Always do the right thing!

In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about riots in Baltimore protesting the unexplained death of Freddie Gray.

 

Source: The Atlantic)

 

Coates argues that nonviolence is hypocritical when violence has already occurred:

“When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.

A lot of people will scorn Coates’ words as a liberal reaction, an unpatriotic reaction, even perhaps a wicked reaction. So let’s give equal time to a similarly wicked comment from a Republican friend of the my family. This came in an email a few days ago under the heading “Medicare- Part G:”

“Say you are an older senior citizen and can no longer take care of yourself and the government says there is no Nursing Home care available for you. So, what do you do? You opt for Medicare Part G.
The plan gives anyone 75 or older a gun (Part G) and one bullet. You are allowed to shoot one worthless politician. This means you will be sent to prison for the rest of your life where you will receive three meals a day, a roof over your head, central heating and air conditioning, cable TV, a library, and all the Health Care you need.”

 

I understand this is another flippant chain email of the sort I pondered here. It isn’t meant to be believed, and the man who sent it has no plans to commit violence. But still, it is an explicit call to murder. Is that funny?

I think it isn’t. While I suspect that violence has an appropriate place in human affairs, it has no place in my affairs. I will never practice it or urge others to commit it: not even as a joke. But I think it has a place in historical and social affairs.

Coates is right in saying when violence has already happened, then non-violence is no longer a choice. But, of course, the street riots that happened overnight in Baltimore only hurt the property owners in the neighborhoods where the riots happened. They didn’t and can’t help accomplish justice or even shed light on what happened.

Writers in various publications are talking about how what’s happening in Baltimore reminds them of Ferguson, Missouri and other places. It should also remind them of the 1989 movie Do The Right Thing, and this great scene between Ossie Davis and Spike Lee:

 

It is, of course, vital that Da Mayor gives no guidance as to what “the right thing” is.

What I think is that life, and especially human life, ought to be preserved and respected. And I think that property ought to be left alone. There is a circle in Dante’s Hell (the 4th one) where abusers of property roll rocks at one another forever. So if you think material things don’t matter, take it up with Dante, not me.

 

When violence is needed, I think habits and institutions (not people and not property) ought to be the targets. People have always fought and died for their nation, or their church, or their party, or their tribe. But none of those things will endure. Every human soul is forever.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is right in a small way, saying nonviolence isn’t an option if violence has already occurred. But he doesn’t say how the reaction should be focused. Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing is right insofar as the right thing is the right thing. But he doesn’t give us a clue what it is.

So we have to turn to G. K. Chesterton for a more complete answer. The following comes, if I recall correctly, from the closing of Chesterton’s book, What’s Wrong With the World.  He’s just read about a new local ordinance requiring the hair of little girls in London to be cut short so as to better control lice. Chesterton, looking at the situation with proper priorities, demands instead that the little girls be left alone and that the whole British economy and society be changed to make them free:

 With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not live in an unclean home; because she should not live in an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; and because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. The little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down; and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

I don’t like “like” like this

A new way of abusing the English language has emerged and I’m calling it out. The latest appearance came this morning in a Slate article about immigration policy:

Mitt Romney touted “self-deportation” as a solution to unauthorized immigrants, while figures like Iowa Rep. Steve King channeled grassroots intensity to torpedo comprehensive reform.

 

Chances are you didn’t find anything wrong there, but look again and consider how the word “like” affects the sense.

I hate to pick on the word “like.” It is a glorious word, with wonderful flexibility. And it already has problems enough. There are already two well-known ways of abusing it. The first is the quotative like, in which “like” takes the place of “said” or “replied” or “exclaimed” or some other more apt word: She was like, “I don’t want to cook,” but I was like, “I’m hungry,” so she was like, “Order a pizza or something,” and I was like, “But I’m hungry now!”

The quotative like sacrifices the nuance that comes with using the best word. It makes the point, but it is dull. The second abuse of like is as filler: “When you, like, get home you can, like, send me a text and I’ll, like, come over so we can, like, study.”

This is mostly harmless. It wastes time, but it doesn’t obscure meaning. I would never hire someone who talked like this, but I wouldn’t transport them to Australia, either.

The new abuse I have noticed occurs when the word is used to imply a relationship. The form is always: “[plural noun] like [one or more specific nouns].” A relationship is implied, but never explained or justified. Often the implied relationship doesn’t exist. Often the plural is obfuscatory because one case is all that is meant. Consider the following from the historical website biography.com entry for Napoleon Bonaparte:

Eventually the Jacobins fell from power and Robespierre was executed. In 1795 the Directory took control of the country, a power it would it assume until 1799. All of this turmoil created opportunities for ambitious military leaders like Napoleon. After falling out of favor with Robespierre, he came into the good graces of the Directory in 1795 after he saved the government from counter-revolutionary forces. For his efforts, Napoleon was soon named commander of the Army of the Interior.

