Archive for the ‘U.S. History’ Category

Forrest Gump and the Manufacturing of Innocence

September 7, 2014

Forrest_Gump_poster

It’s been 20 years since Forrest Gump was released. This anniversary is being celebrated with a week-long IMAX release. I guess this is a good enough excuse to write something that I’ve long been wanting to write.

When Forrest Gump first came out, it mostly received ecstatic reviews (with a few naysayers here and there). I went to see it fully expecting to enjoy it. The early scenes seemed promising. I liked Sally Fields as Forrest Gump’s mother. She quickly disappeared, however. After about half an hour, I started glancing at my watch, wondering how much longer this thing would go on. I was watching stick figure characters who were doing things that were neither believable nor interesting. When the film finally ended, I left the theater feeling numb, as if I had just sat through a really long and really dull lecture.

So, what gives? Why did this mediocre film win such rave reviews? And why was it so hugely popular? (Those Bubbagump Shrimp hats were far and away the most annoying fashion item of the 1990’s.) This is something that I have thought about from time to time. I think that one of the significant things about this film is the fact that Gump is depicted as morally pure. There isn’t a mean-spirited bone in his body. He even manages to make it through the Vietnam War without killing anyone. (Although he somehow wins the Medal of Honor.)

But what’s really striking about this film is its racial angle. Gump is depicted as being not the least bit racist, despite the fact that he grows up in the Deep South during the time of Jim Crow. (We are also explicitly told that he is named after Nathan Bedford-Forrest, the founder of the Klu Klux Klan.) He is nice to almost all the black people he meets. (Interestingly, the only black person Gump doesn’t like is a Black Panther.) When Gump is in the Army, he meets a black soldier named Bubba, who talks non-stop about the different ways to cook shrimp. We’re expected to believe that Gump somehow forms a deep emotional bond with this self-absorbed monomaniac. Bubba is killed in the war, and after Gump leaves the army, he buys a shrimp boat and calls his business “Bubbagump Shrimp”. The film then has one of its moments of “whimsy”. A hurricane destroys all the shrimp boats except for Gump’s. This gives Gump a monopoly on the shrimp business that makes him wealthy. (This film’s makers expect us to see it as a good thing that a whole bunch of people were impoverished so Gump could get rich.) Gump then gives a bunch of money to Bubba’s mother, who works as a maid. She retires and buys a nice house, where she is waited upon by a maid. The film implies that this is a form of justice. (Although not for the woman who has to wait on Bubba’s mother.)

The clear subtext of this film is that Gump absolves us of our sins. (The film critic, Gene Siskel, once called this movie “a healing balm”.) We’ve had 500 years of racism, but it’s OK, because Gump was nice to Bubba’s mom. Two million Vietnamese were killed in the war, but, hey, at least Gump didn’t kill any of them!

Forrest Gump promotes a notion of American “innocence” that helped to create the cultural climate in this country that made the invasion of Iraq possible.

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Harry Truman’s Shirts

August 14, 2014

Truman

Lately, I have been reading David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman. I’m interested in the Truman administration, because it was a pivotal period in our nation’s history. One thing I like about McCullough’s book is that it does a lot to dispel the myth of “Give ‘Em Hell Harry”. McCullough shows that Truman was often indecisive, and that he was reluctant to make decisions that he knew would be unpopular. Among other things, McCullough makes it clear that Truman should have fired MacArthur months before he did. (Truman did have a temper though. He once threatened to throw Joseph Kennedy out of a hotel window. You can’t really blame him for wanting to do that.) Although McCullough is highly sympathetic to Truman, he is nevertheless critical of him at times. He argues, for example, that Truman’s Loyalty Program helped set the stage for McCarthyism.

McCullough is a skillful writer who is good at historical narrative, but his amassing of details began to annoy me after a while. He writes about such things as what clothes Truman wore and what he had for lunch on certain days. This is more than I really wanted to know about Truman. What makes this baffling is that he devotes one paragraph to the creation of NATO. And he says hardly anything about Truman’s policies towards post-war Germany. (Which was one of the issues I was interested in when I picked up this book.) Call me a philistine, but I think these topics would have been more interesting than Truman’s shirts.

George Washington’s Dentures and the Reliability of Sources

May 5, 2014

Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_Washington

Like millions of Americans, I was taught as a child that George Washington had wooden teeth. Like so much of American folklore, this story conceals a sadder truth.

