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[ 85 ] January 11, 2013 |

Alyssa Battistoni has an interesting and lengthy piece at Jacobin about natural disasters, what will cause us to do something about them, what lessons do we leawrn, and a lot of other things. I think it’s been out for a little while, but I just read it.

The reality is that we will learn nothing from Sandy just like we learned noting from Katrina or any other natural disaster. Climate change is far and away the greatest challenge we face as a nation and a planet. No other issue is even close. But even when bizarre disasters hit the U.S. (and world) again and again, even when New York City gets hit by 2 hurricanes in 2 years, even when an iconic American city is nearly wiped off the map, literally nothing of consequence is done. The upshot of climate change is that we will do absolutely nothing, 80% of the world’s plant and animal species will go extinct, our children and grandchildren will live worse lives than we do. We will still do nothing.

One nit to pick with Alyssa. Historians need to do a better job of pushing back on the myths around the Dust Bowl. She uses it as an example of when the U.S. did react to a natural disaster:

The Dust Bowl and the Depression offer the most obvious example of successful left politics in response to dual environmental and economic crises. Driven by radical organizing, the country essentially instituted basic income schemes that paid farmers not to farm and others to do public works. It was the obvious referent for the wave of enthusiasm for green jobs and a New New Deal in the early days of the Obama administration—perhaps too obvious, failing to take into account the differences of the current situation. But those hopes have faded in the face of austerity, and with it much of whatever tentative blue-green alliance there was, to say nothing of a red-green one. Both labor and environmentalists are becoming more confrontational in their tactics, but they’ve largely retreated to their own camps. In the vacuum that’s resulted, it’s not hard to imagine newfound bipartisan attention to climate change being used to advance proposals for blunt austerity measures instead of radical redistribution, capitalizing on the popular perception of environmentalism as asceticism to justify—or deflect blame for—a familiar neoliberal agenda.

This lesson from the Dust Bowl really isn’t true (I’ll leave the contemporary issues of labor and environmental movements for now). The New Deal and Dust Bowl were almost totally coincidental. New Deal policies exacerbated what we see as a major consequence of the Dust Bowl–migration out of the Plains. Tom Joad and clan were not pushed out by the Dust Bowl, it was centralization of agriculture and the eviction of tenant farmers due to AAA policies. Two major impacts of the Dust Bowl on federal policy was the Soil Conservation Service and the National Grassland system, but neither of these were major federal responses that changed the nation in particularly profound ways (important as the SCS is from some perspectives). The other was the beginning of the agricultural subsidy system, which although heavily mutated in the 70s always had the effect of centralizing agricultural control with big farmers. Dust Bowl policies really weren’t an example of successful left politics. By the 1950s, more native prairie was plowed up than ever and the agricultural capitalism that created the Dust Bowl was more powerful than it had ever been in 1932. As a society, we learned nothing at all from the Dust Bowl.

The Rich Male Whiteness, It Burns

[ 492 ] January 11, 2013 |

A bunch of conservative Texas groups are taking history departments at the University of Texas and Texas A&M to task because they supposedly talk too much about race, class, and gender instead of rich white guys and awesome wars and America Rocks and Let’s Invade Iran! and other such things. Texas has a public school requirement that each college student must take 2 U.S. history classes. So these groups decided to look at syllabi to see what they could see. The answer, too much teaching topics that might make students question the current tenets of the Republican Party.

So I teach a wide variety of courses. Right now, that includes the first half of the U.S. history survey, Civil War and Reconstruction, Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Environmental History, and U.S. West. We have senior people who teach Labor History, but somewhere down the road I’ll be able to pick that up. If you look at my syllabi without any context as to what those classes hold, those classes probably look pretty white, pretty male, pretty middle and upper class. All of those groups are covered plenty, I assure you. On the other hand, you can only teach the Civil War without talking about slavery if you subscribe to the Louisiana Confederate Museum version of history. You could theoretically teach the Gilded Age as the Awesome Age and talk only about how wonderful Jay Gould and Henry Clay Frick were but that would not only be stupid but an incredibly boring class for me and the students. But the idea that we don’t talk about rich white dudes is crazy. Now, we don’t talk about them as heroes. And of course that’s the point for these conservatives, that we should be–John D. Rockefeller was a great man! William McKinley was totally justified in invading the Philippines. As for women, well get back in the kitchen.

