Saturday, April 30, 2022

Why aren't reporters asking about peace negotiations in Ukraine? Why isn't Joe Biden pushing for peace instead of more weapons?


(To the right, a painting of a Ukrainian woman by Ilya Repin, considered by many Russia's greatest painter. Repin was born in Ukraine.)

It was the summer of 1992, and the embers of Russia’s 70-year experiment with communism still smoldered. Near Red Square in Moscow protesters called for a return to the glory days of the dismembered Soviet Union. One of the clearest signs of that dismemberment was near the city’s Tretyakov Gallery, where the paint-smeared, uprooted statues of Stalin and other Communist leaders lay helter-skelter on the ground.


Our guide, 25-year-old university student Roman Fiodorov, always a sly grin on his face, waxed philosophical. “Systems are different, but people are the same. People just want a (normal) life.”


I’ve been thinking back to that trip to Russia that my wife and I made back in 1992. It became an important experience in my life, a turning point, in many ways, prompting me into a years-long obsession with Eastern Europe. What followed were three trips to Poland, other trips to Slovakia, the former East Germany, sponsored visits of students from Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Albania to the University of Mississippi, where I teach. I studied Russian for two years and Polish for one.


It also led to a lot of writing, including my first book, The Mission: Journalism, Ethics and the World (2002), which drew comparisons between Eastern Europe and my native U.S. South. I railed in newspaper columns against NATO’s bombing of Serbia in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 allegedly on behalf of the Kosovar Albanians. It was an illegal and unnecessary war given the fact that then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had already agreed to allow Kosovo autonomy.


Watching those developments closely were the leaders of post-communist Russia, which had agreed to the reunification of Germany after NATO promised not to expand eastward. As the years passed, however, Russia also watched as NATO broke its promise again and again, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep, with even Ukraine wanting to join and given encouragement by U.S. officials.


Today, Ukraine is the blood-soaked victim of, yes, a brutal Russian invasion but also of the U.S.-led NATO’s relentless push to preserve the United States as the world’s lone superpower and to mock Russia’s security concerns about the Western military buildup on its borders.


You wouldn’t know the complex backstory to this invasion by reading, watching or listening to mainstream, corporate-owned media in the United States and Europe. What you get from their alleged journalists is the same old jingoistic claptrap that comes with every war—the demonization of Russia and Russians, even including Russian opera singers and athletes as well as Vladimir Putin, the reporting of every claim from the Ukrainian side and the parroting of endless U.S. military speculation about the war, whether validated or not, and the glorification of so-called heroes like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has repeatedly called for a “no fly zone” over his country and other Western interventions that likely would cause a global nuclear war.


Where are the questions from journalists about peace negotiations? To his credit, Zelensky had indicated his willingness to relinquish Ukrainian hopes to join NATO, a key Russian demand, but the last thing the U.S. oligarchs of the military-industrial complex and the Deep State in Washington, D.C., want is any semblance of a Russian victory. What they want are more weapons to be poured into Ukraine, continuing the war until the Russians give up or the last Ukrainian is dead. They want a humiliated Russia that can never challenge the United States’ status as the world’s only superpower. Once they’ve taken care of Russia, then they can focus on China.


President Biden seems utterly in the throes of the Deep State, and perhaps now he has been forgiven for ending the war in Afghanistan. Spending billions of taxpayer dollars on weapons for Ukraine goes a long way toward getting forgiveness. By the way, why does the Deep State still have credibility after its dismal failures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all U.S. invasions in which oceans of blood were spilled?


None of this is to paint Putin as anything but the autocrat that he is. I have no illusions about what lies within his capability. I would likely be in prison if I were a journalist in Russia.


Back in 1992, Roman Fiodorov, again grinning, made a comment to us tourists that spoke more truth than perhaps intended. “You Americans,” he said with a shake of his head, as my memory recalls. “Two people are killed in a car wreck and it’s on the front pages of your newspapers. Here in Russia, hundreds disappear in Siberia, and no one says anything.”


Friday, March 18, 2022

Ink-stained wretches join baristas and other working stiffs in the call for "Union!"

(To the right, Heywood Broun) 

When highly successful columnist Heywood Broun called for a union of newsrooms workers across America nearly 90 years ago, he reminded his fellow journalists of their misperceptions about themselves.


“The men who make up the papers of this country would never look upon themselves as what they really are—hacks and white collar slaves,” Broun wrote in his August 7, 1933, column for the New York World Telegram. “Any attempt to unionize leg, re-write, desk or makeup men would be laughed to death by these editorial hacks themselves.”


Those hacks looked down on the unionized, blue-collar printers in the same building, yet the printers earned an average 30 percent more than the reporters and editors.


Broun is smiling from heaven these days at the resurgence of union activity in newsrooms across the country. Like their counterparts at Starbucks coffee shops from the East to the West Coast, newsroom working stiffs are brandishing their union cards. The NewsGuild that Broun helped establish has more than 6,300 members who’ve joined in just the past four years. Another 2,400 joined the Writers Guild of America, East, over the past eight years.


