Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The world outside our heads

July 31, 2015

Matthew Crawford’s new book, THE WORLD BEYOND YOUR HEAD: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, is a good follow-up to Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries.

Crawford attacks what he calls “freedomism”—the idea that individuals can or should be free not only of external coercion, but of external influence of any kind.

This is the philosophy of thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant, who sought to free people from the moral authority of kings and priests.

51YMx.crawford.worldbeyondyourheadThe fact is, Crawford said, is that human beings are born into a world of people and things which are objectively real, and which can be understood only after a long period of learning and apprenticeship.

The fact that one’s individual desires do not, in and of themselves, change things is the first thing a baby learns, but which 21st century Americans sometimes forget.

Crawford makes custom motorcycle components as a business.  His work involves individual creativity, but is based on mastery of pre-existing knowledge of materials and technique, and is expressed in solving real-world problems.  He feels validated only when a customer—especially one who understands motorcycles—willingly pays his bill.

In different parts of the book, he discusses techniques by which people master arts and vocations—hockey player, martial arts fighter, short-order cook, glassblower, motorcycle rider, racing car driver.

Masters in all these fields have the ability to focus their attention on what is important, and to train their reactions, in ways that can’t necessarily be articulated, so that they respond appropriately to the situation at hand.

For Crawford, we are what we pay attention to.  Freedom consists in the right to choose to focus our attention on worthy objects.

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The biggest book in the world

July 24, 2015

largest book 1Source: Kuriositas.

The biggest book in the world is an edition of the Pali Canon, a scripture of Theravada Buddhism, inscribed on marble by order of King Mindon of Burma in 1860.

Located in Mandalay, it consists of 1,640 marble pages, each 3.5 feet wide, 5 feet tall and 5 inches thick, sheltered by its own pagoda, and arranged around the central golden Kuthodaw Pagoda.  Only one page is devoted to King Mindon’s own deeds.

The project was completed and opened to the public in 1868.   Tended by Buddhist monks, it is still visited by pilgrims and tourists.

King Mindon believed that books were the most valuable creation of civilization, and he hoped his edition of the Pali Canon would last 5,000 years.

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Wall Street as the co-government of the U.S.

June 23, 2015

I’ve written many posts about the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, and how the U.S. government puts the interests of the financial oligarchy above the interests of the American public.

I’ve just finished reading a book that shows how far back in American history this goes.

 ALL THE PRESIDENT’S BANKERS: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power by Nomi Prins (2014) is a narrative history showing the interdependence of the Presidents and the Wall Street banking and financial community from the early 20th century to the present day.

Nomi Prins showed how American Presidents from 1910 to 1970 had to take the interests of Wall Street banks into account in implementing their policies, and then how, from 1980 on, the banks freed themselves from governmental restrictions to engage in ever-bigger speculations, from which they had to be bailed out.

Her story begins with the Panic of 1907 with President Theodore Roosevelt standing by helplessly while J. Pierpont Morgan summons bankers to his mansion and arranges a bailout to prevent financial collapse.

The Federal Reserve System was created in 1913 in order to prevent such a situation from recurring.

This was a major turning point in American history.  It gave the United States a financial stability and financial resources without which it could not have been a world power.  It made possible U.S. participation in the world wars, the projection of American global power and the great expansion of federal government activity—none of which could have been paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis or with foreign loans.

At the same time, it formalized the position of the great American banks as a kind of fourth branch of government.

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Why I am not a population bomber

May 11, 2015

In 1968 I read a book entitled The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich which began as follows:

The_Population_BombThe battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

via Wikipedia.

Ehrlich argued that the world’s fundamental problem was that there were too many people in the world, and that the only solution was by means of birth control if possible, but not by relief of poverty or increase of food supply.

At the time he wrote, there were 3.5 billion people in the world.  Now there are 7.2 billion, but there is less hunger and starvation in the world than there is today.

Nowadays Ehrlich admits he exaggerated for dramatic effect, but he says it was for a good purpose, which was to alert people to the danger of overpopulation.

