Rise of the paranoid South: How defending against “outsiders” brought the region together

Ted Cruz (R-TX) certainly knows that he's  an exceptional southerner.

Ted Cruz (R-TX) certainly knows that he’s an exceptional southerner.

My latest post is an article for Salon that explains why the American South continues to be exceptional in its own unique way.

The Civil War ended in 1865. Before the war, it was common parlance in America to speak of two regions: the “North” and the “South,” which were divided, above all else, over the issue of slavery. After the war, however, the idea of the “North” gradually disappeared from American culture, but “The South” as a regional, cultural and ideological construction has lived on.

Read the whole thing over at Salon.

The Slaughterhouse Rules: Why American Capitalism Loves Illegal Immigration

Inside a meatpacking plant in Nebraska. These chambers of slaughter often rely on the illegal immigrants that Americans love to loathe.

Inside a meatpacking plant in Nebraska. These chambers of slaughter often rely on the illegal immigrants that Americans love to loathe.

In Chapter 4 of The Jungle — Upton Sinclair’s searing 1906 exposé of the American meatpacking industry — Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus arrives at the steaming blood chambers of Chicago’s slaughterhouses and follows his boss to the “killing beds.” He’s given a large broom to “follow down the line the man who drew out the smoking entrails from the carcass of the steer” and sweep the innards into a trap “so that no one might slip into it.” As the screams of animals whose hides were being peeled from their still-living bodies echoes off of the gut-splattered walls, Rudkus wades through pools of coagulating blood and tries to avoid losing a limb to the same gnashing blades that turned cattle into steak. This is a job primarily reserved for immigrants, and Rudkus is glad to have it: at least it promises a future — it promises the American Dream.

But those who have read The Jungle know that things went south fast for Rudkus: besides enduring work conditions that reduced both humans and animals into fleshy pulps in service to the industrial agricultural machine, he also earns a pittance wage; falls into debt; loses his slum house; becomes prey to con-men; sees his wife raped by her employer, and gets thrown in jail. The Jungle ends with Rudkus a broken man who seeks hope from the local Socialist Party.

Sinclair’s description of the meatpacking industry’s horrors gripped the public, and his graphic depiction of immigrant labor furthered a truism in American society: immigrants do the dirtiest jobs; they offer plentiful, cheap, laboring bodies that businesses are all too happy to grind into working-class hamburger. This was as true in 1906 as it is 2014. Business’ exploitation of illegal immigrants is America’s domestic Race to the Bottom. Indeed, before Americans of all political stripes look to criticize the government’s immigration policies, they should first cast a critical eye on the free-market demigods in their midst. Millions of undocumented workers are in the U.S. to fill the gaping maws of bottom-line obsessed American businesses — especially the meatpacking industry — that fattens up politicians with super-sized lobbying dollars to stave off snooping government regulators.

Following his party’s epic trouncing in the 2014 midterm elections, President Barack Obama’s plan to bypass Congress and use executive action to enact immigration reform has elicited predictably doom-laden howls from Republicans, who have threatened everything from legal action, to impeachment, to another government shutdown. The Republicans’ gleaming-ivory base supports their congressional henchmen out of a fear that immigration reform will unleash an unstoppable tidal wave of foreign-tongued brown hordes who’ll steal American jobs and clog the welfare system. For America’s reactionary Caucasians, immigration reform portends a racial Armageddon, since 46 percent of immigrants in 2012 were of Hispanic origin.

In his televised speech, however, the President emphasized the need to recognize people who work in the sweaty, low-wage boiler room that drives the U.S. economic engine. “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law?” the President asked rhetorically. This is no small point: according to the U.S Department of Agriculture, nearly half of all U.S. farm laborers are undocumented. Of the total population of immigrants in the U.S., some 11.5 million are here illegally, and they’re here because they find work in an American business climate that will shamelessly deplete all of Mexico’s labor supply and flout the now-outdated notion that corporations should respect the laws of actual nation-states.

