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Demographically Symbolic

[ 51 ] April 13, 2015 |


I was far too kind to Wayne LaPierre.


A Reasonable Response

[ 53 ] April 12, 2015 |


It’s hard to see how this goes bad:

Kenya has given the United Nations three months to remove a camp housing more than half a million Somali refugees, as part of a get-tough response to the killing of 148 people by Somali gunmen at a Kenyan university.

Kenya has in the past accused Islamist militants of hiding out in Dadaab camp which it now wants the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR to move across the border to inside Somalia.

“We have asked the UNHCR to relocate the refugees in three months, failure to which we shall relocate them ourselves,” Deputy President William Ruto said in a statement on Saturday.

“The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa,” he said, referring to the university that was attacked on April 2.

Emmanuel Nyabera, spokesman for the UNHCR in Kenya, said they were yet to receive formal communication from the government on the relocation of Dadaab and could not comment.

The complex of camps hosts more than 600,000 Somali refugees, according to Ruto, in a remote, dry corner in northeast Kenya, about an hour’s drive from Garissa town.

A national security state based around making the terrible lives of over a half-million people significantly worse will surely protect Kenyans. There’s no doubt that the response of the U.S. government after 9/11 that included the invasion of two nations, one of which had nothing to do with the attacks, both endeared the United States to the world, preserved the freedom of Americans inside the nation, and protected its citizens abroad. Clearly, what Kenya needs is to call in Paul Wolfowitz for consultation.

Express Lanes

[ 21 ] April 12, 2015 |


No matter how many lanes of traffic governments build, they will never solve traffic problems because they incentivize more driving and more traffic, effectively subsidizing the problem they are meant to fix. Subsidizing public transportation and both dense and affordable urban living are far more effective ways to combat traffic.

Unionbusting Your Way to National Prominence

[ 38 ] April 12, 2015 |


Above: Illinois governor Bruce Rauner

There’s nothing good happening to the American worker in 2016, but it is even more discouraging than usual that Republican governors are trying to outdo each other in unionbusting as a way to gather national prominence and perhaps a presidential nomination. Scott Walker is of course the most prominent example of this, but it is also basically Illinois governor Bruce Rauner’s entire agenda.

Rauner’s efforts in Illinois are getting the closest scrutiny. That state is an unlikely launch pad for a crusade against union power. It has been a solidly blue state in presidential elections since 1992 and had not elected a Republican governor since 1998 until Rauner, a longtime friend of Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor who had also worked in private equity, won office last year. Conservative journalist Stephen Moore called the political newcomer’s campaign “the biggest election of 2014.“ Illinois, he wrote in National Review, “could become a laboratory experiment about whether conservative ideas can work in a state that has been ruled by…unions and a self-serving political machine in Springfield and Chicago.”

Once in office, Rauner issued a “Turnaround Agenda” that begins with this premise: “Government union leaders are funding politicians who negotiate their pay and benefits.” To put an end to that, Rauner issued an executive order challenging collective bargaining agreements with state employees and urged municipalities and counties to create their right-to-work zones.

Rauner frames the issue as one of freedom and local control. The governor says he wants Illinois communities to decide whether “their businesses should be subject to forced unionism or employee choice.” Forced unionism is a familiar phrase among opponents of collective bargaining, but it’s also a misleading one. If a majority of workers vote to form a union, then it’s customary for workers to be compelled to pay dues as a price for being in a union. Those who don’t want to join the union are required to pay something so they aren’t getting a free ride. By giving workers the prerogative not to pay union dues, right-to-work laws undercut the power of unions.

Hoping to spur municipalities to take on public-employee unions, Rauner sent right-to-work resolutions to all of Illinois’s cities and villages. A municipality can just insert its name and vote on it. It’s a smart strategy since the Illinois statehouse is solidly Democratic and won’t pass a right-to-work law. Setting fires in small towns might arouse anti-union sentiment, and it will surely inflame the unions. Last week, unions packed a meeting of the Oswego County board in northern Illinois, where the nonbinding resolution was up for discussion. Scott Roscoe, president of the Fox Valley Building Trades Council in Aurora, told a local journalist, “If we don’t stop anti-worker schemes like right-to-work, more families will fall behind.”

I’d say it’s fairly likely that if Hillary Clinton wins in 2016 than Rauner is setting himself up nicely for the nomination in 2020. Certainly his friends the Koch Brothers are happy with him. “Right to Work a Person a Death” should just become the central agenda on the Republican agenda. And Rauner would probably even have good buddy Rahm Emanuel on his side!


