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146 Martyrs, Pharaoh, Respecting Labor, and Two-Thirds of a Century of New York City Social Democracy

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 28, 2010

This past Thursday marked the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a now near-forgotten incident that galvanized labor, sparked American trade unionism, and animated the social-democratic, collectivist ethos that characterized New York City and was the backbone of its greatness from the early-twentieth century through to Republican Washington’s fiscal war against New York in the 1970’s and the ascendancy of the financial sector  in  the 1980’s.

Fire!

On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire raged through the overcrowded premises of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a sweatshop producing women’s blouses located on the upper floors of the then newly-built Asch Building, just off fashionable Washington Square in lower Manhattan.  Workers trapped in the blaze were unable to flee.  Exit doors had been sealed by the company’s owners to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks.  Ladders on the trucks of the City’s fire department proved too short to reach the factory’s windows.  Passersby stared with horror as workers jumped to escape the flames or were pushed to their deaths by fellow-workers desperately pressing forward in search of air. All told, 146 people perished, almost all of them young immigrant women, the majority Eastern European Jews and most of the rest Italian Catholics.  The outcry, demonstrations, and strikes that followed led to labor reforms, unionization, and the remaking of New York into a place of (comparative) respite and opportunity for working people.  By mid-century, New York was America’s only social democratic city, boasting an infrastructure that included free libraries, museums, water supply, hospital care, and universities, ample green space, adequate welfare benefits, affordable public transport, and a massive supply of publicly subsidized housing (up to the 1950s, New York City accounted for more than 80% of the US’s total public and union-sponsored housing stock).

“No Better Than Pharaoh”

Today, the Asch Building houses part of the science faculty of New York University.  Few of NYU’s 40,000 mostly well-heeled students are likely to have ever heard of the Triangle Fire and fewer still are likely to care.  Sadly, most of the descendants of the worlds from which the victims of the fire came are no better.  The McCarthy era, upward mobility, suburbanization, renewed religious obscurantism, and the Republican years led many American Jews to forget their origins and the martyrdom of those who paved their ways to more comfortable lives. Parallel experiences seduced many Italian-Americans into misanthropic and authoritarian political conservatism.

This year, the anniversary of the Triangle Fire occurred only days prior to the start of Jewish festival of Pesakh (Passover), a springtime holiday of renewal and of recollection of escape from “slavery unto Pharaoh in Egypt.”  Passover and the Triangle Fire coincide in meaning as well as in dates.  One of the watchwords of Passover — “once we were slaves but now we are freemen” —  underscores an obligation to identify with all those who are enslaved and oppressed.  The Triangle Fire, and the opportunities its aftermath brought to all of us who descend from the immigrant workers of a century past, obligates us to respect everyone who toils and never hold ourselves above those who work with us, for us, or on our behalf.  In the words of a recent web-posting  by the young Rabbi of the Stanton Street Shul, one of the few synagogues remaining of the more than seven hundred that once dotted the former Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side: ” … we should be ever vigilant to remember the human sacrifices of every worker. For once we take other people’s labor for granted, we in turn become no better than Pharaoh.”

Links and Haymarket

For more on the Triangle Fire — including archival photographs and documents — click herehere, and here.  For a link to a Facebook group dedicated to commemorating the Fire and its victims, click here. For those of you who see social conscience and egalitarianism is an inconvenience spread by (secular) Jews alone, click here and here to rediscover Chicago’s Haymarket Affair and the activitism and harsh repression of German-American and Czech- and Slovak-American anarchists, craftsmen, and intellectuals less than a generation prior to the Triangle Fire.  In the age of Sarah Palin and “Tea Party” rabble, conservatives in America’s heartland are pathetically ignorant of the radicalism and ideals of their forebears.

Posted in Change, Cities, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Jewish History, New York, Politics, Work | 3 Comments »

Investigating the Financial Crisis and My Passion for Borsalino Hats

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 9, 2009

The mortgage, housing market, and stock market collapse were neither acts of nature nor products of cosmically ordained cycles or hypothetical laws governing hypothetical markets. They were the results of specific deeds by specific individuals — financial and corporate types out for riches at whatever cost, equally greedy and conveniently blind investors, and politicians and constituencies with minds muddled by neo-McCarthyite bashing of “socialism” and the New Deal and by the ethos and platitudes of “Reaganomics” and its successors. It is now time to assign blame where blame is due, but not necessarily for purposes of revenge …

In Where is Our Ferdinand Pecora?, in last Monday’s New York Times, author Ron Chernow wrote:

The moment calls for nothing less than a sweeping inquest into the twin housing and stock market crashes to create both the intellectual context and the political constituency for change.

And Chernow gives us an excellent model for such an inquest:

For inspiration, Congress should turn to the electrifying hearings of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee, held in the waning months of the Hoover presidency and the early days of the New Deal. In historical shorthand, these hearings have taken their name from the committee counsel, Ferdinand Pecora, a former assistant district attorney from New York who, starting in January 1933, was chief counsel for the investigation. Under Pecora’s expert and often withering questioning, the Senate committee unearthed a secret financial history of the 1920s, de-mystifying the assorted frauds, scams and abuses that culminated in the 1929 crash.

He describes Pecora in action:

The riveting confrontation between Pecora and the Wall Street grandees was so theatrically apt it might have been concocted by Hollywood. The combative Pecora was the perfect foil to the posh bankers who paraded before the microphones. Born in Sicily, the son of an immigrant cobbler, Pecora had campaigned for Teddy Roosevelt and been imbued with the crusading fervor of the Progressive Era. As a prosecutor in the 1920s, he had shut down more than 100 “bucket shops” — seamy, fly-by-night brokerage houses — and this had tutored him in the shady side of Wall Street.

Last month, I thought of Judge Pecora (as Ferdinand Pecora was later known) in a much different context. It was in Borough Park, in Brooklyn, and I was just about, as they used to say back in the heyday of Pecora’s career, to “plunk down two C-notes” for a new “lid,” an old-fashioned fedora, a high-crowned, broad-brimmed, Italian Borsalino, made of soft slightly-shining green-grey felt and lined with a hat band of equally soft leather.

I buy a new “lid” every few years, always in the autumn and usually when the economy falters and my own prospects wobble. A jaunty Borsalino equips me with the courage of those who made it through the Great Depression, makes me feel as tough as Bogart, Cagney and Edward G. combined, and gives my walk a bounce that would not have been out of place in, say, Minton’s in the 1940s or the Five-Spot in the 60s. When I was a kid, my grandfather would buy a new Dobbs hat every few years but a Dobbs was a stiff hat with a pre-formed shape that embodied more the ethos of the 1950s than those of the decades before or after. You’d rarely catch a jazz musician wearing a stiffly-formed Dobbs.

The first Borsalino I remember ever seeing or trying on came straight from the head of Judge Pecora. It was in 1962 in the old Barney’s Clothing Store (“Select, Don’t Settle … at Barney’s” as the radio jingle went) on 7th Ave. and 17th St. in Manhattan. I was 15 and had lied about my age to get a job working Saturdays and Sundays “writing-up” sales. The pay was minimum wage, “a buck and a quarter an hour.” My main task was to prepare invoices for customers’ purchases, note alterations, and send customers on to the cashier. I had other tasks as well. In those days, Barney himself, the founder of the store, a squat octogenarian, elegantly dressed but with the tough confrontational edge of a one-time Lower East Side street kid, still roamed the store, hunting out and berating shoddy employees and insufficiently deferential customers. On Sunday mornings, Barney would hand me a cash-stuffed envelop to pass to the policemen who came to deliver the weekly summons for violation of municipal “blue laws” prohibiting retail sales on the Christian sabbath. And, if customers ever dared to complain, Barney would give me the unwelcome task of throwing the complaint back at them. When a woman returned with a suit bought for her husband and shipped to her home,  claiming that it had arrived in need of cleaning, Barney shouted at me:  “Tell her the suit ain’t dirty, her husband’s dirty.”

