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Dead Horses in American History (V)

[ 20 ] February 11, 2014 |

Dead Horse Trail (originally known as White Pass Trail), Alaska, circa 1898.

Food and the Agency of the Poor

[ 452 ] February 11, 2014 |

Rich people concerned about the health of the poor are perplexed:

In inner cities and poor rural areas across the country, public health advocates have been working hard to turn around — neighborhoods where fresh produce is scarce, and greasy fast food abounds. In many cases, they’re converting dingy, cramped corner markets into lighter, brighter venues that offer fresh fruits and vegetables. In some cases, they’re building brand .

“The presumption is, if you build a store, people are going to come,” says , professor in the departments of sociology, anthropology and demography at Penn State University. To check that notion, he and colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine recently residents of one low-income community in Philadelphia before and after the opening of a glistening new supermarket brimming with fresh produce.

What they’re finding, Matthews says, is a bit surprising: “We don’t find any difference at all. … We see no effect of the store on fruit and vegetable consumption.”

What, you mean poor people have agency in the choices they make? You mean they may not want to eat kale? The clear answer is for rich people to tell people what they should put in their bodies even more stridently:

Alex Ortega, a public health researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees that providing access to nutritious food is only the first step.

“The next part of the intervention is to create demand,” he says, “so the community wants to come to the store and buy healthy fruits and vegetables and go home and prepare those foods in a healthy way, without lots of fat, salt or sugar.”

An intervention! Exactly! We rich need to intervene more in the lives of the poor and tell them everything they are doing wrong. I have trouble seeing any down sides to this attitude…

Look, the diets of modern Americans are problematic. I am not saying that this is not something health professionals should be paying attention to. But let’s not obscure the connections between class and food. For the upwardly mobile of this country, local food, organic food, GMO-free food, backyard produced food–often at high prices–these are signs of social status. I can go to the farmers’ market and buy some greens right now if I want to pay a lot to do so. The farmer gets some money and this is good on a number of levels. I indeed want to support this when I can. Also, I get to look cool with my green canvas bag and see some other people of my socioeconomic status. If I was single, I might even strike up a conversation with someone that could lead to a date. Maybe I will see some fashion I want to emulate. If it was summer, all the yuppies would bring their designer dogs to the market to show off to the other rich white people. (This is a real thing at the big Saturday farmers market in Providence. I always see breeds I’ve never seen before. It cracks me up every time).

So while there are health problems related to food in America, let’s also remember that telling poor people what to eat is also just another episode in a history of rich people in this nation telling poor people what to do, a process constantly shifting as social and moral norms among the upper classes change over time. And look, Doritos and Coke are tasty products. People like fat and salt. Throwing a bunch of cauliflower in front of the poor and telling them it is good for them is not going to change their behavior. They want to eat these things because they are yummy. Moreover, desirable body shapes are changing with changing diets and health norms and this is also divided by class. The person who looks hot to someone on the Navajo Reservation or the south side of Atlanta or rural West Virginia may be different than who is hot in San Francisco or Portland or the cover of Runners’ World. But that’s entirely socially constructed as well. Pushing diet is also pushing body type.

And even if life is shorter and diabetes is a major issue, it’s an entirely reasonable and respectable decision for someone to say they’d rather live to be 52 in the comfort of their homes, surrounded by their family and friends and enjoying themselves as part of the culture of their people watching football and eating nachos and pizza than live to 82 and eat celery every day. That’s actually an OK decision for someone to make. Obviously, some of those decisions are being made by parents for their children and setting their children on a nutritional path that might not lead to long life, but unless we are going to call CPS when a child’s BMI gets over the norm, I don’t see any real solutions here.

Let’s also not forget about the very real issue of price. I was at a farmers market last year that took food stamps, which is great. But that doesn’t mean the food is any cheaper. A southeast Asian woman came and bought some peppers. The price came up. You could see her physically blanch in horror. She bought it but I wonder if she ever came back. There might be good reasons for the prices to be high, but if you live in a food desert, you probably have a limited income and those organic tomatoes aren’t any cheaper because of it. Even if you want to eat healthy, you may well not get full doing so because you can’t afford it. I’d love it if the government directly subsidized this food in a way that lowered the sticker price to consumers. Short of that, how can you tell a poor person they should spend their hard-earned but small amounts of money on the food you think they should eat versus what they can afford? A box of Kraft mac and cheese or package of ramen is awful cheap. Might allow you to also have cable television. Which is also a totally OK choice to make.

