Idiot America is fond of saying on social media these days that “liberalism,” by now a sort of catchphrase for Democrats, feminists, progressives, environmentalists, gay rights supporters and the like, is a mental illness. In some ways, I almost agree. The typical liberal’s desire to build a better America out of the shattered mess we currently live in probably does border on the insane. But when it comes to bashing progressivism in particular, well, that’s the kind of illness every decent American ought to help find a way to cure, because in a very practical sense progressivism built modern America.
What is progressivism? It is belief in change, moving from point A to point B, for the purpose of improving the well-being of the public as a whole even if that is at the expense of a minority. This does not mean minorities protected by the Constitution, such as those defined by race, religion, gender or political views. That pretty much leaves us with minorities defined by social and economic status. In contrast, conservatism is a belief in maintaining the status quo. In the eternal battle between progressives and conservatives, conservatives have the advantage since progressives are burdened with the need to justify change to what is always the unknown. The only advantage that progressives have, other than morality and accurate facts and figures, is that they are the champions of the vast majority. Sometimes, that is enough.
I could get into a discussion of how the founding of America, in particular the Declaration of Independence but also the Constitution, are inherently progressive reactions to the sins committed by a conservative, oppressive, anachronistic, hereditary regime, but I don’t want to have blood on my hands when tea partier heads start exploding at the very mention of it. Especially the amendments to the Constitution; they’re almost entirely progressive in nature. But I digress…
Instead let’s spend a moment pondering the incalculably valuable, historic achievements American progressives are responsible for throughout our nation’s history. A short list might include securing and preserving the vote of blacks and women, protecting and saving the environment through National Parks and Forests, reining in predatory and dangerous industries that poison our food, air and water, making government more efficient and accountable, creating systems to care for the poor, the elderly and the disabled, and enacting laws that forbid child labor and abuse. Oh and also getting you sick days, weekends and holidays off, but those are just for the mentally ill, right?
But, fact, reason and history be damned, there is no National Progressives Day in America. Doubtless the reasons why progressivism isn’t a universally-cherished American movement are many, but I suspect the most likely is that our public schools, ironically another progressive invention, aren’t exactly hotbeds of leftist thinking, or, for that matter, of innovative, creative or empathetic thinking either. I went to a public school that was as conventional as ever there has been, and while I was taught about such things as women securing the vote and the end of child labor, they were never taught to me in terms of the role progressivism played in achieving those and other goals that we largely take for granted today. In other words, I was never taught that progressivism created the America we now live in. And to think some people out there believe that the public schools are a hellish pit of left-wing indoctrination. Spare me.
Now mind you, I’ve done a bit of reading about history here and there in the decades since I was in grade school, so in spite of my public school edumacation I’m not one of the many Americans who are just plain ignorant of the fact that pretty much everything good about living in America today is the result of progressivism. In all fairness though, while actual, recorded events in our nation’s history are being distorted or ignored in the classrooms our children inhabit, you can be sure that a good many American school kids are learning that Jesus rode a T-Rex into Jerusalem, which probably sounds way awesome when you’re a kid going to school in Texas, or really any state for that matter. Dinosaurs are cool.
Doubtless one major reason that progressivism is suppressed is, of course, that progressivism demands change, and in my experience nobody in charge wants to change a damn thing unless it puts them even more in charge. So there can be little doubt the powers that be do their best to prevent Americans from learning about progressivism, because teaching kids to embrace progress is simply not in the best interests of those folks in charge. For example, captains of industry flourish when there are no laws to prevent them from hiring children to work hard labor for pennies, or to prevent them from dumping their toxic waste straight into the river, right upstream from the candy bar factory. Similarly, rich, white, male politicians flourish when they don’t have to worry about those pesky blacks or women voting, because there’s always a chance if you give them the vote, they’ll vote for someone neither rich, nor white nor male. Heck, the average Joe can join in on the fun. Even simple folks can flourish when a chunk of their paycheck isn’t being taken to feed hungry children or put a roof over the head of a disabled vet or to provide insulin to a sick old lady.
