Sunday, October 31, 2010


Harry Targ

Americans always check the win/lost columns. From mid-April to some time in June I check the progress of my beloved Chicago Cubs on the sports pages. After that my interest in baseball tapers off because hopes usually are dashed by June.

Thinking about sports might help us think about politics and social change as well. Winning and losing is defined by what happened yesterday and about where your side is in the standings. There is much less interest in watching the game for what it is. Little attention is paid to where the team has come from and the prospects of building a better team in the future. In other words, history--the connections between yesterday, today, and tomorrow--is less important than the most recent box score and standing in the race.

I remember waking up the first Wednesday in November, 1980 with a heavy heart, a headache, a sense of despair as deep as I could remember in my life. Students told me that in all of their classes professors were decrying the prospects for America because Ronald Reagan had been elected president.

I raise the sports metaphor and my 1980 feeling of a world crashing down as I think about Tuesday’s Congressional elections. I don’t think the progressive candidate slate will be big losers as the Cubs are by June every year. Also I do not believe that we will see the Republican “tsunami” that some have been predicting that would resemble the 1980 election. But I realize I need to reconsider the intellectual underpinnings of the political highs and lows that I felt in 2008 and will feel in 2010. Why? Because I and we need to better understand the longer-term trajectory of progressive politics in America.

There are three possible outcomes we can expect from Tuesday’s Congressional elections. These are listed on the basis of their relative probability of occurrence based on available evidence, flawed though that is.

The most likely outcome Tuesday is an election that represents victories for Republicans. Republicans would gain about 50-60 seats in the House of Representatives and thus would gain control of that body. In the Senate, Republicans would pick up five to seven seats, leaving party control of that body in the hands of Democrats.

The second possible outcome is the one that has been trumpeted by most of the media for months, a massive victory for Republicans. This would lead to Republican control of the House of Representatives and the Senate and would constitute the most sustained challenge to the Obama administration. Curiously, this expectation has been driving the news accounts from Fox to NPR. Their reports have been based on constant polling data using the most dubious of methods-including robo calls to landlines and day-time calling. The tsunami outcome, if it occurs, could reasonably be explained by the enormous reporting bias that has encouraged two contradictory behavioral reactions: “back the winner” voting or “it’s hopeless” non-voting.

A third possible outcome which is not inconceivable would result from modestly better turnouts from those who constituted the Obama coalition of 2008: people of color, the young, workers, and those seriously disappointed with the administration and Congressional Democrats but who see the so-called Tea Party alternative as qualitatively worse.

What do each of these outcomes mean for progressive politics after the election? As to broad vision and our program of actions over the next several months, it is important to recognize that not much will change. We need to continue to build a progressive majority around achieving fundamental goals.

We need to mobilize forces, connecting “street heat” with direct pressure on legislators and the administration, to pass a jobs bill. Right now, the bill that makes the most sense is the one introduced by Congressman John Conyers, HR 5204: “The 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act,” which will set goals to reduce unemployment over ten years from the current levels to four percent, institutionalizing the principle of the government as Employer of Last Resort, and which will be paid for by taxes on financial transactions.

We need to continue to defend current health care reform and at the same time continue to work for its expansion into a single payer health care system.

We need to broaden and deepen our work around climate crisis legislation, effective regulations of energy corporations, and building a green economy.

In addition, we need to work against the war in Afghanistan, for the elimination of U.S. global militarism, in opposition to funding of Israel’s aggression, and to cut United States military spending by half or more, converting war spending to education, infrastructure, and research and development for peaceful activities.

These priorities do not change irrespective of which of the three options come to pass.

At the tactical level, progressives will continue their debates about how to achieve these goals and how to begin talking about “21st century socialism.” We will need to assess strengths and weaknesses of those who might support us in the Congress. We will need to debate how to relate to the Obama Administration. We will need to address anew “outside” strategies, from street heat mobilizations, to building local third parties, to constructing alternative institutions such as worker-owned cooperatives. We will need to address the role of the media and how to use and challenge it in a way we have not before. We also will need to assess the long-term significance of massive movement collaborations for progressive change. Here I am thinking about the World Social Forum and the One Nation rally, held October 2, organized by the NAACP, La Raza, and the AFL-CIO.

On reflection, progressives need to realize that the 2010 Congressional elections do not constitute the end, a defeat or a victory, but the continuation of an historical process of change.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Harry Targ

Long ago Karl Marx argued that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. Twentieth century Italian theorist, Antonio Gramsci, who spent his last years in jail for his ideas, argued that power and control came from the capacity to shape idea systems, ideologies, as much as having guns and bombs. In other words, our political and economic institutions are as much fashioned by the struggle over ideas as they are by the struggle for weapons.

