There's Somethin' 'Bout A Truck!"

The pickup truck's rise from its crude, makeshift origins to the near luxury-item status it enjoys today amounts to a Horatio Alger tale with a technological twist, providing a striking allegory of cherished national legends of progress and upward mobility.
In the early 20th century, a number of Americans seeking a more expeditious means of hauling material that could not be crammed into or strapped atop the traditional motorcar, took their tinsnips to the family flivver, affixing a large box or old wagon bed to the rear of the chassis. The frenzy of vehicular DIY-ing soon encouraged smaller entrepreneurs to install cabs and hauling containers on the slightly modified chassis of the Ford Model T.
But the Ford Motor Company itself did not offer the first fully factory-assembled pickup truck until 1924-1925 with its "Model T Runabout with Pickup Body" and a 20-horsepower 4-cylinder engine. Chevrolet and Dodge made serious moves into pickup production in the 1930s, and once the wartime production restrictions of the 1940s were lifted, the competitive scramble to cash in on pent-up demand led to a steady progression of bigger, more powerful trucks, which by the 1950s boasted 6- and 8-cylinder engines supplying 100 horsepower, improved transmissions, and easier steering.
By that point the pickup was no longer simply an adjunct but another vital technological component of one of the most far-reaching transformations in American history: the mechanization and consolidation of Southern agriculture.
Beginning in the 1920s and accelerating rapidly after 1945, with mules proving no match for the tractor in planting and cultivating his fields, the farmer needed to make not just the production but the transportation of his precious crop more efficient. When its bed was framed by slatted wooden side-bodies extending up to cab height, a pickup truck could haul a bale of cotton five miles to the gin in scarcely the time it took to hitch two mules to a wagon. And the same was no less true when there was fertilizer, feed, and seed to be picked up in town.
For families on smaller farms where there was no extra money for a car, the pickup might be forced into double-duty in getting the family to church, the doctor, the grocery store, or school events. In rural farming and ranching areas, children quickly learned to drive the family pickup in the course of finishing off their chores. Local authorities tended to look the other way when one of the youngsters, whose face could scarcely be seen over the steering wheel, was dispatched via pickup to the feed or farm supply store. And even when they reached legal driving age, the pickup often remained their only means of getting to and from school or practice or simply escaping the isolation of the farm for a few hours in town.
Like country singer Alan Jackson, who couldn't "replace the way it made me feel" when his daddy let him take the wheel of his "old hand-me-down-Ford," even in middle age and far removed from their rural roots, Americans reared on a farm retained vivid memories of experiences with pickups that defined various stages of their youth. As a seven-year-old boy, I lived for the thrill of riding to the gin sprawled atop a load of cotton piled high on our pickup. But several years later, I cringed at the mere prospect of accompanying my dad in the same mud- and manure-encrusted truck on a trip to town, where I knew I faced the absolute certainty of encountering the prettiest, most stylish girl in my class.
The same forces that embedded the pickup in rural life would eventually begin to erode the very foundations of that life. The dwindling prospects of any but the largest and most mechanized farming operations pushed much of the increasingly marginalized population off the land toward the beckoning bustle of the metropolis. Although Americans fleeing the farm took their memories of the family's dilapidated old pickup with them, actually parking such a vehicle in your driveway guaranteed a cold shoulder on arrival in the studiedly urbane and fervently aspirational 'burbs.
Soon enough, however, rising metropolitan incomes and the growing popularity of camping, boating, and other outdoor activities justified the acquisition of newer, better-kempt pickups, equipped with once unheard of comforts and conveniences like leather seats, air conditioning, extended cabs, automatic transmissions, and power steering.
Annual sales of pickups topped 2 million by 1980 and had surged past 11 million in 2017, and the enormous and sustained profitability of its truck line has led Ford to limit its future sales of traditional cars in North America to the iconic Mustang and the yet-to-be unveiled Focus Active. With even the entry-level Dodge Ram 1500 stickering in the neighborhood of $65,000, many of today's pampered pickups stand little chance of hauling cotton, hay, livestock, or much of anything else likely to scratch them.
Though pickups continue to have some practical applications in theory, in practice, a great number of them serve their owners primarily as "lifestyle vehicles" or some might even say "lifestyle statements." Indeed, for a sizable contingent of Americans, the pickup truck has emerged as a means of establishing their ties to a distinctly blue-collar identity in the course of flaunting their bourgeois prosperity. (Ironically, some older pickup owners, more concerned now with asserting their rural roots than flashing their middle class creds, have fallen into a certain reverse snobbery, deliberately hanging onto vehicles like my 1994 GMC Sierra, which sports 110, 000 miles on the odometer but not much of its original paint job.)
The pickup truck had become a fixture in country music well before 1975, when David Allan Coe disputed his songwriter friend Steve Goodman's claim that his "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" was the "perfect country song," pointing out that it made no references to pickup trucks, trains, mothers, drinking and prison, all of which comprised the collective sine qua non of a legitimate country offering.
Only when Goodman inserted a new verse about a fellow who admits that he was "drunk" the day his mother got out of prison and laments that before he made it to the station to meet her in his "pickup truck," she had been "runned over by a damned ol' train," did Coe admit that his friend had indeed achieved perfection in a country song.
More than 40 years later, the rusty rattletrap Coe had in mind is little in evidence in songs by Luke Bryan and others about good ol' boys and gals dancing the night away to a deafening mix of country rock and hip hop or just sitting and sipping on the special "diamond plate" tailgate protector of a lavishly accoutered "big black, jacked-up" pickup, POSSIBLY a Chevy Silverado, which Bryan himself favors.
With luxury pickups offering some of the highest profit margins in the industry, manufacturers are riding the pop culture wave, their truck ads awash in country artists and soundtrack. Luke Bryan now serves as an official "brand ambassador" for Chevrolet, and neither the cultural or economic distance between Music City and Motor City is as great as singer-songwriter Mel Tillis suggested 35 years ago in his classic, "Detroit City."
Today's fancy models may be portrayed in ways that seem to celebrate a wide-open, "anything goes" social outlook, but the pickup's political implications have most commonly skewed Right, even Far Right. The stereotypical combination of a gun rack and Rebel flag decal once conjured images of night-riding, racist thugs. Even sans flag, the racked shotgun or rifle (or both) invited suspicions that the driver was not simply a dedicated hunter but someone just itching to be crossed. Ironically, the proliferation of extended cab vehicles in combination with the increased risk of theft amid the burgeoning illicit traffic in firearms, has gone a long way toward reducing the gun rack to a garage sale item.
Even so, a pickup remains a preferred prop for politicians looking to portray themselves as "politically incorrect" conservatives on issue like guns and immigration. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp apparently feared he might have been too subtle in an ad showing what appears to be a couple of AR-15s in the background as he pointed a shotgun at teenage boy while prompting him to swear undying fealty to the Second Amendment. Just to be sure the message came through, Kemp followed up with another spot showing him in his Ford 350 XLT pickup, touting his "big truck," which was going to come in handy when he went out to "roundup criminal illegals."
Although foreign truck manufacturers have forced their stateside competitors to pay more attention to fuel economy and vehicle dependability, "Buy American!" still seems to resonate in the pickup marketplace. Significant differences in overall production levels notwithstanding, it is striking that Ford sold nearly twice as many F-Series pickups last year as all of the leading Japanese heavy and mid-size pickup truck models sold combined. Marketing experts think it is no coincidence that potential buyers are reminded periodically that Ford was the only major automaker to refuse federal bailout funds during the last recession, a message that General Motors may have been trying to counter in a Chevy Silverado ad declaring "This is our country. This is our truck."
If the pickup truck is deeply ingrained in our national life and culture, like America itself, it has been and remains many things to many people. For generations born on the farm, it may summon a wave of classically bittersweet nostalgia. For some whose experiences with it have been less "up close and personal," it has at times been a metaphor both for unvarnished rusticity and a comfortable, laid-back middle-class existence. For others, it has been a disquieting signifier of latent violence or vigilantism and active prejudice.
More broadly, the story of the pickup truck affirms the historic capacity of Americans to adapt not only our social and political outlook, but also our cultural and consumer preferences to dramatic changes in the economic, technological and demographic forces that have shaped our identity as a people.

The Ol' Bloviator wishes to acknowledge that an earlier version of this little piece appeared on Smithsonian Magazine.com via Zocalo Public Square.org

THE ART OF THE KNEEL

 

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

 Amendment I, Constitution of the United States of America (Ratified December, 15, 1791)

 

"You better go home and read your Constitution, Buddy!"

Sec. of State Alexander Haig to Sec. of Defense Casper Weinberger, explaining why he was "in charge" until Vice-President George H. W. Bush arrived at the White House in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of Pres. Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981.

.

As it turned out, that ol' Snuggle Bunny Al Haig was wrong, about where he stood in the line of presidential succession--which was fourth behind Bush, rather than second--as well as the authority for that succession, which was actually established by an act of Congress in 1947. Even so, "Read your constitution, Buddy" is always pretty sound advice in any situation and never more applicable than in the current uproar over the rights of N.F.L. players to kneel in protest of police violence against black citizens during the playing of the national anthem. Although the Second Amendment may be giving it a run for its money these days, the Ol' Bloviator would venture that the most commonly misappropriated amendment to our constitution is the First. A great deal of this is attributable to the deeply ingrained embrace of "free speech," in principle if not always in practice, as a fundamental component of the American Way of Life.

            The First Amendment's reference to "freedom of speech" has been interpreted expansively enough to include many forms of individual expression, from music, to the visual arts, to choice of apparel, to bumper stickers. Likewise, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of speech" has been extended to cover state and local, as well as federal laws and policy and federal practices requiring or sanctioning suppression of free expression. Pervasive governmental involvement in so many aspects of national life has taken First Amendment protection into areas where few could have imagined they would apply. All of this being said, however, the courts have largely required that some level of government involvement in the restriction of free expression be established before First Amendment protections are operative.

