Nov 11, 2007

Cyd Malone on Arthurdale, Eleanor Roosevelt's failed social experiment

Arthurdale is a story with no hero. The American voting masses — that vanguard of the socialist revolution — wanted a strong man, exactly as that genius Marx had predicted. And, again exactly as Marx predicted, history produced that man.

His likeable wife Eleanor helped spread the gospel that underpinned the New Deal: that living off the toil of others is perfectly acceptable and moral. Most Americans, not even a century removed from fighting a Civil War supposedly to end such an inhuman practice, agreed.

Did Arthurdale help the families chosen to enjoy that money? Absolutely. Did the families enjoy an ocean of material abundance, even if many of them eventually learned that, in terms of "normal American life," they weren't in Kansas anymore? Absolutely.

Yet the good fortune of the residents does not negate the fact that they were living off the sweat of others' labor. Arthurdale was not "charity"; nobody was asked to contribute those millions any more than Thomas Jefferson simply asked his slaves to bring in the harvest.

Eleanor Roosevelt and her friends didn't use the money to "help the poor." Arthurdale was not in their minds charity; they used it to perform an experiment on the people they placed into Arthurdale. Eleanor called it a "program of long term rehabilitation." It had been decided that the people placed into Arthurdale needed to be more like Eleanor Roosevelt and her parlor friends.

Everything I've come across on Arthurdale maintains (in a manner of haughty approval) that it was a social experiment. The entire project was designed by a small clique of the powerful to see if they could improve their fellow man. In this case, admittedly just one of many such examples history provides, Eleanor was the potter and a group of dirt-poor Americans were the clay.

Where Our Creator had fallen short of perfection, where they had spotted a flaw in His work, Eleanor and her friends went riding into the breach, over the carcasses of all the other great plans intended to improve on our Creator's design.

Dr. Paul Conkin's Tomorrow A New World states that Arthurdale and the others sure to follow would be "demonstrations of a new way of life" (Conkin 1959, p. 115) and the New York Times praised it (of course) as "a national laboratory of which may come a new American way of life".

If Arthurdale was a laboratory, what did that make the Americans placed into it?

From the view of cold, hard, economic science, Mrs. Roosevelt, closely linked to Arthurdale for the rest of her days, defended her project by saying "the new hope and life given to the residents … were not to be measured in dollars and cents," showing she was as poor an economist as she was a homebuilder.

You must consider that which is unseen as well as what's right before your eyes — else you're only using half your brain. Mrs. Roosevelt, eyes set high on the progressive horizon, never looked down to notice those others she helped reduce to poverty, the jobs she helped destroy, the hope and life she snuffed out by the removal from their lives of the millions squandered on her "pet project" Arthurdale, all at the flick of her mighty ego.

By 1948, the Arthurdale project had come to a quiet end. All the holdings were sold off to the homesteaders, some for as low as $750 (Conkin 1959, p. 115). Once on the lips of every newspaper editor from sea to shining sea, the town has slid into obscurity; no longer do strangers come peeking in at the window or walk in to ask foolish questions.

Though Arthurdale was, from both a moral and financial point of view, a cataclysmic failure, I am happy to see the town live despite my misgivings about its vicious birth. I wish for the town to stand for years to come but not, like the friendly people who staff its museum believe, as a monument to noble charity. Her creation did not spring from any charitable impulse. I wish her to stand as a monument to the squandering of others' wealth, the residents' loss of freedom, and most important, the loss to all Americans of the principle that no man shall be forced to support another's crackbrained scheme.

In the end, Eleanor Roosevelt's dream of covering America with Arthurdales came true — from sea to shining sea, federally funded housing projects are not hard to find. For better or for worse, in them we have Arthurdale's legacy.

~ , "The Peculiar History of Arthurdale,", August 8, 2007

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