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Category: General

Burkina Faso

[ 24 ] November 3, 2014 |

Like most of Africa, Burkina Faso is terribly underrepresented in the media. As you may have heard, a popular rebellion overthrew the nation’s dictatorial ruler this weekend. Here’s a good rundown of the issues and what may come next.

Alabama school system only paid a former FBI agent $150K to spy on the black students…

[ 21 ] November 3, 2014 |

…it didn’t expect the company that hired him would just start doing surveillance on the entire town.

Shrimp Sourcing

[ 19 ] November 3, 2014 |

We can pass regulations forcing corporations to divulge sourcing. But unless those regulations come with more stick than carrot, the corporations will fib. See the ever-exploitative shrimp industry:

In a report released Thursday, ocean-advocacy group Oceana conducted a survey of 111 restaurants and grocery stores across the U.S., and found that more than a third of the sampled shrimp were vaguely labeled, or else mislabeled entirely.

The confusion begins with the fact that there are 41 species of shrimp sold in the U.S., but any of them may just be labeled as “shrimp.” It deepens when it turns out that many of those labeled “Gulf” or “wild-caught” were really a species of farmed shrimp. It’s easy to prawn off these crustaceans as more valuable versions of themselves when more than 90 percent of the U.S. shrimp is imported, and only a small percent of that is ever inspected. Still, the depth and variety of deception is shrimply staggering. Consider this from the Guardian:

Unexpectedly, some of the shrimp that were identified in the survey were genetically unknown to science, and one sample taken from a bag of frozen seafood even turned out to be a banded coral shrimp — a species renowned on reefs and coveted as a ‘pet’ shrimp by aquarium enthusiasts, but certainly not as food. “It’s one of the things you look for on a reef,” Warner says. “How it ended up in a bag of salad-size shrimp, I have no idea.”

This says an awful lot about the food system that respects nothing approaching sustainability or ecological boundaries and instead pursues short-term profit.

In other words, more sticks for industry. Vigorous regulations with real consequences in the only answer to solve these problems.

The Coal Narrative

[ 11 ] November 3, 2014 |

Ken Ward has an excellent piece on the media’s complicity in the War on Coal narrative to describe the decline of coal jobs in Appalachia. In short, blame it on Obama and the hippies. This is of course absurd because the real reasons for coal’s decline in the region and the disappearing of the jobs is depletion of the resource, automation, the turn to natural gas and other cleaner forms of energy, and investment in the Powder River basin of Wyoming and other new coal fields. Instead of explaining this though, far too much of the media just repeat industry talking points that obscure the actual reasons in favor of cheap politics that cover up industry’s fault in the disappearance of jobs.

Great Moments In Authoritarianism

[ 41 ] November 2, 2014 |

I’m teaching Redding v. Safford School District tomorrow.   As many of you know, this was the the 2009 case in which the Supreme Court ruled the strip search of a 13-year-old girl based on an uncorroborated accusation that she possessed prescription ibuprofen unconstitutional.  One amazing aspect of the case was the response of various school authorities — i.e. to complain that it would have a “chilling effect” on their ability to perform arbitrary strip searches for drugs. Er…what’s supposed to be the problem here again?  And then there was the Clinton-appointed 9CA judge who took us on a funhouse mirror tour of authoritarian illogic, arguing that each search of Redding that didn’t turn up anything justified subsequent searches.  Everything about the case was a window into the ability of the War (On Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs to act as a solvent dissolving civil liberties in their wake.  The extent to which some people were willing to go to in order to justify strip-searching a 13-year old girl based on accusations (that were neither corroborated nor particularly credible) she was guilty of a trivial offense was remarkable.

I’m also teaching National Treas. Emp. Union v. Von Raab,  a particularly poor Kennedy opinion upholding the suspicionless drug searches of Customs Service officials. I know I’ve quoted from Justice Scalia’s dissent before, but since it’s my damned blog and they’re among my favorite passages in the United States Reports, I will again:

I decline to join the Court’s opinion in the present case because neither frequency of use nor connection to harm is demonstrated, or even likely. In my view, the Customs Service rules are a kind of immolation of privacy and human dignity in symbolic opposition to drug use.


To paraphrase Churchill, all this contains much that is obviously true, and much that is relevant; unfortunately, what is obviously true is not relevant, and what is relevant is not obviously true. The only pertinent points, it seems to me, are supported by nothing but speculation, and not very plausible speculation at that. It is not apparent to me that a Customs Service employee who uses drugs is significantly more likely to be bribed by a drug smuggler, any more than a Customs Service employee who wears diamonds is significantly more likely to be bribed by a diamond smuggler — unless, perhaps, the addiction to drugs is so severe, and requires so much money to maintain, that it would be detectable even without benefit of a urine test. Nor is it apparent to me that Customs officers who use drugs will be appreciably less “sympathetic” to their drug interdiction mission, any more than police officers who exceed the speed limit in their private cars are appreciably less sympathetic to their mission of enforcing the traffic laws. (The only difference is that the Customs officer’s individual efforts, if they are irreplaceable, can theoretically affect the availability of his own drug supply — a prospect so remote as to be an absurd basis of motivation.) Nor, finally, is it apparent to me that urine tests will be even marginally more effective in preventing gun-carrying agents from risking “impaired perception and judgment” than is their current knowledge that, if impaired, they may be shot dead in unequal combat with unimpaired smugglers — unless, again, their addiction is so severe that no urine test is needed for detection.

