The Right to be Healthy

This is an audio file originally from an open reel tape the late Carl Shier found in his basement when he moved from his apartment on Touhy Avenue. He gave this reel and several others to me as, at the time, I still had a functioning reel-to-reel tape deck.* Digitized, it was among the audio files posted on the Chicago DSA web site back when I was the web master:

Dr. David Stark Murray was President of the British Socialist Medical Association (renamed the Socialist Health Association in 1980) from 1951 – 1972. He was one of the architects of the British National Health Service.

dsmurray
Dr. David Stark Murray

In this recording, Dr. Murray gives an avuncular, insightful comparison between the British system and the U.S. system in the early 1970s, much of which remains the same. In a few cases, Dr. Murray mentions prices. To convert to 2004 Dollars, multiply by 4.5.

Dr. Murray, incidentally, did not feel the British system merited the label “socialist”; the system wasn’t good enough! He preferred the label “social medicine”.

If you can get past the paisley elevator music (sorry, Howie) used as bridge and background, this is a fascinating exposition of values and medicine that remains (sadly) all too relevant today.

“The Right to Be Healthy” was professionally produced in 1971 or early 1972. At that time, the prospect of national health insurance was a real possibility. Even President Nixon called for a National Health Insurance plan in his State of the Union Address in 1971. This “infomercial” was intended to influence the debate. There was no indication in the program or on the original tape as to the group that sponsored its production let alone how it was actually used.

There were several competing plans before Congress that year. Most of them were National Health Insurance plans (something Britain has had since the very early years of the last century); none were proposals for a National Health System. Nixon’s proposal was actually rather close to the political center among all the plans, mandating employment based coverage through private insurance carriers (subsidies available under particular circumstances), but including a government run insurance plan for those not otherwise covered with premiums scaled to income.

Nixon’s proposal would be considered the left wing of the possible in today’s Congress. Consider the similarity to “ObamaCare” and that Nixon included a “public option”. At the time, there were a variety of other proposals before Congress, including one backed by the AMA that was mostly tax credits toward the expense of insurance premiums: sound familiar? The good doctors apparently felt those too poor to pay taxes could die or beg; they certainly had no right to be healthy.

Dr. Murray specifically mentions the Kennedy – Griffiths Plan. This was to have been a national health insurance system administered by the Federal government. Everyone would have been covered. It would have been financed by employment taxes (payroll and self-employment) and by general tax revenues.

None of these proposals passed. To some extent, they were victims of the election cycle. Oddly enough, one point that Dr. Murray makes, the need for planning, was passed by Congress. The government established a system of health care planning done on a local level by “Health Systems Agencies“. These planning bodies functioned for several years in the 1970s before being deliberately strangled by a lack of financing. In some states, some degree of planning remains on a state-wide basis.

(Length: 31:13)

* I still have the deck, no longer functioning, a Tandberg TD20A. It’s available. Cheap (make an offer). But you pay the shipping. It’s heavy.

Why We Need Socialism in America

Bob Roman

Happy May Day, folks!

May Day (May 1st) is the international labor day that commemorates all those who have risked life and livelihood for justice in the workplace and in the community and specifically the Chicago martyrs who were unjustly imprisoned and executed as part of the labor movement’s struggle for the 8 hour work day. Normally this day would be marked with parades, rallies, speeches and, yes, picnics and entertainment, but this being the Year of our Plague 2020, we’ll have to do this day online and in our hearts.

That being the case, I decided to post this booklet by Michael Harrington as an appropriate way of making an argument for the occasion. It was originally published as an article (almost the entire issue, apparently) in the May – June, 1970, issue of Dissent Magazine. It was reissued that year as a booklet by The Norman Thomas Fund, a short-lived entity that was intended (I think) to be an educational vehicle for the old Socialist Party – Social Democratic Federation. Much of the content went on to be incorporated into Harrington’s 1972 book “Socialism”. Note the cover price of $1.25. This was not cheap. In March, 2020, dollars that comes to $8.45. This PDF was created for the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America website back when I was serving as the web master.

