Category Archives: Social History

A Mixed Response from an Old Favorite II

Another new aspect to my re-read of GWTW had to do with the depictions of the slave characters. Having seen the film version at least 3 or 4 times (including once on the big screen during a late 1990s re-release) I always had a feeling that the most developed of the slave characters was Mammy. Based on the film alone, that is still definitely the case. Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning performance gave facets to the character that I would argue are barely present in the book.

Margaret-Mitchell-Gone-With-the-Wind-1936The film version of Margaret Mitchell’s book naturally had to cut out many minor characters and subplots as would be expected when turning a 1037 page epic Pulitzer Prize winning novel into a screenplay. McDaniel’s film Mammy benefitted immensely from this. Many great, perceptive lines that came from minor characters like Will Benteen (a poor white Confederate amputee who marries Scarlett’s sister) and Archie (another poor white) are given to Mammy in the film, the other characters being absent. Also, Hattie McDaniel’s nuanced acting (where IS that Mo’nique biopic anyway?) and powerful screen presence conveyed the idea that Mammy was really the only person (aside from Rhett) who could see through Scarlett’s bullshit. That’s still in the novel, but the point-of-view is such that other characters occasionally, if not consistently, do the same.  Contrary to the way things ordinarily work, the novel’s Mammy seems diluted in comparison to the movie’s Mammy.

The African-American character I found most interesting this go-around was Uncle Peter. While obviously a slave character in a pro-Confederacy novel, he was the vehicle for a lot of interesting exchanges concerning race, class, and social mores of the mid-19th century American South.  His exact age is not given but I suspect Mitchell intends him to be slightly older than the white woman he serves: Melanie’s (and Scarlett’s by her first marriage) Aunt Pittypat Hamilton who is a never-married woman around age 60. The white characters using the patronizing slave-era “Uncle” also would denote an advanced age for Peter.

Again, although I enjoyed the re-read as a whole, last year’s project was really about assessing GWTW’s erroneous and harmful take on Reconstruction. During that half of the book the Uncle Peter bits seem to give me more to chew on than the other slave characters do. He refugees from Atlanta to Macon with his frightened owner, Pittypat, once Sherman begins shelling the city. Later in the novel, Scarlett and Melanie (and Mammy) are at Tara and Uncle Peter travels solo horseback to the farm and makes his first post-war appearance.  He has come to collect Scarlett and Melanie and bring them back to Atlanta since Pitty has returned to her home in the now defeated city. He berates them for not returning to Atlanta despite their maiden aunt’s pleading letters. Mammy scoffs at the idea:

“What’s wrong wid you, nigger?” inquired Mammy with a grin. “Is you gittin’ too ole ter perteck yo’ own Missus?”

Peter was outraged.

“Too ole! Me too ole! No ma’am! Ah kin perteck Miss Pity lak Ah allus done. Ain’ Ah perteck her down ter Macom when us refugeed? Ain’ Ah perteck her when de Yankees come ter Macom an’ she so sceered she faintin’ all de time? An’ ain’ Ah ‘quire disyere nag ter bring her back ter ‘Lanta an’ perteck her an’ her pa’s silver all de way?” Peter drew himself to his full height as he vindicated himself. “Ah ain’ talking’ about perteckin’. Ah’s talking ’bout how it look.”

“How who look?”

“Ah’m talking ’bout how it look ter folks, seein’ Miss Pity livin’ ‘lone. Folks talks scan’lous ’bout maiden ladies dat lives by deyself,” continued Peter, and it was obvious to his listeners that Pittypat, in his mind, was still a plump and charming miss of sixteen who must be sheltered against evil tongues.” (504)

This scene highlights the social absurdities and rules that the older generation are foolishly observing even though they are in the midst of America’s bloodiest war and greatest social upheaval.  60ish Pittypat Hamilton is an unmarried white woman living alone in a house with no relative or chaperone. Her only companion an unmarried African-American man she used to own. His biggest concern in life is what the neighbors think about her. This is funny, pathetic, sad, and surreal all at the same time in ways I doubt Mitchell fully intended.

Eddie Rochester Anderson as Uncle Peter in the film adaptation

Much later in the book, when Scarlett is back in Atlanta (having had to marry Frank Kennedy to save Tara) the racist and misleading asides on Reconstruction are (as I argued) the low-point of the book.  However, the flouting of class and gender conventions hits its apex as a pregnant Scarlett scandalously runs two sawmills and conducts lucrative business deals with the occupying Union officers and hated Carpetbagger businessmen. Uncle Peter is the one who drives Scarlett around as she profits from the rapid rebuilding of Atlanta and oversees her ventures:

While driving home with Uncle Peter one afternoon, she passed the house into which were crowded the families of three officers who were building their own homes with Scarlett’s lumber. The three wives were standing in the walk as she drove by and they waved to her to stop. Coming out to the carriage block they greeted her in accents that always made her feel that one could forgive Yankees almost anything except their voices.

“You are just the person I want to see, Mrs. Kennedy,” said a tall thin woman from Maine. “I want to get some information about this benighted town.”

Scarlett swallowed the insult to Atlanta with the contempt it deserved and smiled her best.

“And what can I tell you?”

“My nurse, my Bridget, has gone back North. She said she wouldn’t stay another day down here among the ‘naygurs’ as she calls them. And the children are just driving me distracted! Do tell me how to go about getting another nurse. I do not know where to apply.”

