The Fight Changes Over Time
A common theme that one sees in the talk of the history of movements and political factions — and on which I comment frequently — arose in a recent Bob Kerr column:
“They knew nothing about the history of labor,” [Studs] Terkel recalled. “The young have no sense of yesterday. She was sort of a yuppie girl, and she said she hates unions, they’re terrible. So I asked how many hours a day she worked and she said eight hours. And I asked why she didn’t work 15 hours a day. People did. I asked her how she thinks she got to work eight hours a day. People were hanged for that right. She had not the slightest semblance of what the labor movement is all about. You look at newspapers in this country and you’ll see a business page, but there’s no labor page. I think in some sense we’ve lost a sense of history, of who we are.”
The flip side of ignorance of history is elision of the present with it. That members of a “labor movement” once fought for then-needed and now-appreciated rights and privileges, doesn’t mean that those who now occupy their positions are driven with the same motivation or fighting for the same purpose. That fifteen-hour workdays were too long does not mean that forcing the public to pay for eight and only receive six hours of work from its employees is reasonable. (Let’s put aside, for this post, the question of whether unions’ means of achieving more reasonable labor practices were the best means available.)
The sorts of people who are happy to oppress their fellows to advance their own ends won’t tie themselves to particular approaches or political categories. Across generations, they’ll gladly take on the rhetoric and putative calling of those who fought their intellectual forebears.
Nobody questions that the young do not appreciate history, but sometimes those among their elders who’ve chosen a particular thread of heritage with which to associate lose a sense of how things change.