Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Reading

A Song For the Ages — David A. Graham in The Atlantic on the history of the civil rights anthem.

As marchers took to the streets of Boston in late April to demand justice for Freddie Gray, some of them began to sing: “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day …”It wasn’t a surprising choice. “We Shall Overcome” is a staple for civil-rights protests—and for that matter, for any kind of social-justice movement. The Library of Congress calls it “the most powerful song of the 20th century.” So it was a surprise to learn that not only is the identity of the person who made it into that anthem known, but he died only on May 2.

His name was Guy Carawan, and he was 87 years old. The story of the song and how Carawan helped make it ubiquitous is full of surprises, and it’s a wonderful demonstration of the folk tradition at work, accreting bits and pieces over the years until it became today’s widely known version. It’s also, appropriately enough for a civil-rights anthem, the story of a song that draws heavily on both African-American and European-American tradition, just like all the best American music. Like so many folk songs, it feels as though it’s existed forever; asking who wrote it seems ridiculous. Hasn’t it always been there?

Actually, although the song is old, its history can be fairly carefully traced. The first few bars seem to derive from a hymn first published in 1792, called “O Sanctissima,” also published as “Sicilian Mariners’ Hymn.” As The New York Times notes in its Carawan obituary, Beethoven wrote a setting of the hymn, and the resemblance is unmistakable for even the least trained ear, though it diverges after the first few lines. The Times says that a version published in the United States in 1794 was already recognizably the melody known as “We Shall Overcome.”

The basic frame of the words seems to have come from “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” a hymn written by the Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, a famed black preacher in Philadelphia, and published in 1901. Tindley’s tune bears little in common with “Sicilian Mariners,” as you can see here. His words are also far more elaborate, and focus more on salvation of the individual by God, rather than the power of collective action. The lyrical similarity comes with a refrain on each verse, in the familiar AABA structure, that presages “We Shall Overcome.”

So when the did the song cross over from the sacred to the secular? The first appearance of the modern version of “We Will Overcome” comes from 1945. Workers in the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers Union in Charleston, South Carolina, went on strike at an American Tobacco Company cigar factory. The workers were largely, though not exclusively, black women. They reportedly ended each day’s picket with a version of the song.

Zilphia Horton, a labor organizer and musician, heard the song there, and Pete Seeger learned it from her. (Seeger is credited with changing the opening line from “We will overcome” to “we shall overcome,” though he wasn’t so sure.) Over the ensuing decade, the song was published and recorded several times.

Carawan, meanwhile, had served in the Navy in the U.S. during World War II and then studied at UCLA, taking a master’s in sociology. Able to play the guitar, banjo, and hammer dulcimer, he moved to New York City and joined the folk revival in Greenwich Village. In 1953, he traveled through the South with Frank Hamilton (who was not yet a member of the Weavers) and Jack Elliott (who was not yet Ramblin’). At Seeger’s suggestion, they stopped at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, an organizing school founded by Zilphia Horton and her husband Myles. Carawan learned “We Shall Overcome” there. In 1959, when Zilphia Horton died, he became Highlander’s music director.

In 1960, at the founding convention of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in Raleigh, North Carolina, Carawan was asked to lead delegates in a song, and he chose “We Shall Overcome.” Carawan began accompanying himself on guitar, and soon the room was joining him. As he told NPR in 2013, it was an immediate hit:

That song caught on that weekend. And then at a certain point, those young singers, who knew a lot of a cappella styles, they said, “Lay that guitar down, boy. We can do this song better.” And they put that sort of triplet to it and sang it a cappella with all those harmonies. It had a way of rendering it a style that some very powerful young singers got behind and spread.

Moving Left — Elias Isquith in Salon on how the Democrats are a-changin’.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is not a timid man. But like most politicians, he is cautious. He’s taken some risks during his years in Albany — like when he muscled through same-sex marriage, or when he imposed a statewide ban on fracking. Even in these rare moments, though, he was careful and deliberate. He only gambled when he saw no better option. And that’s one of the reasons why his recent endorsement of a wage hike for fast-food workers is a genuinely big deal.

Writing in the New York Times, Cuomo, who usually bills himself as the consummate pro-business Democrat, declared that although he’d already signed a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9 per hour by the end of 2015, the fast-food industry’s wage floor was still not high enough. And because the state legislature wouldn’t cooperate, the governor continued, he was going to direct the state’s labor commissioner to impanel a “Wage Board,” which would ultimately recommend a new fast-food minimum wage. There would be no need for legislative approval.

Unlike his moves on marriage equality and fracking, Cuomo’s joining the growing movement to raise service industry wages came rather out of the blue. But when you situate the notoriously plutocrat-friendly governor’s announcement in the larger context of what’s happening within the Democratic Party right now, it doesn’t just make more sense — it also becomes quite telling. If even Andrew Cuomo has decided that spurning multinational corporations like McDonald’s by supporting the “Fight for $15” is in his self-interest, then the balance of power among Democrats has truly shifted in favor of the party’s activist, union base.

