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Karl Marx wrote that “history repeats … first as tragedy, then as farce,” but when it comes to the threat of Fascism in America over the last century, the order, it would seem, has been reversed.

William Dudley Pelley was a white supremacist and Hitler wannabe with a missionary’s zeal when he ran for President in 1936, his risible campaign ultimately receiving a grand total of 1,600 votes. He spent most of the next decade in prison having been tried for and convicted of conspiring with the enemy during World War II.

Things didn’t start out so haywire for Pelley. An autodidact, he became a successful writer of fiction and nonfiction, even penning scenarios for silent films for Lon Chaney. In 1928, however, he claimed to have had an “out-of-body experience” in which God and Christ, performing in a duet, instructed the scribe to bring about a spiritual transformation in America, one which was to occur at the expense of Jewish and non-white people. He formed a militia of “Silver Shirts” and commenced to work which never, thankfully, proved successful.

Eighty years later, an aspiring autocrat and bigot received nearly 63 million votes, winning the Presidency by hook and by crook. Many scholars advise that Trump, for all his bad qualities, is not actually what would historically be called a Fascist. In December 2015, during the ugly-as-sin campaign, UK historian Matthew Feldman commented on the “F” word in an interview with Mic:

“There are some [Fascist-sounding] things about Trump when seen in a particular light, such as his slogan, ‘Make America Great Again.’ But what I really want to stress is that’s not the same thing as overthrowing liberal democratic regimes, which is really the hallmark of classic fascist movements.”

After all that’s transpired since the inauguration, including Trump and Steve Bannon’s words at this week’s CPAC Conference, it’s fair to fear the Administration intends to implode our liberal democratic regime from the inside. The President continued his all-out warfare on the free press, which has been one of his main targets along with the Judiciary and the Intelligence Community, while Bannon explicitly acknowledged heads of cabinets have been selected based on their ability to destroy them, to “deconstruct the administrative state.”

Even if the new boss doesn’t meet the precise specifications of traditional Fascism, elements of that system can be mixed with the new abnormal to bring about the same end. The risk of American autocracy is not a punchline now, but a series of punches. One way or another, it seems like it will all end in tragedy. It already has, really.

The following are a series of articles about Pelley from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.


From April 5, 1938:

From April 5, 1942:

From August 16, 1942:

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From the February 11, 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Near the mid-point of last century, cyberneticist and mathematician Norbert Wiener worried that either the Kremlin or computers–perhaps both–would be the ruination of America. In Trump’s time, his fears may be realized.

A Russian spy ship is now patrolling the East Coast as a new Administration deeply linked to Vladimir Putin stands idly by, just days after it was reported that Trump campaign officials had constant contact with the autocracy throughout an election that was hacked by our adversary. 

Meanwhile, the new President and his anti-science inner circle are manufacturing fetishists who will invest in yesterday’s jobs at the expense of tomorrow’s high-tech future (robotics included). That could leave China, another despotic nemesis, in a position of predominance. That scenario becomes especially likely if isolationist tendencies and trade wars reduce our soft power abroad.

That’s not exactly how Wiener’s apocalyptic vision unfolded, but the same end would be reached.

In an article in the August 18, 1950 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the scientist explained how the “Automatic Age” might be a mixed blessing.

From the September 2, 1938 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

From the September 4, 1938 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Like many of us, William Hope “Coin” Harvey worried about money. His concerns, however, stretched beyond his own bank account.

A lawyer, popular writer on financial theory and a political populist who championed monetary bimetallism in the last decades of the 19th century when such things were a hot topic of conversation, he supported William Jennings Bryan, a free silverite, to a painful defeat in the 1896 Presidential Election. The waterloo curbed Harvey’s appetite for elections for a long spell, though he did run as a third-party candidate for the U.S. Presidency as standard bearer of the Liberty Party in 1932.

