Friday, February 25, 2011

Tricks, Dirty Tricks, and Gutless Cowards: Four Quick Ruminations on the 1 AM Massacre

Providing what certain wags designate High Quality Child Care means political events often move too quickly to provide the in-depth ruminating that's called for. But this doesn't mean there's nothing to say when you're pressed for time. In the wake of the still-evolving but it-don't-look-good struggle to preserve labor rights going down in Wisconsin, a few ideas pop out.

1) A consistent trope I've come across in the many pages, posts and tweets dedicated to the Wisconsin showdown has been the notion that the fourteen Democratic senators who decamped across the border to Illinois represent some kind of cowardly capitulation - "gutless wonders," as one particularly stirred-up individual put it, who need to be dismissed by their constituents on "the grounds of cowardice" for not staying put and fighting for what they "believe" (with "believe" in scare quotes in the original, suggesting, I suppose, a lack of belief). One could debate the merits of crossing state lines to block legislation, but I'm more fascinated by the unchecked desire for heroes and men of action implicit in the charge of "cowardice". Have we reached a point in our cultural narrative when only face-to-face combat and metaphoric violence is considered acceptable? Do we no longer subscribe to a general belief in the merits and power of non-action, protest votes, and peaceful resistance? Would observers be more likely to throw support behind Wisconsin Democrats if they barricaded themselves inside offices brandishing swords, or took schoolchildren hostage while the tinny cacophony of Rage Against The Machine blared from their iPhones? Might there still be a recognition that the actions of the Wisconsin 14, albeit perhaps more than a little self-serving and media-savvy, are in the grand tradition of Henry David Thoreau refusing the poll tax or Abraham Lincoln leaping from a second-story window in the Illinois House of Representatives in 1840 to prevent a quorum (look it up, it's a little-noted event)?

2) Out of the many justifications for the smoke-and-mirrors trick employed by wily GOPers early this morning, in which a vote was called for and closed before all present Democrats could participate, is the forcefully-argued suggestion that it simply one-upped the opposition in the dirty trick department. You dashed across state lines to block the vote, we'll slide the vote past you if you're not paying attention. Fair enough. Except I insist there remains a large and insidious difference between the two methods employed. Fleeing and holding up legislation undeniably denies others their right to vote - but it also removes the fleeing individual's vote from the equation. Neither individual gets to vote. Unfair, yet, fair. The 1 AM quick-vote, on the other hand, denies one group the right to vote (the Democratic senators present) while managing to get one's own vote in regardless. Hence, only one individual gets to vote. I don't believe this is an example of splitting hairs - and moreover, the act of suppressing votes in any capacity is emerging as a key strategy for the rightward-leaning. Put simply: I get to vote, and you don't.

3) One of the more unpleasant exchanges I witnessed (well, read) over the past week involved a vote on Wednesday by the Joint Committee on Legislative Organization in Madison to "restrict access to meeting rooms and legislative offices after normal business hours" in the Capitol - a move designed to move along the many protesters who have clogged the hallowed halls of government. A perennial thorn in the side of one progressive friend wondered aloud why this was a big deal or even troubling - after all, people do not ordinarily get to sleep in other state buildings after business hours. In addition, it was pointed out, even the homeless people sleep outside of the library, not in and among the stacks. You'll note that this is not exactly conflating the protesters with the homeless, but you get the sense the author wouldn't exactly mind if you made that conclusion. Given my own experiences in libraries w/r/t homeless individuals (have I ever related the time I found a guy eating chicken wings, smoking a cigar, and drinking vodka straight from the Seagram's bottle? remind me to), and the sort of mind that recalls how often protesters of any stripe are dubbed "bums" by opposition forces, I spoke out. The response noted that homeless people were actually taking advantage of the situation involving the protesters to sleep inside the capitol. I believe this nugget was supposed to scandalize me. In a way, it did. I don't often practice the slimy art of self-congratulation, but here, in this exchange, lies perhaps as clear a distillation possible of the wide gulf separating us progressives from more reactionary types. On the one hand, outrage at a bold power grab meant to wrest bargaining power away from the last vestiges of the American middle class. On the other, equal outrage that a handful of homeless people ("handful" is not my invention, by the way - straight from the article cited) are escaping the brutal Wisconsin February night to sleep inside. Being right doesn't help advance any cause, big or small. But once in a while, it feels good to remind oneself that one is, in fact, on the right side.

