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Greil Marcus

[ 64 ] March 5, 2015 |

I was going to try and write a proper review of Greil Marcus’ new book The History of Rock N’ Roll in Ten Songs for the blog. But I found myself having not a lot to say about it. Mostly, I thought Marcus’ over the top writing style and tendency to mythologize rock pioneers took over too much here. Imagining what happens if Robert Johnson lives and basically connecting him to every major musical event of the 20th century, going all the way to Obama’s inauguration seems a bit, um, far-fetched, while some of the chapters hardly make sense. There’s a lot of sections where clarity really struggles to be achieved. Plus he really likes The Doors. There were some interesting things here, such as comparing versions of “Money Changes Everything” over time from Cyndi Lauper and Tom Gray. And his discussion of Christian Marclay’s experimentation is quite interesting. But most of the chapters don’t work well.

So I guess that is some sort of review. It’s rare that I don’t like a book about music. But I didn’t like this book. He needs a stronger editor. It’s hard for a big star to deal with editors. But if you consider how Daniel Lanois forced Dylan into actually making a good album for once with Time Out of Mind and how that transformed the great songwriter’s career (once again), sometimes the genius has to suck up the ego and deal with it.

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Historical Images

[ 12 ] March 5, 2015 |

After a long hiatus to finish the two books, I have begun updating my historical image blog again. I just put up a set of images on immigration. I like to collect historical images for teaching, as I always have PowerPoint presentations for my lectures that consist of nothing but an outline, key terms, and historical images. If they are useful to anyone, have at it.

Lock Out the Kids!

[ 29 ] March 4, 2015 |

The refinery giant Tesoro has decided that it can’t allow youth baseball leagues to use the fields it owns next to its Martinez, California refinery. That’s because there are pickets at the plant due to the refinery strike. Oh, and also to protect the kids from the horrors of the outside agitator.

Oil giant Tesoro is locking out 600 youth baseball players from practicing on 15 fields located next to its refinery in Martinez, California. As part of a nationwide work stoppage involving some 7,000 workers, the Martinez workers have been on strike since Feb. 2, with regular pickets from the United Steelworkers and their allies protesting health and safety conditions.

“It’s for the safety of the kids and the parents and spectators that would have to cross picket lines,” Tesoro spokeswoman Patricia Deutsche explained to the local press. “We just don’t have to expose them to any negative interactions.”

In another interview, Deutsche specifically mentioned the threat of outside agitators from groups like Occupy, the California Nurses Association and Communities for a Better Environment, a group that works on environmental justice issues affecting low-income and minority communities.

These groups insist they pose no threat to children.

“This is a PR stunt,” said Nile Malloy, Northern California program director for Communities for a Better Environment. “It’s just really sad — like, really? … Everybody who protests is peaceful. They’re there to demonstrate solidarity with the workers, to protect the health and safety of the community, the climate.”

“Nurses are a threat to kids playing baseball?” said Charles Idelson, spokesman for the CNA. “How disgraceful [for Tesoro] to be blaming anybody else but themselves.”

“There’s just absolutely no way we’d picket a Little League field,” Scott told the Vallejo Times-Herald.

Tesoro spokeswoman Tina Barbee told International Business Times “there have been reports of strike-related incidents deemed to be unsafe at the gates of our refinery and in the areas near the facility’s ballfields.” But when asked for more information about the “strike-related incidents,” Barbee said she did not “have additional details to share.”

That is pretty pathetic. I guess it is an attempt to turn the community against the strike, but that is lame.

The Secret Talks

[ 18 ] March 4, 2015 |

The secrecy revolving around the Trans-Pacific Partnership continues to disturb those who are interested in fair trade. Noting that this agreement isn’t really even about American exports since the world is already basically fully globalized already, Robert Reich and Richard Trumka express their concerns over the TPP’s secrecy.

In the first three decades after World War II, “free trade” meant other countries opening their borders to American-made products, and the U.S. opening its borders to their goods. The United States chose free trade, and it worked. Living standards rose here and abroad. Jobs were created to take the place of jobs that were lost. Worldwide demand for products made by American workers grew and helped push up U.S. wages.