            Ironically, the gratuitous self-insertion of the Great Orange Blusterbag into this controversy may have inadvertently rendered the First Amendment more relevant here than it would have been otherwise. While it guarantees his right to criticize the kneelers as a private citizen, there is court precedent to suggest that, as an agent of the federal government, he is not free to use his bully POTUS-ian pulpit to encourage Americans to boycott the NFL in order to actively coerce owners into ixnaying the players' protests. Still, we might rightly ask whether filing another legal action against a man who pays them no more mind than his debts or his contracts is akin to trying to calm Kilauea by tee-teeing on it.

            If legal determinations are to be factor here, the O.B. can't see the dispute coming down to anything other than the right of an employer to restrict the behavior of an employee while he or she is on the job. There are laws in many states which prohibit bosses from penalizing workers for their political activities outside the workplace, and there are laws that prohibit discrimination within it based on race, sex, or sexual orientation. So far as the O.B. knows, which, granted, sometimes ain't all that far, no employer can be required to tolerate on-the-job behavior by an employee that he or she deems detrimental to the employer's economic interest. Staffers may well exercise their freedom as individuals to raise controversial, divisive political issues while engaged with clients and customers, but they have no legitimate expectation that the boss must tolerate such behavior.

            What it boils down to is that we as a people pride ourselves in maintaining legal protections for free speech in certain forms and within certain contexts, and pay unceasing homage to it in principle. Yet, no less than most human societies, ours readily relies on the forces of popular opinion and the marketplace to discourage or punish speech that is seen as unsettling, embarrassing, divisive, or otherwise inimical to the dominant interests of the day.

There is no denying the racial factors that drive and complicate this particular controversy. Some 70% of NFL players are black, while 80% of the fans in the stands are white. Increasingly stratospheric ticket prices simply exacerbate this disparity. The heaviest concentration of household incomes across the NFL fan base falls within the range of $75,000 to $100,000, meaning even the bottom tier of this demographic stands $35,000 north of median household income for blacks as of 2017. Meanwhile, some 70% of the overall viewing audience is also white. By no means all of the roughly 65% of whites who seem to disapprove of the kneeling personally deny the legitimacy or sincerity of the players' concerns, but by stressing the anti-American implications of what the kneeling "sons of bitches" were doing, His Evil Orangeness effectively piled a lack of patriotism on top of the racial antipathy already harbored by many whites while casting whites more sympathetic to the player's objectives as America-haters as well. The impact of his onslaught registers in survey data showing the share of respondents with favorable attitudes toward the NFL falling from an already frail 30% to 17%  during  DT's weeklong Twitter rampage on the subject last September, his calculated outrage helping, as one survey firm noted, to render the NFL one of the "most divisive brands" out there. Needless to say, if you are heavily invested financially in such a brand, this is seldom good news, and, in this case, it likely means that no intricate algorithmic calculation will be needed to convince team owners and league officials that the best bet for their pocketbooks lies in moving to pacify by far the largest and most affluent segment of their unevenly divided fan base. Cracking down on protests by black players obviously promises less overall revenue lost to fan boycotts or other collective attempts to cut into their bottom line than vice-versa. A player strike or coordinated refusal to report for training camp in July might well counter this strategy, but given the racial and ideological pressure cooker in which this conflict is playing out, the owners might well double down, sensing that folding in the face of a raise by the players would only intensify the backlash from white fans, not to mention a certain self-serving politician as well.

If the message here is that, as a practical matter, protecting free speech can be costly to the owners, what of the free speakers themselves? Speaking out against injustice has cost  thousands of  lesser-known Americans their lives, families, and livelihoods, and even more celebrated voices of dissent have not escaped unscathed. Witness here John Carlos and Tommie Lee Smith, who, in raising a fist in the "Black Power" salute and bowing their heads during the national anthem at the Olympic awards ceremonies in 1968, not only forfeited their medals but left themselves severely restricted in their career opportunities thereafter. Ditto the Dixie Chicks, who were riding the momentum of a recent multi-platinum album and, in a bitter irony, in the process of launching their "Top of the World International Tour" in 2003, when singer Natalie Maines declared the group's disgust with their fellow Texan in the White House for his hokey invasion of Iraq. As might have been expected from not only fans but performers and executives of the most indisputably most conservative and hawkish sector of the American musical scene, the country music establishment and the great majority of the field's leading artists reacted as if Ms. Maines had pooted at Minnie Pearl's funeral, and the high-flying trio summarily nose-dived directly into Lake Pariah, their extrication from which remains incomplete even fifteen years later.

None of this is to suggest that players who kneel in protest during the national anthem are not fully aware that, historically, there have been significant costs attached to such actions or that they are not fully prepared to absorb them. The O.B. will readily admit that his visceral reaction to the way they are making their statements is decidedly negative, even though he recognizes that the necessity for such a statement is urgent. He concedes that even a more subtle or individualized gesture is likely to invite an acrimonious reaction, as in the shallow, malevolent Laura Ingraham's "shut up and dribble" advisory after LeBron James called some of the Cheeto-in-Chief's language "laughable and scary."

The Ol' Bloviator wishes he could see an outcome here based a more constructive and sensitive appreciation of opposing points of view and a recognition that humane values should always count for more than raw emotions. Sadly, he can hardly imagine a time in our nation's history less propitious for such an eventuality. Hence, he humbly suggests that if and when an accommodation is announced, the appropriate musical accompaniment will not be Faith Hill or Whitney Houston's soaring rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," but Cyndi Lauper belting out "Money Changes Everything."

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MLK'S 'DREAM" GOT TOO BIG

 

According to an early 1968 Harris Poll, the man whose half-century of martyrdom we celebrate this month died with a public disapproval rating of nearly 75 percent, a figure well above anything Donald Trump has been able to ring up thus far.

White racial resentment was still a critical factor at that point. But  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's unfavorable numbers were at least 25 points higher in 1968 than in 1963, and his faltering appeal over the final years of his life was also a consequence of appearing to fall behind his times in some respects even as he was leaping well ahead of them in others.

A day after returning home in December 1964 from a tour whose most important stop was Oslo, the Nobel Laureate for Peace joined a picket line at Atlanta's Scripto Pen factory, where some 700 workers were striking for better wages for less skilled employees  Though it was a remarkably humble gesture for someone who had received such a lofty affirmation, King's actions that day and his call for a nationwide boycott of Scripto products won him few friends in his hometown's white staunchly antiunion business community.

His picketing also foreshadowed a future in which King would move beyond the bloody battles against blatantly illegal state and local racial practices in places like Birmingham and Selma. Not content with the gains registered in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he resolved to pursue a more expansive, aggressive, and (to white Americans, especially) unsettling socioeconomic and political agenda, one that would draw him into another fateful labor dispute some three-and-a-half years later in Memphis.

 

While still involved in the Scripto affair, King sat for a Playboy interview with Alex Haley, in which he endorsed a massive federal aid program for blacks. Its whopping $50 billion price tag was, he pointed out, less than annual U.S. spending for defense. Such an expenditure, he argued, would be more than justified in "a spectacular decline" in "school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting, and other social evils." Many poor whites were "in the very same boat with the Negro," he added, and if they could be persuaded to join forces with blacks, they could form "a grand alliance" and "exert massive pressure on the Government to get jobs for all."

King had made passing allusions to this possibility before, but a straightforward call for an active biracial coalition of have-nots was just as terrifying to white ruling elites, be they on Peachtree or Wall Street, as it had been when raised by the Populists in the 1890s.

King did nothing to quell these concerns when he later told David Halberstam that he had abandoned the incremental approach to social change of his civil rights protest days in favor of pursuing "a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values," one which would "look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation."

            That King's vision of a "revolution in values" was not purely domestic. In April 1967, he denounced American involvement in Vietnam, once at his own Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta and once at Riverside Church in New York before 3,000 people, on April 4, precisely a year before he was killed.  He decried the hypocrisy of sending young black men "eight thousand miles to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia or East Harlem." Beyond that lay the painful irony of seeing them join white soldiers, with whom they could "hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta," in "brutal solidarity "as they torched "the huts of a poor village." In this they were, however unwittingly, agents of a U.S. policy that destroyed and depopulated the countryside, forcing its former inhabitants to take refuge in cities teeming with "hundreds of thousands of homeless children" who were "running in packs on the streets like animals."

Former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Chairman Stokely Carmichael observed that in this case, King was taking on not a hapless, wholly unsympathetic villain like Birmingham's Bull Connor, but rather "the entire policy of the United States government," as the. The consequences were swift and severe:  an outraged President Lyndon Johnson cut off all contact with King.  And a majority of black Americans--including many old allies and colleagues from the civil rights years--also objected to his stance, fearing it could have devastating consequences for their cause.

King hardly fared better in pursuing his domestic agenda. It was one thing to capture public sympathy nationwide when pitted against the raw hatred and brutality that seemed the peculiar province of whites below the Mason-Dixon Line. It proved quite another to persuade whites outside the South to share their neighborhoods and jobs with blacks, or to support expensive federal assistance programs dedicated to helping blacks overcome the historic disadvantages imposed on them by whites of earlier generations.

King had a better grasp of what he was up against after his 1966 open-housing campaign in and around Chicago, where he confronted white mobs he described as more "hateful" than any he had seen "even in Mississippi or Alabama."   In this context, his own stern insistence on strict adherence to the doctrine of nonviolence met with growing disdain among a younger generation of black leaders. Tired of relying on the excruciatingly slow process of peaceful protest and tedious negotiation, some mocked King's ministerial oratory and called him "De Lawd."

 

It was impatience with King's doctrine of nonviolence that turned what would prove to be his last march, on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis on March 28, 1968, into a riot.  Some marchers quickly broke ranks to break store windows, and looting was soon underway.  An aggressive police response, complete with tear gas and billy clubs, led some protesters to retaliate with Molotov cocktails. By the end of the confrontation, one person was dead and some 50 others wounded. Feeling repudiated and ashamed by this failure to prevent violence, King had to be pressured  into returning to Memphis a week later for yet another march, one that a single assassin's bullet on April 4 assured he would never lead.

When Stokely Carmichael originally scheduled a press conference for April 5, 1968, he had planned to use it as a platform for demanding the release of fellow black militant H. Rap Brown, who had been stuck in a Maryland jail for several weeks. Instead, he devoted but a few sentences to the plight of "Brother Rap" before declaring that "white America made its biggest mistake last night" by killing Dr. Martin Luther King.

