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Advent in the Trump Era

[ 136 ] November 30, 2016 |


I am non-religious. I grew up Lutheran, which cured me of all religion. Didn’t turn me into an atheist. Basically, because I can’t know if there’s a higher power, I don’t care enough to bother with it. The same is truth of math.

But while I may not be religious in any way, it’s also important for the left to recognize its religious allies and allow them to embrace causes and justice in terms of religious language. Too often, we cede religious messaging, especially Christianity, to the right. That’s a bad and sad thing, because a Christian message for the left has a lot of value, even if I don’t really care about it. Thus, I have to appreciate this reckoning with religion after the election. Plus Christians should be encouraged to swear more.


Castro and Africa

[ 50 ] November 30, 2016 |

Cuban president Fidel Castro (R) expresses his joy in meeting former South African president Nelson Mandela at Mandela's office in Johannesburg 02 September 2001 . Castro who took part in the UN World Racism conference in Durban used the opportunity to visit Mandela, whose health is affected by cancer.                  AFP PHOTO YOAV LEMMER (Photo credit should read YOAV LEMMER/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the greatest arguments in favor of Fidel Castro was his anti-colonial, anti-racist foreign policy in Africa. Two essays discuss this critical part of his legacy. First:

Cuba’s involvement in Africa started with its support of Algeria’s liberation struggle against France, then moved to the Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In 1964 Castro sent his personal emissary, Che Guevara, on a three-month visit to a number of African countries. The Cubans believed there was a revolutionary situation in central Africa, and they wanted to help, argues the historian Piero Gleijeses.

While Cuba record in the Horn of Africa was mixed under Castro (it followed the Soviet Union’s lead in militarily aiding Ethiopia’s dictatorship against a Somalian invasion and Eritrean independence fighters), successes did follow elsewhere, where it pursued a more independent foreign policy.

Even as Cuba’s intervention struggled in Congo, Amilcar Cabral, leading a guerrilla struggle against Portuguese colonialism in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, asked for Cuban assistance. Between 1966 and 1974 a small Cuban force proved pivotal in the Guineans’ victory over the Portuguese. Following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974, Guinea-Bissau finally won independence.

Cuba’s involvement in the freedom of South Africa from white minority rule was even more dramatic. Twice – in 1976 and again in 1988 – the Cubans defeated a US-supported proxy force of the South African apartheid army and Angolan “rebels”. These instances were the first times South Africa’s army was defeated, a humbling experience that the apartheid regime’s white generals still, in retirement, find hard to stomach.

As Gleijeses told Democracy Now! in December 2013, at the time of Mandela’s passing, black South Africans understood the significance of these defeats. The black South African newspaper the World wrote about the skirmishes: “Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban victory in Angola.”

Gleijeses remembered Mandela writing from Robben Island: “It was the first time that a country had come from another continent not to take something away, but to help Africans to achieve their freedom.”

Castro’s policy in Africa was far more progressive and humane than the United States, France, and England, that’s for sure. That’s doubly true for South Africa, where Castro was offering critical support for the African National Congress at the same time that Dick Cheney was openly supporting apartheid.

It was the beginning of the love affair between Castro and the people of Cuba and Nelson Mandela and the freedom fighters of South Africa, as well as across our continent, where he is today being mourned and celebrated as a freedom fighter himself.

That love blossomed in 1966 when Havana hosted the Tri-Continental Conference, a meeting of leaders from national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, including South Africa’s.

And the relationship between Castro’s Cuba and the liberation struggle of South Africa grew deep roots when, in the 1970s and 1980s, Cuba provided military training and other forms of assistance to South Africans.

I was privileged to meet Castro in 1987, when Cuba helped prepare me for my mission into South Africa for the African National Congress’s Operation Vula. As part of that operation, members of the exile leadership infiltrated South Africa as the advance guard working clandestinely in the country.

I can still feel the energy Castro exuded. I remember the unreserved readiness with which he responded to our requests to help my mission as the commander of Operation Vula. He bore none of the posture of a person seeking to make his presence and power felt. I felt myself become a better person in his company — better in the sense of wanting to never stop making a difference to the lives of others.

Our interactions with Castro and the Cuban people reinforced a deeper understanding of the significance of the freedom for which we were fighting. During the late 1970s and ’80s, the A.N.C. and its military wing had their main camps in the People’s Republic of Angola. So did Swapo, the Namibian liberation movement.

From the moment Angola achieved independence in 1974, the military might of the apartheid South African state was turned to overthrowing the Angolan government. Angola survived in large part because Cuba sent its soldiers to give their lives for the freedom of the people of Angola, Namibia and South Africa. Their blood has seeped into the soil of my continent.

In the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, which lasted from 1987 to 1988 and was one of the largest battles on African soil, Castro committed thousands of elite Cuban troops to fight for freedom.

That bloody battle buried the apartheid regime’s military ambitions and paved the way for the peace accord mediated by the United States and signed in 1988. It led to the withdrawal of all foreign belligerents from Angola and the independence of Namibia. The agreement also led to the closing of the A.N.C.’s camps in Angola — a development that ultimately helped bring the apartheid regime and the liberation forces headed by the A.N.C. to negotiate South Africa’s transition from white minority rule to democracy.

Mandela, in notes for what was intended to be a sequel to his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” wrote: “Men and women, all over the world, right down the centuries, come and go. Some leave nothing behind, not even their names. It would seem they never existed at all.”

