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Category: General

Strengthening the Fair Labor Standards Act

[ 20 ] June 24, 2013 |

The labor historian Jefferson Cowie on why the government desperately needs to recommit to and strengthen the Fair Labor Standards Act:

It’s true that we are in the middle of a seismic shift in the way we structure our work lives. Both workers and employers want more flexibility. But that similarity of interests shouldn’t mask the fact that employers will always have more power than their employees, and that it’s in their interests to make those employees work as long and as cheaply as possible.

In Roosevelt’s day, the courts found most wages and hours legislation unconstitutional based on the doctrine of “liberty of contract.” The idea was as simple as it was pernicious: wages and hours legislation violated an individual’s freedom to make an independent (read: worse) deal with his employer.

We can’t afford to drift further back to the bad old days of liberty of contract. Americans are drastically overworked and underpaid compared to workers in other advanced countries, and our workers are trapped in a rigid pattern of inequality that has ended a historic claim to being the nation of upward mobility.

Roosevelt did not bother with economic arguments when it came to hours and wages. He offered a simple framework, both moral and patriotic. “A self-supporting and self-respecting democracy,” he proclaimed, “can plead no justification for the existence of child labor, no economic reason for chiseling workers’ wages or stretching workers’ hours.” That is as true today as it was then.


Mad Men: “In Care Of” What? Oh Really?

[ 16 ] June 24, 2013 |

The season finale of Mad Men, “In Care Of,” contains an inordinate number of what I call “Oh Really?” reverse shots. They typically don’t involve dialogue — and the episode will end with one that doesn’t — but at the beginning of the episode it does. It’s also odd because it substitutes a flashback for an “Oh Really?” escalation, but I’m getting ahead of myself. When representatives from the Sheraton Royal Hawaiian arrive at whatever the name of the firm is at this point — because not knowing the firm is part of the point at this point — Don Draper isn’t in the office. You may remember the Royal Hawaiian from the season premier, and if you do, you can probably anticipate Don’s whereabouts. Here he is at the Royal Hawaiian:

That’s the opening shot of Draper at the Royal Hawaiian’s bar. Note the quality of the light: there are two on screen sources — the lamp to Don’s left and the Tiki fixture to his right — and a noticeable off-screen, but still diegetic light illuminating the painting from above. The lighting is high-key, that is, the back and fill lights complement the key light in a way that creates low contrast between brighter and darker areas. (I write “complement” because there are many ways the effect of high-key lighting can be produced: all manners of angles and intensities come into play.) Of the previous episode, “The Quality of Mercy,” I noted that Don’s shadows were eating at his face because the back and fill lights weren’t providing it illumination. Even though his back is turned in the shot above, were Don to turn around his face would be plenty covered by the back light. All of which is only to say that the light is natural and gentle in this scene at the Royal Hawaiian bar. Which is significant given that when the Royal Hawaiian representatives arrive in New York, Don’s not available to greet them because he’s here:

At this point, I hope you don’t need me to point out the structural similarities between these two shots. There are many ways to shoot a man at a bar — I know, I know — but to shoot the same man regarding relations with the same corporation in such a similar manner invites comparison. Whereas the scene at the Royal Hawaiian is lit in a high-key, this is clearly lit in the low-key that’s characterized Don’s relation to alcohol the past three episodes. (Just look at the poor man pouring vodka.) The low-key lighting allows the diegetic lights sources — the illuminated bar and the television set — to provide the majority of the illumination. Meaning there isn’t much of any because Don’s in a darker place. Remember the “dark wood” that Don read about Dante awakening in while at the Royal Hawaiian? Clearly Don hadn’t actually reached it yet. At the brightly lit bar he interacted with an American icon — the serviceman on shore leave — and never went home that night because, as I noted in my post on “The Doorway,” he’d abandoned his wife to give another woman away in marriage. But all that happened in a luminous Hawaiian past.

