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How We Talk About Strikes

[ 81 ] February 21, 2015 |

It looks as if the labor dispute between the longshoremen’s union (ILWU) and west coast ports is about over, as Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez has been working hard to find a solution.

Like so many strikes, the concern trolls have come out in great numbers, complaining that the ILWU is selfish and won’t sacrifice for the rest of the American working class, such as this USA Today editorial. Of course, it’s not as if when these workers aren’t striking the media elites are trying to help the working class. But when workers do anything that might inconvenience anyone, no matter how justified the reason, the media blames them. Like Kristof claiming that he now supports union despite some stagehand making $400,000 a year, USA Today pulls out the age-old card of complaining that these blue collar workers make so much money that they are the problem, without stating what it thinks is an appropriate wage for workers.

And it isn’t just the media, this is common throughout society. Remember the BART strike in San Francisco, when supposedly liberal residents turned against the union because it took a labor action. Why is it that labor solidarity only goes one way–labor sacrificing for the general public and never the other–the general public understanding the necessity of the occasional labor struggle that will raise standards for the whole working and middle classes of an area. Instead, as a society we almost always only talk about strikes in terms of greedy workers causing problems for me, ignoring the benefits of good union contracts for all of us.

Mark Brenner counters:

Newfound concern for workers across the economy has everyone from the FedEx CEO to the Editorial Board of USA TODAY howling over port congestion. They blame unionized workers for everything from dwindling auto parts supplies in the Midwest to french fry shortages in Japan.

It’s a depressingly familiar bait and switch. Pay no attention to the billions in profits shippers are raking in, or the fact that it’s the port operators bottlenecking cargo by cutting shifts and closing ports for days on end. Instead, blame the workers laboring in this difficult and dangerous occupation because they still carry a union card and their wages don’t hover around the poverty line.

Longshore workers on the West Coast earn $26 to $41 an hour, and they have excellent health care and retirement benefits. In short, they have the kind of jobs we need more of — jobs that allow working-class men and women to buy homes and send their kids to college free from crushing debt.

These standards aren’t the result of enlightened corporate decision-making. They are the product of struggle. Longshore workers have fought for 80 years to get a fair share of the fruits of their labor. Today’s standoff is just the latest battle.

With the new labor agreement, I’m sure USA Today will now dedicate itself to improving the lives of the American working class to meet the good wages and benefits of the ILWU….

The Age of Acquiescence

[ 166 ] February 21, 2015 |

I haven’t read Steve Fraser’s new book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, but after reading this review, I sure plan to do so.

Fraser identifies a number of reasons why Americans acquiesce to the class warfare of the New Gilded Age:

Fraser explains the economics of decline effectively. The working class may have abandoned Marxian “class struggle,” but, he says, the capitalists haven’t; they have pretty much won the class conflict by destroying labor unions. But the problem for him goes beyond economics; the disappearance of the left-wing political imagination is his real concern. His analysis thus focuses mostly on the cultural and ideological.

He points to the distractions offered by consumer culture, “an emancipation of the imaginary and the libidinal whose thrills and dreaminess are prefabricated.” Consumerism and mass media offer pleasures that are private, that take people away from the political and social and economic grievances they share with others.

He emphasizes the particular idea of “freedom” that provides the heart of Republican Party ideology: Freedom in America is the freedom to succeed through individual initiative (rather than cooperative effort). Our heroes are the entrepreneurs, the “job creators,” and the enemies of freedom are the government regulations and taxes that shackle their creativity and energy (and which otherwise might go to serve social needs and the public good).

The ’60s maxim “the personal is political” meant that issues that seemed private — above all, women’s oppression — were in fact widely shared and required collective action to bring change. Fraser argues that what began as a call for liberation has today become a justification for avoiding the political, for substituting personal solutions for political ones: eat organic food, drive a Prius, send your kids to charter schools.

It’s an interesting thesis. As the review points out, Americans haven’t acquiesced on social issues–thus the gay rights movement, challenges to police violence, etc. But on economic issues, we have. And I think that’s right. Not all of us necessarily, but the capitalists did an outstanding job after the fall of the Soviet Union is discrediting even the slightest possibility that any system other than unrestrained American-style capitalism could work. Socialists were pushed back on their heels while class consciousness collapsed in American society (although it was already in decline since the 1950s). Horatio Alger myths have existed in American society since before Alger wrote them, but never before have so many people believed in them so whole-heartedly. And I don’t think student debt loads, economic stagnation, recession, and growing income inequality has really changed it that much, at least if my students are any sign.