My goal in teaching history is to give students a wide range of perspectives. That includes race, class, and gender. It includes nature and sexuality. It includes politics and foreign policy. It doesn’t include too much in the way of military tactics because that bores me, although obviously I have to do a certain amount of it in the Civil War course. It probably should include more on religion, but we all have our weaknesses. It includes talking about the rich and poor, white and black and Native American and Latino and Asian. It is about men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, adults and children, right-wingers and left-wingers. It’s about helping students acquire the tools to make the connections they want to make between the past and the issues they care about in their own lives. It’s about teaching students to read old documents and why that matters. It’s about exposing them to the world of silent film. It’s about teaching writing and critical thinking.

In other words, it’s just standard work in the humanities.

But of course conservatives are outraged by this. The conservative goal in teaching history is to replicate the Republican Party platform in a new generation. Conservatives see history professors as the enemy and they have declared war upon us. The only option we have is to push back, not in favor of a certain leftist ideology, because many historians aren’t leftists by any definition. But rather to push back for a multiplicity of perspectives, for presenting students with information that can help them make connections between the past and the present, whether they become more informed conservatives or outraged feminist activists or they just learn a little more about the history of the television they love so well.

And as for why we should create courses to worship Alexander Graham Bell at the college level, well you’ll have to answer that one for me.

Jack Lew: Union-Buster

[ 30 ] January 10, 2013 |

Related to my dismissal of Obama’s words about Hilda Solis yesterday (and here’s Dave Jamieson with a good run-down of Solis’ term as Secretary of Labor, Josh Eidelson has a piece up about soon-to-be Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew’s union-busting past. Lew was COO at New York University when it busted the graduate student union in the mid 2000s. While it’s hard to pin down exactly what role he played, he was certainly central to the conflict:

By the time Jack Lew left his post as NYU COO to become COO of Citigroup Wealth Management, the six-month strike was over, and the union had lost.

When we talked last year – soon after Obama had promoted Lew from his OMB director to his chief of staff — Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein told me that Lew had acted as “the point person” in “representing management’s position” against GSOC. She said that NYU’s choice to stop recognizing the union meant the membership “has had to organize from scratch.” But when I asked if she thought Lew’s role should have disqualified him for the promotion, she answered, “I would love it if he had a chief of staff who had a direct history of being very pro-union. But he was in charge of the budget at NYU. Within that context, he did what he did. Maybe he’s learned something from it.”

Maybe, but I doubt it.

Noam Scheiber has a much more positive view of Lew. But then Scheiber and Eidelson are talking about different issues. It’s entirely possible that Lew is very strong on Medicare and Medicaid. I sure hope so. But that hardly he means he is strong on organized labor. One could say this about many Democrats in 2013.

The Chavez Legacy

[ 126 ] January 10, 2013 |

Since it seems Hugo Chavez is about to die, it’s worth looking at his legacy a bit. Of course, it’s almost impossible to do so in a measured way. His die-hard supporters (relatively few as they may be in the United States) talk of him in reverent tones, as the sole man to stand up to American imperialism in the last 20 years. Those North Americans invested enough in Latin American politics to hate Chavez think he’s the antichrist and supported the coup attempt against him.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Chavez not exactly an ideal guy for the left to be following. I’ve always thought his version of socialism was too much bombast and not enough good governance. Sticking your thumb in the United States’ eye may have value, but not as much as ensuring good trash pickup for poor people. Anyway, Mark Weisbrot has a pretty good overview, arguing that Chavez may have been able to be Chavez because of oil money (and outright US hostility that only strengthened his hand at home), but at least it went to improving the lives of the Venezuelan people and not into offshore bank accounts.

Like Chavez or not, but don’t deny that life for the average Venezuelan is almost certainly better than when he took power. And even if you think that’s entirely because of high oil prices, remember that corrupt leaders in the past siphoned the money into their own pockets and that Chavez’s enemies want an austerity program in the country that would fall entirely on the backs of the poor. Or for a current example of this, see Nigeria.

On the other hand, Weisbrot co-wrote Oliver Stone’s horrible, fawning, and profoundly shallow documentary on Chavez. Not sure how you live that one down.

More Inaugural Sermons From Anti-Gay Preachers

[ 120 ] January 10, 2013 |

Why, Obama, why?

