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Ebola? Didn’t That Happen Around the Time of the Black Death?

[ 41 ] December 3, 2014 |

Can we get in the Wayback Machine for a minute? All the way to a month ago. In early November, in the days before the midterm election, Ebola was the greatest threat this nation ever faced and who was to blame for that but the African in the White House himself, Barack Hussein Obama. Vote Tom Cotton! Funny how as soon as the election passed, Ebola completely disappeared from the headlines. Coincidence, no doubt.

Ebola has fallen so far out of the public consciousness that Obama is now trying to remind people that it exists and is a public health problem we need to which we need to pay attention.

Amid nationwide protests over police tactics, intense scrutiny of an expansive immigration policy and growing concern about military strategy in the Middle East, President Barack Obama will drive 10 miles northwest on Tuesday to discuss a crisis that’s largely slipped the public consciousness.

Appearing at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, he will reacquaint America with Ebola.

According to the advisory for the event, a portion of the president’s remarks will be devoted to praising work done by the medical research community in combating the deadly virus — including slowing the growth rate of infections in West Africa, treating patients in the United States and conducting a Phase 1 clinical trial for a promising vaccine.

And I’m sure no one will pay attention until the next election cycle when conservatives need some less than subtle race-baiting to get out their voters.


Does It Come With Curry Brand Cat Food?

[ 55 ] December 3, 2014 |

Elliot Gould’s apartment from The Long Goodbye is available for rent. For $2800 a month you can live in one of the most awesome apartments ever used on the silver screen, not to mention have a legendary view. People will call you Marlowe. You will have some hippie dippie neighbors who like to take their clothes off. And you will have a very finicky cat. Watch out for Jim Bouton though.

If I actually had money and lived in L.A., I would be on this very fast. Alas, neither condition applies. But if I did have the money, you know what car I would park there? Tammy Wynette’s limo.

Objects to a Tax

[ 57 ] December 3, 2014 |

I was rummaging around the other day in my office and came across this old letter to the editor of the journal Western Field and Stream (one of the precursors to the modern Field and Stream) from October 1897:

Objects to a Tax

Editor Western Field and Stream:

I notice a strong tendency in this land of the free to restrict the freedom of “the hunter,” and get the working class entirely shut out from the freedom of the woods, fields and hills given us by our Creator. Pay $25 or twenty-five cents to hunt in any State in the “Free United States?” I shall hunt in any State I choose and pay no tax. My father died in Libby Prison to free some of our countrymen. The farmers will charge for the privilege of hunting on their land, and the poor folks will poach on the game preserves as they do in other countries. My Janesville, Wis., paper says: “No poor man can pay $30 for the privilege of shooting deer in this State, and they buy nothing here, and camp out, so we make nothing off them. But the rich who can pay the tax will spend $30,000 in the State.” During the open season I will hunt deer in Wisconsin and pay no tax. I am poor, and will take my eating stuff along. If arrested I will serve my time. After released I shall devote my life to exterminating the game of any hog State that restricts the freedom of the poor. Now this is the way I feel about it. And the same sentiment will be raised in others, and the flood will come. I believe no man should be stopped from hunting where he chooses during the open season. The deed for every farm should read: “After Sept 1st, each year, this land is thrown open for hunting until season closes. Actual damage to owners’ property to be paid by hunter at once. No game preserves or passes allowed to private parties or companies.”

Horace A. Milton
Pennock, Minn.

Now we might make fun of Milton, say he’s a precursor to the anti-environmental right-wing gun nuts of today, etc. But it’s a more complicated source that that. First, the establishment of hunting laws was very much about keeping poor people from hunting game for food. The elites like Theodore Roosevelt pushing these laws were quite open about that. As Louis Warren and other historians have shown, early hunting laws were about exclusion and punishment, saving game for elite whites to hunt in a proper sporting manner while ensuring that poor whites, blacks, Hispanos in New Mexico, and Native Americans could not have access to that game. Law enforcement backed up this proposition. Given the widespread poverty of the Gilded Age, these laws literally took food out of people’s mouths.