No, in the end, change just isn’t always considered a good thing, particularly when it threatens your ability to avail yourself of the abundant riches of America while giving little or nothing back to the nation that made you rich, or when it undermines your ability to use your gender or your race or religion as a weapon to keep others beaten down beneath you. So it’s little wonder they keep our schools free of instruction that might put them at risk.
But no matter the circumstances, in the end, it all boils down to one thing. People who oppose progress and change, do so out of fear. They fear losing their power, their wealth and their sense of superiority, the three pillars of success in America. Or, to put it another way, they are, by and large, chickenshit cowards.
But hey, maybe you’re not a coward, maybe just you don’t believe the ample evidence that progressive thought and action has made America a better place. Maybe you think I’m just spouting the standard libtard propaganda that I heard while drinking the Kool-Aid with the other sheep from MSNBC. Maybe that’s not how they roll on your side of the trailer park. You’re an American, and you’re entitled to believe whatever want, of course, even if it blatantly ignores reality in favor of rank idiocy. God bless you.
But then again, maybe, if you’re a particularly (and peculiarly) smart specimen of Idiot American, a specific example or two of the all but immeasurable positive impact of progressivism on life in this country might help knock some sense into your head. Just to level the playing field, I’ll pick a specific example that I was not taught about in public school, and doubtless neither were you. That way, even though you learned about the bible in science class and I learned about science in science class, we both probably missed out on learning about the event I’m about to describe. Sorry, that’s about as level as our playing field is ever likely to get.
Here goes nothing…
Our story begins during the Gilded Age, dominated by the Robber Barons and the likes of John Pierpont Morgan, when a popular lady’s garment was called the “shirtwaist.” It’s an odd-sounding name to our modern ears, but a shirtwaist was just a common sort of woman’s blouse, designed more or less like what we might consider a “dress shirt,” likely buttoned-down with a collar and cuffs. Perhaps as a nod to femininity, a shirtwaist might have puffy sleeves, embroidery or other bells and whistles, but pretty much when you see real old-time pictures of women wearing nice, clean white shirts, those were called shirtwaists at the time. And they were immensely popular, considered an essential female garment that just about anyone short of utter penury could afford and which many women would wear on a daily basis. Picture something a Gibson Girl might wear, and you’ll have a good idea of what I’m talking about. (Google it.)
Back in those days, clothing worn by Americans wasn’t made in China or Singapore or some other far-flung locale, it was made right here in the good old U.S. of A. In fact, hard as this is for a longtime Manhattan resident like me to imagine, most American women’s clothing was made in New York City. In fact, more surprising to me personally is that much of it was made in loft sewing factories in the area around Washington Square, my former haunting grounds. The central Greenwich Village neighborhood was well-situated to ensure the steady flow of materials in and product out to bustling nearby Broadway, and was within walking distance for an eager work force of European immigrants who were settling in the tenements in the Village and, of course, the Lower East Side. Jews, Italians and Germans mostly, who came to America because the streets were then (as now) paved with gold.
One of the loft textile factories located in the Washington Square area that produced shirtwaists at the turn of the century was owned and operated by what a gargantuan sign at the time proclaimed “The Triangle Waist Company.” The factory comprised the top floors of the 10-story building on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, to the east of Washington Square Park. (A building which, on a personal note, I have actually been in and which is almost depressingly unremarkable, as New York City buildings go.) The company was owned by a notoriously unlucky pair of fellows named Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who had suffered at least four fires in their garment factories and must have felt like they were cursed. Oddly, despite their singular run of incendiary misfortune, they didn’t much care for the basic fire safety equipment available at the time, like sprinklers, because let’s be honest, installing sprinklers involved spending money in the name of safety and that simply would not do. No, making money in their factories, not spending it, was all the mattered to Blanck and Harris, they were good, old-fashioned greedy bastards.
