Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Jungle

In the early years of the twentieth century, the socialist writer Upton Sinclair vowed that he would write a novel that would become "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the Labor Movement!" That novel, published in 1906, was The Jungle.

Sinclair told the story of Lithuanian immigrants who came to Chicago looking for work, freedom, and a better life, only to find "wage slavery" and cruelty in the capitalist system. The novel became a national sensation, and was an important player in the movement to make the federal government responsible for food quality.

No one will argue that the Chicago stockyards in 1906 were a pleasant place to work, especially by today's standards. Immigrants suffered many hardships and injustices. However, with the benefit of hindsight, let's consider the subsequent course of history. We know what happened in Chicago: the children of immigrants fully integrated into American society and produced generations of workers, business owners, sports celebrities and politicians. Chicago is now home to Little Lithuania, the largest concentration of Lithuanians outside of Lithuania. The current president of Lithuania is a former resident of Chicago. Out of grinding poverty came success.

What happened in Lithuania? It had the dubious distinction of suffering under both the Gestapo and the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB. Christian Caryl wrote movingly about the tragic course of Lithuanian history in an article in US News and World Report entitled "Ghosts from the Gulag" (October 12, 1997).

In 1940, the country was occupied by Joseph Stalin. Tens of thousands of Lithuanians were shot or deported to Siberia. In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded. Soviet power returned in 1944, and 100,000 Lithuanians or 5 percent of the population died at the hands of the Soviet army and secret police. Mutilated bodies were left lying in the streets as warnings for anyone thinking about resistance.

In the Paneriari forest outside of Vilnius, the Germans shot 100,000 people. In the Vilnius neighborhood called Tuskulenai, next to a red-clay tennis court, a grave contains 700 victims of Stalin's secret police, "each skull neatly perforated by a single bullet."

Given the choice between the misery of the stockyard, the misery of the Gestapo, or the misery of the KGB, I think we would all agree the fictional Lithuanian immigrants of Sinclair's novel made the right choice. A rotten job in Chicago beats a death squad in a forest every day of the week.

Of course, Upton Sinclair, being a loyal Socialist, could overlook the misery of the KGB, but not the stockyard.

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