Voices from the Coalfields

In issuing her order to move Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy case from New York to St. Louis, Bankruptcy Judge Shelley Chapman pointed to the “hundreds of hand-written
letters … received by the Court from the people whose hands mine the Debtors’ coal and their widows and children.”

These very personal and emotional statements clearly influenced her decision. The United Mine Workers had made a strong case that the bankruptcy court should not decide this case in the financial capital of New York, but in the heartland where coal was mined and lives were affected by the outcome.

Many of the letters, Judge Chapman wrote “enclosed family pictures, or lists of ailments and medications. Some of them asked for a personal response. All of them were respectful, and compelling. This decision reflects the Court’s attempt to craft a just and balanced solution to the question of which bankruptcy court will become the next custodian not only of these cases but also of these letters.”

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That’s a powerful statement about the validity of the comments from the coalfields, from these mining families that had given their lives to the success of Peabody Coal Co., which in turn had dumped them. They landed in a Peabody shell, a new company, Patriot Coal, which got little of the lucrative business but lots of human liabilities. And now they are in dire need of the benefits they were promised by Peabody, before they were discarded like chattel.

Roger Elkins of Beckley, W.Va., wrote that he suffers “from cervical fusion in the 5th and 6th vertebrae of my neck, a crushed vertebrae in my lumbar back, a broken ankle, a broken wrist and two operations on this wrist. I suffered from severe burns on my hands from an exploding cable, plus numerous soft tissue injuries from my employment” at Peabody.

In short, he had given his life to Peabody. But Peabody apparently could care less about him or any of the thousands of other retirees, widows and orphans. Wrote one widow, “(I have) heart trouble, a pacemaker. (I had) a stroke, on oxygen daily, arthritic, can hardly walk, three discs out in my back. I am 74 years old … I take daily medications. I cannot live alone … I need this insurance badly.”

Her husband worked 38 years in the Peabody mines, “lost his leg at Dugger Mines in Indiana in 1971, went back to work and retired in 1974. We moved back to Kentucky in 2000.” Now he was gone, and she was pleading with the court for survival.

Here’s Sharron Diane Small, a widow of a miner from Marissa, Ill.:

“I will lose everything if I lose my insurance and medicine. I have colon problems … I have nerve problems. I’m losing my house, and have lost my son, brother, husband, mother-in-law, mother and father, and nephew – one each year for the last eight years.

“I realize it’s not any one person’s fault but what are we suppose to do? I have to take at least 12 different kind of medicine a day. … Please help all of us who are losing. I will wait as long as I can before going to the doctor and try to do without all the medicine I can. Thank you for listening. God bless.”

These are courageous people living out their lives after spending their youth building a great American energy company, and heartless corporate scoundrel. Patriot Coal may go bankrupt, but Peabody expects to walk away scot free.

Fortunately, the United Mine Workers will not walk away from the fight with Peabody, and is pressing not only in bankruptcy court, but also in U.S. district court in West Virginia, where the union has sued Peabody for violating the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act by colluding to deprive its workers and retirees of earned benefits.

“This … promises to be a long battle for the workers, retirees, their dependents and widows at Patriot who seek only fairness,” Roberts said. “Company executives who try to evade their obligations through a slick transfer of corporate assets need to know that the UMWA will fight in every way possible to make sure a promise made is a promise kept.”

As Roberts explained in October when he accepted the National Consumer League’s 2012 Trumpeter Award, fighting for the rights of all workers against the injustice of greedy coal companies is embedded in the UMW DNA, and is at the heart of the labor movement:

“What this movement needs is a little more militancy … a little more militancy,” Roberts repeated as he moved the crowd to stand and shout. The union has taken this fight to the courts, and it is ready to go to the streets. A lot of people who were promised benefits for a life of hard work and sacrifice are depending on it.

We’ll keep on eye on those court cases, and on the fight for survival by miners and their families. And we’ll look at the future of coal and mining communities that have depended on it for not only survival, but prosperity.

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King Coal and Paradise

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

— John Prine, “Paradise”

Coal was King when I was growing up in western Kentucky. Grandpapa Van was a coal miner who died of lung disease, Parkinson’s and a belly full of hard living. Other friends and relatives have sacrificed their health to go underground to provide for their families.  There was always money in coal, working it or selling the rights. Or hauling it in or hauling it out over the L&N rails. Coal was the story. It fired our lives.

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Me and Papa Van in rural Henderson County, circa 1950.

As a junior reporter at the Henderson Gleaner, I’d spend hours poring over deeds at the Courthouse, jotting down longhand the transfer of mineral rights, mostly. That was the big story. Below that farmland, and stretching all the way back to the Appalachian foothills, lay the newest seams of coal, gold to energy titans like Peabody Coal and Reynolds Metal. Only years later did those rights diminish because of the high-sulfur content of the coal, and the idea of coal gasification replaced the drill. But that too was fool’s gold.

The truth is Mr. Peabody never stopped hauling away coal and wealth from the communities of western Kentucky, southern Indiana and Illinois and, of course, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where many seams already are tapped out.  And while hauling Paradise away, Peabody wasn’t too keen in keeping his word to the communities it lay bare, nor to the miners who dug up the company’s fortune.

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In November 2007, Peabody spun off many of its mature underground mining operations into a company called Patriot Coal Co. Patriot got all of the union-represented miners and their health and retirement liabilities, even though Peabody had signed agreements to continue paying into those funds, along with other members of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association.

