On Labor Day -- Some Thoughts About the True Meaning of Solidarity
Chris Hayes wrote a beautiful piece about solidarity a few years back that's well worth reading again today. It's long, but I'll just excerpt a little piece of it here:
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "solidarity" as: "The fact or quality, on the part of communities ... of being perfectly united or at one in some respect, esp. in interests, sympathies, or aspirations." It comes from the same Latin root as "solid" and is adapted from the French solidarité, which by the 19th century, had supplanted the "fraternité" of the French Revolution as the social glue for the impending era of enlightened utopia. Whereas "brotherhood" relied on personal intimacy and a vestigial Christian conception of fellowship, solidarity was capacious enough to lasso together enormous clusters of strangers, perhaps even all of humanity. It soon became a buzzword. At the 1900 World's Fair, the French minister of trade announced solemnly, "Science reveals to us society's material and ethical secret, which may be summarized in one word--solidarity."
In the mid-19th century, solidarité crossed both the English Channel and the Atlantic. Sven-Eric Liedman, a professor of intellectual history at Sweden's Göteborg University, writes that Americans were skeptical of the French import: In 1844, one American complained of "the uncouth French word, solidarité, now coming in such use." While the word never quite gained the same cachet it had (and continues to have) in Europe, the American left quickly adopted it. Solidarity was the name of an early anarchist journal. Eugene Debs said solidarity was "a fact, cold and impassive as the granite foundations of a skyscraper." And, in 1915, Ralph Chaplin of the Industrial Workers of the World wrote the labor anthem "Solidarity Forever" to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Solidarity in the political vocabulary of the American left became class solidarity, workers' solidarity, the banding together of laborers against bosses. But it possessed more than rhetorical resonance, it was also the foundation of the labor movement's most potent tool: the strike. Only if workers stuck together under incredible pressures--violent intimidation from Pinkerton thugs and national guardsmen with rifles--could a strike be successful. In the 1880s and 1890s, as members of the Knights of Labor struck across the country for an eight-hour day, its motto was: "An injury to one is the concern of all."
Years later, the United Auto Workers, born of a series of dramatic sit-down strikes in the 1930s, named its headquarters Solidarity House, its publication Solidarity; at its 1970 convention Walter Reuther told the delegates: "We have taken on the most powerful corporations in the world and despite their power and their great wealth, we have always prevailed, because ... there is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood."
While in the United States, the word has been ghettoized in the labor movement, solidarity in Europe remains part of mainstream political vocabulary. The labor rights guaranteed in the European Union charter are collectively referred to as "rights to solidarity."
Of course, any word that packs a moral punch will soon find itself appropriated by political hucksters. To wit: For last year's State of the Union, Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) organized fellow Republicans in a display of "solidarity" with the Iraqis who had just voted in their first election in decades. "Congress Dons Purple Clothes, Ink, for Solidarity with Iraqis," read the AP headline. In addition to their ink-stained fingers, the article noted, "Several women, including newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traded their red suits for violet."
From workers' struggle to Condoleezza Rice's evening wear--what a long, strange trip it's been.
Indeed. Hayes wrote his piece in the first aftermath of the New York transit strike in 2005, over which the chattering classes all staged a hissy fit, but New York citizens took in stride --- and solidarity. Reading it again, brought to mind Rick Perlstein's marvelous article in the American Prospect called Solidarity Squandered about that amazing solidarity in the US after 9/11 --- and what happened to it. It's all good, but this piece of it captures the way it fell apart almost immediately in service of a dishonest and corrupt agenda:
Most memorably, Bush appealed for solidarity with Americans who came from Arab countries: “I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here. We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.”
But the squandering had already begun, and precisely on the terms the president said he refused. The Justice Department had already started secretly detaining nationals from Islamic countries on minor immigration charges or no charges at all. In press conferences, Attorney General John Ashcroft called them “suspected terrorists.” More than 600 were tried in secret immigration proceedings closed even to members of Congress. When critics complained, Ashcroft responded (in his December 2001 testimony to Congress), “To those who pit Americans against immigrants and citizens against noncitizens, those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”
Not a single one of the detainees would be convicted of a terror-related offense.
