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[ 201 ] July 25, 2015 |

We can learn lessons from the mass murders that are a monthly event in this nation. We learned, as a nation, from Dylann Roof, that the Confederate flag is a symbol of horrible evil that inspires racist violence. It has since come down at the South Carolina statehouse. That’s pretty amazing. There’s plenty of lessons to learn as well from the Hitler-loving, liberal-hating man who shot up a theater in Lafayette, Louisiana this week. He should not have been able to legally buy a gun. Yet the laws are so lax that he easily avoided any restrictions. Even if you love guns, there’s no good reason to support a regime that allows anyone to buy them, no matter their history of hatred, violence, and mental disturbance. Gun restrictions on people like that is just common sense. Unfortunately, thanks in no small part to the scumbag facilitator of mass murder and terrorism named Wayne LaPierre, as well as craven politicians like Bobby Jindal who made sure anyone could buy just about any gun in Louisiana, there’s no way the nation will learn similar lessons here. And thus the mass murders and right-wing terrorism will continue.


Book Review: Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

[ 11 ] July 25, 2015 |


We are living in a renaissance of historical writing. There’s always been a good market for popularly written histories, but that market consisted of books on presidents and wars written for a white, male, conservative reading audience. That’s not going away of course. But what has developed in the 21st century is an alternative market of big narrative books by academic historians written for a left-leaning market that take seriously both the insights of the historical profession over the past thirty years and the disturbing history of the American and global past. There’s a few reasons for this. First, historians have moved beyond the social history of the 70s with its demography and number crunching and tightly wound detail that added a tremendous amount to our historical knowledge but didn’t lend itself to a wide readership. Meanwhile, U.S. historians at least largely existed on the edge of the postmodern turn, making it relatively easy for the field to at accept writing for a broader audience (even if most historians don’t have the writing skills). But there’s also a greater popular audience for good histories and a necessary dissemination method for publicity. That’s the internet, where not only might a professor be on Twitter and write for websites, but where a community might spread around important ideas and let a general audience know what books they should read. The democratic nature of that medium–which is less democratic than it once was but still–allows for books to attract reviews and historians to have opportunities that simply wouldn’t have existed when the New York Times Book Review and The New Republic were among the only outlets to disseminate this material. Among those historians who have both benefited from the internet is myself, both in attracting a publisher and in having a market to move copies of a book that brings the past to bear on the present in ways intended to inspire activism.

This makes it an exciting time to be a historian and a reader (and both, in my case). We see straight academic histories like the recent books on slavery and capitalism by Sven Beckert and Ed Baptist take off and have real audiences that have gone far to provide context on the left for already shifting notions about slavery. Eric Foner is basically a national treasure, with his free MOOC a valued history to many. Jill Lepore is a publishing beast, pushing out both a respected book a year and excellent New Yorker essays. There’s historians like Ari Kelman who is telling familiar stories in new ways and people like Kevin Kruse writing books to address the issues that drive progressive politics today.

Of course what these historians all have in common is that they are U.S. historians. What about a Latin Americanist? Can they tap into this new market? That’s the space Greg Grandin has increasingly tried to fill. Long a respected scholar and passionate political writer, Grandin has in his last two books reached out to tell stories that are partially North American within a Latin American context. His last book, Fordlandia, was the story of Henry Ford’s ill-fated attempt to build a rubber plantation and company town reflecting his, shall we say, unique values in Brazil. It received a lot of acclaim. He has followed that with The Empire of Necessity , exploring the slave rebellion aboard the ship Tyral in 1805 and the rescue of the Spanish captain Benito Cerreño by an American captain named Amasa Delano (ancestor of FDR). Yes, this is the same incident that inspired Herman Melville to write his brilliant short novel Benito Cereno.

Winner of the 2015 Bancroft Prize, The Empire of Necessity succeeds in bringing a complex set of stories around slavery, geography, sealing, Latin American independence movements, shipping, the economics of the global shipping industry, African resistance, and much more. Yet while none of these things might immediately suggest to the lay reader a book they must pick up (outside perhaps of the Melville connection), the book succeeds spectacularly. This is the sort of well-written history that hides none of the horrors of the past yet is brilliantly written that people have long wished they could read. And now they can.

