Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Friday, April 8, 2011

Spoiler Alert

I’m kind of strange. I don’t care if you tell me the end of a movie, book or television show, even if it’s an ending with a twist. For me, it’s not the ending that’s important, but the story you travel to get there. After all, there are really only a finite number of plots. All genres have their standard story lines. What distinguishes a good story from a bad one is the journey, not just the ultimate destination.

In some cases, though, knowing the ending can put us at a singular disadvantage. Lately, I’ve been thinking the problem with history — especially in regards to progressive activism — is that we know the ending. We hear stories about the Founding Fathers, the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the early union organizers, the Freedom Riders, etc and because we know they were victorious in the end, we assume those victories were inevitable. We think because we know the ending, our forebears somehow knew it too, and it was this secret knowledge that gave them the strength and courage to wage the battles they did. Unlike us, they could actually see that light at the end of the tunnel; they didn’t have to fumble around in the dark.

When the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, we know this act (along with a brutal war) helped found a nation, but at the time, they had no idea. For all they knew, they were signing their own death warrants. They hoped it would lead to something better, and they had the courage of their convictions, but there was no way they could be sure everything would work out in the end. In fact, they had every reason to believe it wouldn’t. I imagine it felt a little like jumping off a cliff.

Likewise, when abolitionists hid runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad, they risked their lives, reputations, and property to commit what was then a serious crime. They felt compelled to do the right thing, but they had no guarantees doing so would dismantle America’s peculiar institution. Slavery was pretty entrenched in this country. The Southern elites had a good racket going. They were rich and growing richer. Insane profits with a payroll percentage of way less than the “optimal” 20%. No way were a few rogue operators going to persuade them to stop.

It is tempting to be lulled into reading the history of this country as a frustratingly slow — though ultimately heroic — march towards a yet unattained but inevitable state of perfection. We believe perpetual progress is our birthright and that we are ordained by the universe to keep getting bigger and better. But the activists who came before us knew no such thing. You have to be willing to risk it all to do what is right and good even when the odds are stacked against you, even when you are almost certain to fail. Because many times you will fail, and the those few victories you do win will be tenuous. You have to keep fighting every day.

This country has gone dark and our enemies seem untouchable — but it’s been that way many times before. One annoying thing about history is that it keeps repeating itself. If you really think about it, are BP, Bank of America, the Koch brothers, and Fox News any more intimidating than the ruling monarch of a superpower, the antebellum Southern aristocracy, or the robber barons of the First Gilded Age? Activism has always been difficult and often futile. So many good works get thrown down a black hole. Why did Bernie Sanders make that speech? Why did those veterans chain themselves to the White House fence during a snowstorm? Why did all those people camp out in Madison? What good did it do?

There’s a character in my novel-in-progress, The Plague Child, named Father Anthony, who is an activist priest. The novel is set in an America of the future, and frankly, that future isn’t too rosy. The country is broke and barely holding together. There are huge uninhabitable Dead Zones. A few corporations control everything and sometimes declare war (yes, actual war with guns and everything) on each other. Violence, sickness and poverty are commonplace and most people are too busy with merely surviving to mount any sort of coherent resistance. Still: Father Anthony wages a battle for change he is almost certain to lose. But he’s no Don Quixote. He sees the world for what it is, and continues with his work. Another character says of him: “He sees everything so clearly, so starkly; he stares down the darkness and does not flinch. And yet: he persists in doing good.”

That is precisely the sort of courage we must have. We owe ourselves and those who came before us nothing less. Victory is far from certain and there is no guarantee of a happy ending. No matter what we do, there’s bound to be some rough sailing ahead. But if we give up and do nothing, we’ll deserve the ending we get.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Preface to 2nd Edition Autoplant

