Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Helping Hand During the Great Depression

When thousands and millions of Americans were unemployed, and even homeless, and when the farmers who produced the nation's food were suffering in the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930's, help was at hand from numerous charitable organizations. Some of them are still with us, like the Salvation Army.

One of the leaders of these helping organizations was Dorothy Day. She created not only one, but several, nation-wide movements to help the poor. But her story begins long before the Great Depression. Northwestern University's Collin Hansen writes:

It is perhaps symbolic that a mover and shaker like Dorothy Day survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As she watched her mother help the earthquake's homeless, Day developed a sensitive heart toward "the least of these." But it was socialism — not the church — that first harnessed her activism. In 1917 police arrested the budding journalist while she protested at the White House for woman suffrage. The activist Day saw little use for a meek Jesus. "I wanted a Lord who would scourge the money-changers out of the temple," Day wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, "and I wanted to help all those who raised their hand against oppression."

Dorothy Day's desire to help the oppressed was an urgent desire, one that sought immediate and measurable action, not merely nice sentiment. The rhetoric of socialist activists would grab her attention. She would discover that, despite the rousing phrases of the socialists, real and substantive action would be more likely to come from spiritual, rather than Marxist, motives:

Nevertheless, the time Day spent in prison tried her commitment to secular activism. She even asked for a Bible and sought comfort from the Psalms. For years after she left prison, Day's interest in Christianity grew slowly but steadily. Love for the poor drew her to the Roman Catholic Church, whose huddled masses she met while reporting among immigrants.

Her socialist acquaintances were mostly opposed to religion, and would not bother to consider the important charitable work which the Christians were doing among the poor. Although not married, Dorothy Day had lived with a socialist man for several years. When it came to love or politics, he would rather dump her than be related to someone willing to consider the spiritual side of human existence.

Day's move toward Catholicism came at a cost. She split with her common-law husband, Forster Batterham, when Day gave birth to their daughter, Tamar, in 1927. Day, feeling the guilt of an earlier abortion, saw Tamar's birth as a sign of God's mercy and forgiveness, and had her baptized. Like many of Day's radical friends, Batterham would not tolerate religiosity. "It was not because I was tired of sex, satiated, disillusioned, that I turned to God," Day wrote. "It was because through a whole love, both physical and spiritual, I came to know God."

Dorothy would eventually prove her talent as a writer, editor, and reporter.

While writing for the Catholic magazine Commonweal in 1932, Day met the man who would steer her toward her life's calling. Peter Maurin, a French immigrant and former monk, urged Day to launch a newspaper that would spread Catholic social teaching. Maurin supplied the philosophy behind The Catholic Worker, but Day provided the journalistic know-how. The newspaper's pacifism and advocacy for the poor afforded Maurin and Day numerous opportunities to back their words with action. Yet on two occasions things became so difficult that Maurin asked Day to quit with him.

After 1933, the Great Depression got worse, year by year, and the farming crisis didn't help matters, either. In addition to writing, Dorothy Day found it necessary to take action. She began to create institutions, known as 'Catholic Worker Houses', in major cities. These locations would help anyone, regardless of religious belief - the unemployed and homeless.

By 1936, 33 Catholic Worker houses had sprouted nationwide as the growing network of newspapers opened their doors to the down and out. But some staff members lamented Day's commitment to the "undeserving" poor. They preferred to spend the limited funds on socialist propaganda. Day held her ground, and the dissenters left.

In addition to helping the poor, Dorothy Day was committed to the idea of pacifism. Reading the New Testament carefully, she came to the conclusion that it was utter against war.

Likewise, World War II tested the newspaper's integrity. When The Catholic Worker declined to choose sides, two-thirds of their readers quit taking the paper. Maurin wondered if they should give up, since the world evidently didn't want to listen. "God gives us our temperaments," Day remembered, "and in spite of my pacifism, it is natural for me to stand my ground, to continue in what actually amounts to a class war, using such weapons as the works of mercy for immediate means to show our love and to alleviate suffering."

Although she did influential work during the 1930's and 1940's, Dorothy Day lived until 1980. Looking back on her long life, she wrote:

If I could have felt that communism was the answer to my desire for a cause, a motive, a way to walk in, I would have remained as I was. But I felt that only faith in Christ could give the answer.

She was disillusioned by the idea of a central bureaucracy in a distant capital city, which was what the communists and socialists had created. Rather than look to a political or governmental structure to provide a solution, Dorothy Day saw that real action can be taken among the poor and among the oppressed by a spiritual community which is willing to live and work among them.

Running for President - Over and Over Again

William Jennings Bryan ran as a candidate for the U.S. Presidency several times, and never won. Despite this, he is an influential figure in history. Northwestern University's Collin Hansen writes:

Williams Jennings Bryan trusted a God who sided with common folk. Bryan made a name for himself in the Progressive Era by fighting the economic elites of his own Democratic Party. His oratorical skills catapulted him all the way to the party's nomination for President in 1896 when he famously harangued the gold standard. "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns," Bryan thundered, stretching out his arms. "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Jennings is difficult to categorize: by today's standards, he is neither a liberal nor a conservative. We are no longer debating about the exact relationship between the dollar and an ounce of gold, but in Bryan's era, the gold standard of currency was a divisive question. What is common to both eras is Bryan's sense of the common man. He reacted against any sense of aristocracy or elitism. Although he lost the 1896 election for the presidency, that did not stop him from running again:

Three times Bryan ran for President; three times he failed. Nevertheless, besides Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, Bryan dominated the era of reforms that ran from the 1890s to the 1920s. He championed four constitutional amendments enacted during this period—prohibition, direct election of senators, the income tax, and woman suffrage. Known as the "Great Commoner," Bryan opposed the business interests that he believed had undercut America's working classes. "There can be no good monopoly in private hands until the Almighty sends us angels to preside over the monopoly," he argued.

