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When Elvis Died

Named after an essay by Lester Bangs, a rock journalist and one of the my favorite authors, this blog is my scratch pad for ideas, commentaries, and links.


Excavating the Great Depression in England

(Note: This post is part of Day of Archaeology 2014.  Check out the many interesting stories they're posting today. Thanks to them for letting me take part!)

Photo of the Jarrow unemployment march. Image from 2013, Dr. David Petts (Department of Archaeology, Durham University) and I have been building a project to study the landscapes and material remains of the Great Depression in the Northeast of England.  One of the defining historical events of the 20th century, the Great Depression is often associated in the US with the stock market crash of 1929, bread lines, shanty towns, and eventually, the New Deal and creation of the modern social welfare state.  In the UK, the situation was slightly different. For one thing, parts of England had been in poor economic straits since a slump that followed World War I.  Likewise, the Great Depression in the UK was highly regionalized in its effects, with areas like the Northeast seeing extremely high unemployment, while other areas saw only modest drops in unemployment. And responses to the depression were likewise regionalized--there were almost no national policy initiatives on the order of the New Deal in the US.

But there were responses at regional and local levels, and most importantly for our purposes, many of these responses involved changes to the landscape.  They involved the construction of work camps, new settlements to house the unemployed, works projects that improved infrastructure, and much more.  The Great Depression was a material event, and a record of it is recoverable archaeologically.  This has certainly been the case in other parts of the wold, where a growing literature exists from archaeologists who have tackled the Great Depression through sites created in its wake. Much of this literature likewise shows that responses to the Great Depression were neither altruistic nor completely embraced by participants. For example, my colleagues LouAnn Wurst and Christine Ridarsky (2014) have evaluated attempts at farm resettlement in western New York state to improve the lives of "poor" farmers during the 1930s and found that the farmers were not actually that poor to begin with, and that the plan was largely about regional land grabbing.  Barker and Lamb (2009) used data from an unemployment camp in Queensland, Australia to complicate the concept of the "undeserving" and "deserving" poor.  And St. Denis (2002) showed how, despite the best efforts of the administrators of the Prince Albert logging camp in Saskatchewan, excavations show that workers drank and smoked when they could get away with it, perhaps offsetting anxieties about the larger economy with sociality and revelry. 

In the U.K., there has been almost no archaeological study of sites related to the Great Depression, and no systematic accounting of such sites.  David and I are hoping to change that with a project that will examine a few case studies where individuals and groups tried to ameliorate the awful conditions of the Depression through changes in the landscape.  And when we started looking into the types of sites we could incorporate into our study, we were astounded at their variety and scale.  There were proper work camps such as the one at Hamsterley forest, educational settlements and training schemes such as the Spennymoor settlement, resettlement and agricultural schemes such as the Moorhouse Farm settlement in Eaglescliffe (Perley 1985), and much more.  Some of these schemes came from national programs and initiatives such as the Special Areas Act of 1934, which designated certain parts of the UK as regions in need of assistance. Others were local, set up by individuals and groups with an interest in curbing the worst excesses of the economic downturn. 

We are working on funding a project to examine some of these places, but we have already had some success with an early case study:  Heartbreak Hill, near Margrove Park village in the East Cleveland region of North Yorkshire (Chase and Whyman 1991, Chase 2000, Chase 2010).  David has written about the history of this site, as have other bloggers.  Suffice it to say, this was a combination work camp/allotment scheme for unemployed Ironstone miners, part of a larger scheme of three parcel areas called the Community Cultivation Association.  Set up by a local wealthy landlord and his wife (James and Ruth Pennyman of Ormesby Hall), it was run and managed by British naturalist, folk scholar, and arch-conservative Rolf Gardiner.  It included amongst its participants the composer Michael Tippett, and it ran for much of the 1930s, possibly longer.  Today the land on which the site sits is unimproved hilly pasture, and it had not been significantly utilized prior to the 1930s, so David and I suspected that there might be some pieces of the depression-era landscape still present on the surface or underneath. 

Map showing the locations of the CCA parcels, from Petts and Lewis 2013.