4) Song lyric enjoyed ironically this morning : "So many people / have their problems/ I'm not interested / in their problems. / I guess I've / experienced some problems / But now I've / made some decisions. / Other people's problems / they overwhelm my mind / They say compassion is a virtue / but I don't have the time." - Talking Heads, "No Compassion"

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Paging Fightin' Bob: A Few Words In Defense of Organized Labor

An old acquaintance from high school, now a machine operator back in the Fox Valley of Wisconsin and a proud member of United Steelworkers, recently distributed a photograph of the outlined image of Wisconsin tattooed into his forearm. "Anyone know how I can get this removed?" he asked. A friend sardonically suggested that he "declare it a member of a public sector union and send it to Scott Walker. He'll get rid of it for you." Yet another friend, less sympathetically inclined towards the protesters, wryly noted "Thank God we live in the land of cheese. There's so much whine to go around".

From a vantage point some two thousand miles away and ten years distant from my old home, the budget battle and financial woes that have stricken the supposedly mild-mannered Badger State seemingly differ very little from those embroiling other locations, including my adopted home of California. Yet in one essential way, and perhaps prophetically, Gov. Scott Walker's approach to his state's financial shortfall is unique - he is refusing to adopt half-measures, rely on future projections, or display a flair for creative number-shuffling. Put simply, he's made the argument that the time is now, no more excuses, duck and cover while I slash and burn.

It might be tempting to admire such strong principles and Walker's refusal to bow before the beckoning yawn of budgetary illusions. After all, what is Walker's proposal to inflict historic change upon the political landscape but a welcome slice of Midwestern sensibility in the face of sleazy New York machinations or air-headed Californian delusions? Yet beneath the corn-fed and well-scrubbed face of the all-american boy often lies darker, less innocent urges. And in truth, Walker's actions and claims reveal themselves as deeply partisan grabs - a golden opportunity to take the ax to broader political movements that were never as widely popular with the wider populace as the state's blue hue tended to suggest. The forces hostile to organized labor see in Walker's arguments the opportunity for a new alliance, one that has very little to do with balancing any kind of budget and everything to do with settling scores.

I've watched the unfolding events through a combination of news outlets and social media, and while such experiences can't replace on-the-ground reporting, a few obvious points leap out. First, there are legitimate philosophical and/or economic arguments to be made in opposition to the labor movement. I don't happen to agree with them or find them persuasive, but the fact remains that several effective counter-arguments exist, from the devastating impact of strike actions to the observation that trade unions benefit insider workers to the reality of union-influenced inflation. Plenty of those hostile to the idea of organized labor make calm, reasoned, economically-informed attacks that at least emphasize the competing power struggles at work. One can take issue with their conclusions and reject their reasoning, but one cannot dismiss their broader points.

However, such reasoned judgments are not the arguments most often deployed by both policy makers and the general public. Rather, what we most often come into contact with are a vague, spiteful, knee-jerk response to the very concept of organized labor. Reflexive and divisive, it's the kind of closely-held but poorly-considered opinion that can rear its head without warning, as was the case several years ago during an otherwise lovely dinner in which an acquaintance offered up, quite apropos of nothing, that he "despised unions". When pressed why (and why he brought it up during an otherwise unrelated conversation), he simply mused, "I just hate 'em."

Not everybody is quite so unreflective when it comes to detailing their disdain. The key to general opposition to unions in this country would seem to be the generally unfounded (or at the very least circumstantial) notion that labor unions result in lazy workers - the mirage that organized workforces are forever stroking themselves, launching score-settling grievances or walking off the job to enjoy paid vacation and the beeps of horns from supporters. All the while, decent, non-unionized American workers slog on, bending their back towards the untarnished demigod of the workweek and the coveted coffee break, uncomplaining, respectful, goal-oriented, team-centered and, above all, efficient.

