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Liberation Theology and the KGB

[ 11 ] May 6, 2015 |


I’m sure the KGB would like to take credit for liberation theology, planning the world’s rebellions against capitalist exploitation from the Kremlin, but no one should take the claim of an ex-KGB agent on this issue seriously at all. Liberation theology is a complex movement that had many roots, including the deep injustices faced by the workers and peasants of Latin America who were revolting against imperialist oppression before the KGB was a gleam in Stalin’s eye. I’m sure the KGB supported liberation theology but to claim it created it even more spurious that the American side of the Cold War saying Reagan defeated communism.


Book Review: Jason Scott Smith, A Concise History of the New Deal

[ 11 ] May 6, 2015 |


Cheyenne women with mattresses they made, Federal Emergency Relief Administration project, 1940

I was a bit skeptical about reviewing Jason Scott Smith’s new overview of the New Deal because it is part of a series edited by Donald Critchlow, noted paid hack of the Koch Brothers and man who has claimed that any history that discusses race is “revisionist” and bad because it takes away talking about how awesome America is. But the book is published by Cambridge University Press and those standards apply regardless of editor, which is good because Smith has written a solid overview useful for most readers.

The most important thing about this book is how Smith positions himself within the mythology around the New Deal. For a long time, people criticized the New Deal from the left, asking why it was so tame and moderate in a time of leftism. “Did FDR undermine the potential for workers to take over the state through his corporatist policies” might be a leftist view of the New Deal. But those days are long gone in the national discourse. Rather, Smith sees his book as responding to the conservative attacks on the New Deal that perhaps dominate narratives of the period today. He attempts, convincingly of course since the original claim is absurd, to repudiate those who claim that New Deal were “radicals who were deeply opposed to capitalism or the vitality of the market economy.” Rather, they were “reformers who were deeply interested in fixing the problems of capitalism” (2). To me this thesis is so obvious as to be self-evident. But for a book written primarily for the classroom rather than scholars, that thesis is not so obvious. Certainly I run into students who know nothing about the New Deal except that FDR was an awful socialist who got in the way of American corporations running the economy in the natural laissez-faire ways they believe in like a religion. Since there’s a whole right-wing machine pushing this propaganda out, it’s probably more important to correct myths about the New Deal being a crazy leftist program rather than that it undermined real leftists, as it might have the argument 40 years ago.

Sad times, but there we are.

As for the heart of the book, largely it’s a fairly standard overview of the period that is useful for the general reader, while also providing a valuable addition to the surveys of the New Deal for scholars. Smith compares the Great Depression to Hurricane Katrina in that both are perfect storms of a series of factors leading to a true disaster: in the case of the Depression, “a combination of horrifically bad timing, the outcome of dimly understood economic changes and partially perceived structural changes, and the product of poor decision-making by American elites in government and business.” (15) Herbert Hoover has good intentions, but his voluntarist ideas during the Depression are “a dead and rotting ideology.” (24) Yet the early New Deal built on many of Hoover’s programs and attempted to shore up capitalism without creating enormous structural changes in society that FDR was uncomfortable with until 1935. It wouldn’t be until after the 1934 elections that using government to fundamentally reshape society would become a key part of the New Deal, a move created not only by the Democrats’ overwhelming victories in those elections but the strikes of earlier that year and the failure of the National Recovery Administration to right the lurching ship of American capitalism because it concentrated power too much in the largest firms and did nothing concrete for workers.

Smith strongly urges readers to see the New Deal as much as a political campaign as an economic program. The personal appeal of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were “a foundational component of the New Deal electoral coalition.” (66) Roosevelt and his advisers openly sought to use New Deal patronage to build the Democratic Party. WPA projects were intended to promote Roosevelt’s preferred politicians, both in primaries and general elections. Western states particularly benefited from public works projects because they were swing states as opposed to the old post-Reconstruction electoral map that still held through the early 20th century in much of the country. While court-packing was a major reason for the conservative reversal of the New Deal after 1938, as was the leftward tilt of the New Deal after 1935 that scared the South, the clear relationship between politics and public works projects also went far to alienate many, especially those not favored by Roosevelt.

The book is almost entirely political in nature, which is OK except that the “society and culture” chapter becomes something of a catch all for everything from the CIO and John Steinbeck to how liberals marginalized non-whites from the period’s populist cultural forms and the forced repatriation of Mexicans, including American citizens of Mexican descent. Such a chapter is a natural result of a book focused on politics and government, but one ideally wishes he had integrated these topics into other chapters rather than the standalone chapters that never quite mesh with the rest of a book.

