When I heard that Paul Ryan had been selected by Mitt Romney to be his Vice Presidential candidate in the upcoming election I almost did a spit take. I had been doing some rather depressing research into the right’s characterizations of progressives (it’s not pretty) and I had a day or so before found Ryan’s 2010 session on the Glenn Beck radio program where he and Beck agreed that, “progressivism is a cancer,” “a complete affront to the whole idea of this country” that “never sat right” with Ryan.
Now, I am used to the kind of grade-school sneering that typically comes with conservatives talking about “socialism,” but this was a much more explicit step. As an American citizen proud of our progressive moments in history I was honestly fearful during the 2010 election when Glenn Beck called on “progressive hunters” to help him and his then devout tea-party followers “take their country back.” While Beck has since been dismissed to the GOP’s extreme radio backwaters he has called this pick “political genius,” and among leading conservative thinkers he is not alone.
The conservative right is afraid of Hitler, Mussolini, Marx (for some reason), and the current economic conditions of Greece, that much is clear. But the inability to give progressive politics their place in American history is, to me, appalling. Granted, national applications of socialism can look all sorts of ways (nefarious to Norwegian), but it does not always end up in tyrannical rule and bankruptcy. Of course you would never know that from the histories we hear on the campaign trail or from the motives that have been associated obliquely to Barrack Obama since his election. Meanwhile capitalism, that gleaming and innocent evolutionary force (interestingly advocated frequently by opponents of evolution) knows no such evil in the minds of American conservatives like Ryan. At least nothing nearly as awful as those horrible dictators, critical thinkers, and Grecian social servants.
So let’s take a day, Labor Day seems as good as any, to remember the incredible gains made by labor activists, union leaders, progressive thinkers, and humdrum workers in the face of the tyranny of profit that ruled early industrial America, and which still threatens to set back human rights agendas the world over.
Sadly, Memorial Day and Labor Day have essentially been co-opted as ‘free time’ in America. I can personally say until very recently in my own history that I never kept either straight nor really understood what either was for. I’m embarrassed to say that did not change for me until friends of mine, young men and women in the post 9/11 world, began serving in larger numbers in the armed forces. One friend in particular lost a considerable portion of his heel in the opening days of the Iraq invasion. I remember the phone call from his crying sister telling me he had been wounded in battle, that they did not know anything else, and spending the next night wondering if he was still alive. These friends of mine are good people, fair people, loving and for the most part non-violent people, and they enlisted to fight for everything that they think America stands for that is good. They put their lives, livelihoods, and families on the line and exposed themselves to the violence of a faceless enemy in our name. Now I know exactly why we remember.
Countless other similarly caring Americans have since our inception put their lives and livelihoods as readily on the line to fight for freedom via worker protection. Just as young people of today cannot imagine being drafted, or serving in the numbers required to win WWII, we cannot imagine going to work before the age of 15, or being forced to work in locked buildings with no windows, ventilation, or breaks. But that is exactly what pre-progressive America entailed – and the “invisible hand” of capitalism has proven to be an equally formidable (and equally depraved) opponent as any that our armed forces have faced on the battlefield.
Nowhere do we see more starkly the realities of this history than in the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. We might call it the Lexington of progressivisim in this country, sadly we are obviously still waiting on our Saratoga.
Saturday, March 25th 1911 started like any other work day for the 500 workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of a rickety building in the burgeoning new mega city of New York. The workers, according to the episode in the marvelous documentary on the city released by PBS, “teenaged girls for the most part [were eager to meet their quota] finish up, collect their pay, and plunge into the mild spring evening.” At around 4 pm a fire started that would lead to a disaster that would stand unprecedented in that great city for close to 90 years.
Nobody knows exactly how the fire started. Perhaps a worker carelessly tossed a match onto one of the many piles of clothing that littered the garment factory floor, but what ensued – for those who witnessed it – could no doubt never be forgotten. The building was ablaze in minutes and while the young NYFD was quick to the scene they lacked the technology to fight a fire so high in the sky. They were left helpless on the ground with a growing number of shocked spectators as the fire grew.
The owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (two Russian entrepreneurs named Max Blanck and Isaac Harris) were in the midst of a no-holds-barred capitalist nightmare that would make Foxconn (the Chinese company that produces Apple products for wealthy Americans) look like a daycare. Any extra expense added to the cost of the garments produced that could be skipped more-or-less had to be or the factory would lose their contract to an underselling competitor elsewhere in NY who avoided it. They had taken “reasonable steps,” calculated steps, certainly not malicious, made in the name of better business, and they cost 146 Americans their lives that evening.
