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Depression & New Deal

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Hues of History.

/r/ColorizedHistory is dedicated to high quality colorizations of historical black and white images, and discussions of a historical nature.” Reddit’s endlessly browsable History in Color, with some choice selections collected here.

“In those years, photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) undertook a photographic survey of the Russian Empire with the support of Tsar Nicholas II. He used a specialized camera to capture three black and white images in fairly quick succession, using red, green and blue filters, allowing them to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to show near true color images.” Along related lines, and making the rounds again because of the Ukraine situation, “real” color photos of Russia from 1909 to 1912.

The Lollipop Sails.

“‘People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog, Rin Tin Tin, and a little girl,’ Mrs. Black often said in appraising her success.” Child star, Depression icon, Republican diplomat, and cancer survivor Shirley Temple Black, 1928-2014.

From Old Ones to New Deal.

“The sketch on the right side of this page of notes, with its annotations (“body dark grey”; “all appendages not in use customarily folded down to body”; “leathery or rubbery”) represents Lovecraft working out the specifics of an Elder Thing’s anatomy. As Lovecraft’s narrator was a scientist, the description of the Things in the novella is dense and layered; here we can see the beginnings of that detail.”

Speaking of taking notes: In her house at S’late, Rebecca Onion points the way to H.P. Lovecraft’s handwritten notes for At the Mountains of Madness. “The writer, who had fallen on hard times, used a deconstructed envelope in an attempt to save paper.”

Also, I forget if I’ve blogged this before, but I found this interesting read while looking to briefly shoehorn Lovecraft into the dissertation: Lovecraft’s final years as a New Dealer:

As for the Republicans—how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical ‘American heritage’…) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience? Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives to the dead.”

Tales of Wonder.

By way of io9, an impressive collection of vintage sci-fi pulp art. (You can still make your own here.) Note the editor above — Hugo Gernsback, sci-fi pioneer and the Man in the Mask. (He also appears briefly in Uphill All the Way.)

100 Years Ago, A Nation Awoke.

At any rate, this was a terrible accident; 147 young people, they were all young men and women, were killed, lost their lives and a number of others were badly injured…This made a terrible impression on the people of the State of New York. I can’t begin to tell you how disturbed the people were everywhere. It was as though we had all done something wrong. It shouldn’t have been. We were sorry. Mea culpa! Mea culpa! We didn’t want it that way. We hadn’t intended to have 147 girls and boys killed in a factory. It was a terrible thing for the people of the City of New York and the State of New York to face.” — Frances Perkins

I meant to post on this a few weeks ago, but busy-ness conspired against it: 100 years ago last month, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned to the ground. And ultimately, from its ashes, a New Deal — something the Scott Walkers and Paul Ryans of the world might should consider.

Anatomy of a Tantrum.

This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for, for a hundred years – but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get…somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.

“Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves, and sanctimonious about how pure our intensions are and how tough we are…That can’t be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.

As I’m sure most of y’all know by now, the president decided to indulge in some cathartic lefty-bashing at his tax cut deal press conference earlier in the week. [Transcript.] At this point, the fact that Obama feels this way about progressives is not at all a surprise, and I feel like I’ve already responded to his appalling penchant for this sorta thing at length. So, here’re just a few numbered points about this latest sad window into Obama’s “pragmatic” mindset:

1) Alex Pareene at Salon cut right to the heart of the fallacy on display here: “[Obama] continues to imagine that his liberal critics are upset with the idea that compromises need to be made in order to accomplish progressive policy goals. Some of them are that stupid. But lots of them are actually critics of the White House’s legislative strategy, and their apparent willingness to preemptively compromise before the negotiations have already begun.Yep.

2) See also Paul Krugman: “Leave aside the merits for a moment: what possible purpose does this kind of lashing out serve? Will activists be shamed into recovering their previous enthusiasm? Will Republicans stop their vicious attacks because Obama is lashing out to his left? It was pure self-indulgence; even if he feels aggrieved, he has to judge his words by their usefulness, not by his desire to vent…[W]hat we really don’t need right now is a president who blames everyone but himself, and seems more concerned with self-justification than with sustaining the alliances he needs.

