Monday, February 28, 2011

Republicans Attack Medical Marijuana in New Mexico

I think Republicans love attacking medical marijuana because it combines their war against science, their joy at denying people health care, their glee at jailing people of color, and their disdain for the young.

Finally, I Feel That Someone Out There Understands How Hard It Is To Be a White Male

I'll tell you what, it sure is hard being a white male these days. We only control like 95% of Fortune 500 companies. And only 43 of our 44 presidents have been white dudes. Not to mention that we totally don't have any access to good education. Until now that is:

The application for a $500 scholarship from the Former Majority Association for Equality looks pretty much like all the others out there. Well, except for this eligibility requirement: “Male – No less than 25% Caucasian.”
Yes, the Texas-based nonprofit organization has launched a scholarship for white men. Members of the group, which goes by FMAFE, say they aren’t racist and “have no hidden agenda to promote racial bigotry or segregation,” according to their Web site. Instead, they say their goal is to provide financial aid to white men who might not qualify for other scholarships.
“FMAE’s existence is dedicated around one simple principle, to provide monetary aid for education to white males who need it,” the group’s mission statement reads.

And thank God it's in Texas--if there's any white men who don't have a voice in American society, it's white Texans!

History Does Not Repeat Itself

I am very thankful for Schaun Wheeler's piece on the pointlessness of historical comparisons:

All historical comparisons, when they are used to try to explain something, make two implicit assumptions:
1. There exists a very limited number of conditions that determine the outcomes the comparison is supposed to explain.
2. We know what the grand majority of those conditions look like for both the historical scenario that is supposed to explain, and for the current scenario that is supposed to be explained.
I have never seen a situation where these two assumptions are valid in attempts to explain events of the scale we saw in Cairo. That doesn’t mean these assumptions may not be valid in some situations. It just means our belief in those assumptions ought to be explicitly justified before we make them. To assume that years of oppressive rule an great numbers of protestors are the only relevant conditions is obviously wrong. But to what additional considerations do we turn our attention to adequately explain the events? Status and loyalty of the military? Foreign involvement? Local economic conditions? Communication’s technologies? There are all plausible influences upon the outcome.
That’s the problem.
The list of plausibilities doesn’t really end. I think we feel pretty safe assuming that “oppressive regime” belongs in the “relevant” category and that “last year’s TV ratings for the Grammy awards” doesn’t belong in that category. But everything between those two extremes is one big gray area.
If we can’t define beforehand what the majority of relevant conditions are, then there is no way to pick an apt historical comparison. I’ve seen no reason to believe that anyone following or analyzing world events has the slightest clue as to what the majority of relevant conditions are. Historical comparisons are by their very nature worthless, at least so long as we know so little about what causes large-scale behavioral changes.

God, yes. These historical comparisons between Egypt and the other revolutions is the Middle East are facile at best, offensive at worst. Not only do they analyze everything through the perspective of how it affects the United States, but they are useless pundit bloviating.  Each historical incident is unique to itself. Everything is multicausal and subject to complex analysis. Comparing Egypt in 2011 to Iran in 1979 or France in 1789 or Berlin in 1989 is ridiculous; comparing the Middle East in 2011 to Europe in 1848 is beyond pointless.

If this entire project lacks value, then why study history? My students love to repeat the cliche that "if we don't learn from history, we are bound to repeat it." That's because they hear the same thing from people who theoretically should know better. But people struggle to deal with history if it doesn't provide an object lesson or direct line from the past to the present. Of course, we can learn from history. To me, that's the point of studying it. But to simple-mindedly place one event in the context of another lacks any value at all.


Alex Hannaford's disturbing Atlantic article on colonias along the border is essential reading--there are thousands of Latino migrants living in substandard developing world conditions within the borders of the United States. This is especially true in south Texas, a part of the nation seemingly forgotten about by most Americans. When we talk about Texas, how often are we talking about the border region? Yet this is a densely populated area that is growing quickly and is the key to future Democratic gains in Texas.

These are people who often lack running water, basic sanitation, and sturdy housing, not to mention decent schools and health care. This is unacceptable in the United States. Yet states like Texas and Arizona, dominated by governments who couldn't care less about the conditions of immigrant labor, do very little to fix these problems.

Even a Win is a Loss

Michael Cooper and Steven Greenhouse make an excellent point in their coverage of the union protests in Wisconsin and Ohio--that the radical language of the Tea Party has forced unions to give up on every economic demand in order to defend collective bargaining. Even if the unions win the struggle to keep that fundamental right, they have still lost big time in their members' pocketbooks.

At the best, the Koch Brothers and friends will have continued the slow and steady decline of unions into irrelevance. That is, unless the unions build upon this to retake America, convince people of the necessity of collective bargaining, a more fair system of taxation, and the rejection of extremist rhetoric. And that might happen--the longer these protests continue, the more people will use them as springboards for the long-term organizing infrastructure that the movement so desperately needs.

The other thing I hope the unions are ready to do is to take their protests to the next level if Walker and Kasich get their union-busting legislation passed: strike. If teachers aren't valued, they ought to walk on en masse. Let Walker fire them all. Where are they going to get new ones? If the public sectors unions strike, it will cripple the state. Whether the public support exists to support the strike is an open question, but there's no way these workers are replaceable and besides, if you are going to go down, it's better to go down swinging than slowly wither away.

But even if all this happens, it's almost impossible to see workers coming out of Wisconsin and Ohio with their paychecks intact. And that's still a victory for the conservatives.

Historical Image of the Day

This week's image theme will be a bit on the odd side I guess--images representing bands of the mid 20th century I would most be excited about going back in time to see. So as to not be too musically based, I'll drop the songs of the day for this week.

Poster for a Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys show, Plaquato Ballroom, Chehalis, Washington. Don't know the date, probably the 1940s.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why James Buchanan is Our Worst President

Forgive my disappearance for the last several days--I had a close friend in town and am trying to now catch up on work. But I did want to reference Jean Baker's great Disunion piece on James Buchanan, succinctly demonstrating why he was the worst president in American history:

The question remains why such an experienced and intelligent president failed so miserably. Americans lavish attention on their successful presidents; yet there is much to be learned from our presidential failures. Buchanan did not suffer from feebleness or age or the insufficient powers of 19th century executives. Rather, he failed because he used that power with such partiality as an activist, ideologically driven executive. He had chosen sides in the great crisis and did not listen.

Negligent about slavery, but greatly attached to the values of white southerners, he went beyond political custom by castigating Republicans as disloyal. Yet his vision for the future of the United States was at odds with most Americans, whose definition of freedom did not include a slave republic dominated by a minority of slave owners. In one of the essential ingredients of successful leadership, Buchanan had failed to interpret his nation. Tragically, his administration served to encourage the future enemies of the republic as he gave the Confederate States of America precious time and support to organize for war.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Historical Image of the Day

Striking coal miners, Pittston Coal Strike, Virginia, 1989

Pittston was one of labor's biggest successes of the late 20th century,

Song of the Day: Stevie Wonder, "Superstition"

Monday, February 21, 2011

Oregon Cracking Down on Faithhealing Parents Who Murder Children

It's long past time the state cracked down on these faithhealing parents. Allowing your children to die from easily treatable illnesses is murder, regardless of religious beliefs. Oregon is a tolerant state and that's generally a good thing, but protecting children from their parents is part of a state's duty.

A Joke of a Compromise

If Wisconsin Republicans think a compromise to the labor strife is only taking away collective bargaining until 2013, they are on drugs. First, if collective bargaining can return in 2013, why not keep it now? Second, this is a transparent maneuver to end the protests and wait until 2013 for collective bargaining to be permanently rejected. Once these rights are given up at all, they are very difficult to recover. Of course, there's no way that the unions will accept this. It is a sign however of potential cracks in Scott Walker's Republican followers. It also should be a sign that the unions should start asking for more than just not losing collective bargaining rights, but there's no indication of that happening.