A lefty Of A Certain Age would remember Michael Harrington because for much of the last third of the 20th Century, he was pretty much the public face of democratic socialism in the United States. I think it was William F. Buckley who observed this was rather like applause for being the tallest building in Wichita. (Or was it Topeka?) So it’s entirely understandable if Harrington is not as well remembered in 2020 as he should be. Also, he did die way back in 1989 — a lifetime ago for some. At times, while Harrington was alive and after, the Democratic Socialists of America as a national organization functioned more or less as the Michael Harrington Permanent Book Tour and Appreciation Society; sooner or later, it is time to move on and this brings a new generation who understandably have an urge to pee on the fire hydrant to make it their own. And finally, if one had (or still has) a devotion to Marxism-Leninism, it may be (for some) uncomfortable remembering someone who was very much a skeptic (at least!) of “real, existing socialism” as the Soviet-bloc was often styled.

Why is Harrington is worth remembering and why this publication in particular? Well, for one thing, the debates over socialism, and policies inspired by socialism, have been going on for a very long time. While the arguments for or against change slowly, it’s worthwhile revisiting them for a fresh perspective. Take a look at this document and decide for yourself how well, or not, Harrington’s argument holds up.

Robert Gorman’s 1995 biography of Harrington was aptly titled Michael Harrington: Speaking American. Harrington had a talent for combining the pragmatism of “what do we do on Monday?” with utopian idealism, and it was that political pragmatism that made his idealism plausible to an American audience. I don’t know that Harrington ever framed it this way, but there is a difference between politics as a means of implementing a philosophy and philosophy as means of guiding one’s politics. I view Harrington as firmly in the latter category. And for a surprising number of American lefties of a certain age, Harrington and this publication in particular strongly informed their politics then and even today.

In the 21st Century, this booklet may be the very definition of TLDR. But if you wish, nonetheless, to read / download the work, CLICK HERE or on this cover thumbnail:

cover

Tones on Tail: Go

Bars are not my thing, I’ve found, so this little item dug up from Chicago’s Berlin Nightclub circa 1986 is brand new to me. It’s basically a mash-up, or remix if you will, of two 1929 Disney Silly Symphony films by Ub Iwerks:*

Appropriate to the times, then and now, yes?

Hat tip to the Friggin’ Doo-A! blog.


*Iwerks ain’t exactly unknown but really deserves to be better remembered. If you liked this, you might want to check out Malcolm Sutherland’s homage to Iwerks, Bed Wettin’.

Toilet Paper

1973 was about the time I dropped out of college. You would assume, therefore, that I would have some memory of this. I do not. Whatever this video is, it is outrageously funny: where the surreal hits the road. From the Atlantic (or “A” as they currently style themselves):

For my part, when the time of novel corona came, I had already purchased a years’ supply the previous September though I was aiming more for when the lease on this apartment expires.

Incidentally, if you think this is far out, look up Radio Lab’s program about Orson Wells’ radio play, “War of the Worlds,” and the three panics it induced.

Third Stone from the Sun

I don’t obsess over the biographies of rock stars, dead or alive, so it is no surprise that I did not know Jimi Hendrix was something of a science fiction fan. Frank Hudson’s Parlando Project re-imagines Hendrix as a “pioneering 20th Century Afro-Futurist” and speculates what might have been had he played the electric typewriter rather than guitar:

The above is a slideshow of might-have-been book covers. I recommend full screen and headphones. Note the blurb from Robert Christgau on the “Third Stone from the Sun” cover. Christgau is a rock critic who gave Hendrix’s Monterey Pop Festival performance four thumbs down.

While I’m at it: If you have an interest in poetry and music, let me recommend to you the Parlando Project blog. To quote from the premier post back in 2015, the blog is about this:

One of my favorite attempts to define poetry is to call it “Words that want to break into song”.

What is it that poetry wants to do by striving to sing? I think it wants to include the pure pleasure of sound and rhythm to words. It wants that like a lover wants their beloved. It’s not a clever plan. Poetry’s desire here is not some technique, some tactic to dress up words in a fancy way. It just wants it.

