Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Did God abuse Mary?

As inevitable as mistletoe and the Tannenbaum, the argument about Mary’s virginity has been brought up by news of theologian Kyle Roberts’ new book, A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary Was a Virgin and Why It Matters.

The author is a professor of public theology and church and economic life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, a school with essentially Calvinist affiliations near Minneapolis. His work attempts to be a new scholarly examination of the claims concerning Myriam of Nazareth, or what in some theological circles is known as Mariology. I have not read the book, so I have to rely on a Religion News Service interview of the author, a piece that is flippantly titled “Flunking Sainthood.”

What emerges is that Roberts is clearly wrestling with a literal belief in the asexual conception of Jesus. This is a problem that might bedevil evangelicals and fundamentalists, but need not and does not present a major problem for the majority of Christians. In fact, Roberts grapples with a bit of a straw man.

The gospels are trying to convey orthodox teaching of the Christian faith as held by non-evangelicals and non-literalists: Jesus of Nazareth was born divine, an unusual circumstance conveyed by way of a literary shortcut described as “born of a virgin.”

This is not meant to be a scientific statement.

Most of what science knows about birth today — which is not all that is knowable by a very long shot — was unknown to the authors of the gospels. Importantly, until the 1830s no one even knew about the existence of the ovum, let alone DNA. The prevailing understanding at the time of Jesus and all the way to the time of Presidents Jackson, Polk and Van Buren, was that the sperm was a “little man” that was implanted in the womb, which was merely a passive receptacle.

This understanding explains a lot about the thinking on a huge range of sexual topics — and the status of women — over that period and earlier.

It’s what the gospel writers “knew.”

Given such an understanding, the literal meaning of the gospels’ text in Matthew and Luke (Mark and John have no birth narratives) is that Jesus came from a divine “little man/sperm” that was placed in Myriam’s womb by God. The idea of a sperm and an ovum, let alone the resulting zygote, would never have occurred to any of the evangelists.

However, the gospels are not literal documents, not newspapers providing facts. They are literary texts aiming to convey to believers a theological message. Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives make use of the “science” of the day, appeal to a customary Greco-Roman literary device that accompanies the birth of an important figure with portents. Lastly, they draw on Isaiah 7:14, the prophecy of a virgin giving birth, which was probably meant to convey the unusual character of the Messiah.

The divine origin of Jesus the Christ is also put quite distinctly and poetically by the gospel of John (1:1,14a): “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” No conception, no birth mentioned. This is particularly odd since John reputedly took care of Mary after the crucifixion. Tradition has it that the widowed Mary lived with John in Ephesus.

All of this is distinct from the facts of Jesus’ birth as scholars know them, which follow.

Jesus was probably born around the year 6 BCE (an oddity resulting from a calendar miscalculation). According to some of the earliest sources, the birth occurred in the summer, possibly July or August. Arguably but not definitively, the evidence suggests his mother may have had several other children. There is no factual evidence concerning the conception of Jesus.

The notion of Mary ever virgin is not implicitly and indisputably a gospel message. The phrase “ever virgin” referred to Mary is first attested in the 4th century, far from any contemporaries of Mary or Jesus. Also, it is unrelated to the origin of Christian views concerning chastity and marriage.

I align with the view of Elaine Pagels, in her book Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity. She proposes, with some evidence, that the early Christian view of chastity as a virtue emerged as a proto-feminist attempt by Christian women to avoid marriage as prescribed by imperial Roman law, which in effect made the wife the property of her husband. This, in turn, has little to do with the apostle Paul’s statements on sex, which were heavily influenced by a combination of his rabbinical training and his personal shock at the common behavior in Greece, which was not entirely dissimilar to current sexual social mores in North America.

In sum, we know extremely little about Jesus’ actual birth as a matter of fact and nothing about his conception. For God, however, nothing is impossible; if God wanted to swell in a human born from a virgin, it could happen science notwithstanding because God is lord of science and the world. The teaching of the virgin birth is merely about the original divinity of Jesus: he was born God, of God directly, and did not become God in some way.

Finally, to bring it back to the topic of the day, Luke 1:34-38 provides a virginal conception that is consensual. In verse 34 Mary asks: “How can that be, since I have no knowledge of man?” The angel replies in 35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the most High will overshadow thee. Thus this holy offspring of thine shall be known for the Son of God.” Then in 38, Mary says: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy word.” Consent!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The original America First movement

“America First” were the two most surprising words to come out of President Trump’s mouth in his inaugural speech Jan. 20, 2017. Only the Los Angeles Times that day noted that it was “a phrase with an anti-Semitic and isolationist history going back to the years before the U.S. entry into World War II,” but the Anti-Defamation League had already asked Trump to drop the phrase during the campaign.

In addition to being the infancy of modern U.S. liberalism, the 1930s and early 1940s were a notable time for racism and anti-Semitism. The Depression spurred many whites to engage in parades by the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings; like Germans, some Americans scapegoated Jews as well as Blacks for their misfortunes.

The America First Committee started in September 1940 to oppose U.S. entry into World War II. At its peak it had 800,000 members in 450 chapters. The group swept up youths who were later notables, including future President Gerald Ford and future conservative writer William Buckley. It was a false-flag “pacifist” movement whose real aims became transparent over time.

The group’s leading spokesman was aviator Charles Lindbergh, known for his sympathies toward the Nazi regime. In a 1939 article in the Reader's Digest, Lindbergh wrote, “We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.” Later, in a Des Moines speech delivered on Sept. 11, 1941, he declared, “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.”

The group was funded by Robert E. Wood of Sears-Roebuck and Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, but included the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford and Avery Brundage, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who reportedly blocked two Jewish runners from participating in the U.S. track team at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

More direct evidence of a Nazi connection emerged at the trial of the aviator and orator Laura Houghtaling Ingalls (a distant cousin of Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder). It was shown that she was a paid Nazi agent, had been receiving about $300 a month (equivalent to about $5,250 in 2017 dollars) from Baron Ulrich von Gienanth, a spymaster while officially second secretary at the German Embassy in Washington. Von Gienanth, testimony showed, encouraged Ingalls to participate in the America First Committee.

The Committee dissolved on Dec. 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The New Deal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was two things: a series of federal programs, projects and reforms enacted in the 1930s and the signature policies that became the core ideas of a U.S. liberal Democratic Party coalition. They combined relief for the unemployed and poor, overall economic recovery and a thorough set of financial reforms to prevent a depression from ever happening again.

When FDR took office on March 4, 1933, he stated his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Unemployment stood at about 25%, farm income nationally had fallen by half since 1929 and close to a million nonfarm mortgages had been foreclosed. There was no protection other than what little families, private charity and local governments could offer; when, to top things off, runs on banks occurred, the institutions closed and people lost all their savings.

For relief, FDR got Congress to approve the Social Security Act of 1935, which established a basic right to an old age pension, insurance against unemployment and aid to poor families with children. In 1939, the Administration added the first Food Stamp Program, which fed 20 million people, in addition to boosting the prices of farm products.

Recovery was a vast set of programs, including a public works program to building government offices, airports, hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, and dams in some 34,599 projects, rural electrification, the Forest Service, Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority. In effect, for a time the government became the largest investor and employer in the United States.

Reforms of the financial sector included the Banking Act of 1933, which established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation that still protects average checking and savings accounts, and the companion Glass-Steagall Act, which set up firewalls between the banking, insurance and investment industries. The Securities Exchange Act of 1934, set up the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to watch over stock investment activity to keep it transparent and fair.

The three legs of the New Deal stool were designed to interact with one another. Aid to elderly, poor and unemployed people, for example, also served to spur economic activity, as people in need spent out their aid, generating consumer demand and employment. The recovery eased the depth of poverty and unemployment while also generating production and profits. Controls over how profits were invested prevented speculation from wiping out the improvement.

The New Deal did not eliminate capitalism’s boom and bust economic cycles, but it greatly cushioned the effects. The delicate balance required to keep the economy on an even keel was shown in 1937.

The business-leaning Republicans argued that the New Deal was hostile to business growth and spurred strikes caused by the organizing activities of two competing federations that were growing thanks to workers’ fears that without unions they might starve. Buoyed by a return to healthier economic activity by 1936, the GOP in Congress applied the brakes on spending. Unemployment jumped from 14.3% in 1937 to 19.0% in 1938, while manufacturing output fell by 37% from the 1937 peak.

The worst effects of the second downturn in the Depression were technically over by 1939, but unemployment remained high until the U.S. entry into World War II that mobilized many unemployed workers into uniform. After the war, an unprecedented prosperity arose out of the unique historical circumstance that the United States was the only major industrial nation whose infrastructure had not been reduced to rubble.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Great Depression

The third development that shaped the 1930s and contemporary ideas of the economy, society and policy was the Great Depression, the deepest of the 47 economic downturns the United States has experienced since 1785. It began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which ushered in a 12-year period of mass unemployment and pauperization that affected all western industrial nations.

The stock crash began on October 24, 1929, since then known as “Black Thursday,” when the market lost 11 percent of its value, it intensified on on October 28 (“Black Monday”) when the losses added an extra 13 percent decline and peaked on Black Tuesday, October 29, when the market declined further, another 12 percent and a volume of trading that went unmatched for 40 years, as panic took hold.

