Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

No Sense of Decency

March 22, 2011

Today’s New York Times op ed piece by William Cronan, of the UW Madison Geography Department (Go Badgers!), is so on the money that I’m just posting it in its entirety.

NOW that a Wisconsin judge has temporarily blocked a state law that would strip public employee unions of most collective bargaining rights, it’s worth stepping back to place these events in larger historical context.

Republicans in Wisconsin are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well.

Wisconsin was at the forefront of the progressive reform movement in the early 20th century, when the policies of Gov. Robert M. La Follette prompted a fellow Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, to call the state a “laboratory of democracy.” The state pioneered many social reforms: It was the first to introduce workers’ compensation, in 1911; unemployment insurance, in 1932; and public employee bargaining, in 1959.

University of Wisconsin professors helped design Social Security and were responsible for founding the union that eventually became the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Wisconsin reformers were equally active in promoting workplace safety, and often led the nation in natural resource conservation and environmental protection.

But while Americans are aware of this progressive tradition, they probably don’t know that many of the innovations on behalf of working people were at least as much the work of Republicans as of Democrats.

Although Wisconsin has a Democratic reputation these days — it backed the party’s presidential candidates in 2000, 2004 and 2008 — the state was dominated by Republicans for a full century after the Civil War. The Democratic Party was so ineffective that Wisconsin politics were largely conducted as debates between the progressive and conservative wings of the Republican Party.

When the Wisconsin Democratic Party finally revived itself in the 1950s, it did so in a context where members of both parties were unusually open to bipartisan policy approaches. Many of the new Democrats had in fact been progressive Republicans just a few years earlier, having left the party in revulsion against the reactionary politics of their own senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, and in sympathy with postwar liberalizing forces like the growing civil rights movement.

The demonizing of government at all levels that has become such a reflexive impulse for conservatives in the early 21st century would have mystified most elected officials in Wisconsin just a few decades ago.

When Gov. Gaylord A. Nelson, a Democrat, sought to extend collective bargaining rights to municipal workers in 1959, he did so in partnership with a Legislature in which one house was controlled by the Republicans. Both sides believed the normalization of labor-management relations would increase efficiency and avoid crippling strikes like those of the Milwaukee garbage collectors during the 1950s. Later, in 1967, when collective bargaining was extended to state workers for the same reasons, the reform was promoted by a Republican governor, Warren P. Knowles, with a Republican Legislature.

The policies that the current governor, Scott Walker, has sought to overturn, in other words, are legacies of his own party.

But Mr. Walker’s assault on collective bargaining rights breaks with Wisconsin history in two much deeper ways as well. Among the state’s proudest traditions is a passion for transparent government that often strikes outsiders as extreme. Its open meetings law, open records law and public comment procedures are among the strongest in the nation. Indeed, the basis for the restraining order blocking the collective bargaining law is that Republicans may have violated open meetings rules in passing it. The legislation they have enacted turns out to be radical not just in its content, but in its blunt ends-justify-the-means disregard for openness and transparency.

This in turn points to what is perhaps Mr. Walker’s greatest break from the political traditions of his state. Wisconsinites have long believed that common problems deserve common solutions, and that when something needs fixing, we should roll up our sleeves and work together — no matter what our politics — to achieve the common good.

Mr. Walker’s conduct has provoked a level of divisiveness and bitter partisan hostility the likes of which have not been seen in this state since at least the Vietnam War. Many citizens are furious at their governor and his party, not only because of profound policy differences, but because these particular Republicans have exercised power in abusively nontransparent ways that represent such a radical break from the state’s tradition of open government.

Perhaps that is why — as a centrist and a lifelong independent — I have found myself returning over the past few weeks to the question posed by the lawyer Joseph N. Welch during the hearings that finally helped bring down another Wisconsin Republican, Joe McCarthy, in 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different. But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered. McCarthy helped create the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin by infuriating progressive Republicans, imagining that he could build a national platform by cultivating an image as a sternly uncompromising leader willing to attack anyone who stood in his way. Mr. Walker appears to be provoking some of the same ire from adversaries and from advocates of good government by acting with a similar contempt for those who disagree with him.

