HistoryBits: United States

HistoryBits: United States

Bits and Pieces of History


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Colonies

Colonies/Economy/Mercantilism

Although mercantilism as practiced between Britain and its North American colonies had certain differences, it seems to have been a natural trading pattern for industrialized countries in their trade with the undeveloped world, using Third World trading partners as sources for raw materials and as markets for manufactured goods. These days, globalization is changing one essential aspect of that. Multinational corporations are establishing production alliances with manufacturers in under-developed countries to produce manufactured goods abroad for export to developed countries (cheap labor being the main attraction). In what must be one of the supreme ironies in the annals of empire, the result is that the United States, for one, has become entirely dependent upon foreign manufacturers for a broad range of its manufactured goods. Who is the colony now?

Colonies/Power/War/French and Indian War

The Achilles Heel of empire invariably lies in the expense of administering that empire. The empire back then was the New World, and its expenses eventually undid the British, while the surfeit of bullion that it produced eventually caused the Spanish to choke on their own greed. The essential difference in the case of America’s modern-day empire, however, is that the markets for the American corporate state that we were supposedly spending ourselves broke to defend are no longer ours to defend. Globalization has seen to it that these markets have become populated by countless global players that now cooperate in production alliances and contend for markets worldwide. And with the Soviet Union gone, there is no longer an enemy to protect them against. But it certainly isn’t the first time that an empire has been co-opted by its own offsprin

Colonies/Religion/Puritans

We Americans have much to thank the Church of England for, in its persecution of sects such as the Puritans that differed from its practices and were ultimately forced into exile in the New World. But isn’t it ironic—given the Puritans’ treatment of Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and the Quakers–how the persecuted soon become persecutors at the first opportunity.

Colonies/Religion/Quakers

We Americans have much to thank the Church of England for, in its persecution of sects such as the Quakers that differed from its practices and were ultimately forced into exile in the New World. But even in America, the Quakers were reviled for their refusal to take up arms in defense of the colonies (their own included) against Indian attacks. Their inner light burned with astonishing clarity on behalf of the proposition that violence—in any form and for any reason—is wrong.

Colonies/Society/Salem Witchcraft

Holding women to blame for every calamity that befalls mankind is an old habit—one that is founded in the resentment that has insinuated itself into the relationship between the sexes ever since the serpent slithered into Eden’s apple tree. Typically, the victim of witchcraft was not the objects of the witch’s Evil Eye, but the poor old crone herself—in most cases, some pathetic creature reduced to selling herbs and potions to make ends meet. Ordinarily left to their own harmless devices, these women assumed a more sinister countenance in times of social turmoil, as the propertied class grew increasingly fearful of the number of poor in their midst, and transformed them into agents of the devil. That women–as objects of the Devil’s own amours–should be the chief victims of the witchcraft craze is no surprise, since burning them at the stake accomplished the useful purpose of sacrificing a scapegoat and making amends with God for man’s many transgressions. In Salem, it served the further purpose of shifting the local balance of power—too heavily weighted in favor of socially prominent widows—back into the preserve of masculine prerogative.

Colonies/Society/Immigration

Much of the New World was colonized in a most unsavory way. Forget freedom and opportunity… and think indentured servitude, slavery, and penal colonies. Some would say that the harsh and hostile conditions of the New World couldn’t have been overcome other than at gunpoint and under threat of laying on the lash. But the second great wave of immigration in the 19th century was, of course, a different matter. Motivated as it was by incentive than coercion, the results proved that people respond far better to the former than the latter… and that’s what made the New World new.

Colonies/Society/Immigration

It was an odd mix of motives that brought the first European settlers to America: religious freedom (as with the New England colonies), commercial gain (Virginia), and philanthropy (Georgia). It causes one to wonder, as with fear and greed, which is the strongest? Is it devotion to God, Mammon, or decency? There seems to have been something for everyone, and perhaps this was what started us on our way to the becoming the anything-goes, melting pot society that America has become.

Colonies/Society/Pocahontas

The Virginia Colony needed all the help it could get, and Pocahontas led the relief effort by flinging herself upon John Smith at a most opportune moment. The Virginia Colony was intended to become the exemplar of the commercial relationship of Mother England with her colonies that became known as mercantilism. Obviously, the concept needed a bit of fine tuning at that point, since England didn’t even think to outfit its colony with practitioners of the most basic living skills: farmers, fishermen, carpenters, clothmakers, gunmakers, boat-builders—trusting instead that it would fend for itself quite nicely with all the gold they’d stumble upon in the New World. In time, mercantilism would grow up to form a natural trading pattern for industrialized countries in their trade with the undeveloped world, using Third World trading partners as sources for raw materials and as markets for manufactured goods. These days, globalization is changing one essential aspect of that. Multinational corporations are establishing production alliances with manufacturers in under-developed countries to produce manufactured goods abroad for export to developed countries (cheap labor being the main attraction). In what must be one of the supreme ironies in the annals of empire, the result is that the United States, for one, has become entirely dependent upon foreign manufacturers for a broad range of its manufactured goods. Who is the colony now?

Colonies/Society/Slavery/Amistad

The reason we study history is to learn the lessons of history from the experiences of others. In my view, it is impossible to understand anything unless one personally experiences it; experience is what makes the difference between knowledge and understanding. While we obviously cannot (in this lifetime, at least) experience the things that other generations in history have, we can come close in some cases with movies, since good acting can go a long ways toward imparting the emotional texture of the experience. Spielberg’s Amistad may well have distorted the letter of historical law, but the emotional impact of the film added both empathy for the slaves as well as an essential dimension to understanding slavery.

Colonies/Social/Slavery/Christianity

The colonial government’s decree that only non-Christians could be enslaved goes a long ways toward explaining why Christianity–instead of African or Caribbean cults–took hold among plantation slaves, wouldn’t it?

Colonies/Slavery/Northern slavery

Once can cite economic, topographical, and social and other considerations, but I submit that nothing happens unless people decide that it accords with their core values. Keep in mind, then, that many of the values that came over with the Pilgrims and other waves of immigrants that first settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other parts of the Northeast derived from the Europe of the Enlightenment, which upheld the dignity and divinity of man as paramount. Virginia, on the other hand, was intended as a commercial venture from the beginning, and Georgia was planned as a second chance for what England considered its dregs.

Colonies/Society/Taverns

Awash as colonial society was in suds and controversy, what else could possibly have come of it but revolution?

Colonies/Society/Values

When the white man came to the New World, his microbes wiped out some 95% of the estimated pre-contact population of 115 million (!), thereby wiping the slate clean for a new way of life populated by values that in most cases were appreciably different from their Old World counterparts. A lot depended on their motives for coming here. If the motivation was religious freedom, as in the New England colonies, that was one thing. If it was philanthropy—as with the Georgia colony—that was another. But what they all had in common was the need to adapt to a New World that was remote and for the most part hostile. This required an emphasis on practical solutions, and a willingness to adapt Old World institutions so that they worked in the real life conditions of the New World. Hence, our tradition of Yankee ingenuity.

Colonies/Society/Virginia Colony

The Virginia Colony was intended to become the exemplar of the commercial relationship of Mother England with her colonies that became known as mercantilism. Obviously, the concept needed a bit of fine tuning at that point, since England didn’t even think to outfit its colony with practitioners of the most basic living skills: farmers, fishermen, carpenters, clothmakers, gunmakers, boat-builders—trusting instead that it would fend for itself quite nicely with all the gold they’d stumble upon in the New World. In time, mercantilism would grow up to form a natural trading pattern for industrialized countries in their trade with the undeveloped world, using Third World trading partners as sources for raw materials and as markets for manufactured goods. These days, globalization is changing one essential aspect of that. Multinational corporations are establishing production alliances with manufacturers in under-developed countries to produce manufactured goods abroad for export to developed countries (cheap labor being the main attraction). In what must be one of the supreme ironies in the annals of empire, the result is that the United States, for one, has become entirely dependent upon foreign manufacturers for a broad range of its manufactured goods. Who is the colony now?

Society


Society/American Red Cross

Given the breathtaking ineptness of our present government, I fear that we’ll need all the help we can get. If everything means something, and if everything happens for a reason, perhaps the legacy of Hurricane Katrina–and the role of the American Red Cross in ameliorating the misery of such calamities–will help return our society to its senses and its traditional sense of compassion.

Society/Automobiles

Much as we can hardly imagine what life must have been like before the automobile, we’re likely to experience even greater difficulty in conceptualizing a life without the automobile in the not too distant future. But with the year of peak oil production upon us and the prospect of $10 gas within view, we’d better put on our thinking caps now. I’d like to think that while we’ll no doubt experience traumatic disruption in making the transition to a more localized lifestyle, the Internet is bound to enable us to supplant many of the imperatives of our consumer/commuter-based society with telecommuting and online virtuality. I’d like to imagine as well a life without the expense of owning and operating a car, a life without hydrocarbon pollution, traffic jams and road rage, and without the alienation, intimidation, and egotism of high-status rides. And, I’d like to imagine a world in which residents reclaim their neighborhoods and people once again get to know each other. I’m a dreamer, I know, but one man’s nightmare is another man’s fantasy.

Society/Baby Boomers

Much as the Second World War made for hothouse growth conditions in the economy and society, the postwar peace brought hothouse growth to America’s population. With “containment” the byword of the Cold War, America bottled up its own civil liberties and civic culture in much the same way that we did the Soviets, and the containment ethic of the Cold War applied as well to containing women in the home. Thus developed America’s domestic idyll, consecrated to the nurturing of the Baby Boomers and our obsession with the domestic security that soothed our Cold War paranoia and dread of nuclear holocaust. Kids grow up, and the prospect of living out the rest of their lives in the sterile context of suburbia must have caused countless women to despair. The absurd preoccupation of America’s foreign policy with the specter of a monolithic international communist conspiracy led us into the lethal quagmire of Vietnam and into myriad Third World intrigues and entanglements that we reap the consequences of even today. It all begs the question of whether the Cold War, as glacial as it was, wasn’t a pyrrhic victory after all. But, as with other epochs of social stress, we grew like crazy… economically, socially, creatively, and demographically; it is said, with some justification, that the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit.

Society/Backwoods Utopias

What is it about these bohemian backwoods utopias that just didn’t stick to the wall? They represented rebellion for its own sake, and the reason they situated themselves out in the woods was that they knew they never stood a chance of integrating themselves into society. Many of these movements were notable for their sexually eccentricity, ranging from the plural marriage of the Mormons to the communal connubiality of the Shakers; as such, they were doomed to fail as mainstream movements. But their protest was heard, and if anything, it served to affirm the right of Americans to live as they chose, and they lent their vitality to the tradition that brought the first settlers to America in the first place—to practice beliefs that were no less outlandish in comparison to the Old World orthodoxy they left behind.

Society/Beatniks

Kerouac and the Beat Generation anticipated the wonderful craziness of 1960’s Flower Power, which arose as a response to Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. With America forever in an uproar, there’s seldom any shortage of weird chemistry.

Society/Blacks/Black Codes

The worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead, long after the surrender at Appomattox. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, the Black Codes, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them. The Klan at least dressed to look the part of the losers they were, but it’s the bigotry that lies beneath the placid surface of normality and “respectability” that will prove to be the hardest to uproot.

