Big Blue Books: Bring Them Back!

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The cover of my “big blue book”

W.J. Astore

Long ago in a used bookstore, I came across a “Big Blue Book” featuring the counsels and maxims of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.  My dad liked philosophy and was a fan of Schopenhauer, so I picked it up, I think for one dollar.  My tattered paperbound copy, published by Haldeman-Julius Company in Girard, Kansas, is not dated, so I had to do a little research.   According to Indiana State University:

Sold for as little as a nickel or a dime the Little Blue Books and the larger-format Big Blue Books were published and republished by the Haldeman-Julius publishing house located in Girard, Kansas to foster the ideals of American socialism and to provide a basic education for the working man. Titles began appearing as early as 1919, but the Little Blue Books series was not christened until 1923.

I think my copy dates from the late 1920s or early 1930s, since it features a catalog at the back that says 1500 “Little Blue Books” are available, all for a nickel each.  You could order all of them — all 1500 books — for $45.00, “packing and carriage charges” included.  The “little” books were about 3.5″ x 5,” or the size of a small index card, a handy size for shirt pockets; my “big” book is roughly 5.5″ x 8.5″.

Amusingly, the advert used these words to sell them: “There is not a trashy, cheap book in the lot.”  The “blue” came from the color of the cover (mine is faded), not from any “blue” or lurid contents.

What strikes me today is the focus on educating the working classes, with the expectation that workers wanted intellectually challenging and controversial material.  The back cover of my book features the following list of “Big Blue Books” available:

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Perhaps my favorite title is the “Tyranny of Bunk.”  We could use a book like that for these times.

Titles featuring Voltaire, agnosticism, Clarence Darrow (of the famous Scopes Trial, in which he defended the teaching of evolution), and the debunking of religious miracles point to the free-thinking nature of these books.  Here the “working man” is not being talked down to; rather, he’s being given the intellectual tools with which he can lift himself up.  Workers of America, read Blue Books and become educated: that was the message of these books.

Workers of those days had fewer distractions than the workers of today.  No vapid television, no video games, no materialistic orgies on Black Friday and Cyber Monday: one can imagine more than a few workers picking up a Blue Book for a nickel and enjoying it.

How much was a nickel back then?  My dad was a teenager in the early 1930s.  He told me you could go to the cinema for a nickel.  In other words, a nickel was real money, but it was also a manageable sum.

Nowadays, I suppose, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has access to libraries of knowledge that far surpass 1500 “Little Blue Books” and their “Big Blue” cousins.  Yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that something is lost in today’s cyberworld. Under socialism and other free-thinking systems of the Roaring Twenties and Depressed Thirties, there was faith in workers, specifically in educated workers, as representing the future of a better, a more just, a fairer America.

Do we still have that same faith, that same optimism, in the common man (and woman)? It doesn’t seem that way.  We are simply not trying to educate everyone roughly equally, irrespective of social class and status and so on.

Assuming literacy, back then it seemed that all that was needed was to place the right books in the hands of workers thirsty for knowledge.  Maybe that was a simple vision, but I admire its idealism.

Can we “make America great again” by getting Americans to read again?  To read real books that address serious subjects in a mature way?  Why not start with some new, inexpensive, little and big blue books?  No lithium batteries or internet required.

Not a bad step, I think, as we fight to restore Democracy and against idiocracy.

Trump and the Art of the Con

trumps-wall-l

W.J. Astore

The ink hasn’t yet dried on Trump’s victory and we’re already hearing about how his campaign promises are being “modified,” i.e. reneged on.  Trump’s infamous wall along the border with Mexico is already becoming more virtual than real, with admissions that Mexico will not pay for it. Trump himself has suggested he favors certain features of Obamacare (no denial of coverage based on preexisting conditions, and coverage extended to “children” until the age of 26), so there’ll be no wholesale “repeal and replace,” as he promised.  He also promised to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Hillary Clinton, to “lock her up,” as his followers chanted, but he’s backtracked on that as well.  Talk about draining the swamps of government, of bringing in fresh faces and new ideas, has produced tired old faces like Pence, Gingrich, Giuliani, and Christie.  In a classic case of nepotism, the “fresh” faces are those in his own family, his two sons and daughter Ivanka (she seems to be the one with the most smarts).