The arguments about consumer culture and individualism I think are particularly interesting. I don’t think consumerism and resistance are necessarily counter to one another, but there is something about a society where even that resistance is heavily individualized and where one wears their politics not on their sleeve, but on their arm like a new tattoo that shows their own personally crafted politics for them. This highly individualized politics empowers people to resist on one level but also empowers them to drop out if the movement they’ve joined doesn’t take this or that position. Occupy did a lot but this atomized individualism is a big part of the reason why the same spirit and same problems didn’t allow it to continue and then didn’t reignite in some other way.

Anyway, I’ll try to review Fraser’s book for the blog and explore these issues in greater detail.

Government Food Guidelines

[ 60 ] February 21, 2015 |

Nina Teicholz challenges government food guidelines as unscientific and unhealthy:

It’s no surprise that longstanding nutritional guidelines are now being challenged.

In 2013, government advice to reduce salt intake (which remains in the current report) was contradicted by an authoritative Institute of Medicine study. And several recent meta-analyses have cast serious doubt on whether saturated fats are linked to heart disease, as the dietary guidelines continue to assert.

Uncertain science should no longer guide our nutrition policy. Indeed, cutting fat and cholesterol, as Americans have conscientiously done, may have even worsened our health. In clearing our plates of meat, eggs and cheese (fat and protein), we ate more grains, pasta and starchy vegetables (carbohydrates). Over the past 50 years, we cut fat intake by 25 percent and increased carbohydrates by more than 30 percent, according to a new analysis of government data. Yet recent science has increasingly shown that a high-carb diet rich in sugar and refined grains increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — much more so than a diet high in fat and cholesterol.

It seems to me there are a couple of issues at play here. First is the question of whether the government should be setting food guidelines. The answer is that of course it should–after all, public health is a massively important part of society. That said, government funding for this type of science is not nearly as high as it should be so it’s not surprising that the guidelines might not be based on the best science. Second, science does change. It is not static, nor will it ever be. So the idea that the government is going to create eating guidelines that will then exist for all time is a myth. Third, social and cultural factors affect science and affect society, which will continue to lead then to different standards of health and different ideologies around food production and consumption. Fourth, Teicholz calls for us to eat more meat, more eggs, and more full fat dairy products. But there is also a massive environmental cost to Americans committing to eat more meat, a cost which she evidently considers irrelevant. It is indeed relevant and must be part of the conversation about food consumption. That doesn’t mean I’m thrilled with the eating habits of modern Americans, but people aren’t downing bags of Cheetos for lunch because the government has discouraged the consumption of fats.

The Walmart Raises

[ 16 ] February 21, 2015 |

Walmart has announced a pay raise for its workers.

The company said it would pay even its lowest-level workers at least $9 an hour starting this spring, comfortably above the $7.25 federal minimum wage, and push that to $10 in 2016. The company also said it would strengthen a “department manager” role, giving it a minimum wage of $13 per hour this year and $15 next, thus offering low-wage hourly workers a clearer path to advancement. Including similar bumps at Walmart-owned Sam’s Clubs, the company expects 500,000 workers to receive a raise at a cost of $1 billion a year, executives said in a conference call with reporters.

This is why organizing efforts like the United Food and Commercial Workers’ campaign with the Walmart workers is so important. UFCW is rightfullly taking a good deal of credit for this. The bad publicity the company has received for its poverty wages, for holding food donation drives for its own workers, for making pregnant employees work with dangerous chemicals, and so many other awful corporate behaviors has made a difference. While the Times article linked above suggests this is Walmart responding to a tightening labor market, I am highly dubious that this is the only major reason for these raises. After all, it’s not like the early 2000s when fast food chains were offering signing bonuses for new workers. The labor market is still pretty bad for a lot of workers. Rather, it’s more likely that the fear of losing those workers to slightly better paying jobs combined with the need for Walmart to get some good publicity.

And as Mariya Strauss discusses
, this is very much a publicity move, part of a larger pattern of the company to make cosmetic changes in its business practices whenever the criticism of its practices generate particularly poor publicity. After all, it’s not like $10 an hour is some great shakes. In many states and municipalities, minimum wage law is moving to and above $10.

How Safe Do Oil Trains Make You Feel?

