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Is the Ground Shifting on Police Violence?

[ 228 ] July 11, 2016 |

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Jamelle Bouie is hopeful that is the case. He is more optimistic than I.

For as little political movement as we’ve seen on questions of police violence and racial bias, there are signs that the broad public—the white public—is waking up to the problem. Conservative writers like Matt Lewis in the Daily Caller or Leon Wolf in RedState are conceding the pervasiveness of police brutality. Prominent Republicans such as Paul Ryan did the same, praising President Obama’s remarks and hailing peaceful protests. Even Newt Gingrich—who once called Obama a “food stamp president”—agreed. “It’s more dangerous to be black in America,” he said. “You’re substantially more likely to be in a situation where police don’t respect you.”

It’s too much to say that there’s unity in American life. Nationally, police officers are killing people as often as they were before Ferguson, Missouri, put the issue on the map. It’s not enough to acknowledge problems of police violence; Americans—and white Americans in particular—have to agree to end it, which means jettisoning views that equate crime with blackness and rethinking the role of police writ large. We are still at a deep impasse on the question of guns and what to do about the violence at the heart of our society. And there is the Trump phenomenon to be reckoned with. It’s still true that his campaign is a vector for racism and anti-Semitism, still true that he has proposed plans that would target racial and religious minorities, still true that he has awoken and validated an ugly nativism across the country.

But the events of the past week—and perhaps the shared sense that we’re on a brink of some sort—have inspired a basic decorum. Black Lives Matter has fiercely condemned the violence in Dallas, and beyond the right-wing fever swamps, there’s no apparent effort to cast blame on the movement against police brutality. At the risk of indulging the soft bigotry of low expectations, this week has revealed the strength of American society at the same time it has exposed its most fragile parts.

He’s basically right. As I often tell my students, there are only 2 times in all of American history when enough white people cared about black rights to do anything about it, from about 1863-1870 and from about 1954-1965. Other than that, most white people have generally supported the oppression of black people. And at the very least, the reaction to the Obama presidency leading up to and including the Trump campaign shows that demonizing of people of color is still a very potent political weapon in the United States. So will everyday white people come to believe that the police do commit wanton violence against black people? You can color me very skeptical, even if Paul Ryan and Newt Gingrich are even admitting it. The rank and file white folks who vote Republican simply don’t want to hear this. To them, the police are heroes precisely because they protect the good people of the community from those scary black men who want to do unmentionable things to us.

And as for the last week showing the strength of American society, I think that’s just flat out wishful thinking.

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Three Years After Rana Plaza. What Have We Done to Ensure that Our Clothing is Ethically Produced?

[ 9 ] July 11, 2016 |

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At least in terms of Americans, the answer to that question is basically nothing.

The collapse and dangerous and inhumane conditions at other facilities in Cambodia and elsewhere increased public outrage and demands that something be done.

Three years later, it turns out, not enough has been. New reports by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a consortium of advocacy groups and trade unions, say that safety and labor conditions are still lacking in Bangladesh and other countries that produce products for American retailers in shoddy buildings at bargain basement wages.

The reports, which were published in The New York Times, say that tens of thousands of workers still sew garments in buildings without proper fire exits. In Indonesia, India and elsewhere, pregnant women are vulnerable to reduced wages and discrimination. In Cambodia, workers who protested for an $20 a month were shot and killed, the wage alliance reported.

American retailers insist that they are paying close attention to the working conditions in factories they contract with to produce their goods and are attempting to force local owners to fix the problems and treat their workers better. But even the retailers admit that progress has been slow and subject to questionable delays.

Meanwhile, workers at these sweatshops remain in peril.

And this is unlikely to change, because basically we don’t care if people die making our clothing. Or our meat. Or anything else. It just doesn’t matter, so long as the prices are low.

