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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 103

[ 65 ] July 14, 2017 |

This is the grave of Henry McCarty, aka, William Bonney, aka, Billy the Kid.

Billy the Kid was a murderous thug who achieved the Old West fame that eastern urban Americans were just eating up in the late 19th and early 20th century. Born in Manhattan, of all places for a western murderer to be birthed, in 1859, his father died at some point early in his life and his mother moved to Indianapolis. Why anyone chooses to move to Indianapolis without a really good reason, in the 1860s or 2010s, is unknown to modern scholars. Anyway, his mother remarried in 1873 and the family moved to Wichita, then Santa Fe, and then Silver City, New Mexico Territory. It was there that Billy began his life of violence. His mother died in 1874 and his stepfather evidently didn’t want him around. In 1875, the poor kid, who really never had a chance, as was so common for 19th century impoverished children, was caught stealing food. But this was no regular poor kid. A mere ten days later, he robbed a Chinese laundry in Silver City and stole some guns. He was caught and jailed, and then escaped.

Thus began a life of criminality. He moved to Arizona Territory, became a cowhand, and ran with rough people. He was known for spending a lot of time gambling. He first killed a man in 1877, during a fight in a saloon in Bonita, Arizona. He escaped the prison again and rode back into New Mexico, but heading toward Pecos, his horse was stolen by the Apaches. He nearly died before getting to Pecos, but was nursed back to health.

The post-Civil War American West was a violent mess. Even leaving aside the genocide against Native Americans, many Civil War veterans suffering from PTSD moved out to the West where they continued the war in what my undergraduate advisor Richard Maxwell Brown called “The Western Civil War of Incorporation.” Despite the clunky name, it makes sense in describing what was going on. Basically, northern thugs were largely Republicans and taking advantage of the fact that Republicans controlled the federal government in an age of patronage to gain control of western land and resources. Largely, southern Democrats were out of luck. So if you examine the famed incidents of western violence, it’s almost always northern Republicans on the side of law and order and southern Democrats as the outlaws. In reality, both sides were staffed with violent thugs. Billy the Kid was far too young to fight in the Civil War but he as a poor kid with a murder rap, he fit in well with the violent Texans he got to know.

The intricacies of the Lincoln County War are too convoluted to bother explaining here and who really cares anyway. In any case, Billy started working as a cattle rustler. At first, he offered to rustle cattle for John Chisum, a Tennessee-born cattle rancher attempting to build an empire in central New Mexico. That was fine for awhile, but Billy and the gang he developed got out of control and Chisum turned on him. Eventually, Billy came under the employ of Alexander McSween, a Scottish immigrant also attempting to be a cattleman but who found himself locked out by the Republican machine in Santa Fe. McSween hired Billy and a bunch of Texans to be on his side. A lot of violence ensued and Billy killed a whole mess of people, at least 8 men and quite likely more. McSween was killed in 1878 but Billy escaped and continued his violence. The killings continued for another 3 years. He was finally caught and convicted of killing a sheriff in 1881, but escaped before he was to hang after killing a couple more people in Lincoln, New Mexico, where he was to die. He went to Fort Sumner, and word got out that he was there. By this time, Governor Lew Wallace, who was a political hack appointee when he wasn’t writing Ben Hur, a novel mysteriously seen as a brilliant piece of literature in the Gilded Age before people acquired decent taste, offered a bounty on Billy’s head. Finally, Pat Garrett shot him in Fort Sumner, New Mexico on July 14, 1881.

The number of media portrayals of Billy the Kid is totally out of control. Among the better versions in film are Kris Kristofferson’s role in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, although that movie isn’t really all that great, even without Bob Dylan pointlessly floating through it. And then there is Young Guns, which is best not discussed. I haven’t seen The Left Handed Gun with Paul Newman, which I should alleviate. There are some pretty good songs about him, from Marty Robbins’ version of the song by his name to the Buddy Tabor song that uses his name. Joe Ely’s “Me and the Billy the Kid” is like my least favorite of his songs, but I like the origin, which is the fact that the Billy the Kid museum in Fort Sumner has nothing to do with the actual person, so Ely figured he could write whatever he wanted. But for a complete and utter thug, this kind of media attention is ridiculous.

Billy the Kid is buried at Old Fort Sumner Cemetery, Fort Sumner, New Mexico, on the land of the Navajo genocide at the Bosque Redondo.


Two Saved

[ 17 ] July 13, 2017 |

The Trump administration’s grotesque attempt to reduce or destroy the wonderful national monuments created in the last twenty years has at least taken two monuments off the chopping block. We can at least be allowed to enjoy the Hanford Reach in Washington and Craters of the Moon in Idaho. This is because there is not the slightest economic interest a corporation has in either one, as the image above probably suggests, but it’s still a good thing. There are 25 more that could still be decimated. Everyone who cares about our public lands, please keep up the fight for the rest.

