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Cuba and Puerto Rico

[ 132 ] May 5, 2016 |


Quite the irony in the Caribbean:

Two Caribbean islands are at a crossroads in their relationship with the US. One is plagued by corruption and debt, and dotted with crumbling homes, abandoned by families for the imperial power nearby. The other is Cuba.

Who won the cold war again?

Within 24 hours on Sunday, Puerto Rico’s governor, Alejandro García Padilla, announced that the American territory would default on nearly $370m of debt, after years of failure to put the island’s finances – or its relationship with the US – in order. The next morning a cruise ship full of tourists set sail for Havana, bringing American dreams, dollars and capitalist sense into Cuba’s future. Once seen as parallel case studies in cold war politics, the islands have seemingly switched roles.

For half a century, the US dominated Puerto Rico and Cuba after wrenching them away from Spain, but by the 1950s the islands parted ways. Cubans threw off a US-backed dictator, found new patrons in the Soviet Union and embraced communism. What nationalist fervor Puerto Rico had was quashed, and the colony stayed bound to US-controlled capitalism as a “free associated state”.

“When the cold war was going on they were like showcases for the world to see which system actually works,” said Harry Franqui-Rivera, a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. “A successful Cuba made the United States look bad and if Puerto Rico failed it would make the United States look worse.”

While Cuba-U.S. relations are finally thawing, Puerto Rico finds itself under the control of Wall Street capitalists holding debt. Those debt holders are trying to Shock Doctrine the island.

Then Congress let corporate tax breaks expire, and Puerto Rico’s economy ground to a halt, dependent on aid, restricted in trade, and increasingly unable to enforce its own laws. Last year its governor called the island’s $70bn debt “unpayable”, and the supreme court and Congress will consider whether to give San Juan bankruptcy powers it lacks. The island also faces crises in education and healthcare, and suffered the first US death linked to the Zika virus last week.

But the clamor on the mainland is against emergency aid, and only a few voices for it. Pulitzer-winning playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda has called for help, while a group calling itself the Center for Individual Freedom has aligned itself with Wall Street firms holding the island’s debt, and spent about $200,000 on ads urging Congress not to give the island bankruptcy powers.

“Their economy is so much under the gun of history and US and foreign investor control,” said Lillian Guerra, a historian at the University of Florida, “that there’s no solution there on the island alone.

“The US government, to the degree it has any interest in Puerto Rico, is interested in keeping it as stable as possible because 10% of the landmass is military bases.”

The last sentence gets to the fundamental problem. The U.S. government must have an interest in Puerto Rico because the island is part of the United States. But policymakers pay almost no attention to it and it languishes as a colony without the rights of a state or of an independent nation. Already struggling with poverty, taxes on the poor have been raised in order to try and pay off these debts. Meanwhile, with Puerto Ricans having U.S. citizenship, they are fleeing to the mainland as fast as they can.

I know that in Puerto Rico, opinion differs as to what should happen to the island in the long-term, but it certainly seems to me that statehood is the just position to take. I certainly understand why independence would be appealing, but the economic conditions post-independence would probably be even worse than they are now. And the current situation seems increasingly untenable.


Wilmore, Obama, and Blackness

[ 216 ] May 5, 2016 |


Interesting essay about Larry Wilmore’s “controversial” White House Correspondents Dinner bit.

Every now and then, however, we’ll see President Obama being black. There was, of course, the famous campaign trail fist bump with Michelle in 2008. Then there were the different handshakes he deployed during a locker room meet and greet—one for a white guy and one for black basketball star Kevin Durant.

Certainly Obama’s singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser at Harlem’s Apollo Theater was far more soulful than it would have been in a different setting, with a predominately white audience. And the president’s speech that culminated with a touching performance of “Amazing Grace” could have happened only in a Charleston church touched by racially charged violence.

Wilmore knows what all black men know: There are at least two guys lurking under the surface.

