Sunday, January 31, 2010

Praise The Lord And Pass The Testosterone!

In this time of economic uncertainty, market analysts are telling us that "...Macaroni and cheese is flying off the shelves, along with cheap gin, video games, running shoes, and handguns. ...Analysts have also noted a rapid rise in condom sales." Wow! The market tells us that we'd better make a run for it because we are all screwed. If this is (fair & balanced) despondency, so be it.

[x The Chronicle Review]
Mad Men In The He-Cession
By Scott Reynolds Nelson

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Market analysts have discovered that there are a few growth industries during depressions: Macaroni and cheese is flying off the shelves, along with cheap gin, video games, running shoes, and handguns. It is a disturbing image—one imagines unemployed men with time on their hands playing Fallout 3 (shoot mutants in a postapocalyptic Washington) and Overlord II (control evil minions who burn houses and beat up peace-loving, dope-smoking elves) while eating mac and cheese. Are those same men lacing up their running shoes in preparation for Armageddon?

Pundits have come to label the current economic downturn a "he-cession." In the summer issue of Foreign Policy, Reihan Salam, a fellow at the New America Foundation, suggested that because men's traditional jobs (particularly in finance and construction) have declined faster than women's (particularly in health care and the service sector), we might see a rise in angry, unemployed men—a source of social instability in 1990s Russia and today's Middle East.

There have been a lot of economic downturns in American history. While economists in the Reagan years tended to highlight the slow, gentle increase in American GDP that seemed to feed economic growth from the American Revolution forward, heterodox economists have argued that the American economy has been riven with crises, shocks, and other bear-market calamities. Where orthodox economists have read back into history the "Great Moderation," heterodox economists have seen hysteria, chaos, and violence. Cultural historians, meanwhile, have noticed a lot of hysterical talk about manhood, violence, and chaos during the panics of 1785, 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873—the list goes on. So what do scholars have to tell us about the tribulations of previous American panics? Was manhood in peril then? Were unemployed men really dangerous?

The United States has been thick with bad debts since the beginning of the Republic. As Woody Holton showed in Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007), revolutionary states often financed and fed their armies with IOU's that they did not or could not pay. The value of the IOU's and state currencies fell with Schwarzeneggerian speed as banks and other creditors refused to accept them. The states promised to pay eventually (this may be sounding familiar), but those who needed cash—soldiers and widows—could not wait. Speculators bought up their IOU's at pennies on the dollar. (Speculation could be equal opportunity, as far as gender was concerned; Abigail Adams proved a fairly adroit speculator in New England paper.) Though some people fared well in the postrevolutionary crisis, tempers flared. Responding to public pressure, states passed "stay laws" to prevent creditors from seizing land. Other states guaranteed that valueless state money would be payable for all debts. That angered a young Thomas Jefferson, who sold his father-in-law's land on the installment plan. Virginia law forced him to take useless state currency for it.

As Holton demonstrated, the crisis between the end of hostilities in the Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution was dangerous: lots of boys and lots of guns. In the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy, recently unemployed officers who had served under George Washington threatened a coup if they were not paid for their services; Congress, fearing anarchy, demanded $2-million from the states. When the Commonwealth of Massachusetts responded by taxing whiskey, hard-up farmers in the middle and Western part of the state rose up in Shays' Rebellion. Ordinary Americans were not yahoos who demanded inflationary currency to avoid paying off their debts; they wanted to ease the pain of all the new taxes, taxes that were going to pay off speculators like Abigail Adams. Backers of the Constitution tended to favor bondholders and feared state rebellions; they sought to prevent episodes of runaway inflation. Those mixed motives pushed Americans toward a Constitution that removed monetary power from the states (no more state inflation) yet protected ordinary Americans from a government that might grow oppressive and punitive. The nation, it turns out, was conceived in a financial crisis. Mad men were not just in the background: The fear of violence by unemployed or economically insecure men shaped American economic policy; the Constitution became an instrument to protect creditors from future he-cessions of angry, numerous, and armed people concerned about their debts.

Surely after the Constitution, things must have improved. But as Murray N. Rothbard's well-known The Panic of 1819: Reactions and Policies—reissued in 2007 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute—demonstrated, the first nationwide panic had lots of angry men. A different war—the War of 1812-14—proved an important cause of the panic. When British troops burned Washington, American banks suspended specie payments, or refused to pay silver or gold for their privately printed bank notes. That led states to go hog-wild, creating banks that never paid in gold. (For a bullionist like Rothbard, that was taboo.) An inflationary land-price spiral led to widespread land speculation using cheap credit and easy money. The panic was the necessary correction. "Western" (i.e. Ohio) land prices plunged, taking 30 years to recover. The response? Angry Southern and Western farmers joined the ranks of Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party, which rightly (in Rothbard's view) committed to hard money, free banking, and libertarian ideology. Andrew Jackson—the nation's consummate armed and angry man—was the movement's hero.

Rothbard, originally writing about that in his 1956 dissertation, would not have considered highlighting the gender story here, but there is one, according to Robert V. Remini's Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845 (1984). It turns out that Jackson had had a rocky time in the late 1790s, when he almost faced debtors' prison for accepting and passing on the notes of his friend, a bankrupt merchant. When a later merchant took negotiable instruments from Jackson and the bankrupt friend failed to pay, the merchant (under American and English commercial law) could pursue each of the traders who had previously endorsed the notes for payment. Jackson was in trouble. The negotiability of such notes made commercial credit easy to establish in the Anglo-American world, but as Rowena Olegario showed in A Culture of Credit: Embedding Trust and Transparency in American Business (2006), it could deepen financial panics because many merchants could be dragged down by the default of a single one. A merchant with a bad note could serially sue every name on the back of it. The experience of facing debtors' prison clearly scarred Jackson. He came to despise paper money and paper credit. Bankers became his especial bĂȘte noire.

In Jackson's era, collective violence against the Republic seemed a thing of the past. Nothing as coherent as the Newburgh Conspiracy, Shays' Rebellion, or the Whiskey Rebellion seemed in the works. By the 1819 and 1837 panics, the nation's police powers seemed effective at preventing angry young men from lacing up their moccasins and threatening the nation's sovereignty. National violence was more often personal than collective. In an age of unlimited liability and debtors' prisons, a man's reputation could mean the difference between success and jail. For men whose reputation, credit, and gender were tightly bound together, individual violence became a socially acceptable method for coping with the economic tensions of the day. From the 1790s through the 1830s, one sees a tight connection between dueling and a rage at the banks: Aaron Burr versus Alexander Hamilton; the future senator Thomas Hart Benton versus the attorney Charles Lucas; the Kentucky Representative and bank attorney Henry Clay versus the antibank Virginia Representative John Randolph; the journalist James Watson Webb versus the editor William Leggett. Jackson represented tens of thousands of men who were inclined to solve conflicts with canes, horsewhips, and pistols. A fair portion were slaveholders, men who sought to keep their slaves frightened by cultivating an air of unpredictable rage.

