Here’s the latest World Wide Work update.
Writers on the Range syndicates thought-provoking columns that are then published by dozens of newspapers in the western states, including this one I contributed about an unusual coalition from across the political spectrum that defeated a giant corporation’s fracked gas pipeline proposal as part of a broader fight for a clean energy future.
New Verse News publishes poems that react to topical issues or current events, including this one that I contributed recently.
Ashland.news is an alternative online news source started recently after a wealthy media mogul from the east coast bought the two newspapers in Oregon’s Rogue Valley, shutting down one and orienting the other even closer to the local economic and political establishment. I contributed this article explaining a plan by the small town of Talent after a devastating wildfire to stimulate affordable housing, bring back small businesses, and help prevent future disasters.
The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller (Little Brown). In this contemplative and often touching novel full of nature lore, an unhappy Swedish man in the early 1900s goes to live in the Arctic, where he suffers a disfiguring mining accident that leads him to a life of solitude in a harsh and remote fjord. He eventually bonds, despite himself, with an itinerant trapper, a Scottish geologist, and his own niece who also could not fit into Swedish society.
Bird Brother by Rodney Stotts and Kate Pipkin (Island). Stotts grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington DC and was dealing drugs to survive when by chance he was hired by an environmental group to help clean up the Anacostia River to make it hospitable not only for humans but for bald eagles that once lived there. Today, he is a master falconer and uses exposure to nature to help kids as poor as he once was.
The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago (Knopf). Cultures around the world had a variety of traditional explanations for the aurora borealis, but it was not until the early 1900s that a Norwegian scientist demonstrated the actual cause. This intriguing biography shows the hoops he had to jump through and the scientific, corporate, and political forces he had to deal with, as well as the effect of his work on his personal life.
Deadheading by Beth Gilstrap (Red Hen). These 22 short stories tell about people in the South who live on the margins and ache for connection and ways to do right by the people around them.
I’d Like to Say Sorry But There’s No One to Say Sorry To by Mikolaj Grynberg (New Press). A Polish psychologist produced these 31 first-person fictional monologues, each just several pages long, by a variety of characters, some Jewish, some talking to or about Jews. It adds up to a poignant picture of how the trauma caused by persecution of Polish Jews during and after WWII and up to the present day lives on from one generation to the next. As might be expected in such a work, the deadly serious is mixed with irony and humor.
Generation Priced Out by Randy Shaw (University of California). Housing has become unaffordable for many in today’s younger generations. Looking at attempts in a dozen cities to do something about that, a longtime housing organizer identifies concrete steps that those who do have affordable housing can support, including building more affordable housing units, requiring that new developments include some affordable units, using public land for affordable housing, helping nonprofits purchase small affordable sites, increasing state and local funding, enacting strong tenant protections, ending exclusionary zoning, and more.
Our Veterans by Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early, and Jasper Craven (Duke University). Many U.S. counties have highway signs when you cross into them that say, “We Honor Veterans.” But in practice the U.S. mostly does not live up to that slogan as it prioritizes military profiteering and endless wars over policies to achieve peace and as it mistreats many military personnel both during and after active duty. Without support to transition from active duty to civilian life, many military personnel are now finding their way to local law enforcement and/or to right-wing white supremacist groups, often with disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, politicians, corporations, and traditional veteran organizations often advocate policies that serve their own interests instead of the veterans they claim to support.
Black Walden by Elise Lemire (University of Pennsylvania). Most history books describe Concord, Massachusetts, as a place where the American Revolution was launched by hard-working white farmers and where famous authors like Thoreau, Emerson, and Alcott generated iconic literature. This account reveals that enslaved Black people there provided a lot of the farm labor for wealthy farmers, and that when some of them became free they formed a small community in the Walden woods, years before Thoreau lived there.
The People Are Dancing Again by Charles Wilkinson (University of Washington). This instructive history was produced with the cooperation of indigenous peoples of southern and western Oregon and moves from their lives before the European-American invasion to the broken treaties and trails of tears to their reservation years and finally to their cultural revival.
