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Category: General

This Day in Labor History: July 20, 1891

[ 20 ] July 20, 2017 |

On July 20, 1891, militia forces guarding a stockade at a mine near Briceville, Tennessee surrendered to miners during Coal Creek War to keep convict laborers from competing with free miners. This was one of several tense moments in the larger struggle in the post-Reconstruction South by white free laborers to keep the state from using prisoners, many of whom were African-American, from competing with them and the lengths to which the state would go to undermine the ability of workers to make a living.

After southern treason in defense of slavery was crushed, not only was the southern elite stripped of their capital, but the states themselves were a physical and financial wreck, often run through over and over again by four years of battles and marches. Such was the case in Tennessee. Other than Virginia, no southern state suffered more damage. The state had no money. But the Reconstruction government there did have prisoners. Without the ability to even pay to keep prisoners, in 1866, Tennessee began renting their convicts out to coal companies in exchange for the companies paying for their board. The irony of unpaid prison labor in the wake of the Thirteenth Amendment is rich, but that amendment did make an exception for prisoners and that loophole has been blown wide open ever since. Tennessee was not the only state that did this. For instance, also in 1866, Virginia’s prisons began a similar program for railroad companies and among the convicts sent to his death this way was a young black soldier from New Jersey railroaded into prison named John Henry, who would become a mythical legend in American culture.

By 1871, Tennessee was leasing its convicts to the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railway Company (TCI), which subcontracted the prisoners to small coal mines. This immediately created dissatisfaction from free laboring coal miners, but there was not too much organized action against it in the early years. During the 1870s, Coal Creek, in Anderson County (named after this individual recent profiled in the internet’s least important series), on the Cumberland Plateau, became the state’s coal center. By the 1880s, miners, locked out of the profits the coal companies raked in on their unfree labor, began seriously organizing.

Ultimately, it was the rise of the Farmers’ Alliance, the state organizations that would lead to the Populist Party, that gave miners the organization they needed to resist unfree competition. The Tennessee Farmers Alliance and their allies in the fading but still locally relevant Knights of Labor elected several supporters to the state legislature, as well as a new governor. Feeling emboldened, it next made direct demands on the coal mines, including the end of the use of company scrip and that miners could use their own checkweighmen, which were the people who weighed the coal and determined how much the miner would get paid. In fact, both of these things were already mandated by state law but ignored by the owners. In the face of new pressure, most agreed, but the Tennessee Coal Mining Company, operating a mine on Coal Creek, near Briceville, refused and moreover, tried to force miners to sign a locked-in 2 year contract that gave them none of these things. When they refused, TCMC shut the mine and reopened it on July 5 with state prisoners contracted through TCI. It then tore down company housing, kicking out residents, to build a new stockade for the convict laborers.

This led to an explosion of anger. On the evening of July 14, fearing more convict laborers, miners and other concerned locals met and decided to do something about it. The next evening, a group of 300 armed miners marched to the stockade, probably led by local Knights of Labor members, took it over, and placed the prisoners on trains to Knoxville. They hoped their newly elected governor, John Buchanan, would support their action based on their own version of private property rights–they were defending their wages and property from essentially enslaved people. But Buchanan himself helped escort the prisoners back to Briceville, one of many examples of the Farmers Alliance, Populists, and unionists electing people to state office during this era, only to have them turn on their working-class supporters when the opportunity to cash in came. Shots were fired at the stockade that night and 100 militia members were left to guard the prisoners. On the morning of July 20, 2000 armed miners surrounded the stockade. Miners came all the way from Kentucky to help, as the convict miners had recently been evicted in that state and there was worried about the system returning. The militia surrendered and once again, the convicts were loaded on a train back to Knoxville. Simply put, local miners would not accept unpaid competition.

This put greater pressure on Buchanan, who got the miners to back off with the promise of a legislative session to deal with the legality of convict labor. Little happened though and a state court ruled against the miners, placing the sanctity of contract over all. Miners responded on October 31 by taking over TCMC and burning several building. The 300 prisoners in the stockade were freed, given clothing and food, and told to go somewhere else. On November 2, another band of miners did the same at the stockade at Oliver Springs, freeing another 150 prisoners. Finally, the state dispatched armed militia to ensure the ability of TCMC to use convict laborers. The militia were largely from west and middle Tennessee, and there was immediate tensions between the two sides, with plenty of shooting at each other.

