Mojo - March 2009

RIP Archie Green

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 1:40 PM EDT






Over the weekend, Archie Green, grandfather of labor history, passed away in his San Francisco home at the age of 91. Over at Daily Yonder, Julie Ardery has written Green a great eulogy chronicling his many and varied accomplishments:

Archie, as he was universally known, was a scholar of what he called “laborlore” – the expressive culture of working people. For five decades he studied hillbilly music and pile-drivers’ tales. He made inventories of  “tin men” – the showpieces of sheet metal workers -- and analyzed sailors’ slang.  He recorded songs by millworkers and miners’ wives. Working on until just months before his death, he wrote countless articles, both academic and popular, and five books, including Only a Miner, his landmark study of coal-mining music.

Born in Winnipeg to Russian Jewish parents in 1917, Green spent most of his childhood in LA. He attended UCLA and UC Berkeley for college, and spent the first part of his adult life building ships on the waterfront. But in 1959, he went back to school, and over the next few years earned degrees in both library science and folklore. He spent the better part of the '60s and '70s digging up and dusting off forgotten bits of what he called "laborlore"—legends, folksongs, and stories of individual workers. In 1976, he convinced Congress to pass the American Folklife Preservation Act and create the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. In recent years, he worked with the San Francisco based Fund for Labor Culture and History and helped organize  Laborlore Conversations, a series of conferences on workers' culture past and present that drew a crowd of historians, activists, union members, and many others.

Mother Jones is especially indebted to Green, since without him, our namesake, Mary "Mother Jones" Harris might have been forgotten—he recovered her legacy in 1960. Check out the folksong "The Death of Mother Jones" here. Sure wish I could hear it. If anyone knows where an MP3 lives, do tell.

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Frank Pushes Gates to Cut Deeper

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 1:30 PM EDT

Last week, news leaked that Bob Gates, President Obama's Republican Secretary of Defense, is planning to cut several major weapons programs, including the F-22 and the Zumwalt-class destroyer. At last night's press conference, Obama acknowledged that he had "been working with Secretary Gates on this and will be detailing it more in the weeks to come," but warned that "the politics of changing procurement is tough." Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is a longtime crusader against wasteful military spending. Frank, the powerful chair of the House financial services committee, was dealt a setback in his battle against Pentagon waste when Obama increased the military budget. With the news that several of the programs he and others have criticized may be killed, Frank and other Pentagon spending critics have some reason to be hopeful.

But while he was "very encouraged" to hear that Gates plans cuts, Frank tells Mother Jones that making those cuts will be "very hard." The recession and the fact that defense contractors have "gone and spent money in everybody's district" will make members of Congress reluctant to slash procurement dollars, Frank explained. Even his own dark-blue Massachusetts district has jobs that depend on defense spending. "When I came out publicly wanting military spending cuts, shortly thereafter I was visited by someone who works at a company in my district that makes parts that go into one of the weapons systems I was talking about cutting," Frank said. "It was very polite, and there's nothing coercive about it, but it was clear that they wanted to remind me that I have people in my district that do that, and that's true."

Weapons programs have always been tough to cut. When he was Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney tried four times to kill the V-22 Osprey, a kind of combined helicopter-airplane troop transport that had several fatal accidents during testing, killing a combined 30 people. Each time Congress resurrected the project, and the Osprey is now operational—albeit over budget and way behind schedule. (The Osprey, at least, is used in Iraq and—starting this year—Afghanistan. The Air Force's F-22 fighter has not been used in either conflict.)

Texas Justice

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 1:12 PM EDT

Wow, Texas:

The charges focus on [Texas] Judge [Sharon] Keller's refusal to keep court offices open past 5 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2007, to receive an appeal in the case of Michael Richard, a convicted rapist and murderer.

Judge Keller, who was first elected to the court in 1994 and campaigned as being tough on crime, left her office that afternoon to meet a repairman at her home. Mr. Richard was put to death that evening by lethal injection.

This is the same judge who once refused to grant a new trial to a mentally retarded man convicted of rape and murder after DNA evidence established it was not his semen in the victim. "We can't give new trials to everyone who establishes, after conviction, that they might be innocent," she said of the case.

What Bush-Era Bureaucratic Incompetence Looks Like

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 12:49 PM EDT

This is pretty fantastic. And by "fantastic," I mean awful but very useful.

Rarely do you find an example of the Bush Administration's philosophical approach to the bureaucracy (government doesn't work and we're going to prove it!) illustrated as starkly as it is in this New York Times article on the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division.

In a report scheduled to be released Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office found that the agency, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, had mishandled 9 of the 10 cases brought by a team of undercover agents posing as aggrieved workers.

In one case, the division failed to investigate a complaint that under-age children in Modesto, Calif., were working during school hours at a meatpacking plant with dangerous machinery, the G.A.O., the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, found.