We received a small grant from the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University to undertake geophysical survey and compile some background research.  Earlier this year, a survey team from Durham's Archaeological Services used magnetometry to survey part of the site.  The results, visible in the map below, are suggestive of several subsurface human-deposited features. According to the geophysical analysis, the anomalies in the southwest corner of Area 1, all of Area 2, and the North-Central part of Area 4 represent likely areas of deposition of some kind of material with a magnetic signaturem, perhaps architectural refuse.  Further testing in these areas may allow us to determine the exact nature of these anomalies. 


Map showing geophysical results at Heartbreak Hill.

However, David and I were also intrigued by many of the standing or visible structures present in the field today.  We found numerous brick huts scattered across the site, as well as other scatters of brick and stone that may represent ruined outbuildings from the allotment scheme.  The brick structures below are similar in design, but are separated by nearly a half mile, on parcels of land used for completely different purposes today. What they have in common is that they are both in areas that were used during periods of CCA activity.  

 Photos showing similar brick structures on Heartbreak Hill and Dartmoor Parcels, respectively

We also noticed several portable items of material culture that one would not expect to be present on unimproved pasture-land. During a rudimentary surface survey, we noticed white-bodied 19th/early 20th century ceramics, a glass medicine bottle, and fragments of coal.  One of the most striking finds was a linear scatter of bricks running over 10 meters in one of the current fields.  This scatter, visible in the photo below, was later confirmed by Mark Whyman, one of the authors of a book on Heartbreak Hill (Chase and Whyman 1991), to be in the same location as a brick-lined garden plot setup by the CCA.  

David and I are optimistic that there is more work to be done at Heartbreak Hill and perhaps at the other CCA parcels.  One thing we would like to do is put together a community-led recording project to carefully document each of the standing structures and ruins at the site.  This could be combined with further testing at the site to see if there are more subsurface remains to be found.  Depending upon how extensive the archaeological record is, we are also interested in more social and political questions. We are particulary interested in how the miners who worked at the site made it their own--for example, were they able to bring items from home, or to otherwise mark off pieces of this "collective" allotment scheme as theirs?  Such questions could also be asked at many of the other sites mentioned earlier, and we hope to have the opportunity to investigate them soon.  

Aside from archaeology being a novel way to investigate the Great Depression, we find ourselves more broadly comparing the kinds of responses that were attempted in the 1930s to the current attempts to intervene in the most recent economic downturn, now in its sixth year. These have largely inhabited the arcane world of monetary policy, or have involved the dismantling of government programs, some of which were first initiated during the Great Depression, under the heading of "austerity".  We do not have any strong conclusions to draw in this comparison, but we are struck by the ways in which place-making seemed to be such a strong aspect of 1930s responses--for example, Heartbreak Hill was named for the difficult conditions of its production, while the other parcels were named for local flora.  Conversely, many of the contemporary responses have been about de-territorializing--allowing, encouraging, or forcing the free flow of money across borders, out of public institutions, and out of the hands of individuals and communities in the name of laissez faire capitalism, regardless of historical or spatial circumstances.  In any case, we believe that an archaeology of the Great Depression can locate the contingent, complex, and contradictory landscapes that emerged in its wake, and allow us to understand the Great Depression at a more human scale. 


Barker, Bryce, and Lara Lamb (2009)  The Archaeology of Poverty and Human Dignity:  Charity and the Work Ethic in a 1930s Depression Era Itinerant’s Camp on the Toowoomba Range Escarpment, Queensland. Archaeologies:  The Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 5(2): 263–279.

Chase, Malcom (2000)  Heartbreak Hill: Environment, Unemployment and “Back to the Land” in Inter-war Cleveland. Oral History 28(1): 33–42.

Chase, Malcom (2010)  Unemployment without protest:  the ironstone mining communities of East Cleveland in the inter-war period. In Unemployment and Protest:  New Perspectives on Two Centuries of Contention, edited by M Reiss and M Perry, pp. 265–282. Oxford Univeristy Press, Oxford, U.K.

Chase, Malcom, and Mark Whyman (1991)  Heartbreak Hill:  A Response to Unemployment in East Cleveland in the 1930s. Cleveland County Council.

Perley, Doris (1985) The Moorhouse Farm Estate, Eaglescliffe.  Unpublished Dissertation in Local History. Teesside Polytechnic.  

