Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

1.18.2019

jackie robinson: "i owe more to canadians than they'll ever know."

Let me set the scene.

The year is 1946. The United States is deeply segregated. The birth of the civil rights movement that would begin as African-American soldiers returned home to Jim Crow, after fighting for democracy abroad, is still a good 10 years away.

Newlyweds Jackie and Rachel Robinson leave their hometown of Pasadena, California, for Florida, where Jackie will become the first African-American to play organized, professional sports in the United States. When Rachel sees "whites only" signs for the first time in the airport bathroom, she takes a deep breath and walks in anyway, feeling scared, but proud and defiant. Neither Rachel nor Jackie had ever seen the heart of the Jim Crow South. They had no idea what awaited them.

Despite her airport bravada, Rachel and her husband weren't allowed to board their plane. They were "bumped" from their scheduled flight, and the flight after that, and the one after that. They were also not allowed to purchase food while they were waiting. The airline finally suggested they go into town and wait until a flight was became "available". Twelve stressful hours later, they were allowed to fly as far as Pensacola, Florida -- where they were forced off the flight, their seats sold to white passengers.

They then boarded a Greyhound bus, where they were forced to sit in the rearmost, windowless row, for 16 hot, bitter hours, then waited in a dirty, overcrowded "colored" waiting room for yet another bus, shared with black labourers on their way to work. Thirty-six hours after leaving Pasadena, Jackie and Rachel finally reached Daytona Beach, where the Brooklyn Dodgers held spring training.

Robinson and Branch Rickey,
Spring Training, 1946
And then it began. Teams cancelled games rather than have a black player on their field. Thousands of paying (African-American) customers were turned away when the "colored section" of inferior seats were sold out. Disgusting catcalls from the stands were standard. Pitchers threw at Robinson's head repeatedly. Sliding baserunners aimed their spikes at his skin. When the team was on the road, Jackie and Rachel stayed and ate at the homes of African-American families, as none of the hotels or restaurants that served the team would admit them.

At the end of spring training, Jackie was assigned to the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' top "farm club". Road games were a nightmare – but home games were a joy.

From Jackie Robinson: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad:
In Montreal, after about a month in a guest house, and despite an acute postwar housing shortage, Jack and Rachel found a nice apartment. Expecting the sordid resistance that would have come in virtually any white American neighborhood, she was stunned by the genteel response when she answered an advertisement to sublet half of a duplex apartment at 8232 Rue de Gaspé, in the traditionally French-speaking East End. Deliberately, Rachel [who was pregnant with their first child] had chosen the less affluent French-speaking district over its wealthier English counterpart, which she expected to be more exclusive. (Montreal had no distinctly black district.)

On De Gaspé, almost everyone spoke mainly or only French, and a brown face was unusual; but the woman of the apartment received Rachel pleasantly, poured tea and talked, and quickly agreed to rent her apartment furnished, with all her own linen and kitchen utensils. Rachel was almost overwhelmed. "The woman didn't merely agree," she said, "she insisted that I use her things. She wanted me to be careful–no water on the hardwood floors, that sort of thing, but she was gracious. It left us euphoric, really. All the months in Canada were like that."

They moved in without incident. Later, when she began to show, an informal delegation of local women visited her to offer not only advice and friendship but also coupons from their ration books, so she could buy any scarce foodstuffs she needed or craved. With the language barrier and the demands of the Royals' schedule, Jack and Rachel could make very few friends in the neighborhood; but upstairs were the Méthots, with seven or eight children who brightened the house. Rachel and Jack came to know Edgar Méthot and his wife, who had just had a baby; twenty-seven years later, the Methots would recall the Robinsons as "such good people." Their closest friends, however, were a Jewish couple, Sam and Belle Maltin. Sam, a Canadian and a socialist, wrote on sports for the Montreal Herald but was also a stringer for the Pittsburgh Courier; like Rachel, Belle was pregnant at the time. Knowing of Rachel's love of classical music, the Maltins took them to outdoor concerts on Mount Royal that reminded Rachel of visits to the Hollywood Bowl. Belle introduced Rachel to Jewish cooking and also knitted her a sweater she still wore fifty years later. The Maltins had another black friend, Herb Trawick, a football player with the Montreal Alouettes, and the Robinsons got to know him as well.

On the whole, however, the Robinsons aimed for a subdued life when Jack was home. Rachel's day was bound up in going to the ballpark to watch him. When he was away, sometimes she traveled with him (although the club frowned on wives on the road), but mostly she stayed home and sewed clothes for herself and the coming baby, or worked on a crochet tablecloth she was making for her dream home in California. She got to know some of the neighborhood children because they followed her on the street or carried her groceries home; she also tempted the children living upstairs by leaving a door open and a bowl of fruit in plain sight. Rachel could say little to most of the adults – she had taken Latin but no French – but they remained friendly and protective of her. She liked to watch them come out onto their balconies to take the sun in the lazy summer afternoons; they, no doubt, admired her brown-skinned beauty and grace. In May, an Afro-American woman reporter, recalling Rachel's night of abuse in Baltimore, wrote admiringly of her unusual calm and poise: "The only person I know who can equal her is that first citizen of the world, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt."

. . .

[Robinson] could count on a uniformly warm reception only at home, in De Lorimer Downs. "I owe more to Canadians than they'll ever know," he said later. "In my baseball career they were the first to make me feel my natural self." Robinson would write later about one French-accented rooter who "used to shout from the bleachers, if things were bad, 'Jackie, 'e's my boy!' The man had lungs of brass, a voice of iron, and a heart of gold."

. . .

Protected in this way, Jack flourished on the field despite his periods of gloom. Typical was a game in Baltimore when he led an injury-ridden Royals team to a 10-9 victory, after Montreal went ahead 8-0 only to have Baltimore tie the game. Jack not only got three of the Royals' seven hits but also stole home. Such feats made him a lion to his teammates, and to his manager, [Clay] Hopper, who was now almost a complete convert to Rickey's view of Robinson. In Newsweek, Hopper saluted Jack as "a player who must go to the majors. He's a big-league ballplayer, a good team hustler, and a real gentleman." Race now meant less to other baseball men. "I'd like to have nine Robinsons," Bruno Betzel, the Jersey City Giants' manager, declared. "If I had one Jackie, I'd room with him myself and put him to bed nights, to make sure nothing happened to him."

"I've had great luck and great treatment," Jack told Newsweek modestly. "This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me." By September, when the regular season ended, he had completely vindicated Rickey. Robinson became the first Royal to win the league batting crown; his average of .349 also eclipsed the Royals' team record, set in 1930. Hitting only three home runs, he nevertheless drove in 66 runs; he also scored more runs, 113, than anyone else in the league. His 40 stolen bases put him second only to his teammate Marvin Rackley's record-setting 65. At second base, he ended the season with the highest fielding percentage in the league. With one hundred victories, the highest number in team history, the Royals won the pennant by eighteen and a half games. They also played before the largest crowds at home and away – more than eight hundred thousand people – in the history of the club.

In the playoffs, the Royals won two tough seven-game series, first with the Newark Bears and then with the Syracuse Chiefs. Against Syracuse, in the deciding game, Jack went four-for-five. Then, late in September, the Royals traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, for the Little World Series against the Colonels of the American Association. For many of the Louisville players, officials, and fans, Robinson's presence was the most urgent single consideration; the series brought integrated baseball to Louisville for the first time. The Colonels, who had agreed only reluctantly to his playing, underscored their opposition by sharply limiting the number of seats for blacks, many of whom were left to mill about in confusion outside the park. Some who made it inside probably regretted their luck. "The tension was terrible," Robinson wrote, "and I was greeted with some of the worst vituperation I had yet experienced."

The Montreal press loved him.
The series opened with three games in Louisville, during which Jack slumped, going one for eleven. His failure only fed the rage of many white fans in the cheaper seats. "The worse I played," he recalled, "the more vicious that howling mob in the stands became. I had been booed pretty soundly before, but nothing like this. A torrent of mass hatred burst from the stands with virtually every move I made." As Jack suffered, Montreal dropped two games after taking the first. The abuse was so great that the white Louisville Courier-Journal felt obliged to deplore the "demonstrations of prejudice against Montreal's fine second baseman, the young Negro, Jackie Robinson," as well as the "brusque refusal" of the park to accommodate more black fans.