But if hunting laws were about exclusion, they were also necessary to save the wildlife of the United States. Given the number of deer in the U.S. today, it’s hard to believe they were being driven close to extinction in many parts of the nation by the 1890s, but it is true. Without these laws coming at the time they did, many large mammal species would probably be extinct today, including deer, elk, black bear, and bison. So it’s complicated.

It’s also really interesting to me that Milton chose to accept hunting seasons while rejecting hunting licenses. I don’t have too much insight on this, but he did yield to state authority on certain types of hunting regulations while completely rejecting it on others. And he very much placed his beliefs in the same context of a lot of Americans at the time on both sides of the conservation debate, which was fearing the U.S. would become like Europe with large private hunting reserves that locked most of the nation’s citizens out of the country’s natural resources. For hunters, this was outrageous because three centuries of American settlement had been predicated on open exploitation of nature and for conservationists, a democratic state-operated hunting system at least preserved the possibility of many citizens hunting, as opposed to the aristocratic system that prevailed in Europe and that many Gilded Age capitalists were trying to emulate with their purchase of large tracts of land.

The Worst Person in the World

[ 98 ] December 2, 2014 |

Lars von Trier.

In the interview, his first since that Nazi kerfuffle at Cannes back in 2011, Von Trier revealed that nearly all of his past works have been fueled by heavy drug and alcohol use, claiming he used to drink a bottle of vodka every day in order to feel creative. Expressing concerns that all his sober mind could produce were “shitty films,” he said that Nymphomaniac, his first film after going to rehab, took him 18 months to write while the script for Dogville was finished during a 12-day drug binge. “I don’t know if I can make any more films, and that worries me,” he said.

“There is no creative expression of artistic value that has ever been produced by ex-drunkards and ex-drug addicts,” he added. “Who the hell would bother with a Rolling Stones without booze or with a Jimi Hendrix without heroin?,” a comment that will surely be well received by Nymphomaniac co-star and outspoken ex-addict Christian Slater.

I thought this was an appropriate response:

Von Trier has accomplished making both the worst film I have ever seen and being an utterly horrible human being whose has dedicated most of his career to exploiting women on screen while daring uncomfortable film fans to watch. Unfortunately, they will largely do so because ART.

Happy Monroe Doctrine Birthday!

[ 55 ] December 2, 2014 |


Today is the anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine. We should celebrate since this was never ever never ever never used by the United States for imperialistic ventures in Latin America.

The Sexiest Thing You Can Have

[ 21 ] December 2, 2014 |


Above: The greatest aphrodisiac known to humanity, the union card.

What is sexier than union membership? Nothing of course:

Who knew that a union card was a turn-on?

Well, that might not be literally the case, but a new study finds that for men, union membership can boost their chances of getting hitched.

Research shows that for men, income correlates with marriage rates: The decline in marriage is more pronounced for men in middle and lower income groups. This basic relationship caused sociologists Daniel Schneider and Adam Reich to wonder: Would union membership—which is supposed to lift a person’s wages—also lift a person’s chance at being married?

Using 25 years of data from a cohort of men and women from the 1979 cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, they found evidence that union membership is positively associated with marriage for men, though the relationship was not statistically significant for women in unions.

“We argue that membership in a labor union may increase the marriageability of young men and women either by helping to secure economic benefits in the present or by sending a signal to potential mates about the stability and certainty of future economic prospects,” they write. “We find that men covered by collective bargaining have a significant advantage in first marriage and that this relationship remains after adjusting for possible confounding characteristics such as age, education, region, and attitudes.”

Given that I am a member of 2 unions, I should be irresistible.

This Day in Labor History: December 2, 1984

[ 32 ] December 2, 2014 |

On December 2, 1984, a gas leak in a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India killed somewhere between 3787 and 16,000 people. Perhaps the worst industrial disaster in world history, the Bhopal disaster shows the criminal negligence by which American corporations treat people of the developing world and why corporate leaders choose to site production facilities in poor parts of the world.

Union Carbide had one of the longest histories in India of any American company, going back to a battery plant opened in Calcutta in 1924. In 1969, Union Carbide opened its first pesticide plant in Bhopal, part of the Indian government’s Green Revolution program that would rely on massive chemical inputs to grow unprecedented tons of crops. By 1983, Union Carbide had 14 plants in India, making chemicals, batteries, pesticides, and other dangerous and highly polluting products. At its Bhopal plant, it produced a pesticide named Sevin. A brand name for carbaryl, Sevin is the third-most sold insecticide in the United States, used by home gardeners, agribusiness, and foresters. Carbaryl contains methyl isocyanate, an extremely toxic substance. What is poisonous to insects is often poisonous to humans in large doses.

