It’s almost that time of year again—and we don’t just mean Halloween. The eagerly anticipated fifth season of the American Horror Story anthology on the FX television channel is ready to air.
AHS is something of a guilty pleasure for the two of us, not least for its superb casts, vivid (if grotesque) blending of history with American popular culture, and wild, even haunting, flights of imagination that often touch on themes of dehumanization, prejudice, fairness, and justice.
The two of us aren’t alone. Many people love to be terrified out of their wits by fictional ghosts, psychopaths, and disturbed strangers who lurk in shadows at the dark end of the street—just so long as nobody really gets hurt and the story finally ends.
Photo credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security)
Dilley, a small Texas city eighty-three miles north of the Mexican border, greets visitors with a cheerful sign.
“Welcome to Dilley, Texas,” it reads. “A Slice of the Good Life.”
That good life extends only so far. Just west of town, nearly two thousand women and children are locked up inside the massive South Texas Family Residential Center. With a capacity of 2400, the brand-new Dilley is now the largest immigration prison in the United States. There are so many children at the camp that they sometimes outnumber the adults, the New York Times reports; their average age is nine years old.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the Danziger Bridge shootings. Ronnie Greene’s Shots on the Bridge was released on the same day the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed an order granting the officers a new trial based on misconduct by prosecutors that judges said tainted the officers’ trial back in 2011. Ten years after the shots on the bridge, the four surviving victims are still waiting for legal resolution. This excerpt from Greene’s book takes us back to that fateful day in 2005 when the officers appeared on the bridge for an unrelated distress call. In Greene’s vivid prose, the scene reads like something out of a movie.
As we approach the new school year, parents and teachers of young children have an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to prevent those little ones who are out of step in their ability to pay attention; listen; follow directions; stay seated, still, and productive; and, keep from talking out of turn, from receiving a false ADHD diagnosis. The latest numbers out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that eleven percent of American children have ADHD, the average age of children with the diagnosis being seven years old. As recent as 2003, 7.8 percent of American children were thought to have ADHD. The alarming rise of this condition among young children requires that we step back and look for more common-sense social and developmental explanations for the sort of problematic behavior that gets kids assigned an ADHD diagnosis. As a child psychologist and writer on children’s mental health issues, I’ve studied these concerns for over thirty years and have zeroed in on three core questions parents and educators can ask themselves when a child’s behavior rises to a level where an ADHD diagnosis is entertained:
Georgia Johnson's new home. Photo credit: Tom Wooten
Georgia Johnson, the great-grandmother, expert wordsmith, and longtime Lower Ninth Ward resident about whom I wrote in We Shall Not Be Moved, has not followed an easy path to recovery. When I interviewed her for the book in October 2008, she sat happily in the living room of the small Creole cottage she good-humoredly called the “raggedy mansion,” newly returned from years of exile in Mississippi. We both thought then that she was nearing the end of her journey. In fact, it was just beginning.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, Georgia’s house was not in good shape. The ceiling leaked, the floor was uneven, the uninsulated bargeboard walls left Georgia cold in the winter, and the bathroom was too small to accommodate her wheelchair. Ironically, although the flood deposited a thick layer of oily mud in Georgia’s living room, destroyed her possessions, and ruined her electrical system, it also should have been her chance to fix the house. She applied for rebuilding money from the federally funded Road Home Program, and after pushing her way through the red tape that frustrated most of the program’s applicants and waiting patiently for more than a year, she received enough to properly renovate the house. But like thousands of other Gulf Coast residents, she fell victim to contractor fraud. Unable to live in a FEMA trailer because of her wheelchair and debilitating asthma, she tried to oversee the renovation from Mississippi. Twice, builders took her money and ran. With her limited remaining funds, and with help from several of the resident-led neighborhood organizations I featured in the book, she managed a bare-bones renovation.
Imagine if the next debate among the Republican presidential candidates started with the moderator asking all the participants who are parents to raise their hands if their children received the polio vaccine as infants. Then the candidates should be instructed to lower their hands if they would have refused this vaccination if they knew that it was developed from research using fetal tissue. Assuming the candidates responded honestly, I speculate that none would report a willingness to have forgone protecting their children against polio.
