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The Rising Tide of Liberalism

[ 119 ] November 28, 2012 |

Chait is really optimistic about the future of liberalism given the political leanings of young people:

What all this suggests is that we may soon see a political landscape that will appear from the perspective of today and virtually all of American history as unrecognizably liberal. Democrats today must amass huge majorities of moderate voters in order to overcome conservatives’ numerical advantage over liberals. They must carefully wrap any proposal for activist government within the strictures of limited government, which is why Bill Clinton declared the era of big government to be over, and Obama has promised not to raise taxes for 99 percent of Americans. It’s entirely possible that, by the time today’s twentysomethings have reached middle age, these sorts of limits will cease to apply.

I am too naturally pessimistic to buy into this without reservation. But there’s no question that in some fundamental ways he is right. On social issues, conservatives are losing badly and they increasingly know it. Gay marriage is going to be legal across the nation within 20 years. We are moving toward drug legalization with shocking rapidity. Anti-immigrant politics don’t appeal to these voters. The key question revolves around economic issues. If young people are committed to building an American version of a European-style social welfare state, then I feel really optimistic about the nation’s future myself.

The Latin American Left and Indigenous Peoples

[ 22 ] November 28, 2012 |

Nyki Salinas-Duda has an interesting though flawed article about the increasingly tense relationship between the left-leaning Latin American governments elected in recent years and indigenous peoples who helped elect them. Essentially, indigenous peoples have supported politicians like Evo Morales because they provided an alternative to the openly racist governments that have oppressed indigenous people for centuries. Yet these governments, desperate for money and seeing the need to develop, have pushed projects that would strip indigenous peoples of land.

The general principle of the article is good. But there are a couple of shortcomings that need to be pointed out. First, there’s a long history between the Latin American left and indigenous people that’s ignored here. Most famously, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua had a terrible relationship with indigenous groups on the Caribbean side. Turns out the Miskito Indians didn’t want to be part of the Sandinista national project. The Sandinistas had no understanding of these people and Marxist theory didn’t provide much guidance. For the Sandinistas, modernism needed to sweep out these backwards people and bring them into the present. Not surprisingly, this attitude didn’t exactly sit well with the Miskitos, many of whom rebelled and allied themselves with the Contras. I think we have to understand this history in order to have much to say about current problems.

Second, the article could use some understanding about the relationship between the left and national development, The 20th century left was as smitten with high modernism as the right. Capitalism and communism were two sides of the same developmentalist coin. Urban renewal, icky concrete housing blocks, giant dams, monoculture agriculture, superhighways–these were hallmarks of the 20th century. And while these sorts of things might be out of fashion with the modern US and European left (except perhaps monocultures but that’s changing I think), they still appeal to developing nations. This is often for good reason–these nations really do need the economic boom that can come from big central projects. It’s often for bad reasons too–the Three Gorges Dam was more about China’s desire to control nature and show off state power to the rest of the world than any real need for a dam that large. But it’s complicated, a phrase we all need to use more often.

Finally, the article plays a bit fast and loose with the idea of the left in Latin America. What is the left in Latin America today? There’s a world of difference between Hugo Chavez and Michelle Bachelet. While Bachelet may have been tortured by Pinochet, her policies as Chilean president weren’t exactly some reconstitution of Salvador Allende. Second, Evo Morales actually is indigenous. Yes, the Bolivian indigenous movements are highly irritated with him. But this is a different beast than the other nations and needs further exploration. I understand the need to generalize about a number of nations in a short article. But the Bolivian situation is so different than the others, precisely because of who Morales is.

Having spent a lot of time in Bolivia, I have some sense of what Morales is facing here. Bolivia is massively underdeveloped, far more than any other nation I’ve been too–and that includes Indonesia and Honduras. Paved roads almost don’t exist. Many people can’t access clean water or indoor plumbing. I’m not excusing Morales for pushing projects that would build roads through indigenous lands. What I am saying is that he faces an enormous task to build his nation’s economy. Landlocked, lacking infrastructure, with a huge divide between the white (and openly racist) eastern lowlands and the indigenous Altiplano, and with no obvious economic resources except for raw materials, Morales desperately needs money to improve the education, sanitation, and health of the Bolivian people. What is he supposed to do? There’s no easy answers to that question.

