Friday, May 24, 2019

Remembering "Route 66", the landmark early '60s television series about two searchers who traveled America's "flyover" in a Corvette, doing blue-collar jobs, and found a rising counterculture

(To the right, George Maharis as Buzz and Martin Milner as Tod in Route 66)

I was just 12 years old when the idea of a Route 66 first entered my impressionable mind. It was the fall of 1960, and I was sitting on the floor in front of our television as Nelson Riddle’s jazzy moving-down-the-road theme first filled the room and the screen filled with Tod and Buzz making their across America in Tod’s Corvette.

Nothing, to me, was better than the CBS series Route 66, and I was a happy soul the other day when my complete DVD set of all four seasons by the Shout! Factory arrived. This was “the iconic television series of the 1960s,” writes Nat Segaloff in his biography of screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, whose hip, Existential, Zen-like scripts made the show television’s own crossroads between 1950s Beat and late ‘60s Hip.

This was a series that put Yale-educated Tod Stiles, played by Martin Milner, and Hell’s Kitchen survivor Buzz Murdock, played by George Maharis, on the road every week “looking not for adventure but … for meaning,” journalist Michael Ventura has written. “Route 66 was not a television show, it was a promise. A weekly training film. A way out and through and over.”

Tod and Buzz traveled America, that vast, story-rich landscape many New Yorkers and Angelenos dismiss as the “flyover”. They went down the same road Woody Guthrie hitchhiked with his guitar, the same road John Steinbeck’s Okies in The Grapes of Wrath traveled in the Great Depression, the same road yours truly hitchhiked in 1969 and wrote about in a 2009 short story Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine liked enough to submit for an Edgar Award.

This was a working class show. Every week Tod and Buzz would roll their sleeves up to do a job on an oil rig or in a chicken farm or on a shrimp boat. A favorite character actor would usually join them—Keenan Wynn, Janice Rule, Susan Oliver, Robert Duvall, Whit Bissell, Martin Balsam, Nina Foch, Mike Yellin, Lois Nettleton. Occasionally a Sam Peckinpah or Robert Altman would direct. Silliphant’s magic pen, also seen in the earlier landmark TV series Naked City, made sure that plot didn't overrule character and also that the show always had something to say.

The pilot for the series took place way off Route 66 in Mississippi, where a local boss played by Everett Sloan rules his town like a little Mussolini. Another early segment puts Tod and Buzz on a shrimp boat at Grand Isle, Louisiana, where Charlotte Duval, played by Janice Rule, proves herself in a man’s world by saving her suitor’s boat during a hurricane.

Back in those days, the network execs gave Silliphant and producer Bert Leonard total control, a kind of artist’s paradise. Silliphant hit the highway ahead of cast and crew for the on location filming, staying in hotels and motels along “the mother road,” checking out the local hangouts and talking with folks about local stories and legends.

When the gig finally was up—Maharis left halfway through the third season, replaced by Glenn Corbett, and the show never quite recovered—and the last segment aired on March 13, 1964, the execs decided they’d allowed all the artistic license they could stand. “Before long, network executives whose hands-on experience had been limited to changing the channel were demanding to approve not just finished teleplays but story ideas, casting, locations, production crew, and even the costumes and wallpaper,” Segaloff writes. “Focus groups replaced intuition and experience.”

Hardly any life after life followed the end of the road for Route 66. Original negatives were hard to find. Lawyers and corporations tied up opportunities to show it to a new generation. When Shout! Factory came out with the DVD collection in 2012, the media paid little or no attention. “Route 66 represents something of an evolutionary dead end for the TV drama,” writes Todd VanDerWerff. “It was an attempt to blend the closed-off, social-issues-based storytelling of the best anthology series with the recurring characters of a more traditional drama series. It’s an approach that still works in other countries—Doctor Who springs to mind—but has more or less died out in the U.S.”

The show’s fate has been similar to the road that gave it its name. Route 66 was named one of the nation’s most endangered historic places in 2018, a victim both of development and neglect.

What television viewers saw in Route 66 was an “embrace of an American counterculture that was slowly moving into the mainstream eye,” VanDerWerff writes. “Characters on Route 66 did drugs or agitated for political positions that would have been seen as far left even a decade prior.” In other words, Route 66 was shaking things up years before the Sixties became the Sixties. Maybe that’s one reason my 12-year-old self liked it so much.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Highlander officials believe the fascist Iron Guard symbol found outside their burning main building was a declaration of war, yet law authorities won't even yet say whether the fire was an act of arson

Authorities say they are still trying to determine whether arson was the cause of the March 29 fire that destroyed the main office building and a number of historical documents at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, yet the grid-like symbol of Romania’s 1930s fascist Iron Guard was found spray painted on pavement outside the building.

Highlander officials believe the fire is a sign of war on people and institutions that promote social justice in the South and beyond.  The FBI, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and local authorities are investigating. No one was injured in the fire.

For all of its 87-year history, Highlander has had to fight for its existence as a beacon of light against the darkness of fascism in the U.S. South—whether it was the threats of Klansmen, the front-page attacks of Tennessee newspapers, the Tennessee government, or the congressional investigations of U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi.

