Birthday Post: William Green

William GreenOn this day in 1873, the labor leader William Green was born. At the age of 16, he went to work in a coal mine. By 18, he had become a union representative. And he went on to head the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for almost three decades — including the whole of the Great Depression. He is known for pursuing a “cooperative” strategy where labor tries to work with management. I think that’s really interesting, because he took the reins of AFL in 1924. Listening to people talk about labor now, you would think that the idea of labor working with management was only something they did recently and very reluctantly.

I’m not sure that it was the correct way to go. As far as I can tell, businesses are run by people who are not really able to cooperate. They are kind of like the Republican Party during the early years of Obama’s presidency: when offered cooperation, all they see is weakness. It doesn’t seem to matter how reasonable and helpful labor is, the capital class always wants to take power away from labor. And this is why we need a major rethink of our economic system.

Still, Green managed the AFL through an incredibly difficult economic period. He was probably the best man for the job at that time.

Happy birthday William Green!

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Lagunitas NightTime

Lagunitas NightTimeOn Thursday, Will paid me for some work I had done for “our” company. (Let’s face it: it’s his company and I just work for it.) I won’t tell you how much I was paid, because it would be embarrassing. But on our way back home, he was going the wrong direction. I asked him and he said, “I thought we were going to get you some beer?” That’s Will-speak for, “I want a beer and you are paying.” So we found ourselves at the grocery store. Will has little taste, but I decided to get a six-pack of Lagunitas NightTime. I’m very fond of Laguitas and I had never tried this particular brew — probably because it sells for about ten bucks a six-pack.

I explained to Will that I had reached a point in life (about twenty years ago) that I would rather spend twice as much to get a beer that I really like than get a beer I don’t especially enjoy. Will then proceeded to explain to me how he is just fine with this lemon beer he buys for $1.99 per six-pack. I told him I was not. But when we got back to my place, even Will had to admit that NightTime is a hell of a beer. (He knows quality when it is forced on him!)

Indeed, it is an amazing beer. Is it as good as the standard against which all beers are measured, Arrogant Bastard? I can’t say. Let’s just say that it is right around there. It’s impossible to say, regardless. They aren’t the same kind of beers. Like the philistine I am, I don’t know much about beer, but I know what I like. Let’s see if I can give you some idea of what it is like.

It is officially an “ale” — although darker than pretty much any ale I’ve seen before. It is notably darker than Arrogant Bastard. But its head is surprisingly light. It reminds me of Guinness, except that Guinness looks brown to me, and this looks black. (Note: it doesn’t taste at all like Guinness.) It doesn’t have that much in the way of a smell — some hops is all. And the flavor is “hoppy.” It also seems to have just a hint of — oh, I hate to say it — lemon. But there is a big difference between a hint and an overwhelming taste of lemon. NightTime has other flavors as well. That’s what I like about it: it has a complex taste. But I am not in a position to tell you what those flavors are.

This is a situation that I run into all the time. I’m just not very good at breaking down things into component parts. I’m intuitive. That’s even true with writing. Certainly I know a lot more now than I did twenty years ago. But there are cases when I just know one construction is better than another. The difference with beer is that I really don’t know more more than I did twenty years ago.

But NightTime is a really good beer. On the other hand, most of the people I know would hate it. It is the kind of beer that my grandmother would have noted, “It’ll put hair on your chest!” Of course, that isn’t literally true. I’ve made it all the way to saggy middle age without any notable hair on my chest. But that isn’t actually why I drink these kinds of beers.

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Political Context of the Gospel Fictions

Who Wrote the New Testament? - Burton L MackVery serious reflection had to set in when the war ended. As we have seen, both the Jesus movements and those engaged in the Christian mission had been eagerly seeking ways to justify their existence as heirs to the grand traditions of Israel. The burning questions had to do with how Jesus fit into the picture, where to locate the kingdom of God, and how to relate the new, unlikely communities of Jesus and Christ people to the various forms of being Jewish in the first century. Now that the temple-state was no longer the central institutional form of Judaism, the epic would have to be revised, for it could no longer be read as if its promise had been fulfilled in Jerusalem. And since the failure of the second-temple establishment was easily laid to the account of its sins, the stage was set for others more righteous to take its place as the rightful heirs of the epic’s promise… We now need to recognize the options taken by Christians.