Grandin tells the story of slaves taken from Africa, brought to Montevideo after the original slave ship was taken over by a pirate, and then some eventually marched over the Andes into modern Chile. That experience alone, dealing with unbelievable elevation, is something that is central to the experiences of so many of the characters in this book. In Chile, they were placed on yet another ship to go to Peru. They revolted, killing several crew members and attempting to force Cerreño to take them back to Africa. Typically he lied to them and steered his way into the open water off the Chilean coast. Meanwhile, Delano, a sealer trying to be economically independent in a rapidly changing U.S. economy, has taken to sealing, killing thousands of the creatures and then sailing for Asia to sell the skins. An abolitionist, Delano ran into Cerreño’s ship. The self-emancipated slaves played it cool but at the last second, Cerreño jumps into Delano’s boat. Delano’s men then attack the Africans, the owner’s abolitionism instantly irrelevant, and the survivors are either executed or sold. Delano, desperate and in debt because he and others had hunted the south Pacific seals to tiny remnant populations, tried to take Cerreño’s limited profits in return for saving him from likely death, but ultimately he received a relatively small amount from Spanish courts. He died mostly broke while Cerreño settled in Lima to eventually flee the slave rebellions that were part of the Latin American wars for independence in the 1810s.

One of the book’s key points is the connection between white republicanism and chattel slavery. We know the U.S. side of this–southern slaveholders created a white male republicanism based upon the ownership of African people, which expanded rapidly after the invention of the cotton gin. But this was also true in South America, where trade liberalization in the late 18th century meant the trade in Africans and where anti-Spanish colonial agitation often revolved around wanting more trade in African slaves. Like in the U.S., the Age of Liberty was built upon the Age of Slavery. Grandin certainly doesn’t skimp on the brutality, including in the slave trade. The description of the seal trade leaves far too little to the imagination. And those seal knives intended to separate skin from muscle? Well, let’s just say they can be used on rebellious slaves as well.

I recognize that this review is more a thought piece about the nature of historical writing in the present than an in depth discussion of Grandin’s points. This post is long enough and there’s a lot of contours of the book I haven’t discussed at all. But it’s a very good book and you should read it. It’s one of the jewels of this golden age of left-leaning historical writing. Read and learn.

The Southern Capitalist Economy, Then and Now

[ 32 ] July 24, 2015 |


Slaves, Montgomery, Alabama, 1861

Harold Meyerson overstates his argument on the Southern economy as the point of low-wage capitalist production both before the Civil War and today, but he makes a lot of good points and it’s well worth your time. Basically, Meyerson uses the new historical literature on the connections between northern capitalists and southern plantation owners to draw comparisons to the recent growth of low-wage industrialization in the anti-union South. There has been some return of heavy industry to the South in low-wage, non-union states that provide workers few opportunities for economic advancement and are constricted by state governments that are firmly in the pocket of the companies. And that has, as Meyerson states, created two nations in one, as during the mid-19th century, as northern and western liberal states increasingly pass worker-friendly legislation while southern and Midwestern states pass anti-worker legislation.

Meyerson also notes the expansion of southern style governance north in the present, although he significantly underestimates how prominent this was in the pre-Civil War North, as the Democratic Party was a white supremacist party no matter where it ruled. The point about two nations in one is something I’d observed. I will note that the comparison between slavery in 1860 and non-union auto factory work in 2015 is stretching it pretty far; after all, there is still plenty of truly brutal work happening around the world, often in conditions of slave labor. But there’s no question that in a world of globalized capital, low-wage American production can make sense in some industry and unless the U.S. government steps up with pro-labor measures, politicians in the pockets of corporations will bend over backwards to create states that serve those companies as much as possible.

What Punishment Should CEO’s Receive for Egregious Violations of Safety Standards?

[ 88 ] July 24, 2015 |


Is life in prison too harsh a punishment for this guy?

Federal court officers have recommended a sentence of life in prison for a peanut company executive convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food, a move that attorneys on both sides called “unprecedented” for a food-poisoning case.

The potential life sentence for former Peanut Corporation of America owner Stewart Parnell was disclosed by prosecutors in a court filing Wednesday.

Parnell, 61, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 21 by a federal judge in Albany, Georgia. Prosecutors filed a legal brief Wednesday in U.S. District Court revealing that the U.S. Probation Office, which prepares pre-sentencing reports to help guide federal judges, concluded the scope of Parnell’s crimes “results in a life sentence Guidelines range.”

Parnell and his co-defendants were never charged with sickening or killing anybody. Instead prosecutors used the seven-week trial to lay out a paper trail of emails, lab results and billing records to show Parnell’s company defrauded customers by using falsified test results to cover up lab screenings that showed batches of peanut butter contained salmonella. The tainted goods were shipped to Kellogg’s and other food processors for use in products from snack crackers to pet food.

Prosecutors wrote that court officers “correctly calculated” Parnell’s recommended sentence, but stopped short of saying whether they plan to ask the judge to impose a life sentence. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Washington, Nicole Navas, declined to comment.