Of course, this is hardly to say the Democratic Party is now the social democratic organization of lefties’ dreams. The minimum wage for fast-food workers is just one issue, and in terms of threatening the party’s wealthiest supporters, it’s relatively harmless (political donations from the fast-food industry overwhelmingly benefit Republicans). But Cuomo’s op-ed for the Times, while significant, isn’t the most important sign that the Democratic base is steering the party in a more left-wing direction. In fact, it’s not even the first or the most conspicuous; but those designations belong to Democrats whose respective names carry at least as much weight.

A political shift on this order is always a long time coming, so picking a start date is inevitably somewhat arbitrary. But if I had to point to one big, specific moment when it started looking like party elites would have to veer left to stay in the base’s favor, I’d go with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s surprisingly difficult reelection from earlier this year. As I wrote at the time, one of the main reasons why Emanuel had to fight off a left-wing primary challenger was because Chicago Democrats, especially African- and Latino-Americans, were angry over a first-term record they saw as too conservative on economics and education. Some even took to calling him “Mayor 1 Percent.”

After running an apologetic run-off campaign — in which the neoliberal Emanuel and his supporters tried to refashion him as a true progressive — the mayor ended up defeating his opponent, Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, with relative ease. But while Garcia, by most accounts, ran a disorganized and borderline incompetent campaign, simply forcing Emanuel into the run-off was itself a major victory. No incumbent Chicago mayor had ever had to do it before, and it was widely seen by expert observers as an “embarrassment” for President Obama’s former chief of staff. In retrospect, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis’s unfortunate illness may have saved Emanuel’s career in electoral politics.

Chicago was the first sign that a new Democratic Party base — one comprised of more people of color as well as educated and single women — was exerting its influence. But former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s nascent presidential campaign has been the most conspicuous. Because while Emanuel’s pivot to the left wasn’t so much about policy as public relations, Clinton’s campaign has thus far been characterized by her assuming new, more liberal policy positions. Despite having been a believer in the “tough on crime” policies of her husband, Clinton endorsed outfitting the nation’s law enforcement with body cameras, and spent her first big policy address calling for mass incarceration’s end.

Brady’s Punishment — Andy Borowitz has the awful news.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (The Borowitz Report) – In what football insiders are calling an unexpectedly severe punishment, the National Football League has sentenced the New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady to a year with the New York Jets for his role in the so-called Deflategate scandal.

The punishment drew howls of protest from Patriots fans and management, with many calling it the harshest in league history, but N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the decision as “a necessary deterrent.”

“We need to send the message that this league has zero tolerance for cheating,” Goodell said. “We believe that a year of playing quarterback for the Jets sends that message loud and clear.”

Brady was reportedly in a state of shock when he heard the news of his punishment. He later met with reporters in a hastily called press conference during which he frequently seemed on the verge of tears.

“I am going to fight this decision with every fibre of my being,” Brady said. “This is America. You can’t force a person to play for the Jets.”

At a sports bar in Manhattan, the reaction to the impending arrival of the Jets’ longtime nemesis was muted. One Jets fan observed, “Look, Brady’s a dick, but even he didn’t deserve this.”

Doonesbury — Gaming the system.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Friday, April 10, 2015

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sunday Reading

First things first: if you live in a place that observes daylight savings time in the U.S. and Canada, did you move your clock ahead?

Obama’s America — Matt Ford in The Atlantic on what President Obama’s trip to Selma says about us and his view of America.

America is, like all nations, an idea. Unlike many other nations, this idea requires a little articulation. A nation built by waves of immigrants can’t rely on Old-World, blood-and-soil ethnic nationalism to define itself. The American idea is instead built upon a civic nationalism rooted in democratic principles and self-evident truths, even though Americans often fail to meet those ideals.

And so, quoting James Baldwin and the prophet Isaiah, President Barack Obama spoke in Selma on Saturday. His address commemorated the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” during the marches to Montgomery in 1965, but his rhetorical scope encompassed all of American history.

Obama has not always spoken so clearly about American exceptionalism. At a March 2009 news conference, he told a reporter that he believed in it “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” His political opponents incorporated this into a narrative that cast the president as anti-American, mistaking his ability to understand the pride of others abroad for a lack of pride on his own nation.

Obama corrected the record at Selma, making the case that we are not exceptional in the perfection of our virtue, but rather, exceptional in our relentless struggle to live up to our ideals:

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction, because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

Many will interpret this speech as a thinly veiled rebuttal to conservative critics like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who claimed last month that Obama “doesn’t love America.” Others will focus on Obama’s sharp attack on Congress for not renewing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Supreme Court gutted it in a 2013 decision. But the speech’s broader themes are far more important than its soundbites.

For Obama, the marchers at Selma helped set a new course for American democracy. “Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for African-Americans, but for every American,” he told the crowd. “Women marched through those doors. Latinos marched through those doors. Asian-Americans, gay Americans, and Americans with disabilities came through those doors.” Had one of his predecessors not already taken the phrase, perhaps he would have called this a new birth of freedom.

