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The Road Beckons

Photograph Source: Cngodles – Public Domain


In his latest book,
Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, Robert Caro says that the quality of the writing is as important in nonfiction as in fiction. He argues that the writer must make the reader feel and see what is being described. In his magisterial The Power Broker, a study of Robert Moses, the great builder of New York City, Caro wanted to dramatically show the scope of what Moses had done. Inspired by Homer’s Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad, he began by constructing a list of expressways and highways built by Moses, and then followed with paragraphs and pages of the bridges, parkways, roads, parks, public and private housing projects, baseball diamonds, beaches, cultural structures, even an enormous dam on the St. Lawrence River far to the north of the great metropolis. The rhythm of the sentences intensifies, until at the end, we can almost see the vast quantities of concrete being poured, the land and sand being moved, the monumental construction done by legions of workers plying their trades, and the forlorn expressions of the more than half a million people Moses had evicted from their homes to fulfill his dreams.

Caro tells us that he is no Homer. And I am no Caro, not remotely close. But like he, I think that writing is important, and if we can, we should give readers a sense of drama, to try to elicit their emotions so that whatever facts we present take on a more powerful meaning. Reading Caro’s catalogs, I remembered a list in my book, Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue. A search of computer files—we travel and live light, with few possessions and no library—brought up the chapter where the list can be found. It portrays what I saw in thirteen years of traveling the road from Pittsburgh to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. 

I offer this chapter below. As I re-read it, my pleasure deepened. It still reads well, something I am proud to have done. I felt once again the joys and sorrows that were my work life before we embarked on what is now our eighteen-year odyssey across the United States. And to my ear at least, nothing I wrote in this first chapter rings false. What is says about work, inequality, and the environment, the three themes of the book, is as true now as when these words were written, in 2005. I hope you agree. 

The Road Beckons

Route 22

The distance between Pittsburgh and Johnstown, Pennsylvania is about seventy-five miles.  Most of the trip is on Route 22, a dismal and depressing stretch of highway that perfectly mirrors the drab ugliness of much of Western Pennsylvania. Gene & Boots Candy shop, Dick’s Diner, Dean’s Diner, Zoila’s Western Diner, Country Kitchen (with broasted chicken), Dairy Queens, Crest Nursing Home, Spahr Nursing Home, 7-11s, car dealerships, a strip mine, the Cheese House, motels, strip malls, two adult video stores (a clerk was murdered in one of them, but the killer was never found), the country’s only drive-thru “Gentlemen’s Club” (aptly named Climax), the smallest house I have ever seen, feed stores, Long’s Taxidermy, Monroeville, Murraysville, New Alexandria, Blairsville, Dilltown, Armagh, Clyde, Seward, Charles, bad curves, black ice, fallen trees, wrecked big rigs, school buses stopping on the highway, kids walking slowly to the trailer parks and country shacks, mobile homes for sale, a power plant belching smoke and steam in the distance, not an eye-pleasing scene until you get to the Conemaugh Gap, where the waters raged in the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889.

When I was young, parts of this highway were three lanes, and you could pass in the middle lane from either direction.  If you were traveling east and started to pass a car, you never knew when someone going west might have the same idea.  After many accidents, the third lane was converted into a turning lane or a fourth lane added. Progress!  Back then, Pittsburgh and Johnstown were steel cities, dirty, yes, but there was work at high wages.  And a little pride too. Now both towns are in the rust belt.  The famous Homestead Works of U.S. Steel, built by Andrew Carnegie and site of the Homestead strike, where the picketers set the barges filled with Pinkerton strikebreakers on fire with flaming arrows, have been torn down, replaced by an upscale shopping complex.  Johnstown’s Bethlehem Steel plant, once the center of the industry’s technological advances, has been sold piecemeal.  Train wheels, steel rods, and wire are still made there, but the size of the workforce is a tiny fraction of what it was when I started work in the Flood City. Hard times have become a way of life.  I would wager that there are more drug addicts and alcoholics in Pittsburgh and Johnstown than there are steelworkers. A lot more.