The Student Debt Plan

[ 102 ] July 11, 2016 |

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If there was ever any question that Bernie Sanders run for the Democratic nomination was pointless, let that be put to rest. His push for free college tuition may not have been grounded in a lot of intricate policy details, but it is the kind of broad program that can rapidly gain support. Hillary Clinton knows this and has adopted the majority of it, claiming she wants free public college tuition for all families making less than $125,000 a year. This won’t be easy to implement either, but it’s absolutely a good thing and a clear justice issue. Also, one that hopefully will appeal to younger voters.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 39

[ 33 ] July 10, 2016 |

This is the grave of Jedidiah Morse.

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Morse, born in 1761 in Connecticut, was an early American geographer. He was trained as a minister at Yale and held a parish in Massachusetts for over thirty years. He was a deeply conservative religious thinker, railing against the evils of Unitarianism. But he’s most known for his geographical work. Widely called “the father of American geography,” Morse authored the first geography textbook in the United States, Geography Made Easy, in 1784. This was a fairly quickly thrown together book but it sold well, allowing Morse to produce more authoritative texts such as his 1789 book The American Geography, as well as children’s book explaining geography at an age-appropriate level.

He is also the father of the more famous Samuel F.B. Morse, developer of the telegraph and Morse Code and one of the most virulent anti-Catholic and anti-Irish figures to ever live in the United States, as well as a defender of southern slavery on moral grounds.

Jedidiah Morse is buried at Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut

Are Right to Work Laws Unconstitutional?

[ 55 ] July 10, 2016 |

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Are right-to-work laws an unconstitutional taking of property? That’s what unions and their lawyers are arguing in Wisconsin and West Virginia, both states that have recently passed such law.

Eleven state labor unions filed petitions in Kanawha Circuit Court Monday challenging the state’s new “right-to-work” law as an illegal taking of union property and resources.

“First and foremost, it’s unconstitutional because it’s an illegal taking of property without due process,” said Josh Sword, secretary treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, one of the 11 plaintiffs.

The lawsuit, and a motion for a preliminary injunction to block the law from going into effect July 1, contends that the Workplace Freedom Act (SB 1) is intended to discourage union membership by “enabling nonmembers of unions to get union services for free.”

Vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, but enacted into law by override votes with no Democratic support in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates and Senate, the legislation allows employees in union shops to opt out of paying union dues.
The lawsuit contends that amounts to an illegal taking of unions’ property and resources, since state and federal labor laws require unions to negotiate contracts and provide representation to the non-union employees at “considerable cost” to the unions.

“Requiring unions to provide services to free riders while simultaneously prohibiting unions from charging for those services necessarily takes union funds and directs them to be expended on behalf of third parties,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit contends one intent of the law is to discourage employees from joining unions.

“Why, the employee would ask, should I pay for something that the law requires be made available to me for nothing,” the petition states. “Such a circumstance would — naturally and predictably — seriously burden a union’s ability to recruit and retain members.”

In April, a Wisconsin circuit court judge overturned that state’s right-to-work law in a case that similarly argued the law amounts to an unconstitutional taking of union property and resources. That ruling has been stayed, pending an appeal to the Wisconsin state Supreme Court.

“This is ultimately going to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, without question,” Sword said of the challenges to right-to-work laws. “The general question of whether it’s an illegal taking of property without due process will be ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

This indeed does seem headed up the court ladder. We have a very good idea what a court with Scalia would have ruled on such a case. Once again, the fate the Court is the single most important reason to vote for Hillary Clinton this fall, even if you hate her. It’s the only responsible for choice for anyone who cares about unions at all.

Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act

[ 25 ] July 10, 2016 |

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I am very happy to see my senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, introduced the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, into the Senate. This would protect 23 million acres of roadless lands as wilderness through the region, providing the large-scale protections necessary to keep species viable in this region currently undergoing tremendous stress from climate change. It’s not like this is going to get passed in Congress as it is presently constituted. But there is no good reason to log these largely high-elevation lands or develop them in any other sort of way. The economic gain would be minimal and short-term, with long-term damage to water supplies, fish runs, and wildlife populations. Plus there is tremendous tourism-based economic possibilities around such a bill that will have a much longer and larger economic impact that a few logging operations here and there. At the very least, a bill like this sets the stage for a future public lands bill the next time Democrats control the presidency and both houses of Congress, which will indeed happen someday.