(Myles Horton)

Founded in 1932 on two hundred acres of land in Monteagle in east Tennessee, Highlander began as a dream made possible by wealthy-but-progressive Memphis belle Lilian Johnson. She leased the land to two visionaries named Myles Horton, a son of sharecroppers who had studied theology at Union Theological Seminary, and Don West, a poet on a motorcycle and somewhat dashing legend of the Southern underground.

Inspired by a Christian vision similar to that of Dorothy Day, they created a labor school and training ground to help poor Southerners gain more control over their lives and achieve social justice in a land ruled by an oligarchy that has changed faces but which still exists in the region today.

Over the years, activists such as Rosa Parks and Christian socialist James Dombrowski spent time as staffers there, while Martin Luther King Jr. and others came to give lectures and hold seminars.

From the very outset Highlander was attacked. Fiery evangelist Billy Sunday called it a “cancer” that was “trying to create a world revolution for the benefit of red Russia and communist ideals.” The Nashville Tennessean newspaper ran a six-day series on it in 1939 that labeled it a school that “spreads Communist doctrines” in Tennessee. In 1960 the state shut it down on some unrelated charges related to the sale of alcohol and mistakes in filing its charter. It reopened as a newly christened research center in New Market, Tennessee, north of Knoxville two years later.

Highlander continues to be a force for social activism and organizing efforts on issues ranging from immigration to racial justice and media justice.

(To the right, Corneliu Zelia Codreanu)

The Iron Guard symbol found outside Highlander’s burning main building raises serious questions about the extent of neo-Nazi, fascist radicalism that might exist in the Southern netherworld.  The roots of the Iron Guard go back to Moldavia in the early decades of the 20th century and Christian zealot Corneliu Zelia Codreanu, whose prison vision of the Archangel Michael inspired his creation of the Legion of the Archangel Michael and other variations of the Iron Guard. A fanatical, murderous group devoted to their image of a vengeful God and to Romanian nationalism, they would carry small bags of Romanian soil around their necks and perform rituals of tasting each other’s blood and vowing a mutual allegiance to death if necessary while dancing and singing ritual songs together. From the mid-1920s to the late 1930s they conducted a series of political assassinations and terrorist attacks.

Their grid-like motto, which resembles the iron bars of a jail cell, was also found on the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville 18 months ago, and more recently on a gun that was used in the attack on mosques in New Zealand.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The UAW tries again at VW in Chattanooga, Mississippi's waterboys for ALEC, and old socialist Milwaukee to host Democrats

It’s time for another Labor South roundup, and this go-round we find the United Auto Workers gearing up for another election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This comes at the same time former VW boss Martin Winterkorn faces charges for fraud, much like former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn is facing other charges of his own. Meanwhile Mississippi legislators lead the nation as waterboys for ALEC, while the top GOP gubernatorial candidate in that state warns against the threat of Hollywood elitists. This and a peek at old socialist Milwaukee!

Another Union Battle Looming at Volkswagen in Chattanooga

(To the right, the UAW's Walter Reuther--third from right, forefront--at the Battle of the Overpass in 1937--just before Ford goons began swinging their fists at him and other organizers)

 UPDATE - May 5, 2019: No date has been scheduled as of yet for the next vote for union representation at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. However, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has already weighed in in a speech to plant workers last week that was a thinly veiled attack on the union. Par for the course in Tennessee politics. Volkswagen shut down its assembly lines so workers could hear it.)

Five years after losing a tight election at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennesee, the United Auto Workers is prepping for another vote very soon and the opposition is already gathering forces.

UAW officials say they hope this election will not be marred by the outside interference that contributed to their narrow 712-626 loss on Valentine’s Day in 2014. After pledging to stay away from that fray, then-U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam came in with fists flying against the union. Haslam even threatened a promised $300 million state subsidy to help Volkswagen expand the plant if it went union.

The last election featured "a lot of outside interference," UAW Local 42 President Steve Cochran told Mike Pare of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "We hope that doesn't happen like the last time."

Will anti-union forces stay out of this battle? Of course not. The UAW needs a reality check if it even hopes for such a thing. In fact, the National Right to Work Foundation is already up in arms and trying to call attention to recent troubles at the union involving officials misusing union funds. Corker and Haslam will come off the farm to wave a bloody flag, bet on it, and so will old right-wing troglodytes like Grover Norquist.

Volkswagen, with 43 of its 45 plants around the world already unionized, will be fighting the union as well. It challenged a pro-union vote by skilled trades workers at the Chattanooga plant back in 2015, and its public pledges to remain neutral this time around ring hollow. No small irony that former VW boss Martin Winterkorn now faces serious fraud charges over the company’s diesel emissions scandal. If that goes south for him, he’ll find himself in the same kind of pickle that former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn is in. Ghosn has been in and out of jail in Japan in recent months due to charges that he misused the company’s cash.

What the UAW and pro-union workers at the plant need to do is be battle-ready and smart. Win the game at getting their message to the public, be more creative in their public relations, their catchy phrases, as well as in their appeals to the workers. Be the cause of social justice that the UAW was back in the 1930s, the UAW of Walter Reuther, not the diminished, vision-lacking UAW of more recent years.

The Waterboys of the Mississippi Legislature

More bills written by outside sources get filed in the Mississippi Legislature than in any other state, according to a recent report by USA Today.

