Signs of The Times

There’s one stretch of road near my studio, where there are some old beaten-up miner’s homes that probably date to the 1890s – tar-paper covered, porched, coal-heated. When the mines were running, overseers and their families would be allowed to occupy such buildings. The miners’ homes have long since fallen down.

It’s a depressing area, to me, because I know the history of such buildings.

When the Battle of Homestead happened, Carnegie steel brought up black people from Georgia, to work the mill in place of the striking Polish and Ukrainian mine-workers. Pittsburgh, to this day, has distinct “neighborhoods” which are Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Black. The neighborhoods were maintained at an ethnic tension, so each ethnicity was suckered into non-unifying by the capitalists. It’s disappointing to see how easy that game is to play and how thoroughly people fall for it.

Today, the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh are mostly sources of pride. Want Pierogies? You can to to the slavic zone down on “The Strip” and get Pierogies made by someone who’s got about as much Polish or Ukrainian in them as I do (i.e.: none) but there’s still an ethnic identity retained. It’s crazy, to me, when I see a piece of a town known as “little Italy” or whatever, and nobody wants to think about the fact that Italians, too, were dehumanized and isolated. When I think about these things, my mind seethes with hate for America. What a monstrosity! [Insert plug for the movie Matewan] By all means, lets revel in how the capitalists successfully subjugated us.

And, as I have mentioned before, Carnegie and Frick both spent lavish amounts of money building pleasure-palaces for the new social class that they hoped they had ascended to. DId Carnegie build hospitals for coal miners with black lung? Are you kidding me? He built a music hall to try to impress the Astors and Rockefellers. They still call Carnegie “a philanthropist” but I think he was just a ruthless social climber who was trying to buy his way into a new social class while burying the memory of the steelworkers whose lives were shortened by breathing in the vapors coming off puddling pits that they were stirring for hours at a time. At Homestead, the air in the mill got to 400F, sometimes – hot enough to kindle workers’ clothes – so they had to sometimes let the place air out for a bit. But only a bit. Carnegie invented several things that became part of industrial capitalism. One was assessing the workers’ production and the value of the steel produced, himself. Since the workers got paid based on production, Carnegie consistently under-valued the steel as it was produced, but when it got to New York or wherever, it was suddenly much more valuable. He also invented the 8 hour day. Because that was about as long as a worker could keep on their feet in the hell that was a steel mill – and with 3 shifts running 8 hours, the mill could operate 24/7. There is a legitimate point, that you can’t let the mill cool, but Carnegie also invented the other American steel tactic of not automating production because a bunch of laborers who worked at barely subsistance wages were cheaper than machinery. That strategy, by the way, obliterated US steel in the 80s when China invested in automation and could under-price US products. All the bleeding and coughing and burning was wasted and the US mills closed. Usually, the mills humiliatingly chiseled away at the unions, while they were being driven to death.

But American laborers are not pretty people. Sure, they were abused by capitalists, and fucked over repeatedly, but they were pretty happy to fuck over their brethren. And that, naturally, was racialized, like every other bit of nastiness in America. So, the Ukrainian laborers wouldn’t lift a finger in solidarity with the Black laborers unless they were getting screwed, too. It’s a disgusting degenerate, evil system and it’s called “capitalism.”

This is all in my mind because I drove past the little cluster of mine foremen’s houses, and they’re continuing the great American tradition of shitting on anyone that they can in order to feel a little bit better about themselves. Perhaps they think they are “owning the libs” but really, all I can muster is a puzzled contempt bordering on hatred.

Such pointless bluster. Such utter lack of manliness and courage. Oh, you put a sign up in your yard; that’ll show ’em.

I take this sort of thing seriously. The first time Anna came up to see me (she’s Black) I didn’t realize what she was going to have to drive past. This kind of crap is so common around here that I used to not notice it. Anna did. She got to my house and said, “it’s scary out here.” What, huh? “Yeah, what if my car breaks down and I have to go ask for help from someone whose house is decorated with racist iconography aimed at me?” I immediately fell apart apologizing; I felt especially dumb because I was blind to it. But for Anna, it was warning flags and, as she told me later, it’s intended to be warning flags.

Fucking hell, right?

