Sunday, 1 July 2012

Roosevelt and Contesting the Plutocrats

This one is going to start by sounding rather obscure but in fact goes to the way in which we properly respond to the financiers who have plunged us into the economic chaos that we are now facing simply for their own greed. Last week I was reading an article by Jonathan Raban in 'The Guardian' (24th January edition) analysing the inaugural speech by Barack Obama and comparing it with such speeches in the past. As he showed the US Presidential inaugural speeches have rather become fossilised in form and actually despite being so restrained, Obama and his primary speechwriter Jon Favreau used the speech to attack the regime of George W. Bush and try to outline a more accepting liberal USA for the future. This element of Raban's article was interesting and I have no complaint about it. Where I had more issue was with his comments on the first inaugural speech of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

Roosevelt was elected president four times, dying in 1945 shortly into his fourth term; these days US presidents are only permitted to serve two four-year terms, unless they come to office through the removal of the sitting president; Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson became president in 1963, was elected in his own right in 1964 and could have been re-elected in 1968 if he had chosen. The importance of Roosevelt's 1933 speech is that the world was in a similar position to today. The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 had helped precipitate the widespread economic collapse (though it had begun as early as 1927) especially in 1931 (when the Austrian Creditanstalt Bank collapsed and the British Labour Government also collapsed after only 2 years in office) and by 1933 was leading to the highest levels of unemployment that the world had seen. US unemployment reached 13 million people, 24.9% of the workforce in 1933; in Germany, 1933 being the year the Nazis came to power it was over 6 million unemployed, 34% of the workforce.

Thus, Roosevelt came to power as a liberal president following the conservative Herbert Hoover, at a time when the economic crisis was well underway. Thus, 1933 was not directly equivalent to 2009; we are probably in something more like 1930 now. However, both Roosevelt and Obama had to make a clear lead in terms of what they were going to do to tackle the economic problems. Obama had a lot less room for manoeuvre in what he could include in his speech though was challenging a wider range of issues that Roosevelt (for example, recent US foreign and human rights policy, as well as the economic crisis). Raban is right that Roosevelt's speech was more ground-breaking and memorable, but interestingly he also feels that it was anti-Semitic. I think Raban's analysis is lazy (something which seems rather too prevalent in 'The Guardian' newspaper recently, note my critique of John Cartwright's piece on the 20th July plot last month) and to some degree by labelling Roosevelt as having anti-Semitic tendencies (even if these inadvertent) in his speech, he undermines what attacks we might make on the plutocrats of today using Roosevelt's language.

The element of the 1933 speech which attracts Raban's criticism is the following passage. I quote more of it than Raban did/was able to:

"... Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. ..."

Now Raban feels that reference to moneychangers in the temple, taking from the incident in the Bible (Gospel of St. Matthew 21:12; Gospel of St. Mark 11:15) in which Jesus goes into the 'Temple of God' and threw out 'all that bought and sold in the temple', particularly the moneychangers and those selling doves/pigeons. The assumption of course is that the traders in the temple were Jews but neither writer suggests that this is the case. It is quite possible that a mix of people were trading in the temple, ironically in a way medieval churches in the western world were often used centuries later. Added to this, of course, at the time Jesus was breaking up this trade he was not a Christian, but a Jew. No-one was a Christian as we would define it, while Jesus was alive because what we define as Christianity was only established as a result of Jesus's death.

The central element of Christianity is Jesus's death and resurrection, so without that having happened, you could not have Christians. Thus, Jesus's actions were not someone of a different faith acting against Jews, they were the actions of a Jew acting against other people, some or many of whom were also Jews. You have to also contextualise this action in terms of 'Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s' (words from Gospel of St. Mark) which is not long after the temple incident being covered in Gospel of St. Matthew 22:21; St. Mark 12:13-17 and St. Luke 20-26. Though there is clearly discussion about what Jesus is advocating, it does seem to suggest that the holy and the profane renderings should be kept in different contexts. Jesus has not objection to their being money changers, he just does not want them (or dove/pigeon sellers) in a place which is supposed to be about the spiritual not the mundane. Like Jesus, Roosevelt argues he is seeking to 'restore the temple to its ancient truths', how can this be anti-Semitic, as it is advocating the status quo ante rather than destruction of that setting.

