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The Carceral-Industrial Complex

[ 177 ] April 26, 2016 |

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Mississippi officials are complaining about the state’s declining prison populations. Why? Because county, state, and private funding models were all built on prison profit and losing prisoners now creates budget crises.

County officials across Mississippi are warning of job losses and deep deficits as local jails are being deprived of the state inmates needed to keep them afloat. The culprit, say local officials, is state government and private prisons, which are looking to boost their own revenue as sentencing and drug-policy reforms are sending fewer bodies into the correctional system.

In the late 1990s, as the overcrowded Mississippi prison system buckled under the weight of mass incarceration, the state asked local governments to build local correctional institutions to house state prisoners. It was billed as a win-win: The Mississippi Department of Correction would foot the bill for each prisoner, and the counties would get good jobs guarding them. The state guaranteed that the local jails would never be less than 80 percent occupied, and the locals would get a 3 percent boost in compensation each year.

After a few years, say local officials, the state offered a new deal: Instead of the 3 percent bump, they would give the locals more and more prisoners, thus boosting total revenue. Today, the state pays $29.74 per day per prisoner to the regional facilities, a deal that worked for everybody as long as the buildings were stuffed full with bodies.

Scott Strickland, president of the Stone County Board of Supervisors, said reforms at the state and local levels have shrunk the prison population. “Federal laws took some part in that — allowing prisoners to serve only a certain percentage of their term,” he said. “Also, they’ve reduced prison sentences for certain drug-related offenses.”

As the wave of mass incarceration begins to recede, the Mississippi controversy has local and state officials talking openly about how harmful locking up fewer people up will be for the economy, confirming the suspicions of those who have argued that mass incarceration is not merely a strategy directed at crime prevention. “Under the administrations of Reagan and Clinton, incarceration, a social tool used for punishment, also became a major job creator,” Antonio Moore, a producer of the documentary “Crack in the System,” wrote recently.

“I don’t think it necessarily started out this way, but the inmate population has become the backbone of some of these counties that are involved,” said Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher as the controversy heated up.

The prisoners have value beyond the per diem, county officials add, when they can be put to work. State prisoners do garbage pickup, lawn maintenance and other manual labor that taxpayers would otherwise have to pay for. Convict labor has made it easier for local governments to absorb never-ending cuts in state funding, as tea party legislators and governors slash budgets in the name of conservative government.

The state knows it, and now demands that local jails house state convicts who perform labor for free, George County Supervisor Henry Cochran told The Huffington Post. The counties take the deal. “You’re either gonna go up on everybody’s garbage bill, or you’ve gotta house those inmates,” Cochran said. “You’re using that inmate labor, so [taxpayers are] getting a little good out of that inmate for their tax dollars. You either gotta hire a bunch of employees or keep that inmate. It’s like making a deal with the devil.”

This whole system is completely dysfunctional, immoral, and racist, given who makes up the prison population. That different strata of government are both making economic claims on prisoners and that because of the state’s terrible politics, both levels of government lack the money to function without prisoners is just a terrible, awful, no good thing.

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African-Americans and the 1994 Crime Bill

[ 99 ] April 26, 2016 |

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Scott linked to this story last week, but I thought it was worth its own conversation, especially with our commenter ThrottleJockey continually talking about how we need to throw away the key and citing black support for the 1994 crime bill. So did African-Americans support the 1994 crime bill? These authors argue taht white politicians chose to misunderstand black requests for better policing with the desire to throw everyone in prison.

There’s no question that by the early 1990s, blacks wanted an immediate response to the crime, violence and drug markets in their communities. But even at the time, many were asking for something different from the crime bill. Calls for tough sentencing and police protection were paired with calls for full employment, quality education and drug treatment, and criticism of police brutality.

It’s not just that those demands were ignored completely. It’s that some elements were elevated and others were diminished — what we call selective hearing. Policy makers pointed to black support for greater punishment and surveillance, without recognizing accompanying demands to redirect power and economic resources to low-income minority communities. When blacks ask for better policing, legislators tend to hear more instead.

