Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show

a review by Bob Roman

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Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show by Eric Scott Fischl. Angry Robot, 2017. 348 pgs, $7.99

This is not a book I would ordinarily write about. I mean, I took up the book based on its cover. You know what they say about that. I just barely finished the book, staggering through the last page like someone at the edge of their endurance. If I go through the effort of writing about a book, it should be a book I finish with enthusiasm or regret.

Having read that, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “Gosh, that makes the book sound really… not… attractive. I should read this?” Banish the thought. This is Mr. Fischl’s first novel. It’s really well done. If you do not read this particular book, I strongly recommend you keep an eye out for a subsequent work by Fischl.

My big issue is that, as genre fiction, this book spans two genres that I’m not especially fond of: westerns and horror. Thus the plot devices and characters that might serve as hooks for an aficionado don’t work for me. Most horror in horror fiction, for example, seems to me to be boring or it confuses yuck with eek or it’s contrived, and Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show is no exception. (Angry Robot markets the book as fantasy, and it is that too.)

Why did I continue to the end? Two reasons.

First, Fischl is really pretty coy in plotting the narrative. For the first several dozen pages, it’s not clear just where he’s taking the story. The characters are sympathetic enough that even if I did not like them, it kept my curiosity. His characters are often cleverly drawn with a curious humor, and while I’m humor impaired, that also kept me going.

Second and more important, as far as I’m concerned, Fischl shows every sign of being a really good writer, not just a good story-teller.

Keep an eye on this guy. If Fischl does at least as well as this book, he’s going to make a name for himself. I plan to keep an eye out for more of his work, and this review is also a memo to myself to do just that. A sequel is in the works.

Oh, and why did the cover appeal to me? I like barkers:

In This Corner of the World

a review by Bob Roman

In This Corner of the World, directed by Sunao Katabuchi. Distribution by Shout! Factory, 129 minutes DVD or Blu-ray, and by Netflix.

This film was released in Japan in late 2016 and in the United States in the late summer, 2017. It was a “limited release” here in the States (all of 20 theatres for a 35 day gross of $172,147) so the odds are you haven’t had the opportunity to see this on a large screen. If you have the opportunity to see it, do so. This is not something I would ordinarily recommend for a movie described as “heart warming.” Those are two words that usually mean the filmmakers have their thumbs mashed down on the sentimentality button. But this is a gorgeously hand-drawn (mostly) animation with a surprising degree of emotional honesty.

The story is about the early years of Suzu Urano, a child of 1930s Japan, who grows up in a suburb of Hiroshima, one of three children of a family that harvests seaweed for a living. She is a cheerful, helpful, cooperative, resourceful and artistic person who, turning 18, accepts an offer of marriage from Shusaku Hojo, a stranger from Kure, rather than marrying the boy next door, Tetsu Mizuhara, with whom she shared a crush. Kure is a port city and naval base all of 15 miles from Hiroshima. 15 miles! But for the poor in 1930/40s Japan, 15 miles is almost another country. Of course, there are Chicagoans in the 21st Century who rarely leave their neighborhood.

While the beginning of the film scans Suzu’s childhood, the main body of the story is a coming of age story about Suzu growing into becoming a young homemaker, a participant in her local community, and with coping with the adversities of running a household in wartime Japan. It starts off in a sort of episodic way: Think of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small with its interconnected, charming episodes. As the war progresses, the narrative becomes more of a story and much darker.

And in fact, the war is the elephant in the room for this movie. Suzu and the Hojo family Suzu married into do not question the war. Indeed, the Hojo family works, in a modest way, for one or another part of Japan’s military-industrial complex, as do most of their neighbors. Kure is a naval port, after all. But there’s no hint of dissent. In one of those charming episodes, Suzu innocently begins to sketch the warships in Kure harbor, only to be detained by military police as a possible spy. The Hojo family considers the incident to be incredibly funny, not a serious matter and the police absurd — though not to the officers’ faces. Contrast this with the portrayal of the Japanese police by Satoshi Kon in his movie, Millennium Actress. Or even, for that matter, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises wherein the secret police are essentially bought off by the protagonist’s employer. On her first exposure to the black market, Suzu marvels at the inflated prices and wonders how they are to live. At another point, Suzu says, “Our duty is to survive.” And that’s as close to dissent as you’ll find. When Japan surrenders, it is Suzu who has a major melt down.

And of course, there is the whole matter of Hiroshima and the atomic bomb.