And after more than seven years, Wilmore wanted to be honest about it in a way that, while toeing a line between acceptable and objectionable, was culturally familiar.

Of course, the president had pulled off his own code switch at the end of his standup routine.

“Obama out,” he said, kissing the peace sign and dropping the mic.

In the final year of his administration, he reminded the room that even though eight years in the Oval Office may have aged him, he was still the cool black guy from Chicago.

And with Wilmore’s code switch, he was able to tell a president that has been criticized for being both “too black” and “not black enough” that black men are proud to be his brothers.

Also, Van Jones is a tool.

Does the First Amendment Protect Corruption?

[ 53 ] May 5, 2016 |


Bob McDonnell is a very special man. He’s claiming that his corruption should be protected by the First Amendment.

McDonnell’s bribery charge centered on his receipt of about $175,000 in cash and gifts from businessman Jonnie Williams. Aside from the Rolex, Williams gave McDonnell and his wife several large loans, payments for their daughters’ weddings, and a shopping trip to Bergdorf Goodman. The jury found that in exchange, McDonnell tried to help Williams and his company, Star Scientific, promote a dietary supplement called Anatabloc. Williams had wanted Virginia’s public universities to perform costly studies on Anatabloc that could lead to its approval by the FDA. The governor and his wife directed staff to set up meetings between Williams and state employees, and hosted the launch of Anatabloc at the Governor’s Mansion. At one point, McDonnell had even pulled a bottle of Anatabloc from his pocket and pitched it to the state’s secretary of administration, who controlled the state employee health plans.

At trial, McDonnell claimed that his support for Anatabloc was unrelated to Williams’s gifts. But the jury disagreed. Among other pieces of evidence, jury members learned that six minutes after e-mailing Williams about the status of a $50,000 loan, McDonnell had texted an aide about the proposed Anatabloc studies. The jury heard testimony that Maureen McDonnell told Williams, “The governor says it’s okay for me to help you … but I need you to help me.” The jury convicted McDonnell under several federal laws that punish the exchange of money for official government acts.

McDonnell and his supporters argue that even if he did help with Anatabloc in exchange for Williams’s gifts, the First Amendment protects his conduct—Williams’s gifts were simply buying access to the government, letting him make his case for a project that did not ultimately succeed. McDonnell points to the Supreme Court majority’s holdings in two recent campaign-finance cases—Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC—that narrowed the definition of corruption. In McCutcheon, the Court identified “only one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances: corruption.” In both McCutcheon and in Citizens United, which invalidated limits on political spending, the Court concluded that “ingratiation and access … are not corruption.”

If Scalia was alive, I would guess the Supreme Court would uphold McDonnell’s absurd claims. As is, they at the very least won’t be roundly rejected.

Global Environmental Roundup

[ 9 ] May 5, 2016 |


For whatever reason, I have a lot of small stories about global environmental issues in my blog list so let’s do them at all at once.

Between poor governance and drought, Zimbabwe’s wildlife refuge are evidently overpopulated with large mammals the nation can’t provide for and so the nation is going to sell off a bunch of elephants to other nations. Given that they sold a bunch to China last year, a nation that routinely violated CITES in order to turn rare animals into consumer products, this probably will not go well.

In Nicaragua, drought and climate change are adding to discomfort over the Chinese building a shipping canal across the nation and have led to large-scale protests against the project. This is one way where we see climate change interact with other social and political problems to create higher tensions. That the center of these protests is in the heavily indigenous Atlantic side of the country is also important here, given the Sandinistas war with the Misquitos in the 1980s and the long-standing tensions between the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the nation.

Myanmar is banning logging. The military government used the nation’s vast forests to fund itself, mostly selling the wood to China. Deforestation is rapidly becoming a major issue in the nation. The new government banning logging is a real challenge to the military’s still significant power. We’ll see if the government can enforce this.