Despite these problems, indigenous people, especially in Bolivia, are engaged in the political process like never before. In electing Morales, they rejected centuries of racist government. They are empowered and willing to stand up to Morales himself when they are unhappy with him. That in itself is a pretty remarkable feat.

Organizing for Change

[ 23 ] November 27, 2012 |

I really want to recommend Sarah Jaffe’s long-form interview with Jane McAlevey about her new book that I referred to here. McAlevey makes some really important points about a number of issues concerning labor–the restrictiveness of Taft-Hartley, how the Democratic Party dictates the agenda to labor, problems within the labor movement when it comes to organizing strategies, etc. You should read the whole thing. I do want to point out one piece, which gets back to some of the discussions we were having here before the election about the relationship between elections and change.

A point of influence that I’m getting rather obsessed with right now is this whole concept of microtargeting, and a lot of that’s coming from the Obama people and it’s really having an impact in the labor movement. I hear people in the last few years, in the labor movement, say “What do you think about buying databanks of information to see if we can assess whether a worker on a door is going to vote yes or not?” There’s this huge discussion going on in the labor movement among otherwise smart people, that we should just take another step past actually real organizing and just try to do the microtargeting that the Obama campaign is using to extract one vote every four years.

The mistake is that how you win an election and how you win change are fundamentally different. The election of the right people is a prerequisite to fundamental change, but all we do is help them get elected, and then we don’t do anything in the governing period except put everyone to sleep like a switch. If you think about the talent on the Obama team, what are they going to do for the next three and a half years? They basically go home. If you have the best campaign team during the election, those people actually need to stay and keep organizing the base every damn day, to actually create a left base to allow these people to run to the left when they’re governing.

I think a huge problem with the modern left, broadly defined, is the belief that if we elect the right people to office that things will change. That’s absolutely not the case. Change happens on the ground–in the workplace, at the school board meetings, in the courts. This all requires motivated and organized movements that see the election merely as a tool, not an end in itself.

John C. Calhoun and How American Boundaries Were Restricted by the National Commitment to White Supremacy

[ 234 ] November 27, 2012 |

One of my favorite things about American racism is that the nation’s commitment to white supremacy has both encouraged imperialist wars of conquest and then horrifying the racial sensitivities of Americans to their results. In 1846, the U.S. went to war with Mexico for no justifiable reason (unless you think expanding the nation’s slave empire is a good reason) and stole the northern half of that country. Much to James Polk’s surprise, the Mexicans did not want to give up their northern frontier. Polk finally ordered the military to take Mexico City since the Mexicans wouldn’t surrender. Under General Winfield Scott, the army engaged in a brutal, blood-soaked five month campaign that finally managed to capture Mexico City in September 1847, a very important moment in Mexican public memory.

After Scott took Mexico City, some of the biggest supporters of American expansion noted that since they already controlled the capital, why not just annex the entire nation? One big problem though. What to do with all the brown people? They aren’t black so we can’t enslave them all. Plus there’s so many of them. But they certainly aren’t white so they obviously can’t be allowed into the nation as equals.

John C. Calhoun stepped into the fray to give his opinion about why we couldn’t annex all of Mexico because it would upset the nation’s racial balance. This is part of his speech to the Senate given on January 4, 1848.

The next reason which my resolutions assign, is, that it is without example or precedent, wither to hold Mexico as a province, or to incorporate her into our Union. No example of such a line of policy can be found. We have conquered many of the neighboring tribes of Indians, but we have never thought of holding them in subjection—never of incorporating them into our Union. They have either been left as an independent people amongst us, or been driven into the forests.

I know further, sir, that we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of society. The Portuguese and ourselves have escaped—the Portuguese at least to some extent—and we are the only people on this continent which have made revolutions without being followed by anarchy. And yet it is professed and talked about to erect these Mexicans into a Territorial Government, and place them on an equality with the people of the United States. I protest utterly against such a project.

Sir, it is a remarkable fact, that in the whole history of man, as far as my knowledge extends, there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored races being found equal to the establishment of free popular government, although by far the largest portion of the human family is composed of these races. And even in the savage state we scarcely find them anywhere with such government, except it be our noble savages—for noble I will call them. They, for the most part, had free institutions, but they are easily sustained among a savage people. Are we to overlook this fact? Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow-citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico? Sir, I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions.