The congregations of the Christ were not as deeply affected by the Roman-Jewish war as were the Jesus people. The Christian congregations had quickly developed their own system of myth and ritual on the model of a Hellenistic cult of a dying and rising god. But the Jesus movements had thought of themselves on the model of schools and had stayed in touch with their Galilean origins and generally Jewish cultural environment. These movements were caught in the confusion created by the catastrophic events and found themselves forced to rethink everything. It must have been a distressing time but also one of great, exhilarating intellectual challenge. The thought that commended itself to several of these groups was to distance themselves from the “sins” of the recent Jewish past and reread the epic of Israel to end with Jesus instead of with the temple-state. That thought was revolutionary, and the reason for bringing judgment upon the recent Jewish establishment began to take on a very critical edge…

For the history of Christianity, the most important shift in postwar thinking took place in the Markan community. It was there that a dramatic change took place in the memory and imagination of Jesus, one that laid the mythic foundation for the Christian religion. The change is documented in the Gospel of Mark, a literary achievement of imcomparable historical significance. Before Mark there was no such story of the life of Jesus. Neither the earlier Jesus movements nor the congregations of the Christ had imagined such a portrayal of Jesus’ life. It was Mark’s composition that gathered together earlier traditions, used the recent history of Jerusalem to set the state for Jesus’ time, crafted the plot, spelled out the motivations, and so created the story of Jesus that was to become the gospel truth for Christianity. All the other narrative gospels would start with Mark. None would change his basic plot. And the plot would become the standard account of Christian origins for the traditional Christian imagination. What an achievement! Mark succeeded in collapsing the time Jesus in the 30s and destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Ever after, Christian would imagine Mark’s fiction as history and allow this erasure of time as a wink in the mind of Israel’s God. And yet, Mark’s fiction could not have been conceived before the war. It would not have made sense before the war had run its course and the tragic fate of the city was known.

—Burton L Mack
Who Wrote the New Testament?

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It Is Still Best That King v Burwell Fail

Ben SasseLast week, I wrote, Chait Is Wrong — We should Fear King v Burwell. This was in reference to a Jonathan Chait article, Why the New Lawsuit Won’t Kill Obamacare. And then, as usual when Chait is pushing a controversial idea, he quickly came back with an “I’m right!” article, Republicans Realize Obamacare Lawsuit Would Destroy Them, Not Obamacare. Despite everything, I enjoy reading Chait. But I can’t do it without a lot of loud sighs. How many Republicans realize Obamacare would destroy them? Well, Chait only mentions two. And that’s one short for a standard college essay.

What’s more, one of his examples argued that the Republicans should create a temporary change until they could “repeal and replace” the law. Given that the Republicans have come up with precisely zero alternatives to Obamacare, I think we can count that Republican in the pro-King v Burwell camp. So really Chait only has one Republican who is concerned. But it doesn’t really matter. He could come up with a dozen Republicans who are concerned about this case succeeding. It wouldn’t mean anything. There are always Republicans around who think that the party ought to be a tad less crazy. Just ask Josh Barro.

The problem is that it is hard for the Republican Party to back away from its opposition to Obamacare when they’ve spent the last six years telling their base that it is worse than a Soviet takeover of the government. And what about the “death panels” that so many conservatives still believe in? Ben Sasse might be right in his OpEd, “Chemotherapy turned off for perhaps 12,000 people, dialysis going dark for 10,000. The horror stories will be real. What will happen next is predictable: A deluge of attacks on Republicans for supposedly having caused this.” What is this compared to the millions that the Republican base thinks Obamacare is actively killing? There are lots of things that many in the Republicans establishment would like to move on. But we don’t see much of that.

