This Boy’s Life (Modern Library Nonfiction #86)

(This is the fifteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: A Mathematician’s Apology.)

It is worth recalling that the Boy Scout, that putative paragon of American boyhood virtue, originated in 1909 with a man lost in the foggy haze of a mazy London byway. W.D. Boyce was a recently divorced newspaperman cast adrift in the English mist, until he was guided by a uniformed lad known only as the Unknown Scout. This young whippersnapper, who was no soldier and had no tomb (unless you count a mangy Silver Buffalo memorial that presently stands in Gilwell Park), steered Boyce to his destination and refused Boyce’s tip after that gent hoped to consummate his gratitude. The boy did so not because he was a well-paid German stevedore or a terrified Uber driver hoping to hold onto his job, but because he was merely doing his duty and this was enough recompense, thank you very much. From here, Boyce asked the boy about his coterie, was allegedly led to Boy Scouts HQ like a starry-eyed drifter seeking a new easy access religion, and encountered Chief Scout Robert Baden-Powell, an irrepressible do-gooder who intoxicated Boyce with tales of uniforms and valor and decency and truth and justice and many other nouns etched with ostentatious pedigree and scant subtlety that were later memorialized in a handbook published in six fortnightly parts called Scouting for Boys. Four months later, Boyce returned to the States to found the Boy Scouts of America. He had found his calling. Shortly after this, presumably emboldened by the new youthful virtues flooding through his veins, Boyce would marry a well-connected woman twenty-three years younger. But Boyce’s brio was not enough to preserve this second marriage, which dissolved within two years. The Boy Scouts, on the other hand, have continued to endure, albeit with plentiful dissimulation saddled to the “Be prepared” credo.

This legend, which isn’t nearly as imaginative or as thrilling as Robert Johnson signing away his soul to the devil in exchange for spangling guitar chops, has nevertheless become as accepted and as apocryphal as the birth of the blues or any story of rugged outliers founding tech startups in their garages or, for that matter, the cloying cherry tree myth associated with George Washington, a shrewd political operator who claimed that he could not tell a lie despite deceiving many over a lifetime about his professed lack of political expertise. Boy Scout booster (and sex therapist!) Edward Rowan has pointed out that Boyce outed himself in a February 27, 1928 letter, claiming that he was not floating in the Dickensian murk, but merely standing before the Savoy Hotel while contemplating the question of whether he should cross a street. Moreover, others have suggested that there was no fog during that evening. As one excavates further into W.D. Boyce’s history, one learns that this sanctimonious founder was a racist, even denying African-Americans entry into the hallowed organization. (Boyce also published a journal called The White Boy’s Magazine.) By the late 1980s, the Boy Scouts were forced to establish protective measures in response to countless sex abuse cases later documented by reporter Patrick Boyle in 1991. The Boy Scouts of America, a seemingly sacred institution, had been little more than a seductive shawl disguising the ugly American id. It is thus the perfect metaphor for Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, a moving memoir about a boy wrestling with the lies, the duplicities, and the hypocrisies of growing up in America. It is an especially cogent volume in an epoch of fake news, covfefe, and thundering Republican men casually asphyxiating the weak and the vulnerable in the name of old school virtue.

For young Tobias (aka Jack, a sobriquet inspired by an altogether different London), the deceptive pose was a way of being and coping through a rough-and-tumble existence. This Boy’s Life opens with Toby and his mother retreating from an abusive man in Florida by way of a dodgy Nash Rambler with an overboiling engine. Their hope was to find fortune through a desperate uranium hunt by way of a poor man’s Geiger counter. Like many Americans before, the westward journey here is one of escape and, as one pores through the memoir’s crisply paced pages, increasingly about assuming roles that bear no resemblance to reality. The cooing pop songs crooning from the radio provide voices for Toby to emulate, perhaps serving as a staging area for transformation. Yet Catholicism, itself a practice just as fraught with frangible self-abengation as the Boy Scouts, also represents the new terrain from which to launch an identity. Toby’s father, telephoning from Connecticut, claims that the family line has always been Protestant or Episcopalian, but Wolff informs us that he learned of his true Jewish heritage ten years after this revelation. Names, identities, veneers, and backgrounds are the melting pot from which to sprout a respectable soul, yet Toby scoffs at the purported innocence of this problematic chrysalis. “Power,” writes Wolff, placing his budding irritation within the context of his later experience in Vietnam, “can only be enjoyed when it is recognized and feared. Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.”

Woolf’s Vietnam memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, would chronicle similar tensions between patriotic duty and survival, and one must observe that the two memoirs are united by Wolff possessing a gun, that priapic symbol of American manhood that has caused so much recent and needless terror. This Boy’s Life sees these uncertain seeds planted in loam long before basic training. I once had the good fortune to interview Wolff in 2008 and he revealed that he was dead set against narcissism’s pathology overtaking any story. Which leads me to believe that Wolff understands, as William Gass has observed in a notable essay on narcissism and writing, that autobiographers turn themselves into monsters, often hiding deceit behind their confessions. To reckon poignantly with a life, a memoirist must never cover up his shame or settle scores with self-serving vigor, for he invites a dishonesty in which the professed act of soul-bearing smudges the more important ink needed for corrupted but authentic memory.

