Ed Driscoll

Labor Day 2010: Building a Bridge to the 13th Century

Mark Steyn, recently returned from vacation to happily labor away at his Website, reprints a prescient essay he wrote eight years ago, for Labor Day, 2002:

This Labour Day, I thought about the working class, the masses.

No, honestly, I did. Okay, I was on the beach, but the folks around me lying on the sand had jobs they’ll be getting back to this morning. They worked. They would be classed as workers. But they’re not a homogeneous “working class,” they’re not conscripts in Karl Marx’s “masses.” The transformation of Labour Day, from a celebration of workers’ solidarity to a cook-out, is the perfect precis of the history of Anglo-American capitalism.

If you want to see what “the masses” are meant to look like, buy a DVD of Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s 1926 “expressionist masterpiece.” As futuristic nightmares go, it’s hilarious: The workers are slaves, living underground, chained to the levers, wheels, cranks and cogs of a vast machine, dehumanized by the crushing anonymity of their servitude, etc., etc.

Alas, nothing dates faster than a futuristic vision: Today, the nightmare that beckons is quite the opposite. Instead of a world in which the workers are forced to operate huge, clanking machines below the Earth all day long, the machines are small and silent and so computerized no manpower is required and the masses have to be sedated by shallow distractions like supersized shakes and Wal-Mart and 24-hour lesbian wrestling channels on Premium Cable.

It took the workers’ tribunes a while to catch on: Even today, when your average union leader issues his annual Labour Day address, you can tell at heart he still thinks it’s 1926 and Metropolis is just around the corner

And finally, in 2008, the left finally had a president in office, who like them, frequently believes he’s permanently trapped in 1933 — as does Time magazine, who put him on the cover in late 2008 portraying the then president-elect, via Photoshop, as the next FDR, even down to preserving Roosevelt’s cigarette holder, jaunty, but oh so hated by today’s nanny state.

Note these moments at the end of Mark’s article, again from 2002, which are a reminder that for virtually all of the previous decade, the center-right War on Terror proceeded apace with the far left’s war on modernity:

Back in those days, if PBS jetsetting finger-wagger Bill Moyers was sitting under some tree in the South African bush bemoaning man as a “cancer on the planet,” nobody in Connecticut would be able to hear a word he was yakking on about, oh happy day.But, over the millennia, the Eighth Psalm has held up, which is more than you can say for Fritz Lang or those 1970s eco-apocalyptics. By contrast, Suzuki’s “We’re All Animals Here” is a pitiful reductio, an expression not so much of evolutionary theory as devolutionary theory: We’ve evolved from the beasts, and, with a bit of a nudge from Moyers and Suzuki and PETA, we can evolve back. And if that means those fieldhands in southern Ethiopia have to eke out their four decades in the rustic version of Metropolis, so be it.

There’s no such thing as “sustainable” development. Human progress and individual liberty have advanced on the backs of one unsustainable development after another: When we needed trees for heating and transportation, we chopped ’em down. Then we discovered oil, and the trees grew back. When the oil runs out, we won’t notice because our SUVs will be powered by something else. Bet on human ingenuity every time. We’re not animals, and it’s a cult as deranged as the screwiest fringe religion to insist we are. Earth’s most valuable resource is us.

Not surprisingly, that’s not a sentiment that’s been selling well with much of the far left since the late 1960s, as Fred Siegel recently noted at City Journal. But it’s all fun and games until somebody actually buys into the eco-paranoia and decides to hold a TV network’s offices hostage, Glenn Reynolds writes in the Washington Examiner:

Filthy. Parasites. Disgusting, overbreeding candidates for sterilization and extermination. Possessed of false morals and a “breeding culture.”

Hitler talking about the Jews? Nope. This is Discovery Channel hostage-taker James Lee talking about … human beings. Compared to Lee, Hitler was a piker, philosophically: Der Fuehrer only wanted to kill those he considered “subhuman.” Lee considered all humans to be subhuman.

Lee was a nut, an eco-freak who said he was inspired by Al Gore’s environmental scare-documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” His badly written “manifesto” underscores his craziness. He hated “filthy human babies.”

But, of course, Lee’s not alone. Looking at the environmental literature, we find terms like those used above — the currently stylish description is “eliminationist rhetoric” — used widely, and plans for mass sterilization are fairly common.

And, as Mark Hemingway pointed out in these pages a few days ago, one need only look to the writings of President Obama’s “science czar,” John Holdren to find something similar. Seeing humanity as destructive, Holdren wrote in favor of forced abortion and putting sterilizing agents in the drinking water, and in particular of sterilizing people who cause “social deterioration.”

Holdren has since distanced himself from these views, but still. Lee was a violent nut, but not a scientist. Holdren is a scientist (who held nutty views, at least at one point) but he’s not a violent nut.

