Saturday, September 17, 2005

I Can't Stand Progressives

I'll warn you: This will be a long, rambling, boring story about an online tiff I had with someone I don't know IRL. But it also is an example of what annoys me most about the "progressive" community.

Quite awhile ago, I joined an online Democratic message board that had separate forums for the 50 states. After a few weeks, someone decided to organize a get-together for the Minnesota members. Some people threw some restaurant ideas around, and I suggested that we make sure we go to a union establishment, being proud supporters of the DFL and all.

The reponse was, at best, lukewarm. Some posters implied that since this wasn't a DFL event, we didn't need to find a union house. Pardon me for thinking that Greens, self-described progressives and other people who claim to be on the side of goodness and light -- while not necessarily supporters of the DFL itself -- might be interested in eating at an establishment that guaranteed a good wage to its workers. The group chose a restaurant, a non-union one, and I decided I didn't need to be a part of that group.

In the course of the discussion, one poster, whom I will call Wiggy, called me out and asked if EVERYTHING I DID was union. Everything I bought, services I paid for, and so on. Well, what a baiting question. Obviously it's not. (See also No alternative.) But when there ARE choices, like a restaurant, you can be sure that I will do everything I can to eat at the union house.

Anyway. Wiggy. Wiggy is actually an easy-to-find figure on the Internet and in local circles. I've never met him, but he is known in the party somewhat. Wiggy's a self-described progressive who is trying to change the party from within. He also doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humor, and while I know making judgments about people online is asking for trouble, I get the idea of this tiresome person who takes himself way too seriously.

Fast foward to a couple weeks ago. I read in the paper that John's smooth jazz station is shutting down, switching to right-wing talk radio! The horror! Who would have ever thought we'd be nostalgic for smooth jazz? But it's true. Since it will be switching to talk radio, this of course was a topic of discussion on the board.

"My son will be devastated!" I posted. "He loves it."

WIggy muscled in and posted, "I don't listen to Clear Channel anything. Clear Channel is the devil. There's plenty of great jazz on WWWW, and eclectic music on WWWW."

I posted, "Hey, I didn't say he likes great jazz. It's the Kenny G he digs."

Because, you know, that's funny to share. I have an almost-seven-year-old who loves Sade. Well, Sade is awesome. But he also likes Kenny G.

And then, even though it was way too early in the conversation for Godwin's Law) to take effect, Wiggy came out with this one:

"I went to Auschwitz two years ago. While there in the original camp, I stood by one of the buildings on the spot that every day, a group of Jewish musicians was forced to play while the workers went off to slave for the Nazis. In my opinion, music is nice when it doesn't come from the oppressors. When it does, it's best to turn it off. Clear Channel is one of the oppressors, as far as I'm concerned. I also don't shop at Wal-Mart or Sam's Club."

Okay then! Let's review: Letting your child listen to a smooth jazz station and yourself listening to the commercials so you know where NOT to shop = one of the greatest human horrors in history. Well, glad we cleared that up.

I replied, "Seriously, that's one of the stupidest comparisons I've ever heard."

And Wiggy's ace in the hole? You guessed it: "Coming from a black-and-white on union issues I'd think conscientious consumerism would make sense. I'm sorry to learn that it doesn't."

Gawd, sometimes I really, really hate this movement. I really do.


  1. What's a DFL...I'm intrigued

  2. DFL is the name of the Democratic party in Minnesota -- Democratic Farmer-Labor. Other states don't have their own names -- I think Minnesota is the only one.

  3. I understand your gripe. I felt more than a little cast out by some of my friends on the left after I "sold out" by taking an office job, even though that job is with a nonprofit working to improve the lives of the rural minority population in my state. In effect, some turned on me for doing something that we should have been united around. In many ways this has been the problem of the left in the past twenty years or so: a lack of a unified vision and an "all-or-nothing" approach by some that has hampered opportunities for real progress. Sort of the 2000 Nader vote writ large.

    I'm reading a good book right now that deals with a lot of these issues. I'm only halfway through it, so consider this a qualified recommendation, but you should check out Nation of Rebels: How Counterculture became Consumer Culture if you get a chance.