The Right Really Thinks SEIU Organizers Are Equivalent to Haymarket Bomb Throwers

I am consistently amazed by the conservative response to Wisconsin--let's send in people dressed in SEIU gear to act as provocateurs!!!! 

Amazing--I've known a lot of SEIU organizers in my time. Taken as a whole, they are regular people who are hard-working, like to drink, and have reasonable liberal positions on social and economic justice.

But conservatives actually believe these people are so outlandish that they can send in provocateurs to provoke protesters to embarrassing statements and even violence--even though this is so outlandish for a SEIU organizer that it will blindingly obvious to everyone in the crowd that these idiots are really Teabaggers.

Closing the Door on the Triangle Dead

It's hard to believe that it took 100 years to identify each of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which killed 146 people in a New York City sweatshop. I am very glad this has happened. Triangle's centennial has already received a lot of attention and that's likely to increase as we get closer to its anniversary date of March 25.

Given that the Republican Party is determined to repeal every reform that came out of Triangle and the many other tragedies of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, learning lessons from Triangle grows in importance by the day.

Claire's Knee

Jonathan Pacheco has an excellent discussion of Eric Rohmer's masterpiece, Claire's Knee.

He Saves the Children, But Not the British Children

I've posted this before, but what could be more appropriate for Presidents' Day?

Historical Image of the Day

This week's images will cover American labor since World War II, in honor of the protests in Wisconsin.

Striking air traffic controllers, Chicago, 1981

Song of the Day: Gram Parsons, "She"

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wisconsin and the American Labor Movement's Future

I haven't written a whole lot on the protests in Wisconsin because there are so many people on the ground doing great work. I most especially recommend Mike Elk's work at ThinkProgress (here's his latest). His Twitter feed is also first rate and has kept me informed on the latest updates, not to mention news on the American labor movement more broadly.

I've been thinking about where the Wisconsin protests fit into American labor history. I have a few points I want to make on this topic, but in general, I think it is one of the most important moments for American labor since World War II, I am confident of beating back Gov. Walker's bill to end collective bargaining for state workers, and I am not particularly optimistic about the long-term effects of the movement.

Now to talk about each of these three points.

1. Where does the Wisconsin movement fit into recent American labor history? I've come up with a list of what I think are the most important moments in American labor history since 1945. In chronological order:

1. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, cracking down on union activism.
2. The merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955, bringing American labor under one umbrella
3. The implementation of the Border Industrialization Program, 1965, which encouraged U.S. companies to build factories on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. 
4. The Delano grape strike and the success of the United Farm Workers in publicizing the plight of Mexican-American farmworkers, mid 1960s-mid 1970s
5. The murder of Joseph Yablonski on the orders of United  Mine Workers president Tony Boyle in 1970 after Yablonski ran for UMWA president on a reform ticket.
6. The firing of the air traffic controllers by Ronald Reagan after they went on strike, 1981
7. The creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, 1994
8. The attempt by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to end collective bargaining rights for public employees, 2011

One might quibble with this list I suppose--maybe including another strike or two, maybe taking out the Yablonski murder. But I think it's a pretty good list. And this means that we are seeing the most important event in American labor history in almost 20 years and one of the 8 most important in the last 65 years.

Of the 7 previous events, only 1 has been a true win for workers (the UFW). Most were extremely negative. Even the AFL-CIO merger was at best neutral and I'd argue a net loss because it was the final nail in the coffin of the CIO being a progressive model of American unionism.

Not surprisingly, the trajectory of labor in America has been down, down, down.

Possibly, that changes now.

2. Walker may simply not care about getting reelected. Or even about getting recalled after he's served a year of his term. He hasn't shown the slightest sign of flinching. So far, Republicans have held strong in support of Walker's draconian bill. This is quite different from Ohio where enough Republican state legislators are fleeing from Gov. John Kasich's similar bill to make it quite unlikely it passes. Note: I will be at the big rally in Columbus on Tuesday and will be tweeting from there.

Eventually, even if these protests (today reaching up to 60,000 people!) don't faze Walker, they are going to faze his supporters who could be recalled or have to face very angry voters in less than 2 years.

So I don't think the bill as it stands will pass. The unions have already said they are willing to compromise on the financial portions of the bill and that what brought them to the streets were its union-busting measures. I think Wisconsin public sector unions still have collective bargaining going forward.

3. I am hopeful but not incredibly optimistic about the long-term implications of this movement. The stakes are huge. Everyone knows this. If Walker wins, we can expect public employees to lose their collective bargaining rights in nearly every state immediately, or as soon as Republicans take power in the state, whichever comes first. If the unions win, Republican efforts to destroy public sector unions take a blow.

But I worry that this blow to right-wing intentions will only be temporary. Walker is a blowhard and an idiot. I doubt the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is real happy with him right now, even though they want the unions gone. Rather than do what business and Republicans have done for the last 40 years--slowly repeal worker rights without getting workers so mad they will take to the streets in a mass movement--Walker has given up the game.

What will turn the American labor movement around is the unions building on Madison to retake America for working people. That takes organization, resources, and a lot of people power. We've had it in the past. We haven't had it for a long time.

That the unions are so willing to compromise on the financial side of Walker's bill worries me--rather than argue for higher taxes on corporations and the rich, they are willing to see their rights be slowly eroded. That's the win as it stands now. To still get screwed on pensions and health care. That's hardly a win. That's a loss versus a catastrophic humiliating defeat.

One lesson from Egypt or any other protest movement is that once you've built momentum and people power, you have a whole lot more leverage to change the rules of the game. At this point, I think the unions need to be demanding more than just survival. It's time to start talking about who needs to pay for budget deficits and who is at fault for creating them.

Moreover, if the win here is sheer survival, Walker is going to be back next year with the budget and Republicans in Wisconsin and around the nation will continue their slow repeal of worker rights. So that's not a long-term win at all now.

This very moment is the time to start reversing the national rhetoric about budgets, taxes, and working people. Now is when things have to change. This is the movement! We may never see this opportunity again. Progressives need to build off this union struggle for change around the nation. If it doesn't happen now, when does it happen? When are progressives going to have more people mobilized than we do right now? When are people going to more conscious of how capital and the Republican Party want to destroy them than at this very moment? It could be a very, very long time before we have this another opportunity like this to retake America.

Unfortunately, I am skeptical whether union leaders, union members, non-unionized workers, students, and other progressives organizations are ready and willing to capitalize on the Wisconsin movement to create larger-scale social and economic change.

I plead with you to prove me wrong.

Historical Image of the Day

Police officer and striking woolen workers, Passaic Woolen Strike, Passaic, New Jersey, 1926

Song of the Day: Loudon Wainwright III, "Swimming Song"

Friday, February 18, 2011

Pro-Life My Behind

The Republican Party--pro-life until the precise moment someone is born. Then they don't give a shit what happens to you.

Trader Joe's Crushing Farmworkers Rights

A great read from Grist on how Trader Joe's keeps their prices down by crushing farmworkers rights. I'm sure it's pretty similar for their packaged foods, but I'd like to see some investigations of this:

Since 2007, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an internationally recognized workers' organization based in southwest Florida, and its allies have called on Trader Joe's to support the emerging solution to the human rights crisis in Florida's fields. Yet Trader Joe's still refuses to join the Fair Food program, and its tomato supply chain -- especially the provenance of its private-label produce -- remains shrouded in secrecy. It is increasingly clear that Trader Joe's, like other supermarket industry leaders, is attempting to shirk its responsibility to pay into the system, short workers of its portion of the pay increase, and refuse to tie its purchases to the Fair Food principles. Florida's tomato industry is responsible for nearly all fresh tomatoes grown in the U.S. between November and June.

There's long been a disconnect between the theoretically liberal consumers at gourmet food stores and the treatment of the people creating that food. It'd be nice to see consumers put pressure on Trader Joe's about this. We'll see.