The next two reasons which I assigned, were, that it would be in conflict with the genius and character of our institutions, and subversive of our free government. I take these two together, as intimately connected; and now of the first—to hold Mexico in subjection.

This isn’t the only case of American commitment to white supremacy getting in the way of colonial expansion. The anti-imperialist movement was full of white supremacists in the late 1890s, arguing that bringing the world’s darker peoples into the United States threatened American institutions. They didn’t win that fight. But after the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, employers in California saw a new source of cheap labor. With everyday people of California committed to keeping their state white, they protested against both Chinese and Japanese immigration, getting the former excluded in 1882 and the latter heavily restricted in 1907. Such a thing wasn’t possible for the Filipinos since they were now Americans. Filipinos came over by the thousands to work on the farms and in the fish canneries. Even worse, Filipino men began marrying white women, using the courts to get around California’s miscegenation laws. This caused huge outrage in California. The upshot of it all was the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, which gave the Philippines independence in 1946 in exchange for the immediate end to almost all Filipino immigration.

In the end, many Americans decided that colonial expansion was not worth the price of brown men having sex with white women.

Old Jewish America

[ 38 ] November 27, 2012 |

Colin points us to this piece on a declining Jewish cemetery in Curacao, threatened by the elements and the gigantic refinery built right next to it. As Colin notes for Latin America, there is a sizable Jewish history in the Americas that is often forgotten. This is also true in the United States, particularly in New York and Newport. In the latter, you can visit the Touro Synagogue, a still active synagogue which explains the history of 18th century Judaism in Rhode Island. The locations where you see an active colonial Jewish population are hardly coincidental. Basically, just follow the Dutch. There was a sizable Jewish population in New Amsterdam because of Dutch toleration. When the English took it over in 1664, rights for Jews, as well as for women and Africans, declined. Rhode Island is an exception to the Dutch trend, but then Rhode Island’s religious tolerance always made it unusual for the colonial world.

Civil War Underwear

[ 23 ] November 27, 2012 |

I am happy to argue that a discussion of Civil War underwear is at least as interesting as a movie about Abraham Lincoln and far more interesting than battlefield tactics. This is especially true when we realize the story of underwear is a story about the growth of Gilded Age capitalism, labor exploitation, health, cleanliness, and everyday soldier life. Plus there’s this:

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant himself once appeared in “parade uniform”: one night, when gunboats threatened the depot at City Point, Va., reported an eyewitness in The Century magazine, “the general came hurriedly into the office. He had drawn on his top-boots over his drawers, and put on his uniform frock-coat, the skirt of which reached about to the tops of the boots and made up for the absence of trousers.”

Less known evidently is how many drinks the august general had consumed that evening.

Black Friday Strike

[ 43 ] November 26, 2012 |

The Black Friday strike at Wal-Mart was interesting. I’m a bit skeptical that it means a lot, but who knows what will to what. People thought Occupy or the Battle of Seattle was world-changing and, well, where did all of that go? Meanwhile, the referendum to overturn the Republican anti-union measure SB-5 in Ohio motivated Democrats to make sure that state voted Democratic in 2012. Wal-Mart is the nation’s most anti-union company, if we combine intent with workforce size. We all know that it presses its suppliers to provide goods as cheap as possible, a scenario that leads to workers getting burned to death in unsafe factories. While the United Food and Commercial Workers was heavily involved in the Black Friday actions, it wasn’t a true organizing campaign in the sense of creating a union or even reaching that many workers. Rather, it was about getting word out, convincing people to come out to their local Wal-Mart to protest, and trying to get workers to walk out. Wal-Mart claims 50 workers went out, the organizers say it was closer to 500. Probably the latter is more correct given that there’s no good reason to believe anything Wal-Mart has to say about labor matters. Wal-Mart also claims that it had its biggest Black Friday ever. Could be, but that’s meaningless here since the goal wasn’t really to get people to stop shopping at Wal-Mart. This was about educating the public and worker empowerment.