And what about music? Well, it’s got its drives, its desires too. It wants to find its logic, its pattern. It’s always speaking to time, saying to time that it knows better than time itself how time sounds and moves. Music is always explaining to time what it contains.

I’m not a musician. I’m not a poet. And, yes, that does make a difference in one’s appreciation of poetry and of music. So it’s mildly odd that this should be among my favorite blogs. Even so, I’ve done what rarely happens with blogs: I’ve read every post. Even when Hudson goes in directions I’m disinclined to follow or falls short of his goal, the post that accompanies his performance always teaches me something new. Can’t beat that, even without mentioning the frequently wry graphics. I don’t even suggest that you do as I did and read it all, but if you have an interest in poetry then this is a blog worth following.

Mickey Was Here

After “Kilroy was here,” I would guess. Maybe Mickey is not the universal veteran, but for a great many, the war goes on. Here’s a little something apropos Trump’s latest shenanigan involving Iran:

Check out Ethereal Snake’s YouTube channel. “Mickey was here” was the first posted, about a year ago: Some strange and great content has been posted since.

Buying Legal Weed in Illinois

Photo by Roman; panel from the 2006 Artists of the Wall

Weed is now legal in Illinois. That’s not news even if it is new. The long lines to purchase cannabis in various formulations were a spectacle. They were crazy. Unappealing. Deterring. But along came Friday, January 3rd. I had an errand at a bank several CTA Red Line stations southward… And there’s a cannabis dispensary / store just a few more stops south. Surely some of the crowds must have dissipated by now… Should I check it out?

Isn’t it amazing how reason can be enlisted to fulfill a heart’s desire?

So Noon found me walking up the street toward the dispensary, except it suddenly seemed the dispensary was across the street and a block south from where it should be. What gives? There were two security guards on the street. They confirmed: This is the line for recreational customers. Oh look, there’s only a dozen folks queued before the door. I didn’t ask the guards for the wait time.

Isn’t it amazing how blindness can be enlisted to fulfill a heart’s desire?

Well, it didn’t take but five minutes or so for the line to move indoors. That was a majorly optimistic event, but the scene inside should have argued otherwise. When you fold the queue as if it were an intestine, you can pack away quite a few people. And they don’t even complain about what they are going through.

Isn’t it amazing how “in for a penny, in for a pound” disarms sensible responses among humans? You can do almost anything to them. It’s like hypnotizing a chicken with a white line.

But truly, the dispensary had done something clever and almost wise. It was clearly not a good thing all around to have a line of customers down and around the block outside. A storefront show room was available just down the street from the dispensary. Rent this, use it to house a line that would have been otherwise seriously miserable and unsightly. The dispensary embellished this by handing out order forms with a redemption coupon that both promised a future discount and I.D.’d your order. It would be there when you finally made it to the dispensary.

Placing the order turned out to be a bit of a hassle though it was minor compared to the wait. Each clipboard with order form included a printed menu of what was in stock. The people staffing the line clearly did not trust the dispensary’s stated inventory, especially of cannabis flowers, whether prerolled or bulk. They recommended ordering a general category, e.g. sativa flowers 1 gram. And quantities were rationed.

It turns out that once you arrived at the point of sale, the check-out staff were pretty flexible, within State law, about revising your order. I suspect that it was partly that customers were going to insist on this flexibility anyway, and when you’re dealing with a long day of dealing with a huge crowd, who needs the hassle?

The wait stretched on. The line moved periodically, in quanta just large enough to subtly reward your patience. It helped, also, that most of the waiting customers were in a generally good mood, maybe some had taken a head start while at home. This was bolstered by a few security personnel who seemed both mission driven and genuinely appreciative of people. They also periodically handed out free hot dogs (including ketchup for all the out-of-state visitors), bottled water and tangerines. A magician worked the line, pulling items from noses and ears and fooling with unsuspecting decks of cards. Unfortunately, I had no thirst nor any discernible appetite. Give me access to a bathroom and I’ll be okay. Incidentally, considering the crowd, the men’s room, at least, was okay.