 

Use of the plural word “leaders” implies there were more than one. But who were they? No rival French commanders are named in the article, and history shows that Napoleon’s lieutenants (Ney, Soult and the others) were mostly loyal and subordinate to him. Napoleon was one of the most power-mad people in history. Who else in revolutionary 18th century France was ambitious like him? Nobody!

What the writer means by the five-word combination is precisely this: Napoleon. Where five words are used in place of one, and where the five words communicate less information than the single word would, we’ve got a problem.

Giving examples is a good way to clarify a point. But it works only if the reader or listener knows what the relationship is — what the specific example is an example of. And that requires the speaker to state the relationship plainly before offering the examples. Let’s try one. Suppose I were to allude to “countries like Austria, Burkina Faso, Uzbekistan and Grenada.”

You might struggle to find a relationship among these distant and diverse places. They are not alike in any obvious sense. As it turns out, they are all countries I’ve been to. But it is not reasonable for me to expect you to understand or accept the association if I don’t explain the relationship. Iowa Rep. Steve King is a “figure” in Washington. But he isn’t the only one. I’m honestly unsure whether his channeling of grassroots intensity was common or unique.

A recent opinion column in the Washington Post set forth “The Progressive Case Against Boycotting States Like Indiana.” The headline implies a number of states are subject to boycott. But the article doesn’t mention any of them, nor does it list criteria that might be used to determine which states are boycott worthy. The writer was talking about Indiana specifically. “States like Indiana” was a metastasizing cancer on his otherwise healthy sentence.

Anyone serious about organizing an effective boycott needs to consider whether life is possible without the products being boycotted, and whether participants buy enough goods and services from the target to make a boycott hurt. A boycott of a place you never go to anyway is meaningless. So is declaring a boycott of a company you honestly can’t live without. Whether to boycott or not also depends on the likelihood that the target will back down. Indiana’s pusillanimous leadership backed down before a boycott got going. The 20 other states with similar laws would perhaps not have tumbled so quickly.

Some readers might protest, “I know what he means by “states like Indiana.” But you can’t know for sure – all you can know for sure is what you think he means. Your guess might be good or it might be lousy. But a good writer should not leave you guessing.

Let me be reasonable. I’m not objecting to all uses of the word “like” to signal examples or relationships. Here is a good example from a website called Flavor Facts:

Foods with particularly volatile aroma compounds, such as onions, garlic, and fish, must be quarantined from mild foods like apples, pears, and potatoes.  Be careful with dairy products like milk, cheese, and butter, as they can intermingle with other foods in your refrigerator too.

 

The usage occurs twice here, and is apt in both cases. “Mild foods” is a meaningful description, and the examples that follow help the reader understand. Unlike the Napoleon and Indiana examples, more than one mild food exists, so the plural is proper. In the second case, milk, butter and cheese are the most common dairy products, and it makes sense to cite these in particular. Ice cream is also a dairy product, but it goes in the freezer away from the onions. Yogurt is a dairy product, but its impervious plastic container protects it. Kumiz, kefir and other ethnic specialties are rare enough to be left off a list meant for Americans.

I have one final example. Consider the follow remark from a popular internet forum. The commenter mentions that he has recently enjoyed the music of a German medieval-rock band called Corvus Corax. He then incongruously says:

There’s something special and unique about rock/metal produced during that time. There is a weight, an atmosphere, that only bands like Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin could produce. I’m guessing it’s because the drugs forced them to slow down and let their music breathe.

 

To begin with I’m perplexed by “during that time.” Black Sabbath debuted in 1969 and did its best work in the next two years. Pink Floyd formed in 1965 and waned after The Wall in 1979. Led Zeppelin started in 1968 and ended in 1980 after drummer John Bonham’s death. Corvus Corax formed a decade after the others disbanded or waned. There was no “that time” when all the groups were going at once. But that’s not important right now. What is important is the phrase “bands like Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.” This is troublesome because Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin are not very similar. For proof,  I direct you to the excellent site Every Noise at Once. If you’re not familiar with it, Every Noise at Once uses a computer algorithm to plot 1200 or so musical genres on a two dimensional grid. Briefly: “Down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.”

genre2

 

Based on its algorithm, Every Noise at Once classifies Black Sabbath as “stoner rock.” It classifies Pink Floyd as “progressive rock” or “album rock.” Led Zeppelin exemplifies “blues rock” or “classic rock.” Admittedly, these all fit into the electric, popular and modern portion of the grid. The screen grab above shows a small wedge of a massive spectrum that also includes barbershop, opera and house music. But the three are too far apart to group them without explanation. “Bands like Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin” also includes such intermediate genres as vegan straight edge, organic ambient, deep psychobilly, vaporwave, and my favorite: outsider.

