Communists, They Are Everywhere, But Sunday School Will Save Us!

I was reviewing my archival research and came across this cover from Teach (“The Sunday School Idea Magazine”).

Sunday School Communism

The rhetorical question is more than a bit silly. But J. Edgar Hoover took a break from illegally wiretapping civil rights groups to contribute an article. Hoover served up his usual strong dose of civil religion; Christianity had value because it inspired “moral idealism” in America’s youth, protecting the US against Red subversion.

What’s interesting to me about documents like this is that they show the extent to which anti-Communist rhetoric pervaded the post-World War Two cultural and political consensus. Democrats and Republicans competed to see who could be most vociferous in their condemnations of Communism. Everywhere you looked you’d see anti-Communist material, from refrigerator advertisements to graphic novels. It was so pervasive that it became kind of meaningless, just a part of the rhetorical background. (Albeit a “meaninglessness” that could bite. Just ask anybody blacklisted at the time.)

I’m not sure there’s a perfect corollary today. Maybe think of it as the mid-twentieth century version of contemporary consumer environmentalism. You’d be hard pressed to find a major American corporation today that doesn’t give at least lip service to conservation. A few years ago, Poland Spring announced thinner plastic bottles to save the earth. The bank I used to work at changed it’s slogan to “Go Green!” and instituted a cap on our monthly printing. Even oil companies pay for lavish pro-environment ad campaigns. It’s generally just posturing. They dress up moves to help the bottom line as altruism.

The major difference between then and now is that while environmental conservation has reached peak cultural consensus, it hasn’t created the kind of political consensus that backed anti-Communism during the Second Red Square. We don’t have a House Un-Environmental Activities Committee subpoenaing testimony from polluters. Oh, wait. Still, the point stands, I think.

The FCC’s New “Just and Reasonable” Standard Could Be Anything But

2000px-FCC_New_Logo.svgOn March 12 the FCC issued its 400 page ruling on net neutrality. Vox’s Timothy Lee has an excellent overview of the ruling that I’d recommend reading before you continue with my post.

I have already expressed my concerns about the relationship between net neutrality and rent seeking behavior, so I won’t rehash them now. What alarms me about the new rules is a step the FCC took that went beyond net neutrality proper. The Commission annexed for itself the general power to determine whether broadband providers’ conduct is “just and reasonable.” Even companies complying with net neutrality rules could still be investigated for violating this new standard. It works via a system of public complaints. If you (or, more likely, a major internet content provider) believe your broadband provider is being unjust or unreasonable, you can complain to the FCC. It will then consider violations of the “just and reasonable” standard on a case-by-case basis. In fact, the FCC has given no actual definition of what constitutes “just and reasonable” conduct. The Commission will make it up as it goes.

This piques my interest because I’ve spent the past few years studying the damage wrought by an equally vague FCC rule regarding radio broadcasting. In the Radio Act of 1927, which established the Federal Radio Commission, the agency was charged with assigning and renewing radio station licenses so long as they used their licenses to serve the “public interest, convenience, or necessity.” This brief, vague line opened the door to years of lawsuits and some incredible abuses of government power for partisan political purpose.

Part of the problem with the standard was that it did not define the public interest, convenience, or necessity. In the 1940s, progressives argued that commercials were not in the public interest and the FCC moved to limit the amount of airtime that stations could devote to selling King Biscuit Flour and other sponsored products. The industry rallied in opposition to the proposed rules which were promptly dropped by the FCC. In the 1950s some on the commission worried that there were too many violent Westerns being broadcast–think about the children!–and they wanted stations to air more public service time covering the news and editorializing on “controversial issues of public importance.” In 1959 these principles were codified by the FCC as the Fairness Doctrine.

The FCC had set itself up as the arbiter of the “public interest.” Opponents of the proposal argued that people could just vote with their dial in a democracy of the airwaves, but the advocates believed that the public had a bad habit of voting for things (Westerns, boo!) that were not actually in their own interest. Instead, a non-elected board of lawyers, few with communications experience, would decide what the public truly needed. I don’t have time to go into the particulars of the Fairness Doctrine here–that’s what my dissertation is for–but it did not take long for the new rules to be abused for partisan purpose.