On the night of December 2, 1984 and into the next morning, between 200,000 and 500,000 of the city’s 800,000 residents were exposed to 93,000 pounds of methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals after water entered a side pipe and mixed with the chemicals. The use of non-stainless steel pipelines to save money allowed this to happen. A chemical reaction quickly raised the heat and pressure of the chemicals and the emergency venting of the tank was undertaken. This sent a poisonous cloud spreading southeast from the plant over the city of Bhopal. We don’t know how many people died. The official release said 2259. The local government said 3787. Others put the total at up to 16,000, including those who died later from the illnesses they contracted after exposure. Who knows.

Union Carbide could have easily prevented this leak. But it shut off some of its safety systems in order to save money, sacrificing safety for profit. Operating manuals were in English but most workers read only Hindi. Local officials worried about processing these chemicals in a big city like Bhopal, but Union Carbide executives overrode their concerns because they wanted to centralize production at that facility and sell it to other Asian nations. The limited pollution prevention system in the plant was completely overwhelmed by the size of the factory, with UC putting no money into ensuring such an event did not happen. Between 1980 and 1984, UC laid off half its safety employees in the plant in order to save money.

Not surprisingly, the plant had severe workplace safety issues as well. A 1976 accident blinded a worker. A 1981 leak killed one worker and injured two others. A leak in 1982 nearly killed 28 workers, although none died in the end. There were many more similar incidents. A 1982 safety audit suggested major changes but there is no evidence UC implemented any of them.

Real accountability to Union Carbide officials was never going to happen. UC claimed India forced it to produce the chemical in Bhopal because it wanted domestic production, but this is a) quite possibly a lie and b) says nothing about the lack of safety procedures in the plant. After the disaster, Union Carbide sought to escape all responsibility. It claimed without evidence that someone must have sabotaged the plant. When an Indian court ordered the company to pay $270 million in damages, Union Carbide continued appealing the decision, allowing it to delay payments. In 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million in compensation but little of this money reached the affected people and what did hardly paid for the long-term health problems faced by the survivors. The deal was so minimal that UC stock rose $2 a share the day of the announcement.

Dodging responsibility certainly did nothing for the people of Bhopal, who suffered (and continue to suffer) long-term respiratory problems and lung disease. The chemicals also created severe liver, spleen, and kidney problems for many survivors. By 2001, no more than half of survivors’ compensation cases had been processed. The factory closed in 1986. Union Carbide, later purchased by Dow, has taken no responsibility for remediation of the factory site, while 91 percent of people living in a resettlement colony near the factory site use water contaminated by its legacy. Meanwhile, when Union Carbide’s West Virginia plant that also produced Sevin released a toxic plume of aldicarb oxime and methylene chloride in August 1985, sending 135 people to the hospital, it led to Congress passing the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986. This law provided local governments with information about toxic chemicals in order to support emergency planning measures. No such act came to India. In 2010, 8 Indian workers at the plant were convicted of crimes connected to the incident and the seven still living were given 2 years in prison, but no Union Carbide executive faced any legal consequences. Using the Alien Tort Claims Act, the survivors attempted to sue in U.S. courts in 1999 to hold the company accountable for both the victims and the remediation of the site, but the lawsuit was dismissed in 2012.

It is precisely that companies can poison workers in India or kill workers in Bangladesh without real consequences that they move away from the United States. The West Virginia incident created an additional layer of accountability for Union Carbide and other chemical companies. With increasingly mobile capitalism, there is no reason for companies to accept such a thing. Easier to just move to a country where people won’t have access to the power structures necessary to create meaningful accountability over wages, working conditions, or pollution. The lives of poor people are meaningless for Union Carbide, Wal-Mart, Target, or thousands of other American corporations involved in the exploitation of the developing world today.

