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Until Everybody Was French

[ 33 ] September 1, 2014 |

We all know Kevin Williamson is a horrible human being and there’s really no good reason to link to his trolling of liberals. And so normally I wouldn’t mention his anti-Labor Day screed. Except that he said one of the quiet parts loud:

The Canadian typographical workers had been demanding a 58-hour work week and the repeal of anti-union laws. Parliament obliged, and of course the unions’ immediate response was to press for a 54-hour work week, and then a still shorter one, and so on, until everybody was French. The French 35-hour work week is the current object of envy among our naïve Europhiles, and it has been an object of curiosity among economists: Contrary to their indolent reputation, French workers are, on paper, among the world’s most productive, outperforming U.S. workers on a GDP-per-work-hour basis. There are many possible explanations for that, the most likely of which is lying. It is probable that French people work more hours than they claim and Americans less, with work spilling over the borders of those official 35-hour French weeks and Internet-fueled leisure time infiltrating American weeks.

First, I love his random assumptions that the French must work harder than Americans because derp.

Second, Canada is the bete noire! Even the readers of NRO are going to struggle to see Canada as a hell hole. It’s too close.

Third, how dare American workers copy their communist Canadian brethren and refuse to work a 58-hour week!

Dude, I don’t think you are supposed to openly lament this. That’s supposed to stay in the inner sanctum, where you and the plutocrats slit the necks of live goats and let the blood drip in your mouths. Talking about returning to Gilded Age working conditions comes between courses of the goat blood.

…This was actually his Labor Day rant from last year, but it makes no difference.

Labor History on Labor Day

[ 12 ] September 1, 2014 |

I don’t have time for a major post on Labor Day, as I have just completed the manuscript draft of my logging book and am exhausted. But I do have 116 This Day in Labor History posts, helpfully archived, for your perusal. That ought to serve your Labor Day needs.

The Cats of World War I

[ 25 ] August 31, 2014 |

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There were lots of cats hanging around soldiers during World War I. They were cute. That is all.

Viewing the Great Depression

[ 16 ] August 31, 2014 |

Between 1935 and 1945, photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration documented the nation and its people as it suffered through and emerged from the Great Depression. 170,000 images remain. Yale University has now placed them online for your exploration and you can even explore by county, which is incredibly awesome. Have fun!!

More here.

Running in Cemeteries

[ 56 ] August 31, 2014 |

I find cemeteries pretty fascinating places for a number of reasons. First, I have a bit of a weird hobby of visiting the graves of random famous people from American history that interest me in some way. You can only imagine how much my wife loves random stops at cemeteries. I am going to start a series one of these days about the various people who I have visited in the ground. Sometimes they are horrible people like Henry Clay Frick. Other times, well, just random famous people. Like just the other day, I visited the grave of former Wilderness Society head Howard Zahniser, which I actually have reason to blog about in more detail in a couple of days. Why did I visit the grave of Howard Zahniser? Isn’t the better question why haven’t you visited the grave of Howard Zahniser?

Anyway, that’s just part of my interest in cemeteries. Because cemeteries are also public green spaces, albeit of an odd kind. In many towns, they are the nicest parks around. When I am with my wife, who teaches at a university in a very small town a couple of states over from Rhode Island, I run in the cemetery. Other people use them too–walking the dog, taking the babies on a stroll, etc. And of course for mourning and remembrance. Anyway, maybe it’s because I’m a historian and one more interested in the lives of everyday people than the famous, but when I run through the cemetery, I keep thinking, “Who are these people.” I was running the other day and passed the grave of a man named Jose Garcia, who died in 2000. How did this man, who I assume (rightly or wrongly) came from Mexico or maybe Puerto Rico, end up in this 99% white and very politically and racially conservative town (evidently the official town color is camo based upon the dress of the citizenry)? What was it like for him? What is his story? How did he end up there? What are the stories of everyone else? What was life like here in the 1950s? In the 1890s? Through the hard times and the good times?