Ultimately, the New Deal not only saved American capitalism but also shaped the postwar world in ways that include the creation of the middle class, the rise of the Sunbelt, and the creation of the nuclear state. It also helped build up the military before World War II, as both FDR and George Marshall saw the need for preparedness and viewed WPA projects as a way to build that infrastructure. Marshall routinely lauded the WPA in the press, giving it room to grow in a period of backlash to the overall New Deal. Smith closes the book by reiterating his major point–unlike what conservatives claim, government can and does create jobs, stimulate the economy, and improve the lives of everyday Americans. It’s sad we have to rescue these obvious points from right-wing mythology in 2015.

Finally, in an important bit of trivia to my life, Philadelphia was granted a new professional football franchise in 1933 after its previous team had gone bankrupt. It was named the Philadelphia Eagles after the blue eagle of the NRA because the New Deal was so popular. I did not know this.

Tex Logan, RIP

[ 3 ] May 5, 2015 |

I had no idea that Tex Logan, noted fiddler for Bill Monroe, was also an engineer who worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Dead at 87.

Frack, Frack Away!

[ 12 ] May 5, 2015 |


I’m sure that plunging ahead with fracking will have no unintended consequences or deleterious effects on the environment. Going forward with the procedure without proper testing, oversight, or regulation is a brilliant idea.

A study released Monday on a rural Pennsylvania county’s drinking water found traces of toxic fluids used in the controversial oil and gas drilling technique, fracking. The study, published in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles head on the fear that fracking could contaminate the water supply. “‘This is the first documented and published demonstration of toxic compounds escaping from uncased boreholes in shale gas wells and moving long distances’ into drinking water,” Susan Brantley, one of the study’s authors, told the Associated Press.

The researchers collected drinking water samples in 2012 that contained traces of a chemical commonly used in fracking, as well as in paint, cosmetics, and cleaners. “The industry has long maintained that because fracking occurs thousands of feet below drinking-water aquifers, the drilling chemicals that are injected to break up rocks and release the gas trapped there pose no risk,” according to the New York Times. “In this study, the researchers note that the contamination may have stemmed from a lack of integrity in the drill wells and not from the actual fracking process far below.”

Of course, defenders of fracking will cling to the uncertainty expressed by the researchers as to precisely how these chemicals got in the water supply. On one level, that’s fine because the question clearly calls for additional research. That’s what scientific research does. But on the other hand, the very people who might say that are also those absolutely don’t want to see any restrictions on fracking no matter what scientific research says, such as the overwhelming evidence that fracking causes earthquakes. Scientific research should not be a one-way street, but in a nation that both fetishizes technology and capitalists and in a nation that needs jobs and has not put nearly enough resources into non-fossil fuel energy, it’s hardly surprising.

Reconsidering The Wire

[ 206 ] May 5, 2015 |

Freddie Gray Protest in Baltimore

Dave Zirin has an excellent essay about reconsidering The Wire in the wake of the police murdering Freddie Gray. And he’s right–one thing missing from the show is how the police are actively part of the oppression of the poor and African-Americans in Baltimore and a second thing missing from the show are community activists and people standing up to make their own lives better. Doesn’t mean it’s not a great show, but it really is far from a complete view of the problems that have create modern Baltimore.

Workers Unite Film Festival

[ 6 ] May 5, 2015 |


With Out of Sight’s official release on June 2, I’ll be doing some publicity events here and there, which I will announce here. The first is next Monday, May 11, when I will be speaking at the Workers Unite! Film Festival in New York. It will be a Q&A after a couple of films on the global production system.

The whole WUFF schedule looks great as well.

We Shall Overcome

[ 4 ] May 4, 2015 |

On the death of Guy Carawan, I’ve been poking around various folk music sites and the like today and I thought this video of Pete Seeger explaining the development of We Shall Overcome was really interesting and I think a lot of you would find it worthy.

Texas Sex-Ed

[ 98 ] May 4, 2015 |


Abstinence only sexual education works great.

A small Texas high school has notified parents that it was dealing with a chlamydia outbreak.

Officials from the Crane Independent School District confirmed to KWES that the state health department was sending a letter to Crane High School parents informing that at least 20 cases had been reported. The school has an enrollment of about 300 students.