The world will always know that there once was a man named Fidel Castro. Africans will never forget him. His unshakable anticolonial and anti-apartheid beliefs guarantee a revered place for him in the hearts of South Africans.

I guess if Fidel Castro was a monster, so was Nelson Mandela.

Of course, none of this means that Castro was a saint. He obviously wasn’t. But his incredible support for African peoples against colonialist and racist regimes seeking to oppress them is a very important part of his legacy and for this he deserves a great deal of credit.

A Day in My Life

[ 220 ] November 28, 2016 |


Above: Steve Bannon and Jonah Goldberg

On Saturday, I wrote a post about Fidel Castro. It is titled “Castro–It’s Complicated!” That’s because he was a complex man with a complex legacy. I used the post and a boatload of historical literature on these issues to do two things. First, I attempted to place Castro within the context of his time, both in terms of Cuban history and the larger history of postwar global revolutions. Most of you liked that. I also sought to point out the hypocrisy of American responses to Castro given our own history. The response to this was more mixed, but that’s fine. In general though, the point was that Castro was a very complex person who needs to be seen in a larger context. Fairly uncontroversial generally, especially given that around some parts of the old left there were outright lamentations for his passing, although most of the left had pretty complex takes on it.

Earlier today, I was contacted by the press person for Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News to appear to talk about my Castro essay. First, LOL. Yes, please make me your piñata for the evening. What fun. I mentioned this to Lemieux earlier today and he pointed me to what my interview would look like. I didn’t even respond to the bow-tied jerk.

But then, why did this happen? How on earth did this come to their attention? I found this really confusing, especially given the tone of the essay. The post literally says “It’s Complicated!” But of course I remembered the Professor Watch List, which I am on. And so I figured I should at least investigate this a little bit. So I put my name into Google News. And lo and behold, it is of course originating from terrible, poorly written stories by right-wing students funded by the larger fascist funding network. I mean, could you at least spell my name correctly in the various paragraphs when you discuss me? Or at least incorrectly in the same way? It’s like some kid who gets a D in my class all of a sudden gets hired to write for Rolling Stone or something.

But here’s how the fascist networks operate. Low level functionaries get paid something I guess to gather the red meat. And then it spreads up the line, presumably without anybody even reading any of it. Again, this is based on a post actually saying that Castro’s legacy is nothing more than complicated. The kid uses quotes from it that are literally “Castro did this one thing was good but on the other hand did this other thing that was bad.” But if we know one thing in 2016, it’s that truth does not matter. So it started going up the food chain. First, Laura Ingraham’s lifestyle site (what!?!) grabbed it. Evidently, they employ an editor because my name was spelled correctly.

Who grabbed it then? Why none other than Steve Bannon, Inc. Yes, I was attacked in the official publication of the incoming president of the United States.

Many professors at universities across the United States have praised Castro for his efforts in combating colonialism, capitalism, and racism.

Erik Loomis, a professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, praised Castro as a champion of social justice, calling the dictator “a tremendously complex person who attempted to rebuild a society around ideas of justice while also refusing to allow democratic institutions to form.”

Loomis goes on to add that in his several decades at the helm of leadership in Cuba, Castro brought “outstanding medical care and education to his own people and the poor around the world while limiting the ability of educated people to use their skills at home.”

He called Castro, along with Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara and communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, “an inspiration for billions of people around the world seeking freedom from colonial overlords.”

Like Loomis, 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came under fire during the Democratic primaries for an interview he gave in 1985 in which he praised Castro for his efforts in bringing healthcare and education to Cuba.

Let’s step back a second here.

calling the dictator “a tremendously complex person who attempted to rebuild a society around ideas of justice while also refusing to allow democratic institutions to form.”

So, like, someone who tried to do some good things but also really screwed up? Wow, I truly wish I was on the front lines with Pol Pot in 1976. And then:

He called Castro, along with Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara and communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, “an inspiration for billions of people around the world seeking freedom from colonial overlords.”

That’s crazy. Actual demonstrable facts undisputed by any professional historian. Might as well be a member of the NKVD torturing some poor sap for a forced confession in 1938 Stalinist Soviet Union!

I do like how they segue straight from me to one Bernie Sanders. Also, if the following video of Bernie praising Castro proves one thing, it’s that the Trump campaign would have had no red meat to attack Sanders with and thus Bernie would have walked away with the presidency if only Democrats hadn’t nominated that huge sellout $hillery.

From there, it has gone to the most dishonest human being on the internet. That’s right, one Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism: Two Words Next to Each Other. After wrapping himself in his sexual fantasy of what George Orwell stood for instead of the actual Orwell with his tremendous commitment to justice, he writes:

Such un-nuanced arguments always make leftist eyes roll. As University of Rhode Island professor Eric Loomis put it, “Castro: It’s Complicated!” cautioning against thinking “in terms of simplistic moral judgments.” It seems to me that when people want to ban simplistic moral judgments, it’s usually because simple morality is not on their side.

Some of us would call nuanced arguments and a lack of simplistic moral judgments “critical thinking.” But then this is Jonah Goldberg, so LOL.

To my knowledge, this is as far as it has gone. This is so transparently stupid that I can’t imagine it going any farther. But again, this is part of a well-funded plan to intimidate professors from speaking out. And let’s not beat around the bush–Breitbart is Trump’s publication. It’s entirely possible and in fact probable that I am going to become a frequent target of attack in a nation with declining freedoms. You can imagine that I don’t feel that comfortable right now. But as I have said before and will continue to say, this is the moment where you decide whether you will stand up to fascism or whether you acquiesce to make your life easier. This level of previously unfathomable intimidation is going to continue and get worse. I will fight until the end. Being tough in the face of this and publishing more rather than less is the only answer. And despite the fact that facts don’t actually matter to these people, if they want to attack me on issues of historical fact backed up with dozens if not hundreds of books and articles of historical and other scholarly literature, go for it.

