Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Labor Day Round Up: Let's Hear It For The Workers

Thomas Perez has been Secretary of Labor for just about a year now, having been sworn in on September 4, 2013.  He missed giving his first Labor Day pronouncement by two days, so this year's pronouncement is his first.

Here's what he had to say:

Statement on Labor Day by US Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

WASHINGTON — Each year, Labor Day gives us an opportunity to recognize the invaluable contributions that working men and women make to our nation, our economy and our collective prosperity. It gives us a chance to show gratitude for workers' grit, dedication, ingenuity and strength, which define our nation's character. At the Labor Department, it also provides an opportunity to reflect on how we can best serve and honor workers in return.

This year, we're honoring workers by investing more than a $1 billion in job-driven training programs to give Americans the skills employers need. We're honoring workers by promoting quality apprenticeships that will enable more people to "earn and learn." We're honoring workers, at President Obama's direction, by developing new rules to give more workers access to overtime pay and increase the minimum wage for private-sector workers hired under federal contracts. We're honoring workers by implementing a new life-saving rule to limit miners' exposure to coal dust and move us closer to eliminating black lung disease and by taking the next steps toward protecting workers from inhaling high levels of crystalline silica.

But as a nation, we can do more to lift workers up, and to ensure that all hardworking people are able to climb ladders of opportunity and reach for the American dream. It's time to raise the national minimum wage, so that no one working a full-time job has to live in poverty. It's time to update our workplace policies to reflect the realities of the 21st century labor force and to support modern working families. It's time to continue our nation's long commitment to supporting unemployed workers by extending emergency unemployment compensation.

Our nation is in the midst of a strong economic recovery. Job growth has topped 200,000 for six consecutive months — the first such stretch since 1997. Businesses have added nearly 10 million jobs since February 2010, with 53 consecutive months of growth. I'm optimistic about where we're headed — and I know we wouldn't be where we are without the resilience, commitment and strength of American workers.

This Labor Day, let's remember that hardworking men and women are the backbone of our country, and let's redouble our efforts to uphold our nation's great promise to them: that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can make it in America.
 The emphasis is mine and here's why:  This is Labor Secretary Perez's first Labor Day speech--a fine tradition continued by Labor Secretaries for decades now, and this one, by most standards, is not bad.  It says what you would expect from the Labor Secretary.  Workers are great and we're doing all we can to make sure they know that so they'll keep on working. 

But really, Secretary Perez?  Couldn't you have mentioned unions and the labor movement at least once?

Labor Day is an American holiday created by labor unions.  It became a national holiday in 1894, and since then it has been celebrated on the first Monday in September, without fail.   We celebrate the labor movement on Labor Day each year because working hard and playing by the rules (whose rules?) was not and never has been a ticket to success in America.  It took the labor movement to gather enough strength to make sure hard working, rules-playing workers got a fair shake in the workplace.

So let's look at what others are saying on this 160th anniversary of the American Labor Day weekend:

Robert Reich, Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, created a video with cartoons for his Labor Day contribution.  He mentions unions.   (Bonus:  PBS Frontline interview in which he talks about his job as Labor Secretary.)

Richard Reeves takes this time to call Labor Day "a farce".  He has his reasons.

Richard Trumka asks a question this Labor Day, and the AFL-CIO offers printable "Thank a Worker" cards

 AFSCME president Lee A. Saunders gets tough on politicians who scapegoat unions.  (It happens.)

Even Forbes gets in on it, with an essay by Steve Dunning entitled, "The Shame of Labor Day".  (Hint:  Ronald Reagan started this mess.)

And, as I seem to do every year, let me just drag out a few of my own Labor Day columns.  Whatever I might say today I've already said here and here and here.

But, hey, not everybody wants to celebrate.  The Freedom Foundation (Not just any old Freedom Foundation, THE Freedom Foundation) is boycotting Labor Day by going in to work!  Here's CEO Tom McCabe: 
"I can't think of a problem in society that can't be traced in some way back to the abuses of organized labor, and it would be hypocritical of us to take a day off on its behalf."

Well, yeah!  That'll show us!

Hope your long weekend was a smash hit.  If you were lucky enough to have all three days off, don't forget to thank the union movement.  Without unions fighting for your rights, you might never have had a day off, let alone a paid day off.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Five Years Later I miss Ted Kennedy Even More

May it be said of our Party in 1980 that we found our faith again.
And may it be said of us, both in dark passages and in bright days, in the words of Tennyson that my brothers quoted and loved, and that have special meaning for me now:
"I am a part of all that I have met
To [Tho] much is taken, much abides
That which we are, we are --
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end.
For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.
Senator Edward Kennedy, August 12, 1980


 ________________________________________________________________________


Note:  Today marks the fifth anniversary of Ted Kennedy's death.  Here I repeat the post I wrote on the day we lost this great senator and friend to those who had almost given up on a government of, by and for the people.  I miss his huge voice, his huge heart, his ability to cut through the crap and get to the simple truths.  We could use you now, Teddy.  We could use you now.
__________________________

August 25, 2009:

I woke up this morning to the news I've been dreading for weeks now.  Ted Kennedy, the Good Man of the Senate, has died.  He has been on my mind a lot lately, as we wage this battle for the common good, because what I fear most now is that our progress will suffer badly without his counsel, without his presence.

