Thursday, January 24, 2013

July, 1938: “Two-Thirds Of A Nation”

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“Two-Thirds Of A Nation”
July 1938; "The American Mercury"

 by Channing Pollock
                                                                                      
"At Cannes some years ago, a hundred of us on a Mediterranean cruise, crowded into a small open boat to return to to our ship.  The water was rough and the tender overloaded. Our steamer had taken shelter in the lee of an island and was not to be seen. Many of us realized that only exceptional seamanship could get us safely back to her side. Suddenly, and without reason, our helmsman swung the little boat sharply to port. Part of a wave came aboard, wetting everyone, and further burdening the craft. An instant later we swung as sharply to starboard.  What followed was nightmare. For nearly an hour, or until another launch finally came along, we zig zagged wherever whim dictated; careening, shipping water, momentarily threatened with doom. Our narrow circling deck already awash, no one dared move, and, after a protest that drew imprecations, no one dared speak aloud. Resigned, we sat still, facing death, and whispering to one another that the fellow was drunk or mad. Which, we never knew; but drunk, mad or merely incompetent, he gave a hundred Americans their first experience of being helplessly, distrustfully, almost despairingly at the mercy of one man.

Unfortunately, it was not to be their last. The state of mind aboard that boat is now the state of two-thirds of a nation- the two-thirds that matter; the two-thirds whose ability, industry, and thrift have kept them from being "ill-nourished, ill-clad and ill-housed"; the two-thirds at present being remembered only in behalf of the "forgotten" one-third.  Rightly or wrongly, with justification or without, from Maine to California, from Texas to Canada, two-thirds of our population believe themselves to be helplessly facing doom at the whim of one man.  Wherever they meet, in halls, highways and drawing rooms, there is whispered speculation as to that man. The very fear which he insists is the only thing we need fear, grips these two-thirds in a paralyzing clutch; their undertones begin to be heard even above the cry of the idle and the indigent.

Yesterday, I attended a public and absolutely nonpartisan luncheon at which all the speakers were famous people- and every speech expressed fear. Fear of government control of radio and the press. Fear of suppression and of the rights of minorities. Fear of the collapse of business, industry and Democracy. Fear of dictatorship at home and abroad. The utterance most loudly cheered was a warning against the forces that create the totalitarian state. Afterward, on the sidewalk, a block or two away, I encountered a friend who sells life insurance. "Not much luck," he said. "People are afraid their money won't be worth anything when they get it. Congress may not remember the effect of currency inflation in Europe, but the average citizen does, and believes we're in for it. Every second prospect tells you about the Austrian who cashed in a twenty year endowment policy, and, with proceeds bought two loaves of bread."

At my bank, ten minutes later, another friend confided, "My balance is nearly thirty thousand dollars.  I've no need of the money but I'd like to invest it; but I'm afraid. You can't tell what's going to happen-and I don't mean business trends. A fellow studies those, and backs his judgement. But now, it's not a question of judgement, but of the unpredictable whim of one man.  Nobody wants to put funds in a business or a stock that can be knocked galley-west by a single utterance at a press conference or in a Fireside Chat."

That evening, after dinner, my hostess showed me a photograph of her baby daughter. "I love children," she remarked. "I'd like to have five or six but, of course, now we shall only have this one." I asked why, and she looked at me with astonishment. "Do you think it fair," she demanded "to bring children into this world under current conditions? To slave; to be robbed of opportunity and reward by the government; to be taxed, regulated, regimented, and finally to be blown to pieces in some war between dictators? Would you have chosen to be born if you'd known what you know now?  And it's going to be worse of course- very much worse."

