NOTED: HISTORICAL REVISIONISM


I wrote a short piece on bad labor history in textbooks for this week’s issue of The Nation:

Taken together, the narrative that emerges is one in which unions arose to address now-expired injustices, achieving only limited success, and then were replaced by legal regulations and enlightened business leaders. Not coincidentally, that’s the impression you’d get from a lot of our newspapers, politicians and TV shows too.

It’s in the Noted (news briefs) section. It’s adapted from this post I wrote for the website. Subscribers can download the issue here.

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MORE ON EXPOSURE VERSUS ENDORSEMENT


Alyssa’s post this week on Game of Thrones inspired me to dredge up a 2005 post I wrote on differences between the approaches liberals and conservatives bring to media criticism:

Is the problem what kind of behaviors and images are shown on TV, or what kind of ideology is advanced there? Do we care what the media exposes or what it endorses?

My original post is here. This led Alek to post a thoughtful response in the comments here. I don’t think Alek and I are too far apart on this.

I also want “a simple policy of letting media creators both expose and endorse whatever they want.” I don’t believe in obscenity laws (or the overturned ban on depicting animal cruelty, or libel laws for that matter). That’s why I started the post staking out my disagreement with Rick Santorum’s view that “if it’s legal, it must be right…it must be moral” (and thus if it isn’t moral, it shouldn’t be legal). But we should still talk about the stuff they’re creating, right?

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12 MOST FRUSTRATING MOMENTS OF “WAITING FOR SUPERMAN”

The 12 most frustrating things I saw – or didn’t see – watching Waiting for Superman:


– The way Davis Guggenheim used the kids’ stories. Each of the kids was sympathetic, and they dramatized the deep inequality of opportunity in America. But neither the kids nor their parents got much chance to talk about what they thought would make their school better or worse. Instead we got Guggenheim intoning that if this girl didn’t get into a charter school, her life would basically be hopeless. If Guggenheim believes that these kids are suffering because too many of their teachers should be fired but won’t be, why not let the kids say so? If he believes these kids are suffering because teachers or administrators have low expectations for them, why not let the kids say that? And if the kids instead talked about classes that were too big, or teachers that were overwhelmed or undertrained, or being hungry in class, that would have been interesting too.

– Something that sounded like Darth Vader’s Imperial March played over slow motion shots of Democrats appearing with members of teachers’ unions. This was especially agitating watching the movie as the Governor of Wisconsin is trying to permanently eliminate teachers’ bargaining rights in the name of closing a deficit he created with corporate tax cuts.

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A PRAYER FOR THE CITY

Just finished Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City, which he wrote after shadowing Ed Rendell (and staff) through his first term as Mayor. It’s a compelling read and gives an interesting sense of the politics of early ’90s Philadelphia and, more than that, of how folks in City Hall go about their jobs and why. The book suffers, though, from the blinders of ideology in a way that maybe only a book by a zealously pragmatic journalist about a zealously pragmatic technocrat can.

In the Philadelphia of Bissinger’s book, there is no public policy argument for raising taxes to maintain public services – only the weakness of previous politicians who indulge in tax hikes like heroin. Disability rights activists get a dismissive sentence about how they unreasonably expect the city to spend “money that isn’t there” on public services. In Bissinger’s Philadelphia, there’s little grounds for the skepticism Ed Rendell and his crew face from people in the “Black establishment” or “Hispanic interest groups” – you wouldn’t think from the way such folks are described that they really represented anybody, except when Rendell worries if they turn on him they could summon thousands to vote him out of office. The most prolonged, serious engagement with the reality of racism (as supposed to the evils of racial politics) is a discussion of the the devastating legacy of explicitly racist New Deal redlining on the city’s neighborhoods, and it segues back into why urban citizens don’t trust the federal government rather than why racial distrust might still persist. Bissinger’s narrative of the life of an African-American great-grandmother struggling to raise her great-grandkids, like the redlining discussion, is compelling, but essentially divorced from the discussion of racial politics and the book’s scorned “Black leaders.”