Selective hearing has a deep history. In the Progressive Era, W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells called for state authorities to offer blacks the same social investment that reformers used to manage crime in white immigrant communities. But while whites received rehabilitation and welfare programs, black citizens found themselves overpunished and underprotected.

Flash forward to the Clinton era. As soon as Chuck Schumer, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and others introduced their bipartisan crime bill in September of 1993, groups representing black communities pushed back. The N.A.A.C.P. called it a “crime against the American people.”

While supporting the idea of addressing crime, members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized the bill itself and introduced an alternative bill that included investments in prevention and alternatives to incarceration, devoted $2 billion more to drug treatment and $3 billion more to early intervention programs. The caucus also put forward the Racial Justice Act, which would have made it possible to use statistical evidence of racial bias to challenge death sentences.

Given the history of selective hearing, what followed was no surprise. Black support for anti-crime legislation was highlighted, while black criticism of the specific legislation was tuned out. The caucus threatened to stall the bill, but lawmakers scrapped the Racial Justice Act when Republicans promised to filibuster any legislation that adopted its measures.

In final negotiations, Democratic leadership yielded to Republicans demanding that prevention (or “welfare for criminals” as one called it) be sliced in exchange for their votes. Senator Robert Dole insisted that the focus be “on cutting pork, not on cutting prisons or police.” The compromise eliminated $2.5 billion in social spending and only $800 million in prison expenditures.

In other words, the 1994 crime bill served white interests and forced black politicians into a corner over whether to claim they did something on crime or support a bill that was so counter to the interests of the African-American population. It’s clearly not accurate to claim that African-Americans widely supported this bill. We should stop making this claim.

Do Both Sides Do It When It Comes to Stopping Climate Change Action?

[ 154 ] April 25, 2016 |

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No.

But of course that’s not going to stop a contrarian article from arguing that liberals also have anti-science views that stop action against climate change.

And yet even as progressive environmentalists wring their hands at the G.O.P.’s climate change denial, there are biases on the left that stray just as far from the scientific consensus.

“The left is turning anti-science,” Marc Andreessen, the creator of Netscape who as a venture capitalist has become one of the most prominent thinkers of Silicon Valley, told me not long ago.

He was reflecting broadly about science and technology. His concerns ranged from liberals’ fear of genetically modified organisms to their mistrust of technology’s displacement of workers in some industries. “San Francisco is an interesting case,” he noted. “The left has become reactionary.”

OK, if you want to make this argument, using the half-assed argument of a Silicon Valley capitalist may not be your strongest talking point. But that’s where we are at. But what is getting in the way of this climate change action in San Francisco? Morons who don’t vaccinate their children? Chemtrail conspiracy theorists? I guess that’s some left-leaning anti-science thought, but I don’t see the connection.

Still, liberal biases may be most dangerous in the context of climate change, the most significant scientific and technological challenge of our time. For starters, they stand against the only technology with an established track record of generating electricity at scale while emitting virtually no greenhouse gases: nuclear power.

Oh, so that’s what this is. A big feint for another article on nuclear power. Yawn. Look, here’s the deal with nuclear. One can make a case for it as part of a solution, I guess. But there are so many problems. First, these plants are tremendously expensive to build. Second, the global supplies of uranium are far from limitless. At best, nuclear power is a relatively small part of a clean energy future. Third, the nation still lacks, 71 years after the nuclear age began, a decent place to store nuclear waste. Fourth, while there’s no question of the damage done to the planet by coal, if a nuclear accident happens–which it will, someday–it will leave an area uninhabitable for up to hundreds of years. Fifth, the problems with nuclear plants are mostly kicked down the road. Effectively, they need to be kept running or carefully dismantled at some point. If they shut down on their own, i.e., the core melts down, you have little Chernobyls everywhere there’s a plant. Someday, during a war perhaps where you have long-term power outages, this sort of thing can and probably will happen. Might be 500 years in the future, but that’s still a real debt we are telling the future to pay.