“That shouldn’t be difficult,” said Scarlett and laughed. “If you can find a darky just in from the country who hasn’t been spoiled by the Freedmen’s Bureau, you’ll have the best kind of servant possible. Just stand at your gate here and ask every darky woman who passes and I’m sure—”

The three women broke into indignant outcries.

“Do you think I’d trust my babies to a black nigger?” cried the Maine woman. “I want a good Irish girl.”

“I’m afraid you’ll find no Irish servants in Atlanta,” answered Scarlett, coolness in her voice. “Personally, I’ve never seen a white servant and I shouldn’t care to have one in my house. And,” she could not keep a slight note of sarcasm from her words, “I assure you that darkies aren’t Cannibals and are quite trustworthy.”

” Goodness, no! I wouldn’t have one in my house. The idea!”

“I wouldn’t trust them any farther than I could see them and as for letting them handle my babies . . .”

Scarlett thought of the kind, gnarled hands of Mammy worn rough in Ellen’s service and hers and Wade’s. What did these strangers know of black hands, how dear and comforting they could be, how unerringly they knew how to soothe, to pat, to fondle? She laughed shortly.

“It’s strange you should feel that way when it was you all who freed them.”

“Lor’! Not I, dearie,” laughed the Maine woman. “I never saw a nigger till I came South last month and I don’t care if I never see another. They give me the creeps. I wouldn’t trust one of them. . . .”

For some moments Scarlett had been conscious that Uncle Peter was breathing hard and sitting up very straight as he stared steadily at the horse’s ears. Her attention was called to him more forcibly when the Maine woman broke off suddenly with a laugh and pointed him out to her companions.

“Look at that old nigger swell up like a toad,” she giggled. “I’ll bet he’s an old pet of yours, isn’t he? You Southerners don’t know how to treat niggers. You spoil them to death.”

Peter sucked in his breath and his wrinkled brow showed deep furrows but he kept his eyes straight ahead. He had never had the term “nigger” applied to him by a white person in all his life. By other negroes, yes. But never by a white person. And to be called untrustworthy and an “old pet,” he, Peter, who had been the dignified mainstay of the Hamilton family for years!

Scarlett felt, rather than saw, the black chin begin to shake with hurt, pride, and a killing rage swept over her. She had listened with calm contempt while these women had underrated the Confederate Army, blackguarded Jeff Davis and accused Southerners of murder and torture of their slaves. If it were to her advantage she would have endured insults about her own virtue and honesty. But the knowledge that they had hurt the faithful old darky with their stupid remarks fired her like a match in gunpowder. For a moment she looked at the big horse pistol in Peter’s belt and her hands itched for the feel of it. They deserved killing, these insolent, ignorant, arrogant conquerors. But she bit down on her teeth until her jaw muscles stood out, reminding herself that the time had not yet come when she could tell the Yankees just what she thought of them. Some day, yes. My God, yes! But not yet.

“Uncle Peter is one of our family,” she said, her voice shaking. Good afternoon. Drive on, Peter.”

Peter laid the whip on the horse so suddenly that the startled animal jumped forward and as the buggy jounced off, Scarlett heard the Maine woman say with puzzled accents: “Her family? You don’t suppose she meant a relative? He’s exceedingly black.”

This whole exchange is fascinating and incredibly uncomfortable to read. Although my response is probably not the political takeaway Mitchell wanted (slavery = benevolent, Scarlett’s crack about the Freedman’s Bureau ruining rural ex-slaves is telling), I do think this “hiring the help” passage cuttingly highlights Northern racism 1868 vs. Southern racism 1868.  Not to mention the irony that in Maine the servant-class were poor Irish immigrants as the officers’ wives unwittingly insult Scarlett O’Hara-Kennedy. It also reveals Scarlett’s cut-throat business opportunism, the Union officers’ wives’ contempt for the freed slaves, and Mitchell’s underlying racism all in one scene. Oddly (or brilliantly) this exchange shows that, while greedily taking every dime she can earn from Union business, Scarlett still loathes them as deeply as her peers. The wounding of Uncle Peter’s pride is the closest she ever comes to publicly breaking her facade of collaboration. Throw in miscegenation (which Mitchell otherwise avoids), the usage of racist epitaphs, and I suspect I’ve analyzed this scene a good deal more than author ever intended.

A couple of pages later Uncle Peter refuses to chauffeur Scarlett any longer if she continues to do business with the Occupiers and Scarlett is forced to take on a (white) former convict as her driver. Uncle Peter’s first stand made as a free employee is to show his solidarity with the Old Guard of Atlanta society. Once again, Mitchell uses Uncle Peter to highlight white people’s dying social mores in chaotic times.


“Convention of Negroes Discussing Political Rights, Atlanta” engraving from 1869


A Mixed Response from an Old Favorite


Scarlett picks her way among the wounded and dying at the Atlanta rail yard during the final days of the siege of Atlanta. From the 1939 adaptation of the novel.

Late last summer I read the 1936 novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell with an intention to concentrate on the historical accuracy of the Reconstruction passages, since I’d already read the novel at least two other times. I ended up backtracking and re-reading it cover-to-cover and came away with so many new feelings about it this blog post has been began and aborted at least four or five times for failure to focus on one aspect to it. Coming off the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation this month, Spielberg’s Lincoln (concentrating exclusively on the passage of the 13th Amendment no less!), Django Unchained, and the recent nasty attempts to revive Jim Crow voting laws in the South, I desperately needed to revisit this dormant 2012 project. Who knows, maybe Kenya Moore pushed me over the edge with her new song!