Whether the issue is abortion, gun laws, or reduced regulation, legislators in this state carry more water for corporations and other outside groups than their counterparts elsewhere. The Republican-led legislature is a brooding hotbed of conservatism, fertile ground indeed for the arch-conservative Koch brothers and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Rest assured, with the Koch brothers and ALEC giving marching orders, Mississippi will remain the nation’s poorest state and one with ever-shrinking services to its legions of poor. Politicians like Republican gubernatorial candidate and current state Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves can be expected to do their part. On the campaign trail recently, Reeves touted his low-tax, low-services, pro-school voucher, anti-public education agenda by decrying the growing influence of “the elitist not only in Hollywood on the West Coast but also on the East Coast” who want to destroy Mississippi and its values. Ross Barnett would be proud.

Good news in Milwaukee, let’s hope

(Jerry Lee Lewis in the 1950s)

One bright spot on the horizon has been the selection of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as the site of the 2020 Democratic Party National Convention. No city in the country has a stronger leftist tradition than Milwaukee, which elected three socialist mayors between 1910 and 1960. Under their leadership the city became famous for its commitment to social equality and also fiscal soundness.

However, given the ongoing battles within the Democratic Party for its soul, the effort by neoliberal Clintonites to crush the progressive spirit embodied by Bernie Sanders, let’s hope we don’t end up singing that old Jerry Lee Lewis ditty “What Made Milwaukee Famous Made a Fool Out of Me”!

Friday, April 12, 2019

Jazz musician Miles Davis' descent from "Blue In Green" mastery to funk junk, and the existential dilemma facing Democrats

(Miles Davis, center, with saxophonist Charlie Parker, second from left, in 1947)

Jazz musician Miles Davis’ Blue In Green, one of the five tunes on Davis’ classic 1959 album Kind of Blue, is one of the great noir anthems, a lonely walk in the dark that is also a cry, a broken heart maybe in a city full of shadows, but a heart still capable of love. I’ve listened to it countless times—whether Miles’ own version or one of pianist Bill Evans’ solo versions—and it never fails me. It always puts me there on that rain-swept street, alone, introspective, maybe trouble ahead, but still walking.

If you like jazz or noir, you can hardly beat the best of Miles Davis’ trumpet back in the 1950s, those spare, long-held single notes, no grandstanding here, no self-indulgent riffs up and down the keys. Like all great artists, he wasn’t trying to impress you. He wanted to tell you a story.

Here listen for yourself:

With his Brooks Brothers suits, his quiet assurance on stage, his masterful control of the music and guidance of his fellow band members, Davis was the quintessence of cool. Saxophonist John Coltrane once apologized to an irritated Davis for an endless riff by explaining he simply had a hard time stopping once he really got into the music. Davis sniffed, “How about taking the mouthpiece out of your mouth?”

As cool as Miles was, however, he lost it as the decades passed. The dark suits changed to garish outfits that would’ve embarrassed Elvis. On stage, he would turn his back on the audience, as if he had contempt for it. In interviews he was surly and arrogant. And his music descended into a mindless jazz funk that turned him from innovator into imitator. Now Miles was trying to be cool. He had plenty of fans, but maybe too many of them were white, and he wanted more black people listening to him. Funk and rock were the rage. James Brown had gone from soul greatness to a repetitious funk-and-grunt. Let’s jazz the funk up. The new Miles may have packed stadiums, but something was lost. His art. He forgot all the black fans he’d had back when he wasn’t trying to sell a product to a niche crowd, back when he was simply telling a story you only had to be human to understand.

(To the right, Miles Davis in the 1980s)

People need stories. Maybe they need them as desperately today as they’ve ever needed them. A wealthy demagogue sits in the White House in the wee hours every night tweeting little stories to the world how brown hordes are at the nation’s border threatening its future. Meanwhile he’s put his minions in power across government to do his bidding in destroying public education, diminishing workers’ rights, ignoring the damage being done to the environment, rattling sabers at poor countries that don’t bow to his corporate friends’ greed. His troops in Congress will do all they can to make sure he—and they--stay in power as long as they can.

Meanwhile, his Democratic opposition is still lost in the existential dilemma that the 2016 presidential election exposed. Is their party the party of the Clintons—who tip their hat to the identity politics that qualify as “liberal” in the corporate media’s view but who are as Wall Street bought-and-paid-for as most Republicans—or the party of upstarts like Bernie Sanders, who want to reach beyond the divisions of identity politics to a politics that recognizes class, not race, as this nation’s biggest issue, what it really has always been?

Look at reparations—an issue that rightly or wrongly most Americans see as simply calling for the descendants of non-slaveholders to hand checks to the descendants of slaves. “Liberal” Democratic presidential candidates like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, both of whom are African American but also safely corporate, embrace it. So do Elizabeth Warren and others. Democrats better rename it and redefine it if they want to win in 2020.

