Friday, November 18, 2016

Growing Up in the Two Americas

Another source of estrangement

By Rolf Dumke

Land vs. cities, as Tim Wallace’s November 16 NY Times article “The Two Americas of 2016*” affirms, is an important division of American culture and politics, which have many sources for division.

I’ve lived in two small towns, in rural Ohio, for only one and a half years, and lived the rest of my life in the United States in a big city or a number of university towns. I only became aware of the large group of country people on two later occasions:
    In Nashville, while attending Vanderbilt University Graduate School, my wife (Susan) and I went to the Grand Ole Opry in its original fine wooden structure, an old church. I appreciated the huge attraction of country music to thousands of county folk, who lined up for many blocks to see and hear their stars perform live on its 24-hour radio program. The Ole Opry was the opera of country folk of Tennessee who attempted to see it at least once or twice in their lifetime. The lineup included a wide assortment of strangely dressed men and women, some with wild wide-brimmed hats, thick sweaters, and boots. Much of their dress was home-made. The visiting men who had financed their family’s attendance at this fine venue took a proud stance. Towing along old folks and children, they filled the old church building pew by pew to stay for one hour, then the whole row had to clear out, and was filled by new visitors.
    We sat upstairs in expensive reserved seats and saw the live radio program, with advertisements being sung by the same star singers who had just sung on the regular program a couple of seconds before, now reading off the ads from big boards held before them on a wide, cluttered stage, where helpers were sorting upcoming singers and persons to interview in groups while others organized the succession of ads with the appropriate boards. Friends and family members of performers were allowed to come on stage to watch them perform. There was a lot of hustle and bustle. It looked like chaos, but on radio the program had a nice rhythm between live music, interviews, live ads, and news on the hour.
    The proceedings were led by a sort of sergeant who directed by gesture and kept the program on time each minute of every hour, while individual ground floor pews were progressively filled and emptied.
   Although my main musical preferences were for classical music and jazz, country music had developed a charm, as I found out during an all-night drive through Germany in 1970, listening to the American Services radio broadcast of Bob Dylan’s fine “Nashville Skyline” album of 1969. It raised good memories of the Grand Ole Opry. Dylan had captured the essence of country music and amalgamated it with folk and a bit of rock. After hearing the album, Tim Souster of the BBC asked, “Isn’t this idyllic country landscape (simply) too good to be true?”
    Many of Donald Trump’s supporters may now ask the same question.

In my undergraduate year off from Yale, I worked as a foreign-exchange teller in a Cleveland bank and was drafted by the Army.
    The first command I was given was to come early one morning to a nondescript downtown office building. In a giant, badly lit hall I lined up naked with many hundreds of other, mostly scruffy country boys, all with a plastic bag of possessions attached to a rope around our necks. We proceeded from one physician to another, being told by the first to breathe while a cold stethoscope was held to our chest or back, and so on.
    Some guys started to cough vehemently, showing more or less advanced TB. But the doc said, “You have fine lungs, boy, move on!” The next doc with a stethoscope listened to my heart and approvingly said, “It beats, move on!” – same as he did with everyone else. And move on most of them did, to Vietnam.
    I had an important letter from the Yale Student Health office that provided a 4-F status because of a heart murmur. The Yale doc had heard something alarming that kept me out of rowing. He also kept me out of Vietnam, along with all the otherwise healthy athletes that morning who had knee and elbow problems from football. The scrawny rest – i.e., the average out-of-college young men – proceeded to fight this “fine” war, instigated by the Democrats and Harvard’s finest presidential advisers.
    A couple of years later I was astounded by the huge graduate classes in economics at the University of Wisconsin – over a hundred students in mine. Many were draft dodgers, not getting a PhD. The department was overwhelmed and my major professor, Bob Baldwin, an important international economist, fled for a two-year leave of absence in Washington, DC to do research on non-tariff barriers to trade, leaving me and his other fifteen doctoral candidates in the lurch. This led to my switching to the field of economic history, where an important faculty member, Rondo Cameron, held court, only to leave a year later for another professorship at Emory University, with better climate, better pay, and lower student loads.
    However, in Cameron’s last seminar at Wisconsin I presented a novel idea, to analyze the German historical customs union, the Zollverein of 1834, with the new customs-union theory of the 1960s. With my seminar paper and Cameron’s support. I received a dissertation research fellowship in Germany from the DAAD, the German academic exchange service, that led to my PhD in Wisconsin in 1976 and a career in economic history.

There was a lot of passing the buck back in the good old times of the 1960s where the college-educated avoided meeting their patriotic duties and universities were complicit. The death toll among the young country men who did not attend college was massive.
    I’m sure that this has caused lasting resentment between America’s working men and the college-educated, a source of estrangement that Donald Trump has been able to harness.

Copyright © 2016 by Rolf Dumke
Rolf Dumke is the author of the series of memoirs, “Growing Up in America,” whose latest installment appeared on September 4.