The Pulitzer Prize winner was an even better read than I remembered. Especially as an engrossing story of people, manners, relationships and social mores of an era. I feel it actually deserves to be grouped closer (higher?) with other American novels in that vein (Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street come to mind). Yes, GWTW is at times an apologia for slavery. Yet, I feel that backdrop is so well known due to the continued popularity of both the book and the film I really don’t have anything to say about that which hasn’t been said a million times before. In fact, I daresay most people today who pick up a copy of the book or instant-stream the film on Netflix do so knowing full well they are going to get a hackneyed version of slavery. This is still problematic, but I feel most readers today come prepared for what they are in for: benevolent fictional slave-owners.

Yet for all its fiction Mitchell has an interesting technique throughout the book where she narrates the history of the time frame as an aside: and she does it quite well. This is how the reader gets information about the battles and military maneuvers and background politics that are happening around our main characters during the Civil War. It is useful because you certainly wouldn’t get that from Scarlett’s self-centered, decidedly non-analytical worldview. So these omniscient historical narratives do actually give the book a historical heft it might not have had otherwise:

“Johnson fought desperately at Resaca and repulsed the Yankees again, but Sherman, employing the same flanking movement, swung his vast army in another semicircle, crossed the Oostanaula River and again stuck at the railroad in the Confederate rear. Again the gray lines were summoned swiftly from their red ditches to defend the railroad, and, weary for sleep, exhausted from marching and fighting, and hungry, always hungry, they made another rapid march down the valley. They reached the little town of Calhoun, six miles below Resaca, ahead of the Yankees, entrenched and were again ready for the attack when the Yankees came up. The attack came, there was fierce skirmishing and the Yankees were beaten back.”

Mitchell’s book is probably the first place I read about the Battle of Peachtree Creek, Dacatur, Ezra Church and other skirmishes outside of Atlanta.  The descriptions of these maneuvers, like above, are engagingly written but pretty straightforward. Here Mitchell describes some of the internal domestic politics within the Confederacy:

“…a vague distrust of those in high places had begun to creep over the civilian population. Many newspapers were out-spoken in their denunciation of President Davis himself and the manner in which he prosecuted the war. There were dissensions within the Confederate cabinet, disagreements between President Davis and his generals. The currency was falling rapidly. Shoes and clothing for the army were scare, ordnance supplies and drugs were scarcer. The railroads needed new cars to take the place of the old ones and the new iron rails to replace those torn up by the Yankees. The generals in the field were crying out for fresh troops to be had. Worst of all, some of the state governors, Governor Brown of Georgia among them, were refusing to sent state militia troops and arms out of their borders. There were thousands of able-bodied men in the state troops for who the army was frantic, but the government pleaded for them in vain.
With the fall of the currency, prices soared again. Beef, pork, and butter cost thirty-five dollars a pound, flour fourteen hundred dollars a barrel, soda one hundred dollars a pound, tea five hundred dollars a pound. Warm clothing, when it was obtainable at all, had risen to such prohibitive prices that Atlanta ladies were lining their old dresses with rags and reinforcing them with newspapers to keep out the wind. Shoes cost from two hundred to eight hundred dollars a pair, depending on whether they were made of cardboard or real leather. Ladies now wore gaiters made of their old wool shawls and cut-up carpets. The soles were made of wood.”

Passages like this describing the rampant inflation during the War obviously involved a considerable degree of research by Mitchell, and I’ve been unable to find any historians attacking these passages as inaccurate.  In interviews after publication she would often dismiss her historic diligence as mere curious childhood and good listening on the laps of elderly relatives telling war stories. Yet, in other interviews, she admits that when it came to small details like the weather on a certain day of battle or a certain hairstyle of the time she consulted newspapers, magazines and other public records ever worried an elderly veteran or octogenarian Atlanta war widow would catch an error.

Then comes Reconstruction: the undeniable low-point of the novel in terms of historical accuracy. Mitchell becomes either exceedingly lazy or racist, probably a bit of both. Here, the formerly reliable omniscient voice is completely untrustworthy, repeating broad Carpetbagger clichés and outright lies about the lawmakers during the period of roughly 1865-1877. Mitchell describes Georgia’s situation with the newly freed slaves circa 1865:

“Aided by the unscrupulous adventurers who operated the Freedman’s Bureau and urged on by a fervor of Northern hatred almost religious in its fanaticism, the former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty. There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild–either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance. (634)

On the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan:

“It was the large number of outrages on women and the ever-present fear for the safety of their wives and daughters that drove Southern men to cold and trembling fury and caused the Ku Klux Klan to spring up overnight. And it was against this nocturnal organization that the newspapers of the North cried out most loudly, never realizing the tragic necessity that brought it into being. The North wanted every member of the Ku Klux Klan hunted down and hanged, because they had dared take the punishment of crime into their own hands at a time when the ordinary processes of law and order had been overthrown by the invaders.
Here was the astonishing spectacle of half a nation attempting, at the point of bayonet, to force upon the other half the rule of negroes, many of them scarcely one generation out of the African jungles. The vote must be given to them but it must be denied to most of their former owners. The South must be kept down and disenfranchisement of the whites was one way to keep the South down. (656)

This passage rightly causes discomfort both now and in 1936. The thing is, had this tirade about martial law and Reconstruction come from the point of view of one of the characters it would be less disturbing. GWTW is a pro-Confederacy novel and the characters are mainly all white Southerners possessing some degree of racist paternalism (and I’m being generous here–others ride with the KKK). I could more easily stomach this passage coming from the mouth or thought-process of, say, Tony Fontaine or one of the other white Southern characters with an obvious bias. Yet here Mitchell employs that very same detached historical-narrator technique that she used so effectively to detail wartime specifics to irresponsibly spout trite racist garbage straight out of The Birth of a Nation.