While Harvey’s monetary policy and political doings are largely lost to history, another aspect of his legacy can still be encountered in the pages of Henry Miller’s 1945 American odyssey, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. In 1900, Harvey used some of his publishing windfall to purchase a few acres in Northwest Arkansas where he built a gorgeous resort he called Monta Ne.

What most interested Miller about his subject was Harvey’s belief that American civilization was in steep decline thanks to wealth inequality and poor education and would soon be gone. To prevent all traces of our culture from disappearing, he planned to build at Monte Na something he called “The Pyramid” (actually a 130-foot-tall obelisk), that would contain multiple volumes of books he was writing that explained who we were to future peoples to prevent them from making our mistakes.

Alas, it was never built, as the market crash of 1929 and Harvey’s failing health prevented its construction. If America did not fall to the doom the money man feared, Monte Na itself was not long for the world. Beaver Lake, a man-made body completed in 1966, caused rising waters to mostly bury the resort.

An article in the February 19, 1927 Brooklyn Daily Eagle recall the Pyramid scheme before it crumbled.

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From the May 1, 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI halftime performance was dubbed “apolitical” by many news outlets, though that’s an odd way to describe a singer interrupting Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” for a blast of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” the latter being an angry retort to the former. From Murray Kempton in 1981:

Woody Guthrie had composed “This Land Is Your Land” as a bitter parody of “God Bless America.” It had originally closed with the stanza:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief office I saw my people
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.•

• • •

The Dustbowl was central to the songwriter’s sardonic bite, but Guthrie had some dalliances with the un-Oklahoma of New York City beginning in 1940, which resulted in the two articles below published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The first looks at Guthrie’s involvement in It’s All Yours, an anti-Fascist, anti-Hitler musical drama performed in 1942 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was co-directed by singer-songwriter Earl Robinson as the piece says, but what goes unmentioned is that the other director was Nicholas Ray, who would begin his big-time Hollywood career a half-dozen years later. In the second article, Guthrie brings his dirty boots to the home of etiquette expert (and erstwhile Staten Island Advance reporter) Amy Vanderbilt to celebrate the publication of Bound For Glory. As Charles B. Driscoll writes in the second piece: “Woody isn’t Phi Beta Kappa, but he knows a lot that they don’t teach in schools.”

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From October 5, 1942:

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From April 5, 1943:

From the July 11, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Steve Bannon has been deemed by some “Trump’s Rasputin,” but it’s not nice to besmirch Rasputin that way.

The inscrutable Siberian spiritualist was so wrapped in the cloth of mysticism that it’s impossible to know exactly how much influence he wielded in the palace of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna during the last days of disco for the Russian Empire. His sway may have actually registered somewhere between Bannon’s puppet-master position and Joan Quigley’s Reagan Era stargazing.

Regardless, the “mad monk” of St. Petersburg society made the people uneasy and the perception of him as “Chief Strategist” became a liability to the throne, so much so that his 1916 assassination was thought necessary by some royals if the Tsardom was to be salvaged. No dice, as the messy murder did not come close to halting the sweep of history.

A report from the March 1, 1914 Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the unlikely rise to power of the “crude impostor.”

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Like many who’ve read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the novel during this terrible time of a demagogue reaching the White House. The writer imagined an alternative history in which the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, an actual spokesperson for the America First Committee and admitted white supremacist, was able to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Presidency, changing the course of history for much the worse. It seems to have unfortunate parallels with our own bleak moment.

Roth doesn’t exactly see it that way, however. In an email exchange with Judith Thurman of the New Yorker, he explained the key difference:

“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist.”

Yes, that’s true, Trump is merely a Simon Cowell-ish strongman, not a real-life superhero whose daring made the world smaller when foreign acres of the Earth still felt as distant as the dark side of the moon. But the book’s sense of foreboding, the feeling that we’ve drifted far and disastrously from our ideals, definitely resonates.

