September 08, 2006


Goat Rope, in its continuing efforts to raise the level of popular discourse, is pleased to feature commentary by Weimerauner puppy and Visiting Professor of Literary Theory Molly Ringworm.

Dr. Ringworm has been a guest lecturer at the Goat Rope Farm School of Cultural Studies and is the author of The Social Construction of Squeaky Toys and Deconstructing Human Footware.

In this exclusive contribution to Goat Rope, Dr. Ringworm attempts to explain the confusing and controversial concept of postmodernism, which has been characterized both as an intellectual movement and as a description of a media-dominated world.


This is like so cool. OK, like first there was modernism, which was all about things. Things can be defined as stuff you can eat, chase, or pee on.

Postmodernism is more about images than things. The thing about images is that they look like things but aren't things. It's hard to tell the things from the images.

'Cause like if you think about it an image is an image of a thing and is sort of a thing since you can talk about it but still it isn't. Right?

You can chase images but you can't really catch them and they're really hard to eat or pee on, although you can on a television set that is showing an image, but that's not quite the same.

And like if the image on the television is another television--whoa...

And you know you can chase a squeaky toy and squeak it but if you chase an image of the squeaky toy you can't squeak it.

Or there might even be the sound of a squeak without a squeaky toy. Isn't that weird?

That's like postmodernism or something.

That means you can never be totally sure in a postmodern world what you can chase, eat or pee on. So I try it with everything.



Caption: This man was immersed, but he's still not a good man.

One of the trademarks of the Bush administration has been the promotion of "faith-based initiatives" which allow religious groups to offer social services using taxpayer dollars. Last year, these groups received $2.1 billion in federal funding.

An editorial in the Sept. 6 Charleston Gazette highlights some problems found by the General Accounting Office (GAO) after an investigation.

These included failures by some groups to offer statements describing the rights of beneficiaries as required by law; failure to provide statements regarding hiring policies; failure to provide safeguards to prevent discrimination against people with different religious beliefs, etc.

Some apparently did not understand the requirement to separate prayer or worship services from services financed by the federal government.

(One would hope that religious groups should care enough about their religion to promote it on their own time and on their own nickel.)

Beyond that, there is some the question of whether some groups receiving federal money are actually doing what they proposed to do. There are often no clear standards by which to evaluate the effectiveness of these programs.

Most people would agree that religious groups can and do provide vital services and advocacy, but as the Gazette states, "the public must keep a closer eye to learn whether these groups spend tax dollars to promote their own agendas."

El Cabrero would suggest that another issue is at stake here, one which should be of particular concern to religious people. Nearly all religions call for compassionate treatment of the unfortunate and urge followers to perform acts of charity to relieve suffering.

But at their best, religions (particularly those derived from the biblical tradition) also have a prophetic duty to call for social justice. Those religious groups which depend on Caesar's coin to perform compassionate services may unfortunately be unlikely to heed the prophetic call.

It's a little hard to criticize the empire when it needs it if one's group is directly funded by it.

One of the tasks of authentic religion is to balance the demands of both justice and compassion.

John Dominic Crossan, the controversial New Testament scholar, summed it up pretty well in the conclusion of his 1998 book The Rise of Christianity:

When there is justice without compassion, there will be anger, violence, and murder. A thirst for justice without an instinct for compassion produces killers...But compassion without justice is equally problematic. In any unjust system, there are people needing immediate assistance. And, even in a perfectly just system, there will still be those who would need compassion. But compassion, no matter how immediately necessary or profoundly human, cannot substitute for justice, for the right of all to equal dignity and integrity of life. Those who live by compassion are often canonized. Those who live by justice are often crucified.

They'd probably lose their federal funding too.


September 07, 2006


Caption: This chicken supports fair trade.

"I've been struck by lightning and struck by Congress..." Woody Guthrie

As one might expect, we can expect plenty of congressional skullduggery in the next few weeks.

It is likely that there will be another cynical effort to combine a minimal increase in the minimum wage with repealing the estate tax on those who inherit large amounts of wealth, a move that many groups that have worked long and hard to raise the minimum wage will oppose.

(Stay tuned for updates.)

But that's not all. It is likely that congressional leaders will push to expand NAFTA and CAFTA-like trade agreements to Peru, a move that won't stop there.

Last year, labor unions, community organizations, and religious groups mobilized to oppose CAFTA, which barely passed the House of Representatives.

NAFTA never enjoyed much popular support in the US, Mexico, and Canada before or after it went into effect in 1994. It failed miserably in delivering on its promises, decimating manufacturing in West Virginia and elsewhere and displacing nearly 2 million rural Mexicans from the land.

