Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Donald Trump's gift of silence


Henry Ford, bronze, by Hans Wollner (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

     Henry Ford had his good qualities: he revolutionized manufacturing. He was a populizer. He didn't invent the assembly line, but took the idea from the overhead trolleys carrying carcasses through the Chicago stockyards and applied it to automobiles. He didn't invent the car, but made it affordable, cutting the cost by 2/3. He paid his workers more—$5 a day, double the going rate, he said so they could afford cars themselves, but also because the assembly line work was seen as so mind-numbingly dull that he had trouble keeping workers. He didn't coin the term "mass production," but put it on the nation's lips after using it as a title for his 1926 Encyclopedia Britannica article.
     Ford tried to end World War I, chartering an ocean liner and sending it to Europe stuffed with peace activists.
     The good parts, of course, must be balanced by the bad. He blamed that war—all wars really—on the Jews. Ford was a foaming anti-Semite, his Dearborn Independent a Jew-hating rag. As bad as it is to admire Hitler, Ford was worse: Hitler admired him, and gives Ford a shout-out in Mein Kampf—the only American mentioned in the book—as the "single great man" in the United States for standing up against "the Jews." Ford also received the German Eagle, the highest Nazi honor for non-Germans, in 1938 and it was displayed for decades at his museum, Greenfield Village. I saw it there.
     Do they balance out, the good and the bad? I don't think so. It only takes a little spit to spoil the soup. Nobody cares if John Wayne Gacy was a good clown.
    However ... this is awkward, and I'm still thinking through it, so let's just explore together.
     I was researching comic strips, preparing my new book, and was looking at strips created in the Chicago area, such as "Little Orphan Annie," dreamed up 100 years ago by Harold Gray, who was living in Lombard and cartooning for the Tribune. And whenever the subject of what a huge success the strip became, it's mentioned how, in one adventure, Annie's dog is lost, causing national consternation, which is always demonstrated by the same story: a telegram from Henry Ford in Detroit pleading, "Please find Sandy for us. We are all concerned."
     Awww, right? A single resonating pluck on a heartstring. Although the "interesting if true" reflex kicks in. That does get told in a lot of legitimate histories, though I never saw a photo of the telegram, which Gray supposedly kept. It does have what I call "the tang of veracity." Anti-Semites like to speak in the third-person plural, as a kind of verbal backup, to make them seem like more of a crowd. I can't tell you how many emails from bigots begin, "We were chuckling over your 'column'..." or words to that effect. Like pufferfish trying to blow themselves up to seem more intimidating. Now that I think of it, Charles Lindbergh titled his autobiography, "We." Lindbergh was talking about himself and his Ryan airplane, "The Spirit of St. Louis." But still...
     So an anti-Semite who likes dogs. Put that in the pot. And then, in another part of the book, I reached out to the archivist at the Ford Motor Company. Companies and organizations are notoriously spotty about their own histories. Some are active and involved and interested. And some just don't care, since it's not the news they're pushing at the moment. I reached out to the National Confectioners Association, founded in Chicago in 1884, and asked about their origins. Their flack said, in essence, nobody here has any idea about the history of the organization we all work for nor are we interested in finding out. Which struck me as just so lame.
     The Ford Motor Company's archivist sent me a color photocopy of the information I was looking for, a hand-written ledger from 1903. Extraordinarily helpful of them. And while that, coupled with the possibly real telegram, doesn't of course wipe away Ford being a foul bigot who did real harm to the world, if only by serving as a beacon to Hitler, I did feel ... well ... less condemnatory about the man.
     Is that bad? Does that matter? Perhaps the key is that Ford is dead and history over and fixed, so a passing smile in his direction neither harms nor helps him. But what about more current situations?
     As the days clicked on, and January melted to February, with Trump barred from Twitter, and not constantly vomiting forth his noxious worldview on Fox News, or Newsmax, or whatever state cable channel is currently in his favor. Well, I felt ... okay, I'll say it ... grateful for his silence. Not that I now like the man, any more than I like Henry Ford. But his odiousness was mitigated, just a little, but the gift of his not spewing his self-pitying seditious BS everywhere. I appreciate it. Yes, he's scheduled to start speaking again, and will no doubt fill every corner of the media universe like a fart in a broom closet. And yes, that gratitude has a note of the pathetic, like an abuse victim happy that the beast is having a good day. But for the moment, sweet relief.
    There, I said it, deliberately on my blog, where only a few thousand people will read it, instead of the wider sweep of the newspaper. And I'm glad, in a way, because I don't want to be a hater. First, because I sincerely believe the line about hating is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. But also because if Trump is in Mar-a-Lago, stalking the halls like Richard III, face screwed up in miserable grievance, soliloquying, spittle flying off his lips, plotting revenge against Republicans who aren't sticking with him as he sails off on future treasons, I like the idea of being the exact opposite, that to decent people he is not only fading, but the stark truth about him becomes suffused with a slight rosy hue.
     Then again, I'm a nice guy—shhhh, it's a secret. I can't rightly say I hate anybody. I'm too sympathetic. I pity Trump, a poor broken kitten, and his ridiculously, eternally-duped followers, standing in the street, advertising their gullibility on banners.
     Anyway, this has gone one too long. No mas. I've got a column to write this morning. Thanks for reading.


  1. While hate is a waste of energy, we should still remain diligent against this idiot. His advisors, like Stephen Miller, are expert at riling up the fear of change that exists and turning it into hatred that makes rational people into their enemy. Hitler was deemed a clown by a lot of intelligent people who thought there wasn't a chance in hell a nation could be foolish enough to fall behind his rhetoric.