I don’t agree it served a good purpose.  I think Ehrlich put obstacles in the way of people such as Norman Borlaug who sought to increase food production and relieve famine.  What good was it, people asked, if it results in more people being born who eventually would starve to death anyway?

Mathusianism has long been used as an excuse to let people starve.  The British government used this excuse for failing to relieve famine in Ireland in the 1840s and in India in the 1940s.   It is still used as an excuse for failing to relieve famine in Africa.

The great economist, Amartya Sen, has pointed out that there never has been a famine in a democracy, because in a democracy, public opinion will not permit allowing a large percentage of the population to starve.

In modern times, the problem has never been that there was not enough food to go around, he wrote.  The problem was people who were too poor to buy the food that was available.

Yet Ehrlich’s ideas still have wider circulation than Sen’s, at least among people I hang out with.  I still hear people say, when we’re talking about some social problem, that the basic underlying problem is that there are too many people in the world.

And sometimes this is followed—and this makes my blood run cold—by the remark, “We’ve got to thin the herd.”

The best thing I can say for people who talk like this is that they don’t realize the genocidal implications of what they’re saying.

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George Orwell is the writer I most admire

April 30, 2015

George Orwell is the writer whom I most admire.

George Orwell

George Orwell

He is not the writer with the greatest insight into things, he is not the most brilliant literary stylist, and he is not the writer who gives me the greatest pleasure.

He is the writer I would have most liked to resemble—in his honesty, in his fearlessness, in his clear writing (which is partly a product of his honesty and fearlessness) and in his affirmation of common life and ordinary people.

He is remembered for Animal Farm and 1984, but his essays and journalism are just as interesting.

He was a radical, but not the kind of radical who, like George Bernard Shaw, wanted to re-engineer human life into something unrecognizable, while leaving existing concentrations of wealth and power undisturbed.

Here is a passage from The Road to Wigan Pier, which is about the lives of unemployed coal miners in the north of England in the 1930s.  He wrote about what he saw from the window of his train as he returned to his home in the south.

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Poor nations and the new world order

April 28, 2015

One of the things I’ve come to realize in recent years is that institutions exist that constitute a kind of world government.

I always thought that for a world government to exist, it would have to have its own army.  But the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the investor-state dispute settlement judges in international trade agreements don’t need armies to enforce their—unless you consider the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to be their army.

PrashadPoorerNations97818I just finished reading  THE POORER NATIONS: A Possible History of the Global South (2012) by Vijay Prashad, which is about how international institutions came into being to fight nationalistic governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America—the Third World.

These international institutions are greatly from the world government envisioned by the idealists who created the United Nations.

I’m worried about how the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement and other proposed trade agreements would create rules to protect international corporations and investors against national laws to protect labor, public health and the environment.  But for Third World nations, as Prashad showed, this is nothing new.

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What could a new kind of labor movement be?

April 10, 2015

Sam Seder’s interview of Thomas Geoghegan is about 45 minutes long. 

The rest of the running time is a repeat.

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Thomas Geoghegan says American labor needs a new strategy, which would include the following.

  • The right to join a labor union or engage in labor action should be a civil right.
  • Workers should have the right to form unions that represent only their members, instead of a government-determined bargaining unit.
  • On the other hand, unions should strive for works councils in big organizations, which would represent all the employees and not just the union members.

American labor unions have been unable to stop “right to work” laws from being enacted in state after state—even in Michigan.

only_one_thing_can_save_us_finalThese laws forbid labor-management contracts in which an employer hires only labor union members, or requires new employees to pay dues to a union.  Yet, by law, the union contract must cover all the employees in the bargaining unit, regardless of whether they join or pay dues.

Thomas Geoghegan wrote in Only One Thing Can Save Us that it may not be possible to stop right-to-work from becoming national law.  To the average person, it doesn’t seem right that they should be forced to join an organization or make payments to it against their will.  And as fewer and fewer people have any experience with unions, the counter-argument becomes harder to make.

