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The Nature of Modern Protest

[ 37 ] November 2, 2014 |

I found this article on the rise of radical ecoprotests in France really interesting because it reinforces my understanding of the nature of developed world protest since 1991 as being opposed to high modernist ideology rather than capitalism or socialism. These protestors seem to have much the same worldview as many involved in Occupy, Earth First, or various other anarchistesque groups in the last 20 years–resentment toward the big project building that marked 20th century political leadership, a distrust of institutions of all kinds, and a resentment toward centralization. I’m not saying this is good or bad, just noting the point. These protestors say as much:

“We saw the trees falling one after the other,” said Camille, 18, who would not give her last name for fear of running afoul of the authorities. “It was an environmental disaster.”

Like many others, Camille said she had come to the ZAD to denounce “grand projects that are useless and imposed.”

“I have heard about the crisis ever since I was born,” said Camille, who said she had just passed her final exams. “As long as there will be capitalist policies, there will be crisis.”

The demonstrators felt vindicated last week when a report commissioned by the government found that the project was too expensive, that local needs for the dam had been overestimated and that alternative options had not been sufficiently explored. But the report also said it would be difficult to stop construction at this stage.

The entire logic of such a project is offensive to a certain set of people. Perhaps most offensive is the logic that something is unnecessary but it’s already started so let’s finish it. And there’s a good reason to be suspicious of such a mentality given the number of disastrous projects completed for just such a reason over the years.


Democrats: The Real Racists

[ 28 ] November 2, 2014 |

Mary Landrieu mentioned the history of racism in the South. Naturally, Louisiana Republicans were outraged that she would do so.

Obviously, like all Democrats, Mary Landrieu is the real racist here. It’s hard being a conservative white person in this country.

This Day in Labor History: November 2, 1909

[ 26 ] November 2, 2014 |

On November 2, 1909, the Industrial Workers of the World called a free speech strike in Spokane, Washington. The free speech movements would highlight what the IWW did well and where is struggled, as the organization exposed the hypocrisy and brutality of Gilded Age capitalism and exposed to the nation the terrible lives of working people while at the same time failing to build on a major early victory when it won this battle.

The IWW was founded in 1905 to give power to the millions of industrial workers who lacked it in Gilded Age America. With the American Federation of Labor largely unwilling to organize women, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, farmworkers, children, or the giant industrial workplaces developing during the late 19th century, there was a tremendous vacuum for someone willing to organize the masses. The IWW would step into that vacuum.

Conditions in northeastern Washington were as bad as the rest of the nation. This was farming and logging country and both industries relied on itinerant labor. Working and living conditions were terrible and pay was poor. What really made workers angry was the employment agency scam. Companies and farmers would contract out with employment agencies, forcing workers to use them for a job. Workers paid for this service. If a job wasn’t there when they arrived, no money back! Return to Spokane and try again. Same if the job just lasted a couple of days. This was rank exploitation of the poor.

These conditions made Spokane an early IWW organizing hotspot. By mid 1909, the city and surrounding region had up to 1500 dues-paying members and a nice headquarters. It expanded its presence through street speaking. This is the literal meaning of “get on your soapbox” in action here. In angry speeches denouncing the exploitation workers faced, Wobbly speakers attempted to convince the workers passing through Spokane from job to job to fight back. As 1909 went on, the Spokane police began cracking down against this. In March, the city council passed an ordinance banning public speaking to all “revolutionists.”

anit-IWW cartoon from Spokane Spokesman Review 1909

Anti-IWW cartoon from Spokane newspaper

As arrests grew, the IWW moved toward a larger action. When local Wobbly leader Jim Thompson was arrested for speaking without a permit on October 25, the IWW demanded his release and threatened to send speakers from around the country to city and flood the jails. Spokane called the IWW on its bluff and the IWW began its first major free speech fight on November 2. Spokane police began arresting everyone who tried to speak. Soon 400 people were in jail, overwhelming the prison system. As the members cycled out of jail, often after a 30-day sentence, they got themselves rearrested. Conditions in the prisons were terrible. Overcrowded and cold, the prisoners were intentionally underfed and forced to take ice-cold outdoor showers in the winter.

This was not quite the first free speech fight, but it was the first to become a national story. Major radical speakers like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn arrived. Flynn was nineteen and pregnant. She was arrested as well, after chaining herself to a lamppost to avoid it. When she was in prison, she had a story published in Industrial Worker that the Spokane police were using the prison as a brothel. The police went ballistic and attempted to confiscate all copies. The intense resistance of the IWW surprised Spokane and overwhelmed its ability to deal with the crisis of its own making.