Trumpcare and Home Care Workers

[ 18 ] July 13, 2017 |

The Senate has released its new deathcare bill and it looks pretty much equally horrible to the previous draft. I’m sure Scott will have more on it and I’m no healthcare wonk so I’m not going to try. But I do want to highlight this Sarah Jaffe piece on how it will affect home care workers.

The Obama administration was a high point for the rights of home care workers, many of whom were still locked out of basic labor protections. In 2013, the labor department extended federal minimum wage and overtime protections to them. Elly Kugler, who leads federal policy work at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, says it was meaningful because it recognized them as workers, and afforded them additional pay. Wages for home care have been largely stagnant, hovering just above $10 an hour on average.

Low wages had often driven people out of the field who otherwise found the work meaningful, Kugler notes. “Though many of our members care deeply for the work they do … they had to go and work in other kinds of jobs. Meaning fast food, other sectors, making a little bit more money.”

“I think one of the interesting things about home care is that it forces all these different worlds to connect,” Kugler adds. “The world of state funded home care and and healthcare and also worker rights and disability rights and senior rights and racial justice – all these different worlds are connected in home care.”

Nowhere is that more clear than in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, now under fire from the Trump administration and a Republican Congress.

The expansion of Medicaid, which took effect in 2014, meant more funding for home care and more jobs for care workers. The bill also expanded healthcare for the workers themselves – Barrett had never had chicken pox as a child, and when she contracted it as an adult from a client with shingles, it aggravated her asthma.

“Before the Affordable Care Act passed, one in three home care workers was uninsured,” says Josephine Kalipeni, director of policy and partnerships at Caring Across Generations. After its passage, that rate dropped by 26%.

Because of the general forward trajectory, Kugler says, the Obama years had meant that the movement for care workers had gained more public traction with bigger issues, such as immigrants’ rights (many home care workers are immigrants like Barrett), racial justice, and the value of women’s work. Home care workers had joined the Fight for $15, initiated in part by the Service Employees International Union, which represents tens of thousands of home care workers around the country.

Workers who liked their care jobs, like Barrett, could begin to think about their work as a career.

And then came Trump.

Those priorities are clearly demonstrated in the Republican plan to “repeal and replace” the ACA, currently moving through the Senate. Estimates compiled by the National Domestic Workers Alliance range from 1.8m to 3 million jobs lost in just a few years if “Trumpcare” passes; between 305,000 and 713,000 of those will be home care workers.

The latest version of the bill to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office predicts that 22 million people would lose their health insurance by 2026 if the bill were passed as is. Premiums would spike for elderly people like Barrett’s clients, as Medicaid spending would be slashed by $772bn over 10 years. Changes to Medicaid could include a “per capita cap”, or a limit to how much the federal government pays states per enrollee in the program.

“It is basically saying, ‘Your state can only get so sick. You can only have so much of a disability and then you are just going to have to pay,’” Kugler says. These cuts, Kalipeni notes, will fall squarely on the shoulders of women – the women of color and immigrant women who do the paid home care work, the women who still do most of the unpaid care work that will pick up the slack when the budgets for paid care are cut.

Until such cuts directly affect people’s lives, she says, people often don’t realize the importance of these systems – and by then it is frequently too late.

The whole piece is outstanding, providing some history of home care work and exploring how workers are trying to fight for greater dignity. I will only add that jobs such as home care (and day care and K-12 teaching and others) are absolutely essential for living with basic dignity and yet we don’t provide those workers any dignity at all, or are actively taking it away in the case of K-12 teachers. Home care is pretty tough work. Anyone who has dealt with elderly relatives knows what is coming in no so distant future for them. Don’t we want the people taking care of us when we are old to have decent health care and to make enough money they can be proud of their job and presumably then do a better job at it? We should. And yet as a society we very much do not. Trumpcare would only make their lives worse. And that will eventually mean making our own lives worse.

How Can We Respond to the Renewed Muslim Ban?

[ 85 ] July 13, 2017 |

I want to build on my post from Tuesday about how no one is even talking about the renewed Muslim ban, as well as Dan’s post from yesterday expanding on it to discuss Trump’s plan for mass deportations.

The initial response to the Muslim ban was amazing. As these things go, the seeming spontaneous actions by hundreds if not thousands of people to go to airports and disrupt the Muslim ban in fact was created by the hard work of grassroots organizers preparing for these sorts of issues and actions. The majority of people who showed up of course had no idea who these people were and they went out of outrage, but also because they heard other people were going. That’s where the organizing comes in. Their friends wouldn’t have gone if organizers hadn’t started that process, etc.