And while a good chunk of the book is built around Rendell’s successful campaign to force takeaways in negotiations with the public sector unions, we never get a sympathetic – or even much better than contemptuous – portrayal of anyone who works in one. Bissinger repeatedly mourns, in vividly anthropomorphic terms, the death of middle class manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia (and he talks about service jobs as though they’re inherently undignified and inevitably sub-middle class). But he never gives the reader any reason beyond greed that the city’s employees, some middle class and some aspiring towards it, might zealously defend the standard they’ve won. He gives no reason beyond ambition and self-protection that Union leaders would go to the ramparts in that fight. Bissinger is super sympathetic, on the other hand, in describing a fervently anti-government libertarian who comes to work for Rendell on subcontracting out city jobs and ultimately moves first from downtown to gentrified pricey Chestnut Hill and then out to suburbs because of crime and schools. In Philadelphia, Bissinger states flatly, she had “no choice” but to pay for private school education.

IF BY “CAREFREE” YOU MEAN HETEROSEXUAL

At a time when November 4 seems to be shaping up to be a very very good night, it’s sad to see California’s Equal Marriage Ban (Prop 8) leading against the opposition in our nation’s biggest state. After months behind by double digits, the marriage ban brigades have pulled ahead on a raft of plentiful money and false advertising. They’ve moved votes by claiming that if civil marriage equality remains in place, churches will be forced to perform religious marriages they oppose and schools will become training grounds for homosexuality. That’s false. So is the slippery idea, promulgated by self-appointed hall monitors of heterosexual marriage, that letting the rest of us get married to the people we love will somehow force them to “not just be tolerant of gay lifestyles, but face mandatory compliance regardless of their personal beliefs.”

Maybe it’s a sign of progress that the “Protect Marriage” crowd can’t scare up a majority just by saying same-sex couples don’t deserve to get married, and instead they have to pretend that your right not to like them getting married is somehow under attack. Indeed, as Paul Waldman argues in Being Right Is Not Enough, what’s really striking about public opinion on same-sex marriage is how far left it’s moved in just a decade. When I was in middle school and domestic partnership seemed like a noble but politically unpalatable concept, it would have been hard to imagine that by 2004 our Republican president would have to say nice things about civil unions days before the election and dispatch his running mate to endorse full marriage equality as a sop to some swing voters.

The arc of history is bending towards progress here, and faster than we might have thought possible. California voters won’t stop it in two weeks, but they will make it go faster or slower.

Honestly, watching Marriage Protection Poster Couple Robb and Robin Wirthlin make their case for why discrimination belongs in California’s constitution, what disturbs me most as one of the people they want their marriage protected from isn’t the dishonesty about what’s actually at stake. It’s their honesty about what they want and what they’re afraid of. As much as they bend over backwards to borrow the language of the left (see, it’s their “rights that are being infringed upon,” and now “it’s no longer OK to disagree”), what’s brought this couple across the country to campaign for Prop 8 is dismay at the idea that their children would be exposed to “human sexuality,” by which they mean gay people (King and King is not a children’s book about gay sex, it’s a children’s book about gay people). They want their kids to “not have them face adult issues while they’re children…we just want them to have a carefree and protected childhood.” No word on whether Robb and Robin’s poor son has yet had his innocence spoiled with talk of America’s struggle against racial apartheid, or god forbid coming into contact with people of a different race from his own. And if their son or one of his classmates should be wrestling with “adult issues” of his own, one gets the sense that Robb and Robin would have little to offer other than cries that the child is oppressing them.

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON DEMOCRATIC DEBATE NUMBER THREE

Is it just me, or was the difference between the questions asked and the questions answered more pronounced in this debate than the previous ones? Maybe because the questions asked the candidates to speak about the extent of racism in America or its role in exacerbating social ills. Maybe the most marked contrast was when the candidates were asked why Blacks with high school degrees are less likely to find jobs than Whites without them; most of the answers were about how to get more Blacks high school degrees.

The order of the candidates led to the delightful spectacle of Chris Dodd making funny faces every round about having to follow Mike Gravel saying something about how craven and nasty everyone else on stage was. And it gave Barack Obama repeated chances to echo John Edwards, one time even saying he was finishing his sentence – does that mean he doesn’t take Edwards seriously as a threat at this point?

The biggest revelation of the night though was that Joe Biden organizes rallies for Black men to tell them they can be manly while wearing condoms. When I say progressive masculinity, you say Joe Biden! Where’s YouTube when you need it? Someone should name a line of condoms after the guy.