Suzu is an enormously likeable person, but is she in some way being presented as a role model? So ordinary: People both laugh at her and congratulate her for this quality. She’s creative, cooperative, caring, and it’s all in the service of her family and her community. She attends civil defence classes and studies the lessons. She has a naïvety that is charming and sometimes maybe… artful? As in an evasion. War aims? Civil government? Black markets? Prostitution?

Contrast this with Suzu’s sister-in-law, Keiko Kuromura, who had adopted western styles (a “modern girl”). Keiko’s life is a bitter disappointment — is that a judgement? — though in truth much of it is a consequence of the war. Nonetheless, which would you prefer: the intimacy of Suzu’s family or “wafers and ice cream”?

Some of Suzu’s life may be difficult to translate to the United States and to the 21st Century. For an example, why did Suzu not marry the boy next door? Even if Suzu’s family (her mother and grandmother, for example) are enthusiastic over the stranger from Kure, Suzu does have the option of saying no, a point made explicitly in the movie. But consider the limited options for women at the time, especially for the less well off, and the opportunity costs that rise as one pushes the conventional limits. One might imagine Suzu attending art school, but hers is a poor family and to what end would that education serve as a practical matter? In 1930s Japan, the bride conventionally joins the husband’s family in what is frequently a multi-generational family compound. The family of the boy next door, who she really loves, are drunkards and at least as poor as Suzu’s family. In this context, Suzu’s decision becomes understandable and seems almost inevitable (Tetsu might have persuaded Suzu to marry him instead but he did not try… partly miscommunication but partly for the same reasons?) but none of this calculation is explicit in the story-telling. This choice in marriage becomes one of the central tensions in the movie.

It is a beautiful movie, and the Director, Sunao Katabuchi, went to extremes that animators only occasionally reach. With the city of Hiroshima, for example, the filmmakers did their best to portray the city with historical accuracy, drawing from photographs and even interviewing pre-war residents about neighborhoods, businesses and buildings.

I suspect that in Japan, In This Corner of the World works as an affirmation of a certain nostalgic national narrative, and as such, it fills a conservative if not reactionary role in Japan politics. It also seems to fill a need; the movie continues to be shown in Japanese movie houses almost two years after its release. I can’t help but wonder at Japan. There are anthologies of Japanese commercials on YouTube and many of those are determinedly ethnically diverse in ways that are totally irrelevant to Japan. Brand names and product names are frequently in English. Sometimes product descriptions and pitches are partly in English. Anime movies often have various Japanese characters who are drawn to seem European or American. I’m not sure what the story-tellers are attempting to convey with these choices. I am sure that if something similar were the case here in the States, we might — maybe — be a better country for it but most certainly not everyone would be happy. Especially if it were an aftermath of a lost war. What about Japan?

Or could it be that we all need a good thumb-suck to cope with the 21st Century?

Whatever: this movie is a work of art. Regardless of what might be lost in translation linguistically, politically, culturally, it demands your attention. See it.


Post Script: And when you do see the movie, be sure to sit through the credit scroll at the end; Katabuchi tells the story of one of the secondary characters in the form of a story board. It’s not quite so heart warming.


 

Bad Moon Rising

a review by Bob Roman

Bad Moon Rising: How the Weather Underground Beat the FBI and Lost the Revolution by Arthur M. Eckstein. Yale University Press, 2016. 352 pages. $35.

The 1960s and 70s were a radical time in U.S. history, a time that make today’s political divisiveness and culture wars seem relatively mild and civil. In 1971, Scanlan’s Monthly, expanding on the work of Congressional committees, counted several thousand acts of bombings, arson, and other assorted political mayhem in the course of a year. There is reason to believe this catalog did not capture everything nor was the violence done only by lefties. Apart from almost routine police violence directed at the left, there were white citizen councils (often with state financing, most notably in Mississippi), militias and vigilantes (individuals and groups) instigating violence against the left or replying in kind. But the “long hot summers” of urban disorders (“riots” they were called but often had the characteristics of insurrections), the decay of the military in Vietnam (drug use, fragging, refusal of orders) had President Nixon in high anxiety. Portions of the left agreed that a revolutionary, or at least an insurrectionary uprising was in the works and desirable.

