December 1, 2015

SUSSER | Leaders of the Past and Future

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The assembly line was one of the biggest industrial innovations of the first half of the twentieth century. It brought what were once luxury items within the reach of middle class Americans and spawned industries that fueled the country’s economy for decades. Motorized vehicles became democratized, prompting a nationwide craving for the freedom of the road. Easy credit and low prices brought an explosion in the automobile industry, and by the end of the 1920s, nearly one in five Americans had access to a car.

The brainchild behind the new industrial method was Henry Ford, Sr., the owner of the eponymous car company and visionary businessman. Today, his name and legacy are maintained as a result of certain large contributions he made over the years. In 1915, he helped establish the Henry Ford Health System, which currently employs over 23,000 people in Detroit — the fifth largest employer in the area. If any worker wanted to learn more about the history of their employer’s namesake they would read of Ford’s role as an “auto pioneer,” a common thread in the Ford narrative. Although not from Detroit, I’m sure the Ford name resonates for locals as strongly as Adele’s “Hello” resonates among … everyone. Despite the eventual collapse of the Detroit automobile industry, the Ford family’s contributions to the local economy were — and are — not insignificant.

What much of the Ford name fails to adequately conjure, though, are his substantive contributions to anti-semitic sentiment. Praises of his business acumen and novelty trump any mention of questionable ties to his dissemination of extreme propaganda.

If you were to purchase a Model-T car during the 1920s — a car that was as central to Ford’s rise as failing casino’s were to Trump’s — a copy of the Dearborn Independent may very well have complemented your purchase. Just as a weathered bible often rests on the night table of a shoddy motel room, Ford’s personal newspaper was often distributed to his dealerships; new car owners brought the gospel of Henry Ford into their powerful new vehicles. While driving away from the dealership, just a quick glance at the paper and one would read the headline — “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” Imagine reading that after purchasing an iPhone.

Ford, a staunch “pacifist,” vehemently opposed international conflict such as World War I and felt it necessary to blame the conflict upon the deceit and corruption of certain financiers who supposedly profited from war (aka the “International Jew”). What followed in his periodicals was a four volume series that would influence Nazi leaders — including Adolph Hitler — and contribute to the outbreak of the Second World War. So much for pacifism. Nearly as scary as the scores of future Nazi’s that adulated the extremist views of Ford were the millions of Americans who viewed him as an emblem of success.

Today, when we venerate figures such as Donald Trump in the name of financial success, I can’t help but think of the influential nature of Ford. Is it that easy to conflate riches with the ability to lead in a moral and ethical manner? Trump has time and time again shown racial insensitivity and immaturity on the campaign trail. Even if there is an entertainment value to his presence, this is no stage for such a man.

Ford ironically had close ties with President Woodrow Wilson, who implored him to run for the Senate seat of Michigan. Wilson, whose policy vision clouded his segregationist tendencies, has a similar controversial story like Ford’s. Despite establishing the Federal Reserve System and effective anti-trust regulation, he held a public screening of Birth of A Nation — the foremost propaganda piece of the Klu Klux Klan — and discouraged African Americans from applying to Princeton during his tenure as president of the university, segregated federal buildings and expressed morally immature objections to the institution of slavery (economic reasons). Today, Princeton students are calling for the removal of his name from their school of public policy and international affairs. I understand and echo their request, as I certainly would not feel comfortable attending a school whose namesake was Henry Ford, Sr.

History often gets lost in the urgency of the present. We forget about the traumas of the past, wounds heal and new devastating events suppress prior travesties. Although Ford would later attempt a mea culpa by removing any sort of affiliation with The International Jew, the damage had already been done. His newspaper gave fodder to an unspeakable plague that, similar to the expeditious assembly line, would be known for the efficient elimination of millions of innocent men, women and children.

So what should Henry Ford, Sr. be remembered for? What should Woodrow Wilson be remembered for? Many argue that these controversial figures should be looked at with historical context. Wilson was raised in the Confederate South, where such racist views were the norm, not the exception.

Nobody is perfect, but imperfection must, at the very least, be known. It is often difficult to expose wrongdoing amongst powerful figures — just watch an episode of House of Cards. But, we must come to terms with the moral flaws of past icons and adapt in certain situations. While it often may be difficult to face such change — I think of the abrupt conclusion to Joe Paterno’s career and life — we must be flexible in our perceptions of notable individuals. Given a history of institutionalized discrimination of African Americans within our country’s borders following Wilson’s presidency, academic institutions must be wary in their recognition of this man. As for Ford, let’s just say I’m going to stick with Japanese cars.

Philip Susser is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.