Misreading the Misreadings of History

“A majority of decent well-meaning people said there was no need to confront Hitler…. When people decided to not confront fascism, they were doing the popular thing, they were doing it for good reasons, and they were good people…but they made the wrong decision.”

Tony Blair spoke those words as UK Prime Minister in 2003. And the supposedly Hitler-like figure he alluded to was Saddam Hussein. I ran across this quote in a piece from The Wall Street Journal, “The Trouble With Hitler Analogies” by Zachary Karabell. I’d instead point out the trouble with those who feel troubled. The critic here, if he was like most in the mainstream media at the time, beat the drums for war in attacking Iraq.

That war, if you can call it that when from a safe distance the most powerful countries in the world bomb a small country to oblivion, was a war of aggression. It was illegal according to both US law and international law, whatever its legal standing may have been in the UK. Besides, the justification for the military attack on Iraq was based on a lie and everyone knew it was a lie, that is to say we have long been in a post-truth age (numerous military conflicts in US history were based on lies, from the Cold War to the Vietnam War).

Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. The only reason we could even suggest that he did was because we had sold some to him back in the 1980s. But there was no way those weapons would still work at this point, since those biological weapons had a short lifespan. Worse still, whatever horrible things Saddam did in recent years, it pales against the horrible things he did while he was our ally. He used those US biological weapons against his own people back then and the US military stood by and did nothing, the US government implicitly supporting his authoritarian actions, as has long been the established pattern of US foreign relations. Our authoritarian allies do horrific atrocities all the time, for their own purposes and sometimes on our behalf.

What makes Blair’s statement morally demented is that he was speaking as an authoritarian imperialist flexing his muscles. Hussein, as a petty tyrant, was getting uppity and needed to be put back in his place. It had nothing to do with freedom and democracy, any more than World War II was motivated by such noble ideals. The US and UK went up against the Nazis because Germany (along with Japan) was a competing empire that became a direct threat, nothing less and nothing more. Having won that global conflict, the US then became a fully global empire and the greatest authoritarian power in history. Fascism wasn’t defeated, though, as the US became even more fascist over the following generations. This had to do with political elites such as the Bush family that made its wealth in doing business with Nazis and that later helped Nazi war criminals to evade justice by working for the US government.

Here is the real problem with Hitler analogies. If Hitler were here today and he had a different name, he would either smear his opponents as being like Hitler or he would dismiss those who dared to make such comparisons. Either way, the purpose would be to muddy the water and make impossible any public discussion and moral accounting. It is interesting to note that the author of the WSJ article indirectly defends the authoritarian forces in our society by blaming those who call names:

“Contesting today’s populist strongmen doesn’t require calling them fascists, a label that often deepens the anger and alienation of their followers. The only thing worse than forgetting history is using it badly, responding to echoes of the past with actions that fuel today’s fires rather than douse them.”

Basically, don’t antagonize the authoritarians or they might get mean. Well, they’re already mean. It’s too late for that. It’s another example of someone demanding moderation in a society that has gone mad. As I often wonder, moderate toward what? If we can’t even call authoritarianism for what it is as authoritarians rise to power, then what defense is there against what is taboo to speak of? There is none. That is the point. This is how authoritarianism takes hold in a society.

But to the author, one suspects that is not necessarily a bad thing. Authoritarianism, in this worldview, might be fine as long as it is used wisely and the mob is kept in check. The only problem with the second Iraq War wasn’t that it was authoritarian but that it failed in its own stated authoritarian agenda. What can’t be mentioned is the historical analogy of Hitler also failing in his authoritarian agenda when he turned to wars of aggression in a bid to assert imperial rule. The analogy, of course, ends there for the moment. That is because, unlike Nazi Germany, 21st century America doesn’t quite have the equivalent of an opposing power also aspiring to empire. Not yet. But Russia and China, if and when World War III begins, probably will be willing to play the role.

Liberty in Spanish Florida

I was perusing books on early America. It’s one of my favorite topics, as it involves so many issues and influences. There were many interesting books I found, of course. But one in particular grabbed my attention. It is Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers. Here is the synopsis:

The first extensive study of the African American community under colonial Spanish rule, “Black Society in Spanish Florida” provides a vital counterweight to the better-known dynamics of the Anglo slave South. Jane Landers draws on a wealth of untapped primary sources, opening a new vista on the black experience in America and enriching our understanding of the powerful links between race relations and cultural custom. Blacks under Spanish rule in Florida lived not in cotton rows or tobacco patches but in a more complex and international world that linked the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and a powerful and diverse Indian hinterland. Here the Spanish Crown afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves, making the territory a prime destination for blacks fleeing Anglo plantations, while Castilian law (grounded in Roman law) provided many avenues out of slavery, which it deemed an unnatural condition. European-African unions were common and accepted in Florida, with families of African descent developing important community connections through marriage, concubinage, and godparent choices. Assisted by the corporate nature of Spanish society, Spain’s medieval tradition of integration and assimilation, and the almost constant threat to Spanish sovereignty in Florida, multiple generations of Africans leveraged linguistic, military, diplomatic, and artisanal skills into citizenship and property rights. In this remote Spanish outpost, where they could become homesteaders, property owners, and entrepreneurs, blacks enjoyed more legal and social protection than they would again until almost two hundred years of Anglo history had passed.

