Quite the World, Isn't It?

On labor rights, civil liberties, and violence

April 16, 2014

Tags: history, books

Part of the interesting and engaged crowd at the La Veta Public Library. Photo by Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I’m midway through a week of speaking engagements in Colorado, and as is usual with such things, I’m probably getting more out of the audiences than they are getting from me.

In two talks so far (one at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, the other at the La Veta Public Library) we wandered down a new avenue: What was the role of the easy availability of weapons in the escalation of the violence here in southern Colorado 100 years ago? Was the ability of the striking coal miners to amass rifles and use them against the corrupted National Guard an example for the pro-gun lobby’s argument that the Second Amendment enables citizens to defend themselves against a tyrannical government? Or was easy access to the weapons the reason so many people – at least 75 – died in the conflict?

I think the second is the answer. For those not familiar, in September 1913 thousands of southern Colorado coal miners walked out on strike after coal operators refused to negotiate over a list of workers’ demands, topped by recognizing the United Mine Workers as the miners’ union. In that era, the coal operators wielded incredible political and economic power in the state, and as the strike evolved the coal operators and the government seemed, from the perspective of the strikers, to have merged into one force arrayed against them (the local courts were corrupt; constitutional protections against search and seizure and other basic liberties were usurped; state laws governing mine safety and wages were ignored, etc.).

So the miners walked out, a strike that began in an atmosphere of violence (one union organizer was killed before the strike even began) that surged and ebbed until the April 20, 1914, Ludlow Massacre, in which eleven children and two mothers died in a fire that swept through the Ludlow tent colony. Those deaths launched ten days of revenge by rampaging union supporters who attained control of most of the Front Range from the New Mexico border to near Denver. The miners and their supporters didn’t stand down until President Woodrow Wilson sent in the U.S. army as a peacekeeping force, and the irredeemably compromised National Guard retreated from the field.

In my view (which I argue in my book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West), the miners were freedom fighters standing up against the corrupt political and economic system. But as we've been discussing this week, in the end the violence achieved no tangible gains. Life in the mines continued, and the strike concluded with a whimper in December without achieving the main goal: Union recognition. Ultimately, the state court ended the corruption in Huerfano County, one of two centers of the worst of the strike violence, and voters ousted the incompetent governor who had lost control of the National Guard and the state, in an election that shifted the base of political power away from the coal operators.

So it was democracy, not the availability of guns, that ultimately prevailed.

And that was only one slice of the discussions we’ve been having. The Colorado Springs Independent posted/published a Q&A with me about Ludlow, which also lists the rest of the week’s talks. If you’re in Colorado, come join us.

Detroit: A Biography out in paperback with a new Afterword

February 28, 2014

Tags: books, history, personal

So I arrived home yesterday after the long slog on the train from Los Angeles and found a box delivered to the house. Part of the contents is pictured at left.

Yes, that’s the paperback edition of Detroit: A Biography, shipping now and available in stores (I hope; if your local is a smaller shop you might need to have them owner order it). It looks very nice – they kept the design from the hardcover, which is that great metallic-sheen finish over the 1929 photo of Detroit from Windsor, across the river.

The book also has a new Afterword, my attempt to wrap my arms around all the developments since I finished writing Detroit: A Biography in late 2011 (it was published in April 2012, nearly two years ago). I’ve pasted the first few paragraphs of the new Afterword below to give you a sense of it.

Overall, for all of Detroit’s troubles, strong flickers of life remain there that deserve nurturing, and hundreds of thousands of Detroiters need help from their fellow citizens.

As for the bankruptcy, I find myself in a lot of discussions about that. One recurring point: Pensioners and investors should not be on equal footing. The workers did their jobs for wages and promises of future support, and the city – bankrupt or not – has a moral obligation to them. The bondholders invested knowing – it’s the nature of investing – that there was risk, and many bond buyers received inflated interest rates reflecting Detroit’s shaky financial underpinnings. I have problems at a fundamental level with much of capitalism, but if people are going to play to play the investment game knowing they are putting assets at risk, they don’t have much room to cry for special consideration when they lose the gamble. Keep the pensions whole; let the gamblers ruminate on their losses.


October 2013

Seats on the second tier of Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team, offer an impressive view of the downtown Detroit skyline. Tall buildings shoulder their way skyward beyond the center field fence. Some have the clean lines of modern architecture, but most are much older, dating back to the 1920s, and have been dirtied by time, with a patina of gray covering ornate cornices and other architectural details that exude a sense of history. And despite a surge in purchases in recent years, many remain shuttered and empty.

This is the cradle for the potential rebirth of Detroit, which ... (more…)

On John Hay's peculiar history, and a book review

February 6, 2014

Tags: history, books

In writing The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, I got to spend some research time on the life of John Hay, who was the U.S. secretary of state when Ambassador Horace Porter, the main focus of the book, finally recovered the naval hero's body. I was already familiar with Hay, and was glad to learn more about his remarkable life, which included friendships with Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley, three of our four assasssinated presidents.

So I jumped at the chance to review Joshua Zeitz's fine new book, Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image, a review that just went live on the Los Angeles Times website and should be in the print edition this Sunday. From the review:
Sometimes political careers are born of chance.

John Nicolay and John Hay were two young men working in Springfield, Ill., when they became involved with the political life of Abraham Lincoln before his 1860 U.S. presidential campaign. Tireless and smart, the friends, still in their 20s, proved themselves indispensable to Lincoln, who brought them along with him to the White House as his personal secretaries — in effect, the president's gatekeepers.

In his new book, "Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image," author Joshua Zeitz skillfully recounts what were heady days for Nicolay and Hay, even as they were tragic days for the nation. The friends lived in the White House and wielded considerable power as advisors and conduits of Lincoln's orders. Over the four years of the Lincoln presidency, they had as good a view of the unfolding Civil War battles — both military and political — as Lincoln himself.

And after the assassination, the friends tasked themselves with chronicling Lincoln's life, leading to publication of the 10-volume"Lincoln: A History." The series and the related "Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works" co-edited by the two men remain part of the foundation for how modern Americans view the nation's 16th president. Or, as Zeitz phrases it, the creation of the "Lincoln Memorial Lincoln."
It's a fascinating work, a hybrid of traditional biography and historical storytelling. And with the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's death coming up in 2015, there will be a lot more books on that era popping up in bookstores.

Including one by me. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. First let's get The Admiral and the Ambassador launched in May ...

A review, and a new gig

January 18, 2014

Tags: books, history, personal

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This weekend's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Greg Grandin's very good new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, which builds off the story of a single repressed slave revolt into a thoughtful revisitation to the spread of slavery in South America. The review runs in the Sunday paper (already available online here).

The timing is coincidental, but it's fun that the review appears in the newspaper the day before I start my new job as an editorial writer for the LA Times, returning to the paper and full-time work for the first time since 2008. More about that momentarily.

Grandin's book, I note in the review, is more than a simple history:
He also uses it as a spark for rumination on paradox: an antislavery ship's captain re-enslaving Africans; an "age of liberty" coinciding with "the Age of Slavery"; and the transition of an economic system based on chattel slavery to one of wages, a different kind of bondage. As Herman Melville's Ishmael asked in the beginning of "Moby-Dick," "Who ain't a slave?"


At one point, Grandin compares Melville's Ahab from "Moby-Dick" with Delano. Where Ahab has become "synonymous with ruin" in the pursuit of obsession, Delano "represents a more common form of modern authority." As the captain of a seal ship that can find no seals (they'd been hunted to near-extinction), Delano struggles in a rapidly changing market under pressure from creditors and financiers to turn a profit. Abandoned by its captain, the Tryal is a prize to capture and sell — ship, stock and slave cargo included.

"Caught in the pincers of supply and demand and trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with his own crew on the brink of mutiny because there are no seals left to kill and no money to be made, Delano rallies men to the chase, not of a white whale but of black rebels. Their slide into barbarism … happens not because he is dissenting from the laws of commerce and capital but because he faithfully and routinely administers them."

The review is the last I've done as a freelance writer, though I expect to continue reviewing after I start back at the LA Times, a move that I'm looking forward to. As much as I enjoy the freelance life - particularly the control over my own time and projects - I'm drawn to this fresh challenge of writing editorials. It is one of the few things in newspapers I haven't tried yet, and after working in near-solitude for so long it will be an interesting change of pace to become part of an editorial board, and join in the give-and-take of coming to a consensus on some of the key issues of the day.

And I also expect to keep writing books, though at a slower pace. My The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones comes out in May, and I'm coming up on the midway point of another book I'm keeping under wraps for the moment, which will come out in 2015. When it does, that will make five books of history published in a span of eight years. So expect a gap after the fifth book comes out.

Meanwhile, I hope to announce in a few weeks book tour plans for Th Admiral and the Ambassador come May, a story I'm very excited to have written about.

On Doris Kearns Goodwin and The Bully Pulpit

November 8, 2013

Tags: book, book reviews, history

The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new history, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism It's Goodwin's usual solid job of richly detailed lives at crossroads that had significant effects on the nation. My only quibble with it is the length - 750 pages before the notes and index. As I wrote in the review:
[T]hat's because this really is three overlapping books stitched together. There's a bio of Roosevelt (president from 1901-09), a bio of Taft (president, 1909-13), and a history of the muckraker era, with shorter bios of such seminal figures as Samuel L. McClure and the stable of writers (including Ida M. Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens) he brought together at his eponymous magazine.

The strength and the weakness of Goodwin's work here rest in the details. Roosevelt and Taft have been the subjects of many biographies, and for good reason. Both are outsized figures (for Taft, in the literal sense), and each was touched by personal tragedy (Roosevelt's first wife died shortly after giving birth; Taft's wife suffered a debilitating stroke two months after he became president). Roosevelt became president with the assassination of William McKinley and survived an assassination attempt himself during the 1912 presidential campaign. Taft went on to serve as chief justice of the United States, the only president to have done so.

While each is a fascinating figure in his own right, there's too much space devoted to their formative years here — they don't meet until Page 135. Similarly, there is too much minutiae about legislative battles that might have been significant in the moment but are not so significant against the historical backdrop. This is where the work, for all of Goodwin's strength as a writer, bogs down.
I took particular interest in the work because it overlaps in time and in some characters with my forthcoming The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, due out in the Spring. Jones's body was recovered by Horace Porter, ambassador to France under President McKinley and then Roosevelt, during Roosevelt's first term, so I was already attuned to the era. And Goodwin gets it right.

Remembering the war some of them never fought

October 18, 2013

Tags: book, book reviews, history

There's an odd phenomenon here in America - and it could be happening elsewhere - in which people who never served in the military still claim the service, lying on their resumes to be seen as the patriots they never really were. It often blows up on them, and there are organizations that have made it their mission to cast a bright light on the fraudulent claims.

But in the aftermath of the Civil War, an era in which the poor had no safety net, pretenders to glory seemed to be everywhere - often to get a pension. Richard A. Serrano, a Los Angeles Times staff writer (we overlapped but I don't recall ever meeting him), has written about this odd slice of Americana in his new Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, which I reviewed this week for the Los Angeles Times. From the review:
Serrano, a staff writer in the Los Angeles Times' Washington, D.C., bureau, starts with two main characters: former Union soldier Albert Woolson and onetime rebel soldier Walter Washington Williams. Each man forms a compelling story of becoming caught up in the nation's bloodiest war and its aftermath. By the late 1950s, as the United States neared the centennial of the start of the war, each was feted as the oldest living veteran of his respective army.

But one was a fraud, a scam that would have gone undetected had he not outlived all of his fellow Confederate veterans.

There's not a lot of suspense here. It becomes clear pretty quickly which was the real deal and which a fraud. But suspense isn't the point. Serrano uses the men as a window into the long-playing reverberations of the Civil War, from the reunions to the reenactments to the wounds covered with, in retrospect, tissue paper.
It's a good quick read (if redundant in places), and worth the time. On a personal level, I was intrigued by the overlaps with my own projects. One of the main figures in The Admiral and the Ambassadoris Horace Porter, who rose to prominence as an aide to general and, eventually, president Ulysses S. Grant. Porter's support for honoring fellow veterans was a main catalyst in his decision as ambassador to France to find and recover the body of John Paul Jones (the book is due out in the spring).

And I've just begun a new project, which I'm keeping under wraps for the time being, which touches even more deeply on the Civil War. In fact, this very morning I'm revisiting a key battle in western Virginia. I should keep an eye out for some of the names in Serrano's book.

100 years ago today, the first death in the Colorado coal war

August 16, 2013

Tags: history, books

Gerald Lippiatt, with mustache, in undated family photo, courtesy of Gerald Lippiatt, a descendant.
Forgive yourselves for not having this day marked down on your calendars. But it was the beginning of unprecedented violence here in the U.S., as Gerald Lippiatt, an organizer for the United Mine Workers, was shot and killed in a confrontation in Trinidad, Colorado. His death was the first in at least 75 killings over the next seven months or so, including the 11 children and two mothers who died in the Ludlow Massacre.

These events were the focus of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. It remains a significant event in American history - not just labor history - as a strike in Colorado's coal mines escalated into open guerrilla war between union supporters and the mine owners, with the Colorado National Guard aligned with the corporations.

I thought I'd mark the day by posting the a few paragraphs from my book about Lippiatt and his final hours. And, of course, encourage you to buy a copy through your favorite or local independent bookstore, or through the link above.



Trinidad, Colorado
August 16, 1913

Gerald Lippiatt , a stocky man with a bushy mustache, worked his way up North Commercial Street, his feet scuffing puffs of dust from the dirt roadway as he climbed the slight rise between the bridge over the Purgatoire River and downtown Trinidad. A full moon bathed the prairie-edge city in gentle light and a dry evening breeze wafted easterly from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to swirl among Trinidad’s two and three-story wood and red-brick buildings. The Saturday night crowd thickened as Lippiatt neared the city center, passing the Colorado Supply Co., the Isis Theater, the Trinidad Hotel, the Sherman-Cosner grocery store, the Quilitch Brothers’ grain and farm-implements businesses. Ahead, just before the busy intersection with Main Street, a Salvation Army minister exhorted sinners to repent, his message stopping at the doors of busy first-floor saloons, pawnshops and narrow gambling halls. Trolleys rumbled along brick-lined tracks, blue flashes from overhead wires adding to the festive energy of a crowd shaking off the exacting drudgery of a week on the ranch, or of mining coal deep below ground.

Lippiatt, an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, had been working in Trinidad for more than a week, and was helping prepare for a state Federation of Labor convention two days later at Trinidad’s new Toltec Hotel, a three-story brick building just down North Commercial Street from the city’s established gem, the (more…)

On Kristallnacht, and the teenage gunman who precipitated it

August 9, 2013

Tags: history, book review

It's a bicoastal weekend of book reviewing for me. As the Los Angeles Times prints my review of Brenda Wineapple's Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, the Washington Post carries my review of Jonathan Kirsch's The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.

Both are fascinating reads for different reasons (I explore the Wineapple book here). I was vaguely familiar with the Grynszpan case, but not to the detail that Kirsch provides. Fascinating slice of history:
On the morning of Nov. 7, 1938, a troubled teenager walked into an embassy in Paris, lied his way past some rather nonchalant guards, was granted a private meeting with an attache and then shot the man dead. The boy was Jewish, the victim was a low-level Nazi diplomat, and the killing was quickly seized upon by Hitler and his agents of darkness to accelerate their campaign to drive Jews from Germany. Within hours of the attache’s death, Hitler unleashed the infamous Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass,” a rather poetic name for a savage orgy of murder, rape, arson and vandalism in which more than 200 Jews were killed, 1,300 synagogues were burned and 7,500 Jewish-owned shops were attacked.
The history surrounding those events has been scoured for decades and subjected to wide-ranging debates over how much of Kristallnacht was planned and how much was spontaneous. Kirsch seems to split the difference. He believes that plans for a broad pogrom were in the works and that Grynszpan’s assassination of Ernst vom Rath gave the Nazis the pretext to unleash what propagandist Joseph Goebbels called “the justified and understandable outrage of the German people.”

As Kirsch points out, Grynszpan was one of the first Jews to strike a violent blow against the regime that would work with such savage efficiency to exterminate the Jewish race. Yet Jewish history and culture have not been kind to Grynszpan, in large part viewing him as a deranged, immature youth who put his lust for personal revenge ahead of the safety of his people. That’s a fair assessment in Kirsch’s eye, though he thinks it’s time to reconsider Grynszpan and the two bullets he fired in that Parisian office 75 years ago. To blame Grynszpan for the violent racism of the Nazis, he writes, “is not merely unsupported by the facts of history, but is also morally bankrupt.” Rather, Kirsch argues, Grynszpan, like others once described as “premature antifascists,” read the Nazis for what they were and “seemed to perceive the existential threat that Nazi Germany posed to the Jewish people” at a time when most of the world, including Jews, sought to appease Hitler or wait him out.

On a troubled century that defined the nation

August 9, 2013

Tags: history, book review

And you think we're a politically fractured nation now?

The Los Angeles Times has posted my review of Brenda Wineapple's fine new history, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, which explores the national mood in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. You could fill a library with the volumes that have been written about those turbulent and violent days, but Wineapple's book stands out as a broad cultural history. It's light on battle details - incorporating the major, pivotal moments while eliding the incremental skirmishes - and deep on politics and cultural collisions.

I've argued in the past that one of the propellants of our current cultural frictions is a failure to acknowledge that different races, cultures, and economic strata have different views of our national history. That has infused the debate around Detroit and its economic collapse. But it crops up elsewhere, too, as we saw with Paula Deen and a recent survey in which Georgia Republicans thought more highly of her than Martin Luther King Jr. Same country, different views. Same as it ever was.
It's hard in an era of voter suppression efforts in minority neighborhoods, with a Supreme Court that devalues the Civil Rights Act, and when an armed Florida vigilante can spark a confrontation and then claim self-defense, to not measure past against present. Especially given the argument streaming through conservative America that this is a post-racial society in which blacks no longer need special protections from the legal system.

Whites and blacks have a different history in these same United States, and it behooves us to recognize that. And to sense — in the present — the weight of the past. Wineapple's Ecstatic Nation does a laudable job of bringing to life not just the Civil War but the society in which it occurred — and has evolved into the present.
It's a good book. It can take patience in places, with a wide cast of characters and quotes that can make for burdensome reading. But it's well worth the effort.

Colorado, and a looming centennial

July 25, 2013

Tags: history, books

In late July 1913 – 100 years ago today – union organizers in Colorado were laying plans to extend an ineffective three-year-old strike in the northern coal fields to the southern district, hoping that in broadening the strike they could force the coal operators to the negotiating table. Leaders of 20 different unions rallied in Trinidad 100 years ago this weekend to demand the coal operators fire the brutal Baldwin-Felts detective agency they had hired to infiltrate the union, and to keep organizers out of the mines. The coal operators, not surprisingly, ignored the demand.

Everyone expected violence, but none could have seen the future: Beginning in late September, seven months of gunfire, arson, beatings and deprivations in which at least 75 people were killed, and in which at its peak the striking coal miners held military control of the Front Range from just south of Denver to the New Mexico border.

It was guerrilla warfare between the miners and the Colorado National Guard, which had been taken over by the coal operators’ private guards. The miners were winning the insurrection, which didn't end until President Wilson sent in the U.S. Army as a peacekeeping force. Yet few history books include much in the way of details on what was likely the nation’s bloodiest labor struggle (several showdowns that began as labor actions morphed into white-on-black race riots, with, in some estimates, higher death tolls). The central moment of the Colorado strike was the Ludlow Massacre when, after a daylong gun battle between strikers and the militia, a strikers' tent colony was torched by the soldiers. Eleven children and two mother suffocated in their hiding spot beneath a tent. Their deaths became a rallying cause for union sympathizers, and launched ten days of brutal reprisals. It was class war, and the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.

You’ll be seeing more posts from me over the coming months about these events, as that long-ago strike reaches its 100th birthday. I know there are commemorations being planned in Colorado, and I'm hoping the centennial will bring fresh - and national - attention to this forgotten moment in American history.

Well, forgotten by some.

On an anniversary, and a test of integrity

July 13, 2013

Tags: personal, history, labor, Detroit

Eighteen years today I was on a family vacation, sitting in my in-laws’ house in Rochester, New York, when I got a call from colleagues in Detroit that the long-anticipated strike had finally begun at The Detroit News and Free Press. It was an acid test for a lot of us. Journalists as a rule must remain disengaged, but there we were thrust into engagement by circumstances over which we had little control.

The non-journalists in the strike – there were six unions involved, only one comprising journalists – were remarkably strong. But about half of my fellow Newspaper Guild colleagues ultimately crossed the picket line, a capitulation to fear, career, arrogance, and insecurity that to this day taints my perception of many of those practicing my trade. To me, the strike was a test of will, and of belief. Many colleagues who had voiced support for collective bargaining and collective action (the members voted overwhelmingly to strike) then boldly crossed the picket line, an act of betrayal that was also an indictment of their character.

The strike became a lockout and lasted some six years. Fellow striker Daymon Hartley captured some of the violence on his website, and academic Chris Rhomberg wrote a book about the strike within the context of labor laws. I lasted 18 months on the picket line before taking a job at the Los Angeles Times, and moving west with my wife and our two young sons. In some ways, I still view it as a failure that I didn’t stick it out for the duration. But the actions of the papers during the strike led me to conclude that I would never work for them again (journalistic principles were abandoned by the editors in unscrupulous fashion), so it made no sense to stay on. We got on with our lives, and I enjoyed a 12 year-career at the LA Times before the industry, and the paper’s corporate owners, fell off a cliff, and my job was cut. So I moved on again into this new mix of writing books, doing freelance journalism, and teaching college journalism classes (adjunct), while my wife teaches elementary school.

So 18 years later I’m sitting here at my in-laws’ house, on a family vacation, and now watching Facebook posts from fellow strike veterans. Many of them I barely knew before the walkout, but they have since become close friends. A shared experience like a protracted labor struggle reveals character for good and bad, and blows up some friendships, but it also creates new and deep bonds with others. We all learn about ourselves when crises hit, even something like a labor strike.

That strike also was formative for some who watched. Our son, Michael, is in China in the early weeks of a two year-plus stint with the Peace Corps. He posted the following status update this morning, and I repost it here with pride:
I am reminded that today is the 18 year anniversary of the start of the Detroit Newspaper Strike. I was pulled into it without choice (since I was a 5-year old) and didn't fully understand what was happening around me, but as I grew older and Scott Martelle and Margaret Mercier-Martelle started to fill me in on what I had missed, those few years early in my life provided me with an immense amount of inspiration as I tried to decide what kind of man I wanted to be. And here I am now, in the Peace Corps. To all those who served on our domestic front lines in defense of our freedoms: Thank you for standing, and thank you for inspiring. Barbara Ingalls, Kate DeSmet Kulka, Paula Yoo, Marla Dickerson, Liz Seymour and everybody else I don't know on facebook.
Happy anniversary to us all.

The Rust Belt: Still there, still a challenge

May 24, 2013

Tags: books, writing, history, nonfiction

As I finish writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero - due to my publisher at the end of May - the Los Angeles Times has this review I wrote about a book that meshes nicely with the last project, Detroit: A Biography.

The book is Edward McClelland's Nothin' but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland, the latest in a series of books about the beat up heart of America - includng my Detroit book.

While my book drilled into the rise and fall of Detroit, McClelland casts a wider geographic net. Some of the material feels dated (as I pointed out in the review), but this is a solid addition to the current collection of books about the nation's faded industrial core. From the review:
Engagingly written, the book covers some of the emblematic stories of the past few decades, from the 1994 A.E. Staley labor lockout in Decatur, Ill., an underappreciated example of the uneven playing field on which organized labor fights these days, to the creation of a shoppers' paradise out of old steel property in Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh, a "microcosm of what America had become: a nation of shopkeepers who sold each other things, instead of making things."

In many ways, "Nothin' but Blue Skies" is a personal travelogue. The book begins with McClelland dropping into a blue-collar bar across the street from a closed auto plant in his native Lansing, Mich., where he entered high school as the bottom was falling out of the auto industry with the 1981-82 recession. McClelland also was a newspaper reporter in Decatur during the Staley lockout, and now lives in Chicago, which also gets some play in the book.

The author is fully present in these scenes, though the tales are predominantly those of others: Steelworkers laid off in their 50s, never to work again; autoworkers in their 40s moving into service jobs at a fraction of their former pay; chronically poor urban scavengers; young men who will never have a shot at a factory job rolling drugs in urban underground economies. Or economies in which nothing is produced.

"Young people who were born after the manufacturing base was destroyed, I don't think they have a clue about what this place was like," Homestead Mayor Betty Esper tells McClelland. "All they know is there's no jobs out there. They don't know why … you can't grow an economy, grow a middle class, without making things."

On the American Revolution, and the original Tea Party

May 10, 2013

Tags: books, writing, history, nonfiction

The Los Angeles Times today carries my review of Nathaniel Philbrick's new "Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, a very good and, as the headline says, "on the ground" recreation of the start of the American Revolution.

And like most things historical, the subtleties tell us a different story from the commonly held beliefs of what was going on in the minds of the revolutionaries.

As I quote Philbrick in the review:
"To say that a love of democratic ideals had inspired these country people to take up arms against the [British] regulars is to misrepresent the reality of the revolutionary movement," Philbrick writes. "The patriots had refused to respect the rights of those with whom they did not agree, and loyalists had been sometimes brutally suppressed throughout Massachusetts."

In fact, the "revolution had begun as a profoundly conservative movement," he writes. "The patriots had not wanted to create something new: They had wanted to preserve the status quo — the essentially autonomous community they had inherited from their ancestors — in the face of British attempts to forge a modern empire."

Only as they resisted did talk of freedom gain traction. Even as the first bullets flew, Philbrick writes, many of the fighters still hoped for a negotiated peace that would keep them under British rule.
Backing up those conclusions is a deeply researched and well-spun set of stories about the key players and events in and around Boston all those years ago. Well worth your time....

Back in the saddle after a weekend of nothing but books

April 23, 2013

Tags: current events, history, personal

You couldn’t have asked for a better couple of days over the weekend for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books – temperatures in the low 80s, nice breeze, some 150,000 people, and endless talk of books, and writing.

I moderated a panel on “Landscapes: Real and Imagined,” which was one of those amorphous themes that made for an engaging talk among three authors, and that was broadcast live over C-SPAN’s BookTV (you can watch it here). The authors were Julia Flynn Siler, a wonderful writer and fellow journalist whom I’ve known for a number of years, talking about her recent Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure; T.D. Allman with his Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State; and Greg Goldin, co-author of Never Built: Los Angeles, about grand dreams and plans for the city that died on the drawing board.

The best part of the festival for writers like me is the chance to sit around and talk about this odd business we’re in, the different projects we have underway, and to drop in on panels talking about both current books and how we go about doing what we do. Plus it’s a great chance to catch up with old friends and former colleagues.

I also managed to cover a couple of the panels for the Los Angeles Times, one on American Arguments and the other on gun control.

All in all, a great way for a writer to spend a weekend. Now, back to Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero. The first draft is done and now I’m diving in for rewriting, tweaking, backfilling and trimming. Which, honestly, is a lot more fun than it sounds.

On a dark anniversary, and a spur to collective memory

April 20, 2013

Tags: history

Happy Ludlow Massacre day! What, you didn’t know? Well, you’re not alone, but with luck that will be changing.

Today, April 20, is the 99th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre, which of course means next year is the centennial. I’m pleased to see the state of Colorado has created a commission to oversee plans to commemorate the event, and I wish them luck and a big budget. And with my friend Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State Pueblo history professor, on board, I’m confident they’ll get the history right. Which is more than I can say for my colleagues in journalism: Nearly every story about Ludlow seems to contain an error or two. I guess that’s understandable, though, given how much misinformation is floating around out there.

Readers of my Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West know that the story of Ludlow involves much more than that single day. Between August 1913 and May 1914 at least 75 people were killed in what became running guerrilla warfare between striking coal miners and the Colorado National Guard, by then little more than a public-private military operation focused on keeping the coal mines operating. The strike, organized by the United Mine Workers of America, involved a dozen or so coal operators, though the biggest by far was the Colorado Fuel & Iron Co., which was owned by the Rockefellers. The Ludlow Massacre itself centered on a strikers' tent colony, pictured on the book cover. After a day-long gun battle, Guardsmen torched the tent village and inadvertently killed 11 children and two mothers, who were hiding in a pit hidden below a wooden tent floor.