The fact that U.S. businesses hire lots of illegal immigrants shouldn’t surprise an American public that supposedly genuflects before the altar of free-market capitalism. Nonetheless, a large portion of Americans still views illegal immigrants with disdain, blaming them for siphoning jobs away from the native-born and ushering in the multiculturalist monster that may, among other unspeakable horrors, turn the U.S. into a multilingual country just like the rest of the world. These fears lead to hair-brained calls for border fencesmass deportations, and other like schemes born of nativist paranoia. But criticisms are rarely launched at America’s über free-market culture and its corporate evangelists who invite undocumented immigrants into the shadow workforce.

Inside the Chicago slaughterhouses that provided the setting for Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906).

Inside the Chicago slaughterhouses that provided the setting for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).

We live in a globalized world largely built on the neoliberal dream (or nightmare) of open trade borders, free markets, and deregulation. Domestically, the triumph of neoliberalism has manifested in the now thirty-plus year conservative reign that has wrought the decimation of unions, the decline of American manufacturing, the deregulation of financial markets, and a bizarre obsession with cutting taxes to the bone for businesses and the wealthy. Part of the anti-tax circle-jerk includes tax-dodging, wherein American corporations — and Republican presidential candidates — use every available loophole to squirm out of the U.S. tax system and squirrel away trillions in profits overseas.

The free-market fever has also bolstered the now-standard practice of outsourcing domestic jobs to developing countries with seemingly inexhaustible supplies of cheap labor. Collectively, these practices result in a grand Race to the Bottom, in which employers seek ever lower labor, environmental, and tax standards to the point where every last drop of working and middle-class blood is drained to satiate the corporate world’s vampiric appetite for profits. The trend has become so bad that even individual U.S. states are engaged in a bruising, Race to the Bottom cage-match among themselves. From tax-cutting, to deregulation, to outsourcing, the ideological trend is clear: governments have little to no right to interfere with the private sector. But strangely, this belief doesn’t extend to the issue of illegal immigration.

Indeed, some 86 percent of Republicans hold negative views of undocumented immigrants. Yet it seems blatantly hypocritical for conservatives to deny businesses unfettered access to the dirt-cheap labor they crave. If American conservatism has done nothing else, it has championed the idea of the corporation as a stateless entity that should be free from an oppressive government that supposedly imposes restrictions on heaven-sent market rights. Thus, conservatives have no problem defending activities like corporate tax-dodging: if you believe that businesses shouldn’t have to deal with government meddling, then there’s nothing wrong with letting them run faster to win the world-wide Race to the Bottom. After all, government is the problem…

If conservatives can tar the state as the sworn enemy of the profit motive, then why should they worry about a trivial thing like citizenship when there are bottom lines to protect? Heck, the idea of citizenship seems hopelessly antiquated in today’s von Mises-on-steroids capitalist culture. But those who mouth this free-market Festivus hypocritically insist that illegal immigrants are a drain on the U.S. economy despite the fact that hiring undocumented workers is functionally no different from overseas tax-dodging. In both cases, businesses are just doing what’s (supposedly) necessary to swell their already bloated gains. The Race to the Bottom need not play out only on foreign shores; it’s happening in America’s backyard, and it’s a predictable outcome of a stateless economic order in which powerful employers have devalued labor to a literally criminal degree.

This point brings us back full-circle to the meat-packing industry and the undocumented workers that it hires. As Upton Sinclair observed, immigrants have long heeded the slaughterhouses’ sinewy siren call. The meatpacking industry employed some 486,000 documented immigrant workers in 2010, but the number is likely higher when undocumented souls are cast into the cauldron. Moreover, the industry has shifted from urban to rural areas, where locals complain about the growing brown menace while following lock-step behind Republican free-market platitudes. That’s because, as sociologist Amy Fitzgerald writes, nondescript buildings in small, rural communities conceal killing sheds that attract large numbers of Hispanic immigrants who sweat it out — literally risking life and limb — in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “one of the most dangerous manufacturing jobs in the U.S.” Eric Schlosser echoed this point in a 2001 report for Mother Jones. “No government statistics can measure the true amount of pain and suffering in the nation’s meatpacking communities today,” he warned.

