Monday, January 19, 2015

Emma Goldman and Dinosaurs

Emma Goldman, 1886?
In July of 1892, the Labor activist and Anarchist Alexander Berkman shot Henry Clay Frick three times. Frick, at the time, was the Chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company. The steel mill in Homestead was in the middle of a major and violent dispute between the fledgling labor unions and management. In Living My Life, Emma Goldman’s autobiography, she writes: “the philanthropic Andrew Carnegie conveniently retired to his castle in Scotland, and Frick took full charge of the situation.” (I am basing the following synopsis on Goldman's account in her autobiography, and am, undeniably biased in favor of the anarchists and labor activists over the industrialists.)

Frick refused to negotiate with the workers and the unions over labor contracts, fired the mill workers, evicted the workers and their families—including at least one very pregnant woman—and hired strike-breakers—who were probably in dire economic necessity themselves, even more newly arrived immigrants who were compelled to take the most immediate source of income that presented itself. These striker-breakers were protected on their route to the mills by the security forces Frick hired from the Pinkerton detective agency, a group which seems particularly prone to being well-paid by the powerful for unnecessary violence against unions and activists. In an altercation between the striking workers and the hired “security forces” several strikers—including a child—were killed.

Berkman, Goldman, and their circle of friends were outraged and, while they felt no real personal grievance against Frick as a man, they determined that he, as an active symbol for all of the inequity of power and dignity that the Labor and Anarchy movements sought to alleviate. They were young and passionate and utilitarian, and so their solution was that Berkman would kill Frick, and that Berkman’s own likely death as an outcome of this would be forfeit for their ideals.

A week of nightly experiments with bomb making in a cheap and crowded tenement—thankfully—yielded nothing but lost time and money when the dynamite turned out to be damp. The back-up solution was that Berkman would go to Pittsburgh, work with the local Labor-Anarchist groups, buy a gun, and assassinate Frick. The major trouble with this plan was that guns were expensive, especially for impoverished Anarchists who were working 18-hour days at menial paying work and trying to start a thousand revolutions with their spare hours. Emma Goldman, who was remarkably well-read, decided that the only course of action was to take a page from Crime and Punishment, and prostitute herself for as long as it took to earn the money for Berkman’s gun. As she wrote, “Sasha [Berkman] is giving his life, and you shrink from giving your body, miserable coward!”

So, Goldman spruces herself—cheaply—up, and trudges out to the street, and hates every minute of it. The man who approaches her buys her a beer, senses that this is not a job that Goldman will ever be any good at—although he doesn’t agree with Goldman that most women who become prostitutes are driven to the profession out of dire economic necessity, rather than “mere looseness or love of excitement,” as the man terms things—and pays her ten dollars to go home and wash her face. 

That money, plus the fifteen dollars Goldman borrows from her sister—after lying that she needed the money because of illness, which seems like the worst crime in this whole twist of mixed morals—buys the gun that Berkman shoots Frick with a few weeks later.

In the ensuing struggle, Berkman also stabs Frick in the leg, before Frick’s people knock Berkman out.
Berkman went to prison for fourteen years. Frick, with the 1890s version of top-notch medical care, survived. The Homestead Strike fizzled out amid public outcry at the violence—on both sides, now—with few gains for workers.

Eventually, Frick’s New York City mansion, home at one time to the three-member Frick family and their twenty-seven member staff, became the Frick Collection to showcase Frick’s personal art collection.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892
Elsewhere in 1892, the painter John Singer Sargent made a portrait of Gertrude Vernon Agnew, the wife of a Scottish Baron. The painting helped to launch Sargent’s career of painting glamorous portraits of beautiful rich women, and also advanced Lady Agnew’s career as a society lady.

For the last month or so, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw has been hanging in the Frick Collection, on loan from the Scottish National Gallery.

Personally, I find Lady Agnew of Lochnaw as visually resonant as I find Emma Goldman’s writing politically resonant.

They make an odd pair of icons, and would have probably classistly hated each other. That their respective hey-days were the same era is stranger still. While industrialists built libraries, collected art, made fortunes off destroying the natural world with ignorance and greed, and hired security forces to beat up workers, crusaders for social reform were holding meetings, working long hours for little money, reading, writing, rabblerousing, opening ice cream parlors, plotting assassinations, getting beat up by police and paid security forces, going to jail, and always fighting for a fairer world.

Do Carnegie’s many libraries, does the art displayed at the Frick, does that absolve them of the inhumanity of how they made their money? Does the intent of a violent action—like an assassination attempt or the touch and go of building a bomb in a crowded apartment building—out weigh the violence itself?

And it is easy, very easy, to say of Frick and Carnegie and Rockefeller and Morgan and all the rest of the major industrialists of that early era that the times were different, that isn’t it—in the end—good for the public that they made all that money and had it to build public edifices? There is a sense that this sort of industrially financed public offering is a PR absolution for really dirty and inhumane treatment of workers and ecosystems alike. And that such acts were of the past.

After visiting the Frick to see Lady Agnew in person—in a place that wouldn’t have been if history had gone differently—I went to the American Museum of Natural History. This included a long and wonderful saunter through the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.

Koch, as in the Koch brothers.

As in the family that seems to use their—mostly fossil fuel derived—fortune on political causes that run completely opposite to my own beliefs. Never mind that their profits, as a fossil fuel company, come from our blind obedience to the climate-change causing status quo.

Just a few weeks ago, the long struggled over Cape Wind project in Massachusetts was felled by power companies pulling out, nearly eliminating the market for wind-generated electricity from a wind farm in Nantucket Sound. Bill Koch, David “Dinosaur Wing” Koch’s brother, has donated over a million dollars to fight against Cape Wind—possibly because the view from his summer home would now include clean power sources—threatening his lifestyle—as well as the oceanscape. When one side of a political fight is better funded—corporate and political leaders versus environmentalists and scientists, say—it becomes easy to see that people and common sense are worth less than dollars and influence.

Now, I’m not advocating for assassinations of corporate leaders. Or anyone else. Everyone's parents and children and friends love them, I suppose. Our challenges in the climate change and human justice fields are, these globally-connected days, more systemic than the elimination of any one person could solve, anyway. Violence helps no one and only scares people away from joining a revolution.

Something, though, does need to change and be shaken up and rearranged. Starting, I think, with what we question and what we blindly accept. When push comes to shove, I’d rather have the dinosaurs stay in the ground than become either a museum exhibit or climate-change and fortune causing fuels. I’d rather all people have good useful work they feel confident in and be paid a living wage than have one man open a museum filled with artwork that his workers could never afford to have seen.

Push, though, will never come to shove. Powerful people will continue to buy off and silence opposition to their profits with pretty things. No one is going to ask me to decide if I like dinosaur bones in a museum donated by rich men who make a fortune but destroy ecosystems more than I like Tuvalu or alpine flowers or the clear lungs of Appalachian toddlers, and then re-arrange the world order according to my whims while I sit back and wish things were different. No one is going to start this revolution except us. We must, ourselves, use every day as an act for the world we want. 


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