  1. Replies
    1. Steve, good to hear from you! If you should ever get the yen to post an account from your part of Bavaria, know that I'll be glad to receive your submission. Or a new short story about one or more of your colorful fictional characters. Thanks! And I hope that you are your family have an enjoyable holiday season.

  2. Ironic that I grew up in a small, right-wing town, and have spent most of the rest in an island surrounded by red necks - yet outside of Tulare I know few conservatives.

    I have no real idea who the Trumpians are. Apparently not the Tea Party, for instance. I've yet to meet anyone who would admit to voting for him.

  3. I spent some time looking at that map. Where did it come from? I'd like to see it overlaid on a countour map of population density. There are very few large cities in Trumpland; even Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Nashville belong to Clintonland. Not Bakersfield, interestingly. I assume some demographer has already checked this out.
    You will find that among our generation, describing Vietnam as a "patriotic duty" will bring out a lot of righteous anger. Most of the blue-collar boys that went there did so very much against their will.
    Incidentally, I estimate the total mortality in Vietnam among working men of military age at well under 1%. Stupidly, criminally tragic, as they died for nothing, but hardly "massive". Far more were lost to murder and car wrecks.

  4. To clarify:

    The data come from county election results. How maps were made out of this data, a topographic feat, is unclear to me.

    I heard the official position on the war in Vietnam from George McGovern's - one of "Harvard's brightest" - address to thousands of student interns in the giant auditorium of the Department of State in the summer of 1965. He argued that it was America's decision to stop a communist take-over of an important country in southeast Asia, because if Vietnam fell, all the neighboring countries would also fall to the communists ideology and threaten American freedom. It was the patriotic duty of all Americans to stop that. The domino theory had captured the mind of Washington policy makers.

    Unfortunately you cheapen the massive sacrifice of war deaths in Vietnam by stating it was less than 1%.
    The number of American deaths in the Vietnam war was 58,309. This compares with 54,246 in Korea and 7,222 in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    In WWI 116,516 men died, 0.11% of the US population in 1920. In WWII 405,399 men died, 0.307 of the US population of 1940.
    The war in Vietnam was the 4th deadly of all wars in American history. If you include all wounded, then the casualty number in Vietnam rises to 211,454 persons.
    See Wikipedia United States Military Casualties of War.

    According to official statistics the number of fatalities in car crashes was around 30,000 in 2012. The number of murders in 2011 was 26,238. They total to 46,238, less than the Vietnam war deaths.
    But isn't this comparison meaningless, as war deaths result from official policy. But car deaths are accidents unwished by all, and murders are a criminal actions, denounced by all sane persons.

  5. Sorry, I must correct a typo.
    The number of murders in 2011 was 16,238.

  6. Good. I didn't actually look up the car/murder numbers, and guesstimated that they were at least twice as high as you say.

    Let's see, I did a quick and dirty percentage. A little more carefully,

    Over 200,000,000 Americans in the Vietnam era.
    About 40% of these were adult males >80 Meg,
    About a fifth of adult males were of draft age at any one moment. During the long course of the war many more were at risk part of the time, so call it >100 M
    potential draftees. More than three quarters of them would be working class or poorer, so a reasonable guess would be 5-6M poor to middle class men at risk of being drafted at some time. I actually used the number 50,000 for Vietnam casualties, which is right about 1% of that population.

    Obviously a Fermi number rather than a researched statistic, but probably good to better than a factor of two. By comparison, the population of military age during WWII would have been on the order of 3M, and 400k is more than 10% of them.
    A lot of trouble to make the trivial point that Vietnam was not one of the bloodiest wars. This does not "cheapen" 50,000 lives. On the contrary, I could easily have been one of them. I was one of those working class kids grunting his way through grad school. Vietnam didn't put me there, but it sure as hell would have kept me there even if i hadn't better reasons.

  7. I think I was relatively oblivious (alas). As a high school student in the same small town as Chuck (James Knudsen, the Loneliest Liberal's, town of Tulare), I couldn't have said, I don't think, what was its majority political sentiment.
        And, without seeking it, I was classified 4-F, and, in retrospect, I think what happened is that some kindly Tulare medical doctor looked benevolently on this working class boy who, by virtue of his gregariousness, varsity-baseball and student-council participation, fit right in with the more privileged boys of the doctor's class, so, hey, let's give the boy a break!
        I have never in my life been so "political" as I became during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, when I vowed to avoid voting again for any Republican candidate. And now, with the disastrous election of November 8, my "politicalness" has ramped up doubly. If I weren't so old, I would be out there marching.

  8. I have said often that the urban/rural divide is one of the greatest in America. I had not considered the effect of Vietnam specifically, but I have no doubt it contributed. It has long been noted that rural areas, particularly in the South, have given an inordinate amount of their young mens' blood to our wars and "police actions". It has to do with the sense of duty and country literally built in to a young Southern man's upbringing. That is changing, and in another generation that too may die out, but that divide is real, to whatever one may attribute it, and I don't think that divide is going away any time soon.