Why the Honduran Oligarchs Overthrew Manuel Zelaya

We haven't talked much about Honduras here lately. I covered it pretty heavily during the coup and its aftermath, even getting picked up by the Times, as some of you may remember.

Well, the coup didn't happen for nothing. Zelaya was allying himself with Hugo Chavez, looking to bring his nation out of its extreme poverty through programs for the poor. An oligarch himself, the country's power players saw Zelaya as a traitor to his class in a time of war. Because class warfare is what the Honduran oligarchs pursue against the poor. Not content to dominate them economically, they actively crush the slightest challenge to their rule through violence, torture, and murder.

This is what happened to campesino leader Juan Chinchilla on January 8. Except that he escaped before they could finish him off, as Jeremy Kryt at In These Times writes:

That night, Chinchilla was taken to a remote storage shed by hooded and armed men, some of whom wore the uniforms of Grupo Dinant, one of the largest agro-businesses in the country. After a day of being tortured and questioned about campesino (peasant) groups and their leaders, a disfigured and traumatized Chinchilla escaped while being moved to another site by throwing himself down a hillside in the dark. “The oligarchs hope to terrorize [the campesinos] and drive them from the land,” says Chinchilla, who remains in hiding and spoke to In These Times by cell phone from an undisclosed location in Honduras. “But we will fight for our land [and] our rights, without arms, and in peace.”

An isolated incident? Hardly:

After the coup, fearing their newly-designated lands would be forfeited to the corporate interests that had backed the takeover of the government, tens of thousands of campesinos rose up to peacefully occupy the acres Zelaya and the Honduran Congress had legally granted them in April 2008.

The results have been grim. During the last year, 35 peasants from the Aguán region have been killed by paramilitaries and private security contractors working for corporations like Grupo Dinant, say peasant groups. Meanwhile, living conditions among campesinos continue to deteriorate.

“Our families are starving,” says Blanca Espinoza, who had come to the capital of Tegucigalpa on January 20 as part of a MUCA delegation intended to draw international attention to the plight of the peasants. “We need land and seeds to cultivate,” Espinoza says. The average income for a family in Aguán, she says, is less than $37 per month.

The campesinos’ grassroots demonstrations—in which thousands of peasants moved onto the disputed land and began planting crops and building huts—has led directly to friction with Grupo Dinant, which controls 42,000 acres in the Aguán Valley and is owned by Miguel Facussé, one of the richest men in Honduras. Last year, the World Bank gave Facussé a loan of $30 million to grow African palms in Aguán. But the land Dinant planned to use for the new plantations was occupied by the peasants.

As I stressed repeatedly during the coup, the Honduran oligarchs openly wish for the Cold War, when they could count on direct American aid (and sometimes American troops) to crush social movements while tainting them with communism.  Today, it's unlikely the Obama Administration or CIA is all that supportive of these actions, although they clearly aren't doing anything to stop them either. Honduran leaders have no intention of allowing the democratization of South America to touch their country. That's why they acted to overthrow Zelaya and that's why they are using paramilitary groups and extreme violence to crush the campesino movement today.

You Can Bet That Conservatives Will Go After the Recall Next

The Republican attempt to return America to the Gilded Age could have consequences due to one of the measures created by Progressives to ensure that we wouldn't be ruled by complete idiots--the recall. In Wisconsin, home state of Robert LaFollette and many other icons of the Progressive Era, voters can recall an elected official after they have served a year in office. While that means that voters cannot current recall Gov. Walker, they can initiate recall proceedings against 8 of Walker's Republican supporters. And while the recall has served Republican interests in the past (eliminating Gray Davis for instance), there is no place for it in their return to oligarchic rule. I strongly believe that if Walker gets his union-busting bill through, he may well go after the recall next.

Republicans Push to Overturn Voting Rights

Not that the title of this post is any surprise. But Republicans have become increasingly brazen in their attempts to disfranchise groups that don't vote for them--people of color and the young. They aren't even really trying to hide this anymore. Take the New Hampshire Republican Party, who are pushing a measure that would ban young people from voting in their college towns unless they have lived there in the past or can somehow prove that they intend on staying in town after they graduate (how this would actually work is a whole other question). The New Hampshire Speaker of the House:

He said students in college towns register to vote on Election Day "and are basically doing what I did when I was a kid and foolish, voting as a liberal.
"That's what kids do," he said. "They don't have life experience and they just vote their feelings. And they've taken away the town's ability to govern themselves. It's not fair."

It's true--it's just not fair that a town would have Democratic voters!

Next they will probably seek to overturn the 19th Amendment. After all, Republicans frequently suffer from a gender gap.

Reggie Miller and the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame

If you can figure out why Reggie Miller is not a finalist for the Professional Basketball Hall of Fame and Ralph Sampson, Maurice Cheeks, and Dennis Rodman are finalists, please let me know.

Because this makes absolutely no sense.

Historical Image of the Day

Parade opening the United Negro Improvement Association convention, New York, 1922. The UNIA was Marcus Garvey's organization proclaiming a "Back to Africa" message.

Song of the Day: Robert Loison, "Jean Fouillé, Pie Fouille"

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Historical Image of the Day

Mass meeting of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, arguably the most important civil rights organization of the interwar years, Chicago, 1933

Song of the Day: Terakaft, "Tenere Wer Tat Zinchegh"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Haley Barbour Refuses to Denounce KKK License Plates

Mississippi, populated by a whole lot of people wistfully longing for the days of slavery or at least segregation, have decided to honor KKK founder and commanding officer in the Fort Pillow Massacre Nathan Bedford Forrest with license plates. This despite the fact that Forrest isn't even from Mississippi.

Haley Barbour won't denounce this. Why? He refuses to denounce people! That's nice and peacey lovey of Barbour if it wasn't a blatant lie. As one article notes, "Haley Barbour Only Denounces Obama."

8-Track Museum

So some guy is starting an 8-track museum. Seems inevitable for the worst listening technology ever invented, even if it was pioneering in allowing you to listen to albums in your car.

This reminds me of one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen. It's around 1990. I'd be around 16 then. I'm at my grandparents house. My uncle is there too. He's a bit of a weird dude. Man still has an 8-track player in his truck. Moreover, he's taking my grandfather''s vinyl albums and recording them on to blank 8-tracks through some sort of 8-track playing machine he still had. Where in the hell he found blank 8-tracks in 1990, I have no idea.

Defending MSG (And Thoughts About Health Scares More Broadly)

Mark Bittman's Twitter feed points us to this fantastic 2005 Guardian article by Alex Renton defending MSG. It makes an awful lot of sense. As it asks in the title, "If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?" Damn good question. It's because there's nothing bad about MSG. It's a health hoax. It's not as damaging as the vaccine-autism myth. But it comes from the same genesis.

Essentially, most of us are morons about both our bodies and science. That includes me more or less, as I look down at the wrapper from those Reese's peanut butter cups I ate today. We make poor choices about what we put into our body all the time. More understandably, we don't understand the inner workings of our bodies or scientific processes well. They are hard to figure out. I don't blame people for this.

More disturbingly is when people think they can understand their bodies through reading stuff on the internet or in newspapers. It's when sensationalist articles get publicized purporting the latest breakthrough on colds (Note: Buy zinc futures now!!!!!) or whatever else that our attention is caught and we start freaking out. On top of this is the consumerist mentality that we can choose from a variety of information and doctors for our bodies. That we don't trust experts in America makes this all the worse--why listen to the doctor when Jenny McCarthy tells us otherwise!

So it's amuses me to hear people talk about how horrible MSG is. It's a pseudo-scientific cult, nothing more or nothing less. As the Renton notes:

My friend Nic came round. He told me about a Japanese restaurant he'd been to that gave him headaches and a 'weird tingling in the cheeks' - until he told them to stop with the MSG. Then he was fine, he said. I nodded and I served him two tomato and chive salads; both were made using the very same ingredients but I told him one plate of tomatoes was 'organic', the other 'factory-farmed'. The organic tomatoes were far better, we agreed. These, of course, were the tomatoes doused with mono sodium glutamate.

