Author Page for Erik Loomis
There’s a lot of tension between parts of the labor movement and the environmental movement right now. This can often be painted too broadly. Basically, the building trades hate environmentalists for not supporting building every dirty power project and the UMWA hates environmentalists for supporting restrictions on coal. But there are lots of unions with perfectly fine relationships with environmentalists, even if the big public sector unions like SEIU, AFSCME, and AFT could do much, much more to represent the interests of their members in supporting a clean, sustainable environment with plenty of recreational opportunities. But even within those hostile unions, it’s not as if there isn’t room to work with environmentalists on issues where their interests coincide. And this is one of the lessons of so-called blue-green alliances. It’s not as if unions and environmentalists have to agree on everything. They may never be a force marching together for combined ecological and economic justice. Rather, this sort of alliance-building is going to be dependent on the given issue. And that’s OK so long as there is enough dialogue to allow that alliance to happen when it can. That’s what groups like the BlueGreen Alliance try to do. And we are seeing it pay off with both labor and greens outraged over Flint, which has shamefully fallen out of the headlines in the last 2 months.
When you think of an environmental hero, a plumber might not be the first person who comes to mind. But the BlueGreen Alliance gave its “champion” award this year to the union representing plumbers and pipe fitters. The big reason: people like Harold Harrington, of the United Association local 370 in Flint, Michigan. He says during the lead in water crisis there, his members volunteered to go door to door and replace faucets and water filters in people’s homes. “We replaced 650 faucets, just because the filters wouldn’t fit the old faucets. And they’re carbon filters, so they do remove lead,” he says.
Leaders in both the environmental and labor movements say the country could prevent more public health disasters like Flint, if old infrastructure is fixed or replaced — like leaky drinking water pipes, and natural gas pipelines. And at the same time, the repairs would create jobs. Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club. He gives the example of new regulations in California to fix old gas pipelines. They were passed in response to a four-month leak of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – in Aliso Canyon, in southern California. “And there will be lots of jobs and there will be a cut in the pollution from these pipelines,” says Brune.
We need a lot more of this. New infrastructure building is the kind of agenda that should create broad agreement on the left. First, this nation really, really needs it. Second, it would be a huge spur to the economy. Third, that new infrastructure could create a far-more sustainable network of power and transportation than we currently have. But even when that’s not available, working together over issues of the relationship between the environment and everyday people is the kind of thing that can bring unions and greens together.
I have long stated that environmentalism ultimately hurt itself by focusing more on wilderness and wildlife preservation over the broad-based anti-pollution measures that made it politically popular in the 1960s and 1970s. There were lots of good reasons for that–the fact that the Clean Air Acts and Clean Water Acts were so successful that the obvious need for stronger laws diminished, the growth of conservatism making it necessary to defend laws in the courts instead of push for new laws, and the wealthy people funding environmentalism who wanted campaigns around wilderness, rain forest protection, and wildlife protection. Add to this the deindustrialization, outsourcing, and automation transforming the American economy and making working people scared of supporting environmentalism because their employers were threatening to move their jobs overseas (which they were often planning on doing anyway) and the political calculus for environmentalism changed rapidly. Yet this is unfortunate and needs to change. Building alliances around environmental injustice and infrastructure is at least a starting point.
David Bensman has a really great piece on how the Teamsters are taking the lead on organizing Uber drivers in Seattle and how doing so has relied on the kind of community effort necessary for organizing in the modern day. It’s taken building not only union power but connections within immigrant communities, working with politicians, and building alliances with environmentalists and community activists. This is the sort of campaign that can make a long-term difference and as Uber has begun facing political pushback for its exploitative model, is highly necessary. And how bad are things for drivers now that Uber has flooded the market?
Since Uber and Lyft came to town and recruited ten times the number of drivers that had been issued licenses under the city’s regulatory taxicab regime, earnings of all drivers have tumbled. While Uber started out allowing drivers to keep almost the same amount per mile driven as the regulated taxi drivers were getting, it has since cut that rate from $2.35 to $1.35 per mile. Now Uber drivers charge lower fares, and they get the lion’s share of the business. But with their low mileage rate, they have to work seven 12-hour days each week to make enough to live in the expensive metropolitan region. Mohammed, a somali driver I met near the Al Aqbar mosque that was the first to allow drivers to hold organizing meetings, told me that he knew driving such long hours was dangerous. “But what choice do I have?” he asked. “I have to pay for my car, my apartment, to put food on the table.”
Mohammed told me he pays $600 per week for the car Uber pressured him to lease from Toyota. He also pays the company $1.40 per passenger as a “safe rider fee,” though he can’t figure out what he or his passengers are getting for the money, since background checks are minimal and fingerprinting is unknown. On the day I visited the airport parking lot, Uber drivers waited 40 minutes, on average, before they got a call to pick up a passenger. Some days are better, Mohammed informed me; by now the drivers know when the planes are landing, and they try to time their arrival at the airport to minimize their wait. But even when they time it right, their earnings are limited; a ride from the airport to town only nets them $16, and there’s no tipping. Worse, a recent company-imposed pooling policy requires drivers to pick up multiple passengers at different places to take them to common destinations at severely reduced fares. This “innovation,” communicated to drivers through Uber’s app, really has the drivers grumbling.
