Archive | October, 2012

All that good, expensive gas wasted on the Jews!

31 Oct

People sometimes ask why I’m a fan of Hannah Arendt. I’ve a complicated relationship to her work, so I wouldn’t characterize myself as a complete fan. But I do love reading her, and one of the reasons I do is that she had such a brutal and unforgiving sense of irony, which she often held in reserve for only the most morally addled sectors of the bourgeoisie. (In this respect she was quite like Brecht and other Weimar modernists.)

Nowhere is this more on display than in Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is probably my favorite Arendt text. Here’s a representative passage (pp. 110-111).

My next story is even more to the point, since it concerns someone who was not a “leader,” may not even have been a Party member. It happened in Königsberg, in East Prussia, an altogether different corner of Germany, in January, 1945, a few days before the Russians destroyed the city, occupied its ruins, and annexed the whole province. The story is told by Count Hans von Lehnsdorff, in his Ostpreussiches Tagebuch (1961). He had remained in the city as a physician to take care of wounded soldiers who could not be evacuated; he was called to one of the huge centers for refugees from the countryside, which was already occupied by the Red Army. There he was accosted by a woman who showed him a varicose vein she had had for years but wanted to have treated now, because she had time. “I try to explain that it is more important for her to get away from Königsberg and to leave the treatment for some later time. Where do you want to go? I ask her. She does not know, but she knows that they will all be brought into the Reich. And then she adds, surprisingly: ‘‘The Russians will never get us. The Führer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us.’ I look around furtively, but no one seems to find this statement out of the ordinary.” The story, one feels, like most true stories is incomplete. There should have been one more voice, preferably a female one, which, sighing heavily, replied: And now all that good, expensive gas has been wasted on the Jews!

That “because she had time” is so perfect — and so echt Arendt.

And just as an addendum, or an aside, here’s a passage from a letter Mary McCarthy wrote Arendt in 1970, which captures the bitchy fun—and political seriousness—of their relationship.

Five days, nearly, in London, very social. I saw a lot of fashion-mad people, including the current Women’s Lib idol, an absurd Australian giantess [Germaine Greer] who made remarks like “We must make them understand that fucking is a political act.” And here’s a marvelous one, quoted from Sonia [Orwell] by Stephen Spender: “Auschwitz, oh, dear no! That person was never in Auschwitz. Only in some very minor death camp.”

Update (November 2, 10:30 pm)

Over at my Tumblr, I posted this chilling story (provided by one of my readers) that Walter Benjamin wrote about to Margarette Steffin in 1939:

Karl Kraus died too soon after all. Listen to this: the Vienna gas board has stopped supplying gas to Jews. A consequence of the gas consumption of the Jewish population was that the gas company lost money, since it was precisely the biggest users who did not pay their bills. The Jews preferred to use the gas to commit suicide.

Suffer the Children

27 Oct

Steven Greenhouse has unearthed the most revealing statement of this entire controversy over employers instructing employees how to vote. David Siegel, CEO of Westgate Resorts, sent his 7000 employees a mailer warning them not to vote for Obama. Asked to explain his letter, Siegel said:

I really wanted them to know how I felt four more years under President Obama was going to affect them. It would be no different from telling your children: “Eat your spinach. It’s good for you.”

Got that? No different.

In The Reactionary Mind, I argue that conservatism is a defense of “the private life of power,” those hierarchies in spheres like the family and the workplace that we often call private. And here you have Mr. Siegel demonstrating that for employers the two are essentially the same. Workers are children, bosses are fathers.

People often wonder how libertarian-ish free market types can come together with cultural and religious conservatives in the GOP. Siegel gives you the answer: Both groups value the power of fathers—in the family, and in the workplace.

American Feudalism: It’s Not Just a Metaphor

26 Oct

As many of you know, I’ve been calling our contemporary political order feudal for quite some time. But this post from the Roosevelt Institute’s Tim Price (h/t Alex Gourevitch) really blew my mind:

That could soon be the law of the land in Pennsylvania, where the state legislature has passed a bill that would, as Philadelphia City Paper blogger Daniel Denvir describes it, “allow companies that hire at least 250 new workers in the state to keep 95-percent of the workers’ withheld income tax.” These workers will essentially be paying their employers for the privilege of having a job. Some have called this“corporate socialism,” but it also calls to mind an even older economic model that was once popular in Europe – except back then, the bosses were called lords. It’s a more modern innovation in the U.S., but combined with increased political pressure from employers and a crackdown on workers’ rights, it all adds up to feudalism, American-style.