Then we ate mascarpone, parma ham and tomato pizza. Nic felt fine. So did I. I had ingested, I reckoned, a good six grams of MSG over the day, and probably the same again in free glutamate from the food - the equivalent of eating two 250g jars of Marmite.

Having eaten more than my share of Asian food, I've never felt a headache. And if it wasn't for the psychosomatic symptoms that people think they should get after eating Chinese food, no one else would either.

Historical Image of the Day

November 1921 masthead of The Birth Control Review, edited by Margaret Sanger and the journal of the American Birth Control League.

Song of the Day: Nathan Abshire, "Pine Grove Blues"

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

And One More

Literally minutes after writing that post on Republicans wanting to bring back the Gilded Age, here's a story about a Missouri state legislator introducing a bill to eliminate child labor legislation.

This act modifies the child labor laws. It eliminates the prohibition on employment of children under age fourteen. Restrictions on the number of hours and restrictions on when a child may work during the day are also removed. It also repeals the requirement that a child ages fourteen or fifteen obtain a work certificate or work permit in order to be employed. Children under sixteen will also be allowed to work in any capacity in a motel, resort or hotel where sleeping accommodations are furnished. It also removes the authority of the director of the Division of Labor Standards to inspect employers who employ children and to require them to keep certain records for children they employ. It also repeals the presumption that the presence of a child in a workplace is evidence of employment.

The article notes that this is symbolic because of federal legislation. But don't let that make you feel better--Congressional Republicans will soon be introducing similar legislation.


Bringing Back the Gilded Age

By now, most of you have heard of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's threat to replace state workers with the National Guard if he can't unilaterally destroy worker benefits and create a right-to-work state.

I want to emphasize Walker's specific intent in bringing up the National Guard. Conservatives have done their homework. In their desire to recapture the plutocracy of the Gilded Age, they  know how their ancestors crushed labor--through government sanctioned force. The Great Strike of 1877, the Homestead Strike of 1892, the Pullman Strike of 1894--these were all solved with state or federal violence. As Lila Shapiro wrote today, the last time a governor called out the National Guard to end a labor dispute in Wisconsin was in 1886 when soldiers fired into a crowd of unarmed picketers in Milwaukee fighting for an 8 hour day.* I don't know anything specific about this episode, but it was clearly related to the Knights of Labor-led struggle for that cause that ended with the Haymarket bomb.

Here's the thing--Republicans want Haymarket back. They want Pullman. They want Homestead. They want excuses to use the military to fire into crowds of protesters. Now, I don't think Walker is going to be successful. Unions and their supporters have come out in droves to protest Walker's actions. On the other hand, his extremist rhetoric may still force significant setbacks to state workers. For Republicans, those setbacks are but a step on the road to return America to 1886.

*Yes, I understand the irony of linking to an article about unions on a purportedly progressive website that treats its writers like academic adjuncts. I hate Huff Post with 12 shades of passion. But the article was good. So I link to it with this explanation.

The Crittenden Compromise

I've been catching up on the Times superb Disunion series. If they continue this for the next 14 years, through the Compromise of 1877, it won't have ended too late. I was reading a piece today on the Crittenden Compromise, devised as a last ditch effort to save the Union from dissolution. I had forgotten how loathsome and unacceptable it was:

Crittenden’s plan consisted of a package of constitutional amendments and congressional resolutions, all of which would be “unamendable.” Among their provisions, these amendments would have protected slavery in all of the slave states from future actions by Congress; permitted slavery to spread in all federal territories and future territories below the line of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude (which runs roughly along the northern border of North Carolina, Tennesee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona); forbidden Congress from abolishing slavery on federal property within a slave state; prevented Congress from interfering with the interstate slave trade; and indemnified owners whose runaway slaves could not be recovered under the Fugitive Slave Law. 

Yikes. I can't state strongly enough how absolutely unacceptable this was. First, like the Missouri Compromise and Compromise of 1850, it wouldn't have satiated the South's desire to make the nation fully slave. Second, it would have institutionalized slavery to an extent making it much harder to get rid of. Third, it would have meant complete capitulation to right-wing forces.

Some thought Lincoln would accept it. He's been interpreted as a man willing to do anything to save the Union, but clearly he was not. It's an unfair analogy, but one wonders what a DLC-influenced Democrat would have done in the same situation. At the very least, it's nice to remember a president standing up to evil conservative forces and draw a line in the sand instead of constantly moving right and engaging in triangulation.

It's also shocking how close the Crittenden Compromise came to passing:

When Crittenden took his plan to the Senate floor on Jan. 16, 1861, it was voted down 25-23. Every one of the 25 no votes was cast by a Republican.

Had Lincoln not taken such a strong stand, it would have passed. Of course, the constitutional amendments would have to have gone to the states and I find it unlikely they would have achieved ratification. But I'm glad we didn't have to find out. 

You Too Can Be John Adams!

I don't know why I found this sadly expired ad for reenactors of the Founding Fathers funny, but I did:

Founding Father Performers, Historic Philadelphia, PA
Posted By HISTPRES On December 10, 2010 (7:06 am) In Other

Historic Philadelphia, Inc. seeks historical interpreters to portray Founding Fathers.

  • Thomas Jefferson: mid-late 20s/early 30s; at least 5’10”; Virginia accent; red hair preferred
  • John Adams: 40s/50s; no taller than 5’8”
  • Benjamin Franklin: 60s/70s
  • George Washington: 40s/50s; at least 6’; athletic build preferred
  • Alexander Hamilton: 20s/30s at least 5’8”
Part-time paid work, April through October, 2011; could be extended.
Rehearsals – $12/hour.
Performance – min. $50/show.
Housing/Transportation not included.
 Via Northwest History

Historical Image of the Day

Member of the New Negro Alliance protesting white-owned firms in black neighborhoods not hiring black employees, Washington DC, 1930s

Song of the Day: The Hacienda Brothers, "Leavin' On My Mind," 2007

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Birthday to Oregon!

My home state of Oregon turns 152 today, having been admitted into the Union on February 14, 1859. Notably, signing the bill may have been the single best thing James Buchanan accomplished in his 4 years in the Oval Office.

Will the Seattle Mariners Lose 100 Games Again This Year?

I'm reading a lot of articles that basically say that it's extremely unlikely. Not because the Mariners are one whit better than last year, but because they can't possibly be worse. Here's Rob Neyer:

Is there reason for hope? Absolutely. Left fielder Michael Saunders and first baseman Justin Smoak, both of whom have been terrible disappointments, are probably going to show some of the talent that made them top prospects. Newcomer Jack Cust and malcontent Milton Bradley should give the M’s decent production from the DH slot.

Elsewhere – and I really can’t stress this strongly enough – most of the Mariners’ hitters will hit better in 2011 than 2010 simply because 1) they’re very unlikely to hit exactly the same, and 2) it would be very difficult for them to hit worse.

Does all this mean the Mariners aren’t going to lose 101 games again? Yeah, it probably does.

I remain skeptical. While it's hard to imagine them actually hitting worse because it would be impossible, it's very easy to imagine the starting pitching and bullpen being worse while the hitting isn't that much better. They remain below average at every single offensive position except Ichiro in RF. Jack Cust is a fringe major leaguer, though one with significant power. The other relatively big pickup, Miguel Olivo, helps with a catcher situation that was abysmal last year, but that's a very limited gain. Justin Smoak could finally hit well at 1B. Actually I kind of expect he will have real improvement. And that would be huge. But I have no faith in Michael Saunders in LF.

In any case, I need a more convincing argument than, "It's hard to be them this bad two years in a row," to believe in the Mariners to lose less than 90-95 games anyway. If not 100.

The Essence of Ohio Food

I'm not sure if this supposedly legendary fried bologna sandwich from G&R Tavern in Waldo, Ohio intrigues me or scares the living hell out of me.

