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A Message to Khomeini

[ 16 ] February 20, 2013 |

Tonight’s exploration of American culture’s underbelly is brought to you by Roger Hallmark and The Thrasher Brothers, who I think had the most sophisticated response to Iranian Revolution imaginable.

History of Sex Work

[ 37 ] February 20, 2013 |

Melissa Gira Grant provides an excellent overview of the history of sex work in the United States before about 1920. Highly recommended read.

Saving Labor

[ 35 ] February 20, 2013 |

There’s been a lot of discussion about “saving” the labor movement in recent weeks. Two particular pieces to point out. First, Josh Eidelson hosted a forum at The Nation that included CWA President Larry Cohen, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, and a number of researchers and activists. Second, Jacobin interviewed Canadian labor activist Sam Gindin. The solutions for saving labor were along the lines of what you’d expect. There’s a lot of good ideas–focus on organizing over politics, organize immigrants, labor should think about class more than workplace, create a strong progressive coalition to retake the Democratic Party, etc.

I have no real criticism of these ideas. I think they are all solid and, taken together, might really change things. I do want to offer a couple of additional thoughts.

There are two fundamental problems organized labor faces. One, the history of American labor shows that it is never strong enough to create long-term concrete change, or for that matter just winning over workplaces and holding on to what they have, without supportive or at least tolerant federal and state governments. It’s hardly coincidental that the one big victory for Gilded Age labor came at Cripple Creek in 1894 when the governor of Colorado used the state militia to intervene on the side of workers rather than employers. For all the hard organizing over decades, it wasn’t until the New Deal legitimized unions that they had any real success. So we can talk about subordinating politics to organizing and there’s a very good argument to be made in that direction. But the political game can’t be given up entirely because without it, there’s just not much precedence for the success of organized labor.

What organized labor needs to do is to rethink its political actions. I’d argue for the necessity of shifting resources out of presidential and congressional politics and into local and state politics, where they can make a more concrete difference in their members’ lives and where they can foster and develop politicians that will eventually rise into Congress and reshape the Democratic Party into a working-class force. The current emphasis on Washington made a lot of sense in the 1933-1981 era, but it’s been a losing game for 30 years. The AFL-CIO is a very Washington-focused organization and shifting significant resources to the states and counties, not to mention giving locals significant power to engage in local politics, would be a hard task. But I think it is necessary.

Second, the changes in the workplace and workforce has put labor on its heels for decades. The big factory with the shopfloor that contained thousands of organized workers was a great space for building union power. How you do that with our decentralized workforce of the 21st century is a tough question. The old CIO industrial unions were built on the big factory model and making the institutional adjustments are as hard as the strategic adjustments. This is where you have people suggesting cross-class organizing and organized labor playing a central role in all sorts of progressive policies, including immigration, gay marriage, environmental issues, etc. That makes sense from a theoretical strategic perspective but I want to suggest a couple of problems that any serious discussion of labor’s future has to deal with. One, cross-class organizing is a great idea, but there’s a reason for paying dues. If labor is providing a broad definition of representation to workers who do not pay dues, how does it function as an effective organization? In the short term, that might work, but in the long-term you have to turn those people into dues-paying members.

Two, the ultimate job of a labor union is to represent the interests and desires of its membership. While organized labor can provide real leadership and push members to take more progressive stands, it can’t completely ignore its membership. So when you have a significant percentage of membership that might be strongly anti-immigrant, anti-gay, racist, etc., how do you deal with that? I’m not offering this as an excuse for organized labor not playing a progressive role in non-economic social issues. What I am saying is that talking about organized labor in the abstract in pretty easy, but organized labor is made up of working-class people who have a variety of opinions on issues and a lot of them are not going to be done with their unions becoming this broader progressive force on, say, climate change.

In other words, everything about saving organized labor is hard and complex. We should avoid anything that even looks like a simple answer.

Student-Athletes Indeed

[ 129 ] February 20, 2013 |

Heisman winner Johnny Manziel’s class schedule:

Johnny Football still finds time to be a college student too, even though the Texas A&M star doesn’t have to be on campus very often for classes. His schedule this semester consists of four online classes in sports management, and he just got done with a series of tests and other work.

“Had my first round of tests last week, so I’ve been kind of pushing that off as much as possible doing my online stuff, and all three tests and three papers hit me in a week,” Manziel said Monday night before accepting the Davey O’Brien Award that goes to the nation’s top quarterback. “It was good to feel like a normal student again, just a busy one.”

Manziel was initially enrolled in an English class on campus this spring with only 20 to 25 students before switching his schedule.

