Sunday, May 31, 2020

Questioning Nationalism, Globalism and the UN

Imagine living through 1945. As World War II ended 75 years ago, the UN was born and two nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan. To commemorate and reflect on these pivotal events, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) has created a timeline. Ever since 1945 people, their governments and civilization itself have been faced with a momentous dilemma: how to choose law and cooperation over power and domination. Check out the WILPF timeline,  follow the history of that momentous year, and start local discussions of the events that changed our world. For example, release of The Franck Report on June 11, 1945...

You might not recognize the name, since the report was kept secret at the time, one of many WWII documents whose un-censored versions only became public decades later.  Signed by several prominent nuclear physicists who worked on development of an atomic bomb, the Franck Report recommended that the US not use the atomic bomb as a weapon to prompt the surrender of Japan. 

Here are some thoughts on a related topic: Can the UN be reformed? 
World Order and Cultivating Community

The liberal international order is currently being challenged by populism in nations that built and long supported it. It is also being tested by rising powers, particularly China, and other states that hope to restore their prominence. Some go so far as to say the old order is fractured at the core, which makes a major conflict more likely. At the same time, the world faces a growing number of global challenges that cannot be managed effectively by national governments alone. 

The United Nations is still considered by many people as the key feature of this fragile World Order, and is certainly treated as one of its major institutions. When nations don’t abide by its resolutions, they are often accused of violating international norms or even law. In short, the UN is assumed to be a global democratic government. But this is at best aspirational, and, in some serious respects, misleading. 

The UN Security Council certainly isn’t democratic or liberal. Veto power is held by the winners of World War II; large parts of the world have no say. A handful of nations can impose sanctions, with immunity from counterclaims. And even if all other nations acted together, they could not impose sanctions on the Big Five.

So isn’t calling the UN General Assembly “the most democratic and representative body” a bit misleading? Beyond the power imbalance already described, India (1.3 billion people) and Luxembourg (613,000) each have one vote! And although the General Assembly passes all manner of resolutions, its members know there is no credible way to enforce them. Is it democratic when most of the votes are cast by representatives of authoritarian regimes, with leaders who couldn’t care less what their people feel? Is it accurate to call the UN liberal when representatives of brazen human rights violators have for years led its human rights bodies?

Given all of this, do nationalists have a valid point when they charge that the UN violates national sovereignty? Shouldn’t it at least be more representative? And how about all the international governance carried out by other international organizations, and through informal bodies like the G7, G8, and G20? Their decisions aren’t binding on those who dissent, but at least they try to operate by consensus, Is this a more viable way to go? 

The world obviously needs stronger, more effective forms of global governance. But it doesn’t look ready at the moment to be governed like a liberal democracy. Instead, premature attempts to overcome nationalism have fed populism. 

One of the problems may be insufficient community building. People have a basic need for recognition and respect, and these are linked to a sense of identity and community. Since the 1980s the US has tilted too far toward individualism and lost a sense of communal values. If that is part of the problem, does it also point toward a solution? 

At the same time we have lost a sense of shared values we have experienced rising alienation, resurgent populism, institutional breakdown, and Donald Trump. It is not a coincidence. But perhaps we can cultivate a greater shared sense of community, even in supranational forums, and eventually extend it to their governing bodies. The trick is how to do it without creating more alienation and pushback.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

When Ida Met HDL: Exposing the Godfather of Big Oil

When Ida Tarbell decided to take on John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, an earlier muckraker wasn’t impressed and told his contacts to avoid her — at first. Then he met her and changed his mind.

Preparing to review The Crash of Flight 3804, a new book by a colleague, Charlotte Dennett, on the deadly politics of oil, I recently discovered a intriguing connection between an earlier investigator of the same industry and another old friend. In 1900, Ida Tarbell was looking for a way to show how ownership of oil interests was moving toward control by a few. With a push from Ray Stannard Baker, she developed the outline for a series that would approach the business as an historical narrative and submitted it to the editor of McClure’s Magazine.