The Chinese-Colombian Challenge to the Panama Canal

Boz points us to the a "dry canal" Colombia is building between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans with Chinese funding to provide an alternative to the Panama Canal. Boz suggests the U.S. support this project and that it is not a real challenge to American hegemony in the region, to the extent it exists at this point. I tend to agree, but do think it's a strong sign that the century of American domination over the economies and political life of Latin America is mercifully over.

Of course, maybe this is bad for U.S. interests, I don't know.

Immigration Documentaries

C.N. at The Color Line has compiled a three part series on the best immigration documentaries. A fine resourced for those of us who teach American history, as well as many other fields.

Historical Image of the Day

This week's images will come from American social movements between World War I and World War II.

Protesting the execution of the Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti for a murder they did not commit, Massachusetts, 1927

Song of the Day: Doc Watson, "Deep River Blues," 1991

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tea Party History

So over at Pandagon, they are talking about the cover for this Tea Party magazine:

Pandagon notes the complete lack of humor in Tea Partiers. Fair enough. But I was struck by the bizarre article listed on the cover: "Paine, de Tocqueville, and Booker T. Washington." If we are playing the game of what these three men had in common, I'd go so far as to say they all spent time in the United States of America. Beyond that, I have no freaking idea.

I am completely fascinated by Tea Party versions of history. This should make an excellent book for a future historian. Jill Lepore had a piece in the NewYorker about this awhile back, focusing on their obsession with the Founding Fathers. But there's so much more. I literally cannot think of a single way you connect Booker T. Washington with the other two; moreover, I'm really scared as to what purpose they have with Washington. To call W.E.B. DuBois an Islamofascist, terrorist, and traitor? To support the Atlanta Compromise? Who the hell knows.

La Jetee

I'm not even going to begin claiming I'm the film reviewer that Daryl is. I love film as much as he does, but I don't write about it well.

That said, I cannot say strongly enough how completely blown away I was by Chris Marker's La Jetee. This 1962 short film (28 minutes) is probably the best science fiction film I've ever seen. Admittedly, this is not my favorite genre, but I can be awed by films that shy away from monsters and stupid special effects and think hard about presenting intelligent versions of a dystopian future. Marker's film, about a single individual in post-apocalyptic Paris, follows the story of a man used for time traveling experiments that discovers the woman he was in love with in the past. Shot entirely in still photography with narration with the exception of a single powerful scene, it's hard to imagine a film with greater emotional power.

La Jetee is available for streaming on Netflix, which is how I saw it. 

Moreover, La Jetee is a reminder of how much we filmgoers miss out on in a world without short films. Not every film needs to be 90 minutes, not to mention 135. Sometimes a story needs 30 minutes and no more. And that's great. The Oscar nominated shorts are the only shorts that receive any distribution, but like other Oscar nominees, there's little reason to believe that they are really the best in the genre.


This is the worst time of the year for me. Football season is over. Baseball season is far off. And Spring Training doesn't cut it for filling the gap. Evidence of my desperation is becoming more obvious every year.

One example--I was following the story of Ross Ohlendorf's arbitration hearing very closely. Ohlendorf, a pitcher for the Pirates, won 1 game last year.


Song on the Day: John Zorn, "Gevurah"

Historical Image of the Day

Ansel Adams photo of Hoover Dam, 1941

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Film Review--All Night Long (1962)

In the context of the rest of the collection, I was surprised by the final installment in Basil Dearden's London Underground, 1962's All Night Long. After the polemics of Sapphire and Victim and the political tomfoolery of The League of Gentlemen, I didn't expect a jazzy confection to round us out. It's not a great film, but it's a little more substantial than I initially gave it credit for. As an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello, this is Basil Dearden's philosophy in practice and, because it stays fairly close to the original material, it has a stronger structure than the other films in the set.

I won't recap Othello for you, but here's how it works in the confines of Richard Attenborough's jazz club. Bandleader Aurelious Rex (Paul Harris) has recently married Delia Lane (Marti Stevens) and everybody's thrilled. Everybody, that is, except Johnny Cousins (Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner). He wants to start his own band and even has a gig, but it won't go on unless he can recruit Delia to sing. Unfortunately, Delia retired after the wedding and won't return while she's married, so Johnny hatches a plan to convince Rex that Delia is having an affair with best friend and trumpeter Cass Michaels (Keith Mitchell). But, you know, best laid plans and all of that.

Without Shakespeare's plot, All Night Long likely wouldn't be anything that great. McGoohan and Attenborough do pretty well, but the rest of the performances are not up to the level of what we've previously seen in the collection. Because there's already baggage from thousands of performances of the main characters, it doesn't come off as completely hollow, but the lack of any real standout performace and some questionable casting choices give the film an unfortunate amateur feel. The real culprit, though, is the stunt casting of the house band. Johnny Dankworth and Tubby Hayes may never have held the biggest sway in the jazz world, but putting Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck in the band is agregious. They may have been exceptional instrumentalists and one may have trained his cat to use the toilet, but actors they are not. While closeups of their hands are cool, their main function is to say things like "That's some hot playin', Charlie!" and "Thanks Dave" in tight cutaways. It reminds me of something that might have hapened in Gold Diggers of 1932. That is not a compliment. That said, the three or four minutes of music we get to hear are pretty good, so it's not a total loss, I guess.

There isn't a lot of outward connection between this film and the others here, but there are similarities in tone and attitude. Most importantly, the world of All Night Long is integrated, and the non-chalance of it is interesting. Obviously, the Moorish lead character in the play makes that interracial couple natural (though Paul Harris is black, whites in makeup would play the part for years after this came out), Dearden inserts other mixed-race relationships into the scene. Importantly, he never mentions it. This is not a political film; it's Othello, but that the director sees fit to quietly place them in the film is proof in practice of the heavy-handed ideals he presents in the earlier films.

Taken on its own, All Night Long would probably fare better, but within the confines of this collection, it feels somewhat trifling. It isn't just the lack of an overt political message, although that's part of it; outside of the Othello trappings, there's simply nothing going on. At least in a movie like Tim Blake Nelson's O, which I like but is of mixed quality, had some stylistic flourish. Even if it's a little pretentious, at least he's trying. Here, it seems that Dearden was content to film the play with little style outside the musical interludes. The film isn't boring and, because of the source, plays out well, but it doesn't come anywhere near the other films here and isn't the kind of sendoff I would have hoped for for such an eye-opening collection.

Historical Image of the Day

Fountains at the Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, opened 1998.

Clearly the most efficient use of water in the American West.

Song of the Day: Wild Nothing, "Chinatown"

Friday, February 11, 2011

Historical Image of the Day

Cartoon from San Francisco Call, questioning John Muir's masculinity for fighting the Hetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite National Park, built to bring water to San Francisco. No precise date on the cartoon, quite likely in the early 1910s

Song of the Day: Negativland, "Guns"

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Film Review--Victim (1961)

Our next film in Basil Dearden’s London Underground is Victim, starring the great Dirk Bogarde, one of my favorite character actors. Dearden returns here to what succeeded with Sapphire: a screed against a strongly felt social problem. This time, he tackles bigotry against the gay community, specifically the laws on the books that made homosexuality illegal. Like Sapphire, Victim handles the issue by wrapping it in a mystery, but much more loosely here in favor of a more direct approach.

Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a London barrister with a loving family and a successful practice. He’s also in the closet, forced to deny his true self for fear of arrest and losing everything he holds dear. That changes, though, when members of the gay community from across the city begin receiving blackmail letters along with evidence of their “crimes.” When it hits close to home, Farr realizes that he must risk everything by using his clout to discover who’s responsible. The trouble is that most of the victims would rather pay the money than have their secret revealed, so it becomes his sole responsibility to make the sacrifice.

