John D. Rockefeller – Sinner or Saint?

A way to a man’s heart is through sex, food, and Ron Chernow books. The last one is probably particular to me, but thankfully my wife knows me very well; for Christmas last year she bought me Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr by – you guessed who – Ron Chernow. I first became interested in Rockefeller after watching the History Channel series The Men Who Built America which profiles the dominant imperialists of the Gilded Age. The History Channel usually churns out complete garbage, but this show was actually informative and entertaining – compared to the ubiquitous alien conspiracy theory shows. Rockefeller is one of the most complicated men I have ever read about and hence Chernow’s biography of him took up a mammoth 700 pages.

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Rockefeller, unlike Vanderbilt or JP Morgan, was not your typical Rober Baron who accumulated money for the sake of hedonism. Wealth and success to Rockefeller represented God’s blessings – blessings which could not be squandered. He lived a simple life relative to his fortune which in today’s money was worth 400 billion dollars. Oil was the foundation of that fortune and for decades his company, Standard Oil, dominated the global refining business. With vast wealth comes enormous controversy – Rockefeller was a ruthless businessman who negotiated unfair trade deals with the railroads – squeezing out small refiners in the process. These shady business practices were during a time when industry was mostly unregulated in America. Ida Tarbell, the famous Muckraker journalist, vilified Rockefeller – subsequently rallying public opinion and the US government to break up Standard Oil’s monopoly. Ironically, the break up of Standard Oil made Rockefeller even wealthier – he continued to own large shares of his stepchildren’s companies still known today: Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, Chevron, Sun, Conoco.

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Rockefeller stepped away from the oil business in his late 50’s and enjoyed a long retirement of philanthropy. Thanks to several Rockefeller foundations, the fields of education, medicine, and research were expanded. It can be argued that the United States world-renowned college system is a direct result of Rockefeller – he set the standard for medical research and founded the prestigious University of Chicago. Before Rockefeller, the state of medicine in the US was that of snake oil salesman – after Rockefeller medicine evolved into a rigorous scientific discipline. Some would question whether we should support philanthropy from “dirty” oil money? I would argue that Rockefeller made business decisions like a strict father; they were harsh but many times fair, as the oil business was in large part saved by Rockefeller’s big thinking principles. During the financial crises of the late 19th century, many small refiners went bust all while Standard Oil maintained record low prices for the consumer. Capitalism is tough and Rockefeller was one of the toughest. When we critique his decisions, we must look at things contextually. Rockefeller was not without blame, but I don’t think that his legacy is one of a sinner. I think his legacy is complicated and the fairest assessment should come from his opponents…

“The press, once hostile to him, formed his biggest cheering section. ‘It is doubful whether any private individual has ever spent a great fortune more wisely than Mr. Rockefeller,’ Pulitzer’s World editorialized in 1923, while the Hearst press, not to be outdone, states, ‘The Rockefellers have given away more money and to better advantage than anybody else in the world’s history since the ark stranded on Ararat.'”

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I believe that Rockefeller is no saint when compared to the world as a whole…but maybe a saint when compared to the wealthiest individuals in the history of the world. Excessive wealth usually corrupts and leaves no positive legacy. Rockefeller following his religious views used each penny wisely. Those pennies may have been tainted, but in the end, they were shined up for a noble purpose; a purpose which Rockefeller pursued until his death at 97 years old. So what’s your verdict? Was Rockefeller a sinner or a saint?

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To Love, you must Hate?

Being Valentine’s Day this Tuesday, I’ve been thinking a lot about love. What would best represent love on Valentine’s Day? Flowers? Chocolates? Cards? Sex? Butterfly kisses? Snuggles? Deep conversations? Hate? That last one seems out of place but hear me out. Can hate and love exist together at the same time? Do hate and love secretly have a twisted marriage together? Can love exist without hate? I find it interesting that our culture is so fond of using the word love but strays away from the word hate. A conversation may go something like this.

-“I love Katy Perry, she is the best singer in the world!”

-“I hate Katy Perry, she wants to kiss a girl and I don’t like it!”

-“You don’t even know her how can you ‘hate’ her?”

-“Alright…I extremely dislike Katy Perry and her stupid eyelash commercials.”

“Hate” is such a strong word but “love” isn’t? It makes sense that we shy away from hate because from a young age we are taught examples of nasty people that embody the word like Hitler, John Wayne Gacy, and Mark Cuban. With age came a deeper understanding of the word and its usage expanded. Saying, “I hate the fur industry,” or “I hate McDonald’s” became a normal conversation piece. But there still existed that taboo of associating hatred with a specific person. I think there is a major problem with this. Does our vernacular keep us from truly understanding love? Let me put it another way. Does avoiding the “hate” word keep us from the “love” word?

