Sunday, July 28, 2013

How Large was Henry Ford?

One of the quotes I like to throw around a lot is from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass:  "I am large I contradict myself." I have said it so often that a friend of mine once made a button for me, with the quote, so that I could just point to it when I wanted to say it. There aren't many works of literature that get to the heart of humanity more than Leaves of Grass and particularly, the poem Song of Myself.  That was an abbreviated version of the quote, the full quote is:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

It is a simple acknowledgement that humanity is complex. Like John Lennon, Whitman had that the ability to say so much with so few words. We can, and often do, have opinions that contradict each. We can love animals but be a voracious meat eater. We can believe in small government but believe that government should restrict a person's right to choose. We can be for capital punishment but also believe that murder is a sin. Humanity is odd that way. It is this that allows me to wax on, bloviating, saying whatever I want to without too much concern that what I am writing doesn't contradict a post from three years ago. Next time you want to call a politician a waffler, you might to pick up a copy of Leaves of Grass to remind yourself of our humanity. We are large, we are full of perspective and we change our minds often.

Tuesday of this week, July 20th, will mark the 150th anniversary of Henry Ford's birth. I bring up the Whitman quote because every time I hear the name Henry Ford, I think of contradiction. He was a creative and mechanical genius but sometimes lacked vision. He was a champion for worker's rights but a spreader of hatred. There are not many human beings that have more of an effect on humanity than Ford, both positive and negative. Some say that he created the American middle class by insisting on paying his workers enough money so that they could afford to buy one of his cars. His mass production techniques of the automobile allowed many people to move out to the suburbs and leaving in the cities with big problems. He founded Ford Motor Company and the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation is one of those great trust funds that you hear mentioned on PBS. It was one of the organizations that helped get Sesame Street started. Ford was a leader is hiring of blacks, women and the handicapped. He was also a pacifist who believed that globalization would lead to global peace. He was an outspoken opponent of our the US's involvement in World War I.  He's affected everything from teen pregnancies to global warming. All of this is quite impressive and puts him among Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as one of the most important and impressive Americans, ever. But of course, there is a dark side.

In 1918, Henry Ford purchased an obscure publication called the Dearborn Independent. The eight years to follow, the Independent published many different types of articles but most of them revolved around one subject: antisemitism. He believed that the Jews were the cause of World War I and were funding both sides of the war. At its peak in 1925 the paper had a circulation of close to a million copies. Ford dealers around the country were urged to sell at their show rooms. They published parts of the Protocols of Zion, which is a Russian text that was originally published as a hoax in the early 20th century, that describes how the Jews were taking over the world's banking industry among other things. The Independent published it as truth. The Protocols were used in the early days of the German Nazi party as propaganda. In 1924, Ford received visits from the Nazi party where they requested contribution which he declined. They also awarded him the Grand Cross of the German Eagle (pictured below) in 1938, the highest Nazi award ever given to a foreigner.

Ford published 500,000 copies of the Protocols in the US. The Nazi's repackaged the articles in the Independent and published them in Germany in four volumes called The International Jew in the early 1920's. In the trials at Nuremburg, after World War II, many people cited this book as their inspiration saying that Ford was a genius and a progressive; his success legitimized his ideas. Hitler had a dogeared copy of it in his office. Ford is the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf in which he is praised.

How large was Henry Ford? Apparently, very large. I think of this in the same way as I think of Thomas Jefferson being a slave owner ... they are large, they contradict themselves and we'll never completely understand them. Apparently, while in his 80's, Ford was shown films of the concentration camps in Germany. He is said to have expressed horror. You have to wonder how much of the "horror" he connected with his own activity. Did he reflect or was he not that large?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Beatles For Sale

I have over 8,000 songs on my iPod. While driving down to Boston for the Paul McCartney concert at Fenway, I was pleased to find over 100 Beatles songs on it. We played on shuffle as we sang up a storm barreling down routes 89 and 93. We played the guessed the Beatles album game, in which Beth kicked my ass, just like she does in Trivial Pursuit, The Beatles edition.

