A Reflection on Labor Day & the 911 Anniversary

The 20th anniversary of 911 and Labor Day were in the same week this year, within 5 days in fact. During that time I was doing the great American past time of touring, specifically in an area replete with national identity in South Dakota. The experience of 'getting away' but also being in and among monuments and reminders of what we have accomplished during those dates made me reflect on where we have come recently.

The trend I see is away from service and community to self-centeredness.

The back of a CCC pin packaging I just bought.

South Dakota has a lot of Americana and symbols of American pride as well as evidence of a time when that pride, that commitment, was about others, about the community, and not about the individual. Mount Rushmore obviously stands for our reverence for our leaders, revered presidents. The Crazy Horse memorial in progress offers a different viewpoint, and even purpose with a man from Poland embracing and championing completely different people in his pursuit of creating the memorial for indigenous Americans. The parks represent a time when downtrodden citizens were offered hope in government assistance through the CCC Civilian Conservation Corps, elevating not only them but our nation through their hard work in tough times.

While I did experience 911 and the aftermath, I am not old enough to have directly experienced much of the nostalgia, if that is the the word, for some of what America did in the past in preservation steps. This isn't a bemoaning of old traditions, but of actions. Things we did, what we accomplished, how we responded - as a nation. 

911 and COVID

In my mind, with my viewpoint and ideals, I just cannot fathom why a large portion of our nation is so opposed to steps to mitigate COVID. None of the steps are hard, or harmful, and we - people before us - have taken steps as a nation to mitigate threats before. Now, I am not naïve enough to not know that there was a percentage of resistance to efforts in the past, but enough people got behind them and did what was needed. Polio was one example. Polio hit us hard, the world hard, just as COVID is, and the efforts to quash it were hard, probably harder than what we should be doing for COVID because of our current technology. I won't get into it, you can read up on it lots of places like this NPR story, but to say this: mask wearing and rolling closures were adopted for years - decades actually - to combat it until the vaccine was created and then it was used to make it so we don't even have to worry about it now.

In living through the anniversary of 911, an obvious comparison that came to mind was the national response to terrorism vs. COVID. COVID-19 could have - should have - been a way for us to rally together as a nation, to overcome a common obstacle. Just as we - as we nostalgically look upon it now - rallied together in anger at the 911 attacks and agreed to restrictions such as all the new travel and TSA check-in requirements, with a good leader we should have rallied together to resist the COVID spread. Wearing a mask, getting the vaccination, social distancing - all could have been embraced the same as taking our shoes off, removing our belts, limiting liquid quantities, using boarding passes and showing IDs.

On my vacation I experienced the difference first hand. South Dakota is a conservative state. That was obvious in the response, or lack thereof, to COVID, especially when compared to passing through more liberal Minnesota. In SD you could easily tell tourists by the ones wearing masks. In MN, masks were more common and when we visited the SPAM Museum, they required masks, hand sanitizing, and the use of clean stylus pens to activate touch screen exhibits. It's really not much different though than at home and say: Milwaukee vs. Waukesha counties.

If only the people of SD followed the sentiment of this healthcare system campaign

In listening to people, really listening - reading between the lines - it comes down to thinking of the self vs. others. Most who wear masks, get vaccinated, say they do it for others, not for themselves. People who won't, say it is because of how doing so affects them. When did we lose the sense of community and banding together against a common threat?

Labor Day and the CCC/WPA

It funny how the people who are most against what Labor Day is actually about embrace it the most, and twisted it. Just because it is a federal holiday doesn't make it about the government. But, do a Google search for images for Labor Day and you will find many, many graphics that look more like Memorial Day with American flags and red, white, and blue and stars and stripes all over them. It's really not supposed to be about America, the political or governmental America. It's supposed to - as the name obviously suggests - celebrate the Labor movement, how trade unions helped shape improvement in workers' rights. It is celebrated across the world and should be decidedly un-governmental or political (though the core ideals influence politics more so outside the US). In fact, despite the fact the New Deal aligned with many labor concepts, FDR actually spoke about the difference between private and public (governmental): "All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.... The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations."

