How's that Working Out For You?

In order to translate the core assumptions of collective bargaining for Vietnamese undergraduates, I have had to turn my attention to the way democracy is actually practiced in our own country.

LA teachers out, Gov’t shut — January 21, 2019

LA teachers out, Gov’t shut

Amazing!! One guy at the top is having a conniption and shuts the government! Bang, it’s closed. We have no government!!! Name any other serious country around the world that has no “government”. Certain border areas of Pakistan, maybe? Well, that’s what things have come down to in the US. Some emergency workers like IRS employees have been called back to work without pay. But big chunks of the Park Service, food inspection, Department of Justice, consular services, federal prisons, the TSA people … and on and on.

Cities and towns are doing food banks for federal workers.

But also not working are the teachers! Teachers (young, committed, serious, hopeful and organized!) are on strike in Los Angeles (for 5 days now) by the thousands, in their red T-shirts, with massive support from families and students and apparently the Mayor and a lot of other unions — and the NFL player’s union. Nothing like a good strike to cheer you up — especially if the guy on the other end of the bookends of power is a total schnippe. Teachers have been leading the way now for nearly a decade, if you go back to the organizing among the Chicago teachers.

And while all this is going on, we are in Viet Nam.

I do not have time to explain everything that is going on but here are some pictures:

Good news, overall — November 28, 2018

Good news, overall

I am writing this on November 15, nine days after the mid-term election. Ballots are still being counted. There are still 7 contests for seats in the House of Representatives that are “too close to be called,” two in California, two in New York, one in Texas, one in Mississippi, and one in Utah. Both are leaning Democrat. In Mississippi and Florida they are still counting ballots for Senate contests.  The ballots for Governor in Georgia and Florida are still being counted.

How state-level elections are run is a matter of state law ( The person who is accountable for how an election is run can be elected or appointed, and if they are appointed, it may be by the Governor, by the legislature, or by some commission whose members are themselves appointed. This person has a lot of leeway in how they run the election. Deadlines, for example — they vary from state to state. Ballots that aren’t  counted by whatever deadline the state decides may not get counted at all. Lawyers can go to court and get judges to move the deadlines, however. Some states have requirements that a contest be close within a certain percent in order to trigger a run-off. There are laws about when to use machine counting and when you have to use hand-counting.  One state has poll workers eyeballing the signatures on the outside of ballot mailing envelopes and determining if they match a sample signature in some other record. To say nothing of old ballot-counting machines and new ballot-counting machines. Right now, Florida has one manual recount and six machine recounts going. It is Florida again where the Governor has tried to have all the election equipment and processes impounded by the police. Florida, of course, is the state where Bush vs Gore, the 2000- election, was decided.

Here is a parody of what the right has done with our electoral system. It’s five of the weirdest old white guys you ever saw, wearing wigs, and singing Beach Boys songs:


Nonetheless, in many places, state and local level, Democrats have already won or appear to be leading in the un-called races, as mail-in and provisional ballots get counted.  Races that appeared to be lost on Nov 7 now are flipping. Josh Harder out in Stockton, for example, whom we supported, has won. Four California districts flipped to blue and one more seems to be coming along.  In Florida, Andrew Gillum conceded first, and then as the count continued, withdrew his concession. In Georgia, Stacy Abram’s numbers are climbing.

Overall, in the House of Representatives the Democrats gained 35 seats and hold 230. The Republicans lost 35 to hold 198.

In the Senate, the Democrats lost 1 to hold 47 and the Republicans gained 1 to hold 52, but two races are still uncalled, so it may turn out to be 49-52.

The Democrats won seven Governorships to have 23 and the Republicans lost 6 to have 25. Again, two races (Florida and Georgia) are undecided. As more and more major policies (like Medicare expansion, unemployment compensation, public sector labor laws, school funding) are enacted at the state level as compared to the federal level, people figure out that they have to think about holding state leadership to account and not vote a nationalist “patriotic” ticket on the state and local level.

This is some pretty good news, and the best part of it is that many of the wins for the Democrats are people who are not the old-style corporate liberal Democrats. Many of the candidates who won were endorsed by OR, Our Revolution – the organization that spun off of the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign.

This is in spite of our Electoral College process, the 2-senators-per-state rule for the Senate, and then a 60-plus year (post Brown vs Board of Education) strategy on the part of the right wing to bring back the Confederacy.  (See Nancy McLean’s Democracy in Chains.) In spite of failing to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act, permitting massive gerrymandering, and voter suppression down to closing polling places or moving them at the last minute, and on and on, so that the old “3/5ths” rule pretty much is back in place, with only 3/5s of those who could vote being able to vote.

It looks as if we have in fact been able to make a lot of our battered machinery of democracy work anyway. Amazingly. Yes, it has taken a lot of money (individual donations by people who don’t have much extra to begin with) and a whole lot of time. It’s not something you can keep doing forever. But it does look like it happened.

I wrote about his before the election and said, in response to the question, “What would a revolution look like?” — that maybe, if we could make our democracy work, it would look like a shift of the basis of power from the few with bottomless pocketbooks to the many like us. That hasn’t really happened but this is a warning.


Ultimately, Andrew Gillum in Florida, Stacy Abrams in Georgia and Mike Espy in Mississippi (all Black candidates) lost, but lost by a handful of votes. Now (two weeks later) Barbara Lee is contesting Nancy Pelosi’s candidacy for Speaker of the House. 

And in between, the hills and mountains northeast of us, up above the Central Valley, went up in flames. A town called Paradise was completely burnt to the ground. Years of alternating drought and heavy rains created thousands of square miles of flourishing forest that would dry out and wither and become kindling. People moved up into these hill towns because land is cheap and living is relatively simple, but if you live way out along a narrow two-lane road and a massive wind-borne wildfire comes pouring down the mountain, and you get stuck behind your neighbors in a traffic jam on that two-lane road, you die. So far there are 80 or more identified deaths and several hundred people simply missing.

The smoke from the wildfires rolled down towards the Bay Area which acted like a basin and collected it. For two weeks the sky was black. According to the air quality index, we had the worst air quality in the world, worse than Beijing on a bad day. Schools were closed and people stayed indoors. If you went outdoors, you work a N95 mask (if you could get one — stores ran out).

At last it rained. The water in the creek running through John Hinkel Park and in the street gutters was thick and black and sudsy.  We’ve washed the floors, curtains and other surfaces. But we’ll keep our masks and our new air purifier. There are thousands more square miles of forest to burn, just in Northern California, and it will all pool down into the Bay.

New Beach is gone; new New Beach will show up when the river goes down — November 6, 2018

New Beach is gone; new New Beach will show up when the river goes down


It has rained on and off and then on again, hard, and the ground is saturated so the water runs right into the river. This is what the Old Swimming Hole looks like. We told Lorenzo about this and he asked if the New Beach was gone. We said we would go look, as soon as it stopped raining so hard.

The path to New Beach used to go through a low, open wooded area. That is now a pond. Our old path would go along the right side of what is now under water. You can see the river itself in the distance. The whitecaps are the water pouring over the rocks.


In order to get to where we could look at New Beach, we had to cross some streams.


We went past a pile of crushed metal left over from the flood. It looked like part of an RV. The flood, which was named Irene, picked up whole RVs, trailers and at least four houses in the town and pushed them downstream, wrecking them and twisting them up into little pieces. This was in 2011, seven years ago. Everyone who was in the town then remembers.


If you look closely here you can see a bicycle. Somebody lost their bicycle.


Finally we got to where we could look and see where New Beach used to be.  See that white pole hanging out over the water? That used to be up on top of a sand pile and people would hang towels on it or sit near it. You can see the pale yellow of the sand under the shallower parts of the water. That’s how high the water is now.

This is not a real flood, like Irene. This is just a lot of rain. This happens a lot.


So New Beach, which was created along the West River below the State Park, is gone. However, it was a flood that created the first New Beach so when there is the next flood, we will probably get another on the same way.  Maybe the sand will be there. Or maybe not. Maybe it will be down the river a ways.