Prosecutors’ legal brief also noted stiff sentences were recommended for Parnell’s two co-defendants. Punishment of 17 to 21 years in prison was recommended for Parnell’s brother, food broker Michael Parnell, who was convicted on fewer counts. The recommendation for Mary Wilkerson, the Georgia plant’s quality control manager, was eight to 10 years. She was convicted of obstruction of justice.

According to the CDC, deaths linked to the outbreak were reported in Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina and Virginia.

Both sides are calling this unprecedented, and it is. But then if your actions lead to the death of someone in most circumstances, you can be held liable and forced to serve a lot of time. If your culpability goes to the point of defrauding customers to avoid safety and that then kills people in four states, that’s pretty bad.

I will note that there’s no way that the public outrage over companies killing customers is likely a lot more intense than the same CEO killing workers through unsafe work practices. But then threats to consumer health has long drawn more outrage than threats to worker health.

Republican Environmental Planning

[ 16 ] July 24, 2015 |

Neighborhood Flooded

The House just passed a bill that would eviscerates EPA coal ash regulations. Why are those regulations necessary? See here and here if you want to review what a coal ash spill can do and what the health effects of being near this stuff can be. You want coal ash heavily regulated.

A Republican president in 2017 would sign this into law. Given that the House is going to remain with the GOP and the Senate probably will, this is what Republican governance would look like. Coal ash pollution for all!

What Should the Minimum Wage Actually Be?

[ 47 ] July 24, 2015 |


We often debate this question. $15? $20? Is that too much? At point might it start actually affecting employment? One sensible way to set the minimum wage is to tie it to worker productivity. And if that’s the standard, according to Nicholas Buffie and Dean Baker, the minimum wage could be $18.42, if we tie it to the reasonable standard of peak purchasing power for the wage, achieved in 1968. Seems reasonable to me.

Fast Food Minimum Wage

[ 27 ] July 23, 2015 |


I am glad that the Fight for $15 in fast food has forced the hand on Andrew Cuomo to raise the wages of those workers to $15 by 2021. That’s a win. But it’s totally ridiculous that it is industry-based as opposed to a general minimum wage. I fear the upshot of this will be to create divisions among workers, and perhaps at the same time, to start turning already fractured minimum wage law (national, state, city) into something even more fractured if it turns on industry lines. While one hopes this leads to demands from all workers for $15 an hour, we don’t want to have to do this industry by industry. This is a problem created by Cuomo, who just set a precedent for industry-wide minimum wage differentials. I don’t like that one bit.

Not Just the Flag

[ 53 ] July 23, 2015 |


Southern states didn’t respond to the civil rights movement only by placing Confederate flags on their statehouses or integrating the Stars and Bars into their state flag. They also named public buildings after Confederate leaders during these years. Take the elementary schools of Austin:

It was no coincidence that three other schools bearing the names of notable Confederates popped up in Austin during the civil rights movement, following the federal court-ordered desegregation of public schools.

Those local schools — Sidney Lanier High School, Albert Sidney Johnston High School and John H. Reagan High School — were built at a time when schools were being named after Confederate war heroes across Texas and the South. All three of the high schools are located in neighborhoods with large minority populations.

Some say the names were meant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. Others saw the push to glorify the Confederacy as a deliberate slap in the face to minorities and the federal government after the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education.

That was the symbolic resistance of the Southern state to the imposition of the federal civil rights legislation. Standing on state’s rights and standing on the Lost Cause principle, they went about honoring the Confederacy,” said Frank de la Teja, a Texas State University professor who was appointed Texas state historian between 2007 and 2009 by former Gov. Rick Perry. “And by the way, Austin was an extremely racist town.”

There’s a lot of anti-civil rights Confederate symbolism that needs reversal in the South. The flags are only the first step.

Workplace Safety Recidivists & Republican Economic Ideology

[ 33 ] July 22, 2015 |


Above: The Republican ideal of workplace safety

Some companies just don’t care about workplace safety, even when they receive OSHA fines. One of those companies is Wisconsin’s Ashley Furniture.

Ashley Furniture Industries Inc., already facing a possible $1.7 million fine for alleged safety violations at its massive factory in Arcadia, was accused Tuesday of new infractions and of failing to report worker injuries.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said a 56-year-old employee of the giant furniture maker lost his right ring finger after a March 11 accident on a machine that the agency had cited as unsafe just one month earlier.

Ashley also failed to report the injury as required, OSHA said. The agency learned of it from a family member of the victim, an OSHA spokeswoman said.

Another Ashley employee was similarly injured in January on the same type of machine, OSHA said. The company also failed to report that injury as required, the agency spokeswoman said.

The latest citations carry proposed fines totaling $83,200. The bulk of that stems from two alleged violations that OSHA deems “willful,” meaning that they were committed “with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health.”