Over the past several days, several of my Facebook friends have linked to an article titled “George Washington Had Teeth That Actually Were Yanked From The Heads Of His Slaves And Fitted Into His Dentures” on a website called Reunion Black Family. The article starts out in a plausible vein, but then I came to this sentence:

    Consider, for example, his December 19, 1786 vow to never again purchase another slave from Zionist corporations that invaded Africa villages with guns and kidnapped people.

Zionist corporations? This has the stench of crankery about it. I decided to find out more about this website. From what I have been able to gather, it is owned by a man named Kola Afolabi, who apparently lives in Nigeria. He is a pan-African nationalist. He likes Gadaffi and Mugabe. He dislikes Christianity and Islam. Last year he got into a dispute with Gallery Ezakwantu, a website devoted to African art. They accused him of using copyrighted images from their website without their permission. One of the articles on Afolabi’s site is titled “On 9/11 about 4000 Jews who work in WTC were on leave. So where were they all gone just on that Day? Think about it” Yeah, think about it. I will spare you any quotes from this article. The title says it all.

So, Reunion Black Family is not a reliable source. This leaves the question: did Washington use teeth from his slaves in his dentures? I consulted several sources on this topic. They all said that Washington’s dentures were made from human teeth, animal teeth, and teeth carved from ivory. (The ivory teeth tended to turn brown over time. This may be the origin of the story about Washington having wooden teeth.) They did not say where the human teeth came from. Then I came across an article titled “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves” on PBS’s website. In it I found this:

    The following year, in May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed “Negroes,” presumably Mount Vernon slaves, 122 shillings for nine teeth, slightly less than one-third the going rate advertised in the papers, “on acct. of the French Dentis [sic} Doctr. Lemay [sic],” almost certainly Le Moyer. Over the next four years, the dentist was a frequent and apparently favorite guest on the plantation. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington’s payment suggests that they were for his own use. Washington probably underwent the transplant procedure–“I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion,” he told Richard Varick, his friend and wartime clerk, in 1784–and thus it may well be that some of the human teeth implanted to improve his appearance, or used to manufacture his dentures, came from his own slaves.

“The going rate advertised in the papers” refers to the fact that in those days dentists sometimes advertised in the newspapers for people willing to sell their teeth, which were then used to make dentures. (It appears that the idea of professional ethics in dentistry was still in its infancy.) One can only speculate as to whether Washington’s slaves who sold their teeth did so “voluntarily”. It should also be borne in mind that this was before the invention of anaesthesia.

So, George Washington did use teeth from his slaves in his dentures. I just wish people wouldn’t use a crank website to make this point.

The Democratic Party and the U.S. Left

September 9, 2013

Democraticjackass

Salon has an interesting article by David Sirota about the current state of the anti-war movement in the U.S. In it, he writes:

    So what happened to that movement? The shorter answer is: It was a victim of partisanship.

    That’s the conclusion that emerges from a recent study by professors at the University of Michigan and Indiana University. Evaluating surveys of more than 5,300 anti-war protestors from 2007 to 2009, the researchers discovered that the many protestors who self-identified as Democrats “withdrew from anti-war protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success” in the 2008 presidential election.

This confirms something I have long suspected. I remember talking to people at anti-war demonstrations during the 2000’s. Many of them seemed to me to be motivated by a visceral hatred for Bush and Cheney rather than by an actual opposition to war and imperialism. During the run-up to the 2004 election, they would tell of their intention to vote for one of the two anti-war Democrats, Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich. When Dean and Kucinich lost in the primaries, these people simply transferred their allegiance to John Kerry, a staunch supporter of the war. It was no surprise to me, then, that these people dropped out of the movement when a Democrat was finally elected to the White House.

Many Americans seem to have an emotional commitment to the two-party system that defies logic and common sense. For them, being a Republican or a Democrat is more than merely a matter of which party one votes for, it is an existential question, something that determines their very sense of identity.

I was at the Oregon Country Fair a couple of years ago, and I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that had pictures of George W. Bush and Hitler on it. It said: DIFFERENT NAMES, SAME SHIT. I was tempted to say to him, “Since Obama has continued many of Bush’s policies, does that mean he is also just like Hitler?” I didn’t ask this, but I suspect that if I had, the question would have made no sense to him. For a certain type of person, the mere fact that Obama is a Democrat means that he cannot be anything at all like Bush.

Our two main political parties originated in the nineteenth century, and both have radically evolved away from their original platforms. Many people simply can’t conceive of a world without them. Karl Marx once said, “The dead weight of the past weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living.” The older I get, the more convinced I become of the profound truth of that observation.