Much has been written about the event, perhaps the most dispassionate and succinct presentation for the nonspecialist is The Great Crash, 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith, published long after the smoke cleared, in 1954.

Among the factors that played into the panic, Galbraith explains, was the unrestricted ability to speculate on stocks by borrowing money (known as trading on margin) and a speculative bubble in which investors failed to notice that consumption was beginning to lag behind production. Joseph Kennedy, father of the president, famously recounted that he got out of the market before the crash, when a shoeshine boy offered him a stock tip, his clue that speculation was running amok.

A group of wealthy investors and banks tried to remedy matters and the market briefly regained its value, but another, much longer, steady decline ran from April 1931 to July 8, 1932, when the market closed at the lowest level of the 20th century, with a net 89 percent loss of value for stocks overall. Events in Wall Street caused a panicked run on banks and internationally on the dollar, which was then backed by gold, and business uncertainty led to layoffs.

Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide gross domestic product fell by an estimated 15 percent (worldwide GDP fell by less than 1 percent from 2008 to 2009 during the Great Recession). U.S. unemployment rose to 25 percent (by comparison, the Great Recession peaked briefly at 10 percent) and in other countries it rose as high as 33 percent.

The Depression was actually two downturns. The first was the slump brought on by the crash, from which the U.S. was beginning to recover toward 1935 thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Then there was a second slump beginning in 1936, brought on entirely by Washington policy when Republicans attempted to cut spending on the programs that were lifting up the economy.

What ended the Depression definitively was the massive government investment in World War II. By 1943 unemployment was at 3 percent. The explanation is simple. Government-financed capital spending rose from 5 percent of all such investment in 1940 to 67 percent by 1943. The United States had found its investor of last resort.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Black International

In the 1920s, from the Right, there emerged three movements in Europe that were loosely affiliated with one another in what is often called the Black International, after the color of the shirts of the Italian National Fascist Party (their allies, the German Nazis wore brown shirts and the Spanish Falangists, blue).

The three had in common a top-down view of government as commanding society through a single leader and political party that claimed to espouse a path toward restoring the nation to a mythologized greatness in the past. Benito Mussolini in Italy claimed ancient Rome as its heritage, Adolf Hitler in Germany referred back to the ancient Teutonic warrior tribes that brought Rome down and Francisco Franco in Spain basked in the erstwhile glory of the first empire on which the sun did not set.

They were expressly authoritarian and disdainful of elections even as they claimed to embody the popular will. Their economics were corporativist, meaning that they viewed society as made of social and economic blocs such as state-controlled unions, business associations and various interest and affinity groups (women’s groups among them), all of which formed a corporate, or bodily, whole. Their broader philosophy claimed some elements of a distinctly medieval Christianity and traditionalist values.

The three movements opposed almost everything that dismembered the social order and respect for traditional values of what I elsewhere have called “the Cathedral of Europe” — including humanism, the Protestant Reformation’s individualism, the French and American Revolution’s electoral democracy and capitalism and what they viewed as the heir of all these, Communism. Once the theocratic order was jettisoned in the Renaissance, they proposed, it was all downhill.

All three shared striking symbols symbols. Fascists has the fasces, a Latin word for a bundle of rods tied around an ax, which stood for the tightly bound members of the movement who figuratively chopped down whatever stood in the way of their ideas. The Nazis borrowed a turned and swiveled swastika, an ancient Indian religious icon; in Sanskrit the name has three roots “su” (good), “asti” (exists) and “ka” (make), which combined meant the coming to existence of goodness. The Falangists had a set of five arrows linked with a yoke representing the indissoluble union of the five kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Granada and Navarre.

Fascists, Nazis and Falangists shared also European supremacist views. Italian Fascists focused on the claimed superiority of Italians over Africans and used it to justify conquests of Libya and Ethiopia. German Nazis claimed that the Germanic races were superior among all Aryans, or European peoples of Indian origin, like the swastika. The Falange was not particularly interested in ethnic distinctions, largely because Spaniards were multiethnic going back to Phoenician outposts in the peninsula in the pre-Roman period; nonetheless Franco himself was fond of the Visigoths of central Spain and their alleged “national love for law and order.”

All three used the scientifically discredited concept of “race” to describe the people they favored, along with those they despised, namely Jews, the Roma and various other groups.

Mussolini came to power in 1922 after a dramatic “March on Rome,” to radically reform a parliamentary monarchy; by 1925 he abandoned all pretenses and imposed one-man rule, subject only to the king, who overthrew him in 1943 when the Allies were at the gates of Rome. Hitler narrowly won a plurality of votes (43 percent) in 1933 and two weeks later had his party enact dictatorial powers with which he ruled until 1945. Franco came to power in 1939 and the end of the Spanish Civil War; he ruled as military dictator until his death in 1975.

Monday, October 09, 2017


As background, we return to the Soviet Union, where Lenin died in 1924. He was succeeded after a series of complex internal political struggles by Joseph Stalin. The “Man of Steel” ended up as General Secretary of the Communist Party, after expelling Leon Trotsky from the Party; it was a position he held until his death in 1953.

Stalin was an unusual in that he had been an Orthodox seminarian and a bank robber, albeit justified as raising funds for revolution. Under the Soviet Union’s power structure, in which government carried out decisions made by the Party in its members-only meetings, he didn’t become formally head of state — premier of the USSR — until 1941.

Stalinism is the kind of rule that became standard in the USSR and its satellites. Overtly it advocated rapid industrialization; the theory of “socialism in one country,” displacing the goal of international revolution with that of expanding the Soviet system; a centralized state control of every imaginable social activity; collectivization of agriculture.

Less overtly Stalinism generated a system of control that was as old as Tsarism and under Leninism had originally been devised during the Civil War, in which Stalin played an important role. This went from neighborhood committees to defend the revolution, to the various incarnations of the Soviet secret police — the Cheka, in 1937 NKVD and after Stalin the KGB — which were small bureaucracies to “purge” the Party of “deviationists,” until peasants refused in the 1929 to play along with collectivized farms, causing food shortages and eventually famine.

Then came a series of “Great Purges,” or broad based attacks first against peasants, then technical and professional workers when the economy failed, ultimately to allegedly Tsarist military officers. To house those who were not dispatched with the classic bullet to the back of the head — estimates of the slaughter go as high as 60 million — Stain established the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor whose acronym in Russian is GULAG.

Marx warned against revolutions in backward countries such as Russia, stating that they would degenerate into what he called “the Asiatic mode of production.” Not even Lenin, who recast a lot of Marx, ever envisioned Stalinism, argued Trotsky, who eventually fled to exile in Mexico, where an assassin killed him with an ice pick.

In opposition outside the USSR, Trotkyists formed the Fourth International — to rival the Communist Third, which had been set up against the socialist Second — and have argued that Stalinist USSR was neither socialist nor Leninist but a bureaucratized state controlled by a ruling caste, the Party’s Nomenklatura (or list of notables). The second was Maoism, in uneasy alliance with Stalinism, yet critical of putting Soviet interests above world revolution; Castro’s Cuba and North Korea are somewhere between Stalinism and Maoism.

Friday, October 06, 2017


The Russian Revolution also prompted a reaction in the United States, known as the first Red Scare, roughly between 1917 and 1920, which involved some mass hysteria fanned by newspapers stoking the flames of fear and virulent anti-immigrant sentiment. The latter was related the nationality of leftist activists, who were mostly relatively recent arrivals from Germany, Poland and Italy.

Then, in 1919, the government got its excuse for massive repression. Galleanists, or followers of violent insurrectionist and anarchist Luigi Galleani, sent some 36 letter bombs between April and June 1919 to leading government officials and businessmen, but also law enforcement officials. Although only two people were injured (only 8 actually exploded, 16 were sent back for insufficient postage), the Justice Department launched a series of massive raids under the leadership of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.

The Palmer raids, as the campaign is known, was also an excuse to go after new Mexican immigrants. Ironically, they were mostly the so-called “Cristeros,” who had fled persecution of Christians during the ongoing revolution in Mexico. Palmer deported more than 500 foreign citizens in all; his  popularity and political ambitions to succeed Wilson fizzled when he warned of an attempt to overthrow the U.S. government on May 1, 1920, but nothing happened.

In that period, several states also enacted “criminal syndicalism” laws outlawing advocacy of violence in effecting and securing social change, also otherwise restricting free speech. These laws led to aggressive police action against people accused of being left-wing, with no distinction made between communism, anarchism, socialism or social democracy.

One of the notable cases of that era was against Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian-born American anarchists convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during a 1920 armed robbery in Braintree, Mass., and later electrocuted. The case remained controversial because of the prejudice openly invoked against the accused; ballistic tests 40 years later proved that Sacco was indeed the shooter, but not Vanzetti.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017


Lenin’s regime was like an earthquake that set off deep fears within the middle and upper classes of the world, so that for the next 72 years, the Soviet Union remained the bogeyman that every union leader, activist and politician outside Russia could use, for good or ill.

Internationally, Lenin broke almost all the rules. He signed a peace treaty with Germany, effectively bowing out of World War I. More importantly, his government repudiated all foreign debt contract by previous governments or by any Russian entity.

