Archive for May, 2023

Rudolf Vrba and the Fading Memory of Evil – posted 5/28/2023

May 28, 2023 4 comments

One extremely disturbing trend going on now is the popularity of far right ideas, including those of neo-nazis and white supremacists. It is a collective madness and examples of how their toxic ideas lead to disaster are not hard to find.

A jury was just selected in the case of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter who killed eleven in 2018. Then there is the case of the mass shooter who killed eight people at the mall in Allen Texas. He had swastika and SS lightning bolt logo tattoos and had posted pro-white supremacist and neo-nazi materials on social media.

On May 23, a 19 year old driver of a U-Haul truck crashed into security barriers outside the White House. The driver wanted to kill President Biden, “to seize power”. He had a Nazi flag in his truck and told police he admired Hitler.

These far right extremists grow in the political ecosystem created by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. They are operating more openly in the context of an anti-democratic, conspiracy theory-driven MAGA movement based on the Big Lie and the Great Replacement Theory.

In considering why there has been a resurgence in neo-nazi ideas, one less-considered explanation is the fading remembrance of the Holocaust. For many years, memory of that event acted as a bar but there are now fewer people alive who lived through that experience and educational efforts to communicate the story have been grossly inadequate.

According to a 2020 survey, nearly two-thirds of young adults between ages 18-39 were unaware six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. 23% said they believed the Holocaust was a myth or had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure. This reflects a dismal level of awareness.

Many young people, especially young white men, are taken in by Nazi propaganda on social media, like their lies are some kind of cool thing. I believe a large number have no idea what the Nazis actually did in Europe between 1933-1945. That makes it easier to swallow the hate.

Part of the historical ignorance is that very important Holocaust stories remain unknown. Rudolf Vrba’s story is one of those stories. Vrba’s story is told in the important book, The Escape Artist, by the British journalist, Jonathan Freedland. Vrba was one of the first Jews to escape from Auschwitz. He arrived at Auschwitz at age 17 in 1942. Because he was young, healthy, and he could work, Vrba survived.

From the start, Vrba saw through Nazi lies. When Jews were deported to Auschwitz, the Nazis told them they were being deported to the east to be resettled. Many wanted to believe that. Vrba saw how those who were deemed unable to work were immediately sent to the gas chambers when they arrived at Auschwitz. He also saw how those arriving at Auschwitz had no idea what was in store for them.

Vrba had a unique perspective. Over a period of two years, he evaded death. He had help from the Jewish resistance on the inside. He moved around and finagled different work positions that provided an all-sided view of the concentration camp.

From the start, his goal was escape. He saw how the Nazis lied about their intentions to the new arrivals. They gave people soap to create the misleading impression that people were going to a shower. They then went to immense effort to cover their tracks to hide the genocide. They did everything they could to prevent knowledge by the outside world.

Vrba wanted to escape to warn the world about what was going on. He believed he could throw a monkey wrench into the smooth working of the Nazi death machine. He knew the Nazis planned to exterminate one million Hungarian Jews and he believed if he could get out, word would spread and that extermination could be foiled.

With a trusted friend, Fred Wetzler, they figured an escape plan. They dug a hole in the outer camp under a lumber pile where they hid for three days. The Nazis with their 200 hunting dogs searched feverishly to find them but after three days, they stopped. That was the Nazi SS routine which they invariably followed like clockwork. After three days, their capture became the job of the Gestapo outside the camp.

Vrba knew the Nazis kept close track of all prisoners. Within an hour of a prisoner’s absence, they could tell there was an escape attempt.

In April 1944, Vrba and Wetzler escaped. Over eleven days, traveling only at night, with no maps or compass, they crossed rivers and forests of Nazi-occupied Poland. They wanted to reach their home country of Slovakia. They had no assistance outside Auschwitz and they knew any mistake probably meant death.

Miraculously, exhausted, undernourished and with painful, misshapen feet, they crossed the border out of Poland. They were able to contact the Jewish Council.

For two weeks, in a basement, they were de-briefed and the first account of what was actually going on at Auschwitz poured out. They were heavily cross-examined to prove the authenticity of their story but Vrba had a photographic memory of all transports, the number of cars and the number of prisoners. He knew where every group of Jews in the camp were from. He had memorized tattoo numbers of various groups so he could identify where Jews were from based on the Nazi branding number.

Vrba and Wetzler dictated a 32 page single space report. With precision, Vrba drew maps of Auschwitz-Birkenau that showed the factories powered by slave labor, the gas chambers and the crematoria. Vrba meticulously explained the transports, the Nazi selection process of who lived and who died. It was the fullest account written at the time and it was conveyed to FDR, Churchill, and Pope Pius XII.

