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Cary Nelson: Embarrassment

[ 26 ] December 28, 2014 |

Cary Nelson continues to embarrass himself through his attacks on Stephen Salaita. One time AAUP head and supposed defender of academic free speech once again decides that free speech only counts if he agrees with the person. Otherwise, Nelson takes it upon himself to decide who an American Indian Studies program should hire and engages in intellectual gymnastics to explain why if Salaita was already at the University of Illinois, that would be fine but as a potential hire, he had to step in.

What a jerk.

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Book Review: H.H. Shugart, Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and the Book of Job

[ 5 ] December 28, 2014 |

H.H. Shugart, a systems ecologist at the University of Virginia, has written a book using the Book of Job to frame both environmental change over the long period of human history and how we are transforming the planet’s ecology today. Shugart’s major goal is to bring the insights of religious studies to those of science to create a conversation between scholars of religion and scientists. While I’m not totally convinced there is a particularly useful conversation to have there, Shugart has written a very good book explaining both short and long-term ecological change in plain language while placing it all within a valuable historical context.

The Book of Job is well-known, even among the non-religious, for its story of the plight of a good man who God decides to test by taking everything from him. Shugart points out that this story is actually pre-Biblical, probably adapted from earlier religions to the Jewish context. Some of the Book of Job is God speaking to Job through a whirlwind, asserting his superiority to Job through challenging him on the knowledge of the world. Shugart takes a couple of verses from the whirlwind speech to frame each of his chapters explaining global ecological change over the history of humans.

Take for example Chapter 4, which explores how humans have affected species distribution around the globe, from extinctions to intentional introductions of animals that become pests. Shugart starts the chapter with three verses from Job 39:

Who has let the wild ass go free? Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass, to which I have given the steppe for its home, the salt land for its dwelling place It scorns the tumult of the city; it does not hear the shouts of the driver.

The ass of the Book of Job was the onager, a now nearly extinct oversized donkey of the Near East. Shugart explores the archaeological evidence on the animals, showing Syrian paintings of onager-drawn chariots from 3000-2800 BCE to demonstrate they were probably domesticated. But the onager exists only in tiny populations today. The horse, an animal originating in modern-day Kazakhstan, replaced it after what seems to have been a genetic mutation leading to its ability to be bred in captivity and its rapid expansion by 2000 BCE. Onagers began to disappear from Sumerian writings around the same time. Today, most of the prehistoric horse-like creatures are either critically endangered, in decline, or already extinct. This was a choice by humans to favor the horse and humans are the ultimate keystone species, controlling the ecosystem in which they live. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, humans have done this for thousands of years. From rabbits in Australia to starlings in the United States, humans have spread species around in order to fulfill their aesthetic desires, creating major transformations in the animal world and ecology at large. If God asked Job “who has set the wild ass free,” Shugart finds similar questions in “who has set the starling free” in New York or “who has set the smallpox free” in Native America after 1492. Whether done by God or humans, rapid ecological change can certainly have such radical and rapid transformation as to make one thing the gods have turned against you. And more broadly, people are transforming a planet they do not understand.

Shugart supplies similar histories and insights to issues including bird migration, winds, climate change, and oceans. Each of these things have long been observed by humans and most if not all civilizations have attempted to understand them. Like people through history, Polynesians attempted to understand the stars, eventually developing navigation systems based around this. They used their ability to read the stars in order to spread across the Pacific. In doing so, they brought new animals to places that created widespread extinction and transforming the plant ecology of the region. Understanding the planet does not just have long-term or deep time implications, but helped shape recent history as well. Both the English and Germans were developing tide prediction machines in the early twentieth century that influenced World War II. Rommel was so certain that he had prevented an Allied invasion in June 1944 because of his understanding of tides that he was in Berlin celebrating his wife’s birthday when it began, dates decided in large part by Eisenhower because Rommel’s tidal defenses meant the Allies needed a low tide with a late rising moon.

