Wow....my first cross-post. Thanks to Spiidey for asking me to guestblog while he's away.
Today is the 94th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, so I thought some musing on the similarities and differences between the America of 1912 and the one of today were in order. This essay is also posted at Brilliant at Breakfast
Today, when we have cruise ships that dwarf the infamous White Star liner and when such disasters unfold in our own homes in real time, it seems almost quaint that this particular sea disaster still captures the imaginations of so many people. I think it's because the Titanic sinking embodies so many broad themes and archetypes that resonate across time -- the hubris of men who believed that technology could conquer nature, the doomed immigrants seeking only a better life, the wealthy whose millions couldn't protect them against a rush of sea water, the Monday morning quarterbacking used by showboating politicians.
At the beginning of last year, I used to say "If you liked 1905, you'll love 2005." But the parallels between the Gilded Age backdrop against which the Titanic sinking took place and the polarized environment in which we now find ourselves are astonishing.Economic conditions
1912 was a presidential election year, in which the pressing issues were very similar to those important to Americans today. While inflation today in general isn't the hot topic it was in the 1970's, increasing fuel prices are rippling across the country increasing the cost of everything. ThinkProgress is reporting that in 2005, Exxon's CEO raked in a cool $190,000/day
. In the 1910 midterm elections, Democrats had gained a majority in Congressby focusing on voters' frustration with the cost of living and their perception that greedy speculators were robbing the country blind while average workers could barely keep up:Labor
Today's Republicans have been successful in convincing American voters that shoveling more and more cash into the pockets of the wealthy "creates jobs" while at the same time pointing their attention at illegal immigrants, convincing Americans that the Brown Hordes are their problem, not the guy with the $6000 shower curtain picking their pockets from behind. In 1912, organized labor was coming into full flower, and the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile workers' strike that year in response to mill owners' reducing wages in the aftermath of a law requiring a shorter work week resulted in a victory for workers. The Lawrence textile mills, with their output-based pay and alienation between workers and management were the Wal-Marts of their day.Today, workers faced with globalization submit meekly when corporate executives like those at Delphi receive huge bonuses while worker pensions and medical benefits are short-changed and workers are asked to take pay cuts. What little manufacturing is left in this country is rapidly devolving into the kind of conditions workers endured prior to the early 20th century labor movement.Conservation and the environment
It's interesting that George W. Bush, who has presided over the gutting of most environmental regulations on business, likes to identify with Theodore Roosevelt. 1912 was the year Roosevelt ran on the Progressive Party ticket on a conservation platform, during a time when the realization that the land was a valuable resource that must be tended was gaining traction. Today, fish is full of mercury, much of the coast is likely to be under water in less than 100 years, and the Bush Administration gives nothing but lip service to addressing the environmental problems we face. In the area of the environment and conservation, the American people are more in synch with their 1912 brethren than with the contemporary robber barons that this president has admitted is his primary constituency.Direct democracy
After the presidential election debacles of 2000 and 2004, the move to eliminate the Electoral College and have direct elections for president has once again gained traction. Fairvote.org has a number of editorials from after the 2000 election calling for Electoral College reform
. At the same time, right-wingers have clamored for judicial recall, citing decisions by "activist judges" (read: judges who are not wingnuts) as a reason. Interestingly, it was Teddy Roosevelt calling for judicial recall in his speech at the Ohio nominating convention of 1912, showing that the adult version of the "do-over" knows no ideology. Those who know me are aware that I am involved in the campaign of Camille Abate
for the Democratic nomination for the 5th Congressional District of New Jersey. Camille is running against a Clintonista who was brought into the district by the party apparatchiks, seemingly to be a sacrificial lamb to run against the incumbent Republican. In terms of everything from fundraising to ballot position, the candidate not endorsed by the party machine has an uphill battle, relying mostly on guts, energy, and moxie, to fight the machine politics that dominate the nominating process. The irony of the impact of machine politics in the primary process is underscored by looking at history, because it was again Roosevelt who advocated direct elections of party nominees via a primary process, to reduce the influence of professional politicians.
After September 11, 2001, there was much talk about whether the attacks of that day were the Titanic sinking of our time. It could be argued that the collapse of two giant skyscrapers, theoretically caused by ten guys with boxcutters on airplanes, had the same dramatic and fatal impact of a piece of ice floating in the North Atlantic, punching a series of dots in the hull of a supposedly unsinkable ocean liner. Just as the watertight bulkheads proved ineffective against this particular iceberg collision, so did the insulation and other construction safeguards prove ineffective against the impact of two airplanes. Both show the pitfalls of human hubris in thinking that size somehow means invincibility -- a misconception made by the builders of the Titanic, the builders of the World Trade Center, and the architects of the Iraq War.
The Titanic sinking, occurring as it did in the context of an ascendant labor movement, marked an unofficial end to the age of the Robber Barons. Alas, the 9/11 attacks, which frightened Americans into blind acquiescence to the worst instincts of the President, his administration, Congressional Republicans, and their corporate funders, seem to be heralding a new, meaner Gilded Age, one once again characterized by a preposterously wealthy plutocracy amassing more and more wealth, with the rest of us scrambling in modern-day sweatshops for the scraps.
(HUGE hat tip to the Graduate School of Ohio State University, whose 1912: Competing Visions for America
provided much of the information for this blog entry.)