Here’s George Orwell on the consequences of sloppy writing:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more because he drinks. The same thing is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

 

Let’s halt this emerging abuse of like before it becomes standard. It is a product of careless writing by smart writers with important things to say.

 

The lover and the killer

In the World War II-era poem Vergissmeinnicht by Keith Douglas, the narrator comes across a dead German on an old battlefield. Looking at the corpse of his enemy he notices a girl’s picture with “Forget me not” written in German on it and realizes that, without meaning to, he has killed someone’s boyfriend:

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

The dead man in the poem was one person’s enemy and the love of another person’s life. Similarly, every person fits many roles as they relate to the people around them. That is why I find Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s words this week so reprehensible.

On Friday both houses of the legislature had voted to repeal Indiana’s common construction wage law. I had written before that large-scale public protests seem to have lost their power to shape events, and the rally of a thousand or more union workers during the week failed again to turn the event their way.

(Source: CBS4Indy)

 

It is now up to Pence to sign the bill, which he is eager to do. During the week, Pence had the following to say about the progress of the repeal:

“When the Indiana Senate voted today to repeal the common construction wage, they put taxpayers first, providing much-needed relief to cash-strapped local governments and schools,” Pence said in a statement after the vote.

 

What I say is, you can’t put the taxpayers first. You can’t, because there are no people who are only taxpayers. Taxpayers are also consumers. Most of them are wage earners. Many are also investors.

Pence claims that repealing the common construction wage will benefit Indiana taxpayers by reducing the cost of government-funded public projects.  Contractors that the government hires can now pay workers less than before. Pence suggests this is a good thing.

But those workers getting paid less than before are also Indiana taxpayers. And they will now pay less into the state’s tax coffers and spend less in local stores and businesses. It seems likely that some Indiana merchants will go out of business in the near future as their customer base shrinks.

It is worth noting that the change in the construction wage law only drops the floor on wages. It doesn’t ensure that the total cost of projects will actually go down. Materials and fuel and compliance are all going to cost the same as before. Due to price rigidity, prices might not go down much at all. Sellers know their customers are accustomed to paying the old price, so when expenses (e.g., wages) drop, sellers tend to keep the price they charge close to the old price and enjoy the extra profit.

And there’s another point that cuts still deeper into Pence’s claim. He says the repeal of the common construction wage will be good for Indiana taxpayers. I’ve shown how this ignores the genuine complexity of citizenship. But even supposing it were true, I still say he’s wrong.

I am an Indiana resident and a taxpayer. I am not a union construction worker. So I will lose nothing from the reduced wages, and I stand to gain from the lower tax burden of paying for public projects. Right? Not so fast!

The amount that I have to pay to support a tax-funded expense equals the total cost of the project minus the contribution of other taxpayers. Pence promises that the cost of projects is going to go down. He can’t guarantee that, but even supposing it does, the contribution of other taxpayers is going to go down fore sure. Some of my fellow citizens are construction workers. And as they earn less, they’ll pay less in taxes. If their contribution goes down by more than the cost of the project goes down, then I’ll have to pay more.

Obviously I’m not presenting a detailed balance sheet argument here. But it is not hard to envision a scenario in which losses outweigh gains even among Indiana’s non-union, non-construction taxpayers.

I think it is important to recognize one very clear benefit in Pence’s position. There is one group that stands very clearly to benefit. And that is property owners who live out of state and only own business property here. Could it be that Governor Pence has those sort of people in mind? Could it be that this helps to explain his position?

 

As I was finishing this post, I came across something Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote about a month ago. Hear him:

[I]n recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.

 

Checks and Balances

The American System of government, we were taught in school, contains “checks and balances” that regulate the government and keep it running smoothly. My high school civics text calls checks and balances “insurance against seizure of power of the federal government by a single man or an organized group” and “a protection against rash, ill-considered action.” Russell Kirk writes in The Roots of American Order, “[T]he Roman institutions of checks and balances in politics, and of separation of powers, would be imitated in the frame of government for the United States. . . . And yet that Roman constitution was beginning to decay even as Polybius wrote of it.”

Checks and balances are a fine idea. We should recognize, though, that the ones in the Constitution have a pretty narrow scope. They insure only that one man or group won’t seize utter control of the federal government. That has never happened. The closest we’ve come to autocratic take-over of the national government was Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt. And they were both good men who exceeded their constitutional limits in the interest of worthy goals rather than to aggrandize power.