The secondary response to the Muslim ban was for liberals to give record amounts of money to the ACLU. From one angle, this makes sense. The legal teams fighting the Muslim ban in the courts had early victories and ultimately, one hopes that the American legal system would rule this as unconstitutional as it obviously is.

On the other hand, we know now that this probably isn’t going to work because of the Supreme Court. So where does that leave us? Donating to the ACLU is useful. It is not useful enough. It also gives the overwhelmingly upper middle class white liberal donors to the ACLU a bit of a pass in doing anything else.

Ultimately, the legal strategy and donations are good, but they have to be backed up with protest politics. As many said at the time, including the lawyers fighting the Muslim ban, the protests in the airports did a world of good, giving judges the shot in the arm they needed to stand up to Trump at that early moment when no one really knew if anyone would stand up to him. Without the protests, the stays on the Muslim ban might not have happened at all.

If the Supreme Court is not going to throw out the ban, what will you do?

I was discussing my post with an organizing friend of mine. She works in New York, with many of the immigrant-led organizations doing the grassroots work that meant so much during the JFK occupation. These are barebones organizations, holding the funding together by a thread. These are the groups we should be funding. The ACLU has plenty of access to money. We need to move our money around more effectively to people who add to the legal strategy through the equally important direct action strategy.

My friend noted that as this was all going on, she was desperately trying to get people to donate to a much broader set of organizations than the ACLU. She was using her Twitter feed to publicize all these other groups. It didn’t really work and she is very frustrated by it. I think the question for me is how to connect your everyday liberal to these organizations. When I think of who donates in situations like this, I think of professors. And I think of many commenters on this blog. I think that some of the problem is that there are a not small number of liberals who are openly uncomfortable with protest politics. In the aftermath of the courts intervening in the Muslim ban, some LGM commenters asserted the protests had nothing to do with it. This was of course absurd and countered by the very legal people working on the issue. But it gets at the feeling some have. This is a problem. Personally, I think a bigger problem is more that most donating liberals simply don’t know who they should give to, don’t know how to know, and aren’t going to do the work to find out. The ACLU is a nice safe organization. It does good work. It’s an easy donation without having to think about it too much.

But it’s not also not sufficient, as we are seeing. Donating to the ACLU is not an excuse not to be active and outraged at the betrayal of American values from this administration and its racist base. More is needed.

So my question to you is, what do you think a next step would be? If I was to promote grassroots organizations on this site, would you consider giving to them instead or in addition to big groups like the ACLU? How else will we reignite outrage over the Muslim ban? What do you recommend?

Trump’s Imaginary Friend

[ 92 ] July 13, 2017 |

Our president has an imaginary friend he trots out when useful.

For all things Paris, President Donald Trump’s go-to guy is Jim.

The way Trump tells it — Jim is a friend who loves Paris and used to visit every year. Yet when Trump travels to the city Thursday for his first time as president, it’s unlikely that Jim will tag along. Jim doesn’t go to Paris anymore. Trump says that’s because the city has been infiltrated by foreign extremists.

Whether Jim exists is unclear. Trump has never given his last name. The White House has not responded to a request for comment about who Jim is or whether he will be on the trip.

Trump repeatedly talked about the enigmatic Jim while on the campaign trail, but his friend didn’t receive widespread attention until Trump became president. For Trump, Jim’s story serves as a cautionary tale – a warning that even a place as lovely as Paris can be ruined if leaders are complacent about terrorism.

Jim’s biggest moment in the spotlight was during a high-profile Trump speech in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. Trump explained that Jim “loves the City of Lights, he loves Paris. For years, every year during the summer, he would go to Paris. It was automatic, with his wife and his family.”

Trump one day asked Jim: “How’s Paris doing?”

“’Paris?” Jim replied, as relayed by Trump. “‘I don’t go there anymore. Paris is no longer Paris.’”

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, responded by tweeting a photo of herself with Mickey and Minnie Mouse inviting Trump “and his friend Jim” to France to “celebrate the dynamism and the spirit of openness of #Paris.”

This inspires confidence in our nation’s future.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 102

[ 19 ] July 13, 2017 |

This is the grave of Stephen Solarz.

Born in 1940 in Manhattan, Solarz became interested in politics from a young age, received an MA in public law and government from Columbia in 1967 and taught for a year at Brooklyn College. He managed the House campaign for an anti-war candidate in 1966 and this made him feel he could be a politician. He ran for the New York State Assembly in 1968 and won, serving until 1974. In 1973, he ran for Borough President of Brooklyn and lost. After that, he decided to run for Congress, and won a seat in 1974 after defeating the corrupt and indicted Bertram Podell in the primary. He served in Congress until 1993.