For my part, I’m a geezer. My time is both incredibly precious and incredibly devalued. Waste an afternoon in line? I can do that! The out-of-pocket cost is negligible but in the long run…

The crowd, come to speak of it, was largely white and male, though most ethnicities and genders were represented, only not in numbers that reflected the local population. It was possibly skewed toward youth. Certainly my fellow geezers were there, but not many and I’m not old enough for the casualty rate to be quite that high. And on that Friday afternoon, it turned out that a large percentage, though not a majority, of the waiting customers were from out of state.

If there were anything amiss with the dispensary’s strategy, it might have been in relying on a pacific crowd. There were a lot of people in that waiting room and there was only one obvious exit. (There were other exits but not obvious.) It was not a place for any sort of panic.

The final step was queuing to clear the dispensary’s identification check: driver’s license or passport. They scanned the barcodes on these, so just how much information you’re giving up by engaging in this transaction… now that is an interesting question, even though the transactions were all cash.

It was a gruelling experience. It reminded me of the time, some decades ago, when a great many AMTRAK trains had unreserved seating. I boarded a way oversold train in Springfield, Illinois, then had to stand all the way to Joliet, Illinois. It’s a long state, is Illinois. And on Friday, I finally made it home from the dispensary after 5 PM almost as exhausted as I was at my homecoming on that trip from Springfield.

I also smelt distinctly as if I had been rolling about in a barn full of harvested weed. Come to think of it, the crowd in the waiting room smelt like that, too, and none of them had been to the dispensary. One could only blame the staff, then, as the dispensary itself did smell like a harvest barn. The latest research into human biomes suggests that we shed our passenger micro-organisms (who reside in and on us in often in greater numbers than our own cells) in a way that is distinctly individual. By sampling a room, they can, for a few hours, identify previous occupants. Wow! Imagine that waiting room as a Grand Central Station for microbes. Do they have a ticket to ride?

So: was it worth the adventure? No and yes.

No: I would not willingly again spend 4 or more hours waiting in line to buy weed.

On the other hand: When the steam heat begins to sound like a chorus of castrati singing like theremins accompanied by Tuvan throat singers in complex melodies and rhythms… Well! You know you have arrived.

dsc03352
Photo by Roman.

The Virginian

Bob Roman’s notes on a novel.

Given that The Virginian by Owen Wister was a runaway best-seller way back in 1902 and has since been made into a play, four movies, a TV series, a TV movie, and a video: well, a review would be somewhat redundant. But here are some thoughts on the novel regardless. First of all, if I were writing a review, I would say: I like this book, in spite of myself, and you will too. Whether you like westerns or not, this is the one western that you ought to read. You can ignore all the others, if you wish, for this is the ur-western that distills all of that genre before and after. Voilà! My review. Now for the thoughts:

I picked up the book as part of my Geezer Downsizing Project and could not wait to re-read it. My particular copy is a paperback product of TOR, a publisher better known for its science fiction and fantasy titles. But the book is also in the public domain and is available online through Project Gutenberg for free.

When I first read the book some years ago, I was captivated within the first few pages. The story opens with the narrator on a train to Medicine Bow, Wyoming, just about to arrive there but parked just outside the station for the locomotive to take on water… already six hours behind schedule. This isn’t AMTRAK, friends, but “the more things change…”

Worse yet, when the narrator alights from the train, he discovers:

“My baggage was lost; it had not come on my train; it was adrift somewhere back in the two thousand miles that lay behind me. And by way of comfort, the baggage-man remarked that passengers often got astray from their trunks, but the trunks mostly found them after a while.”

If you have ever waited and waited with growing anxiety at an airport baggage claim, you can’t hardly not identify with this. “The more things change…”

I also looked forward to re-reading some very nice writing. Alas, most of it did not live up to my memory of the specific passages, though they were not bad, for example:

“…But I came upon him one morning in Colonel Cyrus Jones’s eating palace.