These are deeply ludicrous assumptions. I've heard this complaint concerning the mythical lazy and ineffectual unionized worker from many a cubicle-dwelling commuter who, no doubt, spend not one second of their high-speed-and-filterless-internet-fueled days distracted by anything other than the pursuit of capital. In addition, an equally large contingent of union-bashing seems to come from comfortably situated stay-at-home-moms (SAHMs, I believe they've labeled themselves, which sounds vaguely unionized to me) who rail against the greed and laziness inherent in the thousands of steelworkers and automakers who "get paid to not work". As a stay at home parent myself, I can attest that, yes, this job is a lot of work. And the foreman can be a real monster sometimes. But to confuse - let alone conflate - having the luxury (and the financial security) to stay home with one's child all day with punching holes into sheet metal for eight hours at a time is delusional.

(Incidentally, this notion of union members "not working" carries over into nearly every aspect of the counter-union argument, most notably when it comes to striking. Time and again, one consistently hears angry variations on the notion that workers strike because they have "nothing else to do." Simultaneously attacking and dismissing strikers and protesters as "not having real jobs" or having "too much free time on their hands" is an old trick designed to diminish the real sacrifices assumed by anybody willing to assume long hours and hostile forces in support of a cause they feel strongly about. I might add that all political persuasions are guilty of such dismissals - witness the constant progressive refrain that Tea Party rallies attract large numbers of participants simply because they are predominantly made up of retired or financially secure individuals, as if the opinions or voting actions of, say, senior citizens don't count because they needn't arrange for a long lunch hour to cast their vote.)

This assumption that organized labor is somehow cheating and exploiting the hard work of non-unionized American workers runs deep. I come from what might be labeled an anti-union family, although I can't recall any specific arguments or points of disagreements on the matter. While never explained, the animosity was always present, especially from my mother, a one-time teacher who, when pressed, admitted that she found the notion of going on strike "unladylike". Any deeper discussions on the matter and indeed my own opinions would have to wait until years later when, armed with an already sympathetic attitude towards worker's rights, I found myself to be a unionized employee at a New York library. My feelings were mixed, initially, especially when I contemplated the hefty bite this organization took out of my paycheck. I attended meetings voluntarily, and concluded that, yes, some of my fellow union members were indeed fools and bores. I never got over how much our union representative sounded like an unholy cross between Barney Frank and Silvio from The Sopranos.

What did I learn from my experiences as a union member? Yeah, abuses exist, and people are willing to exploit the system to protect themselves when in reality they'd serve a better purpose elsewhere. I can think of one malignant individual in particular who served up grievances at a moment's notice, monopolized meeting times and local resources for their own pathetic causes, and did a stellar job at claiming discrimination when they should have been prosecuted for incompetence. In addition, I can think of a few others who had nothing but their own selfish and petty interests in mind, who launched spurious complaints on behalf of themselves and others (including a grievance filed on my behalf that stunned me, especially since I wasn't even aware it was being filed and had literally no idea what they talking about). And yet, to remark that such examples were anomalies doesn't do justice to the reality. These were isolated and minority examples of fools, not a broader indictment of our organization. The truth of the matter, beyond anecdotes and shaggy dog stories, is that our collective interests were well served by our representatives, and that our benefits and wages were protected and argued for in a manner that improved our lives.

No doubt, some readers will exclusively focus on the preceding examples given of union abuses rather than the larger argument, and this again holds true for the overall narrative utilized by anti-labor forces - namely, to isolate and explode examples of bad behavior protected by union rules. To my mind, this is an odd and reductive type of reasoning indeed that castigates an entire system due to handfuls of individual cases. If our nation took such an unforgiving approach to other aspects of American life, culture, or capital, how many services or activities would continue to be accepted or patronized? If the millions of Americans streaming through fast food drive-thru lanes were to paint the entire industry using the brush of a few mixed-up orders or a surly attendant, how much thinner our waistlines and free-flowing our arteries? If the tedium or disappointment of an overly-hyped bad movie were to lead the nation's consumers to boycott all movie theaters, how much more well-versed in literature might we all be? The reality of human imperfection and the flawed nature of individuals leads us to fairly balance most aspects of functioning civic life. Why organized labor remains impervious to such generosity is a mystery.

