November 17, 2007


Note for first-time readers: it is the policy of this blog to cover fairly serious human issues during the week. Weekends, however, are reserved for the contributions of various animals in and around Goat Rope Farm.

This weekend, we are introducing a new guest commentator, Dr. Drumstick, who claims to have extensive expertise in the field of public health. We take no position on this issue and wish to remind our readers that Goat Rope assumes no liability for those who act upon the advice of the talking animals who appear here.

It is our hope that by providing space for (bio) diverse commentators we will promote a greater appreciation for both the humanities and the animalities.


Man, I could get in big trouble for telling you guys this, but I just can't have it on my conscience. I know Thanksgiving is coming up and that's a big deal to you guys.

That's fine--enjoy the day off.

But you need to know some stuff. Trust me, I'm a doctor. Know what turkeys eat? Think it's Purina Turkey Chow? Not this year. Every turkey in this country and in key trading partners of the US has been chowing all year on lead, mercury, and dioxin. I just ate 3 pounds of recalled toys myself.

I feel sorry for anybody who takes a bite of one of us--they'd be a walking organic tumor farm.

Oh yeah--and this one's for the guys--guess what our favorite food is this year? It's saltpeter! And all that stuff you heard about it is really true.

This year when the family gathers around the table, think beef. It's the new white meat.

Take my word for it. If you can't trust a doctor, who can you trust?


November 16, 2007


Photo credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society, by way of the Library of Congress.

Welcome to the last day of Eugene Debs Week at Goat Rope. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

Despite his status as a national spokesman for labor and the socialist movement (not to mention a perennial candidate) Debs did not aspire to be a conventional "leader" but rather encouraged ordinary people to take the lead:

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else would lead you out. YOU MUST use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourselves out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads, and your hands.

His biggest brush with the Powers that Were came in the wake of the First World War, which many socialists and others believed was a disastrous slaughter driven by imperialism--a view that many later mainstream historians came to endorse.

In a famous 1918 anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, he said:

...that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.

Making an ant-war speech at that time carried considerable risks given repressive wartime legislation. He noted that is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world... I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.

(Golly, it's a good thing we don't have to worry about restrictions on liberty during wartime any more, isn't it?)

Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1919 for that speech. Never one to pass on a chance to make a statement, he saved some of his best for the trial. This is what he told the judge during his sentencing hearing:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Debs eventually had his sentence commuted by Republican President Warren G. Harding in 1921 after serving time in Moundsville, WV and the federal prison in Atlanta. He lived until 1926, but was unable to regain his own vitality or that of the movement he dedicated his life to serve.

Wartime repression dealt organizations like the Socialist Party and the IWW a blow from which they never recovered. In addition to persecution and defection, a rival communist movement sprang up in the wake of the Russian Revolution, about which the staunchly democratic Debs became more and more critical.

While in some respects the ending was tragic, Debs remains an inspirational figure for his courage and idealism. And indirectly, many of the reforms he and his comrades supported were eventually enacted into legislation. Finally, he inspired the next generation, including such labor leaders as WV's own Reuther brothers.

Requiescat in pace.

PROTESTING THE NLRB. El Cabrero was in DC this week and drove by one of the protests against the Bush National Labor Relations Board described here. I wanted to hop out and join them.

MEGAN WILLIAMS CASE. Here's the latest.

DINOSAUR UPDATE. They found a new one that ate like a cow.

IT'S NOT JUST US. It looks like cockroaches also have conformity and peer pressure issues.

CENSORSHIP UPDATE. It looks like Pat Conroy's novel Beach Music has survived an attempt of censorship at Nitro High School. I'm sure there is gnashing of teeth in the domestic Taliban camp.

MORE ON ARCHIVEGATE, the WV tempest about the bizarre and unjust firing of a state archivist and future plans for the state archive can be found at the Uberblog of WV news, Lincoln Walks at Midnight. A protest is planned for today.


November 15, 2007


Debs with attorney and socialist William A. Cunnea. Credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society, by way of the Library of Congress.

Welcome to Eugene Debs Week at Goat Rope. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Debs was on his way to a successful career by the 1880s. He served as city clerk of Terra Haute and was elected to the Indiana legislature, where he sponsored several progressive bills that never saw the light of day. In 1885, he married Kate Metzel. She was devoted to Debs, although the marriage would prove to be something of a mismatch.

He was an officer and editor in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, a generally conservative and respectable labor organization.

As time went on, however, Debs came to see the limitations of this kind of organization. In the railroads, for example, each trade had its own brotherhood with pretty limited loyalty. There were brotherhoods for conductors, engineers, brakemen, etc. Unskilled workers had no representation at all. This led to situations where division equalled defeat and even where one brotherhood would scab on another.

He came to see the need for a union organized along industrial rather than craft lines and laid the foundation for the short lived American Railway Union. The ARU was launched in 1893 and won some early and promising victories. Workers flocked to join almost faster than they could be signed up.

And then it happened: against his better judgment, the ARU was drawn into a strike against the Pullman Car Works Company, which was owned by robber baron George Pullman and which made the famous sleeping cars. The ARU refused to handle Pullman cars or the trains attached to them, which brought down the wrath of the nation's employers and the federal government and military. The strike was crushed and Debs began his first stint in jail as a result.

The experience was revelatory for Debs and the beginning of the birth of a socialist. He came to believe in the economic organization of the working class through unions and the political organization of the working class through a party devoted solely to its interests through peaceful and democratic means. He believed that nothing could be more senseless than for a working person to vote for the same candidate a robber baron.

He later said,

I was to be baptized in socialism in the roar of conflict. In the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle, the class struggle was revealed...This was my first practical struggle in socialism.

He laid out is vision of a cooperative and democratic society many times, but here are some samples:

The issue is Socialism vs. Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society—we are on the eve of a universal change.


The earth is for all the people. That is the demand.

The machinery of production and distribution for all the people. That is the demand.

The collective ownership and control of industry and its democratic management in the interest of all the people. That is the demand.

The elimination of rent, interest, profit and the production of wealth to satisfy the wants of all the people. That is the demand.

Cooperative industry in which all shall work together in harmony as the basis of a new social order, a higher civilization, a real republic. That is the demand.
The end of class struggles and class rule, of master and slave, or ignorance and vice, of poverty and shame, of cruelty and crime -- the birth of freedom, the dawn of Brotherhood, the beginning of MAN.

That is the demand.

Debs was one of the founders of the American Socialist Party and was its candidate for president in 2900, 1904, 1908, 1912 (his peak year) and 1920. The last one deserves special mention since he "ran" for office as an inmate of a federal prison. He got nearly a million votes that year.

Debs also remained devoted to the labor movement, serving at various times as a special organizer for the United Mine Workers of America and helping to found the Industrial Workers of the Word (the Wobblies) in 1905. He later became disillusioned with the IWW because of its direct action tactics.

He had such an appealing personality that many people who thought his political ideas were crazy loved him personally and his oratorical ability was such that it could move people to tears who didn't understand a word of English.

"ALL WE WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A GOOD ECONOMY." This op-ed by Marie Cocco is worth reading for the title alone. The rest is pretty good too.

CHANGE HAPPENS. Here's a good resource pile from Wired Science about dealing with skeptics of climate change and evolution.

DISTURBING NEWS. In 2005, veterans committed suicide at the rate of 120 per week, twice that of other Americans. According to CBS (by way of Wired Science),

Veterans aged 20-24, who are those most likely to have served during the War on Terror, are killing themselves when they return home at rates estimated to be between 2.5 and almost 4 times higher than non-vets in the same age group. (22.9 to 31.9 per 100,000 people as compared to just 8.3 per 100,000 for non-vets).

ARCHIVEGATE. This is a local tempest, but the recent firing without notice and generally unsportsmanlike dismissal of a dedicated state archivist by the Manchin administration, along with possible plans to change the archives library, has led groups to plan a protest. El Cabrero remembers from his library days that you don't want to mess with genealogists.


November 14, 2007


Debs with attorney and socialist William A. Cunnea. Credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society, by way of the Library of Congress.

Welcome to Eugene Debs week at Goat Rope. A few years back I had the chance to portray the union and Socialist leader for a WV Humanities Council program and found him to be a fascinating person.

One challenge of portraying a historical character is just getting the outline of their life in mind. Then comes familiarizing yourself with the person’s speeches or writings and trying to use as many of them as possible in the presentations.

Then comes the challenge of trying to get inside their head.

In the case of Eugene, it wasn’t that hard. He was no Hamlet—what you saw was what you got: sentimental, gregarious, idealistic. Pretty much the polar opposite of El Cabrero.

The son of immigrant parents who established a small grocery, Debs grew up in a close knit, loving family. Reading was a central activity. The works of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Goethe were favorites. Debs was named for two of his father’s favorite authors, Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo.

Hugo’s Les Miserables was probably Debs’ favorite book. He read it over and over—whereas I’d bet serious money he never made it all the way through volume I of Marx’s Das Kapital. He probably cried like a baby at each Les Mis re-reading. One can only imagine him at the musical. (He WOULD hear the people sing.)

Debs dropped out of school at age 14 to work for the railroads. His first job consisted of scraping rust and grease of rail cars, for which he was paid around $.50 per day. After a while, he worked his way up to painting. His “big break” came when he got a chance to work as a locomotive fireman, a dangerous and exhausting job that he enjoyed.

Trains have always been pretty cool, but they were the bomb in the late 1800s, an equivalent of fast cars, jets, rockets and the internet today. It was his first contact with the life of the working class and it made a huge impression.

When depression hit in the early 1870s, he returned to Terra Haute and worked as a clerk for a grocery firm, which was quite a step down. But like many Americans of that century, and like the young Lincoln, he set upon the task of self improvement. He took night classes and joined the Occidental Literary Society, where he made his first efforts at public speaking.

In the mid-1870s, Debs became a charter member and recording secretary of the Terra Haute local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, which at the time was more of a fraternal and insurance society than a union. Its motto was Benevolence, Sobriety, Industry.

A key belief seemed to be that if working people conducted themselves with dignity and diligence, their employers would recognize this and reward them accordingly--a theory that would prove naive in the age of trusts and robber barons.

Still, Debs would stay with the BLF for nearly 20 years, eventually rising to prominence within its ranks.

There was nothing in his early life that would indicate the making of a radical. If anything, here was another prairie success story in the making. But life had other plans, about which more tomorrow.

HEALTH CARE MESS. Yesterday's USA Today had an interesting item on the decline of employer-provided health insurance.

OUCH. Here's an item from the UK Guardian about the pain of globalization (they spelled it with an s).

HEADING SOUTH. More than one third of Americans are downwardly mobile these days.

HEADING NORTH. On the other hand, AP estimates the costs of current wars at $1.6 trillion.


November 13, 2007


Photo credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society, by way of the Library of Congress.

Welcome to Eugene Debs Week at Goat Rope. If this is your first visit, please click on yesterday's post. Brief recap: a few years back, I got the chance to portray the character of labor and socialist leader Eugene V. Debs for a history program of WV's Humanities Council.

When asked why I wanted to portray the character of Eugene Debs, I had two ready replies.

First, I didn’t have enough hair to be anyone else.

Second, the part of Booker T. Washington was already taken.

But seriously, we have a problem of historical amnesia in this country, particularly with the history of the labor movement and other marginalized groups. This is even true in West Virginia where so many great labor struggles have taken place.

Most people these days have never heard anyone say the kinds of things Debs said and have little awareness of the titanic struggles of workers for decent wages and conditions. It was that struggle itself that radicalized Debs.

Also, I began doing the character in the midst of the buildup to the Iraq war and the Bush crackdown on civil liberties. That in itself gave some of the issues a contemporary flavor. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for opposing U.S. involvement in WWI, which led him to comment that it was a dangerous thing to use your constitutional right to free speech at a time when your country was making the world safe for democracy. It seemed like the time.

There were rules to the humanities program presentations. First, the character would speak for a time about his or her life and work and then take questions from the audience in character. After that, time permitting, the performer could step out of character and take questions.

It was another rule that the character spoke from a time frame in which he lived. That means, for example, that you couldn’t ask Lincoln what he thought of Roosevelt. Or Debs what he thought of Bush, although that would have been pretty easy…

More tomorrow.

WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? War, that is.

SWARM. What's the difference, if any, between us and a bunch of insects? Click here.

SICK DAYS. A new campaign is shaping up in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia around the need for paid sick leave for workers.


November 12, 2007


Photo credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society, by way of the Library of Congress.

El Cabrero got a wild hair a few years ago. I decided to audition for my first “acting” role, if trying to act normal doesn’t count.

The West Virginia Humanities Council has a program called History Alive! in which people portray various historical figures. Most of the characters were West Virginians or had some connection to the state, although there were exceptions.

I wanted to audition as Eugene Debs (1855-1926), labor leader, Socialist, perennial presidential candidate, and convict. He wasn’t a West Virginian—nobody is perfect, after all-- but he came here many times as a union organizer and candidate. He was even incarcerated here at the state pen in Moundsville for a while for his opposition to World War I.

It was his favorite prison.

So I put in an application to audition, thinking all along that even 80 years after his death he would still be too hot to handle. To my surprise, they actually went for it. My smart aleck remark was that if I knew they would go for it, I would never have sent in the application to start with.

There followed a period in which I researched the character, reading old speeches, articles, biographies, and letters and tried to put together a presentation. I even made the pilgrimage to Debs’ house in Terra Haute, Indiana, which is now a museum. Then of course there was the matter of finding the suit, vest, pocket watch and bow tie. Thank God for Goodwill.

After passing the hurdle of the audition, it was time to channel some Eugene.

About which more tomorrow.

VETERAN'S DAY. Here's hoping justice will be done to US veteran's.

LET US NOW PRAISE (SORT OF) FAMOUS MEN. Here's a good book review from the Charleston Gazette by Yvonne Farley, a dear amiga of El Cabrero's, about a recent biography of Don West, radical, poet, and activist. Yvonne was a good choice to review the book since she knew the subject well. Don was the Primal Father of Appalachian lefties and I had the good fortune to get to know him and receive his blessing in his later years. Among other things, Don was co-founder of the famous Highlander Center, which played a major role in the struggle for economic and racial justice in Appalachia and the south.

GET THEE TO A NUNNERY wasn't all that good advice in Hamlet's time and it isn't so hot now either. According to a recent study, abstinence programs--heavily favored by the Bush administration and the domestic Taliban--just don't work.

HEALTH CARE. Here's a good one by Paul Krugman about all the lame excuses people give in this country for our lack of a universal health care system.

FOOTBALL is the guiding thread through the Rev. Jim Lewis's latest edition of Notes From Under the Fig Tree. As always, it's worth a look.

IN DEBT. Here's an interesting item on America's debt crisis from Alternet.

GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS. Here's an op-ed on a perennially interesting subject.