Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mudsills and Greasy Mechanics

“By the "mud-sill" theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible. According to that theory, a blind horse upon a tread-mill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be -- all the better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly. According to that theory, the education of laborers is not only useless, but pernicious, and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all.”
- Abraham Lincoln (1859)

On March 4, 1858 James Hammond made a spirited defense for the superiority of the South and its institutions in his famous “King Cotton” speech to the U.S. Senate. His primary argument for superiority was the profitability of the Southern system, which produced a profit of $16 per labor unit (slave) compared to the North’s $12 (free labor). He further contended that it was beyond his comprehension that the North would attack “King Cotton” and the institution that under girded it, involuntary servitude. Slavery was a beneficial institution and the high unit profit was proof of that. Why would the North want to attack something so profitable? To him, the arguments of Abraham Lincoln and the Abolitionists made no sense.

The other thread of Hammond’s argument was that the stark class distinctions, slave versus master, refined versus un-cultured, were necessary elements to a stable, orderly, and prosperous nation:

“In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.”

Others, like George Fitzhugh and Southern journals and newspapers expanded upon this theme:

“The great evil of Northern free society, insisted a South Carolina journal, is that it is burdened with a servile class of mechanics and laborers, unfit for self-government, yet clothed with the attributes and powers of citizens. A Georgia newspaper was even more emphatic in its distaste: Free Society! We sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists?...The prevailing class one meets with (in the North) is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman’s body servant.”

In the end the mudsills and greasy mechanics won. The North, leveraging the principle of emancipation along with its enormous production capacity, won the battle of competing systems. About six months after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution was ratified, stating “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

We’ve come a long way since then. A nation of mudsills and greasy mechanics has become a world super-power. America’s filthy operatives and small-fisted farmers have saved the Europe from tyranny, defeated Japanese imperialism, and won the Cold War against Soviet communism. A nation of moon-struck theorists have banded together to create the greatest democratic social engine since the dawn of man.

It’s amazing how much can be done with so little!

As I sat in a meeting last night here in Emporia convened to develop strategies to deal with the displacement of 1,500 workers at Tyson Foods, our local meat processing plant, I was reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s words about mudsills and greasy mechanics. Most of those who’ve become redundant in Tyson’s move to sunnier economic climes are minorities, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Somali, and poor, blue collar whites. The Somalis, being nomadic, will in all likelihood, move to other slaughter houses along with the cows. For the Vietnamese, Hispanics, and Anglos, though, re-location is less of an option. They’ve settled here and want to stay. Some have lived here for thirty years and have nowhere else to go. The question that is yet to be answered is whether or not this desire for permanence and community will be possible.

At first blush the presidential races seem far removed from the concerns of Emporia’s mudsills and greasy mechanics, particularly for the Republican Party. Even with all the dislocation, this is rib-rocked Republican country, and my guess is that the R.N.C is still counting on this.

While Emporia’s soon-to-be unemployed are trying to work their way through all this, the rest of the economy is slowing down. Yesterday morning the Associated Press reported the following gloomy news:

“Soaring home values had made upper-middle class shoppers feel wealthy in recent years, causing them to trade up to $500 Coach handbags and $1,000 espresso makers, but a housing slump has wiped away their paper wealth. The woes are creeping into even the high-end luxury sector, as affluent shoppers are rattled by the turbulence in the financial markets.”

I’m not sure how Emporia’s dislocated are supposed to react? Would “I feel your pain” be good enough?

Rush Limbaugh took the opportunity to mount a vigorous defense for the trickle down economics that’s fueled this consumer-oriented economy:

“Why? Why? Wait, wait, wait! Ripple effect? You mean when the affluent and wealthy stop buying, it hurts people lower down the scale? Uh, so you got... Follow me on this here, folks. You got the wealthy and you got the affluent up here, and they spend, and when they spend, that spending sort of "trickles down" to others below them. Uh, so there is a trickle-down effect? A trickle-down effect! So when you give tax relief, tax cuts to upper income workers, they spend more, and there's a trickle-down effect?”

Limbaugh and other celebrity pundits have been accusing Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Barack Obama of engaging in class warfare for months now. One’s too populist. One’s too liberal. And, the other is too much a maverick. Are they serious? Do they really want me to believe they’re not pitting the haves against the have-nots? Their message to the proletariat is clear. Just shut up, nominate a conservative in our mold, leave things as they are, and we’ll all be fine. Stop being reactionary, unrefined, and uncivilized. Give us the seat at the head of the table and we’ll let the crumbs trickle down to you.

But things aren’t fine. Their rhetoric is sounding too much like the hollow words of the Southern secessionists to me. Something is fundamentally wrong when all the Party of Lincoln can offer is shut up and let things trickle down.

The winds are picking up here in Emporia, Kansas today, gusting hard from the north. The bare branches of the Mulberry tree outside my window are shaking furiously. A storm is brewing. Politically, too, the winds are picking up in this Heartland. The current of change is in the air. A political storm is brewing. The mudsills and greasy mechanics are no longer satisfied with the status quo. The Republican powerful can’t see it right now, but if they don’t mend their ways they will, too late to prevent it from sweeping them from power. The mudsills and greasy mechanics will be the ones to determine the outcome of this election. They’ll win; they always do!

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