An interesting historical ditty has been popping up on right wing websites. The folks sharing it claim, in their breathless way, that “see, Democrats have always been that way!” But even a cursory read of the full document tells us more about Republican shenanigans than Democratic policies. It also opens a window on a history I find quite astounding.
Around the right wing blogsphere this week, this little piece has been making the rounds (Warning: these all go to various right-wing websites, click at your own risk!). The text, from 1949, isn’t terribly important except that it is taken seriously (or at least pretend seriously) by various right wing bloggers and commenters and used in a “liberals never change” kind of way.
Ode to the Welfare State
“Father, must I go to work“
No, my lucky son,
We’re living now on easy street
On dough from Uncle Sam.
We’ve left it up to Uncle Sam;
so don’t get exercised.
Nobody has to give a danm,
we’ve all been subsidized!”
“But if Sam treats us all so well,
and feeds us milk and honey,
Please tell me, Daddy, tell me what the hell
he’s going to use for money?”
“Don’t worry, bub, there’s not a hitch
in this here noble plan;
He simply soaks the filthy rich
and helps the common man!”
“But father, won’t there come a time
when they run out of cash,
When we have left them not a dime
when things will go to smash?”
“My faith in you is shrinking,
son you nosey little brat;
You do too much thinking, boy,
to be a Democrat!”
That could have been written last week, don’t you think? All the hot-button social-welfare-as-parasite-spread-the-wealth dog whistle words are in there. It even ends with a “Democrats are stupid” bit just for laughs. Interestingly enough, this is uncritically attributed by the right wing bloggers to a Democrat.
Sometimes, but not always, it is accompanied by an image of the original article.
But what is usually transcribed on these right wing sites is the poem above by itself. The text preceding the poem, the part explaining the provenience, is most often left out. And that makes sense if you regard the poem as some sort of “genuine” artifact of the mind of a dumb Democrat as all of these right wing websites seem to do. They certainly don’t engage the material critically. Their engagement with this small slice of American history is disappointing. I was under the mistaken belief that most folks who consider themselves Conservative enjoy a thorough understanding of American history. I’m sorry to say I was wrong. Conservatives are a remarkably incurious lot.
It is my contention that the opening paragraph is far most instructive than the poem itself. The poem is a simple signifier, a piece of “stupid Democrat” and nothing more. It’s easy to accept the poem itself as it is if you rely on an informal fallacy as your primary intellectual weapon. It would seem quite a simple move if you are used to using “straw men” as your debate opponents to accept this poetic “straw man” as a real political position a Democrat of the day might take. This adherance to the straw man form of the informal fallacy has left most folks I encounter on the right bereft of any real argumentation skills.
But let’s help them out. Let’s pull that opening paragraph apart and see what we can discover before we accept the document on face value.
That opening paragraph reads
Mr. Truman’s St. Paul, Minn., pie-for-everybody speech last night reminded us that, at the tail-end of the recent session of Congress, Representative Clarence J. Brown (R-Ohio) jammed into the Congressional Record the following poem, describing its author only as “a prominent Democrat of the State of Georgia”
So what was the speech and who was Clarence J. Brown? Let’s start with Representative Brown.
Clarence J. Brown was a Republican Congressman from Ohio’s 7th district. Born in 1893, he served 14 terms in congress. His brief biography in Wikipedia reveals him to be a deeply conservative man who opposed any program or policy that even hinted at social welfare. He passed away in office in 1965.
In the 1930s, he was a staunch isolationist and opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies. When Harry S. Truman became president, he opposed his Fair Deal. He was co-sponsor of legislation to create the Hoover Commission to study the Federal government and served on the commission, formally the Commission on the Organization of the Executive Branch of Government. By the 1950s, he was the ranking minority member of the Rules Committee and worked with its chairman, Howard W. Smith of Virginia to block liberal leglsation sought by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
He is an obvious pre-cursor to our right wing Conservative Republicans of today and many of the policies he supported and the programs he opposed are ones that resonate with us today. His interest in controlling the size of government, opposition to social welfare of any sort and his objection to any liberal or Progressive program made him a thorn in the side of northern Democrats.
So here we have a man who “jammed into the Congressional Record” a poem he claimed to have been penned by an unnamed Dixiecrat from Georgia. Isn’t it more likely that this poem was the work of Brown himself or perhaps one of his staffers? Or was it his friend and conservative co-conspirator Howard W. Smith? In those days, just as there were Progressive Republicans, there were Conservative Democrats (we still have those, we just call them Blue Dogs) and Howard W. Smith was certainly one of those.
A master obstructionist who chaired the House Rules Committee, he used his power to fight the liberal agendas of presidential administrations from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson.
His career seems to parallel that of Brown. Was Smith the author of the Ode? Was he the “prominent Democrat?” No, he wasn’t from Georgia, but he certainly shared Brown’s views. He would be a template for the kind of man to search for the historical record.