The massacre gave rise to a convulsion of retaliatory violence, and at its peak striking coal miners held military control of most of the Front Range from New Mexico north nearly to Denver. They didn’t lay down their arms until President Wilson sent in the United States Army as a peacekeeping force, dislodging the National Guard from the zone. And it need be noted that when the National Guard held the upper hand, there was no talk of federal intervention. Only as the miners were winning were the feds spurred to act, another instance of the federal government looking out for the interests of corporations over people.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Colorado comes up with to commemorate – and draw fresh attention to – this riveting moment in American history. And I hope to play a role in some of the events. I’ll keep you posted here and on Facebook.

On marriage, gay and otherwise

March 26, 2013

Tags: current events, history, personal

I’m in Washington, D.C., this week doing a final round of research for my Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero book project, and by sheer happenstance wound up renting an apartment just a couple of blocks from the Supreme Court building. And if I wasn’t heading back into the archives, I’d love to stop by the court today to witness the long-overdue judicial look at gay marriage.

Given the deep conservatism of the majority, I don’t have a lot of faith in the Court to make the correct legal and moral call. But I’m hoping they put prejudice aside and decide the cases before them – California’s Prop. 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act –based on common sense, and belief in a true separation of church and state. They should find that gays and lesbians have as much right to marry as anyone else.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, which focused on state laws barring interracial marriage, that marriage was a fundamental civil right and government could not restrict it based on race. The government should not restrict it based on sexual orientation, either. All are equal in the eyes of the law, or so we are trained to believe (and lord knows that often proves not to be the case), and that should apply to the legal institution of marriage.

I’ve long believed that marriage should not be the state’s business in the first place. It is a religious rite and belongs in churches. But it is also in society’s interest, and thus government’s interest, to have a system that allows for the legal unification of lives, which is the legal side of marriage. I’d like to strip the word “marriage” from the legal documents – all of us who marry should be partners in civil unions. And the faithful can also be married in the eyes of their church.

But that isn’t likely to happen. “By the powers vested in me by the state of (fill in the blank)” is too much of our culture now to change in such a fundamental way. But the wording of that time-honored part of the marriage ceremony, when uttered by a minister, is meaningful. “Power vested in me by the state,” not by the bishop or other church higher up. There is no separation between church and state when the state gives authority to ministers to sanction legal unions.

But I digress. A right is a right. Marriage is a right. Gay marriage is a right. Let’s leave our Puritan past behind and move on as a nation. We have a lot of intractable problems in this country, from economic inequality to a government hijacked by corporations to a world standing built on violence rather than diplomacy. But this issue is an easy one to fix. And I hope the Supreme Court does so. Quickly, and decisively.

On NPR, and looking at the problems of Detroit

March 24, 2013

Tags: current events, history, personal

I had the pleasure earlier this week of sitting through a 45-minute interview with NPR’s Don Gonyea to talk about the current state of Detroit, and the result of that session aired during Saturday’s “All Things Considered” weekend edition. Naturally, given the time restraints and multiple voices in the piece, they only used a couple of snippets of what I said, but I appreciate having my voice added to the national discussion – and am glad for the thoughtful attention NPR paid the issue.

Gonyea, incidentally, is an old Detroit hand himself. We used to run across each other while covering various Detroit stories in the 1980s and 1990s, and then again on the presidential political campaign trail after he joined NPR and I was working for the Los Angeles Times. Solid pro.

This link takes you to a story about the segment, which includes a transcript. The podcast of the show is available here. A catalyst for my book, Detroit: A Biography, was my desire to explain to people who don’t know Detroit what has happened there, that it is much more than tailfins on Cadillacs, Motown, sports teams, “ruins porn,” and drugs and crime. So I hope my inclusion in the program will bring some of that awareness to more people.

The only point I wish they had picked up from the interview and included in the segment is my argument that the current city government budget crisis – as significant as it is – is a symptom of Detroit’s problems, not the problem itself. The fiscal manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder – an abrogation of democracy, in my view – will likely use draconian measures to balance the city budget, primarily by selling off potentially profitable assets to the private sector, slashing services, and laying off hundreds, if not thousands, of people – adding to Detroit’s unemployment and poverty problems.

Those “fixes” will do nothing to help Detroit, the community, and far too many people conflate the two problems. By the time the manager is done, Detroit will still be a city of staggering poverty, and urban emptiness, with dysfunctional schools, massive areas of violence and blight, and no plan for improving the conditions under which 700,000 people live. It is a regional problem that requires a regional solution, but it is also a national problem that we, as a nation, have ignored for far too long.

None of that will change under a balanced city budget.

Punk revisited: Richard Hell reflects on a surly birth

March 6, 2013

Tags: current events, history, personal

For music fans of a certain age - namely, mine - Richard Hell remains a key figure. He was among the founders of the punk era in music, and his torn shirts and spiked hair helped set the fashion tone for what became a cultural movement. And as a part of the bands The Neon Boys, Television, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and, then, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, he claims paternity for a whole lot of noise.

I interviewed Hell a few years ago when I was still writing for the Los Angeles Times and met up with him at restaurant in his East Village neighborhood in Manhattan. That piece was tied to the release of a semi-autobiographical novel, Godlike, and you can read it here.

I got Hell on the phone a couple of weeks ago for another interview piece, this one a Q&A for Esquire.com about his latest book, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, a frank autobiograpy of his life up until the time he got clean of heroin and left music, for the most part, behind.

The Esquire.com piece is here, but this is a bit from it. And I gotta say, I really enjoy talking with Hell:
ESQ: What propelled you to write the autobiography?

RH: Since my 40s — which is now 20 years ago; I'm 63 — I've been disturbed and fascinated by having outlived my youth. When you're young, you don't especially think of yourself as being young. You're just alive and everything's interesting and you don't think of things in terms of age because you're not conscious of it. But then you hit your 40s and you realize, well, you're still alive but you're not young anymore. And things start taking a different kind of aspect. And you start getting curious about what it all adds up to. What does it mean to outlive your youth? I wanted to hold my life in my hands and turn it around and look at it in different ways to figure out what the hell had happened, to see if I could put it outside of myself and make it into a material object that I could grasp. So that was part of it. And the other part was I like writing books.

On Scalia, 'racial entitlement,' and the power of history

February 28, 2013

Tags: current events, history, personal

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has been getting skewered - and deservedly so - after his from-the-bench comments calling the protections in Voting Rights Act "racial entitlements." It takes a perverse view of the world, and a blind view of history, to call the still-insufficient efforts of the federal government to protect a minority against a majority an "entitlement." It really makes you wish Scalia would follow his pope's example and retire for the good of the institution. Not to mention the country.

The debate brings to mind a story I wrote for the Los Angeles Times more than a decade ago about a single civil rights-era murder. The victim was William Moore who, much like Viola Liuzzo, was white and gunned down over support for equal rights.

What propelled me to write this piece was the victim's anonymity in our history books. Much like the book I have since written, this was meant to both explore the echoes of the past, and to try to resurrect a moment that seemed to define its time, but that had fallen out of our collective memory.

The link to the story is here, but pasted below is the "nut graph" - the meat of the piece:
Prosecution in the Moore case was bound to be problematic. Despite legions of FBI infiltrators in the '60s, cracking the secrecy of the most violent cadres of the Ku Klux Klan was difficult. In many cases, local law enforcement aided segregationists and looked the other way as Klansmen killed activists, beat pacifists and burned and bombed homes and churches.

It was not an atmosphere conducive to swift justice. William Rayburn, the Etowah County prosecutor handling the Moore case, predicted privately to FBI officials that, given the local mood, he doubted a grand jury would indict Simpson--even if he signed a confession. Rayburn was right: In September 1963, five months after Moore's murder, an Etowah County grand jury decided there wasn't enough evidence to charge Simpson.

Sometimes justice does reach back. On May 22 of this year, Bobby Frank Cherry, 71, the last of four former Klansmen suspected of blowing up the 16th Street Church, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison one year after fellow Klansman Tommy Blanton was convicted for his role. Byron De La Beckwith, Evers' murderer, was convicted in 1994, three decades after that killing, and was sentenced to life in a Mississippi prison, where he died last year.

Emboldened by those successes, prosecutors have dusted off at least 11 civil rights era cases in the South, hoping to bring fresh charges. But countless other killings, including Moore's, have simply faded into history. As time passes and suspects and witnesses die, resolution becomes less likely. Simpson went to his grave four years ago without ever publicly discussing the killing, or his arrest. His wife and children maintain his silence.

Moore's widow, remarried 32 years ago to a quarryman and stone artist, lives on a 288-acre spread in rural northeast Pennsylvania. Mary Moore Birchard still has questions about what happened on that dark road in northeast Alabama, about why the grand jury decided not to indict Simpson despite eyewitness accounts placing a car like his at the scene, ballistics tests that found the killer's rifle was the same make and model as Simpson's, and Simpson's refusal to tell investigators what he had done after 4 p.m. on that cloudy spring day.

''It's always been my prayer that I would know who killed him before I die,'' Mary says.

There's more at stake than a widow's desire for certainty. Moore's murder remains part of the nation's unfinished business, a stain that can only be rinsed out with the truth, even if the guilty are beyond reach.

And you think you want to get away from it all?

January 30, 2013

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

There are a lot of things in this bizarre world to be fascinated by, and this week's entry is the details from this piece at Smithsonian about a reclusive family of religious Russians who, seeking escape from violent persecution, disappeared into unimaginably harsh Siberian interior. And for more than 40 years had no contact with anyone else.

So complete was their isolation that they missed World War II, and such technological advances as cellophane: "Lord, what have they thought up—it is glass, but it crumples!" But they figured out satellites, because they saw them hurtling through the night sky, whose darkness you can only imagine given the hundreds of miles between the family's hut and any significant light pollution.

The family, then consisting of two parents and two young children, fled into the wilderness after the father's brother was shot dead by a communist patrol as he stood beside him at the edge of their remote village:
That was in 1936, and there were only four Lykovs then—Karp; his wife, Akulina; a son named Savin, 9 years old, and Natalia, a daughter who was only 2. Taking their possessions and some seeds, they had retreated ever deeper into the taiga, building themselves a succession of crude dwelling places, until at last they had fetched up in this desolate spot. Two more children had been born in the wild—Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia in 1943—and neither of the youngest Lykov children had ever seen a human being who was not a member of their family. All that Agafia and Dmitry knew of the outside world they learned entirely from their parents' stories. The family's principal entertainment, the Russian journalist Vasily Peskov noted, "was for everyone to recount their dreams."
But if the family's isolation was hard to grasp, the unmitigated harshness of their lives was not. Traveling to the Lykov homestead on foot was astonishingly arduous, even with the help of a boat along the Abakan. On his first visit to the Lykovs, Peskov—who would appoint himself the family's chief chronicler—noted that "we traversed 250 kilometres [155 miles] without seeing a single human dwelling!"

Isolation made survival in the wilderness close to impossible. Dependent solely on their own resources, the Lykovs struggled to replace the few things they had brought into the taiga with them. They fashioned birch-bark galoshes in place of shoes. Clothes were patched and repatched until they fell apart, then replaced with hemp cloth grown from seed.

The Lykovs had carried a crude spinning wheel and, incredibly, the components of a loom into the taiga with them—moving these from place to place as they gradually went further into the wilderness must have required many long and arduous journeys—but they had no technology for replacing metal. A couple of kettles served them well for many years, but when rust finally overcame them, the only replacements they could fashion came from birch bark. Since these could not be placed in a fire, it became far harder to cook. By the time the Lykovs were discovered, their staple diet was potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds.
Remarkable. And well worth your time to go read the piece.

On the pervasive nature of hatred, guns, and violence

December 27, 2012

Tags: current events, history

It almost feels like ancient history now, given what's happened since. In August, a troubled man by the name of Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and opened fire. He killed six people and wounded three others before a policeman wounded him. Page then turned his gun on himself before he could be captured and questioned. There was no note or other message and authorities still don't know what moved Page to enter a place of peace with such violence, but focus immediately went to his white supremacist beliefs and the hate-filled music he performed.

Man, did that bring up memories. This is a piece I wrote in the new issue of Orange Coast magazine on the links between Page and Orange County, and the persistent nature of racial hatred. In writing it, I couldn't help but think of the slaughters that have happened both before and since Page's rampage here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Rampages that more often than not involved weapons bought legally.

And it's also worth noting that three days before this article went live on the internet, another gunman opened fire on the innocent after apparently murdering his sister and torching his neighborhood. Yet as a body politic, we do nothing. This is madness.

From my story:
The photos don’t portray Orange County at its finest. In some, you can see Wade Michael Page, his head shorn to stubble and his arms covered with tattoos, churning away on a guitar. Other skinheads stand next to him on stage, their chests and arms a mishmash of inked symbols, including what look to be a swastika and a Confederate flag. One picture is from a gig Page played in 2011, but others date back a decade, to when Page made Orange County—and its fringe hatecore music scene—his home.

It’s chilling to realize that the chunky guitarist in the photo would open fire at a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee last August, killing six people and wounding three others before, already wounded by an officer, taking his own life. But it’s more frightening to sense the sweep of time, and the persistent nature of hate and racism captured in those photos.

I first began writing about the hate movement a quarter century ago as a reporter for The Detroit News. Robert E. Miles, a former Klansman and one of the conceptual forces behind the modern white-supremacist movement, lived in Michigan. “Pastor Bob” preached a virulent religion known as Christian Identity in which Jews are seen as Satan’s soldiers, and God supposedly created blacks from mud to serve whites. Miles also once told me he saw himself as something akin to the Johnny Appleseed of white supremacy, sowing the seeds of racism wherever he went. He believed the white race would be preserved through “leaderless resistance”—by lone wolves primed to strike on their own, leaving no conspiratorial trails for prosecutors to follow. And the most fertile grounds, Miles believed, were prisons and the military.

Virtual research, or how to visit Paris from my desk

December 20, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

So in writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, I've been buried deeply in old maps and descriptions, and not so old photographs of where John Paul Jones lived and died in Paris, and where he was buried. A natural point of curiosity, of course, is what do these places look like now?

To the left is a photo of the buildings that were erected over the cemetery in which Jones was buried in 1792 - the row, including the hotel, across the street, to the right in the frame. The picture was taken in 1905 from the street corner, and accompanied reports from the U.S. Embassy in Paris to the State Department in Washington.

Here, to the left and through the magic of Google maps street view, is what it looks like today. All the buildings over the cemetery have been replaced. But the cafe on the corner, left foreground, is still a cafe, modernized a bit.

Obviously, looking at photos and Google maps street view isn't the same as being there, but it's an easy way to find out whether anything would be gained by visiting in person. In this case, other than a good meal, visiting the scene wouldn't give me any insights or perspectives - which I'm glad to discover without the expense of a trip to Paris.

Though that would be fun - I haven't been there in decades.

On 38 Nooses and the invisible past

December 8, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Scott W. Berg's fine new work, 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End, about the U.S. Army's legally sanctioned mass execution of men from the Dakota tribe in what is now Minnesota, and in the midst of the Civil War.

Readers of my books will recognize a certain sympathy for such overlooked moments of history. When I was telling my wife about Berg's book, she said it sounded like something I'd write. And it is -- this is a subject I would have loved to tackle. In fact, it overlaps slightly one of the chapters in my current project, Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, which touches on the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans in Alabama, Georgia and Florida some 40 years earlier (trust me, it all connects up).

The hanged men were participants in a flash war, an uprising, really, by the Dakota against racism and the white settlers encroaching on their land, and against the U.S. government failure to observe the treaties it had insisted on, including skipping a contractual payment. The uprising was quickly suppressed, and to the victors go the definition of what is a crime. From my review:
A hastily convened military tribunal lasting only six weeks found 303 warriors guilty of murder and sentenced them all to hang, based on sketchy evidence and a broad definition of culpability (warriors firing weapons in a military encounter were condemned as murderers with no evidence they hit a target, military or civilian), plus a firm belief by the whites that the region should be cleansed of its native inhabitants.

Because the sentences were from a military tribunal and not a civilian court, the president had to sign off on them. Lincoln appointed two men to review the verdicts and whittled the execution list to 39 warriors whom he believed had massacred whites. One was later reprieved, bringing the final list to 38.

And on the morning after Christmas 1862, in a public display of revenge, all 38 men were hanged in one single drop from a massive four-sided gallows erected in Mankato, about 85 miles southwest of St. Paul.

It was, Berg reports, the largest legally sanctioned execution in American history, a staggering event whose significance has been overshadowed by the Civil War even as it stands as a telling moment in America's westward expansion. (more…)

On Lincoln, and the touchstones of history

November 24, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

I found a bit of history in my pocket the other day.

We have a couple of receptacles in the house to hold loose change for an eventual run to the credit union. One gets the silver (these are colors, not content) and the other gets the copper pennies. I pulled a small handful of coins from my pocket and, as I began separating them, noticed that one penny had a couple of wheat stalks on the back, curled around the inside edge of the coin. That meant the coin was at least as old as I am (the current Lincoln Memorial design was adopted in 1959). Flipping it over, I found the date – 1940, with the tell-tale “s” below the year meaning it was minted in San Francisco.

You don’t stumble across many coins that old in circulation these days. As coins go, this one’s not worth much to collectors (maybe a dime). The U.S. mint in San Francisco cranked out nearly 113 million pennies that year, so they aren't rare, and the one that cropped up in my change is far from mint-condition. The edges are slightly worn, and the front has a thin layer of shellac over it, as though it had been part of a display at some point.

Yet the coin represents more than a single cent. It is a touchstone to the past. The year this particular coin was minted, Hitler’s Nazi Germany – with Paris already in its control – began a nine-month bombing blitz of British cities. Americans, with vivid memories of the last European war just two decades earlier, wanted to remain neutral. President Roosevelt, fearing what the fall of England would mean for Europe, and the world, hatched his “lend-lease” program to aid the British without committing U.S. troops. That came just a few months after the U.S. Congress, fearful of fascist and communist infiltrators, enacted the 1940 Smith Act, the law that lies at the heart of my second book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy in Trial.

So this coin came into the world near the onset of a nearly all-encompassing global convulsion of violence. The world has changed since then. It's become more crowded, more polluted, more complicated in many ways. But it’s unchanged in that we as a species can’t seem to find a way to avoid killing each other in encounters personal, national, and tribal (be the bonds faith or blood).

Maybe that’s our curse, as a species, and as a nation. Over more than 235 years, we have rarely been at peace, from the "pacification" of the native tribes to fights with Mexico, to skirmishes in the Pacific to that massive war among ourselves. And that's just the first century. It's a staggering list to contemplate.

Of our most common four coins, three feature war presidents - the Lincoln penny, the Roosevelt dime, and the Washington quarter. Washington obviously was a general before the nation was founded, and even though he was the first president, it is as the hero of the revolution that we remember him. Jefferson, on the nickel, was part of the Revolution but is remembered mostly for his role in writing the Constitution and expanding the nation. But the bulk of the national medals - our coins - that we carry around are physical reminders of wars past.

And Lincoln, of course, came to a violent end, which means the most common coin in American currency bears the likeness of a murder victim.

It’s funny the kind of history you can find in the change in your pocket.

A great idea for Detroit that I hope really happens

October 9, 2012

Tags: current events, history

One of the most visible of Detroit's many wasted opportunities, I think, is Henry Ford's former office building in Highland Park, an island city surrounded by Detroit, where his ideas on the assembly line took root and revolutionized the industrial world. The building has been essentially unused for years, and I've thought for more than two decades now that the Albert Kahn-designed building would be the perfect anchor for a Detroit auto-tourism industry.

And now it might be happening.

Crain's Detroit reports that the local Woodward Avenue Action Association is negotiating to buy the building from owner National Equity Corp. From the story:
The association hopes to restore the building and eventually host public tours at the site as an automotive heritage welcome center, commemorating its important role in the automotive industry and in the region’s past, (association Executive Director Heather) Carmona said.

Other possibilities include incorporating mixed-use aspects by hosting tech start-ups from the site and/or turning parts of it into housing.

The site is why Woodward is a National Byway and All-American Road, Carmona said. It’s one of the most historically significant buildings on Woodward, and some would say, one of the top five historically significant buildings in the country.

“It’s literally our story … the story of the manufacturing economy, the $5 dollar day, middle class. It’s a historic resource and economic development opportunity that we cannot let slip away,” Carmona said.
I really hope this works out. Detroiters learned long ago not only to not count a chicken before it's hatched, but probably best to wait until it's fully fledged. Detroit's history is full of failed dreams and frustrated ambitions, and this could still wither and die.

But I hope not. Detroit has a lot of things going for it, and industrial history is high among them. Converting some of these decaying survivors of a great past won't save the modern city, but it can add another dimension to a broad, diverse sweep of positive steps.

Detroit Public Library, here I come...

September 10, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

It feels like I just left Detroit after a whirlwind visit on the summer-end return trip to the West Coast, but here I come again.

The Detroit Public Library has invited me to talk about Detroit: A Biography at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 17, in the Friends Auditorium of the Main Library. It's free and open to the public (Marwil Books will be selling books for signing).

I'm looking forward to this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which were the hours I spent in the DPL's Burton Historical Collection looking through archives and records to help bring to life some of the myriad stories included in Detroit. The Main Library is a beautiful building between the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University, making it a prime component of Detroit's urban intellectual core. And it is a gem of a place, though, like much of Detroit, the library has been fighting some significant budget problems.

The evening should be fascinating. I'll talk a bit about the genesis of the book, why I wrote it, some broad conclusions about how the city got to be in the shape it's in, and then open it up for questions and discussion. That, to me, is usually the most fascinating part of any talk, hearing the stories of people directly connected to the historical things I write about. I invariably learn something new, pick up a sliver of nuance I missed before, and often discover things that I wish had included in the book. I look at the sessions as an organic "afterword" to the book, told in real time, and through living voices.

I hope to see my Michigan readers -- and I'm gratified by how many of you there are -- at the talk and signing.

Incidentally, the talk occurs on the eve of the annual North American Labor History Conference (program director Fran Shor helped set up the library talk; thanks, Fran) at Wayne State University, where I'll be part of three different events. I'll post more about those as it gets closer.

Oh, and if you want a Word copy of the library flyer pictured here for posting or sharing, email me through the link in the column to the right and I'll send one out to by return email.

On Detroit, and changed white attitudes

August 15, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Photo: Margaret Mercier-Martelle
The woman sat with a friend to my left as I stood last night discussing Detroit: A Biography at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (a wonderful little store and a wonderful event). I talked about the propelling role that race and racism has played in the evolution of the city, and she raised her hand and offered, paraphrasing here, that the racist attitudes of white Detroiters toward their black neighbors have changed since the crucial days of the 1950s and 1960s, as Detroit careened toward collapse.

Not so, unfortunately, I responded. As I write in the book, racism among suburban whites is still a driving force in the region. The book quotes a Facebook discussion about Detroit, which I cite as evidence of the private sentiments of some whites. And I noted to the woman that suburban Southfield and Oak Park - once white-majority cities to which black middle class families had fled to escape Detroit's violence and the abysmal school system - are now majority black cities as whites once again ran away from growing numbers of black neighbors.

Which got me thinking last night as I drifted off to sleep: If people think this is a post-racial society, can we ever truly get there? If people believe the struggle for equality has been won, when all evidence points to the contrary, has the fight ended?

After I responded and turned to another questioner, the woman and her friend were heard to say that the Facebook example in the book was just one person, and that it was an outlier. Society has gotten better.

Maybe things have improved, but not enough, when black urban poverty is taken as a given, churches refuse to let blacks marry, and presidential politics comes shrouded in a racial mantle.

Some things to think about as we hit the I-75 freeway and head south for a couple of days in Detroit.

Yesterday: Niagara Falls; Tonight: Reading in Gaylord, Michigan

August 14, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Erie Canal bridges, Rochester, New York. Photo: Scott Martelle
Well, we've begun the slow trek back West, and after overnighting in Port Huron we're off to northern Michigan today for a 6:30 p.m. reading at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (see the Events page). I've never visited the shop before (I recall only being in Gaylord once, more than 25 years ago, while working for The Detroit News) but where I'm very much looking forward to talking about Detroit: A Biography, because of the high recommendation my old friend Bryan Gruley gives the store.

We made a brief detour as we drove west from Rochester, New York, through southern Ontario, and stopped in at Niagara Falls, which I haven't visited in more than a decade. It never fails to impress with the sheer volume of water that tumbles over the edge of the Niagara escarpment, and the beautiful attention to the grounds, particularly on the Canadian side, where we stopped.

But history is never far from mind, and as we watched the water tumble and roar, I couldn't help wondering what it looked like in the early 1800s when it was the impassable barrier between the upper Great Lakes and Lake Ontario, and the ocean beyond via the St. Lawrence River. The opening of the Erie Canal, a mind-boggling project in itself, in 1825, took Niagara Falls out of play as a navigation barrier, and, as I wrote in Detroit: A Biography, that was a crucial turning point in the development of Detroit as a trading hub, and as an economic lifeline for the upper midwest.

The canal eventually was superseded by the railroads, of course, but I like how this summer trip of ours has both inadvertently and purposefully touched on some of the elements of the book. The photo inserted in this blog post was taken from the deck of the Mary Jemison during a two-hour trip we took on the Genesee River and the Erie Canal while in Rochester, another place that found riches with the opening of Clinton's Ditch, as it was called. Today we head into the heart of what was Michigan's first major industry, logging.

And on Wednesday, we head to Detroit for a couple of days. That stop will be purely social, with no readings planned. And then, like the western expansion itself, we point the nose of the Fusion toward the Pacific and head home.Video by Margaret Mercier-Martelle.

A night at the ballpark, and the freedom to insult

August 9, 2012

Tags: personal, history

Frontier Field, Summer 2010/Credit: Scott Martelle
Last night was beautiful in Rochester, New York, a perfect night for baseball. So off I went to Frontier Field, the home of the Rochester Red Wings, and one of the prettiest AAA ballparks in the country (I try to go every time I'm back in town). It was my second night in a row at the ballpark, after joining eight members of my wife's extended family on Tuesday. Last night I went alone and splurged the couple of extra bucks for a $12 seat a dozen rows back from the field on the third-base side.

Turns out it was the "insult" section. I was surrounded by regular attendees, many of whom knew each other by first name, and many of whom also embraced baseball's questionable tradition of heckling the players.

But a few of them also were heckling other fans. A young man with long black hair and sunglasses walked past to a seat in the second row; a woman in her late 50s called out, "Get a haircut!" Another woman around the same age, in the row behind her, added, "The sun set an hour ago!" An older man in the next row closest to the field spewed an endless stream of criticism, all audible to those around him, about the play, the players, the audience, the music -- he was like one of the two crotchety old men from "The Muppet Show," but without the humor.

Sitting there on a balmy evening, sipping a cup of beer, and watching the two squads of young players struggling to achieve a dream, I got to thinking about the divide between the players on the field, the fans around me in the stands, and the stream of negativity. Players sucked, coaches couldn't coach, pitchers couldn't pitch, the music was crap, this guy will never make in the majors and that guy, he used to be up but they sent him back. Nope, couldn't cut it. Did you see Kent Hrbeck, here tonight to sign autographs? Man is he fat, really let himself go, didn't he? Get a look at that girl; my mother never would have let me out of the house dressed like that! Ugh! The tattoos on that guy! Do you see them? He's going to regret that later, I tell you.

America's favorite past-time: The tearing down of others. Next time you wonder what motivates kids to bully others, think about the role models we give them, and the kind of behavior that passes for acceptable in the adult world.

On Aurora, and our history of violence

July 21, 2012

Tags: current events, history

We tend in this country to live in the moment, looking neither to the future nor to the past with much insight. The killings early Friday in Colorado - where I spent a fair amount of time researching my first book - will prove that to be the case once again. Hands will be wrung, demands will be made, counter-arguments will be lobbed that the Second Amendment guarantees killers the right to their weapons.

And nothing will change. Because we, as a nation, really don't want it to.

If Columbine couldn't spur a move toward sane gun-control laws, the shooting up of a movie theater certainly won't do it. In fact, none of these killings in the list below - all since the year of alleged Aurora gunman James Holmes' birth - managed to do a thing to move the nation to act. Which says more about us than it does about the killers.

This partial list of mass shootings in the U.S. is gleaned from a range of online news sites. I count more than 200 people killed, not including the gunmen. And I repeat, it is a partial list:

May 30, 2012: Ian Stawicki killed five people, including four who were sitting in a Seattle cafe, before killing himself after a police manhunt.

