Starting at 7:30 this morning, hundreds of non-union workers with taxpayer-supported jobs plan to go on strike in the nation’s capitol. Organizers expect the one-day walkout to include workers employed at Smithsonian museums, the Old Post Office and Ronald Reagan buildings, and Union Station, where tourists, lobbyists, and members of Congress arrive by Amtrak train to Washington, DC. The strikers are part of a recently-unveiled organization, Good Jobs Nation, backed by labor and community groups. They’re demanding that President Obama take action to improve wages and working conditions for workers employed under federal contracts.
“The truth is, I’m ready. I’m not scared,” janitor Vilma Martinez told The Nation in Spanish last night. “Fear fades away, especially in the face of the unfair treatment we get here.” Martinez, who’s worked at Union Station for the past 19 years, said that the federal contractor ICC Cleaning pays her $8.75 an hour. She said she’s supposed to get regular check-ups for a serious heart condition, but only sees a doctor when she goes back to El Salvador, because she’s uninsured.
Today’s strike follows the release last week of a report from the progressive think tank Demos estimating that at least 1,992,000 workers receive $12 per hour or less while doing jobs backed by public funds. “Through federal contracts and other funding,” authors Amy Traub and Robert Hiltonsmith wrote, “our tax dollars are fueling the low-wage economy and exacerbating inequality.”
Traub and Hiltonsmith’s tally includes jobs funded or supported through direct federal contracts (560,000 jobs), Medicare or federal Medicaid spending (1,184,000 jobs), Small Business Administration loans, federal Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) spending, federal infrastructure funds, or Public Buildings Service property leases. “This is more than the number of low-wage workers at Walmart and McDonalds combined,” write Traub and Hiltonsmith. At the other end of the pay scale, they note, the executives who employ these workers can legally be reimbursed by taxpayers for total compensation of up to $763,029 per year.
The Office of Management and Budget did respond to a request for comment on the study late Monday afternoon.
Good Jobs Nation is backed by organizations including the community organizing group OUR DC, the clergy group Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, and the labor federation Change to Win. As The Nation has reported, Change to Win affiliates have also provided support for recent strikes by non-union workers worked employed in Walmart stores, in sub-contracted Walmart warehouses, on sub-contracted cleaning crews in Twin Cities Target stores, and in fast food restaurants in five cities.
Strikers will converge for rallies at Union Station at 12:30 PM and 4:30 PM this afternoon. Members of Congress, including House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairs Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, are expected to host an “ad hoc hearing” at 3 PM regarding taxpayer-backed low-wage employment.
Demos notes that the executive branch has the authority, without going through Congress, to impose new rules for federal contracting. Two decades before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Franklin Roosevelt banned racial or religious discrimination by federal contractors. Early in his term, President Obama issued an executive order banning contractors from billing the government for “the costs of any activities undertaken to persuade employees” whether or not to exercise “the right to organize and bargain collectively.”
But, as I reported in an investigation for Salon last year, Obama’s order didn’t prevent the government contractor Serco from using government-rented office space, and government-provided equipment, for mandatory anti-union meetings. (A spokesperson for US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency using Serco’s services in that case, told me that the government “will not be billed” for the time workers spent in the meetings, but that Serco was “permitted to use government facilities to communicate with its employees without obtaining government permission.”)
In September 2010, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that the government had paid $6 billion in fiscal year 2009 federal contracts to contractors who had been cited for violations of federal labor laws. Seven months earlier, the New York Times reported that the Obama Administration was planning to issue a “High Road Procurement Policy” that could “disqualify more companies with labor, environmental or other violations and give an edge to companies that offer better levels of pay, health coverage, pensions and other benefits” in securing federal contracts. But such a move never came to pass; the following year, Obama OMB appointee Heather Higginbottom said in her confirmation hearing that it was not currently under consideration (an administration official told Government Executive afterwards that OMB was "considering the views of Congress, the private sector, and others with respect to possible initiatives and no decision has been made"). Labor and LGBT activists have also called for the Administration to use executive action to bar federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers; Obama so far has not done so.
Martinez told The Nation that if she could talk to the president, “I would ask him to help us get a decent salary, and respect on the job, and health insurance, so we don’t have to go back to our countries to get treated.” “With the help of god, and the help of my co-workers,” said Martinez, “I’m hopeful that at the end of the day we’ll be triumphant.”