(Ironically, some of the people who are most rabid about immigrants now were NAFTA cheerleaders.)

Worse, NAFTA contained little-known provisions that created powerful tribunals which have undermined democratic decision making and efforts to promote public health and labor and environmental standards.

For a good overview, check Jeff Faux's 2006 book The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future--and What It Will Take to Win It Back.

CAFTA, which has yet to be ratified by all the countries involved, includes the US, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. It contains provisions even more threatening to workers' rights than NAFTA. Whereas the latter mostly impacted manufacturing and agriculture, CAFTA contains provisions that could threaten jobs in services and construction as well.

Expanding the NAFTA/CAFTA model to Peru and beyond will be bad for environmental standards, workers rights, democratic decision making, etc. both there and here.

Further, pushing for a corporate driven "free trade" version of globalization is very unpopular with the American people. According to Lake Research Partners:

*two-thirds of Americans are negative on the economy and over half of Americans personally know someone who was laid off. Many worry that future generations of Americans will be worse off;

*87 percent of Americans are concerned about outsourcing and 81 percent gave the government a C, D, or F grade in dealing with the issue;

*a 2005 poll found that Americans rated protecting American jobs as being almost as important as defending the country from terrorism (86 to 84 percent);

*as many as two-thirds of Americans oppose any trade agreement, including NAFTA and CAFTA.

For more information, check the American Friends Service Committee's Trade Matters site.

AFSC and its allies are urging people to call House members between now and this Friday to express opposition to expanding NAFTA and CAFTA to Peru. The number of the congressional switchboard is 202-224-3121. If callers are not sure who their representative is, they can give their zip code to be connected with the proper congressperson.


September 06, 2006


Caption: This is just another example of elites (as modeled here by Ferdinand) turning their backs on ordinary Americans.

While an alarming number of US military personnel are having to turn to predatory payday lenders just to get by (see yesterday's post), CEOs in the defense and oil industry have been raking it in hand over fist.

Those are the main findings of a new report by United for a Fair Economy and the Institute for Policy Studies.

Here are some nuggets:

*CEOs of major military contractors were paid an average of 108 percent more in 2005 than in 2001. Pay for CEOs at comparable sized companies in other sectors increased by only 6 percent in the same period.

*Major defense CEO pay was 44 times more than that of a general with 20 years of experience and 308 times that of an Army private on the ground in Iraq in 2005.

Those guys probably don't have to hit the payday lenders too often either. Or worry about IEDs.

On a (not) totally unrelated note, our friends in the oil industry are likewise doing pretty well:

*The top 15 US oil CEOs "earn" 281 percent of average CEO pay in comparably sized businesses ($32.7 million vs. $11.6 million).

*The top 15 saw an average raise of 50.2 percent from 2004 (compared with 4.1 percent for production workers in the oil and gas industry.

*Interestingly, CEO pay at US based oil companies greatly exceeded compensation for oil CEOs based outside the US, despite sharing a competitive global market. BP and Royal Dutch Shell paid their CEOs only 1/8 of what their US counterparts received.

So much for the quaintly traditional idea of shared sacrifice in wartime...


September 05, 2006


Caption: War is hardest on the little ones.

While public support for the war in Iraq continues to erode, President Bush and Defense Secretary/Poet of Thanatos Donald Rumsfeld have stepped up their rhetoric in its defense.

In contrast to these appeals to neocon ideology, two recent news stories highlight some of the realities faced by military families.

First, the Associated Press reports that increasing numbers of military personnel have been turning to predatory payday lenders for help in making ends meet--at a very high cost. The situation has led the Defense Department to back legislation to limit interest rates:

Worried that too many members of the military are falling to victim to ruinous interest rates and getting into deep financial trouble, the Pentagon is backing an effort in Congress to slap a nationwide cap of 36 percent on payday loans to troops. An increasing number of states are taking steps, too.

In a report released August, the Defense Department estimated 225,000 service members - or 17 percent of the military - use payday loans. The Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit group seeking stricter industry controls, says that one in five service members took out such a loan in 2004, and that someone who borrows $325 pays an average of $800 in charges.

(If El Cabrero rightly recalls his Dante, usurers wind up in the seventh circle of hell sitting on burning sand and being pelted by flames. See Inferno, Canto 17)

On a different note, the Boston Globe recently reported that the Maine National Guard has begun giving families lifesize images of service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The images are known as "Flat Daddies" and "Flat Mommies" and are reported to be very popular with Guard families.

Here's hoping they don't have to wait too long for the safe return of the real thing.


September 03, 2006


Caption: This man isn't Walter Reuther, but he would like to be more like him.

