Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fall reflections, 2008

This shaggy-dog rambling was written a week before the election of Barack Obama. As the event grew near the outcome seemed obvious, but for some of us it seemed too good to be true. I only had forty-five years to wait to see a black American president. I cannot imagine what it is like for someone born black. And as the day approached I simply had to sit on my expectations. So often over the years I experienced dashed hopes and disappointments. Great progress has taken us far beyond the days of segregated schools, restrooms, and water fountains. But the facts of racial discrimination have remained stubbornly embedded, even in the black community itself, in the social fabric of America.

This "reflection" is more than it appears to be on the surface. It rehearses for me the origins and growth of how one high school kid got radicalized even before the Sixties became a benchmark decade. By the time I graduated in 1962 I was well on the way to being a life-long Liberal, even though I had no idea at the time what that was going to involve.


My sixty-fifth birthday is still half a year away but I can still recall my youth clearly enough to know that sometimes you simply have to squeeze a zit. "Back in the day," as the newer locution of "in the good old days" would have it, we said pimple, not zit. But the morphing of language is a reflection of how views and values also tend to change. And I have been forced to watch helplessly since my political infancy as words and trends took on a life of their own over which I had little or no control. If the world says "zit" and I say "pimple" everyone will know how retrograde my thinking is. Whatever other ideas I hold come into question, like the polite but indelible racism of people who still refer to "colored people" when they should be referring simply to "people." So this morning I feel the need to squeeze a pimple, so to speak, to get a few things off my chest.

Having been away from blogging for two months now (except for a few softball posts) I realize how little I am needed at this keyboard except for my own edification. Traffic, to my satisfaction, has not dropped off as the result of my neglect, thanks to four years of material that still feeds into Google searches. I am expecting after next week to lose about half the number of hits because that one post that I put up almost two years ago, regarding Obama's religion, continues to get half or more of all visits. Surely that question will be moot after next week's election. We'll see.

In the meantime I am struggling to keep a lid on my excitement as next Tuesday approaches. I can hardly believe that after all these years a political candidate whom I endorse is actually getting this close to the finish line. Moreover, Obama's historic campaign is changing the dynamic of American presidential elections in a way that I never thought possible, bringing with it what for me is a long lost spirit of the past that was taken out by the killing of John F. Kennedy in 1963. If I allow myself to think too long about it it still makes tears come to my eyes.

Last week I was listening with half an ear as someone on a local Atlanta TV panel made reference to something she had read in Human Events magazine. I never thought someone reading Human Events would admit to it in public. In my mind it has about as much credibility as The National Enquirer. It has been a long time since I heard anyone refer to that publication and the mention of it triggered a flashback to my high school days. I am by no means a red-diaper baby but I was aimed in that direction as an adolescent as the result of circumstances in my life. My first exposure to Human Events Magazine was an important part of that development.

Here is the story.

Sometime during my high school days at Columbus High School in Columbus, Georgia, the school sponsored an event in the auditorium that was intended to emphasize the notion of brotherhood. I don't recall the official reason for the occasion, but there were three representative speakers from the three main faiths of the day, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish. This is almost like a setup for a joke, but it really happened that way. As I remember, each had about fifteen minutes to talk about tolerance and brotherhood, with the preacher going first. His message was a generic Christian appeal to what Lincoln referred to as the "better angels of our nature" but years of habit would not allow him to let it go at that. He was compelled by the Great Commission to include at least one or two gentle but unmistakable references to Jesus Christ, stopping short of an altar call on the spot. The priest was somewhat less pointed, but there was no mistake about it, the Christian part of our Judeo-Christian heritage was clearly the more important of the two roots, and those with Christian ears would hear edifying words of encouragement.

It was Rabbi Goodman whose message stuck in my memory, partly because of the image and story he chose, and partly because of the contrast it left in the context of the three presentations. He said that when he was a youngster someone did something to him that hurt him deeply. Some insult or mean-spirited remark gesture had sent him to his mother, seeking her advice as to how he could best get even with those who had been so ugly to him. Her advice to him was this: "Go out and find a mud puddle with sticky mud. Then put some of it into your mouth and go spit it on them! That will teach them not to mess with you." His point (as well as his mother's) was that there is no way to "get even" with someone else without getting a taste of ugliness yourself. "Getting even" is contrary to the spirit of brotherhood, even when someone has it coming.