One Sunday, I saw Barney in another guise. Uncharacteristically deferential and glowing with pride, Barney led a equally short, equally squat elderly man to my counter. Barney himself held the man’s new purchases for him. The man had hawk-like eyes, a protruding nose, and a giant cigar clenched between his teeth. He wore a magnificent gray suit tailored in the style of a past age, and carried a near-floor length camel-hair overcoat over one arm. In his hand, he held a very large velvety gray fedora with the crown indented vertically and with deep parallel creases along its sides. Older shoppers noticing the man stopped and pointed as if they’d seen a long-forgotten prize-fighter or film-star: “It’s Ferdinand Pecora; it’s Judge Pecora,” they said in amazement — this a third of a century after Pecora had made his name. Barney whispered in my ear: “Kid, take care of the Judge, and if you fuck up I’ll throw your ass out on the street.” I wrote up the Judge’s invoice and escorted him to the cashier. As he paid, he handed me his coat to hold and reached up and placed the fedora on my head. “You look great,” he said to me. “Remember,” he added, “work hard, stay clean, and don’t take any crap off of anyone.”

For better or worse I’ve tried to follow the Judge’s advice. Forty-six years later, I tip my hat to him and, for that matter, to Barney as well. I also tip my hat to Ron Chernow for the very timely resurrection of Pecora, his style, ethics, and deeds.

Posted in Client Relations, Commentary, Eclectic, Economy, History, Politics, Work | 7 Comments »

Infrastructure of Work and Society: Five Failed American Axioms

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 9, 2008

Both sides in the US presidential campaign and debates — albeit one side far more than the other — use language and cling to axioms that obscure reality, make “change” unlikely, and keep America out of sync with the rest of the world. Five examples follow:

1. “American workers are the best in the world”

Nonsense. Americans may be decent sprinters but Western Europeans win the race. Good health care, regular vacations, job security, employee participation in management, lower stress, and no necessity to work two or three jobs to pay the kids’ educations makes Western European workers the world’s most productive. The growth of Asian economies speaks volumes about the quality of Asian workers just as does America’s outsourcing of its most exacting tasks to them. The diligence of Central and South American workers now bolsters America’s productivity through immigration. Turkish workers spend their lives laboring at highly segmented tasks. Even Eastern European workers are on their way to surpassing Americans. In alcohol-sodden Bulgaria, for example, workers tend to be “jacks of all trades and masters of none,” the upside of which is the ability to improvise and to more-or-less fix and keep running all things in their environment regardless of scarcities or systemic collapse.

2. “The Middle Class”

Both presidential candidates talks of helping the “middle class” but neither say a word about helping the working class or the poor. Avoidance of the term “working-class” is part-and-parcel of America’s pathological fear of “socialism.” It also belies the harsh reality that social mobility in America has been on the downturn since the 1950s. Not speaking of the poor is either callousness, blindness, or the abandonment of the tradition of the party of FDR and LBJ (let alone the party of Debs and or even that of LaFollette).

3. “Families”

Candidates speak of needs, opinions, and values of “families.” This in a country where the number of single and divorced adults rivals that of married ones and in which a good proportion of those nuclear families that are intact are dysfunctional. Since World War II, housing policies, suburbanization, and westward and southeastward migration have compromised multigenerational families (except amongst the poor and marginalized ethnic minorities), as has the Americanisation of immigrants. Eastern Europe and the “third world” have far stronger family values and structures. In fact, America may have proved itself to be a family-breaker and, through this, a compromiser of its own social infrastructure.

4. “We Honor Your Service”

Both candidates become Uriah-Heep-like in their obsequiousness when talking about the military or when speaking with present- or ex-servicemen. Obsequiousness toward the military was a hallmark of Franco’s Spain, Peron’s Argentina, and other tinpot dictatorships. It is also a matter-of-fact reality in countries such as Turkey, where, in an unusual balance of power, the military, with its proven willingness and ability to stage coups, is the guarantor of the survival of a secular state in a predominantly religious country. I would like to hear the candidates also “honor” America’s war and draft resisters for their sacrifices. A few words of “honor” and thanks for “service” to America’s lowest paid workers wouldn’t hurt either.

5. “Business is better than government”

This is the mother-of-all failed axioms, especially in the month when America’s iconic financial sector turns to the government for bailouts. During the last debate McCain trotted out this worn chestnut to denigrate Obama’s modest health-care proposals.

This brings us full circle. Universal health care is one of the features of European social infrastructure that ensures productivity by keeping health high and stress low. An important question for Americans is whether health insurance should be viewed as a luxury as it is now, a commodity as McCain proposes, or an essential aspect of social infrastructure as Obama proposes in part. The answer is not just a function of one’s morality but of one’s method of accounting. If one takes a longer and broader view, money invested in infrastructure — i.e. those physical and intangible systems and processes on which the social and economic life depend — pays off in macro terms even if initially developed or delivered at a short-term loss. The consensual nature of government and its operation beyond enterprise-level constraints of profit and loss make it the ideal provider or prime-mover when it comes to infrastructure. In fact, the provision and maintenance of infrastructure might be at the very essence of what government always has been, is, and should be.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Economy, Health Care, Infrastructure, Language, Markets, Work | Leave a Comment »

Grandmother S. Redux: The Benefits of Early-Morning Schnapps and Mega-Doses of Red Wine

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 4, 2008

A couple of summers ago, I wrote a newspaper piece about my former summertime host and guru, Grandmother S. of the Black Sea village of K. in northeast Bulgaria, and the lessons I learned in her garden (click here for the full text and photos). Grandmother S. was well into her 80s at the time and still worked non-stop at subsistence farming. Her secret? Every morning at sunrise she drank a full-to-the-brim juice glass of homemade grape brandy on an empty stomach. “Styefko,” she used to tell me, “my brandy will give you the energy to work and will disinfect your stomach as well. But,” she advised, “drink it in the morning; morning drinking is good for the health, evening drinking is for alcoholics only.”

So, I took Grandmother S. up on her challenge. For three months, I arose at dawn and, before I allowed water, coffee, oatmeal, or yogurt to touch my lips, I downed a juice glass of Grandmother S.’s best homemade grape brandy (made with no seeds and with no sugar added to kick-start fermentation). The daily schnapps made me feel full of energy and raring to go. The only problem: I couldn’t think. Turning off the brain might help when faced with a day of hoeing vegetables but it can get in the way of writing, photographing, and even consulting.

I am reminded of Grandmother S.’s advice by Doc Searls’s link to this article in the New York Times announcing that red wine may be “potent” (sic) in preserving human longevity. Apparently, laboratory mice do better on treadmills when dosed with the equivalent of 35 bottles of red wine and humans may prolong their lives by drinking four five-ounce glasses of red per day. The article does not say whether the four glasses should be downed morning or night — but ever since the Judith Miller and Jason Blair affairs, I’ve tended to trust Grandmother S. more than the “newspaper of record.” From tonight on, I’ll keep my corkscrew next to my alarm clock.

Coda

Click here for a taste of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross’s famed song Gimme that Wine. And, as the chorus of the song goes: “Unhand that bottle!”