But the pair weren’t content with lowering their overhead simply by operating factories that were known firetraps, Blanck and Harris also flaunted then-current labor law by refusing to recognize unions that were springing up in other factories and bringing with them higher wages and shorter work days for employees. Blanck and Harris would have none of that, preferring to maintain their obsessive focus on the bottom line, safety and legality be damned. But wait, there’s more! In order to keep their costs even further down, they employed mostly young immigrant Jewish and Italian women, including teenagers. Many of the newly-immigrated girls spoke no English and were easy to exploit and abuse, spending 12 hours a day working in cramped spaces at lines of cutting tables and sewing machines, for roughly $5 or $6 a week. Incredibly, despite the inadequate safety measures, illegal suppression of unions, cruel treatment, cramped and dangerous quarters, and low wages that characterized the Triangle sweatshop, it was actually considered in some quarters to be one of the BETTER factories in New York at the time. The thought of worse factories conjures up a modern garment factory disaster in Bangladesh or some other third world horror show.
As far as the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were concerned, god forbid the meddling hand of workers or unions or government dare interfere with the free market, which in all its glory had made them rich. It must have come as a quite a shock to them when god did not, in fact, forbid a HUGE amount of such meddling. But not before what happened next.
In what seems positively inevitable in retrospect, in the closing minutes of the work week on Saturday, March 25, 1911, it’s believed a match or a cigarette was dropped into an 8th floor waste basket or fabric scrap pile, probably sodden with sewing machine oil. This ignited a fire that quickly spread, feeding voraciously on the pieces of hanging fabric, packing materials and paper patterns used by the workers.
Workers on the factory floor tried initially to fight the fire, armed with a few dozen buckets of water that management generously provided in the event tragedy once again struck the notoriously fire-prone facilities of Blanck and Harris. Their meager efforts of course proved futile, and in a matter of minutes the fire was completely out of control. A sprinkler system, which should have been installed in the factory, would likely have extinguished the flames in short order and the worst that would have happened was some unfortunate smoker getting fired for their carelessness. But Triangle had no sprinklers at all. Sprinklers cost money, remember?
Blanck and Harris, who were on the 10th floor of the building, were alerted by telephone of the fire and they quickly fled to safety. Their workers weren’t so fortunate, however, and many panicked in the face of the growing inferno and made a mad rush for the two elevators and the stairway at one end of the 8th floor. The crush of fleeing women at the stairway door made it impossible to open, because the doors of the factory opened in rather than out. Escape also proved impossible through many of the factory’s other doors, because they were kept locked by management in an effort to prevent employees from pilfering a few pennies worth of fabric, and to keep dreaded union organizers at bay. The building was equipped with only one fire escape, a flimsy metal framework that quickly collapsed under the weight of workers fleeing the growing blaze, sending them plummeting to their deaths on the sidewalk below. In what was only a matter of a few brief minutes since the fire started, Triangle workers were starting to DIE.
Amid the rapidly growing, fiery chaos, some good news. The building’s elevator operators managed to make multiple trips and up down from the ground floor to the floors now engulfed by fire, and took as many woman as the tiny lifts could hold to safety, most with their clothing on fire and suffering from burns. Also, after an initial crush and great struggle, workers were able to open an 8th floor stairway door and those fortunate enough used the stairs to flee the building, as fire engulfed the top floors.
But even as dozens of charred and terrified workers fled via elevator and stairs, hundreds more were still trapped inside burning factory, and desperate measures soon ensued. A human chain was formed from one of the factory’s 8th floor windows to a window on the building next door, allowing a lucky few to reach safety before the human chain broke and its members plummeted to their deaths. Ladders miraculously left for the weekend by a crew of painters were extended from a neighboring building to the roof of the factory, allowing an incredible 150 fortunate souls to escape certain death in the roaring inferno that was all that remained of the factory that only minutes before had been filled with exhausted, relieved girls preparing to finally head home at the end of the long day. Could any of them have dreamed that those were to be the final moments of their lives?
Inside the factory, the unimaginable was happening. With no way to fight the fire and nowhere to run, the blaze began engulfing workers and burning them alive. Survivors told of seeing their friends and relatives bursting into flame and dying before their eyes. With the roar of the fire, the mad rush of those fleeing and the screams of those being burned alive, the factory floors must have appeared like a scenes from the very bowels of hell.
