History trips and the vanished left
Published in Intrepid Report July 23, 2014
Visiting the FDR Library and Museum is like journeying to a place where time has stopped and a world much different from the one we now inhabit exists. I hadn’t been to the FDR Presidential Library in several years and eagerly anticipated seeing the newly renovated museum at the library. Here there are no disappointments. FDR’s New Deal and progressive/left politics jump out from every nook and cranny of the exhibit, and the interactive displays of his presidency are so well done that they immediately catch museum goers’ attention and interest.
In a historical epoch when attacks against government programs are as popular in the U.S. as the proverbial cherry pie, the New Deal shows how, when a more cohesive citizenry lived, that jobs, healthcare, housing, and education were not merely ideals, but were political and moral objectives that were addressed and dealt with at the very highest level of the federal government. Here, the visitor won’t see and hear attacks against improving healthcare delivery, won’t experience the endless waves of gentrification and the housing debacle of the first decade of the 21st century, won’t be bombarded with the incessant pandering to the lowest common denominator of inadequate job opportunities, won’t be confronted with incessant attacks against public schools in the U.S., and won’t witness consigning unions to the trash bin of history.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a remarkable character on the stage of world history. Coming from old money and a pedigree that dated back to colonial times, he rose to the highest level of human aspiration in speeches and policies like his 1941 State of the Union address that has come to be known as the Four Freedoms speech. The speech was so moving that the renown painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell created the Four Freedoms paintings that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post that year and dramatically illustrate the power of the president’s reach and vision
The Four Freedoms were simple and were a natural extension of the president’s vision in social, political, economic, and religious arenas of life. They are: freedom of speech and religion (the reader might argue that the freedom of religion could also be seen as a tolerance and acceptance of those whose belief systems come from outside of religion), and freedom from want and fear. With the Great Depression still much on the minds of average Americans and the specter of world fascism, the Four Freedoms speaks directly to the hopes and fears of ordinary people.
So, why the sense of ennui in the midst of so many enduring ideals? The U.S. today is a fragmented society. There were 46.2 million people who lived at the official (and grossly underestimated) poverty level according to the 2010 Census, or 15.1 percent of the population. Millions of others live just above the poverty level and are literally one paycheck away from disaster. While religion is touted as a valued belief system in the U.S., since the 2001 terror attacks, many Muslims have not enjoyed any sense of security or belonging in this society. Freedom of speech has similarly been under attack since 2001 with masses of people subjected to surveillance. When everyone is the likely target of government spying, then both fear and the freedom of speech are diminished. Government whistleblowers are subjected to the harshest treatment as evidenced by the lengthy prison given to Chelsea Manning.
I often wonder when walking the grounds of the museum, library, and FDR’s home, and not in the sense of a hackneyed cliché, how would FDR react if he were alive today? I hardly think that he would be able to comprehend how the deterioration of U.S. society, the level of economic malaise and stagnation, and how the political system has been eroded and destroyed, since he died in April 1945.
One of the artists who worked in The New Deal was Kenneth Rexroth. In “Fish Peddler and Cobbler,” he captured the sense of the loss of hope when a social and political system becomes reactionary: “The iron fist began to close…something invisible was gone.” Indeed, something is gone and we are a society that cares little about our fellows, panders to the whims of the plutocrats, and fights endless and unnecessary wars.
Detractors will be quick to point out that FDR would have ordered that the atomic bomb be used against Japan and interred Japanese-American citizens during the war. Other liberals and left/progressives will be painted by the same giant brush stroke. They will rail at Ted Kennedy’s behavior at Chappaquiddick past any point of compassion for anyone. They will rightly point out that liberals played the Cold War card as well as conservatives and reactionary politicians did, and that Cold War card often led to useless and lethal military interventions. But, the liberal tradition was a bridge to which left/progressives could sometimes go to find common ground. The ending of the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement are all examples of how this compromise worked. It was a most imperfect political alignment, but it achieved some of its goals. The contemporary political, social, and economic system has jettisoned both the liberal and left perspective, with the neoliberal and far right now filling the gap. Some may argue that the latter took place because of the lack of resolve of a small left and liberalism in general, and the move to the right (and far right) on the part of the U.S. is undeniable. The fragmentation of society in the U.S. can even be seen in “neighborhoods,” where the self and self-indulgent individualism trumps all other values and behaviors! Greed and separation from people who are considered the “other” are of supreme importance!
When Ted Kennedy died in 2009, his niece, Caroline Kennedy, eulogized her uncle in the telling of the story of their history trips taken when she was young. The late senator embarked on these trips to instill a sense of the importance of historic sites and the history that was lived in those places. It was in that spirit that I journeyed back to the FDR Museum and Library and recount here the sense of what it feels like to be in a place that was so full of hope and national ideals in a time of great challenges. But one must ultimately leave this place and go back out into a world and nation much of which is so unfriendly and hostile to these ideals.
Howard Lisnoff is a writer. His latest novel is A Sixties’ Love Story.