Internally, the new government nationalized all private property — this meant all income-producing property, not personal possessions (clothes, furniture, etc.) and not personal real estate of middle-income people or below. In addition, it nationalized all banks, factories and all business and luxurious property and expropriated all Church property. Wages were raised and the eight-hour working day was introduced. Only agriculture remained initially untouched. Lastly, the Tsar and his family, were executed in July 1918.

The effect of all these measures was electrifying. The Russian revolt inspired a surge by the world Communist movement, which was more or less aligned with the Bolsheviks. In 1918-19 a revolution broke out in Germany, where a short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic popped up. Next door, in Hungary, there were a series of 1918-1920 revolts with heavy Communist involvement. Similarly in Italy, the “biennio rosso” (red biennium) of social conflict between 1919 and 1920 included mass strikes, worker protests and self-management experiments in land and factories seizures by peasants and workers.

For about two years, the western Allies briefly occupied militarily parts of what would soon be called the Soviet Union, until the Reds won the Civil War. In 1922, with the Russian economy near collapse, Lenin reversed course and made a feint to “state capitalism” under his New Economic Policy, which won his government diplomatic recognition in Europe, although the USA would withhold it until 1933.

Monday, October 02, 2017

The Bolshevik Revolt

The Germans, being no fools, set to take advantage of the coup behind the lines of their Eastern Front and dispatched Lenin in a sealed train from exile in Switzerland to the turmoil in Russia, where he arrived in St. Petersburg to stoke the fire of revolt in 1917. In exchange, Lenin vowed to end the war, closing the Russian front; it was a deal similar to that Germans made with Irish rebels a year earlier.

The provisional government had set up a new Duma, which — much like the National Assembly in pre-revolutionary France — had been a puppet advisory council to the monarch, but this time as a real parliament. The Duma became a hornets’ nest of opinions, including socialists.

Parallel to the Duma, government power devolved to a network of grassroots community assemblies (called “soviets”). These were modeled after the workers councils that had been set up in the abortive revolution of 1905; John Reed offers the best description of how they functioned, which was by a fairly chaotic consensus. The net effect was that the Provisional Government and Duma made grand policy and legislation, but at the local level people obeyed the soviets, which also formed militias to defend against armed bands of Tsarists.

In October (November in modern calendars), the Bolsheviks, under a committee led by Lenin led an armed revolt of workers and soldiers, under the slogan “peace, bread and land.” They seized the capital, Petrograd (St. Petersburg), overthrew the government and transferred its authority to the soviets.  The very first people Lenin ordered shot, on the first morning of the new regime, were 2,000 members of what was then called the Social Revolutionary Party, much more moderate than the Bolsheviki, despite the name.

Lenin halted the war, signed a peace treaty with Germany in March 1918, launched a campaign of “red terror” (similar to Robespierre in the French Revolution) operated by the Cheka (a secret police that was almost identical originally to the Tsar's Okhrana) to bring opponents (many of them socialists) to heel. A Civil war broke out, indeed Britain, France and the United States sent troops to help the “White” counter-revolutionaries against the “Red” Bolsheviks, which the latter won. Lenin's group named itself the Communist Party and formed, in 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Russian Coup

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a complex worldwide shattering event, as was the French Revolution launched 1789, and occurred in two stages.

The history of the Russian Revolution is complex and highly controversial. In my opinion, the best outsider account is that by American journalist John Reed (played by Warren Beatty in the film "Reds") who wrote the fairly slim volume Ten Days That Shook the World. The best insider account, Leon Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, includes hilarious inside-jokes but is, I regret, three volumes.

In March 1917 there was effectively a palace coup. Russia was losing its front in World War I and the establishment and some reformists thought the Tsar had to go. Thus far it was a bourgeois revolt.

The French word "bourgeois" originally meant the inhabitants of an urbanized and incorporated borough, “bourg.” The bourgeois were the new class of city merchants that developed starting in the Renaissance, when urban life revived in Europe at the birth of capitalism; Marx extended the term to refer to the new class of investors, entrepreneurs, managers and white collar workers that emerged with industrialization, which he called the bourgeoisie, effectively comfortable people of the cities.

The February Revolution (March in modern calendars) was bourgeois in the sense that it was not a popular outburst. It was primarily the establishment exasperated with a backward monarch who thought he could beat back the modern German army with the same cavalry that had defeated Napoleon (although what Joseph Stalin would call “General Winter” had a lot more to do with the 19th-century victory than Cossacks).

There was no social or economic change intended by the provisional government, which decided to continue to abide by its obligations to the western Allies and continue the highly unpopular war. Peasants and workers perceived that they were fighting for the benefit of the wealthy.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Early 20th Century Socialism

Another answer to capitalism, came in several attempts at actual political action by U.S. socialists. In 1876, the Socialist Labor Party was founded by Daniel De Leon and in 1901 the Socialist Party of America started, led by Eugene V. Debs. Then came World War I, which wreaked havoc on the new parties of the Left.

The second Socialist International effectively collapsed over whether to support the war. Reformist-minded socialists argued that participating in government meant accepting majority rule, even when it came to war. The more radical revolutionaries argued that approving of the war meant pitting workers against each other and were opposed to the internationalist idea of socialism, within which class trumped nationality.

Somewhere in the middle of this maelstrom, was Russian socialism, beat back ferociously in an attempted revolution in 1905, after which much of the leadership ―  including one Vladimir Illyich Lenin ― went into exile. Lenin proposed an interpretation of Marx that diverged with all but the most radical socialists. It forever cleaved a divide between Leninists (commonly called Communists, after the name they gave their party) and all other socialists.

Lenin believed that armed revolt was the only path to socialism, led by a vanguard of professional revolutionists who would seize government, then govern in name of the working class ― or to use the 19th-century term favored by Marx, the proletariat. “Proletarian” was how Romans referred to citizens too poor to pay taxes who instead contributed their children ― “prole,” in Latin ― as soldiers who went into the Roman Legions.

To muddy the waters as to the standing of his faction within Russian socialism, Lenin played a word game. Lenin’s faction was a numerical minority (“menshevo,” in Russian), which split off from more gradualist and moderate Russian socialists chastised by the 1905 debacle. Yet, in order to lead and speak for all Russian socialists, Lenin told the story in reverse arguing that the majority (“bolshevo”) had stuck with him. Thus his followers called themselves Bolsheviks.

The collapse of the International and the rise of Lenin's Russian splinter group of socialists would have a momentous effect on the ideas that would shape what Walter Lippmann would call “the American Century.”

Monday, September 25, 2017


In the same way a tamed Labor Day celebration of unions stole the thunder of socialist May Day, a political movement arose in the United States to attempt to prevent revolutionary change by offering mild reforms.

Marx and early socialists were concerned with Europe, not the United States and their ideas were mostly imported through immigration from Central Europe and Italy, at a time when industrialization was demanding an ever greater number of workers for new and expanding factories. Up to the 1890s, when the American Frontier was effectively declared closed, the existence of what to some were vast "vacant" lands (not how Indians or Mexicans viewed them), had been a kind of social and economic safety valve. If you didn’t like being on the bottom of the pecking order, you just went West.

Once the Frontiers closed or became crowded, however, the urgent problems of capitalism began to take on urgency. Because capitalism encouraged speculative investment, the entire economic system was chained to a recurring cycle of booms and busts that left millions of workers out of work. This happened again and again and again, every 5 to 15 years. The Great Depression of the 1930s was the deepest and longest bust, but it was by far not the only one. The cycle has continued happening through the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

One answer, from well-meaning but essentially capitalist quarters, were the reformist "Progressives." In the presidential election of 1912 all three major candidates — Teddy Roosevelt for the "Bull Moose" Progressive Party (a split from the Republicans), Republican William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson — claimed to be "progressive" at one point or another.

U.S. Progressivism of the 1880s to the 1920s was a decidedly centrist, reformist effort to ameliorate the ill effects of capitalism, regulating it rather than getting rid of it; its principal and last policy achievements in the USA were the Federal Reserve, the Food and Drug Administration (which ended the actual "snake oil" salesmen) and the federal income tax. Less effective was anti-trust legislation, which did not stop corporations' unfettered growth in power.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Labor Unions

Elsewhere during this period there emerged labor unions, which the Chartists in England organized on a trade basis along the lines of the collapsed medieval guilds. Other labor organizers argued that workers should organize themselves by broader industries rather than trade.

Originally, all unionizing was illegal in the United States as a form of “conspiracy” of workers to raise their wages by trying to bargain as a group. This changed with the 1842 landmark case of Commonwealth v. Hunt, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that “labor combinations” (or workers offering labor as a group) were legal provided that they has a legal purpose and used legal means to achieve their goals.

The National Labor Union, founded in 1866, was the first U.S. national labor federation, but it dissolved in 1872. Around that time also, the regional Order of the Knights of St. Crispin was founded in the northeast in 1867 and had 50,000 members by 1870. The Knights of Labor, focused on the railways, organized in 1869. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, eventually called the American Federation of Labor, began in 1881 under the leadership of Samuel Gompers. The Western Federation of Miners was established in 1893.

Many unions leaders in the 19th century were socialists, some were anarchists, or anarcho-syndicalists (unions were sometimes called syndicates). In the 20th century, there occurred a shift, as we shall see.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Reform or Revolution?

