I haven’t published any books since A History of America in Ten Strikes in 2018, so you might be wondering what I am doing these days, other than visiting graves and listening to albums. Well, I have recently signed book contracts for two of my projects. Thought I would describe them here.
I am publishing another book with The New Press. Tentatively titled Organizing America, it is a series of short biographical pieces about American organizers with context about the work they did, how they did it, the struggles they had, their own failings, their successes, and stories that can motivate people to action today. Given my posts here, a book like this is probably not surprising to many of you. I often talk about the sharp limitations of how we see contemporary politics. I also deal with the hopelessness so many students feel. This is not a project which I had mulled over much. But I taught Pramila Jayapal’s outstanding memoir last semester (also a New Press book) to my Protest and Resistance in America course. And you know, this is a hard course to teach because students are really not coming to it with much of a political background. Even if they are, they are really depressed by the present. And I understand that! So I teach them about the deep problems of American history and I teach them about ways in which people overcame them. Jayapal is the kind of person I admire, someone who understands that electoral politics and protest politics are equally important and she brings that organizing mentality into Congress, which helps explain why she’s become one of the most important people in the Democratic caucus. She is also a fantastic writer and the book served to organize the students. Like, I could see the lights come on in their eyes. So I thought, this is just what students need! They need to hear stories of organizers to help motivate them to make change. So I thought of that and then 5 minutes later sent an email to TNP and a book contract came shortly after. No one says you need to really think about things too much before acting on them. And yes, sometimes teaching does influence scholarship, though not through the flipped classroom idiocy or other ridiculousness of neoliberal educational models driven by consultants and college administrations. Anyway, Organizing America should be out late next year.
Second, I have brought my long-term historical project to the University of Washington Press. The Making of the Modern Northwest, 1960-Present is effectively a case study of the nation’s political polarization looking at one region and focusing on a class and environmental perspective while also paying close attention to race, structural economic transformations, and the culture war. I am going to share a bit of my book proposal, which I goes into this in significant detail, but which I think also lays out just how ambitious this really is and how many questions of contemporary America it addresses:
This book builds upon my existing interests in the intersection between class and environmentalism to extend these questions into a broad-based look at Northwestern politics. Moreover, this book sees those politics as a microcosm of the polarization of American national politics in the last six decades and thus is a regional case study of these issues. In 1960, a natural resource-based economy, racially homogenous population, and moderate politics defined the Pacific Northwest, primarily consisting of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, but by some definitions including northern California and western Montana. I choose 1960 as a starting point because the postwar consensus around economic development had fully developed by this time and shortly after would come the first cultural, political, and economic challenges to this world. By 2020, the region had undergone dramatic changes, with the logging, ranching, and fishing economies in decline or collapse, the region deeply divided between liberal urban centers and conservative rural politics, and with a national reputation as a hip cultural capital marked by the legalization of marijuana, a robust environmentalism, and television shows poking fun at its alternative culture. This book documents this transformation by exploring key points of conflict in the Northwest’s recent history, placing the region squarely in the narrative of national historical trends while also demonstrating how the larger themes of recent history have developed quite differently in a region heavily defined by its natural environment.
The book centers the politics of natural resource development, particularly the timber, agricultural, and fishing industries, in the postwar era. These jobs not only were vitally important to the region’s economy but to how residents conceived of themselves and their region. Hard work in nature was central to regional identity, personified in Ken Kesey’s best-selling 1964 novel about a family of loggers, Sometimes a Great Notion. This culture was also explicitly white, often erasing Native, Black, Asian-American, and Latino laborfrom regional narratives and from access to political and cultural power. Minority populations had long contested the region’s white supremacy, laying the groundwork for significant resistance by the late 1960s. The region’s politics reflected these cultural and racial ideas, with both Democrats and Republicans falling as generally moderate Cold War politicians who often reached across the aisle in bipartisan legislation that protected both the jobs and recreation of white workers and promoted federal investment in the region.