3) As I noted on Twitter, the president’s argument here is inherently contradictory. He began his presser by saying he had to make a bad deal because the Right, however wrongheaded, held stubbornly to their convictions. Then he verbally abuses the Left for…holding stubbornly to their convictions. Uh, it seemed to work pretty well for the GOP.

4) Speaking of Twitter, the Twitterverse response to the presidential presser is well worth perusing for gallows humor and hard truths. Take for example, “Obama: This is like the public option fight all over again where I caved and opposed the thing that reduced the deficit.

5) As many have pointed out now, the president is also wrong on his New Deal history. In the presser, he claimed Social Security was only for widows and orphans. Wrong. He’s thinking of the civil war pension system, circa 1862. I know that law degrees are considered the be-all, end-all of our civilization these days, but an ostensibly progressive president not understanding the origins of Social Security is sort of a big effing deal. (And he didn’t just misspeak — He’s said it before.)

6) As historian Thomas Ferguson noted several weeks ago, this is not the first time the president has badly screwed up the history of the New Deal in a way that was ultimately self-serving. (As an aside: Given they they chose to structure a major policy speech around a fake Lincoln quote, his communications staff isn’t much better.)

7) As Dan Froomkin pointed out, Obama’s argument about the public option is also contradictory. He argues that Social Security and Medicare started out small, than belittles the public option because it “would have affected maybe a couple of million people,” i.e. it would’ve started out small.

8) Obama also no longer seems to understand how the public option was supposed to work. Here’s Froomkin: “What the president conspicuously disregarded was that the central point of the public option was that its existence would exert enormous competitive pressure on the private insurance system. The goal was not to serve a particularly large number of people directly — that would only happen if the private offerings were terribly inadequate. The goal was to keep the private sector honest. So no matter how many people it enrolled, ‘the provision,’ as Obama put it “would have affected” tens of millions.” In other words, the public option was designed to be a yardstick. So, even in terms of recent history, there are some serious revisions going on.

9) Politico’s catty analysis of the president’s relationship with Chuck Schumer offered more insights on Obama’s thinking today: “Obama himself warned Schumer that the millionaire strategy could sink the stock market. When a vote on the millionaire plan came up short last Saturday, the administration gloated.” The vagaries of the stock market? Is that really what we’re basing our tax policies on these days? (Also, I don’t think Chuck Schumer, of all people, needs to be informed of when and how Wall Street will balk. I think he has his finger pretty solidly on that pulse.)

10) A day after the president’s remarks, Larry Summers solemnly informed us that not passing the millionaire tax cut would lead to a double-dip recession. This is basically the economic equivalent of the terror, terror, terror, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 argument. And, as David Dayen and Jon Walker both pointed out: If the economy is resting on that sort of knife’s edge, why’s the White House just reduce purchasing power by announcing a federal worker’s pay freeze? Something does not compute.

11) Obama at the presser again: “Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.” Um…do we really want to go there? Because I’m sure this would be news to Maher Arar. In any case, as a friend pointed out, this isn’t kindergarten — You don’t get a gold star just for “trying.”

Anyways, so, yeah, Obama doesn’t like “the professional left” very much. And, at this point, it’s safe to say the feeling is mutual. As for myself…well, these days I just feel like a sucker.

FDR: The View from the Inside.

Tully took the president’s dictation for his famous Pearl Harbor speech. ‘Miss Tully had been with Roosevelt since his days as governor of New York,” said David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States. ‘And many of his most sensitive letters, instructions, notes and even scribblings passed through her hands.‘”

The National Archives obtains 5,000 pages of new FDR documents, courtesy of the archives of personal secretary Grace Tully. (This video describes the acquisition.) “Archivists hope to have the collection publicly available by November and online by January.

Tales of the Homefront.

These images, by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations.” Two recent photo-exhibits of historical interest: The striking image above is from the Denver Post‘s “Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943″ exhibit, which is definitely worth perusing. And the WP points the way to a similar FSA series: “Life During Wartime: Washington DC and World War II.” In both cases, the images come via the LoC.

Bank to Basics.