            On December 19, 2008, the last production shift at Newark, Delaware’s Chrysler Assembly Plant, scene of my 1992 Autoplant: a Poetic Monologue, filed out, leaving behind their last Christmas cards, half-full coffee cups, production charts, cotton gloves, and dreams of sharing the American Dream.
            The world where the imaginary Big Man, Gravy, Billy Goat, Warthog, and a fictional version of myself had worked, sweated, and turned from mutual torment to solidarity was gone.
            Folks who have read or seen Autoplant may take it in different ways. Some may find it to be a cautionary tale about how some workers and students, deluded by 60’s revolutionary fantasies, disrupted industry and academia. Others may see it as some sort of a romance, a quest, complete with mythic characters, a dark night of the soul, and ultimate redemption. Still others may see an inspirational lesson in how ordinary folks, with all their fears and limitations, can apply the lessons of solidarity to improve their lives.  However you see it, the issues that led to their actions (or delusions) are repeating themselves today in new forms. Thus, and since the old edition is sold-out, it seems appropriate to produce this second edition. Fair warning to the squeamish: you’ll find adult situations and crude shop-talk here, but as I say in the monologue, “if the shoe fits, it’s your own damn fault.”
            Back when I wrote Autoplant, my concern was with how exploited labor produces spiritual alienation. Alienation—as in “inalienable rights”—means to make foreign or separate. Long story short: assembly lines separate us into little parts of production and only use little parts of our abilities, so we are alienated from our whole selves, spiritually carved up. And then the bosses  separate us from the value of the product by taking out some to buy supplies and machines, which they control, keeping a chunk in profits*, and returning a portion to us in wages and benefits, about 8% of the price of the vehicle for autoworkers. Alienation is what gave me the nightmares of dismemberment that I recount in Autoplant.
            Now, with deindustrialization, NAFTA, the Great Recession, and the firing of millions of us, we are even separated from the machines that were built with our labor. As the UAW anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin, describes it:
It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
            These days, instead of dreaming fretfully of infants chewed up in the jaws of a machine, I dream about Newark Assembly as a place of belonging, of harvest sharing, of that  “solidarity forever” expressed in the last line of that verse above:
But the union makes us strong!
            Ironically, my present employer, the University of Delaware, which played so prominently in Autoplant as the dream “gymnasium” from which I wandered to the nightmare of assembly line dismemberment, has purchased the Chrysler site. UD intends to use it as a new hub for high-tech research, business, and academics. New jobs are unlikely to be blue collar or even local, however, as tenants of such industrial parks tend to import their employees in-house and in any case will only be hiring those with technical and advanced degrees. Alternative purchasers, industrialists who might have re-hired Chrysler workers, were discouraged from bidding on the site.
            You see, UD is a bit of a hermaphrodite enterprise: both public and private, depending on which gender suits it on any given occasion. For example, according to the News Journal (24 Oct 2009), “[i]n a footnote in the bankruptcy court filing, attorneys for Chrysler noted that other potential purchasers may have been reluctant to ‘take the risk’ of buying the property because UD had the possibility of gaining the land, under state law, through eminent domain and has publicly indicated a willingness to use such rights [of a public enterprise] to secure the property.’” Not only that, but UD is giving most demolition and re-construction contracts to out-of-state and non-union firms. UD argues that their Board requires that they take the low bid, typical of any private enterprise. Prevailing wage laws that would induce them to hire local union firms are only for public institutions.
            The greater significance of UD’s shrewdness in nailing this deal is how replacing blue-collar with lab coat jobs is seen as part of the inevitable evolution of the global economy. Those jobs are gone forever, it’s time to get over it, start your own business, or retrain after some twenty or twenty-five years out of high school. You can do it all on your own lonesome. After all, ain’t individual responsibility the American Way? Now, many Chrysler workers are making it, but some just barely, and some have become economic evolution’s collateral damage. Personally, I’m doing OK. I retired in 2001 after thirty-one years, and now I’m “teaching more than a minutes worth of Shakespeare” at UD.
            Time was when folks would admire us in our UAW-emblazoned jackets as men and women who worked hard, had fought the boss shoulder to shoulder, and had won a fair share of the wealth we created. We might not be genteel and sophisticated, but our solidarity was an inspiration to any regular working Jane or Joe who believed she or he could fight for a better deal.
            Somewhere along the way, about the same time industrialists were shipping jobs overseas and investors began gambling on credit default swaps, solidarity became the big enemy.  According to current fashion, if you combine your strength in unions to make the boss pay you a fair wage, then you are a thief and a socialist. We’re led to believe that any guy big biz pays more is merely taking from the guy big biz pays less. We’re led to believe workers should let the infallible market set their pay in the same mysterious way that hedge managers and oil barons do. And don’t blame the banksters for the economic melt down. Instead, blame Arabs, blacks, gays, feminazis, immigrants, ACORN, taxes, and unions, such as those representing government workers.
            The month that I write this, March of 2011, the nation and the world is seeing what solidarity can do. In Egypt, men, women, middle class, poor, young, old, Muslim, Coptic Christian, socialist, and traditionalists combined to topple a dictator. In Wisconsin, teachers, sewer workers, pencil pushers, students, firemen, and cops are confronting an oil baron’s flunky, the Governor of the state, who has attempted to strip them of fundamental human rights.
            Now, Autoplant is not a Bible for revolution; it has more to do with redemption. And while I wanted to let Americans know what hard work means, Autoplant was largely motivated by a desire to make sense of what I experienced at Chrysler, to laugh about it a little, to apply some of what I know about poetry, and to reclaim parts of myself I felt I was losing by working there. With this second edition, I am hoping that I, along with my UAW Chrysler sisters and brothers, can reclaim some of what we have lost since Newark Assembly was shut down.
            Sparking a new revolutionary spirit wouldn’t be so bad, though.

*See “The Crisis at Chrysler 1979 at the beginning of chapter 3