The proper function and size of government is a seemingly infinite debate that, at least among politicians who favor rhetoric over reason, has made little headway. But it’s difficult to conceive how basic workplace safety regulations, assuming they are rigorously enforced and substantiated by solid evidence, could be anything but beneficial to the average worker, who is too often a victim of authoritarian employers solely concerned with financial profit. The recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh resulted in over 800 deaths that could have been easily prevented. Indeed, we here in the United States and specifically in the great state of New York have a historical model that demonstrates how government regulations can improve working conditions practically overnight.
On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in a building located one block from Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Historian Robert A. Slayton describes the horror of the event in Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith:
James McCadeen, a worker in a nearby building, “saw a girl come to the edge of the roof and stand for a minute. Her hair was in flames. I couldn’t look anymore.” That anonymous victim was joined by many more, who made the impossible choice between being burned alive or jumping to their deaths. Some of them, facing an alleyway, plunged onto a spiked wrought-iron fence and were imapled.
A New York Times reporter came upon a headless and charred trunk on the sidewalk and inquired of a nearby policeman if it was a man or a woman. The grizzled veteran, who claimed he had worked other New York calamities but they were nothing like this, responded, “It’s human, that’s all you can tell.”
Although it’s true that “accidents happen,” in this instance, the conditions of the factory virtually guaranteed that many workers could not escape in the event of a fire. The back entrance to the building was locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks. The door to the staircase opened the wrong way, thus making it difficult for a rushing horde of people to squeeze into the stairwell. The fire escape collapsed as soon as few people tried to step on it. No fire drills had ever been conducted because the factory owners didn’t want to waste time with safety precautions when they could be making money. There was a fire hose, but it barely worked. It took only 30 minutes for 146 workers, most of them women who earned meager pay, to die.
In June of 1911, the Factory Investigation Commission (FIC) was created and Robert Wagner (who would later serve as a U.S. Senator from 1927 to 1949) was named its Chairman and Al Smith (who later ran for President against Herbert Hoover in 1928) its Vice Chairman. The FIC traveled throughout the state, conducted hundreds of interviews, and compiled thousands of pages of testimony. The sweeping investigations discovered, among many other abuses, the horrendous conditions of the canning industry, in which young children, some of them only three years old, worked from 4am to as late as 10pm every day.
In response to their investigations, the FIC created 32 bills, many of which became law. The regulations are now commonplace across the United States. As Slayton explains,
Today doors must egress to the outside, and there is always a panic bar that can be slammed with a foot or shoulder. The commission required that all doors and windows leading to fire escapes be marked with crimson paint, although their original concept called for “a clearly painted sign marked ‘exit’…and in addition, a red light shall be placed over all such exits.” Today’s version is the bright red exit sign we see everywhere…
Fire drills…were also mandated for the first time [and]…sprinklers became mandatory in factories.
All of these new requirements were met with opposition from factory owners who claimed they could not afford the additional costs. Yet somehow, magically, hundreds of thousands of profitable factories still exist in the U.S. today.
Any conversation about individual liberty must acknowledge the tendency, both in the United States and throughout the world, both historically and in the present day, for some business owners to have little regard for their workers, sometimes even to the extent of killing them via negligence. If no powerful entity exists to combat this corporate authoritarianism, then all notions of liberty become mere fantasies totally divorced from everyday reality. The tragedy in Bangladesh is an important reminder of how far we’ve come and of how we went about bettering the lives of millions of workers across the country.
Journalist Rebecca Traister pointed out via Twitter that the Dr. Gosnell case, which only recently caught the mainstream media’s attention, was covered by feminist writers back in January 2011. Michelle Goldberg wrote about it for The Daily Beast and Katha Pollitt covered Gosnell’s crimes for The Nation. It’s interesting to consider why pro-lifers succeeded in highlighting a story that feminists addressed long ago. As Traister asked, “Why did this story not register AT ALL when feminist journalists were telling it, but provokes anguish when antiabortion forces blow it up?” Good question.
The Republican Party founded in 1854, which counted Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass among its members, is not ideologically or demographically the same as the Republican Party that exists today. Such a statement should seem obvious to those who have even skimmed through a decent history book on the Civil War. Unfortunately, and largely for self-serving propagandistic purposes, Republicans today, including most recently Senator Rand Paul in a speech at Howard University, insist that they still represent the party of Lincoln and Douglass.
There are numerous implications in making such a claim. If the Republicans of today truly embody the spirit and ideals of Lincoln, then it must be black voters, and not the GOP, who have been led astray. This is a condescending belief that has been rationalized with even more condescension from Republican Party leaders. It’s not that Republicans are blind to the conditions of black Americans, it’s that minorities want “gifts,” according to Mitt Romney. It’s not that Republicans enact and promote policies harmful to black communities, it’s that these communities have been “brainwashed” into supporting Democrats, according to Herman Cain.
