Gertrude Bell–Explorer and Architect of Nations

As news of the Middle East dominates so much of the news media, many of us turn away tired of hearing about the quarrels gertrude-bellthat never seem to be settled. How did we ever get so involved in places so far away from home? And why should we care about the deserts of Arabia?  Gertrude Bell has a lot to answer for.

You may wonder who Gertrude Bell is, but you probably know Lawrence of Arabia from the blockbuster movie with Peter O’Toole who imprinted his image firmly in Hollywood. Well, Gertrude Bell is about to get the same treatment. Werner Herzog is filming a movie about her called Queen of the Desert that will be released in 2015. Like T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell was an explorer who was fascinated by the landscapes and people of Arabia or Mesopotamia as it was called. But Gertrude Bell spoke better Arabic than Lawrence and drew far better maps, so she is more responsible than he for the shaping of Iraq and some other countries of the region.

Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in County Durham, England, in 1868. Her mother died when she was very young, but her father soon remarried and her stepmother, Florence Bell, was a strong influence on the girl. She even decided, eventually, that Gertrude was too restless and intelligent to be decorously educated at home as other girls were. She was sent to school and even attended a women’s college in Oxford where she was the first woman ever to receive a first in history. She was not, however, awarded a degree for that because women might study and excel in learning, but it was feared that an actual degree was a step too far.

Gertrude’s father supported her desire to travel and her interest in archeology and supplied a generous allowance that made it possible for her to travel the world. She fell in love with the Middle East and spent much of her life there, learning languages, studying ruins, and getting to know the rulers and their wives.

petra-monastery-ml-3In 1911, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the British Navy replaced coal fired ships with oil powered ones. Suddenly England became dependent on oil from the Middle East and the exotic countries where it was produced. Access to the oil was controlled by the Ottoman Empire which encompassed most of Mesopotamia and the Turks were allies of the Germans.

British intelligence was very interested in what was going on there and because Gertrude was recognized as an expert, she was summoned to Cairo to help map the area. Given the rank of Major—the first woman officer in the history of British intelligence—she caused consternation among other officers who couldn’t figure out how to treat her. But she managed and she played a vital role in establishing the governments that ruled the Middle East for decades after the war.

Iraq was the country that was closest to her heart. While she was there she oversaw the establishment of the great National Museum to house antiquities of the country. She also started the library which became the National Library of Iraq.

There have been many questions raised about the role Bell played in establishing borders for countries that no Westerner truly understood, but she foresaw many of the difficulties that would arise. Perhaps before any of us make judgments about Bell’ work we should read the biography written by Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. And of course, don’t miss the movie when it comes out next year.

What do you mean I can’t vote?

Everyone wants to have a voice.
Everyone wants to have a voice.

Nelson Mandela, who brought democracy to South Africa 1994, thought everyone over the age of 14 should be allowed to vote. Young people had fought against apartheid with him and he believed they should be able to vote in their new country. He didn’t win that argument and the voting age was set at 18 as it is in the majority of democracies around the world.

But are young people in the United States losing that right? A group of students in North Carolina claim that young people are losing their right to vote because of new voter ID laws passed in several Republican-dominated state legislatures.

According to a New York Times report, under the North Carolina law passed last year, the period for early voting was shortened and same-day registration was eliminated. Beginning in 2016, voters will need to show photo identification, and student ID cards, including those issued by state universities, will not be acceptable. In most instances, neither will an out-of-state driver’s license. In Texas, voters must show a photo ID. A state handgun license qualifies, but a state university identification card does not. Other states have suggested even more restrictive laws.

The history of voting in the United States has been a history of letting more and more citizens vote. The men who wrote the constitution thought voters should be successful men who had experience as farmers or businessmen. Voters should be at least 21 years old and own property. Servants and slaves could not vote and neither could women. During the first few years of the new country, only about half of all white men were allowed to vote in some states.

No one is sure why 21 was chosen as the time when a man became an adult. During the middle ages in England, a young man could become a knight at the age of 21, because he had gained his full strength and could wear heavy armor. Gradually that age was accepted as an appropriate time for taking on adult responsibilities, including voting.

Slowly and painfully the right to vote was extended to men who did not own property, to former slaves and even to women. Each extension was gained after a long, hard battle. For more than a hundred years it looked as though democracy was winning and more and more people were given voting rights. In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18, allowing voting to young people across the country.