Today is African World Heritage Day. This is an interesting piece on how climate change could impact Africa’s cultural heritage:

The threat posed to Africa’s world heritage sites by climate change was the subject of a recent story by the Voice of America’s Africa Service. A full audio clip of the story can be found by clicking the link below. In the story, reporter Adam Phillips looked at the threat and what’s being done to address it — including interviews with several US-based professionals who are working with African colleagues to safeguard the continent’s heritage.

Coastal Africa is obviously affected by rising sea levels said WMF’s Ackerman, impacting places like Cape Coast in Ghana, another fortification on the water. Ackerman adds that many of Africa’s cultural and historic sites are threatened by lack of water due to human-caused climate change, not too much water. The result is drought or creeping desertification that threatens sites like Mauritania’s Chinguetto Mosque, where the World Monuments Fund is at work. The site was a great medieval center of Islamic learning that sits on a landscape that has become so dry it can no longer grow food.

US/ICOMOS member Adam Markham, deputy director of the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a co-author of UCS’s Landmarks at Risk report, was also interviewed for the story. According to Markham, rising sea level causes increased flooding for cities on or near the coasts where most people live. And the storm surges that result from increasingly frequent “super-storms” and other extreme weather events make severe floods extremely likely.

Climate change impacts know no national boundaries, with otherwise-unconnected communities facing common climate change risk profiles. Desertification threatens places as divergent as Africa and the United States while coastal communities across the globe face a common threat from sea level rise. This dynamic places an enormous premium on cultural heritage professionals who can share learned experiences internationally.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi is urging India’s prime minister Narendra Modi to crack down on the human trafficking in children, which has increased because of India’s worst drought in decades.

“Owing to this drought and the on-going water crisis, children are becoming increasingly vulnerable. In the coming months, there is an increased risk of lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of children becoming victims of these circumstances.”

The government estimates more than 330 million people – almost a quarter of India’s population – have been hit by the scarcity of water in states such as Maharashtra in the west and Karnataka in the south.

As crops wither and livestock perish, ten of thousands of people are migrating in search of food, water and jobs, leaving behind women, children and older family members who are vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.

Figures given by Satyarthi’s office showed the number of children dropping out of school in the ten drought-affected states had risen by 22 percent, while child trafficking cases had increased by 24 percent.

Can Someone Explain the 70s to Me?

[ 147 ] May 5, 2016 |

What in the hell was wrong with the 70s? Donny & Marie want to do a Star Wars spoof? Great. Let’s get Kris Kristofferson to play Han Solo! And Redd Foxx to do something! And Paul Lynde can wander in. And some dancing stormtroopers! Why not!

Book Review: Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History

[ 22 ] May 4, 2016 |


Scenes on a Cotton Plantation: Hoeing, engraving from Harper’s Weekly, February 2, 1867

Sven Beckert’s Bancroft Prize-winning book is a brilliant as advertised. He explores the history of cotton production to demonstrate how Europeans took control of a crop that grew widely around the world but not in Europe and used it to promote global expansion through state-sponsored violence and control over labor. In doing so, Beckert weaves together the experiences of peoples around the world and builds connections between the past and present.

For Beckert, the entire process of cotton expansion, industrialization, and the cotton fields and apparel industry to the present is backed with horrifying violence. Cotton grows in many forms around the world’s tropics. From Mexico to India, it has served as the basis of household economies for thousands of years, through weaving and spinning. But what he calls “war capitalism” changed this. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, European nations and the United States went to war to violently open lands for cotton production. Within the United States, this was the wars on Native Americans in the South that led to the Trail of Tears. The trans-Atlantic slave trade violently provided the labor for these cotton agriculture. Conquest in India and Egypt was influenced by the insatiable desire for cotton.

The growing power of the state allowed this expansion to happen. As we can see throughout the history of capitalism, talk of “free enterprise” covered up the central hand of the state in shaping markets, ensuring compliant labor, passing tariffs to protect domestic industry, and going to war to find new cotton lands or bring the world’s labor within a cotton regime. War capitalism became industrial capitalism after the conquest of land and people. The state grew to facilitate this industrial capitalism, with state power backing capitalist expansion throughout the globe.

