Thursday, October 30, 2003
Dean gets union endorsements. BusinessWeek is reporting that SEIU--the largest union in the country--is about to endorse Howard Dean for president, and AFSCME (the second largest), CWA, and IBEW likely to soon follow. (Via Nathan Newman.) It will surprise no one that this makes me happy for several reasons. First, I can now go around saying, "I had an Organized Labor for Dean pin before Organized Labor for Dean pins were cool." Second, as I've been saying for quite a while now, if Dean's going to win, he nees to unite the anti-war/student-left part of the Democratic Party with the traditional union base of the party. No, let me rephrase that: if anyone is going to win against Bush, that candidate needs to unite the foreign policy left wing of the party with the economic policy left wing of the party, and combine all that with a strategy that gets people riled up, donating money, and voting. I'd happily back anyone I thought could do that, from John Edwards to Al Sharpton. Kucinich tries to to the bit where he unites the two important parts of the party, but fails at actually running a campaign. Gephardt was thought to have the unions but his wishy-washy politics on the war, combined with his proven record of failure (most recently in 2002) make him a poor candidate. Dean is the man to unite around, and now it seems that the biggest unions in the country agree.
Third, it's nice to see SEIU, AFSCME, and CWA working together on something. If only SEIU can get AFSCME and CWA on board with the New Unity Partnership.
MORE, ALMOST IMMEDIATELY: I don't want to suggest that SEIU will be the first labor endorsement for Dean. He already has the Painters, California Teachers, and DC Hotel and Restaurant Employees. (Could be others I don't know about, too.)
UPDATE: Thanks to Little Wild Bouquet for the link.
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Corporate Holocaust. The Times front page on Wednesday carried a story about a debate in Germany over whether an anti-graffiti product made by the company which owns a large portion of the company that distributed Zyklon B should be used to graffiti-proof Berlin's new Holocaust Memorial. (Put aside for the moment that it isn't actually a Holocaust memorial, since it's only a memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and not to other victims of the Holocaust, but that's a different pet peeve that I won't get into now.) The company and its supporters say two things in favor of its product being used (other than that it is apparently the undisputed best product to do the job). First is that Degussa has done much to try to atone for its role in the Holocaust. Second is that all German companies that existed from 1930 to 1945 collaborated with the Nazis, and so it's pointless to single out this one company, since any German supplier of any good or service will be linked to fascism. To which opponents say, Fine, but we draw the line at a company associated with the actual instrument of death. I'll take these three assertions in turn.
First, that Degussa has been exemplary in its atoning. I don't know the truth of that, except to disclaim the argument made in the Times. The reporter, Richard Bernstein, writes: "Degussa was one of the 17 German companies that created the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future, which raised millions of dollars for a special fund to be distributed to victims of concentration camp and slave labor during the Nazi period." Let's be clear about that foundation: it was created as a response to a multi-billion dollar lawsuit in US federal court demanding restitution for lost wages and suffering by companies that profited from slave labor during the Nazi era. Degussa didn't create it out of the goodness of its heart, it gave money so that it could settle a lawsuit. The purpose of the fund is not to distribute charity, and not to atone for Zyklon B. It was to repay the slaves who worked for Degussa. Frankly, given the lost wages and the interest--never mind compensation for the lost liberty and horrific treatment--German industry got off easy. Maybe between 1945 and 1995 Degussa did behave admirably. I don't know. But paying back wages to slaves when under the threat of a lawsuit gets you zero points.