April 1, 2012: One Goh opens fire at a small Christian college in Oakland, California, killing seven.

October 12, 2011: Scott Dekraai, 41, allegedly enters a Seal Beach, California, hair salon where his former wife works and opens fire, killing eight people.

January 8, 2011: Jared Lee Loughner opens fire at a political gathering in Tucson, Arizona, killing six people and wounding 13 others, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabbie Gifford.

August 3, 2010: Omar S. Thornton, 34, leaves a disciplinary hearing at Hart­ford Dis­trib­ut­ors in Connecticut, where he is a driver, and opens fire, killing eight people.

November 5, 2009: Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan allegedly opens fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 12 people and wounding 31 others before he is shot and wounded.

April 3, 2009: Jiverly Wong opens fire into a Binghamton, N.Y., community center, killing 13 people before turning the gun on himself.

March 29, 2009: Robert Stewart, 45, shoots and kills eight people at Pinelake Health and Rehab in Carthage, N.C. before a police officer shot him.

March 29, 2009: Devan Kalathat, 42, kills his two children and three other relatives, then himself in Santa Clara, Calif.

March 10, 2009: Michael McLendon, 28, kills 10 people in rural Alabama before killing himself.

Feb. 14, 2008: Former student Steven Kazmierczak, 27, opens fire in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, killing five students and wounding 18 others before killing himself.

Dec. 5, 2007: Robert A. Hawkins, 19, opens fire with a rifle at a Von Maur store in an Omaha, Neb., mall, killing eight people before taking his own life. Five more people were wounded, two critically.

April 16, 2007: Gunman Seung-Hui Cho, 23, kills 32 people in a dorm and a classroom at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, then himself in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Oct. 2, 2006: Charles Carl Roberts IV, 32, kills five girls at West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania, then shoots himself.

March 21, 2005: Student Jeffrey Weise, 16, kills nine people, including his grandfather and his grandfather's companion at home, and five fellow students, a teacher and a security guard at Red Lake High School in Minnesota. He then kills himself. Seven students were wounded.

March 12, 2005: Terry Ratzmann, 44, guns down members of his congregation as they worship at the Brookfield Sheraton in Brookfield, Wisconsin; he kills seven and wounds four before killing himself.

March 5, 2001: Charles "Andy" Williams, 15, kills two fellow students and wounds 13 others at Santana High School in Santee, Calif.

Nov. 2, 1999: Copier repairman Byran Uyesugi, 40, fatally shoots seven people at Xerox Corp. in Honolulu.

July 29, 1999: Former day trader Mark Barton, 44, kills nine people in shootings at two Atlanta brokerage offices, then kills himself.

April 20, 1999: Students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, open fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves in the school's library.

May 21, 1998: Two teenagers are killed and more than 20 people hurt when Kip Kinkel, 17, opens fire at a high school in Springfield, Ore., after killing his parents.

March 24, 1998: Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, kill four girls and a teacher at a Jonesboro, Ark., middle school. Ten others are wounded.

Oct. 16, 1991: In Killeen, Texas, George Hennard opens fire at a Luby's Cafeteria, killing 23 people and wounding 20 others before taking his own life.

June 18, 1990: James Edward Pough shoots people at random in a General Motors Acceptance Corp. office in Jacksonville, Fla., killing 10 and wounding four, before killing himself.

Research trip winding down; let the writing recommence!

July 12, 2012

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

At the Library of Congress. Photo by Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I have one more day of research here in Washington, DC., before we pack up and head to New York to visit relatives. It's been a productive trip; as usual, found some unanticipated material and details, but didn't find other bits I had hoped to, or found them to be less useful than anticipated.

But that's the nature of this process. And while it's forcing me to rethink how to approach some parts of the story of the search for John Paul Jones's body, it also is letting me add some historical nuance that in many ways makes the story even more compelling. I've already made good progress in writing the early part of the story. Now it's time to hunker down for the main body of writing. Which means even lighter posting here than you've been seeing, unfortunately.

The trip has had some challenges of its own. This part of the country was battered by intense thunderstorms two days before we arrived, and the power was only restored at the rental we're calling home a few hours before we arrived. Then there was the heat - over 100 degrees for the first few days, continuing the onslaught we first encountered in Austin, Texas, (107 degrees) and that continued through New Orleans.

There have been a lot of long days in archives but we've squeezed in some fun along the way (see above references to Austin and New Orleans), including a stop at the reading room of the Library of Congress, where I hoped to have my picture taken with all three of my books. Turns out the Library filed The Fear Within in the law library, rather than the general collection, classifying it as a law book (???) rather than a history book. And when I arrived at the library to pick up the other two books, which I'd ordered earlier that morning, I found someone else had picked up Detroit: A Biography from the counter, and the librarian working the circulation desk couldn't find it in the stacks of books being used by researchers. It's good to be in demand, I guess.

So above you see me at one of the study desks in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress with Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, which is fitting since that's the book that first got me added to the collection that began with Thomas Jefferson's personal library. That's about as close to immortality as one can hope for.

Celebrating Father's Day with bicoastal book reviews

June 17, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Well, this is an achievement in timing: Two book reviews published the same day, one in the Los Angeles Times, and the other in the Washington Post. Happy Father's Day to me!

I'll start in the east, with the Post review of Peter Pagnamenta's "entertaining new book, Prairie Fever, a deeply researched and finely delivered look" at a slice of American I wasn't familiar with: The Great Plains and intermountain west as a 19th century adventure tourism destination for England's idle rich young men.

From my review:
The tourism invasion began, in part, because of James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales, Pagnamenta reports. Natty Bumppo and his fellow travelers were popular among English readers, and the stories of life on the frontier whetted the appetites of young British men who found themselves in unusual straits. In that era, the eldest son stood to inherit the family estate, while younger male siblings received allowances but few responsibilities. What to do with the indolent rich was a conundrum, since working for a living was outside the sphere of social respectability. One solution was to send them packing to America, lured by the tales of buffalo hunts, Indian skirmishes and the taste of hardy adventure. Some sought to blend in; most did not.
It was a fun book to read. In my own books I like to focus on overlooked slices of American history, and this is one I wish I had found before Pagnamenta did.

The second review in the LA Times was of Buzz Bissinger's Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, a much different and more difficult book.
The book, Bissinger confesses at the end, "was difficult and painful" to write. Much more so than he anticipated when they hit the road in 2007. Bissinger thought it would take another year to finish the manuscript, but the pain of the process lengthened the calendar, as did the perhaps subconscious shift of focus from Zach, an utterly charming person in his father's portrayal, to Bissinger himself.

It is not a flattering self-portrait, and that's the biggest problem with what is a frank yet disquieting book. Father's Day isn't compelling so much as it's revelatory about Bissinger's struggle to reconcile the son he thought he deserved with the one he has. It's a human reaction to uncontrollable events, but by the end, if you had to choose a cross-country traveling companion, you'd go for the son, with all his mental deficiencies, over the narrating father with his rages and insecurities.

Flight 255 and the sole survivor, a quarter-century later

June 11, 2012

Tags: personal, history

Cecilia Cichan with airplane tattoo. Credit: Soul Survivor
After more than 30 years in journalism, and thousands of stories heard and written, it's easy for the bulk of them to blur into faded memories. The story of baby Cecilia is one that stands out.

On the evening of Margaret's and my first wedding anniversary, a Sunday in mid-August 1987, we returned from a celebratory dinner out as the phone began ringing. It was Ray Jeskey, then my editor at The Detroit News. In his calm, matter-of-fact way, he asked if I could come into work. There had been a crash at Detroit Metro airport. It had been an incredible year in Detroit for news - cops were killed in ambushes, firefighters died in training accidents and fighting a warehouse blaze, kids were killing each other in a seemingly endless wave of violence over coats and sneakers.

I paused, trying to buy time to make up an excuse because I really didn't want to end our first anniversary celebration at my desk. I asked Ray how many people were aboard the plane, thinking it was another commuter flight.

"About 150," Ray said. I left the apartment a few minutes later, and didn't get home for three days. It was Northwest Flight 255, which fell to the ground just seconds after takeoff, disintegrating into a debris field of metal and bodies as it slammed into a bridge. Two people on the ground and everyone aboard the plane was killed -- except for little Cecilia Cichan, age four, who was found hurt but alive in the debris.

As compelling as that story is, even more remarkable was the reaction of her extended family, which took Cecilia in (both parents and a brother died in the crash) and then, in effect, made her disappear. They sought to shield her from people like me, refusing to talk to media or to make Cecilia available for photos. For years, they did this, seeking to let the miraculous survivor grow up in as near a normal way as she could, given the circumstances.

Now Cecilia has emerged, and apparently will be part of this upcoming doumentary, Sole Survivor on survivors of catastrophic plane crashes. I don't see many movies, but I think I'll catch this one (the trailer is embedded below). Margaret, whose fear of flying is palpable, will skip it, I'm sure.

Oh, and in the "small world" category, Flight 255's final destination that night (after a stop in Phoenix, where most of the victims lived) was John Wayne Airport. That's about four miles from where I now live in Irvine, California.

Irony, and the notion of drilling in the arctic

June 2, 2012

Tags: current events, history

(AFP photo: Saul Loeb)
A news item this morning, complete with beautiful photos of the arctic, caught me up short, and I really hope the irony here hasn't escaped policy makers: Global warming has opened up polar regions so we can drill for more oil, whose burning in large part is how we got into this environmental mess in the first place.

So how about instead of careening down this foolish and self-destructive path, we agree internationally to leave the arctic alone and spend more serious effort in developing alternatives? Which brings me to a Twitter exchange I had yesterday with an old friend and current business journalist. She tweeted a link to a Los Angeles Times story about state regulators requiring new and renovated buildings be more energy efficient.

A noble idea, that. But we should go one step further and require solar installations in all new buildings, especially in the Sunbelt. It's mind-boggling that here in the high energy-consumption Southwest and West Coast, we burn fossil fuel instead of converting sunshine for the energy to light and cool our homes.

Requiring solar installations on new construction would add some initial costs to the buildings, but if we added incentives to install American-made solar panels, we could goose the domestic manufacturing economy, and over time the solar units' cost would decline. And the property owners would have lower utility bills, further reducing the cost.

It seems like a wasted a opportunity. And drilling in the arctic is foolhardy, at best, beyond the environmental risks it would entail. Same with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Why would we want to make it easier to keep burning fossil fuels, instead of harder? It's like a drug addict burning through his family's money who, instead of getting help, looks for a cheaper drug dealer. What will it take for us to get more sensible about how we generate energy?

More than a lifetime of tornadoes in one image

May 31, 2012

Tags: personal, history

I'm a sucker for dramatic weather (odd, then, that I live in a place that rarely gets any), great web imagery, and unusual maps. This blends all three in spectacular fashion: A map of every tornado that has touched down in the lower 48 United States over the past 56 years - which begins two years before I was born.

Yes, this is essentially my lifespan as told by tornadoes. Put together by John Nelson at IDV Solutions.

tornado paths

On Memorial Day, and the honored lost lives

May 28, 2012

Tags: personal, history

From the Battle of Verdun, World War I
Nearly 30 years ago I found myself in Rennes, France, reporting a feature story while traveling France, England and Ireland with Margaret. We stopped by a local war memorial, which I remember as a stark and haunting place, large, with white marble walls, the names of the dead chiseled into the stone.

I remember as we walked around seeing a thigh-high ark near one of the walls. With my limited French abilities, I made out that the white-marble case was to memorialize the dead of World War II. It wasn't until then that I realized the endless rows of names on the walls were the dead from World War I.

The human costs of war in the 20th century was astounding, with tens of millions killed across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. I guess we should count our blessings that so few people live in Antarctica, or surely there'd have been war there. too.

On Memorial Day we tend to wax patriotic about soldiers giving the ultimate sacrifice to defend our way of life, a take that leaves me with a sour feeling. Some wars are just; most are not, sparked by greed, hubris, and tribalistic nationalism. But I can never shake the feeling that the military graveyards of the world are filled in large part by the bodies of men and women who never should have been sacrificed.

On Memorial Day, I join the nation in thanking and remembering fighting men and women who have died simply because they were asked to fight in their nation's name. But we also should hold accountable those who put them in harm's way for reasons other than our common defense. And no, a cheap gallon of gas or access to markets, no matter how shrouded in patriotic jingoes they might be, are not issues of national defense.

On Michael Harrington, and the persistence of poverty

May 25, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

A half-century ago Michael Harrington published a fairly slim book, The Other America, that focused the nation's attention on what life was like for impoverished Americans, from urban cores to the hollows of Appalachia. It was an important book then; sadly, it remains an important book now.

The Los Angeles Times asked me to write a short appreciation of the book for this Sunday's paper (already available online here). I was happy to do it. I was four years old when the book came out, and as I write in the piece, I read it for the first time in the early 1980s, early in my career as a journalist.
I grew up about 90 miles to the east of Jamestown, part of a conservative family in a small conservative village in the northern reaches of Appalachia. The area had forests, deer and poverty in abundance, so I found much to identify with in Harrington's book, which could well stand as the last hurrah for any pretense that we lived in a nation of compassion....

Harrington's work didn't move me to a life of journalism — I was already there, propelled by genetics (my father and grandfather were newspapermen) and by the mixed impulses to explore and to challenge. But Harrington's book affirmed those impulses and helped mold my world view, an evolution from small-town conservatism to a believer in the power of government and collective action to effect good in the world.
Unfortunately, despite decades of national policies that place the health of corporations ahead of the health of communities, poverty is just as intractable today as it was then (programs that support the poor are necessary and humane, but only temporary solutions to what in the end is a structural problem).

But in these days of ostracism and greed, with a religious embrace of free-market economics and paying the lowest price for everything, don't expect anything to change. As I wrote in the piece, Harrington's book "could well stand as the last hurrah for any pretense that we lived in a nation of compassion."

A fascinating time-lapse video of earth

May 16, 2012

Tags: current events, history, personal

Every now and then you stumble across something that is just so compelling you have to share it (hmm, I wonder if we could build a social-networking site around that idea?). This is a time-lapse video of photos taken from a Russian satellite about a year ago. The photos are fairly high-resolution - one kilometer per pixel - for the amount of terrain covered, which gives the video a heightened sense of sharpness. The orange is vegetation, the color a result of the infrared cameras used.

The rest of the technical details (121 megapixel cameras, photos taken every 30 minutes, etc.) are on the Youtube page where I found this, but I thought the video remarkable enough to share here. This really needs to be done as a screensaver, no?

Doing some good for my neighbors

May 8, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

Albert Ezroj
Another side benefit of publishing Detroit: A Biography: Keeping neighbors like Albert Ezroj occupied. Because, as we know, idle hands are the devil's playthings ....

I'm also pleased to note that Hour: Detroit, a magazine in Metro Detroit edited by former colleague Beck Powers, included Detroit in a roundup of new books in the May issue. They wedged me after a book on morel mushrooms, and just above The Skeleton Box, the newest mystery by old friend and former colleague Bryan Gruley. He'll be in Los Angeles on June 13; I'll be buying my copy then.

A well-traveled friend buys a well-received book

May 6, 2012

Tags: current events, history, personal

Paula Dear could well be the most-traveled reader of Detroit: A Biography.

Paula and her husband, Jeremy, are from England, and visited with us for a couple of weeks last summer as they prepared for the trip of a life-time. Both had pitched their jobs (he as general secretary for the National Union of Journalists, she as a journalist for BBC news), packed up their keepsakes with family, came to the U.S. and went shopping for a sleeper van. The plan: To spend a couple of years driving around the Americas (which they're chronicling here).

Oh, and neither spoke Spanish.

They've been marooned for a bit in Honduras, awaiting delivery of a new transmission (a long story amusingly told on their travel blog). But they took a planned break last week, Jeremy to head to Havana for May Day (as close to a religious holiday as he celebrates), and Paula to New York City for some facetime with old friends to celebrate her birthday.

And there, in a Barnes & Noble, she bought my book. Thanks, Paula. And for any others with photos of the Big Purchase, email me and I'll try to pop the picture up here on the blog.

Now, back to John Paul Jones. Where is that body?

Politics, and why Washington doesn't work

April 28, 2012

Tags: current events, history

The Washington Post yesterday published a provocative opinion piece by Thomas E. Mann of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute under the headline, "Let's just say it: The Republicans are the problem." With a headline like that, you just know the piece is going to be inflammatory.

And it is. Needfully so. They write:
"We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

"The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

"When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

“'Both sides do it' or 'There is plenty of blame to go around' are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach."
A powerful indictment, that, and the piece goes on to back it up (I highly encourage you all to go read it). But it also fails to give proper weight to the real problem behind the Republican Party's shift to extremism. The article quotes a line from former Republican Congressional aide Mike Lofgren, written at Truthout after he retired, in which he says the "Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.” And Rep. Alan West's striking a Joe McCarthy pose and accusing Democratic members of Congress of being communists was a disgusting throwback to our red-bating years (he also has equated Democrats with Nazis).

Yet the writers of the Post opinion piece overlook a key factor here. Any American political party reflects the political views of members. Gerrymandering has helped lock in the power of the extremists in both parties, but you can't lose sight of the fact that the science-denying, red-baiting right-wing extremists in Washington were sent there by voters. The problem, and fault, lies in us, the electorate. The authoritarian nature of the GOP these days reflects the people who voted them in (and the right-ward cast of talk radio helped propel that after the FCC's Fairness Doctrine was killed during the Reagan administration) .

We are locked now less in a crisis of dysfunctional politics than in a crisis of the nation's political soul. And if you doubt that, go read the comments on the article linked above. As Pogo once observed, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

The Festival of Books, and an unanswered question

April 23, 2012

Tags: current events, history, personal

Northeast Detroit, summer of 2010.
Well, it was a hectic couple of days at the LA Times Festival of Books, with an appearance on a panel Sunday and writing up three blog posts for the Times's Jacket Copy blog Saturday and Sunday morning. But I found myself thinking last night about an answer that slipped away.

I was on the "We Built This City " panel Sunday, moderated by LA Times book editor Jon Thurber, and that included former Times c ity editor and columnist Bill Boyarsky and writer Rebecca Solnit. Boyarsky was there to talk about Los Angeles, Solnit about San Francisco, and I about Detroit. Before it was opened to audience questions, Thurber asked about catastrophic events, and how cities seem to pull together after them (something Solnit has written about) and why, in a case like Detroit, they don't. Before I got a chance to weigh in the conversation drifted a bit, and I didn't bring it back.

So here is my answer: Because people tend to respond to incidents they can react to in an immediate, and human way. We don't, as a society, react to slow evolution. Or, in the case of Detroit, a slow dismantling.

A popular theme in Detroit is to say that the city is just as devastated as New Orleans, but without the hurricane. There's some truth to that. People like to donate to the Red Cross and other organizations in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe, or something like the 9/11 terror attacks. It helps them feel connected, as though they've done something that recognizes their sympathy with those directly affected. It makes them feel good.

But when it comes to large but slowly unfolding socio-economic crises, we turn a blind eye. Especially if those suffering are outside the mainstream - people of color, the chronically poor, the detritus left behind by an economic ebb tide. Which is really quite interesting when you think about. These slowly unfolding crises are the results, in most cases, of national and corporate policies, regional housing patterns, a crumbling sense of physical community, and a surrender to individual fears and prejudices.

A hurricane we rally around. Our national sins, not so much. And it's all the odder when you realize that many of us who are getting by in this economy are one serious illness away from abject poverty - even those of us with health insurance. We need to pay more attention to these glacial, and transforming, changes in our national fabric, and our national priorities. We need to start thinking more about ourselves as part of a inclusive community.

A lot of people these days are quoting the Founding Fathers as they try to define what the government is, and should be. It would behoove us to heed another quote from that era, too, about what happens if we don't all hang together.....

Why today should be marked in red on your calendar

April 20, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

This date has a habit of sneaking up on me. I look at the calendar and am a little shocked to see it rounding out again. There are others who have the same feeling, I know (a few post on Facebook). But it remains just another day for most people, including labor supporters, which has long struck me as a bit of an insult to history.

It was 98 years ago today that a day-long gun battle erupted at a coal strikers' tent colony at the edge of the Great Plans in southern Colorado. The violence led to the suffocation deaths of 11 children and two mothers (they died in an underground bunker as fire swept through the tents above), but it also represented one of the most extreme encounters between workers and their bosses, and state military forces. Another child and several men were killed that day, too, including the apparent cold-blooded murders of union miners by National Guardsmen The deaths at Ludlow occurred within the sweep of a seven-month guerrilla war between the miners and their supporters, and mine guards and the Colorado National Guard. At least 75 people were killed in what amounted to open insurrection. Yet few of you have ever heard of it.

With the centennial looming - the strike began in September 1913 - I'm hoping the events at Ludlow gain more of our national attention. Meantime, after the jump you'll find a short excerpt from Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, my first book, about that long ago day in southern Colorado: (more…)

Sunday at the LAT Festival of Books: 'We built this city'

April 18, 2012

Tags: current events, history, personal

There's a busy weekend ahead with the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I'll be on a panel Sunday, but it also looks like I'll be blogging from some of the events for the LAT's Jacket Copy blog, which I've done for the past few festivals.

The panel should be quite interesting, with me talking about Detroit, Bill Boyarsky talking about Los Angeles, and Rebecca Solnit talking about San Francisco (I presume; she's written about it). The moderator will be the Times's book editor, Jon Thurber. We'll be in Taper Hall Room 101.

So I'll be around the grounds of the University of Southern California for both days of the festival. I hope to see some of you there.

Rep. West, Joe McCarthy, and the flames that won't die

April 14, 2012

Tags: current events, history

Maybe someone should get Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) a copy of my last book, The Fear Within, to get a sense of the lunacy he was channeling during this appearance (see the clip below). And not surprisingly, the Tea Party folks in attendance didn't laugh at the absurdity of his comments. So maybe they should order in a couple of boxes of the books.

The Fear Within is about a slice of the Red Scare era after World War II. It's a narrative retelling of the criminal trial of 11 overt leaders of the Communist Party-USA on charges that their political beliefs, the articles and books they wrote, and the classes they taught, were illegal under the 1940 Smith Act. The law banned advocating the necessity of overthrowing the U.S. government, or teaching about it, and the U.S. Department of Justice's case was bizarre: Communism as a theory calls for the violent overthrow of capitalism; the U.S. government is part of a capitalist system; ergo, the CPUSA was trying to overthrow the US government by violence. There were no overt acts, mind you, beyond the exchange of ideas. No plots were hatched.

They 11 defendants were convicted in Dennis v. U.S. (the case I write about) despite the obvious conflicts with the First Amendment, a wrong that wasn't righted until Yates v. U.S. about six years later.

So for a time, a specific political belief was, in effect, outlawed in the United States of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave (remember, our enemies hate us for our freedoms). You'd think political extremists - including Tea Partiers - would be very sensitive to that, and to the kind of shunning implied by West's absurd allegation.

'Rest?' What is this word, 'rest'?

April 13, 2012

Tags: current events, history, personal

John Paul Jones's crypt in Annapolis. Photo: U.S. Naval Academy
With Detroit: A Biography doing well less than two weeks after its official pub date, I've already been looking ahead to the next project. And I'm pleased to let you know that my agent, Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich, has reached an agreement with Chicago Review Press for Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero (that's the working title, anyway), a look at the obsessive hunt in fin de siecle Paris for the body of the man recognized as the father of the U.S. Navy. I'm doubly pleased because CRP did such a great job with Detroit, and I'll be working with the same editor, Jerome Pohlen, and his crew.

John Paul Jones had a checkered life after the Revolutionary War, and died of natural causes in Paris in 1792 in the midst of the French Revolution. Amid the tumult, his body was dropped in the sole Protestant cemetery and the location promptly forgotten, the cemetery eventually covered over with buildings. More than a century later, U.S. Ambassador Horace Porter - a Civil War vet, former top aide to Ulysses S. Grant (in the Union Army and the White House) and the moving force behind establishing Grant's Tomb as a monument - decided Jones deserved better. So he made it so, in dramatic fashion and at his own expense, including digging a network of shafts and tunnels beneath buildings in Paris to explore the old cemetery to find the right body.

I've already done some early research, and it's a fascinating story. Look for it in Spring of 2014 (tentative). And naturally, there will be occasional updates before then.

Oh, and the crime novel I wrote? It's still wandering around publishing houses looking for a home. So think good thoughts for that project, too.

On the book tour whirlwind

April 9, 2012

Tags: current events, history, personal

Photo: Jerome Pohlen
Well, I'm back in California, landed Saturday in time to prepare for Easter dinner with my family and some old friends, and now here in the predawn hours I'm getting my week mapped out. Which is also a good time to look at the week behind.

The schedule was posted elsewhere so I won't detail it here, but it was a hectic and fun romp through Ann Arbor, Lansing and Detroit. Met some wonderful people at some great bookstores, and had a great night with old friends and the newly curious at the Anchor Bar in Downtown Detroit. The reception was uniformly positive, supportive, and spiced with personal and family stories about living - or leaving - Detroit. No resolutions were made or solutions found, but that wasn't the intent of the book. I want Detroit: A Biography to give people who don't know Detroit a better sense of what it once was and how it got to be what it is, and to give Detroiters and Michiganders a better sense of themselves, and the problems they face.

There have been some nice recent write-ups and reviews of the book, too, including The Detroit Hub, a ocal news site, and Bookslut, a national book-centric blog. Sales are going pleasantly well, too. Apparently it's the number two best-selling nonfiction title in northern Michigan.

And we've only just begun.

Postcard: Greetings from Michigan

April 4, 2012

Tags: current events, history

One of the many highlights of the book talk and signing part of this business are the moments of surprise, and the chance to encounter folks whose lives have intersected with the topics of one of my books. I’ve been chatting for the past couple of days with a lot of ex-Detroiters in Ann Arbor and Lansing, nearly all of whom have been white, and who left (or whose parents left) Detroit years ago. And it’s interesting to hear anew what that history looks like from inside the personal decisions.

Most have been receptive to the analysis of the broad themes of Detroit’s decline (racism, corporate decentralization, failing institutions, etc.), and been keenly interested in how to stanch the bleeding and begin rebuilding. But mixed in among the conversations was a wonderful path-crossing with Dan Green, who lives with his wife outside Ann Arbor and whose father figured so prominently in my last book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial. Gil Green was a top official in the Communist Party-USA, and was one of the defendants in the Dennis v. U.S. case that was at the heart of my book, and whose conviction, for a time, made belief in a specific political theory effectively illegal (as we well known, the Supreme Court doesn't always get things right). It was a great pleasure to finally meet Dan after so many email exchanges as I was working on that project.

The first talk of this trip was at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, a great independent bookstore (picture to the left). Tuesday evening I spoke at a Barnes & Noble in Lansing, with great interest and support from the staff. Tonight I'm at the Anchor Bar in downtown Detroit (something of a home game; that’s the old newspaper hangout when I lived in Detroit), and Thursday I’m at The Book Beat in Oak Park, another great independent bookstore, where I'll be "in conversation" with friend M.L. Liebler, the hardest working man in poetry. Mixed in are some talks before classes at Wayne State, and Friday morning a talk at TechTown, a business incubator near Wayne State.

Then, like the Easter Bunny, I hop back west in time for Easter. Somewhere in there: A nap.

Thanks to all of you who have come out for the talks, to the journalists and bloggers who have written about the book, and to those of you who have plunked down hard-earned cash for copy. Obviously, without a book-buying public, I – and other writers – wouldn’t be able to do this kind of work.

Too many stories, not enough pages

March 31, 2012

Tags: current events, history

Photo: Library of Congress
As I get ready to head east - or, I should say, midwest - I've been thinking about some of the stories that I was forced to leave out of Detroit: A Biography, and, by extension, this process of distilling a vast subject into digestible form.

Two stories stand out, those of Fred Herrada and James Chambers. Herrada, who died while I was writing the book, spent a couple of hours with me in the condo he shared with his wife in Ann Arbor. An American born to Mexican immigrant parents, he was deported as a young child to Mexico during the Great Depression as part of the federal government's "repatriation" program in which hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their children - often American citizens - were summarily kicked out of the country. Herrada returned a few years a later; his parents had already resumed their lives in Detroit and sent for the rest of the family. But the experience was another one of those overlooked slices of American history that tend to fascinate me.