“Workers at Ashley Furniture cannot count on their company to do what’s right when it comes to safety,” Mark Hysell, OSHA’s area director in Eau Claire, said in a statement. “These workers are at risk because this company is intentionally and willfully disregarding OSHA standards and requirements.”

In February, OSHA accused Ashley of 38 safety violations and said the firm was emphasizing profit over worker safety.

Of course this company has very close ties to Scott Walker. So close that one wonders about the legality of those ties. Last year, Walker appointees gave Ashley Furniture a $6 million tax credit that included a provision allowing it to lay off half its in-state workforce. Ashley executives then paid Walker back with $20,000 in campaign donations.

This is what a Walker presidency would look like on a national scale. Gutted workplace safety laws and a whole mess of corporate giveaways in exchange for campaign money. That’s Republican economic ideology in a nutshell.

The Limits of Learning from the Progressive Era

[ 22 ] July 22, 2015 |


Sabeel Rahman has a piece in the The Nation that reviews some of the journal’s classic essays from the Progressive Era as a way for us to learn about that period today as we deal with the New Gilded Age. Do the Progressives offer a way forward for us? Rahman suggests yes in a piece titled “How to Revive Progressive Era Economics for the New Gilded Age, including around issues of public utilities. And that’s fine, I don’t disagree. However, it’s worth noting here just how limited Progressives’ visions were for the government and how little power they actually took from corporations. Yes, a few trusts were busted here and there and some forests kept out of private control. But for the most part, the Progressives wanted to work with capitalists to save them from their own excesses. And in a period without a strong radical movement and where we are engaging in full givebacks to corporate control around previously untouchable parts of American life like public schools, these sort of moderate arguments of the Progressives might be as far as we can push.

But we should also note that Progressive Era economics largely failed on their own terms. The Panic of 1907 was averted only through appealing to J.P. Morgan to bail out the government for instance. And the challenges of the 20th century economy were far too great for Progressivism. In any essay on the period and its lessons, I think it has to be noted that the ultimate Progressive was Herbert Hoover. He brought those Progressive Era ideas into the presidency and of course they completely failed in dealing with the Great Depression. The voluntarism, mild government interventions, and public-private partnerships so valued by Hoover and other Progressives were no match for real government regulation. And that’s why the New Deal offers far more lessons on how to tame the overreach of corporate capitalism than the Progressives. It’s not as if the New Deal was overtly anti-capitalist. The NRA was openly pro-capitalist, bringing corporate ideas into the government, largely to protect the companies from the cutthroat competition than industrial leaders thought was at the root of their economic problems. Ultimately, only widespread direct government intervention in the economy and the creation of a relatively powerful regulatory state has created a fair playing field for everyday people in U.S. history. So while there may be useful lessons from the Progressives for us today, we have to note their real limitations as well.

Confederate Nostalgia, 1975 Edition

[ 25 ] July 22, 2015 |

A good use of Congress’ time in 1975.

I’m glad the nation can’t issue a national official apology for slavery but can find time to rehabilitate the architects of the South’s treasonous war for slavery. But hey, civil rights and true equality were totally achieved by 1975, so why not give the neo-Confederates a sop….

This is Racist

[ 171 ] July 21, 2015 |


Activists in Denton, Texas continue the newfound attack on Confederate nostalgia.

Surveillance video shows that sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning, two individuals used large stencils and red spray paint to write the words “This is racist” near the top of the arch of the embattled monument on the south side of the Square. The duo then met a third person near the Square and the three fled on foot, the video shows.

Sheriff’s officials learned of the vandalism shortly before 9 a.m. Monday. County Commissioner Hugh Coleman said he was on the Square enjoying his morning coffee when he was told and took a look for himself.

“Whether you like something or not, there are better ways to express yourself,” Coleman said.

According to sheriff’s officials, the vandalism is a felony that carries a fine of up to $10,000 and from six months to two years in jail. Sheriff’s officials posted still images of the suspects on the office’s Facebook page and issued a news release asking for the public’s help in finding the suspects.

County personnel started working on the damage Monday morning, and by evening the monument still bore faded red marks.

Damage to the monument could exceed $50,000, according to Peggy Riddle, executive director of the Denton County Office of History and Culture. A conservation specialist will be called in if necessary, she said.

“This is not an easy shoot-it-with-graffiti-cleaner-and-go kind of thing,” Riddle said. “It leaches into the porous granite and marble. After that, we will have to do a type of special wax that conservators use so the monument will not look bleached-out in certain areas and all go back to being a cohesive color.”

I wonder how far the county will go with $50,000 fixes for a memorial commemorating those who committed treason to defend slavery if this happened again and again.

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