In conclusion:

The Economic Anxiety “Debate”

[ 524 ] November 28, 2016 |


I am really frustrated with the entire state of the post-election debate, whether it is liberals hating Bernie Sanders, the left gloating, or especially the dismissal of economic anxiety as a real thing. This debate is especially problematic because you have some people legitimately saying that the overwhelming reason for white votes for Trump is economic anxiety. This is not true. Most whites have been voting Republican for a long time. On the other hand, you have stories like this that interview white Republicans that seem to dismiss the entire idea of economic anxiety because that’s not what is driving the various voters they speak with. Such is this piece on voters in Ritzville, Washington. Ritzville is a town in eastern Washington with not much going on except for being an outpost on I-90.

Ritzville proper is something of a time capsule from the ’50s. Even the names of the throwback storefronts hint at this — Memories Diner, the Ritzville Pastime Bar and Grill. It’s also got a Perkins and a Starbucks closer to the highway and the people of Ritzville are proud to tell you both are among the most successful in the state — thanks to truck drivers and travelers making one last stop before the final push to Seattle.

Two main streets run parallel on either side of a set Northern Pacific railroad tracks, headed south toward Tri-Cities. One street’s got the gas stations and the motels while the other is where the old stone buildings and “character” of the town lies, including Chamberlain’ shop. Every few hours, an Amtrak or a multi-engine train pulling coal or oil or grain lumbers by and the town is cleaved in two.

It seemed like a place to test the dominant narrative that has grown out of the election: This, supposedly, is the place government has forgotten — the home of the poor, rural, white masses that flipped the national electoral map for Trump. While cities flourish, the story goes, agrarian backwaters like Ritzville have fallen off of the map for public officials. Frustrated, residents of towns like this turned to Trump, casting a vote for change, even if it came from a man further from these parts of the world than any candidate in history.

Yes, Donald Trump turned Grays Harbor and swaths of Washington’s Timber Belt red. Yes, factories have closed and union members have leaned farther right. But the people I spoke to in Ritzville and nearby Lind don’t go right to economic hardship when asked why they voted for our new President-elect. They meander toward other things like refugees and Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border and, yes, the “rioters” in Seattle before arriving at economic anxiety, if they ever get there at all. Many out here are doing just fine.

Seems to me like some basic research about Ritzville is in order before making any claims about its relationship to the election. In 2016, Adams County voted 67-24 Trump, at least according to the latest number I saw. In 2012, Adams County voted Romney 66-32. In 2008, Adams County voted McCain 67-32. In 2004, Adams County voted Bush 73-26. In 2000, Adams County voted Bush 69-28. I could go on. There is nothing about what happened in Ritzville or Adams County that says anything at all about what has changed between 2012 and 2016. It says nothing about “economic anxiety” in any way. What it says is that Adams County, Washington is a deeply conservative place and that hasn’t changed meaningfully at any point in last 5 election cycles at least.

And that’s what is really frustrating about the blithe dismissals of economic anxiety as an important thing. Of course one can point to crazy racism and laughingly say “Economic Anxiety!!!” But that doesn’t help because those people weren’t changing their votes over this or any other issue.

Where the economic anxiety debate legitimately matters is not in long-term Republican counties. It’s in traditionally blue counties in swing states that swung sharply to the right in the last 4 years. Erie County, Pennsylvania went 48-46 for Trump. He won by 2000 votes. In 2012, Obama defeated Romney 57-41 in Erie County, winning by 19,000 votes. Donald Trump won Pennsylvania by about 68,000 votes. It is counties like these–blue-collar union counties with long histories within the Democratic Party, histories that lasted long after LBJ delivered the South to the Republicans in 1964, long after the Reagan era, that voted for Barack Hussein Obama twice. The critical question is why did these people switch their votes at this time. This is where a discussion of economic dislocation and hopelessness plays an important role. It must play an important role. These are voters that Democrats can probably get back without appealing to racism, which it absolutely must never do. That’s the debate we need to be having. Economic issues need to be taken seriously as part of that debate.

But as for why ranchers in eastern Washington or suburbanites north of Dallas voted for Trump, stories that say it was not because of economic anxiety are so obvious as to be ignored.

Resistance in Trump’s America

[ 83 ] November 28, 2016 |


This sort of massive resistance is critical. It will happen around undocumented immigrants and sanctuary cities. If ICE agents actually invade churches to take out undocumented people, the national outrage will be tremendous.


In New York, with a large and diverse Latino population, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged not to cooperate with immigration agents. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago has declared that it “will always be a sanctuary city.”

Across the nation, officials in sanctuary cities are gearing up to oppose President-elect Donald J. Trump if he follows through on a campaign promise to deport millions of illegal immigrants. They are promising to maintain their policies of limiting local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agents.

In doing so, municipal officials risk losing millions of dollars in federal assistance for their cities that helps pay for services like fighting crime and running homeless shelters. Mr. Trump has vowed to block all federal funding for cities where local law enforcement agencies do not cooperate with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents.

Some believe Mr. Trump could go further than simply pulling federal funding, perhaps fighting such policies in court or even prosecuting city leaders.