For more than 40 years he has consistently been on the side of the people without power.  As former senator Bob Kerrey said on "Morning Joe" today, "If you're getting the shaft, you ought to be weeping today because Ted Kennedy was your best friend."

The list of his accomplishments, the bills he worked so tirelessly to get passed, the people whose personal stories tell the tale of a man of high privilege coming to understand his role in the negation of human misery--are all part of our history we will never forget.

But no matter how much we would prefer to concentrate on the triumphs of his life, on the undeniable good he has done for his country, the specter of Chappaquiddick will never stop casting a long shadow over it all.

Already, this early in the morning, it comes up in the remembrances of those who knew him and are now before the cameras talking about his life.  It happened--we know it happened.  The facts are that Mary Jo Kopechne's life ended on July 18, 1969, after  drowning in a river on Chappaquiddick Island.  It was late at night and she was a passenger in a car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy.  They were heading toward the ferry to the mainland after a victory party when the car skidded off a bridge and crashed into the water. Kennedy survived, but Mary Jo didn't. She was just days away from her 29th birthday.

There is no question that Ted Kennedy panicked and swam across to the mainland, leaving Mary Jo in that car in that river.  Did he try to save her?  He says he did.  He says he was going for help, but it was hours before anyone found the car with Mary Jo's body inside.

Leaving the scene of an accident is a crime, and there were a lot of us--maybe most of us--who wanted to see him, at the very least, serve time in jail.  His sentence was eventually suspended, a seemingly contemptuous judicial act that stunned us all.  No punishment for running like a coward, allowing a young woman to die?  Why?  Because the rich and famous are exempt from having to pay for their sins?

For years I didn't want to ever hear the name Ted Kennedy again.  For years I heard the stories of his drinking, his carousing, and I wondered how the good people of Massachusetts could go on electing him.

He ran for president against Jimmy Carter and campaigned badly.  Again, we counted him out.  Then he gave his concession speech, his "the dream shall never die" speech, on the night of Jimmy Carter's primary victory.  There were a number of us in the room that night watching the returns, but I can still remember how quiet it was as we listened to the final moments of his speech..  I remember that none of us expected much from him by that time so when he started we were barely listening.  When it ended, we all looked at one another and someone said, "Why in God's name did he have to wait until now to give that speech?"

I've heard people say that he campaigned badly because, after Chappaquiddick, he felt deep down that he didn't deserve the presidency.  I can't begin to look into Ted Kennedy's soul at the time, but after that defeat he was a different man.  He went to work to fight for the causes his liberal heart told him were the most important, and he never looked back.
 
Already I'm seeing the hatred toward the Liberal Lion, the greatest senator of our times, bombarding the boards.  I won't repeat them here because I choose to celebrate Ted Kennedy's life.  It's a life that is ultimately deserving of praise.  Many of the people who are without a doubt going to go on the Hate Kennedy rampage today will laugh at the idea of a plea for forgiveness,  so I'll say this in words that most of them can understand:

Luke 17:3 - Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.

To forgive is not to forget.  I'm not alone in wondering where Mary Jo's life would have taken her.  From all accounts, she was good, decent, smart, loving.  She was on Robert Kennedy's staff, even helping to write a speech he gave against the Vietnam War.  Who knows what kind of career she would have chosen?  Where she would be today?

I've always wondered if it's possible that Ted Kennedy chose to give his life over to helping people who couldn't help themselves because the one time he might have actually saved a life, he failed.  A noble act of repentance.

If I weep for Ted Kennedy today, it is not for all the things that might have been, it is for all the things that were and now will be no more.

Ramona

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Long Dark Sadness Claims Another Victim

The news that comedian Robin Williams has succumbed to deep depression is sparking thousands of conversations on the airwaves and throughout the internet.  Once the shock is over, once the tributes and the memories and the RIPs have been delivered, the talk turns, as it always does when someone commits suicide, to what it was that could possibly make someone do such a thing. He had everything going for him and it still wasn’t enough. . .  Suicide is a selfish act. . .  A cowardly act. . . Look what he’s done to his family. . .

I come from a long line of depressives. The disease—dirty, rotten infiltrator that it is--hasn't skipped me, my children, or even my grandchildren.  In both my immediate and my extended family there have been suicides, hospitalizations, therapies and drugs—drugs that have worked miracles and drugs that have been disappointing failures.
 
At times not of our choosing an unrelenting sadness washes over us and we have to struggle to keep from going under.  It may seem to others that we're weak or self-indulgent or self-destructive or stubborn or just wet blankets. From the moment it hits, it demands--and gets--all of our attention. Happiness is momentary, a fleeting teaser--a whiff and then it's gone.

Those who have never had to deal with chronic deep depression are understandably impatient.  Because our illness is not obvious on the outside and because we can get pretty crazy with it--seeming to fight every attempt to help us get well--it's easy to give up on us.

I haven't felt that kind of depression for several years, but I still say "us" because I know from experience the depression bug is lurking somewhere and could rear its ugly head at any time, in any place, without my permission. 

I have been suicidal.  Depression is exhausting.  It winds us down and makes us weary.  It takes away any feeling of worth and no matter who is telling us we're loved, we're good, we deserve to be happy--we know better.  We're feeling something else.

We are a burden not just to ourselves but to everyone around us.   Love (or the lack of love) has nothing to do with it.   When we're in a depressed state we have turned inward and our demons have locked the door.  We put on our outside face and pretend.

