Friday, March 27, 2009

The Glass-Steagall Era Redux

For those looking for new ways to periodize American history (and who isn’t?), let me suggest a new way. Let us call the period from 1933, when the Glass-Steagell Act, separating commercial from investment banking to 1999, when it was unceremoniously repealed, the Glass-Steagel Era in American history. I am not sure what to call the next ten years, perhaps (after the bill the repealed it) the Gramm-Leach-Biley Era. This has come to an end, and perhaps we are in the Tim Geithner Era now. Now, the Glass-Steagell Act was finally interred in 1999, but it had long been a ghost of its former self, whittled away in numerous ways during the 1970s and the 1980s, and it had become so much of a lost cause that my the time it was finally repealed, not that many people noticed.
The significance of the Glass-Steagall Act goes beyond the separation of investment and commercial banking. It was an effort to limit the role of investment banks and bankers, a time when the big commercial banks, the Chase Manhattans and First National Citys reigned supreme, and not that many people were paying close attention to the Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs of the world, a time of tight and many would say rigid financial regulation, a time when the watchword of the financial services was reliable returns and not “innovation.” As Paul Krugman suggests today, we need to return to that era.

Another financial term from the 1930s is “capital strike,” which is what FDR accused Wall Street of doing during the recession of 1937, staying on the sidelines with their hands in their pockets, letting the economy to fail simply for the joy and political satisfaction of blaming Roosevelt for the mess. Now, the truth is somewhat complicated (most scholars believe that FDR’s foolhardy effort to balance the budget was more of a factor than Wall Street) but the possibility of a “capital strike” seems to be one of the things that Geithner and Obama are most concerned about. Obama is trying to coax Wall Street’s money back into the market; and they are demanding both favorable terms and that government back off its regulatory proposals—particularly when it comes to limiting compensation. Like FDR, Obama is trying to save capitalism, and like Wall Street in the 1930s, Wall Street in the 2000s doesn’t want to be saved, or wants to be saved on its own terms, in a place and manner of its own choosing. In the end, in the 1930s, there was a tense compromise—Wall Street was genuinely restructured in the 1930s, through Glass-Steagall and similar acts, and a new generation arose that was willing to live with the New Deal, but both sides felt that they had been given a raw deal, and the compromise started to break down in the 1970s. A new arrangement has to be found, and if Geithner’s proposals do not begin to go far enough, they are a decent start. But Obama and Geithner can’t be afraid of a “capital strike” and can’t shy from a confrontation with Wall Street over the fundamentals of its program. Without it, the eventual deal, like many since the 1970s, will be entirely on Wall Street’s terms.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

John Hope Franklin

John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom was probably the first serious work of history that I ever read, somewhere around the sixth or seventh grade. I remember how impressed I with both his topic and the whole idea of writing history, of gathering evidence, of looking for causes and effects, and his broad argument, that the United States was capable of rising above its limitations, and creating a more just society. I know that reading From Slavery to Freedom inspired me to write, in the 7th grade, a long report on slavery in New York State—all I remember about it is that I loved writing the word “manumission.”

John Hope Franklin passed away yesterday, full of years and full of honors. I hope he won’t be honored for who he was—the first African American historian who was able to truly cross over into the mainstream white historical profession—than for what he wrote. His excellent biography of George Washington Williams was a tribute to his predecessors—Williams, Carter G. Woodson. A. A. Taylor, and even the great W.E.B. Du Bois–whose work and efforts were never really taken seriously by white historians. When studying at Harvard, his advisors tried to convince him not to write on black history, feeling that he might be too emotional to muster the requisite objectivity (this, and the knowledge that writing on black history would further marginalize a historian, writing on what was seen as a relatively minor topic of interest.) And the stories of difficulties he faced in researching in southern archives are legendary.
But in the end Franklin deserves to be remembered for what he wrote. And though he could be fierce, as when he served on President Clinton’s commission on race and angered a lot of people by arguing vociferously for the continuing relevance of racism, it is fitting that his last major public statement, after the election of Obama last November, that it was perhaps the greatest event in American history.
John Hope Franklin, like many African American intellectuals of his generation, believed that there was a path from slavery to freedom, and that emancipation in 1865 was only the beginning of the process. And that this process could only end in possible way; with African Americans as full American citizens, legally, socially, politically, and morally. If there is much that remains to be done with America’s sorry racial legacy, this barrier was perhaps permanently breached on November 4, 2008. And wonderful it was that one of America’s greatest historians, born on Jan 2, 1915, was alive to see it. American blacks had finally passed from slavery and its various post-1865 near facsimiles to freedom, a true unambiguous, freedom, unreturnable, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Along the Osborne Loop