Bad Moon Rising deals with one of the more notorious (and for some, romantic) left-wing terrorist groups, the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground, aka “Weathermen”, began as a Marxist-Leninist faction of what had been an old left, social democratic student group, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Since World War I, SDS had been the youth group of the League for Industrial Democracy (under the brand “Student League for Industrial Democracy”), a group that ideologically owed as much or more to John Dewey as to Karl Marx. Separating from the League over the League’s obsessive anti-communism, the SDS caught the winds of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the civil rights movement. It rapidly expanded from a few hundred members to well over 100,000 members (and at that point they pretty much stopped counting) while remaining overwhelmingly a campus-based organization. By 1968, the national organization and many of the larger chapters had become battlegrounds for multiple Marxist-Leninist groups, leading to the infamous 1969 SDS national convention in Chicago’s old Colosseum. The organization split into three main factions plus a multitude of disaffiliated local chapters that quickly disappeared. One of the factions became the Weathermen. Arthur Eckstein explains this history in a bit more detail, but if you’re interested in how an organization of several hundred members in 1960 grew to over a hundred thousand in less than a decade, you’ll probably want to find a copy of Kirkpatrick Sale’s excellent organizational history, SDS, though there are other works that will provide more context.

Eckstein’s book is a bit more about the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) than the Weather Underground. Eckstein took advantage newly available FBI documents as well as doing interviews with many of the principle members of the Weathermen. He was unable to interview many of the FBI agents as, being a generation older than the Weathermen, most of them were dead. Some of the Weathermen were also unavailable, notably two of the top leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Eckstein’s own political history may well have set off alarms for Ayers and Dohrn as Eckstein went through a conservative anti-communist phase during which he wrote a half dozen articles for David Horowitz’s Frontpage, mostly dealing with examples of left-wing hypocrisy. That alone would be enough probably. But as Ayers’ two political memoirs, Fugitive Days and Public Enemy, have been critiqued as being factually challenged in places (Faulty memory, pled Ayers; it’s a memoir not a history.), the request must have seemed like a prelude to a set-up.

Is there anything new here? Not being a scholar, I can only say that there are things that were new to me. The book’s stereoscopic view – the FBI and the Weathermen – makes for an interesting read. With regard to the FBI, I suspect what’s new is mostly detail. Every lefty knows the FBI’s founding director, J. Edgar Hoover, was a bastard who was willing to break the law for political ends, but he was a canny bastard who always kept in mind the potential political consequences of getting caught at anything less than legal. He had been burned by the bad optics resulting from botched Palmer Raids in the 1920s. For that reason, he preferred that his agents have some plausible legal cover and he was perfectly happy to sabotage some of Nixon’s schemes, especially when they potentially undermined his control of the FBI. Nixon’s replacement FBI Director upon Hoover’s death, L. Patrick Gray, was every bit as much a bastard, but he was also a careless idiot, perfectly willing to demand illegalities from his staff while leaving them to decide the specifics and providing them with no cover for doing so. Two FBI agents ended up on trial, convicted then pardoned by President Reagan. Likewise, while FBI agents could find no evidence of foreign support for the Weathermen (indeed, representatives from Vietnam and Cuba advised the Weathermen against violence and in favor of above ground demonstrations and political pressure), Nixon was never convinced. The closer one got to Nixon’s White House, the more delusional the image of the Weathermen became.

While the FBI had hundreds of “informants” in the SDS (including 198 “informants” who were delegates to the 1969 convention and advised by the FBI to vote for the Weathermen), they only succeeded in placing two in the Weathermen. One was Larry Grathwohl. (In Public Enemy, Ayers denies Grathwohl was a member.) The FBI prematurely blew his cover to arrest two New York members in 1970. The other hasn’t been identified, but the second never did as much for the FBI, apparently. Despite the leadership being on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, the FBI never succeeded in arresting any of the Weather Underground until after Dohrn and Ayers were ousted from leadership. They ran a tight ship.

While it isn’t new, Eckstein takes some pains to point out there is something of a “party line” regarding the history of the Weather Underground. According to that version of history, from the time the organization went underground to the infamous New York townhouse bomb factory explosion, there was the intent to “bring the war home” to America with violence. Even so, the New York cell’s plan for bombing a USO dance with a powerful anti-personnel explosive was a rogue operation, unknown to the central leadership. In the wake of that self-inflicted disaster at the townhouse, a national meeting was held in Mendocino, California, where violence against people was rejected. Eckstein contends that the New York cell was hardly a rogue operation; the Weather Underground was too tightly controlled for that to be plausible. Mark Rudd’s memoir Underground, among other accounts, supports this. (Rudd knew about the plan, but then, he was also in New York; he’s a bit ambiguous as to how much others knew.)

