"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting"
The PBS airings over Labor Day weekend of From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks: the Life and Times of Harry Bridges, a film telling the story of a labor struggle that has it's 75th Anniversary this year, couldn't be more timely
So many of the issues in radical labor leader Harry Bridges' life -- immigration, the right to organize (as tens of millions of Americans today, often the people who would benefit most from union membership, consider any ideas of organizing into unions as Socialistic at best), the fight against prejudice and discrimination, a war against an "ism", government surveillance of American citizens, the widening gap between the rich and everyone else -- are all still with us today, if in far more sophisticated and nuanced forms. And the on-going pitched battle to capture the imagination's understand of the "American Dream" continues. Is it to have the very remote chance of becoming a billionaire? Or more down to earth dreams of having a decent job, sending the kids to college, receiving quality health care and being able to retire with dignity?
But the two issues that are particularly and painfully relevant today are war and health care.
Harry Bridges saw war in terms of class struggle, where the workers fight and die as the capitalist bosses grow rich. This was as true in World War II, a war Bridges wholeheartedly supported, as it certainly is in the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars today. He considered the practice of invading foreign countries, including Korea and Vietnam among others, as immoral and counter-productive when these nations did not pose an actual "clear and present danger" to America and its citizens. I have no doubt that he would have felt the same about Iraq and Afghanistan
America continues to lose these wars of invasion. It's hard to win a war against any guerrilla movement by killing large numbers of a country's population. Throughout the years this has continued to be a difficult lesson to learn when, as President, you control the most powerful military force ever known. Let's ask ourselves how many billions of dollars these wars have cost us, in addition to leading to the deaths of millions of civilians and many ten of thousands of American soldiers, and casting a dark shadow over America's credibility in the world.
Conservative estimates, excluding any attempt to quantify the on-going cost to society of war vets unable to readjust to life after war, are that Korea cost $403 billion, Vietnam cost $686 billion, that Iraqi, according to a distinguished group of economists, will cost $3 trillion and Afghanistan $1 trillion. Add in a few minor invasions, and the total is about $6 trillion. 6 million million dollars. All to fight and, so far, lose wars against communists and terrorists, both of whom thrive on these continued invasions. No wonder America can't afford a national health care system.
Bridges said very simply that America should have a national health system and once suggested the best way to get one would be to do away with health insurance for members of Congress. Contrary to some recently expressed views, in 1930 Bridges saw health care as a human right for all people. Not as socialism or communism or any other ism, but as a human right. And his view is shared today by every other industrialized nation on earth, but what would they know? They obviously don't realize that the fight against a national health care system is really the front line of the never-ending fight against Socialism and Communism. It's a miracle that America has survived as the land of the free, what with having over 40 years of Medicare.....
Obama's plan would not be cheap. Economists say that it would cost 1.5 trillion dollars over 10 years. Yes that is a lot of money, but one quarter of the cost of decades of those American foreign invasions. How ironic that instead of contributing to the death of millions, we could have installed health care plans in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only would that have taken the wind out of the sails of those communists and terrorists and Al Qaeda, but also given all Americans what Bridges saw as a simple human right: the freedom to go to a doctor when you are sick and get the care you need.
So the struggle between the liberal and the conservative, between the concepts of individual freedom and societal responsibility, the struggle to define that American Dream, continue. The propaganda and injustices of 1934 may seem unsophisticated and blatant to us today, but watch the film and you will see that, just below the surface, the same issues, if a little more urbane and refined, still permeate our society today.
Ian Ruskin is co-producer of the film version of From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks airing on PBS stations nationwide over Labor Day Weekend. The film, also produced by Suzanne Thompson, was directed and shot by multi-Academy Award winner Haskell Wexler. For more information: http://theharrybridgesproject.org/
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