Many Trump voters appear to have voted for him because he represented “change,” a rejection of the usual suspects in the establishment.  Yes, the Clintons and their fellow travelers are out, but the hardline Republican establishment is back in, complete with the usual corporate hacks and think tanks.  And if you think these “conservatives” are going to start embracing the working classes and helping them financially with higher wages and better job prospects, I have a Chris Christie bridge for you that’s named after our first president.

These events are hardly surprising.  Trump is a con man.  For him, “the art of the deal” is basically the art of the con.  Consider his promise of bringing back American jobs.  How is that supposed to happen?  Simply through higher tariffs against foreign goods?  Who’s going to replace those with American-made goods at an affordable price to the working classes?

Here’s an example.  I got dressed this morning with no thought about using my clothes as an illustration for this article.  My jeans are made in Mexico (of fabric from the USA, so why weren’t they made here?).  My shirt is from Thailand.  My leather belt is from China, and so too are my shoes.  We all know why.  Labor costs in those countries are much cheaper than those in the USA.  Profits to corporations are thus much higher.  How is Trump going to change this dynamic?

I actually try to buy clothes that are made in America.  I got a nice pair of shoes that are made in Maine.  I got them on sale for a great price, but they retail for over $300.  If they were made in China, they’d probably retail for about $100.  How many members of the working classes are able to spend roughly triple the price for the privilege of wearing shoes and clothes “Made in the USA”?

Here’s one thing Trump could do: Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour so that Americans can afford the up-charge for domestic goods.  Any chance that Trump’s regime is going to do this?

It’s great to talk about bringing back American manufacturing jobs that pay well.  It’s possible to raise barriers to foreign trade to make American goods more competitive.  But who’s going to build the new factories?  And where are the skilled workers with the requisite knowledge base?  With the right advanced tools and technologies?

Speaking of technology, there’s an ever greater push in America to automate everything, even long-haul driving jobs, a job that provides a decent living for many Americans.  Is Trump going to reverse this push?  Is he going to preserve American blue-collar jobs against the pressure applied by multinational corporations to cut costs and maximize profits, workers be damned?  Given Trump’s own record of using cheaper foreign labor and goods, this doesn’t seem bloody likely.

Believe me, I hope I’m wrong, but the early signs are that America’s working classes, along with a lot of Trump enthusiasts, are already getting conned.

 

Talking to Trump Supporters

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W.J. Astore

Is it possible to talk to working-class supporters of Donald Trump?  Of course it is.  It’s just that Democrats from Hillary Clinton’s crowd have a very difficult time reaching across the social, economic, and cultural divide that often separates them from Trump’s (often reluctant) supporters.

This lesson came home to me in Arlie Hochschild’s recent article for TomDispatch.com.  Arlie got to know Mike Schaff, a man whose home in the bayou of Louisiana was poisoned by an environmental disaster at the hands of big oil.  Despite this, Mike Schaff remains deeply skeptical of government oversight and says he wants to eliminate agencies like the EPA that help to prevent environmental damage.

Despite his bitter experience with corporate malfeasance, Schaff remains unsympathetic to the Democratic Party and its arguments for more government intervention in the name of protecting ordinary citizens from harm.  Schaff, in short, believes in individualism, hard work, and self-reliance, as well as working together with his neighbors in small communities.  He doesn’t buy the argument that big government is his friend.  He doesn’t want to be seen as dependent on welfare and other government handouts.  He mostly wants to be left alone, even as he professes belief in Trump’s sentiment that America needs to be made “great again,” in part by a government led by Trump.

I think I understand part of what drives Mike Schaff.  The “do-gooder” liberal Democrats don’t speak his language.  Their reliance on regulations, lawyers, and bureaucracy makes him feel out of sorts, inferior, even dumb.  Their talk about “victims” and government “rescuers” turns him off, even though he himself is a victim of an environmental disaster.  But the point is that he doesn’t see himself as a victim.  He sees himself as a self-reliant man, a man working through a tough time, getting by with a little help from his friends, with no need of help from the Suits in Washington.