On the way back, we passed this lovely group of trees. There should be a special word for a group of young trees all standing together.


Then we came out at the bottom of the field below the Tewksbury house.


Still there.




Tuesday Nov 6: no matter what happens, we will be fighting on different ground — November 5, 2018

Tuesday Nov 6: no matter what happens, we will be fighting on different ground

The election is day after tomorrow. I remember how I felt after the 2016 election. In 2018, I am much better prepared. I think a lot of people are better prepared. I have never seen mobilization like what I have seen in the last year. Never — not even in the 1970s against the Vietnam War. But no matter what happens on Tuesday,  it’s not going to let up. If anything, the conflict will only get sharper.

I think people on both sides know this.  They’re not thinking of Tuesday as the end of the story.  Nobody’s going to take time off. If the bad guys win, we’re still stuck in a life and death struggle because global warming has given us a deadline: get it together, or get out. If the bad guys win we just keep moving towards the world we have seen in movies, with deserts, continents of toxic waste, and then islands or even mini-moons of luxury.  If that’s what happens, people like us just keep fighting. On the other hand, if the good guys win, the conflict will move to Congress. This doesn’t mean that people at the base  on either side can cool it. The good guys had better not cool it; if we have actually succeeded in electing people we want to represent us, we need to keep them on course and make them make the wheels turn. The bad guys will have a heightened romantic identity as underdogs and flag-wavers; they’ll keep themselves busy. William Berkeley, the colonial governor of Virginia at the time of Bacon’s Rebellion, said, “Woe be it to a governor, three quarters of whose citizens are indebted, discontented, and armed.”

The key races are all so close that wins, either way, are going to be by a handful of votes. It’s going to be 49.9% against 49.8%. That leaves a lot of unhappy, angry people out there. No one who loses by a thousand votes, or four hundred votes, or ten votes, is going to just walk away and say, “Never mind.”  There will be re-counts, lawsuits, ugly name-calling. More pipe bombs, probably.

There will be stunning examples of good leadership, too. Although I believed Bernie could have won – and would have won, if the Democratic National Committee had not screwed with him – I always also trusted that he would show us what losing with dignity looks like. I will never forget the speech he gave at the Convention when he handed Vermont’s electoral votes to Hilary. That was a mind-blowingly gracious and grown-up act. He rose to the occasion.

But maybe 2016 was too soon for a Social Democrat to win the presidency. Maybe the cleft down the middle of our country had to break wide open, maybe each side had to see more clearly exactly what the other side looks like. Maybe we had to actually see Jeff Sessions, the Proud Boys, Charlottesville, Kavanaugh……

Tuesday night we’ll be in Brattleboro at the bi-weekly meeting of the Vermont Workers Center Organizing Committee, a good group of people to be with on a night like that. There’s going to be those maps again, as House representatives who have 2-year terms and the 33 Senators who are up for election show up as columns of red or blue.Then the Governor’s races check in. The VWC meetings take place at a non-profit center called TheRoot, a comfortable building that is part artists’ studios and part community enter. It has parking, heat, a bathroom, a lot of comfortable chairs and books and posters.  It also has internet. I’ll go on line and try to see what’s happening in California, Pacific Standard Time.

I’m prepared to cry. I didn’t cry after 2016; I was just scared. This year, if we lose big, I’ll cry for pity for the human race. But intellectually – in my harder-headed side — I expect that I’m going to hear a big cracking noise, like a beam splitting or – come to think of it — like the 1989 earthquake which I remember vividly: a deep grinding noise way below eardrum-audible, but body-audible, as the East Bay Hills groaned and tried to turn over. When the noise is over, I think I’ll see a country split apart as it hasn’t been since the Civil War.


Small Government — October 24, 2018

Small Government


This beautiful old house, perhaps the most elegant in the town, once looked out through three majestic maples across a sloping field down to the West River. There is an el in the rear that you can’t see, so the house is even bigger than it looks. It was owned by the Tewskburys. Mrs. Tewksbury, who was a pianist who taught many children in the village,  was widowed some time in the 1950s, leaving her alone with her developmentally disabled daughter Anne. When Mrs. Tewksbury died, a rich man from Connecticut, Jack Raymond, bought the house with the condition that Anne’s housing would be taken care of. For a while Anne lived in this house, but then moved into a room in the village. Eventually she was taken to an assisted living accommodation in the next town where she died, only a few years ago.

In the meantime, Jack Raymond had purchased some of the other well-constructed, well-sited and historic houses in the village. One of them was at the top of a steep dirt road and ended in an apple orchard beyond which, in a kind of saddle between mountaintops, he built an airstrip. There are people in the village who remember planes landing on that airstrip. All the houses he bought were notable for either their good, classic construction or their stunning locations. The house at the top of the long dirt road, for example, looks out over miles of sloping mountainside into the deep river valley.

Jack Raymond’s plan, apparently, was to create a New England tourist destination and link his properties together with horse-drawn carriages that would take guests from one venue to another. However, he was mostly in the buying mode, not the fixing-up or finishing-the-job mode, and the starkest evidence of this was the Tewksbury house, where he did make a stab at “improvements” by starting to build cement squash courts off the rear el of the house. No one I have talked with knows what Anne thought about this. She would walk through the village wearing her blue wool coat with the fur collar (I remember her mainly in the fall and winter seasons). She must have walked past her house a thousand times over the years, so she saw her family home slowly weather, be partly demolished by the squash court construction, and then bit by bit become an adventure destination for teenagers who explored the inside, broke windows and tore out the curtains and wallpaper.  We would see her at church. She was always smiling and friendly to us.

In the midst of all this, Jack Raymond got divorced. My father told me that they had had  long conversations about his life and that he was often depressed and immobilized.

Apparently he is still live, somewhere in Connecticut. The house at the top of the long dirt road, the one with the fabulous view (now blocked by a growth of pines and birches) and the airstrip, got a new foundation and secure locks a few years ago, so someone is interested in preserving it. Another one of his properties is the “green house” known as the Gladys Wolf house because Gladys, a friend of my parents, lived in it for many years in another housing arrangement after Jack bought it. This  house is within sight of ours. It is occasionally occupied by a couple who come up from Connecticut for a weekend. However, that house had its barn and kitchen el torn away when Irene came through in 2014:

With the November 6 election two weeks away, we went to a Select Board Meeting at the town offices. The item on the agenda that attracted what for the village is a big crowd (10 people) was getting the agreement of the town to go ahead with spending the insurance money to repair the roof of the Cheney Mill, a post-and-beam building that is the last one standing of the many mills that stood along the Ball Mountain Brook (see the flood video) in the old days. A high wind last year tore part of the metal roof off the mill, distributing it around the town, and insurance would cover the repair and replacement of the roof. After considerable discussion, the Select Board agreed to allow the Jamaica Historical Society (which wants to turn the mill into a community space for exhibits, concerts, etc) to oversee and go ahead with the repair.

The Chair of the Select Board proposed selling the old mill to the Historical Society for $1.98 and letting them undertake the repairs, using the insurance money, or, if they wanted, “sell the wood and take the money and run.” Antique barn wood is in high demand by decorators. The word about the Select Board is that under this leadership, “the town doesn’t like to own anything.” The JHS declined the offer.

Which led to the next discussion, which is relevant to my self-assigned task of trying to capture moments of grassroots democracy.  After the issue of the repair of the mill was taken care of, the majority of the attendees left. The next item was the transfer station. A transfer station is a location where people bring their trash, which is in turn “transferred” to a bigger place. Vermont itself has only one ultimate landfill for trash, somewhere “way up north.” Apparently much of our trash — at least the electronic debris, which can be recycled — gets sold, or used to get sold, to China, although China has now decided not to accept any more. At any rate: after the Roads Department, the Transfer Station is the single biggest operation in the town. It accepts food garbage, electronics, hazmats and metal from three other villages. It also has big bins for paper, plastic and glass and a squisher  for “real trash,” which village residents (people with a special card) can deposit trash into using special bright green and yellow plastic bags which we have to purchase at $3 each. Apparently this requirement has reduced the amount of “real trash” that we send down to the next step in the trash chain from an amount we used to pay $14,000 for to an amount that we pay $9,000 for.

