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Category: General

Erik Visits an American Grave (VI)

[ 9 ] November 19, 2015 |

This is the grave of John Mitchell, president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1898-1908.


Mitchell was born in 1870 and a founding member of the UMWA in 1890. That’s right, he was 20. He’d been working in the mines since 1876. Yes, at the age of 6 he was working. He rose rapidly in the new union, becoming close with Mother Jones. He became president in 1898, a position he would hold for a decade. His most important accomplishment was shepherding the union through its huge victory in the 1902 anthracite strike in Pennsylvania, when Theodore Roosevelt intervened to mediate the conflict instead of sending in the military to suppress it. The union grew from 34,000 terms to 340,000 during his term. The thing about Mitchell though, even though he was close with Jones, is that he also liked living the good life and he began running in some high-end circles, including with business leaders. This eroded the trust of the rank and file in his leadership. He was eventually forced out when the union told him he would have to give up his National Civic Federation membership where he hobnobbed with the wealthy. He refused and resigned. He died of tuberculosis in 1919.

When Buzzfeed runs its inevitable “25 Hottest American Labor Leaders,” Mitchell is going to show serious game.


John Mitchell is buried in Cathedral Cemetery, Scranton, Pennsylvania



[ 38 ] November 19, 2015 |

Today was International Men’s Day. I had some things to say about it.

Property Taxes and Unequal Schools

[ 155 ] November 19, 2015 |
Coverage from the May 9, 2011 protest of Rhee/Walker/Corbett at the American Federation for Children policy summit  from website

Coverage from the May 9, 2011 protest of Rhee/Walker/Corbett at the American Federation for Children policy summit
from website

I should surprise no readers by noting that racial injustice is so deep in our institutions that it infects nearly every part of American life. The definition of structural racism is that inequality gets replicated without those replicating it even knowing it. Or if they do know it, they can justify it while saying “racism is bad.” This brings me to school funding. Meg O’Leary and Sarah Friedman run a public magnet school targeting Latinos who may be underachieving in Central Falls, Rhode Island. For those of you unfamiliar with the urban geography of Rhode Island, Central Falls is a postage stamp of a town that should not be its own municipality. It’s barely bigger than a neighborhood. It’s also very poor and very heavily Latino, with a quite high percentage of Colombians.

Of course the schools in Central Falls are awful. And then aren’t much better in Pawtucket or Providence. It shouldn’t have to be that way. But it is because so much of the money for the schools come from local property taxes, as O’Leary an Friedman write. That means that rich districts have good schools and poor districts don’t. Basing much of school funding on local property taxes is racist. It also helps lead to citizens who have the financial wherewithal to make choices on where they live to either move to the suburbs or send their children to private schools. These are racist acts. They don’t mean the people who commit them are racist per se. But they are acts that explicitly commit people to fostering long-term inequality. I get why they do it–it’s my child after all!–but then that again is how structural racism works. It operates to incentivize otherwise perhaps well-meaning people to make choices that perpetuate racism. I’m not trying to troll readers here by accusing them of racism. But I am putting the decisions people make for their children’s sake within the spectrum of American structural racism.

The primary way around this problem is to take local property taxes out of it. More useful would be a state-wide property tax that would go exclusively to school funding. All children should receive equal funding. Unequal funding within states should be considered a civil rights violation. A white student in the wealthy coastal town of East Greenwich is not worth more than a Colombian kid in Central Falls. Except that actually in our society they are worth more. Instead the answer is let’s privatize the education for the poor, which serves to also perpetuate structural racism by firing middle-class black teachers and replacing with untrained non-union labor that is usually white and which allows wealthy, usually white, people to profit off of educating the poor, cutting the corners that capitalists will do to make a buck.

The Worst Book Ever Written on Hurricane Katrina

[ 58 ] November 19, 2015 |
Photos by Kathy Anderson Flood Street These are aerial photos of the Ninth Ward area of New Orleans after it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina. September 9, 2005

Photos by Kathy Anderson
Flood Street
These are aerial photos of the Ninth Ward area of New Orleans after it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.
September 9, 2005

Above: An opportunity for wealthy white men to promote their careers through “leadership”

Scott Cowen is the former president of Tulane University. He wrote a book on Hurricane Katrina and how it transformed New Orleans. It is unspeakably awful. It is all about how awesome Scott Cowen was for using Katrina as an opportunity to charterize all of New Orleans’ public schools, kick people out of their homes, and privatize the city to make white corporate leaders comfortable. Moreover, the only person capable of this was Scott Cowen, so each point is combined with his own bullshit leadership jargon. I was originally going to review the book here. But then I hated it so much I thought it needed a broader audience. So I reviewed it at the Boston Review. It’s really long (I submitted this at 1500 words and they were like, this should be longer. Oh, OK! I can do longer!). An excerpt:

In The Inevitable City, Cowen is proud to have taken advantage of the hurricane to implement Shock Doctrine ideology in New Orleans, starting with Tulane and moving on to the New Orleans public school system. His first post-Katrina priority was to get Tulane up and running because the city needed the jobs and the potent symbol of a functioning university. But in doing so, Cowen led two controversial initiatives. First, he pushed through the chartering of a nearby, predominantly African American school so that the children of his mostly white employees would have a place to send their children. Second, he unilaterally reorganized Tulane, firing tenured professors and consolidating programs without input from faculty. This led to his censure by the American Association of University Professors. He justifies both as examples of his leadership in tough times:

A first principle of leadership is “Do the right thing,” despite opposition. Leaders have the realism to face the facts, the wisdom to weigh the options, the will to make a decision, and the audacity to act. Which is another way of saying, Stand up and do what you think is best.

Cowen’s vision of leadership seems to be that one simply does what one wishes—that displaced black schoolchildren are in effect mere impediments to a kind of self-actualization that one achieves through proper “leadership.”

Unfortunately, that school was merely the beginning. Cowen went on to be a central player in the transformation of New Orleans into the first all-charter school district in the United States. While Cowen and others champion the results—including purportedly higher test scores and graduation rates—researchers at the University of Arizona have shown that even when one controls for race and class, New Orleans schools perform significantly worse on these metrics than Louisiana public schools as a whole, which already rank fourth worst in the nation.

Time and again, test score fraud and false research has put the lie to many such claims about the benefits of charter schools. The Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, Cowen’s post-presidency lobbying group that aims to turn New Orleans into a giant experiment for charters, released a 2014 report lauding its success. However, the institute soon had to completely repudiate its own report for its flawed methodology. Despite well-funded charter industry “studies” claiming improved test scores, the nonpartisan Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda has found, “There is very little evidence that charter and traditional public schools differ meaningfully in their average impact on students’ standardized test performance.” On New Orleans schools specifically, the Investigative Fund has written, “seventy-nine percent of [New Orleans] charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education.” Moreover, it has chronicled how the emphasis on test scores and college preparation has led charter schools to eject low-performing students who would require additional help to overcome the tremendous class and race-based barriers that impede their educational success.

Remember when we ripped on Chicago Tribune columnist Katie McQueary for saying she wished a Katrina would come to Chicago and wash away the teachers unions. That’s actually what Cowen is arguing for New Orleans and he was there at the time. The book actually starts with him fleeing New Orleans and supposedly feeling bad that he was staying at the Houston Hyatt (as I recall) when all these other people were suffering. Then he figured it was OK and went to sleep. It was quite a riveting story.

Couple of interesting points that didn’t make it into the review. First, the publisher changed the title in the paperback edition. The original was The Inevitable City: The Resurgence of New Orleans and the Future of Urban America That’s why I picked it up to begin with. Thought it would be interesting. Now it is The Inevitable City: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and 10 Principles of Crisis Leadership. That’s actually a much more accurate title. It also plays up to the actual audience of this book, which is people Scott Cowen wants to pay him large sums to give speeches about leadership.

Second, let me quote from my original draft for the single most infuriating part of the book:

Even Cowen’s admissions of error are designed to promote an agenda to destroy traditional education. Noting that New Orleans lacks the well-trained citizenry that will attract many corporations, he gives a half-hearted nod toward a liberal arts education yet calls himself “partly to blame” for training students in “medieval French literature, or higher math, or even critical thinking” because many jobs do not require these skills.

A public apology for supporting the humanities and critical thinking from a university president. You can imagine how this sent me through the roof.

The Inevitable City is one of the worst books I have ever read. Lucky for me I have an outlet when I face that situation. I read it so you don’t have to.

Refugees and guns

[ 56 ] November 19, 2015 |

the nuge

I have a piece on the GOP’s somewhat different analysis of the risk posed by Syrian refugees, and the risks posed by having 250 million mostly unregulated guns floating around:

Republicans are willing to let an apparently unlimited number of children drown to avoid the minuscule risk that letting a few of them and their parents into this country might conceivably lead to “another Paris,” when in fact another Paris is taking place in America this very day, and another will happen tomorrow, and another the day after that, into perpetuity.

And what do the leaders of the GOP propose to do about our daily Paris-level gun massacre? The answer, perversely enough, is the same one they give to the refugee crisis: Absolutely nothing. Indeed, it’s practically an article of faith for Republican politicians that any effort, no matter how modest, to decrease the number of Americans getting slaughtered by guns on every single day of the year is too much.

Any restrictions on assault weapons are too much, and any waiting periods are too much, and even barring suspected terrorists who are on no-fly lists from buying guns is too much.

According to this peculiar moral calculus, it is better, on the one hand, to let a thousand, or ten thousand, or one hundred thousand innocent refugees die horrible deaths, than to take the risk that one American might conceivably be harmed as a consequence of engaging in the slightest gesture of humanity toward the desperate victims of ISIS. On the other, it’s also better to let another Paris happen, right here in America, on this day and every other day, than it is to try to do anything to save the life of even one of the many dozens of Americans who will be killed on this very day by gun violence.

People who can believe both of these things at the same time are not going to be troubled by any level of cognitive dissonance. Apparently, another name for this state of mind is “the contemporary Republican party.”

Dear Conservatives, Stop extolling the moral superiority of Nazis, please?

[ 121 ] November 19, 2015 |

I’m a Jew of German descent — if you don’t believe me, just ask my surname — whose family tree would have many more branches if it hadn’t been pruned by the Nazis. Many German Jews sought refuge in the United States as the Nazis came to power, but were denied for exactly the same reasons bandied about Syrians today — they’re likely spies, they’re not really white, they can’t be trusted, etc.

That’s why Anne Frank lived in an attic and died in the camps. (Let’s not even mention the Japanese-Americans. Let’s leave that to George Takei.)

Some have argued that it’s different now — that radical Muslims are unimaginably more horrible beasts than Nazis — but if you believe that, you’re a Nazi who believes that even the most mass-murderous of mass-murdering fucks to ever walk the Earth are somehow morally superior to the current crop of Islamic extremists.

Because I’ve seen that argument made tonight — “We should have let Anne Frank in, because white German spies would’ve just behaved like spies, whereas these brown Muslims are terrorists through and through” — and I’ve witnessed it repeatedly, mouthed by people who don’t realize that they’re extolling the moral superiority of Nazis.

That bears repeating: They’re extolling the moral superiority of Nazis.

So here’s where we stand — if you believe that we shouldn’t allow Syrian refugees fleeing from ISIS into the country because you believe ISIS when it says it’s embedded terrorists in the refugee communities, you and I are done.

Because even if ISIS isn’t lying — which it is, but whatever — you’re doing moral calculus in crayon on the walls outside your racist parents’ bedroom, and it’s unbecoming of a civilized adult society. If the price of humanitarianism is that a few rotten apples spoil a barrel, it doesn’t matter because American democracy is a fucking cargo ship and the other 100,000 barrels matter too.

The politics of narcissism

[ 206 ] November 19, 2015 |


Are people getting increasingly narcissistic about politics and/or voting? How would one measure this? Anecdotally speaking, there sure seems to be a lot of this kind of thing going around:

I’m tired of compromising my beliefs because others are apathetic and unwilling to stand up to the DNC. Pertaining to the powers of a president (war, foreign policy and vetoes), a Trump and Clinton presidency won’t be that different. Congress will decide gun laws and Planned Parenthood debates, not the president. I will not vote for Hillary Clinton because my vote means something, and I won’t allow anyone to intimidate me into choosing the lesser of two evils.

That, believe it or not, is far from the silliest thing in an article that someone got paid to write, as opposed to a post on a petulant teenager’s Facebook page, although it may be that too. Speaking of which, is this all Facebook’s fault? (Facebook being a synecdoche here for the constant self-dramatizing preening enabled by the brave new world of social media. It’s like everyone is now Camille Pagila).

Speaking of Hillary Clinton not making lefties of various stripes quiver with that very special feeling, it’s just seems bizarre that after the last fifteen years people of even the vaguest progressive persuasion broadly defined could care about things like how a particular politician makes them “feel” about casting their vote. The coming presidential election, for those of us in this category, will consist of ordering one of three things for dinner: pizza, Indian food, or anthrax. For me Sanders is pretty good Indian food, while HRC on her worst days is Pizza Hut pizza, but the choice between Pizza Hut and anthrax is not a choice in any conceivable sense of the word, and having any sort of argument about this in 2015 as opposed to 2000 seems really ridiculous.


[ 55 ] November 19, 2015 |


David Horowitz is now accusing any university with a Muslim student group of being a fostering ground for terrorists. That my alma mater the University of New Mexico is on his 10 most “terrorist-friendly” university list makes me more proud than you could imagine.

