Flood victims near Louisville, Kentucky, lining up to get food and clothing, 1937. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White.
It's rainy and I'm going over economic data. This great poem by Bob Hicock seems to strike the right chord for today.
It's rainy and I'm going over economic data. This great poem by Bob Hicock seems to strike the right chord for today.
An interesting tidbit in the New Yorker profile of William Seward — Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State and wheeler-dealer — on the lengths Lincoln went to in securing re-election:
“Nineteenth-century elections were played by rough rules,” Stahr writes laconically, and Seward knew exactly how to exploit them. After the New York Draft Riots, in 1863, and a string of defeats by Union troops, many people in the North began agitating for peace. As the election of 1864 approached, even loyal Republicans considered calling for a convention to nominate another candidate. That August, Weed went to the White House to tell Seward and Lincoln that the election was lost. Seward disagreed, and deployed Weed, the consummate party boss, to activate what Gideon Welles aptly described as the “vicious New York school of politics.” Welles’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy was enlisted to tell workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that if they didn’t vote for Lincoln they would lose their jobs. Lincoln did his part, too, appointing “a few Seward-Weed men to key posts in New York City.” Welles, meanwhile, scribbled in his diary about the “miserable intrigues of Weed and Seward.” Outmaneuvered by his nemesis and undercut by a subordinate, Welles wrote after the results came in, “Seward was quite exultant—feels strong and self-gratified. Says this Administration is wise, energetic, faithful, and able beyond any of its predecessors."
Doesn't exactly fit the narrative does it? Lincoln has long-since been enshrined in the secular pantheon, and when that happens, one's more brutal moves get glossed over.
That's unfortunate, because the reality is more revealing. It's not that Lincoln's positive traits are a lie, it's that they co-exist with others. This is, after all, the man who prosecuted an extremely bloody war, suspended habeas corpus, and kept a lock on his own party through constant manipulation of his rivals.
But the above shines even more light on Lincoln's ruthless streak. When you believe, with good reason, that your opponents will lose a war and ruin the nation, who gives a shit about threatening some dock workers and handing out bribes?
This is the reality of power: even when used for noble ends, it's never pretty. Those who do it well, like Lincoln, had some lines they wouldn't cross (he adamantly refused to suspend the election) but didn't stint from doing damn near anything else to get victory.
If you need another example, remember that the civil rights movement guarded its leaders' homes with machine guns and used fear tactics to keep the troops in line. Pretty? No. Justified? Absolutely.
That's why our tendency to turn people like Lincoln (or Anthony, Gandhi, King the list goes on...) into secular saints is such a damagingly dumb thing to do. It obscures the reality of how positive change happens — with all the ruthlessness sometimes required — and replaces it with a narrative where heroic figures prevail through personal purity.
Then, when someone looks to these past successes for inspiration, they miss the reality and go straight for the myth, which doesn't work. When they assess their own politicians, they hold them accountable to a fiction. And when they try to actually win a battle, they get their ass kicked.
So please, whatever your cause, let's not have saints. This is not the place for them.
This is the second of two very different interviews I did while covering the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte that I felt were worth highlighting in their entirety. The first was with blogger and activist Imani Gandy.
Longtime prankster Vermin Supreme has been running for a variety of offices — some of them non-fictional — since the 1980s. Wearing a boot on his head and promising a free pony for all Americans (along with zombie power and mandatory tooth-brushing) if elected, his 2012 run for the Presidency came to greater prominence when he glitter-bombed fundamentalist Randall Terry during the New Hampshire primary and showed up for numerous protests throughout the year. I talked to Vermin Supreme while he was preparing for his own "victory rally" in Charlotte.
So why are you running for President?
Because I want to make America a better place, but still even.
But still even?
Still even better.
Ponies, the secret ingredient, of course.
Ah, and why the boot on the head?
When I get in a different environment it serves different purposes. When I'm actively campaigning for the Presidency, after the primary, it's become somewhat of a trademark. Different people read different symbolism into it, “we're gonna boot 'em out” or the jack-booted thugs or a boot on the face, the Orwell reference.
But ultimately it's just something I started putting on my head in a rather absurdist, surrealist tradition. The people liked it and responded to it. Out in the streets, in the police environment, it's a disarmament technique. I'm disarming, through my charms, to officers who might otherwise see me as a threat if I was without the boot. If I was a normal-looking wild guy talking shit over the megaphone, I think I'd be perceived differently than with the boot.
