No One Wants to Look Like a Nazi

Today’s expression isn’t verbal, it’s a gesture. I ran across this in a Smithsonianmag piece:

“[America’s salute to the flag originally required you to] raise your right hand, flip your palm down, point it toward the flag in a salute and recite the words. These instructions might seem unthinkable today for obvious reasons—they’re reminiscent of rows of Nazis saluting their Fuhrer. But believe it or not, they date from the beginning of the Pledge itself.

The stiff-armed salute came from the 1890s along with the words to the US Pledge as part of an effort to heal the wounds of the Civil War with a shared ritual in schools, and to assimilate immigrant children. But when Nazi’s adopted the same gesture, in 1942 Americans dumped their 50-year tradition (along with other symbols ruined by Nazis.) The US Flag Code was adopted because every American needed instruction in the new salute, though it can’t be enforced as a law.

The Pledge, by the way, was originally

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.” Francis Bellamy reportedly wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in two hours.

Congress added words including “under God” in 1954 to distinguish the United States from “godless Communism.” So both the words and gesture of the Pledge were modified in response to America’s enemies. I could accept going back to the original words, but I must admit my skin crawls at the original gesture.

Decline or Rise of a New Prosperity?

Manufacturing is dying in America, and the middle class that was built on post-WWII GI bill education and manufacturing is going with it. Jobs move overseas to cheap labor markets thanks to trade deals that favor a powerful elite. Millions around the world are rising from extreme poverty at the price of the Western World’s middle class – which might look like a good tradeoff to aliens watching from space, but isn’t so good if you happen to be losing. We should all be sad and angry.

I’ve heard that a lot and I guess I believe it. Just look at the tags in my tee shirts – all manufactured overseas.

I also tend to think of the Christian Science Monitor as a reputable news source, so I read their recent article carefully.

The surprising truth about American manufacturing

“United States manufacturing output is at an all-time high, worth $2.2 trillion in 2015, up from $1.7 trillion in 2009. And while total employment has fallen by nearly a third since 1970, the jobs that remain are increasingly skilled.

“Across the country, factory owners are now grappling with a new challenge: Instead of having too many workers, as they did during the Great Recession, they may end up with too few…

“In western Michigan… unemployment here is low (around 3 percent)… For factory owners, it all adds up to stiff competition for workers – and upward pressure on wages.” CSM

The situation isn’t all rosy: “Employment in manufacturing has fallen from 17 million in 1970 to 12 million in 2015. The steepest declines came after 2001, when China gained entry to the World Trade Organization and ramped up exports… In areas exposed to foreign trade [like my tee shirts], every additional $1,000 of imports per worker meant a $550 annual drop in household income per working-age adult.” CSM

Despite job openings, lots of young workers don’t want to work in manufacturing. They watched their parents shoulder large amounts of overtime only to get laid off in the Great Recession, see the overall downward trend, and are being pushed into college instead of trades by parents, schools, and the government.

I checked Wikipedia, which seems like a decent place to get an overview.

“In 1990, services surpassed manufacturing as the largest contributor to overall private industry production, and then the finance, insurance and real estate sector surpassed manufacturing in 1991. Since the beginning of the current economic downturn in 2007, only computer and electronic products, aerospace, and transportation have seen increasing production levels…

“A total of 3.2 million – one in six U.S. factory jobs – have disappeared since the start of 2000. The manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy has experienced substantial job losses over the past several years.” Wikipedia

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Doing Something That Doesn’t Work For Five Hundred Years

Drunkenness of Noah - a problem that's been with us a long time

Drunkenness of Noah – a problem that’s been with us a long time

Author Susan Cheever sets out to fill a gap in American History with Drinking in America, Our Secret History, and her personal life doubtlessly influences her writing. A third of the way through the book, Cheever writes of her own family’s battle with alcohol and notes that “alcoholic families are nightmarish places, heartbreak machines in which the innocent fare worse than the guilty.” She herself stopped drinking when “brought to my knees by alcoholism.” Authors of straight history “texts” don’t get personal in the body of their work.