I suppose there are some who think people shouldn’t run through cemeteries, and certainly if there’s any, uh, activity going on, I turn around. But I think that by at least thinking about these people and wondering about them, it’s honoring them in a certain way. Some of them were no doubt horrible human beings who committed heinous crimes, treated their families like garbage, and were unloved. Others were great people who made the lives around them better. Who knows. But I’d like to think that when I’m dead and buried in the ground, that someone might run past my marker and think, who was that guy? Kind of gives a person something to die for.

The Worst Person in the World

[ 129 ] August 30, 2014 |

Victor Davis Hanson, for comparing the IDF to William Tecumseh Sherman and the people of Gaza to the Confederate slaveholding class.

That’ll Show Those Dastardly Unions!

[ 85 ] August 30, 2014 |

Today in idiots:

Just when it seemed the right wing couldn’t get any more divorced from reality around here, a local conservative group has launched a protest against what it sees as a pernicious cultural touchstone.

Labor Day.

Yes, bittersweet old Labor Day — the first Monday in September, the holiday that’s been around for generations and is known to most non-ideologically blinkered Americans as an end-of-summer free day honoring all the hard work you put in the rest of the year.

But to the Freedom Foundation, a business-backed Olympia think tank, the day is evidence of the power of unions, which to them equals the decline of America. Rather than stoop to taking a union-backed day off, they plan to fight the power by … working all day Monday instead!

“I can’t think of a problem in society that can’t be traced in some way back to the abuses of organized labor, so it would be hypocritical of us to take a day off on its behalf,” said Freedom Foundation CEO Tom McCabe, in announcing the “work-in.”

That’ll show those unions who control everything around here. Let’s all go into the offices and the factories and work like dogs instead of barbecuing or watching parades! Who’s with me?

Of course, if McCabe followed this principle to its logical end, he’d have to work every Saturday, too. Year round.

If the Freedom Foundation is truly committed to this idea, might I recommend 19th century working conditions and wages as well?

Cushing and Gettysburg

[ 176 ] August 30, 2014 |

President Obama is granting Lt. Alonzo Cushing, who played a critical role in repelling Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, the Medal of Honor. It’s pretty amazing he didn’t already have it since had Pickett taken the hill, it’s possible at least the war would have ended differently. Personally, I tend to not believe the world changes that much with an individual event, but I’ll grant the possibility. Certainly defeating the Confederates at Gettysburg did kill their chance of moving the war into the North and forcing a peace, something that would have kept millions of people in slavery for who knows how long. Decades at a minimum. Possibly until the present, who can tell.

Speaking of such things, I happened to visit Gettysburg last week. I had a great time. It was super cool to visit the key spots of the battle, try to imagine all the dead on the huge field that the location of Pickett’s Charge, below Little Round Top, and around the battlefield. Much credit goes to the National Park Service for not only emphasizing slavery as the core reason of the war but for enforcing that interpretation. What do I mean by that? For a very long time, the main attraction at the Gettysburg Visitor Center was the cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge. A cyclorama was a Gilded Age entertainment that tried to bring a scene to life through a 360-degree painting. These were a huge hit in France and were imported to the U.S. A cyclorama painter was hired to do one of Pickett’s Charge and people love it. It was a huge reason why people went to the site. You can still see it today and it’s OK. It’s cool as a Gilded Age relic. As something of value outside of that, it’s pretty silly, what with the sound and light show that goes along with it.

In recent years, the NPS built a very nice new visitor’s center. Now in order to see the cyclorama, you have to sit through the 15 minute film intrepreting the battle for you. Morgan Freeman narrates the video and it says in no uncertain terms that slavery was the cause of the war, which is great. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who hate that (one of the first people I saw there was a guy wearing a Stonewall Jackson t-shirt, which in my world is like wearing a Himmler t-shirt), but it was very well done, really expressing the complexity of the situation too. I also discovered that I find discussion of military maneuvers so incredibly boring that even Morgan Freeman can’t make me care. Anyway, the exhibits in the Visitor Center are good throughout, combining the old guns that are crack for American white men who like to wear camo as casual wear with real historical interpretation.