A confession: I’m not the most mechanical guy (though I fix small stuff), but around a guy like Mike Schaff, a man who welds and spends his time constantly tinkering with machines, I’d feel a bit uncomfortable.  I’m used to slinging words, just as he’s used to working physically, with his hands.

But I could hang with him.  I did my time in the military.  I come from a working-class family.  I know guys like Mike Schaff.  I can empathize with him.  I can speak his language.

The message of politicians like Hillary Clinton will not resonate with Mike.  Guys like Mike prefer plain-speak.  Making America great again — hell ya, it’s about time!  As cynical and opportunistic as Trump may be, his message of self-reliance, his blunt talk, his braggadocio, and his calls for action (no matter how stupid) do resonate with Mike, even if his pro-corporate policies will only aggravate Mike’s situation.

What ever happened to tough democrats who could talk to guys like Mike?  Even Joe Biden, despite his hardscrabble Scranton origins, doesn’t quite fit.

Joe Bageant was great at this — his book “Deer Hunting with Jesus” told the story of a liberal gun-owning Southerner who lived the life of men (and women) like Mike Schaff.  But sadly Bageant died a few years ago.  (For some articles I’ve written about Bageant, see here and here and here.)

If Hillary Clinton loses in November, a big reason why will be that she simply couldn’t (or wouldn’t) speak the language of working-class Americans, people like Mike Schaff.

Above the people, beside the people, against the people

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W.J. Astore

Remember when Abraham Lincoln wrote about our government as being “of the people, by the people, for the people”?  Even after 150 years, those words still resonate, but they are increasingly less true.  Today, our government places itself above the people, and when the government is not working against the interests of (most of) the people, it acts as if the people’s interests are beside the point.

We’ve entered a new historical moment in America, which is precisely the point of Tom Engelhardt’s latest essay at TomDispatch.com.  As Engelhardt notes, our electoral process is “part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.” Our foreign policy, and increasingly our domestic policy as well, is dominated by the national security state, the one leviathan in our government that is never paralyzed.  The political process itself is ever more divisive, polarized, and disconnected from the hardships faced by the working and middle classes.  Even planetary dangers such as climate change are either denied or ignored, as if denial or ignorance will keep seas and temperatures from rising.

The very disconnection of our government from painful realities explains in part the appeal of “maverick” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  Yes, they are two very different men, but what they have in common is their willingness to take the side of ordinary Americans, who have seen their standard of living stagnate or drop over the last thirty years.  Trump says he wants to make America great again: the implicit message is that we pretty much suck now, that we are a nation in decline, and that the sooner we admit it, the sooner we can take action to restore America to greatness.  Sanders says he wants a future we can believe in, which is at its core much like Trump’s message.  America has serious problems, both men are saying, but greatness is still within our grasp if only we act together as a people.

Again, much separates Trump and Sanders, yet both are willing to admit the times are bad for many hardworking Americans.  What they’re saying is this: the American dream is increasingly a nightmare.  And part of the nightmare is a government that doesn’t act in the people’s interests because it’s been co-opted by special interests.  A government that can’t even do its job, such as to declare war or to advise on a Supreme Court nominee, in accordance with its Constitutional duties.

The promise and potential of our country remains.  But that promise, that potential, is being squandered by an alliance of various interests that are no longer responsive to the people.  If not dead, representative democracy in America is on life support.  Unless we can reinvigorate it, as Engelhardt notes in his article, we will continue to suffer a decline analogous to the declines of other great empires (think Rome, for example).  The difference today is the possibility of planetary-wide destruction, whether quickly from nuclear weapons or slowly from climate change.

Never was a revival in American democracy more urgently needed, not only for ourselves, but for the world.

Bernie is More Generous to Workers than Hillary

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Last night’s town hall in Nevada revealed a crucial difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  Bernie came out strongly for a $15 per hour minimum wage.  A living wage, as he called it.  Hillary demurred, suggesting that $12 per hour was sufficient, though she mentioned municipalities with higher minimums (places like San Francisco, which have a very high cost of living).