One part stood out to me. It is the statement that, “Here the Spanish Crown afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves, making the territory a prime destination for blacks fleeing Anglo plantations, while Castilian law (grounded in Roman law) provided many avenues out of slavery, which it deemed an unnatural condition.”

That touches upon a key difference between English and Spanish societies. It is a difference, as pointed out, that is ancient. Spanish culture and legal traditions were more influenced by the Roman Empire. England was more mixed in its influences, but a major influence was Germanic tribes. (I’ve written about this before.)

This demonstrates the power of ideas, as something beyond mere abstractions and ideals. Ideas are rooted in entire social orders and worldviews. In Germanic tribes, to have been free meant being born into and as a member of a free society. It was your birthright. Liberty in Roman society, however, wasn’t a given right for being born and so not the automatic default state.

Thinking about it that way, it seems obvious that being born free is better. But there is a dark side to this. If you aren’t born as a free member of a free society, then your freedom is as if non-existent. In Roman and Romanized societies, even if born a slave, it wasn’t necessarily a permanent state. Many regular citizens would find themselves temporarily enslaved, which was more along the lines of indentured servitude. Even a captured prisoner of war could work their way out of slavery.

The English in adopting a Germanic view of freedom also inherited the opposite side of the coin. To be a slave was a permanent condition you were born into. Even if you were enslaved as an adult, it was assumed that there was something inferior about you and your people that allowed you to be enslaved. It was conveniently ignored, of course, that Europeans were being enslaved at the same time by non-Europeans )(e.g., Arabs).

So, in Spanish Florida, an African-American would find more hope in a society more fully based on the social norm of liberty. Simply being of African ancestry wasn’t considered a mark against your inherent moral worth and character. You’d likely still experience prejudice, but it still allowed more opportunities.

This isn’t about just the past. The Anglo-Saxon view of freedom is still being used to justify prejudice and oppression of African-Americans. Every generation of racists and racialists, bigots and supremacists comes up with new rationalizations. There are new reasons that are popular today, but it is the same basic justification of racial hierarchy. Instead of being marked by God as the descendants of Cain or whatever, the permanent underclass of minorities is assumed to have inferior genetics or culture.

Many white Americans, especially right-wingers, talk about liberty. But they don’t really believe in it. Yes, in its original form, liberty did arise out of a slave society. Yet it wasn’t one of a racial hierarchy. Being enslaved didn’t inevitably imply anything about you as an individual or your people. That is different today. No matter how an African-American may struggle to get out of poverty, they can never escape their blackness and all that it symbolizes. It is a permanent yoke around their neck.

America’s Less-Than-Smartest Education System

I came across a great talk by Amanda Ripley about her book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. It is from C-SPAN in their coverage of this year’s National Book Festival (see video here).

She compares education systems in various countries. Her purpose seems to primarily be to understand the problems, challenges, and unique qualities of American education. In order to do this, she focuses on some of the best education systems in the world. It is the most intelligent and insightful analysis of education that I’ve come across. She also comes across as intellectually humble, something I always admire.

Here is a short video where she gives a brief introduction and overview:

The C-SPAN video happened to be playing on television while I was visiting my parent’s home. My mother likes C-SPAN. She was a public school teacher for her entire career. She has also been a conservative her entire life. She is critical of many things about public education, but she is still an ardent supporter of it, unlike my more libertarian father.

Amanda Ripley comes across as being somewhere on the left side of the spectrum, probably a fairly standard mainstream liberal. It was interesting that my mother agreed with everything Ripley spoke about. However, after the C-SPAN talk was over, both of my parents brought up the issue of tracking which they see as the solution. As that didn’t come up in the talk, I decided to buy the e-book and do a quick search. She does cover that issue in the book, but it isn’t what my parents would like to see. It doesn’t confirm their beliefs on this one aspect (pp. 137-138):

“Intuitively, tracking made sense. A classroom should function more efficiently if all the kids were at the same level. In reality, though, second tracks almost always came with second-rate expectations.

“Statistically speaking, tracking tended to diminish learning and boost inequality wherever it was tried. In general, the younger the tracking happened, the worse the entire country did on PISA. There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect : Once kids were labeled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down.”

Of course, it isn’t just my parents who love the idea of tracking. It is a mainstream position in the United States. Even many on the left will argue tracking is one of the answers to educational failure, although those on the right emphasize it the most. Conservatives say that some kids are just low IQ or lazy or untalented. Not all kids deserve equal education, because not all students are equal. In their minds, it would actually be unfair to treat all kids equally.

However, as this author demonstrates, it is precisely because Finland treats all students equally and gives all students equal opportunity that they have the greatest schools in the world. You go to one school in Finland and it is basically the same quality as any other. They direct their funding to where it is needed, not to where rich people send their kids to school.

No Finnish student gets permanently tracked, not even special education students, for in Finland they assume special education is a temporary condition. They have high expectations of all students and so all students improve, unlike in the US. Americans don’t realize how highly unusual is our version of tracking (pp. 138-139):

“When most people thought of tracking, they thought of places like Germany or Austria, where students were siphoned off to separate schools depending on their aspirations. Tracking took different forms in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Norway, and Sweden. But that didn’t mean it was less powerful.