More and more of experience of the world is framed for us by television, radio, movies, the internet, and sound bite communiqu├ęs from Facebook and Twitter. As we withdraw to the world of smart phones and radio/TV receivers, the frequency of our direct experiences of each other declines. And, more and more of the dissemination of information, emotional and descriptive, is controlled by fewer and fewer institutions; corporations that control what we know, hear, see, feel, and are exhorted to consume. Rough estimates suggest that ten media conglomerates control about half of all messages we receive about the world.

As the structures of media conglomerates began to change after World War II, with dramatic declines in competing print media outlets and the globalization of control of radio, television, and films, grassroots activists began to struggle for the re-democratization of the flow of information and entertainment. Since the 1960s, alternative newspapers, radio stations, television programs, and networks of friends have been created to challenge hegemonic control by creating community media institutions. More recently, the blogosphere and web sites constitute a new hope as well.

At the national level, pressure mounted for the creation and public support for radio and television programming. In 1971, National Public Radio was launched with the goal of creating alternative sources of national and international news, providing diversity of perspectives on the world’s happenings, and information and analysis from those who traditionally had been voiceless in the society. Ever since then sixties generation activists, long-time liberals and radicals and other independent-minded people living in cities and towns around the United States have habitually sought out NPR outlets on local stations for their news and information. A 2004 report indicated that there were 22 million listeners to NPR on 750 radio stations.

By the 1980s, Republicans and other conservatives had made attacks on publicly financed radio and television a centerpiece of their efforts to transform the goals of an independent media into becoming clones of the dominant corporate media. And, of course, it worked.

Funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federal source of moneys for NPR constitute ten percent or less of radio operations. Despite the fact that most of NPR’s funding comes from fees paid by local stations and grants, NPR clearly shifted to the right. This has been seen in its coverage of news, its sources, and its declining representation of workers, people of color, women, and dissidents critical of United States foreign and domestic policy. All of this was confirmed in empirical research done on NPR reporting (“How Public is Public Radio?” Extra, May/June, 2004).

Major coverage of stories in the 21st century includes the following:

1)NPR became a major celebrant and sponsor of U.S. wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, marginalizing questions being raised about the morality of the first and the accuracy of claims being made about the need for the second (Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”).

2)NPR has been an unceasing critic of Cuba, using the Cold War “dictatorship” frame of the island. Stories ridicule Cuba’s historic resistance to market based capitalism, celebrating Cuba’s economic difficulties, while presenting minimal coverage of the impacts of the US blockade of the island and the horrific damage done to Cuba by recent hurricanes.

3)For the better part of a year, NPR, like its fellow stations such as Fox News, have been trumpeting the growth of the Tea Party, emphasizing its grassroots character and minimizing its central funding and organization by reactionary billionaires.

4)Again, for almost a year, NPR has communicated the frame that the Republicans will win dramatic victories in the fall, 2010 elections. On Saturday October 23, Scott Simon interviewed an “expert” from The Weekly Standard on the shape of the new Republican Congress. They analyzed the new Republican leadership in the Republican House of Representatives as if the election were over.

5)And, of course, voices of opposition to the right wing, to the Obama corporate agenda, to U.S. foreign policy are rarely heard on NPR. “Left-wing” perspectives usually come from such “extremists” as the Brookings Institution. Occasional references to research reports from the Economic Policy Institute refer to that body as left-leaning or tied to labor unions while The Heritage Foundation is referred to merely as a think tank.

Despite the reality of NPR’s service to the construction of ideological hegemony, the fall fund drive season brings out the old propaganda about NPR’s mission: we are “the alternative to corporate controlled news.” All around the country local stations, who often have varied and creative programming, are having fund drives. Many people face a dilemma: they recognize the hegemonic role of NPR but wish to support the work of their local stations.

To further NPR’s effort to mystify the public, it fired Juan Williams, the commentator who did extra duty for Fox News and who made one racial slur too many on a Fox broadcast. (At least one other NPR regular has done double duty on Fox over the years). Now the NPR spokespersons will trumpet the Williams firing as proof of their record of defending diversity and non-partisanship against the Fox enemy. The fact is that NPR is the Fox enemy but in sheep’s clothes.

What to do? Some may choose to continue their support of public radio. Ways need to be developed to encourage the independence and creativity of local public stations that do strive to achieve the original mission of public broadcasting despite shrinking resources. Some may find their ways to commercial alternative radio represented by the survivors of Air America. For sure, progressives need to support national ventures such as Amy Goodman’s radio/television program “Democracy Now,” which is an example of authentic independent, informative media.

And, finally, progressives should continue that tradition of building movement alternative local media: radio, television, print, blogs and websites. There may be something about the old adages about how “the truth can make you free” if we “speak truth to power.”

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Harry Targ

I became a radical in the 1960s. I kept putting off being active until the late 60s but I slowly involved myself in the anti-war movement. When I started teaching around this time I noticed that many students became instant radicals; 19 year-old- kids going from lack of political awareness to militancy in a matter of weeks.

The Southern movement was inspiring; young people and their elders were transforming the system of Jim Crow. College campuses were bursting with energy, demanding “student rights” and “relevant” courses. Then the anti-war mobilizations grew bigger and bigger. Each massive mobilization in D.C., in New York, in Chicago, in San Francisco challenged organizers to produce larger and larger crowds and for a time the crowds did get bigger.

Many of us began to see the achievement of peace and justice as just around the corner. We were on the verge of building a new world, not unlike the world of altruism and love envisioned by Che` Guevara.

But then everything seemed to fall apart. The New Left split. African Americans sought to build their own movements. Women and gays began to argue that human liberation should be for them as well.

Nixon was elected. Vietnamization did not end the war but shifted the U.S. role from ground to massive air strikes across all of Vietnam. The Xmas bombing destroyed virtually all of North and South Vietnam. Black Panthers were targeted for assassination by the federal government and local authorities. Students were murdered at Kent State and Jackson State.

The youthful energy, the visions of socialism dissipated. Particularly the young became disillusioned. I remember one student telling me in the early 70s: “I tried the political thing and it didn’t work.”

The seeming victories of the 60s and 70s were followed by the brutal Reagan “low intensity” conflicts of the 80s: leading to death and destruction in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Afghanistan. And Reagan trumpeted the shift from welfare state capitalism to neoliberal globalization: privatization, de-regulation, and shifting all human activities from the public sector to the market. Then the last large-scale check on the globalization of capitalism and imperialism, the Soviet Union, collapsed.

This brief history reflects my own intellectual immaturity. Along with hundreds of thousands of others I was caught up in the emotion of the times. Not informed about the subtleties and complexities of history, I assumed that the path to victory, the path to peace and justice, would be smooth and linear. I did not expect major setbacks. I assumed that once we demonstrated our passion, our ability to mobilize large numbers of people, then the job was done.

But as I read Marx, involved myself in the labor movement and Central American solidarity, I began to realize that history does not work in simple and linear ways. Struggle must continue. Those who oppose us will continue to defend their privileges and their position. Patience is as critical to our work as is passion. And, these lessons of history are more likely to be understood by workers, by marginalized peoples, by most of the citizens of the globe who may not have been the beneficiaries of the short-term victories of social movements.

I also thought more about the lessons embedded in the music of my youth and the deep philosophical meaning of the simple verses of the songs of folk singers such as Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger and the Weavers.

I remember Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie describing his own connection to the progressive folk music tradition:

“One of the great things that I learned from both my mother and my dad and from some of these folks here is that this kind of wanting to make the world a better place is not something that started with the Weavers….they recognized and continued a tradition that’s probably been going on for as long as people have been around. And that is a wonderful thing for a young person to discover; he or she is not the beginning of a thing but somewhere in the middle of a long line of people who are concerned about making the world a better place to be.

It gives you the ability to not get so anxiety-prone over what’s going on from moment to moment but to take a little longer look and know that you don’t have to finish a job within the span of a lifetime. All you have to do is link up to the future. That’s the job of being a human. It’s to make the connection to the future and hold on to the connection to the past
”(album notes from HARP, Redwood Records).

In addition, I would often think about Pete Seeger singing in “Quite Early Morning” that it is “darkest before the dawn.”

Some say that humankind won't long endure
But what makes them so doggone sure?
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing
I know that you who hear my singing
Could make those freedom bells go ringing

And so keep on while we live
Until we have no, no more to give
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger
And when these fingers can strum no longer
Hand the old banjo to young ones stronger

So though it's darkest before the dawn
These thoughts keep us moving on
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
Through all this world of joy and sorrow
We still can have singing tomorrows
[ Quite Early Morning lyrics on ]

So let’s get back to work

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Teach, your children well
Their father's hell
Did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked
The one you'll know by.
(Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)

Harry Targ

One hundred years ago, Hannah Shapiro, known as “Annie” among her fellow workers, sewed pants pockets at one of the Hart, Shaffner, and Marx men’s clothing factories in Chicago. She worked ten hours a day, unless the foreman demanded more pants produced than usual. She earned four cents for every pocket she sewed.

