"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, July 3, 2015

Independence Day–From Yazoo City To The American Dream

Bobby, Albert, and Frenchy had known each other from birth, delivered five miles and no more than three hours apart by the same colored woman who had delivered their mothers, friends for life who had grown up in the heat and cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta.

“We’ve got to get out of here”, said Mavis Porter, the mother of Bobby, on the porch swing overlooking the Yazoo River.  “We’ll die here long before they put us into the ground”; and the idea of moving North was hatched.

Yazoo River


Why they chose Philadelphia none of the boys could ever answer, except that Frenchy’s mother had shown him pictures of the Liberty Bell and the famous painting of the signers of the Declaration of Independence her fourth grade teacher had given her because she was her favorite student. “America is a great country”, she said, “and if you work hard and believe in God, you will reap its bounties”. 

After twenty-one years in the Delta, working in the cotton mill and living in an old sharecropper’s shack, she didn’t believe it.  Her husband, like those of her two friends, had left for Arkansas when the babies were four months old and hadn’t been heard from since; and she was left on her own in the heat and dust, picking cotton lint out of her hair, eating red beans, rice, and pork belly until she was ready to jump into the Yazoo and float down the Mississippi and out into the Gulf.

The three women never made it past Eupora when their old Ford broke an axle, and they had to take a room above the gas station.  Three squalling babies and nothing more than a table fan to move the hot air, the August light coming through the slats, and feeling the desperation of Miss Coldfield, William Faulkner’s heroine, Mavis sat like her in desperation and frustration.

Mavis had heard Faulkner read the first chapter of Absalom, Absalom at the Yazoo City public library when she was 15 and filed books and dusted Civil War memorabilia, and she never forgot it.

From a little after two o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.

She felt like Rosa Coldfield and thought she would never get out of the Delta, never escape the heat and the cotton and the poverty which her own parents who had brought with them from the Hills, hoping to cash in on King Cotton after generations of scratching the red dirt, but ending up even poorer; and this trip to Philadelphia was her last chance; but here she was in Eupora over the gas station, not more than 100 miles from Yazoo City and far from Philadelphia.

The three women had no money to head farther East, so until they did Mavis worked at the gas station frying up catfish and hush puppies for the travelers headed to Vicksburg or Tuscaloosa.  Albert’s mother offered to stay and take care of the three babies while Mavis cooked and Dolores cleaned manor houses out on the prairie.

After six months they had gotten enough money together to repair the axle on the Ford, piled the boys in the back seat and strapped their belongings on the roof like a family of Okies in the Depression headed to California, but they were headed East to Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell.

They only made it as far as Johnson City, Tennessee; but were spooked by the mountains and for the first time since leaving Yazoo City missed the wide expanses of the Delta, the acres of white cotton, and the big sky.  They each took two jobs and this time Mavis stayed at home with the boys, this time in three rooms above the railroad station.  Now it was winter, and they shivered in the cold and the dismal, grey rainy days; and began to wonder why they had ever left Mississippi.

They finally made it to Philadelphia; but by now it was January and colder than they ever imagined any place in the United States could be; but this was their destination, their final stop; and they had neither the money nor the energy to go any farther.

Needless to say, life in North Philadelphia in an illegal old law railroad flat was far worse than anyplace in the South. In the South at least people were friendly, and the heat forced people onto porches and benches by the river; but here everything was isolating, restricting, and depressing.  Days, weeks, and months passed with no respite nor hope.  They realized the folly of their dream, their ignorance, and their idealistic notions about America.

The three women were no different from the Okies who left the Dust Bowl for California, the Italians who left Sorrento with no clue about the New World except that it was America, and had to be better than the miserable peasantry of southern Italy; or even the Jews who had suffered more than anyone, herded in cattle cars to the concentration camps where they were gassed and incinerated.  Life in the Delta was nothing compared to what they endured; but it was still hard to be thankful on the coldest, greyest days of winter, in the slush and grime of city streets, and in the monotonous, backbreaking days on the factory floor.

Bobby, Frenchy, and Albert somehow made their way.  Their mothers did what they had to do – shared a bed with men, washed their dishes, ironed their shirts; but made sure the cookie jar was full.  The boys bullied, soft-soaped, and did favors; looked the other way, cached guns and dope, excelled where they could above-ground, and scrapped their way with the goombas of South Philly, the Jewish gangs in Atlantic City, and the Irish Mafia running the city.  By the time they were adults they were by no means clean, but free and clear with some left over.  They took care of their mothers, their families, and themselves.

All three boys never left Philadelphia.  They had never known the Mississippi Delta except for the tales of their mothers.  Yazoo City, Indianola, Cleveland, and Greenwood were only place names, towns where black people came from, Negroes who had bought passage on the Illinois Central and made their way to the East, and who had were as canny and tough as the Italians and Irish when it came to running their crowd.

