Monday, February 27, 2006

Memories from the War on the War on Christmas

This is really a relic, but worth it, a CNN transcript of some sort of odd debate between Sam Seder and Bob Knight.

PHILLIPS: Alright, Tony. Thanks.

Merry Christmas or happy holidays, a Christmas tree or a holiday tree, Which should it be? It depends on whom you ask. We've seen controversy, most notably prompted by the White House. It sent out cards, this card as a matter of fact, wishing a holiday season of hope and happiness. No mention of Christmas.

Some thoughts now on the subject. Sam Seder hosts the show "Majority Report" on Air America Radio. Bob Knight is the director of the Culture and Family Institute, it's affiliated with the Christian conservative organization, Concerned Women for America.

Gentleman, great to have you with me.

SAM SEDER, HOST, "MAJORITY REPORT": Thanks for having us on.

PHILLIPS: Let's start with the holiday card. What do you think, Sam?

SEDER: Listen, as far as the war on Christmas goes, I feel like we should be waging a war on Christmas. I mean, I believe that Christmas, it's almost proven that Christmas has nuclear weapons, can be an imminent threat to this country, that they have operative ties with terrorists and I believe that we should sacrifice thousands of American lives in pursuit of this war on Christmas. And hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money.

PHILLIPS: Is it a war on Christmas, a war Christians, a war on over-political correctness or just a lot of people with way too much time on their hands?

SEDER: I would say probably, if I was to be serious about it, too much time on their hands, but I'd like to get back to the operational ties between Santa Claus and al Qaeda.

PHILLIPS: I don't think that exists. Bob? Help me out here.

SEDER: We have intelligence, we have intelligence.

PHILLIPS: You have intel. Where exactly does your intel come from?

SEDER: Well, we have tortured an elf and it's actually how we got the same information from Al Libbi. It's exactly the same way the Bush administration got this info about the operational ties between al Qaeda and Saddam.

PHILLIPS: Okay, Bob Knight, Sam is tying in now the lack of information regarding weapons of mass destruction and somehow moving that into Santa Claus. Help me out here. What's going on? Is this a war on Christians, a war on Christmas? Is this too much political correctness?

BOB KNIGHT, CULTURE AND FAMILY INSTITUTE: Well, first I want to compliment him on his dry humor, but this is actually a very serious subject, because a lot of people are waking up to realize that the war on Christmas is really the culmination of a war on faith and the idea that the public square has to be cleansed of any religious expression, particularly Christian religious expression.

At one time "happy holidays" was a welcome addition to "Merry Christmas," so you wouldn't say the same thing over and over again, but a lot of people now see it as a substitute, and it's very gratuitous at times.

And it's actually insulting when you're talking about Christmas day or a Christmas tree and you can't bring yourself to use the word for fear of offending someone. In the name of diversity we're a less free country when that happens.

PHILLIPS: It's interesting, Sam, because this is a time where, if anything, we want to be even more sensitive to diversity considering everything that's happening with regard to war on terror, we're learning so much more about different religions, different ethnicities and trying to become more of one, versus being segregated.

KNIGHT: Yes, well, Kyra, I mean, listen, I would like Bob to tell me who is the person who has been offended by someone saying Merry Christmas to them? I've never met that person.

I don't celebrate Christmas. But if someone says "Merry Christmas" to me, I either think, well, it's a little bit odd, it's like me saying happy birthday to you on my birthday, but no one cares.

But I will tell you this, as we wage the war on the war on the war on the war on Christmas on our radio show. News Corp., Fox News, those people who have started this entire war on Christmas mean, fake war, they're having a holiday party.

President Bush saying "Happy Holidays." Tokyo Rose, Laura Bush, saying "Happy Holidays" to her dogs in the video, I'm sure you've seen it. I mean, these are the things that we should be talking about when we are waging this war in Iraq, we should be equating it to the war on Christmas.

What else would Bob Knight have an opportunity to do, how else would he get on television if he wasn't pretending to be attacked.

KINGHT: This would be funny except it is serious to a lot of people who have seen their faith cleansed from the public square systemically.

SEDER: Are you suggesting, Bob, that someone can't celebrate Christmas in America? Tell me about the person who can escape the celebration.

KNIGHT: Can I get a word in here?

PHILLIPS: Go ahead, Bob.

KNIGHT: I'm talking about things like in Ridgeway, Wisconsin, where the school children in the public school were told they couldn't sing "Silent Night," so they substituted "Oh, Cold Night." When you take Jesus out of anything it gets pretty cold, so it's apt.

But it's outrageous, they had children actually singing a bastardized version of "Silent Night."


SEDER: This may come as a shock to you, Bob, but I don't consider Jesus the messiah. If you're going to ask me to praise Jesus, I'm going to be a little offended. I don't think the singing of the song, you can find other songs to sing, so what about "Silent Night."

KNIGHT: Because you're offended none of those other kids can celebrate the great heritage of Christmas carols.

SEDER: I'm not the one who said they couldn't do that.

KNIGHT: You're a grinch, sir, that's all you are.

SEDER: Why are you trying to force conversions on people?

KNIGHT: I'm not forcing conversions by singing a Christmas carol.

SEDER: You are, absolutely.

PHILLIPS: Let me ask you guys about the pressure that's been put on stores, for example.

American Family Association called for the boycott of Target stores the weekend after Thanksgiving, accusing the chain of banning the phrase "Merry Christmas" from its stores, a charge that Target denies.