Patriot later absorbed the older, unionized mines of Arch Coal Co., further extending its liabilities. As demand and the price of coal declined over the past few years, it probably was little surprise that Patriot got overextended. The company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, leaving vulnerable the hard-won retirement and health benefits of 10,600 former miners and their families, and the jobs and benefits of 2,000 current miners.

The sheer mendacity and duplicity of Peabody Coal Company in unloading its human assets fired up the United Mine Workers and their President Cecil Roberts, who lambased the company for its double-dealing.

The union on Oct. 23 filed suit on behalf of 12,600 retirees and active workers, charging that Peabody and Arch “planned to transfer (their) employees and benefit plan obligations to Patriot for the purpose of depriving (their) employees and retired employees of their welfare and retiree benefits,” which is illegal under the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act (ERISA). That case is being heard in Charleston, W.Va.

The union also sought to have the bankruptcy trial moved to West Virginia from New York, where Patriot had set up two dummy corporations to make its case in the shadow of the nation’s financial centers, where it expected to get a better hearing without the consideration of mining families and their communities. On Nov. 27, the bankruptcy court judge ordered that the case be moved to St. Louis, a victory for the miners. As Roberts said in a statement:

“Nobody has ever mined one ounce of coal in Manhattan. Patriot Coal executives … wanted their case heard in a forum far from the coalfields. … St. Louis is where Patriot Coal is headquartered. More important, it’s the headquarters for Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.  These two companies spun off their operations to Patriot in an attempt to run away from pension and health care obligations to thousands of miners and their survivors.”

Stay tuned. This is an important story, and we need to bring it out in the open and shed light on it. Here’s the talented mailman from Maywood, Ill., reflecting on those trips to Muhlenberg County, before Mr. Peabody’s coal train hauled it away:

Lincoln: Making History

Abraham Lincoln is a son of Kentucky, a point he makes during the legislative wrangling over the 13th Amendment, as Steven Spielberg tells it in “Lincoln,” a great new movie that is much different from most cinematic fare today. He was born in Kentucky and raised in southern Indiana, before he became famous in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. But he was a son of the South, he was saying. It was important to the debate.

Kentucky plays a pivotal role in how the vote comes down on the 13th Amendment, to abolish slavery, hinging in part on the young Kentucky representative who heard Lincoln out, but who argued that the country simply was not ready to assimilate 4 million new black people. How do we make it work? Will they now demand a right to vote? We’re not ready!

“Are we ready for the war to be over?” Lincoln asks. “What will we do now?”

Lincoln knew it was now or never, and he cast a folksy spell over the young Kentuckian and a few others whose votes were critical, who understood that this was history, a statement of a young nation, destiny. And he lost a few, including one man who declared, outright, “I am a prejudiced man.”

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“Lincoln” comes at a good time, as we reflect on an historical passage into the second term of Barack Obama, who idolizes Lincoln not only as the “native son” of Illinois, but also as someone who asked this nation to rise above race, to recognize the humanity in us all. Obama has the potential to be a great president, in the mold of Lincoln, and I hope we give him a chance.

In Lincoln’s time, in Lincoln’s words, we were “testing whether (this) nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” We were testing the basic tenets of our democracy, and our republican system of government – and the purpose of our “Republic” was to preserve the common good, to ensure that government would not be ruled by private interests, but in the public interest.

That was the whole basis for the Civil War.

That is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of “Lincoln,” to watch the Republicans as the good guys, the “radicals” for freedom and justice. The Democrats in 1865 fought for narrow interests within their states, with little regard to the public interest. This year, in 2012, we had the Republican candidate for president shilling for people who are the top 1 percent, owning massive wealth, a class he represented well, against the public interest of the 99 percent, who together fight for their dignity, if little else.

The Republicans today are still searching to energize a “Real Majority” defined by Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon during the Nixon era as very conservative socially, and especially resistant to change, guardians of the status quo. They were more likely to follow George Wallace than to follow George McGovern, as Republican strategist Kevin Phillips argued in “The Emerging Republican Majority,” published about the same time. Today, not a majority, this group is at the heart of the Tea Party.

Ironically, Nixon probably changed government to favor the public interest more than any other president in modern times, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, programs passed by congressional Democrats. He engaged China in a global conversation, and he created wage and price controls that worked.

Still, using the Wattenberg-Scammon-Phillips model, Nixon developed a “Southern Strategy” that used racial overtones to turn Dixiecrats into Republicans. By pursuing this divisive strategy, Nixon set the stage for the rise of the Tea Party and the racist birther and “Obama is a Muslim” movements.

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When you look at the electoral map from the 2012 election, you can’t help but see the stamp of the Solid South, with the Mountain West Territories sidling along, all resistant to a new order of rainbow America. This is the legacy of Southern Strategy, as honed by Lee Atwater and Karl Rove and that next generation of windmill tilters, and we can only hope that they are, indeed, history.

Listen to Lincoln, as he spoke to Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president. during decidedly one-sided negotiations. Bluntly, he named the southern states that were likely to ratify the anti-slavery amendment. It would win, he said. Get used to it. Slavery is dead.

Today, we are still fighting bigotry, but we have champions for equal treatment under the law, the case that Thaddeus Stevens made so well, if reluctantly in “Lincoln.” We have made a remarkable passage in 150 years. You only have to look at the headlines today, and contrast them with the headlines of 1865.

Fine acting and production values give “Lincoln” an Oscar sheen, and don’t be surprised if it wins. And I hope screenwriter Tony Kushner also gets credit for bringing Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” to life. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“Angels in America”), but the jury is still out on “Munich,” his other film collaboration with Spielberg. There’s no question about “Lincoln,” however: He is a superb storyteller.

The amazing cast brings the story home – not only Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln but also Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican leader from Pennsylvania who quarterbacked the victory for the 13th Amendment. Stevens was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the watchdog who raised the hackles of Mrs. Lincoln. This is a great exchange during a White House reception, holding up the receiving line:

As we march toward the “Fiscal Cliff” at the end of 2012, it’s worth reflecting on how this House of Representative resembles the House that Lincoln had to confront, except that the enemy were hard-headed Democrats, not Republicans. Can Nancy Pelosi speak as bluntly to John Boehner as Stevens does in lambasting George Pendleton, the Democrat from Ohio who led the pro-slavery lobby.

Why not, Nancy? Speak up!  Let’s call a spade a spade!

As a native Kentuckian, I’ve always felt an immense pride in Abraham Lincoln, a man of the people, born in a log cabin in Knob Creek, Ky., raised and schooled under harsh frontier environments in Kentucky and southern Indiana. He rose to be one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States, perhaps the greatest. He sacrificed everything to save the Union, to unite us all, whether we wanted it or not.

But as I watched the Kentucky legislator at the heart of the struggle to win the 13th Amendment, I couldn’t help but remember that Kentucky did not ratify the amendment until 1976. And that’s shameful. Virginia, where I live now, was the first Confederate state to ratify the Amendment, two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered, and Georgia sealed the ratification in December 1865, the 27th of the 36 states. It took Kentucky 111 more years to get it right.

Lincoln would have been sad about that. He would have hoped that his home state would ride the great tide of history, and become part of it, instead of dragging up the rear. Sadly, the modern legislative face of Kentucky is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose No. 1 goal has been to bury Obama. It’s time for some new sons of Kentucky to ride in.

Thanks for the Brutal Honesty … and Kindness

“I never wanted to be a good swimmer, but I always was,” began Ari Benjamin Bank in a soft voice to a hushed overflow crowd of 100 people in a room at Philadelphia’s Free Library. He was a good swimmer already at 6 years old, when his parents sent him away to day camp for fun and games. Instead, he was sexually assaulted by a counselor and sent on a downward spiral into the depths of self-doubt and despair.

As he read this most personal story about the events and his feelings as the abuse occurred and since that time, 32 years ago, there were few dry eyes in the house. This was a young man of great promise, in the swimming pool and in life. He talked about his struggles to manage the emotions and relationships that the abuse overshadowed in his personal life.

But Bank, who teaches English and writes it well, was there to tell about hope and survival, not despair and failure. He said he has been able to overcome emotional and physical debilitation with the love and support of family and friends, and especially a wife who helped him banish his fear of intimacy.

He was one of 50 people whose essays about surviving the devastation of sexual assault have been edited and compiled in a book published by the Philadelphia Weekly. Among the newly published authors in attendance was our daughter, Cassy, who had “come out” earlier this year with her tale of abuse at the hands of several sadistic young men (she named them after the 7 Dwarfs, to her Snow White) while she was a student at Northwestern University. Her 28,000-word opus on her experiences is a powerful anchor for the new book.

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Cassy and Ari Bank, another survivor of sexual assault. (Photo by Terry Byrne, who also blogged about the event here.)

The book release event at the library was part of the healing process for Cassy, certainly, but it also was part of the learning process for her parents and, we hoped, helpful in the dialog for millions of people who are affected by rape and sexual assault on a daily basis. One in four women and one in six men are survivors of sexual attacks in America today, most by people they know, said Joel Hoffmann, who along with his wife Nina edited and compiled The Survivors Project: Telling the Truth About Life After Sexual Abuse.

Hoffmann himself is a survivor of sexual assault and this project is a labor of love for him and Nina, both editors at the Philadelphia Weekly and soon expecting their first child. They both talked about how dealing with the issue “nearly ruined our marriage,” but also how it strengthened their love for each other. The book is another important part of their ongoing healing process.

“I realize, and Nina realizes, that this pain will never go away. It will always be a part of me. But we are working hard every day to make sure that it does not overwhelm everything else, that it is a proportionate part of my life,” Joel Hoffmann said, holding up an index finger and thumb just an inch apart.

Since Joel had “come out” to Nina and others in his family, they have been convinced that the power for healing lies in the ability to tell your story, to face what you’ve been through. And the secret to healing, said Joel’s father, sitting in the audience, “is just listening. That’s the most important thing.” The Survivors Project book release event was a tribute not only to the power of the telling, but also of the listening.

The Hoffmanns read several essays from the book, one from the daughter of a sexual assault and incest victim, who says her battles with depression, drug abuse and failed relationships stem from how her mother treated her as a result of the continual rape she suffered at the hands of her brother, the writer’s uncle. These were events that occurred from World War II through the Korean War, but they are being lived out every day by a survivor in 2012. Survivors rub off on the people around them, and vice versa.

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Cassy with Joel and Nina Hoffmann, who focus on the healing process in their new compilation, The Survivors Project. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

One of the essays struck a particular chord with Cassy, an alternately funny and horrifying story written by Jackie Block Goldstein, a child forensic interview specialist at the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance whose job is to talk with children who have been abused. Joel read her story:

“My instinct is always to regard someone with suspicion versus giving them the benefit of the doubt – to assume the worst in everyone until proven otherwise,” she wrote. “My psychiatrist … mentioned getting a babysitter to watch the kids and going out on a Saturday night. ‘Get a babysitter?’ I asked, incredulously. ‘How could I possibly relax and go out knowing that someone was in my house sexually abusing my children?’”

“I feel the same way,” Cassy confided as we left the library. “I don’t trust anyone. The man I pass on the street, another who sits down beside me on the train.” This is how someone who has been sexually abused reacts to the world, to other people. They live in fear.

So, there is a crisis of trust at the heart of the problem, but perhaps that is the key to the healing process as well. Yes, we must listen, as Joel’s father said, but we must also work to restore the faith of our loved ones in humanity – and in Cassy’s case, the male variety of humanity. To a member of the audience who asked, “What can we do?” Stephen Segal, the editor in chief of the Philadelphia Weekly, said, simply, “Be kind.”

That may be a tall order in a society that moves from one crisis to the next, immune to the humanity of it all. But kindness may be the basic ingredient for recovery. It doesn’t take 12 steps, necessarily, but it takes people who not only listen but who also empathize and care about the person who has experienced horrific rape and sexual assault.

This is especially true if you are an intimate partner of someone who has experienced sexual abuse, as Cassy discusses in a recent post in her blog.

It is this clear-headed evaluation of how life goes on that gives us hope that Cassy is well along the way in her healing. This Thanksgiving, the first since Cassy’s revelations, we are thankful that she has a network of friends and family who genuinely care about her, and who are always willing to listen.

And we can be thankful that there are people like the Hoffmanns working to open eyes and hearts, and that there are still media outlets like the Philadelphia Weekly that don’t shy away from “big journalism” in an age of media entrenchment. Support big journalism and sexual healing. Buy their book here.

Love and Justice

This is a love story for the ages, and a legacy of love that keeps on giving to a new generation, and more to come.

Edna Berger was a tough-talking receptionist/secretary at the Philadelphia Inquirer who was determined to rise above that station, where so many intelligent women were consigned in the 1940s, and many years thereafter.

Gerald Marks was a poor boy from Saginaw, Mich., whose musical talent led him to Tin Pan Alley, and a song catalog of 200 compositions, including the jazz standard, “All of Me,” which he wrote with Seymour Simons.

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Edna Berger and Gerald Marks, so in love.

Berger found her voice in The Newspaper Guild (TNG), becoming a reporter and union activist before joining the Guild as an International Representative and the first woman organizer in the male-dominated profession.

Marks composed music for Shirley Temple and Al Jolson and befriended Lena Horne and Carl Sandberg, who wanted to learn how to turn his poems into songs. Berger, 15 years younger but so wise to the world, was his one true love.

They got married by proxy, since Berger was in jail for one of her periodic bouts of hell-raising, which were required in those days of union organizing against the establishment and its paid constabulary. A friend stood in for her and said the requisite “I Do’s.”

He continued writing songs and serving on the board of ASCAP for a decade, and she continued bringing in new members of the Newspaper Guild, organizing the Baltimore Sun papers, El Mundo and others, signing up Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post and building a legacy of white-collar unionism among the newspaper elite while also mentoring a generation of journalists.

Among those she mentored was Louise Walsh, who describes herself as “a playmate, colleague and co-conspirator.” Walsh met Berger in 1973 when she was moving from United Press International to the Wire Services Guild, which had its offices in the same building as TNG in New York City.

Walsh recalled that Berger “used her special talent for creative obscenity to terrify certain publishers who thought they could terrorize their workforce and get away with it. “

“When she retired from The Newspaper Guild, her tributes recognized her lifetime of mentoring and her quiet financial support of people she met on union organizing campaigns, people who were suffering and who needed a hand-up,” Walsh said. “She was a true champion for social justice, an outstanding union organizer.”

When Berger died in 1996, Walsh and a group of women influenced by her during their careers – including Linda Foley, then president of The Newspaper Guild – created a scholarship fund as a lasting tribute to their mentor.

Marks, then in his 90s, was so touched by the show of affection for his wife that he bequeathed his estate to what became the Berger-Marks Foundation – including the royalties from his song catalog. Given that “All of Me” has been recorded more than 2,000 times since he wrote it in 1931, the foundation has been able to fund hundreds of women union organizers and other worthy projects.

In 2011, the Berger-Marks Foundation created the Edna Award, with a $10,000 cash stipend, to go to women 35 years and younger who are already leading the fight for social justice in their communities.

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Veronica Avila, the mover and shaker behind Chicago’s Restaurant Opportunities Center.

This year’s winner, Veronica Avila, is the daughter of a working-class immigrant family in Chicago who went to college and then returned to her neighborhood to help organize restaurant workers – first with Local 1 of UNITE HERE and then building the Chicago chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers, an organization that was created in New York City after the 9/11 attack to help survivors of the Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade Center.

Thanking the foundation and its supporters at the National Press Club in Washington Nov. 14, Avila said the award encourages her to recommit her efforts to help restaurant workers in Chicago, where she is spearheading a campaign against the anti-union Darden Group (Red Lobster, Olive Garden, The Capital Grille) and to end the “tip penalty” in Illinois, so that restaurant owners have to pay a fair wage and workers are not dependent on tips to survive.

Three other young women received $1,000 “Awards of Note” and six other finalists were commended for their work in helping lead the fight for social justice in our nation. You can see a video of the awards program here, with Louise Walsh opening the program with a remembrance of Edna Berger and Gerald Marks:

At the end of the program, after Foundation President Linda Foley had thanked the judges and others who helped put the program together, Avila interrupted her to remind her not to forget to thank the wait staff.

Edna would have been so proud!

And so would Gerald Marks, to see the living treasure being created from his estate in memory of the love of his life. It promises to go on and on, much like this song, sung here by the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald:

The Trouble With China

On this Veterans Day 2012, my thoughts turn to China, in the theater where I served more than 40 years ago. It seems odd we call it a theater, as if we are staging a show. But perhaps that is an apt description of the productions waged from the bunkers at the Pentagon and Beijing.

For several years, from late 1969 to early 1971, I flew on combat missions along the China coast and over Vietnam, Laos and the Gulf of Tonkin.  As the lead Chinese linguist, my job was to make sure we recorded the chatter on the ground and in the air, understanding clearly how they were defending us. Thus, we gained more of the “Air Order of Battle” that defined China’s military aviation capabilities.

It was a routine job but I had to be on my toes for out-of-the-ordinary chatter, particularly from the MIG pilots who scrambled to defensive patterns as we flew along the coast. If a pilot announced, “I am locked on my target,” or some such hostile action, I must tell the pilot to begin evasive maneuvers with our EC-135, the old Boeing 707, in the face of an attack.

But that was the worst case. We never had an incident because there was never a provocation. We accepted their escort cheerfully; we may have wiggled our wings. Today, bloodless drones prowl the coasts of Iran, and other hot spots. Americans are working cooperatively with China across a number of fronts, despite ongoing animosity. Plus, there are eyes in the sky.

But during the Vietnam War, China was the broad opposition. Nixon had yet to make his surprise trip to Beijing and there had been little exchange. The hostility was expressed by MIG pilots as quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book, such as, “Mei-kwo dzung-t’ung shih jih lao-hu. Mao zhuxi xue, wan wan xue.” (‘The American president is a paper tiger! Long live Chairman Mao,” and pardon my romanization). To which I would write on my notepad, “prop,” for propaganda. Ho-hum.

While we don’t get a lot of quotations from Chairman Mao nowadays, propaganda is something we can still count on from the current ruling Chinese Communist Party, which is meeting this week to pick new leadership. The meetings are cloaked in secrecy, mostly aimed at its own people. As the Washington Post reported today:

“In recent days, Chinese authorities have banned certain books from being displayed, increased surveillance and house arrests for activists they consider troublemakers, and blocked some foreign news media, including the Web sites of the New York Times and Bloomberg News after stories about the massive wealth accumulated by leaders’ families.”

The Party leadership has gone to lengths to deny official corruption even though the system itself promotes insider dealing among officials in government, military and the industrial complex. After all, this is a command economy that props up the Chinese currency, subsidizes exporters, and allows industry to operate without environmental, safety or worker rights’ protections.

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Meeting with human rights activist Harry Wu at the AFL-CIO in Washington. A few years later, Wu was arrested when he arrived in China legally and detained several months before an international campaign won his release. (Photo by Bill Burke)

As an advocate for American workers and their unions, I have been a harsh critic of the regime in Beijing – from Mao’s megalomania to Hu’s devious embrace of American capital and technical acumen. They have tried to stack the deck so that China succeeds at the expense of the rest of the world, and particularly the United States. Not surprisingly, recent efforts to infiltrate U.S. government, military and financial communications via cyberspace have been traced to China, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

As much as we may not trust Chinese leaders, Party poohbahs and military brass, we have to respect the Chinese people. They are victims of a regime that is authoritative and cruel, but they possess a resilient spirit and serenity that I admire, as a student not only of the Chinese language but also the philosophies under which they live — Confucianism. Taoism and the 19th and 20th century evocations of Chinese internal martial arts – particularly, t’ai-chi, which I practice religiously every day.

Taoism is a rational approach to spiritualism — it makes sense to me — and it quickly supplanted Roman Catholicism, my childhood indoctrination, as a guiding principle. I no longer embrace the concept of heaven and hell, or the vengeful god of Abraham, and I learned to find my way by meditating on the balance of mind and body, of my life in the universe.

I admire the Chinese artists, academics and democracy activists who risk their lives to speak out and act up. I’ve met some of them, including Harry Wu, a man who spent 19 years being “re-educated” in the Chinese labor camps and has devoted his life to exposing this gulag through his Laogai Research Foundation, and fighting for reform. A few years after we met in 1993, he was arrested trying to get back into China and spent months in custody before an international campaign forced his release.

Surveys show that Americans are inclined to blame China trade practices for many of our economic problems, particularly job loss. This is a fair assessment, and both Obama and Romney agreed they would crack down on China if elected. It would be unfair, however, if anti-Chinese forces begin to demonize, or stereotype, the Chinese. The Chinese people have a different history and culture, and we can learn much from each other as we seek to be good stewards of our planet and our humanity.

Few events reflected our common dreams more than the democracy movement in Tienanmen Square in 1989. The pro-democracy students even created a paper mache replica of “Lady Liberty” as a symbol for their movement. It was inspirational to see the brave man who defied tanks in the street, and all the students who demonstrated and proudly posted on Democracy Wall. It was the beginning of a movement to challenge the despotic rule of the Chinese Politburo, the syndicate that runs China with a greedy iron fist.  Sadly, the leaders of the movement were crushed under the tanks.

The world was watching, and the Chinese Communist Party failed the test of history. But it’s not over. As the Politburo plays its musical chair game this week, anointing the newest princeling, I salute the millions of Chinese who are resisting, in large and small ways, the oppression of the regime. A new order is in the wings. It’s only a matter of time.

Thanks to System of a Down, and their Armenian political sensibilities, for helping to capture the magic of a moment in time that we can only hope foreshadows the eventual fall of the old men of the Chinese Politburo:

A Pause That Refreshes

We interrupt this weeklong train of political thought for a refresher – today is the first day of college basketball season. For fans like me, that means an exciting game tonight between No. 3 Kentucky, the defending national champion, against the upstart Maryland Terrapins in the new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.

Maryland will be good as the season develops and it will be interesting to see how Dez Wells performs. He’s the Xavier guard kicked out of school over sexual assault charges that apparently weren’t substantial enough to warrant prosecution. I’m not in a position to judge him any way other than by his performance on the court. The NCAA has ruled him eligible to play this year, without the usual one-year wait.

And that brings us to Kentucky. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should check out the

new ESPN series, “Kentucky: Full Access,” or as John Feinstein calls it, the best recruiting tool in the history of sports. You get an idea of the mania that grips my home state this time of year, every year. The Wednesday night series follows Coach John Calipari through another season of rebuilding – six new core players on a team that lost six to the NBA draft, including No. 1 and No. 2.

When 25,000 people show up at Rupp Arena to watch the first practice, “Midnight Madness at UK,” Calipari takes the mike and tells the people, “You all are crazy, you know that, right?” Standing ovation.

Calipari is truly in his element here – at Kentucky and in this very personal documentary. He’s the star of the show. No matter how you feel about his record of mentoring young men, you can’t argue with 15 NBA draft picks in the past three years. That’s why the kids keep coming back. Here’s what he says about it:

The “one-and-done” rule in college for NBA prospects is a fact of life, and Calipari has managed to corner the market on the best kids looking for a springboard to the NBA. By contrast, consider my alma mater, the No. 1 Indiana University Hurryin’ Hoosiers.

Christian Watford, a talented small forward who hit the last-second shot that gave Kentucky its first (of two) losses last year, returns as a senior. Other talented seniors and juniors return, as does the preseason college player of the year, 7-foot sophomore center Cody Zeller. The Hoosiers also have a talented group of incoming freshmen, including Yogi Ferrell, who will contend for the starting point guard slot.

Indiana is rated No. 1 in the country in preseason polls. Kentucky is rated No. 3. The Louisville Cardinals, coached by former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, is ranked No. 2. As a proud Kentuckianian – native of Kentucky and graduate of IU – nothing could be better.

I attended IU when the basketball team only lost one game in two years. The 1976 team – with Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson, Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernethy and John Laskowski – is the last undefeated team in college basketball. Given IU’s cupcake schedule leading up to Big 10 play, this year’s edition of the Hoosiers has a chance to win them all. Tonight they face some college named “Bryant,” and I don’t expect Kobe to be there in Bloomington to represent.

Grab a chair! There will be tons of these games from now until March. I can’t help myself but to provide a bit of armchair commentary. Hey! Maybe we’ll be able to see this again and again:

It’s Not Over Except for the Shouting

There it was – a full day without political commercials. Wasn’t it lovely? No 30-second snippets of vitriol, tightly engineered messages of hate and innuendo. Mostly lies, no matter which side of the aisle you come down on.

I approve this message even though in the past I’ve been part of the creative teams who drew up and executed these political “hits.” Find out the candidate’s vulnerability, based on public opinion surveys, then hammer, hammer, hammer. None of it’s real, except for the real impact it can have in persuading otherwise rational people that, yes, so-and-so really is a liar/cheat/incompetent fool. Or, conversely, so-and-so really is a great person, a savior of the people.

Or a real beast …

OK. That’s not real, except for the “Mao” part.

The remarkable thing this year is that there may have come a point of diminishing returns. With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashing more than a billion dollars in misleading TV ads, mostly from a gang of billionaires led by the Koch brothers, voters apparently were able to tune them out.

How else can we explain the screaming ineffectiveness of the waves of last-minute TV spots? The marketers’ mantra is if you say something enough – particularly if you use engaging images and comforting voices – then people will come to believe it, no matter how improbable. So over and over and over again we got the same messages – particularly the ones about Obama not measuring up to the job, he tried but failed, we need a change.

No doubt that was the message that tested best. We even got it from women sitting at their kitchen tables, without the Harry and Louise dialogue but still with that personable “at home” quality. “My family just can’t take another four years.”

Well, they will. And we don’t have to listen to you again for at least another two years.

There is some relief, then, that the shrill political barkers are gone. But the adverse impact of Citizens United will be with us for many years – until we can get rid of a couple of those business-oriented justices and put the issue to a new judiciary test.

It was interesting to see that Republicans this year avoided challenging California’s requirement that the political shell groups identify their donors – apparently concerned that the billionaire sponsors of the right-wing claptrap would have to drop their masks. Justice Kennedy, the swing vote in the Citizens United decision, clearly stated that unbridled political spending should not be done in secret.

While we wait for the right moment to challenge Citizens United and remove the scourge of big money from our politics, it’s worth noting that we had at least one positive effect of the ruling: It allowed unions to spend money to talk with nonmembers about candidates and issues during the campaign. Thus, while unions were unable to match the firepower of big corporate sponsors in the ad wars, they were able to take their message door-to-door.

That’s the strength the labor movement always has had in politics – people. Even though union membership is on a 40-year slide – from 35 percent of the workforce in 1970 to less than 12 percent today, and less than 7 percent in the private sector – union participation in politics remains high.

Nearly 22 percent of all voters this year identified themselves as being from union households (union members and their families), a number that has been remarkable consistent even as the number of union members has dwindled. Nearly 60 percent of those voters cast their ballots for Obama and other Democratic candidates, also consistent with previous elections.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada – three crucial swing states – union participation was higher and more pro-Obama, lending credence to claims by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka that the labor movement was instrumental in delivering the election to the president, and key Democrats running in those states. In those states, 65 percent of union members voted for Obama, 70 percent in Ohio.

The automobile industry bailout also helped Obama in Ohio and other states in the Midwest, particularly after Mitt Romney’s people ran ads claiming that Chrysler was planning to ship Jeep production overseas, taking those jobs with them. Chrysler was so incensed by the claim that it gave its union workers Election Day off to go vote their pocketbooks.

While unions have always been able to turn out their numbers – generally voting for candidates they endorse – the difference this year, because of Citizens United, is that they could also work to turn out nonmembers. They used phone-banking and door-knocking to reach these voters, working through their community affiliate Working America, which now has 3 million members.

In the last five days of the campaign, unions and community allies knocked on 800,000 doors in Ohio alone, the AFL-CIO said, with more than 10 million door-knocks and phone calls nationwide.

Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, who spent the last month of the campaign crisscrossing the swing states, credited the activists who poured their heart and soul into the campaign, reaching out to tell their stories about why we need to give President Obama another four years to finish the job. “That’s what cuts through the noise of all those negative ads,” she said.

As we recover from the bitter campaign and ponder the years ahead, don’t expect the earnest sounds of kumbaya to continue. The sense of renewed hope will get a quick reality check as we head into a lame duck session of Congress, always an adventure. There is a “fiscal cliff” on the horizon, as you may have heard.

In fact, labor is already developing plans to fight tax cuts for the wealthy and efforts to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. House Speaker John Boehner may be smiling and cooing right now, but he has designs on the shape of any “compromise” to resolve the debt issue.

So the fight between two competing visions for our nation goes on. But it will occur much more quietly for a while, which is a relief and a danger. Don’t stop paying attention.

Make Your Vote Count

The Obama campaign just sent me another video, a 30-second TV ad they want to get around to all those erstwhile Democrats who are not engaged, or who have lost their enthusiasm for a candidate, now the president, who failed to live up to their expectations. It’s worth repeating:

Twelve years ago, George W. Bush became president by virtue of a 537-vote margin in Florida. Putting aside the likelihood of fraud, the razor-thin margin suggests that every vote does count in a close election. And when we look at how the Republicans have tried to stack the deck this year by making it more difficult for minorities and seniors to vote, your individual vote becomes even more important.

Believe me, I know: I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. My friends still hold it against me, as if my single vote in Virginia was critical to Al Gore’s defeat by 537 votes in Florida. Yes, Nader attracted 97,000 votes in Florida, running a campaign that insisted there was little difference between the two parties, because they both worshiped at the altar of corporate largesse.

Even today, there is a ring of truth to that claim. Still, we have learned after eight excruciating years with George W. Bush at the helm that there is a big difference in how leaders of the two parties ACT under the sponsorship of corporations. Gore may have been a bore, but he was not a whore. (Perhaps THAT bumper sticker would have worked.)

Romney is much more dangerous than Bush. He is bought and paid for by the oil and gas industries, leverage buyout artists and financial speculators. He made a fortune selling out workers and communities all across the country. He’s in the business of picking winners and losers. And his wealthy allies always win.

Ralph Nader is the opposite. He was a champion of consumers before consumer rights became fashionable and a hero through many generations, beginning when I was a kid. He challenged Detroit’s auto leviathans; “unsafe at any speed” defined not only Corvair, but many cars. Besides being a thorn in George Romney’s paw, he inspired a nationwide consumer crusade in communities and on campuses.

He was earnest and he was true. GM and the FBI spent millions looking into his background; he was bulletproof. In 2000, he ran as the standard-bearer of the Green Party, and was the darling of the California Nurses Association, my client at the time. We helped organize Nader events in D.C., which I covered for REVOLUTION, an international magazine for Registered Nurses. Nader was matter of fact: Yes, I don’t have a prayer, but we can make a statement, he said. Why pick between Tweedledee and Tweedledum?

But he has taken merciless hits for his decision to run for president in 2000, possibly costing Al Gore the opportunity to lead our nation in great challenges – through 9/11 and the morass of two wars. Would Gore have gone after Saddam Hussein on a trumped-up charge of harboring weapons of mass destruction? Not a chance. He would have found legitimate grounds to take him out, or more likely force him to change his posture, and saved thousands of American lives.

Nader represented radical change to me. If the parties are indeed hewing to the same line, then we need a radical departure from the status quo. Only if we allow the pendulum to swing fully toward the right wing, to its extreme, will we create the groundswell for real change, a countervailing power back to the left. We won’t get there incrementally.

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There are socioeconomic theories that underlie this view – from Hegelian dialectics, developed from Plato, to the Chinese notion of Chaos. The two Chinese characters for chaos, Wei Ji, mean “danger” and “opportunity” consecutively. Or in the I-Ching, a single character, chun, stands for danger and opportunity, chaos. I have that character on the wall in my office, a reminder not to get too comfortable. “CHAOS: Where Great Dreams Begin” is the legend. Perhaps it was time for chaos to work its magic.

Voting for Ralph Nader was symbolically important to me then. Al Gore had done little to win my support, except by comparison. Nader denied he was siphoning votes — saying he was energizing disenfranchised voters. “If he can’t beat the bumbling Texas governor with that terrible record, he ought to go back to Tennessee,” Nader said. Instead, we suffered under the bumbling Texas governor for eight years.

Gore went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for sounding the alarm about climate change, not to mention an Oscar for his remarkable documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Obama also won the Nobel Peace Prize – based more on promise than actual accomplishments. He has not yet earned respect for his presidency, but I believe the promise is still there.

Obama could still be a great president. I give him the benefit of the doubt. Considering the alternative, George W. Bush on steroids, I’m not going to waste my vote this year.

Weathering Nature’s Fury

So, we begin Keeping Time with the critical story of our times, the election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But first breaking news – insofar as it can break in this space – Hurricane Sandy’s historic siege of a huge swath of Yankee territory, from the Jersey shore to Long Island and New York City harbors, and beyond. Devastation everywhere.

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The roller coaster at Seaside Heights, N.J., sits in the drink. (Photo by Brian Thompson via WISH-TV).

The shocking images of the wrecked Jersey Shore and flooded sections of Staten Island, Long Island and even lower Manhattan are reminiscent of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, except the victims are mostly white. Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate as it runs roughshod over human gatherings. Even our great cities are reduced to splinters and shards in the face of Mother’s angry smack-down

Is she mad? Maybe.

The powerful undercurrent of this event is the specter of climate change. It is scientific fact that humans are emitting massive amounts of carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons, contributing to a measured warming of our planet. If we are causing this through our careless actions, then we can control it through careful actions.

But Mitt Romney has other ideas, which he delivers with a populist and Clintonesque biting of the lower lip:

It’s convenient to deny climate change when powerful forces vested in fossil fuels finance your campaign. That’s my take on Mitt Romney’s studied denial of climate change – at least in this reiteration of Mitt Romney. He was for action against climate change before he mocked it.

Hurricane Sandy offered a distinct lesson in the dangers of climate change. This late-season hurricane turned into a “Frankenstorm” because the Atlantic Ocean waters are 5 degrees warmer than usual, inviting stronger storms further north. Warmer water means more evaporation, or rain. And the higher sea level means a higher storm surge.

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On a tour of the Jersey Shore damage with Gov. Chris Christie, President Obama assured victims that the federal government would help. (Reuters photo)

The lesson wasn’t lost on New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who endorsed Obama on Thursday as the candidate most likely to do something about the coming cataclysm. That’s faint praise considering the circumstances, and Mitt Romney’s positions. But Obama quickly sprang into action, moving the National Guard to deliver emergency gas supplies.

For all the federal efforts, people helping people has defined the relief effort, including the benefit concert Friday with Springsteen, Billy Joel and other artists who owe their creative soul to New York and the Jersey Shore. Plus those thousand utility linemen who rolled up the East Coast – and flew in from points west – to restore power as quickly as possible.

Emergency personnel worked around the clock to put out fires, literally. Nurses carried 19 newborn infants down nine flights of stairs, manually operating the respirators. Hundreds of patients were rescued from powerless hospitals. Human calamities bring out the best in people, who pull together in the toughest of times.

So it was heartening to see Obama on the Jersey shore, hugging victims and talking with Gov. Christie, suddenly an Obama fan. It was a stark contrast to George W. Bush, who simply flew over New Orleans to check out the Katrina damage.

Here’s your legacy, “W,” courtesy of “Treme,” the best show on television:

Katrina was a Category 3 storm at landfall, far more powerful than Sandy, which never got past a Category 1 hurricane. And the $100 billion cost to recover from Katrina included special remission for the Crescent City, which sits below sea level and must be protected by a series of levees. The recovery from Sandy is expected to cost half that amount, with far fewer fatalities than the 1,000 souls who perished in Katrina.

Still, America must meet the challenge of Mother Nature on a rampage. Yes, we must rebuild our infrastructure, and yield some ground, pushing back developments. The storm surge that hit New York will be stronger and higher next time because the ocean is rising, and storms are becoming fiercer.

But we also must act to slow the pace of climate change. I say that as a friend of coal, and of coal miners and the families who have a vested interest in the continuation of the industry – the survival of their communities. There is much to say about this, and we will revisit it later in this blog. In any case, we cannot abandon coal immediately, completely. We must develop a plan to wean ourselves off what has been an essential energy resource as we build up others. Our nation has many critical choices before us, and we should study them carefully.

But, as Sandy played out last week, I was reminded of nearly 30 years ago when the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot editorial crew rode out Hurricane Gloria in the newsroom. As we waited breathlessly overnight, it sprinted right past us, churning up the East Coast, finally easing into New England. While we feared the worst, the path of the storm – much like Sandy’s – suggested we would be largely spared the wrath of Gloria.

As with Sandy, we were on the “left side” of the storm, at the end of the circulation after the wind blew down from over land.. Cold rain, wind and misery, but not much of a hurricane. Another safe passage. We did get T-shirts out of the deal in Norfolk, though – marked on the front with a route of Hurricane Gloria and the legend: “I spent the night with Gloria.”

Important lesson: Stay left if you can.