As an Americanist, Beckert naturally enough sees the Civil War as a transitional point in the history of cotton, but in a very different way than a U.S.-centric book. With Europe largely reliant upon U.S. cotton by 1861, the Civil War placed those nations in a real crisis. The U.S. was producing so much cotton that there was a large surplus, delaying the crisis. But mills across France, Germany and especially Britain closed by 1863. By early 1862, cotton imports to Britain were down 50 percent in total, 96 percent from the United States. The state was there to help solve these problems. Britain especially sought to produce more cotton in India and Egypt. India had long produced much cotton, but largely persisted in its pre-colonial household production traditions, largely for domestic production, which consistently frustrated the British. Egypt began ramping up its cotton production, while nations such as Mexico added to the global cotton supply as well. American diplomats sought to promote cotton production around the globe as well, for they knew that if cotton supplies grew, the agitation in Britain to recognize the Confederacy would decline, as it did once the crisis passed.

Reconstruction forced American cotton farmers to figure out new ways of controlling labor to grow cotton, but this was not strictly an American process either. Rather, in his chapter titled “Global Reconstruction,” Beckert demonstrates how the process to rethink cotton labor was global and necessary for the Euro-American industrial societies reliant upon cotton production to feed their own working classes. Various forms of labor replaced chattel slavery. Sharecropping in the American South and Brazil became common. In Egypt, both sharecroppers and small owners provided family based labor. But the independence of these local economies was large gone. Instead, these farmers were now enmeshed in a system of global capitalism that often kept them in debt through sharecropping, crop liens, and merchants. This eventually led to a flood of cotton pouring into European nations. While Beckert doesn’t explicitly address this, it’s long been my contention that while the British were happy to continue using slave-made cotton from the South, it would have expanded production in the colonies even without the Civil War in order to lower the cost. Were that to have happened, the independent Confederacy may well have seen the price of its economic staple collapse and become unsustainable as an independent nation. Of course, this is conjecture and has little place in a history book, except to note that the British had long wanted to get more cotton out of India but found itself frustrated by local resistance.

By the late 19th century, the rise of imperialism became closely connected to cotton production, with European states binding the world together in an ever more intensive attempt to acquire cheap cotton. Perhaps most notorious was the Germans bringing experts from the Tuskegee Institute, some of whom were ex-slaves themselves, to its colony in Togo in order to find ways to force peoples there to grow for the German market, as Europeans states were doing throughout Africa and south Asia. The French forced peasants to grow cotton under state supervision in Côte d’Ivoire, as did the Belgians in the Congo.

Conditions in the apparel factories of Europe and the United States were hardly better than the fields of Togo or Alabama. Like today, cotton manufacturers loved to exploit young girls and the state went to great lengths to provide that labor. Beckert tells the story of a 10-year-old girl named Mary Hootton, working in a Manchester factory, who we only know of because she was chosen to testify before a British investigative commission in 1833. Her life was brutal, with beatings at home and two years in the factories already, where she would be punished for being late to work by having a 20 pound weight put around her little neck and being forced to walk around the mill while the other children made fun of her. States created legal frameworks for wage labor that could include imprisonment for leaving work without permission in Prussia or for breaking a labor contract in England. Less directly, the increased inability to make a living through household manufacturing, often due to states forcing open markets for cotton exports, forced workers into the brutal factory world of Mary Hootton. Whether in Manchester, South Carolina, Mexico, Japan, Switzerland, or Bangladesh, household workers have found their ability to maintain household production overturned by global capitalism in the last 200 years and their states have ensured access to cheap and pliable labor, with force to back up industry if necessary.