There’s a lot of problems with nuclear! There are problems with every energy source, yes. Society does have to make choices about energy. But there are some pretty big issues here. To be concerned with the effects of nuclear does not make people on the left anti-science. But that’s a useful epithet for Silicon Valley capitalists interested in investing in nuclear power.

Third Parties: Local, State, National

[ 154 ] April 25, 2016 |

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My consistent position on third parties is that they are a counterproductive waste of time because a) there is no room in the American system for third parties, b) we have 200 years of political history to demonstrate point A), c) that they are more likely to hand elections to right-wing candidates than pull the Democratic Party left, and d) the enormous amount of time and effort it takes to build a party is all time and effort taken from issue-based organizing that is almost always for effective. So when I read this Kshama Sawant piece calling for the need for a new national third party “of the 99 percent,” I at first engaged in my usual eye-rolling, even outside of the conspiracy-curious talk about the New York primary. The idea that Bernie supporters should leave the Democratic Party and vote for some left-leaning third party is ridiculous and would be disastrous for the very causes about which they care. Of course, those who are most likely to actually do that would not vote for the Democratic Party anyway except under very specific circumstances, i.e., an actual socialist tops the ticket, so they can be discounted from a political strategy perspective. The fear would be dragging actual Democrats to Jill Stein, as Sawant hopes. And Sawant’s call to build a real third party also just wouldn’t amount to anything. Sawant makes the critical error of blaming Sanders for running as a Democrat, then noting how successful he was running as a left-wing Democrat, then assuming that his viability would be equal or greater as a left-wing non-Democrat, which is of course ridiculous. Sanders has done so well precisely because he is running as a Democrat.

So let all that go, if you can. The essay is unconvincing and dangerous and the politics make no sense to build toward anything. But maybe there’s something here of value.

I provide this caveat because Sawant is serving a very useful role as a Socialist official in Seattle. Her call for a national third party makes sense for her revolutionary program, but not for left policies. But candidates like her running at the local and state level absolutely does make sense in the vast numbers of cities, county, and state legislature seats that effectively are one-party seats. Being here in Rhode Island where the fundamental definition of “Democratic legislator” is “I want access to power,” we could use a bunch of Sawant’s to organize and run left-wing campaigns against some of our terrible state legislators (there are some very good people as well and that’s the real divide in the statehouse, not Republican-Democratic). If she and her Socialist Alternative people want to start a third party on the ground floor and work to take over city council positions and challenge terrible Democrats in various state legislatures, or even Congress in some cases, then I think that’s great. Providing an actual second party challenge from the left is something that has a lot of value. The dividing point between useful and terrible is the possibility of electing a Republican. That is almost always a disaster. That’s why her call for a national third party and for Sanders supporters to vote for Jill Stein needs to be rejected. But her running in Seattle? Sure, great. Bring some of your people to Providence!

Sensible Gun Policies

[ 172 ] April 25, 2016 |

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It’s hard to see how this goes wrong.

Douglas County, Colorado, will begin arming school security guards with semiautomatic rifles within the next month in order to protect students from mass shootings, according to the Denver Post.

Security officers will begin using the rifles after they complete the same 20-hour training that police officers go through, according to the Denver Post. Some security officers will receive the guns within a month, while others will get them in August.

Theoretically, the guns won’t actually be in the schools, but we’ll see. Given that the district’s security director didn’t even consult with the school board before making this decision, I am not confident. Maybe the next the district can buy one of those surplus tanks the military sells to local police departments. Have to make sure our school security officers are as well-armed as the police after all.

How U.S. Agricultural Dumping Affects Global Farmers

[ 33 ] April 25, 2016 |

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This is a good piece on how U.S. farmers dumping surplus peanuts on the Haitian market in the guide of “humanitarian aid” actually just undermines Haitian peanut farmers who can’t compete because they don’t have access to fertilizer and machinery. This of course then drives those farmers off their land and into the cities where they either become even poorer or become the cheap, desperate labor for the outsourced factories of global capitalism. Or alternatively, they migrate to the Dominican Republic, where they are subject to racism and violence. This is a very similar story to what NAFTA did to Mexican farmers, undermining the corn cultures of rural Mexico and forcing those farmers into the maquiladoras, into Mexico City, or to cross the border without papers to work for very low wages in often dangerous industries like meatpacking and construction.

