Annual CEJ Awards Dinner in Buffalo

Rick D'Loss (left) SD National Chair and Michael Mottern, Chair of YSD

Rick D’Loss (left) SD National Chair and Michael Mottern, Chair of YSD

Each year the Coalition for Economic Justice holds a dinner to celebrate the efforts of various groups and individuals. The CEJ is an amalgam of groups who work together on the behalf of workers, the poor, the disabled, immigrants, and the environment. I was pleased to attend along with Michael Mottern, our local leader in Buffalo. Admittedly, it is an easy drive from Pittsburgh to Buffalo (a little less than 4 hours). The weather was great.  Mid week, mid day travel presented no traffic obstacles except for road construction (thank you PA legislature for finally passing a transportation funding bill that puts people to work). The awards dinner was this past Thursday evening, everything was well organized, and Michael and I had a wonderful time. Not only did we get to promote Social Democrats USA, we refreshed relationships, and were genuinely encouraged by the efforts of so, so many people. We even had time for a couple of beers.

Barbara Young, organizer of domestic workers in NY

Barbara Young, organizer of domestic workers in NY

The key note speaker was Barbara Young. It’s easy to remember her name because Barbara comes from Barbados. She came to NYC 20 years ago to be a domestic worker. After working in the business and networking with other domestic workers, she realized that working conditions desperately needed to be improved.  But organizing thousands of individual contractors is a lot more complicated than organizing the workers at a single plant with a single employer.  Barbara realized that she would need to go beyond traditional organizing.  There were three important components to her strategy— lobby state legislature, lobby the employers, and be persistent.  Lobby the employers?  Yes, indeed.  Many of the domestics in NYC work for Jewish families with two working adults.  Barbara learned that Jews are generally sympathetic to leftist issues, so she decided to work that angle.  She pressed the argument that these domestic workers are taking care of America’s most precious assets: our children and our elderly.  These Jews formed Shalom Bayit (peace in the home); an organization that helps organize domestic workers. They promoted it through a network of synagogues. Then together, Domestic Workers United and Shalom Bayit took the matter to Albany, and after 8 diligent years were able to get a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010— the first such legislation in America! Barbara deserves a lot of credit for seeing a problem, devising a solution, and not giving up until she was successful.

Richard Lipsitz (center) leads the Western NY Labor Federation

Richard Lipsitz (center) leads the Western NY Labor Federation

I had a few minutes to speak with Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western NY Labor Federation, AFL-CIO. Richard was keynote speaker at our 2012 Convention. We reminisced over that event, which was held at Rust Belt Books.  With a big smile he told me what a great time he had, and that if we ever hold the convention in Buffalo again to make sure we invite him. Although Richard is not too far away from retirement, he continues to do great work for organized workers in Western NY. At the CEJ dinner he was honored to give remarks about new efforts to work with people outside the normal constituency of Labor. We recall during the national AFL-CIO convention when we heard Rich Trumka tell us that all of us are under attack and that the 99% can no longer view itself as a multitude of constituencies, but instead must realize that we are all in the same boat. Environmentalists, trade unionists, gay right activists, civil rights activists, immigrant rights activists— we must work as coalition if we are to make any progress. We saw then for the first time non-trade unionists speaking at an AFL-CIO convention. We see now trade unionists supporting gay rights. There is a sense of cooperation that I’ve never seen before.  I come from Western Pennsylvania, an area where union members are not liberals. They didn’t support civil rights, they didn’t support immigrant rights, they didn’t support gay rights. But now they realize that if we don’t all work together, we’re pretty much screwed. I think trade unionists are seeing the light, and I am optimistic about the current direction.

Michael LoCurto accepts award for progressive elected official.

Michael LoCurto accepts award for progressive elected official.

We also had opportunity to connect with political leaders in Buffalo.  Michael and I sat at the table with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and compared issues in Erie County (Buffalo) and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), including Marcellus shale drilling, welfare administration, parks, and airport authorities.  We also got to spend a few moments with Michael LoCurto, City of Buffalo Council member.  Michael is a well known progressive and received an award at the dinner for his efforts. We also established a relationship with Betty Jean Grant, Erie County Legislature member (district 2). She was very open to our message of economic rights and jobs for all.