“Did you know the palace? It stood in Omaha, near the trains, and it was ten years old (which is middle-aged in Omaha) when I first saw it. It was a shell of wood, painted with golden emblems – the steamboat, the eagle, the Yosemite – and a live bear ate gratuities at its entrance. Weather permitting, it opened upon the world as a stage upon the audience. You sat in Omaha’s whole sight and dined, while Omaha’s dust came and settled upon the refreshments. It is gone the way of the Indian and the buffalo, for the West is growing old. You should have seen the palace and sat there. In front of you passed rainbows of men – Chinese, Indian chiefs, Africans, General Miles, younger sons, Austrian nobility, wide females in pink. Our continent drained prismatically through Omaha once.”

Or another example:

“…We descended in the chill silence, while the mushroom rocks grew far and the somber woods approached. By a stream we got off where two banks sheltered us; for a bleak wind cut down over the crags now and then, making the pines send out a great note through the basin, like breakers in a heavy sea.”

Wister wrote well enough in general, but there was far less writing of this quality in the book than I had remembered.

Wister constructed his story as a series of interlocked anecdotes, some humorous, some dramatic, some serve as parables for a sort of libertarianism. The humor tends to be very 19th Century. There are straight-faced reversals or understatements (e.g., “but the trunks mostly found them after a while.”) There are plenty of the 19th Century version of situation comedy, where the naive are hoodwinked or manipulated to other’s advantage. This manner of humor was Mark Twain’s forte, and Wister is not bad at it either. This is particularly interesting as, unlike Twain, Wister’s victims are typically folks from back East, newcomers to the West. Humor is sometimes used as a means of establishing hierarchy, and for Wister, east of the Mississippi, or maybe even the Missouri, is clearly inferior.

Wister’s libertarianism is mostly unexceptional minarchist. I don’t mean to be all Marxian here, but that is hardly surprising. Wister came from an upper middle class family in Philadelphia with all manner of connections. Notably, Teddy Roosevelt was a buddy. That may not sound very “libertarian” except in the most general way, but Wister was also no friend of Franklin Roosevelt or the New Deal later on.

Wister’s friendship with Teddy Roosevelt also speaks to a particular aspect of Wister’s philosophy. Wister shared with Roosevelt a view that “a new “American race” (ethnic group) had emerged from the heroic wilderness hunters and Indian fighters, acting on the frontier with little government help.” (Wikipedia)

Wister links this with a favorite libertarian trope, merit. He has the Virginian himself ruminate:

“…But if you go to try a thing on in this Western country, you’ve got to do it well. You’ve got to deal cyards well; you’ve got to steal well; and if you claim to be quick with your gun, you must be quick, for you’re a public temptation and some man will not resist trying to prove he is the quicker. You must break all the Commandments well in this Western country…”

And it stands to reason, I suppose, that natural selection will therefore make us great. It’s still a common enough notion: Consider all the present day dreary troll comments about “cleaning the gene pool.” Merit continues to have a vise grip on the American culture, and I suppose that would not be such a bad thing except that it is so easy to ignore just how slippery and self-serving a concept it can be in practice.

You know, it’s probably a mistake to describe natural selection as “survival of the fittest.” Stated that way, survival sounds very much like a reward for merit, a prize for “fitness.” In truth, survival defines fitness and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about merit. The race as often goes to the faster rather than the fastest.

But Wister is really pretty militant about this. Earlier in the book, he has the narrator spout off:

“All America is divided into two classes – the quality and the equality. The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until our women bear nothing but kings.

“It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man. For by it we abolished cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying “Let the best man win, whoever he is.” Let the best man win! That is America’s word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same…”

Now stop and think about all the different ways in which people use the term “democracy.” If you have any sense, you’ll not ever again assume that “democracy” means what you might think it does unless the person using the term elaborates. Democracy is, to be philosophical about it, a “contested concept,” meaning very different things depending on context, including the identity of the person using it.

It’s fortunate that Wister doesn’t rant like this very often or for very long… unlike like some books… Atlas Shrugged, for example. But another unfortunate and lengthy exposition concerns lynching. Well, it couldn’t be a western without a necktie party, could it? The issue surely touches a nerve for Wister.