Second, that every company was involved in the Holocaust. This is true, but it isn't a defense. Indeed, this is, I think, a core part of what teaching about the Nazi era should be about. It's absolutely true that every company doing business in Germany during the Nazi era was complicit in Nazism. This is true of industry, this is true of banks, this is true of insurance companies, and railroads, and steel. It's true of German companies and American companies (not just IBM, which the Times notes, but also Ford and GM and Chase) and French companies and Austrian and Swiss and Swedish companies. When we think of Hitler, we tend to think of the Holocaust, or maybe about his plans to take over all of Europe. But Nazis weren't just about killing Jews, and they weren't just about Lebensraum for the deutches Volk. Integral to the Nazis, integral to any fascism, was the alliance with industry. In Nazi Germany one form this took was through a system of allegiance to state, party, and company; top officials of companies were SS officers, members of a private party army. With its men off conquering Europe, the German war state would not have functioned without the import of Poles, Ukrainians, Beylorussians, Russians, and other Slavs to run the factories under murderous conditions and without pay. Jewish victims who were, in the phrase of Ben Farencz, "less than slaves," because slaves at least have value that owners wish to maintain, were literally worked to death, not only because the racist ideology of the Nazis wanted them dead, but because German industry wanted workers. European finance profited. It is impossible to separate the murder committed by the Nazis from the profit of German capital.
Understanding the role of German (and other European) capital and industry in the crimes of the Nazis is an essential lesson. Otherwise, it's too easy to relegate the Holocaust to a different time and place. It's a similar story with American slavery. One function of the recent drive toward reparations from companies that profited from slavery is to reinforce that slavery was not just a Southern plantation institution. The entire American economy, from the banks of Boston and New York to the insurance companies of Hartford, from the textile mills of Lowell to the universities of Providence and New Haven, were based on slavery. Even in the free North, newspapers accepted advertisements demanding the return of fugitive slaves. There can be no doubt that the American economy was built on slavery. Of course, boycotting the companies involved doesn't rectify the crime. I drive a Volkswagen, and so did my German Jewish grandmother, who fled the Nazis in 1936. Boycotting Ford doesn't bring back to life the Jews and Slavs who died in its plant in Cologne, and it doesn't bring back to life the American soldiers who were greeted at Normandy by Ford-made Wehrmacht trucks. Refusing an insurance policy from Aetna doesn't help the slaves whose value was insured by the company. But by studying and understanding the role of business in the Holocaust, or in American slavery, we come to understand our own complicity in the different crimes of today. Global capitalism forces us as its beneficiaries to be complicit in the exploitation of people and nature in ways that make decent people squirm. This is not to say that the excesses of our current system are equivalent to either American slavery or the Holocaust. But nonetheless, we all would prefer not to think about what gives us our material wealth. Understanding the way the German and American economies were tied to the atrocities of slavery and the Holocaust forces us to consider our role in the current economic system.
That brings me to the final point, about whether a line should be drawn a Zyklon B. I think it misses the point, because it singles out Degussa from every other company in Germany at the time. Further, if the choice is a Holocaust Memorial with no graffiti or a Holocaust Memorial with no Degussa, I'll choose the one without graffiti. But, to quote the editor of the tageszeitung, Klaus Hillenbrand: "It's a personal question. If there are survivors of the Holocaust who feel this way, you just have to accept it."
Monday, October 27, 2003
Will the bobbleheads never stop? Following close on the heels of the Jack Kerouac bobblehead and the fictional Lawrence Ferlinghetti bobblehead, come bobbleheads of William Rehnquist and John Paul Stevens. All Things Considers reports. The bobbleheads have been made by The Green Bag, which has an amusing website.
News flash: Rich people don't like to give up their homes. The Post yesterday had a fascinating and humorous story about the original plans to put the United Nations in Greenwich, Conn. The idea was to take, by eminent domain, some or all of the estates of Henry Luce, Benny Goodman, John S. Rockefeller, and Prescott Bush, who were, predictably, not amused. A UN official, clearly not aware of how things were done in this country, "speculated that it would be easier to displace the wealthy estate owners of Greenwich, as they could repair to their country homes." Opponents mobilized against the Greenwich plan, with tricks including hiring two men to put on fezzes and walk around town speaking jibberish with surveying tools.
Walter Washington is dead. Washington was the first elected mayor of Washington DC and the first black chief of a major American city. (He was also the first modern unitary mayor in the city, having been appointed by Lyndon Johnson.) I was born a few years after Washington stopped being mayor, and I don't have much of a sense of him as a mayor. There was something sobering about growing up in a city in which every single person who had ever been mayor was alive and and still present in politics. As people like Walter Washington who were part of the battle for Home Rule die, it surely marks a changing era in DC. The Washington Post has an obituary.