 The people taking turns to comfort us, to soothe us with just the right words, might as well be talking to themselves.  We indulge them, we nod our heads, we pretend for their sakes that their words are magically healing, are just what we needed, but when they've left it's as if they were never there.

We work sometimes at convincing ourselves the people we care about would be better off without us because, if it ever comes to that, the leaving will be easier.

The common perception is that we are our own worst enemies, when, in fact, the enemy is within us and is messing with us in ways too cruel to even fathom.  It takes all our energy to act casual while our inner demons are keeping us wedged in our darkest places. We know, even as the depression drops a curtain over our feelings and drives us down, that we must appear normal for the sake of those often at their wit's end trying to figure out what they can do to make us happy again.

Depression doesn't work that way.  While tender loving care is a welcome and necessary aid, it's not a treatment and it's not a cure.  Depression is an illness as real and as insidious as cancer.  It's a cancer of the psyche, eroding and destroying our self-worth.  It takes with it our ability to appreciate even the smallest joys. Every depressive I've ever known carries a burden of guilt.  We should be happy.  Why can't we make ourselves happy?

You might wonder how I got over it.   I wish I knew.  Then I might know how to avoid it the next time.  I might know how to help the people I love who still suffer.  I don't know.  I could say it was many things--true love, living in a place of beauty, thinking happy thoughts--but that would be giving in to the myth that clinical depression is based on tangibles.  It is a chemical imbalance of the brain.  There are modern pharmaceutical concoctions that do, in fact, work miracles for some, but the frequency of depression-based suicides tells us there is still much to learn, still much to do.

We could move light years ahead if we removed the stigma from every form of mental incapacity and treated it all as the physical illness it is.  We could make life easier for the survivors of suicide victims if we stopped looking to them for answers and looked, instead, toward treating depression as a disease that kills as surely and as swiftly as any other malignant disease.  We've lost too many to it already.  We need to try something different.
__________________________

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Charles Koch Schools Us on How to Keep His Family the Second Richest In The Country

The gazillionaire Charles Koch, the Right Wing benefactor whose father was a co-founder of the John Birch Society,  the same Charles Koch who, along with his brother, David, works tirelessly against any sign of government interference when it comes to health care, public education, infrastructure, climate change, or  aiding the pitifully down and out, and who most generously funds any person, politician or party promising to fight along with them on the Kill the Government Before They Kill Us battleground--that very same Charles Koch has just written a whopper of an op-ed in USA Today extolling the virtues of "real work" and "real values" (surprise!) and decrying the existence of anti-business government regulations. (Double-surprise!)

Every now and then--as if we don't get enough of him second hand--he comes out of the shadows and into the light and says publicly what he and his brother, through their various foundations, including the anti-government, pro-them organization, Americans for Prosperity, have been pressing their free-market screw-the-poor minions to go along with for many dozens of years. 

A sampling of his USA Today piece:
"When I was growing up, my father had me spend my free time working at unpleasant jobs. Most Americans understand that taking a job and sticking with it, no matter how unpleasant or low-paying, is a vital step toward the American dream. We are in for more trouble if young people don't find that all-important first job, which is critical to beginning their climb up the ladder.

Finally, we need greater incentives to work. Costly programs, such as paying able-bodied people not to work, are addictive disincentives. By undermining people's will to work, our government has created a culture of dependency and hopelessness. This is most unfair to vulnerable citizens who suffer even as we say they are receiving 'benefits.'

I agree with Dr. Martin Luther King. There are no dead-end jobs. Every job deserves our best. 'If a man is called to be a street sweeper," King said, ' he should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'"
 Dibs on the throw-up pot.  And let me just sit a spell; I'm feeling pissed faint. 

This from a man who has advocated his entire adult life for the total destruction of a system of government purportedly hindering the ability of any citizen to make his or her fortune.  Never mind that his family is ranked the second richest in the entire country.  Their net worth is $89 billion

Wage inequality has become so lopsided the top one percent owns 40 percent of our wealth.  Our once-vibrant middle class has dwindled to a precious few, with the union-starved working poor making up the majority of our work force now. 

But beyond that, Charles Koch, in his phony bid to convince Americans that the poor are simply lazy and the free market will work for everybody no matter what we've heard, cites Martin Luther King, of all people, as an example of a person who understood how these things work.

