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Friday, December 05, 2014

Even-the-liberal New Republic

by digby

Far be it from a scruffy blogger like me to venture an opinion on the storied New Republic (which so masterfully put my kind in its place long ago.) I will just say that I tend to agree with those who think that the period under Martin Peretz, which lasted quite a long time, was pretty egregiously racist and sexist across the board. African Americans and feminists were routinely degraded and I don't think I have to mention just how disgusting Peretz's writing about Muslims and arabs was. This person thinks that's all petty but the best you can say for its legacy is that it's mixed.

We like to talk about teachable moments and one came to my mind yesterday as I saw the emotion flowing through my twitter stream on this subject. Here we have a venerable Village institution that goes back a hundred years. In some ways it was the company that employed the liberal intelligentsia for decades, nurturing them from generation to generation. And as has happened in villages, towns and cities all over the nation for the past several decades, new owners have come in and they've decided to change what the company does and move it to another place, leaving the long time employees and the village which depended upon it behind. It happens every day in this country to people who have far fewer resources and fewer chances of recovering from the blow.

Here's one I chose at random:

For 40 years workers in Bryan [Ohio] made Etch A Sketch, a children's drawing toy that has outlasted almost all others, and to a significant extent Etch A Sketch made Bryan.

This town of about 8,000, tucked into the northwestern corner of Ohio, has a tool and die factory, a tire company and a candy maker. But Etch A Sketch, the signature product of the Ohio Art Company, was Bryan's mascot. It marched in Bryan's parades. It was the mayor's calling card and the town's alter ego.

''You tell people you're from Bryan and they look at you blankly,'' said Carolyn Miller, a longtime assembly line worker at Ohio Art. ''You tell them it's the home of Etch A Sketch, and they smile.''

That was true, at least, until a winter day three years ago, a week before Christmas, when Ohio Art executives called representatives of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers Union into head offices and delivered the news. The Etch A Sketch line was moving to Shenzhen, China. About 100 union employees would lose their jobs.

The decision did not catch employees unaware. The mostly female work force had been training Chinese counterparts on the job. Cost pressures had been dragging down profits for years. Production of other Ohio Art toys, including Betty Spaghetty dolls, had already moved to China. But coming as the American economy entered a sharp downturn, the layoffs hit workers, and Bryan, hard. Three years later only a few Etch A Sketch assembly line workers have found other jobs. Most of those who did were lifetime employees of Ohio Art who were rehired in other departments, including a few who got jobs unpacking crates full of Etch A Sketches from China.

''Everyone knows the reason these jobs move to China,'' said Ms. Miller, 64, who now lives on her Social Security and her husband's income. ''But when it happens to you, I can tell you, it hurts.''

In a small town like Bryan, the pain was shared. Bryan's tax base is eroding from the loss of manufacturing and a population drain. The Bryan Times is full of notices of home foreclosures and auctions.

The town's central square is in repose. The drugstores, real estate offices and bars look more like relics than marketplaces.

The William County Courthouse, a 110-year old Romanesque Revival structure, hints at the loss. Its turrets and towers give it the aura of a fantasy castle. Toy soldiers guard the doors. But the oversize Etch A Sketch that once decorated the courthouse lawn through the Christmas season is gone.

Toy making can be overromanticized, of course. Many workers developed muscle stress injuries from repeating the same wrist- and shoulder-twisting motions thousands of times a day on the assembly line.

Still, workers said the biggest hole in their lives after Etch A Sketch moved was the death of a community that had bonded over many years. They sat shoulder to shoulder and shared two coffee breaks, the lunch hour and gossip.

''I could look at someone's face in the morning and see that something was wrong,'' said Nancy Bible, an Etch A Sketch lifer. ''Before the day was out, we all knew what it was.''

Nancy Viers, another assembly line worker, followed her grandmother and father to Ohio Art. She said she and many colleagues never expected to have another job. ''The company was our family,'' she said.

Sentiments like that may explain why William C. Killgallon, the company's chief executive, still looks hangdog when he talks about the decision to transfer the toy line to China. He cites ineluctable laws of economics. But his eyes water.

''It tore our hearts out,'' he said in an interview in his office. ''We ate with these people. We went to church with them. For some of them, this was the only job they ever had.''

Elite liberals have sounded a lot like those people from Bryan, Ohio over the past couple of days. Just like those small town folk, they identify with the company, they live the traditions, it's part of who they are. And it's understandable and human to feel that way. But I couldn't help but think back to an editorial from 2011 about Occupy Wall Street. The y stipulated that Wall Street has been very bad and should be rebuked. But they felt that OWS was terribly ill-mannered and failed to understand what liberalism, and perhaps more importantly, capitalism, was all about:

Liberals believe in a capitalism that is democratically regulated—that seeks to level an unfair economic playing field so that all citizens have the freedom to make what they want of their lives. But these are not the principles we are hearing from the protesters. Instead, we are hearing calls for the upending of capitalism entirely. American capitalism may be flawed, but it is not, as Slavoj Zizek implied in a speech to the protesters, the equivalent of Chinese suppression. “[In] 2011, the Chinese government prohibited on TV and films and in novels all stories that contain alternate reality or time travel,” Zizek declared. “This is a good sign for China. It means that people still dream about alternatives, so you have to prohibit this dream. Here, we don’t think of prohibition. Because the ruling system has even oppressed our capacity to dream. Look at the movies that we see all the time. It’s easy to imagine the end of the world. An asteroid destroying all life and so on. But you cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” This is not a statement of liberal values; moreover, it is a statement that should be deeply offensive to liberals, who do not in any way seek the end of capitalism.

Matthew Yglesias responded by pointing out that TNR's editors seemed not to have noticed that average Americans were in deep economic distress:

[I]t’s worth reflecting on the idea that the instinct toward ideological police actions represented by TNR’s editorial has had a malign influence on American politics for years. Liberalism, in its triumphant years, represented the “vital center” of American politics. The silence of further-left voices over the past decade has merely served to marginalize liberalism, creating an atmosphere in which center-left technocrat Barack Obama can be tarred as a radical socialist.

The fact of the matter is that the American economy isn’t working for average Americans, and hasn’t been for some time. Meanwhile, the corporate executive class has gotten quite adept at standing in solidarity against effective regulation of the financial system, against solutions to our environmental problems, and against progressive taxes.

This week those editors got a taste of what their vaunted modern capitalist America is all about. A baby billionaire product of Wall Street's inexplicable value system bought the place for his own amusement. And then decided, as his CEO has been quoted saying recently, to "break some shit." And so he did.

Fortunately for the people who are no longer employed at TNR, they will all likely end up working somewhere else doing what they do and being successful at it. After all, Washington DC is one of the richest, most thriving cities in the world right now. But a lot of Americans who have suffered this experience are not so lucky --- the death of their company spelled the death of their town and the end of their middle class lifestyles as well. But one can at least hope that some of those editors who were so disdainful of the impulse that led people to take to the streets and protest this ongoing, painful economic dislocation might have a little more empathy now.

After all, it can happen to anyone. Even The Liberal New Republic.