Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Mathews Men Today


East of Gloucester, Virginia, I followed the road less traveled into Mathews County. It is a rural area along the lower Chesapeake Bay, and whose settlement by the English dates to the early 1600s. The Methodists still employ a travelling minister, preaching at small, white-walled clapboard churches at the crossroads. The Baptists also have a presence in this area. Post offices are located at each hamlet, measuring no more than 200 square feet apiece. The average home is an early 20th century sturdy-sized residence on a small farming plot. Manors are titled in the English style, with names like “House of Payne” and “Moon Pi”.  Washingtonians vacation here, drawn by the quaintness of a timeless county. I bought a cantaloupe (“Local ‘Lopes”) sold on honor from the back of a pickup truck parked in Mathew’s town square.

What drew me here was a phenomenal story of the Mathews Men, or local watermen who served their country as merchant mariners in World War Two. Over the course of history, necessity drove man to sea. As agriculture was commoditized in the early 20th century, and with a rural depression beginning in 1920, seafaring was a path to economic security for men who were adept at sailing boats on the Chesapeake Bay; and whose wives had the strength and fortitude to lead the family and manage the farm during their husbands’ long absence at sea.

World War Two heralded the end of an era in the maritime culture in Coastal Virginia, and the beginning of the new. During the War, inland shipping, already on a decline during the Great Depression, was supplanted by improved highways and construction of the Big Inch oil pipeline from Texas oil fields to New Jersey refineries. While some fishing boats continue to ply from the peninsula, fortunate proximity provided another lucrative line of work. In 1952, the Coleman Bridge opened, connecting the backwater of Mathews County to job opportunities at the shipyards in Newport News, the Fort Eustis Army Base, and the Langley Air Force Base. Mobility was further enhanced with the opening of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in 1957, allowing highway access to commercial heart of Norfolk, Virginia. Electricity and indoor plumbing had arrived shortly before this fortuitous decade.

Even with these improvements, the disjointed, unsigned roads would have intimidated outsiders until the arrival of GPS navigation. It was on one detour that I came across the cemetery in Onemo, where the extended Hudgins family is buried. The hamlet bearing this family’s name is several miles north. On several tombstones of master mariners were etchings of the fishing boats they had owned and operated. Buried here were souls “known only to God”, presumably lost mariners recovered from the Chesapeake Bay. Confederate flags marked the tombs of Civil War veterans- the war had taken an awful toll on young men, leaving a number of women of the generation unmarried. Even so, the Hudgins were known for their racial tolerance: seafaring was a multicultural pursuit even in those days.  

The hands-on seafaring experience that honed the Mathews Men has been superseded by increased technical sophistication and academic rigor. While the sons and daughters of Mathews continue to sail as deckhands and oilers onboard oceangoing ships, the town no longer raises ship’s captains in the way that New England towns still do. In the 1960’s, building on the work of existing deep-sea maritime academies, the Great Lakes Maritime Academy and the maritime program at Texas A&M in Galveston opened to serve the focused educational needs of inland and near-coastal mariners. Although the “Mid Atlantic Maritime Academy”, a trade school in Norfolk, Virginia, serves Navy and Coast Guard sailors transitioning into the civilian maritime sector, there is no collegiate- accredited maritime program in Virginia, or any Atlantic state south of New York. Mathews, Gloucester, and the surrounding region possess a maritime heritage predating the American Revolution. This is something worth preserving.

 Read: The Mathews Men, William Geroux, 2016. 

Dedicated to Trenton Lloyd-Rees, Maine Maritime Academy, Class of 2019.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Flash: That Time a Kennedy Lost


“Kennedy Loses”, a “Massachusetts First”, announces The Hill. That Kennedy is Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, grandson of Senator and US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who lost a Senate primary in Massachusetts this past week. “This isn’t a time for waiting, for sitting on the sidelines,” the now 39-year old congressman announced as he entered the race against incumbent Senator Ed Markey.

By running this race, Joe Kennedy was thought to be tacking one step ahead of 46-year old Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a potential primary contestant for a future vacant Senate seat, who has a national profile. Joe Kennedy wagered his congressional seat, making this contest an all-or-nothing stake.  He started with a significant lead in polling, which recently had flipped for the incumbent. Kennedy’s strengths were said to be in working-class and minority communities, yet ultimately he lost in other traditionally working-class areas like seaside Gloucester.