Lastly, I want to mention Beverly Newkirk. She leads an organization called “It Takes a Village”. As a young woman she had the incredible privilege of working with Bayard Rustin (our chair during the 70’s), A Philip Randolph, Ernie Green, and other notables in the civil rights movement. At the time, she was an apprentice in the Recruitment and Training Program. The function of the RTP was to recruit and train minorities for jobs in the construction industry. Randolph was Chair and Rustin was Vice Chair. Their annual conference was an important calendar event for anyone in politics. She says the experiences of those times changed her life and she is eternally grateful.

Looking forward to next year.

SDUSA Chair Rick D'Loss and "It Takes a Village" Chair Beverly Newkirk hold a picture of Bayard Rustin

SDUSA Chair Rick D’Loss and “It Takes a Village” Chair Beverly Newkirk hold a picture of Bayard Rustin

Richard Lipsitz talks about the future of worker rights

Richard Lipsitz talks about the future of worker rights

Michael shows off the SDUSA table

Michael shows off the SDUSA table

Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant endorses the SDUSA economic proposals

Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant endorses the SDUSA economic proposals

SDUSA Chair Rick D'Loss and Buffalo Council member Michael LoCurto

SDUSA Chair Rick D’Loss and Buffalo Council member Michael LoCurto

Best wishes for full health to National Committee member Steve Weiner in Ashland, OR

Best wishes for full health to National Committee member Steve Weiner in Ashland, OR

Posted in Civil Rights Labor Uncategorized by Rick DLoss. No Comments

Neoconservatives Use Moral Relativism to Blame Progressives for Genital Mutilation

This article was originally published for Foreign Policy in Focus and at tommyraskin.org.  

The neoconservative camp, always eager to wrestle with imaginary positions of their opponents, is now bravely challenging another belief that no one holds, which is that “all cultures are equal.” George Mason University Professor Walter Williams has jumped aboard the “Western values are superior to all others” bandwagon and asks, “Is forcible female genital mutilation, as practiced in nearly 30 sub-Saharan Africa and Middle Eastern countries, a morally equivalent cultural value?” The neoconservative Clarion Project’s Douglas Murray takes the campaign directly to progressives by asking, “How many young girls’ clitorises had to bemutilated while they busily curated their left-wing credentials?”

This arrogant cultural trope is nothing new. The neoconservatives who brought us the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay have promoted the “inequality of cultures” idea throughout the War on Terror to justify militarism, invasion, torture, and systematic violation of international law. Sliding from “culture” to politics to statecraft, their ideological conceit is that “we,” the West, have an enduring tradition of protecting women, while “they,” the Middle Easterners, are so barbaric that they cut the clitorises off of women, and therefore our “culture” should govern their “culture.” But their sudden passion for Middle Eastern women’s rights—indeed, any women’s rights—must be taken with a shaker of salt.

Obviously, not all cultural values are equal in a moral sense. For example, a political culture of militarism and war, the kind that produced hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Iraq War, is inferior to a culture that prefers non-violence, diplomacy and peace, the kind that you might find in, say, Canada. Furthermore, where it occurs, in both Islamic and non-Islamic communities, female genital mutilation is indeed barbaric, savage, and backward and should be condemned as such.

But neoconservative fake-feminists only play the “pro-woman” game when it comes time to bash fanatical Islamists who happen not to be on our side in whatever war the neoconservatives are pushing. Thus, when our side made deals with Afghan tribal warlords who were none-averse to female genital mutilation, the neoconservatives fell silent, for their militarist “realism” always prevails over their rhetorical feminism.

Moreover, the neoconservatives are distinctly anti-woman when it comes time to allow grassroots democracy to flourish in the Mideast. I’ll show you what I mean.

They argue that “they,” the Middle Easterners, mutilate girls’ genitals and that “we,” the Westerners, don’t. What inanity. The West’s insipid, criminal Iraq War mutilated the genitals— not to mention the faces, necks, arms, and legs— of thousands of Iraqi women and girls, all after years of sanctions that killed thousands of Iraqi girls every month. Some may insist that these were necessary means to a righteous, democratic end, but the only meaningful “ends” thus far produced by the Western aggression in Iraq have been unyielding sectarian violence, car bombings and refugee camps. Please forgive me for not jumping up to high-five the feminist “liberators” who created this violent mess.

