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Category: General

The “How Victims Are Supposed to Act” Standard

[ 105 ] July 6, 2011 |

Yesterday’s big tabloid story actually has some things in common with our discussion about the DSK prosecution yesterday.   Correct me if I’m wrong — I don’t claim to have followed the Anthony case closely — but it seems to be that the widely vilified Anthony jury acted in a very responsible manner.   Unlike people who assume that juries will inevitably make inferences according to completely arbitrary and meaningless standards of how victims are supposed to act, the Anthony jury — to its credit — ignored the sexist assumptions that seemed to constitute a disturbingly large percentage of the case against Anthony.

In an act of obvious comedy gold, the Daily Beast has given Marcia Clark a platform to explain why the Anthony jury was even worse than the one that acquitted a murderer despite actually overwhelming evidence largely because of her inept prosecution.   But what she (and, as far as I can tell, most people outraged about the verdict) chooses to emphasize makes me think that the jury was right:

As a matter of fact, the coverage we did see of the Casey Anthony case leaned heavily in favor of conviction. The photographs of a half-clothed Casey dancing in a Hot Body contest days after her daughter died, getting tattooed with the words “La Bella Vida” (Beautiful Life), Casey’s apparent celebration of freedom now that her baby was dead…

Seriously, a tattoo? The weight that people outraged by the verdict put on this sexist bullshit is a pretty strong signal that the prosecution didn’t have much of a case.   Some of Anthony’s behavior was (unlike this) legitimately odd and she was apparently dishonest in explaining her actions, but I think it was pretty reasonable for the jury to conclude that it’s not enough given the complete lack of physical evidence. Anthony may well have killed her child, but I don’t think the failure to convict here was a failure of the American jury system.  She was convicted of lying to the authorities, which the prosecution could prove, and acquitted of murder, which they couldn’t.

Finally, I’d like to note that the “person didn’t act like a victim is allegedly supposed to act” routine was also a major part of the case against Cameron Todd Willingham, which should tell you what you need to know about its value.

…on a related note, Nancy Grace is a really odious media figure.

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Where Are All The Revolutionary War Films?

[ 177 ] July 6, 2011 |

Alyssa Rosenberg (whose work I think is fantastic) poses a great question:

…it struck me all over again how few movies we have about the Revolutionary War. I’d looked into this a couple of years ago, but it’s really kind of stunning. The success of America’s war for independence from Great Britain is incredibly remarkable, the people who prosecuted that war are referenced constantly in our current political conversations, and yet we don’t have more than a handful of movies about the conflict or the people who ran it. April Morning, Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, The Crossing, John Adams, and Valley Forge are all television projects. The last big Revolutionary War blockbuster, The Patriot, came out in 2000, and even that wasn’t that enormous a success: it netted $113,330,342 at the domestic box office, just $3 million more than the movie cost to make.

She poses a couple of possible answers, neither of which I find particularly satisfactory, but then I don’t have any good answers either.

First she notes how poorly 18th century battle scenes translate to modern movie screens and the expectations of audiences for big fight scenes. Perhaps that’s true, but then we’ve never had a lot of Revolutionary films, even in the silent era. So while I think a studio executive would make that statement today, I don’t think it really explains the overall lack of Revolutionary War films in movie history.

Second, she looks at the characters and intellectual universe of the time and suggests it’s not good movie material. George III is far away, Jefferson is busy with Sally Hemings, Madison is reading Locke, etc. And if movies really bothered with the intellectual universe of their real-life characters or cared much about reality either way, that’d make a lot of sense. But since when did movies portray real-life people accurately? Movies frequently flatten stories into good and evil and make characters do whatever the filmmakers want them to do, even if characters based on real people have some limitations placed upon this. After all, it’s not as if the Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of John Adams is really all that accurate.

And that leads to another point, which is to say that maybe there is room for more Revolutionary War movies. After all, I’d argue that TV has replaced mainstream Hollywood movies as the place where real stories are being told. And people love that Adams miniseries. The popularity of Revolutionary War biographies and sweeping histories and that miniseries suggest some room for film, even if only in the biographical/hagiographical sense.

