Monday, November 11, 2019

Civil War and Reconstruction at the Cinema

This is another of the papers I wrote for my U. S. History 1914-1945 class last year. It's long, but I hope you'll find it interesting. For those of you who are fans of Gone with the Wind, I apologize. Sometimes I just can't help myself!

If you stick around for future papers, you'll get a sense of deja vu, since I'll be using some of the same research again. And possibly again.


                                                   SELLING THE MYTH

                                                                       Remember the war against Franco?
                                                                       That’s the kind where each of us belongs
                                                                       Though he may have won all the battles
                                                                       We had all the good songs.
                                                                             --Tom Lehrer, “The Folk Song Army,” 1965

Almost immediately after the Civil War ended a form of amnesia descended on both the North and the South. An estimated 3.9 million slaves, or more than 10% of the population of the country at the time, were freed, and both North and South were at a loss as to how to deal with the former slaves.
The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were passed between 1865 and 1870, giving black Americans suffrage and equal protection under the law. Former slaves could now vote, own property, receive an education, legally marry, sign contracts, file lawsuits, and hold political office. By 1868, 700,000 blacks were registered as voters, fourteen held seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and many held office in state legislatures. Blacks formed their own churches, schools, and organizations. With the help of the Freedman’s bureau, some 200,000 learned to read. Reconstruction was begun to enforce these amendments and bring the South back into the union. Under Reconstruction the first Ku Klux Klan was suppressed in 1871.
As with any long war, the country suffered from fatigue. Once the war ended, even the victors wanted to move on. As early as 1866 an editor of the Chicago Tribune is quoted by Phillip Leigh in his 2017 Southern Reconstruction as having written the following to Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull:
“You all in Washington must remember that the excitement of the great contest is dying out, and that commercial and industrial enterprises and pursuits are engaging a large share of public attention…people are more mindful of themselves than of any philanthropic scheme that looks to making Sambo a voter, juror and office holder.”
            As the country’s attention turned to westward expansion, scandals in the Grant administration, and the economic crisis of 1873, its already limited appetite for reform waned. As part of the compromise to settle the contested election of 1876, Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction. Rutherford B. Hayes removed the last troops from the South in 1877.
After Reconstruction ended, the South implemented Jim Crow laws, suppressed voting rights, and many former slaves became sharecroppers, which gave the former slaves all the disadvantages of slavery without the upside of being fed and clothed by their former masters. Further, many still had no education and were at a disadvantage when it came time to calculate their share of earnings and powerless to do anything about it when they were cheated.
After Reconstruction, Northerners generally forgot about the former slaves and hoped the problem would go away. It was easy in the public mind to look back on the antebellum world as a time when things were simpler, chivalry ruled in the South, and so on. The country was ready for what became known as the myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.
The myth began very shortly after the war ended. Caroline E. Janney, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, writing in the Virginia Encyclopedia, traces the term to Edward A. Pollard, an editor of the Richmond Examiner, who published The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates in 1866. Other southern writers followed. The myth included six tenets, according to Ms. Janney. These are:
1.      Secession, not slavery, caused the war.
2.      African Americans were “faithful slaves,” loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause and unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom.
3.      The Confederacy was defeated militarily only because of the Union’s overwhelming advantages in men and resources.
4.      Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly.
5.      The most heroic and saintly of all Confederates was Robert E. Lee.
6.      Southern women were loyal to the Confederate cause and sanctified by the sacrifice of their loved ones.
            To those tenets should be added that the martyred Abraham Lincoln was a saintly man of the people, and, had he lived, he would never have imposed a harsh Reconstruction on the defeated South.
            In 1907, Columbia University Professor William A. Dunning published Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865-1877. This book portrayed Reconstruction as an unmitigated evil. That view would prevail for much of the Twentieth Century. (My copy of the book, a 1962 Harper Torchbook edition found at an estate sale, contains a blurb by Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Donald saying, “[E]ven though many of its viewpoints are now controverted by modern historians, it remains the point of departure for all recent scholarship in the field.” A blurb by another Pulitzer Prize winner, Allan Nevins, concludes, “[The book] should be read at the beginning of all study of the period, and reread at the end.”) Academia was sold. Now to get the message to the masses.
            The four films addressed in this paper, Birth of a Nation (1915), Abraham Lincoln (1930), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and Gone with the Wind (also 1939) were made to appeal to their audiences and make money (tickets to see Birth of a Nation cost as much as $2—about $49 in today’s money—when most movies cost a dime), but they were also instrumental in imprinting the Lost Cause myth on a public that was more than willing to let the past be rewritten. Some, especially Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind (and especially Margaret Mitchell’s book, from which the movie was adapted), are more blatant in their proselytizing, but the two biographies of Lincoln, especially Abraham Lincoln, contribute to the mission as well.
Birth of a Nation is D. W. Griffith’s 1915 technical masterpiece describing the events leading to the Civil War, the war itself, Reconstruction, and how Southerners reacted to Reconstruction.
The story, based on The Clansman, a 1905 book by Thomas Dixon Jr., is told from the perspectives of two families who are friends—the Camerons, a Southern plantation family consisting of three sons and two daughters living in South Carolina, and the other a Northern abolitionist politician, Austin Stoneman, living in Pennsylvania with two sons and one daughter and spending time in Washington. The Southern family loses two sons in the war—the Northern family loses one—literally in the arms of one of the Southern family’s dying sons.
At War’s end, the Camerons are living in poverty, and Austin Stoneman is sponsoring Silas Lynch, a mulatto, for political office in South Carolina.  
The film is almost as much an anti-war film as it is historical (or ahistorical, depending on one’s viewpoint). It was released in February 1915, almost seven months after what would become World War I began in Europe, and perhaps D. W. Griffith foresaw that the U. S. would have to decide whether to enter the war and was registering his opposition to our doing so.
By a scene at an abolitionist meeting in which one woman reacts to the smell of a black child, the film also briefly shows hypocrisy among abolitionists who, in Griffith’s world, wanted to free slaves but didn’t want to be near them.
            The film came out fifty years after the Civil War ended, which was well within living memory at the time. For reference, 1968 is the same distance from 2018 as 1865 was to 1915, and the events of 1968—the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy as well as the Chicago Democratic National Convention to name a few—are still fresh and hotly debated today. So it was in 1915 with the Civil War and Reconstruction.
            The film depicts some of the fears of the time—that blacks’ becoming too powerful would lead to political chaos, that blacks would disenfranchise whites, and that white women would not be safe.
            A scene in the South Carolina statehouse portraying black lawmakers as not quite human drives the first point home; the second point is demonstrated by a scene in which blacks were allowed to vote while whites were not. Some former Confederate officials and military officers did lose the right to vote, but nearly all regained that right after a few years. 
            To emphasize the last point, that white women would not be safe—probably the worst and most politically effective fear and one that would be used to justify thousands of lynchings for decades to come, a placard held up at the Southern Union League reads, “Equal Rights, Equal Politics, Equal Marriage.” Silas Lynch frequently casts lascivious looks at Elsie, Austin Stoneman’s daughter, and eventually tells her he wants to marry her. The same happens to Flora Cameron, who jumps to her death when trapped by Gus, a freed slave who tells her he wants to marry her. Gus is soon lynched. Austin Stoneman supports Silas Lynch when Silas tells Stoneman he wants to marry a white woman, but he’s not so supportive when Silas tells him which white woman he has in mind. Given that the issue of consent on the part of the women doesn’t seem to be an issue, it’s tempting to conclude that “marriage” in this film is a euphemism for “rape.”
            In response to the indignities heaped upon the South, Phil Stoneman comes up with the idea that becomes the Ku Klux Klan and brings back the good old days including disenfranchising blacks at gunpoint.
            Most if not all of the black characters in this film appear to have been played by white actors in blackface.
            The film emphasizes the saintly Lincoln version of history (in one scene Lincoln reprieves the remaining Cameron son from a death sentence) and shows just how well things were going after the Civil War until Lincoln was assassinated. D. W. Griffith evidently was relying on amnesia when driving this point home, since there were only six days between the end of the war and Lincoln’s death.
            D. W. Griffith was born ten years after the end of the Civil War to a father who had been a Confederate colonel in that war. According to Dick Lehr in his 2014 The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War, Griffith idolized his father, who died when Griffith was ten as a result, according to Griffith, of a Civil War wound. Lehr posits the death was actually the result of too much food and bourbon. Griffith’s family was plunged into reduced circumstances when it was learned his father had three mortgages on his property to cover gambling and other debts. The land was lost, and Griffith’s mother moved to Louisville and attempted to earn a living running a boarding house. Griffith blamed his family’s poverty on the loss of his father, and his father’s death on the war. This was not going to be an objective film.