Outside the bounds of the United States, collective violence was silently encouraged. Between 1791 and 1850, hundreds of unemployed men joined expeditions against nearby Spanish and French forts, independent Latin American countries, and Indian settlements. In the Old Southwest, states subsidized militias of angry young men who attacked the settlements of the Five Civilized Tribes. Andrew Jackson was their furious hero, famous not only for fighting the British but for sponsoring a violent, illegal expedition into North Florida. Jackson had triumphed over his failures of the 1790s.

The role of failure in Jackson's character would be a familiar story to Scott A. Sandage, whose book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2005) helps us understand how successive panics in the 19th century forced Americans to puzzle over the relationship between progress and manhood. In the period of Jackson's disgrace, falling behind in one's debts might make one simultaneously "feminized and defiled," Sandage explained, for a man who could not honor his debts did not appear to be a man at all. Perhaps it is little wonder that after Jackson's humiliating experience of selling off his land to evade debtors' prison, he became more sensitive than most about his masculinity and his character, challenging anyone who doubted his honesty or tweaked his nose to a duel. Shooting (and sometimes killing) his Tennessee rivals might have been a peculiar route to the White House, but it may ironically prove the central theme in Sandage's book—that failure needed to be constantly analyzed and renegotiated in the 19th century as it became clearer that nearly anyone could become bankrupt, that manhood was defined by a violent defense of one's reputation, and that any sufficiently angry former bankrupt could succeed.

Sandage showed that in the years after Jackson, bankruptcy became less dangerous. After the 1837 panic, with the Bankruptcy Act of 1841, debtor's prison was on its way out. Merchants, now lacking the threat of prison to ensure debtors would pay, demanded more intelligence about whom to advance goods or cash to. So success or failure in America became that narrative written about a person and his debts: the credit report. Those "spy books," first compiled by wholesalers to keep track of defaulting country merchants, constantly sought to define success and failure. They were Sandage's most productive source. A good man was hard to define. Spies discovered that upright family men could be "bad eggs," and illiterate barroom brawlers might be as "good as wheat" or "A Number 1" (both rich and reliable). Sandage's use of credit-report narratives gives us the texture of everyday life in the periods of boom and bust. We discover that Texas was the preferred place for defaulters to run to, and that the abolitionist and former bankrupt Lewis Tappan created the modern credit report by centralizing records produced by bill collectors and spy bookers. He built the intelligence system for measuring risk that would presumably prevent bad debt. Or so he said. The panic of 1857 suggests otherwise. Still, eruptions of violence about debt appeared to be on the wane.

Something was changing. Sandage's work suggests that what the Constitution did for containing the violence and influence of collective angry men, the credit report did for restraining individual angry men. One's credit became intangible, external, and not directly under a man's own control. As reputation became more finely graded, the desire to defend spotless honor probably began to seem rather quaint. And finally, after the Bankruptcy Act of 1841, when failure no longer meant penury and prison, the stakes were not so high. Credit reports may have contained the damage that could be done by failed men.

Of course, the panic of 1857 can be said to have ushered in the American Civil War, a time of spectacular violence. As Sean Wilentz has suggested in The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005), the reigning Democratic Party that had picked up energy in previous financial panics found itself split in two by the panic of 1857. Why? Cotton planters in the South proved unaffected by the panic. James Henry Hammond famously crowed that "Cotton Is King," a monarch peculiarly exempt from financial cycles.

We might suggest that there were two stimulus packages debated in 1858: one from the North and one from the South. The Northern and Midwestern workers who had been Democratic Party stalwarts found that Republicans had a recipe for ending the 1857 panic: Western railroads, free Western land, and agricultural colleges. South of the Mason-Dixon line, as William L. Barney argued in The Road to Secession: A New Perspective on the Old South (1972), the most violent secessionist fire-eaters were the underemployed sons of planters in the Deep South. Those young men waited for their fathers to turn over plantations and were angry about being denied land in the West. Their version of a stimulus package was to propose annexing Cuba, making it possible for Southerners to import more slaves into the cotton South! Here two sets of angry young men from two sections confronted each other in two different parties. Enough younger workers deserted the Democratic Party to allow Abraham Lincoln to win election. Once he was elected, the South violently seceded. Here two kinds of stimulus packages and two political parties created a violent conflict that nearly destroyed the nation.

The peace of 1865 would last for eight years, when fresh mischief emerged with the panic of 1873, a long and violent depression. David O. Stowell's edited collection, The Great Strikes of 1877 (2008), explores the last and most violent upheaval that followed that six-year depression. The contributors show that the panic of 1873 pushed railroads on the edge of receivership into agreements to collectively reduce wages across all the major railroads. The announcement of those cuts in 1877 precipitated the Great Strike, the largest nationwide strike America has ever seen. Begun in railroad repair shops in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, it quickly spread through important junctions in Martinsburg, WV, and Nashville, TN. On the one hand, the coordination among striking engineers, brakemen, and firemen appeared to be the first stage of what labor officials would later call industrial unionism. On the other hand, anti-Chinese violence in California suggested that race-baiting was an important rallying point. And who was raising hell? Apparently mostly well-dressed gentlemen and riotous women destroyed railroad hubs all over the country. The diversity of the crowds proved interesting and sobering. In the longest term, the burning of Pittsburgh and the deaths of strikers and soldiers in the mayhem led many middle-class citizens to form citizens' councils and build armories in major cities. The Great Strike also helped justify the creation of a national guard for confronting the threat of armed insurrection in major cities. By 1877 a Constitution and credit reports were not enough to restrain violence, and so Congress called on a more permanent police force to protect itself from the angry unemployed, men and women.

What are the lessons from the panics, recessions, and downturns of the past two centuries, and their effect on gender and violence? Certainly the nation has had more than its share of armed mobs, though 1877 suggests that we should not expect them all to be men. New parties often used angry rhetoric to stir up the sufferers from previous calamities. They defined their opposition to the "corrupt bargains" and "inflationism" displayed in previous panics: For Jacksonians it was a monster bank in 1819; for the Whigs who opposed him, what they saw as his illegitimate "pet banks"; for Republicans, Democratic kowtowing to slaveholders in 1857. Even without party appeals, panics could lead men to find scapegoats: American Indians, slaves, or Chinese immigrants.

It is also worth remembering that American institutions have from the beginning been shaped around the threat of angry young men. When those men sought to scale back debts, the new Constitution prevented it while providing protections against the powers of a strong federal government. Over the 19th century, masculine anger could not be deployed against the state, but the state proved willing to use angry unemployed men against external threats, coyly disclaiming any stake in militia attacks on Indians, or invasions of California, Florida, Louisiana, Mexico, and Nicaragua. When projected outward, the anger of young men could prove downright rewarding in building a continental nation.

Men's failure during panics, once viewed as a moral failing or a loss of masculinity, became more routine as panics became more routine in America. Reforms like the Bankruptcy Act eased the sting of depression for angry young men and did appear to minimize violence. As bankruptcy became more familiar and less harrowing than a prison sentence, tempers over indebtedness appeared to cool.

Are unemployed American men as dangerous as their counterparts in Russia or Pakistan? Probably not. The American political system has been jiggered and rejiggered through two centuries of angry, impulsive, violent men. Sometimes political institutions have been calibrated to deploy that violence, sometimes to redirect it, sometimes to quash it.

