A Holiday Detached from its History

Some Labor Day, as reported in the McClatchy papers

 

Standing in a small room in the Iraqi home they’d raided an hour earlier, a dozen soldiers from the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division were trading jokes when 1st Sgt. Troy Moore, Company A’s senior enlisted man, shouted out.

 

“We’re bringing democracy to Iraq,” he called, with obvious sarcasm, as a reporter entered the room. Then Moore began loudly humming the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Within seconds the rest of the troops had joined in, filling the small, barren home in the middle of Iraq with the patriotic chorus of a Civil War-era ballad.

 

Although the soldiers who since spring have walked and ridden through this volatile area mixed with Sunni and Shiite Muslims have seen some signs of progress, they still face the daily threat of roadside bombs, an unreliable Iraqi police force, the limitations of depending on Iraqis for tips and the ever-elusive enemy.

 

“Even though we’ve out-stayed our welcome, in the big picture of whether we’ve helped or not, I know we have,” said Sgt. Christofer Kitto, a 23-year-old sniper from Altamont, N.Y. “But now it’s just in a state of quagmire. The U.S. time here has come and gone.”

 

The time has come and gone for the Sunnis too, of course.  Shiites have killed or driven a majority of Sunni from the Baghdad area, the ethnic cleansing we would never let happen, as reported in the detailed Newsweek article, Baghdad’s New Owners.  Baghdad is coming along nicely – the Shi’a militias have taken care of those who bother them.  As Logan Murphy puts it – “There is no central government and never has been. The militias have been ruling the roost since 2003.”  Or there is another view – that “one possible way for Iraq’s civil war to end is simply through attrition. If we just wait it out long enough, eventually someone will win and the fighting will stop – regardless of what the United States Army does or doesn’t do.”

 

But on Labor Day, the president, on his way to that economic summit in Australia, did drop in

 

Bush slipped out of a side door of the White House for the furtive trip that was aimed at bolstering his position for not drawing down troops from Iraq. During six hours on the ground here, the president was to meet with Army Gen. David Petraeus and other military commanders and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, before holding a session with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and members of his central government.

 

Afterward, Bush was to meet with Sunni tribal leaders whose cooperation has made Anbar Province, a former al-Qaeda stronghold, significantly safer during the past year.

 

Aides said Bush would prod Maliki and other Shiite national leaders to support the local Sunni officials, whom the White House has praised for fostering political reconciliation that has proved elusive in most other parts of Iraq. Later, Bush was to make short remarks to about 750 U.S. troops and other guests.

 

“The president felt this is something he had to do in order to put himself in a position to make some important decisions,” National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said of the visit.”This will be the last big gathering of the president’s advisers and Iraqi leaders before the president makes his decisions on the way forward,” said Geoff Morrell, Pentagon spokesperson. “He’s assembled his war council, and they are all convening with Iraqi leaders to discuss the way forward.”

 

We have a War Council?  Whatever.

 

See Digby

 

Bush has strapped on his codpiece and he’s strutting around the desert “makin’ assessments.” Not good. As we’ve seen he has a comic book mentality and when he meets with “tribal leaders” he’s liable to make some serious mistakes in judgment. But hey, what’s the difference? It’s the new fall line in warmongering. The surge part two is already in production.

 

I’m sure that in rarefied Big Money Republican circles there is a lot of soul searching going on about what went wrong. They are looking at Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and others and they are wondering which decisions and wrong turns were the ones that made the difference. But if they really want to know what the truly worst decision was they need look no further than the mirror. They foisted this fool on the world when they all went down to Texas and decided that it didn’t matter that he was completely unqualified by experience, temperament or intelligence – he could be president anyway.

 

I think most people believed until recently that Republicans were pretty good at running things. They are the captains of industry, after all. But that they could meet this man-child and think it was a good idea for him to be president of the United States is such an epic error in judgment that they have destroyed their reputation for a generation.

 

But it was Labor Day, so let’s not worry about that.  Kevin Drum has a few things to say about Labor Day and how that fits into the picture of where we are now –

 

Ever since World War II, American labor unions have been instrumental in helping spread democracy and labor rights throughout the world. The AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, for example, was one of the first to recognize what was happening in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk back in 1980, and immediately offered his help to Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. In the end, the AFL-CIO funneled over $4 million in aid to Solidarity, as well as both money and technical assistance to other labor movements in Eastern Europe and around the world. From Poland to Brazil to South Africa, local labor unions have played key roles in stabilizing emerging democracies, and American support for those unions has been instrumental.