Solarz became primarily involved in foreign policy, especially in Asia, and moved significantly to the right on many foreign policy issues, aligning with neoconservatives by the end of his life. He initially chose this as his policy platform to appeal to the large Jewish population in his district and he was a major advocate for Israel. He was the first American official to visit North Korea, meeting with Kim Il-Sung. Solarz led an early battle to stop the Carter administration from selling F-15 jets to Saudi Arabia, although he failed in the effort. On the other hand, he worked with Carter to continue sanctions on Rhodesia for their racist policies. He was close to the Aquino family and did much to publicize the horrors of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos on the Philippines. In fact, Solarz was the person who initially publicized the enormous shoe collection of Imelda, as part of hearings about the opulence of the Marcos family and how they stole foreign aid. He was also heavily involved in relations with India, which reflected the sizable number of wealthy Indian-Americans in his district. He met with Saddam Hussein at least twice in the 1980s. Yet, as he became a Washington foreign policy power broker, he also left his progressive roots behind. Solarz co-authored the 1991 resolution to support the Gulf War and in 1998, he would unite with neoconservatives to urge Bill Clinton to overthrow Hussein. He also got a bit too comfortable in power and was implicated in the House banking scandal in the early 1990s. Even so, he was mentioned by Charlie Cook as a possible 1992 presidential candidate for the Democrats. That wasn’t going to happen, but Solarz supported Clinton early on and hoped he would be named Secretary of State.

Solarz served as the political mentor for a young Chuck Schumer. However, Solarz had bad relationships with much of the New York Democratic Party, including eventually breaking with Schumer, who would come to see Solarz as the prime example of how a politician can destroy themselves. They got their revenge with the 1990 census, gutting his district after the state lost three congressional seats, splitting it into 3 surrounding districts. He tried to run in the open seat in the 12th district, but this newly drawn district was largely Latino and Nydia Velasquez defeated him in the primary, even though he threw huge amounts of cash into it.

Solarz’s defeat coincided with Bill Clinton’s rise to the presidency, so he stayed an important insider. He was considered a likely candidate to be Ambassador to India and Clinton initially offered it to him, but some sketchiness in his attempts to obtain a visa for a Hong Kong businessman with a criminal past made that impossible. Instead, Clinton named him Chairman of the Central Asian-American Enterprise Fund in 1993, an attempt to encourage private sector investment in the region. He served on that until 1998. Through the rest of his life, he stayed heavily involved in Asian relations, serving on a number of think tanks and commissions with other Washington insiders. He died of cancer in 2010.

Stephen Solarz is buried in Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Trump and Trade

[ 35 ] July 12, 2017 |

The election of Trump has been a weird time for those of us who care deeply about reshaping global trade to be fair to workers and ecosystems. Our criticisms got at least some traction on the left before November. But in the aftermath of Trump’s election, there were a lot of pieces by prominent liberals that ignored all the horrible parts of NAFTA, CAFTA, the TPP, and other free trade agreements in favor of a full-throated defense of globalism and the trade agreements that are part and parcel of it. There are a number of problems with this, including that these trade agreements have utterly decimated working-class people in the United States, helping lead to the political problems of the present. We can have a global society and one that treats people fairly, takes unemployment seriously, and spreads the benefits of trade more broadly. Our reaction to Trump should not be “We need the TPP.” It should be, “We need trade agreements that give workers and citizens the same rights to the international legal framework that corporations enjoy and we need baseline labor and environmental standards enforceable through both national and extra-national courts.” But the first step really is to push back against Trump’s half-baked racist bluster. I appreciated this Robert Kuttner piece on the position left critiques of trade find themselves and what to do.

First, Trump’s trade policy diverts attention from an entirely legitimate and overdue critique of the current trading order. The “postwar order” that Porter cites Trump as threatening was actually toppled in the 1970s.

In the original postwar order—the one that led to 30 years of growth that produced broadly shared prosperity—labor rights were protected, there was tight regulation of financial speculation, and nations had the right to have national industrial policies and public investments without being hauled before some trade tribunal as protectionists.

The global order that followed bashed labor, liberated capital, and restored the brand of laissez-faire that brought us the Great Depression and the financial collapse of 2008. We need a very different sort of trade regime that puts social rights back on the same level with financial rights.

This is the sort of protection that can be defended as both sound economic policy and sound social policy. If we had kept more of it, workers would not have taken it on the chin and we would not have gotten President Trump.

So the trouble with Trump is not that he challenges the current trading system. The problem—as with all of his policies—is that he is an opportunist and a hypocrite. And that raises the second concern. His actual trade policies are an incoherent mash-up.