[ 6 ] April 11, 2015 |

Last night, I was fortunate enough to see a band headed by the drummer Ches Smith that also included the pianist Craig Taborn and the viola player Mat Maneri at Firehouse 12 in New Haven. They are all such fantastic players and it was just great. They haven’t recorded together yet, but here’s a performance of the band from January 2014.

The End of the Humanities Seminar

[ 89 ] April 11, 2015 |


Above: A dying form of higher education

Caught a bit about the new president at Victoria University at the University of Toronto (although I’m not sure quite what this means. Do Canadian universities have college presidents within the larger university?):

As universities grapple with budget cuts, small seminars are needed more than ever, he said.

“What we can do at Vic is to … emphasize the way discussion about ethics and other matters takes place more potently in a face-to-face environment.”

I mean, that’s nice and all, but at least in the U.S., the small humanities seminar is disappearing fast. There are a few basic reasons for this. First, as corporations demand that universities serve as training grounds for them and as politicians defund higher education and as administrators see themselves as CEOs who need to push students into those corporate fields, students are fleeing the humanities majors. English, history, and philosophy are dying as majors. This means that there is less demand for those small seminars, even if many students actually would like to take them. Second, as administrations decide to run themselves like corporations, the focus has become all on numbers at the university. What is your average class enrollment as a department? That’s the key question. Sometimes it’s the only question.

So a department like history is severely hurt by offering a seminar with 10 students. And it might be rewarded by offering an upper division Holocaust or Vietnam War course with an enrollment of 125 students. What are those rewards? The ability to hire new faculty. At my school at least, departments don’t have “lines” anymore. If 5 people in my department retired or left this year, the provost might well theoretically replace 0 of them. Instead, all the money would go into Pharmacy or Supply Chain Management. So the only way to prove worth is to have lots of students in your classes.

That means the incentive is to make a major easier and to offer courses that appeal to large numbers of students. Never mind that a humanities education requires a lot of writing and course discussion. These things are impossible in a course of 125 students. Doesn’t matter anymore. It actually hurts you to do those things. Sometimes corporations say they want the skills students acquire in a liberal arts education. But I don’t think that’s true at all. They want to shift corporate training onto the universities to save themselves money. Their power over legislatures and representation on Boards of Trustees means they can do so. And thus we have the decline of the humanities and the skills small seminars teach.

The Public Lands

[ 31 ] April 11, 2015 |


It’s worth remembering that central to the Republican agenda is selling off every acre of public land possible (which is everything outside of national parks, national monuments, national preserves, and wilderness areas*) to the highest bidder, which are almost inevitably timber and mining companies, and sometimes grazing interests or perhaps the 1% who want to create baronial estates. A budgetary amendment to move this idea forward, although it really doesn’t have meaningful legal standing, just passed the Senate by a 51-49 vote. A massive firesale of public lands is entirely possible the next time Republicans control the presidency and both houses on Congress. But you know, vote 3rd party in 2016 because drones.

*The linked article says wilderness areas can be sold, but I am pretty sure this is not true given that federally designated wilderness areas have more restrictions on usage than national parks.

Anti-Sweatshop Activism

[ 2 ] April 10, 2015 |


The anti-sweatshop activism of the late 1990s and early 2000s has been on the upswing lately, partially in response to the outrages of the 1134 workers dying at the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013.

Just yesterday, I ran across stories of students at the University of North Carolina and Virginia Tech both hosting events with survivors of Rana Plaza. There is pressure against European corporations for their role as well. Given the corporate attempts to hide American consumers from the impact of producing the products they buy and the enormous worldwide political, social, economic, and ecological implications of that, exposing Americans to the survivors of these disasters is a great way to fight back. A necessary way in fact. The more students involved in pressuring corporations (or at least their universities) on ethical sourcing of clothing, the better workers’ lives will become.

Losing the Peace

[ 53 ] April 10, 2015 |


We enjoyed celebrating the 150th anniversary of crushing treason in defense of slavery. Time to start bemoaning the 150th anniversary of losing the peace.

As Reconstruction got underway, former Confederates again and again invoked their interpretation of the Appomattox terms, and particularly the “remain undisturbed” clause, as a shield against social change. Republican efforts to give freedpeople a measure of equality and opportunity and protection were met by white Southern protests that such a radical agenda was a betrayal of the Appomattox agreement — that the prospect of black citizenship, as one Virginia newspaper put it, “molests and disturbs us.”

None of Lee’s lieutenants did more to register such protests than John Brown Gordon, a leader of Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan and future senator and governor. In his 1871 congressional testimony, he gave a stalwart defense of his region against charges of brutality and lawlessness, repeatedly invoking the Appomattox terms. Back in April 1865, Gordon argued, Confederates had been gratified by the “deferential” treatment they received at the surrender. “We should not be disturbed, so long as we obeyed the laws”: this was the pledge, Gordon said, that Grant had made to the Confederates. Peace would have come swiftly and surely, Gordon continued, if Radicals had not betrayed the spirit of Appomattox by telling Confederates “your former slaves are better fitted to administer the laws than you are.”

