WhoDat’s in the (White) House

Attended the event at the White House today when President Obama recognized the Super Bowl victory of the New Orleans Saints. It was electrifying. I am a journalist by trade but today I was just a fan. I went to LSU and have been a part of a couple of national championships. But the Saints victory was different. When Tracey Porter intercepted Peyton Manning to seal the victory, it was like weight lifted on an entire state’s shoulders. I called my grandmother that evening after the victory and she answered with a vibrant “who dat.” I hadnt expected her voice but it was a welcome surprise as we smiled at each other through the phone. She died a couple of weeks later. So as I dressed this morning for the ceremony, I thought about her and how she would have loved the event. When she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer, it was inconceivable that a black man could be president and that the Saints would be world champions. Both happened in her lifetime.

Football is just a game but the Saints victory, after all of the misery the city and the state had been through, felt like so much more. Who Dat? We Dat!


Dorothy Height: Black women and their hats

By Robert E. Pierre

Dr. Dorothy Height left us today, gave up the ghost, no longer had these worldly things to bind her. I have known her for so long it seems, and never knew her personally. But through friends and colleagues who did, and from seeing her over the years on television and from afar in person, I imagined that she was a black woman like many I knew. None closer than my grandmother. Brash when she needed to be. Blessed with humility. Always there with an open and caring ear. There whenever and wherever she was needed. These kinds of people we tend to overlook and dismiss as irrelevant. But where would we be without them? The people who soothed things over, who made it their agenda to gather family together, in their living rooms, or on the National Mall, as Height did with the Black Family Reunion since 1986. Family is important, you can hear them whispering, imperative.

And then there were the hats, the formality of them, even in situtations that didn’t seem to call for them. If you want to be somebody, you can hear her saying, act like it. Sure, that’s not the salve to all of our problems, but who am I and who are we to dismiss those who implore us with their words and deeds to be whatever we can, whenever we can. Her hats may have been too formal but from the outside, her spirit and motive appeared clean: family is important, holding your head high is important, particularly when you’re wearing a to-die-for hat. My grandmother had too many to count and she wore them every Sunday when she went to church. Putting your best foot, or hat, forward was a part of the generations that went before us. They wore their hats–and their demeanors and our hopes and dreams– well.

Rest in peace, sister.

Dying too soon: Guru, Tupac and Biggie

By Jon Jeter
Why is it that Guru dies at 43, Tupac at 25, and Fred Hampton at 21, and Ronald Reagan, Augusto Pinochet and P.W. Botha die in their 90s?

George Clinton, P-Funk and the long lost Mothership

By Robert E. Pierre

The uncut funk. You remember the costumes, you remember the characters and you remember the lyrics:

Good evening.
Do not attempt to adjust your radio, there is nothing wrong.
We have taken control as to bring you this special show.
We will return it to you as soon as you are grooving.

Welcome to station WEFUNK, better known as We-Funk,
Or deeper still, the Mothership Connection.
Home of the extraterrestrial brothers,
Dealers of funky music.
P.Funk, uncut funk, The Bomb.

Coming to you directly from the Mothership
Top of the Chocolate Milky Way, 500,000 kilowatts of P.Funk-power.
So kick back, dig, while we do it to you in your eardrums.
And me? I’m known as Lollipop Man, alias the Long-Haired Sucker.
My motto is:

Make my funk the P.Funk

Well, here is a story, a sad one, about how the Mothership, which graced so many concerts, go thrown away and now may be lost forever.

Who’s to blame for Africa’s Poverty?

By Jon Jeter

Colonialism and racism, the late, great Martinican poet, politician and intellectual Aime Cesaire wrote, are at odds with reason and knowledge, and a betrayal of the Age of Enlightenment’s most basic values. I thought of Cesaire while reading Nicholas D. Kristof’s Sunday column in the New York Times in which he argued that “bad governance” is chiefly to blame for Africa’s poverty.

In one sense, Mr. Kristof is correct: for much of the past 100 years, sub-Saharan Africa has been governed by the twin imperialist movements of the 20th century: colonialism, which arrested the continent’s industrial and social development, followed by a system of globalization that has rebranded colonialism as “free trade” but only strengthened the West’s control over Africans’ resources—and deepened their poverty and exploitation.

By complying with the financial advice proscribed by Wall Street and its emissaries in the U.S. government, European Union, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Africans’ political leadership is guilty of roughly the same bad governance as a freed slave, who, upon his emancipation, turns to his former slave master for advice on how to live free.
But Mr. Kristof, a Pulitzer-Prize winner and proponent of sweat-shops as an effective anti-poverty tool in the developing world (the two things are not unrelated in my view) defines African malfeasance as corruption, that old canard of white folks—from Detroit to DC, Angola to Zambia —whenever the natives take over. Playing the role of Coleman Young or Marion Barry in Mr. Kristof’s latest drama is Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who has led the former British colony known as Rhodesia since its independence in 1980.