The popular American view of socialism today is of a monolithic Communism led by what was once the Soviet Union ― continued today by rump periphery states such as Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam ― in which the seizure and retention of power by a guiding party was violent and undemocratic. This is a false Cold War myth.

Actually, the bulk of the socialist movement is and has been democratic. However, beginning in the 1880s there began to be a fissure between two kinds of socialists over tactics.

In one corner, were those willing to gain ascendancy gradually, legally, with a practical socioeconomic agenda and very little pretense of presenting a dogmatic philosophy rather than a view subject to scientific criticism. In the other, were those impatient with injustices, willing to jump past the legalities and niceties and seize power by the force of arms and hold onto it through terror.

In admittedly oversimplified terms, this is the crucial socialist debate in the late 19th century, after both the 1848 revolutions and 1870 commune failed. Socialists agreed in broad terms on the ultimate outcome ― socialization of the means of production ― but they came to disagree quite bitterly about how to get there.

The advocates of reform were exemplified by the renown Eduard Bernstein, a German social-democratic political theorist and politician, a member of the Social Democratic Party (the socialist party German workers identified with their interests, inspiring the Nazis to fly the false flag of “socialist” for their party’s name). Bernstein wrote a work called Evolutionary Socialism and became the standard leader of socialists who espoused social democracy, reformism and an electoral path to socialism.

He had known Marx and Engels well, but he regarded Marxist philosophical thinking, in particular the theory of historical materialism, as “immature.” (Contrary to all Cold War propaganda, pro or con, Marx himself made explicit in comments concerning a program of the early German socialists that atheism and related ideas, were his personal opinions, not socialism.) Bernstein helped develop the Second International (1889–1916), the precursor of modern and moderate western European socialism, which brought together socialist parties of 20 countries in a unified effort.

Against the reformist socialists stood firebrands such as Rosa Luxembourg, a German-Polish Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist, anti-war activist and revolutionary socialist of Polish origin. She founded the Spartacus League in 1915 (Spartacus was a Roman slave who led an uprising) and ultimately joined the Communist Party of Germany. A radical, she wrote a scathing response to Bernstein's book, an 1899 pamphlet titled Social Reform or Revolution?

Thursday, September 14, 2017


After the 1848 rebellion mentioned earlier, which was a series of political upheavals throughout a year; it involved workers from France and Spain to as far as Hungary, who went on general strikes, set up provisional governments in some cities and generally shook the continent. It remains the most widespread was of revolutions in European history and occurred all more or less at the same time, with no coordination.

At that point workers began to understand themselves as a socioeconomic class: those who possessed nothing (neither land nor factories) and had to sell their time at work. The 19th century word favored by Marx was "the proletariat." Proletarian is a Latin term used in Imperial Rome to refer to people so poor and uneducated that their principal contribution to Rome was to have children (prole, in Latin) who would then go into the Legions. Socialists argued that the land and factories should be controlled by workers, who were the ones who made these things productive, presumably through a government dedicated to serving workers.

Anarchists went a step further: they argued that the institution of government (along with the concept of property and all religion) was in itself evil and that instead workers should form voluntary associations to organize common ownership of the means of production. The French politician and writer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is deemed the "father" of Anarchism, although he abandoned it, but the classic Anarchists are Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Leon Tolstoy and others.

The most notable act of Anarchists in the 19th century was a short-lived rebellion known as the Paris Commune, a revolt during the Franco-Prussian War that led to the collapse of the French Second Empire under Napoleon III (aka Louis Napoleon, a nephew of the original) in September 1870. As Prussia besieged Paris, which was a hotbed of working-class radicalism, workers refused to fight to defend the capitalist-industrialist elite and seized the city from within, proclaimed a "Commune of Paris" led by Anarchists. They were ruthlessly suppressed by the French Army in what was later called "The Bloody Week," beginning May 21, 1871.

However, the ideas of the Commune — voluntarism, no property or religion and even free love — had enormous influence on Marx, who described the event as an example of his fateful phrase, "dictatorship of the proletariat" in his famous work, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Early Socialists

Socialism existed before Marx. American Founding Father Thomas Paine had proposed a plan to tax property owners to pay for the needs of the poor through something very similar to the Universal Basic Income being talked about today — but he was not consciously socialist.

In Europe, the first movements to become conscious of themselves as socialists were the Owenites, Chartists and Saint-Simonians, among others.

Robert Owen was an eccentric Welsh mill owner in Scotland who developed utopian ideas and in 1824, Owen traveled to the United States to invest the bulk of his fortune in an experimental 1,000-member colony on the banks of Indiana's Wabash River, called New Harmony. Owen originated the idea of an eight-hour work day in 1810!!!

Owenites overlapped with a number of other working-class movements, most notably the Chartists (so called for their People's Charter of 1838, which called for universal suffrage for all male adults); in England, as in the USA, voting was limited to property owners. The Chartists, like the Owenites called for a more equitable distribution of income and better living conditions for the working classes — which were, in truth, abominable.

Count Henri de Saint-Simon was the first person to actually use the term "socialism." He was fascinated by science and technology its potential to eliminate hard work; he advocated a socialist society that would eliminate the disorderly aspects of capitalism — such as booms and busts — through administrative efficiency and science as the path to a rationally organized and planned economy.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


While Americans argued over slavery, Europe had begun to divide over what began to be called “wage slavery.” Just as the liberalism of Locke and Mill and capitalism of Smith had become the pillars of the social and economic order, an English economist named David Ricardo observed that the value of traded things — commodities — is determined by the quantity of labor needed to produce them, which industrialization made variable, rather than the material from which it comes, which remained more or less fixed.

This idea caught fire in the mind of Karl Marx, a German intellectual exiled in England who was then observing the new industrial economy. Marx concluded that capitalists — people with money beyond that needed for well-being, also known as capital invested in productive ventures — make profits from the difference between the costs of production (the labor and raw materials they pay for) and the market price they obtain. A key advantage in the process lies in the difference between what it costs for workers to stay alive and the ultimate price of the goods they make, which Marx called “surplus value”; this is what, Marx argued, capitalists take from workers.

Marx did not blame capitalists, whom he saw as trapped within the rules; instead, he viewed the economic system and capital itself as the cause of the surplus value theft. No real change would occur, he proposed, until control of production and markets was in the hands of all society, especially the workers.

The idea first appeared in a document called the Communist Manifesto, which Marx wrote with fellow exile Friedrich Engels in 1848. It was a fast and furious summary of complex ideas, written just as worker revolts broke out in the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history, from France to as far as Hungary. This was the dawn of what would be called the socialist movement, its ideas later developed in detail in many books, especially the three-volume Capital. Their key and simplest concept would prove maddeningly difficult to bring about.

To understand what was to happen in the United States, we need to review the emergence of socialism in Europe, which occurred in four steps: 1) the proto-socialism that built up to Marx and the First International; 2) Anarchism; 3) labor unions and 4) a broad-based debate within socialism between reform and revolution. All of this took place between from about the 1820s to the 1880s and a little beyond.

Monday, September 11, 2017


The United States simmered to a boil over what South Carolinian lawmaker John Calhoun called the “peculiar institution” in the American South. At odds were two regions:
  • a Southern agrarian society organized as a caste system supported by unpaid laborers brought from Africa sold as chattel; 
  • in the North a new kind of social order based on capital and industry, which fed on immigrants recruited to work for bare survival wages in the North’s Blakean “Satanic mills.”

Americans did not think of the problems in the terms of social sciences that were then very new, but rather in terms of the national Messianism developed by the first Protestant English dissenters in Massachusetts. In a 1630 sermon delivered at sea, Puritan leader John Winthrop told his little community that they would be building “a city upon a hill” (Matthew 5:14) watched by the world and urged them to set an example of communal charity, affection and unity; if they failed, he warned, “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” of God’s judgment.

Slavery supporters pointed to the St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon, which addressed a Christian slave owner; the letter was carried by Onesimus, a runaway slave baptized by Paul and persuaded to return to his master. Christians of the Confederacy saw this as biblical writ for slavery; however, U.S. slavery was vastly unlike the slave system of antiquity St. Paul knew, particularly in the degree of dehumanization imposed on kidnapped Africans, including lifelong hereditary servitude.

Abolitionists could also point to Paul’s urging Philemon to treat the runaway no longer as a slave but as a brother in the faith, which he apparently did, to the point that Onesimus eventually became a bishop of the Church at Ephesus. In the wake of Protestant movements such as the Great Awakening and Pietism, both of which stressed personal transformation through spiritual rebirth and renewal, as well as individual devotion and piety, many Christians in the North supported Abraham Lincoln’s distinctly biblical oratory on the subject; they were supporters of escaped slaves’ “Underground Railroad” and embraced the fiery anti-slavery militancy of the renown insurgent John Brown.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


The American foundational framework of ideas around which the budding conflicts would be resolved were not American. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, Thomas Jefferson borrowed quite liberally from John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, from which also are derived many ideas in the Constitution, including separation of church and state.

In this groundbreaking work, the 17th-century Enlightenment philosopher, also deemed the father of English and U.S. liberalism, proposed the notion of the social contract. In his words: “That which begins and actually constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a society. And this is that, and that only, which did or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world.”