Licensed-cab taxi drivers probably have it worse. At nights and on weekends, millennial customers use their Uber app. As a consequence, most licensed drivers work an early shift, from 4:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon, seven days a week. Driving cab number 718, a Somali driver who was afraid to give me his name told me that before Uber arrived, he used to be able to make a decent living driving eight hour days. Now he has a choice; he can drive seven 12-hour days or he can reduce his lifestyle. He’s moved to a cheaper apartment and settled for straitened circumstances. He’s philosophical about his change of life, but he doesn’t think it’s right. “I don’t mind competition,” he told me. “Competition makes everyone play their best game. If you are skilled and have a good strategy, you can win. But this competition is unfair. Uber doesn’t pay the standard mileage rate, its insurance is no good, and it makes its drivers work unsafe hours. This competition you can’t win.” Another driver, an Ethiopian, made the other choice, working seven 12-hour days. “My kids think I’m an ATM machine,” he told me. “I never see them.”
This is total exploitation. There’s nothing wrong per se with having more cabs on the road. There is something very wrong in driving workers into poverty and pooling profits at the top.
On Monday, in a 3-1 ruling, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) reversed a Bush the Younger-era precedent that gave employers a say over whether temporary and subcontracted workers can be included in the same bargaining unit as the regular, full-time employees with whom they work beside. Go figure, most employers said “no” to the proposition that people who work shoulder to shoulder, but are paid from separate checkbooks, could bargain together in the same union. But the new Miller & Anderson, Inc. decision could force subcontractors to bargain with a certified union over the wages and working conditions determined by the controlling employer.
The ruling comes hot on the heels of the Board’s American Baptist Homes decision. That case re-established a balancing test for whether a boss’ employment of permanent replacement strikers is actually motivated by a desire to bust a union —which goes a long way towards restoring a legal right to strike.
And, of course, the Board’s attempt to expedite representation elections by holding frivolous management objections in abeyance until after the workers vote nearly broke the Congress. (Seriously, if you want to drink some delicious boss’ tears Google “quickie NLRB election.”)
As veteran union organizer Stephen Lerner succinctly puts it, “Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it.” I have advocated that unions should pursue an agenda of judicial activism. These recent NLRB actions prove that the time is ripe to challenge the rules of the system that keep unions shackled. I’ve spent most of my career complaining about how slow and ineffective the NLRB is, as have most union organizers. That bias should not blind us to the opportunity of the moment.
Speaking of Lerner, this is worth your time:
Austerity, growing inequality, and the economic and political domination of billionaires, bankers, hedge funds, and giant corporations make the current moment ripe for birthing a movement that can radically transform the country and the world. This is a time of great peril, but also of extraordinary opportunity and—yes—reasons for hope. The last four decades have been characterized by unrelenting attacks on the working class, the weakening of unions and the financialization of capitalism. The fiscal crisis of 2007-2008, the burgeoning wealth gap, and the flood of money from corporations and the rich drowning our democracy have exposed the nation’s political, moral, and economic decay, creating conditions that beg for an alternative to a system that increasingly only works for the super-rich.
I agree that there are a lot of reasons to hope right now. I don’t see the failure of the Sanders campaign or the Walmart organizing campaign as actually failures. I see them as moments leading to something much larger, something we are already seeing in the debates around income inequality, the growth of minimum wage legislation, and even Republican politicians sometimes having to admit that these are real problems (even if their solutions are as anti-poor as ever).
So what role do unions play now, given their decreased density? Lerner suggests several possibilities. Each of these have longer descriptions but let me just lay out their intros with a brief comment. First:
Unions need to understand and educate the public about what is going on in the economy if labor and other social movements are to seize this opportunity and figure out how to turn frailty into strength. They need to demystify the complexity of the how the economy works, so that working-class people and social movements can respond in kind.
Unions are well-placed to do this, as they hire labor economists and analysts who produce perceptive critiques of the economy. In this, I would say that these unions should (and of course they already do) work in conjunction or in conversation with left-leaning think tanks like the Roosevelt Institute to build up these critiques, and then find ways to disseminate this through the politically active population.
Assert control over wealth and capital: In the post-World War II era, unions made two related mistakes that have contributed to labor’s isolation and to unrestrained corporate control of the economy: First, organized labor focused nearly exclusively on winning higher wages and benefits for only the unionized sector of the economy; and second it declined to challenge how companies were managed or how capital and wealth were invested or controlled. In the auto sector, the United Auto Workers (UAW) won higher wages in Big Three assembly plants at the same time the companies spun off and outsourced manufacturing of parts that used to be done by UAW members. These two moves both lowered standards for these workers and undercut the union’s overall power in the industry.