Griffith makes use of slides quoting Woodrow Wilson, who was president at the time and who had thus far “kept us out of war.”
            The quotes from Wilson’s 1902 History of the American People demonstrate Wilson also suffered from the national amnesia:
            “Adventurers swarmed out of the North as much the enemies of the one race as of the other, to cozen, beguile, and use the negroes (sic)… . In the villages the negroes were the office holders, men who knew none of the uses of authority except as insolences
            “…The policy of the Congressional leaders … wrought a veritable overthrow of Civilization in the South… in their determination to put the White South under the heel of the Black South.
            “They were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South to protect the Southern Country.”
            Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, died in August 1914, and the White House was in mourning when the film came out. Wilson, who felt he could not be seen watching a movie in public, allowed a special screening of the film at the White House and is reported to have pronounced it “…like writing history with lightening. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Some sources claim this quote is fake news, but it is consistent with Wilson’s actions as president.
            Wilson was born in Virginia in 1856 and grew up in Georgia. In his 2013 biography, Wilson, A. Scott Berg says Wilson’s formative years during and after the Civil War shaped his views on race and his presidency.
            Wilson’s views and his actions on race sparked protests at Princeton in 2016, where he was once president, seeking to remove his name from a building named after him. Whether it is reasonable or productive to impose Twenty-First Century views on a president who was a product of the Nineteenth Century is a topic for another paper.
Birth of a Nation also inspired William Joseph Simmons, an Atlanta physician, to form a fraternal group that would, with the help of some experienced public relations people, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke, become the resurgent Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. This KKK was so influential that, according to Linda Gordon’s 2017 The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, it became a national political force. It had the most members north of the Mason-Dixon line, especially in Ohio and Indiana, where most of the state government was under its thumb. Had the Klan not succumbed to sexual and financial irregularities, it’s difficult to know how far off the tracks the movement would have taken the country. Ms. Gordon ends the book in our current time, which is beyond the scope of this paper, but it appears once again sexual and financial irregularities may serve a purpose.
Abraham Lincoln, also a D. W. Griffith film, is a hagiographic look at the life of our sixteenth president. It begins on a slave ship in 1809, a year after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished. Many slaves have died on the ship, but the captain believes he has enough slaves left in the hold to make a good profit. A dead slave is unceremoniously dumped overboard. Next we see people in Virginia and Massachusetts who are willing to fight for their regions and believe only George Washington could have kept the Union together. We see Lincoln born, and we next see him in Illinois, where he fights the town toughs, drinks from a keg, and is accepted by the town. We see the rail splitter, an early adopter of multi-tasking, studying law while romancing Ann Rutledge, who dies, leaving Lincoln bereft. We see him again in 1840 meeting Mary Todd, who is portrayed as a scheming shrew. He misses his first wedding date after looking at a photo of Ann Rutledge, who had died in 1835, four years before photography was invented. Mary Todd and Lincoln are married in 1842.
Based on his performance in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, the Republican Party solicits Lincoln to run for president. Lincoln’s views on the Union are well-known. South Carolina secedes, and against the advice of his cabinet, Lincoln decides to defend Fort Sumter. The Civil War begins, Lincoln suffers through some battle losses and tells his wife he’s going to run the war. He chooses Grant as his general. Grant upsets Mary by smoking cigars in the White House. Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation (the film skips over the fact it was only a partial emancipation) and tells Grant the North “must win the war as a duty to the South as well as the North.” Grant is portrayed as a drunkard, which is a commonly held view of Grant that Rod Chernow disputes in his 2017 book, Grant.
Robert E. Lee and his army are portrayed sympathetically. The soldiers are ragged and many are shoeless. Lee is exhausted, but not too exhausted to overrule an order of execution for a spy. With Lee’s surrender in sight, Grant and Lincoln discuss what’s to happen after the war. Lincoln makes it clear he wants no executions and no property confiscated and that “We’re going to take them back as if they’d never been away,” which was also shown in Birth of a Nation to emphasize that Lincoln never intended to implement Reconstruction. We see John Wilkes Booth listing his grievances against Lincoln and plotting the assassination. The film ends with Lincoln’s death and a long take on the Lincoln Memorial, thus avoiding any discussion of Reconstruction.
The film was released in August 1930, ten months after the 1929 stock market crash. In those ten months the shock effects of the crash were rippling through the economy. Banks had used depositors’ money to make bad loans and speculate in the stock market and had no way to pay their depositors back. Banks failed, jobs vanished, and consumers not only had no money to buy new items, they could not make the payments on things they had already bought on the installment plan. Farms became more productive, but crop prices fell, so increased productivity actually worked against farmers, who were not breaking even. The worst was yet to come, but in 1930 things were bad enough. Perhaps D. W. Griffith was sending a message that people had survived bad times in the past and would do so again, and perhaps Griffiths’ portrayal of Lincoln taking charge of the war was a suggestion to Herbert Hoover that he should take action on the economic crisis.
The film was the first of Griffith’s two talkies and, in spite of a script by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Vincent Benet, it has not aged well.
Young Mr. Lincoln is John Ford’s Oscar-winning 1939 film about Abraham Lincoln’s early years, roughly from 1832 until 1842 (the latter year is determined from the fact the film ends before Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd, who makes an appearance in the movie).
The film begins with Lincoln running for office. He supports a national bank, internal improvements, and high protective tariffs. He buys a barrel of used books, some of which are law books. He courts Ann Rutledge, who dies, and Lincoln allows his fate to be determined by which way a stick falls at Ann Rutledge’s grave. He moves from New Salem, Illinois to Springfield, where he sets up a law practice. He presciently plays Dixie, which was written in 1859, on a mouth harp and meets Mary Todd at an Independence Day parade where a murder takes place. Lincoln singlehandedly faces down a lynch mob, successfully defends the accused murderers, solves the case, and rides off into a thunderstorm to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Lincoln is portrayed by Henry Fonda as an overly folksy and under pretentious everyman. The film, released in June 1939, came at a time when the country had suffered through nearly a decade of economic uncertainty and the Dust Bowl. Many farmers had lost or abandoned their land and moved to places where their prospects may or may not have improved. The film’s audience may have been able to relate to Lincoln’s telling the poor farm family of the accused murderers about how his family left its Kentucky home because they couldn’t compete with slave labor. Many people in the 1930s had also had left unprofitable land and had moved to what they hoped would be greener pastures (this writer’s father’s family among them).
A year after this film came out Henry Fonda played Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name about a family that left Oklahoma for California. That film was released in June 1940. On a somewhat humorous note, Joseph Stalin showed The Grapes of Wrath in the USSR to demonstrate how America was failing. The message Soviet viewers took away from the film was that in America even poor people had cars.  
With the passing of time, Lincoln is being reassessed, and if anything, his reputation is enhanced by this reassessment. Instead of being perceived as a saint awaiting beatification, Lincoln’s intelligence, cunning, and pragmatism are being recognized. An excellent example of the modern take on our sixteenth president is Gore Vidal’s 2000 Lincoln: A Novel, which is technically fiction (as is the murder case in Young Mr. Lincoln), but it’s fact-filled and readable.
Gone with the Wind is David O. Selznick’s 1939 masterpiece based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name. The film won ten Academy Awards, including one for Hattie McDaniel, making her the first African-American to win an Oscar. The film remains the highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation.
The main focus of the film is Scarlett O’Hara, who pursues a miserable Ashley Wilkes for twelve years. (Scarlett is sixteen when the film opens and admits to being twenty-eight at the end of the book.) Scarlett is pursued and, after Scarlett marries and buries two husbands, is married by Rhett Butler, who overheard Scarlett profess her love for Ashley at Twelve Oaks, the Wilkes’ plantation. After Scarlett’s first husband died, Rhett Butler told her at a fundraising ball early in the war he wants to hear Scarlett say the words she said to Ashley Wilkes in the overheard conversation. At the end of the film, Ashley is a widower, and Scarlett realizes she really wants Rhett who has decided, after Scarlett professes her love for him, that he is leaving her, after which she asks Rhett, “Where shall I go? What shall I do?” To which Rhett responds with the famous line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” So, for a short period of time each has what they’d pursued and decided, in the words of an Irving Berlin song, “after you get what you want, you don’t want it.”