Despite her family, Cheever acknowledges that alcohol, and the “unstoppable” “crazy courage,” “both brilliance and incompetence” of drunks, has contributed to America. Drinking has led to American disasters and triumphs. “Rum could make you brave, confident, and scornful of conventional obstacles.”

She offers excellent retellings of many familiar pieces of history: the Pilgrims and Puritans (not the same people at all!), the Revolution, Civil War, woman’s suffrage and Prohibition, Kennedy’s assassination – with vivid details I had never read. The idea that some of the Pilgrims’ difficulties were due to most of them being drunk (by modern standards) almost all the time is intriguing. And you’ll find some famous names revealed as heavy drinkers, along with others who hated alcohol and drunkenness, beginning with the Pilgrims. Reviewers on Amazon point out Cheever’s speculation and factual errors (“riddled” says one), and her book isn’t footnoted like a text would be, but it’s worth your reading time.

But I’d like to note her comments on history. While there have been historians seeking to push an agenda or prove a point, “modern history, for the most part, claims to be objective… observant neutrality occasionally punctuated with some wise commentary. There are many advantages – no ax to grind, no idea to sell, no political point to make. But there are disadvantages… Historians miss a lot.”

This view of history limits our perspective. She notes that, after reading “hundreds of indexes and tables of contents, and dozens of books… [she finds that] few historians even mention drinking and its effects.”

I assume historians skip across drinking in history, in part, because ascribing any positive outcome to drunkenness is embarrassing – or at least, counterintuitive. The idea that inebriation was part of daily life for men, women, and children (!) as well as founding fathers and Nobel winning authors simply doesn’t click.

Yet it seems to me that the truth is worth knowing, and Cheever’s book offers something to add to my view of history. It does reinforce my basic feeling that The War on Drugs is a mistake, and I try to be skeptical of books that confirm my pre-existing biases. But even punishments from the 1600s that would be considered torture today didn’t stop drunkenness, which pretty much agrees with the effects of modern punishments on drug addicts. Perhaps, by ignoring an element of history, we are repeating it.

American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace

american-dreamerI obtained this book through the interlibrary loan system with the single purpose of checking out an original reference for the book I’m writing about the Rocky Flats Plant during the Cold War. I was surprised that the book has over 600 pages, checked the page with the reference I wanted, and then began skimming it. Much to my surprise the book drew me in. For those unfamiliar with him, Henry Agard Wallace was a fascinating character. He grew up in a farm family that published a newspaper that focused on farming and political issues associated with farming. He was raised to be a completely moral Christian, and seldom allowed even the most vicious political attacks he would eventually suffer later in his public life to stir him to do more than offer a reasoned defense.

Most people probably know something about Wallace because John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President for his first two terms, strongly opposed FDR running for a third term. (Garner had been chosen as the Vice President in a deal that allowed FDR to receive his first nomination by the Democratic Party. FDR and Garner were polar opposites, and my impression is that they detested each other and went out of their way to avoid the need to have any contact.) A large slate of candidates wanted to have the VP slot, but FDR chose Wallace.

FDR had chosen Wallace to be his Secretary of Agriculture during his first two terms despite the fact Wallace was a Republican. Party difference was immaterial, because Wallace was a strong Progressive. He also was a brilliant man who studied and comprehended the role of genetics in crop yields. He and his wife formed a hybrid corn seed business that eventually made them wealthy. The chickens he bred eventually provided a substantial portion of eggs to the nation and the world.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are about the key role Wallace played in his position of Secretary of Agriculture in the New Deal during years when famers were being crushed by the Great Depression. Fans of small government will be astonished and disturbed at the growth and reach of his department. His first personnel action was to appoint Milton Eisenhower, Ike’s brother, head of information services with instructions “…to transform the department immediately into a vast action agency to restore parity of income to American farmers.” The primary focus of the many government actions taken under Wallace’s leadership was to improve farm income by the “…promotion of planned scarcity.” Wheat was the easiest crop for the new strategy, because many wheat growing areas were experiencing a crushing drought. “It would not be necessary to plow under growing wheat; nature had done it—unequally, cruelly, to be sure, but decisively…” Millers and bakers didn’t like the new processing tax that paid expenses for the new program until they understood they could blame the price increases on the government. Continue reading

Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025

suicide-of-superpowerBefore I get into the review, I have an announcement for frequent readers. I’ve decided to spend less time on reading and reviewing books and more time working on my new book about the Rocky Flats Plant and the Cold War. We intend to maintain a regular once a week schedule for expressions and commentaries, which might be associated with something that I’m drafting for the book. We will continue to do book reviews when we feel the urge, but it undoubtedly won’t be once a week. That notice made me want to spend more time working on the Rocky Flats book and less time on this review. This might be a short review for such a long and data-rich book.

The book by Patrick J. Buchanan is not a fun book to read. It chronicles numerous aspects of American life and government that are in decline or collapse. It is well over 400 pages of despair. I was curious whether Buchanan would provide any hope at the end of the book, and I must say the hope offered by the final paragraph is tepid, at best. “And the crises that afflict us—culture wars, race division, record deficits, unpayable debt, waves of immigration, legal and illegal, of people never before assimilated, gridlock in the capital, and possible defeat in war—may prove too much for our democracy to cope with. They surely will, if we do not act now.” It’s tough to find a positive message in that, especially with our dysfunctional government and (commentary alert) lack of leaders willing to submit themselves to our increasingly brutal election process.

I must admit that I’ve never been a “Buchanan fan,” although I also admit that reading this book made me admire his ability to identify and explain important historical facts despite that they aren’t fun reading. I’ll give the example of “Fruits of Free Trade” that begins on page 15. Buchannan mentions it could be more appropriately titled, “An Index of the Decline and Fall of Industrial America.”

  • From 2000 to December 2010, industrial production fell for the first time since the Depression and America lost 3 million private sector jobs
  • One in three manufacturing jobs disappeared
  • We ran trillions of dollars in trade deficits
  • China now holds the mortgage on America
  • Etc.

The most disturbing comment is that “…the cumulative current account deficit of the United States from 2000 through the third quarter of 2010 exceeded $6 trillion. To finance it, we had to borrow $1.5 billion abroad every day for ten years.” (Emphasis added) Continue reading

Inside the Nazi War Machine

nazi-war-machineThis book by Bevin Alexander has a subtitle, “How Three Generals Unleashed Blitzkrieg Upon the World,” and is an excellent book for people interested in military history. The three generals were Erich von Manstein, Heinz Guderian, and Erwin Rommel, and they developed a military strategy that opposed that of the German high command and Hitler. My simplistic summary is that they refused to fight battles on a wide front. They led with concentrated panzer attacks against the widely-spread “penny packets” of French tanks. They almost always outpaced the infantry divisions that followed. They refused to slow the assault to allow consolidation of the flanks, which the high command believed would be vulnerable to counterattack. The conventional thinking was that the French army, which was “…the most formidable and best-equipped army in Europe…” with their British, Holland, and Belgian allies would pinch in from the sides and capture the tanks and soldiers in the deep penetration. The remarkable outcome was that the massive French army mostly just surrendered at the shock of how quickly the center of their front had been destroyed by Nazi fire power. The Luftwaffe supported the attacks with old and slow Stuka dive bombers that could precisely target French tanks or other forces that stood in the way. Static warfare that had been the norm throughout World War I was replaced by “maneuver warfare,” or Blitzkrieg.

The book portrays how the German generals continually successfully implemented their concentrated assaults and refused to acknowledge orders from the high command to stop and allow the supporting troops to catch up. Overall military organization is also described as being valuable to the Germans and paralyzing to the French. German commanders believed they should lead from the front where they could quickly recognize situations presented by opposing forces and terrain and make immediate adjustments. French units couldn’t deviate from existing orders without written orders, which often took days to be prepared and delivered. The German commanders also had the admiration and support of their soldiers, which resulted in achieving sometimes incredible results. Rommel was said to insist on being in the first vehicle going forward in an assault. Once he insisted on standing on the middle of a bridge important to a planned attack that was under bombardment by British bombers. He wanted it known how valuable the bridge was to German plans and risked his life to demonstrate it. Continue reading

Westward Migration – History and Recreation of Traveling the Oregon Trail

oregon trailThe Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck offers three travel tales braided together. There is the westward migration of Americans starting around 1840; the tale of Buck’s own crossing of the old trail with a mule team and wagon; and memories of his father’s horse and mule, wagon and carriage adventures – and unresolved father issues.

