by Lindsay Beyerstein
How our blog got its name
Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”
Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.
It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.
Clear It With Sidney
Amy Harmon has a great feature in the New York Times about two college students with Asperger syndrome negotiating romance.
Asperger's is a condition on the autism spectrum that confers distinctive abilities (passionate interests, intense focus) and deficits (difficulty reading emotions and interpreting social cues).
People on the autism spectrum are often unfairly stereotyped as indifferent to intimacy. As Harmon explains, Asperger's doesn't extinguish the need for interpersonal connection, but it does make the search for love more difficult:
Jack, Kirsten noticed, bit his lips, a habit he told her came from not knowing how he was supposed to arrange his face to show his emotions. Kirsten, Jack noticed, cracked her knuckles, which she later told him was her public version of the hand-flapping she reserved for when she was alone, a common autistic behavior thought to ease stress.
Their difficulty discerning unspoken cues might have made it harder to know if the attraction was mutual. Kirsten stalked Jack on Facebook, she later told him, but he rarely posted. In one phone conversation, Jack wondered, “Is she flirting with me?” But he could not be sure.
[Photo credit: rosipaw, Creative Commons.]
- Developmentally disabled New Yorkers are being dosed with powerful psychotropic drugs with minimal medical supervision, Danny Hakim reports. [NYT]
- Peter Goodman continues his coverage of Cape Coral, Florida, one of the foreclosure capitals of America, home to rising suburban poverty. [HuffPo]
- Fairy shrimp under threat, public spirited British eccentrics dig ponds to protect beloved invertebrates. [BBC]
- Dave Weigel takes Politifact to task for the "fact-checking" site's bizarre claim that Democrats lied when they said that "Republicans voted to end Medicare" by eliminating the popular single-payer health insurance program and replacing it with vouchers for private insurance. [Slate]
[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]
Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post explores America's warehouse archipelago in a piece entitled The New Blue Collar: Temporary Work, Lasting Poverty, and the American Warehouse. He describes how big retailers like Wal-Mart outsource their shipping to subcontractors who hire temporary workers to move goods for piecework rates.
Warehouses could support local communities by providing non-outsourceable middle class jobs, but instead, many are miserable places to work:
As manufacturing jobs continue to head overseas, Americans need new sectors that can provide good, middle-class work for millions of people. Driven as it is by the consumer economy, the retail supply chain should be one of those sectors. But plenty of workers who are lucky enough to have jobs in the industry find themselves earning poverty wages. And while workers get squeezed in the name of lower prices, the overall benefits to consumers may be illusory. By many measures, the middle class is shrinking -- and not just because of the Great Recession. There are simply fewer jobs that pay good wages. More than 46 million Americans -- roughly one in six -- are now living in poverty, the highest number ever recorded by the Census Bureau. Between 2001 and 2007, as the economy boomed, poverty expanded among working-age people for the first time ever during a period of growth. Workers on the whole made less at the end of the boom than they did at the beginning.
In the case of the warehouse industry, where permanent temps are now common, many workers performing the most difficult jobs don't even enjoy the status of basic employees. They work at the pleasure of the agencies employing them. For many of them, getting hurt or slowing down means the end of their gig with no parting compensation -- similar to the arrangement detailed in a devastating expose of an Amazon warehouse by the Pennsylvania Morning Call in September.
Jamieson won a Sidney Award in November of 2009 for a story about the intersection healthcare and homelessness. Spencer Soper won the October 2011 Sidney Award for his coverage of heat prostration and other indignities inflicted upon the staff of an Amazon.com warehouse complex in Pennsylvania.
[Photo credit: Roamallday, Creative Commons.]
A mysterious form of chronic kidney disease is killing thousands of sugar cane workers each year in Central America, Sasha Chavkin and Ronnie Greene report for iWatch News. Chronic kidney disease usually develops over many years as a complication of high blood pressure and diabetes. In the sugar cane workers, the kidneys degenerate rapidly in patients who have neither hypertension nor diabetes. One patient Chavkin and Greene interviewed for the piece was just 19 years old. "Sugarcane nephropathy," as some experts call the new syndrome, has already killed his father and his grandfather and stricken three of his brothers, all sugarcane workers.
[Photo credit: Lon&Queta, Creative Commons.]
Victoria's Secret claims that some of its cotton lingerie is made with "fair trade" fibers from Burkina Faso. However, as Cam Simpson reports in Bloomberg Markets Magazine, some of that cotton was harvested by child labor:
Made with 20 percent organic fibers from Burkina Faso,” reads a stamp on that garment, purchased in October.