Society/Blacks/Buffalo Soldiers

There’s something especially nefarious about the use of the black soldiers who fought for America’s independence from Britain to help exterminate the Native American. Then again, it’s one of the oldest ploys in the book: playing off one beleaguered minority against another—a stratagem that neatly sidesteps the blame for the whole business.

Society/Blacks/Migration

The northward migration of America’s blacks after the Civil War and the two World Wars points up the fact the greatest social gains usually come in the wake of war. War caused black Americans to wonder why they should fight for democracy abroad when it was not being practiced in their case at home, and it caused white Americans to ask themselves why they were willing to fight Hitler (and the racist doctrines he stood for), while practicing the same beliefs at home in America. In a sense, war is a creative masterpiece—like a painting of war that hangs in a museum—that brings out both the worst and the best in people. War is the catalyst that jars people out of their peacetime complacency and sows the dissatisfactions that can only be addressed through broad-based social reform.

Society/Blacks/Migration

The greatest social gains usually come in the wake of war, and America’s black community was as thoroughly revolutionized by the disruption of the Second World War as it had been by the Civil War. A large part of that was the opportunity of high-paying jobs that opened up in northern factories; another part of it was the political clout that developed in northern black communities. The biggest change for blacks, though, was in changing white attitudes. Even though the war caused black Americans to wonder why they should fight for democracy abroad when it was not being practiced in their case at home, it also caused white Americans to ask themselves why they were willing to fight Hitler (and the racist doctrines he stood for), while practicing the same beliefs at home in America. War is the catalyst that jars people out of their peacetime complacency and sows the dissatisfactions that can only be addressed through broad-based social reform.

Society/Blacks/Westward Migration

Rumors of free money (untrue) and free land blended with the heady prospect of freedom itself to paint Kansas as the Promised Land for newly freed slaves. Had the truth about the hardships of life on the windswept prairie been known, the tide of black emigration might have paused… but probably not for long. The lifelong diet of squalid oppression and adversity would have conditioned the ex-slave wonderfully for the rigors of Kansas and beyond, and ensured him a prominent place in the cowboy canon.

Society/Blacks/Civil Rights Movement/Frederick Douglass

Long after the surrender at Appomattox, the worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In this struggle, the force of law is often merely hypothetical, and only an act of civil disobedience can politicize people and force them to examine their own consciences; this, then, is the true import of action—whether mass demonstrations or acts of individual courage such as with Frederick Douglass’ moral revulsion and eloquent denunciation of the barbarism of slavery. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Blacks/Civil Rights Movement/W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois took a narrowly intellectual view toward the prospects of black Americans, proclaiming that it would be the “talented tenth” that would lead his race to the Promised Land of social, political, and economic equality. The problem with this idea is that it leaves the other nine-tenths to fend as best they can with the consequences of neglect and discrimination. Equal opportunity must kick in from the very beginning: equally decent neighborhoods, health care, schools, career and vocational opportunities, and two-parent families in order for the full measure of human potential to be elicited and put to good use. America must stop throwing away its black people, and invest in them instead. Nothing else produces anything near the returns to be had from investing in human beings. With proper investment, people become happy and productive and contribute to society; without it, they become pathologies and a tragic drain on society’s resources.

Society/Civil Rights Movement/Emancipation Proclamation

The worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead, long after the Emancipation Proclamation. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Civil Rights Movement/Ku Klux Klan

The worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead, long after the surrender at Appomattox. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them. The Klan at least dressed to look the part of the losers they were, but it’s the bigotry that lies beneath the placid surface of normality and “respectability” that will prove to be the hardest to uproot.

Society/Blacks/Civil Rights Movement/Malcolm X

Long after the surrender at Appomattox, the worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In this struggle, the force of law is often merely hypothetical, and only an act of civil disobedience can politicize people and force them to examine their own consciences; this, then, is the true import of action—whether mass demonstrations or acts of individual courage such as with Malcolm X urging a more strident defiance of bigotry and injustice. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Civil Rights Movement/Rosa Parks

Long after the surrender at Appomattox, the worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead.  The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In this struggle, the force of law is often merely hypothetical, and only an act of civil disobedience can politicize people and force them to examine their own consciences; this, then, is the true import of action—whether mass demonstrations or acts of individual courage such as Rosa Parks’ defiance of injustice in the Montgomery bus system. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Blacks/Civil Rights Movement/Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman’s single-handed liberation of hundreds of wretches from the barbarism of slavery left us with something no less priceless than freedom itself. The passage to the Promised Land–whether by way of the Underground Railway or by crossing the Rio Grande and the deserts of the Southwest—has never been easy. We draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Blacks/Civil Rights Movement/Women

The role of black women—from Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King—in the liberation of their people from the barbarism of slavery left us with something no less priceless than freedom itself. The passage to the Promised Land–whether by way of the Underground Railway or by crossing the Rio Grande and the deserts of the Southwest—has never been easy. We draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Blacks/Civil Rights Movement/Booker Washington

Long after the surrender at Appomattox, the worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In this struggle, the force of law is often merely hypothetical, and only an act of civil disobedience can politicize people and force them to examine their own consciences; this, then, is the true import of action—whether mass demonstrations or acts of individual courage such as with Booker T. Washington’s stance on how the newly-freed black Americans might best find their way in a white man’s world. Although his ideology was later repudiated by his increasingly restive followers, Washington’s view that his people should “accommodate” themselves to the white man—in the interest of reaching a working accommodation—was (at the time) a courageous beginning in the long road toward civil liberty and equality. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Blacks/Grandfather Clause

Odd that American blacks had to look backwards via the Grandfather Clause to make any kind of progress in voting rights.

Society/Blacks/Slavery/Sexual Abuse

The degradation of slavery was nothing if not total. To the long list of crimes against black humanity must be added the sexual abuse of slave women–a tragic and poignant counterpoint to the role of black women—from Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King—in the liberation of their people from the barbarism of slavery. They have left us with something no less priceless than freedom itself. The passage to the Promised Land–whether by way of the Underground Railway or by crossing the Rio Grande and the deserts of the Southwest—has never been easy. We draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Blacks/Youth

African-American youth may soon find that the field of competition has widened from just America (as if that wasn’t enough) to something more global in scope. The preponderance of McJobs in the American economy is part of the fallout from globalization, as America continues to fit itself into a global economy. As we increasingly come to compete with low-wage economies like China, India, and all the others that are struggling to emerge from the Third World, American companies are forced to compensate by developing ever-higher productivity. All this is bad news for American workers who find themselves working 60- and 70-hour workweeks for dwindling wages, but good news for workers in China and India who are at long last able to climb out of destitution and into the burgeoning ranks of the middle class. America, with 6% of the world’s population, commands 40% of its resources, and the fact of the matter is, we’ve been way less than generous in sharing that wealth with the one out of four people in this world who live on less than a dollar a day. Painful as they are, the harsh economics of globalization may ultimately be for the best, since if we don’t accomplish a leveling of the playing field one way or the other, we’re going to continue to be reminded of this enormous disparity in ways that—like 9/11–are likely to be pretty ugly.

Society/Blacks/Harlem Renaissance

Jazz–that most quintessentially American art form—came together with the literary light of Langston Hughes and the emergence of a unique black American style to form the cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance, a spasm of cultural exuberance that flourished in spite of black America’s modern-day demons of racism, poverty, and marginalization. Culture is a luxury that isn’t generally available to those whose every waking moment is consumed by the struggle to keep body and soul together, but the Harlem Renaissance should remind us that a human being’s natural state is not desperation, but joy.

Society/Blacks/Slavery/Plantation Life

The autarky of plantation life allowed slavery to develop into the South’s “peculiar institution,” replete with every necessity needed for life to thrive at great distance from the civilizing influences of the cities and one’s fellow human creature. This sense of isolation kept the South culturally in the dark, politically ingrown, and economically backward to the point where little common cause could be found with the more progressive North, which in time would make the Civil War a cultural conflict as much as anything.

Society/Slavery/Uncle Tom’s Cabin

The passage to the Promised Land–whether by way of the Underground Railway or by crossing the Rio Grande and the deserts of the Southwest—has never been easy, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s masterpiece that gave voice to the slaves’ longing for liberty was soulful as only the fruit of the distressed tree can be.

Society/Slavery/Underground Railway/Songs

The passage to the Promised Land–whether by way of the Underground Railway or by crossing the Rio Grande and the deserts of the Southwest—has never been easy, and the songs that gave voice to the slaves’ longing for liberty were sweet as only the fruit of the distressed tree can be.

Society/Civil Unrest/Chicago Police Riots

Vietnam and the upheaval of the Sixties–and the Chicago police riots that were one of its many symptoms–turned us all inside out, and showed us what excesses we’re all capable of. Civilization is only skin-deep, and when times are good, we wear it well. But there’s precious little that separates civilized man from his brutish nature, and history has repeatedly shown that the edifice of civilization that we so laboriously build in the good times comes quickly undone when war and other such calamity stalks the earth… as it is often wont to do.

Society/Class

The United States is becoming as divided—economically, socially, politically–as at any time since the Civil War. George W. Bush has polarized American society to an extent long unseen. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. What’s more, the man is clearly the minion of Big Money and its power to buy any election and conform the domestic and foreign policies of the United States to its bidding. Wealth has come to separate Blue from Red as surely as politics, and the preponderance of gated communities and private schools speaks to the widening chasm between two very different worlds in America. At risk is the success of the American Experiment, since in a sense, it’s our differences that define America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them. Regrettably, the evidence speaks loud and clear that differences in American society are widening, and are more and more evading our ability to embrace them.

Society/Class/Gilded Era

As tortured as they were, class distinctions in the newly-affluent United States of the Gilded Era were a harmless if not laughable proposition: “mutton dressed as lamb”, as William Makepeace Thackerey put it. Today it’s a very different story, and a far more malign one. The United States is becoming as divided—economically, socially, politically–as at any time since the Civil War. Regardless of which side of the fence one comes down on, the fact is that George W. Bush has polarized American society to an extent long unseen. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the liberal assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. Many see the man as clearly the minion of Big Money and of its power to buy any election and conform the domestic and foreign policies of the United States to its bidding. Wealth has come to separate Blue from Red as surely as politics, and the preponderance of gated communities and private schools speaks to the widening chasm between two very different worlds in America. At risk is the success of the American Experiment, since in a sense, it’s our differences that define America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace their most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them. Regrettably, however, the evidence speaks loud and clear that differences in American society are widening, and are more and more evading our ability to embrace them.

Society/Crime/Bonnie and Clyde

From the days of the Pilgrims’ bloody encounters with Native Americans and their subsequent annihilation, through the trauma of slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights struggle, and culminating with the horrific brutality of the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam, September 11 and Iraq, the American national character has been steeped in violence. Let us also tip our hats also to the tradition of unbridled greed, so ably exemplified in the heroic exploits of such robber barons as Rockefeller, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Bill Gates. Small wonder then that the ranks of our most adored national heroes so prominently feature such kings of the crime world as Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde!

Society/Cults

For Mennonites, Mormons, Shakers, Oneida, and many others, America offered a blank slate upon which to write-–without fear of lethal retribution–the creeds (and variations thereupon) that had fueled the murderous mayhem of Europe’s religious wars. This spirit of social experimentation has since taken us down some pretty strange roads, but it’s part and parcel of the diversity that has proved our greatest strength. Consider the fact that four out of five American recipients of the Nobel Prize have been either first- or second-generation immigrants. America is the world’s country, and diversity is our greatest strength, since America gets the best, the boldest, and the brightest from all corners of the globe. Diversity poses a challenge, though: either we overcome and embrace our most conspicuous differences, and become enriched in the bargain, or we will be overcome by those differences, and become embittered and impoverished as a result. That, in a word, is the central theme of the American experience, and its lessons are the ones that will guide us through the profound difficulties that await us in the era of globalization.