In an age of absolute monarchy, in which a French king boasted that “L’etat c’est moi” (I am the State) and English kings still claimed power over Parliament, this was a revolutionary idea. It was extended by a 19th century thinker, John Stuart Mill, who conceived of liberty as the absence of restraint from government or others to develop one’s own unique abilities and capacities. In On Liberty, penned in 1859, he stated “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.”

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Seeds of Conflict

It seems proper in a time of strife to recall early signs that in the young American republic all was not right nor yet perfected.

In the 1791–1794 Whisky Rebellion, more or less independent Pennsylvania family farmers rose up against a tax on distilled spirits they produced. The levy was enacted by Congress and President Washington to pay the rich interest on the bonds floated to finance the war of independence.

There were also 14 widespread major slave revolts between 1794 and 1859 — students usually only learn of Nat Turner’s. Besides that, there were enough escapes to justify legislation on their return and to spur the “Underground Railroad” to freedom.

Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), there was a movement to gain property rights, access to education and later voting rights for women. With typical generosity of spirit, its leaders campaigned for the abolition of slavery and temperance before championing women’s rights.

Finally, although four signers of the Constitution were Irish (mostly Anglo-Irish), when a million and a half people fled the Emerald Isle’s Great Hunger of 1845-1852, these newly arrived white Europeans began to experience discrimination and mistreatment. This would repeat itself with every successive later immigration wave from Europe, with Germans, Poles, Italians, Russian Jews and others, who quickly formed self-defense organizations and rallied around the political leadership of the only immigrants who were native English speakers, the Irish.

Friday, September 08, 2017


Political conservatives today celebrate capitalism as if their predecessors wisely invented it. Actually, “capitalist system” was first used in Karl Marx’s criticism of the mid-19th century economy.

The thought basis of capitalism was laid down by Adam Smith, some 75 years earlier, arguing that the best route to national wealth was open markets, free trade and laissez-faire (French for “let [it or them] do”) policies. He wrote that as little government restraint or taxation as possible should be imposed on wealthy investors, bankers, merchants and captains of industry.

Smith was a rebelling, on behalf of the industrial revolution, against the taxes and controls by kings and lords. He also fought against mercantilism, in Britain exemplified by Oliver Cromwell’s establishment of a merchant marine. That was a policy enhancing the trade position of one’s own nation at the expense of all others (yes, you guessed, Trump is unconsciously a mercantilist), originally in what turned out to be the 16th- to 18th-century ruinous pursuit of gold and silver reserves.

Smith placed his trust instead on what he described as the market’s “invisible hand” to provide “the necessaries of life.”

This continues the We Hold These Truths series, into which we inserted a Labor Day entry that broke the scheme a bit, simply for timeliness.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Why U.S. Labor Day is in September and not May 1st

The U.S. Department of Labor website omits the ideological and antisocialist origins of the date chosen for the federal holiday that is celebrated the first Monday of September under the name of Labor Day. That's today.

In Europe and South America it is held on May 1st,  to recall the Haymarket Massacre, which occurred on May 4, 1886, in Chicago. The incident leading to the deadly events occurred during a peaceful demonstration convened at a Chicago park called Haymarket; its purpose was to demand the eight-hour workday, now an almost universal practice. The workers were mostly immigrants from Germany and the Kingdom of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).

A stranger — believed to be a provocateur hired to give police the excuse to crack down on the demonstrators — threw a dynamite bomb at the police, which responded predictably and dispersed the gathering. So much for the right to assembly. Seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed and dozens injured.

Lest you think these were rebels without a cause, consider that for their work they were paid $1.50 per day. Adjusted to 2017 dollars, it would be $38.63 a day, or $12,043.20 annually, just below the federal poverty level for a single person and half the level for a family of four. Plus, the work week, which then included Saturday, consisted of 60 hours of work.

In general, they protested the work of 10 hours a day for sums that did not yield enough to support a family, then or now. The Haymarket rally was also in response to the killing of several workers by police the day before.

The protests were not isolated incidents.

In October 1884, the Federation of Organized Workers and Unions unanimously fixed May 1st, 1886, as the target date for the adoption of the eight-hour working day. As the chosen date approached without action by the government to require an eight-hour day, the unions prepared a general strike.

On the appointed day, Saturday, May 1, 1886, which would then have been a workday, thousands of workers went on strike in major cities such as New York and Detroit, and crowds estimated between 300,000 and half a million chanted, "Eight-hour day, with no cut in pay."

After the riot in Chicago three days later, in Congress many lawmakers began to recognize the need to celebrate Labor Day. Most of the labor organizations, many affiliated to the First International, preferred May 1st, to commemorate the general strike that had led to the Haymarket Massacre.

President Grover Cleveland believed that such a holiday on May 1st would invite disorder and further strengthen the socialist movement. The chubby Cleveland belonged to the industrialists' wing of the Democratic Party, then known as the "Bourbon Democrats."

The alternative date used today has its origin in a parade celebrated Sept. 5, 1882, in New York by the Knights of Labor, an anti-socialist union of Catholic inspiration. The parade was repeated in 1884 and the Knights of Labor continued to hold it annually the first Monday of September. In 1887 Cleveland gave his support to the Knights' date as a national holiday.

All of this had at least two consequences.

First, popular pressure for the eight-hour day continued. At the 1888 convention of the American Federation of Labor, the same union that had protested in 1886, it was decided to launch another campaign and on May 1, 1890, was the date set set for another general strike.

The International Association of Workers (or Second International), meeting in Paris in 1889, endorsed the date for international demonstrations, thus beginning the international tradition of May Day.

But the struggle was long.

The eight-hour day in the United States was first won by the miners' union in 1898. Construction workers in San Francisco obtained it in 1900, typographers in 1905 and in 1914 the Ford Company doubled its current pay to $5 per day and reduced the workday from nine to eight hours.

However, it was not until 1916 that the federal government established the eight-hour day as a national standard.

Second, after the massacre eight anarchist workers were accused of conspiring to incite violence at the Haymarket demonstration. Five were sentenced to death (one committed suicide before being executed) and three were sentenced to prison terms.

The workers' movement called the accused the Martyrs of Chicago. The trial, which lasted until 1893, was universally viewed as illegitimate and deliberately malicious.

The new governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the defendants and joined in the criticism of the courts. Altgeld, one of the founders of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, could have been a candidate for president if he had not been born in Germany, as were many of the immigrants who fought for their rights as workers in Haymarket.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hurricane Metes Out Poetic Justice on Houston

What does Houston stand for if not the oil industry? Houston benefited from its nefarious alliance with the Motor City, Detroit, to marginalize U.S. environmentalism, destroy public transit and subjugate every oil producing nation by bribing their sheikhs and dictators to sell out their citizenry.

We already saw one kind of retribution in 9/11. Now Mother Nature has joined the cause.

Just as the auto industry's Detroit — the one place in which Martin Luther King, Jr., felt unfettered hate — was allowed to decline and die after the city's African-American poor exploded against inequality in 1967, Houston is now feeling the effect of climate change among the anti-Mexican Texas kickers.

Auto and oil industries, allied sectors and a few of their most suborned politicians conspired to destroy public transit (see the 1947 conviction of General Motors for conspiracy to destroy electric tramway systems) and prevent environmental measure that, in the 1970s might have stopped and reversed climate change. Even a Republican, the notorious Richard Nixon, recognized the need for environmental action by establishing the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Now it's too late. Climate change is irreversible, we can only soften the blows. The electric streetcar is gone. The Arab world is seeing the worst passions inflamed by deep and justified resentment at the exploitation, and now endless war, wrought on their countries by the West.

That is why Houston is flooded.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Created Equal?

So we're in the late 18th century and early 19th. We have a tripartite government (with executive, legislative and judicial branches). Supposedly, the principles that led to the start of the new nation, the supposedly united former colonies called states, were that all people were "created equal" to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But wait. Women could not vote. Nor could slaves nor Indians. Nor could even all white men. Those who were serfs, or "indentured," did not have a vote. Even among free men, only those who had property, meaning assets such as land or a business, could vote. So the USA began essentially as an agrarian oligarchy, which literally means, in its Greek roots, "rule of the few."

In the year 1776, a Scotsman named Adam Smith wrote a book titled The Wealth of Nations. Smith was a moral philosopher engaged in the then-new field of study called economics (which means literally the study of the management of a household). Applied to entire societies, Smith was interested in political economy, which he viewed as "a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator [with the twofold objectives of providing] a plentiful revenue or subsistence for the people ... [and] to supply the state or commonwealth with a revenue for the publick services."

This is one way to examine society. In short, I will be touching on the later development of sociology and psychology. In this way we can ask, how have Americans worked to secure their survival at each stage? How did they organize their society? What have they been like as people? How have who they were, what they did for a living, the institutions they favored and the personal way of living make them into what we try to understand today as one nation?

This is the second in a series of entries on the development of ideas that made the United States and the economic, social and political issues Americans debate, posted under the label WeHoldTheseTruths.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

We Hold These Truths

A cyberfriend on Facebook nudged me into starting a brief series of entries on the development of ideas that made the United States and the economic, social and political issues Americans debate. I have decided to share my posts on her "wall" with the greater cyberspace under the label WeHoldTheseTruths.