She has always been a bigger Beatles fan than I.  They were always a band I liked but not loved..My tastes has always veered into darker territory. This is why I've always liked their later era albums, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road and The Beatles (aka The White Album), while she prefers the middle days of Revolver, Rubber Soul and Beatles for Sale. Both of us agree, the last album, Let It Be, is much more like a compilation of solo songs than an actual Beatles album.

I never realized was how dark Beatles for Sale is. It was their fourth studio album and they were becoming disenfranchised by their fame, sick of the crowds, the screaming girls while they were playing, the lack of privacy and other trappings of fame. They were going through what a lot of other rock bands go through after they make it big. The Who's third album was called The Who Sell Out which featured fake commercials, product endorsements and public service announcements. Pink Floyd's first album after their mega-successful Dark Side of the Moon was Wish You Were Here, where they lamented their fame with songs like Welcome to the Machine and Have a Cigar. The latter song has the line "by the way which one's Pink?" which apparently is something a record executive said to them thinking that one of the band members was named Pink. Like these other bands, the Beatles felt they were being handled. This was an era where most acts had very short shelf-life so they worked the band as hard as they could for what they thought would be a short period. After all, the pop music industry was a fairly new industry. The band was so tired and busy from touring the world, they had little new material. They wanted to follow up A Hard Day's Night (their third album) with another album that only had original songs, but they had used up all their backlogged material on that album. So Beatles For Sale had six cover songs and only eight new songs. Of the original songs, the first song No Reply is a song of jealous rage, then I'm a Loser is internalized brutality, then Baby's In Black is their first truly morose song. Our boy band was maturing. This maturing period is when they exploded creatively. I have new respect for my wife's favorite Beatles albums.

We were very excited to finally see a member of the Beatles in person. To see him at Fenway, was just too much fun for this Red Sox fan to handle. We had an hour to waste when we got into town, we took the red line into Park Street in downtown and decided to walk to the park. This was my first trip back to Boston since the marathon bombing.  I had the same problems with the city that I always do, here is a small list:

  • there are porta-johns on Boston Common but they are locked
  • all businesses downtown don't let you use their bathrooms unless you buy something
  • the T (mass transit) only runs until 1am while many of the bars are open later
  • people on the T don't move in to allow more people in, even when people are sardined together
  • and, my favorite, they try to get on the crowded T before allowing people to get off 
All of this crap made me feel good inside ... the bombing didn't change anything. The city had moved on.

The concert was even better than I expected. Just picture 36,064 very happy people (largest Fenway concert crowd ever) in your favorite place performing a sing-a-long. A very expensive sing-a-long is what this was. I was seated in short left field with the Green Monster on my left watching a pop icon. McCartney was late getting there, it started an hour late, but the crowd didn't seem to mind much. He played for three hours. Not bad for a 71 year old man. I knew all but two songs, so I guess I am bigger fan that I thought I was.

The best song was probably Live and Let Die where his band really jammed with fireworks and pyrotechnics (which I thought were illegal in Massachusetts). I found it odd that he never introduced the members of the band. The oddest song of the night was probably Paperback Writer mainly because of the imagery behind him. The visuals were great all night, but this one I could have done without. While he played this song, the images of nurses with surgical masks covered in blood were being broadcast behind him. I found this video on YouTube. I put my Googling talents to work trying to figure out what this was all about. I didn't find a lot. I found that there was a genre of pulp fiction in the late 1950's and early 1960's (same era of the song) called Nurse Romance novels. I found a blog dedicated to the subject. The images on these books are an awful lot like the bloody nurses at the show so I might be onto something, but I am not sure where the blood comes from. I always assumed that the line "based on a novel by a man named Lear" was in reference to Norman Lear but apparently it is reference to nonsense poet Edmund Lear. Since neither of these Lear's wrote novels, this seems irrelevant. The most interesting thing I discovered about this song is that it was their first non-love song. Paul's aunt requested that he write a song that wasn't about love. I think he succeeded sans the bloody nurses.