For instance, his revisions of NAFTA are likely to restore many of the same pro-corporate provisions in Obama’s failed TPP. Trump objects to them, not because they help corporate cronies but because Obama’s name was on the TPP deal. Credible reports suggest that Trump will make NAFTA’s existing anti-regulatory protections for big business even worse.

Trump made an ad hoc bargain with China under which China will accept more American exports of beef, and in return the United States will import Chinese cooked chicken products—with no country-of-origin labeling—so that consumers cannot know what they are buying. China is notorious for having lax or nonexistent food inspection standards. Yuck! This is exactly the kind of free trade we don’t need.

Occasionally, he gets something right. Trump has threatened to punish China for producing steel at well below the cost of production and dumping it on world markets. Those actions do violate trade norms, hurt U.S. industry, and should indeed be subject to sanctions.

But we’ll see what Trump actually delivers. In his communications with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Trump promised to ease up on trade threats if China would take a harder line with North Korea.

Meanwhile, China’s planned and subsidized economy and its predatory trade policies are undermining America’s ability to compete in the entire range of green industries, from solar panels to wind turbines to rail cars.

U.S. solar manufacturers have filed a trade complaint—as they should. It remains to be seen what Trump will do, given his other geopolitical goals vis-à-vis China. Diplomatic finesse, much less ideological consistency, is not the man’s strong suit.

The response to Trump’s idiocy needs to be a further examination of what is the trade system we want to see, not a knee-jerk defense of the TPP because Trump theoretically opposes it.

The Wages of Nuclear

[ 41 ] July 12, 2017 |

This is a powerful long-form piece on how the Manhattan Project and its aftermath, with the utter indifference toward disposing of nuclear waste that partially defined its domestic impact, is still creating horrible health impacts on Americans today, with a focus on a uranium enrichment plant near St. Louis.

Dawn Chapman first noticed the smell on Halloween in 2012, when she was out trick-or-treating with her three young children in her neighborhood of Maryland Heights, Missouri, a small suburb of St. Louis. By Thanksgiving, it was a stench—a mixture of petroleum fumes, skunk spray, electrical fire, and dead bodies—reaching the airport, the ballpark, the strip mall where Dawn bought her groceries. Dawn could smell the odor every time she got in her car, and then, by Christmas, she couldn’t not smell it. In January, the stench hung in the air inside her home when Dawn woke her children for school every morning. “That was the last straw,” she told me recently. Dawn made a call to City Hall asking about this terrible smell. The woman on the phone told Dawn she needed to call the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, gave her the number, and abruptly hung up the phone. Dawn called the number, left a message, and then went on with her day.

Her youngest son was napping when the phone rang. Dawn was sitting on the top bunk in his bedroom folding laundry. The man on the phone introduced himself as Joe Trunko from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Joe spoke gently, slowly. He told Dawn that there is a landfill near her home, that it is an EPA Superfund site contaminated with toxic chemicals, that there has been an underground fire burning there since 2010. “These things happen sometimes in landfills,” he said. “But this one is really not good.”

Joe told Dawn that this landfill fire measures six football fields across and more than a hundred and fifty feet deep; it is in the floodplain of the Missouri River, less than two miles from the water itself, roughly twenty-seven miles upstream from where the Missouri River joins the Mississippi River before flowing out to the sea. “But to be honest, it’s not even the fire you should be worrying about,” Joe continued. “It’s the nuclear waste buried less than one thousand feet away.”

Joe explained how almost fifty thousand tons of nuclear waste left over from the Manhattan Project was dumped in the landfill illegally in 1973. He explained, so gently, that Dawn should be concerned that the fire and the waste would meet and that there would be some kind of “event.”

“Why isn’t this in the news?” Dawn asked.

“You know, Mrs. Chapman, that’s a really good question.”

It goes from there.

Even taking into account the creation of Superfund in 1980, the U.S. has never taken its toxic impact seriously. A big part of the reason for this is that people of color are pushed into neighborhoods near toxic sites and wealthy white people are far away. Like everything else about this racist nation, race plays a central role in our entire history of toxicity. The field of environmental justice appeared in the 1980s to deal with the history and scholarship around this, going along with local environmental justice campaigns that began in the 1970s as people, building on the civil rights movement, began to fight for their rights to not be poisoned. But as of this coincided with the long conservative movement that has perhaps reached its crescendo today, enforcement of the laws has slowly lagged and the money to clean this up disappeared.

Racism in Hollywood

[ 177 ] July 12, 2017 |

It’s a good thing Bollywood doesn’t exist or anything….

The Hollywood Reporter recently published a piece about the casting search for Disney’s live-action Aladdin, which has taken longer than initially expected. Production was expected to begin in July, but it’s been pushed back to August in order to accommodate the search for a male lead. (The search for Jasmine has reportedly narrowed to Power Rangers star Naomi Scott and Indian actress Tara Sutaria.)