It’s also interesting to think about portrayals of the Revolution in American film and literature compared to other wars. The French and Indian War has never much interested Americans, though there are significant exceptions to this, including James Fenimore Cooper and John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk. The Revolution has never much inspired American authors or filmmakers. Of course, American literature in the late 18th century was in its infancy so this makes sense. The Civil War inspired hundreds if not thousands of movies (usually short silents) in the early years of film and a lot of cheesy literature from the same period (with apologies to Stephen Crane), but not much literature of note from actual participants in the war. World War I on the other hand has always been beloved by both authors and filmmakers. World War II produced an endless number of mostly bad movies in the 1950s and 60s, but some very great films too; same scenario essentially with literature. Korea has always existed on the outskirts. Vietnam has produced plenty of both. Be interesting to see what the Middle East wars do, not much yet, but there’s plenty of time.

What does this all tell us? Not much I guess. World War I, the Civil War, and Vietnam were all heavily contested wars where good and evil were very muddled. That does tend to make good art. On the other hand, actual Civil War art tended to obscure the actual causes of the conflict, i.e. slavery, slavery, and slavery. Also, slavery. World War II was good versus evil for all intents and purposes and maybe that’s why so much of the art around it is so mediocre. People in 1955 might have loved watching Jimmy Steward in Strategic Air Command, but for whatever psychological work films like that did for the generation who lived through the contract, it sure doesn’t play well today.

But this lengthy discussion still doesn’t give me much of a clue as to why we’ve never had a lot of films about the American Revolution? Were the Founding Fathers (a term invented by Warren Harding even if the sentiment was there long before) too godlike to portray in film? But given the constant invocation of them throughout American history, it seems shocking that filmmakers did not join in.

So I don’t know, what do you think?

This Day in American Labor History: July 6, 1892

[ 26 ] July 6, 2011 |

This occasional series will highlight moments in American labor and working-class history writ large, including the history of American radicalism and the history of slavery, which too often takes a backseat in American labor history. You can expect 1-3 of these posts a month. I have a running list of 20 dates to talk about over the next year.

On July 6, 1892 and in one of the Gilded Age’s most notorious anti-labor acts of violence, 300 Pinkerton detectives, working for Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel, cracked down on thousands of strikers, leading to a gunfight that killed three Pinkertons and seven strikers.

Steelworkers lived hard lives in the late 19th century. Carnegie saw himself as a benevolent employer. He’s more famous for his post-retirement charities, but during his career as an industrialist, he theoretically believed workers should have a chance to improve themselves. So long as that didn’t get in the way of efficiency of course. Carnegie had even given public statements about workers’ right to unionize. Despite Carnegie’s rhetoric about the self-made man (which he himself undoubtedly was), when the rubber met the road, he was as willing to crush his workers the same as the most ruthless Gilded Age capitalists.

But these steelworkers had some success improving their lives during the late 1880s. In 1889, Homestead workers under the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers struck and won wage gains for the next 3 years. The AA had been a force in western Pennsylvania throughout the 1880s, beginning with an 1881 organizing of the Bessemer Steelworks in Homestead. It then went on to Carnegie in 1882, where it managed to beat down Homestead over yellow-dog contracts, which are contracts that make not joining a union a condition of employment. It continued fighting for worker rights through the successful 1889 action. That contract ended in 1892.

Rather than negotiate with the workers again, Carnegie left for a trip to his native Scotland and left the situation to his right-hand man, the loathsome Henry Clay Frick. Carnegie wanted the union crushed; he believed it got in the way of efficiency. Frick, a man who had no sympathy with working-class people, refused to negotiate in good faith with the workers. Carnegie gave Frick carte blanche to deal with the union in any way he liked.

The American economy was beginning to shutter in 1892. The boom and bust cycle of the Gilded Age was preparing for the biggest bust in American history the next year. Steel prices had begun to decline. Carnegie and Frick decided that destroying the union was the solution to their decreased profits. Workers asked for a wage increase; Frick came back with an offer of a 22% decrease.

Carnegie workers responded by hanging Frick in effigy, though not Carnegie. Frick began locking out workers on June 28 and by the last day of the contract, June 30, the entire workforce was locked out. The workers united to keep out scabs, but Frick called in the Pinkertons to bust the strike.

In part, the Declaration of the Strike said:

“The employees in the mill of Messrs. Carnegie, Phipps & Co., at Homestead, Pa., have built there a town with its homes, its schools and its churches; have for many years been faithful co-workers with the company in the business of the mill; have invested thousands of dollars of their savings in said mill in the expectation of spending their lives in Homestead and of working in the mill during the period of their efficiency. . . . “Therefore, the committee desires to express to the public as its firm belief that both the public and the employees aforesaid have equitable rights and interests in the said mill which cannot be modified or diverted without due process of law; that the employees have the right to continuous employment in the said mill during efficiency and good behavior without regard to religious, political or economic opinions or associations; that it is against public policy and subversive of the fundamental principles of American liberty that a whole community of workers should be denied employment or suffer any other social detriment on account of membership in a church, a political party or a trade union; that it is our duty as American citizens to resist by every legal and ordinary means the unconstitutional, anarchic and revolutionary policy of the Carnegie Company, which seems to evince a contempt [for] public and private interests and a disdain [for] the public conscience. . . .”