Checks and balances as taught in school describes only the specific, overlapping roles of congress, the president and the courts. But in reality, there are many checks and balances in life, and they all tend to prevent harmful excesses. College students drink too much liquor. But then they fall asleep or run out of money and stop.  Aggressive drivers in out-sized pick-up trucks run down America’s highways at any speed they please. There aren’t enough highway patrols to slow them down, but those bad drivers will crash or use up all the fuel on the planet eventually.  And the more ridiculously over-large their vehicles and the faster they gun their engines, the sooner that day will come.

 

Here we come to the point. Checks and balances are good, and we ought to allow them to work. When a historically useful check falls into disuse or dysfunction, we ought to worry. And that has happened in the US with respect to organized protest – especially of organized labor.

I’ve been reading The Age of Acquiescence, by Steve Fraser. He contends that contemporary America puts up with things that our grandfathers or the founders of America wouldn’t have. He especially contrasts the Gilded Age (roughly 1870 through 1910) with today. The comparison is apt, because economic and social indicators (income disparity, concentration of wealth, worker protections, etc.) today are more similar to what they were in that age of robber barons than in the decades from 1920 through 1980.

The first half of the book records popular protest by the men who insisted on certain things as they came in off the farms into the workshops and industrial mills. Often a small protest at one mill or railroad would grow universal as workers in every related type of business would walk out in support. The literature of the time (Think The Grapes of Wrath and The Jungle) encouraged people to consider what was just, and productive, and appropriate to a nation of free men and women.

In the second part of the book, Fraser suggests why Americans today are so much more passive than their forefathers. He offers three reasons. First, consumption makes people feel good about their situation. They may have to buy the latest model of flat screen TV or cell phone on credit – something their grandparents would never have done – but once they’ve got it, they feel validated. Second, the notion that success awaits the person who manages their career aggressively and wisely enough. Thus, the person who prepares for a job only to learn no one is hiring or that the job doesn’t pay a living wage, concludes they made a mistake rather than that the employer is unfair or the economy inadequate. Third is the mythology of the successful businessmen. Steven Jobs and Bill Gates came from middle-class families and became billionaires. Therefore, goes the mythology, the common man’s best hope lies in encouraging [whatever Jobs and Gates did]. Not many of these admirers notice that Jobs and Gates got rich by co-opting other peoples’ ideas and by manufacturing their products in conditions of near slavery.

There is no doubt that Fraser’s main contention is correct. Look at the following chart, which displays the amount of labor union job actions for every year since 1970. The blue line represents the number of American workers who went on strike in any year. At the highest, more than 2.5 million workers struck in a single year. The red line shows the number of workdays lost to the strike (the number of workers times the days they were off the job), and this stood as high as 50 million.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

 

Both measures dwindle year by year, and in 2014 they are both at approximately nothing. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is only one significant strike going on anywhere in the US right now. Refinery workers in Indiana, Ohio and Texas are striking against British Petroleum, Marathon and another oil company. These are the last holdouts of a wider strike that had included refineries in California, Kentucky, Louisiana and Washington, too. Telecommunication workers in New England were off the job for 131 days, but they settled and went back to work in late February.

I googled “labor strike” and clicked for the latest news items to see what else is going on. The articles at the top of the list are about strikes in China and Argentina. Further down the list is mention of one recently resolved laborers’ strike in Chicago, and a proposal to make it illegal for teacher to walk out in Vermont. And then a bunch more news from Mexico, France and Vietnam. It seems proven to me that union job actions are a broken stick – a thing of the past.

I’ve never been a member of a union. My father wasn’t a union man and he never had anything good to say about them. I was at a  friend’s house back during high school and noticed a magazine titled “IBEW” lying on the coffee table. I was shocked that it was out in the open like that. But then I realized perhaps it wasn’t as shameful as I thought. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve recognized the role of unions as one form of popular expression. If checks and balances are good within the federal government, then they probably have a function within the wider society.

The proper function of unions is to keep vicious employers from exploiting workers too badly. Unions can be harmful to the public interest when they demand more, more, more, or when they protect members who are incompetent from punishment or firing.

But there are many instances when the voice of workers — and of the masses in general — needs to be heard. If strikes never happen, and if popular protests are quelled with no results or effect, then surely a valuable regulatory tool is lost to our society. And that is where we stand now in America.

The civil protests in Ferguson, Missouri were widespread and there was much destruction. But what were the consequence? Officer Darren Wilson was not charged and no laws were changed.