Across the Midwest, companies like poultry giant Tyson foods rely on immigrant labor to do what native-born Americans won’t do: run the gauntlet of flesh-cleaving cutting tools and automated factory speed while trying to avoid processing chicken nuggets fortified with human digits. Tyson is no stranger to flouting citizenship laws. In 2001, Tyson Foods was indicted in a plan to smuggle illegal immigrants from Mexico to work in its factories. The indicted employees included two executives. In 2006, another Big Meat bully, Swift and Company, made headlines when police and immigration officials raided six of its plants and arrested 1300 illegal immigrant workers. Indeed, the meatpacking industry offers a window into the mindset of a modern American capitalism that doesn’t give a damn about sending workers home to their families minus a crucial appendage or two.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation on immigration.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation on immigration.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Sara Murray observes, meatpacking is at the center of the debate over U.S. immigration policy. Reporting from Swift and Co.’s home base in Greeley, Colorado (one of the plants raided by immigration officials in 2006), Murray notes how meat production thrives on workers with Hispanic, Burmese, and Somali accents. The town itself is divided over Swift’s history of using undocumented workers, with some arguing that the practice drives down American wages. But Greeley mayor Tom Horton epitomizes conservatives’ tortured attempt to square free market fundamentalism with a disregard for immigration laws. “‘We’re a pretty conservative community, and I would say we don’t want illegals,'” he stated, “‘but we do want a labor force.'” Horton also admitted that most locals didn’t want to work in the slaughterhouses. So, really, who can blame them for repeatedly reaching back into the undocumented grab-bag?

The meatpacking industry’s willingness to repeatedly tap the sordid well of undocumented labor exposes the brazen contradictions at the heart of America’s conservative capitalist dream world. Flush with an incontestable congressional mandate granted by 36.4 percent of registered voters, the emboldened GOP is vowing to put a stop to President Obama’s plan to provide illegal immigrants with a potential path to citizenship even as they continue to dish out free-market tongue baths to the very same corporate structures that rely heavily on the blood and sweat of undocumented workers. As American conservatives prepare a last stand against the supposed onslaught of cheap labor, the meatpacking plants that line America’s political pockets continue to hide their illegal workers in the bloody corners of rural slaughterhouses. After all, these are the jobs that Americans won’t do — or at least won’t do so cheaply. The domestic Race to the Bottom races on.

The hypocrisy is both infuriating and obvious. Conservatives tell us that government is the problem; the enemy of market-based prosperity, and that businesses should do what’s necessary to escape the state’s unjust laws because businesses have an inalienable right to break free from the shackles of a U.S. government that is supposed to provide inalienable rights to its citizens. But these same conservatives say that companies can’t hire non-citizens because they’ll take jobs away from Americans whose native status is granted by the very same government that conservatives despise. If this is the case, then the right wing ought to consider the ramifications of a world where private interests aren’t beholden to the laws of the state, lest America’s free-market race itself permanently to the bottom of an entrail-splattered factory floor.

The Long, Strange Tale of American Race Relations

Rev. Martin Luthrt King Jr. after delivering his "I Have  Adream Speech" in Washington D.C.,  August 28, 1963. From that moment on, racism was no longer a problem.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after delivering his “I Have A Dream Speech” in Washington D.C., August 28, 1963. From that moment on, racism was no longer a problem.

Here’s the thing about racism in America: it’s both ubiquitous and non-existent. Race plays a role in every major cultural issue that seems to tarnish our otherwise more perfect union — except when it has nothing to do with any given problem and we should stop talking about race because only racists talk about race. The latter is the preferred talking-point of the right-wing, whose collective fetish for American exceptionalism utterly inhibits their ability to interpret U.S. history as anything more than the triumphant march of alabaster altruists spreading benevolent, capitalistic, freedom-stuffed fruit baskets to all manner of benighted minorities who should be eternally grateful for this ivory-colored benevolence. Obviously, the history of race relations is more complicated than that, and leave it to a famous, gravel-voiced comedian to shed some light on how race really works in America.