Whatever: Subsequent bombings done while Ayers and Dohrn were in leadership were property-directed as a form of political commentary. It’s also apparent that not every Weatherman was happy about this restriction; Dohrn and Ayers were ultimately given the boot by their own comrades who then changed that policy. After that, things went downhill for the Weather Underground. The incompetent and violent new leadership, under Clayton van Lydegraf, were rounded up and sent to prison by 1977.

It’s notable that until then, in Eckstein’s words, “the FBI never permanently caught a single major Weatherman figure, or stopped a single bombing. In part that was because of FBI clumsiness, in part because the Weathermen were very careful – and in part because they did not do all that much.” (p 237) It’s also worth noting that as individual Weathermen surfaced, very little punishment was meted out, even though many of the charges were serious, because generally what evidence the FBI had had been gathered illegally.

(The one Weather Underground action that I approved of at the time was their bombing of the Haymarket police statue that then stood in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. But that’s another story. And in any case, it’s not as if the Weathermen would have cared had they known.)

It is interesting that Eckstein regards the Mendocino meeting as one of those historically unknown events of major consequence. Had the Weathermen continued a course of violence against persons rather than property, Eckstein feels that Nixon was just crazy enough to drop “any pretense of adhering to judicial or legal constraint”, perhaps implementing Hoover’s little list of 11,000 lefties who wouldn’t be missed. We’ll never know, thankfully. But it does have some plausibility. The FBI initially gave the Weathermen far more credit than they deserved. For a while, the FBI labelled most left-wing violence as “Weathermen”. And there was a lot of it. Ultimately the FBI settled down in their assessments, but the Nixon White House never did.

This is outside the scope of Eckstein’s work, but around the turn of the millennium, there was a sudden nostalgia about the 1960s on many college campuses: long hair, drugs, anarchist politics and even the SDS, which was refounded at the University of Chicago in 2006. The “New SDS” enjoyed a brief “new kid on the block” prosperity of interest that quickly faded. It still staggers on as an all volunteer organization with a dozen or so campus chapters.

As the nostalgia crystallized into the new organization, old SDS leaders, mostly old Weathermen, got a lot of love. Maybe it’s because the anarchist and the Marxist left share with conservatism a view that government is inevitably oppressive; oppression is part of its DNA. So, these old Weathermen: They opposed the State in the name of peace and justice and got away with it! Role models! Heroism!

For my part, I think we deserve an apology instead. Bill Ayers supplied a clever one, designed to irritate his enemies. He’s “sorry we didn’t do more.” More what? Right-wing commentators had a field day with that, but it’s not as if Ayers had any intention of apologizing to them. Can’t say that I blame him. What democratic socialists should think of it, I’m not sure. I’ve read both his memoirs, and I have a feeling maybe Ayers isn’t sure either. He’s clearly not willing to discard those years, but much of his work in the decades since resembles the fruit of John Dewey social democracy, things that, for the most part, the original SDS would have been comfortable with.

Mark Rudd, in his memoir Underground, is less coy in his apology:

“…Much of what the Weathermen did had the opposite effect of what we intended. We deorganized SDS while we claimed we were making it stronger; we isolated ourselves from our friends and allies as we helped split the larger antiwar movement around the issue of violence. In general, we played into the hands of the FBI – our sworn enemies. We might as well have been on their payroll. As if all this weren’t enough, three of my friends died in an accidental explosion while assembling bombs. This is not a heroic story; if anything, it’s antiheroic.” (page ix)

It’s difficult to imagine the U.S. political landscape if elements of the communist left had not deliberately destroyed SDS. An organization the size of 1969 SDS could have been a significant player in national politics. Imagine the New American Movement (founded by refugees from SDS, NAM was one of the predecessor organizations to today’s Democratic Socialists of America) starting out with over 100,000 members. Yet if Revolutionary Youth Movement I, Revolutionary Youth Movement II, National Labor Committee, Progressive Labor Party, et. al. hadn’t done in SDS, J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program (remember those 198 FBI delegates to the SDS convention?) may have destroyed it instead.

Maybe one of the main points to take from Eckstein’s work is that insurrectionary (let’s beg the question of what constitutes “revolutionary”) politics suck. For all the organization, solidarity and cleverness that going underground demanded, the Weather Underground accomplished nothing much of any consequence. In contrast, the damage it did to its members and members’ families and the rest of the left was considerable. This is not a route to take if you can avoid it.