[ 42 ] February 20, 2015 |

You like oil trains running through your community? You feel safe that they won’t explode? Or leak? Or derail? Probably not.

So it’s just great that the rail companies are seeking to reduce crew size on trains from 2 to 1, relying on GPS for braking systems. Basically every stakeholder other than the rail companies opposes this–labor, environmental groups, safety advocates, community organizations. But the rail companies don’t care. But they can’t enact this unilaterally. Rather, the Obama administration has to approve. One hopes it denies the rail industry this ridiculous request. Imagine this scenario, not with oil but with chemicals:

“Imagine a railcar full of chlorine bursting on the CSX tracks less than mile away from a big public event on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. — an inauguration, say, or a concert,” he wrote. “The resulting cloud could kill 100,000 people. Al Qaeda might do it, but it’s more likely that a $55,000-a-year engineer, in the tenth hour of his shift, would simply nod off at the controls.”

Yeah, not good. A second person working on the train can make a huge difference in keeping the other awake.

Lynching Mexicans

[ 20 ] February 20, 2015 |

When that great study detailing the numbers of African-Americans lynched in the South came out last week, I noted that its weaknesses included that lynching was not confined to the South and that lots of non-blacks were lynched. Those stories are often forgotten about, as is so much about American racial history that is not black-white. I was not the only person to notice this of course and historians William Carrigan and Clive Webb have a New York Times op-ed on the matter:

From 1848 to 1928, mobs murdered thousands of Mexicans, though surviving records allowed us to clearly document only about 547 cases. These lynchings occurred not only in the southwestern states of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, but also in states far from the border, like Nebraska and Wyoming.

Some of these cases did appear in press accounts, when reporters depicted them as violent public spectacles, as they did with many lynchings of African-Americans in the South. For example, on July 5, 1851, a mob of 2,000 in Downieville, Calif., watched the extralegal hanging of a Mexican woman named Juana Loaiza, who had been accused of having murdered a white man named Frank Cannon.

Such episodes were not isolated to the turbulent gold rush period. More than a half-century later, on Nov. 3, 1910, a mob snatched a 20-year-old Mexican laborer, Antonio Rodríguez, from a jail in Rock Springs, Tex. The authorities had arrested him on charges that he had killed a rancher’s wife. Mob leaders bound him to a mesquite tree, doused him with kerosene and burned him alive. The El Paso Herald reported that thousands turned out to witness the event; we found no evidence that anyone was ever arrested.

While there were similarities between the lynchings of blacks and Mexicans, there were also clear differences. One was that local authorities and deputized citizens played particularly conspicuous roles in mob violence against Mexicans.

On Jan. 28, 1918, a band of Texas Rangers and ranchers arrived in the village of Porvenir in Presidio County, Tex. Mexican outlaws had recently attacked a nearby ranch, and the posse presumed that the locals were acting as spies and informants for Mexican raiders on the other side of the border. The group rounded up nearly two dozen men, searched their houses, and marched 15 of them to a rock bluff near the village and executed them. The Porvenir massacre, as it has become known, was the climactic event in what Mexican-Americans remember as the Hora de Sangre (Hour of Blood). It led, the following year, to an investigation by the Texas Legislature and reform of the Rangers.

Especially on the left, it’s really important to reiterate these points. There are good reasons why black-white relations still dominate our conversations about race as the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner remind us. But these same racist murders happen to Latinos as well. And while not in the big eastern cities that dominate the media cycle, Mexicans have been in this nation as long as African-Americans and have been subject to routine and systemic discrimination ever since the U.S. stole the northern half of Mexico to expand slaver in 1848. These stories have to be central to our racial history in order to fight for the rights of Latinos in the U.S. today.

Kristof on Unions

[ 94 ] February 20, 2015 |

I guess I am supposed to care that Nicholas Kristof now supports unions. Or so he says. Kristof usually only supports a cause if he can personally parachute in to save the victims–he loves to rescue Cambodian prostitutes (even if he is being scammed)–but when people take agency to improve their own lives–support Cambodian garment workers? No way–his interest declines significantly. Kristof writes that he now understands that unions actually do good in society, help create the middle class, reduce income inequality, and the like. Who knew! But he can’t resist framing this new position with anti-union stereotype after anti-union stereotype. The $400,000 stagehands! Teachers who can’t be punished! Corruption! Other myths and half-truths!