The hike from Garrison on the east bank of the Hudson River over to Sugarloaf, around the Osborne Loop, and back is a great half-day ramble. Part of the fun is the blend of nature and culture, from Hudson River views to old mansions--and these chairs set by a trail-side pond

I waked the route last week, starting from the Garrison railroad station, and it took me about 3 1/2 hours, including a stop for lunch. The beginning and end of the trip have some good views of the Hudson, but once you get onto the Loop itself it is mostly easy forest walking.

I don't know anything about the origins of these chairs, but my hunch is that they were made by a trail maintainer who put to use his or her skills with a chainsaw. If that's the case, they remind me of something I heard the folklorist Henry Glassie set forth years ago: art is what happens when we move beyond utilitarian labor and get to take pleasure in our work.

The woods were open and bare last week, just shy of springtime buds and blossoms. The ponds still had some ice on them, and a few icicles clung to shaded rock faces. They'll be gone soon, if not already. I'm looking forward to getting back to the Osborne Loop and these chairs on a warm summer day, when I can sit in one of them and enjoy the shady trees and this little pond.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bah, Humbug

You'll want all day to-morrow, I suppose?" said Scrooge.
"If quite convenient, sir."
"It's not convenient," said Scrooge, "and it's not fair. If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you'd think yourself ill-used, I'll be bound?"
The clerk smiled faintly.
"And yet," said Scrooge, "you don't think me ill-used, when I pay a day's wages for no work."
The clerk observed that it was only once a year.
"A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!" said Scrooge, buttoning his great-coat to the chin. "But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning."
In this famous dialogue between Ebenezer Scrooge and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, we get to the heart of the AIG bonus issue. Scrooge was, in effect, giving Cratchit a bonus, paying him for not working, and this is the origins of bonuses—a year’s end/Christmas gratuity, a reward for good work, something beyond a salary, whether a Christmas turkey or a more substantial cash payment. ( And the Scrooge and Marley enterprise, c. 1840, though the nature of the business is never specified, was probably a merchant trader of the sort that by the late 19th century often metamorphosed into an investment bank.) But by the end of the story Scrooge had learned the lesson of Victorian capitalism—year end bonuses, by inducing a feeling of gratefulness on the part of employees, , were a small sum to pay for creating genuine loyalty to the company. Paternalism enhances rather than diminishes control. (In Rochester they still talk about what “bonus week” used to be at a non-unionized company like Kodak.)

But bonuses, in this system, were never truly an “extra” or unanticipated, a true bonus. They became expected, like a tip to a waiter, and even Bob Cratchit expected the unreformed Scrooge to pay him for Christmas Day. And as companies grew, bonuses grew, especially in businesses that were not unionized and engaged in high end services, like law or finance. It was a way for management to reward favorites, to ensure that no one would ever take their compensation for granted. But over the past half century, especially in finance, the bonus has come to completely dominate all other forms of compensation, and investment bankers worked not for their salary, but for their bonus, as visions of sugar plums danced in their heads. And the belief from the fledgling investment banker to the CEO that compensation would come in the form of an expected and anticipated “bonus” has been at the heart of the catastrophe of our banking system, systematically encouraging risky behavior. And none of this is news, and little of this has received anything but the occasional tut-tut in the media and the occasional impotent lefty jeremiad. But if there is to anything good to come from this AIG bonus mess, it must be that we come to see outsized compensation as a social evil, whether the company is profitable, or like AIG, has been zombie-ized by the federal government. We need to limit executive compensation, across the board, and in every profession, from university presidents that make twice as much as the president of the United States, physicians who make fifty times the amount of the nurses and nurse practitioners who crucially assist them, to Wall Street executives. The problem with the AIG executives is not that they were making too much money and their company failed. The basic problem is just that they were making too money, period. Scrooge was right. Pay people for working, no more, no less. It’s a slippery slope from paying Bob Cratchit for not working on Christmas to the scandal of the AIG bonuses. Bah, humbug, one and all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

One and Half Cheers for Father Coughlin: Populist Backlash, Part II

So what am I reading these days, inquiring minds want to know? First, I have decided to read all of Shakespeare, for no particular reason other than I have never done it before, and I guess its one of things that I always wanted to do—one thing I don’t want to do is reading all of those 1,000 things to do, or go to, or buy before you die books that have been cropping up as of late— and there’s no time like the present. So I’m starting with the obscure ones I never read before—just finished Troilus and Cressida, and I’m on to Cymbeline—and will work my up to the biggies, and see if they really deserve their reputation.

