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Are MOOCs Soon to Be Obama Administration Policy?

[ 144 ] May 30, 2013 |

Well, this is disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of higher education:

On Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the online courses could increase access and keep costs down. “I am very, very, very interested in MOOCs,” he said. “We need some disruptive innovation in higher education.”

No one doubts that the cost of higher education has skyrocketed in unacceptable ways. And everyone would like to increase access to education. However, Duncan’s statement on MOOCs screams of the classic “we need to do something and here’s something so let’s do it!” style so frequently used by those who seek to turn social institutions into profit-making enterprises. Why exactly do we need “disruptive innovation?” Precisely what is the problem in higher education that requires “disruptive innovation?” If it is the cost, there are plenty of things we can do. State legislatures can return funding levels to what they were 20 years ago. We can reduce administrative positions to what they were 20 years ago. We can cut expensive college football programs, most of which lose money.

Do we need “disruptive innovation” in order to increase access? We can do that through increasing on-line access in small virtual classrooms with real interaction between students and between students and faculty through discussion forums and the like. We can reduce the prohibitive cost of education through the funding mechanisms I discuss in the previous paragraph.

Turning our higher education system into the University of Phoenix seems like precisely the kind of “innovative disruption” we don’t need. The idea of teaching writing, critical thinking, public speaking, or intensive reading in a MOOC is laughable. While MOOCs assauge the egos of scabs certain highly-paid professors, they will likely lead to terrible retention rates and little real progress toward meaningful degrees.

The Obama Administration’s record on education is probably at the bottom of all its domestic programs. Obama’s support of Arne Duncan, Rheeism, and now, one wonders, MOOCs is a sign of the perniciousness of the so-called education reform movement, by which reform equals profit for investors and lower standards of education for students.

It’d be nice to put pressure on Obama and Duncan to take back this statement, but of course that isn’t going to happen.

The Cost of Illegal Marijuana to Owls

[ 56 ] May 29, 2013 |

Here is more evidence that illegal marijuana plantations on national forest land leads to significant problems to wildlife:

In the West Coast marijuana-growing region known as the Emerald Triangle, scientists want to know whether the rat poison spread around illegal pot plantations is killing northern spotted owls, a threatened species.

But because it is so rare to find a spotted owl dead in the forest, they will be looking at an invasive cousin owl from the East that has been pushing spotted owls out of their territory since the 1990s.

Mourad Gabriel, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory, said Tuesday they are testing 84 barred owls from Northern California killed in the course of research on whether removing them allows spotted owls to reclaim lost territories. Those owls were collected primarily by the California Academy of Sciences and Green Diamond Resource Company, which grows redwood for timber.

Among the first roughly 10 barred owls tested, about half have been positive for the poison. Two spotted owls found dead in Mendocino County in Northern California also tested positive for the poisons, Gabriel said.

I’ve talked about this before in context of the rare Pacific fisher. A very good reason to legalize and regulate marijuana production is to eliminate these environmental threats to animals. Right now, you have marijuana farmers dumping whatever poisons they want on their plants with no consequence. This goes right up the food chain, into meat-eating forest mammals and birds of prey. It’s probably not widespread enough to affect fish populations on a general level, but some local studies near busted pot farms would be interesting.

Right now you have insatiable demand for a product operating completely outside the nation’s regulatory structures. This has very real consequences, including to other species.

Union Contracts and Romanticizing the IWW

[ 219 ] May 29, 2013 |

Daniel Gross’ discussion of IWW Local 8, the iteration of the Wobblies on the Philadelphia docks during the 1910s is interesting, but it’s a lot more problematic as a lesson that “could transform the labor movement,” as the article’s title states.

Local 8 wasn’t just created by a direct action—and that’s what is so remarkable and instructive about its example. Each and every gain on the job and in the industry—from big-picture issues like wages and hours, to fighting back against everyday management abuse—was won by direct organizing, rather than representation by union officials.

