Books You Oughta Read: Fear Itself

One of the book’s little detours that I wish to spotlight, because it’s relevant to the white supremacist march on Charlottesville, is the bizarre fact that southern Democrats were easily the most gung ho about going to war with the Nazis. This despite Hitler’s open admiration of Jim Crow, slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, etc. Before the war, Nazi officials even came to the South to try to build rapport, but they were rebuffed. FDR’s war policies could not have passed without the uniform support of the South.

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The Book

Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

The Author

Ira Katznelson, Ruggles professor of history and political science at Columbia

The Question I Should Have Previously Asked But Did Not Ask Until Reading This Book (QISHPABDNAURTB)

“Why, if FDR won reelection in 1936 with a landslide vote and even greater Democratic margins in Congress, was his second term so lacking in lasting New Deal legislation?”

The Review

Fear Itself is amazing, all 720 pages of it. It’s hard for me to do it justice in a review, which is why I’ve been unable to complete this two months after finishing the book and seven months after checking out the book (the library closed down in the interim). Plus, the book came out four years ago. You can read better reviews here, here and here. But recent events in Charlottesville make me want to share my piece.

Fear Itself explores just how much the solid South did to shape and control the achievements of the Roosevelt/Truman years. The imperfections this created in the crown jewel of the American welfare state linger today. This is a book centered on the legislative branch; those two great presidents are in the supporting cast.

Here is the basic story: With the ascension of FDR and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, the solid South saw the New Deal as an opportunity to finally catch up economically with the North. They only felt comfortable doing this because Jim Crow was so entrenched that they couldn’t fathom any serious challenge to the racial order. Plus, FDR was friendly to the South. His Cabinet and court picks were packed with Southerners. Laws could be shaped to exclude blacks, and regulators could be selected to exercise proper discretion. It’s no coincidence that so many New Deal programs were delegated to regional or state-based administrators — the South could continue to rule itself.

However, despite the best intentions of racist southern Democrats, the New Deal couldn’t help but help blacks as well as whites. Democratic majorities were elected all over the non-South with the fusion of labor and black voters, who defected from the Republican Party en masse. And with the influence of northern Dems and people like Eleanor Roosevelt, sometimes FDR couldn’t help but be egalitarian. Some regulations started to prohibit racial discrimination. Anti-lynching laws started to get votes in Congress. Jim Crow was not invincible, it turned out.

Therefore, southern Democrats, who, being senior, still controlled the pivotal committees of Congress, started to oppose FDR whenever he would interfere with the racial order. They would even vote with Republicans if necessary. And FDR needed their support if he wanted to get anything done. So the madcap pace of Roosevelt’s first four years gave way to relative stagnation until the largest war in human history. There is your answer to the QISHPABDNAURTB. Back in high school history class, they told us that the Supreme Court was the culprit, but that doesn’t explain the anemic response by the other branches of the government.

Essentially, the New Deal represents the last time the South welcomed rather than opposed direct federal intervention with the economy. It only let its guard down for a moment; as soon as the racial order was threatened, it closed ranks. But in that window of opportunity the American government forged the modern welfare state. It was a miraculous accomplishment.

I oversimplify, for the sake of a cleaner story. The book gets into a lot more. You can read about Mussolini and get a sense of how fragile democracy and capitalism seemed to be by the time FDR took office. You can read about World War II, when America became a planned economy. You can read about a bill to let overseas soldiers vote, seemingly noncontroversial but quashed by southern Democrats nonetheless. You can read about the decline of government planning and the rise of the budget as a more hands-off approach to managing the economy. It’s not a coincidence that that suited the South. It’s all there.

One of the book’s little detours that I wish to spotlight, because it’s relevant to the white supremacist march on Charlottesville, is the bizarre fact that southern Democrats were easily the most gung ho about going to war with the Nazis. This despite Hitler’s open admiration of Jim Crow, slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, etc. Before the war, Nazi officials even came to the South to try to build rapport, but they were rebuffed. FDR’s war policies could not have passed without the uniform support of the South.

How did that happen? Katznelson speculates on a few possibilities. Was it white-on-white racism, with Anglo-Saxon, Scotch-Irish southerners rejecting the Teutonic hordes? Was it the economic setback that war in Europe would inflict on the South? Was it a defense mechanism to cope with the fact that they weren’t so different? The answer is unclear, but the fact that it happened is astounding.