If the debate were to start this way—and sadly it probably won’t—it would expose the candidates’ hypocrisy on fetal tissue research (as well as how tortuous the larger issue of vaccines is for Republicans, leading to mixed statements on the part of many of the contenders). Americans as a whole believe in vaccines, though a vocal minority, most of which is associated with the Republican base, do not; similarly, Planned Parenthood, which has been relentlessly demonized because of the false charges of “selling” fetal tissue to researchers, is far more admired by the public than any of the Republican candidates. Yet to satisfy its base—who are the most likely to vote in primaries—the Republican candidates have been compelled to outdo each other in bashing Planned Parenthood, and by extension, fetal tissue research.
On September 4, 2005, eight years before the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born, officers of the New Orleans Police Department opened fire on two families crossing the Danziger Bridge. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city six days before. The officers were on site for an unrelated distress call. All the innocent victims were black and unarmed. A harrowing story of blue on black violence, author and investigative journalist Ronnie Greene’s Shots on the Bridge vividly recounts the crime and the ensuing case. With the anniversaries of Katrina and the crime coming up, we caught up with Ronnie Greene to ask him a few questions about his book.
I was first drawn to this story in August 2011, when I happened to read an AP account of the federal court conviction of officers with the New Orleans Police Department, who had fired upon two groups of people on a small bridge and then covered up their crimes.
In reading that first story, I instantly felt these events were worthy of a book. I was struck in learning about the victims, including Ronald Madison, a forty-year-old with the mental development of a six-year-old. With Katrina coming, Ronald stayed back to be with the family dogs. His older brother Lance, a onetime professional football player, stayed to watch over him. Now I was reading that Ronald was killed—shot in the back—and his brother, his protector, had been falsely arrested for allegedly firing at officers. I read about the other family on the bridge, the Bartholomews, along with their nephew Jose Holmes Jr. and his friend James Brissette Jr. JJ, was killed, and several in the Bartholomew family were critically wounded. The mother, Susan Bartholomew, had to have her arm amputated. As the bullets were coming that morning, her daughter, Lesha, lay atop her mother to try to protect her.
In truth, each of the victims was unarmed, yet police hatched a cover-up to conceal their actions.
On July 30, the whole world watched as thirteen Greenpeace activists dangled from ropes tied to the St. John's bridge in Portland, Ore., red and yellow streamers catching the wind. They were blocking the exit of the Fennica, Shell's ice breaker headed to the Arctic to facilitate drilling. These young activists hung there for forty hours in makeshift platforms and slings during some of the hottest days on record, before the police and Coast Guard brought them down. One hundred feet below them, filling the river with their colorful small boats, were Portland's "kayactivists" from the local Climate Action Coalition—some were experienced paddlers, others kayaking for the very first time. On shore stood over five hundred people, cheering and chanting "Stop that boat!" Some were moved to tears by this unprecedented spectacle and by the courage of the protesters.
But everyone was not so thrilled. The Oregonian printed several letters from readers castigating the activists for disrupting traffic on land and sea and for wasting tax money. One wrote: "Make them pay serious fines or spend time in Portland jail." Another complained: "Congratulations, Portland! You've confirmed that this is a city where it's important to be weird." There arises a legitimate question: what is the difference in civil disobedience and simply breaking the law? Was this an instance in which such a protest was justified? Perhaps it would be useful to look at the history and purpose of this radical form of protest.
As reproductive politics are once again consumed by an attack on Planned Parenthood, it is worth stepping back and asking why this organization is so particularly reviled by the anti-choice movement. This is a demonization that goes well beyond the shady outfit, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), that organized the latest undercover filming, or its affiliated group, Live Action, infamous for releasing other debunked videos over the last decade. True, Planned Parenthood was reportedly not CMP’s only target, but the videos taken of its physicians have been the only ones to be released. Some Congressional Republicans, we now know, had prior knowledge of these videos, and predictably have issued calls for an investigation of the organization, joined by various Republican presidential aspirants. The videos have also given new ammunition to Republicans’ annual efforts to withhold all funds from Planned Parenthood for Title X services (primarily contraception and cancer screenings), which are subject to a yearly review. In short, the puzzle is why a national health-care organization—in which, as its spokespersons repeatedly point out, abortion only comprises 3 percent of all services delivered—is such a prime target of abortion opponents.
