Monday, January 31, 2011

Song Titles

Is there any doubt that Marvin Gaye's "You Sure Love to Ball" is the greatest song title in American popular music?

Song of the Day: Sun Ra, "Shadow World"

Saturn's greatest contribution to American music. 

Historical Image of the Day

New York Evening Journal editorial cartoon ripping the military's shoot to kill orders for all potential insurgents if they were male and over 10 years old, May 5, 1902

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Queen Bee

It seems to me that there is some cult market for xenophobic Korean films from the 80s exploiting the nation's fear of foreign English teachers.

I know I'd sit down with friends and some drinks and laugh my ass off at this.

Thinking about Assignments and Grading

Claire Potter at Tenured Radical has a wonderful post on how we create assignments, what students get out of them, and to make the whole process more interesting.

I hate nothing in my job more than grading the same boring essay over and over again. It makes me want to jump off a bridge. And because I'm bored, I work very slowly and it hurts everything else in my life too. I have developed some pretty good assignments I think. I usually assign final papers where I tell the students to work on whatever topic they want within the parameters of the course. That usually results in some very interesting work. Sometimes in my survey courses, I have students look at how the past is interpreted on the internet. That's been relatively successful except that some students never get that they aren't doing a report on the Civil War, they are writing a paper about how modern Americans think about the Civil War. I didn't do that this year in either of my survey courses and I think I regret it. Because as soon as I give students a specific "prompt," a word that I really hate for an unspecified reason, I know I am going to get some very boring papers. If I didn't feel the need to make students pay at least moderate attention in class, I'd probably eliminate the midterm entirely because that's also boring.

One of Potter's best points is not to waste tons of time correcting every grammatical mistake:

Do you write lots and lots of marginal notes on the paper, spending hours correcting everything and re-diagramming their sentences?  The truth is, although you are trying to be the opposite of the teacher I describe above, this freaks students out.  Although you have spent maybe an hour on this, feeling like you are a really caring teacher, the student may see them as a blur, as grammatical correction collides with interpretive questions, typos, basic misunderstanding of the text and long-winded attempts not to utilize the first person or appear "biased."  If a paper is really muddled, it is a waste of your time to do this:  far better to sit down with the student, ask a couple questions about what s/he intended, and describe how s/he might have gone about writing such a paper.

One common grumble I hear from faculty is:  "I bet I spent more time grading it than s/he spent writing it!"  While that probably isn't technically so, it may well be so that the paper was written at the last minute, and that the student had not done the work necessary to write the paper of which s/he might be capable.  How much better would it be to find this out in the course of a conversation?  Better yet, to take the opportunity to underline in person that a better effort over the long term would produce better written work.  A fair number of students think they "want to work on [their] writing," as if writing were disconnected from the other work in the course.

Of course, it can be rather time-consuming to have a lot of individual meetings with students. And if you are teaching classes of 75, I don't know how possible that would be. At the same time, I don't know that it's significantly more time consuming than spending 30 minutes going through the grammar on each and every paper. And it's far less boring to talk to my students. On the other hand, students do need to know how to improve their writing. So it's an interesting dilemma.

In any case, we (or I at least) need to have more discussions about how to teach, craft assignments, grade, and interact with students.

Organizing and Religion

Soon after writing my post on the cultural divide and union organizing last week, I ran into this story about the Memphis branch of the United Campus Workers-CWA Local 3865 conducting a sort of pray-in as part of their campaign for a pay hike. In full disclosure, I helped start this union at the University of Tennessee back in 2000 and still do occasional work for them.

My essay was more about the disconnect between young college graduates who become organizers and the white working class. But there's little question that the cultural divide runs deeper to broader differences between working-class people and college graduates. Religion is most certainly one of those places. It's hardly revelatory to say that while many college students are quite religious, the lefty pseudo-anarchist kids who often become professional organizers today aren't usually among them. In fact, while I think most serious young organizers wouldn't be stupid enough to denigrate religion to the people they work with, I also think a whole lot of them roll their eyes and deal with it. It's hard to imagine too many young organizers embracing religion as central to their organizing mission with true and honest passion.

I don't think this is so much organizers' fault as its a reflection of the adversarial nature of religion in early twenty-first century America. Evangelical Christianity has so aligned with the Republican Party and taken a you-are-with-us-or-against-us stance to everything in American life that many young people, progressives, and other well-meaning white folk have shied away from religion entirely, or certainly don't feel comfortable talking about it publicly and using it as a central organizing strategy. I suspect that these Memphis workers are largely African-American. And there remains a different relationship between young organizers and the black working class than the white working class. So in this context, one can see it still working. It's nice to see activists centering their organizing around their own religion, but it's a reminder of what we've lost as much as it is a way forward, at least for a lot of people.


I don't have anything particularly intelligent to say about the situation in Egypt. I wish I knew more about the Middle East, but I just don't, other than the perspective of someone who reads a lot and pays attention to the world. Which is no different than all of you.

But I thought I'd open up a space here for people to throw around ideas and thoughts, if you are interested.

Song of the Day: Lovage, Strangers on a Train

Historical Image of the Day

"The Forbidden Book," The Chicago Chronicle, January 27, 1900

McKinley stands on the locked book entitled, True Story of the War in the Philippines, barring the United States from knowing what was actually  happening there.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Challenger Explosion

25 years ago today, I was in 6th grade (I think). Everyone was excited because the Space Shuttle Challenger was set to launch and teacher Christa McAuliffe was on board. This was a big deal. I loved space. Most kids did. Or at least, they thought the Space Shuttle was pretty awesome. We gathered in the library to watch it, or at least some of us did. I was there anyway and pretty close to the TV.

And then it blew up.

That really did change everything. The space program never recovered. Americans never cared much about space again. When the Columbia exploded upon reentry into the atmosphere in 2003, Americans were sad, but relatively indifferent. We had stopped looking to space as the final frontier. It made for good TV, but it didn't make very much sense for us to be there and besides, the Moon is nothing but a ball of rock. The Hubble telescope is pretty cool because it makes pretty pictures, but there's not too much emphasis on humans exploring the universe anymore.

It also changed our relationships with technology. The space program, along I think with the Manhattan Project and subsequent Cold War nuclear technologies, made us believe in the government as the generator of technology that would save freedom, expand America, and make us all rich. It protected us from the Soviets and could expand our empire into space. I'm hardly suggested a monocausal transition here, but along with the Cold War's decline, the Challenger explosion helped move our faith in technology from the government and big centralized technologies to personalized devices that could make our lives more fun. Computers, VCRs, video games--these all meant more to my generation of Americans than seeing if we could put a man on Mars.

This then affected our national relationship with the military, where so much earlier technology had originated. Certainly after 9/11 but even in the first Gulf War, Americans viewed war through their experience with video games rather than an all-encompassing threat to American freedom. We could go kill people without threat to our own lives, just like playing at home.

Perhaps I'm overstating this change.

But I can say something that almost no respectable American would have said in 1986--the entire space program is a gigantic waste of money predicated on a small group of scientists and engineers believing so strongly in their own work that they ignore safety precautions or even the obvious likelihood of frequent explosions when you hurl gigantic manned vehicles into space. NASA still receives ridiculous amounts of money when it's primary mission in the 21st century should be facilitating consumer technology, predicting weather, and, perhaps, spying on our enemies. In any case, none of this ever needs to be manned. There is nothing out there we can use. We are stuck on this planet and with the resources of this planet. And we've had to start dealing with this reality for the first time in American history.

Song of the Day: The Louvin Brothers, "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby"

I was very sad to hear of Charlie Louvin's passing. Along with his long-deceased brother Ira, Charlie Louvin made some of the greatest country music in its history. The beautiful harmonies make them probably the greatest brother act in American music history. They didn't sell super well at the time, though the song I put here did reach #1. And while they've achieved a cult status since the late 1960s, The Louvin Brothers have hardly reached the iconic level in the minds of more casual fans as Johnny Cash or Hank Williams.