Mitchell is ignorant of–or chooses to ignore–the reality that most African-Americans serving in Reconstruction governments were far from ignorant field hands. Most came from the educated class of Free African-Americans or ex-slaves who had gone North and become involved in politics. Others had served in the Union Army. A majority were mixed-race, hardly “a generation away” from Africa. I know of not one Reconstruction politician who was illiterate. Mitchell willfully ignores the reality of African-American congressmen like Hiram Revels, P.B.S Pinchback, Robert Brown Elliot, and Robert Smalls. African-American congressmen, representing Southern districts, managed to cling to a few seats in the House of Representatives until George Henry White’s term expired in 1901. This was the year after Margaret Mitchell was born, and she wrote the bulk of her novel during the late 1920s: the heyday of the erasing from history all racial gains of Reconstruction, the height of Dunning School and the mis-education of Reconstruction as a tragic era and not the unique American attempt in multi-racial democracy it was. The GWTW passages on Reconstruction say far more about the racial attitudes of the 1920s than the reality of the 1860s and 1870s, sadly.

When Mitchell weaves in detailed political events of the time from the characters’ point of view, I’m less bothered. This passage on pages 756-7 I hadn’t caught in my previous readings and concerns the Georgia State Legislature refusing to ratify the 15th Amendment (which nationalized the franchise to the freed slaves):

“Something’s right and something’s wrong,” barked Uncle Henry. “Depends of how you look at it. The way I figure is the legislature couldn’t have done different.”
The legislature? thought Scarlett in relief. She had little interest in the legislature, feeling that its doings could hardly affect her. It was the prospect of the Yankee soldiers on a rampage that frightened her.
“What’s the legislature been up to now?”
“They’ve flatly reused the ratify the amendment,” said Grandpa Merriwether and there was pride in his voice. “That’ll show the Yankees.”
“And there’ll be hell to pay for it–I beg your pardon, Scarlett,” said Ashley.
“Oh the amendment?” questioned Scarlett trying to look intelligent.
Politics were beyond her and she seldom wasted time thinking about them. There had been a Thirteeth Amendment ratified sometime before or maybe it had been the Sixteenth Amendment but what ratification meant she had no idea. Men were always getting excited about such things. Something of her lack of comprehension showed in her face and Ashley smiled.
“It’s the amendment letting the darkies vote, you know.” he explained. “It was submitted to the legislature and they refused to ratify it.”
“How silly of them! You know the Yankees are going to force it down our throats anyway!”
“That’s what I meant by saying there’d be hell to pay,” said Ashley.
“I’m proud of the legislature, proud of their gumption!” shouted Uncle Henry. “The Yankees can’t force it down our throats if we won’t have it.”
“They can and they will.” Ashley’s voice was calm but there was worry in his eyes. “And it’ll make things just that much harder for us.”
“Oh, Ashley, surely not! Things couldn’t be any harder than they are now!”
“Yes, things can get worse, even worse than they are now. Suppose we have a darky legislature? A darky governor? Suppose we have a worse military rule than we now have?”


The Georgia legislature’s refusal to ratify the 14th Amendment extending citizenship to freed slaves. 1866

These moments are less bothersome because the historical nuggets are coming from the characters and actions of the story itself. This passage is fascinating, for not only does it have an 1866 historical detail I hadn’t thought about (the Georgia legislature attempting to fight back against Reconstruction) but you get insight into the racial politics (or lack thereof in Scarlett’s case) of characters you are very familiar with after 700-odd pages. Interestingly, although an African-American President sits in the White House, Ashley’s concern about an eminent black governor of Georgia has still not happened in the following 150 years.  Later, Rhett and Scarlett endure the ire of their neighbors for associating with governor Rufus Brown Bullock, a Southern-raised politician who collaborated with Reconstruction and was ousted as Georgia governor mid-term.  These moments still reveal Mitchell’s Lost Cause attitudes, of course (it’s ambiguous whether our sympathies are supposed to be more with suffer-nobly-in-poverty Atlanta society or more with survivalist, only-dollars-matter Scarlett) but at least we are spared that outside historical-aside voice that makes the Reconstruction political portions of the novel so unreliable (and the rest so good).

The Civil War itself and the preceding antebellum slavery period gets used and reused as a setting or backdrop in various pieces, from various perspectives and degrees of accuracy, with each passing decade: Mandingo, Roots, Glory, AmistadCold Mountain, Django, Lincoln.  You can’t really say the same about Reconstruction. Seventy-five years after its publication Gone With the Wind is, very unfortunately, still the primary vehicle to which countless people are introduced to that period in US history.


1881 lithograph entitled “Heroes of the Colored Race”. By 1881 Reconstruction was officially over, but the elimination of black US congressmen had not yet been completed: the House still had African-American members as late as 1901. The heroes in the picture include first black US Senator Hiram Revels as well as US presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and Grant. In 1881 the Republican Party still was perceived as the party of the freed slave and his allies.

