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America Today: Us'ns vs. Them'ns

By Bob Hooper
Opinion | November 21, 2011

BOGUE, Kan. - There's a lot of stuff goin' around these days. I know because quite a bit comes my way intended to set me straight.

One recent email forwarded from a persistent lady in eastern Rooks County (forwarded to her from a guy in that neck of the woods, endlessly forwarded to him by... etc.) provided a quote claimed to be from Norman Thomas. It went:

"The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But under the name of 'liberalism,' they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened."

If you're a 'righty-fighty' you probably got it, too, since fellow travelers are usually targeted. And you like it because, yeah, you know, there's black and there's white. There's 'us'ns and them'ns.' Us'ns is good and them'ns is evil. Socialism is them'ns and capitalism is us'ns. Us'ns is goodness incorporated. Socialism is ... Well, you can figure it out. Wait. No you can't.

Thomas did, in fact, run for President as a socialist. However, there's no credible record of Thomas ever having said such a thing. Ronald Reagan claimed he did but couldn't back it up. Neither could anybody else. No matter. Conservatives liked it and they liked Grandpa Ronnie.

The fact-checking Snopes.org found the email claim was probably based on a letter from Upton Sinclair to Norman Thomas. Sinclair wrote, "The American people will take socialism, but they won't take the label."

Upton Sinclair was himself a socialist, perhaps best known for his 1906 novel The Jungle which details the filthy, demeaning conditions immigrant Americans faced in the unregulated meatpacking industry in Chicago. I paid three bucks for a Dover Publications paperback to re-read as a reminder of our not-always-so-shining capitalist history -- and as a warning for tomorrow.

The back cover blurb reads: "The brutally grim story of a Slavic family who emigrates to America, The Jungle tells of their rapid and inexorable descent into numbing poverty, moral degradation, and social and economic despair. Vulnerable and isolated, the family of Jurgis Rudkus struggles -- unsuccessfully -- to live in an urban jungle."

Quickly a best seller, The Jungle was instrumental in bringing about the Pure Food and Drug Act, among other changes on behalf of working people. Believe me, you wouldn't want to eat the meat coming out of the slaughterhouses in Upton Sinclair's day. You wouldn't want your husband or your twelve-year-old working there. The hours were long, the pay was crappy and the benefits nil. If you got hurt on the job, tough s....

An instant best-seller, Sinclair's book reeked with the stink of the Chicago stockyards. He told how dead rats were shoveled into sausage-grinding machines; how bribed inspectors looked the other way when diseased cows were slaughtered for beef, and how filth and guts were swept off the floor and packaged as "potted ham." (capitalcentury.com)

Okey-dokey, so Reagan's wrong on the source of the quote. Close counts in horse-shoes, doesn't it? What do facts matter these days, eh?

Well, I get another email forward from the same lady, encouraging older Americans to remember the past. We should support the troops, reject socialism, place our right hand over our hearts, salute the flag, and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance proudly as we have been taught.

Except for Jehovah's Witnesses, who pledge allegiance only to God, the words flow without a pause -- just like the Lord's Prayer. Eyes up, hand on heart: "We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands ..." right on to ... "for all."

It was written by the Baptist preacher Francis Bellamy in 1892 but not adopted by Congress until l942. At the time, Congress changed the words "my flag" to "the flag of the United States of America." The hand over the heart started in the FDR administration. The words "under God," as most have learned, were added in 1954 under Eisenhower. In Bellamy's handwriting, the original looked liked this:

Some people object to "under God" as a breach of the wall between church and state. Frankly, it doesn't bother me, and so far as I know nobody's been jailed for leaving God out or mumbling something that rhymes. Anyway, the word God means different things to different people, and lots of people talk God and walk the Devil. You probably know some.

According to biographer John W. Baer, Bellamy "considered placing the word, 'equality,' in his Pledge together with "liberty and justice for all but knew that the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans" so he left it out.

Oh, before I forget: Reverend Bellamy was a socialist.

I wanted to mention, too, that the lady who forwarded the e-mails enjoys her Social Security and Medicare. And I'm pretty sure the guy who sent it to her does, too.

Even Ayn Rand, the atheist darling of capitalism who died of lung cancer in 1982, enjoyed Social Security benefits (and probably Medicare) during her last decade. She applied under her husband's name as Ann O'Conner.

Incidentally, she thought the scientific health warning about tobacco was a left-wing hoax.

Sometimes them'ns is part us'ns and vise versa.


Bob, the most ardent supporters of capitalism have no problem enjoying the benefits of the public road systems, military proection, Social Security benefits and medicare.l

Thanks for the history lesson, Bob. So much myth, so few facts.

I did hear a discussion on The Jungle on NPR one day and one of the panelists said that Sinclair had racist tendencies. I don't know about that, but he sure opened up a sad era in our history.

Ken, you're certainly correct. It's an issue of simplistic, polarized labeling. That appeals to those who don't like anything too complicated and consequently, makes an effective propaganda tool. Somehow too many of us have been sold the fiction that the unregulated free market (pure capitalism) is somehow virtuous (or if not virtuous, the preferable social paradigm).

Dianne, I'm not familiar with Sinclair's work except for The Jungle and assorted mentions of his involvement with the socialist movement in Girard, Kansas, so I can't judge. In The Jungle, if there were racist remarks attributable to Sinclair himself, I missed them. In any event, The Jungle was a catalyst for social and economic justice in that era.

Today I marvel that those terms (social and economic justice) are used derogatorily by any one who claims to be a Christian--or any moral label.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Along with Sinclair I was surpised to find out the socialist leanings of one of my favorite hero's, Helen Keller. She was incessed that thru her work with the blind that so many got that way because of industrial poisoning and accidents caused by wealthy business owners. Something not mentioned in most books.

Sinclair's book "The Jungle" was a favorite of mine and one that even though I support conservatives, it tempers that so I can remember how things go if conservatives get too much power.

If Sinclair was "racist" it probably had more to do with the fact many corporations bring in minorities who will work for lower wages than whites.

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