That's too bad because The Louvin Brothers were basically the perfect band. They combined beautiful singing with wonderful songs about love, God, Satan, and murder. This version of "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby" is a great introduction. My favorite is "While You're Cheating On Me," which is a wonderful tale of both partners cheating. They are probably most known for the crazy album cover on Satan is Real and their murder ballad, "Knoxville Girl," which is really an old English song transplanted to Tennessee.

Like many murder ballads, "Knoxville Girl" is about a man killing a woman for not marrying him, for cheating, or, as in this case, for the hell of it. I saw Charlie Louvin twice. His voice was gone by the 1990s. In fact, he pretty much disappeared from the music industry for a long time after he decided he couldn't work with his crazy brother in the early 60s (Ira died in 1965) and put out a few fairly successful albums that decade. The first time I saw him was in 1999. He was opening for Chet Atkins, in what was Atkins' last show, in Knoxville, Tennessee. It wasn't supposed to be the end--I had a ticket for the show, but Atkins fell and broke his hip just before it was scheduled. It was rescheduled about 6 months later. Chet could still play, but was in clear decline--he couldn't walk well of course and his guitar cord came unplugged and he didn't know it. Atkins never played live again. But Charlie Louvin was great, despite his less than smooth voice.

And then I saw Charlie in, I think, 2008 in Austin. He played "Knoxville Girl," of course. He had a female fiddle player. And when he sang the line about grabbing the girl by the hair and throwing her in the river, he went over and gently stroked the fiddler's hair. This was the most awesome creepy moment I've ever seen live. Loved it.

I'm thinking of my top 10 country acts of all time. Most are probably fairly obvious. But The Louvin Brothers are very, very high.

1. Merle Haggard
2. Bob Wills
3. Hank Williams
4. Willie Nelson
5. Bill Monroe (though one could separate country and bluegrass of course)
6. The Louvin Brothers
7. George Jones
8. Loretta Lynn
9. Johnny Cash
10. Waylon Jennings

That's how great The Louvin Brothers are. I'll tell any of you hipsters out there that The Louvins were better than Johnny Cash. Moreover, I'll bet Johnny would have agreed with me.

Charlie Louvin, RIP

Historical Image of the Day

"Well, I Hardly Know Which to Take First," 1898

I really like how the cartoon gives "Porto Rico" legs to make it look like a pig.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Urban Rewilding

Eastern cities are seeing wildlife reappear in surprisingly large numbers. Coyotes have moved east with the eradication of wolves. Limited hunting and trapping seasons have allowed raccoons and skunks to reappear. Now fishers, a type of weasel, are returning in large numbers to eastern cities, though for whatever reason, not so much to western cities. It's all quite interesting, particularly given the expansion of suburbia into previously rural areas. Yet a lot of mammals seem to be adapting well and even thriving.

The Canoncial U.S. History List

David Sehat comes up with his list of 100 canonical U.S. history texts covering the period of about 1815 to the present. It's an interesting list. Hard to disagree with too many of the choices--Novick's That Noble Dream is a book I've always thought was popular because historians like to think of themselves as important. It's important for graduate students to have a sense of their profession's changes, but its value seems more or less limited to that. I'm not sure Herring's America's Longest War is really canonically important anymore, but maybe some will disagree. One might think we need more than 1 book on World War II, though Dower's War Without Mercy is certainly worthy. It's also really heavy on the antebellum period (20 books or so), which while covering slavery and a lot of other important issues, seems a bit too weighty.

I'd also like to see more than one book from my own field of environmental history, Cronon's Nature's Metropolis, but I'm really not sure what that book would be.

Anyway, it's a great reading list at the very least. I'd recommend most of the books on there that I've read

Historical Image of the Day

"President McKinley Destroys Imperialism Straw Man" Harper's Weekly, September 22, 1900

Song of the Day: Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, "Angel Band," 2008

Monday, January 24, 2011

Filibuster Reform, DOA

I was skeptical of the filibuster reforms actually passing.

Sadly, I proved to be right.

I'm happy enough to see some limited reforms in the Senate. To make confirmation easier for more average appointees seems like a no-brainer. Ending secret holds would be a very good thing. But in the end, I am very disappointed that we couldn't lower the 60 vote threshold down a little bit, at least to 57 if not 55. However, people don't like change and everyone has their little empire to protect. And that's not just Republicans:

Moreover, while liberal groups such as and some unions such as the Communications Workers of America are supporting the Udall effort, the liberal coalition is far from united on the issue. Some large members of the AFL-CIO have been noticeably silent, while some abortion rights groups have publicly declared their opposition to changing filibuster rules. That, some Democratic aides said, is because in the 1990s and in the early days of the George W. Bush White House - when Republicans controlled both ends of the Capitol - these groups relied on their Senate Democratic allies and the 60-vote threshold to protect key rights such as Davis-Bacon wages for federal works projects and the Roe v. Wade abortion decision. 

These are all valuable things to protect. But the Senate has become a non-functioning institution and that's a threat to the entire body politic.

Maybe in 2 years these reforms can be expanded upon. As for now, kudos for Tom Udall, Jeff Merkley, and Tom Harkin for championing the issue.

In related news, Wyoming's senators are particularly bad. That includes Mike Enzi:

As for conservatives, despite railing against the filibuster when Democrats held up some of President Bush’ most extreme judicial nominees, Republicans have defended the obstructionist tool tooth and nail as sacred. In a hyperbolic op-ed in Poltico today, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) warned that “[g]etting rid of the filibuster would end the Senate as we know it and as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other founders knew it.” But this historical claim has no basis in history — the first filibuster did not occur until 1841, years after both Jefferson and Madison had died. And the filibuster as we know it today did not emerge until the late 20th Century, and has has only been used to create a de-facto need for 60 votes to pass legislation in the past 10 years.

No one ever said intelligence was a prerequisite to be a senator. 


I highly recommend John Patrick Leary's outstanding essay, "Detroitism," about the so-called "ruin porn" that has attracted so much recent attention to Detroit:

That some of the recent focus on Detroit ruins is exploitative in its depiction of Detroit’s impoverishment bears repeating, but more compelling are the reasons for our contemporary fascination with images of first-world urban decline, and not just in the Motor City. Ruin websites, photography collections, and urban exploration blogs chronicle industrial ruins across North America and Europe, from Youngstown, Ohio to Bucharest, Romania. Yet Detroit remains the Mecca of urban ruins. Its impressive collection of pre-Depression skyscrapers have been memorably lionized as a “American Acropolis” by Camilo José Vergara, the pioneering photographer of American ghetto landscapes. Buildings that have escaped the wrecking ball have also, for the most part, escaped gentrification, since most of Detroit’s economic elite remain sequestered in the suburbs, with little of the desire for urbanity that one finds among the leisure classes of Chicago, New York, London, or Philadelphia. Nor has the city ever been able to do on any significant scale what Pittsburgh has accomplished with its defunct Homestead steel mill, now a shopping mall, or what New York has done with upscale condos in old warehouses—leverage the hollow shells of a productive economy into the shell games of the credit economy.

For media workers from more prosperous cities, Detroit’s spaces of ruination appear to tell a history, or at least evoke a vague sense of historical pathos, absent in those other, wealthier cities. Indeed, one of the notable features of this Detroit boom is the fact that few of the people driving it actually live here. For someone from New York, Paris, or San Francisco, history seems more visible here, and this is the visual fascination that Detroit holds. As Marchand and Meffre write on their website, “Ruins are the visible symbols and landmarks of our societies and their changes, small pieces of history in suspension.” In a country perennially plagued with a historical amnesia, ruins are rare permanent reminders of a history unsuited to the war memorials and equestrian statues that dot the national landscape. Another reason for the fascination with Detroit’s decline is less about history, though, and more about the future.

