Fist Of History

August, 2011Archive for

“In God We Trust” – a commentary grounded in history

Friday, August 26th, 2011

In 1956 the United States formally declared the national motto of this nation to be “In God We Trust” – a motto that would be stamped on currency and a motto that had appeared previously in US history, on and off, on coins.  A famous line talking about this comes from a Supreme Court ruling, the phrase “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” – from the ruling of Zorach v. Clauson (1952) by the US Supreme Court.  Today many candidates for the top office of the land are starting to argue that the United States is a “Christian Nation,” a nation founded on Christian ideals and one in which Christian morality should guide the nation’s course.  Many cite the sentence from the Supreme Court ruling above as proof the United States is a pious nation at its core – but I think people should read the whole paragraph instead:

We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe. Government may not finance religious groups nor undertake religious instruction nor blend secular and sectarian education nor use secular institutions to force one or some religion on any person. But we find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence. The government must be neutral when it comes to competition between sects. It may not thrust any sect on any person. It may not make a religious observance compulsory. It may not coerce anyone to attend church, to observe a religious holiday, or to take religious instruction. But it can close its doors or suspend its operations as to those who want to repair to their religious sanctuary for worship or instruction. No more than that is undertaken here.

I particularly like the phrase “We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary” – if anything should be the driving goal of our nation, to my eye, when it comes to religion that should be the creed of the land.  Our Founding Fathers, to use an old phrase, had many motivations driving them when they crafted the Constitution of the United States but many of them, spearheaded by Jefferson, I’m sure would have approved of that ruling by the Supreme Court.

Sources: Zorach V Clauson, 343 US 306 (1952) sourced on and

“Bitch where’s my money?” – the causes of the Great Depression in 500 words or less

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

It started in the 1920s, everyone decided they wanted to buy stuff and invest in the stock market – and banks and companies said “Sure, go for it, credit for everyone, easy terms, enjoy now, pay later, party on!”  So everyone did.  For an entire decade.  Because everyone was buying stuff companies pumped out ever increasing amounts of stuff, because they figured everyone would keep buying forever.  The stock market went up because people just bought and bought – which made ever increasing stock prices seem possible.  Things went on like that till 1929, when one day a few key people decided “I’m out now – prices are high enough.”  At which point everyone else, seeing the prices starting to fall, collectively said “SHIT!” and raced to get their money out before their stocks lost even more value.  So the entire investing population went nuts, sold rapidly, and stock prices collapsed.

When ended up with a whole bunch of people still owing the money they’d borrowed but having nothing to sell to pay their debts.  So they lost everything they had and went bust.  The problem was it wasn’t just people – everyone had jumped into it – including banks.  Banks had invested their money on the stock market or in easy loans and now these things didn’t have enough value.  So when people went to the banks to get their money out the banks couldn’t pay them and went bust.  As well everyone who had lent money went to those who owed them money and said “Bitch where’s my money?” and were told “I don’t have enough money, you can have what I’ve got in cash and stuff, first come, first paid.”  So suddenly everyone had a lot less money than they thought they had, more critically, they had a lot less real money to lend or spend – and without lending or spending the economy simply ground down.  People bought only what they needed to survive, if they could, and held what money they had because the system had seized up.

Without money flowing, without people buying anything but bare essentials, businesses had left over stuff they couldn’t sell (those lucky enough not to go broke when their creditors demanded their money.)  So these businesses stopped producing stuff and instead waited till what they had already made sold.  But since they weren’t employing anyone their unsold stuff stayed unsold or undersold.  In many cases this went on till the business ran out of money for its bare essentials spending and went broke.  If a business could stay afloat it functioned at a fraction of its former activity, people stayed unemployed, and new wealth wasn’t created or existing wealth redistributed.  It went on like this through the 1930s until the government, to fight World War II, undertook a massive infusion of new wealth into the system and a massive wealth redistribution – war buying.  At which point the Great Depression ended and the economy geared back up.

