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Organics from the Air

[ 123 ] December 12, 2014 |


What can we tell about organic farms from the air? These aerial photos are intended to show the problems with large organic animal farms. They convey an image of industrial farming that the organic movement was intended to reject. A couple of key points missing here:

1. I’m far from the first person to note the problems with the term “organic,” as defined by the government. Those who care about this issue far more than I have long noted how it was co-opted by industrial farms. However, one can also legitimately question if it is possible to have organic farming on an industrial scale that will feed the people who want to eat this way without some industrial farming methods. If everyone wants organic milk, can farmers provide that without the mega-farms the movement does not want? With eggs at least one can see how raising your own chickens is possible for many, but for other products, it really isn’t.

2. It’s quite clear that there’s a strong correlation between the organic and local food movements and a romanticization of a certain type of work and certain type of relationship to the land. It’s not just that when people think organic, they think of a little local farm with chickens running around happy. It’s that they can’t imagine anything other than that because that, I think, more than the quality of the food or the happiness of the animals, is really what a lot of consumers want here. So any reality of large-scale farming is going to upset them.

3. The fact that such a survey had to be done in the air does get at major problems in our production system, not only in food but in apparel and everything else. It is out of sight. Everyday citizens can’t really go into these places. The regulatory system is captured by industry and vastly underfunded. The reality is that people want to know what is happening on farms. They want to know what is being put in their bodies. And they largely can’t. That’s why food is such a powerful way to indict the entire production system. Maybe people can’t see how their clothes are made in Bangladesh. That’s just too hard to imagine. But they do know food is being produced all around them and food is such a personal thing because it affects the inside of your body and not just your fashion. Thus, if demands around a meaningful inspection and regulatory system are going to succeed, food is probably where it happens. And it indeed needs to happen in food, as I write in my book.

4. I would also like to note that there is real room for alliance here between the labor and food movements if the food movement cares about workers. That’s one thing this article lacks. If we can’t tell what is happening to the animals, we can’t tell what is happening to the workers. When animals are abused, often so are workers. So if we can’t tell whether a farm is really organic, we also can’t tell whether it is treating its workers with dignity. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that organic farms treat workers better than conventional farms. Food justice cannot exist without justice for workers as well.


Deep Thoughts

[ 41 ] December 12, 2014 |

What happens to the Corleone family if Sonny lives?

More Dangerous than Dynamite

[ 40 ] December 11, 2014 |

Everything in your home will kill you. But especially if you use gasoline to clean your clothes. That might not be a good idea.

Free Higher Education: A Conservative’s Nightmare

[ 125 ] December 11, 2014 |

I get that conservatives hate the idea of free higher education for all. What an unspeakable horror, that the poor would have equal access as the rich. What I think I need explaining on is the claim that free education would lead to higher tuition. Since, you know, there would be no tuition if education was free.

Lumbersexuality and a Crisis of Masculinity?

[ 168 ] December 11, 2014 |

Willa Brown published a piece in the Atlantic yesterday on “lumbersexuality” and a crisis of masculinity. By lumbersexuality, Brown means the logger fetish a certain subset of bearded hipster men have for the fashion and work life of an imagined, romanticized logger. Brown compares this desire for an authentic and highly gendered work experience to the famed crisis of masculinity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led men like Theodore Roosevelt to embrace war, boxing, football, the Boy Scouts, hunting, and other manly pursuits that changed the nation in pretty dramatic ways due to those men’s ability to enact their desires in law and popular culture.

Both then and now, the men who sought these identities were searching for something authentic, something true. But that “authenticity” often came at the exclusion of real working men and a romanticization of “real” work. A bearded man on OkCupid once told me, upon learning what I study, that he’d always envied lumberjacks because they were so connected to their labor. It must be so immensely satisfying, he wrote, to take carbon and turn it into something of real use. I considered replying with one of my favorite lines from an old lumberjack ballad: “Every bone in his body was broken / And his flesh hung in tatters and strings.” Job satisfaction and the authentic nature of his occupation were not the primary preoccupations of a working lumberjack. Even that fawning Atlantic journalist eventually concluded that he “would rather see one than be one.”