Can workers from traditionally non-union positions like the fast-food industry be the future of the labor movement? The alt-labor movement, as described by The Nation’s Josh Eidelson, consists of workers who have never collectively tried to negotiate for better wages. Eidelson speaks with NPR’s Jennifer Ludden on Talk of the Nation about where the labor movement goes from here.
— Max Rivlin-Nadler
Read more about the future of labor organizing in the service industry.
Activists are charging the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority with violating the civil rights of a half-million bus riders, 75 percent of them black or Latino, by cutting 1 million hours of bus service and raising monthly bus passes to $72 while giving away public funds to rail developers and contractors. Consequently, community groups are calling on President Obama to employ Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gives the executive branch of the US government the power to cut off federal funds from any agency that employs federal funding in a racist or discriminatory manner.
Join The Nation in partnership with the Labor/Community Strategy Center’s Fight for the Soul of the Cities campaign and urge the Obama administration and Congress to enforce the Civil Rights Act.
In his recent Nation essay, Eric Mann details how progressive activists can learn important lessons from a successful grassroots campaign against transit racism.
The Bus Riders Union and its allies gathered at LA City Hall on July 25, 2012 to launch their national campaign asking President Obama to restore, enforce and expand their civil rights.
Voters stand in line during the fourth day of early voting in North Miami, Tuesday, October 30, 2012, as Floridians cast their ballot seven days before Election Day. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Throughout American history, restrictions on voter registration were a major tool of disenfranchisement. Before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, only a quarter of African-Americans in the South were registered to vote. Four years after the VRA outlawed literacy tests and other voter suppression devices, the number of black Southeners registered to vote had more than doubled.
Despite the transformative impact of the VRA, one of the most consequential laws in American history, obstacles to voter registration persisted. There were few locations at which to register, limited hours, recalcitrant county registrars, frequent voter purges and complex re-registration schemes. “Overall registration rates were lower in 1992 than in 1972,” notes a new report from Demos.
Voting rights reformers, led by CUNY professor Frances Fox Piven, launched a campaign in the 1980s to make voter registration easier as a way to fulfill the long-overdue promise of the VRA. On May 20, 1993, President Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act, which made it possible to register to vote at the DMV and other public agencies, such as public assistance and disability centers, allowed prospective voters to mail in voter registration forms and made it simpler for third-party groups to conduct voter registration drives. In its first year on the books, in 1995, over 30 million people registered to vote or updated their voter registration through the NVRA. “Since the implementation of the NVRA, an estimated 141 million Americans have applied to get on the voter rolls through registration services the NVRA requires at DMVs, disability offices, and public agencies,” reports Project Vote. “In addition, countless more have been protected from purging due to the protections the NVRA provides.”
Much progress has been made as we mark the 20th anniversary of the NVRA, but there’s still a long way to go. A quarter of eligible US citizens are not registered to vote. As Attorney General Eric Holder has noted, 80 percent of the 75 million eligible Americans who didn’t vote in 2008 were not registered to vote. States in recent years have escalated attacks on voter registration.
Following the 2010 election, Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee passed laws requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote (according to a 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 7 percent of eligible voters “do not have ready access to the documents needed to prove citizenship”), Florida and Texas made it virtually impossible for third-party groups like the League of Women Voters to conduct voter registration drives and states like Florida and Colorado attempted ill-considered and inaccurate eleventh-hour voter purges. The Supreme Court will soon rule whether Arizona’s 2004 proof of citizenship law violates the NVRA. And the Court will also decide next month whether the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.
An antiquated voter registration system is a major cause of the country’s electoral dysfunction. Modernizing voter registration, as the Brennan Center for Justice has proposed, would add 50 million eligible Americans to the voter rolls by automatically registering consenting adults to vote at government agencies, adopting Election Day voter registration, and allowing citizens to register to vote and update their addresses online. These ideas have been incorporated into the Congressional Voter Empowerment Act and have recently been adopted by states like Colorado that are leading the way in terms of making it easier to vote.
“I think there is a guideline for election reform which we should take very seriously, and that is it has to be as simple as possible,” says Piven. “The procedures have to be as simple as possible so that people can understand them and can defend their own rights and so advocates can help them defend their own rights.”
What is Alabama’s problem with the Voting Right Act? Brentin Mock finds out.
A 2011 file photo of David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Don’t miss Jane Mayer’s feature at The New Yorker, just posted online, on little-known story of how PBS’s WNET in New York reacted in showing Alex Gibney doc Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream. The film did air, but see what surrounded it.