“I watched too many decent people stripped of their professional dignity,” columnist Mike Kelly of the New Jersey-based The Record told veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse. “We were watching out colleagues just pushed out the door willy-nilly and without any warning.”


Kelly referred to the standard Gannett company practice of buying newspapers like The Record and quickly eliminating staff. Also swelling the ranks of newsroom union card holders was the COVID-19 pandemic, which proved not only to reporters and editors but to workers around the nation and world that they were less important than the bottom line in the eyes of their employers.


A key figure in the growth of unions among newsroom workers is Hamilton Nolan, who now covers Southern labor activity for the Chicago-based magazine In These Times.  Back in 2015, Nolan worked for Gawker Media and led his fellow journalists to make it the first big-sized digital media outfit to unionize.


Gawker later had to declare bankruptcy after losing a legal battle with nationally known wrestler Hulk Hogan. However, the unionization of its newsroom inspired similar labor actions across the digital news world as well as at old established outfits like the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.


(Jaz Brisack during a visit to Oxford, Mississippi)

Young people are leading the way at these news organizations, much as they are at Starbucks, where Rhodes scholar and University of Mississippi graduate Jaz Brisack helped start a union movement that spread from the Buffalo, New York, Starbucks shop where she worked as a barista to other Starbucks stores across the country.


Both Nolan and Brisack, a former student of mine, recently stopped in Oxford, Mississippi, to visit this old labor writer to talk about the labor movement in the South. While much attention was paid to the failed union effort at the Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, the media haven’t much noticed other labor activity in the region.


Starbucks workers here in Oxford are now calling for a union.  The firing of seven pro-union workers at a Memphis Starbucks has galvanized the movement with the Rev. William Barber leading a recent march in their support. Newsroom workers at newspapers in Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth, Texas, are already unionized and calling on management to finalize contracts.

All three—the Dallas Morning News, Austin American-Statesman and Forth Worth Star-Telegram—have been unionized only since July 2020, the first in Texas in 30 years, and this will be their first contracts.


Perhaps in part because of what’s going on inside these and other newsrooms, labor coverage nationwide is on the rise in the U.S. media. Labor reporters, who had almost disappeared from the landscape a decade or more ago, are now back on the beat at at least a dozen or more major news organizations. This may also be a reflection of a recent Gallup poll that shows a whopping 68 percent of Americans support unions despite an overall decline in union membership.


As evident with these newspapers and Starbucks shops, the South is seeing some of this rising union activity.  Despite its anti-union reputation, the South has a long labor history that includes the successful organizing of sharecroppers and tenant farmers in Arkansas in the 1930s, Martin Luther King’s support of the ultimately successful unionizing effort among sanitation workers in Memphis in the late 1960s, textile workers' victory in North Carolina in the 1970s, and catfish workers organizing in the Mississippi Delta in the 1990s.

(To the right, a Southern Tenant Farmers' Union poster in the 1930s calling for a strike)


Back during the 1930s, Heywood Broun backed up his column with frontline organizing and became a hero of the movement. “I think I could be happy on the opening day of the general strike if I had the privilege of watching (wealthy and influential Establishment journalist) Walter Lippmann heave a half a brick through a Tribune window at a non-union operative who had been called in to write the current (Lippmann’s) Today and Tomorrow column on the gold standard.”


Let’s hope Broun’s spirit continues to live and prosper among today and tomorrow’s ink-stained wretches.


Wednesday, March 2, 2022

On the differences in filmmaking and storytelling in the 1942 Hollywood film "Moontide" and the 1938 French film "Port of Shadows", both starring French actor Jean Gabin and dealing with working class lives


The article below from Labor South's Joseph B. Atkins appeared in the January 5, 2022, edition of Quinn Hough's amazing and innovative online film magazine, Vague Visages, under the headline "The Light of Human Love and Community: On 'Moontide' and 'Port of Shadows'". It deals with the 1942 film Moontide, released 80 years ago next month, and the 1938 French film Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes), both starring French actor Jean Gabin and dealing with working class lives. They provide a fascinating study into the different approaches to filmmaking and storytelling in Hollywood and Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a difference that still exists today.

(A scene from Port of Shadows with Jean Gabin to the right)

A change of heart comes to French itinerant seaman and dockworker Bobo as he sips his whiskey with a female regular at the Red Dot Inn. His wandering is over. He’s going back to his ramshackle barge on the California coast, back to Anna, someone once as lost as he was but now a woman who loves him as much as he loves her. So what if a “gypsy is dying, and a peasant is being born.”


 It’s a decision that will prompt a deadly encounter with his jealous crony Tiny, but in the end Bobo and Anna marry. He’ll carry her across their humble threshold to live happily ever after.


20th Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck saw the role of Bobo in the 1942 film Moontide—this April marks the 80th anniversary of its release--as the perfect vehicle to Hollywood stardom for acclaimed French actor Jean Gabin. No way was the film’s hero, a potential Gallic Clark Gable, going to die at the end. No sad ending for Moontide.