This sort of dumping as foreign aid might seem to serve U.S. foreign policy interests and make Americans feel good but it’s actually pretty disastrous for a nation like Haiti, where masses of poor don’t have food security. What it really does is create a sort of U.S. in 1932 scenario. Remember that in the Great Depression, agricultural overproduction forced the Roosevelt administration to implement the Agricultural Adjustment Administration that notoriously dumped milk and killed young farm animals to reduce supplies and raise prices in order to achieve some level of rural stability through price floors. Well, when the U.S. dumps its surpluses on Mexico or Haiti or wherever, it effectively creates the conditions where the AAA was necessary. Our agricultural policy should consider creating domestic food stability among our allies.

And it’s easy to say “well, those poor people need our food. We should give it to them.” But there’s a history here, including in Haiti, of the long-term effects of these sorts of programs.

The troubled history of U.S. involvement in Haitian agricultural policy has done nothing to ease these suspicions.

In the early 1980s, fearing Haiti’s Creole pigs could spread African swine fever amid a deadly outbreak, the U.S. Congress authorized $23 million to slaughter local pigs and replace them with hybrid pigs from Iowa. The imported pigs struggled to adapt, often became sick and had few litters.

For Haitians, the most bitterly remembered example is the collapse of the local rice market.

Haiti was largely self-sufficient in rice by the mid-1980s. But in subsequent years, Haiti repeatedly slashed tariffs on cheaper imported rice at the behest of the U.S. and the World Bank. As a result, U.S. subsidized rice inundated the market and the Caribbean country roughly the size of Maryland is now the second-biggest export destination for American rice growers, according to the USA Rice Federation.

“If the U.S. really wanted to help Haiti they would focus on serious work improving irrigation and farmers’ access to credit,” said Haitian economist and activist Camille Chalmers, who argues that the peanut aid is mainly about drawing down the U.S. stockpile and benefiting American agribusiness.

But efforts to lead Haiti to self-sufficiency face a slew of chronic obstacles, including political gridlock or instability, severe environmental degradation and neglected rural infrastructure. Although almost 80 percent of rural households farm, the agriculture sector with its persistent litany of natural disasters receives less than 4 percent of Haiti’s budget.

There is of course no question of the difficulties of Haiti, difficulties it should be remembered France and the United States are largely responsible for through isolating the nation of ex-slaves through much of the 19th century, dooming what was formerly the world’s wealthiest colony to poverty. But dumping our surpluses isn’t really helping.

Wait, Are You Telling Me Employers Lie?

[ 44 ] April 25, 2016 |

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Shocking. Just shocking, I tell you what.

More than a year after a new minimum wage took effect in Seattle—$12.50 an hour now for small employers, increasing to $15 an hour by January 2018—prices at most stores haven’t gone up.

In a new report, researchers from the University of Washington presented data that showed “little or no evidence” of price increases in most sectors. Before the minimum wage law took effect, most retailers said they would have to charge more—and most low-wage workers were worried that they would have to spend more for necessities. So far, that hasn’t happened.

The researchers also checked the prices of things like rent and gas, because they wanted to understand how the law might affect the biggest expenses for low-income families. Those didn’t change either—not a surprising finding, since apartments and gas stations don’t rely on much labor.

The steady prices in the retail sector were more unexpected. “We looked in grocery stores, drugstores, and other types of retail outlets—we were focusing once again on places where your middle class or low-income families would be more likely to shop,” says Jacob Vigdor, a public policy professor at the University of Washington. “The fact that we didn’t find very many price increases in those types of outlets was a little bit more surprising to us.”

I wonder, if you went back a 100 years and looked at economic predictions, would any group come out more wrong than employers’ apocalyptic prognostication every time labor legislation was proposed?

“I Have Cherokee Friends!” and Other Points in Jim Webb’s Defense of Andrew Jackson

[ 102 ] April 24, 2016 |

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Jim Webb is a great Democrat. If it is the racist southern wing of the Democratic Party in 1957. He goes full Schlesinger in his outraged defense of Old Hickory.