An article in the April 28, 1941 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on Lindbergh’s abrupt resignation from his Army post in response to Roosevelt’s criticism of the flier’s speeches, in which he urged American isolationism, a belief which was fortified by his appreciation for Aryan superiority and feelings of anti-Semitism.

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From the July 29, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

Even if he hadn’t had a brain the size of a medicine ball, Edward H. Rulloff’s death by execution would have been notable. A brilliant philologist and author who committed a slew of violent crimes during his life, Rulloff was the last prisoner to die by public hanging in New York State.

For a long while, he managed to stay a step ahead of the law, even when he was suspected for the beating deaths of his wife and daughter and lethally poisoning a couple of other relatives. But when the vicious linguist was finally convicted to die for the murder of an Upstate New York shop clerk, some voiced support for sparing his life, in order to allow him to keep sharing his genius about language. Mark Twain coolly mocked them, suggested, in Swiftian fashion, that someone else be hanged in Rulloff’s place. The doomed man just wanted the show to get on the road. “Hurry it up!’ he hollered on the day he was to wear a noose, “I want to be in hell in time for dinner.”

When his severed head was examined after the death sentence was carried out, Rulloff proved to have one of the largest brains ever recorded. From the May 24, 1871 New York Times article about the measure of a wonderful, terrible man:

The work of dissecting Rulloff’s head was so far completed this morning as to enable those having it in charge to ascertain the weight of his brain. The brain weighed fifty-nine ounces, being nine and a half or ten ounces heavier than the average weight. The heaviest brain ever weighed was that of Cuvier, the French naturalist, which is given by some authorities at sixty-five ounces. The brain of Daniel Webster (partly estimated on account of a portion being destroyed by disease) weighed sixty-four ounces. The brain of Dr. Abercrombie, of Scotland, weighed sixty-three ounces.

The average weight of men’s brain is about 50 ounces; the maximum weight 65 ounces (Cuvier’s), and the minimum weight (idiots) 20 ounces. As an average, the lower portion of the brain (cerebellum) is to the upper portion (cerebrum) as 1 is to 8 8-10. The lower, brute portion, of Rulloff’s brain and the mechanical powers were unusually large. The upper portion of the brain, which directs the higher moral and religious sentiments, was very deficient in Rulloff. In the formation of his brain, Rulloff was a ferocious animal, and so far as disposition could relieve him from responsibility, he was not strictly responsible for his acts. There is no doubt he thought himself not a very bad man, on the morning he was lead out of prison, cursing from the cell to the gallows.

With the protection of a skull half an inch thick, and a scalp of the thickness and toughness of a rhinoceros rind, the man of seven murders was provided with a natural helmet that would have defied the force of any pistol bullet. If he had been in Mirick’s place the bullet would have made only a slight wound; and had he been provided with a cutis vera equal to his scalp, his defensive armor against bullets would have been as complete as a coat of mail.

The cords in Rulloff’s neck were as heavy and strong as those of an ox, and from his formation, one would almost suppose that he was protected against death from the gallows as well as by injury to his head.

Rulloff’s body was [said to be] larger than it was supposed to be by casual observers. The Sheriff ascertained when he took measure of the prisoner for a coffin to bury him in, that he was five feet and ten inches in height, and measured nineteen inches across the shoulders. When in good condition his weight was about 175 pounds.

It is very well-known that Rulloff’s grave was opened three times last Friday night by different parties who wanted to obtain his head. One of those parties was from Albany, and twice the body was disinterred by persons living in Binghamton. One company would no sooner cover up the body, which all found headless, and leave it, then another company would come and go through with the same operations. It is now known that the head was never buried with the body, but was legally obtained before the burial by the surgeons who have possession of it.

The hair and beard were shaved off close, and an excellent impression in plaster was taken of the whole head. The brain is now undergoing a hardening process, and when that is completed an impression will be taken of it entire, and then it will be parted, the different parts weighed, and impressions made of the several sections.•

From the November 20, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

For J. Robert Oppenheimer, science was a series of trials.