Now when Hawaii comes mid-day calling in New York, Don’s in a bar that hasn’t seen sunlight since the first time Nixon ran for President. And when another American icon — the itinerant evangelical preacher — starts talking about brotherhood at the bar, Don’s so rattled it’s almost as if he can recognize the structural similarities with the scene from “The Doorway.” The young serviceman with whom he shared a moment of brotherhood — false though it may be on Don’s part — has been replaced by a preacher who’s selling his idea of a brotherhood to strangers at a bar. The idea likely offends Don both as a man and as an ad man: the quality of the preacher’s salesmanship is so shoddy Don can’t help but interrupt his pitch. (He’ll react to the falseness of this “witnessing” with an encore of his own later in the episode. But more on that tomorrow.) When the preacher asks his profession, he replies “Keeping out of other people’s business,” which isn’t exactly the best description of someone who works in advertising. That’s likely why the preacher’s response, “You’re not doing a very good job of it,” stings Don more than it should. It’s little wonder he’s annoyed when the preacher approaches. Here’s how the scene actually proceeds:

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Smart Corporate Behavior

[ 77 ] June 24, 2013 |

It doesn’t really surprise me that the big whiskey corporations are doing such a good job of pivoting to the demand for higher quality hooch.* They have the preexisting capital investment, a vested interest in controlling a changing market, and brand identity. Microdistillers have a rough road because of the sheer time it takes for good whiskey to develop and the high investment in purchasing a bottle, unlike microbrewers who can move product quickly and with a palatable economic commitment from a curious consumer. I know I’m far more inclined to take a shot on a $10 4-pack of something than spend $35 on a bottle of a new whiskey that I’m stuck with if I think it mediocre.

What I don’t understand is why more corporate behemoths don’t act this way. Two quick examples come to mind. First is the brewing industry, where the industrial lager makers response to microbrews has been to try and corner the market through legal shenanigans and through making bad fake microbrews like Blue Moon. The second is the oil industry, which instead of deciding to make huge profits off wind and solar by cornering those markets and establishing monopolies early on is instead fighting tooth and nail to kill anything that competes with their core business. This seems incredibly short-sighted to me and reeks of decisions made upon the principle of hating hippies rather than smart business practices.

* The exception to this rule very much seems to be in gin, where we are seeing a large number of very high-quality new products coming on the market.

“Let’s End the Great Society Week” Begins

[ 71 ] June 24, 2013 |

The Voting Rights Act might be the main course, but the Civil Rights Act is the appetizer.

I alluded to this in the article, but it’s worth repeating Ginsburg’s examples of what, according to the definition announced today by reasonable, moderate, thinking person’s reactionary Sam Alito, does not constitute harassment by “supervisors” (as opposed to co-workers):

Yasharay Mack, an African-American woman, worked for the Otis Elevator Company as an elevator mechanic’s helper at the Metropolitan Life Building in New York City. James Connolly, the “mechanic in charge” and the senior employee at the site, targeted Mack for abuse. He commented frequently on her “fantastic ass,” “luscious lips,” and “beautiful eyes,” and, using deplorable racial epithets, opined that minorities and women did not “belong in the business.” Once, he pulled her on his lap, touched her buttocks, and tried to kiss her while others looked on. Connolly lacked authority to take tangible employment actions against mechanic’s helpers, but he did assign their work, control their schedules, and direct the particulars of their workdays. When he became angry with Mack, for example, he denied her overtime hours. And when she complained about the mistreatment, he scoffed, “I get away with everything.”

Clara Whitten worked at a discount retail store in Belton, South Carolina. On Whitten’s first day of work, the manager, Matt Green, told her to “give [him] what [he] want[ed]” in order to obtain approval for long weekends off from work. Later, fearing what might transpire, Whitten ignored Green’s order to join him in an isolated storeroom. Angered, Green instructed Whitten to stay late and clean the store. He demanded that she work over the weekend despite her scheduled day off. Dismissing her as “dumb and stupid,” Green threatened to make her life a “living hell.” Green lacked authority to fire, promote, demote, or otherwise make decisions affecting Whitten’s pocketbook. But he directed her activities, gave her tasks to accomplish, burdened her with undesirable work assignments, and controlled her schedule. He was usually the highest ranking employee in the store, and both Whitten and Green considered him the supervisor.

