Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reliving History

As I look at the papers and postings
It’s hard to see where I’m at
Because I read all the boastings
About solutions to fix this and that
And candidates who surely know better
Claim their elixirs will cure
Our ills right down to the letter
If we only agree to endure
The poisons about to be poured
And that will just thrill us
Unless it will kill us
As we wade through the welter of lies
Only history enlightens our lives

I have been reading extensively about the 20s and 30s to examine the cycle of history at home and abroad (Italy) to see what lessons might be learned. The sources were partly biographical, but are mostly records of the times wrapped around personalities such as FDR and folks like Hoover and even (Saint) Padre Pio. The American biographies provided a view of our economics, politics and sociology and the Padre Pio book gave insight to Italy during the period. The developments at home and abroad were remarkably similar, although the outcomes were less so and details varied from point to point.

In America, the sociology was framed by an almost Calvinistic belief that afflictions besetting individuals, families and communities were visited upon them through their sins and the sins of their forebears. Poverty was the natural outcome of this pre-condition and wealth was seen, not only as a blessing from God, but a sign of earthly holiness, or Grace on earth. Italian experience differed in that they had more recently lived through times where birth determined worth, but not in the Calvinist model. The lord of the manor had power over peons and as bad as education was in many rural American areas, it was better than the Italian model. Both sides of the Atlantic suffered from poor nutrition. In fact, it was a major cause of rejection for the military draft as things heated up for the US entry into WW II. A common element was the role of religion in everyday life, especially for the poor. In Italy there was an attachment to mysticism, especially through the lives of Roman Catholic saints. In the US, there was a virulent fundamentalism that rivaled any in history. The fundamentalist Ku Klux Klan was active in blaming minorities for the ills of our nation. Opportunistic preachers including Gerald L.K. Smith, Gerald Winrod and Fr. Coughlin whipped up sentiment against the left and supported the right and the “New America” of Colonel Lindbergh (hero and Nazi supporter). In Italy, socialists and even communists whipped up sentiments for fairness and even retribution against landowners. There, Benito Mussolini negotiated with the pope and collected religious support for his plans. Negotiations in 1929 resulted in the Lateran Treaty and the Concordat that returned 194 acres to the Church for the Vatican and split responsibilities for marriage and education between Church and State. Uneducated people tried to explain and interpret their lives in ways that made sense to them. It was a perfect storm that engulfed much of the planet. In Europe overall, WW I reparations sapped economic growth and colonialism was uttering its Last Hurrah so that survival by exploitation of colonies was diminishing and unable to keep economies viable. The dividing line between haves and have-nots sharpened. Symbolism held enormous power over largely illiterate populations; aided by religiosity and a history of compliance.

Wars then, just as now, had sapped the strength of nations and visited hunger and poverty on masses of people. Natural calamities such as the Dust Bowl in the US deepened misery and pain. Revolution in Europe brought fear and reaction from the far right in Italy. In the US, President Hoover, earlier an appointed hero of the great flood of 1927, expressed that government had no role in changing the dynamics of economics and he instituted a woefully inadequate program of helping starving Americans by encouraging his wealthy friends to give to the Community Chest in 1930-31. The program was a failure because his friends largely ignored his pleas and the reality of hunger brought shame to proud Americans. It succeeded in the sense that it placated the wealthy who felt vindicated that the poor deserved their lot in life and they deserved their wealth. Fundamentalist preachers, focused on alcohol, dancing and revivals, but supported harsh economic remedies. Today, they largely attack abortion and homosexuality, but the attachment by fundamentalists to the political right wing and drastic economics remains. In Italy, Padre Pio, despite being in the Capuchin monastery of San Giovanni Rotondo in an obscure corner of southern Italy, was known throughout the continent because of his miracles and his five stigmata that matched those of Jesus. Both socialists and fascists pursued the simple priest, but fascists won out and he was often seen with fascist operatives and members of parliament as he ministered to thousands of pilgrims. The nexus of the Church and fascism in Italy was coupled with a large dose of Anti-Semitism, especially in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Here in the US it was linked with both fundamentalists and Catholics like Fr. Coughlin who claimed that the abominable treatment of Jews by Germany was an internal matter for Germans; none of our concern and surely nothing to go to war for. In Italy, Il Duce still pursued “corporatism” as he defined fascism. This allowed him to denounce and limit unions and spur his expansionist plans. He denied Jews basic rights and invaded North Africa and sent military to Franco in Spain while the Church was focused on the atheistic Red Menace. Paradoxically, Il Duce asked the pope (Pius XI) to excommunicate Hitler who, though born Catholic, was pagan. Mussolini feared Hitler would annex the South Tyrol. Wars and infrastructure projects put Italians to work and gave reason to destroy labor unions as a matter of security just as unions organized to fight for workers. Conservatives equated unions to socialism and communism despite lacking evidence. This served corporatism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. Churches in Italy and the United States simply stood by or supported owners and corporations. Low wages prevailed, but Italians worked.

