dying in vain. Carpenter was a socialist and a really fascinating individual, but there’s not really much of those politics in the text, outside of noting the commonalities everyday soldiers have with each other no matter what uniform they wear. If anything, the core political belief is that a) military technology has made it futile to continue fighting and that human beings simply can’t exist in the face of ever larger and more powerful armaments and b) the elite class driving foreign policy and war must not be sustained.

This is of course true, but it’s not a lesson the world really learned after World War I, if it has today.

“Moreover I had assumed a terrible responsibility in taking such extreme measures with him, for there was danger that he might go insane without confessing his guilt, and in that case my position would have been really dangerous”: Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (VII)

[ 51 ] June 27, 2016 |


During the peak of his fame as a private investigator and head-buster for capitalism, Allan Pinkerton “wrote” some detective stories. There’s no evidence Pinkerton actually wrote a word of them and he almost certainly employed ghostwriters. But he probably did approve of the stories because they lay out his basic philosophy and investigative methods. This short collection from 1875 is a good example. It consists of two stories, “The Somnambulist and the Detective” and “The Murderer and the Fortune Teller.” Both are basically told not in the sense of mystery or even in a classic detective format. Rather the crimes and guilty parties are laid out immediately so there is no suspense. The stories then exists to demonstrate how witty and brilliant Allan Pinkerton is in his practice, the greatness of his ingenious schemes he creates to draw out confessions, and the true moral fiber of his detectives, as opposed to the criminals.

The whole story of “The Somnambulist and the Detective” is setting up the suspect. It’s a huge frame job. Basically, [Spolier Alert from terrible 19th century fiction you will never read ahead] a bank officer gets murdered. No one knows who or why. Allan Pinkerton comes south for his health. He hears about the case. He sees a slip of paper from one of the bank officer’s friends, a seemingly wealthy planter. Pinkerton, being brilliant, knows it must be him. He goes back to Chicago and sends down his detectives who set him up. One becomes his best friend, another plays a widow who manages to stay in his house, the third plays the ghost of the dead man, who the other two say they can’t see. Through sprinkling blood around various places and sending the ghost character around so the other two can deny his existence, they drive the planter insane. He eventually confesses. Game over. Pinkerton recognizes the sketchy methods he uses, thus the quote in the title. But that sure isn’t going to stop him. Rather, it shows that he needs to be right in order to bring the criminal to justice.

“The Murderer and the Fortune Teller” is even lamer. Basically, a sea captain comes to Pinkerton with a tale of his sister who had also married a sea captain but likes fun times and so sees men while he’s away. She falls for an ambitious Democratic politician who wants her too. So he poisons his wife while the sister poisons the captain so she can get his money. So they go through this long rigamarole of setting Pinkerton’s detectives to gather information, train his female detective as a fortune teller, and then forcing the woman to confess her own crimes (including an abortion) so they can throw the murderous politician into prison.

And if this is how Pinkerton operates–

I gazed steadily at him for about two minutes, which is about as long a time as I need to obtain a correct opinion of a man’s character.

–then I guess it’s hardly surprising that this is a man who would come down on the side of the plutocrats. I mean, stare at a man for a couple of minutes with all the prejudices of the age and I guess you can really tell a man’s character! I mean, what southern European immigrant wouldn’t love being stared at–but then if he looks down or away, I guess that’s telling of his shifty nature, probably susceptible to radicalism.

Who knows what Pinkerton saw in his good friend George McClellan’s face that made him serve him so poorly in his guestimates of the size of the Confederacy army. If only Pinkerton had the opportunity to gaze into Robert E. Lee’s steely face for long enough, he would have understood the real situation the Confederates were in. Alas, his foolproof methods could not be used here.

To say the least, this does not make one feel more confident in the methods the Pinkertons used to crush unions.

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