It’s Worse Than You Think

May 28, 2013

Census Poverty

The U.S. is a poorer country than most people realize. According to Alternet:

    The IRS reports that the highest wage in the bottom half of earners is about $34,000. To be eligible for food assistance, a family can earn up to 130% of the federal poverty line, or about $30,000 for a family of four.

There is also this:

    The median debt level rose to $75,600 in 2009, while the median family net worth, according to the Federal Reserve, dropped from $126,400 in 2007 to $77,300 in 2010.

There’s not a lot of talk about this in the mainstream media. They don’t like to talk about depressing topics such as poverty and unemployment. They prefer to talk about crime, terrorism, political scandals (both real and imaginary), and, of course, celebrity gossip. What also makes talking about poverty difficult, however, is the fact that Americans tend to believe that they are better off than people in other countries. They are taught this in public schools and by the media. When you tell some people that the U.S. lags behind some other countries in some respects, they simply don’t believe you. Part of the problem here is cultural. With the exception of Native Americans, native Hawaiians, and perhaps some Mexican-Americans, Americans are all descended from immigrants. These immigrants came here thinking they would be better off here than in their native countries, and in some cases this was actually true. However, this belief has been handed down through the generations, with the result that many Americans believe they have somehow lucked out, when they actually haven’t. There sometimes seems to me that there is a collective state of denial about the fact that wages have been declining for the past thirty years. (It doesn’t help that the decline in labor unions has led to a decline in class consciousness.) The interesting question here is: how long can people deny reality?

Rehabilitating the Kingfish

March 25, 2013

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Huey P. Long, a.k.a. The Kingfish.

Mike Whitney has posted an article on CounterPunch titled Our Chavez: Huey Long. There seems to be an effort in recent years on the part of some people to to try to portray the sometime governor of Louisiana and U.S.Senator as a great champion of the people, no doubt because of his ant-capitalist rhetoric. Yet when one takes a closer look at his life, it becomes clear that things were not that simple.

During Long’s lifetime, most of the Left regarded him with deep wariness, if not outright hostility. There were good reasons for that. First of all, he governed Louisiana as a virtual dictator. He even organized a secret police force to keep watch on his opponents as well as on his followers.

Long was also a white supremacist. He maintained Louisisana’s Jim Crow laws. (Long would sometimes smear his opponents by spreading rumors that they had “coffee blood”. This gives a bitter irony to calling him “our Chavez”.) Long’s apologists point out that he didn’t talk about white supremacy in his speeches. This was perhaps because he didn’t need to. In 1935, Roy Wilkins interviewed Long for The Criis. They discussed an anti-lynching bill that Long opposed in the Senate:

    How about lynching. Senator? About the Costigan-Wagner bill in congress and that lynching down there yesterday in Franklinton…”

    He ducked the Costigan-Wagner bill, but of course, everyone knows he is aganst it. He cut me off on the Franklinton lynching and hastened in with his “pat” explanation:

    “You mean down in Washington parish (county)? Oh, that? That one slipped up on us. Too bad, but those slips will happen. You know while I was governor there were no lynchings and since this man (Governor Allen) has been in he hasn’t had any. (There have been 7 lynchings in Louisiana in the last two years.) This one slipped up. I can’t do nothing about it. No sir. Can’t do the dead nigra no good. Why, if I tried to go after those lynchers it might cause a hundred more niggers to be killed. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

    “But you control Louisiana,” I persisted, “you could…”

    “Yeah, but it’s not that simple. I told you there are some things even Huey Long can’t get away with. We’ll just have to watch out for the next one. Anyway that nigger was guilty of coldblooded murder.”

    “But your own supreme court had just granted him a new trial.”

    “Sure we got a law which allows a reversal on technical points. This nigger got hold of a smart lawyer somewhere and proved a technicality. He was guilty as hell. But we’ll catch the next lynching.”

    My guess is that Huey is a hard, ambitious, practical politician. He is far shrewder than he is given credit for being. My further guess is that he wouldn’t hesitate to throw Negroes to the wolves if it became necessary; neither would he hesitate to carry them along if the good they did him was greater than the harm. He will walk a tight rope and go along as far as he can. He told New York newspapermen he welcomed Negroes in the share-the-wealth clubs in the North where they could vote, but down South? Down South they can’t vote: they are no good to him. So he lets them strictly alone. After all, Huey comes first.