The father of the atomic bomb, the theoretical physicist was never to be sainted like Albert Einstein. It’s possible (likely, even) the weapon actually saved lives during World War II, abbreviating the fighting by forcing Japan to surrender, but the unholy power released brought to mind the content of the first piece of Morse code ever sent: “What hath God wrought.”

Publishing a post about Richard Feynman the other day reminded me about his mentor’s literal trial during the McCarthy era, when Oppenheimer was accused of being a Communist sympathizer willing to secret nuclear knowledge to the Soviets. The scientist had been under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI since the 1940s, with his phones tapped and office bugged, and in the following decade his security clearance was surprisingly revoked.

Oppenheimer certainly worked with and knew members of the Communist Party (his wife was one), but that wasn’t unusual in those days. The governmental action seems to have had less to do with fears of espionage than with witch-hunt hysteria and a power struggle among politicians and competing scientists, particularly his erstwhile friend Edward Teller. Oppenheimer fought his loss of credentials to no avail in a four-week trial, emerging with a reputation permanently reduced.

Two articles about the matter from the April 13, 1954 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the first about the suspension of clearance and the second a piece in which Einstein voiced support for Oppenheimer.


Edward R. Murrow interviews an understandably shaky Oppenheimer in the year after his trial. Under his direction, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton wasn’t only home to some of the finest young physicists in the world but also served as a salon of sorts to broaden the students’ thinking. T.S. Eliot, George Kennan and Jean Piaget were among the visitors who stayed for a spell. The university considered removing Oppenheimer from his post after the Communist controversy, but he ultimately retained his position until his death by cancer in 1967.

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From the December 18, 1926 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Jean-Martin Charcot believed there was an underlying problem. In the big picture, he was right.

The 19th-century physician, considered the “father neurology,” was pivotal in the understanding of ALS, Parkinson’s and other physical ailments, but it was his focus on neuroses that probably had the greatest impact on the world, through his own efforts and by those of his students.

In James Strachey’s introduction to a 1989 edition of Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote:

Before his marriage, from October 1885 to February 1886, Freud worked in Paris with the celebrated neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who impressed Freud with his bold advocacy of hypnosis as an instrument for healing medical disorders, and no less bold championship of the thesis (then quite unfashionable) that hysteria is an ailment to which men are susceptible no less than women. Charcot, an unrivaled observer, stimulated Freud’s growing interest in the theoretical and therapeutic aspects of mental healing. Nervous ailments became Freud’s specialty, and in the 1890s, as he told a friend, psychology became his tyrant. During these years he founded the psychoanalytic theory of mind.

It’s easy to look askance at Charcot’s dubious reliance on hypnosis (even he eventually though he overdid it) or Freud’s promotion of cocaine, but they were at that point essentially working in darkness, in possession of a few clues and searching for methods.

Charcot’s death was recorded in a September 10, 1893 article by Emma Bullet, Paris Correspondent of the Brooklyn Eagle. It includes a piece from an odd interview in which the doctor was asked if bicycling (which had only recently boomed in popularity) was healthy or injurious.

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From the October 21, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle

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Evan Meeker, 1921.

Showing his wagon train to President Theodore Roosevelt, 1908.

Showing his wagon to President Theodore Roosevelt, 1908.

With President Calvin Coolidge,

Meeting President Calvin Coolidge, 1924.

The Meeker store in Tacoma.

Meeker in Iowa in 1908 retracing the Great Migration.

Evan Meeker, Detroit, 1828, last photo.

Evan Meeker, Detroit, 1928, last photo.

 

When Ezra Meeker passed away just over 88 years ago, he took with him a lot of institutional memory–and the institution was America.

