Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich by promising to protect each from the other.
We seem to be going through a phase of extreme cynicism about politics and politicians, so I’d like to introduce a delightful author and, by all accounts, a very nice man.
Oscar Ameringer was born in a small town in Bavaria in 1870, and brought up in a conservative Lutheran household. He had a talent for painting and music. His father was a master craftsman, and young Oscar learned furniture making from him, but in the 1880s, industrial production was taking over traditional craftsmanship.
One after the other, guild masters gave up the ghost [and] were sucked into factories… I never minded learning the furniture trade… There is something fascinatingly creative about helping a dead piece of wood evolve into a thing of beauty and service to man. But young as I was, I foresaw the end of the golden age of handicraft.
Oscar left for America 8 months before his 16th birthday – to seek his fortune, but also to avoid call up for military service.
He arrived at a time of bitter industrial disputes, in which recent immigrants were often used as strikebreakers. He joined the Cincinnati branch of the Knights of Labor – though he had to lie about his age – and marched in their May Day parade. Soon he had a reputation as an agitator and found it hard to get work, but meanwhile he discovered the local library, where he taught himself English, and developed a deep love of history. He made a reasonable living for a few years painting portraits and selling humorous pieces to the local papers – and, if his memoirs are anything to go by, chatting up the ladies.
When his mother begged him to come home to see his family once again, he arrived home with 5000 marks in his pockets, a prosperous prodigal son. For the next 5 years, he studied art at the Royal Academy in Munich, where the leading industries were ‘beer, art and education, and the chief of these was beer.’ But along with the beer, he also absorbed the politics of late 19th century Germany: ‘my mind had been opened. The removal of the junk pounded into my young head by school and church had provided the blessed vacuum in which any new idea found welcome and lodging’. A friend from the industrial city of Dresden introduced him to the ideas of the Social-Democratic movement.
Ameringer returned to America in 1897, bringing his socialist, pacifist ideas with him. He never made it as a portrait painter, but he became an advocate for socialist causes, a labour organizer, and a journalist. He settled in Oklahoma and edited various papers: The Oklahoma Leader, The American Guardian, Labor World. He waged war against the Ku Klux Klan in Oklahoma, and stood up for the rights of sharecroppers.
In 1932, he wrote a ‘Testimony on Unemployment’ which is scarily resonant today, with its talk of people threatened by foreclosure, unable to meet mortgage payments, and resentful of Washington.
They say the only thing you do in Washington is to take money from the pockets of the poor and put it into the pockets of the rich. They say that this Government is a conspiracy against the common people to enrich the already rich.
But above all, Ameringer was funny. Life and Deeds of Uncle Sam: A little History for Big Children (1909) sold over half a million copies, and his autobiography, If You Don’t Weaken (1940) is a joy to read. It’s available on Google Books here. His views on politics are thoughtful, cynical, gentle and astute, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
In those Munich years most of us stood politically more or less to the left of center. That is, we were forward-looking. A rather amusing term, “forward-looking,” because virtually all the forward-lookers I have met since then have been so busy looking backward that they couldn’t even see what was taking place under their very noses. Anarchists look back to Bakunin and Kropotkin. Socialists look back to Marx and Engels. Single-taxers look back to Henry George. Progressive Republicans look back to Abraham Lincoln, Progressive Democrats to Jefferson and Jackson. Progressive lawyers quote Blackstone while progressive parsons and rabbis vainly try to forget Moses and Genesis.