With the advent of mass television the networks had left the expansion of radio in the hands of financially-struggling, independent stations.They were willing to take programming from whoever could pay and conservative broadcasters like Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, and Clarence Manion could pay in cash. By the early 1960s about a dozen conservative broadcasters aired on a hundred stations or more nation-wide. But unlike the networks, which could hire lawyers and former FCC commissioners by the bushel, these small stations were vulnerable. When the FCC wanted to make an example out of a station, better to go with a rinky-dink operation. Henry Geller, a former FCC counsel, once described the FCC’s informal “three outhouse” rule of thumb. If a station had more than three outhouses, it was approaching a size that made it dangerous for the FCC to mess with.

Right-wing broadcasting graduated from minor irritant to major political nuisance by the early 1960s. In particular, conservative opposition to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty undermined the Kennedy Administration’s policy program and hurt the President’s reelection prospects for 1964. So in the fall of 1963 the Administration pushed the Internal Revenue Service to audit all the major conservative programs in hopes of scaring off their donors. Furthermore, President Kennedy encouraged the newly appointed Chairman of the FCC to keep the airwaves “fair” by more tightly enforcing the Fairness Doctrine. Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, which in this instance was the Kennedy Administration, the Democratic National Committee, the United Auto Workers, and the National Council of Churches. (Again, more details in the dissertation.)

Here’s where the vagueness of the Fairness Doctrine rules came into play. Stations were told to editorialize on current events, like the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but also to give both sides a fair hearing. If they aired an attack on the Test Ban Treaty, they were obligated to air a response from supporters of the Treaty. Ostensibly the rule applied to all sides and would ensure that both liberals and conservatives got to moot their opinions. The intended goal was a government-guaranteed marketplace of ideas on the airwaves.

Yet in practice the Fairness Doctrine was exclusively targeted at conservative broadcasters. Liberal interest groups–abetted by the DNC and the Administration–would lodge a complaint with the FCC whenever a station aired a conservative program attacking a liberal group or policy. The FCC would notify these stations of the complaints and mention that they would be taken into account at the station’s next license renewal hearing. Alternatively, the stations could agree to air response programs from these liberal interest groups. But here’s the kicker…they had to do so without charging for airtime. For example, when conservative program Life Line (funded by a Texas oil millionaire) paid radio stations to air an episode criticizing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the pro-treaty Citizens Committee for a Nuclear Test Ban wrote to the station demanding free response time. The FCC backed the request–resulting in the “Cullman Doctrine”–and many stations complied. This made airing conservative programs a financial liability and all but the most ideologically-motivated station owners began dropping Right-wing programming in droves. By 1968 most conservative programs aired on a quarter or a third of the total number of stations as they had in 1963.

We know about this partisan use of the FCC in the mid-1960s because a number of the major players began to regret their actions post-Watergate. They had used the FCC to bully stations into airing less anti-Administration programming, but it didn’t take more than a few years of Nixon to realize how stifling that could be once the shoe was on the other foot. They leaked information and documents to a former CBS news executive named Fred Friendly who wrote a book on the topic. One chapter of my dissertation expands on Friendly’s story using documents from labor archives, the DNC, and the JFK Presidential Library.

Let me end by listing some of the unintended consequences of the vague “public interest, convenience, or necessity” standard of the Radio Act of 1927 and its regulatory descendant the Fairness Doctrine:

1) Major companies were generally protected from any adverse consequences because of their deep pockets.
2) The burden of compliance fell disproportionately on new, struggling independent stations.
3) The rules were hijacked to serve partisan, political ends.
4) Stations dropped voices from the political periphery.

Of course, the FCC’s “just and reasonable” standard isn’t identical to the “public interest, convenience, or necessity” standard that gave rise to the Fairness Doctrine. Still, the Commission’s poor track record in enforcing this old vague standard should give us pause about a new vague standard. If the past history of the FCC is any guide, future Commissions will interpret the “just and reasonable” standard in ways that benefit the loudest, best-connected, and most well-financed lobbying groups. Regulatory capture is the bane of administrative law and the vaguer the rules, the more opportunity there is for incumbents to shape those rules in ways that benefit established interests.

J. Roswell Flower Visits Bob Jones College

J. Roswell FlowerIn June 1946 J. Roswell Flower visited Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tennessee to receive an honorary doctorate from the institution. A year later, Bob Jones College would become Bob Jones University and move its campus to Greenville, South Carolina.