Pressure from conservative groups, looks like it has an impact here. Complaints from the Catholic League, Wal-Mart agreed to create a Christmas page on its Web site, rather than a holiday page. Macy's, which is perhaps more closely associated with Christmas than any other retailers, sent activists a letter touting its use of "Merry Christmas" in ads and store windows after it was the target of a small scale boycott last year.

This is pretty amazing, all these boycotts of pressuring all these stores, these businesses, Bob.

KNIGHT: These businesses are taking millions and millions of dollars in from Christians, in particular, and others who celebrate Christmas, giving gifts in the name of the Christmas season, and yet they're so worried about offending people like my opponent here that they don't want to mention the word Christmas. People are sick and tired.

SEDER: Bob, it's the holiday time, I'm not your opponent.

KNIGHT: Yes, you are. Yes, you are.

SEDER: I do agree with Bob. I think what should happen is companies should calculate how much money they're getting from people who are celebrating Christmas and provide exactly that much amount of Merry Christmas, because that is exactly how I would want any type of religious holiday to be celebrated.

KNIGHT: Can I mention something that puts it in perspective?

PHILLIPS: Would we be having the same argument about Hanukkah, I'm curious?

SEDER: Would we have the same argument about Hanukkah?

KNIGHT: Hanukkah is not the same as Christmas. It's not a major holiday, for one thing.


KNIGHT: This is the Christmas season, that's why billions of dollars are really being spent.

SEDER: It's also the winter solstice, too.

PHILLIPS: People might argue that Hanukkah is just as big as Christmas.

SEDER: I'd have to agree with Bob. I would have to agree with Bob on that.

KNIGHT: I have some Jewish friends and none of them say Hanukkah is as big as Christmas.

SEDER: Hannukah is not a high holiday. Our high holidays are Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur, which I'm sure Bob has been protesting why there are not more Yom Kippur sales or Rosh Hashanah sales during those holidays. Why shouldn't there be, right Bob?

KNIGHT: If that was associated with that holiday, then maybe I would join you. But it never has been.

SEDER: Bob, have you ever protested Martin Luther King Day not being celebrated. Do you resent when people don't say "Happy Martin Luther King Day" a month out in advance?

KNIGHT: Let's put this in perspective.

PHILLIPS: Bob, I want you to be able to respond. What's interesting is a CNN U.S.A. Today Gallup poll, the question was "Is it okay for people to say Merry Christmas, 88 percent said yes, 11 percent said no."

KNIGHT: 96 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. Why would we care about offending the four percent that get offended by it?


PHILLIPS: Why do we care? Why are we making all the changes, Bob?

SEDER: Bob's where is the war, where are the battle lines, you can tell me "Silent Night" can't be sung in one school in Wisconsin.

KNIGHT: That's just one example, that's not the totality, so don't create that straw man.

SEDER: What is the totality?

The totality is -- you brought it up. The totality is 88 percent of the American population has no problem with it.

You don't care about the people who don't celebrate Christmas, fine. But I don't celebrate Christmas and I don't care. So, why are we wasting everybody's time? It's so that you can fund raise, that's why Bob. And I think you know that's true.

PHILLIPS: Bob, I'm going to let you have the final thought.

KNIGHT: OK. You know, when the Nazis moved into Austria in 1936...

SEDER: Oh, that's offensive, Bob, to raise Nazis. KNIGHT: They immediately removed from the schools. You can read about it in...

PHILLIPS: Hold on, Sam. Let Bob make his point. Let Bob make his point. Go ahead, Bob.

KNIGHT: You can't even let me speak. Can you? You're so...

Maria Trapp wrote the story of the Trapp singers that's in "The Sound of Music," and she said she sent her kids to school after the Nazis took over. And they came home and said mama, we can't say the word Christmas anymore. It's now winter holiday.

I think that ought to disturb people...

SEDER: Kyra, that's offensive.

KNIGHT: ...that we're moving toward that kind of attitude in this country.

SEDER: The Puritans also outlawed Christmas. The founding fathers of this country would fine you in Massachusetts if you celebrated Christmas in the beginning. So don't talk about Nazis, Bob. I think that's really inappropriate.

Why do you have to bring hate to this Christmas and holiday season? That's so sad, Bob.

KNIGHT: Well, let's go to the Soviet Union then too. They had grandfather frost.

Well, it's the truth. You ought to read the book yourself, and maybe you'll change your mind.

SEDER: It's just sad that you have to raise Nazis when you're talking about Christmas and the holiday season. And we all know that Christmas actually, Tannenbaum, it's a German holiday. Bob, I'm really, really disappointed in you.

KNIGHT: I'm sorry to disappoint you, but if you can't understand the force of history...

SEDER: To bring up Nazis, Bob.

KNIGHT: I'm not calling you a Nazi.

SEDER: Oh, who you calling Nazi? Who are you calling a Nazi, sir?

KNIGHT: I'm not.

PHILLIPS: Gentlemen, we got to let it there. We could probably...

SEDER: You are, sir.

PHILLIPS: Sam Seder...

SEDER: I'm offended.

PHILLIPS: ..."Majority Report."

SEDER: Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Bob Knight director of Culture and Family Institute.

Gentlemen, hey it's a discussion. Everyone is talking about it, that is for sure. A lot of people are talking about it I should say. Now, I'm just curious do I say Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, which...

KNIGHT: Well, I'd like to say Merry Christmas if I have the opportunity.

