Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Review 379: The Ten-Cent Plague

THE TEN-CENT PLAGUE: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu. 434 pages, illustrated. Farrar, Straus, $26

Those who did not have to live through the early ‘50s can hardly imagine how stifling the state of public opinion was then, nor how terrified the population was of seeming, in even the most trivial ways, out of step. Americans were frightened of commies, sex, Joe McCarthy and ideas generally.

It was not assumed that people were loyal citizens, they had to take oaths on it (although, since it was believed that commies held oaths in no esteem, the point of the oaths was difficult to discern). Americans were not just terrified, they were confused and stupid. And proud of it. Children, as I was then, were not required to take oaths but we did have to endlessly repeat a Pledge of Allegiance. We started imprinting In God We Trust on coins, but, really, we didn’t trust anybody.

If there was any part of American life where this stultification was absent, it was the comic books. Although devoid of ideas, they were stuffed with attitude, and the common scolds who dominated American public opinion did not like it.

But, as David Hajdu reports in “The Ten-Cent Plague,”  they had a hard time doing anything about it.

The Catholic Church made a run at it around 1940, which was just six or seven years since the comic book was invented, but didn’t get far. War took people’s minds off things and, up to 1940 and beyond, the mass of public opinion was anti-Catholic and so not inclined to rally to a Catholic-led witch hunt.

“The Ten-Cent Plague” is more a joyous history of what comics were than an excoriation of the illiberal attempt to corral them. (It is also, regrettably, not nearly as carefully edited as Hajdu’s joyous history of the singer/songwriters, “Positively 4th Street.”) Hajdu cannot seem to bring himself to give more than a barebones account of the anticomics movement.

He places comics in the same milieu that formed the wet core of the Roosevelt coalition: urban, northeastern, modestly educated, largely immigrant and outsider. (That may be why I don’t remember the lurid comics that set off the schoolma’ms. Brookhaven Pharmacy in rural Georgia, where I got my fix of Scrooge McDuck on the rare occasions when I had a dime, probably didn’t carry the violent horror comics that alarmed the straitlaced; at least, I cannot recall them although there were westerns, romances and Baby Huey in abundance.)

Where comics were read, they were read in megadoses. Sales totaled around 90 million copies a month, in a population of 140 million. The core reading population, from about age 13 to early 20s (although apparently there were substantial numbers of adults readers, too) was much smaller, so the average American teen must have been buying roughly a comic a week.

Hajdu accepts without question the claim that each purchased comic was read by 6 to 10 people. Similar claims were made then by Life and ridiculed mercilessly by Walt Kelly (who developed “Pogo” in funny animal comics), so the total readership might have been 2 billion eyeballs a month. Or not.  

Some hundreds of persons fed the stream, mostly from Manhattan: writers, limners, inkers, printers, colorists etc. “The Ten-Cent Plague” concludes with a list of workers “who never again worked in comics after the purge,” 66 names to a page, and it goes on for 14 pages.

A lot of them were Jews, although there were also rugged kids from heartland America, like Jack Cole (Plastic Man), whose parents allowed him to bicycle across country from Ohio alone as a young teenager; my, how we’ve changed. When the renewed assault came, there was a strong stench of the antisemitism that still pervades American Protestantism.

The Catholic Church supported but did not try to lead the second assault on the comics. By the early ‘50s it had tied its political hopes to McCarthy and its crusade against American values to an attempt to control films. Each family in the parish was pressured to subscribe to the anticomics Our Sunday Visitor newspaper and young Catholics like me were required to promise not to watch lubricious or antinazi movies, but the priests did not make the children pledge not to read comics.

There were plenty of illiberal organizations eager to take over for the church. The Girl and Boy Scouts were prominent, and the far-right American Legion balanced its support of baseball with antipathy to the First Amendment.

The characteristic protest of the anticomics movement was the public book burning. As Hajdu shows, the book burners were frankly aware of and comfortable with its association with Naziism.

Their figleaf of respectability was provided by Fredric Wertham (by a very mild irony, an immigrant himself), who was the kind of psychiatrist who gave psychiatry its reputation for phoniness at the time.

Hajdu gives us less about Wertham than we want but the basic story is nasty enough.

Wertham’s inquiries (which were not serious enough to be called studies) were conducted on juvenile delinquents in Harlem, where he found that comics led to deviance. Given what we know about white doctors and black kids, we are entitled to doubt that the subjects were in fact antisocial.

Wertham published popular books but never attempted to get into peer-reviewed journals. To the credit of the professionals, some academic and clinical psychologists criticized Wertham’s claims in public, but they were barely heard. In the ‘50s, viewing with alarm almost guaranteed an attentive audience.

Hajdu presents the conflict as between small-town people and urban values. It does seem that the book-burnings were almost all in suburbs and tank towns, but the book-burners were supported by the big-city presses. The ur-document (aside from Wertham’s books) that all banners referred to was a series on the comics menace in the Hartford Courant. Anticomics legislation passed in two of the three biggest cities in the country, Chicago and Los Angeles (although in that era both cities were politically in the hands of rightwingers). 