CRST Van Expedited, Inc., an interstate transit company, ran a training program for newly hired truckdrivers requiring a 28-day on-the-road trip. Monika Starke participated in the program. Trainees like Starke were paired in a truck cabin with a single “lead driver” who lacked authority to hire, fire, promote, or demote, but who exercised control over the work environment for the duration of the trip. Lead drivers were responsible for providing instruction on CRST’s driving method, assigning specific tasks, and scheduling rest stops. At the end of the trip, lead drivers evaluated trainees’ performance with a nonbinding pass or fail recommendation that could lead to full driver status. Over the course of Starke’s training trip, her first lead driver, Bob Smith, filled the cabin with vulgar sexual remarks, commenting on her breast size and comparing the gear stick to genitalia. A second lead driver, David Goodman, later forced her into unwanted sex with him, an outrage to which she submitted, believing it necessary to gain a passing grade.

Needless to say, this irrationally parsimonious definition of supervisor is pretty much the opposite of how Republicans have defined “supervisor” with respect to labor law, because in that case it’s a broad definition that’s necessary to dilute the rights of workers.

In conclusion, these two 5-4 civil rights cases prove that elections don’t matter and the parties are pretty much the same. I mean, who knows, Alito and Roberts could be the new Warren and Brennan; certainly, the Republican coalition hasn’t changed at all in the intervening time period.


[ 20 ] June 24, 2013 |

In light of the fact of his concurrence today arguing that affirmative action is the precise constitutional equivalent of Jim Crow, Clarence Thomas has done the only possible honorable thing and submitted his resignation. After all, when George H. W. Bush took race into account when nominating Thomas according to Thomas’s own logic this was just as bad as if he believed that no African-Americans can serve on the Court, so really Thomas had no choice.

It’s Always the Fault of Postmodernism

[ 124 ] June 24, 2013 |

There’s a certain class of conservatives that love to blame postmodernism for everything. One of them is David Brooks, who blames it for the decline in the humanities:

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody.

To the earnest 19-year-old with lofty dreams of self-understanding and moral greatness, the humanities in this guise were bound to seem less consequential and more boring.

Studying race, class, and gender=boring and not about Truth.

Ah. I see.

It’s hardly surprising that David Brooks would find these topics boring, he doesn’t care about them as a fifty-something year old man. You’d like to think that he’d have enough self-awareness to not extrapolate that all 19-year olds find them boring. But of course he doesn’t. For David Brooks, studying the humanities only has value in so far as we can limit those studies to long dead white males. That he closes by talking about his favorite teacher, who taught ancient Greece, is quite telling. Personally, I find European history before 1500 or so pretty boring. But I also see the value in teaching it. Which is part of what the humanities is–studying human history and values and art from a multiplicity of perspectives, even the ones you don’t care about.

That Brooks waxes about “private morality” and then yearns for us to teach more about a society whose elite men routinely had sex with children says plenty as well.

On the Recent Events in Brazil

[ 20 ] June 24, 2013 |

This is a guest post from Colin Snider of Americas South and North.

As many by now know, the last 10 days have seen an incredible degree of social mobilization in Brazil. On the surface, it began with a twenty-[Brazilian]-cent hike in bus fares in São Paulo. Protesters marched peacefully, By the end of the night, the police response to violence had created a broader sense of outrage, leading one Brazilian on Twitter to comment, “It’s no longer about the fares. Fuck the fares. This has become much greater than the question of fares.”