Don’t get me wrong–I have no problem with the kid taking advantage of the system and being as little of a student at Texas A&M as he wants. But the entire deal is a joke, both the idea that a student can be a legitimate student by taking a bunch of likely bogus classes in whatever sports management actually consists of outside of easy grades for bad students although one would never graduate with a schedule like that and the fact that the NCAA makes football players go to classes in a facade that allows universities to profit off their unpaid labor.

Can’t we find a way to pay these kids in some kind of minor-league football system? No doubt, with the NCAA such a paragon of integrity and all.

Climate Trolling

[ 27 ] February 19, 2013 |

Andrew Revkin of the New York Times continues his climate trolling, this time complaining about people just being so unreasonable about climate change:

But on the Keystone XL pipeline – which, if not blocked by President Obama, would carry the crudest form of oil from Canadian tar sand deposits to Gulf Coast fuel refineries — it seems there’s little room for varied stances, at least according to some protesters.

As I wrote in 2011 (here, then here), a tight focus on Obama’s decision over the pipeline could be counterproductive if the hope is to build policies that might someday reduce the need for oil, whether the source is Alberta oil sands, the floor of the Gulf of Mexico or the Niger River delta. (A solid review of the climate impact was provided by Raymond Pierrehumbert on in 2011.)

But Wen Stephenson, a former Atlantic and Boston Globe editor who has become a climate campaigner on behalf of his, and others’, children, sees little room for dialogue.

Imagine that–people actually believing that a project is just unacceptable and eschewing compromise over an issue that will only drive half the world’s species to extinction and make life significantly worse for most human beings. Revkin is the classic villager on climate, wanting nice conservative compromise on the issues, even before we actually get to the table with the powers that be that actually control the apparatus, like the oil and gas industry. What’s important for Revkin is the compromise.

David Roberts provides a more definitive response:

Revkin seems preoccupied with the fact that Keystone is part of larger systems and not particularly significant in light of that context. And it’s true: Everything is insignificant in light of some larger context. Climate change is a “wicked problem,” which means that everything passing as a solution will be flawed, partial, and impermanent. What to do? We are rapidly losing ground, on the verge of locking in a trajectory scientists tell us will lead to disastrous and irreversible consequences. We can sit around and fill our blogs with reasons why this or that solution is the wrong one, inferior to some better one that we’d already have, goldarnit, if those meddling pushers-of-other-solutions weren’t “distracting” from ours. We can fall in love with the ineffable intellectual tangle, as Revkin has, and accept that anything specific enough to build an activist campaign around will be meaningless in the context of global energy demand and emissions. We can read the Serenity Prayer and get used to the fact that it’s all out of our hands anyway.

But some people want to fight! Some people actually haul themselves out from behind their keyboards, call a bunch of friends, put on warm clothes, and go stomp around in public yelling about it. These are the folks throwing sand in the social gears, the ones trying to wrest the levers of power out of hostile hands. As a professional word-typer, like Revkin, I have come to believe that those people deserve a certain level of respect and forbearance. Maybe shouting advice down to them from the bloggy heights isn’t as helpful as we word-typers are inclined to think. At least we could refrain from pissing on them while they’re rallying.

I’m going to have a number of climate-related posts coming up, so I’ll save some of my thoughts for later. But I will say one thing. The last thing the climate movement needs is to listen to someone positioning himself as a David Broder of environmental issues. And that’s what Andrew Revkin is.

Wind River

[ 91 ] February 19, 2013 |

The Wind River Reservation in Wyoming has received a lot of attention lately because of its endemic poverty and high crime rates. It started with this Times article last year about a murder. As things often go, the Times became the trendsetter for a myriad of stories on how the Wind River is America’s worst place. The people at Wind River (Shoshones and Arapahoes) are getting sick and tired of it, especially after this piece at Business Insider, which really seems like nothing more than poverty tourism.

Spoonhunter paged through the photographs online, pointing out the disparities between what they showed and the written commentary.

“Picture number 37 shows Blue Sky Hall,” he said. “The caption says ’everything is for sale on the Rez — sex, drugs, booze, houses, tires, trucks.’”

Blue Sky Hall is a gathering place for the Northern Arapahoes, where the tribe holds events from elections and public meetings to performances and Thanksgiving dinners. “The tribe’s substance abuse and diabetes awareness programs are in that building,” Spoonhunter said. “It’s nothing like a place where sex or drugs are for sale.”

Spoonhunter goes on to point out other photos that he finds misleading. Apparently drunken young people in a Riverton city park are labeled “park rangers.” Accompanying the shots of buildings housing the federal program Women, Infants, Children (WIC) and the community health center is a remark that “growing up here can foster a sense of entitlement.”