The Pennsylvania bill is just the most recent example of state income taxes being turned into employer subsidies. It’s already the law of the land in one form or another in 19 states, and according to Good Jobs First, it’s taking $684 million a year out of the public coffers. The theory is that this will boost job creation. But the authors of the Good Jobs First report note, “payments often go to firms that simply move existing jobs from one state to another, or to ones that threaten to move unless they get paid to stay put.” In other words, it’s more like extortion than stimulus. With state governments facing a projected $4 trillion budget shortfall and continuing to cut social services and public sector jobs, they can hardly afford to be wasting money on companies that already have plenty and have no intention of putting it to good use. And the more governments turn over their privileges to businesses, the more the distinction between the two becomes blurred.

But if corporations have state governments over a barrel, they have their employees stuffed inside the barrel and ready to plunge down the waterfall. As I’ve noted before, some conservatives view all taxation as theft, but there’s surely no better term for what happens when employers promise their workers a certain wage or salary and then pocket some of the money for themselves. When you pay taxes to the government, you get something in return, whether it’s a school for your kids or a road to drive on or a firefighter to rescue you from a burning building. When you pay taxes to your boss, you… well, you give your boss your money. Your only reward is that you get to continue to “work the land,” so to speak. The lords didn’t consult with the peasants on which tapestries they should buy with the money they collected from them.

My Media Empire Expands

25 Oct

As some of you know, I have created a Tumblr page. I use this for short, quick posts or little quotations that capture my attention and that I don’t want to forget. In the past, I posted these on FB or Twitter. But now I’m trying to do at least some of them on Tumblr. If you’re bored or looking for fresh  material on those days (weeks) when I’m not really posting here, you can check it out.

Dictatorships and Double Standards

25 Oct

I’m hoping in the coming days to do a longer blog on the stories about employers instructing employees how to vote, forcing employees to attend rallies for Romney, etc. In the meantime, Gordon Lafer has one of the best pieces yet on this story. He makes the point, which came as news to me, that the Bush Administration repeatedly condemned elections in other countries where because in part bosses there were doing the exact same thing they’re doing here.

The Bush Administration, for instance, rejected Ukrainian elections as illegitimate, in part because international observers found that managers of state-owned enterprises had “instructed their subordinates to vote for [the ruling party].”

One step beyond even the Kochs is GOP mega-donor Bob Murray, who required employees at an Ohio coal mine to attend a Romney campaign event. The resulting photo-op could have been at home in the old East Germany – candidate standing before a crowd of miners, replete with banner reading “Coal Country Stands With Mitt,” with no notice that miners were attending under the direction of their boss, forced to give up a day’s pay in order to serve as human props. Again, we routinely condemn such charades when carried out by foreigners. The Bush Administration criticized Armenia’s elections, for instance, after observers reported that “factory workers … were instructed to attend the incumbent’s rallies.”  But what we reject for Armenians and Ukrainians, the business lobbies now want to institute at home.

He also responds to a claim I often hear—including on this blog—that since employers can’t really know how an employee votes, employers can’t be said to be intimidating or coercing employees.

An employee whose boss tells them hot to vote may still ignore this advice in the privacy of a voting booth. What they won’t do, however, is display a button or bumper sticker, write a letter to the editor, or be seen attending a rally of the opposing party. This strikes at the very heart of democracy.  Elections are only “free and fair” if voters are free to speak out, write in, and publicly support the candidate of their choice, without fear for their livelihoods.

What sets democratic elections apart from the sham votes of authoritarian regimes is not secret ballots – after all, even Saddam Hussein had secret ballots – but the ability of all voters to participate in what the Supreme Court termed “uninhibited, robust and wide-open debate” without fear of retaliation.

