Prospects look grim for congressional Democrats this fall. Political forecasters are predicting that the party will fail to wrest control of the House from the GOP and will lose its majority in the Senate.
A number of forces are working against the Democrats: Obama’s low approval ratings, the failure of segments within the Democratic base—young people and people of color—to turn out in midterm elections, lingering weakness in job markets and income growth, and the abundance of money for right-wing “independent expenditures.”
Most frustratingly, Democrats must win a supermajority of the popular vote to gain a majority in the House, thanks to a combination of Republican gerrymandering after the 2010 census and the greater concentration of Democratic voters in urban America. Until 2020, when the next round of redistricting takes effect, Democrats will need about 55 percent of the popular vote in elections to win a majority of House seats. In 2012, Republican House candidates lost the national popular vote by 1.12 percentage points but won 33 more seats than the Democrats.
The gloomy federal outlook is prompting groups that support progressive Democrats—labor unions, community organizations and online political mobilizers—to turn their attention to state and local elections, especially gubernatorial races.
“Make no mistake about it; our priorities are going to be the state and local government races across the country,” Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and chair of the AFL-CIO political committee, told reporters in February.
Progressive organizers are increasingly conscious of how state governments, once heralded by Justice Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,”have today become, under Republican control, laboratories of plutocracy.
The “shellacking” Democrats experienced in the 2010 elections extended beyond Congress to the governor’s mansions. The number of Democratic governors dropped from 26 to 20, with Lincoln Chafee, an Independent, winning Rhode Island and Republican governors taking the remaining 29 states. Eight of the newly elected Republican governors were far-right ideologues with ties to the Tea Party: Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Rick Snyder of Michigan,Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Rick Scott of Florida, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Paul LePage of Maine.
Those governors promptly initiated policies that accelerated the downward spiral for workers and the upward spiral for the richest 1%. They share a common playbook, thanks to the influence of the right-wing, corporate-oriented American Legislative Exchange Council, which provides model legislation to conservative state executives and lawmakers. That playbook includes breaking public employee unions and their contracts; shredding or eliminating social safety nets; shrinking government spending (including long-term investment in research and infrastructure); and imposing voting restrictions that target the poor, young, black and Latino—all heavily Democratic blocs.
In the past four years, for example, Pennsylvania’s Corbett has slashed state education spending, Michigan’s Snyder has cut the duration of state unemployment compensation during a deep recession, Ohio’s Kasich and Wisconsin’s Walker have restricted voting, and Maine’s LePage has reduced state Medicaid coverage. But their biggest preoccupation is to court the corporate interests that fund their campaigns— by cutting taxes on business and the wealthy, undermining unions, privatizing government services and education, and weakening environmental regulations. Although these measures were undertaken in the name of boosting economic activity, they have actually eroded working-class living standards and indulged the rich.
This silent, one-sided class war is a threat to the American economy and the quality of our social relations.
The actions of these governors, as much as those of congressional leaders,set the political agenda for the GOP— because so many of these governors are angling to run for president, but also because they set the terms of political debate in each state. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party often tries to position itself close to Republican positions on many economic issues—privatization, corporate tax incentives and minimization of business taxes overall. (Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel typifies this wing of the party.)
The new Republican cohort, now up for reelection, won in 2010 for a variety of reasons: high unemployment, a demoralized Democratic base, an activist Tea Party, and, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision earlier that year, big bucks from oligarchs like the Koch brothers. Although employment has improved slightly, the other advantages hold true today, and Republicans are hoping to gain further leverage by attacking Obamacare.
In 2014, however, the class of 2010 will have gubernatorial records to defend. Some relied on bait-and-switch deception to gain office. In his 2010 campaign, Walker ran on a conventionally conservative, anti-government platform, but said nothing of a radical plan to destroy public-sector unions. A few months after taking office, he proposed a “budget repair bill” that cut state workers’ retirement and health benefits deeply and, more ominously, eliminated or rendered meaningless the rights of state employees to bargain collectively. Hundreds of thousands of people protested at the Capitol and around the state, then tried—but failed—to recall Walker in 2012.
Along with the surprises came broken promises, especially around job creation. Though Walker pleased Big Money with new tax cuts for the wealthy, he almost certainly won’t deliver on his pledge of 250,000 new private-sector jobs by the end of his first terms. PolitiFact estimates that Wisconsin has added just over 100,000 jobs under Walker as of April 1. The state now ranks 35th in job creation.
The story is much the same for the other new conservative Republican governors. Kasich privatized Ohio’s business development agencies and enabled tax breaks for business owners, promising economic miracles, but the state’s private-sector job growth dropped from 26th to 34th in the nation.
In Florida, Scott promised 700,000 more new jobs in seven years than the state legislature’s non-partisan economists were projecting—a goal that would require about 20,000 new jobs each month. Scott has implemented much of his stated agenda: cutting government spending and public-sector jobs, privatizing many government functions, and deregulating business. But since he took office, the state has generated only about 12,000 jobs per month.
Corbett promised job growth in Pennsylvania as well, but during his term, the state ran well below average nearly every month, ranking 46th in the rate of job growth from January 2011 to December 2013. Unemployment did fall, but mostly due to workers dropping out of the job market. Corbett added insult to injury when he implied at a press conference in 2013 that the unemployed couldn’t find jobs because of their drug use: “Many employers ... say, ‘We’re looking for people but we can’t find anybody that has passed a drug [test].’ ”
Claiming he would be the “comeback kid” for the Michigan economy, Snyder cut state business taxes and signed an anti-union right-to-work law, but in February of this year, 7.7 percent of the workforce was unemployed, putting the state in 46th place in employment—the same as when he took office.
Republican governors will also have to face the music for rejecting Medicaid funds under the Affordable Care Act, depriving populations that most need healthcare of coverage that is almost totally federally financed. The Medicaid rejections in the South and Great Plains states were outrageous, but they fit a historical pattern of anti-government ideology, political hostility toward Obama, and longstanding, structural neglect of the poor and people of color. But Republican governors in some northern states also decided not to expand Medicaid—Walker in Wisconsin and LePage in Maine—while Mike Pence in Indiana and Corbett in Pennsylvania continued to attempt to substitute an inferior alternative. Their choices broke radically with past state traditions under past governors from both parties.
Their states will suffer as a result. For example, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a statewide, community-based advocacy group, calculates that Walker’s rejection of millions of federal dollars in Medicaid coverage will not only deprive 84,700 low-income Wisconsinites of free health insurance, but also cost the state more than 16,600 new jobs, many in healthcare. Because Walker rejected ACA regulatory requirements, Wisconsin residents may also pay insurance exchange rates nearly twice as high as those in neighboring Minnesota.
Their economic records alone should make the new class of Republican governors vulnerable to challengers. That is clearly true in Maine and Pennsylvania, where LePage and Corbett’s far-right policies have not gone over well with the electorate, but the races look much closer in some states. Walker demonstrated his resilience by winning a recall with a moderate Democrat, Tom Barrett, in 2012. Analysts believe many voters were unhappy with Walker but thought that recalls should be reserved for moral failings. However, some also blamed Democrats for failing to choose a more aggressive candidate.
It’s unclear whether Walker’s new Democratic challenger, Mary Burke, will fare better. Although an early March Rasmussen poll of Wisconsin voters showed a 45–to–45 tie, a poll by Marquette University Law School a few weeks later found that Walker was leading Burke 48 to 41. Political prognosticators, such as University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato, call the race as “likely Republican.”
Little-known and an inexperienced campaigner, Burke seems more the earnest corporate liberal administrator than a razor-sharp populist fighter for the common man; more ready to seek cooperation from Republicans than carve up Walker’s record to reveal its hollow core. Burke is a businesswoman—she worked to expand foreign markets at her father’s bicycle company, Trek—as well as a former state commerce secretary. Her website touts her “private sector approach” to job creation and “fiscal responsibility,” but does not directly address the nation’s growing inequality—hardly the program of a contemporary “Fighting Bob” (or Roberta) LaFollette to rally working people to vote against Walker. However, unlike Walker, Burke supports private and public-sector unions, accepting the ACA’s expanded Medicaid, halting expansion of school vouchers and raising the state minimum wage to $10.10.
Wisconsin is usually “evenly divided” between parties, with Madison and Milwaukee Democratic strongholds, Milwaukee suburbs and exurbs solidly Republican, and many small cities from Janesville to Superior providing the swing votes, says Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. Defeating Walker, especially if there is a national “surge” of support for Republicans, will depend greatly on the work of unions, community-based groups such as Citizen Action, and labor-community coalitions like We Are Wisconsin. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Wisconsin Vice-President Bruce Colburn says that Burke’s supporters will have to work to “tie the issues [of inequality] to the election” in order for working-class voters to appreciate the stakes.
Prospects look rosier for Democrats in Maine, where challenger Rep. Mike Michaud is running ahead of both incumbent Gov. Paul LePage and Independent Eliot Cutler. Michaud, a longtime paper mill worker and union member, has already established himself as “the champion of the working man,” according to Mike Tipping, communications director of the Maine People’s Alliance. More liberal than his past caucusing with the Blue Dogs would suggest, he is a leading critic of conventional trade deals. By contrast, LePage’s decision to remove a state labor history mural from the Maine Labor Department because the depictions of workers were “anti-business” symbolized for many his flamboyant Tea Party politics. Cutler, a wealthy lawyer at a powerful D.C. law firm, split the Democratic vote four years ago. LePage’s embodiment of Tea Party style and ideology is also unlikely to go over well with Maine’s moderate Republicans and large independent bloc.
In some of the other hotly contested gubernatorial races, such as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio (see sidebar, page 20), the prospects remain mixed but encouraging for Democrats. Either of the frontrunners in the upcoming Pennsylvania Democratic primary, businessman Tom Wolf and centrist U.S. Rep. Alyson Schwartz, should be able to beat incumbent Tom Corbett. In Florida, Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor, leads ultra-conservative incumbent Republican Rick Scott, partly because of Scott’s failure to get his party’s legislators to support expansion of Medicaid under the ACA. In Ohio, voters rebuffed Republican Gov. John Kasich when they rejected his anti-union law by a 62-38 margin in a 2011 referendum. While the Democratic challenger, Cuyahoga
County executive Ed FitzGerald, trails in the polls, Ohio AFL-CIO political director Jason Perlman thinks that blue-collar FitzGerald will pick up both undecided voters and soft Kasich supporters as they get to know him.Seizing the terms of the debate
One important element of the gubernatorial elections involves challenging the anti-government Tea Party ideology with a compelling vision of how working people can make government work for them. In many ways, each battle over minimum wage or the right-wing attacks on Obamacare is also a fight over the role of government in the economy.
“This is about more than the minimum wage,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten at a February press conference. “What kind of economy do we need in the richest country in the world to raise living standards?”
Polls indicate that a conversation about the economy could allow Democrats to gain traction, even with Republican voters. A February poll by Hart Research Associates of voters in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—five states with Republican governors from the 2010 Tea Party cohort—found that three-fifths are dissatisfied with the economy and feel they are falling behind financially. This discontent is especially pronounced among families earning $50,000 or less, including lower-income Republicans, and it is hurting governors’ approval ratings.
The Hart survey indicates that any candidate will gain significant support if he or she promises to crack down on wage theft, proposes paid family and sick leave, and requires that companies doing business with the state pay a “living wage” and not violate labor law.
“Raising wages for Americans, for all workers, is the issue of our time and, hopefully, the issue of this election,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters at the federation’s February executive council meeting, adding that it would be the framework for political action by the federation.
Despite its well-publicized decline, the labor movement is probably the largest grassroots political organization in the country. The AFL-CIO can muster its 56 affiliated unions, plus its 3 million-member community affiliate, Working America, and its Super PAC, Workers’ Voice. Unions reach not only their 14.5 million members, but also those members’ families and neighbors—at work, at home, by mail, print and phone, online, and on the air. Unions both give money directly to candidates and, increasingly, run their own campaigns for candidates, picking messages they think are both effective in the short run and will contribute to labor’s long-term goals. Some local labor federations even offer classes to candidates.