Moreover, the attacks on organized labor defiantly prop up its failings while studiously ignoring its successes and gains, among them the not-inconsiderable role unions had in helping to create the now endangered American middle class and the many beneficial changes made to workplace safety. I read with some amusement a naive comment from a well-meaning individual giving a friend a talking-to over the matter. Labeling unions a "thing of the past," she noted that "working conditions are not bad" as Item 1 in her dismissal of the need for organized labor. Leaving aside the possibility that this no doubt very nice individual is completely unaware of the conditions inside, say, slaughterhouses employed with non-unionized recent immigrants, one struggles to contain the rejoinder that if, indeed, working conditions are "not bad" today, they are so because of the struggles undertaken by organized labor. Remove these unions from the equation, and the vast majority of companies and the individuals who run them would quickly revert to the bad old days of underpaid, overworked employees in unsafe conditions. And while my fellow leftists might take issue with me, I'd argue that such a return would not necessarily be due to the fact that such company executives are moral monsters or even bad people. They would do so because it is in the very nature of capitalism to get the most out of one's workers at the lowest possible cost. Safety measures, benefits, and wages are hindrances to this goal. Labor unions serve as a corrective to this existing situation.

Time and space limitations prevent me from venturing into the depressing and truly odd reasons for the disdain being heaped upon teachers during the current debate. From the taunting of individuals frightened of losing their jobs on Twitter to the glee with which New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suggested a teacher would have little difficulty finding a new job if she was as highly qualified as she claimed, the animosity with which union members are accustomed to dealing with is being shifted towards educators. Whether or not this suggests a larger, darker antagonism towards the very notion of education in this country, it is of a piece with the larger debate, which is quickly veering far afield of budgetary battles and closer to the arena of class warfare. Requesting across the board cuts to a wide variety of services in a time of fiscal emergency is one thing, and perhaps necessary in our post-recession landscape. But to harangue teachers as if their coffers alone had plunged the nation from the heights of world dominance to our current housing-crash miasma is absurd and deeply disingenuous. Unfortunately, this movement to dismantle any and all impediments to the dream of unfettered individuality and property is growing.

I don't know enough about Scott Walker to cast a final judgment, but if he's anything like the current crop of newly elected officials across this land, his approach to the budgetary crisis is meant to be divisive, swift, destructive, and fleeting. A recent article highlighted the disdain with which many of the Republican freshman hold their office and title. "We're not enamored of this place," noted Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida, before oddly adding that, in addition to coming out of the private sector (which, by contrast, he loved), he "sleeps in a bed every night with a woman I went to first grade with". Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina proudly informed a reporter that he was unconcerned with getting re-elected, as he had "a better job back home anyway". Far be it from me or any political observer to attack individuals for eschewing cronyism, lifer status, or the hurdles necessary to be continually re-elected. In a sense, politicians more concerned with accomplishments and less with the carousel of election cycles are to be applauded. But the comments by Rep's. Southerland and Gowdy are simply juvenile - empty boasts of their own hatred for a job and an office they were elected to. Where else might such a disdainful and cavalier attitude towards one's own profession be thinkable, let alone tolerated and applauded? Rather than any political mavericks, they give off the impression of a frat house taking out their aggression on the walls and interiors of a beach rental home, the more wanton and destructive because they know they're heading back to Michigan next week anyway.

This cavalier attitude towards country, constituency, community - this unfiltered hostility towards anything other than making a splashy display of political reckoning and taking down a few sacred cows - was in many ways accurately predicted in an article by Ken Silverstein appearing in Harper's magazine this past July. Other predictions made by Harper's have since come to pass, such as their November 2006 cover story, "Barack Obama Inc: The Birth of a Washington Machine," which focused on the intense hype rapidly coalescing around the young Senator, to the May 2006 cover story "The New Road to Serfdom: An Illustrated Guide to the Coming Real Estate Collapse," which uncannily laid out the events which were to take place only a few years later. At the risk of arousing the ire of Harper's editors and publisher, I've offered screenshots below (click on individual shots to magnify for better reading) of Silverstein's article - "Tea Party in Sonora: For the Future of G.O.P Governance, Look To Arizona". Although the article deserves a close read, even a cursory scan reveals a glimpse of what happens and will happen when the role of governing is left up to those utterly non-serious types who claim fiscal warrior status while betraying an utter lack of interest in the actual business of running a state, city, or country. The fiasco on display in Arizona is not that of the fiscally-conservative Republican hoping to attack excessive spending and tweak the welfare state, or that of the principled Libertarian set on dismantling governmental regulation and oversight. Rather, it is a kind of anti-government, anarchism with a decidedly small a that derives satisfaction only through the demonization of others and the abolition of taxation. Watch as our collective municipal quality of life plummets - as schools drift into limbo, libraries remain shuttered, parks become overgrown with weeds. No matter, they'll say. A few of us have increased our take-home pay, I rarely leave my house anymore these days, and besides, I have a better job waiting for me back home.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Poet Explains: Giacomo Leopardi on Memory and the Present ("L'Infinito" and Canti)