“Tracking in elementary school was a uniquely American policy. The sorting began at a very young age, and it came in the form of magnet schools, honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate programs. In fact, the United States was one of the few countries where schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track. In other countries , including Germany and Singapore, all kids were meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just went deeper into the material.

“Meanwhile, the enduring segregation of U.S. schools by race and income created another de facto tracking system, in which minority and low-income kids were far more likely to attend inferior schools with fewer Advanced Placement classes and less experienced teachers.”

There are many things that are fundamentally different about the U.S. education system, like so much else in this country. The author notes that the American obsession about extracurricular activities is one of the most unusual aspects.

Americans are obsessed about school more than are the Finnish, but there is a disconnect in this obsession. U.S. teachers give more homework, for example, and yet in Finland students get higher quality homework that demands more challenging independent thought. Finnish schools are laidback by American standards and parents are almost entirely uninvolved, but what they do is heavily invest in quality everything, especially teachers (who get their teacher training in the Finnish equivalent of U.S. Ivy League colleges). They don’t waste their time and money on keeping students entertained with sports, clubs, and other activities.

In most countries in the world, children simply go to school to learn and nothing else. Foreign students who come to the U.S. observe how easy is education here. And U.S. students that travel to the countries with better education systems observe that the students there take education more seriously.

The U.S. is atypical partly because of its dark history of racial segregation. Obviously, this plays into the dysfunctional tracking system that directs most resources to certain students. This leaves a substandard education for the rest of the students, mostly poor and minority. Tracking directly fits into a system of social hierarchy and social control. Those put on the lower track have little expectations placed upon them, or rather a great many negative expectations forced upon them.

Low expectations goes hand in hand with lowered standards and results. This isn’t surprising for anyone who knows about the research on the power of expectations, from the Rosenthal-Pygmalion Effect to Stereotype Threat. Tracking institutionalizes some of the worst aspects of our society, but it isn’t just about the failure of American society. Tracking, generally speaking, is just a bad system in any society.

Lessening the emphasis on tracking has been a wild success in countries all around the world. Americans should take note (pp. 139-140):

“By the early twenty-first century, many countries were slowly, haltingly, delaying tracking. When they did so, all kids tended to do better. In most Polish schools, tracking occurred at age sixteen. At Tom’s school in Wrocław, the sorting had already happened; only a third to half of the students who applied were accepted. Tom only saw the vocational kids when he came to gym class. They left as his class arrived.

“Finland tracked kids, too. As in Poland, the division happened later, at age sixteen, the consequence of forty years of reforms, each round of which had delayed tracking a little longer. Until students reached age sixteen, though, Finnish schools followed a strict ethic of equity. Teachers could not, as a rule, hold kids back or promote them when they weren’t ready. That left only one option: All kids had to learn. To make this possible, Finland’s education system funneled money toward kids who needed help. As soon as young kids showed signs of slipping, teachers descended upon them like a pit crew before they fell further behind. About a third of kids got special help during their first nine years of school. Only 2 percent repeated a grade in Finnish primary school (compared to 11 percent in the United States, which was above average for the developed world).

“Once it happened, tracking was less of a stigma in Finland. The government gave vocational high schools extra money, and in many towns, they were as prestigious as the academic programs. In fact, the more remote or disadvantaged the school, the more money it got. This balance was just as important as delaying tracking; once students got channeled into a vocational track, it had to lead somewhere. Not all kids had to go to college, but they all had to learn useful skills.

“In Finland and all the top countries, spending on education was tied to need, which was only logical. The worse off the students, the more money their school got. In Pennsylvania, Tom’s home state, the opposite was true. The poorest school districts spent 20 percent less per student, around $ 9,000 compared to around $ 11,000 in the richest school districts.”

Other countries came to realize tracking was ineffective, and so they changed their methods. For Americans, it has been just more cowbell (p. 140):

“That backward math was one of the most obvious differences between the United States and other countries. In almost every other developed country, the schools with the poorest students had more teachers per student; the opposite was true in only four countries: the United States, Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey, where the poorest schools had fewer teachers per student.

“It was a striking difference, and it related to rigor. In countries where people agreed that school was serious, it had to be serious for everyone. If rigor was a prerequisite for success in life, then it had to be applied evenly. Equity— a core value of fairness, backed up by money and institutionalized by delayed tracking— was a telltale sign of rigor.”

Many Americans, especially on the right, would argue these countries are successful because they are small and homogenous. They think that the main problem is that we have a large bureaucratic government that is trying to enforce a one-size-fits-all solution onto a diverse population. That of course misses the entire point of tracking. The U.S. has one of the least one-size-fits-all solutions in the world. Even ignoring that, can U.S. education problems be blamed on the government and on diversity?

To answer that question, I would put it into the context of what Ripley has to say about Singapore (pp. 160-161):

“In Singapore, the opposite happened. There, the population was also diverse, about 77 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay, 8 percent Indian, and 1.5 percent other. People spoke Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil and followed five different faiths (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism). Yet Singaporeans scored at the top of the world on PISA, right beside Finland and Korea. There was virtually no gap in scores between immigrant and native-born students.