Labor’s campaigning appears to have an impact: In 2012, 65 percent of union members voted for Obama, while 33 percent voted for Romney. The union effect is even clearer within a narrower demographic: In 2008, white people who had not graduated from college favored McCain by 18 percentage points, but of that group, those who were union members favored Obama by 23 points.
This time around, the army of union campaigners will not rely solely on the conventional political work of distributing leaflets, making phone calls and knocking on doors of union members. The AFL-CIO, its affiliates and the independent, 1.8 million-member SEIU have all said they will also take direct action to support ongoing labor and community campaigns for higher wages, including referenda that are expected in many places around the country. By doing so, they will reinforce their plan to make income and inequality the focus of the election, and boost the appeal of progressive candidates running on these themes. Republican leaders oppose such initiatives as a higher minimum wage, but they are winners with the majority of Americans. In a January 2014 Pew poll, 73 percent of people favored a $10.10 federal minimum wage.
While community groups traditionally focused narrowly on local issue-based campaigns, they are increasingly wading into the electoral fray. National People’s Action (NPA), an umbrella organization of more than 30 community organizing groups with some 90,000 total members, recently launched a 501(c)4 arm, the National People’s Action Campaign (NPAC). NPAC and its affiliates are working to secure the reelection of progressive governors such as Mark Dayton of Minnesota. They’ve also set their sights on removing right-wingers like Sam Brownback in Kansas. They are attacking Brownback by highlighting the actions of his extremely anti-immigrant secretary of state, Kris Kobach, who established a strict voter-ID law and wants to require that all voters demonstrate proficiency in written English. Already, officials have used the voter-ID provision to remove about 20,000 voters, predominately poor, from the rolls, says NPAC Director of Movement Politics Ryan Greenwood. To fight back, Kansas People’s Action plans to educate and turn out many of the 100,000 voters who supported Obama in 2012 but did not vote in 2010.
NPAC’s ultimate goal is not just to stop the pain being inflicted by right-wing governors, but to usher in candidates who will make real progressive strides. Michaud, for example, has expressed support for a state single payer insurance plan and is likely to be sympathetic to Maine People’s Alliance’s plan to roll back LePage’s tax cuts and raise taxes on the wealthy. And besides campaigning for candidates, union and community groups often “bird-dog” candidates they oppose at the opposition rallies, raising criticisms and questioning their positions on issues (as Maine People’s Alliance is doing against LePage). Many of these gubernatorial battles will indirectly be referenda on the Tea Party faction in the Republican Party. They will also be tests of how well the combined efforts of labor and community groups, operating
through their separate political organizations, can educate and turn out their members and other voters. But first they will have to teach candidates for governor that challenging the inequality and unfairness of today’s American economy—and the abuse of power by corporations and the very rich—is not only the right thing to do. It’s also, pragmatically, the way to win.
The conversation about the impact of technology tends to be binary: Either it will save us, or it will destroy us. The Internet is an opportunity for revolution; our old society is being "disrupted"; tech-savvy college dropouts are rendering the staid elite obsolete. Or else our jobs are being lost to automation and computers; drones wipe out families on their wedding day; newly minted millionaires flush with tech dollars are gentrifying San Francisco at lightning speed.
Neither story is completely true, of course. In her new book, The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, out now from Metropolitan Books, Astra Taylor takes on both the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, reminding us that the Internet was created by the society we live in and thus is more likely to reflect its problems than transcend them. She delves into questions of labor, culture and, especially, money, reminding us who profits from our supposedly free products. She builds a strong case that in order to understand the problems and potentials of technology, we have to look critically at the market-based society that produced it.
Old power dynamics don't just fade away, she points out—they have to be destroyed. That will require political action, struggle, and a vision of how we want the Internet (and the rest of our society) to be. I spoke with Taylor about culture, creativity, the possibility of nationalizing Facebook and more.
Initially I saw it as a real departure, and now that it’s done, I recognize the continuity. I felt that the voices of culture makers were left out of the debate about the consequences of Internet technology. There are lots of grandiose statements being made about social change and organizing and about how social media tools are going to make it even easier for us to aggregate and transform the world. I felt there was a role I could play rooted in my experiences of being a culture maker and an activist. It was important for somebody grounded in those areas to make a sustained effort to be part of the conversation. I was really troubled that people on all sides of the political spectrum were using Silicon Valley rhetoric to describe our new media landscape. Using terms like “open” and “transparent” and saying things were “democratizing” without really analyzing those terms. A big part of the book was just trying to think through the language we’re using and to look at the ideology underpinning the terminology that’s now so commonplace.
You make the point in the book that the Internet and the offline world aren’t two separate worlds. Can you talk about that a bit more?
It’s amazing that these arguments even need to be made. That you need to point out that these technologies cannot just magically overcome the structures and material conditions that shape regular life.
It harkens back to previous waves of technological optimism. People have always invested a lot of hope in their tools. I talk about the way that we often imbue our machines with the power to liberate us. There was lots of hope that machines would be doing all of our labor and that we would have, as a society, much more free time, and that we would have this economy of abundance because machines would be so dramatically improved over time. The reasons that those predictions never came to pass is because machines are embedded in a social context and the rewards are siphoned off by the elite.
The rise of the Internet really fits that pattern. We can see that there is this massive shifting of wealth [to corporations]. These gigantic digital companies are emerging that can track and profit from not just our online interactions, but increasingly things that we’re doing away from the keyboard. As we move towards the “Internet-of-things,” more and more of the devices around us are going to have IP addresses and be leaking data. These are avenues for these companies that are garnering enormous power to increase their wealth.
The rhetoric a few years ago was that these companies are going to vanquish the old media dinosaurs. If you read the tech books from a few years ago, it’s just like “Disney and these companies are so horrible. Google is going to overthrow them and create a participatory culture.” But Google is going to be way more invasive than Mickey Mouse ever was.
Google’s buying drone companies.
Google’s in your car, Google’s in your thermostat, it’s in your email box. But then there’s the psychological element. There was this hope that you could be anyone you wanted to be online. That you could pick an avatar and be totally liberated from your offline self. That was a real animating fantasy. That, too, was really misleading. Minority groups and women are often forced back into their real bodies, so to speak. They're not given equal access to the supposedly open space of the Internet.
This is one of the conversations that I think your book is incredibly relevant to right now. Even supposedly progressive spaces are still dominated by white people, mostly men, and there's a real pushback against women and people of color who are using social media.
It's been amazing how much outrage can get heaped on one person who's making critical observations about an institution with such disproportionate power and reach.
The new media elites end up looking a whole lot like the old ones. The other conversations about race and gender and the Internet recently has been about these new media websites that are launched with a lot of fanfare, that have been funded in many cases by Silicon Valley venture capital, that are selling themselves as new and rebellious and exciting and a challenge to the old media—the faces of them are still white men.
The economic rewards flow through the usual suspects. Larry Lessig has done a lot of interesting work around copyright. But he wrote basically that we need to cheer on the Facebooks of the world because they're new and not the old media dinosaurs. He has this line about "Stanford is vanquishing Harvard." We need something so much more profound than that.
This is why I really take on the concept of "openness.” Because open is not equal. In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized. It's harder to get your mind around how inequitable things actually are. I myself follow a diverse group of people and feel like Twitter is full of people of color or radicals. But that's because I'm getting a very distorted view of the overall picture.
I think it's helpful to look at the handful of examples of these supposedly open systems in action. Like Wikipedia, which everyone can contribute to. Nonetheless, only like 15 percent of the editors are women. Even the organizations that are held up as exemplars of digital democracy, there's still such structural inequality. By the time you get to the level of these new media ventures that you're talking about, it's completely predictable.
We really need to think through these issues on a social level. I tried to steer the debate away from our addiction to our devices or to crappy content on the Internet, and really take a structural view. It's challenging because ultimately it comes down to money and power and who has it and how do you wrest it away and how do you funnel some of it to build structures that will support other types of voices. That's far more difficult than waiting around for some new technology to come around and do it for you.
You write about this tension between professional work from the amateurs who are working for free and the way the idea of doing work for the love of it has crept in everywhere. Except people are working longer hours than ever and they're making less money than ever, and who has time to come home at the end of your two minimum wage jobs and make art?
It would be nice to come out and say follow your heart, do everything for the love of it, and things'll work out. Artists are told not to think about money. They're actively encouraged to deny the economic sphere. What that does though is it obscures the way privilege operates—the way that having a trust fund can sure be handy if you want to be a full time sculptor or digital video maker.
I think it's important that we tackle these issues. That's where I look at these beautiful predictions about the way these labor-saving devices would free us all and the idea that the fruits of technological advancement would be evenly shared. It's really interesting how today's leading tech pundits don't pretend that [the sharing is] going to be even at all. Our social imagination is so diminished.
There's something really off about celebrating amateurism in an economy where people are un- and under-employed, and where young people are graduating with an average of $30,000 of student debt. It doesn't acknowledge the way that this figure of the artist—[as] the person who loves their work so much that they'll do it for nothing—is increasingly central to this precarious labor force.
I quote this example of people at an Apple store asking for a raise and the response was "When you're working for Apple, money shouldn't be a consideration." You're supposed to just love your work so much you'll exploit yourself. That's what interning is. That's what writing for free is when you're hoping to get a foot in the door as a journalist. There are major social implications if that's the road we go down. It exacerbates inequality, because who can afford to do this kind of work?
Of course, unpaid internships are really prevalent in creative fields.
Ultimately, it's a corporate subsidy. People are sometimes not just working for free but then also going into debt for college credit to do it. In a way, all of the unpaid labor online is also a corporate subsidy. I agree that calling our participation online “labor” is problematic because it's not clear exactly how we're being exploited, but the point is the value being extracted. We need to talk about that value extraction and the way that people's free participation feeds into it.
Of course we enjoy so much of what we do online. People enjoy creating art and culture and doing journalism too. The idea that work should only be well-compensated and secure if it makes you miserable ultimately leads to a world where the people who feel like they should make a lot of money are the guys on Wall Street working 80 hours a week. It's a bleak, bleak view.
In many ways the problem with social media is it does break down this barrier between home and work. You point this out in the book--it's everywhere, you can't avoid it, especially if you are an independent creative person where you have to constantly promote your own work, or it is part of your job. There's now the Wages for Facebook conversation—people are starting to talk about the way we are creating value for these companies.
It really challenges the notion that we're all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there's a real obligatory dimension to so much of this. Look also at the way we talk to young people. “Do you want a college recruiter to see that on your Facebook profile?” What we're really demanding is that they create a Facebook profile that appeals to college recruiters, that they manage a self that will help them get ahead.
I was at a recent talk about automation and the “end of jobs,” and one researcher said that the jobs that would be hardest to automate away would be ones that required creativity or social intelligence—skills that have been incredibly devalued in today's economy, only in part because of technology.
Those skills are being pushed out of the economy because they're supposed to be things you just choose to do because they're pleasurable. There is a paradox there. Certain types of jobs will be automated away, that can be not just deskilled but done better by machines, and meanwhile all the creative jobs that can’t be automated away are actually considered almost superfluous to the economy.
The thing about the jobs conversation is that it's a political question and a policy question as well as a technological question. There can be lots of different types of jobs in the world if we invest in them. This question of what kind of jobs we're going to have in the future. So much of it is actually comes down to these social decisions that we're making. The technological aspect has always been overhyped.
You do bring up ideas like a basic income and shorter working hours as ways to allow people to have time and money for culture creation.
The question is, how do you get there? You'd have to have a political movement, you'd have to challenge power. They're not just going to throw the poor people who've had their jobs automated away a bone and suddenly provide a basic income. People would really have to organize and fight for it. It's that fight, that element of antagonism and struggle that isn't faced when we just think tools are evolving rapidly and we'll catch up with them.
The more romantic predictions about rising prosperity and the inevitable increase in free time were made against the backdrop of the post-war consensus of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. There was a social safety net, there were structures in place that redistributed wealth, and so people made predictions colored by that social fabric, that if there were advancements in our tools that they would be shared by people. It just shows the way that the political reality shapes what we can collectively imagine.
Finally, you make the case for state-subsidized media as well as regulations—for ensuring that people have the ability to make culture as well as consume it. You note that major web companies like Google and Facebook operate like public utilities, and that nationalizing them would be a really hard sell, and yet if these things are being founded with government subsidies and our work, they are in a sense already ours.
The invisible subsidy is the thing that we really have to keep in mind. People say, “Where's the money going to come from?” We're already spending it. So much innovation is the consequence of state investment. Touchscreens, the microchip, the Internet itself, GPS, all of these things would not exist if the government had not invested in them, and the good thing about state investment is it takes a much longer view than short-term private-market investment. It can have tremendous, socially valuable breakthroughs. But all the credit for these innovations and the financial rewards is going to private companies, not back to us, the people, whose tax dollars actually paid for them.
You raise a moral question: If we're paying for these things already, then shouldn't they in some sense be ours? I think the answer is yes. There are some leverage points in the sense that these companies like to talk about themselves as though they actually are public utilities. There's this public-spiritedness in their rhetoric but it doesn't go deep enough—it doesn't go into the way they're actually run. That's the gap we need to bridge. Despite Silicon Valley's hostility to the government and the state, and the idea that the Internet is sort of this magic place where regulation should not touch, the government's already there. We just need it to be benefiting people, not private corporations.
“This is the kind of adventure I usually have to force upon us,” declares Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) in the season finale of Community, which aired last night, “and here it is, falling into our laps.”
The “adventure,” as it happens, is a totally implausible one: In order to save Greendale Community College, the characters need to uncover a hidden underground sector of a school building, which is filled with computers made of solid gold, built by an eccentric millionaire who faked his own death in order to go underground and teach a computer named Raquel how to love him.
And if you expected Community to let that plot go by without acknowledging its oddity, well, you’ve clearly never seen the show. On Community, a bizarre plot isn’t just introduced to provide fuel for jokes; the bizarre nature of that plot is the joke. When two characters (Jeff Winger and Britta Perry, played by Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs) announce their engagement, the other characters all shoot it down by calling attention to which NBC Thursday-night sitcom they inhabit: “What does this look like, an hour-long episode of The Office?” Later, it’s explained that Jeff and Britta are an impossible couple because a show about their marriage “would last six episodes.” And, of course, the entire plot—Greendale being just “saved” enough to be bought out by a private company—is a complicated metaphor for the potential fate of the show, which was itself “saved” by series creator Dan Harmon returning as showrunner this year after an involuntary and disastrous absence. Now, if Community isn't renewed by NBC for its sixth season, it may have that season sold to and broadcast by a private company such as Amazon, Netflix or Hulu.
Which is all to say, Community has never rewarded casual viewing, and at this point, it doesn’t even try. Although it started out as a simple ensemble comedy about a jerk who learns to love while attending community college, Community has become a comedy about the making of Community. Not since Mystery Science Theater 3000 has a show spent so much time trying to teach its viewers media literacy, and many of its jokes assume viewer knowledge of every bit of backstage drama, financial struggle and staffing change that went into making the show. This is one of the show’s greatest strengths. But, increasingly in Season 5, it became a deficit — largely because it felt, more often than not, like the show was taking a backseat to an extended vindication of Dan Harmon.
Even when the show’s firing on all cylinders, Community’s meta-commentary can be tricky to pull off. Sometimes it’s so self-absorbed as to be intolerable: Witness last week’s episode, in which Abed recited Harmon’s basic story structure (an eight-point arc he claims to have derived from “boiling down” Joseph Campbell) in conversation, and later ran through the halls of Greendale shouting, “Everything’s a story! I’m in a story!” It was clever, but it wasn’t very funny, and if you’d never read Dan Harmon’s blog and/or the Wired profile in which he shared the theory, it probably didn’t make any sense. But sometimes, that same approach feels uniquely personal and welcoming to fans: If Dan Harmon gets into an Internet fight with a viewer named Gwynnifer, a character named “Gwynnifer” will be told to “suck it” in a forthcoming episode. If fans start making cracks about Joel McHale’s increasingly over-developed muscles, then the season finale will contain a scene of McHale’s character accidentally knocking a man to the floor because “I lose track of how big I’m getting.” Community can feel exhaustingly narcissistic, or Community can feel like a living organism that cares about you and wants to start a conversation, because in fact, Community is both.
But, with Harmon returning to the show, the meta-commentary couldn’t be about anything but Harmon’s return. Which put it into the uncomfortable position of defending someone who is — how to put this nicely?— a somewhat problematic guy.
Harmon’s flaws are not secret: The man has a blog, a Twitter, a podcast, and a documentary dedicated to revealing them. And the personal stuff—drinking too much and at the wrong times, getting into a lot of Internet arguments, talking endlessly about his feelings online, being a perfectionist, etc.—can be passed by more or less in silence. (If nothing else, the writer of this article is not in a position to non-hypocritically critique them.) It’s the political problems that stand out: Scan his blog, and you’ll find at least one instance of him instructing a feminist blogger to “imagine a GIF of me shitting on your face.” Complaints about the show’s diversity—one early complaint was that the show didn’t feature any recurring Latino characters—get turned into running fuck-you jokes. (In this season, there’s a Spanish-language newspaper at Greendale, but it only covers issues that stand to affect soccer.) Harmon’s used rape jokes. Probably too many rape jokes. His reaction to watching the Harmon-less Season 4 was a rape joke; a recent episode of his new animated show Rick and Morty featured a big, polarizing rape joke; at least one episode of this show — “Competitive Wine Tasting,” from Season 2 — had a whole B-plot that was one long rape joke. (Troy made up a story about being molested as a child to get attention and make Britta like him. It was just about as charming as it sounds.) Oh, and did I mention that Britta actually was molested as a child? And that this gets brought up sometimes? Via rape jokes? It feels a bit unfair to bring it up—Harmon’s apologized, and apologized well, and stated his commitment to doing better—but still. I’d recommend skipping “Competitive Wine Tasting.”
Ultimately, I love Community, and I think Dan Harmon should be the person to run Community. It doesn’t work without him: Just look at that Harmon-less fourth season, which started off at “mediocre,” and frequently dipped into “unwatchable.” You can also make an argument for Community as a fairly progressive show: The cast actually is racially diverse. There are plenty of women, and they tend to have non-stereotypical interests—Britta’s left-wing politics, Shirley’s entrepreneurial spirit, Annie’s academic perfectionism—and talk to each other. The Dean’s love of drag and unsubtle crush on Jeff Winger used to be fodder for nasty jokes, but as Jim Rash has become a more central part of the show, now there’s a queer and/or gender-fluid character in the mix, and he’s not only accepted, he can get the whole school to say “we love you” by accidentally talking into the PA system.
But, where those elements felt fairly radical when Community first aired in 2009, in 2014 there are plenty of shows doing them or even outdoing them: Broad City, this year’s critical sitcom darling, not only centers on unconventional female characters, it’s created and run by women. The treatment of gender and sexuality on Orange is the New Black makes Community’s early treatment of the Dean look decades, not just years, out of date. Having a diverse cast isn’t an exceptional accomplishment, it’s something that viewers increasingly treat as a basic requirement. And, in this landscape, it can feel very uncomfortable to be stuck advocating for comedy made by and about an offensive-joke-deploying white guy.
But Season Five, as the return of Harmon, necessarily had to be the season that was most directly about Harmon, and whether he deserved to run a sitcom. Did you read a lot about how Harmon probably got fired because of his drinking? Here’s Jeff Winger, getting kicked out of his office because his law practice failed, talking about how alcohol is the only thing that keeps him going. Did you read about how Harmon’s not a team player, or how he’s too much of an artist for the suits? Here’s Abed Nadir admitting that he “needs to learn how to work with others” in order to be a filmmaker, and another scene of him screaming at somebody that “you’re mad at me because I’m creative.” (Abed, as Harmon’s most frequent mouthpiece, went from nigh-unflappable to downright volatile this season, which seems like an open acknowledgment of the shift in how Harmon is perceived.) Ever notice that Harmon tends to get in trouble on the Internet, especially with that blog post about how he got fired as showrunner and his consultation credit was worthless? Well, you should have, because the climax of this year’s season (and possibly series) finale is a disheveled, bearded man in a ratty bathrobe—the creator of Greendale Community College—coming out of exile to claim his “right of consultation” on the school. “I hear there’s an Internet on which I can make my inner thoughts public,” he says, and the people threatening to buy Greendale flee the premises instantly.
It’s funny, especially if you’re a hardcore Community fan. (Or, in other words: a Community fan.) And the idea of Harmon as a basement-dwelling, money-repelling weirdo who once tried to “make love to a computer” is the opposite of self-aggrandizing. But by turning the season into a referendum on Harmon himself, the show directed its focus away from the characters and jokes, and lost some of the joy and warmth that can make it so much fun. It had to happen. And I sincerely hope Community does come back for its long-promised sixth season (and its movie). But I also hope that, if and when the show comes back, it can stop talking about whether Dan Harmon’s the best person to run it, and just settle into being Dan Harmon’s show.
Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon gave a powerful speech Wednesday night calling for significant changes on campus in light of its high rates of sexual assault, high-risk drinking, and discriminatory social scene.
“Darmouth’s promise is being hijacked by high-risk and harmful behaviors, behaviors that are hurting too many of our students, dividing us as a community and distracting from our important work of teaching and learning,” Hanlon said. “From dangerous levels of drinking, to sexual assaults, disgusting and sometimes threatening insults posted on the Internet, and parties with racist and sexist undertones, our social scene is too often at odds with our mission and the practices of inclusion our students deserve.”
The Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is currently investigating Dartmouth for allegedly mishandling sexual assault cases under Title IX, a law that bans discrimination on the basis of gender, and the Clery Act, which requires cases of sexual assault to be reported to the Department. As recently as February, while the OCR investigation was ongoing, a student whose name appeared in a “rape guide” on a student-run website was sexually assaulted.
Applications to Dartmouth fell 14 percent this year, the steepest drop in two decades, perhaps as a result of the spotlight on its campus sexual assault problem.
To address these issues, President Hanlon announced the creation of a Presidential Steering Committee made up of students, faculty, administration and alumni, that will spend the summer developing solutions. Hanlon strongly encouraged student input, saying this “cannot be viewed as a mandate from the top.” Changes have also already begun on campus, including the work of The Dartmouth Bystander Initiative and the newly established Center for Community Action and Prevention to mobilizing the community against sexual assault, and the implementation of a disciplinary policy mandating expulsion for offenders.
Several other universities have come under federal investigation recently for mishandling sexual assault cases. In January, 39 members of Congress signed a letter calling for more transparency in the Department of Education’s findings regarding these cases, and the White House launched a taskforce to prevent campus sexual assault.
TAKE ACTION: Organize to end rape on campus with Feminist Campus!
Media Resources: Dartmouth College Office of the President 4/17/14; The Washington Post 4/16/14; Huffington Post 1/31/14; Feminist Newswire 7/23/13, 1/22/14; 3/14/14
Reproductive health access in Texas continues to vanish in the wake of HB 2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that, among other things, requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges in order to keep their clinics open. Three Texas abortion providers this week had their hospital admitting privileges revoked at nearby hospitals after abortion opponents threatened the hospitals with negative publicity.
Foundation Surgical Hospital of El Paso revoked Dr. Pamela Richter’s temporary admitting privileges last week without notice or explanation. Dr. Richter, who provides abortion care at Reproductive Services in El Paso, immediately filed for a temporary restraining order, but federal district judge Lee Yeakel denied her request Wednesday afternoon. Although Judge Yeakel said he believed “irreparable harm” would be caused to the over one million people living in the clinic’s vicinity, he ultimately ruled that plaintiffs had not met the legal requirements for the restraining order.
“Forcing patients to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest clinic does absolutely nothing to improve any ‘health or safety’ measures. In fact, it does exactly the opposite,” Heather Busby, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told ThinkProgress. “But we knew all along HB 2 was not about improving care, but making it inaccessible.”
Dr. Richter has performed over 17,000 abortions over her career – and not once has required admitting privileges or sent a patient to the hospital for post-abortion care. Reproductive Services, however, will no longer be able to provide abortion services.