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Food, Health Care, Innovation, Links, Media, Music, Work | Leave a Comment »

Some Links: Bill Moyers and Rev. Wright, Bob Herbert on the Clintons, Full-Time Writers and the Free Distribution of Ideas, a Greek Filmmaker, and the Internets Celebrities, Checking Cashing, and a Debt-Based Economy

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 25, 2008

Beyond Hysteria — Moyers and Wright

To go beyond the hysteria of American news reporting and presidential campaign rhetoric watch or read Bill Moyers‘s long and calm interview with a soft-spoken and candid Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Moyers’s follow-up reflections on his audience’s reactions to the program. The interview broadcast, by the way, contains a recording of the entirety of Wright’s now-infamous “God damn America” sermon. Listen to it. While the over-publicized, out-of-context YouTube clip of Wright shouting “God damn America” gave grist to journalists and license to the mealy-mouthed to show moral indignation, the full sermon, with its passion, historical insights, and unassailable morality will have many of us — Christians and non-Christians both — up on our feet and shouting “Amen.” For a sample from another of America’s best journalists, click here for Bob Herbert on Hillary’s cynical playing of the race card and the unwillingness or inability of both Bill and Hillary to exit the stage gracefully. (For Jim Kunstler on Hillary in DC and NY see Monster of Ambition.)

In Defense of Writers, Books, and Publishing

For uncommon wisdom on the downsides of the so-called free distribution of ideas over the internet and the upsides and economics of full-time writing, full-size books, and the essential aspects of editing and publishing read this post by writer Steven Poole. The paradox: Only the rich and the subsidized have the resources to devote a life to full-time writing; the rest of us must be able to make a living from what we do. In a follow-up post, Poole continues to make a compelling case for the superiority of ideas as developed and presented in book-length rather than blog-form. He closes with the chilling thought that books may prove to have been a mere half-millenium-long, archaic-technology-linked abberation in the history of communication.

In Greek

Video-maker Lucia Rikaki has brought her visual style to blogging on these two sites: Lucia and Alwaysthesea. Her still photography is kinetic and cinema-like and creates an aesthtic caleidoscope across postings. Knowledge of Greek is not required.

The Internets Celebrities Take On the US “Fed” and Teach the Poor How to Put Their Shoulders to the Wheel

Internets Celebrities Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam recently announced their new video Checkmate, a cinematic step into the netherworld of Brooklyn’s check-cashing stores and a plea to the poor to help America out of its economic doldrums by “keeping your income low and your debt high.” Checkmate is a kind of Das Kapital follow-up to the Internet Celebrities’s classic Manifesto, Bronx Bodega, a Marx Brothers meets Karl Marx meets Hip Hop take on the feeding and exploitation of the poor. For a bit of Marx Brothers meet Freud meets Walter Benjamin meets Walter Winchell meets Hip Hop see Sidewalk Pimping which I remember most for its powerful existential pronouncement that all is okay providing “… it gets you out of your momma’s basement.” For Freud meets Social Realism meets Havelock Ellis see the Internets Celebrities’s director Casimir Nozkowski‘s own Every 7 Seconds. (Note: If Bronx Bodega and Every 7 Seconds prove too slow to download via YouTube they can be viewed in QuickTime format on Nozkowski’s homepage.)

A closing thought, a zoomed-out memory of V. Popov

A zoom-out in Checkmate shows Dallas Penn to be attired in watch-cap, winter jacket, and … shorts! The only other year-round shorts wearer I’ve ever known was Bulgaria’s former international chess correspondent — and inimitably skilled preparer of homemade gourmet-class salt-cured Black Sea bonita tuna (palamud) — the late Vladilen (short for Vladimir Illych Lenin) Popov. Vladilen covered chess championship matches with his characteristic long hair combed to near-shoulder-length and attired in suit jacket, shirt and tie, and … shorts! It was a stock joke amongst Eastern European news cameramen recording Vladilen’s on-camera commentaries to momentarily zoom-out to include glimpses of his bare legs. Rest in peace, Vladilen.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, Internet, Media, Politics, Work | 3 Comments »

Queen’s Day, May Day: Tonight the Wilhelmus, Tomorrow the Internationale

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 30, 2008

Queen’s Day

Tonight, I will attend the annual reception at the Netherlands Consulate in Istanbul (housed in the palatial former residence of the Dutch Ambassador to the Ottoman Court) in honor of Konninginedag — Queen’s Day — the symbolic Dutch national day linked to the springtime birthday of the country’s former queen, Juliana. I travel on a Dutch passport and Konninginendag receptions broad lend a way to catch up with friends, associates, and potential new acquaintances and contacts. Yet I do not feel fully comfortable at such events. People who are ethnically Dutch — a category, like most nationalities, based on an artificial identity shaped over the course of the 18th through the 20th centuries — can at times be condescending or even sharply hostile towards those of us who are Dutch by passport and conviction alone, especially if we hail from the country’s ethnic or religious “minorities.” An added discomfort in that I am not a monarchist (this despite my personal respect for the late Queen Juliana, who I met several times in connection with charitable projects).

It was only in the post-war period that identification with and loyalty to Dutch society and the Dutch state came to be fully conflated with support and identification for the Dutch monarchy. Prior to the war, enthusiastic support of the Dutch monarchy was far from universal. In republican, labor, and leftist circles, the monarchy was viewed as transitory and few people sang the song that became the country’s official national anthem, the Wilhelmus, a tortuous composition sung in near-falsetto and with the gruesome opening line: “William of Nassau, I am of Germanic blood; I will remain faithful to the fatherland until death”). The Dutch cult of monarchy was solidified with the polishing of the image of Queen Wilhelmina, the grandmother of the present queen, who fled from the Netherlands to Britain with her immediate family in advance of the German invasion of 1940 without consulting her government. Elevation of the monarch was part and parcel of the general clean-up of the Netherlands’ wartime record of passive and active collaboration and its post-war record of colonial brutality. A single example of an oft-bowdlerized statistic: Approximately 1,200 Dutch soldiers died defending the country against the Germans whereas approximately12,000 Dutchmen died fighting on the Eastern front as members of SS volunteer battalions. (I’ll save the complicity of the Dutch police and bureaucracy in the deportation and murder of two-thirds of the country’s Jewish population for a future posting.)

May Day

Tomorrow is May 1, the international day of Labor. In Istanbul the atmosphere in advance of May Day is tense. Last week, the Turkish prime minister and leader of the country’s ruling party, the Islamic AK Party, announced that May Day should not be an official holiday, cavalierly adding that Turkish workers have too many days off as is. In fact, Turkish workers work one-third t one-half more hours each year and receive salaries far lower than of most of their European counterparts. Soon after, the governor of Istanbul issued an order that May Day marchers from the country’s labor unions and parties of the left not be allowed to march and assemble at Taxim Square, Istanbul’s main open space. The unions have announced that they will march and assemble nevertheless. Their May Day gathering promises to be a magnet for groups and individuals that support secularism in Turkey and oppose the present government and ruling party and suspect it of advancing a radical Muslim agenda and back-peddling on reforms requisite to EU membership. The gathering will also attract an army of baton-, machine-gun-, tear-gas-, and water-cannon-equipped helmeted and masked riot police and, many people fear, a sufficient number of provocateurs of whatever stripe to precipitate violence. In 1977 in Istanbul, more than 30 people were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes between police and marchers; last year’s May Day was marred by tear-gassings and beatings.

For a bit of May Day spirit go to my alter-ego weblog Bubkes.Org to listen to two arcane recordings of the one-time international working men’s anthem, the Internationale.

Posted in History, Identity, Politics, Work | 1 Comment »

Infrastructural Links: Linux Journal, R.Crumb, NPR, Insightful Weblogs, and Good Old-Fashioned NYC Rage

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 27, 2008

Thanks again to Doc Searls for his kind mention of me in his recent piece on infrastructure in Linux Journal. Doc and I are now working together on a number of think-tank and private sector consultancy related projects concerning the concept and history of infrastructure and the place, future, and issues surrounding internet and telecommunications as the infrastructural core of social, intellectual. and economic exchange.