What is most striking about This Boy’s Life is that Wolff never sugarcoats his life. Nor does he beckon the reader to feel sympathy for him, even as he succumbs to abuse from Dwight, the abominable man whom his mother Rosemary eventually tries to forge a family with. It is the shakiest of new beginnings following an uncertain stint at a West Seattle boardinghouse. There are men who hit on Rosemary, ascribing athleticism to Toby and pledging bicycle gifts that never materialize, and we see only Rosemary’s tears from unseen boorishness. Toby steals and breaks windows with his pals. He puts forth lies. And as Dwight enters Toby’s life, Wolff observes that this minuscule mechanic tries too hard: “No eye is quicker to detect that kind of effort than the eye of a competitor who also happens to be a child.” But Dwight does have a family, including a daughter named Pearl with a prominent bald spot. And just as Rosemary sees possibility in volunteering for idealistic Democratic candidates, she sees an opportunity in Dwight. Much as W.D. Boyce being bowled over by a Boy Scout, effort is enough to plant an acorn for a dubious family tree. Meanwhile, Toby lets loose several “Fuck yous,” memorializing the message into a wall, and gets in trouble with the vice principal. When the vice principal meets with Rosemary, Toby is convinced of his innocence, not unlike Dwight, and the vice principal reveals his own systematic and sanctimonious story of how he quit smoking to buy a Nash Rambler, the very same rickety vehicle that brought Toby and Rosemary to the west.

It is here that the kernel for Dwight’s autocratic adoption of Toby begins to pop with a frenzy of fragile male ego: the belief that laborious effort, even on the most inconsequential acts, somehow makes one a respectable hard-working American. Toby is asked to pick up roadkill. He is asked to wait in a car as Dwight gets plastered in a bar. He is watched as Dwight fuels himself on tugs of Old Crow and Camels. He delivers newspapers and his earnings are pilfered by Dwight. He paints an old Baldwin piano to cover up its chintz. And he is commanded to pluck hard husks of horse chestnuts — a tyrannical tilling with some unspecified life lesson attached in which the product of all this hard labor is never actually used. When Toby gets into a fight with a kid named Arthur Gayle, Dwight coaches him on pugilism, claiming that any defeat is his fault. And throughout all this, there are the weekly Boy Scout meetings. Toby’s plan is to run away from Dwight’s home in Concrete, a Washington hamlet built on shaky slopes that Wolff describes as a graying and dusty landscape with cracking cement banks. It is, like many parts of America even today, a fraying tableau where too much effort gets in the way of existence, disguising the fissures of easily broken lives. One can almost imagine Dwight using the hashtag #MAGA on Twitter had he materialized decades later.

Whether this subjective truth-telling represents a kind of fearlessness or power in its own right is subject to the degree to which you are willing to embrace Wolff’s life story. But it does represent a refreshing alternative to the Horatio Alger grandstanding that too many personal essays wallow in today. (See, for example, most of the material published on Thought Catalog.) David Plotz once chided Dave Pelzer for turning child abuse into entertainment. This Boy’s Life avoids such petty voyeurism, in large part because it nestles Toby’s life and Dwight’s stark assaults by Dwight within the larger American dilemma of how to contend with fakery. And in an epoch where narcissistic dishonesty and “alternative facts” and social media outrage are increasingly the norm, there is a beautiful grace in putting your life out there and not giving a damn how others judge it.

Next Up: Beryl Markham’s West with the Night!

The American Political Tradition (Modern Library Nonfiction #93)

(This is the eighth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Contours of American History.)

mlnf93Before he became famous for delineating “the paranoid style in American politics” and honing every principled bone against the feverish anti-intellectualism one now sees embodied in everything from long-standing philistine Dan Kois decrying “eating his cultural vegetables” to lunatic presidential candidate Ted Cruz declaring gluten-free meals as a politically correct “social experiment,” historian Richard Hofstadter spent four years on a fiercely independent book that would go on to sell close to a million copies. The American Political Tradition was a Plutarchian overview of illustrious American figures ranging from vivacious abolitionist Wendell Phillips to Woodrow Wilson as closeted conservative. It was aimed at winning over a high-minded American public. Like William Appleman Williams, Hofstadter was very much following in Charles Beard’s footsteps, although this historian hoped to march to his own interpretive drum. Reacting to the toxic McCarthyism at the time, Hofstadter’s cautious defense of old school American liberalism, with the reluctant bulwark hoisted as he poked holes into the foibles of celebrated icons, saddled him with the label of “consensus historian.” With each subsequent volume (most notably The Age of Reform), Hofstadter drifted further away from anything close to a scorching critique of our Founders as hardliners enforcing their economic interests to a more vociferous denouncement of agrarian Populists and numbnuts standing in the way of erudite democratic promise. Yet even as he turned more conservative in later years, Hofstadter insisted that his “assertion of consensus history in 1948 had its sources in the Marxism of the 1930s.”

Such adamantine labels really aren’t fair to Hofstadter’s achievements in The American Political Tradition. The book is by no means perfect, but its Leatherman Wave-like dissection of American history unfolds with some sharp and handy blades. While Hofstadter is strangely reluctant to out Andrew Jackson as a demagogue (“He became a favorite of the people, and might easily come to believe that the people chose well.”) and far too pardonable towards John C. Calhoun, a rigid bloviator with a harsh voice who was one of slavery’s biggest cheerleaders and whose absolutist stance against tariffs under the guise of moderatism would later inspire the South to consider secession as a legitimate nuclear option1, Hofstadter at his best slices with a necessary critical force into many hallowed patriarchs. For it is the sum of their variegated and contradictory parts that has caused some to view the American trajectory in Manichean terms.