The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.

William Cronon is a professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 22, 2011, on page A27 of the New York edition.

More than Green Building we need Green … Planning

December 15, 2010

My little jaunt to the east coast two months ago really underlined the transport related inefficiencies of my life for me.  My friends’ wedding was held in a beautiful old brownstone in Brooklyn.  Their quiet tree lined street was just half a block from 7th Ave, a bustling thoroughfare which offered just about everything the shopping heart could desire (and I know because I ran up and down it at least a dozen times over two days on wedding related errands).

Its not all bad; today for instance, I am working from my favorite down town coffee shop.  I plan to stop at the grocery store on my way home and then maybe drop by the library to see if any holds have come in.  None of that will require a car (yay) so I can leave it parked on the street from yesterday evening to to tomorrow morning.

But yesterday and tomorrow, as most days, require a 25 minute commute out to the farm where our office is located.  I can’t carpool because none of my (few) coworkers have the same schedule or come from remotely the same area.  There’s no bus (ha!).  Biking is possible but far from easy.  So every day I drive … alone.  And then there’s the weekend to consider.  More than two weekends a month I drive to either Madison or Minneapolis to visit family and friends … and when I stay in La Crosse, its often because someone from there is driving to visit me.  Its not a sustainable lifestyle.  I don’t enjoy it.  All of this is by way of saying … that I’m thinking about it – we all should be – and when I get the chance I’m going to need to make a change.

I am not saying that I think East Coast Metropolis is the only or even the best way to live green.  Its certainly much easier to curb one’s personal transportation needs there but I question their supply lines – where is the food coming from?  the other consumer goods?  where is the wast going to?  My own preference is a small midwestern city (*cough* Madison) but I don’t think there is actually an ideal location for green living in the US right now.  Which means that we all have some work to do.

So … I was already thinking about this subject when I happened on this (by no means recent) post on the NY Times’ blog Freakonomics.  In his post “Green Building: LEEDing us where?”, James McWilliams notes that all the green buildings in the country are doing very little to address the structural un-greeness of our built environment.

Concerned consumers are flush with noble intentions, but too often these intentions succumb to external realities.  A closer look at LEED—and green building in general—illustrates the nature of this conflict. Progressive cities across the U.S. offer tax incentives for builders to incorporate energy-efficient designs into their structures.  A quick review of my own environmentally conscientious enclave in Austin reveals rainwater collection tanks, native landscaping (“xeriscaping”), gravel driveways, solar panels, compost heaps, massive recycling bins, cork floors, self-composting toilets, compact fluorescent bulbs, and bamboo cabinets. These features are all vivid testimonies to an enduring environmental ethic.  Truth be told, my own home has a “five star” green rating from the Austin Energy Green Building Program.  I’m rather proud of it.

But a book as insightful as Owen’s forces me to wonder: do such efforts matter all that much?  After all, step beyond the privileged confines of our ever-greening abodes, and you’ll discover that most American cities are, by design, ecological train wrecks.  Don’t get me wrong, Austin is a wonderful place to live. But the fact remains: its overall blueprint runs counter to a truly sustainable lifestyle. Homes are large, if not steroidal, by the standards of densely packed urban centers like New York or San Francisco.  Cars are a necessity. Sidewalks are maddeningly intermittent. Bicycle lanes and bus routes are haphazard. Sprawling “house farms” and strip malls ring the city.  Air conditioners run full blast for seven months. Traffic snarls. We have no light rail or subway.

Of course, these are structural inefficiencies.  Generally they’re beyond individual control (although Austin voted down light rail twice!). Nevertheless, they place our personal environmental decisions—such as the choice to build a LEED-certified home—in a troubling context. Take the long view. From the moment of European settlement onward, American faith in Manifest Destiny has inspired aggressive development driven by land acquisition and individual choice. Sprawl started to become ingrained in the American character over two centuries ago and, as a result, middle America has inherited cities that value expansion over intensification.  To an extent, this vexed inheritance turns our cork floors and compost bins into empty expressions akin to the sun-starved solar panels adorning the Merritt Center.