In a recent Q & A with Frank Rich for New York Magazine, stand-up legend Chris Rock made some rather insightful comments about American race relations following the verdict in Ferguson, Missouri that let white police officer Darren Wilson off the hook for gunning down black civilian Michael Brown. When discussing the idea of racial progress, Rock was straightforward in his response: “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before,” he stated.

What Rock is talking about is power, and the relationships that form around it. The period when white people were “crazy” constituted most of U.S. history, when they had the power to foist slavery, Jim Crow, and all manner of discrimination on blacks. That whites are “not as crazy” today is a sign of white enlightenment, not black “progress,” and it’s also a sign that white\black power relations are in an ongoing process of equalization that hasn’t yet been completed. Need proof? See Ferguson, Missouri.

As Rock notes, to talk about race in America is also to talk about power relations: the two are inextricably woven together. And power relations need not be limited to the highest echelons of society. They exist everywhere — within households; in schools; in offices; between employers and employees; between men and women; between blacks and whites — and they constitute the multiple realms within daily life in which people in different positions of dominance and subservience seek to readjust or reverse their respective roles.

Chris Rock: Still bringin' the pain.

Chris Rock: Still bringin’ the pain.

In her book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America, historian Jacqueline Jones reminds us that race has never really existed in America; it’s a social construct, a myth that’s served “as a tool that one group can use to ratchet itself into a position of greater advantage in society, and a justification for the economic inequality and the imbalance in rights and privileges that results.”* In U.S. history, the myth of race has consistently been used to justify and perpetuate power relations that have always given whites dominance over blacks. As Chris Rock notes, these power relations have been slowly shifting, but the process is replete with setbacks.

Recent American elections offer some clues that this readjustment in race-based power relations still has plenty of rocky roads ahead of it. Consider President Barack Obama’s white voter problem. Writing for the ever-reactionary Washington Examiner, Byron York contends that Obama has left a “dangerous legacy” for Democrats, particularly via his hemorrhaging of support from America’s super-duper-important caucasian caucus. Citing Obama’s overall basement-level 32 percent approval rating among whites and his even lower 27 percent rating among working-class whites, York  warns that, “if Democrats don’t find a way to connect with those ‘attitudes and life positions’ of working-class whites in coming years, they’ll have a big problem.” Fair enough, but what does York mean by white peoples’ ‘attitudes and positions?’ Well, they partly include long-held stereotypes that working-class whites use to define blacks as lazy, perpetually on welfare, prone to violence and crime, you get the point.

But these stereotypes are rooted in a very real sense of victimization among whites — the sense that their heretofore powerful position in American race relations is slowly, but noticeably eroding. Consider the issue of welfare: it’s a standard assumption that most blacks are on welfare and are therefore living the high-life off of hard-working white folks’ tax money. No wonder why the white-working class doesn’t like Obama, right? Well, not so fast. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2012, the number of families benefiting from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF) — what Americans broadly refer to as “welfare” — was divided fairly equally along racial and ethnic lines. 34 percent of whites were on welfare in 2012, while 33.5 percent of blacks benefitted from the program. Welfare isn’t primarily a “black” thing, even though many working-class whites continue to view it as such.

Now why is that? After all, most white people aren’t hood-donning Klansmen. Rather, the tortured legacy of U.S. race relations manifests in a whole series of negative assumptions and “facts” about blacks (they’re lazy; they’re all on welfare; they’re all criminals; they’re all on drugs; they have no respect for family, etc.) that are tacitly accepted by whites, who still maintain the upper-hand in American race relations. In a previous post, I referred to this cultural legacy of negative white beliefs about blacks as “racialism:” “the belief that racial differences exist and that these difference continue to influence Americans’ cultural views.

Supporters of embattled Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. A very white example of how power relations in America run along racial lines.

Supporters of embattled Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. A very white example of how power relations in America run along racial lines.

Racialism, therefore, isn’t the same as racism; it’s less potent; less outwardly declarative when it comes to the notion that blacks are inferior to whites, but it nonetheless promotes the idea of black inferiority in the form of subtle, persistent cultural assumptions that ignore centuries of institutional racism in favor of unexamined “facts” about blackness that have taken on the Colbert-esque veneer of “truthiness:” that “not always rational feeling we get that something is just right.” Via their infectious viral spread throughout U.S. society, racialist assumptions about alleged black pathologies continue to shape the contours of American race relations in which, as Chris Rock observed, blacks must constantly prove themselves worthy of white approval even as whites have historically defined blacks in a negative light.

When we talk about “racial progress,” what we’re really talking about is whites’ continued ability (or inability) to examine their privileged role within the dynamic of American race-based power relations. Until this process is complete — until we can understand why a guy like Darren Wilson always had the cultural benefit of the doubt with regard to the shooting of Michael Brown — we can’t really appreciate all of the excess historical baggage that’s stuffed into the bulging suitcase of American race-relations. It’s time to unpack, people, so let’s get to it.

* See Jacqueline Jones, A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America (New York: Basic, 2013), x.

Ferguson and the Black Outsider in America

Black protestoers clash with Ferguson, Missouri's largly white, militarized police force.

Black protestors clash with Ferguson, Missouri’s largely white, militarized police force.

If you’ve never been black in America, then you can never fully understand what it means to be black in America. White folks like myself, regardless of our socioeconomic status, are born with the privilege of color — white privilege — and no matter how we conduct ourselves in our public and private lives, we’ll always be citizens of America in a way that black people still can’t be. To be white in America is to be a full citizen, but to be black in America is to be the perpetual outsider. When a St. Louis County grand jury failed to indict officer Darren Wilson for the August 9, 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the continued outsider status of blacks in America was laid bare for the world to see. Wilson, of course, is white, and Brown was black. If you think those facts don’t mean anything, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Following the verdict, parts of Ferguson once again exploded, as rioters set fire to multiple buildings and smashed and burned police cars. Predictably, America’s right-wing media lined up in lock-step support for the verdict and for Wilson, and reactionary Twitter feeds lit up with the usual spiel of white victimhood. But the surge of anger among many of Ferguson’s black residents is not merely the response to the Ferguson verdict: it’s also a response to the historical legacy that laid the foundations for such a verdict. Whatever really happened on the day that Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, the history of institutional racism, suburban white-flight, and racially based redlining and housing discrimination have, over the decades, culminated to create a modern environment — in both Ferguson and across the country — that designates blacks as outsiders to be feared in a culture that gives special preference to whiteness.

One way to describe the darker trajectory of U.S. history is to describe how so many of America’s laws, cultural norms, and economic practices have been geared towards the social and legal recognition of white privilege. Over time, this process has involved counting blacks as three-fifths of a person in the Constitution; enslaving them as human property for over a century; precluding them from having basic civil rights and making them the target of brutal lynchings from the end of the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century, and enacting discriminatory housing and schooling policies to relegate much of the black population to urban poverty in the contemporary era. Race is inseparable from an American history that saw the continued designation of African-Americans as outsiders impinging on the “norm” that is whiteness.

Michael Brown was an individual, but he was also a symbol of the perpetual black outsider: a menacing figure that, via his very existence, poses a threat to white safety and comfort. As sociologist Kelly Welch observes, the black outsider stands as the go-to representation of crime, and the “black male as vile and menacing street thug” mentality has manifested throughout U.S. history in fears of slave revolts, black political agency, “miscegenation,” and the now-familiar urban “thug” whose only goal is to wreck endless havoc in the peaceful society that American whites built on the backs of his ancestors. In past eras, the problem of the black outsider was generally called the “negro problem,” and while that phrase is no longer en vogue today, the sentiment remains — ever-present and ever volatile.

Officer Darren Wilson, in a photograph depicting his injury after the shooting of Michael Brown.

Officer Darren Wilson, in a photograph depicting his injury after the shooting of Michael Brown.