But if unions lose that battle, as well they might, all is not lost.  It is much easier to make the case for the right to join a labor union if there never are any circumstances in which union membership is compulsory.

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College for all is an economic red herring

April 9, 2015

wages-productivity-educationSource: The Atlantic.

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-06Senator Rick Santorum was right, or at least partly right.  Only a snob would think that you have to be a college graduate to be a success in life.

Now President Obama didn’t exactly say that in the 2012 campaign, not in so many words, but the focus of his policy is that high schools should make their graduates “college-ready” and that a college diploma is a key to economic success.

This is a red herring.  It is a diversion from the real economic problems, especially the erosion of the wage-earning middle class.

Thomas Geoghegan pointed out in his new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us, that when the President says lack of higher education is the cause of economic inequality, he is writing off the 68 percent of Americans age 24 to 64 who don’t have college diplomas and never will.

Suppose, he asked, that Obama and the Democrats succeed in pushing the college graduation rate up to 35 percent or even 40 percent, which would be hard to do.   Obama is still writing off the majority of working-age Americans.

The President is in effect telling high school graduates that the reason it is so hard for them to find decent-paying jobs is that they didn’t go to college.  And as for the the one in five male college graduates and one in seven women graduates whose income is less than that of the average high school graduate, it is because they attended the wrong college or majored in the wrong subject.

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Germany as a good example for the USA

April 8, 2015

I grew up with a stereotype of the Germans as prisoners of hierarchy, bureaucracy and rules, who would never be a match for us democratic, freedom-loving practical Americans.

But if that ever was true, our two countries have since traded places.

Were-You-Born-on-the-Wrong-Continent1Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago labor lawyer whose writings I admire, wrote a book in 2010 entitled WERE YOU BORN ON THE WRONG CONTINENT? How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life about how Germany is an economic role model for the United States.

He still says so in his newest book, ONLY ONE THING CAN SAVE US: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.

In Germany, Geoghegan wrote, the laws, strong labor unions, worker representatives in management make it difficult to fire anybody.  So layoffs are a last resort, not a first resort.

German management is forced to concentrate on figuring out how to get the most out of the work force, not on making workers powerless and replaceable.   The result is that German corporations invest in lifelong learning for their workers, on the justified assumption that they’re going to remain with the same employer and become permanent assets to the firm.

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Replaceable workers or productive workers?

April 7, 2015

CEOs of American companies complain of a lack of skilled workers and the lack of job training.

But if you look at what most of them do, and not what they say, they don’t really want productive workers.  They want replaceable workers.

only_one_thing_can_save_us_finalSo argues Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago labor lawyer, in his outstanding new book, ONLY ONE THING CAN SAVE US: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.

One obvious example of this is Boeing’s decision to have its new Dreamliner made by inexperienced, low-paid workers in South Carolina rather than members of the International Association of Machinists in Seattle.   They had production and quality problems in South Carolina, but their priority evidently was to get away from the union.

Now the same management philosophy is being applied to public schools, universities and hospitals.   Well-trained, well-paid professionals are harassed, laid off and replaced with inexperienced newcomers.

If you define efficiency as that which is most convenient for managers, there is something to be said for this.  An ignorant subordinate is less likely to give you an argument than an experienced and skilled subordinate.  It is easier to treat people as replaceable parts if they lack knowledge and opinions.

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Hiroshima’s Shadow: crossing a moral line

March 24, 2015
Click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge.

Source: Professor Olsen@large

Seventy years after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we live under the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used again—possibly but not necessarily by us Americans or on us Americans.

I’m trying to understand the reasons for Hiroshima and Nagasaki by reading Hiroshima’s Shadow:Writing on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy, edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, which was recommended by my e-mail pen pal Tanweer Akram of the Bertrand Russell Society.

The book was published after the Smithsonian Institution in 1995 canceled an exhibit about the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, after the American Legion and the Air Force Association objected to inclusion of material questioning the necessity of the bombing.