Friday, October 24, 2003
Read this: Eric Lee, the man who runs LabourStart, has a piece about trade unionism in Iraq. Eric doesn't mention what the response of the US military has been to the union, and I'd be curious to know.
Thursday, October 23, 2003
Reading list. One of my earliest posts on this blog was a summer reading list. Much to my surprise, I actually made it through all but one of the books I mentioned as on my shelf. (Can you guess which one?) It's not the summer anymore, but theoretically I have much more time for reading nowadays. Here's a shorter, updated reading list. Not all of the entries, as you'll see, are books.
Two documents I'd like to get around to reading at some point, inspired by recent news articles, are the Colorado Supreme Court decision in Tattered Cover, Inc. v. City of Thornton (.pdf). This was inspired by an article in the Times a few weeks ago about the fear of government snooping into our reading purchases. (This was an issue I worked on several summers ago.) On All Things Considered tonight there was an interview with Leon Kass about the recent report from the President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. The effect of psychiatric drugs on our definition of happiness and our acceptance of difference is something that has interested me for a while, and so I may get around to reading the report.
Two novels on my "to read" list are Atonement, by Ian McEwan (whose Amsterdam I much enjoyed), and The Russian Debutante's Handbook, by Gary Shteyngart, which I've been reading in various bookstores and which is remarkably funny. Another foray into J.M. Coetzee seems likely this fall, too.
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
Cold War correction. Josh got all upset at me (in email) for claiming below that there was a "reactionary moment that started the Cold War." As well he should have; I meant to write about a "reactionary moment that started with the Cold War." It's corrected in the post itself, too.
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Tiger Force. I'm listening now to an interview on As It Happens about the Toledo Blade series of articles about the Tiger Force, an elite corps in Vietnam that engaged in a series of atrocities against civilians. "For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians - in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public." It's a long series of articles, and I'm just beginning to read it, so I can't comment on the details. But some things stick out in what I've read and heard (also on All Things Considered on Monday night): in some ways, this is a story about the hell of war, what happens when young men are told to kill. We shouldn't be surprised that atrocities happen in war--and our knowledge of that should make us extremely hesitant to send people to war. On the other hand, commanders knew about this at the time and encouraged it, and a later investigation was shelved. Just because it should be expected doesn't mean that it's acceptable.
Monday, October 20, 2003
Unions and the Oklahoma primary. Conventional wisdom says, I think correctly, that Lieberman and Clark, by announcing that they won't contest Iowa, have given more power to the voters in states which have primaries on February 2. One of those states is Oklahoma, a fact which should help Gephardt and whichever other candidate can get support from organized labor. During the 2002 election, one of the few bright spots for the Democrats was Oklahoma, in which a Democrat won for governor. At the time, this was explained to me as a result of a massive voter registration drive by organized labor during a previous, unsuccessful attempt to defeat a "right to work" (for less) referendum. The unions couldn't turn out enough people to defeat right to work, but they registered a lot of members and geared up their political machines in time for the next election, when it paid off with a Democratic governor. If this is true, it would stand to reason that unions are particularly important for contenders in the Oklahoma primary.
Sunday, October 19, 2003
Far be it from me to pass up an opportunity to quote Phil Ochs. I don't much care about Gregg Easterbrook. But Josh Eidelson's quoting of Josh Chafetz's defense has me singing:
"I read New Republic and Nation
I've learned to take every view
You know, I've memorized Lerner and Golden
I feel like I'm almost a Jew
But when it comes to times like Korea[*]
There's no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal."
(*In some versions, Phil sang, "But when it comes to Asian guerillas".)
Incidentally, I am far more convinced by Jeremy Reff's discussion of Jewish paranoia than I am Josh Chafetz's defense of Easterbrook. That Easterbrook works at TNR carries no weight, as Eidelson points out; similarly, that he apologized is meaningless. That what he wrote simply can't accurately be read as anti-semitic does.
