I've never found it that easy to know what the 'right' question is when confronting an issue, it has always been more of a visceral search in the dark, guided by instinct rather than reason. But, following on from my last piece, it isn't just the questions that are important, why and how you frame an argument can be absolutely critical and have unintended consequences.
In my youth, when studying American Economic history the weight of conventional wisdom on why the essence of America was about the entrepreneurial spirit, was so overwhelming that I just didn't believe it. But why did the American labour movement take such a different trajectory from that of the UK? Was there never a working-class consciousness spirit in the US?
I decided to write my thesis on American unions, and avoided my tutor for months to escape question about just what period I might focus on. I liked the Wobblies, but something didn't take. The Knights of Labour were interesting - but I didn't see the story. The AFL/CIO, ditto. I started to panic.
Then I discovered the early 1800's - and I felt like I'd been struck on the head. Just think. The American War of Independence was fought 1775-1783. These were children and grandchildren of those who'd fought in the war, who'd given everything for the right for self-determination, they were recipients of fresh, powerful and personal stories about fighting for a just and fair society. This was their society.
Such a spirit of self-determination shone through with the formation of the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) in Philadelphia in 1794. This marked the beginning of sustained period not just of trade union organisation but also pressure for a very different world. A period of ideas, activity and protest that reached a climax in the 1820's, as I recall. In many ways it reflected those same battles and new ideas that were happening in the UK, with people and ideas criss-crossing the Atlantic. An 1820's version of the 1960's, a febrile time with a strong co-operative movement, pressure for equal rights, for a ten-hour day, for the end of child labour and for 'free love'. The first national Trades Unions were formed, along with City unions, and then there were Workingmen's Party's looking to enter government.
Here was clear evidence of a consciousness of working men and women - and not quite as much adoration of the self-made man as many historians and politicians would have you believe.
In sharpest focus at the time was a common hatred and disdain for the Bank of America. This represented in the eyes of the workingman unearned wealth, corruption and the politics of Britain and foreign powers. Hatred of the Bank, and the battle of ideas around the bank, became a central cause of concern of society. The argument put by the unions and by Workingmen's Parties, was that the Bank was un-elected and exerted undue power over the lives of ordinary citizens, and as such was un-American.
In 1828 Andrew Jackson stood for election to the Presidency, his platform was his opposition to the Bank. Appealing to the common man over the heads of the unions and the Workingmen's Parties, he urged people to vote for him and promised them he'd abolish the bank. They did, and Jackson effectively ended the life of the Bank of America.
What followed was the routing of the unions and their emasculation until the 1880's. They lost the right to strike and even to exist. The arguments that the unions had used against the Bank of America, were now used against them. They were "unelected and exerted undue power over the lives of those around them", as such they were "un-American". The rest of union history in American is dominated by accusations of being unAmerican - and of course later on being Communist.
There is no accusation in America I can think of more damaging than to be called 'unAmerican'. Racism, greed, murder, fraud; these are every-day sins. To be seen as "un-American" in America is to be guilty of treachery and deceit against the Flag and God. (It wasn't until I lived in America, that I realised just how powerful many unions are. They are tolerated as a fact of life, and I would suggest they exert far more power than the unions do in the UK. ) But the narrative that emerged from the carcass of the unions in the 1830s is a now a narrative which reigns supreme in America. That of the individual. Trump is a true successor of Jackson. So it is now, that the right of the individual to carry a gun holds more value than the right of a community to security.
Humans are narrative driven. How we form and shape our stories, the ideals we create for ourselves now and for our children, matter. They speak to our very rights, they shape our lives and the lives of those that follow us.Suggest a correction