And indeed, it was always about much more than the fares. As I outlined earlier last week, the reasons for now are complex, and are as much about historical inequalities, a fact reflected in the variety of demands: from educational reform to anger at the $13.3 billion spent on the World Cup; from Congress’s disconnection with the people it ostensibly represents to decades of generally-unchecked police violence; all of these, and more, are the causes people are raising in the streets. It’s not even about a single political party; while President Dilma Rousseff and the center-left Workers Party [PT] have been targets of outrage and slogans, so have the other other parties on the left and right. In terms of politics, it’s not as much about partisanship as it is about the broader system of political cronyism and oligarchical politics that goes back centuries. So the protests did not come out of nowhere. In fact, the writing has been on the wall for some time; at the beginning of the year, Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, a TV clown who ran for Congress (and won) in an attempt to show the absurdity of politics, commented that “Either this thing [Brazilian politics] changes, or people are going to go crazy.”

So in many ways, it’s about broader political inequalities and absurdities within a functioning electoral democracy. And though politics is an important part of it, it’s not the sole issue at play; the economy, both in real terms and in terms of Brazilians’ material expectations, is an important part of the discourse of unrest as well. The twenty cents was a not-insignificant amount of money for a working class that is often underpaid even while living in the 12th most expensive city in the world, ahead of New York City, Los Angeles, or any other city in the US. And although nationwide, Brazil continues to enjoy near-record low unemployment rates, unemployment in São Paulo has been above the national average for Brazil, compounding the problem for many paulistanos [those from São Paulo city].

But these are problems limited to São Paulo – how did it go national? The national economy is a part of the issue, but it’s not the whole picture. Yes, Brazil has recently seen inflation increase, growth rates slow down, and currency devalued, making well-paying jobs harder to come by and lessening the overall value of incomes among both the working and the middle classes in Brazil. But it’s as much about the representation of the national economy as it is about actual economic factors. For about ten years now, politicians, analysts, and foreign commentators had all pointed to Brazil as having finally becoming an economic powerhouse in the world. They pointed to its status as the seventh largest economy in the world; its growing role in global trade; and even its recent debt forgiveness in Africa as symbols of this strength. Winning the bids for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics were hailed as final evidence Brazil had “made it.”

But, as is all too often the case amongst neoliberal analysis, they falsely equated growth to development. Sure, Brazil’s economy had grown, but it also retained one of the higher levels of income inequality in the world. And the government spent $13.3 billion for FIFA to host the World Cup in Brazil, money that went to stadiums rather than to infrastructure projects that would help a majority of Brazilians. And this while educational levels and adequate health care continue to be major problems for millions of poor and middle class families throughout the country. Brazilians had been told for ten years that things had improved, that Brazil had finally “arrived,” and that they were now enjoying material and social benefits that they’d always been excluded from. And in some ways, there were real gains in the 2000s – the purchasing power of the working class and middle class strengthened somewhat, and programs like Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero helped millions of poor families. But at the first sign of economic instability, it all threatened to come apart, even when their expectations had already increased, and even after ten years of being told that this time it was different. And yet, the socioeconomic inequalities remain in a system where politicians still seem to ignore or be completely unaware of the issues facing tens of millions of Brazilians.

But, if all of these issues have been latent for a long time, why now? The short answer is: it’s complicated, and there’s no definite “quotient” that meant demonstrations on the scale of millions was inevitable. Indeed – this video does a really good job of showing how all of these issues have come together, with the World Cup as a symbol of all that’s wrong with Brazilian inequalities.

All of the above issues have certainly contributed to the unrest and anger. But this is where police violence in São Paulo played a key role. While the police in Brazil have used violence and operated with impunity all too often, the violence last week was one straw too many. That police responded so disproportionately against peaceful protesters exercising their right to speech and assembly, led to broader anger throughout the country. The images that emerged from such violence were so surreal and so grotesque, it only further ignited anger in Brazil, prompting more people to take to the streets, and leading to more surreal scenes throughout the country and even greater police violence, and so on and so forth. In that way, what had apparently started as popular anger at bus fare hikes in Brazil’s largest city became the beginning of nationwide demonstrations from Brazilians who had simply decided they’d just had too much.

