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2019年2月5日 星期二

RCP Morning Note, 02/05/2019: Venezuela Strategy; Presidential Character; California Scheming


02/05/2019
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Carl Cannon's Morning Note

Venezuela Strategy; Presidential Character; California Scheming

By Carl M. Cannon on Feb 05, 2019 09:36 am

Good morning, it's Tuesday, February 5, 2019. On this date in 1883, Southern Pacific Railroad began service from New Orleans to California. The company dubbed the line the "Sunset Route," but passengers took to calling it "Stormy" for the summer thunderstorms that often enlivened the journey.

Weather was the least of the issues when it came to Southern Pacific. With a monopoly not just on passenger trains but, more significantly, all the freight moving in and out of the Golden State by land, SP soon came to dominate California's economic and political life in a way difficult to comprehend today. Well, maybe not, as I think of Facebook and Amazon. But I digress, or perhaps that's a bit of foreshadowing.

In the latter 19th century and into the 20th century, Southern Pacific Railroad's tentacles reached into the pockets of ranchers and wheat farmers' in the Central Valley and put money into politicians' war chests in Sacramento. The title of crusading journalist Frank Norris' influential 1901 novel explaining turn-of-the century politics in the West was "The Octopus: A Story of California."

I'll have a further word about that story, and its author, in a moment. First I'd direct you to our front page, which aggregates an array of columns and stories spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

* * *

Trump Administration Threads the Needle in Venezuela. Charles Lipson outlines the stakes and the strategy.

Heraclitus and Presidential Character. Jonathan N. Badger weighs in on a debate among conservatives regarding the importance of Donald Trump's character.

Why the Senate Should Confirm Neomi Rao. In RealClearPolicy, Roger D. Klein lauds the former law professor nominated to replace Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Wealth Inequality Is the Greatest Enemy of Poverty. RealClearMarkets editor John Tamny argues that those calling for wealth redistribution forget that the rich often get wealthy by making inexpensive products that benefit the poor and working class.

The Chinese Are Leading Us to Privatize the Oceans. Also in RCM, Walter Block asserts that China's creation of territory in the South China Sea is a step in the direction of protecting the world's seas.

Lessons From Bill Murray's "Groundhog Day." In RealClearHistory, Brandon Christensen explains how this enduringly popular comedy is another example of American films' impact on world culture.

* * *

Born in Chicago, Frank Norris was brought to California as a teenager. He studied art in Paris, literature at the University of California in Berkeley, and did a stint at Harvard before becoming a journalist. After befriending author Stephen Crane while covering the Spanish-American War in 1898, Norris became a prominent voice in a school of writing known as "naturalism."

Although today we would say that he was writing "historical fiction," turn-of-the-century naturalist authors were doing more than that. They were producing fiction with a moral purpose. Norris' first major work, "McTeague," dealt candidly with the themes of sex, domestic violence, and obsession -- not typical fare in 1899 literature. "The Octopus," which was published two years later, was intended to be the first book in a trilogy. The second in that series was "The Pit," and the third, which was never finished, was to be called "The Wolf."

Although "The Octopus" and "The Pit" were influential until the mid-20th century, this is less true today. Upton Sinclair is still taught, but Frank Norris has gradually disappeared from college syllabuses and high school reading lists. I suspect three or four factors have played a role in this.

For one thing, Norris didn't live long enough to finish his final work. Unlike Sinclair, who lived to be 90 and had second and third acts in life -- including running for political office in California -- Frank Norris died young. He was 31 when "The Octopus" came out. He died the following year from a burst appendix. ("The Pit," which he had finished, was published posthumously.)

Norris has also been shunted aside by modern literary critics for not being "woke" enough on issues of race and ethnicity, the primary critique being that "The Octopus" has an undercurrent of anti-Semitism.

This accusation strikes me as weak tea, a criticism leveled by lesser talents protected by tenure. The main evidence seems to be that a Southern Pacific land agent in the novel named "S. Behrman" is said to be drawn as a stereotypical greedy Jewish businessman. I don't see it, though it's true that S. Behrman is an odious character who illustrates the insatiable avarice of the railroad. Here's a passage that will give you the flavor:

If the freight rates are to be adjusted to squeeze us a little harder, it is S. Behrman who regulates what we can stand. If there's a judge to be bought, it is S. Behrman who does the bargaining. If there is a jury to be bribed, it is S. Behrman who handles the money. If there is an election to be jobbed, it is S. Behrman who manipulates it. It's Behrman here and Behrman there.

Okay, he's a parasite, but Norris doesn't identify him as being Jewish. And the 1888 Mussel Slough Tragedy, a shootout in Tulare County that inspired the novel, was instigated by real-life railroad land agents and their allies: men such as W.H. Mills, Creed Haymond, W.W. Stow, and "Boss" Carr. But none of them were Jewish, either. Nor were the "Big Four" -- Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Charles Crocker -- the railroad magnates who formed Southern Pacific.

There was an SP land agent at the time Norris would have been researching his book who had a Germanic name and could have been the inspiration for S. Behrman. His name was Daniel K. Zumwalt, and, like Frank Norris, he came to the West originally from Illinois. But Zumwalt was a Methodist.

In any event, the decades-long predation of Southern Pacific on California's politics and agriculture ultimately prompted a backlash in the form of "muckraking" journalists, reform-minded politicians, and fed-up voters. Foremost among the reformers was Hiram Johnson, who won the state's governorship in 1910 as a liberal Republican crusading against Southern Pacific.

Two years later, Johnson helped found the Progressive Party and was Theodore Roosevelt's running mate in the three-way presidential race of 1912, in which a divided GOP handed the presidency to Woodrow Wilson. Hiram Johnson ran for governor again in 1914, winning in a landslide, and two years later he left Sacramento for Washington as a U.S. senator.

Looking back, Johnson's first campaign proved a harbinger of California's future. Determined to show that he was a man who embraced science and technology -- and because he was running against the railroads -- Johnson mostly eschewed rail travel in 1910, preferring to campaign in a new-fangled mode of transport.

This contraption was, of course, the automobile. This historic example underscores the final reason Frank Norris is no longer relevant. As time marches forward, innovative technologies provide solutions to human beings' ancient problems -- even as they create fresh social problems to be addressed anew.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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