2011-04-01 / Columnists

The Progressive

Lessons Of History
Commentary By John Paul Culotta

This year we will commemorate many historical events. The month of March many recall the role of women in our history. Our Irish neighbors, this month, remember their diaspora to this side of the Atlantic. Italy, this month, remembers the 150th anniversary of the unification of the peninsula. Civil War enthusiasts remember the beginning of that conflict. In February people who trace their roots to Africa remember their persecutions and progress in this nation. Christians in spring celebrate Easter which is a religious recognition that death cannot conquer the ideas and ideals of any man. Our Jewish neighbors celebrate Passover, another religious celebration of a people who overcome persecution and exploitation with unity and struggle. All these events relate and speak to us in these troubled times.

All Americans, including our indigenous peoples, can trace our ancestry to people outside this hemisphere. Most Americans understand, and some of us viscerally, the suffering caused by economic and ethnic exploitation. One hundred years ago in this magnificent city of wonders and horrors, one hundred and forty six people, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrant women, perished in a factory fire. This holocaust, and the determination of our courageous ancestors, was the catalyst for safety regulations in factories in this city and the spark for unionization of workers. On March 8, in many countries, is celebrated the International Day for Working Women which commemorates this event. In this country the month of March is dedicated to the often neglected role of women in history.

Irish immigration, caused by economic hardship on the Emerald Isle, is the continuous story of religious and economic persecution and the migration of people from all the continents of this sad planet to American shores. While people of all ethnic groups wear green in March and indulge in revelry related to a revered saint, they often do not remember when the parade was a political statement that Catholics are and will remain part of the American social fabric. Today, the persecution and prejudice is directed by bigots towards our Moslem neighbors and is as bitter and dangerous as the prejudice that was directed towards Roman Catholics and Jews. Can we forget the lessons of history? The answer is yes and at our peril.

On March 17, Italians will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the announcement by the monarchists of the unification of the Italian peninsula. This event is a controversial one to this very day in Italy, because to many Italians the Risorgimento, the campaign of idealists for an Italian nation free of foreign domination, was betrayed by not establishing a republic. Catholics in Italy were barred, by decree of the Vatican, from participating in Italian politics, because of the loss of wealthy Papal land. This weakened the nation at its inception. Scars of the wars for unification deepened and the economic and social disparities between the nation’s north and south caused a migration of millions to the United States and elsewhere. Ideals can be betrayed and the consequences can be heavy!

The Civil War or the War Between the States, fought on our precious soil, is a remainder of how evil exploitation and fractious political discourse can lead to violence! Exploitation and greed can lead to death as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire so clearly demonstrates. Not allowing people to organize and express grievances, needs, and have representation is a recipe for chaos and disaster. Recent Republican Party efforts to weaken labor unions, both private and public, is an attack on Democracy and civilized discourse. Allowing workers to be at the mercy of employers without a counterbalancing political and economic force will lead to the horrific days of the Shirtwaist fire.

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