Tarbell began with an open mind, noting that she wasn’t certain that John D. Rockefeller had done anything illegal. But she remembered well the effect his company had on her own family. Her father Frank Tarbell had prospered in the oil business, that is, until his operation was crushed by monopoly power. Her hometown had risen in protest, and Ida was no longer on speaking terms with some old neighbors who sold out to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. 

She knew little about the company until then. Key documents had disappeared, those who sold out to Rockefeller at a profit wanted no trouble, and those who held out feared what he would do. Her father warned her not to write about it, predicting “they will ruin the magazine.”

Tarbell dismissed suggestions that Standard might kill or main her. But she knew they were already aware of her. One night, at a party given by Alexander Graham Bell, a vice-president of the Rockefeller-controlled National City Bank had beckoned her into a private room for a talk. Frank Vanderlip, a popular DC bachelor, then told her bluntly that his bank was concerned about her project. She was stunned by the implied threat, and also by the thought that she was being watched. But she replied boldly: “Well, I am sorry, but of course that makes no difference to me.” 

Henry Demarest Lloyd
Standard didn’t make an immediate move. But Henry Demarest Lloyd, great grandfather of my friend Robin Lloyd, was not impressed and said so. A decade earlier HDL had written an indictment of monopoly power, Wealth Against Commonwealth. Tarbell had read the book, but rejected Lloyd’s argument for socialism, which she considered idealistic but not practical. “As I saw it,” she recalled, “it was not capitalism but an open disregard of decent ethical business practices by capitalists which lay at the bottom of the story Mr. Lloyd told so dramatically.”

Lloyd’s theme was the negative power of wealth. To illustrate his viewpoint, he focussed on Rockefeller businesses and practices — but did not name John D. Tarbell wanted to go deeper and name names. She also wanted to ask Standard Oil to comment on what she found. When Lloyd heard about that, he warned independents that she had been hoodwinked by the oil company and advised key people to avoid her.

Tarbell couldn’t figure out why her old neighbors wouldn’t help. “It was a persistent fog of suspicion and doubt and fear,” she said. Nevertheless, she persisted and managed to prove that Rockefeller was the linchpin of an illegal ring — the South Improvement Company — that had transferred its tactics to Standard Oil. The arrangement gave Rockefeller’s group so much power that even other oilmen started calling it an octopus. 

Three initial articles were ready for print in 1902. The first opened with the discovery of oil, the second covered Standard’s formation, and the third chronicled an 1872 “oil war” in which independents defeated the South Improvement Company. 

One anecdote, first unearthed by Lloyd, focused on a woman who was defrauded by Rockefeller. Finding the story intriguing, Tarbell asked Lloyd for documentation about the widow Backus. Court records had been stolen, he explained. It took her several weeks to locate copies. At this point, the relationship between the two muckrakers became more like a tango. Each was dedicated to the subject and sensitive to the protocols of professional courtesy. Finally recognizing Tarbell as an effective critic, Lloyd realized he should meet the woman whom he had already attacked.

In September 1902, Tarbell visited HDL in Rhode Island. Lloyd was a charming, silver-haired man in his mid-50s. She outlined her series and he shared his research. Tarbell was impressed by the encounter, but Lloyd remained skeptical about her desire to create a “balanced” presentation. And despite their comfortable seaside location, he managed to make her feel guilty about her love for expensive things.

“I cannot tell you what a good time I had and what an impulse you gave me,” he wrote afterward. “With my radical leanings I sometimes grow very restive in my practical and rather conservative — though I think entirely sincere — surroundings. It does me good to run up against the people in the advance line where I believe most of us will be one day.”

In her series, Tarbell retold the widow’s story accurately, but with less passion than Lloyd had employed. Basically, a successful business woman had allowed herself to be frightened and failed to see the significance of contracts she had signed. It illustrated, thought Tarbell, how Rockefeller could terrorize and eliminate successful competitors.