We will almost certainly see improved intelligence networks among credit-rating agencies to identify bad risks, given that leg irons are out of fashion in dealing with debtors. We might also see surges in policing institutions to deal with panicked perceptions about unruly American men. (After a Constitution, a Secret Service, and state armories, what is next? Real-estate surveillance drones?)

As for a coming Armageddon, statistics on bullet sales and macaroni purchases may be overreactions. Analysts have also noted a rapid rise in condom sales. One explanation for that is a rise in leisure time. Another explanation might be a rise in family planning. Male rage may go hand in hand with reflections on men's irrational exuberance in the past, and frank concerns about the shape of the future. Ω

[Scott Reynolds Nelson is a professor of history at the College of William and Mary. Among his books are Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (2006) and Crash: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Panics (forthcoming in 2011). Nelson received a BA Magna Cum Laude in History and also an MA and PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.]

Copyright © 2010 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ladies & Gentlemen: The POTUS (44) — Hoobert Heever?

In this blogger's tender years (when people lived in caves), several great shocks came when he read The Great Hofstadter's opus, The American Political Tradition and The Men Who Made It (1948). First came the surprise, in the Great Hofstadter's treatment of Abraham Lincoln, that the ol' Railsplitter was a white supremacist. Next, came the Great Hofstadter's benediction for Herbert C. Hoover, the POTUS who gave us the Great Depression:

Herbert Hoover... had tried to lead the nation out of the wilderness and back to the comforts and splendors of the old regime. He had given his warnings and they had been spurned. Perhaps, after all, it was the spirit of the people that was not fundamentally sound. — Chapter XI: "Herbert Hoover and the Crisis of American Individualism" (p. 314)

Now we have Kevin Baker offering a 21st century benediction on the POTUS (44) as the reincarnation of Herbert C. Hoover. If this is (fair & balanced) historical revisionism, so be it.

[x Harper's]
Barack Hoover Obama: The Best And The Brightest Blow It Again
By Kevin Baker

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Three months into his presidency, Barack Obama has proven to be every bit as charismatic and intelligent as his most ardent supporters could have hoped. At home or abroad, he invariably appears to be the only adult in the room, the first American president in at least forty years to convey any gravitas. Even the most liberal of voters are finding it hard to believe they managed to elect this man to be their president.

It is impossible not to wish desperately for his success as he tries to grapple with all that confronts him: a worldwide depression, catastrophic climate change, an unjust and inadequate health-care system, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ongoing disgrace of Guant·namo, a floundering education system.

Obama’s failure would be unthinkable. And yet the best indications now are that he will fail, because he will be unable—indeed he will refuse—to seize the radical moment at hand.

Every instinct the president has honed, every voice he hears in Washington, every inclination of our political culture urges incrementalism, urges deliberation, if any significant change is to be brought about. The trouble is that we are at one of those rare moments in history when the radical becomes pragmatic, when deliberation and compromise foster disaster. The question is not what can be done but what must be done.

We have confronted such emergencies only a few times before in the history of the Republic: during the secession crisis of 1860–61, at the start of World War II, at the outset of the Cold War and the nuclear age. Probably the moment most comparable to the present was the start of the Great Depression, and for the scope and the quantity of the problems he is facing, Obama has frequently been compared with Franklin Roosevelt. So far, though, he most resembles the other president who had to confront that crisis, Herbert Hoover.

The comparison is not meant to be flippant. It has nothing to do with the received image of Hoover, the dour, round-collared, gerbil-cheeked technocrat who looked on with indifference while the country went to pieces. To understand how dire our situation is now it is necessary to remember that when he was elected president in 1928, Herbert Hoover was widely considered the most capable public figure in the country. Hoover—like Obama—was almost certainly someone gifted with more intelligence, a better education, and a greater range of life experience than FDR. And Hoover, through the first three years of the Depression, was also the man who comprehended better than anyone else what was happening and what needed to be done. And yet he failed.

The story of the real Herbert Hoover reads like something out of an Indiana Jones script, with touches of Dickens and the memoirs of Albert Schweitzer. Orphaned and penniless by the age of nine, Hoover was raised by an exploitative uncle who considered him more chattel than son. He had no illusions about the America he grew up in, writing years later, “As gentle as are the memories of the times, I am not recommending a return to the good old days. Sadness was greater, and death came sooner.”

Removed from public school at fourteen to work as his uncle’s office boy, Hoover nonetheless learned enough at night school to make the very first class at the newly opened Stanford University, where he studied geology and engineering. He paid his own way by working as a waiter, a typist, and a handyman, and eventually running a laundry service, a baggage service, and a newspaper route. (Unsurprisingly, his favorite book was David Copperfield.) After graduation, he ran mining camps and scouted new strikes around the globe. It was an adventurous life; on one occasion he made a small fortune by following an ancient Chinese map and tiger tracks into a moribund silver mine in Burma. By the time he was forty, Hoover was worth $85 million in today’s dollars, and he retired from business to take up public life. “The ideal of service,” he would later write, was no burden on the striving entrepreneur but a “great spiritual force poured out by our people as never before in the history of the world.”

He had long lived up to his ideals. Caught in the siege of the Western delegations in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, only Hoover and his fearless wife, Lou, cared enough to sneak food and water to the Chinese Christians besieged elsewhere in the city. He first came to national attention after the start of World War I, when he led the effort to feed the 7 million people of occupied Belgium and France. He worked for free, donated part of his own fortune to the cause, and risked his life repeatedly crossing the U-boat–infested waters of the North Atlantic. His postwar relief efforts rescued millions more throughout Europe and especially in the Soviet Union; it’s unlikely that any other individual in human history saved so many people from death by starvation and want. Questioned about feeding populations under Bolshevik control, he banged a table and insisted, “Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!” In 1920, many people in both major parties wanted to run him for president, but he opted for the Republican cabinet. As secretary of commerce under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he was a dynamic figure, tirelessly promoting new technologies, work-safety rules, and voluntary industry standards; he supervised relief to Mississippi and Louisiana during the terrible 1927 floods and advocated cooperation between labor and management.

“We had summoned a great engineer to solve our problems for us; now we sat back comfortably and confidently to watch the problems being solved,” the journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote of Hoover’s inauguration in March 1929, in words that might easily have been used in January 2009. “Almost with the air of giving genius its chance, we waited for the performance to begin.”

Genius got its chance less than eight months after Hoover was sworn in, when the stock market collapsed. At the time, such an event wasn’t seen as having anything much to do with the president. Wall Street crashes happened every five to ten years in the old American economy, and it was understood that these crashes would sometimes start nationwide recessions. They might last a year or two, like the recession that started in 1920, or for much longer, like the devastating depression that began in 1873 and, according to some economists, didn’t really end until 1897. How long would it take to recover from the crash of ‘29? Who could know? Mere politicians were supposed to leave the outcome to the workings of the market. But Hoover—much like Obama—plunged right in, with a response that was designed to rise above old ideological battles and effect a new partnership between the public and private sectors. Less than a month after the Wall Street crash, he began what would be weeks of meetings at the White House with hundreds of “key men” from the business world. There the president briefed them on everything he had done so far and urged them to cut as few jobs as possible for the duration of the slump. He also encouraged public and private construction projects, signed bills recognizing the right of unions to organize, and used the fledgling Federal Reserve both to ease credit and to discourage banks from calling in their stock-market loans.