Forced labor and child labor aren’t new to African farms. Clarisse’s cotton, the product of both, is supposed to be different. It’s certified as organic and fair trade, and so should be free of such practices.
Planted when Clarisse was 12, all of Burkina Faso’s organic crop from last season was bought by Victoria’s Secret (LTD), according to Georges Guebre, leader of the country’s organic and fair- trade program, and Tobias Meier, head of fair trade for Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, a Zurich-based development organization that set up the program and has helped market the cotton to global buyers. Meier says Victoria’s Secret also was expected to get most of this season’s organic harvest, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its February issue.
[Photo credit: jensconspiracy, Creative Commons.]
Why is the federal government spending millions on research into coffee enemas, aromatherapy, and intercessory prayer? Hint: It's not our exit strategy from Afghanistan.
Trine Tsouderos of the Chicago Tribune has a scathing report on The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), an ideologically motivated side project within the National Institutes of Health which has received over $1.4 billion in grants to study scientifically dubious alternative remedies:
Thanks to a $374,000 taxpayer-funded grant, we now know that inhaling lemon and lavender scents doesn't do a lot for our ability to heal a wound. With $666,000 in federal research money, scientists examined whether distant prayer could heal AIDS. It could not.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine also helped pay scientists to study whether squirting brewed coffee into someone's intestines can help treat pancreatic cancer (a $406,000 grant) and whether massage makes people with advanced cancer feel better ($1.25 million). The coffee enemas did not help. The massage did.
NCCAM also has invested in studies of various forms of energy healing, including one based on the ideas of a self-described "healer, clairvoyant and medicine woman" who says her children inspired her to learn to read auras. The cost for that was $104,000.
The Tribune reviewed 12 years' worth of NCCAM documents to write this story.
Tsouderos succinctly explains why the public should be outraged. NCCAM is wasting money investigating hypotheses that have little or no prior probability of being true--some of them claim mechanisms of action that are medically impossible. In real science, extreme longshot research proposals are less likely to get funded than proposals with a serious chance of getting results. Most of NCCAM research proposals couldn't compete with real medical research for regular NIH funding. At the same time, competition for medical research dollars is fierce, and the NIH's overall budget is projected to plateau and eventually shrink.
As regular readers may know, I've been active in the skeptics movement for many years. Tsouderos interviewed my old Skeptics Toolbox colleague and friend Dr. Wallace Sampson, who was characteristically acerbic in his assessment of NCCAM's research portfolio:
"Some of these treatments were just distinctly made up out of people's imaginations," said Dr. Wallace Sampson, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford University. "We don't take public money and invest it in projects that are just made up out of people's imaginations."
As Tsouderos notes, complementary and alternative therapies are a $34 billion industry and 40% of U.S. adults report using some kind of alternative remedy in the last year. Wouldn't it make sense to study these remedies, given that they're being used so widely? For all we know, some of them are dangerous. Besides, even debunking useless claims would be a service to consumers. The problem is that NCCAM exists to validate alternative medicine, not to assess it critically.
NCCAM is a political oasis for research that could not compete in mainstream science. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), one of the fathers of NCCAM, gave the game away when he lamented during a 2009 senate hearing that the center was disproving too many alternative therapies. "One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short," Harkin said. If Harkin were interested in applying science to CAM, as opposed to confirming his bias towards complementary remedies, he would be happy that useless treatments were found to be useless.
[Photo credit: opacity, Creative Commons.]
- Your periodic reminder that Ron Paul isn't just a cuddly freedom-loving old coot, courtesy of Jon Chait in New York Magazine.
- Michael Barbaro of the New York Times explains how Mitt Romney really made his money at Bain Capital Group: taking over companies and laying people off.
- Jerry Sandusky's lawyer says his client may simply have been teaching teenage boys to shower in the Penn State locker room. Cleanliness is next to godliness, right?
- Why can't Linda Carswell get her husband's heart back? Marshall Allen of ProPublica continues the newsroom's series on America's broken autopsy system.
[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]
Public sector job cuts are taking a disproportionate toll on women in general, and black women in particular, Amy Lieberman reports for Women's eNews:
Women, meanwhile, have suffered a disproportionate majority--nearly 66 percent--of the public sector job losses. For black women--who have higher overall levels of unemployment and rely on public sector jobs as their second-biggest source of employment--outsourcing is particularly harmful, according to Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist at University of California, Berkeley.