This same Charles Koch:
"Charles Koch was not simply a rank and file member of the John Birch Society in name only who paid nominal dues. He purchased and held a "lifetime membership" until he resigned in 1968. He also lent his name and his wealth to the operations of the John Birch Society in Wichita, aiding its "American Opinion" bookstore -- which was stocked with attacks on the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, and Earl Warren as elements of the communist conspiracy. He funded the John Birch Society's promotional campaigns, bought advertising in its magazine, and supported its distribution of right-wing radio shows.
 Charles and David Koch came by their Bircherish notions naturally.  In Claire Conner's chilling memoir, Wrapped In A Flag (a recounting of Conner's life as the daughter of founding members of the John Birch Society growing up in a house where her parents' every waking moment was devoted to the destruction of Communism and the government that was in cahoots), she had this to say about the Koch brothers' father, Fred Koch, whose fortunes began while traveling across Russia overseeing the installation of 15 oil refineries for the Soviets:
"In 1960, a little over a year after he became a founding member of the John Birch Society, Fred published A Businessman Looks at Communism, a harsh critique of the Communist system.  The book became a hit in the growing anti-Communist movement . . . . .Koch's book outlined the steps the Communists planned to take over America:  'Step One:  Infiltration of high office of government and political parties until the president of the U.S is a Communist. . .even the Vice presidency would do, as it could be easily arranged for the president to commit suicide.'
Step Two was a general strike, which 'could bring our country to its knees.'  Wrote Koch, 'Labor unions have long been a Communist goal. . .the effort is frequently to make the worker do as little as possible for the money he receives.  This practice alone could destroy the country.'"
 I doubt if any newspaper in the country would turn down an op-ed submission from someone like Charles Koch (I wonder if they had to pay him?), and USA Today is no exception.  This had to be the catch of the year for them, and it's paying off big time in exposure.  But where was the rebuttal for such an obvious propaganda piece?  USA Today often publishes "the other side", giving someone else the chance to take the opposite view.  (Say, from Bernie Sanders?)  Not this time.

From now until November we'll be seeing Koch-inspired disinformation with a vengeance.  They've even found us up here in the north woods, where hardly anybody lives.  (Though the ones who do, I'm sorry to say, are mainly Republicans.  Many, many, many of them are on unemployment, are underemployed, are on food stamps, and rely on Medicaid for their health care, but they've bought into the lie about the government coming to take away their rights.  I don't know how to explain it, and I don't even try.)

This is an example of the primary election materials that came to our mailbox just this last month.  All endorsed and paid for by The Americans for Prosperity.  This is just the beginning.  They have more money than dozens of small countries across the globe and they're willing to spend it to get what they want in November.



Charles Koch and those like him will go to any lengths to create the oligarchy they've always dreamed of.  We have the knowledge and the wits to stop them but there is no question that they can outspend us.  They can use their power to buy airtime (and stations), to have open access to op-ed pages (and buy newspapers), to get their message across in a million different ways while working, in ways that are staggeringly effective, to suppress ours.

If money can buy anything, we're in trouble.   Our job now is to prove that it'll take more than huge semi-loads of cash to get us to give up on a country we've worked so hard to build.  They don't own us.  Not yet.  There's still time.

 (Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland)


Saturday, August 2, 2014

George Will's Backhanded Tribute to Sherrod Brown

I don't know what to make of George Will lately.  It's as if George Will the Good has been working his way out of George Will the Bad's closet, escaping for a few minutes of sunlight before his evil twin GWTB discovers him and throws him back in.

George the Good surfaced on Fox News one recent Sunday and had this to say about  the children crossing our borders from Central America:
 "We ought to say to these children, 'Welcome to America, you're going to go to school, and get a job, and become American.  We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 per county."

He went on to shock his Foxhole buddies by adding,  "The idea that we can't assimilate these 8-year-old criminals with their teddy bears is preposterous."

 I know!  George Will!  The same George Will who got himself in hot water this June by refuting the reported numbers of sexual assaults on American college campuses, and then refusing to back down.

The same George Will who went after government-sponsored scientific research on climate change, basing his conclusions on what he sees as silly liberal science.  (The ice caps didn't melt when Al Gore said they would.  End of story.)

The proof that there are two George Wills battling against each other comes in this morning's Washington Post piece about Democratic senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio.  Today both George Wills are out in the open, and while GWTB gets more print space, GWTG manages to sneak in some swell stuff about our man Brown.  I suspect GWTB allowed it to stay because it was a perfect counterpoint to what he had to say about Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren  (Very first paragraph):

"If Ohio's senior senator were named Sharon Brown instead of Sherrod Brown, progressives would have a plausible political pin-up and a serious alternative to the tawdry boredom of Hillary Clinton's joyless plod toward her party's presidential nomination.  Drop one of Brown's consonants and change another and a vowel, and we might be spared the infatuation of what Howard Dean called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" for Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "
But both George the Good and George the Bad must have worked on this:
"Brown, however, looks, sounds and acts like a real, as opposed to faculty club, leftist.  Although he is a Yale graduate, he has the rumpled look and hoarse voice of someone who spent last night on Paris barricades, exhorting les miserables to chuck cobblestones at the forces defending property.  And he is not just talk."
(That's a compliment, right?)

Will goes on to talk about Brown's campaign to seat Janet Yellen instead of the president's first choice, Larry Summers, as chairman of the Federal Reserve, complimenting him for managing to get 20 senators to sign a letter in opposition to Summers.  That was a good thing.

He praises Brown for working to end the crazy notion that banks can be too big to fail.  All good.

But then he says, in his inimitable georgewillian style, 
"He is impeccably wrong, meaning progressive, about free trade.  He is for fair trade, a.k.a. protectionism disguised in Pecksniffian sanctimony demanding that less-developed nations adopt stronger labor and environmental standards." 
("Pecksniffian sanctimony"! Score one for George the Bad!)

I may not say it often enough but I think Sen. Brown is such an asset to the country--and to the Democratic Party--if he decided to move up and run for president some time in the future, I would drop everything (within reason, of course) and work my tail off to get him into the White House.   I would do the same for Elizabeth Warren.  They are both liberal populists, and, contrary to what Will might believe, Brown and Warren do, in fact, work well together

 Sherrod Brown is not an unknown entity among Democrats, as Will would have us believe.  There are plenty of us, among the hoi polloi, and among the Big Guys,  who have been paying attention to him and like what we see.  There has been talk of a Clinton/Brown ticket in 2016.  Brown is having no part of it--for now. But if Hillary Clinton is our candidate, Sherrod Brown will be right out in front with us supporting that choice, working hard to make that happen. 

The Will Boys end the piece like this:
"Are progressives so preoccupied with gender that they prefer Clinton's risk-averse careerism, or Warren's astonished tantrums about the obvious dynamics of big government, to Brown's authentic progressivism?  Yes."
Well, no.  I would hardly call Hillary Clinton's checkered career "risk-averse".  And  Warren's "astonished tantrums" are not the female version of Brown's "authentic progressivism".  (Nice one, GWTG)  They're one and the same.  Both Brown and Warren are known populists working to lead us out of this mess and millions of us are working to make sure they succeed.

But thanks for the attention, Mr. Will.  And a High Five to George the Good.  See you again sometime?

______________________________

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Teddy Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Brought Us Progressivism

So much of Theodore Roosevelt's life comes to us now in what seems like caricature:  The Rough Rider, the bellowing bull, the hearty back-slapper, the rugged outdoorsman--all images the man himself would be happy to know we've kept alive.  The handle-bar mustache, the pince-nez, the rakish explorer's hat, the exaggerated movements of a stage actor. . .all carefully created and nurtured by a man who saw himself as destined for American greatness and struggled to make it happen.

He is credited today with preserving our public lands and starting the movement to establish a National Park system.  He preserved natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and the petrified forest, and is memorialized on Mt. Rushmore, along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.  He was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and without him there might never have been a Panama Canal.  He is the "Teddy" our beloved American Teddy Bear was named for.

He built himself into a character so much larger than life, we tend to ignore the impact his actions as a progressively Progressive Republican president made on a country just entering the 20th century; a country badly in need, after a period of rapid, seemingly uncontrollable industrialization, of some common-sense reforms.

In Michael Wolraich's new book, "Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics",  Roosevelt's journey from an accommodating ally of the top American industrialists to a reluctant but pragmatic Progressive leader is spelled out in prose as rousing as the tale itself. 

And what a tale it is:  Roosevelt's story has been told many times and is, on the surface, familiar, but "Unreasonable Men" tells the backstory of the men who guided, prodded, and influenced the president, effectively splitting the Republicans into two factions--the Standpatters and the Progressives.  TR worked both sides, trying to stay above the fray, but found himself leaning more and more toward the progressives.

"Fighting Bob" La Follette, the raging populist senator from Wisconsin, along with militant progressives like Gov. Albert Cummins of Iowa and Senator Joseph Bristow of Kansas, and Muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens,  Ray Stannard Baker and Ida Tarbell, all played significant roles in the demise of the Standpatters (conservatives of the day) and the rise of American Progressivism.

Fighting Bob's unstinting tenacity as he fought to bring his progressive agenda to the forefront of his Party's platform both frightened and amazed Roosevelt.  They became unlikely partners in the battle for the people, but eventually, as might have been predicted, whatever relationship they once had crashed and burned.  The fact that they both wanted to be president--La Follette for the first time and TR for the second--didn't help.

 La Follette never had a chance--too many bridges left burning behind him--but TR, though he didn't win,  got a second chance to be a leader again.  In August, 1910, a few months after Roosevelt, then a private citizen, returned from England to find crowds of well-wishers clamoring for him to lead them again, he jumped back in and gave the speech of his life standing on a kitchen table in an old battlefield near Osawatomie, Kansas.

From Unreasonable Men:
"Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War," [Roosevelt] proclaimed, "so now the great special business inerests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit.  We must drive the special interests out of politics."

With these words, Roosevelt turned a corner.  In one rhetorical stroke, he eliminated the middle ground on which he had balanced for his entire political career.  By framing the political conflict as a historic conflict between privilege and democracy, he left no place for conservative-progressives, rendering them as improbable as royalist-patriots or pro-slavery-abolitionists.  And by praising John Brown--the wild-eyed fanatic of an earlier era--he implicitly made common cause with the "demagogues" and "agitators" whom he had so long condemned.
He was running against William Howard Taft, the incumbent he would eventually lose to at the Convention in Chicago in 1912, bringing TR to the establishment of a third party--the Progressive, or "Bull Moose" Party.  Both he and Taft lost to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. (Wilson confessed during his campaign that he didn't know how to run against TR. "When I sit down and compare my views with those of a Progressive Republican, I can't see what the difference is.")

The intrigues, the betrayals, the cautious, often spitting relationships between men who banded together to thwart the oligarchs and worked to build a nation for the people--it's all in there, along with the intricate, often inadvertent or serendipitous machinations of both houses of Congress and the courts.

And, as it is, it's impossible not to draw parallels between then and now.  Wolraich's book comes along at a time when we're on that same threshold:  Do we give in to the oligarchs or do we fight for Democracy?  "Unreasonable Men" doesn't provide the answers, but it could well be the guidebook on how to get it done.

Because those uncommon men of the people fought hard against all odds, and, at least for a time, got it done.

___________________

Additional reading:

Washington Post review of "Unreasonable Men".

