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The Once and Future Gilded Age

[ 145 ] March 1, 2013 |

This country is so weird.

Sometimes exhilarating and sometimes incredibly depressing, the United States is full of paradoxes. This is a tough week for me. There’s one big thing to celebrate–the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, with stronger protections for marginalized groups and pressure that forced the House Republican Troglodyte Caucus to cave.

Yet at the exact same time that a statue of Rosa Parks is being unveiled at the Capitol, Antonin Scalia and John Roberts are fulfilling their lifelong goal of repealing the meaningful clauses of the Voting Rights Act, potentially returning us to a pre-Civil Rights era of voting repression, although likely in more sophisticated ways than the ol’ let’s kill black voters routine of the pre-1965 era.

And now we have the sequester.

It seems to me that people are not taking the sequester seriously enough. There’s a reason for that. It’s March 1 and we woke up and nothing significant was different. It doesn’t fit our 24 hour news cycle. Meanwhile, even outstanding publications are all Bob Woodward, all the time. Look at TPM’s page today. It’s embarrassing. Woodward’s a blowhard and it is a legitimate story. The sequester is about 5000 times more important.

The United States, 1911 and 2013.

The real threat of the sequester is that it takes a big step forward in the Republican goal of returning the U.S. to the Gilded Age. Without doing anything at all, the Republicans force the government cutbacks they’ve been dreaming of. They don’t suffer in any way. The people suffer tremendously, but slowly, over time. This is like the frog in the boiling pot of water analogy (even if frogs don’t actually do that). Very slowly, without us hardly noticing, government services are reduced. People normalize those reduced services. National parks are shut down. Small airports basically stop functioning because of air traffic control reductions. Scientific research grants are reduced. Furloughed federal employees stop buying things, creating negative investment that leads to layoffs through the economy. Health programs are slashed. Adios to environmental protections. These things have a negative effect on people’s lives, but we don’t experience them immediately or every day. Just when we need them. Poor person needs an HIV test? Sorry. And they are gone, unlikely to ever come back.

There’s just no reason for Republicans to cave on this. Obama agreeing to the sequester idea because of his faith that some kind of grand bargain could be struck and his belief that Republicans would never allow this to happen was a gigantic miscalculation. Dave Weigel believes this strengthens Obama and the imperial presidency. And it’s possible we reach a point where the Executive Branch simply rules unilaterally because the legislative branch falls into complete dysfunction. Not only is that a terrible thing in the long-term (who wants to see President Rubio ruling unilaterally?) but that process will be slow and painful to transition to anything like an effective government.

Meanwhile, the drowning of government coincides with the disappearance of government supervision over voter repression. It also happens at the same time that the capitalists are just dying to return to 2007-esque housing bubbles and sketchy profitmaking. Dave Dayen’s piece from a couple of weeks ago on Wall Street investors buying up all the homes they can to rent them out strongly suggests the replacement of home ownership with slumlord rentals as the new housing norm in American society. Without good jobs and access to credit and with ever-increasing student debt loads, how will what used to be the middle-class afford a home? No real interest for Wall Street to see this happen, not when they can profit off rental markets. Suzy Khimm with more on this.

All of this leads the American public to feel hopeless about creating change. Only the Democrats could come up with a terrible name like “sequester” to describe this, obscuring the real and scary meanings of this disaster. We just trudge along, seeing that engaging in politics is hopeless and instead try to make the increasingly frayed ends of our life meet, at least for this week or month.

And we march on, without well-paying work, with huge debt loads, without voter protections for historically oppressed groups, without a functioning National Labor Relations Board, with fewer food safety inspectors, slowly back to the Gilded Age.

Letters

[ 105 ] March 1, 2013 |

We have a small M.A. program in history at URI. I sit on the graduate committee. Some of the letters of recommendation I have read are truly appalling in their sloppiness, misspellings, etc. When I write a letter of recommendation for someone, I take that duty very seriously. Someone’s future is in your hands. How professors can write such awful letters is beyond me. I actually find it rather offensive so I’m glad the Chronicle took this on.

“I Haven’t Had One”

[ 109 ] March 1, 2013 |

The Republican male anti-woman agenda in a nutshell, via Wisconsin wingnut Rep. Sean Duffy.

Questioner: “I’m wondering about whether or not Rep. Duffy if you would support the legislation that’s in the Wisconsin legislature called ‘Right To Know Your Unborn Child’. And if, because you’ve said in the past that you are 100% pro-life, would you support federal legislation to require trans-vaginal ultrasounds for pregnant women? And if not, then why?

