Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Moral Witness and Moral Scolds

We love a moral scold in this country, someone who can make us all feel like such naughty children. We find it reassuring when someone tells us that all that is good and right is ultimately a simple matter of eating our vegetables, coloring within the lines, and following all the rules. If everyone did so, all would be right in the world and the Great Santa Claus in the Sky would smile on us and shower us all with toys.
I think people fixate on sexual morality because it is such naughty fun, and it is so easy and convenient. Gays are easy for a lot of people. There are relatively few of them, and whatever does or does not happen with their status will not affect the lives of the hetero majority. Nothing will be asked of this majority, and nothing will change for them. Someone else will bear the weight of the decisions, however they are decided. Gays are horrifyingly fascinating. Their sex lives have the horrifying and titillating fascination of a freak show that eclipses every other aspect about them. Gays, and the people who hate them obsessively make great teevee; a gladiator fight of the freaks every night on the news. The best part about it is that it affects only "those people," and not us. Everyone can enjoy being a spectator without consequences.

Above is one of the most powerful moral witnesses in New York, that haunted building on 23-24 Washington Place in Greenwich Village once known as the Asch Building, and now known as the Brown Building, part of the New York University campus. It is the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that happened around 5PM March 25, 1911. It claimed the lives of a total of 148 sweatshop workers out of a total of about 600 employees. There were no safety measures in the factory other than buckets of water for the occaisional small fire. The place was filled with piles of cloth scraps and paper patterns. Men who worked in the cutting rooms smoked. The place was lit by open gas flames. On the 9th floor, there were only 2 exit doors, one of which was locked when the fire broke out. It was common practice for sweatshops to lock their employees in. A series of fatal sweatshop fires that year prompted the New York Fire Department to call for the imposition of emergency safety regulations. Those proposed regulations were successfully defeated by the garment industry.
The women who worked at the Triangle company were from Italy, Germany, and Eastern Europe. Some were as young as 12. They worked 14 hour shifts in a 60 to 72 hour work week. They were paid $3 a day.
The fire broke out suddenly and spread very quickly trapping many on the 8th and 9th floors. Some burned to death. Many lept to their deaths on the pavement below.

The owners of the company successfully evaded liability for the fire. They had subcontracted out all the work, and claimed ignorance of working conditions. Defense lawyers successfully bullied and intimidated survivors, all young women, on the witness stand.

It has been said that the New Deal began with that fire. Among the witnesses was the young Frances Perkins who would be the first Labor Secretary under President Franklin Roosevelt. Workplace safety regulations and workman's compensation came as a consequence of the fire. But truly, nothing much has really changed since that fire. New York, and cities around the world, are still full of sweatshops with badly paid and brutalized workers. Garment prices still depend on this labor remaining so cheap and expendable. So much of our convenience depends on someone else's misery. Kitchens and construction sites around the city are filled with illegal immigrant labor who form a brutalized indentured laboring class that sustains New York's prosperity. We all depend on this labor and benefit from it. No one is a spectator in this moral conflict.

Unlike the gay issue, this one directly affects us all, and profoundly affects the lives of millions around the world with far more serious consequences. This brutal system is driven by greed and selfishness on our part. Could it be that so much of what we identify as "values" are nothing more than survival skills? Could it be that the only real "value" that we universally recognize is what's written on a price tag? That same greed drives an entire culture of predation and nihilism whose consequences are economic collapse impoverishing millions, and war over resources and profits, killing thousands.

Where are the moral scolds for this?

One thing I've never heard in church in the States is a sermon on the morality of greed.

Another excellent meditation on this same issue from a sharply different standpoint on certain issues from mine can be found here.