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Tonight in Aesthetic Stalinism, er, Trotskyism

[ 109 ] February 7, 2013 |

When I think of a nice bedtime story, I think of Trotskyite music reviews. Here’s a lovely review of the new Alicia Keys from noted music publication World Socialist Web Site:

“Girl on Fire” is the album’s most recognizable single and its title track. One hears it everywhere. The song lifts a section of its melody from Berlin’s 1986 power ballad “Take My Breath Away.” Like that song, the single features its share of melodramatic qualities, as Keys’ reaching vocals herald the triumphs of a girl—any girl will do—against the odds. A repetitive and bombastic work.

“Girl on Fire” was also the song played by Keys during her recent performance at President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural ball. As the president and his wife looked on, Keys sang and changed her song’s lyrics to celebrate them. “He’s living in a world and it’s on fire,” Keys sang, “filled with catastrophe. But he knows he can find a way.” “Everybody knows Michelle is his girl,” she added, “together they run the world.”

This was pretty shameful, although predictable as well. Keys belongs to an affluent layer for whom race, gender and sexuality—and themselves, mostly—are the chief concerns in life and who have no difficulty at this point accommodating themselves to the actions of the Obama administration. Unfortunately, in fact, they hardly give the matter a thought. Such an accommodation with power and money, however, does not go hand in hand with serious artistry and an important treatment of life.

Is it any wonder so much of this music feels so thoroughly empty?

Sleep tight.

God Made a Farmer?

[ 101 ] February 6, 2013 |

I was going to respond to that ridiculous “God Made a Farmer” Chrysler ad that ran during the Super Bowl using the voiceover of Paul Harvey’s speech of that title as narration. Showing a lot of white people (and one black person!) farming, the ad was a million ways of problems. Between ignoring the actual people who do farm work in this country (Latinos) and the fact that farming is a hard, low-wage job where people struggle to keep their land in the face of increased centralization and corporatization, the ad was a giant lie. Which is like most advertisements, but this was especially egregious.

I was also going to remind everyone of what a reactionary Paul Harvey by providing some quotes from a book of talks by Harvey that was published in the late 60s or early 70s. It is full of hating on beatniks, how the kids have a lack of respect for Richard Nixon, and various other Abraham Simpson moments. Unfortunately, I can’t find it.

So I’ll let The Gurgling Cod tell you some of the reasons why this advertisement was an abomination, with proper historical context into how Americans have always aestheticized farmers.


The Return of State-Sponsored Sexual Assualts of Women

[ 20 ] February 6, 2013 |

Republicans in Michigan are bringing back transvaginal ultrasounds for women who want an abortion.

The End of Cod

[ 145 ] February 5, 2013 |

Last weekend, I decided to check out Cape Cod in the winter. It was pretty great, even if cold. On my way to the Cape, I drove past a Wendy’s. They were offering a fish sandwich–made with North Pacific cod. That’s right, North Pacific cod on Cape Cod.

The cod fishery of the North Atlantic and the livelihoods it sustained for 300 years are basically finished. The New England Fishery Management Council has reduced the cod catch by 77% in the Gulf of Maine, 61% on Georges Bank. The reality is that the fishers probably won’t even catch that tiny quota. The fish are gone, driven to near extinction not by the family fishermen that work out of the small ports in New England but by giant industrial fishing trawlers that are taking every fish of any edible size out of the oceans at an alarming rate.

Here’s a graph off the annual catch off the Grand Bank:

Reduced quotas have not brought the fish back in the last 15 years because there just aren’t any left. The only way to bring this back at all is a total moratorium on fishing for at least 20 years and then maybe not. A lot of fishermen are angry–but what can we do? There’s just no fish left.

There actually are two things we can do. Neither will bring the fish back, but that’s a done deal. First, as the first linked article suggested, we can develop alternative economies for these fishing ports around wind energy. That’s very different work than fishing, but it’s something. Some of these cities–New Bedford for instance–have developed reasonable tourist industries and have attracted some young people to live there and build some kind of alternative economies. Many–Fall River for instance, a mere 15 miles from New Bedford–have not. This is the best and most obvious way to create at least some jobs based upon harvesting natural resources, albeit in a very different way.

The second thing we can do is to take some kind of national responsibility for workers who lose their jobs because of resource depletion. There’s actually significant precedent for this in the Pacific Northwest. The Clinton Forest Plan that provided some finality to the old growth/spotted owl logging wars in the 1980s and early 1990s provided retraining programs for loggers and mill workers who lost their jobs due to the industry’s disappearance. My own father took advantage of this program, although he later found work in another mill.

Even more interesting is the case of the Redwood Employee Protection Program. The first real battle in the Northwest over the forests, really the precursor to the spotted owl, was the successful campaign to expand Redwood National Park. When the bill was signed by President Carter in 1978, it included REPP, a program that provided significant payments to workers displaced by the mills that had to close down. They received direct payments from the federal government until 1984 to build a bridge until they could find other work. The generosity of this was controversial–Carter himself was quite skeptical. And in many ways it didn’t work that well. There were battles over who should qualify–were the mills shutting down because of a lack of timber or because of globalization and mechanization? Moreover, there were some disappearing funds and management issues. We don’t need to get into these details now. What’s notable though is that at least one time the federal government decided to expand the welfare state, however tentatively, to workers put out of work in order to save rare resources.

Of course, this is politically impossible, even unthinkable, in the modern political climate. But rather than throw the fishermen and their families on the street with few economic opportunities, wouldn’t a program to help build regional economies and stabilize communities make a lot more sense? I think it would.

House of Earth

[ 17 ] February 5, 2013 |

Wow. As of today, Woody Guthrie’s previously unpublished 1947 novel, House of Earth is available for us to purchase.

Finished in 1947 and lost to readers until now, House of Earth is Woody Guthrie’s only fully realized novel—a powerful portrait of Dust Bowl America, filled with the homespun lyricism and authenticity that have made his songs a part of our national consciousness. It is the story of an ordinary couple’s dreams of a better life and their search for love and meaning in a corrupt world.

Tike and Ella May Hamlin struggle to plant roots in the arid land of the Texas Panhandle. The husband and wife live in a precarious wooden farm shack, but Tike yearns for a sturdy house that will protect them from the treacherous elements. Thanks to a five-cent government pamphlet, Tike has the know-how to build a simple adobe dwelling, a structure made from the land itself—fireproof, windproof, Dust Bowl–proof. A house of earth.

Though they are one with the farm and with each other, the land on which Tike and Ella May live and work is not theirs. Due to larger forces beyond their control—including ranching conglomerates and banks—their adobe house remains painfully out of reach.

A story of rural realism and progressive activism, and in many ways a companion piece to Guthrie’s folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” House of Earth is a searing portrait of hardship and hope set against a ravaged landscape. Combining the moral urgency and narrative drive of John Steinbeck with the erotic frankness of D. H. Lawrence, here is a powerful tale of America from one of our greatest artists.

I’m curious as to this “erotic frankness of D.H. Lawrence bit. This could be disastrous. But whatever, I’m glad it’s available. Certainly would a read, since at the very least I imagine the prose flows quickly.

Shakes Fist In Air, Screams “Caaaaaaastrooooooo”

[ 53 ] February 5, 2013 |

That Fidel Castro. He might be 130 years old and in terrible health. But his power to destroy America remain unlimited. Just ask New Jersey Congressman Albio Sires, who blames recent allegations against Senator Robert Menendez on the nefarious island nation of Cuba:

“I won’t even be surprised if somehow the Cuban government is involved in this to try to damage Bob Menendez because he’s been so steadfast against the Castro government. He’s been a critic all his political life,” Sires said in a phone interview. “I would not be surprised if they are behind some of this stuff, some of these allegations. The Dominican Republic has a lot of relationships with Cuba.”

Sires, who like Menendez (D-N.J). is Cuban-American, succeeded him in the House when Menendez was elevated to the Senate.

Menendez has denied anonymous allegations that he had trysts with prostitutes, some of them underage, at a Dominican Republic condo owned by wealthy eye doctor and campaign donor Salomon Melgen. But Menendez’s office has said the senator reimbursed Melgen $58,500 for two round trip flights on his private jet on January 4 of this year—more than two years after the trips, and without disclosing them.