The individuals lynched in the novel are cattle rustlers and horse thieves. The lynching in The Virginian sets up a series of conflicts, dramas, in the last third of the book. One of the prime organizers of the necktie party was the Virginian himself and one of the individuals lynched was the Virginian’s erstwhile best friend. Oh woe! It also sets up a conflict between the Virginian and the woman he seeks to wed. She’s the town’s school teacher and a New England Yankee to boot. The necessity of this murder escapes her, of course, and the Virginian’s employer, Judge Henry, must justify it to her in the Virginian’s absence and explain how it is not at all anything like a lynching in the South. Henry explains:

“…I see no likeness in principle whatever between burning Southern negroes in public and hanging Wyoming horse-thieves in private. I consider the burning a proof that the South is barbarous, and the hanging a proof that Wyoming is determined to become civilized. We do not torture our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite spectators to enjoy their death agony…”

Even granting Judge’s point, this isn’t quite enough for Miss Molly the school-marm: “Both defy law and order.”

Judge Henry replies that the government, including the courts, derive their authority from individual citizens. When the courts, in particular the juries, are incapable of holding horse-thieves accountable, why then:

“…he must take justice back into his own hands where it was once at the beginning of all things. Call this primitive, if you will. But so far from being a defiance of the law, it is an assertion of it – the fundamental assertion of self-governing men, upon whom our whole social fabric is based.”

One step further and you’ve become a member of the “sovereign citizen” movement. But really, just how different is this from Southern lynching? Consider this apology for the KKK published in the New York World:

“It may not be amiss to give here a short sketch of the celebrated Ku-Klux Klan, which has recently become such a bug-bear to Radical papers and politicians. The fraternity originated in East Tennessee, where the conquered rebels, finding themselves subjected to violence and oppression, and unprotected in person, life, or property by the established authorities, resolved to take the law into their own hands, and redress their own wrongs.” New York World, Wednesday, January 13, 1869, Page 10

It’s much the same argument, Judge Henry.

Oh, and that gift of privacy so nobly granted the Wyoming victims? There’s a story to that as well, involving some of Wister’s buddies, that really makes “privacy” seem more than a little self-serving.

The theft of horses and beeves was a real problem in Montana and Wyoming in the late 1870s and 1880s It was a major item on the agenda of the 1884 meeting of the Montana Stock Growers Association. The Association was led by a “soft spoken gentleman from Virginia, Granville Stuart.” When the meeting discussed the problem, Teddy Roosevelt, then a rancher himself, was in favor of a frontal assault on the miscreants wherever they gathered. Teddy had visions of charging San Juan Hill even then, apparently. The meeting very sensibly turned down Teddy’s fantasy on the grounds of really poor optics, possible casualties among the “good guys” and possible criminal liabilities. (So much for the feeble state, Judge Henry!)

But as Dee Brown describes it in The American West:

“…As soon as the spring roundup was ended, he [Stuart] called a meeting of fourteen of the most closed-mouthed cattlemen in the Northwest. They met secretly at his ranch, and called themselves the Vigilance Committee.

“In a few weeks they were known as Stuart’s Stranglers. The Stranglers worked methodically. When a stock thief became known, he was tracked down, captured, and quietly hanged. A simple placard labeled “Horse Thief” or “Cattle Thief” was always left fastened to each victim’s clothes. The Northwestern newspapers, aware of what was happening, kept almost as silent as the Stranglers. The Mineral Argus of Maiden, Montana, commented laconically: ‘Eastern Montana is rapidly reducing the number of horse thieves.’” (page 327)

One is tempted to think that Granville Stuart was a partial model for Wister’s Virginian. Not being a scholar, I haven’t explored the issue.

Judge Henry might protest that Western lynching was still different because Southern lynching was aimed at keeping negroes in their place. He might go on to mutter something about “natural law.” Well, being a fictional character, we might have Judge Henry say anything at all. But keeping a group in its place was likely one of the aims of the Stranglers as well.

Owen Wister’s introduction to my edition of The Virginian is basically a long homage to the cowboy, that seed crystal of the “new American race.” But cowboys were agricultural labor. They were disposable people, not quite to the degree that B. Traven’s Indians were in March to the Monteria because (typically) the social distance between employer and employee was far less in the West. But it is interesting that the stereotypical cowboy end of trail blowout is awfully similar to the end of contract behavior described by Traven. And in both instances, it left the worker in a position where going back to the boss with hat in hand was the easier option.