It sort of signifies the jesterishness, the commitment to this absurdist aesthetic, it's a shorthand. Sometimes I've worn a clown nose in the past to telegraph that. It draws curiosity. I get into a lot of conversations, meet potential voters. Of course it draws the media, I've been saying as part of my media critique that the boot is a pile of shit and the media are the flies buzzing around it.
A lot worth considering in this analysis of why the United States' transit costs are way higher than the rest of the world:
Tunneling in any dense urban environment is an expensive proposition, but the $5 billion price tag for just the first two miles of the Second Avenue subway cannot be explained by engineering difficulties. The segment runs mainly beneath a single broad avenue, unimpeded by rivers, super-tall skyscraper foundations or other subway lines.
American taxpayers will shell out many times what their counterparts in developed cities in Europe and Asia would pay. In the case of the Second Avenue line and other new rail infrastructure in New York City, they may have to pay five times as much.
Amtrak is just as bad. Its $151 billion master plan for basic high-speed rail service in the Northeast corridor is more expensive than Japan’s planned magnetic levitating train line between Tokyo and Osaka, most of which is to be buried deep underground, with tunnels through the Japan Alps and beneath its densest cities.
There's a whole array of reasons why transit in this country is so f'ing expensive to build: an overreliance on “consultants who consultant with consultants and advisers who advise advisers," laws that emphasize cheap bids,
Culture and politics tend to form the boundaries of what we believe we can build, as well as the way to do it. Sure, economic factors play a role, but as this case demonstrates, culture forms the what and how, which can exercise a greater influence on the whole situation. That's one reason this blog exists, because perspectives that emphasize money and technology often miss this badly.
In this case, when governments in the U.S. think "we need to build a transit project," their culture jumps to "hire consultants," then to "make it pretty" before landing at "go with the lowest bid." That last one is backed up by legal guidelines that, in an attempt to curb corruption, often require the entity to go with the cheapest offer. Add all that together and you get transit that's way pricier than it has to be.
There's no iron law saying things have to work this way, just a lot of self-interested tradition, shaped by the way some political battles turned out in the past. Making transit more efficient doesn't so much require shiny breakthroughs as figuring a way to break that culture.
Via Salon comes this quick, wonkish movie showing the shift in statewide party preference over the last century.
I first voted in the 2000 election, when the whole Red State/Blue State narrative emerged. I thought it was silly at the time, obscuring a whole host of more important divisions and fostering a smug sense of superiority among people who should have known better. As I've started working in media, it's amazing how quickly yesterday's unchanging truths (i.e. a Democratic nominee will never win a Southern state again) are forgotten, though that doesn't seem to keep pundits from continuing to dish them out.
While traditions certainly play a role, political preferences are incredibly mutable. That's worth remembering when thinking about what kind of world is emerging. Today's strongholds are tomorrow's battlegrounds, and "tradition" is usually a lot younger than we think.
I'm heading out to the woods for some birthday R&R. This week's been excellent on both the traffic and discussion fronts, and I'm happy to see the Breaking Time grow on a number of fronts. I can't thank all of you enough.
It's Talk Like a Pirate Day, where people worldwide are encouraged to imitate a bundle of behaviors and accompanying accent popularized by English actor Robert Newton (thanks for that bit of info, Josh Ellis).
Meanwhile, it's worth remembering how pirates (according to the romanticized accounts we have, mind), actually talked:
"I am sorry they won't let you have your sloop again, for I scorn to do any one a mischief, when it is not to my advantage; damn the sloop, we must sink her, and she might be of use to you. Though you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security; for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by knavery; but damn ye altogether: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?"
That's Captain "Black Sam" Bellamy, quoted by Daniel Defoe, ranting at the captain of one of his prizes. A brilliant raider, he was one of the originators of the Jolly Roger, capturing slave ships and assembling his own fleet. Also, given that he was elected to his spot by a gang of fierce raiders assembled from all corners of the globe, Bellamy had to be pretty damn cunning.
Say what you will about piracy, the man had dash:
"I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world as he who has a hundred sail of ships at sea and an army of 100,000 men in the field; and this my conscience tells me! But there is no arguing with such snivelling puppies, who allow superiors to kick them about deck at pleasure."
Image courtesy of Imani Gandy
While at the Democratic National Convention, I did a lot of interviews. I'm still working on a larger piece on my thoughts about the DNC in our Breaking Time, but two interviews in particular stood out — for very different reasons — enough that I felt they deserved to be featured in whole.