And what of today? In the wake of the Bernie Sanders campaign and most especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President, the Democratic Socialists of America has ballooned from about 6,000 members to somewhere north of 30,000. Will it pop like SDS? History never quite repeats itself. Instead of the grim coalition of bomb-throwing wanna-be Maoists that wrecked SDS, if DSA is wrecked, it would more likely be done by a motley rabble of anarchists and Trotskyists who, instead of bombs create molehills to kick over using social media character assassination well practised since high school. Mean girls of the world, unite! To be fair, these are techniques as old as politics but made accessible to all by social media and the web. Should this happen, its manifestation may very well not be a “split” but simply a rapid deflation of disgust and disappointment. None of this is inevitable, nonetheless: Those not ignorant of history might not avoid repeating it, but at least they will not be surprised by it.

Oh yes. What’s this “Bad Moon Rising” business? It turns out that cheery Creedence Clearwater Revival tune with such grim lyrics was something of an anthem for the Weather Underground. Song author John Fogarty was not impressed, according to Eckstein. But here’s a cover by Battlefield Band, better than the original IMHO.

We Sleep

On the Enduring Propheticism of John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE

The review is more interesting than the movie,

but you may be able to find We Sleep on the web. For copyright reasons, it tends to get taken down rather promptly (and with some irony).

The basic premise for Carpenter’s movie, incidentally, is from a 1963 short story by Ray Nelson. Beside the basic premise, the short story is quite different than the movie. The story was originally published in the magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction. I first encountered the story in Judith Merril’s 9th Annual Edition The Year’s Best S-F. Year’s best anthologies didn’t begin with Merril nor did they end with her, but her work as an editor of this series was nothing short of brilliant. It helped that she was working at a time when science fiction / fantasy plot elements and ideas were beginning to infiltrate into mainstream literature and into other genres.

Are these real aliens or humans in drag?

Quillifer

Walter Jon Williams is one of my favorite SF authors.

Quillifer by Walter Jon Williams. Saga Press, 2017. 530 pages. $27.99

So much of genre fiction ends up being recombinant boredom. But Walter Jon Williams has an uncanny ability to take any particular sub-genre of SF and do something entertaining, interesting and sometimes even fresh. He’s not unique in this ability, but he is unusual for such talents in that his work is generally worth re-reading sometime later, maybe on some snowy morning or in a lazy summer backyard.

Quillifer is Williams’ excursion into the sword & sorcery sub-genre. I admit that when I first encountered this volume at the Chicago Public Library (I have too little income to actually buy books.), I had my doubts. It’s big. It provoked a flashback to my one library encounter, long ago, with a similarly huge first volume of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series. Martin was vaguely familiar but the book was so big and life is so short. I took a pass and actually haven’t regretted it. Quillifer is a first volume too. But this is Walter Jon Williams.

Nonetheless, I came near to setting the book aside in the early pages of it. Williams has the story narrated in first person by the protagonist, Quillifer, a young adult male in a society somewhat resembling 12th or 13th Century northeastern Europe / Britain, including leftover remnants of an Empire though instead of Romans we have, apparently, a different human species. At the beginning, Quillifer’s story has a commedia dell’arte quality to it, reminding me of Brian Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry: a fine book except that the misadventures in the complicated lives of horny young men in a gender delimited society don’t much interest this geezer. Fortunately for me, Williams begins tossing plot challenges at this somewhat self-absorbed, manipulative adolescent, the result reminding me a bit of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series: a coming of age story complicated by a society and a time disoriently unfamiliar yet familiar to the reader, though maybe without Wolfe’s spiritual dimension. It’s also interesting that the protagonist is a lawyer in the making. It’s an unusual choice, but why not? One of Michael Swanwick’s novels has a bureaucrat as the protagonist hero, for example.

And that’s what this volume is: Quillifer’s coming of age. It’s more sword than sorcery, though the violence is unheroic and consequential for Quillifer. There is little magic and that is mostly in the form of the unwanted and seriously complicating attention of a goddess, a nymph. (It wouldn’t surprise me if, in future volumes, Quillifer comes to the attention of additional and complicating divinities.) But I think the secret sauce for this tale is the authenticity of Quillifer’s feudal world. It works in ways that remind me very much of what I’ve read about medieval France and England. It turns out that Williams also writes historical fiction under the name Jon Williams.

