Love of Labor
An editorial we've just torn out of the Sun-Times acknowledges the "brilliant intellect" albeit "unsufferable personality" of Robert Bork. A month ago the New Republic ran a piece on John Sununu's infatuation with his own brains. The writer didn't like Sununu but didn't doubt his candlepower. Why, he's actually in Mensa!
If these guys are so smart, how come they're pigheaded? "I am sooo pessimistic," we once heard a genuinely intelligent man say; it was Jacques Monod, the late French biochemist and philosopher. "I am so pessimistic I am optimistic." Monod, sucking on a cigarette with immense flair, knew more than Bork and Sununu put together. We're suckers for this what-the-hell brand of wisdom.
There's a touch of Monod in every intellect worth making space for, and more than a touch in attorney Thomas Geoghegan. Geoghegan has just published a book that deserves the attention it's already getting locally, being about (among other things) Chicago's widening class divide. The book, Which Side Are You On?, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, contemplates the state of organized labor in America. Its subtitle is, "How to be for labor when it's flat on its back."
As Geoghegan writes: "The weaker labor becomes, the more (in the U.S. at least) it is resented. It holds up in a few bastions, shrinks into a smaller, privileged elite, where everyone makes $13.00 an hour, and everyone else is cut out. So labor, beaten to a pulp, helpless, in retreat on every front, appears more privileged, more remote, more irrelevant to the working majority. Yet this isn't labor's fault. Labor could not organize these people even if it wanted to . . ."
Why not? Because, says Geoghegan, the law makes it so hard to ratify a union and so easy for management to identify the organizers on the floor and fire them.
"Labor, then, may look 'arrogant,'" Geoghegan continues, "but this arrogance is thrust upon it. It does not want to be this weak, shrunken thing masquerading as a privileged elite."
Which Side Are You On? also contemplates the state of its author, lawyer to this "weak, shrunken thing," who's turned 40 and makes a hell of a lot less than his pals from Harvard Law back east. "I really am poor. I can barely get by on $60,000 a year," he writes, knowing how this sounds. And he muses, "I crawl at the very bottom of the upper class. This makes me a natural political radical or malcontent: $60,000 a year is probably what Lenin made just before the Revolution . . .
"When I hear that the median family [our emphasis] income in America is $29,000 a year (in 1986), I take out my passport and wonder what country I have wandered into. . . . I cannot even begin to guess what the real, unwritten life of my own country is like. And I am a labor lawyer, too. I represent them."
We told Geoghegan the other day that it seems proper to speak of a new Chicago literary school of scrupulous testimony: we'd put his book alongside Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here and John Conroy's Belfast Diary.
Geoghegan said he was flattered.
But in Geoghegan's case, the testimony is riddled with the author's wry self-deprecation. We said we weren't sure from line to line whether he was writing to bear Christian witness to the suffering and exploitation of working people or to impress beautiful women.
Geoghegan thought about that. "As far as bearing Christian witness goes, I'm skeptical of doing that in a book. I think you can do that in a life. As far as impressing beautiful women, I think I would have picked another subject."
Then other reasons occurred to him.
"It's an attempt to explain myself. I'm thinking of friends in the east whom I don't see very much--my friends here sort of know me in context. The other reason is not one I started with but picked up halfway through. I think when you hit 40 there may be something that goes click inside you, especially if you feel you've been on some sort of long journey somewhere, that makes you want to explain it to somebody younger than you. I don't think young students in law school who get savaged for selling out have much sense of what alternatives there are--not just for practicing law but for how to live your life. And also, I realized halfway through, 'What's the point of writing a book for someone my own age?' Even now I can be impressed by a book, but it's on the order of Milton's Paradise Lost. People who might read a book of mine and be impressed by it are in their early 20s, maybe in law school now. So what the hell! Why not write it for them?"
What can anyone say about organized labor in an era so individualistic that any group larger than ten that isn't a football team is immediately suspect? Geoghegan writes, "Solidarity . . . is the love, the only love left in this country, that dare not speak its name."
But he's seen that love--in the mountain coal towns of Pennsylvania, and outside the closed steel mills of South Chicago, and at the Danley plant in Cicero--and it's brought tears to his eyes. Otherwise, the history of labor that he lucidly sketches has been one boneheaded mistake after another; it's as if organized American labor faltered because it never quite convinced itself it ought to exist.