The big U.S. banks were the source of the global financial crisis, in part because their bigness and their practices were copied by major banks around the world. What happens in this reform effort is being watched avidly in many countries, because it will say much about how global finance is to be conducted. What is often missing in these discussions are the assumptions people make about banking and its role in a modern economy. We should begin therefore with some first principles.

As the manifestly fradulent behavior by Goldman Sachs of late comes to full light — one among many, it seems — Numerian of The Agonist goes back to basics to make a case for strong banking reform. “The very first lesson we should learn from this crisis, which we thought this nation learned in the 1930s, is never again…The second lesson we should learn from this crisis is that we should not as a nation have to learn these lessons over and over again every 80 years. Something has to be done to make the legislative changes this time stick.

Luce Canon (and FORTUNE’s fool).

“From the mid-1930s through the late ’50s, Time Inc. was probably the largest news organization in the world, with bureaus on every continent…The company’s success was partly a result of shrewd management. But it was also a result of Luce, who had looked into the future and seen an increasingly integrated nation bound together by railroads, highways, radio, movies and the rise of a national corporate culture. As a result, Americans would need a vast amount of information and an efficient way of accessing it. Luce embraced that future and created vehicles that served the needs of his rapidly changing times.”

On the release of his long-awaited The Publisher, an extensive biography of TIME/LIFE founder Henry Luce, Columbia historian (and my dissertation advisor) Alan Brinkley discusses how Luce may have coped with the Digital Age. “Luce — for all his flaws — was an innovator, a visionary and a man of vast and daunting self-confidence. Were he to live in our time, trying once again to revolutionize the spread of knowledge, he might find his talents much in demand.

And, in very related news, Boing Boing posts Chris Ware’s recently rejected throwback cover for Fortune‘s annual 500 issue. “It hearkens back to the golden age of Fortune as an exemplar of beautifully designed and illustrated magazines…’and he filled the image with tons of satirical imagery, like the U.S. Treasury being raided by Wall Street, China dumping money into the ocean, homes being flooded, homes being foreclosed, and CEOs dancing a jig while society devolves into chaos. The cover, needless to say, was rejected.’

The New Deal fights on.

Despite sustained efforts to tear down the New Deal — from the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 to President George W. Bush’s ill-fated 2005 efforts to dismantle Social Security — the 1930s-vintage infrastructure has proved remarkably durable…Although the Tennessee Valley Authority has yet to pitch in, four 70-year-old agencies are helping to cushion the blow of the housing bust. Let’s count them.Slate‘s Daniel Gross examines how the New Deal is working to mitigate today’s credit crisis. (He also has a funny line about Sen. Clinton’s bizarre call yesterday to have Greenspan wave a magic wand to fix things: This “is a little like Chicago appointing a cow to a panel on preventing disastrous fires.“)

Only Yesterday.

By way of Ted at The Late Adopter, a bunch of 1940′s D-listers reminisce about the Depression Decade, VH-1 style, in I Love the ’30′s. Hey, isn’t that one of the Sonic guys? (The married one, not these two.)

Creators, Kingfish, and consiglieres.

Some quality historicizing in today’s Washington Post Book World: Michael Kazin reviews Richard White’s new Huey Long biography, H.W. Brand’s looks at Godfrey Hodgson’s new bio of Edward House (right-hand-man to Woodrow Wilson), and novelist David Liss briefly surveys recent works on the Founders.

Worst President Ever?

“Calamitous presidents, faced with enormous difficulties — Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hoover and now Bush — have divided the nation, governed erratically and left the nation worse off. In each case, different factors contributed to the failure: disastrous domestic policies, foreign-policy blunders and military setbacks, executive misconduct, crises of credibility and public trust. Bush, however, is one of the rarities in presidential history: He has not only stumbled badly in every one of these key areas, he has also displayed a weakness common among the greatest presidential failures — an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology that abjures deviation from dogma as heresy, thus preventing any pragmatic adjustment to changing realities.” As seen all over the place, historian Sean Wilentz wonders aloud in Rolling Stone if Dubya is the worst president in American history.