But by this time, TCMC wanted to be done with the convict laborers, which had become more trouble than they were worth. The company came to an agreement with the miners to stop using the prisoners. That said, TMI had no interest in stopping its contracting with mine companies for this profitable operation. It directly purchased a mine at Oliver Springs and sent the prisoners there. This led to another round of violent conflict. Miners in Grundy County and Marion County tore and burned down stockades there. At Coal Creek, the militia head was captured and a direct charge on the militia led to the killing of 2, but the miners couldn’t take the stockade. At this point, Buchanan ordered a militia company of 600 men to retake east Tennessee from the miners. This proved effective and hundreds of miners were jailed. Only one miner served any meaningful jail time as many fled and others were acquitted. Order was restored.

In the aftermath, Tennessee banned the convict lease system in 1896, making it one of the first southern states to do so. It didn’t do this because it opposed using unpaid labor, but because the cost of keeping the militia in the field was more than the money the state made on the prisoners. The incident became part of Appalachian lore and was remembered in music.

This is the 232nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.


Populist Trump Administration Continues to Drain the Swamp

[ 45 ] July 20, 2017 |

This is a terrific piece about the Trump administration seeking to undo a major new CFPB regulation:

But much like the bulk of Trump’s agenda, that assault remains in the aspirational phase, and the agency continues to do its work. Earlier this month, the CFPB released a major new rule, flat-out barring financial institutions from using forced arbitration clauses in consumer contracts to stop class-action lawsuits.

Now, Trump has sent out his lead attack dog to overturn the arbitration rule — a former bank lawyer who has used the very tactic the CFPB wants to prevent.

Class-action lawsuits are often the only way abusive behavior is checked. Take one of the more flagrant examples relating to overdraft fees. Millions of Americans are painfully familiar with the little perforated postcard that kindly arrives in the mail, courtesy of your financial institution, informing you that you have overdrawn your bank account and have been assessed a fee. Or, sometimes, you get three of them in the mail.

In order to make sure you get three and not one, banks in the past would re-order your transactions. The case of Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo is instructive here: a federal class-action case in California, the suit charged the bank with debit card reordering, or altering the sequence of debit card withdrawals to maximize overdraft fees. So if a cardholder with $100 in their account made successive withdrawals of $20, $30, and $110 over the course of a day, instead of getting hit with one $35 overdraft fee, Wells Fargo would reorder the transactions from high to low, thus earning three fees.

The plaintiffs won a $203 million judgment in 2010. But in an appeal before the 9th Circuit in 2012, Wells’ lawyers argued that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2011, AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, gave Wells Fargo the right to compel arbitration and quash the case, even after the judgment was rendered.

The 9th Circuit ruled that Wells Fargo never requested or even mentioned arbitration for five years of litigating the case. Only after losing in court and getting a potential lifeline from the Supreme Court did the lawyers take the shot. “Ordering arbitration would … be inconsistent with the parties’ agreement, and contradict their conduct throughout the litigation,” the court ruled.

Wells Fargo eventually paid California customers, but only after six years of appeals. Yet the company is still trying to use arbitration to quash a similar class action on overdraft fees, which would affect consumers in the other 49 states. Over 30 banks have been sued for this conduct, and every one of them settled the case except Wells Fargo.

Banks have a lot riding on the CFPB rule. Luckily for Wells Fargo, a former senior attorney of theirs is now a top federal regulator. In fact, Keith Noreika worked on that class-action defense in Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo before becoming the acting chair of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

In May, President Trump hired Noreika to take over OCC, in an unusual arrangement where he would serve as a “special government employee,” retained to perform “temporary duties” for not more than 130 days, and exempt from most ethics rules or Senate confirmation.

As always, the clear lesson is that Both Sides Do It but the Democrats are worse.

Property Rights For Thee…

[ 48 ] July 20, 2017 |

Trump may be failing in his attempts to give 21 million lucky duckies the sweet freedom of no health insurance, but at least he’s giving more people the glorious liberty to be arbitrarily stripped of their property:

In America, it is legal in most states for police to take and keep your stuff without ever convicting you for a crime. Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions apparently wants to let police do this even more often.

Most states and federal law already allow what’s called “civil asset forfeiture.” This lets police seize someone’s property without proving the person was guilty of a crime; they just need probable cause to believe the assets were used or obtained in some kind of criminal activity, typically drug trafficking.

Police can then absorb the value of the property — be it cash, cars, guns, or something else — as profit, either through state programs or under a federal program known as equitable sharing, which lets local and state police get up to 80 percent of the value of what they seize as money for their departments. For police departments, this can end up a fairly profitable venture.