“This is uncharted territory in some ways, to see if they’re just playing chicken, or see if they will relent,” said Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports reduced immigration.

Cities have “gotten away with this for a long time because the federal government has never attempted to crack down on them,” Ms. Vaughan said.

The fight could also signal a twist in the struggle over the power of the federal government, as this time liberal cities — rather than conservative states — resist what they see as federal intervention.

Cities “may not have the power to give people rights,” said Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University School of Law. “But they have a lot of power of resistance, and that’s what they’re displaying right now.”

It’s hard to really say to what extent some cities will resist. When city budgets decline by 10 percent, will that lead to tensions that harm immigrants? If mayors are prosecuted, what will happen? But if people stand tall in this situation, the moral correctness of their stance will win out in the end, I believe. While a lot of Americans are pretty racist, many of them, or at least the average Trump voter, is some degree of passive in that racism. Will they go so far as to see troops invade churches? Well, some will. But some won’t and I refuse to believe that the country has become so depraved that it will squash resistance like a bug. Maybe I am just overly optimistic right now.

Overall, this is a fine story except to say that at the very end, they very heavily mischaracterize the meeting in Providence that Mayor Jorge Elorza spoke at. I was at that meeting. It did not have 150 people. It had approximately 1000 people. That’s the sort of mass resistance meeting that can really lead to something positive. And right now, we all need something positive to hang some hopes upon. What we need is massive resistance to crackdown on voting rights, to the doubling down on the war on drugs, to the treatment of Muslims, and to all the outrages that could potentially be starting in less than 2 months.

American Unions: An Extinction Level Event

[ 92 ] November 27, 2016 |


Above: The federal response to a strike in 2018.

Harold Meyerson’s election post-mortem for organized labor is exactly as grim as it should be.

As Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin – states that once were the stronghold of the nation’s industrial union movement – dropped into Donald Trump’s column on election night, one longtime union staff member told me that Trump’s victory was “an extinction-level event for American labor.”

He may be right.

A half-century ago, more than a third of those Rust Belt workers were unionized, and their unions had the clout to win them a decent wage, benefits and pensions. Their unions also had the power to turn out the vote. They did — for Democrats. White workers who belonged to unions voted Democratic at a rate 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, and there were enough such workers to make a difference on Election Day.

That’s not the case today. Nationally, about 7 percent of private-sector workers are union members, which gives unions a lot less bargaining power than they once had, and a lot fewer members to turn out to vote. The unions’ political operations certainly did what they could: An AFL-CIO-sponsored Election Day poll of union members showed 56 percent had voted for Hillary Clinton and 37 percent for Trump, while the TV networks’ exit poll showed that voters with a union member in their household went 51 percent to 43 percent for Clinton, as well. In states where unions have more racially diverse memberships, Clinton’s union vote was higher (she won 66 percent of the union household vote in California).

In states where union membership is predominantly white, Trump did better – actually winning the Ohio union household vote with 54 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 42 percent The very economic and social wreckage the unions had warned against when they had opposed NAFTA and permanent trade relations with China ended up diminishing their own numbers and that of Democratic voters, and helped spur Trump to victory.

Of course, the very combination of real economic anxiety and racism that sent white union members into the Trump camp is going to just cause more economic anxiety for them. But hey, it will cause terrible things for black people too so win! I guess. But it’s not like Trump is going to craft policy that will pay off that union support. He hasn’t named his Secretary of Labor yet, but given the rest of this nightmare fascist plutocratic Cabinet, there is no reason to think of this as anything but nightmarish. That doesn’t mean that the history of struggle among the American working class will end. Workers will always fight for a better life for themselves, even if they get killed by the military for doing so. But it may well mean that 80 years of progress are repealed in the next 4 years. Unfortunately, in this case, Democrats hold plenty of blame too for not taking the impact of globalization and automation particularly seriously for the last 50 years, assuming that other gains in the economy would make up for these hard-hit communities. Well, these hard-hit communities have hit back hard. Even if it ends up a self-punch too.

This Day in Labor History: November 27, 1937

[ 14 ] November 27, 2016 |


On November 27, 1937, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) debuted its play “Pins and Needles,” which would become the longest running musical of the 1930s. This cultural form of labor feminism at a time when organized labor was dominated by male workers is a vital and important moment both in the cultural history of work but also in the history of women and work.

The ILG was founded in 1900 and despite conservative leadership, became the union that New York garment workers organized in during the Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 and the aftermath of the Triangle Fire in 1911. During the 1920s and early 1930s, like many New York based unions, it was riven with strife between radicals and anti-radicals, leading to labyrinthine power struggles not worth revisiting here except to say that the constantly shifting ideology of the Communist Party ultimately hurt the radical cause. Eventually David Dubinsky rose to lead the ILG in 1932. Dubinsky consolidated control quickly, ruling the union with an iron fist, which was ultimately undemocratic but also turned it into a functional organization instead of one constantly in turmoil from infighting among political factions. The union also was dominated by male leadership despite the fact that the large majority of its membership was women. Labor feminism would struggle to develop internally in such a structure.