Society/Changing Work Patterns and Geography of Cities

The geography of American cities was shaped by the same organizing principles of industrial production that guided the factory system. Zoning, largely a New World phenomenon, was based on the idea that the form of cities should follow function, and in a sense, the organization of cities as economic, more than as cultural or political entities, reflected American priorities—that the business of America is business.

Society/Education/Chautauqua Movement

The Chautauqua Movement reflected Americans’ belief that, in a society whose form of government depended upon a well-educated citizenry to make the right decisions, universal education was good for the republic. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.

Society/Education/Early Public Education

Our vision of universal public education as the Great Equalizer in American society seems to have blurred. From the late 19th century, we were willing enough to bring the children of immigrants into our public schools on the same footing as the children of the wealthy and powerful… though black children didn’t even figure in the equation until 1954 with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. Better late than never, but the social chasm continues to widen along the public school/private school divide. What’s the point of a level playing field for kids if we continue to play in separate leagues?

Society/Education/Elementary School Hygiene

Notwithstanding our efforts to inculcate an appreciation for hygiene amongst our early learners, we continue to accept the presence and propagation in our public schools and workplaces of colds, flu, and other low-level contagions as routine. With the threat of pandemic bird flu at hand, we may soon be forced to take a very different attitude… and chances are, online learners will find themselves on the cutting edge of a social revolution! It wouldn’t be the first time, though, that disease brought on sweeping changes in society: Nothing shakes up the social order like calamity—whether war, disease, depression, or otherwise, and the calamitous 14th century enjoyed all of these in abundance. In fact, it seems that social stasis is a far more prominent casualty of calamity than national boundaries or regimes. Calamity is a masterpiece of creativity in the same sense that a painting of the Last Charge of the Light Brigade is, and brings out both the worst and the best in man–inducing the sort of hothouse conditions for social growth that otherwise tend not to emerge during periods of complacency.

Society/Education/Land Grant Colleges

Our vision of universal public education as the Great Equalizer in American society seems to have blurred. From the late 19th century, we were willing enough to bring the children of immigrants into our public schools on the same footing as the children of the wealthy and powerful… though black children didn’t even figure in the equation until 1954 with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. And with the advent of land grants, the Morrill Act helped extend the playing field to the realm of higher education. While the Divide at the secondary school level continues to widen along the public school/private school divide (and you’d have to wonder: what’s the point of a level playing field for kids if we continue to play in separate leagues?), the Divide at the college level is opening up along the lines of that all-American institution: the brand name. Private colleges now expend enormous effort (by way of their “development” offices) to establish themselves as a brand name in higher education with the variety and quality of the amenities they offer, with lavishly expensive student centers and world-class athletics just the beginning, perhaps to be followed in time by theme parks, Grand Tours, and on-campus malls. And as for the product of these edu-extravaganzas? Rampant grade inflation has seen to it that the standard measures of academic excellence have become largely meaningless, though perhaps the gatekeepers to the American Dream don’t much care about standards anyway, just as long as the supplicant is recognizably one of their own (which the purpose of academic branding would seem to serve admirably). All of this seems to be in keeping with the ever-widening class chasms of 21st-century America.

Society/Education/Public Libraries

The public library system jump-started by Andrew Carnegie reflected the belief that, in a society whose form of government depended upon a well-educated citizenry to make the right decisions, universal education was good for the republic. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.

Society/Education/Women in College

I once heard it remarked that “apart from the obvious anatomical differences, women are men.” I’ve since thought a lot about that remark. In an age where so many of us are becoming home-based, modular, plug-and-play independent contractors–and in which marriage itself is giving way to alternative arrangements–men stand to become homemakers and full-time parents no less than women. As for women’s education, I fail to understand how society can function with half of its members shut down, cloistered away, or short-changed of the same opportunities available to the other half. As America strives to become more competitive in the global economy, our basic manufacturing industries are being shipped offshore, leaving America’s more sophisticated and better educated workforce to that utmost (and most highly remunerated) tip of the value-added economic pyramid: the knowledge economy. We cannot hope to compete unless each and every member of our society becomes as highly educated as possible, and advanced education becomes a way of life.

Society/GI Bill and Federal Housing

It took the Great Depression and the New Deal for our leaders to appreciate the virtue of Keynesian economics and deficit spending. As the end of the Second World War disgorged millions of men into the private sector—with precious little housing available to accommodate their newly formed families—what better way to circumvent the postwar social disruption of unemployment and homelessness than to invest in higher education and homebuilding. I say “invest”—since nothing pays more prolific dividends than education (are you listening?). It was a sure bet that whatever the government spent on the GI Bill, it would get back many times over in the tax revenues that would accrue from the higher earnings that higher education made possible.

Society/Sylvester Graham

Realizing that we are what we eat, Sylvester Graham endeavored to build a better cracker (and succeeded admirably, in my view). But maybe it goes beyond ‘smores: while modern man–being the all-business alpha-creature that he is–stuffs himself on the run with fast pap and franken-foods, traditional man understood that in the absence of a recognizable connection between what he put into his mouth and the sacred earth that sustained him, he was in danger of losing the psychic moorings that fastened him to reality.

Society/Immigration

I’m quite sure that it would come as a surprise to those who love to hate that four out of five American recipients of the Nobel Prize have been either first- or second-generation immigrants. America is the world’s country, and diversity is our greatest strength, since America gets the best, the boldest, and the brightest from all corners of the globe. Diversity poses a challenge, though: either we overcome and embrace our most conspicuous differences, and become enriched in the bargain, or we will be overcome by those differences, and become embittered and impoverished as a result. That, in a word, is the central theme of the American experience, and its lessons are the ones that will guide us through the profound difficulties that await us in the era of globalization.

Society/Immigration/Chinese

Immigrants have usually been welcomed to America as long as they’re needed—whether with the indentured servants (and slaves) of the early Virginia Colony needed to furnish manpower for the tobacco plantations, the Eastern and Southern Europeans for the factories that sprang up in the wake of the Civil War, the Chinese to build the railways and work the gold fields, or the Mexicans and Central Americans to pick our grapes and strawberries. Unfortunately, the welcome mat often wears out once the need disappears, as it did with the Chinese—giving way to the Exclusion Act, anti-Chinese violence, and more than a century of anti-Asian immigration policy. Much to their credit, many of these wretched souls managed to not only survive the slums, but to rise above their squalor to contribute all that they had brought to the new country (which, apart from the shirts on their backs, wasn’t much more than themselves and their determination for a better life). Immigration defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Immigration/Five Points

Five Points was a good example (if there are “good” examples of this sort of thing) of the hideous urban stews that held the promise of America and the immediate future for most immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Much to their credit, many of these wretched souls managed to not only survive the slums, but to rise above their squalor to contribute all that they had brought to the new country (which, apart from the shirts on their backs, wasn’t much more than themselves and their determination for a better life). Immigration defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Immigration/German and Irish

It seems that motivation made all the difference with respect to Irish and German emigration to America. The impoverished Irish were too destitute to make it much beyond the big eastern cities; the Germans, on the other hand, emigrated more by choice than by force of famine, and were able to be more selective in their pursuit of prosperity. Whereas survival guided the Irish, free enterprise informed the German vision of life in the New World.

Society/Immigration/Irish

I believe the Bible says something to the effect that “to those that have will more be given; from those who have little will even that be taken from them.” Sounds like a summing up of the Irish potato famine and the consequences it held for the United States. Much to their credit, many of these wretched souls managed to not only survive both the famine and the slums that awaited them in America, but to rise above their squalor to contribute all that they had brought to the new country (which, apart from the shirts on their backs, wasn’t much more than themselves and their determination for a better life). Immigration defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Immigration/Illegal

There’s a crisis of the first order developing over illegal immigration, and while it may cost us plenty in the short run, it stands to reward us generously in the long run. Just about everyone came to America in a desperate condition of one kind or another, and it was their sheer determination to better themselves that fostered the spirit that built America into what it is today: the World’s Country, which gets the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world. A case in point: 4 out of 5 American recipients of the Nobel Prize have been either first- or second-generation immigrants; that speaks to the highest reward of all–that which comes from intellectual capital.

Society/Immigration/Postwar Immigration and Nativism

It was one thing for native-born Americans to assimilate immigrants from Europe who looked pretty much like themselves; it was quite another to assimilate the new wave of immigrants from Hispanic and Asian regions. Immigration defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Immigration/Jacob Riis

It was easy to put the poor out of one’s mind if one had the means to remove oneself from the Great Unwashed and take flight to the burbs, as so many of the urban gentry of late 19th-century America were already in the habit of doing. But Jacob Riis’ photos of scenes from the immigrant stews of New York had a way of taking hold of the viewer and shaking his conscience by its collar: their stark immediacy was such that even the most sylvan suburbs offered no sanctuary from the fits of compassion and soulful introspection they aroused.

Society/Immigration/Settlement Houses

Unsavory as the hideous urban stews were, they held the promise of America and the immediate future for most immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The settlement houses enabled many of these wretched souls to not only survive the slums, but to rise above their squalor to contribute all that they had brought to the new country (which, apart from the shirts on their backs, wasn’t much more than themselves and their determination for a better life). The services that the settlement house provided in language and vocational training, legal aid, lobbying for schools and housing, and much more showed once again that an investment in human capital is the most productive investment of all: consider the fact that 90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants. Immigration defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world, and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Investing in People

For a wealthy nation of people who claim to be Christian, I just don’t understand why they find it so easy to ignore human suffering on the scale that it exists in this country. The best investment that can ever be made is investment in people. If people are provided from the beginning with decent neighborhoods, two-parent families, health care, first-rate school, vocational training, and college education, they’re happy, they’re productive, they pay taxes and contribute to society. If people are ignored and thrown away, they’re miserable, they develop myriad pathologies, they’re unemployable and unproductive, and a drain on society. How might the $2 trillion that the Iraq War will have cost us (assuming we stopped the whole show today) have been invested in people instead of throwing them away?

Society/Las Vegas

The marketing muck-a-mucks of Las Vegas, our modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah all wrapped up in one, would have us believe that “what happens here, stays here”—emblematic, perhaps, of the way of life in America that Henry Miller, in his book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare—described as the most pervasively disconnected from nature (and human nature) of any society in the world.

Society/Lessons of Katrina

Ever since FDR enacted the New Deal to ameliorate the hardships of the Great Depressions, Americans have enshrined the Culture of Entitlement–with its premise of government as the ultimate guarantor of society’s well being–as a birthright. It’s a vastly expensive proposition that’s becoming ever more difficult to fund in the face of the tax cuts that Mr. Bush used to fund his leveraged buyout of the 2000 election (if you’ll indulge me), but taking it all away is likely to prove difficult, to say the least. If everything means something—and if everything happens for a reason—perhaps Katrina will help to bring Americans around to the once cherished idyll of self-dependence that built this country.