One answer, of course, is size: Even if only three percent of its services are abortion, Planned Parenthood still performs a healthy share of all the procedures occurring in the United States. But the answer goes well beyond that. It speaks to an interesting historical split among Republicans over matters of reproduction and sexuality—and the eventual triumph of the most socially conservative wing among the party base.
July 8 marks the anniversary of the Israeli-Gazan conflict, one of the subjects that concerns Amy Caldwell, executive editor at Beacon Press. She has acquired The Drone Eats with Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire by Atef Abu Saif, a writer and teacher from Jabalia Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. Due out next year in time for the second anniversary of the conflict, Saif’s book offers a rare glimpse into the ongoing war for Western readers. Here, Amy talks about acquiring the book and what attracted her to Saif’s story. A preview from the book follows.
I was curious and interested immediately because I’d done a certain amount of publishing about issues I find troubling as someone of Jewish descent among Jews in America. Things that I find troubling are what seem to be growing racist attitudes and a right-wing hardening of politics in Israel and America. We’d recently published Alan Wolfe’s At Home in Exile, which argues that Jews are now at home in exile, that living in multicultural environments has been good for Jewish people. Of course, the ongoing tensions and war between Israel and Palestinians are on my list of topics that I’m concerned about and want to publish. But it’s hard to think about how to do it well and what needs to be done. So when editor Ra Page at Comma Press in the UK sent me an email about The Drone Eats with Me, I told him I’d love to take a look at it.
This piece was originally delivered as a sermon and appeared previously in Sojourners.
During my meditation on the messages being sent out from South Carolina this week, three scriptures came to me:
Jeremiah 31:15: This is what the LORD says: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
John 8:32: Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Isaiah 58:1-3: Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. “Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?”
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”
When the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse Friday morning, Gov. Nikki Haley spoke solemnly of the nine Black churchgoers who were shot to death less than a month ago at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “We have all been struck by what was a tragedy we didn't think we would ever encounter,” Haley said of the horrifying massacre. Before signing the bill with nine pens that will go to the families of the victims, she called those who were murdered during Bible Study at the historic church, “Nine amazing people that forever changed South Carolina's history.”
The Governor referenced the “grace” shown by the nine families, when they forgave the white gunman. She said their grace helped usher the state toward this long overdue decision.
It’s been so long since we’ve caught up with Atticus Finch—a little more than half a century if you count the time between books. It is now the 1950s, twenty years later, and his daughter Jean Louise—Scout—twenty-six years old and living in New York City, returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for a visit.
And despite the passage of time he really hasn’t changed at all. Despite what some sensation-seeking book reviewers, shocked readers, and disoriented English teachers will tell you, he’s pretty much the same man he always was. We finally have his backstory in print.
He’s older, has rheumatoid arthritis, and is grooming a successor to his legal practice. Atticus Finch hasn’t morphed from a champion of racial justice to a racist. That he’d long made a comfortable peace with white supremacy was there from the moment Lee’s now classic To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. Despite defending Tom Robinson, a Black man, against a false accusation of rape made by a white woman, he was at home with structural Jim Crow. This was never stated but permeated the story without being critically noted by the author—or countless readers—in any obvious way.
This blog post is one of two about the publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Stay tuned next week for Kay Whitlock's follow-up on the conversation.
American readers love stories of political uplift and inspiration rather than forthright, bluntly honest accounts of unpalatable truths and realities. They especially love them when they are spoken by innocent young girls.
After just over half a century, Harper Lee, author of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, has released Go Set a Watchman, her eagerly awaited second novel. But, with a novelist’s twist, Watchman is, in reality, her first novel, an earlier version of Mockingbird’s characters, but set later in their lives.
Lee submitted Watchman in 1957 to Tay Hohuff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott and Co., who felt the manuscript—in which Jean Louise Finch confronts the racism her of father Atticus, her potential lover Henry, and her beloved town—needed considerable work. Hohuff worked with the thirty-one-year-old first-time novelist to rewrite the story from the perspective of a younger version of the narrator, two decades earlier. That version, in which Atticus’s overt racism is erased or obscured, became To Kill a Mockingbird.