Raban also feels that the reference to the Book of Proverbs in Roosevelt's statement '[t]hey have no vision' (in the Hebrew text it is 29:18) is an additional element of anti-Semitism. I accept that the Book of Proverbs unlike many elements of the Old Testament does not have a perspective on things which is Jewish-centred unlike many of the other books, but the acceptance of it in the Old Testament does not suggest that there is Jewish hostility to this book nor that it is anti-Semitic in nature; it is simply that it draws on a wider range of perspectives and traditions from the Middle East of the era and as scholars note demonstrates the interaction between the Jews and other peoples notably the Greeks and the inter-change of ideas rather than any attempt to suppress them. The Book of Proverbs is not out of step with other late and Wisdom books of the Old Testament.

Thus, I find it difficult to accept Raban's assertion that Roosevelt's speech was even nodding towards anti-Semitism, because the source material was not anti-Semitic. I know presidents are sometimes misguided by their speechwriters, but even Raban has to admit, that Roosevelt's speechwriter was Raymond Moley not a noted anti-Semite and the closest Raban can find is Father Coughlin, a supporter of Roosevelt in 1932 who soon stopped supporting him when the New Deal was introduced. There is no evidence that Coughlin had any input into any of Roosevelt's speeches. Raban seems surprised that Roosevelt was seemingly spouting anti-Semitic statements and says that '[i]t's a puzzle' especially given the fact that he had Jewish friends and appointed Jews to his Cabinet and the Surpreme Court, noting names such as Felix Frankfurter, Henry Morgenthau, Abe Fortas and Louis Brandels. 

The only other explanation he can find for Roosevelt's seeming abberation in this speech is that 'genteel antisemitism was so routine that it passed unnoticed'. This could only be stated by someone with no idea of the world of 1933. Roosevelt was a far from stupid, short-sighted or naive man, he was clearly aware of the global tensions. The Nazis attitudes to anti-Semitism were well known; refugees from anti-Semitism in Germany as from Russia thirty years earlier, were already coming to the USA. In a speech as important as his first inaugural, Roosevelt did nothing without great care. Speeches in the 1930s when rallies and oration were still a core part of the political process were more examined than even today in our sound bite world. Raban confuses himself by seeing anti-Semitism in Biblical texts when it is not there. He undermines his own argument so much that it seems pointless even making it. Both he and his editor needed to think through what was being suggested before sending it to print. Such feeble analysis wastes time in what was otherwise a useful article.

Roosevelt and Moley were clever in using these references and this is an important element to note. Roosevelt used the rhetoric that would be familiar to millions of Americans. Importantly he charged the bankers not with incompetence but with immorality and that is a vital aspect that we must revive now. Roosevelt is right that the bankers had 'no vision' because they looked no wider than their personal bank balances and consequently 'the people perish'. The importance of this for what Roosevelt set out to do in the next few years was that he was arguing that these steps were not necessary simply from an economic or political ground but from a moral ground. In this way he is trying to be as bipartisan as possible as whilst Republicans might baulk at what they saw as Socialist or proto-Keynesian economics, it was harder to turn their backs on something which was a moral campaign in the interests of those who were not the 'self-seekers' but cared for 'civilization'. Roosevelt notes even among the capitalists it is the 'unscrupulous' and those with 'stubbornness' and 'incompetence' who he is taking to task, rather than seeking to overthrow capitalism as a whole. Raban has conjured up a fantasy of Roosevelt spouting 'a lightly coded message about a conspiracy of Jewish bankers' when it is nothing of the kind. It is an attack on all 'unscrupulous' bankers whichever faith they followed.

I acknowledge that some of those seeking the end or modification of capitalism in the late 19th century and early 20th century could fall into the danger of anti-Semitism, the so-called 'Socialism of Fools'. However, partly this was because genuine right-wing anti-Semites, who generally supported the reign of the rich, used 'plutocrat' as short-hand for Jew. However, the term is far broader than that and in fact in any country of the western world, the percentage of plutocrats who were also Jewish was always a small minority; Christian plutocrats always heavily out-numbered them. Thus, when we attack plutocrats today, no-one should accuse us of being anti-Islamic because the largest shareholder of Woolworths in the UK was Iranian or anti-Hindu because the owners of Corus and Jaguar Cars are Indian. 

Plutocrats come in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and religions. They are wrong and as in 1929 they, financiers rather than manufacturers in particular, have plunged the world into economic chaos because they worship no god except greed. Roosevelt was right to draw attention to the fact that when greed is unfettered and crushes so many ordinary people for the sake of piling wealth on wealth for a limited number of already wealthy people, then it is evil. It needs to be challenged in the way Jesus challenged it and to have a better society we need in Jesus's view spiritual values; in Roosevelt's view 'social values more noble than mere monetary profit'. More of us need to come forward and say the world has suffered because immoral greed was not checked. This is not anti-Jewish/Christian/Hindu/Islamic it is anti-evil.

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