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AFRAID NEW WORLD (9/11 and Labor Day Sermon)

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AFRAID NEW WORLD
j. SNODGRASS

There’s a knock-knock joke my brother loves to tell…
“Knock knock.”
“Who’s There?”
“Nine-eleven.”
“Nine-eleven who?”
“You said you’d never forget.”
And we haven’t – those of us who remember that day remember the feeling of vulnerability, fear, anger, maybe even a hint of betrayal. A feeling that God, the one we trust with the value of our dollar bills, our vigilant God who’d kept war off American soil for a hundred fifty years…had abandoned His post. Had our protector been distracted? Snuck off for a power-nap? Did God go out bowling? And we all remember the aftermath of September 11th, the wars of reckless revenge, pictures of Middle Eastern civilians being dug from the rubble, and again, feelings of vulnerability, fear, anger, betrayal. Against the wishes of many US citizens, the military went out bowling, with bombs. Maybe that’s why they call them air-strikes.

Some of us may remember exactly where we were, what we were doing when we first heard about the towers. I have two very clear memories from that day. One, I was living in Yonkers, and I wondered – are they going to attack Yonkers next? Blow up our beloved Yonkers train station, and then we’ll be stuck this bankrupt, crumbling slum forever? That was a question on a lot of minds in tiny American towns you’ve never heard of – are the terrorists gonna come to Allegany and blow up our one traffic light? Plunge us into the darkness of chaos?

My other recollection is that I did something I never do. I actually sat down and watched the news. And on the news, I’ll never forget it, on the news was best-selling espionage novelist Tom Clancy. The reporters were asking Tom Clancy – why did the terrorists do what they did? It turned out, I suppose, that our greatest national resource for understanding Islam was a white multi-millionaire fiction-writer. As a matter of fact, I guess if anything good came out of that day, it’s that in the months that followed, some media outlets in our culture did eventually let Muslims start speaking for themselves, instead of asking Tom Clancy. But that day, I remember, watching the news for a few minutes, it was a reminder of why I never watch the news.

I wonder if some terrorists were sitting around one day, plotting over espresso and asked, “What would frighten this guy Snodgrass?” “If we make him wake up as a giant cockroach?” “No, too expensive. What if we put him and all Americans on trial, with only a vague, hazy sense of what they might be guilty of?” “You guys have got to think outside the Kafka box. What if we make it so every time he goes to an airport, he has to take off his boots and belt, and then an overweight woman in uniform waves a beeping black plastic phallic-symbol at him?” “That’s a winner. Give this man a biscotti.” I don’t fly. Not because I’m afraid of terrorists crashing the plane into a building. But because I hate taking off my boots. I hate being processed. I hate being treated like a terrorist.

I remember being told over and over that 9/11 was an attack on Liberty, and kept wondering – if the attackers hated liberty so much, why did they fly right past the Statue of Liberty? It was standing right there, one mile away from the Trade Towers. Was it really an attack on American liberty? Actually, if the terrorists indeed loved fear and hated liberty, they sure succeeded in getting the US government to spread fear and suspend civil liberties. It was scary when extremists hijacked those airplanes. But it was more horrifying when extremists hijacked the US government and military, leading us into war.

A “POST 911 WORLD?”

My college students, who were toddlers in 2001 remember September 11th because they’ve heard about it in school and seen the videos. Some would say they’ve grown up in a post-911 world (I don’t know – I wouldn’t say I grew up in a “Post Disco Inferno world”). But they haven’t heard about the pre-911 world. Every semester I ask them, “what was the big news story on September 10th, 2001?” Who remembers it?

It was the nationwide demonstrations against the World Trade Organization – the W.T.O., which some protesters called “The World Terrorist Organization,” a cartel of banksters and corporations using the US military as mafia enforcers to extort natural resources and cheap labor from the poorest nations on the planet. On September 10th, 2001 I was wondering – could American citizens actually convince the US government to stand up to the World Trade Organization? And then on September 11th the picket signs disappeared, replaced by millions of American flags, weeping in the streets, mourning the loss of our beloved World Trade towers.