The whole article is quite insightful. A couple of points:

1. Detroit fascinates for a number of reasons. One is our obsession with post-apocalyptic landscapes in popular culture. Detroit is evidently as close as you can get in the U.S. to this. But these ruin photos also interest because they represent a lost tradition in American architecture that many people miss--the monumental and ornate building. Modernism is great in many ways, but there's something lost in prioritizing the display of materials than hiding them behind an beautifully tiled ceiling.

That architecture dominated much of late 19th and early 20th century American urban building. Most of it is gone now, a victim of urban renewal. But the complete abandonment of Detroit created conditions where no one wanted to tear it down and start over. That's bad, but it also allows us to see those buildings today, even in a decrepit condition. I'd love to see them restored, unlikely as that might be.

2. Detroit has a lot going against it. Its economy was based on big industry, which is mostly gone from the U.S. It's cold, which is a real strike in a mobile economy. But other cities have similar problems and some of them have done much better. Pittsburgh is a classic example. Even Akron has recast itself as a medical industry town and has done a pretty good job of revitalization.

What makes Detroit so different? I'd say this might have something to do with it:

This is a map of neighborhood segregation. Blue=African-American. Yellow=Latino. Red=white.

In a deeply segregated nation, no major city is more starkly segregated than Detroit. White people simply abandoned Detroit and continue to abandon it today. What's more, the desire among young people for urban experiences doesn't seem to have come to Detroit, or if it has, those young people are moving to other cities rather that revitalize their own. Of course, Akron and Pittsburgh also suffer from racial segregation. All three cities saw large migrations of both white and black southerners after World War I for industrial work. What makes Detroit different? I'm not really sure, but I can say that white Detroiters reacted against black migration by moving to suburbs very early. After successfully unionizing in the 1930s, race politics quickly trumped class politics for many people. And the suburbanization there was more profound and more long-lasting than in other cities.

So Detroit may be screwed, but let's not strictly ascribe massive economic forces as the reason. These were choices made by individuals and choices that continue to be made by the descendants of those individuals to deinvest in the city and avoid it like the plague. Detroit is a legacy of racism as much as deindustrialization. I'm not quite sure the ruin porn photographers quite get that. Certainly their buildings are almost devoid of life, which isn't quite right.

Historical Image of the Day

This week's images will consist of anti-imperialist cartoons produced during the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars.

Anti-imperialist cartoon showing President William McKinley thinking about American expansion while ignoring racial violence at home. Literary Digest, November 26, 1898

Song of the Day: Nashville Bluegrass Band, "Blue Train"

Sunday, January 23, 2011

500,000 Visits

Alterdestiny has just passed 500,000 visits.

It's been slow going to get here and the blog has had its ups and downs over the years. The recent up-tick certainly feels good.

I want to thank all readers of the blog for this.

The Cultural Divide and Union Organizing

As part of the discussions over the last few days over the left blogosphere and the role of labor in society, Brian noted in a comment:

I'd also add that most of the younger union staff I know all realize that their only future lies in organizing women, young workers and minorities. Of course, easier said than done.

That also squares with my experience. Most young union organizers conceptualize the union movement as a multi-racial, multi-gendered, multi-sexual orientation movement that fights for social as well as economic equality.

And that's obviously a good thing.

It is absolutely though a near-180 degree turn from pre-1960s union organizing. And there are some negative implications for it, not that union organizers are to blame.

Most union organizers originate from two places--the shop floor and the college campus. It used to be that, with the exception of some committed radicals coming from outside the workplace, the majority of union organizers were people (almost always men) who worked on the shop floor with the people they organized. Sometimes, college graduates would step into that role, but beforehand they usually acquired jobs in the factory. Not surprisingly, this system tended to replicate the social norms of the shop floor and the broader mainstream society of the early to mid 20th century--racist, sexist, homophobic.

In the 1960s, a new generation of radical came into existence. I hardly need to explain this. We know of the tension between so-called hardhats and the hippies. That divide was primarily cultural rather than policy-driven. Sure, a lot of white working-class men were upset that young people weren't supporting the war in Vietnam, but then after Tet, a lot of people thought the war was a bad idea. More profound was the radical social changes the hippies embodied--freer sexuality, new personal styles, racial equality, drugs.

Despite the fact that by the mid-1970s much of working-class culture had embraced many of these changes on its own terms (think of the 70s trucker image in popular culture for instance. Or, related, Burt Reynolds movies), the resentment remained among a lot of white men.

On top of this, a lot of the most established unions essentially stopped organizing by the late 1950s. The shop floor was no longer a place where workers pushed economic envelopes. The unions provided a great deal to workers and some had high level of member participation.  But real organizing of the traditionally white male workforce at stopped, in no small part because the unions themselves believed that they had achieved a permanent stake in a relatively equitable economic system. And when companies began leaving the unionized North in the 1960s and 70s for the non-union South and then overseas, unions were caught flat-footed.

At the same time, you had a new generation of activists joining a new generation of unions, organizing public sector workers as well as traditionally non-union jobs such as hotel workers and nurses. This led to the rise of unions such as SEIU, AFSCME, and HERE in the 1980s. Because these unions had a more diverse workforce and attracted a diverse set of organizers, they became hotspots for all varieties of social change and economic justice movements in addition to the business of forming and operating a union local.

Even today, the older unions have trouble moving toward new organizing models. And not surprisingly, only 7% of private sector workers are members of a union. Those unions are also not nearly as white as they used to be, though the old AFL craft unions remain pretty male. But they still have the reputation of not only being staid, but politically and socially conservative. I think a lot of young union organizers see these older models of unionization as hopeless. And they see that white men, now very few of whom are union members, as hostile to not only their entire agenda of racial, sexual, and economic democracy. So they see the future as the people they organize--women, non-whites, immigrants.

I'm not sure there's anything to be done about this. But I do find it absolutely remarkable that the 60s cultural divides still have implications not only in broader society and how left-of-center people think about unions, but within the labor movement itself and among its organizers. And it is deeply problematic that the young, most energetic union organizers have a difficult time even speaking to the white male working-class, not to mention organizing them.

Historical Image of the Day

Children at free dental clinic, Lexington, North Carolina, 1918

Song of the Day: Tom Waits, "Chocolate Jesus"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Native American Unemployment

R.M. Arrieta has an important article on the (still) most forgotten about people in this country, Native Americans:

  • By the first half of 2010, the unemployment rate for Alaska Natives jumped 6.3 percentage points to 21.3%—the highest regional unemployment rate for American Indians.
  • Since the start of the recession, American Indians in the Midwest experienced the greatest increase in unemployment, growing by 10.3 percentage points to 19.3%.
  • By the first half of this year, slightly more than half—51.5%—of American Indians nationally were working, down from 58.3% in the first half of 2007.
  • In the first half of this year, only 44% of American Indians in the Northern Plains were working, the worst employment rate for Native Americans regionally.
  • The employment situation is the worst for American Indians in some of the same regions where it is best for whites: Alaska and the Northern Plains.
Truthfully, in this history of this country, Native Americans have never had as much power and money as they do now. But most of that comes from casinos, which means that it is extremely unevenly distributed. Some tribes, usually near large metropolitan areas and on interstate highways, have gotten rich. But the rest are mostly still stuck in long-term poverty.

What's remarkable about this is that we as a society still ignore Native Americans. After 1890, they disappear from our national narrative, only to reappear in the 1960s as idealized people in harmony with nature and in the 1990s as purveyors of gambling. But despite the national realization that we screwed over Indians, we have not followed up with any sort of national anti-poverty programs designed give Native Americans opportunities. Part of this is the general selfish attitude of early 21st century America which has led to cuts across the board, but Native Americans aren't even part of the national conversation.