Trafficking in the toxic myth that congressional Reconstruction was a time of white Southern prostration and vindictive “black rule,” Gordon claimed, “our people feel that the faith which was pledged to them has been violated.” Southerners were “disturbed” by the congressional program, “deprived of rights which we had inherited — which belonged to us as citizens of the country.” If they had known what indignities and disabilities awaited them, Gordon surmised, Confederates would not have surrendered on April 9, 1865.

Gordon’s message was clear: The only way to restore peace was to leave the white South alone to manage its own affairs.

I believe April 10, 1865 marks the day when the Civil War stopped being about slavery for the white South.

Also, thanks to Malaclypse for uncovering the above image, which is pretty much my favorite image in U.S. history.


[ 12 ] April 9, 2015 |

Have a peaceful and quiet evening with Akira Sakata.


[ 74 ] April 9, 2015 |


Who thought the Democratic primary needed an elite white ex-Republican governor who had to end his reelection campaign because he was held in such contempt in his home state?

Chafee said the launch of his exploratory committee will be made via videos posted on his website,

“Throughout my career, I exercised good judgment on a wide range of high-pressure decisions, decisions that require level-headedness and careful foresight,” said Chafee. “Often these decisions came in the face of political adversity. During the next weeks and months I look forward to sharing with you my thoughts about the future of our great country.”

Yes, the man who ran for reelection in the Senate as a Republican in those long ago days of 2006 is running for president as a Democrat. He pretty much has one issue–that Hillary Clinton voted for war in Iraq and that should disqualify you. And that’s a good enough point I guess. But Lincoln Chafee is still a Republican on economic policy and anyone who votes for him is basically telling me they don’t care about unions or progressive economic issues. Let me tell you a story. When I got to URI, we were negotiating a new contract with the state. It fell behind as these things will, but we eventually came to an agreement with Chafee’s Board of Trustees and his negotiators. And then Chafee decided to torpedo the whole thing because our gigantic 3 percent raise was too much of a precedent for the rest of state workers, especially since he’d have to pay into their pensions. Now we don’t have a traditional pension plan so this was not our problem. But it didn’t matter. This was a clear unfair labor practice. It eventually got worked out, but our raises were delayed by over a year.

This is clearly the kind of intelligent leadership the Democratic Party needs. I haven’t felt this excited since Joe Lieberman finished in a 3-way tie for 3rd place (which was actually a pretty decisive 5th) in the 2004 New Hampshire primaries.

Within Rhode Island, this has led to some interesting commentary if you are interested.

Ideology Creators of the New Gilded Age

[ 89 ] April 9, 2015 |


I’m not surprised that people are creating ideological justifications for the New Gilded Age. I am surprised however that one of them is Eric Hobsbawm’s daughter.

Julia Hobsbawm is on a mission to make us rethink everything we believe about work and success. She draws on systems theory and British class formation and disruptive innovation—all to sell an idea lots of us find ugly, distasteful, even dangerous.

Here it is: She believes in the power of networking. And she doesn’t just think it’s effective; most people already know and begrudgingly accept that fact. She’s also set on convincing us that networking is great.

Hobsbawm, a visiting professor at London’s Cass Business School, calls herself “the world’s first professor of networking.” She’s the author of several books on the subject, and runs a series of conferences and workshops that help professionals become more culturally literate and better able to navigate a diverse, cosmopolitan world. She talks about a “new salon culture” and a “more meritocratic approach to networking,” and says that once-exclusive gatherings should allot space for members of marginalized groups.


Citing both her own stateside experience and academic literature, Hobsbawm tells me that “Americans’ attitude toward networking has been fundamentally transactional for 50 years. It’s just a lot more sophisticated…than that. It’s what you know and who you know.” Far from using the clinical language of business, she is fond of comparing herself to a Yiddish matchmaker. The kind of personal, intimate connections made in small-group settings—in a Guardian interview, Hobsbawm called it “the minute someone looks you in the eye and engages you and your cortisol levels drop, and you feel OK”—are, she says, the root of all successful networks.

Hobsbawm calls her vision “open-sourced elitism.” She is steadfast on the notion that the professional world can’t become a pure meritocracy. “We are all naturally inclined to love an upgrade,” she says. If that’s true, the best way to guard against nepotism and patronage is to keep holding the same kind of elite gatherings we’ve always had, but with more people, especially people who are usually left out. Hobsbawm’s ideal world is one in which “every elitist gathering of individuals…has a quota that is available to people that come from outside the catchment.”

