Archive for June, 2011

The Sum of Organized Labor’s Parts
June 29, 2011

Starbucks Ueno

Image via Wikipedia

Playing off what I was talking about yesterday, this sounds like a sensible way to rejigger traditional labor tactics for the modern economy:

But forget about the past. What can the new I.W.W. tell us about organizing? The Starbucks campaign builds upon 2 key tenets of the old I.W.W. with great relevance to the present. First, it organizes industry wide. Understanding that one shop within the larger Starbucks empire has little meaning, the I.W.W. seeks to build solidarity between workplaces in order to build solidarity and gain additional power.

Second, the Wobblies focus heavily on worker education. One of the real weaknesses of the modern labor movement is a lack of emphasis on educating workers about their own workplace, how unions fit into a larger economic and social justice world, and building workplace democracy. The I.W.W. model is better than the AFL-CIO on all these fronts. Here there is real potential for unions outside the AFL-CIO structure to build quality organizations. The I.W.W. is rebuilding worker education centers and emphasizing larger ideas of workplace justice in its Starbucks campaign.

What most interests me here is the emphasis on worker education, particularly regarding those “larger ideas.” Yesterday I argued that unions need to pitch their indispensability as instruments of procedural justice in the workplace. The good folks at the I.W.W. seem to be thinking along similar, if not identical, lines.

As well they should. This is the stuff of movements, no? If local unions restrict their vision to local issues without articulating a broader philosophy of workers’ rights, then there is no “labor movement.” You’ve just got a bunch of unions all doing their own thing.

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Taking Unions Out of the Workplace
June 28, 2011

In These Times’ Joe Burns:

Like SEIU, an increasing number of union activists and theorists are looking to center union strategy far from the workplace. Rather than relying on the traditional union tactics of organizing, collective bargaining and political action, many trade unionists are instead focusing on protests against corporate targets and community organizing. Such actions get members into the streets to directly confront corporate profiteers and allow unions to organize around broad-based themes.

But as commentator Randy Shaw notes, the idea that building “some new and amorphous ‘mass organization’ that will help elect and then pressure pro-union politicians reflects a strategy that has already failed, and ignores that union power is based much more on the success of workplace organizing.”

But the bigger problem with this plan is philosophical, not strategic. Moving organized labor’s focus from the workplace would be a bad idea even if doing so produced better policy outcomes. That’s because labor, unlike most other grassroots political movements, is not simply valuable insofar as it can achieve desirable policy goals; it is valuable in of itself as a workplace-based system of democratic governance by which workers can check employer domination.

Because this point is so rarely acknowledged, organized labor’s value is often underestimated even by members of the nominal left. So you have people do things like point out that union X supports undesirable policy Y, and let that single, context-free example serve as an implicit criticism of the entire labor movement. One union’s endorsement of a distasteful policy doesn’t obviate the fact that, without unions (much less the freedom to organize unions), workers are left at the mercy of their employers’ whims, no matter how unjust. To suggest that X’s support of Y somehow negates these broader concerns is a bit like using one state legislature’s passage of a bad bill as an argument for absolute monarchy.

To shift organized labor’s center of gravity away from the workplace would be to tacitly surrender to the specious X-Y argument. It would effectively serve as a renunciation of the core values that make unions necessary and good. Instead, unions should be doing exactly the opposite: not transforming themselves into a subsidiaries of, but forcefully restating the case for worker self-governance.

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Eschatology for Nerds
June 24, 2011

I confess I haven’t read all of the relevant literature on the Singularity, and I feel presumptuous for sounding off on such an arcane topic when I understand it only in the broadest sense. But that’s what blogs are for, so I’m going to piggyback on Alex Knapp’s much more well-informed Singularity skepticism and try out an observation I’ve had gestating for a little while.

It seems to me that the Singularity, regardless of its other vices or virtues as a theory, shares some DNA with certain strains of Christian End Times theology, Marxism, and — more recently — humanist, Fukuyama-esque faith in the coming end of history. End Times theology posits a coming battle between capital-G Good and capital-E Evil that will end with the former triumphant and the latter vanquished, at which point worthy mortals will be rewarded with Heaven on Earth. For Marxists, the final battle is not between God and Satan but between labor and capital; after labor wins they will institute a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, to be later dismantled and replace with a global utopia free of both state and class.

As for the end of history crowd, they’re always waiting for the death rattle of non-liberal, non-democratic government. First it was the Cold War. More recently, it’s been the Arab Spring. But wherever you think the pivot point is, the fact of the matter is that history is on the side of human freedom, and shall be on that side forever — until there is nothing in its way.