Style is style. Beards and plaid may well just look good, and I hardly think that the man wearing both while coding on a MacBook Air in a coffee shop is really attempting to sell anyone on the idea that he’s an authentic ‘jack. But what middle-class urbanites are playing at is not the “true” workingman of the woods. The caulked boots and bold red sash around a lumberjack’s waist were symbols of reckless daring in a world with few opportunities, except those that often risked death. The symbols these men are taking on—the plaid, the woodworking, even the beards—are perhaps closer to Coolidge in his chaps. They’re impractical, spangled gestures at a reality they’ll never have to know.

I don’t know. Is a bunch of bearded hipsters dressing like loggers really a crisis of masculinity? Are these guys really worried about a suppressed manhood that needs to come out? I’m skeptical. I agree with Brown that this is a middle-class romanticizing of working-class culture but I don’t think it’s that comparable to the Progressive Era. I think it’s really more about a broader desire for individualized authenticity among a larger group of people under the age of 35 or so that revolves around working with your hands, semi-opting out of the traditional work norms, and seeing the products of your work. It seems to me that this phenomenon is more closely related with women and the knitting craze and having backyard chickens than TR-style masculinity assertion. After all, do you feel like young hipster men today are really worried about what it means to be a man? Is that a big part of their conversation? I don’t see it in the public realm.

If Americans are looking to hard work as a masculine preoccupation they wish to watch or emulate, I think it is far more concentrated in working and middle-class Americans watching shows like Ice Truckers, Deadliest Catch, and Swamp Loggers. Here are “authentic” working-class people doing the sort of jobs in nature that have long defined a significant portion of working-class labor in the United States. In these shows, nature itself isn’t romanticized nor a middle-class longing for authenticity so much as a desire to be able to make a living through hard work in a society with a shortage of good paying jobs for working people and a semi-official disdain for blue-collar labor. Watching Swamp Loggers and wishing one might be a swamp logger perhaps therefore becomes as much about sticking it to the snobs who are looking down on my life as a semi-employed electrician or plumber as it is about any desires about the work itself. Maybe.

Moreover, it seems to me that the crisis of masculinity, something historians claim for basically every period in American history, is getting really played out as a way to structure the past or the present. Such a claim is strongest in the Progressive Era because Roosevelt and others were talking about it so openly. But even here, this is about upper-class masculinity. That may well conflict with working-class masculinity but the latter is never in crisis within the public discourse and usually not within the historical conversation either. I’m not sure we can call the hipster class privileged in the same way that we could about elites in the past, but certainly these are largely highly educated people articulating very specific desires here in ways that perhaps working class people don’t have the cultural capital to do. But like with our lumbersexuals, I’m not sure that a lot of what historians talk about as a crisis of masculinity, outside of those Progressive Era upper class men, really is one. Here I think it’s a very different phenomena and I think that’s largely true in the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit era as well (James Dean’s father wearing an apron in Rebel Without a Cause notwithstanding)

Still, if people really do want to be lumbersexuals, might I suggest something about the impact of sex and logging life among early twentieth-century loggers? A crisis of masculinity or not, this is all about having an authentic experience, defined of course by the person having the experience. Now as we know, I have been declared an expert on loggers’ sexuality by some of America’s finest intellectuals, such as Robert Stacy McCain. So let me share a story. This is the first paragraph of Chapter 1 from my logging manuscript:

In 1917, a new logger came into an Oregon timber camp. His new boss assigned him to a typical bunkhouse, crowded with eighty other worker in bunks. Those eighty men shared one sink and one towel. Unfortunately for his bunkmates, this new worker had untreated gonorrhea. He used the towel to wipe his infected body. In the wet mountains the towel never dried and the gonorrhea culture stayed alive. Not knowing of their new coworker’s disease, the men continued to use the towel. Soon, an outbreak of gonorrhea set in the workers’ eyes.