“There’s another story to tell here,” Spoonhunter says. “It’s not all doom and gloom.”

I have three general thoughts.

First, I’m extremely sympathetic with the Arapahoes and Shoshones getting sick of these portrayals. On the other hand, what is that other story to tell? There’s a historical story that continues to the present (more on this in a second), but I’m not clear what the bright and happy story is? The continuance of culture amid 150 years of active repression? Maybe, but that’s not so happy really, especially given the decline of language.

Second, that Business Insider piece is one of the most wretched things I’ve seen on a major publication’s website in a long time. There’s a supposed “guide” that is taking the photographer through the reservation. The guide is unnamed and may well be made up. The photographer did nothing more than cruise through the reservation, take pictures while driving because he was afraid to stop, and then did stop once in a park to take photos of some passed out drunk people. There’s no evidence of even the slightest sense of journalism here. Pure sensationalism that does nothing more than just perpetuate anti-Indian stereotypes. I mean, it’s really, really, really bad.

Third, the story of a place like Wind River or Pine Ridge or Jemez Pueblo or so many other reservations is one not only of historical racism but of present-day racism. The basic story of white America with Native Americans is this: “We’re sorry we stole your land. We feel super bad about it. Not enough to do anything to make your present lives better. But trust us, we feel bad.” The reservations remain the most impoverished places in the United States, even at a time when we look upon the genocidal project against Native Americans as a national sin on par with slavery. Those past actions remain almost totally disconnected from present suffering. The reservations today get the standard anti-poverty programs that poor people around the country receive–which is of course not much. There are no jobs, no meaningful economic development programs outside of reservations with lucky enough geographical locations to have successful casinos, and no government responsibility for the past and present. It’s easy to forget a few thousand Arapahoes in the middle of Wyoming, a state we don’t think much about anyway. But if we as a nation were serious about expunging the sins of our ancestors, maybe we’d give incentives to business to invest in the reservations, provide meaningful job training, language recovery, and other social programs; work with the reservations to increase wild bison populations and recapture traditional hunting skills, and/or, yes, provide reparations for the past.

But we’re not serious about dealing with our national original sins. And it’s a lot easier to fly through the Wind River Reservation, take a few pictures, and publish them on websites read by the nation’s elite.


[ 55 ] February 19, 2013 |

Mary Sue McClurkin, a state rep from the fine state of Alabama:

Alabama state Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin (R) is pushing legislation that would impose restrictions on abortion clinics — a move that she argues is necessary because the procedure is a major surgery that removes the largest “organ” in a woman’s body.

“When a physician removes a child from a woman, that is the largest organ in a body,” McClurkin told the Montgomery Advertiser on Thursday. “That’s a big thing. That’s a big surgery. You don’t have any other organs in your body that are bigger than that.”

As I’ve stated before, education or intelligence is no necessary qualification to succeed at politics.

A Presidents’ Day Reminder

[ 65 ] February 18, 2013 |

When I think of Presidents’ Day, the one thing that comes to mind is how stupid it is to blast the faces of presidents onto South Dakota mountains.

I once said this very thing in a job interview for a position at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. To say the least, it did not help my case. Considering the location, I did not care.

The Declining Grasslands

[ 30 ] February 18, 2013 |

I’ve long been skeptical of biofuels as a meaningful way out of our energy crisis, especially considering that turning corn into fuel causes a whole lot of environmental problems of its own.

Another big problem with biofuels is turning much of the United States into a gigantic corn monoculture. The rush to plant corn (and soy) on every acre of ground has meant the most intensive farming of our grasslands yet, leading to the decline of those already too rare ecosystems and crashing bird populations. But hey, biofuels makes the Iowa corn industry happy and so it’s not going anywhere.

People Skills

[ 60 ] February 17, 2013 |

Yale has a very exciting new deal with the Department of Defense:

As early as this April, Yale plans to welcome a training center for interrogators to its campus.

The center’s primary goal would be to coach U.S. Special Forces on interviewing tactics designed to detect lies. Charles Morgan III, a professor of psychiatry who will head the project, calls these tactics “people skills.” These techniques would be honed using New Haven’s immigrant community as subjects. Morgan hopes that by having soldiers practice their newly acquired techniques on “someone they can’t necessarily identify with” (read: someone who is not white), they’ll be better prepared to do ‘the real thing’ abroad.

Now we learn of Yale’s plans to train soldiers in “people skills” on our campus only two months before the center is scheduled to open. There was no conversation with the city about how this might impact its immigrant community. There was no conversation with students and faculty about how it might impact campus culture. And there was no conversation at all about the ethics of a project like this. It’s hard to understand where this project came from; the university’s motivations are wholly opaque.