Vrba’s efforts saved the lives of 200,000 Jews from Budapest. Over 400,000 other Hungarian Jews perished. Vrba believed that just the knowledge of the Holocaust getting out would provoke action. Tragically, the Hungarian Jewish leader Rezso Kasztner cut a deal with the Nazis and Adolf Eichmann. In exchange for saving himself and 1684 Jews he selected, Kasztner remained silent about the Nazi plan to exterminate all the Jews of Hungary.

Vrba remained furious at the Jewish Council as well as the Nazis. He believed that facts could save lives. He believed that if the Hungarian Jews had known what was awaiting them at Auschwitz, they would have done something to avoid their fate.

Neither FDR nor Churchill acted when they had the information Vrba provided. Jewish leaders asked the Allied leaders to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz and that was never done even though the Nazis’ industrialized killing machine was resulting in 15,000 murders daily. Even after D-Day, the Holocaust slaughter continued at a frenzied pace.

Vrba was interviewed in Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah but he is an unknown even though as Freedland has argued, he was as much a hero as Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler or Primo Levi.

America faces its own continuing fascist threat. Denying and trying to hide the Holocaust was the original Nazi strategy. Stories like Vrba’s deserve far wider circulation because they are an antidote to the legacy of denial and historical ignorance.

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Removing the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn historical marker is an act of ignorance – posted 5/20/2023

May 20, 2023 3 comments

The New Hampshire state decision to take down the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn historical marker two weeks after it was unveiled was both wrong-headed and ignorant. Flynn had a long, flamboyant and illustrious life. The decision to remove her historical marker in Concord, her birthplace, was based solely on her membership in the Communist Party which she had joined in 1936.

The state took the marker down on the basis of a label – communist – rather than on any informed understanding of what she did in her life.

Flynn had three decades of experience as a labor organizer, civil libertarian and activist before she joined the Communist Party. She was a much-loved leader in the American labor movement. Here is what the saintly socialist Eugene V. Debs, who knew her well, wrote about Flynn in 1926:

“Elizabeth Gurley Flynn holds a proud and enviable position in the American labor movement and yet she is one of the humblest and most unpretentious of its members. Ever since I first heard of this brave, dauntless leader of the working class she has been at the forefront, one of its most eloquent spokesmen and one of its most consecrated servants. She has espoused and championed the cause of the weakest, lowliest, most despised and persecuted, even when she stood almost alone, and in this she has never weakened or wavered a moment but faced and fought the enemy without fear and without reference to consequences to herself.”

Flynn was first and foremost, an organizer. In 1906, she dropped out of high school to join the Industrial Workers of the World also known as the IWW or the Wobblies. She was an early feminist, advocating for birth control, labor legislation for women, liberalizing divorce laws and standing up for the rights of prostitutes.

She played a key role in multiple strikes including the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence Ma, the Paterson NJ silk mill workers strike in 1913, the Mesabi Range miners’ strike of 1916 and the Passaic NJ textile workers’ strike in 1926.

For years, Flynn was on the road, traveling and speaking on behalf of workers across America who were organizing. She was an extremely talented debater and orator. Even among unions like the United Mine Workers who disagreed with her IWW politics she was sought as a speaker for their strike campaigns. She captivated audiences and had a gift for connecting with people.

She was a key player on numerous defense committees when strike leaders and other comrades were prosecuted by the authorities. She directed strategy for Joe Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, the Lawrence strike leaders who were framed on a charge of inciting to murder. They were both acquitted by a jury. She also defended Tom Mooney, a San Francisco socialist also framed up and accused of throwing a bomb and later Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. She herself was arrested many times.

In her autobiography, The Rebel Girl, Flynn describes going to a jail in Salt Lake City in 1915 to visit the legendary IWW songwriter Joe Hill. As he put it, he wrote songs “to fan the flame of discontent”. Hill wrote such famous songs as “Hallelujah I’m a Bum”, “Casey Jones”, “Mr. Block” and “Long haired Preachers” or “Pie in the Sky”. Hill told Flynn “I am not afraid of death, but I’d like to be in the fight a little longer”. It was not to be.

A few hours before he was executed by the State of Utah, Hill sent Flynn this note:

“Dear Friend Gurley:
I have been saying Good Bye so much now that it is becoming monotonous but I just cannot help to send you a few more lines because you have been more to me than a fellow Worker. You have been an inspiration and when I composed The Rebel Girl you were right there and helped me all the time as you furnished the idea I will now that I am gone, give you all the credit for that song, and be sure to locate a few more Rebel Girls like yourself, because they are needed and needed badly.”