A pioneer who traveled the Oregon trail in his youth in 1852 just before ferries and steamships thinned the herd moving west by cart and covered wagon, Meeker spent much of his dotage trying to ensure history would remember those who endured such treacherous crossings to open up the country. He wasn’t exactly a reenactor even if he always retained the raggedness of a pioneer and retraced the trip numerous times by ox-driven cart in the first decades of the twentieth century. Meeker was more a sort of traveling salesman, peddling a fascinating period of our history to Presidents and the public alike, not for personal gain but for posterity, urging the establishment of monuments to this epoch.

It’s important to note that in the big picture Manifest Destiny was a tragedy for Native peoples, though Meeker himself enjoyed a particularly good relationship with Indians, as they were then called, collaborating and trading rather than fighting. If only we’d followed that example.

An article announced the passing of Meeker’s own monumental presence in the December 3, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

From the March 19, 1939 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Much of Sven Hedin’s life was lived in public, but the truth about him is somewhat buried nonetheless, strange for a Swedish explorer who spent his life unearthing the hidden. His expeditions to Central Asia just before and after beginning of the twentieth century introduced the world to invaluable art and artifacts and folkways and cities that had been lost to time.

Hedin was admired for these efforts in all corners of the world, including the one occupied by Adolf Hitler. The geographer perplexingly returned the Führer’s admiration, believing in the Nazi leader’s nationalistic and traditionalist tendencies, which was obviously a catastrophic misjudgement. He was highly critical, however, of the Party’s anti-Semitism. 

These protests brought trouble. Hitler seems to have blackmailed the famed explorer into publishing pro-Nazi tracts by imperiling some of Hedin’s Jewish friends still inside Germany. But it’s difficult to accept that Hedin encouraged Sweden to ally with Germany during WWII to save a few friends or even that he truly believed he could somehow compartmentalize various aspects of the uniformly deviant Third Reich. He just apparently didn’t want to recognize the evil. A disease of the eye caused Hedin to become partially blind in 1940, an apt metaphor for this period of his life.

Long before his political descent, Hedin penned an article for Harper’s about an unusual Tibetan custom in which monks passed their lives in subterranean isolation, a piece reprinted in the September 17, 1908 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

 

From the November 8, 1903 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

The French doctor-cum-novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline was always among the most troubling of artists, a brilliant writer and ardent anti-Semite. During the second half of the twentieth century, after the Nazis had been ground into dust, it was less a problem to embrace his brilliance. “Celine was my Proust!” exclaimed Philip Roth. William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller agreed.

The author’s thorns have sadly again grown as pointy as daggers in this neo-Nazi 2.0 moment, with his old interviews being re-run on viciously bigoted websites with Hitler-appropriate names. His greatness shouldn’t be denied, but his awfulness shouldn’t be forgotten.

In the 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle review of Journey to the End of the Night, his bruising, misanthropic war novel, George Currie writes of the rare level of fascination and controversy the book provoked in France.


A spectral, dissipated Céline cries during a 1957 TV interview. The following year, desperate for money as he always seemed to be, the author reluctantly allowed a re-issue of Journey, penning a preface in which he suggested the book’s graphic nature was the sole reason for the enmity he encountered, not at all acknowledging the role his numerous anti-Semitic tracts played.

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From the March 7, 1890 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Charles “Chuck” Connors was full of life, and other stuff.

The so-called “Mayor of Chinatown” was an Irishman dubbed “Insect” by his neighbors until his penchant for cooking chuck steaks over open fires in the streets earned him a new nickname. An inveterate self-promoter, he was a tour guide, vaudevillian, boxer, bouncer and raconteur. Some of his stories were even true.

One that wasn’t: For a fee, he showed tourists “authentic” Chinatown opium dens, which were often merely apartments he rented and filled with “extras” paid to pretend to be dragon chasers. The crafty man realized that narratives about urban blight, told just so, could be commodified.

Although he initially wasn’t so appreciated by his Chinese neighbors, Connors eventually earned their esteem and his blarney was sadly missed when it was permanently silenced. An article in the May 10, 1913 Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced his death.

From the September 14, 1947 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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