You might be noticing a certain pattern here. And the Singularity conforms to that pattern. Except in this case, instead of the Rapture, the global Communist revolution or the collapse of the Communist experiment, we have the development of an artificial intelligence that can outthink humanity in every way that counts. Once again this transformation leads to a worldwide fundamental transformation in which all of our petty struggles and small, meaningless lives are wiped clean to be replaced with something bigger, better and shinier.

Hence the knee-jerk skepticism with which I regard Singularity evangelists. For thousands of years prophets of all sorts have foretold a watershed moment that will change everything and bring about the death of human suffering. If we just believe, have patience and do what we can, we too might live to see the extinction of pain, confusion, death, ambiguity and guilt.

So far none of those promises have been fulfilled. Still, people keep making them, and we keep believing them. Our yearning for paradise is so fundamental and overpowering that we’ll take practically any excuse to believe that it will one day be sated.

But why bother? My pain is my own. If I got rid of it, what would I have left? I would no longer be a person, much less this specific person. It might be very pleasant be one with the grand collective, but there would be no me around to enjoy the sensation. Or if there was, it would be a hollowed out shell: free of desire, yes, but also verve, ambition, passion, depth of feeling. Which is why I’ll take this world over utopia, thanks. Pain and all.

P.S.: The great, great webcomic pictures for sad children has a much less charitable take on the same basic idea.

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When Even Yoo Thinks You’ve Gone Too Far
June 23, 2011

Photograph of John Yoo.

Image via Wikipedia

Monday’s New York Times had the essential op-ed regarding the legality of our war/not-war with Libya. As Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman tells it, the Office of Legal Counsel — the administration’s “authoritative voice on matters of legal interpretation” — told the president that he would have to cease military action in Libya, because to not do so would be in violation of the War Powers Act. The administration disregarded this advice and had a separate group of attorneys and advisers whip up a strained redefinition of the word “war” to justify their case that the bombing could continue unabated.

As Ackerman points out, this is actually a step or two beyond the precedent set by the Bush administration. Bush’s decision to place John Yoo within the OLC heavily compromised the quality of that office’s legal opinions, but at least the Bush-era White House never directly contravened those opinions. At worst, the OLC remained a theoretical check on the power of the president.

No longer. By flouting an OLC ruling, Obama has gone too far even for Yoo. That’s John Yoo we’re talking about folks: the guy who considers the power of the executive so expansive that the president can legally authorize child abuse.

Overruling the OLC, as Obama has, is bad enough in a vacuum. But recall that this White House also reserves the right to act based on secret interpretations of controversial laws. Which makes you wonder: if the executive branch can interpret laws in secret, and those legal interpretations are no longer subject to even internal quality control, then what’s left? Does this White House acknowledge any meaningful checks on its legal authority? What does it think the president can’t do?

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June 22, 2011

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Last year’s Netroots Nation took place only a few months before the 2010 midterm elections. Even then, everyone could tell that cycle would be devastating for the Democratic Party, but many of the attendees displayed an almost manic commitment to putting a positive spin on things. The official mascot of the conference was a wide-eyed, frozen rictus grin. Bringing that grin to Vegas, where every window and every elevator opened onto a colossal metaphor for American decline, was an awkward choice.

This year was different. For one thing, 2011 brought Netroots Nation to downtown Minneapolis, a gorgeous, sparkling neighborhood with great weather, great bars and great looking people. The city, a stronghold for old-fashioned progressive politics, seemed like a vision of the future from back when the future was going to be awesome. Yet the general mood of the conference was even more dour than last year (though perhaps that’s because people just weren’t trying as hard to hide it). By mid-June 2011, the Tea Party had decisively won one election cycle, the economy was still doing terribly, and climate change seemed to be getting worse. While it was too early to tell for sure, things did not look great for 2012. And with no big federal elections this year, the opportunities for some cathartic pom-pom shaking were decidedly nil.

So attendees put their pom-poms in storage and found another outlet: poor old White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. His Friday Q&A in the main exhibit hall started off tough yet courteous, but soon turned less substantive and more emotive. The questions were nearly all accusations, taking the White House to task for various perceived failures of political will. But while Pfeiffer’s inquisitor certainly succeeded in making him feel uncomfortable, it was all basically harmless: very few of the questions were on issues that fell under the direct authority of the president (such as wiretapping, secret legal interpretations, etc.), and all Pfeiffer really had to do was take the abuse. It’s not like anyone in the room had any real leverage against the administration or its policies, or posed a credible threat to its reelection campaign. What everyone in the room knew, but couldn’t say, was that they’d all dutifully line up and cast their vote against President Bachmann in the end. That’s what people mean when they call themselves “the base.” And the group at Netroots Nation didn’t even make up a particularly powerful bloc within that base.