One of the book’s standout chapters is Hofstadter’s shrewd analysis of Lincoln as an exceptionally formidable man who dialed down his egalitarian ardor to zero the meter for his shrewd and very rapid political rise. In just four years, Lincoln advanced from an obscure attorney in Illinois to a prominent party leader in that same state’s House of Representatives. But Hofstadter cogently argues that Lincoln was far from the outspoken abolitionist who would later lay down some very strong words against those who would deny other people freedom. Lincoln not only kept his enemies closer than his friends, but he was exceptionally careful with his rhetoric, even though one eye-popping 1836 declaration proposed extending suffrage to women.2 Much as Franklin D. Roosevelt was very savvy about letting his political opponents make the first move before he acted, Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence’s very text as ammunition and inspiration for his justification for abolition, which come much later — Lincoln’s first public condemnation of slavery arrived when Lincoln was forty-five — than Lincoln’s many admirers are often willing to admit.

Hofstadter points out that Lincoln’s seeming contradiction between revolutionary politics and pragmatic interpretation of the law was not especially peculiar, but part of a nuts-and-bolts perpetuation of an ongoing political tradition, one that can be seen with Lincoln’s hard maneuvering with the 1851 conditional loan he issued to his stepbrother John D. Johnson. Lincoln’s famous House Divided speech was masterful rhetoric urging national reconciliation of the slavery issue, but he didn’t exactly go out of his way to out himself as an abolitionist. Hofstadter points out that in 1858, seemingly Honest Abe spoke in two entirely different manners about racial equality in Chicago and in Charleston (see the second paragraph of his first speech). Yet these observations not only illustrate Lincoln’s political genius, but invite parallels to Lyndon Johnson’s brilliant and equally contradictory engineering in passing the 1957 Civil Rights Act (perhaps best chronicled in a gripping 100 page section of Robert A. Caro’s excellent Master of the Senate). The American political tradition, which Hofstadter identifies as a continuity with capitalist democratic principles, is seen today with Hillary Clinton struggling against a young population hungry for progressive change unlikely to happen overnight, despite Bernie Sanders’s valiant plans and the immediate need to rectify corporate America’s viselike hold on the very democratic principles that have sustained this nation for more than two hundred years.

Yet this is the same tradition that has given us long years without a stabilizing central bank, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, the Credit Mobilier scandal, robber barons, and Hoover’s unshakable faith that “prosperity was just around the corner,” among many other disgraces. Hofstadter is thankfully not above condemning lasseiz-faire absolutism, such as Grover Cleveland’s unrealistic assumption that “things must work out smoothly without government action, or the whole system, coherent enough in theory, would fall from the weakness of its premises” or the free silver campaign that buttressed the bombastic William Jennings Bryan into an improbable presidential candidate. On Bryan, Hofstadter describes his intellectual acumen as “a boy who never left home” and one can see some of Bryan’s regrettable legacy in the red-faced fulminations of a certain overgrown boy who currently pledges to make America great again. A careless and clumsy figure like Bryan was the very antithesis of Lincoln. Bryan failed to see difficult political tasks through to their necessary end. He would adopt principles that he once decried. His well-meaning efforts amounted to practically nothing. Think of Bryan as Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard to Lincoln’s Joe Girard. Hofstadter suggests that “steadfast and self-confident intelligence,” perhaps more important than courage and sincerity, was the very quality that Bryan and this nation so desperately needed. Yet in writing about Teddy Roosevelt and pointing to the frequency of “manly” and “masterful” in his prose, Hofstadter imputes that these “more perfect” personal qualities for the political tradition “easily became transformed into the imperial impulse.”

This is, at times, a very grumpy book. One almost bemoans the missed opportunity to enlist the late Andy Rooney to read aloud the audio version. But it is not without its optimism. Hofstadter places most of his faith in abolitionist agitator Wendell Phillips. But even after defending Phillips from numerous historical condemnations and pointing to Phillips’s “higher level of intellectual self-awareness,” Hofstadter sees the agitator as merely “the counterweight to sloth and indifference.” But Hofstadter, at this young stage of his career, isn’t quite willing to write off agitators. He does point to why Phillips was a necessary and influential force providing equilibrium:

But when a social crisis or revolutionary period at last matures, the sharp distinctions that govern the logical and doctrinaire mind of the agitator become at one with the realities, and he appears overnight to the people as a plausible and forceful thinker. The man who has maintained that all history is the history of class struggles and has appeared so wide of the mark in times of class collaboration may become a powerful leader when society is seething with unresolved class conflict; the man who has been valiantly demanding the abolition of slavery for thirty years may become a vital figure when emancipation makes its appearance as a burning issue of practical politics. Such was the experience of Wendell Phillips: although he never held office, he became one of the most influential Americans during the few years after the fall of Fort Sumter.

thealternativefactorThe question of whether you believe Hofstadter to be a consensus historian or not may depend on how much you believe that he viewed the American political tradition much like two Lazaruses forever duking it out for existence in the old Star Trek episode “The Alternative Factor.” He certainly sees a nation of political pragmatists and obdurate agitators caught in an eternal dead lock, which is not too far from the progressive historians who styled their interpretations on class conflict. But his fine eye for ferreting out the Burkean undertow within Woodrow Wilson’s putative liberalism or exposing how Hoover’s faith in unregulated business had him quivering with disbelief after Black Thursday suggests a historian who is interested in countering ideological bromides. Perhaps if Hofstadter had stretched some of his chapters across a massive book, his reputation as a consensus historian wouldn’t have been the subject of so many heated arguments among political wonks.

Fortunately, the next Modern Library essay in this series will investigate how one man fluctuated his politics to serve his own ends and reshaped a major metropolis through the iron will of his personality. That very long and very great book may be the key that turns the consensus lock. It will certainly tell us a lot more about political power.