Worldwide View, Regional Imperial Webs

As our think-tank debates take shape, one of my tasks is to lend an historical perspective and an international view. As important as the controversies surrourding the arbitrary limiting of web content by California’s cable internet provider Comcast and the Republican-colored, privilege-oriented policies of the FCC (the US Federal Communications Commission) may seem to US-based internet observers, scores of other issues preoccupy the rest of the world. The stakes of interference with internet content and access are far more severe in countries on the edge of political and civil crisis ala Turkey (see this previous posting), Afghanistan, and Pakistan while plain old access to communications and information at whatever speed remains the main issue throughout the third world. In Eastern Europe, the wild-westm laissez-faire post-communist social and regulatory environment in many countries prior to EU-accession made it easy for individuals and small companies to string cable over trees and lampposts directly from high-speed access points to one’s office or living room, thus skirting around bandwidth limitations ala Comcast. In Russia and China, moves to register domain names using local scripts are on their way to fragmenting the worldwide web into three or more mutually exclusive linguistic-and political-empire webs. In the EU, a rational regulatory environment and a century-long social democratic-rooted public willingness to pay for the infrastructure that benefits society at large keeps seems to keep US-style crises at bay. (Note: Over the last decade, Europe has quietly sailed past America in almost all things telecom- and web-access- related — not least, witness the low key impact the seemingly innovative iPhone has made outside in the EU market).

R. Crumb, NPR, and Weblog Links

During a long Istanbul-Boston Skype kick-off meeting with Doc yesterday, I mentioned a link that has graced my alter-ego weblog site Bubkes.Org since its inception. The link is to legendary cartoonist R. Crumb’s 12-panel cartoon A Short History of America. Crumb’s twelve drawings document and clarify the concept, development ( or, better said, random accretion), and outcome of what passes for infrastructure in the USA.*

Great minds think alike, it seems. I lifted the R. Crumb link from the insightful, rightfully enraged, and excellently researched weblog Clusterfucknation. At Clusterfucknation, Jim Kunstler has been writing for years on America’s automobile-highway-suburb dependency, the politics and consequences of an oil-and-gas-based world, and a host of other transportation and infrastructural issues. Kunstler’s political insights and passions are also spot-on and searing (e.g. see Kunstler’s recent take on the democratic primary campaign Slip of the Tongue).

NPR’s ( the US’s independent non-commercial, listener- and grant-supported public radio system’s) On the Media program over the last months has featured a number of guests at the center of debates on web access and governance. These include Harvard’s and Oxford’s Jonathon Zittrain, Columbia’s Tim Wu, and San Francisco’s free-high-speed-access activist Brewster Kahle (click here for MP3s and/or transcripts of interviews all three and of other relevant actors as well). Despite the years I have been working in and around the worlds of telecommunications and the internet, I must confess that all these names are new ones to me. I am especially impressed by the introduction to Tim Wu’s and Jack Goldsmith’s book Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World (excerpt available via Amazon.Com) which begins with the conundrum of the French legal action against Yahoo some years for facilitating violations of French laws against rascism and antisemitism. I look forward to reading Wu and Goldsmith, and Zittrain, in full.

Former colleague, close friend, and frequent sounding-board Naomi Yoder-Harris recently pointed me to the weblog of NYC-based web and tech specialist Hank Williams (in no way to be confused with the eponymous legendary country singer). Naomi had seen Williams interviewed by Brian Lehrer on the cable station of the City University of New York. Williams casts light on the negative commercial effects for freelancers and small entrepreneurs of too much venture capital and too many free services on the internet.**

New York, Rage, Social Democracy, and Infrastructure

Williams’s words give me an opportunity to link together Doc and my nascent conversations on infrastructure with the piece I recently wrote on Rev. Wright and the Hyperbole of Rage. As a born-and-raised New Yorker, I recognize in Williams’s piece on venture capital a distinctly New York state of mind. New Yorkers have their work-roots in small struggling niche companies and the lumpen-bourgeoisie, in versatile skilled and unskilled labor, and in the pre-financial and pre-information economy of craft, ingenuity, sweat, and heavy lifting. We know how easy it is to be drowned, crushed, or exploited by the big guys and know how to fight against this. We know the power of and need for collective action. We also have a demonstrated willingness to pay for the physical and social infrastructure that enables us to do what we do and to live as we want. Such willingness to spend is equally grounded in knowing that social and economic infrastructure is worth the investment and in a distinctly non-Calvinist flare for grand gestures and extravagance.*** (California “libertarians” take note: WE and PAYING are two of the operative words behind infrastructure).

In his Linux Journal piece, Doc reprinted a quote I had taken from the introduction to Joshua Freeman’s brilliant book Working Class New York. Freeman shows how the specialized and agglomeration-dependent nature of crafts, manufacturing, and transshipment in 19th- and early-to-mid-20th-century New York, together with the shared experience and collectivist nature of a the City’s largely-immigrant workforce, led to New York’s development of a voluntary- and governmental-sponsored infrastructure atypical of the rest of America and at the fore of the European social democratic mold. Up to the 1970s, New York boasted a unique infrastructure of low-cost public transportation, free water supply, free public hospitals, free public schools, free libraries, and free universities; public, confessional and union social welfare institutions; and public housing and union-sponsored cooperative housing found nowhere else in the US. The denouement of collective New York, due in part to the conjunction of the emergence of the so-called financial economy with the fiscal crises of the 1970s and the vengeance of Republicans in power in Washington at the time is also treated in Freeman’s book.

One of the drivers of New York’s collective ethos and energies and of New Yorkers willingness to press for, build, and pay for infrastructure is the very rage of the sort that animated Obama’s former pastor’s now-infamous “God Damn America” pun and the Yiddish folksong “Grine Kuzine.” The rage that bubbled over during events such as the now-forgotten kosher meat riots of 1902 and following the senseless deaths of scores of female garment workers at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911 accelerated the formation of labor unions and confession-based, charitable, and governmental institutions and infrastructure that made New York an egalitarian and socially mobile city with the collective intellect, excellence, and creativity that was to play an out-sized role in America and the world in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

More to follow…

Notes:

* For anyone who does not know who R. Crumb was (is), I offer to this quote from Crumb’s magnificent 1960s cartoon hero, the white-robed, white-bearded guru Mr. Natural. When asked by a conservatively dressed elderly woman the meaning of the phrase “do-wha-diddee,” Mr. Natural replied: “Lady, if you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it!”)

** For all of Williams insight I am puzzled by his site’s name. Why do American tech types overuse and render banal the word “suck”? We New Yorkers traditionally used this word in an non-delicately outspoken sexual way and in the lyrical macho aggressiveness of “sounding” and “the dozens.” How dispiriting silly to hear the word applied to ennui, the internet, and gadgetry.

*** In the discussion following a recent meeting in New York in honor of the 10th anniversary of the conception of the business best-seller Cluetrain Manifesto (see the final paragraphs of this post) I suggested that people who are obsessed with free and unwilling to support public radio, small companies (see Williams’s arguments above), big infrastructure, etc., should attend more Roma (Gypsy) weddings and Turkish night clubs and join in showering musicians and dancers with cascades of banknotes — a non-transaction tribute to the excellence of the performers as well as a statement of ones own grandiosity. Grandiosity also played a role in the development of infrastructure throughout history. To restrict the subject to New York alone, the building projects of Tammany Hall put accented regal monumentality over utility. Self-congratulatory futuristic monumentality was inherent in the works of Robert Moses, the public works czar who shaped the parks, neighborhoods, bridges, highways, and suburban sprawl of 20th century New York.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Work | Leave a Comment »

Rev. Wright and a Yiddish Song: The Hyperbole of Rage, The Banality of Apologies, the Absurdity of Race

Posted by Stephen Lewis on April 6, 2008

Sometimes, when I am alone, I sing. I croon in the style of Billy Eckstine and imitate bass lines from the Orioles and the Cadillacs. I also sing inter-war cabaret songs in Dutch and German and old Yiddish theater tunes in the original: Aaron Lebedev’s Romania, Romania, Molly Picon’s Abi Gezund, and the bitter ballad of early-20th-century New York immigrant life, Grine Kuzine.