Speaking of the New Deal, FDR used it in part to create two programs that were very labor movement-like: the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) and WPA (Works Progress Administration).  They both sought to put unemployed people to work, giving them income but also experience and just improving morale. The CCC focused on Conservation efforts in national lands like parks. The WPA was focused on public works projects like buildings and roads but also employed artists, musicians, and other creatives to provide public art and entertainment. Many women and minorities, and a focus on indigenous people, were utilized and valued. The WPA employed 3.3 million people at its height, the CCC one half million (with a total of 3 million men). Meals, lodging, clothing, medical, and dental care were all free for enrollees so most of their income could be sent home to their families. Wisconsin and Milwaukee benefitted greatly from these project. Over 5,000 women and minorities in Milwaukee were employed for creative endeavors through the Milwaukee Handicraft Project (MHP) and dozens of public projects were completed here as well.

A statue honoring CCC workers in South Dakota

I think it is the perfect time to implement New Deal-like projects like the CCC and WPA. With two recessions recently and currently and the effects of COVID on the economy and employment, providing meaningful work to unemployed to give them income and experience would be invaluable, all while improving our aging infrastructure, unifying people, and creating a new national pride in ourselves vs. the nation. The Green New Deal and/or the infrastructure bill could embrace and promote this. In a, admittedly far-reaching and highly unlikely, extreme version, national service could be required for certain citizenship benefits. Like some nations that require military or other service (like Israel). But it doesn't have to be military. Nigeria, Germany, and Denmark, and recently France all require learning and using service skills such as first aid. In total, about seventy-five countries have some form of mandatory service. Here it could be tied to benefits like healthcare, free education, and social security (for anyone going forward). Complete the service (1-2 years), and you get the national citizenship benefits . Immigrant citizenship could also be worked though service commitment. Benefits would no longer be handouts or freebies, but rewards for service to the country. But to those mentioned previously, this would be a mandate, a restriction on their freedom, and not a patriotic option - for how much they tout patriotism and devotion to country.

Finally, seeing the majesty of that region of the country, and returning home to the beauty of my home state, made me question how anyone cannot be for conservation efforts.  The CCC - along with other efforts before and after - helped preserve the natural beauty of our nation in national and state parks. It is our job to preserve it for future generations. Whether you believe in global warming or other science, and our impact on the world as a planet, the climate; blindness to immediate, local effects to be is unfathomable. Personal and private sector (corporate) lack of care and responsibility of your local environment angers me. Air quality, water quality, preservation of local flora and fauna all should be important enough for us to take steps personally, and even financially through corporate decisions and our support of them based on those, to make our nation and the world a better place for us (from a self-centered standpoint) and all (in a more global/communal viewpoint)

In both of these cases, its easy to blame former President Trump and his cult of personality the blind devotion to one individual - but to me and many others, he was an end result of the path the nation was taking already. A path of nationalism, of isolation, of us vs. them. A focus on 'me' not 'us'. Maybe 911 was the beginning. Our response to terrorism, outsiders - specifically Muslims would grow into any not like us. After that, white America specifically seemed to become ever more suspicious and the seeds of racism and bigotry, long underground, sprouted. While many celebrated the increase in diversity in media, the resistance was also growing. The Republican view of organized labor as a threat, instead of a group to court, started years ago - in Wisconsin we saw it first hand with Walker and a GOP representation that attacked unions and workers' rights in favor of corporate bottom lines. Then, when America was given the choice between a highly qualified woman and a man with a questionable character and suspect business practices, well, the woman won in votes (48 > 46%), but lost in electoral college. Many say that election either way was a choice between the 'lesser of two evils' with blemishes on both, but the loser was an experienced statesman who had unjust accusations and called it on the who the winner was. I could go on about how that election and choice so negatively affected our path not just for four years but who knows how long, but I try not to get political here. But, we also know how Trump managed the COVID response and how he influenced people's response both in medical and financial decisions.

My reflections on these two dates in my time on vacation made me yearn for more of my personal concept of patriotism. Not bombastic displays of our colors, flag, anthem, or individuals; but reverence for the land and the people - all the people - that make up our nation. Working together to make things better for any and all.


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