…are doomed to repeat it.
Today’s episode of “Down the Rabbit Hole” started innocently enough with one of those breakfast-table musings: if “salting the earth” is a bad thing, then why is “salt of the earth” a compliment?
Luckily, this sort of question is why they invented the Internet… We now know that salting the earth was a medieval ritualistic practice for cursing conquered cities and such like (but never actually resulted in fields wrecked with salt). And, conveniently, right there at the top of the Wikipedia page is a reference to their Salt of the Earth article.
Here’s where it gets interesting… there’s not just one, but a whole collection of Salt of the Earth articles. The sense I was looking for is the sense of “a thoroughly decent person,” which is easily found in dictionary definitions, but doesn’t have its own Wikipedia article. There is mention in all those definitions that the phrase comes from the Bible (Matthew 5:13). However, after reading the rest of that verse and a couple of commentaries, I’m more confused than ever… the whole warning about the salt losing its saltiness and becoming useless seems like a pretty anxiety-inducing state for all these good, decent people to have to live in.
I’m not much for trying to make sense of the Bible, and my initial breakfast curiosity was satisfied: the two phrases with “salt” and “earth” don’t have anything obviously to do with each other, and since they mean different things, that is as it should be, and all is right with the world. Language is fun.
But breakfast itself wasn’t over, and so I had a moment to look at some of the other Wikipedia entries for “Salt of the Earth.” My eye was drawn to the Salt of the Earth Strike, better known as the Empire Zinc Strike. Ah-ha, there’s your rabbit hole, let’s see what’s down there.
Here’s the salient points: In 1950, Silver City, NM, a bunch of miners went on strike seeking better treatment in general and specifically greater parity in the wages and benefits of Mexican and Mexican-American miners as compared to their white colleagues. They were led by charismatic activist Clinton Jencks, quite an interesting character in his own right. The strike was a big deal at the time, there was violence and treachery, but on January 21, 1952 the company agreed to settle and the miners got almost everything they were asking for.
It was common to condemn people at that time by calling them Communists , and the label could be devastating for your career, even your safety. Jencks himself was blacklisted and couldn’t find work as a miner any longer. But he was buoyed by the creation of a film about the strike, put together by some blacklisted Hollywood types. He eventually went back to school, got a PhD and taught history in San Diego for the rest of his life. Happy ending.
Regular readers will have noticed the new weekly series of “Trade Unionists for Trump” posts. The idea is that the very thought of any self-respecting trade unionist being pro-Trump is ridiculous to me, so I’ve invented silly unions to come up with their own self-serving takes on “MAGA.” Since I started posting those, we’ve seen the President appoint a Cabinet of The Man and systematically begin to dismantle a lot of the things that the trade unions won in the 20th century. The promise of higher wages for native-born Americans in steel, coal, and construction jobs is seen as more appealing, more important, than the promise of a clean environment, a safe workplace, an inclusive society, and anything remotely to do with the next wave of technology-driven work. If Trump succeeds, we can look forward to kicking the ass of 1960s-era China.
The opening quote from George Santayana (and no, it wasn’t Churchill) is bandied about a lot these past 40 days or so. Here’s a take on that same idea that might help the Resistance find its footing and avoids comparing Trump to Hitler (because while it might be true in some senses, the comparison doesn’t really rally me… Hitler did rise to power, and he did do all those things, and we want to try and get ahead of it this time. Let’s look for a FAILED autocrat, and focus on making Trump into that guy.). If we do manage to remember the past, and why not start with the trade unions, maybe we can find the courage to recreate some amazing and positive aspects of that past. Maybe we can find a way for all those disaffected salt of the earth types to get un-disaffected by figuring out what they really want and helping them get it. Right now, I interpret the Trump voter as essentially saying that black lung disease is better than opioid addiction, and I hope we can find a third option. Maybe we can move beyond MAGA and “America First” to some kind of slogan that lets us all breathe more freely, sleep better at night, live better in this century, and somehow avoid blowing ourselves up.