Society/Charles Lindbergh

The Roaring Twenties was a heroic age when Americans had come to believe that the usual constraints imposed by the law of gravity no longer applied—either on Wall Street or with respect to Mr. Lindbergh’s epic feat of aviation. Anything was possible in America, and I regard it as a compelling testament to the human spirit that notwithstanding the horrors of the Great Depression and the Second World War that brought that remarkable era to an inglorious end, the promise remained intact for the generation that returned from the war to rebuild the American Dream.

Society/National Parks

America’s ability to preserve its wilderness areas may rank as one of its most difficult achievements of all. In an age increasingly challenged by development, industry, corporate and political greed, and global warming, it’s a lot easier to develop something than to keep it undeveloped.

Society/Populism/William Jennings Bryan

The Populist party saw in William Jennings Bryan a champion of many of their party values, which were rural-based and a throwback to the moral values of old. Bryan’s proposal of injecting silver into the economy as a boost was also a strong factor in the Populist’s support, but America would eventually decide that McKinley’s progressive ideas were more enduring.

Society/Populism and Progressivism

Populism and progressivism were the two great currents that defined much of the American political process as we know it today, and the issues relating to big business, labor, the federal government, farmers, blacks, and women fueled that process with a steady staple of controversy for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. I’m not sure whether the answers to the burning issues of the day really differ much depending on which political party addresses them. The important thing is that there’s lots of room in the American political process for the full range of opinion. Dissent has led to the downfall of regimes in large part because of the suppression of such dissent… in the same manner that violence is the ultimate expression of helplessness. If dissent is left helpless and without a voice, violence will ensue, as inevitably befalls tyranny. The greatest strength of democracy is that it allows all voices to be heard, power to be checked, and radical sentiment to be mitigated before it transforms itself into violence.

Society/Pragmatism

Pragmatism took up where the Old World left off—namely, when the Pilgrims first set foot on the shores of New England. At a time when the spirit and values of the Enlightenment were fueling intellectual discourse in Europe, Americans were left to the very grubby business of fashioning a functioning society in a raw and hostile environment. We needed to come up with things that actually worked—whether the instructive homilies of religious services, assembly-line rifles that could dispatch hordes of ill-intentioned Indians, or laws that derived from common precedent rather than juristic sophistry—thereby producing that can-do spirit of pragmatism that defines an essential aspect of the Yankee character.

Society/Prohibition

There have been many lessons that came out of our experience with Prohibition. Lesson # 1 is an old chestnut that any economist regards as one of the key tenets of both the modern economy (and by inference, the trade in illicit substances): namely, that supply is driven by demand, and not vice-versa. If we can’t beat ’em, then, maybe we should join ’em. Knowing that whoever wants the stuff will find a way to get it, maybe we should consider legalizing it. If the government makes and sells what the market wants, it would accomplish several objectives that have so far eluded us: a) it would put the dealers and the desperadoes out of business overnight, and drug-related crime would become non-existent; b) it would facilitate contact with users who have hit bottom and want help; c) it would fill government coffers to the brim, and that’s money that should be invested in substance abuse education and rehabilitation; and e) knowing that nobody’s going to stop them from using it, people just might become more accountable for their own actions. With our government already subsidizing the production of cigarettes, I personally find no moral quandary in this course of action.

Society/Progressivism/Women:

Perhaps the reason why women benefited from the Progressive Movement was that most unfeminine of things: war. War is a masterpiece of creativity in the same sense that a painting of the Last Charge of the Light Brigade is. War brings out both the worst and the best in man, and it induces the sort of hothouse conditions for social growth that otherwise tend not to emerge during periods of complacency. Much as the ferment of the 1960s was a by-product of the Vietnam War, Progressivism may have had something to do with America’s acquisition of an empire in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. The War itself wasn’t much of a dust-up, but all of a sudden, the world was America’s oyster, and the job description that came with managing those much-expanded horizons called for a new social message that would work for the world as it would for us. There was no more forceful spokesman and practitioner of the “White Male imperium” than Teddy Roosevelt. As a creature of those Social Darwinist principles that had conquered the West and won America its new empire, Roosevelt conceived of the frontier as the wellsprings of the American race, whose worth would be proved by its ability to stamp out savage races and out-savage the savages. To Roosevelt, America’s salvation lay in nationalism and imperialism; it may have come as an afterthought, but much of TR’s vision inevitably spilled over into the domestic scene, with lasting consequences for women, labor, and Big Business.

Society/Prostitution

Prostitution is widely misunderstood as a moral failing on the part of woman, but even for those whose participation in the trade seems to be entirely volitional, it never really amounts to much of a choice; more likely, it’s a failure of family love that brings a woman to this tragic juncture. There have been many lessons that have come out of America’s experience with Prohibition. Lesson #1 is an old chestnut that any economist regards as one of the key tenets of both the modern economy (and by inference, the trade in illicit practices and substances): namely, that supply is driven by demand, and not vice-versa. If we can’t beat ’em, then, maybe we should join ’em. Knowing that whoever wants something will find a way to get it, maybe we should consider legalizing and regulating prostitution. If the government regulates what the market wants, it would accomplish several objectives that have so far eluded us: a) it would put the pimps and other predators out of business overnight, and prostitution-related crime would become non-existent; b) it would facilitate contact with women who have hit bottom and want help; c) it would mitigate the spread of sexually-transmitted disease; and d) it would earn tax revenues that could then be invested in rehabilitation (and with our government already subsidizing the production of tobacco for cigarettes, I personally find no moral quandary in this course of action). With respect to this last point, our failure to invest in people lies at the heart of the profound misery of America’s underclass that was exposed by Katrina. Investing in people from the very beginning—in safe neighborhoods and decent housing; two-parent families; good schools; college and vocational training; and comprehensive health care; and jobs—results in lives that contribute to society rather than erode its well being, and constitutes an Equal Opportunity program that’s more than just an afterthought and a sop to troubled conscience.

Social/Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties showed us the measure of the creative exuberance that comes with basking in our natural condition: joy. But as with everything else, we need balance, and in this case, the excesses of the Roaring Twenties concealed massive imbalances in the distribution of wealth. The greatest of these lay in the concentration of wealth in the great business combines that attracted so much attention on Wall Street, and in the hands of the magnates who ran them, and with little government regulation to intervene, the pattern was set to run its inevitable course that would lead to the countervailing forces of the Great Depression. But then again, economic calamity and war are creative masterpieces in their own right, which bring forth both the worst and best in people, and which give us the opportunity to grow by overcoming the many obstacles that life puts in our path.

Social/Roaring Twenties/Flappers

The flappers, vamps, and dandies of the Roaring Twenties gave us the measure of the creative exuberance that comes with basking in our natural condition: joy. But as with everything else, we need balance, and in this case, the excesses of the Roaring Twenties concealed massive imbalances in the distribution of wealth. The greatest of these lay in the concentration of wealth in the great business combines that attracted so much attention on Wall Street, and in the hands of the magnates who ran them, and with little government regulation to intervene, the pattern was set to run its inevitable course that would lead to the countervailing forces of the Great Depression. But then again, economic calamity and war are creative masterpieces in their own right, which bring forth both the worst and best in people, and which give us the opportunity to grow by overcoming the many obstacles that life puts in our path.

Society/Romanticism

America was settled by people who understand the value of practical solutions, and a willingness to adapt Old World institutions so that they worked in the real life conditions of the New World. Hence, our tradition of Yankee ingenuity. But as America matured, it craved its own cultural canons that represented civilization’s reach beyond the purely pragmatic toward fulfillment of mankind’s highest talents. While Romanticism in art and literature represented a welcome relief from all that Yankee ingenuity and hardheaded pragmatism, aping the Old World traditions and artistic norms wouldn’t do; we required our own cultural identity.

Society/Sanitation

The moneybags of America’s Gilded Era would offer no shortage of arguments to support their rigorous defense of greed, reasoning that the poor were poor because of their propensity to breed like flies and other moral failings. Why, if they didn’t wall off their wealth from the grasping desperation of the Great Unwashed, who knows how they might squander it… adequate food, roofs that didn’t leak, basic sanitation, education, and other such degenerate indulgences! This offers us a pretty good case in point as to why the economy requires a balance between the profit motive and social responsibility–ultimately, those who profit from the underpaid exertions of the lower class must be made to pay for the social safety net that underpins it.

Society/Scopes Trial

Darwin’s misguided attempt to hammer the round peg of Life into the square hole of Logic was given one last whack in a small-town courtroom in Tennessee. The legal titans of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan squared off against each other as the cutting edge of modernity scraped against the Gibraltar of conservatism. The times being what they were and the venue being what it was, Mr. Scopes was found guilty of propagating the heresy of evolution, and fined $100 for his trouble. But for all the entertainment value that the Monkey Trial afforded, the avant-garde wags of the time may not have appreciated just how far America had evolved socially, for had it been a coupla hundred years earlier, Mr. Scopes might have been burned at the stake.

Society/Sixties

The generation of the Sixties dethroned every icon of the existing order that it could think to. Whether God, country, or motherhood and apple pie, if it stood for the Establishment, it was up for grabs. Everything means something, and in this case, the Establishment meant the war in Vietnam, racial injustice, sexual oppression, and the whole panoply of values that had built America’s Golden Age of the Eisenhower years. Understandably, the generation that had endured the Great Depression and fought the Second World War had wanted nothing more than to come home and rebuild their shattered lives into tidy and secure white-bread neighborhoods and raise normal little nuclear families that happily glowed away in the dark. As part of the Faustian bargain that was struck for security and blessed normality—and with “containment” the byword of the Cold War–America bottled up its own civil liberties and civic culture in much the same way that we did the Soviets, and the containment ethic of the Cold War applied as well to containing women in the home and creative excesses in general. Thus developed America’s domestic idyll, consecrated to the nurturing of the Baby Boomers and our obsession with the domestic security that soothed our Cold War paranoia and dread of nuclear holocaust. Problem is, people thrive on personal growth and creativity, and life in the burbs proved terribly stifling for kids that grew up in it, and when their turn came, they wanted to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the world they had come of age in. The absurd preoccupation of America’s foreign policy with the specter of a monolithic international communist conspiracy led us into the lethal quagmire of Vietnam and into myriad Third World intrigues and entanglements that we reap the consequences of even today. But then again, civil unrest and war are creative masterpieces in their own right that bring forth both the worst and best in people, and which give us the opportunity to grow by overcoming the many obstacles that life puts in our path. The legacy of the Sixties, I submit, is that we grew like crazy… economically, socially, politically, creatively. After all, it’s the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit.

Society/Sixties

Nothing shakes up the social order like war. In fact, it seems that social change is a far more prominent casualty than national boundaries or regimes. War is a masterpiece of creativity in the same sense that a painting of the Last Charge of the Light Brigade is. War brings out both the worst and the best in man, and it induces the sort of hothouse conditions for social growth that otherwise tend not to emerge during periods of complacency. Vietnam did that for us, and the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Lib, and Gay Pride and other such identity politics were all part and parcel of the ferment of the Sixties that cast such a harsh light on the injustices of American society. Civilization is only skin-deep, and when times are good, we wear it well. But there’s precious little that separates civilized man from his brutish nature, and history has repeatedly shown that the edifice of civilization that we so laboriously build in the good times comes quickly undone when war and other such calamity stalks the earth… as it is often wont to do. But nothing is so destructive of the Old Order—not war nor any of the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse—as a nation’s conscience that is pricked by the pangs of past injustice.

