World Wide Work: Books, Films, Music You May Have Missed

May 09, 2024

Partial EclipsePartial EclipseCascade-Siskiyou National Monument Oregon

Many of America’s most iconic natural places are protected by “national monument” designation, but a policy blueprint prepared for a second Trump administration calls for removing those protections, as explained in my column appearing in multiple newspapers. 

 

BOOKS

Dixon, Descending by Karen Outen (Dutton). A school psychologist named Dixon and his brother set out to become the first Black Americans to climb Mount Everest. This unusual and profoundly sad novel toggles between their time on the mountain and Dixon’s work and personal life before and after the climb.

Fire in the Canyon by Daniel Gumbiner (Astra). Ben and Ada get by financially on their small family farm in rural California, where he grows wine grapes and she writes novels. But the new reality of climate-fueled fire and smoke that is affecting so many communities threatens the future for them and their grown son.

In The Pines by Grace Elizabeth Hale (Little, Brown). According to legend in the author’s family, her grandfather, who served as sheriff in a rural Mississippi county, stood up to a mob that wanted to lynch a Black man jailed for allegedly raping a white woman. A meticulous historian and skilled writer, Hale uncovered the ugly truth about what actually happened. 

Defensible Spaces by Alison Turner (Torrey House). Ten interconnected short stories take the reader to a small community in Colorado where a mine no longer operates and where the possibility of fire is always lurking.

The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi (Picador). A very readable history begins in 1917 when the British government announced that it planned to support creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, where Jews constituted 6% of the population. In 1919, a commission established by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson went to the region and reported that the Zionists who supported that plan “looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine.”  The commission warned Wilson that “if the American government decided to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine they are committing the American people to the use of force in that area, since only by force can a Jewish state in Palestine be established or maintained.” The book recounts how force has been used since then to steadily expand the territory taken from Palestinian families and deprive them of basic human rights. It also describes how many Palestinians have become increasingly desperate as their situation worsens. 

Deluge: Gaza and Israel From Crisis to Cataclysm edited by Jamie Stern-Weiner (OR Books). A book written since October provides context from 13 analysts, including past efforts by Hamas to negotiate a permanent solution, the history of Israel’s policy toward Gaza, and opposition in the U.S. to continued military aid for Israel.

Wall Street’s War on Workers by Les Leopold (Chelsea Green). A respected researcher and educator presents facts to challenge myths commonly asserted by the corporate media and national leaders of the Democratic Party. Working class voters are rebelling primarily because politicians have stood by while big corporations and billionaires have destroyed jobs and communities in ways that are not allowed in some other industrialized countries. Rebuilding a winning political coalition will require challenging corporate power with effective policies, not just rhetoric at election time.

Behind the Startup by Benjamin Shestakofsky (University of California). Problems with tech companies are often attributed to the technologies themselves. But most of the tech industry is dominated by venture capital “investors” who demand rapid growth so they can reap huge gains when a company or their stake is eventually sold. Their profits often come at the expense of workers, customers, and communities, and are a major cause of inequality in America. Especially since venture capitalists often benefit from public funding and investments from pension funds, public officials and regulators should support other models, including nonprofit corporations and cooperatives.

Dignity Not Debt by Chrystin Ondersma (University of California). We are taught that debt and bankruptcy result from personal failings and bad choices. But debt is built into our economic system of inequality and exploitation. Many households must incur debt for medical needs, groceries, utilities, housing, education, transportation, or other basic needs, and then are subject to financial predators. Systemic change is required so people can meet those needs without going into debt.

National Parks, Native Sovereignty edited by Christina Gish Hill, Matthew J. Hill, and Brooke Neely (University of Oklahoma). People who have participated in or studied projects that involved collaboration between the National Park Service and Tribal nations discuss the possibilities and limitations of those experiments.

Journalists and Their Shadows by Patrick Lawrence (Clarity). A veteran journalist critiques the close relationship between the corporate media and those who wield economic and political power, and encourages the public to look to independent journalism for factual information. “We can no longer read…the corporate press to…know what happened,” he writes. Now we read “to know what we are supposed to think happened. Then we go in search of accurate accounts of what happened.”

My Life with Sea Turtles by Christine Figgener (Greystone). A marine biologist provides an introduction to the fascinating world of sea turtles. She also discusses ways that humans can support the turtles’ survival in a time of climate change, pollution, and overdevelopment.

Ride Beside Me by Lucy Knisley (Knopf). A picture book for young readers celebrates a neighborhood where many people ride bikes instead of driving cars.

What’s Inside a Bird’s Nest? by Rachel Ignotofsky (Crown). A simple illustrated science book breaks down for young and old alike the life cycle of birds and the diversity found in the bird world.