In Grine Kuzine a narrator tells of a newly arrived “green” immigrant cousin, a bright-eyed happy girl with “… cheeks like pomegranates and feet that beg to dance.” In America the cousin will surely find work and a new life and, so, the first chorus of Grine Kuzine ends with the words: “Long live the land of Columbus!” But as the song continue its narrator describes how, as the years pass and as the cousin moves from one slavish dead-end job to another in sweat-shops and neighborhood stores, her hopes fade and she turns gray-skinned, stooped, and dull-eyed. The song ends with the bitter curse: “May Columbus’s land go up in flames!”

America in flames? Sound familiar? The closing lines of Grine Kuzine are really no different from Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn America” paraphrase of Irving Berlin’s maudlin patriotic tune God Bless America. As a singer of Grine Kuzine, and as a not-too-distant descendant of her fellow immigrant workers, I do not understand the recent hysteria over the U-Tube posting of an out-of-context video excerpt of one of Wright’s old sermons. Jews and Blacks and even the whitest-of-white Americans have the right — and maybe the obligation — to be enraged at polities and policies that misuse or deceive them or that fail to live up to their potential or rhetoric. The hyperbole of songs and of sermons generates reflection and vents steam and diffuses rage even as it broadcasts it.

The rebroadcasting of Wright’s controversial pun led to agitated calls from fellow-Democratics for Barack Obama to disown and condemn his former pastor. This is the second such demand. Some time before, Obama had been challenged to reject the support of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan may be a compulsive bigot (forgive the value judgment, but I belong to an ethnos Farrakhan once called adherents of a “gutter religion”) but if candidates were to reject supporters and voters on the basis of their prejudices and ill-considered words there would be few voters and supporters left to go around. And, to quote Lyndon Johnson’s reputed response to a journalist who him asked why he did not fire FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, maybe it makes better sense and is better policy, to have Farrakhan “… inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent pissing in.”

Far more interesting and insidious than the slips-of-the-lips of members of Obama’s confessional circles is Hillary Clinton’s decades-long involvement in an oligarchical right-wing prayer breakfast group called The Fellowship, Sound like the stuff of crank conspiracy theories? Writer Jeff Sharlet of The Revealer, a New York University weblog covering religion and the media, has just completed a book on the subject. Will apologies and statements of distancing and denunciation of The Fellowship be forthcoming from the Clinton campaign? I doubt it.

The positive side of the Wright affair is that it led Obama to give his speech on race — and rage — in America. Over the last year, I have been researching the origins and artificiality of national identities and the havoc caused by the emergence of modern nationalism and nation-states (more on this is future posts). Race is an equally suspect concept, a product of the intersection of European imperialism and early-modern science’s obsession with classification. And yet, in America, three centuries of slavery turned the concept of race into an enduring and divisive reality. For an incisive take on the legacy of slavery, poverty in America, and the present-day problems of America’s cities, listen to this recent broadcast of Bill Moyers’s Journal, a look back on the urban riots — or uprisings, as Moyers’s occasional guest, nonagenarian activist Grace Lee Boggs, points out — of the 1960s and the insightful but largely ignored findings of the congressional inquiry (the Kerner Commission) that investigated their causes and consequences.

Afterthought: The Murder of Dr. King and a Song by Nina Simone

It was 40 years ago this weekend that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. I was working and studying in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time. In the days following Dr. King’s assassination, Greensboro, like numerous other American cities, was placed under curfew and de facto marshal law. At night, along with other people, black and white, I made my way home from work and political rallies in stealth, dodging police patrols and helicopter overflights. These next days, as I think back on the shock and tension of the days after Dr. King’s death and on the civil rights struggle, the plight of US cities, and the tempests-in-a-teapot of the current presidential election, I’ll not only sing Grine Kuzine but I’ll add Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam to my repertoire as well.

Posted in Cities, Commentary, History, National Identity, Politics, Work | 4 Comments »

42nd and 5th: Architectural Photography, Global Cities, and Working Class New York

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 5, 2008

Last week, in this weblog post, photographer Brian Rose described our recent chance late-winter-afternoon meeting on the corner of 42nd St and 5th Ave. and our follow-up conversations some days later. Brian Rose is a superlative large-format photographer (click here for an overview of his work) with a unique understanding not only of buildings but of the natures of the cities they comprise and of the people who create them, use them, and imbue them with meaning. Our meeting was laden with coincidence. We are both die-hard “analogue” photographers. Brian has lived most of his adult life on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side — the place where I grew up and that shaped me indelibly — and we both spent years working and living in Netherlands. By chance, I had seen an exhibition of Brian’s work more than two decades ago at the Henry Street Settlement House and had also chanced upon his masterful photographs of the Essex County Courthouse, embodiments of the ways I’d but imagined portraying the interiors of Islamic monuments during the several periods of my life in which I have been involved in documenting the Ottoman architectural patrimony of southeast Europe (see numerous entries on Bubkes.Org).

Brian’s stunning day-end photograph featured in his blog post also comprises a coincidence. In it, Brian attempts to visually anchor the glass and steel corner store of a the international clothing retailer H&M into an iconic “signature” New York location, the corner of 42nd and 5th. His photograph combines end-of-day light, the delicacy of large-format negative film, and an impeccable composition placing the store between trees adjacent to the Public Library in the foreground and the towering spire of the Chrysler Building in the background. The task Brian confronts in his photograph is one that I have been trying to deal with conceptually as I try to locate the continuity of what had once made New York unique in the increasingly bland and seemingly cloned international shopping-mall-, tourism-, and chain-store-like nature of much of (Manhattan’s) retail sector and entertainment and night life.

As a starting point in tracing this uniqueness, I’ll begin with this quote from the introduction to Joshua B. Freeman’s “Working Class New York” (New York 2000) a penetrating examination of the unique ethos, economic history, and social and physical infrastructure of the City from the shaping of its one-time entrepot- and specialized-manufacturing-based economy in the 19th-century, through its creation of America’s only social-democratic society in the 20th, and through the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and the subsequent rise of the so-called financial and information economy from the 1980s on. This winter, Freeman’s book helped me begin to articulate a vision of New York that had been up until now beyond my reach, this despite my one-time education in “Urban Affairs” and my visceral, indelible knowledge of New York work and street life. At the outset of his book, Freeman eloquently anchors New York in the intangible, in the collective tone of its people:

“Endlessly frustrated by its difficulties and brutalities, try as I may I find it difficult to imagine living elsewhere. What keeps me in New York is neither the high culture of museums and concert halls nor the unrivaled opportunities for working, eating, and spending that New Yorkers revel in. Rather it is a sensibility that is distinctly working-class — generous; open-minded but skeptical; idealistic but deflating of pretension; bursting with energy and a commitment to doing.”

More on the interplay of New York’s people, economy, infrastructure, and unique sensibility — as well as on Freeman’s powerful book — in future entries.

Note: For the next several weeks I will be in Istanbul, Turkey. Because of the Turkish ban on WordPress.Com I might not be able to post to this site while there. I will certainly be posting to Bubkes.Org, so do look for new material there.

Posted in Architecture, Books, Cities, Infrastructure, Photography, Work | Leave a Comment »

Books and Beer, Soft-Soap and a Wooden Leg, Content and Clients, and ‘Cluetrain’+10

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 12, 2008

During the years that I lived in the Netherlands, a few hours free from work in Amsterdam meant an opportunity for lunch at Solly Meier’s sandwich shop on the Nieuwemarkt — split-pea soup and pekelvlees (homemade corned beef) on a roll — followed by a canal-side stroll across town to browse in the bookstores clustered near the Spui and Nieuwezijdsvoorburgwaal, inner-city streets that were once the center of the Holland’s newspaper publishing industry. Afterwards, I’d retreat to the IJsbreker Cafe, with its magnificent view of the Amstel river, to skim through my purchases over a glass of beer.