Society/Slavery/Abolitionism

Many up north regarded slavery as a state’s own business, hoping that humanity would evolve out of it in the fullness of time. Southerners saw abolitionism as a provocation of slave uprisings, and took John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry at prima facie evidence of the intent of abolitionists to uproot their way of life violently. And it was the election in 1860 of the ultimate abolitionist, Abraham Lincoln (though he was not), that sparked secession. Abolitionism did not enjoy the vigorous consensus that one thinks it should have, even among those who steadfastly believed that slavery was wrong. The principle of the thing rarely holds sway, and so much depends on whose ox is being gored, and how the beast is sliced.

Society/Slavery/Compromise of 1850

Free Soil meant that all the moral indignation that had been walled in by Constitution inhibitions could now be vented in the territorial controversy. Up north, the whole controversy over slavery in the territories came down along the lines of several different formulae: a) Congress had the power to restrict slavery, and therefore it was up to Congress to decide; b) slavery would be determined by whether a territory lay either north or south of latitude 36-30; c) popular sovereignty—it being up to the local residents as to whether to permit it or not; and d) Congress had no power to restrict slavery. Huff and puff as they might, to the South all such argumentation was moot. Being keenly aware of its economic and political inferiority, the South feared that the expansion of Free Soil into the territories would upset the balance in the Senate between the sections. The Southern doctrine was simply that Southern citizens with Southern property could not be kept out of federal territory, period–the result being that it made freedom local and slavery national. In spite of all the lip service we pay to holding fast to principle, the Compromise of 1850 cooked up by Clay, Webster, and Calhoun reflected the true genius of the American political process: compromise. And as with most things that are settled by committees, it neither offended nor satisfied no one; the questions of slavery and union were avoided, not settled.

Society/Slavery/Cotton Gin

In contemplating the horrendous effect of his invention on the expansion of slavery, Eli Whitney must have been of the same mind as Albert Einstein in beholding the imprimatur of his physics on the horror of Hiroshima.

Society/Slavery/Slave Rebellions

Knowing that they were a protest that would brook no negotiation or compromise until death, slave uprisings were the slave owner’s worst nightmare. The slaves who instigated these rebellions surely realized that there was no getting away with it, and that they would die for their actions, which spoke with more eloquence than the most silvered tongue to the injustice and desperation of their plight.

Society/Slavery/Territories

Free Soil meant that all the moral indignation that had been walled in by Constitution inhibitions could now be vented in the territorial controversy. Up north, the whole controversy over slavery in the territories came down along the lines of several different formulae: a) Congress had the power to restrict slavery, and therefore it was up to Congress to decide; b) slavery would be determined by whether a territory lay either north or south of latitude 36-30; c) popular sovereignty—it being up to the local residents as to whether to permit it or not; and d) Congress had no power to restrict slavery. Huff and puff as they might, to the South all such argumentation was moot. Being keenly aware of its economic and political inferiority, the South feared that the expansion of Free Soil into the territories would upset the balance in the Senate between the sections. The Southern doctrine was simply that Southern citizens with Southern property could not be kept out of federal territory, period–the result being that it made freedom local and slavery national.

Society/Slavery/Texas and the Mexican War

The dust-up in Mexico presented President Polk with the dilemma of whether to end the war and accept annexation, or prevent annexation and end the war. It also presented the fine irony of being one more case in point of developments that gave American nationalism the strength to survive, but which, because of the slavery vs. Free Soil controversy implicit in Texas’ annexation, also posed the supreme threat to its survival.

Society/Slavery/Underground Railroad

The heroic myth of the Underground Railroad probably did more harm than good. Its greatest impact was not in the number of slaves it actually helped to reach freedom (there weren’t many), but in the potency of its political affront to Southern leaders… who reacted by demanding passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The sad irony of it all is that this act may have been responsible for more slaves being snatched off the streets of free cities and returned to slavery than were ever liberated by the Railroad.

Society/Slavery/Urban Slavery

It’s open to debate as to whether slavery could long have persisted in an urban/factory environment, although we do know that in some cases, such as the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, it did succeed. Slavery required a substantial economy of scale in order to work economically, and that scale was generally not possible in the cities where accommodations, security, and provisioning would have been much costlier. There was some concern also that placing slaves owned by different enterprises in close proximity to each other in cities (where even in the South, there were free blacks) would have encouraged escapes and uprising; on an isolated plantation, however, where was there to run to? And as slaves acquired factory skills and became literate and more sophisticated in the bargain, slavery would surely have been doomed by economic, social, and political evolution.

Society/Social Darwinism

Survival of the fittest seems to have been the name of the game with opening up the American West and in general with the development of early America’s economy. Survival meant plundering the riches of the New World—whether of indigenous peoples, timber, gold and silver, grasslands for open ranching, or real estate as it was snapped up by land-grant railroads—and set the pattern for the robber-baron capitalism that shaped American monopoly capitalism as it has been practiced ever since. An essential part of the character of this nation, with its mindset of boundless optimism, was formed in the bargain. Consider Standard Oil, Big Steel, the big utilities and the early retail giants… and most recently Ma Bell, IBM, Bill Gates! But the America of limitless possibilities is coming to realize that there are limits—and consequences—that attend the exercise of Social Darwinism in the global arena.

Society/Spanish Language

I suspect that the reluctance of the U.S. government to encourage the use of Spanish in the public school system has something to do with the lesson of history that the success of a multi-cultural society inevitably requires the cultural assimilation of its minorities. But immigration defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Society/Sports

Sports reflects social development in much the same value that art reflects the values and tastes of the time. The progression of sports and entertainment in America from horse-drawn vaudeville and minstrel shows to urban spectator sports to the modern Olympics mirrors the progression of American society from the villages to the cities and finally to the cosmopolitan arena of globalization.

Society/Utopian Communities

In a sense, the early American utopian communities may have been onto something that was either light-years ahead of his time, or ages behind it, in his understanding of something that the ancient Hawaiians knew all along, that the earth can no more be divided and owned than can the sky and the sea. However, predation—whether of one class upon another, individuals upon each other, or amongst wild animals—is an essential part of the elegant scheme of life. Yes, it’s vicious, it’s bloody, it’s unjust, and a few other things. But is human development even possible without it? After all, we grow through struggle, and in overcoming life’s myriad obstacles. At one end of the spectrum of struggle lies reward… and at the other, you’re someone else’s lunch. Their vision of a utopian welfare state in which each gives according to his ability, and is given according to his needs, precludes the operation of incentive… and the whole dynamic of risk and reward that animates human progress. Regrettably, many of these communities—whether Shakers, Oneida, or the Flower Children of the 1960s—seem to have gotten hung up on the complications of communal connubiality, a massively problematic proposition.

Society/Women/Muslims

The long arm of Islamic tradition has insinuated itself into the community of American Muslims to recall the squalid oppression of women in the old country. How can a civilization that was once unrivaled in its intellectual and artistic prowess insist that its women remain shrouded in ignorance and enslaved to sexual jealousy and medieval morality? It’s no surprise that Muslim women have partaken of the tonic of Western sexual mores, but at the same time, the American spectacle of sexual libertines flouting every canon of public decency on prime-time television and throughout the media must surely provoke the disgust and indignation of moral tyrants and moderate-minded moderns alike. Frankly, America has become a very difficult place to raise children in.

Society/Women/Nineteenth Amendment

It’s astonishing how certain things that are so brain-dead obvious to many of us today (such as the need for absolute equality of opportunity for women) were so utterly impossible for people to get a grip on back then. It makes us think twice the next time we’re inclined to dismiss something as daydreaming or star-struck lunacy. The Nineteenth Amendment gave women equality at the ballot box, but women would have to earn equality in the workforce (a process which obviously still has a ways to go) by demonstrating that they could do a man’s work as well as any man. Having gained a toehold on equal opportunity in the workforce during the war, it might seem that American women gave it all up after the war ended. While many women were happy to return to the home front, many others were discharged from the factories to make way for returning veterans. The postwar domestic idyll beckoned, with its tract home in Levittown and its imperative to put paid to the despair of the Depression and the horrors of war, and start a family and consume like crazy. And for the next few decades, the containment ethic of the Cold War applied as well to containing women in the home. But kids grow up, and the prospect of living out the rest of their lives in the sterile context of suburbia must have caused countless women to despair. The greatest gains for American women, after all, would not be realized in fulfilling a temporary expedient as they did during the war, but in progressively overcoming the obstacles they faced in the workforce and throughout society to fulfill a balanced life of parental, career, and personal aspirations. But in its headlong rush to get ahead of itself, is society finally coming full circle? For all our modernity and sophistication, are we finally coming to realize that the management of a family and household is an endeavor that requires no less critical and comprehensive a skill-set than the management of a Fortune 500 enterprise?

Society/Women/Margaret Sanger

A woman’s right to abortion poses a moral dilemma that, while painful, is not nearly so fraught with complications as the alternative of having no legal right to one. Margaret Sanger helped women demand enlightened and humane choices to the sort of cruel stupidity–of which the Royal Horse Guards business was an excellent example–that flourishes along the boundary between public and private morality.

Society/Women/Suffragettes/Susan B. Anthony

It’s astonishing how certain things that are so brain-dead obvious to many of us today (such as the need for absolute equality of opportunity for women) were so utterly impossible for people to get a grip on back then; it makes us think twice the next time we’re inclined to dismiss something as daydreaming or star-struck lunacy. Susan B. Anthony set both a personal and political example that would eventually shame her male antagonists into recognizing the absurdity of their position. Civil rights legislation in and of itself usually turns out to be a sterile proposition honored more in the breach, and it requires social activism to elicit the sort of visceral reaction from the Silent Majority that causes people to reflect and listen to themselves—the only ones that anyone will ever listen to–and to cause society to incorporate change into their values and everyday behavior.

Society/Women/Suffragettes/Seneca Falls Convention

It’s astonishing how certain things that are so brain-dead obvious to many of us today (such as the need for absolute equality of opportunity for women) were so utterly impossible for people to get a grip on back then; it makes us think twice the next time we’re inclined to dismiss something as daydreaming or star-struck lunacy. The women who convened at the Seneca Falls Convention gave voice to a Declaration of Sentiments and a personal example that would eventually shame their male antagonists into recognizing the absurdity of their position. This, then, is how shame serves the highest purpose of social activism: by causing people to reflect and listen to themselves—the only ones that anyone will ever listen to!

Society/Women/World War II

Having gained a grip on equal opportunity in the workforce during the war, it might seem that American women gave it all up after the war ended. While many women were happy to return to the home front, many others were discharged from the factories to make way for returning veterans. The postwar domestic idyll beckoned, with its tract home in Levittown and its imperative to put paid to the despair of the Depression and the horrors of war, start a family and consume like crazy. And for the next few decades, the containment ethic of the Cold War applied as well to containing women in the home. But kids grow up, and the prospect of living out the rest of their lives in the sterile context of suburbia must have caused countless women to despair. The greatest gains for American women, after all, would not be realized in fulfilling a temporary expedient as they did during the war, but in progressively overcoming the obstacles they faced in the workforce and throughout society to fulfill a balanced life of parental, career, and personal aspirations.

Society//World War II/Women Photographers

It was a bit easier to put the war out of mind if the whole business was relegated to the realm of armchair strategy or the evening news. But the windows on the war afforded by the work of women photojournalists like Clare Boothe Luce had a way of taking hold of the viewer and shaking his conscience—and sense of compassion–by the collar.