Oh brother. Everyone knows that networking is in fact how people get jobs and how class distinctions get reinforced. It’s a major reason why people join fraternities, for instance. The problem is that rising in life because of who you know is pretty objectively a bad thing, despite all the elites today repackaging it as something great. Selling the idea that networking is awesome and should be embraced is deeply problematic on a number of levels. Hobsbawm pushes the idea that elite spaces should become less tied to the old class elite and offer more opportunity for the current non-elites and then everything would actually be more meritocratic than it is now. But I’m trying to think of why elite spaces would ever do that and I can’t think of one good reason at all, outside of lawsuits about racial and gender discrimination. Even she can’t come up with anything outside of a vague quota system of non-elites in elite gatherings.

Another major problem here is how this reinforces how much of our discourse today is focused on breaking into the elite. With the decline of the middle class, like during the Gilded Age we are again centering our national conversations on life in the upper class and how to achieve it. If it comes packaged in a British accent, well all the better for reinforcing the elite life.

It gets more ridiculous.

This may seem counterintuitive; widening the upper echelon would seem to produce an elite that’s less, well, elite. But Hobsbawm is an optimist. She believes that as talented people from excluded groups break into the elite, they’ll outperform their peers who made it on social connections alone—and eventually replace them.

This is basically repackaged bootstrapism. The finest will rise and the less competent of the elite will fall. I mean, that’s clearly been shown to be true if we examine U.S. presidents for instance so what do I know. Why this current class privilege would not continued to be replicated, I don’t know.

And yet, it’s all about elite, elite, elite in this article. What about those who aren’t elite? What about the average graduate of the University of Rhode Island or University of Oregon who simply lacks the social and cultural capital, the work ethic, the family support, etc., to rise into this elite? What if they are merely competent at their jobs? Does any of this matter anymore? Not to Hobsbawm at least.

When I ask how introverts fit in, she says they’re natural networkers because “in order to connect with another individual, you have to have a degree of intimacy.” As far as she’s concerned, a clear, genuine interest in other people works better than mere glad-handing. This is also why Hobsbawm believes the British are poised to become the world’s best networkers: They are better at curating both a public and private self, she says, and because of Great Britain’s long history of class stratification, they’re not under the illusion that they live in a pure meritocracy.

Now we’ve entered the realm of complete bullshit. As an introvert, this is totally ridiculous. My entire graduate career, I was basically petrified of talking to respected faculty I did not know. So I simply didn’t do it. I did essentially no networking at all. It worked out for me, but then I’ve always been lucky when it comes to employment. But introverts do not want to have a degree of intimacy with people they are meeting at conferences or whatever elite social gatherings Hobsbawm believes will let them in. They want to go home. Or they want someone to pay attention to them and don’t know how to start that conversation. And what if you actually don’t have a clear, genuine interest in other people? Because higher power of your choice knows that the elite don’t have a clear, genuine interest in my life and I probably don’t in their’s either. I might be able to wing it, but that’s not the same thing. As for the British being unusually prepared for this future, well color me shocked that some of the world’s richest people would say they have unique characteristics that prepare them for world domination. But hey, Niall Ferguson provides one of the testimonials on her website so….

And now for the winner:

Ironically, there’s a bootstrapping, almost American aspect to how Hobsbawm got here. Her father, Eric Hobsbawm, was a Marxist historian and one of the most renowned scholars of the 20th century, but young Julia didn’t excel in school. She credits her success to working harder than her more academically-gifted peers, taking on tasks they wouldn’t do, and refusing to coast on her last name. Some people think “there is a shortcut and you just ring the most powerful person on that Rolodex,” she says, but it’s not that simple, “and that’s a good thing.”

Ha ha ha ha ha. Yeah, Julia Hobsbawm totally became a member of the elite because of her good social skills and hard work. She definitely did not gain any advantage from her father’s name and her being able to succeed had nothing to do her father at all. As we were just told, the British understand how to succeed because of their class system so now let me, scion of one of the most famous intellectuals in the world during the second half of the twentieth century, tell you, Oregon mill worker’s son, how to succeed in life through hard work and networking. Well, somehow I’m not buying any of this. This is one tonic of capitalist success that I am not tasting.

Now to be fair, Jordan Fraade, who wrote the linked article, is also quite skeptical and so maybe Hobsbawm really believes she is creating a more inclusive capitalism through her ideas. I see absolutely nothing that suggests her ideas would ever do that. Instead, I see a justification for the successful to tell themselves why they’ve succeeded and more barriers, not less, being placed between the average individual and the plutocrats who run the New Gilded Age.

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