And then Hajdu’s story . . . stops. One day the comics were a vital part of young America, and on the next the distributors stopped distributing, or the retailers returned bundles unopened, and all the comics publishers closed down. Except for a short interview with Robert Crumb in exile in France, nothing of consequence remained to report about. There was no fallout.

There’s another whole book’s worth of fallout. William Gaines, whose EC had printed some of the most startling of the horror comics, had been experimenting with a new kind of magazine, Mad, and when he shut down EC he continued Mad.

Kids who were fascinated by the possibilities of telling stories graphically still had a place to go, no holds barred, and Gaines did not accept advertising.

Hajdu barely mentions it, but comics were almost alone among American publications in not relying on advertising money. This is not surprising. With a readership for whom a 10-cent purchase was a big deal, comics had almost no appeal for advertisers. Gaines got by entirely on newsstand revenue and was thereby the freest editor in the nation. When he decided to editorialize against the war in Vietnam, he infected some of the most restless, creative, don’t-give-a-damn kids in America.

The rightwingers had won their battle against comics, independent thinking and free expression. Within eight years, they had lost the war. Underground comix, inspired by EC and Mad, went right for the heart of rightwing religion and illiberalism from the start, with Foolbert Sturgeon’s “Adventures of Jesus.”  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Wipe your feet here

As with so much else, the Duck Dynasty guys are unclear on the concept of doormats.
Perhaps if they wore shoes they'd understand.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Book Review 378: Clive of India

CLIVE OF INDIA, by Mark Bence-Jones. 377 pages, illustrated. Constable paperback

In 1707 the last man to control a really powerful Muslim army died. This was Aurangzeb, Great Mogul. Within 50 years, Robert Clive at the head of an absurdly small army — in modern terms, a company of Europeans and 2 battalions of sepoys — overthrew what was left of the Mogul’s empire and inaugurated the British Raj.

He didn’t mean to.

Mark Bnce-Jones’ forthrightly opinionated biography “Clive of India” describes how Clive, a young man sent out to work in the rag trade, was thrust into a fluid situation and made the most of it. His experience was slight: a few years working around Mysore, where he learned something about managing Indians, primarily the value of an imposing confidence.

He had no military training and operated entirely on the principle of overawing opponents. For that reason he avoided encounters with the French or Dutch.

Despite his genius for manipulating Indians, he knew very little about Indian customs and cared for them not at all, learning only pidgen and a bit of Tamil. No Persian, which was the language of the Muslim rulers. Bence-Jones makes the point that he had a concentrated course in dealing with the southern Indians, as a trader and by sleeping with the women, but that did not prepare him for the different culture of Bengal. Nevertheless, he managed his way through the murderous, treacherous intrigues of Bengal, Oudh and Delhi with only minor setbacks.

His guiding precept was to deal honestly with the Indians. Not fairly; at times he was brutal. But he adhered (mostly) to agreements.

The most amazing of the many amazing aspects of his short career  — only about 12 years of military and government activity in all — was that he did it while having to depend upon translators. These men seem to have been loyal and honest — more loyal and a lot more honest than some of the East India Company employees Clive had to deal with in India and back in England.

Clive outmaneuvered his English foes as adroitly as he had the Indians. He was more successful than his successor Warren Hastings though Hastings was, in Bence-Jones’ judgment (which he never hesitates to give) the better administrator.

Bence-Jones grew up in India and uses his intimate knowledge of the place to correct errors and misconceptions from library-bound historians. Clive was one of the most controversial Englishmen and remains so. Bence-Jones attempts to expunge some of the legends and outright distortions that cling to his memory among English people.

These will be obscure to American readers but Clive occupies a position in English national memory akin to that of George Custer in America’s. Everyone has absorbed a lot about the men, whether they cared or not, most of it inaccurate.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fish story

Long ago, when I was a sports reporter and editor, one of my tasks was to edit "Fins, Fur and Feathers," the local column for outdoorsmen. That wasn't the only outdoor column I handled. There was another, written by a moonlighting game warden who had taken a course called "News and Article Writing for Recreation Managers" at my alma mater, Moo U.

Moo U did not have a journalism course but it did offer two credit courses in journalism. I took the other one.

"News and Article Writing for Recreation Managers" apparently taught its students never to call a thing by its name. A fish was not a fish but "a member of the finny tribe."

Eddie, who wrote Fins, Fur and Feathers, had not attended Moo U but had picked up a similar method somewhere else. This led to some memorably awful writing. A flounder was not a fish but  a doormat. So once, when the fish-murderers had had a successful weekend pulling up large flounders, Eddie reported that "the bay was paved with monster doormats."

A pair of monsters

Eddie moonlighted, too, but he seemed to put more effort into Fins, Fur and Feathers than into his real job, which was being president of a small savings-and-loan association. Those were the days when running an S&L was not demanding work. The gummint allowed S&Ls to offer a quarter-percent higher interest on time deposits and to lend on residential mortgages.

This may seem like unnecessary gummint regulation but when the regulatory stranglehold was relaxed, the S&L business was taken over by more fearsome predators than Eddie ever encountered around Chesapeake Bay. By that time, though, Eddie and his S&L were gone.