Petts, David and Quentin Lewis (2013) “Heartbreak Hill: Towards an Archaeology of the Great Depression” Paper presented at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Theory Conference, University College London, London, UK.

St. Denis, Michael (2002)  Camp #9:  An Historical and Archaeological Investigation of a Depresion Era Relief Camp in Prince Albert National Park. Unpublished MA, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Wurst, LouAnn and Christine L. Ridarsky (2014) "The Second Time as Farce: Archaeological Reflections on the New New Deal." International Journal of Historical Archaeology 18:3, pp. 224-241.


Review: "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap" by Matt Taibbi

Thomas Piketty's book "Capital in the 21st Century" has been receiving substantial praise (and more than a little criticism) for highlighting the historical trajectories of wealth inequality, and has added ammunition to the ongoing conversation about the economics of the contemporary world.  But another book, published nearly at the same, sketches the more insidious and overlooked contours and manifestations of wealth inequality outside the economic realm. Matt Taibbi's "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap" highlights the striking divergence of legal, political, and social experiences of the rich and the poor in the United States.  Rather than focusing, as Piketty does, on measures of wealth, Taibbi shows how the hallowed principle of equal protection under the law has become a laughable farce in any number of arenas of American life.  He sums up American culture and politics with a stark assessment: "We have a profound hatred for the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we're building a bureaucracy to match those feelings." (xx) With that bureaucracy, which consists of a vast constellation of state and private institutions, programs, and legal apparatuses, contemporary America has come to rest upon "the implicit idea that some people simply have more rights than others. Some people go to jail, and others just don't." (xix) This is the Divide from which Taibbi's title comes--on one side, a world in which the intensive gaze of law enforcement leads to disproportionate arrest, any state benefits come with intrusive, capricious, humiliating regulations, and the most marginal people are forced to remain marginal through expensive, time-consuming navigation of deliriously complex institutions.  Alongside this labyrinthine system is the world of high finance, a world in which freedom from scrutiny and regulation, aggressive flouting of convention and law, and a casual disregard any kind of human decency are traits to be honored, and, as Taibbi flatly states "a person with enough money literally cannot be prosecuted for certain kinds of crimes." (325)

Taibbi's interest in just how different the experience of the justice system is for people at opposite ends of the economic spectrum grew out of his longstanding, impassioned reporting of the 2008 economic crisis and its subsequent aftershocks.  His 2010 book "Griftopia:  Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con that is Breaking America" explained in clear language what happened in 2008, and how the quest for newer, riskier ways to make money led to the collapse of the banking sector and nearly cratered the world economy.  His subsequent reporting for Rollingstone Magazine charted the further excesses of multinational finance.  But what struck Taibbi during this time was that, despite the mountains of evidence of gross fraud and misconduct, almost none of the central players in the 2008 crisis, or any banking scandal since then, have gone to jail.  Fines, some of them unprecedented in US History, have been levied against corporations, but there have been no prison sentences.

The explanation for this comes from the prosecutorial strategy of "Collateral Consequences".  The essence of this concept is that large fines are a better punishment for corporate malfeasance than arrests, and Taibbi explains the geneaology of this concept, developed by Attorney General Eric Holder while working in the Clinton Justice Department, and how it came to be the standard practice in corporate prosecution.  But Taibbi is highly critical of Collateral Consequences, arguing that it has turned what was a stop-gap position allowing the prosecution of more cases into an excuse for not punishing corporate fraud.  To highligh this, he uses three massive fraud cases--the Lehman Brothers buyout, the Chase-Washington Mutual Episode, and the attempted destruction of Fairfax Financial Holdings by a group of shortsellers--explaining these seemingly mystifying cases of financial misconduct and fraud in clear terms, and ultimately how "Collateral Consequences" led to almost everyone involved getting off not only scot-free, but with piles of money to their names.