First announced in February 2014, the publication of Watchman has been a publicist’s dream. After its release in 1960, Mockingbird became an instant classic and a staple of high school reading lists. (The 1962 film starred Gregory Peck as Atticus.) But after Mockingbird, Lee became reclusive, never publishing another novel. Two years ago, Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carte, claims to have discovered the manuscript of Watchman in a safe deposit box and it was quickly—allegedly with the eighty-nine-year-old Lee’s permission (some friends question her current state of mental competency)—snapped up by HarperCollins. Excitement for the new work was palpable and Watchman became the most pre-ordered book in history with over two million copies printed. (Mockingbird has sold forty million.)
Questions have swirled around Lee’s career and life for decades, and Watchman has only added to them. Why had she never published another novel? Why did she remain out of the limelight for half a century? If Watchman was an early version of Mockingbird, why was it only recently discovered? Did Lee actually consent to the publication of this early work? Some of these questions may have answers, some may not, and frankly, some of them are no one’s business. Certainly, since Watchman’s publication on July 14, the most urgent question for the media and a multitude of readers is: how has one of the most beloved characters in modern American fiction become, overnight—and in an earlier version of the story—not only a racist, but a member of the Ku Klux Klan and active in the leadership of the local version of the notorious White Citizens Council?
Much of the power of Mockingbird comes from the narrative voice of six-year-old Scout Finch detailing her small Alabama town and her father’s defense of Tom Robinson, an African-American man falsely accused of rape. Intimate and heart-warming, the book became emblematic of the white liberal race politics of Kennedy’s Camelot, with rational, just, and courageous Atticus—his name means “citizen of Athens”—as the mythical great white savior. Mockingbird appeared after the Montgomery bus boycott and Brown v. Board of Education and before the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the 1963 March on Washington. Atticus, in book and film, became a touchstone for many white readers and viewers who identified with his integrity and vision of justice in a world wracked with racial turmoil and strife.
Tay Hohuff, by all accounts a brilliant editor, understood that a mid-late 1950s readership (the final draft of Mockingbird had to have been submitted at least a year before publication) would have responded strongly to a heartwarming bildungsroman of a young girl with an idealistic father. In many ways, Mockingbird is the sentimental version of Carson McCullers’ emotionally harsher girlhood coming-of-age stories such as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and Member of the Wedding (1946). Watchman may have been too blatantly political coming from a young, white, Southern woman writer at the time.
Each book gives us a political vision of race relations in America written closely together, but published half a century apart, that is a reflection of the presumed reader’s emotional and political response. Mockingbird represents the perhaps naïve, white liberal hopes and desires for justice in 1959 America, and Watchman, with its harsher explorations of racism, painfully resonates and intersects perfectly with our own political culture in which #BlackLivesMatter and controversies over the Confederate Flag are paramount in the news.
But there is a larger question here: when is a society ready to understand the harsh political truths an author might bring them? Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl was first published in Dutch in 1947. In three years, it went through six editions, and in 1950s was translated into English and other languages. During the editing process, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, removed various diary entries that reflected on Anne’s emerging sexuality, her highly conflicted relationship to her mother, and thorny family matters; these deletions remained in all editions until 1989 when they were restored.
In the 1950s, American novelist Meyer Levin, forty-four, after having read the French Le Journal de Anne Frank, wrote a theatrical version he felt profoundly portrayed the horror of the Holocaust as well as the very specific Jewish qualities and character of the Frank family. After a series of protracted, painful negotiations with Otto Frank, who had been persuaded to give the rights over to a non-Jewish writing team in an attempt to make the play “more universal” and, for Levin, less Jewish, Levin was forced to give up the project. Even worse, the new writers took out many of Anne’s political observations and her anger. Levin, who was deeply committed to his truth of the story, eventually, in 1973, wrote The Obsession, his version of how the play betrayed the material. Frank’s Diary and the plays and film made from it are all modern classics, even as the last two—Levin was right—avoid the harsher truth of history to sentimentally engage without challenging the audience.
Even the published Diary has been subject to expurgation in the public imagination. The most quoted line from Frank’s book is “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Yet in the context of the Diary, it is: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turning into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too.”
Novelist Cynthia Ozick, in her essay “Who Owns Anne Frank,” speculates a “salvational outcome: Anne Frank’s diary burned, vanished, lost—saved from a world that made it of all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil.” There is a very real chance that if the Diary had been published unexpurgated or the play and film really reflected Frank’s original they would never have had the impact that they did.