Devils Hole Pupfish by Kevin C. Brown (University of Nebraska). For more than a hundred years, scientists and public agencies have tried to preserve a tiny and unique population of fish that live only in one underground body of water near Death Valley. The history of those efforts, often over the objections of wealthy developers, shows how clumsy humans can be when trying to “steward” already impacted ecosystems.
Twenty-Two Cents An Hour by Doug Crandell (ILR Press). Too many workers with disabilities are exploited for subminimum wages as low as 22 cents an hour while corporate executives, Wall Street speculators, and huge “nonprofits” grow wealthier and receive taxpayer subsidies, all the while claiming to be providing a public service by supposedly giving these workers “opportunities.” An exceptionally thoughtful and informative explanation of this exploitation gives specific examples, discusses the boycott of Goodwill Industries, cites efforts to make progress in Oregon and other states, and calls for nationwide reforms.
Toward Antarctica by Elizabeth Bradfield (Boreal). A woman who served as a naturalist on several tourist ships to Antarctica uses photographs, poems, and snippets of diary-like prose to share her thoughts and feelings that the experience provoked.
Forget the Alamo by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford (Penguin). Despite the title, the authors want Americans to “Remember the Alamo,” but as a good example of the need to reexamine our history through a lens of fact, not legend. The actual dispute between the Mexican government and those like Davy Crockett who were defending the fort was over whether “settlers” from southern states were going to be allowed to import slavery into Texas, which was then part of Mexico.
Humane by Samuel Moyn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). By focusing on the legalistic fine points of what kind of torture or drone attacks constitute “war crimes,” both major political parties have successfully shifted national discussion away from preventing wars and finding alternatives.
Managing with Labor’s Values by Ken Margolies (ILR). Activists in unions or social justice organizations sometimes find themselves in a position of supervising the work of others – a role they may not have expected. Often, they have internalized ineffective or even abusive management styles from other institutions. This guide, which can be downloaded for free, suggests ways to lead that are consistent with progressive values.
Soumaya. In this feature film based on a true story, a Muslim woman who is a manager at an airport transportation company in Paris is fired out of the blue as part of an “anti-terrorist” campaign, even though she has done nothing wrong.
Arab Blues. A psychoanalyst who has been living in Paris comes back to her hometown in Tunisia and sets up her practice there, with a specific focus on serving working class people. Everyone tells her that no one will be interested in seeing her, but the opposite turns out to be true.
The County. In the Icelandic countryside, a cooperative formed decades ago to free farmers from exploitation by outside corporations has now become corrupt itself. After her husband dies, a very determined dairy farmer tries to organize her neighbors to fight back, despite threats and intimidation.
The Sense of Wonder. A French widow with two children is trying, without much success, to save the family farm. Driving home one day, her car hits a stranger, giving him bruises that need to be tended to. It turns out that he has a form of autism and is both socially unusual and mentally gifted. In this feel-good feature film that often requires a willing suspension of disbelief, the two of them find that each can help the other.
Perro Bomba. A young Haitian man immigrates to Chile for a better life in this realistic feature film. He works hard and stays out of trouble, but, little by little, racism and classism in his adopted homeland keep narrowing his options.
Native Sons by Los Lobos. The virtuoso band from East L.A. displays its versatility as it covers songs from a wide range of L.A. musicians, including Lalo Guerrero, Jackson Browne, Buffalo Springfield, Percy Mayfield, The Beach Boys, The Midniters, Dave Alvin, and more.
Quietly Blowing It by Hiss Golden Messenger. Easy listening songs about love and loneliness and about working class life today, as in “Mighty Dollar”: “It never fixed a broken heart. It never made a dumb man smarter. Hey, but I made it try. It’s hard to see with the sun in your eyes.”
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The photograph above, “Black Mountains Hoodoo,” was taken this spring at Death Valley National Park. More photos may be seen at MattWittPhotography.com, where all proceeds from sales go directly to the Rogue Action Center, an independent nonprofit hub for community organizing.
Here’s the latest World Wide Work update on films, books, and music you may have missed.
Every now and then, a book comes out about events that I personally was involved in. The new book, “El Golpe,” described below, is one such book.