“Of course , Singapore was essentially another planet compared to most countries. It was ruled by an authoritarian regime with an unusually high-performing bureaucracy. The government controlled most of the rigor variables, from the caliber of teacher recruits to the mix of ethnicities in housing developments. Singapore did not have the kind of extreme segregation that existed in the United States, because policy makers had forbidden it.”

I doubt I’d want to live in Singapore, but it offers an interesting example. One of the points the author makes is that there are different ways to get high education results.

To Americans, Singapore seems authoritarian and dystopian. They have a highly centralized and powerful bureaucratic government. They don’t even have the benefit of a homogenous society.

That is everything that right-wingers use to rationalize America’s failing schools. And yet in Singapore it is the precise recipe for educational success.

It isn’t just about a few exceptional countries like Singapore. Diversity isn’t just that big of an issue. There are a high number of highly homogenous countries (homogenous in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc) that are extremely poor, have high rates of social problems, and measure low in their education systems. Sure, systems that work best in diverse societies likely will be different than what works in homogenous societies, but the basic point is that there are ways that both types of societies can attain very high standards of education.

Besides, even breaking down the U.S. education system into homogenous and diverse states still doesn’t explain this country’s low ranking in the world. Even many highly homogenous states (almost entirely white in some cases) don’t necessarily get all that great of results. She mentioned one state (one of the Northeastern states, as I recall) that had about average or slightly below average rankings in international comparisons. Even looking back at the supposed golden age of education during the low immigration mid-20th century doesn’t offer much solace. The U.S. never has had a top ranked grade school education system.

Diversity can’t be used as an excuse (p. 17):

“Other Americans defended their system, blaming the diversity of their students for lackluster results . In his meticulous way, Schleicher responded with data: Immigrants could not be blamed for America’s poor showing. The country would have had the same ranking if their scores were ignored. In fact, worldwide, the share of immigrant children explained only 3 percent of the variance between countries.”

Also, it can’t be blamed on poverty, typically associated with immigrants and minorities. Nor can it be blamed on the public schools where immigrants and minorities are concentrated. Ripley makes this very clear (p. 17):

“A student’s race and family income mattered, but how much such things mattered varied wildly from country to country . Rich parents did not always presage high scores, and poor parents did not always presage low scores. American kids at private school tended to perform better, but not any better than similarly privileged kids who went to public school. Private school did not, statistically speaking, add much value.”

It isn’t a matter of whether or not a country has a diverse population or not, but what one does with the population one has. This relates to spending. More funding of education in itself doesn’t correlate to better results. Instead, it is about how that money is used and if it is used equitably to help all students (p. 160):

“The rest depended on what countries did with the children they had. In the United States, the practice of funding schools based on local property taxes motivated families to move into the most affluent neighborhoods they could afford, in effect buying their way into good schools. The system encouraged segregation.

“Since black, Hispanic, and immigrant kids tended to come from less affluent families , they usually ended up in underresourced schools with more kids like them. Between 1998 and 2010, poor American students had become more concentrated in schools with other poor students.

“The biggest problem with this kind of diversity is that it wasn’t actually diverse. Most white kids had majority white classmates. Black and Hispanic students, meanwhile, were more likely to attend majority black or Hispanic schools in 2005 than they were in 1980.

“Populating schools with mostly low-income, Hispanic, or African-American students usually meant compounding low scores, unstable home lives, and low expectations. Kids fed off each other, a dynamic that could work for good and for ill. In Poland, kids lost their edge as soon as they were tracked into vocational schools; likewise, there seemed to be a tipping point for expectations in the United States. On average, schools with mostly low- income kids systematically lacked the symptoms of rigor. They had inconsistent teaching quality, little autonomy for teachers or teenagers, low levels of academic drive, and less equity. By warehousing disadvantaged kids in the same schools, the United States took hard problems and made them harder.”

Once again, dysfunctional tracking in the U.S. is rooted in a history of systemic and institutional racism. Kids are tracked both in the formal and informal sense. Race and class segregation divide up students, and most of the funding is going to wealthier students and white students. It isn’t necessarily that all that extra funding is being used well by those wealthier school districts, but that the poorest school districts have so little money to use for anything, whether used well or badly. Too much funding isn’t necessarily helpful. Too little funding, however, is obviously problematic.

The discussion in America tends to focus only on the average amount of funding for each American child, all the while ignoring the vast disparity of funding between populations. This is how serious attention on the real issues gets avoided. No one wants to talk about the elephant in the room, the historical inequalities that are continually reinforced, not just inequalities between wealth and poverty but inequalities of political power and real world opportunities, inequalities of racial prejudice and privilege. These are among the most politically incorrect issues in this country.

As all of this shows, there is more going on here than can be understood in the ideological frame of mainstream American politics (pp. 163-164):

“The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to think that the diversity narrative in the United States— the one that blamed our mediocrity on kids’ backgrounds and neighborhoods— was as toxic as funding inequities . There was a fatalism to the story line, which didn’t mean it was wrong. The United States did have too much poverty; minority students were not learning enough. Parents did matter, and so did health care and nutrition. Obviously.

“But the narrative also underwrote low aspirations, shaping the way teachers looked at their students, just as Vuorinen feared. Since the 1960s, studies have shown that if researchers tested a class and told teachers that certain students would thrive academically in the coming months, teachers behaved differently toward the chosen kids. They nodded more, smiled more, and gave those kids more time to answer questions and more specific feedback.