All this happened yesterday, and it will be repeated tomorrow, and again and again throughout what was once the freest, happiest, and most prosperous nation on the globe. I have lived fifty-eight years, and never before have I seen people so universally disturbed and depressed. I have traveled in almost every part of the world and, nowhere have I found them more disturbed and depressed than in my own country. Since October, I have been in a hundred and twenty three cities and towns of this country, talking with doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, and found practically every responsible inhabitant worried to death. The average man, who, official pronouncements to the contrary not withstanding, up to now has been neither out-at-elbow nor down-at-heel, finds himself in a wallowing boat, without faith in the reliability of the steersman, the integrity of the crew, or the ability of the passengers to do anything about it. 
                                                                                                               
Five years of Planned Security have brought the greatest feeling of insecurity this commonwealth has ever known.  Rumors, canards, wild stories are the order of the day. As one of the most ardent journalistic advocates of the Administration admits, no newspaper would even dare hint at charges that are almost universally whispered and widely believed. Many of these are absurd; others are demonstrably baseless and unsound. But it is time somebody reported them, and the state of mind they represent, to the end that a leader that deplores fear, immoderate statements and the creation of bitterness may judge to what extent the country  is afraid, and of whom; and how generally he is credited with having made the immoderate statement and created the bitterness of which he is now the chief victim. I don't think any of us want  to be bitter about our president. Up to date, we have been almost ludicrously proud of our nation, its institutions and its executives. We told good natured tales of Coolidge's nearness  and Hoover's optimism; and even war and  the disclosure of official venality subjected Wilson and Harding to nothing like the existing malevolence. Twice elected by overwhelming majorities, beginning with unprecedented opportunities, confidence and affection, Franklin Roosevelt has become the target of gibes, jokes, gossip, and abuse that circulate in a continent wide undercurrent. Yesterday's stinging jests at the expense of Hitler and Mussolini are today's fables of Roosevelt. That ancient wheeze about the lad who saved Hitler's life and was afraid that the news would get back to his father, I have heard told of Roosevelt three or four times in an evening. Every morning's mail brings verses or lampoons. Eleven acquaintances have taken the trouble to copy and send me that hackneyed and blasphemous parody beginning "Roosevelt is my shepherd; I am in need.  He maketh me to lie down on park benches."

These admitted fictions, however, are harmless and kindly in comparison with the alleged facts recited and accepted everywhere. Transparent libels deal shamelessly with the President's private life and domestic affairs. Countless unbelievable stories are widely circulated and believed- tales of conspiracy to bring the nation to such a pass that a new and alien form of government will be unavoidable; circumstantial accounts of mental vagaries ranging from megalomania to those less ordinary and more risky in rulers. Some of the anecdotes are obviously malicious inventions; the astonishing thing is that conservative and credible men repeat and credit them. More of them are efforts to explain what seems otherwise unexplainable; concrete fables based on manifest abstract tendencies; little snowballs of reality that have grown into huge, scandalous bulks as they rolled along. In endless resentments, punitive measures, regrettable alliances, and apparently unreasonable courses in thought and conduct, the President has supplied unlimited cloth for the manufacture of tales, many of which, if they were true, could be known only to Franklin and to God.

Whatever their truth or other significance, these tales are eloquent of fear and hatred. This is precisely the kind of murmuring that is going on, more secretly but hardly more venomously and a good deal less generally, in Italy and  Russia and Germany. It is largely the murmuring of inconsequential people who have no other means of expression. That seems to me its major importance.  Our press may be venal, our public protests may be inspired by Wall Street, but these whisperers are neither economic Royalists nor Princes of Priviledge. They are emphatically little men asking "What now?". They are little clerks and school teachers, small merchants and travelling salesmen who whisper because they are afraid to speak out loud, because they believe themselves headed for ruin and catastrophe, and because whispering is the only thing they can do.

