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Is There Anything We Can’t Blame on Confederate Nostalgia

[ 161 ] July 4, 2013 |

Typical that a song as bad as the Star-Spangled Banner would have a neo-Confederate history.

The section that favored the “Banner” was the South. By the 1920s when the newly established NAACP was making an issue of the imposition of Jim Crow laws and the practice of lynching in the South, the campaign for the “Banner” was a way to defend the prerogatives of the South, to wrap the ideology of the Confederacy in the red, white, and blue bunting of American patriotism.

Of course, no one said as much during the hearings on Linthicum’s bill. No African-American witnesses were called, and only one dissenting witness was heard—the tireless Stetson. Otherwise, all present extolled the “Banner” as the perfect expression of American patriotism. There can be little doubt that most Americans agreed. Supporters submitted a petition calling for the designation of the “Banner” as the national anthem that was signed by 5 million people.

A year later, Linthicum’s bill came up for a vote, and the House and the Senate approved it by wide majorities. On March 3, 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed it into law. Thus, 117 years after it was written, “The Star-Spangled Banner” became our national anthem.

The unspoken racial agenda of the “Banner” supporters was displayed on June 14, 1931, when the National Society of the Daughters of 1812 and the state of Maryland, sponsored a ceremony at War Memorial Plaza in Baltimore to celebrate the new national anthem. The parade was led by a column of Boy Scouts carrying three flags: the Stars and Stripes, the red and gold flag of Maryland, and the Stars and Bars of the army of the Confederate States of America.

Veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic pulled out at the sight of the banner of their former enemies. “GAR Balks at Southern Flag in Parade,” reported The Baltimore Sun. Gen. John F. King, past national commander of the GAR, “ordered the Union men to disband and fall out line,” said the Baltimore Afro-American.

Chew on that while you celebrate the 150th Vicksburg Day today.

The Liquor Monopoly

[ 90 ] July 4, 2013 |

Although I was under the impression that Pennsylvania had the stupidest liquor laws in the country, it turns out that Indiana is pretty competitive as well (although at least you can buy a freaking 6-pack in the Hoosier State). Of course, every stupid restrictive liquor law has its own interest group and in the case of fighting to sell alcohol on Sundays in Indiana, it’s the liquor store monopoly fighting to protect itself. Specifically, Indiana has the extra stupid law that only liquor stores can sell cold beer, allowing them to charge a lot more for it, and the new legislation would open that privilege up to all beer distributors, more notably convenience stores.

Meanwhile, the only winner is Kentucky, with its gloriously loose liquor laws and gigantic mega-liquor stores just over the border of Indiana and Ohio.

Teacher Union Militancy

[ 18 ] July 4, 2013 |

Last month, I attended a session dedicated to the Chicago Teachers Union struggle at the Labor and Working Class History Association conference in New York. A couple of members of the New York teachers union were on the panel, talking of the struggle to retake their own union from the moderate compromising bureaucrats that were going along with whatever Michael Bloomberg proposed. I’m quite curious to see how the CTU fight affects other teachers unions across the country? Do we see an uprising of rank and file militancy over the attacks on public schools? In Washington at least, that has happened. The Washington Teachers Union ousted its president this week, with a reformist slate of candidates promising to stand up to Rheeism elected. It’s extremely rare for unions to kick out leaders, so this is a big deal, especially since the current president was actually elected on a reformist slate in 2010 and then didn’t live up to it. A new victory in Newark also suggests important growth in rank and file militancy.

Good to see and hopefully this becomes commonplace.

One Way to Celebrate July 4 is to Take Action Against This Travesty

[ 115 ] July 4, 2013 |

And by this travesty I mean the threat of Steven Spielberg directing a remake of The Grapes of Wrath, a movie I would like to think exactly 0 people would find necessary or interesting, but then again Esther Zuckerman seems excited about it in the linked article so I just don’t know what’s wrong with people.

I mean really, a Grapes of Wrath distanced from the political connotations but wrapped in more sentiment? Gross.

In less disturbing artistic news, here we have a list of the 100 greatest American novels written between 1893 and 1993, with a limit of one book per author. Good for argumentation. I’d question the inclusion of Goodbye Columbus as the Philip Roth entry over Portnoy’s Complaint. Or about 7 or 8 others actually, though I have nothing negative to say about the book. Some of the more recent books feel a bit questionable to me. Is Roots that great of a novel? Or is it just very important? Of course, given that The Fountainhead is on here, it’s clear the list is emphasizing important above good. Or readable.