Flower was an influential voice within pentecostalism. He was one of the youngest representatives present at the formation of the Assemblies of God in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1914. He served in a variety of executive posts within the nascent denomination and played a vital role in its “evangelicalization.” During his career, the Assemblies moved away from its historic support for pacifism, softened its stance on speaking in tongues as a necessary sign of salvation, and engaged more broadly with other evangelical denominations. Indeed, the Assemblies of God was the largest denomination to join the National Association of Evangelicals in the 1940s and it saved the organization from financial collapse multiple times. Flower brought pentecostalism into the evangelical mainstream.

The choice of Flower is interesting because Bob Jones University eventually withdrew from broader evangelicalism and also became increasingly critical of pentecostalism. Take, for example, the position advocated in a 1989 book published by BJU’s press, Pentecostalism: Purity or Peril? (Hint: These kinds of books always put the correct answer second.)

But that future would’ve been unimaginable to students at Bob Jones College in the 1940s. Bob Jones Sr. was a founding member of the National Association of Evangelicals. He was even then embroiled in a competition for students with the archly-fundamentalist Wheaton College. When Wheaton President J. Oliver Buswell attacked Bob Jones College for putting on “worldly” operas and Shakespearean plays, Bob Jones Sr. responded with a ringing call for Christian liberty of conscience. A betting man would have put his money on Bob Jones College as the future flagship institution for this new form of evangelicalism. And he would’ve lost every penny.

Flower’s visit to Bob Jones College is a reminder of how fluid the state of evangelicalism was in the 1940s. The labels and lines that are familiar to contemporary evangelicals and fundamentalists would not harden for at least another decade.

In our quarterly letter dated March 1 we stated that prejudice against the Assemblies of God is melting perceptibly. It is possible to mingle with others without compromise and to gain respect for our Christian testimony. Recently, the writer had the opportunity to prove this statement. He was given the privilege of visiting Bob Jones College at Cleveland, Tenn. during its Commencement exercises. Both Bob Jones Sr. and Bob Jones Jr. were most cordial and friendly….

Bob Jones was reminded that a short time ago he had spoken in one of the Assemblies of God in Seattle, Wash…. He said that when the time came for prayer, an intelligent, cultured woman began to pray in an unknown tongue. When she had finished, a man, well dressed, intelligent, said, “I will interpret,” and immediately began to pray in English. Bob Jones said, “I have been in this way for a long time and you can’t fool me. That was of God and I knew it.” He went on to say that we may not fully understand this speaking in tongues, but when the Spirit of God moves he could recognize it….

Incidentally, about seven or eight students came to us to inform us they were Assemblies of God members. Two of them graduated with honor. I was called upon to speak in the Sunday morning Chapel service. I did not discern a particle of prejudice at any time, and the announcement was made publicly of my position in the Assemblies of God. Since my return home, I have contacted other young men and women who plan to attend Bob Jones College. I believe, from my own experience there, no attempt will be made to break down their Pentecostal testimony.

In fact, Brother J.L. Slay, a former C.B.I. student and now pastor of the Church of God in Cleveland [a Pentecostal church], told me that more students attend his church than any other church in town, and the college does not oppose them. We learned also that the Church of God Publishing House does practically all the printing for the college.

Thank you to the aptly-named Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center for the document these quotes are from. During my visit to Springfield, director Darrin Rodgers was a gracious host who even took the time to give me a tour of the facilities and showed me around town.

Christian Nationalism in Surprising Places

 

David Barton, Harold Ockenga

Photo Rights, David Barton: cwmemory.com Photo Rights, Harold Ockenga: Fuller Seminary David Allan Hubbard Library

American Christian nationalists believe that God anointed the United States of America as a spiritual successor to the Old Testament nation of Israel. America was chosen, so the story goes, because of the faith of the colonial settlers. The Puritans founded an American “city on a hill” that was tasked with an exceptional mission to shine the gospel light on the rest of the world. Then the Founding Fathers, most of whom were evangelical believers, enshrined Christian values in the Constitution. Unfortunately, later generations of Americans have fallen away from that state of grace. But should Americans repent and turn from their secular humanist ways, America might once again find itself the recipient of God’s blessing.

Christian nationalism is both theologically and historically hogwash, but it’s not my purpose in this post to specify why; better historians than I have already given it their best shots. What I do want to point out is that Christian nationalist thinking has been much more mainstream among evangelicals than is commonly portrayed in contemporary discussions about New Christian Right activists.

