Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Rosie the Riveter Revisited

Rosie the Riveter is the iconic image of women in the 1940's, venturing out of their domestic life to join the workforce and help their country out in a time of war.  Generations have painted the story with rosy colors, regaling us with tales of women working hard to help manufacture war materials.  Government posters supported the call for women workers and it seemed that both industry and labor were finally in agreement about an issue.  But then the war ended.  And with that millions of women were sent home.  Some continued to work but in more "feminine" positions such as secretarial work. But others retook the mantle of domesticity and married and had children.  What is often left out of studies of this time is that not only did these women marry, but their icon Rosie did too.  Rosie the Riveter and all of labor entered into an unhealthy and dysfunctional marriage with corporate America.  

       Labor and business had never had a good relationship to begin with. Since the Labor movement's inception in the late 1800's, workers have been tirelessly fighting for a safe working environment, reasonable working hours, higher pay, and more benefits.  Nevertheless, these demands, which seem reasonable to our jaded twenty-first century ears, were anathema to the factory owners just a century ago.  The Hay Market Massacre, which is commemorated today, was just one example of police interrupting a peaceful demonstration causing the arrest of Union leaders who were later sentenced solely because of their political beliefs.  Though much improvement has been made in the institution of regulation, too many businesses still fail to see the humanity of the people who work for them.  According to the AFL-CIO’s 18th annual “Death on the Job” report, on an average day, 15 workers lose their lives as a result of workplace injuries and disease, and another 10,959 are injured.  The dysfunctional marriage between labor and capital must be reconciled in order to not only protect the workers but to protect global industry.

       Bill Gates coined the term "creative capitalism" which he defined as "an approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities."  The economic crisis we are embroiled in right now and the long-term problems of poverty and powerlessness it can only seek to exacerbate call for innovative solutions that will help both labor AND capital.  Initiatives such as No Sweat, which sources from Unionized factories in places like Bethlehem, in the West Bank Palestine, and the United States, and government initiatives that seek to encourage companies to devote more money to developing products for third world consumers, are steps in the right direction.  But as the rally against protectionism showed, now is not the time to be thinking of a national labor union, but a global workforce.  Labor should not be a burden whose only purpose is to provide a meager paycheck so the worker can put food on the table for his family.  Instead it must be a vehicle for social change by providing people with the resources they need to not only properly provide for their family but also move ahead in life.  As we remember past generations of Union laborers we should not only look back with pride at all they have accomplished but also look forward with hope and energy to all the work we still have to do.  Then perhaps we could finally wed labor and industry in a gown made by Union workers and a tiara sparking with the hope for the future. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

President Slumdog: Posted February 28, 2009 | 11:24 AM (EST) on Huffington Post

The silver screen is both a reflection and window into our collective consciousness. Hollywood has had uncanny interactions with presidential politics since Ronald Reagan failed to get the lead in Casablanca and wound up in the White House instead. No doubt there's a parallel universe in which Reagan landed the part and America had a President Humphrey Bogart.
Barack Obama's life has been touched by a glimmer of glamour since Guess Who's Coming to Dinner -- the 1967 classic about two liberal parents whose daughter brings home a black fiancé that she (like Obama's mama) met at the University of Hawaii.

I've been using my handy cinemascope to see around corners since China Syndrome, a movie about a nuclear power plant meltdown, was released a dozen days before America's worst nuclear accident took place at Three Mile Island. Life imitates art with a vengeance in our brave new world. Just before the Iowa primary last year I was trying hard to come up with a plausible scenario for how a country that was significantly racist, xenophobic, undereducated and overweight could possibly elect a skinny black guy from Harvard named Barack Hussein Obama. My son had my number. "A black sheriff?" he asked, perfectly imitating the line from Blazing Saddles. "In Mel I trust." I replied and never looked back. An audaciously improbable, darkly comic screwball happy ending that was the last best hope for mankind's last best hope winked her most seductive come hither smile. Hither we came.
But Bill Clinton's assertion that the Obama candidacy was a "fairy tale" proved deeply ironic. For all the superficial elements of a fresh prince sweeping America off her feet, it turned out that Obama was the only candidate inhabiting a truly adult narrative. Like the hero of Slumdog Millionaire, his ability to detach himself from the moment and carefully draw upon relevant episodes in his life allows him to serve not merely as protagonist but as his own narrator. This is what empowered him to write his own ticket.

An adult narrative assumes that you are, like everyone else, the hero of your story but also your own worst enemy. That every antagonist you have is someone you've antagonized. From this perspective, there are no good guys or bad guys, just more or less well intentioned people who are more or less confused. This detachment from his own narrative allows Obama to read each would-be adversary like a book and recruit them into supporting roles, willingly or not. See the unbridled ambition and narcissism of the Clintons harnessed to the Obama chariot. Our new president gets to focus 100% on the economy while maintaining a very formidable and public presence abroad. And by practically designating Hillary heir apparent, Obama made her the most forceful secretary of state since Henry Kissinger, enhanced but unencumbered by Bill's back channel relationships. See the congressional Republicans rise to the bait and assume the role of perfect obstructionist foils. Watch him appear so resistant to nationalization that even Alan Greenspan is begging for it! Obama will nationalize the banks after he's made it absolutely clear to all that he really doesn't want to get thrown into that briar patch. And if John McCain wants to be an asshole to him--well, even the president needs a perfect asshole.