As firefighters arrived to tend to the blaze, their attempts to rescue what workers remained alive in the factory were quickly stymied when it was realized that their ladders were only a fraction of the height required to reach those trapped in the blaze. The situation was hopeless. Surrounded by walls of flame and now with no chance of rescue, the doomed Triangle employees, mostly teenagers and young women, began leaping from the factory’s windows, some as high as 10 stories up. Rescue nets and blankets were used to try to catch the bodies of the girls that began jumping from the burning floors above, but they proved useless for catching bodies falling from such great heights. Unable to intervene, firefighters, police, and the hundreds of onlookers that had gathered below watched in shock as the last living Triangle employees still in the building, some holding hands, jumped from windows engulfed in flames and hit the pavement 100 feet below with a sickening, fatal thump, a thump repeated again and again and again.
The blaze that raced through the Triangle Factory was under control in a surprisingly short time, literally only a matter of minutes, but its toll was immense. In less than a half-hour 146 employees were killed, all but a handful of whom were young women. Nearly 100 of the dead were burned alive inside the factory, trapped in a hellish inferno. Another 50 shattered bodies lie on the sidewalks beneath the factory, those who had jumped to their deaths. It’s difficult to ponder which fate was worse.
Makeshift morgues were hastily put together and the coffins of the dead lined the streets. Many bodies were burnt beyond recognition, and attempts to make positive identifications of all the remains from the fire were ongoing for decades after. One of the bodies identified was a 15-year-old girl named Bessie Viviano. She came to America from Italy when she was a baby and like many turn-of-the-century teenagers took a job to help support her family. One day she got up, got dressed, and went to work like she always did. Only on this one, special day, going to work cost her life.
After the incident, the owners of the Triangle Waist Factory, Blanck and Harris, were indicted for manslaughter. And, by what in retrospect seems like sheer madness, were promptly found not guilty. In spite of the blatant disregard for human life they flaunted by operating a factory that was literally a deathtrap, these two bush-league captains of industry were photographed smiling as they walked from the courthouse into historical infamy, seemingly amused that the system had worked to defend and protect them and not the 150 innocents whose blood was on their hands.
To give some perspective on the tragic magnitude of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it held the record for the deadliest workplace disaster in New York for nearly 100 years. It only lost that horrible distinction when on a sunny September day in 2001 a pair of hijacked passenger jets crashed into the World Trade Center and once again stunned onlookers watched in disbelief as the bodies of American workers plummeted to their deaths onto the sidewalks of New York.
For those of you inclined to be a bit slow on the uptake, the moral of this unspeakably tragic tale is that when business is left unregulated, PEOPLE DIE. If left to their own devices, businesses will NOT police themselves. They will do as little as they possibly can to avoid cutting into their bottom line, even if it means 146 of their own employees are either splattered on pavement or burned alive. Sprinklers aren’t worth buying if all you’re worried about are the lives of a couple of hundred low-wage employees, because at the bottom line, people just aren’t that valuable. Human lives are simply another raw material, like fabric or thread, to be used or disposed of as necessary. And that, in a nutshell, is how the “free market” that conservatives crow about has always and will always work.
That is until the progressives show up.
The grief, guilt and fury over the fire and its innocent victims united New Yorkers in an unprecedented way. Over half a million people either marched in the funeral procession for the Triangle dead or lined the parade route to pay their respects and demand action to prevent such tragedies in the future.
Progressive union leaders seized the moment to further organize garment workers and push for greater collective bargaining rights. The subsequent acquittal of the Triangle Factory’s owners further galvanized public opinion in favor of progressive goals such as better workplace safety laws, and in the face of unprecedented public outcry for intervention and oversight, government had little choice but to listen and then, perhaps uncharacteristically, to act.
In the months after the fire, a determined New York State legislature passed bills to create a commission headed by Senator Robert F. Wagner, Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith, and union leader Samuel Gompers to investigate conditions in the state’s sweatshops. As a result, one of the greatest achievements of progressivism, the Factory Investigating Commission, was born. The commission began a grueling, four-year investigation into factory safety around the state, visiting dozens of factories and hearing from hundreds of witnesses. Its original focus was on fire safety, but it soon became clear that issues such as the deplorable state of hygiene and the extreme risk of injury in many factories also demanded government intervention to protect workers.
