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Bulletproof Backpacks

[ 20 ] June 16, 2014 |

We won’t protect our children from being shot at school through restricting gun ownership. That would make too much sense. But what a business opportunity for the innovative capitalist! Thus we have a company marketing bulletproof backpacks for children.

No Real Progress in Bangladesh

[ 50 ] June 16, 2014 |

Colin Long’s Jacobin essay on visiting the Tarzeen and Rana Plaza factory disaster sites is all worth reading, but the important part of the article is his discussion of the aftermath. For very little has changed. The international accords are all about western brands protecting their own image at home–which is fine–but for workers, these accords have no meaning, even if they have heard of them, which most have not. The apparel companies still do not care one bit about the conditions of work, how the workers are treated or whether workers live a dignified life. The increase in the Bangladeshi minimum wage also brought on a much harder workday for the workers as the employers just drove them harder and fired their assistants to maintain their profits. Neither of these advances–and ultimately they are both still advances despite the problems–get at the main thing that would improve working conditions in Bangladesh, which is giving workers power to improve their own lives. Instead, Bangladeshi unionists are still intimidated and even murdered, acts to which the apparel companies are complicit.

But there is basically no way for Bangladeshi workers to grab that power to create a dignified life, not when the apparel companies can and will just move to another country to exploit. Without taming capital mobility, the slow and painful but real progress of workers’ rights gets cut off at the knees. And there’s no way the apparel companies are giving up that trump card.

Walker

[ 198 ] June 16, 2014 |

I know next to nothing about Wisconsin politics, so I found this Alec MacGillis article on Scott Walker quite enlightening. If it is accurate, we are basically looking at a highly cocooned politician used to fawning angry Milwaukee suburbanites and with no national experience pretty unprepared to deal with the big time, which includes surrounding himself with people who think racism is Hi-Larious. Not to mention that has not the slightest ability to appeal to anyone who did not already vote for Romney. Plus, this:

Walker’s only overt enthusiasms appear to be his Harley Davidson motorcycle and Ronald Reagan. He and Tonette married on Reagan’s birthday, and every year they celebrate their wedding anniversary / Reagan’s birthday by serving the Gipper’s favorite dishes, such as macaroni-and-cheese casserole and red, white, and blue jelly beans. Walker’s mother attributes his even keel to his faith. “He prayed and read the Bible every day, and when things got rough, [supporters would] tell him they were praying for him,” she says.

I’d like to think this is some sort of stupid public story that Republicans like to tell each other while actually eating endangered species murdered just for this anniversary (25th anniversary means a tasty dinner of black rhino!) but I’m sure it is true and is a sign of the pathetic overwhelming hero-worshiping of Grandpa Caligula by a section of American whites.

Go Away

[ 84 ] June 15, 2014 |

There is not a single person I want to hear less from on Iraq than Tony Blair.

High Brow to Low Brow, 1949

[ 132 ] June 15, 2014 |

Where do your tastes fall on this 1949 chart from Life magazine?

Beer may be low-brow but of course it is awesome. Bourbon and ginger ale? Why waste the bourbon on that. No lower-middle brow for me. Extra dry martini? Well, for 1949 I guess that’s as good as it’s going to get. So maybe I am upper middle-brow. But no, the combo of beer, westerns, and the jukebox make me distinctly low-brow. I’ll even stick with the coleslaw I guess.

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More readable version here:

And really, how could charts from 1940s magazines steer us wrong?

El Salvador Torturers, Trained by the U.S., Protected by the U.S.

[ 109 ] June 15, 2014 |

In the 1980s, under the presidency of the cartoonishly evil Ronald Reagan, the U.S. not only trained and openly supported an El Salvador military that tortured and killed people with impunity, but then gave these psychopaths a free passage to the U.S. when their murderous ways were finally defeated by the Salvadoran people. It is only in the last couple of years that these military leaders have had to undergo deportation proceedings. But they remain in the U.S. and probably will never be deported. Unfortunately, even if they are kicked out, nothing will happen to them in El Salvador.

The U.S. has never come clean about its horrible history in Central America and probably never will.

