Monday, February 02, 2009

History Maker Mondays-04

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large. I contain multitudes.)
--Walt Whitman “Song of Myself”

Know Thy History

There is a shared belief among some, particularly those accepting the premise that an understanding of who we are as Americans and a knowledge of our past are essential to the kind of common civic memory that ensures a strong and vibrant democracy. I would put myself firmly in that camp.

Back in 1999, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) commissioned the Roper organization to poll college seniors at 55 of the countries top liberal arts colleges and research universities. Their questions were to be based on U.S. history and the nation’s founding principals. The questions, not remarkably difficult, or so it was thought, were drawn from a basic high school curriculum, with many of the questions being the same ones used on the National Assessment of Educations Progress (NAEP) tests that are given to high school students.

How did these seniors, from America’s top schools do? They flunked. Four out of five seniors, 81 percent of them, got grades of D, or F. They couldn’t identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address, or even the basic principals of the U.S. Constitution.

I’m not going to belabor this report, but I begin this week’s history post highlighting what I think is a major issue in our country today—widespread historical illiteracy.

It matters because in a culture where information overload is prevalent, having some basis of determining fact or fiction is important. At a time when more and more citizens are relying on the internet, a cauldron of dubious information, and half-truths, for their research (if in fact they research anything that they hear on television, or anywhere else), or take the word of demagogues and other spinmeisters as the gospel truth, the lack of historical veracity is damning to our country.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the midst of our nation’s ideological divide. Republicans on the right are sure they are correct, merely because their favorite talk show host tells them so. On the left, Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and other organs of Democratic thought fortify opinions tending toward the left end of the political spectrum.

This week, and next, I’m playing fast and loose with the letter D, since that’s where we’re at in week four, for History Maker Mondays. The challenge thus far has been finding time to do some research, and write something relevant. I may dispense with the alphabet, and even tweak the weekly nature of these posts, only because I don’t want to just cut and past information from Wikipedia, although many of the entries found there on many topics are great jumping off points for additional research on subjects of one’s choosing.

D is for Davis

Since we’re at the letter D, I’m using the late biographer and novelist, Kenneth S. Davis as my tether.

Davis, a biographer of Eisenhower, Lindbergh, and Adlai Stevenson, compiled one of the most vivid portraits of Franklin Roosevelt in his five volume series on FDR. A combination of history with a flair for literature, Davis’s FDR: The New Deal Years 1933-1937, has been some of my reading material for the past week.

The Davis book is one in a list of books that I’ve been poring through since early fall about the Great Depression. Given our current economic woes, with the only parallel being that period 70 years prior, having a grounding in the history of the era, as well as understanding the politics and the key figures is serving me well. I say “serving me well” because it’s grounding me in history, and allowing me to form my own ideas about where we’re at with the election of Barack Obama, and his own indications of what he might be willing to do to address the economic crisis we’re facing at the moment.

The second benefit that my historical orientation is providing me with is a built-in bullshit detector, warning me when a commentator, political pundit, or anyone else begins shoveling fecal matter in my direction about what’s going on at the moment.

A case in point—among certain quadrants on the ideological right, it’s become fashionable to formulate historical revisionism regarding the legacy of Herbert Hoover. The context most often involves Mr. Obama’s association with FDR, and the New Deal. The argument goes something like this; Obama is a socialist in the FDR/New Deal tradition. His stimulus package is like many of the FDR programs, which, by the way, conservative Republicans start foaming at the mouth at mere mention, so by way of association, Obama is immediately suspect with these folks, because they are quite sure that FDR’s policies didn’t work, and in fact, Hoover’s follies suddenly have taken on a new luster, reversing 70 years of history, and countless books about Hoover and his failed policies. The latest revision goes something like this. FDR’s policies are what plunged the nation into the Great Depression, not Hoover’s. FDR was a socialist, and his administration’s overly intrusive, big government programs helped prolong the misery. Hoover on the other hand, was a true Republican, and kept government from meddling in the economy. I kid you not.

Hoover’s Legacy

I’ll end this week’s post with a review of the conditions that the good work done by Herbert Hoover visited on the country, resulting in Hoover losing his bid for reelection in 1932, to Franklin Roosevelt.

It’s hard to fathom the misery and human toll visited on American by the economic collapse that became the Great Depression.

Here are some “snapshots” from 1932:
  • 15 million Americans with no jobs and no hope of a job (quarter of the nation’s workers)
  • In a country of 130 million people, 60 million of them were without any means of support
  • Factories lay idol
  • Storefronts were vacant
  • Fields had been plowed under
  • State governments had exhausted their meager funds to assist
  • Skilled and unskilled laborers stood together in bread lines
  • There were large scales homeless encampments, known as “Hoovervilles”

"The cure for unemployment is to find jobs.”--Herbert Hoover

In 1932, the U.S. industrial powerhouse that had emerged after WWI, lay idle. Farmers were facing a crisis fueled by debt and drought. For most Americans losing a job, first came belt tightening, then despair, and eventually, dcestitution. Millions lost their homes, saw their clothes wear to the point where they became rags, and were forced to forage like animals for their next meal.

Despite all the telltale signs of loss and physical suffering, the greatest loss was to the spirit. People felt fear, shame, and despair. Suicides soared. Their dreams disappeared with the loss of work.

Under the Republican administrations beginning in 1921 and spanning the administrations of Harding, Coolidge and finding culmination under Herbert Hoover; business interests ran the country. Government was denied a central role in addressing social problems. The right data gathered by the govt. would allow banks to adjust their loan portfolios, and manufacturers their production schedules to achieve maximum efficiency. Labor was just another commodity to be inputted, like iron ore, or cotton, to be purchased on the open market, at the cheapest rate.

Up until the Great Depression, this business-oriented way of seeing the world was generally accepted by the majority, with only radical elements putting forth another view.

In 1932, as businesses continued to fail at unprecedented rates, banks closed their doors (the count being at over 600 and continuing to grow), and more and more Americans landing out of work, Hoover had little to offer the citizenry beyond platitudes.

With unemployment skyrocketing, including 200,000 New Yorkers losing jobs between January and October in 1932, Hoover thought job sharing, coupled with a good joke would do the trick.

The president and business leaders, including Standard Oil, came up with a plan to cut the hours of those working, and sharing their jobs with recently laid off workers. This meant that now, even those who had managed to keep their jobs would be sharing in the ever-increasing poverty in the U.S.

At each step downward into America’s spiral into poverty, Hoover maintained an unflinching resolve to maintain a balanced budget above all else. Fiscal responsibility, and an almost psychotic belief that the only thing preventing America’s economic bottoming out after the stock market crash was for its people to suddenly rediscover optimism.

“I’m convinced we’ve now passed the worst,” Hoover told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on May 1, 1930.

“There is one certainty in the future—that is prosperity.”

In January of 1932, Hoover told Father James Cox, who led a march of 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanian on Washington that a government sponsored work program (one of the provisions Cox was demanding of the Hoover administration to put people back to work and restore their dignity) would not only violate tradition, but cost too much. The real victory is to restore men to employment through jobs.

Hoover’s beliefs were shaped at the nexus of business and technology. The Stanford grad had gotten rich in mining, and was considered a wizard of finance. Hoover believed the lessons of engineering could be applied to society. Since science had made it possible to tame the natural world, by extension, Hoover posited that man and the problems inherent in society should also bend to the whims of scientific business practices.

As a lifelong Republican, Hoover subscribed to the philosophy of rugged individualism. He saw no role for government in providing relief. If individuals and families couldn’t work, then the role of relief fell to churches, and other organizations.

When the Depression stuck, Hoover’s philosophy left no room for bold action to alleviate suffering.

Lastly, Hoover believed in the power of persuasion, in part because as an advocate of business, he has seen the power of marketing and phraseology for moving the masses.

Hoover continued to treat the situation as a crisis of confidence, something to be talked, joked away, or sung about.

“What this country needs is a good, big laugh. There seems to be a condition of hysteria. If someone could get off a good joke every 10 days, I think our troubles would be over.”

Given that the country was mired in its economic woes, with no relief in site, the American people were looking for someone to lead them forth from their misery. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be the political savior in whom they put their hopes for the future.


Laurie said...

I'm with you on the importance of history and scary revisionism. This is a really good series of posts.

Jim said...

@ Laurie

Thanks for stopping by and for the props.

You cross-commented on your blog (The very fine Punk Rock HR) that reading your BFF's blog would make you go ape-shit w/ rage. That's how I feel about so much that's swirling around the whole left-right dichotomy, and the tendency of ideologues to talk past one another. History has become my way of maintaining my sanity, and putting our current time into a less ideologically-driven context. The History Maker Mondays have been an extension of my reading and research.