From 2008 through 2010, a black woman was 22 percent more likely to be employed in the public sector than a non-black woman, Pitts found in an April 2011 research brief on black workers and the public sector.
Pitts says questions of race and gender haven't factored into the national dialogue of public sector cuts and who they are most likely to affect.
Women's unemployment in the U.S. declined last month to 7.8 percent, but African American women's unemployment rate in November remains well above that at 12.9 percent, according to the National Women's Law Center.
New York City cut laid of 642 support staff workers in October, most of them women of color. One such worker is Cliftonia Johnson, pictured above, a 13-year veteran of the New York City school system. She and her colleagues saw their jobs farmed out to private contractors. The jobs were cut in the name of austerity, but Lieberman raises doubts that the cuts are saving money. Johnson's union, District Council 37 (DC 37) plans to sue the city for cutting jobs in bad faith.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg tried to veto legislation that would require the city to prove that privatization projects save money, but the City Council overrode his veto.
[Photo credit: Amy Lieberman, Women's eNews.]
Derek Boogaard, once the most feared enforcer in the NHL, was found dead of an overdose of alcohol and prescription pain killers at the age of 28 earlier in May. If you're not a hockey fan, chances are you've never heard of Boogaard, or enforcers, for that matter. "Enforcer" is the polite term for a hockey goon.
Lots of hockey players fight, but goons are fighting specialists. In theory, a goon's job is to protect his more agile, goal-scoring teammates from cheapshots by other players who would like to take the star out of the game. As Scott Lemieux notes, some teams have goons that do little but fight each other for the spectacle. Most hockey leagues ban fighting, but the NHL exalts fighting as a tradition. A fight can bring an entire stadium to its feet. Replica jerseys of popular enforcers fly off the shelves.
John Branch of New York Times spent six months piecing together the the life and death of Derek Boogaard, from his hockey-crazed childhood in Melfort, Saskatchewan, to his glory days in the NHL, through his agonizing physical and mental disintegration and lonely death. The multimedia package "Punched Out" transcends sports reporting. This series is an investigative triumph, a compelling piece of science writing, and above all, a the tragic story of a guy who sold his soul to play in the NHL.
Part I: A Boy Learns to Brawl
Boogaard grew up in small town Saskatchewan, the son of a Mountie. Boogaard was a gentle kid who would have preferred scoring goals to busting heads, but his immense size and lackluster skills marked him as a goon in the making. "Like so many Canadian boys, Boogaard wanted to reach the National Hockey League on the glory of goals. That dream ended early, as it usually does, and no one had to tell him," Branch writes.
Boogaard's big break came at the age of 15 when he lost his temper as he was being hauled off the ice for an earlier penalty. He pushed off the referee and dove into the opposing team's bench, swinging. His dad, the cop, was appalled, but a scout was very impressed. That rampage was Derek's ticket to the big leagues.
Part II: Blood on the Ice
In the second installment, Branch elaborates on the role of the enforcer in the NHL:
Imagine in football, if a linebacker hit a quarterback with what the quarterback’s team believed was too much force. The equivalent to hockey’s peculiar brand of justice would be if those teams each sent a player from the sideline — someone hardly valued for his skill as a player, perhaps rarely used — and had them interrupt the game to fight while teammates and officials stood back and watched. In football, as in most sports, such conduct would end in ejections, fines and suspensions. In hockey, it usually means five minutes in the penalty box and a spot in the postgame highlights.
Branch describes the physical and psychological toll of the enforcer's job. Boogaard once hit another player so hard that his cheekbone had to be surgically reconstructed. Despite years of boxing lessons, Boogaard was lax about defense. Teammates recall that he'd take several punches for the opportunity to land one good blow. Boogaard was still a young man, but his hands were so mangled from years of bare knuckle brawling that his family wondered how he'd be able to hold a pen when he got old. By his late twenties, he had bulging disks in his back, a shoulder that hadn't been right since his teens, and a repeatedly broken nose that was excruciating to reset.
Like many NHL players, he became dependent on painkillers to mask the damage he was inflicting on his body and sleeping pills to cope with the gruelling travel schedule. Less dramatically, but more ominously, Boogaard was racking up concussions and hiding them.