Problem: It partly focused on the Koch Brothers, and David Koch is a major, longtime WNET funder. So WNET bent over backwards to give him a chance to respond even before the doc aired, and also scheduled a roundtable to discuss it. Gibney: “They tried to undercut the credibility of the film, and I had no opportunity to defend it…. Why is WNET offering Mr. Koch special favors? And why did the station allow Koch to offer a critique of a film he hadn’t even seen? Money. Money talks.”
And then another documentary realating to the Kochs ran into trouble and lost funding.
But Mayer’s conclusion: “In the end, the various attempts to assuage David Koch were apparently insufficient. On Thursday, May 16th, WNET’s board of directors quietly accepted his resignation. It was the result, an insider said, of his unwillingness to back a media organization that had so unsparingly covered its sponsor.”
Gibney is the Academy Award–winning director whose WikiLeaks film opens this Friday.
Trailer for his Park Avenue, inspired by book 740 Park by my old Crawdaddy friend of nearly forty years back, Michael Gross:
Greg Mitchell’s current books are So Wrong for So Long (on media failures and Iraq war) and the wild tale of MGM and Harry Truman scuttling a 1947 anti-nuclear epic, Hollywood Bomb. His personal blog, updated several times day, is Pressing Issues.
The 2013 inaugural ball. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Obama has been eerily silent on the Rana Plaza disaster, the factory collapse that killed more than 1,110 garment workers last month near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Days later, another fire claimed eight people, and Obama said nothing. This week, two people died in a shoe factory collapse in Cambodia. Not a word. The problems that plague the global fashion industry deeply affect the American people, from an economic and humanitarian standpoint, and this situation calls for presidential leadership.
As of today, many of the largest US clothing retailers, including Walmart, Gap, J.C. Penney and Sears, have yet to sign on to a rigorous fire and safety agreement that would require brands to help fund necessary building improvements in Bangladesh. Walmart, the single largest buyer of clothing from Bangladesh, has in fact refused to sign, deciding instead to monitor its more than 200 Bangladeshi suppliers itself. The suggestion that Walmart is capable of monitoring its own supply chain is particularly appalling given that the retailer is linked to the Tazreen factory fire, which killed 112 Bangladeshi workers last November, and sold jeans from a supplier that operated in Rana Plaza. As I said in last week’s post, the president needs to force these companies’ hands and pressure them to sign on.
If Obama is unsure of how to act, he might start where former President Bill Clinton left off. In 1996, Clinton established a presidential task force made up of brands, government officials and labor leaders in order to regulate the global apparel industry, following a string of sweatshop scandals. That year, a human rights group revealed that Walmart’s Kathie Lee Gifford brand was being made by children in Honduras, and public outcry built until Clinton joined forces with brands and labor leaders to forge a solution. Aside from improving factories themselves, the task force’s goal was to give American consumers a way to track the conditions under which their clothing was made.
Clinton’s White House Apparel Industry Partnership spent two years establishing a baseline standard for working conditions in garment factories (it set weekly working hours at sixty, for example; and banned child labor). The Fair Labor Association, an auditing group, was set up to inspect progress in factories and make the results of its inspections public.
Since the mid-1990s, many things have changed in the apparel industry and in the world, which Obama’s twenty-first-century apparel task force will have to account for. Garment supply chains have moved from Mexico and the Caribbean basin—where one could argue it’s slightly easier to monitor conditions—to places like China and Southeast Asia, where language, distance and cultural barriers make monitoring more difficult.
The amount and dollar value of clothing imports to the United States has also skyrocketed since 1996. We now make only 2 percent of our clothing domestically. The sheer volume of imports makes monitoring conditions a much more difficult task.
The president may fear addressing the fact that unregulated imports have not only caused human misery but have rapidly cost the United States its garment and textile industries. But this is an opportunity for real change both here and abroad: Lifting wages and conditions for garment workers worldwide would be beneficial for places like Bangladesh and would also give our country’s manufacturers a chance to compete.
While the Clinton-era monitoring system was a good start, the new presidential task force should fulfill the promise to consumers to be able to trace where our clothes are from. It should require that every American brand make public all its suppliers and for all suppliers to by inspected by an independent group (and that those inspections be made public). Perhaps the results could be collated in one place, on one website, or a fair-labor labeling system could be developed to communicate which brands are responsible.