The IWW won a pretty complete victory in the free speech fight here. All the unconstitutional restrictions on their activities were taken away and the free speech prisoners freed. It could hold outdoor meetings without the police harassing them. And during the strike, the employers gave up the contract labor system in order to take away part of workers’ reason to be angry. But the employers could have held out. Most of the arrested strikers were out of town revolutionaries and the IWW leadership was having trouble finding more. The IWW actually approached the Spokane city government for a deal because it knew it would lose soon.

What I find fascinating about the IWW response to Spokane is how rapidly the conditions of work in Spokane disappeared from the pages of Industrial Worker, the most important IWW newspaper, once this struggle became about free speech. Instead of the hellish lives experienced by the rank and file, the fight was about free speech, heightening the contradictions of capitalism by forcing mass arrests, and the potential for revolutionary change. But the actual conditions of work became secondary, basically disappearing from Wobbly documents. That might make sense in the short term. But when the strike ended, Spokane itself faded from view. The Wobblies moved on to the next big national struggle. The focus on conditions in Spokane that was common in the paper before the strike was completely gone after it was won.

Even after the strike was won, the conditions of labor were still terrible. But the IWW as a national organization really failed to build upon this victory. It could have really doubled down in Spokane and started pushing further improvements to the lives of the loggers, agricultural workers, and urban workers (who were really the same people since people switched work in this economy all the time). But it did not. The loggers would still remain active IWW members and northeastern Washington and northern Idaho the heart of Wobbly radicalism in the Northwest timber industry. But it would take another decade, more strikes, and government intervention to solve the labor unrest caused by the terrible exploitation of the timber industry.

I don’t necessarily blame the IWW here for its failure to build on the free speech fights, a problem it would have throughout its history. Nor do I want to downplay the significance of the victory in Spokane. This was a young organization with the struggles that new groups have. It was very good at certain things, such as throwing the hypocrisy of the capitalists back in their face, creating public displays, and promulgating powerful cultural images. It also managed to make strong connections some of the nation’s poorest workers. It was not good at understanding how to build a long-term struggle, nor would it ever be. For many IWW leaders and intellectuals, ideas of revolution and struggle had more appeal than the day to day organizing needed to build long-term worker power. For an organization so dedicated to the struggles of the nation’s poorest, a lot of its leaders and famous speakers could abstract the working class at the same time as providing material assistance to it at its hardest times.

I think the real relevance of this story today is in the tricky connections between free speech and long-term organizing. The commitment of American radicals to free speech as a principle has waxed and waned over time, but today, like a century ago, it’s high on the radical agenda. And fighting for the spaces and rights for that speech against what can be a coercive state is a major demand, like a century ago. So I guess I see Occupy Wall Street and the IWW free speech fights as having certain similarities. Demanding the soapbox is a vital principle, but it’s awfully hard to build on that to other issues that connect directly to everyday people’s lives. This went far to undermine Occupy and proved a barrier for the IWW as well. The free speech fights were noble, but in the end they didn’t do a whole lot for empowering the rank and file to control their own lives.

This is the 124th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Nic Kristof: The King of the 21st Century White Slavery Scare

[ 98 ] November 1, 2014 |

Even though Nic Kristof has been shown to be incredibly gullible about child prostitution, that hasn’t stopped the Times from letting him promote his insane horror rhetoric:

IF prostitution of children is illegal, why is it that we allow an estimated 100,000 underage girls and boys to be sold for sex in America each year — many on a single American website,

That’s a reflection of law enforcement priorities, but several brave girls who allege that they were pimped on Backpage are trying to change them. They are fighting back in lawsuits that could have far-reaching implications for sex trafficking in America.

100,000 children. Really? Does anyone actually believe that? Because that number is insane. And it’s not like Kristof has any credibility on these issues at this point. He should have lost his column over his willingness to repeat lies about the Cambodian sex trade but it hasn’t fazed him at all.

And here’s the thing–it’s not like this issue is not a problem. It’s terrible. But Kristof does not help by repeating extremely absurd claims that lack evidence. He’s a joke and so are his claims. Anyone involved in the trade of children for sex is a horrible person. But exaggerating claims hurts these children rather than helping them. And that’s what Kristof has done time and time again, without accountability as to his embarrassing journalistic standards.