King's slaying meant the death of "all reasonable hope," Carmichael warned, because he was "the only man of our race...of the older generation who the militants and the revolutionaries and the masses of black people would still listen to" even if they no longer agreed with what he had to say. There would be no more "intellectual discussions."   Black Americans would now retaliate for the murder of one of their leaders by seeking their justice not in the courtrooms but in the streets.

 

And so they did, in classically Pyrrhic fashion. Younger, more militant black spokesmen who had spurned King's commitment to nonviolence and peaceful negotiation proceeded to stoke outrage over the slaughter of someone so un-menacing and well-intentioned. A week-long orgy of violence raged across more than 100 cities, leaving at least 37 people dead and many more injured and millions of dollars in property destroyed. This was a bitterly ironic sendoff for someone who had sacrificed his life to the cause of achieving social justice by peaceful means.

 

 King's view of the Vietnam War would approach the mainstream of American thought within a few years. And his condemnations of American militarism and gross disparities in wealth and opportunity still echo, though to little more effect than he was able to achieve fifty years ago.

 The basis for a current approval rating north of 90 percent could be captured succinctly in carefully cropped newsreel footage of  King's countless confrontations with vicious, inflammatory bigots and his magnificent oratory that day in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial when achieving his "dream" seemed largely a matter of rallying his countrymen against institutionalized racial persecution in the South.  Overly narrow historical memories typically serve a purpose, and in this case it is far more comforting to focus on Dr. King's success in making a bad part of the country better than to contemplate the reasons for his equally telling failures to push the whole of America to become what he knew it should be.

(This is a modified version of a piece that appeared at www.zocalopublicsquare.org.)

 

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN MLK'S 'DREAM" GOT TOO BIG

 

According to an early 1968 Harris Poll, the man whose half-century of martyrdom we celebrate this month died with a public disapproval rating of nearly 75 percent, a figure well above anything Donald Trump has been able to ring up thus far.

White racial resentment was still a critical factor at that point. But  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's unfavorable numbers were at least 25 points higher in 1968 than in 1963, and his faltering appeal over the final years of his life was also a consequence of appearing to fall behind his times in some respects even as he was leaping well ahead of them in others.

A day after returning home in December 1964 from a tour whose most important stop was Oslo, the Nobel Laureate for Peace joined a picket line at Atlanta's Scripto Pen factory, where some 700 workers were striking for better wages for less skilled employees  Though it was a remarkably humble gesture for someone who had received such a lofty affirmation, King's actions that day and his call for a nationwide boycott of Scripto products won him few friends in his hometown's white staunchly antiunion business community.

His picketing also foreshadowed a future in which King would move beyond the bloody battles against blatantly illegal state and local racial practices in places like Birmingham and Selma. Not content with the gains registered in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he resolved to pursue a more expansive, aggressive, and (to white Americans, especially) unsettling socioeconomic and political agenda, one that would draw him into another fateful labor dispute some three-and-a-half years later in Memphis.

 

While still involved in the Scripto affair, King sat for a Playboy interview with Alex Haley, in which he endorsed a massive federal aid program for blacks. Its whopping $50 billion price tag was, he pointed out, less than annual U.S. spending for defense. Such an expenditure, he argued, would be more than justified in "a spectacular decline" in "school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting, and other social evils." Many poor whites were "in the very same boat with the Negro," he added, and if they could be persuaded to join forces with blacks, they could form "a grand alliance" and "exert massive pressure on the Government to get jobs for all."

King had made passing allusions to this possibility before, but a straightforward call for an active biracial coalition of have-nots was just as terrifying to white ruling elites, be they on Peachtree or Wall Street, as it had been when raised by the Populists in the 1890s.

King did nothing to quell these concerns when he later told David Halberstam that he had abandoned the incremental approach to social change of his civil rights protest days in favor of pursuing "a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values," one which would "look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation."

            That King's vision of a "revolution in values" was not purely domestic. In April 1967, he denounced American involvement in Vietnam, once at his own Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta and once at Riverside Church in New York before 3,000 people, on April 4, precisely a year before he was killed.  He decried the hypocrisy of sending young black men "eight thousand miles to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia or East Harlem." Beyond that lay the painful irony of seeing them join white soldiers, with whom they could "hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta," in "brutal solidarity "as they torched "the huts of a poor village." In this they were, however unwittingly, agents of a U.S. policy that destroyed and depopulated the countryside, forcing its former inhabitants to take refuge in cities teeming with "hundreds of thousands of homeless children" who were "running in packs on the streets like animals."

Former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Chairman Stokely Carmichael observed that in this case, King was taking on not a hapless, wholly unsympathetic villain like Birmingham's Bull Connor, but rather "the entire policy of the United States government," as the. The consequences were swift and severe:  an outraged President Lyndon Johnson cut off all contact with King.  And a majority of black Americans--including many old allies and colleagues from the civil rights years--also objected to his stance, fearing it could have devastating consequences for their cause.

King hardly fared better in pursuing his domestic agenda. It was one thing to capture public sympathy nationwide when pitted against the raw hatred and brutality that seemed the peculiar province of whites below the Mason-Dixon Line. It proved quite another to persuade whites outside the South to share their neighborhoods and jobs with blacks, or to support expensive federal assistance programs dedicated to helping blacks overcome the historic disadvantages imposed on them by whites of earlier generations.

King had a better grasp of what he was up against after his 1966 open-housing campaign in and around Chicago, where he confronted white mobs he described as more "hateful" than any he had seen "even in Mississippi or Alabama."   In this context, his own stern insistence on strict adherence to the doctrine of nonviolence met with growing disdain among a younger generation of black leaders. Tired of relying on the excruciatingly slow process of peaceful protest and tedious negotiation, some mocked King's ministerial oratory and called him "De Lawd."

 

It was impatience with King's doctrine of nonviolence that turned what would prove to be his last march, on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis on March 28, 1968, into a riot.  Some marchers quickly broke ranks to break store windows, and looting was soon underway.  An aggressive police response, complete with tear gas and billy clubs, led some protesters to retaliate with Molotov cocktails. By the end of the confrontation, one person was dead and some 50 others wounded. Feeling repudiated and ashamed by this failure to prevent violence, King had to be pressured  into returning to Memphis a week later for yet another march, one that a single assassin's bullet on April 4 assured he would never lead.

When Stokely Carmichael originally scheduled a press conference for April 5, 1968, he had planned to use it as a platform for demanding the release of fellow black militant H. Rap Brown, who had been stuck in a Maryland jail for several weeks. Instead, he devoted but a few sentences to the plight of "Brother Rap" before declaring that "white America made its biggest mistake last night" by killing Dr. Martin Luther King.

King's slaying meant the death of "all reasonable hope," Carmichael warned, because he was "the only man of our race...of the older generation who the militants and the revolutionaries and the masses of black people would still listen to" even if they no longer agreed with what he had to say. There would be no more "intellectual discussions."   Black Americans would now retaliate for the murder of one of their leaders by seeking their justice not in the courtrooms but in the streets.

 

And so they did, in classically Pyrrhic fashion. Younger, more militant black spokesmen who had spurned King's commitment to nonviolence and peaceful negotiation proceeded to stoke outrage over the slaughter of someone so un-menacing and well-intentioned. A week-long orgy of violence raged across more than 100 cities, leaving at least 37 people dead and many more injured and millions of dollars in property destroyed. This was a bitterly ironic sendoff for someone who had sacrificed his life to the cause of achieving social justice by peaceful means.

 

 King's view of the Vietnam War would approach the mainstream of American thought within a few years. And his condemnations of American militarism and gross disparities in wealth and opportunity still echo, though to little more effect than he was able to achieve fifty years ago.

 The basis for a current approval rating north of 90 percent could be captured succinctly in carefully cropped newsreel footage of  King's countless confrontations with vicious, inflammatory bigots and his magnificent oratory that day in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial when achieving his "dream" seemed largely a matter of rallying his countrymen against institutionalized racial persecution in the South.  Overly narrow historical memories typically serve a purpose, and in this case it is far more comforting to focus on Dr. King's success in making a bad part of the country better than to contemplate the reasons for his equally telling failures to push the whole of America to become what he knew it should be.

(This is a modified version of a piece that appeared at www.zocalopublicsquare.org.)

 

A BRIDGE TOO FAR, AND FOR FAR TOO LONG.

Though the Ol' Bloviator has some qualms about wholesale destruction of flags, statues, and other honorific monuments to the Confederacy, he has been hollering for years that they have no place on state or local government property, as they imply a continuing affinity to the cause of white supremacy. It should follow readily enough then that no public highway or bridge should bear the name of Eugene Talmadge, one of twentieth-century America's foremost political fomenters of racial hatred and persecution. Even in these sad times, it seems difficult to believe that the powers that be in Georgia would resist an effort, by the Girl Scouts, of all people, to rechristen the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge in Savannah in honor of Juliette Gordon Low, a Savannah native who founded their hallowed organization. This recent New York Times report indicates that previous attempts to strip Talmadge's hateful moniker from the bridge that is effectively the gateway to Savannah have come to grief "in the backrooms and board rooms of Atlanta" and that some of the state's lawmakers claim that "over the years . . . Mr. Talmadge's relatives have warned legislators against altering the name of the bridge." These efforts apparently included intense lobbying and threats of political reprisal against anyone who supported renaming--"I'll raise $100,000 just to beat ya'" Most of the pushback against renaming the bridge seemed to come from the relatives and associates of Eugene Talmadge's son, Herman, who passed away in 2002. An arch-segregationist in his own right when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1956, "Hummon," as he was known hereabouts, was governor of Georgia when the bridge officially named for his father opened in 1954. Though members of the family were loath to speak on the record, Lynda C. Talmadge, Senator Talmadge's third wife and widow did allow that "if people looked into the history and the record and the contributions and the things that the Talmadges did, they'd see that it's warranted to be named Talmadge."