Years ago, I made a 19-minute documentary film (available free on YouTube) called $4 a Day? No Way!: Joining Hands Across the Border that, unfortunately, is still relevant today. The film is about working people in Mexico, the U.S., and Canada courageously organizing together to challenge global corporations and their political allies who have used violence and so-called "free trade" policies to try to drive down pay and working conditions in all three countries.
One dramatic incident explored in the film involves the murder of a union worker inside a Ford auto plant in Mexico by gunmen on the company payroll. The book, “El Golpe,” shares documents that shed light on the role the U.S. government has played in supporting corporate special interests like Ford against workers around the world.
Is Love Enough? Sir. A beautifully nuanced feature film from India focuses on a young widow from a small rural village who comes to the big city to work as a maid for a rich single man about her age. When he falls in love with her, she has to make him see the impact of class and gender disparities that he has always taken for granted.
Yalda. A young Iranian woman sentenced to die for the accidental death of her much-older husband has one chance at a reprieve. She has to go on a popular national TV show to beg forgiveness from the victim’s closest surviving relative. If she is forgiven during the show, the courts will let her off. This fictional story is based on an actual arrangement between a TV show and the Iranian courts that existed until recently.
Lunana. Gorgeous scenery, people, and music are featured in this story from Bhutan about a young man from the city who is sent to be the teacher in one of the most remote villages in the world.
Delicious. Food lovers will enjoy this feature film that takes place in France on the eve of the revolution in 1789. A highly skilled chef is fired by a wealthy duke, in an era when working for aristocrats is a chef’s only option and restaurants do not exist. A mysterious woman approaches him with the innovative suggestion that they open a business serving food to the public.
Gaza Mon Amour. A fisherman and a seamstress in Gaza, both around 60 years old, begin to fall in love in this often humorous feature film. But when he pulls up an ancient phallic statue in his fishing nets, he gets entangled in the corrupt police state they live in.
The Great Postal Heist. For decades, major corporations and their political allies have been trying to dismantle and privatize the U.S. Postal Service at the expense of customers, communities, and postal employees. Workers, community members, and activists share their experiences and an alternative vision for how the Postal Service could be strengthened and improved instead.
The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin (Dutton). A 44-year-old woman in Hood River County, Oregon who is an administrator in county government and a beekeeper on the side has to overcome a crisis in her personal life, with help from an 18-year-old boy who is permanently confined to a wheelchair and a 24-year-old wanderer who suffers from severe social anxiety. In the process, she gains the strength to challenge corrupt officials and corporate polluters in the community where she lives.
I Only Cry with Emoticons by Yuvi Zalkow (Red Hen). A clever and humorous novel explores the emotional life of a 45-year-old man navigating a divorce initiated by his wife, the absurdity of his work at a tech company, a possible new love, and his relationship with his 7-year-old son.
New Moons edited by Kazim Ali (Red Hen). A very moving and varied anthology of poetry, fiction, essays, and memoir by American Muslims provides a window into their experiences, especially after 9/11.
Roll With It by Jamie Sumner (Atheneum). Ellie is a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy that confines her to a wheelchair. She’s also a lively, outspoken kid who aspires to be a professional baker. When she moves to a new town because her grandfather has Alzheimer’s and needs her mother’s help, she meets the best friends she’s ever had.
Looking for the Good War by Elizabeth D. Samet (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). In the years since World War II, what actually happened in that war has been rewritten so that many Americans today believe that the U.S. entered the war to fight fascism, stood united in making major sacrifices at home, and selflessly saved democracy in other countries. That description has then been used to justify U.S. wars and invasions ever since. A West Point professor revisits the war and its aftermath, finding that the story we tell ourselves is not accurate and has kept us from being realistic about the damage war causes and how little it accomplishes.
Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed edited by Saraciea J. Fennell (Flatiron). An anthology for junior high and high school students contains essays by 15 Latinx writers recalling their own experiences dealing with assimilation, immigrant parents, race, sexuality, white supremacy, in-laws, and more.
Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot (Berrett-Koehler). How can people who work for social change or in helping professions avoid burnout, maintain their own health, and continue to be effective? How can they deal with feelings of hopelessness, guilt, cynicism, martyrdom, anger at colleagues, or an inflated sense of self-importance? This book provides suggestions, exercises, and case studies, as well as some amusing cartoons.
Police Brutality and White Supremacy by Etan Thomas (Akashic). Former professional basketball player Etan Thomas had candid conversations about race in America with families affected by police violence, famous sports figures (both Black and white), retired police officers, journalists, educators, and more.
The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now by Cedric Johnson (Verso). A Black political scientist argues that fundamental social and economic change cannot be achieved by a movement that focuses only on race and not on class. An unusual aspect of the book is that the author includes responses by other commentators, including several who strongly disagree with him.
Elite Capture by Olufemi O. Taiwo (Haymarket). Analyzing progressive movements around the world, a Black professor argues that identity politics has been captured by capitalist and professional class elites. He argues for a movement that would “calibrate itself directly to the task of redistributing social resources and power rather than to intermediary goals cashed out in pedestals or symbolism.” He is critical of what he calls “deference politics” that “places the accountability that is all of ours to bear onto select people – and, more often than not, a sanitized and thoroughly fictional caricature of them.”
One Fair Wage by Saru Jayaraman (New Press). Not only is the minimum wage too low to live on but millions of workers are not even covered by it in most states, including many food service workers, delivery drivers, nail salon technicians, parking and airport attendants, home care workers, and workers who are disabled, below a certain age, or incarcerated. A leader in the movement to change that describes organizing campaigns that have gained increased momentum as a result of the Covid pandemic.
Watercress by Andrea Wang and Joson Chin (Holiday House). In this children’s book, a young daughter of immigrants from China is embarrassed by parents until she understands more about where her family comes from.
Major League Rebels by Robert Elias and Peter Dreier (Rowman & Littlefield). Battles between major league baseball players and team owners over worker rights and pay have been going on since the sport began in the 1800s. This historical account concludes with an informative chapter on the unfinished agenda for baseball and its union, including ending the exploitation of Latin American players, improving the conditions in which baseballs are made, ending public subsidies for billionaire team owners, improving the treatment of stadium workers, unionizing minor league players who make an average of $7,500 per year, and ending baseball’s support for military interventions abroad.
Baseball Rebels by Peter Dreier and Robert Elias (University of Nebraska). A companion book to “Major League Rebels” focuses on the history of involvement by baseball players in fighting racism, sexism, and homophobia both in the sport and in society at large.
El Golpe by Rob McKenzie with Patrick Dunne (Pluto). McKenzie was working at a Ford assembly plant in Minnesota when he heard that workers at a Ford plant in Mexico had been shot on the shop floor, one of them fatally. For years, he worked to obtain documents about what happened. The gunmen who entered the plant had been temporarily put on Ford’s payroll. The attack was designed to keep workers from choosing an independent and democratic union to replace the corrupt incumbent union allied with the Mexican government. Workers at the Minnesota plant provided various kinds of support for their Mexican counterparts, which drew the ire of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He wrote to his bosses at the State Department, urging them to get U.S. union leaders who were receiving government funds to help suppress – rather than support -- the workers’ upsurge at the Mexican plant.
International Solidarity in Action by Robin Alexander (UE). Two small labor groups, the United Electrical Workers in the U.S. and the Authentic Labor Front (F.A.T.) in Mexico, have partnered for more than 30 years to support each other’s campaigns for labor justice and to strengthen bonds through cross-border, worker-to-worker exchanges.
Almost Proud by Del McCoury Band. Bluegrass songs about coal mine wars, “Working Man’s Wage,” love, and loss.
Flowers That Bloom in the Spring by Kieran Kane and Rayna Gellert. Old-timey fiddle, banjo, and guitar music, from the Bailout Blues (“Crops are flooding, crops are dry, everybody talkin’ ‘bout a reason why”) to relationships (“Gimme that worn-out shirt, let me mend that tear, you’re hard on everything, not just the clothes you wear”).
