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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Blood Passion goes north to Santa Cruz

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 .... Read More 
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Stephen Ambrose and the non-talks with Eisenhower

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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 Read More 
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On the Ludlow Massacre anniversary

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 changeRead More 
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A CEO excessive-pay solution that will go nowhere

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. Read More 
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A father, a Secret Son and roots of extremism

I'm about half a lifetime behind on my reading, it seems, due primarily to working on The Fear Within, which has me digging into old newspapers and reportage, trial transcripts and memoirs of Communists and anti-Communists, plus doing the freelance stuff (among other time-consumers). So my time for personal reading is pretty narrow.

Which is why I'm so late to the game in writing about my friend Laila Lalami's novel, Secret Son,, which tells the story of Youssef El Meki, raised in a Casablanca slum not knowing that his mother has lied to the world about being widowed. Youssef does indeed have a living father, and how that discovery is made and its impact on Youssef's life propels the book. The key undercurrent: An exploration of how young Muslims can become radicalized.

This is a strong book. Not as good, I don't think, as her collection Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits, which I thought was a remarkable debut. To my eye, Secret Son lacks the scope of the short stories in Hope, a function no doubt of focusing on one main story line as opposed to the intertwined lives of the characters in Hope. But it's still a good read. I recommend you grab both books and read them in succession.

And then wait impatiently for Lalami's third book, whatever and whenever that may be.

Secret Son has been widely, and generally quite positively, reviewed and the New York Times posted the first chapter as kind of a quick peak. Saves you time in the aisle of your favorite (and hopefully independent) bookstore.
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Of railroads, the rich, and roses

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. Read More 
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Of fish, farms, elusive water and pricey tomatoes

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

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.

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So much for a 'post-racial' America

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. 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...
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Obama, the polls, and the Left

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. Read More 
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