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Jesse Helms’ Revenge

[ 42 ] January 14, 2014 |

Today in the annals of the World’s Worst Deliberative Body, we have the case of Robert Pastor. Pastor, who died the other day, was something of a wunderkind in the field of foreign policy toward Latin America. At the ripe old age of 29, he shepherded Carter’s treaty giving the Panama Canal back to Panama through the Senate.* In 1994, President Clinton nominated Pastor to be Ambassador to Panama. And this is where our old friend Jesse Helms comes into the story.

In 1994, when President Bill Clinton nominated Mr. Pastor to be ambassador to Panama, many conservatives remained critical of the loss of the canal. Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, who headed the Foreign Relations Committee, prevented Mr. Pastor’s nomination from being voted on by the full Senate even though his committee had approved it, 16 to 3.

“He presided over one of the most disastrous and humiliating periods in the history of U.S. involvement in Latin America,” Mr. Helms said.

Mr. Pastor asked that his nomination be withdrawn in 1995. Administration officials told The New York Times that he would almost certainly have been approved had the nomination come to a Senate vote. (The post ultimately went to William J. Hughes, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey.)

If by “humiliation” Helms meant “treating nations with respect instead of stealing their land,” and of course that is humiliating for a racist like Helms, then sure. But I do love how a nominee can pass committee 16-3 and be held up by one senator.

Like any good very concerned Beltway pundit, I now see how Harry Reid is destroying the Senate by making it operate in ways that move slightly toward real democracy! Now will Fred Hiatt please hire me!

*We can discuss this in comments, but I’m of the rather decided belief that Carter’s legacy is the second most complex of any postwar president, outside of LBJ of course. The Panama treaty was really a very good thing and something of a repudiation of a century of American imperialism in Latin America. But of course Carter made so many mistakes in other areas.

This Day in Labor History: January 14, 1888

[ 25 ] January 14, 2014 |

On January 14, 1888, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 was published. One of the two most influential books in American labor history (with The Jungle as the other), Bellamy’s treatise tapped into the dreams of thousands of Americans who found the promises of the post-Civil War economy a lie and were desperate for alternatives to the reality of Gilded Age capitalism.

By the 1880s, the promise of post-Civil War capitalism had failed the American working class. Most working Americans believed, and this was fundamental to the founding ideology of the Republican Party, in free labor. In short that meant the ability of individuals to control their own economic destiny, either as an independent operator or as an employee in a small shop that would often lead to later independence. But the Civil War had transformed the American economy and while Gilded Age Republicans at first spoke the words of free labor, they consistently supported policies that concentrated capital at the top. Men like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie became unbelievably wealthy while the majority of workers fell into poverty. The search for wealth led to wide-scale corruption that both caused economic collapses and bought off politicians all the way up to Grant’s vice-president.

By the 1880s, a lot of working-class Americans were searching for a solution. Most still fundamentally believed in the system of free labor market capitalism. They generally felt that if they could just tweak the system in one big way, everything would align. So they searched for any number of ways to do that. Some wanted to restrict immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative success for labor unions in American history. Others grasped onto the 8-hour day. The Farmers Alliance sought railroad regulations. Other workers thought Henry George’s Single Tax on land would create conditions of equality.

Of all these one-off solutions, none had more power or appeal than Edward Bellamy’s novel, Looking Backward. Bellamy, a previously unknown reporter for the Springfield (MA) Daily Union, wrote a book telling the tale of Julian West, who is placed in a hypnotic trance in 1887 and because of a disaster is forgotten about until he is uncovered in 2000. Waking up, West is confused. His strife-riven, class-divided Boston of the Gilded Age has become a peaceful sort of paradise. Competitive capitalism had disappeared with all its terrible byproducts–inequality, strikes, poverty, taxes, money, wealth, and domestic labor. There were no more political parties, garbage, advertisements, state governments, or corruption. People retired at the age of 45 and lived long lives of comfort. There is harmony between the sexes, although based around a paternalistic view of women.

Most importantly for Gilded Age readers who ultimately still believed in the system’s fundamentals, this revolution was not Haymarket and it was not the Paris Commune. This was a peaceful revolution. Americans saw their society in crisis and voted in the necessary changes.