All of these projects were anathema to old-line conservatives in Hoover’s own party, such as Andrew Mellon, the tax-slashing secretary of the treasury throughout the go-go years of the 1920s boom, who offered the president the absurdist advice to let the market “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” Cutting one of the main ties to the trickle-down wisdom of what was suddenly a previous era, Hoover eventually shipped Mellon off to serve as ambassador to England.

Yet there remained little immediate action that the president could take, hobbled as he was by the limits of a federal government that made up less than 4 percent of the GDP and by the reluctance of those around him to interfere in any way with the sanctity of the markets. At what John Kenneth Galbraith would later skewer as “no-business” meetings, the key men of industry pledged their full support, then went home to slash wages and cut as many jobs as they could. By the end of 1930, the gross national product had dropped by nearly 13 percent, unemployment had shot up to nearly 9 percent, and over 600 banks had closed. The Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives, but the primary response to the Depression offered by their laconic speaker, “Cactus Jack” Garner, was a national sales tax designed to balance the budget. Liberal legislators in both parties were more sympathetic, but they wielded little power.

As the Depression spread around the world, Hoover—like Obama—towered above the squabbling, suspicious leaders of Europe as well. Only Hoover, who had lived all around the world (like Obama) and also been part of the U.S. delegation at Versailles, seemed to understand the true threat the Depression posed to the global economy. Democratic forms of government were under assault everywhere in the West, and especially in the Weimar Republic, still staggering under the indemnity the victorious Allies had imposed on Germany in 1919. Hoover sought to alleviate the growing world credit crunch by pushing through a moratorium on the repayment of Europe’s considerable war debt to the United States—on the condition that the Allies also forgave Germany its indemnity. It was an example of statesmanship at its most enlightened, and if any single U.S. action at the time could have prevented the rise of the Nazis to power, this would have been it.

Back on the domestic front, Hoover tried to organize national, voluntary efforts to hire the unemployed, provide charity, and create a private banking pool. When these efforts collapsed or fell short, he started a dozen Home Loan Discount Banks to help individuals refinance their mortgages and save their homes, and created an unprecedented government entity called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Authorized to spend up to the then-astonishing sum of $2 billion, the RFC was a direct rebuttal to Andrew Mellon’s prescription of creative destruction. Rather than liquidating banks, railroads, and agricultural cooperatives, the RFC would lend them money to stay afloat.

Hoover, as the historian David M. Kennedy writes, had shown “himself capable of the most pragmatic, far-reaching, economic heterodoxy,” a trait that “would in the end carry him and the country into uncharted economic and political territory.” New Dealer Rexford Tugwell would, many years later, claim that “practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started.” Indeed, “Hoover had wanted—and had said clearly enough that he wanted—nearly all the changes now brought under the New Deal label.”

Tugwell’s appraisal, though considerably exaggerated, nonetheless testifies to the boldness of Hoover’s program. The only problem was that it did not work. The nation’s credit system still would not thaw, banks kept falling like dominoes, unemployment rates and human suffering continued to rise. For all of his willingness to break with precedent and intervene directly in the economy, Hoover remained unable to turn his back fully on what Kennedy describes as the prevailing “legacy of perception and understanding of economic theory.”

As Europe faltered, for instance, foreign gold began to flow out of America’s banks and back home. Hoover reacted by increasing interest rates and raising taxes, in an effort to further deflate the economy, balance the federal budget, and thereby lure the gold back. This was the textbook economic response of the time to fleeing gold reserves; in the midst of the Great Depression, it was a disaster.

Meanwhile, the RFC was derided by populist critics as “bank relief” and “a millionaire’s dole”—criticisms echoed today by all those who see George W. Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program and Obama’s own Public-Private Investment Program as outrageous giveaways. And, as Kennedy points out, once Hoover had set in motion the great bank bailout of 1931, he “had given up the ground of high principle” and “implicitly legitimated the claims of other sectors for federal assistance.” Critics raised the same criticisms they would raise about Obama’s bailout plans seventy-eight years later. If the banks get a bailout, why not everyone else? Were bailouts only for the rich?

Exacerbating the entire situation was the RFC itself. Hoover’s leading weapon to combat the Depression performed with TARP-like languor, secrecy, and nepotism. Throughout 1932, as banks continued to topple by the hundreds, the RFC disbursed only three-quarters of its available money. Although Hoover had declared that the agency was “not created for the aid of big industries or big banks,” a record of its operations revealed that most of its money had indeed gone to a very few of the country’s biggest financial institutions. In June of 1932, the RFC’s president, Charles G. Dawes—who had just served as vice president of the United States under Calvin Coolidge—resigned his post, took a new job as head of the Central Republic Bank in Chicago, and promptly secured for his employer an RFC loan that nearly equaled the bank’s total deposits. Dawes’s successor, Atlee Pomerene, then lent another $12 million to a Cleveland bank of which he remained a director.

These facts were, in the end, wrestled out in the open only by congressional fiat. The recipients of some $642 million of the RFC’s loans—nearly half its total expenditures—were not revealed at all. Hoover, like Obama, had insisted on secrecy to keep the proceedings from being “politicized,” but, inevitably, this fear of politicization in the end only led to more politics. The writer John T. Flynn, who reported much of the RFC scandal in the pages of this magazine, found that most of the money was distributed “by a group of directors drawn from those business groups whose performances during the pre-crash years have rendered them objects of suspicion to the American people” and that the “immense sums they dispensed were given to borrowers, many of whom, to put it mildly, have forfeited, justly or unjustly, the confidence of the people.”

The RFC’s deliberations were understood—with good reason—not as effective management but as insider dealing: common financial practice through the 1920s, but politically and morally insupportable at a time when millions of Americans were losing their jobs, their homes, and their savings, and when some were literally dying of starvation. What’s more, even the loans that were made proved less than effective. The rescued banks, much like the rescued banks today, simply hoarded the new capital and refused to venture out into the marketplace.

Neither the RFC nor any of Hoover’s other programs did anything to seriously address the other major problems then plaguing the American economy: the decades-long farm crisis that was sweeping away Dust Bowl farmers’ actual soil along with their holdings; the near annihilation of the labor movement; a wildly unequal distribution of wealth; the lack of any real safety net for the old, the indigent, and the unemployable; a corrupt, non-transparent financial system that remained largely unregulated—in short, the need for systematic, wholesale reform of a nation that had foundered on the changing circumstances of the modern world.

It would have been very difficult to make most of these changes, because by and large they were advocated only by what were then the most radical individuals on the fringes of the political system. The one thing to be said in favor of such changes was that they were absolutely necessary.

By the summer of 1932, the country was in a state of near rebellion, with the “Bonus Army” of angry veterans camped out in Washington, farmers dumping their produce on the highways in protest, and mobs forcibly stopping evictions in the cities. The liberals in Congress had moved at last beyond Hoover, with even Jack Garner backing a $2.1-billion package of public works and direct relief. Hoover vetoed it, warning against the moral entrapments of “the dole.”