Startling and even unfathomable to many unionists today, Local 8 did not sign contracts with employers and was adamantly against doing so. Fletcher himself vehemently condemned unionists who would enter into contracts with employers.

The exclusive collective bargaining agreement between company and union as well as the employer collected-dues that come with it are sacred cows in the contemporary labor movement. How did Local 8 maintain a union industry with a union standard without signing contracts?

Dues-paying members of Local 8 wore pins that indicated that they were in good standing for a given month. If a worker showed up to unload a ship without the pin for the month, he’d be approached by his union co-workers. The worker would be informed or reminded that this was a union job, with the higher standard of living and dignity that came with organized work. At that point, ideally, the worker would get his dues paid to one of his co-workers serving as an elected delegate of Local 8.

If the worker couldn’t be persuaded to join or get paid up and the boss allowed him to undermine the standard by working non-union, workers would strike on the spot. In the highly time-sensitive business of unloading a ship, it wouldn’t be long until the fellow worker would pay up, move on or get laid off until getting into good standing. A union job secured not by operation of a contract but by the initiative and power of worker self-activity is the hallmark of solidarity unionism and the Local 8 model.

I’m fairly uncomfortable with the emphasis a lot of labor activists today place upon individual empowerment and vague ideas of solidarity as a way forward. It’s quite fitting in a post-Occupy period–Occupy members often have very strong and positive ideas about the IWW. Given the number of labor activists, including insiders within the AFL-CIO who openly talk of moving to a post-labor law period, all options are on the table for the future. But while this kind of ultra-democratic unionism enforced by group solidarity sounds great, there’s one big problem. The IWW never accomplished anything long-lasting, precisely because its avoidance of union contracts meant that companies had the long-term advantage. Note the next part of Gross’ piece:

Local 8 never received the support it would have needed to endure against the multitude of forces arrayed against it. Battered by the unjust imprisonment of its leaders, relentless employer attacks, aggressive pressure from a government favored union, and its own internal strains, Local 8 of the IWW was defeated in the years after World War I. The federal National Labor Relations Act followed in 1935 and the consolidation of the traditional union model, now unraveling, was largely complete.

A lot going on in that paragraph. Local 8 never received the support it needed in part because it didn’t have the structure to demand long-term changes. One reason for that was because it eschewed union contracts. It’s rather easy to say that this democratic utopia had all these enemies and that’s why it failed. While that’s not untrue, there were also problems inherent to the IWW organizing model that helped doom it and every other Wobbly union. We also need to know more about the internal strains Gross discusses.

I know the American Federation of Labor circa 1915 is not a model anyone, including myself, wants to emulate today. But unlike the IWW, it actually could win real gains for the workers it chose to represent. What is great about the early CIO is how it combined the mass movement politics of the IWW with the realistic understanding of how American corporations and politics operated it borrowed from the AFL. The CIO was top-down as all heck (the steelworkers didn’t even have the right to vote on their own contracts), but it also could win, one big reason why millions of workers flocked to it who never became Wobblies.

In short, I’m not sure there is any organizing model from American labor history that provides a sure-fire way forward. But the IWW most certainly does not. In fact, I’d argue the IWW has some real pitfalls that I see a lot of well-meaning people fall into.

How to Lose What We Have

[ 17 ] May 28, 2013 |

1950′s “How to Lose What We Have” is first-rate capitalist propaganda precisely because it lacks anything even remotely approaching subtlety, unless you count its conflation of the New Deal with Stalinism. The only disappointment here is that because of the time period, the filmmakers threw in a sop about unions being legal when you know they wish it wasn’t so.

The Core Reason for the Humanities Crisis

[ 207 ] May 28, 2013 |

Leon Wieseltier asks the right question in his graduation speech at Brandeis: “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

Unfortunately, his answer is totally wrong.

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.

The problem is not science and technology. For one, science, technology, and the humanities can be blended in very interesting ways. Second, science and technology are not the enemy.

