May 01, 2020

May Day: Born in the USA

Happy Beltane, May Day and International Workers' Day! The first was a Celtic holy day. The second was a traditional European spring festival with pagan overtones. You could even say it was kind of Freudian...can you say May poles and fertility?

As for International Workers' Day, folks, especially in the Cold War era, associated it with Soviet communism and the militaristic parades that used to fill Red Square in Moscow. It might be good to recall that the May Day labor celebration grew out of efforts to establish the eight hour workday right here in the USA. It was only later that the day was adopted by the international labor and socialist movement.

A major struggle in much of the 19th and 20th century has been to reduce the hours of the working day, which could run as long as 14 hours or more in the early days of the industrial revolution.
A slogan of the movement was "eight hours for work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours for what we will."

Trade unionists in Chicago declared a strike for the eight hour day on May 1, 1886. One May 4, as police attempted to disperse a protesting crowd of workers at Haymarket Square, an unknown person threw a bomb which killed several police officers. The remaining police in turn fired at the crowd, killing four.

The bomber was never brought to justice. The only thing most historians agree on is that the eight people arrested and sentenced for the bombing weren't the guilty parties, several of whom weren't even there at the time. Of these, four were eventually executed. They are known as the "Haymarket martyrs."

The struggle to limit the working day didn't end there and was eventually won for many US workers by trade union organization and by the political reforms in the New Deal era and beyond, although some laws exempted protections for some of the most exploited workers, such as farm and domestic laborers.

Like everything else in the history of the struggle of working people for basic human justice, the fight goes on. The fight has always been about more than wages, hours and working conditions, as important as these are. It's also been about the need for culture, rest, leisure, education and dignity.

Lately, this hasn't been going so well, as you may have noticed. But it's not over yet.

Finally, here's a shout out to the frontline workers who have walked off the job today to call for safe working conditions, a living wage and respect.

(Note: some of this was cobbled together from older May Day posts.)

April 30, 2020

A time (and place) to test

 One of the populations most at risk of COVID-19 infection are people held in jails, prisons, and juvenile detention centers and those who work there. In such institutions, social distancing is impossible.

In addition to working with allies to reduce the number of West Virginians in confinement, AFSC in WV signed on to a letter to state officials urging that universal testing for the virus be made available to all detainees and workers in the system. This is particularly urgent because a significant percentage of those with the virus show no symptoms--and since outbreaks in one setting can easily spread to the community at large.

Please feel free to share the contents of the letter and to urge state officials to take appropriate action. Here's the letter:

Monday, April 27, 2020 

Dear Governor Justice, Commissioner Jividen, and Secretary Crouch:

As the COVID-19 crisis continues in West Virginia, so does our concern regarding its impact on those behind bars or otherwise detained in congregate settings across the state. Many West Virginians are extremely worried about loved ones of all ages who are incarcerated in jails, prisons, juvenile detention facilities and other out of home placements, where following social distancing guidelines is nearly impossible. The same is true of those who work in these facilities, their families and communities. We, the undersigned, share their concerns.  In fact, we would go even further to stress that what occurs in those settings can impact all West Virginians.  It is clear to all by now that prisons, just like nursing homes, schools, colleges and other locations that you have worked hard to address are at heightened risk, which then can adversely impact the general population.
We highly commend state leaders such as yourselves for taking effective measures to stop the spread of the disease. However, the recent news that a correction officer has tested positive raises disturbing possibilities.  Given the very high risk for this population and for the thousands of West Virginians connected to it in one way or another, we are writing to request that the state make universal testing available to all people detained or employed in these facilities as testing supplies become more available. Since studies indicate that many people who have and can spread the virus are asymptomatic, this is the surest way to identify cases of infection and to allow authorities to take appropriate measures in the interest of all West Virginians.

This would be consistent with federal guidance for the use of the CARES Act, which states that funds can be used for "costs of providing COVID-19 testing, including serological testing" as well as "COVID-19-related expenses of maintaining state prisons and county jails, including as relates to sanitation and improvement of social distancing measures, to enable compliance with COVID-19 public health precautions.”

Further, because of the vulnerability of this population, it is imperative that West Virginia provide robust transparency with regards to COVID-19 testing occurring in our corrections system. Other states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia publicly
report not only the number of positive cases in correctional facilities, but also the total number of tests performed as well. We’re asking that this information be made publicly accessible.

Ongoing forthrightness about COVID-19 testing and results within the prison system will maintain the public trust in our health and law enforcement officials. Transparency will similarly put incarcerated individuals and their families at greater ease.

Limiting the spread of COVID-19 in high-risk environments like our prison system is imperative for the health of incarcerated individuals, correctional staff, and our communities as a whole. The more incarcerated individuals and correctional staff that need treatment at local hospitals, the greater the strain will be on our health care system’s capacity.

The organizations listed below represent a diverse cross section of West Virginians supporting this request. We thank you and those who work with you for your service in this difficult time and look forward to your response.


Americans for Prosperity
American Friends Service Committee
 WV Council of Churches
WV Access to Justice Commission
Catholic Diocese of WV
 American Civil Liberties Union-WV
Our Future WV
WV Center on Budget and Policy
Appalachian Prison Book Project
Mountain State Justice
NAACP – Jefferson County

April 29, 2020

The other pandemic

Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

Umberto Eco was a brilliant thinker who is probably best known for his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, which became a popular film. Aside from that bestseller, he wrote many works of fiction, criticism, and philosophy. His specialty was semiotics, which has been defined as the study of signs symbols and their interpretation.

Eco was born during Mussolini's fascist rule in Italy and remained fascinated with--and opposed to--that kind of political movement. He was also fascinated with conspiracy theories (a theme in his baroque novel Foucault's Pendulum) and the potential role of new technology in creating post-modern authoritarian political movements. Here's an interesting article on what Eco saw coming, including his 14 characteristics of fascism.

Some items on his list hit pretty close to home these days, including an exalting of traditionalism (often imagined), rejection of modernism and Enlightenment values, cult of action for action's sake, viewing disagreement as treason, fearing differences, contempt for the weak, social anxiety and frustration (usually of the middle class) as a driver, an obsession with plots and conspiracies, selective populism, a cult of machismo and weaponry, and Newspeak as in the distortion of language to impede critical thought (fake news!). There's more as listed in the article above.

He pretty much nailed it. The rise of the internet and social media, with all its positive features, provides a perfect environment for this kind of thinking to grow, especially in times of anxiety and frustration.

His views of how this plays out on social media were particularly scathing:  “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community  . . . now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.” I think it's actually darker than that, given the deliberate use of misinformation for political purposes by people--and algorithms--who/that are very good at it.

Eco seemed to retain a faith in reason and the self-destructiveness of the fascist mentality. 

We'll see.