In North Texas, Doctors Lamar Robinson and Jasbir Ahluwalia received notices on March 31 informing them that their admitting privileges to the University General Hospital of Dallas had been revoked, with the hospital’s CEO claiming the hospital was unaware they were providing abortion care and that the hospital believed such care would damage its reputation. A Dallas County judge granted Robinson and Ahluwalia a temporary restraining order against HB 2 until their legal challenge can receive a full hearing on April 30. Both doctors claim that they were open about their off-site abortion services when they applied for admitting privileges. Federal and state laws also forbid hospitals from discriminating against doctors who perform abortions.
Texas advocates expressed fears during legislative debate over HB 2 that anti-abortion protesters would pressure hospitals to deny abortion providers required admitting privileges, and as predicted, reproductive rights opponents in the state have indeed developed templates for action – including threatening protests and vigils on hospital grounds - with the intent to convince hospitals to revoke admitting privileges for abortion providers.
“Texas has put the constitutional rights of women in the hands of hospital administrators,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has filed two legal challenges to HB2. “As a consequence, the list of high-quality abortion providers forced to turn away patients continues to grow, while reproductive health care options for Texas women continue to shrink.”
Before HB 2 was enacted in Texas, the state had 44 operating abortion clinics. Now, at least 20 have closed – and a 400-mile region in the state has been left with no clinics at all. Many women are being forced to cross state lines to access abortion care, and those who cannot find the resources to do so are resorting to illegal and unsafe methods to end their pregnancies.
Earlier this month, the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Texas filed a petition asking the full US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reconsider its panel decision upholding the constitutionality of HB 2′s admitting privileges requirement.
Media Resources: RH Reality Check, 4/17/2014, 4/18/2014; Center for Reproductive Rights Press Release 4/17/14; ThinkProgress 4/18/2014; Feminist Newswire 3/6/2014, 4/14/2014
If you read one business book this year, make it Flash Boys by Michael Lewis. The journalist famous for Moneyball and The Big Short takes readers inside the parasitic world of high-frequency trading that is harming the broader economy.
The technical architecture of high-frequency trading is right out of a sci-fi movie—the schemes rely on algorithms that seem artificially intelligent, and the velocity of transaction signals approach light speed. As Lewis recounts, all that technological wizardry is marshaled to let insiders know information before everyone else, which consequently lets those insiders extract wealth from the market.
The good news is that a financial transaction tax can at once raise public resources and disincentivize the most predatory schemes. The even better news is that structural changes in the industry have made such a tax more economically viable than ever.
Before getting to that change, consider the basics of the tax proposal. The idea is that if a tiny fee is slapped on securities transactions—say, a cent—the tax will barely affect the average investor but will force high-frequency, high-volume traders to pay a lot. Consequently, those predators might see less of an upside from—or even abandon—their market-rigging schemes. And if they don't, then at least the government will generate new resources to enforce laws protecting average investors.
Of course, when this idea gained steam before, it was deflated by those arguing that the tax would prompt stock exchanges to move to jurisdictions that don't impose such a levy. In this tale, the city, state or country that creates a transaction tax won't stop high-frequency trading—it will only hurt itself by driving financial business to another locale.
On its face, it is a powerful argument—so powerful, in fact, that when Chicago's municipal government recently considered a financial transaction tax, the proposal was quickly dismissed. The Illinois legislature then gave the Chicago Mercantile Exchange an $85 million tax cut when company executives threatened to move the company out of state.
No doubt, fear of such flight seems logical. Essentially, tax opponents ask us to assume that in the Internet era, stock exchanges—like many other information-sector enterprises—are no longer moored to specific geographies because they can supposedly conduct business through any digital conduit.
But that's where the aforementioned structural change has created a flaw in the logic. In a financial world where microseconds are now king, all conduits are not created equal and average Internet velocity is no longer enough. That reality potentially reduces some of the industry's geographic mobility. Why? Because while speculators themselves no longer need to physically be on specific trading room floors, they do need their computers to either be physically near those exchanges' computers or hooked up to them through special ultra-fast conduits. Additionally, the newly computerized exchanges need ever-more massive data centers and conduits to process the accelerating information flow.
All of that technology requires financial firms to make huge investments in lots of immobile digital infrastructure. That means it may now be prohibitively expensive and/or logistically difficult for those financial firms to simply pick up and move. Indeed, just like petroleum companies cannot realistically threaten to leave oil-rich locales if they don't like a tax, parts of the financial world are captive to the locales in which they've built their digital systems.
This is the silver lining of speed-driven finance. Simply put, the federal, state and local governments that host the financial industry have more leverage because, despite threats, they don't have to fear the industry leaving.
The only question, then, is political: Will those governments use this new leverage? Or will they do nothing to protect the average investor?
In early January, residents of Charleston, W. Va., began to notice that their tap water smelled like licorice. It turned out that a coal processing plant owned by Freedom Industries had spilled more than 10,000 gallons of toxic chemicals into the Elk River, but the company did not initially report the spill. On January 9, state officials and the local water company ordered residents not to drink or even touch the water.
With 300,000 people in the Charleston area left without access to clean water, residents soon took matters into their own hands and formed a grassroots water delivery group to bring water directly to people in need.
The group WV Clean Water Hub began as a few friends buying bottled water and using a Facebook page to coordinate deliveries to their neighbors, with support from local environmental groups. Before long, online donations started coming in from across the country and dozens of volunteers showed up to lend their help. WV Clean Water Hub estimates that it delivered 17,000 gallons of water to hundreds of residents, many of whom live in remote areas that the traditional relief organizations neglect.
“We need clean water just as much as anybody else does,” says Daniel James Estep, a resident who started volunteering after WV Clean Water Hub brought water to his house. Estep already lives with a kidney disease, which he believes was caused by continued exposure to polluted well water following previous chemical spills in the area.
In the days following the spill, more than 400 hospitalizations were reported. Although most officials have declared the water safe, residents claim they are still experiencing negative effects from exposure.
But by filling in where the government and relief agencies fell short, volunteers and community members have built relationships that are helping to inspire some to move beyond the immediate crisis. Residents are now organizing for long-term solutions, including the enactment of SB 373, a state law to help prevent future disasters by increasing the regulation of chemical storage tanks and requiring better monitoring of water resources.
A federal district court permanently blocked one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the nation yesterday, calling it “invalid and unconstitutional.”
The North Dakota law, HB 1456, directly challenged Roe v. Wade by banning abortions before viability and as early as 6 weeks. The law – styled as a “fetal heartbeat” ban – would have created harsh penalties for physicians who knowingly violated the ban, making it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The law had been temporarily blocked since July.
“The court was correct to call this law exactly what it is: a blatant violation of the constitutional guarantees afforded to all women,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR). CRR challenged the “heartbeat” ban on behalf of North Dakota’s sole abortion clinic. “But women should not be forced to go to court, year after year in state after state, to protect their constitutional rights,” continued Northup. “We hope today’s decision, along with the long line of decisions striking down these attempts to choke off access to safe and legal abortion services in the US, sends a strong message to politicians across the country that our rights cannot be legislated away.”
The ban was part of a series of anti-abortion laws signed into law last year in North Dakota, including, among other things, an admitting privileges requirement and a ban on medication abortion. CRR filed lawsuits challenging those provisions as well as the 6-week ban. The admitting privileges case settled last month, and the medication abortion ban is currently being considered in the North Dakota Supreme Court.
North Dakota will also vote in November on a personhood measure – called Measure 1 – that would amend the North Dakota state constitution to provide an “inalienable right to life” at “every stage of development.” If passed by North Dakota voters, Measure 1 would ban all abortions in the state, without any exceptions, and could make illegal certain forms of birth control, stem cell research, and in vitro fertilization. In addition, Measure 1 threatens the provision of end-of-life care, may prevent individuals from making their own personal decisions concerning the use of life support, and interfere with organ donation.
India’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that official documents must allow transgender people to identify as a third gender and directed the federal and state governments to include transgender people, known as hijras, in welfare programs such as education, health care, and job programs.
“All documents will now have a third category marked ‘transgender,’” said Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender activist who petitioned the court. “This verdict has come as a great relief for all of us. Today I am proud to be an Indian.”
The court also ordered the government to construct separate public bathrooms and special hospital wards to focus on transgender people’s medical needs, implement public awareness campaigns to reduce the social stigma faced by the estimated 3 million transgender Indians, and give transgender people the right to adopt children, among other changes.
The “recognition of transgender people as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” said Supreme Court Justice K. S. Radhakrishnan. “Transgenders are citizens of this country and are entitled to education and all other rights.”
While this is a victory for transgender rights, the Supreme Court of India took a step backward last December by reinstating a colonial-era law banning gay sex.
Media Resources: Associated Press 4/15/14; BBC 4/15/14; Times of India 4/15/14; Feminist Newswire 12/13/13
Reprinted with permission from Jacobin magazine.
Looking back to the defeat of the labor movement since the early 1980s, three lessons seem especially important. First, any gains made under capitalism are temporary; they can be reversed. Second, the kind of unionism we developed in that earlier period of gains was inherently limited; it left us in a poor position to respond to the subsequent attacks. Third, absent new forms of working class organization and practices, fatalism takes over and worker expectations fall.
Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), newly out in paperback from Verso, is part memoir, part organizing manual, and part rejoinder to that fatalism. Jane McAlevey is a long-time organizer in the student, environmental and, over the past two decades, labor movements. She is currently a PhD candidate at City University of New York, which she has integrated into her continuing life as a labor organizer. Her message, based on her experiences and achievements, is that as much as capitalism has diminished workers and undermined their confidence in affecting their lives, workers can overcome—but only if they themselves become organizers inside both the workplace and community.
While any such organizing begins with workers’ needs, it is workers’ expectations of their own ability to intervene—and of the support from their unions in doing so—that must especially be raised. McAlevey refuses to romanticize workers or glorify spontaneity. But she deeply respects working people and genuinely appreciates their creative potential, a respect reflected in her refusal to be shy about challenging workers to reach their potential.
Organizing strategy is McAlevey’s forte, and two examples highlight her approach. In 1998, following the moment in the mid-90s when the AFL-CIO had become desperate enough to allow some real experimentation to take place, McAlevey was sent to Stamford, Conn., to direct an organizing drive, the Stamford Organizing Project. Stamford had one of the lowest union densities in all of New England.
A number of aspects of that drive stand out. First, as obvious as it might seem to cooperate across unions, it is in fact extremely rare to see unions getting together to “pool resources, share lists, and adhere to collectively made decisions.” To the credit of the four locals involved (most of whose leadership came from an oppositional and left tradition), they saw beyond a parochial concern to gain new dues-paying members and grasped the need to build the class across sectors and across racial and gendered divisions.
Second, when a main concern of the workers turned out to revolve around access to housing, McAlevey shifted the unionization drive to make housing a primary focus—class was not just a workplace relationship. The confidence, skills and alliances developed in that campaign, and the corresponding credibility gained for the labor movement, were key to organizing unions and winning strong contracts.
Breaking down the distinction between the workplace and the community and putting an emphasis on community allies is itself not unusual in such struggles; what was distinct was that rather than seeing the community as an “other,” McAlevey emphasized the extent to which workers were themselves part of the community; success depended on workers becoming the key organizers in bringing the community around. “When union staff try to do it in place of workers,” McAlevey writes, “they blow it.”
Some six years later, just before the split in the AFL-CIO in 2005, McAlevey was sent by SEIU to organize public and private hospitals in Nevada. Because Nevada became a right-to-work state, with workers having the right to opt out of paying dues, the thin organizing that unions commonly practice couldn’t work. McAlevey’s team identified and supported organic worker-leaders. The intensive, face-face organizing that followed, with increasingly confident workers now “in constant conversation with one another about everything going on” raised the share of dues-paying union members from 25 percent to 80 percent and higher—enough of a difference to distinguish between collective begging and collective bargaining.