Joe Hill’s famous last words were “Don’t mourn, organize”. I would say that if Joe Hill was writing songs about you, your place in labor history is assured. Unfortunately though, American labor history is now an almost entirely forgotten story. The fact that Flynn became a member of the American Communist Party later in her life doesn’t cancel out her story.

When Flynn joined the Communist Party in 1936, the world faced the threat of fascism. For the most part, except in the less than two years of the Hitler-Stalin Pact from 1939-1941, the Party was a bulwark in the fight against fascism. Many Americans who were terrified by the rise of European fascism joined the Party in the 1930’s.

To its credit, the Party was also one of the few institutions in American life that vigorously opposed racism and white supremacy which was disgracefully accommodated in America.

I would acknowledge though that Flynn never opposed Joseph Stalin’s monstrous crimes even after they were widely known nor did she ever publicly oppose or repudiate the Communist Party’s slavish devotion to following the Moscow line. This is certainly to her discredit but I think it is only one chapter in an otherwise long, brave and admirable life.

The question arises: how do you evaluate a life? Flynn’s life was not flawless. Of course, in that regard she is no different than anyone else and certainly no different than many of the people that New Hampshire has chosen to recognize with historical markers. If perfection is the standard, there will be no historical markers.

Robert Azzi made a good point when he pointed out that of the 279 historical markers listed in New Hampshire, there are hardly any women. There were 12 devoted to an individual woman until Flynn’s marker got removed. Two of the remaining eleven share their marker with a male.

Another way of looking at the Flynn marker removal is that a small group of narrow-minded old white men only want to honor other men like themselves. They don’t own history. Besides Flynn, there are no other women labor leaders on that list. Objectively, the numbers speak for themselves.

The Flynn marker removal makes New Hampshire look dumb – and sexist.

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The Dickensian return of child labor – posted 5/14/2023

May 14, 2023 2 comments

Up until recently, child labor was not a subject you would see discussed in any media. There has been a perception that child labor was a thing of the past. It was outlawed roughly 100 years ago. It was something Charles Dickens wrote about in 1850 in David Copperfield.

Dickens was traumatized when at age 12 he was forced to work 10 to 12 hour days in a boot-blacking factory. He was in charge of gluing labels onto bottles of shoe polish. The conditions were harsh and dirty. Dickens’ father had been incarcerated in debtors’ prison, causing family separation and economic crisis.

Like many children of his era, Dickens was deprived of the opportunity of a full formal education. He was put under tremendous pressure to support himself and his family. Dickens often wrote very sympathetically about destitute boys who were robbed of their childhoods.

In America, I know there was a long struggle in the early twentieth century to legislate and limit child labor. Around 1900, one in six children was engaged in gainful employment. Progressive era reformers challenged poor working conditions, long hours and the exploitation of young children.

After a struggle that lasted almost three decades, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. That law, in part, prohibited some oppressive laboring conditions, including much child labor.

So it is extremely surprising to see child labor re-emerge as a contentious issue. The New York Times has been covering this story. Their reporter, Hannah Dreier, spoke to over 100 children in 20 states. She found 12 year old roofers working in Florida and Texas, underage slaughterhouse workers in Delaware, Mississippi and North Carolina and children sawing planks of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota. Many of these children were working 12 hour days and they were not attending school.

The Department of Labor says that since 2018 there has been a 69% increase in the illegal employment of children.

The Guardian reported on over 100 children ages 13 to 17 working in thirteen meat-packing plants in eight states. The kids were hired to sanitize the meat plants, work with hazardous chemicals and clean meat-processing equipment including back saws, brisket saws and head splitters. Investigators found a 13 year old who was burned with caustic chemicals while working on the 11pm-7am shift for Packers Sanitation Services in Nebraska. The Department of Labor slapped a $1.5 million fine on the cleaning company..

Two 10-year-olds were found working at McDonald’s in Louisville, Kentucky, where they prepared and served meals, worked the drive-thru and cleaned. They would occasionally work as late as 2am. The Department of Labor found 305 minors under the age of 16 who were working illegally at McDonald’s restaurants in Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland and Ohio.

Many of the children are unaccompanied migrants who came to the U.S. from Central America without their parents. They are not unknown to the federal government, though. The Department of Health and Human Services is supposed to monitor them and is responsible for ensuring sponsors will support them. It is also responsible that they be protected from trafficking and exploitation.