Literature does not exist in a vacuum. To reach an audience it needs to be published, sold, bought and read. Mockingbird was the perfect book for the early 1960s. Watchman, despite its literary imperfections and adult Scout’s ultimate decision to accommodate herself to mainstream racism in her hometown, may well be a book more suited to our time, not the imagined, more sentimental world of Mockingbird. Time will tell if Watchman speaks to readers today, and if the adult Jean Louise has the power to be heard as much as her younger self Scout.
In 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer “testified” before the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The highlight of her remarks was when she exclaimed “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired!” In so doing, the impoverished Mississippi Delta sharecropper secured her place as a leading light in the Civil Rights movement. Describing her home state as the antithesis of “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” she rebelled against that definition by calling it out as “the land of the tree and the home of the grave.”
So, here we are in 2015. As yet another round of racial animus erupts and national political conventions loom, I am compelled to echo Mrs. Hamer’s lament. I cannot even begin to tell you how sick and tired I am. It’s the same shit, albeit a different century.
On June 17, a white man named Dylan Roof invaded Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and massacred nine people engaged in studying the bible. Roof’s online manifesto “criticized blacks as being inferior while lamenting the cowardice of white flight.” It was illustrated with photographs, many of them showcasing him with a Confederate flag. I don’t know what chapter and verse the bible study group was concentrating on when Roof opened fire, but he obviously did not heed the sixth commandment that exhorts the moral imperative of “thou shall not kill.”
Early in the morning on Saturday, June 27, 2015, ten days following a mass killing in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome, a young Black artist and activist, refused demands from law enforcement authorities to come down from the flagpole she was climbing near the memorial to Confederate soldiers on the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol.
Instead, she continued to the top of the pole to take down the "Stars and Bars" or "Southern Cross," a potent symbol of the Confederacy carried as a battle flag by Robert E. Lee. It was the only way to take down the flag at this particular site; it cannot be raised or lowered by the usual cord and pulley mechanism. The flag flies until two-thirds of the predominantly white state legislature votes otherwise.
Once Newsome was down, arrested, and charged (not ironically) with defacing a public monument, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle publicly expressed concern that she was making it harder for them to remove the flag. “Citizens please engage legally, or we lose!” a Charleston Democratic state representative tweeted.
But Newsome’s carefully planned direct action captivated the public imagination.
The media characterized her action as a protest against “hate.” Newsome herself was precise: her act of civil disobedience signaled the urgent, imperative need to dismantle white supremacy.
Hate. White supremacy. Is there really any difference? Does it matter what we call it?
Yes. If #BlackLivesMatter, and they must, it matters profoundly.
One prominent theme of the oral arguments on April 28 in the Supreme Court marriage equality cases (Obgerfell v. Hodges) was the justices’ fear that recognizing same-sex marriage would lead to child marriage, incest, and polygamy. “Slippery slope” is the phrase we use in law-school classrooms to describe a trajectory, or “parade of horribles.”
As we wait for the decision, it’s worth asking how slippery this slope is. Is it like a forested hillside or more like a playground slide? If the legal and social context is like a forest, then a person skidding from the top of a hill would be blocked by the trees. But if it’s more like a slide, she would almost inevitably reach the bottom. The answers are different for child marriage, incest, and polygamy.
Before getting into specifics, I should say a few words about how I see marriage, since the institution has meant so many things in different times and places. As a contracts professor, I focus on its contractual aspects. (If you, too, like the idea of consent and reciprocity in relationships, check out my new bookLove’s Promises: How Formal & Informal Agreements Shape All Kinds of Families.) Linking love and contracts has a long history. Since the founding, US law has seen marriage as a mix of status and contract, in different proportions at different times. Generally speaking, a status relationship is forever; while contractual relationships usually can be dissolved by the parties according to the contract’s terms.
As feminist reforms such as married women’s rights to hold property and make contracts took root in the mid-nineteenth century, Sir Henry Maine famously observed in Ancient Law that the trend in progressive societies has been from status to contract.
Training a contractual lens on the slippery slope reveals that marriage equality for gay people is unlikely to lead to child marriage or incest. Polygamy, though, is a different story. For a decade now, the movement for marriage equality and gay rights litigation more generally has inspired fundamentalist Mormons to seek to decriminalize their sacred institution, and if that succeeds they may well seek marriage equality for themselves.