Palm Oil and International Standards

[ 6 ] July 10, 2016 |

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The idea that companies can’t control their supply chains is ridiculous. They don’t control the labor and environmental conditions in them because they don’t want to and because they don’t care. They may not in fact be able to immediately enter a factory and transform it, but that’s because they have set up a decentralized system that favors their interests by shielding them from legal responsibility for what happens there. But when international pressure develops, it turns out that the corporations have tons of control. That is what’s happening with Cargill and their palm oil sourcing. Palm oil is a tremendously destructive product because it has led to the deforestation of vast swaths of southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia and Indonesia. That has led to significant habitat reduction and ecological degradation without actually providing very many jobs for workers, with many of what jobs do exist being dedicated to child labor. Palm oil is however quite profitable for the elites who control this land. So it has continued without stop, turning huge areas of these nations into an endless monoculture.

In response to outrage from environmental organizations, western companies have agreed to palm oil supply standards. And with the Malaysian agricultural giant IOI ignoring them as they continue to deforest Indonesia, Cargill is now suspending new contracts with the company. Now, this is just Cargill protecting its own self-image and critics note that the company’s demands of IOI amount to almost nothing. Cargill certainly doesn’t care about the planet’s ecological health and it really doesn’t care about maintaining Indonesian rain forests. But the fact that Cargill felt compelled to do anything and that other companies have done more to cut their ties with IOI is an example of how outside pressure can make differences in supply chains and their labor and environmental impacts and an example of how one can pressure western corporations into taking some level of responsibility for what happens in sourcing their products.

Union Busters and Their Friends on the Bench

[ 10 ] July 8, 2016 |

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Speaking of Tom Perez, his Department of Labor helped even the playing field between unions and employers earlier this year by forcing employers to be transparent to their workers about the unionbusting firms they hire.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) passed the “persuader rule” that closed a major loophole, which has for decades allowed employers to hire attorneys and consultants to secretly assist them in what is politely referred to in the industry as “union avoidance.” The goal of this activity is to persuade and prevent workers from organizing unions.

The new rule did not try to make the consultants’ and attorneys’ practices illegal, or regulate the types of activities that employers and consultants could engage in; it was simply intended to provide transparency to workers who are the subject of a coordinated anti-union campaign. But last week, a Texas federal district court judge issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting the DOL from implementing the rule.

The persuader rule reinterpreted the “advice” exemption in Section 203(c) of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA), which had only required disclosure when employers hired outside consultants who directly communicated with employees. Under the previous interpretation of the exemption, the vast majority of employers who hire labor consultants—sometimes referred to as “union busters”—and the consultants they hire have been able to evade their filing requirements and remain in the shadows by having these consultants work behind the scenes.

As a result, the workers are never privy to who is coordinating the anti-union campaign or how much their employers are spending on it. It is estimated that employers in 71-87 percent of organizing drives hire one or more consultants, yet because of the massive loophole in the law, only 387 agreements were filed by employers and consultants.

Good idea, right. Well, sure, except for that Texas judge issuing an injunction against it at the behest of right-wing Texans and, oddly, the American Bar Association.

The new persuader rule, which covers all agreements and payments after July 1, was intended to close this loophole. The rule requires employers who hire anti-union consultants (and those consultants hired) to disclose to the DOL the agreement and the amounts paid. It would not require disclosure of what the consultants said or any legal advice sought. It is akin to a requirement that political campaign ads disclose who is paying for the ad so that people know who is behind the message they are receiving.

But now, under last week’s injunction, all of that is in jeopardy.

“This was one of the most one-sided orders I have ever seen,” explains Seattle University School of Law Professor Charlotte Garden. “The court found every one of the theories brought by the plaintiffs likely to succeed.”