The children are often under intense pressure to earn money. Commonly, they are in debt paying smuggling fees or needing to pay for rent or other living expenses. They know their families back in Central America are relying on them to send income back home.

The Times quoted Rick Angstman, a ninth grade social studies teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who saw two students pass out in class from fatigue. It is not unusual for students to be rushing off immediately after class ends to work long shifts. Angstman said one student dropped out of school. He said:

“She disappeared into oblivion. It’s the new child labor. You’re taking children from another country and putting them in almost indentured servitude.”

You might think that in 2023 labor exploitation of children would be seen as a shocking aberration but for business lobbyists and Republican legislators that is not the case. They are now trying to roll back federal and state regulations that have been in place for generations.

Bills are moving through ten state legislatures that would expand work hours for children, lift restrictions on hazardous occupations and lower state minimum wages for minors. In Wisconsin, Republicans introduced legislation to allow children as young as 14 to serve alcohol in restaurants, down from the current age of 18.

Arkansas is a leader in the child law de-regulation effort. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill removing employer requirements to verify the age of children as young as 14 before hiring them. States are trying to pass laws that fly in the face of federal regulations.

Business lobbyists like the National Federation of Independent Business want to allow younger kids more work hours and they want kids to be able to work in previously prohibited settings with less oversight. It amounts to business looking for cheap labor in tight labor markets. It is one strategy for combating having to pay adult workers too high wages.

Between 2010-2019, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor lost 12% of its staff including investigators. At a time when violations of child labor are increasing, the Department of Labor has had less resources to investigate violations. Also the maximum fine it can impose on companies is $15138 per child. That is so low that it is almost inconsequential.

Companies may consider such fines simply a cost of doing business. There is a need for more enforcement and higher penalties. When conservatives talk about deconstructing the administrative state, we should be clear that one example of what they want is no interference with their child labor schemes.

It is ironic that the Republican Party, obsessed with QAnon fantasies about pedophilia and the sexual exploitation of children, is very much engaged in real-life labor exploitation of children. They care about children so much that they want to return to the good old days of the nineteenth century.

In the 1930’s it was the photos of Lewis Hine and the writings of Jacob Riis which helped to wake up the nation’s conscience about child labor. I think we need a 21st century Hine and Riis. Young children of whatever background belong in school and deserve a childhood. I am reminded of a quote from Charles Dickens:

“Have a heart that never hardens and a temper that never tires and a touch that never hurts.”

If he were alive today, Dickens would be appalled.

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Spring in North Wilmot 2023 – posted 5/13/2023

May 13, 2023 8 comments
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The arrogance of power, Supreme Court edition – posted 5/7/2023

May 7, 2023 2 comments

Not even a month ago, I wrote a column that pointed out the ongoing corruption issues with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He had failed to report lavish vacations and expensive gifts he had received from his billionaire “friend” Harlan Crow and he also failed to recuse from January 6-related cases where his wife was closely tied to the insurrectionists.

Almost immediately after writing that, the corruption floodgates opened. A new wave of Supreme Court ethical improprieties surfaced and the stories about the justices keep coming. First and most prominently are the Justice Thomas stories. Harlan Crow bought Thomas’s elderly mother’s home, paid for major repairs and improvements, took care of her real estate property taxes, and allowed her to live there rent-free. Thomas did not report it on federal disclosure forms.

Then there was the story about megadonor Crow paying many thousands to cover the cost of private school tuition for a Thomas family member who Justice Thomas raised “as a son”. Thomas also did not disclose that.

We also learned that in 2012, Federalist Society honcho Leonard Leo instructed Kellyanne Conway to give Ginni Thomas, the wife of Justice Thomas, tens of thousands of dollars for unspecified consulting work. Leo said, “No mention of Ginni, of course”. None of the dark money was disclosed.

For many years, Justice Thomas never disclosed the money stream his wife received from conservative donors. That non-disclosure hides possible conflicts of interest. We are unable to determine if Thomas has been ruling on cases where his wife is supporting partisans to litigation before the Court. And this is no accident as Thomas does not believe in transparency and he chose not to disclose.

Just three days before President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to fill his seat, Thurgood Marshall said, “My dad told me way back…there’s no difference between a black snake and a white snake, they’ll both bite”. Anita Hill tried to tell us who he was but no one listened.