I’ve been taking walks and one thing I am thinking seriously about is getting some roller skates and seeing if I can pick up those moves again. When we were kids, my parents used to take my sister and me to the ice rink in the winters. Just to doddle around and try not to get hit by a speed-skater who was ghosting up behind us, all flashing blades and thigh-muscles. I never did roller skate but I thought at the time that it meant, at least, that I did not have to share a rink with a range of skill levels.

Also, my brain is still messed up, though I am much better. I have had time to think and I believe that the way we talk about “short-term memory” and “long-term memory” is simplistic and naive. We have multiple caches that operate, as well. Usually I have a very complete TODO list, and a TOGET list, as well. Now, they are blank. I went to the grocery store to get Lemonade and came home with all the things (including limes!) but not lemonade. Later in the afternoon I went to the hardware store to get rustoleum for the dumpster lid I am making. I came home with the components to make a 220V extension cord for my arc welder – and no rustoleum.

So, I went to Philipsburg (in the giant truck) to have a walk, investigate the skate park, and get some lemonade. I parked in the grocery store lot, fired up my walk tracker app, and started shuffling around. I got 3 blocks and in a window, I saw this:

I went a bit of a way, and a 35-ish guy popped out of the door of the house, on some kind of errand. “Excuse me,” I asked, “is this your place? Is that your sign?” He looked worried but said yes. I stuck my hand out, “Marcus. It’s great to see there are other sane people in Clearfield County.” He said he thought he was the only one. So I replied that we were the liberal axis. We talked a bit, saluted eachother, and I headed off toward the skate park.

Another block and there was an older woman sitting on her porch with a glass of white wine and her golden retriever sitting on the couch next to her. I said I wished her a great evening and she saluted me with her glass. I then observed that her dog was beautiful, and she nodded. That was a really heartening exchange. But as I walked off toward the skate park I wondered if she was a Qanoner, or a Trumpist – probably not an anarcho-syndicalist, but who knows? It made me realize that America has been living with a sort of “don’t ask/don’t tell” system, which allows us to pretend to be courteous, but to live together even though, in principle, we hate eachother. After all, there are “conservatives” in Clearfield Co, talking about shooting the libs. And I’m the target, there. As long as we don’t ask questions and pretend a fake level of courtesy, nobody has to confront this stuff.

It festers. Because stupid people, who don’t know what they are talking about, say they hate something that they don’t know what it is. I’ve had conversations like that around here, many times.

Them: “Well, I’m anti socialism.”
Marcus: “I thought you said you were retired on your WAL-MART union income? That’s socialism! Socialists fought, bled, and died to get capitalists to allow unions into the work-place, so the unions could stop capitalists from abusing the workers. Here’s what’s funny – I’m more of a capitalist oppressor than you are, union man because I was a boss. You should appreciate the unions – they’re the only thing that kept WAL-MART from turning you into a wage slave.”
Them: “I’m not about all that philosophy stuff. I’m just anti-socialism.”

Anti-intellectual. Anti-rational. Anti-enlightenment. Anti-social. Anti-human.

But hey, golden retriever!


  1. StevoR says

    Dog are the nicest people.

    Also, someone should remove the first sign there, after all that’s what its literally asking folks to do. Come and take it – and recycle it, compost it, use it for firewood or suchlike I presume..

  2. says

    Socialism is such a big word that on its own it is essentially meaningless. My whole “Behind The Iron Curtain” is a critique of socialism. Not “the” socialism, but “a” socialism, one of many and one that has been extensively tried and failed. Also meaning of the word “socialist” is different in different countries. Even at the most right-leaning phase of my life, I would still be considered a bleeding heart socialist in the USA because I was always a proponent of socialized healthcare, firefighting, and infrastructure. And an independent justice system, accountable police and military, and secular government. I think there are areas of life where free-ish markets and competition do have a place, and areas where leaving things to the market forces is just plain sociopathic and insane.

  3. says

    I ride my bike around the country roads near my house quite a bit. There are a number of Trump flags on display. I find that weird because I never remember seeing signs for anyone else outside of normal election times, e.g., I never saw a Romney or McCain sign/flag, or even a Bush flag, let alone one for Obama, once the election was over. But some of these are darkly funny. I ride by one house that has a giant red “Socialism Sucks” flag on display. It’s funny to me because the house is in a rural township that relies on a volunteer fire department, the very essence of socialism. What do you think the odds are that, if his house was burning, he would tell the fire fighters to bugger off ’cause he don’t need no socialism?

    Also, what is with the very recent trend of Trumpers using four letter words on their flags and bumper stickers? At one time there was such a thing as decorum and consideration for little kids and the like, but now it seems like Orwell’s 2 minutes hate has morphed into every waking moment (and probably dreams, too). I assume it’s just some pseudo tough guy posturing by doughy, out of shape white guys.

  4. Tethys says

    Don’t they call your region Pennsyl-tucky?
    It has suffered great economic distress since all industries were relocated to other countries. Because of poor governance, there aren’t any jobs or investments in new technology or education that would create such jobs.
    Poor white folk are indeed oppressed, mostly because they are also poorly educated to the point they are ignorant of history, geography, civics, etc….

    It is not surprising those same people idolize a man who is vile, stupid, and very wealthy.

    I maintain that the Maga have been brain washed, and need deprogramming. The elements of the Two Minute Hate are splattered across every social media site (freezepeach!) and the vast majority of mass media corporations are far more interested in making money off their clicks than recognizing their role in promoting and disseminating fascist ideologies.
    It’s absurd that tfg did not get removed from Twitter long before his attempted coup, his feed was nothing but lies, abuse, and hate.

    Why is Faux allowed to broadcast their shit?
    Money and Murdocks.

    I am so tired of racist, sexist, toxic masculinity with fully automatic weapons, loud white boy schtick. I wish they would hurry up with the going extinct.

  5. says

    @ Tethys- I have parentage from Pennsylvania, and we called it “Pennsyltucky” growing up here in NY. I once heard Pennsylvania described as “You’ve got Philadelphia on one end and Pittsburgh on the other, and in between there’s a whole lot of Alabama”. Similar can be said about upstate NY (“upstate” meaning “north of Yonkers”). Once you get out of the population centers, you’re going to be seeing traitor and Gadsden flags on trucks and flag poles. The Adirondacks is a beautiful place, but this is the region that keeps electing Stefanik. It makes me crazy to watch these folks constantly punching themselves in the face on socio-economic issues.

  6. Tethys says

    From my link

    congressional maps are redrawn through the process of redistricting. Indeed, election results in Pennsylvania over the past three congressional elections demonstrate the effectiveness of the current gerrymander. In the 2012 election Republican candidates won 49% of the statewide vote, but secured 13 of 18 congressional seats, whereas Democrats only secured 5 seats, but won over 50% of the statewide vote. And Republicans held this 72% share of congressional seats in both 2014 and 2016 even though they obtained only 55% and 54% share of the statewide vote, respectively.

    Clearly there are plenty of Pennsylvanians who are voting for Dems, but their votes were stolen and given to the GOP douchebags who drew that map.

  7. says

    If you get inline skates, make sure you practice braking early on, so you don’t have to hurt yourself on a hill. (BTW, Rails-to-Trails paths are really nice, because braking is relatively easy.) On a wide path, you can try snowplowing, or even slaloming, but otherwise, you need to work a bit with the brake on the rear of one of your skates. The trick is to do the skating/steering on the non-brake skate, while leaning back heavily onto the brake of the other skate. But you should be able to brake sharply that way if you need to. Best of luck, and it’s a lot of fun.

    (One of my knees has given out on me, so I haven’t skated for about 5 years–but I can still handle a bike.)

  8. says

    Marcus @9: “it’s cinder/gravel.”

    Pisser. The ones around me (Columbus) are mostly paved. You can also use Google maps to show you bike paths, and maybe other ones in your area are paved.

  9. lorn says

    Irony is that had your black friend actually needed help the place with the confederate flag would likely be full of helpful people. That’s the thing, you mention it yourself, somebody went to the insignificant amount of trouble to post a cheap sign., They probably don’t even understand what it historically meant. Likely never though about it. Expressing abstract defiance and owning the libs, at a distance, and at minimal cost, is completely different from doing the same face-to-face. Particularly if the person is calm, smiling, polite, and simply asking for help as one human to another.

    I’ve seen it a lot where people are profoundly racist, but only with nameless, faceless ‘others’. In a one-to-one encounter, and outside their blustering social group, they are kind and generous, to a fault.

    It isn’t a sure thing and none of this implies they are not racist within their normal social context. Any more than the sign in the window implies an enlightened viewpoint. But there can be great power in being vulnerable and innocently asking for help.

    At worse they say no. Dueling banjos and ‘squeal like a piggy’ not withstanding. Remember, even the most hateful think that they are the good guys.

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