The job may have been undemanding but it was possible to underperform.  While Eddie was out murdering ducks, his cashier, a middle-aged virgin, was performing good works with Eddie's customers' money.

In not much more than 10 years, she donated more than $2 million to her church. In those days, the cashier at a small S&L couldn't have been paid more than $20,000 a year, but the preacher and his vestrymen never stopped to wonder how the cashier -- I think her name was Evelyn -- could contribute $20,000 a month to the church.

Anyhow, that is not the only reason I am automatically skeptical when Christians offer to instruct me about morality, but it's one of them.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Are you in danger from boiler explosions?

No, obviously, at least if you live in the United States.

Boilers are my favorite example of why government regulation of business is a good idea, and with a new president and Congress coming into Washington with visceral and profoundly ignorant views about regulation, today is a good day to remind ourselves why regulations are a good idea.

Around the time of the Sultana disaster (in 1865), people were forced to come to terms with how dangerous boilers could be. The year after that explosion, the first boiler-specific boiler insurance company in the U.S., The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, was founded. At this point in history, industrial boiler explosions were taking place about once every four days, making them distinctly dangerous sources of energy.

Over the next several decades, more and more safety advocacy groups, safety-oriented legislation and testing codes were introduced, all with the goal of engineering and maintaining safer boilers. While these machines continued to malfunction on occasion, the frequency of catastrophic explosions was significantly diminished as the technology continually improved.
I doubt whether any of my readers has ever thought about boiler safety. That's because a sizable industry exists to improve and examine boilers, with the power to condemn the dangerous ones. (Some years ago the late Lahaina, Kaanapali & Pacific Railroad ordered a new steam engine which could never be used because its boiler was condemned.)

Voluntary standards were first, backed up with a form of financial coercion overseen by insurance companies; but while this was a good start, the "fireproof hotel" syndrome (about which RtO has often written) made it inadequate.

It requires the power of the state to enforce sensible behavior on businesses (for profit or otherwise).

Boilers are a poor example in one way, because they are hidden away in basements and outbuildings where no one sees or thinks about them. Comes now, however, an English engineering magazine which ran a contest for pictures of unsafe electrical installations. In poor countries these tend to be public and obvious.

There probably are regulations in most of the places where the "winning" photographs were taken (and certainly so in France, where one winner was found), but that brings up the next point: regulations have to be adequately enforced with regulators given necessary resources.

It costs money, which makes industrial regulation (and many other kinds) a First World solution to a universal problem.

Should anyone wish to dispute this analysis, here's a simple counterfactual: Describe any instance, current or historical, where a business spent money to forestall dangerous conditions before it was compelled to by government  force. (If you shop at a Lowe's or Home Depot, consider how they close off aisles where ladders are being used to restock and ask yourself, when did that start, why and have I ever seen the like at my neighborhood hardware store?)

(A list at Wikipedia, very far from complete, shows hardly any boiler explosions in the past 70 years.)

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Nixon's treachery

From the New York Times, a sketchy account of Nixon's treachery in '68, to go along with his secret plan to end the war of '72.

Presumably a fuller version will be given in author John Farrell's new book, for which this seems to be a promotion.

More interesting to me is this throwaway line, also presumably to be  expanded in the book:

 They contain other gems, like Haldeman’s notations of a promise, made by Nixon to Southern Republicans, that he would retreat on civil rights and “lay off pro-Negro crap” if elected president.

That's why voters were justified during the election of 2016 in believing that the policies of the Republican Party were antiblack. They have been consistently for the past 44 years,  a disgraceful change from the previous policy of at least the liberal wing of the party. Yes, children, there used to be liberal Republicans, as there were conservative Democrats.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

To be or not to be Putin's punk

For months, leftist vulgarians have been portraying Trump as Putin's catamite.

Tacky and over the top?Yes. Inaccurate?

The subtle Obama has set the table for the world to find out. A New York Times analysis lays out some -- but far from all -- of the background but misses the real significance of Obama's actions to expel Russian diplomats and (in a move that I believe is unprecedented since at least 1941) deny access by foreign governments to their property in the US.

Not only does Obama remind Putin of the power of the United States -- despite the braying of rightwingers about Obama's weakness, Putin has been powerless to affect the sanctions that are wrecking Russia's economy, recalling Roosevelt's executive actions that destroyed Japan's economy in '41 (see my review of "Bankrupting the Enemy," Nov. 3, 2016).

He also presents Trump with a no-win situation when he takes office.

Either Trump continues to curry favor with Putin -- in exchange for nothing for the US --by reversing the expulsions and restrictions, which Putin signaled he expects Trump to do by declining to expel a like number of Americans (a hesitancy unprecedented in modern diplomatic custom); or he does not, thus queering (so to speak) the bromance on the occasion of the first real date.

If Trump chooses the second option, then Obama has effectively narrowed the amount of damage Trump can do to our allies by waltzing with Russia. But if he chooses the first, then he confirms the notion that he is a weakling, Putin's punk.

Well played, sir!