Taking this period as a jumping off point, the book examines how the Northwest transformed over the next half-century, focusing on the environmental challenges to those working-class natural resource politics and the cultural resentment in which that caused. In other words, it places environmentalism and class at the center of the political and cultural wars of modern America. The growth of American environmentalism made the Pacific Northwest famous for its beautiful nature and thus the region began to attract new migrants moving there for the outdoors. This began in the late 1960s and originated with the counterculture, ironically also framed by Ken Kesey, now notorious as a prophet of LSD, when he returned to his hometown of Springfield, Oregon in 1966. Communes flourished around the region and cities like Eugene became hippie havens. By the mid-1970s, this began to impact the region’s economy in the post-counterculture era, when iconic companies like Nike, Starbucks, and Microsoft began creating an alternative regional identity around hip capitalism with middle and upper-class workers thinking of the forests and rivers of the Northwest as amenities for recreation, not natural resources for agricultural or timber production. Environmental politics took on an increasingly class-based tone, leading to a growing alienation of working-class Northwesterners from a region now popularly defined as “Ecotopia” in Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel of that name.
In other words, to whom did the Northwest belong? Loggers dealing with a dying industry complained about migrants from California and environmental “extremists” from the east coast destroying their way of life, even as timber industry deindustrialization and export policy were responsible for the disappearance of jobs. Eugene environmentalists protested against smoke pollution, ending long-standing field-burning practices by sod farmers. Working-class access to the region’s most desired spaces also began to wane, especially in the increasingly affluent Puget Sound, as mansions and resorts began replacing the small fishing cabins of those who had long used those spaces for recreation. Calls for wolf reintroduction outraged ranchers in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and Idaho, helping to lead to the rural resentments that fueled local support for the 2016 takeover of eastern Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by anti-government activists.
These economic and environmental changes were bolstered by racial and cultural changes that also helped shape the modern Northwest. The region’s Native Americans, targeted for the termination of their status as federally recognized tribes in the late 1950s and early 1960s, began to make political allies with the region’s new residents, fighting for fishing rights in the Puget Sound and on the Columbia River. This deeply angered white fishermen, both professional and recreational, who found themselves with secondary rights to decreasing salmon populations. Native power grew throughout this period, leading dramatically to Washington tribes playing a critical role in the 2000 defeat of Republican Senator Slade Gorton, a close timber industry ally and long-time antagonist of indigenous activists. Latino farmworkers increasingly organized over the exploitative labor conditions they faced in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, eastern Washington’s farm belt, and southern Idaho’s fields, building alliances with environmental organizations to publicize their causes. The takeover of the town of Antelope, Oregon by the followers of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the mid-1980s caused a region-wide panic about the religious cult movements common in the region since the late 1960s. Most dramatic was the growth of the gay rights movement and how the alienated white working-class of the timber, fishing, and ranching towns targeted this movement as emblematic of a region gone wrong. The Oregon Citizens Alliance, an organization dedicated to fighting against gay rights, targeted the struggling timber mill town of Springfield, Oregon for a ballot measure in 1992. The success of that measure not only tore apart my hometown during my senior year of high school, but also spawned a statewide measure that fall that narrowly failed. The failure of that measure and the harsh criticism directed at Springfield for years after the vote demonstrated the increasingly hardened divides in the region, as the OCA became increasingly despised in urban areas while for the region’s white working-class conservatives, it was another example of how they had lost the culture wars to a liberal, cosmopolitan Northwest.