All of this was predicated on the idea that unions and collective bargaining were accepted by the corporate and political elites as a permanent fixture of the system and as a legitimate method for setting wages and benefits. Since the 1970s, however, union membership has been in a steady free fall with today’s union density at roughly 11 percent. This means that, in addition to having ceded control over wealth and capital, unions have largely focused on protecting the interests of only a small fraction of workers.
Some unions have already moved in this direction, especially seen in SEIU’s support of the Fight for $15, for which they have expended millions of dollars without organizing a single establishment under a contract. Lerner also points to labor support of immigrant rights in recent decades as another example of this. Of course, there are some tricks here. A union has to remain financially viable and it has to serve its own members. Those things are paramount. But that can be done while also fighting for the broader agenda of all workers. Of course, not all unions are doing this and thus you see unions arguing for exemptions to minimum wage laws for their own members. That’s the kind of negative leadership unions have to stop doing. Broadly, unions need to be allies in other mass movements. Sometimes that is happening, sometimes it isn’t. But some unions are just never going to adjust to thinking of themselves as part of a social movement.
Unions are still the best-resourced progressive organizations in the U.S., but they have been far less successful at capturing the national imagination than other movements that have no resources. If unions limit their mission to the four walls of the workplace, then they become less relevant as they represent fewer workplaces. But by embracing other mass movements—without attempting to control or hijack them—unions can grow alongside of them and those movements will benefit from the organizational resources that organized labor can bring to bear.
The idea in Occupy Wall Street that unions would co-opt the movement was laughable from an evidentary standpoint. As if the unions had that power! But the fact that activists thought it was a real thing is a sign of the distrust a lot of activists in other movements have toward organized labor and to no small extent, that reputation has been earned over the past century. But Lerner provides several examples of how unions have been doing a much better job on these issues in recent years. Such alliance building is not just about the economy, but also making unions leaders in the fight for racial justice. That’s also going to take internal organizing in many of the unions, which are not always made up of racially progressive people.
At this moment financialized capitalism is dominant, but also incredibly fragile, caught in cycles of booms and busts. Wall Street, mega corporations and newly minted tech billionaires boast of using “creative destruction” to reshape companies and the economy while enriching themselves at labor’s expense. Instead of accepting their dominance and control unions can start to counter their destruction with their own “creative disruption”, demonstrating just how fragile their control is and the potential power of labor—if unions are willing to flex their muscles.
By articulating a vision of a more just world, going on offense, demanding more instead of accepting less, and aligning campaigns against the billionaires at the top, labor can inspire and organize a movement dedicated to redistributing wealth and power.
Going back to Richman to end this long post, he argues that unions need to build upon this newly aggressive NLRB and start making real demands of the agency (assuming that Hillary Clinton wins the general election) that would push back against the decades of corporate attack upon workers:
A good case in point is employers’ “right” to force employees to attend mandatory anti-union “captive audience” meetings during a union organizing drive. Most organizers accept that it “is what it is”—another fucked up way that NLRB election rules are rigged so that unions lose a ton of representation elections. (Although, it should be noted that unions used to lose half of all representation elections during the Clinton I-era and now tend to win about two-thirds of elections, thanks partly to more strategic organizing choices and partly to the NLRB’s recent return to its historic mission of encouraging unions and collective bargaining.)
Meanwhile, apparently, the NLRB has been on the record for half a century as inviting unions to make a case that there should be some kind of equal access standard for unions if an employer forces workers to attend mandatory meetings on the subject of union representation. A group of 106 leading labor scholars, led by Charles Morris and Paul Secunda, have filed a petition at the NLRB to re-establish just such a rule.
The speculation is that the NLRB is unlikely to act on Morris’ and Secunda’s petition, as it prefers to act on union (or employer) initiated procedural cases. The Miller & Anderson decision came in response to a union representation petition; the American Baptist Homes decision in response to an unfair labor practice charge. To win equal time, a union will have to file exceptions to a losing representation election in which the employer made use of mandatory captive audience meetings. Surely, and sadly, someone reading this article has recently lost an election under such circumstances, and can take the initiative.
Similarly, most unionists just accept that an employer has a “right” to permanently replace striking workers. For example, Jane McAlevey, in her organizing memoir Raising Hell (and Raising Expectations), incorrectly chalks it up to a law signed by Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t. It was a poorly decided 1938 Supreme Court case that was dusted off in the 1980s. Like referees in a schlocky Hulk Hogan wrestling match, Reagan’s NLRB appointees looked the other way as employers engaged in a coordinated union-busting drive that weaponized the unfrozen caveman Supreme Court precedent.