Lloyd approved of her interpretation. “When you get through with ‘Johnnie’ I don’t think there will be very much left of him except something resembling one of his own grease spots,” he joked.

The Standard Oil series debuted in November 1902, just as a coal strike gripped the country. Pennsylvania’s National Guard were ordered to quell the riots, and mine operators refused a presidential request to resume work. The dispute was finally settled through arbitration.

A century later: disastrous effects continue
In the second installment, Tarbell named the original Standard partners. Worse for Rockefeller, the article revealed him as the force behind the South Improvement Company. As Tarbell’s father had explained to her, the federal government granted railroads subsidies and rights of way on the condition that railroads would act as public utilities — equal rates for all and no consideration for the volume of business. Rockefeller and others had abused these rules.

As the series continued, skeptics who had fought Standard Oil began to trust Tarbell. “I have been having a very interesting time here with the Standard work,” she wrote. “It is very interesting to note now, that the thing is well under way, and I have have not been kidnapped or sued for libel as some of my friends prophesied, people are willing to talk freely with me.”

One of her new fans was Lewis Emery. A hero among oilmen after he had frustrated Rockefeller’s control of railroads by building a pipeline, Emery had known Tarbell since her birth. He was one of the most successful independents, yet sometimes described himself as Rockefeller’s helpless victim. After reading Tarbell’s early installments, he wrote to Lloyd.

“I shared your misgivings relative to the motive prompting Miss Tarbell to write such a history,” Emery wrote. “I have been watching her articles closely and have expressed to her personally my doubts as to her sincerity in writing a truthful history of the acts of the men composing that company.” On the other hand, he also visited her in New York and they spent several hours discussing her work. 

After reviewing her future plans Emery changed his mind and decided to help. “I shall assist her as best I know how to prepare certain articles on the independent movement,” he informed Lloyd. He also asked for the return of refinery photos he wanted to share with Tarbell.

Lloyd still had reservations. Tarbell had won his confidence, but not McClure. An ad for the series was too even-handed, he thought, and he was concerned that the publication might yet come out on the company’s side. He forwarded the photos along with a worried letter. 

“I have not the least doubt as to the honesty and good intentions of Miss Tarbell,” Emery replied, “but you have opened my eyes to a certain extent relative to the publishers and the whole milk in the coconut.” He asked for permission to forward Lloyd’s letter to Tarbell. HDL agreed, as long as there was no wording that implied criticism of her.

LLoyd did not live to see completion of The History of the Standard Oil Company. He died suddenly six months after this correspondence, while leading a Chicago campaign for municipal ownership of street railways. With other journalists like Lincoln Steffens, Tarbell went on to spearhead a surge of investigations and joined the larger stream that came to be known as the progressive movement.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Death at a Revolution (Noir Exit in Santa Monica)

The headline was a shocker. Less than three months earlier I had been managing this place.
       Feminist Bookstore Closes After Owner’s Suicide


SANTA MONICA —  Revolution, a Santa Monica bookstore that in just six months of operation developed into a significant gathering place and community resource for Westside feminists, artists and political progressives, has closed.

The store, in the Edgemar complex on Main Street, closed earlier this month, several weeks after the suicide of its founder and owner, Gail Stevenson.

Covering 2415 - 2449 Main Street in Santa Monica, Edgemar was a mixed-use shopping center designed by architect Frank Gehry. It combined early 19th century warehouses, a 1940s Art Deco office building and new construction. When completed in 1988, it included roughly 16,000 square feet of space for retail (ours covered 3,000), 8,000 for office, 3,500 for the restaurant, and 8,000, plus mezzanine, for the museum.

Gail launched Revolution, her “eco-feminist” bookstore, about three years later.
Her sudden death, less than six months after its celebrated October 1991 opening, should have been a shock. And might have raised some questions. Yet, for the Times it was just another local tragedy, and one easy to explain.

Stevenson, 47, a clinical psychologist long active in feminist causes, shot herself in the head April 12 at the West Los Angeles office where she conducted her practice.