So much for altering the White House’s behavior in any meaningful way. Yet, despite the bad vibes, I left the conference feeling more optimistic (or, at least, less fatalistic) about the future of American politics than I have since I first moved to DC. Maybe that’s because, as bad as things are on the national level, I met so many people doing great things on the local level. And with left-wing anger at the White House at its peak, I got to thinking: maybe we’re reaching the point when the left will finally stop pouring so much energy into lobbying Obama and think about what it can accomplish without him. Or, as Gogol Bordello put it:

Of course a movement is more than a thousand different atomistic cells pursuing wildly divergent goals. There needs to be some kind of unifying philosophy behind it all. Van Jones pitched his version of that philosophy — “the American Dream” — to the Netroots Crowd, leaving David Roberts unimpressed. I don’t disagree with Roberts, though I do think that Van is halfway there. There exists a far more robust philosophy that can easily encompass both Van Jones’ American Dream rhetoric and Roberts’ Great Places doctrine: I’m of course referring to small-r republicanism.

I’ll have more in the days ahead about how I think we could translate that into the building blocks for a progressive movement.

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Programming Note
June 14, 2011

I’m going to be at Netroots Nation in Minneapolis for the rest of the week. Probably no more blog posts until next Monday or Tuesday.

Stoicism For the Digital Age
June 14, 2011

Seneca, part of double-herm, Antikensammlung B...

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This is old, but I just stumbled on it last week: Boing Boing’s threepart series on Stoicism, written by philosophy professor William B. Irvine. Irvine is also the author of a book on Stoicism, and his posts for Boing Boing serve as both an introduction to some of the concepts in the book and a pitch for why we all might want to consider becoming Stoics.

I’m fairly persuaded. In fact, I’ve been practicing some Stoic aggravation-management strategies with positive results. But while most of the strategies seem pretty timeless, I can’t help but wonder if a modern-day Stoic wouldn’t face some unprecedented challenges and temptations.

Mostly I’m thinking of social networking. Stoicism prescribes reflection, reserve and abstention from competing for social status. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, et al encourage certain behaviors that would seem to be entirely antithetical to that project. Twitter in particular is pretty bad: it creates a social hierarchy by follower-to-followee-ratio, retweet count, and so on. Playing the game and trying to accumulate more followers is one of its most addictive features. Plus, in order to do so successfully you need to produce as much content as you can. Complaining is a good content production strategy, especially if you figure out a way to do it ironically.*

And it (complaining) is addictive! “Venting” and “blowing off steam” are misnomers, because kvetching isn’t just some sort of release valve to set you back to zero. It’s an engaging, (superficially) rewarding activity in of itself. Once you get a taste, you want to do more of it. And if you have an audience — say your followers — at the ready to validate your complaints, that just ups the opiate quality.

Obviously Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and all the other Roman stoics struggled to various extents with the attractive qualities of status obsession, kvetching and thoughtlessness. Petty bullshit is at least as old as our species, and it will outlast all of us. But social networking, for all of its marvelous blessings, has a way of compounding the incentives to behave in a particularly un-Stoic manner.

That said, this isn’t some kind of cranky, anti-modern rant. Nor do I think it’s impossible to be a Stoic who embraces all of our modern communication tools. Where we run into trouble is when we use these tools without thinking about how they influence our real-world psychology and behaviors. The 21st century Stoic must, at the very least, be mindful of this.

*See also: #firstworldproblems

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June 13, 2011

Krypton (comics)

Image via Wikipedia

So it looks like DC comics is resetting the clock on the entire DC universe. I’m guessing that means that Dick Grayson will go back to being Robin, Lois will once again pine for Superman without realizing he’s actually the dweeby bespectacled guy on the other side of the newsroom, etc. Deaths, births, crises, marriages, costume changes, rebirths, redeaths, rerebirths, and decades of other nonsense erased, and the slate wiped clean once again.

Here’s what that also means: for the umpteenth time, young Bruce Wayne will be forced to watch the murder of his parents. Krypton will blow up again, killing billions more. Harvey Dent will get yet another fistful of acid right in the face. The unending nightmare that is these characters’ lives will just start over from the beginning, and I give DC less than a decade before the mythology gets back to being so convoluted that they need to do another world-spanning Crisis event just to set things straight and kill off all of the extraneous characters (plus maybe one that people actually like, just because).

