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Working-Class Literature

[ 160 ] January 31, 2013 |

Labor Notes has an interesting survey of working-class literature, asking organizers and activists about their favorite class-conscious novels.

Admittedly, when I became a professor I stopped reading novels. This is literally the single biggest thing I don’t like about my job. I feel incredibly guilty if I read anything not related to a) my research, b) teaching, and c) political stuff for the blog. Obviously there may be some time management issues here….

Anyway, the three clear winners in my mind are John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and the last third of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Dos Passos isn’t taken too seriously these days and his late life turn to conservatism, which seems to be more about Hemingway being mean to him during the Spanish Civil War than anything concrete, makes him seem pretty superficial in his politics. But then what’s so different about that than for millions of other people. The USA Trilogy at its best tells great stories about working-class people. White people admittedly. I’ll probably be pilloried for this choice. But I still like reading them and occasionally pick them up.

On Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath is a better book than In Dubious Battle and certainly has the ability to inspire one to a class consciousness perhaps never really achieved by most of the characters themselves. I always wondered what would happened to Tom Joad. I assume he would have joined the army in World War II and come back to found an evangelical church in Orange County sometime around 1947. Maybe I’m too cynical. But despite the difference of quality in the novels, In Dubious Battle is probably the best book we have about labor organizing itself.

I know some people have problems with the end of Invisible Man, but I think the cluelessness of the communists about why race actually matters in this country and how this undermined the possibility of radical change in the first half of the twentieth century is elucidated in really useful ways by Ellison.

What’s very much not a good class-conscious novel is Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, which is about as anti-union as American literature gets. Big unions, mean state hospital nurses, just another institution bringing down our independence, right Ken? Better to pass out acid like candy I guess. Was shocked to see one of the people surveyed list it.

As for the Gilded Age, If I never read The Jungle again, it’ll be too soon; Edward Bellamy is even worse and Frank Norris, well, I guess. I suppose I expected someone to name Jack London’s The Iron Heel but I’m glad they didn’t. Maybe the overt racism of London is too much to get over.

In any case, at least this should be a good reading list for me.

Duck Hunting, Gun Nut Logic, and Other Gun News

[ 183 ] January 31, 2013 |

Back to my favorite topic.

As everyone should know by this point, there’s absolutely no logical or historical basis for the idea that people have the right to walk around fully armed without any restriction at all. The NRA only took up this position as part of white backlash in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan supported gun control when guns meant armed Black Panthers, the American West of the 19th century was filled with towns that banned guns except for law control, there’s zero evidence that the Founders believed anything even remotely approaching what the NRA is arguing, etc., etc. Among the laws that restrict guns are hunting laws.

Rep. Mike Thompson, the California Democrat charged with crafting gun safety policies in the House of Representatives, keeps talking about ducks.

More specifically, duck hunting.

“Federal law prohibits me from having more than three shells in my shotgun when I’m duck hunting. So federal law provides more protection for the ducks than it does for citizens,” Thompson said earlier this month during a panel discussion on gun violence at the liberal Center for American Progress.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, also on the panel, was delighted by the line. “That’s a very powerful point,” Emanuel said. “My instinct is we’re gonna hear more of this line going forward.”

As it turns out, federal law places strict regulations on the types of firearms that can be used when hunting migratory birds, rules hunters have abided since the 1930s. Duck hunters are only allowed to use a shotgun, 10 gauge or smaller, that carries no more than three shells. If the shotgun carries more than three shells, the hunter is required to “plug” the gun so that only three shots can be fired before reloading.

Hunting laws have restricted gun use going back to the 1890s or early 1900s. These laws were controversial at the time because they restricted the killing of animals by working-class people, but in the modern context these laws are completely accepted. And they are a useful evidence point when it comes to gun control. There’s plenty of precedent to control types of guns, ammunition, hunting seasons, etc.

Of course, the response to this will probably be jihad against hunting laws. After all, it’s not like gun advocates are afraid of owning the crazy. Take Gayle Trotter, a conservative activist and gun extremist. Testifying before the Senate this week, Trotter argued that women needed guns to protect themselves from scary home invaders and would-be assaulters.

“An assault weapon in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon,” said Trotter, a mother of six. “And the peace of mind she has … knowing she has a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hardened violent criminals.”

Thing is, Trotter also advocates for policies that promote violence against women.

Despite her strong emphasis on the need to prevent violent crimes against women at home, Trotter is an outspoken opponent of the Violence Against Women Act, a law designed to aid women faced with domestic violence. In 2012, she wrote on the Independent Women’s Forum’s blog that VAWA infringed upon the rights of men who were falsely accused of domestic abuse. The law would also embolden “false accusers,” who would take “needed resources like shelters and legal aid … denying real victims of abuse access to these supports,” she wrote. Trotter and the forum characterized VAWA as “reckless demagoguery.”

VAWA=”reckless demagoguery.” Arguing for unrestricted guns at all costs so women can theoretically protect themselves in a legal world that Trotter hopes does not provide safeguards to women=”respectable commentary.” Gotcha.

Meanwhile, Americans by the thousands continue to die from guns. Slate has teamed up with the twitter feed @GunDeaths to create an interactive map of the people killed by gun violence since the Newtown Massacre. As of right now, it is 1478. Depressing stuff.

The Unnecessary Hazards of Clothing Production

[ 12 ] January 31, 2013 |

Terry Allen has a useful overview of the unnecessary health risks of clothing production experienced by largely female workforces in the developing world:

These expendable workers, mostly young women, cycle out when they become too infirm or, like Willi, land other jobs. Most of the health threats affect only workers, but some travel with the garments as they are exported, largely to the United States, Canada and Europe. Clothing and bedding that boasts it is “easy care,” “permanent press,” “stain resistant” or “wrinkle free” may have been treated with formaldehyde, which is embedded in the fabric. A 2010 U.S. government report found unacceptably high formaldehyde levels in clothing manufactured in Bahrain, India, China, Pakistan, Thailand and Indonesia. Samples from dozens of other countries contained “acceptable” levels of formaldehyde. In the United States, the toxin is not regulated in clothing, and “acceptable” is a fungible construct, especially when it comes to exposing infants and toddlers. Consumers who use formaldehyde-laced fabric can experience skin, eye and nose irritation and allergies.

Inhaled formaldehyde is more lethal. A known carcinogen, it is implicated in leukemia and multiple myeloma. The danger is exacerbated by dust, prolonged exposure, close quarters, humidity and heat—the very conditions that define sweatshops. Some major-brand clothing and shoes contain the toxin nonylphenol, “a persistent chemical with hormone-disrupting properties that builds up in the food chain” and is hazardous even at very low levels, Greenpeace warns. Again, workers sustain the greatest exposure.

The garment industry’s tangle of contractors, sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors allows manufacturers and sellers to plead ignorance. When news broke that its Faded Glory brand had been manufactured in the Tazreen factory, Wal-Mart claimed it wasn’t in control of its supply line. But it and the other corporations that produced goods there—Disney, Sears and Sean Combs’ Enyce label—are quite capable of tracking the sources of their products when it’s in their interest to do so.

With China’s wages surging, and even India’s at double Bangladesh’s, Dhaka is not motivated to crack down—even though implementing safety standards would add only 10 cents to the cost of a T-shirt, the Worker Rights Consortium estimates.

A prominent display of Faded Glory brand garments at my local Wal-Mart sparked an urge to buy one, douse it with lighter fluid and set it ablaze in the parking lot—in memory of the millions of poisoned, underpaid and flammable workers who pay a high price so we can stuff our closets with cheap clothes.

A couple of things.

First, this is a story with a long history. Capitalists have sought from the first days of industrializing to maximize profits in the clothing industry by using young, exploitable female labor. Forget all the garbage said by capitalists from the Lowell factories in the 1820s to maquiladora managers today about women having more nimble fingers, this is an excuse to gender the work female in order to pay them less.