Next Up: Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker!

The Contours of American History (Modern Library Nonfiction #94)

(This is the seventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Promise of American Life.)

mlnf94

History is never the thrilling Zapcat powerboat ride it can and should be when we remain committed to oaring through the same exhausted legends about American exceptionalism and bogus democratic promise. Much as we may find new insights into human existence by tilting our canoes to the ripples contained within a storyteller’s cadences, so too may we discover more complete ways of contending with our historical contradictions through the viewpoint of a responsible revisionist armed with the facts and rejecting the hard establishment line.

The revisionist historian, that charming and sometimes infuriating rabble-rouser never to be confused with some creepy Holocaust denier flailing in a sea of empty Cheetos bags and crackpot pamphlets, often gets needlessly maligned in America. Before Annette Gordon-Reed offered conclusive evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings (upheld by a 1998 DNA test), Fawn Brodie was attacked by vanilla-minded legacy holders two decades before for pushing beyond James Callender’s tawdry trolling, daring to suggest that there was good reason to believe that our much heralded champion of the rights of man had skeletons in his closet that were vital to understanding his philosophy. Brodie’s book, despite its psychobiographical failings, led to a reckoning with our myths and assumptions about the Sage of Monticello, one that continues to this very day with college students demanding the removal of Jefferson statues on campuses.

Provided that their efforts do not involve going out of their way to Bowlderize troubling if incontrovertible parts of the story and the results are as expansive and as rigorous as their more timorous mainstream counterparts, revisionists are often vital reconcilers of the public record. It is the facile propagandist who ignores Rosa Parks’s radicalism to paint a roseate image of a meek and tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus (“small,” “delicate,” and “little,” as belittled by Bill Clinton in 2005) or who upholds the lie that Abner Doubleday created baseball.

In recent decades, many young students have ardently clutched their copies of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States with the taut adamantine grip of a Fallout 4 junkie reluctant to capitulate her controller. Zinn’s thoughtful volume has been vehemently denounced by some establishment historians who have questioned the perceived polemical emphasis of class conflict at the expense of other issues. But before Zinn, there was William Appleman Williams, a brash energetic troublemaker who was arguably a more rigorous scholar than Zinn and who was among the best and the boldest of the firebrand 20th century historians who emerged from a Charles Beard afterglow with ass to kick once the bubble gum supply ran out.

William Appleman Williams unpacked the economic motivations of American expansion and foreign policy in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy and broadened this scholarship further with The Contours of American History, a punchy volume examining how imperialism and liberalism became a sordid double stitch intertwined in the American quilt well before the Sons of Liberty spilled massive chests of desperately offloaded tea into Boston Habor. Yet Williams’s often nimble analysis, riddled as it sometimes is with conceptual overreach, robustly articulates the ever-changing and contradictory American Weltanschauung that has motivated nearly every governmental decision since. He documents a worldview that started off with the relatively benign goal of creating and sustaining an economic nation that provided for everyone, but devolved under the autocratic yoke of Jacksonian democracy and Gilded Age greed to the corporate capitalist nightmare we are all trying to awake from today. And because Williams’s challenge to the so-called “American experiment” was so unprecedented in the mid-20th century, this historian was tarnished, besmirched, and condemned by other putative progressives who might have enlarged their rigid notions of national identity if they had been more willing to dive into the subtle words and actions directing the unshakable financial impetus.

Williams was harassed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, that despicably despotic body that ruined the lives of so many, with a demand to produce the unfinished Contours manuscript. The HUAC would order Williams to testify in Washington and then cancel the appearance by telegram once he’d hopped on a train to the Beltway. Even after he testified for ten minutes and the HUAC abandoned its witch hunt, the IRS harassed him in various forms for nearly twenty years. Williams was hounded by the neoliberalism critic Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., who dutifully condemned Williams as “pro-communist” to the American Historical Association’s president. Even as late as 2009, an academic called Williams an “idiot” before a Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations panel, decrying Williams’s approach to history as a crude retooling of Charles Beard’s infamous assault upon our Founding Fathers’s pecuniary predispositions.1

But Williams was far from a typical progressive. He was a registered Republican when he first came to Wisconsin. He voted for Nixon as the lesser evil in 1960. And even in Contours, he defended Herbert Hoover’s hands-off Depression era policies, seeing this as a necessary tactic to forestall property holders from creating a business-friendly fascism that could have had a more diabolical effect on our clime than the many Hoovervilles that had mushroomed across the nation. Williams argued that Hoover’s perceived failure to do anything represented a more active resistance against special interests than the Progressive Movement was willing to acknowledge or act upon at the time. And that’s the way this jazz-loving Midwestern historian rolled. As Williams was to write in a 1973 essay, the revisionist’s duty was to “see basic facts in a different way and as interconnected in new relationships. He is a sister and a brother to those who use old steel to make a zipper, as contrasted with those who add new elements to make a better steel.”

In my previous Modern Library essay, I castigated Herbert Croly for the historical developments that he could not see ahead of him, for erring too much in his perfervid belief in a central government and for diminishing the justifiable grievances of protesters. William Appleman Williams may very well represent the opposite problem: a historian who could see the implications of any action all too well, one who was willing to articulate any interpretation of the facts even if it meant being alienated by the jingoistic minds who needed to reconsider the other fateful historical trajectories upholding the status quo.