At home the theme was isolationism fostered by the far right who praised both Hitler and Mussolini as they demanded that we shun pleas from England, Spain and France for support. Unions were attacked, often using state or federal police and military resources to break up demonstrations, shoot demonstrators; reduce demand for wages and stall unrest that might take root here. The downward pressure on wages escalated as unions were attacked. One corporate CEO was quoted as saying “A man should be able to feed his family for 50 cents per day.” Those asking for higher wages were seen as immoral by owners and executives. Corporate profits were high and wages were low (sound familiar?) with the exception of Henry Ford who stated that his workers had to be paid well to afford to buy his cars. The Supreme Court declared child labor laws unconstitutional to further erode wages, saying, in effect, that children who could not otherwise execute contracts had a right to independently contract their labor. Despite brutal suppression of labor, Americans had little love for communism and they bore their burdens with grim resolve. Grocers like my Dad gave food to those without and put charges on records that were kept but never paid. Years later, when I found the records and confronted my father about them, he simply said: “They had to eat.”
Here in 2011, technology has changed, but little else. We see the far right in the US demanding shrinkage of government size and spending and expansion of government to control abortion and our southern border. Instead of blaming blacks and Jews for our troubles, as we did in the 20s and 30s we now focus on Mexican and Central Americans causing job shortages, although every study demonstrates that to be false. Corporations are enjoying record profits and lowering wages yet again as they shed jobs and demand more from the workers they retain. Preachers are preaching hate in more subtle tones, as they join the chorus to get on your knees instead of your feet. The numbers of abortions has dropped in recent years, but those cries still out-shout the cries of the poor. The tactics of conservatives have become more strident and they protect the upper class by demanding pledges of tax cuts in the face of declining government revenues and services.

There are some real outcomes of smaller government that some are unwilling to agree cause serious problems. As a single example, Texas leads the nation in minimum wage workers and has cut the training, equipping and staffing of Volunteer fire departments by 75%. At least 1600 homes have been destroyed by wildfires there. Hmm. In Wisconsin, conservatives unilaterally stripped unions of their rights to bargain for wages or working conditions while providing a grant to selected corporations that totaled more than the dollars taken from teachers and first responders. The Koch brothers recently gathered up conservative corporation executives and led a million dollar meeting where conservative donors had to pledge a minimum of $ 1 Million for their GOP friends in the coming election. Buddy, can you spare a $ million? Plutocrats and polluters won’t disappear overnight. We have seen presidential candidate Perry conduct a revival like prayer service to burnish his fundamentalist bona fides. We have seen candidate Bachmann deftly resign from her fundamentalist church that openly calls the pope “the Antichrist” just days before declaring her candidacy. Bachmann also signed a pledge by social conservatives in Iowa stating “A Black child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African American President.” The pledge shows not only blatant prejudice, but shows ignorance of American slavery that deliberately broke up and sold parts of families and where slave owners frequently bred slaves personally by having sex with them that could, in no way, be considered consensual. People in Italy drifted from organized religion and have developed a less trusting and more distant attitude toward the Church, unlike fundamentalists here. This joining of Church and State in the US may have nasty consequences for public education, public medicine and additional areas too numerous to list. More recently, she has stated that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. This lie will cause confusion among the uninformed and may cause pain, disease and suffering among those who refuse the vaccine based on her comments.

This is where we must begin to stop the revision of history that paints the pain, depravation and degradation of our people as a time of glory. The excesses of the rich in defining the world as theirs to control was dominant in the 20s and 30s. Limiting the benevolence of government and enhancing its power for sanction is moving us in exactly the wrong direction. A man or woman out of work or underpaid becomes a set of problems and a study in agony and bad behavior. It is not a trial where they are strengthened by fire, but one where they are burned and scarred. There is a role for government and the idea that we should limit the benevolent side of the government is a sick excuse to further tilt the nation to plutocracy instead of democracy. We may go back to solutions of violence in the streets and probably will, but that only encourages bastards with money to use the force they buy to restore PAX Dollarama. Mussolini used military entertainment and civil projects. Hitler used war. Hoover used the Community Chest. Conservatives use religion, so what will Boehner and Cantor use? Which way will we go? Jobs provide dignity but more than dignity. They provide a haven where families dwell and a nation thrives. Poverty provides misery and strife and the US poverty level has just risen to 15.1%.

The violence will be televised this time, unlike the 20s and 30s. Be careful out there.

George Giacoppe
11 September 2011

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