However, when the series moved to Montreal, the local fans repaid the Colonels. A storm of abuse, unprecedented at a Royals game, descended on the visitors. Down 4-0 at one point in the first home game, the Royals stormed back to win 6-5 in the tenth inning on a single by Robinson. In the fifth game, Jack doubled and, just after Louisville tied the game 3-all, hit a towering triple; then he laid down a bunt in the eighth inning "which really settled the fate of the Colonels," according to the Montreal Daily Star. "This was a really heady play, a beautifully placed hit." With Al Campanis, he also executed superb double plays to kill off Louisville scoring threats. Finally, on October 4, before an ecstatic crowd, the Royals defeated the Colonels once again, 2-0, to win the Little World Series. Robinson, who finished the series batting .400, also scored the last run.

Hustling to leave the ballpark in time to catch a plane, Jack made the mistake of stepping back onto the field before he could shower and change. Deliriously happy Montreal fans snatched him up in celebration. Previously, they had lifted Clay Hopper and a white player to their shoulders. Now, hugging and kissing Robinson, slapping him on the back, they carried him on their shoulders in triumph, singing songs of victory, until he was finally able to break away. Watching, the veteran writer Dink Carroll of the Gazette began to cry: "The tears poured down my cheeks and you choked up looking at it." Inside the locker room, Hopper warmly shook his hand. "You're a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman," he told Jack. "It's been wonderful having you on the team." When Robinson reappeared outside in street clothes, a large part of the crowd was still waiting. "They stormed around him, eager to touch him," the Gazette reported. Knowing exactly what he had accomplished over the season, they sang in tribute, "Il a gagné ses épaulettes"—He has earned his stripes; "they almost ripped the clothes from his back." In the Courier, his friend Sam Maltin wrote memorably of the astonishing scene: "It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind."

6.23.2018

welcome to the allan and laura new york city history reading club

The theme of this year's TD Summer Reading Club -- a national program (developed by Toronto Public Library) that more than 2,000 Canadian libraries participate in -- is Feed Your Passions, or as some are calling it, geeking out. Allan and I are going to join the fun with our own tremendously geeky reading, although it will take us considerably more than one summer.

For eons, we have had on our bookshelf Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, a massive 1,424 pages in very small print.


I've always wanted to read it, but it's a bit intimidating! And it's not like you can throw it in your backpack to read on the bus.

Then for my birthday this year, included among Allan's gifts and cards and general Celebration of Laura, was Wallace's follow-up: Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919.


This volume -- all 1200 pages of it -- has got to be fascinating, but we can't read the second book without reading the first! And, geez, that's a lot to read!

I suggested a solution, following in the footsteps of Phil Gyford, to whom literature and history geeks the world over are indebted. Phil is the genius who put The Diary of Samuel Pepys online, one daily post at a time. (I read the entire thing, usually in weekly installments. It took 10 years.)

To tackle this Big Read, Allan and I are going to read one chapter each week -- with the understanding that sometimes we may have to take a week off. We'll still also read whatever else we're reading. That's the plan at least. Starting... now!

Bonus points if you know without Google why the year 1898 is an important marker in New York City history.

3.11.2018

what i'm reading: short reviews of fiction by margaret atwood, madeleine thien, frances itani, elizabeth kostova

I've gathered some thoughts about several novels I read but neglected to write about. I enjoyed them all to varying degrees; all are worth reading if you enjoy the type. This is the first of three posts.

* * * *

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood is a subgenre we don't see enough of: the dystopian comedy. We're in the future, one in which the entire economy of the United States has collapsed. Formerly middle-class families are living in their cars. Gangs of menacing scavengers roam the landscape. No one knows what happened -- some complicated financial dirty dealings went awry. It all looks very familiar.

Now some clever entrepreneur offers a solution to hunger, want, and anxiety -- a controlled community where there are jobs for all and every need is met. Well, yes, it partly a penal colony, and no one leaves -- ever. What could possibly go wrong?

As the plot thickens -- and reels, and loops, and spins -- we're treated to a wacky world involving blackmail, espionage, identity theft, human-organ trafficking, sex robots, Elvis impersonators, and some extremely strange extramarital affairs. The book is funnier than it is creepy, but it's plenty creepy, too. There's social commentary to spare woven into the humour, reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. The Heart Goes Last is bit crazy, maybe a little out of control, but very enjoyable.

* * * *

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a dense blend of history and myth, suspense and adventure, gothic love story and murder-mystery. It's richly descriptive, like a Victorian novel, with a complex plot that keeps you wanting more, even at 650 tightly-packed pages.

The Historian is said to be a re-telling of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but to capture the feel, you have to throw in gothic classics like Rebecca, time-traveling magic-book mysteries like Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, and a dash of international intrigue worthy of old-school 007. Kostova brings off an amazing literary sleight-of-hand, seamlessly blending real-world history with the Dracula myth.

There's also a meta theme, exploring how history is written. Even in this world of semi-fantasy, the intellectual detectives insist on primary sources, search for corroboration, and form no assumptions or conclusions without adequate evidence. And if this isn't enough, the immortal Vlad Drakulya has a thing for librarians.

The story is told in several concentric threads of narration. You'll need to suspend disbelief that anyone could have recorded such brilliant detail in a series of letters. But this letter-writing device alleviates the need for an entire novel that is told rather than shown -- something that has ruined more than one book for me. Don't let the vampires stop you; this is a very impressive and enjoyable novel.

* * * *

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is another dense, multi-generational saga. The narrator, living in present-day Vancouver, relates the story of her father, a brilliant Chinese classical musician who was pushed to suicide by the cruelties of Mao's so-called Cultural Revolution. (File that sanitized expression along with ethnic cleansing, both more properly called genocide.)

The narrator's father, and others like him who have devoted their lives to music, suddenly find themselves branded as enemies of the state. They are arrested, humiliated, sometimes tortured. Thien uses their family saga to tell the stories of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. Both are seen through the lens of musicians and their love for now-forbidden beauty.

There are many plot lines, spanning two continents and several decades, and many reflections about the effect of history -- both global and family -- on our lives.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing was the winner of the 2016 Giller Prize, considered the most prestigious Canadian literary award. It's not an easy novel to read, but it is well worth the effort.

* * * *

Requiem by Frances Itani is also a historical novel. It is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and deeply satisfying read.

The narrator of Requiem, Bin Okuma, is a Japanese-Canadian visual artist recovering from the sudden loss of his beloved wife. As he drives across Canada to reunite with his aging father, he recalls childhood memories when his family was forced out of their fishing village on Vancouver Island -- given two hours to take what they could carry before they were herded into detention camps. While their white neighbours looted their homes, the men and older boys were separated from their families. No one knew where they were being taken or what would happen to them.

From filthy, reeking farm-animal pens to the brutal cold of the northern interior, with no electricity, no running water, and no outside help, tens of thousands of Canadian citizens were forced to live in brutal dislocation. The legacy of unspoken anger and shame forms the powerful emotional undercurrent of this novel. I thought I knew how bad the internment was. I didn't. Itani brings to life the full weight of the injustice, physically and psychologically.

The story cuts back and forth between Bin's present road trip, his childhood memories of the internment, and his more recent memories of his wife. It's highly readable: I found myself wanting to get back to all three timelines.

I haven't yet read the other well-known novels about the Japanese-American or Japanese-Canadian internment -- Obasan by Joy Kogawa and The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford -- so I don't know how this compares. (There is also Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.) But Requiem is very immediate and moving, a memorable read.

Locally, Requiem was chosen as the first One Book One Mississauga. It was an enormously successful program, drawing thousands of readers in print, audio, and ebook. I found the huge interest in this novel very encouraging -- a positive force for our understanding of history, for the world we want to build, and for the stubborn persistence of reading as a shared personal and social value.