Orwellian language was suddenly everywhere—not least in the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. It was all about uniting America, don’t you see? Its tools were merely the appropriate ones. Disagree? Well, you must not be a USA patriot.
The president invited us to plant victory gardens of credit-card receipts. The day after the National Cathedral convocation, the president was asked “how much of a sacrifice ordinary Americans could be expected to make,” and he honored the warm courage of national unity by answering, “Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever.” Dick Cheney advised Americans to “stick their thumbs in the eye of the terrorists” by not allowing the national crusade against terror “in any way to throw off their normal level of economic activity.” Bush infamously told a gathering of aviation employees, “Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Finally, this sacrifice, which he suggested on October 4: “We need for there to be more tax cuts.”
The war, too, would look far different from what those of us who had surrendered to trust believed we had signed on for. We had heard Bush when he declared, “we are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.” It turned out, however, that this was not the fight the Bushies were spoiling for. Ever since the Cold War, conservatives have been floundering without a garrison state. They had embraced the wisdom of Samuel Huntington’s Clinton-era volume, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, whose message, as legal scholar Stephen Holmes described it in The London Review of Books, was, “The secular optimism of those who believe that mankind is being drawn into peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation by the growth of global markets is not only misplaced: it is suicidal. … For self-definition and motivation, people need enemies.” Bloody fortunate we had one now.
The things that happen every time God’s chosen nation goes to war to save civilization happened again. We witnessed civil-liberties violations, knuckleheaded jingoism, attacks on internal enemies (and not just Arab Americans), and the almost systematic suspension of sound judgment by experts and mandarins, who sought monsters to slay. Michael Kelly, editor of The Atlantic, called the left “objectively pro-terrorist,” and blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote that “the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts … may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.”
A little more than a year later, when the administration proposed to go to war in Iraq, it became clear that many still surrendered to trust. Representative Dick Gephardt explained that he had voted for the war because “an A-bomb in a Ryder truck in New York, in Washington, and St. Louis … cannot happen.” The New Republic excoriated the “abject pacifism” and “intellectual incoherence of the liberal war critics.” New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote, “History will not easily excuse us if … we defer a reckoning with an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them.” He concluded, “A return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.”
America had changed. Liberals, too many of us, had changed. We were not acting like guardians of solidarity. We were acting like suckers.
As he says, the Republicans were even worse. But then, why wouldn't they be? They have long led a concerted campaign to divide people along ideological fault lines that have always existed and only sometimes exploited.
I guess there's no way to truly measure what that destruction of trust did to our national psyche, coming as it did in the wake of an unprecedented attack that left us feeling uniquely vulnerable as a nation. But it was bad. In fact for people who came of age politically in that era, I think it was scarring on a very fundamental level and has made them wary of any belief in human folly that isn't grounded in corruption and deceit and determinedly cynical about the whole concept of solidarity.
But, there is a way back. Look at Wisconsin. People there have been radicalized, in that good, "solidarity" kind of way. Average people looking out for each other, having a stake in each other's survival is certainly possible. But it's going to take an effort on the part of the people to face down the plutocrats and the politicians who represent us. It's been done before.
As you think about all this stuff today, reading those fine pieces, listen to this song:
This one's by Iowa rockers Matthew Grimm & the Red Smear. Adam from Traveling Light did the YouTube clip. I would have liked to have seen them up on stage in Detroit today with Aretha, Hilda Solis and Obama.
By the way, Matthew Grimm gave me 3 autographed CDs, The Ghost of Rock'n'Roll, the album with "one Big Union." Contribute to one of the pro-working family candidates on this page today and you could win one of the CDs. We'll pick 3 winners in the morning.