He Wants A Change Too


The 1876 image immediately above is by Thomas Nast and is called “He Wants A Change Too”. Nast is probably the most prolific political cartoonists for Reconstruction politics. This being in response to the Tilden/Hayes election in which the infamous deal was cut that effectively ended Reconstruction and African-American civil rights for decades. Watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained yesterday this cartoon instantly popped into my mind (I think I first saw it in one of Eric Foner’s books?).

As Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg mention you really can’t have a talk about the history of US gun laws without talking about race. I still have conflicting opinions on what the exact interpretation of the 2nd Amendment should be in modern times, but not on the NRA and the gun lobby itself. I can’t help but notice that after the recent bloody Newton shooting the NRA response was to arm every teacher with a gun (“the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”). Yet, after the unarmed Trayvon Martin was shot, I can’t seem to recall the NRA clamoring for African-American youths to be armed in order to protect themselves.

Social Security Panic Syndrome

With all the current talk in Washington DC about the so-called “fiscal cliff” I’ve been surprised how much the nearly 80 year old American Social Security system is being dragged into the debate.  This is unnecessary and plays into a long-standing American tradition of pulling the Social Security system into any and all fiscal dilemmas.  I call it Social Security Panic Syndrome.

Let’s be clear: there IS an upcoming tipping point somewhere between 2032 and 2037 where there will be more money going out than money coming in.  You hear it referred to as “a ticking time bomb” or a “looming disaster”.  This is gross overstatement and fear-mongering by people who either A) have an agenda to end a very successful program as we know it* or B) don’t actually understand the existing reform history and demographics faced.

Here are 3 things that NEVER seem to get mentioned when these charged conversations about debt, entitlements, and the mythological “ticking time bomb” are happening.  Next time you hear alarmism about Social Security just keep calm, carry on, and keep in mind these three things:

1) Even if we do absolutely nothing, the worst case scenario is a 23% benefit cut beginning about 2035. Again this is the WORST CASE SCENARIO should we sit on our hands and do absolutely nothing to bolster Social Security. This is not good, but it is also not a ticking time bomb. In my mind showing up to work and finding the doors are locked, the company has gone under, and you are out of a job would be the bombshell. Showing up to work and finding out you are receiving a 23% salary cut? Shitty, but not the entire system imploding forever.  I would rather spend the energy finding some patches and fixes to make up that 23% than completely scrap a successful and highly popular program. Ask President Bush how that privatization plan went. Nevermind the administrative and political cost which would be required to reinvent the system, but a stock-market based plan could easily tank even more than 23%. Case in point: most Americans’ 401Ks circa 2008.

2) Baby Boomers will die eventually.  Yes, this generation has dominated policy discussion on social and economic issues for so long I think we have ceased to be able to imagine an America without Boomers! Well, it will happen. They too will die. This is a demographic hump to get over, and then the road is smooth again.  Once the Boomers begin to head off to the great Woodstock in the Sky the system will return to ordinary solvency. Radical overhaul is not needed for a temporary demographic hump.  Some fine-tuning and tweaking is.

3) We ALREADY raised the retirement age.  Another talking-point parroted as gospel by Social Security nay-sayers: “people live so long now! we have to raise the retirement age!”.  Here is the thing: in the 1980s President Reagan and the Democratic controlled Congress in bipartisan collaboration DID JUST THAT.  If you were born in the 1970s or later, you will not retire with full benefits until age 67.  Again, I think those whose agenda is to scrap or privatize the system purposefully ignore this important and necessary reform from 1983. Most current Republicans fail to grasp–or purposefully ignore–what a savvy ability to compromise Reagan often had, but that is for another blog post. Post-Boomers will be retiring between 67 and 70.  According to the 2010 census data the average US life-expectancy is 78.2 years.

Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill at the signing of the 1983 Social Security Reform Bill

Personally, I do think a little creative doctoring of the system needs to happen in order to keep the solvency over the next 40 years or so.  However, I feel strongly these three facts need to be front and center in any discussion of what those fixes should be. Otherwise all perspective is lost in the shuffle. My generation has been so raised in “ticking time bomb” hyperbole I daresay most aren’t aware of the above three realities.  Here is my solution:

1) Raise the maximum taxable earnings limit.  Currently an American worker only pays into the system on their first $110K of wages. I think due to the upcoming demographic hump that figure should be increased to somewhere between 175K and 195K.  I feel it should be done as soon as possible so that those workers who are currently in their 50s will have helped to keep the system solvent before their own retirements at age 62-65.

2) Immigration Reform.  When we do hit that 2035-ish tipping point of full Baby Boomer retirement there is an obvious solution: bring in more young workers to boost the worker-to-retiree ratio (which is currently 3 to 1, we should get it even higher). People are having smaller families in 2012 than they did in 1948, for instance, so we can counter-balance the graying of our populace with younger workers from abroad.  These immigrants will pay into the Social Security system their whole lives so the younger we can bring them into our workforce the better.  There should be no reason a foreigner who achieved a marketable degree or skill on a US student visa shouldn’t be able to easily transfer that to a work visa and begin paying into Social Security. Baby Boomers should be the first to support immigration reform for this reason.

3) Should #1 and #2 still fall a little short? So be it.  Let the Social Security payments in 2035 be slightly smaller than expected. Remember, the 23% slash of promised benefits is the do-nothing scenario. Immigration reform and a modest raise on the payroll cap should take care of that.  All post-Boomer generations are already taking the hit via the aforementioned 1983 increased retirement age, Boomers can carry their fair share of the burden with a slight reduction in expected benefits (less than 10% probably) in order to keep the system sustainable for their children and grandchildren.  It’s a shared sacrifice and I think most Americans understand that some small compromises from all is preferable to throwing the baby out with the bath water.