It is plain to me as I read this book that  the decision to use the atomic bomb mainly reflected the momentum of two earlier decisions:

  • The decision to wage war against civilians by bombing enemy cities from the air.
  • The decision to develop atomic weapons for that purpose.

Hiroshima's Shadow 0_After these choices were made, I think the decision to bomb was, if not inevitable, the path of least resistance.   Once the original bright moral line was crossed, the only issue was whether to do the same thing by means of a new and more horrible method.

I think the consequences of these decisions would still be with us even if the tragedy of Hiroshima could have been avoided.

Americans and Britons once were shocked by the German Zeppelin raids on London during World War Two, the destruction of the village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Shanghai by the Japanese and of the bombing of Rotterdam and Warsaw by the Germans.

But we soon came to accept the fire-bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, first as regrettable necessities and then as the new normal.

That new normal is still with us.  Bombing is still the basic American military tactic, even when it doesn’t work.  When your only tool is air power, everything looks like a target.

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Illustrating Alice in Wonderland: a gallery

March 21, 2015
alicedali2

Salvador Dali (1969)

My e-mail pen pal Jack Clontz sent me a link to a wonderful gallery of illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  The pictures capture the basic strangeness of the book.  I have copied samples of the pictures, which you can look at below.  For the full gallery, click on The Best Illustrations from 150 Years of Alice in Wonderland by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings.

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Books for 10,000 years from now

February 21, 2015

The Long Now Foundation was created to engage in very long-term thinking.  One of its projects is a 10,000-year clock, which will tick one a year, bong once a century and strike the “hour” once every 1,000 years.

Another is to collect and store a library of essential reading, including a Manual of Civilization wing consisting of 3,500 books with information most needed to “sustain or restore” civilization.   The books are still in the process of being selected.

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Here is a preliminary list of some of them.

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Some of the world’s most ancient trees

February 7, 2015

ancient-trees-beth-moon-1.

ancient-trees-beth-moon-8

Beth Moon, a photographer based in San Francisco, has spent 14 years photographing the world’s most ancient trees.  These photos are from her new book, Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time.

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Could the Cold War have been averted?

February 2, 2015

The Cold War was a real war.  I have read that by some estimates 30 million people died in wars and conflicts between 1945 and 1991, and most of these were linked to the global duel between the USA and the USSR.

The casualties included those in the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam Conflict, the anti-Communist uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, the Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot, the U.S.-backed death squads in Latin America, the Indonesians massacred in the overthrow of Sukarno, the wars in Africa between US-backed and Soviet-backed proxies, the Afghan war between a Soviet-backed regime and US-backed rebels, and countless other struggles now forgotten by the world.

UntoldHistoryStoneKuznick00379519Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, in their book and TV documentary, The Untold History of the United States, said this tragedy for have been avoided but for one thing.

It was that the President of the United States in the years following World War Two happened to be Harry Truman, a warmonger, rather than Henry Wallace, a lover of peace.

This is not how it appeared to me at the time.   I came of age in the early 1950s, and I thought the United States and its allies were in peril, the same kind of peril as in the 1930s.

The Soviet Union was as much a totalitarian dictatorship as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.   By “totalitarian,” I mean that the government sought to subordinate all human activity, including science, art, literature, sport, education and civic life, to the control of the ruling party, and to demand not only passive acquiescence, but enthusiastic support.

Hitler and Stalin also were alike in that they killed millions of people, not for anything they had done, but for what they were.  While historians now think that Stalin murdered fewer people as Hitler, this is not how things seemed at the time, and, in any case, Stalin’s body count was large enough.

But the most terrifying thing about totalitarianism was the idea that the ruling party could somehow get into the minds of its subjects, and experience slavery as a kind of freedom.  George Orwell’s 1984 was an all-too-plausible vision of a future in which there was no individual liberty, no concept of objective truth aside from a party line and a Winston Smith could be brainwashed into loving Big Brother.  These things seemed all too plausible.