Why was Herbert Hoover so reluctant to make the radical changes that were so clearly needed? It could not have been a question of competence or compassion for this lifelong Quaker, who had rushed sustenance to starving people around the world regardless of their nationalities or beliefs. Ultimately, Hoover could not break with the prevailing beliefs of his day. The essence of the Progressive Era in which he had come of age—the very essence of his own public image—was that government was a science. It was not a coincidence that this era brought us the very term “political science,” along with the advent of “nonpartisan” elections and “city managers” to replace mayors.

Since the 1890s, Hoover and his contemporaries had promoted this brand of progressivism as an alternative not only to the political and corporate corruption of the Gilded Age but also to the furious class and regional warfare that progressivism’s predecessor, populism, seemed to promise. Progressivism aspired to be something of a political science itself, untrammeled by ideological or partisan influence: there was a right way and a wrong way to do things, and all unselfish and uncorrupted individuals could be counted on to do the right thing, once they were shown what that was.

There were plenty of progressives, led by Teddy Roosevelt, who understood that bringing real change meant fighting to bust up trusts, regain public ownership of utilities, and secure rights for labor, women, and others. But the great national effort inspired by World War I softened memories of the bitter class conflict that had characterized much of American politics since the Civil War, just as the rollicking prosperity of the 1920s erased memories of the postwar Red Scare and the crushing of labor unions. Throughout the decade, big business sought to co-opt any lingering labor resentments by forming “company unions” under what they called “the American Plan.” Volunteerism and boosterism would take care of the rest. Prosperity would come through an always rising stock market.

Hoover’s every decision in fighting the Great Depression mirrored the sentiments of 1920s “business progressivism,” even as he understood intellectually that something more was required. Farsighted as he was compared with almost everyone else in public life, believing as much as he did in activist government, he still could not convince himself to take the next step and accept that the basic economic tenets he had believed in all his life were discredited; that something wholly new was required.

Such a transformation would have required a mental suppleness that was simply not in the makeup of this fabulously successful scientist and self-made businessman. And it was this inability to radically alter his thinking that, ultimately, distinguished Hoover from Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was by no means the rigorous thinker that Hoover was, and many observers then and since have accused him of having no fixed principles whatsoever. And yet it was Roosevelt, the Great Improviser, who was able to patch and borrow and fudge his way to solutions not only to the Depression but also to sustained prosperity and democracy. It was FDR, brought up with the entitled, patronizing worldview of a Hudson Valley aristocrat, who was able to overcome attachments to all classes, all theories. It was Roosevelt who understood the imperfections, the rough-and-tumble of politics. The programs of the First and Second New Deals were a hodgepodge of ideologies—which is precisely why they worked. The innovations they brought about, however sloppily, were the core of twentieth-century American liberalism in that they reflected the complex ever-changing realities of the modern world.

Originally, Roosevelt, too, endorsed much of the progressive vision—or at least its pale 1920s imitation—as evidenced by his National Recovery Administration, a flabby utopian plan that would have had business, labor, and government collaborate to set prices, wages, and industry standards down to the most minute details. The NRA would have carried 1920s-style business progressivism right to the doorstep of the corporate state, had it been even vaguely workable. But right from the beginning, Roosevelt also endorsed reforms, from regulating Wall Street to saving the farmers to backing labor unions in their organizing wars, that required _conflict—_the only way in which a political and economic system can be fundamentally remade. When the NRA quickly proved to be a bust, FDR discarded it, and replaced his failure with the Second New Deal, in which business, labor, and government were situated as countervailing forces against one another—a fundamental power shift that enabled advances in both prosperity and democracy unmatched in human history.

Much like Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama is a man attempting to realize a stirring new vision of his society without cutting himself free from the dogmas of the past—without accepting the inevitable conflict. Like Hoover, he is bound to fail.

President Obama, to be fair, seems to be even more alone than Hoover was in facing the emergency at hand. The most appalling aspect of the present crisis has been the utter fecklessness of the American elite in failing to confront it. From both the private and public sectors, across the entire political spectrum, the lack of both will and new ideas has been stunning. When it came to the opposition, Franklin Roosevelt reaped the creative support of any number of progressive Republicans throughout his twelve years in office, ranging from New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to Nebraska Senator George Norris to key cabinet members such as Henry A. Wallace, Harold Ickes, Henry Stimson, and Frank Knox. Obama, by contrast, has had to contend with a knee-jerk rejectionist Republican Party.

More frustrating has been the torpor among Obama’s fellow Democrats. One might have assumed that the adrenaline rush of regaining power after decades of conservative hegemony, not to mention relief at surviving the depredations of the Bush years, or losing the vestigial tail of the white Southern branch of the party, would have liberated congressional Democrats to loose a burst of pent-up, imaginative liberal initiatives.

Instead, we have seen a parade of aged satraps from vast, windy places stepping forward to tell us what is off the table. Every week, there is another Max Baucus of Montana, another Kent Conrad of North Dakota, another Ben Nelson of Nebraska, huffing and puffing and harrumphing that we had better forget about single-payer health care, a carbon tax, nationalizing the banks, funding for mass transit, closing tax loopholes for the rich. These are men with tiny constituencies who sat for decades in the Senate without doing or saying anything of note, who acquiesced shamelessly to the worst abuses of the Bush Administration and who come forward now to chide the president for not concentrating enough on reducing the budget deficit, or for “trying to do too much,” as if he were as old and as indolent as they are.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—yet another small gray man from a great big space where the tumbleweeds blow—seems unwilling to make even a symbolic effort at party discipline. Within days of President Obama’s announcing his legislative agenda, the perpetually callow Indiana Senator Evan Bayh came forward to announce the formation of a breakaway caucus of fifteen “moderate” Democrats from the Midwest who sought to help the country make “the changes we need” but “make sure that they’re done in a practical way that will actually work”—a statement that was almost Zen-like in its perfect vacuousness. Even most of the Senate’s more enlightened notables, such as Russ Feingold of Wisconsin or Claire McCaskill of Missouri or Sherrod Brown of Ohio, have had little to contribute beyond some hand-wringing whenever the idea of a carbon tax or any other restrictions on burning coal are proposed.

President Obama, with a laudable respect for the separation of powers, has left the details and even the main tenets of his agenda to be worked out by these same congressional Democrats. This approach looks like an exercise in democracy drawn from his days as a community organizer, the sort of strategy that helps a neighborhood to decide whether it wants, say, a health clinic or a youth center. What he doesn’t care to acknowledge is that, in the case of the U.S. Congress, he’s dealing with a neighborhood where maybe half want a health clinic and the rest are holding out for grenade launchers and crystal meth.

Some have suggested that this is a subtle strategy to ensure that the White House retains the whip hand, that Obama is reserving for himself the role of “decider” over competing plans. But what is the decision then? Half a health clinic and one grenade launcher? A plan for universal health care that is not universal and doesn’t cut costs will not work. A plan for combating climate change that perpetuates the shibboleth of “clean coal” will do nothing. Far from controlling the process, Obama’s procedure is more likely to commit him to one of Congress’s nebulous non-plans.