In thinking about weather, Shugart notes “It is no surprise that the power to control the weather is a principal dimension of divine omnipotence.” Peoples throughout history have indeed tried to influence the weather and continue to do so today as we try to figure out ways to deal with climate change. In doing so, he provides succinct descriptions of both historical attempts to control the weather (including Congress actually funding some theory that the battles of the Civil War led to more rain) and the science behind attempting to mitigate climate change today. This is useful stuff, not so much for the specialist or even the religious person interested in environmental issues, but rather its greatest value lies in effectively explaining historical ecological change to a lay audience.

This review has largely focused on some of the scientific and ecological discussion rather than the religious side of proceedings, which often get left behind outside the introduction and conclusion to the chapters. I think it is an open question whether the insights of religion really have that much to say to scientists. Is it useful for scientists to understand that their attempts to understand the world have a long history? Sure. I’m not sure what they then do with that however. Perhaps they could reach out more to religious leaders over issues of wildlife protection and climate change to tap into those theological histories, but then we also know that Christian churches in the United States are going to have a, well, varied perspective on these issues as well. In the Book of Job, God knows that humans don’t understand the world. Humans have acted upon the world without understanding it, despite their attempts to do so. As Shugart says, “We must find better answers than we have. Our future depends on it (255).” This is undoubtedly true. Whether religion can help us answer those questions remains debatable, but Foundations of the Earth is at the very least a good primer to the long history of global ecological change.

Water Use and the Rio Grande

[ 61 ] December 26, 2014 |

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The Rio Grande, May 2003

Nothing drives comments like discussions of water use in the West, so let’s go down that path once more so I can link to this excellent series from the El Paso Times on water use in the Upper Rio Grande basin. Basically, there is way too much groundwater being used in a drought-stricken area with enormous population growth. If you think this is an unsustainable recipe for disaster, you are correct. This is just one quick bit from this 5-part series:

The Upper Rio Grande Basin, which stretches from southern Colorado to Hudspeth County, has been gripped by drought for most of the past decade, forcing cities and farmers to pump water from the ground quickly.

Because of that, the levels of groundwater, on which residents and farmers depend, have dropped in the El Paso area as much as 200 feet since 1903, an expert said.

The precipitous drop in the water table is especially disturbing because it is taking place in an area where it recharges too slowly to make up the loss. Worse, many experts predict a future in which even less water in the river will mean even more pumping.

“It’s like a bank,” said Zhuping Sheng, a hydrologist at Texas A&M’s AgriLife Research and Extension Center in El Paso. “And we’re withdrawing more than we deposit.”

In an attempt to find ways to cope with dwindling water in the Rio Grande Basin, The El Paso Times has received a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and has embarked on a series of stories about the issue.

Sheng and other scientists who study water and the climate make it clear that those living in the upper Rio Grande Basin face a major problem.

Sheng said that in some areas around El Paso, the water table has fallen between 150 and 200 feet since 1903.

With the region locked in a severe drought and with the Elephant Butte Reservoir at less than 10 percent of capacity, the pumping is only expected to accelerate.

Accelerated pumping out of a reservoir that is had 10% of capacity. OK then.

I still maintain that agriculture will be the eventual loser here. Despite its power, it doesn’t have the votes to maintain its water use at the expense of urban dwellers. But really, the entire structure of post-1945 growth in the American West is completely unsustainable and with each drought, that becomes more and more clear.

Ella Baker

[ 30 ] December 26, 2014 |

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Now that you’ve had your holiday fun, it’s back to work. Peter Dreier has a biographical piece on the great civil rights leader (and underrated great American) Ella Baker. You should read it. In part:

Baker bristled at the sexism and outsize egos of the ministers (including King) who ran SCLC and treated her as if she were the hired help. She was on the brink of resigning from SCLC when the student sit-in movement began in early 1960.

Baker wrote, and she and King cosigned, the invitation letter to SNCC’s founding meeting. Their letter explained that the purpose of the meeting was “to share experience gained in recent protest demonstrations and to help chart future goals for effective action.” They assured participants that although “adult freedom fighters” would be present “for counsel and guidance,” the conference would be “youth centered.”