    On a separate note, I will be in Minneapolis for a couple of nights later this week; any recommendations for things to see/do in the big city?

  4. Well, for better or worse, I have to agree with both you and Wiggy.

    Reading Friedman's "The World is Flat", or also "The Lexus and the Olive Tree", helps make this very clear. The world has changed a lot since things were simple and black and white, and national boundaries (or what is union and what is not) are very different issues and questions than what they used to be in the 20th century

    For example:

    - I drive a Honda that was built in Ohio, and a Toyota that was built in Indiana. Are these American or Japanese vehicles, and does it even matter? They were built by Americans, but I imagine the profits went to Japan. But then there's the shareholders, who live all over, I'm guessing, so where did the profit really go? It's enough to make your head hurt...
    - I'm typing on an "American" computer, with Apple's headquarters in Silivon Valley. It's designed in the US but made in China. Same question again.
    - My brother-in-law works for Nokia, which is based in Finland but designs in California, and assembles phones in Mexico out of components made in Brazil, Singapore, China, and who knows where else (but these are all places that he travels to).
    - I feel for the striking NWA mechanics, yet their platform is a 20th century one, just like the management is running the company like a 20th century airline. But it's not the 20th century anymore, and how aircraft are serviced (and airlines function) has fundamentally changed and no one can change it back. So the union is mad at the management, and the management is mad at the union, and both are ignoring the current business conditions of how airlines operate. And so they both lose because their perspectives are outdated and irrelevant.

    I admire unions and what they advocate, but let's face it, where something is made has very little to do with who is benefitting when it's purchased. And then again, it has everything to do with it. I'm guessing the Chinese worker who feeds his or her family appreciates making and selling a TV just like an American worker does.

    Anyway, Friedman paints a scary reality that is too real to deny. Unions are going to either have to become truly international to continue to be relevant, or else stick to only protecting jobs that are very turf-specific and can't be moved. But that won't even be good enough; there are always people hungry enough to move in and work for less. Mobility, information, and efficiency rule now, and no one can change that.

    Welcome to the new world that we all cheered for when the Berlin Wall came down. What we didn't realize is that when it came down, and the internet went up, nothing was left to protect our faux high standards of living in the US anymore, either. Now we're learning that it's all basically a stack of cards that is slowly tumbling down...yet dispersing more equally throughout the world in the form of jobs and wages. Is it fair? It depends on who you ask.

  5. Dear god, Krup. I know Wiggy too. He's the guy with the little slips of paper with Important Facts on them all bundled together by a rubber band in his inside jacket pocket. He sits toward the front in all meetings and is the first at the mike during Q&A. He keeps score. He remembers everything you said 15 years ago. Ignore him. He is no more progessive than my mother. So there.

  6. Also, Wiggy cannot stop talking about how the last election was "stolen." He also continues holding a grudge against Nader supporters from 2000. He called himself a "socialist" in the '70s. Man this guy pisses me off.

  7. Amazon, I love it when you get worked up on my behalf. And you're right on. Wiggy is ALL ABOUT election reform! Only without the exclamation point and all-caps, because to use those would betray the seriousness of the cause, which is equal or possibly greater in global scope than the Holocaust, of which he knows so much about.

    Brett, welcome and thanks for the link. What are you looking for in Mpls? Restaurants? Things to do? Places to see? It's a big place, Mpls.

    Kris, I love ya to pieces, and sometimes you make my head explode.

  8. fellow traveller10:06 PM

    Note — all quotes taken from Kristofer Layon posting above.

    When the writer of this blog told me Mr. Layon wrote a response to her latest post, I said, “what, did he read Friedman or something?”…

    First things first. I can think of few things that bother me more than an academic quoting an academic on how a “working man” is supposed to feel. There are few job situations in the world more secure (and more in debt to collective bargaining agreements) than public universities. I’ve got a great idea, Kris. Instead of reading, why don’t you go and ask a NWA mechanic or a member of his family if he feels “outdated or irrelevant”. I’ll give you directions.