The Presidential Inauguration Committee announced Tuesday that the President Obama has selected Pastor Louie Giglio of the Georgia-based Passion City Church to deliver the benediction for his second inauguration. In a mid-1990s sermon identified as Giglio’s, available online on a Christian training website, he preached rabidly anti-LGBT views. The 54-minute sermon, entitled “In Search of a Standard – Christian Response to Homosexuality,” advocates for dangerous “ex-gay” therapy for gay and lesbian people, references a biblical passage often interpreted to require gay people be executed, and impels Christians to “firmly respond to the aggressive agenda” and prevent the “homosexual lifestyle” from becoming accepted in society. Below are some of the most disturbing views in the sermon.

First, it’d be nice to have one of these sermons be by a non-Christian. Everyone who would be outraged by that didn’t vote for Obama anyway. Second, is it really that hard to find a minister to give a sermon who isn’t a gay-basher? First Rick Warren and now this guy. How about a nice Unitarian? Or a progressive-minded Lutheran? Or just someone who is nice and non-controversial on the matter?

Really unacceptable.

Labor Notes

[ 44 ] January 9, 2013 |

A few labor items of note.

1. Hilda Solis is resigning as Secretary of Labor. Hard to blame her given the isolation of the Department of Labor during the Obama Administration. Obama’s statement included the following:

Over the last four years, Secretary Solis has been a critical member of my economic team as we have worked to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and strengthen the economy for the middle class.

Yeah, no. It’s been clear from Day One that Obama had little interest in centering the Labor Department on the major financial matters of the day. Ideally, the Secretary of Labor would represent labor’s voice not only in the creation of work regulations, but in the entire financial makeup of the country. The Obama inner circle of financial advisers included Geithner, Lew, Summers, and a whole lot of other Wall Street connected elites, but has anyone heard Obama ever mention Solis as an important player? That’s not necessarily to say that Obama has done a bad job on labor issues when he hasn’t had to extend any political capital. I think his record is mixed. But let’s be realistic about where Solis stood in his administration: way down at the other end of the Cabinet table.

2. A well-deserved Sidney award for Leslie Patton. Her story on how workers at McDonald’s have generated massive profits for executives while receiving virtually no benefits themselves is an excellent window into the nation’s class divide. McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner pulled in $8.75 million last year. McDonald’s employee Tyree Johnson, who makes the Illinois minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, would need to work more than 1 million hours in a year in order to match that salary. That is class warfare right there. Depressing stuff.

3. Speaking of corporations committing class warfare against the poor, Wal-Mart is at least under some pressure to name its clothing suppliers after the fire in Bangladesh that killed over 100 people in November. Given that its labor practices are some of the worst in America, it’s hard to think they will hand over the information. On the other hand, outside pressure has made some difference in pressuring Nike and now Apple to improve conditions. So it can help.

4. With Democrats like Claire McCaskill, it’s hard to call the war on organized labor a Republican war.

5. A Taco Bell franchise in Oklahoma is the latest fast food company to strip workers of money while blaming it on Obamacare costs they don’t even have to pay yet. I’m sure all that money is going into some kind of fund for future healthcare expenses……

There Are Blue States and Then There Are Blue States

[ 46 ] January 9, 2013 |

Rhode Island and Oregon are two of the most reliable states for Democrats each election cycle. If anything, Rhode Island is even more a sure thing than Oregon. But the reality of public policy in the two states shows some pretty large differences. Admittedly, the following is anecdotal, but it also provides more evidence for my thoughts after a lifetime of following Oregon and the last 18 months in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island is the last state in New England to have no form of marriage equality. A bill will be proposed in the next legislative section. Hopefully it passes. I suspect it will be pretty close, despite gigantic Democratic majorities in the legislature. One big reason why is the influence of the Catholic Church over public policy in the state. So when the Bishop of Providence rails against same-sex marriage in offensive ways that deny that gays and lesbians actually exist, it actually matters. Although I probably shouldn’t overstate his influence, it’s arguably a greater influence over state policy than any other bishop in the country.

Meanwhile, Oregon has now outlawed insurance company discrimination against transgender people.


[ 48 ] January 9, 2013 |

Since all the important people are now in love with Chris Christie for attacking his own party, let’s not forget that the man is the purveyor of awful, awful policies. No doubt the real solution for struggling school districts in New Jersey is to deny them money. I understand that poverty combined with substandard and underfunded schools is quite the recipe for future success.

At least the New Jersey Supreme Court is holding Christie to the letter of the law.