Few would disagree with this assessment, but the president’s speech went beyond simple praise. Obama has a rhetorical tendency to construct grand, sweeping visions of American history. His inauguration speeches and State of the Union addresses often demonstrate this, but the first, best example might be his concession speech during the 2008 New Hampshire primaries, where he linked his own presidential bid to the historical arc of American freedom.

In Selma, Obama avoided the simplistic narratives of America the perfect (or America the oppressive, as some conservatives allege) in favor of America, the struggle. Instead of relying upon “patriotism à la carte,” as my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates once phrased it, the president carefully wove the darker chapters of American history into its civic mythos:

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free—Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We are the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because they want their kids to know a better life.  That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent, and we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, Navajo code-talkers, and Japanese-Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, and the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As he did with slavery and Japanese-American internment, Obama sought to incorporate Ferguson into the turbulence of American history. The Department of Justice’s damning Ferguson report, which it released last week after a lengthy investigation, depicted a present-day municipal government dedicated to the plunder and predation of its black citizens. Obama readily observed that Ferguson wasn’t an isolated case, but also noted that these racist acts are no longer “endemic” in America. He also refused to accept that Ferguson meant that the struggles of Bloody Sunday were for naught. “If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the 1950s,” he said to applause.

At times, it felt like Obama was addressing not the civil-rights movement veterans who had assembled in Selma, but today’s new generation of activists and marchers. “We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America,” Obama told the crowd and the country. “To deny this progress—our progress—would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”

Transcript here via Washington Post.

Roberts’ Tell — Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker on the Chief Justice’s silence during the Obamacare hearing.

The Supreme Court oral argument on Wednesday in King v. Burwell featured thousands of words, dozens of provocative questions, two engaged and skillful lawyers—and one very striking silence. Chief Justice John Roberts, usually among the most active questioners on the court, scarcely said a word throughout the highly anticipated clash. The justices besieged Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Michael Carvin, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, who are challenging a central provision of Obamacare, with so many questions that Roberts gave the pair ten extra minutes a side. The chief himself didn’t take up any of that time until practically the last moment.

Roberts’s one question may turn out to be extremely important. The issue in the case is whether the Obama Administration, in implementing the Affordable Care Act, violated the terms of that law. The plaintiffs assert that the A.C.A. only authorizes subsidies for individuals who buy health insurance on the fourteen state-run exchanges, or marketplaces. Under their reading of the law, the eight million or so people in the other thirty-six states who currently buy their insurance from the federal marketplace should be denied their subsidies. Most of the justices’ questions dealt with the issue of how to read the law correctly, but Roberts, in his single substantive question, took a different tack.

Anthony Kennedy had asked about “Chevron deference,” a doctrine of law that describes how much leeway the executive branch should have in interpreting laws. Verrilli, not surprisingly, said that the Chevron doctrine gave the Obama Administration more than adequate permission to read the law to allow subsidies on the federal exchange. “If you’re right about Chevron,” Roberts said, at long last, “that would indicate that a subsequent Administration could change that interpretation?” Perhaps it could, Verrilli conceded.

The question suggests a route out of the case for Roberts—and the potential for a victory for the Obama Administration. Roberts came of age as a young lawyer in the Reagan Administration, and there he developed a keen appreciation for the breadth of executive power under the Constitution. To limit the Obama Administration in this case would be to threaten the power of all Presidents, which Roberts may be loath to do. But he could vote to uphold Obama’s action in this case with a reminder that a new election is fast approaching, and Obamacare is sure to be a major point of contention between the parties. A decision in favor of Obama here could be a statement that a new President could undo the current President’s interpretation of Obamacare as soon as he (or she) took office in 2017. In other words, the future of Obamacare should be up to the voters, not the justices.

Why No One Cares About Bill O’Reilly — Eric Alterman at The Nation.

To anyone who has paid attention to O’Reilly or any of the Fox “anchors” in recent years, none of this should come as a surprise. There are many precedents in O’Reilly’s career (including a lie about, and faux on-air apology to, yours truly). No doubt one could find plenty of similar fabrications, exaggerations and purposely misleading statements on any given Fox program. That is, after all, the purpose of the network. It flatters the ignorance and prejudice of its audience even as it corrupts the larger media discourse on behalf of those same ignorant prejudices (as well as the financial interests of Rupert Murdoch, its billionaire owner, and Roger Ailes, its president and CEO). Hence, unlike NBC, which at least evinced some embarrassment over Brian Williams’s serial fabrications, Fox is totally down with its lying, bullying, name-calling host. Indeed, a Fox anchor or host would be far more likely to lose his or her job for telling the truth. (Things you’ll never hear on Fox: “Yes, global warming is man-made and a genuine danger to the security of our nation and our planet.” “Yes, President Obama was born in the United States and is a believing Christian.” “Yes, that entire Iraqi WMD thing was nonsense.” “Yeah, OK, the security arrangements at the US Embassy in Benghazi are not really the job of the secretary of state, much less the president.”)