These divides have only hardened in the last thirty years. Secessionist movements such as the State of Jefferson have come to dominate rural politics. White supremacist groups in northern Idaho became more prominent and the federal attack on one family at Ruby Ridge gave the militia movement based new life. Meanwhile, the impact of free trade and the Pacific-facing economy has deep impacts on the region, not only economically but culturally. While most of our national discussion of these issues focuses on the state or regional level (bad for Ohio and Michigan but good for California and Texas), in the Northwest, the impact on this has been exceedingly local. Large Pacific-facing cities have benefitted tremendously, but thirty or forty miles away is deep poverty. In 1960, Seattle and Grays Harbor were not so different, culturally or economically. Today, these two one-time timber centers have vastly different economies, cultures, and politics. Idaho meanwhile moved far right, making the days of Frank Church and Cecil Andrus seem a lifetime ago. I will examine the story of Larry LaRocco, the last Democrat to represent Idaho in Congress and who lost his reelection bid in 1994 as a way into these issues, focusing on the rise of resentment in rural Idaho.
The Making of the Modern Pacific Northwest will have an impact both on the scholarly literature and in the general public. The story of the Pacific Northwest in recent decades reflects that of the nation as a whole on such issues as the rise of the culture wars, the growing emphasis on individual freedom, the economy transforming from industrial production to technology, service, and leisure industries, suburban development and the return of capital and affluent residents into cities since 2000, and the growing polarization of politics. However, this process happened quite differently in the Northwest than the Southwest, South, or Northeast. Among the differences is the importance of environmentalism in the region’s politics. This issue has played a central role in state and regional politics for a longer period of time and in a more consistent manner than any other part of the United States, framing these larger societal, economic, and cultural shifts.
A second key difference is that while racial tensions and white backlash shaped the growth of conservatism around the nation, the Northwest had a different set of racial dynamics, with higher numbers of Native Americans and Mexican immigrants than the rest of the United States, excepting the Southwest, and with fewer African-Americans. Racial tensions revolved around Native American fishing rights, the rise of Red Power as a political force in Washington politics, the exploitation of Mexican immigrants in the region’s forests and fields, and environmentally degraded urban environments affecting racial minorities in Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle. Yet the book also explores cross-burnings in “liberal” Seattle and how racial exclusion in cities such as Portland and Tacoma reflected larger national stories of the black freedom struggle and the oppression that continued legacies of inequality. Exploring how both environment and race shaped Northwestern and thus American politics and culture will add significantly to our understanding of recent American history.
In short, this book is a region-wide examination of the culture wars ripping the nation apart on a regional scale, a way to understand how the Northwest and the region has gotten to the point of the Bundy occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, deadly political violence in Portland, the rise of homelessness in some of the most progressive cities in the nation, and the cultural meanings of the iconic corporations that make the Seattle area home.
If anyone is interested, the Seattle crossburning was in the Wallingford neighborhood just west of the University of Washington and it was 1963 or 1964 (can’t remember now). I thought about going up to the current owners of the house and asking them if they knew the history of it, but you know…..I bet they don’t want to know. The book will probably be published in 2024.
Anyway, those are a couple of things I’ve been writing, though not the only things. I might also mention here some other recent publications. I have an article titled “Masculinity, Work, and the Industrial Forest in the U.S. Pacific Northwest,” in Men, Masculinities, and the Earth: Contending with the (m)Anthropocene, edited by Paul M. Pulé and Martin Hultman, and published by Palgrave MacMillan. I wrote the Conclusion for Organizing for Power: Building a Twenty-First Century Labor Movement in Boston,” and published by Haymarket last year. I wrote a piece called “Working Class Environmentalism: The Case of the Northwest Timber Workers,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Environmental Labour Studies, edited by Nora Räthzel, Dmitris Stevis, and David Uzzell, published naturally enough by Palgrave-MacMillan. Finally, I have a chapter titled “Labor History and the National Park Service: How the Government Does and Does Not Remember Our Working Past,” in Where Are the Workers? Labor’s Stories at Museums and Historic Sites,” edited by Robert Forrant and Mary-Anne Trasciatti. That will be published by the University of Illinois Press this summer and the info for it is available.
So yeah, wanted to let people know what’s up and to look out for these books.