That was the only hard number that the Select Board seemed to have at its fingertips, however. The problem is the “gaylords,”


which are used to contain the electronic waste. Ours are rusted or rotten through and the toxins in the waste are probably leaking into the soil. The transfer station is located halfway up a mountainside, on a flattened out terrace, but it is above the Ball Mountain Brook a few hundred yards below.

River near mill

Ball Mountain Brook right next to the Cheney Mill and a few hundred yards below the transfer station

The reason this has come to the attention of the Select Board is that the State of Vermont inspected our transfer station and gave us until November 17 to come into compliance. The Select Board member, Polly Flowers (the only woman on the Board, and possibly in her 70s) had researched possible remediations such as buying a shed that could be set on gravel, etc, which would cost $3,500 to $4,000.

The Select Board did not know at that moment, nor did it have any way of finding out, exactly what kinds of money were going into and coming out of the Transfer Station. Everyone knows that the new bags cost $3 each (or $2 for small ones), but what about the checks to the town that people write when they drop off old TVs and other “chargeable” junk? Did the transfer station actually make money, or lose money? What kind of a liability was it? The town treasurer appeared to not be at the meeting, and no one seemed to be able to refer to a handy document that would break out the various activities of the town into budget categories with revenue, costs, projections, etc.

The problem is that if we do not meet the November 17 deadline for fixing the rotten, leaking gaylord, we will lose the license to run a general transfer station (meaning no longer accepting garbage, hazmats such as electronics, and at least one other type of refuse). Since three other villages rely on our transfer station to accept garbage and hazardous waste, that would be inconvenient for more than just people who are village residents.

Nonetheless, one of the members of the Select Board seriously moved that we simply run out the deadline and stop providing the hazardous waste disposal function. That would reduce the number of things the town was responsible for. He also said that pretty soon all the old TVs with “those big square backs” will be gone anyway, and everyone will have these new smart TVs, and the need for so much disposal will be over.

Someone else, however, pointed out that if you don’t have a hazmat disposal option, people will simply toss their cell phones, old TVs, tape recorders, play stations, iPads et etc into the woods as they drive around.

The Select Board did not vote on this motion, but instead agreed to set aside or postpone making a decision on the issue of getting new containers for the hazardous waste until the next meeting which is in early November.  By then surely, someone would know something about what happens to the money taken in by and spent on the transfer station. The woman who had brought the information to the Board pointed out that this would make it impossible to meet the deadline, but she was gently assured that the Vermont agency in charge could be reasoned with and would not shut the transfer station down if they understood that the Board was under “a time framework”.

Small government in action.

Last night I watched the debate in Georgia that included Stacy Abrams, the Black woman who is getting national attention and may actually win.  Her main opponent, who is named Kemp, I think, has put at least 53,000 people on a “pending” list because of some problem with their registration, or perhaps because they did not vote in previous elections, or whatever.  They way you get off the “pending list”, he said, is by coming in and showing your government-issued ID. He scolded Abrams for not voting for on-line registration, but she pointed out that lots of rural Georgia does not have good internet. Seventy percent of the people on the “pending” list are minority. These folks are running for Governor. Stacy Abrams was brilliant. I actually had a dream about her! Kemp was low-key Kavanaugh, doing his best to discredit Abrams by calling her a liar, tax cheat, etc etc. The third candidate was a friendly goofball Libertarian who proposes saving Georgia’s economy by farming “industrial hemp,” but his presence as a wild card forced the other two candidates to deal with some sharp issues, and  also made the panelists and mediator, in the name of equal treatment, enforce the rules with energetic civility. He finished up by defining Libertarianism as “Don’t bother me, don’t tell me what to do, and don’t steal my stuff.” He  argued that since “this is going to be a run-off,” people should vote for him as a protest vote.

In the meantime, we had a lovely discussion of important issues at the regional meeting of the Vermont Workers Center last Sunday. It was scheduled from 9-5 and we got there late (about 10:30). I had not expected to want to stay the whole day but I was having so much pleasure — not exactly fun – listening to people that I didn’t suggest leaving until it was over.

VWC reading ex

The readings (from Gramsci) were well-chosen and the discussions were informative, stimulating, friendly and supportive. There was also plenty of food and good coffee.

Besides which, last Tuesday was my birthday. I invited the ladies of the Benefit over for lunch.


So How Would a Revolution Actually Start in the US? — October 8, 2018

So How Would a Revolution Actually Start in the US?

So how would a revolution actually start? 

Our daughter, an ER nurse who thinks ahead, has been reading the New York Times Op Eds post-Kavanaugh. She asked this question.

I don’t think it will start before the election on November 6. Everyone is too busy.

But first, a word from our sponsor:


 This is not me.This is my friend and she said it was OK to use this.

After the mid-term election, if the Democrats pick up some seats – enough to make some difference at the national level – there will continue to be a period while people are waiting to see what happens next.  If there is good stuff at the local level – like, if Jovanka (a democratic socialist and DSA member) wins for California Assembly District 15 – then people will take a breath and focus locally. People will get behind the more do-able parts of her Bernie-esque agenda and try to move it forward. That’s all.

But if people feel that this is just another election that has been stolen like Bush vs Gore in 2000 or 2004 and Hilary vs Bernie  vs Trump in 2016, then the rope that ties things together will start to shred visibly, like in a movie where the hero is hanging off the side of a cliff and people up above on the top and down below can all equally see what’s about to happen. We will all agree: We’ll say: “You stole it!” and they’ll agree, “Yes, we stole it! Ha ha!”

Like Samuel Jackson in the Instagram mashup, yelling at Kavanaugh: “You did it!! Yes, you did, Brett!”

Then things may start moving.

There are two clocks ticking. One, obviously, is climate change. There will be increasing wildfires, hurricanes, floods, new diseases, etc. The price of food will go up (it already has; I used to be able to buy everything I wanted at the Monterey Market for $35. Now it’s more like $70.) It will probably take a year or two for us here in the Berkeley bubble to feel the big changes, so we will just sit like the frogs in the pot while other parts of the world burn and drown and people put what they can carry on their backs and leave home.

The other clock is the economy. There is another crash coming, and this time the ruling class will not even pretend to put a cushion under those who fall to the bottom. We will all be Puerto Rico while the top .01% sweeps up whatever shakes loose and stashes it away. Note that in the wake of the vote for Kavanaugh, the stock market went up. These people are placing bets.

The economic crisis clock is ticking faster than climate change because the people placing their bets will want to get out with their winnings before it all blows up.

These two clocks will run out no matter what happens on November 6. There is no Planet B, no Westward Expansion, no Darkest Africa to claim, raid and rob.

At the point I called Joe to come and help me think about this. What follows includes his ideas.

A Real Revolution Requires a Power Shift

A revolution in America would not be guerilla warfare like Cuba or Vietnam, despite the millions of guns that are out there. If the civil institutions of our limited and distorted but persisting democracy can survive an electoral transition, a revolution in America could start using these existing institutions. That sounds like Bernie’s agenda:  free public higher education, rebuilding infrastructure, tax the rich, jobs in a reclaimed public sector, Medicare for all. But that agenda is the outcome of a power shift, not the power shift itself. A real revolution is, by definition, a shift in class power, in our case from the present ruling class of capital to the working class, the vast majority.

Not all so-called “revolutions” really involve a power shift. When there is just a replacement of one ruling group by another, but no fundamental change in class power and therefore social institutions, that’s not a real revolution.  Examples of this are the Philippines and the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and former USSR republics, etc.  There have only been a few real revolutions, maybe five, in the last 100 years.  They can also be reversed and/or distorted nearly beyond recognition.

If a revolution in the US actually began electorally, or looked like it might, at some point the current ruling class would either fix the election, deny the results or attack the new government, eventually by force if necessary. The key example for comparison might be Chile. We would have to be prepared to defend the gains by force, as Allende was not prepared to do in Chile, despite the movement, and many workers, asking him to do so.