The film is four hours long and is choked with subplots. Scarlett promises Ashley she’ll look after Ashley’s wife, Melanie, who is pregnant. As luck would have it, this leaves Scarlett and Prissy, Scarlett’s slave, alone with Melanie when Melanie goes into labor just as Atlanta is about to fall. Prissy has stated she is an expert on childbirth but has overstated her qualifications, for which Scarlett gives her a violent slap. As Scarlett seeks Dr. Meade, overhead shots of the massive number of dead and wounded in Atlanta drive home the toll the war has taken. The doctor, of course, cannot leave these thousands of soldiers to tend to a childbirth, so it’s up to Scarlett. Prissy finds Rhett, who rustles up a horse and buggy and takes Scarlett, Melanie, Prissy, and the baby part of the way to Tara. He leaves an annoyed Scarlett to join the war. Scarlett makes it past a ruined Twelve Oaks to Tara, which is standing but only because northern troops had used it as a headquarters. Scarlett finds her mother has died and her father is mentally unstable. As with the birth, the responsibility for her family and plantation falls on Scarlett. At this point Scarlett unearths a radish in the garden and swears that if she has to lie, cheat, or even kill, neither she nor her family will ever be hungry again. Shortly thereafter a lone Union soldier enters the house, and Scarlett shoots and buries him. The soldier has some money on him as well as some jewelry and (in the book) some coffee.
Carpetbaggers invade and raise the taxes on Tara. Scarlett is determined to keep Tara and to get the money for the taxes, she has a dress made out of her mother’s drapes (sans rod) and goes to Atlanta, where, after an unsuccessful encounter with Rhett, she settles for husband number two, Frank Kennedy, her sister Suellen’s intended, convincing him that Suellen has a new beau. Frank owns a general store and sells lumber on the side. Scarlett, observing the construction going on rebuilding Atlanta, realizes lumber is where the money is and takes over that business, which is a highly unusual action for a woman, and especially a married woman, to have taken not only in the Reconstruction era, but also at the time the book was written and the film was made.
Far be it for me to question the plot of a Pulitzer Prize winning best-selling book and one of the most successful movies of all time, but wouldn’t one expect Frank at least to verify whether Suellen actually had a new beau before marrying Scarlett?
While conducting business, Scarlett is attacked and nearly raped by inhabitants of a shantytown. Frank and some other men attend a “political meeting” that is in reality a Klan meeting set on cleaning out the shantytown. Rhett saves the day for everyone except Frank, who is killed. Rhett seizes the opportunity, proposes to Scarlett, and becomes husband number three.
A daughter is born and Rhett mounts a successful charm offensive so their daughter will be accepted in society. Scarlett is caught in a rather innocent scene with Ashley just before his surprise birthday party, word of the scene goes around town, and Rhett forces Scarlett to attend the party. Scarlett comes home, wants a drink, and comes downstairs to a waiting and drinking Rhett who winds up carrying Scarlett up the stairs and raping her.
In a scene that would cause apoplexy among the #MeToo movement were it in a film today, Scarlett is in an unusually good mood the next morning. Alas, Rhett is taking their daughter to London. When he comes back, Scarlett tells him she is pregnant. Things get nasty, and Scarlett falls down the stairs. She survives but miscarries. While she is recuperating, their daughter falls to her death from her pony. Melanie Wilkes is called to talk to Rhett, who will not allow the funeral to be held. After convincing Rhett to allow the funeral, Melanie, who is pregnant against her doctor’s advice, collapses.
The rest of the movie all happens so fast it’s difficult to reconcile all that’s going on in such a short period of time. Melanie, who has just collapsed, is dying. Rhett and Scarlett are in her parlor. What’s happened with their daughter’s funeral? Scarlett, who was just recuperating from her fall and miscarriage, is now in perfect health. At any rate, Melanie asks Scarlett to look after Ashley, Rhett leaves the Wilkes’ house, Scarlett decides she isn’t in love with Ashley, Rhett goes home and packs, Scarlett comes home and declares her love for Rhett, he leaves, and she decides to go to Tara for one last rendition of “Tara’s Theme.”
By the time the book came out in 1936, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy myth was received wisdom. The North had witnessed more than twenty years of the Great Migration, and racism was pervasive throughout the country.
When the film premiered in December 1939, the country had been in the Great Depression for nearly ten years. The dry west had been through the Dust Bowl. War had just broken out in Europe. People longed for a simpler time. The introduction to the film addresses both the Lost Cause myth and the longing for a simpler time:
“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South..
“Here in this pretty World Gallantry took its last bow.
“Here was the last to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave..
“Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.
“A Civilization gone with the wind.”
The film, like Abraham Lincoln, dwells on the hardships suffered by the South, including the shoeless soldiers.
None of the three movies that deal with the Civil War address the fact that the war was no picnic for Northern troops, either, especially for those in prisoner of war camps such as Andersonville.
Like Birth of a Nation, Margaret Mitchell’s book is skeptical of war. At the barbecue at Twelve Oaks, early in the book, Grandpa McRae, upon hearing of the pro-war talk, enters the discussion:
“You fire-eating young bucks, listen to me. You don’t want to fight. I fought and I know. Went out in the Seminole War and was a big enough fool to go to the Mexican War, too. You all don’t know what war is. You think it’s riding a pretty horse and having the girls throw flowers at you and coming home a hero. Well, it ain’t. No, sir. It’s going hungry, and getting the measles and pneumonia from sleeping in the wet. And if it ain’t measles and pneumonia, it’s your bowels. Yes sir, what war does to a man’s bowels—dysentery and things like that—" But who wants to hear what old people have to say?
At a fundraiser for the convalescing soldiers, Rhett’s support of the Cause is questioned.
“Do I understand, sir, that you mean the Cause for which our heroes have died is not sacred?”
Rhett responds, “All wars are sacred to those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight? But, no matter what rallying cries the orators give to the idiots who fight, no matter what noble purposes they assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war. And that is money. All wars are in reality money squabbles. But so few people ever realize it. Their ears are too full of bugles and drums and fine words from stay-at-home orators. Sometimes the rallying cry is ‘Save the Tomb of Christ from the Heathen!’ Sometimes it’s ‘Down with Popery!” and sometimes ‘Liberty!’ and sometimes ‘Cotton, Slavery and States Rights!’”
Of course it would be impossible to put the entire thousand-plus page book in a movie that audiences would sit through (four hours is probably pushing the limit), but it’s interesting that, unlike the unabashedly anti-war Birth of a Nation, the only anti-war sentiments that filtered from the book to the movie are Rhett’s and Ashley’s cautions at the beginning of the film.
Perhaps Margaret Mitchell’s anti-war sentiments were lost on the cutting room floor. Perhaps David Selznick was concerned that if, as happened in World War I, America joined in the war, the film would be perceived as anti-American and would be censored or banned. Perhaps Selznick, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, did not want to prevent Americans from being prepared for an increasingly likely war with a violently antisemitic Germany, which had invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Poland in 1939. 
In the book Scarlett is a much more complicated character than she is on film. Each of her first two marriages produced a child, and Scarlett considers aborting her third pregnancy. While married to Frank Kennedy, Scarlett does business with the hated Yankees, who are building homes, have money, and need lumber, which Scarlett sells.
Mitchell calls out Northern hypocrisy when one of Scarlett’s customers, a woman from Maine, asks Scarlett where she could find a replacement for an Irish nurse for her children. Scarlett suggests she hire one of the many black women who are looking for work as a result of being freed. The woman rejects that suggestion using vile, racist language that offends Scarlett’s black driver.
Scarlett replies, “It’s strange you should feel that way when it was you all who freed them.”
The woman responds, “Lor’! Not I, dearie,” and continues with more vile, racist remarks.
The campaign for the Lost Cause myth was a successful one. For decades students were taught slaves had been better off before emancipation and that the end of Reconstruction allowed the South to put things in their natural order.
In 1930, the same year Abraham Lincoln was released, Eliot Morrison and Henry Steele Commager wrote in their widely-used textbook, Growth of the American Republic, “As for Sambo, whose wrongs moved abolitionists to tears, there is some reason to believe that he suffered less than any other class in the South from its peculiar institution.”
The Literature of the South, by Richard Croom Beatty, et. al., published in 1952 by the textbook publisher, Scott Foresman Company, describes the post-war years as follows:
“With national politics in the hands of vindictive and often unscrupulous men, Reconstruction measures were such as to rub salt into the still sensitive wounds made by the Civil War…
“Corruption in the South was so bad that the Ku Klux Klan was organized, under such leaders as Nathan Bedford Forrest, to fight radical Reconstruction policies and to reestablish white supremacy.
“Beginning in 1874, however, a number of occurrences brought about a healthier national attitude toward the South. [Radicals] were defeated at the polls; the Supreme Court, following the election returns, reversed opinions issued a few years earlier and abolished the legal basis for Reconstruction policies. One of the first acts of the newly elected Congress was to relinquish control of the Southern racial problems.”
John D. Hicks, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, writes in his The American Nation: A History of the United States from 1865 to the Present, Third Edition, a college textbook published by Houghton Mifflin in 1955, “The reconstruction of the South was badly done. After the death of Lincoln, the government of the United States fell into the hands of crass and cruel men who scrupled at nothing in the achievement of their ends. Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who comprehended the problems of the South, was first swept out of power, then out of office, and with General Grant as an ineffective front the Radicals in Congress had their way.”
Such was the version of Reconstruction taught in public schools and universities for much of the Twentieth Century, including the years I attended. It was the only version I was exposed to until I took some graduate courses at Ohio State in the 1970s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is still a mark in the floor of the classroom where my jaw dropped when I first learned another viewpoint existed.
To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, the North may have won the war, but for a good part of the last century the South won the narrative.

