Blaming the victim, circa 1933

This is my third excerpt from David Kennedy’s book, Freedom From Fear:  The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. If you haven’t been following these posts (first; second), I’m exploring some striking parallels (or contrasts) between the Great Depression era and the contemporary economic crisis.

In this case, the parallel consists of a “blaming the victim” response to people’s misery:

The Depression was a wholesale social catastrophe that fell indiscriminately on vast sectors of American society. Yet the belief persisted among many Americans that the needy, new poor and old poor alike, were personally culpable for their plight, sinners against the social order, reprobates and ne’er-do-wells, spongers and bums with no legitimate claim on the public’s sympathy or purse.

Local welfare administrators were sometimes among the most tenacious exponents of that view. They treated welfare applicants accordingly, especially when class, religious, or ethnic differences separated applicants from administrators. […] In North Dakota, where a combination of drought, hail, grasshoppers, and collapsed markets had bankrupted nearly every farmer in the state, [government fact-finder Lorena] Hickok found the state relief committee dominated by officials who “think there is something wrong with a man who cannot make a living. […] They talk so much about ‘the undeserving’ and ‘the bums’.” […]

“Under the philosophy of this ancient practice,” [federal bureaucrat Harry] Hopkins lamented, the relief applicant was thought to be “in some way morally deficient. He must be made to feel his pauperism. Every help which was given him was to be given in a way to intensify his sense of shame.” […]

Contempt for the Depression’s victims, ironically enough, often lodged most deeply in the hearts and minds of the victims themselves. Social investigators in the 1930s repeatedly encountered feelings of guilt and self-recrimination among the unemployed, despite the transparent reality that their plight owed to a systemic economic breakdown, not to their own personal shortcomings. The Depression thus revealed one of the perverse implications of American society’s vaunted celebration of individualism. In a culture that ascribed all success to individual striving, it seemed to follow axiomatically that failure was due to individual inadequacy. […]

“It took me a month [to apply for assistance],” an Alabama lumberman explained; “I used to go down there every day or so and walk past the place again and again. I just couldn’t make myself go in.” A twenty-eight-year-old college-educated woman in Texas, unemployed after eight years as a teacher, spoke the thoughts of many middle-class Americans down and out in the Depression:  “If … I can’t make a living,” she shrugged, “I’m just no good, I guess.”

(pp. 172-75)

As it happens, I read that passage on the same day that I learned about Rick Santelli’s rant. Santelli is a CNBC commentator. The following Talking Points Memo video provides an excerpt from Santelli’s rant, followed by a well-deserved skewering, neatly delivered by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:

Santelli embodies the blaming-the-victim mindset, still thriving as of 2009 — “This is America! How many of you [stock traders] wanna pay for your neighbor’s mortgage?!”

It’s particularly ironic to hear stock traders booing relief for homeowners. Hasn’t the federal government just delivered billions of dollars in relief to financial institutions? I guess stock traders are happy to support financial relief as long as its ultimate destination is their own pockets — but not if it’s going to benefit someone else.

As Gibbs explains, a lot of responsible homeowners are suffering setbacks because their neighbors have defaulted on their mortgages. It’s a systemic breakdown — just like during the Great Depression — which hurts responsible homeowners right alongside of irresponsible homeowners.

btw:  If you’re struggling to understand how the USA got into this mess, there’s a lucid video explanation here, complete with user-friendly graphics.

If you watch the video, you’ll better appreciate Gibbs’s point about depreciation in home values. Falling housing prices is a hugely significant public policy issue (not a merely private setback).

Anxiety dreams

This post of Zayna’s got me thinking about anxiety dreams.

Once upon a time, I was a preacher. I had two anxiety dreams in that distant part of my life that still amuse me.

In the first, I stepped up to the lecturn after one of our elders — an exceptionally tall man — had been speaking. The microphone was way above my head. I kept jumping and jumping, but I just couldn’t grasp it to bring it down to my level.

In the other, I announced the text I was going to preach from, and then tried to turn to it in the Bible. Only I couldn’t find it. I did my best to put a brave face on things:  smiling and saying, “That’s right, it’s just past Isaiah”, or “… just before Paul’s letters” or whatever. Doggedly I flipped the pages one way, and then the other way, but I simply couldn’t find my text. Meanwhile, the entire time I had allotted for the sermon was being consumed with me searching futilely, like someone who had never opened a Bible in his life. Some preacher I was!