On Wednesday, Sessions signed an order to encourage law enforcement to use civil asset forfeiture more often, rescinding previous orders by President Barack Obama’s administration limiting the practice. The order includes some supposed safeguards, which ask law enforcement to be careful, make sure there is sufficient evidence of a crime, and more thoroughly document the evidence and probable cause justification.

“[W]e hope to issue this week a new directive on asset forfeiture — especially for drug traffickers,” Sessions said on Monday, hinting at the forthcoming order. “With care and professionalism, we plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures. No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime. Adoptive forfeitures are appropriate as is sharing with our partners.”

And before you give Republicans spurious credit for being part of a “bipartisan opposition” to this while doing nothing about it, remember that 1)Sessions is what he’s always obviously been, and 2)the Senate voted to confirm him.

Revolt of the masses

[ 413 ] July 20, 2017 |

This New Yorker profile of Trump supporters in western Colorado is yet another entry into the quasi-anthropological task of trying to figure out how an astonishingly ignorant and increasingly demented old man who is a raging narcissist etc. etc. etc. could be elected president of the United States. It draws a picture of Trump’s base as made up in large part of people who harbor a deep sense of alienation and marginalization, and who see themselves as revolting against The Establishment, especially the media establishment:

Last October, three weeks before the election, Donald Trump visited Grand Junction for a rally in an airport hangar. Along with other members of the press, I was escorted into a pen near the back, where a metal fence separated us from the crowd. At that time, some prominent polls showed Clinton leading by more than ten percentage points, and Trump often claimed that the election might be rigged. During the rally he said, “There’s a voter fraud also with the media, because they so poison the minds of the people by writing false stories.” He pointed in our direction, describing us as “criminals,” among other things: “They’re lying, they’re cheating, they’re stealing! They’re doing everything, these people right back here!”

The attacks came every few minutes, and they served as a kind of tether to the speech. The material could have drifted off into abstraction—e-mails, Benghazi, the Washington swamp. But every time Trump pointed at the media, the crowd turned, and by the end people were screaming and cursing at us. One man tried to climb over the barrier, and security guards had to drag him away.

Such behavior is out of character for residents of rural Colorado, where politeness and public decency are highly valued. Erin McIntyre, a Grand Junction native who works for the Daily Sentinel, the local paper, stood in the crowd, where the people around her screamed at the journalists: “Lock them up!” “Hang them all!” “Electric chair!” Afterward, McIntyre posted a description of the event on Facebook. “I thought I knew Mesa County,” she wrote. “That’s not what I saw yesterday. And it scared me.”

Before Trump took office, people I met in Grand Junction emphasized pragmatic reasons for supporting him. The economy was in trouble, and Trump was a businessman who knew how to make rational, profit-oriented decisions. Supporters almost always complained about some aspect of his character, but they also believed that these flaws were likely to help him succeed in Washington. “I’m not voting for him to be my pastor,” Kathy Rehberg, a local real-estate agent, said. “I’m voting for him to be President. If I have rats in my basement, I’m going to try to find the best rat killer out there. I don’t care if he’s ugly or if he’s sociable. All I care about is if he kills rats.”

After the turbulent first two months of the Administration, I met again with Kathy Rehberg and her husband, Ron. They were satisfied with Trump’s performance, and their complaints about his behavior were mild. “I think some of it is funny, how he doesn’t let people push him around,” Ron Rehberg said. Over time, such remarks became more common. “I hate to say it, but I wake up in the morning looking forward to what else is coming,” Ray Scott, a Republican state senator who had campaigned for Trump, told me in June. One lawyer said bluntly, “I get a kick in the ass out of him.” The calculus seemed to have shifted: Trump’s negative qualities, which once had been described as a means to an end, now had value of their own. The point wasn’t necessarily to get things done; it was to retaliate against the media and other enemies. This had always seemed fundamental to Trump’s appeal, but people had been less likely to express it so starkly before he entered office. “For those of us who believe that the media has been corrupt for a lot of years, it’s a way of poking at the jellyfish,” Karen Kulp told me in late April. “Just to make them mad.”

Grand Junction, like a lot of places, has been ravaged by the sort of hyper-capitalism shading off into outright grifting that Donald Trump’s whole career exemplifies perfectly. (I suppose this is what people who munch in quiet self-satisfaction on sopressata sandwiches while listening to NPR would call “irony.”). Voting for Trump because you sense (often correctly) that the system is in many ways rigged against people like you is the political equivalent of mailing yourself a letter bomb, but at least it makes the liberals mad. And striking back against people who, in your view, dedicate their lives to making you feel bad about yourself is an eminently predictable behavior.