I spent nineteen years in Johnstown, but I never felt that it was my home.  I kept moving from one part of town to another, nine moves in all, but a sense of place eluded me.  I worried about this until I recognized that I didn’t feel at home anywhere.  I grew up in a small factory town, and what I am now was shaped by the eighteen years I lived there.  Yet I remember vividly coming back after my first two months in college.  I was shooting pool in the clubhouse where my friends and I hung out.  I looked out the window into the mid-fall night and realized suddenly that I was just a visitor.  Today there is not a single person from my high school years with whom I keep in touch.  I enjoyed college, but I have not remained in contact with any of my classmates, and I have never attended a class reunion.  In 2004, I did return to give a public lecture, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there.  The whole place filled me with dread; it was like being in a graveyard and seeing your own tombstone.

Johnstown and Pittsburgh

I moved to Johnstown in 1969.  I had been in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh studying economics.  In 1968, after the government ended graduate student deferments, my local draft board started breathing down my neck.  Uncle Sam needed cannon fodder for Vietnam, and I was able-bodied.  I was classified I-A (available for military service) in the fall of 1968 and drafted soon after.  I spent the next year battling my draft board—appealing my classification, seeing draft counselors, and filing a lawsuit.  Fortunately, every time the board ordered me to report for duty, I was in the middle of a semester, and the board agreed each time to let me complete it.

In the summer of 1969, during the middle of another term, my academic advisor suggested that, since teachers were still exempt from the draft, I apply for a college teaching job.  I told him I didn’t even have a Master’s degree, so how could I get a job.  He said it couldn’t hurt to try.  So I did, and when a senior classmate turned down a job at the university’s branch campus in Johnstown, I got an interview.  I drove along Route 22 for the first time in my life.  Johnstown wasn’t far away, but it had always seemed like a distant outpost.  I remember coming around a bend along Route 56, the road you had to turn onto from 22 and which overlooked the river valley known as the Conemaugh Gap, and entering town.  I saw a junkyard and then the steel mills smoking in the distance.  The first year I worked there, I visited my parents most weekends, and I cried every Sunday evening when I returned to Johnstown and saw the fiery stacks of the Bethlehem Steel plants.  I didn’t cry that first time.  I got lost and barely made it to my interview.  I made friendly with the Dean and told him I could teach the four wildly different classes (Statistics, Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Labor Union Theory) he asked me about.  Afterwards, one of his aides took me to a campus eatery called the Tuck Shop and bought me a ten-cent Coke.  About a week later I was offered the job, with salary of $7,200 plus room and board for an additional job as resident assistant in one of the dormitories.  The draft board dutifully reclassified me I-Y (available for military service, but only in the event of a national emergency).  If I stayed teaching, I would be safe.

I never planned to remain in Johnstown.  I had dreams of fame and fortune and, above all, travel.  But our lives are circumscribed by circumstance.  The war in Vietnam dragged on until 1975, so I risked being drafted if I quit before the war ended.  I had to get a PhD if I hoped to make an academic name for myself.  I could take courses for five dollars a credit if I stayed in Johnstown and commuted to Pittsburgh for classes—I did this for five years, commuting on Route 22.  I enjoyed teaching and was good at it.  Many of my early students were working-class kids like I had been, and I began to feel a sense of duty to educate them. I made friends, and some of us began to try to transform the college, mainly by trying to unionize all the workers, first the maintenance and custodial staff and then the teachers.  The years began to pass in a not unpleasant succession of writing lectures, playing basketball, agitating for a union, and drinking in local bars.  