As I left the auditorium I thought about the story and how obvious it was. But I also thought about how unintentionally careless the other two clergy had been by overlooking the fact that at Columbus High School there were a lot of Jewish students who might not hear their Christian message in the way they had intended. It was a well -known fact at that time in Columbus, Georgia, that practically every Jewish family in town sent their children to Columbus High School. Of the other two white high schools Baker was way to the other side of town, more transitory, in the shadow of Fort Benning, and no one from established families sent their kids there. The other school, somewhat snootily referred to as a "trade school," was actually called Jordan Vocational High School and everyone knew that Jews always sent their kids to college prep high schools if they couldn't afford a private school. (Outside the school community I sometimes heard nick-names like "Jew-Blue High School" or references to "Jew-lovers" aimed at CHS, but I learned to overlook those remarks as the indications of ignorance that they were. It was true, by the way. I recall that so many Jews were absent on a couple of Jewish holidays that we couldn't have a good band rehearsal because to many were out. Seems like half the brass and a third of clarinets went missing one time, but I can't say for sure.)

These early exposures to antisemitism were part of my growing up. Although I was not Jewish, I had many friends who were, and a few time I went to Friday night services at the synagogue just to see for myself how they worshiped. I was much impressed that following the service there was always a sumptuous reception in the social hall below the sanctuary spread with treats I had seen only a few fancy occasions in my own limited experience. Later, when I felt that my Southern Baptist peers were not on the side of the angels at the start of the civil rights movement I found a college home at Hillel, the Jewish students organization, as the only non-Jew in their midst. it was there that I learned to enjoy lox, bagels, cream cheese and danish, and later, potato latkes and applesauce.

(Can you believe all these memories were stirred by the mention of Human Events Magazine?)

About the same time, two local controversies were raging in Columbus, Georgia that got my attention. One was a very acrimonious debate about whether the local water supply should be treated with fluoride because it was found that in parts of the country where fluoride occurred naturally in the local water there was a marked decrease in the incidence of tooth decay. Something about fluoride seems to protect against cavities, hence those references on toothpaste labels. The other debate had to do with whether or not the city and county governments should be combined into a single administrative entity for the sake of consistency and economy. I think it was called "consolidated government."

I was not aware of politics at the time, so I had no way of knowing that Columbus, Georgia was (and probably still is) what we would call an extremely conservative place. There are a lot of reasons for this which others can explain, but at the start of the Sixties there was already an active local chapter of the John Birch Society, a group I didn't have any knowledge of, except that they seemed to be four-square opposed to both water fluoridation and consolidated government. Naive me, both proposals seemed to be eminently sensible and practical and I didn't see any problem with either. But this was the time when "Impeach Earl Warren" signs were all over the Southern countryside, George Wallace was soon to be standing in an Alabama schoolhouse door just a few miles away on the basis of "states rights," and there was a widespread and credible threat that Communists were just waiting to get control of everything we held dear.

It was in this milieu that none other that Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, came to Columbus to speak to local supporters at the old Royal theatre. There was no charge for admission, and it was at that time that I, along with two other high school students, sat politely through the man's speech and then passed out leaflets to people as they left warning them that the John Birch Society was not what they thought it was. It was a simple, four-page typed flyer run off on a church mimeograph machine, that said, in part...

Just how so many Americans have been tricked into such Communist ruses as democracy, foreign aid, UNICEF, the United Nations, NATO, and national defense defies reason.

We, the Teen-Age Democratic Club are not indifferent to the John Birch Society; We are willing to take a positive stand. We fear the Birch as a demagogic (gaining political influence through social discontent) and fantastic (a program of strong centralization, severe nationalism, and suppression of opposition) group. In this opinion, we accept the following wild-eyed "commie" supporters: "Time" and "Life" magazines, and the Los Angeles Times; The New York Times, J.Edgar Hoover, and Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

A local flap ensued during which a local columnist suggested that the three of us had been manipulated by some unknown but sinister outside agitator. Who knows? I didn't write the leaflet and the guy who brought it was a preacher's kid who had used the copying machine at a local Methodist church to execute his subversive plan. But that's not the point. The point is that I agreed with what it said and I was willing, even at that young age, to take a stand for what I thought.