FDR signing the Social Security Act: August 14, 1935

* There is a legitimate philosophical argument to be made from a Libertarian perspective that the entire US Social Security system should be scrapped and retirement should be an individual’s responsibility: sink or swim pre-1935 style.  I find few politicians willing to argue that openly and honestly and, rather, am pushing back in this piece against those who clamor for radical overhaul under pretexts of impending disaster.

John R. Neill

Since there is a rather important even happening today that may be distracting me, I decided I would do a lighter post about a children’s illustrator that was a HUGE part of my childhood. I just accidentally stumbled across him when I was researching images of Topsy (from the Harriet Beecher Stowe book Uncle Tom’s Cabin) for another piece I want to do.  Not sure if that post is going to ever come to fruition or not: it involves Yoo-hoo, Mountain Dew, and the unlikely success of reality television’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Neill’s 1908 illustration of Eva and Topsy is pretty typical of the time. Eva = angelic, Topsy = wild & savage-like.

Anyway, in that process, I found this 1908 image and it’s pretty much the racist, caricatured image of Topsy common at the time. A whole book could be written on Topsy alone and her interesting Jim Crow evolution. Yet the illustration style overall (more Eva than Topsy) struck a nostalgic chord with me instantly. Then I put my finger on why! The illustrator is the creator of my childhood memories of the Oz books: John R. Neill! Of course he did other work besides the Oz books but I guess I just hadn’t realized it extended to older classics like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Honestly I don’t think I’d ever seen a bit of his work outside Baum’s books.

To me Oz will always be L. Frank Baum + John R. Neill (apologies to MGM, Judy Garland, and W.W. Denslow). So, just for the hell of it here are some illustrations—

Ozma and Dorothy seem quite close in this illustration from 1909

This picture (above) is from Tik-Tok of Oz (1914).  Can any science fiction historians confirm or deny if L. Frank Baum’s Tik-Tok is fiction’s first robot or not? I’ve heard he is, since he was 100% human-created and mechanical as opposed to Baum’s Tin Woodman from the first book (1900) who was a regular flesh and blood man who had become tin via magic and supernatural methods.

Another Neill picture of Ozma. Ozma’s age was always kind of ambiguous to me. She seems 16-17ish here?

The Confederacy Vote is not “the White Vote”

Lately there has been so much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over Obama and “the white vote” you’d think there was something new, wide-spread, or unprecedented going on. There isn’t. If you look at the data state-by-state it is obvious that the President is polling in alignment with most Democratic candidates over the last few years. Or better. Clinton lost the white vote in both 1992 and 1996. Remember, Obama was the first Democratic candidate to win with over 50% of the white vote since Carter in 1976.

“The white vote” (like I argued this spring for “the Catholic vote”) is a voting-block concept that, frankly, needs to be retired for lack of meaning.  I know it makes for flashy alarmist headlines on CNN and FOX but let’s be clear: caucasian generational and geographic diversity–as well as partisan identification–trumps race ultimately.

Take a look at these numbers.

Washington, Oregon, and Vermont are three mainly caucasian states: Obama is comfortably getting 59%, 60% and 68% (!) of the white people’s’ vote here.  Obviously, these are Blue States so voters were naturally predisposed to the “D” after the name and race played less of a factor.  But, that’s kind of my point…

However, look at the states of the former Confederacy (Table 2).  Alabama white vote? 10%. Mississippi white vote? 11%. Georgia, even with progressive Atlanta, Capitol of the New South?  Still only 23% of the white vote went to Obama in 2008.  It can’t be emphasized enough: the Southern white vote drastically skews the national “white vote” average and muddies the whole picture to appear different than a typical Red/Blue or Dem/GOP divide.  Keep in mind the former Confederate states are extreme even compared to other lily-white Republican states.  North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska are so consistently Red most candidates in either party don’t bother to campaign or focus campaign funds there. They also have majority-caucasian, Republican-dominated populations. However they are not even close to the drastically out-of-whack Confederate numbers: North Dakota: 42% white support for Obama in 2008, Montana: 45%, Alaska 33%.  In swing states (like Ohio) it’s razor-thin and 50/50.  So yes, the votes of some working-class over-55 white people could make that crucial difference thanks to our Electoral College system.  Yet, this shouldn’t bring about alarmist headlines about Obama (or any Democrat) losing the white vote as a whole. 

Map of states in existence in 1861: Red States are the Confederacy, Blue States Union, yellow states had legalized slavery at some level but did not join the Confederacy.

From Nixon’s Southern Strategy to today the GOP has slowly but steadily painted itself into a corner as a Southern-dominated party, much the way the Democrats did 100 years ago. This is not news for post-Nixon Democrats: for about thirty years it was obsessively (and in my opinion often foolishly) focused on plunking any white Southerner onto the Democrat ticket (John Edwards, really?) in hopes of peeling off a Southern state or two.  As the parties re-aligned 1968-1992 (roughly) this proved a less and less effective path to victory: culminating in the razor-thin election of 2000 where Gore (at the top of the ticket!) couldn’t even bring his home state of Tennessee over to the Democratic column.  Think about it this way: for all of Bill Clinton’s newly rejuvenated popularity every talking head would agree he’d need to fight tooth and nail to win his home state of Arkansas (and in my opinion would probably still lose it) in 2012.