Here is the playlist that I came up with from the show I attended on July 9th 2013:

Beatles songs:                                          
Eight Days a Week (opened with this)            
Let It Be                                                        
All Together Now                                          
Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da                                   
Back to the U.S.S.R.                                     
We Can Work It Out                                     
Day Tripper                                                   
I Saw Her Standing There                              
For the Benefit of Mister Kite                         
The Long and Winding Road
Carry That Weight
The End
Black Bird
Eleanor Rigby
Lady Madonna
Paperback Writer
Lovely Rita
And I Love Her
I've Just Seen a Face
Your Mother Should Know

Wings songs:
Live and Let Die
Band On the Run
Hi Hi Hi
Junior's Farm
Nineteen Hundred Eighty Five
Listen to What the Man Said
Maybe I'm Amazed
Another Day
Let Me Roll It To You

He played a short tribute to Jimi Hendrix by jamming Foxy Lady on the guitar. He also played a new song, My Valentine that he wrote for his new wife Nancy. It was lovely. We all needed the break in our singing voices at this point, anyway. There was only one Wings song that I could not identify. Over all, it was an amazing night.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Bush and Pierce Connection

I still hear people refer to the George W. Bush presidency as the worst in American history. While I am no fan of our 42nd president, now I have the distance of a few years, the worst is a bit harsh. I say this not because I don't think he was horrible, for the country and the planet, but because I have more perspective now. We have had a lot of really awful president. We had a stretch of very weak presidents from Van Buren (#8) to Buchanan (#15) that may have lead to our country's Civil War. If we had a Lincoln, one of the Roosevelts or Washington in that stretch, perhaps our bloodiest war wouldn't have happened. The ramifications of that war are still felt today.

One of those really weak bad presidents was Franklin Pierce (#14). Pierce was the son of a Revolutionary War hero and Governor, Benjamin Pierce.  He was well-known and well-liked in his native New Hampshire. He had an unimpressive college career, military career and an equally unimpressive political career before being president with two terms in US Congress and one term in the Senate. Then how did he become president? While he attended Bowdoin College, he made one very good friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. They were such good friend that when Pierce died, years later, Hawthorne was the person who found him. As you may recall, Hawthorne was one of the big stars of the time. Great and popular novelist in the 19th century were like the rock stars of their time. Hawthorne was already extremely famous for writing the classics The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables, when he wrote The Life of Franklin Pierce. It was not exactly fiction but not what you would consider a good non-fiction book either. It was more the type of biography a politician publishes from their campaign office than from a curious journalist. It was extremely biased toward Pierce portraying him not as the mediocre person that he was. One point was clear, he did not support the abolitionists. He thought that if slavery were outlawed, it needed to come from the South, until then, the Federal Government needed to stay out of it. The book was popular enough to give him national attention.

Presidential Primaries in 1852 were still decided at the convention. In the first round of voting, Pierce received zero votes.  It wasn't until the 35th round that he received his first votes at the Convention with 15. Even his home state wasn't giving up their delegates for him. It wasn't until the 49th round that Pierce had the majority of the votes. He was considered a moderate with few strong opinions so it was easy for the other candidates to throw their support from the left and the right. Pierce's Whig opponent (the party's last), Winfield Scott's, anti-slavery reputation made it an easy win for Pierce. The only states that Scott took were Massachusetts, Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee. The most interesting fact about this election was that Daniel Webster was still on the ballot as the Union Party candidate, even though he had died earlier that year. He still received .2 % of the vote.

A few months after Pierce was elected, his son Benjamin, 11, died in a train accident. He and his wife, Jane, both were on the train with him and when the train tumbled down an embankment in Andover, MA, they watch as the boy was crushed. They both suffered from deep depression that badly affected his presidency. Jane was referred to as the "shadow in the White House" for she never came out of her state of melancholia while Franklin turned to drinking. As president he supported the expansion of slavery into the West, his administration vigorously pursued fugitive slaves in the North to return them to their "owners," and supported the annexation of Cuba. This was a bad President in a time we needed a good one. We were headed toward war. While Bush was bad and divisive, we won't be midst a civil war anytime soon (but I could be wrong). He is also the only President ever to not be renominated by his own party for another term. One other thing about Pierce, he is the only ex-President to support the Confederacy during the Civil War.