I found Herrada through his daughter, Elena Herrada, a political activist and die-hard Detroit booster. She met me at her parents' house and stayed on through the interview, where she learned for the first time that when she was still a young girl and the family was living in Detroit, a neighbor girl had been raped, and that her parents, without letting their children know, feared for the family's safety during racially tumultuous times. Then, like so many others, they moved out of the city. Elena, though, long ago moved back in, and is a member of the Detroit Public Schools board of education. I had hoped to use the Herradas' story to illustrate the stability of the Latino neighborhood in southwest Detroit, but the focus of the book veered in another direction.

Chambers I met through a mutual friend in a bar in the Cass Corridor. He had moved to Detroit as a child from rural Louisiana after a cousin (if I recall the relationship correctly) had been murdered by a white man. The child and other friends, all black, routinely took a shortcut through the man's yard to get to a favorite swimming hole, an act that angered the man. One day he killed the boy with a shotgun blast, a final straw for Chambers' fearful mother, who promptly moved the family north.

Chambers grew up in public housing on the near west side, and told fascinating stories of living through the 1967 riots, the sense of fear and excitement as the buildings burned and the bullets flew. He recalled getting conscripted by neighbors to drive a forklift into a burning rug warehouse and wheel out rolls of carpeting, which promptly disappeared into the streets. A teenager then, he was too young to fully register the significance of what was happening, but in his recollections those burning streets came to life. When I interviewed Chambers, he was living with his wife in a beautiful two-story colonial house, the front stoop guarded by stone lions, in Detroit's Boston-Edison neighborhood, and worked as a line repairman for the telephone company (if I recall, writing this from memory not notes). I had hoped to tell the story of the '50s migration of blacks from the South through him, but wound up using another man's story instead.

Hard choices to make, deciding whose story to tell and whose story to leave out. There are so many slices of history, and so few pages in which to tell them.

Road tripping: Detroit, here I come

March 25, 2012

Tags: current events, history

On April 2 - a week from Monday - I'm starting a five-day tour of southeast Michigan that will cover Ann Arbor, Lansing and, of course, Detroit, marking the official publication of Detroit: A Biography. The book has already found its way to stores shelves, and the usual online outlets. I'm hoping these appearances will draw some attention, and maybe spark conversations about the city's future as Detroit faces a crippling financial crisis.

The biggest event likely will ber a Wednesday night launch gathering at the Anchor Bar, the old newspaper (and sports) hangout in downtown Detroit. Vaughn Derderian hosts an occasional series there called Beer and Politics, which strikes me as a splendid program in an unusual setting where average Detroiters can talk about their city. Very pleased that Vaughn has decided to let me come talk about before such an engaged crowd.

I'll also be in conversation with old friend M.L. Liebler on Thursday night at The Book Beat, a great bookstore in Oak Park. I start the week in Ann Arbor at Nicola's, then up to Lansing for a talk and signing at Barnes & Noble, both of which should be interesting and engaging events. The full calendar of the public events is below (I'll be doing some private talks, too) is below. And there will be some local media coverage, including radio interviews and a Detroit television appearance Monday morning on WXYZ Channel 7, which I'll add to the events page in the next couple of days.

If you have a suggestion of places where we might squeeze in another talk, or if my contacts in the media are interested in covering any of this, drop me an email.

April 2: Ann Arbor, 7 pm, Nicola's Books in the Westgate Shopping Center at Jackson and Maple in Ann Arbor. Phone: (734 ) 662-0600.

April 3: 6 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 5132 W. Saginaw Hwy. in Lansing

April 4, 7 p.m., Detroit, book launch at Beer & Politics event, Anchor Bar, West Fort and First Streets (cash bar).

April 5: 7 p.m., in conversation with M.L. Liebler at The Book Beat, at 26010 Greenfield Road in Oak Park.

Mark the calendar: 'We Built This City'

March 23, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

Organizers of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books have announced the schedule for this year's festival, and once again I'm happy to see my name on it. I'm slotted for a panel at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22, in Taper Hall. The subject: "We Built This City."

It should be an interesting hour or so. The other two panelists:

- Bill Boyarsky, a familiar name to longtime LA Times readers for his years as a columnist, reporter, and editor He also is the author of Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics and contributes regularly to Kevin Roderick's LAObserved website (a must-read sit for Angelenos interested in media and politics), and at Truthdig.

- Rebecca Solnit, who's always sharp and insightful, also was behind the book, Infinite City, an atlas of San Francisco. But not just any atlas. She writes about the different ways of perceiving a city. At least most recently. By my count, this is her ninth book.

And my book, Detroit: A Biography, obviously enough, is about Detroit.

So we'll have a conversation about three iconic cities: Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Can;t wait to see where Thurber takes us with his questions. Hope to see some of you there. And as usual, I'll be wandering around both days, so say hello if we cross paths.

On crossed paths, nearly 30 years later

March 22, 2012

Tags: current events, history

An old friend and one-time editor, J. Ford Huffman, sent me a message the other day pointing out an interesting bit of timing. My Detroit: A Biography, as you all know by now, is just hitting bookstores. As is a book J.Ford co-edited, The End of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Impact in Studies and Personal Essays by Service Members and Veterans. And our mutual friend and former colleague Julia Heaberlin's debut novel, Playing Dead come out in a few weeks.

We all worked together at the Rochester Times-Union newspaper in New York in the mid-1980s, and as J. Ford pointed out in his message, there's a nice synchronicity to all three of us having books out this Spring. But that also got me thinking about some of the other people who worked at that great, and late (it closed in 1997) newspaper that another former editor of mine once described as less a daily newspaper than a daily magazine.

It was an interesting array of journalists who cycled through the paper during the three years I was there, including Kate Philips and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David Barstow, both now with the New York Times; former Washington Post White House reporter and current Politico editor John F. Harris (also the author of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House and co-author of The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008; and Jim McCommons, author of Waiting on a Train, about his year of travel aboard Amtrak trains.

Two other colleagues from that era, Marla Dickerson and Reed Johnson, work for the Los Angeles Times (we also worked together, with new novelist Julia at The Detroit News, and Steve Dollar is a prolific freelance critic and author of Jazz Guide: New York City. And the list goes on.

Quite the springboard, the Times-Union was, quite the springboard...

Let William Hughes tell you my Detroit: A Biography story

March 21, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Cover of the audio version of Detroit: A Biography
This is lot of fun for me. A few months back, Blackstone Audiobooks bought the rights to Detroit: A Biography, and it looks like their version is already available. The cover is different from the print version, and the narrator is William Hughes, who, I noticed, also read The Soloist, by columnist and former Los Angeles Times colleague Steve Lopez. The book is based on Lopez's columns about a homeless classical musician, and was also made into a movie. So here's hoping some of that success rubs off via Hughes.

If you go to the Blackstone site for , there's a button to click that plays a short sample from the book. They selected a snippet from the chapter about the onset of the Great Depression in Detroit. It begins:
The “Roaring Twenties” party in Detroit – and elsewhere – ended less abruptly than we think. In retrospect, we tend to look at the stock market meltdown of late October 1929 as the economic collapse that sank into the Great Depression. In truth, signs of the bursting bubble began emerging well before then (and this is a bit of an historical mine field, with debates still ongoing over what really happened to spur the worldwide depression). In February of 1929, concerned over the vast amounts of money the nation’s private banks were lending to speculators investing in the stock market, the Federal Reserve asked member banks to “restrain the use, either directly or indirectly, of Federal Reserve credit facilities in aid of the growth of speculative credit.” It didn’t do much good. Broad consumer faith in the economic boom began to falter, and then turned into a financial panic with the Wall Street selloff, likely sparked by a mix of scandals and feared regulation of public utilities, and criticism at home and abroad of the “speculative orgy” on Wall Street. News stories detailed the first hemorrhages, which helped fuel the panic. In rapid order, several million people lost their jobs, their life savings, and their homes. Banks failed across the nation, and personal fortunes large and small evaporated. Small businesses withered and died; homeowners were evicted; farmers were booted off land they could no longer afford to tend. In an era of unregulated banking, thousands of small banks shut their doors, never to re-open, the deposits of their customers gone. By the end of 1931, the Great Depression was on. Billions of dollars of equity evaporated as the nation’s publicly traded companies lost 73 percent of their value through 1932 (ultimately the market would lose 90 percent of its value).
So go ahead, all you commuters, buy a copy of the audiobook and for a few days, anyway, start your workdays with my words - and Hughes's voice - in your ears.

A nice overview of Detroit: A Biography from Atlantic Cities

March 12, 2012

Tags: current events, history, personal

One of the websites on my daily list of visits is The Atlantic Cities, part of the publishing group that puts out The Atlantic monthly magazine. Great site with a lot of interesting looks at slices of urban existence. So it makes me doubly happy to see them with a nice write up today of Detroit: A Biography (the writer, David Lepeska, interviewed me last week):
That the price of a house in Detroit can cost less today than a new car seems one of the great ironies of 21st century America. But no major city has been harder hit by the recent recession, or by the decades of manufacturing attrition that preceded it, than the Motor City.

It’s famously lost a quarter of its population in the last decade and 60 percent since 1950, and now sits on the brink of bankruptcy. “We are at a critical and pivotal time like none in Detroit's history,” Mayor Dave Bing said in his state of the city speech Wednesday.

In his forthcoming book, Detroit: A Biography, journalist Scott Martelle details how the city – felled by one of the great innovations of the industrial era, a grave lack of official foresight and swirling poverty and prejudice – has come to redefine urban collapse.

E-books, Amazon, and the looming cultural decline

March 9, 2012

Tags: current events, history, bookstores

Scott Turow, who when he's not writing best-selling books is a lawyer and president of the Author's Guild, posted a letter a little bit ago on the organization's websites that bears reading by anyone who loves books.

Turow lays out the background of the fight over e-books and their prices, and what it could mean if the Department of Justice steps in, as is becoming likely, and tries to stop efforts by five publishers and Apple to create some competition for Amazon (and Nook). It's complicated, so I urge you to read Turow's letter. But the key passage to me is:
"Our concern about bookstores isn't rooted in sentiment: bookstores are critical to modern bookselling. Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered. ... For those of us who have been fortunate enough to become familiar to large numbers of readers, the disappearance of bookstores is deeply troubling, but it will have little effect on our sales or incomes. Like rock bands from the pre-Napster era, established authors can still draw a crowd, if not to a stadium, at least to a virtual shopping cart. For new authors, however, a difficult profession is poised to become much more difficult."
That includes me. Detroit: A Biography is my third book, but no one could make the case that I'm a well-known author (as the joke goes, I'm not even famous in y house). In early April, Detroit: A Biography will be featured for two weeks on Barnes & Nobles' "New In Nonfiction" shelves in nearly 700 stores across the country.

In an Amazon-run book world, I would never get that exposure. And thousands of readers wouldn't have the opportunity for a moment of serendipity, to chance across that wonderful cover created by the Chicago Review Press graphics folks, and discover both a new work, and a new author.

Akin to the decline in our journalism, we are increasingly becoming an electorate informed by the echoes of what we already know. To have our reading public fall into that same pit of ignorance does not bode well for us as a culture, or a responsive democracy. This is an important issue. I urge you to follow it developments, and to act when it becomes appropriate.

It's real - got the first Detroit: A Biography in the mail yesterday

March 1, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

I received the first copy of Detroit: A Biography in the mail yesterday, which as you might suspect is a pretty cool feeling. And the designers at Chicago Review Press did a wonderful job with the cover, which, as best as I can describe it, has a bit of a mock dull-metal finish to the paper. It works beautifully with the 1929 picture of Detroit taken from the Windsor side of the Detroit River, which I found in the Library of Congress digital archives (lot of great photos there). From a practical standpoint this means copies of the book should start showing up at retailers in a couple of weeks or so.

And I have some wonderful news on that front, too. Barnes & Noble will be featuring Detroit: A Biography in all of its stores (nearly 700 nationwide) from April 3-16, placing it on the “new in nonfiction” tables and racks. That should get the book in front of readers who might not otherwise find it. Let’s hope they pick up a copy!

And for you Michiganders, I’ll be in the state—Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing—the first week of April for a series of appearances (details after the jump). I’ll also be on the Craig Fahle Show on WDET-FM in Detroit on April 3 (show starts at 10 a.m.), and we’re hoping for other media events. And I’ll be talking at a couple of classes at Wayne State University, too. Should be a busy and fun week.

As always, thanks for the interest and the support. (more…)

An idea for a moving book trailer

February 24, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

I really want to do a trailer like this for the forthcoming release of Detroit: A Biography. All I need is three other guys, a car, a few pianos, some metal bits, a stretch of desert road and, um, a budget ...

Watergate: When the truth was stranger than fiction

February 19, 2012

Tags: history, current events, novel, fiction

Today's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Thomas Mallon's Watergate, a book that was a lot of fun to read for someone whose formative years were dominated by Watergate. I remember poring over every story in the daily paper as the scandal unfolded, and watching the hearings on TV when I got home from school. Names like Fred LaRue, John Dean, and Rose Mary Woods were as familiar to me as the starting lineup of my beloved Baltimore Orioles.

So it was entertaining to read Mallon's novelization of those events. From the review:
It's been nearly 40 years since Watergate, a chain of events that did, in fact, carry the echoes of a bad novel. Imagine the overview: People working for a powerful president get caught breaking into the headquarters of the opposition political party, setting off a scandal that reaches the highest level of power and threatens the very foundations of the government itself.

Preposterously melodramatic. Except it really happened.

In "Watergate," Mallon adeptly converts the real into fiction. This is Mallon's eighth novel, including 1994's "Henry and Clara," about a couple that President Abraham Lincoln invited to sit in the presidential box at Ford Theater that fateful night he was assassinated, and 2007's "Fellow Travelers," about a gay romance in McCarthy-era Washington.

So Mallon has the experience, both in fictionalizing history and in plumbing the depths of Washington, where he lives. In "Watergate," he adroitly captures the banal venality of Nixon, the loyal scheming of his political intimates and the complex interactions among shadowy ex-CIA agents and others that ended in criminal acts.

A killing in Oakland

February 11, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

In August 2007 word pinged through the journalism world - and echoed loudly in Detroit - that reporter and editor Chauncey Bailey had been gunned down on an Oakland street. Shock turned quickly to incredulity as it was discovered Bailey had likely been gunned down because of a story he was working on about a local bakery with a reputation for helping downtrodden blacks in Oakland.

My review of a new book about that murder - Thomas Peele's Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist - is in the Los Angeles Times, and as I mention high up in the review I knew Bailey, but not well. We were colleagues, but not social friends, when we both worked at The Detroit News. And there is, as I write, something disconcerting about reading the intimate details of the violent death of someone you know--despite years of reading autopsy reports and listening with detached ears to witnesses describe horrors they had seen.

At its heart this is a true-crime book, and overall it's done pretty well, exploring the seamiest excesses of the Bey family in Oakland, through to the conviction of Bailey's killers. From the review:
Peele's book begins with Bailey's murder, as it should, since it was Bailey's death that ultimately sent Yusuf Bey IV (known as Fourth), a son of Your Black Muslim Bakery founder Yusuf Bey, to prison for life and ended the family's violent control of North Oakland. But how the Beys rose to such prominence, and the related Keystone Kops behavior of the Oakland Police Department, is the book's main focus.

At the time of his death, Bailey was editor of the weekly Oakland Post, a freebie paper several rungs down the journalistic food chain from the dailies where Bailey once worked. In truth, Bailey had a loose grasp of journalistic ethics and his work was not exactly top tier, and Peele offers an unvarnished view here of Bailey's professional weaknesses.

Still, it was his journalism that got Bailey killed.

A couple of early reviews for Detroit: A Biography

February 6, 2012

Tags: current events, history, personal

The weeks leading up to, and after, the publication date for a book is always a bit nerve-wracking. You try to put it out of your mind, but there's always the node in the back of the brain that has you wondering, did I do it right? I'm happy to say that the first two early looks are positive for Detroit: A Biography.

Kirkus Reviews was first out, but the post is limited to subscribers until the book comes out April 1. The highlight: "The city’s death warrant, writes Martelle, was signed when the industry converting back to auto production after the war failed to diversify. Now much of it is returning to meadows and pasture. A valuable biography sure to appeal to readers seeking to come to grips with important problems facing not just a city, but a country."

And now comes Publishers Weekly, with this nice highlight:
Former Detroit News reporter Martelle (Blood Passion) vividly recounts the rise and downfall of a once-great city, from its origins as a French military outpost to protect fur traders and tame local Indian tribes, to the industrial giant known colloquially as Motown, and now when its “economy seized up like an engine run dry.” ... Today, says Martelle, Detroit has been abandoned by both the Big Three auto makers and most of its citizens, leaving primarily black residents, many uneducated, jobless, and poor. Martelle, also an occasional contributor to PW, offers an informative albeit depressing glimpse of the workings of a once-great city that is now a shell of its former self.
Nice words to read. Of course, there's more to the book than these reviews could capture in short write-ups, and it's not all doom and gloom. My intent was to try to explain to people who don't know Detroit how it came to be, both in the best and the worst of the place. And what the rise and fall of Detroit might mean for our other urban cores. So I'm looking forward to the longer takes that (I hope) will crop up beginning in late March.

On Egypt, and one man's view from the inside

January 27, 2012

Tags: current events, history

Sunday's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Wael Ghonim's book, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir, his detailed view from the inside of the Egyptian uprising. I liked the book, as you'll see in the review (online already here), and it's one of those books that makes me interested in reading other accounts, as well.

Ghonim, you may recall, was the Google executive and Egyptian native behind a website that became a key rallying place for myriad opposition groups challenging Hosni Mubarak's grip on power. There had been opposition groups in Egyptian for a while, and labor unions had already been pressuring the regime for change.

But revolutions often turn on timing, and Ghonim's Facebook page arrived as the opposition to Mubarak was catchng fire. From the review:
If there is a weakness to "Revolution 2.0," it lies in the narrow focus. These were days of sweeping change across North Africa and the Middle East, and while Ghonim cites the Tunisian uprising as a spark to the Egyptians' sense of hope, the book doesn't offer much in the way of step-back analysis.

But that is also a strength — Ghonim doesn't overreach in this deeply personal account. His words ring with an authentic tone, and other than a few broad comments about the character of his fellow Egyptians, Ghonim avoids sweeping generalizations during those heady and tumultuous days.

Ghonim, frustrated with life under the Mubarak regime, entered politics by launching a Facebook page supporting Nobel Peace Prize-winning nuclear-proliferation expert Mohamed El Baradei, who in 2009 began criticizing the Mubarak regime and intimating he might run for president. Ghonim then launched another page — anonymously — responding to the beating death of Khaled Mohamed Said, a fellow young Egyptian, at the hands of two Egyptian State Security officers.

Roger Williams and the U.S. as a 'Christian' nation

January 22, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

The timing of this was inadvertent, yet still telling. I have a book review in this morning's Los Angeles Times of a new look at Roger Williams and the concept of the separation of church and state, at the same time the political world is digesting New Gingrich's win amid the conservative Christians in South Carolina (my friend and former colleague Mark Z. Barabak puts that into clear context here).

The book is John Barry's Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, and it is a fascinating read. From my review:
Barry, whose earlier books include "The Great Influenza" on the 1918 pandemic and "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America," writes with absorbing detail and quotes extensively from 17th century English, a version of the language hard on modern eyes. For instance, there's this from John Winthrop's famous "City Upon a Hill" speech to his fellow Puritans as they fled England for the New World:

"But if our heartes shall turne away, soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship and serue other Gods, our pleasure and proffits, and serue them; it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good land whither wee passe over this vast sea to possesse it."

But patient readers are rewarded. Williams' views on the relationship between the individual and the state carved out the path to the American future. Most of the early settlers may have been Christians, but by the time the nation was born, the focus was on preserving civil liberties, not faith — establishing a place in which people could, indeed, pursue life, liberty and happiness. And where individuals could define for themselves what that meant.

We knew this was coming, but didn't listen

January 3, 2012

Tags: current events, history

This analysis seems spot on:
"Let's suppose, for a moment, there was a country where the people in charge charted a course that eliminated millions of good-paying jobs.

"Suppose they gave away several million more jobs to other nations.

"Finally, imagine that the people running this country implemented economic policies that enabled those at the very top to grow ever richer while most others grew poorer.

"You wouldn't want to live in such a place, would you?

"Too bad.

"You already do.

"These are some of the consequences of failed U.S. government policies that have been building over the last three decades — the same policies that people in Washington today are intent on keeping or expanding. Under them, 140 million Americans, mostly working families and individuals — blue-collar, white-collar and professional — are being treated as though they were expendable.

"Most significant of all, the American dream of the last half-century has been revoked for millions of people — a dream rooted in a secure job, a home in the suburbs, the option for families to live on one income rather than two, a better life than your parents had and a still better life for your children.

"U.S. government policies consistently have failed to protect that dream in the face of growing international competition. Instead they've favored the very forces that shift jobs, money and influence abroad."
Remarkably, those paragraphs are from a package of stories by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996.

Yes, more than 15 years ago.

Did we listen? Maybe we need to occupy history.

On Congress, and the gutting of the Constitution

December 16, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Washington, it seems, is incapable of learning the lesson of unintended consequences.

In June 1940, Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed on a bill that struck them at the time as quite reasonable and prudent given the rise of fascism in Europe and the growing strength of communist movements elsewhere. It was called the Alien Registration Act, or the Smith Act, after U.S. Rep. Howard Smith (D-Va.), who pushed it into law. Much like the current National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which is cruising through Congress and headed to a newly receptive White House, the Smith Act contained a provision that gutted a basic civil right that Americans take for granted.

And that’s the lesson Washington needs to heed.

Analysts from the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, among others, argue that the NDAA, which for the most part authorizes funding for defense programs, also grants the military the right to indefinitely detain anyone anywhere, including U.S. citizens arrested on American soil, if military officials suspect the person is involved in or supporting terrorism.

No judicial review, just arrest and detention until the war on terror is over.

Beyond the problematic issue of using the U.S. military for, in essence, domestic police actions, the NDAA provisions don’t define what constitutes supporting terrorism, or set a threshold for suspicion. Hiding a bomb? Sending some money? Reading a treatise? Stating the opinion that, given U.S. policies over the years, one can understand the emotions behind those seeking to destroy the United States? Would understanding the enemy constitute a show of support?

Who knows? It’s a vague, but sweeping, bit of law, granting an abominable amount of power to the military—and, by extension, to the commander in chief.

One can easily imagine the legal and political fights (more…)

On Amazon, and our base desires

December 13, 2011

Tags: current events, history, bookstores

Last week Amazon infuriated a wide range of people by offering a five percent credit to customers who would use its price-checking phone app in retail stores, but then buy the item at hand online. It didn't apply to books, but it did target the non-book items bookstores rely on to make their margins.

It was an appalling move by Amazon, and I'm happy to see author Richard Russo calling the online giant on it in a New York Times op-ed. The best part of the piece, though, was from author Ann Patchett, who recently opened a bookstore in Nashville:
"I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.”

This is the heart of the issue. The app might be cool technology, but the impulse it serves is one of the things that has been tearing apart our communities, and our country. It is this near-religious embrace of the bargain, the pursuit for the lowest price regardless of the consequences. Believe me, as an underemployed journalist and author, I understand the challenges of family budgets.

But Walmart had already shown us the pernicious impact on entire towns when the residents migrate to cheap over locally sustainable. Amazon is embracing the same outlook: Cater to greed, and damn the social costs. Save a few bucks on buying that cheap import, and ignore the American jobs that disappear as a result.

We need to start looking outside ourselves and individual greed and start examining our personal choices within the framework of our communities. That old revolutionary line by Benjamin Franklin comes to mind: "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." In this case, we hold the economic health of our own communities - and, by extension, of our own families - in our hands. Let's do something constructive with it.

The face of Detroit: A Biography

November 29, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

I've been sitting on this for awhile, waiting for the designers and sales people at Chicago Review Press to give their final approval, which apparently they've done. So here is the cover for my new book, Detroit: A Biography.

The cover is the view of Detroit from the Windsor, Canada, side of the Detroit River, looking, oddly, north. Not many people realize that Detroit sits north of Canada, a wrinkle of local geography (for a few miles the Detroit River flows mostly east to west before resuming its north to south route). The photo was taken in 1929, when Detroit was full of cash and energy, with a population of around 1.6 million - more than twice the current population.

Note the ferries and other boats docked along piers on the Detroit riverfront. It was an entirely different city then, though the skyline is clearly recognizable and quite similar to today's.

I'm looking forward to the book's launch in the spring. We're mappng out some talks and signings in Michigan, and also contemplating appearaces in other cities where it makes sense (where there'd be the highest interest in the book). Once that all gets settled, I'll post here and add it to the events tab.

And Detroit: A Biography is already showing up at online booksellers for pre-orders, so feel free to reserve yours ahead of time.

One down, digging into another

November 17, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Those linked to me on Facebook already heard the other day that I've finished proofing the pages for Detroit: A Biography, and we're rolling along to an April release. We're still figuring out specifics but it will likely involve some appearances in Detroit, and I'll pop those details up on the events page when they get firmed up.

Meantime, I'm in the early stages of putting together a proposal for the next possible project. Too premature to post about it here, but I'm right at that precipice where idle curiosity tumbles me into obsession - the crucial first big step in writing a book. If you're not obsessed by it, chances are slim you'll be able to build up enough steam to finish the book. Or to write it with enough energy, and sense of engagement, to draw in readers.

It can be exhausting, but I'm looking forward to burying myself in another book. It's hard to describe the deep satisfaction that comes from diving into an ocean of material and detail, and then teasing a readable narrative out of what you find.

Plus, it gives you something to do during those insomnia-filled nights.

Oh, and if you're on Facebook, come friend me up over there.

On poverty, or counting those who don't count

November 8, 2011

Tags: current events, history

The U.S. Census released a new report Monday that tries to remedy structural problems with how the federal government counts the number of people living in poverty. The official measure was put together a half-century ago by a government official - and it's been the basic formula ever since.

I won't get wonkish here - you can read the report, which includes the background. But there are several problems. The official measure doesn't account for regional costs differences - rent here in Southern California, for example, versus where my parents live in rural Western New York. And while the official measure doesn't include income support from food stamps and other programs (something the New York Times found significant in this rather odd piece printed before the new report was available), it also doesn't measure health costs, child care costs, transportation - all the things that have significant impacts on family budgets.

So the new measure puts the number of Americans living in poverty at 49.1 million - in a nation of 315 million. That's nearly 3 million more people than the official measure estimated in September, and amounts to about 1.6 of every 10 Americans.

Yet the government still measures poverty at an indefensible threshold. The federal guidelines set the poverty line at $10,890 a year for a single person, and $22,350 a year for a family of four (two adults, two children). So a 70-year-old woman living on $15,000 a year is not considered to be living in poverty. Parents holding down minimum wage jobs to support their two children - making a combined $30,160 a year before taxes, Social Security payments, child care, health car, etc. - would not be considered living in poverty.

As we face protests from the left and the right about corporate excess, governmental ineptitude, and political gridlock, we again are missing what is in plain view. We are, with our religious embrace of federal policies that put global corporate profits ahead of American communities, building a wide and deep pool of poverty in this country.

And that is indefensible.

On Condoleezza Rice, and memoirs

November 5, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history, reviews

My review of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's memoir, No Higher Honor, is in the Los Angeles Times this morning. Lon-n-n-ng book, more than 700 pages, both exhaustive and exhausting.

My approach to the review was to leave politics out of it, which may or may not have been a good idea. I believe everyone has the right to be the star in his or her own memoir, and Rice gives herself her own due. Had I more patience I'd turn now to the memoirs of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush himself to try a little cross-tabulation, seeing if they included many of the same events, and their different takes on them. But, well, I don't have that much patience. Or curiosity.

But the point of the review was to assess the book, not the person or the policies. Here's the opening:
By now, of course, the key details of former national security advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's "No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington" have already made it to public view. Among them: She clashed over policy with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi had an unnerving fixation on his "African princess," which revealed itself in a bizarre private dinner in his kitchen. She regretted the timing of a vacation just as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans.

But there's a lot more to Rice's memoir. In fact, with more than 700 pages of reminiscences, there's an awful lot more than those headline moments, making "No Higher Honor" an exhausting walk in Rice's shoes as, arguably, President George W. Bush's most influential foreign policy advisor — a role she stepped into in August 1998, more than two years before the 2000 election, when Bush was governor of Texas.