The left worries about Obama for obvious reasons. He knows their narrative backwards and forwards but remains detached even as he embodies it. Democrats have certainly had their share of vacillators-in-chief with Clinton and Carter. There are pronouncements of this administration that to a jaded left ear might sound like déjà vu all over again.

To best see Obama's future, read his past. He defied all probability when he became a community organizer, settled into south-side Chicago and embraced an African American identity; in many ways the available identity most foreign to his own. But even so, he embraced it as being emblematic of the American identity, the poor, tired and huddled masses longing to be free; the essence of the American promise, not the exception. Obama is the brother from another planet. It is written and it's being produced.He'll carefully consider every alternate narrative there is, first. But in the end it will be change we can believe in. That's his story and he's sticking to it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is a Sweatshop Better Than Nothing? Published: January 18, 2009

Re “Where Sweatshops Are a Dream” (column, Jan. 15):

Nicholas D. Kristof is absolutely right. Sweatshops are much better than a sharp stick in the eye. But when jobs aren’t a pathway out of poverty, they create an asymmetric, unsustainable global economy of producer countries and consumer countries that can stand on its head only so long.

In fact, the sweatshop workers of China were the canary in the coal mine, the starting point in a vicious circle that has impoverished us all.

A managerial ethos that tolerates the exploitation of workers in sweatshops won’t hesitate to exploit consumers with deceptive mortgages and melamine-tainted milk and, finally, bilk investors with bogus “securities.”

The neoliberal daydream of sweatshops leading inevitably to a prosperous future has brought us to our current global nightmare. It’s time to wake up. An injury to one is truly an injury to all.

Adam Neiman
Boston, Jan.

15, 2009

The writer is the founder and chief executive of No Sweat Apparel, producer of union-made clothing and sneakers in the United States, Canada and the developing world.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Obama and the Jewish Question

Obama’s election was liberating in many ways for all of us. For me, as an American Jew, there was a surprise. I had long held a secret resentment of African Americans, secret even from myself.

I grew up in Georgia during the civil rights movement. My mother was critically involved in the desegregation of the Atlanta school system. I befriended the first black kids to enter my elementary school – and was beat up for it, too. I’ve had close black friends throughout my life. As a Jew, I felt empathy for a brutally oppressed minority, not guilt. And yet there was something that held me back from fully absorbing the African American narrative. Oh, I knew my own racism, had confronted it and wrestled with it. When Barack Obama was elected it dawned on me. There was something else here besides racism. It was narcissism. Here, in the new world, it wasn’t all about us, the Jews.

In the old world it really was all about us--God’s chosen people. From Pharaoh’s Egypt to Hitler’s Germany, through the Babylonians and the Greeks, the Roman Empire to Mohammed and the rise of Islam and the Crusades, to 1492, when Columbus sailed and our expulsion from Spain began, we were the little bit of yeast that Western Civilization got a rise out of stomping on. Every religious war, every conspiracy of Jews and Masons, communists and bankers and elders of Zion, at every turn- there we were. Oh sure, there was a Greek narrative, a Roman narrative, a Spanish narrative, a French narrative, an English narrative and so on. Each, in their brief time, absolutely convinced it was all about them- that they were the chosen ones. It was the Jewish narrative that connected the dots, that persisted and prevailed. Monotheism? We invented it. Christianity? Invented it. Capitalism? Invented it. Socialism? Invented it. Psychotherapy, relativity, the bomb? Invented it. Gutenberg’s Bible? We wrote the book! We defined Western Civilization and ultimately, in the holocaust, demolished its cherished premise of superiority, of even being civilized at all. And for all the suffering we endured, for all the wisecracks asking why couldn’t God chose someone else just once, we loved it. It validated our absurd sense of self-importance and sustained our narcissism, indeed, our very existence.

Not so in America. Here, from Crispus Attucks to Barack Obama, from the civil war to civil rights, from gospel to Jazz and R&B in all it’s permutations, from Birth of a Nation to the Jazz Singer and beyond, from Jesse Owens to OJ Simpson, the critical narrative thread is black. Yes, there’s a raft of powerful immigrant narratives that make up the gorgeous crazy quilt that is the fabric of American life. Of course there’s the Native American tragedy and the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and their pioneer saga; the heroic founding fathers—with their dark and dirty secrets. But we cannot even think of the American dream without reference to King’s speech and the parallel nightmare that has been so much of the black experience. What drives the American narrative, what ties it together and gives it a pulse, what defines the relationship between our ideals and our reality in starkest terms of black and white, what makes it compelling and as great as the greatest story ever told is the African American narrative. American Jews have had a wonderful supporting role. We can be proud of the fact that at the moment of truth Jews voted for Barack Hussein Obama by a greater percentage than any other ethnic group in America, except black Americans. The African slaves recognized themselves in us when they first read Exodus. Now, we recognize ourselves in them.

And to every nice Jewish boy suffering from a messiah complex; that secret nagging dread and masochistic desire that the impossible burden of saving this world’s sorry ass from itself will fall on the narrow shoulders of some poor descendant of the House of David who will most likely be crucified for his efforts, I have just one thing to say. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last!