(To the right, a scene from Moontide with Jean Gabin to the right)


What a contrast is the ending of another great Gabin film that came out just four years earlier, Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes). In this cinematic high point of French “poetic realism,” Gabin’s character Jean is also a wanderer who in the end returns to his equally lost lover Nelly. That act, however, leads to his death at the hands of his cowardly nemesis, the gangster Lucien.


Moontide and Port of Shadows offer a fascinating study into key differences in Hollywood and European filmmaking and storytelling during the 1930s and early 1940s, a time when the studio system reigned supreme in Hollywood and war loomed heavily over the European continent. Those differences weren’t ironclad—films had both happy and sad endings on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, they existed and continued to exist in the coming decades despite the overarching influence of commercialism in all cinema.  


In Port of Shadows, Gabin’s Jean is an Army deserter in the port city of Le Havre who fatefully encounters the cabaret dancer Nelly, played by Michèle Morgan, at Panama’s, a lonely, seaside bar on the ragged edge of the city.


In Moontide, Bobo encounters Anna, played by Ida Lupino, as she attempts a watery suicide. He saves her life and takes her back to his barge, where she’ll eventually find meaning in life again. Her backstory remains a mystery. Tiny, played by Thomas Mitchell, dismisses her as a “hash hustler”. She was a prostitute in the book that inspired the film. Soon she and Bobo fall in love.


Both films are suffused in portside fog and shadows, a dreamlike, highly stylized world where crime and danger lurk in those shadows. In each film a loyal dog follows the protagonist, instinctively growling at Tiny in Moontide and at the duplicitous Zabel in Port of Shadows. Zabel is Nelly’s godfather whose lust for her drives him to murder.


A bar is important to the action in each film, the Red Dot Inn in Moontide, Panama’s in Port of Shadows. In each film, Gabin’s character leaves his lover behind but then returns to her. Each film features a waterfront philosopher who makes observations about life and love—Claude Rains’ Nutsy in Moontide and Robert Le Vigan’s painter Michel in Port of Shadows before he drowns himself. The backstories of several key characters in both films are simply missing.


However, the similarities break down in the hearts and fates of Bobo and Jean. Bobo is a hard-drinking, hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy who even offers to help to his feet the man he just cold-cocked in a bar fight. Jean is a brooding war veteran with a chip on his shoulder, a soldier who saw enough death in “Tonkin” to abandon his outfit.


The most striking contrast in the two films, however, comes at the end with the fates of the two wanderers. Unlike Bobo’s happy reunion with Anna, Jean’s return to Nelly provides Lucien an opportunity for revenge for Jean’s shaming of him with slaps to the face in front of not only Nelly but also his fellow gangsters.


As did another Marcel Carné-directed film, Le jour se lève (1939), Port of Shadows, both written or co-written by the poet of poetic realism, Jacques Prévert, showcased Jean Gabin’s ability to speak volumes with a simple stare, a curl of the lip, a wordless shrug of the shoulders. Gabin “at his best doesn’t need any dialogue,” film historian Foster Hirsch has said. Both Carné films reflected the somber mood of a nation and a people facing the specter and subsequent reality of Nazi occupation.


In fact, the roots of Port of Shadows can be traced to the Neubabelsberg studios of the giant German film company UFA (Universum-Film AG), where initial work was done before Hitler’s propaganda minister, Dr. Josef Goebbels, rejected it as too dark and decadent. Ironically the great French director Jean Renoir would later dismiss it as a “fascist” film.  Only after Carné and Prévert brought it back to France were they able to make the film they wanted to make.


Based on a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan in which the action takes place in Paris’ Montmartre and the Lapin Agile cabaret, not in Le Havre, Port of Shadows “was a fairly revolutionary film, both in spirit and in form,” Carné says in his 1996 autobiography. “In that era the theaters were filled to the brim with comedies, musical or otherwise, overflowing with bright sunshine and crawling with extras. And here I was with my empty nightclub, my fog, my grisaille, my wet pavements, my streetlamps.”


Assembling a team that included supporting cast members Michel Simon as Zabel and Pierre Brasseur as Lucien, Alexandre Trauner on set design, Eugen Schüfftan as cinematographer, and music by Maurice Jaubert, Carné created a masterpiece that was attacked by the Mussolini press at the Venice Film Festival but which nevertheless won a Golden Lion award for the director. “Port of Shadows possesses nearly all the qualities that were once synonymous with the idea of French cinema,” Luc Sante writes in the Criterion Collection edition of the film. “The philosophical gravity of peripheral characters, the idea that nothing in life is more important than passion—such things defined a national cinema that might have been dwarfed by Hollywood in terms of reach and profit but stood every inch as tall as regards grace and beauty and power.”


Decades later American film critic Pauline Kael would call Port of Shadows “a breath of fresh air to American filmgoers saturated with empty optimism.”


