Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Labor Day . . . and who was talking about the labor movement?

In part because I have just been reading Andrei Markovits's hard-hitting but judicious Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America, I am appropriately wary of making invidious comparisons between the continent and our compatriots, and yet the temptation remains.

Namely, I have been struck by the fact that, on Labor Day, we here do so little to commemorate labor and the labor movement—an omission all the more glaring and serious given that the public is so ignorant of this history. In an age of deindustrialization, when union membership has declined and supposedly serious commentators are allowed to characterize even the most timid public health care proposals as "socialism," perhaps it should be not surprising that many people dismiss unions and labor movements in general as yet another "special interest."

To be sure, we find the inevitable newspaper articles and television programs about the "state of the economy" and the like, but these treat labor only in passing and never deal with history in any serious way. And what did History (formerly: History Channel) offer us: not even a shallow or sentimentalized treatment, and instead sensationalism and superstition: "Gangland," "Manson," Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce. Of course, what can one expect of an organization that now considers "Ice Road Truckers" and pawnshop owners to be denizens of Clio's domain? But PBS was little better: "Antiques Roadshow" and "Wild Rivers." More serious, but not much better.

Ignorance may be an excuse, and it's the easiest one in the world because even those allegedly arch-liberal and leftist mainstream media are doing nothing to correct it.

Would it help to have a program or two about immigrant sweatshop workers? the history of the AFL-CIO? the Wobblies, or just the history of the holiday and the story of why Americans dedicate a day to labor in September, whereas most other developed countries do so on May 1? It couldn't hurt. Regardless of where they, as individuals, stand politically, Americans as a whole might just benefit from learning about the conflicts and accomplishments of the past. And then, rather than engaging in food fights about "socialism," they might talk in a more civil and nuanced way about the issues confronting us in the present and the future.

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