Between 120,000 and 150,000 people in Bhopal today still struggle with the impact of the chemical leak that transformed their lives thirty years ago today. Long term birth defects are another result of the massive contamination that remains on and near the site, including in the drinking water for thousands. Said a recent report on Bhopal’s legacy:

“There is a very high prevalence of anemia, delayed menarches in girls and painful skin conditions. But what is most pronounced is the number of children with birth defects,” said activist Satinath Sarangi from the Bhopal Medical Appeal which runs a clinic for gas victims.

“Children are born with conditions such as twisted limbs, brain damage, musculoskeletal disorders … this is what we see in every fourth or fifth household in these communities.”

But of course there has never been an in depth study to prove the connections. Just a coincidence, no doubt.

There is of course a great deal of material on Bhopal. A bit of this I took from my upcoming book, Out of Sight</a>. I also relied upon Ward Morehouse’s 1993 article “The Ethics of Industrial Disasters in a Transnational World: The Elusive Quest for Justice and Accountability in Bhopal.”

This is the 126th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Mining Companies Lie About Their Environmental Impact. To the Fainting Couch!

[ 9 ] December 1, 2014 |

This is 2 months old but I am doubtful any of you are familiar with the story. I was not until yesterday.

Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies, decided to open a new copper mine in Mongolia. That nation of course has a long tradition of nomadic herding and is also arid. That means those herders rely on scarce fresh water supplies. Rio Tinto promised they would use only deep aquifers that would have no impact on the herders’ water. You may not be surprised to discover that the company lied.

When companies build exploration wells that touch different water sources, like those outside Oyu Tolgoi, they must be sealed with impermeable material. This ensures water from a shallower source cannot cascade into a deeper one.

The contractor didn’t build those seals at Oyu Tolgoi’s wells. The construction plan shows only gravel where an impermeable barrier should be.

A “technological mistake,” Oyu Tolgoi’s vice president called it.

At least five other wells were cascading too, a specialist brought in by the government later confirmed. Rio Tinto blames its drilling contractor, RPS Aquaterra, saying the company constructed the wells incorrectly.

But Rio Tinto should have been able to adequately oversee the work of its contractors, said mining expert Paul Robinson of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a New Mexico-based nonprofit focused on natural resource protection.

“What they did completely defeats the purpose of what was committed to and agreed to,” he said. “It is really bad performance.”

There are no public scientific studies or data that show how much water was lost.

White pointed to a company report that says the cascading does not have a “measurable impact” on the shallow aquifers upon which the herders rely.

Even so, the shallow and deep aquifers now appear to be connected, according to an independent 2013 audit. That can cause the contamination of the freshwater aquifer if the cascade reverses, a problem that’s potentially as serious as water loss.

Herders like Khayandorj said that since the exploration wells went in, plants that had survived years of drought have died.

“Yes, there were two to three years of severe drought,” he said, sitting in his yurt over bowls of salty milk tea. “But right after they set up those wells, families had to move away because of changes in the grass.”

Two wells he once used now are dry. He told Oyu Tolgoi, which has promised to find a new water source for any herder with a dry well. The company has dug several new, deeper wells for other herders. But in his case, the efforts didn’t work.

“They came. They dug with their machinery,” he said. “Nothing. It’s dry.”

Khayandorj and his family spent the entire summer, usually a time of rest for nomads, setting up temporary camp, constantly on the move for sufficient grass and water for their herds.

The nomads have suffered other affronts during Rio Tinto’s mine development. The company replaced a natural spring that was a place of worship with what looks like a man-made drainage ditch. It also dug up sacred elm trees, according to the US Agency for International Development.

Lkhamdoorov Battsengel’s family, along with 10 others, used to live and graze their herds on pastureland of the Turquoise Hill, as the area is known. His family alone had 600 sheep and goats, 100 camels and dozens of horses and cows. When the mining company fenced in its land, it forced the families to relocate.

The land where Battsengel resettled couldn’t sustain his herds. He is down to 100 animals in total.

He’s now started a nonprofit environmental organization called Gobi Soil to influence Oyu Tolgoi’s environmental policies. It has banded with bigger nonprofits to file formal complaints with the International Finance Corporation, which is considering a $1.4 billion financing package to develop the mine further.

“We still have time to turn things back,” he said.