Characteristic confidence and charisma did not save Joe Kennedy. Ed Markey, 74, outmaneuvered the red-headed youngster on the issue of youth. He obtained endorsements from progressive environmental groups, and ultimately claimed college towns like Cambridge, Amherst, and Dartmouth; in addition to Boston.  

In New England, there is a certain respect for established systems and patience, and waiting one’s turn. While the 1773 Tea Party took place in Boston, the modern-day fighting words of “Defeat, Retire, Kick Out” are not used in Massachusetts. In contrast to the West and New South, non-compete clauses are still enforced in the state, preventing the type of start-up culture seen in California. In a political machine, it is expected that participants start young, and wait their turn before advancing; in exchange for the benefits of incumbency. Instead of congratulating Kennedy for “sticking it to the man” and holding the veteran politician accountable, one commenter stated that Kennedy “put his personal ambition above the welfare of the country and waged a pointless and divisive campaign that diverted money and attention from places where both were needed”.

Ed Markey, who had served in Congress since the 1970’s, won election to the Senate in 2013 to fill John Kerry’s seat, as the latter became Secretary of State. (Joe Kennedy was born in 1980, and entered Congress in 2012). Markey entered Congress at a time when the average age in the body was decreasing. This anomaly occurred from 1960 to 1980; meaning that later Boomers and Gen X’ers did not continue the trend of youthful participation in politics. It is possible for Joe Kennedy to fail upwards, as there will be state races to compete for in 2022. Notable, no close Kennedy family has run for governor.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

It’s a Sid Davis Production

In the middle decades of the 20th century, Sid Davis was a prolific director of educational films seen on projectors in school classrooms across America. The nationwide impact of his short films was recognized by the New York Times, where after his lung cancer death at age 90, he received a page-long obituary in 2006. This film empire was all achieved on a low production budget, where economies included using a single vehicle as a prop. Sunny, new and well-maintained schools and parks served as the background, adding a priceless air of real-life to dramatic stories.

Various Southern California School and Police districts sponsored Sid Davis’ work, including Inglewood, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles County. The orderly suburban paradise, with its authority figures of parents, teachers, and police officers; was often held in contrast to Los Angeles’ skid row, which contained drunkards, pool halls, prostitution and nightlife. This dichotomy served as a backdrop for the dire consequences of straying from social conformity, which to its furthest ends included manslaughter and unmarried teen pregnancy. “You had an anchor in a social institution, now you feel adrift”, Sid Davis remarks about a high school dropout.

Despite his stiff morality, Sid Davis makes no appeals to religious authorities: his films are presented for a secular audience. His prime filmmaking years coincided with the Kennedy presidency, and the famous 1962 Supreme Court case on school prayer (Engel vs Vitale). Sid Davis’ films feature a racially diverse cast, first in the pool halls of Los Angeles, then later in integrated suburban settings.

Sid Davis films are a product of their times. For example, a teenage drunk driver is let off with merely a warning and phone call to his parents. Sid Davis’ most infamous short would be 1961’s “Boys Beware”, warning boys about the dangers of pedophiles, who were labelled exclusively as “homosexuals”. The corresponding film “Girls Beware” warned about casual sex, and received better reception among present-day audiences. Other films contained the results of cutting-edge research on the adolescent mind: One short, “Age 13”, features a low-income Hispanic teenager as it sensitively addresses the adolescent grieving process.

Sid Davis’ films present a top-down, “Do as I say, not as I do”, “Father knows best” attitude consistent with the era.  A 1970 film, “Keep Off the Grass”, presents a father, holding a cigarette and a cocktail, chastising his son for marijuana use. Sid Davis explains the difference: the casual drinker is unwinding after a productive day, and the marijuana user seeks to detach from any responsibility. Public Service Announcements and social guidance films for youth today tend to focus on the effects of peer pressure, instead of the expectations of authority figures.

The Bottle and The Throttle:  

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Coronavirus: Americans’ Independent Streak Began in WWII

One New York Times commentator suggested that anti-mask advocates would’ve spent World War Two shining their headlight beams into the sky to liberate America from civil defense blackouts. They practically did. Through the middle of 1942, bright beachfront lights illuminated silhouettes of American coastal Merchant ships. The leisure economy was back, fueled by war exports to Europe and Nationalist China, and resort owners were loath to give it up. Americans were offended by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, but were not yet in the mood for national sacrifice.

 Sheer losses of merchant ships along the East Coast changed the tune. Attacks by Nazi U-Boats began in 1941 before the US entered the War, and peaked in early 1942. Referencing the sinking of dozens of unarmed coastwise tankers, a poster proclaimed to motorists: “Think- Sailors have died to give you this ride”.

Despite the grim loss of life, rationing of coffee, alarm clocks, and sliced bread was lifted quickly upon popular demand. As pointed out by Kelly Cantrell in a dissertation, magazines during the War listed recipes with unrationed substitutes, such as corn syrup for sugar; but also featured lavish recipes- which were practically illegal on the basis of strict ration points. To produce a traditional Christmas feast, it was necessary to pool with another family, stockpile canned goods (against government policy), or purchase on the black market.

In contrast to Britons’ stiff upper lips in the face of Blitzkrieg bombings, Americans have a long tradition of flouting the rules, and it was certainly not limited to members of one political ideology.   

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Cancelled: School Resource Officers?

The School Resource Officer is the latest victim of #cancel_culture. Our schools are over-policed, they say. I beg to differ. Somewhere in America today, a young man is hatching a plan to kill people in a public place. That’s not me talking; it’s the gruesome statistic that these attacks are premeditated and predictable.

How quickly have we forgotten the televised body counts of school children? Between Columbine (1999) and Newtown (2012), many across the political spectrum hoped to wish the problem of school violence away. Not worth the cost, metal detectors criminalize inner-city youth, they said. Unfortunately that is not a responsible option today.  America has not put a high value on the development of youth. As far as school lunches are concerned, ketchup is a vegetable. Schools are often underfunded, or in large cities, the school funds misappropriated. Lapsing on recent school security advances would be par for the course.

The Director of National Intelligence has identified school violence as a significant national security threat, and it would be fitting for the Department of Homeland Security to devote some attention towards improving school security, as they have for airports and seaports. So far, however, these efforts have been led by individual states. In recent years, states like Maryland and Virginia have raised the school leaving age from sixteen to eighteen, seeking to leave no child behind from getting a high school diploma. Recognizing the risk of keeping unmotivated, and possibly troubled, teenagers in school, clear mitigation efforts were made. These include an increase of information sharing between government agencies, and to separate known dangerous juveniles from the general school population. Outcomes include hard measures like hiring school resource officers, and soft measures like training for teachers and the school community to take threats seriously, encouraging dialogue between students and authority figures, and acting on early indicators such as a disciplinary record of assault.

The School Resource Officer is partly a counselor and partly a police officer. They give a guiding hand to the wayward, and observe for inside threats (a cop can tell who is concealing a knife or handgun in his pants by observing his gait). In rare cases, they are the first responder to an emergency. This is why you can’t swap them one-for-one with a social worker. When an attack is successfully counteracted, it doesn’t stay in the news for long, and it’s nothing to celebrate. Only in America would a kid with a mission of menace reach the final line of defense. So to the school boards seeking to abolish the role of School Resource Officer, what do you think you are doing? While we can hope for a better day of peace and respect of others, the present conditions must be addressed today.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

That Revolution Talk

This year, Virginia joined a list of states whose rural leaders are talking of divorcing from their big-city counterparts. This talk of breakaway rests on perceived lack of political representation in state government, and different cultural values from the big cities. Upstate New Yorkers want to do away with New York City. Eastern parts of Washington and Oregon seek to break away from cosmopolitan and left-leaning Seattle and Portland.

More serious and detailed secession plans include an economic strategy. Some rural and libertarian-leaning Californians talk about splitting their state in two: under most proposals, Southern California would claim prosperous Silicon Valley, just south of the northerly city of San Francisco.

In Virginia’s most radical proposal, dubbed "Vexit", Arlington County and its 235,000 urbanized residents would return to neighboring District of Columbia, as it was between 1800 and 1846. Arlington residents made it clear that they did not want to join DC, giving their own stereotyped gripes of big-city problems. A trimmed Virginia would keep neighboring Fairfax County- which has more registered Democrats than Arlington- not for political reasons, but for economic reasons. Fairfax is home to Fortune 500 companies; and Dulles Airport, Virginia’s global hub with non-stop flights to Tel Aviv and Hong Kong. Without Fairfax, some commentators claimed that Virginia would become another rural, poor, Southern state.