Take the example of Harold J. Ockenga, who is known for his role in the creation of a “new evangelicalism” during the 1940s and 1950s. Theoretically he represents a milder, less militant form of fundamentalism. Yet here is a 1943 address he gave at the founding convention of the moderate National Association of Evangelicals under the heading, “America Will Determine World Destiny” [emphases my own]:

I believe that the United States of America has been assigned a destiny comparable to that of ancient Israel which was favored, preserved, endowed, guided and used of God. Historically, God has prepared this nation with a vast and united country, with a population drawn from innumerable blood streams, with a wealth which is unequaled, with an ideological strength drawn from the traditions of classical and radical philosophy, with a government held accountable to law, as no other government except Israel has ever been, and with an enlightenment in the minds of the average citizen which is the climax of social development.

He continued later,

Apparently the last great privilege of ministering to mankind was committed to this particular nation. That is a tremendous responsibility for which we are answerable. We have the enlightenment. We have the historical tradition. We have the material means. We have the leadership. We have everything which is necessary in order to evangelize the world. Now we have entered into our maturity, and we are facing an accounting for that destiny. If America fails to discharge its responsibility darkness must ensue.

Ockenga was appealing for the creation of a united evangelical front in America. As I argue in my dissertation, this was the moment when “evangelicalism” transformed from a mere description of theology into a term of identity. Ockenga harnessed this Christian nationalist rhetoric because he believed it would unite disparate Protestant groups–including Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists among many other groups–against their common enemies (modernists, Catholics, etc). Christian nationalism has been at the heart of American evangelical identity for much longer than you may have thought.

Ockenga’s speech was transcribed in the Pentecostal Holiness Advocate, vol 27, no 3 (20 May 1943).

The Parable of the Unforgiving Prosecutor

Hear ye the word of Ben Mathis-Lilley, chapter 18, verses 23-35:

Therefore are the United States likened unto a certain attorney general, which would take account of his civil servants. And when he had begun to reckon, a St. Louis county prosecutor was brought unto him, which owed him $170,000. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, the attorney general commanded him to be fired, and his assistant prosecutors, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

The county prosecutor therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, “Attorney general have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.” Then the attorney general was moved with compassion, released him from jail, and forgave him the back taxes.

But the same prosecutor went out, and found a disabled military veteran, which owed him a $100 payment on his traffic fines; and the prosecutor had the police lay hands on him, and put him in handcuffs, saying, “Pay me that thou owest!”

And the disabled veteran fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all of the fines.” And the prosecutor would not listen, but went and cast the disabled veteran into prison, till he should pay the debt.

So when the disabled veteran’s friends saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto the attorney general all that was done. Then the attorney general, after that he had called the prosecutor, said unto him, “O thou wicked civil servant, I forgave thee all those back taxes, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on this disabled veteran, even as I had pity on thee?”

And the attorney general was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors at the Internal Revenue Service, till he should pay all that was due unto him. 

And the attorney general was wroth, and wrote a sternly worded report outlining the prosecutor’s sins and those of his fellow civil servants in St. Louis county. Little else happened, for great is the indifference of the United States.

Rent Seeking and the New Net Neutrality Rules

Net Neutrality
Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission voted to implement net neutrality rules banning internet service providers (ISPs) from privileging content from any one source over another. The worry was that ISPs would create “fast” and “slow” internet lanes based on payments from content creators. A company like Netflix might pay Comcast for priority on its broadband network, relegating competing companies to slower, stuttering service. Allowing that to happen, net neutrality advocates say, would result in a two tier access to the internet that will hurt poorer Americans, discourage internet startups, and line the pockets of already wealthy ISPs. Given how widely hated ISPs are–11 of the 15 least popular companies in America are cable or broadband providers like Comcast, Time Warner, and Charter Communications–it’s not surprising that a record 3.7 million pro-net neutrality comments were registered with the FCC in 2014.

ISPs and others opposed to net neutrality have argued that the rules will slow the expansion of faster broadband. Making broadband less profitable, the argument goes, will give companies less incentive to invest in new lines. Furthermore, opponents note that future internet innovation could very well depend on paid prioritization. For example, as telemedicine applications boom, wouldn’t you want your connection to your doctor across the country to be prioritized over someone playing Call of Duty? Lag when you’re shooting fake terrorists is less dangerous than if a doctor is controlling a distant surgical robot in a real isolated military outpost.