We also need the leadership of our first lady, a fashion icon and a consumer of clothes from H&M, which produces in Bangladesh. She must help change the culture of fashion in the United States. The price of a chain-store frock has gone lower and lower in recent decades, and Americans have used this as an excuse to stockpile our closets with gobs of disposable trends. An unhealthy reliance on imports suppresses wages in the United States and costs us jobs. Even though cheap imported consumer goods contribute directly to our economic woes, Americans celebrate bargain fashion. And we love it when Michelle Obama wears H&M and shops at Target.
It be would be amazing to hear Michelle Obama say that fairly and affordably priced fashion should be our new goal, not simply scoring the cheapest bargain we can find. And that a clothing steal should never come at the price of life. Lastly, she and Barack should make us believe once again that when brands, garment workers, governments and consumers all work together, fashion can and will be made in safe and healthy conditions.
San Francisco Giants concession workers have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. Read Dave Zirin’s report.
Public school teachers cheer outside the Chicago Board of Education district headquarters on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)
Chicago is braced for a critical vote by the Board of Education this week to determine if fifty-four schools will be closed.
Last week, parents of three children, two who have disabilities and a third who is black, filed a lawsuit at the US District Court in Chicago alleging that the school closings violate the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Illinois Civil Rights Act.
A second complaint, filed by the parents of three more children with disabilities, alleged the closings will occur too late in the year and don’t allow sufficient time for those children and their peers to transition to “unfamiliar” schools.
The parents sued on behalf of a proposed class of about 5,000 disabled students they say will be irreparably harmed by a transfer into new schools and for the 23 percent of the city’s black elementary-school children whose rights are allegedly being violated by the plan.…
“Every child in every neighborhood in Chicago deserves access to a high-quality education that prepares them to succeed in life, but for too long, children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed because they are in underutilized, under-resourced schools,” CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett said of the closings plan in a statement issued on March 21.
The announced closings spurred a weekend of protests in which activists claimed children’s lives will be put at risk when they are transferred to new schools, some of which are located in neighborhoods infamous for gun violence.
“There is no way [CPS] can keep people safe walking through this danger zone,” protester Jitu Brown shouted into a megaphone during a protest outside Overton Elementary School in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood—one of the schools slated for closure.
The Chicago Tribune reports, earlier this month, a man was fatally shot along the route that Overton students might take to their new schools.
The Tribune also found that, for children who aren’t eligible for busing, the average walk to a new school in the coming year will be almost twice as far as it is now, increasing from about a third of a mile to nearly six-tenths of a mile. Almost all the students—92 percent—at thirty-seven of the schools slated to be shut down currently have walks of four blocks or less. Sixty percent of that number walk two blocks or less.
CPS has claimed that 30,000 children will be affected by the school closings, but WBEZ fact-checked that claim and discovered the district’s plan will actually touch more than 46,000 children.
Additionally, WBEZ poked holes in officials’ claim that the City of Chicago lost 145,000 children in the past decade, making the soon-to-be-shuttered schools “under-utilized.” However, a drop in child population does not automatically mean a loss of students in CPS. In fact, WBEZ notes, between 2000 and 2013, actual enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has not decreased dramatically, and since 2000, the proportion of Chicago kids attending public schools has actually increased. For decades, the percent of city kids (ages 5–19) in CPS hovered around 65 percent, but in 2010, that jumped up significantly to 79.7 percent.
District officials calculate how under-used, overcrowded or “efficient” a school is by assuming every school should have thirty students in each homeroom. WBEZ reports that if you apply CPS’s own formula to the fifty-four schools proposed for closing, you find not all are “half-empty.” Fifteen have a utilization rate higher than 50 percent: Buckingham, Canter, Emmet, Ericson, Femi, Goodlow, Key, Mayo, Near North, Overton, Owens, Ryerson, Trumbull, Williams Elementary and Williams Middle.
Activists have challenged that formula. Rod Estvan, education policy analyst for disability advocacy group Access Living, says the utilization rates are “totally wrong” for schools like Trumbull and Lafayette because they have inordinately high proportions of special education students (30 and 28 percent, respectively).
CPS officials have admitted the formula does not take reduced special education class size requirements into account.
Furthermore, there is absolutely zero guarantee that children will be moving on to better schools, despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s claim that the key reason to close schools is about getting children “trapped” in low performing schools to a better place.