This was accomplished by honing a rigorous system of mapping the workplace thoroughly and continuously, and then building and deliberately testing the workers’ capacities throughout the campaign. Alongside this, McAlevey insisted that to build the kind of power necessary to win in the particularly hostile context of Nevada demanded an inclusive bargaining unit—one that brought nurses and lab technicians together with janitors, laundry workers, and food preparation staff.
To a degree virtually unheard of in labor negotiations, McAlevey pressed to open up the bargaining sessions to the members. The bargaining team included “one worker to the team for every twenty-five workers in the larger units and for every fifteen workers in the smaller units,” and this was done “by unit and shift so that we had every kind of worker input.” All members were welcome and “encouraged to attend negotiations, whether for a day, an hour, or a coffee break.”
This had, as McAlevey acknowledges, its risks and demanded a great deal of preparation and internal discipline if it wasn’t to become a free for all. But in the end, such “big bargaining” greatly contributed to winning over members disillusioned about the union and their role within it.
In both examples, and central to all of McAlevey’s organizing, is the priority given to carrying out the most in-depth power analysis of what workers are up against and where they can exercise leverage in their struggle. This involves mapping and charting the power not only of the companies being unionized or bargained with, but in the communities in which the struggle is taking place.
And it includes both the conventional metrics of identifying power brokers, community leaders, state-corporate links, and others, and qualitative assessments by the workers themselves of both the power arrayed against them and the power they can bring to bear. The information gathered and the process of gathering it then become integral to developing workers’ strategic understandings and capacities.
Some critics of the book have accused McAlevey of self-promotion for the book’s emphasis on her own role in these events. This seems rather churlish. Both the device of making her points through a memoir based on her personal experience and the informal style were clearly intended to make it more accessible to lay readers and rank-and-file unionists. (The publishers apparently asked for the personalized subtitle of “My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement.”) Moreover, McAlevey is very generous in pointing to her mentors and giving them and earlier organizers credit for the model she applies.
Judgments of McAlevey’s personality are beside the point. The real question is whether she has written a book that contributes to addressing labor’s current impasse. And on this score, it is difficult to imagine even such critics denying that she has something important to say.
McAlevey has also been attacked—most notably by respected labor journalist Steve Early—for her criticism of Sal Rosselli, the SEIU leader of a key local in California who broke away, after the SEIU’s imposition of a trusteeship, to form the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
Early’s attack is doubly unfortunate. First, McAlevey’s book only mentions Rosselli in passing. Challenging her brief comments is one thing; focusing on those few passages to essentially dismiss the book is another. Second, whatever disagreements there may be between Early and McAlevey on this specific issue, they are on the same side in their antipathy to the role of the SEIU leadership. As McAlevey says in her new afterward, “While the Birthers and Tea Party were effectively mobilizing town halls all across the nation to destroy health care-reforms, SEIU’s health-care organizers were busy blowing up one of their best local unions.”
Most important, however, in terms of discussions of organizing models, have been suggestions that as a staff representative herself, McAlevey presents a model that is staff-driven. We should, of course, be wary of organizing models that substitute staff for the participation of workers. But the very point of McAlevey’s work is to combat that kind of relationship between staff and rank-and-file and replace it with an orientation to remaking the working class into a social force with the capacity to make its own decisions.
As she said of the Stamford process, “I was proposing that the bulk of this work not be done directly by union organizers but by the workers themselves.” It was, in fact, McAlevey’s refusal to toe SEIU’s deal-making model, which she has referred to elsewhere as “organizing the company,” and to repeatedly insist on organizing the workers, that got her in trouble with the SEIU top leadership.
Yet the issue here isn’t just to reject the role of staff. In the building of militant, democratic, community-centered unions, full-time staff have an essential role to play as catalysts and support systems for bringing in and bringing out the best in the members. To ignore this is to obscure all the difficult but necessary issues of how to establish the proper context for staffers to play this kind of role.
The larger issue here revolves around the nature of organizing. An essentialist view of workers as being inherently militant, solidaristic and strategy-wise doesn’t grasp the actual state of the working class. If workers already had the needed capacities fully formed, they would have organized themselves long ago.
Organizing is about moving people from where they currently are to someplace that brings out their potential as social agents. It involves developing the individual and collective capacities—alongside the structures, tactics and strategies—that can match what workers are up against. Most labor leaders today, McAlevey asserts, think that in the “self-centered, plugged-in, globalized country this nation has become,” deep workplace and community organizing is impossible. Her experiences prove otherwise.
The organizing model McAlevey proposes, based on her experience and with roots in early CIO practices, demands a heavy commitment of union resources (McAlevey hasn’t shied away from supporting large dues increases) and depends on experienced organizers (who may or may not be staff) playing a catalyst role. The identification of informal leaders is given much greater attention than most unions’ traditional organizing models since the de facto leaders, as McAlevey repeatedly emphasizes, are not generally the formal, elected leaders.
Organizing is a continuous process, beginning with power mapping, testing to hone mobilization capacities, then acting. It connects individual and collective action and passes on analytical and strategic skills to workers. It develops workers’ self-confidence through demonstrating that employers and politicians can be taken on and demands won. It is suspicious of the legalisms of grievance handling, instead focusing on workers addressing grievances through direct action. It keeps the union members fully informed, opens the bargaining process to much broader direct participation, doesn’t shy away from strikes, and it looks to the workers themselves to organize their communities.
And yet for all the concrete demonstrations that this model of organizing works, it did not spread across the labor movement. The exciting example in Connecticut of unions cooperating with each other and moving into the community—and subsequently gaining members and first contracts, successfully intervening to save and improve public housing projects and gaining representation in local politics—did not spread. In Nevada, an impressive number of workers overcame the state’s anti-labor legislation and joined the SEIU, and the contracts won were quite remarkable, including the breakthrough in Nevada’s health care sector for fully employer-paid family health care. Yet this too faded, undone by both legitimate disagreements and petty turf wars. What are we to make of this?
The dilemma is that this organizing model rests on unions being open to real organizing, committing the resources, standing ready to accept some turmoil within their organizations, and trusting the members rather than looking to broker deals with corporations. But unions that would agree to such a program are distressingly rare. Creating them essentially requires revolutions inside unions—something that is unlikely to happen through any spontaneous dynamic strictly internal to unions.
Without the existence of a left committed to class struggle and with its feet inside and outside workplaces, unions that have transformed into the kinds of organizing machines McAlevey helped create will remain the exception. But such a left, with links to workers and a capacity to develop organizers where workers are looking for help and workers that might transform their unions, is itself at an impasse. Much as many of us might think of the Left as the most self-conscious part of the class struggle, their impasse is as difficult to overcome as unions'.
In this context, McAlevey’s book is timely and desperately needed because it convincingly demonstrates that the problem is not in the stars, but in ourselves. If we as the Left can get our shit together, it is possible to build groups of workers into a social force in spite of the times.
Where unions are ready to try, McAlevey presents a method for how to do this. And where unions are not yet prepared to take this on, it lays out a range of specific demands we should be fighting for within our unions. (The book is full of concrete examples of tools, tactics, and strategies that can win; it is practically begging for a follow-up detailed manual.)
Every serious labor activist needs to engage this book, drawing out what is useful and experimenting with variations as appropriate. But we also need to go further. Indirectly, McAlevey’s book challenges the Left to stop lamenting its disappointments in the working class and address, with humility, its own failures. The Left must raise its expectations of itself.
It’s odd to come to the end of a sprightly historical tour of the vexed, overplanned world of the modern workplace and realize that the emerging trends are represented by, well, you. Let me explain. In Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, Nikil Saval plumbs the management theories and competing design philosophies that produced, in high modernism’s mid-20th century heyday, the arid, soul-crushing, dubiously efficient built environment known as the information workplace. Saval, an editor with n+1, speculates that the lovingly choreographed cubicle-and-corridor organization of work may be consigned to history’s dustbin by today’s knowledge workers. Increasingly, people who toil at the postindustrial processing of data, symbols and information (writers and editors, let’s just say) are making a go of it as casualized, contingent, insecure—or, to use the boosterish euphemisms, “freelance” and “entrepreneurial”—cursors-for-hire. They’ll bypass the traditional perks of office life—the promise of advancement, the allure of job security, health benefits and pension plans—for wiftier virtues such as “autonomy” and “free agency.” These makeshift knowledge workers have burst the surly bonds of the cubicle, and now work at home or in makeshift “co-working” venues carved out of the margins of American life—cafés, home offices or time-share facilities leased with other wayward, laptop-wielding consultants-on-the-fly.
That’s me. I have two editing jobs, which I carry out as a telecommuter. I freelance as a writer, editor and reviewer as my schedule permits. I haven’t worked in an office or attended a meeting in three years. I rent a space—a cubicle, actually—in a writer’s center in my smug little corner of Northwest D.C.
Should the notion strike, I could put my laptop in my bookbag and head across the street, where a half-dozen or so D.C.-to-New York buslines fetch up passengers, and take a field trip. (The bus is just $20, with free wifi, so I can keep working!) Disembarking in Midtown Manhattan, I could tour the skyscrapers that once symbolized the mid-century American determination to render the mundane rites of office work something bright, clean, brave and futuristic. I could take in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, designed by the German master of the austere monolith Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I could espy Philip Johnson’s famed Sony Tower, originally commissioned as the headquarters for AT&T. Johnson—the high-modernist fascist sympathizer who reinvented himself as an unlikely apostle of vernacular corporate design—created this riot of clashing architectural styles topped off by a bow-like pair of pinkish Chippendale-style open pediments. It was this ’80s structure, more than any other, that brought the idiotic romance of the “postmodern” into the working lives of ordinary Americans.
As Saval makes clear, our office culture has risen and fallen in tandem with broader currents of social thought, industrial psychology and design innovation. The Sony and Seagram buildings are now rueful monuments to a long-vanished moment in postwar corporate life, when the lords of commerce felt themselves to be the anointed, omnicompetent masters of the universe.
Still, this state of neglect seems fairly benign, when you ponder another specimen of the age: Herman Miller, Inc.’s revolutionary conception of the “Action Office”—a frenetic congeries of standing desks, “movable display surfaces” and open passageways, all painstakingly crafted to induce “fortuitous encounters” among the creative knowledge elite who were supposed to give intellectual life to all the “action” surrounding them. The intention behind the design was very much to convince Miller’s clients that they were poised to conquer the postindustrial future. Robert Propst, a Miller executive and Action Office’s designer and lead propagandist, explained in a manifesto accompanying the release of Action Office II that this office was “a thinking place” and “the real office consumer [was] the mind.” However, Propst’s overheated liberationist rhetoric, like the imperious performance-architecture of Johnson and van der Rohe, concealed a darkness at its heart—a disregard for the needs of the workers that these elaborate designs would house. Propst’s millennial fancies were “unencumbered by personalities and bad behavior,” Saval writes. “His vision is so complete, so penetrating that it refines human need out of existence. He sees only bodily needs, and in his models people are only bundles of mental stimuli.”
“Action Office,” in its first incarnation, was too expensive and too radical for its would-be administrators of the corporate future to adopt. In 1968, the Miller firm debuted a more muted and conventional version whose Hollywood-sequel-style title, “Action Office II,” was another token of the conquering spirit of postwar industrial design. And like all confident bids to annex the future, this one yielded a gruesomely ironic outcome: The most significant legacy of Action Office II is the glum, segmenting, claustral knowledge-worker cubicle. Once the nation’s corporate employers modified the high-concept accessories of Propst’s frenetic reveries of liberated thought exchange into standardized, readily reproducible workstations, they shrank ineluctably into the “veal-fattening pens” immortalized by Douglas Coupland in his 1991 office novel Generation X. The “display surfaces” that promoted the freewheeling exchange of ideas in Propst’s “thinking place” mutated into funereal beige backdrops for Dilbert cartoons and Successory posters—each, in its own way, a desperate protest against the worker’s uncreative confinement. Contrary to Propst’s prophecies, the cubicle-era workplace, rather than treating the mind as its principal consumer, turns the worker’s brain into a resentment-filled warehouse of micromanaged drudgery.