The suit was brought by the National Federation of Independent Business, the Texas Association of Business, the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Home Builders, the Texas Association of Builders, and a group of GOP-controlled states. Some of these organizations were concerned that their current activities of providing anti-union seminars and materials would require them to file reports identifying themselves as labor relations consultants.

Perhaps the most surprising group to take a side in this case was the American Bar Association (ABA), whose mission is “To serve equally our members, our profession and the public by defending liberty and delivering justice as the national representative of the legal profession.” The ABA cited attorneys’ ethical rules for their opposition to the DOL Rule, and said, “by imposing these unfair reporting burdens on both the lawyers and the employer clients they represent, the proposed Rule could very well discourage many employers from seeking the expert legal representation they need, thereby effectively denying them their fundamental right to counsel.”

This coalition of business and attorney groups and states brought forward a number of arguments, from the DOL lacking authority to pass the rule to the rule exceeding the DOL’s estimated compliance costs by $59.99 billion over 10 years. (The DOL estimated the rule would cost all employers and consultants a total of approximately $826,000 per year; the plaintiffs estimated it at $60 billion over 10 years.) Additionally, in line with the growing use of the First Amendment against government regulation of business, the plaintiffs argued that the rule violated the employers’, lawyers’, and consultants’ free speech, expression and association rights. The Judge concluded that some union busters may not offer their services as freely, and some attorneys may leave the field, if their identities and the terms of their arrangements were disclosed.

This is the sort of case that is probably going to be adjudicated over the next few years going up the ladder, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court. And as we know, voting is a consumer choice and Hillary Clinton doesn’t make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside so I am going to vote for Jill Stein to show those Democrats. If that means Trump gets elected, then it’s totally that neoliberal Hillary’s fault when Trump’s judges rule in favor of corporations in cases like this.

The Mainstreaming of the LGBTQ Movement and History

[ 42 ] July 8, 2016 |

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It seems almost inevitable in the history of oppressed Americans. You have a movement that develops at the grassroots. It seeks to challenge the fundamental basis of American society. It has a bit of success at doing that, but ultimately it channels its goals into a civil and legal rights paradigm that drops the class and cultural challenges to the nation. As those legal aims are achieved, the radicalism of the movement fades and becomes forgotten about. As time passes and historical memory starts developing around these movements, narratives that reinforce Americans feeling great about themselves become dominant and the sharp edge that once defined those movements disappears. The civil rights movement becomes about Rosa Parks having tired feet and refusing to move to the back of the bus (even though it was Rosa Parks with the tired feet but a different woman) and MLK giving a 1-paragraph speech at the March on Washington. The women’s movement becomes about the Equal Rights Amendment. And now, gay rights becomes about resistance at Stonewall and then the right to marry.

In all these movements, the radical edge is blunted in public memory. Given the unusual role the federal government plays in shaping American public memory, we can look at National Park Service sites as a good starting point. There’s a NPS site for King of course, but nothing for Black Power. President Obama just named the offices of the National Woman’s Party in Washington as a national monument because of its centrality for women’s suffrage. And now the creation of the Stonewall National Monument to remember the gay rights movement at a moment when gay rights are ensured through marriage, even as gays and transgendered people are still being murdered. But ultimately all of these are celebrations of fundamental civil rights in ways that don’t actually challenge anything about what it means to be an American and they certainly don’t challenge the class structure or the continued oppression still faced by these groups.

I’m not necessarily criticizing this process, just noting what seems to be its near inevitability. The Stonewall National Monument has received almost universal praise, both within the gay community and the public at large. But it’s worth noting the process of selective memory and the silencing how truly radical the gay rights movement once was and how, maybe, there is something lost without that. That’s why I want to link to this essay criticizing the new national monument designation and the co-opting of gay rights by mainstream organizations.

The memorializing was largely celebrated by those with the loudest voices in the world of gay rights — spokespeople for organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, for example. Representatives of these organizations use their platform to depict the LGBTQ movement as monolithic: one with with shared concerns and a shared agenda. But as white gay people benefit more and more from legal protection, visibility and inclusion, the LGBTQ movement is divided by the same factors that structure all inequity in the US, such as proximity to state violence and access to resources.