Two interesting articles in today's Outlook section of the Washington Post. First was a piece by Chris Mooney, who when I knew him (or at least knew of him--I don't remember, to be honest) in college, he was preparing for a life of professional athiesm. In the Post, he explains some of why he has moved beyond that. Much of it, he writes, is a reaction to the stridency and obnoxiousness of professional athiests. He criticizes the athiest brought suit against a California school district over the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, arguing that athiests who support it are being oblivious to the coming backlash. I don't think that Chris is wrong about that, as the uproar over the 9th Circuit decision makes clear. But his article ignores a crucial part of the history of the Pledge that I think argues in favor of the suit. Adding "under God"--like declaring our national motto to be "In God We Trust"--has the same pedigree as the addition of the Confederate flag to various state flags in the South and to the state capitol in South Carolina. It isn't some ancient truth handed down to us from our forefathers like Thomas Jefferson (or Jefferson Davis). They're simply part of the reactionary moment that started with the Cold War. In the 1950s, faced with such threats as the creeping godlessness of Communism (because godlessness was Communism's greatest sin, of course) and integration, Americans responded symbolically (adding "under God" and the Confederate flag) and not-so-symbolically (murdering civil rights workers, persecuting gays, throwing the Communists out of the labor movement). We're slowly righting the non-symbolic wrongs; shouldn't it be time to correct the symbols, too?
The second article is about baseball stadiums. (This goes in the same post a the above paragraph, because I can't stand the number of baseball-related posts I've made on this blog, and hope that by combining them the total will seem smaller.) Cato Institute fellow Doug Bandow argues that cities building baseball stadiums to lure teams to come (as in the case of DC or Northern Virginia trying to attract the Expos) or stay is a bad idea. Coming from a Cato guy, this isn't particularly surprising; one has to simply ignore his statement that the practise "cannot be justified in principle." It happens, as you may have guessed, that I'm a strong believer that baseball should return to Washington; unlike Bandow, I think it is a matter of presige for the capital city to be denied a baseball team, the way it's denied a vote in Congress and home rule. He's right, though, that it's hard to defend why city tax money should go to building a stadium for a rich businessman to use, only to extort taxpayers for improvements or a new ballpark in a few years by threatening to leave again. One way around that is by making sports teams municipally owned (like the Green Bay Packers). Ideally, privately owned teams should play in privately built fields. I think that what's now called FedEx Field (once Jack Kent Cooke Stadium--I can't decide which name I find more irritating to say), which was built by Cooke but with state improvement to nearby highways, strikes the balance in a defensible way. But say that an owner does demand a city to build a stadium. The question, it seems to me, should become whether the stadium will bring in more money than it costs. I don't know the economic details about MCI Arena, the relatively new basketball and hockey stadium built with private money (I think) in downtown DC. I don't know if, had it been built with public funds, it would have paid for itself. But I do know that since it was built, that part of downtown is much more vibrant than it was before. There's much more nightlife, more restaurants, more life on the streets, and, presumably, more money being made, than before. Sandow argues that money isn't being created, that it's just being shifted from one part of the metropolitan area to another. So be it! As a Washingtonian concerned with DC's downtown and DC's budget, I'm perfectly happy if we redirect the money people spend on entertainment from the outer suburbs into DC. (That's one of the reasons that I'm opposed to a baseball team in Northern Virginia--in addition to my DC chauvinism that leads me to believe that DC's sports teams should play in DC.)
By the way, the authors of both pieces will be discussing their articles on the Post website this week. Bandow's discussion is Monday at 1; click here. The print edition of the Post said Chris would be chatting, too, but I can't find it on the website now.
Friday, October 17, 2003
Graduate school. Perhaps I shouldn't apply after all.
Notes on my week or so as a baseball fan. Mr. Sparkle has a nice piece about the playoffs which is, like most of the site, worth reading. I've had a rather strange experience--strange for me, that is--following baseball this postseason. Not only did I grow up not as a sports fan, I grew up in an anti-sports family. Sure, I know most of the lyrics to "Damn Yankees!", and I know well enough that there's something wrong with Yankees fans. But that comes from historic loyalty to DC more than any interest in baseball; my childhood bedroom is adorned with a Wasington Senators pennant, but not any memorabilia from any current team. One constant target of derision in my household are those who fill their heads with arcana and minutia of sports statistics and data.