Stalin not only ruled one-sixth of the earth’s surface, but commanded the loyalty of Communists worldwide.  Millions of people, many of them idealistic, intelligent and courageous, believed it was their duty to subordinate their personal convictions and code of morality to a Communist Party line that put the interests of the Soviet Union above all else.

A revolutionary Communist movement is one thing.  A worldwide Communist movement that subordinated all other goals to being an instrument of Soviet power was a very different thing.

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Was the Hiroshima bomb necessary?

January 29, 2015

UntoldHistoryStoneKuznick00379519I’ve been reading Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, a companion to their TV series of the same name.  It is a compendium of the crimes and follies of the U.S. government in the 20th century.

One chapter is devoted to an indictment of the USA for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Stone and Kuznick contend that:

  • The dropping of the bomb was partly due to President Truman’s need to affirm his masculinity.
  • The dropping of the bombs was partly due to American racism against the Japanese.
  • The dropping of the bombs was intended mainly as a deterrent against the Soviet Union.
  • Japan’s surrender could have been negotiated without the bomb.
  • The Soviet invasion of Manchuria, not the atomic bombs, were the main reason why the Japanese eventually did surrender.

For me, it’s not so simple.

Hiroshima and Nakasaki were the culmination in the greatest mass slaughter of human beings in history.  An estimated 50 million to 60 million people, more than half of them civilians, were killed in the war, not counting those who died of war-related famine and disease.

World War Two was a war without mercy.  All sides lost their moral inhibitions.  I was a small boy during World War Two and I remember the wartime atmosphere.  Everyone wanted to win the war as quickly as possible and by any means necessary.

There was no bright line that separated the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings from what had gone before, including the systematic bombing of the German and Japanese cities.  I couldn’t have imagined the United States possessing such a powerful weapon and not using it.

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Courtney White on the age of consequences

January 28, 2015

Progress was good for my parents. They came to a strange land as poor pioneers and prospered along with Phoenix. They lived the American Dream—not the pursuit of material manifestations of success as much as their steady improvement over time.

Courtney White

Courtney White

Their lives were better than their parents’; they had more security, more opportunity, more comfort. They didn’t do without, go hungry, or stand in unemployment lines; they were well-educated, well-fed, and well-blessed with the fruits of a robust and expanding economy.

Best of all, especially for my mother, they could travel, and they saw parts of the globe that deeply impressed them. If they had second thoughts or misgivings about progress, I never heard a word. For them, the future was always bright.

I developed a different perspective. I came of age during the heyday of progress, witnessing the good, the bad, and the ugly. Impressed at first, I have now lived long enough to see that manifest destiny was not necessarily a positive force in our history.

I will likely live long enough to see evidence that America is not exceptional after all—that despite this nation’s many admirable qualities, it is subject to the same historical forces that have worn down all great nations and empires throughout the ages.

==Courtney White, The Age of Consequences

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Courtney White of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a former archeologist, Sierra Club activist and co-founder of the Quivera Coalition, which is dedicated to bringing together ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others to improve land practices.

I’ve not read any of his books.  Probably I should.  Here are links to excerpts from The Age of Consequences, his latest.

The real path through history: An arrow of progress.

The Nervous Breakdown.

Manifest destiny was not necessarily a positive force in our history.

Thanks to Bill Elwell for the first link and for making me aware of Courtney White and his work.

 

American labor unions and the future

January 26, 2015

The New Deal is regarded as the emancipator of the American labor union movement.  By giving Americans a legal right to bargain collectively through labor unions of their own choosing, the National Labor Relations Act gave unions a recognized place in society.

Under the NLRB umbrella, American labor unions in the 1930s and 1940s became greater in size and power than they ever were before or have been since.

But Stanley Aronowitz in his new book, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF AMERICAN LABOR: Toward a New Workers’ Movement (2014), said that the NLRB in the long run proved a trap.

aronowitz.death&lifeamericanlabor03,200_Aronowitz said that unions agreed to restrictions on their only weapon, the strike.  During the course of a contract, unions themselves were responsible for suppressing unauthorized strikes.

