So You Think Your Life Was Wasted – Section Three (6)

Wednesday March 8, 2006

All right, Mr. Bowers, since I’m not doing the work I ought to be doing, let’s resume. I’m half through your book and the comparisons between the Radical Republicans of 1865 on and those of 1995 on are just startling! Stolen elections, blatant disregard of law to get what they wanted, ideological agenda (at least when Thad Stevens was alive; less so afterwards), a huge phony impeachment trial – though they expected to win the one in 1868 – and then giant, massive, unprecedented corruption. Unprecedented for Washington, which is saying something! And perhaps the longest-lived effect, the turning over of government and economy to the monopolies that developed from war contracts.

Our case is different because the slavery and Civil Rights issues are settled, but I seem to see an analogy in the ideology that sees “faith based” – meaning right-wing Christian – groups as being under social attack and needing government support. And behind it all, what Joseph Smallwood would call “hog-ism.”

I see, also, that your arguments and your impact are blunted by your racism – even if it was the racism of your day. So negroes were to sit with whites on public accommodations. Shameful! So they were to have equal access to theaters, etc. Horrible! We just don’t see it that way and you can’t expect us to.

Nor did I expect you to. But it was worth while to make the attempt. How far you can stretch your sympathies is a matter for your own concern. Let me say this on the subject of racism and then let us drop the subject – unless new questions come up – for some disagreements cannot be bridged.

If you will think of it in terms of income rather than color – for that is the way you discriminate in your time – you will not find it so hard to understand. In your heart you know this is so. People of different classes have different habits, mores, manners, preferences, tastes. They don’t fit easily together, except in certain public places. In the movies, loud ghetto kids disrupt the silence others expect – and so fewer people go to the movies who prefer silence and decorum. In public places like beaches, noise always drives out silence. In discourse, vulgarity and profanity drives out civility. In art, lesser discrimination always drives out greater, except when greater discrimination is accompanied by money.

If you were suddenly ordered, by an outside authority whose power you recognized but whose legitimacy you did not, to associate closely with homeless drunkards, or clannish non-English-speaking immigrants, or Mafiosi – you would not accept it as due to them as human beings; you would resent it as an imposition on you. As it would be!

The Civil Rights turmoil of your lifetime followed 80 years of reaction by white southerners against the dozen years of “reconstruction” as much as against the disruption natural to the total upsetting of the economic and social structure that was the end of slavery.

Again, you must not hear me to be an apologist for slavery. Neither am I an apologist for repressing natural ability and allowing it to rise. You call me a racist and I say that this is because you do not understand something you have a duty to understand, if you are to have an opinion on it.

Now, about the revolution within your mind that my book is causing. Thank you for your honesty in considering it. I realize it goes against what you have been taught, or perhaps it would be better said, it goes against what has been carefully insinuated and silently implied – for lies are more easily exposed than insinuations refuted. As your brother pointed out, your history does not draw the connection between the crony capitalism – as your age is calling it – of the reconstruction vultures, and the progressive and other “protest” movements that followed. Nor does it include – I would add – the strikers being shot down by the National Guard, the children being enslaved in factories, the immigrants being terrorized by the police and being used to hold down other groups of immigrants.

The entire age from the beginning of reconstruction to Woodrow Wilson was one ugly conglomeration of various forms of corrupt politics, and the lines connecting the dots are rarely drawn – and never in textbooks that have to be approved by committees! Wilson was Southern enough to feel the results of the lash, intellectual enough to connect some of the dots, arrogant enough to think that intellectually-derived formulas were enough to out-reform corrupt politics, politician enough to do what he had to do to get elected and get re-elected, and Presbyterian enough to assure himself – and need to assure himself – that he had done wisely and well, and had done nothing that could not be excused if seen in the proper light.

And it must be said, he did try! So did his predecessor, for that matter, but Taft, an honest man, had little freedom of maneuver, being necessarily captive of the Republican Party that had created him. [Theodore] Roosevelt was a lunatic, a financial simpleton, a brilliant attractive man of many excellences that sometimes served mostly to enable his abysmal failings. (In this he was rather like Winston Churchill.) Roosevelt in his self-justifying arrogance might as well have been a Presbyterian like Wilson. “We stand at Armageddon and battle for the lord”! McKinley, again a better man than his party allowed him to be, and as abysmally ignorant as misinformation and a corrupt news media could make him, with his somewhat inert assistance. Cleveland, rigorously honest, again with more freedom of maneuver than Republicans because his base was different. And so back to Harrison, Hayes and Grant.

