Social Darwinism & The Triangle Tragedy

by Michael Sean Winters

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Friday will mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, in which 146 people, mostly poor immigrant Jewish and Italian women, including a fourteen year old girl, were killed in a fire at a sweatshop in Greenwich Village, New York. That is not exactly right. Just as it was not Hurricane Katrina but the failure of the levees around New Orleans that caused the flood in that great city, at Triangle, the problem was not just the fire, but the fact that the fire escapes were inadequate and the additional doors to the building were locked from the outside to make sure none of the workers could exit with any pilfered fabric. In the event, they did not exit at all. The workers died.

The Triangle tragedy led to a great progressive movement on behalf of safe working conditions, igniting a debate that is still with us about the necessity of government regulation to protect workers from unscrupulous business owners. Al Smith, Robert Wagner and Frances Perkins were all motivated by the tragedy to embark upon their illustrious careers as advocates for a more humane society. And, the event still captures the imagination of advocates for social justice. On Sunday, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis wrote an article about the anniversary and this morning’s Washington Post has a splendid article by Harold Meyerson that recalls that horrible day.

Back in 1911, those who defended the Triangle sweatshop owners might have been proud to articulate their opposition to government regulation in terms of Social Darwinism. In the early part of the twentieth century, neo-Malthusians advocated eugenics, but their views were embraced by such liberal heroes as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Science, even bad applications of science, gave a veneer of legitimacy to ideological claims.

We forget how ideologically fecund the early decades of the twentieth century were. This was, obviously, not always a good thing. But, we should not be too alarmist about the ideological divisions of our own time: These ideological are hard-wired into the national soul, reflective of different strains in our national character. Not every decade is like the quiescent 1950s. More often, in America, we are fighting for who we are.

Social Darwinism, of course, is not a term much used by today’s opponents of government regulation. Studies have shown that most of the Tea Party adherents also identify with the social conservatism of politically active Evangelicals. Darwinism is, for them, a bad word and Social Darwinism is a term rarely invoked by the left which has its own foolish regard for scientism. But, the issues are not scientific. The issues that beset America and which have always beset America are ideological, rooted in ideas about human nature and the proper role of government. These debates involve irreducible values about which science has little or nothing to say.

Social Darwinism is a heresy, a truth run amok. The truth at its heart is that individuals have rights, including the right to property, and that the free enterprise system is the best way to create material wealth. Those two claims are true. But, to know that the human person has rights is to know one thing about the human person, not the whole story. And to believe that economic competition in a free market is a good thing is not to know all there is to know about markets. To dress up these truths in Darwinistic drag, however, is to distort them. Even science is discovering that there is a lot more cooperation in the process of natural selection than first grasped. But, again, the issues here are not scientific issues, they are ideological issues.

There are other truths embedded in America’s ideological DNA and one of those truths is that we must look out for each other. Another truth is that government is the instrument of the people’s will. Today’s Social Darwinists, invoking Ronald Reagan, see government as the problem not the solution. That is a bumper sticker, not a philosophy. Today’s Tea Partyers do not get very specific about what, precisely, are the problems best suited to a finding a solution in an unregulated market. Theirs is the philosophy of “leave me alone.” But, the lesson in the Triangle tragedy is that if we, the people, leave capitalists completely alone, they do very bad things. It is shocking that this even needs to be pointed out so soon after the modern day robber barons on Wall Street brought the economy crashing down.

Of course, one of the reasons that Social Darwinism has re-emerged so quickly after the near-economic collapse of 2008 is that the collapse was near, not thorough. Since the Stock Market Crash of 1929, we have learned a few things about how to avert even greater disasters. I say “we,” but I am not an economist, Ben Bernanke is, and he learned a lot studying the Great Depression and many of those lessons have helped to arrest the downturn before it became a second Great Depression. Remember those “bailouts”? Remember the much maligned “Stimulus”? Well, they worked. Not completely. Not fairly. I still think it would have been a good and just idea to set up stocks and pillories on Wall Street and expose the plutocrats to the public shame they so richly deserved. And, I wish the Stimulus had been used solely to support infrastructure improvements. Nonetheless, we did not spiral into a second Great Depression.

Americans today are not only divided by ideological differences. We are divided by what counts as evidence. If you scratch the surface of the Tea Party, you will not find anything once you get past the sloganeering. They are not only devoted to the heresy of Social Darwinism, they are devoted to, and fed at Fox News by, a commitment to the denial of truth. They would prefer to forget about the Triangle Tragedy. They prefer to forget the often desperate conditions in which America’s elderly lived before Social Security. They breeze past the uninsured as they make their way to their doctors’ appointments. But, facts are facts and history is history. We can learn from them or bury our heads in the sand. The anti-intellectual of contemporary conservative populism is one of its ugliest features.

On the left, of course, we have our own ideological difficulties to overcome. We decry the dangers of rogue libertarianism in the workplace but we worship at that altar when the issue is abortion. Regular readers will recall these words from my first post in which I introduced this blog, and they remain for me the Magna Carta of American liberalism. They come from Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Age of Jackson,” and Democrats forget them at their peril. Schlesinger wrote: “American democracy has come to accept the struggle among competing groups for the control of the state as a positive virtue – indeed, as the only foundation for liberty. The business community has been ordinarily the most powerful of these groups, and liberalism in America has been ordinarily the movement on the part of the other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community.” That is what liberalism in America should be about, what it has always been about, and our opponents are still the Social Darwinists.

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