There is also the possibility of international action against a revolutionary USA from Europe, Japan, even a capitalist China. From the point of view of the EU, a revolutionary USA might look like a Venezuela. On the other hand, it is possible that if we are prepared, and much of the military refuses to fight us, then it might be fairly peaceful, as it was in 1917 in Russia. Remember that one of the reasons we eventually pulled out of Vietnam was because the soldiers themselves were starting to refuse orders. There still might be a civil war later, with or without foreign intervention. The point is that in order to achieve a real power shift, there would have to be mass support clearly demonstrated for radical changes.

The best way to minimize violence is to be prepared, openly and publicly, and have a big strong mass movement with a leadership that can be trusted. In this we can think of it as a super strike on a much bigger level. We are light-years away from that now, but things can change very fast, even in our lifetimes.

What are the Obstacles?  Racism, Police, Lack of Leadership

We can’t just think of a revolution as voting in the good guys and re-writing laws. There will be opposition. One way to evaluate the likelihood of a successful power shift is to look at what would stand in the way.

The profoundly racialized structure of our society is a major obstacle. Racism has power over us white people through our weakness and fear, which can make us impotent in this fight. The House of Kavanaugh is big and well-built (and like the White House in Washington, was built with slave labor). It will be easier to empty it than to knock it down, but one way or another, it has to go. Exiting the House of Kavanaugh onto level ground where people are equal means leaving behind all the little perks and privileges that it enables. Outside the House of Kavanaugh, a white man has no more points than a Black man or a woman. He doesn’t get to talk more or eat more or walk in front. He doesn’t necessarily get the job if he’s applying for one. People inside the House of Kavanaugh are aware of what will happen if they really exit. No matter where their sympathies lie, they will find it hard to do. “I can’t afford it,” they’ll say. But outside the House of Kavanaugh, gains can be made even for white men that they could never win on their own.  We have seen this happen in strikes, when by uniting across race and gender lines, major gains were won.

Second, our police system is embedded in our racist culture. There may be individual good guys, but as an institution, they are on the wrong side. Today in America, their job is to protect property. They are now equipped with military-grade weapons. Their system feeds the prisons, where one out of three Black men spend some time during their lives. Then there’s the pseudo-military civilian armed forces that operate with government approval, like ICE, which feed the detention centers and the tent camps in the Texas desert where a thousand children are held captive. There is also a huge force of non-governmental security guards and private armed personnel. These entities also have guns, helicopters, trucks, drones, etc. Their power is force. They might prove unreliable politically at some point, since they are basically mercenaries, and some are unionized now, but that’s a far stretch.

The lack of real leadership is third obstacle. There are voices rising, and new faces that are getting familiar, but no one, no group of people who represent a major movement, has emerged. For that matter, there is no overall movement right now that includes everyone who wants a revolution. Instead, we have dozens or hundreds of campaigns. We have no revolutionary organization. If history is any judge, a revolutionary organization is needed. Even here, the recent growth of the explicitly socialist left, largely due to the Bernie campaign, and outrage over Trump, suggests that both a mass socialist movement and even a core revolutionary leadership might soon emerge.

Some of the real leaders may come from the prisons. Prisons have been opened before: the Bastille, for example. And remember Mandela who was released after 27 years? There is movement inside our prison system, too: they just had a mass strike. Again, racism is our key obstacle here.

Are there some hopeful signs?

Hopeful signs include the fact that the public sector itself is still large and a site of struggle, the teachers especially. Under Hitler, all the teachers just became Nazis or shut up overwhelmingly. The Nazis did not have to do mass purges in the schools or the public sector generally. We think, and hope, that would be different today in the USA.  The teachers’ strikes of last spring are a something to be very proud of. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Arizona teachers went on statewide strikes, without the leadership of the teacher’s unions telling them to – or even supporting them, until it was clear that they were going ahead with it. The public sector is important. The right wing Supreme Court was not confused when they came down with the Janus vs AFSCME Council 31 decision! The progressive organizing among nurses and other health care workers, both into unions and for the welfare of their patients (Medicare for All)  is also suggestive for the future.

Other activity in the world of labor is also hopeful. The Fight for Fifteen started as a ridiculous pipe dream; now Amazon boasts it will pay its workers $15 an hour.  Right now there is a national strike going against Marriott Hotels, led by workers in UNITE HERE. David Bacon ( has some wonderful photos posted of workers on the picket lines in the Bay Area. Based on what we know about internal organizing within UNITE HERE, especially among the housekeeper staff, preparation for this huge action has occupied at least 10, probably 15 years. Not overnight, in other words! That’s a lot of hard work.

Finally, the country might actually split geographically. It happened once already, although the immediate causes were primarily economic, competition against unpaid slave labor, and only secondarily the moral outrage of, and against, the slavers. Also important to remember that what began as a war to save the Union against secession became, of necessity, a war to end slavery, with the action of the Black people themselves, enslaved an d free, absolutely essential to both the change in the war goals and in the final victory. Things can change a whole lot.

What is the comparable issue today?  Maybe the two ticking clocks – climate change and the economic meltdown – will force a revolution, but they won’t split the country by themselves probably; we are all in both of those together (only in the final analysis is that strictly true, and as Keynes said, in the final analysis, we are all dead.) But the sharper the differences between the states, in terms of minimum wage, unemployment benefits, environmental regulations, public education, labor protections, Medicaid expansion and public services generally, the more you wonder if we even know that we belong to the same country. In Illinois, speaking of workers’ compensation laws, we used to say, “If you’re injured in Indiana, crawl to Illinois!” But it looks as if people move to where jobs are, or given the price of housing, where they can get a roof over their heads.

So, when?

An optimistic view, therefore, may be no revolution in our lifetime, but a discernable movement toward socialism or at least toward a post-capitalist future where working people have the greatest say-so over what happens. But it could happen sooner. Some famous revolutionary (maybe a Russian?) once said that in an actual revolutionary situation people learn in a week what would take them a lifetime in normal times. Things can change very fast.

Our job is to try to both move them and get ready for the unexpected.





The Mansion of the Kavanaughs — October 3, 2018

The Mansion of the Kavanaughs

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve posted. What could I say that wasn’t bad news? But now the Brett Kavanaugh hearings have happened and all hell has broken loose.  Women protesting all over the place, occupying offices in government buildings, clamoring for the white boys in charge to listen to their stories and pay attention. The best quickie is the Instagram mashup that has Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction leaning over Kavanaugh and shouting, “You did it!! You know you did it!”

Here is what I wrote on September 29, 2018. I was responding to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Lindsay Ellis, from September 27: As Kavanaugh Allegations Widen, Elite-College Alumni Recall Harassment From Decades Past Students, by Lindsay Ellis. She has said she wants to post it in various places so I figured I’d post  it here, too.

The Mansion of the Kavanaughs

As a 1965 graduate of Radcliffe (which was then still in the process of becoming Harvard), I am being urged by family and husband to write something about all this.

I have a slightly different take on the #MeToo stories.  I would tell three kinds of stories, not one. First and foremost and overwhelmingly important is naming and describing the patriarchal social structure that we all lived in back then, men and women together. It still exists, as we saw displayed in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings yesterday, but I am going to talk about it in the past tense for now. Picture it as a mansion made of marble, with columns and twenty wide steps leading up to the front doors. How you inhabited it depended on your gender. At Harvard when I was a student, there was a whole undergraduate library just for “men.” There was one – only one – women’s “lounge” Harvard Yard, in a basement. Walking through the Yard, women could wear trousers only if the snow was a certain number of inches deep. A prominent professor, beloved by many, responded to my request that he be my thesis tutor with “I don’t do girls.”  Women professors for role models of how to survive in the mansion? To my knowledge, there were two: one was a poet who committed suicide.  And there was the white-coated, silver-haired Cambridge doctor to whom I went seeking birth control — a diaphragm – who said, “Educated women make wonderful mothers.” Did he actually assault me? No — but I nearly died of a back street abortion the week before I graduated. This is at a time when the ratio of men to women if you include the graduate schools was about 20 to 1 and getting hit on was as certain as getting rained on if you went outdoors in March.