Battsengel now supports his family by collecting trash for Oyu Tolgoi.

This basic story takes place around the world, especially in poor nations as multinational corporations seek mineral rights in areas with few meaningful environmental regulations and little chance of real consequences if they violate them. The impact on the world’s poor is devastating.

Citizen Nuclear Science

[ 2 ] December 1, 2014 |


Even today, government and industry proceed ahead with new technologies with nothing close to appropriate monitoring and testing to demonstrate its effects on people before they happen (see fracking for one example). That was even more true during the Cold War, when atmospheric nuclear testing was taking place without the slightest clue how all that radiation might affect humans far away from the test sites. In St. Louis, citizens worried about radioactive fallout devised a plan to collect baby teeth from children to see what was happening.

This group, the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI), brought together physics, biology and dentistry faculty from Washington University and Saint Louis University with laypeople (many of them volunteers from civic and social organizations such as the League of Women Voters) in its membership. Members wrote essays for publication in general-interest magazines, stuffed envelopes, and gave talks to local Kiwanis Clubs and other interested members of the public about the basics of atomic science, explaining what we knew—what isotopes are, for example—and what we didn’t know—most pressingly, how radioactive fallout from nuclear testing affects the body. Members also took part in what turned out to be more than a decade of scientific data collection for a project inspired by Herman Kalckar’s short article on teeth as sources of data on radioisotope absorption levels.

Kalckar’s article established a method by which researchers could chart the levels of radiation absorbed by human bodies. Yet establishing baseline exposure levels for the years prior to massive multiple test detonations would require immediate action. In 1951, only about 24 nuclear test detonations had taken place, many of them relatively small compared to the kiloton or megaton levels of tests between 1952 and 1958. If scientists acted quickly, they could collect the data inscribed in deciduous teeth during the period preceding the 1952 and 1954 detonations of hydrogen bombs. The evidence of those baseline levels of absorbed radiation from the early years of testing was all around, in the mouths of children. It slept in their jaws, was nestled under their pillows and thrown away or stashed in drawers after being exchanged for fifty cents from the “Good Fairy.”

CNI initiated the Baby Tooth Survey in December of 1958 with a grant from the United States Public Health Service (later funding came from subsequent Public Health Service grants, along with funds from the Leukemia Guild of Missouri and Illinois.) Louise Reiss, an internist at the St. Louis City Health Department, helmed the study, which aimed to collect 50,000 teeth a year from children in the St. Louis area in order to acquire sufficient quantities of tooth material for testing.

Such an ambitious effort required the participation of every school in the St. Louis area and a publicity blitz to match. Reiss met with the superintendents of each school system. She met with dentists, school librarians, YMCA directors, local dental and pharmaceutical professional groups. A 1964 report on the study detailed the extraordinary support Reiss won from the community:

During the weeks of the semi-annual Tooth Round-ups, public service time is given generously by radio and television stations to publicize the needs of the Survey. Mayor Raymond Tucker has proclaimed Tooth Survey Week. Last December the Veiled Prophet queen, St. Louis’ traditional reigning beauty, celebrated the Survey’s fifth birthday with a party at Children’s Hospital. A large model of a tooth (with a child inside) gives out forms in department stores. And, most important, dentists are reminded by letter and at conventions how helpful it will be if they make the forms available in their offices. So well known has BTS become that letters from children, addressed simply “Tooth Fairy, St. Louis,” reach their destination at the CNI office.

Pretty bad that it took everyday citizens to develop even the most basic monitoring of how nuclear fallout was affecting children. But then that’s the Cold War for you.

White American Riots

[ 16 ] December 1, 2014 |

I’d say this list significantly underestimates the amount of white American rioting in American history. But in popular white ideology today, rioting is only something that black people do.


Wussy Goes Big Time

[ 58 ] November 30, 2014 |

It’s a bit hard to believe that Wussy was featured on CBS. But so they were, including an interview about how an acclaimed rock band can be acclaimed but make absolutely no money, meaning everyone has to work day jobs. Here’s the interview:

And here’s one of the songs they performed on CBS:

Go buy their albums

Ban the Puns!

[ 52 ] November 30, 2014 |

If we followed the Chinese model and banned puns on this blog, our comments would fall by 50 percent.

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