Excerpt at The Atlantic by Michael Wolraich

Excerpt at National Memo

Q&A with Michael Wolraich at Salon.

Michael Maiello:  Unreasonable Men and the Art of the Political Long Game


(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland. Featured on Crooks and Liars MBRU)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Harper Lee: You Don’t Know Me

Harper LeeMore than 50 years ago Nelle Harper Lee wrote a book called “To Kill a Mockingbird”.   It was her one and only book and it is a masterpiece, but the story behind it has always been a tantalizing enigma.

Through the years there have been rumors that her best friend and neighbor, Truman Capote, edited her writing so much, by rights he actually wrote it.

The fact that Lee never published another book gives doubters reason to corroborate that notion, but I’ve never bought it.  She lived in a small Alabama town, her father was a trial lawyer, she knew well the story of the 1930s Scottsboro trial, where a group of young black boys were accused of raping a white woman in Alabama, she studied law herself, was a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford, and she was not a novice at writing.  

It isn’t that Capote couldn’t have overwritten it to suit his own style–his early book, The Grass Harp, is as sublime, as bitter-sweet, and was also written from a child’s point of view.  But everything I’ve read about Harper Lee says she has her own specific talents as well as a formidable stubborn streak.  Her friend Truman might have helped her with the technical aspects of a manuscript, but it’s an insult to suggest she’s not the true author of that beautiful book.

We’ll never know for sure, of course, because Harper Lee isn’t talking.  She sees no need to tell her side of the story.  The story is the book.  She is a writer, not a celebrity, and the limelight isn’t what most writers strive for.  Their goal is to tell a ripping good tale, and Harper Lee has done that.  She owes her fans nothing more.

She is now 88 years old.  For over a half-century people have been knocking at her door, trying to find out who Harper Lee really is. In all these years she has never let them in.  It isn’t that she is such a recluse she has never appeared in public, never spoken publicly.  She has.  Many times.  And it isn’t as if she has never left Monroeville, Alabama.  She kept an apartment in New York City until fairly recently and went back often, for months at a time.  Until recently, when both of them moved into a nursing home, she lived with her older sister, Alice (102 years old!),  in the town where they grew up.

She speaks publicly but only when she wants to.  She is not keen on inviting the inevitable over-analysis of her famous book, and has no interest in being a celebrity.  So because she is who she is and would rather be left alone, she is seen, of course, as the ultimate “get”.

No matter how much time has passed since her one and only book was published, the author Harper Lee can’t get away from celebrity scrutiny.   In 2004 Marja Mills, then a journalist on leave from the Chicago Tribune for medical reasons, moved into the house next door to Nelle and Alice and stayed for a year and a half   She had many conversations with Nelle’s sister, and with friends and neighbors.  She assured her publishers that she had also spent a considerable amount of time talking to Nelle.  But Nelle denies ever giving her more than the time of day.

Now, 10 years after Mills left Monroeville and the Lee sisters, the book, awkwardly titled The Mockingbird Next Door, Life With Harper Lee, is out.  If you believe Harper Lee,  Marja Mills lied to get this book published. There is no other way to look at it.  Yet the publisher’s note on the Penguin Press page says the following:
In 2004, with the Lees’ encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, talking and sharing stories over meals and daily drives in the countryside. Along with members of the Lees’ tight inner circle, the sisters and Mills would go fishing, feed the ducks, go to the Laundromat, watch the Crimson Tide, drink coffee at McDonald’s, and explore all over lower Alabama.
Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the quirky Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.
Nelle Harper Lee says that never happened.  She says she never agreed to tell her story to Mills, and she never developed a friendship with her.  In fact, Lee says, she would go out of town whenever she heard Mills was coming because the woman hounded her so much.

As early as 2011, when the news came out of the forthcoming book, Harper Lee denied any cooperation with Mills.  Mills’ agent calmly suggested that Lee may have “forgotten” her cooperation since her stroke in 2007.

So even with Harper Lee’s painstaking efforts to get the word out that Marja Mills’ book about “life with Harper Lee” is stacked with lie upon lie, the presses rolled.  The book is in print.  The reviews have been written.  (Note that there is no mention in the Washington Post review of Lee’s 2011 insistence that she did not cooperate with Mills.  Not a hint that she fought hard against it.)

If Marja Mills had written an unauthorized book about Harper Lee, I might hold my nose but be forced to agree that she has that right.  But if, as Harper Lee accuses, Marja Mills and her publisher, Penguin Group, pushed forward with the publication, knowing full well that the entire book was built on the lie that Lee gave it her blessing,  that whole conversations were real and not imagined, then the subtitle, “Life with Harper Lee”, is a falsehood.

So who are you going to believe?  Nelle Harper Lee or Marja Mills?  Is there some truth, some lie in both stories?  Could be.  But if Harper Lee says she’s the unwilling subject of a book and the author claims otherwise,  there’s a problem.

I don’t know Harper Lee but I do know “To Kill a Mockingbird”.   More than 50 years after it appeared, the book still resonates.  It is still a classic, so beautifully written we’ve never been able to get over it.

The author did good.  She gave us an amazing gift.  Now she should be able to rest.


(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland)

Friday, July 11, 2014

These Children Are Lost and They've Entered Our Village

Thousands of Latin American children have been arriving in the U.S. over the weeks and months, in scenarios more like that of a fictitious screenplay than of real life.  Out-of-control gangs, drug cartels, and corrupt government officials are the antagonists in horror stories of a kind we can only imagine. Poverty, exploitation, rape, torture, murder--so common now in Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, there is little chance those countries will ever float free.