None of what I’m talking about here constitutes sexual assault in and of itself. It’s not individual, it’s the whole structure — the famous professor, the kindly doctor, the library that did not admit women — these are just people occupying rooms in this mansion, but it is designed and run to make all men the masters of all women. Women trying to walk around in that mansion? Well, if you didn’t take the back stairs you had to wear a maid’s outfit or just accept the idea that they assume you were a slut.


I can’t begin to touch how this was racialized, at least not in this letter.


But it wasn’t all the men, of course. When I connect with old classmates, men especially, my strongest feeling is affection and I want to ask, “You were there too, how was it for you?” This house of patriarchy was great for bullies like Brett Kavanaugh, for whom a drunken party with girls was normal, but it was awful for young men who watched with shame and fear as their women friends and sisters got hurt or bashed around psychologically. What’s more, the roaring of the bullies was as much directed at other young men as it was at us, the women. They suffered right along with us, although we didn’t have a way to talk about it. The house of patriarchy was a totality and occupied all possible space, but there were some safe places tucked away within it — a theater group, a lab, a civil rights organization that had some politics, a chess club where a guy who wasn’t a bully could be undisturbed and actually study. They also might find a partner, a woman who wasn’t attracted to bullies, who could help keep both of them safe. But other young men got dragged or dazzled into the magic circle of the jerks for whom the patriarchy was designed, the football guys and other athletes. During my years at Harvard I could spot those jerks a mile away: they were the B-School guys, the Law School guys, and some of Government majors who aspired to be law school guys. Not so much the Medical school guys, who were usually nerds. (And these grad schools were overwhelmingly male; 50 years later, I probably have to explain that.) If those who were dragged in weren’t Kavanaugh themselves, they hung out with him and basked in the glow, and did what he dared them to do or else. Him renting a bus to take his buddies to Fenway Park and drinking themselves silly both ways would be typical.


The mansion itself is just a place, although it’s a place with rules. But it doesn’t in itself perform sexual assault. It has rooms where Harvey Wienstein can be left undisturbed for a few hours after lunch, and someone at the front desk who will call him when the girl shows up, and someone else who will walk her to the elevator, but the mansion itself doesn’t do anything. If it was a workplace, we would call it “hostile environment,” but it’s not a workplace, it’s the world. Or it wants to be the world.


So that’s the first way I’d like to see the #MeToo stories told: the mansion. The second way I’d want to see them told is through the eyes of the people who were men but not bullies. I was lucky enough to know quite a few of them. These were my friends. I told my husband that these were guys who would stop when I said “Stop,” but many of them I had no sexual relationship with at all. Today I am still friends with some of them. I have also been to reunions where a guy or two has come up to me, someone I didn’t know, and apologized — not for himself, necessarily, but on behalf of his cohort.  It brings tears to my eyes right now to remember this. There have also been suicides and long depressions and mental illness among some of these guys, I want to say, whereas others have done fine (but none are rich lawyers, by the way). Some of the men who were not bullies themselves were undoubtedly sexually abused, just to show who’s boss. Mark Judge’s depression and alcoholism might be the price he paid for hanging out with Brett Kavanaugh.


These guys, the good guys who are not natural bullies and who hesitate to become members of the Kavanaugh gang get hurt in many ways that are not getting headlines these days. Living around bullies can make you crazy; maybe it’s like PTSD.


Of course, neither the victims nor the witnesses could talk about their experience out loud. It was worse than forbidden, it was unspeakable. There were no words for it. You couldn’t name it because there was no vocabulary for it. Lacking practice, we none of us knew what to say or how. That will make you crazy.  Doing what Christine Blasey Ford did was an act of sanity in the face of that prohibition. Apparently her just saying those forbidden words out loud in public was so powerful that Brett Kavanaugh has decided that it has destroyed his family, his reputation, his career. No wonder it was forbidden!


The third story, then is the experience that Christine Blasey Ford recounted. I want to say first off that her story was so familiar to me that I felt that I could have told it myself. This, and things like this, is what happened not just once or twice but all the time back when I was at Harvard. Maybe not exactly that way, and maybe not to me, but the banal normality of her experience was so absolute that I felt I could have walked right up those stairs and heard those boys laughing— giggling, really, keeping up a running commentary on the challenges of peeling a girl out of a one-piece bathing suit.


Maybe the best way to communicate how banal and normal it was to experience sexual assault at Harvard is to say that there were lists of abortionists that circulated among the girls in my dorm. There was one famous one, in Ashland, Pennsylvania, whose name had been mentioned in a poem by Anne Sexton, but there were others, in Montreal and Switzerland and Puerto Rico, and it was not unusual for someone to say, “Hey, can I get a look at that list, please?” I heard it referred to as “the cost of doing business.” You could stay in the dorm, wear your fuzzy slippers and hair curlers, and be pretty sure of staying a virgin, or you could go out into the world and try to live the same kind of life the guys were leading, going places, meeting people, coming back late in a taxi, in which case you took a whole set of risks that the boys did not take and those risks were with you all the time, with payday coming once a month when you did or did not get your period.


Yesterday I was so upset (both upset and awed) by what I was hearing during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that I took my iPhone, left the house and walked down to the bus stop near our house and just rode the Number 18 bus for a few hours, listening, from Berkeley into Oakland and back, making myself invisible in the company of the other bus riders. A bus is a nice alternative to the mansion. I did notice that quite a few other riders were women my age and they were all listening intently to something on their phones.


Then the Senators went to lunch and came back home and now Kavanaugh was being questioned. I do not want to pay him the respect of saying a lot about him. Instead, I want to say what happened to me while I listened to him. I was shocked to find that I was watching him re-build the mansion of patriarchy, brick by brick, log by log, marble column by column, right in front of my eyes.  While listening to Christine Blasey Ford testify, it had been like being in some plain flat place like an open field, just plain reality. She and I were both in the world I recognize, the world I live in now, where girls can get birth control and marriage is not necessary and gay couples are no big deal, and where we can and should talk about bad things and call them by their name and send bullies and jerks and rapists to prison, not put them on the Supreme Court.  Blasey Ford sat there under the lights being stared at by millions of people and she said out loud things that were true in 1982 and true today, and millions of people listened to her and nodded their heads and agreed that she was telling her story the right way, at the right time, to the right people. “Credible,” everyone agreed.


And then Kavanaugh got started. He was told that he could make his opening statement as long as he wanted, and it was long. First, he seemed to be occupying the same reality that Christine Blasey Ford and I inhabit, on that same flat plain. I think he expressed sorrow for her, while also insisting that he didn’t do it: he himself had never met her, he didn’t know her. Then he talked about his family, his father (seeming to stifle sobs while mentioning his father) and his daughter. Then as he talked, his tone got louder and he seemed to puff up with air. At about this point I suddenly felt a chill: I could see the mansion start to rise before me. I could see what he was doing. He was building it right in front of us by listing all its rooms and telling us what went on in each one. He listed his jobs mowing lawns, his summer athletic camps, his “captain’s workouts,” the football team, the basketball team, lifting weights, working his tail off, going to church (which for him is automatic “like brushing my teeth”), the private Catholic boys’ schools he and his buddies went to and the matching private Catholic girl’s schools where the girls that were socially OK went. Then it was Yale and Yale Law School and clerking and working for George Bush, flying on Air Force One. Room by room, he was reconstructing the mansion with all its many rooms, painting it clearly for us, every single room full of regular guys like him leading lives like his. He was building a different “normal”, not the normal that Christine Blasey Ford and I live in, but the normal of himself, the normal in which he is the top dog. By the time he had pretty much listed just about every kind of elite male privilege (boy or man) that a white guy can get in this country, he had passed from calm to sorrowful to a little sniffly to mad, then really full-on pissed off and loud, making threats and finally in a white bully rage, leaning forward with his face blown up, saying things like “You will reap the whirlwind!”  At the climax he was up high in the mansion, standing on the very balcony, his arms wide to the world, suffering like Jesus on the cross because this woman had “ruined his life, his family, his reputation,” etc etc etc. — a victim, but also he had rebuilt the mansion, built an establishment around himself of which he was the exemplary deserving occupant.