In a 2009 study of school closings, the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that between 2001 and 2006, most students whose schools were closed by the district re-enrolled in schools that were academically weak. Consortium researchers found that most students lost academic ground in the year their school was slated for closure. And once they were in their new school, they continued on an academic trajectory that was just like the trajectory of the closed school.
The Tribune recently reported that Ericson Academy on the West Side was targeted for closure by officials who claim it would cost $9.6 million to fix the fifty-one-year-old building, but what they didn’t point out in materials provided to parents is that they planned to spend nearly as much on repairs to Sumner Elementary, where Ericson students are to be reassigned.
District officials also claimed Calhoun Elementary, another school slated for closure, was being shut down in part because of its lack of air conditioning in every classroom. Yet records that were not part of the district’s presentation on closings show the designated replacement school, Cather Elementary, would require the installation of thirty-three window units to bring cooling in every room, the Tribune reports.
After reviewing documents related to the closings, the Tribune concluded, “In many cases, the district appears to have selectively highlighted data to stress shortcomings at schools to be closed, while not pointing out what was lacking at the receiving schools. In fact, total renovations to several of the schools slated to take in students would cost millions of dollars more than the estimated cost of fixing up the buildings where those children are currently enrolled.”
Michelle Rose, the grandmother of three students at Ericson, was furious when CPS sent a flier home contending that the school lacked the science and computer labs like ones promised at Sumner. This summer’s work at Sumner is only a start; the district estimates complete renovations will run a total of $24.5 million.
“We have two computer labs, two mobile computer labs, we have a science lab, we have two pre-K classrooms, so I don’t know why no one saw this,” said Rose, a volunteer at the school.
Emanuel and company claim the closings must occur because of budgetary shortfalls, but closing fifty-four schools won’t reduce the $1 billion deficit because all of that cost saving (plus tens of millions of additional dollars adding up to around $233 million) will go straight into receiving schools.
“We’ve assumed that we’ll have to spend in this first year an investment that we’ll make back over time with the savings that we’ll realize both in operating savings and cost avoidance of capital investment at these closing schools. So that’s the way we’re looking at it,” Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley told reporters on a telephone briefing March 21. (Check out the full WBEZ factcheck list on CPS closings.)
Zenitra Hodges, 23, of West Englewood, is studying psychology at Kentucky State University. She learned about one of the anti-closings marches Sunday morning and decided to join.
“My parents instilled with me the importance of education, but there are tons of kids who go without that,” she said. “So I’m here to help change that.”
Think the situation in Chicago is bad? Check out Allison Kilkenny’s reports about Philadelphia.
AT&T Park in San Franscisco. (Flickr/CC, 2.0)
Picture AT&T Park, home of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Picture about as breathtaking a baseball stadium as exists in the United States with the San Francisco Bay, otherwise known as McCovey Cove, framing the outfield like a Norman Rockwell postcard as conceived by Leroy Neiman. Picture seats packed with people clad in their iconic orange and black reveling in the once hard-luck team that now defines the city and stands atop the game. What we don’t picture when we conjure images of this or any ballpark are the people actually doing the work to keep it all running.
As idyllic as the aesthetics of the park remain, those prepping the food and cleaning the toilets make $11,000 a year in a city where, due to yet another round of tech-bubble gentrification, they cannot afford to live. Concession workers at the park earn their $11,000 in a city where a one bedroom apartment runs $3,000 a month and people are spending near that much to live in laundry rooms and unventilated basements. These same workers, who commute as much as two hours each way to get to the park, have now gone three years without a pay increase. This despite the fact that the value of the team, according to Forbes, has increased 40 percent, ticket prices have spiked and the cost of a cup of beer has climbed to $10.25. This also despite the fact that, as packed sellouts become the norm, the stress and toil of the job has never been greater. Now, the 800 concession workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 2, have voted 97 percent to strike.
Team management, which subcontracted food services to a South Carolina outfit called Centerplate, claims no responsibility for the labor troubles, even though they receive 55 percent of every dollar spent by the Giants fans. I spoke with Billie Feliciano, who has been working at the park for over three decades. She said to me, “This is the first time in thirty-five years we’ve had to go to these extremes. Centerplate says talk to the Giants. The Giants say talk to Centerplate. If we stepped back for five minutes they’d figure it out after they started to lose all that money. All we are saying is we want a fair share.”