This was reported by a Red Cross doctor investigating conditions in the timber camps that led to so many loggers becoming Wobblies and going on strike. The combination of loggers purchasing the services of prostitutes because they were too mobile to marry and unsanitary conditions led to this horrifying and disgusting outbreak of eye clap. So if lumbersexuals really want an authentic experience of early 20th century logging, I have lots of suggestions on how to do so.

Today in America’s Internal Colony

[ 68 ] December 11, 2014 |

Taxation without Representation:

The developments capped a roller-coaster 24 hours in the worst possible way for advocates of the District’s marijuana measure.

Late Monday, congressional aides had floated the possibility that the spending deal would include a provision sought by conservative House Republicans to block the voter-approved measure.

By midday Tuesday, it appeared negotiators had found middle ground to legalize possession of marijuana but to allow no further action by D.C. officials to create a regulatry system for legal sales and taxation of the plant.

But many warned that the partial constraints might prove to be a worse outcome, potentially leading to chaos for lawmakers and police officers trying to rewrite and enforce city drug laws.

For conservatives, it’s always about keeping big government out of the lives of everyday people and allowing them to set their own decisions. Right? That’s what they say anyway and surely we should believe them.

The Nicest Man in Texas

[ 92 ] December 11, 2014 |

Rick Perry is a very nice man:

Despite a significant rise in income inequality in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) is arguing that it’s not something the state ought to be worried about.

“We don’t grapple with that here,” Perry told The Washington Post in a recent interview, while acknowledging that the state’s richest residents have seen the greatest spike in earnings.

“Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion,” he added, an apparent reference to Mark 14:7. While Perry takes the message from the Bible to mean poverty is hopeless and therefore not worth grappling with, Jesus Christ was actually delivering a different lesson: “For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good,” the Son of God advises in the King James version of the Bible.

Yet the Biblical shoulder-shrugging is consistent with what Perry said while briefly running for president in 2011, when he proposed a tax plan that would have helped wealthy Americans while potentially raising the taxes of lower- and middle-income people.

“I don’t care about that,” Perry said when asked by The New York Times about the effect on income inequality. “If that’s what comes, I’ll take that criticism.”

Have to give him credit though. This should raise his standing in the 2016 Republican primary.


[ 23 ] December 10, 2014 |

Worth remembering who influenced Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, the CIA, and all the other architects of American torture:

The United States knows quite a bit about waterboarding. The U.S. government — whether acting alone before domestic courts, commissions and courts-martial or as part of the world community — has not only condemned the use of water torture but has severely punished those who applied it.

After World War II, we convicted several Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American and Allied prisoners of war. At the trial of his captors, then-Lt. Chase J. Nielsen, one of the 1942 Army Air Forces officers who flew in the Doolittle Raid and was captured by the Japanese, testified: “I was given several types of torture. . . . I was given what they call the water cure.” He was asked what he felt when the Japanese soldiers poured the water. “Well, I felt more or less like I was drowning,” he replied, “just gasping between life and death.”

Nielsen’s experience was not unique. Nor was the prosecution of his captors. After Japan surrendered, the United States organized and participated in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, generally called the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. Leading members of Japan’s military and government elite were charged, among their many other crimes, with torturing Allied military personnel and civilians. The principal proof upon which their torture convictions were based was conduct that we would now call waterboarding.

In this case from the tribunal’s records, the victim was a prisoner in the Japanese-occupied Dutch East Indies:

A towel was fixed under the chin and down over the face. Then many buckets of water were poured into the towel so that the water gradually reached the mouth and rising further eventually also the nostrils, which resulted in his becoming unconscious and collapsing like a person drowned. This procedure was sometimes repeated 5-6 times in succession.