And given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, policies of extreme renditions and the incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, combating North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions — well, it was a busy time.

It is a fact of American political life that after a presidential administration ends, key figures retire to write their versions of what they had seen and done. Each needs to be read with a bit of skepticism — legacy more than enlightenment often is the driving force. And Rice's memoir is no different.

Happy birthday, Patriot Act - and the gutting of civil liberties

October 26, 2011

Tags: current events, history

It's been a decade since the USA Patriot Act was rushed into law amid the fear and convulsions that followed the 9/11 terror attacks, and I had hoped that by now the passions would have cooled, sanity would have been regained, and the damned thing would have been allowed to die, or at least been gutted.

Instead, Congress earlier this year gave it new life.

The Washington Post has an op-ed that partially pulls the curtain back on some of the abuses of the provisions of the act, which have turned Americans, often against their will, into gagged co-conspirators in highly objectionable fishing expeditions into the private lives of fellow citizens.

One of the most egregious tools is the use of National Security Letters, whose use was expanded under the Patriot Act. These letters allow the FBI to give themselves permission, without judicial oversight, to dig into the private records and lives of people they determine to be of interest on grounds of national security.

In May 2009, the Department of Justice reported to Congress (the most recent report I could find) that "In 2008, the FBI made 24,744 NSL requests (excluding requests for subscriber information only) for information concerning United States persons. These sought information pertaining to 7,225 different United States persons."

Dissect that number. That's almost 68 letters a day, every day of the year, authorizing itself to look at information it otherwise had no right to see. An earlier report said the government had issued 143,074 NSLs from 2003 to 2005 (inclusive). That is domestic spying by the government on an unfathomable scale. In the 11 years prior to the passage of the Patriot Act, the FBI issued a total of 8,500 NSLs.

As I wrote in my recent book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, these are the acts of a government convulsing in fear. It was fear of fascism and communism that led to the 1940 Smith Act that, for a time, outlawed a specific political belief here in the land of political freedoms. There are direct parallels to the Patriot Act in that each was adopted in response to external pressures, and each had the unintended consequence of trampling some of the rights we believe sets us apart as a nation:

The use of the Smith Act against Communist Party leaders was an effective attempt by the U.S. government to criminalize political belief, flouting both the U.S. Constitution and a national tradition of political freedom and openness. The Smith Act was spawned by rising fear of fascism, and in some ways it is the sire of the USA Patriot Act. Both grew out of legitimate concerns, but the effects of the laws undercut the very thing they were supposed to protect: the American way of life. As the rallying cry went in the days after the 9/11 terror attacks, “The terrorists hate us for our freedoms.” But the USA Patriot Act trumped many of those freedoms, giving the government the authority to, among other things, conduct warrantless searches, track personal reading habits, and muzzle those forced to cooperate with the secret investigations. Thus in the name of anti-terrorism authorities can enter private homes without the resident’s knowledge, or demand details of the books that have been bought at stores or checked out from the library, all under a blanket of secrecy and, in many cases, without judicial review. In its name, and in search of radicalism, police have infiltrated peace groups and religious organizations. These are not the conditions of a free society. These are the acts of a police state, and they stand the nation’s basic principles of freedom of belief and political association—not to mention the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—on their head.

Sorry, America, for not helping out with that recovery thing

October 22, 2011

Tags: current events, history, personal

Three years ago last month my job at the Los Angeles Times was eliminated, sending me off on this odd hybrid career of freelancing, book writing and teaching. And a much-reduced role as a consumer. In Sunday's Times, I weigh in on what that transition means for the rest of you, and our prognosis for economic recovery. From the piece:
I may owe the nation an apology. It turns out I'm a prime reason why the U.S. economy can't regain its footing. Because as a wage-earner, and as a consumer, I'm not what I used to be. ... It's how we and others in our situation are living now that helps explain the persistence of the economic crisis, and hints at the troubles of the future. ...[W]e're spending significantly less than we once did, forming an incremental drag on the economic recovery. Ironically, we have more money salted away in our savings account now than before my job was cut. That's what financial fear does; it makes you hoard cash.

So we patronize fewer restaurants, buy fewer books (a painful cutback for an author; if I'm not buying their books, are they not buying mine?), and rarely contemplate a weekend train getaway to Santa Barbara or San Diego. Take in a professional hockey or baseball game with the family? Um, no.

But a recovery needs us to spend. So we're not helping. And that's why the future is worrisome. We never were high-debt spenders (at the moment, mortgage, car payments and a small credit card balance are our only outstanding debts), but it's highly unlikely our household spending will ever again be what it was.

Progress on Detroit - the book, not the city

September 26, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

We're at that crucial stage of book production - editing and copy editing - which is both grueling and fun. Grueling because a couple of sharp-eyed editors are plying me with questions about facts, word choice and writing style. Fun because this makes the publication of the book, due out in April, feel even closer.

The next step will be proofreading the pages, which is when the book begins to feel real in a physical sense. And I've already had a sneak peak at the cover, and am very pleased with the way it's turning out. I'll post a copy of it once we have the final version.

Meanwhile I'm slogging along with a little teaching and some freelance work while trying to figure out a next project. It's an odd process, trying to zero in one something that will bear two or three years of obsession, and that would be of sufficiently wide interest to make doing the project worth the time and effort.

On poverty, and the obscuring nature of numbers

September 14, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Detroit: Summer 2010. Photo/Scott Martelle
The U.S. Census has released new estimates that show poverty levels in the U.S. jumped last year to 15.1 percent of the nation, up from 14.3 percent the year before. Percentages are usually the best way to understand such shifts, because they help set the context. But in this instance, focusing on the poverty level as a percentage obscures things, turning the real into the abstract.

For instance, that increase of .8 percentage points over the year before represents, in real numbers, an additional 2.6 million people who were living in poverty in 2010, who weren't living in poverty in 2009. For scale, the city of Chicago's population is about 2.7 million. So imagine adding the nation's third-largest city to the poverty rolls in the span of a year.

Overall, and in real numbers, some 46.2 million people are now living in poverty, nearly equal the entire population of the three West Coast states (a combined 47.8 million people).

So what qualifies as living in poverty? For a single adult, living on less than $11,139 a year ($11,344 for those 65 years old and younger; $10,458 for those older). The average family size in the U.S. is 3.1 people. The poverty threshold for a family of three is $17,374 a year, and it increases to $22,314 for a family of four. Average gross rent nationwide - which swings wildly from population centers like Los Angeles and New York to impoverished rural areas across the Great Plains - was $878 per month last year, or $10,536 for the year.

Our definition of what constitutes poverty is absurdly, and indefensibly, low. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens are struggling in deep need - with more being added every day. Tens of millions more are struggling to live just a few rungs above the poverty levels. This isn't an abstract, philosophical thing. These are flesh and blood people. Our neighbors. Our relatives. Our friends.

We have a moral responsibility to do something to help them. And in turn to help the nation in general. In a consumer-based economy such as ours, we have, through government and corporate policies, undercut the consuming classes. Sure, free trade agreements like NAFTA may have helped keep prices lower at the retail level, but we're saving ourselves into economic oblivion. A consumer economy without consumers is an engine without gas. The only winners are corporations and their shareholders, who don't care about the community impact of their pursuit of profits.

And who don't care about the growing stain of poverty across the national map.

The right song for today

September 11, 2011

Tags: current events, history

On death, and the politics of executions

September 8, 2011

Tags: current events, history

I sat alone last evening in the living room watching the televised debate among eight contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. Yet this morning I find myself thinking not about the candidates, but about the people in the debate room at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library. The impromptu cheers for the number of executions in the state of Texas - 234 men and women - while Rick Perry has been governor, and what that says about the pervasive meanness coursing through the heart of America.

It did not leave me with a warm and fuzzy feeling toward my fellow Americans.

I oppose the death penalty on a number of grounds, which I won't get into here, since the details don't matter to those who support it. It's a kind of blood lust, as became apparent last night, and reason poses little little threat to that kind of juggernaut. Kill the bastards, is the propelling feeling. And it is feeling, all emotion, not careful analysis. Eye for an eye and all that, not whether executions serve as a deterrent. Not the serious underlying question of whether the execution of a killer actually serves as justice. Revenge, yes, but justice? Never mind the question of whether the executed man or woman was, in truth, guilty.

And they cheered. A few whistled. Gov. Rick Perry went on to defend the system as "very thoughtful" and said the cheering meant "Americans understand justice." No, they don't.

Why does a roomful of people who otherwise believe that government can do nothing right, have such blind faith that it can get the death penalty right? We've seen example after example of cops and prosecutors gaming the system to get convictions - the state of Illinois shut down its death row after such abuses were revealed. So why does a roomful of conservatives, who also otherwise profess to value the sanctity of human life (see abortion stances), cheer executions as though someone just scored at a football game?

It was a nauseating moment. And, I fear, it revealed the darkness at the heart of the American character. There's a tendency to view the world through the us-versus-them prism in everything from who gets executed to who gets a pension. It's a corrosive world view, as we're seeing, and full of the politics of delusion.

What kind of society have we become? And no, that's not a rhetorical question. I'd like answers. What kind of society have we become when we support politicians who put corporations ahead of communities, we cheer the executions of our fellow citizens, and we let ourselves be hoodwinked by implausible theories to the extent that we are blind to our best interests, from environmental regulations to demanding fellow citizens pay their fair share for the nation's upkeep?

What kind of society have we become?

Joe Hill, and the killing of an icon

August 27, 2011

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

There's a new book out next week - not by me - that comes the closest I've seen to figuring out what really happened in a century-old murder case that led to the execution by firing squad of Joe Hill, a Wobbly organizer and songwriter who became the face of radical American labor.

The book is The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, by William M. Adler, who my Detroit friends might recognize as the author of Land of Opportunity, the story of the eastside Chambers brothers crack empire.

Hill, whose songs were largely parodies of contemporary pop music and religious hymns, was an agitator of the lyrical kind. Others wrote songs for the Industrial Workers of the World - the Wobblies - but none with as much wit, or drive. So when Hill turned up wounded in Salt Lake City on the same night a father and son were murdered in the family grocery store, Hill made a convenient suspect for the Salt Lake City police. It didn't help Hill's case that the Wobblies were actively organizing in Utah at the time, much to the consternation of the local business leaders and the local newspapers.

And drawing on a long-forgotten letter, Adler establishes to a point of near certainty that Hill was not guilty of the killings, that he had been shot by a rival for a woman's affections (it's her letter Adler found) unrelated to the grocery store case, and that Hill had been railroaded by a local power structure blinded by his radicalism and intent on stomping out the Wobblies. The New York Times this morning has a nice overview of the book and Adler's findings.

Incidentally, Hill's story overlaps with that of the Colorado coal field war and the Ludlow Massacre, the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. The grocery-store killings occurred in January 1914; the Ludlow Massacre came that April; Hill was executed in November 1915. While Hill's trial and the coal field war were separate events, they both occurred against a backdrop of significant class frictions, upheaval, and a rich-poor gap that rivaled conditions today.

I encourage you all to pick up The Man Who Never Died. Even if you're not that interested in the history of radical Americans like Hill and the Wobblies, Adler has done a fine job of finding the human story behind a complex set of details, and lays them out in a highly readable narrative. It is a story of injustice, but also about an odd sense of chivalry, and Hill's eventually fatal desire to keep his lover's name out of the public eye.

Ultimately, it turns out Hill likely was executed by a Utah firing squad because he put too much faith in the American court system's ability to discern truth, and justice. Maybe now the truth has won out. But it's far too late for justice to have been served.

Embedded here is a contemporary cover of one of Hill's best-known songs.

The Blue Hole: Scuba diving on the High Plains

August 23, 2011

Tags: current events, history, personal

Kids diving into the Blue Hole as divers begin a lesson. Photo/Scott Martelle
Well, I went 0-2 on selling travel stories this summer, and as with the Chautauqua Institution piece, I'd rather share this story here than have it fade away on my laptop. An outlet that was interested before I left on the trip was less so after a mid-summer budget adjustment, and I couldn't raise interest in it elsewhere. Not sure if that says something about journalism budgets these days, or my choices of travel destinations.

By Scott Martelle

SANTA ROSA, N.M – For a few minutes, I thought my friend had lied to me. Or at least maybe stretched the truth a bit. I had risen before dawn to catch the early light at a place called the Blue Hole, an artesian-fed pond out here in the middle of the high plains that, my friend insisted, was the most popular scuba-diving spot between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

It was the anomaly that drew me: Scuba diving in arid eastern New Mexico, where annual rainfall barely breaks into double digits, the temperature often hits triple digits, and the horizon is as bleak and unbroken as an ocean.

So a few minutes after 6 a.m., hoping to take some pictures in the soft morning light, I pulled up to the park gate just a few blocks from old Route 66, Santa Rosa’s main street and lingering claim to fame. The gate was locked; Not a good sign. I tooled around town for a few minutes – in truth, that’s all you need to see the whole place – took some photos of a cemetery, cooled my heels back at the hotel then returned a little after 7 to find the gate wide open. A single motor home had backed up to a shaded picnic table on the far side of the dirt parking lot from the Blue Hole, and a couple of other people were walking their dogs.

Nary a diver in sight. I should have figured divers in a desert was too good to be true, even though my friend, M.E. Sprengelmeyer, owner of the Guadalupe County Communicator weekly newspaper, had promised me it was so. I parked and waited, the car door flung wide to catch a scant breeze as I entertained evil thoughts about my friend and his tales of the Blue Hole scuba divers. I finally gave up around 8 a.m., and as I drove toward the gate, I glanced at the motor home and there, hanging from the rafters of the picnic shelter, were two wetsuits swaying in the morning breeze. Nearby, Doug and Crystal Lang were going through their safety check ahead of their morning dive.

Ah, I thought, Sprengelmeyer doesn’t lie.


On Chautauqua, and a travel story not taken

August 10, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Alan Alda (right) in conversation with Roger Rosenblatt at Chautauqua's Amphitheater.
Last summer, during an extended driving trip to New York and researching my Detroit book, I stopped by Chautauqua Institution for a day with plans to write a travel piece. The outlet that was interested in it then wasn't so interested this summer (getting a little tired of this "non"-recession), and I haven't been able to find another taker for it. Rather than watch it molder, I'm posting it here. Hope you all enjoy it (photos are mine, too, for better or worse).

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. – It was late on a chilly June morning and all of ancient Palestine lay at my feet – with a white-striped chipmunk scurrying Godzilla-like over the hills just east of the Dead Sea, and Alan Alda’s voice echoing faintly in the distance. But they were mere distractions from the task at hand: Finding the musician’s practice shed in which George Gershwin finished one of his signature compositions.

The juxtapositions can get confusing here at the Chautauqua Institution, which began in 1874 as a lakeside summer training camp for Methodist Sunday school teachers and has evolved into one of the nation’s most enduring enclaves of arts, faith, and the genteel embrace of popular culture.

If Las Vegas is an adult Disneyland, then Chautauqua Institution is an adult summer school. In a good way, not in a “if you had studied algebra better you wouldn’t have to make up this class” kind of way. Hundreds of thousands of people over the years have traveled here to the southwest corner of New York State to sit, read, listen and think.

This also is a place of history, from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “I hate war” speech delivered in 1936 (Ulysses S. Grant was the first of four sitting presidents to visit, in 1875), to Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” which he finished 86 years ago in

San Francisco, and The Fear Within

July 20, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Just back to the hotel after a great event at The Booksmith on the Haight in San Francisco. Wonderful and passionate crowd of about 60 people jammed into the back of a gem of a bookstore. The kind of talk authors love - challenging questions from an audience many of whose own lives were touched by the historical events I wrote about in The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial.

Thanks to owners Christin and Praveen for the hospitality, and to fellow author Frances Dinkelspiel for getting me on their events roster - and for bringing the wine. Linked up with some old friends, met some new ones, and learned that I might have screwed up a couple of dates in the book. Sigh.

So northward we drive. Hope to see some of you in Seattle on July 31.

Summer road trips

July 14, 2011

Tags: current events, history, personal

I've been spending some time on the road this summer -- one of my favorite things to do -- and have more travel to come. Margaret and I leave next week (burglars alert: Leaving our two six-foot plus sons and the dog at home) for a three week driving/cruise trip that will take us up the West Coast and into the lower Alaskan waters. Yeah, we're looking forward to that.

Part of the trip is work; I'm doing a talk and signing in San Francisco on July 20, and again in Seattle on July 31. Hope to see some of you at those events.

Meantime, here are some photos from my recent trip through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, which included my appearance at the annual Ludlow memorial gathering at the Ludlow Massacre site.

Enjoy. And let me know what you think.

The reason for the long weekend

July 3, 2011

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

You know, some of those guys could really make a political argument:
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, (more…)

Two actions, two setbacks for working people

June 29, 2011

Tags: current events, history

I'm still traveling, so not as tuned into news stories as usual, but two actions on Tuesday jumped out at me, and both are bad news for working people.

First, the Obama Administration finally struck a deal with recalcitrant Republicans over new trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Though Congress may still kill the proposals. So what did Obama get for agreeing to pacts that would send more American jobs overseas to benefit corporate bottom lines? Some pennies sent to programs to retrain U.S. workers displaced by those newly off-shored jobs. Retrain to do what, is the question, since unemployment has been one of our most dogged problems for more than two years now.

So again, the U.S. government is picking corporations over people.

The second action was a veto by California Jerry Brown of legislation that would give farm workers the right to "card check" union organizing drives, which would make it easier for workers to join together to improve wages and working conditions in one of the most brutal industries in the country (you try working in a farm field in the triple-digit heat of the Central Valley). Brown's reason? He says the reforms contained in the bill aren't justified.

Agricultural jobs are some of the few that can't be readily sent overseas - hard to pick strawberries from Bangalore. Yet working conditions are horrific, and wages embarrassingly low. In part because low-income wage-earners have little clout in standing up for themselves; unions help balance out that power a bit. What's unjustified is Brown's vetoing this bill for reasons that are murky, at best (it seems he did it to appease Republicans angry over a budget deal passed by the Democrats).

The losers? The powerless. Again.

What I said at Ludlow

June 26, 2011

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

It was hot in Ludlow yesterday. Fortunately the United Mine Workers of America, which maintains the memorial site, built a roof over the picnic area a number of years ago. So for the 2 1/2-hour gathering we had shade, and a nice breeze. And more than 100 people.

I saw some familiar faces, and met folks I've come to know through Facebook. The themes of the speeches, as one might suspect, focused on labor, and the benefits of unions, and the continuing assault on the right to collective bargaining.

Among the speakers was Annaliese Bonacquista, the great granddaughter of a 1913-14 Colorado coal striker, who passed along some emotional stories about her family history, and the legacy of Ludlow. The keynote was by Marty Hudson, a key figure in the United Mine Workers, who talked about how the coal barons of the past aren't necessarily gone. His brother was among those underground when the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia blew up last year. The brother narrowly missed joining the 29 men killed that morning (I wrote an op-ed on that theme last April).

I talked a bit about the history of Ludlow, and how it remains relevant today -- even if most people have no idea what happened in Colorado nearly a century ago. My prepared comments are after the jump.


Remembering, today in Ludlow, Colorado

June 26, 2011

Tags: history

This just seems like the perfect video to drop on the blog today, ahead of this morning's memorial observation at the Ludlow Massacre site.

And it reminds me of the one that got away. During one of the battles on the plains outside Ludlow - a few months before the massacre - a Pathe cameraman captured on 1,000 feet of film the fighting between the coal miners and the National Guard. The film, unfortunately, seems to be lost to history. But wouldn't that be fascinating to see? We'll have to settle for this only known film of Mother Jones, the firebrand union organizer who played such a high-profile in the Colorado coal field strike. The video was recorded shortly before her death in 1930.

Fire in the desert, a backup on the highway

June 24, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Yesterday's travels took me from Phoenix to Santa Rosa, New Mexico, though what should have been an eight-hour drive took closer to 10 hours. Construction in the mountains through the heart of Arizona (I took the scenic route where I could, through the Tonto National Forest) and then a wildfire outside Heber, Arizona.

It's not often you have a traffic jam caused by wild fire, but there we were, stalled by a police barricade, as they timed when they'd let cars go through, and only one direction at a time. When I went through, the fire was only 100 acres or so, but at last report had spread to more than 1,000 acres.

Amazing things, these wildfires, with which we're intimately familiar in Southern California. They're fast. And hungry. Glad I was able to slip through (some of the roads were shut down completely a little later), though also glad I was held up long enough to get some photos.

So to recap, on the first day I witnessed a chilling rollover accident. On the second day, it was a wildfire. Today's half over. Can't wait to see what it delivers.

A different way of writing

June 15, 2011

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction, fiction

So with The Fear Within launched and Detroit: A Biography safely in my editor's hands, I've been poking around for the next project while catching up on my general reading. I have a couple of ideas and am researching whether there's enough material available to make a book out of them, though at this stage I'm not too optimistic. Neither involves people who left much of a paper trail, which makes it nearly impossible to put flesh on the skeletons of their compelling stories. But we'll see.

Meanwhile, I've dusted off a mystery I've been nibbling away at for a number of years now, which is fun to work with, and has me contemplating the different requirements of writing history, and writing fiction. I was at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago for the launch of Adam Hochschild's new book, To End All Wars, his history of the antiwar movement in England surrounding The Great War, and he made a comment to the effect that fiction writing differs from history writing in that with a novel, what you write only has to be plausible. With history, what you write has to be true.

Adam was talking about some of the characters in his book, including a brother and sister who found themselves in key positions on opposite sides of the war, the kind of dramatic tension that would make you roll your eyes if it appeared in a novel. Yet here they were in real life. In the novel I'm working on, I keep encountering a similar friction. Not between plausibility and truth, but between what a character would do, and what a character should do.

It's a subtle, yet crucial, distinction. Making sure actions are true to character is obvious. But as I frame a scene, I keep stumbling over the issue of should my character do this? Is this action necessary? Does it help the reader understand the story, or reveal a subtle dynamic? Or am I just indulging my imagination?

So 40,000 words in, with the victims dead, the two main plot lines firmly established, and the characters in full dress, I find myself becalmed by second-guessing. I know where the story lines go, and how the threads come together at the end. I just don't know where the characters go in the next few thousand words. It is the difference between writing what happened, and creating what happened.

Ah, writer's block. Nice of you stop by unannounced. A short visit, I hope?

On fear, the past, and the present

June 4, 2011

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

Eugene and Peggy Dennis arrive at the Foley Square courthouse for his sentencing.
Sixty years ago this coming Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the convictions in the Dennis v. U.S. case, which is the focus of my latest book. The Los Angeles Times was kind enough to print an op-ed I wrote on the subject (or will be kind; it's available online now and is to be printed in Monday's paper).

The case was one of the major stories of the year (1949), though it has faded into obscurity, overwhelmed in our consensus memory by the Hollywood 10, McCarthyism, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. Yet the Dennis case was the most troubling of all those events. For a time, the U.S. government in effect outlawed a specific political belief, undercutting what it is that we tell ourselves sets our democracy apart. This story displays exactly how fragile these basic civil liberties are.

The piece summarizes the case, and then concludes:
"Sixty years later, it might be hard to build up much sympathy for a dozen communists at the peak of the Cold War. But in this era of Patriot Act-permitted warrantless searches, surreptitious surveys of library and bookstores users' records, and extralegal rendition of terrorism suspects to secret interrogation sites, we would be wise to recognize that the rights we deny others out of fear, we eventually deny ourselves."
I encourage you to head over to the article and read it, and invite your comments there or here.

On Memorial Day, and the wars behind it

May 30, 2011

Tags: history

American cemetery at Normandy. Credit: American Battle Monuments Commission
Some years ago – okay, a lot of years ago – Margaret and I went to Europe, a zip-around trip to France, England and Ireland. It was part vacation, part work, as I did a series of stories on “sister cities” to Rochester, N.Y, where I was working for the Times-Union afternoon paper.

A trip like that spawns a lot of memories, but one that sticks out persistently was near Rennes, France, where we visited a war memorial. I remember it as a large colonnaded building, and when you walked inside, the white marble walls were covered floor to ceiling with the engraved names of the dead.

It was an impressive monument, the kind of place where people default to hushed whispers. We walked around, scanning the names, overwhelmed by the sheer volume. Then I noticed near one wall a low white marble monument best described as an ark, about thigh-high and the dimensions of a coffee table. I walked closer to read the inscription, and discovered that this little box-like thing was the memorial to the dead of World War II. The names on the walls, I realized then, were the dead of World War I. Two massive wars within a generation, the first so devastating that the dead of the second were treated almost as an after-thought.

Few American families have not been touched by war (in our case, the service of relatives, though fortunately no deaths in the modern era). But not like this, where a generation of young men from one geographic region were, for the most part, exterminated over the course of a few years of folly and political hubris.

War is about winning, and the way you win is to kill enough soldiers fast enough on the other side that they give up before your side does. Sometimes they give up quickly; sometimes they don’t. And it is those who died in the process whom we properly focus on today.

We should focus more on why they were there in the first place. I’m at heart a pacifist, though not so beholden to it that I can’t recognize that some wars are necessary. Those have been few and far between. Stopping the expanding Nazi empire was necessary. World War I, with its convoluted politics and Wall Street investments, was not. Korea and Vietnam were also questionable ventures. Afghanistan was a conundrum going in, and I’m still arguing with myself over whether that was a morally defensible action. Iraq certainly was not.

Here on Memorial Day, we think of the dead, and why they died. They are men, mostly, who did the bidding of their political leaders. And as I think of the ruptures in families, and the countless agonies large and small, I think, too, of the people who sent these men and women to their deaths. As I remember the soldiers for their bravery, and for their devotion, I also wrestle with questions about the wisdom of national leaders who, over the years, have reached so cavalierly for a military solution to a political problem.

In the end, I realize, the dead bear more integrity than the living.

On Massey, and the burden of guilt in a mine disaster

May 19, 2011

Tags: current events, history

The first of several anticipated investigative reports into last year's disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, in which 29 miners were killed, came out today, and, not surprisingly, it laid the blame for the killing explosion at the feet of mine operator Massey Energy.

I've written about that tragedy before, and it's significant that the state investigative panel in part shares my take on it. From the conclusion:
Ultimately, the responsibility for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine lies with the management of Massey Energy. The company broke faith with its workers by frequently and knowingly violating the law and blatantly disregarding known safety practices while creating a public perception that its operations exceeded industry safety standards.

The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris. A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking. The April 5, 2010, explosion was not something that happened out of the blue, an event that could not have been anticipated or prevented. It was, to the contrary, a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards and put too much faith in its own mythology.
The report also points out that there are many similar post-disaster reports from past tragedies gathering dust on regulators' shelves. Yet the conditions persist. The new report offers some recommendations, but the one that rings the loudest is to criminalize corporate behavior when workers are damaged by blatant disregard for laws and regulations. Maybe if corporate executives begin serving jail terms instead of foisting fines off on their shareholders, fewer lives would be lost to greed.

That isn't likely to happen, though, given the power of corporate cash in Washington. It is the relentless sense of corporate hubris that is most chilling here. And not just in buying the political process. The operators of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform had faith in their technology. The operators of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station misplaced their faith in their technology, too. Massey went them all one better with a blatant disregard for the safety of its workers, a throwback to practices of a century ago, but that is about the only regard in which their hubris differs from those of their corporate peers.

Technology has done wonderful things for the quality of life around the world. But it has also, when misused or imbued with a near-religious sense of faith, been the cause of great calamity. From Bhopal to Upper Big Branch, the persistent undercurrent has been an appalling disregard for human safety. It's almost enough to make a Luddite out of you. Or, at the least, a harsh critic of a culture that exalts wealth over health, and corporate profits over personal safety.

What the hell kind of society have we let ourselves become?

Wishing a friend success with a great book

May 14, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

A couple of years ago a close friend, food writer Robin Mather, already suffering from some health problems, hit a buzz saw of personal crises: Her husband told her he wanted a divorce, and she lost her job writing for the Chicago Tribune (part of the same corporate convulsion that cast me off from the Los Angeles Times). She wound up retreating to the small lakeside cottage in a remote part of western Michigan that she and her husband had bought anticipating a retirement home some years down the road.