Getting their “fair share” from Giants owner 80-year-old multibillionaire Charles Johnson will not be easy. A child of Wall Street wealth whose fortune has grown exponentially with the expansion of the financial markets, he now heads the mutual fund Franklin Templeton started by his father. As he said to The San Francisco Chronicle, quoting the company’s namesake Ben Franklin, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” (It would be far more fitting if he quoted the Ben Franklin who said of money, “The more one has, the more one wants.”)
In a startling bit of symmetry, Johnson lives in the city’s Carolands Chateau, a 100 room, 65,000 square foot palace originally built a century ago for the daughter of railroad magnate George Pullman. That would be George Pullman, namesake of the bloody 1894 Pullman Railway Strike where the United States Army intervened to crush the nascent industrial workers organization known as the American Railway Union. Then, destroying the mere idea of an industrial union like the ARU was seen as a high priority. Today we are seeing service industry workers starting to organize, walk out and be heard, and a twenty-first-century Pullman is looking to halt the mere idea that the expansion of service unions will happen on his watch. This is why the struggle at AT&T Park is bigger than 800 concession workers and why everyone has a stake in offering solidarity and support. As legendary Bay Area KPFA Hardknock Radio host Davey D said, “There is a lot of talk about having a citywide fast food union in San Francisco. So if you can topple the union at AT&T Park, then you can topple that idea. And if you can topple [service] unions there, you can topple them anywhere and can stop that tide around the country.”
The workers are ready. Feliciano said to me, “We come there rain or shine. Are we striking? Not yet. But these workers are ready to strike.” The community, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the players on the Giants, from Buster Posey to Tim Lincecum to Sergio Romo, should support them as well.
As for the negotiations, they display all the arrogance of both Centerplate and Charles Johnson. During one session, while management scolded the union for thinking they were worth more than $11,000 a year, hedge fund honcho Mike Wilkins, a partner at $400 million Kingsford Capital Management, was on the field running the bases with 100 of his buddies, at a one-day rental cost of $500,000. This was described to the website Buzzfeed as an exercise in “grown up boys fantasy time.” Will San Francisco ever again be anything but a playground for the overgrown millionaire children of the tech sector? That’s the question. We’ll find out the answer in the weeks to come.
Go to thegiantzero.org for updates on the struggle.
This week, everything is falling apart: Syria; the Canadian environment; the Times’s coverage of Honduras and Venezuela; higher education as we know it. But if activists’ creative roasting of neo-philanthropic tycoon Carlos Slim is any indication, the best response may be laughter.
Alleen Brown focuses on education.
“The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform,” by Aaron Bady. The New Inquiry, May 15, 2013.
In a lengthy essay, Aaron Bady describes the speed at which higher education has been smacked by MOOCs. His piece hints at the ways the rhetoric of “innovation,” especially in education, masks practices that serve to reproduce hierarchy.
James Cersonsky focuses on labor and education.
“Oaxacan Teachers Challenge the Test,” by David Bacon. Truthout, May 9, 2013.
Mexico’s education system is awash with the same neoliberal orthodoxies that rule the United States, and in both countries there are pockets of organized resistance and refusal. While this piece falls short in critical ways—it doesn’t implicate students as agents in Mexico’s political economy of education, and it says that “the national union in Mexico is an entrenched part of the power structure,” as if the United States is categorically different—it does highlight Mexican alternatives that should be taken seriously. The Program for the Transformation of Education in Oaxaca, for one, “sees a teacher as an agent of social change…someone who has roots in a community, is interested in all the problems of the children, is familiar with the culture of the people, who can promote education projects with parents. In other words, a teacher the ruling class doesn’t want.”
Catherine Defontaine focuses on war, security and peace-related issues, African and French politics, peacekeeping and the link between conflicts and natural resources.
“Infographic: Africa’s natural resource wealth.” Al Jazeera, May 12, 2013.
The annual Africa Progress Report released on Friday highlights the dubious attitude and “unconscionable” practices of some foreign companies involved in the exploitation of natural resources in Africa. Indeed, as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan points out, “Some companies, often supported by dishonest officials, are using unethical tax avoidance, transfer pricing and anonymous company ownership to maximise their profits, while millions of Africans go without adequate nutrition, health and education.”
Andrew Epstein focuses on social history, colonialism and indigenous rights.
“What if people told European history like they told Native American history?” by Kai. An Indigenous History of North America, May 9, 2013.