However, Clinton wouldn’t have to lift a finger for California: home state of Reagan and Nixon and the biggest electoral prize of all.   Neither does Obama.  Obama’s numbers reflect the changing demographics of the nation as a whole, a 40-year realignment of the parties’ base, and geographic changes.  Rather than yet another repetitive article (or book) fixated on a 2% or 3% drop among rural working-class white voters in the Midwest, how about a piece on the freakishly skewed numbers among white voters in the Deep South?

Robert Brown Elliott: Original Birther?

This month I finished reading two books about African-American Congressmen in the US Senate and House during the Reconstruction period. One, The Glorious Failure, was unexpected as I’d never heard of it and I only was barely aware of South Carolina Representative Robert Brown Elliott.  However, in the more recent Capitol Men Dray mentions author Peggy Lamson having done the most thorough research on Elliott’s mysterious past and childhood and I was intrigued.  Lamson’s book was long out of print but luckily for me, Seattle Public Library was able to get me a loaner that was at Evergreen State College in Olympia!

—Picture of the first African-Americans serving in the US Congress: 1869-1872. Robert Brown Elliott is on the far right.

Elliott claimed to be born in Boston, MA but no record of proof can be found of that.  He also claimed to have been educated primarily in the UK, including his law degree from Eaton.  Yet, no record can be found of that either although there is quite a bit of evidence of his time spent in Liverpool just prior to emigrating (or “returning”) to the US.  Lawson speculates that he may very well have been Liverpool-born (Liverpool had been the center of the UK slave trade and had a not insubstantial African descended population from that period) and hadn’t had his citizenship the required eight years to be a US member of the House of Representatives.  Thus, an invented a Boston birth, followed by years of education in the UK.  When campaigning and visiting Boston Elliott strangely never made reference to his childhood or places of significance there, he only spoke of his Boston childhood when in South Carolina. Some speculate that Elliott may have actually been South Carolina born and raised, but that seems less likely.  Yet, references to a British accent are curiously absent from contemporary reports as well. What’s interesting is that at the time of his service in Congress he was often referred to as the first “African” US congressman, as most of the other African-Americans serving were of mixed-race. What a strange postscript to history if the first “African” United State Congressman was actually a British subject.

Lincoln, the Civil War & a 1956 “Human Wormhole”

An amazing short clip has surfaced on YouTube of a 1956 episode of CBS’s I’ve Got a Secret game show where they brought on the last surviving witness to Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 assassination by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater.  Watch it Here! This kind of historical human wormhole (during the Age of Television there was someone alive who saw Lincoln!?!) is always fascinating! There were at least two or three women who were drawing state Confederate Widow’s pensions as of a couple years ago. Teenaged girls who married ninety-something men during the Great Depression precisely for that reason: to collect that pension. During the Depression before any safety net for the elderly or Social Security this was a win-win for the girl and the dying veteran. He got someone to care for him in his final days, she was guaranteed a check for life. Back to this game show. What struck me (aside from all the cigarette shilling) is at the 2:30 mark where the program host says the secret-to-guess (Lincoln’s murder) “had not to do with the Civil War”. He then sort of awkwardly backtracks and adds “well, uh, let’s say indirectly“. The idea that you’d even need to hesitate over that question is remarkable to me! Yet, this is a very typical response concerning the Lincoln assassination both in the 1950s and today.  Keeping Lincoln’s assassination in a neat little box of national tragedy: completely removed from the bloodiest 4 years in American history.

Photograph of Lincoln’s body as he was embalmed.

Its unfortunate that the Civil War in popular memory has been so separated off into this bizarre, isolated, collective place of battlefields, generals, flags, and cannons.  Slavery? Oh that’s a separate box.  Voting rights for African-Americans? Different box. Lincoln’s assassination? Work of a deranged madman like John Hinkley. The adjectives used to describe the Civil War are invariably “tragic”, “sad”, or “heroic”.

Imagine switching on the television tonight and discovering that President Obama was just shot in the head, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been hacked with a knife while sleeping in her bed, and a person-of-interest has been taken into custody confessing he was under instructions to kill Joe Biden. Would we hesitate to call that Domestic Terrorism? Would we separate it from the world events happening around us? John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices were pro-Confederacy conspirators who hatched this plot in order to create terrorism in the truest sense of the word. The idea was that the Top 3 in line of succession to the US Presidency being slaughtered on the same night would plunge the federal government, Union Army, and general populace into such chaos that it would create an opening for some or all of the Southern states to re-establish home control. What was the tipping point for Booth to justify this plot? In John Wilkes Booth’s own words following Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural speech: “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Lincoln’s assassination was a last-ditch act of war. The Civil War. The Civil War was about slavery. Lincoln’s assassination was in response to citizenship for African-Americans. There is no “indirectly” here.

Spectators watch the hanging of Mary Surratt & Lewis Powell. July 7th, 1865. Both were convicted of being part of John Wilkes Booth’s terrorism plot to kill the President, VP, and Secretary of State on April 14th.

Earle Wilton Richardson & the WPA

Earle Wilton Richardson: The Employment of Negroes in Agriculture 1934

This has hung in 5 different homes of mine over the years, including my current apartment.  I’ve long been fascinated with public art created for FDR’s Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. You can view WPA artwork in public places all over the country including Diego Rivera’s murals in San Francisco’s Coit Tower.  A common theme in WPA is a glorification of the dignity of the working man, as in this case.