When the fire began the girls found the doors to their factory floor locked or blocked from the outside. This was done to stop workers from stealing or from taking “unnecessary” breaks and to limit access to progressive advocates who would document the atrocious conditions and agitate among the workers for change. There was no law against this at that time. Nor was there a law mandating sprinkler systems so the factory, like most buildings in New York at that time, had none. In fact, the workers had no access to firefighting apparatus of any kind. There was not even any running water on some of the floors. The only options left for many of the young girls was either to burn, to suffocate, or to leap to their deaths from the windows (sometimes several at once, holding hands as they fell) to the concrete streets hundreds of feet below. As the smoke filled the upper floors and the heat intensified, so too did the parade of wives, mothers, and daughters – many of whom were in fact impaled on the wrought iron fence surrounding the building. The few dozen who could make their way to the fire escape found it brittle and rusted, and while some did make it safely down that way many more perished when it gave way in a horrifying display of twisted metal and screaming young people. According to wikipedia the youngest victim of the fire was 11 years old.
A dozen or so days after the fire, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was back up and running a few blocks away, city inspectors found doors locked with workers inside and zero preventive measures taken. They simply “were not affordable.” Some historians believe that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was a watershed moment for progressive politics – coming as it did on the tail of many failed demonstrations on behalf of factory-workers eager for safer conditions and better pay. But it would take decades, and a considerable amount of “big government” involvement to make noticeable changes. In the interim, American workers (many of whom were still children) were brutalized so a few could profit, and those fighting for their rights were assaulted, bankrupted, imprisoned, and even assassinated.
Memorial Day is an important day in America when we honor the fallen military heroes who made our nation great. No conservative would ever scoff at such a holiday, and Labor Day in particular and progressive politics in general deserve equal commemoration and respect. In many instances the sacrifices made by the victims and opponents of unchecked economic expansion were just as dire, and the gains have proven to be equally profound. So even though the teachers, artisans, craftspeople, laborers, service-providers (and not to mention all of their families) who put themselves on the line to provide our insanely humane and profitable American society were not wearing the uniform of our nation’s military, let’s give equal thanks.
Labor day is a day that we celebrate the countless cries of “that will END [insert regulated industry here]!!!!” which were dismissed in the name of progressive regulations and policies that took us in directions which proved to be fruitful for ALL. Weekends, a seemingly restrictive notion as-is to many cultures on this planet, simply would not exist in an America built solely on “the bottom line” and workplaces (for even the “tamest” of jobs) would be profoundly more dangerous. Don’t believe me? Just ask the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
Unions are our friends, progressive / communal politics (scary-voiced “socialism”) is NOT a “cancer” but, rather, the cure for the free market which is otherwise incentivized to transform human lives and bodies into little more than profit for a very very few. These reforms (always cast as the downfall of morality or profitability or as an “attack on business” by those few who stand to lose the most) have frequently gone on to provide precisely the opposite effects – boosting equal access to success and drastically increasing productivity, sustainability and quality control.
In Ryan we have a young man who has admittedly recently dismissed Any Rand’s self-serving philosophy (so called “rational objectivism”) as an “atheistic philosophy” but he openly admits that Rand was the reason he got in to politics. Somewhere between the selfishness of the Rand’s, Blanck’s and Harris’ of the world and the charity of Christian love there is a profound division. We either care deeply for and advocate for the plight of the voiceless, or we uncritically turn efforts toward better health care, better wages, and safer environments into “entitlement complexes” or “failed European socialism.” America has long benefited from socialist policies – from our military, to our roads, to our water and electrical infrastructures, to our contributions to education, research and technology – all of which have required considerable investment (often read as “invasion”) by “government bureaucrats.” It is not hard to imagine how mandatory primary education for American children could have been misconstrued – sadly conservatives of the time did not have Hitler to lean upon, and yet most Americans of today cannot imagine any alternative. And yes, frequently corruption and waste have run rampant among those appointed in our government. But in my eyes and in the eyes of many equally patriotic American citizens in many cases public bureaucrats who are in theory open to public scrutiny and removal (as opposed to made up of groups which answer to only a handful of shareholders) are preferable to the self-serving and exclusively privatized alternatives of our past.
States would not fight this battle for us in the past, and “free-market” enterprise profits most when they can ignore it. We need a president and a vice president who understand the nuances of this debate. And we need to remember – as the right are fond of saying to justify their military adventurism – that freedom is never free.
Have a safe and happy Labor Day!