Browsing

My method for bookstore browsing involved turning off all preconceptions of what I might want to read or felt I should read and opening myself to the associative logic and randomly arranged contents of shelves and bins. The resulting finds ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, some introduced me to authors and insights I would not have discovered otherwise and a few changed the course of my life.

At the sublime end of the spectrum was a paperback copy of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities,” an historical study of the artificiality of present-day national identities and the roles of printing, publishing, and the standardization of languages in their creation. Anderson’s book helped to begin to understand the origins and pathology of the hysterical rage towards the remaining signs of Turkish and Muslim life in the Balkans that I had encountered during my involvement in documenting the remaining infrastructure of Ottoman and Islamic society in the region. “Imagined Communities” — together with other works that followed in its wake, most notably Patrick Geary’s excellent “The Myth of Nations: the Medieval Origins of Europe” — are the underpinnings of my present research and writing on the dynamics of national identities and their reflection in the ways minorities are accepted or marginalized and their architectural monuments remembered or wiped away.

At the ridiculous end was a remaindered hardback copy of “The Aggravations of Minnie Ashe” by Cyril Kersh, a British journalist’s stylized humorous reminiscences of his childhood in the East End of London during the 1930s. The book opens with a description of the run-down East End streets and and dusty lots that served as his playgrounds: “… for me a splendid place for games and make-believes, for my mother yet further proof (not that any was needed) that life was a vast and cunning plot aimed at the humiliation and ultimate destruction of herself and her family.” It proceeds to relate Kersh’s widowed mother’s desperate struggles to raise her children and realize her lifelong dream of one day returning to the place where she had spent her honeymoon, the working-class beach resort of Westcliff-on-Sea.

Soft Soap and a Wooden Leg, Content and Clients

Spanning both the sublime and the ridiculous was a single-volume hardback reprint of a 1923 Belgian novel “Lijmen” (“Soft-Soap”) and its 1938 sequel “Het Been” (“The Wooden Leg”) both by Flemish-language writer Willem Elsschot. I had first read “Lijmen” and “Het Been” in English-language translation over thirty years ago. Had I read a better translation or been a more careful reader at the time, the books might have spared me the agony of decades of work in the communications field or at least sharpened my sense of humor while doing so. Last month, I reread “Lijmen” and “Het Been” in the original Dutch/Flemish and realized to my shock how delightfully and accurately they captured the absurdity of much of the content of my work life and portrayed the pomposity and dubious worth of business communications and the cynicism of client-supplier “relations.” The two books remain as much to the point in the age of the internet as they were in the age of print.

The plot of “Lijmen” is simple enough. Indeed, many who have worked in the murky worlds where advertising and journalism mix will recognize it immediately. Laarmans, a fiery young activist in the struggle for Flemish independence, disillusioned and depressed at the realization that both he and the movement are headed nowhere, goes out for a night of serious drinking. In a bar, he meets Boorman, a portly, elegantly dressed man, obviously wealthy, who makes him a tempting offer. If Laarmans will shave his beard, trade his bohemian clothes for a conservative suit and agree to go by the patrician-sounding Portuguese Marrano name of Teixera de Mattos, Boorman will make him his secretary and groom him as his successor at his two prestigious-sounding enterprises: The International Illustrated Journal of Finance, Trade, Industry, Art, and Science and The Museum of Domestic and Foreign Production and Trade.

The Journal, Boorman boasts, has print runs in the millions despite its paid circulation of zero and a full-time staff of nobody. In fact, the publication is an archetypal promotional magazine. Customers can place glowing written and visual portraits of their companies and products in the journal merely by committing themselves to purchasing tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies of off-prints which they pay for in cash or in kind. Boorman’s technique for closing deals is lijmen, literally “to glue” but figurative “soft-soap,” the knack of playing on potential victims’ dreams or vanities or, if their enterprises are fraudulent or products substandard, their guilt or desire to stay clear of the law.

Boorman’s glowing superlative-filled articles are written to order for each client by cutting-and-pasting sentences and paragraphs from a half-dozen articles he plagiarized and filed away years before, one describing a shipyard, the second a cement factory, the third a piano maker’s atelier, and so on. Editing consists of double-checking that all instances of the words “piano” or “cement” or “shipyard” are excised from articles treating, say, a clothing factory or a printing plant. The articles are lavishly illustrated with photographs taken with the glass-plate view-camera of Boorman’s budget-rate freelance photographer, Piepers. Boorman’s museum, visitable by appointment only, is little more than a warehouse of goods he has received as payment-in-kind from hard-pressed customers who no longer have the cash to pay their contractual obligations. Exhibitions at the museum range from canned fruit to mass-produced busts of the King of Belgium. The museum’s most frequent visitor is Mme. Boorman who occasionally restocks her kitchen from the museum’s shelves.

Boorman’s favorite clients are those who, in his flamboyant speech, “… behoort tot een zeldzaam geslacht, dat slechts te lijmen is met eenvoud en oprechtheid,” i.e. “… who belong to that rare species that can be ‘taken-to-the-cleaners’ simply and justly.” But not all clients merit a fleecing. Boorman’s sale of 100,000 off-prints to the gullible Mme. Lauwereyssen of the Lauwereyssen Artistic Iron Foundry, down-at-the-heels manufacturers of wrought-iron dumbwaiters, leads to a crisis of conscience that is resolved in the sequel novel “Het Been.”

Early in the course of “Lijmen”, Boorman lectures Laarmans on the nature of clients and the ethics and tactics of dealing with them. His observations cut to a sad truth that underlies most commercial relationships and the ever-enduring propensity to manipulate and hedge rather than add value or be willing to pay for it. Boorman’s soliloquy ends with these words (my translation):

“Above all, be courageous, even if things are going against you for weeks at a time. Never trust in God, de Mattos. And, be polite to your clients. They are your enemies, never forget this. They’ll give you only what you wrench from them and will hold back all that you do not fight for with your life.”

Some of us sincerely wish there were other ways … and stubbornly live our lives behaving as if there were.

Apropos: ‘Cluetrain’+10

Apropos of the subject matter of “Lijmen” and “Het Been,” tomorrow I will be joining my friend and colleague Doc Searls for a conference on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the conception of the business best-seller “Cluetrain Manifesto,” a prognosis of the changes Doc and his co-authors expected the internet to effect. It was in “Cluetrain” that Doc coined the chestnut “Markets are Conversations” and called for a Copernican revolution in which individuals would cease to be mere “consumers” controlled by corporate marketing and would realize their power to influence and control markets themselves instead. Whether Doc still thinks markets were, have become, or ever will be conversations, and whether the present substance of such conversations is worthy or deceptive, are subjects I look forward to hearing him address. Has the internet effected a change in the nature of our personal and commercial interactions — or has it just brought us more of the same old “soft-soap” but hyperlinked and faster? Whatever the answer… happy “10th” and continued success to the “Cluetrain” authors!

 

Posted in Cities, Client Relations, Content, History, Internet, Language, Literature, Media, National Identity, Work | 1 Comment »

Articulation and Activism: In Praise of Screenwriters … and “Hackwriters” Too

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 8, 2007

As the US entertainment writers’ strike continues, I can’t avoid weighing in with a few words of support for the striking members of the Writers’ Guild. Their long drawn-out strike is proving that without the creativity, concentration, and plain old sweat of professional writers there would be no cinema nor television, whether for better or for worse. Yet, most writers labor silently in the background with neither the celebrity, earnings continuity, nor stellar recompense that goes to many headlining actors and directors.

I could quibble about the quality of present-day Hollywood films and American television — their cliche-ridden humor, fascination with murder, and justification of authoritarian police behavior and Mafia violence — but the central issue of the present strike is business-like and central to concepts of intellectual property and the rights of labor, i.e. residuals, the ongoing payments to writers for the rebroadcasting and reuse of creative works they have conceived and shaped and their right to share in the fruits of the long-term popularity and earnings of productions they have penned.

