I’m outraged by these Hollywood liberals. Not only have they refused to make a movie about how Martin Luther King was the foremost 20th century proponent of slavery, the movies they do make refuse to acknowledge that what the abolitionist conspiracy referred to as “slavery” wasn’t really as bad as all that.
March 4, 1861. A good day in American history.
The scene at Lincoln’s inauguration.
I’ll have more to say about Samuel Bagenstos’s brilliant essay about legal arguments against civil rights have transformed across American history. To start, though, I’d like to highlight this, about how the argument that requiring public accommodations to treat customers on equal terms is the equivalent of slavery has long been used by white supremacists:
Other times, the arguments against Title II were framed in terms of the Thirteenth Amendment. The argument was not the one we might have expected from the Civil Rights Cases—that discrimination in public accommodations was not a badge and incident of slavery that Congress had Thirteenth Amendment power to target. Instead, it was the rather stunning argument that prohibiting businesses from discriminating on the basis of race conscripted the business owners into involuntary servitude. Strom Thurmond made this argument in his separate views attached to the Senate Report on the proposed Civil Rights Act. Senator Thurmond described the Thirteenth Amendment as “an insurmountable constitutional barrier” to Title II, because, by forcing businesses to serve customers their owners desired not to, the bill would impose “involuntary servitude” on them. As Christopher Schmidt explains, “in the early 1960s, this unusual Thirteenth Amendment argument figured prominently in the debate over the appropriate line between antidiscrimination policy and personal liberties.”
Terrible reactionary arguments never die; they just get recycled to justify different forms of illegitimate privilege.
On March 4, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the LaFollette Seamen’s Act, creating standards for working conditions on boats that the U.S. would enforce on all ships stopping at American ports, whether under American flags or not. It was not only a major early victory for American labor but is strong evidence behind the assertion that Woodrow Wilson is the most pro-union president in American history before FDR.
In the early 20th century, working conditions on ships were dire. Many ships were barely seaworthy. Sanitation on the ships was grotesque. A race to the bottom developed in sailing as manufacturers looked to reduce their transportation costs. In 1840, 80 percent of the U.S. carrying trade was in U.S. vessels. By 1883, it was 15 percent. Seamen called for “emancipation” from their shipowners. Penalties against desertion were still draconian. Although flogging had largely ended in the mid 19th century, punishing sailors in stocks and other forms of physical coercion were still common. They wanted the right to walk away from their contracts because of the near slavery of shipboard life. They were presently bound to their 1-3 year contracts with penalty of imprisonment and forfeiture of all wages if they deserted. Effectively, they lacked the ability to quit their jobs.
Although the act is named after Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, the real author of it was International Seamen’s Union (ISU) president Andrew Furuseth. Working with sympathetic Democrats, Furuseth had crafted reform bills since 1894 and was perhaps the first union leader to see the potential for working in Washington to get labor legislation passed (this at a time when Gompers and the AFL explicitly rejected such ideas). LaFollette and Furuseth became friends in 1907 when they allied against the prosecution of Union Labor Party leader Abe Ruef for graft. LaFollette began to introduce the bill every Congress in 1910. It gained support after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. When Wilson won the presidency that year, he named William B. Wilson, a cosponsor of the bill in the House, as Secretary of Labor.
From left to right, Andrew Furuseth, Robert LaFollette, and Lincoln Steffens
In pushing for the bill, the ISU explicitly connected it to the Titanic and the Triangle Fire of 1911, asking “No one will claim it is safe to crowd people into a theater or a shirtwaist factory and the lock the doors. Is it not even more dangerous to jam a steamer full of passengers and then to send it out to the harbor without having on board the means whereby they may be taken off quickly and safely in case of need?” As with much of labor reform at the time, Furuseth and his supporters did take on a racial and anti-immigrant tone. He bemoaned that sailing was “the domain of those who fought life’s battles and accepted defeat, of the sewage of the Caucasian race and of such of the races of Asia as felt that their condition could be improved by becoming seamen.”
Such statements forced the Industrial Workers of the World, which had quite a few members on the ships, to answer a tricky question of supporting a law that would make their lives better versus the racial internationalism of their ideology. The Wobblies opposed the law in the end, claiming not only was the ISU racist but that Furuseth “very likely has a child-like faith in the state, far exceeding his confidence in the workers whom he is supposed to represent.” Moreover, the IWW actually used the argument that the would hurt their employers by driving American flag-based shipping from the seas, a rather surprisingly pro-business position employed by these anti-capitalists.