Garfield

[ 32 ] July 3, 2013 |

In this day of modern technology, you can follow the Battle of Gettysburg minute by minute 150 years later. You can follow the War of 1812 200 years later.

And now you can follow updates on the health of James Garfield,
122 years after he was shot.

Act accordingly.

In other obscure Gilded Age president notes, the decline of state funding for everything also means defunding presidential homes. And while not every presidential home I have visited blows one’s mind–Warren Harding’s home primarily consists of his golfing gear, bicycles, and a curator who gets quite agitated at the notion that Harding had many affairs (although she did mention the rumor circulated at the time that Harding was black, largely because I mentioned I taught at the College of Wooster and the person who pushed that rumor was a history professor there)–they are still useful public sites for people to engage in the American past. So it sucks that states run by jerks in Ohio and North Carolina are doing this.

Just Say No to Teach for America

[ 97 ] July 3, 2013 |

Teach for America gets played at this great progressive thing. You, young bright-eyed college graduate, can go and change the world through your willpower and optimism. It taps into deeply seated notions among 21st century young people about the ability of the empowered individualism to create change in society. But the reality of Teach for America is far more sinister. In effect, the agency serves as the shock troops for busting teacher unions and sends inner-city kids the message that they don’t deserve qualified and experienced teachers. Chicago Public Schools teacher Katie Osgood has a long open letter urging TFA recruits to turn it down. In part:

Teach for America likely enticed you into the program with the call for ending education inequality. That is a beautiful and noble mission. I applaud you on being moved by the chance to help children, of being a part of creating equality in our schools, of ending poverty once and for all.

However, the actual practice of Teach for America does the exact opposite of its noble mission. TFA claims to fight to end educational inequality and yet ends up exacerbating one of the greatest inequalities in education today: that low-income children of color are much more likely to be given inexperienced, uncertified teachers. TFA’s five weeks of Institute are simply not enough time to prepare anyone, no matter how dedicated or intelligent, to have the skills necessary to help our neediest children. This fall, on that first day of school, you will be alone with kids who need so much more. You will represent one more inequality in our education system denying kids from low-income backgrounds equitable educational opportunities.

Many of you no doubt believe you are joining a progressive education justice movement, that is the message TFA sells so well. But I want you to understand clearly, TFA is not progressive. The kind of limited data-driven pedagogy, the fast-track preparation, the union-busting, the forced exploitation of your labor, the deep-pocketed affiliation with corporate education reform are all very conservative, very anti-progressive ideas. Look no further than TFA’s list of supporters/donors. The largest donations are from groups like the Walton Foundation, of Walmart fortune, which has a vested interest in the status quo of inequality, breaking unions, and keeping wages low and workers oppressed. Or notice the many partnerships with JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America, the very institutions which caused the financial collapse and threw millions of Americans-including your future students’ families-into foreclosure, bankruptcy, and deeper poverty. These organizations choose to donate to TFA because TFA supports their agendas. If TFA was truly pushing back on the status quo of educational inequality, these types of donors would not only refuse financial support, they would be attacking a group which threatens their earning potential.

Ask yourself honestly, since when did billionaires, financial giants, or hedge fund managers on Wall St begin to care about the education of poor black and brown children in America? If you follow the money, you will see the potential for mass profit through privatization, new construction, union-busting, and various educational service industries. Why would a group dedicated to educational justice partner with these forces?

As Osgood also notes, Chicago has no teacher shortage. There are plenty of teachers. Rahm Emanuel has just closed 50 schools. Those teachers could be reassigned. But Emanuel and other teacher-busting mayors use TFA as a replacement labor force, undermining the teacher unions they loathe:

What’s even sicker is that TFA is poised to benefit greatly from the horrible policies happening to children and teachers here in Chicago. As I describe in the post “Teach for America Has Gone Too Far”, TFA plans to expand into the very neighborhoods experiencing schools closings, the neighborhoods which by definition have more teachers than they do positions. Teach for America has truly crossed a line when closing schools and slashing budgets-policies detrimental to children-become the avenue for expansion. Also, the new “per-pupil budgeting” pushed by the BOE and Mayor Emanuel, means principals now must pay more for experienced teachers. In the past, teacher positions were opened based on the number of students and principals were free to hire any qualified teacher, regardless of salary as that salary did not come out of the individual school budgets. Under this new formula, principals are given a lump sum for every student enrolled and therefore are incentivized to hire less-experienced, cheaper teachers in order to save money (all the more necessary as budgets are experiencing the largest cuts in living memory.) I suspect that TFA quietly helped push this new budgeting policy into place.