We spent a lot of time on Skype talking, me from my desk in sunny Irvine, Robin from the metaphorical morass of gray clouds at the edge of the Michigan lake. Neither of us is suited to wallowing in our own miseries, and Robin's plan quickly took shape. We're writers, after all, and the best thing a writer can do is write, So she proceeded, with the help of some friends and the irreplaceable agent we share, Jane Dystel, to write her way out of the clouds,

The result is The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week), which is due out in a couple of weeks. I have an early copy, and finished reading it last night, coincidentally the eve of my own party to launch The Fear Within.

Robin's done a splendid job. The concept of the book was to write about her year trying to piece her life back together, while also trying to live within a severely diminished budget while patronizing and supporting local food producers, from truck farmers to butchers. Organized seasonally, it is a collection of essays, accented by recipes, of engaging with life, knitting together a fresh network of new friends, enjoying the benefits of relationships with geographic neighbors (not just our new communities here in the Internet), and even the restorative powers of a walk through untrammeled woods. In the end, she writes, the clouds began clearing:
The good food that I found near my home strengthened and nourished me and, together with the work of my own hands, gave me a sense of pride, security, and peace that I have never known before. The search for it led me to new friends and new ways of thinking about myself and the world in which I live. It provided me with the luxury of having enough to share, even on the spur of the moment, when money was tight and the future uncertain.

My life is newly deep and full of riches. I hope yours is as well.
Great writing. And a wonderfully evocative look at getting your feet back under you when you've been knocked astride. Pick up a copy.

Oh, and Robin's recently moved on from the solitary life on the lake. She's now an editor of Mother Earth News.

On author James B. Stewart, and circles of lies

May 11, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history, reviews

Today's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart's new book, Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, which is a detailed look at some notable cases of high-profile lying scandals from the 2000s. The review begins:
"For a nation whose romanticized history includes a young George Washington confessing to chopping down a cherry tree because he 'cannot tell a lie,' we seem to do an awful lot of lying. But then, the story about Washington is a lie itself, so maybe we're just being true to our national character.

"In his new book, 'Tangled Webs,' Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart dives deeply into four recent cases of high-profile conspiracies of lies. What he finds does not say good things about us.
As I mention in the review, the book almost chokes on the amount of detail Stewart has dug up from inside each of the scandals: Martha Stewart, the role of White House officials in outing Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative; Barry Bonds; and Bernie Madoff.

Yet the details are worth wading through. Stewart does a good job at looking at how the powerful (and the powerless) react in times of stress, and challenge. In the end, it is the ease with which so many choose to lie, and the myriad reasons, that is most sobering. And before readers cheer over clear evidence that seems to confirm the belief that top figures in the Bush II White House saw the truth as a malleable thing, remember Bill Clinton's wriggling when caught with his pants down. Lying to the American people is not the hallmark of one political party or another. And, as Stewart makes clear, it's hardly limited to politics.

So why is it so prevalent in American life? Because people keep getting away with it. And nothing breeds success like success. Leavened, apparently, by a few well-told lies.

Just Kids - a (slightly) counter opinion

May 4, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Patti Smith signing Just Kids for a fan at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Photo credit: Scott Martelle.
Now that the buzz-saw of writing and researching the Detroit project has died away, I've started chipping away at an embarrassingly high stack of books that I really should have read by now, some by friends, some that have just struck my curiosity. And since it's too late to review the books for publications (and I couldn't review many of them because of personal conflicts), I'll be sprinkling some short takes into the blog mix over the next few weeks.

I finished Patti Smith's Just Kids the other day, her National Book Award-winning memoir of living and trying break through as an artist in Manhattan in the late 1960-early 1970s. The book couldn't live up to its advance buzz, and true to form, I liked it, but also was disappointed by it.

Manhattan was defined by creative counter-cultural energy in that era, and Smith and her lover/friend Robert Mapplethorpe hovered near the center of it. To read Smith's take on the time was interesting, and valuable, but it also fell short of full truth, I feel. I was talking about the book with some other reviewers at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books over the weekend, and we agreed that she over-romanticized what were nearly impossible living conditions in sections of Manhattan - heatless flats, hustling sex for food money, drug deaths of those who experimented too wildly.

And Smith's depiction of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, who became one of the most divisive photographic artists of the era, was remarkably thin on two levels. First was their romantic relationship, which transformed radically as Mapplethorpe began embracing his homosexuality - a revelation that would cause deep emotional turmoil for most women, but that Smith all but shrugs off. And despite her closeness to Mapplethorpe, and her descriptions of the different art forms he was experimenting with before he shifted fully into photography, by the end of the book you have little sense of what was driving his - or her - art beyond Mapplethorpe's lust for fame.

There's plenty of name-dropping in the book, and one charming anecdote of the poet Allen Ginsberg, who was gay, mistaking the rail-thin Smith for a young man and trying to pick her up at a food automat. But mostly it is a thin revisit to an era. By definition Smith limited the book to the New York/Mapplethorpe years, but one wonders about her emotional reaction to the death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, five years after Mapplethorpe died of AIDS. The deaths of two significant players in the emotional life of a poet are worth exploring, and reading about. But Smith doesn't touch on it.

In the end, I suspect the book received such critical acclaim, and strong sales, because it serves less as an informative memoir of two influential artists than as a generational touchstone. For those who lived through that era, Smith's book is something of a vicarious trip down memory lane. For those too young to have tasted New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Just Kids offers a small, if somewhat romanticized, window into an era. But for a memoir by a poet, Just Kids lacks significant emotional punch.

Reviewer: 'The Fear Within' a 'cogent nuanced account'

April 29, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history, reviews

Well, it's been a couple days of good news around here. First came word that Book TV would be airing live my Sunday panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Now comes the first major-media review of The Fear With: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial.

The review runs in the Los Angeles Times this Sunday, but is already available online. And I'm very pleased that the reviewer, Wendy Smith, likes the book, calling it a "cogent, nuanced account." She concludes:
Writing in the 21st century, when the passions of the Cold War era have faded, Martelle does not pretend that all communists persecuted in the postwar years were blameless victims. The defendants in Dennis were tough political activists, and they did believe that socialism should replace the capitalist economic system whose injustices had led them to the Communist Party. But they were not spies, and they had taken no direct action to overthrow the U.S. government; they were tried for their beliefs under a law that violated the United States' first and most vital amendment. Martelle's scrupulous, lucid history resonates with contemporary relevance because it reminds us that freedom of speech and thought are most essential, not when we are feeling most confident, but when we are most afraid.

Beyond saying nice things about the caliber of the work, Smith did a very nice job summarizing the details of what it's about. Let's hope it's the first of many such reviews. Oh, and if it is, don't worry, I won't be blogging about them all. But I will be adding them to the "Reviews etc." tab above, where you can also find past reviews of Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and American Democracy on Trial.

On endangering the endangered, and sleazy politics

April 12, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Gray Wolf. Credit: Tracy Brooks/Mission Wolf / USFWS
In the end, it turns out, the budget showdown last week was about wolves. At least that's the conclusion we can draw by the sleazy attachment of a rider on the budget resolution that, according to environmentalists, marks the first time Congress has directly intervened in determining what animals are on the Endangered Species list.

With moves like this - and the attack on Planned Parenthood, and NPR - it's no wonder the American body politic holds elected officials in such low disdain. If you're going to debate a budget, debate a budget. If you're going to challenge programs, challenge programs. Don't mix the two and pervert the political process by holding one issue hostage to advance the other.

You can be excused for missing the issue here, since it was done quietly - and we should always distrust quiet political maneuvers. The recent budget bill hammered out by Congress included a last-minute rider by Sen. Jon Tester (R-Montana) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) that drops "endangered species" status for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies.

I'm not going to get into the merits/demerits of the size of the wolf packs in the Rockies because that's not the issue here (and I readily admit I'm no expert). The issue is the congressional predilection - by both parties - to attach unrelated riders to significant bills like the budget to pass items that otherwise would not make it through the legislative process. This is not deliberative, and consensus, politics, it is the hijacking of the common good by the few. And in this case, the few are political actors doing an end run around the decisions that should be made by expert environmentalists. So Tester and Simpson have not only perverted the legislative process, they have forced non-scientific views into what should be a scientific process.

This is sleazy, and anti-democratic. The process of legislating, and governing, is broken. And it has been broken by the people whose responsibility is to fix it. In the end, what we get is more fuel for cynicism about our governmental processes. And, in this case, a bunch of dead wolves.

Some good labor news during this otherwise bleak period

April 1, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Mexican farmworkers in Imperial County, June 1938. Dorothea Lange; Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF34-9058-C]
The California State Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would allow agriculture workers in California - whose working conditions are as grueling as they come - to organize into a union if a majority of the workers at a site fill out membership cards that are certified by state labor officials. The process would replace one that requires the filing of a petition, and then a workplace referendum, which union organizers say has left the workers open to intimidation by managers, from threats of dismissal to warnings that their names would be passed to immigration officials.

Without diving into the the minefield of immigration policy, this is a good move for workers, no matter their legal status. Even illegal immigrants are entitled to working conditions that do not imperil their lives. As the story points out, 15 workers have died in the fields in the last six years despite state regulations requiring shade, water and other defenses against the oppressive summer heat in places like Imperial County and the Central Valley. A robust union - in this case, another set of watchdog eyes - would save lives.

The Legislature has passed similar bills in the past, followed by the Assembly, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has refused to sign them. With Jerry Brown as governor, chances are better that the legislation will become law (he hasn't tipped his hand yet).

Given the 1920s mood in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, where anti-union politicians are trying to destroy the last vestiges of the collective bargaining system that helped create the American middle class, the move by the California Senate is welcome. It's a disgusting turn that political leaders are using the battered private sector as a weapon against public sector workers. Instead of fighting to bring public-sector wages, benefits and job protections down to the abased level of private sector jobs, political leaders should be fighting to elevate the quality of life of all.

With luck, the move here in California could be the next step, after the Wisconsin protests, in a broad national pushback against those who would drive more American workers into a downward economic spiral.

And the move by the legislature reminds me of one of the first stories I wrote for the Los Angeles Times back in April 1997, after spending a day working in a strawberry field. The top of the story is below. The full story can be found here.
This time of day, this time of year, Saddleback Mountain begins the dawn in close, hovering, then slowly draws back as darkness seeps out of the sky. For a few moments, the peak seems to glow, back lit in the soft morning haze as the sun rises for its daily assault.

And it is an assault, a relentless battering of energy that takes rather than gives, leaving you drained and parched, weak and dizzy.

Strawberry pickers know that. So they prepare for it as they gather just after 6 a.m. to begin work in a Western Marketing Co. field off Alton Parkway and Jeffrey Road.

The wardrobe is a trick of the trade, knowledge gained in many instances through years of experience. Some of the workers wear hats. Some wear bandannas. A few wear a combination of both, red and blue kerchiefs tied around baseball caps. And loose, long-sleeved shirts that guard against the chill now and the sun later on.

Politics, fishing expeditions and the new McCarthyism

March 30, 2011

Tags: current events, history

I teach an introductory journalism course to college students here in Southern California, and one of the tenets I drill into them during our examination of ethics is that just because you have a legal right to do something doesn't mean you have a moral right to do it. It's a lesson conservative political agitators in Wisconsin and Michigan ought to learn.

Over the past week or so conservatives have filed Freedom of Information Act requests on public university professors seeking emails that mention the Wisconsin labor showdown. There are laws precluding use of public property for political purposes, a sound policy aimed at separating politics from governance (it keeps government workers from using government supplies and property to engage in poltiical activities). But the intent here is purely opportunistic, with anti-labor Republicans seeking to conjure up a "gotcha" moment for university professors sympathetic to labor issues.

The gambit began with requests for emails from the University of Wisconsin-Madison account of highly respected history professor William Cronon. It has moved onto the labor history professors at three public Michigan universities, according to Talking Point Memo, which first reported the Michigan requests (one was received by my longtime friend, M.L. Liebler who teaches at Wayne State University):
An employee at the think tank requesting the emails tells TPM they're part of an investigation into what labor studies professors at state schools in Michigan are saying about the situation in Madison, Wisc., the epicenter of the clashes between unions and Republican-run state governments across the Midwest.

One professor subject to the FOIA described it as anti-union advocates "going after folks they don't agree with."
I'm a firm believer in the Freedom of Information Act, and in open government/open records. But there is also a crushing need for academics to do their work without fear of reprisals. Such protections, including tenure, aim to keep politics -- think the McCarthy era, in which academics, professionals and others were hounded from their occupations by braying condemnations of their political beliefs -- from poisoning academic pursuits. These FOIA requests are nothing more than fishing expeditions that serve no public good, and, in fact, are a detriment because of the chilling effect on academic freedom.

These anti-labor anglers have a legal right to seek the information because these professors are public employees. Pro-labor people have an equal right to ferret out emails by business, economic and political professors, university administrators and others, to see if they, too, have weighed in on the assault on labor from the other side of the argument.

But to do so crosses a moral line. This isn't an act of public enlightenment. It is an act of intimidation. And it should be denounced from the left, right and center. Assuming, of course, that we are indeed a better nation than this. And that we have, indeed, learned from our own ugly past.

Detroit, the Census, and the responsibility of a nation

March 27, 2011

Tags: current events, history

A house near Detroit's Chandler Park.
The 2010 Census counts for Michigan were released last week, and it showed the City of Detroit with 714,000 residents, some 100,000 less than most predictions and 1.1 million fewer people than its peak of 1.8 million in 1950.

That collapse of Detroit is the subject of the current book project, which I'm sending off to the publisher in a few days (it's done, just have a couple of bits to clean up). But I took a break last week to write an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times about Detroit, touching on some of the grand pressures that have made it what it is. From the article:
"The collapse of Detroit has roots in intentional de-industrialization by the Big Three automakers, which in the 1950s began aggressively spider-webbing operations across the nation to produce cars closer to regional markets, and to reduce labor costs by investing in less labor-friendly places than union-heavy Detroit. Their flight was augmented by government policies that, in the 1970s and 1980s particularly, forced municipalities and states to compete with each other for jobs by offering corporate tax breaks and other inducements to keep or draw business investments, a bit of whipsawing that helped companies profit at the expense of communities.

"Racism plays a significant role too. Detroit's white flight exploded in the 1950s and '60s, after courts struck down local and federal policies that had allowed segregated housing. That was followed by middle-class flight on the part of blacks and whites as crime endemic to high-poverty, high-unemployment neighborhoods began spreading. It's significant to note that Detroit's inner-ring suburbs have been picking up African American populations as young Detroit families seek safety, stability and more reliable schools. As they run out of the city, its vast socioeconomic problems become even more distilled, more pronounced."
I encourage you to read the whole piece in this morning's LA Times. It really is a national disgrace, and a national indictment, to see what we have let Detroit become.

On nuclear energy, human folly, and human error

March 14, 2011

Tags: current events, history

There are many churning emotions involved in watching from afar the events unfolding in Japan. The earthquake and tsunami, coming just a few years after similar events obliterated hundreds of thousands of lives in Indonesia and around the Indian Ocean, defy words. And a volcano in southern Japan has suddenly roared back to life.

The natural disasters are bad enough. Now we watch nervously as Japanese power workers struggle to keep the cores in nuclear power plants from melting down and adding yet another layer of catastrophe to the natural disasters. At this moment, they seem to be failing - the workers were evacuated as another explosion rocked the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The most chilling part of all of this comes in the news that today's catastrophe was due to human error. From the Los Angeles Times:
Engineers had begun using fire hoses to pump seawater into the reactor — the third reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 complex to receive the last-ditch treatment — after the plant's emergency cooling system failed. Company officials said workers were not paying sufficient attention to the process, however, and let the pump run out of fuel, allowing the fuel rods to become partially exposed to the air.

Once the pump was restarted and water flow was restored, another worker inadvertently closed a valve that was designed to vent steam from the containment vessel. As pressure built up inside the vessel, the pumps could no longer force water into it and the fuel rods were once more exposed.
Workers failed to check the fuel gauge on a pump. Another worker simply shut a valve. And now a manmade nuclear disaster looms. We are told constantly by the people who want to build these things that nuclear power is safe, that all safeguards are taken, that experts are in control. Obviously not. And increasing nuclear energy production in the U.S. is part of the Obama administration's approach to reducing our reliance on foreign oil sources for our energy. It's a policy that flirts with disaster, and that is based on a failure to imagine the excesses of nature, and of human incompetence.

I don't see the logic in risking mass deaths and an uninhabitable environment for the sake of cheaper light bills or lower factory production costs. Nuclear power generation is not safe. Even low-level nuclear waste creates massive disposal problems in a world with finite resources, and finite places to store such things. Add in the human propensity to do the unimaginably stupid - not watching a fuel gauge on a crucial power generator qualifies - and we are creating our own recipe for self-annihilation. Maybe nuclear energy can be produced safely. But that safety can't be guaranteed, as we're seeing. Why would we accept this risk, given the potential damage from failure?

Nuclear energy is not safe. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the West Valley Project, Hanford and other examples have all shown us that. Our power companies cannot be trusted to safeguard our well-being. These power sources need to be abandoned. This is a monster that we have created. It is a monster we need to curtail. Better a worldwide economic depression because of lack of energy, than a worldwide catastrophe because, in our hubris and our thirst for wealth, we think we can control the uncontrollable.

Maybe I should thank Rep. Pete King

March 10, 2011

Tags: current events, history

This feels like time-warp territory, and the House Un-American Activities Committee is back in full swing. It's called the House Homeland Security Committee now, led by U.S. Rep. Pete King (R-NY) and the target of the new generation of hearings is radical Islam. But the template is clear, and its existence serves as proof that we, as a nation, have learned little from the errors of our past.

One of the points of my forthcoming book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, is that U.S. government has a long history of cracking down on First Amendment (and other) rights during times of stress, a history Geoffrey Stone detailed in his Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism from 2004. So maybe I should be thankful these folks are bringing this dark past back to life.

The Los Angeles Times had a brief item about L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca's showdown with the committee today, and the dialog is straight from the McCarthy era.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca shot back at a congressman who warned him during a congressional hearing Thursday that a Muslim group the sheriff supports is affiliated with terrorists and is "using" him.

The reference to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, whose Southern California branch Baca has allied with, came during a controversial House hearing on the question of whether American Muslims are becoming radicalized.

"You are aware" that CAIR is affiliated with Hamas, Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) said.

"No I'm not aware," Baca interrupted.

"Let me bring this to your attention ... I'm trying to get you to understand that they might be using you," Cravaack said.

Baca, noticeably irritated, told the congressman that he is aware of no criminal allegations have been made against CAIR. If there were any such allegations, he said, "bring them to court."

"We don't play around with criminals in my world," Baca said before the packed hearing.

Great response by Baca. But what's next? "Are you now, or have you ever been, a Muslim?" This is deplorable conduct by our elected representatives. Combine it with the rank opportunism of the anti-union push in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Tennessee, and the State of Michigan moving to give its governor the power to rule municipalities by fiat, and you have to wonder why more people in more places aren't exercise the First Amendment right to free assembly - while we still have it.

A couple of other things to remember today

March 7, 2011

Tags: history

Photo from the Chicago Daily Tribune the day after the Ford Hunger March.
Those of you who follow me on Facebook (and if you don't, please do go over there and friend me up) know today is my birthday, an event I rarely spend much time celebrating. But I do take a certain pride in sharing the day with two notable events that appeal to some of my more radical impulses, and my belief in the power of collective action to make social and political change.

The first came on this day in 1932, a bitterly cold afternoon in Detroit. In the depths of the Great Depression, with hundreds of thousands of Detroiters out of work, local communists and other political radicals arranged for a march on the Ford Rouge plant in the adjoining city of Dearborn. The march was a demand for food, work, and other aid from Henry Ford and his auto business, built through the labor of Detroit workers. Ford had struck a recalcitrant position during the Depression (which I'm detailing in the Detroit: A Biography book project I expect to finish by the end of the month), refusing on principal to donate to local charities.

The march began under the watchful eye of Detroit police officers, but once it reached the Dearborn city line, all hell broke loose. First fire hoses, then guns, were turned on the marchers, who responded with fusillades of rocks. The bullets won. Four marchers were killed that afternoon; a fiifth died three months later of his injuries. The response from local police and the Wayne County district attorney: A crackdown on, and round up of, pro-union agitators in Detroit, and calls for the arrest of the national communist leader William Z. Foster who had the previous day encouraged Detroiters to join the march. None of the Dearborn police or Ford security men were held accountable. But the march became a rallying point for progressive activists who continued to push for aid for the starving working class in Detroit and elsewhere.

The second event came a generation later, in 1965, when some 600 Civil Rights activists had barely begun a protest march from Selma to Montgomery before the Alabama state police met them with clubs and tear gas (in the picture at left, future U.S. Rep. John L. Lewis is beaten bloody by police). The marchers were routed, but in their failure they helped catalyze a movement. Two weeks later, armed with a court acknowledgement of their right to march in protest, some 25,000 people walked from Selma to Montgomery demanding the extension of civil rights to African Americans. Five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

As I said, a couple of other events that occurred on this day in which we should all take pride, and which, as a nation, we ought not forget.

The Supreme Court, and noxious speech

March 2, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Credit: Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States.
There hasn't been much the current U.S. Supreme Court has done that strikes me as right, and reasonable, but this week they've hit two opinions that have been somewhat heartening.

The first was the decision that found corporations have no right to privacy when dealing with the government and regulators (AT&T had sought to keep public records sealed). This was a bit of a surprise given its earlier ruling on campaign spending that effectively equated corporations (and unions, which regular readers of this blog know I support at a genetic level) with individuals, and thus they have the right to spend what they want in political campaigns. Our republic is the worse for that one - elections are expressions of voters' sentiments, and giving corporations and unions free rein to spend perverts what should be a discussion among individual voters.

Then the Supremes followed with a dicier, but right, call in the case of those highly objectionable morons, the Phelps family, who run around the country proclaiming that God hates everything - including soldiers killed in foreign combat. It's an emotional issue, and today's ruling that protects the rights of the noxious to speak has lit up social media sites (my comments here, in fact, are reprised from a discussion on my Facebook page).

There are many reasonable people who believe the Phelpses should be muzzled, especially when they protest outside military funerals. My sentiments are with the families of the dead, but we as a society have to move beyond the emotional and stand with the protesters' right to protest, as noxious and twisted as they might be.

The problem lies in who gets to define the conditions under which free speech can be abrogated. I despise these protesters, same as I despised the neo-Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois, a generation ago. But their First Amendment right to free speech is inviolable, as hateful as the exercise of it might be. Years ago there was a group in the midwest somewhere that found an ingenious way (more…)

American idiocy, and Sharia law

February 23, 2011

Tags: current events, history

When I was writing The Fear Within, wedged in the back of my mind was that as venally idiotic as some of our political figures were in the 1940s and 1950s, at least those days were behind us. Now it looks like our national fear is back. But instead of torching civil liberties over political beliefs, the modern flashpoint is religion.

Tennessee legislators are pushing a bill that would make observing Islamic Sharia law a criminal offense punishable by 15 years in prison. Its ostensible aim is those who would act to replace the U.S. government with an Islamic state. Specifically, the proposed law says "knowing adherence to sharia and to foreign sharia authorities is prima facie evidence of an act in support of the overthrow of the United States government and the government of this state through the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions by the likely use of imminent criminal violence and terrorism with the aim of imposing sharia on the people of this state."

Note that acts are not required, just belief. The parallels to the 1940 Smith Act, which was the basis for the prosecutions I wrote about, are eerie. Chillingly so. Then, membership in the Communist Party was, according to the federal government, a de facto effort to violently overthrow the U.S. government, since theoretical communism called for the violent destruction of the capitalist state. This law would say the same thing about followers of Sharia law - whose interpretations vary widely. Belief is tantamount to action, and thus illegal.

Yes, fundamentalist Sharia law carries some draconian elements. But so does the Christian Bible - eye for an eye, anyone? Modern, mature societies and religious observers are capable of placing such outdated directives within their proper historical context. When was the last time an adulterer was stoned in Tennessee? Or a thief's hand cut off? Or, conversely, a mosque burned or an abortion provider attacked by Christian fundamentalists? (For the record, I'm an atheist).

This is religious intolerance at its most naked, an attempt to codify hatred. Burning mosques apparently isn't drastic enough in Tennessee, a place where crimes in the name of Christian extremism occur far more often than crime rooted in Sharia. The problem lies not in the faith, but in extremism, regardless of the religion at hand. And we have laws governing extremist acts in our criminal codes.

These proposals to criminalize the expression of religious faith are preposterous. We're being governed by Chicken Littles, though in truth we do keep electing these bozos, so we only have ourselves to blame. And you have to wonder whether we should redraw some of our existing legal lines. Could it be a hate crime to propose a law that would criminalize faith?

Wisconsin, and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire

February 21, 2011

Tags: current events, history

Some of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire.
Like many people, I've been watching the events unfolding in Wisconsin with a sense of fascinated revulsion. The rank opportunism of political figures in using the financial crisis to blow up public employees' rights to organize is as callous a move as we've seen in a long time (though I am very heartened by labor's response; general strike, anyone?). Same for the folks in Congress using the crisis to defund public broadcasting and Planned Parenthood. None of those proposals do more than throw a pail of water on a raging fiscal fire; the motives are based on shifting power, not balancing budgets.

But the fire analogy is apt. The New York Times this morning has a wonderful story about how the obsession of one researcher has led to the identification of the final six victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which marks its 100th anniversary on March 25th.

Like the ludlow Massacre, the Triangle fire was a critical moment in the union movement, and the sheer scope of the tragedy - 146 killed as fire raged through a sweatshop in a building that is now part of New York University - led to significant reforms in fire codes, building codes, and working conditions.

It's a good lesson to learn from history in these union-busting days. Labor's response to that fire, and the pressure it put on government, revolutionized fire, safety and labor codes. For those who would have less government, it's a good juncture from which to look at "before" and "after." What working conditions were like when business owners were given a free hand, and the safeguards we as a society decided were necessary to rein in their killing excesses.

Remember, in that era, workers were considered disposable (some things don't change). In the Colorado coal mines, workers were valued less than mules. If a worker was killed, managers could always hire another one, in essence renting time and labor from another supplier. A mule, on the other hand, would have to be replaced. My guess is the owners of the Triangle sweatshop lamented the loss of their sewing machines as much if not more than the loss of life.

Unions emerged for a reason. And as the balance of power - and wealth - continues to shift toward corporations and away from workers, no matter the color of their collars, we would be well served by understanding how and why unions came to be in the first place. And those who think their relevance is in the past could not be more wrong. As long as our national policies and, for that matter, our national psyche, values profit over people, there is a need for unions.

The first advance review for The Fear Within

January 24, 2011

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

I'm still in Detroit (for one more day) finishing up research for Detroit: A Biograhy, and received a nice email from the publicity folks at Rutgers University Press: the first advance review for The Fear Within from Kirkus Reviews. They seem to like it, which is always reassuring for a writer. It's in the February 1 issue, limited to subscribers, but I was lucky enough to get a copy of it.
An evenhanded revisiting of the trial of the U.S. Communist Party leaders that tested the pernicious efficacy of the Smith Act.

Journalist Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, 2007) focuses on Dennis v. the United States of America, which had dramatic and disturbing ramifications to First Amendment rights to this day—e.g., the Patriot Act, which the author mentions but does not dwell on. In August 1945, Soviet spy turned FBI informer Elizabeth Bentley spilled incriminating evidence about leaders of the U.S. Communist Party, and the two-count indictment was handed down, charging 12 men with violating the Smith Act because they “unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly did conspire with each other” by their society and meetings to “teach and advocate the overthrow and destruction of the Government of the United States by force and violence.” Among the men were New York City Councilman Benjamin Davis, Jr., Daily Worker editor John Gates, decorated war hero Robert Thompson, top party leader William Z. Foster and general secretary Eugene Dennis. The nine-month Foley Square trial became a cause célèbre, not only for the anti-Communist crusaders, including Harry Truman, who was up for reelection, but for defenders of the First Amendment and radical activists who believed fiercely that the men were innocent and being framed for their beliefs. Their defense should have been an opportunity to defend their political views and present an education in Marxism and Leninism, as Dennis did vociferously during the trial, representing himself. Instead, Judge Harold R. Medina threw the book at them, and at their attorneys, who received jail time and disbarment. Not until the Warren Court of the ’50s did the “roundups” cease.

Martelle treads carefully through the evidence, keeping a close harness on his own sympathies for the defendants.