And even now the myth lives on. Just this month Cindy Hyde-Smith won election to the U. S. Senate after her embrace of the myth and her 2007 sponsorship of a resolution in the Mississippi state senate to honor a 92-year-old daughter of a Confederate soldier who “fought to defend his homeland.”

Monday, October 21, 2019

Modernity and Its Discontents: A History Paper


Several of you have remarked that I've not posted anything to my blog since April, and I'll admit I've been a bit of a slacker lately. I've been taking advantage of the senior program at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, which is available to those over the age of 65 and who are Missouri residents. I don't get credit for the courses, but I get to learn. I want the full college experience, so I have been doing the work, which requires a lot of research (which is so much easier now than it was when I was in college more than fifty years ago thanks to the internet) and writing. Someone suggested I post my papers on my blog, so I decided why not? They're already written, so why not share them? Here's one I wrote for my midterm in American History 1914-1945.

After World War I the world changed. As Willa Cather put it in 1936, “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.” Whether is was 1922 or “thereabouts” is open to discussion, but it’s safe to say prewar America was a different country than America was in the postwar years.
The United States under Woodrow Wilson had undertaken a foreign adventure that cost the lives of more than 116,000 American (mostly) men and resulted in some 320,000 being wounded or made sick by mustard gas. Millions had to be drafted, equipped, trained, and shipped an ocean away. The war also resulted in the government’s reigning in civil liberties. In 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to speak against America’s war effort at a time when many Americans opposed the war, including, according to William M. Tuttle, Jr. in Race Riot, Chicago mayor Bill Thompson. In 1918 Congress passed the Sedition Act, under which people who continued to speak against the war could wind up with heavy fines and a twenty-year jail sentence. (Eugene V. Debs, the perennial Socialist Party candidate for president, was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison under the Sedition Act.) In addition to stifling dissent, the Wilson administration created the Committee on Public Information to generate public support for the war in part by demonizing the enemy. The war to make the world safe for democracy abroad cost Americans a lot of civil liberties at home.
After the Armistice was signed, Wilson traveled to Paris to sell the world on his Fourteen Points. Unfortunately, he had not sold Congress before setting sail. After partial success in Europe, Wilson returned home to mixed public support and Republican (as well as some Democratic) opposition in the Senate, especially to the League of Nations. Wilson refused any compromise and set off on a nationwide tour that resulted in his having an incapacitating stroke on October 2, 1919. Some historians speculate Wilson was a victim of the Spanish flu in April 1919 while he was in Paris and that he may have suffered brain damage that made him more inflexible and unwilling to negotiate. Others speculate he had a series of small strokes (TIAs) that led to the October event. At any rate, the president served out his term with the help of his wife until Warren Harding took office in 1921.
Wilson refused to sign a peace treaty or release Eugene V. Debs (who received more than 900,000 votes for president in 1920 while in prison). Harding did both in 1921.
After the war and the peace negotiations, which were followed by the Red Scare of 1919-1920, people were ready for something less stressful. Warren Harding promised a “return to normalcy,” and that’s what people, including women, who for the first time since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment could vote nationwide, voted for. But it would be a different “normalcy.”
Because of a need to mobilize and gear up for war production, jobs that were previously held by white males opened up to women and blacks. During World War I, between 300,000 and 500,000 blacks left the south for northern urban jobs. Between 750,000 and one million blacks followed in the 1920s. While these black migrants encountered hardship and discrimination in the north, their lives were greatly improved over those they had lived in the Jim Crow south.
Blacks were effectively contained in small overcrowded and poorly maintained areas of the cities they migrated to. Chicago’s South Side, where the 1919 riot took place, is one example. New York’s Harlem is another. Black neighborhoods developed their own modernism. Harlem became a famous destination for blacks and whites in the 1920s and had its white promoters including photographer Carl Van Vechten and British socialite Nancy Cunard. Chicago had its “black and tan” cabarets. Kansas City even had its Twelfth to Eighteenth and Vine area. The nightclubs in these areas opened up opportunities for jazz artists, jazz bands, and vocalists. Examples include Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Cab Callaway, and Kansas City’s own Count Basie and Charlie Parker and a host of others.
Because of housing discrimination black areas became self-contained and to a degree self-sustaining. Ministers, undertakers, bankers, barbers and in time lawyers and doctors had a ready-made client base. Some of these areas became quite successful and attracted the envy of less successful white neighbors. One example of this was the Tulsa, Oklahoma district of Greenwood, which in 1921 was destroyed by a white mob on the pretext that a white woman had been molested by a black man. (According to an article about the riot in the October 5, 2018 New York Times, the man most likely tripped and accidentally stepped on the woman’s foot; charges against him were later dropped.)
Women who found jobs in the war and war-related industries were young and single and often left rural and suburban homes for urban areas, where they found an anonymity that eliminated the social control found in towns filled with family and family acquaintances. The women who took these jobs often worked for low pay, so, while their jobs gave them a degree of independence, as Joshua Zeitz writes, that degree of independence was often accompanied by the need to date in order to live well, and each date “was a complex interplay among commerce, sexuality, and love.” As a young waitress he quotes said, “If I did not have a man, I could not get by on my wages.”
During the war clothing styles had become simplified thanks in large part to Coco Chanel. Paul Poiret had freed women from the corset. Chanel went several steps further and used inexpensive jersey for some designs and blurred the lines between masculine and feminine designs, making clothing that was practical, maneuverable and suitable for war work. Chanel’s designs appealed to postwar women who, for the most part, purchased affordable knockoffs.
Technology contributed to culture change. On November 2, 1920 the first commercial radio broadcast occurred when KDKA in Pittsburg reported election returns. Suddenly instant news was available nationwide. Soon radio programs and music would become part of a mass culture familiar to audiences across the country. Eventually regional accents would flatten and some accents would become more acceptable than others.
At the beginning of the 1920s movies were silent. As long as actors and actresses could convey emotions by facial expressions, how they sounded did not matter. Clara Bow, with her ability to convey sympathy, passion, and chastity all within a matter of seconds, became the nation’s “It Girl” who helped popularize the flapper movement by portraying flappers in films that were not only entertaining but instructional. Young people especially were exposed to Hollywood’s version of modern (1920s-style) dating behavior, and many adopted the techniques they saw on film, which shocked their (possibly envious) elders and led to the Hayes Code being adopted in 1930, although it was not meaningfully enforced until 1934, and some of the best pre-code movies were made in that brief interlude, including one of my favorites, International House.
The flapper lifestyle took on a life of its own, helped in part by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, beginning with This Side of Paradise in 1920 and his many short stories for magazines. Labeled and self-promoted “the flapper king,” Scott became the expert on the subject. And he had his wife, Zelda, as a resource. The lifestyle was glamorized by columnists like Lois Long, who, with her New Yorker expense account and comfortable salary, wrote as “Lipstick” about experiences most young working women could only dream about, but dream they did. The wartime propaganda industry morphed into the advertising industry, generating demand for accessories necessary to become and remain a flapper in good standing. These included costume jewelry, cosmetics, cigarettes (to maintain a slim figure), etc.
Consumers increasingly turned to chain stores such as Woolworth for dry goods and the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (better known as A&P) for food to the detriment of local mom and pop stores. Chain stores could operate on a lower profit margin because they could buy and sell in mass quantities, and consumers appreciated lower prices and consistent quality. Often the arrival of a chain store to a community was greeted with the same ambivalence as the arrival of a Walmart is today. But lower prices and brand names won out then as now. Woolworth would not survive the Twentieth Century, closing in 1997, and A&P limped into this century finally ceasing to do business in 2015. Both were replaced by more efficient and stylish stores. Perhaps it is fitting that the Trader Joes in Kansas City sits on the former site of an A&P.  
The increasing availability of electricity made possible labor-saving devices such as refrigerators, vacuums, washing machines, etc., which freed up time for middle class housewives.
The automobile, and especially the fact that cars were becoming more affordable and governments were eager to accommodate this new form of transportation (Robert Moses in New York being a prime example), was arguably the most long-lasting effect of the 1920s. Not only could people use the car to find a secluded place for love-making, they could use it to travel long distances as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald did when they drove from New England to Alabama because Zelda wanted to rediscover the biscuits and peaches of her youth. People could even use the car to commute to work from homes that no longer needed to be near a bus or streetcar line. Cities annexed land. Attractive new neighborhoods were built complete with restrictive covenants, solving that pesky problem of having the “wrong” type of people moving in. Eventually suburbs independent of cities would be built.    
It would seem life was much better for those coming of age after the war than it had been before the war, but there were those who disagreed.
Not long after the Civil War ended the nation lapsed into a form of amnesia that came to be known as the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” Academic credence was granted to the “Lost Cause” by Columbia University professor William A. Dunning, who in his 1907 Reconstruction, Political and Economic 1865-1877, portrayed Reconstruction as an unmitigated evil. The “Lost Cause” made its way to the general public via D. W. Griffith’s 1915 technical masterpiece, Birth of a Nation. One person who viewed Birth of a Nation, William Joseph Simmons, an Atlanta physician and ne’er do well, formed a fraternal group that would, with the help of some experienced public relations people, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke, become the resurgent Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. This KKK was so influential that, according to Linda Gordon’s 2017 The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, it became a national political force. It had the most members north of the Mason-Dixon line, especially in Ohio and Indiana, where most of the state government was under its thumb. It was also extremely powerful in Oregon. In some locales, membership was necessary to do business as names of nonmembers were publicized. While the Klan had power, members saw fit to enforce old fashioned morality and one-hundred percent Americanism. Members were known to yank adulterers from their homes and beat them. Divorcees might be similarly punished as might those using automobiles for unsavory purposes.
For an organization so intent on maintaining old-fashioned morality, the Klan came to an ignominious end. D. C. Stephenson, the Indiana Grand Dragon and a political power broker, raped his aide, who committed suicide. Stephenson was not powerful enough to avoid publicity or being convicted of murder. Klan members deserted en masse—especially when it was learned Stephenson had been drunk, in violation of Prohibition, which the Klan supported, at the time of the attack. While some members remained loyal to the Klan, it was not powerful enough to recover its political clout.
Stephenson was sentenced to life and paroled in 1955. In 1961, at the age of seventy, he was arrested for assaulting another young girl and was fined $300.
The resurgent Klan, of course, was opposed to blacks (many Confederate memorials, including the controversial 1924 Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee, were erected during the brief reign of the new Klan), but it was equally opposed to Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.
It would be comforting to think the Klan was comprised of ignorant rural rednecks, but in fact it had a surprising number of urban members. Linda Gordon cites historian Kenneth Jackson’s findings that 50% of Klan members were urbanites and 32% lived in the country’s larger cities.
Several Klan members were elected to Congress. One of them was Washington Representative Albert Johnson, who, with Pennsylvania Senator David Reed, sponsored the Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigration by assigning quotas based on the ethnicity of those already in the US in 1890 and excluded all Asians including South Asians. Such restrictions were the result of prejudice against the more recent immigrants, many of whom were from southern and eastern Europe and many of whom were Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews. The restrictions were justified by the “scientific racism” espoused by Columbia- and Yale-educated attorney Madison Grant in his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race.
The National Origins Act, a part of the Johnson-Reed Act, did not address Mexicans, who were needed as fruit workers and in manufacturing jobs. According to Allyson Hobbes in her 2014 book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, Chinese immigrants used false paperwork to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act and enter the United States as Mexicans at the Mexican border at least as early as 1907. There’s no reason to believe it stopped in 1907.   
In addition to the Klan, modernism’s discontents included Christian fundamentalists, among them baseball star turned evangelist Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson (who would be caught up in her own sex scandal in 1926).
Among the traits associated with modernism are aspiring to rationality, secular thinking and embracing human mastery over nature. Modernism in the 1920s also tended to be more of an urban phenomenon. Fundamentalism as a movement started among conservative Presbyterian theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary in the last part of the Nineteenth Century. It soon spread to conservatives among Baptists and other denominations around 1910 to 1920 partly as a reaction to mainstream Protestantism. One of the tenets of fundamentalism is the belief in the inerrancy of scripture.
In 1859 Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. As Darwinism became more accepted, it became obvious that a literal interpretation of scripture was not consistent with the modern theory of evolution. Fundamentalists in many states decided that youth should be protected from Darwinism and passed laws to that effect.
In 1925 a group of local boosters in Dayton, Tennessee persuaded John Scopes, a young high school science teacher, to violate that state’s antievolution law. Their objective was to draw attention to their town, which was economically depressed. They got more than they bargained for when Clarence Darrow, a nationally famous civil libertarian and committed atheist, agreed to defend Scopes and William Jennings Bryan agreed to defend the law. In the end Scopes was convicted and fined $100, which was paid for by the Baltimore Sun, whose acerbic reporter, H. L. Mencken, covered the trial. The case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which upheld the law but overturned the fine on a technicality. Bryan died five days after the end of the trial. Debates over whether Darwinism should be taught in the public schools continue to this day.
In the 1920s there was a clash between cultures—one eager to embrace or at least willing to accept change and another trying to return to an idyllic and simpler past that may never have existed and bring the country along with it.
            And that continues to this day as well.