Part III: A Brain 'Going Bad'
Boogaard staggered through the 2009-2010 season in a haze. “His demeanor, his personality, it just left him,” John Scott, a Wild teammate is quoted as saying. “He didn’t have a personality anymore. He just was kind of — a blank face.” He lost the will to fight on the ice and took some bad hits because he wouldn't return a punch. The team gave him time time off. He drank, swallowed pills by the handfull, racked up huge credit card bills, rented expensive sports cars, and logged more time in drug rehab. On the night of his death, he was just hours out of drug treatment.
Boogaard's family donated his brain to a team of researchers in Boston who study concussions in sports. He was the fourth dead NHL player to have his brain examined by the research team, and the fourth to be posthumously diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease similar to Alzheimer's caused by repeated blows to the head. The researchers have found CTE in the brains of over twenty dead NFL players so far. CTE may explain why the formerly goodnatured and conscientious Boogaard behaved so erratically during the last months of his life. The researchers were shocked at the extent of brain degeneration in a relatively young man.
Learning the extent of his son's brain damage changed Len Boogaard's perspective on his son's death. As hard as it was to lose a 28-year-old to an accidental overdose, the brown shadows spreading over Derek's brain foretold a future that might have been even worse:
The Boogaards learned of the surprising severity of the brain damage. And they heard about the prospects of middle-age dementia.
It was then that Len Boogaard stopped listening. Something occurred to him that he did not expect.
For months, he could not bear the thought of his son’s death. Suddenly, he was forced to imagine the life his son might have been left to live.
The NHL remains officially skeptical about the link between CTE and Boogaard's career as an enforcer. The league has no plans to change the rules for fighting.
As one CTE researcher observes, it's hard to know whether Boogaard's drug abuse accelerated his brain degeneration or vice versa. In a sense, it doesn't matter. By the time we're invited to consider this chicken and egg problem, Branch has skillfully established that fighting, orthopedic injuries, pain killers, addiction, and CTE were inextricably linked in Boogaard's demise. Towards the end, Boogaard liked to hide his pills in colorful plastic Easter eggs and stash them around his apartment. Branch has an eye for these kinds of telling details.
Maybe the drugs made Boogaard's brain damage worse, but his fights injured him so badly that he needed powerful painkillers to play, and no doubt the brain damage sapped his impulse control in the face of constant access to drugs and booze. It's a chicken and egg problem, but the NHL is watching this hen house.
To learn more about CTE and contact sports, check out Offensive Play, Malcolm Gladwell's classic 2009 New Yorker essay about brain damage in the National Football League. Boogaard's brain is in the same brain bank that Gladwell describes.
Canadians like to think of themselves as more civilized than neighbors to the south. We've become accustomed to the idea that professional football players and boxers are damaging their brains in pursuit of athletic glory, but it's a shock to think of hockey in the same category. Punched Out has prompted a lot of soul searching amongst fans. The series raises questions about what players like Derek Boogaard are asked to endure for our entertainment.
[Photo credit: MattBritt00, Derek Boogaard vs. Steve MacIntyre.]
By Tom Watson
For all the splashy immersion in code, data, platforms, and techniques that generally soaks the discussions and analysis of the democracy and civil rights movements among the digerati, it was striking how little technology asserted itself last night at Personal Democracy Media’s “instant” conference on Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party organizing at New York University.
While the network itself was at the center of the rangy panel discussion, there was little on Facebook and Twitter, text messaging and video platforms from those on the stage, and not much from the audience either. This was surprising in some ways, because from where I sat, the 10th floor of the Kimmel Center was basically Geek Central, East Coast Chapter, convened by Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej.
Yet the web seemed almost a side player, a stipulated tool in the hands of craftspeople making something shinier and more valuable. To some, it was the network itself, with a perfect circle of actor/activists signaling the highest purpose of our digital connections. This is a standard point of view among those convinced that social networks and the digital ties that bind necessarily offer a brighter future for democracy and the public commons.
But there was another factor in last night’s discussion of how Occupy and the Tea Party captured hearts and minds and moving feet that clearly rivaled the network and its much-studied effect: human empathy.
To my ear, speaker after speaker stressed the appeal of an empathetic connection within organizing groups to challenge the powers that be.
“Communities and networks are becoming communities of care–we care for each other space,” said grassroots organizer Marianne Manilov, co-founder and co-director of The Engage Network. She said much of the success of Occupy’s core group of organizers came from their collective realization that in today’s society, “there's no one coming for us." Pulling together into “small circles of trust “ isn’t a technique – it’s a necessity, she said. “People are coming together and they’re re-knitting the broken fabric of our broken communities by standing together.”