For me, the one really weak aspect of the story is the circumstance of its narration. It’s begun as being told, as a flashback, to a young woman, a woman presumably as young and inexperienced as Quillifer was at the beginning of the tale. Before dipping into the flashback, the tone is that of a weary old adult. Williams revisits this setup a very few times during this first volume and returns to at the end of the volume. Fine. Except that while Quillifer has grown up in many ways by the end, he’s not the geezer he sounds like at the beginning. It’s not even convincing as mansplaining. Mansplaining, at least, is something you might expect from young Quillifer.

Life is short and this book is long and the series longer, but make time for it. You’ll enjoy.

Labor Under Fire

a review by Bob Roman

Labor Under Fire: A History of the AFL-CIO Since 1979 by Timothy J. Minchin. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2017. 414 pages $39.95

There’s a major problem with the subject of this book and Timothy Minchin runs slam bang into it: The topic is too damned big for a book of a mere 414 pages. Oh yes, Minchin does try to narrow the topic, pointing out and so excluding bodies of other work that deal with various historical aspects, such as the AFL-CIO’s foreign policy, and many of the externalities that affect organizing. In fact, Minchin himself has written extensively about Labor’s campaigns to organize in the South. Even so, he still ends up beginning this account not in 1979 but at the beginning, at the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. And sensibly so as it is impossible to discuss the organization’s history post-Meany without some idea how its origins set the stage for that subsequent history.

But what promises to be a history of the AFL-CIO ends up with a primary focus on the leaders of the labor federation: George Meany, Lane Kirkland, Thomas Donahue, John Sweeney and Richard Trumka. Maybe there’s no other way to compress the subject into the space available, but it’s a limited window on to a very big subject.

History’s judgement on the AFL-CIO leadership is one Minchin’s main interests anyway. He feels that the labor federation’s presidents have gotten something of an unfair reputation as being backward looking and unreceptive to new strategies, particularly in the case of Lane Kirkland. He makes an good case for it. Unfortunately the main reason so many scholars and historians have it in for union leadership is that those leaders make such convenient stones upon which ideological axes can be sharpened. Under those circumstances, counterfactuals drift like ticker tape and no broom will contain them. Nonetheless, Minchin brings considerable research to this account, including numerous interviews with the players and access to the AFL-CIO’s own archives.

As the title, Labor Under Fire, implies, the book intends to be a history of the AFL-CIO’s attempts to deal with the labor movement’s decline. The second half of the Twentieth Century has not been kind to unions anywhere in the world; the United States is not unique in seeing a decline in membership and in union density. Here in the States, Minchin feels there were two especially rough patches: the Ronald Reagan administration / PATCO strike and the George W. Bush administration / 9-11 attacks.

The PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike has long been identified as a turning point in U.S. labor history, but Minchin’s account provided me with useful context. The Reagan administration was something almost unprecedented in Twentieth Century politics: The near total exclusion of organized labor from any contact with the White House, at least at the beginning of the Reagan Administration. As far as the Reaganistas were concerned, unions had nothing to say that they were at all interested in even pretending to hear. This, as much as any of the details of the strike itself and Lane Kirkland’s responses to it, is important.

Likewise, the turn of the millennium found an optimistic Labor movement in the process of building powerful coalitions outside the union movement. The infamous attacks on 9-11 in 2001 took place during the presidency of George W. Bush, an administration every bit as hostile to unions as the Reagan Administration. A malevolent Federal government and a public stampeded by fear and war is not an advantageous environment for organizing or for progressive public policy.

With respect to the Reagan administration, unions took a while to figure out that they were dealing with something new. They were not unique. In 1981, Chicago DSA (DSOC/NAM) was a part of the Illinois Coalition Against Reagan Economics and we found that part of our task was convincing liberals and unions they were facing an existential threat. It took a while. It took years for some liberals.

In comparison, unions did respond and relatively quickly. One of the AFL-CIO’s responses under Kirkland was the September, 1981, Solidarity Day march on Washington. Minchin goes for the reasonably conservative crowd size estimate of 400,000, but it may have been twice that. (I was there.) The march also wasn’t a one-off event but was followed by a series of similarly branded local events including, ultimately, a tenth anniversary march on Washington in 1991. Minchin reports that the original 1981 event did make the political atmosphere in Congress more favorable to union priorities yet it certainly did not halt the erosion of union organizations. At best (it seems to me, as Minchin doesn’t argue this) Solidarity Day made conservatives a bit more cautious about directly confronting the union movement… until George W. Bush.

