Thursday, June 14, 2007

You were wondering where the American Black Legend comes from? Answer: A lot of it comes from the propaganda of the Old Left, both in its American and international versions. Yesterday, in La Vanguardia's post-mod culture supplement, one Robert Saladrigas, reviews John Steinbeck's newspaper reports on migrant workers in 1930s California, which have been translated into Spanish. along with Dorothea Lange's famous photographs.

Says Saladrigas, "...the tenant farmers who, dragged by the drought and the dusty winds, went with their families to California for the harvest and were treated like human garbage...he was the witness to absolute evil that surpasses any fiction...he saw with his own eyes the subhuman living standards and the deaths from consumption of the dispossessed in cardboard shacks...under the tyranny of police and bullies...they saw how their children literally died of hunger...a spine-chilling human landscape...the eyes of Florence (who appears in a Lange photo) are an icon of pain, impotence, and the barbarism of soulless capitalism...savage oppression by rich Americans of other, poorer Americans."

Boldface mine.

That seems a bit excessive, no? I actually know something about the Dust Bowl, since all four of my grandparents lived through it in West Texas, and I've heard hundreds of stories. They weren't rich folks, either, they were working and lower middle class, and had all grown up on farms or ranches. Times were tough and sometimes you didn't know when you'd get paid next. It was hard to get work, and if you got work it wasn't well-paid. You didn't have a lot of spending money and there wasn't always much to spend it on. Your diet was boring and your lifestyle very basic. Some people had very bad housing and clothing.

But nobody starved to death. Times were hard but not that hard. Many people have fond memories of those years, as others do of Britain during World War II, for example. Literally millions of people starved to death in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, but the American Dust Bowl gets one thousand times the attention of the Ukrainian famine, just as Joe McCarthy's nonsense (there were no executions, of course, and nobody spent more than a couple of years in jail) gets one thousand times the attention of the Stalinist purges.

Keith Windschuttle torpedoes Mr. Saladrigas's ignorance in an excellent article titled "Steinbeck's Myth of the Okies," which appeared in the New Criterion in 2002.

Says Windschuttle,

Steinbeck’s book was presented at the time as a work of history as well as fiction, and it has been accepted as such ever since. Unfortunately for the reputation of the author, however, there is now an accumulation of sufficient historical, demographic, and climatic data about the 1930s to show that almost everything about the elaborate picture created in the novel is either outright false or exaggerated beyond belief.

Just one of many good paragraphs:

This entourage (Steinbeck's Joad family) would have been demographically unusual. Rather than large families extending over several generations, the most common trekkers from the southwest to California were composed of husband, wife, and children, an average of 4.4 members. Only twenty percent of households included other relations. Most were young. Of the adults, sixty percent were less than thirty-five years old. They were also better educated than those of the same age group who stayed behind. In other words, they were typical of those who have undertaken migration in every era, whether over the Rockies or across the Atlantic: upwardly rather than downwardly mobile young people seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children.

Another one:

In the film of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s statement that people owned their land not because they had a piece of paper but because they had been born on it, worked on it, and died on it is given to the half-crazy character Muley Graves. His sentiments, and the injustice of the dispossession behind them, resonate throughout the drama. Again, however, these remarks bear very little relationship to the real farmers of Oklahoma. American rural communities have rarely been populated by the permanent, hidebound settlers that urban journalists and novelists have so condescendingly assumed. Southwestern farmers in the early twentieth century were highly mobile people who felt free to move about in search of better land or even to leave the land for opportunities in town. At the 1930 Census, forty-four percent of Oklahoma farmers and forty-seven percent of those in Arkansas said they had been on their current farms for less than two years.

And another:

Rather than a tragedy, the Okie migration was a success story by almost any measure. By 1940, well before the World War II manufacturing boom transformed the Californian economy, a substantial majority of Okies had attained the goals that had brought them west. Eighty-three percent of adult males were fully employed, a quarter in white-collar jobs and the rest evenly divided between skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled occupations. About twenty percent earned $2,000 or more a year, a sum that elevated them to middle-class status after less than five years in their new state. While their average incomes were beneath those of longer established Californian families, their earnings were significantly higher and their unemployment rate significantly lower than that of their compatriots who remained in the southwest. In short, despite the Depression, California delivered on its promise.

And his conclusion:

Rather than a proletariat who learned collectivist values during a downward spiral towards immiseration, all the historical evidence points the other way. The many sociological studies made over the last forty years confirm the same picture. In the 1940s and beyond, the migrants retained their essentially individualist cultural ethos, preserved their evangelical religion, and prospered in their new environment. In popular music, Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads proved a bigger hit with New York bohemians than with California Okies, who much preferred Gene Autry and Merle Haggard. By the 1960s, the Okies and their offspring constituted an important part of the conservative coalition that twice elected Ronald Reagan governor of California.

Game, set, and match to Windschuttle.

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