There is also just the politics of it. At the end of 2013, the Republicans shut down the government. The people didn’t like that. But did they come to the polls in 2014 and vote the fools out? No! They voted more of them in! (One was Ben Sasse.) It would be the same thing here. The people who died for lack of dialysis would be in the distant political past. And let’s not forget: if 11.5 million people lost their health insurance, it would really harm the economy. And that would happen just in time for the 2016 presidential election. King v Burwell may well be the Republicans’ best chance to take the White House in 2016.

Michael Hiltzik has a more nuanced take on the situation, Is GOP Finally Getting Nervous That the Supreme Court Might Gut Obamacare? He is certainly correct that we aren’t hearing Republicans crowing about the law as we were a couple of months ago. I think that they realize not that the law will be bad for them but rather that it is like Pandora’s box: it is going to make the situation unpredictable. And that is bad because the up side is nothing compared to the down side. (Whether that’s true or not, I can’t say; but that’s the way human psychology works.)

I actually think that the Republican Party itself is pretty much done with Obamacare anyway. They had their chance in 2012 with NFIB v Sebelius and they lost. The law is now in place. People have it. But much more important to Republicans, the healthcare and insurance industries are fully vested in the new system. It wouldn’t just be a big hassle to change, it would also rip billions of dollars in profit away from these industries. So I don’t think they like the double bind that King v Burwell would put them in. Does this mean that the bozos on the bench will get the message and decide to kill the challenge? I will believe that when I hear Rush Limbaugh talking about how bad this case will be for the Republican Party.

The bottom line is that we want King v Burwell to fail. Under the best of circumstances (the Chait case), it would cause a lot of harm to innocent Americans. And in the end, politics is about people. I care about good things happening a hell of a lot more than I care about winning an election. (And that is probably a big reason why I’m not a politician!)

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Rich Succeed Setting Worker Against Worker

LongshoremanHave you heard about those awful longshoremen? I have. And from people who ought to know better. The longshoremen have staged a work slowdown in their negotiations and USA Today calls foul, Longshoremen Hurt Blue-Collar Brethren. Do you know how much they make?! “The Pacific Maritime Association, manager of the ports, says an average full-time worker makes $147,000 a year, with very generous benefits on top of that.” But not to be one-sided, the article claims, “The ILWU says longshoremen aren’t always able to work as many hours as they’d like, putting a typical income at $83,000.” Who can say?

Well, according to Mark Brenner in that very same USA Today, “Longshore workers on the West Coast earn $26 to $41 an hour…” And that puts the ILWU quote at the very top of rate. Regardless, the $147,000 figure is ridiculous and USA Today should be ashamed of quoting it.

Basically, the entire argument of the USA Today editorial board is that the longshoremen should just get used to the way that it is with other workers where they don’t share in the economic gain. If profits rise, they should all go to the owners. Don’t these workers know that they don’t matter? Haven’t they been paying attention these last four decades?!

The editorial concludes:

If the port workers took the long view, they might conclude it’s not worthwhile to rock the boat so much. Things are very good for them. Why draw so much attention to that?

It is good, if selfish, advice. It is taking this kind of advice that now has California Safeway clerks earning $10 per hour. Bear in mind that if the minimum wage had gone up with the rate of productivity growth since 1968 (and it always did before), it would now be almost $22 per hour. The lower rate for longshore workers — $26 per hour — is barely above what the minimum wage ought to be. And the upper value is not even double it. But our expectations for what workers should earn have been so lowered that now $83,000 per year sounds like a fortune. I mean, imagine that: you could buy a home, send your kids to school, retire comfortably. What a shocking vision of life!

Brenner sums up the situation well:

We live in the richest country in the history of humankind. But in our upside-down economy, CEOs make 331 times as much as the average worker, and far more folks will face a lifetime of Walmart wages than will end up on Easy Street.

The primary reason? Just one in 10 workers belongs to a union today, down from a peak of one in three. Unions are the only reliable way to ensure that working people share in our nation’s dizzying wealth.

Of course, this is why the entire conservative movement has been out to kill off unions from the moment they appeared. Sadly, the Democratic Party’s position on unions has pretty much been that of the USA Today editorial board, “Don’t ask for anything! Be grateful you aren’t working at Walmart!” And that is the surest road to working at Walmart. I have to say, I respect the ILWU members because I doubt I would have the guts to do this. But it is going to take braver people than me to bring back labor unions.

What’s sad, though, is that workers are not just fighting against the owners. Non-unionized workers are, with relatively few exceptions, the worst enemies of unionized workers. And this is the reason that unions are so important. It isn’t primarily about negotiation and wages and so on. It is about solidarity. By destroying unions, the rich have managed to turn workers on each other.

So in discussing the work slowdown, all that is really necessary is for some manager to say “$147,000!” and 90% of the country is outraged. “Oh, you workers are never satisfied!” Imagine this. What if I told you that New York stock traders made $83,000 per year. Would you think that an outrageous amount of money? Of course you wouldn’t. You would think it was really low. Yet almost anyone would rather work on Wall Street than have a very difficult and dangerous longshoreman’s job. But somehow, they make too much money.

Divide and conquer. The rich have been doing this for centuries to the rest of us. And the only reason they are able is because we allow them to.


H/T: Michael Hiltzik

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Morning Music: In the Pines

MTV Unplugged in New York“In the Pines” is a folk song that dates back at least a century. It was first noted in print in 1917, and was first recorded by an ethnomusicologist in 1925 where it was sung by a field hand. From that point on, it became quite popular among folk singers. But the first iconic recording of the song was by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe in 1941. But in 1944, Lead Belly recorded his own version that — at least until the 1990s — was the version that most people knew.

Lead Belly’s recording hearkened back to the much earlier version. And it is much darker. My take on the story is that a young woman is fleeing for her life after her husband was murdered in a particularly gruesome way. Now, the implication could be simply that this was a work related accident. But then, why is she hiding out? If I wanted to stretch it, I could argue that her husband was killed working on the train, but she had been stepping out on him and the singer is shaming her for this fact. But I don’t accept that telling. I understand that there are versions that use this story line, but I’m curious about the Lead Belly version.

Anyway, Mark Lanegan introduced Kurt Cobain to one of Lead Belly’s versions of the song. And so Nirvana performed the song. This version from MTV Unplugged in New York is probably the best known version of the song now. And since I don’t have any video footage of Lead Belly doing the song, here is Kurt and the boys:

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Birthday Post: Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail GorbachevToday, one of the greatest political leaders of twentieth century, Mikhail Gorbachev is 84 years old. I have great admiration for him. But he is also kind of a tragic figure. He was a reformer, but I fear his timing was wrong. He wanted to turn the Soviet Union into a social democracy. But the west was intent to do to this project what it helped Pinochet do to Chile. Russia because a kind of anarchy where the state control of the economy was replaced by an oligarchic control of the economy.

In particular, I think we ought to all agree that Boris Yeltsin is one of the great villains of the second half of the twentieth century — worse even than Thatcher and Reagan. But they are all of a kind. I remember back many years when Putin first showed up on the political scene. He was immediately vilified in the west for fighting the oligarchs. The implication is that the oligarchs were some kind of oppressed minorities. What they were rather were corrupt power brokers who — with Yeltsin’s help — stole huge amounts of wealth from the Russian people. So standing up to them rightly endeared Putin to the Russian people.

Of course, Putin has shown himself to be similarly corrupt and incompetent. But there hasn’t been nearly as much at stake as there was under Yeltsin. And Putin has at least done good things in terms of stabilizing the country. His handling of Ukraine has been stupid, however; he used it to get domestic support at the cost of international enemies. And I’m sure that domestic support will be temporary. In partial defense, the west was only too happy to jump all over him; but he should have realized that.

Gorbachev is a true Russian patriot. He is not a Yeltsin or a Putin, who I think represent the worst instincts regarding political power. This isn’t to turn Gorbachev into some kind of teddy bear. He did, after all, reach the very top of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But some people are better able to maintain their ideals. And he is not just critical of modern Russian. According to Wikipedia, “Gorbachev calls for a kind of perestroika or restructuring of societies around the world, starting in particular with that of the United States, because he is of the view that the late-2000s financial crisis shows that the Washington Consensus economic model is a failure that will sooner or later have to be replaced.” I find it interesting because there is still so much self-praise in the west about the fall of the Soviet Union. But the truth is that feudalism was a terrible system that still “worked.” The cracks in capitalism are obvious to anyone who is willing to look.

Happy birthday Mikhail Gorbachev!

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Pascal’s Wager in Modern America

Pascal's WagerI was having one of my regular tea dates with a cousin of mine. These are always wide ranging discussions, but one mainstay is religion. We are both very interested in religion, although not as believers. I had just returned a book she had loaned me, Burton Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth. Mac attacks the subject from a political and sociological point of view. And in particular, he argues that the Gospels were not written as any kind of history but rather as a way to grapple with things that were happening in the early competing Christian communities. (There should be a quote from the book here tomorrow.)

We began to talk about how fascinating all this early Christian scholarship is and how sad it is that fundamentalists get none of this because they think they have found The One True God™. And she related a story to me about another relative who is a fundamentalist Christian. The Christian’s daughter asked her the “what if” question: what if you are wrong? And our Christian relative responded that she was just hedging her bets. I burst out laughing. Pascal’s Wager is alive and well in modern Northern California!

But it isn’t quite Pascal’s Wager — it is quite a lot dumber. Pascal claimed that if there really was a God who insisted that you believe in him, the pain of not doing so would be infinite — the difference between burning forever in hell and having a nonstop orgasm for the rest of eternity. The down side of believing in God if he didn’t exist was relatively small and certainly finite: church attendance and maybe a few bucks to the priest. Mathematically, it is actually really interesting. Theologically, well, it’s just ridiculous.

Remember that Pascal came up with this idea almost 400 years ago. And even then, people dumped all over it. In particular, the religious true believers hated it. It treats God like he’s a chump. Is God really such a simpleton that he wouldn’t figure out what you were doing? Of course, this gets to a fundamental problem I’ve always had with Christianity — especially in its newer, heretical, forms. The idea that all you have to do is “believe” in God and he’s okay with you is just so offensive both to humanity and to God. What kind of a pathetic God is so questionable in his existence that he needs the reassurance of humanity’s “belief”? And this doesn’t even get to the whole issue of what kind of evil God would have to be to punish someone for eternity for the “sin” of not going against the nature that God created? It’s a madhouse!

Still, I think theologically, Pascal’s Wager was better back then when knowledge of the full scale of religious beliefs were more limited. Now, the Wager really makes no sense at all. It’s assumption is wrong. There aren’t two choices: belief in God or non-belief in God. There are too many possible gods on which to wager. In fact, if we imagine all the possible gods that might exist requiring that we believe in them and them alone, we have an infinity. Thus it makes no sense to wager on a particular god because we have an infinitesimal chance of getting an infinite reward. At that point, the finite losses of belief may well outweigh the infinitesimal chance of reward.

But what our modern fundamentalist Christian is showing in her acceptance of Pascal’s Wager is her theological isolation. To her, the only possible god is the God she believes in. But there are billions of people who would beg to differ. I can’t help but feel that deep down it must bother her that The One True God™ just happens to be the god who she was raised with and which is the dominant one in the nation of her birth. How cheap salvation comes to the modern American Christian!

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Who We Humanize and Who We Dehumanize

Glenn GreenwaldThe US media just got done deluging the American public with mournful stories about the Jordanian soldier, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, making him a household name. As is often the case for victims of America’s adversaries, the victim is intensely humanized. The public learns all sorts of details about their lives, hears from their grieving family members, wallows in the tragedy of their death.