From the American Experience site on this incident, historian Paul Krause:

Workers believed because they had worked in the mill, they had mixed their labor with the property in the mill. They believed that in some way the property had become theirs. Not that it wasn’t Andrew Carnegie’s, not that they were the sole proprietors of the mill, but that they had an entitlement in the mill. And I think in a fundamental way the conflict at Homestead in 1892 was about these two conflicting views of property.”

To say the least, Frick and Carnegie had no tuck for this more cooperative view of property.

When the Pinkertons arrived early in the morning on July 6, they met an armed force ready to fight for their jobs. For the next 13 hours, the two sides traded gunfire. Eventually, the Pinkertons surrendered, although that really just meant they stopped fighting.

It’s important to remember how loathed the Pinkertons were by many Americans in these years. In the series Deadwood, the Pinkertons are seen by almost everyone in the town as the ultimate enemy because it meant the capitalists had sent in the goons to destroy their little civilization. This depiction is not far off. Although the company became famous by protecting Abraham Lincoln, in the Gilded Age, like the Republican Party as a whole, the Pinkertons turned to pulling out all stops to protect an extreme version of property rights by any means necessary.

With the failure of the Pinkertons to crush the strike, Frick and his henchmen created new tactics to bring down the union. Frick convinced Pennsylvania Governor Robert Pattison to send in the National Guard. In 1892, the National Guard existed as a strikebreaking force, so the arrival of troops only strengthened Frick’s hand. Frick then evicted strikers from company homes. He had strikers arrested repeatedly so they would have to put up bail they could not afford.

During the episode, the anarchist Alexander Berkman (also famous for being Emma Goldman’s lover) walked into Frick’s office on July 23 and shot him in the face. Not atypical of anarchist actions, Berkman operated completely outside the organization of the AA or any other organization. Taking it upon himself to revenge the Pinkerton invasion, he undermined public support for the union and got himself a 22 year prison sentence as well.

The strike held for several months, but against unbeatable odds, the steelworkers began slipping away. On November 17, 1892, people began returning to work. The company was glad to let them, blacklisting the leaders and welcoming the rest back into an aggressively non-union shop.

Frick recovered to crush an 1896 attempt to organize Homestead. Homestead remained nonunion for the next 40 years. He remains today one of the most loathed CEOs in American history.

Andrew Carnegie expressed guilt over Homestead. He wrote William Gladstone:

This is the trial of my life (death’s hand excepted). Such a foolish step — contrary to my ideals, repugnant to every feeling of my nature. Our firm offered all it could offer, even generous terms. Our other men had gratefully accepted them. They went as far as I could have wished, but the false step was made in trying to run the Homestead Works with new men. It is a test to which workingmen should not be subjected. It is expecting too much of poor men to stand by and see their work taken by others. . . The pain I suffer increases daily. The Works are not worth one drop of human blood. I wish they had sunk.

And yeah, that’s fine. I hope he felt guilty. Because for all his rhetoric and puritanical religious beliefs, when it came down to giving his workers a fair stake in a system which made him one of the world’s richest men, he chose to send it goons and then the National Guard to destroy the union. All the libraries in the world don’t make up for that.

After all, I’d argue that the measure of the rich is how they make their money, not what they do with it after its made.

What Was the Problem With the DSK Indictment?

[ 124 ] July 5, 2011 |

I agree with Nocera:

For the life of me, though, I can’t see what Vance did wrong. Quite the contrary. The woman alleged rape, for crying out loud, which was backed up by physical (and other) evidence. She had no criminal record. Her employer vouched for her. The quick decision to indict made a lot of sense, both for legal and practical reasons. Then, as the victim’s credibility crumbled, Vance didn’t try to pretend that he still had a slam dunk, something far too many prosecutors do. He acknowledged the problems.

Lévy, himself a member of the French elite, seems particularly incensed that Vance wouldn’t automatically give Strauss-Kahn a pass, given his extraordinary social status. Especially since his accuser had no status at all.

But that is exactly why Vance should be applauded: a woman with no power made a credible accusation against a man with enormous power. He acted without fear or favor. To have done otherwise would have been to violate everything we believe in this country about no one being above the law.