What ideas brought us to the binary electoral choice of two basically similar political parties serving whomever pays the piper? Are there alternatives for running our society, making our economy fairer for all and, if so, what are they?

To look at the beginnings, I suppose we have to look at truth. Up to 1517, when one Martin Luther rebelled, truth in Europe was said to be divinely inspired and taught by the successors of the apostles of one Yeshua bar Yosif (aka Jesus the Christ). Then came Luther and said, more or less, "no, truth is revealed to my soul directly by God when I read the Bible."

Then, a few centuries later, people such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, proposed that the truth properly had to be reached by human reason and that all reasonable people, presented certain evidence, would agree.

That is the quintessence of the original American philosophy and the underlying idea behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

You can see at least three layers of thinking that informed the framers of our nation's foundations: the idea of theological and absolute truth (Judeo-Christian religion), the notion of intuitively revealed truth through faith and, finally, empirical or factual reasoning. Today, many people question all three, not usually at the same time; but this is the source from which all our talk about principles and society and fairness, and so forth, springs forth.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Blogging Christianity

Yesterday I reached the end of the trail of what became a Sunday blog about the history of the Christian faith. I had started it for a friend preparing for confirmation as an adult; she wanted to hear the outline of the Christian story in order, so she could grasp how Christian beliefs, morals and rituals developed.

The result was my blog Let Mountains Hear, its title drawn from Micah 6:2. It originally was just a tag in a blog about faith, generally and haphazardly, as ideas came. Then the history came to dominate, then it became a weekly blog, one post every Sunday.

Yesterday was the final, 140th post since April 2013.

Anyone interested in reading it through, from beginning to end (and correcting, corrections are always welcome), may

(a) start at the beginning Story of the Christian Faith and click on the Newer Post link at the very bottom of each entry; or

(b) use the menu at the top, which organizes the posts by era, starting with Abrahamic Faith, then Bethlehem through Chalcedon, Middle Ages, Renaissance & Reformation, Modernity, Our Time.

It grew like Topsy, with some posts longer than others, a few topics spread over posts — all guided by the inexorable march of historical time, with some attention to complexity.

Describing the setting and themes of the Nicene Creed took five weekly entries. The Protestant Reformation and various reactions took about 20. Looking back, I see I did not cover every possible detail, but I would argue that all the major developments that help define modern Christianity are there.

The idea was to write something by an ordinary person — I am neither a professional theologian nor historian —for ordinary people. My biases are my biases, I wear them on my sleeve, but I tried in general to be fair as I am fair in my professional work, journalism.

So, it is done.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Why the pseudo-religious website Patheos should be really called Atheos

The Tldr (too long, didn't read): truth in advertising. Patheos (dubbed in its header as "hosting the conversation about faith") promotes itself as "the premier online destination to engage in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality," when in reality it is all about promoting atheism and anti-religious bias.

Atheos uses three tools of intellectual dishonesty to accomplish this:
  1. Postings attempt to present U.S. Protestant Evangelicals as mainstream Christianity instead of a minuscule set of U.S. sectoids made up of undereducated people who confuse memorizing Bible verses with knowledge and Christian faith. Yes, Evangelicals are a wet dream for people who like to wield straw-man arguments against Christianity; but they're not widely representative.

  2. Atheos prefers its bloggers to be either fringe people who are marginal even in their own tiny denominations, non-denominational, Unitarian (not Christian) and occasionally rabbis (to whom Christianity is, understandably, apostasy). Their pieces, time and time again, reflect a bias in favor of anything that makes adherents of Christian religion, specifically a Bible-belt caricature of Christianity, look like lunatic haters.

  3. The message is always that, if you strip the layers of (alleged or Evangelical) Christian belief, you come up empty. The truth always lies elsewhere. Some of the remembered fragments of Christianity from childhood may be comfort food for the soul — but never anything approximating truth.
You think I'm kidding. I'm not and I can show you this is what Atheos is really all about.

In fact, in an online discussion I challenged my good friend Peter Kirkwood, who thought I was being a little too harsh on the website, to come up with "an article in Atheos that has a positive faith-inspiring piece, that is not about how so-and-so (absurdly unknown evangelical pastoroid) hates gays, sex and secularism."

He came up with 7 examples. I put the links and my response to each one immediately after.

  • What I Learned in Seminary: Doubt is Overrated. Here is a minister of a marginal Protestant church (the Church of Christ has about 2 million members) admitting he doesn't have any answers and his faith does not speak to the concerns of people. Not great advertising for his church, his ministry or his faith; nor inspiring.

  • The Church Is Political, But How?. An evangelical admits that all [evangelical] "voter guides" are pro-Republican. Stop the presses! The evangelicals are a collection of miniscule churchlets (the biggest of which is the two or three Baptist groups, which are about 13 million) that have no common policy and have, by their own admission, a very narrow point of view. This is not Christianity, this is Evangelical World, an amusement park where some preachers get very rich selling "Bahbles."

  • The Strange Task of Preaching: Isaiah 55:10-13. This  can be summarized as "God is dead." However, let's pretend otherwise and keep on praying anyway so the author, a professor of preaching, can keep his day job. You don't believe, say so; don't hide behind Charlie Brown's favorite verses.

  • Rosenzweig and Weil Are Dead. At last, Diogenes, we have an honest man: a rabbi. Franz Rosenzweig and Simone Weil were two 20th century Jews who dabbled in Christianity. R became every Hillel club's the poster boy for why youthful modern Jews should not convert to Christianity; W became the poster girl who couldn't bring herself to convert for a number of neurotic reasons. (I happen to like both R and W and have read a fair share of their writings, but they are not exactly on anyone's road to Damascus.) Again, Atheos posts models of not becoming Christian.

  • Wonder Woman and Pinchas: The Persistent Appeal of Zealotry Here another rabbi, a convert from Christianity, effectively equates faith with "zealotry." He whimsically, but ineffectively in my view, taps Wonder Woman (no doubt to appeal to hipsters), then copies Richard Dawkins' argument (see my post Going to the Atheist Church) about violence in the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament). Thank you, Atheos, for the propaganda from someone who left Christianity (a fact omitted on the site, of course).

  • A Timeless Winning Trifecta for Every Age. I was willing to give this one a few points, but its Methodist author spends most of his time talking about being old. Eventually he wends his way to St. Paul and love, hope and faith, concluding they are worth it even for new generations (even though Boomers have it all wrong). What? Come again? Half a point for not saying anything overtly hostile to the faith; but Atheos gets subtle here: when it is a believer, make sure it is someone too distracted with himself to stay on topic.

  • Christian: You Are Upset About the Wrong Things. In the final example of uplifting faith-inspiring propaganda from Atheos, we get a Baptist, but one who left ministry to make money, citing pseudo-sociology to remind us — stop the presses, again! — that Evangelicals care more about the evils of saying "shit" than 30,000 children dying. Cleverly, the author says "Christian," not "bigots who like to think the 'Bahble' makes them right."

Peter's examples did make me aware of one thing. Atheos is really an anti-evangelical site. Of course, Evangelicals' religious illiteracy (aside from their memorized Bible verses) make them very much like the kid who walks around high school unaware that someone has taped a sign that reads "kick me" on the back of his shirt.

They are supremely mockable pseudo-Christians, whose faith derives from an originally well-intentioned movement (see from my other blog the post Awakenings). Admittedly, so are almost all of us who believe in Jesus the Christ, hope for improving and try, often failing miserably, to love.

The subtlety and disingenuous approach of Atheos, however, demonstrates malicious and malevolent intent. They should change their name and let their atheist colors fly.

    Sunday, July 02, 2017

    Happy Real Independence Day

    Cecilieaux is off for the holiday, but he left behind his now-traditional Independence Day blog post. Happy 2nd!

    Today, July 2nd, rather than July 4th, is the actual day that independence of the territories that were to become the United States from Britain was first approved. This came in the form of a resolution that attorney Richard Henry Lee, a Virginian, proposed to the Second Continental Congress.

    The brief document read:
        Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
        That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.
        That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

    The motion was approved by 12 of the 13 colonies. Indeed, John Adams, of Massachusetts, who seconded Lee's proposal, was so certain that a great step had been taken that he wrote to his wife Abigail:
        The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

    Now, 241 years later, the festival is held on the 4th, when the delegates approved the wordier, some would say grander, announcement of the decision by Thomas Jefferson, who composed it in the absence of Lee, who had rushed back to Virginia due to his wife's illness.

    In honor of someone born on this great day, however, let us fire off an imaginary firecracker.

    Wednesday, June 28, 2017

    Clinton and the Nineties (1992-2000)

    There were really three Nineties decades (and I mean the 1990s, not 1890s) in the United States, from my perspective. In this final installment of my series* on the U.S. zeitgeist of 1950 through 2000, I will address those three partially overlapping periods.


    The first Nineties were a continuation of the 1980s until 1992, a presidential election year. Also in 1992, a recession that began almost on the dime of when I expected it, in midsummer, was at the time was thought of as a structural event that augured a catastrophe for the country; it was not.

    Few people today seem to remember how it felt at that time. I remember that on an outing with our kids to a baseball game, I told a friend that the downturn was coming and he was upset. My friend is a conservative Republican and Catholic; he was also a building contractor and construction is always very sensitive to economic fluctuations; he did not want his son to worry. I did not say it to crow over the moment out of ideology or boast of my economic independence (I had been promoted to manager of the company that I ended up buying), but because it seemed to be the economic reality.