This speaks to a problem I had with the book generally. Minchin describes any number of interesting and innovative AFL-CIO responses to the crisis in union organization. Sometimes he will judge the initiative to be successful (for example the Strategic Approaches Committee established in 1989), but there’s never enough information to allow the reader to come to their own conclusion. I strongly suspect most unions, including the AFL-CIO federation, are not strong on metrics with which to judge political and educational projects. This allows leaders and staff to make their own, sometimes self-serving judgements. For example, how many of the “follow-ups” to the Solidarity Day march were simply rebrandings of activities local unions were going to do anyway? I remember a follow-up rally here in Chicago that was attended by dozens — hardly a turnout to encourage Labor’s friends or to worry Labor’s enemies. My prejudice (and unfortunately nothing in the book argues against this) is: If a union program does not contribute immediately to that union’s ability to serve and expand its membership then that program is optional and expendable, even if it might pay off in the long run. Marxists may regard that as a symptom of false consciousness, but unions survive, sorta, and marxists not so much.

Minchin ends his account just before the end of the Obama administration. I don’t feel he deals with the AFL-CIO in the Twenty-First Century in as much detail as he does its history in the Twentieth nor with John Sweeney and Richard Trumka as much as he does with Lane Kirkland. This may be prejudice on my part; I’m not so much interested in bettering Kirkland’s place in history. Or it may be how material was triaged for space.

As a small example, Minchin does not mention that John Sweeney was a member of my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), but he does mention that Lane Kirkland was not a member of the old Social Democrats USA (SDUSA). SDUSA membership is an odd sort of issue to simply mention in passing; very few people have even heard of SDUSA. Thus it seems to me to be a truncated thread in Minchin’s narrative. Street gossip in 1995 was that Sweeney had joined DSA specifically to irritate Kirkland and his supporters; SDUSA and DSA, for many years, did not much get along: If you were known as a DSA member (aka “a friend of Harrington”), you’d have no luck being hired at the AFL-CIO HQ. Kirkland also did his best to sabotage Michael Harrington’s “Eurosocialism in America” conference held in Washington in the early 1980s. Until 1989, Kirkland’s assistant was Tom Kahn, a leading member of SDUSA. While one of Kahn’s main tasks, even in the early 1980s, was foreign policy (one of Kirkland’s pet priorities), it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Kahn was one of the early promoters of the 1981 Solidarity Day march idea within the AFL-CIO. Kahn had been deeply involved in organizing the 1963 March on Washington so for all that I know, Solidarity Day may even have been Kahn’s idea. There is a story to tell but arguably tangential to the main narrative and the SDUSA observation looks like a stub that may have been intended to lead toward it.

A maybe more important thing that Minchin does not deal with at all is the role of contract negotiations in forming the political culture within unions. Full disclosure: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a union. (My Dad, however, was a member of NAGE, currently a part of SEIU.) That’s the way it is here in the States. But as a member and (for a time) a leader in Chicago DSA, I’ve spent a good bit of time with union staff and officials. The war stories unionists share focus on the adversarial and transactional process of bargaining, whether for a formal contract or for an individual grievance or even for candidates for public office. It seems to me that this experience has informed much of their behavior with respect to other organizations, other unions, and even other players within their own union. In some circumstances, this confrontational behavior and game playing is productive but other times not so much — it can be a handicap. It may very well be a partial explanation of why some of Labor’s efforts have yielded less than optimal harvests. But this criticism speaks more to my questions about labor history generally than it does regarding what Minchin intended to accomplish in this book.

So is Labor Under Fire a significant contribution to the historiography of Labor in the United States? Go ask someone else; I’m not an academic. Yeah, that’s a cop-out answer. But here is what I’m comfortable saying. If Timothy Minchin wanted to set the record a bit straighter for Kirkland, he makes a good but probably futile argument. On the other hand, for most people with a layman’s interest in the union movement, this is a useful introduction to the AFL-CIO’s history even if the focus ends up on the top leadership. In particular, I think it is useful in illustrating the nature of the AFL-CIO as a federation of independent unions. During the Meany years and during much of the Kirkland years, this awareness of being a federation was as much a part of the organization’s ideology as it was a political fact. It informed what Kirkland was willing to undertake and had a similarly big impact on the success and failure of various programs in the Sweeney years. You might nod your head when told that the AFL-CIO is not a union but a federation of unions, but Minchin’s account makes it real. In a federation, “solidarity” is often only the title to a song no one remembers the lyrics to.