            Fair enough, Ms. T.  Since it's Gene Talmadge whose name is the focal point of the current kerfluffle, let's just have a look at his "history and record." In his three terms (1926-1932 as Georgia's Commissioner of Agriculture, Gene Talmadge was charged with violating a state law requiring him to deposit fees collected on fertilizer in the state treasury (rather than in banks owned by his friends, as he was wont to do). He was also criticized by a state senate investigative committee for paying himself and family members more than $40,000 in salaries and expenses, and using state funds to underwrite his annual trips to the Kentucky Derby. His tour de force, however, was a purported scheme to raise hog prices in Georgia by using state money without authorization to buy eighty-two rail car loads of hogs which were to be purchased at prices just under the going rate in Chicago and having them shipped there for resale. The hogs lost considerable weight in transit and other complications resulted in the loss of more than $12,000 in state funds. Resolutely defiant in the face of all the charges--and evidence--against him, Gene would go on to use accusations that he stole state money to buy the hogs to great political advantage.

A master manipulator of Georgia's infamously malapportioned county-unit system in which the total of 1,200 votes cast for him in three sparsely populated rural counties like Gilmer, Glascock, and Lincoln effectively canceled out the 26,000 votes for his opponents in Fulton,* Talmadge readily confessed to his loyal following in the countryside that he had sure enough "stole them hogs," before adding quickly, "But I stole for you!" This brand of politics propelled Talmadge into the governor's office in 1932 and 1934. During his first term, he distinguished himself by granting three times more pardons than the state prison board recommended, raising  reasonable suspicions that he was running a "pardons racket." When the legislature refused to approve cutting the price of automobile tags to $3 across the board, he achieved it by executive order, further endearing himself to the country folks, even as his action drained away desperately needed revenues for their local schools. Despite his promise never to do so, after textile interests contributed some $20,000 to his re-election campaign in 1934, as soon as the votes were in, he declared martial law and used the National Guard to break an ongoing strike, incarcerating the dissident workers in a hastily arranged concentration camp near Atlanta. He would soon  summon the troops again, this time to physically remove the state Treasurer and Comptroller General from their offices for denying him access to funds not officially appropriated by the legislature, capping this dramatic show of force by ordering the vaults cut open with blow torches and the monies removed.

Talmadge's disdain for the New Deal was obvious from the start, and his contempt for its architect only marginally less so, as evidenced by his scornful reference to FDR as a president who couldn't get out of wheel chair and "walk around and hunt up people to talk to." (If your thoughts are straying at this point to a contemporary politician occupying a considerably more critical post who is also given to bullying, strong-arm tactics and mocking the disabled, consider your analogy validated.) Such crudeness didn't appear to hurt Talmadge in Georgia that much, but in those days--as opposed to these--it seemed to affirm his unsuitability for  higher office, specifically for representing Georgia in the U.S. Senate, as his unsuccessful bids to unseat Richard B. Russell in 1936 and Walter F. Georgia in 1938 appeared to indicate.

Talmadge would be back for another gubernatorial go at it in 1940, however, and once in office, he would constitute what amounted to a one-man wrecking crew where higher education in the state was concerned. Vowing to purge Georgia's colleges of sympathizers with "racial equality," he inflicted mayhem to the max at the University of Georgia, particularly in his attacks on College of Education Dean Walter Cocking.  Cocking's ties to the philanthropic Rosenwald Fund, which in Talmadge's mind translated into "Jew money for n----rs," rendered him far too liberal for the governor's taste. When Talmadge's rampage was done, a number of faculty and administrators had been ousted, as had several members of the Board of Regents who were deemed less than totally comfortable with Talmadge's dictatorial tactics. Not surprisingly, an official finding of "gross political interference" in the affairs of the state's white public universities led to their immediate loss of accreditation and later to Talmadge's failure to win re-election in 1942.

Because gubernatorial terms had been extended to four years, "Ol' Gene" had to wait it out until 1946 to claim the office of governor for a fourth time, but claim it he did, in a campaign that left no doubt about the depth and ruthlessness of his racism. The Supreme Court had recently struck down the Democratic primary as a whites-only affair, meaning that in 1946, Georgia blacks would have their first chance since Reconstruction to vote in significant numbers in a race that actually mattered.

There had been little mystery about the racial attitudes of a man who freely admitted to horse-whipping a black man until he yelled "Sweet Jesus!" Racial tensions were ratcheted up with every Talmadge warning of a "nigra takeover" in the 1946 campaign, leading him to sanctimoniously counsel "wise Negroes" to "stay away from white folks' ballot boxes" on election day. This they largely did in his home county of Telfair, and even more so in Schley County where the state representative simply positioned himself at the polling place with his shotgun after vowing to immediately dispatch any black person with the temerity to show up to vote. In the end, though relative racial moderate James V. Carmichael claimed a majority of the popular vote, Talmadge amassed enough county unit votes to win his fourth term as governor, albeit one he would never serve.

The most tragic immediate consequence of the racially charged campaign came roughly a week after the primary when two black couples were gunned down in broad daylight by a mob of whites in Walton County. Several other reports of violence against blacks surfaced over the next few weeks, Talmadge's victory having signaled that, as one journalist put it, it was now open season on blacks "and every pinheaded Georgia cracker and bigoted Ku Kluxer figured he had a license." Meanwhile, Talmadge's health disintegrated rapidly, and suffering from complications of cirrhosis of the liver, he died without being sworn in as governor, a few days before Christmas in 1946. His unwitting bequest to the state was the fierce and altogether ludicrous struggle to claim his office that led to the notorious "three governors" controversy, which revealed Georgia politics at its most venal, benighted, and self-destructive worst, and thus offered a fitting conclusion to a sad and sorry chapter in the state's history.  Beyond striking a decidedly foreboding tone for the gateway to one of the nation's most inviting cities, any bridge that continues to celebrate so toxic a historical legacy as that of Eugene Talmadge is, in itself, an obstacle to overcoming that legacy.  

*Vote totals are taken from the 1938 senatorial primary in Georgia.

Some 35 years ago, the Ol' Bloviator published a book called "The Selling of the South," which chronicled the efforts of southern political and economic leaders to attract new industrial plants, employing a variety of subsidies, tax exemptions and other gimmicks, but focusing in by far the greatest part on the promise of cheap, nonunion labor. As the following piece, which appeared a while back at zocalopublicsquare.org, shows all too well, this practice has changed but little.


 

The recent crushing rejection of a United Auto Workers bid to organize a 6,500-worker Nissan assembly plant near Canton, Mississippi seemed to present the proverbial déjà vu all over again for organized labor's ancient and oft-thwarted crusade to gain a serious foothold among Southern workers.

This time, however, we are not talking about textile and apparel plants in the 1920s or '30s, but about a thoroughly globalized Japanese auto manufacturer, led until a few months ago by a French-educated, Brazilian-born CEO. What might seem to be no more than a classically Southern triumph of continuity over change is better understood as an example of continuity within change--one with implications ranging well beyond regional boundaries.

Cheap labor has been the mainstay of efforts to lure industrial employers into the South since the 1880s. By the 1920s, union agents venturing into the region could expect withering inhospitality, not excluding brutal beatings by local sheriffs or company thugs. With these shows of physical force came a powerful and cohesive propaganda barrage, courtesy of racist and sectionalist politicians who linked labor unions to the abolitionists of the 1850s and the "race mixing" NAACP of the 1950s.

According to one study of Southern industrial development, it was common practice to remind workers that unions were ruled by "potbellied Yankees with big cigars in their mouths" sporting names "even a high school teacher couldn't pronounce." From the pulpits came warnings that "CIO means Christ is Out," with editors and Chamber of Commerce types chiming in to make a vote to unionize tantamount to "endorsing the closing of a factory."

Between 1944 and 1954, all of the old Confederate states strengthened their anti-union arsenals with right-to-work statutes outlawing the practice of requiring all employees of union-represented plants to belong to the union or pay dues. The union membership rate in the South was 50 percent of the national average in 1939, and as of 2016, the Southern average had slipped to 43 percent of the national mean--particularly telling given that the national figure is now only 10.7 percent.

Since the 1930s, a steady proliferation of industrial enticements and subsidies, including free land, tax-exemptions, and low-interest bond financing offered by state and local governments has effectively made anti-unionism the sine qua non of Southern regional development strategy. Protecting these investments of public revenue and resources in private firms made it even more vital to keep the subsidized company union-free.

As the cost of these concessions soared, the South became something akin to a lavishly appointed gated community for industrialists, maintained primarily at the expense of their own workers. Not only were union recruiters sent packing, but even potentially high-wage employers like United Airlines. In 1991, the airline met with vociferous opposition from the Greensboro, North Carolina business community when it revealed plans for a maintenance facility that would bring 6,000 well-paid unionized workers to a well-known haven for non-union industries.

With Rust Belt employers already opting for the balmier business climate of the "Sun Belt," foreign industrial investment in the South got a huge boost in 1971, when the Nixon administration moved to boost exports by devaluing the dollar while simultaneously imposing a 10 percent surcharge on imported manufactures. At that point, exulted a British banker, industrial investments in the United States were "like getting Harrods at half price."

Excited liberals presumed initially that these foreign companies, coming from environments where labor enjoyed greater bargaining rights and prerogatives, would not insist on union-free work forces. Yet, many of them were drawn to the South precisely because it had neither the labor issues nor the leftist political pressures that they felt at home. Although they consistently offered wages higher than the local average, none of the South's new foreign employers like Nissan or BMW showed much inclination to lug along the high wages and extensive benefits that one German executive called "the social baggage we have back home."

This much became apparent in 1977 when the French tire maker Michelin, which had recently opened a plant near Greenville, South Carolina, joined forces with local development leaders to keep a large, relatively high-wage, but likely-to-be-unionized Phillip Morris plant out of the area. Thirty years later, developers were still reminding Japanese industrialists that because South Carolina's unionization rate was "one of the lowest in the nation" its manufacturing wage was also "among the lowest in the country." In the long run, emerging global competition for new plants made it all the more imperative for the region to hold down labor costs by continuing to resist the incursions of organized labor.