The ILG’s Educational Department sought to create cultural productions and artistic outlets for its members that included art, dance, and theater. In 1934, the Educational Department reorganized and created a theater troupe made up of union members. These weren’t professional actors. The were just everyday women working in the garment industry whose union thought it would be useful to enhance their creativity, an idea that is far away from unionism of recent decades. Louis Schaffer led this effort and he had a vision to bring the labor movement to the extremely popular cultural form of Broadway productions. ILG president David Dubinsky thought this was a great idea. Schaffer recruited professionals to write the play and train the actors. A cast of 55 mostly female garment workers were trained to become actors. This took time to accomplish. He could have brought in professionals, but in his determination to make this a truly working-class production, he had to bring the workers up to standard in their acting ability. This would ultimately delay the production’s opening by about 18 months. It finally opened to the public on November 27, 1937, after several practice performances.

The production was written and directed by men, but centered women operating in the larger political struggles of the time. Schaffer wanted Pins and Needles to entertain working class people by focusing on working class issues. In order to accomplish this mission, Pins and Needles did not have a set script. The workers themselves constantly reworked the songs, making them about themselves. There were anti-Mussolini songs and other songs about the international anti-fascist struggle, but as the play developed over its many performances, it ultimately became much more about the women and their lives. Labor feminism became the play’s central theme.

The critics largely loved the show. It had good tunes, catchy lyrics, and everything that the public would want in a popular production. At first, it only played on the weekends because the workers were still full-time employees in garment factories. Eventually, they were able to obtain leaves from their jobs to perform full time. The cast also expanded into a second set for late afternoon shows that could reach workers who could not attend in the evenings.

As the labor politics of the 1930s often went, there was a lot of talk about racial equality within the ILG and with the cast of Pins and Needles, but not much actual racial equality in practice. The first black cast member was Olive Pearman, who had only a small supporting role as a seamstress. Black unionists sharply criticized Schaffer for ignoring black voices and he later did add a couple of black cast members, but no Latino cast members were ever hired on the production. Other cast members were pressured to suppress their Jewish identities and even change their names. And of course when the production was on the road, it was subject to local segregationist laws, which it did not try to challenge. The cast itself was quite leftist, although Schaffer himself was anti-communist and some fired cast members claimed they were redbaited out of the production. Dorothy Tucker, one of the actors, remembered, “there were a few socialists and a few communists among us.”

In March 1938, the cast went to Washington DC to play at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt. The first road show began in April 1938 with shows in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, among other cities. As demand grew, more workers joined the production, but Schaffer also brought more professional and semi-professional actors into the production, causing tensions behind the scenes. The first road show ended in January 1939, after 319 performances in 34 cities. The cast and show continued to change and professionalize, as most of the workers did eventually have to head back to their jobs in the garment factories. New versions of the production formed until finally, after 1104 performances, the show closed in New York in June 1940. It then went on the road for one last tour, closing for good in Los Angeles in May 1941.

As World War II began and the left-leaning unions moved toward supporting the war effort, Popular Front cultural productions began to fade, collapsing completely in the Cold War backlash after the war. No labor plays ever followed up on Pins and Needles. I can’t really argue that the failure to center working class cultural productions really made much difference in terms of shaping the future of the labor movement, the end of a creative labor movement seeking the broader production of a specific working class culture is ultimately something lost.

For more on Pins and Needles in the broader context of the Popular Front, see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century.

This is the 201st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

“We Are Getting What We Asked For, Good and Hard”

[ 211 ] November 27, 2016 |


To build on Paul’s post below, Trump’s outlandish claims today are part of the tremendous threat to American democracy represented not only by Donald Trump but by the majority of the Republican Party, which as we are seeing in North Carolina, they will go to extraordinarily lengths to hold onto power. Klein is correct about the implications of Trump’s tweets:

The nightmare scenario in 2016 was that Trump would refuse to accept the outcome of the election when he was a mere candidate. Imagine if he were to refuse to accept the outcome of the next election once he is the president, and after he has appointed loyalists to control America’s security apparatus.

Imagine this tendency of Trump’s emerging after a domestic terrorist attack. George W. Bush worked hard in the aftermath of 9/11 to tamp down Islamophobia in America — to ensure it was al-Qaeda (and, eventually, Saddam Hussein) who was blamed, not American Muslims. Who would Trump blame in the aftermath of a terrorist attack? How quick would he be to turn Americans against each other, to find an enemy who could absorb the public anger that might normally attach itself to him?

This tweet is an example of one of Trump’s other dangerous qualities: his tendency to believe what he wants to believe about the world, facts be damned. Trump lost the popular vote, and he lost it by a wide margin — more than 2 million votes and counting. A wise man would take that information seriously and think about how to staff his White House, set priorities, and moderate his message to win over a majority of the public. Instead, Trump appears to have told himself the vote count was riddled with fraud and that he really did win a majority of the legitimate vote — and thus he doesn’t need to consider what it means that most voters didn’t want him to win the presidency.

It has been weeks since Donald Trump won the presidential election, and here is what we can say: he is still just himself. He is governing like he promised. He is appointing the loyalists, lackeys, and extremists he surrounded himself with during the campaign. He is tweeting the same strange, crazed missives, pursuing the same odd and counterproductive vendettas. His conflicts of interest have proven, if anything, worse than expected, and he has shown no shame, restraint, or interest in addressing them. America — through the electoral college — voted to make Donald J. Trump president, and we are getting what we asked for, good and hard.