Stevenson’s husband, psychologist Carl Faber, said she had no history of clinical depression. He said he believed that his wife’s suicide was in part an outgrowth of her “personal pain and despair that had a lot to do with her efforts to inspire change as a feminist and leader.”

I had never seen signs of such pain or despair, at least about inspiring social change. If true, it was a very convincing deflection, manifested in high personal achievement, constant activity, and compulsive spending. She didn’t exactly make me feel comfortable, but I appreciated her determination and didn’t sense deep frustrations. For almost six months I worked with her at least four days a week.

If anything, she seems self-satisfied, verging on entitled. For example, she frequently wondered aloud how long I could stand living in Los Feliz, so far east in L.A., and proudly sang the praises of life on the west side, especially in sunny Calabasas.

Faber said his wife was suffering at the time of her death from fatigue, insomnia and stress, all of which were related to the running of the bookstore.

That could be. I wasn’t there right at the end, and he was her husband, and a famous psychologist with a cult-like following and his own radio program. Still, the bookstore wasn’t the only thing on her mind. There was also her lover, the architect who had designed her dream store.

Without Stevenson to lead it, Faber said he believed the bookstore could not survive on a day-to-day basis. The store closed May 5 after one last book signing by Carol Tavris, a feminist who wrote “The Mismeasure of Women.”

Stevenson launched Revolution last October with an appearance by Susan Faludi, signing copies of her book, “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.”

I remember the night, attending as Gail’s recently hired bookstore manager. I had been on the job for a few weeks, a new arrival from Vermont. The news account was true, as far as it went. But just part of the story.

Gail and I had met the year before at the American Bookseller’s Association annual trade show, where she interviewed me for the job after hearing about Maverick Bookstore. I had started Maverick in Burlington’s Old North End in 1985, eventually moving it to College Street for several years before shutting down in 1991. The remaining stock and accounts were sold at cost to the local Peace and Justice Center. 

On North Street there had been a gallery for shows and meetings; on College Street we rented a 2nd floor suite of rooms that allowed us to host readings and other events.

Allen Ginsberg mentioned Maverick Bookstore in a 1986 poem, Burlington Snow.

Gail wanted to start something similar — a community-based bookstore with space for gatherings and exhibits, a center of thought and action. Only much bigger than Maverick, and located in Santa Monica, just a block from the Pacific Ocean. I can’t say it wasn’t fun at times. Hey, I sold books to Faye Dunaway and Dana Delaney, managed a large staff, and hosted dozens of events. 

The location was prime, the patrons affluent, the space large and airy. But Gail was more concerned about what it looked like than how well it functioned as a business. The interior was designed by Topey Schwarzenbach, a Venice building designer partial to deconstructionist style, who thought books could be effectively piled on rough crates or stacked on stark metal shelves that, unfortunately, made effective display difficult. 

Six months after the opening, an event heralded by a complimentary front page piece in the style section of the Los Angeles Times, the renovations still weren’t complete. Still, the clientele, cafe pastries, and press relations were fabulous.

Polishing the Image at Revolution

No matter how much money we made, it wasn’t enough. The main reason was Gail’s inability to stop spending, and usually on anything but books. The kid’s section had to be a posh playground with toys and designer pillows, the coffee bar had to feature only the best espresso machine and pastries. There were always more ads to place for upcoming events, and new ideas for an even better image. Meanwhile, I struggled to make payroll for a large seven-days-a-week operation and keep up with monster bills from wholesalers.
When I mentioned problems to Gail, pleading with her to get a grip on the spending, her gaze would drift away, as if distracted by an invisible marvel somewhere in the middle distance. When I finished talking she’d turn back and say something like, “We need better biscottis.” It was maddening. But obviously also a red flag.
Eventually, I demanded some real changes. Making a comprehensive list of what was essential to get the operation into the black, I presented my case. The next day she introduced my replacement. Cold, but I was relieved. Two weeks later I was unemployed. A month after that I got a shocking call from a member of the staff. Gail was dead.