Culture


Culture/John Audobon

It’s only when the morning symphony of birdsong disappears that–in the deafening silence that results–people begin to lament the absence of the treasure that we’ve traded for affluence, endless burbs, and the American Way of Life. Some people, like John Audobon and Rachel Carson, see it coming. Most of us, regrettably, only see it going.

Culture/Edward Bellamy

Edward Bellamy’s creed of communal cooperation could never hold sway in a society whose core values were competitive and predatory; absent the opportunity to lunge for the Brass Ring and grab hold of as much of the American Dream as they could embrace, the rough but ready folks who built this country might never have bothered. But Bellamy’s protest was heard, and it spoke to the love-hate relationship that we Americans have long had with big business. We anguish over how big corporations de-humanize the work environment, how they cover the land with cookie-cutter malls and housing developments and corporate fast food; we bemoan their complete lack of loyalty to employees; we deplore how their ruthless competition puts small businesses out of business, and so much more. Yet with every dollar of business we give them, we vote in their favor, and we’re grateful for the low prices and product selection that come with bigness. If 19th-century Americans suspected that corporations would have little empathy for the little guy, they were right… but Big Business is what has made the blessings of the most gigantic economies of scale accessible to each of us. What’s more, it’s making it accessible to the whole world as part of globalization, with the trade-off being (you guessed it) a complete lack of empathy for the host culture of the little guy, wherever he may be.

Culture/Brooklyn Bridge

Ever since its inception on the drawing board, the Brooklyn Bridge has been something that could only be sold to the completely credulous. Innovation proves itself in the fullness of time, leaving the naysayers tongue-tied and helpless to say they told us so.

Culture/Film/Charlie Chaplin

As Charlie Chaplin—and his run-in with the tawdry politics of demagoguery—affirmed, clowns are indeed a higher lifeform than the comedians that pass themselves off as politicians.

Culture/Coca-Cola

The irony of the Coca-Cola story is as sweet as the beverage: a tonic formula re-designed to strip out the alcohol content so that its narcotic nature might hold sway! In a way, it’s the perfect allegory for Prohibition, which similarly sought to strip the alcohol out of American culture so that criminality could flourish. In a society based on law, it’s the Law of Unintended Consequences that seems to reign supreme.

Culture/Film and Radio

It’s not often that we see a revolution of the sort that film gave rise to. Film is what gave physical form to abstract thought and imagination, so that instead of getting an idea verbally, it was there in the flesh, so to speak—in the movies. The Internet will in time prove to be no less a revolution, once we solve the bandwidth problem and enable people to experience websites as virtual domains that replicate the full range of sensory impressions. Imagine strapping on your “virtual reality helmet,” dialing up a website, and experiencing Singapore or ancient Athens without ever leaving your chair. It’s only a matter of time and technology, and with that, we will have achieved the next quantum leap in communications: the multi-dimensional actualization of an idea, and the embodiment of imagination.

Culture/Literature/Edward Bok

In the wake of the Civil War, America was badly in need of such civilizing influences as the Ladies Home Journal—a forum not only for housekeeping tips and such but for prints of art and reprints of literature. To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it—and it’s clear that Edward Bok understood as much.

Culture/Literature/Robert Frost

As America’s poet-laureate, Robert Frost wrote beguilingly of those things most devoid of guile: the humble virtues that defined the early American character, and the charm of its landscape—both as yet innocent of the taint of sectarian politics and avarice.

Culture/Literature/Great Depression

Writers like Steinbeck, Dos Passos, and Wolfe put all Americans on the same page in terms of defining their common experience in the most wrenching social upheaval of our times. Calamities like war and depression are in a sense masterpieces of the human condition–much as Picasso’s Guernica–that bring out both the worst and the best in mankind. It is for the literary voices of the era to illuminate that masterpiece, much as the spotlights that play on the canvasses on museum walls.

Culture/Literature/William Dean Howells

With writing, there are imitators and there are innovators. It used to be that any discussion of sex, politics, and religion was a surefire way to the bonfire, but with the new taste for muckraking and social realism taking root in the American political and intellectual landscape, the subjects of William Dean Howells’ scrutiny would inevitably find favor with his readership. Predictably, the work of such writers is at first an acquired taste—as reviled in the early going as it is beloved later, and the arts are such that popular acclaim typically rewards those whose work conforms to the mold of established tastes, while those who break it are rewarded with opprobrium and poverty. Moral of the story: whatever you do artistically and creatively, do for yourself first and foremost… and let popular acclaim (which may take a generation or two to catch up) go where it may. Each of us is a master in our own right, at least of those values within us that we are meant to fulfill.

Culture/Literature/Henry James

Henry James had a keen eye for the hypocrisy and absurdity of Old World manners transplanted to America’s cultural wilderness. Pragmatism had taken up where the Old World left off—namely, when the Pilgrims first set foot on the shores of New England. At a time when the spirit and values of the Enlightenment were fueling intellectual discourse in Europe, Americans were left to the very grubby business of fashioning a functioning society in a raw and hostile environment. We needed to come up with things that actually worked—whether the instructive homilies of religious services, assembly-line rifles that could dispatch hordes of ill-intentioned Indians, or laws that derived from common precedent rather than juristic sophistry—thereby producing that can-do spirit of pragmatism that defines an essential aspect of the Yankee character.

Culture/Literature/Edgar Allan Poe

Neurotic, melancholic, hallucinatory, impoverished, alcoholic, drug-addicted, dissolute, and grief-stricken… Edgar Allan Poe was fashioned from the same mold that formed the character of many a starving artist. Yet, with the corpus of work that his splendidly gothic imagination endowed American literature with, is there any better example of the truism that it’s the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit?

Culture/Literature/Mark Twain

Renowned for his sense of humor, Mark Twain was actually one of his generation’s most caustic social and political critics. His satire devastated the stuffed shirts that populated America’s Gilded Era (whose ethos he characterized as a base element overlain with the thinnest veneer of gold), and his dispatches from the Philippine War—very much the equal of the Vietnam War as a war with no moral compass–brought its atrocities home to the reading public in a way that helped mitigate America’s appetite for empire. But his greatest successes lay with his contributions to the American folk idiom and its wealth of wile and homespun wisdom. Our various calamities are in a sense masterpieces of the human condition–much as Picasso’s Guernica–that bring out both the worst and the best in mankind, and it is for the literary voices of the era to illuminate that masterpiece, much as the spotlights that play on the canvasses on museum walls.

Culture/Literature/Phyllis Wheatley

Enslaved and impoverished, Phyllis Wheatley was fashioned from the same mold of dire circumstance that formed the character of many a starving artist. Yet, with the corpus of work that her wonderfully poetic imagination endowed American literature with, is there any better example of the truism that it’s the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit?

Culture/Literature/Virginia Woolf

Writers like Virginia Woolf put all Americans on the same page in terms of defining their common experience in the most wrenching social upheaval of our times. Calamities like war and depression are in a sense masterpieces of the human condition–much as Picasso’s Guernica–that bring out both the worst and the best in mankind. It is for the literary voices of the era to illuminate that masterpiece, much as the spotlights that play on the canvasses on museum walls.

Culture/Music/Josephine Baker

The talents of Josephine Baker could be compared to the virtuoso performance given by the black American singer Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial– and the athletic feats of runner Jessie Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and Joe Louis’ knockout of the Nazi pugilist Max Schmeling–all triumphs on behalf of winning both the war and the struggle for racial equality.

Culture/Music/Battle Hymn of the Republic

The song that proclaimed “the coming of the Lord” whose “truth goes marching on” seemed to embody the irresistible combination of religious zeal and jingoistic spirit that never seems to fail to get Americans stirred up and marching down the road to war and lethal folly. If it isn’t godless communism we’re fighting, it’s bloodthirsty Islam.

Culture/Music/Great Depression

The Great Depression brought forth both the worst and best in people, and some of the very best of all that included the jazz and blues that formed the centerpiece of the Harlem Renaissance. Hard times notwithstanding, we grew like crazy… socially, culturally, and creatively. After all, it’s the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit.

Culture/Photography/Dorothea Lange

It wasn’t easy to put the poor out of one’s mind in Depression-era America, but Dorothea Lange’s photos had a way of taking hold of the viewer and shaking his conscience by its collar: their stark immediacy was such that even the most sylvan suburbs offered no sanctuary from the fits of compassion and soulful introspection they aroused.

Religion


Religion/Great Awakening

There is, of course, a world of difference between religion and spirituality. Religion serves the very practical purpose of drawing up the slate of values that holds society together and keeps everyone on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying those values with the blessing of God (though I’m not sure how any man can hope to speak for God). That may have been just what the doctor ordered back when our nation was young and far-flung, and the Great Awakening of the 18th century served the purpose splendidly. These days, with the rise of the Religious Right and the divisiveness that increasingly alienates Red America from Blue, a very different outcome awaits us.

Power

Power/Reconstruction

Cleaning up after the holocaust of the Civil War was nearly as promethean an undertaking as the war itself. But the Civil War did not destroy the old order of the South without entrenching and institutionalizing its animosity toward the blacks who had without a doubt been responsible for this whole can of worms. The end of slavery was just the beginning of a long uphill struggle for American blacks for social, political, and economic equality. The worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead, long after the surrender at Appomattox. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Power/Reconstruction/Bend Experiment

Cleaning up after the holocaust of the Civil War was nearly as promethean an undertaking as the war itself. The Bend Experiment, Lincoln’s 10 Percent Plan, and the Wade-Davis Bill all represented the first fledgling attempts to reintegrate the southern states into the Union, and the black man into free society. But the Civil War did not destroy the old order of the South without entrenching and institutionalizing its animosity toward the blacks who had without a doubt been responsible for this whole can of worms. The end of slavery was just the beginning of a long uphill struggle for American blacks for social, political, and economic equality. The worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead, long after the surrender at Appomattox. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Power/Reconstruction/Bloody Shirt

Cleaning up after the holocaust of the Civil War was nearly as promethean an undertaking as the war itself. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments provided statutory freedom and equality for blacks (after a fashion) and with the endless hoisting of the Bloody Shirt to remind everyone of who was responsible for the war in the first place, it would take endless protest, riots, head-knocking, and other forms of social agitation to translate statute into reality and mend the divisions that had so fatally fractured American society.

Power/Reconstruction/Reconstruction Amendments

Cleaning up after the holocaust of the Civil War was nearly as promethean an undertaking as the war itself. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments provided statutory freedom and equality for blacks (after a fashion), but it would take endless protest, riots, head-knocking, and other forms of social agitation to translate statute into reality. The Civil War did not destroy the old order of the South without entrenching and institutionalizing its animosity toward the blacks who had without a doubt (at least in the eyes of southern whites) been responsible for this whole can of worms. The end of slavery was just the beginning of a long uphill struggle for American blacks for social, political, and economic equality. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. Notwithstanding the constitution, the Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities all remained as manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Power/Reconstruction/Sharecropping

The South’s defeat in the Civil War exposed the plantation owner for the pathetic creature that he was, stripped of the affected refinement of southern gentility and unable to feed or fend for himself. Reduced to the common denominator of mutual dependence, former masters and slaves entered into sharecropping as the only arrangement that might keep both of them alive through the desperate years of Reconstruction and preserve some semblance of the freedom that was won by the war. For the slave who made a clean break of things and headed north with little more than the rags they wore, there was at least the freedom to starve and the promise of something better, albeit one that was continually betrayed. For the slave who signed onto sharecropping, there was continued dependence upon a system of marginalization that persists to the present day… in the form of the festering underclass that was exposed in all its raw ugliness by the ravages of Katrina.