I don’t actually have confidence that we will have a functional democracy by 2020. It’s entirely possible that historians, assuming the exist in a century, will see 2016 as the end of a period of American history where rights generally expanded. That’s because Trump, Giuliani, Sessions, Gingrich, Flynn, etc., etc., and most importantly huge chunks of the Republican base, simply do not respect the fundamental tenets of democracy and they are seeking to roll back two generation of social progress. Despite what I might have believed a mere few weeks ago, they are in fact reasonably likely to succeed. And I am disappointed in myself for not seeing this more clearly before the election. Democrats and liberals were holding on strictly to the presidency as a buffer between us and the apocalypse. Between gerrymandering, voter suppression, and a bloody ineffective DNC strategy to operate on the state level, Republicans had already grabbed most of the levers of government. And while Trump is uniquely bad in some ways, in many others, he really isn’t that much worse than your bog-standard mainstream Republican governing class such as Scott Walker, Rick Scott, Paul LePage, Rick Snyder, or, of course, Mike Pence.

All we really have in the end is massive resistance. That is where we are heading–acquiescence or resistance. You and I will all need to make our choices about whether we will stand up against oppression in ways that a lot of our ancestors did not stand up to Jim Crow, to Chinese Exclusion, to the Japanese internment camps, etc.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 59

[ 46 ] November 27, 2016 |

This is the grave of Leona Helmsley.


Born Lena Rosenthal in Marbletown, New York in 1920, Leona Helmsley was always a rather strange individual, having changed her name over and over again for years before deciding upon Leona Roberts. She married an attorney and then a garment industry capitalist before she met real estate entrepreneur Harry Helmsley in 1968 while working in a real estate job. She was already a millionaire, in part due to his previous marriages and in part to her work in selling luxury New York apartments. She joined Helmsley’s firm as a vice-president. He then divorced his wife of 33 years and married her in 1972. Her real estate license was suspended soon after for forcing the tenets of one her apartment buildings to buy condos. She then turned to managing Helmsley’s hotel empire.

Leona Helmsley was not a nice person. When her only son died in 1982, she sent his wife an eviction notice within a few days of his funeral. She was known for force employees on their knees to beg for their jobs, refusing to pay bills for her projects, and for screaming at people. When their engineer, trying to protect himself, asked Helmsley to sign a document invoicing expenses, she screamed “You’re not my fucking partner! You’ll sign what I tell you to sign.” The employees of her hotels actually created an alarm system when she came to visit one of the properties so they could prepare for the horror to come.

Tax evasion was a particular specialty of the Helmsleys. Her most famous statement of course was “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.” It got so bad that even the utter loathsome U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani indicted her and her husband on tax fraud and extortion, by which time they owed over $4 million in back taxes. She was convicted and originally sentenced to 16 years in prison, although her lawyers got it reduced to 19 months.

When she died in 1997, Helmsley was worth around $5 billion. She famously left her dog a $12 million trust.

Donald Trump of course has claimed that she wanted to have sex with him.

As you can see, the Helmsleys were all class and subtlety. And thus they did something that the rich haven’t really done in a century–build themselves a gigantic Gilded Age-style mausoleum, of which you only see a small bit of in this picture I took. They wanted the dog interred with them, but New York state laws forbids that. Hopefully President Trump can Make New York Great Again and fix this tyranny.

Helmsley has been portrayed a couple of times on the screen. Suzanne Pleshette played her in the 1990 TV movie Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean. And Mary Manofsky played her in a 2007 episode of The Ointment, in which she evidently appears from the grave. That’s a horror story too scary for me.

Leona Helmsley is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

The Minimum Wage is Never a Living Wage

[ 64 ] November 26, 2016 |

Low wage workers take part in a protest organized by the Coalition for a Real Minimum Wage outside the offices of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, May 30, 2013. The workers from restaurants and other trades who say there are rampant violations in minimum wage and other labor laws in New York were calling on Governor Cuomo to take action to ensure that all workers in New York receive a real increase in the minimum wage including workers who rely on tips from customers. Cuomo recently signed legislation to increase New York State's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour over the next three years.  REUTERS/Mike Segar   (UNITED STATES - Tags: CIVIL UNREST BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT)

Even where the minimum wage has risen significantly, it is not a living wage. That must change, not that it will on a national scale any time in the near future. A new report from the People’s Action Institute explores this:

In 42 states and in Washington, D.C., the living wage for a single adult is greater than $15 per hour, and in 26 states it exceeds $16 per hour. Nationally, the living wage for a single adult is closer to $17.28 an hour. When adding in repayment of student debt, the national living wage for a single adult rises to $18.67 per hour.

For families with children, the cost to make ends meet is even higher. In the 18 states and Washington, D.C. where a living wage for other family sizes was calculated, the living wage for a single adult with two children ranges from $26.39 in South Carolina to $41.11 in California, and $43.86 in Washington, D.C.

While 43 million people in the United States have student loan debt, the distribution and impact of that debt is not equal. Students of color and their families are more likely to take out student loans, and, while the average starting wage for those with a bachelor’s degree is enough to cover expenses including student debt, majors with more women and people of color see starting wages below the cost of living. And, because women and people of color are overrepresented in low-wage work due to underlying structural issues and discrimination, they are more likely to struggle to pay off student loans after graduation.

When workers aren’t paid enough to cover their cost of living, set aside some savings and pay their student debt, something has to give. That may mean foregoing payments on their student loans, or it might mean leaving the utility bill unpaid to put food on the table.

Unfortunately, the response of some voters to place a plutocrat fascist in the White House are just going to make all of this worse in the New Gilded Age.

Via Laura Clawson.

Today in Trump’s America

[ 127 ] November 26, 2016 |


This morning at about 4, I had a dream. I was taken up by fascist thugs into an airplane and thrown out of it like the Argentine dictatorship did to those they wanted to disappear. Just before my body hit the ground, I woke up with a fright. That was the first Trump dream that I remember. It’s going to quite a good time in the next 4 years. Or the rest of my life.