And that's really screwed up.

Republican War on Public Sector Unions

Republican attempts to allow states to declare bankruptcy are about one thing and one thing only--breaking public sector unions. For Newt Gingrich, this is a zero-sum game. As Andrew Leonard writes in this nice article at Slate:

The purpose of state bankruptcy is to break government employee unions. House Republicans win. Labor loses.
Even if this passes the House, a Democratic Senate and president have to pass and sign as well. And if they do, labor should sit out the 2012 election.

Historical Image of the Day

Playground inside Irene Kaufmann Settlement House, Pittsburgh, 1924

Song of the Day: King Crimson, "Larks Tongues in Aspic"

This must be from 1973 or 1974. I don't know what's more awesome, the music, the acid trip video, or that bizarre fur vest thing Jamie Muir is wearing.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Unions and Racism

Coming out of yesterday's discussions at LGM of the left blogosphere and lack of labor coverage among progressive websites was this comment by J.Dunn after I said that the constant progressive critique of unions as racist and sexist were unfair:

I would argue that those critiques were right (at least in retrospect) and that unions and the New Deal social contract in general as constituted then probably had to die to usher in the civil rights and women’s lib era. Also, that it was probably worth the cost in the long run to put us on what I’m increasingly sure is a permanent path to a vastly more inclusive, fully democratic, and socially tolerant society. Most of those changes aren’t going back in the box, barring apocalyptic scenarios, and the gains were very real and broadly realized. 

I feel this whole argument is deeply problematic. Obviously, the gains made by the civil rights and women's rights movements are great, but that's not the point. What's important here is the assumption that unions were responsible for holding these groups back and that without breaking the New Deal Coalition, civil and women's rights would have been delayed or denied.

I'm going to focus more on racism than sexism here, but much of the critique holds.  What I find remarkable is how strongly the image of hardhats beating hippies in 1968 remains relevant within the minds of many progressives. Maybe this is because a lot of ex-hippies are among the leaders of Democratic causes today. Maybe it's because today's progressive writers tend to come from the same upper-middle and elite classes that the hippies did and thus have never actually known union members and don't feel much class solidarity.

Unions did suffer from racism.. This cannot be argued. Most unions were dominated by white men who believed in full employment for whites under a single-family income. The big industrial unions of the CIO were filled with white men who moved north for industrial work and immigrant men who found that becoming "white" after World War II meant significant improvement in social acceptance. If becoming white meant also rejecting blacks, well, it's not as if that was going to be hard for people who usually looked down on blacks anyway. Meanwhile the old AFL craft unions had always committed themselves to white solidarity, with Samuel Gompers openly disdainful of immigrants, women, blacks, and child labor.

Employers often used race to split working-class solidarity. They would hire large groups from multiple rival ethnic groups in Europe, figuring the occasional fight on the factory floor was much less of a problem than unionization. Coal companies would go to Alabama and recruit black stikebreakers, take them up to West Virginia, and put them in the mines, exacerbating racial tension to undermine the possibility that the strikebreakers would join the strikers. They also saw hiring black factory workers as a way to undermine unions in the 1930s onward. And while I'm hardly excusing racism, if you see another group of people as a threat to throw you and your family out of their jobs and onto the street (and remember this is in a society before the New Deal with essentially zero safety net), it'd be pretty easy to target that group.

I'm consistently amazed by how little modern progressives (or hippies in the 60s) seem to understand this. Unions didn't cause racism, they reflected it. All of society was racist and sexist in the 1960s. Much of it remains so today. It's important to recognize how unions were racist and sexist. It's equally important to understand that unions were not the primary institution holding back civil and women's rights. Doing so and continuing to taint unions today with that charge serves capital's interests.

What's more, the story is a lot more complicated than we are led to believe. First, union members vote Democratic at far higher rates than non-union members. They might be bad on personal racial issues, but they vote for the political party that supports relative racial democracy. Second, there were many union members who did support workplace equality, including in the rank and file. UAW President Walter Reuther was a big-time ally of the civil rights movement, speaking at the March on Washington for instance. Reuther and his allies in the UAW always struggled with educating their members on the need for equality. But it was resisted by the rank and file who did not want to work with, live with, or go to school with blacks. And as Democratic politicians in Detroit found out as early as the 1940s, union members would vote Republican if race dominated the campaign.

So what was Reuther to do? In the UAW's case, the union itself was pro-equality, but the rank and file was not. Breaking the UAW did not help equality for anyone--it made inequality much worse. Unions have always struggled with educating their members, but that's a hell of a lot harder than it sounds. I might teach my students a powerful version of American history focusing on a story of struggle and equality, but they aren't all going to come away with that message. It's not strictly on the union structure to control their attitudes of their members that are shaped by family tradition, church, social clubs, television and radio, and any number of other factors, including workplace culture and labor unions.

And given the impossibility of this task, we are down to blaming working-class white men for being racist and being glad they are out of our political coalitions. While that might sound good from the pedestal we place ourselves on, it's pretty bad from a coalition-building standpoint. And it certainly can get in the way of building class alliances to fight the worst of neoliberalism.

Racism is a problem throughout society. Let's blame unions for their share of it.  But let's also remember that unions have done more than almost any organization in this country to promote democracy and equality. And let's also remember that unions only played a small part in holding back the rights of women and African-Americans. The decline of unions in this country has not helped democratic movements in any way. It has made inequality much worse and seriously hampered the ability of working people from all races and genders from fighting back against globalized capitalism.

Historical Image of the Day

We'll close out this series of historical images with a cartoon criticizing American slavery, from Punch, 1848

Song of the Day: Lee Morgan, "Moanin'," 1961

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"The Golden Age of Privilege Is Now"

While I find myself increasingly annoyed with Jamelle Bouie's centrism, he absolutely eviscerates right-wing arguments that we are losing our freedom. These arguments run in a fairly typical pattern--wealthy white man like Mark Steyn complains that modern America isn't as free as the 19th century, when a white man could truly do whatever he wanted.

Of course, for poor people, for women, for gays, and of course for African-Americans, the 21st century is far, far freer than the idealized late 19th century. Bouie concludes:

Which is to say, if there is anything that infuriates me about conservative rhetoric, it's this refusal to acknowledge the profound illiberty that existed in the United States for most of its history. Okay, so you don't like universal health insurance and you don't want the government to give your money to the lazy or "less deserving." Fine, that's fair. But let's not pretend like today is somehow less free than the past. For blacks, and virtually everyone but white men of privilege, the golden age of freedom is now.

I'd like to think the golden age of privilege is in the future, but other than that, it's hard to argue with this point.

Grazing Fees

A president has great power to change land policy. Much of this is set by institutional directives, not Congressional legislation.

Thus, it's awfully disappointing that the Obama Administration has decided to not raise the grazing fee on public lands. A farmer must pay the government all of $1.35 per month to graze on the public lands that are theoretically for all of us. $1.35 a month. That's nothing. In fact, it's the lowest legal cost. It's been at this level since the Bush Administration. And Obama decided not to change it. It's unclear why, as it's not easy to get into why decisions get made deep within the government. Perhaps Ken Salazar has a lot of friends in ranching. Maybe Obama is fooling himself into thinking that grazing fees actually influence voting patterns (which they don't--90% of ranchers are voting Republicans regardless). But cattle seriously degrade watersheds throughout the West. I'm not saying there's no place for cows on the public lands, but it'd be nice to get more than $1.35 a month for each one. This is almost as big of a ripoff as the General Mining Act of 1872, which allows mineral companies to basically steal valuable materials from the ground for nothing. Neither grazing law nor mining law ever changes--the people who really care about these things have lots of money and control a few key state legislatures.