SEDER: Don't cut and run from the war on Christmas.

PHILLIPS: Thanks, gentlemen, talk to you later.

KNIGHT: Thank you.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

It's Cool To Be Ignorant...About Protesters that Is.

I went looking for articles about any protests of the winter Olympic Games in Torino on the internet, and the first thing I found was this non-article in which some hack brags about his ignorance for two pages. It falls into the genre of non-story which may be especially reserved for left-wing activism. The theme is "who are these people? Gosh, I don't understand them, and who could? Aren't they silly? Aren't I funny? yuk yuk." I don't understand how someone could come to the conclusion that his own complete failure to do any actual research says something about the people he went looking for and didn't find. But, I guess in this world, if the guy from Newsweek didn't see it at the train station, it must not exist.

I did watch more of the winter games than I'd like to admit, so I noticed that there was a lot of corporate advertizing and no discussion of anything meaningful about Torino. One thing that missed the mainstream media coverage of the games was that the Torino City Council recently passed a coca-cola boycott for the whole town. Now this is appropriate in a country where people refer to anything annoyingly American as "fiume di coca cola," and doubly so in a place about to be taken over by corporate America for two weeks. The Guardian does have a clearer explanation of the protests against the Olympic torch as it made its way through Italy, as well as critics of the damage done to Torino by the Olympic sports arenas and the Olympic Village. Reuters' coverage, now at Yahoo news, was OK too. From that report, you can bet Torino was an armed camp in preparation for G8 style protests. ( several of the anti-protester/anti-anarchist articles there were references to the killing of the Italian protestor in Genoa as the result of some kind of anarchist" violence. "Predictable, but sad anyway.)
Dave Zirin, author of "What's My Name, Fool?" and frequent commenter on WBAI, has an article that I think is generally accurate, although since the standard of US Olympic coverage has been so bad in the past, I'd have to agree with one of the comments after his article who said it wasn't anywhere near as bad as it was four yers ago and more; at least they covered events w/no American contenders (Cross Country Skiing) did feature stories on non-US athletes like Croatian Anja Pearson, and one of the cheesy-corporate sponsor movies was a story about the history of Chinese figure skating involving archival clips of the coach, Yao Bin, in his first olympics. Now, if Zirin had analyzed the post-cold war nature of this new corporate global empire, he could have said more about that weird little tale of China.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Horowitz's List

All I can say is I'm disappointed I'm not on it! and neither are Robin DG Kelley, Dave Roediger, Henry Abelove and Paula Rabinowitz. Those dangerous folks wera such an inspriation. Horowitz's memory is short, or he's changed his mind on Roediger. Didn't he dedicate an entire book to trashing him and other people in critical race theory? As it is, Horowitz includes people I wouldn't consider that dangerous at all. Michael Berube is a witty and articulate supporter of the Democratic Party, and one of the few famous full-timers who are willing to hang out with adjunct professors, but he's no revolutionary. Todd Gitlin, who supported the US in Afghanistan, is more dangerous to the left than he is to the right. Frederic Jameson is a Marxist, but his work is probably unintelligible to the uninitiated. I really liked his book, The Political Unconscious,a brilliant Marxist history of the novel, but unless there's something I don't know about his teaching, he's not inspiring any of the kids to join the revolution - is he?
I guess Horowitz and I just see "danger to the Republic" in different ways. I had thought that my Marxist shenannigans (one of my students complimented me on my "Baby Marxism" lecture the other day) while teaching the working classes of NYC would be more dangerous than the teaching of exactly the same thing to the ruling classes at any Ivy League university. Perhaps Horowitz isn't talking about real danger to the republic, but listing those who are most threatening to him personally. Oh, I smell so much ressentiment in the air. It seems to drive Horowitz just MAD when his political enemies get more kudos in the academy than he. Horowitz seems to have missed the point that even the "most dangerous" professors often lament; that the academy has been a wonderful outlet for defusing political activism on the left. He also doesn't really understand who has the most power in the academy: the well-funded "hard" sciences and the economics departments. Now those people are dangerous.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Faculty Governance -- What an Idea

I see from Alan Dershowitz's latest little hissy-fit (an excerpt was posted in a comment on my "new heights of absurdity" blog post about the cfp for the Leibowski conference), there's something outrageous about academic faculty influencing decisions about their university President. As we can see from Lawrence Summers' recent resignation following protests by faculty and students, those faculty at Harvard haven't yet learned that it's only the Board of Trustees or the seven member "Harvard Corporation" that should get to make such important decisions about how their workplace is run. To call for a president who can represent the faculty and students is, well, bad sportsmanship, it seems.
In his article about the Summers' resignation, Dershowitz, who thinks that torture or "coercive interrogation" done by the state is just fine, is concerned about the undemocratic coercive force of the academic "hard left" as he refers to them. They might just wag their fingers so loudly in disapproval of a University President, that he'd be forced to resign and go look for another job, or even - live off the interest on his many investments?
It's oh so obvious, Dershowitz says, that this "hard left" is really in charge of everything in American academia, over which they have achieved a coup.