If this counterfactual seems far-fetched, dig around for your high school textbook and look at the chapter titled “the Americas before 1492.” Little-known fact: the city of Cahokia, located near present-day St. Louis, had the same population as London and Paris in 1250.
Luis Feliz focuses on ideas and debates within the left, social movements and culture.
“Is laughing the mic check of 2013?” by Laura Gottesdiener. Waging Nonviolence, May 14, 2013.
This, my last article of the week, is a call to up the ante. In the post-micro-credit business model era—which supposedly will save Africa and Africans—various business venturers with pseudo-altruistic hearts surfaced. In the same way that The Nation has published essays about how NGOs in Haiti have been undermining the state and ultimately the sovereignty of the nation, the magazine, thanks to people like Laura Gottesdiener and others reporting, can also assess critically neo-philanthropic yet for-profit business expansion projects extending not only into Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America but also into online education.
Elana Leopold focuses on the Middle East, its relations with the United States and Islam.
“The Syrian Heartbreak,” by Peter Harling and Sarah Birke. Middle East Report Online, April 16, 2013.
Harling and Birke offer insight into the horrifying violence and suffering so vividly described in today’s front-page New York Times article. Arguing, ultimately, that the conflict is “the product of international standoff,” the authors refute sectarian explanations for the violence, in part by outlining the disintegration of a strong Syrian national identity.
Alec Luhn focuses on East European and Eurasian affairs, especially issues of good governance, human rights and activism.
“I Heart Syria,” by Gary Brecher. NSFWCorp, May 13, 2013.
Gary Brecher breaks down the video of the Syrian rebel cutting out his victim’s heart and taking a bite out of it. Rather than taking this as a smug affirmation of Western values in the face of the horror of the Middle East, we should see this for what it is, Brecher argues: a recruitment video aimed at recruiting 17-year-olds for an undermanned Al Qaeda–inspired brigade. And a PR boon for the Assad regime.
Leticia Miranda focuses on race, gender, telecommunications and media reform.
“Biometric Database of All Adult Americans Hidden in Immigration Reform,” by David Kravets. Wired, May 10, 2013.
Wired looks at mission creep in the immigration bill that has privacy advocates up in arms.
Brendan O’Connor focuses on media criticism and pop culture.
“Ask Polly: Jesus, My Struggling Writer Friends Never Shut Up!” by Heather Havrilesky. The Awl, May 15, 2013.
This doesn’t fall so much into the Advice For Writers category as it does the Advice For People Who Have To Talk To Writers, Whether They Are Writers Themselves Or Something Else Altogether category. There’s a lot here worth keeping in mind, although—as ever—it all seems to boil down to this: “Calm down… and get back to work.”
Anna Simonton focuses on issues of systemic oppression perpetuated by the military and prison industrial complexes.
“When drone strikes collide with stop-and-frisk,” by Natasha Lennard. Salon, May 11, 2013.
As a landmark trial challenging New York’s notorious stop-and-frisk policy begins, Lennard connects the criminalization of young black and brown men through policing and incarceration in the United States to the military targeting of the same demographic overseas.
Cos Tollerson focuses on Latin American politics and society, and United States imperialism.
“Noam Chomsky, Scholars Ask NY Times Public Editor to Investigate Bias on Honduras and Venezuela,” by Keane Bhatt. NACLA, May 14, 2013.
Keane Bhatt, a Washington-based activist who blogs for NACLA, is spearheading an effort to demand accountability and accuracy in the mainstream media’s often errant reporting about Latin America. For months he’s used social media and his platform at NACLA to call attention to inaccuracies in John Lee Anderson’s New Yorker article “Slumlord: What has Hugo Chávez Wrought in Venezuela,” and has compelled the magazine to run two corrections (hopefully with a third forthcoming as pressure mounts). Now, expanding his critique from individual errors in a single article to habitual mischaracterizations in one of the country’s most widely read newspapers, Bhatt has brought together a group of experts who specialize in Latin America and media studies to sign an open letter objecting to The New York Times’s biased coverage of Honduras and Venezuela.
Sarah Woolf focuses on what’s happening north of the US border.
“B.C. election: Christy Clark pulls off an upset for the ages,” by Tim Harper. Toronto Star, May 15, 2013.
It was a disappointing Tuesday night for progressive voters in British Columbia. Center-right premier Christy Clark bucked the pollsters and their predictions to pull off a shocking victory—a majority government, no less—retaining the premiership, while losing her local race for member of Parliament. American environmentalists: take note. Clark’s re-election all but guarantees the approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline.