And I have been reading about the New Deal, for obvious reasons, and I would like to add a note to my recent post on the “populist backlash.” I just finished re-reading Alan Brinkley’s Voices of Protest on Huey Long and Father Coughlin, on this unlikely duo of gadflies who helped push FDR leftwards in 1935 and 1936. What an odd couple, and how likely was it that a decisive leftwards pushin 1935 was administered by two men hailing from awfully conservative precincts; the the unreconstructed post-Reconstruction South on the one hand, and the pre -Vatican II hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, perhaps the only major American institution more conservative in its instincts than the Jim Crow South. But they were probably the last true populists of any real stature in the nation’s history. Long’s share-the wealth movement was dedicated to sharing the wealth, and it had at its heart a program for radical redistribution. And Father Coughlin had as his main purpose reforming and remaking the financial industry Father Coughlin’s principles of his National Union for Social Justice, included nationalizing “banking, credit and currency” and in the abolition of the “Federal Reserve Banking System and its replacement by a Government owned Central Bank,” both very pertinent suggestions. Both men had economic issues as the center of their initial appeal, though it is true of course, that after the peak of his popularity, after 1936, Coughlin made a sharp move towards an overtly anti-Semitic agenda, but as Brinkley shows, anti-Semitism had little or nothing with his initial rise to influence. The rise of both men to national prominence is an indication of just how seriously people took economic issues in the mid-1930s. But hey, I love the music of Richard Wagner, so I guess its okay to admire aspects of Father Coughlin’s program.

Indeed, the person Coughlin seems to most resemble in his crusade against Wall Street is the Brandeis of Other People’s Money, who liked Coughlin wanted the government to step in ensure that bigness and monopolies will not unduly dominate small businesses and mid-level entrepreneurs. (If Jews have been big players in Wall Street since the middle of the 19th century, they have been equally big players in anti-Wall Street bashing, from Karl Marx to Louis Brandeis to Elliot Spitzer .) Brinkley criticizes the wish of both Long and Coughlin for an economy once again dominated by small and local businesses as a retreat from modernity, towards the village green and vanished gemeinschaftlishe community . (As Rob said in a recent post, the golden age is always vanished.) Perhaps this seemed correct in 1984when Brinkley was writing, but in 2009, with the failure of so many “too big to fail” companies has turned Wall Street into a necropolis, perhaps the populism of a Long and a Coughlin deserve a second look. In any event, the current Democratic Party has so distanced itself from any kind of talk such as this, that it is finding it difficult to learn its language again.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

West Side Story

Over the years, I've defended West Side Story against charges that it was sappy, sentimental and racist. My job just got easier with the current revival of the play at the Palace Theater. I saw it in a preview performance last night that was angry, attentive to differences, and sharply passionate. This is a great version of West Side Story, a production with roots in the Fifties that has been translated to meet the emotional and artistic questions of our own time.

From the opening scene, with six menacing Jets onstage, it conveys greater anger and urgency than the 1961 motion picture. The gang members seem younger and scarier than in the film version. The Jets and Sharks have a twitchy hatred each other. The cops are thugs. (There is no buffoonery to the character of Officer Krupke, only menace.)

Maria is more overtly sexual, and her moments with Tony have all the passion of a young woman who is trying to squeeze a lifetime into 24 hours. And when Anita goes to Doc's drugstore to convey a message from Maria for Tony, there is no disguising the fact that the Jets rape her.

The depiction of Puerto Ricans also stands out in this production because most of the dialogue among them is conducted in Spanish. "America" (which is delivered with cutting irony) is sung mostly in Spanish, and "I Feel Pretty" entirely so. Exchanges with the Jets take place in fractured phrases of mutual incomprehension. Overall, the use of Spanish gives the Sharks a striking autonomy and identity.