A book I'd have loved to have written

November 27, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

Actually, there are two books mentioned here I'd have loved to have done myself, both by Bill Barich, a former New Yorker writer who now works in television. The first is his new Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America, a look at Americans during the 2008 election following the template of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley (my profile of Barich, which ran in the Los Angeles Times today, is here).

It's an interesting, and intricately drawn, portrait of Americans as they wrestled with a souring economy, the stresses of a nation engaged in two wars, and a viciously split electorate masked somewhat by the ordinariness of everyday lives.

The other is one of Barich's earlier books, A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change and the Fate of the Irish Pub, in which he rambled around Ireland (where he was living at the time) looking for a pub that would stand as the perfect Irish watering hole. In both cases, Barich approaches the projects in a way that I've long found appealing - using a somewhat thin template around which to build a detailed and meandering view of a people, and a place. In the case of Long Way Home, the model is revisiting Steinbeck's tour with his dog, detailed in Travels With Charley. In the latter, it is using a subjective quest as an excuse to take a close look at a cultural institution.

In both, the tack gives a writer an excuse to poke around in places one might otherwise not write about, let alone visit. Within that forced relevance, you can learn a lot about people, and place. And, occasionally, get a nice pint of ale.

Pages proofed, another step in the process

November 16, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

Last week I sent back to the publisher my edits of the page proofs for The Fear Within, lending a nice sense of finality to my end of the production process. Well, not quite final. Still awaiting the index pages to proofread, but we're almost there.
I have to say I like the design and the feel of the pages. Looks like you'll have a chance to see them for yourselves come May, or even mid April (earlier, I was told the pub date would be March). This is one of the harder adjustments to make from a career in daily newspapers, and even doing this kind of blogging. Book publishing moves very slowly. Frustratingly slow, at times. But then, the books last a lot longer than newsprint.

But the odd part is that we'll be fully into the marketing phase of The Fear Within while I'll be finishing off the manuscript for the third book, Detroit: A Biography. So I feel like I'll be lapping myself, which is an odd sensation.

That means I'll soon be contemplating what to tackle next. And yes, I have some ideas, but I'm keeping them to myself for now. Those seeds need a little more germination time.

A nice sense of accomplishment

October 30, 2010

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

It's a nice fall day in Southern California, a little rain overnight and mixed clouds and sunshine this morning. Sitting at my desk in front of the open patio door I just finished proofreading the printed pages for The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, which left me with a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

As you all know, I've been deep into researching and writing Detroit: A Biography, which has become (as you might imagine) an all-consuming project. I haven't read or thought much about The Fear Within in months as it has worked its slow way through the pre-publishing process. So it was with a fresh eye that I went through the page proofs over the past couple of days. And you know what? It's not a bad bit of work (there are a few passages for which I wouldn't mind a do-over, but it's a bit late for that now).

Can't wait for you all to be able to read it in March.

On 'The Cultures of War'

October 25, 2010

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

One of the finalists in the current crop of National Book Award contenders is John W. Dower's The Cultures of War, which I was lucky enough to review this weekend for the Los Angeles Times.

Dower, a Pulitzer-winner for his earlier work examining Japan in the wake of World War Two, has put together a compelling set of case studies about what happens when a nation plans for war -- and the inevitability of it happening. He makes the case that the U.S. reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks more closely resembled the Japanese thinking that led up to the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor than to the American response. In both cases, the ensuing wars were conscious choices, rather than defensive acts.

One of the more chilling bits is Dower's depiction of the bomb-makers in the Manhattan Project and their rush to complete their work before Japan decided to surrender. They were positively itching to use the "device," as they called it, to measure its impact, a sordid example of the dehumanization that comes with war. In another vein, policy decisions were made to rain firebombs on Japanese and German cities, intentionally targeting civilian neighborhoods, which amounts to acts of terror.

I'll leave the argument of whether those were the proper policy decisions within the context of their time to others. But the decisions by government, not just military, officials do provide further evidence that not all the savagery of war happens on the battlefield.

Detroit, and a little labor history

October 22, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

So we had our panel chat yesterday at the North American Labor History Conference, looking at the Detroit newspaper strike some 15 years after the fact. It was two hours, and while that seems long it zipped by quickly, and we barely scratched the surface. A friend taped the session and I'll post a link to the video once it's online.

If you're not familiar with it, the Detroit newspaper strike lasted five and a half years (19 months of strike, the rest as a lockout), cost the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press' corporate parents, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, more than $300 million, and was such a divisive event that Detroit, in many ways, has yet to recover from it. But it also helped create a new generation of community activists and local labor leaders (and set in motion the events that moved my family to Los Angeles after 18 months of walking the picket line).

The title of the panel, "Lessons and Legacies," aptly captured what we were trying to get at. The genesis of the panel was my hope that sufficient time has past for the hottest flames of passion to have died down so we can have reasonable conversations about what happened, and why. As it turns out there's still a lot of passion, and pain, judging by the audience comments (about 50 people showed up). I conceived of this panel as something of a conversation starter, and I'm hoping it will spur more discussions and dissections of the strike, including union leaders, activists and even management people, so we can get a better sense of what transpired. And what we can learn from it.

And lessons were learned, both good and bad. The upshot: Workers have to take responsibility for their own fates, even when represented by a union. And without real solidarity -- not, as one of the panelists, waving a sign and singing a song -- little can be gained.

Thanks to the panelists: Steve Babson, longtime professor in Wayne State’s Labor Studies Center (and an active strike supporter); Chris Rhomberg, a Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology at Fordham University in the Bronx, who is working on a book about the strike; and Donald Boggs, former president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO from 2000 to 2006, who weighed in on the impact of the strike on Detroit labor, and the community at large.

And beyond the weighty issues, it was great seeing and catching up with old friends. And Daymon Hartley brought in an array of photographs he took during the strike, many of which can be found at his website.

My personal recession

October 14, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

I wrote this a bit ago and submitted it to a few places to see if someone might be interested in publishing it. The short answer: No (though I did have one overture that would have involved recasting the piece, which I didn't feel like doing). But I think it's worth getting it out there anyway. So here it is:

More than two years ago an email popped up from the managing editor of the Los Angles Times, a couple of rungs above my editor, asking if I was available for a chat. I was working from home that morning, part of the team covering the 2008 presidential election, so sent him my phone number. But I already sensed what we’d be talking about. A half-hour later I was out of a job, effective in late September 2008, and out of newspapers after some 30 years. The Great Recession – the worst since World War II – was suddenly my personal recession.

There have been some adjustments as I’ve morphed from a career newspaper staff writer into my own “brand” as a freelance journalist, author and part-time college instructor. My wife says I seem less stressed – losing daily deadlines will do that. But other, less visible strains have moved in. It took a while to stop swearing softly when Facebook friends moaned about the encroaching start of the workweek. Impulse buys are smothered before they can rise. We’re hoarding cash like survivalists save cans of soup, and college options for our two sons have gone decidedly down market.

Yet I’ve been luckier than others. With my wife’s job as a first grade teacher we’ve been able to stay afloat (we bought our house before the housing bubble so are okay there). But the California state budget crisis has meant layoffs and other cutbacks in public education, too. This year she faces furlough days with an 8% cut in wages, and a classroom once capped at 20 students is nudging toward 30 (a significant hike when dealing with the noise and energy of 5- and 6-year olds). We still have health coverage with a manageable co-pay thanks to her union contract but have set aside virtually nothing for retirement since my job evaporated. Later, I tell myself, we (more…)

New books by old friends

October 8, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

There are a couple of books that landed here recently, both by friends, that I'm looking forward to diving into once the current stack clears (writing history involves reading history, and my stack of "to-reads" is rather forbidding).

First is Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, by former LA Times colleague Judy Pasternak. The book expands on her wonderful series for the LA Times on the radioactive legacy of uranium mining on the Southwest. The cover illustration tells it all: A skull drawn with yellow sands.

The second is Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams, a anthology of writing on work edited by my old Detroit friend -- and tireless award-winning advocate for poetry and writing -- M.L. Liebler. There are pieces, poetry and lyrics from Amiri Baraka to Woody Guthrie to Lolita Hernandez to Walt Whitman.

Incidentally, I'll be joining M.L. for a reading Friday, October 22, as part of the North American Labor History Conference in Detroit. The plan, I think, is for me to read from The Fear Within, which will be the first public airing of the book, due out this coming March. The gig will be in the Walter P. Reuther Library on Cass.

This is what The Fear Within will look like

September 21, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

This is always a fun moment in the life of a writer: Getting to see the cover of the next book. The design folks at Rutgers University Press did a very nice job with a difficult art element, an array of mugshots. I think it works very neatly. Still awaiting word on official pub date but it's looking like sometime in March.

What happens when the government acts illegally?

June 16, 2010

Tags: history, law, human rights, civil right

I blog regularly for an organization called Protect Consumer Justice, looking at issues affecting people's access to courts to try to redress grievances. My post this morning is about a troubling Supreme Court decision, upholding by inaction lower court decisions, that give the government free rein to do what it wants so long as it claims "state secrets."

I won't repeat the post here, but please do wander over there to give it a read. After you watch this takedown by Jon Stewart of the Obama administration's failure to follow through on some of the key issues on which he was elected.
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Blood Passion goes north to Santa Cruz

May 5, 2010

Tags: history, culture

I'm headed up to Santa Cruz later today to take part in the "Labor & Immigration: Past & Present" conference at UC Santa Cruz. It's a free conference, and I'll be on a panel at 9 a.m. Saturday with Zeese Papanikolas, who also has written about the Ludlow Massacre.

The panel involves watching a documentary-in-progress on the massacre by Alex Johnson, who has talked with both Zeese and me in his research. Then Zeese and I will put the documentary against the backdrop of our own knowledge of the events. Then we open it up to questions, I believe, which should make for an interesting conversation.

If you're in the area, stop on by ....

Stephen Ambrose and the non-talks with Eisenhower

April 27, 2010

Tags: history, culture

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The latest wrinkle in the legacy of historian Stephen Ambrose leaves me flat out cold. He was a good writer and storyteller, and was rightly appreciated for making some of the narratives of the past resonate for a wide audience. As a writer of (not) popular (enough) history myself, he has done some good things.

But the veneer faded fast.

Ambrose died of cancer in 2002, and while he was still alive he was accused of plagiarism, a practice he effectively admitted, apologized for, and wrote off as faulty sourcing rather than intentional theft. Those transgressions didn't indict the work -- just the lineage of the facts. But then veterans who were portrayed in some of his World War Two works complained that he had misrepresented their stories. That nudges up to the line of indicting the veracity of the work.

Not The New Yorker reports that Ambrose apparently invented out of thin air lengthy face-to-face interviews with Eisenhower -- interviews that Ambrose used in his defining biographies of the former five-star general and two-term president.

That's a much more serious transgression, one, I'm sad to say, that indicts the work. It's one thing to "borrow" the works of others. It's more problematic to have your sources say you got fundamental things wrong.

But it's a fatal mistake to knowingly make stuff up. I fail my students for these transgressions. And in this case, we have to say: Ambrose = epic fail

Literary biographers and the LAT Festival of Books

April 25, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, biography

We're spending a couple of days at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where I'm doing some blog coverage for the LAT and hosted a panel yesterday -- which was interesting, and great fun.

The topic of my panel was Literary Biography, and the panelists authored works on Raymond Carver, Arthur Koestler and Mark Twain, though the Twain book is as much about personal assistant Isabel Lyon as it is about the last years of the venerated American icon.

The challenge was finding common ground among the subjects so that the authors -- Carol Sklenicka (Carver), Michael Scammell (Koestler) and Laura Skandera Trombley (Twain) -- could engage with each other. They managed quite nicely, offering some fine insights into their work, and their subjects, to an audience that filled about two-thirds of the seats and an auditorium in the Humanities Building at UCLA. And it was a gorgeous day for it, too, in the upper 60s with blue skies and a nice breeze.

We talked a bit about the struggles to find the truth in the letters and journals of people who are very conscious -- and concerned -- about their places in literary history. Trombley said she had to be particularly careful because Twain was such an unabashed liar. Sklenicka had to sweet-talk still-protective friends and relatives of Carver, who died at age 50 in 1988, into sharing memories and material. For Scammell, it was a matter of vetting the details in Koestler's two autobiographies. I wasn't taking notes so can't quote, but Scammell said he was surprised to learn how truthful Koestler's works were, good bad and ugly (though Koestler had a propensity for not including some of the uglier stuff).

You may remember that I profiled Trombley for the LA Times a few weeks back, and it was a great pleasure to see and talk with her again -- smart, poised and interesting (traits that likely helped her ascend to the president's office at Pitzer College).

Key highlight of taking part in the Festival -- meeting and chatting with so many smart, intelligent lovers of books. And the people who write them.

On the Ludlow Massacre anniversary

April 20, 2010

Tags: history, culture

It was 96 years ago this morning that a gunfight broke out between the Colorado National Guard and striking coal miners at Ludlow, the small railroad town in Southern Colorado where the United Mine Workers union decided to build its main tent colony during the 1913-14 strike.

By the end of the day, some 20 people were dead, including 11 children and two mothers who were hiding in a makeshift maternity chamber dug from the prairie and covered by a wooden-floored tent. What led to the deaths is murky - my research led me to conclude the National Guard intentionally torched the camp, not knowing the women and children were hiding below ground. But the overall culpability is clear as the miners in effect revolted under a corrupt political and economic system.

It behooves us occasionally to pause and contemplate the path to the present. Eight-hour work days, safety regulations and a mechanism to pursue grievances and other "givens" of the modern era weren't just handed down from on high by paternal owners and bosses. They were won through bloody encounters like Ludlow, where the dead women and children accounted for only a portion of the 75 or more people killed in that guerrilla war of a strike.

Change never comes easily. It takes strength, commitment, and a sense of the world larger than a single person's prism. And given what happened in West Virginia a couple of weeks ago, you have to wonder whether there has been enough change.

Literary Orange, and other spring events

March 30, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

Spring, it seems, is the season for speaking gigs. I'm on a panel April 10 at UC Irvine - conveniently near my house - as part of the Literary Orange program. It's a limited-access event, with day-long tickets $60 ($25 for students with IDs) and capped at 500 participants. My session is "History: True Stories, True Lives," with fellow authors Catherine Irwin and Vicki L. Ruiz, moderated by Mary Menzel.

The day's other panelists include Maile Meloy, whom I profiled for the LA Times a few months back, as well as former colleagues William Lobdell and Martin J. Smith (for whom I write occassionally at Orange Coast Magazine). So it should be an interesting day of engaging with committed readers and catching up with folks.

A few weeks later, I'm moderating a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books, where we'll be discussing literary biography (details in this earlier post). And I'm talking about the Ludlow Massacre as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute through UCI. I did a two-part talk this winter for the same organization, dissecting what's happened to newspapers. It was a lot of fun - a smart, caring audience. This session will be built around my book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. I'm looking forward to it - love talking history with people who care about it.

Speaking of which, in May I'm on a panel in Santa Cruz at the Southwest Labor Studies Association, "The Lessons of Ludlow: Interethnic solidarity during the Great Colorado Coalfield War," built around a documentary-in-progress by Alex Johnston. The panel also will include Zeese Papanikolas, author of Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, a smart and dedicated scholar I met for the first time at another conference last year in Colorado. I'm looking forward to seeing and talking on a panel with him again.

If you make ay of these events, be sure to track me down and say hello....

Next book is set - Detroit: A Biography

March 26, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, biography

Those of you who know me understand that I'm not one to sit around. I like having several projects bubbling at the same time, and so, as Rutgers University Press works at publishing The Fear Within, I'm already off and running on the next project.

The working title is Detroit: A Biography, and I'll just crib the description my agent, Jane Dystel, sent over to Publisher's Marketplace: "DETROIT: A BIOGRAPHY, a sweeping look at the disintegration of a once great city, in which the author describes how collapse came about through a mix of corporate hubris, globalization and ill-conceived government policies overlaid with racial and class divides, to Jerome Pohlen, by Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management."

And after publishing two books through Rutgers, this one is going to be published by Chicago Review Press. I've been very happy with the folks at Rutgers, especially editor Leslie Mitchner, who have been wonderful partners in these first two books. But I felt this book would be better-suited with Chicago Review Press, primarily because some of the key people there have Detroit roots and, in a sense, speak the language of Detroit.

As you can imagine, I'm pretty excited about this. And I hope to see some of you in Detroit this summer....

On Mark Twain, and an image problem

March 19, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, biography

I'm a little slow in posting this piece from this past weekend, which ran on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. I sat down with Laura Trombley, president of Pitzer College, to talk about her new bio of the last decade or so of Mark Twain's life.

Samuel Clemens, who carefully crafted the Twain image into a brand, was afraid that revelations about his daughter's affair with a married man might cut into his sales and royalties. So he turned to his best weapon, his pen, and wrote a secret manuscript as a bludgeon to silence his longtime personal aide -- whom he feared would spill the beans. If she talked, his orders were to publish his 450-page screed against her.

Twain's fears are comically quaint in this era of Tiger Woods, John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer, but Twain's fears were real to him. From my story:
That manuscript, never published but well known to Twain scholars, had little in common with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and the other books that made Twain one of the nation's first celebrities. At its heart, Trombley believes, the manuscript was a blackmail tool, a libelous screed against Lyon, whose life Twain was fully prepared to ruin to protect family secrets and his place in American history.

Early biographers believed the manuscript's details, including Twain's charge that Lyon tried to seduce him, to be true and that Lyon's role in Twain's life was too minute to bother with. But Trombley saw the work as an elaborate lie and wondered why Twain would bother. Her speculation turned into obsession, and eventually into "Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years" (Alfred A. Knopf: 332 pp., $27.95), her third book dealing with Twain's life and legacy.

The LATimes Book Festival, me, and three other authors

March 10, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, biography

This morning's inbox held an email from the organizers of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books - the top book festival in the country - firming up my role there this Spring, and I'm quite pleased.

In each of the last two years I was invited to take part as a panelist, discussing themes related to my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. This time I get to sit in the moderator's chair (full disclosure: I "suggested" the role and they took me up on it). The panel they've assigned me to looks incredibly interesting - the kind of thing I;d sit in on even if I wasn't moderating it.

Called "Biography: Literary Masters," I'll be leading a discussion with three authors of well-received works on Raymond Carver, Arthur Koestler and Mark Twain. The authors are Michael Scammell (Koestler), Carol Sklenicka (Carver) and Laura Trombley, whose new Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years is due out next week. And, coincidentally, I profiled Trombley for the LA Times - the piece is supposed to run this weekend, I believe.

I'll post more details as I get them. The session is slated for 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 24. Hope to see a bunch of you there.

On the history of a historian

February 26, 2010

Tags: writing, books, history

I had a lot of fun working on this story, a short profile of a local historian named Jim Sleeper -- himself a former newspaper reporter. The piece runs in the current issue of Orange Coast magazine. From the story:
After 82 years of life and some 60 years of collecting other people’s stories, Jim Sleeper’s memories can be a little hard to follow. What starts out as a single thought morphs into a 20-minute digression spinning across decades, like a series of hyperlinks. Or footnotes tacked to footnotes. It’s the storyteller’s curse, this meandering mind, but even if some of the details occasionally elude Sleeper—“The tape’s running a little slower these days,” he says—the stories always come to a point.

On Salinger, eco-terror and The Onion Field killer

January 28, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

It's been a busy week, with a couple of wrinkles. First, I posted earlier about becoming the Los Angeles correspondent for Sphere.com. Well, AOL decided to kill the page and roll it into Aol News. So now I'm the Los Angeles correspondent for Aol News, which my editor tells me means nothing n terms of what I'll be doing -- and getting paid.

Good news, that.

But the gig has kept me firing this week. First I had a piece on the parole hearing Wednesday of Gregory Powell, the main gunman in the cop-killing that formed the basis of Jopseph Wambauigh's The Onion Field, a classic in the true-crime genre (and a bit of an intentional echo of Truman Capote's In Cold Blodd). Ironically, he's the only involv ed in the crime who is still alive. And his parole was turned down.

Then I co-wrote a piece with my old friend and former Detroit News colleague Allan Lengel on domestic eco-terrorism.

And a little bit ago I posted a shortish look at the death of J.D. Salinger - and the continued life of teen-age angst.

Yes, I'm ready for a nap.

Some details on the new book

January 10, 2010

Tags: writing, books, history

Well, after the madness of the holiday season, I've heard back from my editor on my The Fear Within manuscript, and she likes it. She has a couple of suggestions that will make it stronger, we both think, but I should have it cleaned up and ready to go to the copy editor by March. Still looking at a likely Fall 2010 publication date, and I'll update when I know more.

Still lagging a bit on the photos - having trouble getting some help on the ground in New York City. But I expect to have that straightened out in short order. There are also some old newsreels available that I hope to use here or on another website to offer am online component of the book, and the events that I'm writing about. With the proposal for a third book in my agent's hands, I'm in a very good spot.

This is one of the photos I expect to use in The Fear Within- Eugene Dennis and his longtime companion, Peggy, arriving at court to start his prison term. I like the massing of supporters on the park across this street - Foley Square in Manhattan -- as the couple climbs the steps to the U.S. Courthouse.

The picture is from the Library of Congress, which holds the old New York World-Telegram photo archives, now in the public domain.

Nothing to Envy, Take Two

December 29, 2009

Tags: writing, books, history

I posted earlier about my profile of Barbara Demick in Publishers Weekly, and promised a review of her book in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It's live now and available here.

It really is a remarkably well-done bit of journalism, and reconstruction. And I've been thinking since writing these two pieces that this is the kind of journalism that we are at risk of losing in the continuing crisis in the business model for newspapers. So much of what we know about the world begins with reporters on the ground. And as much as we all love what we do, we do need to eat. I can continue to do piecemeal bits of freelance but the kind of stuff I've been doing isn't in the same range of what I was doing before (author profiles versus presidential campaign coverage).

Magnify that across the thousands of journalism jobs that have gone away in the past two years, and the yawning gap in what we know about our world, both home and abroad, becomes dangerously wide and deep.

Last-minute gift suggestions - books, of course

December 19, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

I really should keep a list of the books I read that I like, something I can refer to at times like this when I'm trying to put together a recap of recommendations.

Sadly, I don't keep such a list. So I'm going to have to wing this. And the scope of my reading this past year was unusually limited this year. Writing a book, freelancing and teaching didn't leave much time for reading on my own. So this is even more subjective than the usual kind of list - books I read that left an impression, and that would make great holiday figts for the readers on your lists (assuming, of course, you already got them Blood Passion last year).

Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession is a compelling look at book thief, and the way he plies his trade.

Bryan Gruley’s Starvation Lake is a great debut mystery that manages to mix small town Michigan, hockey and scandalized journalist into a fun read. Bryan is a friend and former colleague, but I’d have recommended this book even if he wasn’t.

Laila Lalami’s Secret Son doesn’t have the power of her first book, Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits, but still warrants a read as she explores life in a Moroccan ghetto and the petri dish it provides for radicalism.

Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name, which I reviewed for The Washington Post. A great slice of history that turns into a survey course of cartography.

Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, a collection of stories set in the West that has you contemplating characters long after you’ve finished it. It’s made a lot of “best of “ lists this year, and for good read reason. The book is so good, in fact, it will likely send you looking for some of her earlier works. Read Liars and Saints first, then A Family Daughter – for reasons that will become apparent as you read.

Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town is a chilling yet compassionate look at the effects of the meth epidemic on a single town.

Terry Teachout’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, is a deeply researched look at the life and influence of the jazz legend. As I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, who knew Pops was a pothead?

Finally, Barbara’s Demick’s mesmerizing Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, isn’t out until later this month, but get it on your pre-order list. A remarkable look at life under one of the world’s most isolated regimes.

Random House and the rights grab

December 15, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

I'm a member of the Authors Guild - which, in fact, hosts this web site - and received an email this morning staking out its position on the news the other day that Random House was asserting it holds the e-book rights rights to books it published before the onset of the e-generation.

Random House's argument seems to be that it asserted a claim to all rights of publication in those old contracts, which is broad enough to include e-books. Not so fast, says the Authors Guild, in a pretty cogent argument. The Guild's statement is after the jump (and no, it's not a lot of legalistic "whereases" and "therefors"). This comes down to grabbing rights from authors without paying for them. (more…)

On Elif Batuman and lovers of Russian literature

December 14, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

A few weeks back an editor at Publishers Weekly emailed and asked if I'd be interested in profiling Elif Batuman, whose name I knew from The New Yorker. Beyond that I knew nothing about Batuman, but the editor's description of her book, The Possessed, intrigued me: "Unlike any other book I've ever read about literature. Think: Mary Roach meets Dostoevsky."

I took on the assignment, and the editor was right - very unusual book, mixing travelogue with personal essay with literary discourse. And all much more accessible than what you think when you hear "Stanford prof" and "Russian literature." From my PW piece:

"In a world defined by categories, Elif Batuman and Lorin Stein, her editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, had a problem positioning Batuman's debut book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, due out February 23.

"They couldn't figure out exactly where the book fit. Part literary criticism, part travel writing, part memoir, Batuman's collection of seven nonfiction pieces moves from the campus of Stanford University to Uzbekistan, contemplating everything from Isaac Babel to an overweight mathematician in Florence who confides in an e-mail to Batuman: “I haven't had sex with a woman.... Also I haven't done laundry in almost a month and all my underwear is dirty.” But, somehow, it all ties in with Russian literature."

The profile went live early today, and is available here. I'm also reviewing the book for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and will toss up a link when that runs.

A lovely sense of accomplishment

December 13, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing

Well, I managed to finish the new book this past week, just over 100,000 words, all printed out at Office Depot then mailed off to my editor at Rutgers University Press. A very satisfying feeling, I can tell you.

The book is called The Fear Within, and it's a retelling of the trial in 1949 under the Smith Act of 11 leaders of the Communist Party-USA, charging them with "teaching or advocating the necessity of overthrowing the United States government." They weren't charged with doing anything, just talking about it, without any specific plans for its actually happening. In essence, they were imprisoned by the United States government for their thoughts and beliefs.

I got launched on the project because I found the story fascinating, and relatively unexplored outside the realm of Cold War historians. I also found parallels to the USA Patriot Act, in that it and the Smith Act were enacted out of fear of the outside. It's a perverse phenomenon that in times of national crisis, the U.S. tends to undercut the principals it professes to be fighting to preserve -- in this case, freedom of speech and assembly, among others.

The 11 men's convictions were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court just after the Korean War broke out. But a change in the makeup of the court followed a lessening of the Red Scare passions, and the Court effectively reversed itself and gutted the Smith Act in a related case, But by then the men had each served five-year sentences (some more for going on the lam; some less for good behavior).

It's a fascinating story, complete with spies, riots, legal chicanery and intriguing characters. Can't wait for you all to be able to read it; plans are for a Fall 2010 publication date.

And now that it's done, I'll be posting here more regularly.

The roundabout version of how America got its name

October 31, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing

Sunday's Washington Post carries my first freelance book review for them, a piece on Toby Lester's The Fourth Part of the World, a very good survey of Europe's quest for knowledge of the world, and the riches that came from the first forays into globalization.

Lester is a contributing editor at Atlantic Monthly, and this is his first book. It's a solid effort, if a little too European-focused. AS I mention in the review it would have been nice if he had touched on, for example, China's explorations around the same pre-Columbian time.

But that doesn't detract from the work. Well worth picking up for yourself (and we are all history buffs, now, aren't we?) or for the history reader on your holiday gift list.

I'm hoping to place more book reviews at the Washington Post, and elsewhere. As it is my reviews and author profiles have been appearing regularly in the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Publishers Weekly, which is a nice array (links are on the left). Very satisfying work, to say the least.

A CEO excessive-pay solution that will go nowhere

October 23, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has a column today looking at "executive pay czar" Kenneth R. Feinberg's decision to curtail executive compensation at firms that received massive government bailouts. He could do that because of the public investment in the businesses, but the problem extends far beyond a few troubled banks and GM. It is endemic in the private sector, with executives receiving millions of dollars for, in effect, screwing up.

Nocera suggests that the ultimate power needs to be held by the shareholders in the companies, and there's some merit to that. They are, after all, the ones immediately shouldering the weight for those obscene pay packages. But getting corporations to change their governance structure to let that happen isn't going to be easy. As good revolutionaries know, those who hold power aren't likely to let it go without a fight.

