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How to Lose What We Have

[ 17 ] May 28, 2013 |

1950′s “How to Lose What We Have” is first-rate capitalist propaganda precisely because it lacks anything even remotely approaching subtlety, unless you count its conflation of the New Deal with Stalinism. The only disappointment here is that because of the time period, the filmmakers threw in a sop about unions being legal when you know they wish it wasn’t so.

The Core Reason for the Humanities Crisis

[ 207 ] May 28, 2013 |

Leon Wieseltier asks the right question in his graduation speech at Brandeis: “Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more?”

Unfortunately, his answer is totally wrong.

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.

The problem is not science and technology. For one, science, technology, and the humanities can be blended in very interesting ways. Second, science and technology are not the enemy.

The enemy of the humanities is corporate capitalism and their bought political cronies. We are indeed living through the greatest crisis in the humanities in American history. That’s because corporations control educational policy, corporate heads sit on the board of trustees of universities, and the right-wing correctly sees higher education as the last place in the United States where one can hear open critiques of capitalism. The attack on the humanities happens in higher education policy–through telling students they can’t get jobs with a liberal arts degree, through paying professors in Business and Physics departments vastly more than in History and English, through “running universities like a business,” which of course means isolating any field of study that doesn’t bring in outside monies. At the base of all of this is a capitalist war against its critics. And it’s hardly surprising that Wieseltier would miss this. Criticizing capitalism makes people uncomfortable. Criticizing technology is easy. But in this case, it’s wrong.

Lessons of the New Gun Politics

[ 45 ] May 28, 2013 |

I found Alec MacGillis’ discussion of the new gun politics quite interesting. I’m not sure that we are seeing the death of the NRA here, but there’s no question that continued support of background checks at gun shows is positive. From a political perspective, what’s interesting is the tack that Bloomberg’s gun-control group is taking. They simply don’t care which party you are if you don’t support background checks. There’s been some talk of the wisdom of attacking Mark Pryor in an election year, since an Arkansas Republican won’t be better on gun control and will be worse on a lot of other issues. But it might be that not caring about the short-term is the best way to play the long game.

This is already causing anxiety among Democrats: Reid’s office has pleaded with Bloomberg to lay off Pryor and Begich. (“What does Bloomberg care?” says the Senate staffer.) Some Democrats are also worried about harsh ads that Bloomberg and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by Gabby Giffords, have been running against Ayotte and Flake.12 “I certainly worry about boxing senators into a corner in the short run,” Murphy, the Connecticut senator, told me. “I’m not sure the smart thing is to run [the ads] right now.”

It’s true the strategy has a potential cost: A Democrat like Pryor might be easier to persuade down the line. But the groups believe that in order to get self-interested politicians thinking differently, first they have to get them scared. “For too long we’ve been playing Mister Nice Guy,” Gross says. Wolfson adds: “Bottom line, this is not a movement that has spent too much time running ads the last few decades. We’ve seen what the results are.”

One complication is that no vulnerable Republicans who opposed the legislation are up for reelection in 2014, leaving Bloomberg with fewer short-term targets.13 This is partly why the gun-control movement wants the background-check bill to pass the Senate—to press John Boehner to bring it up for a House vote. Even if it failed, members would have to take a stance, opening up dozens more races for Bloomberg to invest in. The group has also not ruled out spending on state-level candidates.

I think about this in terms of the labor and environmental movements. Like gun control before Newtown, no politician fears either of these movements. The correct assumption is that both will not only support Democrats, no matter how bad they are, but they will also provide money and GOTV operations needed for candidates to win. They can be ignored. Labor has struggled with this issue since the Carter years. For environmentalists, it’s a issue that goes back a decade or so. Neither movement’s leaders knows what to do about it.

It’s kind of standard practice at this blog to say that “heightening the contradictions” is a terrible idea. I agree with that. But it’s also hard to get around the point that the only thing politicians care about is reelection and the only way labor or environmentalists are going to get anyone to listen to them is to stick a shiv in the Democrats who don’t support them. They might not be able to rally the bipartisan troops and emotional volume like gun control, but enviros have huge money and labor has the GOTV operation. If the gun control movement succeeds in turning politicians to the left on guns, the wisdom of actively undermining the people who won’t pay you back gets harder to deny.

More Decoration Day

[ 13 ] May 27, 2013 |

As we close another Decoration Day, we have David Blight with typically excellent stories about Civil War memory:

But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.

Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.

The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.

The true patriots indeed, sadly forgotten about until recently because the nation decided to celebrate herrenvolk democracy in order to cover up the racial tensions that led to 750,000 dead Americans as a result of the South committing treason to defend slavery.

Watching History Develop, One Ball in Play at a Time

[ 64 ] May 27, 2013 |

Jonah Keri tells us something very exciting and that makes total sense for anyone who watches baseball:

In fact, the Twins starters’ inability to miss bats isn’t just bad by 2013 standards — it’s spectacularly, historically awful. The last teams’ starters to strike out hitters at such an infrequent rate were the K-deficient Royals and Angels staffs of the early ’80s. But league-average strikeout rates were much lower 30 years ago than they are this season, when they’ve reached an all-time high. According to FanGraphs, if you line up the Twins starters’ strikeout rate against league average this year, then compare that number to other rotations in previous seasons, you get … the worst strikeout rate by a starting staff in the history of baseball.