When an undercover agent posing as a dishwasher called four times to complain about not being paid overtime for 19 weeks, the division’s office in Miami failed to return his calls for four months, and when it did, the report said, an official told him it would take 8 to 10 months to begin investigating his case.

Other examples abound. The whole article (via TNR) is worth reading. Keep in mind, though, that while the mismanagement at Labor may be comical, it is not borne out of incompetence. This is malicious. The government was intentionally allowed to atrophy under the Bush Administration because it suited that crowd's ideological ends. The perversion of the FDA, the EPA, and the SEC all speak to that. And if the mandated inaction desiccated the parts of the government that are designed to protect or help the poor -- like in this instance -- all the better.

Questioning "Stability Operations" In Iraq & Afghanistan

| Wed Mar. 25, 2009 12:15 PM EDT

Tom Ricks, writing at his new post at Foreign Policy, takes the release of the Army's new "Stability Operations Field Manual" as an opportunity to point out what he sees as a long-running problem: the military's self-assessment of its role in our two middle eastern wars is fundamentally off. Ricks:

...we didn't invade Iraq to provide stability, but to force change. Likewise in Afghanistan. And once we were there, we didn't aim for stability, but to encourage democracy, which (the thought is not original with me) in a region like the Middle East generally undermines stability. I mean, if all we wanted was stability, why not find a strongman and leave?

What we really are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think, is instability operations. I don't think the U.S. military really has ever been comfortable with that mission, which was one reason we saw a lot of friction early on between the Bremer team trying to bring change and the Sanchez team simply trying to keep a lid on things. Personally, I think the mission of changing the culture of Iraq was nuts -- but that was the mission the president assigned the military.

H/T Democracy in America. I'm not sure how I feel about Ricks' sentiment. We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of "revolutionary operations," as Ricks states, but what we're trying to do now to is, partially but not completely, what the name of the manual suggests: stability ops.

No one is going look back years from now and use Iraq or even Afghanistan as a model for regime change or spreading democracy. But assuming that violence in Iraq doesn't flare up after we leave (which is a monumental "if") military historians may look to our actions in that country from 2007-2009 as a model for bringing stability to a war zone. Which means that not only is the manual aptly named, its potentially canonical. Of course, that's contingent on the surge's security gains being real and permanent, which I'm not sure I buy. Only time will tell.

Mexico's Drug War, Fully US Loaded

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 3:20 PM EDT

Guest blogger Mark Follman writes frequently about current affairs and culture at markfollman.com.

The raging drug war in Mexico is about to command even greater attention inside the United States. It's not just the gruesome tales of drug cartel violence to the south; the US is far more caught up in the maelstrom than many north of the border may care to realize.

Today at the White House, Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano laid out an Obama administration plan to throw additional money and manpower at the problem, amid mounting fears about "spillover" of violence and corruption into the United States. On Wednesday, Napolitano will go to Capitol Hill specifically to address the crisis, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Mexico.

The administration is deploying big guns like Napolitano and Clinton with good reason. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, "The government is girding for a possible Katrina-style disaster along the 2,000-mile-long Mexican border that would involve thousands of refugees flooding into the US to escape surging violence in northern Mexico, or gun battles beginning to routinely spill across the border." A recent story from international reporting start-up GlobalPost shows how joint US-Mexican operations have been implicated in the spreading violence, on both sides of the border.

Some relatively obscure testimony by senior officials from the ATF and DEA to a Senate subcommittee last week contains stark details about our country's role in the predicament. Simply put, the US is serving as a vast weapons depot for the drug gangs.

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Feminism: What's in a Name?

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 2:58 PM EDT

Slate's XX Factor has a fascinating discussion about Sandra Day O'Connor's passing on calling herself a feminist even though she totally is one. Need proof?

Do you call yourself a feminist?
I never did. I care very much about women and their progress. I didn’t go march in the streets, but when I was in the Arizona Legislature, one of the things that I did was to examine every single statute in the state of Arizona to pick out the ones that discriminated against women and get them changed.

So, 'feminists' march in the streets (which is bad) but don't fight for a seat in government from which to focus on women's equality? I ain't mad at Sandra. The woman haters have worked very hard to make the word "feminism" synonymous with man- and baby-hating. With—gasp!—lesbianism and everything 'unladylike'. With all that scary protesting and refusing to play nice. Ah well, I much prefer women (and men) who pass on the name but fight the power anyway. Sandra O is just in the closet but active as hell on the feminist down low. Works for me.

