By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)
“The reason that society changes is not because ideas are good or ideas are bad. The reason society changes is because powerful people are forced to make concessions when people who don’t otherwise have power stand up.”
– Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard, from The Big Scary ‘S’ Word.
Climatologist Michael E. Mann was a guest on MSNBC’s The Reid Out this past Thursday, where he was part of a panel discussion regarding Hurricane Ida’s impact on New Orleans earlier in the week and the related storm system that caused severe flash flooding in several Northeast states a few days later. He made this interesting observation:
Those who had the least role in creating [climate change-fueled extreme weather events] …those are the folks who have the least wealth; future generations, people in the developing world and the global South are bearing the brunt of the impacts, because they have the least resilience, they have the least resources to deal with this problem. […] Climate action is a matter of social justice.
Wait…what? “Climate action is a matter of social justice”?! How did Professor Mann draw the chalk from Hurricane Ida to Karl Marx in one fell swoop? Of course, I’m being facetious. I mean, no one is silly enough to conflate “social justice” with “socialism”. Right? For giggles, let’s Google “social justice” and “socialism”, and see what pops up:
(from U.S. Catholic, August 6, 2010)
Is social justice the same as socialism?
Conservative TV personality Glenn Beck told Christians, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words… If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish. Go alert your bishop.”
Unfortunately, statements such as this have left even Catholics, who enjoy a rich social justice tradition, confused.
Socialism is defined as economic or political theories that advocate collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods. The threat perceived by socialism is that it threatens the identity of the individual because it merges the masses into one common goal or voice.
Social justice isn’t an economic or political theory, but an outlook that seeks to strengthen the identity of the individual because it sees that human dignity derives its meaning from being made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). In God’s image, no one is worth more than another. All are deserving of life and whatever is needed to adequately sustain it.
I’m not a particularly religious person, but I think that last line is a nice tenet. Very nice.
“Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen–
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice–
So many different people
In the same device.”
–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., from Cat’s Cradle
So if everyone from the authors of a 3000 year-old book of the bible to a prominent 20th Century science fiction writer can reach a consensus that all human beings are all equally worthy, all deserving of life, and all fit together in the same machine…how is it that the very mention of the word “socialism” has become anathema to so many folks these days?
Something to do with our current political climate, perhaps?
In a Director’s Statement regarding her new documentary The Big Scary ‘S’ Word, Yael Bridge writes:
…during the 2016 election cycle, I was personally fascinated by how Bernie Sanders appealed to people who would otherwise vote for Donald Trump, and the vast common ground between two ostensibly opposed political stances rocked me. I realized there is an urgent need for an honest, accessible exploration of today’s socialist ideas as they are being mobilized in America, as well as their historical precedents.
Before you get too excited, Bridge’s film is not all about Bernie. That said, Senator Sanders does pop up several times, as does Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, Professor Cornel West, author Naomi Klein, and other high-profile politicos and activists.
However, if the film has any “stars”, they are two lesser-known figures. They are Stephanie Price, an Oklahoma school teacher and single mom driven to activism, and Democratic Socialist Lee Carter, an ex-Marine who has represented the 50th district in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2018 (frustrated by his travails stemming from a debilitating work injury and no workman’s comp coverage, he launched his political career by Googling “how do I run for office?”).
In addition to eye-opening contemporary illustrations of pragmatic and robust socialist experiments like worker cooperatives and the Bank of North Dakota, there’s a compact history of American socialism, illustrating how key milestones like FDR’s New Deal and the labor movement continue to benefit all of us to this day (Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, better wages, reasonable work hours, workplace safety, etc.).
Some may register the breezy and amiable tone of Bridges’ documentary as a superficial approach, but it prevents the exercise from developing into a dry lecture. I bet you’ll even pick up one or two fun facts along the way (did you know that the Republican party was founded by socialists? I didn’t.). At any rate, there’s absolutely nothing here to fear here except…oh, never mind.
THE BIG SCARY ‘S’ WORD is available on digital platforms and in select theaters.
You’ve worked hard, so here’s a holiday bonus…my Top 10 Labor Day movies:
Blue Collar– Director Paul Schrader co-wrote this 1978 drama with his brother Leonard. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto portray Motor City auto worker buddies tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.
Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).
El Norte – Gregory Nava’s portrait of Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you after credits roll. The two leads deliver naturalistic performances as a brother and sister who maintain optimism, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobes be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing is nightmare fuel. Do not expect a Hollywood ending; this is an unblinking look at the shameful exploitation of undocumented workers.
The Grapes of Wrath – John Ford’s powerful 1940 drama (adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel) is the quintessential film about the struggle of America’s salt of the earth during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get, Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “…be there, all around, in the dark.” Ford followed up with the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) another drama about a working class family (set in a Welsh mining town).
Harlan County, USA – Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973, but is one of the best American documentaries ever made. Kopple’s film has everything that you look for in any great work of cinema: drama, conflict, suspense, and redemption. Kopple and crew are so deeply embedded that you may involuntarily duck during a harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell this tale).
Made in Dagenham – Based on a true story, this 2011 film (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) stars Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of what male employees were paid; the company justified the inequity by classifying female workers as “unskilled labor”.
Encouraged by her empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and affect real change. An engaging ensemble piece with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister.
Matewan – This well-acted, handsomely mounted drama by John Sayles serves as a sobering reminder that much blood was spilled to lay the foundation for the labor laws we take for granted in the modern workplace. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia. Chris Cooper plays an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a conflict between coal company thugs and fed up miners trying to unionize.
Sayles delivers a compelling narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in verisimilitude (beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler). Fine ensemble work from a top notch cast that includes David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Joe Grifasi, Jane Alexander, Gordon Clapp, and Will Oldham. The film is also notable for its well-curated Americana soundtrack.
Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation has aged well. This probably has everything to do with his embodiment of the Everyman. Although referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% so. There’s no dialogue, but Chaplin finds ingenious ways to work in lines (via technological devices). His expert use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin, a hapless assembly line worker, literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, hilarious and prescient.
Norma Rae – Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist helped launch what I refer to as the “Whistle-blowing Working Mom” genre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc).
Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a Best Actress Oscar) as the eponymous heroine who gets fired up by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). Inspiring and empowering, bolstered by a fine screenplay (by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and a great supporting cast that includes Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley.
On the Waterfront – “It wuz you, Chahlee.” The betrayal! And the pain. It’s all there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema history. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the finest American social dramas of the 1950s.
Roger and Me – While our favorite lib’rul agitprop director has made a number of films addressing the travails of wage slaves and ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors, Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 debut film remains his best (and is on the list of the top 25 highest-grossing docs of all time).
Moore may have not been the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown in the midst of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? Watch it and find out. An insightful portrait of working class America that, like most of his subsequent films, can be at once harrowing and hilarious, yet hopeful and humanistic.
Sing us out, Billy Bragg…