Nissan became the South's first major international auto manufacturer in 1980, when it agreed to open a truck plant near Smyrna, Tennessee. Toyota would follow four years later with a facility near Georgetown, Kentucky, and over the next 20 years an invading horde of foreign automakers including Mercedes, BMW, Honda, Kia, Hyundai, and Volkswagen would stake their claims in the American South. As the list of firms grew, so did the size of the subsidies offered. With the bidding for new foreign car plants in full runaway mode, Tennessee's initial $33 million payoff to Nissan seemed like pocket change compared to the $295 million show of affection that sealed its original agreement in 2000 to come to Madison County, Mississippi. Mississippi's subsidy guarantees to Nissan now exceed $1.2 billion, with the total for all foreign automakers with plants in the South topping $4.2 billion.

To this day, not a single production workforce at any of these heavily subsidized foreign auto plants has opted to join the United Auto Workers. Nissan's non-union Tennessee and Mississippi operations are the only such plants among its 45 production facilities world-wide. Like its international peers as well as the great majority of the domestic manufacturers preceding it to the South, the company has frequently reminded workers, state officials, and leaders of the affected communities of their stake in keeping it that way. In the struggle in Canton alone, Nissan has racked up eight NLRB charges of unfair labor practices in the last 36 months.

The anti-union onslaught in Canton over the protracted build-up to this month's vote had a ferocity reminiscent of many such campaigns in years past. This time, however, the stakes were much higher, not simply in terms of money and jobs locally, but in the future of what has long been Mississippi and the South's foundational development strategy of bringing jobs in by keeping unions out. Though the terminology and technology employed by both camps were different than they would have been 75 years ago, elements of race, religion, regional bias, and, of course, fear, were still part of the story this time around.

With blacks accounting for a large majority of plant employees, race came into play more subtly this time, as anti-UAW spokesmen pointed to the union's donations and close ties with certain black churches and civil rights advocates, while union supporters cited preferential treatment for white plant employees. There was ministerial involvement on both sides, with pro-union clergy concentrating on linking workers' rights to civil rights and pointing to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s advocacy of both. Meanwhile, instead of Satanizing the UAW, opposing clerics came closer to deifying Nissan for, as one put it, making "such a change in the life of the people ... The lights are on, the water is running ... Everything is fine. It is just superb."

Ironically, representatives of Yokohama-based Nissan cast the UAW as an "outsider" trying to disrupt the plant "family." Although the old-fashioned appeals to sectional bias were not apparent in official company statements, they lurked just below the surface among rank-and-file union opponents, such as the one who took to an anti-union Facebook page to condemn organizers as "21st-century carpetbaggers" and urge workers to "help these Yankee aholes pack ... and tell [them] to get back to Michigan and stay there."

Meanwhile, anti-union politicians were hardly less given to fear-mongering than they had been several generations earlier. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant warned, "If you want to take away your job, if you want to end manufacturing as we now know it in Mississippi, just start expanding unions." Bryant's message echoed one in a video shown to workers from Steve Marsh, the plant's top executive, who pointed out that UAW workers at Ford and GM had "experienced significant instability in recent years," including, "many layoffs and plant closings." A representative of Kelly Services, which recruits temporary workers for Nissan, had warned more explicitly on Facebook that the Canton plant might close if the union came in.

In the end, Nissan's not-so-veiled threats of lost jobs were almost certainly critical to the roughly two-thirds vote against the UAW. An estimated 40 percent of the workforce are temporaries, who are hired at much lower starting wages, currently advertised by Kelly Services at $13.46 per hour. If they eventually join the regular workforce, these former temps come in at their current pay under a two-tier wage-benefit scale that caps their hourly wage at $24, roughly $2 per hour less than the average for a worker hired earlier on regular terms. Even so, a Nissan employee making $24 per hour would still be making as much as $385 more each week than the average for workers surrounding counties, including Hinds, which is home to the state capital.

With temporary workers ineligible to vote, the second-tier status of some 1,500 former temporary workers seemed more likely to support the union than their senior-coworkers, and a reasonably unified pro-UAW stance on their part might have swung things the other way. When it came time to vote, though, in a state that is down more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs over the last decade, even an inequitable work situation was clearly preferable to flipping burgers or cleaning motel rooms. One former temp reasoned that even her second-tier paycheck meant that she could finally, "put food on my table without worrying about having to pay my light bill." 

The key to this and countless other union defeats in the South and elsewhere, is not the ignorance of those who vote "No," or their blindness to the potential benefits of union representation. Rather, it is the sobering, self-preservational realism of workers steeped in generations of unrelenting, sometimes unthinkable poverty. Although making some headway at long last, in an age of almost instantaneous industrial mobility they remain acutely sensitive to the ephemerality of even the incremental gains they are finally enjoying as individuals. It should not surprise us that they are given to far greater skepticism of the more expansive vision of progress they are asked to accept on faith by others whose lived experiences often differ dramatically from their own.

N.B.

Still juiced on the classic liberal notion that worker solidarity trumps all, a certain commenter on the OB's humble offering seems oblivious to radical changes in historical and economic context since the 1950s. As it so often does, this particular blind spot breeds impatience rather than empathy:

 This very interesting and historically enlightening article is seriously flawed by the last paragraph which is absolute nonsense. It is not "self-preservational realism" or any other kind of rational thinking that caused the Nissan workers to vote against their own self-interest. I don't know why they voted against themselves but i suspect that it is about intellectually unsophisticated workers succumbing to intimidation. I grew up in Detroit where first generation immigrant factory workers with little education like both of my grandfathers had the courage and insight to fight to unionize the auto industry.

While the O.B. readily doffs his beanie to this gent's resolute and courageous grandpas, he begs to point out that mid-20th century Detroit autoworkers had little reason to think that the factory doors were going to be slammed in their faces when Americans were standing in line to get them one of those Buicks with the new dynaflow transmissions.  Nor were the factories themselves going to be relocated at any great distance from the vital steel and rubber suppliers concentrated in the Industrial Midwest.

Suffice it to say, the world looks quite different today, not simply for workers in Mississippi but those in many of the former strongholds of organized labor throughout the old Manufacturing Belt. At 8.1 percent, Alabama has the highest unionization rate among the 11 states of the old Confederacy, while the rate in 7 of those states is under 5 percent. Meanwhile, across the entire country, the share of workers belonging to unions has fallen from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.7 percent in 2016, reflecting a loss of 3 million members over that span.   Industrial outmigration, complaints about excessive wage and benefits demands, and a general anti-labor political backlash have factored heavily in this decline, which has produced serious political consequences, particularly for the Democrats, for whom "labor" has long simply meant "organized labor." It is one thing to say that reversing the longstanding overall decline in union membership would help to restore a much-needed balance and tangibility to American politics. It is quite another to draw on a sorely outmoded perception of the current realities of labor-management positioning to summarily declare that any worker in any setting who opts out of union representation is incapable of defining or assessing his/her "own self-interest."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ol' Bloviator has felt much like a meteorologist in hurricane season ever since last month's horror in Charlottesville, and is still suffering the aftereffects of what he can only describe as "Sudden Onset Relevance Syndrome," triggered by an unaccustomed spike in interest in his opinion among members of the Fourth Estate. Bombarded with requests for interviews and commentary on this monument mess, he has been pushed to the brink of exhaustion by a steady procession of demands requiring his mouth or keyboard to operate in sync with the erratic discharges of his alcohol-ravaged synapses. The O.B. has been talking to reporters on a fairly regular basis over the last 30 years or so, but the last few weeks have truly challenged his capacity for saying the same thing again and again while trying to make it sound original each time.  He will say, however, that his most recent journalistic encounters have in the main been both rewarding and stimulating. A case in point is this interview with the folks from the weekend version of NPR's "All Things Considered," where both his interrogator and the producer were kind enough to give him enough time to connect a few of his thoughts into a commentary that a generous sort might even deem semi-coherent. It was a bit of a different story in that respect with the folks over in London at the Financial Times, (Warning: Likely Pay-walled.) but if some 150 of the precious words out of the submitted piece that follows wound up on the proverbial cutting room floor, it must at least be said that they were excised as smartly and skillfully as any of the O.B.'s many bon mots that have met with the same fate. (The caption, on the other hand, reinforces the O.B.'s longstanding perception that the task of writing these is invariably assigned to the biggest dimwit on staff.)

 "Although the implications of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville Virginia are clearly national in scope, it played out on a stage set by the historic insistence of generations of white Southerners on defining themselves by a defeat visited on their ancestors more than 150 years ago. Historian Carlton J. H. Hayes could have cited the example of the American South as those of Spain and Serbia when he observed that "a people may be more united and nationalistic through grief over defeat than through celebration of triumph."

 Even before 1860s drew to a close, former Confederate president Jefferson Davis and other high-ranking military leaders began to assemble an arsenal of historical documents "from which the defenders of our cause may draw any desired weapon." The carefully cultivated reverence for the valorous defenders of the South's" Lost Cause" ultimately made its biggest impact not in writing but the tidal wave of physical representations of Confederate heroes which swept across the South between roughly 1890 and 1910. Inscriptions on these monuments lauded the brave guardians of "Anglo-Saxon," (i.e., "white') civilization in a period  marked as well  by the rise of legally mandated racial segregation and the political disenfranchisement of  all but a tiny fraction of the southern black population. Not coincidentally, these years also witnessed the lynchings of approximately 2,000 black people, for the campaigns to strip away the civil rights of black southerners were fueled by highly incendiary racial scapegoating, some of it by staunch advocates of  plastering the landscape with Confederate memorials

. Meanwhile, measures like poll taxes or a literacy requirements for voting were critical not only in  restoring white supremacy but in determining which whites would be supreme because these suffrage restrictions sharply curtailed political participation by both poor whites as well as blacks, the two groups most likely to vote against the conservative Democratic establishment.  In the wake of disfranchisement, Republican turnout in South Carolina fell from 28% in 1880 to just 3% in 1896. Similar figures from other states suggest that the so-called solidly Democratic, white supremacist South was not born but made, and, if so, Lost Cause monuments and mythology were among the critical construction materials.  They are rightly condemned for their connection to slavery, which, Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens called the veritable "cornerstone" of the new nation, but such a narrow focus does not do full justice to their pernicious importance to efforts to re-subjugate black Southerners as comprehensively as the rest of the nation would allow.