According to him and others in the media, Summers is a poor wittle victim of the "PC police." After all, they ask, what's so bad about Summers? He's only involved in a fraud scandal, completely hostile to an entire branch of the institution he governed, and an outspoken advocate of biological theories of male superiority. I guess if you're a woman who teaches at Harvard, you should just suck it up, along with that lower pay check...because as Summers sees it, economists are smarter than sociologists and deserve higher pay, and men are innately better at science and math than are women.
Maybe his supporters like him because of that prestigious "Lawrence Summers Award" that the Multinational Monitor gives out every year. Poor, Poor, Mr. Summers, first the world bank, then Clinton's cabinet, and now Harvard. Can't he EVER find a job that he can keep? Somehow, I think he'll probably land on his feet.
More than one completely fraudulent hack has survived a public shaming to remain popular with the global elite.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Edna Lewis Remembered

Just as I was getting ready to write my dissertation, and a few days before the death of Lady Diana, I went to Chicago for a three-day-weekend with my girlfriends, Amy and Valerie. One of the best events we attended as a Black Heritage fair in a park near the DuSable museum. We wandered around a bit when, what a surprise -- there was Edna Lewis, about to do a cooking demonstration. Delicious fried green tomatoes in olive oil and ham biscuits. I wasn't a vegetarian yet, so I sampled it all. It exemplified the spirit of her cooking: simple, cooked just enough, and with the best fresh ingredients.
I was star-struck and couldn't wait to meet her. About four years before, I had cooked at Crooks' Corner in Chapel Hill, which had been owned by a Lewis disciple, Bill Neal - who by the time I worked there had died of AIDS. I was really introduced to Southern cooking through Neal's restaurant, as my own house was one of Yankee ex-pats, and through working there, I became a fan of Lewis', whose traditionalism was of the best, most radical sort. At the festival, the man who introduced her referred to her as preserving the history of the "black hand that stirred the pot" in Southern cooking. I went up and introduced myself to her and we talked a bit about Chapel Hill, about Bill Neal and his passing, and his son, whom I'd gone to high school with, and about Mama Dips at Dips' Kitchen. We laughed and she was sweet and gracious. I got my friends to take some pictures of me with her. I said, " I bet this happens to you all the time," and she said with a smile, "Oh, pretty much."
Now that I read her NY Times obituary, I'm not that surprised to see that she had a connection to the Communist Party in New York in the late forties, but oh how sorry I am that I didn't know this when I met her. At the time I wanted to connect with her through the one thing I really did know we had in common - Chapel Hill and its Southern restaurants, where she'd been the trailblazer. It just reminds me of how hard stereotypes are to shake, because with her Southern accent and Southern focus, I never thought of her as a sophisticated city woman, but she knew that world well and chose to leave it to return South in the 1960s.
I still wonder what it was like for her, running the kitchen at Fearrington House, the old plantation outside Chapel Hill, whose name was shared by a good number of the African-American kids I'd gone to school with. But now I wonder who she spent time with in those days at Cafe Nicholson in NY, the stories she could have told me about cooking for Claudia Jones' defense committee /or hanging out with Queen Mother Moore? Well, now I'll never know, but maybe I'll know to look for her name in their letters the next time I'm in the archive.

New Heights of Absurdity

An anonymous reader brought my attention to this new effort to pass a sedition law in the US, as a noble successor to two previous unconstitutional pieces of legislation: the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the Sedition Act of 1918.

Meanwhile, I got this notice in my mailbox today alogn with several other MLA calls for papers, I particularly like the part that says: "Intellectually rigorous approaches that avoid the familiar ruts of conference papers--inspired by the research methods of the surrealist project, for instance--are particularly welcome"


Announcement and Call for Papers

The Lebowski Cult: An Academic Symposium
28-29 September 2006
The Executive West
830 Phillips Lane
Louisville, Kentucky

The aim of this small symposium is to invent a critical program equal to
the task of interpreting The Big Lebowski (1998) and addressing the
Lebowski cult that has quickly grown in its wake, both the legions of
more or less public fans as well as the cultural politics, resonances,
and after-affects of their fanaticism.

The 5th Annual Lebowski Fest (
scheduled to follow the symposium, September 29th & 30th, will be
included in the conference registration.

The organizers invite papers ranging in approach from the theoretical to
the documentary, from alternative historicism to cultural phenomenology.
Intellectually rigorous approaches that avoid the familiar ruts of
conference papers--inspired by the research methods of the surrealist
project, for instance--are particularly welcome on Lebowski and the
following topics:

Auteur Theory and Cult Film, the sixties and the nineties, Creedence and
The Eagles, Bob Dylan and Kenny Rogers, Logjammin and Gutterballs,
Fluxus and the Brunswick aesthetic, fans and audiences, the hard-boiled
and the postmodern, nihilism and existentialism, the Port Huron
Statement, Malibu, Busby Berkeley, Saddam, The Long Goodbye, Nixon,
bowling, Tara Reid, The Big Sleep, Vietnam, hippies, the Jesus,
language, citation, catch-phrases, cliche, coinage, dreaming, "smart"
films, irony, the last Western, Los Angeles, or what-have-you.

An abstract of about 500 words as well as a brief CV should be e-mailed
(in the body of the e-mail: no attachments) by March 1st, 2006, to both
Aaron Jaffe, Assistant Professor of English, University of Louisville,, and Ed Comentale, Associate Professor of
English, Indiana University,

As the symposium will be held in a local bowling alley, participants
should arrange to bring appropriate footwear or be prepared to rent on

Yes, I suppose it's funny, funny in the way that the rest of hipster-irony is funny. Oh, I'm so glad to see my fellow-academics are striving to achieve such relevance in this time of world-wide crisis. It's heartening to know that at least one of the coordinators of this symposium actually has tenure at a major research institution. That must be because their work is so very, very rigorous and challenging.