Bellamy was an evolutionary socialist and his ideas were appealing to those who realized that Gilded Age society was in a state of crisis and needed changes. Looking Backward became a best seller, moving over 1000 copies per day at its peak. By 1891, the book had sold nearly 500,000 copies, making it the biggest best seller of its era. Workers and middle class reformers around the country started Bellamy Clubs to press for his ideas. For the growing middle class, just entering the first stages of what would later be known as Progressivism, Bellamyism had possibly even more appeal than to workers. The first Bellamy Club was set up in Boston in 1889 and they soon spread around the country. A California Bellamyite wrote to him that “When the Golden Century arrives, your name will receive the homage of the human race of that period as the only writer of the 19th century capable of seeing, feeling and portraying the ‘better way.'”

Within the labor movement, Looking Backward was widely hailed. Both the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor embraced his ideas. For the Knights’ leadership, Bellamyism was far more appealing than the anarchism that had led to the Haymarket bombing and helped destroy the 8-hour day movement that had led to its growth up to 1886. The book became central to Knights locals and in fact many Bellamy Clubs became labor unions. The book attracted followers such as Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Upton Sinclair, and Daniel DeLeon. In later years, Franklin Roosevelt and Norman Thomas talked of its influence upon them. The Progressives held the book close as well. Effectively, in a world where people were desperately searching for a vision of a future that included both equality and peace, Bellamy’s dream world was an ideal.

Although one can say this of many futuristic novels, if we squint enough, we can see Bellamy predicting some of the 20th century, including credit cards, shopping malls and radios. As literature, it’s pretty tough sledding. It’s mostly a long conversation between West and his mentor in the new world. It’s stilted and much of it is boring; I used it once to introduce a course on the Gilded Age and it was a complete disaster.

Ultimately, these relatively simplistic solutions to the perils of American capitalism began to fade in favor of far more complex and necessary understandings of the system. Whether through the pure and simple unionism of the American Federation of Labor or the ideologically complex systems of anarchism, socialism, and communism, by the late 19th century, workers increasingly understood that the system they lived in was not an anomaly but rather the intentional creation of the plutocrats. Free labor ideology faded, replaced by class consciousness. Bellamyism had long legs as a utopian ideal, but as a direct goal to attain, more realistic and complex ways of understanding the world came to the forefront.

Edward Bellamy was uncomfortable with the ardor his book evinced and resisted publishing a follow-up. He eventually did in 1897, but it did not sell well. He died in 1898.

This is the 90th post in this series. Earlier posts are archived here.

Roy Campbell, RIP

[ 5 ] January 13, 2014 |

The great jazz trumpeter has passed, way too young. I saw him play with Other Dimensions in Music (also featuring William Parker, Rashid Bakr, and Daniel Carter) in Atlanta in 1999. Here’s a piece from the band in 2009.

Profiles in Courage

[ 101 ] January 13, 2014 |

Wisconsin Republican Joel Kleefisch does the bidding of his masters:

A set of documents unearthed Saturday by the Wisconsin State Journal shows [Republican donor Michael Eisenga] and his lawyer, William Smiley, supplying detailed instructions to Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch on how to word legislation capping child support payments from the wealthy. Kleefisch began work on the legislation last fall, weeks after an appeals court rejected Eisenga’s attempts to lower his child support payments. […]

The drafting documents, available on the Wisconsin legislature’s website, leave little doubt that the bill was written to Eisenga’s specifications.

This would be Wisconsin, a state that Scott Walker and other Republicans have already turned into an exclusive playground for The People Who Give Them Money. Michael Eisenga is a well-to-do Wisconsin businessman; Michael Eisenga had previously contributed $10,000 to Kleefisch and his wife (Rebecca Kleefisch, the current lieutenant governor); Michael Eisenga got to have his lawyer advise Kleefisch on how precisely to craft a bill that would get Michael Eisenga out of having to pay $216,000 a year in child support.

Rep. Kleefisch, for his part, wants you to know that he is not in fact a two-bit statehouse whore because while the bill was crafted according to Eisenga’s specifications, Eisenga wanted the bill to be retroactive to his own case, and Kleefisch bravely declined—except Kleefisch appears to be lying about that part, given that the bill indeed “requires” judges to lower current payments that would be above the newly set cap. It seems that the good man does not know what is in his own bill; he probably should have read it.

Northern Man

[ 36 ] January 13, 2014 |

At least one Canadian is making sense about the nation’s horrifically bad energy and environmental policies:

Neil Young kicked off his four-date “Honour the Treaties” tour of Canada on Sunday with some fighting words about the rapid expansion of oilsands development in northern Alberta, saying the Canadian government is ignoring hard science because it’s “inconvenient.”

