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Ragged Mitt

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment

How much do you pay in income taxes? I really don’t care, and I’m not sure I need to know how much my president pays either.  But the news that Mitt Romney finally released his most recent tax returns, and that he pay less in taxes than your run-of-the-mill millionaire, or run-of-the-mill American, was interesting fodder for the news pundits in this campaign season. How does he do it? By getting most of his income from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate than earned wages. Of course, his supporters say he earned the money long ago, when Bain Capital made its many deals. Hmm. Needless to say, even some millionaires—you know, the ones who actually work every day for their income and are intellectually honest—know that hedge-fund billionaires and those who live off their capital gains are not paying their fair share.

The other thing that struck me today as I heard the spin on Romney’s taxes: comments from staff and supporters that Romney did indeed earn his money; no trust-fund baby here. No, Romney pulled himself up by his bootstraps and did the work himself. Why, he’s a regular Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story.

OK, nobody actually mentioned Horatio Alger. Remember him? Probably not, unless you too are a History Nerd. More on him later. But let’s put something to rest right here: Mr. I-Earned-My-Wealth-On-My-Own had advantages that few Americans do. Through much of his childhood and adolescence, his father George was president and chairman of the board of American Motors, which at that time was a pretty major corporation, the creature of the largest merger of the era (though its Javelin and Gremlin, perhaps the company’s best-known models today, were still off in the future). Romney the elder then served as governor of Michigan and briefly in Richard Nixon’s first cabinet.

None of this is news, of course. But the corporate success and political power of Romney the elder suggests that  little Mitt did not exactly want for much, hmm? He attended prep school at Cranbrook and grad school at Harvard. And just maybe his dad’s various positions made it easier to forge meaningful business connections that greased the wheel for his success at Bain.

Of course, I don’t know that for a fact. Pure speculation on my part. But I do know Romney is not cut from the same cloth as Ragged Dick, one of the heroes of the Horatio Alger books. At one time, many Americans knew Alger and his creations, and the stirring theme his book stressed—that through pluck and some luck, even a street urchin could achieve financial success. Ronald Reagan touted the Alger story line, or at least the values Alger championed. Only, as I noted in the first published article I ever wrote (almost 30 years ago…), the Alger story was largely a myth. (And one that Mark Twain thought was ripe for parody.) For every near-penniless Andrew Carnegie who made a fortune, most business titans of Alger’s era came from fairly well-off, WASP backgrounds. Kinda like Mitt (ignoring that Mormonism is not really Protestantism. Or Christianity). And one of the great ironies of the Reagan era was that while Ronnie decried the role of government in society, and particularly the economy, Reagan and his family were beneficiaries of the New Deal (documented in Garry Wills’s Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home).

So, will some Romney staffer or supporter trot out Alger as they try to show their candidate’s hard road to riches? Don’t know. But if they do, don’t believe it—or the reality of the rags-to-riches myth.

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Unknown Moments

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Coal miners battling for their rights in West Virginia. Scandal tainting the national pastime. Piranhas on the loose. All not-so-stellar moments in our country’s history, but ones presented to a vaster audience than most history books reach, thanks to the pen and camera of filmmaker John Sayles.

(OK, the last bit is not part of our history, but Sayles did write the script for Piranha in his days working as a hired gun for B-film producer extraordinaire, Roger Corman.)

The author and filmmaker

Sayles is also a novelist, and he was in town last night to discuss his latest book, the historical novel A Moment in the Sun. I haven’t read it, but I know the near-1,000 page tome covers, as usual, parts of our history most American don’t know about—and that some flag-waving types would probably prefer we all ignore. Why dwell on the details of stomping out foreign freedom fighters or denying blacks their rights, when we are at heart God’s chosen country?

Yeah.

The decidedly leftist Sayles does want to dwell on the details, as he writes about the only insurrection in U.S. history, led by white supremacists against the duly elected black officials of Wilmington, NC. And as he takes a look at the bloody—some might say ruthless and/or barbaric—squashing of a rebellion in the Philippines, as locals who had successfully battled Spain for independence had a tougher time against the Yanks. Both events took place in 1898 (though the Filipino insurrection stretched on for several years), in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war.

The new(ish) book

Sayler read a chapter (a whole freakin’ chapter; it was the longest reading by an author that I’ve ever attended…) which describes the life of a NYC “newsie” trying to sell papers announcing the start of that war. Newspapers, or one in particular—William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—is often cited as the fanner of flames to get America into the war, after the mysterious explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. (Modern consensus—it was an accident, not some deliberate attack by Spanish forces, which then controlled Cuba.) And the refrain through the chapter was “War!” shouted out by our streetwise hero and the other kids trying to make a buck hawking papers.

I’m not an expert on the era, but I did notice one historical inaccuracy in the chapter: The narrator talks of the newsie putting one of his hard-earned pennies, a “Lincoln,” into a Mutoscope, an early motion-picture machine. Only problem is, the first Lincoln penny did not appear until 1909. Oops. But the chapter was filled with wonderful dialogue and a fine eye for historical detail—including the marked attention to ethnicity paid by the characters-from-many-backgrounds. We have, of course, transcended that today…

Emilio Aguinaldo--first pres of the Philippines, captured rebel leader

Afterward, Sayles and fellow author Francisco Goldman talked about the book, Sayles’s creative process, and a bit about his latest film, Amigo, which covers some of the same territory as the book. Sayles noted that he didn’t know about the war in the Philippines until his mid 30s—not a sign of his lack of intelligence, but of the general effort, deliberate or not, to whitewash that first major American intervention.

I dug out an old high-school textbook from the 1970s. Its references to the Filipino insurrection: one sentence about the Filipinos taking up arms “in open revolt against the United States” and another about the general news blackout regarding the “war to suppress Emilio Aguinaldo and his Filipino patriots.” And this from a book written by generally liberal—or at least mainstream—historians. In 2006, in a different kind of book, historian David Traxel wrote about the Progressive Era and the country’s role in World War I. Crusader Nation, its subtitle says, is about the “United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920.” Which implies all was peaceful from the end of the Spanish-American War until 1914, but Sayles, and the tens of thousands of Filipinos killed by American guns, knew better. I found no mention of the insurrection in Crusader Nation.

But I found some telling quotes about the war, and America’s foray into imperialism, while writing a short historical play a few years back. It was called “Truth, Justice, And…” and it riffed on comments by-then president George W. Bush, suggesting that the horrors of Abu Ghraib (a bit before the even-worse horrors of Haditha), were an anomaly; violence, especially toward the innocent, is just not part of the American character. The play suggests otherwise, as do some of these quotes I found from some of the young American soldiers sent to battle the Filipinos:

“It was like hunting rabbits; an insurgent would jump out of a hole or the brush and run; he would not get very far…. I suppose you are not interested in the way we do the job. We do not take prisoners.”

“…legs and arms nearly demolished; total decapitation; horrible wounds in chests and abdomens, showing the determination of our soldiers to kill every native in sight. The Filipinos did stand their ground heroically, contesting every inch, but proved themselves unable to stand the deadly fire of our well-trained and eager boys in blue. I counted seventy-nine dead natives in one small field, and learn that on the other side of the river their bodies were stacked up for breastworks.”

“We burned hundreds of houses and looted hundreds more. Some of the boys made good hauls of jewelry and clothing.”

Some soldiers, though, then as now, were not altogether thrilled with their mission:

“They are fighting for a good cause, and the Americans should be the last of all nations to transgress upon such rights. Their independence is dearer to them than life, as ours was in years gone by, and is today. They should have their independence…”

(You can find these and other quotes here.)

Sayles said that much of our present position—I assume he means as an intervening nation—started with the war in the Philippines. It certainly made us an imperial power, which is what some American leaders wanted. Other voices, however, did speak out against taking on the “white men’s burden”; Mark Twain comes to mind. But then as now, the forces that speak for fighting wars when we have not been attacked always seem to get more play than those that oppose killing foreigners for exaggerated claims of “national security.” The Filipinos certainly learned that, even if most Americans–still–don’t.

Happy–Mostly–Anniversaries

January 6, 2012 Leave a comment

In these parts, no one has put away the party hats and noisemakers with the passing of New Year’s Day. No, we have a centennial to celebrate here in New Mexico: 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of that famous dance, the kangaroo dip.

A map of the territory of New Mexico, 1873

Oh, I’m joking, of course. No one knows for sure when that hot-footed step and its bestiary cousins, the camel walk, the crab step, and the bunny hug, were first introduced, though Gordon Carruth, in his What Happened When, says 1912 was about the time when the still-popular ragtime craze inspired these steps. No, what we New Mexicans are about to start celebrating on January 6 is the inclusion of our fair state in the Union. It only took some 60 years after the Kearny invasion (described a bit here), which is rocket-like speed, really, when you consider Californians had to wait, uh, about two years. And Missourians sat on their hands some 18 years after the Louisiana Purchase before they—wait a minute. Two years? 18? And New Mexicans had to wait more than half a century? What gives?

Well, racism, partly. And religious prejudice. Because to the conquering Anglo mind, how could Spanish-speaking Catholics and various Native Americans be trusted with the delicacies of democracy? One Eastern visitor during the 1850s berated the New Mexicans as “lazy and indolent.” The Civil War hero William T. Sherman said the United States should go to war with Mexico again—to make it take back New Mexico.

And when talk of statehood came up during the 1880s, members of Congress who opposed it noted that the New Mexicans themselves were not exactly clamoring for a change in their status: “No agitation of the question in late years has been noticeable. “ (You can read more on this here.) In 1889, when the residents had a chance to approve a constitution—a prerequisite for statehood—they voted it down. The Santa Fe New Mexican (still published) noted that many residents feared their taxes would increase if they joined the Union. Good guess.

Uh oh...

TR on the stump, 1912

I’m sure every two-bit historian in the Land of Enchantment (including, of course, the History Nerd), will be trotting out various state centennial stories in the months to come. But I wanted to highlight some of the other events of 1912 that are worthy of exploration during this 100th-anniversary year, some of which I hope to delve into here:

  • The one you are apt to hear about most: the sinking of the Titanic. I’ve written about it twice for kids and will certainly be able to dredge up a few interesting tidbits: the alleged ghost stories, the myths, the heroics.
  • And Big Centennial Event number two, especially if a third-party candidate runs in November, is the presidential race between Teddy “Bull Moose” Roosevelt, William Howard “I Did Not Get Stuck In a Bath Tub (but I did order a larger one for the White House)” Taft,  and Woodrow “Prig and Racist” Wilson. It is, as far as I can tell, the only time a current, ex, and future president squared off in a three-way race. And amazing to consider when today’s Republicans fall over each other to display their conservative bona fides, two of them were liberal GOPers at heart, back when that concept was not an oxymoron.
  • The passage of key federal labor laws, including one that gave workers under federal contract an 8-hour work day.
  • The violent “Bread and Roses” Lawrence, MA, textile strike, which featured immigrant workers and the Wobblies—you know, back when workers were actually ready to fight for their rights.
  • The rise of Jim Thorpe as an American sports hero—and the subsequent black cloud that smothered his reputation.
  • And perhaps most important to me, the Boston Red Sox’s victory in the World Series (something I seriously doubt will happen in 2012…).

I’m sure other noteworthy centennials will pop up as the year goes on. Stay tuned to the History Nerd for all the excitement.