9.17.2017

ancient tv history: a gay cop on barney miller

Watching my comedy-before-bed daily dose of Barney Miller last night, I was surprised and pleased to see an episode about a gay cop. This reminded me of this post -- turns out it was 10 years ago! -- about a gay character on Dallas. Both episodes aired in 1979.

Officer Zatelli, played by Dino Natali
At the time I blogged about คาสิโนออนไลน์ แจกเครดิตฟรี 2019the Dallas episode, I thought this might have been pretty cutting-edge. Now that I see a similar theme on a show from the same year, I wonder if it might have been more mainstream than I realize?

In the Barney Miller ep, Lieutenant Scanlon -- a sleazeball from Internal Affairs* -- receives an anonymous letter from an officer saying he is gay, and no one on the force knows, demonstrating that being gay is not incompatible with being a good cop. The letter writer identifies himself as being assigned to the 12th Precinct.

The detectives are all surprised, but shrug it off as not their business. Wojo, who earlier in the series was the most homophobic of the group, is the most uncomfortable, but in the end declares that it wouldn't matter to him if he learned that anyone on the team is gay. Wojciehowicz, played by Max Gail, is the character who grows and changes the most in the course of the show, starting out as a lughead ex-Marine, and ending up just south of Hawkeye Pierce.

Captain Barney Miller himself insists that a cop's sexual preference -- as it was called then -- is nobody's business, and his contempt for Scanlon grows even deeper, which is saying something.

Recurring gay character Marty,
played by Jack DeLeon (centre). 
The gay cop makes himself known to Miller: it's Zatelli, a "uniform" who has an occasional walk-on part, taking over mail delivery when the diminutive Levitt (Ron Carey) finally gets promoted to plainclothes.

Barney's principal reaction to Zatelli is one of burden: now the Captain is obligated to let his superiors know, and Zatelli will be made to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Barney challenges Zatelli to come out, but acknowledges that is untenable. In the end, Miller respects Zatelli's privacy, and tells Scanlon to go to hell.

This may have been a very good lesson for the 1979 sitcom audience, but I'm sure the widespread acceptance of a gay colleague in the NYPD is a tad unrealistic. According to "Brooklyn 9-9" backstory, Captain Holt -- most awesome gay sitcom character ever -- became the first openly gay police officer on the NYPD in 1987.

As I mentioned in a previous post about Barney Miller, there is a gay character on the early seasons of the show. He was played quite mincing and flouncy -- although out and proud. Officer Zatelli is closeted, of course, and does not "act gay".

* * * *

Repeat offender -- the actor, not the character.
Another funny observation about this show. The minor characters, who are usually either the victim of a crime, someone who committed a crime, or lawyers, are played by actors that make multiple appearances -- as different characters! So the same actor appears, but he's not a repeat offender. His character has a new name and has committed an entirely different crime. Because I'm watching one or two episodes every night, I remember the bit parts more than real-time audiences might have. But I wonder if audiences found this strange at the time?

The earliest sitcoms, like "The Honeymooners" and "The Burns & Allen Show"** always used a stable of actors to play a rotation of bit parts. But I would have thought that by the late 1970s, this was no longer done. Talk about breaking the fourth wall. Imagine if dentist Tim Whatley, Steve from Long Island, and the Lucy-obsessed TV Guide guy had all been played by the same actor!


* Internal Affairs is portrayed as devious, dishonest, and out to bust decent, hardworking cops.

** A pioneer of television comedy, and one of my all-time favourite shows. It's the godfather of Seinfeld.

9.16.2017

what i'm reading: the radium girls by kate moore

Readers of a certain age might remember clocks and watches with glowing green dials. The dials were painted with radium, the radioactive element discovered by Marie Curie. We had clocks like this when I was growing up. I have a distinct memory of my mother saying, "The women who worked in the factories where these were made got very sick. They had to put the paintbrushes in their mouths, in order to paint the tiny numbers and dots, and they all got sick, and some died."

I never forgot that -- yet I never heard it mentioned anywhere else. Who were those women? Why were they putting a radioactive substance in their mouths? When I saw a review of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, I knew that someone finally had answered those questions. The story of those women was finally told.

And what a story it is.

The young, working-class women in Orange, New Jersey, and Ottawa, Illinois, who painted radium dials thought they had it made. Not only was the pay better than most work available to women, but they got to work with radium, the exciting glow-in-the-dark substance that everyone was talking about. When one "girl" got sick and died, a doctor ruled the cause of death was syphilis (despite zero evidence and the impossibility of that claim). Another death was ruled pneumonia (also wrong). But as more and more of the workers became sick -- with horrific and inexplicable symptoms -- the pattern became obvious.

When the watch-painting first began, in the late 1920s, the danger of radioactive substances was still largely unknown. Faced with suspicions as multiple workers became sick, the company commissioned a study... then suppressed the findings.

As the women lost their teeth, suffered broken bones, lost their hair, lost pregnancies, became weak, and died, their employers worked overtime at suppressing the truth, denying responsibility, refusing to pay for medical care, and blaming the workers themselves.

If this story was fiction, the companies' actions would be barely credible; readers would say the author laid it on too thick, making the company out to be monsters. Some of the dirty dealings left me gasping. At one point, the women were all seeing the same doctor. They didn't know that the doctor worked for the company. Then it turned out he wasn't even a doctor! Officially, the women died of radium poisoning. But this book leaves no doubt: these workers were murdered.

Labour laws at the time were in their infancy: if a disease wasn't on a short list of specific conditions, workers had no legal recourse. What's more, even those few conditions were subject to a strict statute of limitations -- for which radium poisoning, by definition, would never qualify.

The media and publicity were much different, too. The two factories in two different states, with workers suffering through the same ordeals, were unknown to each other. When the New Jersey cases finally garnered national and international attention, the workers in the Illinois factory realized they were in the same situation. And when the Illinois women took the company to court, the town turned against them. With the country in the grip of the Great Depression, anyone who could supply jobs was welcome. (This itself is a sad and telling commentary about working class life.)

Sick, disabled, and dying, the women were truly on their own. But they fought back, and they didn't give up. Their fight changed the world. Labour laws changed, scientific and medical knowledge were advanced, and precedence was set for greater corporate accountability.

Fans of Hidden Figures and the less famous but equally amazing Glass Universe will want to read this book. If you enjoy hidden histories, stories of struggle and perseverance, and real-life heroes a la Erin Brockovich and Karen Silkwood, this book is for you.

My only criticism of The Radium Girls is the writing itself. It could have used another round of editing to tighten up excessive detail and delete some unprofessional colloquialisms. Whether anyone who is not a writer or editor will notice, I don't know. Any qualms I have about the language are far outweighed by the riveting story.

9.04.2017

labour day 2017: demand more


CUPE Ontario's striking new graphic urges us to be brave, to be bold, and to demand more. Those two words -- demand more -- deserve our attention.

Every single law or regulation that protects us at work is a product of the labour movement. The right to days off. The right to a meal break. The rights of children to attend school. Paid holidays. A minimum wage. Maternity leave. All of it.

Many broader rights that have benefited our society were championed by the labour movement ahead of the mainstream, such as protection from discrimination for the LGBTQ community. All this, and so much more, was the result of working people, standing together, and demanding more.

We all know that union density -- how many people in any community are members of a union -- has declined greatly in the past decades. As corporations moved their operations to other countries to take advantage of cheap labour and the absence of environmental and health and safety laws, manufacturing jobs all but disappeared from North America. (Let's remember "the Chinese" are not "taking" jobs. Canadian and American companies choose to maximize profits, and governments and laws make it easy for them to do so.)

As well-paid, full-time manufacturing jobs disappeared, we saw the rise of precarious work -- poorly paid, part-time jobs that don't enable workers to create a secure life for themselves and their families.

In their short-sighted rush to squeeze more profit out of the system, employers have wrecked the economy and damaged the life chances of an entire generation.

It doesn't have to be this way.

We can demand more. We must demand more!

Unions are central to this struggle in many ways.

Workers fortunate enough to belong to a union are the forward guard of the demand for more. Through the power of collective bargaining, we can win better pay and better working conditions for our members -- and raise the bar for everyone in our communities.

