—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.
“What’s a Union For?” by Carla Murphy. Colorlines, April 16, 2014.
Carla Murphy argues compellingly that in order for unions to survive, they must organize beyond the workplace, providing outlets for members to confront the injustices that impact their communities—especially mass incarceration and police brutality. This insight is not entirely novel. Service sector unions like SEIU and Unite Here—in which immigrants, people of color and women predominate—have for years been committing union resources and organizing capacity to combating injustices outside the shop. In a review of veteran organizer Jane McAlevey’s new book Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), Sam Gindin attributes McAlevey’s success during a Stamford, Connecticut unionization drive to her willingness to shift the focus from workplace grievances to housing justice—because that’s what concerned the workers most. Murphy’s piece—which cites the recent example of SEIU 1199’s mobilization against racist policing in New York City in response to the murder of a member’s son by the NYPD—offers an inspiring reminder of something we already know: that people’s connections to each other, the solidarities and shared grievances that form the foundation for powerful mass movements, exceed the confines of jobs and contracts. As one union member told Murphy, “A union is about fighting for democracy in the workplace but a union movement has to be about fighting for democracy in society.”
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
"A Star Player Accused, and a Flawed Rape Investigation," by Walt Bogdanich. The New York Times, April 16, 2014.
In early 2013, Florida State University freshman quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of rape. However, in a city and region obsessed with football, it took almost a year for police to collect key evidence. Gross negligence extended past the police department to university officials, who failed to investigate the accusations until after Winston's Heisman-winning, national championship season, despite the athletic department's early knowledge of the case. All credit to The New York Times for describing in careful detail every single misstep—and every step skipped altogether—by top officials in the community. Bogdanich's report reveals the disgustingly singular focus on football that is central to so many universities, where football teams generate loads of wealth and football coaches are the highest paid employees in the state. So often, football players and coaches are allowed to act with near impunity while their victims are derided and discredited. Something needs to change.
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“The inventor of the American suburban shopping mall was a socialist. Could his creation have been saved?” by Sam Wetherell. Jacobin, April 8, 2014.
This piece is just a short reflection on a trend that has begun to be widely reported—the death of malls—but it's an invitation to consider some interesting questions about public space and what we accept as a substitute for it. Malls, as the author recounts in his history of their original designers and their radical politics, were initially intended to be the opposite of the completely privatized spaces they are now. In the present day, courts have ruled that "First Amendment rights are not applicable within shopping malls," Wetherell says. And yet they have served several generations as one of the few indoor "public" spaces available: spaces where one can (at least in theory) sit down without buying anything. Wetherell contends that the original socialist conceptions of malls can help us imagine "massification without privatization," a way of realizing the positive aspects of a mall without its destructive, coercive ones. Now, as malls are being "killed" by online retail, seems like a good time to try.
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
"The Guardian and Washington Post Don't Deserve Pulitzers Just for Sparking a Debate," by Benjamin Wittes. The New Republic. April 15, 2014.
The New Republic brought up a good, though irreverent, question the other day: Does what eighteen people say about journalism in some Morningside Heights room really matter? Benjamin Wittes's article characterized the recent Pulitzer decisions—blasphemy!—as out-of-touch. His article, "The Guardian and Washington Post Don't Deserve Pulitzers Just for Sparking a Debate," says it all in the title. Background:The Guardian and Washington Post won Pulitzers for "sparking a debate" after publishing Snowden's revelations. Cited by Wittes is a 1999 Pulitzer-winning series analyzing mental health and homelessness in DC, which the journalist necessarily engineered on her hands and knees. In the words of Wittes, the 1999 series "passed a test much higher than the 'sparked a debate' test, a test that the Westboro Baptist Church and the Church of Scientology, I might add, pass with some regularity."
Sure, Wittes's comparison is unfair: We love and are indebted to Snowden for his courage. And we are indebted to the courage of the reporters in whose hands Snowden dropped the story of a decade. But, honestly and with respect, "sparking a debate" is a low standard for such a coveted award—especially when the Post got big things wrong in the stories the board honors. It reported that NSA has access to the servers of Internet companies—a fact it then changed in the story without running a correction.
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.
“The Radical Potential of the Food Justice Movement,” by Nancy Romer. Radical Teacher (University of Pittsburgh), Winter 2014.
Romer is on the governance board of the Brooklyn Food Coalition—a recipient of the 2014 Frederick Douglass Award. This essay highlights where workers throughout the food chain (farmers, burger flippers, waitresses, etc.) have been politicized and challenges foodie trends that feature “recipes without politics.” The piece is laden with nuanced takes on what a food movement entails and nuggets of interesting information.
She highlights a slew of groups, like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the 100,000+ member Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective in India, Fast Food Forward, the Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Black Food Security Network. Context is provided by histories of USDA discrimination against black and Native farmers and ranchers, Haiti’s burning of Monsanto seed and the overlap of labor and food organizing. She touches on opportunities like the farm worker bills of rights and democratizing local government food budgets, and developments including anti-hunger hotlines and food pantry gardens.
For Romer, food is an entryway into experimenting with systemic challenges like climate change and democratic participation. School food programs politicize low-income parents. For Romer, food is an ends and a means to grow a multi-sector movement “led by the most oppressed and joined by allies.”