Occasionally the book doesn’t hang together. You could write separate books on the New Deal, World War II, fascism, unions, the Manhattan Project, etc. Instead, they’re all jumbled together in one. But that is the fault less of the author than of the source material. We are an assemblage of contradictions and paradoxes bundled together into something we call “America.” To draw such a powerful and persuasive narrative from it is a magnificent feat by Katznelson. Fear Itself reshapes the way you view the world while leaving you hungry for more. You should read this book.

 

The Oculus sucks

INT. A SWANKY NEW YORK RESTAURANT — 12:26 P.M. ON A THURSDAY IN NOVEMBER, 2003

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA, a hacktacular HACK, dines on oysters at a table with PAT H., a composite character based on various MAKERS OF BAD DECISIONS, and CASSANDRA, the Trojan princess and SEER.

PAT H.

Tell me, my good friend Santiago! What are your plans to rebuild the station at the World Trade Center?

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

A glimmering harmony of steel and glass! A soaring bird released from the hands of a child!

PAT H.

Capital!

He takes a sip from his DIRTY MARTINI as SANTIAGO CALATRAVA slurps up ANOTHER OYSTER.

CASSANDRA

Nay, it will need extensive redesign for safety purposes. The final product will more closely resemble a trilobite, or a ribcage, or a Venus flytrap. And furthermore–

PAT H.

Santiago, what do you envision for the interior of your masterpiece?

Cassandra begins a silent conversation with her MUG OF JOHNNIE WALKER RED.

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

A grand unification of the New York City Subway with the Port Authority Trans-Hudson rail system, a new dawn for commuters.

Cassandra lowers her mug.

PAT H.

Splendid!

CASSANDRA

That will not come to pass. Functionally it will be equivalent to a long corridor.

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

A destination for the most sophisticated shoppers in the world’s most sophisticated city!

PAT H.

I can see it now!

CASSANDRA

Its centerpiece will be an Apple store, which will be successful in the future.

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

A transportation hub to rival Grand Central Station!

PAT H.

Magnificent!

CASSANDRA

It will serve 40 thousand commuters per day. Grand Central will serve 750 thousand.

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

White wings! White concourses! White marble!

He gesticulates wildly, knocking over Pat H.’s martini in excitement.

PAT H. (ignoring spill)

Like the driven snow!

CASSANDRA

Or like an ossuary. The marble will be hideously expensive and require frequent cleaning and replacement, what with the thousands of commuters traipsing over it every day. It will also become incredibly slippery when it rains.

She drains her mug.

CASSANDRA (to WAITER)

Whiskey!

PAT H.

That’s nice, Cassandra. Santiago, when can your heartbreaking work of staggering genius be completed?

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

In five years!

CASSANDRA

It will take 12.

A handsome WAITER comes to the table with a BOTTLE OF JOHNNIE WALKER RED. Cassandra gives him her EMPTY MUG and takes the bottle.

CASSANDRA (cont.)

Much obliged.

She resumes conversation with her whisky.

PAT H.

I can spare 2.2 billion dollars for your project. Will that be enough?

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

That should just about cover it.

CASSANDRA

It will cost four billion dollars. It will cost more than the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. And may I add that two billion dollars is already an obnoxious–

PAT H.

Oh Cassandra, you’re too pretty to worry so much. Have some wine.

Cassandra smashes the BOTTLE OF JOHNNIE WALKER RED on the ground. Other patrons of the swanky restaurant start to STARE.

CASSANDRA (screaming)

Don’t you get it, you idiots? This project will be a massive failure! It will be an embarrassing eyesore! Everything will go wrong!

She stomps off to PLACES UNKNOWN.

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

Nothing will go wrong, I promise you, Pat.

PAT H.

I am glad to hear it, Santiago. One last question. What will you name your creation?

SANTIAGO CALATRAVA

I will call it… the Oculus!

CUT

If you have not been in lower Manhattan lately, you have successfully avoided seeing the utter monstrosity of an edifice that is the World Trade Center PATH station. The bleached bones. The pallid pill-bug. The “steroidal stegosaurus.” The Oculus.

Continue reading “The Oculus sucks”

Books You Oughta Read: March

March - John Lewis - Cover
Buy it on Amazon.

John Lewis is a Civil Rights hero. Do you know why he is a hero? Until recently, I couldn’t really answer that question. Thankfully, Congressman Lewis wrote a graphic novel: March, with help from aide Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell. The third and final volume was published last year. March primarily covers Lewis’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement from 1960 until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, with a framing story set on the day of President Obama’s first inauguration.