Employers became adept at using the NLRB to thwart union organizing.  In the interim between a petition for a union election and the election itself, they could weed out the union supporters (although this was technically illegal) and threaten and propagandize the employees.

Labor leaders gave up the goal of transforming society in return for place at the table where decisions about the U.S. economy were made.  But they didn’t even get a place at the table.

Over the years, new laws weakened union rights and imposed new restrictions.  Union leaders became less and less able or willing to use their basic weapon—the strike.  Union membership is below 11 percent of the American work force, the lowest level since before the New Deal.

Aronowitz, a professor at City University of New York and a former factory worker and union organizer himself, wrote that if the labor movement is to survive, workers and labor leaders must break out of old ways of thinking.

They need to engage in direct action, outside the NLRB framework, as has was done in the recent Walmart and fast-food walkouts.

Aronowitz noted that these actions were taken without union recognition or expectation of a contract, but were effective nonetheless in forcing management to respond to workers’ demands.

Unions should not agree to contracts with no-strike provisions, he wrote.  Or, if they do, only as a last resort and for a limited time.

I always thought that the Walmart and fast-food workers, who are continually at the brink of destitution, showed great courage by defying their employers like that.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible if it hadn’t happened.  Maybe in this case freedom really is just another word for nothing left to use.

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Mark Morrison-Reed and the minefield of race

January 25, 2015

Mark Morrison-Reed is the author of In Between: Memoir of an Integration Baby (2009), which is about his attempt to live in a color-blind world that doesn’t exist.  He was also my minister in the early 1980s.

The video above shows him talking about his book and about race in American life.  The first 25 minutes is his talk, and the rest is questions and answers.  Mark manifests his great ability to listen to people, and to understand and respond to where they’re coming from.

I met Mark in 1980 or 1981, I forget which, when he and his wife Donna were co-ministers of First Universalist Church of Rochester, New York.

I joined the church, which I still attend, in 1985 because of my great esteem for Mark and Donna.  Mark didn’t wear dreadlocks then. I remember Mark telling me something once that I was always remember.

He told me that I was committed to a philosophy that someday would fail me, which was that my self-esteem depended on “earning your keep”—that is, always repaying obligations.  He told me that philosophy would fail me because someday I would be in a situation in which I depended on the unearned kindness of others, which I would never be able to repay.  This has proved true.

Mark came from a background that was privileged compared to mine.  His father was a physicist on the faculty of the University of Chicago, who worked on the Manhattan Project and also was honored by NASA.  His mother was active in Chicago politics and knew Mayor Harold Washington.

But he was an outsider in a way that I never was.  He always had to deal with the fact that people, black and white, made assumptions, because of his race, about what he was and what he should be.

I never had to deal with that.  Maybe black people make assumptions about me because of my race, but this doesn’t control my life.

LINKS

‘True to my lineage': Mark Morrison-Reed’s quest for spiritual integration by Kimberly French for UU World (2009)

Laying claim to my own blackness, an excerpt from In Between in UU World (2009)

Selma’s challenge by Mark Morrison-Reed for UU World (2014)

The empowerment tragedy by Mark Morrison-Reed for UU World (2011)

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‘The skill to keep things in good repair’

January 22, 2015

I greatly admire the writings of the self-taught philosopher, Eric Hoffer.  His book, The True Believer, published in 1951, is the best book I know for explaining the psychology of today’s radical terrorists.  His regular job was as a longshoreman in San Francisco.  He wrote this in his journal for July 7, 1958

As I walked several blocks from the bus stop to the docks, I was impressed by the gardens in front of the houses.  The houses, of average size, are fairly old, yet in excellent shape.  The people living there are mostly workingmen.

Eric Hoffer

Eric Hoffer

The sight of the gardens and houses turned my mind to the question of maintenance.  It is the capacity for maintenance which is the best test for the vigor and stamina of a society.