A friend of mine explains it like this:

People resent being told they are stupid, and that their long-held values are silly and wrong.

There are a huge number of people in this country, in all parts but certainly more heavily concentrated in the middle, that believe in “traditional American values.” This is set of views that has gone largely unchallenged for most of their lives, and upon which they honestly believe this country is based. The key tenet is being “normal”:

-Christianity is normal, and so is quiet agnosticism. All the different kinds of Muslims (Muslim Muslims, Hindu Muslims, Sikh Muslims) are not normal and are maybe violent. Jews are not normal, but are smart and non-threatening, although you need to watch them. They have never actually met a Muslim or a Jew.

-They don’t believe they are racist at all. They judge people by how they act, not how they look. If all blacks dressed and acted like the ones in the Olive Garden commercials, they would be totally fine with them. But the saggy pants and all the jewelry and bright colors and filthy rap music and whatnot – that isn’t normal. If they want to be accepted, why don’t they just act normal? They don’t know any black people, beyond maybe someone they say “hi” to at work.

-They know some people are gay, but it isn’t normal. It’s fine if they want to do that, but they shouldn’t flaunt it in public and make everyone uncomfortable. And they shouldn’t be putting it on tv or movies like it is normal and just as good as regular relationships, because it isn’t. They know some gays, but they aren’t invited to the bbq this weekend because there are going to be kids there.

-They think the whole trans “debate” is the silliest thing they have ever heard. What, boys are girls now, or vice versa, or whatever they want? And that’s supposed to be normal? And my daughter is going to see some weirdo’s dick waggling out in the bathroom because he feels like he is a girl? Not normal. Not fucking ok.

Especially over the past decade or so, these people have increasingly been told that their deeply-held views are not only wrong, but make them bad people. And, being humans, their reaction isn’t to rethink their lifelong worldview and change their attitude, but rather to dig in and say “fuck you.” They know they are “supposed to say” that they are ok with gay marriage, and black lives matter, and all that, because if they don’t they are going to be called stupid, redneck racists by people on TV and in print media. So they have changed what they’ll say out loud, or at least to whom they will say it, but haven’t changed their beliefs. And Hillary and the democrats are exactly the kind of people that would judge them harshly for their views, and Donald Trump and the republicans are the kind of people who don’t. So they are voting republican, no matter how big of a clown Trump is, because at least those people don’t piss all over my fundamental sense of self.

For such people, a culturally conservative white Christian is what sociologists call an “unmarked category,” and what they themselves think of as a real American. And a lot of real Americans are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it any more — even if it means voting for Donald Trump.

A Less-Than-Typically-Informed Old Man Who Watches Fox News All Day is Now President of the United States

[ 215 ] July 20, 2017 |

The Times interview with Trump is even more insane than the story Paul refers to below makes it sound. For example:

TRUMP: It was good. We are very close. It’s a tough — you know, health care. Look, Hillary Clinton worked eight years in the White House with her husband as president and having majorities and couldn’t get it done. Smart people, tough people — couldn’t get it done. Obama worked so hard. They had 60 in the Senate. They had big majorities and had the White House. I mean, ended up giving away the state of Nebraska. They owned the state of Nebraska. Right. Gave it away. Their best senator did one of the greatest deals in the history of politics. What happened to him?

I can’t believe that Trump can’t remember poor Ben Nelson, who pulled off one of the greatest deals in the history of politics when he got ownership of the entire state of Nebraska in exchange for his vote. And he got it even though the Cornhusker Kickback wasn’t even in the final bill! Anyway, Obama could have given Lieberman the state of Connecticut for his vote for a public option, and he Didn’t. Even. Try.

So pre-existing conditions are a tough deal. Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan. Here’s something where you walk up and say, “I want my insurance.” It’s a very tough deal, but it is something that we’re doing a good job of.

Also, Trump legitimately doesn’t seem to understand the difference between health insurance and life insurance.

On foreign relations:

HABERMAN: He was very deferential to you. Very.
TRUMP: He’s a great guy. Smart. Strong. Loves holding my hand.
HABERMAN: I’ve noticed.
TRUMP: People don’t realize he loves holding my hand. And that’s good, as far as that goes.
TRUMP: I mean, really. He’s a very good person. And a tough guy, but look, he has to be. I think he is going to be a terrific president of France. But he does love holding my hand

And let us not forget his skills as a military historian:

TRUMP: Well, Napoleon finished a little bit bad. But I asked that. So I asked the president, so what about Napoleon? He said: “No, no, no. What he did was incredible. He designed Paris.” [garbled] The street grid, the way they work, you know, the spokes. He did so many things even beyond. And his one problem is he didn’t go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities, and they froze to death. How many times has Russia been saved by the weather? [garbled]
TRUMP: Same thing happened to Hitler. Not for that reason, though. Hitler wanted to consolidate. He was all set to walk in. But he wanted to consolidate, and it went and dropped to 35 degrees below zero, and that was the end of that army.