But American corporations have gone global, and in recent decades the payoffs from trade agreements have mainly gone to those at the top. Now they make many of their products overseas and ship them back to the United States. Recent trade agreements have protected their intellectual property abroad — patents, trademarks and copyrights — along with their overseas factories, equipment and financial assets.

But those deals haven’t protected the incomes of most Americans, whose jobs have been outsourced abroad and whose wages have gone nowhere.

As for the problems with the TPP? What’s been leaked about its proposals reveals, for example, that the pharmaceutical industry would get stronger patent protections, delaying cheaper generic versions of drugs.

Also, in Out of Sight, I argue for international trade law that empowers workers to sue employers in the country of corporate origin. I fully expect some to say that is a ridiculous and unworkable idea. But the TPP would guarantee something similar to this, except strictly to benefit corporations:

The deal also gives global corporations an international tribunal of private attorneys, outside any nation’s legal system, that can order compensation for lost expected profits resulting from a nation’s regulations, including our own. These extraordinary rights for corporations put governments on the defensive over legitimate public health or environmental rules.

The TPP would go far to override international law. Now, I doubt the Vietnamese could realistically attack the U.S. for its environmental legislation. After all, these trade deals do not leave all nations on an equal playing field. More likely is that American corporations go after the environmental and labor laws of the poorer nations. Either way, this is a horrible principle that continues what international trade law has done for a half-century–allow corporations to evade regulatory statues and laws that allow people to live a dignified life.

At the very least, shouldn’t Congress have the right to debate this treaty as it moves forward? I believe Obama is, frankly, completely deluded when he thinks the TPP will counter Chinese influence in the Pacific and it certainly isn’t worth risking American environmental and labor law over. There is no reason to give him fast track authority. This needs to be a public process. Right now, the TPP is as opaque as any corporate executive could desire. That is a very bad thing.

Previewing Two Years of Journalistic Excellence in Election Coverage

[ 38 ] March 4, 2015 |

Did Rand Paul clap loudly enough for Netanyahu’s speech? That’s what Jen Rubin wants to know at the beginning of an election cycle that is sure sure to be filled with hard-hitting two years of journalistic excellence. The Republican primaries are sure to be filled with such important points as who can scream loudest at Democrats and who can genuflect enough to Likud. But it’s not like coverage of the Democrats is going to be any better, as the e-mail “scandal,” which no doubt contains Hillary’s admission of personally murdering Vince Foster, shows.

Rising Oceans

[ 48 ] March 1, 2015 |

Welcome to the future:

Sea levels across the Northeast coast of the United States rose nearly 3.9 inches between 2009 and 2010, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Arizona and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The waters near Portland, Maine, saw an even greater rise — 5 inches — over the two-year period.

While scientists have been observing higher sea levels across the globe in recent decades, the study found a much more extreme rise than previous averages. Such an event is “unprecedented” in the history of the tide gauge record, according to the researchers, and represents a 1-in-850 year event.

“Unlike storm surge, this event caused persistent and widespread coastal flooding even without apparent weather processes,” the study’s authors wrote. “In terms of beach erosion, the impact of the 2009-2010 [sea level rise] event is almost as significant as some hurricane events.”

At least we are taking climate change seriously and are ready to do what it takes to save our coastlines…

Memorializing Slavery

[ 109 ] March 1, 2015 |

The fact that a wealthy white man would buy an antebellum Louisiana sugar plantation and turn it into a no punches pulled museum on slavery, the first museum dedicated wholly to slavery in the United States (the U.S. has the Holocaust Museum despite no appropriate museum dealing with its own genocidal projects) is remarkable and an obvious must visit the next time I am in the area.

This Day in Labor History: March 1, 1936

[ 16 ] March 1, 2015 |

On March 1, 1936, Boulder Dam (both prior and later known as Hoover Dam) was turned over to the federal government for operation. Examining the labor of its construction is a useful window into conditions of work during the early years of the Great Depression.