It would be easier, and more effective, to do it through the tax code. Congress could set up an agency, or use Treasury, to develop formulas for acceptable executive pay ratios. It could tie the pay package to the size of the company and to the average wage of the workers, making it some reasonable multiple of what the lowest rung gets paid. And for every dollar over that level the executive is paid, the company is taxed dollar for dollar. So if the level under the formula is $10 million, and the executive receives $15 million, the company pays another $5 million in taxes.

In the short term, the taxpayers get some benefit. In the long term, the brakes are put on this obscene practice.

Hadrian, before the wall and after

October 5, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing

Postings, as you may have noticed, have been light around here lately. I have a little over two months to go before submitting The Fear Within to my publisher, Rutgers University Press, and so have been nose deep in communists, anti-communists and all sorts of post-World War Two dramas.

But I'm nearing the end of some non-research reading that is quite good - Anthony Everitt's Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome, which came out earlier this month. Ancient Rome is one of the gaps in my reading/knowledge bank, so I've found this to be quite illuminating. Relying heavily on primary sources, Everitt has written an engaging history depicting life in the Roman Empire leading up to Hadrian's rise, and then his leadership that brought about a rare period of stability - and some notable atrocities, particularly against Jews who were staging an uprising in the Middle East.

The New Yorker found fault with Everitt's relatively limited details on Hadrian himself, though the brief review points out that there isn't much material available. Historians are inherently limited by the material, and it's hard to fault Everitt for the paucity of details preserved over the centuries. And the book is touted as the first in-depth look at Hadrian in some 80 years, which in itself makes it worth a look.

So if you're interested in ancient history, this would be a good book to pick up. If you're interested in history and, like me, don't have a grounding the Roman Empire, this can help fill a gap.

Up to my elbows in Communists

August 28, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing

It's been hot here in Southern California -- distractingly and hillside-burning hot, with four wildfires racing through the mountains above Los Angeles and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

None of them are near us, but there's always a "there but the grace of God" feeling when these things start roaring to life. Our house is in the heart of suburbia, but we're close enough to a wildlife area - a very parched-looking wildlife area - to wonder whether some day it will be our turn. It has come close before, neighbors tell us.

It's hard to write when the temperature is in the mid-90s and the breeze feels like someone has just checked to see if the cookies are done (we don't have air conditioning). Add to that the desire to keep checking the TV for fire updates. But as an early riser, at the computer before the sun is up and the heat begins building, I'm still making good progress on The Fear Within. I'm about to get the prosecution rested (in May of 1949), and then I lurch into the defense, a five-month drawn-out attempt by the leaders of the Communist Party to persuade the jury that they were standing up for the common man, not fomenting revolution.

We all know how that turned out.

Finally Time for a serious journalistic look at Detroit

August 23, 2009

Tags: journalism, history

Here's hoping that a rumble of interest in Detroit could lead to some serious journalistic inquiry about the city.

Bill McGraw, an old acquaintance in Detroit, reported in the Free Press this week that Time magazine has spent $99,000 for a house in the West Indian Village neighborhood, a cluster of gems on Detroit's east side. It's one of the last of the city's grand old neighborhoods still standing.

Time's plan: To use the house as a base of operations for a year or better to spotlight Detroit across its publications. When the project is over, McGraw reports, Time will donate the house to charity. That may not be so altruistic as it sounds - the house was vacant for two years when Time bought it, and real estate in Detroit is even harder to sell these days than cars.

Still, Detroit (above in better days, from the Library of Congress's American Memory archive) is a compelling and intimately American story, the tale of a city that rose on industrial innovation and shrewd marketing of the American Dream of the open road, and is now in collapse -- after 40 years of decline -- into a shell. It has been ravaged by globalization, drugs, unstable tax base and epic political corruption.Tom Wolfe couldn't have invented the place.

Yet it survives. Detroiters are some of the most resilient people I've ever met (Margaret and I lived there for a decade, and our sons were born there). It really deserves broader examination and exposure - far beyond the local papers' solid jobs of presenting the city to itself (even with their limited circulations). Now if I could only persuade my agent there's a book in it: Detroit: The Rise and Fall of a Great American City.

Presidential primaries: Who should go first?

August 1, 2009

Tags: politics, history

One of the persistent rubs in presidential campaigns is that two of the nation's smallest and most homogenous states - Iowa and New Hampshire - play such significant roles in the political version of "Survivor": Who gets the major party political nominations for president.

The issue came up again the other day in San Diego, as a Republican committee looked into the party's primary calendar.

There are sound demographic reasons for moving to the head of the line any of several states that more closely reflect the national makeup. But there's more at play in the early states than reflecting diversity. We can learn how different candidates appeal to different slices of the electorate through polling (nonbinding, I know).

But Iowa and New Hampshire force the candidates through trial by fire. To win or do well in Iowa, a caucus state, a candidate has to be able to build a machine to woo supporters, and then get them to attend the evening caucus meetings. It is a test of a candidate's ability to build and run an organization - or at least hire the right people to make it work. So the Iowa caucuses vet the candidates on their ability to manage.

In New Hampshire, a primary state, the candidates get an intense round of media scrutiny. The state's proximity to Boston and New York draws exponentially more media, it seems, than in Iowa - or maybe it just feels more concentrated because of the small geographic size of New Hampshire. Still, the media scrums are intense, the questions rapid-fire and the cynicism turned on high. Some have melted under the pressure - a good thing to know at the beginning of a campaign, rather than at the end.

Together, Iowa and new Hampshire force candidates through microcosms of the two main aspects of being president - the ability to lead a team, and the ability to handle the media heat.

Leave Iowa and New Hampshire to their traditions. They serve a solid purpose.

Death of newspaper reports premature

July 31, 2009

Tags: newspapers, journalism, history

The Columbia Journalism Review has an item today in which writer Ryan Chittum crunches some numbers through his own formula to conclude the death of newspapers was called too early. His methodology is suspect, but his conclusion seems spot on -- yes, readership and advertising in this historic Great Recession are down, but most papers are hanging in there. And most people still get their news from the print editions.

Too often reports on the health of newspapers focuses -- as does Wall Street -- on the most recent quarter or numbers, and the riveting fact has been the declines in readership and revenue. Tribune's problems stem from a whole added layer of debt from Zell's buyout of the company.

But big papers are still big, just not as big. The repercussions are clear -- fewer stories are being covered by fewer people, which is not good for society (under the old saw that an unexamined life is not worth living). But the papers are hanging in there (well, most of them are). And in the next three years or so they will go through yet more transformations.

But they'll still be around. The internet is abuzz with Twitter and Facebook and other social network toys, but the vast majority of people in the country aren't part of that world. Nielsen reports Twitter has only touched 10% of online users, and Facebook reports 120 million people log in each day -- worldwide. That's a big number, but it's hardly the kind of dominance the online buzz would have one conclude.

As students in my classes hear me say often, the LA Times might not sell more than 1 million copies a day any more, but it still sells more than 700,000 copies. That is still a big paper. The severe contraction has taken some severe adjustments, to be sure, and more are likely. No one knows what "stable" is going to look like.

But the dinosaurs aren't dead yet.

This just sounds like they had an awful lot of fun

July 28, 2009

Tags: journalism, history

The new August issue of Orange Coast magazine has a small piece by me on the old Crystal Cove Yacht Club, which had no yachts or even a dock, and in which everyone was a life commodore.

The club had more to do with partying on the beach, frankly, than boating, and in talking with folks involved in it they sure seem to have had a blast over the years.

Crystal Cove, for folks outside of Southern California, is a decades-old beach community in Orange County, among the last of the old enclaves of huts and shanties that used to dot the coast. Now part of the Crystal Cove State Park, the cottages are being renovated and rented out to members of the public by a first-of-the-month reservations system.

It really is a great spot.

Of railroads, the rich, and roses

July 16, 2009

Tags: history, culture

Margaret and I met a friend for lunch in Eagle Rock yesterday to sign a copy of Blood Passion as a gift, then swung by the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino for, I'm embarrassed to say, the first time since moving to Southern California more than 12 years ago.

It's a spectacular place, with some 14,000 varieties of plants spread out judiciously over 120 acres. My favorite sections were the Chinese and Japanese gardens, particularly the bonsai. I am not known as a patient person, and the amount of patience bonsai requires -- well, I'd have it snipped down to the roots before it had a chance to grow.

The gardens were established by Henry Huntington, the rail magnate, whose story is woven into Frances Dinkelspiel's bio of Isaias Hellman, Towers of Gold. Visits to these sorts of museums to the excesses of wealth always leave me of two minds. You can't help but admire the architecture, the design of the landscaping, the shear scope of the ambition. But you also can's separate out that he built all this with profits that grew from the labor of others, from those who built and operated his inter-urban rail lines to the working class that paid the fares to use it.

Such places, for all their devotion to arts, culture and, in this case, horticulture, are also monuments to our national infatuation with the amassing of wealth -- the true religion of America.

Happy anniversary, Detroit newspaper strike

July 13, 2009

Tags: newspapers, journalism, history

Fourteen years ago today the union I belonged to, Newspaper Guild Local 22, walked out on strike at The Detroit News in response to the paper unilaterally imposing work conditions after it declared contract talks at an impasse. In reality, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, owners of The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, had been laying plans to drive the unions out of their businesses for many months.

Most of the media coverage at the time focused on a list of contract points that were in dispute, but in reality the strike was about the survival of the six unions representing workers there, from the Teamsters covering the truck drivers to the GCIU handling folks in the back shop.

It was a long and nasty affair, with occasional flashes of violence. You can see some wonderful photography by fellow strikers Daymon Hartley and George Waldman on their web sites (and George sells copies of his book, Voices From the Strike, though his).

I often get asked at speaking engagements whether my involvement in the strike radicalized me, and I have to say no. But it did energize me. Before the strike I had a long and deep interest in progressive history, and labor history, something i trace back to reading John Dos Passos' USA trilogy, which first exposed me to those slices of America's past. And I believed in unions as a mechanism for workers to unite their voices to work for their common good -- same as businesses working together through chambers of commerce and other organizations to amplify their voices.

But before the strike I personally was an indifferent union member, never active, attending only informational meetings about contract negotiations, etc. My take at that point was that, as a journalist, I shouldn't belong to any organization, including a union (I made an exception for the Dearborn Rovers, my soccer team). But as the machinations made a strike, or union capitulation, the only two options, I changed my view. One could, I decided, be an objective, conscientious journalist and still work with fellow journalists for our common interests.

As timing had it, I was on vacation in Rochester, New York, with my wife and sons when my unit of the Guild walked out rather than accept the imposed working conditions in what we believed to be an illegal act by Gannett management. When we returned to Detroit a week later I became active in the strike, walking the picket lines and getting my share of bumps, jostles, pepper spray and, on one occasion, a scab trying to run me down with his car (I managed to hop and roll over the hood/fender -- shades of the running of the bulls). After 18 months, and after deciding that even if we won a contract I couldn't in good conscience work for that management again, I left to join the Los Angeles Times as a staff writer.

Oddly, nine months later, while living in Irvine, I received letter from The Detroit News telling me I had been fired for picket line behavior. Odd timing, that. It turns out they were firing all the activists they could, fearing a series of legal decisions that had gone against them would mean they'd have to take us all back (ultimately the unions lost the legal fight, no real surprise given how the deck is stacked against labor).

Some six years after the strike began, after hundreds of lives were radically altered, some for the better, most for the worst, the unions finally won new contracts. They were watered down, and included provisions for an open shop to replace the closed shop that existed before. But they were contracts nonetheless. The papers never did recover, and to this day are viewed with suspicion and skepticism among many of Detroit's fervent union supporters. In the end, I see the strike as a draw.

Ultimately, though, for journalists it turned out to be a test. Of the six unions involved, five held firm. But about half of the Newspaper Guild members -- my fellow journalists -- crossed their own picket lines and went back to work. On an individual level it was a trial of character: Do you live up to your commitment to stand together, or do you cut and run for personal gain? The truck drivers, press workers, layout folks, etc., almost to a person stuck to their commitment. My usually idealistic fellow journalists, not so much.

For those of us who stayed firm, it was an invigorating experience. As professionally detached journalists we don't often get a chance to act on our beliefs. So it was good to be engaged, as painful and life-disrupting as it was. Some marriages crumbled under it; others were forged. Mine grew stronger.

So that's another little slice of history. Fascinating to me because it's mine, and I hope at least passing interest to you. Our of these small moments lives, and countries, are made.

Blood Passion gets an airing in San Francisco

July 11, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing

Sorry, a little slow to post this -- hard to juggle online responsibilities from the road. But the reading Wednesday at San Francisco's Modern Times Bookstore went very well. Some 25 to 30 people stopped in, and my part of it went for more than an hour, with lots of great questions from the audience. (Thanks to organizer Steve Zeltzer for the photo).

One theme that has come up since the book was published came up again: Whether there are plans for a movie. So far we've had a few inquiries but nothing has materialized, which is disappointing.

The Ludlow Massacre was part of the nation's most violent showdown between workers and their bosses. More than 75 people were killed in what became open insurrection by coal miners and their supporters, who routed the Colorado National Guard and controlled more than 200 miles of the Front Range before the U.S. Army moved in as peacekeepers. The story draws in everyone from the Rockefellers to Mother Jones to President Wilson. Some of the players involved here went on to play roles in the events behind John Sayles' movie, "Matewan." I think Ludlow and the coal war would make a great action/historical film. With luck, some day (the rights are still available, as they say in Hollywood).

Meantime, there were also a few questions about the current book project, which was nice to hear.

One of the highlights was the bookstore itself. It opened in the mid-70s as a co-op and though it's a tough model in a tough business, they're still making it work. Shows you what passion and dedication can do.

The talk, as I've posted before, was part of San Francisco's annual Laborfest, focused this summer on the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco general strike. The strike, like Ludlow, was a small moment against the backdrop of the sweep of American history -- but still important to learn and teach about. I hope you're able to take in some of the other planned events.

Of fish, farms, elusive water and pricey tomatoes

July 8, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

We're in San Francisco for a few days to give a book talk and signing copies tonight of Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West at the Modern Times Bookstore (and working on a travel piece). On the drive up the 5 -- Interstate 5 for you Easterners -- Margaret and I saw thousands of acres of usually green farmland sitting fallow and marked by hard-to-miss signs.

This is a regional issue pitting the Central Valley farmers against those who want to preserve endangered aquatic species such as the delta smelt in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins. But the regional issue taps into broader national debates over the balance between nature and human development, and it falls within that long arc of human settlement and the myth of the West as the redoubt of rugged individuals taming the land.

The Central Valley is, in essence, a desert. It is also the nation's agricultural heart, due mainly to the federal government's harnessing and diversion of water. Now, with recent years' winter snows and rains in the West running about half of the usual pace, the fight over water is getting close to the "have/have not divide." With a court ruling curtailing the water flow to farmers in favor of preserving natural habitats, the friction point has been hit. Farmers aren't planting crops they can't water and raise, and thus aren't hiring the already obscenely low-paid farm workers to work the crops. The yellow signs, obviously part of a coordinated campaign, seek to link the present with the era of the Okies, and the Dust Bowl that sent them heading West.

The problem is the Dust Bowl arouse in large part from bad agricultural practices based on greed, which ultimately led to the regional agricultural collapse (catalyzed by drought). The difference between then and now is that California's growers rely on water that doesn't exist locally. The diversion of water has allowed the agri-businesses to flourish, much to the benefit of the nation. But now we're seeing the downside of basing such a crucial component of human development -- ready access to food supplies -- in such a tenuous environment.

And that is one of the reasons tomatoes, now in season here, are running $3 a pound at the chin grocery stores. Call it the trickle down of the drought, and of overdevelopment of terrain that can't support it. And get used to it. Water fights are the future.

We hold these truths to be self-evident...

July 4, 2009

Tags: history, civil rights, culture, justice

The other day a neighborhood realtor walked our street planting little plastic American flags in the lawns, something she does every year in advance of the Fourth of July. And the other day I pulled out the one she left at our house, as I do every year. There's just something off-putting about such a blatant merger of PR and patriotism, And as my son Michael joked at the time, nothing says "Independence Day" like a forced display of patriotism.

I'm deep into the writing of The Fear Within, which regular readers of this blog know is my narrative retelling of the 1949 trial of the leaders of the American Communist Party, a trial that helped usher in the McCarthy Era. So I've been thinking a lot lately about the promise of America, and the reality of America. And no, this is not some anti-patriotic rant. This is a great country, but that greatness does not mean it can't -- and shouldn't -- be improved. But to do so, we need to step beyond our societal predisposition to embrace myth and engage honestly with our history.

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting, albeit short, op-ed piece today by Peter de Bolla, author of The Fourth of July and the Founding of America, which delves into the popular and cultural misperceptions surrounding the Declaration of Independence, including how July 4 came to be the celebrated day.

Of course, our little "experiment in democracy" is built on the U.S. Constitution, which didn't come into being until more than a decade after the Declaration, and five years after the Treaty of Paris that ceded the colonies to the colonists (we'll leave the whole Native American issue for another time). Within that arc, the Declaration was the act of treason (from the British perspective) that cemented the rebellion. It established nothing -- other than a spirit and a sense of promise, and a defining sense of national identity. It can still stir, centuries later:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Powerful stuff, that.

Countless others have pointed out that the Constitution didn't quite deliver on the ambitions of the Declaration, Most notably, women and blacks were not included in the "men created equal" concept. Those have since been redressed, legally if not culturally, but other civil rights remain bound up. Gay marriage, for instance. In the 1967 Loving case striking down anti-miscegenation laws, marriage was held to be "one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival."
"To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."
Yet here we are, infringing away (on the basis of gender rather than race), state after state.

And we still, in times of stress, tend to flout the basic civil rights that lie at the heart of the nation's founding. The post 9/11 USA Patriot Act, which gives the government indefensible access to our homes and personal records, is only the most recent, and joins a long line of repressive governmental acts, from the Palmer Raids and the first Red Scare to the Japanese-American internments to the second Red Scare to the FBI and local police infiltrations of various civil rights, peace and anti-nuclear organizations.

So I guess today is a good time to sit back and think about what we are as a nation, how we can become better as a society, and what we can do here in our national adulthood to fulfill a little more of that promise from our youth.

Happy birthday, everyone.

Preserving independence and the paper it's written on

July 3, 2009

Tags: history

As we head into the three-day orgy of grilled meat, light explosives and, at least here in Southern California, beautiful summer sunshine, there's a nice little bit in Wired on the steps that have been taken to preserve the parchment on which the Declaration of Independence was written.

Argon, apparently, is the solution to aging.

The Ludlow Massacre gets its historic due

June 28, 2009

Tags: history

A little later this morning folks will gather at the Ludlow Massacre site in Southern Colorado for a program marking its addition to the roster of National Historic Landmarks. For obvious reasons, I wish I was there, but events conspired against it. I am, though, there in spirit.

As most of you know, the massacre and the surrounding 1913-14 coal field war were the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, so on a personal level I'm glad to see the site get formal recognition. More than 75 people died during that strike, which was effectively a guerrilla war between the coal mine operators and their striking workers. It took the intervention of the U.S. Army to end the fighting after the union side had seized control of some 275 miles of the Front Range. The biggest convulsion of violence came as the strikers routed the Colorado National Guard after the April 20, 1914, Ludlow Massacre in which 11 children and two mothers suffocated as National Guard-spread fire whipped through their tent colony.

It's long been a source of frustration to me that this kind of violence could erupt on American soil and not be entered into the public history. In school we get taught about the Shays Rebellion and other flare ups, such as the anti-slavery activities of John Brown. But we don't teach about this brutal struggle between labor and management, in which the Colorado events were part of a long and vicious arc.

Interestingly, when the Ludlow Massacre does get mentioned, often the details are wrong, reflecting the success the union side enjoyed at the time in using the deaths of the women and children to draw attention to their struggle. Tellingly, the Ludlow Massacre is what we focus on, not the broader guerrilla war in which they died. And the massacre technically wasn't one, since there's no indication from the historic record that the women and children were intentionally killed.

That does not exonerate the National Guard of brutal acts, but it's important to put such events in as accurate a context as possible. The accepted history is that the abusive companies brutalized their workers, forced them to work in appalling conditions, and then killed their families when the workers stood up for themselves.

The reality is much more nuanced. The owners were brutal and the conditions appalling (mules were valued more than miners because a mule had to be bought, and a miner's time was rented). In my book I argue that the coal miners were in effect freedom fighters rebelling against a corrupt local political and economic system. They were hardly passive victims. Of the dead, most were National Guardsmen (under the control of the coal operators), scabs and mine guards. The strikers won this war, even if they lost the strike. All in all, it reminds of this key passage from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

To my mind, the strikers -- most of them immigrants -- were acting in the grand American tradition of throwing off the bonds of tyranny, even if it was of the local and corporate variety. We do a disservice to our understanding of what we are as a country by ignoring this part of our history.

So much for a 'post-racial' America

June 21, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

I missed the first part of this story when it rumbled through earlier this month, and only caught up with it when the second yahoo bared a rather disgusting soul.

Absolutely appalling.

CrooksandLiars.com has a piece (thanks to friend Anthony DeStefanis for the steer) about two state level political figures -- one in South Carolina, the other in Tennessee -- who recently choked on their own racism. One referred to an escaped gorilla as an ancestor of Michele Obama, and the other emailed around -- on an official government account -- a racist cartoon (portraits of the presidents, with Obama as just a set of eyes against a black backdrop).

Both seem to have apologized, but not for being stone racists. The "gorilla" joker apologized to anyone who was offended. The "portraits" moron said she sent it out via the wrong email. Which, by extension, means she didn't see a problem with the inherent racism of the item.

So much for the post-racial America...

Obama, the polls, and the Left

June 18, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

A new poll out today from the New York Times shows an interesting disconnect that should be worrisome for the Democrats. While President Obama still enjoys high personal approval ratings, the public is losing patience with his prescriptions for fixing the economy and health care.

There also is a general lack of enthusiasm for his approaches to Guantanamo Bay, and his attempts to help the auto industry.

Add to that Obama's problems with gay supporters, and the administration's persistence in maintaining secrecy despite promises of transparency -- well, there's a political collision looming out there as the aspirations of the Left, which helped put Obama in office, get short-circuited.

It's too early for this to have much effect on Obama's re-election prospects -- how these problems play out over the next couple of years will be crucial -- but this is when people begin lining up for the off-year Congressional elections. And if the public remains this skeptical of Obama's policies, the Democrats will face some serious challenges keeping controlling of the House.

Ludlow verse-novel author wins $40,000 prize

June 3, 2009

Tags: writing, books, friends, history, fiction, Ludlow Massacre

I'm tickled to see that my friend, David Mason, has won the 2009 Thatcher Hoffman Smith Creativity in Motion Prize -- $40,000 to convert his wonderful verse-novel Ludlow in a libretto.

Dave's book and my Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West came out around the same time, and we've done readings and appeared in panels together. He also, coincidentally, is married to Annie Wells, a wonderful photographer with whom I worked at the late Rochester Times-Union in the mid-1980s.

Dave's award, combined with the recent Bancroft Prize to Thomas Andrews for Killing for Coal, a look at the Ludlow through the prism of environmental history, is beginning to bring more attention to the Ludlow Massacre and the Colorado coal war that spawned it -- more than 75 killed in seven months, with the striking coal miners and their supporters controlling 275 miles of the Front Range until President Wilson sent in the U.S. Army as a peacekeeping force.

I still think the story would make a wonderful movie. So far, I've had a few nibbles but nothing has panned out, unfortunately. Keep your fingers crossed.

Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen and 'Jungleland'

May 30, 2009

Tags: LA Times, books, history, music

I posted this over at the LA Times' Jacket Copy blog yesterday, but thought I'd share it here, too. Thursday night's keynote start to the Book Expo America included a sitdown between author Chuck Klosterman and Bruce Springsteen's sax-playing sideman Clarence Clemons and Don Reo, Clemons' co-author on his upcoming memoir, Big Man.

The highlight was listening to Clemons play the sax solo for "Jungleland" a few measures at a time, and then talk about how he and Springsteen forged it during a nonstop, 16-hour all-nighter. Clemons explained how he and Springsteen experimented by "playing this solo every way that it was possible to take those notes and put them together."

I had my digital recorder running, but given the size of the hall the recording isn't very good, unfortunately. So we'll just have to settle for this:

Some kind words about Blood Passion in Dissent

May 27, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing

My first book -- I love that phrase, with its implied list of books that follow -- has been out for almost two years, but still occasionally gets some nice notice. A few months back it received a positive mention in a review/essay in The New Yorker (a rush for any author). And a reviewer in the newest issue of Dissent also has some nice things to say about it.

The review is only available online to subscribers, but here are a few salient graphs:

Scott Martelle is the latest journalist to tackle one of the epic
stories of bloody conflict in labor history—stories passed over by
academic historians who assumed they “had been done before.” But
newspaper writers who wrote history knew these were great American
dramas and jumped on them. Top New York Times journalists William
Serrin and J. Anthony Lukas were the first out of the gate with big
books on the Homestead steel workers and the Idaho mine wars—both
published in the 1990s. Other journalists followed with popular
histories of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: the Lawrence,
Massachusetts, Bread and Roses strike; and the Los Angeles Times
bombing of 1910, which was blamed on the McNamara brothers, two
militant iron workers whose case became a cause célèbre for the labor

Martelle’s account of the Ludlow affair is the best of these labor
history books by journalists. The author’s research is extremely
impressive, because he combines the skills of an investigative
reporter and a well-read historian. No previous account of the (more…)

Some kind words about Blood Passion in

May 27, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing

My first book -- I love that phrase, with its implied list of books that follow -- has been out for almost two years, but still occasionally gets some nice notice. A few months back it received a positive mention in a review/essay in The New Yorker (a rush for any author). And a reviewer in the newest issue of Dissent also has some nice things to say about it.

The review is only available online to subscribers, but here are a couple of salient graphs:

Scott Martelle is the latest journalist to tackle one of the epic
stories of bloody conflict in labor history—stories passed over by
academic historians who assumed they “had been done before.” But
newspaper writers who wrote history knew these were great American
dramas and jumped on them. Top New York Times journalists William
Serrin and J. Anthony Lukas were the first out of the gate with big
books on the Homestead steel workers and the Idaho mine wars—both
published in the 1990s. Other journalists followed with popular
histories of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: the Lawrence,
Massachusetts, Bread and Roses strike; and the Los Angeles Times
bombing of 1910, which was blamed on the McNamara brothers, two
militant iron workers whose case became a cause célèbre for the labor

Martelle’s account of the Ludlow affair is the best of these labor
history books by journalists. The author’s research is extremely
impressive, because he combines the skills of an investigative
reporter and a well-read historian. No previous account of the

Garry Wills on Henry Louis Gates, Lincoln and racism

May 22, 2009

Tags: history

The upcoming issue of The New York Review of Books (to my mind the best journal in the country) has an essay/review by the incomparable Garry Wills of Lincoln on Race and Slavery, edited and with an introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and coedited by Donald Yacovone. The book is touted as a collection of all of Abraham Lincoln's writings on race.

There has been recurrent work done on Lincoln and race and his stance on slavery, and like most historical perspectives that have become part of the national fabric, the reality of Lincoln on race is much more nuanced and volatile than the myth. Wills zeroes in on Lincoln's economic, rather than moral, argument for ending slavery. Part of it sounds pre-Marxist, arguing that the slaves had a right to the fruit of their own labor. But Lincoln also believed that slavery hurt white laborers by driving down wages and giving slave-owners an unfair economic advantage:

"So deep was Lincoln's belief in a free market of labor that he condemned slavery for impinging on the free whites' right to the fruits of their work. The slave owners' profits from the unrequited toil of their slaves gave them an advantage over those who paid their workers, making the latter less competitive than they would otherwise be. One of the reasons Lincoln wanted to keep slavery from the territories was to protect the opportunities of free white workers (another was to decrease opportunities for miscegenation). Speaking at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1856, he said that the territories "should be kept open for the homes of free white people." Even his cherished plan of sending freed blacks to Liberia was looked at from the economic vantage of free white labor. In his 1862 annual address to Congress, he said: "With deportation, even to a limited extent, enhanced wages to white labor is mathematically certain."

There's much more to the essay, obviously, and I encourage you to click through to it (and for that matter, to subscribe). It's a thought-provoking essay, and gets at a point I make repeatedly to my journalism students: Always question how you know what you think you know. And then start peeling back the layers.
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About me

A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.

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