Joint Causality Does Not Allow Any Individual Willful Cause to Escape Responsibility

[ 259 ] November 19, 2015 |


Given the obvious indefensibility of third party spoiler campaigns as an electoral tactic, as we’ve seen recently in comments dead-enders who remain apologists for Ralph Nader’s disastrous game of heighten-the-contradictions in 2000 have to rely on a variety of transparently specious arguments. The most common is a strawman with an underlying logical fallacy. If one observes that if not for Nader’s campaign, Al Gore would have been president, they will at some point being accused of arguing that Nader’s campaign was the only relevant variable in the 2000 campaign. Needless to say, nobody believes this. Obviously, election outcomes are the product of the complex interaction of many variables. Prominent Florida officials and Supreme Court justices and Ralph Nader all needed each other to achieve their common goal of putting George W. Bush in the White House. Under some other plausible scenarios, they would not have succeeded, and in others the help Nader’s campaign provided to Bush would have been superfluous. In terms of whether Nader deserves responsibility for the predictable potential consequences of his actions, this is all neither here nor there. Things could have worked out so that Nader failed to throw the election to Bush. Could have, but didn’t. And even if he had failed, it would have remained worth pointing out that as a tactic for pushing the Democrats to the left spoiler campaigns are all downside with no upside.

A variant form of apologism is to concede that Nader bears his share of responsibility, but to whine about how he’s been singled out. Why attack poor Ralph? Antonin Scalia and the Bush brothers are the real enemy! Well, first of all, most Nader critics are plenty critical of the Republican bad actors involved (certainly I have been.) The media has generally not gotten enough criticism (although I’ve been beating that drum forever.) But, especially going forward, there’s a rather obvious reason to spend time criticizing Nader for supporting Republicans instead of criticizing Jeb Bush for supporting George W. Bush. It is obviously futile to try to persuade Republicans not to advance Republican interests. It is, however, worth trying to persuade people who don’t support Republican interests not to support Republican interests.*

Essentially, this line of defense is like the people who defended Mike McCarthy for his series of irrational tactical decisions because the Seahawks needed a near-miraculous series of events to ultimately take advantage of the points he left on the board. But this makes no sense. The reason to maximize your number of points is that you’ll never know when you’ll need them, and the fact that you might not is beside the point. The particular path the NFC Championship took to being close at the end was unusual, but it certainly was highly plausible at the time he made stupid decisions to kick field goals that the game would be close. Similarly, it was eminently foreseeable that the 2000 election would be close, and that a spoiler campaign could act to tip the scales. The fact that more than one thing had to happen for Nader’s campaign to help swing the election to Bush doesn’t mean he can somehow duck accountability.

*Another version of Nader apologism asserts that Nader and most of his supporters and liberal Democrats do not have the same goals at all. This is really stupid. Most Nader supporters were not revolutionary socialists; they’re people on the broad left of American politics who had no problem pulling the lever for Kerry and Obama. And if we’re dividing people between “liberal” and “left,” Nader of course would be in the former category. He’s a quintessential 60s liberal legalist, and not a particularly left-wing one. His differences with mainstream liberal Democrats are not ideological, but temperamental, rooted in his unwavering belief that any Democratic public official who cannot deliver precisely what he wants when he expects it is hopelessly corrupt.

I Mean, Sure, After I Take a Few Bong Hits of that Racist Strain of Weed Called “Christopher Hitchens” I Bought in Colorado.

[ 39 ] November 19, 2015 |

Never get out of the boat. Even on Twitter.

Robert Earl Keen

[ 14 ] November 18, 2015 |

Robert Earl Keen played in Pawtucket last night. I was lucky enough to be reminded by a friend this was happening and went. It was fantastic. Because I am mildly cranky this evening, it’s good to relax by listening to a couple of his best tunes that he played last night.

He’s doing this bluegrass thing on this tour and it works pretty well, especially because it’s almost Texas swing more than bluegrass.

The Mayor of Roanoke is a Charming & Erudite Individual

[ 75 ] November 18, 2015 |

Mayor David Bowers brings something new to the Refugee Refusal table:

“President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from Isis now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”

At the risk of causing distress to the charming and erudite Kevin Drum, I have no problem calling Bowers the human equivalent of a stage IV bedsore and an embarrassment to the state that once had Ken Cuccinelli as an AG. Also: Ppppppbbbfft!

George Takei’s reply began with a history lesson for Mr. Bowers:

1) The internment (not a “sequester”) was not of Japanese “foreign nationals,” but of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. I was one of them, and my family and I spent 4 years in prison camps because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It is my life’s mission to never let such a thing happen again in America.


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