Back in February, while I was still managing day-to-day operations, a film crew had set up in the bookstore and interviewed her for an upcoming documentary.

from MediaBurnArchive on Vimeo. (Gail & Topey are the first two interviewed)

You can watch raw footage for The 90's, an election special.  A series of short interviews were recorded inside the bookstore, as customers browsed around them. They asked several people, starting with Gail, who they would like to win the 1992 presidential election and what issues were important to them. Bits of the store can also be seen in the background.

     After a sound check, Gail was asked to describe President George H.W. Bush in a word: she chose liar. Abortion was a more important issue than military spending and the economy, she said, because abortion will indicate whether the country moves forward or backwards on women’s issues as a whole. (Pretty self-possessed so far.) She didn’t support any of the current candidates but would write-in Hillary Clinton; she and other women’s groups were supporting the New Party as a third choice, she clamed. She acknowledged that Bush espoused support for women’s rights, but found it superficial. Politics and the media involve a lot of lying, she said.

     Next was Topey the architect. He summed up President Bush as “nothing.” We didn’t know it yet, but his affair with Gail had been going on for quite a while.

     Topey thought Bush was hypocritical, one more in a line of presidents that avoided responsibility and lacked direction. He said the economy was the most important issue, but saw the public as sluggish, worried, and chaotic. Politically, he was undecided. For the first time since Eisenhower, he claimed, there was no candidate that he could support. All of them promised the same checklist of deliverables, he chided, but none were believable.

Gail did not look like a woman under extreme stress. Yet just two months after these interviews, on her 47th birthday, she apparently purchased a gun, learned how to use it at a shooting range, then drove to her Westwood office to kill herself. She was accomplished, attractive, and wealthy, with a young son, an admired spouse and A-list friends. None of it turned out to be enough to save her. From exactly what we’ll never know. Considered an obvious suicide, however, her death was investigated no further, and never explained beyond that single L.A. Times article. It continued:

Topey Schwarzenbach, the Venice building designer who built the store and knew Stevenson for about nine years, helped closed the shop for the last time along with four employees.

That made sense. Topey had been there since the start, before that even, and never really left. His architectural vision was a major driver, but also a source of friction and expense. The same could be said of his relationship with Gail.

“People have been really reeling since Gail died,” Schwarzenbach said. Adding to the sense of loss, he said, was a sense among numerous friends, activists and customers that Revolution “was just starting to make it. The book signings were becoming an institution and the community center was just taking off. Gail’s death happened before the bookstore put out deep enough roots.”

(Her husband wasn’t as enthusiastic.) Faber said he hopes to sell the bookstore in the next month to someone whose “interests are in the spirit of what Gail wanted to do with the store.” There are about five prospective buyers, he said, none of whom he would identify. The store, which is part of Stevenson’s estate, is in probate.

Peg Yorkin, president of Fund for the Feminist Majority and a longtime friend of Stevenson’s, said she considered taking over Revolution as a tribute to Stevenson but has since bowed out. Yorkin said she concluded that “it just is not what I do.” (She was actually pretty angry.)

“I was willing to put money into it, but I couldn’t very well be an absentee owner,” she said. “It’s a shame for the community. It wasn’t just a feminist bookstore; it was a beautiful children’s center and community center.”

For now, only the glow from the aquariums in the front windows illuminate the place. Schwarzenbach goes in daily to feed the fish.

Speaking for the family, Stevenson’s stepdaughter, Jollee Faber, 26, said: “It’s a beautiful place. It would be our dream to keep Gail’s dream alive. Hopefully, someone will be able to take it over.”

In addition to her husband and stepdaughter, Stevenson is survived by a son, Carl, 9; stepsons Eric, 28, and Seth, 19, and her mother and siblings. The family has asked that contributions in Stevenson’s name be made to the Fund for the Feminist Majority.

