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A Social History of Missouri by Thomas Hart Benton

From the mural, A Social History of Missouri, by Thomas Hart Benton

 

Interstate 70 slices the state of Missouri in half, from Kansas City to St. Louis – a five-hour drive past scores of billboards advertising pawn shops and casinos, factory outlets and fast food. About 90 miles from St. Louis, in the highway median, stands Slave Rock, a prominent outcropping of St. Peter sandstone. Locals say slave traders used the site as an auction block in the days of Little Dixie.

I was making the sweaty summer drive to St. Louis when I saw Slave Rock again. It jogged my memory about a recent post on the web site of the London Review of Books. A new trend is underway in the education economy: auctioning internships. Westminster School, an elite, private institution in London, made more than $10,000 when parents bought their kids prestigious, unpaid internships at hedge funds, law offices, and hip art studios. The Guardian and the New Statesmen also have auctioned internships.

The web site CharityBuzz.com – the virtual version of Slave Rock – is making a profit off the labor auction trend. Listings have included one-week internships at InStyleUK and Halpern Limited, a London PR firm, for $2,000 each. A 12-week stint shadowing DefJam Records co-founder Russell Simmons and Virgin Group Chairman Sir Richard Branson went for $85,000. Time magazine contributor Joel Stein got in on the action to the tune of $1,000. He offered one Sunday, either at his home or via Skype, assisting with his column, the subject of which was his brief intern – how glamorous. Proceeds from the auctions go to various non-profits – companies shamelessly profiting off unpaid labor is still too unseemly. CharityBuzz takes a 20 percent cut. All positions are unpaid and average two weeks long.

A foundation connected to the Aspen, Colorado, school district sells local apprenticing. Do you want to be a cop when you grow up? That’ll cost $1,000. A ballerina? Sure, pay $2,500. Do you want to save Gaia? One week with the Roaring Fork Conservancy is a steal at $1,500. The venerable Rocky Mountain Institute is more than generous. One day goes for $500. You even get a tour of the green abode of Amory Lovins, author of a book I love to hate, Natural Capitalism. Speaking of good writing, an editorial internship at the world-renowned Aspen Sojourner magazine is $2,500 for two whole weeks! Let me get out my checkbook.

Of course, interest in the aptitude of the chosen one is nil. But Mommy and Daddy’s bank account will pass for a resume. At least the plantation owners examined the bodies of their slaves for strength and fertility.

Just as the auction racket was getting attention, student loan rates doubled to 6.8 percent. What’s more, the average cost of an academic year at a private college is now $43,000, and public schools are roughly $23,000, according to CollegeData.com.

It’s the new slave market, with a psychological twist. Kids graduate overwhelmed by debt, their B.A.’s and M.F.A.’s are increasingly worthless, and the first leap from the Ivory Tower is a stint buying latte’s and maybe, if lucky, writing a 300-word blog post after finishing the photo copying.

In an act of insurrection, some unpaid interns are now paying lawyers to fight for a wage. This summer, lawsuits have hit corporations such as NBC Universal (for MSNBC and “Saturday Night Live”), Conde Nast (on behalf of The New Yorker and W magazine), Hearst, Warner Music Group, and the endearing Charlie Rose, among others. In Canada, Bell Mobility is under attack. The hip gossip site, Gawker, was slapped in early July.

The wave broke on June 11, when a federal judge in New York ruled that Fox Searchlight should have compensated two interns who worked on the film Black Swan. Kindly, good ol’ Charlie has agreed to pay his former servants $110,000. Expect appeals and more appeals if others pass the test.

Still, who can honestly work for free at media giants or otherwise? Privileged kids with no family responsibilities or survival needs. Will the lawsuits actually affect working class students entering the starved job market? Unlikely. Good intentions pave the road to hell. The corporate Shylock’s have us beat.

My trip home included a stop at the Missouri State Capitol to view Thomas Hart Benton’s grand mural, The Social History of Missouri. In it, we see the slave at the auction block, the ripples of his pecs under inspection. In another panel, there sits Tom Pendergast, the infamous political boss of Prohibition Kansas City, who mentored Truman, traded jobs for favors and used thugs to intimidate voters. (Full disclosure: He’s a distant relative – don’t hold it against me.) Still, he was a man of charity, hosting beloved holiday dinners for the poor. Slave and boss and president connect in a vivid depiction of culture and economy. The painting is almost 80 years old, but still striking and relevant.

Published in CounterPunch magazine, July 2013

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