Sunday, March 31, 2019



April 1, 2019

I am hereby announcing I am running for mayor. I know I’m a little late in getting started, but what the heck? That’s why ballots have a place for write-ins, right? I’m going to share my platform as I and both of my supporters have developed it. Here’s what we have so far. Please feel free to make suggestions.

Most candidates will tell you they will represent you. And you seem to believe them. It’s the triumph of hope over experience that people keep voting for candidates that make such promises and deliver nothing to voters. It’s almost like owning GE stock. Or continually voting for sales and property tax increases hoping our city government will take care of basic services. C’mon. Remember what Ward Parkway was like until just last week? And if it takes an election to get the city to fix Ward Parkway, what makes you think we’re going to do anything in your neighborhood? This election and our incentive to perform will be over soon, and yet you keep electing the same kind of people no matter what we do. And you expect us to pretend we care? Here’s what I promise.

First. I will vote for any and all tax incentives. I don’t need to know the details or whether they make sense. All I know is throwing money at development is a way to make this city great again. Just ask most of our council members. $17 mil for a parking garage for a luxury apartment building? Piece of cake. We gotta keep that momentous momentum momenting.

Being your mayor pays about $130,000 a year. C’mon. Do you really expect anyone to represent you for that kind of money? Especially if they have a spouse and children that like to eat more than rice and beans and shop anywhere but garage sales? If that’s all you’re willing to pay, well, you get what you pay for. I plan to take any and all income enhancements that are offered by developers, lobbyists, and especially Burns and Mac, and I mention them only because I had the most obnoxious interview there I’ve ever experienced. I hope Burns and Mac got wise and fired that little prick. By the way, if you take me to lunch, I eat low carb, and I’ll want enough leftovers to take some home to my dog.

Second. The streetcar has contributed so much to this community since it first began running its two-mile route. Oh, it has its problems in ice, snow, heavy rains, and so on, but how often do we have these problems? Soon, global warming will eliminate snow and ice in our area anyway.

Since the streetcar has been such a success and is so reliable, I favor extending it not only to the Plaza but also to Wichita, Topeka, Oklahoma City, and New York. 24 million tourists can’t be wrong. I also plan to go on as many foreign and domestic junkets to discover the wonders of streetcars and other forms of, ummmm, entertainment in other cities and countries as possible. While I might be willing to fly coach to such reasonably close destinations as Tulsa or Oklahoma City, I’ll require first class seating for anything further away in this country and at least business class to foreign destinations. After all, you don’t want me—your mayor--exiting the plane looking rumpled—or even worse, sober—after an overseas trip, do you?

Third. I will require that Kansas City residents clear streets of snow and fill potholes on their own streets. People are always calling in and complaining about snow and potholes. Well, let them discover just what a hassle it is to plow those streets and fill those potholes. The city will provide them with sources for snow shovels and asphalt and assess penalties for noncompliance. This will stop people complaining about snow and potholes and free up funds for the things that really matter, like luxury apartment buildings, fixed rail fair weather only transit, and hotels—heaven knows you can never be too rich, too thin (no offense to any of my opponents) or have too many hotels--which is where our priorities should be focused. Snow, schmow. Potholes, schmotholes. We’re big picture people, people.