“In fact, the kids had been chosen at random. The label was fictional, but it stuck. At the end of the school year, teachers still described those students as more interesting, better adjusted, and more likely to be successful in life. As for other kids who had done well in the classroom, but were not chosen? The same teachers described them as less likely to succeed and less likable. The human brain depends on labels and patterns; if a researcher (or cultural narrative) offers teachers a compelling pattern, they will tend to defer to it.

“What did it mean, then, that respected U.S. education leaders and professors in teacher colleges were indoctrinating young teachers with the mindset that poverty trumped everything else? What did it mean if teachers were led to believe that they could only be expected to do so much, and that poverty was usually destiny?

“It may be human nature to stereotype, but some countries systematically reinforced the instinct, and some countries inhibited it. It was becoming obvious to me that rigor couldn’t exist without equity. Equity was not just a matter of tracking and budgets; it was a mindset.

“Interestingly, this mindset extended to special education in Finland, too. Teachers considered most special ed students to have temporary learning difficulties, rather than permanent disabilities. That mindset helped explain why Finland had one of the highest proportions of special education kids in the world; the label was temporary and not pejorative. The Finns assumed that all kids could improve. In fact, by their seventeenth birthday, about half of Finnish kids had received some kind of special education services at some point, usually in elementary school, so that they did not fall farther behind. During the 2009 to 2010 school year, about one in four Finnish kids received some kind of special education services—almost always in a normal school, for only part of the day. (By comparison, about one in eight American students received special education services that year.)”

This isn’t something unique to particular societies. It isn’t as if we must resign ourselves to a lesser fate in the global scheme of things. There is evidence that high education standards can even be achieved demographically diverse groups of students in the United States (p. 218):

“Unlike most schools in America, including the best public charter schools, these new schools were actually diverse, in the literal sense. Moskowitz wanted a true mix of white, Asian, African-American , and Hispanic students at a range of income levels, and she got it. That is how kids learn best— together, with a mix of expectations, advantages, and complications— according to the hard-earned lessons of countries around the world.

“There are stories like this all over the country: Success Academy charter schools in New York City, the closest thing to Finland in the United States; William Taylor, a public-school teacher who has almost Korean expectations for his low-income students in Washington, D.C.; and Deborah Gist in Rhode Island, a leader who has dared to raise the bar for what teachers must know, just like reformers in Finland and Korea.

“These world-class educators exist, but they are fighting against the grain of culture and institutions. That fight drains them of energy and time . If they ever win, it will be because parents and students rose up around them, convinced that our children cannot only handle a rigorous education but that they crave it as never before.”

It isn’t just that we Americans have low expectations of American students, especially poor and minority students. The real problem is we have low expectations for our entire society. We expect failure at a collective level, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Italians, Homelessness, and Kinship

“Why Do Most Italian Youths Live With Their Parents?”

“While Italian parents seem to be happier when they live with their children, the opposite seems to be true for parents in the U.S., U.K., and Germany”

This seems directly related to something else I came across a while back. Southern Europeans have lower rates of homeless people. 

The reason is because in those countries the families of the unemployed will take them in. This isn’t the case in Northern Europe where there are a lot more homeless people and, in this, the United States seems more similar to Northern Europe.

This is a type of social capital, this sense of family responsibility. Kin take care of their own. Northern Europe and the United States prefer instead to have a stronger welfare state to take care of people who are in need.

How many American conservatives who complain about welfare will take all of their family members in if they are unemployed or sick or whatever else? Probably not many. If social problems aren’t solved privately, government is left to take care of it.

The Cultural Amnesia of German-Americans

My reading lately has been varied, by which I mean I’ve been jumping between many books without finishing any of them, but I’ll finish them all eventually. This jumble of reading has my mind in a jumble. I was also doing some genealogical research, actually for someone else’s family as a favor to a friend. Looking at this other person’s family reminded me of my own family with lots of German ancestry. The German aspect came up in my reading as well.

Thinking about this other guy’s family, I was reminded of how much German ancestry there is in the American population. It is the single largest ethnicity in the entire country. What is odd is how invisible is the German influence.

In a post a while back, I wrote about a few books related to American whites, two of which were about specific ethnic populations. One book focused on the Scots-Irish and the other on the Irish. These two cultures have received a lot of attention and they are in many ways very visible cultures. Even if not English, they are still British and so they more easily fit into the standard narrative of America. German immigrant culture fundamentally undermines this simplistic narrative in a way no other ethnicity is capable of doing. Yet I know of no book about German Americans that is equivalent to the many books on the Scots-Irish and Irish.

A little over a century ago, German culture was the complete opposite of invisible. The German language was widely spoken in the US, second only to English. In German majority cities, public schools were taught in German and the newspapers were printed in German. Now, the only viable surviving German culture and language is that of the Amish, and it has survived for the reason the Amish isolated themselves from the changing world around them.

Germans were among the earliest settlers, the British government offloading German refugees onto ships heading for various colonies and plantations. In the American colonies, Germans even formed their own separate communities early on. The influence of Germans only increased over time with several massive waves of German immigrants in the 19th century. The sewer socialism and progressivism emerging out of the early Midwest was mostly the result of German ideas. Germans loved promoting projects for the public good such as public education, even as they mistrusted the federal government and the often nativist populations surrounding them.