Duffy: “I don’t know what a trans-vaginal ultrasound is?”

Questioner: “You don’t?”

Duffy: “No … I haven’t had one.”

Yeah, I’m just going to pretend like I don’t know that I support the state sexual assaulting women who want an abortion. Sure why not, I’m a privileged white male, it doesn’t affect me at all.

In other news, I need to stop paying attention to state politics if I want to keep my sanity.

The Past and the Future

[ 247 ] February 28, 2013 |

In a world where the key provision of the Voting Rights Act is about to be overturned, repealing civil rights won with the bloodshed of thousands of victims, it’s hardly surprising that open racism would come back into vogue. Take the brand-new cover of Bloomberg Businessweek:

Plutocrat created, Scalia approved!

To quote Yglesias: “The idea is that we can know things are really getting out of hand since even nonwhite people can get loans these days! They ought to be ashamed.”

The AFL-CIO and Keystone XL Pipeline

[ 80 ] February 28, 2013 |

On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO gave tacit support for building the Keystone XL Pipeline, a very disappointing development for many involved in the climate movement, as well for some of the federation’s constituent unions that had fought the building trades over whether labor should support it. The Transit Workers’ Union took a particularly leading role on this issues, with the Laborers, IBEW, and Teamsters the unions most pushing for building it. I have more on this at LaborOnline. An excerpt:

I understand the tough situation that Keystone creates for organized labor. A union’s job is to protect the interests of its members, including keeping them employed, all too rare today. But in the early 21st century, with organized labor in deep decline, does it make sense to promote short-term job growth at the cost of telling the thousands of people who care deeply about a variety of progressive causes, including climate change, that organized labor is not an ally?

Let’s also remember that climate change is the greatest issue faced by humans in the 21st century. Events like Hurricane Sandy, the drought parching half the United States, and the massive forest fires in the West that are changing the ecology of states like New Mexico will almost certainly become far more common. Climate change will disproportionately affect the poor. Lack of air conditioning will cause higher death rates from heat exhaustion. Warmer weather will lead to higher cockroach populations that cause elevated asthma rates among urban dwellers. The poor in low-elevation nations like Bangladesh will suffer tremendously, not to mention those living in floodplains in the United States. Climate change is absolutely a working-class issue. Organized labor needs to play a leading role in conversations on how to fight this menace. Building a massive pipeline that makes the problem worse is counterproductive.

So I understand why LIUNA and the building trades are behind the pipeline. I won’t criticize them too harshly for a stance that will create jobs. But if organized labor wants to remain relevant within the 21st century progressive movement, it can’t support policies that intensify climate change. Endorsing more petroleum pipelines may create a few jobs in the short-term, but has starkly negative long-term consequences, both for the planet and for labor’s ability to make much-needed alliances with other organizations.

From my perspective, it just comes down to whether it makes more sense to get a few jobs now or be relevant in the movement to make a world a better place. Labor is getting crushed left and right and part of the reason is that it by and large has not made itself available to be part of the social movements trying to change this country for the better. It’s come around on immigration, much to its credit. Environmental issues are just as hard, but parts of organized labor are excellent on these issues and others are at least willing to have conversation. Some unions though, they just don’t care. Meanwhile, the climate is changing more every day.

Live Free or Stupid

[ 74 ] February 27, 2013 |

New Hampshire has moronic legislators that challenge any state in the nation:

A Republican lawmaker in New Hampshire made a startling comment Tuesday during a debate on a bill that would reduce the penalties for simple assault, claiming that “a lot of people like being in abusive relationships.”

The remark by state Rep. Mark Warden (R) was caught on tape during a meeting of the New Hampshire House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. He was speaking in support of a bill his fellow lawmakers on the committee overwhelmingly voted to kill.

“Is the solution to those kind of dysfunctional relationships going to be more government, another law?” he said. “I’d say no. People are always free to leave.”

Give him credit, here’s one New Englander that could win election from Idaho to South Carolina.

Book Review: Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek

[ 56 ] February 27, 2013 |

On November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington, a former abolitionist preacher, led a military expedition against an encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. The Cheyenne and Arapaho, having seen their power diminish rapidly with the arrival of whites since 1859, were there under an understanding of peace. Despite this, Chivington and his men mercilessly attacked without warning. Up to 160 Cheyenne and Arapaho were killed in one of the most brutal incidents in the history of white colonization of the United States. Chivington thought this would make his political career. But two officers testified against him before a congressional committee investigating the incident, of which one was soon murdered by a Chivington supporter. Sand Creek led the Cheyenne and Arapahos into full-fledged war that would not stop until military defeat in the late 1870s.

