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An Associated Press story on Switzerland's 150-year practice of forced child labor in the name of overcoming poverty has underscored the evil reality behind Newt Gingrich's recent comments on child labor. Gingirch declared that it’s not failing schools that trap kids in a cycle of poverty — it’s child labor laws,which are "truly stupid." Switzerland's program that forced impoverished children into obscene jobs and grisly working conditions, a program that, according to the AP article, ran from the early 1800s into the 1960s, is coming under new scrutiny and demands for compensation for the some 30,000 program participants still alive.

Foster families, and in some cases orphanages, were meant to provide the children with food and schooling in return for a small sum from the authorities. But in rural Switzerland, where machines didn't displace manual work until well into the 20th century, the children were just seen as cheap labor. Some authorities would hold public auctions where the bidder who asked the lowest fee for taking the children would win.

The program took children from families that could not afford them and put them to work on farms and in homes where they were often poorly cared for and abused. Their labor is seen as a part of the effort that sustained the Swiss agrarian economy even as banking and trade drew it into the 20th century.

No doubt Gingrich would embrace the use of the program to advance a social agenda:

Officially, children were only taken away from parents who were too poor to properly care for them. In practice, historians say, authorities also targeted the children of single mothers and others whom they considered to have fallen into "moral destitution."

One Swiss lawmaker describes the prevailing attitude of the time in a way that mirrors some of today's political thinking in the U.S.:

Authorities at the time regarded the children as an economic problem, not individuals in need of protection, said Jacqueline Fehr, a lawmaker with the Social Democratic Party who has campaigned on behalf of victims.

With child poverty at an all-time high, with politicians cynically calling for austerity measures while demanding economic solutions for problems requiring compassion and care, the lessons of history, as any true historian will tell you, should not be forgotten.

The Cabbage Rabbit Review of Books and Music

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The story today in The New York Times about the birth --rather than the death-- of an independent bookstore is cause for celebration. Novelist Ann Patchett, joining with much of Nashville's reading community, has spurred the opening of Parnassus Books after the closing of the city's  Davis-Kidd bookstore last December. It was Nashville's last, truly independent, non-university affiliated bookstore. The city's Outloud! Bookstore that focused on progressive and GLBT issues preceded Davis-Kidd in closure last year.

The Times article paints the dilemma in predictable terms: "...it's sort of everybody against Amazon," says Daniel Goldwin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. Of course, that's only part of the problem ...

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Thu Oct 06, 2011 at 04:23 PM PDT

Occupied Media

by Cabbage Rabbit

Any irony that the best print coverage of Occupy Wall Street is coming from overseas? Any at all?

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Since the success of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, the work of cartoonist Chris Ware has been everywhere: in art galleries on the cover of The New Yorker and the pages of The New York Times. Ware edited the 2004 landmark, all-comics edition of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Number 13 which made the new wave of comics cool (resulting in public radio and alternative arts&culture weekly attention). He was the editor of The Best American Comics 2007. His ongoing series The Acme Novelty Library is contemporary comics' greatest achievement, keeping the flavor of the serialized comic tradition (some complete with hilarious comic book ad parodies) while telling stories that are exquisitely crafted in both narrative and illustration. His latest Lint: The Acme Novelty Library, Number 20 is a life-long look at a mostly uninteresting character that tells an every man's story in its psychology and experience. Picture it...

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In the beginning, Robert Crumb’s work was all parody and cartoonish variation. Over the decades, he breathed form to illustration, bringing detail and something, at times, approaching realism while maintaining a characteristic style speckled with prickly-hair and ponderously-built men and women (but especially women). The Book of Genesis Illustrated is his longest, most ambitious creation. It's also his most real -- despite the subject matter --real relative to his style (see “A Short History of America“). As the cover declares, it contains “ALL 50 CHAPTERS” and “NOTHING LEFT OUT!” Indeed, not only does Crumb include, “every word of the original text” (derived from “several sources”, mostly Robert Alter’s 2004 translation The Five Books of Moses and the King James Version) but something of his own interpretation, no matter how innocent, expressed in his drawing. Crumb has humanized the first book of the Bible, reminding us what its suffering, nakedness, incest, murder and the fiery consequences of God's wrath look like. Picture His destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (shown after the jump)...

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It was announced Wednesday that 83-year-old poet Philip Levine will be the new U.S. Poet Laureate. In making the announcement, Librarian of Congress James Billington said, "“He’s the laureate, if you like, of the industrial heartland. It’s a very, very American voice. I don’t know that in other countries you get poetry of that quality about the ordinary workingman.”

Nor have we in America had a Poet Laureate whose experience, whose sympathies, whose writing has so reflected the working class. We Americans like our poet laureates plain-spoken--think of Billy Collins and penetratingly observant Ted Kooser -- but seldom have we had one who knows the worth,the trials and the consequences of honest labor, a poet who takes a pick axe to the hard stone of his memory and comes up with jewels. Take these two stanzas from a poem spurred by the memory of sounds his twin brother makes on coming home from a day of labor:

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray box-car at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.
--from You Can Have It, 1979

Reading Levine, whose 1991 National Book Award winner is titled What Work Is, should be required of any politician who embraces so-called American values while looking to blame the working class for real or imagined problems, of any politician who claims to speak truth. Let them hear these lines from the title poem of Levine's 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection...