Of course, I am not the only person feeling this way. Because there’s a lot of people with fears much more visceral and immediate than mine.

Since the 8 November election, pediatricians and clinics serving undocumented immigrants and other low-income patients have reported a spike in anxiety and panic attacks, particularly among children who worry that they or their parents might now face deportation.

One little boy in North Carolina has been suffering crippling stomach aches in class because he’s afraid he might return home to find his parents gone. In California, many families are reporting that their children are leaving school in tears because their classmates have told them they are going to be thrown out of the country.

Children are showing up in emergency rooms alone because their parents are afraid of being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they show their faces. Even American-born children are suffering – one boy in the south-east asked a doctor for Prozac because he was worried about his undocumented friend.

“It’s as though a volcano erupted. It’s been awful,” said Mimi Lind, director of behavioral health at the Venice Family Clinic, one of the largest providers of healthcare to low-income families in southern California. “People who don’t have a history of anxiety and depression are coming forward with symptoms they’ve never had before. And people who had those symptoms already are getting much worse.”

It’s too soon to put precise figures on the wave of Trump-related anxiety, but health professionals and immigrant rights groups say it is unmistakable. “People worry their families will be broken up, that parents will be deported and children will end up in foster care, on a scale that we’ve never seen before. The feeling out there is one of great fear,” said Marielena Hincapié of the National Immigration Law Center.

I just can’t even deal right now.

Castro: It’s Complicated!

[ 261 ] November 26, 2016 |

Fidel Castro, Prime Minister of Cuba, smokes a cigar during his meeting with two U.S. senators, the first to visit Castro's Cuba, in Havana, Cuba, Sept. 29, 1974.  (AP Photo)

This morning has seen all the Twitter SCORCHING HOT TAKES on Fidel Castro, especially from liberals dying to replay the Cold War. At a time when their own nation has just put a fascist in office despite losing by more than 2 million votes, it’s very, very important for some people to demonize Castro for his dictatorial terror and attack Jimmy Carter for a basic condolence to an old enemy. Meanwhile, the left has largely provided quite nuanced takes on Castro, largely because we’ve mostly moved on from the days of romanticizing the man while both respecting his accomplishments and seeing his failures.

Fidel Castro was a tremendously complex person who attempted to rebuild a society around ideas of justice while also refusing to allow democratic institutions to form. He sought to resist U.S. imperialism while openly hoping his island would be devastated by a nuclear attack. He brought outstanding medical care and education to his own people and the poor around the world while limiting the ability of educated people to use their skills at home. He was on the front lines of fighting the oppression of people of color by U.S. allies around the world while also supporting some pretty awful people around the world himself. In other words, let’s leave the hot takes home and try to think a little harder about the meanings of the Cuban Revolution.

To talk about Castro in any useful way, we have to look at the historical context of the period from 1958 to 2016. But even before we get to that, we have to look at the history of Cuba before 1958. From the mid-19th century, the United States attemtped to dominate Cuba, first attempting to acquire it in the 1850s in order to entrench slavery and then investing heavily in sugar on the island after the Civil War. It was the focus of U.S. imperialism in 1898. American concerns over just what involvement in Cuba would mean led to the Teller Amendment, barring the U.S. from turning Cuba into a colony, as it would do in the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. But there are many forms of imperialism, as the U.S. would find. When Cuba received its sovereignty in 1902, it was effectively a colony in all but name, as the Platt Amendment stripped Cuba of any actual control over its affairs. This forced Cuba to give the United States Guantanamo Bay, which the U.S. still holds as an imperialist possession and where it has done things at least as bad since 2001 as anything Castro ever did. It also gave the U.S. effective veto power over Cuba’s foreign policy and economic decisions and allowed the U.S. to invade to enforce its interests any time it wanted. The U.S. military would then occupy Cuba between 1906 and 1909, in 1912, and between 1917 and 1922. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt ordered ships to Cuba for another invasion, leading to the resignation of Gerardo Machado. Ramon Grau took over, immediately rescinded the Platt Amendment, leading to the US refusing to recognize his government. This opened the door to Fulgencio Batista, the dictator who killed up to 20,000 people with the active support of the American government until he fled Cuba on New Year’s Eve 1958. Turning Cuba into a sex tourism paradise under mafia control led to widespread dissatisfaction and a variety of revolutionary movements that Castro eventually consolidated under his control when he walked into Havana on January 1, 1959.

Castro, along with Fanon, the Algerian revolutionaries, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara, served as an inspiration for billions of people around the world seeking freedom from colonial overlords, issues that the Untied States was almost always wrong about. Over and over again, the U.S. supported oppressive regimes that denied the nationalist longings of people around the world. Sometimes, those were democratically elected governments, such as those of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Sometimes they were revolutionary movements such as that Ho Chi Minh. Sometimes, the U.S. assassinated popular leaders like Patrice Lumumba in Congo and replaced them with men like Mobutu Sese Seko, one of the worst rulers in the 20th century. Sometimes, the CIA would foster right-wing military coups against people like Salvador Allende and place monsters like Augusto Pinochet into power.