At the same time that the banking industry has been growing into the behemoth of "Too Big to Jail", incarceration rates for other crimes have continuted to increase, despite a drop in violent crime in the United States.  Again, the Clinton Administration were responsible for much of this pattern. It was Clinton's attempts to "end welfare as we know it" through increasing requirements and scrutiny of recipients, as well as numerous other "tough-on-crime" initiatives in the 1990s that have created the increasingly horrific and humiliating circumstances faced by the poor in the United States.  Taibbi's incredibly rich stories here are almost case-studies in the way in which poverty is criminalized in numerous areas of American life.  He follows multiple people through their experiences with the US justice system, the US immigration system, and the Welfare benefits system, showing how, at every step, individuals and families have to give up basic rights of privacy, access to speedy or fair trials, and any money or time they might happen to have scraped together. His descriptions of welfare recipients having their homes ransacked and their consumption habits interogated for evidence of fraud is particularly horrifying, but the numerous stories he tells of individuals caught up in mass arrests by New York City police officers for the most innocous or mundane habits (Taibbi finds peope arrested for standing in front of their homes at night, possesing a pink magic marker, or smoking a rolled cigarette) are equally disgusting and mystifying.  And Taibbi notes that, in all three of the legal domains he surveys, the complexity of the institutions and bureaucracies responsible frequently make mistakes, funnelling innocent people into inescapable legal, economic, and political situations of poverty and misery

Reading these two strands alongside each other highlights the hypocrisy inherent in both systems.  As Taibbi says "That's what nobody gets, that the two approaches to justice individually make a kind of sense, but side by side they're a dystopia, where common city courts become factories for turning poor people into prisoners, while federal prosecutors on the white-collar beat turn into overpriced garbage men, who behind closed doors quietly dispose of the sins of the rich for a fee." (82) Convictions of welfare fraud leads to a loss of essential benefits by people already marginalized, while corporate fraud is treated with, at best, economic punishments that barely dent yearly profits.  Undocumented immigrants face a nightmarish world of fines and fees, incarceration without habeus corpus, and danger to life and limb if they come into any kind of contact with the police (who are required to turn over any undocumented immigrant to the Immigration service).  At the same time, international finantial crime routinely crosses borders and uses the static qualities of national law to avoid prosecution for crimes.  Taibbi starkly notes that drug possesion charges, even minor ones "can ruin a person's chances for obtaining a student loan or a governmen job... nix his or her chances of getting housing aid or a whole range of services... You can lose your right to vote and your access to financial aid. You can even have your children taken away." (51) One of the most striking examples of the hypocricy of the Divide that Taibbi documents occurs on the day the US Justice Department announced a record fine against HSBC for its involvement in drug and terrorism money laundering. On that day, a man Taibbi spoke to was heading to Rikers Island prison for a stint of 40 days for a half-smoked joint found in his pocket during a "Stop and Frisk" episode.  While the bank paid an extraordinary fine (though not a damaging one for a multi-billion dollar institution) for its role in funding and provisioning the global drug trade and its concomittant violence, a non-violent man with a technically legal amount of Marijuana in his pocket did more jail time than anyone at HSBC. 

"Fight the Vampire Squid!" Molly Crabapple's poster from Occupy Wall StreetThere is so much richness to Taibbi's accounts that it's difficult to not say more about this book (his discussion of the shady world of robo-signed credit card default judgements is as sinister as it is unbelieveable).  Suffice it to say, the book is a valuable primer for the extra-economic aspects of income inequality, and a stark reminder that there is more to class divide than simply access to wealth or lack of it.  The entire structure of contemporary American life appears as what Taibbi colorfully describes as "a florid and malevolent bureaucracy that mostly (not absolutely, but mostly) keeps the rich and the poor separate through thousands of tiny, scarcely visible inequities." (xxii) Taibbi's book is not pleasant reading, and doesn't leave one optimistic about prospects for change, but it is a powerful and rich reminder that inequality is not merely a question of wealth and numbers--it is a constellation of ruined lives, dystopian legal systems, and hypocritical treatments of identical crimes.  

The book is worth the cost alone for the illustrations by noted artist Molly Crabapple, whose delightfully detailed and nightmarishly cartoonish drawings sketch the Divide as a kind of Boschian hellscape of gears, mouths, and faceless monsters.    



