a better world
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  1. “Pulling Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps”: An Etymology of an American Dream

    May 17, 2011

    The notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” has become a notion so fundamental to the mainstream American ethos that it’s highly unlikely that any sincere candidate running for public office could actually challenge the idea directly without committing an act of political suicide. The expression is meant to imply something like “improving oneself by one’s own efforts” and speaks to the rather hyper-independent and gritty identity captured in the fantasy of the American West or the idealized middle class of White suburbia in the 1950s.

    Politicians from both parties discuss the “bootstraps” narrative often enough. Conservatives revel in the American’s true grit and independent character, and they’ll beat the living hell out of any Big Bad Nanny Statist that gets in their way or gives a sick poor person healthcare.  For example, here’s Tim Pawlenty, a possible contender for the GOP Presidential candidacy for 2012, from his memoir Courage to Stand [emphasis added by me],

    More than anything, right now, at this moment in history, I believe it’s time for America to square its shoulders and get about the business of fixing our problems ourselves…For the past eight years, I’ve tried to inspire just that kind of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps reform in my home state of Minnesota.

    Liberals counter not by challenging the idea of “lifting yourself up” itself, but instead by explaining how hard it is, often saying something like, “How can someone lift themselves up by their own bootstraps if they haven’t got boots?”

    Interestingly, the expression itself wasn’t originally intended to describe something we should expect from anyone at all, ever. Difficulty notwithstanding. In spite of what liberal critics often describe as the unlikely chance that a person will rise from pauper to President, what they forget is that it is literally impossible for a person to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, which was the original intention of the expression.

    Indeed, many suggest that the phrase originated from the fantastical stories of the adventurer Baron von Munchausen (circa 1785) who had, among other fantastic feats such as riding on a cannonball, pulled himself–and his horse–up from a swamp by his bootstraps (or his hair, depending on the person telling the story). Searching through Google Books reveals that the expression held this meaning more or less consistently throughout much of the 1920s and even up to the 1950s. Consider this article from Popular Mechanics magazine:

    By this time however, perhaps because military technology had begun to outpace the expression, the “bootstraps” saying had started to take on its more colloquial interpretation. Writers such as those of early 1930s biographical collection British Authors of the Nineteenth Century had begun referring to poor poets who had “lifted themselves by their own bootstraps,” and James Joyce had made similar usage of the phrase in Ulysses (but who really knows what the shit he was saying in that thing, anyhow?)

    In 1941 the sci-fi author (and possible fascist sympathizer) Robert Heinlein wrote a short story called “By His Bootstraps,” in which a man lifts himself up by his own bootstraps time machine, and travels thousands of years into the future when, after presumably a millennium of welfare and unions had taken their toll, everyone has become a mindless slave waiting to be conquered by a White man from the 1950s who changes his name to “Diktor.”

    "What you haven't built yourself a time machine yet you fucking luddite? Go on and make something of yourself!" - Tim Pawlenty, a.k.a. Diktor.

    By the 1970s and 1980s, of course, it seems that the phrase had not only taken on its contemporary understanding, but had actually become a regular part of America’s political and social vernacular. Take a look at this chart from Google Ngram Viewer (a search tool for nerds that shows you how frequently a term or phrase has been used historically):

    The use of the term skyrockets  throughout the 1980s, often, it seems, by liberal authors and college professors arguing with conservatives about how hard it is to lift yourself by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots (or time machines).

  2. Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers

    January 22, 2011

    The League of Revolutionary Black Workers’ is an incredible, exciting and crucial struggle in the history of the revolutionary socialist struggle in the United States.  I first learned about the struggle of the LRBW as an anti-activist at Wayne State, the university which many of the League members attended and out of which their paper, “The South End,” came.  A professor had suggested I look into them and I immediately rushed to purchase a copy of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin.  As I excitedly read the book (mostly during downtime at a hummus stand located in a local Whole Foods) I was overwhelmed both by the level and urgency of the Leagues struggle, but also how the history of the struggle was right under my nose!

    The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was essentially an revolutionary umbrella organization of working-class Blacks who were forming rank-and-file revolutionary union movements at local Detroit auto plants.  These included DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement), ELRUM (Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement), FRUM (Ford Revolutionary Union Movement) and others.  These movements sought primarily to elevate the struggle of the black working-class in the auto plants, including fighting the UAW leadership which had become conciliatory to the auto industry management.

    Here is a phenomenal short film in which LRBW members tell their own story called “Finally Got the News.”  The film ends with a kind of “call-to-arms” style explanation of the League’s mission:

    The League of Revolutionary Black Workers recognizes that its struggle is not an isolated one.  We have common cause with other black workers in this racist land and the exploited and oppressed across the entire world.  Our ultimate intention is to organize black workers as a whole, as a class in the United States and proceeding from that basic mass organization to extend that revolutionary black organization throughout the community.  It is incumbent upon us to foster, join with, initiate, organize and lead other black workers in our common struggle.  Being in the forefront of this revolutionary struggle we must act swiftly to organize DRUM-type organizations wherever they are, whether they’re in a kitchen, the White House, White Tower restaurants, at Ford Rouge, the Mississippi Delta, the plains of Wyoming, the rubber plantations of Indochina, the oil fields of Biafra, or the Chrysler Plants in South Africa.

    And anarcho-syndicalist/libertarian socialist website libcom has an excellent collection of historical accounts and studies of the League.  I especially recommend A. Muhammad Ahmad’s short overview of the history of the League.

  3. Georgia Inmates Stage 1-Day Strike for Human Rights

    December 12, 2010

    This is a huge deal, but has been universally ignored by the mainstream media (with the exception of a small NYT article).  Inmates in Georgia issued a call on Thursday for a one day strike where prisoners would not leave their cells for labor. In response, the Georgia Department of Corrections somewhat ironically ordered a lockdown, to keep prisoners in their cells.  Prisoners responded to the lockdown in anonymous comments to the press that they “locked themselves down,” and the DOC wasn’t doing anything the prisoners weren’t going to do (i.e., stay in their cells).

    The original article I read about the strike is here (Black Agenda), and I found a couple other instances of this story across the web.  The strike transcends racial divides that have been used to divide inmates against each other in viscous ways.

    The inmates issued a press release with the following platform of demands:

    A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC demands prisoners work for free.

    · EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: For the great majority of prisoners, the DOC denies all opportunities for education beyond the GED, despite the benefit to both prisoners and society.

    · DECENT HEALTH CARE: In violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, the DOC denies adequate medical care to prisoners, charges excessive fees for the most minimal care and is responsible for extraordinary pain and suffering.

    · AN END TO CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS: In further violation of the 8th Amendment, the DOC is responsible for cruel prisoner punishments for minor infractions of rules.

    · DECENT LIVING CONDITIONS: Georgia prisoners are confined in over-crowded, substandard conditions, with little heat in winter and oppressive heat in summer.

    · NUTRITIONAL MEALS: Vegetables and fruit are in short supply in DOC facilities while starches and fatty foods are plentiful.

    · VOCATIONAL AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The DOC has stripped its facilities of all opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper exercise.

    · ACCESS TO FAMILIES: The DOC has disconnected thousands of prisoners from their families by imposing excessive telephone charges and innumerable barriers to visitation.

    · JUST PAROLE DECISIONS: The Parole Board capriciously and regularly denies parole to the majority of prisoners despite evidence of eligibility.

    Prisoner leaders issued the following call: “No more slavery. Injustice in one place is injustice to all. Inform your family to support our cause. Lock down for liberty!”

    The story is briefly covered here at the NYT, and here at CommonDreams.