One of the odd aspects of the debate is how theoretical it is. The internet is one of the great technological innovation success stories of the past two decades and it became so with very little government regulation. Why, suddenly, are new rules needed now? After all, there is only a single concrete violation of net neutrality principles in recent years. In 2007 the FCC slapped Comcast’s wrist for “bandwidth throttling” when it discriminated against peer-to-peer traffic (P2P) . At the time ISPs had found that a massive proportion of bandwidth was consumed by P2P activity, between 49 and 95% depending on time of day, with most of that traffic coming from less than 1% of internet users. Heavy P2P downloaders of (mostly) illegal music, movies, porn, and games were clogging up the internet for everyone else. Comcast started throttling speed for those uber-users in order to speed up other customers who paid just as much for access. Yet net neutrality advocates worried that the action set a bad precedent. Comcast backed off under FCC pressure.

It’s a debatable issue, but what concerns me, as well as the generally pro-net neutrality Electronic Freedom Foundation, is how vague some of the new rules appear to be (the text of the new rules won’t be released for several more weeks). As the EFF put it in a letter to the FCC:

A “general conduct rule,” applied on a case-by-case basis with the only touchstone being whether a given practice “harms” consumers or edge providers, may lead to years of expensive litigation to determine the meaning of “harm” (for those who can afford to engage in it). What is worse, it could be abused by a future Commission to target legitimate practices that offer significant benefits to the public.

When the EFF refers to “those who can afford to engage in it,” its has in mind very profitable ISPs like Comcast, which had a cool $2.59 billion in income in its last reported quarter. Well-heeled companies are better able to afford to fight the rules in court as well as to cover the cost of compliance should they lose. ISPs should come through the new rules, whatever they end up being, relatively unscathed; they might not like them, but they’ll find a way to turn them to their own benefit. Regulation that preserves the status quo tends to favor incumbents and the new rules–which don’t appear to include an unbundling provision–may make it harder for new entrants to compete in the marketplace. Product differentiation, a key way for new companies to compete with incumbents, is now banned although they’ll still be able to compete on price.

Might this hurt new internet content creators as well? Imagine you’re a challenger to Netflix trying to break into the world of online video streaming. They are the 600 pound gorilla. So you make a deal with Google Fiber to allow their base level users–who pay nothing for 5 mbps download speeds–to also receive the 15 mbps speed necessary for HD streaming for no charge but only for your service. It’s a loss leader but it’s a way of trying to challenge the dominant market leader. Google wins–getting bucks from the upstart. The upstart wins–gets a shot at increasing market share. The public wins–get more free access to content. Only one person loses–Netflix.

Less you think this stranger than fiction, note that there are some past examples of cell providers trying to gain an edge over their competitors by not charging subscribers for data when they access certain websites or music services. There’s a precedent for this.

In that light, it’s no wonder that current internet companies tend to favor net neutrality. It protects them from future competitors. In other words, net neutrality isn’t just a story about little content creator Davids facing off against big ISP Goliaths. It’s also an attempt by incumbent internet content providers to protect against upstarts. Rent-seeking in all things, apparently.

Stay tuned later this week for some thoughts on how the FCC’s missteps with the Fairness Doctrine in the 1960s should give us pause over implementing net neutrality.

The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution – John W. Compton

The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution

I recently finished reading John W. Compton‘s new book The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution. Compton’s argument about nineteenth century jurisprudence is intriguing to me as a twentieth century historian because it challenges a common conservative perspective on Constitutional history. There are few phrases that the New Christian Right loathes more than “a living constitution.” America is in its current dire straits, so the story goes, because secular humanists conspired to both destroy American morals and to undermine the US Constitution. Liberals had encroached on private property, banned school prayer, enshrined abortion rights, and protected pornography. These nefarious progressives saw the Constitution as a “living document” that should be routinely updated according to changing social customs and political needs. In response, conservatives, led by US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, have rallied around the banner of “originalism”; Constitutional meaning is fixed and thus judges and legal scholars should attempt to return jurisprudence as much as possible to the original intent of the Founding Fathers.

Compton, however, turns that story on its head. He shows that the major tenets of living constitutional jurisprudence were not inventions of the Progressive Era but the result of nineteenth century evangelical activism. When contemporary evangelicals complain about the “living constitution,” they are complaining about a judicial philosophy that their ancestors did much to foment.

