Category Archives: Social History

Today will definitely be highest security Southen Methodist University has ever seen

All five living presidents of the United States & their spouses including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

All five living presidents of the United States & their spouses including former Secretary of State (and possible future POTUS?) Hillary Clinton. April 25th, 2013

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Why Patti Davis and Michael Reagan are both right–and wrong–about their father

I am finding this light family spat between our 40th president’s two children fascinating. It highlights a generational difference that is more nuanced than partisan marriage equality supporters (and detractors) care to admit and highlights the inevitable folly of bringing one’s own outlook to those of your deceased predecessors.

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Patti Davis posing provocatively in 1994.

Davis (born in 1952), is (as is common for her Boomer cohort) naturally trying to make the personal political. In her view because her father had no personal animus toward his gay friends, many of them in long-term couples, of course he would be supportive of same-sex marriage if alive today! From everything I’ve read about President Reagan his nonchalant attitude toward gays is indeed accurate and matches what Davis recalls. The first I’d read about this was in the biography of silent movie actor William Haines. Not only did Ronald and Nancy Reagan seem to concur with Joan Crawford that William Haines and Jimmie Shields were “the happiest married couple in Hollywood” the author’s interviews with Nancy Reagan confirmed a close friendship and sincere outreach to Haines’ partner after Haines died. Patti Davis in her interview mentions a lesbian couple they who babysat and housesat for the Reagans, openly as a couple.

Davis plays to the (at least historic) GOP position on less government to say: “He was well known for wanting less government. He would truly be baffled at what the problem is.”  While this may be true, I think it downplays Reagan’s legacy of throwing more than the occasional bone to the religious right-wing of his party, at least once in office. Davis should know her father was a politician and just as the modern GOP overstates the man’s staid conservatism (he raised taxes when necessary and demurred from armed conflict in Beirut in the face of terrorism, for instance) she shouldn’t overstate his Social Libertarianism either. When it came to 1978’s Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gays from being public school teachers in the state of California, Reagan did ultimately oppose legislating discrimination and spoke out against it. His response/reasoning appealed to basic sense of privacy plus distrust of government meddling in personal lives and employment opportunities. While brave for someone who was soon to be entering the primary battle for nominee of the Republican Party, gay issues had not yet been established as a partisan litmus test either way. Reagan was not boldly flouting his base in 1978 as he would have been in 1988 or 2008. The current level of engagement on that issue is something Reagan would not have even fathomed. For that matter nor would have his openly gay colleague William Haines. Plus, being accepting of individual gay people does not always translate to brave political moves on their behalf. While I appreciate Patti’s warm memories there really is no way of knowing how publicly he would have came out for marriage equality in the last days of his dementia (when marriage equality was only just beginning to be presented as a serious issue) or how much he would have (perhaps begrudgingly) accepted the ever-rightward lurch of his party through the 1990s.

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Michael Reagan posing provocatively in 2005

However, if you set aside the absurd homophobic slips and slopes in his rebuttal, deeply conservative son Michael Reagan actually has a fair point when refuting his sister and speculating himself: “He would have pulled both sides in and found the common ground of what everybody was looking for.”  I can go along with this because Reagan did have a spectacular ability to keep the various factions of his party under the same big tent. He–unlike Bush 43–was a master at keeping the extreme Right aboard without alienating the socially moderate, fiscal conservatives in the older Rockefeller/Ford tradition. People forget there was serious talk of bringing ex-POTUS Gerald Ford onto the ticket in 1980 as VP in order to bridge the Far Right and Rockefeller Republican factions! I doubt that Reagan would have called for a divisive Constitutional Amendment to define marriage (as Bush did in 2004 and is still GOP official platform), but that really is just my own speculation.  During the GWB era I did notice, generally, the older the Republican the less strident on the social issue legislation they tended to be. Think of McCain’s tepid support for gay marriage bans in the 2008 campaign or Alaska’s giant Senator Ted Stevens as pro-choice anachronism within the GOP. While the reverse was, generally, true for Democrats: the older the Democrat the more reticent or coy they tended to be on marriage equality.

That said, I suspect Reagan would have had plenty of ready platitudes and dog whistles to religious conservatives about traditional values, child-rearing, God’s unique place in America, et. al. since he played that balancing act so expertly through the 1980s with issues like abortion and school prayer. For all Patti’s assurances there is no reason gay marriage would have fared any differently once it picked up momentum a decade after Reagan’s death as a hot-button issue. During Reagan’s presidency it simply wasn’t a mainstream debate, and so Patti has the comfort of deferring to her father’s personal benevolence. Never a heavy church-goer, Reagan was still readily willing to speak the language of the Evangelicals even while rarely bringing their pet issues to the front burner. Many have blamed his odd silence on the AIDS crisis on this fearful balancing act. In their different ways Michael and Patti are both awkwardly grafting Boomer 90s culture war perspectives on someone far older and more complicated.

A Trite One-Liner

I recently had a chat with a good friend of mine working on his PhD dissertation in English. He said he loathes meeting someone new and admitting that he is an English PhD student. The reason? He often gets a trite response like “oh I better mind my p’s and q’s” or “I better watch myself and not to use a double-negative”! He asked me if there were any parallel annoying one-liners to studying history and I’ve thought of one culprit:

“Oh studying (insert New World nation here: USA, Canada) must be easy since they don’t have much history unlike (insert European nation here: France, Britain)!” *

A) This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what historians do. They don’t memorize dates and facts that are Palace of the Governors Santa Fe, NMunchanging gospel and then somehow finish the task. A PhD in History isn’t about learning 3 times or 4 times more “facts & dates” as a Bachelor’s degree in History. More it’s that they analyze what we think we already know about a period and try to say something new, uncharted, undiscovered about it. Or prove something we’ve thought all along has been a mistake. Or find a way something in the past got us into a current situation. Or reassess a group or people or event that’s been side-lined or maligned. You could write a historical thesis on American 1940s feminine hygiene product advertizing, for instance, and what it meant in relation to women in the workplace during WWII. Or follow-up with its implications vis-a-vis the push for traditional suburban life in the 1950s. Something from 50 years ago is no less historical than 500. You’ll never “run out” of historical research. Ever. There is no final word on the subject. Ever.

B) Most historians only do strict segmenting of history between nations because of the classroom. You can’t talk about British history without talking about French history without talking about American history without talking about Mexican history. So, yes, historians will have their areas of expertise but it’s as likely to be a theme (labor, military) as it would be one modern-day country. They sort it out into neat, nation-state categories for text book publishing and classroom purposes. The further along one studies the more it all starts to get wonderfully blended and messy.

C) It’s kind of racist. Saying “the USA has no history” implies that only white people’s’ history is “real history”. People lived in the US and Canada and Mexico during the Thirty Years War and the Crusades. Just because they weren’t Caucasian and weren’t swinging around cool swords like in Spartacus: Blood & Sand doesn’t make it any less historical.

* occasionally China or Japan is granted honorary “Old World” status here.

Modern view of the (still in use) Palace of the Governors Building in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Built in 1610. To put in perspective that is about 100 years before London's Buckingham Palace.

Modern view of New Mexicans selling jewelry at the (still in use) Palace of the Governors Building in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Built in 1610. To put in perspective that is about 100 years before London’s Buckingham Palace and nearly 250 years before the Irish Potato Famine.

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.

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

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A Mixed Response from an Old Favorite

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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?”

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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.

HeroesoftheColoredRace

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

600full-django-unchained-posterHeWantsAChangeToo

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.