Would we hear such boldness this today from leaders?

As I read a book about Franklin D. Roosevelt and how he dealt with his political enemies, I wonder again and again whether any of our political leaders today would say anything nearly as bold as what he said in response to the “economic royalists” of the 1930s. Such as this analogy he made between them and a once-sick patients on the campaign trail in 1936:

Some of these people really forget how sick they were. But I know how sick they were. I have their fever charts. I know how the knees of all our rugged individualists were trembling four years ago and how their hearts fluttered. They came to Washington in great numbers. Washington did not look like a dangerous bureaucracy to them. Oh no! It looked like an emergency hospital. All of the distinguished patients wanted two things — a quick hypodermic to end the pain and a course of treatment to cure the disease. They wanted them in a hurry; we gave them both. And now most of the patients seem to be doing very nicely. Some of them are even well enough to throw their crutches at the doctor.

Currently reading: The New Deal, the Real Estate Craze and the Mad Men Era

The economy has me reading about what exactly constituted the New Deal and its signature program the Works Progress Administration in Nick Taylor’s American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA (When FDR Put the Nation to Work).

Before this, I finished the sprawling late-’90s novel Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, which depicts the fall of a grandiose real estate developer in Atlanta. Lately, I have found that reading things from the late ’90s evokes an almost foolishly  optimistic and unaware time, and this book’s depiction of a developer’s gluttony and false sense of self is more cheerful than grim. It is still compelling to read about the seeds of the kind of avarice we are today accustomed to from the latest news reports on investment banks profiting from the foreclosure crisis .

I also just began Kitty Kelley‘s biography of Frank Sinatra, His Way, which gives the exhaustive, warts-and-all account that she is known for. I picked up the book after watching the somewhat vapid musical High Society, which Sinatra starred in opposite Grace Kelley and Bing Crosby. Frank’s marriage to first wife Nancy is straight out of Mad Men (well, Mad Men, more likely was inspired by marriages like theirs). He is a consistent philanderer who is rarely home, and she is a jealous wife who nonetheless acquiesces to her role and wants above all else to prevent Frank from divorcing her. It is the kind of dispiriting story that is best read without attachment to either person.

But back to the New Deal book. As Taylor says on his website, “The WPA symbolized an impulse of government that before the 2008 election was under severe attack. But that impulse toward generosity and human dignity is poised to make a comeback.”

American Made describes a program that was arrived at not only because the unemployment rate was 25 percent when Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered office in March of 1933 but also because he and the chief administrators of the program made no bones about the fact that the government would create a comprehensive jobs program. There was no love lost between them and those who FDR referred to as “economic royalists.”

Though it had its share of inefficiencies and infighting, the good of the New Deal and Works Progress Administration seems to far outweigh the flaws. It left the nation with national facilities, bridges, parks, schools, art and civic buildings that have sustained us since. Although I’m pessimistic a similar program will be enacted soon, what with the prevailing skepticism of powerful people toward the government’s role in job creation, convincing arguments have been made that no one else will.

Right now, the Obama administration seems to be averse to political risk. As Paul Krugman says in a recent blog post about Obama’s administration:

[T]hey have to propose new initiatives that might not pass, and be prepared to run against the do-nothing Republicans if the initiatives fail.

Now consider what FDR said during the 1932 election, as quoted in American Made:

The country needs and unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

Quote of the evening-Camus

“Afternoon with the students.  They don’t feel the real problem; however, there nostalgia is evident.  In this country,where everything is done to prove that life isn’t tragic, they feel something is missing. The great effort is poignant, but one must reject the tragic after having looked at it, not before.”-Albert Camus, who taught at Vassar about the U.S.

Midtown’s lights a little discomfiting at the brink of a depression

It struck me as a little inappropriate, as I walked through Midtown tonight, to see bright, elaborate Christmas lights and displays in store windows just as the nation is entering a severe economic downturn.  Because of this incongruity, I was curious whether the lights were toned down during the Depression and discovered, at least according to a paper from a fellow at Yale, that the Roosevelt administration’s initiative to bring electricity to the south with the Tennessee Valley Authority actually allowed parts of the country to light up:

By 1939, 25 percent of rural Americans were receiving electricity, demonstrating a trend that increasingly allowed isolated Americans to enjoy the comfort of Christmas lights.

Still, the mood could have been more solemn than those lights I saw in Midtown:

All blue light displays, popular during this period, reflected the somber mood of a nation in trouble.

(This article reminds me so much of writing history papers, cobbling together facts from all kinds of primary and secondary sources and trying to make them fit together using stilted verbs like “reflected” and “demonstrated”).

In other Depression news, I was kind of surprised at the big leap David Brooks made in his November 17 column about the negative cultural effects of past Depressions:

The recession of the 1970s produced a cynicism that has never really gone away. The share of students who admitted to cheating jumped from 34 percent in 1969 to 60 percent a decade later.