The impact of Victim comes less from the plot than from the overall attitude of the film. This is 1961; openly gay characters were virtually unheard of in film and, the rare time they do appear, they are sniveling, perverted villains. Dearden, who had denounced the laws publicly, not only recognizes homosexuality as an existing, viable way to be, he completely condones it. We so rarely see this attitude in film even today, let alone fifty years ago, that it is much more than refreshing to see Dearden take such a position, it’s downright shocking.

Though it takes a bolder stance than Sapphire, Victim is much less preachy, simply because the story is more artfully told. It doesn’t look as pretty as the earlier films and has a much stagier feel, but between a stronger script and Bogarde’s incredible lead performance, Victim is a great piece of work. Bogarde squeezes every ounce of emotion and conflict out of his character. As a barrister, he needs to stay on the right side of the law and, as a husband, he wants to satisfy his wife’s needs, but at a certain point he can no longer deny who he really is. This sentiment is repeated over and over, hammering home the normalcy of homosexuality. Over the course of the film, Farr’s coming to terms with himself runs in concert with his pursuit of the blackmailers; he summons the same courage to deal with both. When we finally discover the culprits, it suggests that the mainstream public is as much at fault for the practical enforcement of the laws as the bureaucracy that wrote them. Dearden rarely shows subtlety, but it is an intelligent and emotional film with its heart firmly in the right place.

While Victim was successful in England, its content could not escape an X rating. That was far less detrimental to a film’s audience as it is now, but still damaging. Over here, though, the film board would not allow it until all use of the word “homosexual” and all its variants had been stricken from the film. Really, that’s a lot to cut, and I can’t imagine how it was replaced to make sense. In their effort to pull the teeth out of the film, the effectively banned it and it became a forgotten relic in this country. The only mention I’ve ever previously seen for it is in The Celluloid Closet, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary on the history of gay filmmaking. It’s a sad fate for such a great film, one from which we could still stand take lessons. Rarely will you see such an open attitude in film outside of LGBT cinema; the mainstream still has a long way to go.

Next, our final film in the collection, a jazzy little diversion called All Night Long.

Historical Image of the Day

Opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, carrying water stolen from eastern California's Owens Valley, 1913

Song of the Day: Justin Townes Earle, "Harlem River Blues"

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Labor and the NFL Lockout

The AFL-CIO has developed an interesting strategy over the past couple of weeks--tying themselves very closely to the upcoming lockout of NFL players. It's a fairly transparent strategy--unions get nothing but negative publicity in today's media. But Americans love the NFL and will revolt if they don't get their football in the fall. So what better way to generate positive energy for the labor movement than promote the NFLPA as a typical union. This has been all over the AFL-CIO Twitter feed for instance.

It's hard to blame labor for taking this strategy. I mean, why not at this point. I'm not sure how useful it's going to be--I'd guess most Americans are going to blame the players for the labor stoppage despite the fact that it's a lockout rather a strike. But how many people really know the difference? Professional sports unions aren't exactly noted for their working-class solidarity either--a bunch of wealthy Republicans are probably  more embarrassed to be union members than likely to display class pride.

Where this strategy gets a little more skeptical is to call the NFLPA a model union. The NFL's player union is notoriously the weakest of the professional sports unions. The last labor stoppage, in 1987, was a disaster. Players scabbed left and right, or right and right really, given that among the first scabs was Seattle WR and future right-wing congressman from Oklahoma, Steve Largent. Yet Roger Bybee's article on labor strategy from In These Times suggests the labor movement use the NFLPA's revenue sharing scheme as a model:

Back in the 1982 NFL Players Association's strike, as I discussed last week, the union began by crafting a strong message stressing that the owners were merely an impediment to a great sport ("We [the players] are the game").

They trained the NFLPA members to speak to every public meeting they could, developed their own media, and seized every opportunity to spread their message on commercial media.

Ultimately, the players out-strategized and out-hustled the owners, winning a remarkably radical demand for a guaranteed percentage of the wealth that they create.

While the NFLPA is putting many of those lessons to work against the NFL owners' threat of a lockout next month, the 1982 NFLPA strike created a playbook from which the rest of the labor movement could also learn.

Maybe. But it's quite clear to me the real advantage of calling this a model is to remind Americans that their favorite athletes are union members. That's fine and all. But it reeks of desperation. 

Mythologizing Reagan

I find it very interesting to watch modern figures get mythologized and ossified by my own contemporaries. That has happened for two people--Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan. I've complained plenty about King and the master narrative of the civil rights movement, a narrative that simplifies and depoliticizes King so that everyone can feel happy about themselves. Oddly, I haven't written a full condemnation of this on the blog it seems, though I have touched on it here and here. Maybe I'll get to that soon.

The creation of a Reagan to fit the modern conservative movement is expected. His mythology will be complete when Democrats create their own Reagan too. Obama has done some of this, but it's incomplete. Right now though, literally as I write, conservatives are completing their Reagan mythology. Though not without reality intruding, as David Silbey usefully points out:

Ronald Reagan, by contrast, is becoming somewhat re-radicalized. "Ronaldus Magnus" has come to be an avatar to the American right.

This has led to the eliding of some of Reagan's actions, actions which do not fit well with current conservative orthodoxy. Thus, for example, Rush Limbaugh, confronted by a caller pointing out that Reagan raised taxes, could essentially refuse to believe him. The Reagan of today could not be seen to raise taxes, give amnesty to illegal immigrants, compromise with the Democrats, or negotiate with the Soviets. Thus, those aspects of his Presidency get written out. What is left is a saint for the right wing, updated for current positions. One who got a fair number of streets, also.

Racism Among European Soccer Fans? No!

I'd like to say this story about the racism Brazilian Dani Alves faces from his own team's supporters surprises me, but it's probably the least surprising thing I'll read all week. Many countries in Europe have been known for lobbing racist chants (and more serious acts of violence) towards players from Africa, South America, and the U.S. for years, so it's not exactly like racism in football/soccer is anything new. That said, it seems that it's not exactly going away, either, in spite of football associations' efforts to punish teams whose fans use racial epithets.

Top 100 British Films

An interesting list as compiled by Time Out London. Some of the choices are pretty questionable--I'm not sure in what world "Nil By Mouth" is better than "Lawrence of Arabia." And "Nuts in May" is arguably Mike Leigh's worst movie. But I've always enjoyed British film quite a bit. Many of these films are almost unknown in America. See "It Always Rains on Sunday," which I managed to see in Lisbon but I don't think is available in the United States, or at least wasn't at the time. Sadly, I've seen surprisingly few of these films, suggesting how poorly British film is distributed in the U.S.

Historical Image of the Day

Two images today--the top is the failure of the Teton Dam in Idaho on June 5, 1976. The bottom is the city of Rexburg, Idaho, inundated by the flood waters. Fourteen people died in the flood. One of the greatest dam failures in the history of the American West and a symbol for the peril we face when we try to control every drop of water.

Song of the Day: Daniela Mercury, "O Canto Da Cicade"

Monday, February 07, 2011

Film Review--The League of Gentlemen (1960)

Our next installment in Criterion's Eclipse Series, Basil Dearden's London Underground, is the film I assumed I would like best, based solely on my affinity for the genre. The League of Gentlemen is a good film, and more pure fun than, Sapphire, the previous film in the collection, but it's a far less artful film with a less striking message than Dearden's breakthrough.

The League of Gentlemen is a much more straightforward film than the previous entry and, while it still carries a message, this message is neither as harsh nor as blatantly set forth. It doesn't make it less important, but this film would surely be easier to stomach for audiences than the racial indictment of Sapphire. Here, we have a Colonel Hyde (Jack Hawkins), an aging career military man who has been deemed redundant and, thus, forced into retirement. This is galling to a man who has given his entire life in service for his country, and he won't be satisfied until he has severance. To take what he is owed, he hatches a two-tiered scheme that will humiliate the military and make him rich, all at the same time.