The first is with activist and blogger Imani Gandy, who founded the Angry Black Lady Chronicles and the Team Uterati coordinating resource for feminist action. She's advocated an aggressively pragmatic approach to politics, often clashing publicly with other progressives about President Barack Obama's actions and drawing attention to what she perceives as misogyny and racism among some leftists. We talked about divisions among liberals, different approaches to activism, and how race plays into today's politics.
How did the Angry Black Lady Chronicles start?
I started a pop culture blog with a group of women in 2008, and we were tossing around ideas of a column I would do, titled something like “Ask a black lady.” I was just kind of throwing it around, and I don't know why but I just decided my column would be called Angry Black Lady chronicles. I don't really know why, it just sort of came out of nowhere.
Then, when I stopped blogging with them, I decided to move my column onto its own blog, and it just become angryblacklady.com
And then it got contributors, etc...
I started out blogging on my own in 2009. I went on medical leave. I had a pituitary tumor. That's sort of the cause of the anger, because I would have hormonal fluctuations. Have you ever been around a first trimester pregnant woman?
You know how they get real irritable? Flashes of anger for no reason? I'd get that, but at the most ridiculous things, like “that light went out! Goddammit!” So that's kind of where the angry moniker comes from, but I also like to poke at people because of the stereotype of the angry black woman. Then when people meet me they're like “wait, you're not that angry,” and no, I'm very nice person, but I can be pretty strident in my writing and on Twitter. I like to juxtapose those, like a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type thing.
I started blogging on my own in 2009, I picked up my first two contributors in 2010, right around the 2010 elections. It's right around that time that I dropped all the pop culture stuff and became fully political, because I started to get really frustrated with the way progressives on the left were hounding President Obama for stuff that I thought he shouldn't be hounded for, like the public option and “why didn't you close Gitmo?”
I felt like there were facts about how the administration had done things and facts about how he didn't have a Democratic majority for as long as people think that he did. I just began to get really frustrated.
I also began to get really frustrated at what I saw as underlying racism on the left.
A year ago, the Occupy Wall Street camp began in New York. Similar protests sprang up quickly, and before long there was an Occupy [X] in spots around the globe. People marched, got maced, got arrested, argued and held assembly after assembly. The "99 percent" entered the national parlance. Reporters like myself got used to using Occupy as a noun.
The Breaking Time was on hiatus at the time, which turned out to be fortunate, as it gave me a chance to think on this topic for awhile and do some deeper analysis.
Longtime readers of my work know that I'm not particularly a fan of protest culture, feelings that I've occasionally put in harsh terms. In a nutshell, modern protest culture — especially the American variety — has become a kind of ritual theater with the powers-that-be, less focused on strategies for actual change than on demonstrating personal bravery and making insular groups feel good about themselves.
I believe that culture drastically overrates the importance of art and "making a statement" as opposed to figuring ways to get concrete goals accomplished. I believe it saps energy and resources that would be better spent elsewhere. I've seen protest culture disillusion too many good people because groups can't get better organized. I want more people of all types involved in politics, but I want them to tackle it as the fight it actually is.
That's my perspective, and is the shaker of salt you should take when assessing what I write on this topic.
However, while covering Occupy, especially Asheville's own coalition, I've found it interesting to see new activists cut their teeth. A lot of these people are — agree with them or no — genuinely committed to dealing with a host of very real social ills. A number have since moved to more local political involvement, like the clash over a Business Improvement District in downtown.
On a larger level, issues of wealth and class are a part of the discussion in a way they weren't pre-Occupy, and the backlash from law enforcement did illuminate how little respect too many police have for the right to protest.
But I think consensus structures are terrible at long-term political conflict. I've heard a number involved in Occupy say they missed a major opportunity by not coalescing around more definite demands (i.e. large-scale debt forgiveness) last year when their energy was higher and their opponents more off-guard. I've seen infighting reach absurd depths.
Part of me thinks that Occupy has simply reaffirmed the old protest culture, drawing another generation into the same vicious cycle. As I consider that dynamic a massive obstacle to positive change, I'm not happy about that. Perhaps more selfishly, I want my own generation to find a better way than those that proceeded it.
The signs are mixed, especially due to the extremely local nature of many of the movements. The DNC protests that were supposed to be a show of strength largely failed to materialize. Reports for today's marches are still coming in, but the count's about 1,000. Better than the DNC, but down from last year.
So readers, what are your thoughts? Is Occupy bullshit or a way forward? Fizzled or slowly gaining strength? Perspectives welcome below. Keep it civil and smart.
There are some days where I just don't have the words. Today, Randall Mann's will have to do: