I just finished reading Steven Kantrowitz’s book from 2000, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. Tillman, the South Carolina politician who became nationally famous for his public defense of lynching and secession and his use of violence and violent language in the Senate and during public speeches, was one of the most loathsome political figures of the Gilded Age, but also one of the most influential. A man from an elite plantation family, after the Civil War, he recast himself as a man of the people who could lead South Carolina whites back into the reinstatement of white supremacy, even though as Kantrowitz discusses, he never accepted poor whites as equals and really wanted to recreate the class and gender relations of the plantation world, as well as the racial relations.
Anyway, two pieces of trivia about Tillman. Which is less surprising?
1) Tillman’s older brother murdered a man in a fight over gambling in 1856. He was indicted for murder. His response was to flee and join William Walker’s invasion of Nicaragua to capture it, legalize slavery, and establish a relationship to the United States that would make bring it within the orbit of American slave owners.
2) Tillman’s personal attorney was Strom Thurmond’s father.
Too busy with book revisions and class prep and hating snow to do any President’s Day posts of my own, but I thought Yglesias’ ranking of presidents was not bad. Ranking Washington 1st is fully defensible, even if I’d go with Lincoln. Establishing the precedent of peaceful transfer of power was vital (and is much to John Adams’ credit as well). TR is about right at #11; the idea of the man as a great president and great man is really falling for the self-promotional material TR himself played a central role in creating. Among other things, for as meh as Taft might have been, so much of Taft’s bad reputation today comes from TR’s self-serving biography written after their split. LBJ seems about right, as does Jefferson.
Really just two major objections and then some minor ones. I know that among the progressive blogosphere, Grant’s reputation has skyrocketed in recent years but the idea that he was the 4th best president is not something I can buy. I agree that much of the criticism of Grant over the years was Dunning School inspired and I realize that there wasn’t that much he could really do in the face of widespread corruption washing over the entire Republican Party and the creeping return of white supremacy, but he wasn’t a particularly effective president. I’d also rank John Tyler much lower. The man named John C. Calhoun Secretary of State and committed the nation to an aggressive pro-slavery policy to carve out a place for a hopeful election victory in 1844. It didn’t work but it did go very far to making sectional tensions the dominant feature of American politics. I’d rank him below Fillmore, if not Pierce and Buchanan.
I don’t think I can agree about George H.W. Bush as #8, but I’d at least be willing to hear the argument. I’d rank Cleveland lower too, but we are really getting into nit-picking mode at this point
This Eve Fairbanks written New Republic profile of the Uruguayan president Jose Mujica’s failure from 10 days ago has had me thinking for the last week. Mujica is a true leftist hero who was a member of the guerrilla Tupamaros and spent time in prison during his nation’s dictatorship and has not made moves toward moderation as he aged and rose in the post-dictatorship political world (such as one can argue has happened to the Brazilian leaders of recent years). He is plainspoken and unpretentious. Despite being president, he lives in his same small house, tending his garden, as he has for years. He dresses about as well as I do, even to official events. In short, he lives the values that the modern left loves. He is an authentic figure.
Unfortunately, Mujica is terrible at politics and has achieved basically nothing because he doesn’t know how to play the political game. Some of the internal critique of Mujica is unfair–what can any one person do about rising crass consumerism? But there is great disappointment in Uruguay and around the world among those who follow Latin American left politics. The problem which Fairbanks identifies correctly I think is the desire for authenticity and heroic leadership that may just be central to a lot of people’s belief systems. Here in the U.S., millions of people saw Obama in 2008 as the head of a social movement (which he understandably did not discourage during his campaign) and then were disappointed when he turned out to be the left-centrist politician he always was (which is not to minimize his achievements). Now Elizabeth Warren has taken that role as the single person progressives look to as having the potential to solve the nation’s problems, thus the Draft Warren desires from many on the left. Now, neither Obama nor Warren are very accurate points of comparisons to Mujica. Obama is a politician in a way Mujica will never be while Warren is a policy wonk and professor and even if not a “professional politician” has a different way of coming at the world than the populist Uruguyan president. But in the end, more is probably going to get done by the deeply flawed and dislikable left-centrist or the wonkish charisma lacking career politician than the populist hero.
In other words, in referring to the leftist backlash against Bill DeBlasio, Fairbanks writes:
It’s a pattern: We keep creating saviors whom we expect to single- handedly restore lost values. Then we lash out at them when they inevitably fall short.
On one level, I don’t have much problem with this because even after we elect a left-leaning leader we need to push them from the left and criticize them from the left. We shouldn’t be a support team for President Obama or anyone else. We should try to drag him to our positions. But the problem is actually believing that Obama or Warren or DeBlasio will solve the problems by the force of their will and personality. Until that belief ends, we are likely to continue a cycle of putting a populist on a pedestal and then walking away when the politician has to act in the real world.
Are you interested in eating at restaurants that treat workers well? ROC-United, the restaurant workers’ labor organization with chapters in several cities, has created an app that not only includes the information they have about individual restaurants but also allows crowdsourced information. It’s a work in progress but this could a really useful tool in publicizing restaurants that treat workers either poorly or well and allow consumers to give their business to ethical businesses.
…Here is the link to the app.
In the 1910s, as workers around the nation were organizing and striking with greater militancy, employers and the government finally began to pay attention to their plight. That certainly didn’t mean that employers would accept unions. But it did mean that employers began seeking ways to siphon off discontent before it led to worker activism. One of the biggest issues in many industries was health and safety. Working conditions were terrible throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1911, states began passing workers’ compensation laws that forced employers into a limited liability for the workers who were injured or killed on the job (health issues were still uncovered). Many employers supported these laws, not because they cared about workers dying on the job, but because after 1900 workers’ lawsuits against companies were increasingly successful and costly.