Why can’t Democrats be more like the Miles Davis of the 1950s? Embrace a politics, like he embraced a music, that tells a story, one that resonates with people regardless of their “identity”, that connects with their struggles, their fears, the concerns they have that are real, a story that also gives them hope. You know when I finish yet another encounter with Blue In Green, I’m not angry or depressed. I’m impressed. That’s a kind of hope in itself.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Mueller report upends Rachel Maddow and a Democratic Party establishment that paved the way for a demagogue's victory

(Hillary Clinton)

Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, made it clear to New Yorker writer Raffi Khachadourian back in 2017 what he thought of claims his organization was manipulated in a “coordinated propaganda effort” to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections.

Assange “has turned the official assessment—at best, a declaration that he had been used--into a symbol of American failure, establishment mendacity, Democratic hysteria, neo-McCarthyism, and fake news,” Khachadourian wrote.

It was through WikiLeaks that the world learned the Democratic Party leadership had worked to scuttle Bernie Sanders’ candidacy to clear the way for Clinton’s nomination and path to defeat Republican Donald Trump. We all know what happened. Trump won, and the Clinton establishment, desperate for a scapegoat, blamed the Russians, raising the specter of collusion with the Trump campaign.

After two long years, the Mueller Report, named after special counsel Robert Mueller, is out and puts to rest claims that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians in defeating Hillary Clinton. The Russians may have interfered in the campaign but not in direct cahoots with Trump.

Journalists like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow may never recover. Once respected for her insightful commentary, Maddow invested herself nearly totally in the collusion conspiracy theory and hammered away on it night after night for more than two years. She compromised her journalistic integrity, ignoring other important issues to obsess about this one. Once a fan, I stopped watching her long ago.

The Democratic Party establishment deserves much of the blame for the disaster of the Trump Administration, pushing a deeply flawed candidate, undermining a much better one, and paving the road for the victory of a demagogue. Even today, it doesn’t accept its complicity in this tragedy, and that’s why its continued disconnect with reality even after the Mueller Report dashed its conspiracy hopes.

As Khatchadourian wrote, Assange saw Clinton as “corrupt, pathetically driven by personal ambition, a neoliberal interventionist destined to take the United States into war—the epitome of a political establishment that deserved to be permanently ousted.”

He was right.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Embattled Trump rattling sabers at Venezuela in a classic demagogic distraction while Venezuelans are saying "Yankee Go Home!"

(Photo from Frogsprog, 2007)

President Trump is feeling pressure. Plans for his wall across the U.S.-Mexican border are stalling. His former lawyer told members of Congress and the nation that he is a racist and a cheat. His party lost the U.S. House in the last election, and a growing number of Republicans are bucking his rule. His poll numbers are down.

So what’s a demagogue to do to get back on the public’s good side? Let’s rattle some sabers and talk about war, of course! Why not Venezuela? It’s what George W. Bush did with the invasion of Iraq back in 2003, what Reagan did in Grenada in 1983, and what other presidents have done before them.

Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s “days (are) numbered.” With other warmongers like John Bolton and Elliott Abrams close to the President’s ear, Trump has to be wondering how he can best pull this off despite the American public’s weariness of war after nearly two decades of it in Iraq and Afghanistan. We live in a nation that’s permanently at war. Why not a third one?

Here’s what National Security Advisor Bolton told Fox News in January: “We’re in conversations with major American companies now. … It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

Bolton said the Trump Administration is closely watching not only Venezuela but also its fellow “troika of tyranny” members Cuba and Nicaragua.

The horrible economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is partly of Maduro’s making, he and his mentor, the late Hugo Chavez. For an  example, they failed to diversify Venezuela’s oil-centered economy, and when oil prices dropped so did the nation’s economic well-being. However, Chavez was indeed “the poor people’s president,” as the National Catholic Reporter’s Bart Jones called him back in 2013. He was bound and determined to refocus Venezuela’s energies back on its legions of poor, and in doing so, he “offended people in high places and was a threat to the established order,” Jones wrote.

That “established order” included the United States and Wall Street with their long history of exploiting Latin America’s resources and upholding murderous right-wing dictatorships so long as they didn’t challenge the power of the U.S. oil industry or corporations like the United Fruit Company, later called Chiquita. Chavez nationalized banks, declaring the banking industry as a “public service” and he passed legislation declaring that 5 percent of their profits go toward community building. He won election after election, and so did his successor in 2016.

U.S. tentacles are all over Latin America these days, helping to turn left-leaning governments in Honduras, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere to the right, and they’re closing in on Venezuela. The Trump Administration even has its own puppet in line to take over once Maduro is gone, National Assembly head and self-declared president Juan Guaido. U.S. troops indeed have been sent to the Caribbean in anticipation of another coup in Venezuela such as the one the United States helped orchestrate against Chavez in 2002. After Chavez’s kidnapping in that coup, his thousands of supporters filled the streets of Caracas and demanded his return. The anti-Chavez media “showed Hollywood movies” instead of reporting on the demonstrations, reporter Bart Jones said.

U.S. media haven’t been much different in their treatment of Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” (after Venezuelan-born independence hero Simón Bolívar), Maduro and Venezuela.  Even the liberal New Yorker headlined Jon Lee Anderson’s 2013 piece on Chavez, “Slumlord”. There’s little on television or in the print media in the United States that has detailed the devastating effects of U.S. sanctions on the Venezuelan economy and people.