I’ll believe in Kristof’s conversion to unionism when he actually uses his column to support a specific action of workers–hey Nic, there’s an oil refinery strike going on right now!–or gives support to unions in his own field. Until then, this is just anti-union stereotypes used to cover up his half-apology for a long history of anti-unionism.

Of course one can also ask how a leading columnist at the nation’s paper of record can miss all the obvious evidence that unions are good for an economy–and miss that evidence for years and years. But then Kristof should have been fired over the Somaly Mam incident and it’s hardly news that Times columnists have lifetime sinecures no matter what idiotic columns they write.

See also Isquith.

The Oil Refinery Strike and Green Alliances

[ 11 ] February 20, 2015 |

Trish Kahle has an interesting piece at Jacobin on the potential for alliance between striking United Steelworkers’ refinery workers and environmentalists over safety conditions at the plants. Certainly environmentalists like Bill McKibben are saying all the right things here–greens have indeed learned lessons from the spotted owl debacle of the 1980s and 1990s. What does such alliances lead to? I don’t know. Kahle points out the history of these short-term alliances in the past, using the commonly cited example of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) under the leadership of Tony Mazzocchi in the 1970s as well as the rank and file of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in the same era, fighting against their own union leadership and the companies for a healthier and more ecologically just workplace. My own book Empire of Timber details how these alliances played out in the timber industry.

Unfortunately, these alliances are very hard to sustain. First, they are almost always top-down, leadership-driven actions. That can work, but the rank and file of *both* movements have to get involved and there’s often been resistance there, often for cultural reasons. I think this is somewhat less of a problem with greens these days because in my experience, young people are often significantly more interested in green issues with an environmental justice angle than pure wilderness and wildlife issues of the past. But as the signs festooning West Virginia and western Pennsylvania lambasting Obama’s “War on Coal” suggest, there can often still be severe cultural suspicion from workers toward environmentalists.

As Kahle points out, the shift in the UMWA away from an ecological agenda had much to do with industry slashing jobs, which is another huge reason for the difficulty of making these alliances last. The corporate-state assault on unions, especially in the private sector, means that workers are extremely nervous about supporting anything that might endanger their jobs and in that fear are easily manipulated by the lies of their employers about environmental protection or even workplace safety. It is when workers have some sort of employment and economic stability that they have been most open to green programs. And that’s very hard in the 21st century American economy with the global race to the bottom and aggressive anti-union tactics undermining good jobs.

As for an ecosocialist agenda, well, I obviously support that, even if it remains fairly undefined. But given that Kahle is writing about refinery workers who labor in an industry contributing to climate change, I guess I need more detail on what role refinery workers can play if the goal is to switch to a green economy without fossil fuels. Obviously supporting solar and wind energy jobs as union jobs can be a piece of that but if the ideal is closing the refineries, I’m not sure that’s going to be a great way to keep an alliance with refinery workers going.

Still, you have to try. What else is there? Any alliance between labor and greens over workplace safety is really positive and I hope this leads to more conversations and more common ground between the two movements. If there’s a picket line around you, go to it. If there’s a speaker around these issues, go hear the person.

Labor Reporting

[ 37 ] February 19, 2015 |

The New York Times is replacing the retiring Stephen Greenhouse on its labor beat with…..Noam Scheiber. Who is an OK reporter but when has he had anything interesting to say about unions? Does he even really care about unions per se? Has he walked a picket line? I don’t think he’s ever written about these issues too much. I’m sure Scheiber will be fine on the big economic questions that concern working class people but that’s not the same as covering labor, which requires talking to poor and working people on the ground. Maybe this works out, but I can’t say I’m super excited.

Of course, it’s good to remember Scheiber’s oh so insightful essay complaining that DeBlasio cares about black people getting killed by cops. That’s a reporter who can talk about labor solidarity!

Applying Labor Trafficking Laws to US Companies Operating Outside the U.S.

[ 17 ] February 19, 2015 |

In Out of Sight, I argue for the need of international enforceable labor standards that empower workers to seek redress for their exploitation through the courts of the company who either owns the workplace or who has signed contracts to produce its items there. If you are a Bangladeshi worker making apparel for WalMart and your factory collapses and kills you, your family should be able to sue Walmart in U.S. courts.