 Sadly, that turned out to be quite a lot, as northern politicians quickly lost their stomach for efforts to aid and protect the former slaves in the face of surging interest in exploiting the investment potential of a rebuilding region now intent on rapid economic modernization. The northern push for "reconciliation" entailed not only foreswearing further interference in southern racial affairs, but swallowing the Lost Cause propaganda package at a single gulp. Both requirements registered as faits accompli in an 1890 New York Times report on the unveiling of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, which declared that just as Lee's memory truly belonged to "the American people," the monument was "itself a national possession."  Noting a profusion of Confederate battle flags at the ceremonies an elderly black man seized on the true meaning of the occasion for him when he exclaimed "The Southern white folks is on top!"

 Surprisingly, the flag's widespread association with avowedly white supremacist organizations emerged only in the mid-1940s when rising trepidation that the destabilizing forces unloosed by World War II might undermine the entire Jim Crow system. The Confederate banner was both more emotive and much easier to hoist at a cross-burning than a bust of Stonewall Jackson, and it quickly became a fixture at rallies and marches, not only of the Ku Klux Klan, but a variety of postwar neo-Nazi hate groups, not mention a succession of fire-breathing segregationist politicians.

Despite the Confederate flag's highly visible presence at the most appalling scenes of violence and bigotry that erupted in the 1960s and not infrequently thereafter, many white Southerners clung desperately to the idea that it actually symbolized "heritage not hate." Ultimately, it would take the 2015 slaying of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by a young, Confederate flag-obsessed white man to shatter this long-implausible argument. The various furlings of the Rebel banner in the immediate aftermath of this atrocity augured a similar fate for their bronze and concrete counterparts, at least ten of which have been stripped of their prominent perches in the southern and border-South states in 2017 alone.

If there is anything affirmative to be salvaged from the wreckage of Charlottesville, it is that in descending on the city from all over the country and moving on to such far-flung locales as Boston and Berkeley, the rampaging alt-Right hordes may have finally vanquished the wishful notion that racial hostility in America bears the the imprimatur of a single region. At this juncture, certainly, the incalculable harm done by white Southerners and who persisted in trying to separate "heritage" from "hate," leaves us only to tremble at the prospect of four years under a President who seldom bothers even to make the attempt."

Despite all the vitriol elicited by conflicts over these monuments, the O.B. has had but little flung at him-- on this side of the pond, at least. On the other hand, the more than 200 comments affixed to the foregoing piece online, indicate that he has thrown a good number of the devoted readers of the FT into a state of high dudgeon. The trio that follow represent some of the O.B's favorites among many excellent examples of the fine art of disparagement. If there is any solace to be taken from such a mass of opinions masquerading as fact, it could be that, as a group, the Brits are almost as ignorant of American history as Americans are.

"The best comments I have seen, and there have been many good ones, are those that address surprise that the FT would publish an article like this, not only incendiary but ignorant of the American south even at a basic level."

"Don't know if the author ever lived in the American south but I expect not."

[And the O.B.'s personal favorite:]

"Apparently this guy actually wrote a book about the South. Imagine the poor sods who end up reading it."

Confederates in Concrete Are On The Move

 

 


forrest zocalo.jpg

(Coutesy Brent Moore/Flickr.)

The Ol' Bloviator has delivered so many truly mind-numbing disquisitions on controversies over Confederate iconography that something akin to this downright demonic representation of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest has begun to haunt his dreams.(Not for nothing was this ugly-assed sucker selected as one of the world's ten most terrifying statues.)  True to his nature and calling however, the O.B. refuses to let the fact that he doesn't have much to add on a particular topic prevent him from cutting loose on it yet again, particularly when he is asked to do so, as he was a few weeks ago by the folks at Zocalo Public Square. What follows is a dramatically revised and expanded version of that piece. 

 

The recent uproar in New Orleans over de-Confederatizing southern public spaces succeeded once again in bringing out the worst in those who are emotionally overinvested in concrete representations of the leaders and key figures who stood on the wrong side of history more than 150 years ago. Unlikely as it seems, the search for a useful parallel for understanding the historical and contemporary context of  events in New Orleans may take us from the banks of the Mississippi to the banks of the Tigris. (The O.B. knows he is asking his gentle readers to make a bit of a stretch here, but he makes that request out of sheer desperation to appear to be saying something new about this time- and tongue-worn issue, so cut him a little slack, will ya?)  When Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party came to power in Iraq in 1968, he undertook straight away to instill a sense of national pride and identity in his subjects by deliberately glorifying (and grossly embellishing) his own regime's accomplishments while linking them to the supposed glories of ancestral antiquity. Pursuant to this end, he demanded that writers and visual artists present positive and compelling representations of Iraq's past and present, stretching back all the way to ancient Mesopotamia and classical Islam, to be supplemented later by a variety of overpowering monuments such as the Arc of Triumph, formed by gigantic hands holding swords and designed to pay tribute to a claimed victory in the Iran-Iraq War. All of this was meant to instill nationalistic fervor as a means of securing support or at least tolerance of Saddam's tyrannical and reckless leadership.

Despite the differences in time and distance, there is a certain similarity between Saddam's tactics and those of postbellum southern leaders, who sought to instill a sense of quasi-nationalistic pride and purpose among white southerners by rallying them around a glorious if illusory past, embodied in the Lost Cause and its valorous defense of the genteel and aristocratic Old South. Tirelessly invoking this seductive imagery, politicians drew on it to rally whites behind their efforts to strip blacks of their political, legal and civil rights. The move to monumentalize the Lost Cause often went hand-in-hand with campaigns for segregation and disfranchisement that, replete with incendiary rhetoric, more than once fueled outbreaks of mass violence against blacks. An ex-Confederate and former North Carolina congressman Alfred Moore Waddell, worked tirelessly to secure monuments to the state's "fallen sons," while warning that the only real means of preserving their heroic legacy was denying black men the vote by any means necessary even if "we have to choke the Cape Fear [River] with carcasses."  These chilling words foretold Waddell's role as the  principal instigator of  the infamous Wilmington, N.C., riot of 1898, which left at least two dozen blacks dead.

 Likewise, guardians of a Jim Crow system that prevailed well past the middle of the twentieth century played on Lost Cause loyalties in making the defense of this sinister arrangement the litmus test of loyalty to "our forefathers" and to "the southern way of life," suggesting just how deeply the institutions of white supremacy had been embedded in the notion of a distinct southern white identity over the stretch of several generations. When the Civil Rights era finally toppled the formal barriers to racial equality, it was not surprising that white southerners who could not accept the finality of this result and fought to reverse the irreversible continued to cloak themselves in the Confederate flag and other trappings of the Lost Cause. Yet, even among the majority of white southerners who made their peace with Jim Crow's demise, there was a reluctance to go full cold turkey on their allegiances to the Lost Cause ethos, lest they surrender all that remained of what defined their cultural identity.

It took way too long, of course, but their insistence that continued affinity for Confederate symbols could be grounded in "heritage" rather than "hate" finally became blatantly untenable. Rebel flags and Confederate monuments had dominated the grounds of courthouses where such mockeries of justice such as the 1955 trial of the murderers of Emmett Till and the 1964 trial of the slayers of four civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi played out. In the aftermath of the grisly slaughter of nine black parishioners occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, it became inescapably clear that Lost Cause iconography and paraphernalia had been a central thread in a lengthy but tightly interwoven tapestry of racial oppression and injustice. The Charleston massacre forced many white Southerners at long last to weigh the abstractness of heritage against the concreteness of hate, leaving them little choice but  to withdraw, however grudgingly at first, from the active defense of Confederate symbols, largely leaving the field to an outnumbered, under-resourced minority for whom white supremacy was all that was left of their identity to defend.

Perhaps that is why, for all the death threats and precautionary measures that marked recent events in New Orleans, the proceedings gave off more than a whiff of fait accompli. It was particularly noteworthy that while the removal of the first three monuments was accomplished in the dead of night, the fourth and most significant extraction, that of none other than the iconic Robert Edward Lee, came in broad daylight and on a pre-announced schedule.  Make no mistake about it, this was no mere takedown of a another memorial to a Confederate general but rather a benchmark event, in that it was a high-profile removal from a high-profile location of a monument to the highest-profile Confederate of them all.

Lee's posthumous anointment as the symbolic embodiment of the Lost Cause was but a prelude to his acceptance into the national pantheon as well. As white America in general rushed to embrace the romantic vision of southern gallantry and devotion, Lee's star shone ever brighter in the national firmament as well, commanding the admiration of several U.S. presidents, including both Roosevelts and Dwight D. Eisenhower, who hung Lee's portrait in the Oval Office, and praised him for being "noble as a leader and as a man and unsullied as I read the pages of our history." Even as Eisenhower rendered this high compliment, however, "the pages of our history" were being re-written. Lee's aura of nobility and strength had insulated him from his undeniable role as leader of the fighting forces of a nation whose self-described "cornerstone" was slavery, but with historians and those who took them seriously finally ready to confront the reality that the Civil War was fought over the institution of human bondage, his pristine personal aura no longer loomed large enough to obscure his connections to a monstrous human evil. His name began to disappear from public schools, parks, and thoroughfares some twenty years ago, but monuments bearing his likeness have been slower to give way, as if he represented the final sacrosanct pillar supporting the crumbling infrastructure of Lost Cause mythology.

Though it drew more attention, the removal of Lee's statue in New Orleans actually conveyed less of a sense of finality than the decision to do the same in Charlottesville, Virginia, scarcely 100 miles south of his birthplace, where torch-bearing opponents of the move gathered recently to hear white nationalist Richard Spencer, sparking a candlelight counter protest in which a "Black Lives Matter" banner was laid at the statue's base. Legal action has guaranteed that the statue will stay put for six months, but if the ultimate failure of such efforts in New Orleans is any guide, General Lee and his storied mount, Traveler, will soon be on the move in Charlottesville as well.