“We have built our country as we have built it,” writes Owen, “and we’re obviously not going to tear it down and start over.” True enough.  What we can do, though, is expand the notion of what it means to be an environmentalist.  Tree huggers, organic farmers, and green builders will always play necessary roles in raising environmental awareness. But if Owen is right—if our only real hope is to live smaller, live closer, and drive less—future environmentalists will include inner city pioneers who make the urban core a more desirable place to live.  Police officers, school teachers, pastry shop owners, landscape architects, urban planners, coffee freaks and policy geeks—these people will be the real heroes of twenty-first century environmentalism.

You Are What You Speak

August 31, 2010

Note: Its been brought to my attention (Hi Laura) that not everybody enjoys reading about Harry Potter. all. the. time.  So here’s something else that’s been on my mind recently.

I stumbled on this fascinating analysis of the way language affects perception in the New York Times this weekend. I find the study of languages fascinating and have often wished to be ploylingual.  In fact, I’ve never become completely fluent in another language but, through many years of education, I have studied Spanish, Latin, Italian and Dutch.  I’ve often thought that languages are affected by culture (for example the punctuality oriented Dutch ask about temporality not by asking “What time is it?” but by asking how late it is: “Hoe laat is het?”) but this article suggests that perhaps the reverse is also true.  Our perceptions, both personal and cultural, are affected by our language.

Although the author, Guy Deutscher, discounts Benjamin Lee Whorf’s theory (first published in 1940) that mother tongue languages can restrict the way people think, he does point out many ways in which our perceptions are shaped by our native languages.  For example:

German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; […] When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. Read the rest of this entry »

Less is More

July 3, 2010

Its a cliche at this point but I, for one, didn’t know it was an architecturally derived one.  According to the beautifully written piece in the Opinionator Thursday, the “phrase “less is more” was actually first uttered by a German, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.”   I found this piece fascinating for a number of reasons so I’ve reproduced it below.  You can also find it here at the NY Times website.

I think the timing is particularly appropriate for the holiday weekend.  Rather than burying our heads in the sand of Rah Rah American Patriotism, I think we can aim a little higher – for a new path that will actually improve our standing in the world and our own lives.  Taking a renewed interest in how we can make our offices, public buildings, and homes both “less” and “more” couldn’t be more timely.

When Less Was More


We tend to think of the decades immediately following World War II as a time of exuberance and growth, with soldiers returning home by the millions, going off to college on the G.I. Bill and lining up at the marraige bureaus.

But when it came to their houses, it was a time of common sense and a belief that less truly could be more.  During the Depression and the war, Americans had learned to live with less, and that restraint, in combination with the postwar confidence in the future made small, efficient housing positively stylish.

As we find ourselves in an era of diminishing resources, could “less” become “more” again?  If so, the mid-20th-century building boom might provide some inspiration.

Chicago's Lake Shore Drive

William Zbaren Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed these towers on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive in the 1940s. They were recently renovated.

Economic austerity was only one of the catalysts for the trend toward efficient living. The phrase “less is more” was actually first uttered by a German, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who like other people associated with the Bauhaus emigrated to the United States before World War II and took up posts at American architecture schools. These designers, including Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, came to exert enormous influence on the course of American architecture, but none more so than Mies.

Mies’ signature phrase means that less decoration, properly deployed, has more impact than a lot. Elegance, he believed, did not derive from abundance. Like other modern architects, he employed metal, glass and laminated wood — materials that we take for granted today but that in the 1940s symbolized the future. Mies’ sophisticated presentation masked the fact that the spaces he designed were small and efficient, rather than big and often empty. Read the rest of this entry »

I am the 190,434,783 richest person in the world!