In 1998, Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the first Native American to serve in the Senate, introduced a bill to acquire the Sand Creek Massacre site for the National Park Service. It required compromise between the many stakeholders the project, including the NPS, local landowners and residents of isolated, conservative, and nearly all-white Kiowa County; the Northern and Southern Cheyennes, and the Northern and Southern Arapahoes, as well as other interested parties in Colorado.

Ari Kelman, who many of you may know from his former blogging at Edge of the American West, has a new book out detailing the intense struggle over commemorating Sand Creek. A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek does a fantastic job at exploring the process of officially memorializing Sand Creek. Calling it a “‘history front’ in a simmering ‘culture war,’” Kelman details the painful and complex process that remembering our past necessitates when both conqueror and conquered have roughly equal voices in determining what that remembrance will look like.

Perhaps the best way to review this book is to focus on one primary issue: where the massacre actually took place. Fairly quickly after 1864, people couldn’t figure out quite where it had happened. The general area was known, but even those who had participated were unsure when they returned. An exception to this was George Bent. The half-Cheyenne trader, Bent survived the massacre and produced maps with a sympathetic white historian between 1905 and 1914, over forty years after the fact. For the Cheyennes and Arapahos, Sand Creek is a “living memory,” a defining point in their history that still resonates today in a world where its consequences include in entrenched poverty on reservations in Montana, Wyoming, and Oklahoma. Because of that and because of the importance of Bent’s testimony in giving them a mental map to that site, the Cheyennes and Arapahos insisted that Bent’s map showed precisely where the battle took place. Even questioning it reeked of colonialism. For the tribes, officially memorializing the massacre was a positive potential step, but it wasn’t their top priority, which allowed them to use it as a tool for reparation claims against the federal government. They were determined to not just hand over a site so central to their tribal memories to the federal government without stipulations, so maintaining cultural sovereignty and prioritizing their traditional memories of the place were of the utmost importance.

The National Park Service had different priorities. Some looters came out to the massacre site with metal detectors, but found nothing. They reported this to the Colorado Historical Society, leading to a long search for evidence of the battlefield. It was during this process that Campbell crafted legislation for the park, which made finding the site imperative for the NPS.

Now we can rightfully question whether “finding Sand Creek” should have been a necessary condition to the NPS commemorating it. As Euro-Americans, we have an overly inflated sense of the importance of actual physical sites where something happened. If it was close to the massacre site, I’m not sure that it should have mattered much. But for the tribes, this process was infuriating. Bent said it was there so it was there. Period. Never mind the lack of physical evidence.

As a historian with a pretty conservative methodological viewpoint, this question of Bent’s memory as arbiter is a tough one, even if I know the historical background of why this is so. Fundamentally, do the Cheyennes have the right to determine the location of the massacre site based upon their cultural authority alone? If we accept that idea, do we also have to accept Native American claims that they have been in the Americas forever, Bering Land Bridge evidence notwithstanding? Or Mormon cosmology? Or the Creation story? In other words, does cultural cache and politics trump evidence, even when a history of very real oppression gives particular stories moral weight? There’s no easy answer. Similarly, to what extent do we as historians take oral traditions as evidence that holds the same weight as written or other forms of evidence? If we do take them as methodologically equal to other sources, what are the implications for the accuracy of the history? If we don’t, are we part of a larger racist and colonial project? Moreover, it’s not like the Cheyennes and Arapahoes necessarily see eye to eye, or for that matter the Northern Cheyenne and Southern Cheyenne. Some Cheyennes, including many of the most prominent involved in this struggle, denied the Arapahoes were even at Sand Creek in 1864. When they don’t agree, whose histories and ideas get prioritized? Does that the fact that a few Northern Cheyenne families took a particularly aggressive stance in this process mean their views receive the most attention? In this case it did. They did eventually find the site, not all that far from where Bent said it was. Late in the process, a cartographical study suggested at an irrigation ditch probably changed the channel of the creek at some point, which made it possible that Bent (and the Cheyennes) were right after all.