The dream of damming the Colorado River went back to the nineteenth century. Ever since John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the river, Americans had saw the water resources of the Colorado River as potentially fueling the growth of an American empire in the desert southwest. As California rapidly grew in the early 20th century and as Arizona and other western states became first tuberculosis treatment sites and then tourist and residential attractions of their own, the need for water grew. A big dam on the Colorado River could provide electricity and regulated water for agriculture though much of the Southwest. The ideal site was Black Canyon on the Nevada-Arizona border.

The employment needs of the Great Depression brought new interest in building the dam. President Hoover responded poorly to the Depression, but the building of Hoover Dam was a useful public works project, even if it did not put a meaningful dent in the nation’s economic problems. Plus whatever credit you might want to give Hoover for even this, the dam was authorized during the Coolidge administration. The government contracted out for its construction with Six Companies. This single company was a conglomeration of building companies that merged to attract the winning bid. The builders had a concrete reason to get the dam built quickly–they would be charged for every day they were late. This would lead to the exploitation of workers and unsafe working conditions. This started with a 2 1/2 year deadline to divert the river.

The dam was authorized in 1928 and construction started in 1930. Doing something as profound as diverting the Colorado River in a tight canyon would require remarkable engineering and a lot of workers. There were 21,000 total workers on the building of the dam over the years. At its peak, over 5000 were laboring on it. If one job experience ties these workers together, it was the heat. The Lower Colorado River is scorching hot. Black Canyon is one of the hottest areas of the United States. In the summer, temperatures reach 120 degrees. Yet in the winter, it can be bitterly cold. Workers made 50 cents an hour, with more for skilled labor. Workplace dangers were ever-present. Blasting through rock to divert the river kept lives at risk. Carbon monoxide was a huge problem. Electrocution was something workers always had to worry about.

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Building Hoover Dam

Entering into this situation was an IWW organizer named Fred Anderson. By the early 1930s, the IWW was a shell of its former self, having never recovered from the oppression of the World War I, changing ideological, political and cultural conditions, and the infighting that destroyed the remnants of the union over the class war prisoner releases in the 1920s. But in isolated circumstances when workers had no other options, the IWW could cause problems for employers. Anderson didn’t make all that much headway with the workers because they were fearful of IWW radicalism and of losing their jobs. Some of the workers had also previously dealt with IWW actions in Idaho (which is probably the state the Wobblies were most relevant in during these years) and had disliked the confrontational strategies of the union. But the companies were scared of Anderson and he, as well as seven other Wobblies, was jailed in Las Vegas on vagrancy charges, which long were used against any working person challenging labor exploitation.

But Anderson’s work and increasing dissatisfaction on the job did lead to workplace organizing and on August 7, 1931, when Six Companies reassigned some tunnel blasters to lower paying work, workers went on strike not only to get those workers their jobs back, but in protest against the working conditions. They demanded clean and cold water and flush toilets and that Six Companies obey the mining laws of Arizona and Nevada. They also wanted a safety officer placed at each tunnel in order to help save workers’ lives. This was pretty risky given it was 1931 and Las Vegas had thousands of people desperate for jobs in a society where Hoover was not doing anything to employ the masses. The bosses rejected all of these demands outright and an appeal to the Secretary of Labor failed as well. The strike collapsed, achieving nothing immediately. But it did convince Six Companies to start providing better water and toilet facilities and to speed up the construction of worker housing, which had lagged significantly and which had forced workers to live in tents in the scorching desert. Interestingly, in the strike, the workers openly distanced themselves from the IWW or any organized union. A strike committee member told a reporter, “We wish to make it plain that the strike has nothing to do with the IWWs or the United Mine Workers. It is a matter distinctly among the workmen on the project. We’re not Wobblies and don’t want to be classed as such.”