Hyde can't do it alone, however, so he puts together a list of top shelf former military men, each selected for a particular talent. Luckily, these men are played with zeal by some fantastic talent, including Richard Attenborough as a weird mechanic, Nigel Patrick (in a much different role than the previous film) as an aristocratic boor, and Roger Livesey as a conman disguised as a priest. To them, Hyde details his plan. First, they'll infiltrate the nearby military base, steal a cache of weapons, and make sure the IRA gets blamed. With that done, they'll rob a bank. Split equally amongst each conspirator, it'll amount to around a hundred thousand pounds, enough to set them up for life and repay each for a life destroyed by the military bureaucracy they gave their souls for.

The League of Gentlemen is very simple. We're introduced to the characters, on a very skeletal level and presented with the heist. Once everything's in place, we get our dual capers and a finish. As standard heist films go, it's a fine piece of work, but nothing groundbreaking. My expectations may have been higher for this than Sapphire, but there are many reasons why it doesn't work as well. This picture is greatly helped by the performances, all of which are quite good. It's humorous, taking more lighthearted stabs at the military than I anticipated it would, but it's a little too chummy for its own good and loses much of the impact of its message.

Whenever asked about the political motivations behind his films, Dearden would always demure, saying that he wasn't trying to make any waves, yet at the same time decrying the issue at hand. This kind of wishy-washy behavior is most evident on screen in this film. Certainly, Dearden makes a statement about displaced veterans and what their role in the world is after the skills they've been trained for no longer have relevance. It's so thickly masked in the comic heist hijinx, though, that the message has little help in being brought to the audience. Maybe that was his intention or maybe he just didn't feel as strongly about this as he did about other things that we have already seen and will see later, but The League of Gentlemen is too light to be taken seriously.

That leaves with the heist. It's no Rififi, but it's a tense and fun pair of crimes that fit well into the genre. In black and white instead of Sapphire's color tones, Dearden shoots the London streets with a noir feel, accentuating the monolithic structures and making them feel like repressive tools of government. The heists are well-filmed, again a little too jokey for my tastes, but nicely put together. It's a missed opportunity, but the only really strong complaint I have is in the ending, which is very poorly drawn and a clear "crime doesn't pay" tack-on. It leaves a bad taste in one's mouth, but it doesn't kill what Dearden has built: a strongly written and well performed crime film with some cool imagery, whose only crime is stopping short on a message that may not have been all that important to the director in the first place. The League of Gentlemen is a good film, better than I've made it sound. The performances are great and the story is pretty strong; I'm not a big fan of the tone, but it's still worth watching.

Next, we find ourselves back on message street in Victim, the best film in this collection.

Please, Giant Multinational Corporations With No Incentive to Stay in America, Come Back to the U.S.

Obama's plea to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to be patriotic and bring jobs back to America is a total joke. The government itself has provided every incentive for companies to move jobs to developing nations for at least 40 years. The Obama Administration, with its newfound fear of angering the business world, has done nothing to change this. Playing on the patriotism of people whose only country is called Cash is embarrassing.

I have little doubt that CEOs are presently smoking giant cigars, drinking scotch, and laughing their asses off at Obama's plea in their smoky back rooms as I type this.

As a commenter to the linked piece says: "Perhaps they will grow white fluffy wings and descend to sprinkle us with flowers and distribute heavenly manna."


Good Design for the Rest of Us

While most hippie capitalist enterprises that lasted ended up going for the big bucks, it's nice to see that some companies managed to stay true to their vision of contributing positively to the community. Seattle's Environmental Works is a great example of this, an architectural firm with a mission to provide good design to projects for the poor, which over the years has included child care centers and low-income housing projects.

Shooting Barred Owls to Save Spotted Owls

Barred owls shot by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to save populations of the Northern spotted owl.

Forest managers in the Pacific Northwest are facing a tough decision. Environmentalists shut down logging in the national forests in the1980s and 1990s in order to save the Northern spotted owl. Considered an indicator species by biologists, meaning that a given species is studied and assumed to be indicative of the health of species throughout the ecosystem, this sensitive owl needs old growth forest to survive. Overlogging and deforestation sent spotted owl numbers plummeting. Federal courts forced the government to list the owl under the Endangered Species Act, which closed off the remaining old growth forest in the Northwest to logging.

In the last 20 years, spotted owl numbers have not recovered. This is largely because of the arrival of the more aggressive and closely related barred owl. Many scientists believe the barred owl is little different from the spotted owl, perhaps only separated by a few thousand years of living in different forests. The natural westward migration of the barred owl has threatened spotted owl populations both because the barred owl both mates with spotted owls and often eats them.

In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made the decision to start shooting barred owls in order to protect the spotted owl.

This is a terrible idea.

Barred owls are a native species that migrated to the Northwest on their own and are competing with other owls for survival. There's nothing here that deserves human intervention.

Of course, we manage our environments intensively. We make all sorts of decisions that favor one species over another. So it's hardly a stretch for biologists to imagine managing this species as well. But this is precisely the wrong way to manage a forest.

Moreover, it's almost certain to be a futile endeavor. Barred owls are going to continue seeing the spotted owl dominated areas as perfect habitat. Were this to work, it would have to be an effort without a foreseeable end and for a point of unclear ethics.

On the other hand, there's been a lot of blood and tears sweated over the spotted owl. The government found itself caught flat-footed over the spotted owl and struggled to deal with the regional implications. The decision to shoot barred owls suggests that this is a political rather than biological decision; the point of the spotted owl was not so much the save the owl per se as to preserve the last bits of an ecologically rich forest. Environmentalists are split on the decision to shoot the barred owl--some see it as necessary to protect the species they've invested so much in while others view it as opposed to everything in which they believe. 

However, local politicians in the timber belt still don't get it either. They are chomping at the bit for the spotted owl to be eliminated, thinking that will reopen the forests to logging and that 1985 will return. That's not going to happen. Even if the spotted owl went extinct, environmentalists would find another species to get listed under the Endangered Species Act because, again, the point of the indicator species is that if it's declining, it's quite the entire ecosystem is under attack. That was certainly the case with old-growth forests and the timber industry in the 1980s.

This is just kind of depressing. That pan full of dead owls made me sad.

Song of the Day: Leonard Cohen, "The Stranger Song," 1967

Historical Image of the Day

This week's series covers issues of water in the American West, a topic dear to me.

Hohokam irrigation canal, Arizona. Not sure when the canal was constructed, but Indians in the region were building irrigation canals from around 300 until a massive flood in 1358 destroyed much of the system and helped lead to the decline of Hohokam culture. Excavation and photo is from the 1960s.

Fire in Rio - Carnaval Threatened?

This morning, a massive fire tore through the public building in the heart of Rio de Janeiro where Rio's samba schools keep their costumes, floats, and displays in the month leading up to Carnaval. As the photos here indicate, this was no small fire. The damage has been catastrophic for at least four of the samba schools; Portela, one of the oldest and best samba schools, lost over 2,800 costumes, floats, and props, while Grande Rio lost over 4,000 (at a cost of $10 million reais, or roughly 6 million U.S. dollars).