A speech from history still relevant today…

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

A few quotes that are fitting for the current mood of the nation I think, from history, first on banking:

This depression has exposed many weaknesses in our economic system.  There has been exploitation and abuse of financial power.  we will fearlessly and unremittingly reform these abuses.  I have recommended to the Congress the reform of our banking laws.  Unfortunately this legislation has not yet been enacted.  The American people must have protection from insecure banking through a stronger banking system.  They must be relieved from conditions which permit the credit machinery of the country to be made available without check for wholesale speculation in securities with ruinous consequences to millions of our citizens and to our national economy.  I have recommended to Congress methods of emergency relief to the depositors of closed banks.  For seven years I have repeatedly warned against private loans abroad for nonproductive purposes.  I shall persist in all those matters…

Second, on international politics:

The world needs peace.  It must have peace with justice.  I shall continue to serve unceasingly, with every power of mind and spirit, to explore every possible path that leads towards a world in which right triumphs over force, in which reason rules over passion, in which men and women may rear their children not to be devoured by war but to pursue in safety the nobler arts of peace.  I shall continue to build upon these designs.

But, finally, third on the character of the nation:

Today millions of our fellow countrymen are out of work.  Prices of farmers’ products are below a living standard.  Many millions more who are in business or hold employment are haunted by fears for the future.  No man with a spark of humanity can sit in my place without suffering from the picture of their anxieties and hardships before him day and night.  They would be more than human if they were not led to blame their condition upon the government in power.  I have understood their sufferings and have worked to the limits of my strength to produce action that would be of help to them.

Despite the dislocation of economic life our great tools of production and distribution are more efficient than ever before; our fabulous national resources, our farms and homes and our skill are unimpaired.  From the hard-won experience of this depression we shall build stronger methods of prevention and stronger methods of protection to our people from abuses that have become evident.  We shall march to a far greater accomplishment.

With the united effort we can and will turn the tide towards restoration of business, of employment, and of agriculture.  It does call for the utmost devotion and the utmost wisdom.  Every reserve of American courage and vision must be called upon to sustain us and to plan wisely for the future.

Through it all our first duty is to preserve unfettered that dominant American spirit which has produced our enterprise and our individual character.  That is the bedrock of the past, and it is the sole guarantee of the future.  Not regimented mechanisms but free men are our goal.  Herein is the fundamental issue.  A representative democracy, progressive and unafraid to meet its problems, but meeting them upon the foundations of experience and not upon the wave of emotion or the insensate demands of a radicalism which grasps at every opportunity to exploit the sufferings of a people.
With these courses we shall emerge from this great national strain with our American system of life and government strengthened.  Our people will be free to reassert their energy and their enterprise in a society eager to reward in full measure those whose industry serves its well-being.  Our youth will find the doors of equal opportunity still open.

The problems of the next few years are not only economic.  They are also moral and spiritual.    The present check to our material success must deeply stir our national conscience upon the purposes of life itself.  It must cause us to revalue and reshape our drift from materialism to a higher note of individual and national ideals.

Extracts from the acceptance speech of President Herbert Hoover, 11 August 1932, upon being nominated by the Republican Party for a second term as President.  These remarks were made in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Oh, and for those who might think this represents a different ideology behind the Republican party, the following quote will show some things are consistent:

Underlying every purpose is the spiritual application of moral ideals which are the fundamental basis of the happiness of a people.  this is a land of homes and of churches and schoolhouses dedicated to the sober and enduring satisfactions of family life and the rearing of children in an atmosphere of ideals and of religious faith.  Only with those ideals and those high standards can we hold society together, and only from them can government survive and business prosper.  They are the sole insurance to the safety of our children and to the continuity of the Nation.

Nothing sells your product like disasters…

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Source: Life Magazine, 1893

Text reads: “Milk train in collision; no milkman turns up; disappointed housekeepers; coffee without cream.  A petty annoyance resulting from a neglect to keep the Gail Borden Eagle Brand Condensed Milk in the house.  Order now for future exigencies from Grocer or Druggist.”