(To the right Jean Gabin)

Gabin’s earlier success in films like Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937) and Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) got 20th Century Fox’s attention, and its publicity wing pulled no stops in promoting him as a French “hunk” primed to break the hearts of “dreamy readers of lonely hearts columns,” in the words of Gabin biographer Joseph Harriss,


Arriving in America along with a wave of other French émigrés in the late 1930s--like fellow actors Michèle Morgan and Louis Jourdan, and directors Renoir, Duvivier, and René Clair--Gabin quickly came under studio control. His contract got him the studio’s top salary, but Hollywood also put an Apache scarf around his neck, coiffed his hair, and put mascara on his lashes. They got him a chauffeur and a yacht. He rented Greta Garbo’s house and committed to intense English language lessons.


The trouble was Gabin’s terrible homesickness—he would only make one more film in Hollywood before returning to fight with the Free French Forces. Unlike fellow Frenchmen Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier, he never really adapted to the land or the language. Europe clung to him, as did his mistress Marlene Dietrich. At her wishes, he urged the studio to hire the famous Austrian director Fritz Lang, another émigré, to direct Moontide. Lang only lasted a few weeks, his departure welcomed by Gabin after the jealous Frenchman learned Marlene had once been Fritz’s mistress, too. Archie Mayo took over directing duties.


Novelist John O’Hara and veteran Hollywood scribe Nunally Johnson wrote the script for Moontide, which was based on a novel by Willard Robertson. It was “a noirish film resembling the poetic realism of (Gabin’s) recent films in France,” Harriss writes. Still, this was Hollywood where filmmakers faced the sharp eye of censor Joseph Breen and the studio’s razor focus on the bottom-line.


Plus, “what does a Hollywood studio, accustomed to creating artificial stars, do with an actor whose charisma, not to mention box office success, derives mainly from his authenticity?” Harriss writes.


(Michèle Morgan)

Port of Shadows co-star Michèle Morgan didn’t fare much better in Hollywood. Despite the luxury Hollywood offered—she would live in the same Brentwood Canyon home that later was the site of the notorious Charles Manson murders in 1969—she bristled at efforts to turn her into a French sex kitten, a “phony product” in her words, at  “how much the studio was trying to make her into something she was not,” Harriss writes. She eventually returned to Europe and enjoyed a highly successful career.


Trouble haunted the making of Moontide. Marlene, 40 now, was jealous of 23-year-old (and happily married) Ida Lupino. Gabin didn’t like Zanuck or the script. Producer Mark Hellinger liked the film’s darkness but insisted on a happy ending. Amidst it all, Gabin continued having a devil of the time with the English language.


Moontide got mixed reviews—critics said it was too slow--and didn’t score high at the box office either. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther liked Gabin better than Moontide. Marlene dismissed it as “an idiotic film” in her 1987 autobiography, and Gabin biographer Harriss called it “an embarrassment” that forced Gabin to overact with “whimsical faces, curiously thrusting out his lower lip to look fanciful while spouting words of wisdom. … The grotesque result is Gabin doing an American imitation of Gabin.”


Still, the film had its champions. Although one of film’s most acerbic critics, Manny Farber called it “superb” and “a picture moving and good” that depicts “wonderful movie love.”


Today, the tide has turned for Moontide. The criticisms and dismissals that made it “overlooked” for many years are “a pity as the film is actually an intriguing mix of gritty realism and stylish noir, a fascinating meeting of Europe and Hollywood and a curious combination of aesthetic peculiarities and moving performances,” critic Martyn Bamber wrote in Senses of Cinema in 2018. Moontide stands today as “a love story in a noir universe,” says film noir guru, publisher, and Turner Classic Movies host Eddie Muller.


“You can understand why the film was not successful, but 65 years later it is fascinating,” Foster Hirsch said in 2017.


One reason Moontide may not have resonated with American audiences in 1942 was that, despite the happy ending, they weren’t used to the things it shared with Port of Shadows—the darkness, the dreamlike world (Spanish artist Salvador Dali helped shape one hallucinatory scene depicting a drunken spree by Bobo), the gloomy touch of foreignness that would later become de rigueur in film noir.

(To the right, Ida Lupino in Moontide)

Writer and lecturer Robert McKee described the different attitudes in Europe and Hollywood toward filmmaking and storytelling in his classic 1997 book Story. “Hollywood filmmakers tend to be overly (some would say foolishly) optimistic about the capacity of life to change—especially for the better. Consequently, to express that vision they rely on … an inordinately high percentage of positive endings. Non-Hollywood filmmakers tend to be overly (some would say chicly) pessimistic about change, professing that the more life changes, the more it stays the same, or, worse, that change brings suffering. Consequently to express the futility, meaninglessness, or destructiveness of change, they tend (toward) negative endings.”


Surely the legacy of 20th century dictatorships, wars, destruction, political and economic upheaval in Europe helped create a sense of fatalism and the existential absurdities of human life.


In the United States, existentialism had to make way for capitalism. Screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg points to this in his book Moving Pictures, describing MGM titan Louis B. Mayer’s filmmaking philosophy as early as 1920s Hollywood. “Mayer’s credo was … to give the public what it wanted, right down to that lowest common denominator: the twelve-year-old mind. Family pictures. Romance. Happy endings. Movies could titillate, but in the end husband and wife, or estranged young lovers, must be reunited. That was Mayer’s law. The moral standards of middle-class America must be upheld.”