The business did not survive, and at Gail’s funeral speakers publicly chided the departed for violently deserting them. I remained in L.A. for another year. But after managing this Revolution and witnessing Gail’s strange demise, I couldn’t connect with the city’s ephemeral, often narcissistic culture. Something had spoiled the mood. 

Three of my screenplays did make the rounds. One was an historical epic on the Haymarket bombing, developed into a commercial screenplay with a co-producer hoping to make a comeback. Handled by the legendary talent agency CAA, Haymarket languished in packaging limbo, unable to attach “talent” like Gary Oldman as Albert Parsons and Whoopi Goldberg as Lucy. I eventually re-imagined the story and staged it as a play. (Check out INQUISITIONS and Other Un-American Activities)

Another script was a film noir take on the CIA’s notorious MK-Ultra mind control program, based loosely on a true story. The reaction to that one was quite strong wherever it was pitched, but my co-producer questioned whether a period mystery with a gay hero could work. I changed his gender preference and continued to build contacts, aimed toward connecting with John Cusack, before my plans had to radically change. I still think it works. (Check out UNWITTING: The Secret War on William Pierce for the true story.)

There was also The White Hand, an adapted contemporary thriller about religious fundamentalists who carry out assassinations for a covert right wing group. A bit ahead of its time then, I suppose. Now it’s too on the nose.

In the early nineties, none of these scripts flourished in high-concept Hollywood. But to be honest it wasn’t them, it was me. After all, I never even considered developing this story as a script, and it’s a real L.A. mystery, one that may just need a strong third act.

The Coast also didn’t do much for my marriage. The third one. But that’s another story.

Epilog:  Noir Exit in the Garment District

The sudden death of my grandfather, patriarch on my mother’s side, has been a nagging question since it shook the family tree in early 1953. Less than a year before, he had been a successful manufacturer of women’s clothing in New York’s thriving garment district. His company, established in the 1920s, was called Metro Coat & Suit, and by then had a showroom at 500 7th Avenue in Manhattan. 

But sometimes in 1952 Bruno Lupia suddenly sold the family business and retired to Florida. At age seven, I was visiting him in Miami with mom in early 1953. One day, however, he didn’t show up for playtime. Mom eventually told me he was dead, and later that it had been a heart attack.

It made sense for a while. After all, he was in his sixties, overweight, a cigar-smoker. But later mom changed her story. “The unions killed him,” she claimed, “they broke his heart.” What could she possibly mean? The only clarification ever provided was that grandpa, who supposedly treated his employees like members of family, had also asked them for some short-term concession due to hard economic times. When turned down, presumably by their union rep, there was no choice but to shut the business down.

This has long felt a bit simplistic. I finally get a plausible, deeper explanation for this mystery in a new labor history by David Witwer and Catherine Rios. Murder in the Garment District suggests several other factors, some right there in the subtitle: The Grip of Organized Crime and the Decline of Labor in the United States.

Bruno (at right) in 1946, surrounded by a few of
his business friends, lobbies President Truman.
Unions had considerable power after World War II, representing up to a third of the workforce. But by the late 1940s crime figures were making inroads, especially in the garment industry and trucking.

At the most basic level, some gangsters collected payments for protecting firms willing to comply. Some of that money was used to help garment center gangsters serving time in prison. And that pool was managed by Joseph Stracci and Ben Kutlow, both former members of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter’s gang. Stracci also ran a clothing firm, one of many with an office in the same building as my grandfather’s showroom and women’s fashions “knock off” factory. 

More to the point, Witwer and Rios chronicle the rise of “paper locals,” unions that exploited exployees and put gangsters in covert alliances with both manufacturers and unions. They also expose how politicians confused the issue, conflating earlier Communist organizing with criminal syndicates and corrupt figures like Jimmy Hoffa, ultimately using both strikes and congressional hearings to discredit union leadership in general.

By this time, my grandfather was long gone. Based on this new research, however, my suspicion is that he found himself caught somehow between union locals and the mob, and was forced out as their grip tightened. I could say more... but then I’d have to kill you.