Posts Tagged With: America

SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES…AND LUNGS

“Now when laughing friends deride, the tears I cannot hide, I simply smile and say …. smoke gets in your eyes.” Those simple but eloquent lines were from a musical written by the great composer, Jerome Kerns, back in the 1930s. I could have written about that if only life was so simple. But I decided to expend my energies on something more substantive- the smoke that comes from a tragic fire  that destroys both the eyes and the lungs. One fire in particular, that goes back to a little over a century ago, that produced such horror as to change the course of human existence in America. So let us go back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, as the Lone Ranger would have put it. To March 25, 1911 to be precise.

The advent of the 20th century saw a huge increased demand for off-the-rack, mass produced clothing that could be sold in department stores. Prior to that, presumably, most households made their own clothes, or obtained hand-me-downs from such places as the Salvation Army. New York, at the time, was a city of wide disparities between a lavishly rich handful of people, and a vast majority of dirt poor. But as the Industrial Revolution was gathering steam, new industries were booming; and none more so than the manufacture of off-the-rack men’s and women’s clothing in New York. Factories that made this clothing had sprung up almost like weeds. But few examined the labor conditions in these factories during that period. These factories employed almost all women, some as young as 14. They were mainly Italian or Jewish immigrants with a few Germans, and were forced to work under the most miserable sweat shop conditions. Clothing manufacturer employees generally had to work from 7 A.M. to 8 P.M. seven days a week. Even longer hours during the busy season. They were paid the enormous sum of $6 per week, and were often required to use their own needles, threads, irons, and even sewing machines. They had to work at tiny stations in poorly-lit, overcrowded spaces that lacked ventilation. There were no sprinklers or fire escapes. To say that they were fire traps waiting for disaster to strike would be an understatement.

One such manufacturer was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was located in Greenwich Village. (Women’s blouses were often called “shirtwaists” at the time.) The factory was owned by Isaac Harris and Max Blanck , who were both rabidly anti-union. They were known as the shirtwaist kings because they could produce large volumes of garments for cheaper prices. It was a Saturday, close to quitting time, when workers began smelling smoke on the 8th and 9th floors of their 10 story building. The smoke rapidly became flames as a full-fledged fire broke out. Factory foremen had locked many of the escape exits with chains in order to keep out potential union organizers. Also to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks or stealing scraps of fabric. Perish the thought. Other doors only opened inward and were blocked by the stampede of workers seeking to escape with their lives. The New York Fire Dept. responded quickly but their ladders could not reach high enough to save the women on the 8th and 9th floors. Many women jumped to their deaths trying to escape what became a raging fire. In total, 146 girls and women died on that tragic day. But their deaths were not in vain, as they led to a new set of landmark government regulations.

Experts later concluded that the fire was likely caused by a cigarette dropped on a pile of scrap material that had been accumulating for almost 3 months. Owners Harris and Blanck were working on the 10th floor and managed to make it to the roof. From there they were able to cut over to adjoining buildings and thereby save their lives. They would later be indicted for manslaughter, but were never convicted. The judge told the jury that in order to be found guilty, the 2 men knew, or should have known that the exit doors were locked. Since that couldn’t be proved, they were set free. To their dying days they continued to rabidly fight the unionization of garment workers. As a result of this debacle, however, child labor laws were enacted as well as fire safety regulations, and other legislation to improve the lives of employees throughout the nation. The days of unbridled, laissez-faire capitalism were slowly being reigned in. Nevertheless, today there are many in Congress that would like to repeal virtually all laws that they believe hampers the full and free functioning of capitalism in our society. They consider such restraints on enterprise to be unconstitutional.

In 1902, shortly after Theodore Roosevelt became President, the coal miners of America went on strike. They worked long hours under the most unsafe and dismal conditions, and hadn’t had a raise in 20 years. Their lives were almost always cut short by the nature of their work, (inhaling coal dust 10 hours a day), or by the work hazards of mine explosions or accidents. America, at the time, ran on coal-from heating residences to providing energy to factories. Nevertheless, the owners of these coal mines adamantly refused to bargain with the miner’s union. They considered unions a form of socialism, and an infringement on their capitalistic rights. T.R. then threatened to nationalize all the coal mines. Angry coal mine owners told him he had no constitutional right to take such action. Roosevelt then responded that the constitution was written to serve the people-not the other way around. He further stated that the moral obligation to do what’s right for the people trumped any constitutional right. The owners finally and begrudgingly gave the miners a 10% raise and shorter working hours. But to the bitter end they refused to recognize the legitimacy of the miner’s union. Our current President might want to take a lesson from T.R.’s adamant defense of acting on behalf of the people.