Of course the monuments are among the most interesting parts of the experience. They are all interesting relics expressing martial values at a time when the Civil War generation was beginning to pass away (turn of the century Americans had their own Greatest Generation crisis of masculinity). They were also part of the reconciliation taking place between the North and South during the period that erased the black experience from the war and helped underwrite Jim Crow and segregation. At Gettysburg, the memorials generally went up earlier, in the 1880s, so that meant that the Confederate monuments were put up later and are in one general area, more or less the Confederate lines as they embarked on Pickett’s Charge. But they are there. As you can imagine I find the Confederate monuments irritating. However, I have a foolproof way to deal with that problem. I mock the monuments on Twitter. A couple of examples:

Unfortunately autocorrect on my phone knocked the “i” out of that one.

My wife said that I was having entirely too much fun doing this. But it beat muttering curses toward the Confederacy under my breath. And I did not get accosted by a neoconfederate, so that was something.

There may however be an addendum to this post. I seem to have a mission to be the last Civil War death. While at Shiloh about 15 years ago, I came within a few inches of stepping on a copperhead slithering past the marker I was walking up to. Talk about jumping back! This time, I cut my hand messing around in my car trunk at the battlefield site. If there’s any justice in the world, the gangrene is setting in right about now.

Erasing Labor

[ 47 ] August 29, 2014 |

A minor detail in this article on the history of Tabasco sauce, but one that is telling about how, when we are talking about “innovators,” we forget who actually does the work:

Accounts differ as to when exactly McIlhenny acquired the seeds for those Capsicum frutescens peppers. But in the years after the war, he began using them to make pepper sauce, a popular Louisiana condiment. His method was a laborious one that involved crushing the peppers with a potato masher and mixing them with rock salt from the island’s own salt mines, then aging the mash twice, adding vinegar in between. After straining the resulting mixture through a series of sieves, he decanted it into castoff cologne bottles.

He began making the pepper sauce? He crushed the peppers? He decanted it into castoff cologne bottles?

Or was it African-Americans doing all of this, probably ex-slaves working for quite low wages and in poor working conditions? The article is titled “Who Made That Tabasco Sauce?” It was workers who made that sauce, even if it was McIlhenny who thought of it, if he even did that.

But when we are talking about the rich, they are deified and thus any mention, not to mention asking questions about, the labor used to make these products is irrelevant. All the credit goes to the supposed innovator.

America

[ 23 ] August 29, 2014 |

The following poem is by S.M. Hill, a Swedish immigrant to Oregon, circa 1916. I take it from here.

America

They boast a great deal about equality,
they loudly proclaim you are free.
Without answering I’d rather swallow my annoyance
and not pay attention to our slavery.
Here, gold measures human worth
here, everything is right as long as it succeeds,
here, food is given the highest value,
weak ones are crushed by the iron heel.

We are not tormented by aristocrats,
we don’t sigh under a king!
Nonsense! Here we are ruled by rascals,
the power of the multi-millionaires is oppressive.
Politics is merely a system of plundering,
the penniless become downtrodden
and honesty seems to have left us,
and those who steal gain honor and power.

No, my friend, you won’t find paradise here,
here, too, there’s a difference between rich and poor.
You change your name and receive the prize,
and praise yourself so heartily.
Yes, the race of Adam lives here, too
and sin rules here as well.
The beautiful land that your eyes saw,
lies far away and high above the sky!

Today in Regrettable Unhinged Rants

[ 89 ] August 28, 2014 |

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People served free food at a bar with their drink order, 19th century. The horror.*

God knows I love me a rant. And a lot of them are pointless but if there’s one thing I am never going to rant about, it is being served free food in a bar:

The common defining characteristic of free-pizza bars is that they are geared toward the very, very drunk and the very, very impressionable. Have I accepted free pizza from a free-pizza bar when I was drunk enough to believe it to be a pizza-shaped, cheese-flavored pint of beer? Sure. Did I go to free-pizza bars when I was young, wide-eyed, and enamored of novel ideas like body pillows and home-cooked bar snacks? Of course. Now, I see the light. I’d rather seek out mediocre-to-good pizza on my own time, resulting in personal satisfaction in both belly and spirit, than be tossed a platter of cooked flour and tomato sauce straight from my middle school cafeteria just because I showed up to get blottoed.

