Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Pitchforks and Bagels

In which we see that capitalism is like a breeze—or maybe just is a breeze

The Felix Chronicles, #14

The fire drill has ended, and we’ve all shuffled back into the room on this chilly March afternoon. “All right then,” I say amid chatter that resists dying down, “so here we are on the cusp of Spring Break. Tomorrow we discuss the showdown election of 1896. But before we get to that, I’d like to take the remainder of today’s class to review where we’ve been, and the way I’d like to do that is with a simile.”

“Not a metaphor?” Erica asks. “I love metaphors.

“I can never tell the difference,” Ellen replies. Which one uses ‘like’ or ‘as’?”

“Similes,” I answer. "Here’s one: nineteenth-century industrial capitalism was like the weather. Everybody felt it, but reacted differently based on who they were, or where they were. Some regarded this new meteorological front sweeping across the landscape as a gentle breeze; others felt it like a chill. But people were responding to the weather in different ways.

“All those workers we’ve been talking about who went on strike: They were responding to that weather. Racists who used lynchings and Jim Crow laws to keep Negroes in their place – white Southerners were obsessed with this notion of place – wanted to make sure they didn’t lose their labor force to that weather.

“And then there are the farmers: Remember that the majority of Americans are living on farms until 1920. They too, are trying to respond to industrial capitalism–this is all the stuff we’ve been talking about and I hope you’ve been reading about: the Grange, the Southern Alliance, and the new Populist Party. These are all ways, increasingly sophisticated ways, whereby farmers deal with the challenges they face. Railroads make it possible to move their crops over long distances, but put them at the mercy of rapacious railroad companies. New equipment raises their yields, but it’s expensive and they borrow money that’s hard to pay back, particularly when prices are dropping. These Populists have a series of ideas about how to fix what’s wrong with the country: a graduated income tax; direct election of senators; railroad regulation, rural free postal delivery. Most of these ideas would eventually become law, with the notable exception of pegging the dollar to silver (something we’ll get to tomorrow). But at the time, many of them are dismissed as downright kooky.

Something about the word "kooky" grabs Erica’s attention; she pauses in her conversation with Ellen.

“One of the great hopes many Populists have is that they’ll be able to forge an alliance with industrial workers in the cities and break the power of big banks and big business. My question of the day for you is: How realistic a hope do you think that is?”

Nothing. I look at Chris. He’s been quiet lately, but he’s not a shy kid. “Whaddya say, Chris? Farmers and factory workers: a good fit?”

Chris purses his lips for a moment and then resumes his expressionless demeanor before answering: “Nope."

A burst of laughter at this terse reply. “Would you care to elaborate, Chris?”

“I would prefer not to,” he says.

Then I remember: “Don’t tell me: You’re reading ‘Bartleby the Scrivner’ in Ms. Buscemi’s class.”


“Chris is with me in Mr. Alejandro’s class,” Joey explains. “We’re reading it too.”

“Ah. Well then. We’ll leave Chris to his Melvillian silence.” (He struggles to contain a smile.)

“How about you, Joey?” You care to render an opinion about whether farmers and factory workers can get together and challenge the power of the bankers and railroad companies?”

“I don’t see why not,” he answers. “Clearly, they’re both getting screwed.”

“Maybe so. They have anything else in common?”

“Do they need anything else?”

“That’s a great question. What do the rest of you think?”

Beth has been chatting up a storm with her pal Mark this whole time. But she’s multi-tasking even when she’s goofing off. “It’s not clear to me that they’re a natural fit,” she says. “You said that one problem the farmers had was dropping food prices, right?”

“I did.”

“That benefits workers, right? They get cheaper food?”

“Very often they did, yes.”

“These are people with very different cultures,” Lisa says. “I mean, farm life is very different than life in a city.”

“I’d never want to live on a farm,” Becky says. “Pace would be way too slow.”

“Spoken like a true New York snob,” I say.”

“Thank you!” she says, brightly.

“I can tell you that there’s one thing you won’t find very often on a farm that you find in cities all the time, I say. Can you guess what I’m talking about?”

“A good bagel?” Joey asks.

Any bagel?” Alec follows.

“Actually, you’re getting close. Who likes to eat bagels?”

“Who doesn’t?” Becky asks.

“No, I mean seriously.”

“I am serious. Who doesn’t like bagels?”

“Jews,” Jason answers. “Jews like bagels.”

“Right. And who are Jews?”

Becky is still confused. “What do you mean, ‘who are Jews’?”

Sam, silent since the fire drill, weighs in. “Jews are immigrants. You don’t have a lot of immigrants in the South and the West where the farmers are.”

“Right. That’s not absolutely true. We talked about Swedes in Minnesota, Germans in Texas; Poles in Chicago. But by and large, there are not nearly as many immigrants of any kind in the South and the West on a scale resembling the immigrants back East. Do you find it interesting that there are all these moves for things like an income tax, postal delivery, and other forms of intervention out in the West? I can tell you they’re not getting a lot of traction among the main political parties back East. Why might that be?”

“It’s that cultural barrier,” Lisa says. “It’s like these people aren’t even speaking the same language.”

“Actually,” Sam says, “they’re literally not speaking the same language. No ‘like’ about it.”

“So you’re telling us that Populists are racists,” Kim says.

“Is that what I’m telling you?”

“I gotta say, reading about these Populists made me a little nervous,” Jason says. “I mean, you gotta like a lot of things these people wanted. But a lot of them were like really religious, and hated outsiders, and some of them turned out to be truly vicious racists, like that guy Pitchfork Ben Tillman. He started out as wanting to work with black people and then he became a monster. What was that all about?”

“The short answer is power,” I say. “But we don’t have to pay any attention to you, Jason. We all know your people were Jew bankers.”

A burst of laughter at that, Jason included. “Exactly. All I could think of was Hitler.”

Alec replies, “Jesus, Jason, that’s all you ever think of.” Again, hearty laughter.

“So is this where we are?” I ask when the laughter subsides. “The people who are most democratic are also the most racist? By the way, that’s how people talked in those days. They talked about the ‘Italian’ race and the ‘Syrian’ race (a term that pretty much included anyone from Turkey to Egypt), and so on. And they were also quite open about their Anti-Semitism. There was lots of talk about the Rothschild banking empire, a Jewish family from France. The fact that many of these people had never actually laid eyes on Jewish person made no difference. Of course, many people from the Eastern elite were no less likely to speak of Jews or other ethnic groups in such a hostile way.”

Mindy and Nate, zombies for the whole class, are closing their laptops. I get it: Time to go.

“God, this is thoroughly depressing,” Susan says as she closes her books. “Thanks for making my day, Ms. Bradstreet.”

“My pleasure,” I say as she heads for the door. “But don’t feel too bad, Susan. You should feel proud that you live in a country today where you can pretty much get a toasted bagel to warm you up on a chilly day anywhere from coast to coast. Not necessarily a great one, mind you, and not everywhere. But we’re working on it. Just think of it as the miraculous legacy of industrial capitalism.”

“A toasted bagel is like a refreshing breeze,” Ellen says as she walks out the door. Now I finally have the simile thing down."