Today, the political currents are running in favor of returning to the days of laissez-faire capitalism. Many in Congress, such as Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, given the chance, would love to repeal virtually all social legislation enacted from the days of T.R. or Franklin Roosevelt. There’s an election coming up in a few weeks. If you’re planning to vote, think carefully about which party heavily promotes less regulation and unencumbered capitalism. Which party, if given the opportunity, would turn us back a century, to the fun days of the the Triangle factory fire.

 

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A HOUSE DIVIDED

In 1858, in a speech Abe Lincoln gave before a Republican convention that would nominate him for the Illinois Senate race, (an election he would lose, by the way), Lincoln proclaimed the following phrase that would live in history: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He was, of course, talking about the issue of slavery which had so polarized the country, that civil war would break out almost immediately after he was elected President 2 years later. A civil war that would claim the lives of over 600,000 Americans, or the equivalent of 6 million with today’s population. The 1858 Senatorial race was between Lincoln and his Democratic opponent Stephen Douglas who would win the election, and it resulted in the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates, which were mostly about the slavery issue. The same 2 squared off for the presidency 2 years later, and as we all know, Lincoln was the victor in that campaign. The relevance to today’s landscape, however, is that this country is more polarized and divided, as well as mired in dysfunction, as it has been at any time since those historical events more than 150 years ago. So let us examine the different ways that the country is split into ever growing fault lines.

Let’s start with the difference between rural and city life in America, today. That’s relevant because voters in small town America tend to vote heavily for Republicans, while metropolitan areas vote Democratic almost as heavily. That Red State-Blue State thingy. It all comes down to a question of values. People living in rural, small town-America tend to be more religious and self-protectionist. It’s a matter of tradition. Bibles and guns are the mainstay of most people living in the country-side. They have been raised to believe in a literal translation of both the old and new testaments, and no force on Earth can shake the foundations of those beliefs. Of course gay marriage should be prohibited since homosexuality is a sin. It says so, loud and clear, in the bible. Likewise, all abortions should be banned, since only God can take a human life. (Although, interestingly, all these anti-abortionists seem to have no trouble with the government executing criminals.) And it’s rather difficult to pinpoint a biblical passage that strictly forbids abortions. Not that any of that matters, since most religious beliefs come from sermons being preached in churches across the nation by priests that apparently have an insider’s pipeline to God’s desires.

As for the guns part of bibles and guns-wasn’t Jesus packing heat when he gave his famous sermon on the mount. Besides, doesn’t everyone know that our immoral, communistic, atheistic government would throw us all into concentration camps without hesitation, if we didn’t maintain our own guns. And not just a handgun, but an entire arsenal of weaponry. So goes the thinking over much of rural America. Such are the beliefs that one in indoctrinated with while growing up in this country environment. Young people being raised in this setting, if they are sharper, more industrious, and more ambitious, will often leave these small towns for metropolitan areas where they have much greater economic, cultural, and entertainment opportunities. Those that stay behind are usually more content to lead the same lives as their parents did, and inherit the same set of doctrines and dogma. Thus, the Republican Party, which goes out of its way to cater to religious evangelicals, or bible thumpers, as I would call them, reaps the lion’s share of the vote in rural America.

Living in big cities almost forces people to become more tolerant. While rural America is almost solidly white, metropolitan areas usually consist of a mix of whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Moslems, Jews, etc. Gays are just as likely to be living in the apartment next to yours as are heterosexuals. If one is to live well in big city life, the dogma of demonizing homosexuals, or other religions or races, or women having an abortion, necessarily must become a thing of the past. Hence, city dwellers become less attached the the religious dogma they may have been raised with, and increasingly become more secular and more tolerant. They will then mostly vote for Democrats who are more in tune with their secular beliefs.

One can also look at the great political divide in this country as between white men and the rest of the populace. White men (and often married white women) tend to vote mostly Republican, because they feel their privileged status in American society is being taken away from them. With black, Hispanic and Asian populations seemingly on the increase, older white men and women believe that a time will come in the not too distant future, when they will no longer be able to call the shots. Then all these minorities will become the dominant voting bloc, which, in turn, will greatly increase government handouts and welfare payments to people too lazy and shiftless to fend for themselves. Or so goes their thinking. Thus, the GOP, which is continually trying to significantly cut the food stamp program, housing assistance, or health insurance benefits, is the party for them. Democrats tend to exhibit more empathy for for minorities or those in need of financial help. This doesn’t sit well with the current white majority.

The thing about our current political divide is that it is increasingly hardening. Less and less is there any room for political compromise, or a meeting of the minds. In this November’s election, if the GOP gains control of both the House and the Senate, with a liberal Democrat in the White House, today’s dysfunction and polarization will seem like a minor spat between family members. And all political pundits are predicting that Republicans will win big time. Then we will truly become a house divided against itself, as Lincoln warned 150 years ago. And we all know how well that turned out last time.