One would think we could celebrate the recognition that Harriet Tubman will be given on future $20 bills without demeaning former president Andrew Jackson as a “monster,” as a recent Huffington Post headline did. And summarizing his legendary tenure as being “known primarily for a brutal genocidal campaign against native Americans,” as reported in The Post, offers an indication of how far political correctness has invaded our educational system and skewed our national consciousness.

This dismissive characterization of one of our great presidents is not occurring in a vacuum. Any white person whose ancestral relations trace to the American South now risks being characterized as having roots based on bigotry and undeserved privilege. Meanwhile, race relations are at their worst point in decades.

Far too many of our most important discussions are being debated emotionally, without full regard for historical facts. The myth of universal white privilege and universal disadvantage among racial minorities has become a mantra, even though white and minority cultures alike vary greatly in their ethnic and geographic origins, in their experiences in the United States and in their educational and financial well-being.

Way to blow off racial disparities Jim. Yeah, race relations are at a low point. I wonder why. Maybe it’s because crazy white people like you are outraged that black people are demanding actual equality. “If only we’d stop talking about our racist past, race relations would improve” is a sort of argument, I guess.

Jackson became the very face of the New America, focusing on intense patriotism and the dignity of the common man.

On the battlefield he was unbeatable, not only in the Indian Wars, which were brutally fought with heavy casualties on both sides, but also in his classic defense of New Orleans during the War of 1812. His defense of the city (in which he welcomed free blacks as soldiers in his army) dealt the British army its most lopsided defeat until the fall of Singapore in 1942.

Gee, let’s not overstate the Battle of New Orleans here! And that’s nice that Jackson allowed free blacks to fight him. He totally learned from that and then freed his slaves at the Hermitage…This is the only time that black people come up in Jim Webb’s op-ed.

As president, Jackson ordered the removal of Indian tribes east of the Mississippi to lands west of the river. This approach, supported by a string of presidents, including Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, was a disaster, resulting in the Trail of Tears where thousands died. But was its motivation genocidal? Robert Remini, Jackson’s most prominent biographer, wrote that his intent was to end the increasingly bloody Indian Wars and to protect the Indians from certain annihilation at the hands of an ever-expanding frontier population. Indeed, it would be difficult to call someone genocidal when years before, after one bloody fight, he brought an orphaned Native American baby from the battlefield to his home in Tennessee and raised him as his son.

Oh holy shit. The Remini discussion of the adoption! I read this book at least 15 years ago and I still remember how much Remini focuses on that adoption to show that Jackson didn’t actually hate Indians. And I’ll bet Jim Webb has some Cherokee friends so he totally isn’t racist! Actually Jim, that argument doesn’t hold water at all. Yes, one can be genocidal and adopt a pet from the exterminated race. That’s a pathetic, awful argument.

The rest is just talking about how much we should love Jackson because he was so tough and manly. Which I guess does appeal to Jim Webb. What it should have to do with us in 2016 is unclear. This is classic Webb. Downplay genocide, not even discuss slavery, totally avoid Jackson’s utterly disastrous economic policies, play up the violence and manliness.

In conclusion, I am amazed that Jim Webb is not the Democratic Party presidential nominee in 2016.

And why the hell not. This song is dumb but is actually less dumb than Jim Webb’s defense.

Anti-Vaccination Idiots Have Been With Us As Long as Vaccinations

[ 27 ] April 24, 2016 |

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A useful reminder that not only is the anti-vaccination hysteria not a new phenomenon, but the idea that Americans somehow traditionally believed in science and progress through its history until the recent past is an ahistorical assumption not borne out by a closer examination.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 28

[ 78 ] April 24, 2016 |

This is the grave of Robert McNamara.

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This is a man who died without any blood on his hands at all. In fact, it’s hard to think of an American who hurt less people than Robert McNamara.

Robert McNamara is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, on the lands of the traitor Robert E. Lee, Arlington, Virginia.

Do We Want Any Aluminum Production in the United States?