The Occupy Wall Street protests of a few years ago, likewise, accomplished nothing. In fact, the enduring image from the Occupy movement is of University of California students bowing their heads to avoid a blast of pepper spray from campus cops.

(Source: stuff.co.nz)

 

Did you know the United States was gripped by a paralyzing general strike in May of 2012? This was during the height of the Occupy Movement, but the demonstration planned for May 1st – International Workers Day – was something extraordinary. Instead of just squatting in downtown park near Wall Street, the May event was supposed to involve workers and students all across the country – millions of them. You can read about the planned event in the Russia Times, and in the Huffington Post. It is significant that only these left-leaning sources talked about the general strike and that neither of them followed up after. An ABC News report says there were protests in a few major cities, but nothing much.

So we find the proclivity of Americans to coordinate action to achieve a worthwhile social goal — or at least to voice their side of a dispute — is waning. Insofar as that force is needed as a check to oppose the more well-heeled and well-connected, America is out of balance.

 

A good politician

I’ve struggled for three days trying to write something about Indiana’s recent moment in the limelight. The governor and the legislature mishandled the RFRA bill, and then the rest of the country beat up on them like schoolyard bullies. 

Indiana’s public officials got punked badly because they hadn’t thought clearly about what they were doing, because they voted the law without informing and involving the people of the state, and because they (the government and legislators) are afraid of employers and just about any national notice.

As I said, I tried to write about the event, but I couldn’t get my thoughts together. So instead I want to recall an opposite episode involving one of the most admirable public servants I ever encountered.

William H. Hudnut was mayor of Indianapolis from 1976 to 1992. He’s on the faculty of Georgetown University now, but he was mayor for 16 eventful years. These were the years when Indianapolis grew and developed into a fine city. When he took office in 1976, Indianapolis was probably the largest city with the least culture and community in America. People called it “India-NO-place.” But Hudnut worked to revive the downtown, promote professional and amateur sports, and get the city through the difficult recession of 1981. His frequent phrase was, “This is a great day for Indianapolis!” One day he’d say it when the city had attracted a new employer, the next time because some national cultural event was scheduled for the city. Part of the time, the struggle was just to keep some local institution alive: both Indiana Repertory Theater and the Indiana Pacers teetered in the balance during those years, but were saved through community effort and Hudnut’s support.

My particular recollection was a candidates’ forum during the mayoral election of 1983. Hudnut was going for his third term. I was an evening news reporter, so I attended this small event  at a neighborhood center on the eastside of Indianapolis.

In addition to Hudnut, there were opposing candidates from the Democratic and Socialist Workers parties. (Yes, in those days, America was a freer and more tolerant society and the Socialist Workers Party was part of the political landscape. They could never win an election, but they could join the debate.)

The Socialist — an earnest young man with a fierce mustache — opened the proceedings with remarks about conditions in Central America. He said America needed to stop supporting the Duarte regime in El Salvador. He explained that the Sandinista government of leftist Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua was fairly elected and doing great things for schools and health care. He kept on like that until the moderator asked him to sit down.

Next up was the democrat, who complained about the way surrounding suburban counties took advantage of Indianapolis. Hundreds of thousands of people, he explained, earned their incomes in Indianapolis. But because they lived across the county line, their income taxes went to support those other counties. Is that fair, he asked? If elected, he said, he’d go to the Statehouse and work to get a “commuter tax”  enabling the city to keep its fair share of the income tax revenue. He kept on like that until the moderator asked him to sit down.

And then it was Hudnut’s turn. To everyone’s surprise, the mayor was livid! (Maybe he was acting outraged to add conviction to what he was about to say, but he sure seemed angry.) Paraphrasing:

“This forum is about the duties of the mayor’s office. It is about plowing snow and sweeping streets. It is about keeping an effective police force on the streets to keep people safe. It is about responding immediately when someone’s basement is flooded or there’s a squirrel in their attic. The mayor’s job is to provide services to the people; to make living in this city as good as it can possibly be. If my opponents care about the things they talked about, they should run for some other office. But the people of this city deserve someone in the mayor’s office who knows the job.”

 

Hudnut in later years (Source:Georgetown University)

 

I don’t remember what the crowd reaction was. I was very impressed and made sure those remarks got plenty of airplay on WIBC news that night and the next day.

Hudnut won the election. He was a shoe-in from the start and the small event I describe was a minor moment. But it has stuck in my mind for over 30 years. It still seems like a high moment in American civic affairs: a politician who recognized that his job was public service rather than peddling dogma.

C.S. Lewis, in an essay called The Poison of Subjectivism, expressed his appreciation for men like Hudnut:

Vision is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up his facts, and who has learned his job.