Mind skittering, crablike, over the littered ocean floor

Learned a neat Django lick from Robin Nolan on youtube, a riff that uses several of the classic chord embellishments Django probably invented.  After re-reading a few pages of one of Charles Johnson’s books, and being struck by the line in his paragraph bio that he was, among other things, a cartoonist, I looked him up online. Johnson is a brilliant writer I’ve long admired, he’s admired by everyone else too, it emerges. Read The Middle Passage or Dreamer and you’ll see what I mean.   Read his biography on Wikipedia and you’ll say “no wonder the man writes like a genius.”   Who knew he started as a prolific young cartoonist who has been practicing martial arts and studying Eastern religions for the last fifty years, taking a few years to get a PhD in philosophy?

Earlier today I’d heard about the overturning, on Tenth Amendment grounds (states retain all rights not enumerated for the federal government), of the 1916 Keating-Owen Child Labor Act, the federal government’s first attempt to regulate child labor by invoking its powers under the Commerce Clause.   Since the product of child labor goes into the stream of interstate commerce, the law signed by Woodrow Wilson stated, federal law overrules any state state law that allows employment of any child younger than fourteen, or working someone between fourteen and sixteen for more than eight hours a day, nor can employers start the child’s working day before six a.m. or end it after seven p.m. [1]  The law went into effect September 1, 1917 and was in effect for nine months (nice irony there in the law lasting the gestation period for producing a new child laborer) before the Supreme Court struck it down in Hammer v. Dagenhart.  

That case was brought by the Roland Dagenhart, father of two Dagenhart kids who worked with him in a North Carolina cotton mill, six days a week from sunrise til ten p.m.    Roland stood to lose a lot of income if his young children were not allowed to work with him.    The Supreme Court, in 1918, agreed, on multiple grounds, that the Child Labor Act was repugnant to the Constitution.  

Oliver Wendell Holmes dissented, and his view would carry the day more than twenty years later when Hammer v. Dagenhart was overruled (paving the way for federal intervention in civil rights cases using the Commerce Clause).    After all his legal arguments, Holmes added (according the Wikipedia):

“But if there is any matter upon which civilized countries have agreed – it is the evil of premature and excessive child labor.”

Civilized countries, oh boy, there we go again!   We can’t torture, we can’t make six year-olds work all day, and into the night, to help support their families, we can’t use poison gas in warfare any more, we can’t decide who will, and who won’t use our public bathrooms, can’t lynch uppity, guilty troublemakers who threaten the peace by offending our morals, we can’t even use the damned n-word anymore!   Hand me my MAGA hat, boy, there’s work to be done!

My mind skitters and I see the worried faces of several people, over dinner last night, furrowing their brows over what they see as the certainty of another four years of Trumpocracy after the 2020 election.   They saw their fear clearly as inevitable, Americans are credulous idiots, we elected him, nobody can beat him.  Look what he did to the rest of that busload of Republican nominees before the bully juggernaut steamrolled his way to the candidacy, then the presidency!   

Look at history, also.   We may learn little from it, but we sometimes take a good lesson here and there.   In 1918 the Supreme Court decided child labor was a matter for each state to rule on.   By 1941 there was a widely supported federal statute regulating child (and all) labor on the books for several years (my father, born in 1924, was 14 when the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect) and a Supreme Court decision specifically overruling the 1918 ruling that employing seven year-olds for 16 hours a day was perfectly fine if an individual state said it was perfectly fine.  The new principle was that the federal government could intervene in state practices whenever interstate commerce was affected.  This nation still, every so often, uses law to fix a longstanding injustice or take down a major league asshole or a president who is a crook.

Things change, although the pendulum of history, which is supposed to swing regularly from reform to reaction and back, has been as stubborn as a French Bulldog straining toward reaction during most of my lifetime, but– looky here.   Slavery is today unthinkable in the USA (though it’s still practiced worldwide, apparently, and convict slave labor is a problem here too, for convicts), so is putting seven year olds to work sixty hours a week in factories (though it’s done in places seeking competitive advantage with the global psychopaths who pursue a morals-free bottom line).   Common things, things we take as given, change in the minds of people and nations.     The difficult part is persuading people of the right way, the civilized way, the enlightened way.   We have twelve years to figure it out, climate scientists tell us.  Hard work ahead.

I sit here every day, trying to talk sense to myself as I tap these keys.  It is sadder than a lot of things, I suppose, this writing out my thoughts for my own use, but also less sad than many things.   I don’t ponder how sad or happy it is, I think only of its value to me, its possible use to others.   The mind skitters, I pick up a calligraphy pen and write a few words, which delights my senses in another way.  I pick up the guitar, at the ready in a stand right by where I write.   Let me practice that Django riff again, get it under my hands, up to speed.  Play it in another position, another key, there you go.

How my life looks to others, I have little sense of that.   A mystery, no doubt.  Is a life really less mysterious if you go to work everyday, do a job, get money, buy things, spend $200 a seat to see a living miracle on Broadway, put another $100 on the card to have a nice dinner after that?  That too is a mystery, like much of this arrangement here.  

Is it any wonder, not doing those seemingly reasonable things, that I sit here today, mind skittering like a hopped up crab on the littered sea bed, vying with a million other hopped up crabs?


[1] The Keating-Owen Act of 1916 prohibited interstate commerce of any merchandise that had been made by children under the age of fourteen, or merchandise that had been made in factories where children between the ages of 14 and 16 worked for more than eight hours a day, worked overnight, or worked more than sixty hours a week

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