In other words, Just Say No to Teach for America

Sharia and Abortion: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

[ 42 ] July 3, 2013 |

North Carolina’s zoom to the top of the nation’s craziest state governments continues unabated, as the state Senate tacked on extreme anti-abortion restrictions to its very important law banning Sharia law in the Tar Heel State. With Texas and Ohio leading the way on the latest wave of 20-week abortion ban, defunding of Planned Parenthood, and abortion clinic surgical requirement laws, which I assume will be challenged in court sometime within the next week or so, North Carolina decided to one up them by creating a scenario in which Republicans can accuse pro-choice Democrats of supporting Sharia law. I’m sure that must be convincing to somebody???

More on Bees and Insecticides

[ 6 ] July 3, 2013 |

Updating the story from last week on bumblebees dying by the thousands from insecticide exposure in Oregon, the state has issued a 6 month moratorium on using neonicotinoid-based insecticides. The maker of the insectcide the killed the bees is angry. And while I suppose that’s a good sign, the fact that it is now illegal to use the chemical but not illegal to buy and sell the chemical makes me think this is not all that helpful. Maybe it’s a good first step for a more comprehensive review and ban.

Paying It Forward in Oregon

[ 126 ] July 2, 2013 |

I have a rather strong objection to the term “pay it forward” that is based entirely upon Kevin Spacey sabotaging his own career by starring in New Agey vehicle after New Agey vehicle in the early to mid 2000s, including one by the name above. However, I have to use the term because of this Oregon bill offering an alternative way of funding higher education:

The Pay It Forward solution offers students access to higher education without debt. Students at public universities and community colleges would pay no tuition up-front. In exchange, they would agree to pay a small percentage of their income (1.5% for community college, or 3% for a 4 year school) for 20 years to “pay forward” the cost of instruction for the next generation of students.

Pay It Forward is a social insurance program, not a loan. Students would have no debt, no interest, and their percentage would never change. Instead, graduates would pay their contribution as a payroll deduction, similarly to how we pay Social Security taxes. This means that their contribution would be a dependable, affordable expense. For example, a recent grad making $30,000 a year would pay $900 a year. Later on, when they make $60,000 a year, they would pay $1,800 per year.

Over time, the Pay It Forward plan will create a stable funding stream for Oregon public higher education. As more students graduate and pay in, the fund will grow, allowing more students to participate. Start-up funding will be needed until the first few generations of students graduate and get into jobs where they can pay it forward. This could come from private grants, or public money. One option would be to start with a pilot program at a specific institution, and expand to others as the program grows.

So I’m more than a little skeptical of bills that don’t actually have funding. But given the collapse of the 20th century structures created to ensure a chance at social mobility, it’s good that people are being creative. I’m really not sure what to think about this and I’m curious about the mechanisms for people to buy in. I’m also curious to see if top earnings don’t get capped so that those who become rich will not have to pay 3% for 20 years. In any case, this is at least worth a discussion here.

Learning Spanish

[ 9 ] July 2, 2013 |

The labor historian Dana Frank has a wonderful if disturbing essay on learning Spanish through experiencing and then fighting against the Honduran coup that took place in 2009. Frank is not one to mince words and she puts plenty of blame on the Obama Administration for doing nothing against the coup and recognizing the bogus elections that followed. I think more accurately the Obama Administration doesn’t care much about Honduras either way but the Cuban exile community in Florida and their friends among the Latin American elite very much did. In any case, this is an excellent essay about being a committed outsider in a country struggling with political violence, massive corruption, and a horrible wave of murder in a place where justice basically does not exist.

Holding Apparel Corporations Accountable

[ 2 ] July 2, 2013 |

I was interviewed for this Jake Blumgart article at Alternet on attempts by United Students Against Sweatshops and others in the U.S. to hold apparel corporations accountable for the terrible conditions in Bangladesh. I think groups like USAS can play a really big role. USAS had its heyday in the late 90s anti-sweatshop campaigns and then faded a bit as young activists became more motivated by the Iraq War. It’s made a nice comeback however and its ability to inform everyday consumers of the social costs of the clothing they purchase is an important action since most people have no clue about these matters.