The cost should indicate just how ornate, elaborate, and important Carnaval is to Rio and to the communities that compete in the event. Worse, just as in football (the global version, not the American one), the poorest-ranked schools drop to the "second division," while the second divisions winners rise up to the main event. With four schools already eliminated by the sheer lack of materials to compete, Carnaval in Rio is suddenly facing major questions. Liesa, the organization that runs Rio's Carnaval, is meeting tonight; the mayor has already proposed not having the "eliminations" this year, since the four schools that would naturally dropped cannot be blamed for the building catching on fire. Initial suggestions that Carnaval be cancelled seem to have died down, and cancelling is a terrible idea; Carnaval is one of Rio's biggest events, and it brings in millions of dollars not only from corporate sponsors, but from tourism and more quotidian sources of income (like beers purchased). And the schools are keeping a strong and unified front in the face of this tragedy; the other samba schools that were not affected by the fire have offered to help those that were, and Grande Rio, which lost 90% of its props and costumes, said it will still march in Carnaval, even without the costumes or floats; after all, at the end of the day, the samba school is its members and community, not its flashy appearance.
Interestingly (and potentially even more tragically), somebody else may be responsible. When I spoke to a Brazilian this morning who had not heard the news, she immediately responded, "this was a criminal act," implying that a supporter (or member?) of another competing school had set the fire to remove the competition. While I certainly hope that was not the case, it makes sense - after soccer teams, the samba school you support is one of your most important identities in Rio.
Some (including myself) have been critical of how "commercial" Carnaval in Rio has become, but at the end of the day, it is still one of the most impressive and organic cultural expressions in Brazil, and it is egalitarian (and even reversing of traditional class- and race-based hierarchies) in ways that few other events in Brazil are. Hopefully, the schools that suffered losses can regroup, and nobody is punished for this fire (unless it was arson; in that case, may the arsonist be punished). As it is, this will be one of the more somber Carnavals in some years, as Brazil and the world are denied the cultural expressions and beauty of four different schools' participation.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Film Review--Sapphire (1959)

This week for DVD Verdict, I am reviewing the latest collection in Criterion's excellent Eclipse Series, Basil Dearden's London Underground. These four films, virtually unknown today but award winners at the time, are on DVD for the first time. Basil Dearden is a director I have no experience with, but it's an intriguing collection. I'll review the entire set as one on DVD Verdict and won't have the opportunity to give proper reviews for each film, so I do this here. First on the slate, Best Film at 1959's BAFTA Awards, Sapphire.

"We plan to show this prejudice as the stupid and illogical thing it is," so says Dearden in an interview during the production of Sapphire. That statement is telling of both the good and the bad of the film. On the whole Sapphire succeeds as an unpredictable mystery and a well-intentioned drama, but there are some of the same ham-handed moments here that afflicted similar but later American productions. Regardless, Basil Dearden makes a solid first impression.

Sapphire is a social problem film wrapped in a murder mystery and Dearden balances both sides fairly well. It's a very basic crime story, centering around the body of a young woman turned up in a park one morning. The death of this pretty, young, and white college student named Sapphire will scandalize the town, but not so much as the truth. When Sapphire's brother arranges to come from London to view the body, the police can't believe their eyes. Dr. Robbins (Earl Cameron) has skin every bit as dark as Sapphire's was light. Much as the police stand in disbelief, it is true; Sapphire figured out that she was able to pass for white and got engaged to David Harris (Paul Massie), the son of a respectable family. Naturally, when the autopsy reveals pregnancy, the police look to David. He, along with his entire family, claims that he knew that she was black, didn't care, and loved her anyway. He's not being entirely honest, however, and it's in finding out the missing details that will lead to Sapphire's true killer.

I know little to nothing about the history of racial tensions in England, and I'm certainly not used to such direct and expressive displays in British films, so Sapphire took me as something of a surprise. The moment Dr. Robbins arrives, it becomes clear that this is pointed racial commentary but, like its American counterparts, focuses on the white side of racism, while the black population exists more as a set of symbols than as real characters. To solve the murder, the investigators have to cross into both worlds, each with its own share of animosity and revelation. The lead investigator (the great Nigel Patrick) is the progressive one, understanding from the beginning that the idea of justice has little to do with race. His second, though, is considerably more ignorant. Once her race is revealed, he becomes less concerned with justice and more bemused that he can't just know something about a race by looking at them.

It's white people having their eyes opened to their prejudices and, while that's a very tired trope today and feels ham-handed even for the time, it's still 1959 and just having had the conversation is important. It was a daring early picture for Dearden's production company, Artna Productions, and the film made its impact at the time. It's more effective at dealing with social problems than, say, the similarly-themed but nearly a decade older Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (spoiler alert: it's a black guy!), and a more artful film, overall. The melodrama is thick and the mystery genre conventions are in full effect, but it's a shot with a lovely understated style, full of muted color and heavy with Caribbean and African music. Had Douglas Sirk directed Stanley Kramer's overrated film, it might look something like this. The performances tend toward scene-chewing, but Dearden played the mystery to hilt so he could mask controversial viewpoints. That's an important point that Stanley Kramer never understood. If filmmakers have a political point, they cannot slap us across the face with their message. The only people who won't recoil from this are those who already agree. It's much better to ease audiences into uncomfortable positions, get them enjoying the story, and then implant the message in the brain. Sapphire isn't the best at this sort of subterfuge, but it does manage to entertain while delivering a surprisingly pointed message.

At first glance, there's little understanding why Basil Dearden has been so forgotten, but this is a nice first impression and I'm excited to see what comes after. Next up, The League of Gentlemen, a heist film, one of my favorite genres.

Historical Image of the Day

Lynching, Omaha, Nebraska, 1919

Song of the Day: Bill Frisell, "Shenandoah," 2004

The world's greatest guitar player. Bar none.

The Death of a Pseudonym

I admit, I've been gone way too long. I'd like to blame the dissertation, teaching, job apps, etc., and that's been the legitimate reason in no small part, but to many, that's not a good enough reason. That said, after many threats to return to blogging, the dissertation is in and I feel I can finally write about things not-dissertation-related, and do so guilt-free. At the same time, I also feel it's time to fess up - my real name is not Mr. Trend. It's Colin Snider.

I have decided to move away from pseudonyms (as proud as I was of it - anybody who's met me personally can appreciate the irony and sarcasm in my adoption of "Mr. Trend") for many reasons. The first and most important of these is that I genuinely want to be more serious, critical, and analytical on this blog. That certainly hasn't been my M.O. in the past, and I regret nothing about that. Writing under a pseudonym allowed me to play with different "voices" and styles while blogging, to figure out what I liked and what I didn't, and what worked and what didn't. That said, after years of blogging (I've technically been here since 2006, after all), I've finally settled on what I'd like to do as a blogger. Sure, the music commentary, random observations, and other matters may persist, but following Erik's lead (and my own efforts on occasion), I've come to see just how useful even a small blog like ours can be in terms not only of formulating my own ideas, but in exchanging serious discussion with others whose insights often exceed things I could come up with in the isolated vacuum of my own head.
To expound a bit more (though hopefully not as wordily as my writing can often become): I'd really like to return to making Alterdestiny a useful forum for discussions on Latin America. It used to be that way periodically, and I realize my return to the game is extremely late (Boz, Greg Weeks, Randy, and others do an outstanding job as it is). That said, hopefully I can enter into that arena again, this time without pseudonyms, and use Alterdestiny to put forth my own thoughts on Latin America while also engaging others in a very-cliched-yet-still-earnets attempt to broaden my own horizons and understandings. I'm not going to pretend that my return will skyrocket our readership, but I'm not really concerned with that end anymore, either; my interest is to expand the forum that Alterdestiny provides as a smaller blog that still has something to say.
With that said, this post isn't some hollow "I hope to return someday" observation. I'm Colin Snider, I'm back, and I hope to get some good conversations going here once again.

Friday, February 04, 2011

U.S. Steel

In the long history of U.S. Steel related evil, I'm not sure this compares with the Homestead Strike of 1892 or the Donora Fog of 1948, but this is pretty heartless for a Pittsburgh icon:

But a U.S. Steel memo says workers in the Clairton, Irvin and Edgar Thomson mills who miss work Sunday or Monday "without just cause" will face "severe disciplinary action."

The United Steelworkers union has criticized the memo. A U.S. Steel spokeswoman tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the company doesn't comment on employee relations.

The newspaper says USW International vice president Tom Conway responded to the memo with an e-mail -- in black-and-gold type, the Steelers' colors -- that suggested adjusting schedules so volunteers who don't want to watch the game can work during it. Conway suggested lost production during Sunday's 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift could be made up later.

I mean, they aren't the Pittsburgh Steelers for nothing!  I guess once U.S. Steel moves its last token plants out of the U.S., they can change their name to the Pittsburgh Nostalgic Steelers and replace their logo with a picture of the old Homestead smokestacks that were integrated into a mall parking lot on the old site.