—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.
"TurboTax Maker Linked to ‘Grassroots’ Campaign Against Free, Simple Tax Filing," by Liz Day. ProPublica, April 14, 2014.
This Tax Day Eve story might not offer the most earth-shattering of revelations: a company surreptitiously lobbied against a proposal that would threaten its profits. What's interesting is the mismatch between what Day begins by calling "a remarkably obscure topic" and the effects of the efforts she tracks. The company managed to convince a wide range of groups that proposals for free government assistance with tax filing would hurt the poor—a matter most targets of this lobbying didn't know much about. I wonder if the theme being as notoriously mundane as tax filing contributed to the tendency not question the lobbyists' allegiances, and/or whether the ease with which people could be convinced suggests a default negative view of government plans. It's troubling either way.
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
"Segregation Now," by Nikole Hannah-Jones. ProPublica, April 16, 2014.
Nikole Hannah-Jones's extraordinary piece draws upon the experiences of three generations of one black family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to illustrate the legal and political forces that have led to the desegregation and resegregation of this city's schools. Brown v. Board of Education, as significant and historic a decision as it was, did not lead to an overnight utopia of integrated schooling. The often painful, decades-long process did lead, however, to a South that eventually lowered the portion of black students attending virtually all-minority schools to just 25 percent. Those figures have begun to climb back up over the past decade and a half as desegregation orders lifted. Tuscaloosa's resegregation occurred through a tangle of economics, politics and backroom deals. There legalized segregation was not replaced merely with de facto segregation but with a political tool normally deployed in electoral politics: gerrymandering.
This piece looks specifically at the South, but its echoes can be felt everywhere, including here in New York state, whose public schools are the most segregated in the country. The tragedy of our country's regression can be summed up by the sentiments of the family's patriarch: "If integration was going to prove so brief, what, he wondered, had all the fighting been for?"
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
“Suicide Prevention Sheds Light on Longstanding Taboo: Talking About Attempts,” by Benedict Carey.The New York Times, April 13 2014.
“You’re basically punished for talking about it, wherever you turn," the National Empowerment Center’s Leah Harris says of the pressure for suicide survivors to not speak about their experiences. It seems an obviously unfortunate paradox: Those who may have had or still have mental health issues, who have needed or maybe still need a helping hand, may be able to offer sympathy to others undergoing something similar, as well as provoke empathy for those foreign to the experience. But these people are silenced from speaking about something that 1 million Americans annually attempt to do: commit suicide. It seems a staggering figure at first, but is it really? I have friends and family who have attempted suicide (successfully or not), and don't think I'm an anomaly: an unfortunately high number of people I know deal with depression and sometimes-suicidal thoughts, and/or have friends, partners or family members who do. While some quoted in the article warn that offering a platform for suicide survivors to speak out may simply provoke more suicidal thoughts (if they face rejection in doing so, for example), one survivor, Dese’Rae L. Stage, has started a website, "Live Through This," that hosts photos and stories from a diverse group of survivors. Their stories—of suicide, and of life—are beautiful. I think this is an exciting undertaking for a society so plagued by mental illness, and sadness more generally, and yet so unable to speak honestly and vulnerably about it.
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“Tax Time: Why we pay,” by Jill Lepore.The New Yorker, November 26, 2012.
The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore reminds us that, from time to time, we would do well to desist from visceral criticism and revisit questions of first principal—questions like, Why do we pay taxes?The absurdities of our tax system are well-rehearsed talking points on the left: it’s hardly progressive, risibly cumbersome, perforated with loopholes and a full quarter of it is allocated to military spending. But, as the great jurist Oliver Holmes, Jr. memorably put it, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”
Calling attention to the flaws in our “broken tax system” is necessary, but let us broadcast with the same vigor and frequency another basic fact: that the federal government allocates nearly two-thirds of its budget to essentials like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, veterans’ benefits, the maintenance of railways and bridges, science and medical research, school meals, job training, housing assistance and disaster relief.
The left’s failure to counter the libertarian narrative—that “high” taxes are the problem to begin with—explains why the very government programs that enable civilized society are chronically underfunded. Today Americans pay less in taxes as a share of GDP than we have in decades—much less than almost every other high-income nation—and we still complain. If liberals hope to overcome public cynicism and make a compelling case for the broad-based, progressive income tax so indispensable to general welfare, then we must remind our fellow citizens not just of what’s wrong with our tax system, but what’s right with it, too.
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
"Free Your Mind, Win the World Cup?" by Andrew Helms.The Baffler, April 16, 2014.
In a recent post at The Baffler, Alex Helms shows that there's no escape from the onslaught of corporate gibberish, not even on the US Men's National Soccer Team. Helms looks at the philosophy behind comments made by the team's coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, exhorting his players "to mix things up" and "express [them]selves," and contrasts it with the highly disciplined and tactical ethos of European soccer training. But is the rigidity of old-world training really something we should aspire to? Somewhere between the old canards of military discipline and new-age idealism there must be a third way. (The Baffler's blog is also worth checking out, as they slowly post articles from their archive online—they peg old pieces to current events, so there's always something enlightening to read.)