The parents, seeing no future for their children, have taken the most extreme, heartbreaking measures: they're sending their young ones away.  They're forced to pay dubious characters large sums of money to transport their kids over the Mexico-U.S border into what they've been told would almost assuredly be a safe sanctuary.

The children, some of them barely walking age, don't know why they were sent away or why they're here.  They don't even know where "here" is.  They're in a strange place, far from anything familiar,  their only safety in a group of other terrified children.

The older ones, hardly old enough to take care of themselves, have been charged with caring for the young.  By the time they've reached the border leading into the U.S, they've traveled over a thousand miles from home.  They're dirty and hungry and the fear of what's ahead (or behind) stays with them every waking moment.

Once across the border they're in desperate need of some proof that they are safe.  The promise was that the hellish thousand-mile journey would be worth it in order to get them to a place where they could breathe free, where they could ease their own fears and those of the smaller children they carried, and where, maybe, possibly, they might finally face a life where there is hope.

Instead, soon after they cross the border they're being met either by officials who move them into jail-like pens where they'll wait until, most likely, they'll be sent back to their home countries, or--and this is where it gets crazy--by angry protesters carrying ugly signs telling these small, defenseless beings to go home.  They're being told by snarling grown-ups that we don't want them here.

These children are refugees from war-torn countries.  We are the kind of country that demands of other countries the safe passage of refugees.  The U.N has already declared these fleeing Latin American children refugees and is asking the United States to treat them accordingly.  If we turn these children away, forcing them to return to their homes, we do it knowing we're sending them back to a life of abject, unrelenting misery. 

There is no good answer, no ready solution when thousands of children arrive at our borders without our permission, but at this moment we're in the throes of a humanitarian emergency.  We have children in need in our midst and if we're who we think we are, we will dry their tears and calm their fears.  We will fill their bellies and tuck them into warm beds.  We will keep them safe.  They came out of the darkness and into our light.  While we didn't ask for this, they are children and they are here and now it's our job to take care of them.   

  So who are these screaming, sign-carrying monsters who see these kids as some kind of marauding enemy?  Where do they come from?  Who taught them to hate so broadly they think nothing of scaring already terrified kids?


This was the scene near an intake center in Murrieta, California last week.  The buses being held back by American-flag-waving protesters are full of scared kids who spent many uncomfortable if not terrifying days trying to get to our border and the safety beyond.  They were instead caught by border patrol agents and put on these buses heading for a detention center, where they're to be housed until our people can figure out what to do with them.

In quiet moments I see in my mind's eye busloads of frightened children.  I see a menacing mob pushing toward those buses, blocking the drivers from moving forward.  I see signs that say, "Go away!  We don't want you here!"  And I have to remind myself that this is not a scene from their own ravaged countries but is, instead, a scene unfolding in the United States of America. 

I worry about those children and what will happen to them, but I worry, too, about the people waving those signs and turning away busloads of frightened, defenseless children.  They are a problem; their numbers are growing, and someday soon, when we've figured out how to keep those kids safe, we're going to have to figure out how we're going to live among people who would knowingly, purposely do this.

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland. Featured on Crooks and Liars MBRU)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Today Five Members of the U.S. Supreme Court Moved Us Closer to a Theocracy

Today the Supreme Court ruled that private, family-owned businesses--in this case, Hobby Lobby--could opt out of paying for contraceptives if their objections to them are based on the owners' religious beliefs.

The case came to the attention of the Supremes when the Affordable Care Act included this mandate:

Birth control benefits:
Plans in the Health Insurance Marketplace must cover contraceptive methods and counseling for all women, as prescribed by a health care provider.
These plans must cover the services without charging a copayment, coinsurance, or deductible when they are provided by an in-network provider.

Covered contraceptive methods:

All Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods prescribed by a woman’s doctor are covered, including:
  • Barrier methods (used during intercourse), like diaphragms and sponges
  • Hormonal methods, like birth control pills and vaginal rings
  • Implanted devices, like intrauterine devices (IUDs)
  • Emergency contraception, like Plan B® and ella®
  • Sterilization procedures
  • Patient education and counseling
Plans aren’t required to cover:
  • Drugs to induce abortions
  • Services related to a man’s reproductive capacity, like vasectomies
Hobby Lobby argues that they don't want to pay for any services that might cause the end of life.  They consider FDA-approved morning-after pills--like Plan B--abortion pills, even though the pills have to be used within 72 hours after intercourse.  Within three days.  They consider certain IUDs as obstacles in the path of fertilized eggs.  (Fertilized eggs are apparently babies in their eyes.)

If the owners of Hobby Lobby want to believe that life begins at conception, let them.  It's a free country.  They can believe anything they want to believe, religious or otherwise.  What they can't do--or shouldn't be able to do--is to push their religious beliefs on their employees.  One of the benefits of the newly minted Affordable Care Act was a mandate to provide free contraceptive care for women who need it.  Hobby Lobby balked and decided they shouldn't have to pay for something that might keep women from having babies. 

When the Right Wing came up with the loony notion that life begins at conception, they opened the doors to misusing religion to force women to give up the ability to forestall pregnancies. There is no legitimate religious basis for denying women the right to free contraception.  None at all.