In the grand scheme of Hollywood schedules, a lost month isn’t exactly big news. It happens when you’re undertaking a massive, worldwide casting call. However, The Hollywood Reporter suggested a different explanation for the delay. “Finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult,” reads the article, “especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent (the animated film is set in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Agrabah)….[T]he search has dragged on, with Disney and Ritchie having to go back to the drawing board multiple times.”

Where would a studio possibly find one of those except in the 2nd largest film industry in the world?

And the whole thing just reeks of the fundamental problem of racism in Hollywood.

The Harry Potter team watched 40,000 Harry auditions before landing on Daniel Radcliffe. Ritchie and his crew have sat through 2,000 auditions for Aladdin and Jasmine combined, and I’m supposed to see that as an “especially” difficult search for talent?

Get out. This search can only be considered “especially” difficult by someone who sees the casting restriction to Middle-Eastern and Indian actors as unnecessary and burdensome. And, again, we don’t see that sort of suggestion with majority-white casting searches. Going so far as to find a Harry who was British and had natural green or blue eyes was worthy of a wide, exhaustive search. But having to cast a Middle Eastern actor in Aladdin, on the other hand, is a PC burden. The undercurrent of this article is: If only we could whitewash, this would be so easy!

And that idea plays into some of the more insidious, unspoken ways that racism manifests in the entertainment industry. Reviewers who “just don’t connect” with characters of color. Directors who just don’t “see that special something” in actors of color. The idea that black women are “not ready” for Saturday Night Live or that finding trans kids to play trans kids is “incredibly hard.” It’s also the sort of bias that Mitt Romney was ruthlessly mocked for during his presidential run, when he said he had to look through “binders full of women” to try and find any women who were qualified. It’s no less ridiculous when someone uses this idea to prop up their racism rather than their sexism.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 101

[ 24 ] July 12, 2017 |

This is the grave of William Howard Taft.

While I am far past the point of venerating presidents, I find Taft a pretty interesting case, largely because his reputation today is so shaped by that egocentric lunatic Theodore Roosevelt turning on him after his former friend replaced him in the Oval Office. Roosevelt so brutalizes Taft in his Autobiography that Taft’s reputation has never recovered. And while Taft is not someone who I think most liberals or leftists today want to see as a good guy, he’s nonetheless a more interesting figure than usually admitted.

Born in 1857 in Cincinnati, Taft’s father was Grant’s Attorney General. He went to Yale, came back to Cincinnati, and started practicing law. But politics was the family business (and still is for that Ohio elite family). He was so enmeshed in the Republican elite that he was nearly named to the Supreme Court by Benjamin Harrison in 1889, when he was only 32. Taft’s single ambition was to be on the Court. Instead, Harrison named him Solicitor General. When Congress created a new slot for each appeals court, Harrison named Taft to the Sixth Circuit in 1891. He was a Gilded Age conservative, but a fairly moderate one, as he would remain through his career. He wasn’t reflexively anti-labor like many of his colleagues. He actually ruled in favor of a worker suing for injuries on the job, which the Supreme Court overruled for violating its cherished right of contract.

Taft was not a big supporter of his fellow Ohioan William McKinley in 1896, although he certainly supported him over William Jennings Bryan. McKinley passed over Taft for his sole Supreme Court appointment, naming Joseph McKenna instead. But in 1900, McKinley asked Taft to resign from the Sixth Circuit and become head of the commission to create a government in the new U.S. colony in the Philippines. Taft agreed on the condition that he would be McKinley’s next choice for the Supreme Court. Of course, McKinley got popped in the gut and Theodore Roosevelt became president.

Taft was nothing if not an imperialist, although perhaps less overtly racist than some. He did not institute segregation in Manila, as many Americans wanted, and believed Filipino independence was inevitable, although I’m not sure how he reconciled this with the war on Emilio Aguinaldo’s independence forces that was raping, torturing, and brutally murdering Filipinos throughout the islands. Anyway, Roosevelt and Taft were good friends already. He offered Taft a Supreme Court position in 1902, but Taft felt that he had more work to do as governor of the Philippines and turned it down. But the next year, he accepted the offer of Secretary of War and returned to the U.S. There, he was in Roosevelt’s shadow, as TR preferred to handle foreign relations himself, but it was also clear that Taft was Roosevelt’s heir apparent. He didn’t really want to be president, but he never turned it down either. Roosevelt was already getting cranky though. See, TR pledged not to run for a second full term soon after his election in 1904. He almost immediately regretted it. He stayed by his word, but the ground was already set for a break between the two. Taft easily defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1908.