And let us not forget his vast list of domestic policy accomplishments!

But I’m talking about for my time. I heard that Harry Truman was first, and then we beat him. These are approved by Congress. These are not just executive orders. On the executive orders, we cut regulations tremendously. By the way, I want regulations, but, you know, some of the — you have to get nine different regulations, and you could never do anything. I’ve given the farmers back their farms. I’ve given the builders back their land to build houses and to build other things.

Donald J. Trump is the President of the United States of America.

This would be funny to watch from another country, or better yet planet

[ 116 ] July 19, 2017 |

WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Wednesday that he never would have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known Mr. Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation that has dogged his presidency, calling the decision “very unfair to the president.”

In a remarkable public break with one of his earliest political supporters, Mr. Trump complained that Mr. Sessions’s decision ultimately led to the appointment of a special counsel that should not have happened. “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Mr. Trump said.

In a wide-ranging interview with The New York Times, the president also accused James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director he fired in May, of trying to leverage a dossier of compromising material to keep his job. Mr. Trump criticized both the acting F.B.I. director who has been filling in since Mr. Comey’s dismissal and the deputy attorney general who recommended it. And he took on Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel now leading the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election.

Mr. Trump said Mr. Mueller was running an office rife with conflicts of interest and warned investigators against delving into matters too far afield from Russia. Mr. Trump never said he would order the Justice Department to fire Mr. Mueller, nor would he outline circumstances under which he might do so. But he left open the possibility as he expressed deep grievance over an investigation that has taken a political toll in the six months since he took office.

Asked if Mr. Mueller’s investigation would cross a red line if it expanded to look at his family’s finances beyond any relationship to Russia, Mr. Trump said, “I would say yes.” He would not say what he would do about it. “I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia.”

Here’s the actual interview, or parts of it. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

Criminalizing Dissent

[ 293 ] July 19, 2017 |

Whatever what one thinks of boycotts as a strategy for opposing Israeli policy, there’s no possible defense for this legislation:

But now, a group of 43 Senators – 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats – want to implement a law that would make it a felony for Americans to support the international boycott against Israel, which was launched in protest of that country’s decades-old occupation of Palestine. The two primary sponsors of the bill are Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is the punishment: anyone guilty of violating its prohibitions will face a minimum civil penalty of $250,000, and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.


The bill’s co-sponsors include the senior Democrat in Washington, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, his New York colleague Kirsten Gillibrand, and several of the Senate’s more liberal members, such as Ron Wyden of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Maria Cantwell of Washington. Illustrating the bipartisanship that AIPAC typically summons, it also includes several of the most right-wing Senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Marco Rubio of Florida.

There’s no excuse for any of these Democratic senators to co-sponsor this bill, and this is a major test for Gillibrand if she’s running for president — she needs to pull her support from this bill, and soon. This punishing people for constitutionally protected views and actions.

The ACLU’s letter is here.

Desperately seeking Dejah Thoris

[ 170 ] July 19, 2017 |

Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) offers a reminder that one of the more obscure torments in Hades is attempting to rank RepubliCons by stupidity.

The hearing was respectable, with on-point witnesses and mostly incisive questions. That is, until California Republican Dana Rohrabacher had his turn at the microphone. After asking a reasonable, if rambling, question about NASA’s plans for a Mars sample return mission and the kind of fuel used by spacecraft, Rohrabacher got down to business.

He asked, “You have indicated that Mars was totally different thousands of years ago. Is it possible that there was a civilization on Mars thousands of years ago?”

The job of answering this question fell to Kenneth Farley, a project scientist on the Mars 2020 rover mission and a professor of geochemistry at California Institute of Technology. He calmly answered, “So the evidence is that Mars was different billions of years ago. Not thousands of years ago.”

“Well, yes,” Rohrabacher says. As if duh, of course he knew that.

“And, umm, there would be, there’s no evidence that, uhh, I’m aware of,” Farley continued, gamely trying to answer the question.

Now Rohrabacher wanted to make things crystal clear: “Would you rule that out? See, there’s some people… Well, anyway.”

