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Y2K Lessons for Menders from the Great Depression


From: Sharif M. Abdullah

I always find it amazing how profoundly some of us distance ourselves from our own history. We treat the past as though it is a story from some other planet, having no relevance to our own. (Like we never learned from Vietnam that the concept of "limited engagement" in war is meaningless, and therefore we get mired in the Balkans.)

As we approach the possibility of going through a major societal shift, my thoughts have been going to those times in which our society has faced (or not faced) serious upheavals before. Specifically, I have been reading T. H. Watkins book, "The Great Depression" (the companion book to the PBS television series).

Some lessons:

1. The Breaker leadership in the 1930's never "got it". They did not see the possibility of an economic collapse; when it happened they did not acknowledge it; some of them NEVER got it. According to President Hoover, five full months after the stock market crash, with millions of Americans out of work, homeless and hungry, "All the evidences indicate that the worst effects of the crash upon unemployment will have passed during the next sixty days". (Pg. 51)

Y2K LESSON: If they don't get it by now, don't expect them to ever get it. As someone said, don't try to teach a pig to sing. It only wastes your time and annoys the pig.

2. During the Depression, the Breaker leadership made every bad decision imaginable, making a horrible situation infinitely worse. Believing that the crisis was short-term and local, the leadership withheld federal aid, relying on local churches and charities to supply relief to those in need. The locals of course were swamped by the magnitude of the situation.

Y2K LESSON: Don't expect much more than what you're getting right now.

3. They took actions that supported and protected their economic and social class, at the expense of ethnic minorities. They acted from their reality, which was racist, sexist and elitist. For example, in several cities it was determined that the number of people seeking assistance was too high -- so they simply removed all of the black from the relief rolls. And, in Los Angeles, the city fathers bought one-way train tickets for the Latinos.

Y2K LESSON: Don't believe it can't happen again.

4. Across the country, the Breaker leadership did not hesitate to call out the troops to protect their perceived interests and to quell the honest aspirations of hungry people.

Y2K LESSON: See above.

5. Until the Roosevelt administration took over, Depression-management relied on people seeing their poverty as a personal tragedy, not a failure of leadership. Popular media focused on the rich and famous, a "happy days are here again!" campaign. Those who did put the big picture together, unionists in the industrialized East, farmers in Iowa and elsewhere, were greeted with troops. The start of the "Red Scare" that lasted all the way up to the Reagan administration.

Y2K LESSON: It's the SYSTEM, smarty! Look for how your personal life fits into a larger picture. Help people make the connections.

There are more lessons here: I'll let you discover them. My favorite quote in the book is from Robert Louis Stevenson: "Sooner or later in life, we all sit down to a banquet of consequences." (Pg. 217)


Sharif M. Abdullah
P.O. BOX 12541
Portland, OR 97212


(503) 281-1667