The point is this: We live in a country that professes to treat everyone equally under the law. So often we fall short. The poor may go unheard; the rich walk. Yet here is a case that actually lives up to our ideal of who we like to think we are. Even the way the case appears to be ending speaks to our more noble impulses. Vance didn’t dissemble or delay or hide the truth about the victim’s past. He did the right thing, painful though it surely must have been.

To judge by his recent writings, Bernard-Henri Lévy prefers to live in a country where the elites are rarely held to account, where crimes against women are routinely excused with a wink and a nod and where people without money or status are treated like the nonentities that the French moneyed class believe they are.

I’d rather live here.

I’d also add that while the DA does seem to have found reasons to question the complainant’s account of the rape itself, the initial details published by the Times might have might it harder to get a conviction but were neither here nor there in terms of DSK’s innocence. At any rate, the indictment was proper and (assuming that the DA has uncovered real problems with the complainant’s story) the dismissal was proper.

For a final note, Amanda Hess has a useful roundup of mostly bad and occasionally good media reactions.

Most Prominent Politicians (IX): New Hampshire

[ 38 ] July 5, 2011 |

New Hampshire’s list is very weak. Basically, it’s suffered from being a very small state bordering the state with probably the most prestigious list, Massachusetts. If you created a list of political figures born in New Hampshire, it would be a lot more impressive. New Hampshire also suffers from a history of not reelecting people much. Nonetheless, here we go:

1. Franklin Pierce. One of our worst presidents, served from 1853-57

2. Levi Woodbury, Senator, Supreme Court justice, 1845-51, leading Democratic figure of the Jacksonian period. Secretary of the Navy, 1831-34, Secretary of the Treasury, 1834-41. Given that Woodbury was Secretary of the Treasury during the Panic of 1837, this probably isn’t something to be too proud of. But in New Hampshire, it’s as good as it gets.

3. H. Styles Bridges, Senator, 1937-61, Senate Minority Leader, 1952-53. Reactionary Republican who thought FDR and the CIO were communists. 2 time Chairman of Appropriations Committee.

4. David Souter. Supreme Court justice, 1990-2009

5. Warren Rudman, Senator, 1980-93, best known for his leadership on economic policy.

6. Jacob Gallinger, Senator 1891-1918. Fairly well-respected Republican insider of the late Gilded Age and into the Progressive Era, but really pretty nondescript.

7. John Sununu, Sr., Governor, 1983-89; Chief of Staff for President George H.W. Bush

8. Henry Keyes, Senator, 1919-37. Did virtually nothing, but did serve longer than almost any New Hampshire Senator.

We’re going to end it here, because to go to a top 10 for New Hampshire is an exercise in just randomly picking people at this point. There probably is some governor who passed something important in the 1880s or something, but I’m no expert on New Hampshire. And I have a lot of trouble believing that Judd Gregg really belongs on this list.

Next: Virginia

These Things Christian Conservatives Believe

[ 69 ] July 5, 2011 |

If we can infer from their preferred prospective GOP candidate, their worldview is a logical extension of the Sermon on the Mount:  savage attacks on education and services for poor people and murdering innocent people and covering it up.

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The Sage Speaks

[ 25 ] July 4, 2011 |

In the kind of article that makes you wonder if the journalist in question is in on the joke or not, Newt Gingrich has finally uncovered some of the vacation-generated Deep Thoughts that will surely propel him to victory:

For most presidential candidates, Alzheimer’s is a third- or fourth-tier subject, at best.

But as Gingrich sees it, Alzheimer’s, as well as other niche topics such as military families’ concerns and pharmaceutical issues,are priorities for passionate patches of the American electorate. By offering himself as a champion of pet causes, Gingrich believes he can sew together enough narrow constituencies to make a coalition — an unconventional one, yes, but a coalition nevertheless.

I think we can all agree that it takes an intellectual of the first rank to have discovered that Alzheimer’s is bad and that a cure would be desirable, and I’m sure the explanation for how increased funding can be squared with massive upper-class tax cuts will be forthcoming.   It’s hard to see why his support can’t actually be measured by conventional numerals.

My next suggestion for a coalition:   alcoholics, the unemployable, angry loners…although come to think of it, I think Paul and Bachmann have that demographic sewn up.

The Fourth of July

[ 35 ] July 4, 2011 |

While one can argue that there are several good songs about July 4, there’s no question that Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July” is the clear best. And by no question, I mean that anyone questioning this is going to get on my fightin’ side.