At the end of my second year, I took a trip cross-country with a friend from high school.  We were deep into the dying culture of the sixties and wanted to pay homage to the Beats and the hippies.  We had a great time, sleeping in a church graveyard, in parks, and on the beach in Oregon.  We picked up hitchhiking Indians in Montana, who shared with us their tortillas and marijuana, and a longshoreman headed for San Francisco.  We left him off and roamed around the city on the bay, making the mandatory trip to Haight Ashbury.  We spent two nights at the home of my friend’s aunt and uncle in Stockton.  We attended the county fair in 110 degree heat and then went into San Francisco for a baseball game.  It was so cold everyone (but us) wore sweaters and drank hot chocolate.  Foolishly we parked our car on the street, and when we returned after the game, we found the trunk lock neatly punched out and our belongings stolen.  An anthropologist colleague and friend who had done field work in this part of the city told me that we had probably been the victim of a Samoan gang.  We drove east the next day chastened but still thrilled with what we had seen. I promised myself I would do this again soon.  As it turned out, soon was quite a while.

College teaching is a comfortable life.  My father used to tell his race-track cronies that his son only worked twelve hours a week. I would explain that it was more complicated than that.  I had to prepare lectures, meet with and advise students, go to meetings, do research, and write articles. However, there was truth in what my father believed about my job.  I had control over both my time and the content of my work.  I had to teach for ten hours a week and be available to students in my office for six.  So except for at most sixteen hours a week, my time was my own.  Preparing lectures and writing articles and book reviews were fulfilling uses of my creativity and valuable ingredients for what went on in class.  The lectures themselves were a kind of performance art, and when they went well they generated an addictive euphoria.  In a small town, a professor is an important person and commands automatic respect.  People began to recognize me, and they listened to what I had to say.  This was a real ego-booster.

Work Turns Sour

The good parts of the job carried me along for about a dozen years.  Then the bad parts began to show themselves.  One of my fields of study is work.  What is work?  Why do we do it the way we do?  Can a job make us happy?  What I began to learn about work depressed me profoundly, especially when I saw that it applied to teaching too.

I’ll put it bluntly.  Years of study and observation have taught me that work really does stink.  It doesn’t have to, but in our society it must.  We live in a capitalist system, and what makes it tick is the never-ending drive by businesses to make a profit.  To investigate a story, reporters are told to “follow the money.”  Sound advise.  It is hard to find any activity or aspect of life not subordinate to the pursuit of the dollar.  Work is no exception.

We have been sold a bill of goods about work.  Go to school.  Get a good job.  Work hard.  Make money.  Buy things.  The American dream.  Unfortunately, most of the people in the world never make it over the first hurdle, since they are too poor to afford schooling.  And those who do, find that their jobs do not qualify as good ones. Nearly all jobs necessitate routine labors requiring us to use a tiny fraction of our ingenuity; nearly all jobs force us to submit to a callous and impersonal hierarchy; and nearly all jobs are fraught with insecurity.  Mine was no exception.  It wasn’t horrible, certainly not in the sense that working in a chicken processing plant or a telemarketing cubicle is, but I can say that I found it to be increasingly meaningless.  For a few years it was great.  The spirit of the sixties was still alive, and most of my students were working-class teenagers and adults, proud to be the first in their families to go to college.  I felt that in teaching them the realities of our economic system, I was preparing most to better navigate the world and a few to change it.

But as the steel mills went belly-up in the 1970s and 1980s, Johnstown hit the skids.  Those who could left, and most of those who remained could no longer afford to send their kids (or themselves) to college.  We ran out of Vietnam veterans too.  So to keep the school going, administrators began to recruit students from the middle-class suburbs near Pittsburgh.  These young men and women, better off and reared in a more conservative time, were not my cup of tea.  They tended to feel entitled to a degree without much effort.  A college diploma was seen as a commodity, and I was there more or less to see to it that their purchase went smoothly.  