Yet Obama’s lack of direction, his lack of accomplishments in his Hundred Days and counting, cannot be attributed solely to his illusions about the august body he just vacated. Obama, like Hoover in his time, is almost alone among politicians in grasping the magnitude of the crisis. In his masterful February speech before the joint houses of Congress, Obama explained to the country why we cannot afford to continue with a tottering health-care system that has left 46 million Americans uninsured and that impedes our exports by adding, for instance, $1,500 to the cost of every GM car; why it is that climate change has to be addressed now, and how by addressing it we can regain our industrial base and actually begin to make things again; why it is that our financial system could not simply be bailed out and patched up but must be fundamentally reformed and re-regulated. Above all, he explained the necessary interaction of all these reforms, of how they were not just some liberal wish list but the actions that the radical moment demanded.

Speeches almost as powerful have followed, always linking these ideas together. But, like Hoover, Obama has been unable to make his actions live up to his words. Health care is being gummed to death on Capitol Hill. Obama has done nothing to pass “card check” provisions that would facilitate union organization and quietly announced that he would not seek stronger labor and environmental protections in NAFTA. He has capitulated on cap-and-trade in the budget outline and never even bothered to push for an actual carbon tax. Only minuscule portions of the stimulus bill or his budget proposals were dedicated to mass transit, and his indifference to the issue—what must be a major component of any serious effort to go green—was reflected in his appointment of a mediocre Republican time-server, Ray LaHood, as his transportation secretary.

Still worse is Obama’s decision to leave the reordering of the financial world solely to Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, both of whom played such a major role in deregulating Wall Street and bringing on the disaster in the first place. It’s as if, after winning election in 1932, FDR had brought Andrew Mellon back to the Treasury. Just as Herbert Hoover could not, in the end, break away from the best economic advice of the 1920s, Barack Obama is sticking with the “key men” of the 1990s. The predictable result is that, even as he claims to recognize the interlocking nature of the problems facing us and vows to solve them as a whole, the president is in fact abandoning most of his program, at least for the time being.

No doubt, President Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, would claim that by practicing “the art of the possible,” they are ensuring that “the perfect does not become the enemy of the good.” But by not even proposing the relevant legislation, Obama has ceded a key part of the process—so much so that his retreat seems not so much tactical as a reversion to his core political beliefs.

A major theme of Obama’s 2006 book The Audacity of Hope is impatience with “the smallness of our politics” and its “partisanship and acrimony.” He expresses frustration at how “the tumult of the sixties and the subsequent backlash continues to drive our political discourse,” and voices a professional appreciation for Ronald Reagan’s ability to exploit such divisions. The politician he admires the most—ironically enough, considering the campaign that was to come—is Bill Clinton. For all his faults, Clinton, in Obama’s eyes, “instinctively understood the falseness of the choices being presented to the American people” and came up with his “Third Way,” which “tapped into the pragmatic, non-ideological attitude of the majority of Americans.”

This is an analysis consistent with Obama’s personal story. Like Herbert Hoover, Obama grew up as an outsider and overcame formidable odds—hence his constant promotion of personal responsibility and education. He came of age in a time when hardworking young men and women like him went to Wall Street or to Silicon Valley, and—once properly “incentivized” by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton—seemed to save the national economy, creating what appeared to be great general prosperity while doing well themselves. There’s no need to do battle with these strivers and achievers, individuals as accomplished in their fields as Obama is in his. All that’s required is to get them back on their feet, get the money running again, and maybe give them a few new rules to live by, a new set of incentives to get them back on track.

Just as Herbert Hoover came to internalize the “business progressivism” of his era as a welcome alternative to the futile, counterproductive conflicts of an earlier time, so has Obama internalized what might be called Clinton’s “business liberalism” as an alternative to useless battles from another time—battles that liberals, in any case, tended to lose.

Clinton’s business liberalism, however, is a chimera, every bit as much a capitulation to powerful and selfish interests as was Hoover’s 1920s progressivism. We are back in Evan Bayh territory here, espousing a “pragmatism” that is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests. The common thread running through all of Obama’s major proposals right now is that they are labyrinthine solutions designed mainly to avoid conflict. The bank bailout, cap-and-trade on carbon emissions, health-care pools—all of these ideas are, like Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated 1993 health plan, simultaneously too complicated to draw a constituency and too threatening for Congress to shape and pass as Obama would like. They bear the seeds of their own defeat.

Obama will have to directly attack the fortified bastions of the newest “new class”—the makers of the paper economy in which he came of age—if he is to accomplish anything. These interests did not spend fifty years shipping the greatest industrial economy in the history of the world overseas only to be challenged by a newly empowered, green-economy working class. They did not spend much of the past two decades gobbling up previously public sectors such as health care, education, and transportation only to have to compete with a reinvigorated public sector. They mean, even now, to use the bailout to make the government their helpless junior partner, and if they can they will devour every federal dollar available to recoup their own losses, and thereby preclude the use of any monies for the rest of Barack Obama’s splendid vision.

Franklin Roosevelt also took office imagining that he could bring all classes of Americans together in some big, mushy, cooperative scheme. Quickly disabused of this notion, he threw himself into the bumptious give-and-take of practical politics; lying, deceiving, manipulating, arraying one group after another on his side—a transit encapsulated by how, at the end of his first term, his outraged opponents were calling him a “traitor to his class” and he was gleefully inveighing against “economic royalists” and announcing, “They are unanimous in their hatred for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

Obama should not deceive himself into thinking that such interest-group politics can be banished any more than can the cycles of Wall Street. It is not too late for him to change direction and seize the radical moment at hand. But for the moment, just like another very good man, Barack Obama is moving prudently, carefully, reasonably toward disaster. Ω

[Kevin Baker is a novelist and journalist who graduated with a B.A. in political science from Columbia University. Baker is the author of the City of Fire trilogy, which consists of the following historical novels: Dreamland; the bestselling Paradise Alley; and Strivers Row. The middle volume of the trilogy was the winner of the 2003 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction. He has also written a contemporary baseball novel called Sometimes You See it Coming.]

Copyright © 2010 The Harper's Magazine Foundation

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Friday, January 29, 2010

J.D. Salinger, RIP

Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger (January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010) was an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, surrounded by mystery. If this is (fair & balanced) zen, so be it.

[x TNR]
Why Do People Love Catcher in the Rye?
By Gish Jen

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To remember J. D. Salinger is, of course, to remember The Catcher in the Rye—though not, perhaps, how some critics didn't like it in 1951. Catholic World noted its "formidably excessive use of amateur swearing and coarse language," and there seemed to be some question as to whether an alienated, hard-drinking, chain-smoking flunkie like Holden Caulfield was going to prove a good influence on the young. Other critics did say it made them "chuckle and... even laugh aloud," and many immediately compared Holden to Huck Finn. Still, Harcourt Brace, which rejected the book, did not yet have much to live down: The overall critical reception was decidedly un-extraordinary. Sales-wise, too, Catcher did reasonably but not exceptionally well. But, now, that was in hardcover. What with the recent invention of the "perfect binding"—a book binding using glue rather than stitching—there was the paperback to consider, as well. Did not Catcher seem like the sort of book that might do well in the new format?

And so it did, going on to sell over 60 million copies. Moreover, in 1956, some dam in critical interest seemed to burst. So many Catcher studies appeared that the '50s were dubbed "the Decade of Salinger"; contemporaneous writers complained of neglect as Holden Caulfield was compared not only to Huck Finn but to Billy Budd, David Copperfield, Natty Bumpo, Quentin Compson, Ishmael, Peter Pan, Hamlet, Jesus Christ, Adam, and Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom put together. What critic George Steiner was to call the "Salinger industry" began to swell fantastically, until it sat like a large, determined bird on a bunker-like egg.

Where did all this start? In a 1940 letter to a friend, a 21-year-old Salinger described his novel-in-progress as "autobiographical"; and decades later, too, in an interview with a high school reporter—the only interview he's ever given—Salinger said, "My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book." Of course, there were differences: unlike Holden, Salinger was, among other things, a half-Jewish, half-Catholic brotherless World War II vet who attended a military academy. He did, though, like Holden, flunk out of prep school. And he was also, like Holden, manager of his high school fencing team, in which capacity he apparently really did once lose the team gear en route to a meet.

More importantly, Salinger seems to have shared Holden's disaffection. Numerous youthful acquaintances remember him as sardonic, rant-prone, a loner. His daughter, Margaret Salinger, likewise traces the alienation in the book to him, though it does not reflect for her either her father's innate temperament or difficult adolescence so much as his experiences of anti-Semitism and, as an adult, war. Where Salinger fought in some of the bloodiest and most senseless campaigns of World War II and apparently suffered a nervous breakdown toward its end, shortly after which—while still in Europe—he is known to have been working on Catcher—it is hardly surprising that Holden's reactions should evoke not only adolescent turmoil but also the awful seesaw of a vet's return to civilian life. Holden may be a rebel without a cause, but he is not a rebel without an explanation: It is easy to read the death of his brother as a stand-in for unspeakable trauma. And witness the notable vehemence with which Holden talks about the war--declaring, for instance, "I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will."

But what of Margaret Salinger's theory regarding anti-Semitism? She characterizes Salinger as sensitive about his Jewishness with good cause—noting, for example, that a few years before her father’s arrival at the military academy, a Jew who had graduated second in his class found his picture printed on a perforated page of the yearbook so that it could be torn out. Ian Hamilton's unofficial biography of Salinger, too, cites a letter from the father of a girl to whom Salinger once proposed, describing him as "an odd fellow. He didn't mingle much with the other guests [at their Daytona Beach hotel]. ...He was—well, is he Jewish? I thought that might explain the way he acted.... I thought he had a chip on his shoulder."

Interestingly, though, Salinger's sister, in an interview, focuses on his in-between-ness as well. "It wasn't nice to be part-Jewish in those days," she says. "It was no asset to be Jewish either, but at least you belonged somewhere. This way you were neither fish nor fowl." Additionally complicating the picture is the fact that Salinger seems to have grown up revered by his Irish-Catholic mother but disparaged by his Jewish father, who wanted him to enter the family food-import business. Fish and fowl, adored and criticized, Salinger was remembered by some military academy classmates as a guy whose conversation "was laced with sarcasm" but by others as "a regular guy" and by teachers as "quiet, thoughtful, always anxious to please." Strikingly, this sometimes scathing student wrote a class song so convincingly straight ("Goodbyes are said, we march ahead/Success we go to find./Our forms are gone from Valley Forge/Our hearts are left behind) it is still sung at graduation. He edited the yearbook, too, with what so completely passed as earnest conscientiousness that though it is tempting to view his activities as virtuoso performances of deep subterfuge--given his youthful interest in acting, especially--they might also be imagined to have been painfully disconcerting. Holden's description of himself as "the most terrific liar you ever saw" might well have applied to Salinger, and Salinger's own judgment of his divided nature, in this era before "situational selves," might well have involved the word that haunts his book, "phony."

A poignant part of Salinger's genius seems, in any case, to include the way that he transmuted—as he perhaps felt he had to—his particular issues and injuries into a more enigmatic "autobiography" of alienation. And it can only be counted ironic that the result came to exemplify American authenticity: Like James Dean, Holden Caulfield is for many the very picture of the postwar rebel. Young, crude, misunderstood, he stands up to conformist pressures, is drawn to innocence, etcetera. Never mind that Holden is white, male, straight, sophisticated, rich, and a product of the '40s; he personifies anguished resistance to '50s America—indeed, for many, America's truest self. Whether Salinger intended his creation to assume anything like this role—indeed, if he had any notion of the projection of a national identity as a desirable literary goal (as did his contemporary, John Updike, for example)—is unclear.

And is there not something, if not phony, then at least a little strange, about Holden's enshrinement in American culture? To some degree, academia took its cue from the culture; Catcher's skyrocketing sales amid the mid-'50s "youthquake" fairly demanded explanation. Critics like George Steiner saw the bookas all too fitting for the paperback market—short, easy to read, and flattering "the very ignorance and moral shallowness of his young readers." But others saw its success as a promising development, indicative of something enduringly young, defiant, and truth-loving in the American spirit. Drawing on the work of Donald Pease, critic Leerom Medovoi has described how a new Cold War American canon arose around this time—a canon in which American Renaissance works like Moby-Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were cast as a "coherent tradition that dramatized the emergence of American freedom as a literary ideal, somehow already waging its heroic struggle against a prefigured totalitarianism." He provocatively describes how Catcher came to join those works and how the lot of them, read as national allegories, located the very essence of American-ness in principled dissent even as McCarthyism cast it as un-American.

No doubt other scholars, being scholars, disagree. Still, Medovoi's ideas may, in conjunction with the book's Mona Lisa-like ambiguity, help explain how Catcher came to occupy what by other measures seems a strangely high place in American letters, for the book strays notably from mainstream literary values. It is, to begin with, often precious and sentimental. What's more, while the critic Alfred Kazin is, I think, on the mark in ascribing the excitement of Salinger's stories to his "intense, his almost compulsive need to fill in each inch of his canvas, each moment of his scene," the writing in Catcher is nowhere near so alive with moti mentali. The whole, too, is slight. Salinger characterized himself as "a dash man and not a miler"; and indeed, though Catcher's opening explodes with life, the whole reads like a novella that only just managed to shed its diminutive. It does not develop appreciatively through its middle; Holden neither deepens nor comes to share the stage with other characters. Instead the book starts to feel narrow and maniacally one-note; reading it today, one wonders whether its real contribution lies in its anticipation of Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism. In contrast to, say, The Great Gatsby, this is manifestly not a book to be studied for insight into the novel form.

Unless, that is, one is interested is how a book can hit home with no evidence of its author ever having read Henry James's The Art of Fiction. Catcher demonstrates, among other things, how variously and mysteriously novels finally work and how even sophisticated audiences tend to genuflect to art but yield to testimony. We are enthralled by voices that tell it like it is—or, in the case of Catcher, that seem to. My 16-year-old son—who has, coincidentally, been reading Catcher for his 10th grade English class even as I write—puts it this way: "You feel [with Catcher] like you're in on the real story," but that in the end Catcher is a "break" from reality rather than a source of information about it. He likens Holden's appeal to that of Harry Potter: Just as Harry speaks to children because Harry is like them only able to do magic, Holden interests my son because Holden rebels and "gets away with it" in a way my son guesses—rightly—he would never. In short, one part of Catcher's appeal lies in its purveyance of fantasy. This can, of course, have value—sensitizing an audience to the real limits of its freedom, for example—but can support solipsism, too. Alfred Kazin, among other critics, took the harsh view, characterizing Salinger's audience as "the vast number who have been released by our society to think of themselves as endlessly sensitive, spiritually alone, [and] gifted, and whose suffering lies in the narrowing of their consciousness to themselves."