After an unsuccessful attempt to legislatively ban permanent replacements during the first Clinton era, most unions seem to have shrugged and accepted that workers can legally lose their jobs for striking—that is until the NLRB reverted to the pre-Reagan rules. But the Board can go further. The crucial phrase in that 1938 Court decision, NLRB vs. Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co., is that an employer can hire permanent replacements if it is necessary “to protect and continue his business.”
In other words, to meet the Supreme Court standard, the NLRB could force Verizon or any other Fortune 500 company to prove that they would otherwise go out of business unless they can hire scabs to steal the jobs of their striking workers. Good luck with that. Unions should get in the habit of filing unfair labor practice charges any time a boss advertises for scabs.
The NLRB even potentially has the power to reverse “Right to Work.” The statutes, passed on a state-by-state basis, aim to prevent unions from collecting fees from all of the workers they are legally obligated to represent. But the federal law that allows “Right to Work” statutes has, until recently, faced very few judicial challenges. One open question is whether the legislative intent of the Taft-Hartley act was merely to ban union membership as a condition of employment—not whether unions could negotiate mandatory fees for grievance representation services. Seattle University Associate Professor of Law Charlotte Garden notes that the NLRB could approve such a formula, and has indicated openness to cases arguing for it.
There’s a lot of potential here. But it’s going to take unions taking the offensive to make that happen. I believe that even with their decreased membership, unions have an absolutely vital role to play any future left-leaning organizing in this nation. The potential is there for far-reaching changes that would go far to reset the playing field between workers and employers. We’ll have to see if they can take advantage of it. But the first thing that has to happen is Hillary Clinton must be elected to the White House. Otherwise, the rules of the game are going to get much, much, much worse.
If cities are to keep growing, as they will, they must stop growing outwards and start growing upwards. The environmental and human consequences are too great to consider otherwise.
As cities grow, perhaps our most serious concern should be how they expand out into the surrounding countryside. Contrary to popular belief, over the past century urban settlements have not only expanded demographically, they have also sprawled outwards – covering some of the world’s most valuable farmland in the process.
The result has been a steady de-densification of urban settlements, by about –2% per annum. Even where inner-city areas have densified over the past few decades (Copenhagen, for example), the citywide trend is still for an overall reduction in average densities.
In 2010, the total area covered by all the cement, asphalt, compacted clay, park areas and open spaces that comprise the footprint of the world’s urban settlements was around 1 million sq km. In comparison, the total area of France is 643,000 sq km.
If the urban population and long-term de-densification trends continue, the area of the planet covered by urban settlements will increase to more than 3 million sq km by 2050. And since the most intensively cultivated farmland is typically located near where the bulk of the food is consumed, much of this additional 2 million sq km is currently our most productive farmland.
In short, continued urbanisation in its current form could threaten global food supplies at a time when food production is already not keeping up with population growth.
Moreover, density has to be achieved with people in mind, not cars.
Across the world, it would be a mistake to focus solely on improving the average densities of cities. Los Angeles has a higher average density than New York, for example, yet LA is regarded as a dysfunctional urban form while NY is functional, because it comprises a network of high-density neighbourhoods interconnected by efficient and affordable mass transit systems.
Seoul is similar: a megacity that has avoided sprawl with this approach. When the mayor decided to dismantle the eight-lane highway that used to run through the centre of the city, he said: “Seoul is for people, not cars.”
An alternative road was not built – resulting in an increase in the number of people using mass transit which, in turn, made mass transit financially viable. Building more highways for cars, then introducing trains and buses in the hope that they will be financially viable, simply does not work (the greater Johannesburg region is learning that lesson now).
China, meanwhile, has urbanised hundreds of millions of people over the past three decades. This has tended to be in high-rise, multi-storey buildings located in “superblocks” with wide, traffic-congested streets and few intersections per sq km. The result is relatively low densities in neighbourhoods with virtually no street or community life – in short, not the kind of urban area one would call liveable.
Compare this with the neighbourhoods you find in Barcelona, where buildings are five to eight storeys high, located on narrow streets with pavements, trees and small piazzas for social engagement, and all well connected to both motorised and non-motorised forms of transport.
This is what makes for liveable urban neighbourhoods. China has realised its mistake, adopting an urbanisation strategy that breaks away from sprawled-out superblocks in favour of a high-density neighbourhood approach, with narrower streets, a high number of intersections, and improved public transport.
The environmental consequences of suburban living will soon be enormous. On the other hand, what this article does not address is cost. At least in the United States, but also certainly in cities like London, Paris, and, yes, Barcelona, the global Gilded Age has driven the costs of urban living through the roof. To some extent this is the lack of housing supply in a nation like the U.S. that had been disdainful of urban living for most of its history. But it’s also about the size of apartments, the profits for building for millionaires instead of the poor, the global mega-rich owning multiple huge apartments in the world’s cities for their jet-setting lifestyle, etc. It’s not just about building up or density or pedestrian-friendly. It’s about affordability and democracy. If those aren’t values in our cities, then they are no more functional than a model of endless sprawl.