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The 1931 strike

The contract with the government only required the Six Companies hire citizens and no “Mongolians,” i.e., Chinese. The first 1000 workers hired were all white. This led the Colored Citizens Labor and Protective Association of Las Vegas to protest in 1931. Caring only about getting the dam built in time to avoid the financial penalties, Six Companies wanted to do nothing that would make workers angry and impede construction. So it made work at the dam de facto white to create racial solidarity and ensure continued work. Finally, 24 African-Americans were hired to work in the gravel pits on the Arizona side of the river, which was the hottest and hardest labor on the project. But African-Americans could not break into these jobs with any more success than this. They also could not live in worker housing and so had to travel over the bad road to their homes in Las Vegas back and forth each day.

The hardest and most dangerous labor took place in the blasting of the tunnels. Ninety-six workers died total on the job, although sometimes death tolls are listed as high as 112 if those who perished before the dam started construction are included (such as those exploring the canyon doing preliminary work). Of those, 46 died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but they were classified as deaths from pneumonia in order to avoid workers’ compensation claims.

The dam was handed over to the federal government two years ahead of schedule. Six Companies would go on to build dams across the West, including Bonneville and Grand Coulee. To what extent not speeding up work and ensuring safer working condtions would have saved workers’ lives will never be known.

This is the 134th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

“Because I Will Sign a Right to Work Bill, I Could Personally Have Defeated the Nazis”

[ 94 ] February 28, 2015 |

At one time, I was really worried about Scott Walker becoming president. But with each passing day, it’s increasingly clear that this is a person not ready for prime time. Instead, this is Sarah Palin in a tie. Just one of many examples:

In response to a question from an audience member at at the Conservative Political Action conference earlier in the evening, Walker brought up the massive protests in Wisconsin in 2011 over a law he signed stripping public-sector unions of their power to collectively bargain.

“I want a commander-in-chief who will do everything in their power to ensure that the threat from radical Islamic terrorists do not wash up on American soil. We will have someone who leads and ultimately will send a message not only that we will protect American soil but do not take this upon freedom-loving people anywhere else in the world,” Walker said. “We need a leader with that kind of confidence. If I can take on a 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.”

Following the remarks, the National Review’s Jim Geraghty wrote that he took no pleasure in defending the union protesters, but that Walker gave a “terrible response” to the Islamic State question. A spokeswoman for Walker’s political committee later sent Geraghty a statement downplaying the governor’s mention of the protesters.

“Governor Walker believes our fight against ISIS is one of the most important issues our country face,” the statement to Geraghty from Walker spokeswoman Kristen Kukowski said. “He was in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS. What the governor was saying was when faced with adversity he chooses strength and leadership. Those are the qualities we need to fix the leadership void this White House has created.”

In an interview with Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin and John Heilemann after the CPAC speech, Heilemann gave Walker a golden opportunity to deny that he was equating violent extremists with union protesters.

“You’re not actually comparing ISIS terrorists to the protesters in Wisconsin, right?” Heilemann asked him. “You’re not trying to make that comparison in either direction, that the protesters are equivalent to terrorists or that the terrorists are equivalent to protesters?”

“Not by a landmine — by a landslide out there difference, a Grand Canyon-sized difference,” Walker replied. “My point was just if I can handle that kind of pressure, that kind of intensity, I think I’m up for the challenge for whatever might come if i choose to run for President.”

I guess his strategy is to say as many crazy things as possible to win the Republican nomination and then assume the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson will buy him the job with hundreds of millions in negative ads. But there’s way too much he can’t walk back here and thinking about this man facing Hillary Clinton in a debate makes me laugh. Of course, it’s entirely possible his strategy could work.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and International Conceptions of Race in America

[ 2 ] February 28, 2015 |

Interesting essay on the influence of the racial stereotypes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin on German conceptions of American racial issues.

For Jim O’Loughlin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a popular artefact through which changing concerns about race and nationhood can be understood, because it served as an ‘agent of cultural change for almost one hundred years.’[xi] Since this novel and its adaptations became one of the early examples for the mass circulation of popular culture, this is almost as true internationally as it is in the United States. But the process whereby Uncle Tom’s Cabin was brought to international audiences meant its racist stereotypes were not necessarily accompanied by the original novel’s redeeming feature – its antislavery message. The international cultural memory of American history presented Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues to rely on such stereotypes, which are damaging because of their clichéd contemporary familiarity.