Williams’s highly specific examples very much allow him to sell us on his interpretation. In Tragedy, for example, Williams’s deductive prowess is in high gear when he examines how Woodrow Wilson’s March 1913 decision to refuse a government loan to China, one long coveted by American industrialists at the time (and later attempted privately), actually fell within the framework of the Open Door Policy. Many historians have interpreted Wilson’s pushback as a betrayal of American expansionism at the time, but Williams points to the lack of private capital available to fulfill the job as well as the possibility that any governmental loan, even one secured with the help of other financiers, may have been perceived as a very clear threat to neighboring Japan. The Open Door Policy, for all of its flaws and its needless sullying of China, was intended to provide a peacefully imperialist framework for a burgeoning American empire: a GATT or IMF before its time, though regrettably without much in the way of homegrown protest. (Rebellion would come later in Beijing with the May Fourth movement.) The ostensible goal was to strengthen China with fresh influxes of low-risk private capital so that it could withstand troublesome neighbors looking for a fight, even as the new obligations to American entrepreneurs forged hot rivulets of cash rolling back to the imperialist homeland. Wilson’s decision was, as discerned by Williams, a canny chesslike stratagem to avoid war and conflict, one that would keep China a servant to America’s riches. From the vantage point of the 21st century, this useful historical interpretation reveals Wilson to be a pioneer in the kind of venal and now all too commonplace globalization that morally bankrupt neoliberals like Thomas Friedman have no problem opening their old steel zippers for. Their free trade fantasies possess all the out-of-sight, out-of-mind justification of a revenge porn junkie ignoring another person’s real world humiliation for fleeting sociopathic pleasure.

It was with Contours that Williams blew the lid off the great American lie, exposing the American liberal’s failure to confront his own implication in much of the lasseiz nous faire madness. Williams traced the origins of our mercantilist approach to Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury. In the 17th century, Shaftesbury was a political figure who opposed harsh penalties and absolutist government. He stood up for the nonconformists and called for regular parliaments, and would go on to found and lead the early Whig party in the wake of the British Exclusion Crisis. While traveling to Oxford to remove an abscess from his liver, he hit it off with a young doctor by the name of John Locke. (There weren’t as many cafes back then as there are today. In the 1600s, you had to take whatever mingling opportunities you could get.) Locke, of course, would later have many ideas about the social contract, a scheme about inalienable natural rights that would eventually find its way into a number one ditty penned by Jefferson that would become known as the Declaration of Independence.

But there was a twist to this tale. As Williams points out, Locke’s ideas were a corruption of Shaftesbury’s more inclusive and democratic efforts. Where Shaftesbury was willing to rebel against the King to ensure that courts and alternative political parties were in place to prevent the government from becoming an absolute tyranny, even going to the trouble of building a coalition that extended across all classes to fight for these safeguards when not putting together the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, it was Locke who limited Shaftesbury’s remarkably liberal contributions by undercutting individual rights. Locke believed that those who owned property were perfectly justified in protesting their government, for they were the ones who had entered into a social contract. But the rabble who didn’t own property could more or less buzz off.2 As Williams put it, “[I]ndividualism was a right and a liberty reserved to those who accepted a status quo defined by a certain set of natural truths agreed upon a majority. Within such a framework, and it is a far narrower set of limits than it appears at first glance, the natural laws of property and labor were deemed sufficient to guide men’s pursuit of happiness.”

Yet those who subscribed to these early mercantilist standards believed that this classically liberal idea of “corporate structure” involved a basic responsibility to provide for everyone. And the way of sustaining such a benevolent national juggernaut was through the establishment of an empire: a Pax Americana predicated upon the promise of a democracy promulgated by patriarchs who not so quietly believed that the people were incapable of it.3 Williams observes how the Quakers in Philadelphia, who opposed expansion and much of the onslaughts against Native Americans, were very much committed to noblesse oblige, setting up hospitals, education, and philanthropic endeavors to take care of everyone. But this generous spirit was no match for the free trade nabobs or the hard-hearted Calvinists who increasingly shifted such solicitude to the propertied class (one can easily imagine Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glenn Ross “Always be closing” speech spouted by a Calvinist), leading the great theologian Jonathan Edwards to offer righteous pushback against “fraud and trickishness in trade.”

Against this backdrop, post-Revolutionary expansion and the Monroe Doctrine allowed mercantilism to transmute into an idea that was more about the grab than the munificent results, with visions of empire dancing in many heads. By the time Frederick Jackson Turner tendered his Frontier Thesis in 1893, mercantilism was no longer about providing for the commonweal, but about any “self-made man” looking out after his interests. Williams points to Chief Justice John Marshall’s efforts to enforce safeguards, such as his Gibbons vs. Ogden decision regulating interstate commerce, against the monopolies that would come to dominate America near the turn of the century. Marshall’s immediate successor, Chief Justice Taney, expanded the flexibility of the Constitution’s Contract Clause with his 1837 Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge decision, permitting states to alter any contract as it saw fit. While Taney’s decision seemed to strike the death knell against monopolies, it was no match against the consolidated trusts that were to come with the railroads and the robber barons. Rather curiously, for all of his sharp observations about free trade and expansionist dangers during this time, Williams devotes little more than a paragraph to the 1836 closing of the Second Bank of the United States:

[Nicholas Biddle] did a better job than the directors of the Bank of England. Under his leadership the bank not only established a national system of credit balancing which assisted the west as much as the east, and probably more, but sought with considerable success to save smaller banks from their own inexperience and greed. It was ultimately his undoing, for what the militant advocates of lasseiz nous faire came to demand was help without responsibilities. In their minds, at any rate, that was the working definition of democratic freedom.