Of course, the bottom line was the foundation of Mayer’s law.


“What we have in Hollywood is an artistic medium encased in a business enterprise, and the business enterprise is considered more important than the artistic endeavor,” screenwriter/director Abe Polonsky said in a 1998 interview.


Film critic Pauline Kael has also weighed in on the influence of commercialism on how stories are told in Hollywood and what audiences have come to expect from the movies they watch.  “From the beginning, American film makers have been crippled by business financing and the ideology it imposed: they were told that they had an obligation to entertain the general public, that this was a democratic function.”


For those film lovers like her who have sometimes wanted more than what “commercialized Hollywood” might offer, Kael said,  Le Jour se Lève and La Grande Illusion restored us.”


Recent films such as Netflix’s Worth in 2021 show that remnants of the old Hollywood formula remain. A film about the government effort to compensate the wide range of victims of the 9-11 attacks, Worth is in many ways “an excellent film” but also a “frustrating” and “irritating” one because in the end “it appears to retreat from the implications of the way it’s telling its complex narrative,” film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for reviews. 


Worth offers a classic narrative arc in which Michael Keaton’s Kenneth Feinberg turns away from cynicism to a driven commitment to help victims regardless of their status in society. The film ends with a list of Feinberg and his team’s successes in pursuing that goal, as if the issue was largely resolved.


A sharp contrast to this conclusion is the ending of Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary Sicko, in which 9-11 victims have to go to Cuba to get the medical treatment they need because they cannot get it in the United States.


“The reluctance to tear down restrictive storytelling templates rather than merely jostle them a bit is of a piece with the film’s refusal to really engage with the question of whether a CEO’s life is worth more financially than a janitor’s,” Seitz writes about Worth.


Of course, as said earlier, the cinematic divide between America and Europe isn’t ironclad. The New Hollywood films of the 1960s and 1970s broke from the old studio-driven formulas and “brought to the screen a gritty new realism and ethnicity,” Peter Biskind writes in his 1998 book on the era, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. More recently, director Robert Eggers’ moody and dark film The Lighthouse (2019) with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison as two lighthouse keepers hardly offers viewers a happy ending. The two become mad, Dafoe’s character dies, and the film ends with Pattison’s character naked and under assault by a flock of gulls.


(Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas)

Europeans still make films differently. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas in 1984, for example, is filled with iconic images of the American West—the desert, lonely Western towns, endless highways—yet it is suffused with European sensibilities, from Wenders’ direction to Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller’s camerawork, its slow pace, sparse dialogue, sad and fatalistic ending still hard to find in most Hollywood films.


As detailed in Emilie Bickerton’s 2009 book on the history of the icon-breaking film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, European film hasn’t been immune from the pressures of the bottom line. By the 1980s, even the once “troublemaking” Cahiers du Cinéma, a magazine that helped launch the French New Wave in film (ironically itself a movement that paid homage to Hollywood masters like Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and British-born Alfred Hitchcock), had become “a mouthpiece for the market (with) the mind-numbing quality of an up-market consumer report,” Bickerton writes.


Ultimately the way of storytelling in films can be problematic on both sides of the Atlantic, McKee says. “Too often Hollywood films force an up-ending for reasons more commercial than truthful; too often non-Hollywood films cling to the dark side for reasons more fashionable than truthful. The truth, as always, sits somewhere in the middle.”


Looking back at both Moontide and Port of Shadows after the passage of some eight decades, both films, as different and as similar as they are, provide a satisfying cinema experience. Farber was right to call Moontide a “picture moving and good,” one in which “a quality of human goodness and fraternity” is palpable despite the dangers that also face the main characters. The filmgoer is glad when Bobo and Anna get together, and that’s great if they do live happily ever after. Port of Shadows, as dark and sad as it is in the end, deserves all its accolades.


In both films, the light of human love and community manages to break through all that fog, all those shadows, and that light still burns when we leave the theater and step back into our own world.


Friday, February 4, 2022

A trail of broken promises, a U.S.-backed coup, and war-mongering politicians and weapons manufacturers contributed to the current crisis on Ukraine's border



(Pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk in 2014. Photo by Andrew Butko)


NATO and the United States assured Russia in 1990 that the organization did not seek military expansion into the former East Germany or in any way that would threaten Russia. Today, NATO includes Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the last two sharing a border with Russia.


Over the past eight years, the United States alone has sent an estimated $2 billion worth of military aid to Ukraine. President Biden is now sending more U.S. troops into Eastern Europe as tensions rise over Russia’s military buildup on the Ukraine border.


The CEOs of the weapons companies Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are telling investors that the Ukrainian standoff means more profits for their companies.


A U.S.-backed coup in 2014 ousted pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovich and and replaced him with a pro-Western president. The coup featured a mob attack on the nation’s parliament much like what happened in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021. Neo-Nazis were prominent in the coup, and they still have a presence in the current Ukrainian military.