Not many people leave the Delta.  The big landowners who are descended from the slave-owning plantation families still have status, cachet, and inherited wealth and don’t want to leave.  Poor whites can’t; and tarpaper blacks, if they didn’t catch an early ride to Chicago are still so close to bottom, are stuck in the flatlands, the bottoms, and the eddies of the Mississippi.

Those who left – or got out – never want to return. I have been asked by many a Southern refugee to the North why I would ever spend time in Mississippi.  Like my family who left the dirt-poor farms of southern Italy for the riches of America, these Mississippi expatriates want nothing more to do with red dirt, cotton, and fly paper.

Bobby, Frenchy, and Albert were different.  There was something equally American about them – a desire to go home.  Their mothers were long dead and gone when they decided to return to the Delta, to see where it all started, what made their mothers so impatient to leave, and why they were do desperately determined to go North.

By the time they left, of course, they were hardened Northerners; and more than that, city rats with city reflexes, tastes, and expectations.  Mississippi was a dreary backwater.  It was as hot as their mothers had described it, but the irremediable poverty was hidden.  There were no more sharecroppers in the cotton fields, mammies and Old Black Joes, country stores and grain silos.  Their mothers had come from a different America.  Mississippi was in many ways the Old South but they had no way of picking up on the subtleties of racial conversation, old line conservatism, or new age radicalism. 

Their children were of a third generation of Americans.  Frenchy’s boy went to Harvard.  Albert’s girl was part-owner of a vineyard in Sonoma; and Bobby’s kids had Wall Street ambitions.  For them the South meant nothing.  The Civil War, Selma and Birmingham, Faulkner and Rosa Coldfield, were of academic and indifferent interest.

Bobby Martin, now in his late seventies, reflected on upbringing, his mother’s journey east and north, and his own life. “I was shot at, beaten up, and dumped in the Passaic River”, he said. “I don’t regret it.  I did what I had to do, and so did my mother”.

America is like that.  We move without knowing where the move will lead.  We leave, resettle, and move again.  We are indeed exceptional.

Independence Day–Alexander Hamilton, Excellence, And The Role Of The Elite

Alexander Hamilton argued with Thomas Jefferson about the nature of the American democracy.  Jefferson was more generous in his appraisal of the new citizens of the Republic and wanted to ensure full representation and active engagement of all.  Hamilton was less sanguine about the ability of the masses to decide the future of the country.

It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.

The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by a change, they therefore will ever maintain good government. Can a democratic assembly, who annually revolve in the mass of the people, be supposed steadily to pursue the public good?

Alexander Hamilton


The debate resulted in compromise – lower and upper houses – but Hamilton was never convinced that the House of Representatives, made up of uneducated, unsophisticated people, would never have the intellectual experience, breadth of vision, and rational skills to be able to rule beyond their own parochial interests.

Jefferson was far more idealistic and felt that the will of the majority was greater than any individual will, and that regardless of the insufficiencies of any one member of Congress, collective decisions would always be right.

Thomas Jefferson

Many consider this era the most fractious and divisive of any in American history; but of course only a cursory look at the past shows – as Hamilton saw – that any congregation of ‘ordinary’ citizens would always be riven by dispute and characterized by venal and self-serving decisions.  In other words we are no worse off than we ever were.

Hamilton would have been appalled at the degree to which democracy has fallen into the hands of the masses.  Not only has the political process fallen into the hands of an unenlightened and gullible electorate, but the very institutions that serve to create an upper class are being criticized.  The elite universities of the Ivy League, for example, are being challenged for their exclusivity and are being pressured to become more ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’.  Until now they have held the line, arguing that they always have and always will admit only the most intelligent, talented, and gifted students.  Race, gender, and ethnicity must take a back seat to rationality, intellectual discipline, mental rigor, enterprise, and creativity.

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Under the administration of educators who subscribe to this doctrine of ‘inclusivity’, public schools have favored the least talented children.  It is the schools’ duty, they say, to raise the level of performance and attainment of those without advantage; not to promote the interest of those already benefitting from good genes, parental guidance, and wealth.

As a result, those children with talent and ambition are deterred and marginalized.  Bored by the lowest-common-denominator instruction, and forced to participate in ‘cooperative learning’ rather than accelerate at their own individual pace, these students either transfer to private schools or if their parents to not have the means, continue to languish in public schools.

Politicians are no longer chosen for their intellect and sophistication; but for their down-home simplicity.  Even those with a premier education like George W. Bush (Yale, Harvard) hide their credentials to be as honestly rough-hewn and unpretentious as their constituents in Middle America. Public speeches are simple and direct with no more oratory or literary quality than Fun with Dick and Jane.