The United States (like Britain, Australia and other Allies) pursued lower-ranking Japanese war criminals in trials before their own tribunals. As a general rule, the testimony was similar to Nielsen’s. Consider this account from a Filipino waterboarding victim:

Q: Was it painful?

A: Not so painful, but one becomes unconscious. Like drowning in the water.

Q: Like you were drowning?

A: Drowning — you could hardly breathe.

Here’s the testimony of two Americans imprisoned by the Japanese:

They would lash me to a stretcher then prop me up against a table with my head down. They would then pour about two gallons of water from a pitcher into my nose and mouth until I lost consciousness.

And from the second prisoner: They laid me out on a stretcher and strapped me on. The stretcher was then stood on end with my head almost touching the floor and my feet in the air. . . . They then began pouring water over my face and at times it was almost impossible for me to breathe without sucking in water.

As a result of such accounts, a number of Japanese prison-camp officers and guards were convicted of torture that clearly violated the laws of war. They were not the only defendants convicted in such cases. As far back as the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War, U.S. soldiers were court-martialed for using the “water cure” to question Filipino guerrillas.

The Bush Administration’s respect for human rights during times of war: worse than during the conquest of the Philippines.

But America is awesome, so whatever.

The Opium Power

[ 37 ] December 10, 2014 |


The aftermath of the Civil War brought on America’s first drug epidemic. The massive amount of pain caused by the war, both spiritually and physically, led to a wave of opium usage. Dealing with dead loved ones, the pain of being shot, PTSD issues, missing limbs–all of this created the need to numb that pain. While morphine and other opium derivatives certainly did the job, they also caused a lot of problems and it didn’t take long for commenters to note that this was an enemy that needed to be fought. That this coincided with the rising temperance movement certainly didn’t dissuade this campaign. It also shaped it in odd ways. On January 6, 1878, the New York Times published an article titled “The Opium Habit’s Power.” Most of it consisted of the usual opium is bad stuff. But then the author compared it to alcohol. And in that section of the article, it sounds almost like an endorsement of opium:

Far from disordering the mental faculties as wine and spiritous liquors do, opium, in its immediate effect, strengthens the mind, composes what has been agitated, and communicates calm and serenity to all the faculties. Alcohol robs a man of his self-possession, deprives him for the time being of his intellect; opium, on the contrary, controls the passions, and imparts additional vigor to his thoughts. Liquor generally arouses the animal, the brutal part of man’s nature, but opium subdues this completely and in its place awakens the diviner part and brings into full activity all the nobler emotions of the human heart. The writer knows of a case where an habituate was constantly under the influence of opium, at times taking potential doses, yet on no occasion could anyone detect this fact either in his manner or his conversation, and whatever may have been his trials, sufferings, and anguish, he was always able to perform his professional duties, without giving the slightest evidence of his infirmity.

So, like, where do I get some of that? This piece reminds me of the gentlemen’s guides created during this era that told everyone where the brothels were by supposedly warning men not to go this particular building which has these particular bad ladies. Given that it is the Times, it probably isn’t actually endorsing opium, but it sure takes a rather odd way of doing that.

“The Occasionally Repulsive Gift That Keeps on Giving”

[ 60 ] December 10, 2014 |

The above quote is how Michael Powell describes the NFL in this Times article on the horrible treatment of the Buffalo Bills’ cheerleaders, a problem experienced by these workers through the NFL.

Supervisors ordered the cheerleaders, known as the Buffalo Jills, to warm up in a frigid, grubby stadium storeroom that smelled of gasoline. They demanded that cheerleaders pay $650 for uniforms. They told the cheerleaders to do jumping jacks to see if flesh jiggled.

The Jills were required to attend a golf tournament for sponsors. The high rollers paid cash — “Flips for Tips” — to watch bikini-clad cheerleaders do back flips. Afterward, the men placed bids on which women would ride around in their golf carts.

