Monday, October 10, 2011
What’s So Great about the Great Depression?
The Great Depression
For a historian, there is a lot that’s great about the Great Depression. We love change over time, and what’s better than the Republican Party going from 58% of the vote in the presidential election to less than 40% in 1932? We love connecting religion to the moment, and what better examples than "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," "Detroit Blues," or "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries"? We love the nitty-gritty of everyday experiences, and what’s better than the letters to Franklin Roosevelt detailing the hard times of the era? One African American, for instance, wrote to the President complaining, “If there is a such thing as a God, he must be a white person, according to the conditions we colored people are in and if there is such a thing as heaven there must be signs [saying] we cater to white only.” This man had tried the WPA for a job, but had been rejected. He looked to Germany with hope: “You hear of so many people low-rate Hitler and tell how mean he is treating the people. The colored people right here in the United States are treated just as bad, if not worse. Hitler has not done anything to the colored people – it’s the people right here in the United States who are keeping us out of work and keeping us down.” Of course, Hitler wasn’t kind to blacks at all, but the writer was speaking to his frustration and devastation. The economy was so bad and white supremacy was so powerful that he was convinced that even God must be white.
For my lecture on the Great Depression, I really try to show the greatness of the period – meaning historical greatness. I want my students to see that the Great Depression made modern America. It moved the Bible Belt to the southern California Sun Belt. It destroyed the Republican Party for what it was. It created a new approach to interactions with Native Americans through the Indian New Deal. It led not only to the increased size of the federal government, but also a completely new approach to it. The marks of the New Deal are all over San Diego State University’s campus, and it’s fun to have students think about the benches they sit on as Great Depression artifacts. Although perhaps America’s most aristocratic president – at least by lineage – Franklin Roosevelt came to embody the hopes of common women and men. Why today do we look to the president for every problem, complaint, and struggle? This was a Great Depression and New Deal creation.
What’s typically missing from my lecture are the structural drawbacks from the Great Depression and New Deal. If I really want to connect to my students, then I’ll need to somehow, someway interact with the Fox-News-ization of approaches to the New Deal that render it an intense evil. The roots and intentions of Social Security may be helpful here. Does anyone know of a way to connect this material with current political debates – without making the classroom a forum for partisanship?!?
Later in the week, I’m going to discuss how the documents from Major Problems work to address the questions “what was so great about the Great Depression” and “what was so depressing about the Great Depression”? And then I’m going to see if my students can address the problem of a strong, executive government. What does it mean for a government formed with the preponderance of power vested in Congress function where the President is seen as the beginning and end-all-be-all of the nation?