A smaller proposal would shift several border counties across the line into West Virginia. When the mountainous state was created during the Civil War, border counties were invited to join West Virginia by referendum, and according to its governor, the invitation is still open.
Virginia’s secession talk has more gravitas in conversation than elsewhere, for the state has already split four times, and rejoined twice:
1792- Kentucky split from Virginia
1800- Alexandria, Virginia annexed to Washington, DC
1846- Alexandria returned to Virginia
1861- Virginia leaves the US for the Confederacy
            1863- West Virginia split off as a Union state
            1870- Virginia rejoins the US  

What propelled the secession talk in Virginia? Democrats introduced and voted on an “assault weapon” ban. It passed the House of Delegates, but failed by several votes in the State Senate. Apparently, this was too close of a call for gun-toting patriots. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Virginia Gun Enthusiasts Create Better Democracy (and not from the cartridge box)?

Prolonged Debate on Gun Control Bills led to resurrection of Fair Redistricting Amendment. Here’s how it played out.

Gun Control Lobby cost Virginia low-wage workers income increase in ’21 and ‘22
Flush with Mike Bloomberg cash, Democratic leadership made gun control bills the number-one priority for the January & February legislative session. They did not anticipate pushback from citizens, local jurisdictions and especially the Virginia Senate, which required rewriting and reconciling bills.   Debate on an increased minimum wage fell off the schedule of the two- month legislative session. Two points apply here:
No minimum wage bill would have passed this year, without exceptional intervention by the Virginia Senate.
Had the minimum wage bill been discussed as a priority in January, before the COVID crisis, the timeline of wage increases would have started in July 2020 instead of 2021.
What was the exceptional intervention? In exchange for Virginia Senate extending the legislative session to allow a vote on the minimum wage increase, the House of Delegates would allow a vote on the Fair Redistricting Amendment.

Fair Redistricting Amendment
It is not easy to add an Amendment to the Virginia Constitution, and it almost died this year. Last year, in the uncertainty of upcoming elections, both parties favored a Fair Redistricting Amendment, the first east of the Mississippi River. It had to be reapproved this year, and the Virginia Senate was favorable.

The 21-19 split of the Virginia Senate, currently favoring Democrats, requires collegial relations between the two parties. Embracing the Fair Redistricting Amendment diffuses tension: The foremost prize of partisan redistricting creates an incentive for the nominally-minority party to take advantage of another member’s short absence- which did happened back in 2014. These absences from the legislative session may include sick days, important meetings for their small business, family weddings and hunting trips.

Democrats in the House of Delegates, who have a stronger majority, are legislating like there is no tomorrow- they even acknowledge the likelihood of a voter backlash in 2021. Republicans and a handful of Democratic legislators, held to their campaign promises, narrowly passed the bill through the House of Delegates this year. It would have been tabled without debate, had it not been resurrected as a bargaining chip.   

The Democratic Party of Virginia has since come out against the Amendment on vague civil rights grounds- the Black Caucus would prefer Democrats- instead of a bipartisan committee and Virginia Supreme Court- to control redistricting- even though it is likely to pass voter approval in November. Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican in a heavily-Democratic state, has been looking to the Virginia fair redistricting developments as a model for his own state.

Private Sales without Background Check to become a Felony, Gift Transfers Unaffected
Virginia is a very economically diverse jurisdiction, and this bill did not sit well with rural and small-town voters, who made their voices heard in the mid-year municipal elections. With the average gun pricing between $500 and $1000, this new law to regulate private sales has hit at the heart of arguments over economic injustice. While the average resident of Fairfax County can afford to give guns as gifts, a gun purchase represents two weeks of income in a rural country.
The background checks are available from any licensed gun dealer for $15.00, or at a gun show for $2.00. Nevertheless, it will likely be challenged in court under equal protection claims.

Minimum Wage to eventually increase to $12 per hour, will lock in wage gains from tight labor market.
The minimum wage in Virginia is currently $7.25 per hour. Unskilled labor in low-cost parts of Virginia currently demands $10.00 or more per hour, so effects of stepped increases will not be seen until 2023. The House of Delegates sought to double the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour, a proposal rebuked by the Virginia Senate and Democratic Governor.