Jessica Shearer, executive director of SEIU ‘s Healthcare Education Project and a veteran political organizer, talked with disarming directness about organized labor’s lack of the human touch. She told of fleeing the scene of domestic violence as a child, and how her mother had called the union for help. “No response. Not a single word. Not ever. In desperation she turned to the evangelical church. By nightfall we had a place to stay and a turkey stew.”
Shearer said that big unions like SEIU struggle to reach people in real ways, and really empower their members. “Everywhere unions stagnate, we shrink. Unions fall victim to our own scale and sophistication. We know that Occupy is important but we’re still learning our lesson.”
She contrasted organized labor’s response to the Tea Party and said that while unions were altogether smarter and more sophisticated with their “large professional call centers and mass mailings,” the truth was that “the Tea Party, you” – turning to California Tea Party Patriots founder Mark Meckler, who sat next to her on the dais – “kicked our butts.”
Shearer talked about the October 5 march in New York, when organized labor first endorsed Occupy Wall Street and swelled its numbers to more than 12,000 marchers (including me). A month later on November 17, the crowd grew to more than 30,000 people including major union leaders. But she pointed out that those numbers, while large for the Occupy movement, are tiny compared to the millions of potential boots on the ground. What’s lacking still, Shearer asserted, is the visceral connection to people, to members, to workers who might want to organize: “Labor is on the edge of a cliff. What we lack -- what we feel we can no longer afford -- is human scale outreach.”
The crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo just might have the opposite problem, according to social analyst Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina, who has spent time with the networked revolutionaries and written about freedom movements on her technosociology blog. The Egyptian freedom activists gravitated toward the rewarding and now-familiar human interaction at Tahrir, missing their moment in the recent elections. Tufekci scratched a bit at the sacred hide of “the network” during her talk, worrying aloud that small groups of organizers can fall in love, in essence, with organizing itself and their own perfectly-formed (and basically closed) circles, while ignoring models like the U.S. civil rights movement which, led by goal-oriented visionaries, plunged ruthlessly on in pursuit of legal and societal change – and succeeded. Yet she couldn’t help but tell the wonderful tale of the Twitter-powered creation of ad hoc field hospitals in Cairo to treat the hundreds of casualties from the clashes with authorities.
But the three organizers who ran the field hospital creation network weren’t faceless drones in a network in which each member is an exact equal. They were leaders – just as there are leaders of the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, whether they accept those monikers or not. Some of it is indeed based on hubs of information and sharing data. Author and NYU professor Clay Shirky remarked (correctly in my view) that “the person who collates information often becomes the go-to person.” And despite being the only self-identified Tea Party member in the room, Mark Meckler elicited a sea of nodding liberal heads when he said that these movements “are not leaderless, they’re ‘leaderfull.’”
Meckler painted a different painting of Tea Party organizing than is generally accepted by progressive critics – one that reflects both a sharing ethic among organizers and a lack of support from the big institutions (the national GOP, Fox News, and the Koch Brothers made their appearances in discussion and on the Twitter feed for the event). His description closely aligned with the vision of Ori Brafman, co-author, The Starfish and the Spider – the concept of “emergence” and the bubbling up of movements from “starfish” organizations that regenerate their myriad parts and adapt. In a digitally networked world, asserted Brafman, “this is going to be the platform for activism going forward.” In Brafman’s “small circles of trust” the technology drops away.
Occupy organizer Beka Economopolous brought the broad sociological concepts down from 30,000 feet to the pavement in Zuccotti Park. “What's great about OWS is that it gets people out of their houses and off their computers,” she said. Occupy has a strong sense of its own dramatic presence to the left – “we stage defiance and sacrifice and that captures people's imaginations.” And at some level, it’s about “touching people's hearts and fulfilling peoples needs.”
Shirky had the take-away question in my view: at what point, if ever, does Occupy “go all the way” in altering our relationship with government? Or better stated, in a democratic republic, when does it change government – since we have no relationship in theory.
The answer’s unclear, of course. Yet it was heartening to me to hear Shearer’s account on the burgeoning impact of Occupy on organized labor. It’s not quite that the Occupiers are standing over an operating room gurney, charging a couple of electronic paddles, and yelling “clear!” Maybe it’s closer to an ice cold Gatorade to a long distance runner. But I had to agree with her conclusion:
“Occupy Wall Street is not an alternative to real organizing – it is real organizing.”
[Image credit: Brian Sims, Creative Commons.]