Roosevelt and Taft were both conservatives in their own way. But Taft was certainly closer to the business elite and was much more predictable than Roosevelt, who could be a total Gilded Age pro-business hack one day and a reformer the next. As president, Taft continued his imperialist ways. He was happy to follow Roosevelt’s example of invading Latin American nations for whatever reason. His Dollar Diplomacy made Latin American leaders unhappy. It turned out that Latin America didn’t want to become financial protectorates of an aggressive United States. Who could have guessed?!? Taft sent U.S. troops to invade Honduras on multiple occasions to support American fruit corporate interests, as well as Cuba and Nicaragua. Dollar Diplomacy was always backed up with American guns.

But a few invasions of Latin American were totally worth Billy Possum.

Domestically, Taft in some ways did more for reform than his famed predecessor. For instance, Roosevelt gets all the accolades as a trust-buster, but that’s really based almost entirely on the Northern Securities case and Roosevelt’s own self-promotion machine. Much more quietly, Taft brought 70 antitrust cases during his term, nearly twice as many as Roosevelt had done in nearly two terms. In fact, Taft’s own Justice Department, in a suit against U.S. Steel, accused Roosevelt by name of fostering monopoly, infuriating TR.

Of course, by 1911, when that case was prosecuted, Roosevelt had already broken with Taft, nominally over Taft’s support for his corrupt Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger, instead of U.S. Forest Service head Gifford Pinchot in a battle between the two over a fraudulent public lands sale Ballinger tried to push. The whole episode is pretty messy. Pinchot was no doubt right on the merits of the case, but he was also something of a hellraiser himself and Taft was no good at managing politics. He bungled it and fired Pinchot, leading Roosevelt to break from him. Probably this would have happened anyway unless Taft was Medvedev to his TR’s Putin.

Taft was terrible on civil rights, expanding the Republicans’ utter indifference to African-Americans that had started during the Hayes administration.

He was able to completely reshape the Supreme Court, getting 6 appointments in his 4 years: the legendary Horace Lurton, Charles Evans Hughes, Edward White (promoted to Chief Justice from Associate), Willis Van Devanter, Joseph Lamar, and Mahlon Pitney. Only Hughes and Van Devanter turned out to be important figures.

Roosevelt decided to challenge Taft from the left after he failed to wrest the nomination from Taft at the 1912 Republican convention and gathered a lot of Progressives in his Bull Moose Party. Doing so, like every other third party campaign, just handed the election to the opposition and Woodrow Wilson became president. Taft was the most economically conservative of the candidates that year, but he was ran on a reasonably moderate platform that included a lot of Progressive principles. But being a man of the corporate boardroom did not appeal much to the 1912 electorate and he finished a dismal 3rd, winning only Utah and Vermont, two states that modern political watchers see as a consistent voting block to the present. In fact, Roosevelt’s people who controlled the Republican Party in California and South Dakota managed to keep Taft’s name off the ballot entirely.

Taft stayed active after his presidency. He went to teach at Yale but Wilson tapped him for a number of appointments, most notably as co-chair of the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations that was the first widespread investigation of the terrible exploitation of labor in the United States. Taft wasn’t totally comfortable with this, largely because the crusading attorney Frank Walsh used the opportunity to eviscerate capitalists in public testimony, embarrassing men such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr. publicly. Taft thought this unseemly and he issued a minority report to the Commission. Taft also supported the League of Nations.

Finally, in 1921, Taft received his dreamed of Supreme Court appointment. He agreed only if he could be Chief Justice, for he hated Louis Brandeis with white hot passion and would not serve as his equal. Plus he thought it his due as a former president. After Edward White died, Harding named Taft. He was confirmed 61-4 without a single committee hearing. Taft ran a conservative court that consistently ruled in favor of corporations, with liberals such as Brandeis and late-career Holmes frequently in the minority. His court struck down the women’s minimum wage in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, dispiriting labor activists nationwide. He also was a nakedly political Chief Justice, using his office to advise Republican candidates and make his political positions known.

Taft’s health slowly declined over his term as Chief Justice, yet his overblown sense of his own importance kept him from resigning. Or as he put it in 1929: “I am older and slower and less acute and more confused. However, as long as things continue as they are, and I am able to answer to my place, I must stay on the court in order to prevent the Bolsheviki from getting control.” It’s pretty clear that Hoover was going to name Leon Trotsky Chief Justice if Taft resigned so thank you Billy Possum.

Taft finally resigned as Chief Justice a month before his death with the assurance that Charles Evans Hughes would replace him and not Harlan Stone, who may well be the “Bolsheviki” Taft was discussing earlier. He died on March 8, 1930.

Billy Possum is buried on the confiscated of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

The Sixth Extinction

[ 46 ] July 12, 2017 |


From the common barn swallow to the exotic giraffe, thousands of animal species are in precipitous decline, a sign that an irreversible era of mass extinction is underway, new research finds.