The Devils' Miner: Movie Review

Yesterday afternoon, I went to see the film, "The Devil's Miner" at MOMA. This is a devastating film about child labor in the silver mines of Potosi in Bolivia. It is similar to the extremely popular film of last year, Born into Brothels, in depicting children whose situation seems hopeless and whose living and working conditions are nearly unimaginable to the average middle-class viewer. The focus in "the Devil's Miner" is Basilio Vargas, a fourteen year old boy who works 12 to 24 hour shifts in the silver mine of Cerro Rico,and is the primary bread-winner in his small family. We are told at the beginning of the film that this mountain in Bolivia, where silver mining has gone on since the time of Spanish colonialism, has killed 8 million miners, and thus is called "the mountain that eats men alive." Even when not killed by accidents, miners typically die in their 30s and 40s because of silicosis.
In keeping with the precariousness of the mines, the miners maintain shrines to "Tio," a horned god/devil, to whom they make sacrifices of coca leaves, liquor, blood, and cigarettes, asking for protection from mine accidents and praying for a strong vein of silver. At several points in the film, you see Basilio and his 12 year-old brother, Bernadino crouching in front of Tio in his special corner in the mine, chewing coca leaves talking about their fears of accidents. Strangely, even though Basilio tells Bernadino that Tio originated from the Spanish, who created him to force the Indios "who feared all kinds of different Gods" to go back to work after a major rebellion during the colonial days, he still believes in him, makes him offerings, and wants his younger brother to learn how to make offerings to Tio too.
Seeing these tiny boys travelling into the dark, rickety silver mines with their chisels and headlamps is simply heartbreaking. I thought that the evangelical free-marketeers should be forced to watch this movie with their eyelids propped open "Clockwork Orange" style, so that they might be sympathetic, if not to the plight of young children in the greedy maw of international capital, at least to what they would see as their immortal souls.
According to the web-page of Kinder Not Hilfe," a German aid organization dedicated to helping the children who work in the mines, there are about 6500 children working in the Cerro Rico mines today. This film, in addition to providing the privileged with a glimpse into the world that's supporting our excessive consumption, reveals the consequences of free-market economics. Why does Basilio have to work in the mine? Why, because his father died. With no male breadwinner, his family depends on his income. A society with a welfare state would prevent the desperation that leads 6000 little Basilios into the mines every year. Why does the mine still eat men? It's not because of copious profits. This particular mountain has long given up the majority of its silver, but it remains the best or perhaps, the only option for those miners' cooperatives who still go in day after day to the "antique" mines, hoping to scratch a living out of minimal amounts of precious metals. If Bolivia had not been forced into austerity reforms and privatization in the 1980s, perhaps those men in the mines would be working in farming villages or in craft collectives, like Basilio's father, who had been a blanket weaver. Why would anyone go into a spent mine to make a living if there were any other choice? Working in that mine is something like living on the edge of a garbage dump in Tijuana, only more dangerous.
While the film is moving and displays the tragedy of child labor in the mines, it does not provide enough economic context for most viewers to make sense of the problem. It would be easy enough to leave the film with the idea that groups like the US-based CARE, which tries to eradicate child labor by "educating" the poor about the importance of going to school, etc., are actually doing something useful.
However, for the curious, "The Devil's Miner" can lead to a search for background information, and does provide some context for the recent political victory of Evo Morales, which has been, as usual, poorly understood in the US.
Seeing the film made me want to know more about Bolivia, and the city of Potosi, which supported Morales. In my google-fest this morning, I learned that Potosi was also at the center of recent protests against water-privatization schemes that Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba describes here and in his "Blog from Bolivia." Also worth reading is Nick Buxton's "Open Veins" blog, which takes its title from Galleano's classic.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

What's Not Acceptable

I just got done reading an important message from my union president about the ongoing negotiations over the CUNY faculty's contract. (it might take a while for the 2/16 update to hit the webpage - so if it's not there when you check the link come back later.)

There's a lot in it this latest report from contract negotiations with CUNY management to provoke anger.

To catch you up to speed, here's the context. Our union is called the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and we represent CUNY's faculty. Our most recent contract expired on Halloween of 2002. For two years, the administration made no financial offer at all, despite efforts at bargaining and proposals by the reps. of the faculty. THEN, in December of 2004, management offered us a 1.5% raise over four years and a set of major give-backs. One of management's most obnoxious demands was that the department chairs become administrative positions and no longer part of the faculty. For faculty governance, hiring and tenure decisions, this would be a disaster. Other demands included the idea that members of the bargaining team would not be allowed to take notes during bargaining sessions. They wanted us to return early in the Summer, and they gave us nothing for health care benefits, which are already minimal. (no dental coverage, for starters).

As you can imagine, we weren't interested.