Talk about sweeping one of the greatest financial calamities in American history under the rug! I don’t want to get too much into Andrew Jackson, who I believe to be nothing less than an abhorrent, reckless, and self-destructive maniac who claimed “liberalism” using the iron fist of tyranny, in this installment. I shall preserve my apparently unquenchable ire for Old Hickory when I tackle Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson in a few years (Modern Library Nonfiction #36). But Jackson’s imperious and irresponsible battle with Biddle, complete with his Specie Circular, undoubtedly led to the Panic of 1837, in which interest rates spiked, the rich got richer, a fixable financial mess spiraled out of control and became needlessly dangerous, and buyers could not come up with the hard cash to invest in land. Considering Williams’s defense of Hoover in both Contours and Tragedy, it is extremely curious that he would shy away from analyzing why some form of central bank might be necessary to mitigate against volatility, even though he adopted some fascinating counterpoints to the “too big to fail” theory decades before Bernanke and Krugman.

This oversight points to the biggest issue I have with Williams. His solution to the great imperialist predicament was democratic socialism, which he called “the only real frontier available to Americans in the second half of the 20th century.” While this is a clever way of inverting Turner’s thesis, to uphold this, Williams cites a few examples such as the courage of Wendell Phillips, a few throwaway references to social property, and a late 19th century return with Edward Bellamy and Henry Demarest Lloyd to the Quaker-like notion of “a commonwealth in which men were brothers first and economic men second.” But while Williams is often a master of synthesis, he falls somewhat short in delineating how his many historical examples can aid us to correct our ongoing ills. If the American Weltanschauung is so steeped in our culture, how then can democratic socialism uproot it? This vital question remains at the root of any progressive-minded conversation. But now that we have a presidential race in which socialism is no longer a dirty word and the two leading Democratic candidates bicker over who is the greater progressive, perhaps the answer might arrive as naturally as Williams anticipated.

Next Up: Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition!

Unemployment (Follow Your Ears #7)

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The national unemployment rate continues to hover just under 8%. It’s been like this for about a year. That’s higher than the 1991 recession. And the unemployment numbers are starting to match the recession of the early 1980s, just before unemployment hit over 10% in 1982. This program looks into whether or not the jobs are really coming back. Are we avoiding a serious problem that we don’t have the courage to stare in the face? To what degree are we repeating history? We meet a man who motivates the unemployed in library basements, get experts to respond to Chairman Bernanke’s recent claims that unemployment will fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015, discuss the finer points of Beveridge curves with economics professor William Dickens, chat about how the last four decades of labor developments have contributed to the unemployment crisis with Down the Up Escalator author Barbara Garson, discover a company that protected the unemployed against discrimination with the National Employment Law Project’s Mitchell Hirsch, and learn about discrimination and how local labor policy reveals national labor policy with Dr. Michelle Holder of the Community Service Society of New York.


7a

I Really Want This Job

Barry Cohen is a well-dressed man with impressive cheekbones and an indefatigable smile. He reminds me of some 20th century titan who wants you to sign on the dotted line for a set of steak knives. On hot summer nights, he can be found in the basements of public libraries addressing the unemployed on how to find and get the jobs they really want. We talk with Barry and the people who look for confidence and guidance in his words. It turns out that Barry is working from an unexpected vicarious place. (Beginning to 9:40)


7b

Curves and Predictions

Last Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told reporters that we were at the beginning of the end. He predicted that unemployment would fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015. But William Dickens, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Social Policy at Northeastern University, feels that Bernanke is being overly optimistic. He also demystifies Beveridge curves for us and elucidates a policy paper he co-authored with Rand Ghayad that caused at least journalist to freak out in the final moments of 2012. (9:40 to 18:37)


7c

Down the Up Escalator

Barbara Garson, author of Down the Up Escalator, offers a more sociological view of the unemployment problem. She tells us that it’s not so much the recession that reveals the causes of unemployment, but the American worker’s dwindling prospects over the past four decades. We discuss the Pink Slip Club, the “new normal” of unemployment, and consider how the unemployed can contribute to society as they pine for nonexistent jobs. (18:37 to 29:10)


7d

Discrimination

It’s difficult to feel inspired and real when the deck is stacked against you. One little discussed truth about being unemployed is the rampant discrimination against job seekers who are not presently employed. The situation is so bad that New York City was forced to pass Introduction 814, a groundbreaking piece of local legislation that made it illegal under the human rights law for an employer to base a hiring decision on an applicant’s unemployment. We speak with Mitchell Hirsch, the Web and Campaign Associate at the National Employment Law Project, to get a handle on just how bad discrimination against the unemployed remains. It turns out that Introduction 814 doesn’t go far enough. We also meet Dr. Michelle Holder, Senior Labor Market Analyst at the Community Service Society of New York, to determine why New York is a good microcosm for American unemployment. The conversation reveals how local policy reflects national policy and gets into problems with the Georgia Works program and “business-friendly” politicians. (29:10 to end)


Loops for this program were provided by BlackNebula, danke, djmfl, drmistersir, EOS, JorgeDanielRamirez, kristijann, KRP92, MaMaGBeats, Megapaul, morpheusd, and ShortBusMusic. Follow Your Ears Theme (licensed) by Mark Allaway.

Follow Your Ears #7: Unemployment (Download MP3)

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Ed Walks: A 3,000 Mile Conversational Journey by Foot

“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Today I launched edwalks.com, as well as an Indiegogo campaign for an unprecedented oral history project that will unfold in real time.

On May 15, 2013, I aim to walk 3,000 miles across America over the course of approximately six months, starting in Brooklyn and ending in San Francisco. I plan to talk with many people along the way, asking them about their lives and writing dispatches as I make my way from town to town.

When Sir George Mallory was asked why he wished to climb Everest, he replied, “Because it’s there.” When pressed on why he was walking across America four decades ago, the pioneering travel writer Peter Jenkins answered, “To get to know the country.”

The horizontal journey, with its vast stretch and uncountable hours, doesn’t always share the heroic gravitas of its vertical cousin. But while the trip upward is fueled by the thrill of being first to plant a pole in a peak, the long hike across a wide expanse demands a deeper purpose. It beckons us to learn from the land.

A 3,000 Mile Conversational Journey by Foot

I’ll be walking fifteen to twenty miles a day and pitching my tent where I can, going out of my way to visit many overlooked towns. And after I finish this cross-country journey, I will edit these conversations into a far-reaching multipart radio narrative spanning twelve states.

As I make my way west, these adventures will also be chronicled in real time at edwalks.com. Imagine a Studs Terkel for the digital age or Charles Kuralt traveling around America on foot. I don’t claim to be their equal, but these are some of the inspirations who will guide me into finding distinct insights into the everyday experiences we take for granted.

How Will Your Donation Help?

As a regular walker who has completed two Great Saunters, I believe that I can make it to the end. But a six month project like this requires financial resources, which will be devoted to food, lodging, technological services, and equipment that will keep me transmitting communications from the road. Because paying journalism outlets no longer support original and ambitious projects of this nature, I am turning to Indiegogo to see if we can make history and come to know our country better. You can help out here.

Your gracious donations will create an oral history project unfolding in real time. Your invaluable generosity, no matter what the contribution amount, will forge an unprecedented chronicle of American life in 2013. Think of this as a microbudget Federal Writers Project for the 21st century.

The perks have been designed so that many of the rewards are allocated before the walk.

If you can’t donate, then please spread the word so that others can.

What’s the Route?

The route will take me through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.

Some of the cities I plan to walk through include Pittsburgh, Columbus, Fort Wayne, Gary, Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, Lincoln, Rock Springs, Carson City, and Sacramento.

However, there are a few Indiegogo perks which could change the route.

So Once the Project is Funded, You Start Walking?

Yes. The walk is scheduled to begin on May 15, 2013. Once the project is fully funded, you will be able to read the dispatches at edwalks.com for free. And when the radio narrative of these conversations is finished, you will also be able to listen to these shows for free.

Thank you for any help you can provide.

Brian Francis Slattery II (The Bat Segundo Show)

Brian Francis Slattery appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #466. He is most recently the author of Lost Everything and previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #142.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hammering in the morning, the evening, and the afternoon.

Author: Brian Francis Slattery

Subjects Discussed: Radio programs which force authors to starve for an hour, the glut of dystopian novels after 2008, taking criticisms to heart, distinguishing many forms of sarcasm and irony, a segue with two friendly gentlemen with hammers, the bleakness within Lost Everything, the seriousness of a major economic collapse, hope in the “Who knows?” area of bleakness, the possibility of restoration in Liberation vs. the unknown storm (The Big One) in Lost Everything, “squanch” as a word, Lost Everything‘s wandering narrator, using up a quota of semicolons, starting a sentence with a verb, faith and spirituality, agnosticism, the philosophical value of Christopher Reeve quotes, agnostics who dodge questions of faith, Nicholas Wolterstorff, the pacifistic and apolitical nature of taking Christianity seriously, the balance between forgiveness and righteousness, moral codes that are mishmashes of philosophy and religion, discussing issues in both religious and secular terms, the physical limitations within the Carthage, not providing the answers to the reader, deliberate ambiguities, super-omniscient narrators, narrators who match character predicaments, resisting the word “fun” when investigating nightmarish human predicaments, Russian roulette, violence and bleak humor as a defense mechanism, working at a social science research foundation, the choice between laughing and becoming serious when presented with genocide, how much a human life is worth, Guatemala vs. the Ukraine, life being cheaper in certain parts of the world, superfluous playground warnings, judgement of other parents over trifling details, sugar as a disruptive force, being reprimanded for saying “fuck” joyfully in a Park Slope restaurant, reading bleak books, finding the value in everyone, engaging in reckless behavior, when the removal of safeguards creates unanticipated possibilities, writing about a world devoid of electricity, 19th century human existence, how people live without electricity now, Darwin’s Nightmare, Hubert Sauper’s Kisangani Diary, Rwandan refugees who have nothing when coming across as a sanctuary, a maturing point in Slattery’s career, guilt, taking things seriously, a writer’s commitment to human existence, form following function, George Clinton and Bob Dylan as inspirational forces for (respectively) Spaceman Blues and Liberation, basing a narrative voice on the way people talk, Dock Boggs, Skip James, and 1920s music, expressing resistance through music, musicians authorized to marry people and given authority by the author, free spirited life in the face of chaos, music grounded in social reality, partying when everybody is freaked out, the house, river, and highway structure in Lost Everything, Life on the Mississippi, Kerouac, finding the specific region in America for Lost Everything, comparisons between Lost Everything and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, modeling novels from The Odyssey, the Susquehanna River being underutilized in American fiction, Slattery navigating the Susquehanna River in a canoe, William T. Vollmann, “Sunny Jim” Rolph, Captain Mendoza and Lydia Mendoza, character names, eels coming out of mattress, and making sure the constant degradation wasn’t repetitive.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Slattery: Thanks for letting me eat and drink while I’m talking with you.

Correspondent: Yes.

Slattery: Which I’ll be doing.