I realize that this is not happening overnight. But it’s not like there aren’t useful precedents we can build from. For instance, a U.S. ship repair company sought Indian labor after Hurricane Katrina. There was quite a bit of international labor recruited to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf. And a lot of it was exploited, including the workers of this ship repair company. But the workers fought back:

A New Orleans jury on Wednesday awarded $14 million to five Indian men who were lured to the United States and forced to work under inhumane conditions after Hurricane Katrina by a U.S. ship repair firm and its codefendants.

After a four-week trial, the U.S. District Court jury ruled that Alabama-based Signal International was guilty of labour trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination and ordered it to pay $12 million. Its co-defendants, a New Orleans lawyer and an India-based recruiter, were also found guilty and ordered to pay an additional $915,000 each.

The trial was the first in more than a dozen related lawsuits with over 200 plaintiffs that together comprise one of the largest labour trafficking cases in U.S. history.

Signal recruited about 500 Indian men as guest workers to repair oil rigs and facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to plaintiffs.

The workers paid $10,000 apiece to recruiters and were promised good jobs and permanent U.S. residency for their families, according to the suit. When the men arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, they discovered that they would not receive promised residency documents.

Signal also charged the men $1,050 per month to live in guarded labour camps where up to 24 men lived in single 1,800-square-foot (167-square-metre) units, according to the suit.

An economist who reviewed Signal’s records for the plaintiffs estimated the company saved more than $8 million by hiring the Indian workers.

“The defendants exploited our clients, put their own profits over the lives of these honourable workers, and tried to deny them their day in court,” plaintiffs’ attorney and Southern Poverty Law Center board chairman Alan Howard said in a statement.

American labor law is violated and the company can be defeated. But the question we don’t ask often enough is why should American labor law be applied only to workers in the United States? Why shouldn’t at least parts of American labor law be applicable to anyone making products for American firms? What has really empowered the global race to the bottom is disconnecting corporations from national law, allowing them to move while law stays static or is even repealed in order to keep them from moving again. Anyone working in a guarded labor, overcrowded labor camp producing goods for American companies should have the right to fight back not only in their own country, where corporate money has even more power and buys even more politicians than in the U.S., but also in American courts. These are the goals for which we must fight if we want to improve global labor standards worldwide.

Culture Wars and Studying History (II)

[ 128 ] February 19, 2015 |

Abe_simpson

Gordon Wood is an esteemed historian of the American Revolution. He’s probably most famous for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which was popular but not universally acclaimed due to the fact that the American Revolution was primarily radical only if you accept Gordon Wood’s rather stretched definition of the word “radical.” That Wood’s version of radicalism does not include black people or Native Americans or women or hardly anyone but elite white men is, to say the least, problematic. But Wood publishes widely, frequently writing long reviews of new books on the Revolution and Constitution in the New York Review of Books, editing volumes on the American Revolution for the Library of America, and contributing to many other elite publications.

Wood has found a new publishing outlet and that is The Weekly Standard. His discussion of his dissertation advisor Bernard Bailyn is little more than a cranky old white man screed against how new generations of historians talk about the past. He has a litany of complaints–too much race! too much gender! too much other countries! not enough big stories! historians trying to use the past for social change!–that for whatever merit (and I don’t think the complaints have much merit at all) they might have, basically come down to Gordon Wood believing the solution to these problems is seeing the past and writing about the past precisely in the way Gordon Wood sees the past and writes about the past. To say this is an unfortunate essay is a severe understatement.

Let’s break down a few passages here to elucidate the points.

In one of his essays, Bailyn quotes Isaiah Berlin’s reactions to American universities and American students during his visit to Harvard in the late 1940s. In contrast to Oxbridge, said Berlin, America’s universities and students were “painfully aware of the social and economic miseries of their society.” They found it hard to justify studying, say, the early Greek epic while the poor went hungry and blacks were denied fundamental rights. How, Berlin wondered, could disinterested scholarship, disinterested history-writing, flourish in such morally painful circumstances?

Nearly 70 years later, it has gotten worse. College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

How can we write about history if we care about inequality! Don’t we know that inequality doesn’t have a history worth writing about!?!

And note that the “whole of the nation’s past” does not include race or gender; rather such subjects are the enemy of telling that whole. The whole of the nation’s past is the kind of big sweeping story of American elites that Gordon Wood writes about.

But a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past.

Yes, writing about race and gender comes from historians who are no longer interested in how the United States came to be. Because what could be relevant about race and gender in understanding this question? Now, Wood is defining “how the United States came to be” in a very specific way, i.e., the political, economic, and military decisions that literally created the United States during the Revolutionary and Constitutional periods. Once again, Wood completely dismisses the inequalities of that generation as essentially irrelevant for answering this question, instead saying that those who study those issues are telling “fragmentary and essentially anachronistic” stories. Yet one could easily lob the same charge as Wood for also telling a fragmentary, if not necessarily anachronistic, story that because historians “necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome,” which counter to what Wood seems thinks, every single historian has to do. In his case, those choices have led him to ignore inequality and oppression entirely.

Not only does the history these moral reformers write invert the proportions of what happened in the past, but it is incapable of synthesizing the events of the past. It is inevitably partial, with little or no sense of the whole. If the insensitive treatment of women, American Indians, and African slaves is not made central to the story, then, for them, the story is too celebratory. Since these historians are not really interested in the origins of the nation, they have difficulty writing any coherent national narrative at all, one that would account for how the United States as a whole came into being.

This is of course ridiculous. It is entirely possible to tell a big narrative history centering the treatment of women, Native Americans, and slaves. It is not hard at all to create a coherent national narrative that centers on racism. That the United States is and always has been a white supremacist nation despite efforts by many people, including whites, to change that, is in fact a compelling national narrative. I will also remind Wood of one Howard Zinn, who certainly wrote a coherent national narrative that a lot of people love. That history might not celebrate America though–and that’s Wood’s problem with it

For many of them, the United States is no longer the focus of interest. Under the influence of the burgeoning subject of Atlantic history, which Bailyn’s International Seminar on the Atlantic World greatly encouraged, the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct. The William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in early American history, now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.

Someone get the fainting couch. The leading journal in U.S. colonial history and many historians of the period have now realized that the United States doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that the rest of the world exists. Somehow this is a problem for Wood. Having not read the William and Mary Quarterly for a decade, I have to say that if these are the types of essays it is publishing, I may have to start reading it.

The essay, and Gordon Wood’s positions and writing more broadly, have led to several other good (and disparate) discussions. L.D. Burnett places Wood’s argument in the context of the decline of the academy and pokes fun at John Fea’s plea for all the lefty historians to quit making fun of Wood. Michael Hattam, in a piece on Wood that came out last month, discusses the historiographical transformations of the study of early America and notes that Wood is wrong that no one talks about political elites anymore–they just don’t talk about them in the glowing and often uncritical terms Wood can resort to. Instead, those elites are placed in the broader context of all the other people in the nation Wood never discusses. Eran Zelnik completely dismisses Wood’s complaints about presentism, noting correctly that everyone is a presentist and none more so than those who claim not to be since they are usually comfortable with the inequalities of society. The consensus historians of the postwar period loved the mantle of objectivity, but they were as influenced by their times as anyone else. Zelnik writes:

If Wood had done that—had he told us that above all else he wants American history to uphold the current balance of power in the US by creating awe inspiring origin narratives—we would have had a much more interesting discussion. Instead, Wood seeks to throw sand in our eyes, and because our contemporary academic discourse does not allow us to assert that the present is and was the bottomline of any history that was ever written, we cannot have the kind of argument we should be having—a very political one.

Indeed. And I don’t think these questions of objectivity and taking passionate positions is something younger generations of historians really worry about. What power Wood has is not over the trajectory of American historiography today. His work is respected, but is not the only interpretation of the period that matters. His power is in reinforcing right-wing complaints about the study of history that we see in the Texas high school textbook debate or Oklahoma’s anti-Advanced Placement US History test bill. It’s within a broader national debate over whether we should celebrate the nation’s past or criticize it (of course, most professional historians do both but that’s not how conservatives see it). That such a famous and well-respected historian is contributing negatively to these issues is, well, sad.

Pullman

[ 26 ] February 19, 2015 |

As I have urged for some time, President Obama will be naming the Pullman site a national monument today. This is a great thing for those who are interested in remembering both American labor history and African-American history. There is such great potential for this site. It is home of the classic 1894 Pullman strike as well as the amazing union the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters which, led by A. Philip Randolph, became one of the most important civil rights and labor rights organizations in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s.

Obama will also be declaring a Japanese internment camp site in Hawaii and a beautiful canyon in Colorado national monuments as well. Very glad for both of these as well, although the Japanese-American experience is in fact more than just concentration camp sites, of which multiple already have federally protected status.

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