The nativism is where I’ve gained a foothold of understanding. The Republican Party arose partly out of the support of the Know-Nothings who were anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, the former being especially directed at the sizable German population. Non-English immigrants were initially wary of the Republican Party for good reason and non-English immigrants to this day are wary of the Republican Party for good reason.

Nonetheless, the Republican president Lincoln wouldn’t have been able to win the Civil War without the large ethnic immigrant influx that gave the North a population advantage, not to mention the quality of immigrant was very high with Germans on average being more well-trained and well-educated than the average non-German American, specifically more well-trained in fighting modern warfare as many were political dissidents fleeing revolutionary wars against empire. Many of Lincoln’s administration and military leadership were German immigrants and even more were soldiers in his army.

Much of the political foment following the Civil War involved the German population or was in reaction to the German population. Germans fought for workers’ rights and farmers’ rights, the two coming together within the Populist movement. Germans fought against corporatocracy in the way they fought against empire back in Europe. More importantly, they won many of the political battles they fought and we today benefit from their struggle such as with the 8 hour work day and 5 day work week (try working every waking moment continuously 7 days a week and then tell me you aren’t grateful for their struggle and sacrifice). On the other side, Prohibition and Sunday laws were partly enacted in order to control the influence of ethnic immigrants such as Germans and Irish who were fond of their drink.

The ugliness of nativism became a central issue on the national stage when World War I began. The media of the day portrayed Germans as being vile and dangerous which led to mobs forming and many Germans dying. Also, the Germanic culture was nearly eliminated. German newspapers were censored, German names of buildings and streets were changed, German traditions were attacked, and German-Americans experienced political and economic oppression. They were arrested, imprisoned, and deported. They had hard time finding work. Their formerly influential culture suddenly became a liability. Along with the impact of World War II, nearly all traces of German heritage had been eliminated. Many German-Americans experienced a cultural forgetting that scoured the German culture from the collective memory of American history.

There was only one saving grace that helped some minor German identity to survive. The German refugees escaping the Nazis included many of the greatest intellectuals of their day. These German intellectuals gained employment in the arts and education. Slowly, German-American culture has been rehabilitated in correspondence with the German nation itself being rebuilt after WWII. It is no longer shameful to be of German descent, but the living culture in America was nonetheless destroyed beyond repair. The only thing left are a few German newspapers and the popular German festivals involving beer drinking.

This saddens me as so much of my ancestry is German, on both sides of my family. My German ancestry goes back for centuries in American history. But my family has complete amnesia about its Germanic past. America as we know it wouldn’t exist without the German influence. It’s hard to imagine what America would be like if Germans hadn’t been around to help win the Civil War or to help America live up to its democratic promise.

‘Capitalist’ US vs ‘Socialist’ Germany

In this video, there was one particular point about Germany that stood out. Germany is 1/5 the size of the US and yet has the second highest trade surplus in the world (after China). They’ve accomplished this while having higher rate of unionization and higher pay. Interestingly, the US economy was also doing better when unionization and pay was higher in the US.

Unions in the US are considered socialists even though they represent the working class. In Germany, it’s required for worker representation to be half of board members of companies. In Germany, the industrial and financial sectors are highly regulated keeping jobs from being outsourced and ensuring main street benefits rather than just wall street. According to conservative ideology, this kind of socialist practices and union power should destroy the economy and destroy innovation and yet the complete opposite is the result.

This seems to support Noam Chomsky’s arguments. Chomsky thinks the world would be a better place if workers had more power to influence the companies they work for and influence the economy they are a part of. As a socialist liberal, Chomsky genuinely believes it’s good to empower the average person. It would appear Germany has done exactly this and has become immensely successful by doing so.

Here is an article by the interviewee:


Most Americans, I suspect, believe we’re losing manufacturing because we can’t compete against cheap Chinese labor. But Germany has remained a manufacturing giant notwithstanding the rise of East Asia, making high-end products with a workforce that is more unionized and better paid than ours. German exports came to $1.1 trillion in 2009 — roughly $125 billion more than we exported, though there are just 82 million Germans to our 310 million Americans. Germany’s yearly trade balance went from a deficit of $6 billion in 1998 to a surplus of $267 billion in 2008 — the same year the United States ran a trade deficit of $569 billion. Over those same 10 years, Germany’s annual growth rate per capita exceeded ours.

Germany has increased its edge in world-class manufacturing even as we have squandered ours because its model of capitalism is superior to our own. For one thing, its financial sector serves the larger economy, not just itself. The typical German company has a long-term relationship with a single bank — and for the smaller manufacturers that are the backbone of the German economy, those relationships are likely with one of Germany’s 431 savings banks, each of them a local institution with a municipally appointed board, that shun capital markets and invest their depositors’ savings in upgrading local enterprises. By American banking standards, the savings banks are incredibly dull. But they didn’t lose money in the financial panic of 2008 and have financed an industrial sector that makes ours look anemic by comparison.

The above video reminds me of another video I watched a few weeks back.