Still some writers have written effectively on this and related issues. Writer Michael Fox described the sad and tragic tradition of U.S. presidential meddling and Trump’s potential complicity in it in a recent piece for Salon and The Progressive Populist.

Back in September 2018, Labor South described at some length the sordid history of U.S. interference in the affairs of other nations, particularly Latin America. It looks like Trump would like to repeat that history, but this time Americans may be so weary of war that they’ll joined countless generations of Latin Americans who’ve loudly cried “Yankee Go Home”, and maybe the American Yankee this time will.

Friday, March 1, 2019

The neo-liberals want to remove Eva Peron's image from the Buenos Aires skyline, but her image and legacy can never be removed from the hearts of workers and the poor

(To the right, Eva Perón, in 1952, greeting her followers but in such ill health her husband Juan  Perón has to brace her)

Eva Duarte Perón, also known as Evita, still hovers over the city skyline of Buenos Aires as well as in the minds of millions of the porteños who live there. The former actress, born out of wedlock in a poor, remote village, who became the First Lady of Argentina during the reign of Juan Perón from 1946 to 1955, was “more Peronist than Perón himself,” as writer Joseph A. Page once said.

Well, Darío Lopérfido, longtime cultural arbiter, artistic director at the Teatro Colón and the nation’s former Secretary of Culture and Communications, has called for the removal of Evita’s image from the high-rise Edificio del Ministerio de Obras Públicas (Ministry of Public Works building) in the heart of Buenos Aires.

(Eva's image on the Edificio del Ministerio de Obras Públicas in Buenos Aires. A photograph I took during a visit in 2015)

“It is a fascist symbol,” Lopérfido proclaimed in television interviews and elsewhere. “It is comparable to Stalinism. Peronism is a political travesty.”

Certainly Lopérfido’s campaign brings a smile to the face of Mauricio Macri, Argentine’s neo-liberal, Big Business-loving, union-baiting leader since 2015, a darling of Trump-world regime-changers whose minions have done their best to put his predecessor, Peronist Christina Fernández de Kirchner in prison. This is classic Latin American right-wing politics—win election and then get your rival behind bars, kind of like what presidential candidate Donald Trump wanted to do to Hillary Clinton once elected.

Eva Perón remains an unforgettable presence in Argentine history and one of the most dynamic women on the world political stage in her time, and perhaps any time. From her humble origins, she rose to be a major power behind the throne of her husband, an affable-but-politically unreliable colonel who had studied and served in Mussolini’s fascist Italy but rose to power in Argentina as a pro-union hero of the working class. Evita loved her husband desperately but made sure he kept his commitments to the workers, the “descamisados” (shirtless ones) who had rarely had much of a voice in Argentine politics with its ruling oligarchy of wealthy industrialists and cattle barons.

“I love the descamisados, the women, the workers of my people too much,” she wrote in her book and deathbed testimonial Mi Mensaje (My Message), “and, by extension, I love all the world’s exploited people, condemned to death by imperialisms and the privileges of land ownership, too much. The suffering of the poor, the humble, the great pain of so much of humanity without sun and without sky hurts me too much to keep quiet.”

She put action to her words. She established a foundation that helped build 12 hospitals, a thousand schools, medical centers, clinics, transit homes for the homeless, homes for abandoned children, homes for the elderly. She helped secure the vote for the women of Argentina. Days on end, she personally met with endless lines of the poor who came to her with their cries and pleas. They called her “The Workers Plentipotentiary”,  “The Lady of Hope”, and, though childless herself, the “Mother of the Innocents”.

Beautiful but frail in health, she was destined for a short life, but she never gave up her fight and her ferocious war against the “oligarchy”, a term that became a curse word in her mouth, and she could indeed be ferocious and authoritarian in her attacks on her enemies. She died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 33. Her body was later stolen and not return to her husband until many years later.

Peronism remains a strong political force in Argentina today, and its pro-working class ideals owe more to Evita’s legacy than that of her husband.

Still, her enemies, both in Argentina and beyond, would love to destroy her memory. It’s an old story. 

Argentina’s most famous writer, the aristocratic, conservative, virulently anti-Peronist Jorge Luis Borges, called Evita a “common prostitute,” echoing the widespread mantra of the anti-Peronists that the literati all too readily embraced. “She was the macho’s ideal victim-woman—don’t those red lips still speak to the Argentine macho of her reputed skill in fellatio?” V.S. Naipaul once wrote from his Olympian heights in the world of distinguished writers.

She was the woman “who tamed El Presidente with sexual skills learned on her knees in a hundred waterfront bars,” reads the back cover of Paul L. Montgomery’s 1979 biography Eva, Evita: The Life of Eva Perón. Even Mike Wallace, the USA’s premier investigative TV reporter-celebrity, skewered her as having “the ruthlessness of a demagogue” in an ill-informed, distorted broadcast decades ago that surely won a stamp of approval from the CIA and Republican establishment in Washington, D.C. The 1996 film Evita starring Madonna bought into this image of Eva Perón.