I fear that your opinion of Grant has fallen quite a bit, as you put together my account of his throwing in with the radicals and betraying Johnson with what [Joshua Lawrence] Chamberlain said of his throwing in with Sheridan against Gouvernor Warren. In both cases, a deficiency of judgment, at best; and no need to assume corruption. Perhaps, let us say, a certain insensitivity to individuals when his own vision was fixed on something. But you do see, now, why Grant was so contemned by the end of his presidency. It isn’t that he was too dumb to know better; he wasn’t. It isn’t that he could not have known; he could have known and should have known. And it isn’t, quite, that he personally profited by the immense corruption that flourished in his time – and yet, it isn’t quite true that he did not, either. He did not steal and did not receive stolen money, but he was surrounded by thieves and neither punished nor denounced them. Worse, he not very indirectly profited from their activities – politically, not pecuniarily.

To return to Wilson. He did try. The Federal Reserve Act was designed to help farmers and small businessmen. At the last minute a small change was introduced, Congress as usual didn’t notice or didn’t understand except for those who knew full well and were well rewarded for not standing in the way – and there went America’s money, for reasons we won’t go into here. That was not Wilson’s intent, and I doubt if, to the end of his life, he realized what had been done.

If there were honesty in politics! I have heard you saying (reading my book) “if they didn’t agree, if they knew it was wrong, why didn’t they speak out? Why was party more important than country – especially when it was obvious that they were going to be cast aside anyway? Why not go down fighting publicly?” but it is hard for a person in politics to go alone, and very rare.

I can hear some of my Republican friends saying sure, Bowers is a Democrat, so that’s all he favors.

In your day, it is harder to tell you the truth because you have all been mis-educated so long, and so insulated from reality by your long years in college and your association mostly with others whose background is similar. In my day – and even more in Lincoln’s day – it was understood that politics is based in interest. Find out what a man’s interest is, and that will tell you most of what you need to know about his politics. Other factors will enter in – “my father was a Democrat, so I’m a Democrat,” or perhaps some shining example – but mostly a man will vote his interest. Farmers just didn’t vote Republican once they realized that it wasn’t Lincoln’s party any more but a cabal owned and operated my monopolists and profiteers. Now, the bloody flag could be used to blind them to their interest – and was it! – but when not blinded by passions, interest resumed its sway. It is only natural, after all. Why should someone join a group (knowingly) that is devoted to the destruction or damage of his economic interest?

So, my argument is not that one or the other parties attracted better men. It is that one or the other party embodied certain interests and the wolves always run with the hunters, never with the deer. It isn’t complicated. And it doesn’t change.

Okay, I think we should break for now. I have been doing email between some of these paragraphs but it doesn’t seem to have lessened the overall fatigue.

Nothing wrong with experimentation.

(11:40) I was thinking about what at first seemed obvious – politics follows your interest – and realize it isn’t as simple as it first appeared. I am sort of residually a Democrat. I don’t like them much but I detest so much of the Republican rhetoric and adventurism. But if I were to decide which party to belong to (assuming I had to choose either one!) and wanted to decide it on my economic interests, I don’t know where I should be! I believe the Republicans are ruining the economy, so I can’t see any advantage to me of being with the party that is presiding over ruin – but I don’t see that the Democrats have actually done anything different even when they had power, so where are we? We need a new party but I find it hard to believe that will solve anything.

You’re learning. Look at what you just derived simply from asking yourself which party lay closer to your economic interests. Your time has been overshadowed by its own version of the bloody flag – social issues. Abortion, the flag controversies, all the social controversies that have polarized you into units not primarily rooted in your economic interests. Civil Rights among them, I would remind you. This serves certain background groups very well, as they would be seriously outnumbered if people were voting their economic interests.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that social issues are less important than financial interests, but they are different, and it is always as well to recognize reality.

You say you need a new party – but if it were to be organized around you, would you recognize it? Or would you judge it by its rhetoric? Did you hear what George Wallace was saying about federalism, or only what his message said about racism? Did you hear what any of the other parties of your time have said? So why expect things to change that way? What you need is not a new party, but a new consciousness. Honest men and women can find a home anywhere – if that home is able to be swept clean. But how is the sweeping to proceed in the absence of light showing where to sweep?

Franklin Roosevelt’s revolution – and it was a revolution – came not because he pushed it or even particularly desired it, but because he responded to it! The revolution, as all revolutions, happened in the minds of the people, and then had to be translated or resisted. Hoover resisted, Roosevelt translated. One could argue that either man had some right on his side – of course he did! And one could argue that either man could have done this or that, and would have been better not to do this or that other thing – but that is true of God himself! The point to be taken is that revolutions are not created by parties but by people changing their views.

Given that people are slow to revolutionize their mental world, one or both of two conditions is required: massive sudden change, shocking in extent and traumatic in effect, or long-term stress.

That is why the world produces stress, and shocks, and trauma. Enough for now.

