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A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Stand up, stay strong

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Dec. 1, 2 or 3, 2016

Anxiety about Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory teeters on paralysis for some. What’s needed for regular working people is a cross between “Snap out of it!” to a Jason Heyward rain-delay pep talk.

Why? There will probably be more Republican assaults on workers, so inspiration would be handy. For instance, organized labor is vulnerable to a National Labor Relations Board packed with anti-union types, Right-To-Work (for less) standards, and even making criminal organizing, bargaining and enforcing contracts – even existing. (Wisconsin and Gov. Scott Walker could seem like Camelot and Walter Reuther by example.)

Trump’s nominations to the federal bench and the Supreme Court could severely affect legal outcomes there, and the disputes that could be re-heard, revived and expanded – by the high court include “Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association” and an Illinois case, “Harris v. Quinn.”

“Friedrichs” challenged agency fees, which unions charge people represented in workplaces that voted to unionize – requiring representation of employees there even if they decline outright membership. When unions fight for better wages, hours and working conditions, everyone gains; agency fees ensure that everyone who benefits from the collective effort shares in its costs.

“Harris” centered on agency fees, too, for a home health care workers union, and when the Court ruled 5-4 that Illinois’ law permitting agency fees violated public workers’ First Amendment rights, Justice Sam Alito added that “union security clauses in the private sector [also] create a constitutional issue.”

Reacting to Trump’s win, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka straddled the fence between compromise and courage.

“The President-elect made promises … on trade, on restoring manufacturing, on reviving our communities,” Trumka said. “We will work to make many of those promises a reality. If he is willing to work with us, consistent with our values, we are ready to work with him. But make no mistake; we can never back down from our values. We will never stop striving to represent everyone, fighting for basic human dignity, expanding our diversity and growing our ranks to give working people a strong, united voice.”

Other union leaders rejected Bernie Sanders’ progressive populism to instead support Hillary Clinton, perceived as a steadier, status-quo candidate. But voters wanted change.

“Faced with a moment of record inequality and searing economic pain, a deeply unpopular, wealthy demagogue told voters he understood their misery and would reverse it,” wrote Micah Uetricht, author of “Strike for America: Chicago Teachers against Austerity.”

“To take him on, leaders of the organized working class opted for the candidate whose ties to Wall Street were far stronger than her support for labor and argued that things really weren’t that bad,” Uetricht continued. “To do so, they rejected a wildly popular, diehard union-backing economic populist, thinking the centrist was the safe bet. She wasn’t.”

Sanders recently commented, “Millions of people who voted for Mr. Trump did so because they are sick and tired of the economic, political and media status quo.

“Working families watch as politicians get campaign financial support from billionaires and corporate interests – and then ignore the needs of ordinary Americans,” he added. “There is no compromise on racism, bigotry, xenophobia and sexism, [and] the party must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly and the poor.”

The situation ahead could be compared to what lay ahead for English troops 601 years ago Oct. 25 – St. Crispin’s Day – during the Hundred Years War. King Henry V and his army realized they numbered about 9,000, and the French forces they were to fight the next morning totaled 36,000.

As William Shakespeare wrote as Henry’s speech the night before, “He that outlives this day and comes safe home will stand a tip-toe when this day is named … He that shall live this day, and see old age... will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, and say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin's Day.’

“Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, but he'll remember, with advantages, what feats he did that day…,” Henry continued, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers … Gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us.”

(The results of that inspired battle, at Agincourt, was that England’s longbow archers fought off the French cavalry in the muddy terrain, and England lost 112 men while the French suffered more than 10,000 dead.)

Now THAT'S a pep talk.

[PICTURED: A still from Kenneth Branagh's version of Shakespeare's speech from the 1989 film Henry V. Check out YouTube clips: "We are but warriors for the working day!"]

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Illinois ‘impasse’ unleashing Bruce the Destroyer?

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Nov. 28, 29 or 30, 2016

Hundreds of demonstrators in dozens of Illinois communities including Peoria, Galesburg, Rock Island and Bloomington protested on Nov. 17, when the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees held a “Day of Action,” and when Illinoisans from all walks of life probably wondered whether the state’s largest public-employees union will risk a strike, accept Governor Bruce Rauner’s imposed contract, or count on a Third Way: a court appeal.

While not quite torches-and-pitchforks mobs, scenes were reminiscent of the old horror movies where townspeople rallied against monsters in their midst.

Does the “castle” in Springfield contain one: Bruce the Destroyer?

In a surprise rejection of an Administrative Law Judge’s summer recommendation that Rauner resume bargaining with AFSCME, the Illinois Labor Relations Board Nov. 15 ruled that negotiations are at an “impasse,” a legal distinction permitting employers to force their last offer on unions.

“The governor is trying to force state workers to accept his unfair terms or go out on strike,” AFSCME executive director Roberta Lynch said. “Rauner's path of conflict and confrontation is unfair to workers and wrong for the people of Illinois. The governor should negotiate, not dictate.”

AFSCME says it will appeal the decision in state court, and some unionists see the looming showdown as the 21st century equivalent of Ronald Reagan breaking the air traffic controllers union in the ’80s or the “war on workers” between Illinois labor and a handful of corporations a decade later: A.E. Staley, Archer Daniels Midland, Bridgestone/Firestone, and Caterpillar.

This year started out with the Rauner administration breaking off talks with AFSCME Council 31, representing about 38,000 workers, and Rauner’s team has refused to meet with union negotiators ever since. Instead of bargaining, Rauner asked the Board to give him the power to impose his own terms, including a four-year wage freeze, a subjective “merit-pay” plan, a 100-percent increase in health insurance costs, and the unchecked ability to outsource public services for private profit.

His demands destroyed the semblance of civility, seeking surrender, not give-and-take compromise.

No doubt many also wonder how Rauner’s zeal for privatization will affect services and touch the lives of their communities and families.

AFSCME has never gone on strike and wants to resume negotiations, adding that Rauner can't implement all of his demands anyway since some, like that merit-pay system, would require employees to voluntarily waive their legal rights to have their pay count toward their retirement pensions.

Illinois labor has recognized that the lack of movement or willingness to meet in contract talks is part of Rauner’s obsession with workers’ power, which he’s threatened since before he was even elected. And Rauner’s assertion that he’s settled with other unions neglects to point out that AFSCME has not been offered comparable terms.

Instead, as AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said, the Rauner regime has “sabotaged the collective bargaining process.”

Still, Lindall repeated AFSCME’s consistent position that it doesn’t want a walkout.

“We think that a strike would be harmful to the people of Illinois, and Gov. Rauner's path of chaos and confrontation is not in the public interest,” he added.

A key unresolved issue is sadly familiar: threatening to replace decent, full-time jobs with subcontractors or temps without job security or middle-class benefits. Rauner's negotiators claimed the state would save money, but the union rejected that proposal.

Administrative Law Judge Sarah Kerley in September conceded that the parties seemed to be at a standstill on that issue, but she wrote that this entire bargaining has been “atypical,” adding that room to negotiate remained on issues such as wages and health care (especially since the administration refuses to comply with the law and provide requested information pertinent to supposed health-care cost saving). Kerley also agreed with AFSCME that Rauner sought to make some changes that cannot be imposed unilaterally.

“If the state were able to implement its entire last, best and final offer, the implications and impact would be so enormous that it would be destructive of the collective bargaining process,” Kerley said.

“Bruce the Destroyer” doesn’t care about the collective bargaining process, or state employees, or negotiations (see: Illinois General Assembly), or taxpayers. He’s a wealthy, one-man wrecking crew.

[PICTURED: Progress Illinois editorial cartoon by Chris Britt.]

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Will the planet survive a Trump term?

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Nov. 24, 25 or 26, 2016

In 2012 Donald Trump posted on Twitter, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” an assertion he essentially repeated at a Hilton Head rally in 2015 before later claiming he’d been joking.

Who’s laughing?

In late May, the Republican billionaire said he’d cancel the Paris agreement addressing climate change; two months earlier in a primary debate he pledged to largely abolish the “Department of Environmental Protection,” presumably referring to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and this month he named climate-denier Myron Ebell to lead the transition at the EPA. (Ebell, who’s not a scientist, works at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, partially funded by coal interests, and has also expressed doubts that chemicals have adverse health or ecological consequences.)

Meanwhile, respected environmental journalist Bill McKibben, author of 1989’s “The End of Nature,” recently commented that climate change isn’t coming; it’s here. Citing extreme weather events such as unusual flooding and droughts, plus melting Arctic ice and rising sea levels, McKibben frames climate change as a global disaster akin to war.

“World War III is well and truly underway,” he’s said. “And we are losing.”

Elsewhere, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) has noted that humanity’s losing could get much worse given what the President-Elect could do. While some Clinton supporters, Democratic Party activists and progressives discuss political responses for 2018 or 2020, one wonders whether that’s all so much parlor-room nonsense as Earth faces ruin.

Here are 10 areas a Trump administration could turn what his supporters thought was a vote for change into a colossal unintended consequence: a planet-wide catastrophe:

1. Oil and gas pipelines: Trump could revive the stalled Dakota Access Pipeline and the shelved Keystone XL Pipeline, bringing more fossil fuels into the atmosphere while risking routes’ land and water.

2. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is the Obama administration’s plan to reduce greenhouse emissions from coal-electric plants. Already challenged in court, it could be rescinded, as Trump has promised. Oddly, some operators are shifting to fuels that will reduce CO2 emissions without the regulations.

3. Solar, wind and other renewables could be discouraged or abandoned if government intervenes (encouraged by industry lobbies and campaign contributions).

4. The Bipartisan Energy Bill, still pending in Congress, “includes removal of regulatory barriers to energy development and ‘infrastructure’ like pipelines – things Trump and a lot of other Republicans say they want,” SEJ reports. “Will the Senate and House versions be reconciled before the lame-duck session ends? Would Obama sign it? Would Trump?”

5. Court cases on Clean Air Act rules such as regulations on mercury and ozone standards are still in dispute. Will the incoming administration press on, compromise or surrender?

6. The Water Resources Development Act also awaits reconciliation on Capitol Hill, including a deal for funds to help communities protect against lead-contaminated water. Will Congress finish the work or let politics interrupt the effort?

7. The Waters of the U.S. rule has sustained exaggerated attacks since the EPA proposed it, and legal issues remain unresolved. States are on each side of the measure to protect wetlands, and many interests will feel the impact: positive or negative.

8. Leasing for coal on federal land, and for gas and oil – onshore and offshore – all must be finalized. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) expects to complete a draft next month on coal, but its final form probably won’t be ready until after Inauguration. Likewise, the BLM has just overhauled rules for oil and gas leasing on federal lands to measure production accurately for royalties and to protect aquifers from fracking. But drillers – and Trump – has called for rolling back regulations, and fracking’s could relax, even for National Park or Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lands. Similarly, as shown by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore accidents can cause untold amounts of damage. A current, five-year plan allows no drilling off the Atlantic coast. Will it survive?

9. Trump seems sympathetic with the public lands movement embodied and emboldened by the Bundy family and their armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in Oregon. Will Trump defer to private over public interests?

10. Finally, what about respect for, and future of, science integrity? Previously, when scientific consensus was reached, progress was made in protecting people or species. “Current environmental health science wars rage over chemicals such as the herbicides glyphosate and atrazine,” SEJ reports, “and there have been allegations of industry putting its thumb on the science scale. Will an ‘anti-science’ Trump administration intervene?”

Time will tell; but is time on our side?

[PICTURED: graphic from grondamorin.com, where its caption reads, "Artist’s rendering of Donald Trump’s EPA, c. 2019."]

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Delayed court proceedings give Schock chances to say: ‘Oops’

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Nov. 21, 22 or 23, 2016

This week among the many blessings for which we all give thanks, is the gratitude for not having made the boo-boo’s claimed by ex-Congressman Aaron Schock.

Mistakes aren’t uncommon in Washington. There’s FBI Director James Comey’s odd “Never mind” nine days after he implied renewed doubt in Hillary Clinton’s email case, and U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) last week offering support for Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.) being named National Security adviser to Donald Trump without the President-Elect having appointed him.

But Schock, the Republican who last March resigned as Illinois’ 18th Congressional District representative, would like people to think he should be excused from allegations of criminal activity because they were accounting errors.

Further, a second court action stemming from a letter Schock signed attacking a Peoria County farmer could be another blunder the 35 year old made.

A Springfield grand jury this month indicted Schock on 24 counts of fraud – all felonies. Last week, U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough granted a request from Schock’s attorneys to delay his arraignment from this week to Dec. 12 to accommodate his overseas travel plans (maybe made by mistake or assuming he’d escape consequences to the inquiry since a Washington grand jury ended with no indictment).

“These charges allege that Mr. Schock deliberately and repeatedly violated federal law, to his personal and financial advantage,” U.S. Attorney Jim Lewis said.

If the accusations were “administrative errors,” as one of Schock’s lawyers asserted, why did they never result in financial losses?

And concerning the other case – the year-old libel suit overshadowed by the grand jury investigation and characterized by similar delays – will he appeal for understanding because he made an error in judgment?
“Richard Burns v. Aaron Schock, Darin LaHood and the Peoria County Republican Central Committee” alleges that Schock and successor LaHood signed a letter sent to Central Illinois households that defamed Burns by accusing him of business improprieties. The letter, mailed the week before the 2014 election in support of a County Board incumbent, attacked Burns, a 69-year-old Democratic challenger:

“Dick Burns has been banned by the Illinois State Fair from showing hogs because he has been caught seriously cheating to win contests with large prizes,” said the GOP’s two-page letter.

Libel is a false statement published about someone and harming that person or his or her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others. The statement must identify the person and be presented as fact and not clearly identified as an opinion. Statements can be negligent through not taking the time to verify assertions or made with the intent to harm someone’s reputation.

Although the letter was “an overt attempt to manipulate the election,” the suit charges, it seems to have gone beyond political or ideological differences, according to an Illinois legal scholar.

“Let's assume the accusation regarding banning, hogs and cheating is false and recognize that it appears to hit Burns in the wallet,” said Deckle McLean, a retired journalism educator who’s published dozens of articles on media law, including defamation. “In the context of the Peoria County Board race, Burns, as a candidate, looks like a public figure. Rules governing defamation lawsuits would call upon him to demonstrate the accusation was actually malicious – actual malice being a legal standard meaning a high degree of fault including reckless disregard for the truth. Burns' suit might have some traction if the accusation amounts to reckless disregard – and it looks like it might be that bad.”

Burns breeds and shows Angus cattle who “does not now, nor has he ever, shown hogs at the Illinois State Fair,” according to the lawsuit. Further, the complaint says, Burns – who for years has judged shows in Kansas, Wisconsin and other states – is not banned for anything and never cheated at the Illinois State Fair, much less for “large prizes,” which aren’t given out at the fair.

The suit says Schock and LaHood acted “either with malice knowing they [the statements] were false, or in reckless disregard of whether they were false or not.”

Oops.

Burns, whose wife is Colleen Callahan (defeated by Schock in 2008), said the lawsuit isn’t political and declined to comment except to say, “It affected my profession.”

Court records show a Rule to Show Cause hearing is scheduled for a Peoria courtroom next week.

“Once a dispute gets into court, anything can happen,” McLean said about the libel suit, “– something the defendants as well as the plaintiff might keep in mind.”

Even mistakes can have consequences.

[PICTURED: The two-page letter in which Schock, LaHood and a GOP Committee are accused of libel.]

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Disagreements aren’t always divisions, author says

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Nov. 17, 18 or 19, 2016

North Carolina NAACP president and Disciples of Christ minister William Barber is remembered for his speech at the Democratic National Convention, but his longer-lasting effect on the country and culture could be the Moral Mondays movement he helped start in 2013 – drawing on his experience in a failed union-organizing drive at a Martinsville, Va., textile factory.

“Martinsville showed me that Jesus’ insistence that we love our enemies is more than an ethical ideal,” Barber writes. “In the struggle for human freedom, it is also a practical necessity. If love does not drive out the fears that so easily divide us, we will never gather together in coalitions strong enough to challenge those who benefit from injustice.”

In Barber’s new book, “The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement” (Beacon Press), the 53-year-old pastor offers a thoughtful effort that’s as inspired and inspiring as the Scripture he quotes. It’s timely, too, for an era about which progressive professor and author Cornel West wrote days before Donald Trump was elected President.

“The founder of Western philosophy, Plato, foresaw this scenario,” West wrote. “In ‘The Republic’ — history’s most profound critique of democratic regimes — Plato argues that democracies produce citizens of unruly passion and pervasive ignorance, manipulated by greedy elites and mendacious politicians. The result is tyranny — the rule of a strong man driven by appetites, corruption and secrecy.

“The rule of Big Money … downplays the catastrophic effects of global warming, of poverty, and of drones killing innocent people — all the common ground of Trump and Clinton,” West continued. “For Plato, democratic regimes collapse owing to the slavish souls of citizens driven by hedonism and narcissism, mendacity and venality. [Social reformer and philosopher John] Dewey replies that this kind of spiritual blackout can be overcome by robust democratic education and courageous exemplars grounded in the spread of critical intelligence, moral compassion and historical humility.”

Barber acknowledged profound flaws in 21st century democratic institutions, and advocates compassion and courage to stand up against selfishness and deceit. Accepting differences and seeking common ground is a potent blend.

The book’s title is itself a blend, of realism and optimism, noting the first Reconstruction after the Civil War and the second during the Civil Rights movement. Structured as memoir, history, analysis and a call to action, “The Third Reconstruction” might be the most appropriate reading for the Time of Trump.

Barber paraphrases a line from the Old Testament’s Book of Esther: “Maybe we were born for such a time as this,” which dovetails with a 1960s comment from Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, who said, “I envy you North Americans. You live in the belly of the beast.”

This could be the right place at the right time – if people work together, Barber says, and he recommends “fusing” interests in coalitions that concede disagreements but set those aside for the greater good. “The Third Reconstruction” is less patronizing than welcoming. It envisions – and points to successes in North Carolina and elsewhere – organizing on common causes, basics ranging from health care and schools to voting and worker rights. In an inclusive atmosphere across lines of ideology instead of the suffocating air of the silos we build and inhabit apart from each other, such united fronts embrace class as well as race to fight wedge issues: white supremacy, abortion, gun rights, gay rights, and so on.

Barber concedes it’s not easy, but applauds persistence, saying “One step forward, not one step back.”

Progress could occur using some of the 14 steps Barber sees, and after Nov. 8, one rings especially true: “Resist the ‘one moment’ mentality; we are building a movement!

“No one victory will usher in beloved community; no single setback can stop us,” Barber continues. “We are building up a new world, moving forward together toward freedom and justice for all.”

Two other noteworthy steps are: “Intentionally diversify the movement with the goal of winning unlikely allies” and “Use moral language to frame and critique public policy, regardless of who is in power.”

Written with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “The Third Reconstruction” is a bright, brave call for a dark and fearful time, and at 168 pages, the book is concise as well as accessible.

As he, West and others from many perspectives have said, democracy needs a revival as uplifting as faith meetings can be.

Barber writes, “Despite the dark money, old fears, and vicious attacks of extremists, we know America will be because our deepest moral values are rooted in something greater than people’s ability to conspire. All the money in the world can’t change that bedrock truth. This is the confidence that has sustained every moral movement in the history of the world.”

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pray for the best, plan for the worst

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Nov. 14, 15 or 16

Since Donald Trump didn’t win as many votes as Hillary Clinton, it’s understandable that some Americans consider last week’s balloting for President an “electile dysfunction,” as an old college roommate put it. But Trump is President-Elect; that’s reality.

The hand-wringing “coulda-woulda-shoulda” will continue for the foreseeable future. It’s tempting to play the Blame Game – trying to find fault with the once-and-future victims of Election 2016, whether Clinton, Muslims, the primary process, LGBTQ Americans, the Democratic Party, the climate, the news media, the FBI, undocumented immigrants, WikiLeaks or the white workers without college degrees who became Trump’s key support. But that’s not productive.

Instead, everyone should anticipate the challenges ahead and plan accordingly.

There’s merit to criticism of Clinton – her emails and record as a foreign-policy hawk and status as part of the Establishment; her coziness with Wall Street and, mostly, failure to attract enough African Americans, Hispanic Americans or young Americans to turn out to overcome Trump’s appeal. Trump got 2 million fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012; Clinton got 7 million fewer votes than Obama that year.

Future campaigns might learn this lesson: Don’t take supporters for granted.

Clinton was a qualified, competent candidate with years of admirable service and achievements, plus an unbelievable level of endurance to withstand more than 20 years of accusations, often conjured by Republican and the Right Wing. “So?” millions seemed to say.

At least, as I wrote in September, “Trump did manage to expose the idea that the economic system no longer serves everyday people. After all, neither major political party has really advocated for meaningful policies to help workers. Manufacturing is gutted from 20 years ago, and the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership promises more of the same shutdown regrets. It’s been bipartisan treachery, barely disguised by Republicans’ discredited trickle-down economics or Democrats’ agonizing pleas for patience.”

Again, there will be time for a better understanding. For now, as Trump’s Jan. 20 Inauguration looms, Americans should prepare for his power plays. Trump has pledged on his first day in office to repeal the Affordable Care Act, name China as a “currency manipulator,” and announce the United States’ withdrawal from trade pacts or their renegotiation. The consequences could range from higher inflation and a recession to a global trade war and increased joblessness.

During the long campaign, Trump also pledged to deport millions of people, resume torturing terror suspects, empower a special prosecutor to try to jail Clinton, sue women who’ve accused him of sexual assault, revoke the treaty that limits Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, and Trump may back off those promises – or his threats to impose a 35-percent tariff on imports from Mexico and a 45-percent tariff on Chinese goods, legalize firearms in schools, cancelling payments to climate-change programs, drastically change the country’s NATO obligations, audit the Federal Reserve Board, and attempt to disqualify a federal judge scheduled to preside over a fraud lawsuit concerning Trump University starting Nov. 28 because the Indiana-born judge has a Mexican heritage.

Broader threats include Trump appointing one or two Supreme Court Justices, hiring white supremacists as advisers, implying that dissent or even opposition is treasonous, making it easier to sue journalists who report unpopular facts or inconvenient opinions, or not respecting (or following) ordinary decency or the extraordinary U.S. Constitution to such an extent it jeopardizes democratic constitutional governance.

The day after the election, Trump’s speech celebrating his victory was conciliatory, but is reconciliation likely with someone who’s exploited division in the GOP, much less the nation?

In his book “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown,” the Pew Research Center’s Paul Taylor said, “These days Democrats and Republicans no longer stop at disagreeing with each other’s ideas. Many in each party deny the other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources, and bring different value systems to such core social institutions as religion, marriage and parenthood. It’s as if they belong not to rival parties but alien tribes.”

Given such a divide, a genuine mass movement is needed, a stronger coalition that includes all marginalized Americans, from women coping with sexual and financial injustice, to whites without college degrees who feel neglected. To accept that profound regression, or repression, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy that jeopardizes progress for decades, or the planet in a few years.

[PICTURED: Illustration from the United Steelworkers.]

Sunday, November 13, 2016

(Doctor) Strange tales: comics, movies and more

Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, Nov. 10, 11 or 12, 2016

Illinois isn’t exactly the crossroads of the comic-book universe(s), but from bottom to top, the Prairie State has connections. There’s Metropolis, of course, across the Ohio River from Kentucky, with its Superman statue and museum on DC’s dominant hero. And Chicago is where Marvel’s terrific “Siege” limited series in 2010 featured Thor buddy Volstagg accidentally causing an explosion that killed all the spectators in Soldier Field.

And last week, Hollywood’s latest comic-book motion picture, “Doctor Strange,” opened from east to west, Champaign to Quincy, contributing to an impressive $325 million worldwide box office. “Doctor Strange” stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a surgeon who develops mystical powers after an accident injures his hands.

Sean Howe, author of “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” took time to share some perspective on “Doctor Strange” and the whole phenomenon of superhero films and television shows led by Marvel, from the big screen epics to TV’s popular series “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” the new “Luke Cage” and next year’s “Defenders,” featuring those three plus the Punisher and Iron Fist.

Howe sees the productions as enjoyable but not yet reaching their potential.

“I think Marvel has done a terrific job, for the most part, although I still haven't seen a franchise sustain greatness,” he says. “In other words, while I think the standard of superhero movies has improved tremendously, I don't think they've yet transcended the label of ‘superhero movie.’ (A big stumbling block is the dreaded All-Fighting Third Act, which everyone I know finds to be a drag.)

“I think the Captain America films have been the most consistently satisfying,” he continues. “The first and third Iron Man films have a lot to recommend too.”

Out of Marvel’s long string of successes – also including the X-Men, various Spider-Man, Daredevil, Fantastic Four(s), Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy – Howe is reluctant to pick a favorite movie. Instead, he focuses on moments.

“Favorite scenes [are] the ‘Time in A Bottle’ sequence in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past,’ the great hallway fight scene in ‘Daredevil’ [and] the flashback hospital scene in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.”

Comparing DC Comics’ attempts -- which have been uneven since the Christopher Reeve Superman pictures and the various Batman feature – is more interesting since the former print front-runner is playing catchup in multiplexes even as it’s carved a popular niche on television with “Lois & Clark,” “Smallville,” “Arrow,” “Flash” and “Supergirl.”

Howe says, “I think the DC films could learn a lot from the tone of the DC television shows. The strength of the DC Universe has very little to do with brooding and violent action. It might – sometimes – work for Batman, but a Superman movie should feel inspiring and uplifting.”

Studios and producers alike may not be fully marketing one of their great strengths, Howe adds.

“I wish that comic book companies would put more effort into promoting the art form of comics rather than just the characters,” he says. “The special effects in ‘Doctor Strange’ are extraordinary, and I loved the nods to [artist] Steve Ditko's visual style, but there's still a lot that a comic page can offer that a film can't.”

As far as storylines, Howe says come critics’ complaints about never-ending sagas instead of single-issue plots may have some merit, but some readers are attracted to long, involved yarns.

“I'd argue that Marvel offers a greater number of limited-issue story arcs than they used to,” Howe says. ‘Marvel always produced fewer self-contained single issues than DC did; in fact, that was the appeal for some readers, and a big factor in Marvel's unparalleled world-building.”

Speaking of world-building, the most prominent – dominant – creative force in books, graphic novels, and broadcast and theatrical releases remains Stan Lee, the ubiquitous face of Marvel: literally.

“Stan Lee's current role at Marvel is really just that of ambassador,” Howe says. ‘Even those who don't know about, say, [artists] Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko recognize his face when he pops up in various cameos. He's swamped when he makes public appearances, and is for all intents and purposes the face of the brand.”

That brand is planning ahead, with “Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” “The Black Panther,” a “Spider-Man “ reboot, “Ant-Man & the Wasp” and “The Avengers: Infinity Wars” ahead, plus DC’s “Wonder Woman,” “Justice League,” “Aquaman” and “Shazam” scheduled in the next few years.

As Lee would say, “Excelsior!”

[PICTURED: Sean Howe photo from welcometotripcity.com.]

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Labor activist imprisoned, tortured for resisting World War I

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Nov. 7, 8 or 9

This week is Veterans Day, which began as Armistice Day marking the end of World War I. This month also is the 90th anniversary of the release of a unionist who refused to take part in the conflict, was tortured and imprisoned until eight years after “the Great War” ended.

Ben Salmon was born in October, 1888, son of a carpenter and a guy who worked most of his life, selling newspapers as a boy, then working as a messenger, and later as an inspector for the Burlington Railroad, Standard Oil, local government and as a journalist for the weekly publication.

It was while he was at the Colorado and Southern Railroad working as Assistant Chief Clerk that Salmon became active in labor, organizing the Railway Clerks' Union.

Years later, after a lengthy hospital evaluation, Dr. Benjamin Karpman summarized Salmon’s experience there: “He had been offered better pay and a better position if he would stop his agitation for unionism, with the alternative that, if he did not stop his agitation he would lose his job,” Karpman reported. The “patient states that, although satisfied himself, conditions for fellow employees were so intolerable and so unjust that he could not resist the impulse to help establish some method of redress, so he told his superior that he would continue to organize the men and that whenever his superior was ready to discharge him that he was ready to go.”

In 1916, Salmon supported for reelection Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, whose slogan was, “He kept us out of war.” Once elected, Wilson asked for a declaration of war and started a draft “to keep the world safe for democracy.”

Salmon also was a devout Catholic, and in 1917 refused to cooperate with the draft as a conscientious objector who believed Christ taught nonviolence. Salmon was arrested, tried by a military court martial, and convicted of treason. Initially sentenced to death, he had his punishment changed to 25 years of hard labor for “desertion.”

“He was known as an absolutist by some,” wrote Jack Gilroy in National Catholic Reporter, “a slacker by most.”

In the midst of years of hardship behind bars, Salmon refused to compromise his principles, according to Karpman.

“On September 5, 1918, while he was awaiting transfer to Fort Leavenworth, he was called to headquarters and offered a position as clerk to the Adjutant in the 19th Train Headquarters, a first-class sergeant [rank] and remission of his 25-year sentence,” Karpman reported. “He refused to accept this offer and was subsequently sent to Fort Leavenworth to begin serving his sentence.”

Serving time in seven federal prisons, Salmon – the only Coloradan to refuse induction in World War I – was often placed in solitary confinement, and suffered worse. Authorities denied him access to a priest, and the Catholic Knights of Columbus expelled him. After more than two years in prison, Salmon said he’d been tortured for 26 months and went on a hunger strike.

“His physical condition deteriorated as he went on a hunger strike to protest his conditions,” Gilroy wrote. “For 135 days, prison staff shoved a pipe down his throat, pouring in liquids to keep him alive.”

Throughout his ordeal, Salmon wrote appeals to various levers of power. In a letter to Wilson, Salmon explained that he wasn’t an alien sympathizer, but a man whose “conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army, and contributing, either directly or indirectly, to the death of my fellow workingmen.”

In a piece published in a Denver weekly, Salmon wrote, “If killing has to be insisted upon, those responsible for wars – kings, presidents, Kaisers, etc. – should be made to fight each other and not drag millions of innocent youths into a game where they would be compelled to slaughter each other.”

Eventually, the military and government pronounced Salmon mentally ill, and transferred him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. However, in October 1920, medical professionals including Karpman ruled that Salmon was not mentally ill.

Finally, the American Civil Liberties Union and Father John Ryan of Catholic University of America in Washington helped secure Salmon’s release, on Thanksgiving 1926.

Salmon moved to Illinois, lived in Chicago and died in Melrose Park on Feb. 15, 1932, at the age of 43, weakened by years of deprivation and punishment, leaving four kids and his wife, Elizabeth.

Today, in Denver – where the Denver Post in 1920 sharply criticized him, referring to him as “a man with a yellow streak down his spine as broad as a country highway” – the Archdiocese is promoting his beatification.

[PICTURED: Salmon at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane in August 1920, when he'd been on a hunger strike for 34 days. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.]