These differences, of course, are primarily articulated through race and income; low-income queer and trans people of color are overwhelmingly the targets of police abuse, arrests and surveillance.

This division between white, wealthy, cisgender gays, and queer and trans activists of color has been apparent throughout this Pride season, as queer and trans groups across the country pushed a #policeoutofpride campaign, opting out of Pride celebrations after cities announced increased state security presences post-Orlando.

As with the government’s pro-gay makeover, Pride celebrations across the country are as much an occasion for corporations to promote themselves as “allies” as they are a chance for LGBTQ people to gather and celebrate their survival. In 1998, the Bay Area’s LAGAI-Queer Insurrection was possibly the first queer direct action group to crash a Gay Pride parade and call out corporate hijacking, chanting “It’s a movement, not a market!” as they disrupted what had in large part become a celebration of gay consumerism, not liberation.

Some of the world’s wealthiest banks and tech companies have since solidified their place as sponsors and participants in the festivities. While it may be true that large corporations increasingly employ gays and lesbians, these hires are predominantly white and predominantly cisgender. Even more, the growth of tech industries in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle continues to displace longstanding communities and bringing in hoards of high-paid corporate workers. What often goes unspoken is that lower-income LGBTQ people, especially communities of color, are forced out when white, wealthy, and highly educated gays and lesbians move in.

The whole essay is worth your time. And criticize this position if you want to, but there’s no question that the public acceptance of gay rights is a warm and fuzzy acceptance of a particular set of actions that makes everyone feel good about their own tolerance without challenging the significant repression that gay people still feel in their lives and without questioning which LGBTQ people are welcome in this new pantheon of official acceptance and which aren’t.

And how about a national monument at a site of an ACT-UP action? That would be a very different kind of historical memory creation than Stonewall, no?

Perez

[ 84 ] July 8, 2016 |

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Here’s another piece on Secretary of Labor and rising star Tom Perez, who I very much hope Clinton picks as the vice-presidential candidate.

My favorite part is why conservatives hate him.

“Our members are frustrated with Secretary Perez,” said Jack Mozloom, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents 325,000 businesses with fewer than 10 employees. “He has been very aggressive with the overtime rule,” which Moz­loom thinks will lead to employers to cut back hours. “He too frequently gives the labor community whatever they want.”

Let me get out my tiny violin. Actually ensuring that workers get paid justly for their work, what an outrage. No wonder Limbaugh compares him to Hugo Chavez.

If Perez doesn’t get the VP slot, he would make a fantastic Attorney General.

New Fronts in the War on the Poor

[ 26 ] July 8, 2016 |

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It’s incredibly expensive to be poor in the United States. Many have made this observation, noting not only the relatively high price to live in many places but also the prices charged to the poor for “services” like payday loans. Another is charging defendants fees to access their basic rights. Of course this is also another manifestation of racism given who the poor are and who the police target for arrest.

 A brush with the police for pot possession might quickly spiral into a stiff penalty for a missed court date, deepening legal debt, missed work, re-arrest, a longer rap sheet. In daily life, the accompanying stigma layered over indebtedness “perpetuates inequality among African American and Latino men and among high school dropouts in the employment market.” The long-term opportunity cost could include mental-health crisis, forgone voting rights, and chronic recidivism, because people with nothing left to give also have nothing left to lose.

The question of poor individuals’ “debt to society” in the criminal justice infrastructure has exploded amid high-profile police-violence scandals, particularly in Ferguson, Missouri, where the bullet that killed Michael Brown sparked riots and exposed patterns of criminalization that afflict mutually reinforcing social and economic damage. A recent Department of Justice investigation uncovered a system in which officials see black citizens “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”

What do the numbers look like?

 Even due process carries a price tag in states like Washington, where fees for jury trials have risen lately. A 2005 bill set a cost of “$150 and $250 for a six-or twelve-person jury, respectively.” Yes, the right to a jury of your peers costs $25 a head—add another $100 or so for a defense attorney.