I should not be rewarded for drinking heavily. The reward for drinking heavily is drinking heavily. Part of the understood struggle of drinking heavily (as all good must come with bad) is that food must be sought out with wanton but fierce dedication. If you find pizza, which is almost everywhere in every city in America and most often at late-night hours, you will feel infinitely happier than if you settled for some grimy bar’s unwarranted handouts. And if you’ve stayed out too late and nothing is open, your punishment has been writ and you shall bear its truth.

If free pizza from a bar tasted like fucking caviar, maybe I’d try it once and a while. But it doesn’t. Pizza that is given to you from a bar always tastes like three-days-old diner grilled cheese. The tomato sauce is high fructose corn syrup swamped in red dye and the crust, well, there isn’t one—the whole thing is a mistake, its a blurry facsimile of pizza’s bastard son. It’s what a drunk person would say if they were asked to describe pizza to a person who’d never cooked it before.

There are so many problems here. First there is like a 200 year old history of bars serving drunks food to keep them in there. The term “bum’s rush” is a reference to bouncers watching the food buffet at 19th and early 20th century American bars that served free food if you bought a beer (mostly paid for by the breweries who had monopolies over the bars). When I go to Oaxaca, Mexico, it is standard there to be served free food with drinks. At worst, you get awesome roasted peanuts with garlic and chile and a ton of salt–making it the best bar snack ever. At best, tacos and who knows what else. It’s amazing.

Second, of course you deserve to be rewarded for drinking heavily. Isn’t this the common thread that holds LGM together. We even tolerate a vodka drinker in SEK because at least he still drinks. Do I need to expand on this? No, I do not.

Third, who cares if the pizza is bad? Why does this really matter? You are drinking. You know what is good while drinking? Fatty, salty, low quality food. I don’t even want the pizza to be that good because after a bunch of beer, would I even enjoy it? And if this does matter to you, I have a secret–you can always decline and let others enjoy their pizza. The 19th century food wasn’t necessarily all that great either (seriously read the link, which is a New Yorker article from 1940 about McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York). But it fed you.

This is all very silly. But I want to make one thing clear. I went to a bar last night. It was free plate of fries night with a beer. And those fries were tasty. Also they were free.

In a related story, even I have standards. Which are not to drink beer with offensive names and labels. I will drink Stone because I don’t find arrogance particularly offensive, but Flying Dog Raging Bitch, no. Why would I do that? With that many options, even in beer weak Rhode Island? I am just not going there. And as for that beer with the medieval “wench” whose breasts are exploding out of her top, I’d rather dump it down the drain than buy it. Knock it off bros, beer should not be for sexists. I will say though that Will Gordon is great and I look forward to his daily beer reviews as long as they last, especially has he goes into comments and smacks jerks down hard. Not that I’ve ever wanted to do that.

* I have no idea what the central theme in this image is supposed to be. Some sort of violence, perhaps anti-Chinese? In any case, it’s the only image I could find of people eating at bars in the 19th century.

The Leftist Hamilton?

[ 130 ] August 28, 2014 |

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Ever since the 1820s, Americans have recreated the Founding Fathers they wished they had and used them in convenient ways to promote their own agenda. Little has changed over the decades except the addition of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and to a lesser extent, Theodore Roosevelt, to the pantheon of people who you can pull quotes from without context to promote your positions. Thus the MLK conservatives can claim to support, laughable as that may be to anyone who knows anything about the man.