If the real-life image of Evita does indeed come down from the Edificio del Ministerio de Obras Públicas, the neo-liberals undoubtedly will uncork their champagne and celebrate, but the poor and the working class of Argentina will know she lives on in their hearts. That’s something beyond the power of the oligarchy’s cranes and bulldozers.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

"Mother Jones" magazine picks up on "Labor South" story about asylum seekers being held in a remote Mississippi prison

You read it first in Labor South! In separate posts in August and September of 2018, Labor South reported on the hundreds of asylum seekers from other countries being held in the remote Tallahatchie Correctional Facility in the Mississippi Delta town of Tutwiler.

In its latest edition, Mother Jones magazine published a lengthy article by Noah Lanard about the prison and the asylum seekers being held there. Here is the link:

Of course, you read about this in Labor South and also in my column in the Jackson Free Press last September if you are a subscriber to that publication. Here is that link:

It is gratifying to know that national attention is now being given the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s actions toward people seeking refuge in this nation of immigrants. It would have been nice, however, for Mother Jones to have acknowledged who got the story first.

Friday, February 8, 2019

France's Yellow Vest protesters shake the neo-liberal world of the "New Republic" magazine as well as Emmanuel Macron - Would a Zapata help the cause?

(The Gilets Jaunes in Paris)

It was an evening sometime in the summer or early fall of 1973, and my brother John and I were sitting in a café in the Left Bank of Paris near Sorbonne University. Drinking our beers, perhaps an aperitif or two, we were enjoying ourselves by our window table when all of a sudden total chaos broke out in the streets outside.

Hundreds of students carrying placards and crudely written signs, shouting, their faces alive with emotion, rushed past us. Many of them looked back as they ran, and we soon saw why. Hot on their trail were equally hundreds of uniformed police waving their black sticks with intent to use them.

My brother and I weren’t sure how to react so we watched as the crowds disappeared into the narrow streets and alleys of the Latin Quarter. It was just a few years after the major protests of 1968, and I remember seeing huge signs in the streets announcing news of the latest arrests of members of the revolutionary Baader-Meinhof gang, the popular name of Germany’s Red Army Faction led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. Both were in jail by that time, but key faction members were still on the loose planting bombs, kidnapping politicians and generally wreaking havoc.

I’ve been thinking about that visit to Paris during the recent protests by the gilets jaunes—Yellow Vests—in the streets of Paris and elsewhere across France, a movement of the French working class in defiance of the country’s neo-liberal president Emmanuel Macron and his policies of giant tax breaks to the rich and corporations while hiking taxes on workers and cutting public services.

With even major labor leaders looking askance at their protests, the Yellow Vests don’t have a clearly identifiable leader. Theirs is a spontaneous protest prompted in part by Macron’s hike on fuel, which has caused a divide with environmentalists. To the protesters, that hike was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back because it made their already struggling lives even more of a struggle. French workers usually live outside the cities and have to commute. After cutting their public transportation, Macron wanted to raise their already expensive fuel prices.

The protests were so vehement that Macron had to back off his fuel tax plan, but people remained in the streets because their issues went far beyond the cost of keeping the tanks in their vehicles full. Called the “yellow vests” because of the piece of safety clothing French drivers are required to keep in their cars, these French workers are actually part of a much larger and hopefully growing protest against the neo-liberal corporate takeover of this world that major political parties of all stripes in most countries have come to accept.

The U.S. media haven’t paid much attention what’s going on in the streets of Paris. Leftist media have done some admirable work, but what you’re more likely to encounter are articles such as Alexander Hurst’s “The Ugly, Illiberal, Anti-Semitic Heart of the Yellow Vest Movement” that appeared last month in New Republic magazine, a publication that has veered left and right over its long history and as this article indicates seems content to side with the self-satisfied liberal elite who call themselves socially liberal but are anything but on anything else.

Hurst’s article wages war on casseurs (“smashers”) who have joined the Yellow Vests at times and contributed violence to confrontations with the police—sort of like identifying all leftist critics of capitalism with the Baader-Meinhof gang in the 1970s!

Macron won election in France due largely to the failure of major parties to field candidates who could truly address the concerns of the French people. The same phenomenon happened in the United States, and that’s why we have Donald Trump as president. Demagogues and self-proclaimed saviors thrive in a political vacuum. The same phenomenon occurred more than a century ago in the United States and led to the creation of the People’s Party, also known as the Populists, the largest and most significant third party movement in the history of our nation.

(To the right, Emiliano Zapata in 1912)

The other night on Turner Classic Movies I watched the 1952 film “Viva Zapata!”, the story of the great turn-of-the-last-century Mexican peasant-turned-revolutionary whose legacy as a leader and champion of the people lives on today. Directed by Elia Kazan with a script by John Steinbeck and starring Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata, the film showed how revolutionaries like Zapata in the south of Mexico and Pancho Villa to the north filled a vacuum in that country. After their revolution produced results, the weak-kneed Francisco Madero took over the country, thinking he could accommodate the crying needs of the people while still dealing with bullying militarists like Victoriano Huerta. He paid for that mistake with his life, and so did Zapata and Villa.

Do the Gilets Jaunes need a strong leader, a Zapata, to keep their movement alive and well? France has a long and inspiring history of social movements that sprang up from the people—beginning in modern history with the French Revolution and including other inspiring moments in history such as the Paris Communards of 1871. True leaders who never lose sight of the cause, such as Zapata, are rare.