Any society can be galvanized for a while to build something, but the will and the skill to keep things in good repair day in, day out are fairly rare.

At present, neither in the Communist countries nor in the newly created nations is there a pronounced capacity for maintenance.

I wonder how true it is that after the Second World War the countries with the best maintenance were the first to recover.  I am thinking of Holland, Belgium and Western Germany.   I don’t know how it is in Japan.

The Incas had an intense awareness of maintenance.  They assigned whole villages and tribes to keep roads, bridges and buildings in good repair.

I read somewhere that in ancient Rome a man was disqualified as a candidate for office because his garden showed neglect.

I wonder what Hoffer, who died in 1983, would think of America’s crumbling roads, bridges, transit systems, airports and infrastructure generally.  Would he think that Americans, both individually and as a nation, still have the will and the skill to keep things in good repair?

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GOP turns against No Child Left Behind

January 4, 2015

Republicans in Congress want to repeal high-stakes testing provisions in the No Child Left Behind program.  I think this is a good thing overall, not a bad thing.

MISC_high-stakes-testingProposed by the George W. Bush administration and enacted with bipartisan support, the NCLB program measured teacher and school performance by means of achievement tests.  The idea supposedly was to highlight how schools are failing poor and minority students, but the only remedy is punishment of teachers and schools for low test scores.

The result was to scapegoat teachers, schools and, by implication, public education itself.   All this was called school “reform,” although to reform something means to correct its defects and make it better, which is exactly the point at issue.

testing&teaching642_nI think we the people should watch the details of what is being proposed—specifically in regard to provisions regarding charter schools and privatization of public schools.  But in general I think the push-back against NCLB reflects the experience and justified opposition of parents and teachers.

My e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey, who sent me a link to a Politico article reporting the Republican plan to overhaul NCLB, also sent me a link to a Truthout review of Educating for Insurgency: The Roles of Young People in Schools of Poverty by Jay Gillen, a Baltimore public school teacher and mentor for the Baltimore Algebra Project, which began as an after-school mathematics tutoring program, but evolved into something much more powerful.

If somebody in authority wanted to improve education, especially for poor and minority students, they would talk to people such as Gillen and the other teachers who’ve risked their careers to resist meaningless tests.

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The plot to overhaul No Child Left Behind by Maggie Severn for Politico.  [Bill Harvey]

Flipping the Script: Pedagogy, Theater and Radical Organizing in Schools of Poverty by John Duda for Truthout.  [Bill Harvey]

Top Ten Acts of Test Resistance in 2014: the greatest year of revolt against high-stakes testing in U.S. history by Jesse Hagopian for I Am An Educator. [Bill Harvey]

The best Christmas present ever?

December 29, 2014

bestchristmaspresento1_500Hat tip to Avedon’s Sideshow.

Martin J. Sklar on corporate liberalism

November 30, 2014

The giant business corporation is a type of institution which has made possible economic growth and creation of wealth on a scale never before seen in history.  It also is a concentration of economic and political power that is dangerous to a free and democratic nation.

One of the great issues of American public policy, for more than a century, has been how we the people can get the benefit of the corporate form of organization without allowing it to swallow up everything else in American life.

sklar.corporatereconstructionMarty Sklar, a college classmate of mine at the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, went on to become a historian whose field of study was this issue.  I didn’t keep in touch with him after college, but I recently read magazine articles paying tribute to him as a historian on the occasion of his death.  I was intrigued enough to get a copy of his major book, which is out of print.

The Corporation Reconstruction of American Capitalism, written in 1988, is about the debate over corporate monopoly and anti-trust law in the era when corporations first came to dominate the U.S. economy.

It covers roughly the same period and issues as Altgeld’s America, but in a very different way.  Ray Ginger’s book is about the hurly-burly, corruption and violence of street-level politics and labor struggles in Chicago, while Sklar’s book is about high-level discussion of public policy.

American statesmen saw that corporate trusts and monopoly represented a dangerous concentration of power, which farmers, laborers and independent business owners could not withstand.  But at the same time, these same corporations increased economic efficiency and productivity and raised the American material standard of living to a level never before seen.