In today’s globalized cotton capitalism, how much has changed? Although Beckert covers the recent past and present relatively briefly, the answer for him, as it is for myself, is not as much as you would think. Today, cotton production is still a system of rampant exploitation, where children are forced into the fields in Uzbekistan and where factories collapse and kill over 1100 workers in Bangladesh, with the American companies contracting production there and therefore playing a huge role in creating this system facing no accountability. Meanwhile, the cotton industrial towns of the global north are gone and largely replaced by nothing, as one can see in towns around southern New England like Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and Fall River. The state still shapes cotton today, whether through forced labor, union-busting, or cotton growing subsidies in the United States. The current system of globalized labor exploitation in the cotton and apparel industry is not some great opportunity for the Bangladeshi and Chinese poor but rather part of the same system of capitalist cotton that in its previous iterations committed genocide against Native Americans, vastly expanded chattel slavery, and oppressed factory workers in Europe and the U.S.

While the writing is more adequate than literary, Empire of Cotton is definitely accessible to the general reader. You all should read it if you want a truly global history that will change the way you look at both the past and the globalized economy of the present.

The Pirate Party

[ 44 ] May 4, 2016 |


Fascinating political events in Iceland, where the conservative prime minister had to step down because of revelations in the Panama Papers about his tax avoidance. But the electorate doesn’t seem to trust the traditional left-of-center parties either because of its responsibility for the nation’s financial crisis. So what is the option? Something called The Pirate Party, which is likely to win the upcoming elections.

Making this political crisis even more historic is who stands to gain from it. The current center-right government coalition is thoroughly unpopular, but the main center-left Social Democratic Alliance and left-wing Left-Green opposition parties were largely discredited from their disastrous handling of the economic recovery in the wake of the financial crisis. Consequently, the nascent Pirate Party—which you won’t be surprised to learn is intensely anti-establishment—has surged in the polls and is well-positioned to lead a new coalition after the next election.

The Pirates, who have small sister parties in other European nations, have proposed a radical experiment in government transparency, direct democracy, digital privacy, and copyright reform—a platform almost perfectly suited to take advantage of the disgust over the Panama Papers revelations. While the Pirates intentionally avoid placing themselves on the left-right political spectrum, many of their other policy planks, such as support for the welfare state and reform of drug laws, put them closer to those on the left. With polls showing their support over 30 percent, the Pirates would easily have the numbers to form a coalition with one or both of the two left-leaning opposition parties, meaning Iceland could be in for a dramatic shift in policy whenever elections eventually take place.

I suppose the upside here is that in a parliamentary system, there is a chance that if these people are actually competent, they could reframe the left side of the nation’s political spectrum and reinvigorate a more populist politics that means a real leftist challenge to corporations. That’s a big ask of course, because insurgent politics are often not actually good at running the day-to-day operations of government that matter a lot. Certainly something to follow anyway.

The GOP is Not Dead

[ 311 ] May 4, 2016 |


I do not understand this whole line of thought in the last few months that the Trump phenomenon is the end of the Republican Party. Michael Cohen writes an obituary for the GOP:

At one point, the Republican Party nominally stood on a platform of economic and social conservatism. At least that was the public face of the party. Today, with Trump at its helm, it’s a party of nativism, xenophobia, crudeness, and misogyny. Those elements were of course always present in the party — and are at the root of its modern political success. But they were generally hidden below the surface or utilized with dog whistles. With Trump, there is no mistaking the fact that what drives GOP voters is not conservative dogma, but rather resentment, anxiety, and fear, particularly of minorities, Muslims, and immigrants.

That post-2012 Republican Party autopsy that said the GOP must reach out to Hispanic voters if it wanted to win a national election again is dead and buried. Quite simply, the Republican Party cannot win national elections if it doesn’t find a way to broaden the party’s appeal. With Trump as the presidential nominee, that effort will be set back, perhaps a generation or more.