A sense of disconnect therefore exists between the historical evaluation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the contemporary willingness to use ‘Uncle Tom’ as a politicised rhetorical device. A historical lens enables readers to at once understand the novel as a flawed product of its time and an important agent of social change. Stowe’s personal commitment to antislavery went hand in hand with the dissemination of racist stereotypes that were nonetheless common in nineteenth-century America, but the contemporary reiteration of such stereotypes in America and abroad is not an innocuous mistake. History is intrinsic to making any meaning of the phrase ‘Uncle Tom’, so those who mobilise it understand its racist legacy. This does not overlook the historical foundations of such epithets, but in fact shows a willingness to mobilise a history of chattel slavery and racial hierarchy for political gain.

As David S. Reynolds writes, ‘We may hope for a time when America is, in President Barack Obama’s phrase, “beyond race,” when we can erase the negative usage of Uncle Tom because it is inapplicable to social reality.’ Yet Obama himself perhaps most prominently continues to experience the legacy of nineteenth-century popular culture in a way that debunks the myth of a post-racial America. The recent Sony hacks, where executives speculated over whether Obama would like films such as Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), the latter based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative of the same name, show how history and popular culture are very much linked to the expression of racism in America.[xii] The Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon, the success of which was intrinsically linked to the expansion of mass culture across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrates the degree to which national prejudices can be naturalised, rather than critiqued, through international circulation. When transported beyond the United States, the racism within American popular culture has subsequently been used to undermine a president beyond American borders. Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains at the locus of the referential network upon which this political rhetoric continues to be built.

De-tenuring

[ 47 ] February 28, 2015 |

A disturbing proposal out of Tennessee. In response to continued decreases in state funding of higher education, the Board of Trustees has announced cost cutting and revenue raising plans that are terrible for both students and faculty but fairly expected. And tacked on is something very weird and upsetting:

Tenure and post-tenure review process: To be conducted by UT System Administration and with involvement by the Faculty Council, to look at awarding of tenure, post-tenure compensation and enacting of a de-tenure process.

A de-tenure process? First, what on earth does that have to do with the funding crisis? The answer is of course nothing but a university shock doctrine, with the Board using financial problems in order to gain power over professors. What would call for the loss of tenure? It’s unstated at this time, but one assumes the answer is anything that a provost or professor doesn’t want professors to say would be one likely category.

More here as the war on faculty continues.

King Art of North Carolina

[ 21 ] February 27, 2015 |

Art Pope’s rule as King of North Carolina continues with the closing of centers on North Carolina campuses that deal with social and ecological issues:

The full UNC Board of Governors met in Charlotte this morning and voted unanimously to close three academic centers.

The centers ordered to close are: the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill; the Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina; and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at NC Central.

Board of Governors leadership denied that politics played a role.

Dozens of students and others attended the Board meeting and protested the decision. Several spoke out during the discussion and were removed from the meeting. Board Chair John Fennebresque eventually had to recess and move the meeting to another room as protestors shouted and chanted outside the door.

Not political?

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors, which consists almost entirely of Republican appointees, opted Friday to disband the think-tank run by Gene Nichol, a law professor and former Democratic congressional candidate from Colorado.

About two-dozen activists demonstrated against closing the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was created to help launch John Edwards’ presidential campaign. Some protesters were told to leave and led out by UNC-Charlotte campus police.

State university leaders moved to a smaller room, allowing in board members, reporters and staffers and leaving protesters to chant outside.

Nichol has acidly criticized the policies advanced by McCrory and Republican lawmakers. In one 2013 opinion essay, he compared McCrory to 1960s-era segregationist Southern governors because of his support for tougher election laws. Subsequent newspaper opinion pieces included the disclaimer that Nichol doesn’t speak for UNC.

Nichols swiftly responded to the decision, saying in an email to The Associated Press that it was an effort to punish him as the center’s director “for publishing articles that displease the Board and its political benefactors.”

Right.

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