[ 68 ] April 24, 2016 |

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Do we have any interest in having any industrial production left in the United States? This is not an abstract question. It’s a real one, at least concerning the aluminum industry. China is dumping aluminum on the global marketplace to effectively take over all international production, while Alcoa seeks to close U.S plants and move elsehwere. Prices for it are plummeting. It is seriously risking what is left of the aluminum industry in the United States. The United Steelworkers is urging the Obama administration to act to save their jobs:

An American labor union is pushing the United States to impose broad, steep tariffs on aluminum imports using a little-used but wide-ranging trade law that has riled the country’s trading partners in the past.

The effort by the United Steelworkers union comes with trade increasingly an election-year issue in the United States and elsewhere. More than three-quarters of the United States aluminum smelting industry that existed five years ago will have been idled or shut down by this summer as imports have surged, according to the union’s legal petition.

The union blames China’s rising exports, though if successful its effort would also affect American imports from Canada and many other countries.

The union’s law firm on Monday filed a petition covering raw aluminum imports with an American trade panel. The petition invokes Section 201 of the 1974 Trade Act. The section was last invoked by President George W. Bush in 2001 to start a legal process that led to American tariffs on steel imports the following year.

A Section 201 case covers essentially all imports of a product from all over the world. That makes it more substantial than anti-subsidy and anti-dumping cases against imports from a single country. The European Union objected to President Bush’s use of Section 201, which resulted in American tariffs on a wide range of steel products, until the administration dropped them in late 2003.

Why precisely is this necessary?

China, which already produces more than half the world’s aluminum, is expanding capacity even as its economy decelerates. The result has been a surge in exports and falling prices for aluminum.

Chinese exports of aluminum jumped more than 27 percent in the past two years, Chinese customs figures show.

A spokesman for the government-affiliated China Aluminum Association, who gave his family name as Zeng, said aluminum’s increasing use in high-speed railway equipment, aerospace and electronics justified China’s expanding production capacity and rising exports.

Smelters in Canada and elsewhere, having been displaced in their traditional international markets, have stepped up shipments of raw aluminum to the United States. American imports of raw aluminum from Canada, the biggest supplier, jumped 10 percent by tonnage last year, United States customs data shows.

So the fundamental question as Americans we have to ask ourselves is whether we want some union jobs to survive in this industry, not to mention the industry itself. To answer no has a major impact on the future of any industrial unionism and jobs policy. I know that free trading fundamentalists love to bathe themselves in moralistic language of saving the world’s poor through capitalism, but there’s a very real cost here, a cost that you as an American have to live with in your own country. It’s already contributing heavily to Trumpism. Continued economic instability for the working class is not only a moral problem of its own but a political problem that can’t be solved by vague discussions of more education, retraining programs that don’t provide a path forward, or ideas like UBI that might be a reality in 20 years but sure aren’t now. You have to answers for the USW right now about what happens to their workers.

We do need industry in this country. We need good jobs for people who do not have college educations. There are many positives to global trade, but there are also positives for industrial production at home. The two issues need to be balanced. The United States does need an aluminum industry.

Jacobin: Walking on the Fighting Side of Me

[ 180 ] April 24, 2016 |

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Were you thinking, I really need to know what Jacobin has to say about Merle Haggard? Probably not. Unfortunately, Jacobin decided to publish a Merle Haggard obituary of sorts, by Jonah Walters. It is, without exaggeration, the worst essay I have ever seen in that publication and one of the worst essays on music I have ever read. It is essentially an exercise in Aesthetic Stalinism, arguing that Merle Haggard was a terrible person and overrated artist because he was supposedly the voice of American reaction for a half-century. This is not only wrong politically, it’s wrong musically. Let’s break it down.

The America Merle Haggard sang about was an ugly, indefensible place, a revanchist fantasy where the democratizing momentum of the 1960s never swept from sinful coastline cities into the pure heart of the middle country; where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites; where women existed only to break hearts and be heartbroken (generally in lonesome small-town diners); and where the most working-class people could hope for was martyrdom, not liberation.