While chlamydia can be cured, it can cause permanent damage to the reproductive system if left untreated.

According to the Crane Independent School District Student Handbook for 2014-2015, the district “does not offer a curriculum in human sexuality.” In 2012, the district’s School Health Advisory Committee had recommended Scott & White’s “Worth the Wait” Abstinence Plus curriculum if a sexual education policy was adopted.

In fact, Texas state law requires any sex-ed course to devote more attention to abstinence than any other behavior. And students must be taught that abstinence until marriage is the best way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

No doubt all those young sluts are to blame, infecting those good clean boys just looking to blow off some steam.

Hog Drives

[ 36 ] May 4, 2015 |


I confess I knew nothing about 19th century hog drives, which were like cattle drives except with much more independent minded animals and generally took place in Appalachia and not the Great Plains. Pork was the staple meat of the nation before the rise of packaged beef in refrigerated rail cars. So I guess such events are not surprising. Anyway, this is your historical read of the day.

Guy Carawan, RIP

[ 15 ] May 4, 2015 |


Guy Carawan, the folk singer who taught the civil rights movement “We Shall Overcome” has died at the age of 87. Carawan is a super interesting guy, someone who came out of California at the very beginning of the folk movement and ended up at the Highlander Research and Education Center in east Tennessee, famous for its role in left-wing southern organizing in the 20th century. Everyone thinks Rosa Parks was this woman who just decided not to move to the back of the bus one day, but she in fact had already trained at Highlander on civil rights issues. Martin Luther King was there too and the fact that a member of the Communist Party was there at the same time fed the whole King=communist equation of white supremacists of the time.

Anyway, here’s a good story from a couple of years ago about Carawan’s role in “We Shall Overcome” becoming the anthem of the civil rights movement. There were many architects of this, as one would expect, but there’s a good chance the song does not catch on without Carawan.

In Southern California in the early 1950s, the song reached Guy Carawan. He was finishing graduate work in sociology at UCLA and doing some singing himself. He also learned about the Highlander Center in Tennessee, and that’s where he ended up. Candi Carawan and her husband have been teaching together at Highlander for many years now. They met as the center’s focus was shifting to civil rights, and “We Shall Overcome” was about to become an inspiring force.

“I first heard this song from a friend of mine, Frank Hamilton. He taught me this song, and he also had put some chords to it [on guitar],” Guy Carawan says. “When I came to Highlander in 1959, Zilphia Horton had died, and I had some singing and musical skills and they needed somebody there. So by the time I came to Highlander, I was playing it with the guitar like that.”

Candi Carawan, too, remembers the first time she heard the song. A California transplant like Guy, she’d gotten involved with sit-ins in Nashville in 1960 and visited Highlander for a weekend event for students from various cities who’d been carrying on similar demonstrations.

“Guy was there trying to find out what songs we were using as part of our demonstrations — and mostly we didn’t have a lot of songs,” Candi says. “He taught us a number of songs that weekend, and one of them was ‘We Shall Overcome.’ And I can remember this electrifying feeling when we heard it, that that song just said exactly what we were doing and what we were feeling.”

In the weeks that followed, Guy Carawan met other student leaders who were convening their own gatherings.

“And then at a certain point,” he says, “the young singers, who knew a lot of a cappella styles, they said, ‘Lay that guitar down, boy. We can do the song better.’ And they put that sort of triplet [rhythm] to it and sang it a cappella with all those harmonies. [It became] a style that some very powerful young singers got behind and spread.”

Organized in Albany, Ga., by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, The Freedom Singers were Cordell Reagon, Charles Neblett, Rutha Harris and Bernice Johnson-Reagon (then just Bernice Johnson — she was later married to Cordell Reagon for several years).

Johnson-Reagon was a preacher’s daughter and knew the song as “I Will Overcome.” She recalls the change to “We Shall Overcome” as a concession that helped bring whites and blacks closer in the civil rights struggle.

“The left, dominated by whites, believed that in order to express the group, you should say ‘we,’ ” explains Johnson-Reagon. “In the black community, if you want to express the group, you have to say ‘I,’ because if you say ‘we,’ I have no idea who’s gonna be there. Have you ever been in a meeting, people say, ‘We’re gonna bring some food tomorrow to feed the people.’ And you sit there on the bench and say, ‘Hmm. I have no idea.’ It is when I say, ‘I’m gonna bring cake,’ and somebody else says, ‘I’ll bring chicken,’ that you actually know you’re gonna get a dinner. So there are many black traditional collective-expression songs where it’s ‘I,’ because in order for you to get a group, you have to have I’s.”