Courageous non-union workers who organize themselves and stand up to employers -- like the Fight for 15 & Fairness (in Canada) and the Fight For 15 (in the US) -- get crucial help and support from labour unions.

And finally, unions have the resources to speak to governments on our behalf, to make sure governments do the right thing for workers, our communities, and all of society, rather than acting for the narrow interests of employers. Here in Ontario, CUPE is a leader in that effort.

CUPE 1989 wishes you a happy and proud Labour Day.

On Labour Day 2017, let's pledge to Demand More: at the bargaining table, on the picket line, at the ballot box -- and in the streets.

This post also appears on the CUPE Local 1989 website.

9.02.2017

what i'm reading: the attention merchants by tim wu

Everywhere we look, every available space is filled with advertising. The Toronto skyline is a sea corporate logos. The due-date receipt from my library book features an ad on the back. I once tracked all the ads shown during a major league baseball game -- during play, not between innings -- and the results were startling, even to me. And, of course, our entire experience on the internet -- especially on our personal mobile devices -- is tracked and used by corporations with only our dimmest awareness and nominal consent.

It wasn't always like this. How did we arrive at this current state? The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu answers this question. The answer is fascinating and entertaining, and -- if you dislike the constant and ever-increasing commodification of our lives, as I do -- more than a little frustrating.

In the first part of the book, Wu presents a capsule history of the "attention capture industry" -- what this review in The New York Times adeptly calls "the slow, steady annexation and exploitation of our consciousness". This begins with the first ads to appear in a daily newspaper, moves through snake-oil salesmen, to the first people to recognize the power of radio to sell products, through sponsored television shows, to ads during shows -- which was shocking and provoked outcry in its day! This section is truly fascinating. Wu is a master at finding sparkling details that make the story come alive. For example, I learned that snake oil, now a generic term for worthless products touted as cures for all ills, takes its name from a product that actually involved snakes. The Attention Merchants is packed with these kinds of tasty nuggets of information.

In the history of attention capture, Wu also includes government propaganda. He looks at how during the first World War, the British government, joined later by its American counterpart, used mass-media lies to entice young men to all but certain death in the trenches. This segment also analyzes the first modern total information campaign, and the first to harness electronic media for large-scale propaganda, that of one Adolph Hitler. We've all seen footage of the giant Nazi rallies with huge fascist insignias, but I didn't fully realize that Hitler, along with Third Reich propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, was the first to study and analyze attention capture, and to use it on a grand scale. (Incidentally, if you know anyone who believes the 'Hitler was all right at first, he just went too far' canard, Wu provides ammunition to shoot it down. From his earliest days making speeches in beer halls, Hitler was blaming Germany's woes on Jews.)

Another interesting segment is devoted to what Wu calls "The Celebrity-Industrial Complex". For someone like me who doesn't share the mainstream obsession with celebrity -- indeed, I don't understand it, even a little -- this was both fascinating and affirming. Wu offers an interesting analysis of Oprah Winfrey's attention methods, which he sees as groundbreaking in a not altogether positive way.

The part of The Attention Merchants that has been the focus of most reviews and interviews is about the price we pay for supposedly free services on the internet. Most of us have heard the phrase, "when a service is free, we're not customers, we're the product" or variations thereof. (Various people have made this public statement at various times, dating back to Richard Serra in 1973.) Wu dissects exactly what that means -- for the tremendous potential of the internet, now tremendously debased and squandered, and for ourselves, with our fractured attention spans, short and ever shorter.

In the book's later chapters, the tone and tenor changes from dispassionate historical analysis to passionate and savaging. The rise of "free" social media, where billions of people willingly submit to having their personal habits mined, tracked, and resold for other people's profits, on a scale never before seen in human history, is not a mixed blessing in Wu's worldview. It's a flat-out evil.

By the time I finished the book, I challenged myself to take a holiday from social media and reclaim my own attention span. Some of you know that because of my health issues, I struggle with low concentration. Perhaps the effects are exaggerated for me... or perhaps not. I want to spend less time with little bits of information scrolling in front of my eyes. When it comes to information, I want quality over quantity. I'm experimenting with it now, but I'm not sure I'll ever go back.

Wu also points out a massive public pushback, as evidenced by the millions of people willing to pay a monthly fee to enjoy advertising-free viewing through Netflix, HBO, Showtime, and similar services. The cultural phenomenon known as binge-watching is evidence that we can focus our attention for lengthy periods of time, when what we're watching is good enough to warrant it.

Wu writes:
Ultimately, the problem was as old as the original proposition of seizing our attention and putting it to uses not our own. It is a scheme that has been revised and renewed with every new technology, which always gains admittance into our lives under the expectation it will improve them -- and improve them it does, until it acquires motivations of its own, which can only grow and grow. As Oxford ethicist James Williams puts it, "Your goals are things like 'spend more time with the kids,' 'learn to play the zither,' 'lose twenty pounds by summer,' 'finish my degree,' etc. Your time is scarce, and you know it. Your technologies, on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like 'Time on Site,' 'Number of Video Views,' 'Number of Pageviews,' and so on. Hence clickbait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications. Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it."
Wu references William James,
"who, having lived and died before the flowering of the attention industry, held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to. At stake, then, is something akin to how one's life is lived. That, if nothing else, ought to compel a greater scrutiny of the countless bargains to which we routinely submit, and even more important, lead us to consider the necessity, at times, of not dealing at all.
I've added Wu's first book, The Master Switch, to my to-read list.

8.04.2017

what i'm reading: city on fire

I finished City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg's astonishing debut novel, a few days ago, but stories from the book are still playing in mind. I initially didn't want to commit to reading a 900-page tome, but as I savoured the last scene, I was sorry to put it down.

City on Fire brings you to 1976-77 New York City, the summer of The Blackout, when the City famously went dark and infamously gave way to rioting and looting. It's the New York City of graffiti-covered subway cars, of brutal service cuts, unemployment, and street crime. It's also the New York City of the punk rock revolution, the birth of hip-hop, an exploding social scene of sex, drugs, and disco, of early gay liberation, of artistic flourishing. It's the New York City that lured young people who didn't conform to their small town's small-minded standards to stuff their belongings in a duffel bag and buy a one-way ticket on Greyhound. And it is -- as it always has been and always will be -- the New York City of stunning contrasts and great social divides, all thrown together and intersecting all the time.

Hallberg gives you all of it. The reader meets characters from vastly different experiences and social standings, each with their own present and past, each trying to find their way into a future. Each chapter is told from a different character's point of view. Not only does the point of view change with each chapter, but there are different timelines in play, too. As the characters' lives intersect (usually without their knowledge), a shape begins to form, a puzzle. There is a mystery, perhaps a few mysteries, that the reader can't solve until all the pieces fall into place.

Reading City on Fire, I was reminded -- strongly and often -- of the work of Charles Dickens: the sprawling ambition, the multiplicity of points of view, the intersecting lives, the City as almost a character in the book. It's a bold move for a contemporary author to make, and City on Fire is chock full of bold moves. Some of the timeline and character shifts left me mentally gasping. At times, a piece of mystery will resolve in one sentence; Hallberg trusts the reader to pay attention. The book is also subtly self-referential, as the City is described in ways that apply to the very book you're reading.

As I skimmed published reviews of the novel, I noticed that many reviewers thought the book was too long, that parts dragged, that it needed a good pruning. I strongly disagree: the length is essential to the book. How can you re-create the outsized City, with its millions of lives living in intersecting universes, in a mere 400 pages? The book is mammoth because the City is mammoth.

Hallberg's writing is richly descriptive and very precise. This, too, recalls a contemporary version of Dickens. While the reader is trying to solve the mystery of the plot, the characters are trying to resolve the mysteries of their lives -- their family secrets, their own pain, their contradictory and irascible love, their acceptance of themselves. These are complex matters that demand complex thought and writing. Perhaps some readers would tire of this, but I loved it.

This review in the New York Times mentions Don DeLillo's Underworld and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities as two antecedents of City on Fire. Well, there's New York, and there's a blackout, and there's great wealth and abject poverty. But Hallberg gives us something that neither of those works do, but that Dickens always did: humanity, hope, and a measure of redemption.