Beyond these moves to evict Lee's likenesses, there are other reasons to suspect that, at long last, the days of Confederate monuments occupying well-known public spaces might be numbered. Since the Charleston massacre two years ago, at least sixty other Confederate symbols have reportedly been removed from such spaces. Confederate Memorial Day is no longer observed as such in Georgia, and the holiday is under fire in Arkansas and other states as well. There will be rear-guard counteroffensives, to be sure, as attention-seeking legislators seek to reinstitute Confederate holidays or impose legal restrictions on the removal of Confederate monuments, but the broad sense that symbolic tributes to the Confederacy will soon be much less central to southern representative culture is hard to shake.

If reaching this point in what has been a protracted and often agonizing process  has triggered a certain splintering of southern white identity then it is a small price to pay, compared to the benefits of forging a more just and inclusive society. Such a society had of course been the aim of those who succeeded in overthrowing Saddam in Iraq, and they quickly launched a radical and sweeping effort to de-Baathify the country by purging the government and its bureaucracy of former party members and erasing the cultural and architectural remnants of  the historical memory that Saddam had constructed in the interest of fostering national unity and pride. This zealous campaign soon raised concerns, however, including the specter of an unraveling social fabric across a population already marked by significant and contentious ethnic and religious divisions. The situation only grew worse when de-Baathification seemed set the stage for wanton looting and depredation of some of Iraq's most precious antiquities, some of it driven by a variety of lingering sectarian animosities. Iraqi art expert Nada Shabout conceded that "Some of the [Baathist] monuments were in bad taste and were ugly, and I would not be heartbroken if they were brought down. But... they were nevertheless part of the history of the country... So do we throw away the baby with the bath water?"

While the immediate consequences of de-Confederatizing southern public spaces are unlikely to prove even remotely as severe in this country, events in Iraq represent yet another addition to a list of particulars stretching back many centuries of the complexities and frequently unintended consequences of attempting to erase disturbing reminders of an imperfect past.

Monuments to the defenders of slavery are nothing if not disturbing, all the more so because they were also the instruments of the people who brought us the watered down version of slavery that was Jim Crow. Yet, in this respect while, like Saddam's memorials, they may no longer be acceptable as public historical symbols, they nonetheless retain a distinct and indelible value as historical artifacts. Placed in museums or other suitable venues where they can be appropriately contextualized, they might succeed in persuading whites that they don't belong on public property while persuading blacks that they should not be destroyed.

The spirit of an ambitious campaign by historic preservationists at the Atlanta History Center and elsewhere to properly contextualize Confederate monuments is embodied in a tablet affixed last October to the base of a Confederate monument on the campus at Ole Miss. While respectful of the idea of honoring "the sacrifice of local Confederate soldiers," the tablet also cautions that such monuments "were often used to promote an ideology known as the 'the Lost Cause,' which claimed that the Confederacy had been established to defend states' rights and that slavery was not the principal cause of the Civil War." In addition to a reminder that the Confederacy's defeat "meant freedom for millions of people," the plaque also notes this particular monument's divisive legacy as "a rallying point for opponents of integration" on the evening of the deadly riot that marked James Meredith's arrival on campus in September, 1962.

Here, in and between the lines on this tablet, lies a truly compelling argument for preserving and fully articulating the origins and implications of these notorious pieces of concrete. Modest as it might seem, this effort might be a step toward the day when white and black Southerners not only find a way to share their common but traditionally conflict-ridden past, but to make it the foundation of a new and profoundly more representative regional identity. If this should indeed come to pass, the Lost Cause will have given way to one infinitely more inclusive and inspiring.

 

 

 

A Pirate Looks at 140

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don't thunder, there's nothing to plunder
I'm an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late

(Jimmy Buffett, " A Pirate Looks at 40")

            The Ol' Bloviator was getting along toward forty himself when he first heard Jimmy Buffet's wistful reflection on a raucously misspent youth that had dragged on far too long and washed him up on the front stoop of middle age with a résumé decidedly short on profound achievements. It's hardly surprising that "A Pirate Looks at Forty" resonated with the O.B. when he was looking ahead to the fateful Four-Oh, but it has stuck with him even as the birthday ante rose to Five-Oh, Six-Oh, and now, alas, the fateful Seven-Oh. Though the O.B. can't exactly claim to have sustained his own piratehood over the last three decades, he does like to think that he at least continued to be, a la Mr. Buffet once more, one of "the people our parents warned us about." Like everybody else who has made it thus far, the O.B. acknowledges the irony of his long-ago angst about turning forty in light of his current fantasies of being forty, fifty, or even sixty again.

            The accretion of benchmark birthdays takes on added heft when it finally brings us to the point where we decide that it is time to put aside the labors that have kept the family fed and clothed and largely (often too largely) defined the meanings of our lives over more decades than truly seems possible. Though the O.B. is still in the adjustment phase, he can report that he has reached the stage of retirement where he doesn't get paid, but the part where he no longer works as hard as he did when he was still seems a faint and distant prospect.

            For many people who have managed to surrender gainful employment without having to subsist on day-old bread and SPAM casseroles, the sharpest pang attendant to their change in circumstances is the sense of free-falling into irrelevance. Since one's relevance is always determined by others, and an ever-changing population of them at that, it is a status whose maintenance is likely to demand an increasingly whorish dedication as time passes. Still, accepting the reality of being yesterday's news professionally is for most of us the extremely rough equivalent of a dog passing a peach pit, the difference being that once that agony is past, Fido need not concern himself with the intimidating question of how he is to make the remainder of his life meaningful. In his case, being a constant source of unconditional love and an occasional fall guy for somebody else's flatulence gets it done nicely. For us septuagenarians, however, it's not quite so simple.

            The O.B. has tried to read dozens of advice columns on how to find happiness and satisfaction in retirement only to feel gravity working on his eyelids in a matter of a few paragraphs. Here awhile back though, he ran into one he could not only finish but do so with profit. The gist of the writer's advice was that rather than contenting ourselves with familiar, long-mastered activities and pursuits, we should defy our old-goathood by taking up something new and edgy, not with the idea of becoming the best there is at it, but with the goal of registering progressive improvement, not necessarily competing with others, but definitely with ourselves. Like much of the advice we cherish, this was particularly welcome for the O.B. because he realized first that he was already following it and second ,that he realized why what he was doing was so satisfying.

            As a wide-eyed college freshman, the O.B. had been instructed in physical education by a guy whose uber-coolness was further embellished by his ride, a classic Porsche 356.

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In what was truly a ridiculous fantasy for a kid surviving on a numbingly steady diet of beanie weenies and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, the O.B., right then and there, vowed and declared that one day he would own one of them sweet-lookin', even sweeter soundin' Porsche automobiles. That dream spent some forty years on hold, yet as the years pile up, there comes a point when "You ain't getting' any younger" simply cannot be taken as an admonition that if you actually aspire to amount to anything you'd best be getting to it and can only be interpreted as not simply a suggestion but an absolute mandate to do something unprecedentedly irresponsible and self-indulgent. The O.B. reached that point a little over a decade ago when he was still pondering the implication of his impending sixtieth when he spied a newspaper classified offering a mint-condition, low-mileage 1986 Porsche Carrera at, by Porsche standards, a responsible price, and as quick as that, he made good on his ancient vow. 

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Porsche 911s of that vintage embody the iconic look and design that generations of car enthusiasts have associated with the brand. Boasting the indestructible air-cooled, 200 or so hp. rear-mounted engine, amazing low-end torque, and classic Porsche indifference to niceties like air conditioning and power steering, it was, in short, a pure delight to drive, so much so that the O.B. eventually felt an irresistible urge to take it to the track at least once to see what it could do.

 It could do quite a bit, as it turned out, though it was clearly no match for the newer, better-handling, higher-powered, more expertly engineered (for both performance and safety) upstarts of more recent vintage Though he did so with much the same feelings that come with putting down a beloved old pooch, the O.B. moved on from his precious, hard-realized vehicular dream to a newer P-car of a different design, in that unlike the 911, its engine was in front of the axle.first GTS shotcompresize.jpg

 Therefore, the Porsche Cayman was less likely than its venerable predecessor to emerge from a tight corner with its rear wheels where its front wheels were supposed to be. Fearful of diminishing the attractiveness of its bread-and-butter vehicle, the 911, the brainstrust in Stuttgart deliberately held back on the Cayman's horsepower. Yet, although the number of ponies propelling the Cayman crept up only grudgingly, the superiority of its handling soon cut into its big brother's advantage on any sublimely curvy track like Road Atlanta, where speed and balance through the crookeds can cancel out a lot of horsepower advantage on the straights.

            Thus, it was that having become a track rat of the first order, in the most protracted and non-linear process imaginable, the O.B. managed in the teensiest of many, many steps to get a little better each time out. There is a reason after all why the old adage about the difficulties of teaching an old dog new tricks has been around so long. By the same token, though, there is a difference between difficult and impossible, and it was in precisely that zone where it's all about concentration and self-discipline that the O.B. found his special personal groove. Even at moderate speed, keeping a vehicle on the asphalt at tracks like Road Atlanta demands close attention, and as the mph climbs ( to say nothing of the "pucker" factor) nothing less than total mental and sensory commitment is required to send you home with your paint job undisturbed and all your wheels attached. Even a fleeting thought about how good a cool one will taste when the day's driving is done, raises the prospect of a happy hour spoiled by the sight of your precious toy strapped in contorted agony to a flatbed truck.

There are places approaching every corner where appropriate braking must begin and an equally critical spot, which always comes later than you think, where the turn-in must be executed lest you run out of track before achieving the necessary turning radius. The eager beaver first-timer might well see taking his car to the track as nothing more than a chance to show off how fast it is on the straightaways, but if he arrives with that attitude, a wizened old Gearhead is certain to tell him that most any fool can stomp the pedal to the floor while moving in a straight line. It's what you can do when the line ain't straight that really counts.