To my mind, the only other president that even comes close is James Buchanan. Sure, Warren Harding was lousy, but he knew it (“I am a man of limited talents from a small town. I don’t seem to grasp that I am President.“), and thus didn’t go out of his way to be actively terrible like Bush has been. (Plus, for all the corruption of the Ohio gang, Harding’s cabinet also included Charles Evans Hughes, Andrew Mellon, and Herbert Hoover, all impressive in their own right.) Speaking of Hoover, both he and Ulysses Grant have been given a bad shake. Even if the Depression basically ate his administration alive, Hoover — once renowned as the “Great Engineer” — was a more innovative president (and empathetic person) than he’s often remembered. And Grant’s administrations, although plagued by corruption, at the very least tried to maintain Reconstruction in the South. (In fact, I’d argue that Grant’s sorry standing in presidential history is in a part a reflection of the low esteem in which Reconstruction was once held by the now-woefully obsolete Dunning School.) Regarding the other Reconstruction president, Andrew Johnson is assuredly down near the bottom too, but to be fair, he faced an almost impossible situation entering office in the time and manner he did, and — as with Clinton — his impeachment was a bit of a frame-job. And Richard Nixon, for all his many failings, had China (as well as the EPA despite himself, and, although it didn’t pan out, the Family Assistance Plan.) Nope, I think it’s safe to say that we may be experiencing perhaps the most blatantly inept, wrong-headed, and mismanaged presidency in the history of the republic. Oh, lucky us.

Plot Foiled.

A quick book bash: I wasn’t going to write about Philip Roth’s The Plot against America, which I read a few weeks ago, until seeing C.S.A tonight crystallized my problems with it. I should say up front that I run hot and cold on Roth — I quite liked Portnoy and American Pastoral, but kinda loathed Goodbye, Columbus. And, while The Plot Against America is getting good reviews all around, I had a strongly adverse reaction to it. For those of you who haven’t heard anything about it, Plot describes an alternate USA in which famed aviator and rabid isolationist Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in 1940, makes peace with Hitler, and begins a pogrom of sorts against Jewish-Americans, forcibly enrolling Jewish children (including the narrator’s brother) in Americanization programs and, eventually, attempting to relocate Jewish families to the Midwest. As per Roth’s usual m.o., the tale is told from the perspective of a Newark family trying to find their way — not very successfully — amid the deteriorating events.

As alternate histories go, it’s a great idea for a book, and I was really looking forward to seeing what Roth did with it. But, unlike CSA, which clearly showed an attentiveness to both what happened and what might have happened, Roth here has written an alternate history without seeming to give a whit about the history. In short, I found the book stunningly, almost narcissisticly, myopic. One gets the sense from reading Plot that the rift beween Jews and Gentiles in America was not only the most significant but the only ethnic or cultural schism in FDR’s America. This is not to say anti-semitism wasn’t rampant and widespread at the time — Of course it was, as attested by Father Coughlin, Breckinridge Long, and Lindbergh himself, who — in a speech that tarnished his reputation much more than Roth lets on — blamed support for the war on the “large ownership and influence [of Jews] in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our Government.” But, in The Plot Against America, no one else seems to even exist besides Jews and (White) Gentiles — To take the two most notable examples, there’s no mention of the fact that Africans-Americans were being lynched in staggering numbers in this period (the only lynching mentioned is that of Leo Frank), or that we actually did intern Japanese-Americans during the war. (As a point of contrast, C.S.A.‘s central thesis is about slavery, but it moves beyond white-black relations to explore, or at least reference, the place of Asians, Latinos, and gay Americans in the new Confederate system.)

This isn’t about tokenism — it’s about doing justice to the people and the history of the period you’re writing about. And, frankly, the history in The Plot Against America strains credulity time and time again. I’ll skip over the final twist so as not to give it away, and because it’s so ridiculously implausible that Roth couldn’t have intended for us to take it seriously. But, even despite that, Lindbergh’s popularity — and the public’s taste for isolationism — by 1940 seem significantly overstated throughout. (To take one example, there is no way that the Solid Democratic South would up and vote GOP that year — With the Civil War only recently out of living memory, the Dems could’ve run a wet paper bag in the South, so long as it wasn’t of the party of Lincoln and didn’t threaten to upset the Jim Crow racial order. That didn’t even begin to change until Strom in ’48.) And, while Walter Winchell plays a large role here in calling out the Nazi-American pact and resulting Jewish pogrom, he seems to be the only public figure in America doing so. Where’s everyone else? It doesn’t make sense.