An extra $3.00 and hour, for 40 hours a week, for 50 weeks a year, is an extra $6000 in the pockets of workers (before taxes, of course).  For many working families, that’s the difference between struggling in poverty and making enough to live with a modicum of security.

Hillary went unchallenged on her $12 per hour figure.  But let’s remind ourselves that Hillary made $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs.  A person working for Hillary’s “generous” $12 wage would need 28 years to match what she made in three speeches that took her all of a few hours to make.

Indeed, Hillary’s “minimum wage” for her speeches to big banks and Wall Street is in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $200,000 per hour.  “Hey, that’s what they offered,” Hillary said.  And so Hillary is offering you, sales associate at Walmart, $12 per hour.  Are you not entertained?

When asked if she’d release transcripts of her speeches to the Wall Street banks and investment houses, Hillary essentially said no.  Of course, she didn’t say “no” because that would be honest.  Instead, she said she’d release her transcripts if all the other candidates did the same.  She knows that’s not happening, so her answer is no.

Perhaps Hillary could contact Goldman Sachs and ask them to start inviting workers to give speeches at her going rate.  A lot of American working families would deeply appreciate making $225,000 for a couple of hours of sharing their hard-won experiences with Wall Street bankers and investors.

 

Fewer American Snipers, More American Workers and Builders

Role model to young men?
Role model to young men?

 

W.J. Astore

Former Army Ranger Rory Fanning has a thoughtful article at TomDispatch.com on why young men should not join the Army to fight the war on terror in distant lands.

Here’s an excerpt:

Believe me, it [the Afghan War] was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission… I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.

If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003 … Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world.  Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.

Fanning makes persuasive points here: How the U.S. military bungled its wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan; how often Iraqi and Afghan innocents were killed due to bad intelligence and the usual deadly mistakes associated with war; how the wars fed, and continue to feed, a cycle of violence that is perpetuated by new U.S. troop deployments and weapons sales (with respect to weapons sales, see this excellent article by Peter Van Buren, which details how the U.S. is hawking M1 Abrams main battle tanks to the Iraqis).

Yet persuading young American men against joining the military, let alone convincing them not to strive to be elite Rangers, is not, sadly, an exercise in logic.  In American society today, young men, especially from the working classes, seek an identity and a status that affirms masculinity.  They want to earn the respect of their peers, parents, and prospective dates (and mates).  American society provides few options for such men, especially if they’re living in straitened circumstances in dead-end jobs.  Consider that many physical jobs, such as working in a warehouse, pay only slightly better than minimum wage, with weekly hours curtailed so that employers don’t have to provide health care.

Military service, which exudes masculinity while conveying societal respect (and free health care, among other benefits), is in many ways the most viable option for working-class men (and more than a few women, obviously).  Like it or not, young men often aspire to being “the biggest and baddest,” or at least serving with a unit of such men.  They seek community and a sense of belonging within unapologetically masculine settings.  They may also have dreams of being heroes, or at least of proving themselves as capable within a community of likeminded tough guys.

American society bombards such impressionable young men with images of soldiers, often deified in movies like “Act of Valor” or “Lone Survivor.”  Consider the popular success of “American Sniper,” with its depiction of the resolute sniper as avenger and punisher.  Movies like this are powerful in persuading impressionable youth to sign on the dotted line as volunteers for military service.

Military service, which conveys personal dignity, adds a dash of grandeur.  By joining the military, you become part of something much larger than yourself.  A sense of masculine challenge, especially in elite units like the Army Rangers or Navy SEALs, combined with societal respectability prove alluring to young men.  Sadly, no amount of logic about the lack of wisdom and efficacy of America’s war on terror will convince them otherwise.

Some will say there’s nothing wrong with this.  Why not encourage young men to join the military and to fight in foreign lands?  Yet if those fights serve fallacious causes that amount to strategic folly, our troops’ sacrifices amount to little.

One thing we can do: American society should provide more jobs for young men that convey respect within masculine codes but which don’t require donning a uniform and killing an enemy overseas.