Which leads, in its own cunning-of-history fashion, to my own freelance plight. My work days, split between my home office and my rented cubicle, pass pleasantly enough. I try not to think about my job insecurity and lack of a pension plan as I spin out words like these for my thought-clients (or whatever Robert Propst would call them today were he still with us). Saval, for his part, thinks it’s possible that my own officeless, free-floating working life portends bigger changes:
The willingness of workers to discard status privileges like desks and offices ... suggests that the career path that defined the white-collar worker for generations ... is coming to a close, and a new sort of work, as yet unformed, is taking its place. It remains for office workers to make this freedom meaningful: to make the “autonomy” promised by the fraying of the labor contract a real one, to make workplaces truly their own.
It appears that I’m part of a revolutionary vanguard. Does that mean I can now stop paying to rent a cubicle of my own?
With the United States-instigated Israeli-Palestinian talks beginning to collapse, pundits left and right are recommending that representatives from all three nations withdraw from the efforts before the situation worsens further.
I have to disagree.
The drama of boardroom negotiations may have dominated front-page real estate. But Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank has consequences regardless of leaders’ next moves—to the lives and livelihood of Palestinians, to Israel’s ability to be “of the Middle East” and a “Jewish, democratic state,” and to America. And these costs won’t just emerge in future conflicts; they also affect our current political processes.
What follows is Part 1 of a two-part series chronicling the places and people I encountered while in the Middle East this past October, a time when the talks were in full swing. While I was there, I saw firsthand how occupation impacts the lives of Palestinians who live on both sides of the Green Line, and why arriving at a peaceful agreement between the two is both so difficult and so necessary.
When I arrived in Israel, I was delighted by the 70-degree weather; initially, only the presence of machine-gun armed soldiers outside the airport reminded me of the darker realities behind this sun-kissed country. Rather than taking a cab, I decided I would travel into Jerusalem via “sherut,” a shuttle bus that will take anyone from the airport to any door in Jerusalem.
Well, almost any door. According to friends and some NGOs in the region, if you are a resident of one of Jerusalem’s Palestinian areas, drivers will take you only to the edge of your neighborhood—reminding me of what it used to be like in my hometown of Chicago before it became illegal for cab drivers to refuse to take people to predominantly African-American neighborhoods.The heart of the city
The heart of Jerusalem is the Old City, the 225-acre walled area in East Jerusalem that has existed for millennia and has been at the center of strife for nearly that long. The Old City itself is unofficially divided into quadrants among Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Armenians. Outside its borders, the rest of East Jerusalem is primarily occupied by the majority of the city’s Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, whose families have lived there for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, the majority of the city’s Jews live in West Jerusalem; though they immigrated to Israel in small groups over many centuries, most arrived in droves as first the rise of anti-Semitism and then the horrors of the Holocaust drove them from Europe.
Prior to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the city was undivided. When partition began in 1948, Jordan controlled the entire Old City, East Jerusalem and the West Bank; Israel controlled all of the city to the west. After Israel won the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, however, the Israelis annexed East Jerusalem, including the Old City and an additional 70 square kilometers of land where 28 Palestinian villages were located.
Immediately after its takeover, Israel conducted a census. All non-Jews present in Jerusalem at the time were granted “permanent resident status." Those who were not in the city at the time for any reason were forever prohibited from returning as residents. Deeds, surveys and property maps were disregarded and destroyed; the property of the absent non-Jewish inhabitants was confiscated, no matter how many hundreds of years they may have lived there or owned their homes. Non-Jewish residents were offered full Israeli citizenship if they had some knowledge of Hebrew and would swear loyalty to the State. Few took the offer.
Today, the nearly 400,000 "permanent residents" of Jerusalem—most of them descendants of the original non-Jewish population—cannot vote in national elections and have no passports. They are severely restricted in their movements and even in their access to some government services that Jewish residents take for granted.Ground zero
Looking east from the balcony of my hotel room in West Jerusalem, I saw a vast swath of largely undeveloped land to the east and wondered what it could be. A few days later, on a trip to East Jerusalem with long-time attorney and activist Danny Seidman, I found out. It is “E1”, the area much-discussed in 2013 as the latest Israeli settlement battleground. While reading reports about E1, I had imagined a small region amid the jam-packed neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. In fact, E1 spans five square miles—and it is home to 20 Bedouin communities that have been there for decades.
If the land is confiscated by the Israeli government, E1 will create an East-West corridor through the West Bank that would sever the connections between East Jerusalem’s nearly 400,000 Palestinian residents and the more than 2 million Palestinian residents of the villages and cities of the West Bank.
Though it is an important and explosive flash point, E1 is simply the latest focal point of skirmish in the battle for Jerusalem and its center: the Old City of East Jerusalem.
A walk through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter brought home the full impact of the conflict. Accompanied by new friends—a Palestinian woman and a European human rights worker—I ascended dimly lit stairs to the rooftop of an ancient building just across from the Temple Mount. Until recently, a house sat on the roof, built by the family that have owned and occupied the building for more than 500 years. Various family members live on the first, second and third floors of the building. The rooftop house, constructed of rough stones, was built to accommodate a daughter, her husband and children. However, last summer the Israeli Defense Force demanded that the owners destroy the house because it had been built "without a permit." Without the funds to fight the order, the family tore down the house. There have been more than 800 such demolitions in East Jerusalem alone.
One might think that the government is justified for demanding demolition of a structure without a permit, but the situation is more complex. For a Palestinian, getting a building permit is nearly impossible: Approval, which is rare, can take five to 10 years. And though about 40 percent of Jerusalem’s population is Palestinian, only 8 percent of the city’s houses have been designated for Palestinian housing. Meanwhile, almost all of Jewish Israelis’ permit applications have been approved for the thousands of houses they’ve constructed in this historic Muslim area over the last decade.
My guides say that the building permit issue is part of a plan to “Judaize” East Jerusalem in order to thwart the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
As we looked out from the rooftop to the surrounding streets, the success of the Israeli strategy was obvious. In every direction we saw scores of buildings with Israeli flags flying above their roofs. These are the newly permitted "settlements”: Single buildings, or even rooms, that Israelis have "captured" through sale or by just moving in when an occupant is not home and building onto the structure. After the “settlement” is created, an IDF presence follows to "protect" the settlers, thereby creating another military outpost in a historically Arab community.Not a Palestinian in sight
You can tell it is Tel Aviv, because there is far less diversity here than in Jerusalem.
Tel Aviv, an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, is a Mediterranean seaside town. Its seashore is lined with high-end hotels, its boulevards with trees. The city’s economy is fueled by construction of government buildings and Israel’s growing high-tech industry.
Tel Aviv is actually Tel Aviv-Jaffa. In 1950, Tel Aviv unilaterally annexed Jaffa after nearly 65,000 Arabs fled the city during the armed conflict of 1948. The 4,000 Palestinians who stayed were “relocated” to Jaffa’s Ajami and Jabaliah neighborhoods. Israel then confiscated all the “abandoned” properties and made them “properties of the state.” Those in Ajami were granted “citizenship” but lived under military rule until 1966.
Today, Tel Aviv is a city of more than 400,000, with a population that is 92 percent Jewish-Israeli. Virtually all Palestinian residents live in Jaffa, thanks to the prohibitively high prices elsewhere in the city. Until a decade ago, friends tell me, hundreds of thousands of West Bank residents went to the beach in Tel Aviv, went to school there and worked there. Now, it is a city where they are never seen. In fact, it is possible to live in Tel Aviv and never interact with a Palestinian, except while doing military service.No 'little houses on the prairie'
On my first trip to Israel in 2000, the West Bank looked and felt quite different. Then there were about 200,000 Jewish-Israeli "settlers”; today there are more than 300,000.
The settlers’ red-roofed houses and concrete towers now dominate the landscape from Jerusalem to Ramallah, extending North to Nablus, east to Jericho, south to Hebron and West to Tulkarem.
These are not “little houses on the prairie.” Rather, they are installations built to house anywhere from 500 to more than 30,000 people, built in flagrant violation of international and sometimes even Israeli law.
Whatever their origin, as the settlements grow, so does the impact of occupation. For example, though all available water is drawn from the aquifer below the West Bank itself, it is controlled solely by Israel. Israelis receive 80 percent of the water from the West Bank, while neighboring Palestinian villages receive only 20 percent, depriving the latter of a resource essential for both daily activities and for nurturing the olive groves that have been the lifeblood of their communities for centuries.
And while village children are arrested en masse (and sometimes killed) for throwing stones, the UN reports that settlers rarely face any consequences for actions like burning their Palestinian neighbors’ olive trees.
Thus, the Palestinians I met see settlements as part of a strategy to divide their people, forcing them into areas that cannot support them or their families. When I met with progressive Jewish-Israeli leaders later in the week, many agreed that the settlements could be seen as movement by the government to slowly encircle Palestinian holdings with Israeli land.What the future could be
Rawabi is a new city being constructed in the West Bank by and for Palestinians.
Finding an Israeli-Palestinian driver willing to do so, I crossed from Israel by checkpoint into the West Bank. Halfway between Ramallah and Nablus we left the dry desert floor and climbed into the hills, covered by surprisingly lush green pines and olive trees. About five miles later I saw a sight that moved me: a Palestinian flag atop a mountain.
As we drew closer I saw two modern mid-rise buildings. This was Phase I of Rawabi, the first entirely new city to be built in the West Bank—and one built almost exclusively with Palestinian labor and Palestinian and Qatari money.
The two buildings I saw will soon house 1,000 families on either side of an expansive plaza anchored by a retail and commercial center under construction. Walking on the site, I peered down the hillside, seeing the outlines of a 20,000–seat amphitheater that is being carved into the side of the mountain on which the city sits. To my left three schools were under construction; to my right I saw the cornerstones of both a mosque and a church.
Planned for an eventual population of 40,000, the first homes in Rawabi have been sold. This year, developers tell me, the first 3,000 people will move in. It is a bold endeavor with great impact already. Rawabi corporation is the largest private employer in the West Bank. All construction work and preparation is done on site. Palestinians quarry and cut the stone, and mix the cement. All engineering, architectural staff and builders are Palestinians, and when European expertise is needed, the consultants are paired with Palestinians to ensure knowledge transfer. The developers estimate that 8,000 people will be employed in the construction of Rawabi; one-third of its engineers are women.
The development, however, is not free from the burden of occupation. There have been continuous battles over access for deliveries on the Israeli-controlled road, and knowing that Israel could cut off the supplies of steel or other needed goods at any time, most building materials must be created or kept onsite.
The current battles are about water and telecommunications. The Israeli government has yet to allow Rawabi access to the water it controls. Similarly, while Rawabi’s future as a commercial and residential hub will depend on whether they have 4G Internet service, Israel has not allowed any part of the West Bank to have it.
For Bashar Masri, the entrepreneur behind the project, Rawabi is about creating a sustainable community in the desert and about nation-building—about thriving in the midst of oppression, about demonstrating capacity and creating economic opportunity.
Later that day, a Palestinian friend explained to me, “Occupation is not a concept. It is a reality that circumscribes and limits the action and the lives of every Palestinian each and every day. Forms of resistance may vary, but every act—whether it be a stone thrown out of boredom or desperation or a building ... built despite the Kafkaesque barriers put in its way—is real, pervasive and indicative of a people which plans and hopes are not to die as martyrs but to live, prosper and build a nation in the process.”
This is occupation—and Rawabi is one more compelling reason to end it.
Ten-year old Albuquerque, New Mexico fourth-grader Jaelyn Bates plays on the Frey Academy Basketball team, and her coach, Kevin Frey, thinks she’s pretty good. “She always gives 100 percent,” Frey said. “She’s a competitor, and she makes others around her better. She’s definitely earned every minute she has played.”
But last week, the New Mexico Select Youth Sport Club told Coach Frey that Jaelyn could not play with her team in the upcoming Southwest Salsa Slam basketball tournament – because she’s a girl.
Tournament organizers sent an email to Frey explaining: “Girls can not play on boys teams and boys can not play on girls teams. That has been our rule in our tournament for a number of years.” NM Select follows the American Athletic Union tournament rules.