So many employers, especially in dangerous industries like mining and logging, began implementing company safety programs. These were usually limited, sought to blame workers for their own accidents, and kept control over their implementation firmly in the hands of corporate managers. But they were still better than what existed before. These programs were part of the broader phenomenon of company unions and corporate paternalism that arose in the wake of Ludlow, when John D. Rockefeller Jr. took unprecedented public criticism for the way his company had treated workers. These programs often had a cultural side to them. And thus I present you an alphabet of safety prepared for workers by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) in 1915. I am taking this from Alan Derickson, Workers’ Health Workers’ Democracy: The Western Miners’ Struggle, 1891-1925
A is for accident which we try to avoid
B is for bandage which should be employed
C is for care and carelessness too
D is for damage which from the latter ensue
E is for eyes which goggles protect
F is for feet you must not neglect
G is for ginmill which we do abhor
H is for habit throw it out the door
I is for insurance which you do collect
J is for Jay who insurance does neglect
K is for kindness which cannot be bought
L is for laborer which ‘sistance is sought
M is for manager whose friendship you make
N is for noodle which you must not break
O is for optimist be glad your alive
P is for pension for which all do strive
Q is for quarrels which we do not like
R is for ringleader a good man to spike
S is for superintendent not a bad guy
T is for town to keep it spotless we try
U is for united which we all strive to be
V is for villain who will not agree
W is for willing this our men we do find
X is for xylophone played by some at night time
Y is for yap who always is late
Z is for zealous for this you get great
Subtle, I know. Between pushing blame for accidents on workers in (c), attacking alcohol in (g) and (h) and reminding workers and probably themselves that they were great guys in (m) and (s), this is quite the blunt instrument. Also, the writers of this couldn’t quite figure (x) out to where it could be even remotely relevant.
Last weekend I was in New York for the Jason Isbell show (which I did not think was all that good. As much as I like his songs, playing 8 straight quiet acoustic songs in a big theater does not make for a particularly great live experience. Although anytime I can hear “Codeine” live, I can’t complain too much). Anyway, the other thing I did while I was there was visit the excellent new exhibit at the Grey Art Gallery at NYU titled “The Left Front: Radical Art in the Red Decade, 1929-1940.” This exhibit, I think originally put together by a museum in Chicago, is an outstanding collection of American communist art from the Depression. I was struck by how much more interesting this art was when it was organically responding to conditions in the United States than the Popular Front of the late 30s when everyone had to work to support the Spanish fighting Franco. Probably my favorite piece was a painting of a couple of Stalinists throwing some serious shade at a follower of Jay Lovestone walking past them after Lovestone was expelled from the party. Really, we need more art detailing obscure left sectarian splits. You can view some of the works (alas not the Lovestoneite one) at the link above. If you are in New York or happen to be wandering through, it’s a worthy $3 to see the exhibit.
Nothing could be a better Valentine’s Day treat than reading John Nolte review Fifty Shades of Grey. I don’t want to give away any spoilers but you may not be surprised that he uses it to attack feminism.
As many of you know, the response of some Confederate planters to the defeat of their treasonous actions was to decamp with their slaves to Brazil and start over. Today, there are neo-Confederate celebrations in the Brazilian towns they started. When you combine Confederate nostalgia with Brazil’s myth of racial democracy and that nation’s continued problems with forced labor, things get weird.
Watching how Republican presidential possibilities have been talking in the last couple of weeks, it’s pretty clear that they are going to focus on income inequality, but define income inequality as a problem that exists because the rich pay too much in taxes and the poor don’t pay enough. I know this sounds like a terrible strategy for the Republicans, and maybe it is, but I do believe in their ability to obfuscate an issue and twist meanings that the message of income inequality I hope the Democrats run on in 2016 will have a lot of difficulty motivating the public. In any case, reinventing the reasons for income inequality to fit Republican preferences to concentrate resources among the 1 percent is just another front in that party’s class warfare it has declared on working and middle class Americans. Krugman expands on how Republican governance is an exercise in fleecing the poor:
So, can anyone show me an example of a prominent Republican politician proposing anything that would reduce after-tax-and-transfer inequality? Bank shots don’t count — saying that slashing food stamps will help the poor by making them less dependent, or that cutting capital gains taxes will bring the confidence fairy to everyone’s door, don’t qualify. On the other hand, I’m not demanding that every part of a politician’s program reduce the Gini coefficient, or even that the overall program have that effect. I just want to see one significant piece that goes in that direction.
Maybe there’s something out there, but if so, I haven’t heard about it. Even when there’s something that sounds like it might be in that direction — say, Paul Ryan proposing that the EITC be extended to childless workers — there’s no talk of an increase in funding, so it’s coming at the expense of current recipients.
As I see it, this is the acid test — not because redistribution is always the most important thing, but because it’s how you see whether reformicons (no, spell check, I do *not* mean “reform icons”) are willing to do anything beyond putting the same old pro-plutocratic policies in new bottles. Show me the downward-flowing money!
Of course there’s isn’t any downward-floating money. Nor will there be any. And the same will be the case if a Republican wins in 2016, despite their attempt to co-opt the issue of income inequality.
Are you a Maoist who celebrates Valentine’s Day? Then Freedom Road has some slogans for your day:
Unite world-wide under the magnificent blood-red banner of revolutionary sex/love unfurled by Comrade Valentine!
Uphold in word and practice the Comrade Valentine’s Day slogan spontaneously raised by the broad proletarian masses in North America: Dare to Snuggle, Dare to Sin!!
Rely on Comrade Valentine’s vanguard line of Revolutionary Romanticism to challenge and defeat all reactionary and theocratic assaults against women and LGBTQ folk!!!
Usefully translated into Croatian and Swedish as well. Why those languages? Who knows.