election anxiety countdown

57 Days: Free Labor

Labor Day has a way of sneaking up on me. The sudden end point of lazy summer routines. Echoes of childhood. Butterflies in my stomach realizing school starts the next day. Am I ready? Do I have enough notebooks? What will I wear? Will any friends be in my classes? On my school bus route? Will the teachers be nice or harsh?

As an adult, I have carried these ideas with me. Labor Day as fresh start; as the end of vacations and the start of a busy few months until the winter holidays. When I had an office job — and even when I rented a desk at a coworking space — I would make an effort to dress sharper the day after Labor Day than I had in July and August to mark the occasion. An earnest solemnity for the work ahead.

The holiday itself went unremarked. After a long string of unstructured days, why celebrate the last of them? I’m sure my family had picnics on Labor Day weekend in some of those years. We had many July and August birthday celebrations, including the July 4th birthday of Uncle Sam. Perhaps we were done with celebrations by the time Labor Day came around. I recall a picnic or two with my dad’s coworkers from the power plant during the summer, too. Were these Labor picnics celebrating worker solidarity, descendants of the tradition established at the first 1882 Labor Day in New York City? Beer, bratwurst, volleyball on a remote rural property. No volleyball at the 1882 picnic, though (it was invented seven years later).

I am now reading Heather Cox Richardson’s West From Appomattox, which explores the culture wars following the Civil War as the northern system of free labor — the idea that workers were free to work under terms they agreed to with their employer — struggled to take hold in the south and west. Wealthy landowners in the south opposed negotiating terms with their black workers and instead worked to recreate the antebellum (literally “pre-war”) slave labor system through sharecropping arrangements and later in Jim Crow laws.

Labor Day is a celebration of the free labor movement and the organization of workers into trade unions that was its logical outgrowth. At least 30 states had made Labor Day an official holiday in the tradition of 1882’s NYC parade and picnic by the time Congress passed and President Grover Cleveland signed the law making it a Federal holiday in 1894. There were 44 states at the time. I couldn’t find a list of the 14 holdout states, but given the history of the free labor movement, I’m guessing it would be a safe bet to start with the secessionist states in the south and work your way towards the western territories where settlers had attempted to expand slavery.

Here is a depiction of the first Labor Day parade. I’ve highlighted some incredible details.

Source: Frank Leslie's Weekly Illustrated Newspaper,
 September 16, 1882 via Wikimedia Commons

How many of these signs have you seen still being carried today, at Black Lives Matter protests? At Occupy camps in 2011?











I wonder why this image isn’t taught in school, isn’t as well-known as the history of Thanksgiving, the fourth of July, and other secular U.S. holidays?

election anxiety countdown

90 Days: Lies

What is the difference between a fiction and a lie?

A fiction writer aims to tell a story that is believable even though you know it isn’t real. A liar also aims to tell a story that is believable, but they expect you to believe it is real. Their intention is to deceive rather than to entertain.    

When I woke up this morning knowing I’d write about lies today, I did not have to do much research to find one. My first read, Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters From An American (an inspiration for this series) detailed a lie necessitated by an earlier wave of Trump lies:

Trump’s insistence that mail-in voting will cause fraud and the “most corrupt election” in American history has apparently discouraged Republican voters from applying for ballots. Republican leaders are panicked.

So today the president did an abrupt about-face, at least for the Republican state of Florida. “Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting,” Trump tweeted today, “in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True. Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail!”

Heather Cox Richardson

This is a more complicated lie than usual for Trump. Late in his term, the stories are getting harder to keep straight. The tangled web is turning back on itself. He has lied about voter fraud, which is extremely rare, since it became clear that he lost the popular vote. He has lied about mail-in ballots (they have been good enough for his votes) while the likelihood grows that mail-in ballots will be the only safe way for many to vote in November. Now he is claiming that there is something different about Florida, that it’s all better suddenly. But just in this one spot, not everywhere. 

Who is this new lie for? Is there anyone who still believes his words have meaning? “But all politicians are liars,” says the imaginary conservative/contrarian reading this. Perhaps in the literal sense that we all on average lie twice a day about small things (why didn’t you pick up the phone earlier?). I think it’s more common for politicians to make promises they are unable to enact, or to tell deceptive and selective truths. A big lie from a prominent politician warrants front page news, or at least an op-ed. But on average, Trump lies over 23 times per day in public statements; so often that we long ago stopped listening. Which might be his real goal. 

Near the start of Nick Flynn’s new memoir, This Is The Night Our House Will Catch Fire, he quotes Adrienne Rich: 

“The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting things in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.” 

Adrienne Rich

Flynn is writing about an extramarital affair, the kind of secret that brings a cascade of lies — about where you were, what you were doing, what you spent money on, and why you came home drunk. “If you are willing to share this lie with me, you will know me in ways that others cannot,” he imagines as the lovers unspoken words. 

To reconstruct Rich: The country is a group with infinite alchemical possibilities; our president keeps losing sight of them. If he ever knew they were there.