Black intellectuals of all stripes have long tried to reconcile the outsider status of blacks with America’s ostensible devotion to freedom and equal rights. In an 1863 speech titled “The Present and Future of the Colored Race in America,” the great abolitionist and civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass tried to frame the contours of the “negro question” in the midst of the Civil War. Even as Union soldiers were dying to free black slaves, the notion that someday blacks might attain equal rights with whites was still a form of cultural heresy, as Douglass knew all to well. “Men sneer at it as the ‘n–r question,'” Douglass stated, “but… the destiny of the nation has the Negro for its pivot, and turns upon the question as to what shall be done with him. Peace and war, union and disunion, salvation and ruin, glory and shame all crowd upon our thoughts the moment this vital word is pronounced.” By referring to blacks as the “pivot” of the nation, Douglass referenced both the duel roles that they played as a symbol of the blinding hypocrisies within American society with regard to equal rights and as a political and economic problem on which so many significant developments — especially the Civil War — hinged.

When confronted with the question of “What shall be done with the Negro?” Douglass made remarks that are eerily prescient given recent racially charged events such as the shooting of Michhael Brown. “Save the Negro and you save the nation, destroy the Negro and you destroy the nation, and to save both you must have but one great law of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all Americans without respect to color,” he stated. Douglass recognized that America could never become whole unless its commitment to equality triumphed over its commitment to racism. Despite white America’s relegating of blacks to outsider status, Douglass knew that blacks were an integral part of the fabric of America: they had helped to (literally) build the country, and during the Civil War they donned Union blue to save it from itself. But until blacks became “insiders” — until America decided to “save the negro” and let blacks have equal status with whites, then the nation would always be on the cusp of destruction: a powder-keg of racial tension that could explode with the simple firing of, say, a white police officers’ gun.

W.E.B Du Bois, the black scholar who examined the duality of black life in America.

W.E.B Du Bois: the scholar who examined the duality of black life in America.

Much like Douglass, the brilliant scholar and civil rights-activist W.E.B. Du Bois also wrestled with the “negro problem” and the question of how to deal with blacks’ outsider status in American society. In an 1897 piece titled “The Conservation of Races,” Du Bois noted that no black person in America had failed to ask himself (yes, it should be gender-neutral, but such were the times) “What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro?” Du Bois believed that this duality of black life — being a part of the nation but still a distinct outsider — was perhaps the defining characteristic of the black American experience. “Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America?” Du Bois asked. Because blackness fell outside of the accepted American experience, to strive to be an American raised the question of whether such an act required the disavowal of blackness itself. This was a problem that no white person ever had to face. To be American was (and, to a large extent, still IS) to be white. Surely no one at this moment intuitively understands this fact better than Darren Wilson.

Although I can’t speak for black people today, I suspect that many still struggle with the fundamental questions of identity raised by Douglass, Du Bois, and countless others throughout U.S. history. When a black person like Michael Brown is viewed as a potential criminal first, an American citizen second, he is forced to analyze his place in a society that, for all of its advances and success regarding the issues of race and equal rights, still considers him an outsider — and a threat. In his grand jury testimony, Darren Wilson described Brown as the ultimate outsider by claiming that Brown looked “angry” and like a “demon.” When it comes to Western culture, no one is a bigger outsider than the Devil, and Wilson’s (however unconscious) dehumanization of Brown  as a “demon” follows an established historical trend in which black rage has been deemed non-human: the ultimate threat to a society where whiteness is the established norm.

The dual nature of black American identity that Douglass and Du Bois identified over a century ago continues to influence American society, dividing it along hardening racial lines and poisoning any wells of intelligent dialogue on the subject of race from which Americans might otherwise drink. So while Michael Brown is dead and Darren Wilson will walk free, the underlying tensions fostered by a society in which whiteness still constitutes Americanness and blacks are viewed as outsiders will continue to erupt, prompting yet more national discussions about race that go nowhere. Even as Ferguson burns, we just keep dousing the fires with kerosene.

Don Blankenship, Triangle Fires, and Plutocracy Unhinged

Former Massey Energy CEO -- and world-class asshat -- Don Blankenship, wraps himself in the flag to give the impression that he cares more about the red, red, and blue than he does the green.

Former Massey Energy CEO — and world-class asshat — Don Blankenship, wraps himself in the flag to give the impression that he cares more about the red, white, and blue than he does the green.