The Left Blogosphere, If It Exists

The talk of the progressive blogosphere this week has been Franklin DeBoer's post on the lack of a truly left-leaning blogosphere. Attacking the neoliberal consensus that dominates the supposed progressive blogging elite of Yglesias, Klein, Chait, Drum, and a few others, DeBoer bemoans the lack of a labor-left blogging presence and the marginalization of truly leftist views.

Reactions have been mixed across the board. Yglesias says that there can't be any meaningful blogosphere to left of him because he agrees with the principle of redistribution of income. This is patently absurd but not surprising from the next David Broder.

Klein calls himself pro-labor but his argument shows the progressive blogger disconect from actual working-class issues. Normally, Klein demonstrates deep policy knowledge about issues. But here, he provides nothing more than squishy platitudes about how unions are important and that worker representation is a good thing. Where's the actual policies to make this happen? Is Klein calling for a the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act? For an activist National Labor Relations Board? For news laws demanding that U.S. companies pay high wages to workers if they open factories abroad? If so, I haven't seen it.

Neither Klein nor any other leading progressive bloggers center working-class people in their analysis. They are in the background--after all, a lack of health care primarily hurts working-class people. And I respect Klein for his energy in pushing these issues. But where is the attempt by any leading young progressives to understand working-class people? The issues important to them? Where are the voices of people who grew up as members of the working-class, did not go to prep school or attend Yale, did not even know internships at fancy institutions existed not to mention apply for them, and did not have connections that would help them become major progressive voices while in their mid 20s? They don't exist. And while I might be unfair to those who simply used the advantages they were born with, this situation is emblematic of how left-leaning leaders are more disconnected from the poor than anytime in this nation's history.

I think the biggest problem here is that most young(ish) progressives accept neoliberalism. Most openly admit it. As Rob Farley describes himself in his thoughtful response to the DeBoer's piece, "my own inclinations are toward the left side of the neoliberal consensus." They can try to smooth over the rough corners of globalized capitalism, but they fundamentally accept it as a good thing. They haven't conceptualized what a labor movement should look like within neoliberalism; they bemoan its decline, but mostly shrug their shoulders at its inevitability.

It's no different with most of my progressive students. They have no clearly articulated economic ideas except that capitalism is mostly good, even if sometimes it treats people bad.

So you have two "legitimate" sides within the economic debate--one that is dominated by true believers who also have access to money and power and another that agrees with 2/3 of the other side and provides little more than squishy critiques. Can  you guess which side is in the ascendant?

The world is very different on social issues. While I worry about the long-term health of abortion rights, very good things are happening on other social issues. We are moving toward acceptance of and legal rights for gays relatively rapidly. We are moving toward decriminalization of drugs. Interracial relationships become more accepted every year. In these ways, life is getting much better in this country. And the reason is that the left has clearly articulated positions sharply defined against conservatives. We can make strong arguments from both moral and policy perspectives on the need to recognize gay marriage and not throw black people in prison for 20 years because they have an ounce of cocaine on them.

So long as the left side of the blogosphere (or whatever the popular intellectual media of the future looks like) believes in the benefits of global capitalism and its leading participants are unwilling to criticize the entire system of neoliberalism, it's highly unlikely any real change is going to happen.

From this, I feel isolated. I know I am not alone, but I am sad nonetheless. A truly left blogosphere does not exist. If the left side of the neoliberal consensus is as far left as respectable policy makers and writers are going to get in this nation, I have no chance of ever making a difference through my own writings. Because the things that I call for--the return of manufacturing jobs to the United States through a combination of penalizing companies for moving factories outside the country and working with other nations to make hard decisions about which industries and products to protect and which to trade freely on the international market, forcing companies to pay high wages and follow U.S.-style environmental legislation if they move their factories abroad, deconnecting housing prices from measurements of economic growth, full employment as a human right, etc., have no chance of ever being taken seriously, even by people who I should ostensibly be allied with.

It is my strongly held belief that the current neoliberal economic system is both a short and long-term failure. It is environmentally unsustainable. We are flat running out of rare earths that are desperately needed for modern technology.  Climate change is already causing problems in some localities and nations. The nation's commitment to letting corporations rule the country has only increased since 2007, despite the fact that their actions are what drove us into financial collapse. It's almost impossible to put people back to work in the face of a long-term economic depression (not necessarily this one) because we have destroyed our industrial infrastructure and allowed capital to become fully mobile. I could go on.

But even if progressives agree with all of this, they still like the idea that they can go buy a Kindle. And hell, there's no question that I as an educated white male have benefited from the system, even if I grew up in a family that definitely did not. Do I like being able to travel and sit here on a computer writing about these issues and not working 12 hour shifts in a plywood mill? Yes, I do. One doesn't have to reject capitalism to reject the current model of capitalism and actively work to shift capitalism's benefits back to the working class, however one wants to define it. But that really isn't happening either. And for those of us who try to articulate such opinions, well, we never get hits from bigger blogs or are taken seriously by anyone.

In his response, Farley notes that I rarely write about labor anymore. And that's true. It bothers me. But I know that no one cares. No one will ever respond to or comment on a labor post. Maybe this one will be different because it's so meta. But if I talk about changes at the AFL-CIO, no one gives a shit. Which is true of the unions in general until progressives need them to get out the vote every 4 years.

There's a related issue also worth briefly addressing. DeBoer talks in labor-left language. He wants to connect vigorous labor unions with left politics. I want that too. But in the modern context, I wonder if we don't marginalize ourselves by thinking about labor unions in their mid-twentieth century manifestations rather than thinking about issues from a broader working-class context. I don't mean to sound semantic here. I do think there's a significant difference. Right now, something like 7% of private sector workers belong to labor unions. That's a very small number. Even given that a large percentage of those other 93% are in some sort of management or making a lot of money, there's an awful lot of people who fall outside of the union purview. They deal with shitty temporary jobs, frequent unemployment, shrinking benefits, and higher health costs. Even in teaching labor history, I now cast it as "Working-Class History," which I think makes a lot more sense in thinking about modern issues of work. It also allows us to include non-unionized workers of the past, including slaves and domestic labor. Given the sad reality of union demise, I don't see much utility in not trying to adapt a new framework to the current world.

Roe and Dred Scott

Man-on-Dog Santorum is taking a lot of heat for this statement:

Potential 2012 presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) doesn't understand how President Obama could not answer whether a "human life" is protected by the Constitution from the moment of conception: "The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer -- is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no. Well if that person -- human life is not a person, then -- I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'we're going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"

Jamelle Bouie is dismissive of Santorum drawing a straight line between slavery and abortion, writing:

Of course, it should go without saying that this is unadulterated bullshit. It's one thing to oppose abortion -- reasonable people can disagree -- it is something else entirely to compare the practice to chattel slavery, or worse, the Holocaust. Even if you grant fetal personhood, there is nothing in the "experience" of a fetus that compares to the extreme violence and depravity of slavery, and its effect on people -- children, teenagers, and adults -- with hopes, dreams, and desires.

On some level, anti-abortion activists know this; otherwise, they'd be in armed revolt. That they aren't is revealing; far from an accurate take on the situation, the abortion/slavery analogy is a fantasy for self-righteous ideologues, who want to believe that theirs is a great moral crusade, when in truth, it's nothing of the sort.

But while I agree that the moral equivalence is false, I also recognize that this is nothing more than my personal opinion. I'm not sure how many pro-life fanatics that Bouie or other progressive writers know, but I have known more than a few, now and going back to my childhood. And Bouie sells them short when calling this "unadulterated bullshit." Santorum may be doing this cynically. But most certainly there are millions of Americans who do believe it.

In fact, there's a lot of similarities between abolitionists and anti-abortion fanatics. Progressives don't like to admit this because we revere one group and loathe the other. But it's true. Like abolitionists, anti-abortionists believe in the deepest part of their soul that abortion is the greatest evil the world faces, an abomination in the face of God. Moreover, they believe that those who are pro-slavery or pro-choice are facing an eternity burning in the fires of Hell.