The enemy of the humanities is corporate capitalism and their bought political cronies. We are indeed living through the greatest crisis in the humanities in American history. That’s because corporations control educational policy, corporate heads sit on the board of trustees of universities, and the right-wing correctly sees higher education as the last place in the United States where one can hear open critiques of capitalism. The attack on the humanities happens in higher education policy–through telling students they can’t get jobs with a liberal arts degree, through paying professors in Business and Physics departments vastly more than in History and English, through “running universities like a business,” which of course means isolating any field of study that doesn’t bring in outside monies. At the base of all of this is a capitalist war against its critics. And it’s hardly surprising that Wieseltier would miss this. Criticizing capitalism makes people uncomfortable. Criticizing technology is easy. But in this case, it’s wrong.

Lessons of the New Gun Politics

[ 45 ] May 28, 2013 |

I found Alec MacGillis’ discussion of the new gun politics quite interesting. I’m not sure that we are seeing the death of the NRA here, but there’s no question that continued support of background checks at gun shows is positive. From a political perspective, what’s interesting is the tack that Bloomberg’s gun-control group is taking. They simply don’t care which party you are if you don’t support background checks. There’s been some talk of the wisdom of attacking Mark Pryor in an election year, since an Arkansas Republican won’t be better on gun control and will be worse on a lot of other issues. But it might be that not caring about the short-term is the best way to play the long game.

This is already causing anxiety among Democrats: Reid’s office has pleaded with Bloomberg to lay off Pryor and Begich. (“What does Bloomberg care?” says the Senate staffer.) Some Democrats are also worried about harsh ads that Bloomberg and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by Gabby Giffords, have been running against Ayotte and Flake.12 “I certainly worry about boxing senators into a corner in the short run,” Murphy, the Connecticut senator, told me. “I’m not sure the smart thing is to run [the ads] right now.”

It’s true the strategy has a potential cost: A Democrat like Pryor might be easier to persuade down the line. But the groups believe that in order to get self-interested politicians thinking differently, first they have to get them scared. “For too long we’ve been playing Mister Nice Guy,” Gross says. Wolfson adds: “Bottom line, this is not a movement that has spent too much time running ads the last few decades. We’ve seen what the results are.”

One complication is that no vulnerable Republicans who opposed the legislation are up for reelection in 2014, leaving Bloomberg with fewer short-term targets.13 This is partly why the gun-control movement wants the background-check bill to pass the Senate—to press John Boehner to bring it up for a House vote. Even if it failed, members would have to take a stance, opening up dozens more races for Bloomberg to invest in. The group has also not ruled out spending on state-level candidates.

I think about this in terms of the labor and environmental movements. Like gun control before Newtown, no politician fears either of these movements. The correct assumption is that both will not only support Democrats, no matter how bad they are, but they will also provide money and GOTV operations needed for candidates to win. They can be ignored. Labor has struggled with this issue since the Carter years. For environmentalists, it’s a issue that goes back a decade or so. Neither movement’s leaders knows what to do about it.

It’s kind of standard practice at this blog to say that “heightening the contradictions” is a terrible idea. I agree with that. But it’s also hard to get around the point that the only thing politicians care about is reelection and the only way labor or environmentalists are going to get anyone to listen to them is to stick a shiv in the Democrats who don’t support them. They might not be able to rally the bipartisan troops and emotional volume like gun control, but enviros have huge money and labor has the GOTV operation. If the gun control movement succeeds in turning politicians to the left on guns, the wisdom of actively undermining the people who won’t pay you back gets harder to deny.

More Decoration Day

[ 13 ] May 27, 2013 |

As we close another Decoration Day, we have David Blight with typically excellent stories about Civil War memory:

But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

The true patriots indeed, sadly forgotten about until recently because the nation decided to celebrate herrenvolk democracy in order to cover up the racial tensions that led to 750,000 dead Americans as a result of the South committing treason to defend slavery.

Watching History Develop, One Ball in Play at a Time

[ 64 ] May 27, 2013 |

Jonah Keri tells us something very exciting and that makes total sense for anyone who watches baseball:

In fact, the Twins starters’ inability to miss bats isn’t just bad by 2013 standards — it’s spectacularly, historically awful. The last teams’ starters to strike out hitters at such an infrequent rate were the K-deficient Royals and Angels staffs of the early ’80s. But league-average strikeout rates were much lower 30 years ago than they are this season, when they’ve reached an all-time high. According to FanGraphs, if you line up the Twins starters’ strikeout rate against league average this year, then compare that number to other rotations in previous seasons, you get … the worst strikeout rate by a starting staff in the history of baseball.

It’s really amazing to watch major league batters strike out at astounding numbers except when they play the Twins when they never strike out. Can the Twins become the adjusted lowest strikeout team of all time. Only by watching thrilling pitchers like Scott Diamond and Kevin Correia can we find out!

Why Does the U.S. Military Honor Those Who Committed Treason in Defense of Slavery?

[ 308 ] May 27, 2013 |

Today, being Decoration Day, we remember the crushing of the slave-owning Confederacy by our brave pro-Union soldiers during the Civil War. Jamie Malanowski takes the opportunity to ask an important question: Why does the United States still have military bases named after those who committed treason in defense of slavery?

Other Confederate namesakes include Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, Fort Rucker in Alabama and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana. All these installations date from the buildups during the world wars, and naming them in honor of a local military figure was a simple choice. But that was a time when the Army was segregated and our views about race more ignorant. Now African-Americans make up about a fifth of the military. The idea that today we ask any of these soldiers to serve at a place named for a defender of a racist slavocracy is deplorable; the thought that today we ask any American soldier to serve at a base named for someone who killed United States Army troops is beyond absurd. Would we have a Fort Rommel? A Camp Cornwallis?

It’s a fair question. And it is indeed an insult to ask African-American soldiers to serve at a fort named after P.G.T. Beauregard or John Gordon, who followed his war career by becoming the head of the KKK in Georgia.

Spare the Brush and Spoil the Teeth

[ 18 ] May 26, 2013 |

Good advice.

Date unknown, but early 20th century.

This Day in Labor History: May 26, 1937

[ 49 ] May 26, 2013 |

On May 26, 1937, United Auto Workers organizers, including future president Walter Reuther, walked toward the Ford Motor Company’s giant River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan to hand out pro-union leaflets to workers. As they crossed an overpass toward the plant, Ford’s private army, led by his right-hand man Harry Bennett, savagely beat them, then denied it despite photographic evidence and national outrage.

By May 1937, the United Auto Workers was an increasingly confident union. The creation of the CIO and the passage of the National Labor Relations Act had finally given industrial workers access to the unions they desperately craved. Through the sit-down strikes of the previous winter, the UAW had won contracts with General Motors and Chrysler. That left Ford as the last of the Big Three to organize. The UAW set out that spring to finish the job.

Henry Ford once had a pro-worker reputation. He still does today in the popular mind because of the $5 wage. But that is an unearned reputation. By the 1930s, he was one of the most fervently anti-union employers in the country, not to mention his legendary anti-Semitism and intrusion into his workers’ personal lives. Henry Ford had no problem directing violence against union organizers. A 1932 march of the unemployed from Detroit to the River Rouge plant to demand jobs was met with maximum repression by the Ford controlled town police force, as well as Harry Bennett, leading to the death of five people.

Ford was determined to not fall to the UAW as GM had. Ford saw the state as insufficient protection against unionism. GM relied on Flint for police assistance in fighting the strikers. Ford thought this a bad idea since local and state governments, especially in Michigan under pro-union Governor Frank Murphy, as incompetent and unreliable. As for the federal government, well, Ford didn’t even begin to think he could rely on FDR. Adolf Hitler, now there was a man to Ford’s liking.

Henry Ford receiving his Iron Cross from the Nazis.

So instead of relying on the government, Ford thought he would be proactive with the union and use old-school tactics of violence and outright intimidation to keep unions out of his plants. Ford hired 2000 men to his “Service Department.” These were ex-boxers, thugs, and spies, all comprising Ford’s personal anti-union army and police force.

The UAW knew that Ford’s workers were scared of his thugs. So Walter Reuther decided the UAW needed to take a strong stand, whatever the risk, to show that the union was not scared. It hired an airplane and buzzed River Rouge with a loudspeaker, but this wasn’t so effective. So Reuther got a permit to leaflet the plant. Of course, Ford knew all about this and prepared accordingly. So did Reuther, inviting ministers, journalists, and staffers of the Senate Committee on Civil Liberties to join him. At least if something terrible happened, there would be credible witnesses.

Calling for “Unionism, Not Fordism,” the UAW demands on Ford was a pay raise and shorter hours. Ford was paying $6 for an 8-hour day. The UAW was organizing for $8 a day over a 6-hour day. We sometimes think of the 6-hour day as a pipe dream that only a crazy socialist would demand, as if the 8-hour day is somehow natural, but this was a widespread demand during the 1930s and even after, in part to spread work around to more of the nation’s unemployed.

As Reuther and other UAW organizers, around 50 in total, walked toward the plant to leaflet for the 6-hour day, Detroit News photographer Scotty Kilpatrick asked them to pose for a picture with the Ford company sign in the background. As they did so, Harry Bennett and around 40 of his thugs, came up behind them and savagely attacked them. Kilpatrick shouted a warning, but it was too late.

The moment before the attack

Walter Reuther, on the beating he received:

“Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it. They pinned my arms . . . and I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairway, thrown down the first flight of steps, picked up, slammed down on the platform and kicked down the second flight. On the ground they beat and kicked me some more. . . “

Richard Merriweather suffered a broken back from his beating. Bennett’s thugs pulled Richard Frankensteen’s coat over his head to immobilize, then beat him, knocked him, and kicked him repeatedly in the ribs and groin.

Ford thugs beating Richard Frankensteen

After they finished with the UAW leaders, they started beating women who arrived to help pass out the leaflets, as well as the media. The Dearborn police, wholly owned by Henry Ford, did nothing, saying that Ford was just protecting its property from intruders. The thugs then tried to hide all of the evidence of the beating, destroying photography plates. But the Detroit News photographer who originally asked for the posed picture managed to hide a bunch of plates under his car seat, while giving empty ones to the thugs. When the photographs came out, outage ensued.

What was great was Harry Bennett’s response to the pictures:

“The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials. . . . They simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality. … I know definitely no Ford service man or plant police were involved in any way in the fight.”

This despite the photographic evidence and dozens of eyewitnesses!

Ultimately, Ford suffered little from the Battle of the Overpass. He suffered a rebuke from the newly formed National Labor Relations Board and was ordered to stop violating the Wagner Act, which was supposed to stop this kind of anti-union violence. But ultimately Ford didn’t much care and of course denied all involvement despite the evidence. It did increase support for the United Auto Workers, both in Detroit and around the country. But Ford managed to hold out against a contract until 1940, when he finally caved.

Kilpatrick’s photos of the beatings convinced the Pulitzer Prize to establish a prize for photography. Interestingly, the first winner, in 1942, was of UAW strikers beating a member of Ford’s Service Department.

This is the 62nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

In Which Erik Hangs Himself

[ 129 ] May 25, 2013 |

Ugh, ugh, ugh.

President Obama held a private meeting with top national security journalists on Thursday afternoon following his national security policy address at the National Defense University in Washington, POLITICO has learned.

Present at the meeting were Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist; Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief; Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post; David Igantius, The Washington Post columnist; Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic correspondent and Bloomberg View columnist; and Joe Klein, the Time magazine columnist.

The meeting, which was scheduled to last for one hour but lasted for two, was held in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Where’s the rope?

Luckily for myself, I don’t know how to tie a knot.

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