Is anyone else inclined to share?

Hannah Wooll, Anxiety Dream(Hannah Wooll, Anxiety Dream)

Effective leadership, circa 1933

Yesterday, I mentioned the banking crisis which came to a head just before Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933. Here are some further details from David Kennedy’s book, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. It’s a fascinating tale:

The siege had begun, in the manner made sickeningly familiar in the preceding three years, with yet another banking panic. This one started in Michigan, where the governor had declared an eight-day banking “holiday” on February 14, to protect the reeling banks in his state from collapsing. This drastic action in a key industrial state set off tremors throughout the country. Public apprehension about the banking system and disillusionment with bankers were amplified at this moment by revelations emanating from the Senate Banking and Currency Committee hearing room, where committee counsel Ferdinand Pecora was daily extracting scandalous admissions of malfeasance, favoritism, tax avoidance, and corruption from the princes of Wall Street.

Gee. The USA is experiencing a banking crisis right now. Caused, in large part, by reckless and irresponsible behaviour on the part of leaders in the world of high finance.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. But let us continue:

After having suffered through three years of depression and witnessing more than five thousand bank failures in the last three years, Americans reacted this time with hair-trigger haste and last-ditch desperation. By the thousands, in every village and metropolis, they scurried to their banks, queued up with bags and satchels, and carted away their deposits in currency or gold. They hoarded these precious remnants of their life savings under the mattress or in coffee tins buried in the back yard. Wealthier depositors shipped gold out of the country. Stock prices plummeted again. […]

In state after state, the banking system quivered, buckled, and was saved from final failure only by gubernatorially decreed holiday. Maryland’s banks were closed for three days by executive order on February 24. Similar closings followed in Kentucky, Tennessee, California, and elsewhere. On the morning of inauguration day, the New York Stock Exchange abruptly suspended trading; so did the Chicago Board of Trade. By then governmental proclamation had shut every bank in thirty-two states. Virtually all banks in six others were closed. In the remaining states, depositors were limited to withdrawing a maximum of 5 percent of their money, in Texas no more than ten dollars in a day.

On Sunday, March 5, Roosevelt declared a national banking holiday. The Emergency Banking Act — introduced yesterday — was passed into law on Thursday, March 9.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt had another effective weapon in his arsenal:  the famous “fireside chats”, delivered via radio.

Monday, March 13 [was] the day scheduled for the government-supervised reopening of the banks. On the preceding Sunday evening, at 10:00 P.M. eastern time, tens of millions of Americans tuned their radio sets to listen to the first of Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats. Working from a draft prepared by Hoover’s undersecretary of the treasury, Arthur Ballantine, Roosevelt explained in simple terms what had been accomplished in Washington. He told his listeners “that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than under the mattress.” In a voice at once commanding and avuncular, masterful yet intimate, he soothed the nervous nation. His Groton-Harvard accent might have been taken as snobbish or condescending, but it conveyed instead that same sense of optimism and calm reassurance that suffused his most intimate personal conversations.

On Monday the thirteenth the banks reopened, and the results of Roosevelt’s magic with the Congress and the people were immediately apparent. Deposits and gold began to flow back into the banking system. The prolonged banking crisis, acute since at least 1930, with roots reaching back through the 1920s and even into the days of Andrew Jackson, was at last over. And Roosevelt, taking full credit, was a hero.

Leadership matters. I’m not sure whether Barack Obama is making all the right choices, but at the very least, he’s setting the right tone.

That’s important. Lack of consumer confidence has a devastating impact on the economy. Hence Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Obama is providing the kind of leadership that restores people’s confidence. Even irresponsible financiers can’t destroy a confident nation.

Bipartisanship, circa 1933

Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of the United States of America on March 4, 1933. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had assumed office seven months before the stock market crash of 1929. Hoover’s entire presidency had been consumed by a desperate, ineffectual struggle against the Great Depression.

At the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration, the most urgent crisis concerned the banking system. More than five thousand banks had failed in the USA in the previous three years.