Even more searing than the electoral challenges, Trump has delivered a savage blow to the GOP’s conception of itself. Armed with a mere handful of endorsements from elected GOP officials, Trump has run a campaign aimed directly against the Republican establishment. And he beat the stuffing out of it. And by taking positions on everything from taxes and trade to transgender Americans and terrorism that run directly against decades of conservative orthodoxy, he’s left the Republican establishment with no clear ideological mooring. Is the GOP a party of small government conservatism or a party of nativism and white male resentment? For decades, Republicans tried to be both, and Trump has, with a single presidential campaign, exposed the fallacy that lay at the heart of the party — namely that its voters were only interested in conservative dogma insofar as it was married to those aforementioned feelings of resentment, anxiety, and fear. But when given a choice between dogma and dog whistle, they’ve chosen this year – overwhelmingly – to go with the latter.

I think there are two ways these obituaries go. Cohen more specifically talks about the short and medium-term electoral issues. While it’s very hard to see Trump winning, the Republicans will still control the House and many statehouses. They’ve baked their advantages into the cake that the GOP really isn’t “dead” electorally even in the short term outside of the White House. Even if they lose the Senate in 2016, they may well win it back in 2018. Others seem to go farther and really think the GOP is dying as a political party and a major realignment is happening. Here I am highly skeptical. At most, the GOP is “dead” in the same way that the Republicans were in 1964 or the Democratic Party was in 1988, which means not at all. For me, all that has really happened is that the base voter for the GOP has thrown off the elites. They don’t really care about corporate tax breaks. They care about their own white nationalist resentments and figured out that they don’t need Mitt Romney or another GOP elite to give it to him. They can choose their own daddies.

There are several others examples of these sorts of essays. Here’s Robert Reich’s version. Here’s Zack Blumenfeld in Paste. There are many others. None of them make much sense. All of them suffer from short-term prognostication about the current presidential race. The GOP is going nowhere.

Quality Reviewing

[ 12 ] May 4, 2016 |


The best book reviews are as much about the review author as the book being reviewed while at the same time being fair to the book. That’s what I strive for when I review, although probably with mixed success. Anyway, I thought of this when reading Rich Yeselson’s review of the new Tamara Draut book Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America.

The ironic truth is that when labor is strong, it doesn’t need the state to intervene so much on its behalf. That’s why labor leaders in the 1950s, like Steelworkers legal counsel and later Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg believed, naïvely if understandably, that labor did best when the courts and legislatures left it alone to resolve differences with management. But when labor is weak, as it is now, it lacks the political and economic juice required to win its own battles, much less to pass remedial legislation on its own behalf.

EFCA was worth a try, but there was never a chance that unions were going to persuade pro-business Democratic senators in low-union-density states like Louisiana, Virginia, Nebraska, let alone Arkansas, to vote against the pathological hatred of their business donors for unions, and support a law that would have made it easier to organize. A more promising avenue to assist passage of such a bill, when political conditions allow it, would be to continue to pressure Democrats to abolish the super-majority filibuster.

Throughout the book, Draut returns to what is her greatest fear—that despite the encouraging signs that this new working class is on the move, she is not certain “whether the racial, ethnic, and gender divides that have impeded solidarity can finally be dismantled.” She notes that polling shows that the less financially secure are the most worried about the economic impact of immigration. She accuses Republicans of having “deliberately used race to pursue their broader objectives of shrinking government and deregulating the economy.”

She is right to be worried. And she wrote this book before the rise of Donald Trump. We understand now, if we didn’t before, how significant it is that the social democracies of Western Europe were constructed when their populations were almost entirely homogeneous. Today, right-wing parties in several countries, with much stronger labor movements than that of the U.S., wish to maintain nativist social welfare states and reject a broader social solidarity. In the United States, we know from the rage so many white working-class people have toward Obamacare—even some who have benefited from it!—that the historical weight of racial and ethno-nationalism is a great burden. Donald Trump’s campaign for president is an effect, not a cause, of this widespread ethno-nationalism of white workers who, justifiably, think they’ve been screwed, but see people of color not as colleagues and collaborators but as the cause of their distress. Draut reminds us time and again that a solidarity is painstakingly being built, but from a movement of the new working class that is “primarily, but not entirely, of people of color and immigrants.” It has the support of what I have called the new “laborism” of mostly white, college-educated union staffers and other urban, professional leftists, but less so of the white working class itself.