And the protests expanded rapidly. On Monday night (the 17th), 230,000 people took to the streets nationwide to protest, in what at the time seemed like a high number. Yet by the middle of the week, the protests were growing; in response, nearly a dozen cities (including São Paulo and Rio) rolled back bus fares. But it was too late. By Thursday night (the 20th), nearly 2 million people across 483 municipalities throughout the country had mobilized. And while two million in a country of 190 million is still a tiny number relatively speaking, the support is much broader, with a poll finding 75% of Brazilians supported the mobilization. Nor was the mobilization limited to a single socioeconomic group, as people from the favelas in Rio joined people from the middle-class Zona Sul on Thursday, leading to at least 300,000 (and perhaps more) in the streets for the largest urban rally in Rio since at least 1984, when the country mobilized for direct elections as the twenty-one-year military dictatorship wound down.

Of course, the events in Brazil have rippled throughout the region in the world. In Paraguay, around three thousand people took to the streets to protest corruption in their own country, with participants openly admitting the events in Brazil had inspired the Paraguayans to speak out as well. More ridiculously, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said that the unrest in his own country and now in Brazil is due to foreign conspirators who want to destabilize both countries (though Erdogan was silent in explaining why, out of all the countries in the world, vague “foreign” threats would target Turkey and Brazil). Of course, such allegations are ridiculous, as citizens of both Turkey and Brazil are responding to the abuses of power and national contexts within their own countries. Beyond that, the most obvious similarity between Turkey and Brazil is the police’s overwhelming and disproportionate use of force in each case, based on privatized weaponry and brutality against unarmed protesters found in police forces not just in Turkey, but Davis, New York, and now, Brazil.

What happens next is uncertain. Already, the location of the protests has ebbed and flowed; 300,000 in Rio one night, 100,000 in Recife another night, 60,000 in the largest protest yesterday in Belo Horizonte. That a different city has had the largest protests each day demonstrates just how national the discontent is. Still, what change they can have remains to be seen. In some ways, Brazilians face challenges not-dissimilar to those the Occupy movement faced; a broad movement with a variety of concerns and demands that forswears any particular political party or organization. Though the protests may slow down or peter out in the next few weeks [and they may not], it would not be surprising to see them return periodically, particularly as the World Cup takes place next year; after all, those stadiums, with their billions of dollars spent in renovations, will physically remain to remind Brazilians of how little the World Cup actually improved their lives, even while proving extremely expensive. But, while the World Cup will serve as a useful symbol, the protests won’t undo that $13.3 billion.

Perhaps the way these demonstrations could have the longest effect is through political mobilization. In addition to being home to the World Cup, Brazil also holds elections next year. Politicians who choose to disregard the voice of the electorate may find they can no longer do so with disregard. For the first time in twenty years, Brazilians have taken to the streets to express their anger; the last time, in 1992, it led to a president resigning over corruption. For a generation, though, such a sense of empowerment, of being able to shape national politics, was lacking, not out of will, but out of experience. Now, that has changed – there is a new sense that politicians do not rule in an ivory tower, that the people can make themselves heard. A common refrain throughout Brazil this week was that, with millions gathering and making their voices heard, “O gigante acordou – The giant awoke.” Whatever the outcome of these demonstrations, this has been a historic week in Brazil, with demonstrations and popular mobilization that ranks up there with 1968, 1984, or 1992; yet each of those years, the mobilizations were defined by particular terms (protests against a dictatorship; demands for direct elections; calls for the resignation of the corrupt Fernando Collor). 2013 is different – the demands are more open, the people more insistent, and the potential outcomes more diverse. Even if the demonstrations disappear in the coming weeks, the issues behind them will not go away so easily, and it will be worth continuing to watch to see if and how this moment shapes society and political culture in Brazil going forward.

The History of Native American Voting

[ 22 ] June 23, 2013 |

This is a great overview of attempts to suppress the Native American vote after they received full citizenship rights in 1924. In short, they were treated by western states not too different from African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.

When Andrei Tarkovsky Took Polaroids

[ 13 ] June 23, 2013 |

Yeah, they look way more awesome and beautiful than anyone else’s Polaroids.