I wonder, what if Tom Clancy had written a novel where one day everyone was protesting against the World Trade Organization and the next day some airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, causing parades of World Trade solidarity..? What would his publisher say? “Tom, you’re not known for your subtlety, and whatever crap you put your name on will top the best-seller list, but… Seriously? You think anybody’s gonna think this was not a conspiracy?” But truth, I suppose, can be stupider than best-selling fiction. And for the next several years anybody who said anything negative about “World Trade” was immediately accused of hating the heroes – the police and firemen and the troops. My heart goes out to the victims in the planes and the towers, the rescue-workers and the soldiers who died, but when we list the casualties of 9/11 I insist that we also “Never Forget” the protest movement that died that day.

LABOR DAY

Another thing I’ve wondered – if we’re so obsessed with “never forgetting” 9/11 – why is it not a federal holiday? And then I remember – because it was so close to labor day, the holiday when we “never forget” to stop wearing white shoes. Seriously, there’s no way the government would give workers two Mondays off in a row, it would be un-American. Labor Day is so easy to forget, it’s sort of a phantom-limb holiday, even for me and I belong to a powerful union. For me, Labor Day is just one more day when my abundantly fertile wife might go into labor.

What is Labor Day? When did it get started, and how? This year I finally decided to look.

The Civil War had been immensely profitable for industrialists and manufacturers (many of whom had paid the $300 for someone else to fight in their place, including JP Morgan, John D Rockefeller, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie and James Mellon). They built massive fortunes on the backs of immigrant laborers, and then when the Civil War ended…Jackpot. Slaves were released into the workforce, veterans came home looking for jobs, and the competition in the flooded labor market introduced a whole new frontier of what employers could get away with in terms of low wages and crooked contracts. The government, always on the side of capital, did nothing to alleviate this exploitation. And so we see, slowly, workers begin banding together to press for worker’s rights. Ironically, the labor movement had victory in its grasp, but the most powerful unions refused to admit African Americans and some other minorities – banded together they would have been unstoppable, but racist divisions hobbled the movement.

It was in 1882 that an American Labor Day was first proposed, and unions began holding parades of solidarity in places like New York City’s Union Square. It was a peoples’ movement, protesting against a cartel of banksters using the US military as mafia enforcers to extort natural resources and cheap labor from the poorest people in America. Declaring a federal holiday in 1894 to honor laborers might seem like a government gift in support of the movement. Actually it was something else. 1894 was the year of the Pullman strike, when workers had called a boycott of Pullman train cars because of the company’s nightmarish treatment of its workers. Then police officers and militia opened fire on a protest, killing thirty American workers. This was when a federal holiday was declared, to stop American workers from escalating the conflict.

Ironically, in modern times, Americans celebrate Labor Day by flooding into shopping-malls to buy clothing manufactured by human slaves in Asian sweatshops (I guess the Labor Movement did succeed in getting industrialists to seek their cheap labor elsewhere). And buying pencils and notebooks so our American children can go to factory-modeled, assembly-line-style school buildings and learn to be good citizens of Capitalism. This is what I get to deal with on September mornings, wrangling my kids into school uniforms, “I don’t want to be industrious! Can’t I just forage the food I need?” “No – you’re always foraging in my refrigerator. Now get on that bus and don’t come back till you’re Henry Ford.” What is Labor Day about? As far as I can tell, it is a day in which we celebrate capital’s victory over the Labor Movement.

What a mess. Who would have thought that a September 11th sermon might somehow turn out to be a real downer? Is there any good news on this day? Actually, I would say yes. In the Snodgrass family, this is not only an anniversary of the Trade Towers, it’s also a birthday. On September 11th, 2010 my sister gave birth to her son Jacob in New York City. My siblings and I, our mother came to New York City from Hungary, and our father emigrated from the small savage nation of Chicago. The refugee met the pioneer in New York City, were they started making babies. And about thirty years later in New York City, my sister met an immigrant from India, and they made a new baby, Jacob. Imagine that – a confluence of pioneers and refugees and immigrants merging to create this new life in New York City. In these days of distrust and ugly nativism, baby Jacob is a reminder of what I like best about New York City and what I like best about this country. To me, he is a symbol of hope and unity. Like all of us, I have complex thoughts and emotions about September 11th and its aftermath. But I also look forward to the part of this day that will be spent celebrating baby Jacob.

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