Let me posit a philosophical question. Can two perfect people love each other in a perfect world? Let’s first define what love truly represents. Love is not a feeling but is an action. One can feel emotion as a result of love but love does not propagate out of thin air. For example, if I give flowers to Christina it is an “act” of love; she subsequently feels happy emotions but those emotions are not love – solely the result of love. So let’s go back to my question about the perfect people in the perfect world. One perfect dude gives perfect flowers to his perfect wife. Is this an “act” of love? If the woman feels happy as a result of the flowers how does she differentiate that feeling from any other feeling – since she is perfect in a perfect world?  Would she feel anything different than her normal perfect state? It is an interesting scenario that is obviously impossible. My point is to make you think about contrast. Without actions that are opposite in nature there is no discernible difference in various stimuli. Imagine staring at a blue sky with blue clouds – there is no recognition of either.

This brings me to my point. Without hate there is no love. Without the opposite of love, we cannot understand what love truly represents. The exchange of flowers only means something because we subconsciously understand that hate exists; think instead that I handed Christina a bouquet of snakes that immediately bite her. Can I truly love Christina without hating her? I think the answer is no. We must hate to love. What better example of this then a couple who has been married for 20 years. They know each other’s quirks, pet peeves, and trigger points. They have fought, disagreed, and bickered thousands of times. They both have things that they can’t stand about each other. Those things or events are times of hatred; it may be a mini hatred but it is hatred nonetheless. Without those fun-size hates there would never be the meaningful acts of love: a soft hug after a tearful fight, a difficult compliment that kills pride, a somber admittance of wrong doing. We hate the ones we love. I appreciate Christina because of all her imperfections that drive me crazy. So why is this important to recognize? Because so many times in life we want everything perfect. We always want our relationship to be perfect. We want to live in a romantic comedy. We are afraid of the bad. But do not fret. Those times of despair, hate, and discontent are the times that make our love the strongest. Appreciate the hate because it is the fuel for the fire of love on this Valentine’s Day.

History Class Gave Hitler a Free Pass

Did Hitler come to power on a Monday and subsequently start slaughtering Jews on a Tuesday? The answer is obviously no but we are primarily taught in school about the events of WWII-not how we got to WWII. Usually our history class did a hop skip and jump to the juicy parts to keep our teenage selves from getting bored. Most people’s history knowledge is best described as someone who watched Titanic but only skipped to the sex scene in the car, the naked painting on the couch, the boat sinking, and Jack falling off the door in the water. I am in this same sinking boat with most people and that is why I wanted to read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. Larson is an excellent writer because he makes nonfiction read like fiction. If you are not the type to read history then you should try Larson-I promise you will not be bored. In the Garden of the Beasts follows the American Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and his family while they lived in Germany between 1933-1938. The book primarily details the rise of Hitler and the atmosphere of Nazi Germany through the diary of Dodd and Dodd’s daughter-Martha. This family was able to detail what life was like in Nazi Germany and how Hitler slowly morphed into the monster we know of today.

In 1933 Hitler became chancellor of Germany. He did this through subjugating his competition and rallying his people behind the cause of German nationalism. Shortly after Hitler was elected he began to use the Gestapo to put fear into the hearts of Jews, Communists, and anyone who did not see exactly his way. People oftentimes were beaten in the streets or were reported missing for no apparent reason. Even Americans were beaten on many occasions for failing to give the Hail Hitler salute and observing the ceaseless military parades. Furthermore, the Nazis openly passed laws that disbanded Jews from marrying non-Jews, working in certain jobs, and using certain facilities in the city. All these things were well known around the world yet no government spoke up against Hitler’s practices? Why was this? In America it was because of greed and homegrown antisemitism. Firstly, America didn’t want to upset Hitler by condemning these early actions because Germany owed the US a lot of money. The debtors were focused on collecting their interest and Germany was having difficulty making their payments. Secondly, the US had specific immigration policies in place that prevented Jews from coming to the country because there was a clear dislike of Jews among many state officials. This atmosphere was similar in other Western countries and is one reason Hitler was allowed to continue these preliminary policies.

What about the German people? Why didn’t they stop Hitler? Some Germans did try to go against Hitler but most of them were killed or imprisoned for their treason. Most Germans in those early years thought Hitler was not going to last long in politics and would actually step down. Hitler slowly became more forceful in his control over the population and eventually everyone was afraid of espionage and being taken in by the Gestapo. Living in Germany during that time was stressful and scary no matter who you were-no one felt comfortable. It was this atmosphere that allowed Hitler to take full control when President Hindenburg finally passed away. At anytime during those early years Hitler could have been stopped. His policies were disliked by most people in and outside of Germany but nothing was done. Students are taught that the US came in triumphantly, stormed Normandy, defeated Hitler, and freed the Jews in the concentration camps. But when you really look into the details is the US not partially responsible for WWII? Hitler many times over broke the Treaty of Versailles but no Western country stepped in? The reasons for these are many: an isolationist attitude, fear of losing interest payments, the Great Depression, hypocritical racist policies in the South, etc. We can’t go back and change history but what we can do is learn from history. And how can we do this? We need to teach and learn about all the scenes that took place to understand how we got to that point. Without context, Rose getting painted butt naked by her lover, could be Rose getting painted butt naked by her kidnapper. Why is this important today? In America at least, there are still groups of people who are disenfranchised and political leaders who want further disenfranchisement. It seems we want to get right to the action and skip all the details-maybe that is why history repeats itself.