It’s really amazing to watch major league batters strike out at astounding numbers except when they play the Twins when they never strike out. Can the Twins become the adjusted lowest strikeout team of all time. Only by watching thrilling pitchers like Scott Diamond and Kevin Correia can we find out!

Why Does the U.S. Military Honor Those Who Committed Treason in Defense of Slavery?

[ 308 ] May 27, 2013 |

Today, being Decoration Day, we remember the crushing of the slave-owning Confederacy by our brave pro-Union soldiers during the Civil War. Jamie Malanowski takes the opportunity to ask an important question: Why does the United States still have military bases named after those who committed treason in defense of slavery?

Other Confederate namesakes include Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, Fort Rucker in Alabama and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana. All these installations date from the buildups during the world wars, and naming them in honor of a local military figure was a simple choice. But that was a time when the Army was segregated and our views about race more ignorant. Now African-Americans make up about a fifth of the military. The idea that today we ask any of these soldiers to serve at a place named for a defender of a racist slavocracy is deplorable; the thought that today we ask any American soldier to serve at a base named for someone who killed United States Army troops is beyond absurd. Would we have a Fort Rommel? A Camp Cornwallis?

It’s a fair question. And it is indeed an insult to ask African-American soldiers to serve at a fort named after P.G.T. Beauregard or John Gordon, who followed his war career by becoming the head of the KKK in Georgia.

Spare the Brush and Spoil the Teeth

[ 18 ] May 26, 2013 |

Good advice.

Date unknown, but early 20th century.

This Day in Labor History: May 26, 1937

[ 49 ] May 26, 2013 |

On May 26, 1937, United Auto Workers organizers, including future president Walter Reuther, walked toward the Ford Motor Company’s giant River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan to hand out pro-union leaflets to workers. As they crossed an overpass toward the plant, Ford’s private army, led by his right-hand man Harry Bennett, savagely beat them, then denied it despite photographic evidence and national outrage.

By May 1937, the United Auto Workers was an increasingly confident union. The creation of the CIO and the passage of the National Labor Relations Act had finally given industrial workers access to the unions they desperately craved. Through the sit-down strikes of the previous winter, the UAW had won contracts with General Motors and Chrysler. That left Ford as the last of the Big Three to organize. The UAW set out that spring to finish the job.

Henry Ford once had a pro-worker reputation. He still does today in the popular mind because of the $5 wage. But that is an unearned reputation. By the 1930s, he was one of the most fervently anti-union employers in the country, not to mention his legendary anti-Semitism and intrusion into his workers’ personal lives. Henry Ford had no problem directing violence against union organizers. A 1932 march of the unemployed from Detroit to the River Rouge plant to demand jobs was met with maximum repression by the Ford controlled town police force, as well as Harry Bennett, leading to the death of five people.

Ford was determined to not fall to the UAW as GM had. Ford saw the state as insufficient protection against unionism. GM relied on Flint for police assistance in fighting the strikers. Ford thought this a bad idea since local and state governments, especially in Michigan under pro-union Governor Frank Murphy, as incompetent and unreliable. As for the federal government, well, Ford didn’t even begin to think he could rely on FDR. Adolf Hitler, now there was a man to Ford’s liking.

Henry Ford receiving his Iron Cross from the Nazis.

So instead of relying on the government, Ford thought he would be proactive with the union and use old-school tactics of violence and outright intimidation to keep unions out of his plants. Ford hired 2000 men to his “Service Department.” These were ex-boxers, thugs, and spies, all comprising Ford’s personal anti-union army and police force.

The UAW knew that Ford’s workers were scared of his thugs. So Walter Reuther decided the UAW needed to take a strong stand, whatever the risk, to show that the union was not scared. It hired an airplane and buzzed River Rouge with a loudspeaker, but this wasn’t so effective. So Reuther got a permit to leaflet the plant. Of course, Ford knew all about this and prepared accordingly. So did Reuther, inviting ministers, journalists, and staffers of the Senate Committee on Civil Liberties to join him. At least if something terrible happened, there would be credible witnesses.

Calling for “Unionism, Not Fordism,” the UAW demands on Ford was a pay raise and shorter hours. Ford was paying $6 for an 8-hour day. The UAW was organizing for $8 a day over a 6-hour day. We sometimes think of the 6-hour day as a pipe dream that only a crazy socialist would demand, as if the 8-hour day is somehow natural, but this was a widespread demand during the 1930s and even after, in part to spread work around to more of the nation’s unemployed.

As Reuther and other UAW organizers, around 50 in total, walked toward the plant to leaflet for the 6-hour day, Detroit News photographer Scotty Kilpatrick asked them to pose for a picture with the Ford company sign in the background. As they did so, Harry Bennett and around 40 of his thugs, came up behind them and savagely attacked them. Kilpatrick shouted a warning, but it was too late.

The moment before the attack

Walter Reuther, on the beating he received:

“Seven times they raised me off the concrete and slammed me down on it. They pinned my arms . . . and I was punched and kicked and dragged by my feet to the stairway, thrown down the first flight of steps, picked up, slammed down on the platform and kicked down the second flight. On the ground they beat and kicked me some more. . . “

Richard Merriweather suffered a broken back from his beating. Bennett’s thugs pulled Richard Frankensteen’s coat over his head to immobilize, then beat him, knocked him, and kicked him repeatedly in the ribs and groin.

Ford thugs beating Richard Frankensteen

After they finished with the UAW leaders, they started beating women who arrived to help pass out the leaflets, as well as the media. The Dearborn police, wholly owned by Henry Ford, did nothing, saying that Ford was just protecting its property from intruders. The thugs then tried to hide all of the evidence of the beating, destroying photography plates. But the Detroit News photographer who originally asked for the posed picture managed to hide a bunch of plates under his car seat, while giving empty ones to the thugs. When the photographs came out, outage ensued.

What was great was Harry Bennett’s response to the pictures:

“The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials. . . . They simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality. … I know definitely no Ford service man or plant police were involved in any way in the fight.”

This despite the photographic evidence and dozens of eyewitnesses!

Ultimately, Ford suffered little from the Battle of the Overpass. He suffered a rebuke from the newly formed National Labor Relations Board and was ordered to stop violating the Wagner Act, which was supposed to stop this kind of anti-union violence. But ultimately Ford didn’t much care and of course denied all involvement despite the evidence. It did increase support for the United Auto Workers, both in Detroit and around the country. But Ford managed to hold out against a contract until 1940, when he finally caved.

Kilpatrick’s photos of the beatings convinced the Pulitzer Prize to establish a prize for photography. Interestingly, the first winner, in 1942, was of UAW strikers beating a member of Ford’s Service Department.

This is the 62nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

In Which Erik Hangs Himself

[ 129 ] May 25, 2013 |

Ugh, ugh, ugh.

President Obama held a private meeting with top national security journalists on Thursday afternoon following his national security policy address at the National Defense University in Washington, POLITICO has learned.

Present at the meeting were Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist; Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief; Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post; David Igantius, The Washington Post columnist; Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic correspondent and Bloomberg View columnist; and Joe Klein, the Time magazine columnist.

The meeting, which was scheduled to last for one hour but lasted for two, was held in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Where’s the rope?

Luckily for myself, I don’t know how to tie a knot.

Was Western Meadowlark the official state bird of the entire Louisiana Purchase and they just kept it after becoming states?

[ 46 ] May 25, 2013 |

This post on what each state should have as its state bird is much funnier and more worth reading than you’d expect.

The Mekong

[ 21 ] May 25, 2013 |

The decline of wildlife along the Mekong River, and really in all of Southeast Asia, has reached crisis levels. Between widespread development and the Chinese desire to kill every mammal in existence, there isn’t much left. On the Mekong, home of many now rare and amazing species, we are at crunch time in what is probably a losing battle. Among the fundamental problems when it comes to aquatic life is that you have to convince fishermen that not killing as many animals as possible is worth their effort. The only way to do that is cash because for poor people, every fish, every deer, every thing period, counts toward feeding their families. Of course, paying off large segments of a population has never been tried and probably would not work anyway, but without state intervention or convincing people to not kill the last of these animals, the Mekong ecosystem will be pretty well denuded of animal life.

Food Stamp Hypocrisy

[ 49 ] May 25, 2013 |

A special day for Republican hypocrisy on food stamps.

In the Senate, you have our old friend, Louisiana’s David Vitter:

Vitter presented the bill as prohibiting “convicted murderers, rapists, and pedophiles” from food stamp benefits. And in general those are the categories – murder, rape, aggravated sexual assault, domestic violence where sexual assault is involved, child molestation, and so on. No senator would vote to “give” violent offenders federal benefits, and in this case they didn’t have to. Rather than put the amendment up for a vote, the manager of the farm bill, Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, merely accepted the amendment into the base bill. The amendment was agreed to by unanimous consent, which is to say that nobody objected to it on the floor. In reality, it’s unlikely that most senators even knew the amendment’s contents.

Vitter conveniently left solicitation of prostitution off his felony list. Wonder why.

In the House, Stephen Fincher, Tea Partier extraordinaire who represents TN-8.

The Tea Party caucus member from Tennessee’s 8th district justifies taking food out of the mouths of millions of hungry children and their parents by quoting the Book of Thessalonians: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” He also quoted, a verse from the 26th chapter of Matthew, which says the “poor will always be with us.”

“The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other,” the congressman concedes, but quickly adds “not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”

He’s a principled man about these issues:

How much exactly has the Tennessee legislator received from hard working American taxpayers? Together with his father and brother, who farm over 2500 acres for cotton in five counties, roughly 8.9 million dollars in cotton subsidies over the last 10 years, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Rep. Fincher, who is the second largest recipient of farm subsidies in the United States Congress– and that is saying a lot– wants to increase federal crop insurance by a whopping 9 billion dollars over the next 10 years. The congressman has not said how much more he would personally reap if these additional federal subsidies are enacted.

Can’t make this stuff up.

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