The strikers’ demands focus on residuals from new and emerging distribution channels — especially the internet. Over the last decades, writers time and again missed the boat on gaining a fair share of earnings from the recycling of their work via new media, including videocassettes and DVDs. Now, they are determined not to repeat this mistake with internet distribution. All of us who who are paid job-by-job for our labor and/or creative abilities should back the strikers in whatever ways we can. The same goes for those of us who believe in the future of internet as the primary distribution channel for news, opinion, knowledge, and entertainment and who understand that media are just what the word implies, i.e. “dark fiber” and “empty pipes”, vehicles for conveying content and no more. In the end, backing the strike means willingness to pay for internet content, directly or indirectly, and to pressure those who charge for content, i.e. the owners of networks and other marketing shells, to ensure that a fair share of the life-long earnings of productions goes those who create them.

Some Strike-Related Links

The writer’s strike is explained and tracked in detail at United Hollywood. The United Hollywood site also contains links to a number of YouTube pieces in support of the strike. My favorite is a testimonial by nonagenarian Writers’ Guild member Irv Brecher who wrote for the Marx Brothers in the late-1930s and for television (“The Life of Riley”) in the early-1950s. Also on target is this report (ABC Executive Now Writing All Their Shows Himself) from my favorite source of news as it could or should be, Doyle Redland of the Onion Radio News. Last, hose who are not afraid of Brooklyn-size dollops of political incorrectness might want to look at this characteristically unsparing (but smiling) piece from Dallas Penn, the point of which is that openness in terms of personal identity does not necessarily equal progressiveness or compassion when it comes to political and economic issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of others.

And “Hackwriters” Too

For most of my life, I’ve been cursed with the ability to write. In many of the places I’ve worked, the task of writing has fallen on my shoulders. My strengths as a writer have been neither my style nor even my knowledge, but simply my ability to muscle my way through half-thought-out or poorly-expressed ideas — whether my own or those of others — and sharpen and express the thinking, motives, facts, and logic behind them and leave no essential point unarticulated. This dubious ability led me for years to make my living bouncing back and forth between writing/translating and management, organizational, and project consultancy. Put simply, when asked by mayors or marketing execs or “CEO”s to write articles or commercial, legal, or technical documents presenting their strategies, policies, or activities, I had to clarify and tighten-up not only their syntax but their thinking, intents, and understandings of their own organizations and the world-at-large By writing, I created a mirror by which strategies could be tested and implemented, organizations changed and motivated, projects realized, and markets and populations reached and influenced. This was not always appreciated.

Corporate and technical “hackwriters” are on the bottom of the organizational totem pole in both the public and private sectors and in academia and science as well. In all fields, they are anonymous cogs in the wheel, this regardless of their communications skills being the medium of exchange that enable organizations to function. The situation is most extreme with the proposals and grants writers who debug the thinking and craft the documents that bring in multi-million dollar grants and multi-billion dollar projects for others. Like most corporate and tech writers, they receive no bonus shares of the projects they land nor any residuals from the worth of the companies and institutions they help enrich build. It is time for business and techwriters to follow the lead of striking entertainment writers and claim their fair share. As the “Wobblies” of the old IWW would have had it: “One Big Union!”

(This post is written with the support and approval of Naomi Yoder-Harris, a fine institutional writer who for two decades has been an important sounding board for the quality and content of my own work.)

Posted in Articulation, Communications, Internet, Media, Work | 2 Comments »

Hiatus — A few words and a few links re: articulation, organizational change, the GOP, the 1960s, mysterious and enticing doorways, the forgotten wooden mosques of the eastern Balkans, and a bodega in the Bronx

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 28, 2007

These weeks I have been a bit busy with work proposals and ongoing research projects. One of the results: Somewhat of a hiatus in substantive postings to HakPakSak. For the moment, however, the following links should each be worthy of at least a peek…

Re: my “core business” of articulation, communication, and change, look at this comment I posted some weeks ago on JP Rangaswami’s weblog Confused Of Calcutta and a worthy comment-on-the-comment as posted by Stephen Smoliar at his weblog Rehearsal Studio.

Re: Politics in America look at Bob Herbert‘s recent Ugly Side of the GOP. Now that the New York Times has opened up its former “premium” internet content to all readers, Hebert’s hard-hitting to-the-point columns can once again be read online free of charge.

Re: The 1960s and the reunion of two former philosophy students and friends, look at these kind words from North Carolina writer, thinker, and convinced Quaker Tom Brown.

Last, for a look into my parallel avocational worlds of photography, architectural history, and Balkan and Ottoman history, go to this new posting on my alter-ego weblog site Bubkes.Org.

Oh yes … not to forget … Oh Word. My recent two-fold posting on Paul Lafargue’s manifesto The Right to Be Lazy and the photocopy shops of Istanbul gained mention on Rafi Kam’s hip-hop weblog Oh Word‘s Around the Horn links. I am a long-time fan of Rafi’s and Dallas Penns humorous and very insightful minimalist video Bronx Bodega (click here to watch it on YouTube). I’m a jazz fan, not a hip-hop fan — but I am born in the Bronx!

More to follow…

Posted in Architecture, Articulation, Bulgaria, Change, Links, Media, Photography, Work | 2 Comments »

America’s Labor Day, The Right to Be Lazy, the Photocopy Shops of Istanbul, and the Democratization of Knowledge

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 9, 2007

Last Monday was Labor Day, the annual U.S. holiday marking the end of the summer season. The origins of Labor Day date to the early 1880’s when a New York City carpenters’ union proposed a day honoring the city’s craftsmen and laborers. In 1882, New York was the site of the country’s first Labor Day parade, sponsored by the Knights of Labor, a forerunner of the AFL-CIO. Labor Day was soon taken up in other US cities and states and in 1894, in the aftermath of the breaking of the great Pullman and railway workers’ strike, was declared a nation-wide holiday — possibly as a bone thrown to the less radical side of the nascent U.S. labor movement.

Labor Day vs. May Day

In the 20th century, Labor Day celebrations were contrasted with their more radical European equivalents, the enthusiastic and often explosive mass rallies and demonstrations held on May 1. In the U.S., Labor Day was touted as the non-revolutionary workingman’s holiday and May Day as radical, foreign, anti-American. Ironically, however, May Day had been declared the official holiday of the world socialist movement by a convocation of the Second International in Paris in 1890 in tribute to the victims of a purely American tragedy: the Chicago Haymarket riots of 1886 and the subsequent round-up, show trials, and execution of local German-American craftsmen and anarchists. While European May Day celebrations reflected their radical origins well into the last third of the 20th century, America’s Labor Day celebrations ground to a halt and the holiday devolved into a wistful day off in the fading warmth of summer … and, more recently, into another occasion for the retail store sales and compulsive shopping that accompany most American celebrations, secular and religious.

The Right to Be Lazy

Some weeks ago, a friend who I knew from the 1960s asked me whether four decades after I’d first read Marx — in the process squandering an irreclaimable chunk of the sexual revolution to wade through Das Kapital — I could consider myself a Marxist. My response was to ask: What kind of Marxist? A Stalinist? No way. A Trotskyite? Out of romantic fantasy and ethnic solidarity, maybe. A Western-European-style democratic socialist? Most certainly. A La Fargue-ist? With enthusiasm and a smile!

This Labor Day, I blew the dust off of one the most treasured volumes on my bookshelves, one of the most underrated social and economic manifestos of the 19th-century, Paul Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy. And, in the spirits of Labor Day and May 1 both, I took the leisure to reread it.

Cuban-born Lafargue (1842-1911) was Karl Marx’s very own son-in-law but family ties did not prevent Lafargue from giving Marx’s work a needed tweak. Whereas Marx rails about the necessity of transferring ownership of the means of production from capitalists to the proletariat, Lafargue takes aim at production itself. The real enemy of all mankind, according to Lafargue, is its own senseless compulsion to produce, the self-destructive compulsion to work. Forget about fighting for the right to work, Lafargue argues, one should struggle for the right to be lazy!