Seamen on the S.S. Minnesota, 1919
Wilson’s foreign policy team encouraged him to pocket veto the bill because it might upset the British. But when Furuseth went to lobby Wilson personally, the president’s heart melted in the face of this craggy old seamen telling stories about the horrors of the ships. The new law established the 9-hour day and 56-hour week on ships. It guaranteed minimum standards of safety and cleanliness. It recognized the right of seamen to organize. It allowed them to get out of their contracts with relatively minimal penalty–half their salary earned to that point in the contract. Most importantly, it applied to all sailors–regardless of national origin or citizenship status–if they landed in an American port. The LaFollette Act is thus probably the closest law passed in American history to something that created a “race to the top” in working conditions around the globe. If you were a French sailor and you landed in New York, you could desert and the U.S. government would protect your rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps surprisingly, declared the international enforcement provisions constitutional, at least at first. After a 1918 decision ruled against a seaman who used the act to desert in Mobile while demanding half his wages, Louis Brandeis moved the court to a unanimous decision in a similar 1920 case by explicitly arguing that the point of the law was to enforce nationalist conceptions of labor standards, stating “foreign vessels engaged in the American trade would be compelled to raise wages and working conditions to practically the standard prevailing in our coastwise trade.”
By not only mandating standards on goods entering the United States, but also giving workers an out from their contracts if they were dissatisfied, the Seamen’s Act had the potential to advance the rights of workers significantly. In the end though, the fears of the shipping industry over its effect proved unfounded, largely because the Commerce Department under Wilson and then subsequent Republican presidents consistently sided with employers in enforcement. Commerce ruled that the space provisions for workers only applied to ships built after 1915 for instance. The French redefined sailors under its flags as members of the merchant marine and therefore ineligible for the protections. Finally, in the 1950s, the Supreme Court declared the international enforcement provisions unconstitutional and by this time the law was not widely applied anyway by a federal government interested in promoting global trade. This saddened the law’s supporters. In 1953, the Friends of Andrew Furuseth Legislative Association wrote, “If only the Seamen’s Act had been enforced from 1917 on, it might not have been necessary to have spent 19 billion dollars under the Marshall Plan, because the standard of living of European countries would have advanced more nearly to a parity with our own.”
Nevertheless, it marks perhaps the first time labor successfully used regulatory reform to advance the interest of specific workers and it provides an interesting precedent for those seeking to use the power of government to improve the conditions of workers toiling for American companies (or subcontractors for those companies) in a global marketplace. Can the American government implement standards in a worldwide economy reliant upon transportation methods to get apparel from Bangladesh? Could organized labor target transportation networks as a way to improve international labor standards? I do not believe a secondary strike by the ILWU or Teamsters in support of a labor action in Bangladesh would violate Taft-Hartley since it would not be an American union supported. The LaFollette Act wasn’t necessarily all that successful, but it suggests an almost totally unexplored strategy for international labor solidarity.
It is also worth noting that even taking into account the Red Scare and IWW-crushing that would take place later in the Wilson presidency, Wilson is still the most union-friendly president in American history before FDR.
I am drawing primarily from Leon Fink’s Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present for this post.
This is the 96th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
But here’s the thing: arguments for ignoring electoral realities, for backing some quixotic third-party candidate or imagining that leftists can sway the system through ultimatums, are based on precisely this fantasy. Movements lead politicians, not the other way around, and simply deciding that the politicians we have aren’t good enough won’t will a movement into being. A left that absented itself from the dirty work of electing a president would be indulging in the very reflex Reed decries: trying to send a message to those in power rather than contending for power itself.
The right understands this; it has simultaneously, over decades, systematically taken over the GOP from the bottom up, built a huge network of interlocking intellectual, legal and political institutions and mobilized every four years to try to elect a Republican president.
One curious thing about the Reed essay is that we don’t have to discuss the merits of electoral nihilism in the abstract — only a little more than a decade ago we saw a segment of the left declare war on the Democratic Party, assure supporters that there was no meaningful difference between the parties, and attract just enough support to produce catastrophe for the world. Reed’s attempt to deal with this obvious rebuttal was…not one of the stronger points of his essay:
This modus operandi has tethered what remains of the left to a Democratic Party that has long since renounced its commitment to any sort of redistributive vision and imposes a willed amnesia on political debate. True, the last Democrat was really unsatisfying, but this one is better; true, the last Republican didn’t bring destruction on the universe, but this one certainly will. And, of course, each of the “pivotal” Supreme Court justices is four years older than he or she was the last time.
I didn’t really understand at the time how anyone could have thought that a candidate who governed to the right of the Texas legislature, running with the Republican congressional coalition of 2000 on this platform, could have been seen as a harmless moderate not really different than Al Gore. But, OK, the candidate’s father was a fairly moderate Republican, Clinton was a fairly conservative Democrat — I can sort of reconstruct this peculiar blend of cynicism and wishful thinking however strongly I disagreed with it. But to continue making the argument after 8 years of George W. Bush? “Hundreds of thousands dead all over the world, arbitrary torture, two massive upper-class tax cuts, Sam Alito and John Roberts, letting New Orleans die, Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, total economic collapse — that compassionate conservative really didn’t work out too badly in the end!” If you think that was a price worth paying to send an ineffectual message to the Democrats, I just have to conclude that the premise is an unfalsifiable matter of faith.
So let’s say — just as a hypothetical for-instance — you are an 81-year-old star whose last movie was in 1991 and who hasn’t been to the Oscars in many a long year. Not that you were ever nominated for one in the first place; you were, after all, a sex symbol for most of your career. As the evening approaches, the anxiety sets in. Harsh lights, you think. High-definition cameras. And a public that remembers you chiefly as the ice goddess whose beauty once drove James Stewart to the brink of madness.
And even back then, when you were 25 years old, you worried constantly that no matter how you looked, it wasn’t good enough.
So a few weeks before the ceremony, you go to a doctor, and he says, “Relax honey. I have just the thing to make you fresh and dewy for the cameras.”
And you go to the Oscars, so nervous you clutch your fellow presenter’s hand. And the next day, you wake up to a bunch of cheap goddamn shots about your face.
Nice system we got here, isn’t it.
No wonder Kim Novak, like Tippi Hedren, Doris Day and Brigitte Bardot, has long said she’d much rather spend her time with animals.
+1, as the cool kids who frequent blog comment sections might say. And do read the whole thing.
This week, Méliès Monday brings you 1908′s The Grandmother’s Story.
Shorter verbatim Tammy Bruce: “If we are able to coerce someone, via the threat of lawsuit and personal destruction, to provide a service, how is that not slavery? If we insist that you must violate your faith specifically in that slavish action, how is that not abject tyranny?”
Actually, Bruce seems to be doing Erick Erickson one better here: not only are requirements that public accommodations serve people on equal terms tantamount to slavery, she seems to be arguing that private boycotts are tantamount to slavery. I guess the idea is that when you’re already up to your waist in derp you might as well just go ahead and submerge yourself entirely.
I hope that the “basic civil rights protections are slavery” meme becomes a prominent feature of the Republican celebrations of the imaginary Martin Luther King who was totally a Reaganite before his time that recur every January. And it’s not that Republicans oppose civil rights; they just support the Jesse Helms version, and I’m sure if Helms were alive today he’d enthusiastically agree that civil rights statutes are like slavery and denying arbitrary individual exemptions to generally applicable laws is the essence of tyranny.
The Russian occupation of Crimea has challenged Mr. Obama as has no other international crisis, and … [Republicans’ Sunday-show] advice seemed to pose the same question: Is Mr. Obama tough enough to take on the former K.G.B. colonel in the Kremlin? … Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality … ‘In another world,’ she said.
If you guessed that this inane foreign-policy-as-pissing-contest logic came from the Fred Hiatt editorial Paul spotted earlier, you’re sensible but wrong. Sadly, it comes from Peter Baker’s alleged straight news story in the New York Times. I think you can see why so much of the “liberal media” rolled over and died in the run up to Iraq. Say what you will about Bush, he never lacked toughioisty and resolvitivity!
As I mentioned yesterday in comments, I’ve been thinking about the pathetic state of the New York Times columnist section lately. The Washington Post op-ed page is also terrible, but it’s terrible in the way that it should be terrible–a bunch of right-wing nuts, but they are influential (more or less) right-wing nuts, representing actual consistencies in the Beltway. The Times page is just bad. We’ve all known this for years, but I was really agitated by Kristof’s idiotic column about academics not writing for the public and there are so many bad or meh columnists on the page. I think Maureen Dowd’s column about Francois Hollande not cheating on his partner in the right way had to be an all-time low point for her, although the competition is stiff. Then there’s Tom Friedman writing columns that are nothing more than job advertisements for Google. Meanwhile, Kristof is flying first class around the world saving people while consistently refusing to support people trying to improve their own lives.
So what if we could fire everyone at the Times and start over? Let’s play that game. What would it look like? Who would you keep? I want to establish a vague metric, Value over Replacement Columnist. I’m assuming what one wants in a Times columnist is an original thinker with consistently interesting things to say who also works hard at their job. You want someone people are going to talk about, brands that are interesting and provide added value to the paper. You want high VORC from your columnists. Unfortunately, there’s only one person at the times who actually works hard, has interesting things to say, and grabs your attention. Krugman of course.
