Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Historical Perspective

I remember clearly why, quite a long time ago now, I determined that Wednesday would be my regular blog day.  I thought of it as the appropriate day for what I had in mind.  Wednesday is intrinsically medial, and perforce therefore perhaps also moderate, as I fancy my topics and their treatment to be.  All well and good, perhaps, but I now see that I failed to anticipate a serious problem.  Not being of a particularly political turn of mind, I neglected to consider two salient facts: first, that in this country political elections normally take place on Tuesdays, and second, that if one lives on the East coast electoral results are unlikely to be available until well past my bedtime, let alone in time for me to incorporate them into some kind of sage or amusing commentary.

We now have the latest report on who's in and who's out.  That Donald Trump is still very much in is a cause of consternation to many in my circles.  While I have no punditry to offer, I might try to apply the balm of historical perspective.  Mr. Trump is a vulgarian whose indifference to actual facts is probably more founded upon opportunism and political indifference than on ignorance.  He conveys a tone, a spirit, an attitude.  His aim has been to represent a mood rather than to present a concrete program.  What he would actually do if elected president is hard to say, partly because his opinions stated at various times are contradictory, and partly because he seems challenged by the concept of the complete sentence.  But the idea that he has brought a new low to American presidential campaigns is a product of the shrinking historical memory.

In 1884 the presidential contest pitted James G. Blain (Republican) against Grover Cleveland (Democrat).  The rival camps had competing chants, which arose full-throated from rowdy mass meetings like football cheers today.  The Republican mobs would cry out “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?  Gone to the White House, haw, haw haw!”  The allusion here was to the bastard child sired by the Grover.  The Democrats could reply as follows: “Blain, Blain, James G. Blain!  The continental liar from the state of Maine!”  The reference here was to Blain’s denials of highly plausible charges of corrupt dealing on behalf of the railroad interest.

We can all deplore the coarseness of American democracy, but the complaints about its vanishing civility are historically ignorant.  As to political violence, of which there is a long and bloody tradition in American history, there is considerably less of it today than there was in earlier days of the Republic, even leaving unmentioned the awkward episode known as the Civil War.  I am an Arkansan.  At the first meeting of the Arkansas state legislature (1837) a heated discussion arose and the Speaker of the House stepped down from the podium at which he was presiding to engage in a knife fight with another legislator, whom he killed then and there.  Those were the good old days.

There has been a great deal of tisk-tisking over Trump’s truculently announced desire to punch somebody in the nose.   It does sound very unpresidential, but here again there are some advantages to having been around a while.  The consensus of recent American historians is that Harry Truman is among the ten greatest of our presidents.  The actual calculation of the Wikipedia chart devoted to this sweepstates has him coming in at Number Seven.  I don’t dabble in such pseudo-statistics, but President Truman is certainly high on my personal life-time list, coming in just after Franklin Roosevelt, whose unfinished term he inherited.  The President’s daughter Margaret was an amateur singer with professional aspirations.  Paul Hume, the music critic at the Washington Post, wrote an unflattering review of one of her concerts, which took place in December, 1950.  There was a certain amount happening just about then.  The President had declared a state of emergency against “Communist imperialism”.  Dwight Eisenhower assumed the supreme command of NATO forces.  The Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet in the face of an invading Chinese army.  Nonetheless the President of the United States took the time to write a threatening letter, on White House stationery, to the music critic who had panned his little girl.

“I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion that you are an ‘eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay’…” the president began.  “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” Truman not merely had his finger on the nuclear button; he is the only person in history to have pushed the button.  His threat to beat up a journalist was regarded by some Republicans as pathetic and thin-skinned and by some Democrats as touchingly human.  But so far as I know nobody declared it the end of civilization as we have known it, nor did the editorial board of the New York Times melt into a puddle of ghee. 

Trump has called Bernie Sanders a “Communist”.  It is an index of historical change, I suppose, that this remark now seems ludicrous rather than incendiary.  He might as well have charged him with Monophysitism.  After yesterday's voting Mr. Sanders would appear to me to be practically out; but lexical responsibility need not follow him.  To the degree that he is indeed actually a socialist, which is debatable, he belongs to the distinctly American school of “social democracy” represented by Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas and execrated by real Communists as “social fascism”.  But of course Trump’s own adversaries call him a “Fascist” with equal abandon and equal lack of historical sense.  To refresh yourself on how real Communists and real Fascists conducted their electoral competitions I could recommend some choice pages from Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night in which he offers an eye-witness description of the political campaign of 1932 in Hamburg.  “Early one morning a squad of seven young Nazis were on their way to distribute propaganda to the dockers at the harbor gates.  Johnny Dettmer’s crew sauntered up behind them on Admiralty Street, and shot all seven in the back…On [May 19, 1932] one Nazi had his eyes stabbed out with a screw driver… Fourteen Nazis and Communists were killed on July 31, the day of the new Reichstag election…” etc.  This too will pass.