The question now is where this goes. Wal-Mart would close stores rather than see them unionize so it’s tough sell, even at the low wages and terrible benefits. Workers who labor 40 hours a week and still qualify for food stamps don’t have much, but they do have that. If all of this convinces Wal-Mart to raise wages in order to buy workers off from unionizing, then it’s totally worth it. That’s only going to happen if the pressure continues and more workers decide that it’s worth the risk to stand up for a better life.

Who Will Be The Gun Movement’s Rosa Parks?

[ 59 ] November 26, 2012 |

The University of Colorado caved to the gun lobby and created gun-friendly dorms. At the present, there are floors that are gun-friendly. A dorm for the armed is opening in 2014. But the school is disturbed that not a single person has actually expressed any interest in living in the gun zone. Is it because even students who own guns think it might not be an awesome idea to be around drunken armed college students? Nope. It’s liberal segregation:

David Burnett, a representative of Students for Concealed Carry on campus, told the Denver Post that students who met all legal requirements for concealed-carry shouldn’t have to move into segregated dorms. “You’ve proven you’re legally, responsibly and morally able to carry, then the college comes back and tells you you’ve got to move. What would you do?”

I have never heard of such a outrage. Homer Plessy being kicked off a train holds nothing to this. Who will stand up and be the gun movement’s armed and extremely dangerous Rosa Parks?

But the University of Colorado’s pro-gun policy has had one concrete consequence:

The concealed-carry issue was forced back into the spotlight this month when a staff member with a concealed-carry permit at the School of Dental Medicine on the Anschutz Medical campus accidentally shot a co-worker while showing her gun.

Both of the staffers were injured in the incident, but neither was hospitalized, police said.

Really, it’s almost impossible to think of any bad consequences to this policy.

Triangle Repeated in Bangladesh

[ 25 ] November 26, 2012 |

Within American labor history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is a touchstone moment. That tragedy led directly to a spate of workplace safety laws and building regulations. In the longer term, it helped spur the union movement that changed the lives of the American working class.

Of course, capitalists never accepted these changes. The movement to globalize industrial production was an explicit choice by corporations to avoid the workplace and environmental regulations that increasing made work and life safe and dignified in the United States. Such regulations might have improved American lives, but they also slightly cut into corporate profits. And with elephants ever more rare, the price of ivory backscratchers aren’t going down.

And thus we see Bangladesh suffer its own Triangle Fire. A clothing factory caught on fire this weekend near Dhaka, killing at least 117 workers. Like at Triangle, most of the dead workers are women. Like at Triangle, an unsafe building choked with highly flammable materials did not have proper safety equipment or fire exits. Like at Triangle, desperate women chose to jump to their deaths rather than burn.

Of course, no corporations will be held directly liable–by outsourcing production, they exact profits and eschew responsibility. Wal-Mart is one of the corporations that contract out with the clothing supplier, but they are refusing to confirm this. Even better for capitalists is that Bangladesh is far away. It will be in the news for a couple of days and then disappear except for the NGOs and labor writers that scream about this to tiny audiences. All things return to normal for global capitalism. And for us.

Alcoholic Originalism

[ 65 ] November 26, 2012 |

You may have seen this study that came out a week or so ago showing that American adults consume almost as many “empty calories” through alcohol as through soda.

In a world of “facts,” this study might be “correct.” Yet, this is outrageous on two levels. First, calories that get me drunk are not empty calories. Soda offers nothing that can’t be achieved in other ways. Need caffeine, drink a cup of coffee. Need something sweet, there are a million options. People drink alcohol for specific reasons that cannot be replicated in a legal way. Humans throughout history have found drugs to alter their minds. In the United States we have chosen to make most of them illegal. Alcohol is an exception and so looking at it through the same lens we do as other food choices provides a limited perspective.

Second, the study is unpatriotic. Why do I drink? Because I am a good American. In a country where we have Supreme Court justices trying fit a brief 225 year old document understandable only in the context of the late 18th century around the contours of modern society in ways that often defy logic, we might as well examine what early Americans actually did if we want to emulate the Founders. What did they do? Drink.