 

 

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THE KOCH BROTHERS

It was probably, mostly true a century and a half ago, when Abe Lincoln stated in his famous Gettysburg Address, that this was a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Back in Lincoln’s time, candidates could often run for political office on a shoe-string, and money didn’t come close to dominating the political landscape to the extent it does today. So there was a semblance back then, that the democratic process truly ruled America. Now, a 150 years later, we know that this is no longer the case. Today, if anyone desires to run for a political office higher than local dogcatcher, he or she will need fistfuls of cash just to get out of the starting gate. And the higher the office, the more money required. In the 2012 presidential election, the 2 major party candidates managed to blow through a cool billion dollars, just so one of them could occupy the oval office. So I thought it might be interesting to look at who is providing all this cash, since these are the people that really run America.

When the two major parties have their political conventions every 4 years to nominate their candidates for the office of the presidency, thousands of delegates swarm onto the convention floor with great hoopla. There’s a lot of noise, singing and shouting, horn blowing, balloons, and endless speeches demonizing the other party’s choice, while, of course, praising their own guys. There is endless pontificating and merriment, all of which is televised for the home viewing public. What TV viewers don’t see, however, are the large, black limousines that pull up to side or back entrances and off-load a bunch of usually older men in dark suits, (they’re almost always men), who are then escorted to luxury quarters somewhere in that convention center. These are the rich men that really run America, and there’s no way they would mix with the rabble on the convention floor. But they show up to make sure that the multi-millions they’ve stuffed into various candidates pockets is a wise investment and money well spent. Sometimes these billionaires don’t even bother going to the convention center; but, instead, rent out luxury suites in nearby 5-star hotels, from whence they can watch the  convention proceedings on large-screen TVs.

Besides the regal furnishings in these quarters, the world’s finest booze is on display for their drinking pleasures. Imported caviar and other delicacies are available if they get hungry. There are also likely the best cigars, illegally imported from Cuba. So these men settle into plush recliners, with their 30-year-old scotches in hand, and watch to see that the candidates they’ve bought and paid for, deliver the goods as directed. Each party has their own contingent of such billionaires, which is the only reason that political contests remain somewhat competitive. But chief among the billionaires that run America are 2 men in their seventies, known as the Koch brothers. (Their name is pronounced coke, as in diet coke.)

Charles and David Koch are major industrialists that privately own a series of enterprises, most of them in the chemical and energy fields, that have given them the enormous wealth it takes to buy the candidates that will rule America. These 2 men not only own politicians, but they also invest heavily in a slew of right-wing initiatives such as anti-abortion and anti-gay rights. To give an example of their political philosophy, David, the younger brother, ran as the Libertarian candidate in 1980, on a platform of abolishing Social Security, Medicare, the FBI, the CIA, and the public school system. He lost, of course, but in the process, poured $500,000 of his own money into his campaign. After that, the 2 bothers acknowledged that the best way to achieve their goals was to invest heavily in the Republican Party, as well as other various far-right causes. Currently, the Koch Brothers teamed up with an organization called Freedom Partners, which has poured $236 million into far-right operatives such as the Tea Party Patriots, that have been vehemently advocating for the de-funding of ObamaCare. The brothers were estimated to have given Mitt Romney $86 million for his 2012 mis-adventure. They have also supplied millions to organizations in California that fought the legalization of gay-marriage in that state. When Republican Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, was recalled because of his efforts to repeal state workers collective bargaining rights, the Koch brothers infused Walker’s campaign with sufficient funding to ensure his re-election. Governor Scott Walker, successfully bought and paid for.

The Koch brothers have also spent tens of million of dollars fighting EPA rulings on limiting carbon dioxide emissions, as well as campaigning for unfettered energy usage from coal, oil and gas.The list of organizations receiving big-time Koch funding reads like a who’s-who of far right-wing looney-tunesville activities. So why is this germane now in 2014. Because starting this past January, the Koch brothers have already heavily funded  GOP ads running in supposed “red states” where Democratic senators up for re-election later this year. These TV ads focus heavily on the poor initial  rollout of ObamaCare and its continuing mishaps. The GOP believes that ObamaCare ills are the holy grail to achieving Republican domination in both the Senate and House; and the Koch brothers aim to provide the cash infusion to make that happen. At this point in time, it appears that they will achieve their goal.

Of course, the Democrats have their share of billionaires who provide funding for their causes, such as George Soros, for example. The truth is that both parties are hopelessly compromised by their base voters. The Democrats are compromised by relying on big labor unions and environmental extremists to provide for their cash requirements. The Republicans are compromised by their base of bible thumpers, i.e., all the anti-abortionists, anti-gay rights, anti-immigration extremists, as well as billionaires who feel it would be really neat to make the wealthy even richer at the expense of the middle and lower classes. The ship of state in the U.S. will never right its course until a third party is formed to represent the overwhelming majority of people that don’t fall into those categories. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening, especially not in my lifetime.

 

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