The Republican Party began as an explicitly anti-slavery party, eager to prevent the spread of slavery and, if possible, to eliminate its presence in Southern states. William Seward, a Governor of New York and future Secretary of State to Abraham Lincoln, was among the most powerful Republicans and a proponent of emancipation. He helped finance Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper, he rented out a house to Harriet Tubman, and he even harbored fugitive slaves in his own home. Seward also fought throughout his life, as a Whig and later as a Republican, to secure federal dollars to pay for internal improvements such as the building of railroads and canals, to expand public education to girls and immigrant children, and to loosen restrictions for Catholic immigrants who were despised by so-called “Nativist” groups. Opening up borders to immigrants, expanding public education, opposing bigotry directed at a religious minority, and devoting federal dollars to state improvements could be considered, in some scenarios, bipartisan proposals, but they are certainly consistent with the policies advocated by American liberals today.
In Walter Stahr’s recent biography of Seward, the ideological division between Whigs (most of whom would later join the Republican Party) and the Democratic Party is summarized:
The Democrats of the late 1830s and early 1840s favored small government with a limited role. The United States Democratic Review declared itself in favor of “as little government as possible; that little emanating from, and controlled by, the people; and uniform in its application to all.” The Whigs, in the words of the leading historian of their party, “believed government must promote prosperity. Especially in hard times, the government must take positive action to stimulate economic recovery.” Whigs favored a national bank and state support for internal improvement projects, such as roads and canals, that would not only provide jobs but also lay the groundwork for future growth.
It is painfully obvious from this description that Democrats during the time of Lincoln and Douglass were, from a contemporary standpoint, conservatives who favored limited government and were wary of federal spending. The Whig Party’s belief that a government should take “positive action to stimulate economic recovery” during “hard times” is precisely what the Obama administration has done and continues to do.
The Republican Party platform of 1856, while primarily concerned with slavery and various issues surrounding it, also declared that a “railroad to the Pacific Ocean…is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country and…the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction” and that “appropriations by Congress for the improvement of rivers and harbors…[are] required for the accommodation and security of our existing commerce.” From a contemporary perspective, federal dollars devoted to the construction of necessities with obvious economic benefits such as railroads would seem to be an uncontroversial issue. Yet, Democrats often opposed such measures on conservative grounds, deriding them for being too expensive or declaring that it wasn’t the federal government’s responsibility to pay for such things.
Of course, the primary enemy of the early Republican Party was the Confederacy, which ceaselessly fought, above all else, for the “right” to enslave, torture, and murder black people. South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and later Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina were part of the Confederate States of America. Of these 11 states, 9 voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 Presidential election and all 11 states voted for George W. Bush in 2004. A CNN poll showed that “nearly four in ten” white Southerners said they sympathize more with the Confederacy than the Union, and Republicans were more likely to sympathize with the Confederacy than either Democrats or Independents.
The absurd insinuation that Abraham Lincoln, if he could somehow rise from the dead and travel through time, would support Mitt Romney or George W. Bush is fueled by the idea that the Republican Party has not changed very much from its founding until the present day. This is an outright lie, propagated by politicians and charlatans trying in vain to peddle a lousy product to black voters. In Lincoln’s time, the Republican Party was most popular in the North and supported federal spending to revitalize a troubled economy. Today, the GOP is most popular in the South and viciously opposes Obama’s economic stimulus.
Republicans usually respond to such assertions by referencing the Dixiecrats and the Democratic opposition to civil rights legislation prior to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. To this I say: Yes, I agree. Both parties have long, terrible records of endorsing explicitly racist policies and denying rights to various minority groups. Many Northerners, especially businessmen, profited from and supported the Southern slave trade. There is a vast amount of blame to be shared by all Americans, including the Founding Fathers and perhaps members of our own families. Racism is an American problem with no political boundaries. But Republicans have no right to make the ahistorical claim that they somehow embody the legacy of Lincoln and Douglass and therefore deserve the support of black voters. If the GOP wants to attract minority voters, they must stop lecturing and look inward.
[General Augusto Pinochet] was a merciless overseer of torture, rapes, and thousands of political executions. He had the hands and wrists of the country’s greatest folk singer Victor Jara broken in front of a crowd of prisoners before killing him. He had democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende shot dead at his desk. His specialty was torturing people in front of their families.
…he then used this period of shock and slaughter to install a nationwide laboratory for neoliberal economics. If Pincohet’s friend Milton Friedman had a theory about cutting food subsidies, privatizing social security, slashing wages, or outlawing unions, Pinochet would apply it.
Pinochet…was someone who Margaret Thatcher called a friend. She stood by the General even when he was [in] exile, attempting to escape justice for his crimes. As she said to Pinochet, “[Thank you] for bringing democracy to Chile.”