1,000,000 Teenage Boys Can Definitely Be Wrong

[ 33 ] July 3, 2011 |

I see this time the inevitable “contrarian” Michael Bay revisionism has been left to Bill Simmons Web Enterprises Inc.* rather than Slate, although it’s been written before and you knew what it was going to say.   (Does he mention popcorn and fail to understand that Bay is nothing if not a classic “auteur”?  Oh, yes.)

Anyway, the right question about Bay is not why critics universally hate a director who sells a lot of tickets but rather why a director who makes such unmitigatedly atrocious (and boring and covertly pretentious) movies is treated with such relative kindness by critics.

*Which, at least in its sports articles, has actually not been without merit — see Pierce and Kahn/French on The National.

Questions That Inherently Lack Good Answers

[ 14 ] July 3, 2011 |

How the hell does Phil Cuzzi keep his job?

[Some more highlights.]

A Sports Labor Note

[ 28 ] July 3, 2011 |

The contrast with NFL owners so comically evil that even the most ludicrous lickspittles won’t defend them seems to have caused some sportswriters to defend the NBA lockout as the moderate, reasonable, thinking-man’s union-busting. But this is nonsense, and journalists who take league-distributed profit-and-loss figures as face value would be ashamed of themselves if they were capable of such a thing. I’m also amused by writers who rail against overpaid players but seem to assume than owners are entitled to rising franchise values and yearly profits no matter how poorly their teams are run.

Most Prominent Politicians (VIII): South Carolina

[ 43 ] July 3, 2011 |

Oh South Carolina, have you ever elected decent politicians?

I will try to counter one clear criticism of this list. I know that there are a few state-level people who played major roles in the road to secession. I haven’t always included them, simply because I don’t have the time to go into that level of depth. Call me a failure if you will.

The top 10:

1. John C. Calhoun–the architect of secession. Only man to serve as Vice-President for two presidents of different political parties. Secretary of State under Tyler. One of the most evil men in American history.

2. Strom Thurmond–leader of the Dixiecrats in 1948. Arch-segregationist led the white southern charge from the Democrats to the Republicans when it became clear that the Democrats were willing to accept African-Americans as part of their coalition. Long-time senator and another of the most evil men in American history.

3. Ben Tillman–Originally a leading Populist, Tillman quickly turned to race-baiting white supremacy of the most virulent form to advance his political career. Governor of South Carolina from 1890-94 and then senator from 1894-1918. Censured by the Senate in 1902 for physically assaulting the other senator from South Carolina.

4. James Byrnes–Leading Democrat of the early and mid-20th century. Senator, governor, Supreme Court justice, and, most famously, Secretary of State from 1945-47. One of the most powerful men in American foreign policy for much of his career. Considered himself a moderate on racial issues, but still actively supported segregation while governor in the 1950s.

5. Robert Barnwell Rhett–only a senator from 1850-52, but one of the most important people in South Carolina political history because of his leadership for secession. A fireeater of the worst kind, Rhett actually resigned his Senate seat in 1852 because a South Carolina secessionist statement was not worded strongly enough for his tastes. To the right of John C. Calhoun on secession, he actively supported South Carolina secession in 1860, but found himself marginalized within the Confederate government, leading him to resign from the Confederate Congress and become an active critic of Jefferson Davis.

6. Wade Hampton–Confederate general and Redemption politician. Redemption was a term white Southerners used for those who “redeemed” them from the supposed tyranny of northern occupation and black politicians. Used massive violence and voter fraud to win the 1876 governor’s election. Later a senator.

7. John Rutledge–Revolutionary leader, first governor of South Carolina after the Declaration of Independence, 2nd Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

8. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney–2 time Federalist presidential nominee (1804 and 1808).

9. Ernest Hollings–senator from South Carolina from 1966-2005. Although a man of limited achievements in the Senate, he remained a popular figure, running for the Democratic nomination in 1984. He even endorsed Jesse Jackson for the presidency in 1988.

10. Preston Brooks. It’s not that Preston Brooks had any real achievements as a politician. He served in Congress from 1853-57. But he became a hero to the South and helped spur on the nation’s collapse by walking into the Senate chamber in 1856 and beating abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts to within an inch of his life with his cane. People from around the South sent Brooks new canes to replace his broken one (he used a cane after being shot in the hip during a duel in the 1840s). Didn’t do him much good though, because Brooks died from the croup in 1857. All around great guy…

Next: New Hampshire