“To me, it’s a basic matter of integrity on the part of Canada. Canada is trading integrity for money,” said Young. “That’s what’s happening under the current leadership in Canada, which is a very poor imitation of the George Bush administration in the United States. It’s lagging behind on the world stage and it’s an embarrassment to Canadians. So, as a Canadian, I felt like I had a chance to do something by bringing this together.”

Young didn’t pull any punches, either, labelling the oilsands a “devastating environmental catastrophe” and accusing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, who pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012, of selling out their grandchildren’s future for the sake of short-term financial gain.

A recent visit to the Alberta oilsands left an indelible impression as “the greediest, most destructive and disrespectful demonstration of something run amok that you could ever see” and left Young pessimistic about the petroleum industry’s promises of environmental “reclamation” once the land has been bled dry of oil.

“It’s like turning the moon into Eden,” he quipped. “It’s just not possible.”

It’s worth noting that for all the often deserved progressive reputation Canada has compared to the United States, when it comes to natural resources, not only oil but forestry and wilderness protection, Canada is woefully behind its neighbor to the South. And that’s not saying the U.S. is any great shakes either. But Canadian natural resource policy is really, really irresponsible to the planet.

This Day in Labor History: January 13, 1874

[ 17 ] January 13, 2014 |

On January 13, 1874, thousands of unemployed New Yorkers met in Tompkins Square Park to protest their unemployment and poverty. There, the police would beat them in the first large-scale state crackdown of the American white poor in the nation’s history.

The Panic of 1873 was the first of the post-Civil War economic collapses to throw the working class into desperation. Caused primarily by corrupt railroad financing, especially thanks to the notorious Jay Cooke, the Panic led to high unemployment throughout the 1870s and created the first explicitly class-based political actions in American history. By November 1873, 55 railroads had gone bankrupt, wages were slashed, unemployment jumped, and the American working class began realizing the impact of the unregulated capitalism suddenly transforming their country. Most Americans at this time lacked what we might consider a “class consciousness” or any real doubt that the growing economic system wouldn’t serve their interests as independent operators manfully thriving. But the Panic began to lead to the first meaningful questioning of how this system affected workers and while substantial and well-organized radical resistance would take some time to develop, the first stirrings of resistance are clear in the mid 1870s.

Political cartoon of the effects of the Panic of 1873 on New York. Frank Bellew, New York Daily Graphic, September 29, 1873

Some urban workers responded to the Panic by organizing into one of the first unemployed workers movements in American history (probably we can trace the very first stirrings of these types of movement to the economic problems of 1857). In New York, the Committee of Safety was formed, demanding public works projects to employ those who needed work and the mayor to meet with them about it. In the first days of 1874, a series of protests became increasingly larger. By January 8, over 1000 workers were meeting in Tompkins Square Park and the demands were growing, including for the 8-hour day.

Tompkins Square as a site of recreation for the poor, 1873

Already though, the nascent labor movement in New York was divided between “radicals” and “conservatives.” Some of the leaders of the Committee of Safety were socialists and other labor leaders in New York denounced them as “communists,” a term with a much less defined threat than the post-1917 period, but one that already meant un-American. A bricklayer named Patrick Dunn led a counter movement that denounced the Committee of Safety and launched his own movement with many of the same demands, culminating in a January 5 march to City Hall. The Iron Molders International Union also tarred the Committee of Safety with a similar brush, using the term “anarchist.” What this really meant to Americans in 1874 was “immigrant that questioned the fundamentals of American capitalism.” The leader of the Committee of Safety was Peter J. McGuire, later famous for being the founding figure and long-time president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, which later became the most powerful union in the American Federation of Labor. McGuire called for a mass demonstration on January 13, urging the city to quit evicting unemployed tenants and instead to provide public aid. Many of the unemployed workers were immigrants and McGuire urged sympathy with their plight, a stance many native-born unionists were not willing to follow.

The forces of order across New York freaked out. Calling this the American version of the Paris Commune, newspaper editors and business owners called for the crushing of these workers. The mayor refused to meet, the police refused to allow them to march to City Hall, the governor refused to get involved. On January 13, over 8000 workers met at Tompkins Square. This was the largest political demonstration in New York history to that point. The protestors permit to meet had been revoked but no one told the protestors. Meanwhile, 1600 police officers gathered near the park.

At about 10 a.m., the police moved in and began savagely beating the protestors with clubs, while horse-mounted police cleared the streets. Samuel Gompers, still over a decade away from his ascension as a major American labor leader, remembered, “mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality. I was caught in the crowd on the street and barely saved my head from being cracked by jumping down a cellarway.” 46 workers were arrested. Two men were charged with assault, one, a German named Christian Mayer, for hitting a policemen with a hammer. Most of the arrested workers were unemployed immigrants who could not afford bail. One, Justus Schwab, later became a leader of American anarchism.