Buck decided to make “an authentic crossing of the Oregon Trail.” In preparation he read many travel diaries and historical accounts. The trail “has been meticulously charted and marked, with long, undeveloped spaces now preserved as a National Historic Trail” but also crossing private land. I was surprised to learn that, “except for two bad stretched of suburban sprawl,” the trail is generally accessible, especially since much of the way is now farm and ranch roads or even paved highways.

Early in the book Buck presents a lengthy story of the brother who accompanied him. The brothers woes of unemployment after the Republican Recession of 2008 and temporary crippling in a building accident segues into the 1840s and 1850s, when “families were disrupted and lives destroyed by the financial panics and bank failures that recurred every decade” further aggravated by “religious squabbling and labor strife” and the political issue of slavery. Migration west became “a safety valve that prevented a calamitous society from imploding.”

Pioneer knowledge has been lost
Buck recounts his efforts to obtain a wagon and mule team – somewhat hard to do since no one does this sort of trip anymore. He’s lucky to have his childhood familiarity with livestock and Amish and Mennonite friends who use horses for farming.

But horses aren’t suited to a long hard trip. Draft horses of the 1800s were “agrarian mastodons” while mules were smarter, tougher, and “the common phrase ‘stubborn as a mule,’ [is] a classic example of a man ascribing stupidity to the beast instead of to himself.”

Buck provides a lot of information about mules. “No less a figure than George Washington was America’s original maharajah of mules… [students don’t know] that the father of their country worked the same day job as Donald Trump. Washington was a land developer.”

I enjoyed this part of Washington’s life, which I hadn’t read about before. Europeans viewed Washington as a hero for defeating the despised British, so in 1785 the king of Spain sent him donkeys as breeding stock for working mules. I’ve met little burro donkeys with backs a bit higher than my waist and big riding donkeys – so different – so I found the descriptions delightful.

Buck also shares his efforts to recreate a suitable wagon, and even diagrams of the triple-tree design for hitching a three-mule team to a wagon. I didn’t know that the term “Conestoga” refers to an eastern cargo wagon that played almost in role in the western migration, or that the first factory assembly line produced wagons, not Ford cars. There’s even a side trip through how building the famous eastern canal system helped evolve a practical wagon.

After a hundred pages, the journey west begins
There’s a lot of information from trail diaries on the trip west. Runaway teams, disease, and hunting accidents caused frequent injury and death. Bridges are a special hazard for mules, which “can get a third of the way across… look sideways… panic… and overturn the wagon or crash into cars in an attempt to escape.” Covered bridges prevented this by blocking the animals view – and I thought they were just pretty! Buck includes a story of his father getting a terrified team across a bridge with his kids help.

RVs are a special hazard for Buck. They would often drive slowly very close to the mules to take pictures or drive ahead to stop, nearly blocking the road, to take more pictures as Buck drove by. He calls RVer men who wanted to make jokes about the wagon as “himbos,” as a play on “bimbos.”

An amazing woman pioneer
The westward migration was a huge change from fur traders and “backwoodsmen like Daniel Boone [who] could disappear into the great forests for months alone. Carrying just a small haversack, a musket, and a long knife.” But in 1836 there was “enormous prejudice against” white women going west with their husbands. This led into a wonderful tale of Narcissa Prentis, the firs white woman to cross the Rockies. She married a fellow missionary – apparently for the convenience of both – and sent installments of her diary back east with various fur traders they encountered who were headed that way. (People seemed to take the burden of delivering letters very seriously.)

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