The artist, Earle Wilton Richardson, would have been 100 years old this year.  He was only 22 when commissioned by the WPAOriginally he and fellow African-American artist Malvin Gray Johnson (who has a much more extensive catalogue of WPA art) were to do a larger, Diego Rivera-style mural at New York Public Library’s 135th street branch.  However, Johnson died unexpectedly of illness in late 1934. They were a couple and severe depression over his partner’s death led Richardson to suicide in early 1935.

Charlotte & Unabashed Patriotism

I didn’t manage to catch as many speeches as I would have liked at the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte (other than the Big Four: Barack, Michelle, Bill and Biden).  However I am now convinced that the era–of my lifetime–of Democrats being vaguely apologetic for overt patriotism and flag-waving? Over.  It’s done.  In fact, comparing it to the GOP’s party in Tampa a week earlier, not only have the Democrats gotten out of their defensive crouch, they have succeeded at being the stronger party at conveying American optimism and unabashed patriotism.

The first Republican convention I can (sketchily) remember watching on television was George HW Bush’s nomination in 1988.  I remember the surprising Quayle VP pick and the brouhaha over it.  I remember the ridiculing of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis and his campaign blunders.  I also remember a speech (if anyone can tell me who it was or where I can find a clip–MUCH OBLIGED!) in which a Republican orator gave a dripping-with-mockery speech about how the other team (Dems) requested flags and bunting that were less solid colors, in order to come across better on camera at their convention. The speaker then went into a tirade about how of COURSE the Republicans would never do that! The RED standing for the blood of our soldiers who died in battle! The BLUE of the great American sky….well, maybe not that…I’m sketchy on the details.  Looking back I wonder if the “let’s use toned-down flags” really happened or it was just rhetorical flourish from the Republicans.  What I do remember is the takeaway message: Democrats are namby-pamby and weak; Republicans are patriotic and strong.

We all know it wasn’t always like this. Nixon’s use of flag label pins to indicate the “Silent Majority” who supported US action in Vietnam, Baby Boomers and flag-burning as protests to it, and other more subtle cultural side-taking nuances spawned in the 1960s and 1970s.  I grew up in the aftermath of that period but the narrative had been set: Republicans are the party of God, Guns, & Guts (I think I saw that on a bumper sticker).  The reaction to that extreme rhetoric is that suddenly the US flag (in some quarters, not all) became shorthand for a certain type of politics: uncomplicated and blindly nationalistic.  Some would demure from flying an American flag too often (or at all) because they didn’t want others to think they were either of those things.  It’s a vicious circle: they (right-wingers) believe they are the patriotic ones because they are in-your-face about it, they (left-wingers) are not overly in-your-face about it because they don’t want to come across as jingoistic.  By the 1990s a sort of snide elitism had set in on the Left: we don’t need that excessive flag-waving because we know love-of-country means so much more than that.  Or worse, it was perceived as somewhat declasse or tacky: like a rusting car on cinder locks right in the front yard.

I felt I was immunized against falling for either partisan stereotype until I had a conversation with some Canadians while vacationing in Puerto Vallarta.  Go to any gay beach where there are a lot of Canadian travellers (and that’s most) and you’ll be bound to see a few muscled arms or torso imprinted with that instantly recognizable Maple Leaf.  Since I assumed that most gay guys would veer at least center-left in their politics, I thought there must be an element of post-modern irony contained in a flag tattoo.  Or a military connection.  Nope.  At least to those I talked with, it was fairly straight-forward: “I’m Canadian. I’m proud of it” (and presumably also favor tattoos).  No political messaging was going on there.  Also, no Seattle/Portland irony-of-the-ink which flows thicker than coffee where I live.  I got it wrong.

This past Memorial Day a reader wrote to Andrew Sullivan with this:

Here’s my story about liberals and the flag; or: “What my father taught me about patriotism.” We are Jewish, from Brooklyn, and very liberal.  My parents were New Deal Democrats, and worshipped FDR, JFK, and the Great Society.  In 1968 and beyond, we opposed the war in Vietnam and supported anti-war candidates.  During the Moratoriums and other anti-war protests in 1969, Nixon (whom we all despised – rightly, as it turned out) called upon the “Silent Majority” of Americans who supported him and the War to fly the flag on the upcoming holiday (I think it was Memorial Day, actually).  Come Memorial Day, my liberal father hung out his American flag.

“But Dad,” my then-teenaged sister, brother and I protested, “How can you do that?  You’re showing support for Nixon and the War!”  “Let me tell you something,” my father – who immigrated from Poland in 1929 at the age of 11, and had fought for the U.S. in North Africa, Italy and France – replied: “That’s MY flag, too;  and that bastard isn’t going to take it away from me!”

I blame conservatives for politicizing the flag.  I blame liberals for letting them.  And I credit the lesson of my father, unabashed liberal, critic – and patriot.

In Charlotte the Democrats clearly have taken a page from this man’s father’s book.  The chanting of U-S-A, the flag-waving, the thanking of the troops, never seemed like a pale imitation of when Republicans do it.  I think the tide has turned over the last few years and progressives–like those of the FDR generation–are comfortable with a little loud and traditional patriotism again.

Delegate ticket to the 1936 Democratic Convention to re-nominate President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a second term. It was a landslide, FDR won every state except Maine and Vermont.