In the film “Viva Zapata!” one of the generals makes a remark about the revolution breaking out in his country. “Ideas are harder to kill than snakes. How do you kill an idea?” Brando’s Zapata points to another truth about people’s movements. “A strong people is the only lasting strength.”

Friday, February 1, 2019

Rising union membership in the South, a UCW-CWA local at Ole Miss, and remembering Brecht and Weill's "Mahagonny"

(A Green Moon Over Alabama, a book of poetry by Bertolt Brecht, published in the German Democratic Republic in 1975)

Back in the late 1990s I traveled to Jena in what had shortly before that time been Communist East Germany. In a small bookstore in that centuries-old university town I found a copy of poems by Bertolt Brecht, the great playwright and committed Communist whose collaboration with composer Kurt Weill produced such works as The Threepenny Opera and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the latter first published 90 years ago this year and a biting indictment of capitalist greed, hedonism, and corruption that enraged the Nazis back in 1930s Germany.

The most famous song in Mahagonny is the “Alabama Song”, where Jenny, originally played by the great Lotte Lenja, and a group of fellow prostitutes say goodbye to good old Alabama in order to travel to the mythical city of Mahagonny where they’ll find plenty of whiskey, boys, money, and fun.

(To the right, Lotte Lenja)

“Oh moon of Alabama
We now must say good-bye
We’ve lost our good old mamma
And must have dollars
Oh, you know why.”

Here’s Lotte Lenya’s version back in 1958:

On the cover of the book of poetry is a depiction of a Southern-style, cigar-chomping political boss surrounded by whores and their drunken clients under ramshackle roofs. A little bit of the South in Old Communist Germany!

I pulled out that volume recently after seeing the latest numbers on union membership in the U.S. South and country as a whole. Membership dropped a bit nationwide from 10.7 percent of the workforce in 2017 to 10.5 percent last year, just half of what it was back in the 1980s.

The good news is that membership rose in parts of the South with Alabama adding more union members—44,000—than any other state! Union membership as a share of the workforce also rose in Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia while holding steady in the region as a whole, according to CBS and the Institute for Southern Studies' Facing South.

We’re doing our part here in little Oxford, Mississippi, where the United Campus Workers Local 3565 of the Communications Workers of America recently organized as a non-collective bargaining “organizing local” formed to represent and defend the rights of all campus workers—from faculty to custodians. Yours truly was one of the original 50 members needed to secure union status.

The union has already been active on a number of fronts, including its members supporting a successful effort to get non-tenure-track adjunct faculty representation on the campus Faculty Senate. It is looking at a wide range of future issues to address—from the availability of child care for campus workers to the gender gap in wages to a possible Living Wage Campaign.

(To the right, former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam)

United Campus Workers is growing across the South with locals at universities in Tennessee and Georgia. It was successful in preventing Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam from a massive privatization effort on the campuses of the University of Tennessee (as well as across state government) in the fall of 2017. Haslam, a billionaire, and a corporate-dominated group wanted to outsource every state facility service job on those campuses, more than 3,500 jobs in the university system. After pressure from UCW, the state’s university system opted out of the plan.

(Bertolt Brecht, from a photo on the back cover of A Green Moon Over Alabama)

The latest statistics on union membership in Alabama and the South probably would bring a smile to the face of Bertolt Brecht, a cigar chomper himself. In that book of his poetry I have is another little song called “Streiklied” (“Strike Song”) in which he urges workers to take the risk to take a stand for their rights. I’m not a commie—my priest wouldn’t put up with it!--but I like the old poet’s spirit.

“Heraus auf die Strasse! Kampfe!” (“Come out into the street! Fight!”
Um zu warten, ist es zu spaet!” (“To wait is too late!”)
Hilf dir selbst, indem du uns hilft; uebe” (“Help yourselves, and you help us; Exercise your”)
Solidaritaet!” (“Solidarity!”)

Monday, January 21, 2019

Singer-guitarist Billy Bragg keeps the protest spirit of Phil Ochs alive. Meanwhile corporate hero Carlos Ghosn sits in jail awaiting trial

(Cover to the Billy Bragg CD "The Essential Billy Bragg")

“Better late than never” is an expression that has often brought me solace as I’m such a late bloomer on many fronts. I was a flag-waiving, protesting ‘60s radical who had heard of Phil Ochs but never much listened to him. So here I am, a half-century later, enjoying his anti-war, pro-union tunes and getting a particular kick out of “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”, a scathing indictment of all those middle-of-the-roaders who are scared of their own—or simply lack—convictions.

(To the right, Phil Ochs)

Like so many of Ochs’ tunes, it’s very timely today when columnist Jennifer Rubin of the allegedly progressive Washington Post interpreted the midterm elections as yet more proof that Democrats need to be moderate and wary of radical types like Bernie Sanders. As reported in the media watch group FAIR’s Extra!, USA Today also joined last November in dumping on Democrats who might to push too hard on climate change. I can see Phil Ochs grinning with a “I told you so” look on his face.

Discovering the genius of the late Phil Ochs led me to another discovery, that of the very much alive and well Billy Bragg, a British working class singer and guitarist who has been belting out leftist tunes since the 1980s, one of which, “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night” takes the classic labor tune “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and makes it a paean to Ochs. With his searing guitar, his licks full of righteous indignation, Bragg keeps alive the Woody Guthrie-Pete Seeger-Sara Ogan Gunning-Florence Reece-Ella May Wiggins-Phil Ochs tradition.