This is ridiculous and just wrong. “Where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites.” Huh. Well, what about “Irma Jackson”? What about “Go Home”? Both are songs about interracial relationships broken up by racists. Haggard actually wanted to release “Irma Jackson” instead of “Fighting Side of Me” as the followup to “Okie from Muskogee” but the record company overruled him. Yet such facts never get in Walters’ way. Merle was not singing about black oppression per se, but I don’t think that’s a reasonable standard by which to judge the politics of a musician. Moreover, there are plenty of minor songs that at least express a certain level of solidarity with working people of other races. For instance, “The Immigrant” off Haggard’s relatively minor 1978 album I’m Always on a Mountain When a Fall (“It’s Been a Great Afternoon” was the big hit on this album) is not particularly sophisticated or a great song but it’s a song about undocumented migrants that welcomes them into the country and hopes they will come back when they are inevitably deported. Walters’ argument on Merle Haggard’s catalog is absolutely incorrect.

As for the line about women, welcome to country music. And this is of course the real problem with Walters’ article. He is dismissive of country music as an art form because he doesn’t like the politics and considers the entire genre a revanchist fantasy. More on this later. Songs about heartbreak are the centerpiece of country music songwriting, especially before 1990. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette sang about women in these terms just as much as Merle Haggard or any other supposedly sexist male artist. One feels that Walters is the type of lefty who makes an exception for Johnny Cash, but dismisses the entire genre otherwise as the music of racists and sexists.

For Haggard, working-class allegiance meant political conservatism. He shape-shifted to suit the times, but never wavered in his reactionary posture. He was a hippie-hating hawk in the sixties and seventies, a dutiful Reaganite in the eighties, and a petulant chest-pounder during the first Gulf War, when he broke a mid-career spell of semi-obscurity with a song criticizing antiwar protesters. There are precious few lyrics in his songbook worth defending.

Now this my friends is what you call a selective timeline. Among other things, I wonder why Walters doesn’t discuss the Iraq War? Actually, he does, later in the article:

But no amount of waffling could challenge the red-blooded conservatism of his some of his fans, including the contemporary country star Toby Keith, whose Iraq War–mongering sing-along “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” was inspired by Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”

He blames Merle Haggard for Toby Keith. Interesting. I wonder if there were any county musicians who opposed the Iraq War? Oh yeah, this guy:

A new Merle Haggard song that is critical of the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq is being rushed to thousands of radio stations around the United States.

Tom Thacker, vice president of Hag Records, says the song “That’s the News” is generating intense interest around the country from media and fans.

“We’re mailing it out as we speak,” Thacker said. “It’s going to a broad range of stations.”

“It’s another one of Merle Haggard’s social commentaries,” he said. “This time it’s kind of opposed to the tone of ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me.”‘

Quite the unreconstructed right-winger there! There are other anti-Iraq War Haggard songs as well.

At the core of Walters’ analysis is that Haggard wasn’t the right kind of political artist. By representing white populism and not engaging in fantasies of global revolution, Haggard somehow sold out the American working class, who clearly didn’t want to hear his messages as he is only one of the most popular artists in the history of recorded music.

The same year, he released “Working Man’s Blues.” This was a year in which workers’ movements all over the world demanded a more just economy, replete with better entitlements and expanded leisure time.

But according to “Working Man’s Blues,” to be a proud member of the working class was to be a dutiful employee, arriving to work on time in the morning, drinking beer in the evening, and denying the need for welfare all the while.

First, saying “workers’ movements all over the world demanded a more just economy” is both true and not true at the same time. Yes, there were uprisings at Lordstown and elsewhere through the 1970s. But that doesn’t mean that a majority of workers believed such things per se, that they felt their popular music had to represent those viewpoints if they did, or that wanting to go home and drink a beer is somehow anti-political or antithetical to their interests. As I have stated elsewhere, one problem the labor left has is that it assumes an empowered worker is a worker who is going to spend their off-hours engaged in meetings for democratic unions or anti-racist meetings. Sometimes it is. It’s also empowering to be able to go home and watch a bad CBS comedy, or have time to watch your kid’s soccer game, if that’s what you want to do. Empowerment is not “do what I think you should do.” Empowerment actually means “you have choices to do what you want to do.”