Joe McPhee

[ 9 ] November 1, 2014 |

I spent my Halloween evening in New Haven, seeing the legendary saxophonist Joe McPhee play with drummer Chris Corsano and cellist Daniel Levin at Firehouse 12. This was amazing and someone I never thought I’d get to see live. I’ve been listening to McPhee for years, especially his groundbreaking early albums like Nation Time and Trinity. This is as close to an approximation as I can get on YouTube, albeit Evan Parker gives a very different dynamic than a cellist. Technically, it was also Levin’s trio. Firehouse 12 is also an outstanding space, especially when compared to the terrible space (albeit necessary and with great shows!) that is John Zorn’s Stone on the Lower East Side. Lower rents and all that.

A note about the merchandise table. When I go to a show like this, I want to support the cause by buying a CD or two. That’s especially true at a jazz show because CDs are released on so many tiny labels that I would never hear of otherwise. But at both the Jon Dee Graham show I went to on Wednesday and this, the merch table was not exactly a priority of the musicians. Graham was talking about his CDs for sale and then immediately after the show went outside to smoke cigarettes for at least 15 minutes. I waited around that long and then couldn’t wait any longer as I had a 45 minute drive ahead of me. Last night, only Corsano hung around after the first show (I really couldn’t stay for the second as it is 100 miles from New Haven to Providence and I was tired enough when I got back to RI as it was). McPhee and Levin went to have a drink downstairs. The problem here was that McPhee hadn’t even bothered to put his music out for sale and Corsano had no idea how much Levin was selling his albums for. So I bought a couple pieces Corsano was on and that’s great–I am really excited to listen to them. But you’d like to think there’d be a bit more of a concerted effort to actually sell this stuff.

A Conservative Halloween

[ 166 ] October 31, 2014 |

Conservatives are such fun people. They can’t let a holiday go without turning it into part of the culture war. The American Spectator clearly planned this one for awhile:

Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers kill kids rushing to become adults. Is it too much to ask of the ghoulish trio to apply their talents toward adults rushing to become kids?

The grownups who have decimated the ranks of trick-or-treaters by aborting 10 million of them in the last decade offer penance for their sins against Halloween by dressing up in place of the missing children. The National Retail Federation estimates that adults will spend $1.4 billion on their own Halloween costumes this year. That’s $1.4 billion that they could have spent on man-cave clubhouses, a huge birthday party, a collection of Care Bears, or some other pastime recently favored by adults.

Whining about adults spending money on costumes instead of doing what Real Americans are supposed to do–breed and raise new conservatives–is the height of how to connect with the broader public.

Meanwhile, this does not make sense:

Society appears beset by myriad identity disorders and too eager to label the clear-headed confused. A recent story highlighted the alleged racial confusion of well-mannered, well-spoken, well-educated Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Men now dress up earnestly as Milton Berle once did for laughs. But age, not race or sex, plays as the role that confuses the culture most.

But the real problem is, of course, abortion. Because we kill all our fetuses, we have to compensate by staying children ourselves. Or something:

The decimation of the ranks of children leaves us with fewer kids and more adult imitators. The lucky ones protected in the womb grow up overprotected outside of it. An adult-surveilled childhood responsible for structured playdates, chauffeured trips to school, and digital babysitters shielding youngsters from the fresh air may also be responsible for the delayed childhoods of adults earlier denied them. It’s also hard to not conclude that a society mired in gadgets and amusements quite naturally favors frivolity. And marriage, an institution known to quickly mature its partners, elicits more “I don’ts” than ever.

Surely the National Parent sets a bad example here. Pajama Boy, that cradle-to-grave sponge “Julia,” and the health-care act regarding 26-year-olds as dependents entitled to coverage from their parents’ insurance plans all recast adolescence long beyond its biological boundaries—25 is the new 12.

Yes, nothing shows the depravity of our abortion culture like allowing 25 year olds to have health insurance!

The World’s Worst Living Architect

[ 176 ] October 31, 2014 |


It’s hard to argue against the point that Frank Gehry is a terrible architect:

Gehry long ago stopped pursuing any interesting material or tectonic experimentation—and he used to be an interesting architect!—to become the multi-billion dollar equivalent of a Salvador Dalì poster tacked to the wall in a stoned lacrosse player’s dorm room, an isn’t-it-trippy pile of pseudo-psychedelic bullshit that everyone but billionaire urban developers can see through right away. What’s particularly frustrating about Gehry’s career is that he’s somehow meant to be cool, a kind of sci-fi architect for the Millennial generation, a Timothy Leary of CAD; but he’s Guy Fieri, his buildings hair-gelled monsters of advanced spatial douchebaggery.