My husband was also watching Kavanaugh on TV and he asked, “Is that Shakespeare?”  My sister in law was there and she said, “No, the Bible.”  But there’s a way in which Kavanaugh’s rage was something out of Shakespeare, in the sense of mad Lear on the heath, wild and raging that he has had his crown grabbed out of his hands. However, when Shakespeare builds up a character like this — usually someone who has lost something and tries to get the universe to converge on him and get it back for him  – Shakespeare makes sure we can see the other characters on the stage gaping at the guy who has gone off the rails. In Shakespeare, someone will survive to pick up the pieces when this guy blows up. It will be a tragedy, but someone will survive.


Not so with Kavanaugh, who finally stopping bloviating leaving everyone clearly exhausted. Diane Feinstein, who although she has a lot of money nevertheless grew up in that mansion, was probably having a hard time focusing on what is real and what is not. She seemed to fumble the first question. Kavanaugh then managed to filibuster his way through most of the ensuing questions. Ultimately, of all the Democratic Senators, only Cory Booker, the Black ex-mayor of Newark and now Senator from New Jersey, was able to bring the jerk to heel and keep him from interrupting. In fact, it seemed as if it was faintly possible that Kavanaugh was afraid of Booker. Which makes sense, especially if you believe as I do that the reason white policemen shoot Black men is because white bullies are afraid of Black men generally, and should be, because they owe them nothing and have nothing to lose.


Now I’ll bring this around to the #MeToo movement, which has brought out into the light the stories of what it is like for women in the mansion where most of us still live. #MeToo stories are usually individual stories. We need to go past that. I’m saying there are two other stories without which the stories of individual assaults and violence are incomplete.


One of these is the story of the mansion itself, by which I mean all the activities in all the different rooms, closets, hallways, basements and ballrooms where people who may think they play only a whisper or a shadow of a role nonetheless keep the building standing upright. Go back to the fine silver-haired doctor who didn’t give me a diaphragm; he was performing his role in the mansion, but you couldn’t exactly say he assaulted me, could you?


The second is the story of the men and boys who can see what’s wrong, can see the blows falling on the woman or girl next to them, but who just eat their own pain and fear being singled out by a bully if they speak up. The structure of the mansion, visible to women, is probably invisible to them; they bump into its walls and don’t understand where the doors are. They must experience something that makes them question what the value of being a man might be.


Ultimately, my husband and I calmed down last night by trying to figure out what could be done right now. He said, “Economic equality.” I said, “No, control over our bodies comes first.” Of course, that’s why the right wing wants Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court: to get rid of Roe versus Wade. So we agreed that the thing to do right now is to support Planned Parenthood. No wonder the Republicans want to de-fund it.


Enough for now. Thanks for reading all this.


Helena Worthen



Can the Sun Rise in the West? — August 11, 2018

Can the Sun Rise in the West?

That’s a line from Fan Shen — said by Kuomingtang reactionaries to scoff the idea that Mao’s revolution could ever really happen.


First annual Tommyfest.  Musicians from all over the area brought their instruments and jammed.  Four men went off into a quiet place to play.

Big wind, lightning, trees down; bursts of rain. The rivers come up fast. Out west, the wildfires are getting started three months early.


I have not written much because I am so ashamed of my country. Children coming across the border are taken from their parents and sent to detention centers — some in other states.  Huge demonstrations to protest this. A judge has declared that they have to be re-united, but they don’t have a  process set up.

I am not up to writing about grassroots democracy and how it can turn the tide.  Maybe later. Here is the brook below Pikes’ Falls.


Below, see if you can see the bird on the bird feeder.  A red dinner napkin around its neck.


John’s studio. He did the woodcuts a year ago, before the current publicity about the children at the border.


Bean. Where are we?

The Bean

Joe said, “She wrote for the ages.”  Winter after winter, she would sit in the living room with a small table set up with a typewriter and transcribe this manuscript.


The writer, my great-great grandfather Joseph Goddard, was so angry about slavery that he couldn’t stop writing, fighting, preaching, traveling all over western New England to rage about it. This was 1838, thereabouts. The first version of this manuscript was stolen, along with his clothes, out of a trunk on a trip he took to New York State, so he wrote it again. This is it.

Something else worth doing.


Tiepolo.  Feet as beautiful as hands.


Ladora, Iowa.

LAdora outside

This building was built to be a bank. It functioned as a bank for about 8 years during the 1920’s, when Iowa was an agriculture-based boom economy. Then it went bust. Today it stands out in the town (most of the town is in the picture) like a mausoleum. Inside, it is a bistro, serving high end “small plates” of very good tasty food, lots of wine and beer, no coffee or tea.  Inspirational homilies about thrift and integrity run around all four sides of the ceiling. Upstairs is a tiny “board room” where the decision to declare bankruptcy must have been made.


Five men playing croquet on the lawn. Three of them are lawyers. One is a union activist. The fifth works in tech.

5 men playing croq

Back in San Jose, the COCAL XII conference drew participants from Canada (Anglophone and Francophone) and Mexico as well as the US. Note headphones for translation. The equipment alone for translation cost $11,000 to rent. The Mexicans reported difficulties getting visas and additional surcharges when coming across the border in Tijuana.


Posters at the Museum of Mexican American Art in San Jose. So this has been going on for a long time.

Posters in SJ

In the meantime, reports from the primaries are coming in with results in some areas (Ohio, for example) that were sure-thing Trump areas now “too close to call.”  And Missouri put down a right-to-work law 2 to 1.

Here is Jovanka Beckles, who is running for the CA state legislature from our district. She is speaking at a fundraiser houseparty last week in Berkeley. She is a mental health caseworker from Richmond, CA and has been elected to the City Council there. Jovanka ran in a busy field against a stack of other local aspirants, and came in second in a very close vote, which enables her to run in the upcoming primary.  Her opponent, also a Democrat (this is a top-two election) is a white woman named Buffy Wicks, who was an Obama staffer, very young and has never held public office. But Buffy has Obama’s endorsement. Jovanka got the endorsement of all of the people who ran in the primary against her and takes no corporate money.


And then this, which I consider a good sign:






Czech Republic: More than castles and villages — May 9, 2018

Czech Republic: More than castles and villages


Our Lady of the Snows, in Prague

Baroque cathedrals, castles, apple blossoms, lilacs, forsythia and quince, winding rivers and rolling hills, broad fields of rape, pronounced “rap,” which is that intense yellow flower that I thought was mustard; the countryside is beautiful and we came just as the apple trees were blossoming.

Czechoslovakia was created out of the Versailles Treaty after WWI, as part of the strategy to break up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After that came a series of national traumas: Munich, when the Sudetenland (the western part of Czech) was handed over to Germany under Hitler. Then the surrender of the Jewish population in Hitler’s Final Solution, first into concentration camps and then to Auschwitz.  This included 95% of the Czech Roma population. At the end of WWII,  the one-third of the population that was German was expelled back to Germany (no matter how many generations they had lived in CZ). Then came the Communist period.  The period of opening after Khrushchev criticized Stalin, called “the Prague Spring,” was repressed in 1968 with Russian tanks rolling across the border into Prague. What a sequence of national traumas!  But now the Czech Republic, which split off from Slovakia, is among the most healthy economies in the EU with low unemployment and relatively low levels of inequality, although there is a heavy load of apathy towards anything political, almost a feeling of a white wall of silence. The old people, we are told, vote Communist; the young either vote ANO, a new party, or do not vote at all.

What is being displayed? What is the story? Who is telling it? For whom and why?