The Founding generation were no laissez-faire libertarians; they assumed the need for regulation of lotteries and alcohol but for the sake of public order, not the suppression of vice. During the colonial era alcohol licenses were required “not, ultimately, to minimize liquor consumption but rather to ensure that inns and taverns did not become disorderly” (44). Taxes on liquor sales were a significant source of revenue for the federal and state governments and lotteries funded most infrastructure development in the early Republic. If a town needed a new church building or bridge, the congregation or town sought permission from the state legislature to run a lottery to pay for it. Lotteries enabled the construction of infrastructure in the absence of concentrated capital and without reliance on government control.

That old attitude towards regulation changed with the rise of evangelicalism from persecuted minority in the 18th century to religious and cultural majority by the mid-nineteenth century. That rise to prominence also corresponded with a significant theological shift. The old style Calvinism–with its emphasis on human depravity–had given way to the Wesleyan pursuit of sanctified perfection. The old Anglican planters in Virginia and Puritan divines in New England believed that the presence of sin was an ever present reality on earth. This was true for individuals, yes, but for broader society as well. Thus, laws aimed at eradicating vice were a fool’s errand. The best that could be hoped for was to control vice to limit its harmful consequences, not eradicate it altogether. The Wesleyans–including not only Methodists but also many Baptists and Presbyterians–believed that sinless perfection was attainable. And what kind of man would deny the benefit of moral living to his fellow men? Surely the law could give Americans a useful little push along the road to righteousness. Furthermore, the rise of postmillennial eschatology meant that a majority of evangelicals believed that they and the government had a role to play in ushering in the millennial kingdom of God on earth. And those pearly gates didn’t need lottery funding or liquor tax revenue!

Yet evangelicals hit a major legal roadblock in the US Constitution’s guarantees of private property (touched on in six of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights). The Constitution protects life, liberty, and property which is deeply inconvenient when one is determined to rid the country of a particular kind of property. In order to get the social outcomes they desired, evangelicals had to weaken the contract clause, massively expand the definition of interstate commerce, and deny individual rights to property. And it was a roaring success. You’ll have to read the book for the dirty details.

Nineteenth century evangelicals might not have ushered in the kingdom of God, but they had given front row seating to the essentially unlimited government of the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Ironically, when nineteenth century evangelicals weakened Constitutional protections for individual property and liberty, they left their twenty-first century descendants vulnerable to a new wave of anti-vice laws. But this time around the targets are racism and homophobia rather than drinking and gambling. Oh, you think that business is your property so you can dispose of its goods and services as you will? Think again and thank your evangelical predecessors.

Meanwhile, I’ll go enjoy a nice dram of Elijah Craig, named for the eighteenth century Baptist preacher who founded an early distillery in Kentucky. Cheers to the (probably apocryphal) father of Bourbon!

Jon Stewart, Historians Will Miss You

I will miss Jon Stewart when he leaves The Daily Show after sixteen years of poking fun at the American political system. Each episode features an interview with an actor, author, or politician. While there’s only so much an interviewee can say in five or six minutes of banter with Stewart, an appearance on the show gives a significant boost to book sales.

A handful of professional historians have appeared on the show to promote their books, but most of the historical work that caught Stewart’s eye was written by journalists for trade presses. That says more about the sad state of the discipline than it does the show. The incentives in the academy push historians to craft technical works on narrow subjects for tiny audiences. We’ve ceded popular history–and even compelling narrative storytelling–to journalists and other non-specialists. That said, The Daily Show encouraged young, liberal Gen X-ers and Millennials to read more history. That’s a win in my book. Thanks, Jon Stewart.

Lyndon Johnson has Some Advice for 2016’s Presidential Hopefuls

Today we take for granted that presidential hopefuls will make a pilgrimage to Iowa. They put on dad jeans, roll up pristine shirtsleeves, and pretend to be interested in farming. Iowa’s tradition as the first state caucus on the presidential circuit only began in 1972, but playing the regular Joe in Iowa began much earlier.

In October 1964 Lyndon Baines Johnson’s internal polls showed him cruising towards a victory over surprise Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Still politicians are an insecure breed and LBJ’s aides encouraged him to do some last minute campaigning in Iowa.

Now, LBJ has a better claim to authentic everyman status than his modern-day, wannabe successors. He was raised on a hardscrabble farm in the Texas Hill Country. Still, he’d left that lifestyle behind forty years before, which made his aide’s advice for his Iowa trip as condescending as it is amusing.