Again, all of this isn’t to say there aren’t health issues at play here that are reducing people’s life spans. But it would help if the very real and conscious choices made by the poor were also respected in these debates and if the rich would quit thinking the poor are doing something wrong (today in food, yesterday in having sex out of wedlock, tomorrow who knows) when it doesn’t follow the fashionable behavior of the elite.

“Fuck” in History

[ 27 ] February 11, 2014 |

Bringing you only the most important news of the day, here’s the first known use of the word “fuck” in the written English language, in its modern spelling. Written by a monk of course, in 1528.

1980 in One Photograph

[ 62 ] February 10, 2014 |

We interrupt this regularly scheduled Dead Horses in American History blogging to bring you 1980 in one image:

Willie Nelson on a golf course, jingoism, the Cold War, the last days of the Carter Administration, those shorts–really what’s missing?

Dust Bowl Analogies

[ 50 ] February 10, 2014 |

The point in this New York Times op-ed is a good one–the state of farming in California is highly tenuous. Given that a huge percentage of the fruits and veggies you are eating in the cold, cold month of February come from The Golden State, the potential to see this decline quite rapidly in the face of long-term drought and aquifer depletion by those seeking short-term solutions to it is very real and very scary to the American diet.

But I do have to take objection to the constant use of the Dust Bowl any time there’s a drought or farming crisis that leads to shuttered farms. The Dust Bowl was a very specific set of circumstances that could repeat themselves, but probably won’t. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the western Great Plains (worth noting that the conflation of Okies migrating to California because of the Dust Bowl is largely false. Most of those people were sharecroppers kicked off their land due to other conditions of the Great Depression and the consolidation of land under AAA policies. They were mostly from central and eastern Oklahoma or further east and south, which was well outside of the Dust Bowl range.) happened because a naturally occurring drought combined with the winds of the Plains to blow dirt away after decades of horrible agricultural practices that stripped the land of its native grasses and sod. That led to this, in Haskell County, Kansas in 1941 (which was itself after the Dust Bowl ended):

We’ve seen drought before and since but we’ve never seen another Dust Bowl. That’s because droughts happen in different places under different conditions and because agricultural practices, while still quite unsustainable (such as in California today) have changed to limit such an event today. This isn’t to take attention away from the very real crisis in California, but it is to ask that we stop invoking the Dust Bowl without context every time there’s a drought where people grow crops, which is basically everywhere.

Shorter Republican Party: “Unemployment Before Unions!”

[ 133 ] February 10, 2014 |

The response of Tennessee Republicans to the UAW organizing campaign with Volkswagen approval in Chattanooga lays bare just how much the Republican Party hates organized labor:

A state senator said today that future financial incentives for expanding Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant may hinge on how workers vote this week on whether to accept the United Auto Workers.

Should workers vote for UAW representation, “I believe any additional incentives from the citizens of the state of Tennessee for expansion or otherwise will have a very tough time passing the Tennessee senate,” said State Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga.

Also, state Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, urged VW workers to vote “no” on the UAW.

“The taxpapers of Tennessee reached out to Volkswagen and welcome them to our state and our community. We are glad they are here. But that is not a green light to help force a union into the workplace. That was not part of the deal,” the House majority leader said at a press conference.

Now I am strongly opposed to incentives to get companies to move around the globe. But to pull those incentives and basically ask Volkswagen to close the plant and send the manufacturing to Mexico is a new low for Republicans. They would prefer massive unemployment to workplace representation.

Persecuted for Wearing the Beard

[ 70 ] February 10, 2014 |

When you think of men and the 19th century, you probably think of beards. Large, ridiculous beards unseen again in American life until the early 21st century. Moreover, the beards of those days were ubiquitous. They were a sign of respectability and manliness. Ads abounded for beard-growing aids for those (like me) who really couldn’t do it naturally.

But it wasn’t always such. In fact, beards were strongly disdained in the clean-shaven first half of the 19th century. And when they did start showing up, they were tied into the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution in the North, what with its Mormons and Shakers and canals and trains and free love communities and abolitionism and women’s suffrage movement and transcendentalism and then its beards. These social movements faced a lot of resistance. Some is more well-known–the violence against Mormons for instance. But the Finneyite revivals in western New York disgusted many as well, especially in the working class. And so when reformer and intentional community member Joseph Palmer grew out his beard, the response from his town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts was much more severe than you’d expect:

He was described as a kind and tolerant man, but life was not easy for Joseph Palmer after he moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts in 1830. People would openly insult him, throw rocks at him, regularly break the windows of his home, and even cross the street so as not to be near him when he passed by. Even though he was deeply religious man who regularly attended church services, Palmer was publicly denounced during sermons by his pastor, Rev. George Trask, and even refused communion.