Johnson-Reagon says she was still singing “I Will Overcome” when the civil rights organizers came to Albany. It was Cordell Reagon who persuaded her to make the switch to “we” — a lesson, she says, he’d picked up from Highlander.

“And, you know, we’d been singing the song all our lives, and here’s this guy who just learned the song and he’s telling us how to sing it,” Johnson-Reagon says. “And you know what I said to myself? ‘If you need it, you got it.’ What that statement does for me is document the presence of black and white people in this country, fighting against injustice. And you have black people accepting that need because they were also accepting that support and that help.”

I once met Carawan at Highlander. This is when I was organizing in east Tennessee, maybe 1999 or 2000. It was a really eye-opening experience and not necessarily for good reasons. I can’t quite remember precisely why I was up there but there were a lot of other young activists I knew, as well as a few older people. Already knowing a lot of that history, it was incredibly inspiring just to be in that place and around those people. The Carawans played a set of music for us. It was great, hearing them play those old songs. But for them, music was about the shared aspect of singing, with power coming from the multitude of voices. They were leading the singing, but it wasn’t supposed to be a concert. Yet nearly all the young people, myself included, were really very much not into the shared singing. Some people were really rather annoyed by the whole thing. That irritated me–after all Guy and Candie Carawan had done a hell of a lot more than they had to change the world using those very methods. But it’s not like I was singing either! After all, I am as much a product of the ironic pose as anyone else (plus I had grown up mumbling words in the Lutheran church to songs no one wanted to sing). And that really bothered me. The power of collective song can be very real. But is that even possible today? Even if new generations got over the irony (and I don’t know maybe they kind of are. After all, Arcade Fire is a band that basically got over on the basis of unrestrained sincerity. And I like that band so I don’t say that with any negative connotations, what would the basis for that shared music be? What style? Who would it reach out too in this era of a million demographics?

Anyway, Guy Carawan isn’t well known today but was a really important player in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. He later released a bunch of albums, a couple of which I own on vinyl, including one when he went to China during the Cultural Revolution that includes a bunch of songs played on the hammered dulcimer. It’s pretty good. Sounds a good bit like this performance from 1982, where you see Carawan wasn’t just some political folksinger, but a pretty compelling performer.

Tippi Hedren and the Vietnamese Nail Salons

[ 59 ] May 3, 2015 |


I tend to believe that events have their roots in structural causes rather than the actions of a single individual. And I confess to not thinking too much about nail salons. But who knows, maybe the actions of Tippi Hedren in having Vietnamese refugees trained to do nails is why the Vietnamese play such a large role in this industry today.

I will also use this space to say that The Birds, starring Hedren, is my least favorite major Hitchcock film.

Twelve Dollar Minimum Wage

[ 14 ] May 3, 2015 |

Can the nation afford a $12 minimum wage in 2020? The answer is obviously yes on the face of it. But the always useful Economic Policy Institute released a report showing that the answer is in fact yes.

A federal minimum wage of $12.00 in 2020 would return the wage floor to about the same position in the overall wage distribution that it had in 1968.

In 1968, the minimum wage stood at 52.1 percent of the median wage.5 By 2014, this ratio had fallen to 37.1 percent.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $12.00 by 2020, under the conservative assumption of no real wage growth at the median, would leave the ratio at 54.1 percent, just above where it was in 1968.

If we assume just 0.5 percent annual real wage growth for the median worker between now and 2020, the ratio would fall to 49.9 percent.

A broadly similar story emerges when using the average hourly earnings of nonsupervisory production workers, instead of the median wage, as a benchmark.

The federal minimum wage was equal to 53.0 percent of the average production worker wage in 1968. By 2014, this ratio had fallen to 35.2 percent.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $12.00 by 2020 would restore the ratio to 51.4 percent (under the conservative assumption of no real wage growth for production workers), just below its 1968 value.

The strong rise in average worker productivity and the increase in the age and educational attainment of low-wage workers in the last five decades suggest that the 1968 benchmark may understate the economy’s capacity to support a higher national wage floor in 2020.

The compression of median wages across the U.S. states over the last five decades, especially the catching up of lower-wage states, means that the federal minimum wage has less impact on low-wage states today than was the case in 1968.

What I want to know is whether we can have a $20 minimum wage by 2020.

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