Transportation, however, has long been central to the black civil rights movement, with the Selma march, the Freedom Rides, and Rosa Parks’s appeal to equal rights on public buses. Fifty years ago this summer, the March Against Fear inspired by James Meredith walked 220 miles of Southern roads from Memphis to Jackson, Miss.
If anything is new, what’s different today may be the occupation of urban interstates for the purpose of bringing them to a standstill. Protesters in Selma, Moss argues, wanted to use the Edmund Pettus Bridge — on their way to Montgomery — not block it.
Reed, who angered many activists with his comments in Atlanta, later defended them on Facebook by saying that King prepared for weeks and worked with Selma officials to ensure public safety, rather than flooding the bridge in a spontaneous and “dangerous” way.
To the extent that activists today are committed to a more urgent kind of disruption, planning ahead with police would defeat some of the purpose of bringing daily life to an abrupt halt, calling attention to the fundamental structures of inequality. And it’s hard to imagine officials assenting ahead of time to closing an entire highway.
Highways also carry a particular resonance for the grievances today of black civil rights activists, given that many deadly encounters with police, such as Castile’s, began with traffic stops (this patten has also prompted a new cry from transportation planners: “not in our name!”).
Historically, the same thing that happened in St. Paul — where the black Rondo neighborhood was destroyed — happened in Minneapolis, and Baltimore, and Oakland, and Atlanta, and in Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s childhood home of Charlotte.
Planner Robert Moses used highways to clear slums through poor and minority neighborhoods in New York. Mayor Richard J. Daley used the new Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago to wall off the old Irish white neighborhoods on the city’s South Side from the black neighborhoods to the east where the city built blocks and blocks of high-rise public housing.
Black neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s had little political power to block these engineering behemoths. And cities that wanted to redevelop poor neighborhoods — another government goal of the same era — got more federal money by building highways through them than by appealing for “urban renewal” funds.
“If your goal was to clear slums,” Connolly, the historian, said, “the best way to get bang for your buck was to use the highway as a slum clearance instrument.”
The resulting highways were then meant to speed whites who’d moved to the suburbs back and forth to jobs and attractions downtown, leapfrogging minority communities along the way. As Connolly suggested, they still serve this function today. And often, highways that passed through black communities weren’t planned with on- and off-ramps to them.
“They’re not designed for, nor do they serve, low-income communities who are actually already close to downtown,” said Brown University historian Robert Self. “If you live in West Oakland, you don’t need a freeway to get to downtown Oakland.”
This infrastructure that destroyed black communities then helped build white ones, in the form of far-flung bedroom communities that boomed once these roads made longer-distance commuting feasible. “Fremont exists before the freeway is built,” Self said of the town 25 miles south of Oakland. “But once you build it, then Fremont becomes this massive possibility. Or San Mateo, or Redwood City.”
Good stuff, quoting several of the best historians working in the United States today.
This is the grave of Mark Hanna.
Mark Hanna was the premier Republican kingmaker of the Gilded Age. Most famous for his close association with William McKinley, Hanna became a major Cleveland businessmen in the years after the Civil War, getting involved in a wide variety of projects. A lifelong Republican and supporter of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Hanna turned to politics by 1880. In an era of convoluted political machinations in presidential politics, Hanna hoped to use his influence and power to launch Ohio politicians onto the national stage. This began in the fall of 1880 when Hanna did much to manage James Garfield’s presidential campaign, in particula convincing Ulysses S. Grant to come visit Garfield at his home in a sign of unity after a deeply fractured convention led to the rise of the darkhorse Garfield. Hanna didn’t even like Garfield that much because Hanna opposed civil service reform and liked the spoils system, but supporting Ohio politicians would be his key to power. Hanna then sought to make Ohio senator John Sherman president, beginning in 1884, even though he never actually met Sherman until 1885. When that failed and James Blaine received the Republican nomination, Sherman got Hanna appointed to the Union Pacific Railroad’s board of directors. In the Gilded Age, no inside dealing went unrewarded. If Hanna believed in anything other than power and Ohio, it was the power of capitalists to do whatever they wanted.
Hanna then moved on to work for William McKinley, having been impressed by him in 1888, when he actually suggested that Sherman step aside for the rising Ohioan. Sherman refused and Hanna continued working for him, but Benjamin Harrison received the nomination that year. Realizing that the next chance for an Ohioan president was in 1896 and that Sherman would be too old by then, Hanna put all his eggs in the McKinley basket. McKinley became governor of Ohio in 1891. Hanna insured Sherman’s reelection to the Senate the next year and Ohio Republicans were largely unified. Hanna then worked for the next four years to ensure McKinley’s nomination, dealing with other party bosses, planning campaign strategy, buying a home in the South to build connections with southern Republicans who could still play a major role in the convention. This was only partially successful, as many state level bosses wanted nothing to do with McKinley because he refused to allow them to control local patronage. But McKinley easily beat back any native son candidacies and became the nominee, thanks to Hanna’s work. It was Hanna’s finest hour. The Democratic press attacked Hanna as McKinley’s corporate master, but this charge did not stick enough to throw the election to William Jennings Bryan. Nor did it defeat Hanna’s groundbreaking fundraising campaign.