Second, that this labor still exists is offensive. Health protections for industrial labor are at least a century old and most of them don’t cost that much. Doesn’t matter though. That extra 10 cents for a shirt, well that’s violating freedom! Or something. The opposition to implementing safety, health, and environmental standards, as well as paying decent wages, isn’t strictly economic–it’s an objection in principle to having to invest one cent more into production than absolutely necessary. Some may celebrate this as freedom. Those people don’t work in these conditions.

Turn of the Century Paris in Color

[ 12 ] January 31, 2013 |

What an utterly wonderful set of color photos from Paris in the early 20th century. I love black and white photos and black and white cinema but seeing these things in color really changes one’s perspective.

Patty Andrews, RIP

[ 9 ] January 30, 2013 |

One of the last links to World War II-era popular culture has passed.

Why Unions Matter

[ 30 ] January 30, 2013 |

I know that this is kind of Unionism 101, but since we as a nation are now in a remedial state when it comes to understanding why we need labor unions, Eric Liu’s piece on non-unionized workers should be concerned about organized labor’s decline is important:

First, the fact is that when unions are stronger the economy as a whole does better. Unions restore demand to an economy by raising wages for their members and putting more purchasing power to work, enabling more hiring. On the flip side, when labor is weak and capital unconstrained, corporations hoard, hiring slows, and inequality deepens. Thus we have today both record highs in corporate profits and record lows in wages.

Second, unions lift wages for non-union members too by creating a higher prevailing wage. Even if you aren’t a member your pay is influenced by the strength or weakness of organized labor. The presence of unions sets off a wage race to the top. Their absence sets off a race to the bottom.

Unfortunately, the relegation of organized labor to tiny minority status and the fact that the public sector is the last remaining stronghold for unions have led many Americans to see them as special interests seeking special privileges, often on the taxpayer’s dime. This thinking is as upside-down as our economy.

This country has gotten to today’s level of inequality because, ironically, those who work for a living think like atomized individuals while those who hire for a living organize collectively to rig policy in their favor. Today’s 97-year low is the result of decades of efforts to squeeze unions and disperse their power.

I will add that unions have also historically set new standards in benefits for industries, providing nonunionized workers improved health care, shorter hours, vacation time, pensions, etc. Companies will often expand union gains to the rest of the industry in order to undercut unionization at other worksites. In addition, organized labor’s support for laws ranging from the minimum wage to OSHA have vastly improved the lives of all American workers. Without a strong labor movement, it’s hard to see how similar advances are achieved.

Amateur Hour

[ 121 ] January 30, 2013 |

I thought this Laura Seay piece lambasting English language coverage of Mali pretty outstanding. I know nothing about Mali and thus haven’t commented on it except to express sadness at the loss of cultural heritage (and yay! most of the Timbuktu manuscripts have survived thanks to people taking them into their own homes). But that hasn’t stopped many “experts” from talking on an issue about which they know little. The best part is Seay showing the foolishness of cheap, meaningless comparisons between Mali and Afghanistan.

Of course, it’s not just major publications doing this. It’s also famous critics of American foreign policy.

This also reminds me of an old professor of mine who worked on the Philippines telling me that the large majority of “experts” writing and talking about the Philippines during the Marcos-Aquino years had no knowledge of Tagalog and really didn’t know what they were talking about. I suppose that’s pretty common with countries off the radar of most Americans.

Advice

[ 39 ] January 29, 2013 |

Today, I turned 39. In my ripe old age, I’d like to share some advice from the WPA. From 1941:

The more you know.

Southern Problems

[ 274 ] January 29, 2013 |

George Packer’s comments on the terribleness of Southern politics has inspired a number of responses, most notably from Gary Wills.

These discussions frustrate me though for a number of reasons. First, the South is equated with reactionary white people in both articles. The reality is much more complex. Second, it ignores the fact that 35-40% of the South votes for Democrats and that many of these people are extremely liberal (and not just African-Americans). Third, it holds Southern culture to be entirely negative.