So, the biggest problem is management intransigence, which is part of a larger pattern in city employee contracts recently, but another problem has been the lack of a coherent campaign on the union's behalf for this contract. When the University made their insulting offer, people got mad, and there was a serious effort to create real action within the union to push for a good contract. Unfortunately, while I believe that the leadership wants to involve the membership, the organizing efforts have not been as strong as they could be. Our first actions went little beyond weekly phone calls to various members of management, not a tactic that brings faculty together in something that feels "collective." Members complained at meetings that there must be "more" that we could be doing, and were indeed eager to do it themselves.
Things began gathering steam as union members (and leaders too) started talking about creative actions that we could take. Meetings and training sessions were held and energy began to build in the Spring of 2005. While there was a concerted desire for more action and genuine frustration with the university's offer, the engagement of that frustration in the membership was inconsistent. Plans began, were tried briefly, and ended almost before they began - before they had a chance to work.
The most serious of these plans of action was the notion of a vote on a job-action (an action on the job affecting work that could include anything from grading papers in public to not turning in grades, to going on an all-out strike). While risky, this idea did lead to an impressive mass membership meeting and a series of conversations with faculty members, but there was not enough turnaround time or continued effort to build it. Building for something like a job action can't be done for two months and then stop just in time for a bargaining session. But that's what happened. Just as the work seemed to be starting, organized events and discussions within the membership ground to a halt while we waited to see just what was going to happen at the bargaining table this time.
In the end, the provisional agreement reached in November of 2005 did involve an increased financial offer, but it made concessions to management (such as changing the time to tenure from five to seven years and adding a full office hour to each week for full-time faculty) about which the membership was not informed until last week. I see this offer as less than what we could have gotten, even in today's harsh climate. Now, however, the University has gone back on its word, and returned to the bargaining table today with a different offer from what was agreed to back in November. During the entire time between the Nov. 14th agreement and the present reneging on the administration's part, there has been almost no organized action by the union. Now, management has left concessions (like extra time to tenure and additional office hours) on the table, but has taken back compensation offers for those changes that had been part of the agreement in November.
What happened??
I believe that the focus on the act of bargaining itself, and the belief that the most critical action is taking place at the bargaining sessions is the reason for this paralysis in our union. Member action, instead of being the focus that really drives the leadership at the table, has become a cheerleading section for whatever is going on at the table, and action starts and stops around the schedule of bargaining sessions, stopping? during or right after sessions at times almost as if too much action might somehow "jeapardize the process." This notion of the bargaining session as in itself the center of the struggle (rather than say, the public square or the workplace) has both immediate effects, such as a contract campaign that "starts and stops," or does a "hurry-up-and-wait" around the bargaining sessions, and more long-term consequences. The focus on the action around the table reinforces the notion that the union is a service organization that exists to "get" the faculty a good contract. No matter how much the leadership says in speeches that the membership actions are "what's putting pressure" on management during the sessions, the fact that every union meeting is focused on reporting to the membership about "what's happening at the table" leads to a feeling of spectatorship and powerlessness among the membership.
The fact that none of us even knew what was in the tentative agreement when it included such a whopping concession as two years added on to our time before tenure adds even more to a dynamic that separates the membership from the union leadership and throws us into a position of dependence. It's likely that the union was legally bound by some agreement not to talk to us, but I find this strange. Why shouldn't we be asked about whether we think it's a good idea to add time to our tenure clock?

But, you might ask..."isn't the bargaining table where the contract is decided?"
The answer is, Yes, of course it is. But - the power of the CUNY faculty is not predominantly located at the bargaining table. It exists in two places: first, in the workplace and secondly, in the city at large. While it may be illegal and difficult for us to engage in a succesful "job action," it should not be difficult for us to make an effort with our larger "social" power. We are a public university that serves more than 400,000 students in 19 different colleges in New York City. The public respects and cares about this institution, and yet there has been seemingly no outreach to the public through the media, or even mass demonstrations that target the people who might support CUNY (rather than members of the bargaining team) to bring this public pressure to bear on the city. It's a major missed opportunity to get the city on our side. Finally, a consistent, ongoing, and obnoxious campaign for ANY particular strategy is bound to put more pressure on management than a campaign that stops every time the leadership hopes that something's really happening "at the table," just as maintaining ongoing one-on-one organizing conversations with members about strategy and goals (regardless of what's going on at the table) is essential for building faculty support that will make the union stronger in the long run.
Meanwhile, it would help if you
write a fax to these guys (follow the link to the PSC website to send faxes to the Governor, Mayor and CUNY chancellor.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Shocker: Christopher Hitchens "Really Unprofessional"

Brian Lehrer just made the understatement of the week. I'm listening to his show while finishing up my tax returns, and heard him say that he though Christopher Hitchens was "really unprofessional" to have given "the finger" to audience members during a debate with David Corn about the Iraq war.
Quel Surprise!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Anxiety Index: Past the Tipping Point

It's sweltering in my over-heated with fossil fuels NY apartment and it's reminding me of what I read in the news on Monday about the impending end of life as we know it. According to an article in the Times Independent, we've already passed the tipping point.
While this goes on, corporate shills like Bjorn Lomborg, who was found officially "dishonest" by the Danish committee on scientific dishonesty remain beloved and influential and maintain a fictional "debate" about the seriousness of global warming.

Drunken Dick?