A not-incidental detail: The carts had no extra seats. Women clung to the back or, much more to the point, were invited to sit in the men’s laps.

For these and more humiliations, and for hundreds of hours of work and practices, Alyssa and her fellow cheerleaders on the Buffalo Jills received not a penny of wages, not from the subcontractor and certainly not from the Buffalo Bills, a team that each year makes revenue in excess of $200 million.

I’m sure if more cities would fund the stadiums of billionaire owners, they’d finally have enough to pay cheerleaders a living wage. Or, you know, any wage. The Bills are only team to pay the cheerleaders nothing, but most pay them horribly.

Y2K Survival Guide

[ 45 ] December 10, 2014 |

If you are like me, you were not worried about Y2K. Because really, what are you going to do? But some were. Evidently, Leonard Nimoy was among them. Only he could lead us to proper preparation for this threat.

Greenhouse on Labor’s Decline

[ 28 ] December 9, 2014 |

The outstanding New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse took the New York Times buyout and is leaving the paper. The chances the Times will replace him with a full-time labor reporter I’d guess are slightly north of 0 so it’s real loss. Greenhouse sat down with Lydia DePillis for a conversation about his career and what has happened to American unions. His discussion of organized labor’s decline is worth noting here.

Q: You started at a pretty interesting time for the labor movement — as it was really headed into decline. Where did unions go wrong? Were there avoidable mistakes?

A: For two decades, maybe three decades, unions fell asleep at the wheel in terms of organizing. Under the late George Meany, and under Lane Kirkland, they were working very hard to represent the workers, but they didn’t work hard to grow and add members. During the 1980s, businesses became much more aggressive in demanding concessions from unions in collective bargaining. That was spurred in part by President Reagan firing the air traffic controllers in 1981 for their illegal strike. And also there was the horrific recession of 1982, and that combined with the real pressures of globalization, in the steel industry, tire industry, oil industry. American companies thought they needed to get much more serious about pulling down costs, fighting foreign competition, and they saw that the way to do that was to get much much tougher in fighting labor unions.

Q: When did unions figure out that something was wrong?

A: In my view, one of the reasons why John Sweeney was elected [as head of the AFL-CIO] in 1995 was that the leaders of other unions realized that labor was doing far too little organizing, that labor was too defensive. He was trying to show more energy to grow and fight back. So in 1995, he had what looked like a very promising plan to reverse labor’s decline. And he got the AFL-CIO to spend far more money on organizing; he worked very hard to ally with immigrants, with young workers, with faith leaders.

If you had a management consultant come up with the 10 things labor needed to do to turn around, I think Sweeney did eight or nine of those things. And even so, labor was really not able to reverse its slide. The main reason for that was continued very strong and sophisticated resistance to unionization drives. And a second factor is that unions were asleep at the wheel in the 1970s and ’80s about spreading their message and making people realize that union members weren’t just a bunch of well-paid workers trying to maintain their privileges and great benefits, didn’t do enough to explain to the public at large the advantages, especially to lower-wage workers.

So when in the late 1990s unions were really trying to rally people, I think a lot of the workforce knew very little about unions, didn’t care about unions, what they heard about unions was always negative, like unions were involved in a strike, closing down rail, there was a fight with teachers unions demanding more wages. Unions allowed themselves to be seen in the negative. If unions were going to turn around, they needed to show more that they were a positive force, that they deliver for workers and society.

In 1995, when John Sweeney led this new voice of labor movement, they saw real promise in turning around and expanding the labor movement. And I think the big difference now with Richard Trumka is they realize, labor’s gotten much weaker, and we really need to ally themselves with other powerful groups in society, with environmental groups, and immigrant groups and progressive community groups. And they realized that labor has been knocked down so many pegs that to really achieve a higher minimum wage or better safety standards, you can’t get that through Congress, it can’t elect the friendly lawmakers it needs unless it works with African American groups, environmental groups, and so on.