Listen to his updated version of Florence Reece’s classic “Which Side Are You On?”

In these times, and particularly here in Trumpland, you need the fighting words of singers like these to keep your spirits up.

(Carlos Ghosn)

Here in Mississippi, yours truly is the only reporter who has said much about the downfall of the powerful Carlos Ghosn, the corporate hero at Nissan, Renault and earlier at Michelin who became known as “le cost killer” in France for his slashing of as many as 25,000 jobs on the way to fame. As I wrote in my 2008 book Covering for the Bosses, Ghosn reminds one of erstwhile corporate hero Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom before his downfall. The Mississippi press welcomed Ghosn with gushing praise when he announced the coming of the giant Nissan plant in Canton back in 2000 (at an initial cost of $363 million to the nation’s poorest state).

I didn’t know how prophetic these words were until Ghosn’s arrest in Japan last November amid allegations he had been skimming off company earnings for his own gain and understating his own earnings. He has been held in detention in Japan ever since his arrest, stripped of his titles at Nissan and Renault and fired, and most recently accused of receiving “improper payments of as much as $8.9 million from a joint Nissan-Mitsubishi venture. He also allegedly used Nissan funds to make $14.7 million in payments to Khaled al-Juffali for the Saudi businessman’s help in getting a letter of credit to offset Ghosn’s investment losses. Ghosn says he’s innocent.

A decade ago, Ghosn, now 64, was earning an estimated $4 million a year, a sum that does not include stock options and other income sources. He could spend a decade in prison in found guilty on the charges he’s facing.

Labor South readers recall how Ghosn bitterly fought unionization at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, essentially threatening workers with their jobs and future if they voted pro-union, how he earlier helped keep the classic labor documentary Uprising of ’34 out of a classroom at Spartanburg Technical College in South Carolina in 1995. The documentary dealt with the brutal killing of seven striking textile workers in Honea Path, South Carolina, in 1934.

And, of course, Ghosn told French officials in 2016 he and Nissan were not standing in the way of unionization efforts at the Canton, Mississippi, plant even as managers there threatened and intimidated workers.

Ghosn succeeded in keeping the unions out of his plants in the South, but he was not so successful in keeping himself out of jail.

Oh, and by the way, Nissan recently announced it was slashing 700 contract workers from its workforce at Canton due to sluggish sales. So the Ghosn spirit lives on even if the man himself is in jail.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Happy birthday, Stanley Aronowitz, lion of labor intellectuals and activists, plus a few comments about the U.S. health care system

(Stanley Aronowitz in 2007. Photo by David Shankbone)

Stanley Aronowitz, a lion of labor intellectuals who spent years on the front lines as a factory worker and labor organizer before entering academia, celebrated his 86th birthday this week. It’s an event that all who seek betterment in the lives of working people should mark. Perhaps no other labor writer/activist in this country has contributed more to the understanding of our own labor history, how we got to where we are, and where we need to go to revitalize the movement.

Born and bred in New York City, Aronowitz has written eloquently about the need to organize the U.S. South. Calling the region “labor’s Achilles heel,” Aronowitz wrote in his compelling foreword to my 2008 book Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press, that “the South has become, in essence, another country. … Anti-unionism in the South is preserved and protected by measures that resemble the actions of antidemocratic governments in Asia and Latin America more than the ideal that America is the land of a free people. The struggle for Southern labor is perhaps the greatest struggle for democracy in the land.”

In the 2008 Manifesto for a Left Turn: An Open Letter to U.S. Radicals, Aronowitz and a group of leftist writers offered a plea for a workers’ party that finally will end the largely one-sided allegiance labor has given the Democratic Party and become truly a force for workers’ rights. In a detailed, step-by-step outline describing how labor can once again become a social movement, the manifesto calls for a committed radical media that will help encourage a deepened sense of class solidarity, one that dispenses with all the distracting “middle class” mumbo-jumbo politicians and neo-liberalism-embracing “liberals” use to distract us.

As detailed by Aronowitz’s daughter, writer Nona Willis Aronowitz, in her New York Times op-ed piece in December, this lion of labor activists and intellectuals has suffered health problems since having a stroke a few years ago and even with a decent pension has experienced financial strain like many older Americans because of this country’s broken health care system. Her sister, fighting breast cancer, has faced a similar struggle.

Even as a respected and honored intellectual, philosopher, and author of many books, Stanley Aronowitz has always stood with the working class, and their fight has always been his fight.

Speaking of our health care system ...

I’ve had my own experience with this broken system with the recent injury of my stepson in a serious truck accident in Little Rock, Arkansas. Having started a new job just a couple months before with still a few days before his health insurance kicked in, Andy soon found himself not only in a hospital with serious leg and hip injuries but also without a job and then without insurance to pay for his care. His company let him go nine days after the accident. Shortly thereafter, his scheduled departure from the hospital got expedited from weeks to days to one day.

He’s now on Medicaid and staying with his mother and me in Oxford, Mississippi, as he recuperates. The latest struggle is to find him a primary care physician, and so far it’s not easy.