In recent weeks America has had the opportunity to explore the history behind two catastrophic failures: the Defense of Marriage Act and the Iraq War. It need not be recounted again how many lives were lost and how much happiness was denied to people around the world due to these two oppressive policies and the dangerous beliefs lurking behind them. Yet, inexplicably, the liberals proudly changing their avatars and profile pictures to display support for marriage equality seem uncomfortable assigning blame to anyone but Republicans. I suspect a certain portion of liberals are genuinely unaware that Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. But how can one explain the dearth of self-criticism from Clinton supporters who understand full well the role their political heroes played in this travesty of unconstitutional homophobia?
Certainly the Clintons’ failures on these issues are deeper than momentary lapses in judgment. Either the Clintons knew they’d committed egregious errors and remained silent until opinion polls made it politically advantageous for them to confess their sins, or they aren’t perceptive enough to understand that denying equal rights to gay people and unnecessarily invading countries without sufficient justification are rather terrible ideas. In either case, it’s difficult to argue a convincing defense on the Clintons’ behalf.
To outside observers, it would seem liberals are again being duped by a couple of talented political strategists and opportunists. How convenient it must be for the Clintons to reverse their stance when the majority of Americans, and indeed many conservatives, have already professed support for gay marriage. How convenient for them to acknowledge that nearly every piece of evidence used to justify the Iraq War was wrong after most Americans have already reached the same conclusion.
After others have already completed the arduous tasks of exposing the Bush administration’s bad intelligence and convincing social conservatives to grant everyone marriage rights, here come the Clintons, extremely late to the party, eager to embrace views that have already become the consensus. When Americans most needed the Clintons to fight for gay rights and oppose an unjust war, the ex-first family failed them. Unfortunately, it seems that no matter how profoundly wrong the Clintons are on the definitive issues of our time, liberals will still support them.
Consider what Bill Clinton said shortly before the Iraq War began:
“[Saddam Hussein] is a threat. He’s a murderer and a thug. There’s no doubt we can do this. We’re stronger; he’s weaker. You’re looking at a couple weeks of bombing and then I’d be astonished if this campaign took more than a week. Astonished.”
Or what Hillary said about Iraq in October of 2002:
“In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members….Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East, which as we know all too well affects American security.”
And consider Hillary’s statement on the “sanctity of marriage” in 2004:
“I believe that marriage is, not just a bond, but a sacred bond between a man and a woman. …I take umbrage at anyone who might suggest that those of us who worry about amending the Constitution are less committed to the sanctity of marriage or to the fundamental bedrock principle that it exists between a man and a woman going back into the mists of history as one of the founding, foundational institutions of history and humanity and civilization and that its primary principle role during those millennia has been the raising and socializing of children into the society in which they are to become adults.”
Clinton supporters have penned op-eds detailing the “journey” the Clintons took to arrive at their support for gay marriage (as if supporting equal rights requires some sort of taxing, soul-searching voyage guided by opinion polls) and liberal pundits have solemnly lamented how “everyone” was wrong about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This is mere historical revisionism, designed to muffle the voices of the dissenters and skeptics who loudly and publicly opposed DOMA and the Iraq War. Those who truly understood the flaws of DOMA and the faulty logic used to justify the Iraq War often found themselves marginalized and dismissed. The Clintons meanwhile have largely maintained their good standing amongst liberals who, by continuing to support the Clintons, reinforce the notion that one can be terribly wrong on crucial issues but avoid any consequences so long as a recantation is offered at the eleventh hour.
Of course no politician who is in power for many years can claim to possess a flawless voting record, but the Clintons have erred in myriad ways and they’ve been excruciatingly slow to correct their mistakes. Affirmations of support for gay marriage in 2013 do not compensate for decades of not just inaction, but ardent support of anti-gay policies that yielded direct consequences on the happiness of citizens. Yet something suggests that the cries for “Hillary 2016” will persist and so too will the reverence for Bill Clinton. It is ultimately not principles and foresight that Clinton supporters most value, but rather the talent for winning elections and acquiring power. Andrew Sullivan stated it best when he wrote:
“In some ways, I find the opportunism of the Clintons – who did more substantive harm to gay people in eight years than any other administration – more disgusting than the fundamentalist hostility. At least the Christianists were sincere. The Clintons have always been phonies and opportunists and for Bill Clinton to proclaim the sanctity of marriage and sign DOMA while cigar-fucking his intern tells you a lot about him. On no issue were they as shameless as on this one – portraying themselves as civil rights advocates while kicking those of us fighting for equality squarely in the groin.”
I think another great problem…is the fact that everything has become so impersonal. Everything is so large and so big and you feel that you don’t play any role anymore, that you can’t effect things. You can’t effect what the government does. It’s so big and it’s so large and it’s so far away. It spends a great deal of money but you are just a small cog.
…I think perhaps that’s the major problem we have within government but I think the great problem that all of us have in society is how we’re going to come back to the idea that the individual is important and that society exists for him and government exists for him and he doesn’t exist just for the rest of us.