Ron Carey and the Teamsters by Ken Reiman (Monthly Review). A retired UPS driver has written a tribute to the former head of his local union, the late Ron Carey, who courageously took on the corrupt leadership of the Teamsters in the 1990s. With the support of a longstanding rank-and-file movement called Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Carey became the union’s national president and led the historic UPS strike of 1997. The strike was a groundbreaking challenge to corporations’ shift to low-paying, “throwaway jobs” and helped set the stage for the Occupy movement, the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, organizing at companies like Starbucks, and more recent high-profile national contract campaigns by the Teamsters and the UAW. Under Carey, the union also became a leading grassroots voice urging Democratic politicians like the Clintons not to join the push by big corporations and Republicans for trade agreements like NAFTA that hurt workers in all the affected countries. Had the Democrats listened, perhaps fewer voters in industrial states would eventually have turned to a candidate like Trump. A short afterword to the book by two experienced labor organizers draws a few lessons for today’s union reformers.

 

FILMS

A Very British Coup. In this three-part series made in 1988, a third-generation steelworker is elected prime minister of England and begins to implement the policies he promised: pro-worker, pro-environment, and anti-imperialist. The real powers that be, including the British economic royalty, military, media, and spy agencies and the U.S. government, mobilize to try to bring him down.

Farewell Amor. Seventeen years after he immigrated to New York from Angola, a cab driver is rejoined by his wife and teenage daughter. In this sensitive feature film, each of them struggles to adjust to their new reality.

Three Summers. A working class Brazilian woman who serves as property and events manager for a rich family proves to be more resourceful and resilient than her bosses.

The Blue Caftan. A husband and wife team who operate a traditional caftan shop in Morocco hire a young man to help with sewing. As the two men become attracted to each other and as the woman’s health deteriorates, all three of them learn about what love truly means.

Disturbing the Peace. This frank documentary profiles the work of Combatants for Peace, an organization of Palestinians and Israelis working together for a resolution that would bring peace and justice to all. The group includes Israelis who lost family members in the Holocaust and in wars since then, as well as Palestinians who have lost homes and loved ones to attacks by the Israeli army and “settlers.”. 

La Syndicaliste. Based on the true story of a union leader at a French nuclear power company who became a whistleblower, first her body and then her credibility are attacked in an attempt to cover up corporate and political wrongdoing.

Arc of Justice. A 22-minute documentary tells the story of the first community land trust in the U.S. It was started in 1969 by Black voting rights organizers in southwest Georgia who decided that building a cooperative community on Black-owned land should be the next step in their struggle.

 

MUSIC

After the Revolution by Carsie Blanton. No singer writes better songs for our time. Blanton sings about hope, love, and friendship as the empire falls and people revolt all over the world.

Great Wild Mercy by Carrie Newcomer. Soothing songs find spirituality, without religion, in nature and in bonds with other people.

 

Photo of eclipse, April 2024

 


Why Names in Nature Matter to Us All

March 07, 2024

This column and photo were published in more than 30 newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Kansas City Star, Charlotte Observer, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Sacramento Bee, and many more.

By Matt Witt

While hiking in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Siskiyou County near California’s northern border, I came across several colorful birds that were zipping around at high speed to gobble up flying insects.

I stopped for a while to enjoy these pink and green creatures and see if I could photograph them as they darted out of oak trees to surprise their prey.

But when I returned home to identify these birds, I got an unwelcome surprise of my own.

I learned that they are called “Lewis’s woodpeckers,” paying homage to Meriwether Lewis, a slave owner who was best known for co-leading the Lewis and Clark expedition in the 1800s.

The expedition he led played a key role in opening for expropriation the lands of this continent’s Indigenous people, or “savages,” as Lewis referred to them.

The U.S. president “has become your only father,” he told the tribal leaders who the expedition encountered.

Wondering why a bird species would be named after such a person, I learned that Lewis claimed to have “discovered” these birds even though they were known to Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years and were here on earth long before that.

I wasn’t thrilled by this name. And, apparently, I wasn’t alone in my dismay.

In November, the American Ornithological Society announced that it will be changing the names of Lewis’s woodpeckers and all other birds currently named after people.

That includes 152 species in the U.S. and Canada.

The change comes in response to a coalition called Bird Names for Birds that includes the American Birding Association and many local birding groups.

“It is a questionable premise that species should be named after specific humans at all, as if bird species were possessions or trophies,” said the AOS committee that recommended the new policy.

The AOS said it will involve the public to generate creative new names that reflect a bird species’ looks, calls or habits.

The committee noted that a large number of bird names that honor individual people were coined in the 1800s to pay tribute to “soldier scientists” traveling with the U.S. Army during the appropriation of Indigenous and Mexican lands.

By contrast, Indigenous communities already living in the West named birds, animals, peaks, rivers or other natural features in order to communicate something about their characteristics — not after individual tribal leaders or members.

Perhaps other agencies and organizations responsible for official names of natural features will now adopt that approach and follow the AOS’ lead.

The colorful woodpeckers I saw that day not only can snatch flying insects out of the air, but in the fall they also break acorns into pieces that they store in holes or cracks in trees for retrieval in winter when food is scarce.