It makes you wonder why these titles still exist. Oh, I get why they exist: they’re iconic, lucrative properties. A movie adaptation has to be adapted from something, and tie-in merchandise can’t tie-in to itself — the comics need to be there to justify it all. But why do people still read them? There are other, better comics out there created by writers who let their characters age and grow in a comprehensibly human fashion. These other, better comics have actual narrative arcs — arcs which you know will come to some kind of end.

DC and Marvel’s flagship titles don’t have narrative arcs anymore. If you believe the two biggest comic publishers on Earth, the life of a superhero is incident after nightmarish incident, with no logical progression. And not even death can end the eternal parade of horrors, because dead heroes get only get a few precious months of rest before their hideously contrived resurrections. (See io9’s X-Men timeline to watch that play out in official Marvel chronology.) That’s if you’re lucky, anyway. If you’re unlucky, you get a reboot. And all of the most traumatic events in your life happen again, over and over, except each time they’re somehow more gothic and elaborate and grotesque.

The worst part, though, is that none of it means anything. If you live forever and nothing fundamental in your circumstances can ever permanently change, how can anything mean anything? And if there’s no room for meaning, then why is your story worth telling?

Time to retire universe-spanning comic continuity. Let the Justice League rest.

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The Root of Knowledge, Cont.
June 10, 2011

Remember when I blogged about Randall Munroe’s observation that most Wikipedia chains eventually made their way back to philosophy? Well one Jeffrey Winter has created a web app you can use to test the phenomenon on different pages. Fiendishly addictive.

(h/t Massimo Pigliucci)

Anthony Weiner and the Politics of Boredom
June 9, 2011

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 06:   Rep. Anthony Weiner ...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Over at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir has a lengthy rumination on film criticism’s complicated relationship with boredom. The gist seems to be that, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with films that aim solely to entertain (and in fact a lot of these films are pretty great), this is not and should not be the aim of the entire medium. Great films often have other goals in mind, and sometimes achieving these goals means asking the audience to put a little work in and/or allow themselves to become a little bored.

That’s all basically unobjectionable to me. I like Die Hard as much as the next guy. What bothers me about entertainment for its own sake isn’t its dispensability so much as its ubiquity. Our thirst for entertainment and the market’s willingness to provide have together completely co-opted and debased forum where entertainment should be, if anything, a tertiary concern. I’m thinking, of course, of politics.

The giant school of press-credentialed piranhas gnawing at Rep. Anthony Weiner’s exposed parts illustrates my point perfectly. Here is a massive story which is massive solely because of its capacity to titillate. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out yesterday, virtually no one covering this story is even trying to explain its importance or relevance to the public interest. That’s because they know there is none, and they don’t care. The story’s entertaining, and that’s all that matters.

What propels feeding frenzies like this is simple economics. Reporters and commentators could put extra work into producing research and original reporting on stories which more directly affect the public. If they’ve got any talent at all, they could even present these stories in a compelling and entertaining fashion. But making a story entertaining isn’t as easy as just regurgitating an already widely disseminated story with an entertaining premise. Of course, because this is still ostensibly journalism, you’ve got to add something new: a slightly skewed context, a new fact (no matter how tangential or arbitrary), or just a new quip about Weiner’s peener. The point being that the more content about the story you aggregate (regardless of the quality), the more likely that you’ll be considered a worthwhile source for people looking to be tickled by another yet another politician’s ritual humiliation.

You could fairly point out that this is a two-way street, and the reason why this sort of lazy tabloid journalism works is because the public is eager to consume it. To which I’d say, sure it’s a two-way street, but one lane is narrower than the other. The public consumes political media as entertainment in part because they’ve been trained to do so by the political media — entertainment being both an easier product to deliver and friendlier to various corporate and governmental interests. If reform is going to begin anywhere, we can’t realistically expect it to begin with mass boycotts by a spontaneously fed-up audience. It must instead begin within the press itself.

On Monday, Paul Waldman wrote: “If I were Dictator of All Media, I would force every reporter to include a sentence in each of their stories that begins, ‘This is important because…'” That’s not what I would do (it sounds like it would cramp a lot of otherwise eloquent writers’ styles), but clearly every reporter and commentator should be able to write that sentence if asked. This week it seems like barely anyone — including a lot of journalists I like and admire — has even tried to come up with an answer.

Hell, why should they? There’s no immediate profit in having an answer. But journalists used to aspire to something higher than immediate profit. And if that required them to demand a little more of their audience, or even risk boring that audience, then so be it.

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