I wasn't able to blog on Monday because of some problem with blogger, so I have an extra post to squeak in tonight or tomorrow, but I couldn't help adding to the new comment on Saturday's blog entry.
I was just saying to my room-mate that I suspected that Cheney's friend's shooting wasn't as was reported. Once I heard that the Quail hunt was a drive-up and shoot hunting event on the source of all things true, The Daily Show, I wondered even more. So here's a scenario: Dick and the boys are in the lounge, knocking back whiskey, discussing whether he'll get in trouble with the Special Prosecutor for telling Libby to leak Plame's name. Whittington cracks a joke Dick doesn't like, and scowling, the veep raises the shotgun, growls some obscenity, and (whoops!) shoots his friend in the face. 24 hours later, we hear the first reports.
Then, I saw that someone had posted this now deleted story in which the hunting-hostess, Mrs. Armstrong, denied that the boys had been drinking.
After all, he was arrested on drunkenness charges three times in the early 60s.
Maybe I'm making up a wacky conspiracy theory, but who is there to say that things went down the way the people in power said they did?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Good Thing He Keeps those Paramedics Around

In the shooting "accident" this weekend, did anyone else notice that our (vice) President regularly travels with a host of emergency personnel? Following the shooting of his friend, according to vp spokeswoman, Lee Ann McBride....

"Fortunately, the vice president has got a lot of medical people around him and so they were right there and probably more cautious than we would have been," she said. "The vice president has got an ambulance on call, so the ambulance came."

Does anyone else find it troubling that the VP's health is so precarious that he goes hunting with emergency personnel and has an ambulance on call? That seems to me at least as newsworthy as the incident itself.

Friday, February 10, 2006

What Makes Someone a "Democrat"? or....with Democrats Like These, Who Needs Republicans ?

I was just reading the NYT online when I came across this article referring to Michael Bloomberg as a "democrat" in Republican clothing. While I've given up being conned by any notion that either of the bourgeois political parties actually represents the interests of the working class, it does seem to me that this article provides us with a good way to talk about what the Democrats once were and what they've become. The issues that the author of the Bloomberg article describes that make Bloomie a "Democrat" are gun control, stem cell research, more generous public school funding than George Pataki, and endorsing Democrat in a state senate race. With the exception of school funding, these issues are mighty particular - and cultural ones - on which to define party lines. Even in the age of Jackson, the one of the primary constituencies of the Democratic party was white organized labor. Since the 1930s rise of the CIO and the New Deal, you can add Black urban workers to that constituency, and after 1964, you can add African Americans more generally.
Bloomberg's behavior towards municipal and other workers marks him as an arch-conservative plutocrat, and in my opinion, that's more important than Stem Cells as a dividing line. If being a democrat only means opposing the evangelical right wing (stem cells), then being a Democrat today means being slightly to the right of those termed "Rockefeller Republicans."

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Bizarre Result from Intelligence Squared Debate on Iraq

Unless you're British, it's unlikely you know what that headline refers to. Intelligence Squared is a popular British debate series featuring provocative proposals, well-known debaters, audience Q&A and voting before and after the debate. I happened upon them through, where I have a membership. I decided to check out the debate on the proposition "The Time to Quit Iraq is Now" held on January 17th of this year. The debate itself was riveting. The debaters were Rosemary Hollis, Simon Jenkins, and Alistair Crooke for the affirmative position and Amir Taheri, William Shawcross, and Lt. Colonel Tim Spicer against.
Rosemary Hollis, of Chatham House, argued primarily from the position of British self-interest, saying that the situation is about to get even worse and much uglier, and the British should exit before this happens.
Alistair Crooke talked about the growing power of Iran, and argued that the "atmosphere of civil war" is being created by the occupation force's support for a government which is suppressing the Sunni. He said that the longer the US and Britain stay, the harder it is to create a legitimate government. Jenkins summed up the position well, saying that what his side had to prove was: "the longer we stay, the worse it gets." He was the most expressive speaker, describing the occupation as a "military squat," not an occupation, despite how much money is being spent on the war.
On the negative side, Tim Spicer, a private contractor! in Iraq, delivered the standard argument that the insurgency is composed of criminals, former Baathists, and members of Al Quaeda, and that the Iraqi security forces are a viable force that is "making great steps forward," but it is "not yet ready." Amir Tehari, the strongest speaker on the "stay the course" side, is a major neocon, NY Post and National Review contributor, played the heartstrings of the audience with all kinds of appeals to the "Iraqi people," who he says want the foreign troops to stay to "keep their bargain" with the Iraqis. To listen to Tehari, you'd think that the Iraqis were begging the Americans to stay and protect them from a foreign insurgency. There's hardly much to say about William Shawcross, who's sort of the sober man's Christopher Hitchens. A lot of bluster, and not much substance. The fact that people can remain ignorant enough to listen to such piles of horseshit when their own citizens are dying for it just flummoxes me.
To my great surprise, after what seemed to me much less ideological and more informed comments from the affirmative speakers, none of whom was compromised by being a private contractor in Iraq such as Tim Spicer, the speakers against the motion won by a fairly large margin, and this in a country where polls continually reveal opposition to Blair and to the war. My only explanation of the vote would be that the audience members who voted to stay really believe that staying longer will somehow "fix" the mess, and that this vote represents people's sense of obligation to the Iraqis, whose country is now a shambles. Since both Brits and Americans seem quite suspicious of government motives when they are talking about tax policies, I find it odd that they view this very same government's motives as benevolent when the policy is foreign and military. Do they just think the government can be trusted more when its face is a teenager with a gun?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Work Of Peace-Making Must Continue Until the Last Gun Is Silent: Coretta Scott King Remembered

I came home from work today fully intending to sit down and diligently read about the history of the American west, but discovered that while I'd been out, there was a major media EVENT.
You KNOW what I'm talking about: Coretta Scott King at center stage. First there was the funeral, the speech, the standing ovation, and now, the Republican pissing and moaning, and the leftie response. (that one has a link to other speeches as well).
I think, given the uproar from others, who may not have known that Mrs. King gave her gay male secretary leave to go protest at homophobic crackerbarrel restaurants, that it's worth hearing from Coretta Scott King herself and to some people who actually knew her well. (links below include audio of speeches and articles about King)

Here she is about the Vietnam war. First she's speaking at anti-Vietnam war rally following her husband's death in 1968, and again at anti-war rally on International Women's Day in 1971:

"The work of peace-making must continue until the last gun is silent"

..."The war is an enemy of the American people."

