"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt

Scapegoating. It’s a favorite political activity these days. You identify a particular group of people and blame them for some or all of the nation’s woes. Right now it seems that teachers, public service unions, immigrants, and the police are particularly popular ones. A few years ago “welfare mothers” were popular but that seems to have passed.

The term “scapegoat” comes from the Bible and it is an apt one for what politicians and pundits are doing. The story is in Leviticus 16 and it has to do with dealing with the national sins of the people of Israel. As part of this, two goats were selected. One was sacrificed and the other was the “scapegoat”. The priest would confess the national sins of Israel over the goat, and then it would be led into the wilderness, “bearing” those sins.

The idea is one of making a particular person or persons responsible for the sins or problems of a nation and then sending them into the “wilderness”–socially ostracizing them in some way, treating them as a lesser class of human beings.

It trades on this haunting awareness that nations aren’t what they think they ought to be, that there is something wrong with us. Instead of acknowledging that the problem really is with all of us, in all of the complexity that involves, scapegoats make life simple. For example, one candidate said if he were king, not president, he would abolish teachers lounges.

It’s interesting that we scapegoat the people we trust to teach our children. I suspect most people, when asked, actually think their own children’s teachers do a pretty good job, it is just those “other” teachers. Is what we are dealing with an awareness that our schools, our children are not turning out as we would want them to, which may be a far more complex problem than just our teachers? Could this not also involve school leadership, education funding, media usage, and parents themselves? But that’s complicated, and may put the spotlight on us. Let’s just blame the teachers.

One of the reasons scapegoating works is that you can always find an individual example because, among a group of people, there will always be one. And thus the whole group is suspect, a specious form of logic at best.

I, for one, think this is far from a harmless activity. It can have consequences that impact the liberty, livelihood, and even life itself of people. Nurtured over time, it can even become genocidal as was the case with Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Tell a lie long enough, loud enough, repeatedly enough and people will believe it to be true and you can use it to incite people to action.

Scapegoating is playing God. Only God could designate scapegoats in the Bible, and there were only two in all of history–the scapegoat of Leviticus, and his own Son, who bore the sins of all humanity. Christians believe that this was enough to deal with individual sins and national sins. No more are needed.

Every country has its problems, but it seems to me that we need the genius and efforts of all our people, and even the industry of those who want to make their home in our country, to address these. A culture of blame and scapegoating will prevent us from seeing the truths about ourselves that may be the real first step to progress. Let’s leave scapegoating to biblical times and to God who may know better about these things.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Unions

Unions. It seems people either hate them or love them. Growing up in urban, working class Youngstown, they were part of the fabric of life. Many of the parties and weddings I attended as a kid were in local union halls. This was true even though, except for when my brother briefly was a member of a steel workers union, we were not a union family. Most of those in my neighborhood who worked in the mills, or manufacturing plants, or the big GM Lordstown plant that opened in the 1960s were union members. Most wouldn’t have it any other way.

General Fireproofing Nameplate. Photo by Robert C Trube (c)2014

General Fireproofing Nameplate. Photo by Robert C Trube (c)2014

That was true for my wife’s father, who worked for General Fireproofing, a manufacturer of office furniture. We actually have two GF desks in our home, and I swear you could land aircraft on them! They are practically indestructible. That was the quality of workmanship that came out of these factories.

Whatever you might say about unions today, it is important to understand what it was like for workers in the factories of Youngstown in the first part of the twentieth century. The work was dangerous and physically demanding. An injury could often end a life or a working career. OSHA and health, workers comp, and disability benefits only came later. Companies were known to arbitrarily fire workers weeks short of retirement. Workers were an expendable commodity–and knew it.

William Gropper, "Youngstown Strike" 1937, Butler Institute of American Art

William Gropper, “Youngstown Strike” 1937, Butler Institute of American Art

Union organizing was dangerous. Strikes even more so, especially in the early years. On January 7, 1916, striking workers for the U. S. Steel Corporation seeking a 5.5 cent hourly raise were fired upon by company security, perhaps after someone had thrown a brick or rock at them. Several volleys were fired. Three died, 27 were wounded officially, possibly more because many feared seeking treatment. In Youngstown’s Butler Museum of Art, a striking painting by William Gropper captures the violence of this event. Similar events occurred 21 years later at the “Women’s Day Massacre“.

My wife has memories of her dad’s union giving kids toys at Christmas. They were the ones providing strike pay when strikes became necessary. Unions were far from perfect and union officials sometimes misused their power. But they were the only advocate the “little guy” had. Indeed, the “little guy” mindset is one that shaped the mindset of generations of those of us who grew up in Youngstown. The corporate world was filled with “fat cats” who didn’t care about the guys on the line, only the bottom line. Only much later in life as I met principled people of faith in business who didn’t take huge salaries and who valued and developed their workers did I realize that it didn’t have to be this way.

How has growing up in this environment shaped me? One thing is that I just can’t buy the arguments against unions by those who I see profiting with huge stock gains and dividends and who defend the huge disparity of wages between the lowest paid workers in companies and the CEOs of those companies. A 2013 Businessweek article finds that the CEOs of the Standard & Poor top 500 companies make an average of 204 times as much as rank and file employees, and it is nearly 500 times as much in the top 100 companies. It has also sensitized me to the labor exploitation that goes on in the sweatshops that make our clothing and our tablet computers and phones. I guess I just can’t stop thinking about that “little guy”. That’s what happens when you grow up in Youngstown.