This is why I'm so ambivalent about John Brown and outright scared over how people use his memory today--those who love John Brown today aren't usually my friends.

Moreover, the idea that if anti-abortionists really believed their rhetoric that they'd be engaging in violent insurrection both misremembers the Civil War and doesn't provide a very subtle understanding of human nature. With the exception of John Brown, no abolitionists committed violent actions to overthrow the slave power before 1861. Moreover, it was the South who committed violence against the nation to protect slavery, not the North invading the South to end the peculiar institution.

For the vast, vast majority of abolitionists and anti-abortionists, personal violence is beyond the pale of acceptable behavior. They might support other people doing it. They might even give money toward it. But they are not going to pick up a gun themselves.

It does progressives no good to ignore the fact that anti-abortionists are in fact engaged in a moral crusade. It's not up to us to decide what is a moral crusade and what is not. I think they are crazy and that Santorum's statement is offensive, but that's beside the point. Anti-abortionists do in fact believe in their own rhetoric. For them, this is the greatest moral crusade since abolitionism. And we need to deal with this.

Song of the Day: Ashley Hutchings and the Albion Band, "Woodlands of England"

Historical Image of the Day

Cartoon making fun of the size and looks of African-American women, 1899

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Baltimore Police Commissioner Versus David Simon

The Baltimore Police Commissioner got cranky over how The Wire supposedly gave the city a bad image:

At the Jan. 8 Amplify Baltimore event, Bealefeld told audience members that the show was the "most unfair use of literary license that we've borne witness to," according to video posted on YouTube.

"I heard all this stuff about, 'Well there's crime shows about L.A., about New York, about Miami,'" Bealefeld said. "You know what Miami gets in their crime show? They get detectives that look like models, and they drive around in sports cars. And you know what New York gets, they get these incredibly tough prosecutors, competant cops that solve the most crazy, complicated cases."

"What Baltimore gets is this reinforced notion that it's a city full of hopelessness, despair and dysfunction. There was very little effort - beyond self-serving - to highlight the great and wonderful things happening here, and to indict the whole population, the criminal justice system, the school system."
It's always a bad idea to attack people who are not only smarter and more creative than you are, but who are also right. David Simon, creator of The Wire responds:

It is my understanding that Commissioner Bealefeld - by finally choosing to emphasize the quality, rather than the quantity of arrest - has been able to reduce the homicide rate somewhat in our city. If true, this is not only commendable, it is a long time coming. Too long, in fact.
Interestingly, the newspaper that covered his department began making the argument to do exactly that as early as 1994, in a series of articles entitled "Crisis In Blue" (Ed. note: part two can be found here) that carefully articulated the disconnect between the Baltimore department's aggressive street-level prosecution of the drug war and the root causes of violence in the city. The arguments were furthered in a book entitled "The Corner" that was published three years later. After a new election cycle, however, those arguments were ignored in favor of years of "zero tolerance" of minor street crimes and an obsession with street-level drug enforcement that actually de-emphasized quality police work and led to marked declines in arrest rates for major felonies.  
Later, when a mayor sought to become governor using public safety as an issue, the same police department went further down the path, emphasizing widespread street arrests of dubious quality and legality. This did not reduce crime so much as it violated the civil rights of many city residents and led to the widespread alienation of our jury pool, with many city jurors no longer willing to trust the integrity of testifying officers - a problem that will plague Baltimore law enforcement for years.
Furthermore, on behalf of Mr. O'Malley's political aspirations, many supervisors in many police districts were engaged in a prolonged campaign to improperly downgrade U.C.R. felonies to misdemeanors so as to further the political claim that crime was under control. This was common knowledge throughout the department and was much remarked upon privately by respected veteran supervisors and investigators, themselves frustrated at the practice. Nonetheless, aggravated assaults became common assaults. Armed robberies became larcenies. Rapes were unfounded.
I do not recall that Commissioner Bealefeld - when he was rising through the ranks during those years - made strenuous public objection to the department's misdirection, to its statistical flummery, or to the decline in arrest rates that resulted as quality police work was de-emphasized in favor of juked stats.  Perhaps he did so in private, to little avail. And perhaps now that he is in a position to act, he is taking a better path. Again, as a resident of Baltimore, he has my wholehearted support if this is the case.
But publicly, let me state that The Wire owes no apologies -- at least not for its depiction of those portions of Baltimore where we set our story, for its address of economic and political priorities and urban poverty, for its discussion of the drug war and the damage done from that misguided prohibition, or for its attention to the cover-your-ass institutional dynamic that leads, say, big-city police commissioners to perceive a fictional narrative, rather than actual, complex urban problems as a cause for righteous concern. As citizens using a fictional narrative as a means of arguing different priorities or policies, those who created and worked on The Wire have dissented.
Commissioner Bealefeld may not be comfortable with public dissent, or even a public critique of his agency. He may even believe that the recent decline in crime entitles him to denigrate as "stupid" or "slander" all prior dissent, as if the previous two decades of mismanagement in the Baltimore department had not happened and should not have been addressed by any act of storytelling, given that Baltimore is no longer among the most violent American cities, but merely a very violent one.

Others might reasonably argue, however that it is not sixty hours of The Wire that will require decades for our city to overcome, as the commissioner claims. A more lingering problem might be two decades of bad performance by a police agency more obsessed with statistics than substance, with appeasing political leadership rather than seriously addressing the roots of city violence, with shifting blame rather than taking responsibility.  That is the police department we depicted in The Wire, give or take our depiction of some conscientious officers and supervisors. And that is an accurate depiction of the Baltimore department for much of the last twenty years, from the late 1980s, when cocaine hit and the drug corners blossomed, until recently, when Mr. O'Malley became governor and the pressure to clear those corners without regard to legality and to make crime disappear on paper finally gave way to some normalcy and, perhaps, some police work.  Commissioner Bealefeld, who was present for much of that history, knows it as well as anyone associated with The Wire.

We made things up, true.  We have never claimed otherwise.  But respectfully, with regard to our critique, we have slandered no one.  And to the extent you can stand behind a fictional tale, we stand by ours - and more importantly, our purpose in telling that tale.
David Simon
Baltimore, MD


Historical Image of the Day


"Would de gemman in front oblige by removing de hat?”

“Would de same gemman oblige by puttin’ de hat on agin?”

Image from Puck making fun of African-American hair, 1893

Song of the Day: Super Rail Band, "Marigoundo"

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lieberman Retiring

I'm kind of surprised actually. I figured he'd fight to the bitter end. Wasn't expecting he'd have the self-awareness to avoid being primaried.

Drunken Owls

This would never happen in a puritanical country like the United States....

German police said on Tuesday they had discovered a paralytic owl that appeared to have drunk too much Schnapps from two discarded bottles.

"A woman walking her dog alerted the police after seeing the bird sitting by the side of the road oblivious to passing traffic," Frank Otruba, spokesman for the police in the southwestern city of Pforzheim, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The Brown Owl didn't appear to be injured and officers quickly concluded that it had had one too many. One of its eyelids was drooping, adding to the general impression of inebriation.

"It wasn't staggering around and we didn't breathalyze it but there were two little bottles of Schapps in the immediate vicinity," said Otruba. "We took it to a local bird expert who has treated alcoholized birds before and she has been giving it lots of water."

The bird will be released once it has sobered up, police said.

How the Tea Party Continues to Screw Over Mainsteam Republicans

One of the narratives coming out of the midterm elections was how Tea Party orthodoxy cost Republicans control of the Senate, through dooming mainstream Republicans a chance to win in Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware.