If the staging of this version of West Side Story is one strength, another is the cast. At last, Hispanic actors get a chance to shine in numbers. Maria, played by Josefina Scaglione, who has opera training, sings gloriously. Anita, played by Karen Olivo of In the Heights, is knowing, fiery and sexy. Bernardo, played by George Akram from Venezuela, is smooth and tough.

From the Jets' side, Riff, played by Cody Green, has the manic energy of a dangerous teen. Tony, played by Matt Cavenaugh, is sweet and friendly. His singing voice sometimes lacks depth, but he gains stature by the ending of the play.

There is a new wrinkle in the ending of this version. While I won't spoil the show for you by specifying it, I will say that this production provides less hope of redemption than the film.

This is a more somber version of West Side Story than the film we are used to seeing. If that feels more realistic than the film version, perhaps it is because we live in a time of less optimism.

"Populist Backlash"

The phrase of the moment seems to be “populist backlash.” Obama is worried about it, and wants to control it and curtail it, largely, it seems, by closing the barn doors after the horses, or cows, or some barnyard animals, have already made their way to the egress. (Pigs, perhaps.) Obama’s administration and his administrators, viz., Messers Geitner and Summers, are worried that populist backlash—revanchist hordes, dancing the carmagnole, wanting only to fill their tumbrels to the brim with derivatives traders—will complicate their delicate recalibrations of the relation between government and the tottering financial industry.

“Populist backlash” combines two of the most loaded terms in the American political vocabulary, reinforcing one another, to convey a sense of emotionalism and irrationality, of people who are acting without thinking, leaping without looking. Populism entered the American political vocabulary in the 1880s and it has been subsequently been debased to refer to almost any sort of demotic muttering , and in recent years it has almost had uniformly conservative connotations; the so-called Reagan Democrats and their predecessors and descendants, upset about crime, cultural laxness, immigrants, etc have been our latter day populists, doing battle against the so-called “elites,” a conveniently flexible target of anathemazation. And “backlash” entered the political language in the 1960s, referring to more or less the same debased populists, in this case, people who thought that somehow civil rights had advanced blacks too far too fast, and that whites were now a disfavored and governmentally oppressed majority.

But Populism got its start not protesting against “elites” but against the big businesses of the era, and this is again what is being demanded now, that government take effective control of something they already own. And there has been no “backlash” against the TARP and AIG bailouts. There was, from the beginning, a vast uneasiness about the arrangements, which were sold to the American people as a choice between this or complete financial catastrophe, and that if a bailout is necessary, it was also necessary that its recipients do not further enrich themselves unfairly at the government’s dime, and that the government, at a minimum, keep strict tract of who was getting what and why. This the government has failed to do, and the problem is less the money going to the utterly undeserving capitalists who have destroyed capitalism, but the evidence that the government does not seem to be clear of its goals and its intentions. The real problem with the so-called “populist backlash” is that it has exposed the grave difficulties with the half-measures that both the Bush and Obama administrations have taken with the faltering economy, and the need for a comprehensive nationalization or its equivalent. To label this “populist backlash” is to utterly fail to understand the nature of the crisis. If I may return to the French Revolution analogy above; the ancient regime is over, the king is dead, and its attempted restoration mere folly. The sooner the Obama administration realizes this, the sooner they can get over their post-Thermidorian caution.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Long Live Livingston

When I lived in Greenwich Village in the 1980s, residents had a habit of telling newcomers that they had arrived too late for the really interesting times. The exact date of this golden age varied with the teller of the tale, from the days of the folkies in the Sixties to the beats of the Fifties to the Wobblies before World War I. Something similar applied at my alma mater, Livingston College of Rutgers University. I was graduated in 1977, when the college was committed to educational innovation, egalitarian admissions, and urban issues. In subsequent years, when the school was centralized out of existence and fully absorbed into Rutgers, I was convinced that the old Livingston I knew died. But thanks to a forum last week at Livingston, I'm no longer sure.

The gathering, organized by Marty Siederer for the Livingston Alumni Association, featured three faculty members: Ed Ortiz from community development and Gerry Pomper and Gordon Schochet from political science. Together, and in different ways, they all reminded me of the innovation, improvisation, and tough-minded idealism that made Livingston a great undergraduate college. Our course offerings included urban communications, community development, women's studies and social history. (And zaniness: Where else would students hold orgies and then ask if they could get course credit for participating?)

But what inspired me was to hear more recent graduates--I'm thinking especially of one woman who was at Livingston in the early Nineties--extol "The Rock" as an enduring center for radicalism and innovation. What explains this?

Partly this happened because of an unexpected benefit of centralization: it scattered Livingston faculty and administrators all over Rutgers, where they dramatically improved the place. Also, a few faculty members and grad students really did work to maintain the spirit of the old days, even after the educational structures that supported The Rock were all but gone.

Until now, I felt that I was the graduate of a fine college that was left dead and buried. Now, I feel that some of its best legacies live on.

It wasn't always easy being at Livingston, a place where ordinary Democrats were depicted as conservatives and the left was defined by outfits like the New Jersey Workers' Organization (Marxist-Lenninist). That made a democratic socialist like me, an admirer of Michael Harrington, a flaming moderate.

But I've always cherished my Livingston years, when I received an education that was not only liberal, but liberating as well. For years I was sorry that younger people didn't get to experience that kind of learning. Now it turns out that they did, and I'm very glad for that.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Symapathy for the Devil

Perhaps I have posted on Bernie Madoff, I’m not sure. Of all the aspects of our gathering economic catastrophe, I guess it’s the part that I am least interested in. I mean, I guess its bad for the Jews and all, but this is really a sideshow, an epitomization of a crisis into a convenient image that can be easily grasped. What is most interesting about the whole Madoff case for me is 1) it seems that the only people he really scammed are the somewhat wealthy and the really wealthy. To me, I must say, I am angrier at corporations that go into bankruptcy to divest themselves of pesky pension obligations, or the people who over the past thirty years who have forced Americans into 401-K plans, forced everyone to invest in the market, and then watched everything go up in smoke. Perhaps Madoff didn’t give to the poor, but at least he only robbed from the rich. And (2), the reason why it was so easy for Madoff to swindle so many people is that hedge funds are all secretive—usually nobody quite knows what their money is being invested in, and there is little obligation on the part of hedge fund managers to say. People who invest in hedge funds are only interested in one thing—magic, some fairy dust to be sprinkled on their money which would make it grow like magic beans. It would be cruel to say that those who invested with Madoff had it coming to them, but then we all had it coming to us. And this is not because some of us foolishly invested and purchased properties they couldn’t afford. No, that’s chickenfeed. The real crime is that the American people and their elected representatives did little or nothing to block, monitor, or curtail the utter rapacity of our financial industry. For this, we all share in the blame. The chickens are coming home to roost, and in the immortal words of Louis Jordan, ain’t nobody here but us chickens.

Look, let’s have a little sympathy for Madoff and other Ponzi schemers. No one sets out to create a Ponzi scheme, I suspect. But stuff just sort of happens. You lose a few billions, and you are faced with a choice. Either you can (1) try to cover up your losses, like the original Mr. Ponzi, and all of his successors, like Bernie Madoff, through a bit of subterfuge, and hope that things will turn out okay in the end, though they never do, or (2), you can just say that your failure will cause irreparable damage to the world economy, that you are “too big to fail,” and demand money from the taxpayers to cover your sorry ass. I’m sorry, when it comes to financial peculation, Bernie Madoff is relatively small potatoes. AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns are the big boys. The ultimate point of any Ponzi is to get some sucker to cover your losses. And guess who are the ultimate suckers? As Michael Kinsley likes to say, it is not what is illegal, but what is legal, that is truly frightening. And as Deep Throat liked to say, when you follow the money, make sure it leads to the president. Enough articles on what layer of Dante’s hell is fit for Bernie Madoff. He isn’t the biggest villain in this story, not by a longshot. My candidates would include Alan Greenspan, Hank Greenberg, Ace Greenberg, Robert Rubin, Chuck Schumer, and, to throw in a token non-Jew, George W. Bush

Sunday, March 8, 2009


After seeing Saving Private Ryan, a film critic whose name I have forgotten felt ashamed: the gore and terror of Private Ryan, especially in its first twenty minutes, made his enjoyment of other, less graphic war films, seem like complicity in a lie. So it is with my own reaction to the film Gomorrah, which makes meditations on the mob like The Sopranos seem trivial and dishonest.