What awful thing had this small town butcher done to warrant such persecution? Joseph Palmer’s crime was that he was the only citizen in Fitchburg, Massachusetts who chose to wear a full beard, which (contrary to my vision of the 1800′s being a beard grower’s paradise) had been out of fashion in the United States since the time of the Pilgrims.

In fact, Palmer was so reviled that in 1830, while walking out of the Old Fitchburg Hotel, he was attacked by four men who attempted to forcefully shave his beard on the grounds that his beard was immoral. Palmer was thrown on the stone stairs, and even though he was a muscular, 200 pound farmer, he was unable to repel the four men and resorted to stabbing two of his assailants in the legs with his jackknife. His attackers were only hurt badly enough to curtail their efforts, but Palmer was arrested and fined for committing an unprovoked assault. Even though he had the resources, he refused to pay the fine on principle, and was jailed as a debtor in the Worcester city jail. He spent over a year in prison, during which time he repelled two more attempts by jailers and prisoners who sought to shave his beard against his will.

Palmer would be quietly released thanks to the large amount of bad press that was generated by his story as it wound its way through the national newspapers, but he would refuse to leave until he could secure a proclamation that it was perfectly acceptable to wear a beard. He was never given that assurance, and he was eventually tied to a chair and carried out of the jail against his will.

Of course, times and fashions changed and Palmer was vindicated by the time of his death to say the least. More information on the bearded one here.

“I am an openly, proud gay man.”

[ 160 ] February 9, 2014 |


Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman from Missouri Tigers and the Associated Press’ SEC Defensive Player of the Year, said that he is gay in interviews with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and the New York Times on Sunday.

Sam stated publicly what his teammates and coaches at Mizzou have known since August: “I am an openly, proud gay man.”

Sam is eligible for the NFL draft in May. Assuming that he is drafted, Sam could become the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL.

“I understand how big this is,” he said. “It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be … I want to be a football player in the NFL.”

What happens next is going to be fascinating. Sam is not quite an elite draft prospect. According to the linked piece, he’s the 12th rated outside pass rusher, which I assume would make him a mid-round pick. If he’s not drafted, we will know why. Perhaps the most underreported sports story in the last year is what happened to Kerry Rhodes. The excellent safety was blackballed from the NFL this year after he was outed by a magazine who had pictures of him and a boyfriend at a resort. He couldn’t get a bite. Think of the terrible pass defense in the NFL. Rhodes is a well above-average player. And he could barely get a workout.

And then think about the Richie Incognito bullying of Jonathan Martin. Think of the stupid things NFL players still say publicly about gays, such as the Panthers’ Steve Smith when asked about Rhodes. And then we all know how much NFL owners, coaches, and GMs hate a spectacle. Chris Kluwe couldn’t get a tryout this year either, even though he’s a reasonably average punter and he was allegedly driven out by a homophobic special teams coach and management indifferent to this behavior while hostile to Kluwe’s own soapbox.

So let’s see what happens. It’s probably going to take the right kind of coach (say, Pete Carroll perhaps) who has generated a locker room atmosphere that is more accepting than, oh I don’t know, the Dolphins. If Sam isn’t drafted, it’s going to be a disgusting shame.

(PC): It’s noteworthy that the seven previous SEC defensive players of the year were all first round draft choices. Of course being a great college player doesn’t guarantee that someone is necessarily a top pro prospect, but the SEC is by far the best conference in college football, and it seems odd that the conference’s top defensive player would slip all the way to the last couple of rounds, let alone go undrafted. The story NFL scouts were giving out before Sam’s announcement is that he’s not big enough to be an NFL DE and not fast enough to be an OLB. There’s some reason for suspicion though, as apparently Sam’s orientation was an open secret in Columbia and was therefore known to NFL teams prior to his announcement, so the existing pre-draft evals were probably already reflecting the league’s prejudices.

Fans and Players

[ 195 ] February 9, 2014 |

Last night, Oklahoma State’s star basketball player Marcus Smart went into the stands and shoved a Texas Tech fan. The initial reaction was typical–Smart’s a bad apple, he’s blowing his career being stupid, etc. See Myron Medcalf who claims, “It’s too early to know exactly what happened with Smart and that fan.” So let’s be sure to write that blog post condemning him before we know what happened!