City on Fire joins E.B. White's Here Is New York, Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale and Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York on my indispensable New York City booklist. Read it as soon as you can.

7.23.2017

why do we need to say black lives matter? a brief and partial history lesson

The African American experience in Los Angeles County, California: a brief and selected timeline of sorts.*

From 1940-1960, thousands of African Americans migrated from Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and other southern states to California, hoping to find decent jobs, affordable housing, and equality of opportunity.

California was not quite as welcoming as advertised. Housing was strictly segregated. The Los Angeles Police Department under the governance of Chief William Parker functioned as an occupying army in all-Black neighbourhoods. The only contacts between the all-white police force and the black residents of L.A. were roundups, traffic stops, arrests, humiliations, and beatings.

August 1965. With the community at a boiling point, a traffic stop gone awry precipitates the uprising known as the Watts Riots. During the riots, Parker says: "These people came in and flooded the community. We didn't ask these people to come here."

("These people" were Americans, who supposedly enjoy a Constitutional right to travel freely between states. Author Walter Mosely on the Watts Riots: "Someone asked me, did all blacks feel this way? I told him, 99% of us do, but the other 1% is really angry.")

1982. Under Police Chief Daryl Gates, the occupation expands. When the LAPD is questioned about the many African Americans who died in police chokeholds, Gates says that African Americans were more likely "to die from chokeholds because their veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people."**

From 1987 to 1991, Gates uses "Operation Hammer" to supposedly clean up gang violence. With no attempt to speak with or involve the community, the LAPD deploys thousands of police to African American and Latino neighbourhoods. Families are rounded up, pushed face-down in the dirt, humiliated, demeaned, arrested, beaten, with little regard for evidence. Tens of thousands are arrested; but in the majority of cases, no charges are filed.

August 1, 1988. As part of Operation Hammer, police forcibly enter apartments at 39th Street and Dalton Avenue, holding residents at gunpoint while they vandalize and destroy everything in the homes. They smash appliances, mirrors, toilets; they shred clothes and children's toys; they rip up furniture and family photos. Police spray-paint "LAPD Rules" and other slogans on the apartment walls.

The raid nets six ounces of marijuana and less than one ounce of cocaine.**

March 3, 1991. A taxi driver named Rodney King is pulled over after leading LAPD on high-speed chase. A group of officers surround King, beat him with metal batons and kick him as he lay writhing on the ground. In an age before cell phones videos, a neighbour videotapes the beating and sends it to a local news station. The beating is shown continually on TV news. Four officers are charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. The defense claims that the beating was a function of the city's ban on police chokeholds.

Despite the irrefutable evidence that all of America had seen day in and day out, none of the four officers are convicted of anything.

It is often said that the 1992 uprising/riots followed the Rodney King beating. This is incorrect. The riots were in response to the Rodney King verdict. The African American community trusted in the judicial system, believing that this time, with incontrovertible proof, there would be justice. I think of the Rodney King case whenever I hear Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll": "Now is the time for your tears."

March 16, 1991. Soon Ja Du, a shopkeeper, incorrectly assumes that 15-year-old Latasha Harlins is stealing a bottle of orange juice. A scuffle ensues. As Latasha walks away, Du produces a gun and shoots the teenager in the back of the head, killing her.

Security footage captures the incident, leaving no doubt that Du's claims of self-defense were false.

Du is fined $500 and sentenced to 400 hours of community service.

This is just some context. Context before Oscar Grant, before Michael Brown, before Trayvon Martin, before Eric Garner, before Philando Castile. Before these people in 2015, and these people in 2016, and these people, so far this year. One American city, and a few famous incidents.

If you call the US a police state, you'll be accused of hyperbole. "Go live in [current hated country] and see what a real police state looks like!" Or closer to home, just be black or brown and live in the wrong zip code.

------

* This post was inspired by watching "OJ: Made In America," a five-part documentary series, part of ESPN's excellent "30 For 30" docs. I may write about the OJ movie another time. This post is not intended for discussion of anything OJ-related.

** One of the US war resisters in Canada recognized army raids on Iraqi homes as a version of the police raids that were a regular feature of his neighborhood in East L.A. From that similarity, he began to see the US as an occupying power.

*** Gates is often heralded for ushering in the era of SWAT policing and the DARE anti-drug program. The former has escalated police violence while failing to protect communities, while the latter was a colossal waste of money, finally discontinued in 2002 after all studies proved it was a total failure.

5.26.2017

what i'm reading: leaving lucy pear

The year is 1917. A teenage girl from a wealthy family is pregnant, the result of rape -- by a man who her mother pushed her to pursue for marriage. Now the girl is being forced to surrender her baby to an orphanage. She has met the person who runs the orphanage, and she cannot bear the thought.

The girl devises a plan, a way she can leave her infant daughter to be found by a large family who will, she hopes, raise her as their own.

Ten years later, the lives of the woman who left the child and the woman who found the child intersect. But only one of them knows of their connection.

Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon begins with this tantalizing and emotionally charged premise, and as the story unfolds, it does not disappoint. Family secrets, desire, regrets, unintended consequences, and unfulfilled longing are set against a backdrop of Prohibition, labour justice, and classism.

In the larger world, Sacco and Vanzetti are scheduled for execution, despite global protests.* The political situation parallels our current world in many ways.

Through Solomon's clear and often piercing prose, we know what every character thinks and feels -- leading us to see the enormous chasm of perceptions, the impossibility of knowing another person's truth. The book is infused with empathy and compassion. It makes for a satisfying and compelling read.

* The Atlantic reproduces Felix Frankfurter's 1927 article about the case.

5.22.2017

arun gupta's perfect takedown of food-as-cultural-appropriation

I read this on Facebook and absolutely love it. The author, Arun Gupta, understands and acknowledges cultural appropriation as a fact and a legitimate concern (as do I). But he also believes the "reactionary left" spreading lists of ethnic restaurants run by white people
...essentializes the notion of culture as rooted in the very soil of a place and not something that can travel or transcend boundaries. This hints at fascistic notions of blood and soil as what constitutes the nation.

It is reactionary because the creators of this are implying there are timeless practices, rooted in a people, land and culture, that constitute only appropriate form of food. They want to fix all cultures as fossils in a museum, not allowing for adaptation, changing tastes, social roles, or fashion. It reminds me of how the National Front fetishizes a notion of the pure French nation.
He's unpacked the food-as-cultural-appropriation concept perfectly. Please go read the whole post.

I would be interested to know what wmtc readers who vehemently disagreed with my earlier posts think of Gupta's ideas.

4.22.2017

what i'm reading: giovanni's room by james baldwin

James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, a landmark in LGBT literature, is one of our library's current "Raves & Faves". The 1956 novel takes place in Paris, narrated by a young American man who is trying to come to terms with his sexuality.

In the past, this was said to be a "gay novel;" now it is seen as "bisexual novel". Leaving aside the obvious fact that novels don't possess sexuality, those labels are interpretation. The narrator himself doesn't have a name for his orientation; for him, neutral, descriptive language doesn't exist.

The story takes place in 1950s Paris, alive with expatriates, in a male subculture that is an open secret. The men who frequent Guillaume's bar are more open than they can be in their hometowns and original cultures, but their lives are still lived largely underground.

Our narrator -- his name is David, but the name is seldom used -- tells the story during a momentous night, one of pain and shame, looking back on the events that led to that night. David is engaged to an American woman, and he desperately wants to fully embrace a conventional life with her. When he falls in love with an Italian bartender named Giovanni, he cannot simply turn away. They have a relationship, and it ends in tragedy.

More than anything, Giovanni's Room is about shame -- what happens to people when their identity, their entire concept of themselves, is considered wrong, dirty, and shameful. What happens to their relationships, what happens, if you will, to their souls.

An older man -- a "queen" and a pathetic person in David's eyes -- gives David this advice, and for me it sums up the meaning of the book.
I looked over at Giovanni, who now had one arm around the ruined-looking girl, who could have once been very beautiful but who never would be now.