Hanna did not want a Cabinet position in return for all his work, thinking it would be seen as a corrupt bargain. So McKinley asked John Sherman to be Secretary of State. He agreed and Hanna won his position in the Senate. Hanna continued to advise McKinley closely from the Senate, even though he opposed the Spanish-American War, he also made sure McKinley got his declaration of war from the Senate. Although Hanna was horrified when Theodore Roosevelt won the VP slot in 1900 and even more horrified when he became president upon McKinley’s assassination, Hanna and Roosevelt came to a working relationship. Hanna strongly considered running for the Republican nomination in 1904 against Roosevelt. J.P. Morgan said he would fund Hanna’s campaign. But Hanna’s health was rapidly declining and he died on February 15, 1904.
Mark Hanna is buried in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio.
Time for another Saturday evening music conversation. A few notes:
Rob Wasserman has died. Best known for his work with Bob Weir, Wasserman was a truly great bassist.
Pop Matters is ranking the top 100 alternative singles of the 1990s. These sorts of lists are good for nothing but an argument, which is of course the point.
One of the more interesting revelations included in the Sol Republic survey is the news that empowerment anthems—like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Kanye West’s “Stronger,” and (no joke) the “Chariots of Fire” theme—are especially popular among headphone devotees. People like to stomp around to jams that instantly position them as scrappy and determined underdogs, overcoming tremendous odds. (The original music video for “Eye of the Tiger” features the members of Survivor marching down the street in combat formation, their collective gaze unblinking, their strides assured; it turns out they’re simply walking to band practice in a garage.) These days, people seem to be perpetually gearing themselves up for the epic battle of merely existing. At the end of the day, jogging up to our front doors, we are all Rocky, reaching the summit, conquering that last step: “Just a man / and his will / to survive!” We rip our headphones off, triumphantly. We did it! Another day closer to death!
As more and more people choose to listen to music on headphones—and we are now nearly forty years deep into portable audio; I have a friend who claims he only listens to music on headphones—it seems silly not to wonder how that technology might be beginning to dictate content. If headphones allow for more introspection, do headphone users favor introspective sounds? If there’s been a thematic through line in the past several years of pop music, it’s been messages of self-reliance and liberation, songs that place us at the center of our own heroic arcs. Obviously, that’s hardly new terrain for pop, but I’d argue that it has reached a noticeable apex this decade. Are headphones partially responsible for the shift?
I’ve seen one live show since the last time I did one of these, which was Wussy at the Beachland Tavern in Cleveland. That’s my 3rd Wussy show. As always, it was great. They are a fantastic live band. Unfortunately however, they do not mix up the setlist. That’s always a little disappointing, to know exactly what songs you are going to hear when you walk into the show, and often in what order. My understanding is that this is basically because Chuck Cleaver thinks of a set of songs as something that improves over time they more they are played so when they hit the road, they will play the same ones repeatedly. They’ve basically come to the point where there are two songs on Strawberry that will ever be played again, one off of Left for Dead, even only three or maybe four off Attica. Given all the good material they have, I wish they’d play more of it.
Now some reviews of recent albums:
Lake Street Dive, Show Pony
Listening to Lake Street Dive caused me to think a lot more than the music intends one to think. This is a band of New England Conservatory of Music graduates making retro soul of the Aretha Franklin and Supremes style. The musicians are good and Rachael Price has an excellent voice that she uses effectively. The lyrics are reasonably witty. That said, this music lacks any sort of edge or grit at all. When I first listened to this, I thought I might be missing something in a band a lot of people think is pretty great. But then I realized that everything they do, other bands do better. The problem isn’t that they are retro–Charles Bradley, among others, does an overtly retro style quite well. It’s certainly not that this is a white band playing soul–Alice Russell or Amy Winehouse make (or, sadly, made) some pretty great music. And a band doesn’t really have to push the envelope musically or conceptually, but boy does Janelle Monae and Shamir make more interesting music. Finally, I just came to the conclusion that I don’t think Lake Street Dive is a very interesting band. They are capable and this is perfectly pleasant and some of you may find it quite enjoyable. It would work fairly well at a cocktail party or a little dance party in your house. Still, they are playing in Providence in October and maybe I will go to see if I am missing anything.