This article appeared in the third edition of Trouble magazine:
Going On a Lion Hunt
By Matt Witt
“Going on a lion hunt! But I’m not afraid! Cause I got my guns! And my bullets at my side!” – Scoutorama.com
“Going on a Lion Hunt” is a children’s activity used by Scout troops, summer camps, and others. I remember it from when I was a kid. Children get in a circle. The adult leader starts a call-and-response chant about going to hunt a lion. The kids call out that they are not afraid since they are bringing their guns on the hunt, and then they act out overcoming obstacles like muddy terrain, a river, a cave, and more.
“For those who long for rugged beauty unspoiled and untamed by man, Sycamore Canyon Wilderness is one of the few places in the Southwest that can lay claim to such a lack of man's accomplishments. This area is home to black bear and mountain lion as well as a number of less celebrated but just as notable creatures.” – U.S. Forest Service
One morning in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness south of Flagstaff, Arizona, my brother, his son, and I encountered an older man in hunting clothes talking to someone by two-way radio.
Soon, we realized that the side of the hill ahead of us was crawling with hound dogs – running, sniffing, and baying.
At first, I was hesitant to approach the man. I live in Oregon, where armed men not long ago took over a national wildlife refuge for more than a month, trashed it, and threatened its employees, yet the leaders walked away scot free. The rural part of the state where I reside is increasingly plagued by armed groups that espouse a mixture of white male supremacy and hostility to public lands. Asking even innocent questions of strangers with guns could be a mistake.
But then again, the old man could be like a former neighbor of mine in rural Virginia. That neighbor hunted because he didn’t have a lot of extra money and counted on five deer per year as part of his household’s food supply. Although we didn’t hunt ourselves, we were willing to let that neighbor cross onto our land when he needed to fill his freezer.
So after a few minutes my brother and I asked this man what he was doing.
“Nothing gets the blood pumping more than coming up on hounds that have bayed or treed a mountain lion!” – Arizona Guided Hunts Outfitters
He said he was serving as the base for a group of men who were following ten hounds he had provided to them.
When he didn’t reveal more, I asked, “Are they tracking a mountain lion?”
“Correct,” he said.
When I asked how he knew the cougar was in the area, he said he had found a deer it had killed and eaten, and the dogs had followed the big cat’s scent from there.
We saw that he was closely monitoring a GPS device that received signals from transmitters attached to each dog so he could tell the men the hounds’ locations.
“Is the idea that the hounds will tree the cougar?” I asked.
“Correct,” he said.
If the hounds got close enough to the lion, ancient instinct would kick in from the time, long ago, when cougars had to fear packs of wolves. The terrified lion would climb a tree, knowing the hounds couldn’t do the same. Eventually, the men would arrive where the baying hounds were gathered and shoot the motionless cat at close range.
“I don’t know if we’ll get this one,” he said. “It’s a runner.”
“5 day Guided Mountain Lion Hunts are $5,000.00 per person. Weapon types can be archery, muzzleloader, centerfire rifle or centerfire handguns. Weapon choice is not as critical as other big game hunts.” – Arizona Guided Hunts Outfitters
“5 Days Any Legal Lion $5000. These hunts are conducted on side-by-side's or 4wheelers.” – Killer Lion Hunts Guides
It seemed the man wasn’t eager to share much more information, so we didn’t ask about the financial arrangement between him and the men who were following his dogs. But when I got home I searched online for the going rate. At $5,000 per person, this apparently is not a hobby for the Walmart worker who makes $11 an hour, or for teachers or health care workers or Uber drivers or anyone else who lives on a budget.
“Mountain lion hunting is meeting the Department’s management objective of… providing recreational opportunities for 6,000 hunters per year.” – Arizona Game and Fish Department
“As long as the mountain lion hunters are walking into the wilderness and are not using any mechanized form of transportation and no motorized equipment, they are legal under the Wilderness Act.” – U.S. Forest Service
According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, “About 850 livestock operators presently graze 56,000 cattle on public lands in Arizona.” But protecting ranchers’ profits isn’t a significant reason for killing mountain lions. Only an average of 27 of the big cats are killed in Arizona each year because a rancher claimed a case of “cattle depredation” – less than one-thirteenth of the average annual “harvest” of lions in that state by “hunters” seeking “recreational opportunities.”