To recap briefly, the mainstream media and the liberal blogosphere have recently been filled with stories in which O’Reilly placed himself at the center of world-historical events—or in imminent danger—and was found to be full of it. Contrary to O’Reilly’s claims, he was more than 1,000 miles from the Falkland Islands during the war there. He did not see any nuns murdered in El Salvador. He did not cover the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. He was not threatened by rioters in Los Angeles, and he was nowhere near the suicide of a man who claimed to have information about the assassination of President Kennedy. For all we know, he may not even be named Bill O’Reilly (though there’s apparently no truth to the rumor that he stole the dog tags off a dead soldier in Korea).

What is perhaps most disturbing about this story is the bifurcated reaction of the mainstream media. Almost no one who occupies a chair in a “respectable” media organization has taken the position that O’Reilly is a liar and Fox is filled with liars and it’s about time we stopped taking the network seriously as a news source. Rather, we hear from Politico’s Dylan Byers that “the Bill O’Reilly charges aren’t sticking.” Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine believes they have “backfired.” Jeremy Stahl in Slate says the case is “open to interpretation.” And a front-page New York Times analysis by Jonathan Mahler and Emily Steel describes O’Reilly as “a man who perhaps more than any other has defined the parameters and tenor of Fox News, in the process ushering in a new era of no-holds-barred, intentionally divisive news coverage.” The Times reporters leave it to the experts to decide whether what he says is true, though some of these experts—not incidentally, also cable-news veterans—are not so sure that it matters. “Bill’s credibility with his audience is not based on his record as a traditional journalist,” former CNN/US president Jonathan Klein told the reporters. “His credibility, in the view of his fans, is based on his trenchant analysis of the events of the day, his pulling no punches, his willingness to call it like it is”—which is apparently the way one defines lying, prevaricating and bullying in the world of cable news (and the Times’s “expert” sourcing).

More from Jeb Lund at Rolling Stone.

Doonesbury — Charlie Hebdo’s denizens live on.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Short Takes

Afghan soldier kills three American contractors.

Egypt — Militants attack in Sinai.

Three dead in gas explosion in Mexico City maternity hospital.

Senate passes Keystone XL pipeline bill.

Measles outbreak has Arizona tracking up to 1,000 people exposed.

R.I.P. Poet Rod McKuen, whose words narrated a million teenage crushes.

The next president will get a new plane.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther KingToday is the federal holiday set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.

For me, growing up as a white kid in a middle-class suburb in the Midwest in the 1960’s, Dr. King’s legacy would seem to have a minimum impact; after all, what he was fighting for didn’t affect me directly in any way.  But my parents always taught me that anyone oppressed in our society was wrong, and that in some way it did affect me.  This became much more apparent as I grew up and saw how the nation treated its black citizens; those grainy images on TV and in the paper of water-hoses turned on the Freedom Marchers in Alabama showed me how much hatred could be turned on people who were simply asking for their due in a country that promised it to them.  And when I came out as a gay man, I became much more aware of it when I applied the same standards to society in their treatment of gays and lesbians.

Perhaps the greatest impression that Dr. King had on me was his unswerving dedication to non-violence in his pursuit of civil rights.  He withstood taunts, provocations, and rank invasions of his privacy and his life at the hands of racists, hate-mongers, and the federal government, yet he never raised a hand in anger against anyone.  He deplored the idea of an eye for an eye, and he knew that responding in kind would only set back the cause.  I was also impressed that his spirituality and faith were his armor and his shield, not his weapon, and he never tried to force his religion on anyone else.  The supreme irony was that he died at the hands of violence, much like his role model, Mahatma Gandhi.

There’s a question in the minds of a lot of people of how to celebrate a federal holiday for a civil rights leader. Isn’t there supposed to be a ritual or a ceremony we’re supposed to perform to mark the occasion?  But how do you signify in one day or in one action what Dr. King stood for, lived for, and died for?  Last August marked the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech.  That marked a moment; a milestone.  Today is supposed to honor the man and what he stood for and tried to make us all become: full citizens with all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; something that is with us all day, every day.

For me, it’s having the memories of what it used to be like and seeing what it has become for all of us that don’t take our civil rights for granted, which should be all of us, and being both grateful that we have come as far as we have and humbled to know how much further we still have to go.

*

Today is also a school holiday, so blogging will be on a holiday schedule.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On This Date

December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made the first powered flight.

First_flight2

To put it in perspective, my grandmother was born nine months before this flight.  By the end of her life she had flown around the world and taken a tour of the internet courtesy of my brother’s laptop.

That’s not only a testimony to a long and full life, but the fact that we went from horse and buggy to the moon in a life span.

For all the tragic flaws we inflict upon ourselves and others, there is something amazing in the human spirit.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bad Example

If Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) wants to be considered as a serious candidate for president, then perhaps he needs to do better research into what he’s talking about when he makes historical comparisons.

Paul made the comments on Friday, a day after Obama formally announced the executive actions, at the Kentucky Association of Counties conference in Lexington, Kentucky.

“I care that too much power gets in one place. Why? Because there are instances in our history where we allow power to gravitate toward one person and that one person then makes decisions that really are egregious,” Paul said. “Think of what happened in World War II where they made the decision. The president issued an executive order. He said to Japanese people ‘we’re going to put you in a camp. We’re going to take away all your rights and liberties and we’re going to intern you in a camp.'”