President Mugabe is a former guerilla fighter who was once jailed (and tortured) by thugs working for Rhodesia’s Prime Minister Ian Smith, and he remains revered by many Africans for providing free health care and education to Zimbabweans in the years after independence and, for his steadfast support of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. But he has brutalized his countrymen and looted the public till with increasing frequency over the last dozen years; no serious person can honestly defend the man or his actions.

But as I wrote in my first book, Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People, sub-Saharan Africa lacks the kind of value-added industries that characterize every prosperous economy since the end of the feudal period. Under colonial rule, industrial development on the sub-continent typically consisted of a hole in the ground, and a railroad to the sea. Zimbabwe’s southern African neighbor, Zambia, for example, inherited a country with no colleges or universities and fewer than a dozen college graduates when it won its independence from the British in 1964. Overly reliant on raw commodities like coffee, cocoa and minerals (gold from South Africa’s mines is shipped to Europe to cut; raw Kenyan coffee is roasted in Europe and the U.S.) that fetch increasingly less on the world market, the first generation of African leaders—including Mugabe– tried to expand their countries domestic manufacturing industry but their efforts were soon thwarted by multilateral lenders like the World Bank and Fund, who strong-armed them into opening their markets to foreign-made products by paring tariffs on goods shipped into the country, cutting public subsidies to vital industries, selling state-owned enterprises to private investors, reducing government spending on health care, education, land reform and roads, and paying exorbitant interest rates on loans as a condition of borrowing money.

In nearly two generations since Africans began to free their countries from colonial misrule, more than 40 sub-Saharan African countries have liberalized their markets as part of the “structural adjustment programs” peddled by Western donors. In doing so they have abandoned the industrial strategies that are the only thing known to fuel prosperity in the modern era. The result is that Africa accounts for only two percent of world trade, a share less than it was 50 years ago. Since 1990, manufacturing activity on the continent has declined by a third, per capita income by a quarter.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe has focused cynically on land reform, deploying ragtag black militias to drive white farmers off their land. This is not just retribution, however; as recently as 2002, 70 percent of the arable farmland belonged to 1 percent of the population. The problem is not that Mugabe’s land reform effort went too far; it didn’t go far enough.
Broad-based agricultural reform has been a key component in every country’s transition from agrarian economy to industrial powerhouse (see Homestead Act of 1862 in the U.S., or China’s Green Revolution). Instructive is how Rhodesia and neighboring whites in apartheid South Africa handled land reform efforts, parceling land out for a song to white veterans or city-dwellers who had never farmed a day in their lives, (Ian Smith was the son of a Scottish butcher) and then giving them low-interest loans for equipment, seeds, and fertilizer.
If the farmer failed to turn a profit the first time out, the provincial government would forgive the loan, and tell him to take another stab at it. This went on and on until the farmers got it right and ultimately created, in southern Africa, one of the best classes of commercial farmers in the world.

But with their stalled economies, heavy indebtedness, and lenders’ restrictions on public spending, African leaders are largely discouraged from doing for their own, what their countries previously did for European settlers.
Like any good bootleg preacher though, I want to bring this home, both to Cesaire, and once again to our nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. I have never met the man but of course, the word most commonly used to describe him is “brilliant.” Cesaire indicates that intellectualism cannot co-exist with colonial attitudes, that the act of oppression is antithetical to reason.

So how is it that a columnist for our nation’s best newspaper, who has won American journalism’s highest award, go to Africa and return with, as Fred Hampton used to say, “explanations that don’t explain?” Similarly, how is it that a constitutional attorney, trained and hired by the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the land–Columbia University, Harvard Law School, the University of Chicago Law School—and yet he can’t see that war crimes were inarguably committed by his predecessor and that he is obligated to prosecute them? Would an intelligent commander-in-chief escalate a war against the undefeated empire-killer, Afghanistan, which poses no military threat to us? Would a smart president mimic Herbert Hoover’s response to the worst economic crisis since World War II, or FDR’s?

In 1996, the World Bank prodded another southern African country, Mozambique, to repeal tariffs that discouraged growers from selling their cashews on the world market. Their rationale was that abolishing the export tax would lower the price of processed nuts while increasing the price that peasant farmers could demand for their unprocessed cashews in a more competitive market.