Americans like to talk a good deal about their twin-commitments to both capitalism and democracy, but the relationship between the two systems is, shall we say, fraught with tension. Democracy tries to remind capitalism about the importance of freedom and individual human rights, but, like an anti-domestic violence group trying to lecture the NFL about the importance of respecting women, its success rate is mixed, to say the least. The resulting conflict between corporate profit and human flourishing has burned with the intensity of a coal fire throughout U.S. history — which brings us to Don Blankenship.

Blankenship is the former CEO of Massey Energy, which was one of the country’s biggest coal extractors before Alpha Natural Resources bought it out in 2012. He’s the mustachioed poster-boy for the way capitalism can undermine human rights. Indeed, even when it comes to ignominious plutocrats, Blankenship has all the redeemable qualities of a hacked-up, charcoal colored, black lung induced phlegm wad. He was recently indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to violate federal mine safety regulations and making false claims to the Securities and Exchange Commission — among other counts. Blankenship’s blatant disregard for mine safety resulted in the death of 29 coal miners in the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, when explosions ripped through the poorly ventilated West Virginia mine causing the worst mining disaster in 40 years. You can read a list of the miners’ names here. An independent investigation found that the miners’ deaths were the result of Blankenship’s flouting of mandatory safety regulations in order to produce more coal and make more money.

Yes-sir-ee-Bob, Don Blankenship is a slimeball, but even among slimeballs, his revolting viscosity stands out. Mother Jones has the breakdown of the most vile allegations to come out of his indictment, in which Blankenship manages to make Montgomery Burns look like “Daddy” Warbucks. Some choice highlights include the following: the Upper Big Branch mine averaged about one safety violation a day; Massey had a secret code used to alert employees to cover up safety violations when Federal inspectors were snooping about; and, worst of all, Blankenship thought that the mine’s lousy ventilation wasn’t a problem — until the mine blew up, of course. You can read the rest of the stomach-churning allegations if you’re so inclined, but suffice to say that Blankenship, whom Rolling Stone dubbed the “Dark Lord of Coal Country,” put profits over human safety at every turn, demonstrating why the idea of “self-regulating” big business is a sick joke that far too many Americans nonetheless still take seriously.

But the fact that so many people still believe that big business shouldn’t be regulated — that the “free market” will create some kind of balance between capitalism and individual rights — is particularly depressing given that disasters like this have happened in the past, with precisely the same awful consequences. Perhaps the most notorious industrial disaster in U.S. history was the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which occurred in the heart of New York City’s unregulated garment district.

A memorial to the 29 miners who died at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.

A memorial to the 29 miners who died when the Upper Big Branch Mine exploded.

The Triangle Waist Company was a classic sweatshop: its mostly immigrant female employees labored long hours for pittance wages amidst appalling working conditions. In an echo of the current craze for outsourcing and sub-contracting in order to extract dirt-cheap labor, factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris subcontracted their garment work to sleazy middle-men who pocketed a portion of the workers’ profits, and Blanck and Harris allegedly didn’t know how much the women were paid or even how many were working in the factory at any given time. Oh, and then there were the conditions. The ramshackle, multi-story factory building was poorly ventilated (sound familiar?) and clogged with piles of lint, debris, and highly combustible cloth. The fire escapes were also woefully inadequate. Moreover, the jerks who owned the place had their foremen barricade the doors in order to keep the workers from taking breaks. The building was a fire trap, and trap a fire it did.

On March 25, 1911, smoke began spewing from one of the factory’s many top-floor rag bins, and, in a span of a few minutes, a fire spread, trapping the workers. With the doors locked, the women panicked. Some of them fled down the skeletal, rusted fire-escape, which collapsed under their weight, sending dozens to their deaths. Other workers had no choice but to jump from the ninth-floor windows: they chose being smashed to death on New York’s concrete sidewalks over being immolated in the inferno Hell of their workplace. Out of the 500 Triangle Factory workers, 146 of them — most of whom were recently arrived Italian and Jewish immigrants — died in the fire. You can read a list of their names here. Many others were severely injured. The factory owners went to trial but escaped conviction, only to open up another Triangle Shirtwaist firetrap a few weeks later.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was a pivotal moment in U.S. labor history, as it resulted in several key industrial reforms geared towards improving the conditions and rights of workers. The fire led to the transformation of New York’s labor code into one of the most progressive in the nation, and spurred stringent new fire-safety laws that served as models for the rest of the country. Moreover, the tragedy emboldened the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) to further establish standards for the industry and monitor factories to try to ensure that workers’ could be assured some levels of health and safety on the shop floors.