Jacques followed my look. 'He is very fond of you,' he said, 'already. But this doesn't make you happy or proud, as it should. It makes you frightened and ashamed. Why?'

'I don't understand him,' I said at last. I don't know what his friendship means; I don't know what he means by friendship.'

Jacques laughed. 'You don't know what he means by friendship but you have the feeling it may not be safe. You are afraid it may change you. What kind of friendship have you had?'

I said nothing.

'Or for that matter,' he continued, 'what kind of love affairs?'

I was silent for so long that he teased me, saying, 'Come out, come out, wherever you are.'

And I grinned, feeling chilled.

'Love him,' said Jacques, with vehemence, 'love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last? Since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, hélas! in the dark. And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty — they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty; you can give each other something which will make both of you better — forever — if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.' He paused, watching me, and then looked down to his cognac. 'You play it safe long enough,' he said, in a different tone, 'and you'll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever — like me.'
David is tormented by an almost existential inner conflict. Giovanni, on the other hand, feels that David is exaggerating, almost fabricating his troubles. He feels David should be able to love and marry his fiancee, and love men at the same time.
'Well. You are a very charming and good-looking and civilized boy and, unless you are impotent, I do not see what she has to complain about, or what you have to worry about. To arrange, mon cher, la vie pratique, is very simple — it only has to be done.' He reflected. 'Sometimes things go wrong, I agree; then you have to arrange it another way. But it is certainly not the English melodrama you make it. Why, that way, life would simply be unbearable.'
David cannot conceive of this. He can only love Giovanni, and hate him for what he represents, and hate himself for loving this man that he both loves and hates.
Giovanni had awakened an itch, had released a gnaw in me. I realized it one afternoon, when I was taking him to work via the Boulevard Montparnasse. We had bought a kilo of cherries and we were eating them as we walked along. We were both insufferably childish and high-spirited that afternoon and the spectacle we presented, two grown men jostling each other on the wide sidewalk and aiming the cherry pits, as though they were spitballs, into each other's faces, must have been outrageous. And I realized that such childishness was fantastic at my age and the happiness out of which it sprang yet more so; for that moment I really loved Giovanni, who had never seemed more beautiful than he was that afternoon. And, watching his face, I realized that it meant much to me that I could make his face so bright. I saw that I might be willing to give a great deal not to lose that power. And I felt myself flow toward him, as a river rushes when the ice breaks up. Yet, at that very moment, there passed between us on the pavement another boy, a stranger, and I invested him at once with Giovanni's beauty and what I felt for Giovanni I also felt for him. Giovanni saw this and saw my face and it made him laugh the more. I blushed and he kept laughing and then the boulevard, the light, the sound of his laughter turned into a scene from a nightmare. I kept looking at the trees, the light falling through the leaves. I felt sorrow and shame and panic and great bitterness. At the same time — it was part of my turmoil and also outside it — I felt the muscles in my neck tighten with the effort I was making not to turn my head and watch that boy diminish down the bright avenue. The beast which Giovanni had awakened in me would never go to sleep again; but one day I would not be with Giovanni anymore. And would I then, like all the others, find myself turning and following all kinds of boys down God knows what dark avenues, into what dark places?

With this fearful intimation there opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.
Interestingly, this is Baldwin's only novel where all the characters are white. In the 1950s, writing about men loving men was already wildly controversial and taboo. Adding colour to the equation was impossible. In those days, any novel featuring African-Americans was by definition "about" being black in America -- "the Negro question," as it was then known. The only way to make this book "about" being gay or bisexual, was to keep all the characters white, so colour could not be read as a factor.

Baldwin's writing is elegant and beautiful. The action of the story is very simple, which helps frame David's tumultuous inner life. The book is short, and it reads quickly -- but it is memorable and haunting.

11.29.2016

fidel castro, 1926-2016

More than any ruler I can think of, Fidel Castro defies our insistence on seeing leaders as solely either good or evil. As this excellent assessment in Social Worker (UK) puts it, "History must judge him both as the freedom fighter whose defiance humiliated US imperialism and as the ruler of a repressive, unequal society."

Castro was an inspiration to freedom fighters the world over, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela, we should remember, was formerly branded as a communist terrorist, and later lionized as a cuddly hero, without having changed his tactics or beliefs.

I'm told that coverage of Castro's death by US-based media focused on the celebrations of Miami's Cuban exile community, which is exactly what I'd expect. Remember the images of Arab children celebrating the 9/11 attacks -- images that turned out to be several years old?

I don't doubt that wealthy Cubans, whose unchallenged power and prestige was toppled by a socialist revolution, despise the man who brought them down. But the mainstream US's enduring hatred for Castro has nothing to do with sympathies for the Cuban ruling class. Castro is the world leader who the US couldn't assassinate, couldn't buy off, and couldn't control. Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende, Mohammad Mossadegh, Jacobo Arbenz, Ho Chi Minh, Joao Goulart, Juan Bosch, Jean Bertrand Aristide -- if you don't know the names, look them up. You can go back as far as Queen Liliuokalani. Castro was the one that got away.

Castro was also a dictator. Cuba suppressed dissidents, segregated and brutally punished LGBT people, and had virtually no free speech. Saying "So-and-so did that, too!" is not an appropriate response. For a socialist to rationalize oppression because it originated on the left is shameful and indefensible.

At the same time, this is still true.


The best eulogy of Fidel Castro that I've seen was written by the great Eduard Galeano, in his 2010 book Mirrors. Here's an excerpt, courtesy of Raiot.
His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity. And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo. And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices. And in that his enemies are right.

But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders’ bullets,
he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane,
he survived 637 attempts on his life,
his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony,
and it was not by Lucifer’s curse or God’s miracle that the new country managed to outlive 10 U.S. presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup.

And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.

11.11.2016

11.11

Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.



Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
.

10.29.2016

what i'm reading: the underground railroad by colson whitehead

Colson Whitehead is a literary genius. In The Underground Railroad, he has found a way to tell the story of 400-plus years of African-American oppression without delivering an awkward march through history, and without using characters as billboards for ideas.

Instead of linear time, Whitehead employs a geography of time: different eras, different historical moments, occur simultaneously but in different places, all the locations connected by an underground railroad.

At one stop is something very like the Tuskegee Experiment and the "Mississippi appendectomy". At another stop, minstrel shows, the mania of genocidal lynching, and the realities of Fugitive Slave Act. At another, the vision of Greenwood, Oklahoma and other all-black triumphs like it, and the spectre of its demise.

These simultaneous realities are linked, not by the Underground Railroad of myth and metaphor, but an underground railroad. As every reviewer of this book has pointed out, Whitehead imagines an actual railroad, at once a clandestine mode of transport, and a symbol of the subterranean struggle for freedom and justice.

Through his invented geography, Whitehead comes as close to the heart of the horror of slavery and its many legacies as anything I've ever read. The physical truth, the emotional truth, the psychological truth -- all are laid bare, revealing the United States' foundation of stolen land, human chattel, and brutal subjugation, and how that has played out over decades and centuries.

Whitehead doesn't sanitize slavery, but neither is this book a catalogue of grotesque violence. There's violence enough -- Whitehead doesn't flinch from it -- but he doesn't force the reader into torture porn, as graphically violent books often do.

To call The Underground Railroad historical fiction would be to diminish it. Whitehead is the consummate genre-shifter, never writing the same type of book twice; actually never writing a "type" at all. The Underground Railroad comprises elements of historical fiction, slave narratives, immigration stories, westerns, alternative histories, and magical realism. There's bits of Gulliver's Travels, of The Odyssey, of The Inferno. This review in The New York Times references one I hadn't thought of.
Throughout my reading, I was repeatedly reminded of a particular chapter from García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” to whose handling of time Whitehead seems to owe quite a bit. In that chapter, the infamous massacre of the banana plantation workers is denied by the official versions of history and soon forgotten. But one character knows what he saw — thousands of dead traveling toward the sea on a train — and goes around trying to find someone who will remember the story. He doesn’t: People always get things wrong. In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.
In reviews and interviews, much has been made of Whitehead's imaginative invention of an actual underground railroad, but what sets this book apart is not fantasy. Whitehead uses this magical element to confront the reality of American slavery, inviting us to consider it anew. In The Globe and Mail, Andray Domise writes:
But other misunderstandings, stubborn and pernicious, have managed to warp much of white America’s perception of slavery – that it was a matter of wage theft, that slaves were mostly treated and fed well by benevolent masters, that the Irish were treated in a similar fashion to black people. Whitehead’s novel is both speculative fiction and an inversion of these comforting fables. One in which the United States’ crimes against the Black body are revealed and compressed into the narrative of a young woman’s escape from bondage.
The Underground Railroad is a powerful and beautifully written book. Of course it's deeply disturbing, but I hope that doesn't dissuade readers from picking it up. In this age when blatantly false histories spread virally, this is a book that needs to be read.