From its first paragraph to its very last sentence, Which Side Are You On? questions Geoghegan's service to that suffering, gallantry, and numbskullery. He reflects at one point, "I often think that tonight, at Convito Italiano, I will pass up dessert and maybe, if I push myself away from the table, just once, for one night, and put what I save in a bank, there could be money for a steel mill in South Chicago. I feel guiltier than most, I suppose, because I made my money off steelworkers."
We told Geoghegan that what he reminds us of--at least in his book--is a Graham Greene priest somewhere in rural Mexico who isn't sure he wants to be there and isn't sure he wants to be a priest either.
"Well, not rural Mexico," he said.
We'd meant what we said as a sort of compliment.
"It's funny," he said. "The Geoghegans have never been priests, and there aren't any in the family. But it's a very religious family. . . . Maybe it's something in the family genes. Skirting the edges of it. Never going over the line. Let me put it this way. What you said about bearing Christian witness--if you are serious about doing that, then in the tradition of the Catholic Church, people ask, 'Why aren't you a priest?' And the truth is, I'd feel very uncomfortable doing it. And partly because I think I'd lose the freedom to be a Graham Greene character. Not that I am or want to be."
Geoghegan observes that every four years a Democratic candidate for president in desperate trouble blows off his neolib campaign with about ten days to go and "goes around like an old-time Democrat. He marches with the unions. Appears with Lane Kirkland. Suddenly the election tightens up. The Republicans start to lose their cool and accuse the Democrats of making 'class-based' appeals."
But it is always too little and too late. And "once the election is over, 'the last ten days' are treated as a shameful thing. . . . Yet this is the only time, in the last ten days, when it is fun to be a Democrat."
So although Geoghegan has sharp things to say in his book on behalf of the workers of America about political strategy and public policy, he suspects he is knocking on a door to an empty room. He told us, "One of the sad things is that 30 or 40 years ago anyone in this country who was on the progressive left of the spectrum would have known something about unions, organized labor." Today, the only unions anyone thinks about are in Poland.
"In Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, supposed novel of our time, an investment banker discovers the 'other class' when he takes a wrong turn and runs over a black kid in a ghetto," Geoghegan writes. "Imagine if Wolfe had written a novel in which an investment banker runs over a middle-aged steelworker. It would not even have occurred to Wolfe. Nor would it sell. Yet it happens every day."
A liberal lawyer is not such a terrible person to be. And yet the overt policy of the White House since 1981 has been to extirpate liberalism from the Supreme Court and lesser federal judiciary as if it were a poison at the roots of our society.
The court has been ratcheted right for so long that its so-called liberals now are Blackmun and Stevens, both appointed by Republicans. The only Democratic appointee is the conservative White, named by Kennedy 29 years ago.
This is why it's silly for debate over the intriguing Clarence Thomas to dwell on the man and miss the context. Thomas would join a court that has been contoured for a decade to fit a narrow ideological frame. Should that go on? Thomas himself should be asked at his confirmation hearing if he thinks this process respects the court.
The editorial we spoke of at the top of the column was the Sun-Times's recent convoluted exercise opposing Thomas's confirmation. We thought for a moment that the Sun-Times shared our concern. The Supreme Court, said the Sun-Times, is not "the private preserve of any one or other political philosophy whose congregants assume for themselves authority to define what is and what is not within the mainstream of American life."
But most of the editorial turned out to be a dyspeptic harangue directed at Thomas's "increasingly frantic opposition." The Sun-Times assailed "the hallmarks of bigotry . . . the smears and the name-calling" of critics who've questioned Thomas's conservatism and noticed his Roman Catholic upbringing.
"Some liberals," the editorial thundered, "now insist that a duly and popularly elected president must ignore or reject the views of the people who voted for him." Now we get it! The Sun-Times thinks the Supreme Court can be the private preserve of a political philosophy--if it's the president's.
The reason that the Sun-Times found for not getting behind "thoughtful, hardworking, honorable, dedicated" Clarence Thomas is simply that he doesn't have enough judicial experience for the job. The editorial had the schizoid ring of a position taken by a paper more concerned about its circulation base than the Supreme Court, and expressed by somebody who completely disagreed with it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.