Fourth. Gentrification is a good thing. As property values increase on paper, the city can raise property taxes and generate more revenue for tax incentive programs. If we’re going to provide multi-decade tax abatements, we have to make up the lost revenue somehow, and that somehow is you. If you’re elderly and have problems paying these increased taxes, well, too bad. The young people moving in and gentrifying older neighborhoods don’t want to live around poor people, anyway. Here is an actual quote from one of the millennials we have coaxed downtown to live in taxpayer-subsidized luxury: Who gives a damn. I work hard for my money, and I can afford to live [downtown]. I am not going to apologize for yearsnofnhard (sic) work, smart life choices and good decisions. I choose to live downtown because I can. People who work hard and make good life divisions (sic) shouldn’t be forced to now live with those that can’t keep their shit together.” As you can see, people who move downtown may say they want to live in a diverse area, but by that they don’t mean they want to live around or come into contact with diverse people. If they wanted to be around diverse people, they’d use the bus instead of lobbying for the streetcar.

Fifth. I promise to set up several committees on crime. Perhaps at least one of the committees can come up with some reasonable sounding approach to the problem. Perhaps we could soften the effect of crime by using euphemisms. If bribes can be referred to as income enhancement, why shouldn’t we refer to murder as premature passing?

My very first order of business will be to erect a statue in honor of former mayor Kay Waldo Barnes, Kansas City’s Madonna of tax incentives. This statue will go up in the Power and Light District and have an eternal flame to commemorate Kansas City’s eternal $14 million per year commitment to the Cordish Company. Did that woman know tax incentives or what?

So it’s up to you. If you want a mayor who is going to promise you neighborhood representation only to desert you once the first tax incentive proposal (with incentives going to you know who) passes over his or her desk or under his or her table at the Capital Grille and leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth as you swear never to vote for that person again only to be faced with yet another such candidate in another four years, then do as you always do, sucker. If, on the other hand, you want a mayor who tells you in advance he’s a crook and doesn’t give a hoot about neighborhoods, I’m your man. You know what you’re getting, and I promise never to disappoint you.

Go to the polls tomorrow and write me in for mayor. You will never have to lower your expectations again.

© 2019 Larry Roth

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

A Review of Antonia Felix's "Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life."

                I happened on Antonia Felix’s Elizabeth Warren: Her Fight. Her Work. Her Life. at the library, and I couldn’t resist. I checked it out, and I suggest you do the same.

                Before I go further, I have to come clean. Because of an accident of geography, I went to Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City and was in the same graduating class as Ms. Warren. The answers to questions people ask when they learn that are (1) Yes, I knew her, but not well (there were about 800 people in our class and about 3,200 people in our school), (2) Yes, we were in some of the same classes, and (3) If I called her, she would not only not remember me, she’d ask how the hell I got her phone number and would I please lose it. With that out of the way, let’s go on to the book.

                Ms. Felix starts with Ms. Warren’s childhood and teen years, which were difficult. Her parents were living close to the edge when her father had a heart attack, which caused a sudden drop in family income that claimed one car and threatened to claim their home. Her mother, who had never worked outside the home, took a minimum wage job at Sears, and Ms. Warren babysat, took in ironing, and sewed to add to the family income. Together they saved the house. When it came time for Ms. Warren to graduate from high school, her mother opposed her going on to college.
                Ms. Warren went to school and then dropped out to marry a man who had been two years ahead of her at Northwest Classen. Eventually Ms. Warren completed her undergraduate degree and went on to law school. While in law school she began researching bankruptcy, believing only deadbeats took advantage of bankruptcy laws to wiggle out of their debts. Her research did not confirm her bias, so she started digging further and decided not only were bankruptcy laws not being abused, they were offering a tenuous safety net increasingly to the middle class, most of whom had encountered job losses, medical emergencies, and other hardships that swallowed their finances. Added to that were laws that protected predatory lending practices, from payday loans to confusing credit card contracts and mortgages. One finding was that people who took out mortgages were frequently offered worse terms than they were entitled to, for example, subprime loans when they qualified for prime loans.

                She began her campaign for a consumer protection bureau pointing out that people buying toasters were more protected than people taking out loans. Eventually the events of the last crash led to the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The powers that be in Congress made it clear they would not approve Ms. Warren to head that bureau, which is what she really wanted, and which she would probably have happily made her career. I remember thinking at the time those Congress people who blocked her appointment are going to regret that decision, and sure enough, the next thing you know, she’s in the Senate. Payback is a bitch.

                Ms. Felix addresses the “Pocahontas” issue, and I’m going to add my own two cents here. When we went to high school, Oklahoma had only been a state for 55 years. Before Oklahoma became a state it was Indian Territory. When we were in high school there were many people still alive who came to Oklahoma as children in the land runs that began in 1889. Oklahoma was then a young state with an Indian heritage. Many, if not most, or our classmates claimed to be “part Indian.” Evidently Ms. Warren’s mother believed she was “part Indian,” as did most of the people in the small town of Wetumka, Oklahoma, where she and her future husband grew up. This was such a common belief that Ms. Warren’s father’s family forbade the marriage and had little to do with either their son or their daughter-in-law for the rest of their lives. Is it any surprise that Ms. Warren believed she, too, was “part Indian?” She was, after all, cut off from her grandparents because they believed she was “part Indian.” According to Ms. Felix, Ms. Warren never received any preference or any jobs because of her supposed heritage. Her mistake was an honest one, unlike the president’s claim to have been of Swedish descent because his father didn’t want it known that the family was actually of German descent.
                I think Ms. Felix goes a little overboard on the “Pocahontas” issue, quoting Professor David Wilkins of the University of Minnesota as saying, “But Native academics and many others outside of politics, being focused on other dimensions, want to know where she’s been all these years and want to know how someone can claim to be ‘part’ Native. You’re either Native or you’re not, from our perspective.” I’d like to know who designated Professor Wilkins the arbiter of who is and is not Native, 100% or otherwise.

                Now that I’ve got that out of my system, the book details Ms. Warren’s accomplishments, moving from school to school and winding up a professor at Harvard. Not bad for a poor girl from Oklahoma. From Harvard, she went to form the CFPB, and then to the Senate. And she just announced she’s going to run for president in 2020. Given how far she’s gone, I wouldn’t be surprised if she makes it.
                Just consider the comparison between her and the president. Truly a self-made woman versus a celebrity claiming to be a self-made billionaire with the help of many millions from his father. A woman who has stood up for consumers and the middle class and studied bankruptcy law versus a man possibly most well known for not paying his vendors and declaring bankruptcy six times. A woman who is one of us versus a man who says he’s one of us while picking our pockets. The comparisons go on.

                Believe me, I can imagine the response this post will get. I was at the 50-year reunion of our class a couple of years ago, and the vitriol spewed at Ms. Warren, who did not attend—she was endorsing Hillary Clinton that night—was amazing. How dare someone who was—gasp!—poor and not one of the super in crowd dare to rise so far above her station? By the way, some of the things Ms. Felix says about Northwest Classen, circa 1960s, are true—we were called “Silkies” because supposedly we wore silk underwear, which, of course we didn’t, and a few of the people in our school came from families that were comfortable, but many more came from families who were putting on the dog; my own family didn’t see the point in putting on the dog. My mother once told me not to worry too much about the popular kids, since, once I graduated, I’d never hear anything about them again. And for the most part, that’s been the case.
                But old habits die hard. The super elites still have an event the day before our reunions. (And no, I’ve never been invited, which shows you where I stand!) I would imagine Ms. Warren’s declaring she’s going to run for president may have caused a few medical emergencies among our classmates; I would also imagine if she wins, the carnage will save the Social Security system a few bucks in Oklahoma.

                I am going to be taking a breather from my blog for a while. Classes at our local university have started up again, and the papers I do for my class take up a lot of time. Have a great spring!

©2019 Larry Roth

A Promise (Finally) Fulfilled: My 2000 Simplicity Speech

                In early 2000 I was invited to speak at a simplicity conference in Santa Clara, California. I felt honored, since the other speakers included Vicki Robin, Duane Elgin (author of Voluntary Simplicity), Cecile Andrews (author of The Circle of Simplicity), and a host of others in what was at the time termed the “New Frugality” and simplicity movements.
                At the end of my speech I promised to publish the speech “somewhere.” And when I got home I put the speech in my “sometime” file and forgot about it until I came across it while looking for something else. I am now fulfilling my promise.