Many of these new students exhibited an almost willful stupidity.  I used to point out to students in some of my classes the deleterious effects of long hours of labor on a worker’s intelligence.  Karl Marx has a good example in Capital, vol. I, where he quotes an English factory inspector, whose interrogation of child mill workers indicated that they knew virtually nothing.  One child said that a princess was a man, and another did not know that he lived in England.  Herbert Gutman, in his book, Work, Culture, and Society, cites a New Jersey inspector to the same effect: One boy thought Europe was in the moon, while another thought that the word “boy” was a comma.  With the new students, I began to wonder how much such examples meant.  I had a student in a seminar on Marx who wrote that the Communist Manifesto is a novel.  In my introductory class, a student wrote without irony, “The Unighted States.”  Another said that a good that is not “inferior” (one for which, other things equal, as income rises, purchases fall) is “ferior.” Still another asked seriously whether it was “demand and supply” or “supply and demand.”  In the Marx seminar, after I had explained Marx’s concept of the value of labor power (its value equals the value of those consumption goods necessary for the worker to continue working and ensure that the worker’s children grow up to become workers), I asked the class what Marx says is the minimum value of labor power.  A student awoke from a dead sleep (this in a class of ten, sitting around a seminar table) and blurted out “$5.15″!

Although I often took my students’ anti-intellectualism personally, I knew that their attitudes had developed in an accommodating milieu.  Beginning roughly with the Reagan years, the colleges and universities transformed themselves into business-like corporations: marketing experts, corporate titles for academic officers, patent shopping, shilling for business paraded as public interest research, distance “learning,” grotesquely high salaries for those who bring in the most money, million-dollar coaches, education as product, students as consumers, the de-funding of the humanities and social sciences, and the general cheapening of learning.  As business values consumed the colleges, class sizes shot up and more part-timers were hired.  To compensate for lower pay and harder work, teachers began to cut corners, dumbing-down their classes in the process.  This meant that less competent teachers could be hired, and this fit in nicely with the work-averse attitudes of so many students.  Students flocked to easy teachers and soft majors, like business and communications, and the schools got worse and worse. 

My students were just products of all these things. But even so, it made me sick.  I was almost embarrassed to be a part of it.  Some students rebelled against the corporate model, but not many.  Most just accepted it, and no wonder, since they grew up in a world in which making money and avoiding thought were not just normal but exalted. 

The Road Beckons

I could go on, tell you more about the demise of higher education and give chapter and verse on my deteriorating mental and physical health, but I am sure you get the picture. In 1988, I moved to Pittsburgh from Johnstown and commuted on Route 22 for the next thirteen years. You probably see what’s coming.  I got sick of teaching and decided to quit.  I turned fifty-five in January of 2001.  Our four children were on their own.  The stock market had been booming for five years, and my pension fund had nearly doubled.  At fifty-five, I could withdraw money from it without tax penalty.  My wife and I had made two cross-country trips, in 1997 and 1999.  We loved just driving from place to place, seeing new things. We began to plan for my retirement, and we decided that when that day came we would leave Western Pennsylvania for good.

That day did come in April 2001.  Our original plan was to move to Manhattan that month.  I was supposed to work for Monthly Review magazine.  But in December 2000, we hit some snags, and it became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to do this.  At first we were crushed; we had just assumed that this was going to happen.  We regrouped quickly.  On our two previous trips, we met couples who had worked in National Parks and enjoyed it.  We liked the idea and applied for jobs at five of them. All offered us employment, and we chose the largest, Yellowstone National Park. 

We resolved that we would travel light.  We decided to give our possessions—except our clothes, my laptop computer, and an old car—to our children, and, what they didn’t want, we would give to friends or to Goodwill.  We made a list of everything and gave a copy to each child.  Each chose the things he or she wanted, and we then divided it all as fairly as we could.  We filled up several van loads of furniture, beds, book shelves, computers, stereos, radios, filing cabinets, rugs, kitchen equipment, framed prints and paintings, and all the other gadgets and contraptions people collect in a lifetime, and we moved them to our children’s apartments.  We packed the rest and drove it to friends’ houses and to my mother’s. We made a dozen trips to Goodwill.  I put all my books and journals in boxes I got from a maintenance man at school and had most of them delivered to the college library.  The rest I gave to friends and students I liked.  My office couch and coffee table, I gave to the woman I had commuted to work with for thirteen years.  One gloomy day after Christmas, I went to my office and threw away nearly all my lecture notes, files, and personal papers, even thirty-two years worth of grade sheets.  I wanted to end the old and begin the new.