    Think about this situation in reverse. Two mechanics talking about your job. What you do you think is very important, but it provides a service that neither of them will most likely use. Nevertheless they are expected (because of the good middle class, union wages they earn) to pay, through taxes, your salary. It always amazes me when people talk about the the elimination of heavily unionized industries in the U.S. like it was some kind of preordained business model. It’s certainly no easier to export a steel plant thean a web designer. This was not an accident.

    As for your business model examples, I find it interesting that you (and Mr. Friedman) choose to defend against an argument that no-one is making — that somehow nationalism and unionism are somehow related. I don’t buy a Honda because it’s not made by the United Auto Workers. I also don’t buy a GM made in Mexico for the same reason.
    The interesting thing about a collectively bargained (union) wage is that it’s public. You can find out exactly what I make after a few minutes on the internet. GUESS WHAT? Honda and Subaru know this too. Now. The average worker at a non-union Toyota plant in Kentucky, Tennessee, or Mississippi makes LESS THAN HALF what an auto worker in Detroit or St. Paul makes (hmm…see a pattern?), yet Japanese cars are usually more expensive than their Big Three rivals. Where does the money go. To charity? The same thing goes with the pair of pants I’m wearing. Costs $10 less than a pair of Levi’s, yet they are made in a Union Shop. Read health care and retirement. Levi’s are made in Singapore or Thailand for about 80 cents an hour. Is the rest of the money going to improve the lives of the Thai? Free trade is a lie, pure and simple.

    Where did we get this idea that the sole purpose of the economy is to provide return to shareholders?

    By the way, Nokia is one of the most heavily unionized companies in the world. Everywhere but here.

    You know, I bet that Chinese worker making the TV would be proud to know he’s getting a job because he can do a quality job, not because he can work for less than an American and increase the profits of nameless shareholders (or the Chinese Communist Party.)

    Isn’t the real problem in our world that, “there are always people in the world hungy enough…” and not people who want to have a share in what they’ve worked for?

    All I ask is for you to give me one example of jobs and wages being dispersed more
    equitably throughout the world from our current corporate business model. Just one.

    I know this is a rant, and I know it could go on much longer. So do you. Perhaps it will. This is as important an issue as there is. I hate this on e-mail because there is so little room for interpretation, but I hope this is taken in the spirit of leaning in which it is offered.

    Oh, check out the AMFA website if you want to know where you can donate to bring in line your “faux standard of living.”

    -fellow traveller, union carpenter, and IH collector
    (who, by the way, believes you should hire union precisely because of my “mobility, information, and efficiency.”)

  9. Wow, what a great post, particularly that first paragraph. It would do Friedman some good to know what side his bread is buttered on.

    Link for union-made jeans?

    As usual, great post, Krup. Thanks for making me think a bit today. I needed it.

  10. That rant in the comments is Matt, who does better than I do. sells Union Line jeans, which is what we buy. Unfortunately, they come only in men's sizes, so if you're overly curvey, you might be out of luck. I wear them anyway. :p

  11. NWA mechanics are not irrelevant as people nor as skilled employees. But their current collective bargaining agreement sure appears to be, and is what I called irrelevant, not them as people. If their perspective and bargaining power were relevant, the airline would have faltered for a few days and stopped flying. Because it hasn't, and the airline keeps coming back with a lower and lower offer, I think the agreement can be deemed irrelevant. NWA simply has other ways to service their planes. Until said planes start falling from the sky (God forbid, but it would be some poetic justice, wouldn't it?), the management will appear to be right. Of course, they continue to get paid millions for this good deed. That's pretty crappy, and the whole shareholder aspect is a can of worms I can't quite argue well, but suffice it to say that I don't understand how management and shareholders can always seem to win regardless of how others fare. This, most certainly, isn't fair. Bankruptcy laws in this nation certainly favor certain classes over others, that's for sure. And in that sense, you and I are on the same side of the fence---- we both make pennies to the dollar of all the Wall Street fat cats who reap from large corporations whether they success or fail. Pretty amazing.

    Re. how the world has changed and the change only targeting unionized industries, that's actually not true. My job could certainly be a hair's breadth away from being eliminated, any second; a designer in India could easily be doing my job if the job also didn't rely on in-person meetings and building relationships to keep things going as they do with me sitting here. But the purely technical side? That part of my job does not make my income secure in the least. One of the web design books I used in grad school had a chapter written by an 8th grader in Austin, TX.