May 14, 2010

… at least according to the rather simplistic calculation based on income alone available at Global Rich List.  The site was featured on the Bucks blog of the NY Times this morning.   The site prompts you to input your income (you select pounds, euros, yen dollars etc first) and then shows where you stack up against the whole world.  I thought this was a good perspective shift for those of us feeling occasionally sorry for ourselves on incomes that would keep whole extended families in the third world going for years.

After it lets you know how you stack up against the whole world … it prompts you to think about donating some of those piles of money you now see you’re raking in.  This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately – more on this later – but for the moment check it out.  And/or try these websites which allow you to feel like you’re doing some good:

Read the rest of this entry »


April 15, 2010

So its tax day and I DON’T agree with T-Rex here.  I lamely come down on the Utahraptor size and think taxes are pretty darn cool.  I actually only just filed my federal taxes today (way to procrastinate, me!) although, in my defense, I did have them all prepared and set more than a month ago.  I filed my state taxes last week and already got my refund direct deposited to my bank account (woo hoo!)  I’m going to owe on the federal taxes.  But actually I find the whole process kind of fun and interesting.  Here I am, making a contribution to my nation’s maintenance costs.  So … hooray for taxes.  I, too, would rather have less of them go to pay for our nations wars but even there – I’m not about to suggest cutting off funds to the soliders currently embroiled in our mess – they need all the help they can get.  Anyway.  I’m totally with Gail Collins here.  We should be celebrating tax day.

Whole Trees in the New York Times

November 4, 2009

new york times

If you have read any number of my previous posts, you’re probably aware that I read the NYtimes online pretty reguarly and quote it with some frequency on this blog.  Well here’s the man bites dog story of the year.  Today the New York Times is covering me!  Well almost … its covering Whole Trees.

Earlier this year Anne Raver, who writes for the Times, emailed our info page asking about what type of wood to use in a greenhouse.  We got into a little conversation and the upshot was that she got pretty excited about Whole Trees and sold her editor on doing an article about us.  She came out and visited the farm for a weekend in October and the long and the short of it is … the article is out TODAY.

Read it here. See the Slide show here. Tell your friends.  I just don’t know how I could feel any cooler today.

whole trees pano

Commuter Reading

September 4, 2009

subway 2

This article in the New York Times today filled me with joy and also an intense longing for a time when I don’t commute by car anymore.  I like listening to the radio fine.  And I also sometimes make the road less safe and the trip more fun by talking on my cell phone.  But I miss walking to work with a book in my hand.  And I miss the experience I’ve never even had of a daily there-and-back on public transportation with a concentrated block of reading time.

I’ve always considered myself to be something of a country mouse but despite occasional borderline agoraphobia I have a paradoxical love of public transportation.  Especially subway trains.  I love the T in Boston, the Underground in London and the Subway in Paris.  Here’s a blog mentioned in the article that chronicles the subway-reading experiences of one New Yorker: the Subway Book Club. Read the rest of this entry »

In Praise of Adventuresome Cooking

August 7, 2009

julie julia 2

Last week the New York Times Magazine published a long and delightful piece by Michael Pollan about American cooking.  Inspired in part by the new movie Julie/Julia, Pollan examines the question of why we seem to have neatly traded a culture of cooking for a culture of sitting in our living rooms watching other people cook on TV.

As for the film, I’m not in the business of writing movie reviews.  So I’ll just say that this one was great.  If you like cooking at all, or have every enjoyed watching Meryl Streep or Amy Adams in anything, you’ll enjoy this one.  Its gotten mixed reviews but the bad ones are mostly critical because it focuses too much time on the food and doesn’t have enough drama in the plot.  Nobody dies.  Nothing blows up.  Nobody cheats on their spouse.  But … that’s not what the movie is supposed to be about.  Didn’t they watch the preview?  In actual fact the movie was delightful, fabulous and buoyant.  I was hugging myself with delight and silently clapping my hands for joy every few scenes.  Streep and Adams were both fantastic.  Go see it immediately! Read the rest of this entry »