Baker expected 100 participants to attend, but more than 300 activists showed up. She enlisted as key speaker James Lawson, a theology student at Vanderbilt University who had organized workshops on nonviolence for students in Nashville, Tennessee, and had helped lead the sit-ins in that city. During the conference, folksinger Guy Carawan introduced a new version of “We Shall Overcome,” which soon became the civil rights movement’s anthem. In her closing speech, “More Than a Hamburger,” Baker pushed the students to dream of how their sit-ins could develop into larger efforts to challenge racism in “every aspect of life.”

SNCC might have quickly disintegrated had Baker not nurtured it and helped the students learn to run the organization on their own. She resigned from SCLC and worked as a SNCC volunteer. The volunteer staff put out a newsletter, Student Voice, that helped give the new group an identity and spread the word. One of the first checks sent to help SNCC came from Eleanor Roosevelt.

As Baker guided SNCC’s young activists, she reminded them of her belief in radical democracy: “People did not really need to be led; they needed to be given the skills, information, and opportunity to lead themselves.” Reflecting on Baker’s talent for listening to everybody and then summarizing what was most important, former SNCC chair Charles McDew recalled, “Somebody may have spoken for 8 hours, and 7 hours and 53 minutes [of it] was utter bullshit, but 7 minutes was good. She taught us to glean out the 7 minutes.”

Imperialist Food Coverage

[ 15 ] December 26, 2014 |

I know The Economist has its roots in the British imperialist world. And I also know that the Chinese eat enough pork to play a not small role in global environmental degradation. However, an article on how Chinese pork consumption “is a danger to the world” that does not mention how European and European settler states consume meat (except for a quick mention of Americans liking beef) and how the people of these nations are and have long been the real driver of worldwide environmental degradation really follows that imperial legacy and is borderline offensive. That does not in any way downplay the point that global meat consumption is an environmental problem, but by pointing at THOSE (brown) people as the problem, this piece reinforces long histories in a variety of genres of writing–economic, environmental, foreign affairs–that worries about a foreign threat while ignoring the privilege of the publication’s own readership.

Christmas Greeting

[ 61 ] December 25, 2014 |

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I trust that everyone is having a nice a holiday as the child in this image.

A Christmas Miracle

[ 38 ] December 24, 2014 |

An 80s Christmas.

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Why was the Reagan Administration soft on miscegenation?

The Nicaragua Canal

[ 105 ] December 24, 2014 |

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Nicaragua Canal is not an environmental disaster, not to mention horrible for the people, largely indigenous, who will be displaced because of it. But the combination of China looking to check U.S. power and a Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega, who has every reason to stick a thumb in the eye of the U.S., means this is finally happening after being talked about for more than a century. I confess being a bit skeptical that this is going to succeed in the end and if it does, the consequences on the environment will be pretty significant. But it’s definitely fascinating to watch.

A World War II Christmas

[ 19 ] December 24, 2014 |

In 1943, it was a high priority of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to get an American Christmas tree on a plane to send to Winston Churchill.

This Day in Labor History: December 24, 1913

[ 7 ] December 24, 2014 |

On December 24, 1913, striking Italian copper workers in Calumet, Michigan were holding their Christmas party in the town’s crowded Italian Hall building. Someone shouted “fire.” Could have been company thugs, but we will never know. In the ensuing panic, people rushed the exit and 73 died, including 59 children.

The copper country of far northern Michigan was dominated by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Like mining companies around the nation, it attempted to control nearly all aspects of workers’ lives, including the use of company housing and company stores. Workers labored 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Pay was poor. Workers were charged for all the equipment they needed to stay alive and see well enough to work underground. This was all too typical for miners around the nation and a major reason why it was in underground mining that so many of the era’s major labor battles took place. In fact, this event would take place at the same time that miners in southern Colorado were going on strike in what led to the infamous Ludlow Massacre. Miners were also angry about the new one-man drill that forced them to work alone in the mines. Working in teams significantly improved worker safety since someone was there for you. If something happened with the one-man drill, you were on your own until someone wandered by. Miners were scared.

Into this exploitative system entered the Western Federation of Miners. The WFM had a long history in mining in the West, having formed after the Coeur d’Alene struggle of 1892. It played a key role in the establishment of the IWW in 1905 but then backed away from that movement in the wake of an internal split. WFM organizers understood the violent methods the mine owners would take against organizing workers. The WFM had made real gains for western miners and sought to expand their reach east of the Mississippi. The WFM first arrived in Calumet in 1908 and slowly built its forces until by 1913, it had about 9000 of the 15,000 miners in the area. This was enough to strike, which began on June 23, 1913. The specific demand in the strike was for union recognition, with everything else following that.