Prior to the barbed wire fencing of the Plains, entry into the cattle industry was easy enough to be at least plausible to a cowboy. Horses and beeves loose and unbranded on the range were fair game to be claimed by anyone who rounded them up. And it should be noted that “legit” ranching operations were not always above a little pilfering, brand smudging and cattle laundering. The line between “good guys” and “bad” was exceedingly broad and fuzzy.

But short of any aspirations, cowboys were simply semi-skilled farm hands. As Mark A. Lause described it in his article “The Cowboy Class Wars”:

“Cowboys only had real power during the spring cattle drive, that fleeting moment when employers desperately need labor, and quickly: ranches couldn’t find qualified replacements on such short notice. If the cowboys stuck together, they could impose their terms. But the longer the strike lasted, the more precarious their position would become.

“As migratory workers, cowboys followed the work where it took them and carried their experience and ideas with them. From 1884 to 1886, they went on strike from New Mexico to Wyoming. Employers used everything from blacklisting to armed regulators to try to control their workforce.”

The fencing of the Plains reduced the cowboy’s bargaining position, eliminating that strategic moment of employer need, while at the same time radically reducing the need for labor. Given the customarily loose lines around property and the increasingly uncertain prospects for cowboy employment, Mr. Stuart and Mr. Roosevelt wouldn’t miss a few head of cattle, would they?* Apparently they would, but apparently most juries out West in the 1880s were not impressed enough to convict.

Did Stuart’s Stranglers murder thieves or troublemakers? As no one kept a complete list, never mind body count of victims, it could easily have been both.** Regardless, as Clyde Milner II and Carol O’Connor note in As Big as the West, their biography of Stuart:

“…In terms of the horse thieves, the Stranglers targeted a lower-class, indeed a working-class population. Some of these people were mixed-race, and they might live near criminals, shelter criminals, or even be criminals. It little mattered. The Stranglers rode for the largest cattle owners and thus represented the forces of social and business domination. They served as killers for the landed gentry and their capitalist partners…”

As such, the Stranglers were not that different than the KKK or the Mississippi White Citizens Councils or the Vigilance Committees of various California cities or today’s border patrols and “militia movements.” Welcome to the grand American tradition of death squads.

History, it is said, is written by the victors, and The Virginian is Owen Wister’s contribution to our country’s mythology. It is a fantasy that enthralls much of America even today: the little man made big by a gun, the “justice” of stand your ground, the plain and forthright meaning of being a man, the self-righteous and self-serving hegemony of mob violence. By golly, who wouldn’t yearn for the collapse of civilization just so you could build your own little dukedom on the range?

Sorry. I’d just as soon leave it to fantasy. And so should you.


* Incidentally, agricultural theft is still an issue though more concentrated on high value crops. You may have seen news reports about avocados, for example, or various nut crops. One can easily imagine this becoming more of a problem as the century progresses, with maybe a return to vigilantism? That would be a very bad leading indicator.

** The Knights of Labor did organize cowboys, but the accounts I’ve run across are down Texas way. In Montana, the Knights seem to have been mostly involved with the mining industry, most especially around Butte. As Milner and O’Connor suggest, thieves (loosely defined as any suspicious and marginal character regardless of evidence) may have been the Strangler’s first objective in a longer game of hegemony, right when the insurgent Populist movement was just beginning to smolder. There were, incidentally, any number of vigilance committees aimed at horse thieves who, rather than lynching them, were perfectly happy to turn their victims over to law enforcement for trial.

A Night at the Garden

That’s Madison Square Garden, to be specific. This is a short video produced and directed by Marshall Curry documenting a 1939 pro-Nazi demonstration held in New York’s Madison Square Garden. It was attended by some 20,000 New Yorkers (what? you say they were all from New Jersey?) and, yes, by a few 1930s vintage “antifas”.

We’re a divided nation these days, but that, by itself, is nothing new.

For more information about the film and the history, check the video’s web site.