Punishing the supposed deviance of the poor with still more poverty reflects “rhetoric in contemporary American society about personal responsibility and accountability,” Harris explains via e-mail:

What is interesting about monetary sanctions and the criminal justice system, similar to that of education and even health care, is that we have shifted what should be a guaranteed right or governmental responsibility to the people who are processed through the system.

Harris’s subjects started with an average debt of about $9,200 each, generally as the combined cost of several convictions. After five years, even with regular monthly payments of about $31, the debtor “would owe $10,667 as a result of the accumulated interest and surcharges—an increase of $1,463 over the initial debt.”

Of course all of this adds up to an inability to pay the rent, clothe the children, eat properly, mental health, etc.

 Legal debtors struggle to live with dignity. Nick, a 38-year-old black man who was attending community college through the help of a reentry program, was trailed by a chain of debt leftover from three convictions in the mid-1990s—violations related to “drug addiction and mental health problems” in adolescence that poverty only exacerbated later on. When Harris interviewed him, he had been sentenced to 56 months in state prison, been jailed several times, and “accumulated a total of $3,178.06 in legal debt,” an impossible sum for him pay down.

This is a complete injustice. But it’s just par for the course for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

“At last he was playing a man’s part, acting in close coöperation with the Government of his country”: Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (X)

[ 21 ] July 7, 2016 |

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One of the most interesting genres of books one finds on Gutenberg is old children’s books. I first found these interesting when in doing some research, I had to read the series of books written by conservationist George Bird Grinnell in the early twentieth century, tracing the tale of a sickly eastern elite child who moves to the West and becomes a real man through killing a whole lot of animals in a class-appropriate manner. So every now and again, I flip through some old kids book.

Harold Bindloss was a writer of boys books in the Pacific Northwest. You may remember him from such barnburners as Thurston of Orchard Valley and Lorimer of the Northwest. I read his 1910 book The Boy Ranchers of Puget Sound. This tells the story of an eastern boy who has some small advantages but not too many who has to go to work as a teenager and sort of fails in his business efforts. As a last resort he goes to a distant relative who is ranching on the Puget Sound. He thinks it’s going to be romantic, like what he read in dime store novels, but ranching in Washington meant digging farms out of the forest. What’s interesting about this book is that Bindloss is writing a book meant to appeal to boys but he basically notes over and over again how just bloody hard this work was. Blasting stumps, setting forest fires to clear land, knowing there are no crops you can raise that will get you rich, hoping that those apples and pears you plant will someday make you a functioning crop, the isolaton from towns–these are the stories Bindloss tells over and over.

So in the sheer and surprising honesty about this at a time when railroads and timber companies were hiring promoters to con the poor into buying their logged-off lands, where they entered extremely economically disadvantageous situations that their descendants remain stuck in today (in other words, this is how the crappy little rural settlements that dot southwest Washington got started), this book is kind of fascinating.

As a boys’ book, it’s pretty meh. It’s overlong. The adventure part of it, as an opium smuggling ring is trying to go through their land to get their junk from Canada to the U.S., is occasionally interesting. And over and over again, the boys get into trouble while in a boat, situations that seem to primarily exist so that Bindloss can talk about boats. It’s hard to see the 13 year old of 1910 getting into this, although who knows. There is the occasional jaw dropping racism. When the single Chinese character speaks, it is of course as follows:

“Got any chow, John?” he asked. “Velly good chow,” answered the Chinaman. “Lice, blue glouse, smokee fishee.” “Blue grouse!” said Harry disgustedly aside to Frank. “It’s the nesting season, but I guess that wouldn’t count for much with them.” He turned to his host. “I’m not a heathen. Savvy cook American? Got any flour you can make biscuits or flapjacks of?”

Ah, nothing like a Chinaman for a good laugh!

So, overall, it, like so many of these books, are kind of interesting to me as a historian. As far as you going back and reading it, well, do you like boating terminology and tepid plots?

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