September 04, 2010

Solidarity forever (and today)

It's a little known fact that Ralph Chaplin's song "Solidarity Forever," an internationally famous labor anthem, was inspired by events in West Virginia. Chaplin, writer and long time labor activist with the Industrial Workers of the World, lived for a time in the Mountain State and edited the Huntington Socialist and Labor Star, one of several labor newspapers then published in the state.

During that time, he was inspired by the solidarity of coal miners during long and bitter strikes that raged in Kanawha County in the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek areas around 1912-1913. It took him a while to finish the song, which is sung to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Today most people familiar with the song only know the chorus. In celebration of Labor Day, here's the whole thing:

When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
But the union makes us strong.

Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
Solidarity forever,
For the union makes us strong.

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,
Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?
Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?
For the union makes us strong.


It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong.


All the world that's owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations; built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own.
While the union makes us strong.


They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong.


In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.


September 03, 2010


For most of the 20th century, disciplines like sociology and anthropology emphasized culture as the main shaper of human behavior and were skeptical of suggestions of biological or genetic influences on human social life.

They had some reason on their side. Anyone who thinks human nature is fixed by heredity has a lot explaining to do about our species' variability across time and space. Also, many previous attempts to bridge the gap between biology and society were suspect on many grounds.

So-called Social Darwinists misused Darwin's ideas to justify cut-throat unregulated capitalism in the Victorian era. Eugenics was the rage on both the right and left up until the mid 20th century. Racists and imperialists misused "science" to reinforce their bias and social positions. The Nazi movement imagined a struggle for existence between races. No wonder people wanted to focus on culture.

Lately, with growing knowledge in the fields of biology and genetics, things have begun to change. Biological determinism is still out as a catch-all explanation for social life, but there seems to be a greater willingness to consider the genetic bases of at least some behavior at the group and individual level.

More on this to come.

STATING THE OBVIOUS is a good thing these days. Here's another op-ed on the need for more action to create jobs. Krugman throws in his two cents here.

INTERESTING DEVELOPMENT. Massey executives went deep into the Upper Big Branch mine shortly after the disaster, which raises lots of questions.

FRAME THIS. Here's George Lakoff on politics, morality and messaging.

TAX THIS. Here are some reasons why raising taxes on the wealthiest makes sense.



September 02, 2010

Freedom and chains

"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."

Those are the opening lines of The Social Contract, a very influential work by the 18th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

Those words express a long held belief on the political left that attributes our unsavory characteristics--such as greed, lust for power, servility, etc.--to the corrupting influence of society. If that was the case, then presumably a new social environment would yield new and better people.

The radicals of the French Revolution tried to wipe the slate clean and create a republic of virtue. The Terror unleashed on their opponents was seen almost as a salutary public health measure which both educated the people and wiped out decadent aristocrats.

The Revolution at various points wanted not merely to change old laws but to remake the calendar, the system of weights and measures, and even replace the old religion with cults of Reason and the Supreme Being. The year 1789 became Year One; the months were renamed, the seven day week was replaced by "decades" of ten days. Most of those measures, with the exception of the metric system, didn't last too long.

Neither did liberty, equality and fraternity for that matter.

The history of that and other radical revolutions suggests that while society certainly can have a corrupting influence, the human animal has its own evolutionary baggage that may always be an obstacle to perfect social harmony. That doesn't excuse any particular social injustice and isn't an argument for not trying to improve things, as conservatives might argue. But it is something to keep in mind. One must work with the materials at hand.

SPEAKING OF EVOLUTION, a controversy over the origins of altruism is raging these days.

JOB CUTTING CEOS are doing just fine. That's a relief.

ONE IN SIX AMERICANS are relying on anti-poverty programs.

OLD OR NEW? This Gazette editorial argues that the Tea Party is just the latest example of an often repeated pattern.


September 01, 2010

Nature and nurture

Random animal picture.

For the past week or so, I've been thinking and blogging first about human evolution and lately about political and social ideas. I'm about to wade into the murky swamp where these may or may not overlap.

As I mentioned here yesterday, one difference between the political left and right has to do with their respective views of human nature. Those on the right tend to view it as something fixed, whereas those on the left tend to see it as something malleable and shaped by social conditioning.

It seems to me that there's a little truth in both--although both views when taken to extreme have done a lot of harm. Radical utopians after a number of revolutions have killed or harmed lots of people in misguided efforts aimed at moulding new and better people. Those on the other end of the spectrum have likewise done lots of harm, using their fixed view of human nature to justify class, caste, gender, racial, ethnic and colonial domination.

AFTER UNEMPLOYMENT, new jobs often pay less.

WHAT NEW JOBS? Here's a look at what kind of jobs are opening up in the post-recession private sector.

UNEMPLOYMENT. Here's Robert Reich on why it's civilized to extend unemployment benefits.

PARTY ON. The first known example of collective feasting amongst early humans (s0 far) happened around 12,000 years ago. I'll bet they really started long before then.


August 31, 2010

Sins of left and right

I mentioned in yesterday's post that the political terms left and right are the result of which side of the room people happened to sit on in the early days of the French Revolution. The terms aren't particularly apt, but the difference between perspectives is real by whatever names they are called.

Using the old terms for now, it's probably safe to say that people on the right have been more supportive of the existing or old order and particularly of hierarchy, while those on the left have advocated a more egalitarian position, although I can imagine any number of arguments with that statement.

It seems to me that both perspectives have their own characteristic errors or excesses. People on the "right" have tended to believe that existing inequalities are something like facts of nature that cannot be changed. People on the "left" from the French Revolution onward have made a different kind of error by viewing human nature as a blank slate which can be changed given different conditions.

I think the reality is a bit messier. We probably do inherit a bit of evolutionary baggage which can get in the way of an egalitarian society. For example, many animals--especially but not exclusively males--strive for status all the time and many of both sexes are biased in favor of their own offspring. But that doesn't mean that any particular system of inequality--monarchy, feudalism, plutocracy--is a feature of nature that can't be changed.

THIS IS WHAT I'M SCREAMING. Here's a call for more action to get the economy moving by a member of President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

TO LOAN OR NOT TO LOAN? Some banks are thinking about the environmental impact of their lending practices.

WHERE THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD. Health care reform passed Congress (finally) last spring. Now a lot of the action is happening at the state level. Here's an article about how things look in West Virginia.

CLEANLINESS is next to self-righteousness.


August 30, 2010

Accidents of history

Painting by the artist Jacques-Louis David of members of the National Assembly taking the "tennis court oath" not to disband until they had given the country a constitution.

It is only by an accident of history that we divide political perspectives into left and right. It just kind of happened that in the early days of the French Revolution supporters of the monarchy sat on one side of the room while its opponents sat on the other.

In the long run, this was particularly unfortunate for the left, at least in terms of spin or "framing." Left in several languages has connotations that are sometimes quite literally sinister, while right sometimes means, well, right.

I think it's high time we come up some other metaphor, spatial or otherwise, to describe political differences. As a friend of mine likes to say, these days is more a matter of up and down than left and right.

ALONG THAT LINE, here's a New Yorker piece on some billionaire backers of "populist" right wing groups.

STILL MORE. Here's Times columnist Frank Rich with more of the same.

OH THE WATER. This op-ed by a friend of mine looks at one of our most vital natural resources.