    The recession ended as quickly as it started. The economic music stopped a hot June week and boomed again in December, after Clinton beat Bush (Sr.).

    However, the recession shook the confidence of the heartland states between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountain ranges. After morning in Reagan's America came a grayish sunset that gave people nightmares. That's why the motto for Clinton's campaign staff was "it's the economy, stupid"; a reminder that people vote with their pockets more than anything else.

    Clinton won a traditional Democratic victory against Republican incompetence, characterized by a laissez faire attitude in the face of an economic recession. It was almost the same as Franklin Roosevelt's 1932 victory over Hoover's apathy toward the Great Depression. The 1992 recession was a mild recession but it frightened the mostly uninformed Americans who supported Reagan.

    When the first cracks appeared in the Reaganite sieve, the American Dream honey syrup that Reagan had sold the public soured. Suddenly, people began to see negative changes that had been covered up.

    It began, for example, with "the homeless," people who began to appear as street beggars in every major city for the first time since the Great Depression. (In part, it was a phenomenon produced by the closing, under Reagan's budgets, of transitional housing for low-functioning people who did not suffer aggressive mental disorders.)

    Another pattern at the time was the awareness jobs losses to factories abroad, in general the movement of manufacturing to countries with lower labor costs due to the absence of unions (Mexico and Malaysia were very popular among the executives of transnational corporations). Goodbye "Made in U.S.A."!

    Finally, the transformation of farmland from family-run farms, lost in the 1980s Reagan recession, into an industry run by companies that owned lands and employed people to farm and care for livestock; what ended up being called agribusiness. The family farm was for much of a century, from the 1880s to 1980s, a prop of the American Dream myth.

    Both phenomena created a large share of the white middle class to fall abruptly from one socioeconomic level to another below. Industrial workers whose wages had allowed them home ownership and a paid university education for their children went to near-permanent jobless or underemployment paid well below what their skills warranted. More or less self-reliant farm owners whose grandparents claimed land during the expansion West became mere urban employees.

    All that resentful mass had been carefully seduced by neoconservative Republicans, who nurtured racism, fanatical capitalist Calvinism (in which being poor is essentially viewed as the result of laziness, therefore sinful) and all the "cultural war" between conservatives and liberals concerning social mores (abortion, divorce, sexuality, etc.). All so they could vote against the economic interests.


    The second 1990s came with Clinton, who presided over an economic boom unparalleled in U.S. history. Clinton, a centrist Democrat, talked about leading the country toward shared wealth. U.S. presidents do not have the power to control the national economy, but they have at hand levers to redistribute wealth, either upward (Reagan and Republicans) or downward (Clinton and Democrats).

    Even ordinary people in this period came to have more money than they knew how to handle. The overall value of holdings in the stock market, according to the best well-known index, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, rose from 3,000 to 10,000 in the 1990s (now it is around 21,000).

    The generation that was cradled in the 80's and went through adolescence in the 90's, now called Millennials, recall those golden years in which well-being was felt everywhere. Inflation fell to 2% annually and unemployment to 4%, both very low levels and almost the lowest levels possible in a growing economy. In part because of this, Millenials are a generous and self-confident generation, unlike their older brothers, Generation X (1965-1980), deemed as a little lost for being born amid much social unrest and the beginning of stagnation for the middle class.

    Politically, the country split into "reds" and "blues," colors that came from a convention adopted in the 1980s for voter maps on television. When a Republican candidate's victory was projected television changed the color of the state from white to red, if the Democrat won the white state was colored blue.

    That bitter partisanship that persists to this day. The Red, or conservative and Republican states, are in the South and Center South and the Southwest). Nothing to do with the nineteenth-century use of red by socialists and communists. Blue USA, or variously progressive and Democratic, covers both coasts (excluding the southern coastal states), New England and the northern industrial states.

    Popularly, the gap is a matter of social place and culture, rather than ideology. Americans are not concerned with ideological much. A typology of the strata of American society would require a whole different set of posts (a future series?).

    World Wide Web

    The third 1990s began with the widespread emergence of technology that had been carefully developed for universities and government (but not public use) since the 1960s, the Internet.

    The network was based on Unix, an operating system produced by the old AT&T Bell Labs, also the cradle of the programming language C. It was conceived as a decentralized system for military reasons, with the idea of ensuring the survival of the computer communications medium after a nuclear war. Once marketed in the 90's when the telephone monopoly was undone by judicial order, the Internet began the revolution we all know today.

    Internet and computer technology maximized productivity to unthinkable levels only years earlier and led to a global boom that prolonged the U.S. recovery into the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. Many Americans in the late 1990s came to believe that the fall of Soviet Communism and the rise of the Internet proved that all problems could be solved in a global capitalist world. That, at least was the idea proclaim in the era's bestseller The End of History by Francis Fukuyama.

    This was only the inevitable delusion of a decade in which unparalleled wealth and a geopolitical uni-polar world run with high-tech seemed capable of organizing globally and curing all ills. The U.S. government at last had fiscal surpluses projected as far as the horizon. Wall Street was roaring (it is said that even members of the last Soviet politburo applauded at the finale of their secret screening of the film "Wall Street"). Europe was unified with a single currency. Even China made its opening to capitalism. A new technology was unifying the human race forever.

    Of course, there were omens that this was not going to last.

    When welfare reform was approved in 1996, reducing benefits to a lifetime maximum of five years, there was an indication of a lack of sensitivity toward economic losers that one day would effectively generate a permanent underclass.

    Similarly, the Clinton scandals with Monica Lewinsky yielded a national soap opera. However, although I didn't realize for a decade, it was a vast smokescreen to hide the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the law that since the 1930s had separated banking, brokerage and insurance companies into watertight and separate compartments. (The repeal's eventual result was seen in 2008.)

    As if that were not enough, the electoral fraud that defeated Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, who won the majority of votes but lost the electoral college, proved that the country's socioeconomic and political Darth Vaders were alive and well.

    The 1990s did not end in the year 2000 (or 1999 as some thought). The era ended a sunny, late-summer, on September 11, 2001, when two passenger planes crashed into the twin towers of the so-called World Trade Center in New York.

    *This ends my short series attempting to sketch the contemporary cultural and social history of the United States, how 50 years felt. All this comes from an exchange with a French correspondent, which provoked thoughts that could be of interest to my Spanish-speaking readers in another blog and now my English-speaking readers.

    Monday, June 26, 2017

    Reagan's Dawn (1981-1992)

    The ascendancy of the broad civil rights, peace and sexual openness movement of the 1960s and 1970s came to a screeching halt some time around the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 in a manner as sudden and surprising as the election of Margaret Thatcher's Tories in 1979, an election I witnessed while living in London.

    Just as Thatcher shook the Labour Party, Reagan was an unexpected blow to the U.S. liberals, who espoused centrist or center-left views. When the Republicans nominated Reagan candidate, I was convinced Carter's reelection was assured.

    U.S. presidents are usually reelected and serve a term of eight years. Until Carter, only nine of the 37 previous presidents had been in power for a single four-year term or less. One of them was Carter's predecessor, Gerald Ford, who was appointed by Nixon and never elected. Before Ford, there was Herbert Hoover, who failed to be reelected in 1932 at the outset of the Great Depression, for which his party was blamed, arguably with some justification.

    Nothing remotely resembling the Depression had happened under Carter. Why did the electorate end up denying him a second term and handing over the White House to a mediocre actor whose governorship of California had little to show for itself?

    In part, Reagan's victory can be attributed to something Lyndon Johnson predicted to his intimates when he signed the Civil Rights Act. "We've given the South to the Republicans," Johnson said. The Republicans adopted the famous "southern strategy," the stoking Southern white resentment at the advancement of African-Americans. Indeed, Reagan's 1980 campaign was launched in Philadelphia, Miss., site of the slaying of three civil rights workers -- in effect, a dog whistle.

    The campaign could also be called Goldwater's revenge. This became evident to me years later when I studied the resumes of key but lesser known Reagan people. These were folks of more or less my generation whose political awakening had come with the electoral beating of Barry Goldwater in 1964. These Republican political operatives had quietly established a neoconservative network financed by executives and millionaires (today we would say billionaires), all essentially dedicated to reversing every social and economic reform since 1932.

    Republican neoconservatives were split from the outset into two significant wings.

    Some wanted to mandate the reversal of social changes in sexual morality (legalization of abortion, for example), women's relatively broader life choices and, laterally without explicitly saying anything out loud about it, racial integration. These were the social conservatives.

    Others wanted to revert civil society to what it was more or less around 1928, before the stock market Crash of 1929, to a country in which there was no public financial assistance, few workers were in unions, taxes were very low and the stock market and banking sector operated essentially free of legal constraints. These were the economic conservatives.

    The social neoconservatives courted Christian fundamentalists disenchanted with Carter. They also wooed conservative Catholics who saw as "heresies" in both the "spirit" of the Second Vatican Council and the massive rejection of the papal prohibition of the contraceptive pill and aspired to a return to the social "orthodoxy" of the 1950s. (These folks forgot about the era's discrimination against Catholics.)

