Capitalism’s Greatest Hits

Seattle is home to The Museum of History and Industry. Or as the locals call it MOHAI (Moe-High). According to their mission statement, “MOHAI is dedicated to enriching lives by preserving, sharing and teaching the diverse history of Seattle, the Puget Sound region, and the nation.

We hadn’t visited the museum in years so a few weekends ago we headed on over. After few hours of walking through all the exhibits I left knowing the museum should have been named, “Great Moments in Rapacious Capitalism.

From MOHAI’s website:

… From the day Captain George Vancouver’s ship first sailed into Elliott Bay in 1792 to the present, Essential Seattle takes you on an illuminating journey through the key events that shaped the modern city, focusing on the fascinating and diverse people who shaped this unique region.

The exhibit begins with a small placard on a wall saying the Native People who greeted the American settlers had lived in the region for “… thousands of years.” To be more precise, they had been living there since the end of the last glacial period over 10,000 years ago.

Every exhibit from that point on diminishes that astounding fact. If you want to find out how a people can sustainably live for 100 centuries, you won’t find the answers in The Museum of History and Industry. You can only read the Native People lived here for 10,000 years … and then White Men showed up. The museum’s displays almost proudly chronicle bestial acts of acquisitiveness, exploitation, and racism, one after the other, over the last 160 years.

The first order of business was to get The Native People out of the way and onto reservations. As the little placard on the museum wall stated, ” … They were restricted to small reservations inadequate to sustain their traditional ways of life.”

That’s “history-speak” for putting people on an area of land where they’ll eventually starve to death.

Some of the people didn’t take kindly to a slow extermination and fought back on January 26th, 1856. The U.S. Sloop-of-war Decatur blasted away at the “insurgents” in the woods with deadly accuracy. The Battle of Seattle was over by ten o’clock that night.

The labor of the Native People was indispensable in building the town and in its industries. The founding fathers showed their gratitude in 1865 by passing Seattle Ordinance No. 5 banning “Indians” from living in town. The marshal and deputies were authorized to arrest Native People who dared live in Seattle.

Racism wasn’t limited to the Native People. In 1886 the Seattle chapter of The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor instigated an Anti-Chinese riot. The mob rounded up Seattle’s Chinese population and took them to the waterfront to ships waiting to transport them to San Francisco. The police made a futile attempt to protect the Chinese but the mob was insatiable. Deputies fired into the crowd killing one person and wounding four others. As a result of the riot, President Grover Cleveland declared martial law in the city.

Eventually the demand for cheap labor brought the Chinese back to Seattle because there were always jobs that American’s just wouldn’t do.

On the afternoon of June 6, 1889 a worker in a cabinet-making shop was heating glue over a gasoline fire and it boiled over and caught fire. Fed by the shop’s timber and an unusually dry summer, the blaze erupted and shortly devoured the entire block. The fire rapidly spread and destroyed Seattle’s entire central business district.

William Grose was Seattle’s second African-American resident, and the wealthiest nineteenth-century member of the black community. His daughter wrote in her diary on the day of the fire she was worried whether she would be allowed to cross a bridge to escape the burning city. Seattle has always spread its racism around equally.

One of the major museum exhibits is “Salmon Stakes: People, Nature and Technology.

The exhibit is very much “hands on.” You can feel how difficult it is to hoist a 20 or 40 pound salmon shaped weight and then read how a worker lifted over 100,000 pounds of salmon during a typical shift. You can try your hand at butchering a model wooden salmon. A light goes on above where you’re supposed to make each of the 4 cuts to the fish … and the sequence accelerates. By the time I worked up to the top speed of an experienced fish butcher … I looked over the display and read that the breakneck pace was expected for the entire 10 hour shift.

One of the jobs that Americans just wouldn’t do was fish butchering. In Seattle the experienced salmon butcher was most often Chinese and could process 2,000 salmon per shift. That’s over 3 fish per minute. Canadian Inventor Edmund Smith developed a fish cleaning machine that could process 22,000 fish per shift. Imagine the sheer abundance of salmon at the turn of the last century. One machine would process 22,000 fish per shift. By 1904, the fish-cleaning machines could pack up to 10,000 cases of salmon per day.

The museum has one of the machines on display. Molded iron letters on the top of the machine proudly proclaim its name: The Iron Chink.

And all this massive effort went into taking one of the best tasting things you could ever hope to eat … and turn it into something indistinguishable from a cheap can of mackerel.

A friend of mine worked on a commercial salmon fishing boat forty years ago. I asked him if his crew ever caught 40 pound salmon. “Very rarely.” he said. “Maybe 3 or 4 in an entire season.

From unimaginable abundance … to scarcity … and extinction in less than 70 years.

Over half of salmon, steelhead, and sea-run cutthroat trout in the Northwest and California are at risk of extinction. Almost 30% of historic salmon populations are now extinct, and more than one-third of the remaining populations are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

What happened to the salmon? Is over fishing to blame? No. The other “cash crop” of the Pacific Northwest is lumber. And the lumber “industry” has not only corrupted some legislators … but whole legislatures have been bought by these timber corporations. Dams and avaricious clearcutting down to the streambed destroyed salmon spawning grounds. Well that’s just too bad if you’re a salmon. It’s more important to grind up trees to make the paper to print junk mail. Why just this morning I received a coupon for a 9 ounce bag of Cheetos for $1.99 or I can buy 4 cans of Pringles for 5 bucks. Screw the fish … I need to know about processed snack food.

That’s the story of Capitalism in Seattle, and in cities and countries all over the world.

The Native People who lived here looked around and saw their home … and lived here for 100 centuries. The men who founded Seattle looked around and saw dollar bills … and completely screwed it up in under 100 years.

And how we got here is proudly entombed in a museum.

Capitalism’s Greatest Hits March 16, 2011


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