Unfortunately, everyone else falls into 1 of 2 categories. Either people talk about them all the time despite or usually because they are so bad (Brooks, Friedman, Kristof, Dowd, Douthat) or they are just not very good at their jobs, writing OK columns I guess but that nobody ever or rarely talks about (Collins, Blow, Nocera, Cohen, Bruni). The former have strikingly negative VORC, the latter replacement-level VORC. Blow is a nice liberal, but there are dozens of people (if not hundreds) who could do this as well as he. And if Blow did disappear, how long would it be before anyone noticed?
I’m also setting two vague groundrules that you can accept or not at your pleasure. First, the columnist page should look more or less like it already looks. Which means you have to have conservatives. The Times has 2, so let’s keep it at that. And the page can’t be a bunch of flaming left-wingers either. Liberals of various stripes, yes. But the game isn’t about finding the people who are all ideological the same as you. Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky are not realistic options. The choices also have to provide diversity of topic. If you are keeping Krugman, you can’t have a bunch of other liberal economist types. Second, I’m going to assume the Times management isn’t going to take a lot of risks. They aren’t picking an LGM writer. Too unknown. So who already has a platform large enough to come to the Times attention?
Finally, I respect DJW’s idea that the whole columnist page is ridiculous as set up, but for monetary reasons it’s not going to go away. One can certainly argue that no one should keep the job for more than 5 years and there’s no question the Times needs to use a tighter leash. But Krugman shows that it can be done.
So who do you want? I keep Krugman and Brooks. Everyone else is gone without a second thought. Why Brooks? You have to have conservatives. And he actually does represent a certain type of Beltway constituency. He’s terrible, but again, he’s terrible in the right way. Plus he’s fun to make fun of. If you can nominate a conservative to replace him, go ahead.
Who else would I want on my Times fantasy columnist page? Despite what he says about not wanting the job, Ta-Nehisi Coates is on board. He’s too modest. Dahlia Lithwick would be awesome as well, as Scott has argued for years. Since I’m a historian, let’s add Jill Lepore. She consistently connects past and present, works hard, and is incredibly productive. Since we are dumping Friedman, we need a foreign policy person. How about Fallows? We are already raiding the Atlantic here, might as well complete the job. I’ll note that Lydia DePillis is the best writer over at WonkBlog (Evan “Unions Are Evil” Soltas is the worst. Typically, he’s the one going with Klein to his new and seemingly very centrastic site) and could be good and have a large enough platform for consideration, as well as being diverse enough in topic to not just be another Krugman. Could we add Dave Weigel as the other conservative? Is he conservative enough? I think all of these people have significant VORC potential.
I’m not picking any of several excellent choices on economic issues (DeLong, Hiltzik, etc). And this page is too white. But it’s a start. Who else should be on board?
What that something might be the Editors do not say.
Seriously, very serious people get paid to write this kind of thing:
The urge to pull back — to concentrate on what Mr. Obama calls “nation-building at home” — is nothing new, as former ambassador Stephen Sestanovich recounts in his illuminating history of U.S. foreign policy, “Maximalist.” There were similar retrenchments after the Korea and Vietnam wars and when the Soviet Union crumbled. But the United States discovered each time that the world became a more dangerous place without its leadership and that disorder in the world could threaten U.S. prosperity. Each period of retrenchment was followed by more active (though not always wiser) [!!!] policy. Today Mr. Obama has plenty of company in his impulse, within both parties and as reflected by public opinion. But he’s also in part responsible for the national mood: If a president doesn’t make the case for global engagement, no one else effectively can.
The White House often responds by accusing critics of being warmongers who want American “boots on the ground” all over the world and have yet to learn the lessons of Iraq. So let’s stipulate: We don’t want U.S. troops in Syria, and we don’t want U.S. troops in Crimea. A great power can become overextended, and if its economy falters, so will its ability to lead. None of this is simple.
But it’s also true that, as long as some leaders play by what Mr. Kerry dismisses as 19th-century rules, the United States can’t pretend that the only game is in another arena altogether. Military strength, trustworthiness as an ally, staying power in difficult corners of the world such as Afghanistan — these still matter, much as we might wish they did not. While the United States has been retrenching, the tide of democracy in the world, which once seemed inexorable, has been receding. In the long run, that’s harmful to U.S. national security, too.
Notice how The Editors manage to write 800 words on the Russia-Ukraine crisis without making anything that even begins to resemble a concrete policy suggestion, while at the same time excoriating the president for failing to “lead” from his BULLY PULPIT(tm).