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I love art, but don't have a complete understanding of why. I have no art training, can't draw, sculpt or assemble and there isn't a single "art appreciation" class in my background. But I visit galleries and museums wherever I go, love picture books that collect works of art (children's picture books, too!) and have read, if not broadly, art history and criticism, most appreciatively the work of New Yorker art critic Calvin Tompkins who opened my eyes to "modern" art. The latest about-art book I read was John Berger's 1972 classic Ways of Seeing. It addresses the relationship between vision and speech. Berger, hinting at the reason children so love comics, opens his book with:

Seeing come before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak...It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world...
It strikes me that even the most surreal art, the most fantastic graphic novels do the same: establish our place in the surrounding world.

This, too, is what I love about literature. By reading the stories of others -- other people, other places, other times, other situations -- we establish our place in the surrounding world. It's why we've been so fascinated by Stigmata by Lorenzo Mattotti and Claudio Piersanti(Fantagraphics Books). Something of an anti-parable, it's an engaging, beautiful vision, even at its most troubling. Picture it...  

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In Daytripper (Vertigo, 2011), twin Brazilian brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba have created a comic that is both innovative and classic. Overwhelmingly rewarding --  with minor exceptions -- it offers stunning artwork, involved and imaginative storytelling, lessons in how comics should be read, examples of how serialization can be used to advantage, and contingent realism that, in its presentation of diverse realities, qualifies as fantasy. Daytripper is the story of a single life that ends in multiple ways. It does what comics do best. It visualizes possibilities. At the end of each but the last chapter, readers are left with one thought: if only he had lived. Picture the possibilities:

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Memoirs as graphic novels have advantages. Everybody knows text-only memoirs need something on the order of a thousand words to equal the worth of a single picture. Visual cues allow us to imagine the story from perspectives unimagined by text-only memoirists.

 Telling one's story in illustrations provides a sort of distance between reality and all the James Fey-like details that can crowd out the narrative. Alison Bechdel's autobiographic Fun Home, Craig Thompson's seeming-memoir Blankets, Harvey Pekar's tales of eclectic, everyday life, Chester Brown's libidinous confessions and Guy DeLisle's personal accounts of navigating foreign cultures all benefit from illustration's invitation to imagine the scene and its motion from a stylized depiction. This distances the writer from factual detail even as it makes the story somehow more believable. If comics are the perfect vehicle for memoir, it's because they present the truth, true or not, so comically.

Jonathan Ames (he's the creator of the HBO series Bored To Death) and Dean Haspiel’s The Alcoholic takes full advantage of illustration’s ability for aggrandizement and visual parody. Cartoonist Haspiel (contributor to American Splendor) draws Ames’ sodden narrative with stylistic humor and consistent exaggeration. “A.” has razor-sharp features (that nose!), the girls he beds possess endless legs, the old appear either haggard or comic. Just picture them...

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The late Harvey Pekar made illustrated literature out of a working stiff's every day life. But not single handedly. Artists, including Robert Crumb, recognized his genius for social and personal insight and flocked to his work. Each issue's multiple illustrators delivered stylistic if not narrative contrast inside Pekar's eclectic personality. American Splendor changed the course of comics. It got a certain number of old folks and a lot of otherwise hip people into comics. The collected works were made into a brilliant movie starring Paul Giamatti -- and sometimes Pekar himself --  as Harvey. In the comics world, Pekar had typecast himself.

But American Splendor wasn't Pekar's only work. He did a graphic version of Studs Terkel's Working and a history of the SDS. His collaboration with a number of writers and artists The Beats: A Graphic History revealed  his intellect and his passion. It's story, in words and pictures, is a great introduction to this great American literary school. Those well-read in the movement will also find it appealing, for its illustration of some of the seminal Beat events and its emphasis on the interdependence of its major figures. Just picture it...

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Chester Brown's latest graphic novel Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being A John isn't as much about buying into prostitution as it is about buying out of romantic love. Brown, who's done his share of personal-memoir comics as well as a bio on Canadian revolutionary Louis Riel, is less about titillation and more about social and personal questions than some of the publicity the book's received might suggest. And even as activists protest the exploitation of sex workers world-wide, Brown comes down firmly in support of the right-to-do business and the women involved in this (mostly) illegal activity. He's critical as well of the legal variants...think Nevada's highly regulated model. But, yes, it's about sex, too. Peek under its covers....
 

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Journalism in graphic novels? Help me here. Sure, there's a graphic account of the war on terror and even an illustrated interpretation of the 9/11 report. My favorite of the last few years is Diedle Lefevre's collaboration with graphic-novelist Emmanuel Guibert and designer Frederic Lemercier The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders. Documenting the late photo-journalist's 1986 travels in Northern Afghanistan with the famous NGO, it's a beautiful mix of Lefevre's black-and-white photographs and Guibert's and Lemercier's strip illustrations from the poor, remote center of the war against Soviet occupation. And there's Guy Delisle's  Burma Chronicles, the most comic of the bunch, his flat-head account of existence in Myanmar with his NGO-employed wife (where do you buy diapers?) and Pyongyang, a revealing account of travels and work in North Korea with his trusty translator/handler.

What guys like these have done proves journalism, the documenting of a time and place and the who-what-why, the history, even if not so comic, is especially  suited to graphic depictions.

 The most daring, relevant and wonderfully drawn of this group is Joe Sacco. His comic-Gonzo style visualizes troubles in Serbia, Palestine and giving us a sense of everyday life as well as the injustice--and worse--that have gone on there. The most recent is Footnotes In Gaza...

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