The police clearing Tompkins Square

The suppression of the Tompkins Square protests undermined the unemployed workers movement in the city. Most of the city’s and nation’s newspapers lauded the police for purging the United States of its own version of the Paris Commune, beginning a long history of police and big newspaper editors joining to suppress the rights of workers. For much of the 19th century, the police response to Tompkins Square became a model. Pennsylvania law enforcement looking to suppress the Molly Maguires took lessons from it, while Chicago developed militias with the aim of cracking workers’ heads if need be; several of these were engaged in the violence of 1886 that culminated at Haymarket.

The Committee of Safety soon dissolved, attempting to form a political party which soon disappeared on its own. A socialist newspaper campaign convinced the governor of New York to pardon Mayer later in the year, but otherwise there was little public sympathy for the victims of Tompkins Square. In coming years, more class-based social movements would develop as the American working class tried to understand and fight back against this new world of big capitalism. Most notably, in 1877, the Great Railroad Strike would announce to the nation’s leaders that American workers would engage in mass organizing. But it would take over six more decades of economic boom and bust, the growth of class consciousness, and a series of left-leaning movements for working-class dignity before the government would finally become even minimally responsive to the needs of unemployed Americans.

This would not be the last time Tompkins Square found itself the point of police violence, as in 1988, the people who hung out in the park, now a space for punks, youth cultures, and the homeless were angry about gentrification and a 1 a.m. curfew battled police.

This is the 89th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Mmmmmm…..Doughnut Building…..

[ 111 ] January 12, 2014 |

Some of us like doughnuts on Sunday mornings. Others like
the new doughnut shaped skyscraper in Guangzhou.

Civil Rights Heroes Gone On

[ 52 ] January 11, 2014 |

Two huge losses of civil rights movement legends this week. First Amiri Baraka died. Then Franklin McCain, one of the Greensboro 4 that sparked the student wing of the civil rights movement.

There’s been a lot of remembrances of Baraka, so I’ll focus on McCain for a second. While it’s important to remember that they were not the first group of people to try integrating stores through sit-ins, they were the ones who sparked the movement. And it’s equally important to remember the struggles of the grassroots civil rights movement in 1960. After the victory of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, no one, including Martin Luther King, really knew what to do next. They spent the next 5 years trying to figure it out. Some wanted to further integrate Montgomery, others to take the bus boycotts around the South. The period between 1955 and 1960 is largely remembered only for the Little Rock school desegregation but it’s important to note that was court mandated and had little to do with the grassroots wing of the movement led by King. During these years, King wrote a book, was nearly murdered by a crazed woman at a book signing, built up the SCLC, gave speeches around the country, and planned for further events, but not much really happened that significantly furthered the cause nationally, although there were all sorts of local things developing.

Franklin McCain and his friends changed all that, spurring the all-important student wing of the civil rights movements (SNCC was founded immediately after the Greensboro victory), kicking the middle-class minister led wing of the movement into gear (and into often building on campaigns started by students), and beginning the extraordinarily rapid changes caused by grassroots mobilization in the 1960s, both through SCLC and SNCC-led activities.

What McCain’s story shows is that you just never know when and what will bring about widespread change.

The Cambodian Crackdown

[ 55 ] January 11, 2014 |

The Cambodian government has pretty much completed its violent crackdown against the apparel industry workers protesting the terrible conditions of their lives as they toil away in unsafe factories for low wages making the clothes you buy and might be wearing as you read this.

GRASSROOTS protestors, folk songs and labor rights activists converged at Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh last week as garment workers campaigned to raise their minimum wage from $80 a month to $160. After the Ministry of Labor approved a wage increase to $95 a month, trade unions and workers took to the streets, demanding $160. According to rights activists, the approved $95 wage is simply not enough to live on. So the campaign continued, galvanized by the support of Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which had joined the protest in support.

Yet the peaceful protest ended in riots as the military closed in, shot and killed five garment factory workers and injured over 30 others on January 3. A ban on gatherings of groups larger than 10 has been put in place. Twenty-three protesters and labor leaders were missing for a week after their arrest.

“Garment workers and sex workers are blamed as causing public disorder and social insecurity when they organize and protest for better working conditions,” Kun Sothary, of the Messenger Band, told Asian Correspondent. The Messenger Band is an all-woman group made up of six former garment workers which collects the oral histories of garment workers, farmers and sex workers.