Within 4 years, ten of the country’s 15 cashew processing plants had shut down, leaving 7,500 of the industry’s 12,000 workers jobless. Without the protectionist measure, foreign processors were able to outbid Mozambican factories for locally grown cashews, driving up the selling price. But Mozambique’s isolated peasant farmers, accustomed to selling their nuts at a set price to government agents, had no idea how to negotiate with buyers, no clue about how to get their products to market without government assistance, and no hint, really, of who, what, or where this free market was. Five years after the government lifted the tax, Mozambican growers were getting less for their nuts than they were before, not more.

This came as no surprise to Mozambique’s government officials who predicted all of this to the World Bank and urged against the measure. But, as one Mozambican official in the foreign ministry told me when I was there 10 years ago, “they didn’t listen to us.
I guess because we did not go to Harvard.”

Treme, the French Quarter, Katrina, Jazz

David Simon and the crew and actors that gave us The Wire are back with a new series called Treme, which for those who don’t know is a neighborhood just off the French Quarter in New Orleans. It’s gritty and soulful, like a lot of the city. I remember it well from the year I spent in New Orleans in 1999-2000 teaching at Dillard University, listening to lots of jazz and eating plenty of good food. I am a native of Louisiana, a small town about two hours from New Orleans, but this was the most carefree year I spent in The Big Easy, a place some natives just call ‘The City.’

Almost uniformly, the reviewers have given it high praise before it debuts Sunday on HBO. Check out this review from today on NOLA.COM, . There are not may reviewers I trust, so I am naturally skeptical. But I also know that, for years, I subscribed to HBO just to catch The Wire. Haven’t had it since and haven’t missed it. But before Sunday, I am going to have to bite the bullet and sign up again. Am hoping that the writers do New Orleans and it’s so many soulful characters justice.

Jeter on West Virginia Mine Explosion, capitalism

By Jon Jeter

I couldn’t quite find the time to respond to the blogpost from my co-author and brother (from another mother) yesterday about the horrifying mine explosions in West Virginia.

And this is, in many ways, part of an ongoing debate that Robert and I have been having for the better part of 17 years now, which centers, essentially, on just how much exploitation, injury and death is inevitable in a capitalist system.

Bad things happen, and sometimes there is nothing anyone could’ve done to prevent it.

The problem is that bad things seem to occur most often and most devastatingly when capitalism is unregulated, and the workers left unprotected from profiteers’ pornographic lust for loot.

“Jon, what the hell are you talking about?” Robert would say at this moment in the conversation. Only this: Why is it that an earthquake that measured 7 on the Richter scale killed more than 217,000 people in Haiti, while an earthquake a few days later that measured 8.8– produced fewer than 800 in Chile?

Building codes. Chile had ‘em; Haiti did not.

Building codes are just a form of “regulation.” But the rules of the global economy for the past 30 years or so have emphasized “deregulation” and that extends to the workplace, where the evisceration of unions all over the world has left workers without much of a voice in our daily affairs.

Congress this year began investigating the deaths of at least 60 motorists here in the U.S. whose Toyota vehicles accelerated suddenly. But in a 2006 memo to their bosses, unionized workers at a Toyota plant in Japan warned their bosses that shortcuts in the factory’s inspections process were resulting in soaring numbers of defective products rolling out of the factories and into showrooms.

The response?

“They completely ignored us,” one of the workers said, according to David Macaray of Counterpunch.

Years ago, when I was working as a reporter in Africa, I went to Malawi to write about a food shortage. But when I arrived in the southern African nation, there was food—in the form of the southern African staple, corn—everywhere.
The problem was that Malawians couldn’t afford it.

Global trade policies foisted on developing countries by the U.S., World Bank and International Monetary Fund, among others, had strong-armed Malawi’s government into deregulating its agricultural market, which, essentially meant erasing public subsidies for seeds and other inputs. Even under the eccentric, Cold War- era dictator Hastings Banda, Malawi’s crops were primarily intended for consumption, not export.

This, historically helped keep food prices affordable, but it also put a lid on what farmers could demand for their crops on the world market.

The shift in priorities—from eating food to selling it—sent the prices soaring, producing near-famine conditions for years in the early 2000s. And then in 2005, a new Malawian president essentially re-regulated the agricultural market, providing subsidies to farmers and hiking taxes on export commodities to keep more of the food in-country.

Last I checked, Malawi had recorded three consecutive years of near-record harvests. The commercial farmers weren’t making as much money as before, but the people ate.
I don’t’ know all the details about the mining explosion in West Virginia, but I will bet you this: there was nothing inevitable about these workers’ deaths.

Our political leadership allowed this to happen, enabled it even.

And this must be said: while Obama most certainly did not create the problem, so far he ain’t done jack to fix it either.