Tag: Charles P. Peirce

Obama’s “Class Rage Speech” in Osawatomie

The president finally gets it:

This is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement. Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years. And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.

There’s a reason that “we are the 99%” has such resonance. Republicans, in their turn, are crying “class warfare” because it worked back in Reagan’s day–when, not coincidentally, Newt Gingrich first emerged from the back benches of the House.

Thirty years ago, millions of members of America’s working and clerking classes, buoyed by unions and the legacy of the New Deal, were naive enough to believe that they shared the same class interests as bankers and lawyers and business executives: that deregulation and privatization would benefit them no less than they did people who live off their investments; that they had more to fear from the poor than they did from the rich.

Now that the unions are busted and the housing bubble has burst, poverty itself seems like a more immediate threat. Under those circumstances, it’s a lot harder to keep up the pretense that they have a stake in the fight against capital gains taxes, that they’re losing out by not being allowed to invest their social security accounts with Merrill Lynch, and shop for their Medicare coverage on the private market. This time around nostalgic “Morning in America” commercials will only go so far.

The one thing that does stand to get real traction for the Republicans is hate–and no one knows how to wage class and culture warfare like Newt Gingrich does. As Charles P. Pierce wrote in his Esquire blog yesterday, Gingrich “has not changed, no matter how much water the princes of the Church have poured over his head. We’ve had plenty of time to get to know Newt Gingrich, and what happens if you let him anywhere near the levers of real power.” And then he offered up a few samples of Gingrich’s “transcendently, magnificently, oughta-be-career-killingly nutty” soundbites:

“I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. The only way you get change is to vote Republican. That’s the message for the last three days.”

He was referring, of course, to Susan Smith, whose stepfather Beverly Russell was a Republican fundraiser, a local organizer for the Christian Coalition–and an accused child molester.

“I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [my grandchildren are] my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”

“The secular socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.”

The New Hate indeed.

The only chance Obama has is if he can show the voting public who the real class warriors are. If Gingrich continues his rise, he just might make Obama look like Eisenhower did, when he was holding back the tides of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society in the 1950s.

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Commander Edwin J. Quinby and the Great Streetcar Conspiracy

Edwin J. Quinby

“Cranks are noble,” says Charles P. Peirce, author of Idiot America, “because cranks are independent.Their value comes when, occasionally, their lonely dissents from the commonplace affect the culture, at which point the culture moves to adopt them and their ideas come to influence the culture.”

A footnote in Jane Jacobs’ Dark Age Ahead has gotten me reading and thinking about Commander Edwin Jenyss Quinby (1895-1981). Brilliant, eccentric, and very likely a crank, Quinby was one of those rare conspiracy theorists who was right.

One of Quinby’s formative experiences, according to this on-line tribute, was seeing the visionary scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla demonstrate a remote controlled submarine in Madison Square Garden. A Marconi radio operator on a tramp steamer (and later a Commander in the Naval Reserve), Quinby would be one of the first electrical engineers hired by RCA. He went on to patent a slew of inventions himself, but his life-long passion was for railroads and trolleys. He’d scandalized his wealthy parents when he took a job as a conductor and motorman on an interurban trolley that ran between Patterson, New Jersey and Suffern, New York after graduating from college; in 1968 he published the definitive history of the line, Interurban Interlude , A History of the North Jersey Rapid System.

In the 1950s, he was instrumental in efforts to save the paddlewheel riverboat The Delta Queen; he spent the final years of his life developing a prototype for an electric car in his basement. A 1960 article in American Heritage magazine describes the remote-controlled steam-powered calliope he created for the Delta Queen. At the time, he was also developing a calliope that could be installed on a trolley car–he’d helped set up a trolley museum in Branford, Connecticut so he had access to forty of them–“a kind of ‘trolleyope,’ which will use compressed air from the brake pump (the panting organ under the floor that used to go thump-thump thump when the cars paused) to play airs on various trolley bells, horns, and whistles.” Amazon lists a quaintly-titled book he published in 1974 (out of print and unavailable) that reflects the whole range of his interests: A Few Glimpses of the Passing Scene: Involving the Strange Combination of Steam Calliopes, Steamboats, Pipe Organs, Telegraphs, Cables, Radio, Electric Railroads and Gyro Monorails .

Quinby earned his footnote status in history in 1946, when he wrote a 24- (or 26- or 37-page–different accounts provide different numbers) pamphlet, ran off dozens of copies on a mimeograph machine in his basement, and mailed it to Congressmen, mayors, and city managers across the country. “This is an urgent warning to each and every one of you,” it began, “that there is a carefully, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your most important and valuable public utilities–your Electric Railway system! Who will rebuild them for you?” Quinby was a well-known figure in the subculture of ‘juicefans’ (trolley enthusiasts). As far back as 1934, he’d founded the Electrical Railroaders’ Association, a group that, according to Colin Divall and Winstan Bond’s Suburbanizing the Masses: Public Transport and Urban Development in Historical Perspective (Ashgate, 2003), “had an explicit political agenda, not merely to preserve and publish information on electric railways, but also to lobby on their behalf wherever they were threatened.”

The threat Quinby had uncovered was a deadly one. In short, General Motors and a consortium of other large corporations, working through holding companies like National City Lines, had been buying up streetcar companies, scrapping their electric trolleys, and then locking the cities into contracts that required them to buy buses, parts and fuel from themselves. Mass Transportation magazine (which had named National City Lines’ president E. Roy Fitzgerald its Man of the Year) ridiculed Quinby and his manifesto. “Edwin J. Quinby took full advantage of the great American privilege of the free press to feed the lunatic fringe of radicals and crackpots springing up like weeds in the United States today,” Ross Schram wrote in a five-page cover article headlined “The Queer Case of Quinby.” “The document, printed on cheap paper, is natural fertilizer for suspicions, for disunity. What is the Quinby pattern? Was he used by some strange political influence?”

A year later–thanks in no small part to Quinby’s efforts–National City Lines, Inc., American City Lines, Inc., Pacific City Lines, Inc., the Standard Oil Company of California, the Federal Engineering Corporation, the Phillips Petroleum Company, the General Motors Corporation, the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company and the Mack Manufacturing Corporation were all indicted on anti-trust and conspiracy charges, along with seven executives: E. Roy Fitzgerald and Foster G. Beamsley of NCL; H.C. Grossman of General Motors; Standard Oil of California’s Henry C. Judd, L.R. Jackson of Firestone Tire & Rubber; and Frank B. Stradley and A.M. Hughes of Phillips Petroleum. They were convicted in 1949 and received slaps on the wrists. Each corporation was fined $5000; the executives were fined just $1. America’s trolleys continued their march to extinction.

Whether or not GM and its cohorts killed the trolleys by themselves or merely hastened their demise, there can be no doubt that they had spearheaded an illegal conspiracy that placed their corporate interests ahead of the public’s. Quinby’s mimeographed pamphlet might have looked and read like ravings from the fringe, but it was anything but. Just because you’re paranoid, as the saying goes, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you.

Yesterday’s New York Times reported that Bashar al- Assad “labeled pro-democracy demonstrators as either ‘duped’ or as conspirators in a plot to destroy the nation.” Syria’s unrest, the opthamologist turned dictator said, was manufactured by saboteurs who want “to fragment Syria, to bring down Syria as a nation, to enforce an Israeli agenda.” Now that’s a conspiracy theory.
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