(3:30) All right, I am very mindful that what you are talking about is to apply to our situation, so – say on.

You may not have it quite figured out, for remember this little conspiracy includes Mr. Lincoln. In other words, this is less to do with politics than you think. Certainly it is not to do with party politics, even a denunciation of the radical Republicans whose doings continue to shock and amaze you.

Point Number One. You read my description of Thaddeus Stevens. You know I saw that he was an honest man, no hypocrite, no fool – but if there was one man above all others who brought on the postwar trouble, he was the man. And why? – not greed, not avarice for power, not even revenge of anything personal he had ever suffered. None of these. Hatred. And here is your enemy.

Thaddeus Stevens hated the men who had caused the Civil War. He hated the slave-owners who for 15 years and more tried to make slavery national. He hated the whole system of slavery, and then those who advocated and practiced it, and then those who defended it. Living for many years in the shadow of the triumph of slavery – for so it appeared to many and many a man prior to the election of 1860 – and living then through four years of slaughter and destruction unprecedented on the American continent, living through years in which defeat seemed all too possible – he came through to the other side determined to take his revenge upon evil.

Abraham Lincoln could not be depended upon to hate enough; perhaps it was as well that he was gone. Chamberlain’s magnanimous gesture at Appomattox, Sherman’s lenient terms to Johnston – Grant’s lenient terms to Lee, for that matter – were just short of treason. For what if the enemy’s seeming defeat was actually a sham, a biding of time? Lee in the mountains instead of prison? Criminal leniency! Nor was he alone in these thoughts.

The arch fiend in this tragedy was not a man or a faction or a party. It was not even the human scavengers who preyed upon the helpless. The fiend was – hatred. And Abraham Lincoln knew that. My friend Joseph Smallwood learned it. Hatred is the enemy of all, and no one ever embraced it without paying the full price – if not sooner, then later. In the case of reconstruction, it was paid by all concerned – by the south initially, by the entire country for generations ultimately. It may be looked upon as a sardonic commentary to Mr. Lincoln’s approach.

Look – in the light of the brutal occupation that unnecessarily humiliated, bilked, and demoralized the defeated south, and set up puppet governments to assure Republican majorities in the national legislature, for the better and surer plundering of the national treasure – look by contrast at Mr. Lincoln’s golden words: “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Is it not obvious that Lincoln would have been a great obstacle to this gigantic crime? And – this is a rhetorical question, yes, but it needs to be posed – which of the two approaches made better policy? Which fostered better citizenship? Which sooner bound the nation’s wounds?

Ah, but there wasn’t the money in Mr. Lincoln’s approach that there was in the radicals’ – so, away with mercy and in the name of the bloody flag – revenge!

It is as simple as that. Joseph has given you the point of view of a simple soldier doing his duty and fighting for two causes he deeply believed in – preservation of the union and abolition of slavery. And I have presented the view of those who saw that vision betrayed and perverted, generating generations of hatred and strife.

So, point number one – the enemy was hatred; the danger was hatred; the temptation was hatred, and the serpent in the garden, day and night, was hatred, and appeals to hatred, and the stirring up of hatred.

I suggest that you cultivate the habit of looking at your “statesmen” and see which of them wholesales hatred – and eschew them. Look at your newsmen and your celebrities and your molders of opinion. If they hate, if they preach hate, if they even condone hate – go another way. There is only death in following hatred. It doesn’t matter if they are on “your” side or “the other” side of some opinion—if they preach hatred you don’t want to stand with them, or, if you do, God help you.

Point Number Two. Don’t be a sap. Don’t allow yourself to be hoodwinked by fine words or appeals to your prejudices. Don’t jump on the team bobsled if you don’t know where it is being taken – and why it is being taken, and who is taking it there.

In your time it is so easy to deceive you, it is amazing. What ever happened to a little discerning cynicism? You save all your cynicism for “the other side” and none for “your side” and then are repeatedly surprised to be repeatedly betrayed. How often does this need to happen before you begin routinely to look behind the scene?

Point Number Three – and here is the bell-ringer, we hope, or if not, we have several of us been wasting a good deal of time and preparation! You cannot overcome treachery and even imbecility by matching wits against money, or integrity against entrenched corruption, or even information against systematic deception – but you can do better than that, and stand upon ground that cannot be shaken.

If you knew what was going on behind the scenes

If you were part of an organization for righteousness

If you were incorruptible because transparent

If you could affect matters without overt action

If you could be powerful for good, and powerless for evil

And if you could have all this today – would you have it?

Enough for now.

What is this, “the perils of Pauline”?

There is too much to say to just smooth off in a sentence or two, and this is enough for you for today.

All right.

[1] “The Perils of Pauline” was the first cliff-hanger silent movie series.

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