It Starts with Wall Charts

Sharon Carson |

The Nation recently announced that D.D. Guttenplan would be taking over as editor, following a 25 year tenure in that role by Katherina vanden Heuvel. Here’s a bit more about that transition and Guttenplan’s background as a journalist and writer.

Guttenplan has long focused on social analysis and the critical role an independent press for a functioning democracy.  He wrote an excellent biography of I.F. Stone a few years ago, American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone.

Here’s the audio and the transcript of Guttenplan’s thought-provoking 2009 interview about that book with Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now,”  a segment focused on the continuing importance of critical journalism and Stone’s legacy.

Reading of his new role at The Nation, I was reminded that Guttenplan also recently published The Next Republic: The Rise of a New Radical Majority, which takes a close look at people (and movements) whose work seems to offer signposts for progressive politics in our times.

Here’s the book description from Seven Stories Press, a “sketch summary” designed in itself to give readers a spark to start – or continue- their own cultural and political work:

The Next Republic profiles nine successful activists who are changing the course of American history right now:

    • New labor activist and author Jane McAlevey.
    • Racial justice campaigner (and mayor of Jackson, Mississippi) Chokwe Antar Lumumba.
    • Environmental activist (and newly elected chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party) Jane Kleeb.
    • Chicago’s first openly gay Latino public official Carlos Ramirez-Rosa.
    • #ALLOFUS co-founder Waleed Shahid.
    • Young architects of Bernie Sanders amazing rise, digerati Corbin Trent and Zack Exley, founders of Brand New Congress.
    • And author and anti-corruption crusader Zephyr Teachout.

Coincidentally, that first chapter covers the work of labor activist and scholar Jane McAlevey, who just happens to also be the keynote speaker of the upcoming “Winnipeg General Strike Centenary Conference,” which will be held at the University of Winnipeg from May 8-11, 2019.  The conference will offer an intellectually stimulating mix of labor history, social analysis, public art, civic commemoration, and community organizing.

Grève générale Winnipeg 1919

In fact, UND history professor (and NDQ Editorial Board member) Jim Mochoruk has been one of the conference organizers, and you will find the full program here.

Jane McAlevey is also the author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age and you can find more about her work at her website.

And speaking of labor history centenaries, as it turns out we have two more right in NDQ’s back yard:  We are at or approaching the 100 year mark of the founding of the Bank of North Dakota (1919) and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator (1922), both of which were (and are) essentially socialist experiments launched by means of the hard work of members of North Dakota’s Non-Partisan League (NPL).  This history is especially relevant in these days of flaming and too often fact-free anti-socialist rhetoric which often wildly distorts the actual history of socialism in the United States. As Guttenplan emphasizes in The Next Republic: “…history is essential—not just the first draft of history provided by journalism, but the awareness of possibility, indeed precedent, that only history can provide.”

Guttenplan spends a great deal of his chapter on McAlevey talking about her focus on social structures.  Specifically related to the commemoration of the Winnipeg General Strike, he highlights her experience with the social and historic role of strikes in shifting structural and institutional power.  Incidentally, he celebrates McAlevey’s analog dedication to the use of wall charts to get a room full of people to sit down and diagram the realities of labor relations: “What does real power look like? It starts with wall charts.”

Might be a method we should reclaim for all kinds of political and journalistic work:  Put paper charts up on the wall, and start drawing. This is visual art in a very specific light: the wall chart as a mode of political art.

And since I’m wrapping this associational thread with a turn to visual art, let’s end with a nod toward the critical need for public humanities.

First, the Winnipeg General Strike commemoration includes not only the  conference, but an impressive series of art installations in the city.


And finally, D.D. Guttenplan’s books, the Winnipeg public art commemorations, McAlevey’s work, and these other regional “100 Year” labor anniversaries also remind us of a beautifully crafted 1978 film well worth watching these days: Northern Lights, Jon Hanson and Rob Nilsson’s nuanced treatment of the NPL and its efforts to organize farmers in North Dakota just about a hundred years ago.

Here’s a short film about the movie, its making, and its continued relevance, produced as part of the Prairie Mosaic series, funded by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and shown on Prairie Public Television.


Sharon Carson is Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, Department of English, University of North Dakota and the reviews editor (and former editor) of North Dakota Quarterly.

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