What really gets me about this is they don’t talk about the milkman being late or the delivery messed up, no, they have to go right for the most cheery kind of moment, a major train accident.  Fortunately modern ads are a little less inclined to use this tactic – although it might work for some vendors.  Imagine with me for a moment:

“Major storm flies in; Micro-burst; the UPS plane is forced to the ground; impacts passenger plane taking off; massive fireball.  The presentation didn’t make it on time.  Next time use FedEx and avoid these risks.”

More Anthropomorphic Animals

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Source: Life Magazine, 1901

Notice that not only do you have a seal dressed in a fisherman’s outfit, complete with net and waterproof hat, but he also has a long-stemmed pipe in his right flipper.  Yet it looks like it is standing on ground that might be wet from water dripping from the seal’s body.

Just when you felt safe from Beef Beverages

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Source: Life, 1901

For the record the Armour Meat Company once more with “Vigoral” – which by the way is an incredibly impressive drink in that it is both a “stimulant” but can also relieve insomnia.

Electrical Jewelry

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Text of an article found while looking for primary source information on Victorian nipple rings:

Every one is more or less acquainted with the advances made in the use of electricity, particularly in the way of lighting and as a motive power, but few would ever have suspected that it was likely to be applied to purposes of personal adornment.  Such, however, is the case, for M. Trouve has found the means of applying it in a most ingenious manner to certain articles of jewelry.  The applications of it are comparatively unlimited, but a description of a few articles will suffice to give the reader an idea of this invention.  Take, first of all, a breast-pin consisting of a death’s head enameled with movable eyes of diamonds or rubies, and the lower jaw articulated.  At the pleasure of the wearer, by means to be described presently, it can be made to roll its eyes and chatter its gumless teeth.  Another pin is surmounted by a small golden drum, on which is seated on its tail a little rabbit holding in its fore paws two drumsticks, with which it beats a tattoo when the electric current is applied.  A third is an ornament for a lady’s hair consisting of a bird covered all over with diamond points, which on completing the circuit, flutters its wings, and produces a curious effect.  One of these was made for the Princess de Metternich.  But the curious part of the invention is the battery by which these objects are put in motion.  Each of them is attached to an invisible wire, easily concealed in the garments or the hear, the other end of which is connected with a minute battery.  This apparatus is not bigger than a pencil case, and can be easily carried unseen in the waistcoat pocket.  It consists of a tube hermetically sealed containing in the upper half a pile composed of zinc and carbon inclosed (sic) in a case of hardened india-rubber (ebonite.)  The zinc and carbon only occupy the upper portion of the tube, the lower containing the exciting liquid.  So long as the tube is kept in a perpendicular position the pile is not reached by the liquid, and consequently no action takes place.  But the moment it is placed horizontally, the acid acts on the pile, and a circuit is established which sets the movable parts in action.  Thus the wearer has only to vary the position of the tube to produce the motion or stop it at pleasure.

Source: New York Times, 3 October 1879

Apparently the “M. Trouve” is Gustave Trouve – a rather brilliant French inventor alive from 1839 through 1901, whose inventions include the first outboard motor, the first electric car, and these little beauties.  Furthermore, thanks to the power of the internet, there are images of these as well!

Is that skull not amazing?  I’m tickled by this because it makes me think of Victorian-era geeks walking around with these clipped to their clothing, looking sedate, and suddenly motion and surprise from their friends when they flip it on.  Come on now – who out there would not want to wear a cool battery powered chattering skull?

Additional Sources: article on the jewels, Wikipedia entry on Gustave Trouve

A fun site to check out – Atomic Information

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Check it out – original documents from the Cold War era