His work is badly constructed, ravey-balls hair metal, a C.C. DeVille guitar solo that cannot—will not—end until the billionaire clients who keep paying for this shit can be stopped. Worse, no matter how much diagrammatic handwaving someone like architectural theorist extraordinaire Peter Eisenman can do—and he can do an awful lot of it—to convince you that Gehry is, or was once long ago, on to something interesting, these buildings are not even compelling from a theoretical standpoint. So, yeah, he used software normally found in airplane design—great. That’s awesome. I can imagine amazing things coming out of such an irreverent mixing of design tools.

But the results are just crumpled Reynold’s Wrap on an otherwise white-bread interior, a boring, room-by-room grid surrounded by hair spray, like some lunatic version of Phyllis Diller blown up to the size of a city block and frozen mid-stroke.

I was talking about this on Facebook and DJW pointed out this Gehry monstrosity in Prague:


I believe the architectural theory behind this is called “I’m going to take a huge dump on your historical neighborhood.” I mean, it’s mostly well-established that modern buildings can coexist with historical buildings in a pretty seamless way, but ultimately they still have to respect what is already there. This, in my humble opinion, fails miserably on this account. This building is all ego. Although if someone was paying me this much to build this kind of thing, I would too.

And to Gehry’s credit, a union friend of mine says that he demands the use of union labor in all his buildings. Which is great but like a Pontiac of the 1970s, it’s necessary to remember that it’s not the workers’ fault for the poor design.

“We’ve Talked to You a Lot Since the War Began about Gonorrhea and Syphilis”

[ 15 ] October 31, 2014 |

This Halloween, let me give you as your treat this 1918 U.S. government pamphlet about venereal disease given to soldiers returning from World War I.

Trick or treat indeed.

High Fashion Smog Masks

[ 10 ] October 31, 2014 |


I’d laugh at this Beijing fashion show having the models wear designer smog masks if it wasn’t so bloody depressing.

Jon Dee Graham

[ 3 ] October 30, 2014 |

Last night, I went to see the great Jon Dee Graham at a bar in Newport, Rhode Island. I used to see Graham all the time when I lived in Austin. The gravelly-voiced songwriter is maybe the not greatest singer in the world but he is witty and funny and cranky and writes some outstanding songs. Soon after I left Texas, Graham was driving home to Austin from a show in Dallas, fell asleep, wrecked his car, and nearly died. But he’s back, albeit with about 50 more pounds on him than he had a few years ago. What this show was for me was a lesson in the difficulties of being a lifer on the road. This bar is an excellent beer bar, one of the best in Rhode Island. It was also way, way too loud for a show like this because there was no cover and most of the people didn’t care. This was just background music for them. When you are playing an acoustic guitar, that has to be incredibly frustrating and indeed it was for Graham, even though he’s probably played this kind of show 200 times. Still, he soldiered on and as the people who didn’t care about the music petered out, things got better for him and for the show. It wasn’t the same as seeing him on Wednesday night at the Continental Club performing before James McMurtry’s famed midnight sets, but it was as good as it’s going to get in Rhode Island.

Below is a clip of his most famous song. Mike June, with whom I was unfamiliar, accompanies him here. He also opened last night to a crowd that cared even less and was even louder than when Jon Dee played.

Benghazi! By Michael Bay

[ 68 ] October 30, 2014 |

This will no doubt be the greatest film in history:

In a massive change of pace, Michael Bay is going from toy tentpole to a Benghazi political drama.

Bay is in negotiations to direct 13 Hours, the adaptation of Mitchell Zuckoff’s book about the attack on an American compound in Libya that left U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens dead.

Chuck Hogan wrote the script adapting the book, which details how on Sept. 11, 2012, terrorists attacked the U.S. State Department Special Mission Compound in Benghazi. The focus is on six members of a security team that valiantly fought to defend the many Americans stationed there. They only partially succeeded: Stevens and a foreign service worker were killed in one attack, and two contract workers were killed during a second assault on a CIA station nearby.

Erwin Stoff is producing the Paramount film.

Bay has spent the better part of almost a decade in the land of Transformers movies, which have budgets of more $200 million, if not $250 million, each. He also took time to do a passion project, 2013’s Pain & Gain, which had a budget of around $26 million. Sources say that 13 Hours would be budgeted in the $30 to $40 million range.

$30-40 million? Can Bay even shoot the scenes where the Obama Administration gives security information directly to Al Qaeda for that money?

Happy 85th to the Great Depression!

[ 17 ] October 30, 2014 |

Black Tuesday was 85 years ago yesterday.

I went on the Rick Smith Show to talk about its legacy and how we are tearing down the institutions that ensured working people would not have their lives destroyed by corporate greed enacted in the following decades.

Listen to my interview here.

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