Forty years ago today, the Great Lakes freighter Edmund Fitzgerald broke apart in a ferocious early winter gale while carrying a full load of taconite ore from the iron mines of upper Minnesota to the steel mills of Detroit. She sank with all hands; Captain Ernest McSorley and the twenty-eight men of his crew died at their posts, and none of their bodies were ever recovered.
It must have been a hell of a storm. McSorley, who had sailed them since he was a boy, was known as the best rough-weather captain on the Great Lakes; as for his ship, it was not for nothing that she was called “queen of the lakes” and “the pride of the American flag”.
But many of you probably already know of the ship and her fate. The sinking took place back in the glory days of the folk singer-songwriter, and the year after it, a musician by the name of Gordon Lightfoot recorded a song that told the story of what happened. For those who may not have heard it, here it is:
Take a moment to notice both the form and the lyrical content of this song. The melody is a modern-day sea chanty – it is timeless, and in its timelessness connects the Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew to the traditions of the sea and of all the sailors who came before them. And then there are the lyrics, which resonate with heartfelt, non-ironic respect and reverence for the white working class, instead of with the condescension toward them of a Bruce Springsteen or with the Marxist rhetoric of a Pete Seeger or a Woody Guthrie. In Lightfoot’s song, the captain and his crew were neither fools nor cowards; they are not portrayed as piteous or as oppressed pawns of their betters. They were strong and brave souls who by chance ran afoul of the implacable forces of nature at their most destructive, and who faced them like men to their last breaths.
Wait – the white working class? Don’t I know that makes me sound like a Nazi? Well, perhaps it does!
If the intention of this clip was to make the Nazis seem horrifying, then it failed miserably (and judging by the comments posted underneath this video, I am far from the only person to share that sentiment). Of course, for our purposes, the key quote is: “Here the worker is honored, not a means to an end”. In other words, the working class (which, let us note, is not the same thing as the welfare class, no matter how much certain politicians try to conflate the two) should be honored because they deserve it, not as lip service to get them to support political agendas, including those that run directly against their own best interests. Who other than our TV-villain Nazi anymore believes things of that sort?
Certainly not the ideological left. As hard as this may be to remember, leftism was actually founded in order to protect farmers and factory workers from bourgeois, decadent, effete, overeducated, libertine urbanized elites. That’s why its symbol was a workman’s hammer and a farmer’s sickle. As one might have expected from a philosophy so ignorant of both economics and human nature, leftism ended up doing the exact opposite of what it set out to do; it has come to be used as a weapon by the people it deplored against the people it was trying to help. The working class has been abandoned. The Republicans never cared about them, and the Democrats were last seen even pretending to care about them in a Dick Gephardt speech sometime around 1989. The face of modern leftism is upper-middle-class white women with Master’s degrees in economically useless fields complaining about the content of video games, while what used to be the native-born working class sinks deeper into poverty, hopelessness, purposelessness, welfare dependency, oxycontin and/or methamphetamine abuse, and self-destructive sexual irresponsibility.
Any who think that I exaggerate should have a look at this recent study by a husband-and-wife team of economists from Princeton. They’ve found that death rates among middle-aged working-class white men have risen by 22% over the course of only the past fifteen years – an increase that is shocking both in its number and in the rapidity with which this phenomenon appeared. The increase can be attributed entirely to three causes: drugs (particularly prescription painkiller abuse), alcohol, and suicide. These are men in their forties or fifties (ones who entered the workforce just as trade agreements of the likes of NAFTA and GATT were being enacted) who in an earlier era would be settled into a comfortable existence. They would be respected in their communities, at home, and at work, where they would have seniority built up, and perhaps would have made foreman or shift supervisor or shop steward. Their sons at home, and the young guys just starting out at work, would look up to them and seek their advice. They would be beginning to think of retirement, on a generous and well-earned pension that would take care of them for as long as they lasted, and of their wives after they were gone.
And now, by the thousands, they are literally dying of despair in a society that no longer needs them, no longer respects them, and no longer has any place for them. There is not even any sympathy for them – as their jobs disappear and their marriages and families disintegrate, the society that once wrote songs about them now only tells them that an endless list of the problems of people who they have never met can be laid at the feet of their “privilege”. I wonder – do “privileged” people often drink themselves to death, die of overdoses of pills designed to take away their pain, or commit suicide because nothing better lies ahead of them?
These men, their entire socioeconomic class, and everything that was a part of their world is sinking; sinking as surely as Edmund Fitzgerald sank forty years ago today. Consider: when she was built, three hundred lake freighters just like her hauled raw materials from mines to factories in what was not yet then known as the Rust Belt, and finished industrial goods from those factories to market. Now less than half that number still sail the lakes. As for Detroit, her destination on that fateful day, it is a deindustrialized ruin that is slowly giving way to the weeds. But it isn’t just Detroit – this week’s news tells us that the last of America’s aluminum mills are cutting capacity and laying off workers as their industry buckles in the face of cheap competition from China.
The men of our working class – once the envy of the globe – have been cut adrift, and no one even waits at the dock for their return. As we mourn the twenty-nine men lost that night forty years ago, let us also take a moment to mourn the entire working-class world that has disappeared since. Let that be our way to show the world that someone still honors what has been lost.