Ever since the Iranian Revolution, and especially since the induction of pre-Iran War hysteria, neoconservatives have also been fond of bashing Twelver Shiite misogyny as a decidedly backward, anti-Western phenomenon. Yet their beloved CIA, a beacon of Western “democracy building,” helped oust the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and enthrone the Shah, a far-from-enlightened dictator whose secret police force, the SAVAK, “tortured and murdered thousands” of political dissidents. Where were their sympathies for brutalized, displaced, and widowed Iranian women when that was happening?

Oh, and while they do the newly fashionable thing of bashing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s very real chauvinism, it might be worth mentioning that the West has been siding with anti-female Egyptian tyranny ever since 1919 when, amid an anti-colonial struggle which eventually killed 800 Egyptians, Woodrow Wilson backed the British rule in Egypt even as native women “testified that British troops ‘leveled their weapons at us’” and violently suppressed the protests. Fast-forward to less than a decade ago when the United States decided to purchase Egyptian “stability” by propping up Hosni Mubarak’s government during its “systematic arrestand harassment of peaceful political activists” and “lethal” crackdown on both male and female asylum seekers. As we see, the long-standing tradition of Western devotion to democracy and feminism isn’t so pure.

Yes, we should condemn FGM and misogyny whenever it occurs at anyone’s hands in any culture. That’s not the dispute here. The dispute is whether or not the military interventions championed by the neoconservatives have proven more conducive to women’s empowerment than feminist and human rights struggles. Though it may be noise to pseudo-feminist militarists’ ears, the answer, resoundingly, is no.

Posted in Civil Rights Foreign Affairs by Tommy. 1 Comment

Catholic Worker

This week, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ran a story about the negative impact many churches are experiencing because of their positions on social issues— particularly gay marriage, contraceptives, and abortion rights. Young people are especially turned off. Of course, young people have been leaving the church for many years; this is not news. Most of young people I know really do not see the point in going to or belonging to a church. But what is news is that a lot of middle aged adults have dropped out of church as well. Like their children, they have come to view church as a pointless exercise; or worse, they view it as a negative influence. That is not to say these folks are not spiritual, but they view the church as more of a political institution than a spiritual one, and they view politics as bad.

Here in Pittsburgh one of the recurring issues has been whether the Catholic Church should have to pay for contraceptives for its employees. As in many cities, the Church here owns businesses such as hospitals and universities. When the ACA required all medical insurance plans to include reproductive health services, Bishop Zubic cried foul, and has continued to do so ever since. He stated plainly that religious organizations should not have to pay for services that violate their ethical code. He went so far as to say that President Obama was waging a war on the Church. Many church lay members have stood with him. The unfair requirement to use Church money for abortion would seem to be a valid complaint, except that it’s NOT the Church’s money! From the very beginning, this argument has been misrepresented and as a consequence the worker comes out on the short end.

When a person accepts employment there is a contract, whether written or implied, that she will give x number of hours of labor in exchange for certain compensation. That compensation is often a mix of salary and benefits. What she does with her compensation is her decision. The employer doesn’t say, “Betty, we agree to pay you $500 per week but you are not allowed to buy alcohol, cigarettes, or movie tickets.” It is generally understood that Betty can spend her pay as she likes because it’s HER money. Likewise, her benefits belong to her. If she gets a 401k, she can pick the investment she wants, because it’s HER money. And lastly, Betty should be able to use her health care benefits the way she chooses, because it’s HER money. She earned those benefits; they belong to her. It is not the Church’s money, it’s Betty’s.

Monsignor Charles Owen Rice

Monsignor Charles Owen Rice

There was a time when the Church was more friendly to the working class, although we note that the Vatican has routinely and continuously expressed support for workers in their struggles with their capitalist masters. So perhaps I should be more specifically pointing to the American Catholic leadership. We recall fondly Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. Where is today’s Day? Where is today’s Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, co-founder of the Catholic Radical Alliance? Rice was our labor priest here in Pittsburgh. He helped form the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. But today’s Catholic leadership seems more aligned with the likes of Tom Monaghan, billionaire former owner of Domino’s Pizza. Monaghan is politically very conservative and he has a lot of money to give to the right Catholic charities. He even built and owns an entire town in Florida where merchants are prohibited from selling contraceptives. This seems to be the new model of the Church— if we can’t convince our members to follow our ethical code, let’s have the government do it for us. In this regard, the Church is not different from other right wing churches who want government to enforce morality. There are very wealthy right wingers out there who will give buckets of money to churches who will preach the Right gospel. Rather than trying to retain or grow their membership, the Church has opted to look for pots of money. I’m not saying it would be easy to stem the tide of people quitting church. People today don’t seem to want to join any organization, make any commitment. They especially don’t want to join political organizations. But, it would have been easy for Bishop Zubic to have told his parishioners, “Look, we pay our employees benefits. We don’t dictate how they use them.” But that’s not what is happening. Perhaps, as the Church is doing its business analysis it’s seeing that having a few very wealthy members is a better deal than a million poor members. That path will eventually turn the Church into a wealthy think tank with no churches. This is similar to what another Pittsburgh institution did. Mellon Bank decided it didn’t actually need banks, just a big office building. So it closed ALL of its branches! And they are doing very well today, partnering with BNY to serve a small but wealthy group of customers. If that’s where the Church wants to go, so be it. But the working person on the street is struggling today and she could use some old-time Catholic rabble rousing.

Posted in Domestic Politics Labor Uncategorized by Rick DLoss. 3 Comments

US Support for Egyptian Tyranny

Listen in as William Herman and I dissect the history of American support for Egyptian despotism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjL8abymi_c

The Myth of the Able-Bodied Man as Man

This article was originally published at goodmenproject.com and tommyraskin.org.

We need to fix the game of manhood.

Our society’s exclusive image of the ‘real man’ leaves us with a disgruntled majority of boys who view the coveted prizes of masculinity as out of reach. Although most boys are bound to feel painfully inferior at one point or another, our game is particularly skewed against certain boys, like those with physical, developmental, and mental disabilities.

Young disabled men often begin to feel distanced from manhood when the social emphasis on gender kicks in during adolescence. Boys are frequently taught that athleticism belongs to the able-bodied and that sexual attractiveness, portrayed in everything from clothing catalogues to violent, misogynistic pornography, too belongs to aggressive, physically dominant, able-bodied men. “Charm” also tends to follow able-bodied guys without psychological abnormalities, those whose looks, interests and proclivities are considered “normal.”

And we double down on this arrangement, first, by blindly prizing assimilation, and then “integration,” as the antidotes to disabled boys’ hardships. Even when our boys don’t like sports and suck at them, we urge them to go out for the baseball team. We tell them to change their cinematic, musical, and literary interests simply to fit in.  When that doesn’t work, educators try forcing friendships between able-bodied and disabled students, which ultimately doesn’t work either.

That’s only half of our failed approach though. Without offering our boys long-term opportunities to cultivate the interests and talents that can give them real self-confidence as young men, we simply send them off to counselors and therapists to be told that they “don’t have to be like other boys.” It’s a valuable message but an incomplete one nonetheless.

For years, as both a student and co-teacher, I cringed at many disabled (and otherwise excluded) boys’ affected efforts to fit in socially. Indignant about their inability to measure up to their ingrained conceptions of manhood, these boys would, for example, act like chauvinistic players. On one occasion, a camp friend of mine put on his ‘man face’ and broadcasted to a large group of guys that he likes to “use and lose” women, even though, in reality, he had never kissed a girl. Clearly, after numerous rejections, he was searing with resentment and, in a last-ditch effort to prove his manliness to himself and other boys, veiled his insecurity with ugly chauvinism.

Such affectations of masculinity were not always girl-oriented though. I remember one of my middle school students, a so-called “nerd” with a developmental disability, striking up a conversation about the NFL with some peers during recess. After five minutes, the other boys laughed him off when it became clear that this young man had no idea what he was discussing.

Alas, when other outcast boys pulled this kind of stunt, by acting up in class or pretending to love typical ‘boy things,’ they were usually called out for “trying too hard” or “being annoying.” Sometimes, their parents—usually their fathers—would push them to participate in stereotypical “male” activities, like videogames and roughhousing. But no matter how persistently these boys tried to be “real” guys, they usually couldn’t rid themselves of that fundamental differentness, that less-than-boyishness, that disabled-ness in the eyes of the boys who they were trying to impress.