This emphasis on orthodoxy over power continues to bite Republicans on the state level. Take New Mexico. The speaker of the house in New Mexico is Ben Luján, a liberal from northern New Mexico. The Land of Enchantment is politically complex because of regional and racial differences. Democrats do get elected in more conservative southern New Mexico, but then tend to be centrists. In 2010, those New Mexico blue dogs combined with Senate Republicans to get a centrist Democrat elected as president pro tem. This was in the cards for this session of the House as well, with Las Cruces centrist Democrat Joseph Cervantes set to take the speaker position with Republican help.

Then the New Mexico tea partiers got involved. Outraged that Republicans might vote for a Democrat, even if it would help their cause, they forced Senate Republicans to back out of the deal. Cervantes' candidacy collapsed and Lujan was re-elected to another term as speaker.

Song of the Day: Wayne Hancock, "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs"

One of the great songs ever.

Historical Image of the Day

Cartoon from Harper's Weekly, 1860. A classic example (though possibly satirical) of how slaveholders tried to scare their slaves with stories of evil abolitionists stealing them. That might have been soothing to the white mind, but slaves obviously did not take this seriously, as seen in their behavior when the Union army came a mere few years later.

Alternative Energy and Desertification in Nevada

Ranchers hate pinon-juniper forests. That is the natural flora for much of the upland American West, but the trees get in the way of grass that ranchers want. In Nevada, a state we think of little about outside of gambling and Vegas getaways, ranchers  hold a lot of power. They want those forests gone, even though the short-term gains for ranch land are slight and the long-term effects of getting rid of those forests are localized warmer temperatures, drought, and desertification.

A Chinese biomass company wants to harvest these forests for energy. Biomass is arguably the single biggest joke within the alternative energy community. Ethanol fuel is bad, but biomass is disastrous. People think of biomass as burning your lawn clippings, but the only way to create enough fuel to make the industry work is to cut down forests strictly in order to burn them. This is a horrendous environmental policy.

Yet on BLM land that does not have the admittedly limited protection of the National Forests, this is a very real possibility. Even more than the Forest Service, BLM employees and administrators tend to act as servants for industry. Because these lands are remote, not overly spectacular, and far off the West's tourist trail, there are few outsiders willing to fight for these lands. So there's a lot of powerful interests and money in favor of clearing the land and few organized to stop them.

On top of all of this, who supports this project but one Harry Reid. 

And in an American West already hurting for water and suffering from overpopulation when compared to the available water, this is really bad news. And it's the kind of small environmental disaster that doesn't get reported but has long-term implications that affect all of us.

Cracking Down on the Vaccination-Autism Lie

Good news on the vaccination front.

Slate has withdrawn Robert F. Kennedy's embarrassingly bad 2005 article spuriously connecting vaccinations with autism.

This in the face of the British Journal of Medicine calling Andrew Wakefield's 1998 report originally making the connection a "fraud." Which is of course true.

Most amusing, this has led Wired's Jonah Lehrer to write a classic takedown of Jenny McCarthy after she responded to the BMJ story by saying she was more convinced of the connection than ever:

That’s right: the demonstration of fraud has made McCarthy even more convinced that vaccines cause autism. (It’s hard to imagine, then, what kind of evidence might shake her conviction.) I bring this up not to pick on McCarthy, but because I think her paradoxical response reflects a deep seated facet of human nature, an irrational quirk that we are all vulnerable to. This is the theory of cognitive dissonance, first proposed by Leon Festinger, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota. (I’ve blogged about this before.) In the summer of 1954, Festinger was reading the morning newspaper when he encountered a short article about Marion Keech, a housewife in suburban Minneapolis who was convinced that the apocalypse was coming. (Keech was a pseudonym.) She had started getting messages from aliens a few years before, but now the messages were getting eerily specific. According to Sananda, an extra-terrestrial from the planet Clarion who was in regular contact with Keech, human civilization would be destroyed by a massive flood at midnight on December 20, 1954.

Keech’s sci-fi prophecy soon gained a small band of followers. They trusted her divinations, and marked the date of Armageddon on their calendars. Many of them quit their jobs and sold their homes. The cultists didn’t bother buying Christmas presents or making arrangements for New Years Eve, since nothing would exist by then.

Festinger immediately realized that Keech would make a great research subject. He decided to infiltrate the group by pretending to be a true believer. What Festinger wanted to study was the reaction of the cultists on the morning of December 21, when the world wasn’t destroyed and no spaceship appeared. Would Keech recant? What would happen when her prophesy failed?

On the night of December 20, Keech’s followers gathered in her home and waited for instructions from the aliens. Midnight approached. When the clock read 12:01 and there were still no aliens, the cultists began to worry. A few began to cry. The aliens had let them down. But then Keech received a new telegram from outer space, which she quickly transcribed on her notepad. “This little group sitting all night long had spread so much light,” the aliens told her, “that god saved the world from destruction. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.” In other words, it was their stubborn faith that had prevented the apocalypse. Although Keech’s predictions had been falsified, the group was now more convinced than ever that the aliens were real. They began proselytizing to others, sending out press releases and recruiting new believers. This is how they reacted to the dissonance of being wrong: by becoming even more certain that they were right.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Stereotyping Texas

John Cornyn is irritated that Jim DeMint is meddling in the upcoming Republican primary to replace Kay Bailey Hutchison.

By Friday, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina fired a shot across the hypothetical, non-existent Dewhurst campaign bow by sending an email to members of his influential Senate Conservatives Fund. In his email, DeMint ripped Dewhurst and praised two lesser known Texas Republicans: Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and (perhaps more interestingly) former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz.

DeMint’s comments irritated at least one important Texas political figure, and not for the first time either.  When asked about the DeMint email, Senator and Texas political giant John Cornyn sardonically quipped “is that guy from Texas?” What sounds like a harmless joke to the untrained ear was aimed for an audience of Texans that understand full well what Cornyn is saying: “Jim DeMint isn’t one of us.”

Fair enough. But then the reporting by Jeb Golinkin at Frum Forum gets really irritating:

Texas really is different.  The Lone Star State fancies itself as (and in many ways is) far more like a country than a state.  Indeed, to find a society that is collectively as fascinated with its own culture or as prepared to guard against attacks on it, one must look past the rest of the United States.  Indeed, Texas’ only obvious peer in this regard is (ironically) France.  And as is the case with France, the stereotypes about Texas are there for a reason.

Any candidate that seems too close to national figures like Palin, DeMint, or Bachmann opens themselves up to suspicion that they are allowing outsiders to meddle in places they are not welcome, namely, Texas.  DeMint’s email demonstrates just how unprepared his organization is for Texas politics.  The “establishment” that DeMint denounces and anticipates will line up behind the current Texas Lt. Governor is really the Texas establishment. Texan voters are apt to look upon a candidate they associate with the state political establishment far more kindly than they will look upon a candidate they associate with a group of outsiders lacking ties to the state.

For this reason, talented candidates like Ted Cruz ought to be careful not to seem too cozy with “outsiders”. Or else, Dewhurst may flip the tables and accuse them of pushing a national agenda upon the voters’ beloved Lone Star State.

Can we lay off the cheap Texas stereotyping for a second here? Yes, Texas is a different state. Yes, Texans love to talk about themselves. For all I know, Golinkin may be a Texan himself--Texans stereotype about themselves as much as non-Texans.

But none of this has to do with the matter at hand--whether Jim DeMint can insert himself into the Texas primary. And I see no reason that he can't. Is there any empirical evidence that Texans get cranky enough at outsides to change their votes in a primary? Especially when that interference is going to go to the most conservative candidate? I can't see any Texans saying, "I like Candidate A. He hates immigrants, abortion, and the queers. But that gosh durned foreigner DeMint is telling me to vote for him. So I'm going to vote for Candidate B, even though they only want to build a 100 foot wall along the Rio Grande and not actually expel all Mexicans from Texas."