            The O.B. has been reminded of this when he checks out his futuristic whizomatic lap recorder and sees his fastest times on laps where his average speed is the same as a slower lap, but he has minimized the distance he traveled by hitting the corners just about right. It is precisely this demand for precision and focus that pushes literally everything else out of his head that has the O.B. so addicted to the track experience. Of course, he'd be fibbin' just a bit to tell you that he doesn't find just a tad of satisfaction in pushing his car to ever greater velocities as he did on this most recent track visit when he saw the needle actually tickle 140 mph for the first time. This figure, you might note, precisely doubles the O.B.'s official coming of old age. Coincidence? The O.B. thinks not, although he hastens to add that compared to his seasoned fellow drivers, he is still the equivalent of an old duffer in a '53 Plymouth, puttering along in the left lane with his blinkers on all the time. This would come as no surprise whatsoever to the decidedly downbeat Psalmist who reminded us that:

            The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10)

 We might be inclined to hope that the writer went a little overboard in reminding us to make the most of our precious time on the mortal coil when he not only set our checkout date at 70, but made it seem that trying to hang around any longer simply wasn't worth the effort.  Yet for all the rah-rah, effluence about 70 being the new 50, the current life expectancy figures for males of 76.3 show the old boy's actuarials were not too shabby, particularly for a goatherd.

The O.B. would have no kick coming if, in the next few days, "buon compleanno" gave way to "riposare in pace" His three-score-and-ten have been filled with the constant and boundless love afforded him by his precious family, and the deep and abiding loyalty of his dear friends and so many of his students. There have been a lot more laughs than sobs, but if it's all the same to the Psalmist, instead of fixing his gaze on 70, the O.B. plans to double down on 140, mindful all the while that if he is still around five years hence and means to do symmetrical justice to the occasion, his driving still needs a lot of work.

When Georgia Senator Thomas E. Watson died in September 1922, a New York Times writer described a "violent career" marked by "a certain mental instability, and over excitability of temperament, even the presence of actual delusions, such as the hallucination of persecution."  It should not be surprising to pick up more than a whiff of many current appraisals of President Donald J. Trump in this long-ago assessment of Watson, whose troubled life suggests many striking and ultimately disturbing similarities in the traits, temperament, and personalities of two men who came to symbolize the darker side of populism.

Born in Georgia in 1856, Tom Watson transcended his impoverished childhood to establish a thriving legal practice before emerging in the 1890s as the most prominent and perceptive spokesman for the downtrodden rural masses of the South, daring even to advocate political cooperation between the races as the best strategy for combatting their corporate and financial oppressors (whose hand, of course, President Trump now undertakes to strengthen.) Elected to Congress in 1890, Watson authored the congressional resolution that paved the way for the Rural Free Delivery system, only to see three consecutive re-election bids thwarted by outright fraud, including the coercion and bribery of the black constituents whose votes he courted. When his fellow Populists were scammed into co-endorsing Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan in 1896, Watson was left with the futile and humiliating task of running unaccompanied as the party's vice-presidential nominee.

Watson withdrew from the active political scene in the wake of this debacle only to re-emerge in less than a decade calling not for interracial cooperation but brutal political and social repression of black Americans. Not only did Watson now want to disfranchise the black Georgians who votes he once courted and reduce them to a "recognized peasantry," but the man who once urged that lynching be made "odious" to whites was now insisting that "lynch law is a good sign . . . that a sense of justice yet lives among the people." Not content simply with persecuting black people, by 1910 he was using his weekly newspaper and monthly magazine to foment scorn and suspicion of the Roman Catholic "Hierarchy" and the "fat Dago" atop it and reveal how "The Confessional Is Used by Priests to Ruin Women." A few years later, Watson locked on to another vulnerable target, unloosing an incendiary anti-Semitic torrent that figured critically in inciting the infamous 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, the "young libertine Jew" dubiously convicted of murdering Mary Phagan, a young girl worker in the Atlanta pencil factory he supervised. When the governor commuted Frank's death sentence, Watson declared that Georgia "HAS BEEN RAPED!" by a conspiracy of "rich Jews" determined that "no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working-class Gentile."  When Frank was seized by a mob and hung, Watson  praised the lynchers and defiantly warned outraged northerners that their "vilification" might prompt the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in order to defend the South's right to "HOME RULE." Watson's prophecy was fulfilled a few months later, and, as his biographer C. Vann Woodward noted, that if "any mortal man" were responsible for "releasing the forces of human malice and ignorance and prejudice, which the Klan merely mobilized that man was Thomas E. Watson."

 Writing in 1938, Woodward left the impression that Watson's seemingly abrupt embrace of bigotry and intolerance was the mark of a man ultimately driven mad by the incessant frustrations of his earlier career. Yet, he also presented considerable evidence of Watson's mental illness that surfaced well before he burst on the political scene. It is here that, despite their disparate backgrounds, certain critical similarities between Thomas E. Watson and Donald J. Trump become more apparent.  Unlike the born-on-third base Trump, the poverty-stricken young Watson, was unable to swing more than a couple of years of college education.  Yet Watson was nearly nine when the Civil War ended, old enough to recall the much cushier circumstances he enjoyed until emancipation took his wealthy grandfather's slaves and his own drunken and dissolute father quickly squandered what remained of the family's land and financial resources. Gripped by an indelible and at times self-destructive nostalgia for the near-idyllic comfort and security of his early childhood, as a young collegian, Tom compensated for his shabby clothing with intimidating displays of oratorical prowess and a boisterous, often bullying campus persona that screamed "chip on my shoulder."

Even as a practicing attorney, Watson's thin skin and combustive pride had triggered altercations with colleagues and verbal abuse of those close to him. "The better part of me is poisoned," he lamented at age twenty-six .He had "imagined enemies where there were none, [and] been tortured by indignities which were the creatures of my own fancy." The same might well be said about Donald Trump, though it is a virtual certainty that it will never be said by him.

There is no scarcity of references to a youthful Donald Trump as combatively "headstrong "and an aggressive "loudmouth bully." Banished to military school in the eighth grade, he was given to exaggerating the earnings from his father's real estate deals for the benefit of his classmates. Driven "to be number one," fond of "compliments," and eager "to be noticed," he made sure of the latter as a senior by ostentatiously strolling the campus in the company of "gorgeous women, dressed out of Saks Fifth Avenue."

            Whatever their ages, both men revealed an insatiable hunger, at once pathetic and pathological, for vindication and acclaim, cloaked in an ego every bit as oversized as the deep-seated inferiority complex that fueled it.  No accomplishment, however exalted, seemed to offer either of them more than the most fleeting satisfaction. Neither of Tom Watson's respective elections to the Georgia legislature and both houses of Congress, gave him more than ephemeral happiness before giving way to  perpetual agitation and discontent.  Even after capturing a U.S. Senate seat in 1920 at age sixty-five, Watson spent the final eighteen months of his life in that traditionally august body lashing out at colleagues, largely for perceived personal slights. What vitriol he had left was directed at mysterious conspirators, like the Iowa-born Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, whom Watson dubbed an "Englishman" while demanding to know "the secret influence which suddenly put him at the head of things in this country."

In Trump's case, the warm afterglow of his inauguration as President of the United States lasted scarcely twelve hours before he was complaining of a vengeful media conspiracy to underrepresent turnout for his big moment, only to move quickly to charging that it took several million "illegal" ballots to deny him a popular vote majority. As columnist Maureen Dowd observed, "Those who go into the Oval Office with chips on their shoulders and deep wells of insecurity . . . are not suddenly aglow with self-assurance." Clearly, like Watson entering the Senate, Trump did not check "the tantrums, the delusions, the deceptions, the self-doubts and overcompensation," that comprise his not inconsiderable emotional baggage at the White House door...

There is no concrete evidence that Donald Trump's sustained and ill-concealed appeals to prejudices, fears, and frustrations has yet led directly to anything so horrific as the lynching of Leo Frank. Yet the sharp spike in reports of gratuitous verbal and emotional abuse of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities that accompanied his campaign and ascent to the Oval Office fairly reek of sulfurous portent. Woodward thought Tom Watson's scurrilous sensationalism gained purchase primarily among increasingly marginalized whites "frustrated in their age-long, and eternally losing struggle against a hostile industrial economy" and thus eager for new, "more exciting crusades against more vulnerable antagonists [especially] anything strange and therefore evil." This characterization is surely more than moderately evocative of Donald Trump's malleable core constituency of white voters whose economic status and prospects, not to mention social and political standing, have been on the decline for some two generations.

Trump's reliance on what he calls "truthful exaggeration" is amply documented in a good-sized and still-accreting mountain of grossly exaggerated claims about his popularity, wealth, influence, philanthropy, etc. Tom Watson was not exactly a slouch in this department either. Disseminated strictly at his direction, a mere "rumor" that an angry mob was threatening his life was sufficient to draw hundreds of followers to stand guard at his home around the clock. Like our current president, Watson also gloried is his near-dictatorial sway over his supporters, routinely ordering them to vote for a certain candidate in one election and, often as not, against him in the next, or commanding them to show up whenever and wherever he wanted to make a grand entrance to a thunderous welcome akin, one journalist thought, to what might have greeted "proud Caesar" upon entering the gates of "Imperial Rome."

It is not difficult to see in Watson the "anti-social behavior, sadism, aggressiveness, paranoia and grandiosity" that underlie some psychotherapists' drive-by diagnoses of the President's "malignant narcissism," a condition they deem "incurable." This unfortunate prognosis may explain why, instead of being elevated by the high offices they attained, both Watson and, thus far, Trump, managed to reduce the dignity and stature of their respective positions.  In the end, the critical difference between those positions simply underscores the ominous implications of the similarities in psychological makeup between the two men, one a lone, ineffectual outlier hemmed in by ninety-five bored and dismissive peers, and the other, also delusional, but uniquely empowered to destroy national and global stability whenever it serves his purpose, or, one suspects, simply tickles his fancy.


This is an expanded version of a piece first posted on the History News Network.

 

Bloviate:

"To orate verbosely and windily."

Bloviate is most closely associated with President Warren G. Harding, who used it frequently and was given to long winded speeches. H.L. Mencken said of Harding:

"He writes the worst English that I've ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the top most pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

Cobbloviate dedicates itself to maintaining the high standards established by President Harding and described so eloquently by Mr. Mencken. However,the bloviations recorded here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the mangement of Flagpole.com,nor,for that matter, are they very likely to be in accord with those of any sane, right-thinking individual or group anywhere in the known universe.

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