Dick and Jane

There is increasing hostility towards ‘The One Percent’, those individuals who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth.  There is something inherently wrong in both the size of their personal fortunes and the disparity between their personal worth and those in lower percentiles.  There is a Puritanical vengeance in this criticism.  Liberal critics like Paul Stiglitz and Paul Krugman still portray the wealthy as men who have made their fortunes on the backs of the poor, modern-day Robber Barons who have raped, pillaged, and destroyed the homeland of good, honest Americans in their rise to the top. These critics are Biblical in their fiery hostility.  The wealthy are innately greedy, venal, and insensitive to the needs of those less fortunate. 

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.  The days of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie are over.  For better or worse government has assumed the role of democratic overseer; and over the last century has broken up trusts, imposed restrictive laws and taxes, and done everything in its power to rein in what it considers the excesses of the wealthy. They point to the capture and punishment of Bernie Madoff, the Enron executives, Goldman Sachs, and the Seven Dwarves of Big Tobacco as prizes in their war against privileged excess.

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Most of the ‘One Percent’ have earned their money.  Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and Steve Jobs are far from the capitalist predators of the early Twentieth Century. They are innovators – talented, ambitious men who have understood the nature of the American entrepreneurial economy.

The most virulent hostility is reserved for Wall Street, for ordinary Americans feel that the buying and selling of money is somehow immoral.  Investment bankers are not producing or growing anything but simply rearranging the capitalist furniture.  They buy Wexler Industries, gut it, fire the employees, and restructure it as subsidiary of General Foods which, after Wexler has outlived its usefulness, will let it languish, deduct its depreciation, and watch it die.  Wall Street traders buy and sell currency, stocks, and futures.  They speculate with other people’s money.  They operate in an amoral and spiritually arid world.

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This populist criticism is nothing but romantic idealism. The activities of investment bankers and Wall Street traders are what finance the American economy.  Pensions and retirement accounts are in their hands.  Loans to finance start-ups or to expand growing enterprises come from them.  Houses and cars are bought thanks to them.  Nearly every economic transaction in America has either started with or been supported by Wall Street money.

The vitriol does not stop with the professional activities of the One Percent, but their personal lifestyles.  Middle America smirks at their multi-million dollar mansions, yachts, Ferraris, summers in Rimini and winters on the slopes of Gstaad.  There is an immorality in the spending of money as well as the acquisition of it.

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The country – and the world – needs more talented, ambitious, and supremely intelligent men like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

“Amidst the oceans of enforced mediocrity in the bland, deflavorized culture of managed-by-committee corporate behemoths,” the entrepreneur Perry Metzger posted on his Google+ page, Mr. Jobs “showed that the real path to excellence was excellence — that you could do great things by, who would have imagined, being smart and having excellent taste and not ever settling for second best.” (David Streitfeld, NYT 6.12.11)

Image result for images steve jobs

As much as Bill Gates has turned his attention to the needs of the poor, he never flinched from his pursuit of capitalist greatness. He understood that he – because of his brains, upbringing, education, and natural talent – had revolutionized the American economy; and he knew that to preserve his vision and protect his legacy he would have to be ruthlessly competitive.  The growth of his fortune was commensurate with the growth of a unique capitalist enterprise.

The comment about Jobs is telling.  America must indeed be characterized as a nation adrift in an ocean of enforced mediocrity. Excellence has been devalued. The dumbing down of America seems to have no limits. Primary school children are given trophies for failure.  High schools students are moved along as long as they are not disruptive or anti-social.  Colleges and universities take any graduate with cash, loans, or federal grants.  Everyone has the right to a college education, progressives say.  It is a validation of America’s democratic, egalitarian principles; a display of American exceptionalism.  As a result young people who never should have set foot in a quadrangle are in hock for years, chattel to an exploitive system and to an irrational, idealistic dream.

Graduates of Yale and Harvard are not privileged because of entitlement, but because of native intelligence, engaged parents, and a superior secondary school education.  Thanks to large endowments, any student who has the qualifications is admitted regardless of ability to pay.  These schools are not elite, artificially privileged institutions, but meritocracies.

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Those men and women who are the CEOs of major corporations, executives in smaller enterprises, administrators of universities, top scientists and engineers, biographers and historians belong at the top; and many more would be there if the culture of excellence replaced the culture of inclusivity.

A culture of excellence is the proper environment for everyone, not just the highly talented. Instead of being praised for everything, children should be praised only if they perform well in those disciplines which are required for social and economic success – mental acuity and discipline, reason and logic, interpretation and analysis.  Schools should provide an unequivocal moral basis for right action and should rigorously discipline those students who persist in dysfunctional, anti-social behavior.  The pursuit of intellectual, academic, moral, and social excellence should be the goal; and the goal of America should be to increase the ranks of the privileged