It's not going to happen that way. And to say that it will, that John Cornyn's irritation at DeMint is going to matter a hill of beans in what is to be sure an extremely scary primary race, is just lazy reporting that substitutes stereotypes for analysis.

Baby Doc Might Sound Pretty Good About Now

P.B. at The Economist site considers why Baby Doc Duvalier might have come back. It's all guesswork right now. But I think this point is very important:

Three-fifths of Haiti’s population is under 30; most of the country has no direct memory of the dictatorship. And some older Haitians express nostalgia for a time they remember as more stable, orderly, and prosperous. Lane pase toujou pi bon, says the Haitian proverb: Last year was always better.

Given the natural tendency of people to become nostalgic, even for the worst leaders (think of Stalin nostalgia among old Russians) and that young people in Haiti have known no functional government, one can see how Duvalier might gain support.

Also, 60% of Haiti's population is under 30? Yikes!

Song of the Day: Buck Owens, "A-11"

Historical Image of the Day


"Coontown Sketches

"Parson Featherly: De Lawd hab took yo’ husban’ an’ lef’ yo’ wid six chilluns; but ‘membah, Sistah, dat dar’s some good in all de Lawd does.

"“I does, Parson. I realizes dat dar’s one less for me to perwide foh.”"

Life Magazine, 1899

This image is intended to demonstrate the laziness of black men and how they force women to provide for the family. This is a consistent trope in American racial history. Non-whites were constantly shown as lazy. Whites justified stealing Native American land by claiming they were lazy and did not use it to the fullest extent. Worse for hundreds of different writers, the men laid around while women did the day-to-day labor. This simply outraged Protestants. Similar claims were (and often still are) made of Mexicans and African-Americans, as we see in this image.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Baby Doc Back to Haiti

Former dictator Baby Doc Duvalier has returned to Haiti after 25 years in exile. Nothing good can come of this.

Could We Resurrect the Wooly Mammoth? And Should We?

A Japanese scientist claims that he is as little as four years away from successfully cloning a wooly mammoth. Using technology that has cloned frozen mice, he believes he can bring back this extinct species.


This is all very interesting. Is this ethical? The wooly mammoth was probably hunted to extinction in the relatively recent past. So is this something we should do? More broadly, should we try to freeze carcasses of any number of endangered species to keep them alive if they go extinct?

This isn't just an obscure theoretical question anymore. Given the relative independence of scientists, it is entirely possible that such a thing could happen. Then it becomes a policy question. I think there would be an awful lot of sentiment not to kill them. So then what. What nations take custody of them? Are they released in a place they wouldn't necessarily instantly be hunted out, say northern Canada? What does this mean for cloning other extinct species? We already manage (whether we want to or not) all of the world's animals. Humans choose whether these species will live or die. So is it that much of a jump to start choosing to bring back extinct species like the mammoth?

It's all quite fascinating. I'm not sure how I feel about it.

John Kasich's Jim Crow Cabinet

Ohio Governor John Kasich has proven "meritocracy" to be exactly what conservative whites always want it to mean--his entire cabinet is made up of white people and almost all men.

Keep in mind, in the last half-century, Ohio has had 10 governors, most of whom have been Republicans. All of them had at least some racial diversity in their cabinet -- until Kasich, who's the first Ohio governor since 1962 to have so far picked an all-white cabinet.

It's always best to be cautious before throwing around casual accusations of racism. That said, Kasich's move is hard to understand, especially given the size and diversity of a state like Ohio.
For his part, Kasich insists he doesn't pay attention to "any of these sort of metrics." As far as the governor is concerned, he has jobs to fill, and he went out and looked for the best person for the job.
John Kasich--a northerner even Haley Barbour could love!

Song of the Day: The Shins, "Pink Bullets"

Historical Image of the Day

I am going to spend the next several days linking to these depictions of African-Americans in 19th century magazines from the New York Public Library collections and usefully linked to by the always excellent Sociological Images.

"A Privilege?" 1875

"Wife: I wish you were not allowed in here."

This image shows segregation as a good thing. Because blacks can't be served by whites, they can't go into taverns. Thus, blacks are saved from the scourge of alcohol. It's absurd on the face of it, but useful in showing how whites could justify segregation in any number of ways.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Jenny McCarthy Body Count

This is a fantastic site, chronicling Jenny McCarthy's idiocy in connecting vaccines to autism. The site lists the numbers of preventable illnesses (73,205) and deaths (624) of children from not getting vaccinations since the day McCarthy went public with her craziness. And of course, it also have a big 0 for the number of autism diagnoses connected to vaccinations.

And in case anyone forgot McCarthy's brilliance, here a quote from her:

I do believe sadly it's going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it's their f___ing fault that the diseases are coming back. They're making a product that's s___. If you give us a safe vaccine, we'll use it. It shouldn't be polio versus autism.

Scientific brilliance!

Chernobyl, 25 Years Later

These images from Chernobyl today are fascinating. It's amazing how rapidly nature can reclaim lost human civilizations. It's also remarkable to see how plants and animals deal with enormous doses of radiation. Seems to affect animals more.


Turns out there is going to be a 300-style David and Goliath movie coming out. That out to be fantastic--combining the absurd masculinity of 300 with Christian ideology. Fantfreakingtastic!

The Tea Party--No, Not Racist At All!!!

The Tennessee Tea Party has a few minor demands for new history standards in the state:

The material calls for lawmakers to amend state laws governing school curriculums, and for textbook selection criteria to say that “No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”
Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.
The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” said Rounds

Ah yes--the made up history about Native Americans. I mean, what possible evidence is there that whites committed depredations toward Native Americans? And slaves, I mean, don't we know that they were all so contented, eating watermelons and playing banjos and such. Clearly, they were asking to be raped by their masters!

And the piece about making sure that things that actually happened to minorities, or whatever they believe actually happened (which could be quite different from reality), not get in the way of talking about how awesome George Washington is, well, that's just fantastic. It's not like the two are mutually exclusive.  But in the zero-sum game minds of the Tea Party members any discussion of brown people means that we are destroying liberty or something.

So, no, the Tea Party is not racist at all.....

Historical Image of the Day

John Muir hiking in what is today Muir Woods National Monument, California, 1909

Song of the Day: Sadettin Kaynak, "Aksam Oldu Yine Basti Kareler"

Thursday, January 13, 2011


While it might seem cold in much of the nation this winter, and quite frankly it is, that wasn't the case for the world last year. 2010 matched 2005 as the hottest year on record (quite likely as the hottest year in human history given recent climate change).

Derek Arndt, who heads the climate monitoring branch at NOAA's National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., said the new data should be viewed in the context of the record retreat of snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere at the end of the melt season and a near-record retreat of Arctic sea ice.
"Together across the board, it was an unusual year, and a year that in many ways was a culmination of what we've been seeing for the past several years," Arndt said. 

But of course, climate change isn't just about global warming. It's also about global wettening. Think of common images of the dinosaurs and their habitate in warm, wet climates for a look at the future.

Last year was also the wettest on record in terms of global average precipitation, according to the Global Historical Climatology Network, which collects data from meterological organizations around the world.

But the rate of precipitation, like the temperature, varied widely depending on the region: The 2010 Pacific hurricane season had only seven named storms and three hurricanes, the fewest since researchers started using satellite tracking in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, an unusual jet stream brought a two-month heat wave to Russia last summer and helped spur severe flooding in Pakistan at the end of July.

But it's not like we are going to do anything about it:

"Hopefully, this new data will finally convince congressional climate-science deniers that global warming is real and that action is urgent," said Daniel J. Weiss, who directs climate strategy for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "To reject this latest evidence is like ignoring strange spots on a chest X-ray and continuing to smoke." 

The cancer analogy is entirely appropriate. But we are as addicted to fossil fuels as any smoker is to nicotine.  Good luck breaking that habit.