Update (October 26, 4 pm)

Gordon sends me a followup email:

You mentioned in your post about my article that even people on your blog wonder why it’s a problem for bosses to tell workers how to vote, since you still have the secret ballot.  I noticed similar comments on the The Hill site where the piece went up — even “why shouldn’t employers tell their employees what they think the impact of certain policies will be?” and “don’t they have a moral obligation to do that”?  I got similar questions yesterday afternoon in a radio interview about the Milwaukee manufacturer emailing his employees that they’ll lose their pension funds if Obama is reelected.

One of the things this makes me think about is this: If I as a professor told my students who to vote for, and even if I gave good reasons — the Republicans are going to de-fund higher education and destroy the economy, your future will be bleak, Social Security will be destroyed if you vote for them, things I actually believe are true and you could say I had a moral obligation to pass on to my students — if I told people who to vote for based on that, I’d be subject to ethics charges for abuse of power.  Because then any student who disagrees, who wants to wear a Romney button or submit a class paper that argues for GOP policy, they’d have to worry about how this would affect their grade.  Certainly, I think that if Wisconsin school teachers, for instance, went into class and told their students that Governor Walker is destroying the school system and destroying their chances of getting a middle class job when they graduate — they’d be accused of abusing their authority as teachers, and “politicizing the classroom.”  But the power teachers and professors have over students — giving grades and writing letters of recommendations — is much less than what bosses have over employees.

In Hollywood Hotel, Maids are Watched by a Dog Named Rex

23 Oct

From the you can’t make this shit up department:

A federal agency charged with enforcing labor law has issued a complaint against the Hyatt Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood, alleging the hotel illegally implemented a new electronic tracking device that monitors productivity of housekeepers.

The system, known as “Rex” because it is animated by a wagging-tailed dog by the same name, consists of tracking software managed on iPods that tells housekeepers exactly which room to clean and when. It requires housekeepers clock when they enter and exit each guest room. It can send a housekeeper and her heavy cart from one end of the hotel to the other, sometimes hundreds of yards away, potentially increasing travel time from room to room. Housekeeping work can lead to debilitating injuries over time, and the federal government has identified pushing heavy carts as one key source of strain on the bodies of women who clean rooms.

“What’s so insidious about this system is that it robs housekeepers of their ability to manage their own work. It’s the 21st Century way for Hyatt to rush housekeepers, micromanaging their moves from a computer and making a housekeeper’s already-tough job harder,” said Ada Briceno, UNITE HERE Local 11 Secretary-Treasurer. “What’s next – electronic ankle bracelets?”

Some housekeepers also said they felt offended by the symbol of the dog. For housemen, the avatar is a chili pepper.

“It’s true we run around to get the rooms cleaned in time for guests, but why a dog? We’re not animals. Couldn’t they have used the symbol of a person walking like at traffic corners? That would have been a bit more humane,” said Cathy Youngblood, a Hyatt Andaz housekeeper who testified to the NLRB about the tracking technology.

Eagerly awaiting the libertarian denunciations.

h/t David Kaib

Kai Ryssdal, Call Me!

23 Oct

Employer intimidation of voters is really breaking into the mainstream media. Yesterday, Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace profiled the story. Here are some of the questions he posed to University of Florida emeritus professor Joseph Little:

Is this legal? Can companies actually fire you if you don’t vote the right way? I mean I’ll be honest with you. This kind of floored me when I first read about this.

What’s the recourse? I mean I suppose you could always just try to find another job. But unemployment is almost 8 percent.

I imagine this is rare, right? I mean we’re talking the rare instance here.

We’ve been talking about this topic forever around here, of course. Mr. Ryssdal, if you’re reading, check these links out:

1. My Crooked Timber overview (written with Chris Bertram and Alex Gourevitch) of all the ways in which employers can dominate employees, which also addresses Ryssdal’s second question.

2. On bathroom breaks at the workplace.

3. AT&T prohibits workers from reading newspapers on their lunch breaks.

4. In 49 states, you can be fired for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all.

5. Nine “really weird” things that can get you fired.

6. More states protect your right to smoke off the job than they do your right to engage in political activity.

7. Your rights at work.

8. Towards a general theory of workplace tyranny and American politics:

a. Birth Control McCarthyism

b. Fear, American Style

c. Fear: The History of a Political Idea (part 2).

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