The disconnect between what artists express through their work and how they explain their art through regular discourse is often startling, if not disappointing. There have been many visionaries and creative minds who seem easily able to highlight their opinions and methods to curious admirers, helping place their work in the proper context, and even dissecting deeper, more obscure meanings not obvious to the outsider. However, I can think of just as many examples of great artists who have little or nothing to say about their work and the process by which it reveals itself. Some choose to take a contrarian position and refuse to take apart their work, while others seem simply incapable of standing outside themselves and honestly reflecting on their talents or ideas.

So it always comes as a welcome surprise when a great artistic mind allows him or herself the opportunity to welcome the reader or observer into their closed circle, and a recent essay by Robert Pogue Harrison on the sad life and astonishing output of Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798 - 1837) offers a stellar example. The name Leopardi may not resonate with non-Italian readers in the same manner as other early-nineteenth century poets, and this is no doubt partly due to the original and idiosyncratic approach to the Italian language Leopardi chose - a method which resulted in unique poetry that has proven difficult to translate even by the tough standards of verse.

A large part of Leopardi's legend (and he remains legendary in his native Italy to this day) is due to the tragic circumstances surrounding his short life - a life impacted from youth onward with countless health complications, including asthma, dropsy, scoliosis and chronic insomnia. From his late teens, he was aware that he would die young and in pain. While this morbid realization certainly shaped his worldview and notably modern outlook on life (ie, the non-existence of God, the random character of life, and the unredemptive qualities of the human condition), some readers and critics place far too much emphasis on the role played by his own suffering in helping to create the visionary mind and critical thinker behind his poetry. Leopardi's acceptance of the chaos of a non-spiritual world is one he arrived at through intellectual means, not simply as a result of his own misfortune. And this worldview is notable because it shades and indeed drives nearly all of Leopardi's writings, especially his insistence that progress was a myth and that his contemporaries looked unhesitatingly and enthusiastically towards the future at their peril. The past, in his mind and work, weighs heavily.

But Leopardi explains in a journal entry that his concern with the past and memory is much more than the backwards glance of the sentimentalist. By insisting on the need for memory and experience to influence observation, Leopardi is arguing that one can view the immediate landscape and world through a much richer prism than so many of his (and our) hurrying and distracted contemporaries. He writes :

To the sensitive and imaginative man, who lives, as I have lived for a long time, feeling and imagining continuously, the world and its objects are in a certain sense double. He will see with his eyes a tower, a countryside; he will hear with his ears the sound of a bell; and at the same time he will see another tower, another countryside, he will hear another sound. In this second sort of object lies all the beauty and pleasure of things. Sad is the life (and yet such is life for the most part) that sees, hears, senses only simple objects, namely those of which eyes, ears, and the other senses receive a mere sensation.

To move from this journal entry to Leopardi's poem "L'Infinito," as Harrison points out, is to see his beliefs put into poetic action - a poem celebrating the ability of the mind to gaze upon an inert landscape and travel freely in both time and space, an ability sorely lacking in the many rushing hordes around him.

This lonely hill was always dear
to me,
and this hedgerow, which cuts off
the view
of so much of the last horizon.
But sitting here and gazing, I can
beyond, in my mind's eye,
unending spaces,
and superhuman silences, and
depthless calm,
till what I feel
is almost fear. And when I hear
the wind stir in these branches, I
comparing that endless stillness
with this noise:
and the eternal comes to mind,
and the dead seasons, and the
living one, and how it sounds.
So my mind sinks in this
and foundering is sweet in such
a sea.

(translation taken from the new Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition, translated by Jonathan Galassi)