Seems like there were plenty of non-economic related events going on in the 1970s like, ahem Watergate and the Vietnam War, to provoke cynicism, and it is another jump to blame high levels of cheating on cynicism about government.

All this said, doesn’t it seem a little weird how so many of us are prognosticating about what a Depression will be like, as if we are standing on a high dive, fearing how much the jump will hurt but never jumping?  It makes me wish that more people had tried to imagine how much excessive corporate profits, low tax rates on the very wealthy, weak lending standards, and securitizing subprime loans, would hurt.


Drinking in the Battle of Brooklyn

Last night, I mustered up the fortitude to go by myself to an event honoring the 232nd-anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn in Park Slope. Professor John Walsh of Hofstra University spoke on the history of the American Revolution battle at The Gate bar in Brooklyn.

The largest battle of the War and one of the bloodiest–2000 colonists died–is not widely-remembered around New York–perhaps in part because the Americans lost it thoroughly–but, according to Walsh, it still left much hallowed ground in Brooklyn.

“If somebody has a house around here with a backyard, and you started digging, there’s no telling what you would find,” Walsh told the crowd, noting that a Belgian man found the remains of a British soldier in his yard not too long ago.

The Professor came with handouts–a map of the battle sites in Brooklyn, an article about a war relic from the Journal of Field Archaeology, and an article from the American Historical Review written in 1896–and often read from his notes, but the scholarly tone did not reach the cheering section that was hanging out in the corner. When it looked like the lecture would begin about an hour after scheduled time, the group started chanting “John, John, John,” though they appeared to be friends, not hecklers.

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The idiocy of equating diplomacy with appeasement

While reading this articleby Michael Walzer about the value of diplomacy, I remembered that in my semi-exhaustive reading about Nixon, he and Kissinger were constantly in negotiations with North Vietnam by way of Paris (see, for instance, a Time article with mention of Paris negotiations from 1969). Just because we are at war with elements in Iraq does not mean we have cut off diplomatic ties with them.

Jews in France through history

My desultory web wanderings brought me to an article, “French Jewish History 1650-1914: The Republic’s liberal principles brought tolerance and opportunity,” by historian Michael Shurkin about the history of Jews in France. One interesting passage:

[T]he Abbot Henri Grégoire’s “Essay on the Physical, Moral, and Political Regeneration of the Jews,” became the principle text of the emancipation debate.”

Grégoire, focusing on Alsace (which hosted the largest Jewish community–roughly 20,000 at the time), argued that Jews had a degenerating influence on rural Alsatian society. Jews were parasitical, prone to illness, and indoctrinated by their religion to hate gentiles. Their rabbis, he claimed, had perverted biblical morality. However, Grégoire was confident that persecution was the root of Jewish degeneracy, and that granting the Jews more right would “regenerate” them. “Let us make Jews into citizens,” Grégoire declared, “regenerated both physically and morally, they will acquire a healthier and more robust temperament, enlightenment, probity: their hearts corrected by virtue, their hands hardened by labor, they will come to profit all society.”

Shurkin writes that in the scheme of things, Jews were less encumbered by systematic prejudice during the course of France’s modernization and republicanization right up until World War II.


Recently, when I have gotten so angry at a journalist or pundit for that person’s comments about race or class in the 2008 election that I want to throw a newspaper or angrily close a computer window, I think about what it is I am objecting to.  Usually, it has to do with a sense that the particular reporter is posturing.  It seems s/he comes in with a set of familiar tropes: the out of touch limousine liberal, the working stiff who has been alienated from his former party, the angry and scary black activist. 

 In high school, the race problem seemed frustratingly easy to me, and I thought my U.S. history class had properly exposed me to the correct historic judgement on the period.  Institutionalized racism could have been challenged by the lower class whites who instead felt they had to keep down black slaves to keep themselves up.  Why instead couldn’t all of the downtrodden recoil against their “masters”?  Today, the view that assigns fault to one party seems frighteningly simplistic, just as many of our conclusions from high school do (not to knock high school–our brains simply were not as developed). 

I hope as a journalist, I will get better at viewing my stories from every angle and not simply a standard journalist’s angle, one that has settled on a rigid historic judgement that one subsconsciouly or consciously advances (e.g. the blue collar vs. white collar of today, the blue collar v. blacks of yesterday).  I say this not to try to resurrect so-called upper-middle class “white guilt,” which is so often pinned on the limo liberals but rather to seek to end the frenzied posturing of the class of journalists who presume to know the sentiments of a bloc of people who they rarely see while presuming elitism in others.

In this vein, I have found an interesting article authored by a man named James A. Sleeper who taught a sociology class to a bunch of blue collar guys back in the 1970s.  He wonders about their reaction to a talk by black author James Baldwin (the reactions vary ) and finds himself questioning his own perspective on his students, particularly, whether his class of academics has unfairly laid racial conflict solely at their feet.  Here is a particularly interesting passage:

Do you ever wonder why we have been imported to this enclave surrounded by clusters of old three-deckers and empty lots where our age-mates, back from the service, are pounding the pavements, where young women strangely haggard work the night shift and Dunkin Donuts, where men with lunchpails punch in at Finast and Fenton Shoe, where old women on their way to our dining halls slip off gaseous buses onto the ice before dawn? What are we doing here? How shall we live? Are we somehow part of their burden? Will we always stand over against them?

Pitting working-class whites against blacks keeps the “white heat” off us, but it keeps a lot of the warmth away as well. That absence of social peace–however “refined,” however accepted–is hurting us more than we know: those at the top, for all their sophistication, become wedding-cake figures, deprived and innocent of the world around them; those in the middle barter themselves daily, hustling and striving and somehow always missing the point. Baldwin says that blacks still “free” of those maladies become not only victims of whites’ hatred and fear, but, ironically, furtively, sources of the love they inhibit among themselves.

The ’60s examined, again

To this day, people have been eager to blame their problems — moral decay, crime, violence, and the plight of the family — on a permissive generation of misfits, delinquents, and revolutionaries more powerful in myth than they ever were in life.

–Dennis DeGroot

Gary Kamiya pens a great review in today’s Salon about St. Andrews historian Dennis DeGroot’s The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade.  The review presents the book and the questions it asks in the context of other, possibly more sweeping condemnatory works on that era. 

At least the way Kamiya tells it, DeGroot appears to have a pretty well-honed set of praises and critiques for the era, such as the following sentiment, with which I strongly agree:

On the scanty plus side of the ’60s ledger, DeGroot lists the “longterm effects of the sexual revolution,” which resulted in “sexual relations [being] accepted as the business of the individual rather than the state.” He sees gay liberation as the most impressive outcome of the sexual revolution: Although he acknowledges that women gained sexual freedom as a result of the ’60s, he is harshly critical of what he sees as the era’s decoupling of sex from love (in which he echoes Bloom), as well as what he claims was its rampant sexism.

DeGroot further levels the full weight of perspective in his evaluation of the ’60′s significance, in a clever historical re-telling approach:

But DeGroot also employs a more ambitious and unorthodox technique, using what he considers the decade’s truly important events to reveal the ultimate insignificance of the counterculture. His book is broken into 67 shortish sections, most of them dealing directly or indirectly with the counterculture, but a number covering extraneous subjects: the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, the Vatican’s “Humanae Vitae” encyclical, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, the Watts riots, the Vietnam War and so on.

What I gain from this sort of review is that there is no great or terrible era of history.  Moreover, those eras whose values are debated most vigorously when the aura or zeitgeist that made them Eras have long passed are the periods that supporters and detractors alike view as responsible for informing our present values. 

One thing that gets me a little is that the experience of women, blacks, gays, etc., today are often laid at the doorstep of the ’60s, as if that brief time of social unrest is responsible for everything that happens since, that at some point in the late 1970s, Americans ceased at defining and re-defining themselves, that their experience was enveloped by the 60′s attitudes.  Particulary, DeGroot’s suggestion that the direct result of ’60s counter-culturalism was ’80s and onward consumerism is not causually sound. 

Kamiya puts it very well, too:

A good cultural historian is like a biographer: He must be capable of empathizing with his subjects, seeing the world through their eyes. Equally important, he must also consider that historical change does not always take place for obvious reasons. Even a narcissistic, indulgent or just plain silly era can change the world, in ways that are as imperceptible as the workings of evolution.

The spirit of a decade

On InsideHigherEd, Scott McLemee looks at how decades have become a unit of historical description–

It has become second nature to periodize history by decades, as if each possessed certain qualities, amounting almost to a distinct personality. To some degree this tendency was already emerging as part of the public conversation in the 19th century (with the 1840s in particular leaving a strong impression as an era of hard-hitting social criticism and quasi-proto-hippie experimentation) but it really caught on after the First World War.

–and ponders whether the last two decades suffer from a lack of zeitgeist.  I think if we don’t already, we will soon commodify the ’90s into a couple of themes, aesthetics, and buzzwords.  I imagine some of these will be “globalization,” “complacency,” “grunge,” “minimalism,” and “boy bands,” just like the ’60s was supposedly peace signs and protests, the ’70s pet rocks and disco, and the ’80s shoulder pads and stock market updates.  The ’90s will eventually seem dated, especially to those born after the decade’s end. 

However, a decade is a wanting unit of measurement when it imposes a straitjacket of popular themes on a time period that is more varied.  I remember being surprised to learn that a lot of the images that I associated with the 1960s–protests, the escalation of the Vietnam war, urban riots, long hair, and bellbottoms–did not really emerge til the latter part of the decade and continued on into the 1970s.  And it is hard to reconcile the bold color aesthetic of the early-1990s with the muted, minimalist one that seemed to take hold by the decade’s end.  The former seems more a part of the 1980s, if anything.  Anyway, it is interesting to think about.


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