Justified or unjustified, this fear of speaking out loud becomes ever more general.  The man in the street has a long memory, and a stubborn conviction as to a great many things he is not credited with suspecting or caring about.  He remembers Andrew Mellon, for example; even  before Mellon, dead, was completely absolved, the average citizen rated the former Secretary of the Treasury  "a high grade fellow", and felt certain that he had not been guilty of the alleged fraud in his income tax returns.  "Sure, he's on the carpet." the average citizen said: "he's against the New Deal, ain't he?"  Whatever his political and economic infantility, he is a wise guy, that man in the street; wise in his generation, and in all generations, and in all the lands. He hasn't forgotten the Hugo Black seizure of private telegrams, and he is acutely aware that no organization agitating in favor of the Administration has had its officers and records brought before congressional committees in Washington.  The average man isn't quite blind enough not to observe that the same powers that impugn letter-writing to congressmen in opposition to the reorganization bill are now inspiring letters in behalf of pump priming.  He has no illusions as to the motives behind attacks on the press and the Supreme Court.  A year ago, when I criticized the President in a lecture before an association of businessmen in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the first question asked in that forum was "How long do you expect to say what you have tonight without winding up in a concentration camp?"  Nor did the question create the faintest surprise or remonstrance.  
                                                                                                                 
The general hatred, of course, is born of a combination of fear and helplessness. Few of us hate what we believe we can overcome. Most people believe that no available combination of honesty and intelligence can overthrow the New Deal. They believe that the return to priming the pump-in the current phrase of the man in the streets- is only a return to pumping the primaries, and-in another phrase born in the last pump priming, they feel "you can't beat five billion dollars". Further, rightly or wrongly, they take into account the demoralizing effect of the past five years of hand-outs and the fostered class consciousness. At Bradford Pennsylvannia last March, in a second forum, a woman asked my opinion of Roosevelt. When I replied that I thought him "a dangerous man", the applause was deafening. Later, I mentioned this to a college president as an encouraging sign. My friend shook his head.  "It means nothing," he said.  "I doubt there are fifty thousand intelligent and disinterested persons in this country who wouldn't have applauded your statement; but, if there were another election tomorrow, Roosevelt would win all the same." 

This is the common conviction, and the most moving reason for bitterness. Lesser reasons are latent in the President's own history and personality. Many of us find his smile irritating. We liked it in the first few thousand newspaper pictures, but a perpetual grin gets on one's nerves, particulary when the grinner has just done something to make life more difficult. The same observation applies to the Fireside Chats that begin by calling us "My Friends" and end by calling us whatever seems most opprobrious. These are mere straws showing which way the wind blows, but it was a straw, you remember, that broke the camel's back. It is trying to be branded the Prince of Priveledges by a man who uses the Navy to go fishing. We might be willing to take even less palatable advice as to running our business from someone who, before entering politics, had a more conspicuous success of his own. We should like to forget government for one day.  A nagging executive can be as infuriating as a nagging wife. 

Finally, we weary of the innumerable and ubiquitous Roosevelts, all sharing the family self confidence and all wearing the  family smile with a  fixedness suggesting the laugh is on us. There is no unanimity as to which of the group is the most annoying, but, in a fair election, I think the popular choice would be James We. After all, Father Roosevelt was born rich, whereas James has acquired wealth and position somewhat vicariously. Under the circumstances, instruction from James proves more provoking and less humorous than his mother's counsel on coal mining and bringing up children. Both adjectives apply to James' unconscious candor. The country is still debating whether he says "we" and "our" royally, or editorially or as only did the famous gentleman with the tapeworm. "Senator Pepper," quoth James, using his influence for that distinguished Floridian. "Senator Pepper has been loyal to the Administration... and it is our sincere hope he will be returned to the Senate." In unconscious candor, however, James reached tops when, in the course of his belated Jackson Day address at Middletown, he remarked-unless my radio ear deceived me- that "the goverment is doing all he can."

Whether or not any or all of this is adequate reason for the admittedly almost unique virulence of a large proportion of our citizens I am unable to judge. All over the country, gentle souls ask "Why do people hate Roosevelt?" They do not ask whether the hatred is justified, which is a matter of opinion, but why it exists, which is a matter of observation, yielding more replies than could possibly be piled into a report of this length. Many of the explanations are necessarily complicated, too. Again and again, one hears the President is "a traitor to his class". But so was St. Francis, and so, in that sense, is everyone who deserts the high road to bestow alms on the  low. The difference in many  minds is that Roosevelt's philanthropy has not left him a penny the poorer; but on the contrary has been the means by which he seized money and power. The truth is that a vast number of his countrymen do not believe in the sincerity of their "benign despot". They find it hard to have faith in a leader who, impugning the profit motive, remains, to date, the first President to sell his work to a newspaper syndicate while still in the White House. They are not yet accustomed to idealists who pet the distressed with one hand while building a remorseless political machine with the other. They doubt high sounding words that habitually tell only half-truths, that often conceal or misrepresent essential facts, and that end in forgetfullness and futility as promptly as the Chicago threat against dictators when it had distracted attention from Klansman Black's appointment to the Supreme Court.