                I’m Larry Roth, and I too once had a high-stress life right here in Silicon Valley. In February 1995, just a little more than five years ago, I left my job, I left Silicon Valley, and I left California. I was 46 years old. And I have not once in the past five years awakened in the morning and said, “Gee! I wish I were going to work at Company L today.”

                In 1916 Robert Frost wrote about the road less traveled by. These days frugality is definitely that road. What I’d like to throw out to you are first some money saving tips and then a few ideas that may make traveling this road easier.

1.       Never buy new if used will do. Quite often you can find a used item for ten percent of the cost of a new item. Buying recycled items is also kind to the environment.
2.       Know the true value of your hard-earned dollars. So you’re making $50,000 a year. Really? After taxes, your fifty grand is more likely to be around $30,000. Both Your Money or Your Life and my Beating the System, both of which you can get at the library, have formulas in them for calculating how much you have to earn to have a dollar to spend.
3.       Don’t suffer from taxophobia. Remember a tax deduction is not a rebate. If you are in the 28% bracket, you must spend $1.00 for every 28¢ you save in taxes. If you think this is a good deal, send me $100. I’ll send you $28. What the heck. I’ll send you $29.
4.       Remember little things add up. If you can use a postcard instead of a letter, you’ll save 13¢. Do that three times, and you’ve saved more than the price of mailing one first class letter.
5.       If you have time, shop garage sales and auctions. If you don’t have time, shop thrift, resale, and consignment stores. You’ll be amazed at how much you can save, and pretty soon you’ll consider paying retail prices for new goods a ridiculous waste of money. A few years ago I was asked to be part of a “cheap-off” for a major network. The contest winner would be the person who could buy the most back-to-school clothes. For the filming we needed a child, and since I don’t have any, we borrowed the producer’s niece. We filmed the segment is a consignment store in San Jose. The mother of the child, who lived in a decidedly upscale Peninsula suburb, was clearly miffed at having to be in such a place. We were able to find a lot of clothes at excellent prices, and for $88 the child was outfitted for school. After we were finished filming, the camera crew began looking around, and they found some things for their children. The mother, who had initially been so upset about having to be in a second-hand store, was so impressed with the prices and selection that she and the producer were still shopping when I left. I won the cheap-off, by the way.
6.       Our country is so rich that people often throw perfectly good items out. Take advantage of this bounty. If you see something you can use on the curb on garbage day, grab it. I have a 1928 American Standard pedestal sink in my bathroom that I rescued from the trash collectors. The downside of this is there is so much stuff to be had for free that you simply must limit what you take to what you actually need and hope the rest finds itself to someone else who can use it.
7.       If you work for a company that has a newsletter that lets employees advertise items for sale, use it to buy and sell.
8.       Make your newspaper pay for itself. Clip coupons. Look for items you need in the classified ads. And shop grocery stores and sale brochures (but only for items you need).
9.       Practice guerilla shopping. Combine coupons (or double coupons if possible) with store “loss leaders.” I have bought Hamburger Helper for as little as 19¢, though it usually costs me about 70¢. (I would never buy it at the regular price of $1.79.) I’ve actually got money back on some items.
10.   Stock up when things are on sale. I might spend $50 on groceries one week and nothing for a couple of weeks, depending on what’s on sale.
11.   Buy store brands and generic products. In 1988 there was an e-coli contamination at a Malt-O-Meal factory. As a result, the public learned that the same cereal sold as Malt-O-Meal was sold under more than fifty names in more than thirty stores. Juliet B. Schor in her book The Overspent American states that brand name drugs are often the same as generics, that many vitamins are made by one country and sold under different brands, and that a “worldwide manufacturer” sells essentially the same jeans to Walmart, Penney’s, and Calvin Klein. Learn to ignore the labels. Let choosy mothers overpay for Jif. Peanut butter is peanut butter.
12.   Following up on number 11, even if there is a slight difference in quality, so what? Will you be savoring the taste of your last peanut butter sandwich a week from now? An hour from now? Ten minutes from now? I admit to liking Reese’s peanut butter best. But will I pay $2.29 for it when I can buy a store brand for 99¢ to $1.19? No way.
13.   Beware of wholesale shopping clubs. We all normally assume that if we buy in massive quantities, our per unit price is less. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes it isn’t. Check the per unit prices at your neighborhood stores (where you can use coupons) as well as Sam’s and Costco (which don’t accept coupons).
14.   Thinking for yourself is the most profitable do-it-yourself project. Only you know what is best for you and how to make what you want happen.
15.   Live your life as you see fit. If you are over the age of consent, you do not have to listen to people, be they friends, relatives, or “talking heads” about what you “should” do. It has always amazed me that the most unhappy people seem to make it their business to live other people’s lives. And it amazes me even more that other people try to please these unhappy folks. Be yourself. Be happy.
16.   Take advantage of the internet. There are all sorts of opportunities to save money. Looking for a book? Well, and have good prices, but the book you’re looking for might be available cheaper at a used book store you can access through
17.   Buy permanent press clothing when possible. Why pay for dry cleaning when you don’t have to?
18.   Look to the internet for cheap phone rates. AOL offers long distance for 9¢ a minute (and a calling card that tacks on a mere 30¢ to the 9¢ rate). Other ISPs may follow AOL’s lead.

Now a few tips for making your life easier.

                First, whether it be religion, a new diet, or, yes, frugality, recent converts tend to become enthusiastic, convinced their way is the only way and that their job is now to get others to see the errors of their ways and accept the new religion, diet, or whatever. This is not a new phenomenon. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about it in his 1844 essay New England Reformers. As you might imagine, I have had many people, some of them perfect strangers, walk up to me and suggest a diet I might want to try. One recent suggestion came from a young man who recommended I buy a daily waffle breakfast at McDonald’s, forgo the butter and syrup, and wash it down with a diet soda so it would “expand” and fill me up. First, I don’t like either McDonald’s or waffles, and second I’m just not up to drinking soda in the morning. So even though this diet may have worked for this young man, and he swears it did, I’m afraid it’s just not for me. Similarly, we must accept that frugality will have the same appeal to many people that the diet of waffles and soda had to me. And we must get over our belief that frugality is something the world needs to embrace (though I think the world would be a better place if the government did embrace frugality). I believe we can lead simpler and happier lives by accepting that frugality is the path for us. And I believe we can be more effective by showing the world what frugality can do for us than trying to convince the world we are right. If you would like to understand why people don’t understand the world our way, I suggest that you study any of the books on the Enneagram by Helen Palmer or Don Riso.
                Once you are financially independent, you will find it takes a year or so to adapt to your new, slower lifestyle. During that time you will undoubtedly explore several options. I first worked with an animal rescue group, but I found the leader of that group devious and more than willing to take over my life (though I did wind up with a pretty good dog out of the deal). I then worked with AARP’s tax assistance program, and I really enjoyed that. I suggest you avoid fanatics and their causes whenever possible. Remember that you are simplifying your life. You are gaining control of your time. These people will be more than happy to their agenda for former bosses’ agenda. You’ll have your old schedule back, and the pay will be lousy!
                Don’t give in to the “shoulds.” Don’t do things or get involved with causes because you think you should. Remember the reason you became financially independent was so you could do what you want. When in doubt about getting involved (and if you’re in doubt, you may well at least subconsciously not want to get involved), ask yourself, “Is this something I really want to do?”
                Remember that your time and energy are resources, as is your money, and you will not want to waste any of your resources.
                Avoid negative people. Now, I’m not saying turn your back on your friends in times of need, but if you have someone in your life who insists on seeing the world through shit-colored glasses and who leaves you tired after every visit, get that person out of your life. You’ve got a tough enough row to hoe without having these energy sinks around you.
                These are the kinds of people who complain about the things many of us feel make life beautiful. These are the kinds of people who will, for example, complain about church bells, Christmas carols, and so on. These people can take something beautiful and not only make it ugly but try to make you feel guilty for having enjoyed the beauty. And speaking of beauty, I’m not particularly religious, but Christmas is just about my favorite time of the year.
                Did anyone here overdo it financially this past Christmas? Well, now is a good time for you to start working on a simpler and more enjoyable Christmas for yourselves. There’s plenty of time to alert your friends and family that you’re not going to engage in the gift wars again this year and ask them to honor your gift truce. If they don’t, well, a gift is a gift. It doesn’t have to be an obligation. Only you can be dragged into the fray.
                Don’t let any book become your bible or any writer become your prophet. Remember all we can tell you is what worked for us. I can truthfully say that two books changed my life. The first was Paul Terhorst’s Cashing in on the American Dream, which was published in 1988. I didn’t agree with Paul’s recommendations that you don’t own a home and that you buy short-term CDs, so I ignored that part of the book. Likewise, Joe Dominguez’s and Vicki Robin’s Your Money or Your Life gave me a concrete path to financial independence and, most important, the means to know when I was there. I didn’t agree with their recommendation that I invest solely in U. S. Treasuries of that I never work for money again once I was financially independent, so I rejected that advice. And lived. Read our advice, but think for yourself. We don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world.
                Next, get over past mistakes. Stop beating yourself up for having wasted money, time, or energy in the past. Remember that what seem like mistakes to us are sometimes happy accidents of the universe. If there’s something in your past you’re letting weigh you down, let go of it. To give your regrets some perspective, consider John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Maud Muller. In this poem a wealthy judge out riding one hot summer day is given a drink of cool water by a poor farm woman, Maud Muller. As a result of that one chance meeting, the judge spends the rest of his life fantasizing about being Maud’s husband and a poor farmer. Maud, meanwhile, spent the rest of her life fantasizing about being the wife of a rich judge. In other words, if the fantasy romance had come to fruition, neither party would have been happy. Whittier concluded:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been.”