The history of the twentieth century was a history of broadening people’s rights to vote, but the twenty-first century has reversed the trend. Instead of taking advantage of an infrastructure that makes it easier for people to vote—voting machines that count votes automatically, mail delivery that is safe and secure, ballots that are accessible to people with disabilities—some jurisdictions are intent on decreasing voting rather than expanding it.

How much does this have to do with the increasing inequality in our society?  Making voting difficult is one way to stifle

Voters at the polls--Miami 2012
Voters at the polls–Miami 2012

democracy. Lines like the ones that have appeared in recent elections in states such as Florida and Ohio discourage voting, so do unreasonable voter ID laws. Voting is a right, not a privilege to be doled out only to people who can be counted on tovote to support the privileges of those who hold power. Every citizen who cares about the future of America should support the right of all citizens to vote no matter which candidates or parties they are supporting. That’s what democracy is all about.

You Can’t Fool Me—Celebrating Labor Day

President Obama is celebrating this Labor Day by making a speech calling for a higher federal minimum wage for workers. There are plenty of voices proclaiming that a higher minimum wage will kill jobs, although there is no evidence that these laws do. The

Mother Jones leading a union march  in Colorado
Mother Jones leading a union march in Colorado
history of minimum wage laws is a checkered one. In 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt said in one of his radio “Fireside chats” “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, …tell you…that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry”. A wage of $11 a week seems laughable now, but the same voices have expressed the same sentiment year after year whenever the minimum wage levels have been raised.

Today is Labor Day and it is a time to honor the unions that have helped bring better wages and better conditions to workers across America. Remember the old Woody Guthrie song:

Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union.
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,
I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.

There are plenty of reasons today to stick to your union, that is, if you are lucky enough to have one. As we celebrate another Labor Day, I can’t resist reprinting a blog that I first wrote two years ago.

Why are so many Americans anti-labor these days? Probably because they forget what life was like in a pre-union world. At least one day a year, on Labor Day, we ought to try to remember those days and honor the people who changed the rules. Clothing workers are a good example of why unions were needed. It was an industry dominated by women, most of them immigrant women. Some of them worked in small factories, others took the work home. Jacob Riis had described the conditions during the 1890s. In How the Other Half Lives he wrote: “From every door multitudes of tired men and women pour forth for half-hour’s rest in the open air before sleep closes the eyes weary with incessant working.” Factories were not much better than working at home. There were no limitation on working hours, safety rules were nonexistent, workers were hired and laid off erratically as demand rose and fell. There was no health insurance and no unemployment benefits. If your family couldn’t help you out, you were just out of luck.

The Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire in 1911 finally awakened many people to the dangers of unregulated factory work. Pictures like this documented the horror of young women trapped into an unsafe factory. The doors to the fire escapes had been locked to keep workers

Picture of bodies from the Triangle factory fire.
Triangle Factory Fire 1911 (ILGWU photo)
from stealing fabric or sneaking outside for a break. Gradually most of the public woke up to the fact that regulations were needed to keep employers from exploiting workers. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) grew and through negotiation and strikes finally forged agreements that made many people’s lives better.

Women like Rose Pesotta traveled across the country to organize clothing workers. She went to Los Angeles where the clothing industry workers were mostly Mexican immigrants. Rose was told that Mexican women would never join a union, but she disagreed. She started broadcasting on the local Spanish-language radio station and found a willing audience. As she wrote in her memoir Bread upon the Waters, “Gradually the Mexicans in the dress factories came to our union headquarters, asking questions timidly but eagerly. Some employers, learning of signed membership cards, scoffed: “They won’t stick.” Others were plainly worried. Women not yet in our ranks came with the disquieting news that their boss had threatened to report them to the immigration authorities and have them “sent back” if they joined our union. We promised that our attorneys would fight any such underhanded move.” Gradually the workers were won over, they agreed to strike and eventually the ILGWU was able to ensure them better working conditions through the union.

The ILGWU revolutionized the lives of millions of women across the country, and even though it gradually lost members and strength as the century went on, it remains a shining example of what Americans can do when they work together. The same can be said of other unions which made America a country recognized across the world as a land of promise. The conditions brought about by union workers made the late twentieth century a prosperous time for almost all working families. Today on Labor Day let’s pay tribute to the people who fought to give us unions. They are not always perfect, and sometimes their demands can’t be met, but they have been a blessing for the country. Let’s work with them and not try to wipe them out.