Although it certainly never disappeared, this sort of thing went through a bit of a lull after World War II, as historical studies of the constitutional period went out of fashion and were replaced by Arthur Schlesinger and others studying the Jacksonian period for the roots of American democracy. In recent decades, conservatives made the wise political move to reclaim the Founders, even if they are as fabricated as their MLK. Scalia’s originalism, patent fraud that it is, has roots in his version of the Constitution. Of course, he, like most Americans, sees the Constitution as a living document despite his protestations. So the 2nd Amendment is deified and the 4th Amendment flushed down the toilet. There’s a long history of this sort of thing, including Gilded Age courts finding an expansive interpretation of the 14th Amendment for corporations while not applying it to African-Americans at all, even though it was written for the latter. In the end, the Constitution has worked reasonably OK for a pretty long time, and it’s hard to ask much more of a government, at least when compared to other governments in history. But the attempt to tie everything to what a bunch of elite men in powdered wigs thought 225 years ago causes more problems than it solves for modern society.

My favorite story around this absurdity is the following:

“What Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games,” and if “he enjoyed them,” Justice Alito said sarcastically. Justice Scalia shot back, “No, I want to know what James Madison thought about violence.”

Who knows! And why should we try to answer an unknowable and absurd question! In effect, the Constitution means whatever we want it to mean in a given time. But to say that makes people very uncomfortable, I think because we ultimately still want to revere the Founders.

In recent years, liberals have tried to play catch up on originalism, for better of for worse. I’d probably argue for worse because I don’t think originalism is particularly helpful except as a rhetorical political tool. There’s certainly no sanctity in the words or intentions of the Founders.

I mention all of this because of Christian Parenti’s article in Jacobin arguing for a left-wing Alexander Hamilton that has useful lessons for modern Americans on fighting climate change. The article itself is relatively unobjectionable, except that I don’t think Hamilton has any meaningful lessons for us on fighting climate change. Parenti is certainly correct about Hamilton’s modern vision of what would become industrial capitalism and of course his vital role in creating the financial institutions of the new nation is not in question. Parenti’s fundamental argument is that leftists have long fallen on the wrong side of the Hamilton/Jefferson divide. He notes that Jefferson was a slaveholder who had a backwards view of economic development and Hamilton was anti-slavery with a vision of economic growth, and that Hamilton’s idea of an activist government needs to be resuscitated by modern progressives who need to fight back against conservative Jeffersonianism. A Hamiltonian government, not a Jeffersonian one, is the only Founding vision that can effectively fight against climate change.

I have no problem with the left abandoning its idea of romanticized agrarian Jeffersonianism. Leftists love talking about Jefferson’s vague revolutionary words, but I don’t think that’s all that useful for a democratic leftist revolution that is probably never going to happen, at least within my lifetime. Yet is tying our boat to Hamilton any better? Parenti notes that Hamilton has long been perceived as anti-democracy. There’s a good reason for that. Hamilton was anti-democracy. You can’t wave that away. I’m also a bit turned off by the slavery argument. Yes, Jefferson was a slaveholder and a bad guy for it, but that point does not immediately mean that, if we are supposed to learn anything from the Founders, that Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and the other slaveholders are immediately disqualified. If there is value to be gleaned from these long dead men, I don’t think one, admittedly quite horrible, sin automatically means they are out of bounds on everything else, especially given that the non-slave holding Founders also held political positions reprehensible to left-wing Americans in 2014.

Ultimately, I have two much larger problems here. First, Parenti is correct that we need to argue for the activist state. Hamilton is useful for that argument. But if that alone is the argument, we can draw off of Lincoln, FDR, Lenin, a pantheon of people. It’s not that Hamilton has lessons to teach us. It’s that there is a whole history of people showing that an activist government can accomplish a great deal. Tying that to Hamilton is just a politically convenient way of doing that because of the power of using the Founders. And maybe that’s OK.

But this gets to the second problem. If Hamilton’s view of an activist government means that we can use government to fight climate change, Hamilton himself pushed that activist government to facilitate industrial capitalism, i.e., the very system creating catastrophic climate change! Until industrial capitalism is solved, we aren’t going to create a comprehensive response to climate change. If that means a comprehensive response is not going to happen, well, yes, because that is actually what is happening.