  2. I knew, or thought I knew, all about Ford's anti-Semitism, but this really jumped out at me:

    "Ford also received the German Eagle, the highest Nazi honor for non-Germans, in 1938 and it was displayed for decades at his museum, Greenfield Village."

    Whaaaaa???? You'd think that after the war started, or ended, or after Ford died (1947), he or someone close to him would have had the sense to bury that fucking thing with a shovel, and then bury the shovel. But I guess not.

    As for Trump, don't count him out. He's scheduled to make his first post-presidential appearance this weekend as the keynote speaker at CPAC, and you just know that a few minutes of basking in the crowd's adoring frenzy will strengthen his resolve to get back into politics. My fond hope is that the Republicans will tear themselves to pieces trying to suppress him.

  3. I seem to have lost my bearings to find the high road, but at least it can be pleasant on the lower path.
    OK, I'll be nice, or kind or kind of nice: Trump is like a really embarrassing itch; you want it to go away so badly yet not dwell on its absence when its gone.
    But avoid anything itchy like the devil.

  4. "As bad as it is to admire Hitler, Ford was worse: Hitler admired him, and gives Ford a shout-out in Mein Kampf—the only American mentioned in the book—as the "single great man" in the United States for standing up against the Jews."

    Wow. When Adolf Hitler admires YOU...then you really ARE a piece of shit.

    Last automaker to unionize (1941), and only after after much bloodshed and racial hatred, which helped bring about the 1943 Detroit race riots (34 dead).
    Drove his son Edsel to an early grave...literally hounded his son to death from stomachcancer.

    All those Ford jokes..."Ford...Fix Or Repair Daily."

    "Found On Road Dead..."

    And the junk man saying: "You give ME five bucks, and I'll take it away for you..."

    I did own a '66 Mustang, though...briefly.

    1. Henry Ford II was given a discharge from the Navy in WWII, specifically so he could take over Ford, because Henry Ford's violent & insane henchman, Harry Bennett was wrecking the company & Ford's production was not meeting its production requirements.
      So Henry the Deuce came in & got rid of Bennett & was able to straighten out the company for the war effort.

    2. Or backwards: Driver Returns On Foot :-D

  5. If I remember correctly, the characters in the futuristic Brave New World by Aldous Huxley conflated Ford and Freud; I think the irony was intentional.


    1. Actually, they conflated Ford and Lord. They prayed to Henry Ford as their god.

      Literally. They called him "Our Ford" and said "Ford!" as a mildly blasphemous expletive. They gathered every week to pray to him in some ceremony whose name I forget, but which is plainly intended to replace church. The idea, as I understand it, was that Ford perfected the concept of mass production, which was the basis for the Brave New World's society. (Children were conceived in vitro, en masse.)

  6. "If Blood Brother X does not believe in things of which he once have heard, this may still be put down to the psychological blockage imposed by changing circumstances. But if he doesn't believe the things he has seen, either, nor even those he has done; if he doesn't know what he is doing and promptly exonerates himself for that very reason, that points to a disposition insensible to falsehood ... he must possess some hypnotic faculty that enables him to absolve himself of the things that illusion created in the first place."

    - Karl Kraus, in Vienna writing about fascists ninety years ago. Seems timely.

    I could be wrong but I think he goes on to point out that getting mad at such a person is stupid, since no correction or training or enlightenment can possibly help that person.

  7. If this post is any indication, it would seem that you *are* "too sympathetic." This is why it's important that you, yourself, never meet *anyone*, IMHO. Your willingness to think better of people who treat you right, whatever your previous inclination toward them was, comes at the expense of the clear-eyed take-downs that you seem to enjoy crafting so much, and which are enjoyed by many.

    Because Ford's company, 74 years after his death, has a helpful archivist, you'll reconsider your attitude toward his behavior while he was alive? Frankly, I don't get it.

    As for the twice-impeached, big-time loser, he's issued at least 3 statements (I'm trying to avoid them, but people keep posting them) since he was exiled to Florida. If his "silence" is a gift, you can send the thank-you card to Twitter. Otherwise, I imagine you'd still be hearing plenty from him. And BTW, he, as of yesterday, is still claiming he won the election and "will win," whatever that means. He, mainly because of his cult, remains a clear and present danger, not somebody to be pitied at this point. Again, IMHO.

    1. No, you're absolutely right, Jakash. It's fortunate that, as it turns out, I rarely meet anybody. This is one of those subjects I've had sitting on my mind for a while, and probably never should have written, and wouldn't have. But I had to write SOMETHING and there we are.

    2. Well, that first paragraph of my comment was supposed to be kinda tongue-in-cheek, but I guess it's hard to tell. Though had you been in the habit of knocking back vodka gimlets with Bob Greene, we probably all would have missed out on some swell analysis of his columns! ; ) Anyway, I appreciate your reply, and now I feel bad about my harsh take.

  8. Not every worker at Ford earned $5 a day. You had to pass muster with Harry Bennet's Sociology Department. Agents visited homes to check on cleanliness and diet. Time of service was necessary to vest in the program. The actual wage was $2.50/day and you earned the difference only after you had jumped through all the hoops. The carrot was on a very long stick. Ford also refused to pay dividends to his original investors, forcing them to sue. While the Dodge Brothers were building chassis for the Model T and profiting from that, other investors were being stiffed by the ungrateful crank.The Model T was the big idea that covered up most of the many mistakes made by Henry Ford.


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