One of El Cabrero's favorite parts of the Bible didn't make it into most Protestant versions. It's from Ecclesiasticus, a Jewish wisdom book along the line of Proverbs. This selection is read on All Saints' Day in some churches.

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generation. The Lord apportioned them to great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and were men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and proclaiming prophecies; leaders of the people in deliberations and in understanding of learning for the people, wise in their words of instruction ... all these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times.

There are some of them who have left a name, so that men declare their praise. And there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived. ... But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their prosperity will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance to their children's children. ... Their bodies were buried in peace, and their name lives to all generations. Peoples will declare their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise.

I am quoting all this because there is a famous man I want to praise, and I don't know any better way of starting. He was a native son of West Virginia and is still honored for his life and deeds more than 30 years after his death, although he may be better known outside the state.

He was never elected to public office, although he advised several presidents and helped shape national policy. He was not a war hero, although he was on various occasions beaten, shot and otherwise menaced for standing up for his beliefs. Most importantly, he helped to make life better for literally millions of people in very concrete ways.

His name was Walter Reuther, son of Valentine and Anna Stocker Reuther, and he was born in Wheeling in 1907. His father was a union worker, a democratic socialist and an admirer of Eugene Debs. From his parents, he inherited a vision of solidarity, democracy and social justice that he would put into practice throughout his life. As he put it, "There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well."

After dropping out of school at age 16, Reuther became an apprentice tool and die maker and soon headed to Detroit to work in the auto industry. Along with his brothers, Victor and Roy, he became active in building the newly formed United Automobile Workers.

The UAW was a branch of the newly formed Committee on Industrial Organization or CIO (later known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations). The CIO was a brainchild of John L. Lewis, the legendary United Mine Workers leader who broke with the American Federation of Labor over its failure to organize workers in the mass production industries such as textiles, automobiles, steel and rubber.

Reuther played a key role in planning the successful sit-down strike against General Motors. He was beaten bloody by Ford security guards in the famous 1937 "Battle of the Overpass." In time, Ford too recognized the UAW. The union brought vast improvements in wages and conditions and industrial democracy to tens of thousands of workers.

As World War II loomed, Reuther, a lifetime opponent of fascism and all forms of totalitarianism, urged that the industry convert to war production in order to defeat the Axis powers, a step initially criticized by some corporate leaders. He became an adviser and eventually a friend to President and first lady Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In 1946, Reuther became president of the UAW, an office he held until his death in 1970. In 1952, he became the leader of the CIO and worked for its merger with the AFL. His approach to the labor movement has sometimes been called social unionism. He believed its task was to "fight for the welfare of the public at large," rather than exclusively for improving conditions for its members. A favorite slogan of his was "Progress with the Community -- Not at the Expense of the Community."

He was as good as his word. He advocated for universal health care, full-employment policies, a national minimum wage, federal aid for housing, anti-poverty programs and a host of other issues. He also was active in environmental causes, particularly those related to the pollution of the Great Lakes.

Reuther personally and the UAW as an organization were key financial, moral and political supporters of the civil rights movement. He shared the podium with Dr. Martin Luther King at the famous March on Washington in 1963, when King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech. According to one anecdote from the march, two elderly women were standing close to the podium. When Reuther was introduced, one of them asked who he was. The answer was: "He's the white Martin Luther King." Pretty close, anyway.

Reuther also lent support to nonviolent campaigns of the United Farm Workers to improve conditions for predominantly Mexican-American farm laborers

Looking back over his life, he once said, "The labor movement is about changing society. What good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down? What good is another week's vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can't swim in it and your kids can't play in it? And what good is another hundred-dollar pension if the world goes up in atomic smoke in a war?

"I mean, don't you see that these immediate things -- you can't realize them -- they have no value, excepting in the context of a society and a world in which these values can be given meaning? So I don't think you have to be noble to look at it. I think it's a pretty practical way to look at the thing.

"I may be motivated because I just happen to think these values are important, and I'm willing to fight for them and I'm willing to die for them because I happen to believe in them. I've had what I think is the richest self-fulfilling kind of experience a human being can have. I have been living what I believe. I mean, can you ask for more than that?"

Since Reuther's death in 1970, the UAW, like most of the labor movement, has taken some hits in the wake of de-industrialization, corporate globalization and systematic attacks on the gains made by working people. It is now facing perhaps its most serious challenges to date, but it's still kicking.

In a time when many people are combing through the past in search of inspiration and ideas, Reuther deserves some serious attention. His vision of social unionism and broad coalition building in the interests of a more just society could help revive not only the labor movement but all efforts to move the nation in a more positive direction.

(Note: this was adapted from a newspaper column that appeared in the Charleston Gazette.)