The Dominican Republic does share a lot in common with Cuba. Both have long histories of exploitation by Spain and then the United States. Both were sugar colonies where slaves were sent from Africa to be worked to death. And Fidel Castro was very good friends with psychopathic Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo… Wait, what? No, that was the U.S. who supported that murderer for decades. Oh right. Well then, the DR and Cuba are basically one and the same because they are both island nations and speak Spanish and also some other things that I’m sure I’ll think of at some point. I guess the real question is how Puerto Rico is involved. A Cuban 5th column under the American flag! What will Castro think of next?!

Seriously, is there anything Cuban-Americans won’t blame on Castro?


[ 61 ] February 4, 2013 |

Laura Flanders nails much of the reason why Nicholas Kristof is so irritating:

Kristof certainly dedicates plenty of words a year to the women at the bottom of the heap. But that’s another part of my beef. A classic Kristof story portrays a former prostitute-turned-businesswoman who’s lifted herself and her children out of grinding poverty. Watch his PBS series and it’s packed with this sort. There’s abuse and grinding poverty and then there’s the woman who gives her bootstraps a tug. It’s a similar narrative to the woman with the ho-hum career in the macho business – and then there’s Sandberg, who by dint of leaning in, rises to the top of Google, then Facebook.

What are common in Kristof’s stories are heroes. What are rare are movements or groups. A hero like Sandberg can win a prize, break a record, even crack a glass ceiling, but change the working conditions for all workers?

Even a woman who isn’t aggressive deserves not to be destitute. That’s what collective bargaining is for. Yet Kristof seems to like unions less than heroes. Peruse the long list of “ways to lift women out of poverty” at the Half the Sky program web site and collective bargaining doesn’t receive a mention. Last fall, when the 87-percent female Chicago Teachers Union went out on strike, Kristof came out strongly against. In a blistering column, he wrote, “Some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be held accountable until poverty is solved…. ”

In a question and answer session on Reddit, when a reader made the point that most teachers in Chicago get laid off for financial, not performance reasons, Kristof declined to comment.

I would only add how often Kristof likes to play the hero himself, helicoptering in to rescue deserving women. Ultimately, Kristof cares far more about creating a narrative than he does about creating meaningful change. The problem with that is that his powerful voice can actually hinder the creation of change, as he pushes narratives that emphasize modern-day Horatio Alger stories and denigrates the poor organizing to demand their rights.

New Jersey

[ 59 ] February 4, 2013 |

If you haven’t read this piece on how the New Jersey Democratic Party’s commitment to big money over popular support helped create the Chris Christie phenomenon that could have major implications for Democratic control over the state legislature in upcoming elections and allow all sorts of bad policies to pass, do so.

In other words, maybe nominating wealthy capitalists like Jon Corzine instead of politicians with actual connections to the New Jersey people might not be such a good idea.

Happy Birthday to the Income Tax!

[ 43 ] February 3, 2013 |

A hearty Happy 100th Birthday to the graduated income tax, one of the greatest laws in American history. The 16th Amendment was ratified on February 3, 1913. I wrote about the history of the graduated income tax in detail here.

Also, it’s worth noting that in a lot of debates about presidents, people credit Woodrow Wilson with this because it happened in 1913. But Wilson had nothing to do with it–he hadn’t even taken office yet when it was ratified. Moreover, even if presidents had taken office on January 20 like today, he still would have had absolutely nothing to do with it. If you want to credit a president for the 16th Amendment, it has to be Taft.

NFL Hall of Fame

[ 70 ] February 3, 2013 |

Yesterday, seven people were elected to the NFL Hall of Fame: Bill Parcells, Jonathan Ogden, Larry Allen, Warren Sapp, Cris Carter, and veterans committee candidates Curley Culp and Dave Robinson. A few thoughts.

1. While I can’t speak to the veterans committee guys (more on this in a second), it’s a pretty unimpeachable class. Parcells is one of the great coaches of our time. In fact, who is the next coach likely to get in. Mike Holmgren will probably get a hearing, but I’m skeptical. I imagine Tony Dungy will get in because of who he is, even if he only won 1 Super Bowl. Definitely Bill Belichick. Ogden and Allen were dominant blockers. Warren Sapp is an all-time great.