Also, it's Colson Whitehead. Here I am again, raving about another book by Colson Whitehead. Here are my posts on: Sag Harbor, Zone One, Apex Hides the Hurt, and John Henry Days. Turns out I didn't review Colossus of New York, I only quoted from it: here and here (this blog was two days old at the time). And I read his first novel, The Intuitionist before this blog existed.

5.04.2016

what i'm reading: the deserters, a hidden history of world war 2

No one knows exactly how many US soldiers deserted from the Vietnam War, nor how many young men resisted conscription by going either to jail or to another country. The most conservative account puts the number at about 50,000, the highest at about double that. The majority of those went to Canada, where - after a people's movement organized to support them - they were allowed to live and eventually become citizens. Because of this, resistance to the war in Southeast Asia is part of American and Canadian history, no matter who tells the story.

Resistance to other US wars, however, is mentioned less frequently, if at all. There was massive resistance to conscription to (what was then known as) the Great War or the War in Europe. Ireland and Quebec went into full-scale rebellion, and thousands in both Britain and the US spent time in jail after they refused to fight. I'm somewhat familiar with this history through my ongoing exploration of World War I from a progressive and peace-activism perspective. I certainly didn't learn about it in school.

Still, it's relatively easy to talk about resistance to World War I, at least for Americans. It's the war that no one understands, the war where the name of every battle is a shorthand for massive slaughter, the war of mustard gas and horses vs. machine guns. It's the war that ushered in the modern world. We can understand why people didn't want to die in the mud in Belgium or France.

Resistance to World War II, however, is entirely different. This is the supposedly good war, the war to crush the Nazis, the war to punish the people who attacked Pearl Harbor. This is the war that supposedly every able-bodied boy and man wanted to fight.

Well, not quite. As Charles Glass shows in The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II, no matter what the political motivations of war, the reality on the ground is largely the same. Troops face appalling conditions and constant deprivation. They are forced to remain in combat past the point of mental and physical endurance. Their stress is ignored, ridiculed, and punished. And thousands - tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands - refuse to continue.

The book, unfortunately, is not a very good read. It's incredibly well researched, but literary nonfiction needs more than research. No lively narrative pulls the reader through the stories. Glass offers a tremendous amount of detail without synthesis or explanation. At times I felt as if I were reading a pile of facts, rather than a story.

The book's saving grace, and what makes it worth reading, is the introduction. In 10 pages, the author gives us an overview of war resistance and society's responses to it. He blends the political, social, physical and psychological views into a miniature masterpiece.

Readers with a special interest in World War II and hidden histories in general may enjoy The Deserters. For me it was a tough slog. But in my continuing education about war resistance, Charles Glass' introduction has a place on the bookshelf.

5.01.2016

james connolly, sid ryan, and marxism 2016


This is The Proclamation.

The Proclamation was read by Padraig (Patrick) Pearse outside the General Post Office in Dublin on April 24, 1916. This marked the beginning of the Easter Rising.

Rather less dramatically, a copy of the Proclamation has hung on my office wall since our trip to Ireland in 2001. It has lived large and present in my revolutionary heart since the early days of my fascination with Irish history.

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing the entire Proclamation read out loud by Toronto labour activist Mike Seaward. It was nothing short of thrilling to hear these stirring words ring out - words to live by. For the men who wrote them, they were words to die by.

The reading of the Proclamation kicked off the 2016 Marxism conference special event, commemorating 100 years since the Easter Rising, almost to the day. This was followed by Canadian labour leader and activist Sid Ryan, spinning out Irish history in sparkling prose and stunning detail, without a scrap of paper in front of him. Sid was followed by Carolyn Egan, a leader in the Canadian women's and labour movements, and my comrade in both the International Socialists and the War Resisters Support Campaign. Carolyn highlighted some of the more radical and revolutionary ideals of the ongoing battle for Irish independence, and connected those back to our current times.

The Easter Rising was many things. It was the first crack in the British Empire. It was the culmination of 600 years of oppression under British rule, and 600 years of armed insurrection against it. It was the wild utopian yearnings of poorly trained rebels, a death sentence for the men who signed it. It is a touchstone for every Irish nationalist, to this day.

The Easter Rising might have been an obscure moment in history, as so many rebellions are. The British government itself ensured the Rising's significance with one giant blunder: the execution of the leaders. With those murders, public opinion turned from irritation or indifference to wild anger and support.

At Marxism 2016, Sid Ryan and Carolyn Egan held a Marxist lens to this largely nationalist rebellion. It isn't difficult to do so, embodied by James Connolly, the great Irish thinker and socialist revolutionary.

James Connolly was an extraordinary leader. His counterpart in American history might be Frederick Douglass. Both rose from extreme poverty (in Douglass' case, slavery), had no formal education, and became extraordinary thinkers and orators. Both were radical, egalitarian, open-minded, and committed to justice. Both supported women's rights. Both understood that the struggle was bigger than their people, not Black against White or Irish against British, but the people against the ruling class. Both men rejected any solution that was in reality only a change of masters.

I won't try to recreate the talk here; I'm hoping it will be posted on the IS's YouTube channel. Unfortunately for me, this was the only talk I was able to attend at Marxism 2016. I also participated on a panel called "Union Organizing in a Time of Precarity," with two labour-activist friends.

There's a lot about James Connolly online, but this piece by Ella Whelan is powerful and poignant, and in my view the most accurate: James Connolly: We Only Want the Earth: What We Can Learn from the Easter Rising, by Ella Whelan. I noticed this beautiful emblem from the IWW bears that line from one of Connolly's poems. I love that my hero of Irish history organized with the revolutionary group that lives in my heart.



The Proclamation:
POBLACHT NA H éIREANN
THE PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT
OF THE
IRISH REPUBLIC
TO THE PEOPLE OF IRELAND

IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment, and supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.

We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades in arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.

The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.

We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms, and we pray that no one who serves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine. In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline, and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.

Signed on behalf of the Provisional Government:

THOMAS J. CLARKE
SEAN Mac DIARMADA    THOMAS MacDONAGH
P. H. PEARSE     EAMONN CEANNT
JAMES CONNOLLY     JOSEPH PLUNKETT

4.30.2016

rtod: we only want the earth

On the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, these Revolutionary Thoughts of the Day are brought to you by the great Irish socialist, James Connolly.
The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system; it must go. (1910)

This speech, from 1897, is recreated in the excellent Ken Loach film "The Wind that Shakes the Barley":
If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs. England would still rule you to your ruin, even while your lips offered hypocritical homage at the shrine of that freedom whose cause you had betrayed. Nationalism without Socialism – without a reorganisation of society on the basis of a broader and more developed form of that common property which underlay the social structure of Ancient Erin – is only national recreancy.

This recalls what I recently posted: yoko ono was right.
The worker is the slave of the capitalist society. The female worker is the slave of that slave. (1915)

And from Connolly's poem "Song of Freedom," 1907.
“Be moderate,” the trimmers cry,
Who dread the tyrants’ thunder.
“You ask too much and people fly
From you aghast in wonder.”
’Tis passing strange, for I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the Earth.