Climate Change

[ 84 ] January 9, 2013 |

Yeah, I’m sure the United States having its hottest recorded year in history in 2012 by a full degree and Australia’s Bureau of Meterology having to come up with new colors for its temperature maps because of the hottest temperatures in the history of the continent is just anecdotal evidence of climate change. Nothing to see here. After all, there’s 3 inches of snow on the ground in the northeast!

The NRA Vision of the American Future: Guatemala

[ 58 ] January 8, 2013 |

The NRA argues that if only the good guys all had guns, they would shoot the bad guys and magically we wouldn’t have any gun violence. Or something strange like that. Never mind that time last year when the New York cops shot and wounded nine bystanders taking down an armed gunman at the Empire State Building. Or any other amount of evidence. Luckily, we can see in other countries what happens when everyone is armed. And it’s not good:

THOUGH many of these countries have restrictions on gun ownership, enforcement is lax. According to research by Flacso, the Guatemalan Social Science Academy, illegal guns far outnumber legal weapons in Central America.

All that has spawned a thriving security industry — the good guys with guns that grace every street corner — though experts say it is often unclear if their presence is making crime better or worse. In many countries, the armed guards have only six weeks of training.

Guatemala, with approximately 20,000 police officers, has 41,000 registered private security guards and an estimated 80,000 who are working without authorization. “To put people with guns who are not accountable or trained in places where there are lots of innocent people is just dangerous,” Ms. Peters said, noting that lethal force is used to deter minor crimes like shoplifting.

Indeed, even as some Americans propose expanding our gun culture into elementary schools, some Latin American cities are trying to rein in theirs. Bogotá’s new mayor, Gustavo Petro, has forbidden residents to carry weapons on streets, in cars or in any public space since last February, and the murder rate has dropped 50 percent to a 27-year low. He said, “Guns are not a defense, they are a risk.”

William Godnick, coordinator of the Public Security Program at the United Nations Regional Center for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, said that United Nations studies in Central America showed that people who used a gun to defend against an armed assault were far more likely to be injured or killed than if they had no weapon.

I’ve traveled throughout Central America. Everyone is armed. And I’ll tell you, it scared me. An armed society is an unsafe society. The “good guys” aren’t always so good and they most certainly aren’t always good shots. Arming everyone is a response to not investing in a social safety net and giving people hope for a better life. It’s not a good idea and as the evidence shows, it doesn’t make people safe.

Now I’m sure the NRA would be outraged by the comparison to Guatemala. The real reason for that of course is that those are Guatemalans and we are Americans. So somehow we’re better. Such a racialized response would hardly be surprising from an organization that took on its modern form as a result of the white backlash of the 1970s. The “good guys” the NRA wants armed are usually white in the American vision, the “bad guys” black and brown.

Anti-Union Hack of the Day

[ 20 ] January 8, 2013 |

Michael Bloomberg for a) comparing teachers unions to the NRA and b) fabricating the idea that like the NRA, members of teachers unions don’t agree with the leadership. I’m sure that for a billionaire like Bloomberg, Randi Weingarten and her American Federation of Teachers are just as evil as Wayne LaPierre’s agenda of accepting an apparently endless number of mass murders in exchange for the right to play with shiny toys, what with organized labor’s desire for decent pay and classrooms with air conditioning and teaching something other than how to take a standardized test and such. The horror.

Museum Review: Confederate Memorial Hall Museum, New Orleans, Louisiana

[ 33 ] January 8, 2013 |

Having never actually been to a museum dedicated to the Confederacy before, I had to go to the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum in New Orleans while attending the American Historical Association meeting last weekend.

What can one say about such a place? The building was erected in 1891. It’s an old Gilded Age mansion that I don’t think has even been renovated on the inside since construction. That’s appropriate because I think the people making up the core visitors hold the social values of 1891. It turns out that not only was the Civil War not about slavery, but that there’s no reason to even mention that black people exist. Literally, there’s not one mention of a black person, even as a supposedly loyal servant or something. It turns out that guns and swords are far, far more important. As was that big bad man Benjamin “Beast” Butler. And when you combine the fact that your coolest artifact outside of some battle flags is Benjamin Butler’s chamber pot with the fact that you don’t allow pictures to of anything, meaning I can’t add it to my collection of pictures of American historical toilets (I recommend the 3-seater at the home of Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole), it shows that not only does the museum lack any positive social value, but it can’t even provide the expected negative social value that I was hoping to get by going to one of the United States’ worst museums. Essentially, I see no reason for this museum to exist.

And yes, I was incredibly fearful that someone I know would see me enter or exit the museum.

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