CAUGHT IN THE WEB: Oh, California!
There’s always been a dearth of progressive voices in the mainstream media, and with the closing of so many newspapers in recent years, there’s also too little reliable political reporting in many regions, especially California—a huge state economy in a huge crisis, and one that is tremendously important to the labor movement. Several blogs are valiantly helping to fill the gap. The California Progress Report (www.californiaprogressreport.com) aggregates news about the state that matters to progressives, from other sources. But even more valuably, it runs its own articles authored by professional journalists—including the venerable Peter Schrag, formerly of the Sacramento Bee—as well as some advocates. Highlights include a provocative column by Schrag on the possibility that California Democrats will force Republican districts to bear the brunt of the state’s coming tax cuts— on the premise that perhaps people who don’t want to pay for government should bear the consequences of their ideology. Other excellent online sources on California and its budget politics include California Budget Bites (http://californiabudgetbites.org)—the blog of the California Budget Project, an advocacy group for the economic policy interests of lowand middle-income Californians—and the more rabidly pro-Democratic California Majority Report (http://camajorityreport. com).
The mainstream media is feeding us some sorry misinformation on economic issues. For a lucid corrective, bookmark the “Beat the Press” blog (www.cepr. net/index.php/beat-the-press), written by economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. Despite a dry style, zero entertainment value (no jokes, pictures, or videos), and few links, Baker’s interventions are politically invaluable and deserve more attention. For example, his May Day post, “Is NPR Unable to Get Access to Data on Health Care Costs?,” showed that if National Public Radio reporters had been looking at any trusted sources of data, they would have broadcast quite different information on Medicare costs. NPR had reported that Medicare’s costs were unsustainable because patients don’t see the costs of their treatment—a right-wing talking point—but, in fact, OECD data shows that the U.K. and the Netherlands, where patients see much less of their health care costs than we do, spend less than half as much money per person on health care than the U.S. does. Nearly a month later, Baker was beating up New York Times columnist Joe Nocera for failing to understand the same issue, asking “Does Joe Nocera Know Nothing about U.S. Health Care Costs?”
If I Had a Song…
But we cannot, of course, be inspired by data and facts alone. The labor movement needs more and better music. Too often, bad folk music —part of the “popular front” tradition, reinforced by the sixties folk revival—provides the background to our events and protests. But several years ago, Yahoo Music blogger Rob O’Connor compiled a list of the Top Twenty-Five Best Work Songs (http:// new.music.yahoo.com/blogs/listoftheday/92240/ the-25-best-work-songs-for-labor-day), proof that there is more to the tradition of the work song than “Joe Hill.” Some of O’Connor’s choices were obvious yet tremendous (Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” and John Lennon’s “Working-Class Hero”), others just plain tremendous (The Replacements’ “God Damn Job”).
More recently, others on the web have been revisiting that other (sometimes rightly) vilified relic of left-wing culture: the protest song. Dorian Lynskey, author of a new book on the subject—33 Revolutions Per Minute (released earlier this year by Faber and Faber)—has a blog (http://33revolutionsperminute.wordpress. com) about current political music that deftly deploys his vast knowledge of music history. It’s also an audiovisual treat, letting us hear, for instance, the reggae song (“Police and Thieves,” by Junior Murvin) that a “peace tank” in a London anti-austerity protest played this year.
Inspired by Lynskey’s new book, the Nation’s Peter Rothberg made a Top Ten list on the magazine’s website, with audio for each song (www.thenation.com/blog/160084/tenprotest-songs-matter), and invited readers to submit their own. More than twenty-two hundred readers responded. Rothberg published a sampling of their nominees—ranging from the horrendous (Malvina Reynolds’ “What Have They Done to the Rain”) to the predictable but splendid (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) to the gems we love but may have forgotten (John Prine’s “Illegal Smile”).
The Lynskey-inspired lists keep coming, all salutary antidotes to our current bland and distracted pop culture. Rich Morris compiled one of the best, on the blog Soundblab (http:// soundblab.com/content/content/view/id/3659), including Nina Simone’s devastating interpretation of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Sarah Jones/DJ Vadim’s angry and luscious “Your Revolution.”
Many great political songs are still missing from these lists. Clearly, we’ll all have to make our own, and share them widely for a far more rhythmic and more lyrical left.
We’re not hearing much about student-labor solidarity these days. But that’s only because we’re not reading the right sources. One of the best sites to follow these days, if you want to know what students are up to, is that of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). (Full disclosure: I have worked with USAS in the past, but never on its website.) In its early years, the group woefully neglected its website, but now that site— available at http:// usas.org—is updated almost daily, with videos and reportage of student actions on behalf of workers. There were several such actions going on at once in late April. Students occupied the president’s office at the University of Texas, demanding that the school become part of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring group started by students to prevent human rights abuses in the collegiate apparel industry. Meanwhile, students at Rutgers sustained an occupation in the university’s main administration building, over tuition hikes as well as sweatshops. The best way to follow the frequently-updated site is to befriend the group on Facebook.
Other student-labor sites focus on issues at particular institutions. The website of the Coalition for Fair Labor at NYU (http:// fairlabornyu.wordpress.com), for instance, emphasizes specific concerns from New York University students and faculty over labor conditions at the school’s new Abu Dhabi campus. Construction workers in Abu Dhabi are migrant laborers who have no legal rights and are treated horrifically. (Another disclosure: I teach at NYU but have no relationship to this group.) The site—awkwardly but informatively titled “NYU Abu Dhabi: Who’s Building the Global U?”—has eye-opening facts (migrant workers make up 95 percent of the workforce in the United Arab Emirates; the U.S. State Department has recognized human trafficking and involuntary servitude as continual and serious problems in that country). The agenda of the site—and of the group behind it—is to push NYU to commit to serious labor standards—and enforcement of such standards—at its Abu Dhabi campus.
Lastly, showing that student-labor solidarity is truly a global phenomenon, a group called Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) (http://sacom.hk), based in Hong Kong, organizes students and academics to support workers’ rights. SACOM has an informative website, with reports supporting its current campaign, MakeITFair, to improve labor conditions in the consumer electronics industry. Reports include “Playing with Labour Rights,” probably the first-ever study of working conditions in game console and portable music player manufacturing in China.
Following the Middle East
Speaking of students and workers, there are a few web sources that stay focused on the uprisings in the Middle East—even when, as often happens, the mainstream media is distracted. One of the best of these is Al Jazeera. Not only can you watch Al Jazeera English on the Internet—though, due to the forces of backwardness, you can’t get it on your TV in the United States—and follow it on Twitter (@AJEnglish) to keep up minute by minute when news is breaking fast; you can also follow the organization’s live blogs (http:// blogs.aljazeera.net/liveblog). At this writing in May, Al Jazeera was offering live updates from Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Another fine blog on the region is Juan Cole’s Informed Comment (www.juancole.com). Though some question how informed Cole is since he rarely visits the region—unlike with Al Jazeera, whose reporters are all over the Middle East—he follows it closely and his blog is always a good starting point. Another strong source is the website of Ha’aretz, the center-left daily Israeli newspaper (www.haaretz.com). While it’s best on Israel and Palestine, Ha’aretz is also good on developments elsewhere in the region. For an even more opinionated take—as the name suggests—do also follow the Angry Arab blog, aggregation with cheeky anti-imperialist commentary (one recent headline was “Israel so desperate for celebrity visits they would roll out the red carpet for Mr./ Ms. Potato Head”), updated more than a dozen times a day (http://angryarab.blogspot.com).