Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Burning off "impurities of foreignness" (OR: with Trump, some other curious figures come to mind, Part I)

The anti-intellectual, anti-elitist Henry Ford
"History is bunk," he said
     Henry Ford is, of course, extremely famous. He didn’t invent the automobile; Karl Benz did that. He famously adopted assembly line methods in the manufacture of automobiles, but, again, he wasn’t quite the first.
     Still, he changed the world and has a genuine claim to greatness.
     How so?
     In Ford’s day as in our own, the obvious road to profit was the manufacture and sale of expensive cars. But, as journalist Richard Snow explains,
     …Ford believed exactly the opposite. Make the car cheaper; you’ll do better selling lots of low-priced cars to farmers and shopclerks than you will a few costly ones to millionaires. The way to achieve this, he told one of the backers of his new company, “is to make one automobile like another automobile … just as one pin is like another pin when it comes from a pin factory, or one match like another match when it comes from a match factory.”
     Ford got the car he’d been reaching for with the Model T. It was ugly, cantankerous, simple enough for any farmhand to understand and fix, and indomitable. Almost every American could afford to buy one, and millions did. By 1919 Ford was selling half the cars built in America.
Facts are bunk
     He did this by lowering the price instead of raising it in the face of steady demand. (In its last year the car cost just $295 new.) But more important, he was able to make his automobiles in their multitude—one a minute, finally—by developing moving assembly lines to bring the job to the worker, rather than having the worker move around the factory. At Ford, workers stood still, each performing one small motion—tightening three screws, twisting on a hubcap—as the developing car rolled past. This was the first true mass-production line, and when Ford doubled his workers’ wages to the then-unheard-of sum of $5 a day, so that the same people who built the cars could buy them, the destination of those moving lines became clear: mass consumption; the middle class; the modern age.
     OK. Therein lies Ford’s claim to being a great American, more or less. The rest of the story, however, isn’t so great: anti-Semitism, a near-ruinous refusal to move beyond the Model T, hounding his son, Edsel, to his early grave, vicious anti-union tactics, contempt for intellectuals, etc.
     No doubt about it: there’s a vast dark side to Our Ford.

Ford had his Model T; Trump has his Wall and his Self
     One of the curiouser inky blotches of this dark side concerns Ford’s stunning act, in 1914, of doubling workers’ salaries from $2.34 to $5 dollars a day. He did that because he had a terrible employee turnover problem (200%!)—and he had that problem because working conditions in his factories were terrible. As auto journalist Michael Ballaban explains,
     In …[1913], the Ford Motor Company somehow managed to hire more than 52,000 people, despite having less than 15,000 on payroll at any one time. Factory work was boring, monotonous, dangerous, and it didn’t pay well at all.
     This was no seasonal turnover. The company was in a constant state of mass exodus.
—And so Ford more than doubled workers’ pay, a truly stunning move.


     So, Ford made it possible for his own workers to afford a new Ford. But, as Ballaban explains, “that didn’t mean they were allowed to buy one.”
     The $5 a day rate wasn’t just free money that every worker got. Instead, you had to work at the company for at least six months, and you also had to buy in to a new set of rules. The extra pay came at a price.
     As Richard Snow writes …, a few basic stipulations were laid from day one:
To qualify for his doubled salary, the worker had to be thrifty and continent. He had to keep his home neat and his children healthy, and, if he were below the age of twenty-two, to be married.
     That was just the start. Henry Ford wanted his workers to be model Americans, and to ensure that, he created a division within the Ford Motor Company to keep everyone in line. It was known as the Ford Sociological Department….
Henry and his obsession: the Model T
     What started out as a team of 50 “Investigators” eventually morphed into a team of 200 people who probed every aspect of their employees lives. And I mean every aspect.
Ford security beating UAW women
     Investigators would show up unannounced at your home, just to make sure it was being kept clean. They’d ask questions that were less appropriate of a car company, than they were for the modern-day CIA. They’d query you about your spending habits, your alcohol consumption, even your marital relationships. They’d ask what you were buying, and they’d check on your children to make sure they were in school.
     Women weren’t eligible, unless they were single and had to support children. Men weren’t eligible unless the only work their wives did was in the home.
     They were Henry Ford’s personal morality enforcers, making sure that everyone who took one of his paychecks lived up to his standards. Those standards included patriotism and assimilation, especially when it came to language. This wasn’t just a wanton disregard for other cultures (though that wasn’t not a part of it), but rather a safety issue. In a time of massive amounts of immigration from Europe, all Ford workers had to speak English. On the factory floor, a simple miscommunication could get someone killed.
     The Ford English School was rigorous, but it produced results. In fact, it was so thorough that a diploma from it could be counted towards a requirement for citizenship. But, like with most things associated with the Sociological Department, it had a darker side. Specifically, involving the graduation ceremony, as the Henry Ford Museum relates (bolding mine):
The culmination of the Ford English School program was the graduation ceremony where students were transformed into Americans. During the ceremony speakers gave rousing patriotic speeches and factory bands played marches and patriotic songs. The highlight of the event would be the transformation of immigrants into Americans. Students dressed in costumes reminiscent of their native homes stepped into a massive stage-prop cauldron that had a banner across the front identifying it as the AMERICAN MELTING POT. Seconds later, after a quick change out of sight of the audience, students emerged wearing “American” suits and hats, waving American flags, having undergone a spiritual smelting process where the impurities of foreignness were burnt off as slag to be tossed away leaving a new 100% American. [See below]