(I know. Human Events. We're getting there.)

A couple of years later I was in Tallahassee, Florida getting involved with a student group calling itself, believe it or not, the "Liberal Forum." Can you imagine? The word liberal was not yet the completely reviled label that it has lately become, forcing today's liberals into apologizing for the word by calling themselves "progressive." A few people still refer to the word but they are careful to be prissy about it, specifying themselves as "classic" liberals, but I remain the un-reconstructed Sixties liberal that I was at that time, ashamed of the moral turpitude of the time but mostly pleased about how we stood on politics social issues.

Walking downtown one afternoon I went into a bookstore called "American Opinion," an outlet for conservative printed materials in general and John Birch Society publications in particular. I know well where I was, but I didn't leave. I wanted to stay and find out first hand what those people were saying, how they were saying it, and if there was anything there that might still appeal to me. Remember, I was still young and malleable. I was leaning into what would later become a Liberal direction, but I remained open to other ideas. I was still attending the Baptist Church there in Tallahassee, but by then I was informed that my home church in Columbus already had a deacons' meeting to discuss a contingency plan should any Negroes show up some Sunday to stir up trouble. They knew there was no way that Negroes coming to a white church would really be there to worship, so it was planned in advance how best not to admit them.

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was leafing through a copy of Human Events Magazine and it appeared to be a pretty well-done piece of work. No in-your-face extremism that I could find and articles that seemed to be of general interest. But I came across a piece by Westbrook Pegler making reference to Elanor Roosevelt that got my attention. In my innocence I knew that Elanor Roosevelt was an important political character and had a lot to do with black people. For all I knew she might have helped form the NAACP, but in those days when more extremist groups like CORE, SNCC and the SDS were all over the place, the NAACP was about as old-fashioned and harmless as a Black Baptist church. Besides, Columbus was right down the road from Warm Springs, FDR's Little White House, and the name of Roosevelt was well thought of in those parts. Pegler's description of Elanor Roosevelt was about as vile an expression of ad hominem attack as I had ever seen in print, making reference, I recall, to her "hooked nose" and other physical attributes having nothing to do with politics or principles. I put down the magazine and left the store. Many experiences of my college years have been lost in my memory, but that exposure to that issue of Human Events remained burned in my memory for the rest of my life.

I have been sitting at this keyboard now over two hours squeezing this pimple and I was about to put together a closing paragraph. Here we are over forty years after the fact and I decided to try a Google search to find if the exact article that I may have been reading in 1962 might be found on line. To my surprise I did a search just now for Westbrook Pegler Eleanor Roosevelt and got over fifteen hundred hits.

But I found an even bigger surprise, appearing in the Wikipedia article about Pegler.

Interest in Pegler was revived when a line originally written by him appeared in Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin's acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity", she said, attributing it to "a writer." The speech was written by Matthew Scully, a senior speech writer for George W. Bush.

I called it a "surprise," but after thinking about it for a moment, I may be disturbed, amazed, wowed or even disappointed. But surprised? I think not. And I can think of no better ending to this reflection.

Later....April 17, 2009

I notice someone from Michigan has been reading this post. I had not thought about it since I wrote it and never imagined anyone else would be interested. Reading it now, half a year later, it reads pretty good. Messy and without much of a point, but okay reading.

I drilled further in to the Pegler/Palin links and came up with the article mentioned. This fleshes out the story somewhat. Thomas Frank's The GOP Loves the Heartland To Death is a treasure. I'm grabbing the whole thing because too many times archived links go nowhere.

It tells us something about Sarah Palin's homage to small-town America, delivered to an enthusiastic GOP convention last week, that she chose to fire it up with an unsourced quotation from the all-time champion of fake populism, the belligerent right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler.