Annie and her parents came from Russia to the United States in 1905 and the family settled on the west side of Chicago. Her father, a former rabbi, earned a modest living teaching Hebrew and Annie, the oldest of eight children, had to go to work to help support the family. She began working when she was 12 and was employed at HSM, when she was 17.

On a bright and sunny day, September 22, 1910, Annie went to work early in the morning. She was saddened to think that she would not leave work until it was dark. Upon arrival, Annie and her fellow workers were informed by the foreman on the floor that the piece rate for each pocket sewed would be cut from four cents to three and three quarter cents. This was the last straw for Annie who experienced daily indignities at the work place involving work rules and wages. She decided she had had enough and stormed off the job.

As she marched down the stairs from the fifth floor, she heard the tramp of many feet. Her fellow workers followed her off the job. Thus, as a result of the spontaneous leadership of Annie Shapiro the great Hart, Schaffner, and Marx strike of 1910 was launched. Eventually 40,000 workers from job sites around the city would march in solidarity with the HSM workers. Workers would receive support from noted progressive lawyer Clarence Darrow, the Women’s Trade Union League, and after a time, the United Garment Workers Union.

After a month’s general strike, HSM agreed to the establishment of a workers’ grievance committee but refused to recognize a union in the factory. That was to come later with the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, but workers all around the city learned a valuable lesson: the power of the working class comes from solidarity, organization, and action.

This inspiring story is told in a new book written for kids by children’s author Marlene Targ Brill ). The book, Annie Shapiro and the Clothing Workers’ Strike, Millbrook Press, 2011, tells the story of Annie in words and attractive illustrations, and includes a script for children’s use in theatrical performances.

Beyond a blatant advertisement of a book written by my sister and about my wife’s aunt I have been intrigued for a long time about education, consciousness raising, and the importance of transmitting progressive narratives from generation to generation. For me, this is a vital project, particularly given the general ignorance and denial of history in our culture. Even so-called radical scholars reject “historical narratives,” defending a “post-modern” understanding of the world that emphasizes the here and now and the absolute subjectivity of the world.

Thinking about the question of how to reclaim and communicate progressive history to the young, I came across a recent book by Julia L. Mickenberg, Learning From the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, Oxford Press, 2006. In this book Professor Mickenberg presents a history of the impacts of anti-communism on children’s political culture in the Cold War era. (Also, she and Philip Nel edited a collection of representative children’s stories from this period called Tales for Little Rebels, NYU Press, 2010).

Paradoxically, as radical novelists, essayists, and journalists were blacklisted from publication outlets and public school and university teachers lost jobs or were censored because of what they taught, a small space was opened up for writers and educators in children’s literature. “Red hunters” were able to purge from education, kindergarten through college, curricula and reading materials that studied and advocated for peace, racial justice, equality, and worker rights. But they ignored the children’s book publishing field.

Mickenberg describes in rich detail the many children’s books that addressed these subjects, and in addition, the array of children’s books on science that presented physics and biology from the standpoint of materialism, dialectics, and evolution.

Mickenberg reports that children of the 1950s read books about African American and white kids befriending each other, kids from different countries engaging in common activities, kids enjoying the environments in which they lived, and in some cases books about active, engaged girls and women. Perhaps, most importantly, many children’s stories emphasized the role of people, particularly young people, in bringing about change.

Mickenberg suggests some possible meanings of her research:

The young people in their teens and twenties who joined the Civil Rights movement and called themselves the “New Left,” who protested the Vietnam War, who formed consciousness-raising groups, and who imagined a kind of “liberation” for their own children through books like “Free to be You and Me” (1974) had grown up in an age marked by conformity and the repression of dissent. Yet they also managed to find material promoting interracial friendship, critical thinking, “science for the citizen,” and a “working-class Americanism.” Through trade books, many children learned a version of history that was left out of their textbooks, and they found stories that encouraged them to trust their imaginations and to believe that the impossible was possible.

The task of progressives today is to pass along the stories of myriad Annie Shapiro’s to young people. History and consciousness, after all, can be a material force. “Teach your children……”