The author in this second interview is comparing the US to Europe, but he specifically talks about Germany. He also mentions the importance of unionization in Germany and he puts it in the context of their quality education system. German students are taught to understand politics and the role of unions. Also, students are taught real trade skills and taught the importance of unions in protecting trades.

As Hartmann points out, the middle class in the US has been become an endangered species. The author agrees in saying that US society only helps the plutocratic rich and even disadvantages the average rich person. There actually is more entrepreneurship in ‘socialist’ Europe than in the ‘capitalist’ US. One thing that helps small businesses in some European countries is single payer which lowers business costs. Of course, ‘socialist’ Obama simply ignored single payer during the health care debate. What right-wingers in the US don’t understand is that ‘socialism’ helps both the workers and small business owners… whereas ‘capitalism’ (as practiced in the US) helps only big businesses while hurting both workers and small business owners.

Here is another interview with the author in the second video:


Why is it useful to compare ourselves to the Germans?

Germany has the highest degree of worker control on the planet since the collapse of the Soviet Union. When I saw German labor minister Günther Horzetzky in April of 2009, he said “Our biggest export now is co-determination.” He meant that other European countries were coming up with versions of it.

How did Germany become such a great place to work in the first place?

The Allies did it. This whole European model came, to some extent, from the New Deal. Our real history and tradition is what we created in Europe. Occupying Germany after WWII, the 1945 European constitutions, the UN Charter of Human Rights all came from Eleanor Roosevelt and the New Dealers. All of it got worked into the constitutions of Europe and helped shape their social democracies. It came from us. The papal encyclicals on labor, it came from the Americans.

[ . . . ]

Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” theory predicts that in the future, all countries will be competing on an equal playing field — paving the way for highly-populated countries to dominate the world economy. Do you agree with him?

How does he explain the existence of Germany? What country has the highest exports in the world today? It’s the country with the highest wage rates and union restrictions. Germany has become more of a power, not less of a power as the world has become more global. Our problem isn’t competing with China, it’s competing with Germany in China. We’re so focused on China all the time, and low-wage assembly stuff, that we’re missing what’s going on. It’s Germany that’s going in and selling stuff in China that we ought to be selling that would hold down the trade gap between the U.S. and China. It’s not China’s fault; it’s Germany’s. But no one wants to talk about that. Because that would raise questions about the whole U.S. model: Why is this high-wage country beating us? Why are the European socialists beating us? It’s too subversive an idea so we don’t allow in the discourse.

I decided to add one other comparison. I had recently perused some of the book The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett, and I had mentioned it in a post last month (Mean Bosses & Inequality). After posting all the above, I thought I should look at the data on wealth disparity and social problems in order to see if Germany does better than the US.

There apparently were problems with social disruption after reunification which led to some social problems, but the restructuring that followed decreased over time the income inequality and social problems (similar to what post-war restructuring did to improve Japanese society). Presently, Germany has less than half of the income inequality seen in the US (Germany having income equality that is about average for Europe and the US having high income inequality similar to countries such as Singapore and Israel). The US has a much higher average income than Germany, but because most of US wealth belongs to the upper class whereas most of the German wealth belongs to the middle class. Also, Germany has high social mobility and the US has low social mobility (most wealth coming from privilege and inheritance)… which is interesting to put in context of Americans working on average more hours and have less vacation time than Germans.

What this means in terms of social problems is that Germany has lower rates and the US higher rates of the following: mental illness, imprisoned per capita, drug use, homicides, infant mortality, obesity, teen pregnancy, and children’s experience of conflict (“reported fighting, bullying and finding peers not kind and helpful”, p. 139). And Germany has higher rates and the US has lower rates of the following: UNICEF index of child wellbeing, longer life expectancy, happiness, and recycling.

In The Spirit Level, the authors point out one particular impact this has on children. They write (pp 116-7), “when we first looked at data on children’s aspirations from a UNICEF report on childhood well-being, we were surprised at its relationship to income inequality.” They continue:

More children reported low aspirations in more equal countries; in unequal countries children were more likely to have high aspirations. Some of this may be acounted for by the fact that in more equal societies, less-skilled work may be less stigmatized, in comparison to more unequal societies where career choices are dominated by rather star-struck ideas of financial success and images of glamour and celebrity.

In more unequal countries, we found a larger gap betwen aspirations and actual opportunities and expectations. If we compare… maths and reading scores in different countries… it is clear that aspirations are higher in countries where educational achievement is lower. More children might be aspiring to higher-status jobs, but fewer of them will be qualified to get them. If inequality leads to unrealistic hopes it must also lead to disappointment.

Gillian Evans quotes a teacher ta an inner-city primary school, who summed up the corrosive effect of inequality on children:

These kids don’t know theyr’e working class; they won’t know that until they leave school and realize that the dreams they’ve nurtured through childhood can’t come true.

I brought this up because it’s another comparison of US and Germany. Going by the data (UNICEF – Child poverty in perspective), German children are about twice as likely to aspire to low skilled work. Most people probably think lack of aspiration for greater opportunities means lack of opportunities or lack of seeking out opportunities, but the data shows a very different picture.

In the US, children have a lot of aspiration and yet have less opportunity to fulfill that aspiration (because of income inequality and low rate of social mobility).

In Germany, children have less aspiration and yet are more likely to achieve further beyond the socio-economic status they were born into.

