We, The Other People

November 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

constitution

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency last week has many people in the United States worried or scared, or both.  Anxiety is running rampant across the nation.  He was elected with something less than 25% of the vote of the voting age public, which is a problem in and of itself.  He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.  These are all things we must keep in mind.  Many people are feeling worried about their place in Donald Trump’s America.

Many of us feel like we don’t belong, like the nation held a referendum on our right to exist, and we lost.  People of color, immigrants, women, Muslims, LGBTQ people, disabled people and many others find themselves devalued and vulnerable to harassment. Let’s join together to hold the incoming President accountable for the fear, anger and hate he has stirred in our country. Let our voices be heard; we will not allow hatred to hold sway.

We believe that if we speak truth from the heart again and again and again, our words and stories have the power to affect change.  We create a record of our dissent.  We demand our system of government work for us, not against us.  We stand our ground in a way that honors the office of the Presidency and the promises of freedom and justice for all. ’

We, the project organizers, are documentary filmmakers and public historians who are deeply committed to making sure that all people are able contribute to the historical record. We believe that stories matter and that everyone has a right to make their voices heard.

We, The Other People is a project to collect letters from Americans and immigrants who live here.  We are all protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.

So why letters? Glad you asked:

Letters to the President of the United States (POTUS) have a long tradition. Revolutionary War veterans wrote to President Washington seeking pensions that were promised but not delivered.  Escaped African American slaves petitioned President Lincoln on behalf of their families. Children beseeched President Roosevelt to help them survive the Great Depression and Jewish Americans pleaded with their President to help get their relatives out of Nazi Germany.   Japanese Americans wrote to Reagan asking him to remember the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the Cold War raged.

Across centuries, letters to the President have expressed the concerns, hopes, fears and expectations of our nation’s people. They have called on the holder of the seat of power to hear them and to be their leader.

We are collecting them for now on our website.  But, come January, we will deliver them to the White House, to deliver our message for an inclusive United States, to the president.  This will also ensure that the letters enter the official record and eventually end up officially documented in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Trump and the White Working Class

November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments

The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday.  How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question.  Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.

Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back.  The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years.  They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life.  Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday.  And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant.  They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts.  They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time.  And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money.  Got married, had kids, raised them.  Eventually, you retired.  Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company.  But that’s all gone.  Deindustrialization.  And free trade.

What happened when the jobs dried up?  People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages.  Alcoholism and addiction became more common.  Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers.  Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry.  But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills.  Then there’s health insurance and benefits.  With GE, those were all taken care of.  Waffle House doesn’t take care of them.  Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans.  But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things.  And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.

And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner).  Think about TV and the movies.  Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA.  Now?  Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous.  And besides, it’s set in Chicago.  Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city.  America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore.  There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane.  Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA.  For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.

The United States has long been a deeply divided nation.  We like to think it’s North-South.  It’s not.  It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory?  No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class.  And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred)  And then Trumpism occurs.

Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back.  I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization.  My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988.  My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border.  And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone.  He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder.  And my mom was university-educated.  But. We lost.  And so many others.  Their anger is visceral.  Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.

But Trump cannot deliver on his promises.  If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s.  Those factory jobs aren’t coming back.  Automation, people.  The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation.  More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did.  He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.

So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again?  When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there.  But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more.  Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified.  Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader.  Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc.  I don’t feel optimistic either way.

Whither the Poor? Or, Why You Need to Vote!

August 10, 2016 § 4 Comments

I live in the second poorest county in Tennessee, as defined by median income.  That puts it in the Top 50 nationally, with a median income of $28,086.  Here, the near impossibility of farming on top of a mountain, combined with the long-term effects of coal-mining are all over the place, from the environmental degradation to the deep poverty.

On Monday, I published a post on Lyndon Baines Johnson and his Great Society.  The Great Society was really the last time the government made an attempt to confront white poverty in the US.  But that was half a century ago. They were amongst the constituency of the Democratic Party.  But they’ve long since shifted their allegiances.  But the GOP doesn’t accord them any attention, they’re taken for granted.  The people here are the forgotten people of the country.

Nancy Isenberg, in her fantastic book, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, argues that class has been central to American life and American history.  And for poor white people, they have been marginalized here for four centuries, just as they have been in England.  Americans like to think they live in a classless society.  They don’t.  At the time of the Civil War, a grand total of 6 per cent of white Southerners owned slaves. Yet, they managed to convince the other 94 per cent of the justness of a war to protect their economic interests.  For the massive majority of the South, these poor white people, the war was pointless.  And they came to realize this pretty quickly, as soldiers grumbled about the wealthy who sent them to their death.