Other explanations of the book's popularity, though, must of course include its outrageous humor and the cult appeal of Salinger’s anti-celebrity, anti-consumerist stance: His contempt for hippies and support for the Vietnam War notwithstanding, he became—first for the '60s counterculture and then for others—the consummate dropout. And though he was later rumored to have gone quite bonkers—drinking urine, espousing Scientology, sitting in a Reichian orgone box, and more—he managed to retain an aura of martyred integrity, which the recurring censorship of Catcher only intensified.

Academia, too, pressed on. The critic Alan Nadel—noting that the Cold War blossomed in the period between 1946 when, for unknown reasons, Salinger withdrew from publication a 90-page version of the book, and 1951, when it was published—interestingly saw in Holden, not so much heroic nonconformity, as a reflection of McCarthyism. Many features of the narrative—the obsession with control in its rhetorical patterns, as well as its preoccupation with duplicity and compulsion to "name names"—bespoke, for Nadel, a psychic imprisonment in which the performance of truth-telling could never yield truth. And indeed, the insistence of phrases such as "I really mean it" and "to tell the truth" do finally seem to signal quicksand more than terra firma. Holden at story's end is under interrogation—more isolated than independent, more defeated than defiant."D.B. [his brother] asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about. ...If you want to know the truth, I don't know what I think about it," he says, touchingly. "I don't know what I think about it": Is this the author of the military academy class hymn wondering about the act and value of writing? Has Holden, the avatar of American authenticity, become an avatar of American inauthenticity? Here Salinger's funhouse proves, yet once again—perhaps enduringly—ours. Ω

[Gish Jen (born: Lillian Jen) received a B.A. at Harvard University, attended Stanford University, 1979-80, and received an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa. She was a Lecturer in fiction writing at Tufts University and a visiting writer at the University of Massachusetts. Jen received the Transatlantic Review award (1983), was a resident in the MacDowell Colony (1987), a fellow at the Radcliffe Bunting Institute and James A. Michener Foundation/Copernicus Society (1986), a fellow at the Massachusetts Artists Foundation (1988), a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts (1988) and winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Contest prize (1987). Gish Jen's new novel, World and Town, will be published by Knopf in the fall.]

Copyright © 2010 The New Republic

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Howard Zinn, RIP

Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 — January 27, 2010) was a acholar/teacher and activist, best known for his 1980 book A People's History of the United States. Zinn attended New York University and received his bachelor's degree in 1951. He did graduate work in political science at Columbia University, completing his masters degree in 1952 and his Ph.D. in 1958. Zinn taught political science and history at Boston University from 1964-1988. In its small, ineffectual way, this blog keeps faith with Howard Zinn by agitating incessantly. If this is (fair & balanced) speaking truth to power, so be it.

[x The Nation]
Howard Zinn: The Historian Who Made History
By Dave Zirin

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Howard Zinn, my hero, teacher, and friend died of a heart attack on Wednesday at the age of 87. With his death, we lose a man who did nothing less than rewrite the narrative of the United States. We lose a historian who also made history.

Anyone who believes that the United States is immune to radical politics never attended a lecture by Howard Zinn. The rooms would be packed to the rafters, as entire families, black, white and brown, would arrive to hear their own history made humorous as well as heroic. "What matters is not who's sitting in the White House. What matters is who's sitting in!" he would say with a mischievous grin. After this casual suggestion of civil disobedience, the crowd would burst into laughter and applause.

Only Howard could pull that off because he was entirely authentic. When he spoke against poverty it was from the perspective of someone who had to work in the shipyards during the Great Depression. When he spoke against war, it was from the perspective of someone who flew as a bombardier during World War II, and was forever changed by the experience. When he spoke against racism it was from the perspective of someone who taught at Spelman College during the civil rights movement and was arrested sitting in with his students.

And of course, when he spoke about history, it was from the perspective of having written A People's History of the United States, a book that has sold more than two million copies and changed the lives of countless people. Count me among them. When I was 17 and picked up a dog-eared copy of Zinn's book, I thought history was about learning that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. I couldn't tell you what the Magna Carta was, but I knew it was signed in 1215. Howard took this history of great men in powdered wigs and turned it on its pompous head.

In Howard's book, the central actors were the runaway slaves, the labor radicals, the masses and the misfits. It was history writ by Robin Hood, speaking to a desire so many share: to actually make history instead of being history's victim. His book came alive in December with the debut of "The People Speak" on the History Channel as actors, musicians, and poets, brought Zinn's book alive.

Howard was asked once whether his praise of dissent and protest was divisive. He answered beautifully: "Yes, dissent and protest are divisive, but in a good way, because they represent accurately the real divisions in society. Those divisions exist — the rich, the poor — whether there is dissent or not, but when there is no dissent, there is no change. The dissent has the possibility not of ending the division in society, but of changing the reality of the division. Changing the balance of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed."

Words like this made Howard my hero. I never thought we would also become friends. But through our mutual cohort, Anthony Arnove, Howard read my sports writing and then gave his blessing to a book project we called A People's History of Sports in the United States (2009).

We also did a series of meetings together where I would interview Howard on stage. Even at 87, he still had his sharp wit, strong voice, and matinee-idol white hair. But his body had become frail. Despite this physical weakness, Howard would stay and sign hundreds of books until his hand would shake with the effort.

At our event in Madison, Wisconsin, Howard issued a challenge to the audience. He said, "Our job as citizens is to honestly assess what Obama is doing. Not measured just against Bush, because against Bush, everybody looks good. But look honestly at what Obama's doing and act as engaged and vigorous citizens."

He also had no fear to express his political convictions loudly and proudly. I asked him about the prospects today for radical politics and he said,

"Let's talk about socialism. ...I think it's very important to bring back the idea of socialism into the national discussion to where it was at the turn of the [last] century before the Soviet Union gave it a bad name. Socialism had a good name in this country. Socialism had Eugene Debs. It had Clarence Darrow. It had Mother Jones. It had Emma Goldman. It had several million people reading socialist newspapers around the country… Socialism basically said, hey, let's have a kinder, gentler society. Let's share things. Let's have an economic system that produces things not because they're profitable for some corporation, but produces things that people need. People should not be retreating from the word socialism because you have to go beyond capitalism."

Howard Zinn taught millions of us a simple lesson: Agitate. Agitate. Agitate. But never lose your sense of humor in the process. It's a beautiful legacy and however much it hurts to lose him, we should strive to build on Howard's work and go out and make some history. Ω

[Dave Zirin is The Nation's sports editor. He is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (2007) and A People's History of Sports in the United States (2009). His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sports and The Progressive.]

Copyright © 2010 The Nation

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