Gomorrah, based on a book by the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, explores the world of organized crime in Naples. As Jack Newfield observed of the American mob years ago, these are not men of honor: most of them would rather stick an ice pick in your ear than do an honest day's work. They kill for money and thrills, betray each other at the drop of a hat, and conduct rackets that poison people with toxic wastes that cause cancer.

relates all of this through several stories with greater and lesser connections to each other. If the plot lines can sometimes be confusing, at its best Gomorrah's use of street scenes and actors who seem more like locals than stars recalls the best of the Italian neo-realist cinema.

As John Dickie observes in a Guardian review of the book that inspired the film, there are some idiosyncrasies to the Neapolitan mob. It is more anarchic, more gang-oriented, Dickie argues, than the hierarchical rackets of Sicily. Nonetheless, the film has lessons that reverberate far beyond Naples.

Organized crime flourishes in the absence of effective government and the presence of an all-consuming profit motive. In these circumstances, the mob's violence and its ability to insinuate itself into all aspects of human relations make it so evil.

My wife covered the mob in Italy for many years, and she never shared my enthusiasm for The Sopranos. Last night, after viewing Gomorrah, she explained that her problem with The Sopranos is that it sets recognizably normal family life within the context of mob mayhem. But once the mob is in place, she explained, normal family life is impossible. All you get is a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Films and tv shows that explore organized crime as a metaphor or as a way of getting at something else miss the point about the mob. It reduces all relationships to power, violence and cash value. The great virtue of Gomorrah is that it makes this undeniably clear. No wonder the mob in Italy, as Sylvia Poggioli reports, has put a price on Roberto Saviano's head.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

From the Bronx Zoo to the Third Reich

When I was a young boy, the Bronx Zoo was my backyard, my playing field. We only lived a few blocks away, on E. 180th Street, and when my two brothers and I were growing up. And about once a week (generally on Thursday, I think, when there was no admission charge), my mom would take us to the zoo, and we would quack with the ducks, growl with the lions, bark with the seals, sway with the elephants, and curl menacingly with the pythons. The Bronx Zoo was my world, and it was the world, in three hundred acres, with veldts, savannas, pampas, taigas, and fjords. Although since we moved out of the Bronx when I was ten years old, my zoo-going has diminished somewhat, I suspect that I have been to the zoo at least 100 times. And all that time I never really knew its dark secret, that the true creator of the Bronx Zoo, the person who had the vision, the smarts, and the persistence to create the world’s greatest zoo in northern New York City was Madison Grant, lifelong New Yorker, who was also, arguably, the most influential racist and anti-Semite in American history. And his role in the Bronx Zoo was not a random act of beneficence. Grant was probably along with John Muir, the leading conservationist in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was sophisticated; one of the first to call for the preservation of predators as well as ruminants, and he was indefatigable. He probably single-handedly saved the buffalo from extinction, and founded the Save the Redwoods League, and saved the Humboldt Grove in northern California, largely ended commercial hunting in the United States, and created Glacier National Park, among an astounding list of environmental good deeds.

And, in 1916, he published the Passing of the Great Race, a lament for the decline of the Nordics and Teutons, how race mixing destroyed the great civilizations of Europe, and were in the process of destroying the great white race that made the United States. Although he hated blacks, and the eugenically unfit (and was one of the great advocates of forced sterilizations of the supposedly unfit, the chief motivator was a vile and undisguised antisemtism. Polish Jews, saith Grant around 1920, were ”a wretched mass of degraded human beings,” who “like rats, have formed a race able to survive gutter conditions which quickly destroy higher types.” It is not surprising that Grant was rapidly translated into German, and was praised by Hitler, and was an inspiration to the Nazi’s race science. And his greatest monument, the Bronx Zoo aside, was the 1924 National Origins Act, which reduced eastern and southern European immigration to a tiny trickle of what had been the prewar flow. He was the act’s major architect, and in his successful advocacy for immigration restriction, Grant remained a calm, unflappable, tireless advocate, committed to “science,” avoiding “sentimentalism.” He died in 1937, before his ideas about eliminating the bacillus of Judaism was actually put into practice, but he did his part in providing the intellectual justification of the Holocaust, and the immigration restriction he put into place in the United States, ensured that thousands upon thousands of German Jews were trapped in Europe, with nowhere to go, a fate that would have pleased Grant immensely. He seems to have been, in his private life, personable and affable, but if there is a more evil or despicable person in all of American history, he or she does not immediately come to mind.

All of this information about Grant is contained in Jonathan Peter Spiro’s excellent book, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant. The book is a tad overwritten in places, a sin I am very familiar with, and the author seems strangely obsessed that Grant, who never married, and many of the other eugenic advocates, had no children, which Spiro seems to think disqualifies them having any say in what happens to the successive generations of humanity. (Hey, Spiro, I don’t have any kids either, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t have an opinion on what the world should be like after I am gone. When it comes to the future of humanity, your grandchildren are my grandchildren. We have all given birth and parented the world to come.) But Spiro rescues Grant from his obligatory paragraph in standard histories of the period with a rich and compelling biography.

Common to both of Grant’s major obsessions was a concern with “preservation,” and “contamination” with stemming racial decline, with creating refuges where the purebreds could multiply. After about 1910 he turned his attention from pure breed buffalos to pure breed white men, and was convinced that both were on the verge of extinction. He wanted to remake the United States as a nature preserve, off limits to everyone except its original (white) inhabitants. It is not news, precisely, that there was a deeply reactionary strain in the early 20th century conservation movement, but it is still uncomfortable to read of all of Grant’s many laudable and meritorious deeds in pursuit of preserving our natural environment. Everyone who loves the beautiful American landscape and its flora and fauna is in Grant’s debt; and everyone who loves the American people, in its glorious variegations and complexity, can only be thankful that Grant’s damage to our country, as significant as it was, wasn’t greater, and that, in 2008, we were mature enough as a nation to elect a self-described racial "mutt" as president of the United States. And what a wonderful irony it was, that by the time Grant died in 1937, the area near the Bronx Zoo was heavily Jewish in its population. Every time my brothers and I and my mom went to the Bronx Zoo we were trampling on Madison Grant's evil legacy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


We have had a request for a post on the Rush Limbaugh phenomena, and here at Greater New York always aim to please our loyal readers. First, this question of wanting political opponents in power to fail is always tricky. Now, I was not glad that Bush so badly screwed up the rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina, which ended up costing almost 2,000 lives and countless billions in damages, and I wish he had been more efficient, and that Brownie actually had done a heckuva job, but on some level I was delighted that Bush was exposed for the callous ineffectual bumbler that he was, and that Katrina, opened, as it were, the floodgates, for mainstream criticism of his actions. Wanting the government to fail is something you may secretly want, but it generally something you can’t afford to say publicly, and generally its something you only sort of want, as if it could occur without the pain of failure. Bush designed the whole War in Iraq to intimidate potential critics, from the vote on war authorization to his lackeys who kept on saying that if you don’t support the president, you don’t support the troops. I was very, very sorry about the tragic loss of life, American and Iraqi, in the war, but I was glad on some level that on May 1, 2003, the “mission” actually was not “accomplished.” It was a lesson we as a nation very much needed to learn, and I only hope that we have learned it. And whatever Limbaugh actually feels, to say he wants Obama to fail, which means that he is hoping for governmental interventions to curtail the growing recession to be ineffectual, and for Obama to be overmastered by a Hoover-like depression and the expanding immiseration of the American people, so that the Republicans might win an election, is just something that can’t be said publicly.

But the broader point is that the political discourse of this country has shifted several degrees to the left since the election of Obama,and its less what Obama himself has said but the general aura that surrounds the administration. Major cable news networks, now allot air time to lefty commentators like Amy Goodman, who a few years back would have treated as a mere fringe player. Now their heads can talk. And the question is no longer whether Obama is a liberal, but whether he is a socialist, and whether he will nationalize the banks—a subject that six months ago was not even been discussed in places like The Nation. And the Republicans have a choice, as they had in the 1930s, of moving to the left, with the general political tenor of the country, or remaining where they are on the far right. And Limbaugh, uneasily, reminds them that the modern Republican party has been based on trashing, despising, and ridiculing liberalism, at a time when many Republicans are eager to become more “moderate.” What can I say, Rush Limbaugh is their creation, their petard, and long may they be hoist by him. And once again Greater New York does take requests, and would be happy to entertain at your next party or business meeting.