"We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity," the vice-presidential candidate said, quoting an anonymous "writer," which is to say, Pegler, who must have penned that mellifluous line when not writing his more controversial stuff. As the New York Times pointed out in its obituary of him in 1969, Pegler once lamented that a would-be assassin "hit the wrong man" when gunning for Franklin Roosevelt.

There's no evidence that Mrs. Palin shares the trademark Pegler bloodlust -- except maybe when it comes to moose and wolves. Nevertheless, the red-state myth that Mrs. Palin reiterated for her adoring audience owes far more to the venomous spirit of Pegler than it does to Norman Rockwell.

Small town people, Mrs. Palin went on, are "the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food and run our factories and fight our wars." They are authentic; they are noble, and they are her own: "I grew up with those people."

But what really defines them in Mrs. Palin's telling is their enemies, the people who supposedly "look down" on them. The opposite of the heartland is the loathsome array of snobs and fakers, "reporters and commentators," lobbyists and others who make up "the Washington elite."

Presumably the various elite Washington lobbyists who have guided John McCain's presidential campaign were exempt from Mrs. Palin's criticism. As would be former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, now a "senior adviser" to the Dickstein Shapiro lobby firm, who hymned the "Sarah Palin part of the party" thus: "Their kids aren't going to go to Ivy League schools. Their sons leave high school and join the military to serve our country. Their husbands and wives work two jobs to make sure the family is sustained."

Generally speaking, though, when husbands and wives work two jobs each it is not merely because they are virtuous but because working one job doesn't earn them enough to get by. The two-job workers in Middle America aren't spurning the Ivy League and joining the military straight out of high school just because they're people of principle, although many of them are. It is because they can't afford to do otherwise.

Leave the fantasy land of convention rhetoric, and you will find that small-town America, this legendary place of honesty and sincerity and dignity, is not doing very well. If you drive west from Kansas City, Mo., you will find towns where Main Street is largely boarded up. You will see closed schools and hospitals. You will hear about depleted groundwater and massive depopulation.

And eventually you will ask yourself, how did this happen? Did Hollywood do this? Was it those "reporters and commentators" with their fancy college degrees who wrecked Main Street, U.S.A.?

No. For decades now we have been electing people like Sarah Palin who claimed to love and respect the folksy conservatism of small towns, and yet who have unfailingly enacted laws to aid the small town's mortal enemies.

Without raising an antitrust finger they have permitted fantastic concentration in the various industries that buy the farmer's crops. They have undone the New Deal system of agricultural price supports in favor of schemes called "Freedom to Farm" and loan deficiency payments -- each reform apparently designed to secure just one thing out of small town America: cheap commodities for the big food processors. Richard Nixon's Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz put the conservative attitude toward small farmers most bluntly back in the 1970s when he warned, "Get big or get out."

A few days ago I talked politics with Donn Teske, the president of the Kansas Farmers Union and a former Republican. Barack Obama may come from a big city, he admits, but the Farmers Union gives him a 100% rating for his votes in Congress. John McCain gets a 0%. "If any farmer in the Plains States looked at McCain's voting record on ag issues," Mr. Teske says, "no one would vote for him."

Now, Mr. McCain is known for his straight talk with industrial workers, telling them their jobs are never coming back, that the almighty market took them away for good, and that retraining is their only hope.

But he seems to think that small-town people can be easily played. Just choose a running mate who knows how to skin a moose and all will be forgiven. Drive them off the land, shutter their towns, toss their life chances into the grinders of big agriculture . . . and praise their values. The TV eminences will coo in appreciation of your in-touch authenticity, and the carnival will move on.


My mind got infected at an early age. Too bad. Now, forty-odd years later when I see or hear reference to Sarah Palin it invokes memories of Westbrook Pegler, Human Events Magazine, The John Birch Society, Robert Welch (who I saw and didn't like) and now journalist Thomas Frank (whom I've never seen or heard of but like very much). I hope she finds enough happiness and fulfillment in Alaska to make her want to remain there. But I fear that sometime between now and 2012 she's gonna get the urge to relocate to the lower forty-eight.

No comments: