It should be apparent that my favorite show segment is “Day in History” or DIH, by my shorthand. (Easy to figure out MB, GNM and WOTW!)
Tackling today’s social, political and moral dilemmas requires context and the willingness to draw on past lessons, both learned and unlearned.
April’s garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, occurred just a month after DIH-3/25 – the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Leading the committee to recommend reforms after that New York City tragedy was a young social worker named Frances Perkins, who went on to become FDR’s Labor Secretary and the first woman cabinet member in US history. Much of the New Deal was inspired by her acumen. What would she say 102 years later upon seeing the carnage in Bangladesh? What do we say when we vote with our dollars?
The exploitation of cheap (or slave) labor was the subject of DIH-5/2 – establishment of the Congo Free State by Belgian King Leopold II. His plunder of rubber and ivory from Africa left millions dead; unmet quotas were punished by mutilation and murder.
As we debate immigration reform, it’s interesting to note how many conservatives lambast “undocumented” (or, as they prefer, “illegal”) workers in the US without a whiff of indignation for the businesses who hire them. But necessary labor scalded by xenophobia is as American as cherry pie.
Howard Zinn writes:
“By 1880, Chinese immigrants, brought in by the railroads to do the backbreaking labor at pitiful wages, numbered 75,000 in California, almost one-tenth of the population. They became the objects of continuous violence. The novelist Bret Harte wrote an obituary for a Chinese man named Wan Lee: ‘Dead my revered friends, dead. Stoned to death in the streets of San Francisco. In the year of grace 1869, by a mob of half-grown boys and Christian school children.’
“In Rock Springs, Wyoming, in the summer of 1885, whites attacked five hundred Chinese miners, massacring twenty-eight of them in cold blood.”
Income inequality? We’ve seen it before. In her book, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland draws a spectacular parallel between today’s economy, where the .1% (point 1%) rule, and the late 1880s, where concentrated, prodigious wealth towered over abject poverty. She highlights 19th Century economist Henry George, whose bestseller, Progress and Poverty, proposed solutions withincapitalism, as opposed to Marx’s damnation of it.
I enjoy interviewing guests such as Chrystia, who seamlessly weave American history into “the fierce urgency of now.” (An extra star if you can attribute the quote.)
United States v. Windsor (2013)? See Loving v. Virginia (1967).
The end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”? See desegregation of the military.
State versus federal power. Don’t get me started on the Articles of Confederation.
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