Contraception isn't, by definition, abortion, except in the minds of those looking for any excuse to involve themselves in deciding for women when they should have children.   When contraception is the obvious and most humane solution to unwanted pregnancies, there is no humane reason not to make it available and free. 

So what I'm seeing from those five men on the Supreme Court is yet another example of ideology as law.  ("Corporations are people" being the most jaw-dropping and the most precedent-forming.  Hobby Lobby couldn't have won without it.)  They're treading on dangerous territory.  They're giving judicial approval to religious solutions for societal issues, and, as the judicial branch of a secular government, they're knowingly abusing their authority.

But worse, they're telling women that when it comes to reproductive protections, religious theory trumps their right not to be burdened by the worry of unintended pregnancies.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in her dissent, said this:
Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community.
Indeed, by law, no religion-based criterion can restrict the work force of for-profit corporations...The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.
We are a country made up of diverse cultures and religions.  We welcome them, we encourage them, we give them the freedom to live within their own cultures and worship within their own religions.  At the same time, we expect the freedom not to have to follow along.

But this Supreme Court, in the name of free speech, just forced us to give in to specific religious beliefs.  There was a time when that would have been inconceivable. 

Lord knows, we were safer then.


(Cross-posted at dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What Does The Death Of Cursive Mean?

As someone who dreaded Penmanship class, and who always–and I mean always–got poor grades in it, let me just say if writing in cursive goes away I’ll be right up there in front mourning the loss.  (Cursive:  flowing letters all connected to make one word.  What we used to call “handwriting”.)

We learned the Palmer Method in grade school, where every letter had to follow a pattern and fit between the lines, and where loops and curlicues had to loop and curl, but not too little or too much.  Just right.

cursive palmer method 

So much pressure!  I choked.  I couldn’t do it.

But some time after the 6th Grade, after penmanship was no longer required and I could relax, I realized that if I could barely read my own writing there was no chance that anyone else could either.  I began looping and curling on my own, starting with row after row of connected capital S’s.  I spent hours over the course of many days looping and curling, not worrying about staying within the lines, and before long I found to my amazement that I was creating letters and then words that were actually legible.   It wasn’t exactly true Palmer Method–it was better.   It was a variation on the theme of Palmer and it was all me.

Maybe it’s because handwriting came so hard for me, I don’t know, but I’ve been taking the news of its imminent demise pretty hard.  I’ve noticed over the years that fewer and fewer people were actually writing in cursive and more and more were printing, but I had no idea there was an entire movement bent on killing off that lovely, traditional form of English handwriting.

In a USA Today article called “Is Cursive’s Day in Classroom Done?” I was shocked to read that 41 states do not require the teaching of cursive penmanship.  When did this happen?  To the casual observer it might seem obvious that cursive should go the way of the quill pen.  It takes up valuable class time to teach it, and, since the advent of the computer and digital keyboards, pecking has already taken over for block printing, which took over for cursive writing.

Nobody wants to actually write anything by hand anymore but when they have to they want it to take longer (In speed trials between cursive and printing, cursive wins, hands down) and look like the plain letters kindergartners use before they’re ready to try real handwriting.   I get that.

There are already young people out there who learned to read and write block print only and can’t read or write cursive.  That’s astounding, but apparently true.  When a witness in the George Zimmerman trial, a friend of Trayvon Martin’s, was handed documents written in cursive she was embarrassed to have to admit she couldn’t read them.

But in a Washington Post article, “Cursive is Disappearing from Public Schools”, there was this:
Deborah Spear, an academic therapist based in Great Falls, Virginia, said cursive writing is an integral part of her work with students who have dyslexia. Because all letters in cursive start on a base line, and because the pen moves fluidly from left to right, cursive is easier to learn for dyslexic students who have trouble forming words correctly.
Another side of it is that there is an art to writing in cursive.  With a stroke of the pen we can set ourselves apart.  Whether our handwriting is beautifully executed or more akin to chicken-scratching, it’s all ours.  Nobody else can do it like we do.

I admit that I do most of my writing on a keyboard now.  It’s so much faster and ridiculously easy to correct.  It has become second nature to think and type at the same time.  I will even admit that electronic word processing has changed my life.   But when I want or need to write by hand I like nothing better than to be creating a sentence that, at least visually, couldn’t have been written by anyone but me.

But in that same WaPo article, here comes this guy:
Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University and one of the top U.S. experts on handwriting instruction, said he has heard every argument for and against cursive.
“I have to tell you, I can’t remember the last time I read the Constitution,” Graham said. [in answer to the claim that if the teaching of cursive dies out there may come a day when people won't be able to read the original manuscript of the constitution] “The truth is that cursive writing is pretty much gone, except in the adult world for people in their 60s and 70s.”
Well that would be me, buddy, but I’m not such a stickler for traditional anachronisms that I want to keep this particular kind of handwriting around for old time’s sake.  (Though, of course, that’s a part of it.)  No, I want to keep it around because to kill it off severs one more part of us that is unique and individual and takes some effort.

We’ve done enough of that already.




Update:  My former friend Frank from the website "Frankly Curious" has taken issue with my piece here and has curiously chosen to take me down a peg or two.  Over handwriting, of all things.   It's here.   Give him a thrill.  Read the damned thing.