These are a few and not even the outstanding reasons for hate. The reasons for fear are inextricably woven, but the fear is far more nearly universal and far more deeply rooted. Every man in America who possesses anything is afraid. He is afraid of being robbed, and almost certain of being ruined. His only uncertainty is whether the robbery will be accomplished through taxation, inflation, confiscation, or all three; and whether the ruin will come through further government regulation, government ownership, additional power to labor, unquelled riot, inspired revolution, Collectivism, Socialism, Communism, Fascism or just Rooseveltism. The better grade of those who possess nothing begin to fear that their situation is chronic and their number is increasing. Both groups believe, that if they escape all other perils, they will survive only to be gassed and bombed  by some dictator more successful and aggressive than our own.

The result is rapidly becoming utter demoralization and complete paralysis. Effort has slackened, and the investment of capital has practically ceased. The risks enumerated are too many, and there is too little hope of witholding any share of possible reward from a government that has taken 80% of the wholesale price of gasoline, 81% of all railway income after paying operating costs, and in ten years eight million dollars more than steel paid its own stockholders Whatever that sort of thing leaves the individual is subject to income tax, inheritance tax, and heaven knows what else. With growing realization that all this comes out of everyone's pocket, no wonder that even the smallest business men and wage earners become desperate.  The appropriation and disbursement of billions is Jovian, but painful to contemplate in terms of labor and savings. No wonder drunkenness is on the increase. No wonder thrift has turned spend-thrift. What's the use of saving money that will be taken from you?  Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die- or go broke.

Two-thirds of a nation believe themselves to be in the same boat- wholly at sea and, like those tourists at Cannes, at the mercy of one man. It is idle for that man to get reporters out in their nightshirts to tell them that he is  unfitted for dictatorship. The average citizen knows that none of the dictatorial powers asked "in emergency" has been relinquished, that there is constant pressure for more power, and constant effort to destroy every  check and opposition to power.
 
Happily, or unhappily, this does not mean that two-thirds of a nation or, perhaps, even one-half of it is prepared to vote against the New Deal. The present proportion is more nearly one-third of a nation bribed, one-third bewildered, and the remaining third furious but futile. As aforesaid, a shockingly large number of Americans are childishly innocent of the first principles of political economy. They still believe that a government can print as much money as its public requires; that they can attain endless and practically effortless oppulence by soaking the rich; and, with the tenacity of infants who repeat words without understanding, they still tell you that "Roosevelt is the poor man's friend". There is no possible way of education these people, since they are unable to read and unable to think- but they hold the balance of power. As their fear grows, and their hate is directed, they may destroy either society or their own tutelary gods.

In that lies both danger and promise. Make no mistake, this country is nearing explosion. There is hope, that, as matters grow steadily and inevitably worse, even the mentally as well as financially underpriviledged may see that the current monkey business simply won't work. That depends on the quality of the opposition leadership. If and when intelligent America translates fear and hate into action; if and when it stops jeering and agrees on a few sound and simple principles; stops orating and organizes; learns the Roosevelt trick of appealing to emotion rather than reason; and of turning misfortune to its own account; then, and  then only, there is a real chance of salvation. An awakened America that telegraphs its legislators, enlists Minute Men, joins in a Women's Rebellion, and produces small merchants who speak their minds in Washington may be almost ready for another Boston Tea Party or Bunker Hill.

It had better be. If salvation doesn't come soon, there will be nothing worth saving.”
Hat tip to Letecia Drake for this material.
Fascinating... we've learned absolutely nothing, nothing at all...
- CP

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