It was the 2014 coup that set the stage for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and behind-the-scenes backing of pro-Russian secessionists in Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Russia's Vladimir Putin wants assurances that Ukraine will not become part of NATO.


Joe Biden has had his hands in Ukrainian affairs for a long time. He was Barack Obama’s go-to-guy on Ukraine during Obama’s presidency. That likely is why Biden’s son Hunter got such a lucrative deal earning $1 million a year as a board member of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Burisma cut Hunter Biden’s wages in half after his dad left the vice presidency.


Biden and both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are waving their bloody swords over the Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border, but how did their predecessors feel when the old Soviet Union wanted to put missiles on Cuban soil back in 1962?


The current situation comes after a long series of broken promises, including Ukraine’s own promises to grant greater autonomy to Luhansk and Donetsk in the now-ignored Minsk-Normandy agreement in 2015.


Russia has a sordid past in its relations with the Ukraine, and this column isn’t trying to claim Vladimir Putin is some kind of hero. He’s not. However, the people of the United States are sick and tired of the perpetual war that the Pentagon, its buddies Raytheon and Lockheed, and warmongers in the Congress seem to want.


They were lied to by Lyndon Johnson about attacks against the United States in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify the Vietnam War in the 1960s. They were lied to by the Bush Administration about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify the U.S. invasion of that country.


The American people are as sick of lies as they are of war, and all the smiles on the faces of the Raytheon and Lockheed bosses, the saber rattling of their buddies in Congress and the White House, and the sycophantic coverage of the corporate media are not going to change that fact.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Starbucks and No Evil Foods bosses want to be hip and cool, but their behavior is more like Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life"



(Lionel Barrymore as the banker Henry F. Potter in the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life)

Isn’t it interesting when “hip companies”-- like Starbucks and No Evil Foods in Asheville, North Carolina—face the prospect of unionization they begin to look more like old anti-union troglodyte Walmart than City Lights Bookstore?


The pro-union fuse that was lit among Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York, recently has turned into a wildfire that’s spreading as far south as Knoxville, Tennessee, and Tallahassee, Florida, and as far west as Denver, Colorado. Union organizing is taking place at as many as 15 stores across the country.


Led by Labor South publisher Joe Atkins’ former student Jaz Brisack, Starbucks workers at one Buffalo shop voted union in December. Soon afterward, a pro-union election was announced at another Starbucks in the city.  In early January, workers at one of the shops showed their new unity by walking off their jobs to protest the company’s lack of safety measures amid a COVID-19 surge in cases in the area.


Based in Seattle, Washington, Starbucks is a nationwide company—230,000 workers at upwards of 9,000 coffee shops—that prides itself on being a hip, swinging outfit as cool as its tasty coffee latte is hot. That’s its brand—cool and hip. Young staffers who are progressive “about climate change, fighting racism and (for) labor rights” and whose hero is Bernie Sanders are “the kinds of people the company has hired over the years to reinforce its progressive branding,” Noam Sheiber wrote in the New York Times this month.


Yet, the company definitely didn’t want a union in its midst. Like so many companies in today’s capitalism, it prefers to call its workers “partners”—hmmmm—and feels they don’t need a union to protect their rights. The company sent out officials and managers to one shop facing an election to observe and discuss unionization with the workers, an effort seen as threatening by some of the workers.


Pay and pensions are comparatively good at Starbucks. However, the union sympathizing baristas want “more input at work,” Sheiber wrote.


 Compare the experience at Starbucks with that of the workers at No Evil Foods in Asheville, North Carolina. Labor South wrote about this very hip and cool vegan food company back in April 2020. This was a company with a leftist schtick, offering vegan meat products like Comrade Cluck and the chorizo-like El Zapatista. The owners called themselves “revolutionary leaders”.


When workers tried to unionize, No Evil Foods’ response was to hire the union-busting law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith and Prophete. That’s the kind of thing you’d expect from Walmart or that other old troglodyte of the past, J. P. Stevens, not from an outfit that sells El Zapatistas!


The union lost the vote, but workers did finally get the company to agree to give them “hazard pay” during the pandemic. The workers considered that a victory.


Sadly, No Evil Foods abruptly fired all of its Asheville workers in June 2021 after agreeing to partner with another company to stave off sharply declining revenues. Workers lost their pensions as well as their jobs.


“They preached all this stuff, but then when it came down to it … they were very, very cutthroat,” worker Mike Rapier to the Huffington Post.


Whether they’re in Silicon Valley or an old mill town in the Carolinas, companies in today’s world of capitalism aren’t that much different from the old top-down companies of the past. The bosses cling to their power like Old Man Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, and they’ll be damned if they're going to allow some pesky union to muscle in.


Good things can come out of bad things. A good thing coming out of this pandemic is a growing consciousness among workers across the nation (and maybe the world) of their rights and of their need to band together to speak with a united voice that demands to be heard. That's what's really cool, and more power to them!