In the months leading up to Roosevelt’s inauguration, Roosevelt’s appointees had already begun to work alongside President Hoover’s officials — an unprecdented arrangement, much to Hoover’s credit. Then, when Roosevelt assumed office,

Hoover’s men and Roosevelt’s now began an intense eighty hours of collaboration to hammer out the details of an emergency banking measure that could be presented to the special session of Congress. […]

Roosevelt’s and Hoover’s minions “had forgotten to be Republicans or Democrats,” [Raymond] Moley [a senior advisor to President Roosevelt] commented. “We were just a bunch of men trying to save the banking system.” William Woodin, the new treasury secretary, and Ogden Mills, his predecessor, simply shifted places on either side of the secretary’s desk in the Treasury Building. Otherwise, nothing changed in the room. […]

The bill was read to the House at 1:00 P.M., while some new representatives were still trying to locate their seats. Printed copies were not ready for the members. A rolled-up newspaper symbolically served. After thirty-eight minutes of “debate,” the chamber passed the bill, sight unseen, with a unanimous shout. The Senate approved the bill with only seven dissenting votes—all from agrarian states historically suspicious of Wall Street. The president signed the legislation into law at 8:36 in the evening.

(David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (Oxford University Press), pp. 135-36)

Last week, Senator John McCain said that President Obama has some lessons to learn about bipartisanship. Andrew Sullivan asks,

You mean Obama never went to the Congress to talk to the House GOP? That he hasn’t been relentless in including Republicans in the debate? That he didn’t urge over $300 billion in tax cuts in the bill to assuage Republican feelings in the first place?

Evidently, Senator McCain still hasn’t grasped that he lost the election. It is incumbent upon Republicans to support President Obama in carrying out the mandate he received from voters. But only three Senate Republicans voted for the stimulus package, and zero House Republicans.

Now McCain says that Obama needs some lessons on bipartisanship? Tail, meet dog.

Nothin’ on but a smile

A photograph worth sharing:

Mute Math with streaker

In particular, I get a kick out of the strategic placement of the microphone. There’s a photographer (Mark Austin of Paste Magazine) who’s quick on his feet!

Meantime, the show must go on.

I’m delighted to see that Mute Math (my favourite contemporary band) has just released an EP, which is a little taster for the upcoming new disc.

And then they’ll be back on tour! Woo hoo!

The Reader

I went to see The Reader tonight. Oscar nominations include Kate Winslett for actress in a leading role; Chris Menges and Roger Deakins for cinematography; David Hare for his screenplay; Stephen Daldry for directing; and a nod for best picture.

In brief, I would describe the movie as gripping, intense, and thought-provoking. It certainly isn’t a feel-good movie; nonetheless, highly recommended.

The movie has three segments. In the first segment, we are introduced to the lead characters:  Hanna (Kate Winslett) and Michael (David Kross plays the teenaged Michael; Ralph Fiennes, the adult).

They begin an unlikely sexual affair:  unlikely because Michael is 15 and Hanna is in her late 30s — clearly old enough to be Michael’s mother.

Michael’s motivation is straightforward enough. It’s easy to understand the attraction to a young man, unsure of himself, of an older, experienced woman who is willing to introduce him to a smorgasbord of pleasures of the flesh.

Hanna’s motivation is less obvious; or maybe it’s just less obvious to me because I’m a guy. An older woman certainly might be turned on by a younger man’s body. Moreover, she might enjoy playing a role that is equal parts lover and teacher. “Slowly, slowly,” Hanna says to Michael in response to his first, overly zealous kiss.

There is a second quirk to the relationship:  Hanna likes it when Michael reads to her. Indeed, it soon becomes their foreplay. He reads for a while, and then they have sex.

“Slowly, slowly,” indeed.

Kate Winslett

This first segment of the movie is interesting in its own right:  sexy and even poignant at times. (The relationship is doomed from the outset because Hanna and Michael are at such different stages in life.) But the sexual affair is merely a prelude to the real point of the movie. The story really takes off in Act II, when it radically shifts tone.

(I discuss more details about the plot after the jump. This isn’t quite a spoiler alert, since I don’t give away the ending of the movie. But you might prefer to let the movie unfold the details of the story instead of reading about it here.)