Thomas was not the only non-disclosure offender. Nine days after he was confirmed by the Senate, Justice Neil Gorsuch didn’t report the identity of the purchaser of a house he co-owned on the Colorado River in the mountains northwest of Denver. It turned out the buyer was chief executive of one of the nation’s biggest law firms who had an active presence in cases before the Court. Politico reported at least 22 cases including cases in which the purchaser filed amicus briefs or represented parties.

Chief Justice John Roberts’ wife made $10.3 million in commissions from elite law firms. She paired lawyers and corporations as a legal recruiter. Many of the law firms regularly argue before the Court. There is a whistle blower complaint about the justice’s wife’s activities that was filed by a disgruntled co-worker. This may not be on the level of Thomas-type violations but it has an appearance of impropriety.

We all watched the lying testimony of the conservative nominees to the Court about how they respected precedent and Roe v Wade. Now that they have their supermajority they are dispensing with any precedent they dislike.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has explained that the Supreme Court’s ethical issues are long-standing and implicated now-deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. Just like Thomas, Scalia failed to disclose over 70 hunting vacations where he ran a scam using the personal hospitality exemption to reporting.

Scalia got intermediaries to ask the owner of expensive resorts to extend a “personal” invitation to him. Many of the owners were not personally known to Scalia but he then used the “personal” invitation as a way around disclosure claiming personal hospitality.

When Chief Justice Roberts was asked to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the avalanche of Supreme Court ethical violations, he refused the request to participate, citing separation of powers and judicial independence. Roberts’ response could fairly be described as a blow-off.

In a very different context over 60 years ago, Senator J. William Fulbright wrote about the arrogance of power. Chief Justice Roberts’ lack of accountability reflects the same arrogance of power.

At present, there is no mechanism for even filing a complaint about unethical behavior by a Supreme Court justice. Unlike in other federal courts, only Supreme Court justices refuse to allow their conduct to be investigated or reviewed. The benefit of an ethics code should be obvious. All allegations could be measured and evaluated in a proper process. Once a conclusion was reached, justices would know where they stand. Self-policing has turned into a bad joke.

In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Whitehouse stated the need for better enforcement, better recusal rules, and better disclosure rules. He could not be more right.

Unfortunately, the problems with the Supreme Court go far beyond needing an ethics code although that would be of great value. The Court has become a plaything of right wing billionaires. On social media I saw it called “Roberts Barons”. As the comedian Roy Woods remarked at the White House Correspondents dinner, you have billionaires buying a justice. It is what Sen. Whitehouse has called a captured court.

The right wing billionaires are about implementing an unpopular agenda that they cannot implement through the democratic process. They are using the Supreme Court to create a super-legislature to promote an entirely selfish and self-serving vision. Rather than pursuing any vision of multi-racial democracy, their Court systematically dismantles voting right protections and serves the interests of the powerful at the expense of the most vulnerable.

It is extremely difficult to follow the dark money of the billionaires because Republican legislators and a complicit Supreme Court have blocked laws and regulations that would reveal donors.

Of course, the rulings of the current incarnation of the Supreme Court are not inconsistent with the longer-term history of the Court. For most of its history, the Court blessed white supremacy and it crushed working people and the poor. The Court has largely been a regressive institution. It is entirely undeserving of the reverence and high regard in which it has been held.

The response of Democrats to the Court’s capture by billionaires has been so weak. The conservative plan has been in place for over 50 years. With the conservative supermajority, we are poised to see a series of even more disastrous decisions.

If Democrats are serious about opposing the billionaire takeover of the Court, they would seriously pursue expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court. Anything short of that will not stop the conservative juggernaut. The Constitution is not an obstacle to Court expansion. It is the perogative of Congress to expand the number of justices and it has been done before. For the Democrats, it is more a question of having the political will to take it on.

If anything was a wake-up call, the overturning of Roe v Wade should have been. Liberals and progressives need their own 50 year plan. They failed to take courts seriously and we are now reaping the result. Ethics reform is absolutely needed but it alone is not enough.

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A quote and a poem on the fourteenth anniversary of my dad’s death – posted 5/5/2023

May 5, 2023 5 comments

Yesterday marked 14 years since my dad, Don Baird, died. I miss him very much. He was a huge presence in my life. To honor him, I wanted to share an Aeschylus quote and a W.H. Auden poem.

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” Aeschylus

If I could tell you

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

There are no fortunes to be told, although
Because I love you more than I can say,
If I could tell you I would let you know.

The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so.

Perhaps the roses really want to grow,
The vision seriously intends to stay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

Suppose the lions all get up and go,
And all the brooks and soldiers run away;
Will Time say nothing but I told you so?
If I could tell you I would let you know.

October 1940

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