This is the sixth in a series of posts.
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The answers will not come from the top, people who make millions have little interest in changing a system that is enriching them. They manufacture dissension to keep us perpetually divided, as long as we are focused on the symptoms and don’t understand our fates are intertwined, we will continue to shrivel apart.
—Theodrose Fikre, “Nosotrous Tambíen: Seek Justice and Disavow ‘Just Us’ ” (The Ghion Journal6/24/18)
“How You Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?" The song of that title was first released in 1919. It came out just after the First World War had ended.
That particular war was fought back when the United States was still a predominantly rural country.
President Woodrow Wilson did not convince the Congress of the United States to declare formal entry into the war until April 1917, the final year of the four-year European conflagration. The truce that ended the slaughter on the battlefields of Western Europe was finally declared a year and one-half later, in November 1918.
After the United States did declare war, many young men—including some who would go on to perform deeds of great valor, as did the young Tennessee farmboy Alvin York, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor and became the most famous American hero of that war—were torn from their rural communities and involuntarily inducted into the United States’ military forces. The inductees were quickly subjected to basic military training, then sent away to fight on the battlefields “Over There,” to use the catch-phrase from George M. Cohan’s so-entitled song.
Cohan’s “Over There” was itself first released in June of 1917, just two months after Wilson led the nation into the war. The song was good for whipping up enthusiasm for “Johnny” to “get your gun” (the first line of the lyrics of Cohan’s song), and go off to wage what Wilson promoted as a holy crusade, “the war to end all wars” and “to make the world safe for democracy.” That promised end of all wars and assuring of democracy was to be purchased at the cost of killing off as many as possible of “the Hun,” to use the then-common derogatory term for Germans, a term Cohan helped populatize in his jingoist song.
The “Huns” of that First World War were assigned the same role that would fall to the “Japs” of the next one. When war’s the end that justifies all means, any old dehumanized, animalized enemy will do: “Huns” in one war, “Japs” in another, “Gooks” and “Slopes” or “Slope-heads” a couple of wars later, “Ragheads” yet a few wars further on, maybe “Chinks” in the next one up. The point is to whip up hatred and nationalistic fervor to the point that those sent off to kill “the enemy” will not hesitate to commit homicide against that enemy, any more than they would hesitate to kill off noxious vermin such as rats, or the lice and fleas rats so often carry.
Blinding troops to the humanity of those against whom they are being sent to kill serves well the purposes of those so sending them. It is accordingly encouraged and facilitated through the promulgation of such demeaning epithets as "Huns" and such rah-rah nationalist songs as “Over There,” or catoon-posters such as the one from WW I that depicted Germans as King-Kong-sized gorillas, or jingoist slogans and any other other available means for stirring up vengeful and resentment-ladened hatred against the appointed "enemy."
When World War I ended and United States troops were done doing their duty by butchering Huns, those troops were brought back home. Once they were home again, propagandizing them to go “over there” to kill for the powers in power in their country was no longer necessary.
What above all motivated the returning troops in their post-war status was, in fact, the desire to find a job. Now, after their use as slayers of the vile Hun had ended, the returning troops found themselves uprooted by their wartime experience from all the old familiar ways of their previous lives, predominantly in small rural communities. Hence, the jobs they needed had to be provided elsewhere, by some other means. The Wilson administration encouraged employers to create such jobs for the returning veterans, in a process that fed the industrial and financial boom of the 1920s—which in turn set up the bust of the Great Depression beginning in 1929.
In accordance with the new, urban need for jobs and the workers to fill them, popular propaganda shifted accordingly. That shift found it first iconic expression precisely in the popular song, “How You Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”
The question asked in that 1919 song’s title is, of course, a purely rhetorical question: The song-title doesn’t really ask any question at all; it just uses a sentence worded as a question to do something else. In this case, the question form is being used to assert emphatically that, once you have “let ‘em see Paree,” you are not going to “keep them down on the farm” any longer.
At the same time, that same rhetorical question also functions to implant, or reinforce an already implanted, desire to avoid returning to how things used to be “back home,” "on the farm," and instead to go somewhere else and do something different. The song’s rhetorical question thus helps imbed the suggestion that, if you are one of those who has now in fact “seen Paree,” then surely you don’t want to go back to old Hicksville and its old hick ways! Rather, you surely want to go to such a busy, bustling, live, and lively place as New York City, or Chicago, or Detroit, or some other ever-active thrilling and thriving modern metropolis that, as another, slightly later song puts it about Chicago, “never shuts down"—places where, as they self-advertise, you can also get a lucrative job, and thereby bootstrap yourself out of the hick ranks of Hicksville from which you came, and of which you have now been made to feel ashamed.
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Unless you’re Black. Then things are a bit different. As the description by The The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, for their graphic exhibit, “Coming Home” puts it:
While government programs and benefits applied to all veterans, civil rights were not so equal in America’s segregated post-war society. African-American veterans returned to communities that often did not welcome them home with cheering crowds and inclusive celebrations [as they did for "White" vets]. These veterans joined the American Legion and other similar organizations but encountered the reality of segregation even in the ranks of former comrades-in-arms.*
On the other hand, driving masses of people out of rural communities and into cities with the promise of the riches and opportunities appearing to lie there carries great risk for the powers that be, and whose interests are to be served by such mass population movement. The risk is that once those populations move into those cities, they will in fact discover the paucity of decent, well paying jobs that are really there, and the cutthroat competition for those that are.
The greatest risk of all for coercive power is that under such literally proletarianizing conditions, the diverse members of the new and ever-growing mass urban industrial working class may actually begin to see that they all have one common long-term real interest, despite all the differences among their various individual short-term apparent interests. The risk, that is, is that the new urban working masses may actually come to see the wisdom of heeding the advice—to use Marx and Engels’s way of putting it—that they “unite,” since by doing so “they have nothing to lose but their chains.”
The powers that be certainly can’t have that! Those powers have a vested interest in keeping the growing urban masses blind to working people’s real underlying unity of interest with one another. Instead, those powers for their own selfish sake do whatever they can to accentuate the differences that separate those they exploit from one another, differences such as place of origin, skin complexion, language, tradition, or culture. By highlighting such differences, coercive power does indeed secure and enlarge itself, heeding the advice of the old proverb to “divide and conquer!”
Thus, to give a prime example of the mechanism at issue, once the First World War was over and the troops did come back from “over there,” the longstanding racism “back home,” and the segregation that institutionalized it, proved to be of great value in blinding the returning troops to their genuine community of interest. Wilson had already fostered racism and segegation before the war, most famously in his enthusiastic endorsement and promotion of D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, which came out a bit more than a year before the United States declared war, and was itself of great help as a midwife to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson was certainly not hesitant about fostering racism and segregation after the war, either.
To keep the exploited blind to their own common interest by promoting division, stereotyping, and hatred among them, is of inestimable value to the exploiters.
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To be continued.
*Available online at https://www.theworldwar.org/explore/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/coming-home.