Five Best Tuesday Columns

Hotel workplace safety, myths of slave marriage, and the historic upheavals of August

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Daniel Cohen on a Different Problem for Housekeepers  In a rush to provide the most luxurious, and heaviest, mattresses, the most pillows, and the fanciest bed skirts, hotels are overloading their housekeepers. Donald Cohen cites several studies and statistics in the Los Angeles Times to show that hotel workers exhibit higher injury rates than many other industries. He encourages the California assembly to approve a bill passed by the state's senate this week that would help prevent some of the damage. "The bill, SB 432, would require hotels to use fitted sheets instead of flat sheets to reduce the amount of mattress lifting housekeepers must do. That is no small change if you consider how many hundreds of pounds a day that involves," he says. "The legislation also would require hotels to provide long-handled mops so housekeepers won't have to clean bathrooms on their hands and knees as they do now." The hotel injury opposes the bill, citing the cost of fitted sheets. Cohen argues that hotels often replace their sheets annually anyway and would make up for the cost by savings in workers' compensation. Cohen cites a 1970s effort to ban short-handled hoes, which gave farm laborers back injuries, and the lettuce-grower industry's opposition to the law. Since the hoe was banned, none of the farm industry's dire predictions that it would kill the industry came true. "Today, the hotel industry is predicting the same economic havoc if housekeepers get the kind of protections farmworkers got 35 years ago," he said. "The agriculture industry was wrong then, and the hotels are wrong now."

William McGurn Interprets the Debt Deal  The debt ceiling resolution is nothing short of a conservative victory, declares William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal, because "come the 2012 elections this deal will help force the debate that all conservatives have wanted all along--about the size, scope, and proper mission of our federal government." The debate began with President Obama requiring a clean raise with no requirements attached. John Boehner laid out his requirement in May that a debt ceiling raise come only with spending cuts and no tax hikes. Boehner got most of what he wanted, McGurn asserts, because he laid out several plans that would avoid default whereas Obama merely said no to the available options. "This curious exercise of presidential 'leadership' transformed Mr. Obama into the Newt Gingrich of this debate, while Mr. Boehner looked serious and reasonable," McGurn says. Liberals seem to agree that the president did not defend the liberal agenda well. Republicans are still fighting among themselves, and the cuts are not guaranteed forever, but  they have forced the 2012 debate to be on their terms, giving McGurn cause for optimism.

Gideon Rachman on the Historically Tumultuous Month of August  "Viewed from Europe, the American financial uproar is baffling," writes Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. "The entire European political calendar is constructed around the idea that nothing ever happens--or should be allowed to happen--in August." When crisis does come in August, European leaders are often caught off-guard or abroad. "But in fact, a study of history suggests that Europe's leaders are kidding themselves if they think that August is a safe month in which to head for the hills or the beach," Rachman writes. The Great War broke out in August of 1914, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland on August 31, 1939, and the Soviets crushed the Prague spring in August 1968. George H.W. Bush's prseidency was marked by Augusts of upheaval. In 1989, the iron curtain was breached in Hungary. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. And in 1991, a coup began that brought down the Soviet Union. Big financial crises, on the other hand, typically begin in autumn--a trend both Europe and the United States nearly changed in 2011. For perspective, Rachman writes, he will spend his vacation re-reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, which describes the outbreak of WWI. "It is a reminder that other Augusts in Europe have seen events that really do merit overused words like tragedy and crisis," he says. "By comparison, some conniptions in the US Congress seems like pretty mild stuff."

Stephen Stromberg on Delaying Compromise  This week's deal, writes Stephen Stromberg in The Washington Post, is designed to put off debate through the election. "But those expecting a resounding resolution to some stark struggle of liberal versus conservative are forgetting one thing: It's not likely to happen," he writes. Democrats will have a difficult time keeping control of the Senate, with 23 of their seats up for grabs versus only 10 Republican seats. President Obama is not gauranteed to win but given the lack of a strong candidate among Republicans, his odds aren't bad. So if Obama wins the White House and Republicans win the Senate, the country will still be left without a clear mandate for budget reduction. Given this reality, the stalling tactics seem irresponsible to Stromberg. "It's hard to see the basic problem on the debt changing in 2012," he writes. "With trillions in unfunded liabilities, study after study has found that the government needs a smart mixture of tax hikes and entitlement reforms. Republicans hate the former, and Democrats hate the latter. Both will need to compromise."

Tera Hunter on the Return to Antebellum Slavery Myths  A "marriage vow" document signed by Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum drew controversy because it declared "a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President." This philosophy represents a return to a fiction popular just before the Civil War, writes Princeton professor Tera Hunter in The New York Times. Under slavery, civil marriage was reserved for free people, but some masters allowed their slaves to marry informally. "But the wedding vows they recited promised not 'until death do us part,' but 'until distance'--or, as one black minister bluntly put it, 'the white man'--'do us part.'" Marriage existed at the whim of the master, and was used as a method of keeping peace. Masters forced couples to marry, and to procreate with each other, with overseers, or with themselves. Southern whites rejected abolitionist writings that revealed these horrors, and created the myth of the stable slave family. Only when slavery was abolished could slaves solemnize their vows legally. The modern desire to revive the stability myth fits with other historical mis-rememberings, Hunter writes, as when Republicans skipped the "three-fifths" clause of the Constitution during a reading on the House floor. "Refusing to be honest about how racial inequality has burdened our shared history and continues to shape our society will not get us to that post-racial vision," she concludes.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.