My biggest takeaway from the book was the sheer extent of Lewis’s participation. It seems like he had a hand in everything. A non-exhaustive list of his actions during the Civil Rights Movement:

  • Working to desegregate the lunch counters of Nashville as a 20-year-old college student in 1960
  • Riding with the first cohort of Freedom Riders in 1961, then organizing a continuation of the ride after the first bus was firebombed and destroyed
  • Directing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966
  • Speaking at the March on Washington (He was the youngest speaker and the only speaker still alive today.)
  • Organizing voter registration and community education in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer
  • And of course, Selma

March: Book One opens in media res, showing Lewis’s march at the head of the first Selma march on March 7, 1965, a.k.a. Bloody Sunday, for which he got his skull cracked, after which March: Book One goes to the framing device, leaving the Selma story to be picked up not in March: Book Two, but in March: Book Three, which shows Martin Luther King’s march at the head  of the second march on March 9, a.k.a. Turnaround Tuesday, during which Lewis is still hospitalized for the injury he sustained during the first march, then the third march, for which Lewis had sufficiently recovered, allowing him to march in the front line of the third, successful, Selma-to-Montgomery march, the last significant Civil Rights action depicted in March, on March 21, March 22, March 23, March 24 and March 25.

The graphic novel doesn’t show anything after the ’60s other than Obama’s inauguration, but it resonates with current events as good books tend to do. Some of the things that struck me:

  • Just how fractured the Civil Rights Movement could be. Being composed of students and other youth, SNCC was frequently impatient with the slow pace of progress and relative conservatism of the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Even Lewis wasn’t safe — during March: Book Three in particular it feels like SNCC is breaking up from under him. He marched at Selma as a private citizen rather than a representative of SNCC. Lewis’s guiding lights were always MLK and nonviolence as a philosophy, rather than as a tactic. Many disagreed.
  • How John Lewis’s speech for the March on Washington had to be rewritten because the other march organizers thought it too harsh and combative. The original called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “too little too late,” questioned the Kennedy administration’s commitment to civil rights and threatened a march through the south “the way Sherman did.” The speech he delivered supported the Civil Rights Act “with great reservation” and left out the other inflammatory parts. Was it censorship, or was it good tactics? Or was it both? Or was it censorship and bad tactics?
  • How white allies in civil rights organizing spurred conflict as well. “N—-r lovers” were beaten up as badly as, or even worse than their black compatriots. But this violence against white people in the movement always received much more coverage than violence against black people, which naturally fostered resentment. SNCC debated at length about the role of white people, whether they should take visible leadership, whether they should be allowed in SNCC at all, etc. In the end, the coalition did not last long, though long enough.
  • And finally, the intensity of the training and preparation that organizers went through. Nonviolence requires that you refrain from the natural response to indignity and abuse. You say thank you when someone dumps garbage on you. You curl up when being attacked rather than fighting back, yet you still maintain eye contact. The organizers blew smoke in each other’s faces. They called each other “n—-r.” They practiced everything that might happen to them, in order to prepare themselves to resist, and to sift out the ones who could not handle that level of abuse. Those people still had a role in the movement, but they couldn’t be on the front lines. Contrast this with a deliberately improvisational movement like Occupy Wall Street.

Lewis is diligent in giving credit to the many people he worked with, and takes the time to depict events for which he wasn’t physically present, so the book also functions as a decent history of the Civil Rights Movement. The framing device is moving and the illustrations are great. The story really benefits from being a graphic novel. One “issue” is that the book is about real, realistically depicted people rather than weirdos in colorful costumes, so if you share my, er, talent for faces, sometimes you might have trouble remembering which characters are which.

Overall, March is a fantastic book, and it seems that people agree with me, because it’s won a boatload of awards. Buy it, or check it out from your local library.

Building statues of living people sucks

It’s creepy and I don’t like it. And it’s probably bad luck. NBC Sports agrees with me, so I am not alone on this. I’m fine with busts. Portraits are great, less so if you commission one of yourself, but still OK. Wax figures are a bizarre edge case that I’m inclined to let slide, owing to their inherent impermanence. But traditional statues go too far. Just look at these monstrosities.

Gyah! It looks like they encased real people in metal. And cloned them beforehand to keep up the ruse. It’s disgusting, perverse and I won’t have it. U.S. law prohibits presidents from appearing on currency until two years after death. A similar law, executive order or constitutional amendment should be enacted for statues. THUS SPAKE I.

Joe Paterno Statue
Though maybe they SHOULD have encased Joe Paterno in metal.