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[ 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.

Nixon on Hillary

[ 27 ] April 9, 2015 |


Above: The two kindest, gentlest men in American history.

What did Richard Nixon think of Hillary Clinton? Well, this is probably about the easiest question in the world to answer.

Mr. Nixon praised Barbara Bush as a model of a wife who has her own opinions without upstaging her husband, and suggested that many Americans are still put off by a male politician who does not seem to be as strong as his wife. The former President allowed that, unfortunately, some voters agree with Cardinal de Richelieu, who said, “Intellect in a woman is unbecoming.”

Of course, the caveat here is that Maureen Dowd is the source of this story, so the chances she made it up are probably 50 percent.

But this serves as a chance to say bad things about both Richard Nixon and Maureen Dowd, which means a perfect blog post.

Populist Conspiracies

[ 58 ] April 8, 2015 |


Richard Hofstadter was a very influential historian but he was also a tremendous snob whose personal proclivities would not make him look positively at a bunch of poor southern farmers. In The Age of Reform, Hofstadter notably dismissed the Populists’ claims that monetary policy was part of an east coast conspiracy to keep them down. That view of the Populists remained powerful for a long time and has never really totally gone away.

But what if the Populists were right about a conspiracy? This is the subject of a 2011 article by Yale political scientist Samuel DeCanio in Studies in American Political Development. It is worth delineating his argument to a broader public in order to beat back the Hofstadter view of the Populists and to shine a light on how politics worked in the Gilded Age (and potentially in the New Gilded Age).

The core problem with monetary policy in the Gilded Age, from the perspective of the farmers who organized into the Farmers Alliance and eventually the Populist Party, was the Coinage Act of 1873. This was the law that demonetized silver in the U.S., among other things. By the 1890s, the Populists corrected identified this as the law that had made their lives so difficult. But DeCanio shows not only that the passage of this law absolutely was a conspiracy, but the people who created the idea of an East Coast conspiracy did so precisely to cover up their own role in the law’s passage.

The Coinage Act of 1873 passed because of the desires of one man: William Ralston. Ralston was the head of the Bank of California and the owner of most of the Comstock mines in Nevada that produced a huge amount of silver. He was concerned that Europe, which was also demonetizing silver, would dump all their silver on the American market and thus lower its value, making him poorer. He hoped that demonetizing American silver and then using his silver to serve as an unofficial trade currency in China would make him a lot of money (which did not work and he eventually lost control over the mines). He knew that he couldn’t openly lobby for this. So instead he simply bribed Harry Linederman, director of the U.S. Mint, to write the bill for him. Ralston then used his already existing allies in Congress from California and Nevada to protect the Coinage Act from amendments that would harm him. Linderman actually told Ralston he would “not be able to give my services without compensation.” And that was fair enough for the capitalist.

Ralston, like most capitalists of his generation, openly engaged in bribery and shady dealing with what Richard White would identify as “friends,” or the people you may or may not personally like but who you needed to work with to bilk all the lesser people involved in your world so you could get rich. Ralson and Nevada senator William Stewart were very close and each helped each other. When Stewart became a senator, he sold his mansion to his law partner who was Ralston’s friend. Stewart then got his law partner named ambassador to Japan. The new ambassador then sold the house to Ralston’s brother for a reduced rate. Everyone was happy. Linderman set up a meeting between Ralston and the most corrupt person ever to hold the presidency in U.S. history, James Garfield, after the Coinage Act passed. Immediately after the meeting, the future president purchased thousands of dollars of Comstock mine stocks.

He was able to do this because nobody understands monetary policy. John Sherman, one of the Gilded Age’s most powerful senators and a major player on economic issues, didn’t really understand the Coinage Act either. Since Linderman supported it, Sherman and everyone else figured, well, he’s the expert. And therefore, silver coinage was demonetized and the lives of farmers plummeted with the tight currency market. DeCanio is clear to make connections to the present and how the complexities of monetary policy not only leaves regular citizens confused but also politicians, noting how easy this ignorance can be to manipulate.

Once the problems with the law became well-known, the politicians who supported the Coinage Act got scared of voter backlash. So William Stewart claimed that he had nothing to do with it and it was evil east coast bankers and European financiers responsible for a criminal act!!! By this time, both Linderman and Ralston were dead so they couldn’t tell. Stewart was free to create his own story.

