Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Above: "Starving Woman," an artwork by Marjorie Eakins (1910-1974), probably created while she was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1939. According to AskArt, Eakins was born in San Francisco, went to San Francisco State College and the California School of Fine Arts (today called the San Francisco Art Institute), studied under the muralist Diego Rivera, and "During the 1930s she produced lithographs for the WPA." There's little or no information on this artwork on the Internet, so it's hard to know exactly what the artist intended. For example, what is the woman starving for? Love? Hope? Well, judging by her gaunt face, the artist probably meant "starving" in the literal sense: not enough food, malnutrition. Today, as the wealthiest Americans keeping eating up more and more of the nation's wealth, and gleefully scavenging off the financial carcasses of the lower classes, and howling for more tax cuts, food insecurity is a persistent problem in the United States - and the food that is available (i.e., affordable) to lower income groups is often very high in sugar, salt, and fat - but low in vitamins and minerals (see, e.g., "Poverty, tight budgets foster food insecurity in West Las Vegas," Las Vegas Review-Journal, October 14, 2017. Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and the Ackland Art Museum.
Above: A WPA poster promoting good nutrition. Through public information campaigns, recreation programs, surplus food distribution, garden projects, school lunches, expanded healthcare services, and more, the New Deal improved America's health and fitness. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Above: A WPA poster promoting the WPA's production of One Third of a Nation. In her 1940 book Arena, WPA Theatre Director Hallie Flanagan devotes an entire chapter to One Third of a Nation, "A play about people living in slums, about the historic development of slums and about their tragic effect on human lives" (p. 211). One Third of a Nation was perhaps the WPA's most successful theatre production (see, e.g., Susan Quinn, Furious Improvisation, 2008, pp. 225-228), but it also made enemies. Flanagan recalled one theatre owner who said, "Big money is going to fight this play... Big-monied people like landlords don't want people thinking about slum conditions" (Arena, p. 220). Image courtesy of George Mason University.
In his inaugural address to begin his second term as president, Franklin Roosevelt said: "I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day...I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children... I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished... Government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people. It can make constant progress when it keeps abreast of all the facts. It can obtain justified support and legitimate criticism when the people receive true information of all that government does... If I know aught of the will of our people, they will demand that these conditions of effective government shall be created and maintained. They will demand a nation uncorrupted by cancers of injustice..."
Roosevelt's heart was in the right place, but he was wrong about the American people demanding and maintaining good government. Through apathy, celebrity distraction, and a powerful lack of empathy, the American people have allowed their federal and state governments to be hi-jacked by the super-wealthy and their political marionettes. The government doesn't serve average Americans today - it threatens them with incarceration and poverty, places them in inescapable debt, and allows their livelihoods to be sent overseas. Today, the government doesn't tax record-breaking wealth more; instead, it places ruthless restrictions on debt relief for struggling Americans (e.g., student loan debtors and the entire territory of Puerto Rico). Today, the government doesn't ensure universal health care; instead, it allows pharmaceutical companies to overcharge and overdose us. Today, our government is not effective and just, as Roosevelt had hoped; instead, it is corrupt and foul-minded, neglecting those who are suffering and coddling those who are not.
"It is perverse and obscene. We are creating a generation of indentured people. It is mind-boggling that we would do this to a whole generation of young people."
--Daniel Austin, law professor, Northeastern University, on inescapable student loan debt ("Joe Biden Backed Bills To Make It Harder For Americans To Reduce Their Student Debt," International Business Times, September 15, 2015)
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Above: "Buried Treasure," a crayon lithograph by Mabel Dwight (1876-1955), created while she was in the WPA's Federal Art Project, 1939. According to the Brier Hill Art Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, "During the Depression, Dwight produced a series of powerful anti-fascist works and, as a participant in the Federal Arts Project, she created twenty-five lithographs dealing with social matters." Image courtesy of the General Services Administration and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Above: During the New Deal, there were several initiatives to alleviate hunger: CCC boys got three square meals a day at their barracks and work sites; the WPA served hot lunches to underprivileged children; and the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC) distributed food & food items to those in need. The U.S. Food Stamp program also had its genesis in the New Deal, managed by the FSCC. The two stamps you see here were used in that program. Image scanned from personal collection.
Thursday, October 12, 2017
Above: "At the Forest Fire," an undated painting by Sol Wilson (1896-1974). Wilson was a WPA artist, but it's not clear whether "At the Forest Fire" was funded by the WPA. It was given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the IRS and GSA, so it's possible that it was. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The many fires in northern California continue to cause havoc. About 23 people have died, and many more are injured or missing. 3,500 structures have been destroyed, and nearly 200,000 acres burned to a crisp. The property damage will be tens of billions.
Yesterday, the New York Times reported that "Almost 8,000 state and local firefighters battled the blazes, using more than 550 fire engines, 73 helicopters and more than 30 airplanes... with additional crews and 320 more fire engines en route from neighboring states and from federal agencies. But vast as the resources were, they clearly were not enough" (emphasis added).
This is a problem that has repeated itself many times over the past several years - not only in California but in many western states. Local resources are overwhelmed and have to wait for additional equipment and manpower from surrounding states to properly control the fires.
Interestingly, California (again, like many states) has had a persistent youth unemployment problem for many years (see, e.g., "Young adults: California's forgotten class," Orange County Register, April 29, 2017, "Youth unemployment in Sacramento region among highest in nation," Sacramento Business Journal, April 21, 2017, "The effect of California’s high youth unemployment on the economy," CA FWD, December 11, 2012," and "The 13 States With The Worst Youth Unemployment Problems - California," Business Insider, October 31, 2011).
Above: CCC boys in California, 1933. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
During the 1930s and 40s, the Roosevelt Administration hired about 125,000 men to plant trees, fight fires, and engage in wide-scale fire prevention projects in California, like the enormous Ponderosa Way Firebreak. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has described the CCC as the "single largest [wildfire] suppression force ever assembled in American history."
In modern times, we have been collectively brainwashed into thinking that (a) the government (i.e., We the People) can do nothing right, (b) private sector "entrepreneurs," "innovators," and money-obsessed CEOs are our job-creating heroes (pay no attention, of course, to all their job exporting & outsourcing), and (c) all unemployed people are jobless by choice, just a bunch of lazy bums. This brainwashing--along with persistent tax cuts for the rich, endless & expensive military adventures across the globe, and the immense apathy that has plagued our country for so long--are why we have no CCC today.
The failure to think ahead and plan, and the failure to learn the lessons of history, are lethal and expensive. We're seeing that today, with the lost lives, with the vast property damage, and with the danger we're placing our firefighters in by under-staffing fire prevention & response efforts.
"I have thought over and over that we should have a program of that sort [NYA, CCC] during this current period when youngsters are joining gangs and buying guns and all this sort of thing. There was nothing like that in those days. I mean, youngsters didn't feel they were totally abandoned or that nobody gave a thought to what they did with their lives... I think they were extremely valuable programs. And I think we should have them in any situation where the social condition is deteriorated."
--Anne Treadwell (Dettner), California director for the New Deal's National Youth Administration (NYA), 1935-1939, oral history interview, 1994-1995, UC Berkeley Library.
Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Holy smokes! California needs a new CCC and WPA to handle its out-of-control wildfires, not tax cuts for its wealthiest residents!
Above: The town of Coffey Park, California, after a fire recently burned it to the ground. Photo courtesy of the California Highway Patrol.
California is on fire and breathing smoke
California is ablaze - a destructive fire near Los Angeles, several lethal fires in the north, and San Franciscans coughing in between. The fires in northern California have taken at least 11 lives, forced thousands to evacuate, and hundreds more have been injured or gone missing. About 2,000 structures have been destroyed and who-knows-how-many cars have been burned into empty metal shells, left sitting on their steel wheels or brake rotors (aluminum wheels melted away). In addition to the lost lives and lost property, are lost memories: Family photos, keepsakes, collections, etc. - all burned.
We don't know yet what started all the fires (downed power lines is one potential culprit), but we do know why the fire spread so rapidly - too much wildfire fuel on the ground, not enough manpower to contain the fires earlier, and global warming. An official for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) reported "that conditions were critically dry, given the lack of moisture in the air and the buildup of grass, brush and trees. 'Combined, that’s a recipe for disaster.'" The Napa County Fire Chief noted a lack of resources, and was waiting for more firefighters to arrive from other parts of California: "As of right now, with these conditions, we can't get in front of this fire and do anything about the forward progress." Another official with Cal Fire said "the fires were probably linked to a warming climate. 'It has been hotter, it has been drier, our fire seasons have been longer, fires are burning more intensely, which is a direct correlation to the climate changing.'"
Above: Another amazing photo of the damage to Coffey Park, California, this one taken by Jim Wilson for the New York Times. See: "'Everything was incinerated': Scenes From One Community Wrecked by the Santa Rosa Fire." Photo used here for educational, non-commercial purposes.
The CCC and WPA preparation & response... that could have been
A new CCC and WPA could have helped tremendously. During the 1930s and 40s these and other New Deal agencies cleared out wildfire fuel; constructed many thousands of miles of firebreaks; provided local manpower - ready to fight fires on short notice; and planted trees where needed (trees absorb carbon dioxide, one of the main causes of global warming). As Cal Fire has noted: "Because the CCC was expected to fight forest fires, they constituted the single largest wildland suppression force ever assembled in American history" and "the CCC-WPA programs had given the State of California a physical operating plant for the California Division of Forestry to carry out its wildland fire protection mission..."
Yes, contrary to the "unemployed-are-lazy" rhetoric that right-wing talking heads spew forth everyday, unemployed Americans had a significant and positive impact on the modernization of America - not only in fire protection, but also in education, health care, infrastructure, historic preservation, and much more. Hired into the CCC, WPA, and other work relief programs, formerly-jobless Americans transformed the country like no other federal agency or private employer ever has, before or since. You won't hear about this from the corporate-controlled media, and you won't get the full story in K-12 schools or colleges (history and social studies have been pooh-poohed to make room for more STEM courses), but if you do a little research--yes, actual research, not Sean Hannity and the boob tube--you'll find it's undeniably true.
Sadly though, we're stuck in a new phase of American history, aren't we? - separate and opposite of the New Deal. Today, we address record-setting wildfires, catastrophic flooding, and continuous waves hurricanes and tropical storms with cuts to the the Forestry Service budget, repealing rules intended to fortify our infrastructure against increasingly large rain events, and pushing for massive tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. In other words, we're in the age of complete & utter stupidity, neglect, and denial - spearheaded by Republican, Tea Party, and Libertarian politicians... and the tens of millions of Americans who have gone along with it. Millions are drunk on right-wing fairy tales of mystical free markets, big bad government dragons, sword-wielding job creators, and the benevolent specter of Ayn Rand - a spirit leading us to private sector salvation on the John Galt Ranch, while also protecting us from the bureaucratic demons chasing after us with rules, regulations, and other dark magic!
The deadly price tag
Unfortunately, there's a price to be paid for losing touch with reality and being mesmerized by free market fairy tales. And that price is death & anguish (including a 100 and 98-year-old husband & wife killed in the northern California fires); hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage (think Houston and Hurricane Harvey, and Florida and Hurricane Irma); ever-rising homeowner's insurance rates (compare your bills to previous years); and growing social division and anger (many people in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands feel abandoned by the mainland after the destruction of their islands by hurricanes and the anemic federal response).
We desperately, desperately need a new and stronger New Deal. Unfortunately, if you ask the average American about it, their response would be, "The New Deal? What the hell is that? Never heard of it... don't care either. Now stop bothering me, I'm trying to keep up with the Kardashians!"
And so, we sit back and wait... hoping we're not the next victims of catastrophic apathy.
Sunday, October 8, 2017
Above: This young child is exploring the world with a WPA-provided book in Athens County, Ohio, ca. 1935-1943. WPA workers brought millions of books to millions of children - and to adults too. The WPA staffed existing libraries, built new libraries, repaired books, wrote books, transcribed books into Braille, constructed talking books, held storytelling events, and delivered books by car, by truck, and by horse. Today, however, many libraries have to beg for government support - because the political right is forever trying to take money away from the common good in order to give tax cuts to millionaires & billionaires. Which approach do you think is better for America's children? Healthy funding for libraries, or tax cuts for the rich? Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Thursday, October 5, 2017
The following lithographs were made by Harold Anchel (1912-1980), between 1935 and 1943, while he was in the WPA's art program.
Above: "Knitting." Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.