“Trophy hunters have killed approximately 29,000 lions in the U.S. in the last decade.” – Humane Society Report, “Cecil 2,” 2016
“Since 1890, there have been 29 fatal attacks by mountain lions on humans in North America.” – Arizona Game and Fish Department
My brother, his son, and I left the old man and continued hiking. We could still hear the hounds’ baying and see their movements. I wondered if this might be my long-awaited chance to see a mountain lion. A few years ago, I came across fresh prints in newly fallen snow not far from my Oregon home. And my son and daughter-in-law saw one calmly walking through the woods only a couple hundred yards from our house. But I never have had that good fortune.
I found myself imagining the big cat racing across this Arizona trail in front of us, and wondered if we would try to use our hiking poles to fend off the dogs long enough for the cougar to escape, and what sort of confrontation that might create with the gunmen. That didn’t happen, of course, as the lion seemed to be getting away without our help.
During our time in the area, we climbed to the top of massive red rock formations caused by powerful natural forces over millions of years.
We walked on an iced-over stream that reflected reds and yellows coming from steep and narrow canyon walls.
We trekked for miles through clumps of giant old trees – pinyon, alligator bark juniper, oak, sycamore, and more – and wondered what will happen to them and other living things there as the climate continues to get hotter and drier.
“The southwestern United States is expected to become more prone to droughts with climate change. The resulting loss of vegetation will not only impact herbivores like mule deer; their main predator, mountain lions, might take an even larger hit.” – NASA
In our visit to red-rock wilderness we had gone on our own kind of hunt. But contrary to the old kids’ game, we were afraid – not of the lion, but for our common future.
This photo and text were published by New Verse News on Dec. 16, 2020:
By Matt Witt
It used to be
that if you walked along Bear Creek
that runs next to town
you could see the stream
only in a few moments
because the view was blocked
by brambles of highly flammable blackberries
and tangles of branches.
Then this summer’s inferno
burned everything to ash,
clearing out the old understory
and leaving only a sprinkling of
charred tree trunks,
like ghosts from the past.
Now you can walk freely
across cleared black ground
and see how the stream community works,
the side creeks feeding it,
the ducks and coots and geese
finding food and
shelter from predators.
It used to be
that if you walked through town
you could see the money stream
only in a few moments
because the view was blocked
by fairy tales about
rugged individuals and
the generosity of the rich
without ever asking
who all that wealth was
Then the fire burned everything to ash,
leaving those who could least afford it
to scramble for survival
while developers and bankers met
to discuss how they might profit
by grabbing up the close-in valuable land
and moving “their” workers,
many with brown skin,
to the valley’s outskirts,
all in the name of charity.
Now you can see
how money and power flow
from bottom to top
filling giant pools for a few
with not much left to trickle down.
Along Bear Creek,
just weeks after the fire,
small sprouts of green
bring the possibility of
a new community
better than the old
with each plant and bird and animal
doing its part.
new sprouts of community
are taking root too
as people work together
to make sure everyone has
food and shelter and hope
and to ask what we can do
so what grows back
will be better for all of us,
now that we can see.
The Executioner's Face
By Matt Witt
We load the car --
two sets of clothes and
a lifetime of memories --
as skyscraper flames are destroying
hundreds of homes of
friends and neighbors
a mile away.
Did they get out in time?
And then what?
We hit the back roads,
searching for safety,
with Bob Dylan howling through car speakers:
"The soles of my feet,
I swear they're burning."
Decades of reports said
this was coming
without climate action.
"More frequent and more intense fires."
"Urgent transition needed to solar."
"Rapid investment in energy efficiency."
We can already picture
the photos the media will feed us
of some scraggly guy with stringy hair
who may have dropped a match --
with headlines: “What caused the fire?”
There will be no photos of
whose puppets for years said
let's double down on what got us here
or who gave us half measures
and asked for applause.
We drive through the smoke,
and now Dylan’s voice is sounding more desperate:
"The executioner's face,” he wails,
“is always well hidden."