Was it perhaps Georgia Congressman Edward E. Cox? Another powerful member of the Rules committee, he worked closely with both Smith and Brown. I don’t think we’ll ever know, but what we do know from the time is that the Democrats of the day, at least the ones from the south, were not liberals or Progressives. In fact, most of them stood firmly in opposition to the liberal policies of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. Therefore it is entirely reasonable that a southern Democrat could be the author.
This poem, then, of uncertain provenience, entered into the Congressional Record and then attached to a news piece from the Associated Press which reports that Truman’s speech in St. Paul was of a familiar “pie-for-everybody” (presumably an update to Hoover’s “Chicken in Every Pot”) plan. Indeed, Truman was looking to continue and grow the social programs that had served America so well in the 1930s. What Truman called his Fair Deal presented in January of 1949 was as ambitious, if not more so, than Roosevelt’s New Deal. The members of the dominant Conservative Coalition (made up of both Democrats and Republicans) in Congress were not having any of it. The lines were drawn, the battle engaged.
Let us now turn to the speech. On November 3rd, 1949, President Harry S. Truman gave a speech in St. Paul, Minnesota where he outlined his vision for America, a vision that many of us can and should recognize today. It is a clear, Progressive vision of what America can be and should be and what the nation can do to ensure widespread prosperity.
Truman began the speech with reference to Thomas Jefferson and the reactionary resistance to the Louisiana Purchase. He used this as a foil throughout the speech indicating that bold plans often face strong reactionary headwinds.
The reactionaries of Jefferson’s time were exactly like the reactionaries of today. Whenever there is a new proposal to promote the general welfare, we always hear the same sort of arguments–from the same sort of people–for the same sort of reasons.
But the propaganda of the reactionaries did not prevail in the case of the Louisiana Purchase. If it had, this country would not be what it is today. If it had, the State of Minnesota–and Missouri, too–would not even exist.
The people of the United States know the way to progress. If the people have the true facts–and eventually they always get the true facts–no one can hold them back for very long.
Our economic frontiers can be expanded only if we follow sound public policies. We must rely, as we have always relied, upon the spirit of initiative and free enterprise. But we know that it is necessary for the Government to follow policies that will make it possible for initiative and free enterprise to succeed. At the same time, there is wide disagreement on what specific measures the Government should adopt and for whose benefit.
The reactionaries hold that government policies should be designed for the special benefit of small groups of people who occupy positions of wealth and influence. Their theory seems to be that if these groups are prosperous, they will pass along some of their prosperity to the rest of us. This can be described as the “trickle down theory.”
The vast majority of us reject that theory as totally wrong.
We know that there will be more prosperity for all if all groups have a fair share of the wealth of the country. We know that the country will achieve economic stability and progress only if the benefits of our production are widely distributed among all its citizens.
We believe that it is the Federal Government’s obligation, under the Constitution, to promote the general welfare of all our people–and not just a privileged few.
The policies we advocate are based on these convictions.
The expenditures which we make today for the education, health, and security of our citizens are investments in the future of our country, just as surely as the Louisiana Purchase was an investment in the future.
The battles Truman was fighting then are exactly the same battles we’re fighting in 2011 and right here in Wisconsin. The phrase “trickle down policies” replicates the very phrase of the “voodoo” economic debates we fight today as well. And this was in 1949! Personally, I thought “trickle down” was invented in reaction to the failed policies of the Reagan administration, but to see it in print from 30 years earlier sent chills down my spine. My hair stood on end and I read the words over and over. I checked the site, I checked the date. Indeed, it was November 3rd, 1949 that Truman had uttered those words. Words and ideas we continue to fight. Ideas that were wrong for America in 1949 and are wrong for America today.
So what of the poem? What does it mean? Not much in and of itself. It’s a throw-away piece of Conservative propaganda that signifies very little in retrospect. It’s a straw man found in the attic, a fallacy on crinkled yellow paper. Once again I find myself reflecting back to Marshal McLuhan’s well-worn aphorism that “the medium is the message.” We can see that it isn’t the poem or the document itself, but the message to us “moderns” that this mendacity has been going on for decades, and continues up to today. This document continues to “inform” the dialog on the right, a kind of historical self-fulfilling prophecy from the past. A time capsule of “I told you so” designed for easy consumption by a political order accustomed to simple messages in easily digestible nuggets courtesy of FoxNews, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Is it any wonder that they balk at unpacking the whole message?
The message Progressives should receive, and what we must continue to do, where we must continue to engage in in exposing these signals as nothing more than pure, unadulterated bunk.
If the right wing wants to publicize this little poem, let them do so. Let them shout it from the rooftops! This little piece of history, this scrap of time, exposes our battle of ideas. That it will embolden Progressives to pursue the struggle for a better America is without doubt. An America free from the mendacity of the reactionary Republican noise machine.