This is the world into which Fidel Castro entered. Castro stood up against this massive injustice around the world from the United States. While Dick Cheney was openly defending South African apartheid in Congress, Castro was sending troops to Angola to fight the South Africans and providing critical support to Nelson Mandela. All of this also led to the independence of Namibia and helped turn the international tide against apartheid. When the FBI and Nixon administration was declaring war on black radicals fighting internal colonialism in the U.S., Castro gave them a place to flee. When the U.S. was engaging in illegal wars to destabilize Nicaragua, Castro supported the Sandinistas. Not all of Castro’s international moves were as consistently on the right side as these, including his opposition to Betancourt in Venezuela. But in the end, at worst, Castro’s fight for global justice has a complex legacy.

And this is the world context in which we have to evaluate Castro. In the end, which nation is better off today, Cuba or the Dominican Republic? Or any of its similar neighbors around the Caribbean basin. While many Americans demonize Castro as a monster, have the Cuban people been worse off than the U.S. client state in the Dominican Republic under the homicidal maniac Rafael Trujillo or his hack assistant Joaquin Balaguer, who came to power with the assistance of Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 invasion to eliminate the movement behind democratically elected but now overthrown Juan Bosch? I think that’s pretty unlikely. Cuba and the DR have similar histories, economies, racial makeup, and interactions with American imperialism. We can’t actually know the answer to this, but if you look at Mexico, at Nicaragua, at Honduras, at Guatemala, at Haiti, at Jamaica, and at the Dominican Republic, it’s really hard to see how their histories since 1958 have somehow been more free and prosperous than that of Castro’s Cuba. And while this is not the final statistic on these issues, of all the nations listed above, the UN Human Development Index ranks Communist Cuba 1st, and 5th in all of Latin America.

Castro’s policies were a mixed bag. He absolutely provided outstanding health care and education to his people. This is something beyond what far wealthier nations have achieved. No one can really deny the success of these policies. The literacy program implemented immediately after the revolution was a wonderful success, more than any U.S. supported leader ever did for the average Cuban. He reforested a lot of land, creating some of the most intact ecosystems in Latin America. He instituted enormous gains for women’s equality in Cuba. He attempted to implement an officially anti-racist government. Of course, one cannot just erase racism by government decree and whites still control more power in Cuba than Afro-Cubans, although on this issue Cuba is certainly no worse than the rest of the world, including the United States.

However, one cannot deny that Castro made many, many errors along the way. The fundamental problem of 20th century state socialism is that the dictatorship of the proletariat was also in fact a dictatorship of a few elites. And that’s never good. Not trusting the Cuban people, he repressed much about Cuban culture and created a isolated island that did not foster new ideas. While one can absolutely defend the executions of top Batista leaders in the revolution’s aftermath (after all, the U.S. was fine with Batista’s own executions, not to mention those of Mobutu, Pinochet, et al) and the land expropriation from the wealthy if we place them in the context of the time, his long-term fear of challenges to his power led to a staid regime that did not offer much hope for a better life for most Cubans after the initial gains of the Revolution. He oppressed gays in terrible ways but on the other hand Ronald Reagan condemned thousands of gay people to die of AIDS and the U.S just elected Mike Pence as Vice-President so American liberals should probably look at their own nation first on this issue. Castro’s prison camps where he placed dissidents were an unnecessary error from a man increasingly fearful of losing control of power. That there are still dissidents in Cuban prisons is a shame. And let’s not forget the Cuban Missile Crisis, where Castro was furious at Nikita Khrushchev for pulling out the missiles, even though it meant saving Cuba. That kind of monomaniacal vision is what made the 20th century scary.

Ultimately, the problem with Castro’s visions is that one can’t build socialism within a world economy on a single product, whether oil or sugar. The attempts for massive sugar harvests to build socialism were poorly thought out. Relying on being a Soviet client state to escape the American monster only worked so long as the Soviet Union had the ability to support it. Once it faded, Cuba had nothing until Hugo Chavez came along and gave it super cheap oil. For the social benefits of the Revolution to many everyday Cubans, economically, it is hard to see it as anything but a failure.

In the end, the U.S. was the best friend Fidel Castro had in terms of helping him consolidate and keep power. The Bay of Pigs invasion was the tool Castro needed to tell his people that the United States was indeed their real enemy. The embargo, the second greatest failure in the history of American foreign policy, allowed Castro to blame his own failings on the United States, often with quite a bit of justification. But the needs to cater to the interests of the old white landowning Cuban repressive class now in Florida was more important than actually engaging the Castro regime and creating reforms, even while we were doing that quite successfully with China and Vietnam and to some success with the Soviet Union by the Gorbachev era.

It was long past time for Castro to go. I don’t know quite when the sell-by date passed. One presumes 1991 as much as any. Unfortunately, the greatest failure of Castro is the inability to imagine a future without him. Today, Raul Castro has slightly opened the nation, but obviously it is still suffering from limited freedom. Fidel Castro was not a good man, but neither was he a demon. Will Cuba be better off without him? Probably at this point. Would Cuba have been better off today than if Castro had never taken power? That answer is far from clear. Thinking about Castro not in terms of simplistic moral judgments that ignore the complicity of the U.S. in Castro’s rise and what he was responding to but rather placing him in the context of the second half of the twentieth century is the proper way to evaluate his impact. And that impact is deeply complicated, divisive, and ambivalent. At worst, that makes him no worse than most world leaders from the era, especially from the global South, where nations and rulers have long been subject to imperialism, destabilizing covert operations from the United States, and postcolonial povety.

…That every commenter either says “this post is wonderful” (thanks!) or “this post is terrible” is hilarious to me because it basically sums up every single discussion about Fidel Castro for the last nearly 57 years.

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