Because you see, it’s typically much more complicated. Dave Zirin with a great run down here. Turns out this “fan” is a notorious jerk, so much so that Dick Vitale knows who he is and viscerally dislikes him. And he’s a racist. In fact, Smart claims this dude called him the n-word, which the guy is only sort of denying. But there’s larger issues at play here. Zirin:

5 – I have over the years spoken to a ton of former college basketball players who have stories about having racial slurs tossed at them by fans. They are conditioned before games to never go into the stands, and just keep their anger in check, no matter the cost to their mental and physical health. They are also pressured not speak about it to the media after games, to keep up the illusion of college athletics as some kind of innocent, wholesome endeavor. This dynamic, as much as anything, speaks to the utter powerlessness of so-called student athletes.

6 – Moments like this are exactly why the Northwestern football players felt compelled to form a union. So-called “student-athletes” have no power. They have no grievance procedure. Right now, as we speak, Marcus Smart is being told that the best thing for him, his family and his future NBA draft status, would be to just apologize and take whatever slap-on-the-wrist the Big 12 or the NCAA hands down. The most upsetting part, given the economics at play, is that this is probably good advice. It might not be great counsel for Smart’s mental health, but it is for his wallet.

7 – In a just world, Marcus Smart would not be suspended at all. Instead the NCAA would enact a FIFA style response. That means they would either bar Jeff Orr for life from ever going to another Texas Tech game, or, if it is found out that “the n-word” gets dropped from the stands in Lubbock like it’s open-season on black players, then make Texas Tech play in front of an empty arena for the rest of the season.

8 – A lot of former players are saying the equivalent of former NFL player Donte Stallworth who tweeted, “You don’t get a free pass to say/do whatever you want to athletes because you’re a fan… just save that faux tough guy ish for the internet. If you talk about a players family, fire a racial slur or throw a drink on them, right or wrong, you shouldn’t be surprised at retaliation.” Players are tired of enduring this, and they should not have to.

9 – One person tweeted to me that Jackie Robinson would never have gone into the stands when called a racial slur. This “Jackie Robinson: model minority” nonsense needs to be unpacked. First of all, that was 1947. Times have changed. Second, Jackie Robinson, a husband and a father, would have risked organized violence, as in lynch mobs, if he had pursed a physical response against fans. Third, Jackie Robinson was a 26-year-old Army veteran and a college graduate from UCLA. He also carried the hopes and dreams of masses of people with every at-bat. To ask a 19-year-old Marcus Smart to act in accordance with Jackie Robinson is a ridiculous weight to ask Mr. Smart to carry. And lastly Jackie Robinson, if you read his searing memoir, I Never Had It Made, had real regrets about not going into the stands and pummeling racists with what he called “my despised black fists”. Jackie Robinson died way too young at age 53. He and his family always believed that his early death was connected to the stress that he had to carry precisely because he kept it all bottled in on direct orders from the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and on society’s orders, shaped by the pre-civil rights times in which he played.

I do hate how conservatives (or anti-people standing up for themselves) have turned Jackie Robinson into whatever they want him to be, i.e. “a model for the race” which in reality means someone who never says a public word against the racism they face from fans. As Zirin says, it’s not 1947 and there needs to be a real way to deal with this. The NCAA doesn’t care, Texas Tech certainly doesn’t care, the players have absolutely no power to do anything. They are unpaid labor serving as a free minor league to professional sports leagues, often at significant cost to taxpayers and students. Marcus Smart could quit right now, go play in Europe for a few months with compensation, and then go declare for the draft. But then he’d been seen as even more of a bad apple. Instead, wherever he plays next on the road, opposing fans can use whatever racial epithets they want and there’s really nothing anyone is going to do about it.

Opt Out of Standardized Testing

[ 149 ] February 9, 2014 |

The more parents who opt out of making their children go through the pointless and educationally destructive Common Core standardized testing that is the fad of Rheeist politicians of both parties, the better. I certainly implore all the parents who read this blog to stand up against this horrible education policy that hurts both students and teachers.

Making Poultry Producers Pay Up

[ 36 ] February 9, 2014 |

Maryland legislators have introduced a bill to make the state’s poultry producers pay a whole 5 cents a bird to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed from runoff from these incredibly polluting facilities. Governor Carcetti O’Malley has backed away from such legislation in the past, afraid of angering big business in his desperation to become president. Of course, the poultry plutocrats are claiming this will drive all production out of Maryland. But this is obviously sensible legislation given the enormous environmental impact of meat production on the waterways of the mid-Atlantic.

Looking Back at Conservative Reviews of Popular Culture

[ 197 ] February 9, 2014 |

Have you ever wondered what that inveterate old racist crank William F. Buckley thought about The Beatles? Luckily, now you can find out. From September 13, 1964:

The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.”

I love the Avignon papacy more every day.

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