Conscientious teachers would pick up on this social ostracism and, with the best of intentions, try to integrate ostracized students into groups of able-bodied, gleeful, popular kids. They would concoct project workgroups and assign class seats with the obvious purpose of bringing together students from different social circles. In grade school, they would encourage popular kids to hang out with unpopular kids during recess. Content with simply having done something, the teachers would then wash their hands of this unsettling business and declare: “Job well done!”

Sadly, they missed the mark entirely.

John Calmore’s critical understanding of racially integrative housing reforms in recent decades provides the necessary framework for understanding ability-based integration in school: “the ‘integration imperative’ legitimates the emphasis on desegregation rather than on simple nonsegregation and free choice as to where to live,” and, in this case, where and with whom to play and study. As a co-teacher, I wanted students of all abilities to be in the same classes, but I didn’t think that kids of different social groups should be forced to sit near each other, work together or play together, especially when these integrative arrangements left disabled students feeling even more isolated than before.

When teachers entirely re-configured classes in this way, disabled students were often separated from the couple friends they had and were forced to work with peers who detested these teacher-imposed social structures as much as they did. Usually, the less popular students were less confident, and their dissatisfaction was only made worse when they were forced into intimate situations with other students who seemed unenthusiastic about working with them. As a result, students in different social circles constantly complained that yearlong workgroups took them away from their friends.

At the end of it all, many disabled boys were, and still are, directed to a counselor or teacher to talk through their social difficulties. Having that adult backup is certainly helpful, but it isn’t enough for most boys. Right after putting them in social situations in which they are forced to worry about what others think of them, we, in a bizarre reversal of course, tell our boys with physical and psychological abnormalities that they actually shouldn’t worry about what others think of them, that the kids who don’t give them the time of day “aren’t worth it anyway,” and that if they simply maintain a positive attitude, everything will be OK.

Unfortunately, after all of the mixed messages, feel-good therapy sessions and naive integrative measures, many boys with disabilities aren’t OK. In fact, a lot of them are hurting pretty badly. The physically disabled are often troubled by the fear of their physical limitations in an able-bodied society, children with learning disabilities are still “more likely to have negative perceptions of the self, their environment and the future,” young men with intellectual disabilities are at an increased risk of depression, and children with severe disabilities are prone to display “irritability, anger or screaming, self-injurious and aggressive behavior.”

Young men with disabilities neither are nor should be convinced that they can be happy without social lives and fulfilling hobbies. I have found that if there is anything in the flawed model of masculinity that we ought to keep—and are anyway forced to keep—it’s the natural human longing for confidence, love, and enjoyable work (as Freud taught us). Guys don’t need to play COD, hang out with the cool kids, look like movie stars, have vision, be neurotypical, or be able to walk in order to be “real men,” but we all need passions, for passions give us the productive energies that make us attractive to ourselves and others.

Our emphasis, then, has to move away from the broken assimilation-integration paradigm. No boy has actually ever boosted his self-esteem by taking on false interests and false credentials in order to fit the “man” mold, and the top-down friendship model has rarely worked. If we are serious about giving disabled students equally gratifying social lives, then we should stop forcing them into uncomfortable situations and instead focus on giving them opportunities to self-actualize among those with similar interests.

Educators can spur this process by establishing in-school outlets for isolated children to pursue their goals. For example, when a teacher discovers that a shy, excluded student is a budding musician, the teacher should give him music-oriented assignments that can help cultivate his abilities. If no such opportunity exists in the classroom, the teacher should refer him to an extracurricular musical band. Ideally, the boy would eventually gain enough confidence to present his work to the class and discuss it with his peers openly and confidently.  The social integration would thus come after the boy has achieved the self-esteem associated with meeting a personal goal.

Guardians should also resist the temptation to force their boys to participate in activities simply because the activities are typically male. Eventually, the dissonance between the boys’ true interests and his parents’ interests will surface, and the boys will only be further destabilized. Guardians, like teachers, should instead encourage boys to pursue their true passions.

As for the rest of us, let’s remember that a man need not look or think a certain way to retain his masculinity, that if he finds purpose and esteem in a less-than-expected lifestyle for a guy in the 21st century, he nonetheless deserves our support and validation as an ever-elusive ‘real man.’