Chris Stapleton, Traveller
The former lead singer of the bluegrass band The Steel Drivers and a long-time Nashville songwriting hand, Stapleton’s solo release took the country music world by storm last year. He is a very talented singer, a good songwriter, and a charismatic performer. He plays on the outlaw country tradition without trying too hard. He does a great version of “Tennessee Whiskey” that David Allan Coe and George Jones had hits with in the 80s. My only hesitation about this album is that it is too long. Few albums need to be 65 minutes and pretty much no country albums need to be that long. That’s not some arbitrary standard. It’s really hard to write 14 good songs without filler and in a genre where the arrangements don’t really value experimentation, 65 minutes means some bloat. The back half of the album drags at times and occasionally Stapleton over-relies on vocal pyrotechnics where a more subtle approach might be better. This is good stuff and I look forward to his next project, but Traveller is not quite as great as has been advertised.
Mount Moriah, How to Dance
When I first heard this, I would never have thought it was released by Merge, except that like almost everything else that label puts out, it’s excellent. This is a country band made up of indie rock singer Heather McEntire and guitarist Jenks Miller of the metal band Horseback. Does such genre hopping mean this isn’t an “authentic” band? Only if one thinks authenticity is something real or something to strive for. How to Dance is just a very solid country album with good tunes, good vocals, and good lyrics. Mount Moriah is less ambitious than Chris Stapleton but I can’t help but believing they have the better album.
Parquet Courts, Human Performance
In one of these threads awhile ago, someone suggested I listen to Parquet Courts. I realized that a friend had given me one of their albums so I did. I loved it. So I bought their new album, Human Performance. I love this too. Parquet Courts is just a great rock band. These are really interesting songs lyrically and like all their albums, there’s a great deal of variance in their arrangements, including the length of songs. It’s arresting music from a very productive band.
And now a couple of older albums I had long forgotten about.
John Cale, 1919
I’ve always felt I should like John Cale’s post-Velvet Underground material more than I do. I like his experimental side and of course I love VU. But although I really love a few of his songs (“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” especially) I still can’t get into his albums, even though I just tried again with 1919. Basically, I don’t think he’s a consistent songwriter and the arrangements are surprisingly boring. It’s a smart enough album, but I guess I will just never be a Cale fan.
Burning Spear, Marcus Garvey
For years, I basically hated reggae. I confess that this was without really sitting down and listening to it hard. When you go to college in Eugene, at least in the 1990s, reggae gets associated with white dreadlocked hippies getting stoned and listening to boring music. And that’s basically what they were doing. Then, doing a bit of traveling over the years, but especially during my year in Asia after college, you can’t enter a restaurant or bar catering to tourists in many nations without hearing “No Woman No Cry.” All of this is a bit unfair to the music itself. Over the last few years, people have snuck in a reggae album or two in stuff they have given me. I slowly started to realize there was a bit more here than I had recognized. So I put on Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey, really listening to this for the first time. And I have to say that it is pretty great. Yeah, reggae is still repetitive, while also being slow and mellow, making the repetition harder to listen to than, say, North Africa’s trance-like music traditions. But if you turn it up loud enough you can really hear the great horn arrangements. The politics on the album are of course fantastic without being trite. Reggae is a form of modernized folk music, at least in its early days before it became the music of stoned white dreadlocked hippies, and I don’t know how many albums do it better than Marcus Garvey. I mean that in a literal way–maybe there are a lot that do and I don’t know them. But I actually enjoyed this a lot.
As always, this is an open thread on all things music.
Does anyone read Stanley Fish and think, “Wow, I can really see why he has a column at the Times. This is brilliant work”?
Today, Fish is outraged that historians are expressing concerns about Donald Trump. I guess this is a breach of decorum as crushing to the nation’s standards as Ruth Bader Ginsburg also expressing concerns about Donald Trump. What will the nation do?
PROFESSORS are at it again, demonstrating in public how little they understand the responsibilities and limits of their profession.
On Monday a group calling itself Historians Against Trump published an “Open Letter to the American People.” The purpose of the letter, the historians tell us, is to warn against “Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenges it poses to civil society.” They suggest that they are uniquely qualified to issue this warning because they “have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built.”
Or in other words: We’re historians and you’re not, and “historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable.” Therefore we can’t keep silent, for “the lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”
Professors are at it again, taking to newspaper columns to complain about other professors they don’t agree with. A truly responsible professor would write concern trolling columns in the nation’s paper of record!
But there’s very little acknowledgment of limitations and subjectivity in what follows, only a rehearsal of the now standard criticisms of Mr. Trump, offered not as political opinions, which they surely are, but as indisputable, impartially arrived at truths: “Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability, against historical analysis and fact.” How’s that for cool, temperate and disinterested analysis?
Like my cool temperate analysis of other scholars…
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this view of Mr. Trump is incorrect; nor am I saying that it is on target: only that it is a view, like anyone else’s. By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.
As opposed to someone who merely has an English degree, having read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays on topics that provide just the right amount of conventional wisdom to get a permanent Times sinecure! And Fish is always highly concerned with academics stepping outside their area of expertise, which is why he didn’t decide to defend Kim Davis or anything like that.
I would have no problem with individuals, who also happened to be historians, disseminating their political conclusions in an op-ed or letter to the editor; but I do have a problem when a bunch of individuals claim for themselves a corporate identity and more than imply that they speak for the profession of history.
