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Hot Historical Takes from the New Gilded Age

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The Smithsonian Museum of American History is a complete disaster. Ever since the Enola Gay exhibit became a center of conservative culture war resentment in the 1990s, the Smithsonian has been petrified of offending anyone in power. Combine this with the decline of federal funding to produce great exhibits and the Smithsonian is now an institution completely beholden to the wealthy. If you walk through the exhibits carefully, you can see this all over the place. It’s all about “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” and whatever other buzzwords around capitalism exist at a given time. There are almost no mention of unions or any kind of economic justice, but there is tons of stuff on how wonderful various capitalists are, how the spirit of innovation is the spirit of America, etc.

One of these museum curators is a guy named Peter Liebhold. Among other things, he curated an exhibit called “American Enterprise.” He also did an exhibit about sweatshops. I didn’t see that exhibit. Given his piece in Smithsonian Magazine providing a defense of the Triangle sweatshops owners, I’m glad I didn’t! Yes, that’s right. A defense. Even while figuring he didn’t give the pitch its hideous name “Was History Fair to the Triangle Sweatshop Owners,” it’s still an atrocity. Basically, it’s not so much the facts that are in question. Thanks to a lack of workplace safety laws, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were found not guilty of the manslaughter charges they faced. But this is like defending George Zimmerman against historians saying negative things about him just because when he murdered Trayvon Martin he was able to get off thanks to a racist Florida law. Yet that’s basically the argument–these guys did nothing really wrong because they weren’t so different than other capitalists and because they didn’t really do anything illegal.

Liebhold is sure to note that in fact this wasn’t a true sweatshop because the equipment was modern. Again, there is some truth to that; clothing production was moving out of the home and into the factory. But that doesn’t erase the fact that the doors were locked, that the factory was built above where fire ladders could reach, and that everything about it was extremely unsafe. What’s the difference between this and Bangladesh’s Sohel Rama, who murdered 1,138 workers in his unsafe factory? Not much actually, so I assume Liebhold will say that history hasn’t treated Rana fairly either. And the kicker, which really fits into apologetic arguments for Rana and modern sweatshop system is who the real blame falls on: consumers:

Today few realize the role that American consumerism played in the tragedy. At the turn of the century a shopping revolution swept the nation as consumers flocked to downtown palace department stores, attracted by a wide selection of goods sold at inexpensive prices in luxurious environments. The women in the factory made ready-to-wear clothing, the shirtwaists that young women in offices and factories wanted to wear. Their labor, and low wages, made fashionable clothing affordable.

Seeking efficiency, manufacturers applied mass production techniques in increasingly large garment shops. Entrepreneurs prospered, and even working-class people could afford to buy stylish clothing. When tragedy struck (as happens today), some blamed manufacturers, some pointed to workers and others criticized government.

In a paradox of action, Americans pushed for both lower prices and safer, better-regulated factories, throughout the 1900s. Today attitudes have largely changed. While workplace tragedies like the Imperial Food Co. fire of 1991 in North Carolina and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010 in West Virginia have taken the lives of many, the desire for regulation and enforcement has abated. The pressure for low prices, however, remains intense.

This gets straight at the problem of consumer-based activism: it so often takes attention away from who are really responsible for problems. Fight to ban straws, ignore the plastics and petroleum industries! Yes, people like low-priced clothing. But it’s as if when these workers starting forming unions and the minimum wage was established, etc., that clothing prices skyrocketed and all of a sudden consumers couldn’t afford clothing. It made no negative difference at all to consumers! And yet, this article takes the blame straight off the men who murdered 146 women (and who soon reopened another factory with the same safety problems) and depoliticizes it by naturalizing a process of exploitative capitalism through saying it’s all about consumers. Moreover, the desire for regulation and enforcement hasn’t abated; decades of capitalist propaganda and structural economic changes and made workers afraid to fight for regulations in fear that companies will just close up and move overseas. Moreover, everyone wants safe coal mines or whatever except for the Don Blankenships of the world who give millions to rich Republicans to do their bidding to make sure they aren’t safe.

This is a disgusting article, but then the Smithsonian Museum of American History, a museum now named for the odious Ken Behring, who I remember from my childhood as trying to steal the Seahawks from Seattle to move to Los Angeles, is also pretty reprehensible. And from what I have heard from museum world friends, a really awful place to work. But the big Smithsonian donors–they are going to LOVE this piece.

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