Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Will the "Progressive" Blogosphere Grow Up or Implode?

Hard to say. Right now, things are in flux, and that's always an interesting period, but it is froughtful as well.

Jane-as-Kali seems to have had her meds adjusted, or maybe she wasn't all that interested in HEADS! after all. There is still her smoldering animosity toward Those Who Have Crossed-and-Thwarted Her (Rahm, Hadassah, Holy Joe, among others), but since her alliance of convenience with her Toad Prince Grover Norquist garnered so much attention, she's almost calmed down, and can sometimes be as sweetly rational as ever.

Toad Grover, it seems to me, is looking for relevance in this Neo-Liberal phase, but he's always had a tendency to hook up with anyone who would show him due deference and play his Let's Punch Some Hippies and Destroy the Democrats game. It's just the way he is.

Attendance at the Church of Jane seems to have dropped off precipitously after an initial burst of clamor that attracted hordes of Libertarian zombies. They may still be there, but if they are, they are keeping a low profile. Most of the chatter is by Jane herself, a small core of writer/acolytes, and a couple of dozen regular commenter, some of whom seem to be satisfied with saying "Jane's nuts" every now and then.

But the argument is actually getting much better. Cassiodorus has a knock-out analysis of the Neo-Liberal programs and policies that are being adopted and pushed by the Obama regime, On Anti-Corporatism And Its Critique that should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand what's going on beyond the intercine struggle and get some hints on what to do about it. David Dayen points out that "personalities" have overwhelmed the consideration of policy, The Fannie/Freddie Uncapping: More Important Than the Coalition Questioning It, and Jane Herself gets into a consideration of a defense of Libertarians, Libertarians on Establishment Demonization, all of which tends to add some yeast to the dough and actually start bending the curve (my, how certain phrases just trip off the tongue!) of OUTRAGE!!!!™ back toward what's really gone wrong and what to do about it.

Over at dKos, high dudgeon at Jane's misbehavior still reigns, now with calls to ban her crazy ass and those of her paid minions. I won't link, because to my mind it doesn't further the discussion of what's wrong and what to do about it as it is still based on personality. Oh, and the dKos tactic of banning anyone who strays off the reservation.

What's most interesting to me about all this ferment is that there was no equivalent ferment -- together with calls to overthrow the Powers That Be (let alone identifying what those Powers really were) -- during the Bush years. any hint of such a thing was immediately suppressed, shushed and shouted down. You simply could not talk in crypto-Revolutionary terms with regard to Bushevism in the Lefty Blogosphere. It was considered Rude, but more to the point, it was considered Dangerous. The Stasi was watching everything, and the Gulags were waiting.

Now? Not so much.

Is it because the Regime has changed, or is it something else? Why would crypto-Revolutionary cant and rhetoric be suppressed during the Neo-Conservative phase of Corporate Rule, but be released in full cry during the Neo-Liberal phase? Could it be because there was an unspoken "agreeance" among some of the prominent Lefty Bloggers that the Bushevik Program was pretty much OK with them? And could the hyped up chants of "Revolution Now!" actually be trying to set the conditions to lead back to Bushevism?

Is there really a nostalgia for Bushevism?

The constant through this, now being discussed in public, is the libertarian influence on what passes for "Progressive" these days. Libertarians certainly had their issues with Bushevism, but the overarching Republican themes of Lower Taxes and Less Government (whether or not they were instituted) are very appealing to the Libertarian soul. On the other hand, the more forthright, "You gotta pay for this shit, and follow the rules too," coming from Team Obama is aggravating to Libertarians, sufficiently, apparently, to drag them from their general argumentation to specific calls to Overthrow the System and start anew.

They also tend to think that Bush was strong and to be feared, while Obama is weak and to be undermined (like Clinton or Carter dontchaknow).

Anti-Corporatism is the New Thing these days, discussed openly, though by no means clearly understood. Opposing Corporatism is one thing, what to do about it is something else again, and apart from the Revolutionary act of casting a vote "we" don't have (ie: to stop HCR), there is no common agreement among "Progressives" about what to actually do to thwart the Masters of the Universe who Rule Us with An Iron Rod.

I've said elsewhere that Democracy -- specifically Social Democracy, but other forms of mutual interest->common action work, too -- is Kryptonite to Corporatism and its continual cycling between Neo-Conservative and Neo-Liberal phases of operations, can control and ultimately defeat it utterly. And how very interesting it is that you will not find discussions of Social Democracy or even mention of it in all the Anti-Corporatist yammering going on in the Lefty Blogosphere.

It's the absence of any real Leftism from the Lefty Blogosphere that acts to maintain the status quo -- rule by Imperial Autocracy on behalf of Corporate interests.

Funny how that works.

So here's Jane shaking things up, but doing so in a manner that will, if successful, lead to a restoration of (and who knows, perhaps the perfection of!) Bushevism and all its psychotic Neo-Conservatism.

Jeebus, batten down. We may be in for a real bumpy ride in the New Year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Re: Corporate "Personhood"

Eugene over at dKOS has a good piece up regarding the true nature of the struggle today vis a vis a mindset among so-called "progressives" that is largely stuck in the 1990s.

It's refreshing to see some commentator refer to some other "stuck on" era than the 1960's! You mean there is something after 1968? Who'd a thunk it?

At any rate, Eugene's point is one I agree with: we're in a Neo-Liberal phase, and for some reason -- based on 1990s precedents, perhaps -- liberals and so-called "progressives" believe they have to compromise their principles (whatever they may be) to accommodate "what can be done" under a Neo-Liberal umbrella.

We did it in the 1990s, we can do it now, and it will all work out in the end.


The Neo-Liberal umbrella under which liberals and so-called "progressives" shelter is of course the umbrella of Corporatism. AKA Fascism back in the misty and poorly understood past.

Neo-Conservatism is the psychotic phase of Corporatism; Neo-Liberalism is the consolidation phase of Corporatism. While one is kinder-gentler (perhaps) than the other, they are both political/economic organizing systems intended to extract the maximum loot from the maximum number in the shortest feasible time. They are both offspring of Corporate Dominionism.

So what do you do about it?

Over on David Atkins' "We Must ORGANIZE! (Again!)" thread, I posted this:

The "ORGANIZE!" mantra has been repeated every few months or so for the last ten year or more. There's now a plethora of "progressive" causes, websites, fundraising appeals, organizations, alternative media outlets, calls to action and on and on and on. Millions of people belong, donate, participate, organize and do on behalf of these many, many causes and organizations.

And still we see the call to start anew. Stop your bickering and start anew.

More Organizations!

Something's out of whack here. The constant call to ORGANIZE heightens the sense of futility and the apparent impotence of the many, many organizations we have. The constant call to ORGANIZE has the effect of further atomizing the so-called Left, to the point where in time nearly everyone on the "Left" will be their own individual organization.

What we need, it seems to me, after more than a decade of ORGANIZING -- and atomizing -- is consolidation and agreement.

And that's where things get really tough. Right now, "progressive" is pretty much a politically meaningless term that serves primarily as a tribal identification. It doesn't mean you're a liberal, it doesn't even mean you're for social justice. "Progressive" means you're a member of a tribe that is in perpetual conflict -- with someone, some institution, some status quo.

It is the conflict that gives your tribe meaning, not agreement on positive political programs or policies. I would submit that's why there is so little progress. Why the call is always to start anew. Organize differently, with different objectives, different struggles, organize around different issues, different conflicts.

But that's not a recipe for the enduring success of a Movement.

It's time for the organizations we've got to agree with one another on a binding set of principles, a manifesto if you will, a stated and comprehensive ideology (oh, shudder!), and learn to consolidate resources and actions, coordinate messages, and stand up united and unyielding for a simple set of principles.

Instead of all this maneuvering for advantage and attention and trying to work the mechanics of the corrupt and decadent political system that wants nothing to do with us. And will happily sucker-punch us and take our lunch money to boot.

Consolidate. Agree. Then fight back.

For whatever reason, the Internet "progressive" learning curve is a Mobius Strip that always gets you back approximately where you started from, and that is, ORGANIZE! -- again. And again and again and again. Declare Victory! over losses (Holy Joe is still in the Senate, and now he's wielding the Imperial Scepter as if it were his very own; but the Internet "progressives" are still crowing their Victory! because he was re-elected by Republicans. Huh?)

Internet "Progressive" Guide to Political Action: ORGANIZE!>Act>Compromise Principle>Lose>Victory!>ORGANIZE!>Act>Compromise Principle>Lose>Victory!

Well. Yes, of course. It's Victory! for the Corporatists who are Our Rulers. I'm sure they have a big ol' party every time the I-Progressives crash and burn. It is a sweet savour unto them.

So what do you do?

Well, recently, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that essentially allows the President-Emperor to create a category of Un-Persons who have no rights which Americans are bound to respect. Anyone, anywhere, can be so declared, and once designated an Un-Person, these individuals have no recourse at law and anything at all can be done to them at will.

This was one of Cheney's more subtle reorganizations of law and custom to fit his paranoid Imperial designs, one that civil libertarians were certain would be struck down. But come to find out, no. The High Court let it stand.

Well. Now. Think of the possibilities. It's always surprised me that the rabid right wing has never feared Hillary or Obama using this Ultimate Power. It must be tempting to anyone in high office to implement Un-Personhood on anyone who expresses hostility or resistance to the Imperial Will. But Rightists are unconcerned about that. This tells me that their Corporatist Rulers are convinced they have perfectly captured the Government and no one can threaten their vise-like grip.

Back in the Old Days, a clerical error led to the establishment of the Corporate Personhood rule, by which, today, Corporations and Corporatists rule us through their agents in Government. It's quite a cosy relationship, and of course, it is marketed as being "for our own good." It's.... better than nothing.

But if the President-Emperor can legally Un-Person anyone at all, at his sole discretion and pleasure (which is what the lower court ruling essentially said and the Supremes let it pass), then he can do it to Corporations, too.

Which... should make them tremble.

Undoing Corporate Personhood is necessary to relieving the stranglehold of Corporatism on us all.

It's just barely conceivable that the threat of designating Corporate Un-Persons could be enough to at first limit and then end Corporate Dominionism.

Well, it's a thought.

Just the threat of it...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

As I say

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The current crusade by Jane Hamsher and her Toad Prince Grover Norquist to shake up the complacency of the Powerful may or may not lead anywhere. You never know in advance where you'll wind up when you let the Rage get the better of Wisdom.


The shake up is necessary. Regardless of anything else.

The United States has been in an alternating Neo-Con/Neo-Liberal spiral for decades. The People, for the most part, are simply left out of the equation altogether -- except to the extent they can be manipulated by the Professional Persuaders to back one or the other ill-defined set of thieves and mountebanks.

The point is, these are the only choices we are allowed, politically: Neo-Con or Neo-Liberal. Neo-Con governments are suited to smash-and-grab tactics, whether on the economic or the international relations front. Wars, rapine, looting, pillage. That sort of thing. Neo-Liberal governments are suited to the consolidation and institutionalization of the ill-gotten gains of the Neo-Cons. Making permanent, for example, the Imperial Autocracy by which we are ruled -- on behalf of a contracting Plutocracy of inestimable greed and bad intent.

It's a near perfect arrangement. For the Winners.

As I say, the alternation between these two governing philosophies (if you want to call them that) has gone on for decades, and the celebrations of the Peaceful Transitions of Power we've witnessed are celebrations of one faction of the Ruling Class yielding temporarily to the other in a kind of Cosmic Dance. But they are the only two dancers.

You and I aren't even allowed to watch most of what's Really Going On. That's part of why there is such a growing disconnect between the Ruled and their Rulers. "WTF?" is becoming the standard phrase among The People with regard to their Government.

How do you translate that into Action? In fact, what we've witnessed over the years is near total apathy among the public on the one hand and unfocused rage and scapegoating on the other.

Since the collapse of Communism, there really has been no large-scale political/economic force or ideology that can serve as a brake on the worst impulses of a corrupt and nearly unfettered Capitalist/Fascist Globalist Empire.

It's all up to Independent-Minded Individuals.

So, of course, the response of Independent-Minded Individuals to the all-pervading Imperial State is to throw bombs -- or become bombs, whatever. They do it physically or metaphorically, but they do it because it is the only weapon they think they have.

The Star Wars trilogy was all about Independent-Minded Individuals fighting for their "freedom" from the clutches of the Empire...

And of course that's the fundamental mythology of the founding of our own Beloved Country.

Except that it never quite turns out the way the Idealists insist it should.

In our own case, for example, the Intrepid Individualists who founded this country did so on the basis of limited franchise, chattel slavery, genocide, and the extraction of ulimited natural resources. They also did so on the basis of founding a new Empire of their own.

Where we are now is what was built in to the Systems they created.

So it's only natural that people like Ron Paul demand a restart. This is not, at all, the way the Revolution and Founding were marketed. No. No, it isn't. But, anyone who was paying attention back in the day should have been able to see and chart pretty well the course we'd be on.

Jane, et al, are not even at the point of demanding a restart. They don't really know what they want. They have discovered this tool they call "Power" and are eager to try it out on The Devil Himself, Rahm Emanuel.

They have no idea what to do if they "win."

There is no replacement on tap, there is no thought -- at least as far as we can tell -- of an alternate form of government or how it might operate, nor is there any coherent "Progressive" ideology or set of principles by which action and alternatives might be guided.

It's a purely personal endeavor to monkeywrench a governing process they (especially Jane) were not able to affect through advocacy.

Dancing With The Stars (game & dance pad) ScreenshotSee More Dancing With The Stars (game & dance pad) Screenshot at

And it is becoming a cult.

Yes, yes, I know, Obamamania is cultish, too. He's the Good Emperor after all. Dig back in your Roman history, and the notion of the Deified Good Emperor occurs really early in the transformation of Republic into the Empire. And so does the Goddess notion.

While a shakeup in the status quo is necessary, whether these actors can accomplish the deed remains to be seen. So far, the Powers That Be are studiously ignoring the rabble rousers, but then it's a Holiday, and everyone's busy. Snowed in. Whatever.

The notion of Rebellion for its own sake is very appealing to a segment of the population, however -- not just pimple-faced boys, either. And given the success of the Teabagger Rebellion in getting attention, there's now "permission" granted for "Progressives" to give it a shot. The principal first goal being the "attention." For some, I think it's the only goal. But that's my cynical nature kicking in.

As I've said, though, the Rebellion as it stands now is only about the pocketbooks of the bourgeoisie. That's the key to understanding the hookup between Jane and her Toad Prince Grover. They see that the Government is colluding in the private picking of their pockets (Grover has known this for ages of course) and they won't have it!

They're doing it with Health Care (Insurance) Reform, they're doing it with all the financial shenanigans, and they're doing it with Everything.

Yes? And?

Rahm is the Devil.

Yes? And?

HEADS! They demand HEADS!

O. K...

What. Ever.

When these people come up with a coherent "Progressive" philosophy, and reach an agreement widely across the social and some political divides in this country about what "Progressive" means, then I'll perk up.

Until then... Good Luck! Happy New Year!

Just remember. The Dance.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Kali (Christmas)

Jane Hamsher over at Firedoglake is in full Kali Mode demanding HEADS right and left because she's been thwarted in her unfocused campaign on Health Care Reform.

She started the current phase of her operations with the demand for Hadassah Lieberman's head, and now she's hooked up with the odious right wing toad Grover Norquist to demand Rahm Emanuel's head. She wants Bernie Sanders' head. No doubt she'll go after Barbara Boxer's head. She wants Marcos's head. Arianna better watch her own head. Jane won't be satisfied in her current fury until she has Obama's head as well, you can be sure. And she won't be denied!

The unfocused Health Care Reform campaign turned into an epic "progressive" FAIL. Essentially nothing that "progressives" demanded (even when they could make coherent demands, and the Public Option was not one of them) made it into the Senate bill, and the House bill is so watered down, there's nothing much for "progressives" to crow about in it, either. "Everyone agrees" that the Senate bill, with a few minor tweaks, will be the final bill and Obama will sign it. Yay.


Jane and others have now shifted their campaign from "Public Option Please!" to "Kill the Bill" to complete and utter, scorched earth destruction.

Their issue is their pocketbooks. They have made very clear, just like Jane's Toad Prince Grover, that they don't want to pay for health care or health insurance if it's going to benefit anyone else. It's about the money. It's about their individualism. It's about themselves.

Jane has thrown a lot of chum in the water to attract Libertarians, and it seems she's done a remarkable job of it. Her site is a free-for-all of Libertarian cant and argumentation. And, oh yes, rebellion. "I won't pay! You can't make me!"

Rebellion. Revolt. Revolution! NOW!

Makes me laugh. When the Busheviks were essentially overthrowing the American Constitutional Republic and replacing it with an Imperial Autocracy, there was plenty of grumbling and argument from the Libertarians over the Bushevik program, but there was nary a hint of Rebellion let alone Revolution. In fact, whenever someone said something about it, the proctors would ritualistically shush any mention of active opposition. Now that the Busheviks are pushed to the side -- make no mistake, they're still around -- Libertarians are free to fantasize about any level of insurgency they choose. And if it directly affects their MONEY, they become the most active Rebels you ever saw. It's funny. In a sad sort of way.

The Busheviks were smart about how to handle this: Overthrow the Republic by all means, institute Imperial Rule, no problem. Make war all over the world. Just be sure you cut the taxes of the Rubes so they won't catch on they're being robbed.

And lookit! It worked.

Obama comes along with his neo-Liberal program and says, "You know, we gotta pay for this somehow, how about on the backs of the middle class?" and all holy hell breaks loose.

Of course I would have preferred the revolt to occur on the basis of principles of social justice and community, the Rule of Law, and the Constitution. You know? All the things that the Busheviks were trashing and trying to destroy? But no. Any hint of Rebellion in those days was rigorously denounced or shouted down. The ONLY way to make serious progress against the March of Empire was Incrementally -- and peacefully.

Now that the Imperium is consolidated and institutionalized, the issue isn't even germane. Few care, and those who do are pissing into the wind if they think they're actually going to make any headway against the Empire by hooking up with Grover. Ain't gonna happen.

But then, that's not the issue. The Rebellion is against mandated health care insurance.

You see. Priorities, people.

You'll shoot your eye out.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


The HCR debate has highlighted some real faultlines in American society, politics, and everything, and one of the murkiest faultlines is that between Incrementalism and Bold (sometimes called Revolutionary) Action.

(This oddly mirrors the cleavage between Uniformitarians and Catastrophists in Geology and Planetology back in the day, and we should return to that as a potential model for resolution anon.)

All through the Bush years, Incrementalism was touted on the so-called Progressive Internets as the Only Appropriate Response to Bushevik Radicalism. The very fact that the Busheviks were Radical and (counter)Revolutionary, especially in their foreign policies and their overthrow of the remnants of Constitutional law and so forth, was frequently denied or obscured by prominent Lefty bloggers (I'm looking at a very insouciant picture of Glenn as I write this) so as not to stir up the masses too much about what was going on. Or one supposes the rationale behind the Incrementalist fervor during the Bush years was simple self-protection.

After all, the Stasi was watching, and at any time, so the thinking went, the round ups could begin, starting with anyone and everyone spouting off against the Regime and calling for Revolution Now! There was one incident over at Glenn's that highlighted what THAT was about when Mona freaked over something I said: "Who should be first against the wall when the Revolution comes?"

O. M. G. You'd think the Marxist Cell that is the Greenwaldian patch of the Internets had been discovered. I'd used the quote before (it's from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, c. 1972, and it has a long history in geeky comic lit. The quote from Hitchhiker's Guide runs as follows:

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy defines the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as "a bunch of mindless jerks who'll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes," with a footnote to the effect that the editors would welcome applications from anyone interested in taking over the post of robotics correspondent.

Curiously enough, an edition of the Encyclopaedia Galactica that had the good fortune to fall through a time warp from a thousand years in the future defined the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as "a bunch of mindless jerks who were the first against the wall when the revolution came."

And this has been making the rounds for decades. Yet both times I used the quote/idea in postings on the internets the proprietors and/or their agents (I've always considered Mona to be Glenn's lawyer -- of course she'd deny it!) have gone ape shit in fear that someone would break down their door at midnight and drag them and their family away to the Konzentrationslager forthwith.

For advocating "Revolution."

Honestly. The mind boggles.

When I explained it as patiently as I could to Mona (who claimed to be familiar with Hitchhiker's Guide, but then she lies), she still didn't get it and was convinced that certain key-words (Revolution, anyone?) would trigger NSA surveillance and shut-down of websites, in this case Glenn's. What was really curious about it to me was that none of these lawyer-types -- including Glenn -- was willing to risk that kind of trouble or oppose the imposition of the National Surveillance State despite their big shows of chest-beating and knuckledragging for blogospheric consumption. When I pointed out that the NSA surveillers were probably laughing their heads off at the stupidity of this exchange and noting well the utter failure of the lawyer-types to stand by the Freedoms they claim are so Important. No, instead, they eagerly serve the State Security and Surveillance Aparat. Ohhhh. Might be a clue there. Well.

At any rate, let's get back to my point, the cleavage between Internet Incrementalists and (What You Call Your) "Revolutionaries."

Nearly all the prominent so-called Progressive bloggers advocate Incrementalism as the only appropriate way to make and hold lasting political or any other change. You do it step-by-baby-step, slowly, bit-by-bit, over however long it takes, and you do not engage in or advocate sudden upheaval revolt or revolution of any kind. It's essentially a moral imperative.

Well. That is until there's Democratic control of Government.

All of a sudden, we have a thoroughgoing incrementalist regime in office, acting incrementally to mitigate the worst abuses of the Bushevik Regime just past, and Internet Progressives are not just dissatisfied, they're openly calling for Revolt -- if not outright Revolution. (Jane has surged to the fore on this front, my goodness she likes the attention almost as much as Holy Joe.)

My goodness. How did that happen?

Such a sudden transformation. Well, certain things are clear: they were literally terrified of crossing unstated boundaries in The Debate during the Bush years. They are fearless now. Apparently they believed there was a Real Threat from the Busheviks to round them all up -- if they said or did anything the State Security Aparat found the least bit threatening to the Program. So they worked overtime not to threaten in any way the Powers That Be, so as to -- one supposes -- preserve their Freedom of Expression. Without, obviously, understanding that their self-censorship put the lie to the whole "Freedom" enterprise.

Now that they believe there is no perceived threat from the State, under the Incrementalist and Mitigationist regime of Obama, they're free to say and advocate whatever they want, including Revolt and Revolution. And so they do. Over something that they fear will impact their pocketbooks negatively -- Health Care Reform legislation.

As one, they cry: "We won't Pay! You can't Make us!"

And Jane, for one, is busy cobbling together Progressive/Teabagger alliances, going on FOX and otherwise sticking hot pokers into the bloated Establishment. Not just shouting from the rooftops but manning the barricades and gathering pitchforks and torches. What a transformation.

When the issue is the pocketbook. And the State Security Apparat is perceived to be weakened.

Good to know.

So all you would-be Revolutionaries out there, strike when the Iron is Hot, bring down the oppressor when the State is weak and Incrementalism reigns on high.

Well, but here's the other thing. This HCR debate -- especially lately -- has brought out the Libertarian troops like I don't think we've seen since the Ron Paul Confederation and Delayed Uprising. They are Everywhere, declaring their fealty to Jane or whomever the Leader of the Moment will be, their adamant opposition to Authority and Convention (only applicable when the Stasi is on hiatus) and so on. It's quite a sight. "We won't Pay! You can't Make us!"

Of course, being Libertarians, they're actually not going to do anything -- except argue themselves to exhaustion, then turn on their putative Revolutionary Leader, whoever it winds up to be, and go back to hibernating or masquerading as Progressives until next they are aroused.

That's what Libertarians DO.

Nevertheless, the current state of Blogospheric hoo-hah does clarify just how deeply interwoven Libertarianism and Libertarians are in the whole so-called Progressive blog matrix. As I say, they are everywhere, asserting wildly and making furious demands, threatening and calling for revolt, resistance, and on the margins Revolution -- because they believe their Sacred Pocketbooks are threatened by Health Care Reform.

And they won't have it.

OK then.

Of course what's happening in the Real World is that the Obama regime is pushing that rock up the hill, step-by-baby-step, just as the the progressives on the net said had to be done for any lasting change to occur, and as flawed and faulty as the whole process is, it is oddly working. Mitigations are occurring. Very gradual Change is taking place. International relations are improving.

And so-called Progressives in the Blogosphere hate it. If they don't, they're obviously paid operatives of the Devil, Rahm Emanuel.

(Note to Rahm: I prefer payment in Gold Bullion. Thanks. You're a mensch.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Back on topic for a moment, regarding the HCR debacle

It seems the Senate is about to pass some kind of so-called Health Care Reform bill, basically what the Finance Committee came up with, but actually what the Industry (ie: "Stakeholder") lobbyists put together way last March through May.

And Everyone assumes that this is what is going to wind up on Obama's desk for his signature -- and he'll sign it.

More than likely, that's what's going to happen. It was pretty clear way last May, surely by June, what the bill would be: a very lucrative health insurance profit guarantee, much as Medicare Part D was for the pharmaceutical industry, that would essentially mandate the purchase of "health care insurance" by everyone, just as Medicare Part D essential mandates that seniors sign up for the program or pay a penalty. (I know it doesn't work quite that way, but still... the point is the coercion.)

In exchange for mandating purchase of coverage, insurance companies will face some modest restrictions on their ability to deny coverage and to rescind coverage. On the other hand, the coverage they offer doesn't have to be very good, and they can continue to jack rates pretty much however they want to.

It's a good deal for them; not so much for the American People -- much like Medicare Part D.

This was all clear enough last summer. Everything that's happened since has been for show.

And what a show it's been.

The Teabaggers took center stage, which they kept until Holy Joe made his entrance swirling his cape and twirling his mustaches to put the kibosh on anything that the People might actually want or benefit from in this thing.

No public option (which was never clearly articulated anyway); no Medicare expansion/buy-in (which would have been cripplingly expensive for those who might qualify anyway). Limited subsidies for purchase of private insurance by those somewhat above the poverty level; pay through the nose for everyone else.

It's a shitty deal. It's always been a shitty deal. For all the OUTRAGE!!!!™ at Lieberman's star turn as Lizzie Borden (with an ax), it's really what the so-called Progressives didn't do that has brought us to this point.

Progressives do not have a bill that they are united behind. They never have had one. They don't have the corps of lobbyists to write such a bill (or series of bills; whatever) in the first place, and they aren't connected enough with either the People or the key elements of the Health Care Industry to know what would really be necessary to serve the Public Interest and curb the levels of misery and economic catastrophe the current health care system so abundantly provides.

This is true of congressional Progressives as well as the Progressive Movement among the People. They were unprepared, and they continue to be unprepared to lead in this struggle. They are disunited, they don't have a coherent and comprehensive message machine, they don't use media appropriately, and they do not have a clear set of principles to adhere to. They can't rally the People, in many cases, they can't even communicate coherently.

So. Those who do have the infrastructure and ability to ram through what they want have done so. And they've done it very well. These are the Industry Stakeholders and their armies of lobbyists. They were very well prepared, they got right down to business, and they had a bill pretty much solid and close to being sold by May. They were, of course, accommodated fully by the White House and the Congressional Leadership. Clue: the Industry Bill was always what the White House and the Leadership wanted.

"Single Payer" advocates were shut out as not "realistic." Given that the Establishment was pushing for an Industry Bill all along, just how the "Single Payer" advocates would fit in to the program was always a mystery. At that point, they might have just come up with their own bill and flogged it through the alternative media. But look what happened. The so-called "progressive" alternative media (ie: the lefty blogosphere for the most part) slammed the door on "single payer" and spent most of its efforts on trying to suck up to the Establishment and amend the deal to include something amorphous called a "public option."

It failed. Spectacularly. What an awful flameout. When Jane started her campaign against Hadassah Lieberman, it was obvious what a sad joke the attempt to curry favor with the playahs had been. That's right, you want to skewer Holy Joe? Attack his wife. How's that working out for you?

What is emerging is an awful program. There is no doubt about that. It's worse that Medicare Part D, but it's based on the same theory: bad as it is, it's something and people will get used to it and stop kvetching, and eventually nobody will even think about it any more.

And that's probably correct.

And no, it won't be "fixed" later. Oh, it might be tweaked here and there, but not overhauled to really reflect the Public Interest.

I stepped away from the whole argument a good long time ago. Once it was clear what was being proposed and what would likely pass, and once it was obvious that the so-called "Progressives" in and out of Congress were utterly clueless, chasing their own tails, or almost completely passive, I was done with it.

This was not something to become politically engaged in. To do so would lead to nothing but anger and heartbreak.

So. Here we are.

I'm sure that once the dust settles and the program (shitty as it is) gets under way, all the angst and sturm und drang that we see today will evaporate. The rending of garments and gnashing of teeth will abate. People will get used to it, and for some -- at least -- it will be a very good deal, much like the Medicare drug program. So long as a sufficient number are satisfied (and they will be), the malcontents can be dismissed.

And of course most of all, the Industry will be happy. That's been the important thing all along.

Hasn't it?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

OT: The Model Tenement

According to social theory at the time, from the late 1800's to well into the Mid-20th Century and later, the tenement was the primary social problem to be corrected. You can see from plans presented earlier that the typical tenement was very small: a 3 room tenement would run about 340 square feet; a 4 room tenement would be about 420 square feet. These are not unusual sizes for Manhattan apartments today, of course, but in the era in question, space used today for one or at most two people was considered (even by the reformers) sufficient for 6. Or more.

Households, of course, were larger then. But cramming so many people into such tiny spaces, without adequate ventilation or plumbing, was a recipe for public health crises, fiery tragedies, and all-too-frequent mayhem. Crime bred and flourished under conditions of overcrowding and poverty, and there was a real fear among the middle and upper classes that the masses would one day rise and put a stop to the frivolous ways of their betters.

The tenement was said to be the breeding ground and the center of all sorts of public health and socio/political problems. It was sincerely believed that correcting the tenement problem would solve many others.

Social reformers like Mabel Hyde Kittredge -- whom I have periodically mocked in these entries -- saw it as their bounden duty to improve the lives of their social inferiors and to raise them up from their state of abject misery. Their notions of what to do were not always wrong, by any means. On the other hand, placing too much blame on the tenement itself and being blind to the other social, economic, and political issues of the day was typical for many reformers of the day.

That focus on housing pretty much by itself led to the creation of many working class housing projects that were intended to improve the lot of the struggling workers and get them out of the miseries inherent in the tenement.

Many of such projects have since been demolished. For many of those who were transferred from the tenement slums to the Projects found themselves in an even worse situation than before. Their living conditions might have been marginally improved, but their social fabric and way of life was often destroyed, with nothing viable to take its place.

"If only they lived more like us," the reformers' thinking went, "they'd be more like us, and thus... less of a threat."

So Mabel Hyde Kittredge established Model Tenements in order to teach the residents how to live more like her own middle class self, give them something to aspire to, and to provide them with a foundation for living "better" regardless of where they found themselves. She recruited girls from the neighborhood -- and charged them fees -- to be students of her tenement housekeeping and other courses, and she opened her Model Tenements to view to anyone who chose to take a look, providing residents, tourists slumming, and other social reformers points to ponder over the intractable Problem of the Tenement.

Bertha Smith wrote "The Gospel of Simplicity as Applied to Tenement Homes" for Gustav Stickley's The Craftsman magazine in October, 1905. It detailed the efforts of housing reformers, and particularly Mrs. Hyde Kittredge, in their efforts to provide models and training for the dwellers of New York tenements.

And so, we'll let Bertha H Smith open today's lesson:

Uhhh, "the tyranny of things" is certainly a factor in practically everyone's life, but her assertion that house furnishing has led to more crime than anything else is... surprising. Of course narcotics were legal back then, but still...

Of course the point of this lesson is to convince the immigrant hordes that living simply is better in every respect than living in the tawdry and chaotic manner so many of "those people" did.

The problem, though, is that the "tyranny of things" was hardly as acute for the poor immigrant masses as it was for the middle and upper classes -- like Miss Smith and Mrs Hyde Kittredge. If anyone needed to hear the Gospel of Simplicity it was the members of those classes. But then, I think the Misses S and K knew that. Bertha Smith's article, after all, appeared in "The Craftsman," the monthly magazine of Gustav Stickley, and the veritable Bible of strictly simple middle class living even today. In other posts I have gone into some detail about Craftsman houses and the near religious fervor with which their owners regard them.

To be continued...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

OT: Not done with your Tenement Housekeeping yet!

Oh no. Far from it.

In our last episode, the nature of tenement living in New York was briefly examined, and it became clear that around the time Mrs. Hyde Kittredge was teaching tenement dwellers how to take care of their rude hovels, entire households, from the oldest to the youngest, were put to work making clothes and flowers in their tenement "homes" to make ends meet. Everybody had to work, otherwise the household would be out on the street.

In that era, when corporate trusts had a lock on the economy and the lives of workers, subsistence was about the best that working class people -- immigrants or not -- could hope for. "Struggle" wasn't the half of it.

Yet Mrs. Hyde Kittredge, aware of the facts, still made sure her tenement dwellers completed their housekeeping tasks, regardless of any other duties they may have, like sewing clothes for Campbell Kid dolls and making lace. To Mrs. Hyde Kittredge and the like, the Problem was the tenement and the chaos of the dwellers' lives therein. She would teach them how to order their lives in the tenements with the expectation that making their lives more orderly within the tenement walls would lead to greater order, peace and security outside them. There was tremendous fear -- justifiable -- that the tenements were hotbeds of insurrection. Showing the tenement dwellers how to make their lives better in the tenements was openly intended to defuse the fury of the masses at the abject state of oppression and poverty in which they lived.

Our previous lesson ended with some notes on cleaning your sink. Assuming you had one. Some further notes are necessary:

And kerosene. Don't forget the kerosene!

If there was a sink at all in the tenement unit itself (sometimes they were only in the hall), a rusty iron one wasn't surprising.

In the following view, the girls are cleaning up the fancy Model Tenement kitchen. Laundry tubs are next to the rusty iron sink in the corner:

The Improvised Refrigerator is a wooden box hung outside the window (in the air shaft) which was said to be perfectly fine for keeping perishables in all but the hottest weather. No doubt in cold weather, the contents would freeze solid. But given the incandescent heat of the coal stove, no doubt they were quickly thawed when needed.

Hanging on the wall next to the sink are the sink brush and the sink shovel mentioned previously, and there is an absolute abundance of tubs and basins and pans for various cleanly purposes. There are also two spigots at the sink, leading me to wonder if, surprisingly, this Model Tenement is supplied with running hot water. What luxury if so.

The lesson concludes:

Now wait a minute! You're going to have the students boil their garbage pails every day? You're going to put it on the stove and boil it? For how long? But I suppose if the stove is hot, why not?

Oh, and there's a note about roaches and water bugs:

Roach salt. That sounds like a good product. Of course you do have to sweep it up in the morning (along with all the roaches) before you start to cook.

And now the Review:

You got that last part? How to test the temperature of the oven? "Put ya hand in it, dearie, see if it's hot enough! Heah, lemme count witcha. Onnnnne, teeeewwwwooooo, trrrrrrreeeeeee...." Just cruel. But these were tough times. There were no reliable thermometers or temperature regulators on ovens, not even on gas ones. You either put your child's hand in the oven or you ruined your cake.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

OT: What is a Tenement?

As I've been off on this tangent on"tenement housekeeping," I've just assumed that everyone who might stumble on this little blog o' mine just knows what a tenement is.

But maybe not, eh?

"Dumbbell" tenements proliferated in New York City during the hey-day of massive immigration from the Old Country, and they continued to be the typical working class housing in New York well into the Thirties and later. They often formed the bulk of the slum housing cleared to build the Projects that in many cased turned out to be magnificent failures that had to be blown up later on.

The floor plan above (click to enlarge) shows a typical New York tenement c. 1910. There are four dwelling units on each floor, and there are probably four or five (but sometimes six or seven) floors. There are two three room units and two four room units on each floor. The two three room units consist of a front room, a kitchen in the middle, and a back room or bedroom. The four room units have two so-called bedrooms, the rear one entered through the front one. Sometimes the rear bedroom would have a door on the public hallway so that it could be entered without going through the other bedroom.

Each apartment's main entrance is in the kitchen. The plan above shows each room with a window to the outside. The rooms in the center had windows on the airshaft that ran from the ground to the roof; the rooms at each end had windows on the street or the rear "yard."

Many tenements built before the Old Law required the "dumbbell" plan had no air shafts at all or only the most minimal slots between buildings. Consequently, the center rooms -- ie: the kitchens and back rooms -- had no direct daylight or ventilation of any kind. The kitchen would instead have an interior window opening on the front room, and the back room would be ventilated through the kitchen.

With the coal range going night and day to heat the water, the tenement apartments were, charitably, stifling. Roofs were often used for sleeping in the summertime, for there was no earthly way for residents to do much but sweat inside their tenements on those hot summer nights.

There are two toilets out in the public hall and a sink. Some tenements did not provide sinks in the individual kitchens, and most did not have toilet or bathing facilities in the individual units. Consequently, residents either made do with sponge baths as best they could or they used the public baths which by 1911 when "Housekeeping Notes" was published were fairly common in New York and other large cities. The absence of any plumbing inside a tenement unit was the source of constant discomfort, but even the New Law of 1901 only required one bathroom for each two households. Better, but still...

These units rented for $10 to $15 a month. Seems reasonable, especially given rents in New York these days, but incomes were much lower, too. If a household could earn $100 a month, it was doing very well indeed, but for that to happen everybody in the household had to work, including the children.

Lewis Hine documented some of the consequences for tenement dwellers in the early 1900's:

Children making flowers

Making doll clothes (Campbell Kids)

Working kids

Making Campbell Kids Clothes

Well-off Girl with Campbell Kid doll:

We haven't quite got back to these conditions in the United States... well, except for some of the conditions under which illegales live and work in this country, but most Americans have no idea about that, and they'd be shocked if they knew.

But given the likelihood that our rulers will continue to forcibly impoverish the masses, how long will it be before we see similar conditions accepted as standard once again?

OT: Tenement Housekeeping (cont'd)

What's missing from the Tenement Test Kitchen pictured in the previous post is all the basins and tubs and pans and such necessary just to begin to handle the tasks of the day. You need dishpans (at least two), towel pans (at least two), coal shuttle (maybe one is enough), floor cleaning pans (you need two or three -- no mops, you do it on your hands and knees with scrub brushes and plenty of newspaper), plus, of course, laundry tubs (two or three), and wash boilers. Yes, the laundry has to be boiled. But we'll get to that.

And you need a BIG kettle on the stove all the time to make hot water. Cause you won't get any out of the tap.

To continue with our lesson, the topic is after breakfast clean up (you've already washed your dishes and pots and pans and put them away and you've washed out your dish towels in the towel pans):

So not only do you have a garbage pail (which we'll discuss in detail eventually) somewhere in that tiny kitchen, you have an ash can as well, because the ash collectors are forbidden to take garbage. Sounds wise. But think about it. You're generating both garbage and ashes all the time, quite a lot of one or the other, and you've got to keep them separate; not only that, you have to make sure the ashes are cool enough they don't set the tenement on fire, and that the garbage can is always covered so as not to provide a haven for the ever present bugs. No doubt you have to take both cans out daily.

The next lesson is a cooking lesson. On stale bread and sinks. Oh joy.

There are no instructions on how to cook the griddle cakes. Are we to assume the poor little girls just know? You can imagine what a disaster the initial attempts must have been. All that batter winding up on the freshly blacked stove top. Must have taken hours with a brush and plenty of newspaper to clean up.

But let's hope when the lesson was actually given, complete instructions for cooking your cakes were provided. And nobody was burned too badly, and little batter wound up on the floor, walls, or stuck to the stove top. It's a clever way to use stale bread at any event.

I'm just barely old enough to remember when bread didn't usually come sliced in the package. You had to have the man run it through the slicing machine -- which was a wonderful device of many blades buzzing merrily through the loaf in a second or two. You could never have done it at home with a knife. And you had to use up the bread fairly fast because it would go stale in a day or two. First it would get hard, then it would get moldy. Strangely, most packaged bread seems to last forever these days...

As for daily care of the sink... get ready:

Sounds OK so far, but don't relax yet:

I don't think I've ever seen a "sink shovel." Sounds like a neat, and come to think of it, necessary utensil. Hm. Whatever happened to them?

"A handful of soda..." I'm not sure exactly what that refers to, except that I'm certain it's not the soda you drink. There were many kinds of "soda" back in the day: washing soda, baking soda, sal soda, sodas of various other substances. So which one were you supposed to throw down the sink drain... and what would happen if you threw the wrong one? Whatever it was, it must have been pretty serious soda if it would eat holes in the pipes and/or combine with any grease in the pipes to make soap and thoroughly clog them up. What fun. Then you're really in a pickle, as I suspect the tenement doesn't have a super.

And you use yet more hot water. By now you should have used up several kettles full in preparing your food, general clean up, repeatedly washing your dishes and pots and pans, and washing your towels. So now you've got to clean out your sink and your drains with more hot water. If you've only got one kettle the size of the one in the picture in the last post, it seems to me you're going to have to wait for the water to heat, yes? There would have to be much waiting for water heating throughout your day. Something many of us can relate to. If your water heater goes out or your pipes freeze (I've had both experiences fairly recently), heating water on the stove is what you have to do, and it never seems like there's enough for any given task. It must have seemed like that to our student tenement housekeepers, too, and I wonder how frustrated they must have become...


So it would seem we're referring to washing soda when we talk about throwing soda down the drain to remove grease. Now I wasn't familiar with this substance. But. Leave it to the intertubes to provide an answer:

The chemical formula for washing soda is Na2CO3, and it is also known as sodium carbonate. It is a salt of carbonic acid, a chemical which produces a wide range of salts collectively known as carbonates. One common source of washing soda is the ashes of plants; for this reason, it is sometimes called soda ash. Sodium carbonate can also be created from sodium chloride, also known as table salt.

In laundry, washing soda accomplishes several things. The high alkalinity of washing soda helps it act as a solvent to remove a range of stains, and unlike bleach, washing soda does not usually stain. It is also used in detergent mixtures to treat hard water; the washing soda binds to the minerals which make water hard, allowing detergent to foam properly so that clothing will come out clean, without any residue. Sodium carbonate is also used by some textile artists, since it helps dyes adhere to fabric, resulting in deeper penetration and a longer lasting color.

Around the house, washing soda can be used to descale things like coffee machines and bathroom tiles which may accumulate mineral deposits as a result of exposure to hard water. It can also be used to strip floors of wax so that they can be refinished, and for other touch cleaning jobs like scrubbing the stove. You should wear gloves when cleaning with washing soda, because it can cause skin irritation. Incidentally, the best way to treat some types of chemical burn is with baking soda, also called sodium bicarbonate, as it is a buffer and it will neutralize both acids and alkalis. To treat a hydrofluoric acid burn, apply baking soda mixed with water to the site of the burn for several minutes, flush the wound with water, and seek medical attention.

Many markets carry washing soda, typically with other laundry products. Some companies make mixed detergents with washing soda which are specifically formulated for hard water, and you can also find washing soda on your own. Since sodium carbonate can be dangerous in large quantities, make sure to keep washing soda out of the reach of children and pets, and clearly label the container to indicate that it is caustic. It can be harmful to the eyes, cause irritation to the lungs if inhaled, and may cause abdominal pain or vomiting if large doses are swallowed.

But you must not confuse it with baking soda:

Which you use to make your cookies and clean your bathtub and "freshen" your refrigerator. Except you probably don't have a bathtub or a refrigerator in your tenement. There's a toilet out in the hall that you share with all the other households on your floor. If you want to take a bath, you go down to the public baths several blocks away.

"Refrigeration" amounted to sticking stuff out the window in winter. In summer, things didn't keep. You had to buy perishables every day and hope that they wouldn't go bad before you could use them.

And wait. This instruction says to put your soda (presumably washing soda) in your hot water kettle and let it boil, then pour it down the drain to make the grease vanish, then pour hot rinse water down the drain so as not to cause soap to form or your pipes to corrode. So you really have to have several hot water containers going all the time. Or you're out of luck. Your pipes are clogged.


Enough for today. We'll continue later on.

Friday, November 27, 2009

OT: More Tenement Housekeeping

I filched the picture above from Shorpy. Anyone who's interested in photos from times gone by should bookmark and spend plenty of time paging through the site's collection of photos from many sources, including his own family. Consider joining and contributing your own pictures of the past. (Note on Shorpy: Shorpy is the name of the site, from the nickname of a boy coal miner from Alabama who is pictured in the right-hand column of the site. The blogger is "Dave".)

At any event, the picture looks like it was taken in a tenement kitchen in New York, c.1910, where Mrs Hyde Kittredge's lessons in tenement housekeeping were held and from which the lessons in "Housekeeping Notes" have been derived.

The coal range on the left looks properly blacked, and no doubt all the dampers and draughts and checks have been adjusted properly. The girl is getting hot water from the kettle kept constantly on the stove. On the right are the covered laundry tubs. There will be lessons about doing the wash in your tenement anon.

The table is covered with newspaper, and we will find Mrs. Hyde Kittredge recommending newspaper for all kinds of uses in the tenement kitchen, from wiping off the stove, to covering the kitchen table when recipes are being prepared, to polishing glassware. Did average tenement households have that much newspaper around?

Staples are kept in glass jars on the shelves above the table. This is one of Mrs. Hyde Kittredge's recommendations. The jars are vermin and dust proof, both inherent problems of tenement living. The girl on the right is getting down the powdered sugar. The girl on the left is getting down the jar of corn starch. Next to the corn starch is a jar of beans. Next to that, a jar of brown sugar. The next jar appears to be unlabeled, but I'm sure the contents are known to the students. Next to that jar is one of oatmeal. That takes forty minutes to cook on your nicely blacked range in a double boiler. The next jar is coffee, but I can't make out the label on the next jar. (Note: I downloaded a fullsize .tif version of the picture from the Library of Congress -- where this collection is housed -- and by zooming in, many of the details of the scene are quite clear.) The jar next to that one has corn meal in it, powdered sugar next to that. Not sure what's in the next jar, but the cans and boxes on the shelf include pure white pepper, White Rose Gelatine, baking powder (can't quite make out the brand, possibly "Star"), and big cans of Breakfast Cocoa.

On the shelf above there appears to be a bottle of cooking wine (!), a can of olive oil, a jar of matches, a can of tomatoes, various cooking pots and casseroles, and a tin box that may have been for crackers.

There's what looks like a portable stove-top oven on the shelf above the range. If the tenement had a gas hotplate, the presence of the portable oven might make more sense, but maybe the students were to be trained on its use, on the assumption that their own tenement homes may have or need one.

Various sized iron pots are hung from a nail beside the stove, and there appear to be either menus or task-assignments tacked to the wall next to the stove. There's a newspaper in a cloth bag hung on the door on the left. There's an aluminum pot hung below the shelf over the table. I'm sure it's a prized possession. It looks like it has never been used. There are various granite ware and chipped enamel pots, including a coffee pot, hung from the shelf along with a number of utensils.

The door on the right has illustrated instructions for housekeeping duties tacked to it. Some of it that I can make out include making a bed, taking care of a sick person, and staining and finishing furniture.

The girls are very neatly dressed and coiffed, though some of their shoes appear worn. They are wearing matching gingham aprons, but the aprons are not tied, so maybe they aren't real students, and they aren't actually making anything. Hm. Could it be a staged photo?

The teacher is surprisingly young, maybe only in her teens, and is very neatly turned out.

This is the setting in which our next lesson, "Washing the Kitchen Table", is offered.

OK. On the door on the right, there's a whole sheaf of what could be typed instructions for this and that housekeeping operation hanging from a pair of hooks. I bet kitchen table cleaning is among them.

You need a pan of hot water, two towels, a scrub brush (probably not the one you use on the floor, but that's not clear), Sapolio and/or Dutch Cleanser (what, no Bon Ami?) and your newspaper now burning in the stove -- we'll assume. The process is not as bad as I thought it would be, and if the student always covers the table with newspaper before she attempts a task, the table should be fairly clean when she starts. Except for the coal dust, of course, which is going to be everywhere.


Then you rest? By no means. Your cereal has been merrily bubbling away in the double boiler on the stove for the last forty minutes.

Think all you have to do is wring out the towels in the sink? No. Think again.

You have a "towel pan?" Didn't know that, did you? And then you need another pan to rinse them in, and by now you really need a much bigger kettle for hot water. Remember, there is no piped hot water in the building. Every drop you use has to be heated on the stove.

You hang your towels up on the rack. Which is where? You'll note the tenement kitchen in the picture is very small, and there doesn't appear to be a towel rack in view. Maybe it's behind the photographer. Maybe you could throw them over the back of a chair next to the stove. And where's that wash boiler?

And you've only just begun.

Mrs. Hyde Kittredge takes pains to urge that these lessons be given in a spirit of constant interest and even fun. Hard to imagine. Especially when this is the easy part...

More to come.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

OT: To continue lessons in Tenement Housekeeping

All right, now that our tenement housekeeping student is hot and wet and very cranky, let's move on. Remember in our last lesson, the tenement student was instructed to scrape, pile, and wash the dishes from the breakfast she prepared after blacking the stove and lighting the fire.

Now what the hell is "Sapolio?" It sounds like a horrid disease, something that tenement dwellers would get if they didn't scour their knives. And we will find that kerosene is considered the all-purpose substance to put in practically everything, from laundry to supper dishes. Well, maybe not food, but still, kerosene appears all the time in the tenement housekeeping lecture series.

Having to be told to empty, rinse and dry the dishpans seems a bit redundant, but I suppose if it has never been mentioned or practiced, tenement dwellers would never think of it.

Moving on:

Yikes. Imagine all the tubs, trays, and towels necessary to accomplish these simple morning tasks. And another thing. You may have noticed that the hot water used for all this washing came from the kettle that is on the stove. It is not assumed that the tenement has piped hot water. It must have been a real luxury to have hot water actually come out of a tap. "Cold water flat" and all that. We have one of the old tin hot water kettles that were kept on the stove all the time back in the day. It's huge, probably holds two or three gallons, far more than anyone would need for tea or coffee. And we sometimes use it for humidifying the air when the weather is particularly cold and dry in New Mexico.

And as you're working away, sweat pouring down your face, strands of hair covering your eyes, you have to remember to use a skewer or matchstick to clean out the seams of your pots and pans. What? Have you ever seen a pot or a pan with a seam? Could something be more annoying? Unhealthy? Lethal?

But we have learned many things. To review:

Think about it. The Housekeeper is to make sure that there are "no cooking dishes left on the stove unwashed." The stove in this tenement, we have already established, is always on during the daytime -- that is to say, there is a coal fire burning in the firebox all day long, and well into the night. You can't really turn it off unless the coal burns out completely. So... if you leave anything on the stove, it's going to burn, guaranteed. And that kettle of water will boil dry. And of course the whole tenement is heated to incandescence. So, yes, I think it would be almost automatic to make sure that nothing was on the stove you didn't want to be there, and that you kept an eagle eye on anything that was on the stove. Which is why you will be instructed to cook your cereal in a double boiler. Because you can't really control the temperature of the stove, and if you tried to cook your oatmeal or porridge or mush in a seamed pan placed directly on the stove top, it would certainly stick and burn and make a mess, which would only make you crankier.

Life was not easy in those days, and it's not even nine o'clock in the morning.

So. Let's move on:

Now I'm really pissed off. We just went through this whole deal to black the stove, light and tend the fire, make cocoa for breakfast, clean up, wash everything, and now we have to start all over and make some cereal. You could get down a box of Post Toasties -- which wasn't around, but still -- but this lesson is about cooking cereal. No easy task.

Look at the times required:

An hour and a half for hominy, two hours or more for corn meal. WHAT? OUTRAGEOUS!!!!

Especially after you've gone through all that previously just for some cocoa.

Apparently the extraordinary cooking times have to do with the manner of cooking as much as with the recalcitrance of the cereals themselves:

And think about this. You're in a tenement. You've got a hot stove going, and you're going to cook your breakfast cereal half an hour, forty minutes, up to several hours, which means you've got to start this whole process hours and hours before breakfast is served. What time do you get up to begin? 3am?

And what dishes did you use in preparing to cook the cereal? Do they really need to be scraped, piled, and rinsed?

I don't know about you, but by this point I dread the lesson on washing the kitchen table.

More Sapolio?

To be continued....

Saturday, November 21, 2009

OT: This is Outrageous!!! (and a note on my hiatus)

I came across a book on housekeeping in the Google online library one day. A copy of the title page is appended herewith:

All well and good, except for the notorious "tenement flat" reference that suggests fierce crowding and degradation in New York during the period of heavy immigration from Europe c. 1900. Indeed, this book was copyrighted in 1911.

The implication is of course that tenement dwellers were incapable of keeping house without stern instruction from The Association of Practical Housekeeping Centers. Given some of the conditions of tenement living documented by people like Jacob Riis "keeping house" must have been an oxymoron for the multitudes crammed into the festering tenement slums.

But, that aside, comes now Mabel Hyde Kittredge to put things to right and to teach the poor unfortunates how to furnish a flat appropriately and how to do the work necessary to keep it neat and tidy.

My doG.

Let's skip the furnishing for the moment and get right to the work.

All right, then. I'm not sure anyone in the modern world of America Today has ever considered what an absolute chore it was just to get the stove going in the morning not so very long ago, and what an ongoing chore it was to keep the fires burning, without also burning down the whole block and burning your hands and any trailing bits of fabric that happened to be on your garments, let alone burning the food (and laundry -- we'll get to that) you put on the stove to boot.

We have an older gas stove at Casa Ché that requires a match to light the oven. Much work involved, compared at least to the modern ranges with all their piezo thingsamabobs and computer readouts and so forth. But compare that with the process involved in understanding let alone in firing up a coal range in a tenement in the early 1900's.

OK. Got that? You have your damper, your draft, and your check. You do not have a knob that you turn to set the temperature of the top burner and/or the oven. No sir. You have to get a fire burning in the firebox, then you have to adjust all these various gizmos to get the cooking temperature that you want -- more or less. Furthermore, the entire range is heated to approximately the same temperature. Oh joy. And it stays at that temperature throughout the cooking process. Mm. Must have been warm in the kitchen, eh? But then, in many cases, tenements didn't have "kitchens" per se. They had a center room that had a stove and a sink. Sometimes. The toilet was out in the hall. The tenement "kitchen" also served as a bathroom, laundry room, and -- usually-- an eating room besides. Work room, too, when the household had to bring in piecework to make ends meet. And keep the children busy and productive. But that's another story.

Back to the mysteries of the coal range.

Simple, eh? Didn't thing so. But that's just the operational basics once you've got the thing going. There's plenty to do before you even get to that point. To wit:

Thus the origin of the term "ashcan" which I always thought was synonymous with "trash can". It had never occurred to me that one actually had to sweep and scrape out the ashes in the stove every morning before starting ones day.

Sweep the ashes from every part of the stove. Every morning. Though it isn't let on in this passage (don't want to scare the students), apparently what this means is that you have to open up the whole damn thing, for there are ashes everywhere, not just in the firebox, and you have to sweep like a demon to get them all. But stay! You actually want some ashes on the top of your oven, but you don't want any below, for that would interfere with the circulation of hot air, by which you are meant to cook things. In your oven. Once you get it hot enough.

Of course, as you're busily sweeping out your ashes -- still with crusts in your eyes and scratching at your bedbug bites -- you're getting coal dust and ashes all over everywhere. But you'll clean it up later, so it's ok.

Next you have to build the fire and light it. OK. First paper, newspaper that you've kept for the purpose. Then kindling sticks, arranged just so. Then a thin layer of coal. Check. Well, you know what I mean. You open the drafts and the damper, but you close the check. Then? Light the paper with a match, and tend the fire until the coal is showing some red when you add more coal, but not so much that you pack the coal or make the fire come too close to the top of the range. Skill is required.

Oh but wait! You have to black the stove. Don't light your fire yet. Black your stove top first. Wipe off the dust and ashes with newspaper (ah, that you will crumple and put in the firebox after? Hmm. What a concept!)

Apparently stove blacking was quite an art back in the day. It's another thing I had no idea of. There were various stove blacking products, liquids and powders, mostly black-lead (oh, fine), mixed with other toxic or flammable substances, that you put on the top of the stove to keep it looking nice and prevent it from rusting. But you couldn't use too much or you'd get gucky-stuff all over everything, most especially you yourself, and you'd have to wipe it all off and start over. So. There was a stove blacking process involved.

You cleaned out your ashes from the day before, you wiped everything off with newspaper, you got your stove blacking out and you spread a little of that on the top of the stove, then you polished it furiously, with more newspaper, till none came off on you or your pots and pans, then you put your newspaper in the firebox, then you laid your fire, and then you lit it.

All before you'd properly woken up.

These are the things you have to have on hand:

And don't forget the coal. And the kindling wood. And the newspaper. Matches.

And that's just the beginning. Before anything else. You get your stove cleaned and going.

Then what? Well, you make your morning cocoa of course!

Here's how:

That's just getting ready. Before you begin. One thing to note is that there has to be lots of newspaper in the kitchen. For your fire, to wipe your stove with, and to spread on your kitchen table once you want to make anything. Like cocoa.

Let's continue.

After you've made your cocoa, and drunk it we suppose, you have to do your dishes.

Which in those days was a chore and a half.

By now you're exhausted, bewildered, hot, wet and cross.

But you've only just begun. There are many more lessons to get you through your tenement day. I'm sure that further episodes will appear here. Life wasn't easy, was it?

(Note: I've been away from my own blog for quite a while. This time of year is always difficult for me. Depression stalks me as the days grow shorter, and one of the coping mechanisms I've learned over the years is to change my routine, sometimes radically. Cutting back on blogging is one of changes I've made, and as you can see from the off-topic post here, subject matter may change radically, too. For now, anyway, politics is desultory. I may comment on the happenings of the day from time to time at other places (Digby's and Glenn's, primarily), but here posting will be light, and subject matter may be quite different for a while. Bear with me. Thanks.)