What is absent in the Government’s justifications — notably absent, revealingly absent, and, as far as I am concerned, dispositively absent — is the recitation of even a single instance in which any of the speculated horribles actually occurred: an instance, that is, in which the cause of bribetaking, or of poor aim, or of unsympathetic law enforcement, or of compromise of classified information, was drug use.

If only Scalia consistently heeded his own powerful words in his subsequent Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

Creature Feature: Dragons, Devils, Douchey Gargoyles and Apatosaurus Toes

[ 59 ] November 2, 2014 |

Oh my!

I hope everyone had a safe/happy/silly/scary Halloween.

This weekend I fraternized with a dragon:


B1XfpHtIgAAPcYdI held an Apatosaurus toe (!!!!):

toe!And I made some gargoyles into douches:


What did you do?

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

[ 97 ] 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.

The Pernicious Myth of the Moderate Republican

[ 142 ] November 1, 2014 |

There was a lot of interesting discussion in last week’s “is New York New York City + Alabama” thread. Before moving on to my broader point, let me address a couple specific issues:

  • I obviously understand that the assertion that upstate New York is like Alabama is a rhetorical exaggeration.  It nonetheless fails on any possible level on which it could mean anything.  The “Pennsyltucky” line is an obvious exaggeration, but there’s at least some truth the label is getting at — the non Philadelphia/Pittsburgh parts of the state are solidly Republican, solid enough that Romney could come within 5 points of Obama and Republicans like Rick Santorum and Pat Toomey can win statewide federal office.  In New York, conversely, Obama carried the counties outside of NYC/Long Island/Westchester/Rockland/Putnam by a margin greater than his national share of the vote.  So the assertion that upstate is like the South either has to be scaled back to utter silliness and/or banality that describes pretty much every state in the union (“upstate New York is more conservative than Manhattan!” “Except for the many liberal areas, upstate New York is conservative!”), or it’s simply wrong.
  • It is absolutely true that there is a substantial problem with residential segregation in the urban areas of upstate New York.  The idea that residential segregation is an “upstate” problem, however, might be the most ridiculous example of urban provincialism since the NYT Styles section assumed that tattoos and yoga studios are unique features of exotic Brooklyn.  As it happens, both Buffalo and Syracuse are top 10 metro areas in terms of black/white segregation…and both trail New York City, which is #3 in the country (just behind Milwaukee and Detroit, but worse than Chicago.)  Stay for next week’s lecture, “not everyone who voted for Guiliani or rioted against busing in South Boston is a racial egalitarian,” at least if your system can handle the shock after you found out that the Easter Bunny isn’t real.

Transparently erroneous factual claims aside, there’s another question about whether there’s any value in describing Obama as really a “moderate Republican from the 80s” rather than the “moderate liberal Democrat” he in fact is.  I cannot tell a lie: the most valuable pundit with space on a major op-ed page went back to this well recently:

It’s an amazing thing: Obama is essentially what we used to call a liberal Republican, who faces implacable opposition from a very hard right. But Obama’s moderation is hidden in plain sight, apparently invisible to the commentariat.

I still don’t see it. Just like the claim that upstate New York is like Alabama, it’s either meaningless, or it’s false.

Saying Obama is like a “liberal Republican” can mean a couple of different things. It could refer to a long-ago period in which American party affiliations were so loose that some actual northeastern liberals were Republicans. In this sense, describing Obama as a “liberal Republican” isn’t exactly false but it’s also completely irrelevant and meaningless. So Obama is a “Nelson Mandela Republican” in the tradition of Bob LaFollette and John Bingham, what does this tell us about his politics that “Obama is a moderate liberal Democrat” doesn’t? Nothing. If we move it up and compare Obama to moderate Republicans of the 80s, the claim might have some bite, but the problem is that it becomes false — misleading about Obama and far too charitable to moderate Republicans. Remember, for example, that even John Chafee’s decoy health care alternative didn’t have a Medicaid expansion in it. Moderate Republicans of the 80s could live with the basic parameters of the New Deal, but they certainly didn’t want to expand major federal programs for the poor. They wouldn’t have wanted a new consumer protection bureau or to tighten regulation on Wall Street or appointed pro-labor officials to the NLRB.

This rhetorical move is similar to comparing the ACA to the Heritage Plan even when you know that they aren’t similar — the idea is to rebut claims that Obama or his policies represent some kind of radical leftism. But outside the very narrow context of making fun of the ad hoc constitutional challenge to the individual mandate, I just don’t see the value. First of all, it’s simply false. And I don’t see any rhetorical advantage to be gained from the lie. If it was intended to stop Republicans from attacking the ACA as a radical far-left takeover of ONE-SEVENTH OF THE NATIONAL ECONOMY, it’s been a massive fail. And the myth of moderate Republicans it perpetuates serves to obscure what the actual Republican offer on health care has always been: nothing. Nuts to this kind of defensive crouch. Democrats want to insure the uninsured; Republicans want them to suffer. That’s the point that should be made, not “don’t be mad at the ACA! It’s really kind of Republican! Stop making fun of me!”

Obviously, the description of Obama is a moderate liberal is more complicated. The ACA is far better than the status quo ante and a major liberal accomplishment, while some elements of Obama’s record are solidly liberal and some aren’t. But the same thing is true of LBJ and FDR, and nobody would think to say that they were really “what used to be called liberal Republicans” or whatever. It’s a bad, pernicious argument. Obama’s not any kind of Republican; he’s squarely a part of the New Deal/Great Society tradition of the Democratic Party, the end. There’s nothing to be gained by pretending otherwise.

The Senate

[ 35 ] November 1, 2014 |

It doesn’t look good, although not entirely hopeless. Sam Wang on how to watch Election Night. And all the best of health to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

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