My friend, Bruce Williams, with whom I had plotted and schemed and played basketball at school for thirty years, planned my big retirement party for the end of April.  On March 27, 2001, he died.  His wife and his daughter (my goddaughter) tried to revive him, but he just gurgled and passed away.  I lived the next two weeks in a haze.  I made small talk for hours at the funeral home.  I listened to the orations in the church.  I helped carry the heavy casket to the grave site.  Friends insisted on a retirement celebration, and I agreed to have one at the college.  The president gave me the traditional silver (plated) bowl, and I was made professor emeritus.  Kind words were said about me, and I made some remarks.  I cried at the end when I mentioned my friend.  The next week, we drove back to the school and took pictures of our favorite places along that Pennsylvania road I had traveled so many times: three nursing homes, Gene & Boots Candy, the Cheese House, Thatchers Motel—where a tractor-trailer truck once hit us—and, of course, Climax Gentlemen’s Club.

We packed our Plymouth van, left our apartment in Pittsburgh on April 29, and headed west on the beckoning road.  We have been on it ever since.

I have arranged this book chronologically, both because this helps to give my observations a good flow and offers me a natural way to introduce and discuss the book’s main themes.  Here let me outline our five-year itinerary and present the themes.  We worked at Yellowstone through the summer of 2001, me as a hotel desk clerk and my wife as a restaurant host.  During our stay there, the New York deal went through, and in November 2002, we moved to Manhattan, delayed two months by the events of September 11.  We lasted a year in New York City; then the wanderlust struck again.  After a brief stay in Miami Beach, we traveled, with our twin sons, to Portland, Oregon, where we lived for fourteen months.  Before leaving there, we stored our few belongings in a U-Haul storage facility outside the city. We then embarked on a four-month road trip, making a 7,000 mile loop, south to the deserts of California, north and east and finally west, through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and back to Oregon.  

There, we had a hitch attached to our (new Dodge) van, rented a small U-Haul, emptied our storage space, and drove to my mother’s home in Western Pennsylvania.  We put our possessions, by now down to about twenty boxes, in mom’s basement, and after visits with our children, now living in Pittsburgh and Arlington, Virginia, we drove to Miami Beach, where we lived by the ocean for seven months.  On May 1, 2005, we drove north and west through Florida, along the soon-to-be devastated Gulf Coast, across the vast spaces of Texas, and back to our favorite haunts in New Mexico and Colorado.  In July, we headed east again to see family and friends.  We lasted not quite a month in the hot and polluted regions around Pittsburgh and Washington, DC, more anxious every day to get back West.  After a stop in Joplin, Missouri to visit Karen’s sister, we drove to Flagstaff, Arizona, where we remained for a month.  We then drove north to Utah to visit a friend before going to Estes Park, Colorado. 

On all of our road trips, we stayed in cheap motels and cooked our meals on a two-burner hotplate—hence the title of this book.  We did our own cooking because we are particular about what we eat.  We have three sons who work in restaurants, and we know too much about the quality of food served in all but the best of them.  Had we not cooked, our health and energy levels would certainly have deteriorated.  In addition, it is too expensive to regularly dine out, even at fast-food establishments.  My pension might have grown during the big bull market of the late 1900s, but our income was still modest.  Similarly, cheap motels were our only viable housing choice.  We learned quickly how to find a decent room at a good price, typically using the motel coupon books found in state visitor centers or by shopping around in whatever town we happened to be.  

Themes of the Book

Ironically, one of the things we learned in our travels around the United States is that there are people living in cheap motels and cooking on hotplates out of economic necessity.  In a rundown motel in Redding, California, we saw Hispanic immigrants hanging their laundry over the second-floor railing.  Not long after this, we read an article in the Washington Post about computer programmers, downsized out of their jobs, who now roam the country doing contract work and living in cheap motels.  And National Public Radio did a segment on the popularity of George Foreman Grills for people living without cooking facilities.  

People living in motels represent one extreme (along with homelessness) on a housing spectrum marked by grotesque inequality.  And housing is just one kind of inequality in a nation where the growing gap between rich and poor is endemic and epidemic.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, our newspapers were filled with stories about the sharp economic divide.  If only reporters had taken the time to get to know their own country. Inequality cannot be missed by anyone willing to look and see.  You have to be like some of my old students, willfully ignorant, to miss it.

