Monday, January 26, 2015

What We Need Is More Eleanor Roosevelt

A long time ago I gave my mother a three volume collection of her great hero, Eleanor Roosevelt's "My Day" columns.   I picked up one of them the other day, the last volume and opened it to the last column in the book, from September 14, 1962, one of the last she wrote.   It was about the need for the United States and the Soviet Union to get along better, encouraging the United States to learn from the Soviets and to practice social and economic development in poor countries instead of supplying them with weapons.

I remember the fall of 1962, the world Mrs. Roosevelt was addressing in that column, though I didn't realize until I looked up the date that the column was exactly a month before Kennedy and Khrushchev almost set off a nuclear war that would, certainly, have been the greatest catastrophe in the history of the human species through the products of science and technology.

That column is, like many of her other ones, online through the My Day Project.  It is wonderful to read because it is a perfect example of the road that liberalism could have taken instead of the one I've pointed out was such a disaster in the years and decades after that.  Here are two passages.

-  I often wonder, as I note how nervous we seem to be about Communist build-up in our world, why our country does not use new initiative to think out fresh approaches to the uncommitted people all over the world.

It has always seemed to me that we never present our case to the smaller nations in either a persuasive or interesting way. I think most people will acknowledge, for instance, that we have given far more military aid to these nations than economic aid. It is not very pleasant to palm off this military equipment on people who really are not looking for it. The fiction is that they are being given military aid so that they will be better able to cope with any Communist attack. But all the nations where we do this know quite well that it is pure fiction and nothing else. Practically none of them could withstand a really determined Soviet attack.

In view of this, why don't we offer them something they really want? For one thing, most of them would like food. Many of them, as they watch the development of the bigger nations, want to establish the beginnings of industry. But they know that wider training of their people is essential before they can make industrial advances, and hence a primary need is aid to their educational system.

-  It might be profitable to us if we would study what is really good in Soviet education and in their way of life. We can't have a premium on all the good things. We know that there are fundamental differences. We are a Christian nation; they do not believe in God. We are anxious that people should learn to think for themselves and not simply accept what somebody else has told them. But there are good things in the Soviet world and we should give them credit for these. Then, on our own initiative, we should develop a program that we believe will be of greater advantage to the newly developing nations of the world.

Similarly, we might profit by the study of other cultures of the world. The nations of Asia have some of the most ancient civilizations and philosophies, yet rarely does it occur to us that we might learn from them—or that they might offer to the newly developed nations ways of thought that would be far superior to anything we could suggest. In the same way, we might learn from the West African tribes described in Allard K. Lowenstein's "Brutal Mandate." These people are Christians and they have said over and over again that they have no use for Communism. But we still persist in thinking of them as bush savages who have nothing to contribute to the rest of the developed world.

I have every confidence that if someone wrote something like that today, what passes as a liberal blogosphere would jump down her throat for the clause, "We are a Christian nation," and entirely ignore everything else she said.    That is exactly the kind of side-show that started making liberalism an ineffective and losing force in politics within the next six years.   I think it is somewhat interesting that she would cite Allard Lowenstein, but she couldn't have known he would mount the disastrous "Dump Johnson" campaign that did so much to put Richard Nixon in office.   I wish she'd been around long enough to comment on the frequently foolish and self-destructive course that liberalism took in the coming years.  Something we still haven't learned from, something which we won't recover from unless we see how and why things went so wrong.

And, yes, she, the very embodiment of American liberalism, said "We are a Christian nation,"  and said it just that most blatant of ways in 1962 and, oddly enough, the next several years were the high mark of liberal political action in our history.   Just as her husband, Johnson's only rival in political progress said, "I am a Christian and a Democrat, that's all," without any catastrophic results for civil rights.

And consider that we're still making the same mistakes in the third-world as China, with considerably less altruistic intentions, are, nevertheless, running rings around a United States government which is the vassal of corporations and the armaments industry, not to mention the pervasive racism of so many of our elite class.   Only, now, the same policies are being, again, foisted on the middle and lowest classes here, as well.   No one in government today would propose such radical programs as she advocated, though they'd have turned the United States into an example to follow instead of an oppressor to fight.