Coach Frey and the team, however, did not abandon Jaelyn – one of the team’s star players. According to Frey, the boys on the team “didn’t feel good [about Jaelyn not playing] and they don’t want to play without her.” Jaelyn, who was born with a heart defect that prevented her from walking until she was 2, has played basketball for three years and was named MVP at a local tournament last month.
After being told that NM Select would “not bend or change” the rules, Jaelyn’s parents sued Friday, requesting a restraining order against NM Select, which could have impacted whether the tournament went forward.
Immediately after the suit was filed, on Monday, NM Select announced that it would allow Jaelyn to play. It wasn’t a total victory. NM Select Executive Director Joseph Jaramillo explained that the organization was not changing its sex-segregation rules, but would provide an exception.
According to Jaelyn’s father Barry Bates, Jaelyn is excited to play with her team, but Jaelyn – like many of us – “didn’t understand why she couldn’t play just because she was a girl.”
Media Resources: Albuquerque News Journal 4/15/14, 4/12/14; TODAY 4/12/14; Albuquerque KRQE News 4/8/14
Maryam Koofi, a member of Afghanistan’s Parliament, was wounded in a shooting yesterday. The assailant shot her twice in her leg as she was leaving her office last night.
Maryam’s sister, Fawzia Koofi, claims it was an act of political intimidation by those who oppose the rights women have gained over the past few years, but the government claims the assailant was a police officer in a dispute with Maryam. “I don’t know who was behind this attack–but I know that it was political,” said Fawzia, who is also a member of Parliament and a women’s rights activist. She survived a similar shooting attack in 2010.
The departure of most foreign troops in coming months has women’s rights and human rights activists concerned about the possible resurgence of the Taliban and its potential impact on women. Over the last decade, with the help and support of the U.S. and the international community, Afghan women and girls have made steady progress in every sector of society. Previously stripped of all human rights and forced into a state of virtual house arrest under the Taliban, women are now 27 percent of Afghan Parliament, about 35 percent of all primary and secondary school students, and nearly 19 percent of students attending university. Over 200 women candidates ran for provincial council seats and two women ran for vice president in the recent elections, which were completed successfully with high turnout and low levels of violence.
Maryam Koofi is currently recovering in a Kabul hospital.
Media Resources: Associated Press 4/15/14; TOLO News 4/16/14; Chicago Tribune 4/16/14; Feminist Newswire 2/28/14, 4/7/14
Like millions of Americans this winter, as I sat in front of the TV, freezing and wrapped in a blanket, I kept waiting for the network news shows to utter the two most obvious words raised by the weather patterns of the past several months: climate change. We heard, repeatedly, about yet another “arctic blast,” the “inescapable winter” and various efforts to describe the wayward ways of the “polar vortex”—“a cyclone that sits over the poles” with a “counterclockwise rotation,” one CBS meteorologist offered. But we waited in vain for reporters to interview scientists about how these dramatic weather extremes are related to—and, in fact, evince—what has been unfortunately labeled “global warming,” a term suggesting that only heat waves could be evidence of climate change. Instead, CBS News interviewed the general manager of the Edinburgh Golf Course in Minnesota about “how the course came through the winter.”
Rather than using the drought in California, the tropical weather at the Sochi Olympics or the unrelentingly frigid temperatures throughout much of the United States as pegs for serious coverage of the costs of climate change, The Weather Channel, mainlining Italian B-movies about Hercules from the 1950s, went into a naming frenzy, with each storm, however fearsome or tepid, getting a moniker like Kronos or Maximus or, my favorite, Seneca (the wise storm?), all proposed by Bozeman, Mont., high school kids. The channel started personifying storms in 2012, explaining later that this was “the best possible ways to communicate severe weather information on all distribution platforms.” But their anthropomorphizing of storms as toga-clad gods trivializes the rise of extreme weather and contributes to what has come to be called “weather porn”: the rabid flogging of the disaster aspects of storms at the expense of all else.
In February, CBS Morning News sought to explain why northern California was being run over by something named “the Pineapple Express.”
“So, what’s causing all this?” asked host Charlie Rose. “Well,” responded CBS contributor Michio Kaku, “the wacky weather could get even wackier.” Kaku, a physics professor, then explained that the polar vortex was like a “swirling bucket of cold air” that was spilling into the continental United States because the North Pole is melting, and tied it to the broader problem of climate change.“I’m really trying to follow you,” said anchor Gayle King, struggling to connect the dots. She then asked, “What can be done about it?”
“Well,” Kaku responded,“it seems to be irreversible at a certain point ... so we may have to get used to a new normal.” How’s that for promoting utter resignation and inaction?
As for the Sunday talk shows, according to Media Matters, they devoted only 27 minutes, collectively, to climate change in 2013. This past February, ABC’s This Week and NBC’s Meet the Press finally gave the topic real airtime; however, they did so in the most irresponsible way possible. NBC staged a “debate” between Bill Nye the Science Guy and climate-change denier Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who asserted, falsely, that “there is not agreement around the fact of exactly what is causing” climate change. ABC pitted climatologist Heidi Cullen against Republican Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina, who infamously said in 2008 that “climate change is in God’s hands” (though he later backtracked). While both shows sought to refute the vacuous bromides of these dunces, the fact that they gave them equal time, when 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is a fact and is human-made, suggests there is a real debate when there isn’t, and legitimates doing nothing.
Of course, if you watch Fox News, the frigid weather proves that “global warming” is a myth; indeed, Fox mentioned climate change nine times in one week in January in order to ridicule it. As its contributor George Will asserts, “the climate is always changing.” Well, yes, especially in the last two decades, which were the hottest in 400 years.
We’ve become resigned to event-driven, de-contextualized news, but when the issue is as pressing, costly and dangerous as climate change (think floods, water shortages, severe hurricanes, droughts), we need fewer storms named after Zeus, fewer numbskull climate change deniers, and more coverage about what’s actually happening, what we can and must do, and how we can do it.
Rejecting dozens of heroic characters, from Captain America to Underdog, Republicans last week chose instead a villain for their figurehead.
They selected Prince John, the guy who coddled the rich and tried to crush Robin Hood. House Republicans voted to elevate Prince John as their champion when they passed a budget slashing taxes for the rich and decimating programs for workers and low-income Americans.
Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, who authored the anti-Robin Hood spending plan, said the budget “comes down to a matter of trust.” Trust, Ryan believes, should be placed in the rich and Washington politicians like him, a Prince John man who devised a spending scam enriching the rich and depriving the rest. Ryan asked, “Who knows better: the people or Washington?” The GOP answer: Washington, of course. A place purchased by the very, very rich.
Ryan’s anti-Robin Hood spending plan takes health care from the poor and elderly and gives tax breaks to the rich and super rich. Really. Republicans voted to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. Nice, right? Except for Americans who depend on Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare.
Republicans voted to voucherize Medicare, which would force senior citizens to pay thousands of dollars more each year. Ryan and his fellow House Republicans voted to kill Obamacare, which means the 7.1 million who got insurance on the exchanges would lose it; the 3.1 million young people covered under Obamacare’s extension of their parents’ plans would lose insurance, and the 3 million who got insurance under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion would lose it.
That’s 13 million without health insurance, in addition to low-income seniors struggling to pay premiums as Ryan’s vouchers lose value. But, hey, billionaires get a tax break!
Ryan’s anti-Robin Hood spending scheme provides more money for guns and less for bread. Republicans would increase military spending by $483 billion above caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act while slashing non-arms spending by $791 billion.
That works out well for Republican hawks like John McCain, who want to “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” Not so much for low-income parents who want their children to eat. Republicans voted to cut food stamps, school lunches and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The GOP serenade to those Americans: “Starve, starve, starve, starve, starve poor kids.”
Ryan’s anti-Robin Hood spending plan robs low-income Americans of funding for Pell Grants, Head Start and special education while granting tax breaks to corporations so profitable that they are sitting on $1.5 trillion in cash. Republicans would hand corporations a tax rate cut from 35 to 25 percent, while ensuring that an uneven educational playing field prevents impoverished Americans from ever achieving those new, lower tax rates for the rich.
Ryan’s anti-Robin Hood plan would pierce Big Bird’s heart with an arrow while freeing corporations from paying taxes on overseas corporate earnings. Just to be clear, that would mean the death of Junior’s Sesame Street program and his daddy’s manufacturing job, since this tax system would encourage corporations to ship factories overseas where profits wouldn’t be taxed.
Ryan said federal subsidies for Big Bird’s nest—the non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting—“can no longer be justified.” But, Republicans believe, for-profit corporations that don’t provide public education should pay no taxes at all on offshore earnings—even while Americans supply the big military stick that protects these corporations’ foreign facilities.
Washington politician Paul Ryan’s priorities are not America’s. Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe corporations should pay the same tax rate on foreign profits as they do on domestic profits.
Forced to choose, the majority would pick Big Bird over a big bomb. Support for the war in Afghanistan has plummeted to 17 percent. Fewer than 13 percent support military action against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
Some 70 percent of Americans oppose cuts to food stamps. Similarly, 69 percent want the nation’s education system improved. Sixty-one percent say the rich don’t pay enough taxes. Sixty-six percent believe corporations don’t pay enough taxes. Seventy-four percent favor the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare.
The Republicans’ priorities are all wrong. As were those of Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Ryan and his right-wing crew focus on the demands of the wealthy and ignore the values of the vast majority of Americans.
Ryan uses magical accounting to assert that his budget will balance in a decade. Eliminating the deficit is an urgent matter for Ryan and Washington Republicans, but it’s not among the top priorities of most Americans. Theirs are improving the economy and increasing jobs. Republicans ignored that, approving a budget that will reduce jobs.
Over decades, Americans created and strengthened social programs for themselves that they now cherish. These include Medicare, Medicaid, Pell Grants, Head Start, and public radio and television.
In polls, Americans have even said they are willing to pay more taxes to support beloved social welfare programs. Most believe, however, that if corporations and billionaires paid their fair share, these programs would not be threatened. For example, if millionaires paid the same percentage of their income into Social Security that minimum wage earners do, the trust fund would not run dry in 20 years potentially limiting benefits in 2033.
In a principled budget process, elected representatives would fairly tax the rich, not steal from the poor. There’s even a partial antidote for Ryan’s anti-Robin Hood budget. It’s called the Robin Hood tax. It’s a tiny fee on financial transactions. Many experts believe it would discourage risky trading on Wall Street while raising billions for programs like Pell Grants and Big Bird. Eleven European Union nations, including the four largest, are moving toward levying it.
That tax is not in the Republicans’ anti-Robin Hood spending scheme. That’s because Ryan’s a Washington politician who believes he knows better than the American people.
Trans woman, student, and sex work activist Monica Jones was found guilty Friday of “manifesting prostitution” by a Phoenix, Arizona judge after she accepted a ride with two undercover police officers in May 2013. Jones pled not guilty to the charge and challenged the law’s constitutionality. She now faces time in a men’s prison.
Phoenix Municipal Code 23-52 defines behavior that “manifests an intent to commit or solicit an act of prostitution” illegal, although the broad language of the law allows authorities to decide which behaviors qualify as criminal action. If a police officer in Phoenix suspects someone of sex work, that person can be arrested for engaging in conversation with motorists, beckoning to cars, or stopping passersby.
Jones and other advocates, including members of the Arizona ACLU and Sex Workers Outreach Project, have asserted that Jones is guilty of simply “walking while trans,” and that the Phoenix law allows for discriminatory profiling of women of color, trans* women, and women in poverty by the authorities. “I have been harassed by police four times since my initial arrest,” she told Chase Strangio, an ACLU Staff Attorney. “The police have stopped me for no real reason when I have been walking to the grocery store, to the local bar, or visiting with a friend on the sidewalk.”
Jones also believes she was targeted by authorities for speaking out against Project ROSE, an anti-prostitution collaboration between Arizona State University’s School of Social Work, which Jones currently attends, the Phoenix Police Department, and various Catholic charities. The diversion program detains community members suspected of sex work and pressures them to participate in a Catholic “re-education” program, often threatening them with criminal charges if they refuse to participate.
