Workingman’s Blues

A few years back, the Los Angeles Local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union opened up the books to accept applications for 3,000 casual stevedore jobs. The positions paid well enough—about $28 per hour—but, as casual jobs, there were neither guarantees of regular work nor any benefits. Over 300,000 people applied. It was clearly a step up for a major percentage of the LA area’s physically fit, U.S. citizen/legal resident, drug-free blue collar workforce.

There was a time when someone with those qualifications (well, actually, you didn’t even have to be drug-free), could graduate high school or get discharged from the military on a Friday and start work in the steel mill on a Monday. If they didn’t like it there, they could hire into the auto plant on a Tuesday. There was a time when getting laid-off didn’t mean a near-permanent loss of income and career prospects. There was a time when going out on strike didn’t mean risking everything that you worked for.

I missed this heyday moment by a year or two. By the time I got my first full-time job in 1972, things were already beginning to turn to shit. Plant closings and permanent reductions in force were becoming part of the landscape and the country was about to be rocked by an oil crisis and a series of increasingly severe recessions. I was too late for the steel mill/auto plant thing but you could still fairly easily get a living wage job in a cookie factory or a warehouse and not worry too much about how you would survive if the plant closed or the boss fired you for being a smart ass. I traveled the country in the mid-70’s working a series of light construction and cannery jobs—many dispatched from union hiring halls or state employment agencies—that are being done today by undocumented immigrants at close to the same actual wage (not adjusted for inflation) that was prevalent back then.

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America by Birth, Rockaway by the Grace of God: A New York Surf Story

For people who grew up on the Rockaway Peninsula, the gradual loss of our homeland was as senseless as it was staggering. Once a shimmering seaside summer haven for New York’s working families, over time huge chunks of our coastal “Everyman’s paradise” fell to ruin. Across this geographically isolated barrier reef on the southeast Queens, miles of waterfront property were transformed into desolate urban wastelands – for nothing. Everyone has an opinion. Some blame the City of New York for piss-poor urban planning policies. Others claim an accelerated influx of impoverished minority populations transformed Rockaway into “Welfare-by-the-Sea.” Or was it white flight that pushed things to the tipping point? By all accounts, Rockaway’s history has been a perfect shit storm. But perfect storms also bring awesome waves. Somehow, through it all, across the Peninsula, four generations of surfing dynasties survived.

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The Bridge

Bernard Avishai has been working on an article set to appear soon in The New York Times Magazine based on exclusive recent interviews with Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas that indicate the two leaders were very close to achieving a peace deal two years ago. Details about Palestinian concessions during those negotiations have been leaked to Aljazeera (and there’s already been a preview of Avishai’s scoop on the front page of the Times). Avishai wants to avoid spilling any more of his story in advance of publication but he confirms Olmert and Abbas “left Obama small gaps to bridge…”

and both still want to see the president bridge them. The president does not have a great deal of time to digest what they negotiated, offer an American package based on their understandings, and rally the world to it. But if he proves courageous enough to do this…he can, let us say, finally earn his peace prize.

Uri Avnery – grandfather of Israel’s peace movement – offers his own astringent take below on the distracting “scandal” surrounding the leaks to “Aljazeera” about the Olmert/Abbas negotiations.

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Looking Backward

I went to Cairo a couple of years ago to attend a conference on international health. It was held at a hotel down the hill from the pyramids at Giza and on a free day I did my touristy duty. The pharoahs’ tombs didn’t get me too high. Maybe because I kept my head down to avoid all the con men on camels (the sort of hard guys who were recruited to ride out of Giza and bumrush the crowd at Tahrir Square). I finished up at the Sphinx, which paled next to the realer-than-neo-realist spectacle of hungry kids begging under its broken nose, fighting over scraps and almost falling off ramps with no railings to protect them from fearsome drops.

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On Present-Mindedness in the Writing of History

In The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (2008), the distinguished American historian Gordon Wood warns against the distortions of reading the present into the past or seeing the present as an inevitable outcome of events in the past. At the same time, he knows that present-mindedness is not entirely avoidable. Its complete absence from a historical perspective turns into antiquarianism.