Rewilding

[ 133 ] June 14, 2014 |

This is an interesting article on rewilding declining agricultural spaces in rural Europe. As much of the farmland of Spain, Romania, Portugal, and other nations suffer severe population declines (as they have in part of the U.S.), some environmentalists are attempting to “rewild” them by bringing back rare species, usually large mammals. Some go so far as to want these spaces for wildlife not native to these areas, like elephants. Rewilding is a curious concept, although one I am basically fine with exploring. The first question is always “rewilding to what?” As these efforts are often led by rich landowners, it tends to be whatever animals they and their enormous egos like. In the U.S., Ted Turner has led the path here. Because Turner likes bison, there are now bison on his ranches in southwestern New Mexico, even though that is not native bison territory. These efforts tend to leave out the smaller creatures and plants that don’t excite rich people.

But whatever. The planet is so inexorably transformed by humans at this point that it’s hard for me to get too bent out of shape by the inconsistencies involved in these efforts. Respecting ecosystems is important, but those ecosystems are undergoing radical transformation because of climate change anyway. Maybe the more valuable principle is open space and preserving biodiversity, however we define it. I don’t think I can really get behind importing disappearing African megafauna to western Kansas, and the experience of the oryx on the White Sands Missile Range does suggest the kind of grassland degradation introduced big species can cause, but if there were a few elephants running around out there, I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It’s probably a bad idea for the ecosystem, but so is everything else humans do.

Climate Change and World War II Graves

[ 59 ] June 14, 2014 |

Of course, climate change is washing lots of dead people from their graves, but World War II veterans will be the lever that gets some attention:

Rising sea levels have washed the remains of at least 26 Japanese World War Two soldiers from their graves on a low-lying Pacific archipelago, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands said on Friday.

“There are coffins and dead people being washed away from graves. It’s that serious,” Tony de Brum told reporters on the sidelines of U.N. climate change talks in Germany.

Putting the blame on climate change, which threatens the existence of the islands that are only 2 meters (6 ft) above sea level at their highest, de Brum said: “Even the dead are affected.”

Twenty-six skeletons have been found on Santo Island after high tides battered the archipelago from February to April, he said, adding that more may be found.

I’m going to assume no one is shallow enough to say it doesn’t matter because they are Japanese. But I’m sure the trolls will be.

Also, Happy Flag Day. I’m remembering the flags of all the nations the U.S. has unjustly invaded or used the CIA to overthrow leaders over the years. Cuba. Guatemala. Honduras. Nicaragua. Dominican Republic. Haiti. Panama. Grenada. Chile. Iran. Vietnam. Laos. Cambodia. Iraq. Those flags.

Hand-Egg

[ 63 ] June 14, 2014 |

P.S. I am not a crank.

Has anyone ever published a book of cranky complaints about football where people get upset about its name or any change to the game? If not, it should end with Nick Saban and Bret Bielema whining that Oregon runs too many plays and therefore there should be mandated slowdowns.

You Kids Get Off My Lawn: Old Activist Edition

[ 90 ] June 14, 2014 |

Amy Merrick wrote a piece in The New Yorker about the terrible conditions in the sweatshops that make clothing for Forever 21, a department store focusing on low cost clothing for college-aged women. She wonders why the kids aren’t protesting Forever 21, suggesting the decline in labor unions and their own economic instability as reasons. I’ll get back to this in a minute because it’s problematic, but it then led to a more unfortunate Lindy West piece entitled “Why Don’t College Students Give a Shit About Sweatshops Anymore” that does little but compare today’s students unfavorably to her own activism in college.

But somehow, in the late ’90s, the anti-sweatshop movement managed to get a real brand going. “Not wearing clothes made by slave labor” was the “normcore” of 1999.

I wasn’t even a particularly consistent or well-informed young revolutionary, but for years I had a kneejerk aversion to anything too cheap to be true. Someone was paying a price for those clothes, somewhere. So I thrifted a lot, I avoided the big-name no-nos like GAP and Old Navy and Nike and Walmart, and I justified my few mainstream purchases with a combination of selective ignorance (I don’t know for sure that a child made these $30 jeans) and shruggy pragmatism (I can’t just not wear pants).

It was literally the least I could do; given my level of privilege, it was almost nothing at all. I was lucky to be able to choose where I shopped (plus, it wasn’t like GAP made clothes in my size anyway). I didn’t have a family to support or significant consequences if I exceeded my budget.