4.17.2016

a petition to exonerate ethel rosenberg

Of all the outrageously unjust moments in United States history - and dog knows there are many to choose from - the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg holds a special place in my political underpinnings. It was an event I learned about early on, one that came up in many different contexts throughout my childhood. That was partly because the Rosenbergs were Jewish, and their case was rife with anti-Semitism. It was partly because of my parents' thorough and utter disgust for McCarthyism. And it was partly because my parents had very clear, first-hand memories of the case, the execution occurring in the early years of their marriage. They remembered the media frenzy, the protests attempting to save their lives, and finally, the Rosenbergs' deaths.

My mother always mentioned thousands of people packing into New York City's Union Square on the night of the execution, pleading with the government to commute or stay the sentence. My mother and I both read The Book of Daniel, E. L. Doctorow's fictional imaginings of the Rosenberg orphans, and my mother bought (and gave to others as gifts) We Are Your Sons, written by the Rosenbergs' children, Robert and Michael Meeropol.

In recent years, declassified information showed that Julius Rosenberg had spied for the Soviet Union. He did not, however, pass secrets about the atom bomb, the crime of which he was accused and convicted. And no similar evidence came to light about Ethel Rosenberg. Despite these details, the US media was only too happy to declare the case closed.

When I saw the subject line in my inbox Sign the petition: Exonerate Ethel Rosenberg, I was very interested. But I was also wary. If we want Ethel Rosenberg to be exonerated, does that mean we are condoning Julius' conviction? If we say, "Ethel was not a spy and her execution was wrongful," do we imply that the execution of Julius Rosenberg was justified? Or that some executions may be justified?

I care about the Rosenbergs. I care about government-led persecution and witchhunts. But I also care about the death penalty: I am against it, for any reason, ever. (Don't Godwin me. Any reason ever.) I've known about the Rosenbergs my entire life. I wanted to sign this petition, but I wasn't sure I should.

I wasn't alone. This was forwarded to me by an activist friend who received the petition before I did.
Many people who’ve signed the petition to exonerate my grandmother, Ethel Rosenberg, have asked why the campaign doesn’t include my grandfather, Julius. My father Robert Meeropol answers that question in a blog, here.

My dad’s outlook on life and his drive to create something positive from the terrible tragedy of his early years continues to be inspiring, both for those who are new to his story and for those of us who know his journey well.

As you can imagine, my father’s life was profoundly affected by his parents’ execution. He was three years old when they were arrested, and six years old when they were killed. He visited his parents in prison and still remembers what that felt like. He also remembers the executions, and the trauma of being bounced from home to home, and in and out of an orphanage. Relatives were too scared to take in him and my uncle. They were even thrown out of school in New Jersey where sympathetic friends of the family had tried to give them shelter.

Luckily my father and uncle were eventually adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol. This loving couple, who were teachers and artists, provided a nurturing home and shielded them from the public. And thousands of people who had tried to save my grandparents donated funds to pay for my father and uncle’s education, therapy, art and drama programs, and other services to help them grow up healthy and happy.

Decades later, my father started the Rosenberg Fund for Children to assist kids in this country who are experiencing similar nightmares to what he endured. This organization I now lead aids the children of today’s targeted activists. Their parents are being attacked because they’re struggling to combat racism, wage peace, preserve civil liberties, safeguard the environment, organize on behalf of workers, prisoners, and LGBTQI people, and more. . . .
Incidentally, the children of US war resister Kimberly Rivera received some assistance from The Rosenberg Fund for Children. I'm proud that some part of my life intersects with some part of the Rosenbergs'.

I signed the petition with a clear conscience and I hope you will, too.

If you are interested in both a progressive and factual reading of the executions, I recommend this long piece by Robert Wilbur, writing in Truthout: The True Crime of the Rosenberg Execution.
Federal District Judge Irving R. Kaufman was a pious man. He visited his synagogue to commune with whatever god he believed in before making up his mind to condemn Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to die in the electric chair, making orphans of their two young boys. That, however, was not the full reach of his piety. Under pressure from the Justice Department to end the Rosenberg case quickly, after two years of delays in the courts, Kaufman set their death for a Friday. This created an unanticipated complication, as Sam Roberts recounts in his grisly description of the execution in "The Brother": New York State traditionally carried out its executions at 11:00 PM. But this would mean the Rosenbergs would burn several hours into the Sabbath - the Jewish holy day. What to do? Kaufman sought the advice of a rabbi to ascertain the exact time when the Sabbath began, then ordered the executions moved up to a more comfortable hour.

The judge must have gotten satisfactory advice, for there were no complaints from organized Jewry in America. Julius died from the traditional three jolts of electricity; Ethel required an additional two jolts, perhaps the only shred of evidence that she was really the tougher member of the spying duo.

And, while the evidence remains much disputed, the preponderance suggests that spies they were. Eventually, even the Rosenberg's journalistic cheerleaders, Walter and Miriam Schneir, acknowledged that Julius Rosenberg was ringmaster of a busy espionage collective that was passing electronic and aeronautical intelligence to the Soviets during the Second World War. Julius himself - unlike the nerd depicted in photographs - was a brazen cowboy who scored a daring espionage coup by stealing the proximity fuse from its plant of manufacture piece by piece: this device uses an electromagnetic wave guide to identify a nearby aircraft, vastly increasing the efficacy of anti-aircraft batteries.

Schneir acknowledged that Julius was a spy - but not an atomic spy. And, so, the case has dragged on to this very day, and two important questions remain unanswered:

- Were the Rosenbergs framed to break up their spy ring in a distinctly conclusive manner (and, relatedly, what was Ethel's role in the ring)?

- If the death penalty is ever appropriate, was it called for in this case?

. . . .

But when everything seems to be tied up in a neat package, Schneir has a quote from Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and one-time death penalty battler turned post-9/11 advocate of torture, citing a conversation with Rosenberg prosecutor and mob lawyer Roy Cohn:
"Roy Cohn ... proudly told me shortly before his death [in 1986] that the government had 'manufactured 'evidence against the Rosenbergs, because they knew Julius was the head of a spy ring. They had learned this from bugging a foreign embassy, but they could not disclose any information learned from the bug, so they made up some evidence in order to prove what they already knew. In the process, they also made up the case against Ethel Rosenberg." ["America on Trial" (NY: Warner Books,2004.p/323)]
In right-wing quarters, especially those where "kike" and "yid" are words of currency, the Rosenberg case is still considered the crime of the century, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. . . .

So, while the Rosenbergs probably did break a law that was passed amid the hysteria of an earlier world war by passing non-atomic intelligence on to the Russians, the statesmen committed a monumental blunder in underestimating the Soviet Union's imperialistic intentions. The Rosenberg's crime was probably to break the 1917 Espionage Act; by far the greater crime was to kill husband and wife on June 19, 58 years ago. The execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is the true crime of the century - an abomination that casts an ineradicable black mark on the American criminal justice system and on the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose own crime was a failure to grant mercy.
This story on the World Socialist website sees the Rosenbergs' persecution clearly, through a present-day lens.
June 19 [2013] marks the 50th anniversary of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.

Many of the Rosenbergs’ contemporaries, for whom their persecution and state murder was the most searing episode in one of the darkest chapters in US history, have passed from the scene. Yet still today, for millions of people around the world, the name of the young couple evokes the Cold War, the McCarthyite witch-hunt in the United States and all of the crimes associated with Washington’s global crusade against communism. The execution of the father and mother of two young children, residents of New York City’s Lower East Side — he 35 years old and she 37 at the time of their deaths — is testimony to the savagery of which the American ruling establishment is capable when it perceives its vital interests to be at stake.

Despite the passing of five decades, the issues surrounding the Rosenberg case are in many ways posed more sharply today than at any time since the execution itself. Once again, a US administration is seeking to terrorize the entire population as a means of suppressing dissent and exercising control on behalf of a wealthy elite. Under the guise of a global “war on terrorism,” it has rammed through the USA Patriot Act — modeled in part on the anti-communist McCarran Internal Security Act of 50 years ago — assuming vast unconstitutional powers to arrest without charges, detain without trial and conduct unrestricted police surveillance.

Today, as then, the government’s fear-mongering and attacks on democratic rights are aimed at suppressing widespread opposition to American military aggression abroad.
You can sign a petition to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg here.