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Express Yourself

Barack Obama went back to (the black) church during his Tucson speech as he brought good news about Gabby Giffords – “She opened her eyes! She opened her eyes! She opened her eyes!” His little improvisation reminded me of Al Sharpton’s gospel triad at Michael Jackson’s funeral – “Michael never stopped! Michael never stopped! Michael never stopped!” In the following piece, Nick Salvatore – author of the biography of the great African-American preacher C.L. Franklin, “Singing in a Strange Land” – meditates on Franklin’s singular contribution to the tradition that’s helped shape Obama’s best “black and more than black” self (and songs). B.D.

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Hustle and Blows

Two weeks ago, the author sent First this commentary on the state of boxing.

Last night, HBO aired the best thing it has shown all year: a live broadcast of a middleweight championship boxing match between champion Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez and Paul “The Punisher” Williams. Both are widely regarded as two of the top five fighters active in the sport, and the drama and ferocity of their first match earned it widespread acknowledgement as the Fight Of The Year 2009.

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Hipsters ‘R Us

Where were you on April 11, 2009? On that day, writers for and readers of the lit-journal n+1 participated in a symposium at NYC’s New School on “the contemporary hipster.” Papers were read, then a panel discussion was held to which audience members—there were 175 attendees—were invited to contribute. I missed it.

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Whither Iraq (Redux)?

This is a (slightly adapted) version of a lecture Kanan Makiya gave last week at the University of New Hampshire. Makiya contrasts the relative progress made by Iraq’s victims-become-citizens with the dithering (and worse) of the country’s political class. His unillusioned, yet undespairing analysis clarifies the situation on the ground. It also hints why Makiya himself may one day be remembered – against all odds  – as the intellectual father of the democracy struggling to be born in Iraq. The following passage gets right to the heart of the matter:

Both of Iraq’s national elections in 2005 and 2010 were in the end about that most fundamental of all political questions: “Who am I?” And how could it be otherwise in the new post-Saddam world that had so suddenly thrust itself upon the people of Iraq. Having been subjected to the gravest of depredations, and scarred by a brutal dictatorship unmatched in its capacity for cruelty, the Iraqi people entered political life in 2003, thanks to the United States and its allies, as an unknown quantity, unknown even to themselves…To be sure the men and women who took their lives in their hands as they went out to vote in 2005, when quite literally they were being targeted by al-Qaeda as they lined up at polling places, were heroes. They were heroes in a way that it is difficult for outsiders who have not been subjected to such sustained decades-long abuse and intimidation to understand. But they were also victims, and they carried the scars of that victim-hood in their hearts and minds; victim-hood is not something that can be erased overnight. And, in spite of what so much of Arab political culture has been trying to persuade us of in recent years – and not only Arab culture – it has to be emphasized there is no virtue in victim-hood; it is a terrible affliction, not a moral quality. It degrades us as citizens and as human beings. And so the question arises: How did these victims-become-citizens handle themselves in the two elections under consideration?

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Left Behind: The Rapture

Michael Berube, The Left at War, New York University Press
The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, Semiotexte
Tom McDonough, ed., The Situationists and the City, Verso

The three works under consideration here – the first, a survey of assorted leftist interventions from the past couple of decades, the second, a political sensation from a couple of years ago, the third, an assemblage of texts from the 50s and 60s – have nothing to do with anything in the news now. But, taken together, they tell us enough about where we are. It isn’t good.

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Grounded: Thinking Through the “Ground Zero” Mosque

Prologue: New York Story

I went in for the matzo ball soup and ended up married to a Muslim. I met my wife-to-be while she was working as a hostess at Carnegie Deli. Her New York immigrant story has been in my head as I’ve read political narratives about the “Ground Zero” mosque. I might have given New Republic editor Martin Peretz the benefit of doubt when he wondered whether he should “honor” the people behind the mosque by “pretending they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment when I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse it.” But I knew in my gut he was out to lunch once he’d spelled out his own bias in his now notorious statement: “[F]rankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.” When I read that line, I flashed on my wife leading me around a Senegalese Sufi cemetery on a blindingly hot day in search of her beloved grandmother’s grave.

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