    There were voters coming from military families who, despite the military tradition of absolute partisan neutrality, felt betrayed by Democratic politicians during and after Vietnam. To these add male, white industrial workers and "ethnics" (non-Anglo-Saxon whites), resentful of losing labor and economic pre-eminence to African-Americans and women.

    All of these were the people Spiro Agnew had called "the silent majority," whom a relatively obscure preacher from Virginia now called "the Moral Majority," a base clamoring for what was then called the Reagan Revolution, which was actually akin to the French Revolution's Thermidorian reaction, a counter-revolution.

    Reagan supporters were very effective propagandists. They spoke of a modest electoral victory (Reagan won 50.8% of the popular vote) as a "landslide" merely because Reagan managed to get the majority of electors in 44 states. They also managed to cast an old man who would soon be doddering but remained a capable script reader as "the great communicator."

    The Reagan Administration tried, and in many cases succeeded, in reversing the socioeconomic policies of at least the previous 20 years thanks to its propagandists.

    Some things could not be overtly reversed. Legal and institutional racial segregation was not coming back. However, Reagan managed to erode the power of unions, minorities and women; and he launched a vast redistribution of resources that favored the richest through tax cuts and public debt that paid handsome interest.

    In order to bring down inflation, which hurts those who possess disposable wealth the most, Reagan triggered an recession that led to a 10 percent unemployment rate in 1982, the highest since the Depression. The downturn accelerated the decline of the middle class and in this way imposed wage and labor discipline. All these fireworks for the plutocrats, involving dull numbers noticed primarily by economists and stockbrokers, were hidden behind a clever smokescreen of social propaganda.

    The counter-revolution turned neoconservative slogans into accepted social values. Overnight the entrepreneur became a hero, greed a virtue and the nuclear family a sacred institution that served as a safeguard against the ills of feminism, homosexuality and free love. God and calling oneself a believer was in fashion again. Washingtonian magazine, a bland regional glossy, expressed the Reagan zeitgeist in the nation's capital with an issue of those years whose cover proclaimed, "God is Back!"

    Of course, God had never been gone -- at least beyond the U.S. Northeast and West Coast -- and neither had traditional values, the so-called Protestant ethic (hard work, frugality, family integrity and at least the appearance of sexual restraint). During the 1960s and 1970s, the era's youth and intellectuals had only made it seem that way.

    More significant was the social and cultural behavior of those whom Agnew had called "silent" and were now empowered.

    The N-word returned. It was used by Randy Newman, for example, in a satirical song about "rednecks." Although Newman did not intend this as an insult (quite the contrary: he was mocking those who still used that term), was a sign of change that this kind of joke could be played on the radio without causing riots.

    I heard the word one morning in the fall of 1988, used by a white, upper-middle-class man standing in his bathrobe at the door of his elegant suburban Bethesda house. He spoke angrily to an African-American woman, a mail carrier who, as I witnessed it, had accidentally let her bundle of mail drop to the man's feet, instead of delivering it in his hand. It was dreadful to hear and I still remember the scene exactly, even the location: Bradley Lane.

    Something similar happened with "girl" instead of "woman" or "young woman". It was one of many terms (mailman had become mail carrier) that feminism had managed to establish as a less unconsciously prejudiced vocabulary.

    Hippies were ridiculed, as was sexual debauchery (which declined with the onset of AIDS) and recreational drugs. Curiously, in the world of finance cocaine spread, as a stimulant whose frenzy effect meshes well with the Protestant work ethic; a cocaine-fueled broker is very, very, very attentive ... at least until the effect fades.

    The ideas spread that government was inefficient by nature, unions a bunch of goons and every modern education strategy was a fanciful but mistaken concoction of African-American novelists and lesbian poets. Once again people spoke with awe of the traditional Eurocentric literary and intellectual canons (also called "dead white men").

    All this was captured in an Orwellian showpiece: a 1984 Reagan reelection television commercial that began with the memorable words, "It's morning again, in America." The commercial shows white faces, middle-class suburbs, a stationwagon and a wedding. In the world of that commercial it's as if the hippies, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the struggle of African-Americans and women for their human rights had never happened.

    This is the sixth in a short series of posts that attempt to sketch contemporary U.S.cultural and social history, dwelling on how the time and place felt from a personal perspective, with the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers in the background.

    Saturday, June 24, 2017

    The Disco Era (1974-81)

    The Seventies in the United States began after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973. Notably, it was an anticlimactic end to a turbulent decade.

    When U.S. prisoners were released and they asked about the war's outcome, they were given the Pentagon-approved statement "they did not win and we did not lose." Similarly, Nixon's resignation in August 1974 was only one sentence long. Thus ended the two remaining causes of 60's era unrest.

    Anti-discrimination laws began to bring about a quiet and slow integration in both the worlds of work and higher education, insofar as color was concerned.

    Women began to graduate from universities in numbers never seen before and by 1979 they would become a permanent functional part of the workforce. However, it was only briefly in the past decade, as a result of massive layoffs of men following the Great Recession, that women were for short periods a majority of the workforce, as they are of the overall population.

    Gays and lesbians came out of the closet and a popular band called The Village People provided the theme songs to the new egalitarian messages on sexual orientation.

    In addition, Baby Boomers began adulthood, leaving adolescence and early youth behind to take on marriage, making money. Former hippies (or wannabes) changed into young urban professionals, or yuppies, whose emblematic wine and condos replaced joints and communes. Thus began a frivolous time accompanied by a musical rhythm called Disco and the turn towards the widespread use of cocaine.

    This drug, unlike the recreational hallucinogenic and largely distracting substances of the 60s, induces a a sense of extreme mental acuity leading to frantic mental activity. It was the drug that fit perfectly with the new materialistic zeal and adult indulgences of 70s Boomers.

    The quintessential Seventies image is of yuppies sniffing cocaine powder from $100 bills used as funnels to their nostrils. At least, that would be the cinematic scene. I, personally, did not witness it, although I heard of people who engaged in this.

    However, life is not Hollywood and many other Boomers, once married and with children, faced the problem of passing on their values, which meant a revival of traditional religion. This was also the spirit of the Jimmy Carter era.

    The essential feature of this exceptionally honest politician who came to the White House in 1977 was his authentic religious faith. Carter was a "born again" Protestant, a Baptist who took seriously the call in  John 3: 3, that unless one is born anew, one cannot see the kingdom of heaven.

    At that time there were some 70 million Protestants affiliated to one church or another; 13 million were Baptist, making their denomination the second largest in the United States, after Catholics, who then totaled around 48 million people. After Richard (Tricky Dick) Nixon, Americans wanted a leader they could believe in and trust.

    Another undercurrent that was invisible at the time (except during a brief oil shortage) was the decline of U.S. economic pre-eminence compared with Europe and Japan.

    Today it is a commonplace among economists to note that improvement in the U.S. standard of living more or less halted in 1973, when the median household income stagnated, and later even declined, after having doubled in real terms from 1945 to 1965. Now the whole world parrots Thomas Piketty, who in my view largely parroted Emmanuel Saez, in his pronouncements on economic inequality; but this is now, not then. No one noticed much at the time.

    The only evidence of a phenomenon pointing to change that was visible at the time to most Americans was the remarkable appearance of Japanese and European cars and a basket of imported goods never before available to the common consumer. Before the 1970s, everything had been "Made in U.S.A." Japanese goods, as famously noted in the 1985 film Back to the Future, were widely regarded as "crappy" imitations. The Japanese learned to imitate better very quickly.

    Economist Robert Reich has offered perhaps the best, most ironic and, once I read it, obvious, explanation of the massive entry of Japanese cars into the American market. According to him, it was an unintended consequence of the foreign policy that produced the Vietnam War.

    A side-effect of the conflict was introduction of trans-Pacific cargo shipping in volumes never seen before, a now well-understood staple of American military movements. For the Normandy invasion in World War II, for example, the U.S. military built floating piers to avoid the harrowing effort of having to capture Cherbourg. ("No port? We'll take one with us.")

    Here's what happened with Vietnam. Cargo ships went from California to Southeast Asia bearing weaponry and supplies, soon enough shippers realized that they faced an enormous fuel expense of sending back empty cargo ships.  Shipping companies started looking for cargo in the Philippines and Japan to fill the ships and make money on the return trip.

    That's when Japanese automakers took advantage of the offer and specifically built the smallest cars possible so they could ship and sell the largest number of units in the United States. Thus, the small foreign car market was born in the USA. Today, in Washington, I drive my Mercedes in a sea of ​​German and Japanese cars; hardly any cars are from Detroit.

    Trade competition, which took place in a variety of other industries (textile production, hitherto highly unionized, was destroyed by cheaper Asian imports), also stimulated the export of U.S. jobs and factories abroad.

    This had two kinds of huge consequences. At first, this enriched shareholders and executives thanks to savings in labor costs. In the long run, however, it led to the progressive destruction of a whole layer of the broad middle class: the industrial worker who by then could dream of sending children to college.

    An important part of the American social fabric began to fray and few became aware of it until someone pointed it out, as we shall see.

    * This is the fifth in a short series of posts that attempt to sketch contemporary U.S.cultural and social history, dwelling on how the time and place felt from a personal perspective, with the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers in the background.