But my point is that I’m impressed, in retrospect, by how effective the messaging was in that moment. “Pay attention to where your clothes come from” somehow got through to me and every other dumb kid I knew. And, according to labor activists in 2014, that’s no longer the case.

These articles are not helpful for a number of reasons. First, they are another edition of “Why Don’t You Kids Fight the Power in the Exact Same Way I Did in College,” a line of lecturing pioneering by ex-60s radicals at least by the 1980s and something that many of you have probably run into at some point.

This reeks of romanticizing the past actions through a carefully remembered history that excludes the second problem with these articles. In 1999, there were some college aged students that cared about sweatshop labor. The majority of college students did not care. In 2014, there are some college aged students that care about sweatshop labor. The majority of college students do not care. Now, there were probably a few more students caring in 1999, but not only are college students working today on other issues that students weren’t fifteen years ago, but there are lots of students still fighting sweatshop labor. If anything, this has increased in the past year since the Rana Plaza collapse and sweatshop conditions have again returned to the nation’s attention. Plus let’s not forget why students turned away from this as a key issue–9/11 and the Iraq War turned their attention to American imperialism. Can’t just handwave this away. Students didn’t stop caring about sweatshops. They started caring about a horrible war.

Again, the third problem here, particularly with West’s piece (at least Merrick mentions it), is that there are actually a lot of great stuff going on in the anti-sweatshop movement. United Students Against Sweatshops is a vibrant organization with activists on a lot of campuses doing great work. I talked a bit about actions at USC this spring and other campuses are involved in a wide range of activities against sweatshop labor and exploitation. Sure, there should be more students involved–but it was the same in 1999.

The fourth problem here is that some of the strategies of 1999 West talks about favorably actually aren’t helpful. Telling people to buy second-hand clothing so they don’t support sweatshops does absolutely nothing to help workers. Plus it’s not scalable. Bangladeshi sweatshop labor activist Kalpona Akter has urged developed world activists not to boycott these factories because it just hurts the workers who need jobs. Cheap and easy feel-good activism does not solve problems, nor build solidarity with those fighting for a better life for themselves.

The fifth problem, and West at least nods at this, is that why are we demanding college students go protest for us? Do it yourself! We (including myself) can all do more to fight the terrible labor conditions in the products that we consume. A woman named Liz Parker started her own protest in front of the British chain Matalan because it wouldn’t sign onto a plant to compensate the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse. Everyone can do these things. Quit blaming college kids and go start your own protest.

Sixth, and most important for those who are serious about thinking about how to create actual change as opposed to vague protests, is that the articles ignore why students focused on the creation of apparel for their own institutions and not random department stores–because they have leverage to do so. As students, college administrators have to at least pretend to listen to them and potentially respond. The students have a clear and targeted objective–getting their schools to agree to responsible sourcing. The implementation is always tricky, but the point is that it’s an achievable, clearly defined goal with an endpoint and a group of people in power who have to be at least somewhat accountable to them. It’s a strategic choice that makes sense.

If you want to go protest Forever 21, print off some flyers, stand in front of their stores, and pass them out until you get escorted off the premises. Call the media and let them know what you are going to do. Have a friend take pictures and put them on Facebook and Twitter. Don’t tell college students to do it. Do it yourself.

Satoko Fujii New Trio

[ 7 ] June 13, 2014 |

I was lucky enough to see my college roommate play bass in the Satoko Fujii New Trio +1 tonight at Firehouse 12 in New Haven. If you are fans of jazz and noise and are in New York, Washington, the Bay Area, Seattle, or Vancouver, you should definitely check them out in the coming week or two on this North American tour. They are playing the Vision Festival tomorrow in New York, which is where I would be if I were in New York regardless of having a friend in the band. Here is a clip of the Trio without tonight’s speical guest. It includes the drummer beating on a chair.

Satoko Fujii, piano
Todd Nicholson, bass
Takashi Itani, drums, chair hitting.

Last Hired, First Fired

[ 21 ] June 13, 2014 |

Not surprising in the least that economic hardship exacerbates racial bias. Good to gain greater understanding of how this occurs.

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