In other words, saying Hamilton can guide us today requires a) taking the man out of context or b) making the lessons impossibly broad. There is no “leftist” Hamilton because he would never have recognized such a thing could be possible. It’s a construction of Hamilton based upon chosen facts and stories that serve a modern political purpose. I guess that’s alright, but it certainly raises the eyebrows of this historian. And if we are to learn this lesson from Hamilton, what other lessons should we learn? That the Alien and Sedition Acts were a good idea? That democracy is scary and should be crushed? None of these Founders are less complex than Jefferson; that the latter was a slaveholder who hated the urban poor was terrible, but he did genuinely believe in a form of democracy that was advanced for its day, even if it was a herrenvolk democracy. Hamilton sure didn’t believe in any form of democracy that advanced. If we are reappropriating Hamilton for the left, we have to reckon with these questions because they are as central to his being as creating the institutions of American capitalism, including a functioning federal government. Otherwise, we are cherry picking what we like about him.

I completely agree with Parenti that environmental activists need to double down on their focus on the state, but then I don’t agree with him that lots of greens today don’t rely on the state. That may be true with some grassroots activists, but it most certainly is not true of the big green organizations who are so reliant on the state that they struggle to even comprehend how to motivate the grassroots in an era where they can’t get legislation passed for the first time in a half-century. It’s also not true of the 350.org movement, which is completely reliant upon pressuring the state not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. I don’t doubt there is an anarcho-environmentalism that’s popular in some grassroots groups, but that’s hardly indicative of a movement that has long understood the power of the state to enact change. Even here though, Parenti seems to be talking about a libertarian environmentalism that argues for corporate social responsibility. Those ideas are out there but I think is more of an environmentalist strategy in the face of hostile government shutting off legislation than an end game.

Personally, I would rather we not turn the Founders, ever more distant in the past, into people we bow before, or at least their faces chiseled on the sides of South Dakota mountains, an odd American institution. I think it’s really problematic because it relies upon constructed histories of them that almost inherently have to leave out difficult facts. It also reinforces the narrative that change is primarily created by wealthy white great men, not a theory with which I am particularly comfortable. The left likes to talk about “the people,” but it sure loves its great men.

So what is history good for then? I speak for no one but myself, but for this historian, there are very few “lessons” from the past that we can easily learn. Nothing can be understood without the context of the time. What history offers is the understanding of how we got into the situation we are in today, whether positive or negative. For example, we can’t understand Ferguson without understanding the history of slavery, Jim Crow, urban segregation, police violence, etc., both nationally and in the context of the St. Louis area specifically. That’s not a lesson, it’s figuring out the context of what is happening today. It’s the actions of millions of individuals, the ideology of white supremacy as it has developed through time, and the decisions made by municipal, state, and federal governments, not to mention the entire economic context around the disappearance of jobs for the poor, and especially poor people of color. In other words, it’s really hard and certainly not dilutable down to a simple lesson for public consumption.

Although far less intellectually honest than Parenti, Jody Hice, your next congressman from Georgia’s beet red 10th district is promoting made up quotes about the Founders on his Twitter feed. Some of these are misattributed, some are just plain nuts, but in a way it doesn’t matter because the Founders are constructed to be useful to everyone and therefore are probably useful to no one except as a political tool. Which is fine I suppose. It’s a usable past. It just a false one in Hice’s case. Both sides hitch their wagons to the Founders, making them mean whatever the individual wants them to mean.

Finally, I’ll note that for an article in Jacobin, Parenti’s piece can easily be construed as quite the defense of capitalism. Of course, one must acknowledge the reality of capitalism, but Parenti argues simply for a more robust role of the state in operating it. Which is not a radical argument, however defined.

This is all me spitting in the wind. People are going to keep using the past to justify their own positions no matter what any historian says about it. If you want to think Hamilton has lessons for you, go for it. But I think those “lessons” are really tenuous and have to be so broad as to lose the specificity for that person. If they help people decide government is good, I guess that serves a social good and I am just a cranky historian. Print the legend.

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