I come from a country that has done much evil and good in the world and is still doing it, too much, in fact — both the good and the evil. Many people in the US are concerned with how the story of our past is told, for whom, and how it will shape our future. I wrote a post about Christian Appy’s important book, American Reckoning, which explains how the national trauma of the Viet Nam War has shaped our sense of who we are. Museums and monuments are also ways of telling a story that is not individual but social or collective. In the US, the critical stories for us right now are about our experience of slavery; you can see how the telling of this story re-surfaces in the news every day, in one way or another. So I am interested in museums (and in tourist attractions that do not pretend to be museums, but that perform a function that mimics a museum). For example, Disneyland is a tourist attraction that does not pretend to be a museum, but it tells a story about what America is and was, and it is a persuasive story.The White Tower in Prague, part of the Castle, with its displays of armor and torture instruments, is another example of an attraction that is not exactly a museum. At the other extreme are museums like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which is really an archive and teaching and research institution, that tells a story about the American/Vietnam War that is so bound up with my own history.

These are the questions that I carry with me when I go to a new country and try to understand what is going on.

Here is a castle, Karlstejn, 30 K west of Prague:


View from the  entrance to the castle of Karlstejn. The winding road below leads past restaurants and souvenir shops down to the railroad station, about 30 minutes from Prague.

We are staying in Stranny, a village of 100 people near Benesov, where the Archduke Francis Ferdinand (the one who with his wife Sophia was assassinated in 1913, triggering the First World War) had his castle, Konopiste. We did not visit Konopiste: we were told, however, that it contains over 100 stuffed animals that the Archduke shot. But on the railroad platform there is a photo display about Ferdinand.

The display includes photos of the Archduke as a boy, as a handsome young man (doe-eyed, with a handlebar mustache), with a gun and a pheasant, also lying in a hammock, playing tennis, and dressed in his hussar uniform, which has a nipped-in waist and a lot of gold braid. Everything is in Czech except for one placard. One photo shows Ferdinand walking along near the railroad platform with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the caption says that “the public believed they were planning to go to war.” Soon after that, came the assassination. Inside the railroad station is a special separate waiting room, unfortunately closed right now,  where Ferdinand met with important visitors. On the platform there is a photo of Ferdinand and Sophie lying in state. In town there is a grand, castle-like brewery that makes Ferdinand beer.

From this train station in Benesov we can be in Prague in an hour or less. Coming home, we sometimes catch a bus and sometimes a taxi.

Not all castles and villages

We went east by train — the Pandolino, a beautiful fast train with good food — to Ostravo and then made short trips to Opava and Olumoc.

Ostravo was once known as the “Black City” because of the pollution. There were both coal mines and steel mills here. The mines were right under the city itself; there a football stadium that has sunk so much, because of the mines below it, that it can’t be repaired. The mines fed the steel mills which were basically coal gasification plants. Now all but one of the mills are closed. The air is clean, although you can still see the soot on the walls of some of the old buildings.

Green block.JPG

These are apartment blocks in Ostravo; built in the 1970s to house workers who were coming to work in the big steel mills and in the growing public sector (teachers, office workers), many of these were put up for private purchase after 1989. Our relative, a teacher, lives in a two-bedroom flat in one of these. It has windows on both sides, all new windows and doors, carpets and appliances, an elevator. There are perhaps 30 or 40 apartment blocks like this one, separated by paths and green spaces. Public transportation, schools, pubs, restaurants, playgrounds and supermarkets are all right there. Looking out her window we could see the elementary, middle and high schools.

So far, consensus from everyone we have talked with: taxes are high but healthcare is free, education is free, people have pensions, you get 3 years of maternity leave with a stipend from the state, everyone has paid vacations. Buses and trains go everywhere and are on time. What if you lose your job? You get unemployment benefits but you go to the social services and they have jobs for you. There are jobs. Everyone can get a job. To be evicted from your apartment the landlord must give two months notice; you also give two months notice if you plan to leave.

Also, everyone we talk to — which means people who speak English and are willing to talk – says the same thing about the Roma. They don’t work, they take money from the government, they steal.

These eastern cities have very spacious, dignified central areas. In both Opava and Olomouc the big central squares are surrounded by cafes and the cafes are full – although not the one in this picture! That particular cafe terrace did not open until later. The building in the rear is the Opera — they were doing Janacek’s The Little Vixen.

opava plaza

Town Hall square in Opava


Street in center city Opava, late afternoon

These cities are dignified, quiet, and calm; very few western tourists if any. They feel old but clean and not deteriorated. Lilacs are in bloom along the streets that circle around the central pedestrian area. corner of plaza

They are very serious about cakes and pastries.


We walked through the university neighborhoods of both Ostravo and Opava.  Of course, these are government-funded universities and we are told that they are “free” as far as tuition goes. So they do not try to attract fee-paying students or draw attention by building stunning Frank Gehry designs. This is true of Charles University in Prague, too, which is up on a hill south of the main railroad station: big, quiet, dark, maybe 5 floors high; gates leading into an interior courtyard.

A Museum from a Steel Mill:   Vitkovice Cylinders and Gearworks in Ostravo


This tank, which used to contain gas, has been turned into a giant concert hall. Music festivals take place here.

We were in Ostravo on May 1st, which is International Workers Day.  In Czech it is celebrated as a national holiday. To celebrate, many people do not go to work. One of the enormous old steel mills in Ostravo has been turned into a park. People can walk through the mill along paths that are signed in Czech and English to explain the manufacturing process. There is also a science museum on the site; the whole thing is like the Exploratorium in San Francisco, only with a real steel mill. One of the mines that supplied coal to the mill was right under the mill itself. That mine is also now a museum. A giant tower is named the Bolt Tower for the runner, Usain Bolt.


Just one small part of the giant steel mill that is now closed but re-invented as a park, with meeting places and restaurants and concert venues.

Part of the mill is actually still in operation. Vitkovice Gearworks and Cylinders manufactures railroad ties, tubes, tanks and canisters that will hold things like oxygen or other gases under pressure, things that will be come fire extinguishers (for example) or supplies for hospitals or other industries. These are shipped all over the world, including the US. Joe saw the labels on the shipping platforms. On May 1 people can walk through this part of the mill and see workers making things out of molten steel. Kids can see where their fathers and grandfathers worked.


Many of the older people in Ostravo worked in these mills; on this holiday they bring the grandchildren to see where grandpa worked. You are offered a hard hat at the entrance, but not many people take them. 


Inspecting cannisters; the guy on the right puts a torch into the opening; the guy on the left peers in from the bottom.

The part of the mill that is still functioning is open to the visitors to the park today. You can walk along carefully marked paths through the factory and see people working. In one area you can see long steel rods being heated, chopped into small chunks, melted, formed into balls and then rolled through a smoothing and cooling sequence. These are used for breaking down coal or rocks into gravel or dust; they are poured into something like a giant washing machine and rolled around.


At one end of the process, a giant jaw pulls a huge plug of molten steel out of a mold. Out of sight for me, this plug gets turns into long rods which are then chopped up into what will become balls.



I am posting many pictures of this because of how sharp the contrast is between the public access to a live factory in  Czech Republic and the US. I have visited two operating steel mills in the US (the Rouge in Detroit an the US Steel mill in Gary, Indiana) but both visits were as a guest of the union that represented workers there and in both cases, getting the invitation was difficult. Furthermore, private industry in the US often is behind fences and surrounded by a sea of parking, and may not even have a sign out saying what the name of the plant is. But in Ostravo you are invited to bring children within ten feet of a rube goldberg machine that is popping out molten balls of steel and cooling them in a sequence of tanks.

Near Ostravo is a park called Landeck, which was the site of a mine. They have kept the miner’s changing room and the work clothes are still hanging there. I saw a space like this once in Sudbury, Ontario, at the site of an enormous copper mine.

miners clothes

Another way the Czech celebrate May 1st is Walpurgisnacht; the night of burning witches, which would be the eve of May 1st. In Stranny the village men erected a high pole and then sat around on the terrace of our pension drinking beer. They were still awake and drinking when our host got up the next morning at 6;30 am. The idea is to keep watch so that the men from other villages do not steal your pole. Stranny’s pole was still there. It’s not really burning witches, apparently; it’s burning winter.