Populists knew that someone had conspired against them but they didn’t have the information to find out who. In the end, they believed the politicians who made the claims, never suspecting that those politicians themselves were hugely culpable. The Populists were wrong about who was responsible for the conspiracy affecting their lives. But they were absolutely not wrong about the conspiracy itself. It was Hofstadter who was wrong in so blithely dismissing the Populists.

Michelle Rhee: Union Buster

[ 47 ] April 8, 2015 |


Above: Terrible human being Michelle Rhee.

California teachers’ unions are under a new assault by teachers suing over unions using dues for political campaigns. Members can withdraw but they don’t have full union membership. Given the makeup of the Supreme Court, I think we know where this will probably end up. Who is funding this latest attack on unionism? The Koch Brothers? Chamber of Commerce? Republican operatives? Nope. Students First.

Financial backing for the lawsuit comes from StudentsFirst, the advocacy group founded by former D.C. Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has battled unions over issues ranging from teacher evaluation to charter schools. Defendants include the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, and its California chapter, the California Teachers Association. Also named are the American Federation of Teachers and its California unit, the California Federation of Teachers.

Can we please stop saying that Michelle Rhee, Students First, the charter school capitalists, or anyone else involved in the privatization of one of this nation’s most cherished, long-lasting, and successful public services cares about actual students at all? This is about profit and destroying workers’ rights. Michelle Rhee is one of the great villains of our time. She may not be the head of the organization she founded any longer, but her spirit still flows through the entire enterprise.

Racism: Totally Dead

[ 31 ] April 8, 2015 |


The post-racial society once again rears its glorious head, this time in beautiful Orange, Texas:

A Confederate monument featuring 32 flags representing Civil War regiments is nearing completion in an east Texas town, alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is building the $50,000 memorial on private property, has ordered flagpoles to stand alongside 13 columns representing the states that seceded from the United States and fought to preserve slavery.

Granvel Block, an Orange resident who leads the statewide Sons of Confederate Veterans group, said southern states did not fight the Civil War to defend slavery – but instead were simply defending their sovereignty after “our states were invaded by northern troops.”

He said the memorial is intended to correct the “poor skew” of historical teachings about the Civil War and the Confederacy.

Block is a plaintiff in a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide whether Texas was wrong to reject a specialty license plate displaying the Confederate flag.

He insists the location of the memorial along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive was not chosen to “stir the pot,” but was simply the cheapest land the group could find in Orange.

Oh yeah, I’m sure that was the reason. Total coincidence. Admitting that racism is dead and that’s why white cops should be able to shoot black men without consequence, I wonder if we look at the bad old days, if there was any racism in the Orange, Texas vicinity? You know, just for random comparison.

Orange, Texas had so many lynchings in the late 19th century that it had a specifically designated hanging tree. Blacks in east Texas counties are between 4 and 34 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites while a local assistant U.S. Attorney wrote this in response to criticism of Stand Your Ground laws:

How are you fixed for Skittles and Arizona watermelon fruitcocktail (and maybe a bottle of Robitussin, too) in your neighborhood? I am fresh out of “purple drank.” So, I may come by for a visit. In a rainstorm. In the middle of the night. In a hoodie. Don’t get upset or anything if you see me looking in your window…kay?”

In 1989, cops shot and killed a suspected drug dealer after he supposedly reached for their guns, leading to NAACP-led protests about police brutality in Orange. An Army reservist in Orange dragged a black woman named Therea Ardoin to death after tying her to his pickup after beating her in the head with a hammer.

Less than 20 miles away, you have Vidor, Texas, which has one of the strongest racist legacies of any town in the United States, including a long history as a sundown town and a 1993 KKK rally after the federal government finally forced local public housing to accept black residents.

All of this is what I found looking for all of 5 minutes.

In other words, racism is dead.

….In comments, Hogan uncovers how Orange talks about the Civil War. On the city’s official website. In 2015.

The War Between the States, which lasted from 1861-1865, had disastrous effects on Orange by taking its toll on lives and property. When hostilities ceased, tragedy continued. A reign of terror marked by extreme lawlessness followed the end of the war, lasting for a decade. Additional hardships ensued in 1865, when one of the worst wind and rainstorms in Orange’s history brought about even more death and destruction

Did I mention that racism was dead?

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