By the late 1960s and into the 70s and 80s, the Republican Party gained their allegiance.  This came about due to a response on the part of poor, white Southerners to the Civil Rights Era, combined with the rise of evangelical Christianity.  In the first case, there was both frustration with being forgotten by the federal government, combined with a residual racism that dates back to the nineteenth century, when the Southern élite kept them in place by telling poor whites that, “Hey, it may suck to be you, but, you know, it could be worse, you could be black.”  And yes, this worked (don’t believe me, go check out David Roediger’s excellent The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class; think Roediger’s ‘biased’?, read this).  In the second case, the GOP nationally hitched its horses to the evangelical movement, which had its greatest successes in the South.

Driving all over the county this weekend, I noticed where the Trump supporters live.  There are people in this county who are well-off.  There is even a very tiny middle class.  But the Trump supporters, as defined unscientifically by bumper stickers and lawn signs, are the poor.  Trump stickers tend to be on older cars in various stages of disrepair.  The lawn signs tend to be outside of trailers, tiny houses, and cabins and shacks.

But what fascinates me about this is not who they support, but that they do so at all.  This is a politically mobilized group in my county.  During the presidential primaries in May, voter turnout in both the Democratic and Republican primaries was over 60 per cent.  Despite being forgotten, ignored, and left behind, the people of my county are still voting.  Angrily, but they’re voting.  They’re voting for Trump for what I see as obvious reasons: he speaks their language, even if he is a demagogic, power-hungry, liar.

A politician who could harness their anger and frustration and offer hope, something other than the dystopian view of Trump, whilst building a coalition that offered something to other frustrated constituencies (I’m thinking primarily of inner-city African Americans), could actually make a real change in the United States.

But, instead, we get the same hollow language of the Democratic nominee, versus this horrible, Hunger Games dystopian, crypto-fascism of the Republican nominee.

Resuscitating Lyndon Baines Johnson

August 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

Last week, I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  I hadn’t read a Stephen King novel since I was around 16 and I discovered his early horror work: Dead Zone, Christine, Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and Cujo. I read and devoured them, then moved on to other things.  But my buddy, J-S, raved about this book.  So, I humoured him, bought it, and read it.  It was pretty phenomenal.  I’m not really a fan of either sci-fi or alt.history, but this book was both.  Time travel and a re-imagined history of the world since 1958.

The basic synopsis is that a dying Maine restaurateur, Al Templeton, convinces 35-year old, and lonely, high school English teacher, Jake Epping, to go back in time. See, Templeton discovered a rabbit hole to 1958 in his stock room.  He’s been buying the same ground beef since the 1980s to serve his customers, hence his ridiculously low-priced greasy fare.  Templeton went back in time repeatedly, until it dawned on him he could prevent the assassination of JFK.  Templeton figures if he prevents JFK from dying, he’ll prevent Lyndon Baines Johnson from becoming president. And thus, he will save all those American and Vietnamese lives.  So he spent all this time shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald, and plotting how to stop him.  But then he contracted lung cancer.  His time was almost up.  So, he got Epping involved.

After a couple of test runs, Epping agrees. So back to 1958 in Maine he goes again, spends five years in the Land of Ago, as he calls it, under the name George Amberson.  I’ll spare you the details.  But, he is, ultimately successful in preventing the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on 22 November 1963.

But when he returns to Maine in 2011, he returns to a dystopian wasteland.  Before entering the rabbit hole back to the future, Epping/Amberson talks to the gatekeeper, a rummy.  The rummy explains that there are only so many strands that can be kept straight with each trip back and each re-setting of time.

Anyway.  Read it. You won’t be disappointed. I cannot speak to the series on Hulu, though. Haven’t seen it.

I found myself fascinated with this idea of preventing LBJ from becoming president.  See, I’m one of the few people who think that LBJ wasn’t a total waste as president.  This is not to excuse his massive blunder in Vietnam.  Over 1,300,000 Americans, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians died in that war.  And the war left a long hangover on the United States that only really went away in time for the Iraq War hangover we’re currently living in.

But. LBJ wasn’t a total disaster.  Domestically, he was a rather good president.  He was, of course, the brain behind The Great Society.  LBJ wanted to eliminate racial injustice and poverty in the United States.  This led to the rush of legislation to set the record straight on these issues.  We got the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and a whole host of other initiatives in the fight against poverty in inner cities and rural areas.  We got the birth of public television that ultimately led to the birth of PBS in 1970.  Borrowing some from JFK’s Frontier ideas, the Great Society was envisioned as nothing less than a total re-making of American society.  In short, LBJ was of the opinion that no American should be left behind due to discrimination.  It was a lofty goal.

LBJ’s Great Society, moreover, was incorporated into the presidencies of his Republican successors, Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.  In other words, the Great Society met with approval from both Republicans and Democrats, to a degree anyway.

Of course, the Great Society failed.  In part it failed because LBJ’s other pet project, the Vietnam War, took so much money from it.  It did cause massive change, but not enough.  In many ways, the rise of Donald Trump as the GOP nominee can be seen as long-term response to the Great Society.  Trump has the most support from non-college-educated white people, the ones who feel they’ve been victimized by the liberal agenda.  And, as the New York Times pointed out this week, Trump is really the benefactor of this alienation and anger, not the cause of it.

Nevertheless, I do take exception to the dismissal of LBJ as a horrible president based on the one glaring item on his resumé.  No president is perfect, every president has massive blemishes on his record.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order for Japanese Internment. Abraham Lincoln only slowly came to the realization that slavery had to end, and he did not really believe in the equality between black and white.  I could go on.

King also makes an interesting point in 11/22/63: when Epping/Amberson returns to 2011 after preventing JFK’s assassination, he learns that the Vietnam War still happened.  JFK, after all, was the first president to escalate American involvement in great numbers.  And worse, the Great Society did not happen.  There was no Civil Rights Act, no War on Poverty, etc.  JFK, as King notes, was not exactly a champion of equal and civil rights.

Thus, as maligned as the Big Texan is by historians and commentators in general, I think it is at least partially unfair.  LBJ had ideas, at least.  And he was a visionary.

 

 

Clint Eastwood and Political Correctness

August 5, 2016 § 22 Comments

I have to admit, I like Clint Eastwood, the artist.  He’s the star of one of my favourite films of all-time, The Good, the Bad & The Ugly.  And he’s made some mighty fine films of his own.  He’s also a complex man.  He claims to be libertarian, but he’s supported both Democrat and Republican politicians.  He’s called for gun control since the early 1970s.  He was also a progressive mayor of Carmel-By-The-Sea, at least on environmental issues.  And he’s long been an advocate of environmental controls.  And, clearly, since he’s been mayor of his little resort town, he clearly isn’t opposed to government at all costs, nor is he opposed to using government power for the common good.

But, in recent years, he’s become a bit of a loose cannon.  His speech at the 2012 Republican Conference, the so-called “Empty Chair” routine, was unforgettable.  But this week, he was in the news again, complaining about the “pussy generation.”  See, Ol’ Clint is tired of political correctness:

[Trump]’s onto something because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells.

We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.

My response? So what? First, Clint Eastwood loves to come off as a tough guy when he’s going off on a tangent like this.  Clint Eastwood ain’t no tough guy, he plays them in movies. That’s a big difference.  Second, Clint Eastwood is 86 years old.  When he was growing up, Jim Crow and segregation existed in the US.  Is that what he wants to return to? I presume not.

As for “political correctness,” you know what?  I’m sick of this one too.  Creating an environment in the world where people feel comfortable, where we are all respected and treated fairly is not a bad thing.  It’s easy for a multi-millionaire 86-year old white man to complain about the things that weren’t called racist 80 years ago.  What discrimination has Clint Eastwood faced in his life?

And this is the thing, the people who complain about “political correctness” tend to be white and middle class, and quite often male.  In other words, they tend to be people who don’t know what it feels like to be the target of discrimination or hate speech, or, worse.  It’s easy for them to claim there is no discrimination, no racism in society.  They’re not targeted by it.  It’s easy for Eastwood to complain about the “pussy generation.”

In short, you cannot complain about “political correctness,” or claim there is no such things as racism, sexism, misogyny, or homophobia if you are of the dominant group in society.

More to the point, a long time ago, a great man once noted that the mark of a democracy was how it treated its minorities.  And that is most certainly true.  That great man, by the way, was former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (the father of current PM, Justin “Hotty Pants” Trudeau).

 

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