The Iowans have one request to make of you for your visit next week, and I think it is politically sound, even if it sounds earthy. They want you to get some manure on your shoes. In other words, they want you to take about 30 minutes to visit a farm, have some pictures taken, look at some pigs and livestock.

So far so good, lame pun included. Nothing that a politician worth his salt (or even a North Korean dictator) isn’t already used to. Then the kicker.

Four years ago you apparently purchased a pig at an Iowa farm during the campaign. They still talk about it and this time they would like you to buy another pig, say you did so because the pig you bought four years ago was so good. This is pure corn — it’s also Iowa.

As presidential candidates start showing an untoward interest in farm equipment and livestock later this year, remember, it’s just good ol’ pure Iowa corn.

HT: John M. Bailey Papers, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut

HT: John M. Bailey Papers, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut

Woody Guthrie Turns in His Grave, or, How Jeep Sells Jeeps by the Seashore

Automobile brand Jeep paid ~$4.5 million to air a commercial during the Super Bowl yesterday. The ad, which features a montage of grand American vistas followed by landmarks from around the globe, is accompanied by two stanzas of folksinger Woody Guthrie’s classic, “This Land Was Your Land.” On the surface the connection between Jeep and Guthrie’s song makes perfect sense.

Guthrie penned the song in 1940; the first Jeep came off the line in 1941. It makes sense to pair rugged and remote locations with the message of those two verses of the song, that if you want to see the land which the Lord your God will give you was made for you and me, then drive that “ribbon of highway” in a Jeep from sea to shining sea. Jeep sells luxury vehicles to those who want to off-road in comfort. (Although I saw far more Jeeps in Philly’s urban streets than I have out here in rural Pennsylvania. Perhaps we should say it sells luxury vehicles to those who like the idea that they could off-road in comfort if they ever got a break from trading derivatives or preparing legal briefs).

Yet the pairing is completely incongruous once you look at Guthrie’s original intent with the song. Guthrie wrote it in 1940 because he was frustrated with all the airplay given to Irving Berlin’s 1938 hit “God Bless America.” Berlin, a Russian immigrant, was thankful for his adopted country and the success he had enjoyed as a songwriter in the US which would have been barred to him as a Jew in much of the rest of the world. For Berlin, America was free, fair, and God-guided.

To Guthrie, Berlin’s lyrics were naive. Guthrie was native-born in Oklahoma and the son of a moderately successful businessman and local politician. In the 1930s he became a communist (although he did not officially join the CPUSA). While Berlin saw freedom and opportunity in the American expanse, Guthrie saw its limits. He originally titled his response, “God Blessed America,” with the emphasis on the past tense. Yes, America was a beautiful gift, but a gift given to a select few.

The original six verses of the song brought the listener along with Guthrie as he traveled across the country, all the way “from California to the New York Island” (v. 1). When he looked out over the valleys (v. 2), wheat fields (v. 5), and deserts (v. 3), Guthrie realized that this land, which had been made for all, had become the preserve of the few. Verses 4 and 6 were the heart of the song. (The original title was later crossed out and the familiar phrase put in its place.)

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing–
God blessed America for me. This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people–
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me. This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie wrote the song to protest the economic inequality of American society. As a communist, he blamed that inequality on private property and believed individual ownership of the means of production had resulted in the poverty and scarcity which plagued America during the Great Depression. If God had blessed America with abundance for all, why were so many struggling without? All this wealth and land and yet people were standing in soup kitchen lines.

Guthrie died in 1967, but his song–sans verses 4 and 6–became a popular anthem in the 1960s when a variety of folk revival groups covered it, from Bob Dylan to the Kingston Trio. But by removing the politically-charged verses, the song became just another generic paean to the beauty and greatness of America. It had become the very thing it had been written to critique.

Jeep’s 2015 ad takes that defanging to an extreme. It ends with Jeep’s new slogan, the first words of which seem quite fitting: “The World is a gift.” Well, Woody wouldn’t disagree with that. Okay. But then the second half of the slogan was revealed: “Play responsibly.” Apparently, this land is a playground for those wealthy enough to afford a brand new Jeep. A song meant to critique inequality is now a celebration of privilege. And Guthrie’s rejection of private property has been turned into an ad to convince people to buy luxury cars.