Kelman’s fascinating book is filled with issues like this. Campbell’s Sagebrush Rebellion-esque concerns about federal ownership of public lands gave the white landowners enormous power to determine the selling prices. Colorado whites arguing amongst themselves over whether Sand Creek is a battle or a massacre or whether “political correctness” has taken over our triumphalist history. The sometimes bumbling though well-meaning actions of the NPS, unnecessarily alienating stakeholders through its top-down approach. There’s a lot to chew on in this tale.

In the end it came together. You can visit it today. That hardly means that relations between the Cheyennes and whites have improved. The installation of a Sand Creek exhibit at History Colorado has caused all sorts of headaches, despite the fact that the exhibit is so disturbing in its portrayal of Sand Creek that there’s a warning against kids going inside. But the Cheyennes still see the idea of state interpretation of their history, as sympathetic as it might be, as something extremely suspicious. Still, the fact that this got done shows, as Kelman states, “each of the interested parties understood that a commitment to remembering the past meant accepting the existence of multiple, sometimes even competing, recollections rather than a single, unified collective memory.” And really, we should probably take this stance with most of American history.

In the end, the commemoration of Sand Creek should matter to all of us because these are unhealed scars that matter a great deal to a lot of Americans. We can’t just express white guilt about what our ancestors did 150 years ago and forget about it. For the Cheyenne and Arapaho and conservative whites in Colorado and a lot of people, these battles are still fresh and there’s no easy answers in even how to talk about them, not to mention officially memorialize them.

So buy a copy and try to figure out the politics of historical memory for yourself.

The World’s Worst Designed Apartment Complex

[ 166 ] February 27, 2013 |

Good god.

But wait, there’s more.

Someone make it stop. What did the British do to deserve this?

For Dennis Rodman

[ 23 ] February 27, 2013 |

In honor of Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea, I thought a North Korean propaganda cartoon was in order.

There’s no subtitles, but like you really need them

Among the many problems with this cartoon is that no one under the age of 30 in North Korea has ever seen an actual tree.

“Big Labor”–Another Example of Right-Wing Terminology

[ 34 ] February 26, 2013 |

Given its namesake, Mother Jones is not exactly great on labor issues. I want to point out this problematic article by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella about AFSCME’s opposition to closing an Illinois prison. The problem isn’t that they are wrong to criticize AFSCME. Although it is the primary job of a union to fight for their members’ jobs, supporting terrible social and political policies is hardly the way to do it, not to mention hardly the way to build alliances with other groups to fight for a better future.

No, the problem is tainting all of labor with the charge that, “It was perhaps the most visible and contentious example of a phenomenon seen, in one form or another, around the country: otherwise progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration. In terms of prisoners rights in general, and solitary confinement in particular, unions are seen as a major obstacle to more-humane conditions.”

The authors provide absolutely no evidence for this statement. I’m not even saying it isn’t true. But they need to show their work in order to make such broad-based claims. The authors talk about SEIU and the Teamsters but offer no concrete examples. They talk about the AFGE’s support for solitary confinement, but that’s different than opposing all prison reforms. Are “progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration?” I’m pretty skeptical of that claim.

In addition, it is completely unfair to dismiss union’s claims of security for prison guards. I know that prison guards often do bad things. I know the system has a lot of corruption and that guards can abuse their power. I also know that profit margins for privatized prisons and underfunding for public prisons means that guards can be overwhelmed. Solitary confinement is bad public policy. But from the perspective of the prison guards, I don’t doubt that they are genuinely very scared when dealing with some of these prisoners. Part of a union’s job is protecting its members. We have to respect that position.

Again, none of this is to say that AFSCME is right or that any of the union stances are per se correct on this issue. I am saying that this is poor labor reporting.

The entire term “Big Labor” is terrible. It assumes that all labor unions are the same, which is absolutely not true. It assumes that the AFL-CIO leadership sets all policies and acts as a monolith, with a white guy in a big cushy office telling everyone what to do. This is most definitely not how the AFL-CIO operates. It also repeats right-wing talking points about organized labor and obscures both the movement’s complexity and reinforces stereotypes.

And lo and behold, who should pick up on the story but a writer for Reason, an already anti-labor publication.

“It’s Time to Thank the Man Instead”

[ 79 ] February 26, 2013 |

Of course the conservative response to comparing Ted Cruz and Joe McCarthy is to embrace McCarthy.

The Office of the Future

[ 34 ] February 25, 2013 |

Walter Cronkite previews the office of 2001, in 1967.

Marissa Mayer would obviously disapprove. Working from home! Of course, Cronkite couldn’t imagine a woman in this office.

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