My father, Otto Kirchner-Dean was an Austrian-born-disabled-veteran of WWII. He came to America after both his parents died and was adopted by an Episcopalian minister–Father Stanley Dean of Kingston, New York. After the war Otto walked with a wooden leg. He loved talking to people from all walks of life to find out what made them tick. He attended Seminary School but did not graduate. Instead, he became a librarian with a passion for books. He was a church activist who seldom missed a Sunday service. When he retired on disability he became an antiquarian bookseller.
Having come to this country as a teen he had already experienced a feel for what life was like in Austria. He told stories of life in Austria and of the Hapsburgs almost like he knew them personally. After all, his father was a civil servant and helped to care of the horses at Laxenburg (now known as Laxenburg Water Castle) in Laxenburg, Austria. I remember him saying how different it was in America versus Austria and how people in the old country knew their place in life. Everyone understood each other but of course it was never easy. I always wondered when I visited the Biltmore Estates in Asheville, NC whether the servants quarters in the basement were anything like the accommodations my father’s family experienced at Laxenburg. I hope not. But I do remember him saying that those damn castles are cold and both his parents succumbed to Tuberculosis.
This is an untitled, unfinished paper my dad wrote after he moved to Washington, DC to start a new job at the Library of Congress. We soon were to join him and take up residence in Maryland. Both my mother and father commuted daily to their jobs in Washington, DC. Oh the sacrifices they made for us kids! This illustrates some of my dad’s thinking relating to life in America and the state of this country in 1964 or thereabouts. I think it still rings true today. At least we still hear people who dislike President Obama constantly squabbling over which label fits him best — Communist, Socialist, or Nazi. And surely, none of these labels represents the American way.
My father would have so loved to be around to see Barrack Obama elected. I do think there is nothing that would have pleased him more. He died at 67 years of age in Manassas, Virginia and now deservedly rests in comfort at Quantico National Cemetery.
Capitalism? or What is Americanism and what do we believe? (My title)
There have been several recent attempts to rename the system which produces and distributes goods and services in the United States. (This Week Magazine and more recently the President of the American Motor Corporation have both given their attention to this engaging problem.) Capitalism and capitalists have had a very difficult time of it — both terms have been used by both friends and foes in so many non-endearing ways. Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would destroy itself but since he also promised that the state would wither away in Communist countries — it may be hoped that he was wrong on both counts. Like any term of abuse it begins to convince people whom the term supposedly describes that it is essentially unclean and derogatory. History, to be sure, bears witness to the opposite tendency when terms of abuse become badges of honor. However, the institution of capitalism has changed so radically that it is hardly surprising that there should be a movement to abandon the old name.
Although the words capitalism and capitalists are but seldom used in the American press, the search for another word has not been very fruitful. (True, the only place where the words are still used is in the press of the Soviet Union.) In America capitalists have become captains of industry, industrialists and guardians of our much prized prosperity. Therefore although no new term has really replaced the old ones we do find them dropping from popular parlance.
So in America people are no longer asked to be loyal to capitalism — and it is getting more and more difficult to identify a self-admitted capitalist. However, the whole question has been dropped by disregarding the technical difficulty of renaming a radically changed set of institutions by our being asked to be loyal to Americanism. Because of its lack of precision this is an excellent bridge word until a more suitable word emerges. This is really a choice word because it is so completely honorific that it serves as an excellent term for politicians, for even to question its meaning might be interpreted as an act of serious disloyalty. If Americans visiting Russia meet few real communists, the chances of a Russian visitor to these shores coming face to face with a real capitalist are equally remote. By changing our loyalty from capitalism to Americanism and if the Russians could be persuaded to adopt the same principle both sets of tourists would be much happier as both countries contain fairly reliable samples of both Americans and Russians respectively.
Some 30 years ago an English clergyman suggested a word which I think very descriptive of what we otherwise call the American way of life and that is “consumptionism” — a term not likely to enjoy much popular favor. Whenever anyone suggests that the current passion for consuming might deplete our resources — both natural and human — to the danger point — we are assured by the most respectable journals that this is the most reactionary kind of nonsense. We are told that we have enough coal for X years and enough oil for Y years and that when this gives out we can always use inferior deposits whose use is not now economically feasible. Sometimes included in these comfortable words and often omitted is “enough proven reserves to last 50 years at the rate of current consumption.” Since coal, oil, and gas are still our chief sources of energy — everyone was much relieved that at last any repressed shame about our generous use of them could be forever forgotten because here was atomic energy. And now we come to our curious ambivalence toward the scientist. Let the scientist warn us of the danger of tobacco and he is a fool — but everyone has faith in his black magic. Scientists themselves are not sure when atomic energy will really be harnessed sufficiently to take the place of conventional fuels. And atomic wastes cannot be dumped into our rivers or even the oceans.
In this happy mood of euphoric optimism over an ever increasing Gross National Product, only the rare economist would risk his reputation by questioning the wisdom of an ever increasing prosperity which means providing more and more people with more and more goods and services at ever increasing costs.
Whatever we call ourselves I think it safe to say that what we really want and strive for are comfort and convenience. Homes, appliances, cars, clothes are all designed to offer the maximum in comfort and convenience. If we really want other things, at least there are the words which most often are used by the sales promotion people. Just about the only aspect of discomfort which still plagues us is the weather when we are out of doors and this of course includes out of car doors. And even, here science — that is, the weather reports have been so simplified (in order to make them understandable to the seeing and hearing public) to include the happy term “comfort index”.
It is of some interest that this index was at first to be called the discomfort index — but this was felt to be an affront to suggestible listeners — and it was finally decided to change the name to the comfort index. Certainly in the comfort station our scatology and our eschatology are in perfect harmony and accord.
As often as we hear about the “know-how” of the American worker and the aggressiveness of the free enterprise system it might be supposed that our daily announcements of our growing productivity were somehow natural and inescapable results of our happy combination of capital, labor and management. Nothing could be further from the truth — our government with its monetary and fiscal policies and its assumed responsibility for prosperity and growth — may take a lion’s share of the credit or blame. In a real sense the salesman follows the internal revenue department — the tax structure stimulates and the salesman sells the product. This is generally known by all informed persons and even the much abused man on the street is getting wind of it. The trouble is that the growth is stimulated but not directed to any end except full employment. In the days before atomic weapons — this was all well and good. Whether our goalless society was good or bad depended largely on one’s taste. But today America is faced with a competitor who is outpacing — whose rate of growth is staggering and who is directing this growth toward expansion and conquest and toward technological advances in significant areas.