Power/Absolutism

I wonder if Americans today aren’t returning to the sort of acceptance of absolutism that prevailed in medieval times. I say this because, while we make a lot of noise about safeguarding civil liberties, we’re quite accepting of the most egregious sort of corruption that results from politicians being bought and owned by big corporate donors–as if we expect this sort of thing as a prerogative for our rulers.

Power/Dean Acheson

Perhaps it was the “fog of war” or just the muddied political waters of the times, but it’s hard to get a grip on Dean Acheson—one of the wise old heads that guided presidents as they made their way through the rubble of the Second World War and the minefield of Vietnam. Acheson’s role in the Truman Plan, the European Recovery Plan, and the Marshall Plan was commendable, but with his hand in the cookie jar of the Poland loan, he was contemptible. The cloud hanging over his political loyalties was the same cloud that tarred the reputations of many estimable folks back then, and in retrospect, it was practically a badge of honor to have had one’s integrity called into question by the likes of Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. As for the inconsistency of Acheson’s appraisal of the merits of our involvement in Vietnam–both by way of cheerleading our support for the French and by urging restraint on Lyndon Johnson—I can only say that whether with Truman and Acheson, Kennedy and Dean Rusk, Johnson and the Joint Chiefs, Nixon and Kissinger, and (for that matter) George Bush and Rummie&Rice, the blind will invariably choose to be led by the blind.

Power/John Adams, Alien & Sedition Acts

National security was the byword of John Adams’ pet political tempest, and the Alien & Sedition Acts may well have anticipated modern paranoia—whether the containment obsession of the Cold War or the “with me or against me” ethos of the present administration. This sort of poison politics is an old vintage: whether in Adams’ era or our own, America becomes its own worst enemy when it bottles up its own civil liberties and civic culture; we need no help from saboteurs and enemy agents. Our recurring preoccupation with conspiracy has led us into the lethal quagmire of Vietnam and into myriad Third World intrigues and entanglements that we reap the consequences of even today, and it all begs the question of whether our putative triumph over subversion isn’t a Pyrrhic victory after all.

Power/Bacon’s Rebellion

Bacon’s Rebellion marked the beginning of the time-honored American tradition of tax protest. With so much funny money floating around as a result of our desperate efforts to finance the American Revolution and our struggle to get the British off our backs, government has tried to put things right by tightening up the money supply. Deflation, the inevitable result, has a nasty habit of gouging those who are the most heavily indebted, and when the squeeze hit farmers who could not longer pay their mortgages, they took to the streets under Mr. Bacon’s aegis, squalling for relief. What’s more, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself, and the lesson for heavily indebted Americans in today’s climate of sharply rising interest rates, should be obvious even to the brain-dead. J

Power/George W. Bush

George W. Bush has polarized American society to an extent unseen since the Vietnam War. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.

Power/George W. Bush

Speaking of pet peccadilloes, should anyone be asked to give their life for Mr. Bush’s grudge against Saddam for having tried to assassinate his old man?

Power/Bush and Machiavelli

I suspect that any comparison between Machiavelli–the author of one of the most cogent and insightful treatises on political behavior ever written–and George W. Bush–who may not even be able to read–will have a hard time holding water. Machiavelli’s good name has long been associated with political cunning and calculation—but unfairly so, since all he was trying to do was portray the political world of 15th-century Italy. In fact, I believe he was dead on the money with his prescriptives for the aspiring prince, since politics has never had much to do with leadership, but rather with gaining and wielding power and perks. George W. Bush has polarized American society to an extent unseen since the Vietnam War. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. Still, Mr. Bush’s policies and behavior remind us that the politics of Machiavelli’s age have changed little since then, simply because human nature does not change. (And that, by the way, is why we study history: by studying the patterns of human behavior in history, we can predict the course and consequences of power as reliably as we can the path of spring floods in what might otherwise seem to be dried-up old streambeds.) Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.

Power/Cincinnati Society

On the one hand, I admire the esprit de corps embodied by a quasi-fraternal order like the Cincinnati Society, because in these days of a very unpopular war, our military needs all the help it can get. On the other hand, we seem to hold our own very nicely in “good” wars. It’s quite impossible for even an all-volunteer force of professional soldiers to win a war—like Vietnam or Iraq–that has no moral compass, no sense of higher purpose, no way of winning the hearts and minds of anyone, and nothing to do with national defense. On the other hand, a “good war” like World War II elicited a heroic performance from what was essentially a citizen army, and commanded the willing efforts of every man, woman, and child in America, who made every sacrifice demanded of them without hesitation or complaint. With that said, a case could be made in favor of the draft in times of genuine need, and for sending the army home otherwise; if the need cannot be met by a citizen army, then how legitimate is that need?

Power/Bill Clinton

Yes, Mr. Clinton was brilliant, and yes, his administration left us in the best shape we’ve been in in many years. But it must also be said that the misadventures of Slick Willie gave us the best entertainment value for our political dollar that any of us can remember. Given the grim turns that things have taken under the Bush administration, I miss the Bill & Hillary Show all the more, and can only hope that he’ll come back for an encore as First Gentleman.

Power/Constitution

The genius of the Constitution is not so much in what the document itself says, but in many checks and balances that were articulated in the Bill of Rights and which were built into design of the government itself. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans have of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it.

Power/Constitution

The propositions advanced by the U.S. Constitution were not just “liberal” in Old World eyes, but downright dangerous. The idea that a document might provide for an orderly transfer of power absurd in the eyes of the Old World, which understood that government was by kings–the job was for life, and surrendered only at sword-point. Democracy was nothing better than mob rule, and the very notion that all men were equal in the eyes of the law would have been vigorously contested by those whose birth and wealth clearly marked them as more equal than others. After all, if God hadn’t made the aristocrat to govern others, what then?

Power/Constitution/Gun Control

The genius of the Constitution is not so much in what the document itself says, but in many checks and balances that were articulated in the Bill of Rights and which were built into design of the government itself. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans have of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it. The guns that we employed to fend off hostile Indians and wrestle our freedom from the British were in a sense for defense of ourselves and our own interests. Some would argue that we should still have the right to bear arms to defend ourselves, but these days, are guns not used far more frequently to commit an offense rather than a defense? Tough call.

Power/Corruption

There are more and more similarities to be found between the rise and fall of Rome and the same cycle in America. The one that comes to mind here is the similarity of government by the wealthy; the U.S. Senate has long been regarded as a rich man’s club, and the more we allow our politicians to be owned and operated by big corporate money, the more we’re likely to see the same class antagonisms arise that once contributed to the downfall of the Roman Republic.

Power/Elections/Referendums

I personally think referendums are a great idea, especially if a way can be found to manage the number of referendums so that things don’t get too far out of hand. In fact, the politicians ought to take every single measure they propose to the people for ratification; perhaps we could create a permanent and well-compensated corpus of electors who would make it their business to decide such things (on the understanding that membership in such a body would be open to anyone who could pass a regular series of exams on their knowledge of the issues.

Power/Electoral College

The hoary old institution of the Electoral College has become a hotbed of controversy in recent years, with a lot of people screaming for its dismantlement on account of the inequity that turned a popular triumph into a lost election. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.

Power/1876 Election

What better example of the historian’s crystal ball! In much the same way as the 1876 election gave southern states the power to write their own laws, so did the 2000 election empower Red America to run roughshod over the liberal canon of fairness and human decency that has taken so many generations to build, and give the lie to the fairness of the political process in America. George W. Bush has polarized American society to an extent unseen since the Vietnam War. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.

Power/Federalism/Modern Issues

I can understand the temptation to regard education and welfare as local responsibilities, but much as environmental issues like pollution and global warming clearly affect everyone, doesn’t education affect all of us as well? Are not the policies of this nation—and their consequences–too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics, and shouldn’t we consider the possibilities of a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications? Same thing with welfare: how many millions of lives could be made productive by assisting our poorest citizens to achieve their basic entitlement to decent and safe neighborhoods, two-parent families, comprehensive health care, good schools, and college and vocational training? Whether via local initiative or world government, each of us needs to act on the proposition that everything in this world is intimately inter-related, and that the well being of the most wretched people in the farthest-flung parts of the earth has as much bearing on our own well being as that of our fellow American. America, with 6% of the world’s population, commands 40% of its resources, and the fact of the matter is, we’ve been way less than generous in sharing that wealth with the one out of four people in this world who live on less than a dollar a day. Painful as they are, the harsh economics of globalization may ultimately be for the best, since if we don’t accomplish a leveling of the playing field one way or the other, we’re going to continue to be reminded of this enormous disparity in ways that—like 9/11–are likely to be pretty ugly.

Power/Foreign Policy/Declining Prestige

George W. Bush and his doctrine of pre-emption has polarized global opinion of the United States to an extent unseen since the Vietnam War. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.

Power/Foreign Policy/French

One wonders why it seems possible only to have a love-hate relationship with the French. We admire their culture and cuisine, yet we abominate their cussed willfulness… as they do ours. It seems that after all we went through together with the American Revolution, the World War (parts I and II), Indochina, and the Cold War, we’d find ample ground for common cause. Yet, is it the prickly voice of their protest–or is it the loyalty of our old friends the Brits–that does us the disservice?

Power/Foreign Policy/French Indochina

One is tempted to be cynical about the French, and say it’s amazing what a hash they made of things in Vietnam: not only did they successfully arouse the ancient antipathies and spirit of nationalism that the Vietnamese had last employed against the Chinese 2,000 years ago, they blew away their Confucian traditions of education, political authority and jurisprudence, and shamelessly raped the natural wealth of the land for the most bald-faced pecuniary motives. So much for France’s mission civilisatrice! Had FDR lived, our relationship with Vietnam might have had a very different outcome. While the perception of FDR’s diplomatic and domestic political acumen was considerably more heroic than the reality, Truman seemed a very common and small-minded politician by comparison–at a time when the most crucial rearrangement of geopolitical forces of the 20th century made vision and magnanimity so essential. Eisenhower’s greatest virtue—and a most unexpected one for an old warhorse such as he—was prudence. With his advisors calling for nuclear strikes (!) to rescue the French from their Waterloo at Dienbienphu, Eisenhower insisted on restraint. Better indeed to let the French twist in the wind.

Power/Foreign Policy/Isolationism

No nation can exist in a vacuum in this global community of ours. With the First World War, we can date the beginnings of our modern global community and the new awareness of the implications of disorder in one part of the world for nations far removed from the scene. Not even isolationist America could resist being drawn into the turmoil, any more than Russia could resist the contagion of revolution that had its inception at Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna.

Power/Foreign Policy/Isolationism

Americans developed their isolationist streak as a result of the entanglements with European powers that bedeviled us from the days of the Revolution onward, until finally the Monroe Doctrine in effect told the Europeans to stay out of our hemisphere, and we’ll stay out of theirs. With two immense oceans on either side of us, and an abundance of everything we needed, it was easy to stick our heads in the sand and whistle Dixie. Until, that is, we became the victims of our own success. By the early 20th century, America’s economy had become so productive that many Americans were convinced that without foreign markets to absorb our products, capitalism as we knew it would choke on its own effluvia. Which in turn got us involved in the outside world, and brought us to the realization that we could no longer subsist in a vacuum. Globalization has since made certain that we will be forever entwined in the affairs of everywhere else.