As a side note, SDO'C rocks as an interviewee. What a breath of fresh air to hear someone say, essentially, 'Screw you. I'm pushing a majorly important new website and you want to talk about inanities. Shut the frack up (sorry—HUGE Battlestar Galactica fan), and let's talk about what I agreed to talk about.' Here's a taste of that great old-chick no-nonsense:

Although you were nominated to the court by President Reagan, you became known as a centrist who disappointed conservatives and provided relief to liberals.
Look, that's your spiel, not mine. I tried to decide each case based on the law and the Constitution.

Old feminists rock. Whatever they call themselves. BTW: if you're not a feminist, what are you: anti-feminist?

Police Deaths Call for Renewed Assault Weapons Ban

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 2:19 PM EDT
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder voiced his desire (and his boss') to renew the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. He said as much in response to questions about cartels and drug wars in Mexico. But after four police were gunned down in northern California this weekend the idea now hits closer to home.

Saturday, when four cops were killed by a parolee, was the deadliest day in the history of the Oakland police department. Lovelle Mixon, a convicted felon jailed for five years for assault with a firearm, shot the first two officers with the handgun he was carrying (illegally) after the police stopped his car for a traffic violation. He then used an AK-47 type assault rifle to gun down two SWAT officers before he was killed in a shootout. True, California has an assault-weapons ban and it didn't keep the rifle out of Mixon's hands, but a federal ban could only strengthen local enforcement efforts. The battle will be hard fought; last week 65 House Dems sent Holder a letter opposing his efforts to enact any sort of federal ban on assault rifles, citing concerns over ownership restrictions. "We will strongly oppose any legislation that will infringe upon the rights of individual gun owners," the letter stated.

The opposition to Holder moving on the ban has all been under the backdrop of the weapons concerns on the border and in Mexico, but will the debate shift now that police officers are getting gunned down here at home? Meaning, once Dianne Feinstein proposes new legislation related to the deaths of these four slain officers, what will the pro-gun Dems, and everyone else, say then?

Iraqi Refugee Stories

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 1:41 PM EDT
You've likely heard about the 2 million Iraqi refugees living in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, the Gulf States, Iran, Turkey, and Yemen, but Iraqi Refugee Stories brings those statistics to life with videos of displaced people describing the circumstances that forced them out out of their homeland.

The site has a bunch of interesting information, includine an interactive map showing where the refugees live now.

Some of the most moving stories:

Why Bank Rage Is Not Populism

| Tue Mar. 24, 2009 1:01 PM EDT

Does the widespread public fury over AIG bonuses constitute a populist rebellion, and signal a major shift in American political culture? That's what the mainstream media seems to be pondering this week. The Newsweek cover that hit the stands yesterday reads “The Thinking Man’s Guide to Populist Rage.” Eye-catching hyperbole is the stuff of newsweekly covers. (Six weeks ago, Newsweek’s cover line was “We Are All Socialists Now.”) But the issue is filled with serious essays on the subject, by Michael Kazin, Eliot Spitzer, and others. And in yesterday's New York Times, John Harwood makes similar claims, painting people’s anger at Wall Street as part of a populist resurgence. Harwood’s most prominent source is, of all people, Ed Rollins, the Republican strategist whose credentials on the subject consist of working on the campaign of faux-populist Ross Perot.

One person not quoted in these pieces is the original, and still unequaled, historian of populism, Lawrence Goodwyn. He identified the first populist movement—the agrarian revolt of the 1890s—as the greatest mass movement in American history. It posed a genuine challenge to the dominant power structures, especially the banking system. It was also largely an unfulfilled dream. Goodwyn’s 1978 book The Populist Moment is still in print and well worth reading, both for its stirring history and its insights into what is going on today—and what isn’t going on.

Goodwyn traces the Populist Movement to its origins in the rural depression after the Civil War, when Southern and Western farmers formed clubs that fought the monopolistic railroad rates. By the 1870s these clubs had grown in number and size, forming themselves into Farmers Alliances, which engaged in all sorts of cooperative action, from catching horse thieves to buying supplies. By the 1890s, the alliances had a combined membership of more than one million people and were in the thick of politics. Georgia populist leader Tom Watson accused the Democrats of sacrificing “the liberty and prosperity of the country…to Plutocratic greed,” and the Republicans of serving the interests of “monopolists, gamblers, gigantic corporations, bondholders, [and] bankers.” He said that big business didn’t care about ordinary Americans “except as raw material served up for the twin gods of production and profit.”

Most significantly, in relation to today’s economic crisis, they demanded paper money and an end to the gold standard—changes they believed would help wrest control of credit, and of the money supply in general, from the hands of bankers and other blood-sucking plutocrats, and place it in the hands of the farmers and laborers who were the real producers of wealth. As an alternative, the populists proposed what they called the “sub-treasury plan,” under which a new monetary system would be created and operated “in the name of the whole people,” and credit would be freely extended to farmers, small producers, and other ordinary citizens.