Still though, best to keep Holdren away from NASA’s unmanned rockets. But as James Delingpole recently wrote in the London Telegraph, “James Lee is Al Gore is Prince Charles is the Unabomber:”

Al Gore’s Church of Climatism has claimed a new glorious martyr. His name is James Lee – the Discovery channel attempted eco-suicide-bomber – and if he’d had his way he wouldn’t have been the only one who ended up in the great recycling bin in the sky. That’s because, as far as the late James Lee was concerned, humans like the innocent Discovery channel employees he held hostage are the scum of the earth.

Just read some of the manifesto he posted on the internet and see for yourself:

The humans? The planet does not need humans.

You MUST KNOW the human population is behind all the pollution and problems in the world, and YET you encourage the exact opposite instead of discouraging human growth and procreation. Surely you MUST ALREADY KNOW this!

Does this sound like the ravings of a sad, deranged loner on the wilder fringes of eco-fascist lunacy? Not to me it doesn’t. Strip away the block capitals and what you have, word for word, is the core manifesto of the entire global green movement.

Some greens, such as Al Gore, the Prince of Wales, the Hon Sir Jonathon Porritt or that nice David Attenborough try to express their philosophy more diplomatically. Others, such as James Lee and his kindred spirit the Unabomber, are more forthright. Ideologically, however, there is not a cigarette paper’s difference between them. All cleave to the same fundamental tenet of the Church of Climatism: that humans are the problem not the solution.

Back in his Washington Examiner article, Glenn goes on to note:

Policing the science is likely to prove difficult. But policing the rhetoric — as American society has long done with expressions of racial hatred or genocidal sentiment — seems well within reach.

In contemporary America, no respectable person would advocate, say, the involuntary sterilization of blacks or Jews. Why, then, should it be any more respectable to advocate the involuntary sterilization of everyone? Or even of those who cause “social deterioration?”

They advocated abortion, not sterilization, but that’s not all that far removed from the argument the Freakonomics authors backed into a few years ago, unwittingly updating Margaret Sanger’s original theories, long airbrushed out of the left’s collective history.

But who maintains those archives, such as they are? In his latest essay, looking back a life spent in academia, Victor Davis Hanson explores the mindset behind that particular groups of monks toiling to maintain the collective records of collectivism:

So what did I learn in the university? I’ll try to be a bit less specific than I was in Who Killed Homer? written over a decade ago.

Lies, lies, and more lies

First was the false knowledge — odd for an institution devoted to free inquiry. The university runs like a 13th-century church in which the heliocentric maverick is a mortal sinner. So too on campus the Rosenbergs never spied. Alger Hiss was a martyr. Mao killed only a few who needed killing (see Anita Dunn on that one).

Che was not a murderous thug, but a hair-in-the-wind carefree motorcyclist. Minorities supposedly died proportionally higher in Vietnam — as they supposedly do now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women are underrepresented as both undergraduates and as humanities graduate students. Anyone with an accented name obviously had picked grapes or was denied voting rights. Adlai Stevenson was an American saint, even more so than George McGovern. Only the unhinged even discussed doubts about global warming. Don’t question any of the above; it was all gospel — as we see now in D.C., from Keynes to Gorism to Cordoba as the beacon of Islamic tolerance during the Inquisition. (Doubt any of that, and that laid-back elbow-patched joking prof who told the class “Call me Bill,” in a flash, Gollum like, turned into a snarling jackal, screaming, “I am Doctor Jones, with important publications on climate change and a doctorate from Berkeley! How dare you question me!”)

Wounded fawns all

Next were the mock heroics. The philosophy professor who mastered his weedeater wanted us to think he had just stormed Iwo Jima. The gadfly who in the Academic Senate pushed through a resolution on a 170-2 approval vote demanding state sanction of gay marriage thought he was Mandela fighting back the forces of Neanderthal apartheid. My colleague the French professor believed that she belonged to the United Mine Workers when she trudged off to teach an 8 AM early-bird class. We heard for two years the Homeric battle of how the sociology prof, Odysseus like (or perhaps more in the Achilles strain), once somehow jump-started his car in the parking lot. We heard a lot that everyone was “tired” and “exhausted,” as if we had been painting all day or digging trenches for an irrigation company.

The World of Arugula

So there was the cluelessness about the material world, and both a repulsion and fascination for it. I farmed “raisin plants.” And why didn’t I let one or two owls do my pest management on 100 acres rather than use the poison that was born at Auschwitz? Machines always had to work — or else. When it hit 110 and the air conditioning went out in our building, profs sighed and damned “them” who couldn’t even keep us cool. (None had been on a roof at 120 or wondered how a compressor ran at all — or how a guy could spend four hours up there in Sahara-like conditions with all sorts of sockets and wrenches before his skull melted. [Note well, the campus machines worked far better than did the idea of graduating literate BAs.]) In the world of the professor, offshore drilling rigs can be started and stopped, come and go, sort of like an evening seminar. No wonder Professor Chu announced that California agriculture would dry up and blow away (and given the present policies, he may be right).


Looking back at it all, envy seemed the university lifeblood. Most other professionals, you see, were, in comparison to us, overpaid —especially those whom we had the misfortune of sometimes coming in contact with, or, worse, even socializing among. Go to campus and the present demonization of Vegas, Wall Street, surgeons, and insurers makes perfect sense.