Hitler is not a generic symbol for evil

Monday, August 8th, 2011

So the first time I saw this little gem of a poster it was while attending Ann Arbor’s Art Fair this year – a group of LaRouche supporters were out with fliers and several of this poster on a large scale.  I stopped to listen to them talking with several passersby, I even took a handout from their to read when I got home.  I honestly wanted to find out why they had decided on this particular visual to get people’s attention – now I understand intellectually and emotionally why they went with this image.  It links Obama to Adolph Hitler, specifically it is attempting to draw an easy mental link between Obama’s policies in office/conduct in office and the events around Adolph Hitler’s time as leader in Germany.  But it is so damn crude an attempt and really conveys a convoluted message at best – is it attempting to argue Obama is exceeding his legal authority?  Undermining the Constitution?  Engaging in campaigns of ethnic cleansing?  Reading the LaRouche website is even less helpful – the answer appears to be “sort of, maybe, he’s a bad leader, puppies.”  LaRouche has a solid system of simply putting up a wad of different conspiracy theories and seeing which ones people actually gravitate towards.  Some might argue he is attempting to understand a vast hidden picture using tiny clues he can find, in fact his website argues that often, but the above poster is apparently a visual gut punch upon which anything and everything anti-Obama can be hung.

I wrote to the LaRouche Political Action Committee basically asking them “why are you using this visual symbol”and expressing my extreme disappointment in its use.  As you can probably guess I’ve yet to receive an answer.

This bothers me, along with other casual uses of Nazi imagery, for several reasons – in this particular case mainly because it is falling into the common pattern of using Adolf Hitler as a benchmark for totalitarianism, oppression, and/or evil depending on your cause of choice.  This has become so common that people upon seeing a picture of Hitler or seeing some equated with Hitler immediately understand that Hitler equals Evil, no matter if you agree with the link or deny it Hitler has become a symbol of Bad and Evil without any further thought on the matter.  Which means Hitler the human being is lost, Hitler the leader who was a product of several repeatable cultural, psychological, and social forces is lost and instead we have Demon Hitler.  Demon Hitler, an evil abomination that did nothing but evil, was born to evil, died in evil, lived, breathed, ate, slept evil.  It is setting Hitler up as an extreme, an aberration in the human political experience, something so freakish that if we are careful we can avoid it in the future.  In the meantime Hitler remains a handy way to smear opposing thoughts and denigrate different ideas by linking them to a series of policies and events that were immoral and, for most humans, vile.  I agree, hate the policies and fear them, but don’t tie them into a neat bundle centered on the one figure.  Hitler was leader and architect of some things, and in other things undertaken by the Nazi movement, others did the planning and work and Hitler went along with it.

Hitler was human – and his humanity is something we are slowly losing from our collective human memory and turning him into a demon.  What made Hitler so terrifying was that Hitler was actually reasonable at the time – many were actually shocked at the genocidal policies undertaken by the Nazi regime.  Hitler was seen as a warmonger and an aggressor but the world did not really realize the other horrendous crimes he was undertaking at the time.  Crimes, I might add, the Nazi regime knew were unacceptable to most of humanity, including their own citizens, which is why they did actually attempt to hide these policies.  Unsuccessfully, poorly, but the attempt was made.  We won’t see another Hitler but we will have to deal with other future leaders that follow destructive, horrific, violent policies – often policies hidden behind a very reasonable mask.  In the 1930s Hitler wore the mask of being reasonable, hell in the 1930s the record shows Hitler probably was reasonable to a certain degree.  Tracing the history you can see the evolution of the Nazi regimes policies moving incrementally, gradually changing, marking the changing outlook Hitler had towards the groups he loathed living in areas under his control.

Cheap theatrics like the above turn Hitler into more symbol than actual figure, and Hitler was not a symbol.  Hitler was a real leader that real people found reasonable and desirable – his oratory and philosophy resonated with many Germans.  People genuinely believed in his movement and genuinely supported his efforts.  Not everyone, but many, and that is the lesson that should be taken from learning about Hitler.  He rose to power backed in part by popular support – genuine popular support, and he was a specific leader for Germany and German society.  We need to be on guard against threats in our own cultures that might unleash the same dark passions, and trust me, those threats will wear a mask most reasonable as well.

Historic Cartoon – Sea Puss

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Source: Life, 1901

Kind of an odd image – creepy cat staring at you that is part of a wave.  From the power of the Internet and the Free Dictionary by FarlexI found out that a “sea puss” is specifically “the seaward undercurrent created after waves have broken on the shore” – which makes this cartoon both creepy and clever in one.