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?

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