Authenticity under foot in Yarm, UK

Yarm High Street. Image courtesy of

 (Written with Alanna Rudzik)

Visitors to the town of Yarm, situated along the Tees River in the United Kingdom, will find a quaint and aesthetically striking High Street, enclosed by a loop in the river, lined on either side with historic-looking buildings, and paved from one end to the other with large cobblestones.  Last month, construction work began replacing some of the cobbles around the town hall with smoother paving stone and walkways designed to ease access to the Town Hall and adjacent war memorial.  This work has been met with protests from a number of residents and business owners, who say that the removal of the cobbles will destroy the aesthetic character of the town.  In particular, residents concerned about the paving highlight the changes to the "look and feel" of the High Street, and that the cobbles represent an "historic" centerpiece of the town.  

Replacement of Yarm cobbles with flat stone paving. Image by the author. Residents have some justification for seeing the cobblestones as historic artifacts.  The paving of busy streets in England dates to the 14th-16th century (Jorgenson 2008:  553-554).  It is unclear when Yarm's cobbles were installed, but the town was given a market charter in 1207, and its impressive stone bridge, spanning the Tees river between County Durham and North Yorkshire,  originally dates to the late 14th century.  It is therefore quite possible that the cobbles were installed by the local town authority in the 15th century, when Yarm was a thriving market town seeing frequent foot-traffic from merchants, farmers, and other visitors.  But of course, cobble streets with heavy traffic need frequent upkeep to prevent unevenness or sagging, and it is unlikely that the individual cobbles on Yarm's High Street are dateable to the Middle Ages.  Likewise, photographs from the 19th century suggest a coarser High Street, perhaps one even paved with portions of inlaid gravel.  Indeed, it may be possible that the cobbles on the High Street today are  of a  much more recent vintage than the 15th century.  

The rest of Yarm's built environment certainly mixes historic and modern.  Some of the buildings on the High Street date to the 17th-18th century, such as the square town hall (pictured above), but many others are deceptively modern. Unlike nearby Stockton-on-Tees, under whose authority Yarm is managed, Yarm's High Street is relatively unified around a Georgian aesthetic, such that even its modern buildings keep the square symmetry that typifies Georgian architecture (Deetz 1996: 158-160).  This 18th century aesthetic is of course belied by the asphalt road that runs the length of the High Street, the hundreds of cars that park along the street every day, and the visible presence of Costa Coffee and Sainsbury's groceries, not by any means ancient amenities. But residents and visitors subsume these anachronistic consumer conveniences underneath Yarm's historical "look and feel". The town's aesthetic, mixing historical referents, upscale consumer spaces, and the idyllic naturalism of the loop of the Tees River has led to the town being voted "Best High Street in Britain" by BBC Breakfast viewers.

Protesting residents see the recent repaving as yet another heavy-handed intervention by the Borough Council of Stockton-on-Tees, of which Yarm is a part.  The recent imposition of parking charges on the High Street has likewise inspired the ire of residents, as have rather arcane but important debates about new build housing developments in the area.  This conflict reached a fever pitch last month, with local residents holding a referend for whether Yarm should leave Stockton and be put under the authority of the County of North Yorkshire, though it is unlikely that the municipal services that Stockton provides to Yarm would be replicated in full under North Yorkshire's watch.  The referendum saw a very low turnout, though it passed overwhelmingly, pointing to a core of residents passionately invested in a certain vision for the town amidst a more general uncertainty or disinterest. If comments on news stories are to be believed, there is also more than a hint of political resentment between the largely Conservative business and resident community of Yarm and the Labour party stronghold of the Stockton Borough Council.

The great irony, of course, is that what the Stockton Borough Council is doing today is identical to what the Yarm burghers were doing when they first installed cobblestones on the High Street hundreds of years ago--trying to solve a problem of access and heavy traffic.  The attention Yarm is receiving from Stockton is a signal of Yarm's importance, even if the process of decision making and the actual changes have been clumsily enacted.  From the Council's point of view, improvements and new revenue streams will provide aid to the ailing Borough, bereft of its manufacturing base and economically depressed, particularly since the current Conservative government has cut off funding for many previously funded services. From their perspective, it is likely that improved access to the Yarm High Street is vital for such a goal and the removal of some of the cobblestones is a small price to pay.  Conversely, residents fixated upon the cobblestone removal are making a point about larger issues of political and economic control. 

Claims of historical authenticity are, of course, never about the specific age of an artifact or space. Scholars of historic preservation have long noted the ambiguity inherent in trying to reconstruct historic spaces as they were--issues of of modern comfort and convenience often clash with historic building forms.  Indeed, there is often great tension over exactly what makes a space, a building, or an object historically authentic.  As Jones and Yarrow (2013) note, the authenticity of historic structures can be rooted in their material fabric, a historical aesthetic using new materials, or even the traditional nature of the architectural practices used by restorers. For the cobbles of the Yarm High Street, their physical and material authenticity rests underneath a more general affective quality that links ideas about English village life, historical reference, and middle class consumerism.  Rather than being an accurate accounting of age, claims of authenticity are about the extent to which objects, spaces, or buildings from the past can be used to intervene in the present, and point to larger social, political, and economic contexts.  The debate over Yarm's cobbles is a case in point. 

Text References

Deetz, James F (1996) In Small Things forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Anchor Press.

Jones, S. & Yarrow, T. (2013). Crafting authenticity: An ethnography of conservation practice. Journal of Material Culture 18(1): 3-26.

Jorgenson, Dolly (2008) "Cooperative Sanitation: Managing Streets and Gutters in Late Medieval England and Scandinavia" Technology and Culture. 49: 3, pp. 547-567.  



"The Dreams in the Witch House"

Hey all--Halloween is here again, and I've added another HP Lovecraft story to the list over at the When Elvis Died Podcast.  This year's addition is "The Dreams in the Witch House"

Check out Part 1 here.

 Part 2 is here.

Part 3 (the conclusion) is here.

Happy Halloween!


The materiality of the "bedroom tax" and its discontents

Last Saturday, towns and cities across the UK saw a co-ordinated, mass protest against the so-called "Bedroom Tax".  This protest, entitled "The Mass Sleep-out" consisted of protesters camping out in public spaces overnight, sometimes in quite nasty conditions, to draw attention to this policy.

 Tent at the Mass Sleepout in Darlington. Photo by the Author

Currently, the UK government offers a subsidy to unemployed and underemployed people to help pay for the cost of housing.  This new policy (officially titled the "Under-occupancy Penalty") will reduce the amount given to people who are found to be living in accomodations with too many bedrooms.  

The protesters I met in Darlington (as well as other critics) argued that this policy will lead to people being rendered homeless, as the reduction in benefit will prevent them from paying their rent.  Thus, the Mass Sleep out was intended to show the inevitable consequences of the bedroom tax--namely, people sleeping in tents in English weather. 

This policy strikes me as the worst kind of poor-bashing.  Implicit in the Bedroom Tax is the idea that people on benefits are living way beyond their means, holding onto spacious flats when they don't need them, and living the caricature of the slobbish, greedy Chav so eloquently articlated and deconstructed in Owen Jones recent book.  This same caricature exists in America.  Indeed, the image of poor people buying and living in housing that they can't afford forms the backbone of conservative narratives about the 2008 financial crisis. Likewise, the image of poor people abusing social services has long been a popular discourse in the US, though it is highly racialized.

It is the very materiality of houses that makes the bedroom tax so cruel and impractical.   Housing is not like other kinds of social benefits.  It is not portable, for one thing.  Moving house is not easy, nor is it particularly cheap, and the idea that the bedroom tax will force occupants to simply find more suitable accomodations belies the difficulty that people have doing so even in the best of circumstances.  For people with limited or fixed incomes, moving house is not something easily or casually done and this policy forces that eventuality.

Likewise, the tax ignores the complexities and vagaries of family life.  Under the scheme, any family with a spare bedroom faces reduced subsidies unless they move house, or fill the room.  But the scheme makes no provision for the circumstances under which this takes place--a family member dying, a child moving out, etc... Furthermore, the concept of the bedroom as a discrete space belies the multivalent and productive ways in which people make use of rooms. To take my family as an example, we use our second bedroom as a workspace, as a place for family to stay when they visit, as a place to relax, as a place to store personal and financial documents, and a lot more.  The idea that simply having a spare bedroom means that one is wasteful takes a crude and narrow vision of productivity.   

But more than that, it is the very loaded symbolism of homes that makes this tax and its consequences so pernicous.  As archaeologists have long documented, homes are more than just a roof over ones head.  They are powerful emotional and affective "artifacts" that we invest with important social and symbolic dimensions.  Homes are places of safety, of comfort, of family and its maintenence and growth.  Conservative politicians, who publicly value family life as the bedrock of social order, seem to be taking a narrow view of its material manifestations in their policies.  

The bedroom tax  is part of a suite of policies proposed and enacted by the Conservative government of the UK as part of the Welfare Reform Act of 2012.  This proposal is one of the key planks of the government's Austerity policy, designed to reduce government debt, of which welfare and social payments are a significant (though not overwhelming) percentage. Recent analysis has suggested that austerity politics is not the economic accelerator that its proponents claim. More forceful critics, such as David Harvey, suggest that austerity is a key political tool of class war, designed to shut down state social services and re-organize capitalist class relations.

For my part, I was inspired by the folks who came to the Darlington Mass Sleep out.  They were articulate, committed, and fun people who clearly care about their community, and have a clear-eyed vision of its problems and potentials.  Here's hoping that the government hears what they, and thousands more across the UK, have to say.



Darlington people against the bedroom tax

The Mass Sleep Out



"Excavating" American Conservative Utopias

On January 10th, 2013, conservative radio and former TV talk-show host Glenn Beck announced his intention to construct a place called “Independence, USA”, equal parts residential community, media center, and amusement park. Beck spent most of his show providing a tour of this space, complete with digital maps and his own unique brand of commentary. Independence, USA's goal, as Beck articulated, was to create a space which would instill his ideas about American values, and put those values into practice. Beck’s eclectic persona has always involved combining the highly moralized conservative discourses and symbols with broadcast entertainment. This segment was no exception, providing a whirlwind tour of this hypothetical place, which would simultaneously be a living community of houses and businesses, and a beacon to the rest of the world, to “show you the truth of the ideas and ideals that created this country.” What Beck articulated was a kind of American conservative utopia, and in that, he is not alone. Independence, USA is one of several recently proposed Utopian plans that are constructed based on conservative political principles.

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Reading "Chavs" in Stockton and Teeside

Owen Jones' "Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class" has been making the rounds in my house. My wife bought it, and read it, and then passed it to me. It's a powerful book, breaking down stereotypes about poor and working people in England, and also contextualizing those stereotypes within the larger economic and political changes in Britain over the last 30 years. The term "Chav" is pretty derogatory in England. It's a term of dubious origin but which has come to mean the violent, disorderly, ignorant, and over-sexualized poor person continually on welfare. There isn't really a US equivalent--"Hick" or "Redneck" might be the closest thing, but neither of those terms have the same bite as "Chav". And yet, despite it's offensive connotations, it pops up a lot in public life over here. There are websites devoted to criticisms ...

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Clipboards and Context 

Please note:  The following is cross-posted with Then Dig, an archaeology group blog.  It's part of a group of in which archaeologists write about their favorite tools.  Thanks to Terry Brock for putting this "session" together. 

Archaeologists love their trowels, but for my money, when I go into the field, the thing I want with me at all times is my clipboard.

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Making a cover for my Kindle from an old book

Alanna and I recently got Kindle readers as a wedding present.  Woo hoo!  We both love them, and are enjoying them immensely. 

However, I'm pretty rough and tumble with my gadgets, and I knew that I would need something to protect the kindle.  There are some really nice cases available from Amazon, and elsewhere (I particularly like the oberon cases).  But I'm pretty broke these days, and that, combined with some inspiration, led me to the idea of making my own kindle cover. 

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Review: The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America

I've always loved comic books, ever since my folks bought me a multi-pack at Walmart in the late 1980s.    Almost immediately, I found that comics became a means to relationships.  Many of my longest friendships over the years were fortified by comic books.  Chatting during my wedding reception, the Minister of Intrigue and I realized that comics were the thing that first got our now-19 year friendship going.  Similarly, DHP and I have had many intense discussions over as many years about Sandman, Preacher, and more. Although comics have always had characteristics that attracted me--unique art, compelling storytelling, collectibility, etc...--what made them so important to me was the sense of community.

David Hajdu's new book "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America " is about the community that first created comic books.    It is also a story of how a combination of mob mentality, political opportunism, and junk science almost destroyed that community.  As such, it ends up being kind of a tragedy, even as it glorifies human creativity and stands as a powerful polemic for free speech. 

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