One of the biggest problems in writing on the left is what we might call the “predictive hope fallacy,” where writers so want a future (or sometimes a past) to be better than the present that sometimes the rational analysis goes out the window to write some sort of inspiring conclusion that will supposedly show how everything is going to work out. I actively tried to avoid this in Out of Sight by grounding my ideas in the proven (if limited) effectiveness of regulatory and export law and creating citizen access to already existing institutions like the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts. One can question whether my ideas are also too optimistic, but that was the goal anyway. I’m certainly not saying that Draut does that, despite the grandiose title, because I haven’t read the book yet. But Yeselson definitely doesn’t go down that road, which is why some of the left dislike him. Both Draut and Yeselson are right to think about the real limitations to working-class solidarity, when the white working class has so supported the xenophobic fascism of Trump.

In any case, a lot of chew on in the review and likely the Draut book.

I’ll Wear This Badge with Pride

[ 52 ] May 3, 2016 |

Given that the other option is working on this 8000 word encyclopedia article on the history of forests, I’ve naturally spent the last hour or so arguing against Rania Khalek’s ridiculous “Hillary is worse than Trump” pablum on Twitter. In case you are curious a vote for Hillary is a vote to kill everyone outside of America. Evidently, the entire world is affected precisely the same way by the United States and thus feels the same way about the 2016 election. Good to know that the Germans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and South Africans are all the same. Trump at least gives the world a chance! Or something. It’s that kind of evening.

Anyway, there’s one person out there who is willing to console Khalek against my meanness. Thanks to TBogg for bringing this to my attention.

Freddie doesn’t like me? Oh my! How will I sleep tonight?

Yale and Calhoun

[ 42 ] May 3, 2016 |


Yale University, an institution that won’t revoke an honorary degree even if the recipient is later shown to be a mass murderer, not surprisingly refuses to rename Calhoun College, named for the architect of secession himself. Instead, it decided to name new colleges after Benjamin Franklin and the civil rights activist Pauli Murray. The esteemed historian and Yale professor Glenda Gilmore says this is not enough and that Yale will eventually cave on this because John C. Calhoun represents evil.

To be sure, there’s something noteworthy about the contrast between these two figures who now sit across campus from each other. Although they lived in different centuries, Calhoun in the 19th, and Murray in the 20th, in many ways, she lived in — and fought against — the world that he built.

Calhoun, a Yale graduate, congressman and the seventh vice president of the United States, owned dozens of slaves in Fort Hill, S.C. Murray grew up in poverty in Durham, N. C., as the granddaughter of an enslaved woman. Calhoun championed slavery as a “positive good”; Murray’s great-grandmother was raped by her slave master. Calhoun profited immensely from the labor of the enslaved people on his plantation; Murray was a radical labor activist in Harlem during the Great Depression.

Calhoun perverted constitutional principles when he shaped a states’ rights doctrine that precipitated the Civil War and set in place a 90-year legal justification for segregation and disfranchisement. Murray fought for four decades against the regime that Calhoun authorized and published “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” the first comprehensive survey of segregation statutes across the nation. Calhoun was a patriarch who whipped his slave Aleck for offending Mrs. Calhoun; Murray was a gay woman who became a founder of the National Organization for Women.

The decision to keep Calhoun’s name overestimates his value for Yale students. Yale’s president, Peter Salovey, argues that “removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it,” and living in Calhoun’s shadow will make students “better prepared to rise to the challenges of the present and the future.”