No one has to tell me how the politics of white supremacy has damaged this nation. But let’s be bloody well clear, this is not a Southern problem. It is perhaps a greater problem in the South than other parts of the country. Still, my reading of American history remembers the Detroit Hate Strike of 1943. It remembers the Boston busing protests of the 1970s. It remembers the Zoot Suit Riots. It remembers the lynching of Malcolm X’s father. It remembers the housing campaign conducted by Martin Luther King in Chicago in 1966, when King said he never felt so much hate.

And my understanding of the present is informed by white supremacy in Idaho, by Michigan-native Timothy McVeigh, by Paul Ryan and Steve King and Sam Brownback and any number of awful northern politicians.

My understanding of both past and present is also informed by the reality of poverty in the South, both black and white, and how capitalism played the races off against each other. If this failed, and the races aligned too closely, then you saw the real backlash, in Wilmington at the end of the 19th century, in the killings of Populist organizers, in the backlash against Operation Dixie.

This stereotyping is why I’m not comfortable with American elites like Packer and Wills talking about the South. Even if, like Wills, they have southern roots, they ignore the basic fact that racism and right-wing politics are national problems. Yes, they might be 20% worse in the South for reasons of the slave legacy, capitalist playing of the races of each other, etc. But none of these problems are southern problems. They are national problems and until we think of them as such, we are going to do more work in stereotyping the South than solving said problems.

Also, the title of this post is totally stolen from my friend Andy Bowen’s DC-based band. Check them out.

Perhaps Alan Dershowitz Should Not Be the Arbiter of Who Speaks on American University Campuses

[ 317 ] January 29, 2013 |

Brooklyn College’s Department of Political Science, the home department of Corey Robin among others, is under attack for inviting speakers such as Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti to speak on the subject of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement against Israel.

Right-wing fake outrage is building, a topic which I know well. Alan Dershowitz is leading the charge and now the New York Daily News is on the case with an editorial basically accusing the department of anti-Semitism. The campaign is on to shut this event down.

Regardless of how you feel about the issue (personally, I support this movement until Israel tears down the settlements and removes its citizens to the 1967 boundaries), what’s important here is that academics be allowed to host public forums on important political, social, and economic issues, even if they challenge the status quo. This is another attempt to silence voices critical of power structures that ensure inequality and injustice.

Contact Info for Brooklyn College administrators:

President Karen Gould (718.951.5671; klgould@brooklyn.cuny.edu);
Provost William Tramontano (718.951.5864; tramontano@brooklyn.cuny.edu);
Director of Communications and Public Relations Jeremy Thompson (718.951.5882; JeremyThompson@brooklyn.cuny.edu).

Do what you can do.

…Says Scott in the comments about the linked article:

Seriously, talk about yer classic moments in passive-aggressive weasel wording:

Do all support welcoming to campus an event that will verge on anti-Semitism?

“We won’t actually call the speakers anti-Semitic. But they might do something other than criticize the Likud platform for being insufficiently dismissive of Palestinian rights, so close enough.”

Indeed.

Good Advice

[ 33 ] January 28, 2013 |

Robert Stacy McCain, the man who defended the lynching of Emmett Till, has some really good advice for the Republican Party. Double down on white supremacy and reject those anti-capitalist Latinos.

As a Democrat, let me give a full-throated recommendation that Republican leaders listen to this wise, wise man.

Pollock

[ 94 ] January 28, 2013 |

While I guess I’m glad that McDonald’s is using a certified fish that is theoretically sustainable (although I doubt it really), I don’t know what karma the entire noble species that is pollock had in the past to deserve being harvested for such a loathsome product as the Filet-o-Fish.

Also, y’all should know what an Alaskan pollock actually looks like. Turns it is not actually a breaded, tasteless fish that swims between two awful slices of bread and a dollop of tartar sauce.

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