For nearly a decade, I taught working-class students, mostly young men, in rural Pennsylvania.  My students came to class wearing camo fatigues.  Many looked like they had just climbed down from a tree stand in the woods (a big holiday for my students was the first day of rifle deer season).  They drove pickup trucks, listened to country music, dipped Skoal or smoked Marlboros.  They’re not guys who aspire to be metrosexuals sipping lattes at Starbucks.  They’re looking for a job that screams “man,” and sometimes they find it: in welding, as a heavy equipment operator, in residential construction, and so on.

But for those who can’t find such “masculine” vocations that provide decent pay and benefits, military service is powerfully alluring, and almost impossible to resist, especially when there are so few alternatives.

In September 2008, I called for a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, national service that is dedicated to rebuilding America.  We need to instill an ethic of national service that goes beyond war and killing.  An ethic that inspires young men with patriotic pride and that conveys societal identities that appeal to them as men.

What we need, in short, are fewer “American snipers” and more American workers and builders.

A Cautionary Tale for Labor Day

My Dad in the Army in 1945
My Dad in the Army in 1945

W.J. Astore

In December 2010, I wrote the article below for Truthout.  Even as the economy was sputtering and jobs were scarce, Congress was seeking to cut unemployment benefits.  Eventually, a compromise was forged to maintain the benefits; the price was more tax cuts for the richest Americans.  Angered by the hypocrisy and greed on display, and inspired by my father’s words and experiences, I penned my very own tale of two cities.  It’s not Dickens, but it has the merit of being far shorter.

The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Poorer (Posted originally at Truthout on 12/7/2010)

William Astore

More tax breaks for the rich in exchange for another year’s worth of unemployment benefits for the desperate: Now there’s a compromise that makes me proud to be an American. My father wouldn’t have been surprised. He grew up during the Great Depression and worked in factories before he was drafted and served in the Army during World War II. Dad told me that the harder he worked (physically), the less he got paid. And he told me there was nothing like repetitive and physically-grueling factory work to make you want to improve yourself. By becoming a civil servant (a firefighter), he escaped the factory and its dismal pay for a job that paid enough to provide five children with a lower middle class existence.

Today’s political elites seem to think that the proper way to stimulate economic growth is to empower the exploiters. That way, some of their enormous wealth will trickle down on the little people. My father knew from experience that it usually wasn’t money that trickled down from the high heights of the rich.

In the spirit of the holiday season, here’s a story from my Dad that recounts his attempt to get a dime pay raise at the local factory. Consider it a parable for the realities our working classes face day in and day out in this country:

It seems that Mike Calabrese on his own asked Harry Callahan [one of the owners] for a pay raise and he was refused. Mike decided to organize the men members and go down in a group. In our group he got ten men to approach Harry C. for a raise. But when it was time to “bell the cat” only three fellows went to see Harry. Well Mike said he couldn’t join the group because he had already tried to get a raise. I knew I was being used but I was entitled to a raise. Well Harry said to me, “What can I do for you men?” So I said to Harry: 1) Living costs were going up; 2) We deserved a raise. So Harry said, “How much?” and I said ten cents an hour would be a fair raise. So he said I’ll give you a nickel an hour raise and later you’ll get the other nickel. We agreed. So, I asked Harry will everyone get a raise and he replied, “Only the ones that I think deserve it.”

Well a month later I was drinking water at the bubbler and Harry saw me and said what a hard job they had to get the money to pay our raises. Well, Willie, Harry Callahan and his brother Sam and their two other Italian brother partners all died millionaires. No other truer saying than, That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.

Today, Americans are uncomfortable calling attention to pay discrepancies and exploitation because it smacks of class warfare or even Marxism. It’s true that some of the worst abuses have been curbed (for example, my father worked from 6PM to 6AM without the benefit of overtime pay or time-and-a-half), but today’s workers are simply scared: scared that their jobs will be outsourced, scared that they’ll be fired; scared that they’ll be replaced by automated robots. Thus they put up and shut up.

So, what’s the moral to the story? Our president promised hope and change. “Hope” has come in the form of more tax breaks for the rich. And “change”? To paraphrase my father: No truer saying than that politicians have no sympathy or use for the poor.