Unions still hope to grow by organizing workers, but they’re not having much success. And many rational union leaders could say, ‘I could invest a million dollars to organize 5,000 workers,’ and rationally conclude that ‘the chances of winning are small because if I invest that much, they’ll send consultants and lawyers and besides a lot of workers may not be that interested.’ So I think a lot of unions are saying it’s not worth throwing a lot of money behind organizing right now. But I think unions are worried that their membership is declining, and the have less dues money coming in, so that means they can do less in organizing, less in politics, and so they’re in a sorry cycle downward and they’re trying very hard to figure out how to reverse that.

So the SEIU has been looking for ways to mobilize low-wage workers. And UFCW has been trying very hard to mobilize OUR Walmart workers. There are a lot of unhappy fast-food workers who feel they’re underpaid, and SEIU saw there was a large pool of unhappiness among the nation’s 4 million fast food workers. So it’s spent several million dollars to get this movement rolling, and I think it’s really caught fire now. I think a lot of fast-food workers are eager to get involved and to protest and to push McDonalds, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, to pay them more.

Whether they can achieve $15, fast-food workers paid just below $9, that’s a very big leap. And you would expect the companies and their franchises to fight it very very hard.

Secondly, the SEIU hopes to figure out a way to unionize these workers. And I do not doubt that if an election were held tomorrow, a majority of the 15 workers or the 22 workers at this restaurant or that restaurant would back a union. But it would be very, very, very hard to get a contract. The SEIU would have to spend millions of dollars on lawyers seeking to negotiate a contract, and it’s going to be very hard to get the companies to agree. So the union’s trying to figure out a way to pressure the parent companies to pressure their franchisees into agreeing to unionization somehow. And if the SEIU pulls that off, it would be a huge coup, but that’s a big “if.” And it’s conceivable that a unionized franchisee might close down, just like Walmart closed down its first unionized store in Canada.

Few points to note here. First, I think we really overstate the fault of organized labor in its own decline. Greenhouse is generally correct here–the unions of the 70s and 80s did a poor job of organizing and bringing low-wage workers into the movement, but the real issues are outside internal union politics. The increasingly aggressive tactics of corporations beginning with the Powell Memo and coinciding with the rise of modern conservatism are a potent duo of problems for organized labor. For all the talk about needing to organize workers, there are real questions about whether this is actually a good investment for unions because the fight to get a contract is so weighted toward the employer.

Second, Greenhouse is absolutely right about the necessity of organized labor to ally with other progressive organizations to get its agenda across. The problem of course is when the agenda of the AFL-CIO is not the agenda of individual unions, as we have seen over Keystone, with the Laborers openly bullying other unions. Trumka might see the necessity of working with the Sierra Club. LIUNA president Terry O’Sullivan does not. Since the American labor movement is actually really decentralized, there’s not much Trumka can do.

Third, there are those in the labor movement who will criticize SEIU for anything it does. The fear and even hatred of Big Purple is very strong for some. I don’t want to get into this in much detail here, but SEIU does operate differently than a lot of unions and that leads to a great deal of tension internally in the labor movement. But however one falls on these issues, the union is answering the call to organize more workers. Does this pay off for it in the long run? Hard to say. But criticizing it for organizing workers, as some do because SEIU, is not useful. Moreover, SEIU and UFCW especially deserve credit for working with laborers who may never be union members. But the Walmart workers and the fast food workers have really turned up the heat on the minimum wage and hard lives of American labor in very useful ways.

Does any of this turn around the American labor movement? Hard to believe it will in the current climate, not with a nation happy to tear down the rest of the nation’s unionized workers, a Republican Party working closely with corporate America to destroy unions, and a Democratic Party that primarily sees the movement as useful for GOTV and fundraising efforts but which too rarely pays that back in concrete ways.

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