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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On an anniversary, and a test of integrity

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. Read More 
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The Rust Belt: Still there, still a challenge

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."
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On the American Revolution, and the original Tea Party

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.... Read More 
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Back in the saddle after a weekend of nothing but books

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. Read More 
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On a dark anniversary, and a spur to collective memory

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.  Read More 
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On marriage, gay and otherwise

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. Read More 
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On NPR, and looking at the problems of Detroit

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. Read More 
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Punk revisited: Richard Hell reflects on a surly birth

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

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

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. Read More 
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