Walters clearly has not actually read anything on Haggard either, which is too bad since the literature on him is voluminous. He mentions that Haggard played for Pat Nixon’s birthday in 1973 as central to his argument that Haggard was an unreconstructed conservative. What he doesn’t do is discuss how Haggard actually responded to that event. Jefferson Cowie does detail this event, in his great book Stayin’ Alive, which Walters desperately needs to read if he wants to write about the white working-class. Haggard described it as a horrible experience. He remembered, “I felt like I was coming out for hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.” That’s the evidence Walters should be using. But instead, the actual fact of Haggard playing at this event is a sign of his unreconstructed politics in this incredibly shallow essay.

Walters then goes on to somehow blame Haggard’s nostalgic songs about the 1980s as prepping for Reagan’s election but has no evidence at all to even begin supporting this point.

The point of course is not that Merle Haggard is a progressive hero. He’s not. Merle Haggard’s core belief was that he liked money. He acted accordingly. He wrote a wide variety of songs, some of which expressed conservative fantasies, others that expressed quite progressive and nuanced politics.

But for all too large swaths of the left, dealing with the actually existing white working class and their cultural forms is far more difficult than fantasizing about the idealized white working class in their minds. See this absurdity of a paragraph:

It’s a tragedy that Haggard adopted a regressive, individualistic politics of misplaced nostalgia. In other circumstances, his life experience might have guided him toward the opposite, toward a progressive politics of collective action.

This is Jacobin magazine, a magazine hoping to spawn a new revolutionary politics. You might call it a tragedy that white people don’t generally respond to cross-racial collective action, but the point if you believe that should not be that Merle Haggard represents everything wrong with America because he didn’t write songs from the precise political perspective you personally espouse. It should be that we need to learn from Haggard’s songs to tap into tenets of white populism where the left might build a broader class-based politics. But so often on the left, talking about the white working class as they actually exist, turns into a snobbish dismissal, whether of actual people or of their cultural forms. That this essay is being published at the same time that the same magazine has published many essays supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders is quite telling. As the 2016 elections have shown, we are in a moment of an upsurge of white populism. A lot of it has supported Trump. But not all of it. Sanders has had some success among the white working class. He’s the kind of politician that can provide a real voice for white working-class people. Jacobin supports that, but seems to also lack actual white working-class voices that make these people real. It’s easy for the left to talk about the working-class from a generalized perspective. But Walters’ essay shows how quickly many leftists fall into a knee-jerk belief that the actual living breathing white working class is a political failure and thus evaluates their cultural forms from that perspective. Walters attempts to avoid this in his last paragraph:

We can defend the millions of Americans — many of them poor, rural, and neglected — who find comfort and companionship in Merle Haggard’s music without defending Haggard himself, because we understand what Haggard didn’t: together we can build a just, prosperous world for the future, rather than simply imagining one in the past.

“We understand what Haggard didn’t” is perhaps the most condescending phrase of all time. It screams of “let me tell you, poor whites, what the real and correct politics are.” It says that Haggard’s songs, or at least the few cherry-picked songs to support this essay and not the actual catalog of Merle Haggard, are actually wrong and we now know better. In union organizing training, you are taught to listen carefully to the people you are talking to and build arguments for unions based upon their concerns, not your concerns and your talking points. This is good advice. I have to feel that Jonah Walters would be a terrible organizer if that was his job because he would condescend rather than listen, spout talking points rather than consider the real desires of the people he was organizing.

Jonah Walters’ article is a failure as a piece of musical journalism. It’s a failure at understanding that art and the artist’s biography are not the same thing. It’s a failure as a history of Merle Haggard. It’s a failure as a political argument. It’s a failure at understanding anything about the white working class. It is an absolutely terrible essay and Jacobin should be ashamed to have published it. This feels more appropriate to be published with the recent anti-white working-class articles at The National Review than in a leftist publication.

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