And yet, I found myself drawn into baseball this year like I never have before. To the extent I ever rooted, I've always rooted for the Red Sox, as much as a political cause (underdogs, lost causes, and all that) an anything else. And I know enough, as I suggested before, to root always for whomever is playing against the Yankees. (Although when the Yankees and the Twins played, I had a hard time, since the Twins and Rangers both committed the unpardonable sins of leaving Washington.) It's hard to live in Boston for a year and not become a baseball fan; even people whom I assumed would be completely ignorant of baseball seemed to start every conversation last summer with a comment about how te Red Sox were doing. So I watched and rooted hard for the Sox this week. (The Cubs, too, for obvious reasons.)
Thursday night ends, I think, my rather short career as a baseball fan. It's funny. For the first time, I could actually hold my own in a conversation with a random group of men. I've never had that before--never had the ability to comment intelligently when a male conversation turns to sports, never been able to make whitty quips like (my favorite from Thursday night, when discussing who the Yankees could send in from the bullpen) "Maybe they can send in Don Zimmer, since he seems to think he can take on Pedro." Also, it was kind of fun to be a part of something larger, even something as obviously silly as Red Sox Nation. Put me in a room watching the game, and I was clearly somebody--somebody on one side, who made playful jabs at the people rooting for the Yankees, who was expected to cheer. I felt for the people last night crying in Wrigley Field; I genuinely felt sad when the Sox lost last night, and would have been actually happy had they won. In War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges writes about how war can get us excited about being part of a group, with a defineable enemy, and how that can make us do and feel things we wouldn't ordinarily do and feel. I think that sports fandom is something similar, in a way that I never really understood until this month, when I let myself get carried away by it. I still don't understand people who memorize minutia and obscess over details, but I understand fans who root.
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
Laughing out loud. Last night after making my triumphant return to blogging (although no promises about upcoming posting frequency), I went to bed and read the comics. Where, unusually, I kept finding things about with to laugh out loud. Check out Pearls Before Swine (always a favorite of mine) and Out of the Gene Pool.
But this takes the cake: scroll down to the second letter in yesterday's Dear Abby column. A 79-year-old woman writes in to say that she's going to her 60th high school reunion and is worried that she looks worse than she did at 19 and she's embarassed because while in high school she slept with two thirds of the guys in her class. So, is she worried that when they see her 80-year-old body they won't want to sleep with her any more?
It hasn't been at its best recently, but I can't post about comic strips without advertising Piled Higher and Deeper, an excellent grad student comic. From the archives.
Monday, October 13, 2003
Health care strikes. Back at the start of August, I was writing a lot about what looked like an upcoming strike at Verizon. Among other things, I wrote about how the fight was part of a major, intentional campaign by organized labor nationally to force the issue of health care. Cornell prof Kate Bronfenbrenner puts it thus in an article on just this topic in the LA Times: "It's at the core of every major contract struggle. And it's going to be an issue until we see some national solutions." Put another way, everyone understands that the health care crisis in the United States isn't going to be solved at the bargaining table by unions that represent only 13% of private workers. There has to be a national, governmental solution. But similarly, unions and others who speak for working families don't have the clout in Washington to do it on their own. They have to force business to go with them to Washington to demand action. And the only way to get business to do that is to force them through picket lines.
The LA Times ran this story because 70,000 supermarket workers are on strike or locked-out over this issue. And tomorrow, 2500 transit workers are going to walk off in LA too. So far, just off the top of my head, health care has been a major issue in the Boston janitors strike a year ago, and the almost-strikes at GE and Verizon. Where next?
(The New York Times has a piece on the LA supermarket strike, too, and Nathan Newman looks at it from a different angle. As a side note, one of the most heartwarming parts of the articles in both Timeses is the solidarity described both from consumers who won't cross the picket line and from other unions, like the Teamsters, who won't deliver to struck stores.)