That last bit is patently absurd. Calhoun does have plenty to teach us about slavery. But renaming Calhoun College does not get in the way of teaching about slavery. Calhoun College is not retaining its name because it’s a rare opportunity to teach about slavery. It’s retaining its name on the principle of never going back on honorary naming (and no doubt there are wealthy donors who are behind this as well).

Texas Prison Museum

[ 26 ] May 3, 2016 |


When I lived in Texas, I kept wondering if I should go to the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. It was both horrifying and fascinating at the same time. Why would someone go see an electric chair in a prison largely dedicated to celebrating law enforcement? But maybe the answer is that I would go to see who would go see that. In any case, I never actually went. But evidently, prison museums are a burgeoning set of tourist attractions across the country and the Texas Observer has what is actually a really interesting article on the Texas Prison Museum.

But while the museum may reinforce a message of humane treatment as progress, it also reflects prison administration to the exclusion of inmates, says Elizabeth Neucere, a history master’s graduate from SHSU who wrote her thesis about the museum. While panels throughout the museum explain the work inmates do, few exhibits feature prisoners’ voices. Most inmates mentioned by name were executed, tried to escape, or were considered “famous and infamous.” A photo exhibit featuring executed inmates is one of the few displays that allows visitors to hear the voices behind the bars.

“The Texas Prison Museum … inhibits the possibility for public forum by creating silences in its historical presentation through the active choices made in exhibit design or display that makes a narrative superficial or absent,” Neucere writes in her thesis. “Impropriety in the Texas prison system goes unnoticed by museum visitors, making contemporary inmate battles for human rights seem unwarranted.”

For instance, Neucere says, the exhibit on inmate punishment displays handcuffs, a ball and chain, and old padlocks, as well as the bat, a leather strap with a wooden handle legally used to whip inmates until 1941. The card next to the bat says “Used for corporal punishment on convicts until the mid 1940s,” omitting the 1909 state investigation that uncovered abusive use of the bat, debates about banning it during the 1912 governor’s race, and its temporary replacement with the “dark cell,” an early form of solitary confinement. The bat returned to widespread use in the 1930s before being banned in 1941. But none of this information is present in the display.

The museum’s selective silences, Neucere says, are partly a response to Ruiz v. Estelle, which resulted in federal oversight and major reforms to the prison system after the 1980 ruling that it was unconstitutional. “Ruiz is not remembered fondly among the prison system and this is reflected in the museum, along with any other court case against the system,” Neucere writes. The plaintiffs’ accounts of overcrowding, inmate-on-inmate violence and inadequate medical care brought negative publicity. She suggests that, consciously or not, the case likely influenced the museum founders’ presentation of the story.

Pierce, the volunteer archivist, says there’s probably some truth in that argument. Many people who helped with the museum were directly involved with Ruiz compliance issues, “and they were preoccupied with people being sued and fired,” he says. “I think the thing they liked about the museum is that it gives a sense of authenticity, history and importance: ‘Yeah, I worked at the prison system, and there were some bad things about it sometimes, but we have a history.’”

Asked if he thought some of the decade-old informational panels should be updated, Willett, the museum director and retired warden, was hesitant. “History doesn’t change, so a lot of what’s out there is, in my mind, never going to be updated other than to just refresh it from the fading,” he said. “Some of the stuff is historical, and it’s over with, and it won’t be changed.”

It won’t be changed? Now that’s some wishful thinking! In fact, the article goes on to note that Neucere is taking over as curator next year and certainly will change some things. But curators don’t have full power. Most museums has something like a board of governors. Who tends to serve on these boards? Often they are staunch conservatives, either political appointees or people who are very invested in telling specific stories. So I’d be awfully skeptical that any changes to this museum will be fast. Law enforcement’s influence is likely to remain high, not to mention that I’m guessing the average visitor to this museum does not tend to skew as a Sanders voter. Yet such a museum actually has a ton of potential to tell really interesting stories about the past and present.

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