Correspondent: It’s one of the very rare programs that allows authors to drink and eat.

Slattery: It is.

Correspondent: Most programs allow authors to starve for an hour. Anyway, we don’t do that here. Well, first of all, how are you doing? I didn’t quite get that question answered. You’re doing okay?

Slattery: How am I doing? Oh, I’m great. I’m good.

Correspondent: Alright. Well then, let’s get right down to business. For some inexplicable reason, and I have no idea why — maybe you might have a few ideas — but since roughly around 2008 — again, I have no idea why — there’s been a great rush of dystopic novels. Dystopian novels. Doom and gloom. And here we have number three from you, sir. So just to start off here, I’m wondering, when you started writing Lost Everything, were you aware of what might be called a glut or what might be called an overpopulated filed of dystopian novels? Did you care about such an output that was going on simultaneously as you were working on a book?

Slattery: I guess I should say that I was mildly aware, but not that aware. It’s not something I pay that much attention to, I guess. Even in stuff that I read, I read a ton of nonfiction. So I’m sort of vaguely aware of trends in fiction. But they have to be pretty big for me to be aware of them, I’m afraid. But yeah, it’s not something that I think about that much. The idea of chasing a trend or worrying about a trend, you just have to sort of — at least for me, I just worry about whether I can write a good book or not, and I see where it turns out. And in the case of the third one, it was like, from the first to the third one, one grew pretty naturally out of the other. There were questions that I liked in the first one that I never got around to that I did some of in the second one. And then there was still some left over. So there’s another book. Quite a bit.

Correspondent: Such as what? What specific questions are we talking about here?

Slattery: Gosh, let me think. I think that from the second to the third one, probably the best thing was — you know, the reception to it was really great. It was really very gratifying. One of the things that I ended up taking to heart though was that there were people who were being too flippant.

Correspondent: Really?

Slattery: And I thought, “That’s fair.”

Correspondent: You took that to heart?

Slattery: I did.

Correspondent: Does this explain why this one is really very bleak at times?

Slattery: It is.

Correspondent: It’s not to say that it’s devoid of humor. Because you do have the music.

Slattery: No, no. It is. It’s quite a bit darker. And for a while, I got halfway through it and I thought, “God, this book is really dark.” And then I thought, “Well, at least I should finish it.” And then I finished it and I thought, “No, it’s still really dark.” And there’s a part of me that — because, you know, I’m not really that serious of a person. And I was really kind of surprised that I’d written such a serious book. But it also seemed like — you know, there’s a point where, for the first two books, I think that there was a really conscious endeavor to make sure that the stakes weren’t so high that you couldn’t joke about it. And then eventually the stakes are high enough that it seemed kind of creepy to joke about it. It was like, you know, nobody would be joking in this kind of situation. Nobody would be just kind of horsing around. There’s no place for it anymore. And so I tried to find the humor where I could get it. But it felt increasingly forced to go for it. And it also seemed like kind of a fair trade. I felt like I was trading sarcastic for creepy. And I’m sort of okay with that.

Correspondent: You are. Well, what do you define as sarcasm? Having joy and having fun against an especially bleak or depressing environment, to my mind, isn’t sarcasm. And I don’t think it has been sarcasm in either Liberation or Spaceman Blues. I think it was a sense of irony. So how do you distinguish between irony and sarcasm here? And I’m really curious about the fact that you decided to…

Slattery: That’s a fun question to ask me, actually. Because I consider myself to be a pretty sarcastic person, but also kind of anti-irony. If that makes sense. And I think that what it comes down to is that I don’t — the way that I — I mean, this is obviously the pop culture version of irony. It’s not the lit crit version of it. But, you know, the pop culture version of it is that at the end, the joke is everybody not really sure what the person’s intentions are. Like the person has done a lot to hide what they actually think. And I don’t try to do that. So like…

[Food arrives.]

Slattery: No, this looks great.

Correspondent: Did you want to pause? So you can actually eat that.

Slattery: No, no, no.

Correspondent: Okay.

Slattery: So it would be like — I try to joke around and I try to be kind of honest about it. If that makes sense. And to not be really ambiguous about what it is that I’m trying to say.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, in terms of distinguishing between lit crit irony and pop culture…

Gentleman with Hammer: Sorry. Are you recording?

Correspondent: Yes.

Gentleman with Hammer: Because I’m going to use the hammer for a few. Do you have a long time?

Correspondent: Probably thirty or forty minutes or something like that?

Gentleman with Hammer: Okay. Do you mind? Just for five minutes. I will tell you.

Correspondent: Okay, why don’t we…?

Slattery: We’ll stop.

Correspondent: We’ll stop. Five minutes.

* * *

Correspondent: Okay. So back in action here. So we were talking about irony and sarcasm and humor and the differences between pop culture irony and lit crit irony. And then two gentlemen decided to start construction on us. And they stopped thankfully.

Slattery: Yes.

Correspondent: They were very nice.

Slattery: And it looks really good.

Correspondent: Yes, it does really look good. So we were trying to peg what you view your humor to be.

Slattery: Right.

Correspondent: And I insisted that it was working in some quasi-ironic mode.

Slattery: (laughs) That’s nice of you.

Correspondent: A sincere irony, I suppose. Or I suppose the joys of contradiction. And you were saying, “No, no, no, Ed, actually….”

Slattery: No, no, no. We’re probably talking about the same thing.

Correspondent: Yeah. We’re probably talking about the same thing.

(Image: Houari B.)

The Bat Segundo Show #466: Brian Francis Slattery II (Download MP3)

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