“I would say that is extremely unlikely,” Farley responds.

It is not clear what Rohrabacher meant by “some people,” but last month InfoWars host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones entertained the notion that Earth children have been kidnapped and sent to slave camps on Mars.

Where they’re forced to make landing strips.

On Thursday (June 29), a guest on Alex Jones’ radio show named Robert David Steele claimed that Mars is inhabited — by people sent to the Red Planet against their will.

“We actually believe that there is a colony on Mars that is populated by children who were kidnapped and sent into space on a 20-year ride, so that once they get to Mars, they have no alternative but to be slaves on the Mars colony.”

Questions such as Who is kidnapping them? Who is guarding them? What are they being forced to do? and What the fuck is wrong with you, anyway? don’t need to be answered because that isn’t the point. KIDNAPPED BABIES FORCED INTO SLAVERY is the point.

For Jones, the point is to continue to foment distrust of the government in a manner that allows him to deny responsibility when some Concerned Christian Citizen attempts to 2nd Amendment the poor, sweet, fictional tots to safety.

Whatever the details may be, Jones seemed open to the possibility.

“Look, I know that 90 percent of the NASA missions are secret, and I’ve been told by high-level NASA engineers that you have no idea,” Jones told Steele, who the show billed as a “CIA insider.” “There is so much stuff going on.”

They told Jones ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about,’ and hung up on him.

Shameless Self Promotion: Theater of Witness

[ 14 ] July 19, 2017 |

My research has mostly revolved around virtual witnessing, but after attending a recent show at Amnesty International headquarters in London I decided to look into another kind of witnessing. I was a “drama geek” through most of middle school and high school and then got involved in Shakespeare acting in college while studying International Relations almost solely as a social activity. So I’m looking at an old interest in a completely new way!

Live theater is a thriving business in big cities like London and New York, and has a long history of political involvement in places like Russia, so it really should be no surprise when societies start looking toward the theater to tell difficult stories and inspire change.

That’s part of the premise of my new article at openGlobalRights. Here’s an excerpt:

Theater is also a highly adaptable medium, able to be molded over and over according to the vision of its social and cultural location. How many places in time and throughout the world have versions of Romeo and Juliet been produced? What if the two leads were not male and female, but male and male? What if one was a black African and the other white and British? What if one was Hindu and the other Muslim? The story remains the same and yet the meaning is given new life. Old texts adapted and applied to human rights issues can help us understand the universality and timelessness of struggle.

This was the vision for Queens of Syria, which mixed Euripides’ 410BC text of The Trojan Women with the real-life stories of women refugees from Syria. The UK based charity Developing Artists, which seeks to support the arts in post-conflict nations, worked with a drama therapy group, as well as British and Syrian directors, to translate the ancient play into Arabic while journalists added archival footage that played on a screen above the women. Queens of Syria sold out in a number of venues throughout its three-week UK tour in 2016 and was featured in The Guardian, Financial Times, and on the BBC. Audiences were given supplemental materials about the conflict and the actors in their programs and encouraged to learn more about the refugee crisis.

I attended the show already knowing a fair amount about the subject, and the play itself was very light on context, focusing instead on emotion. While I may not have learned anything new, what I felt while watching and being in the presence of these women who were engaging in a creative form of post-memory work was certainly an arresting experience. To do so in the presence of others, who laugh when you laugh and who applaud when you applaud, creates a form of consensus. The audience members certainly already had empathy for the actors, which is why they bought the tickets, but the experience created a new and intimate connection.

Thanks for checking it out. Maybe share some of your experiences with live theater in the comments?

The Coming War on the CBO

[ 53 ] July 19, 2017 |

One of the most important reasons the effort to repeal the ACA appears to have failed is that the Congressional Budget Office — despite being supervised by a Republican — provided accurate information about the effects of AHCA and BCRA. And this in turn compelled the media to do what it do disastrously failed to do during the campaign — provide accurate policy coverage of Republican health care proposals. The media will take claims made by Democratic politicians about the effects of Republican policy — even if unassailably true — as “views differ,” but the CBO carries real authority, and this matters.

The Republican response will be predictable:

The Trump administration is not fond of the Congressional Budget Office.

The independent, highly respected agency that analyzes the impact of legislative proposals has said the numbers in President Trump’s budget don’t add up and that Republican health care proposals would cause huge insurance coverage losses. And it will hold immense sway over the fate of Republicans’ next legislative priority: tax reform.