But to get back to the thread that connects Mark’s post from 2002 with Glenn’s post from 2010, as Tom Wolfe wrote in 2000, the early progressive social theorists of the 19th century would have been staggered by the wealth and freedom available to the average person today — or at least as recently as a decade ago:

By the year 2000, the term “working class” had fallen into disuse in the United States, and “proletariat” was so obsolete it was known only to a few bitter old Marxist academics with wire hair sprouting out of their ears. The average electrician, air-conditioning mechanic, or burglar-alarm repairman lived a life that would have made the Sun King blink. He spent his vacations in Puerto Vallarta, Barbados, or St. Kitts. Before dinner he would be out on the terrace of some resort hotel with his third wife, wearing his Ricky Martin cane-cutter shirt open down to the sternum, the better to allow his gold chains to twinkle in his chest hairs. The two of them would have just ordered a round of Quibel sparkling water, from the state of West Virginia, because by 2000 the once-favored European sparkling waters Perrier and San Pellegrino seemed so tacky.

European labels no longer held even the slightest snob appeal except among people known as “intellectuals,” whom we will visit in a moment. Our typical mechanic or tradesman took it for granted that things European were second-rate. Aside from three German luxury automobiles—the Mercedes-Benz, the BMW, and the Audi—he regarded European-manufactured goods as mediocre to shoddy. On his trips abroad, our electrician, like any American businessman, would go to superhuman lengths to avoid being treated in European hospitals, which struck him as little better than those in the Third World. He considered European hygiene so primitive that to receive an injection in a European clinic voluntarily was sheer madness.

Indirectly, subconsciously, his views perhaps had to do with the fact that his own country, the United States, was now the mightiest power on earth, as omnipotent as Macedon under Alexander the Great, Rome under Julius Caesar, Mongolia under Genghis Khan, Turkey under Mohammed II, or Britain under Queen Victoria. His country was so powerful, it had begun to invade or rain missiles upon small nations in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean for no other reason than that their leaders were lording it over their subjects at home.

Our air-conditioning mechanic had probably never heard of Saint-Simon’s, but he was fulfilling Saint-Simon’s and the other nineteenth-century utopian socialists’ dreams of a day when the ordinary workingman would have the political and personal freedom, the free time and the wherewithal to express himself in any way he saw fit and to unleash his full potential. Not only that, any ethnic or racial group—any, even recent refugees from a Latin country—could take over the government of any American city, if they had the votes and a modicum of organization. Americans could boast of a freedom as well as a power unparalleled in the history of the world.

To connect Wolfe’s essay with VDH’s latest post and Steyn’s article from 2002, if you’ve worked so hard to rise to the top of your status-sphere in academia, politics, or Hollywood, you really don’t want to think that the average air conditioning repairman, to use Tom Wolfe’s example above, has almost the same quality of life as you do.

So no wonder the left has become obsessed with putting the toothpaste back into the tube, as one blogger inartfully put it last month. Then add to that regressive worldview a slightly different phenomenon, which, while it may have some overlap to progressivism against progress, is largely unrelated, I think. Governments on all levels, from federal to local that are obsessed with punishing businesses for being successful, whether they’re small or fairly large (aside from the handful that have become such institutions that they’re deemed “too big to fail,” at which point they become quasi-nationalized by the state) and no wonder the economy has red-lined for two years now. As the Professor writes:

“I don’t think doomsday is coming, but I don’t think we’ll see substantial job growth or recovery until people are convinced the government won’t shaft them.”

But of course, that first involves replacing the mindset of those who control government — which brings us to November and beyond. But it also involves opening up the minds of so many government employees who labor under them, and the academia where they take their lead, and the entertainment industry that inspires their doomsday rhetoric. Changing all of that is an infinitely more daunting task, but one that a few hearty souls have recently attempted. It’s a long march indeed, but as a previous generation proved, long marches through our social institutions are far from impossible.

And just to wrap up a post that’s gone for way too long, here’s the perfect metaphor for the bedrock a century of “Progressivism” was built on.

Update: As Amity Shlaes writes in the Wall Street Journal, “This weekend we celebrate Labor Day in a country divided between two kinds of workers:”

The first is the private-sector worker, the vulnerable one who rides the business cycle without shock absorbers. The second worker, who works for the government, lives a cushioned existence in which terminations take years, pension amounts are often guaranteed, and recessions are only thunder in the distance. Yet worse than this division is the knowledge that the private-sector worker will pay for public-sector comfort with ever higher taxes.

How did we get here? Over the course of the past century, officials and politicians of both parties have sought to shut unions out of government or, when that failed, constrain their power within government. Early 20th-century strikes by police and other public employees were effective but proved politically damaging. Over time, the unions opted for a more quiet form of coercion—what might be called compensation coercion. Their success in this area brought them to the privileged ground they hold today.

Doug Ross wonders how November will impact the way that history will record our generation.

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