 

And then he links to an old chestnut in the Washington Monthly, Matthew Harwood’s Pinkertons at the CPA – “the story of how the Bush administration’s anti-labor obsession led it to actively sabotage one of the few cross-cultural institutions that was genuinely happy to see American troops enter Baghdad and genuinely eager to work with us.”  That would be Iraq’s labor unions –

 

By March 2003, when the first American and allied tanks rolled into Iraq, laborites there, who had been hoping for Saddam’s overthrow for decades, were mostly cheering. By mid-May, the IFTU arose out of the labor movement that had resisted Saddam for more than two decades. Composed of liberals, nationalists, and communists who represented Iraq’s Mueslix-like mixture of ethnicity and faith, the IFTU was one of the few existing organizations in Iraq whose membership crossed sectarian lines.

 

But from the time the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took possession of Iraq, the Americans running the country not only declined to engage the labor movement in the process of building a nation, but also worked actively to undermine labor’s ability to play a constructive role.

 

First, during his tenure, CPA chief L. Paul Bremer repealed virtually the whole Iraqi legal structure with his so-called 100 Orders. He did not, however, repeal Saddam’s 1987 Labor Code, which forfeited the right of public sector workers to bargain collectively. That decision, though deeply foolish for purposes of nation-building, made perfect sense to the movement ideologues staffing the U.S. occupation.

 

Drum’s conclusion –

 

It’s a perfect nutshell description of how Heritage Foundation conservatism took priority over serious democracy promotion and economic planning in Iraq. Multiply it by a thousand, and it’s the story of how conservative monomania helped wreck a country. Happy Labor Day, all you loyal Bushies.

 

What country was wrecked by conservative theory finally put into action?  Was it Iraq?  Paul Krugman thinks not

 

Today, much of the Gulf Coast remains in ruins. Less than half the federal money set aside for rebuilding, as opposed to emergency relief, has actually been spent, in part because the Bush administration refused to waive the requirement that local governments put up matching funds for recovery projects – an impossible burden for communities whose tax bases have literally been washed away.

 

On the other hand, generous investment tax breaks, supposedly designed to spur recovery in the disaster area, have been used to build luxury condominiums near the University of Alabama’s football stadium in Tuscaloosa, 200 miles inland.

 

But why should we be surprised by any of this? The Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina – the mixture of neglect of those in need, obliviousness to their plight, and self-congratulation in the face of abject failure – has become standard operating procedure. These days, it’s Katrina all the time.

 

Of course he wasn’t doing a Labor Day column.  Unions would not have helped much.  And the cabinet secretary who called unions “terrorist organizations” is long gone (February 23, 2004 – Education Secretary Rod Paige called the National Education Association a “terrorist organization” Monday…).  But there’s a bit of class warfare in the air, as noted here in that item on Joe Hill.  Those who band together and demand better wages and better benefits and better working conditions undermine the economy by challenging those who built the key elements of this country’s success, the businesses.  You hear it all the time – if you don’t like the low wages or meager benefits or the dangers in the workplace get another damned job – and don’t try to shut down the economy with your whining.  You see it’s not just al Qaeda that wants to destroy America.  It’s also unions.

 

Krugman sees what’s up –

 

Consider the White House reaction to new Census data on income, poverty and health insurance. By any normal standard, this week’s report was a devastating indictment of the administration’s policies. After all, last year the administration insisted that the economy was booming – and whined that it wasn’t getting enough credit. What the data show, however, is that 2006, while a good year for the wealthy, brought only a slight decline in the poverty rate and a modest rise in median income, with most Americans still considerably worse off than they were before President Bush took office.

 

Most disturbing of all, the number of Americans without health insurance jumped. At this point, there are 47 million uninsured people in this country, 8.5 million more than there were in 2000. Mr. Bush may think that being uninsured is no big deal – “you just go to an emergency room” – but the reality is that if you’re uninsured every illness is a catastrophe, your own private Katrina.

 

Yet the White House press release on the report declared that President Bush was “pleased” with the new numbers. Heckuva job, economy!

 

Krugman is, however, just an economist, currently a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton, and his International Economics: Theory and Policy (currently in its seventh edition) is a standard textbook on international economics. So what does he know?

 

And no one much cares.  See E. J. Dionne at the Washington Post wondering about that – “Why is it that the poor – and, for that matter, the struggling middle class, too – disappear in the media, barricaded behind our fixation on celebrity, our titillation with personal sin and public shame, our fascination with every detail of every divorce and affair of every movie star, rock idol and sports phenom?”

 

The media reports what it thinks people want to hear about.  Polls show folks are worried – healthcare is a big deal to many.  But maybe they know nothing can be done.

 

Krugman is on that –

 

The question is whether any of this will change when Mr. Bush leaves office.

 

There’s a powerful political faction in this country that’s determined to draw exactly the wrong lesson from the Katrina debacle – namely, that the government always fails when it attempts to help people in need, so it shouldn’t even try.

 

“I don’t want the people who ran the Katrina cleanup to manage our health care system,” says Mitt Romney, as if the Bush administration’s practice of appointing incompetent cronies to key positions and refusing to hold them accountable no matter how badly they perform — did I mention that Mr. Chertoff still has his job? — were the way government always works.

 

And I’m not sure that faction is losing the argument. The thing about conservative governance is that it can succeed by failing: when conservative politicians mess up, they foster a cynicism about government that may actually help their cause.

 

Government will crush the unions – Reagan led the way with the air traffic controllers union – and will not do much for those who keeps whining “not fair.”  That’s the way it is, and that worries Barbara O’Brien, as she explains here

 

Younger people in particular (i.e., anyone born after 1970) can’t remember a time before the “government doesn’t work” meme took hold. My parents’ generation, whose ideas about government’s capabilities were shaped by FDR’s Hundred Days and World War II, generally trusted government. It was us Boomers who became cynical about government, and not without reason. But now that cynicism is paralyzing us.

 

Even as the health care crisis touches nearly everyone in the middle class, directly or indirectly, government and media continue to treat it as some little inconvenience for “the poor.” Being cut off from all but emergency care is considered a personal problem no doubt resulting from an individual’s bad choices. Just about every voice in Washington and mass media tells citizens that it’s wrong to expect government to make it possible to get decent health care. They should just suck it up and cut out trans fats.  

 

But while ordinary Americans have bought the idea that government solutions are not for them, for the wealthy and well-connected government works just fine.

 

She suggests it comes down to this – “the Right cannot abide the thought of citizens using their own government to solve problems.”  Really?  How long has this been going on?

 

Krugman –

 

Future historians will, without doubt, see Katrina as a turning point. The question is whether it will be seen as the moment when America remembered the importance of good government, or the moment when neglect and obliviousness to the needs of others became the new American way.

 

This may have been decided already.  See this

 

GOP presidential hopeful Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) said Friday it is “time the taxpayer gravy train left the New Orleans station” and urged an end to the federal aid to the region that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina two years ago.

 

“The amount of money that has been wasted on these so-called ‘recovery’ efforts has been mind-boggling,” said Tancredo, who is running a long-shot presidential campaign. “Enough is enough.”

 

Citing administration figures, the lawmaker said that $114 billion has been spent on the effort to rebuild a large stretch of the Gulf Coast after the storm hit New Orleans in August 2005 and claimed more than 1,600 lives.

 

“At some point, state and local officials and individuals have got to step up to the plate and take some initiative,” said Tancredo. “The mentality that people can wait around indefinitely for the federal taxpayer to solve all their worldly problems has got to come to an end.”

 

Case closed.  Just why does this country celebrate this Labor Day thing?

 

Across the pond, in the UK, Gary Younge in the Guardian wonders about that

 

The notions of personal reinvention and economic meritocracy that lie at the heart of the American dream are far more powerful and enduring than the kind of class consciousness necessary to redress the imbalance between rich and poor. Inequality of wealth in the US has long been justified on the grounds that there is equality of opportunity. The trouble is that while inequalities have grown dramatically over the past 20 years, equality of opportunity has been all but eroded.

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 1989 American CEOs earned 71 times more than the average worker – today, by most calculations, it is up to around 270 times. Meanwhile, social mobility has slowed to a level below that in most of Europe, including Britain.

 

But then most Americans identify themselves as “middle class” – but in the middle of just what is not at all clear, as Younge sees it –

 

Anything that would identify working people as a group with a collective set of interests that are different from and at times antagonistic to the interests of corporations has pretty much been erased from public discourse. People will refer to “blue collar workers”, “working families”, “the poor”, the “working poor”. But the working class simply does not exist.

 

So just why does this country celebrate this Labor Day thing?  Well, like most holidays, whatever it was about once it isn’t about that now.  It’s the last day of the summer, not in terms of celestial mechanics and this equinox or that solstice – it’s a psychological thing.  You have to go back to work or school tomorrow, to the real world, such as it is.  It’s the last day of good times and all that.  The French call it the “re-entry” – La rentrée.  No one really knows whether we’re supposed to detest the French any longer, given their new president, but we’ve made our holiday that used to celebrate the working class our last fling before la rentrée – so maybe we should rename the holiday that.  No one now admits to being part of the working class, so why bother?  There is none.  So forget “Labor Day.”  And French is cool.  An unusual French word dropped in here and there still impresses people, suckers that they are.

 

Younge notes that in October 2000, President Bush quipped to a group of wealthy diners – “What an impressive crowd: the haves, and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite; I call you my base.”

 

Younge – “If only the have-nots had such a determined and confident advocate.”

 

That’s not going to happen.  Labor Day indeed.

 

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Class Warfare, Cultural Notes, The Economy. Bookmark the permalink.

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