The voluminous reports generated by the commission resulted in the passage of dozens of new, progressive laws, ensuring that factory doors must open outwards and that no doors could be locked during working hours, the availability of fire extinguishers, the installation of alarm systems, automatic sprinklers and fireproofing, the institution of regular fire drill protocols, the creation of sanitary eating and toilet facilities for workers, and limiting the number of hours that women and children could be made to work.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the resulting action on the part of progressive government to protect workers from predatory and negligent business interests was nothing less transformative. Everyday things that we take for granted in workplaces today, like fire escapes and sprinklers and fire extinguishers, as well reasonable working hours and decent bathrooms are the result of the progressive policies that grew out of the fire. In the aftermath of the fire an energized and ascendant labor movement imbued American workers with unheard of power and success, and thus progressivism led to the creation of what we today call the American middle class. The fire, which consumed the lives of so many women and girls, also greatly motivated the progressives leading the women’s suffrage movement, outraged because at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire the women who lost their lives there DID NOT EVEN HAVE THE RIGHT TO VOTE. But thanks to progressivism the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing all American women the right to choose their leaders as men did.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, as immense a tragedy as it was, was one of the most critical turning points in American history. That horrible event on that horrible day, as painful as it is to say, in many ways was essential to the creation of modern America. But the amazing strides that progressive reformers achieved in response to that unthinkable tragedy are themselves under fire this very day. There is considerable anti-worker and anti-union sentiment festering in America today, in places like Wisconsin which has crippled collective bargaining, compensation, retirement, health insurance, and sick leave benefits for public sector employees, and in businesses like McDonalds and Wal-Mart, with annual profits in the billions of dollars, which vigorously and all but gleefully oppose giving their workers even a few pennies more an hour, instead relying taxpayers like YOU to foot the bill for their worker’s reliance on food stamps and Medicaid to supplant the income and benefits these obscenely profitable corporations refuse to provide. And in what has to be the greatest and most mind-boggling case of either collective brainwashing or collective idiocy in American history, many conservative working men and women actually SUPPORT the curtailment of employee’s rights and benefits, the very rights which help define America as a leader and role model to the rest of the world. Rights, I should add, that people have fought and DIED for. It’s disgraceful, but it’s American conservatism 101.
As stated earlier, many would have you remain ignorant of the Triangle factory fire, because it reminds us of the inhumane and even deadly working conditions to which employees can be subjected in the absence of sensible, progressive government regulation. The fire’s horrors epitomize everything that goes wrong when the “free market” is left unfettered. WHEN BUSINESS IS ALLOWED TO POLICE ITSELF, WORKERS DIE.
Don’t be fooled by people who tell you that American workers don’t deserve living wages or safe workplaces or the ability to organize. Anyone who tells you that is either a liar, a crook or an idiot, or likely a combination of the three. People gave their lives in the battle to secure American workers the rights we enjoy today. Anyone who would now deny you those rights or take them from you is a potential murderer, walking in the bloody footsteps of Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, venal, craven cowards that value money more than they value YOUR life. Are you really OK with that? Good god I hope not.
It’s hard to find a more illustrative, specific example of the incredibly positive impact that progressive, liberal reformers, in both the private and public sectors, have had on life in this country than the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It’s a sad tale of suffering and death, but it’s also a tale of awakening, growth, and above all, progress. But there are many, many more, don’t stop here. Someday, if you’re suddenly gripped with the urge to learn a thing or two about your history, stop treating The Flintstones as a documentary and crack open a book with some actual FACTS in it. You’ll be a better American for having done so.
And if you’re a working man or woman, take a moment to remember the nearly 150 innocent souls who died horrible deaths back in 1911 so that you could work a safe, humane, American job. Take a moment to honor the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, because you owe them that and more, for their deaths laid the foundation for the progressive reforms that make up so much that is good and great about America today. As brothers and sisters united in our toil, we must NEVER support anyone or anything that threatens to make those 150 deaths in vain.
Even though the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were mostly poor, immigrant girls working for a few pennies a day, every American worker gratefully stands today upon their mighty shoulders.