But the most important legacy of the Triangle Fire was what it revealed in the charred bodies of 146 young women: for many people, the single-minded, utterly ruthless pursuit of profit results not in life, liberty, and happiness, but repression, sickness, misery, and death. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire occurred in the early part of the Progressive Era, which the political influence of big business ensured rampant inequality and a major imbalance in power-relations between employers and employees (sound familiar?). Such an imbalance proved quite deadly, as the Triangle Fire demonstrated, but many Americans still haven’t learned from history that when any single group is granted total power over another, it WILL abuse that power. That includes capitalists, who, if given the leeway and cultural approval, won’t hesitate to value money over human life — regardless of whether it’s 1911 or 2010.

Much like the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Don Blankenship didn’t give a damn about the lives of the people who died as a result of his greed: he’s the living embodiment of how capitalism, if left to its own devices, is incompatible both with democracy and individual rights. As Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodall notes in his devastating profile of the coal baron, “Blankenship has never hidden the fact that, when it comes to mining coal, he’ll do whatever it takes to make a buck.” Like the worst industrialists of Gilded Age America, Blankenship is a Social Darwinist. Capitalism is ‘like a jungle, where a jungle is survival of the fittest,'” he once told a documentary filmmaker, “‘Unions, communities, people — everybody’s gonna have to learn to accept that in the United States you have a capitalist society, and that capitalism, from a business standpoint, is survival of the most productive.'” Ever the unabashed right-wing asshat, Blankenship has spent decades obliterating West Virginia mountaintops and fouling the air and waterways with his coal fumes and coal slurry. And he thinks that’s just fine –because freedom.

The charred victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City.

The charred victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Blankenship’s naked disregard for workers’ lives or the health of the natural environment demonstrates the importance of bringing back a little-appreciated historical subject: industrial democracy. Historian Richard Greenwald writes that industrial democracy was, “an effort to square free market capitalism with democracy to provide a fair and just workplace.”* Economic justice was a key element of industrial democracy, and it was a major ideological force for Progressive Era reformers who sought to reconcile the dynamism of the marketplace with the recognition that the pursuit of profits should never overshadow the basic rights of human beings to flourish as free individuals. And being a free individual requires the right to have a say in your own working conditions. The 29 miners that died thanks to Don Blankenship’s greed didn’t have that say, and neither did those 146 Triangle Shirtwaist workers.

Capitalism without democracy is tyranny, and the existence of ogres like Don Blankenship should remind us all that industrial democracy, whether in the coal fields or Amazon.com warehouses, remains a vital necessity in twenty-first century America. Contrary to conservative claims that capitalism = freedom, there is no freedom in being utterly beholden to a powerful interest against whom you have no recourse to protest injustice. When you are forced to accede to the will of someone else; when your very livelihood depends on subjecting your health and your family’s lives to the machinations of dollar-crazed, megalomaniacal plutocrats, then you are not free. And don’t tell me that coal miners can just move to another mine, because any other mine will be operating along the same right-wing ideological fuel as the Massey Energy death pit.

The idea that a private interest has the right to completely dominate another person’s life and their environment is not a natural law, it’s a political belief, and as such, it can be — should be — challenged in the marketplace of ideas. Only then can America ever really move towards maintaining a workable balance between capitalism and democracy. Oh, and one more thing: F@#k you, Don Blankenship.

* See Richard Greenwald, The Triangle Fire, The Protocols of Peace, and Industrial Democracy in Progressive Era New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 3.

The Mighty Turkey: An American Historical Icon


Well, dear readers, American Thanksgiving is almost nigh, and that means it’s high-time that the turkey gets its due as a true American original.

Follow this link over to the History Vault, where I discuss the mighty turkey in all of its well-earned historical glory!