The Dark Knight Returns and The Zack Snyder School of Literal Filmmaking

[ 62 ] June 23, 2013 |

Not wanting to spend the entirety of my life figuring out how to put the entirety of my life into boxes and move it across the country, I decided to watch the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Directed by Jay Olivia and released in two parts in 2012 and 2013, it belongs to the Zack Snyder School of Literal Filmmaking, in which the idea is to replicate particularly stirring comic panels on the big screen by unwittingly mangling the elements that make them stirring.

Consider Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen. We don’t even need to venture past the opening credits to see where the film misses the point. But before we do that, I should note that I’m not complaining generally about a lack of faithfulness in adaptation. Comics and film are different media and ought to be treated as such. I don’t mind if changes are made that alter the narrative in an interesting fashion. But Snyder preaches fidelity as his ethos, so taken at his word, deviations from the comic in his films aren’t “interesting alterations” so much as the “necessary accommodations” of adapting any medium into another. These changes are being made by a lover of the source material who would never be unfaithful to the “spirit” of the original. For what it’s worth, I think Snyder’s dead honest about his commitment to accurately representing both individual panels and the “spirit” of the original work on screen — he simply happens to be terrible at doing so. Back to the opening minutes of Watchmen, in which Rorschach’s investigating the Comedian’s murder. Both the novel and the film begin with a close-up of the Comedian’s iconic image before pulling back to the skyscraper window from which it fell.


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Bare-Faced Lies

[ 60 ] June 23, 2013 |

Ever read an article at a website, then end up going down one of those neverending “click me” rabbit holes? I got sucked down one of them yesterday. One minute I was reading about the top ten overrated video game characters (why, I don’t know), then I ended up clicking a link that promised to show me Jenna Jameson without makeup. You see these claims all the time–“See celebrities without makeup!” Seems a harmless way to spend a minute or two–checking out gorgeous celebs without all the artifice. The problem is that 8 times out of 10, most of these photographs show celebrities in what is called “natural make-up.” In other words, in these photos, the women are still wearing make-up, often quite a lot of it. It’s just the finished look is dewy and spare instead of obvious or theatrical.

It’s a pet peeve of mine, only because so many women–especially young women–compare themselves unfavorably to celebrities. Pictures of bare-faced celebrities are instructive. They show us the enormous part artifice plays in the making of a glamour portrait. I think this is a good thing. But these faux bare-faced pictures are not helpful.

Is this the most important thing in the world? No. But I think– in this looks-obsessed world– it’s worth mentioning; it’s worth correcting the misapprehension.

More Gandolfini

[ 19 ] June 23, 2013 |

As you would expect, his untimely passing has produced a lot of excellent writing.   See Carson, Nussbaum, Winter, Geier, and MZS for starters.  Not only was he by all accounts an excellent person, it’s pretty clear that the real Gandolfini was much more like the quiet family man with a conscience he played in A Civil Action than like the role that defined him.

While we’re speaking of this, Nussbaum’s famously good essay about The Sopranos is worth revisiting. I happened to recently finish watching the whole series as viewing on the elliptical, and I think it holds up extremely well. And while Nussbaum is right about the “rubbing the audience’s nose in it” vibe that got a little much towards the end, I also have a sympathy for Chase. In the wake of Gandolfini’s death I’m still reading some people claiming that Tony Soprano was a “heroic” figure. IIRC, some of the reviews in the wake of the superb “University” episode seemed to confuse the misogyny of the characters with the show being misogynist. (For people who haven’t seen it, the critical aspects are not ambiguous; not only is the most horrific act of violence perpetrated by someone considered to be a bad guy even by the other criminally violent characters, it’s clearly linked to the more routinized forms of exploitation at her place of employment — peonage, routinized sexual harassment. Not only do silly “codes” prevent Tony from doing anything about the murder, the characters on the show are the direct beneficiaries of the latter forms of exploitation.) There seems to be a significant percentage of the middlebrow audience from whom you can’t dramatize anything — if there isn’t 20 minutes of didactic dialogue explaining the creator’s perspective it can just be assumed that the characters represent the point of view of the writers and/or the showrunner. I blame Aaron Sorkin…

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