The definitive book on this is W.J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, the first chapter gives a solid overview of the topic and is where most of the following material originates. In short, before the Revolution, Americans drank approximately 3.7 gallons per person per year of hard alcohol alone (not counting beer, wine, and cider–by the far the predominant non-distilled beverage). While that dipped when rum supplies became scarce after 1776, it exploded to reach nearly 5 gallons by the 1820s, by this time mostly domestically produced whiskey. Between 1800 and 1830, the average American drank 15 gallons of hard cider, at least in the North. This was certainly gendered. According to the American Temperance Society (a fifth column of un-American activities if there ever was one), in the late 1820s, the nation’s 9 million women and children drank a total of 12 million gallons of distilled spirits per year; the nation’s 3 million men drank 60 million gallons. I’m not sure if or how those numbers included slaves, but like women, they drank less than white men. Both women and slaves faced social norms against excessive drinking; moreover, they were not accepted into the public and social drinking life of the early 19th century tavern. But both drank when and where they could. Children routinely drank in taverns by the age of 14. Drinking was especially popular within the American working class. In 1829, the Secretary of War estimated that 3/4 of the nation’s laborers drank at least 4 ounces of distilled spirits every day.

Ministers who considered themselves temperate drank. One, a supporter of temperance, drank 4 glasses of hard alcohol on Sunday to help him through his arduous workday. The Methodist church allowed at least one southern planter to be a member if he was temperate enough to hold his daily consumption of alcohol to one quart of peach brandy. On one horse carriage trip across Virginia, the team stopped 10 times over the 17 hour, 66 mile day. The passengers drank one drink at each stop, leading one foreign observer to write “the American stage coach stops every five miles to water horses, and brandy the gentlemen!” New York Governor George Clinton once hosted a dinner for the French ambassador. 120 guests at this party polished off 135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of English beer, and 30 large cups of rum punch.

George Washington was a whiskey distiller. John Adams drank a tankard of hard cider at breakfast every morning. Thomas Jefferson hosted the first presidential cocktail party and was one of the first Americans to import large quantities of French wine. Dolley Madison openly poured herself a hot toddy while meeting with a temperance reformer.

I could go on.

So hoist one this evening for George Washington, for the person working on the docks of New York in 1801, for the Pennsylvania corn farmer turning his product into whiskey, and for the slave woman sneaking some alcohol behind her master’s back. And if this means hoisting one for each of these people, well, that just makes you more of a patriot. If you’re going to say that alcohol is empty calories, you might as well say the Declaration of Independence is empty rhetoric. After all, it’s not like Thomas Jefferson was sober while writing the thing.

Southern Demographics

[ 81 ] November 26, 2012 |

I found this Douglas Blackmon piece at the Post interesting for a couple of reasons. Exploring changing demographics in the South, he notes that Republicans have far from safe majorities along the entire Atlantic coast. Growing Latino and black populations in Virginia and North Carolina have turned those states into Florida, meaning Republicans have to fight for more states they used to count on for easy wins. But more alarming if I were a Republican is shrinking victory margins in Georgia and even South Carolina.

What blew me away though was just how strong racial identity still matters in the mid-South.

The results show a region cleaving apart along new electoral fault lines. In the region’s center, clustered along the Mississippi River — where Bill Clinton polled most strongly — the GOP remains largely unchallenged and the voting divide between blacks and whites is deepening. Nearly nine of 10 of white voters in Mississippi, for instance, went for Republican nominee Mitt Romney this year, according to exit polls. About 96 percent of black voters in the state supported Obama.

I’ve often attacked blanket denunciations of the South. When people say that we should have let the South secede, it irritates me, not only because it erases the millions of black people who only live lives of anything approaching equality because of federal intervention but also because of the liberal whites I have known from the South. But 90% for Romney among Mississippi whites? That’s amazing and disturbing. I understand why 96% of blacks would vote for the Democrats–the Republicans are a party of institutionalized racism. But that 90% of Mississippi whites would essentially accept that racism and identify with the white man’s party (understanding that not every Mississippi Republican voter is a racist, we can also assume that a whole lot are) suggests that it wasn’t just a few white yahoos rioting at the University of Mississippi on election night. Rather, it was endemic of the feelings of most Mississippi whites.

Black Friday Wal-Mart Strikes

[ 147 ] November 23, 2012 |

I’m going to assume anyone who actually shops today is someone I don’t want to know. But in any case, you should be following the Black Friday Wal-Mart strikes, the largest organized labor action in the history of the company. Josh Eidelson’s blog at The Nation is the best place for all the latest information.

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