Finally, Morgan’s research and, by extension, this proposed center target people of color — brown people exclusively. According to a Yale Herald article, Morgan listed “Moroccans, Columbians, Nepalese, Ecuadorians and others.” Is there an assumption in Morgan’s desire to use more ‘authentic,’ brown interviewees as test subjects, that brown people lie differently from whites — and even more insidiously, that all brown people must belong to the same “category” of liar?

How might training on lie detection be perceived if it targeted blacks, or if it aimed to answer the question, “How do Jews lie?” That Morgan’s test subjects are compensated does not resolve the ethical questions his project raises. In fact, their participation highlights the structural inequality that this research capitalizes on and that the center would ultimately exploit.

I’m real interested in knowing more about how “consent” for the subjects will be procured.

More general description of the program here.

Republican Responses to the Minimum Wage

[ 62 ] February 17, 2013 |

As always, Roy Edroso ventures deep into crazyland to get the latest writings from rightbloggers. And they were very happy about Obama’s proposed minimum wage hike, as you can imagine:

One real hair-raiser for rightbloggers was Obama’s proposed raising of the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, which would lift the annual income of low-end workers to a princely $18,000. “The largest percentage of minimum wage earners have ‘less than a high school’ education,” reported Warren Beatty at American Thinker. “…The last time I checked, public schooling included high school. And public schooling did/does not directly cost (except for ‘cool’ clothes) those being educated. Dropping out of school is a conscious choice. Yet we consumers are expected to pay higher prices to support what is a bad decision. Some economists suggest that increasing the minimum wages may actually encourage some students to drop out of high school.” So Obama was not only costing businessmen money, he was also contributing to juvenile delinquency.

“There are people who would like to work for $4 an hour,” said Ron Ross at the American Spectator, “and there are employers who would like to hire them for that wage. However, for them to enter into such a transaction is a criminal act. Some far-away clueless politician has arbitrarily decided that $4 an hour is not fair and not enough to live on.” Well, it’s good to see Republicans already working on their 2016 campaign pitch.

Like Roy, I strongly support the Republicans running on this platform in 2016.

Almost Verbatim Emory University President James Wagner: “The 3/5 Compromise is a Model to Which We Should Aspire. Also, the Liberal Arts are Like Slaves and Should Be Treated As Such”

[ 89 ] February 16, 2013 |

The president of Emory University evidently lacks people to make sure he doesn’t say insane, horrible things.

During a Homecoming program in September, a panel of eminent law school alumni discussed the challenges of governing in a time of political polarization—a time, in other words, like our own. The panel included a former US senator, former and current congressmen, and the attorney general for Georgia.

One of these distinguished public servants observed that candidates for Congress sometimes make what they declare to be two unshakable commitments—a commitment to be guided only by the language of the US Constitution, and a commitment never, ever to compromise their ideals. Yet, as our alumnus pointed out, the language of the Constitution is itself the product of carefully negotiated compromise.

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.




I think we can all be impressed by a bunch of elite southern white men discussing politics and coming to the Three-Fifths Compromise as ideal legislation. That one would say this publicly is even more bizarre–does he not have people to make sure he doesn’t actually articulate the incredibly offensive things he believes? Or, good lord could this be, is this the compromise editorial? If so, I don’t want to see the first draft.

But wait, there’s more. Because see where this ends!!!

Part of the messy inefficiency of university life arises from the intention to include as many points of view as possible, and to be open to the expectation that new ideas will emerge. The important thing to keep in view is that this process works so long as every new idea points the way toward a higher shared ideal, namely truth.

At Emory of late we have had many discussions about the ideal—and the reality—of the liberal arts within a research university. All of us who love Emory share a determination that the university will continue trailblazing the best way for research universities to contribute to human well-being and stewardship of the earth in the twenty-first century. This is a high and worthy aspiration. It is tempered by the hard reality that the resources to achieve this aspiration are not boundless; our university cannot do everything we might wish to do, or everything that other universities do. Different visions of what we should be doing inevitably will compete. But in the end, we must set our sights on that higher goal—the flourishing liberal arts research university in service to our twenty-first-century society.

I am grateful that we have at our disposal the rich tools of compromise that can help us achieve our most noble goals.

As a historian, where does this lead me? I mean, I already know that we liberal arts people probably do in fact count as 3/5 of a person when it comes to university decision making, but if university presidents are going to openly compare us to slaves, well I just can’t wait for the future. Why even pay us at all? The strike of a whip should force us into line!!!

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