I look forward to seeing them again on a future hike when they will have a new name — perhaps one that reflects their extraordinary survival skills.


Unusual Coalition Unites for Clean Energy

March 07, 2024

Sitting Room OnlySitting Room OnlyPublic Hearing on Fracked Gas Pipeline

(This column syndicated by Writers on the Range was published in 28 newspapers in the West in April, 2022.)

By Matt Witt

Communities in the West can stand up to giant outside corporations if they want to win a renewable energy future, but it isn’t easy. They can do it only if they manage to agree about what they have in common.

That’s the lesson of a historic victory won by a rural Oregon coalition of ranchers and farmers, climate activists, Indigenous tribal leaders, and anglers and coastal residents.

The victory occurred in December, when a Canadian energy company called Pembina announced that it would halt plans to build a 230-mile pipeline crossing more than 400 waterways across rural southwestern Oregon. The pipeline was to carry fracked gas from the Rockies to a huge, proposed Coos Bay terminal on the West Coast, then on to Asia.

When the export project was first proposed years ago, the odds of stopping it appeared slim. Supporters included the state’s governor and its two U.S. senators – all Democrats – plus most of the Republican political establishment.

But community organizers didn’t give up.

“We were already seeing the disastrous effects of climate change throughout the West,” recalls Allie Rosenbluth, campaigns director of Rogue Climate, a grassroots group in southern Oregon. “The last thing we needed was another giant fossil-fuel project and another major fire hazard just to profit an outside corporation.”

As a group committed to organizing across political lines, Rogue Climate did systematic outreach to hundreds of landowners whose property would be affected, while also working with local environmental groups like Rogue Riverkeeper.

Many landowners were conservative ranchers and farmers, and they were angry about threats from the company: If they didn’t let the pipeline cross their land in return for a one-time payment, they were told the power of eminent domain would be invoked to impose it on them anyway. Congress granted this power to gas pipelines in 1947.

Over a seven-year period, the unlikely coalition that grew in strength turned out thousands of residents to public hearings and spurred more than 50,000 people to submit written comments to regulatory agencies. A delegation representing all parts of the coalition even held a sit-in in the governor’s office.

Seven rural landowners from across the political spectrum also published a column in the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian. It was blunt: “We are sick and tired of the pie-in-the-sky speculation by these for-profit corporations. We can’t build, we can’t plan, and we can’t sell if we choose because of the threat of eminent domain.” 

Don Gentry, chair of the Klamath Tribes, said that the pipeline would “unearth long-buried ancestors and pulverize sites of cultural importance,” also “strip “shade from streams and pollute them with sediment, harming fish central to the Klamath’s traditions and way of life.”

Bill McCaffree, a lifelong Republican and longtime president of the local electrical workers union in Coos Bay, publicly disagreed with construction union leaders who wanted the short-term work for their members. He also said that most workers would come from outside the area.

“Everyone who works in the building and construction trades wants to build things that benefit communities and don’t cause harm,” McCaffree said. “Since I was a kid, there have been jobs here in Coos County from fishing, clamming and oyster farming. What would happen to those jobs when the bay is disturbed by construction and operation of this export terminal?”

A better strategy for creating good, stable jobs, McCaffree said, would be investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy development. That is “creating jobs at a rate 12 times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy,” he said.

In the wake of this broad and organized resistance, state agencies finally announced that the project failed to qualify for necessary permits. That led Pembina to tell federal regulators it was dropping the project.

The coalition didn’t stop with its victory. Members of the coalition convinced the Oregon legislature last year to pass bills to transition Oregon to 100 percent clean energy by 2040, provide $50 million for community-based resilience and renewable energy projects outside of Portland, reduce energy rates, and appropriate $10 million for energy-efficient home repairs for low-income households. The Legislature also banned any new fracked gas power plants in Oregon.

“Most of us who live in small towns and rural areas all want the same things,” said Rogue Climate’s Executive Director Hannah Sohl. “Good jobs, a healthy climate, communities that work for everyone. Even when big corporations have other plans, we can accomplish a lot when we talk to each other and organize.”


Forgiveness

April 03, 2023

BobcatBobcatAbbotts Lagoon, Point Reyes National Seashore

This poem and bobcat photo were published April 3, 2023 by Piker Press.

Forgiveness

By Matt Witt

Forgiveness

of yourself or others

is the kind of cat

that shows up when it’s ready

and not when you call it.

 

If you feed it

and give it a

warm place to sleep

it will mostly stick around.

 

But now and then

it will disappear for a while,

and only come back

when and if it feels like it.


Building Strong Communities Should Be a Team Sport

September 15, 2022

My syndicated newspaper column talks about the human impact in my town and others as working people and farmers essentially have given heirs to the Walmart fortune and the chair of Starbucks a $4.6 billion "grant" to buy the Denver Broncos football team. What can we do about the fact that a few people have more wealth than they could ever use at the expense of so many people who are struggling without affordable housing, health care, education, child care or other basics?

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