Inequality, then, is one of this book’s themes.  Another is work.  It is hard not to notice—in grocery stores, in Wal-Marts, in drugstores, in motels, on road crews, in hospitals, in convenience stores, in restaurants, in retail outlets like Office Depot, Circuit City, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Marshalls, and the Gap, in Starbucks, in bookstores, in jewelry stores, in the national parks and monuments, in bakeries, in banks, in laundromats, in post offices, in apartment buildings, in parking garages, at the beaches, in bars, in call centers, in real estate agencies, in visitors’ centers, in car dealerships, in insurance agencies, in state and federal government offices, on farms and ranches, on fishing boats, in colleges and universities, in doctor’s, dentist’s, and optometrist’s offices, and on construction sites—that tens of millions of people nationwide perform labor that is neither interesting nor rewarding.  Very few of the hundreds of workers with whom we came in contact during our travels earned high wages, and most of them worked in, at best, tolerable conditions. We saw right away that the more onerous the work, the more likely it was that a person of color did the job.  White motel housekeepers were rare, as were white kitchen employees and farm laborers.  Just as there is housing apartheid in the United States, so too is there an evident color line in the world of toil.

The destruction of the natural world is the third theme of this book.  Two of the most noticeable features of the American landscape are its growing uniformity and our disregard for beauty.  With few exceptions, one small or medium-sized town could be substituted for any other: highways leading into and out of town clogged with traffic and crawling with strip malls, the same fast-food restaurants and stores everywhere.  The downtown areas, which often show signs of once having been thriving social and commercial centers and possessing an aesthetic sensibility, are now shells of their former selves.  Storefronts are boarded up, and only the poor and troubled live there.  By early evening the streets are empty. In towns with the good fortune to be located in beautiful settings—such as Flagstaff, Arizona; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Port Angeles, Washington—you see similar things, although there are variations worth noting.  Fine stone houses in central Flagstaff have been subdivided and converted into small businesses or made into apartments, in both cases losing their integrity and charm. Tourists abound, but few live there.  In Santa Fe, the downtown is inhabited almost solely by wealthy tourists; you can’t buy groceries or sundries anywhere near the famous central plaza.  Like the French Quarter in pre-Katrina New Orleans, Santa Fe’s central spaces more and more resemble urban theme parks than places where local lives are lived.  In both Flagstaff and Santa Fe, the main entry roads are choked with traffic and polluted with automobile emissions.  Flagstaff and Port Angeles also suffer foul air from a downtown petroleum plant and lumber mill, respectively.

Throughout the United States, even in places you wouldn’t expect—Twentynine Palms, California; Bozeman and Kalispell, Montana; and Newport, Oregon—there is sprawl.  Cities expand and give way to suburbs, and what used to be rural areas have become the exurbs New York Times columnist David Brooks extols, though not enough to live in one.  More people, more roads, more cookie-cutter housing developments, shopping malls, and industrial parks, and on and on, without plan or sense of harmony, the landscape is devoured. Trees are cut down; power lines and power plants are built; dams are constructed; hills are leveled; road repairs and construction go on relentlessly day and night.  The constant “development” encroaches on our forests, mountains, and deserts, our streams, rivers, and oceans.  Outside Miami, housing developments have been shrinking the Everglades for decades. The sprawls that are Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas have ruined deserts, rivers, mountains, and canyons.  Nothing escapes “Progress.”  Even our glorious National Parks grow more polluted every year.

Growing inequality, trivial and alienating labor, and environmental despoliation—these are the things we have witnessed.  We saw many beautiful, exhilarating, and wondrous places, but the excitement we felt was always somehow cheapened by our growing understanding that they cannot be enjoyed by all.  And none of them are so safe that future generations can be certain of their continued existence, much less their capacity to give pleasure.

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Michael D. Yates is the Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com. He welcomes comments.

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