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Saint Nick, that jolly old elf, the antithesis of greed, said some prayers for workers in 2021

 (To the right, German immigrant artist Thomas Nast's depiction of Saint Nick in 1881.)


Old Saint Nick is not only alive and well in the hearts and minds of countless children as Christmas approaches but maybe many of the rest of us, too. He’s surely been saying some prayers for working people.


The jolly old elf is a counter-cultural hero in these modern times.  Fat and bearded with a red nose that attests to a real appreciation of spirits and food, he’s religious, loves his pipe, and doesn’t mind smudging his shiny red suit with chimney soot if it means bringing smiles to the faces of his most devoted followers. He’s the antithesis of greed, the very soul of helping and thinking of others, not himself.


We’ve almost forgotten his roots as a 4th century bishop and monk from what is today Turkey. During his life, he was devoted to the poor and became famous for providing dowries for three sisters of a poor Christian family who faced a life of prostitution without his help. He’s the patron saint of bakers, pawnbrokers, archers, sailors, and, of course, children. Wherever he goes, he reminds us to be considerate of those in need and thankful for our blessings even in hard times.


As 2021 comes to an end, another year in the grip of the deadly Coronavirus and one of sharpening political and economic divisions that seem to threaten not only the nation but also the world, regular working folks can look to some milestones that give encouragement for the year ahead.


Kellogg workers in Memphis and other cities ended their 77-day strike with a contract that got them cost-of-living raises and provisions to improve conditions for lower-tier workers. The 1,400 members of the Bakery (Thank you, Saint Nick, for those prayers!), Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) braved the cold weather and union-busting management to stand up for their rights and to proclaim their solidarity with all workers, whether rookie or veteran.


My former student, Jaz Brisack, was in the middle of another union fight way up north in Buffalo, New York, where workers at her Starbucks location voted for union representation, a first for the giant company. She was even featured in nationally televised reports about the historic victory. Jaz took seven courses that I taught at the University of Mississippi and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar and earn a master’s degree at Oxford University.


Workers across the land in 2021 showed new muscle as employers complained about labor shortages and blamed COVID-related government checks. “Help wanted” signs appeared on the front doors of many businesses. One benefit of the pandemic has been a new awareness of worker rights, a demand for better wages and working conditions, and the benefits of a real home and family life away from the workplace. Strikes, walkouts, and protests have been the proof of that new awareness.


Far to the south in Chile, the country where the CIA helped engineer a right-wing coup back in the 1970s that sunk it into the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, voters elected this week progressive presidential candidate Gabriel Boric with a 56 percent majority. Only 36, Boric gained fame a decade ago as a student protester. He’s a supporter of women’s rights and gives hope to the nation’s long-ignored poor.


Of course, it’s not all roses in the land as 2022 approaches. Mainstream U.S. media continue to ignore the dismal treatment of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange even as they decry anti-press actions in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. U.S. Senator Joe Manchin threatens to destroy the Biden presidency to keep his corporate financiers happy.  Donald Trump continues to cast a dark and threatening shadow across the nation’s political future.


Old Saint Nick knew hard times himself. During his life, he suffered during the rule of Roman emperor Diocletian. What’s important, however, is to remember that the message he sends us is not only one of thanksgiving but also hope.


Sunday, November 28, 2021

Oxford, Mississippi, a literary town where--from Stark Young & William Faulkner to Barry Hannah & Willie Morris to Tom Franklin, Ace Atkins, Mary Miller & William Boyle--the creative well never runs dry

(William Faulkner, photo by Carl Van Vechten in 1954)

 As I did once recently on the subject of labor, I was asked by the Reverend Gail Tapscott to join a panel discussion on Oxford, Mississippi, and its literary tradition today (November 28, 2021) for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford. I joined my friend Kaye Bryant, who told of meeting William Faulkner as a young girl and hearing his ghost tales. Below are some of my prepared remarks for today's service: 

Many people think it all began with Faulkner, this identification of Oxford, Mississippi, as a literary town. That’s not true. I’d say it began with drama critic, playwright, and novelist Stark Young, whose home still stands on Oxford’s University Boulevard, next door to William Faulkner’s novelist brother John’s home.


By the time William Faulkner started writing fiction seriously in 1925, Stark Young was already a well-known theater critic and the author of The Flower in Drama: A Book of Papers on the Theater (1923). He would also gain renown as a novelist. Ellen Glasgow said of his 1934 novel So Red The Rose: “There has never been a novel of the South … that can compare with it.”  Born in Como, Mississippi, Young graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1901 and taught there from 1905 to 1907. He became drama critic at the New York Times and the New Republic magazine. Young was one of the Nashville-based Southern Agrarians, which also included Robert Penn Warren and other poets and writers who yearned for a non-industrial South that held true to its better values of the past.

(To the right, Stark Young)


Faulkner’s brother John deserves mention here. Always in the shadow of his more famous brother, he wrote novels such as Men Working (1941) and Dollar Cotton (1942).