I remember Marty in his college student days as a strongly committed left-wing radical.  But in his book, he seems well-content with the workings of American capitalism and American statesmanship.

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Altgeld’s America and the America of today

November 20, 2014

During the Progressive Era around the turn of the last century, the big issues facing the USA were much the same as those facing us today—corporate monopoly, the attack on organized labor, political corruption, the tariff and free trade, and military intervention and imperialism.

altgeldsamerica11009944I recently finished reading a book about that era—Altgeld’s America, 1892-1905: The Lincoln Ideal versus Changing Realities by Ray Ginger—in hope that it would give me a new perspective.

Americans in that era—at least in the North—regarded Abraham Lincoln as our national ideal.  Lincoln was born into a poor family and, without money or much formal education, because a successful lawyer, striving politician and eventually President of the United States, the highest office in the land.  But he never forgot or disavowed his origins  He always identified himself with the experience and the interests of the common people, never with the elite.

Within a couple of generations after Lincoln’s death, the USA had become something he would not have recognized.  Lincoln came of age in a nation dominated, at least in the North, by independent farmers, craftsmen and merchants, and by employers who knew all their employees by name.

The USA at the turn of the 20th century was dominated by large corporations and political machines in which the individual had little place.  For many, all that remained of the Lincoln ideal was the belief that someone of humble origins could rise to great wealth.

John Peter Altgeld

John Peter Altgeld

John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois from 1893 to 1897, came as close to embodying the Lincoln ideal as anyone of that era could.

Ginger used his career as a thread to tie together the whole story of reform in Chicago in that era, involving, among others, the lawyer Clarence Darrow, the radical labor leader Eugene V. Debs, the social worker Jane Addams, the social critic Thorstein Veblen, the educator and philosopher John Dewey, the novelist Theodore Dreiser and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright—all of them free individuals who sought the public good in an age of large corporations organized for private profit.

All I had known about Altgeld prior to reading this book, aside from a poem by Vachel Lindsay, was that he opposed the use of federal troops to break the Pullman strike in Chicago, and that he sacrificed his political career to pardon the innocent but hated Haymarket anarchists, convicted of the killing of a policeman based on no evidence except their anarchist beliefs.

Actually, those two facts tell what’s essential to know—that Altgeld, like Lincoln, may have been ambitious, but he put justice ahead of ambition.

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Paying the bill to stop climate change

October 28, 2014

This Moyers & Company broadcast was aired about a year ago.

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Naomi Klein’s THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs The Climate has convinced me that, in order to maintain a habitable planet, it’s necessary to limit and maybe eliminate the burning of coal, oil and gas, and that energy companies will never do this unless they are forced to do so.

What I’m not convinced of is that it is possible to painlessly transition to some green utopia, in which everybody’s material standard of living is the same as it is now, except for a small group of plutocrats.

naomi-klein.book0coverMy house is heated with natural gas, and my gas bills lately have been low, due to an abundance of gas supplied by hydraulic fracturing (of which I disapprove).   My car runs on gasoline, and the computer on which I write this post is powered by electricity.

Over the years I’ve read books by Lester R. Brown, George Monbiot , and Al Gore making the case that with smart technology, I can heat my house with solar energy and better insulation, I can ride a streetcar that is almost as convenient as a private automobile, and that electricity can be provided by windmills, solar panels, other innovative sources of energy and a smart electrical grid that eliminates waste in the system.

I don’t have the knowledge to question their proposals on technical grounds.  I agree with Arthur C. Clarke—that the only way to test the limits of the possible is to venture a little way into the impossible.   And the alternative to trying is to accept the “long emergency” foretold by James Howard Kunstler.

But even at best, the transition will cost enormous sums of money.  Who would pay?  Naomi Klein says that rich people in rich countries should pay, especially countries that enjoy a high level of consumption based on fossil fuels.   This means first and foremost the USA.

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