                Know when to repair and when to replace. Alexander Pope said way back in the 18th Century, “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to cast the old aside.” In 1984 I bought a VCR that cost more than $400. I kept repairing it because the repair people said, “They don’t make them like that anymore.” The last repair cost $80 and lasted four months. I saw an ad for a new VCR for $69. The new VCR programmed itself, it’s smaller and lighter and fits on top of the TV. The repair people were right. They don’t make them like they did in 1984. They make them better and cheaper.
                Don’t do your living in the future. I don’t believe we were put here to live lives of drudgery, either by staying forever in oppressive jobs or engaging in extreme self-denial. There is a happy medium. Find yours.
                Beware of causes du jour. Many of these have backing from people and organizations that stand to make money from legislative action. Rodale Press’ Guide to Organic Foods Shopping and Organic Living quoted a study in 1970 that said, “In 10 to 15 years from now every man, woman, and child in the hemisphere will have to wear a breathing helmet to survive outdoors.” Thirty years later, that statement looks pretty silly as will most of the prophecies of doom being stated as fact today. (Take the Y2K hoopla, for example.)
                Along those same lines, don’t be so quick to condemn our era’s contributions to society. A few weeks ago I needed some underwear. I went to the Penney’s outlet store where I do a lot of my clothes shopping. (There are some things even I won’t buy used.) The place was disorganized, and, when I finally found the underwear, I thought it cost too much ($8 for three pair). There’s a Walmart a block away, so I decided to see what they had. Well, first, they had a person at the door who told me exactly where in the store to find underwear, and then they had a package of seven pair of Fruit of the Loom briefs for $5.96. As big and ruthless as these places are supposed to be, they certainly provide value, and they respect their customers’ time. No wonder they are doing well. That same day I visited the former site of a Venture store. Venture was a chain of stores I found particularly annoying. Not only did they not have any qualms about advertising things they didn’t have in stock, they’d actually blame you for not dropping what you were doing and running to their store when they had sale items. I can’t remember how many times their customer service people said, “We had plenty of those last Sunday.” Venture eventually made so many people mad they wouldn’t go there if they were giving stuff away, and Venture went broke. Home Depot bought the site of the Venture store I used to have so much fun at, and they just had their grand opening. I know a lot of people who are into simplicity have problems with stores like Home Depot and Walmart, and I say let that be their problem. To me, any time I can make one trip to one store instead of several trips to several stores, I’m saving time and fuel, and I’m a happy camper.
                The only argument I’ve heard against these monster stores is they’re bad for the indigenous businesses. First, let me point out that existing businesses did not come with Adam and Eve. They replaced something else. Nothing is permanent. And second, some of these indigenous businesses deserve to be replaced. My neighborhood recently lost a natural foods store and a book store. I did not do mush business with the book store because it always impressed me as a very unfriendly place, but I did have a friend who tried to do business with the natural foods store. She wanted a brand of soy milk the store already carried in a flavor they did not carry. The store told her she’d have to order 24 containers. She did and gave them her contact information. They said they’d call when her order came in. In 1945, when cars were in short supply, my father ordered a 1946 Buick. Both he and my friend are still waiting for their orders to be filled. My friend, by the way, found what she wanted at Wild Oats, and they even give a discount for buying a full case. Just because some business has been providing bad service forever does not mean it deserves eternal life.
                Learn to say no. Use this powerful two-letter word when you’re feeling overburdened. If you’re asked to do extra work, be on a committee, etc., and you can get away with it, say no if you feel like it. Limit your activities to those you enjoy or truly believe in. There are other people in the world, and only you can take care of you.
                Listen to your body. If your body says it’s tired, or hungry, take care of it. It’s the only one you get.
                Learn to slow down. While sloth is generally considered a vice, being constantly busy is not necessarily a virtue. Busy-ness is often used to avoid self-examination.
                Don’t save things you won’t use. Learn to use the garbage can or to recycle. I bought a rental house from a woman who had saved hundreds if not thousands of those Styrofoam trays you get when you buy meat at the supermarket. I would advise setting a reasonable limit on accumulating things such as margarine tubs, cottage cheese containers, etc. To me, if you have, say, ten of these things, it’s time to stop. You have nothing to gain by accumulating number 11.
                Decide what you want, what your objective is. In my case I wanted an income that would enable me to live without a job. Your objective could be to live on one income, to afford a larger home, etc. Very few people, I believe, have frugality in mind as an end. It is, rather, the means to an end. As an aside here, I find it empowering to know that I can live without something society as a whole believes is a necessity, such as cell phones, electric can openers, etc., and I love finding things I can use at garage sales, estate sales, thrift shops, etc.

                We are living in truly amazing economic times. Both unemployment and interest rates are low. Many consumer goods, especially computers and electronics, cost much less than they did just a few years ago. When I think about the inflation and malaise of just twenty years ago, today’s economy boggles my mind. Will it last? The honest answer is no one knows, but I can tell you much of Europe considers our economy to be a bubble similar to the one Japan went through a few years ago. And even some surprising sources are waving the caution flag. The Wall Street Journal had two articles in fifteen days that discussed how previous booms have ended and how this one might end. Whether the economy holds or folds, though, I suggest we all consider these times an opportunity to feather our nests. If the economy fails, we’ll have some money in the bank. If it continues to soar, well, we’re just that much better off and just that much closer to our goals. Being frugal in good times, in other words, is a no-lose proposition.

                Finally, the question I personally have been asked most often is, “What did you do about health care?” And I want to address that issue here. I was extremely fortunate in that I had Kaiser Permanente, and I was able to convert my group plan here to an individual plan in Kansas City. The bad news is my monthly rates have gone from $126 to $285 in five years. Health care is a problem for people who do not have employers, and I cannot help but believe this one issue keeps more people in their jobs than any other issue. There are possibilities out there, one of which is “Simplecare,” a plan that is taking root in Seattle, wherein people pay cash for most health care and carry catastrophic insurance for major medical problems. But will Simplecare spread to other markets? I don’t know.

                There is talk about simplicity becoming a “movement” in the political and social sense, and I personally have some issues with that, since a movement implies leaders, followers, and a certain degree of groupthink, but if we could form a movement on a practical level that would result in our being able to obtain group rate health insurance for those tied to their jobs because they could not get affordable health insurance elsewhere, I believe that would be the most immediately productive project we could tackle, and it would result financial independence becoming a possibility for many more people. Affordable group rate health care, in other words, would expand the movement.

                A lot of water has gone under the bridge in the past nineteen years. It turned out the Wall Street Journal was spot-on. The boom burst shortly after this speech. They’ve been flashing a few caution signals lately. Long-distance telephone rates are no longer an issue for most people, VCRs were replaced by DVDs, and DVDs are being replaced by streaming. Wild Oats was taken over by Whole Foods. I lost a great deal of weight a couple of years after this speech and have (knock on wood) been able to keep it off, so I’m no longer approached by strangers offering diets. I no longer buy Hamburger Helper. Newspapers are going the way of VHSs, so coupons are getting scarcer, and classified ads are few and far between, but now there’s Craigslist. Kaiser Permanente deserted the Kansas City market, and those of us with individual plans were on our own. I wound up with Blue Cross, and I still have my Medicare supplemental insurance with them. I’m sure you’ll be able to find some other anachronisms. For any errors I made in this speech, I’m going to follow my own advice and get over past mistakes.
©2019 Larry Roth