The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calls the current decline in animal populations a “global epidemic” and part of the “ongoing sixth mass extinction” caused in large measure by human destruction of animal habitats. The previous five extinctions were caused by natural phenomena.

Gerardo Ceballos, a researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City, acknowledged that the study is written in unusually alarming tones for an academic research paper. “It wouldn’t be ethical right now not to speak in this strong language to call attention to the severity of the problem,” he said.

Dr. Ceballos emphasized that he and his co-authors, Paul R. Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo, both professors at Stanford University, are not alarmists, but are using scientific data to back up their assertions that significant population decline and possible mass extinction of species all over the world may be imminent, and that both have been underestimated by many other scientists.

The study’s authors looked at reductions in a species’ range — a result of factors like habitat degradation, pollution and climate change, among others — and extrapolated from that how many populations have been lost or are in decline, a method that they said is used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

They found that about 30 percent of all land vertebrates — mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians — are experiencing declines and local population losses. In most parts of the world, mammal populations are losing 70 percent of their members because of habitat loss.

In particular, they cite cheetahs, which have declined to around 7,000 members; Borneo and Sumatran orangutans, of which fewer than 5,000 remain; populations of African lions, which have declined by 43 percent since 1993; pangolins, which have been “decimated”; and giraffes, whose four species now number under 100,000 members.

I know that some people don’t like Ehrlich because of his lifetime of apocalyptic talk about population, but the evidence is pretty overwhelming here. Many, if not most, of the non-domesticated animals we know today simply will not exist by the time our great-grandchildren are growing up.

When Talking About Slavery, Words Really Matter

[ 148 ] July 11, 2017 |

This is a few days old, but it is still worth a mention. When archaeologists discovered Sally Hemings’ cabin at Monticello, NBC News and many other news outlets reported it the cabin of Jefferson’s “mistress.” The problem of course is that mistress implies some sort of choice, whereas Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s sex slave. Using euphemisms, whether to protect Jefferson’s reputation or simply by accident reinforces the racial equality at the heart of the American nation that so many white people either deny or don’t want to talk about. And that’s not OK.

Language like that elides the true nature of their relationship, which is believed to have begun when Hemings, then 14 years old, accompanied Jefferson’s daughter to live with Jefferson, then 44, in Paris. She wasn’t Jefferson’s mistress; she was his property. And he raped her.

Such revisionist history about slavery is, unfortunately, still quite common. In 2015, Texas rolled out what many saw as a “whitewashed ” version of its social studies curriculum that referred to enslaved Africans as “immigrants” and “workers” and minimized slavery’s impact on the Civil War. One concerned parent spoke out, forcing a textbook publisher to revise some of the teaching materials.

That same sanitization of history happened again with the Hemings news. On Twitter, some users defended the “mistress” label, suggesting, essentially, that Jefferson and his slave may have truly loved each other. One person even went so far as to wonder whether “Hemings’s exalted wisdom and beauty compelled Jefferson’s love” and whether “she was perhaps not a victim but an agent of change?”

Jefferson could have forced Hemings into a sexual relationship no matter what she wanted, though. And it’s impossible to know what Hemings thought of Jefferson. As with many enslaved people, her thoughts, feelings and emotions were not documented. According to, there are only four known descriptions of the woman who first came to Jefferson’s plantation as a baby on the hip of her mother, Elizabeth Hemings, whom Jefferson also owned.

Jefferson, an avid writer, never mentioned Hemings in his work. He did, however, grapple with issues of emancipation throughout his life. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson spent a substantial section attempting to answer the question, “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence [sic] of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?” Despite fathering Hemings’s children, Jefferson argued against race mixing because black people were “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

Other slave-owning founders rose above the times to change their minds about the dreadful institution — including Ben Franklin, who became an outspoken abolitionist later in life, and George Washington, who freed his enslaved servants in his will. But Jefferson did no such thing. He owned 607 men, women and children at Monticello, and though some argue that he “loved” Hemings, he granted freedom to only two people while he was alive and five people in his will — and never to her.

One can still argue Thomas Jefferson was a critical individual in the development of the United States and even that he had great and noble ideas and still note that he had a sex slave and was a massive hypocrite, even for his time. I won’t accept an argument that Jefferson was a good president because he was not, but sure, go ahead and try to make the argument. But none of this is served well by covering up for Jefferson’s long-term rape of a slave. The forced sexual labor of African slaves is as central to American history as the Declaration of Independence or any other idea developed by the Founders. We simply cannot understand the United States, then and now, without placing sex slavery at the middle of the conversation. Yet for many white people, even acknowledging this is a step too far to take.

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