With its Jay-Z soundtrack, bizarre 3-D effects and commitment of Nick Carraway to a mental institution, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has seemed to some critics insufficiently deferential to a precious cultural totem. But long before it won silver in Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels, writers in The Nation offered drastically different assessments on both the book’s meaning and its legitimate place in the literary pantheon.
Carl Van Vechten, a writer and photographer who later served as Gertrude Stein’s literary executor, reviewed The Great Gatsby for The Nation in the issue of May 20, 1925, just a month after the book’s publication:
Mr. Fitzgerald is a born story-teller…[H]is work is imbued with that rare and beneficent essence we hail as charm. He is by no means lacking in power, as several passages in the current opus abundantly testify, and he commands a quite uncanny gift for hitting off character or presenting a concept in a striking or memorable manner…
Up to date, Mr. Fitzgerald has occupied himself almost exclusively with the aspects and operations of the coeval flapper and cake-eater. No one else, perhaps, has delineated these mundane creatures quite as skillfully as he, and his achievement in this direction has been awarded authoritative recognition. He controls, moreover, the necessary magic to make his most vapid and rotterish characters interesting and even, on occasion, charming, in spite of (or possibly because of) the fact that they are almost invariably presented in advanced stages of intoxication…
In “The Great Gatsby,” there are several of Mr. Fitzgerald’s typical flappers who behave in the manner he has conceived as typical of contemporary flapperdom. There is again a gargantuan drinking-party, conceived in a rowdy, hilarious, and highly titillating spirit. There is also, in this novel…something else. There is the character of Gatsby…
But in a review the following year of a stage production of Gatsby, The Nation’s theater critic, Joseph Wood Krutch, mocked Fitzgerald’s blurring of the line between spectator and spectated, satirist and satirized. Almost ignoring the theatrical production entirely, Krutch instead skewered the book:
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born into the flapper age with exactly the qualities and defects which would enable him to become its accredited historian. Though granted just enough detachment to make him undertake the task of describing, he is by temperament too much a part of the things described to view them with any very penetratingly critical eye and he sees flappers, male and female, much as they see themselves. Sharing to a very considerable extent in their psychological processes, he romanticizes their puerilities in much the same fashion as they do; and when he pictures the manners of the fraternity house or the Long Island villa he pictures them less as they are than as their practitioners like to imagine them. He makes cocktails and kisses seem thrillingly wicked; he flatters the younger generation with the solemn warning that it is leading the world straight to the devil; and as a result he writes The Flapper’s Own History of Flapperism. Thus he becomes less the genuine historian of a phase of social development than one of the characteristic phenomena of that development itself, and his books are seen to be little more than documents for the study of the thing which they purport to treat.
The book, Krutch added, was “preposterously maudlin.”
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The Nation has had only distaste for both screen adaptations of Gatsby reviewed in its pages. Painter and film critic Manny Farber panned the 1949 Paramount adaptation as “a limp translation,” writing that the film’s purposefully antiquated style “takes on the heavy, washed-out, inaccurate dedication-to-the-past quality of a Radio City mural.” Farber also said that the actress Betty Field failed as Daisy because she was “no more marked by Southern aristocracy than a cheese blintz.”
“Respectful work and appalling” were the choice words Robert Hatch, a longtime executive editor of the magazine, had for the 1974 adaptation starring Robert Redford as Gatsby, Sam Waterston as Nick and Mia Farrow as Daisy, with a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola. “When it sticks to the original, it adds nothing; when it deviates, it puts a heavy foot into Fitzgerald’s magic,” Hatch wrote. “Overall, its most conspicuous weakness is that it cannot handle vulgarity or ostentation without becoming vulgar or ostentatious”—precisely the same complaint Krutch expressed about the book itself in The Nation almost fifty years earlier.
Other Nation articles about Fitzgerald include a 1945 essay by Lionel Trilling—putting him in the same category with Shakespeare, Dickens, Voltaire, Balzac and Goethe—and a 1996 appreciation by friend-of-the-magazine E.L. Doctorow, who wrote that “in its few pages” Gatsby “arcs the American continent and gives us a perfect structural allegory of our deadly class-ridden longings.” And as many have argued, the release of “Gatsby” should also be an occasion for renewed discussion of inequality in America.
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