2. This brings me to Carter. I’m glad that the long-standing wide receiver logjam was broken by electing Carter. He’s such an obvious call. It’s amazing to me that it took 6 years. The committee faced the fact that 3 similar receivers all reached eligibility at about the same, in Carter, Tim Brown, and Andre Reed. My reading of the debates is that different people were arguing for one while denigrating the other two. The reality is that they are all Hall of Famers, with Carter slightly more deserving. Quite possible this opens the door for Reed next year, since he was closer than Brown this year.

3. It’s certainly an excellent group, unlike last year, when Curtis Martin got in for reasons still mysterious to me and Chris Doleman was a fairly marginal selection as well. Both Martin and Jerome Bettis, who still awaits his likely enshrinement at some point, were basically above-average running backs who did a good job of not getting injured. Had Martin had that career in Detroit or Cleveland, I don’t think he makes it. Did anyone ever fear Curtis Martin? On the other hand, Terrell Davis remains not even close to election. Yes, he got hurt young. He also had one of the greatest 4-year stretches in the history of running backs, playing a key role in 2 Super Bowl titles. Given the reality of NFL running backs, I don’t see that a devastating knee injury should disqualify him. It certainly didn’t disqualify Gale Sayers.

4. The only real complaint I have this year is that Charles Haley continues to not be elected. There’s really only one good reason for this–Haley was a jerk to the media. Haley is one of the dominant pass rushers of my lifetime and was an absolutely vital player on several Super Bowl teams with both Dallas and San Francisco. To me, he’s the easiest call of anyone not elected. Yet I begin to wonder if he will ever be elected. That may be especially true if we are beginning to see a pass rusher logjam like the receivers, with Haley, Strahan, and Greene (who probably has the weakest candidacy of any of this year’s finalists, outside of the unelectable Art Modell) all being denied.

5. What I find interesting about the Veterans’ Committee selections is just how old the candidates remain. I’ve been watching football for about 35 years now. There’s never been a single Veterans’ Committee candidate I remember watching. That might not mean much. But I do wonder how much nostalgia is going into picking these players, many of whom played during the childhood of the current voters. It almost seems the culture of the voting now to find truly forgotten players rather than rethink the candidacy of players who played in the late 70s or early 80s. That’s fine, I’m sure a lot of these people are true greats who were underappreciated in their own time. But given how the game has changed, as well as how we measure success, it’s probably time to rethink some people. The clear starting point should be former Bengals QB Ken Anderson, whose qualifications are clear comparing him to the other quarterbacks of his era.

6. Finally, it’s worth repeating what a travesty the actual Hall of Fame building in Canton remains. It’s an embarrassment to the NFL, who should replace that thing with a palace like exists in Cooperstown. When I visited 2 years ago, the building still had exhibits talking about current Denver Broncos QB John Elway. I know the NFL owners care about nothing but profit and squeezing small amounts of money from referees in order to score points against the union, but this is ridiculous and unacceptable. It’s arguably the most disappointing museum in the United States. And look, Canton could really use the additional tourist dollars this would bring.

America’s Worst Senator

[ 118 ] February 3, 2013 |

It’s a tough competition. I figure you have three candidates. First is the long-standing champion, James Inhofe, arguably the dumbest person to sit in the Senate for a long, long time. Second, is the relative newcomer Ron Johnson. Johnson is so out of his league in the Senate, it’s like watching Tebow play quarterback. Really, how on earth did Wisconsin choose this clown over Russ Feingold. Talk about one-term.

And now we have the newcomer, Crazy Ted Cruz of Texas, a man who seems likely to challenge Jesse Helms as the worst senator of my lifetime.

Quite a troika here. Although there are probably other possible competitors, I have to go with these three. I mean, say what you will about the recently departed Jim DeMint or Jeff Sessions or any of the others, they are just bog-standard reactionaries. These three take the cake.

….It seems that Wisconsinites have spoken on the matter.

[SL]:  Clearly, Erik is not giving Sessions enough discredit.


[ 18 ] February 2, 2013 |

Hope you all are having as good a Saturday night as Zevon did when writing “Carmelita.”

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