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Copper Country strikers

The response of the business owners, police, and “respectable citizens” of northern Michigan was similar to that in other mining regions–to form a paramilitary organization called the Citizens Alliance. The CA would raid and destroy WFM offices, beat workers, and otherwise sought to intimidate the strikers. The mine owners hired the Waddell-Mahon Detective Agency to intimidate the strikers. Violence resulted. In August, the mine company guards and detectives shot and killed workers Aloiz Tijan and Louie Putrich. Early the next month, a deputy policeman shot Margaret Fazekas, a 14-year old girl, in the back of the head. She barely survived. Mass arrests and imprisonments took place, taking strikers off picket lines and intimidating others. As was common during the 1910s, the civil rights of striking workers were ignored. Scab labor was brought in as well and the mines continued to run, albeit well short of full capacity. The vast majority of these scabs, about 75%, were imported from outside the region, from as far away as North Dakota and Pennsylvania. Most were not told they were coming to scab, but rather were being recruited for well-paying work that was all too scarce.

The WFM tried to publicize this strike nationwide. WFM leader Joseph Cannon gave a well-attended speech about it in New York, an event attended by the likes of Carlos Tresca and Alexander Berkman, noted failed assassin of Henry Clay Frick. There was a lot of coverage in national newspapers about the strike as well. But such events and reporting could do little concrete for workers. United Mine Workers president John Mitchell and Mother Jones visited and gave speeches as well.

The Christmas party itself was a union function, sponsored by the WFM Ladies’ Auxiliary. Such events are always important in long strikes because the poverty, lack of food, and boredom really can suck away the momentum of strikers. People get fired up initially, but can be broken down pretty fast. There were over 400 people there. Someone shouted “Fire!” Eight witnesses later said the person had a Citizens Alliance button on. People stampeded toward the door and children especially were quickly trampled to death in the melee. The New York Times editorialized about the strike, writing in part, “The foreign miners of the district are enraged and grief-stricken over the disaster.”

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Some of the Italian Hall victims

Local officials quickly moved to cover up the situation. Many of the workers did not speak English, yet the coroner’s inquest only spoke to them in English in an attempt to silence the witnesses. The Citizens’ Alliance was furious that the WFM blamed it for the incident. After WFM president Charles Moyer accused the CA of sparking the stampede, on December 26 they attacked him in the nearby town of Hancock, assaulting and shooting him, then placing him on a train with instructions to never return. Moyer quickly returned after holding a press conference in Chicago where he showed off his wound. But the strike faded. The oppression of WFM officials undermined the union’s ability to coordinate the strike. It was also running out of money and workers were getting increasingly desperate. The strikers voted to end the strike in April 1914 and they were required to destroy their WFM cards to regain their jobs.

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Moyer in Chicago hospital after being shot.

The strikers won little. There were some small wage increases and the 8-hour day that the mine owners introduced for scabs and continued for everyone at the end of the strike. The welfare capitalism that dominated the mines before the strike eventually faded while child labor laws drove the children out of the mines. The House Subcommittee on Mines and Mining did investigate the strike, with congressmen coming to Michigan in 1914, in order to understand and hopefully prevent the conditions that led to the strike and its famous tragic incident. However, the mines remained nonunion until the 1930s.

We will never know precisely who shouted “fire.” But the suffering of these workers both in and outside Italian Hall is a sad moment in American labor history.

Woody Guthrie wrote one of his best labor songs about the incident. I personally prefer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s version. I’m not sure he really holds to Guthrie’s politics, but his voice can really bring out the suffering of Guthrie’s subjects.

This is the 128th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Pal

[ 38 ] December 23, 2014 |

I know how much some of you love shaving.

Discuss.

Your Official Candidate of the 2016 Beltway Punditry

[ 178 ] December 23, 2014 |

Get ready for the Jim Webb wave! The Fred Thompson of 2016 has arrived!

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