Ford's "melting pot" at his English School

Slag (aka "impurities of foreignness")

I just came upon this article:

Donald Trump Is...; 13 historians scour the past for Trumpian precedents. (Politico Magazine, August 29, 2015)


...David Greenberg, associate professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University
     Among the chief reasons for Donald Trump’s popularity is the image he has fashioned as a blunt-talking businessman. Hailing from outside the world of politics, he presents himself as willing to speak the unpleasant truths that politicians cannot, and he promises to bring to the White House a businessman’s no-nonsense pragmatism.
     This fantasy of a brusque businessman riding to rescue our corrupt Washington politics is not new at all. To pick but one notorious example, in the 1910s and 1920s, the role was played by Henry Ford—a pioneering businessman, but a nutcase when it came to politics. In 1918, Ford waged a losing bid for the Senate, and throughout the next decade he flirted with the White House. (The quietly canny Calvin Coolidge shrewdly eased him out of the 1924 race.) Many Americans looked to Ford as a fount of old-fashioned common sense, but his off-the-cuff expressions of contempt and anti-intellectualism—“History is bunk” was his most famous aphorism—also revealed an ugly side. His foolhardiness was exposed when he sued the Chicago Tribune in 1919 for calling him ignorant, and the paper’s lawyers quizzed Ford on basic facts of American history, which he couldn’t answer. The Revolution, he said, occurred in 1812; Benedict Arnold was “a writer, I think.” Yet legions of Americans continued to root for him, some of them celebrating his defiant contempt for education. Eventually Ford would permanently tarnish his reputation when his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, began promulgating rank anti-Semitism, publishing, for example, the slanderous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as an anti-Semitic series called The International Jew. Next to that raw sewage, Trump’s noxious comments about Mexicans and women look downright civil.
     In more recent times, numerous other moguls have toyed with the presidency using the argument that Washington needs the blunt pragmatism that only a man from the world of business can provide: Lee Iacocca, Ross Perot, Herman Cain. (In late 2011, lest we forget, Cain was leading the GOP field, polling between 25 and 30 percent.) All of them were ultimately rejected, in part because they lacked an important skill that politics requires: the ability to be politic.
Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University, co-editor of the website Dissent and author, most recently, of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation
     As every intelligent historian knows, history doesn’t repeat itself, not even in rhyme (as Mark Twain once claimed). But one cannot have a discussion without using similes and metaphors, and Donald Trump does remind me of a figure from the American past who nobody, to my knowledge, has mentioned during this campaign: Henry Ford.
     Ford, like Trump, was a fabulously wealthy and famous businessman with a penchant for making controversial political statements that kept him in the news. As a pacifist, during World War I, he declared, “To my mind, the word ‘murderer’ should be embroidered in red letters across the breast of every soldier.” Then, in the early 1920s, his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, published vicious anti-Semitic documents, which the industrialist vigorously defended.
     Ford, like Trump, also moved back and forth between the major parties. In 1918, he was the Democratic candidate for a Senate seat in Michigan and probably would have won if he had bothered to spend any money or campaign for himself. In 1924, despite or perhaps because of his notoriety, many Republicans wanted to draft him for president; a magazine poll in 1923 had him leading all other potential candidates.
     In the end, however, Ford decided not to run. He was as arrogant as Trump but lacked his political ambition. Yet, the media never tired of him. One critic in the 1920s wrote that modern Americans were eager for “new sensations” that a “tame president” could not fulfill. “If you were a motion-picture producer,” he wrote, “bent on furnishing a glimpse into the future … wouldn’t you choose Henry Ford as your hero?”
[Other categories in the article:

[George Wallace; William Randolph Hearst; Ross Perot; Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the modern Republican Party; Something out of a Mark Twain novel; There’s never been a Trump in American politics; Wendell Wilkie, Teddy Roosevelt, Arthur Godfrey and Lonesome Rhodes; Pat Paulsen and Ronald Reagan; Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman; Sui generis, with a touch of Silvio Berlusconi; An unprecedented product of the times]

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