Of courses, there’s Faulkner himself, the Nobel Prize winner, the creator of the Yoknapatawpha series. My late friend Jere Hoar, a widely published short story writer and author of the classic hardboiled novel The Hit (2002), was one of the last living links to Faulkner before he recently died. He attended the wedding of Faulkner’s daughter at the writer’s fabled home, Rowan Oak, and was close enough to the family to have been asked to drive to Chicago to pick up Faulkner at the airport and drive him back to Oxford. Unsure of his navigational skills, Jere declined, a decision he regretted the rest of his life.


Another important Faulkner link in Oxford today is writer and publisher Larry Wells, whose late wife Dean Faulkner Wells was the great writer’s niece and grew up in Rowan Oak after her father, Faulkner’s brother, died in an airplane crash. I loved listening to her many tales of “Pappy” as she was growing up.


New York Times bestselling writer Ace Atkins (no relation but a kindred spirit!) and I would gather at Jere’s farmhouse off what is now called “Faulkner Highway) every month or so and talk about books, writing, and film over glasses of bourbon and platefuls of fried chicken. I miss those days. Jere would regale us with tales of his writer friends like Jim Harrison and another Oxford writer, Barry Hannah. Barry loved guns and often came over to target shoot on Jere’s many acres. Barry’s own short stories were always razor edged, even poison tipped, a shot to the heart. Like this line from his story “Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter”: “You may see me with the eye-patch. In almost any city of the South, the Far West, or the Northwest. I am on the black and chrome Triumph, riding right into your face.”


(Barry Hannah, from the back cover of his 1985 collection of stories, Captain Maximus)


Another is, and I’ll paraphrase: “See that beautiful blonde sitting over there. Somewhere there’s a guy who’s glad as hell she’s no longer in his life.” 


Jere’s home was a step into Faulkner land. The walls were covered with paintings of prized bulls, horses, and dogs. He loved to hunt and kept horses till his dying day.


I first met Barry Hannah as a political reporter in the early 1980s. I came to Oxford to cover a political fundraiser at the old Downtown Grill (now called Boure's), and there was Barry deep in his cups on one side of the room, and fellow Oxonian Willie Morris on the other. Both holding court, neither particularly interested in talking to one another. A rivalry of sorts existed between the two very different writers. Morris was journalist-in-residence at the University of Mississippi for many years. His books North Toward Home and Terrains of the Heart are personal favorites.


In Terrains of the Heart, he waxes nostalgic about the bar at the old Holiday Inn near the Oxford town square, arguably, he said, the best Holiday Inn bar in the country. I once wrote a column on the locally famous bartender there, Clyde Goolsby.


(To the right, Willie Morris on the University of Mississippi campus)


I met Willie several times and once interviewed him on the phone. I’ll never forget his visit to Oxford to help commemorate the Faulkner statue by the City Hall. The historian Shelby Foote was there, too, and I remember remarking what two classic Southern faces on that small stage.


One of my prized possessions is a signed copy of Larry Brown’s collection of short stories, Facing the Music (1988) (another is a signed copy of Eudora Welty’s collected works. I met her once when I was working as a reporter in Jackson). A local firefighter before he became a nationally known writer, Brown wrote tough, gritty stories about the people in the rural environs around Oxford. I never actually met him, but I saw him sometimes at a favorite watering hole, the City Grocery bar, and walking—or should I say staggering—along the Square at night.


Soon after I first moved my little family to Oxford in 1990, I took my late wife Marilyn and two small children, 7-year-old Rachel and 6-year-old Michael, to a reading by Larry Brown at one of the courthouses on the Square. Brown’s writing could be full of expletives and raw scenes, and so was his reading. I began to squirm as I realized my two were the only children in the room, and they were getting an earful, or so I thought. Near the very end of Brown’s reading, he said something like “hell” or “damn”, and Rachel turned to me and said, “Daddy, he just said a bad word!” Apparently she hadn’t been paying much attention during the reading!


Oxford today is still chock-full of top-notch writers. My gosh, too many to even name. There’s Mary Miller, a Grisham Writer-in-Residence whose short play “A Young Ghost” I was pleased to direct for an Oxford Theatre production last year. Noted short story writer and screenwriter Chris Offutt writes and teaches here. William Boyle’s 2013 novel Gravesend is one of the best I’ve read in the past decade or more. He works at a local vinyl store when he’s not in New York City or somewhere in France being touted as one of the best young writers on the scene.


My buddy Ace Atkins has written dozens of novels and generally enjoys a commanding presence on the New York Times bestselling lists. Another top writer is novelist Tom Franklin, and his wife, Beth Ann Fennelly, is a major poet who served as Mississippi’s poet laureate.  Legendary journalist Curtis Wilkie lives here. Ralph Eubanks writes and teaches here. Lisa Howorth’s novels have gotten much attention. Jack Pendarvis lives and writes here. Many others have come through, lived for a while, and moved on, including Richard Ford, Megan Abbott, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, and, of course, John Grisham, whose commanding home on a hill just outside of town provides shelter to the Grisham Writers-in-Residence.


This is a literary town. It’s in its life’s blood. The well is deep, and I don’t think it will ever run dry.