Marx’s famed Communist Manifesto begins with the warning that the specter of class-based violence is haunting Europe but the opening paragraph of Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy warns us against a more insidious danger from within, our own supposed industriousness:

“A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds sway. This delusion is the love of work. The proletariat, the great class embracing all the producers of civilized nations, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment! All its individual and social woes are born of its passion for work.”

For Lafargue, work is, at best, a mere prelude to leisure and to the creativity, inventiveness, and satisfaction that only leisure can yield. To portray the benefits of leisure over labor Lafargue asks us to consider two horses, a pampered and groomed racehorse from the stables of the Rothschilds and a worn dray horse that spends its days pulling endless heavy loads. Which creature, he asks us, is more magnificent, more worthy of emulation?

The Three-Hour Day

Lafargue uses a complex set of calculations to prove that three hours of labor per person per day would suffice to satisfy the needs of most individuals and all of mankind. More than three hours, he cautions, is detrimental to ourselves and to the world at large, leading to overproduction, wasting of resources, adulteration of goods and services, imperial and colonial adventures, and, worst of all, economies that are driven by what we would now call … marketing.

I would dispute Lafargue’s results. Almost a half century of work has taught me that daily bursts of four to five hours of labor are more than sufficient, providing one is rested and relaxed and at least somewhat motivated and dedicated. Additional hours are padding — needless meetings, gossip and make-work, real and virtual trips to the water cooler (including the contemporary equivalents of compulsive email checks, web searches, and online gaming), avoidance of going home, or expressions of managers’ sadistic desires to make employees endure needlessly long days as punishment for being paid. And, padding is not without cost, compromised quality and declining productivity being among the obvious over the long run.

Lafargue is oddly prescient. He foresaw the near suicidal overwork that characterized sweatshops, Soviet idealization of “Stakhanovites,” U.S. misadventures in “scientific management,” and the expansion of the American workweek over the past few decades from a hard-won forty hour week back up to a nerve-fraying fifty to sixty hours or more. Lafargue also anticipated the waste and environmental damage of economies based on continuous expansion of production, the conflicts caused by continuous seeking out of new markets, and the torpor and perennial dissatisfaction occasioned by cajoling existing markets into ever-increasing consumption. His model also provides insight into the short-sighted moves of the present-day newly elected right-of-center government of his adopted country, France, against its 35-hour work week and strong social services and towards the American model of lower pay, less security, and longer hours for those not at the top and tax breaks for those who are.

Syphilis and Production

The Right to Be Lazy, by the way, merits a reading not only for Lafargue’s analysis and prescriptions but also for his (and 19th century translator Charles H. Kerr’s) delightfully ironic style, another way in which Lafargue sets himself apart from his father-in-law. For example, in the midst of a pointing out how the middle-class moved over the centuries from industriousness to a life of indulgence built upon the overwork of wage earners Lafargue posits this paradox:

“Today every son of the newly rich makes it incumbent upon himself to cultivate the disease for which quicksilver is a specific in order to justify the labors imposed on the the workmen in quicksilver mines.”

The Photocopy Shops of Istanbul

The full text of The Right to Be Lazy is available on the internet but I prefer to read it in hard copy, a medium more conducive to a leisurely afternoon on a park bench or a peaceful coffee or beer at an outdoor cafe. My own copy of The Right to Be Lazy is hardcover, bound in embossed imitation leather and gold-stamped with the title and author’s name. It even has a ribbon (more of a shoelace actually) sewn into the binding for marking one’s place.

My personal edition Lafargue’s book is one of many volumes that I have bought over the years at a category of institution that occupies a minuscule but important niche in world’s information infrastructure: the photocopy shops of Istanbul.

Istanbul’s photocopy shops copy are crowded storefront affairs crammed with photocopy machines, bookshelves, and hundreds or thousands of bound and unbound volumes. They smell of paper, xerox toner, bookbinder’s glue, and cheap take-out lunches and are usually silent but for the shuttling of photocopier lamp heads, the rattling of automatic collating racks and the occasional ringing of old fashioned telephones.

A typical photocopy shop works as follows: A customer comes in to have a book photocopied. The shop photocopies and binds the book’s pages but also produces as second set of photocopies that it keeps as a master for preparing additional volumes for shelf display or for order from the shop’s catalog (as often as not available in pamphlet form or on 3.5″ floppies as a grudging concession to the digital age).

The shop I patronize is located in the warren of streets bounded by the immense Byzantine-period underground cisterns of the Yerebatan Saray and by the Divan Yolu, the ancient main thoroughfare and axis of old Istanbul. The shop is just around the corner from the Turkey’s central archives housing the tens of millions of documents that are the administrative patrimony of the Ottoman period and only minutes from the tourist magnets of Haghia Sofia and the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet. The shop’s stock varies from historical and literary works in Turkish and Islamic religious volumes to an erratic variety of historical and lingusitic arcana in English. A small sampling of my own purchases over the years reflect the scope of the shop’s usual contents: Gibbs’s six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry, F.W. Hasluck’s classic Christianity and Islam Under the Sultans, Mason’s Passion of Al-Hallaj, Millingen’s books on Byzantine Constantinople and its churches, Galante’s 1930s monograph on the synagogues of Istanbul, and a number of memoirs by now-forgotten 19th-century Protestant missionaries to Anatolia and the Balkans, as well as, of course, Lafargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.

Photocopies and the Democratization of Knowledge

At first glance, Istanbul’s photocopy shops appear to be involved in blatant copyright violation and theft of intellectual property. But the situation is far more complex, an analogue precursor of contemporary issues facing the internet, libraries, and the publishing industry. Many of the works available at photocopy shops at $10 -$20 per volume are long out of print and otherwise available only through antiquarians or in low-run limited-edition reprints at prices in the $100 – $200 range, via high-priced subscriptions to online data bases, and, of course, to those with the credentials and sufficient leisure, at specialized libraries. The effect of this is magnified in Turkey, a country in which income distribution is decided unequal and most people’s disposable incomes are far below Western European and even American levels.

Photocopy shops also provided a physical and spatial means for expanding one’s knowledge of the world and of the millennia of discourse examining it. Photocopy shops offer the curious an opportunity to browse through categories of books — volumes at the edges of mainstream of knowledge and rarefied areas of specialized research — and thumb through titles they most likely would not find in Istanbul’s otherwise excellent Turkish- and English-language bookstores and would not otherwise encounter unless they have the luxury to be involved in full-time studies or research.

As haphazard as the collections of photocopy shops maybe, they do have their logic. In the case of my own favorite shop, that logic is a function of its spatial location, which serves as filter for its stock. What photocopy shops offer for sale is determined the books that are brought it for copying in the first place and the tastes and interests of the people who bring them. The location of my favorite shop, only tens of meters from the Ottoman archives and a little more than a kilometer from Istanbul University, gives it an academic and Ottoman-period focus. This reflects the intellectual lives of its copy service and book buying customers and their daily trajectories, through their inner selves as well as through the physical complexity of Istanbul. It also forms a case study in the dynamics of traditional cities and is an analogue mirror of concepts of community and social networking that we now associate with the internet.

Afterthought: Lafargue, the Future of the Copy Shop, and Reclaiming the Leisure and Focus to Read

The photocopy copy shop in which I bought Lafargue’s manifesto in praise of the three-hour workday is open eleven hours a day, seven days a week — a function of low margins, high rents, increasing paper and toner costs, skyrocketing cost of living, and, maybe, as Lafargue would have it, a dose of misplaced industriousness as well. Most of the shop’s customers work equally long days. In a more Lafargue-ian world would the store survive and its customer’s reclaim the leisure and focus to read more? I’m willing to gamble on it.

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