The White House has embarked on a rhetorical war against the agency without precedent. The White House’s official Twitter account sent out a “fact-check” video trying to debunk the CBO’s findings that Republican health bills would reduce health coverage by more than 20 million people. (At one point, the video misspells the word “inaccurate.”)

In an interview in May, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney attacked the group, saying, “At some point, you’ve got to ask yourself, has the day of the CBO come and gone?”

It’s normal for politicians to be frustrated with the CBO. It’s a highly respected nonpartisan research group whose estimates of budgetary cost and other effects of legislation are treated as very credible in Washington. That can cause problems for members of Congress and the administration when the numbers don’t come out how they like, and has earned the CBO criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike in the past, some deserved and some not deserved.

What’s not normal is trying to erase the CBO’s formal role in policymaking. The agency normally gets to decide which bills reduce the deficit, meaning they can pass the Senate with a bare majority and avoid a filibuster. That could change this year or next. Senate Republicans got a competing analysis of their health care bill from the Department of Health and Human Services. They’ve also suggested they might do the same with tax reform.

If that happens, the CBO will be weakened like never before, and face a fight for its own relevance and survival.

A  political party committed in any way to the public interest would look at the massively unpopular policy it just put forward and look into reorienting its priorities and objectives. A party that isn’t will prefer to shoot the messengers.

The Hamburger Problem

[ 328 ] July 19, 2017 |

Josh Barro–who became a Democrat about 5 minutes ago–is already helpfully doling out advice on how to advance Democratic causes. His first piece of advice? Quit being so annoying!

This combination of facts has me thinking a lot about what I call “the hamburger problem.” As I see it, Democrats’ problem isn’t that they’re on the wrong side of policy issues. It’s that they’re too ready to bother too many ordinary people about too many of their personal choices, all the way down to the hamburgers they eat.

They don’t always want to prohibit those choices. But they have become smug and condescending toward anyone who does not match the personal lifestyle choices of liberal elites. Why would the voters on the receiving end of that smug condescension trust such a movement to operate the government in their best interest?

The nice thing about the hamburger problem is that Democrats can fix it without moving substantially on policy. They just have to become less annoying.

I’m annoyed.


The one major exception to the Democratic edge on cultural policy is abortion, a closely divided issue on which public opinion has barely shifted since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.

But the median voter’s position on abortion boils down to “It should be legal, but only early in pregnancy and only if you have a good reason.” If Democrats have a problem with their broad-access position on abortion being too extreme for the median voter, then so do Republicans who want to prohibit it.

… but they do not like being told to feel guilty about personal choices

That Democrats are on solid political ground with the biggest planks of their culture-related policy agenda does not mean Lowry is wrong about the culture gap. What it does mean, I think, is that “cultural politics” is barely about public policy at all.

This hand-waving away of an issue that affects half the population is infuriating to me. When you combine that with the fact that many Trump voters will be happy with the appointment of Gorsuch, even if that proves to be Trump’s only legislative accomplishment and that many Trump voters are rabidly anti-choice and anti-woman, I think this particular passage feels like a head-fake to me. Trump voters are conservatives/Republicans/white supremacists/outright Klan members. A lot of them are profoundly misogynistic, in addition to being profoundly racist. Lustily eating hamburgers are not gonna get these buttboils on our side.

Let’s discuss the hamburger example.

Suppose you’re a middle-income man with a full-time job, a wife who also works outside the home, and some children. Suppose it’s a Sunday in the early fall, and your plan for today is to relax, have a burger, and watch a football game.

Conservatives will say, “Go ahead, that sounds like a nice Sunday.” (In the Trump era, they’re not going to bother you about not going to church.) But you may find that liberals have a few points of concern they want to raise about what you mistakenly thought was your fundamentally nonpolitical plan for the day.

Liberals want you to know that you should eat less meat so as to contribute less to global warming. They’re concerned that your diet is too high in sodium and saturated fat. They’re upset that the beef in your hamburger was factory-farmed.

They think the name of your favorite football team is racist. Or even if you hate the Washington Redskins, they have a long list of other reasons that football is problematic.

Liberals are from the planet Buttsexia where eating hamburgers and watching football is illegal. Everyone knows this.

And, seriously, “The Redskins” is a racist name. And everyone should be eating less meat. (Including me!) That doesn’t mean I don’t think you shouldn’t be able kick back with a burger and watch some guys play grabass. That’s just good old American fun.

Beyond what you’re doing this weekend, this movement has a long list of moral judgments about your ongoing personal behavior.