Museums, cathedrals, more castles

Yes, we went to the Castle in Prague. The Cathedral of St Vitus, which looms over not just the Castle but the whole city,  is astounding. This is an instance of a museum that is a treasure house.

St Vitus ceiling

All along the floor of the cathedral are chapels with elaborate religious sculpture and art. Every king or queen (or emperor) made a project of producing some fabulous contribution to the wealth and splendor of the cathedral. In the installation below, there are four flying angels lifting the curtains and they are all bigger than life-size.

St Vitus

The Jewish Quarter

This is the cemetery in the old Jewish Quarter, where some of the stone go back 400 years.

cmetery 1

The arched chambers of the lower floors of the old Synagogue are a memorial: the names of people who were killed during WWII under the Nazis are inscribed on the walls from floor to ceiling, arranged by family and region. Upstairs are more documents and a small narrow room dedicated to the drawings and notebooks created by the children at Theresienstadt, the model concentration camp that was shown to the Red Cross to demonstrate that the Jews were being well-taken care of.  There are artifacts of the art teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

The Spanish Synagogue, nearby, has a museum with many documents displayed in glass cases. As I think about the line between a museum and a tourist attraction, this is a museum.  Here is a picture of the roof of the inside:

Spanish synagog

On the train to Benesov one night we sat across from a handsome young guy, about 17, who told us in pretty good English that he goes to the Jewish high school in Prague. It is connected to the museum and the old Jewish Quarter; they learn Greek and Latin as well as Hebrew. Right now he and some friends are translating a comic book into Yiddish for the fun of it. Their teachers are “the old people,” he said; the people who have memories and know history. They have done at least one trip to Israel.

The Museum of Communism in Prague

Of course we want to learn as much about the recent history of the country as possible, especially how it has managed since 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union.  We were already familiar with how that word “communism” is used in the US, including how it has changed over time during its long history and the ways in which it is confused with socialism. Then there is the way the word is used in Viet Nam, where the government is led by the Communist Party, which is entirely different from how the word is used here in the US by Vietnamese living here. Here, some of our conversations have made me think that the the word “communism” covers everything that is un-speakable and indicates a desire to forget. By contrast, for Vietnamese in the US, looking back on the years during and after the American war, there is a great deal of  active memory about what living under communism meant. Here in Czech it seems as if a veil is pulled down over the whole period from the end of World War II through 1989 when the Soviet Union fell and the Velvet Revolution — the peaceful handover to the government under Vaclav Havel – took place.

The Museum of Communism is not a research museum; it has a message to deliver. Most of the visitors in the museum were from the US or Europe.

The written placards are in English and Czech and they refer to the years under Communism using words like “depravity” and “cruelty” but they do not document in detail the experience that lies behind them. They tell about the rise of communism in a very simplified way, with placards about Marx and about the lives of poor working class people, but the story as told by the placards swiftly turns into denunciations. This is in striking contrast to the Jewish Museum that is full of photographs and copies of original documents about both the historic Jewish community and the Holocaust. It is true that this Museum of Communism is still new.  It moved into its new quarters only 6 months ago from its old location near the Post Office. (The guidebooks list the old address; we just happened to pick up a brochure that gave the new address but very little other information, as if it had been designed in haste, so we spent a lot of time poking around near the old address first before taking another look at the brochure.) Also, it is a private operation, not government-sponsored, and apparently the work of two Czech Americans cooperating with a Czech person.

However, in comparison with the written placards posted on display boards, a much richer story is told in long video interviews with people who remember the period of communism. I did not count how many of these there are, but there must be 40 or 50, and it is quite possible that each screen could have more than one interview on it. The images on the screens are life-sized and there are subtitles in English. These interviews are each at least an hour long and they give space for all kinds of different people: there is a room, for example, of six women, women with various kinds of jobs from farm work to office work. At the time of the interviews these women were, from the looks of it, in their 70s or 80s, so they are talking about a period of time when they were young and middle-aged. Elsewhere there are interviews with poets, writers, film makers, young people. These are in-depth interviews about the life experience of individuals. One can sense that as time passes, these people will not be around any more, so that increases the value of the videos. The ones I watched told about the experiences of dissidents: people who were denied permission to travel, whose children were not allowed to go to school, people who spent many years in prison. In the ones I watched, the people all talked about forms of resistance: meetings at cabins in the forest, performing theater in living rooms, and lots of writing.  As I have always been told, jokes and humor were a large part of the resistance.

This made me think about what museums I have seen that address a national trauma. There is of course the War Remnants Museums in Ho Chi Minh City. There are the big Jewish museums in Washington DC, the famous one in Israel, and a number in Germany. Auschwitz itself  is in Poland, only 2 hours east by car from Ostravo. There is a new museum in Montgomery, Alabama, that brings to life the lynchings of black people in the American South ( We visited a small museum of the Anasazi in Northern New Mexico that has glass cases displaying the letters written to the US government trying to explain how the Anasazi and Hopi used land. The creation of such a museum, that tries to carry the story of a national experience, is an enormous, collective task that should take years and has to be ongoing.

From that light, the Museum of Communism is still very young. In Oakland, CA in the meantime, there is going to be a pop-up Museum of Capitalism in Jack London Square. Based on the write-up, I’m afraid that the exhibits all seem to be ironic artifacts like WalMart shopping bags. We’ll see. Not an easy task.

Although the Roma population in Czech was 95% wiped out, there is not, as far as I can tell, a museum of that culture and population.  This is a museum that needs to be created.





A Walk in the Country — May 7, 2018

A Walk in the Country

village apple

Walking up through the village of Stranny to the road. We’ll go a few hundred yards along the road and then turn off on the hiking path. Apple trees were just coming into bloom, along with lilacs and forsythia.  Roads through the hills were planted with apple trees, one every 30 feet.


We walked from Skranny to Neveklov, following a hiking path that led along the edges of fields and through well-managed forests.


Sheep nibbled their way towards us.


We went through a gate into the forest. 


Joe climbed up to a lookout. 



We passed what turned out to be a hospital or residence for developmentally disabled adults. This is the new part. The old part appeared to be an old mansion, certainly dating from the 1900s. There were greenhouses with people working in them and residents strolling around. It was fenced but the gates were open.

100 year chestnuts

One way we guessed how old the hospital was was because these chestnut trees are at least 100 years old, and there is a whole avenue of them leading up to the main building.



The apex of our stroll was the town square of Neveklov, where there is an ATM, a movie theater, several restaurants, the town hall, a couple of markets and some other shops. there was also a small cucarna, or sweet shop (a coffee shop is a kavarna, and this one was both) that was selling black currant sherbert. We went in and had some. So did many other people; there was a constant stream of adults coming in for the sherbert, in cones.

3 birthday

This man is showing us the cake with which he will celebrate his 71st birthday. He does both Alpine and cross country skiing, plays football, doesn’t speak a word of English, and this is his grandson Jacob eating a vanilla and black currant cone. The owner of the shop spoke some English; when we wanted to ask a question, the other clerks would call to the owner, who was a very lively and cheerful, outgoing person.

2 cucarna

The outside of the ice cream shop. 

1 old house

We passed this old house on our way out of town. 

There were several things in this town that were marked on the map but which we couldn’t find; for example, the Jewish synagogue and also the Jewish cemetery. We found a cemetery near where the Jewish cemetery should have been but it was a Christian cemetery. Under the Nazi occupation, of course, Czechoslovakia rounded up Jews. Theresienstadt was in Czechoslovakia, Auschwitz only two hours east of Ostravo in what is now Poland. 

2 brook

On our way back, we entered the forest again and crossed a brook.

7 Hawthorn

In one area, the trees lining the path were hawthorns, buzzing so loud with bees that you could hardly hear yourself talk. 



Here is where we stayed.  The village of 100 people is called Stranny and this is the only inn.