    We just signed for an equity loan to update our kitchen. All of the loan documents were prepared by accountants, lawyers, and notaries in India and emailed back to the bank here. Accountants, lawyers, and notaries are not unionized. And they're not safe from this any more than union industry workers.

    Radiologists are now feeling the squeeze in the US because radiologists in India, who live in a much different economy and are still upper middle class there being paid half as much as US doctors here, can have x-rays or MRIs emailed to them and read for half the cost and in real time as if they were working in a hospital here. Radiologists are not unionized employees in most cases.

    The fact of the matter is, there is indeed a great economic equalizing that is occurring now that more and more business can be done digitally, via express mail, via multinational collaboration, or what have you, and it's driven by what we all do every day: we usually pay less for something when we can. We do not voluntarily overpay for the same thing if we don't have to.

    So my examples above are the examples you were seeking. If a radiologist here used to make $150k and a radiologist in India used to make $50k before digital radiology, and now the Indian can make $75k working for US hospitals, they just realized a 50% pay increase in the same economy where everything they buy is still much cheaper than here in the US. And if this continues to happen, you can bet radiologists here will no longer be making $150k. This is our previously real high standard of living being readjusted for the times and suddenly looking rather false. Look at any industry and it's happening for various reasons. And in many of these cases, it has nothing to do with shareholders sitting together and conspiring to do anything. It has to do with people making sensible decisions because they suddenly have amazing power in their cable modems. It takes a few bucks, a connection, and not much more to make these changes, not a secret international conspiracy of capitalists.

    So how do workers of any kind win? I don't think it matters whether we're union or not, we need to prove our worth as individuals more than anything. Now I realize that I'm overlooking a whole bunch of labor law that I don't understand like you might, but the fact of the matter is, union carpenters seem to me to be highly relevant because you have a superb apprenticeship program among many other things. Your mission is not only to protect wages, provide reasonable benefits, and create good pensions for retirement, but to deliver better quality work while doing so. I would like to think that NWA mechanics do the same thing, but I'm not sure if they do--- time will tell if nonunion replacement workers can do the same job for less. Similarly, if I can't prove to the U that I can do a better job than someone in Pakistan and my supervisor decides to outsource my job there and it works, I've lost my job.

    I hope this clarifies my perspective and saves me from appearing to be an opponent of unions. I don't disrespect what union workers fight for, and highly respect their loyalty and principles. What I question is how much that matters anymore. When I suggest that it matters less and less, I don't say so gleefully. But I do say it.

  12. Kris, if you say loyalty and principles matter less in this world, then you are using the language of the oppressor. Pure and simple. Because if it's true, then why bother?

    And as far as the scabs at Northwest doing as good a job -- they're not. Planes are running late (NWA is running anywhere from a 40% to 60% on-time rate), the airline has a higher rate of delays due to mechanical issues (which the company, if they talk about them at all, are attributing to "luggage weighing" and son on), and scabs are failing drugs tests.

    Northwest doesn't have a stake in making it work anymore, however, because it has conveniently filed bankruptcy and will likely enter into merger talks with Delta.

    I see your train of thought, but I reject it utterly. But really, we all should know better than to try and have this conversation without coffee, hand-rolled cigarettes, and serveral babysitters watching the kids. Or at least two out of those three options.

  13. Damn. I was afraid that was the answer re: union-made jeans. Boys' jeans just don't fit me for shit.

  14. I totally need to check out the union made jeans.

    I work with a woman whose boyfriend is an airline mechanic, but luckily not for NWA. She did make a point of telling me he isn't a scab. Thank God, because I really like her.

    Can you tell I come from a union family?

  15. Is this an inappropriate place to post a love letter?

    I can't believe we haven't met yet, Krup. I love you to death.

  16. Aww, Flea. It's nice to know my longtime crush isn't unrequited.

    Brooke -- let me know if you get some jeans! I'm way too bootylicious to wear men's jeans, but I wear these anyway, because, damn, they're union!