Also of note in the piece is that the Obama Administration might have suspended trade privileges with Bangladesh last week but the AFL-CIO is disappointed it did not also provide a roadmap and timeline of reforms, including asserting the right to collective bargaining is respected. These specifics are necessary to make any of it meaningful.

This Day in Labor History: July 2, 1822

[ 15 ] July 2, 2013 |

On July 2, 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free African-American living in Charleston, South Carolina, was executed for his role in leading a purported slave rebellion. This event marked a significant increase in southern surveillance and oppression of free blacks and demonstrates the very real fear the South had of its slave labor force rising en masse and murdering whites.

Vesey was born around 1767, though no one is sure whether in Africa or St. Thomas. As a youth, he was shipped to Haiti briefly and then came to South Carolina, where he worked as a domestic slave for a man named Joseph Vesey. He won a lottery in 1799, using the money to pay for his own freedom. However, he could not buy his wife or children, forcing him to stay in Charleston. He then worked as a carpenter and became a minister, cofounding a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 1817.

The early 19th century was a nervous time for the Southern planter elite. In the aftermath of the successful Haitian rebellion of the 1790s and 1800s, the American slave power was constantly vigilant about their own slaves rising up and killing them all. A successful slave rebellion would have been nearly impossible for slaves in the United States because there weren’t enough of them and they didn’t have the ecological advantages of the Haitians (the Haitian Rebellion primarily succeeded in the end because the French troops kept dying of malaria and other tropical diseases). That certainly didn’t stop southerners from worrying about it though.

Denmark Vesey had of course heard about the slave rebellion in Haiti. There’s no doubt he would have liked to see a similar action in the United States, but then that’s hardly remarkable. We do know that Vesey was furious at South Carolina closing the AME church, which the state had done repeatedly over the past five years, fearing the proceedings going on inside. In 1818, Charleston police arrested 140 people worshipping inside the church. Vesey’s preaching seems to have grown more strident, with a great deal of emphasis on Exodus and the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites (always a small problem for oh so good Christian slaveowners justifying their slave labor system through the Bible). Vesey’s religious message was one of violent redemption. He rejected the idea of the flight to the desert to freedom. Rather, he thought the slaveowners should pay with their lives.

This was a quite syncretic religion. With the legal importation of Africans only ended fourteen years earlier, and with a small amount of illegal importation bringing additional Africans to the U.S., there was a lot of African-born people involved in Vesey’s group. One was a priest named Gullah Jack. Born in modern-day Angola, after the 1818 church closing he brought a mystic side to Vesey’s freedom movement and did most of the recruiting for the church and planned rebellion.

There has been some debate over whether this plot was real. It probably was a plan at least. The story goes that Vesey planned a widespread revolt to begin on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822. They would rise up, execute the slave owners, seize the city arsenal, briefly take the city of Charleston, then all get on boats and flee to Haiti to escape punishment. Not surprisingly, two slaves leaked the plans to their owners. On June 22, Vesey was arrested. A total of 130 additional African-Americans were arrested. 67 were convicted and 35 hanged, including Vesey on July 2, 1822. Vesey and his followers were tortured to get all the names of everyone involved, but supposedly they never gave them up. Most of the rest, including Vesey’s son, were sold to the death trap plantations of the Caribbean.

In the aftermath of the executions, South Carolina became even more harsh in dealing with its slave labor force. The first thing the city of Charleston did was burn the AME church. The Vesey plot tapped into a long-running fear of freed slaves and led to new laws against owners freeing their slaves. Free people of color faced new restrictions from traveling unless a white person would vouch for their character. Another law mandated the imprisonment of black sailors on ships docked in Charleston. Given the high number of black sailors in northern ports this was a real issue and in fact the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, a point used by the growing Southern nationalism of the South Carolina fireeaters. The state destroyed the AME church building. South Carolina also built what became The Citadel in order to prepare for future slave rebellions.

Vesey became a hero for the free black population of the North on how to stand up and fight against oppression. Among the people who saw Vesey as a model or inspiration were Frederick Douglass, David Walker, and John Brown, who would indeed make slaveowners pay for their sins with blood.

If you are interested in primary sources around this issue, Lois Walker and Susan Silverman put together a primary source reader entitled A Documentary History of Gullah Jack Pritchard and the Denmark Vesey Slave Insurrection of 1822, published in 2000. The book attempts to center the revolt more around Gullah Jack and less around Vesey, which may well be accurate but the existing documentation is so sparse that, once again, it’s really hard to know.

This is the 67th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.