Jones will appeal her case. “I am saddened by the injustice that took place at my trial,” she said, “but we are not giving up the fight. It’s time that we end the stigma and the criminalization of sex work, the profiling of trans women of color, and the racist police system that harms so many of us.”
Media Resources: PolicyMic, 4/15/2014; ACLU Blog, 4/2/2014; Jezebel, 4/13/2014; The Guardian, 4/15/2014
Using the Medicaid expansion debate as a platform, the Virginia Catholic Conference issued a statement Friday calling for the repeal of a Virginia law that allows state funding of abortion care for Medicaid recipients in situations where the fetus exhibits a “gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity” or a “gross and totally incapacitating mental deficiency.”
Bishop Francis DiLorenzo of the Diocese of Richmond and Bishop Paul Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington authored the statement which urges Virginia lawmakers to act to expand Medicaid to cover more of Virginia’s poor. The statement notes how failure to expand Medicaid would hurt vulnerable populations: “Some are forced to choose between taking their child to the doctor and paying rent, or rush to emergency rooms when untreated chronic conditions become catastrophic. These situations are unacceptable, and the solution is clear.” The bishops continue, “Everyone should have access to health insurance, not just those who can afford it or whose employers provide it. Virginia needs healthcare for all, not healthcare for some.”
Except when it comes to abortion. The bishops carefully state that “healthcare is a right,” but then ask Virginia legislators to repeal healthcare for poor women facing rare, tragic circumstances. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Executive Director Tarina Keene told RH Reality Check that state funds covered only 14 abortions in 2013 due to gross and totally incapacitating fetal impairment.
Democrats and Republicans in Virginia have been at an impasse over whether to expand Medicaid, as allowed by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to an estimated 400,000 low-income individuals in the state. The federal government would pay the full cost of the expansion through 2016, after which it would reduce its contributions incrementally to a minimum of 90 percent of the total cost by 2020. Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) has pushed for Medicaid expansion, but so far, Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates have been steadfast in their opposition, leading to a stalemate over the state budget.
Media Resources: RH Reality Check 4/14/14; Washington Post 4/13/14; Virginia Catholic Conference 4/11/14; Reuters 3/24/14
Mad Men can be a hard show to love.
Well. Not that hard, obviously. It’s beautifully shot; it stars several exceptionally attractive actors; it features lots of smoking, drinking, drug use and illicit sex; it looks and feels self-consciously expensive and intelligent, which makes viewers feel a lot better about their attraction to the whole “sex and drugs” thing. And it attracts a Category 5 hurricane of media coverage every year, mainly because a show about the irresistible sexual charisma of a brilliant-yet-interpersonally-dysfunctional writer is always going to be incredibly appealing to people who write for a living. You could fire Jon Hamm and re-cast Don Draper with a potato wearing a tie, and thousands of TV bloggers would still find the guy fascinating.
But just take a moment, if you will, to compare last night’s episode of Mad Men to its big competitor in the Sunday-night-prestige-TV sweepstakes, HBO’s Game of Thrones. Whereas the Game of Thrones season premiere last week featured swordfights, revenge quests, pansexual orgies, cuss words, plot twists, dragons and boobs, last night’s episode of Mad Men, “Time Zones,” featured … people doing work for an ad agency. For the big season premiere, we shuffled around for an hour, checking in on different characters' various career advancements and setbacks before getting to the big plot twist, which was that one of the characters has a new advertising job. Then the credits rolled. And that was an episode of Mad Men.
Oh, yeah, and we found out that founding partner Roger Sterling has been having constant pansexual orgies. So I suppose the two shows do have that in common.
But in general, Mad Men isn’t a show that you watch to find out “what happens next.” Despite the aforementioned drugs, drinking and carnal shenaniganery, for the most part, it’s a show about what it’s like to watch people age and change over the course of a decade. Sometimes, it’s incredibly moving. Sometimes, it feels like watching paint dry. So, with the fact that not much happens on Mad Men fully established: Let’s talk about what happened on Mad Men.
“I want you to pay close attention,” the episode begins, “because this is the beginning of something. Do you have time to improve your life?”
The character speaking these lines is former Sterling Cooper & Partners copywriter and recovering alcoholic Freddy Rumsen, in his new role as a freelancer, pitching an ad about watches to hep-cat copywriter Peggy Olson. It’s a dizzying scene: Freddy is staring directly into the camera, so the show is basically speaking to us. And because it’s a watch ad, it’s talking about time, as in, “This is a show about a time known as the 1960s.” The first few minutes of the premiere are, therefore, dedicated to Mad Men pitching you Mad Men—“It’s not a time piece, it’s a conversation piece," Freddy continues. And Mad Men is a show, in essence, about pitching. Talk about your meta moments.
But the choice to open on Freddy is significant for another reason, too: He’s most notable as “the guy who got fired in Season 2 for being too much of a drunk even for a workplace where every employee is constantly drunk,” which is essentially what happened to Don Draper in last season’s finale. Don wasn’t fired—he can’t be, he’s a partner—but he has been prohibited from doing any more work for the firm. Already, the show is inviting you to think about the possibility that Freddy and/or Don can have a second chance: whether they have time, in other words, to improve their lives.
Peggy, for her part, is absolutely blown away by Freddy’s pitch. Given how mediocre and workmanlike Freddy’s copy has always been in the past, this should clue you in to the big plot twist right away.
First, though, it’s time to check in with the other characters. Ken Cosgrove—the accounts man who used to be the lone pleasant and well-adjusted person on the show—has finally broken down and become just as unpleasant and bitter as everyone else at Sterling Cooper. Now he’s an overworked man with an eye patch (having been shot in the face by a client last season) who calls people into his office to scream at them.
It’s remarkably sad to see Happy Kenny swallowed up by his job until Angry Eye Patch Guy is all that’s left. But it’s also an opportunity to see Joan Holloway Harris, the endlessly competent single mother and managing partner who used to be a decidedly anti-feminist office admin, save Angry Eye Patch Guy’s bacon. She does this by wooing back a client with whom AEPG is having trouble and who’s now thinking of moving all their advertising in-house to save money. Joanie books an interview with a business-school professor to learn the client's language, calls that client right up, and tells him, using very persuasive business-school terminology, that he will be 100% screwed and 100% responsible for being screwed if he doesn’t leave his advertising to professional advertisers. He listens to her. It’s a lovely scene, and it’s even lovelier coming from a character who used to define “professional excellence” as “telling the new girl that she’d look good in a scarf.”
Speaking of that new girl: It’s time to check back in with Peggy Olson, the formerly frumpy and scarf-averse secretary now turned Queen Copywriter. When we last we saw Peggy, she was chilling in Don Draper’s office, because she assumed that, with Don out of the picture and her boss-slash-ex-lover Ted Chaough moving to the firm’s Los Angeles branch, she’d inherit the Head of Creative throne. Peggy, you see, was assuming that the most qualified person would get the job. Peggy forgot that she was a woman in the 1960s. Rookie mistake, Peggy.
The person who actually got the job was “Lou,” an entirely mediocre and unlikable gentleman who could not identify a good pitch with two hands and a flashlight. He also says things like “I don’t care what you think” and “I’m just immune to your charms” to the woman who should have gotten his office. (I know that Mad Men fans talk about the “falling man” credits and predict a suicide every season, but at this point, I think the “falling man” is actually going to be Lou after Peggy pushes him through a window. At which point, I will applaud.) So instead, Peggy is relegated to pitching with the rest of the copywriters and taking Lou's casual abuse.
Even when she’s off work, Peggy gets no relief: She’s now landlord of a soon-to-be-stratospherically-valuable Upper West Side building, and her tenants are constantly yelling at her to fix their toilets. This episode ends, not surprisingly, with Peggy collapsing to her knees and sobbing because of how genuinely awful it is to be Peggy Olson. I’m surprised that most episodes don’t end this way. The woman cannot catch a break.
You may have noticed that one particular character is missing from the recap thus far. That’s because it takes at least ten minutes of airtime for Don Draper to appear on his own show. Now, it’s not a bad entrance: Don Draper arriving to the strains of “I’m a Man” by Spencer Davis Group is, quite clearly, something that creator Matthew Weiner has been wanting to do for some time. (Those lyrics! I got no time for loving, ‘cause my time is all used up. Just to sit around, creatin' all that groovy kind of stuff. See: “What you call love is something guys like me invented to sell nylons,” courtesy Don Draper in Mad Men’s series premiere.) It’s also nice to see Don's semi-estranged and now Los Angeles-based wife Megan arrive on the scene dressed like an extra from Valley of the Dolls. But we should probably stop having fun, and talk about how their marriage has failed, for truly, this is a highly serious television show about disappointment and aging and time and …
OH MY GOD PETE CAMPBELL IS DRESSED LIKE A KEN DOLL.
That’s right! While he’s in California, Don pays a visit to Pete Campbell—the Los Angeles-based petulant man-baby who used to be a New York-based petulant man-baby—who is alive, well and wearing a blue polo shirt with a white cardigan tied around his shoulders. He has sunglasses perched on the top of his head, which he does not use to shield his eyes from the sun. He has even attempted to grow some long, luscious bangs to hide his receding hairline. Pete Campbell is dressed like an actual Ken doll, and his new girlfriend is a voluptuous blonde with delicate features, and even this couple dressed like Barbie and Ken for Halloween do not look as much like Barbie and Ken as Pete Campbell and his new lady-friend on Mad Men. It’s the most purely joyous, goofy throwaway sight gag I’ve seen all year. So for all that you’ll read—and I’ll write—about what a bleak, slow, serious show is, remember: This is a show that dressed one of its characters up like a children’s toy, just to make you laugh.
And then, there’s the big plot twist. After a disappointing visit with Megan, and a flirty plane-based conversation with Neve Campbell (!) that will no doubt lead to a torrid affair later in the season, Don Draper returns to his apartment, where we learn the secret to Freddy Rumsen’s newfound copywriting genius: His copy is being written by Don Draper. Even though he’s pulling checks from Sterling Cooper & Partners without working, and even though he’s been prohibited by Sterling Cooper & Partners from working, Don can’t resist the lure of writing a great ad. The man loves advertising as much as he loves drinking; he can’t quit either one. So that’s where we end the episode, and begin the season: With Don, alone on his balcony, trying to find one more way to get back in the game. Does Don have time to improve his life? Well, he’s had eight years, and he hasn’t done it yet. This is the last season, and his last shot.
He seems pretty miserable about it, too. Hey, Don! Try thinking about Pete Campbell’s outfit again!
The Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Texas filed a petition last week asking the full US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reexamine the constitutionality of the admitting privileges requirement contained in HB2, Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion bill.
“We’re asking the court to acknowledge what is crystal clear–this law hurts women,” said Louise Melling, ACLU deputy legal director. “Because of this law, women are being forced to choose between putting food on the table and traveling hundreds of miles to get the care they need. This law does absolutely nothing to further patient safety.”
At least 19 abortion clinics in Texas have closed since the admitting privileges requirement went into effect, making it increasingly difficult for Texans to access quality, affordable care when they want an abortion. Many cannot afford to take off work and travel to the nearest abortion clinic, which may be hours away. This difficulty may push women to use illegal products and services that are dangerous to their health.
HB2 passed the legislature last summer in a special legislative session called by Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) after Texas State Senator Wendy Davis (D) successfully led a filibuster of the bill for 12 hours. A federal district court originally struck down the admitting privileges requirement of the bill as unconstitutional. A Fifth Circuit panel, however, blocked that decision – after an emergency appeal by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott – allowing the law to go into effect. Providers and advocates filed an emergency petition with the US Supreme Court, but it refused to intervene. Later, the Fifth Circuit panel issued a final decision to uphold the requirement. Last week’s filing now asks the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the case.
In addition to the admitting privileges requirement, HB2 also bans abortion at 20 weeks, restricts medication abortion, and mandates that facilities where abortion is performed meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Several other state legislatures are working to restrict abortion access using similar laws.
Media Resources: Center for Reproductive Rights 4/10/14; RH Reality Check 4/10/15; Feminist Newswire 10/29/13, 11/1/13, 11/5/13, 11/27/13, 3/10/14, 3/28/14