By stark contrast, I’d be willing to bet that the name “Mohammed Tuaiman al-Jahmi” is never uttered on mainstream American television. Most Americans, by design, will have no idea that their government just burned a 13-year-old boy to death and then claimed he was a terrorist. If they do know, the boy will be kept hidden, dehumanized, nameless, without the aspirations or dreams or grieving parents on display for victims of America’s adversaries (just as Americans were swamped with stories about an Iranian-American journalist detained in Iran for two months, Roxana Saberi, while having no idea that their own government imprisoned an Al Jazeera photojournalist, Sami al-Haj, in Guantanamo for seven years without charges)…

It’s worth considering the extreme propaganda impact that disparity has, the way in which the US media is so eagerly complicit in sustaining ongoing American militarism and violence by disappearing victims of US violence while endlessly heralding the victims of its adversaries.

—Glenn Greenwald
The US Media and the 13-Year-Old Yemeni Boy Burned to Death Last Month by a US Drone

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How Elliot Destroys Richard III in The Goodbye Girl

The Goodbye GirlIn the film The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfuss plays Elliot Garfield — an actor who has come to New York to play the title part in an off-off-Broadway production of Richard III. But he is displeased to find out that the director doesn’t want to do a traditional production. Why would he? This is a New York production, not something by the Tuscaloosa Summer Rep. Actually, even a summer rep group would be unlikely to do Richard III in the same old way. And the director’s idea is not terrible: he wants to make Richard homosexual. He wants to take Richard’s deformities as a metaphor.

Today, it would doubtless be seen as offensive to claim that somehow Richard’s psychopathy was actually related to his homosexuality. But better that than the weakling-homosexuality link of Edward II. And regardless, The Goodbye Girl was made in 1977. That’s only seven years after The Boys in the Band showed up on film. So even the one scene of Richard III that we see in the movie the way that the director supposedly wanted it is not that bad. Yes, it is a “flaming queen” stereotype. But who knows where it would have gone if the production had stayed with that. (Regardless, the ultimate fault is Neil Simon’s imagination.)

But instead of working with the director to create a more believable Richard, Elliot rebels. And the director gives in. So the production ends up as the worst thing it could possibly be. Now it has a “flaming queen” Richard who also has the club foot and hump. What is the point of such a production? Well, we know what the point is. It was to pacify a prima donna actor who is in no position to be one. He’s been working in Chicago. At the beginning of the movie, he is rightly grateful to have the part.

When I saw the film in the theater, I took Elliot’s side in it. I was only 13 years old. And the film expects the viewer to take Elliot’s side. But I no longer do. His lack of professionalism is staggering. It also seems unlikely that Elliot would have been hired for the part without some discussion of what the director planned for the play. But ultimately, the problem in the play is Elliot’s. He’s been hired to play the part and he’s unwilling to do it. It isn’t that he can’t do it. His greatest concern seems to be how he is going to look on stage.

Actors continue to amaze me, precisely because they are not like Elliot. I marvel at the fact that professional actors completely throw themselves into work that I would be embarrassed to be seen in. And this includes a lot of stuff that is fairly good. But standing up on stage is a very strange thing. So the one thing — the first thing — you would expect from an actor is their ability to throw themselves into a role. And Elliot is not willing to do that. He strikes me more like a Hollywood “star” than an actor.

What is his problem, anyway? Richard is not a nice guy. The first thing out of his mouth is his plan to have his brother murdered. He’s a psychopath. That’s somehow fine to be associated with. But a stereotypical gay man in the 1970s? That’s the bridge too far for Elliot? I could maybe understand this if his problem was that the character wasn’t real enough — but the standard Richard is hardly real — he’s a stock character, no more real than Snidely Whiplash. But Elliot’s problem seems to be what he can allow himself to be associated with.

All of this just makes Elliot a shallow person. But that’s probably good, because Paula McFadden — the Marsha Mason character — is this weird 1950s woman who shows up in the 1970s film. “I am going to be spending your money on our apartment”?! But whatever. The main point is that Richard III is a catastrophe in the film not because of the director, but because of Elliot himself. It mightn’t have worked anyway. But he assured it.

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