Bryan's support for these four amendments defines his political stance, and some of the issues of that time period. Although some of his views may be naive - Prohibition was a failure and income tax has caused misery for millions - his intent is unmistakable, and these measures may have even made sense in their time, if not in ours. Aside from his political views, he was also known for his speaking skills, which allowed him to communicate those views to millions:

Traits that won Bryan the masses made him controversial and unpopular among others. A great speaker during an age of oratory, Bryan came across as a loud demagogue to many business and political leaders. He stuck to his principles and resigned his position as secretary of state in Woodrow Wilson's cabinet as America prepared to enter World War I. But Bryan had appeared inept in his efforts to mediate the conflict, and his simple piety did not impress opponents. Yet according to biographer Michael Kazin, "admirers embraced him because he so publicly campaigned in the name of Christian principles and was never known to have transgressed them."

After three runs for the presidency, a term as Secretary of State, and four years as a congressman, Bryan left governmental politics, but stayed involved in social and communal causes. He was bitterly attacked by H.L. Menken and Clarence Darrow, especially when he dared to voice skepticism about Charles Darwin.

But Bryan did not entertain any retreat from culture. "Sometimes the Christian has sought to prepare himself for immortality by withdrawing from the world's temptations and from the world's activities," Bryan said. "Now he is beginning to see that he can only follow in the footsteps of the Nazarene when he goes about doing good and renders 'unto the least of these,' his brethren, the service that the Master was anxious to render unto all."

Bryan's political method was to learn what was on people's minds - which questions occupied the ordinary citizen - and then address them. He was a

politician with principles. William Jennings Bryan's towering personality cast a long and controversial shadow over American politics. Biographer Michael Kazin says Bryan "burned only and always to see religion heal the world."

Despite the anger and hatred directed toward him, he remained peaceful and calm. He didn't use his speeches to stir up rage against those who were attacking him; instead, he simply worked to find ways to improve the lot of the ordinary citizen.

Monday, July 4, 2011

How Did Good Businesses Get Bad Reputations?

It is common to read, hear, and see imagines of large corporations as the "bad guys": symbols of greed and heartlessness, eager to take money in any form, exploiting workers, insensitive to the concerns of the poor, and uncaring in regard to preserving the earth's environment. Business, you might think, is simply evil.

How did this stereotype develop? To accept these ideas, one would have to forget that millions of poor people have managed to improve their lives by working their way up in business. Every American, not only the rich and middle class, has experienced an increase in her or his standard of living because of business activity: even the poor have cell phones, televisions, and a host of other gadgets.

Columbia University's Professor Thomas Woods writes:

History textbooks love to highlight the villainous American businessmen who have "exploited" workers, taken advantage of the public, and wielded so much power. Government officials, on the other hand, are portrayed as benevolent, self-sacrificing crusaders for justice, without whom Americans would be working eighty-hour weeks and buying shoddy goods at exorbitant prices. This is what every students believes as he leaves high school (or college, for that matter), and it's hard to blame him. This kind of thing has been taught, day after day, for years.


Although we might disagree with Professor Woods' use of the word 'every' (surely not every student has fallen for this propaganda!), his generalizations are largely correct: and they hint at the source of this incorrect but pervasive view: one reason for painting such a dim picture of business is to make government look good.

It is, after all, the government which taxes heartlessly - even the poorest person must pay sales tax, property tax, gasoline tax, cell phone tax, and dozens of other taxes. It is the government which creates no wealth: the total amount of value in the economy remains the same as the government taxes and spends. Even when a government prints more paper money, this does not create value: it simply dilutes the pool of wealth, making each dollar worth a little less as each new one is printed. The government increases neither the total nor the average standard of living for Americans.

So beware over-simplified paradigm of "business bad, government good": remember that business is simply the activity of ordinary people going about their lives. Government is the activity of regulating people's lives. If there were no business, there would be no life to regulate.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Getting a Prize for Lying

Scholars have arrived at slightly different numbers when they research how many millions of people starved to death when Joseph Stalin created famines in parts of his Soviet Union in the early 1930's. The famines, created in order to subdue regions which might question Stalin's authority, killed somewhere between four and ten million people. The numbers will remain forever approximate.

New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, who was in Russia at the time, at a dinner party with staff from the British Embassy, said that his own travels caused him to estimate between seven and ten million deaths.

Why, then, would Duranty write in his articles, published in the New York Times, that "there is no actual starvation," and again that there had been no "deaths from starvation"?

It became clear that Duranty was a big fan of Stalin's, and of their "planned system of economy." He wanted to give the Soviet Union a good image around the world, and so deliberately lied to millions of American readers. It later became clear that he was one of network of Americans who sympathized with the Soviets, and would manipulate information to keep the Soviet Union strong - while making America vulnerable in what would later become the Cold War.

Duranty wrote well, so well that he earned Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Both the New York Times and the Pulitzer committee would later publicly acknowledge that they had been fooled, and that Duranty was writing, not accurate and objective reports, but rather propaganda for Moscow.