George W. Bush was certainly one of the worst presidents in history, but his father wasn't so bad. George Herbert Bush (#40) was not a great president, but not one of the worst either. So it isn't genetic ... but wait. Barbara Bush, W's mother, was born Barbara Pierce. She and President Pierce are fourth cousins four times removed. President Pierce's parents were Benjamin Pierce and Ann Kendrick. Their son, James was Franklin's brother. James and his wife Chloe Holbrook had a son named James. That James married Kate Pritzel and had a son Scott. Scott married Mabel and had Marvin. Marvin Pierce and Pauline Robinson are Barbara's parents. So perhaps there is a bad president gene. Something to think about if Jeb Bush ever runs.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What I Learned From My Australian Guests

One of the nice things about owning a house and having a guest room is having the ability to bring the world to you. I have only traveled out of North America twice in my life. I cannot afford to travel the world much, but I can afford to bring the world to me.  We host exchange students occasionally and when we do travel overseas, we try to make friends with the hope of exchanging couches and/or guest rooms.  A few years ago, my wife and I did travel in Europe visiting the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria and Hungary. It was an amazing trip. We made some friends with an Australian (not Austrian) couple who were also visiting Europe.  They visited our home in Vermont a few weekends ago. I learned a lot about Australia just in course of conversation over beer, wine and some Scotch ... a few meals too.

Australia is roughly the size of the United States. While we have 50 distinct states that have their own Constitutions and government, they have six. Five of the six states are on mainland continent: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Southern Australia. Tasmania is the sixth, and like Hawaii, is an island. If you look at the map of Australia, you might think I missed one, the Northern Territory, which is a huge chunk of the continent. This is not actually a state, but a territory that is governed by the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The ACT is a lot like DC (or District of Columbia) in the US. It is not a state and is so small, it looks like it should be apart of the surrounding states. The Australian capital, Canberra, is in the ACT.  The Northern Territory is sparsely populated with two district climate zones: tropical and desert.

I asked my guests about Australia during World War II. If you head north from the island nation, you don't have to go too far before you reach the Philippines and then Japan.  World War II was truly a world war in that most areas of the globe were affected. Still subjects of the Queen, Australia was pulled into the War along with the UK. Darwin is the largest city in the Northern Australia, but during the war, it only had about 5,000 people.  It has over 100,000 now. It only became a city in 1959. In February 1942, the same fleet of bombers that had attacked Pearl Harbor, a few months earlier, attacked Darwin killing 243 people. Like Pearl Harbor, it was ill-prepared. It was attacked 58 more times throughout the War but none were more devastating than the first which is still the most fatal day of war ever in Australia. After the initial attack the Allied Forces moved more Australian troops from the European and African theaters to support their homeland. 

Here in northeastern US, we have a problem with the collapse of the bat population due to white-nose syndrome. This is a big problem for us because the bats do a lot to control the insect population. The island of Tasmanian has a similar problem, not with bats but with the famous Tasmanian Devil. They are dying off of cancer or DFTD (Devil Facial Tumor Disease).  The cancerous lesions fill the creature's face until it is so swollen, it is impossible to eat. They end up dying of starvation. The disease spreads through biting and possibly through the sharing of a carcass. The disease has spread quickly. It was first discovered in 1996 and has now spread through at least 60% of the island with up to 80% of the devils affected. One of the reasons it spreads so fast is due to the lack of genetic diversity among the devils. They are an island creature, after all.

My friend Hugh was giving me an itinerary for my visit to Australia. It seems that my three week trip, may need to be extended to six months or so. I don't know when I will have that much time and the money to go, but I hope there will be some devils left by then.