“We are all the same victims of a free trade system and development that is not ethical. We learned of the common problems of garment workers, sex workers and farmers through our field visits… poverty, exploitation and human right violation,” Kun explained.

Once again, this is why these arguments made by developed world consumers, including many liberals, that Cambodians need to take care of Cambodia if they want to improve their lot is a morally bankrupt argument. When they do try to change the working conditions of their country, they die. Meanwhile, you keep on buying inexpensive Cambodian (or Bangladeshi or Vietnamese or Sri Lankan) made clothing. The system exists to provide you cheap clothing. Just because apparel corporations have outsourced production overseas does not make you a morally neutral agent in the process.

Free Lunch

[ 44 ] January 11, 2014 |

Jack Kingston, Georgia congressman, is basically the perfect Republican for 2013.

We last met Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GAH) when he was going on about how he wanted all the poor kids getting subsidized lunches to have to work as janitors in order to teach them the beautiful life lesson of how there is no such thing as a free lunch. You know, because all the rich kids whose parents are able to afford their lunch obviously toil away in the coal mines after school to earn theirs. Also because the greatest criminals in our country are hungry children.

Now, the other shoe has dropped, as it is wont to do.

An investigation by Georgia’s WSAV-TV revealed that our fiscally responsible, “no such thing as a free lunch” hero has been expensing many of his own lunches and his staff’s lunches over the past three years since he’s been in office. To the tune of $4,182. Which, according to Talking Points Memo, would have funded 2,000 school lunches.

Like the millionaires of the first Gilded Age who bilked taxpayers at every turn while bellowing about the Gospel of Wealth and bemoaning even charity work for the poor, Kingston no doubt sees taxpayer-funded lunches for the rich as a perk that should naturally come to the deserving. But the poor 8 year olds who Kingston wants to see clean toilets for lunch, well they shouldn’t drink so much or be brown or whatever heartless excuse of the day the plutocracy is presently using to denigrate the poor.

Because AIDS is Hilarious

[ 100 ] January 11, 2014 |

As the political figures of my youth pass away, I realize how few of them I really know much about, even though I’m a pretty political guy obviously. That’s especially true of the Reagan Administration. I could probably name 40 or so Reagan appointees without working too hard, but that’s not that many. But I do figure that when one dies, that person was probably involved in some nasty or evil stuff. Take the death of Reagan’s quasi-press secretary Larry Speakes, who passed away yesterday at the age of 74. I didn’t remember him at all. But those more knowledgeable than I started working. And they reminded me and other that Speakes, like many others in the Reagan Administration, thought AIDS was hilarious. From the June 13, 1983 White House press briefing.

Q: Larry, does the President think that it might help if he suggested that the gays cut down on their “cruising”? (Laughter.) What? I didn’t hear your answer, Larry.
MR. SPEAKES: I just was acknowledging your interest—
Q: You were acknowledging but—
MR. SPEAKES: —interest in this subject.
Q: —you don’t think that it would help if the gays cut down on their cruising—it would help AIDS?
MR. SPEAKES: We are researching it. If we come up with any research that sheds some light on whether gays should cruise or not cruise, we’ll make it available to you. (Laughter.)
Q: Back to fairy tales.

Oh I haven’t laughed that loud since Richard Nixon made his 5000th racist joke. Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration’s response to AIDS was the greatest public health failure in the history of the United States, when the government helped doom thousands of people to die because they were gay or used heroin or were otherwise not the kind of people Reagan cared about. Compare the response to AIDS to that of Legionnaire’s Disease or SARS or West Nile virus. A few people dying led to national health alerts and huge research budgets. AIDS? It took until Reagan’s own friend Rock Hudson died for any real funding to get started.

If anyone hasn’t read Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, one the great pieces of journalism in American history, I highly recommend it for the blow by blow details of the Reagan’s Administration complicity in thousands of deaths.

The Necessary

[ 86 ] January 10, 2014 |

I visited Mount Vernon recently. While some might think George Washington’s dentures are the most impressive thing you can see and others might look from Washington’s porch and imagine themselves as him overlooking the Potomac and Maryland, there’s no question that the more sophisticated reading of Washington’s estate sees the reconstruction of his 3-seat outhouse, or “necessary” as it was called at the time, as the best thing ever.

Now normally you might think, like others at the time. that Washington used his multi-person outhouse simultaneously with others. It was a far less private and far smellier time in the 18th century after all. But I don’t think so in Washington’s case. As this documentary footage of General Washington suggests, a man this phallic would probably have a number of anuses as well. That’s science my friends. Science.

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