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The other night I got a call from a young civil engineer who has been devoting all his time and energy to union work. The county is pushing for a two-tier pay scale, which would mean reduced wages and benefits for workers hired from now on. The rank-and-file are going to go for it because they feel no allegiance to their future co-workers. The idea that they would -the idea of class solidarity- seems impossibly retro. My young friend is in political despair.
Next day I opened a new anthology of pieces by St. Clair McKelway. The first paragraph of the introduction by Adam Gopnik contains this portion of a sentence: “… he was as well known to New Yorker subscribers as any of the writers whose names are more familiar now, as well known and as keenly relished by readers as Liebling and Mitchell and White and those few others whose reputations have been rehabilitated, as they liked to say in the old Soviet Union…”
A.J. Liebling never had to be “rehabilitated” because he never fell out of favor, and neither did E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and The Elements of Style (a book Gopnik ought to read; he writes like he gets paid by the word). And WTF does the old Soviet Union have to do with St. Clair McKelway’s reputation?
That piece of excess verbiage caught my eye because I had just gotten an email from a pro-cannabis doctor who said of the California medical board, “They operate like the Russians in the good old days of the gulags.” I’m going to start keeping a file of gratuitous anti-Soviet put-downs (GASPs). They’re like little pledges of allegiance unconsciously recited, little loyalty oaths to our own wonderful system.
Liberal Chris Mathews has been denouncing Michelle Bachman’s assertion that the founding fathers wouldn’t rest until they’d abolished slavery. His high-volume scorn is on target. But this is the same Chris Mathews who, in a repeatedly aired MSNBC promo, praises us, the wonderful resilient democratic American people, for having survived/overcome “McCarthyism.” I wish I had the exact wording; his point was that “McCarthyism” was a thing of the past, our society had advanced beyond it successfully. This is as wrong, in its way, as Rep. Bachman’s moronic statement about slavery.
McCarthyism prevailed. It has almost completely achieved its purpose. The American working class neither survived nor overcame it. Getting rid of Communists in government and the unions was the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself was the New Deal and the Four Freedoms promised by FDR in ’36 (including “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear”). The disappearing of the New Deal has taken decades. The public sector unions and Social Security are next.
McCarthyism -the mass firing of Communists and their allies in the decade after World War 2- provided a cover for the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs. Chris Mathews seems to have only recently discovered the disappearance of the manufacturing sector. To listen to him and Big Ed on MSCNBC you’d think it had happened overnight, but the process has been going on since the 1950s.
My father did some work for Spalding sporting goods in the ’50s. One night he came home from a trip to company headquarters in Chicopee, Mass. -this was around ’56- and said, “You’re not going to believe this. The women aren’t sewing the baseballs in Chicopee anymore. They built a plant in Haiti. They’re paying the women there a nickel an hour!” [Sewing through leather is hard work that deforms the hands.] The next year he came home and said, “You’re not going to believe this. They’re not making the tennis racquets in Chicopee anymore. They’re making them in Pakistan…” The writing was already on the wall and it spelled “The Companies Will Operate Where Labor is Cheapest.”
The U.S. working class may have been well off, but the only way to protect its interests in the long term -obviously! obviously!- was to organize the workers of the war-flattened world. Thanks to McCarthyism, the AFL-CIO leadership was preoccupied with fighting “Communist influence” in unions at home and abroad when they should have been organizing for higher wages and decent working conditions. George Meany and Walter Reuther got medals of Freedom while U.S. corporations began the process that some HR ace would dub “outsourcing.”
The ultimate triumph of McCarthyism was to delegitamize the idea that workers have interests that conflict with the owners’. Guilt by association (with the bad Soviet Union), the essential McCarthy technique, made working-class consciousness taboo.
FRED GARDNER is managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s, the journal of cannabis in clinical practice. He can be reached at Fred@plebesite.com