This goes against commonsense. Americans like to believe we live in a meritocracy, like to believe that if you dream big enough anything is possible. However, this has a dark side in that idolizing the wealthy leads American society to demonize the poor. To be working class in America and never striving to better yourself means that you aren’t living up to your potential and therefore are in some sense a failure. To be working class in Germany, on the other hand, is considered worthy. The American ruling elite told average Americans that working class jobs were undesirable and so sent most of our manufacturing jobs overseas, but Germany maintained it’s manufacturing jobs and through unionization made sure those jobs had good benefits.

Sadly, the American Dream will forever remain a dream for most Americans… and yet few Americans seem to understand why the American Dream has been dying.

– – –

Since posting all the above, I noticed an article about the relationship between economic growth and income distribution, specifically why inequality undermines sustainable growth:

Warning! Inequality May Be Hazardous to Your Growth
Andrew Berg & Jonathan D. Ostry

Here are some other related articles and papers:






And I noticed that there are several nice graphs from the Equality Trust website (which is related to the work and authors of The Spirit Level):

Physical Health


Mental Health

Mental Illness

Drug Abuse








Social Mobility


Trust and Community Life




Teenage Births

Teenage Births

Child Well-being

Child Well-being

Rich  and Poor Countries

Foreign Aid

Equality and Global Warming


Great Nations & Proud People

I just finished watching the film As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me. It’s supposedly based on a true story of a German soldier who after being captured spent several years in Siberia. He escaped and travelled thousands of miles on foot in order to get back home. It was a good movie. Of course, it was predictable in that I knew he was going to escape, but I didn’t mind.

What interested me about it was the soldier’s perspective. The Nazis were known to have committed horrendous violence in the concentration camps, but this was a story about a Nazi soldier who wasn’t a part of any of that. That is the way of wars. The average soldier doesn’t really know what they’re fighting for. This particular soldier apparently was fighting Russian soldiers and the Russians were as brutal as the Germans. In school, we’re taught to hate all Nazis, but I didn’t find it hard to sympathize with this soldier’s misfortune. War sucks for everyone. There are rarely good and bad guys in any war… or rather the good guys are whichever side happens to win.

I was thinking about WWII from the viewpoint of the average Nazi and the average German in general. I’m sure everyone knew Jews were shipped off, but I doubt many Germans knew what became of the Jews. Originally, the Nazis simply tried to give the Jews to other countries, but most countries including the US refused to save the lives of Jews. As a US citizen, I accept the fact that my government was complicit in the killing of Jews. My government knew what the Nazis were doing, but the fact of the matter is no government cared about the Jews. The war was never about the Jews… similarly to how the Civil War ultimately wasn’t about slavery. Wars are always about political power.

Anyways, how was the average German any worse than the average American? In the US, our government put Japanese Americans into camps just like the Germans put Jews into camps. Did Americans protest this unconstitutional infringement of the civil rights of their fellow citizens? No. Did the average American know for sure what happened to the Japanese Americans after they were shipped away? No. Did they know that their government didn’t just kill the Japanese Americans? No. Would there have been a protest if the Japanese Americans had been killed? I truly doubt it.

I think of the US soldiers right now over in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting pointless wars that can’t be won. The attack on Iraq was as immoral as any other war. We aren’t liberators of the Iraqi people. If they had greeted us as liberators, the war would already be ended. If we had actually seen our role as liberators, we wouldn’t have killed so many innocent people. Between the US military and the CIA, just try to imagine the countless number of innocent people who have been killed by the orders of our government, just try to imagine all of the death squads and puppet dictators we’ve put in place (such as Saddam Hussein).

I also think of all the violence of all countries that has happened since WWII. Once the world learned of the genocide against the Jews, there was a collective response of: “Never again!”. Yet, genocide has happened again and again over the decades. The US government didn’t intervene when it learned of the genocide against the Jews and the US government hasn’t intervened when any of the other genocides have happened since. Basically, the US government and most major governments couldn’t care less. And the average American, like the average German, ignorantly believes what their governments tell them, what the media tells them. No one ever cares until it happens to them personally.

The US government sentenced Japanese soldiers to death for waterboarding US soldiers. And what have we done? The US military is now in the business of torturing. Even Democrats were reluctant to question the morality of torture prisons and the Republicans were patriotically proud of being immoral assholes. The biggest supporters of torture in the US were Christians. Seriously! What the fuck!?! We are the evil we think we’re fighting. We are the country that puts bases around the world and attack any country we don’t like whether or not we have a good justification. We’re the only country that dropped nuclear bombs on large cities of innocent civilians. We Americans have nothing to be proud of. Each of us has blood on our hands. It’s your money, its my money that has paid for the killing of hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions of innocent people over the decades.

I’m not saying we are more evil than any other people in the world. We aren’t. We have simply let power go to our heads and we’ve stopped demanding our leaders live up to our own moral ideals. We are just people like all people. That is my point. Our country is no different than Germany. Once upon a time, Germany was much like the US in being wealthy and valuing human rights. It was a democracy and the German people were proud of being a great people. That is the point. Only a great country can commit great evil.

So, yes, America is a great country… and that is the danger. In any democracy, a fascist government is only ever one vote away from becoming reality.