Of course they aren’t speaking for the profession. There are professional organizations that do that. They are speaking as a group.
Were an academic organization to declare a political position, it would at that moment cease to be an academic organization and would have turned itself — as the Historians Against Trump turn themselves — into a political organization whose arguments must make their way without the supposed endorsement and enhancement of an academic pedigree. Its members would be political actors who share the accidental feature of having advanced degrees. But it’s not the degrees, which are finally inessential, but the strength or weakness of the arguments that will tell in the end.
Ah, whining for the good ol’days of “objectivity,” when professors only talked from moderate perspectives that reinforced the political status quo, wore ties to class, and, of course, were a bunch of wealthy white men.
I have no idea if being a historian gives me special insight into Donald Trump. But I do know that Stanley Fish is effectively decrying the very thing he himself does all the time, with the caveat that he does it all on his own and without help from others. Why he feel the needs to scream into the wind on this topic of all things is completely unknown except that concern trolling is something he feels a compulsion to do.
I wonder if Stanley Fish was this outraged when Arthur Schlesinger Jr was stepping outside his area of expertise and advising JFK on how to kill communists in Bolivia? I think we all know the answer to this.
The Republican platform committee met this week to draft the document that defines the party’s official principles and policies. Along with provisions on pornography and LGBT “conversion therapy” is an amendment calling for the indiscriminate and immediate disposal of national public lands.
The inclusion of this provision in the Republican Party’s platform reflects the growing influence of and ideological alliance between several anti-park members of the GOP and anti-government extremists, led by Cliven Bundy, who dispute the federal government’s authority over national public lands.
“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states,” reads the adopted language. “We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands identified.”
The provision calls for an immediate full-scale disposal of “certain” public lands, without defining which lands it would apply to, leaving national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, and national forests apparently up for grabs and vulnerable to development, privatization, or transfer to state ownership.
Beyond that, Clinton’s call for everyone to “do the work” to unite against hatred overlooks the fundamental fact that it’s whites — and only whites — who must work to fix the racist structures in our society.
To quote another historical figure, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The thing wrong with America is white racism. … It’s time for America to have an intensified study on what’s wrong with white folks.” Clinton could have spoken about racial justice.
Instead, like so many others, she focused on the rhetoric of unity. And calling for unity places yet another burden on black people.
Look at what happens in the wake of a shooting by police like the ones last week in Minnesota and Louisiana and Texas: The relatives of the victims are clearly grieving and traumatized, yet they are pushed to extend empathy and forgiveness to those who killed their loved ones, and to the system that profits from these tragedies. Routinely now, we encounter scenes of black folks hugging racists, praying with and dancing with police officers, being asked to do the additional work of teaching white folks how not to be racist and help them find solutions to a racist system we didn’t invent — while we struggle to keep ourselves and our loved ones alive.
Talk of unity, reconciliation and restoring trust is a diversion from the raw, ugly, excruciatingly painful work of addressing the systemic racism that is tearing our nation apart. In their rush to avoid the real work in favor of a kumbaya fantasy comfort zone, they refuse to confront history and the truth about present moment.
Asking black people to participate in this reconciliation process — one that centers on Lincoln — suggests that we bear responsibility in this mess. But we didn’t invent the concept of race. We didn’t create and don’t sustain institutionalized racism. And we surely don’t benefit from it.
Rhetorical calls for unity won’t address the fundamental sources of inequality: mass incarceration, employment discrimination, militarized policing, the school-to-prison pipeline, divestment in communities of color, political disenfranchisement, displacement of poor and working-class people of color from gentrifying cities. The emphasis on unity makes no room for discussion about growing white resentment and feelings of victimization, and it presumes that black folks bear responsibility for the entrenched problem of a “colorblind” white America that denies racism even exists.
And while Clinton may not have intended it this way, what the message of unity winds up doing is blaming communities of color for failing to assimilate, rather than acknowledging that the very fabric of this nation is built upon a diabolical, calculated and constantly evolving system of racism. That has the same effect as when Republicans blame President Obama for dividing the nation and making race relations worse, or when the media chastises Black Lives Matter protesters for alienating liberals with its “violent tone.”
All that said, I don’t really see what else a presidential nominee is going to say four months before the general election.
The National Rifle Association, the nation’s most morally abhorrent organization and producer of vile children’s propaganda, does not actually support unlimited gun rights. It supports unlimited gun rights for white people. It’s worth remembering that the NRA was originally just a hunting rights organization and that in the 70s it was on the verge of closing its Washington offices and moving its headquarters to Colorado to focus on its core mission. But then new leadership took over that connected gun rights to white backlash to the civil rights movement. Ever since then it has been a front line organization in the culture wars, which of course have always been more than tinged with racism. So it’s hardly surprising that it has nothing to say when the police kill black gunowners.