In 1934, Long created the Share Our Wealth Society, which had clubs all over the country. He chose as its national organizer Gerald L.K. Smith, an outspoken anti-Semite and a former member of a fascist group called the Silver Shirts. Long also formed a political alliance with the ant-Semitic radio broadcaster, Father Coughlin, who expressed sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini and who claimed that the Russian Revolution was the work of Jewish bankers. Lance Hill has argued that the Share Our Wealth movement was an incipient form of fascism.

According to Wikipedia:

    Long .. planned to challenge Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936, knowing he would lose the nomination but gain valuable publicity in the process. Then he would break from the Democrats and form a third party using the Share Our Wealth plan as its basis … The new party would run someone else as its 1936 candidate, but Long would be the primary campaigner. This candidate would split the progressive vote with Roosevelt, causing the election of a Republican but proving the electoral appeal of Share Our Wealth. Long would then run for president as a Democrat in 1940. In the spring of 1935, Long undertook a national speaking tour and regular radio appearances, attracting large crowds and increasing his stature.

This scheme came to naught, as Long was assassinated in 1935. The Share Our Wealth movement quickly dwindled after that. The reasons for this may be that the economic recovery of 1934-36 strengthened support for Roosevelt, and that the revitalized labor movement probably drew in people who might otherwise have been attracted to Share Our Wealth.

It is often tempting to idealize figures from the past, yet if we hope to actually learn from them, we have to look at these people for what they actually were.

Immigration

January 30, 2013

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A bipartisan group of Senators has called for legislation that would grant legal status to most of this country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. President Obama has also put forward a proposal for immigration reform. I hope that I’m not being too optimistic in hoping that this signal the beginning of the end to all the fear-mongering on the topic of immigration that has been going on.

Unfortunately, both the Senators’plan and the President’s plan call for “securing” the border. There needs to be a national recognition that the U.S.-Mexican border is a purely artificial construct. It is the result of a war that was regarded even by some people who carred it out as illegal and immoral. This arbitrary boundary has acquired a supra-historical – even mystical – significance in the eyes of many people. Ambitious proposals for building an enormous fence all along the border – tall enough to prevent people from climbing over it, while extending deep into the ground to prevent people from digging under it – have periodically been touted by various people. The border has often been portrayed as the source of all our ills. Stories of people with infectious diseases streaming over the border have been often been spouted by the Right. The Democrats have not always been better in this regard. One of the many low points in John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign came when he suggested that members of Al Quaida were coming across the Mexican border.

The economies of the U.S. and Mexico are deeply intertwined. California’s agribusiness largely depends on undocumented workers from Mexico and from Central America. The drug cartels that have been terrorizing Mexico buy most of their arms from U.S. gun dealers. Yet there are people who talk about Mexico as if it were another planet. This has to change.

Paranoid Stylings: American Politics in the Twenty-first Century

January 18, 2013

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    This glimpse across a long span of time emboldens me to make the conjecture—it is no more than that—that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

    – Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

It seems that everything that happens in America nowadays is part of some sort of conspiracy. A small, but very vocal group of people are now claiming that the Sandy Hook massacre was faked, that it was a “false-flag operation”, carried out so that President Obama can have an excuse to “take away our guns”. One witness to the shootings has received threatening phone calls and e-mails accusing him of being in the pay of the government. There are also conspiracy theories about the Aurora Shootings.

You can laugh (or cry) all you want about this, but is it really any sillier than some of the claims made by the 9/11 “Truth” movement? I don’t know how many times I read somebody on Indymedia or some other website claiming that the “hole” in the Pentagon could not possibly have been made by an airplane, as if this person had spent his life observing planes crashing into buildings. And a surprisingly large number of Americans think that the Apollo moon landing was faked. One wonders why they just don’t go all the way and claim that everything on the news is faked.

In his essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter argued that there is a long history of conspiracist thinking in the U.S. He discusses anti-Masonry and anti-Catholicism in nineteenth century America, and he draws a direct line from them to the anti-Communism of the 1940’s and 1950’s. A common characteristic of these movements is a belief that the U.S. is under threat from secretive forces, usually of foreign in origin. (Think of how birthers try to claim that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.) Hofstadter sees these movements as being mainly rural in character. This may have been true of earlier movements, but it can’t really be said of the 9/11 “Truth” movement. It seems to me that the paranoid style is beginning to become so pervasive in this country that it is starting to crowd out reasonable critiques of our political and economic system.