Finally (and I’ll admit, this really ticked me off), Plot basically commits a character assassination of progressive/isolationist Burton Wheeler of Montana, who here appears as Lindbergh’s Vice-President (or, more to the point, his Cheney — I’m assuming that’s what Roth was getting at.) At a certain point in Plot, we’re supposed to believe that Wheeler — a guy who refused to prosecute alleged dissenters as Montana Attorney General during the hysteria of WWI, helped lead the investigation into the government corruption of Teapot Dome, and turned on FDR because he thought court-packing was an unconstitutional powergrab — is going to, out-of-the-blue, declare martial law and start rounding people up? That makes zero sense, and is, in effect, a slander on a real historical figure. Roth is obviously one of America’s most gifted writers — but, lordy, I thought The Plot Against America needed more research, more attention to historical nuance, and more sense that injustice and suffering in this country has often run along more than one axis of discrimination.

New Deal, Raw Deal.

“It was during the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman that such great progressive policies as Social Security, protective labor laws and the GI Bill were adopted. But with them came something else that was quite destructive for the nation: what I have called ‘affirmative action for whites.’ During Jim Crow’s last hurrah in the 1930s and 1940s, when southern members of Congress controlled the gateways to legislation, policy decisions dealing with welfare, work and war either excluded the vast majority of African Americans or treated them differently from others.” With Katrina as a newspeg, Columbia’s own Ira Katznelson previews his new book on New Deal racial exclusion in the Washington Post.

Rewriting Roosevelt.

“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Or is quoting Orwell too shrill? Well, you tell me — A coalition of women’s groups are blocked from holding a forum on Social Security at the FDR Library in Hyde Park because none of the attendees wanted to support Dubya’s ill-conceived privatization plan (Two Republican representatives were invited to speak — both declined.)

I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that, despite the lies of Brit Hume and FOX News, ole FDR himself would probably have agreed that dismantling one of his most enduring achievements so that Dubya’s Wall Street cronies could pad their wallets is a lousy idea. (For what it’s worth, FDR’s grandson agrees.) At any rate, the new head of the National Archives, Allen Weinstein, is trying to mitigate the damage. And, well he should, for after all: “Weinstein has been on the job for six weeks. Several historical organizations opposed his selection, fearing he would politicize the archives. Bush removed the previous archivist without providing a reason to Congress.

Barton Fitzgerald.

In the summer of 1937, broke, in debt and trying desperately to dry out, F. Scott Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood, where he joined the legions of jerks with Underwoods…” The University of South Carolina acquire the papers of Fitzgerald’s late Hollywood years, which disclose that the author of Gatsby actually struggled to make the Great American Movie, to no avail.

Dust, Discrimination, and Domestic Containment.

Some thanksgiving orals reading, for you and yours…read with lavish amounts of stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.
C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.
Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s.

Brave New Century.

Slow and steady wins the race, I hope:

George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920.

Consume and Progress.

Another wave of updates over at the Orals site:

Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939.
Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.
Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State.
John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War.
Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America.
Daniel Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age.
Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920.

This Modern Life.

AICN points the way to the trailer for Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, soon to be re-released at a theater (possibly) near you. Hmm…I wonder if free-market conservatives will try to protect Frederick Winslow Taylor the way they recently did Ronnie Reagan?

A Second Opinion.

Historians and medical researchers wonder if FDR suffered from Guillain-Barre syndrome rather than polio. Either way, the splendid deception worked like a charm.

xXx and Elizabeth.

I can already see the sparks fly. Garth of Dark Horizons reports on the movie pairing you’ve all been waiting for: Vin Diesel and Dame Judi Dench. I know the Pitch Black sequels are set in space, but hopefully they can squeeze in a scene of the two of them simultaneously screaming from out the front windsheld of a car. In other Dark Horizons news, along the lines of K-19, director Kathryn Bigelow is now working on a historical film about the Scottsboro case, which could be quite interesting.

Doris Kearns Badwin.

According to the LA Times and Mickey Kaus of Slate, another book of Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s, No Ordinary Time, suffers from Ambrose Syndrome (Ambrosia?). That’s a shame.

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