“We shouldn’t allow that much power to gravitate to one individual. We need to separate the power.”

First, as has been noted here and elsewhere, the president is using executive power on immigration in the same way almost every other president has since World War II, including the sainted Ronald Reagan.

Second, Mr. Paul’s specific comparison to the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II may be geared to rile up an emotional response — the action was racist and reactionary to the point that the U.S. government officially apologized (even though it took over fifty years to do it) — but both the Supreme Court and the United States Congress went along with it.  President Roosevelt may have acted by executive order, but he had help.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Short Takes

U.S. and China reach agreement on climate change deal.

Winter storm in Midwest kills four.

Doctor with Ebola in N.Y. has recovered and released from the hospital.

Telecoms set to battle Obama over net neutrality.

Three civil rights workers murdered in 1964 will receive posthumous Presidential Medals of Freedom.

R.I.P. John Doar, leading civil rights attorney;  Carol Ann Susi, voice of Mrs. Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day

Today is the 96th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that brought an end to the fighting in World War I in 1918.  It used to be called Armistice Day.  Today it is the official holiday to commemorate Veterans Day.

It’s become my tradition here to mark the day with the poem In Flanders Field by John McCrae.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae (1872-1918)

I honor my father, two uncles, a cousin, a great uncle, many friends and colleagues, and the millions known and unknown who served our country in the armed forces.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Nazi Past

It did not come as a great shock to me that the United States used Nazis as spies during the Cold War and that the government tried to keep it under wraps.  Even the number — over 1,000 — didn’t surprise me.  After all, it was no great secret that we recruited a lot of their surviving scientists to launch our space program.  Tom Lehrer even sang about it.

America has a long history of working with, if not embracing, unsavory people as long as they were seen as helping us against an enemy, real or perceived.  We collaborated with the Russians against Hitler, we took up with mobsters and thugs on the right side of the civil wars in Cuba, the Middle East, Africa and Central America (the “right” side being anybody who was against the Soviets), we helped Saddam Hussein fight the Iranians, and guess who it was who sold munitions to the Taliban in Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded in 1979.

It was all for the sake of expedience; it was a waste of time to look ahead and think about what might happen after the Cold War was over or the rebels were ousted from El Salvador so the corporations and investors could move back in and continue buying off the dictators.  The fact that in nearly every case it either blew up in our face or the people we supported turned on us and launched attacks with our own weapons is hardly worth bringing up.  At some point we won a victory for freedom, right?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday Reading

First Monday in October — This year’s Supreme Court term could decide the marriage equality question.  Adam Liptak in the New York Times:

The Supreme Court on Monday returns to work to face a rich and varied docket, including cases on First Amendment rights in the digital age, religious freedom behind bars and the status of Jerusalem.

Those cases are colorful and consequential, but there are much bigger ones on the horizon.

“I’m more excited about the next 12 months at the Supreme Court than about any Supreme Court term in its modern history,” said Thomas C. Goldstein, who argues frequently before the court and is the publisher of Scotusblog.

In the coming weeks, the justices will most likely agree to decide whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, a question they ducked in 2013. They will also soon consider whether to hear a fresh and potent challenge to the Affordable Care Act, which barely survived its last encounter with the court in 2012.

The terms that concluded with those rulings riveted the nation. Now the two issues may return to the court — together.

“This term could become the ‘déjà vu all over again’ term of the century,” said Pratik A. Shah, a Supreme Court specialist with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is entering his 10th term, and it is one that could define the legacy of the court he leads. Should the court establish a right to same-sex marriage, it would draw comparisons to the famously liberal court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, said David A. Strauss, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

“It is only a slight overstatement to say that the Roberts court will be to the rights of gays and lesbians what the Warren court was to the rights of African Americans,” Professor Strauss said.

Petitions seeking review of decisions in the marriage and health care cases have already been filed. They may be joined in short order by ones on abortion and affirmative action.

“The prospect that every major social issue will collide before the justices may be historic,” Mr. Goldstein said.

The Unlucky Seven — G.O.P. governors who may get the heave-ho next month.  John Nichols in The Nation:

The headlines immediately following the “Republican Wave” election of 2010 focused on Congress, where Democrats lost control of the House. But attention quickly shifted to the states, where a new class of Republican governors, often working with allied legislative majorities, began implementing agendas far more extreme than those of their compatriots in gridlocked Washington.

That extremism has made many of these Republican Wave governors vulnerable in 2014—so vulnerable that billionaire campaign donors and business interests are scrambling to save them. Recent revelations of secret meetings organized by the Koch brothers and secret donations to groups like the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee confirm the connections—and the sense of urgency. But even a massive spending spree may not keep these governors in office.

That’s because what’s good for campaign donors has not been good for GOP-led states, many of which trail the national average in job creation. In some states, such as Kansas, economic stagnation is so severe that moderate Republicans are endorsing Democratic gubernatorial nominees who promise to stop catering to out-of-state special interests and to focus on education and jobs.

The failure of the GOP austerity agenda stands in stark contrast to the success of states where Democratic governors have invested in infrastructure, services and schools. California’s Jerry Brown and Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, both of whom replaced Republican governors four years ago, are well ahead in the polls. While some Democratic governors are in tight races, perennially embattled Illinois Governor Pat Quinn edged ahead of Republican Bruce Rauner in a mid-September Chicago Tribune survey, at least in part because of a campaign warning that Rauner would impose on Illinois the right-wing policies that are widely seen as having slowed growth in neighboring Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s Scott Walker began his tenure in 2011 by attacking public employees and their unions and securing a budget that slashed spending on education and public services. He advanced laws restricting access to women’s reproductive health services, establishing harsh voter-ID requirements, undermining environmental protections, and generally rubber-stamping the agenda of corporate-funded groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Walker made big news, but his extremism was hardly unique. Michigan’s Rick Snyder used “emergency manager” laws to dismantle democracy in Detroit and other cities and signed an anti-labor “right to work” law in the home state of the United Auto Workers. Maine’s Paul LePage told the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” hired corporate lobbyists to help him rewrite regulations, and intervened so aggressively against unemployed workers that the US Labor Department had to step in. Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett hit all the wrong marks by appointing cronies to key positions, making statements that offended women and Latinos, attacking unions, and scrapping the state’s school funding formula in a move that led to devastating cuts.

Corbett’s misdeeds are so well known that he’s trailing as far as twenty points behind Democrat Tom Wolf, a businessman running as an ardent advocate for public education, a supporter of unions and a champion of manufacturing. Walker, Snyder and LePage are all locked in what the RealClearPolitics “Poll of Polls” ranks as toss-up races, as are Republican Wave governors Rick Scott of Florida, Nathan Deal of Georgia and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

History from Hendrik Van Loon — Charlie Pierce harks back to a storyteller of yore.

In his recent documentary about the Roosevelt family, Ken Burns alluded to a gentleman named Hendrik Van Loon. (At one point, Burns put up the front page of a newspaper with Van Loon’s byline.) The name alone was enough to get our house a’stir. (It is now my third-favorite name in American political history behind Elihu Root and Thurlow Weed.) So, the family Internet sleuth worked dark magic and we discovered that Van Loon was quite the character. Journalist. Author. Early and prolific anti-Nazi. Friend and confidante of FDR. And winner of the very first Newbery Medal (in 1922) for The Story Of Mankind, a young people’s book that delivered exactly what its title said it would deliver. The book was massive, and it sold massively. It was made into a movie starring Ronald Colman and the Marx Brothers, and Van Loon’s family added chapters to the original all the way up into the 1990’s. Van Loon went on to write other formidable doorstops for young folks including The Story Of The Bible and Tolerance. Van Loon did not condescend to the young reader’s allegedly short attention span, as we discovered as the books began arriving at our house this past week. Hendrik Van Loon’s readers were readers for the 15th round, they were.

It turns out that Van Loon is a remarkably discursive, and utterly eccentric, stylist, following his peculiar muse to fascinating and unmapped literary acreages. He has a positive gift for off-the-wall historical comparisons and, occasionally, he appears to be having his readers on. These characteristics, of course, made him an instant favorite at this shebeen, so much so that we have decided to give him his own space in the hopes of introducing his distinctive prose stylings to another generation which, we hope, will imitate them so as to confound their English teachers, baffle the gang at the Educational Testing Service, and raise holy hell with education “reformers” everywhere.

Our debut offering comes from The Story Of The Bible, in which Hendrik points out to his readers that, as far as Tacitus was concerned, the religious fervor of the devotees of a certain itinerant preacher in distant Judea was something of a sideshow, given the major events of the day. Van Loon writes:

The Christ in question had probably been a preacher in some obscure little synagogue in Galilee or Judaea. Of course, there was more than a probablilty that Nero had been too severe. On the other hand, it was better not to be too lenient in such matters. And there the question rested, as far as Tacitus was concerned. He never mentioned the offending sect again. His interest was entirely academic and such as we might take in the trouble between the Canadian Mounted Police and those strange Russian sects which inhabit the western portion of that vast empire of forests and grain fields.

Today’s Assignment: Why Jesus Christ Is Like The Mounties. Discuss.

Doonesbury — Welcome home.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kissinger: “Smash Cuba”

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, aka Dr. Evil, plotted to overthrow the Cuban government in 1976, according to the New York Times.

Nearly 40 years ago, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger mapped out secret contingency plans to launch airstrikes against Havana and “smash Cuba,” newly disclosed government documents show.

Mr. Kissinger was so irked by Cuba’s military incursion into Angola that in 1976 he convened a top-secret group of senior officials to work out possible retaliatory measures in case Cuba deployed forces to other African nations, according to documents declassified by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library at the request of the National Security Archive, a research group.

The officials outlined plans to strike ports and military installations in Cuba and to send Marine battalions to the United States Navy base at Guantánamo Bay to “clobber” the Cubans, as Mr. Kissinger put it, according to the records. Mr. Kissinger, the documents show, worried that the United States would look weak if it did not stand up to a country of just eight million people.

“I think sooner or later we are going to have to crack the Cubans,” Mr. Kissinger told President Ford at a meeting in the Oval Office in 1976, according to a transcript.

Because that worked so well against North Vietnam, right?

I don’t think anyone around here harbors any special affection for the Castro brothers, but starting a war against them is just insane.  But then again, we’re talking about Henry Kissinger, who never met a country he didn’t want to conquer.

So say we attacked Cuba for whatever reason, and somehow we managed to win (although given his track record, that’s not necessarily a given).  Then what?  Welcome to Pottery Barn, as Colin Powell might say: You broke it, you bought it.  What would we have done with a country of 8 million people who were now dependent on us?  Put a puppet government in place?  Pour in tons of money?  Hand it over to capitalism and let McDonald’s and Marriott Hotels move in — along with NAPA Auto Parts to fix up the millions of cars left over from the 1950’s?  Well, that’s not for him to worry about; leave that to the next guy.  After all, Cuba has a long history of Jeffersonian democracy and squeaky-clean entrepreneurship.

Here’s another interesting revelation from the piece:

Mr. Kissinger, who was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977, had previously planned an underground effort to improve relations with Havana. But in late 1975, Mr. Castro sent troops to Angola to help the newly independent nation fend off attacks from South Africa and right-wing guerrillas.

That move infuriated Mr. Kissinger, who was incensed that Mr. Castro had passed up a chance to normalize relations with the United States in favor of pursuing his own foreign policy agenda, Mr. Kornbluh said.

“Nobody has known that at the very end of a really remarkable effort to normalize relations, Kissinger, the global chessboard player, was insulted that a small country would ruin his plans for Africa and was essentially prepared to bring the imperial force of the United States on Fidel Castro’s head,” Mr. Kornbluh said.

So it wasn’t that Castro was sending forces to Angola in an attempt to turn southern Africa into another worker’s paradise and spread the scourge of godless Communism.  It was because Castro got there first.

“You can see in the conversation with Gerald Ford that he is extremely apoplectic,” Mr. Kornbluh said, adding that Mr. Kissinger used “language about doing harm to Cuba that is pretty quintessentially aggressive.”

Shorter version: “Mine!  Mine!  Mine!  No fair!” followed by stomping of little feet and throwing of toys around the nursery.

Fortunately for us, though, the plans went nowhere because Jimmy Carter won the election and Henry Kissinger shuffled off to the backstage of history.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Reading

Warhawks Hawking War — Those pro-war pundits on cable TV have an agenda: their bank accounts.  Lee Fang reports in The Nation.

If you read enough news and watch enough cable television about the threat of the Islamic State, the radical Sunni Muslim militia group better known simply as ISIS, you will inevitably encounter a parade of retired generals demanding an increased US military presence in the region. They will say that our government should deploy, as retired General Anthony Zinni demanded, up to 10,000 American boots on the ground to battle ISIS. Or as in retired General Jack Keane’s case, they will make more vague demands, such as for “offensive” air strikes and the deployment of more military advisers to the region.

But what you won’t learn from media coverage of ISIS is that many of these former Pentagon officials have skin in the game as paid directors and advisers to some of the largest military contractors in the world. Ramping up America’s military presence in Iraq and directly entering the war in Syria, along with greater military spending more broadly, is a debatable solution to a complex political and sectarian conflict. But those goals do unquestionably benefit one player in this saga: America’s defense industry.

Keane is a great example of this phenomenon. His think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which he oversees along with neoconservative partisans Liz Cheney and William Kristol, has provided the data on ISIS used for multiple stories by The New York Times, the BBC and other leading outlets.

Keane has appeared on Fox News at least nine times over the last two months to promote the idea that the best way to stop ISIS is through military action—in particular, through air strikes deep into ISIS-held territory. In one of the only congressional hearings about ISIS over the summer, Keane was there to testify and call for more American military engagement. On Wednesday evening, Keane declared President Obama’s speech on defeating ISIS insufficient, arguing that a bolder strategy is necessary. “I truly believe we need to put special operation forces in there,” he told host Megyn Kelly.

Left unsaid during his media appearances (and left unmentioned on his congressional witness disclosure form) are Keane’s other gigs: as special adviser to Academi, the contractor formerly known as Blackwater; as a board member to tank and aircraft manufacturer General Dynamics; a “venture partner” to SCP Partners, an investment firm that partners with defense contractors, including XVionics, an “operations management decision support system” company used in Air Force drone training; and as president of his own consulting firm, GSI LLC.

To portray Keane as simply a think tank leader and a former military official, as the media have done, obscures a fairly lucrative career in the contracting world. For the General Dynamics role alone, Keane has been paid a six-figure salary in cash and stock options since he joined the firm in 2004; last year, General Dynamics paid him $258,006.

The Truth About Standardized Tests: They Don’t Work — Robert Hach in Salon on the bane of teaching to the test.

In recent years, I have begun each semester by asking my first-year composition students two questions, one theoretical and the other practical. First, the theoretical question: What is the purpose of testing? Then the practical question: What happens to the information they study for a test after students have taken the test. My students’ answers to both questions typically achieve virtual unanimity. The purpose of testing, they say, is to find out how much students have “learned,” which is to say, how much they “know.” After they take the test, these same students testify, they forget virtually all of the information they “learned” for the test.

In the subsequent discussion, I ask them what their answers to these questions suggest about their experience in the public school system (only a tiny minority of Miami Dade College students having attended private schools). Did the tests they took achieve the purpose of revealing how much they had learned, how much they know, about the subjects on which they were tested? If they passed those tests (as they must have in that they had been allowed to continue their education) and yet had forgotten the information about the subjects on which they were tested, can they legitimately say that they “learned” that information, and as a result, that they now “know” it? And if they didn’t learn it and, as a result, don’t know it, what was the outcome of their public education?

The answer is surely not that public school students don’t learn anything. They do, after all, learn how to take tests. As standardized testing has swallowed up public education in the U.S. in the twenty-first century, its ravenous hunger intensifying yearly since the federal mandate inaugurated by President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and perpetuated by President Obama’s Race to the Top, students have largely become test-takers. As a result, their minds have been increasingly downsized to the mental equivalent of shrunken heads (trophies of the class warfare waged by the corporate interests who profit so handsomely from standardized testing).

Of course, students have always had to take tests. But tests (i.e., multiple-choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank) used to be simply one of the tools in the educational tool box. And the least effective tool when it came to assessing student learning. Tests were also the refuge of teachers who lacked the skills or the motivation, first, to engage students’ interest in their subjects, opening their understanding and inspiring their imagination, and, second, to formulate meaningful ways to measure their students’ learning. All teachers had to test their students, but for good teachers (of which there have always been many) testing was, at best, a necessary evil.

The limits of public education must be acknowledged if the most is to be made of it. One teacher per 20 (to 40 or more) students necessarily limits what teachers can accomplish in the best of systems. The educational ideal of the Socratic dialogue assumes an ongoing interaction, whatever the subject may be, between a teacher and a few students, who avail themselves of equal opportunity to question and challenge their teacher, who questions and challenges each student. And the teacher is able to continually assess the students’ understanding of the subject matter based on what those students ask and answer. The classroom setting, by contrast, is an artificial learning environment that threatens to squelch curiosity by the sterility of its structure, and the teacher-to-student ratio typically precludes the kind of interactive dynamic that makes learning natural and lively. The best public school teachers have always found ways to mitigate and compensate for the limitations of the public school setting, but those limitations, nonetheless, remain. (And, as a result, education “reformers” can always point to inadequacies and shortcomings, to whatever degree inescapable—and to whatever degree typically exaggerated by would-be reformers—when they have an innovation to push.) Testing has always seemed necessary to assess the learning of students whose numbers make it impossible for teachers to know them well enough to measure individually their knowledge of subjects.

The Last Carousel Craftsmen — The past lives on, going in circles.  Bourree Lam in The Atlantic reports.

What do you think of when you hear the word “carousel”? Is it 1920s Paris with its glittering lights, music-box tunes, beautiful vintage horses, going round and round near Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre? That’s what I used to see, largely due to the 2001 movie Amélie. But recently, I’ve been thinking of a very different place when I think about carousels. And that place is much closer to home: Ohio.

That may seem like an odd choice, but, as it turns out, there are only two dedicated full-service carousel building companies in America, and they are both located in Ohio: Carousel Works in Mansfield and Carousels And Carvings in Marion.

“We’ve got ourselves a little cottage industry going here,” said Todd Goings of Carousel and Carvings. “[Carousel Works and Carousel and Carvings] are the only ones [where] the owners of the company are the carvers working in the shop.”

While there are other carvers (both hobbyists and professionals), and shops that cast fiberglass or metal carousel replications, along with many companies that sell all kinds of amusement rides—these two companies in Ohio appear to be the only ones taking carousels from design to finish and carving them from wood the old-fashioned way.

Art Ritchie and Dan Jones of Carousel Works first came to Ohio in the late 1980s to build a carousel for the Carousel District in Mansfield. Since then, they’ve sold 58 carousels and restored dozens.

Ritchie began carving in 1973, making anything from furniture to signs. Back then, he recalls, he would carve anything that had a payday. One day, a customer came by and asked him for a quote for a carousel horse. He estimated that it would cost about $1,800. “He couldn’t get his pocketbook out fast enough,” Ritchie remembers.

He didn’t know it then, but Ritchie was then at the leading edge of a revival of interest in carousels in America. Whether it’s nostalgia for childhood or a general interest in all things from the turn of the century, carousel fever has been growing steadily since the 1980s. This wasn’t always the case, as American carousel history has really had its ups and downs.

Steam-powered carousels date back to the turn of the century, the period that carousel enthusiasts now refer to as the “golden age” of American carousel-making. The big names from that era: Charles Looff and Charles Carmel of Coney Island, Gustav Dentzel in Philadelphia, and a handful of other master carvers—immigrants from France, Russia, and Germany but whose work defined the classic American carousel style. All in all, there are nine notable workshops from that time whose carousels are today considered collectables.

Doonesbury — 30% happy.