Think of it as instructive as well as tragic public spectacle, the bizarre eruption of violence between police and members of biker gangs in the parking lot of a Twin Peaks Restaurant in Waco, Texas on May 17, 2015 that produced a wide swath of casualties—all of them bikers.
Nine people were killed by gunshot, 18 people were sent to hospitals, and approximately 170 were thrown into the clink on felony charges related to the commission of organized criminal activity, with absurd bail set of $1,000,000 per person.
This unusual armed confrontation among predominantly white participants produced competing (and ludicrous) storylines—about victimization, persecution, danger, and safety—that drove the sensational media story. In largely unexamined ways, the Waco debacle also illuminates the dynamics and public discourse that keep the dominant American imagination stuck in the mire of false assumptions about violence (and who perpetrates it) and public safety.
We might well regard the lethal Waco events, the politics, and the mass media discourse surrounding the violence as a house of mirrors.
It’s heartbreaking when we lose such a visionary in politics and social justice. Jean Hardisty, political scientist and activist, died this year on March 16 after battling Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She founded Midwest Research in Chicago in 1981, which became Political Research Associates (PRA) in 1987 when it relocated to Boston.
Hardisty founded PRA to produce investigative research and analysis on right-wing movements to support social justice advocates and defend human rights. It specializes in reproductive justice, civil liberties, economic justice, LGBTQ rights, and racial/immigrant justice. Social change activists, in fact, knew Jean as a public intellectual concerned with feminist and lesbian issues. In order to understand conservative leaders’ influence on voters, Hadisty sought to learn what made right-wing supporters click rather than demonize or scapegoat them. It was her goal to expose the leaders of the Right.
She found the Left’s response to the rise of the New Right during the Reagan presidency inadequate and misguided. During her tenure as Executive Director of PRA, she taught Left activists not to underestimate the clout, finances, and the unifying vision of the Right. Patiently, she led her staff through analyses of elections, events and incidents on the local, state, and national level, and the work of the Right. Although the historical perspective she brought could be challenging, it was always reassuring. She matched the rigor of her research with the compassion, mentorship, and sense of humor her friends and colleagues cherish to this day. Those whose lives she touched will miss her dearly.
To commemorate May Day, we’re putting the spotlight on Bill Fletcher, Jr. Fletcher has been involved with the labor movement since he worked as a welder in a Massachusetts shipyard after graduating from Harvard in 1976. He moved on thereafter to become a labor activist and organizer. With hands-on experience from the bottom up, Fletcher is in the prime position to bust the myths bent on dismantling unions. Watch him bust ten in “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions.
MYTH 1 Workers are forced to join unions.
Fact: Unions are created when a majority of the workers in a workplace either vote for a union or sign cards to join the union, and are recognized by the employer. Whether one must become a member of a union depends on (a) a negotiated agreement between the workers and their employer that all union members can ratify and (b) state law.
MYTH 2 Unions are destroying the economy.
Fact: Problems with the U.S. economy have little to do with labor unions but instead stem from a global capitalist economy and polices that perpetuate inequality. Labor unions seek to more fairly distribute the results of labor.
MYTH 3 Unions are run by labor bosses.
Fact: Leadership is chosen through an electoral process. Local union leaders are elected by individual members, while delegates sent from local unions then choose national union officers, including a president and an executive board.
MYTH 4 Unions are always on strike.
Fact: The number of strikes, a nonviolent tactic for asserting worker needs, has declined from an average of 352 per year in the 1950s to 21 in the last ten years.
Several rapidly shifting and competing storylines embedded in the recent furor over passage (and subsequent amendment) of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) have produced a great deal of noise but little clarity.
Who actually “won” this battle? Forget mass media narratives. The real answer depends on how closely we’re willing to sift and sort through the civic rubble and rhetorical chaos of this mess.
In the post–Hobby Lobby era, the original Indiana RFRA bill—one of a growing number of states that have some kind of law modeled on the 1993 federal RFRA—departed from the federal template in significant ways. (The immediate impetus for the federal RFRA was protection of the religious rights of Native Americans.) The Hoosier state explicitly recognized the “free exercise” rights of for-profit businesses on an equal basis with that of individuals and faith communities. Indiana’s law even went further than the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Moreover, the Indiana statute made this right a defense against private lawsuits brought by individuals—not only against actions brought by government.