Many of Eleanor Roosevelt's columns are fresh today as ever since the problems they dealt with and the inadequacy of our response to them is not much different. Here is an especially good one on racism and police misconduct in the North, even as northerners were so confident that they were so far superior to Southerners in that regard.   She pointed out that Northerners didn't have a lot to be proud of.

Only the fact that the grand jury refused to indict the boy saved his life, and one cannot help wondering if that confession was not rather strongly suggested, together with the enactment of the crime, by the police themselves. These are strong-arm methods which, used in the South against such groups as the Freedom Riders, arouse strong criticism outside. Yet we should be equally critical when we find such methods used in the North. To have sent one innocent boy to his death would have been a crime which the later apprehension of the killer would hardly have wiped out. Our pride in the police's great achievement must therefore be somewhat muted in the hope that they will not forget their mistakes along with their success.

In the same way, we must realize that however slow the progress of school integration in the South, analogous situations exist over and over again in the Northern states. There the problem of school desegregation is closely tied to desegregation of housing, and certainly we are not doing any kind of job that we could hold out as an example to our Southern neighbors.

That it was the Southerner, Lyndon Johnson, who, despite his record as a conservative, would push the most radical advances in civil rights legislation since Lincoln should have clued in such Northern liberals as Lowenstein that it might not be such a good idea to dump him when the alternative was guaranteed to be worse.   The part that Northern intellectual's bias and conceit at the expense of Southerners played in that period is a big part of what we'll need to look at because it is still a problem which must be overcome to make progress.

It is a treat to read a newspaper column written by someone who thought like an adult who saw the world as real and serious and not like it was some game board to use to score points.   The mature and charitable tone of Eleanor Roosevelt's thinking pervades her columns.  That's another thing we're going to have to get back to if we're going to get out of the fine mess liberals got themselves into in the later years of the 1960s and beyond.


  1. Like conservatives, liberals are fine with charity: to those who deserve it.

    Charity, however, has to be earned; the very attitude Mrs. Roosevelt was arguing against.

    Interestingly, Salon has probably the most intelligent article/excerpt I've read there, about Protestantism and corruption and religious fundamentalism being rooted in a reaction against corruption. The link is to radical Islam, which is arguably a reaction against corrupt government rule, governments propped up by the U.S. because we are still more interested in military aid than in economic aid.

    But, you know, it's religion that's the problem.....

    1. I haven't read the article at Salon, I'm kind of allergic to the webloids just now. Your description reminds me of Marilynne Robinsons great essays about the Calvinist tradition and their relationship with liberalism and how the Puritans were a reaction against the opulent corruption of the Tudor and Stuart era. Perhaps as much an expression of hatred of Catholicism.

      We are not angels, we mix the good and the bad and shouldn't ever think we're going to never have to take that into account if we're going to move towards the good. Fundamentalism, religious and atheist is a self-congratulating forgetting of that.

    2. The article is an excerpt from a book and while it's slightly problematic (Chaucer was commenting on the sales of indulgences long before Luther; it was a widely acknowledged problem), it focuses on Luther's reaction to indulgences as one of the prime movers of the Reformation (which, the article should also emphasize, was a move to reform the Catholic church, not abandon it. Anglican churches are "Catholic Lite", but no less so than Lutheran ones.).

      A worthy analysis of reactions to corruption in government, and how that connects with groups like Al Qaeda. I've pretty much ignored the comments over there; reading comprehension is not the strong suit of most readers of Salon.

    3. I think it's pretty clear that, as with even the "reality community" blogs, that little reading of even the articles the comment threads are attached to is involved.

      I am realizing, more and more, that we're going to have to speak over the heads of the self-appointed "reality community" to real people, of whom there are ever so many more, to make any kind of liberalism come into being in reality.

      I'll read the article later today. Thanks for pointing it out.

    4. You're right about fundamentalists, though: the "lesser evil" excuse is strong. My evil is bad, yours is worse, so mine wins. Thus do I not have to love my neighbor until he proves himself worthy. And "worthy" means: when he acts and thinks just like me.