The SUV you bought because it was easier to install car seats in doesn’t get good enough gas mileage. Why don’t you have an electric car?

The gender-reveal party you held for your most recent child inaccurately conflated gender with biological sex. (“Cutting into a pink or blue cake seems innocent enough — but honestly, it’s not,” Marie Claire warned earlier this month.)

You don’t ride the subway because you have that gas-guzzling car, but if you did, the way you would sit on it would be sexist.

The thing is, all these things are problematic. But the idea that libs are just constantly barging into Superbowl parties to lecture people and knock meat out of people’s hands is kind of ludicrous. The complaint here is that liberals are silently (mostly) judging people. But I’m not quite sure why our judgement should matter if these Real Americans aren’t doing anything wrong.

I get weary of conservatives painting women who have abortions as murdering sluts. I also worry about people who view LGBT people as alien sex-monsters, and the reason I do is because these people VOTE…for actual legislation that can hurt actual people.  So forgive me if I don’t find the idea that I am…annoying…particularly compelling.

In the past few years, conservatives have made a strategic retreat from telling people what to do in their personal lives. Except on abortion, where public opinion remains about evenly divided, conservatives have implicitly admitted that they have lost certain parts of the cultural war.

This is truly baffling passage. Again, he waves away the issue of abortion as if it’s not hugely important to women, both substantively and symbolically and he acts as if conservatives have not been in hysterical meltdown mode for around 25 years now.

Where are these meek, quiet conservatives? I want to meet them.


Konczal on Neoliberalism

[ 396 ] July 19, 2017 |

I am dismayed to see many commenters now dismissing the entire use of the term “neoliberal” as meaningless jargon. This is horrible. Neoliberalism is a very real thing that has transformed our economy and our society. It’s really an entire state of living that affects us all, as it has not only economic facets but social and cultural as we think of ourselves through market-based terms. In fact, I’d go as far as to at least suggest that Chapo Trap House is a product of neoliberalism rather than an opponent of it, building brand identity, market share, and internal cliques instead of focusing on building the solidarity and working on the organizing necessary for a better future.

Yes, the left has turned the word into a pejorative to lay the groundwork for this and that’s a big problem. In fact, identifying this was the only useful part of Chait’s article. It is a big problem. But turning around and dismissing it as meaningless, as Chait does, not only is just as damaging, but it ignores a whole history of neoliberals braying about the new world they were creating, both inside and outside the Democratic Party. I was going to write a long response to Chait, but then decided that it was not worth my time. That’s fine because Mike Konczal has a definitive and thorough response. He identifies three different facets of neoliberalism and you must read it. Here’s the conclusion:

Another place we can see a break in the Democratic Party is in its view of full employment. Between 1944 and 1988, the phrase “full employment” was found in every Democratic Party platform and was commonly mentioned in Democratic State of the Union addresses. As an excellent new report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a group called Fed Up, and the Center for Popular Democracy underscores, full employment was also a core demand of the civil rights movement. Then it disappeared, and was only put back in the platform for the 2016 election.

This reflects different views of how the economy works. If it generally works for everyday people, then the most important thing is focusing on education and access. There’s generally no role for government action, outside technocratic tweaks, in making sure we are at full employment. The side that views the economy as underperforming for everyone, no matter what their skill set looks like, would emphasize macroeconomic structural factors more, as Democrats did before 1989.

Or take the general stance toward the business community. Another policy concern that has entered, and departed, the Democratic platform over time is the antitrust agenda — worries about the concentration of big business. The 2016 Democratic platform said: “Large corporations have concentrated their control over markets to a greater degree than Americans have seen in decades” and that Democrats “will make competition policy and antitrust stronger and more responsive.” Again, that marked a return of language that was prevalent in the mid-century period but that disappeared after 1988.

Another change that “neoliberal” Democrats brought to the party was a less skeptical attitude toward the financial industry. Once in favor of keeping financiers in check, Democrats became much more deferential to the industry. An influential 1997 book by Bob Litan and Jonathan Rauch, American Finance for the 21st Century, argued that the New Deal approach was dated and that Congress should place “a greater reliance on more targeted interventions to achieve policy goals rather than broad measures, such as flat prohibitions on certain activities.” We still live with this battle.

We can leave it to the historians to piece together why and how Democrats made the decision to shift course in the 1980s, emphasizing means testing, privatization of key government services, education as a cure-all, and a trusting attitude toward large business. But they did, and we have to figure out what comes next. We need a full break with what happened before, both because the times are different and because the recent solutions — whatever word you use to describe them — aren’t cutting it anymore.

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