For people with an interest in unions, it’s certainly worth your time to read and, depending upon your wallet, your money too.

Anarchy!

Originally published in New Ground 143, July — August, 2012.

More Powerful Than Dynamite by Thai Jones, Walker & Co, 2012, $28.00
In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti by Susan Tejada, Northeastern University Press, 2012, $27.95

Thai Jones’ first book, Radical Line, was an excellent and honest memoir of three generations of radical activism in his family, beginning with his Communist grandparents, his Weathermen parents and himself. This second book firmly establishes Jones as a historian in the “history as narrative” or story-telling camp. Its structure reminds me very much of John Brunner’s novel, Stand on Zanzibar, which of course was an homage to Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy. Jones doesn’t attempt a self-conscious metaphor of video or movie, fortunately, but the structure does provide a convenient space for context, something that is often missing from narrative histories. Context makes the past far less of a foreign country.

The book began when Jones discovered that three young radicals had blown themselves up in an East Harlem apartment in 1914 with a bomb intended for John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The parallels with the three Weathermen who had similarly blown up their Greenwich Village bomb factory are obvious and eerie, but almost no one remembers the 1914 incident. The 1914 building still stands. It was technological progress of a sort, I suppose, that the Greenwich Village townhouse was solid gone.

1914 turns out to be an extraordinarily interesting year, especially in New York where revolutionary anarchism confronted a progressive (in the Republican, technocratic sense) city administration at a time of economic distress and dislocation. The Ludlow Massacre in connection with the Colorado Fuel & Iron strike that year reverberated across the country, including New York. While Marx’s irritated comments about history not exactly repeating itself apply, there are many useful observations to be had from Jones’ narrative: In particular, Mayor John Purroy Mitchel’s almost accidental discovery that the cure for street riots and rebellion is, often enough, freedom to peaceably assemble and speak. Sound familiar?

The lesson was slow to spread. In 1920, two Italian immigrant anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested for a payroll robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The robbery had resulted in the murder of two of the guards. Sacco and Vanzetti were given a sensational and unfair (even by the standards of the day) trial. They were finally executed in 1927 after a long legal and propaganda battle that was the cause of the day for anarchists, communists, socialists, liberals, and civil libertarians.

If Thai Jones wrote about an utterly obscure topic, Susan Tejada’s In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti covers a topic that has been continually written about and argued over for the nearly 100 years since it happened. Does she add anything new? It’s gotten to the point where one almost needs to be a scholar of the literature to have a qualified opinion. I’m not a scholar of any kind, but I think she has, both concerning the trial and the crime and especially concerning the biographies of Sacco and Vanzetti.

And that is the point of Tejada’s book: Who were Sacco and Vanzetti? The result is a cross between a meticulous biography, history and a true-crime page-turner. Better still, Tejada also includes a survey of historians’ conclusions about the crime — whodunnit and all — and she adds her own. She’s honest about the violence in politics at the time, both from the Establishment and from the left, and she provides some of the context needed to understand it. Tejada does not much cover the covert, self-serving manipulation of the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti by various parts of the left. This is a reasonable omission but those new to this history should know that she doesn’t cover everything.

Both More Powerful Than Dynamite and In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti tell the stories of the principal characters beyond the scope of each book. This is both a bit voyeuristic and extremely interesting. And there is context that both books miss. When Mayor Mitchel found that letting radicals have their rallies with minimal police interference was a great pacifier, Mitchel’s policy did not go unchallenged. Until the mid-1920s, state and local government had the same rights to regulate speech on government property as did private property owners. This meant that a public official allowing unpopular speech (speech that could have otherwise been banned) could be portrayed as being complicit with the speakers: in other words, “soft on” and with no excuse. It was a great incentive for official violence. You can blame the early American Civil Liberties Union for the change in law.

If “Black Bloc” anarchists and communists seem somewhat nostalgic for those days, it should be no surprise. They share, with libertarians, the idea that the state is an inherently and inevitably oppressive institution. Police raids, arrests, and broken heads serve to demonstrate that idea, garner sympathy and support as it’s unfair, and excuse retaliatory actions that lead to more raids, arrests, and broken heads, and thence… to what? Revolution? Given the grudging government toleration (with notable lapses) of dissident speech, it’s probably also not surprising that today’s anarchists and communists are punks compared to then. Maybe that’s no bad thing.