Here's what she has to say about gay rights and gay marriage:

I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice... But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr., said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere'.... I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people

Here are some recent reminiscences about King from her close friends, some audio clips of speeches and interviews, including references to her ongoing activism and opposition to the Iraq war. Here's what she said on the eve of the invasion in 2003:
"I believe that more people are thinking about him and yearning to hear his voice because of concerns about terrorism and the buildup of war," ... "When you use war as a way of settling disputes, you only cause more war,"..... "In the long run, the only way to have peace is to use peaceful means."

And here she is on the relationship between the "personal" and the "political":

I married Martin Luther King Jr. because I came to love him after I met him, but I also married the cause that we both shared and the commitment, and so that made it possible when he was no longer here for me to continue because I understood what Martin Luther King stood for... and I felt that Martin himself was the noble example of what human beings could achieve, and I was hoping that we could raise up younger generations of people who would follow in Martin Luther King Jr's principles of non-violence and methods to bring about social change and to create the beloved community that he envisioned.

Now, tell me if you think she wouldn't have enjoyed those political speeches given at the celebration of her life and work.

A Cheap Excuse for a Blog Entry, but a Good Article

In the waning window of time before my departure for work, let me recommend reading from the London Review of Books. Eliot Weinberger's "What I Heard About Iraq in 2005" wins my vote for best year-end article from last month. There's probably something redundant about listing your favorite "year-end" article.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

On Flying a Struck Airline

The headline today may say more than enough, but read on. I'm writing from Michigan where I just arrived on NWA (I wasn't the one who bought the tickets) which is not only currently flying "scab," but also threatening an even worse situation for its non-striking pilots and flight attendants, who face heavy pay cuts in the latest contract offer. In response to NWA's pleas of bankruptcy and crushing concession demands, pilots, flight attendants, and several other workers at NWA have organized Airline Workers' United. This move, which plans to go industry-wide, holds hope for the labor movement.
The most significant contribution the rest of us can make is of course, not to fly the damn airline. I hate flying anyway, so it shouldn't be too tough in the future. But with the way that the airline industry operates these days,it's hard not to fly "scab air."
Of course, there are the basic moral reasons to avoid flying scab-air, but there are also basic selfish ones. Here's my experience if you needed another reason not to fly a struck airline.
The airline is stretching its workers so far that they delayed my brother's evening flight for TWELVE hours in order to provide pilots with the FAA's mandatory "crew rest." Immediately,I was sure that the incapacity to drum up another crew must be related to the cutbacks and layoffs at NWA. I looked up more info on "crew rest" related delays and see,in the phenomenon, a trick on the airlines' part. They fought the FAA regulation, which is a basic safety precaution, so instead of organizing flight schedules and employees to give adequate hours of crew rest, they must just blow it off, do it at the last minute, in order to build up customer annoyance with the crew.
To read more about how pilots generally are reacting to changes in the airline industry, read the airline pilots' forum.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Charles Mann's Discussion Forum at Amazon

I've just been reading Charles Mann's highly readable synthesis of recent work on pre-Columbian America, 1491, and went to recommend it to a friend of mine and gave him a link to Amazon's page about it. Several reviews, unsurprisingly, characterize him as part of the left-wing PC cabal out to demonize Europeans because he characterizes them as physically stunted, smelly, and pock-marked in comparison with the cleaner and healthier Native Americans they met. (The Native-Americans of that era, according to most historians I've read, did have better diets and longer lifespans, and an all around higher standard of living than most Europeans).
However, after perusing the standard right wing assault of left-wing academia, I found that Charles Mann(who has a great web-page) had started a discussion with readers that goes on for about 30+ posts. It's definitely worth reading, especially if you're a teacher of American history, as are a few of the people writing in for tips. One of the things you may notice from the discussion is the good reception that this book has received from a fairly diverse group of readers. Nowhere in the book does Mann claim to be an innovator himself...what he does is bring together a large amount of scholarly research on pre-Columbian America from the 1960s to now and explain its meaning for the general reader. This is probably why he's received praise from the general review press and academics; he treats the academic work with respect and tells you where to find it if you want to go into greater depth and complexity.
You can get to his dialogue with readers by going here.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Spinning at the Daily News Promotes Ignorance of TWU Politics Once Again

If people rely on the Daily News for info. about the transit workers union, they will end up mightily confused. Today's article about a conflict between local 100's leadership and a "dissident" member, Christopher Magwood, who, according to the story, is tied to the PREVIOUS leadership of the union is some kind of telling explanation of the "no" vote? That leadership which sold out the transit workers in concessionary contract after concessionary contract is still the group that holds power in the international. They're the ones who sold out the local when they came out publicly against the strike in December. You wouldn't know from almost any NY media that there are real arguments with the contract and that there are many transit workers who wanted to continue the strike.
Also, when you search "google blogs" about the TWU you find a lot of racist horse-shite.