Power/Foreign Policy/Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny made the case for our right to judge and instruct other peoples, and all the revolutions abroad that had gone wrong only confirmed the racial or cultural inferiority of the revolutionaries, and underlined their need for American tutelage. We saw the objects of our civilizing mission as either half-breed brutes, a perception that could be used to justify contemptuous aloofness or predatory aggressiveness; as feminized, inviting us to either court them or save them; or as infantile, in which case our tutelage and stern discipline ranked as a parental obligation. Teddy Roosevelt summed up the White Man’s Burden in declaiming: “No man is worth his salt who does not believe that the growth of his own country’s influence is for the good of all those benighted people who have had the misfortune not to be born within its fold.” In response, policymakers began to use the full range of tools at their disposal, in manipulating arms sales, financial aid, and diplomatic recognition, and in so doing, modern America had become hostage to the consequences of old-fashioned imperial overstretch.

Power/Foreign Policy/Monroe Doctrine

They say that the Monroe Doctrine marked the true beginning of American independence from entanglement with Old World tyrants. Were it only so: in retrospect, the hundred years’ hiatus between the War of 1812 and the Great World War (parts I and II) shows us that the Europeans were just catching their breath, that they had much greater miseries in mind for us. Nobody could have wanted the albatross of postwar global leadership less than the United States… unless it was Old Monroe.

Power/Foreign Policy/Moralism

It used to be that moralism in American foreign policy referred to our civilizing mission to tame the savage breast and bestow those values that had worked for America on our less fortunate brethren the world over. But much of the moralizing over Christianity, democracy, sanitation, and the Protestant work ethic was ultimately designed to support and safeguard American commercial interests in foreign markets, without which the American economy would soon wither and die. Globalization has since seen to it that markets—wherever they may be–are no longer the preserve of U.S. corporations, and the spread of democracy has taken on its own momentum, whether or not we choose to intervene on its behalf (the Internet and the information revolution, also courtesy of globalization, has made it virtually impossible to seal off a society from an understanding of how the rest of the world lives); as a result, democracies has grown in number from just six after the Second World War, to 120 or so these days. So, has moralism worked? History has a long fuse, and America will forever be realizing the consequences of its unavoidably high profile in foreign affairs. It’s tempting to conclude that the arrogance of America’s foreign policy in the 20th century is to blame, but the fact of the matter is that although our foreign policy has largely been well intentioned, America will always be convenient for the rest of the world (most especially the Arab world) to blame… for the shortcomings of their own repressive and regressive regimes and lack of social and economic opportunity.

Power/Foreign Policy/Open Door

Until recently, America’s foreign policy remained defined in terms of anti-communism rather than addressing global human suffering. We failed to understand the appeal of radical ideology as well as whether their Open Door had anything to do with our problems abroad. The Open Door worked brilliantly for a half-century. Its strategy and tactics enabled the United States to establish a new empire when the colonial empires or the 18th and 19th centuries were dying and being given the coup de grace by 20th-century revolutions. Attracted by its anti-colonial character, foreign peoples initially welcomed the Open Door as a policy of assistance and friendship with no strings of absentee ownership attached. But within a generation they sensed that basic objective was to freeze the status quo of Western supremacy and that its highest goal was to enshrine American expansion. At the end of the 19th century, much of the world was rebelling against the subordination of its own cultural, political, and economic life to the policy of Open Door expansion. And the consequences continue today.

Power/Foreign Policy/Truman Doctrine

Nobody imagined that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our one and only four-term president and the man who had seen us through the depths of the Great Depression and the horror of the Second World War, would ever die. But when the day came, poor old Haberdasher Harry was suddenly made to shoulder the mantle of world leadership that the United States inherited from the now-prostrate and toothless old lion, Great Britain. Clueless though he was, Harry Truman engineered the two foreign policy initiatives that would best define America in its new postwar role: the Marshall Plan, which pumped the then-stupendous sum of $13 billion into the war-ravaged economies of Europe–thereby keeping the politics of despair at bay–and the Truman Doctrine, which drew the lines at the efforts of Moscow’s proxies to spread those same politics in Greece and Turkey. It was, as they say, a little touch of Harry in the night.

Power/Freedom of the Press

The genius of the Constitution is not so much in what the document itself says, but in many checks and balances that were articulated in the Bill of Rights and which were built into design of the government itself. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans have of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it. However, the threats to our civil liberties that arise when any two of these branches collude with each other—as some allege to have happened in the 2000 election–might prove insurmountable without the vigilance of the press as watchdog of last resort to ensure direct accountability of government to the people. We may take offense at a media that is variously castigated as “liberal” or “right-wing”, but anyone who fears despotism must give thanks to the ghosts of our First Amendment forebears that continue to haunt the halls of government.

Power/Freedom of the Press/Peter Zenger

The genius of the Constitution is not so much in what the document itself says, but in many checks and balances that were articulated in the Bill of Rights and which were built into design of the government itself. If any one document were left to stand by itself, it would not stand the test of time. The Truth is forever in flux, and changes with the times; hence the provision for a Judiciary that is independent from the Executive and Legislative branches allows the Supreme Court to interpret the statutory Truth in light of the times. All of this accords with the particular genius that we Americans have of making abstraction conform to the practical exigencies of life as we live it. However, the threats to our civil liberties that arise when any two of these branches collude with each other—as some allege to have happened in the 2000 election–might prove insurmountable without the vigilance of the press as watchdog of last resort to ensure direct accountability of government to the people. We may take offense at a media that is variously castigated as “liberal” or “right-wing”, but anyone who fears despotism must give thanks to the ghost of Peter Zenger that continues to haunt the halls of government.

Power/James Garfield

If war is an extension of diplomacy by other means, could it be said that assassination is an extension of democracy by other means? Obviously, reason only goes so far. Charles Guiteau’s assassination of James Garfield doesn’t fit any political puzzle; it was a wanton act of murder committed for its own sake, but a man who seemingly had no motive other than deranged impulse. So it could be said of Leon Czolgosz and William McKinley, Squeaky Fromme and Gerald Ford, and of John Hinkley Jr. and Ronald Reagan; it’s the joker in the deck that throws the game, and both the best and the worst things that will ever happen will come sailing out of the clear blue to blindside us.

Power/Ulysses Grant

The tainted and inept political career of Ulysses S. Grant—at such odds with his performance as the hero of the Union Army—reminds us that brilliant generals seldom measure up as political leaders. There are two entirely different skill sets that obtain for leading men in combat and striking the sometimes-sleazy deals that make for successful politics.

Power/Warren Harding

The remarkable thing about the Harding scandals is not that they took place, but that they didn’t take the Big Guy down in the bargain. Nowadays, the bloodhounds of the press are tireless in their pursuit of scandal… right to the top. Oil money has loomed large in the politics of the Cheney administration, and the present-day scandals over Karl Rove and Scooter Libby may ultimately lead to a major stink over its cozy ties with Halliburton, and to the ultimate truth as to the motivation of the Iraq war.

Power/Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton understood that what the new United States needed was a blueprint that would centralize political power in the hands of a federal government–and fiscal policy in the hands of a national bank–so that America might get down to the business of doing business. In the end, it was this vision of America as an industrial powerhouse that would inevitably triumph over Thomas Jefferson’s conception of America as the pristine and uncorrupted triumph of Republican virtue—an agrarian nation of gentleman-farmers, order without discipline, security without military, property without regulation, freedom without license… all in all, a romantic, quaint, and utterly untenable notion of how the incredibly potent combination of treasure-trove resources and limitless opportunity would ultimately play out.

Power/Hamilton Duel with Burr

Alexander Hamilton understood that what the new United States needed was a blueprint that would centralize political power in the hands of a federal government–and fiscal policy in the hands of a national bank–so that America might get down to the business of doing business. Hamilton’s vision of America as an industrial powerhouse did not die in the tragic duel with Aaron Burr, but went on to triumph over Thomas Jefferson’s conception of America as the pristine and uncorrupted triumph of Republican virtue—an agrarian nation of gentleman-farmers, order without discipline, security without military, property without regulation, freedom without license… all in all, a romantic, quaint, and utterly untenable notion of how the incredibly potent combination of treasure-trove resources and limitless opportunity would ultimately play out.

Power/William Henry Harrison

The Log Cabin Campaign goes to show that we’ve been there before—George W. Bush wasn’t the first to fashion himself as the champion of the Common Man (come to think of it, Andrew Jackson stole the show on that one). But one wonders, is the Common Man what we really want in the White House? Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. Perhaps the policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics and Common Men.

Power/Rutherford Hayes

Rutherford Hayes’ efforts on behalf of national union and the rights of those who make for the union’s diversity (even in those dark times) reminds us of or ability to summon the talents of men and women of integrity, compassion, wisdom, and leadership when the going gets tough–to wit: Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Martin Luther King. Today, with the politics of divisiveness sowing hatred between Red and Blue Americans, we need such a leader more than ever. George W. Bush has polarized American society to an extent unseen since the Vietnam War. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.

Power/Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson–born to the Southern aristocracy, plantation boss, and slave owner such as he was—prided himself on being the champion of the ordinary American. No one was more enthralled than Jackson with the virtues of the Common Man. Believing that this country could do just fine on the homespun strength of common sense, thank you, and bolstered by his righteous indignation over the evil of the Money Changers, Jackson stirred up a fine hornet’s nest with an ill-conceived banking policy that took the nation to the brink of financial calamity. And predictably, the common men with whom he populated the halls of government proved uncommonly inept and corruptible. Jackson may have established an unwise precedent in paving the way for unexceptional men to occupy the White House, and the demands of leadership of the world’s sole superpower have come to seem spectacularly ill-served by yokels and cowboys. There’s a reason, after all, why common sense is called “common.”

Power/Thomas Jefferson/Contempt for Judicial Power

Jefferson was a dreamer. Hardball political realities of the sort that frequently reared their ugly heads in court battles ill accorded with his vision of America as the pristine and uncorrupted triumph of Republican virtue—an agrarian nation of gentleman-farmers, order without discipline, security without military, property without regulation, freedom without license. As detached as Jefferson was from the political process that, by way of the Declaration of Independence, brought this nation into being, it’s a wonder that he chose to become embroiled in the factionalism of party politics and the Supreme Court by running for the presidency. Perhaps he felt that he could set an example that would change the hearts and minds of America; truth be told, as the owner of some 200 slaves who had exclaimed to the world that all men were created equal, Jefferson was never very good at squaring his personal example with his political idyll.

Power/Thomas Jefferson/Embargo Act

The way that Thomas Jefferson shot myself in the foot with the Embargo Act was typical of the man as a dreamer. The American idyll portrayed by his extensive personal correspondence spoke more explicitly—and truthfully—to his dream of America as a white man’s nation, and seldom went without mention of how his fledgling republic might finagle the Native American out of ever more land. But the uglier facts of life were never his forte, and the hardball political realities of the sort that frequently reared their ugly heads in politics ill accorded with his vision of America as the pristine and uncorrupted triumph of Republican virtue—an agrarian nation of gentleman-farmers, order without discipline, security without military, property without regulation, freedom without license. As detached as Jefferson was from the political process that, by way of the Declaration of Independence, brought this nation into being, it’s a wonder that he chose to become embroiled in the factionalism of party politics by running for the presidency. Perhaps he felt that he could set an example that would change the hearts and minds of America; truth be told, as the owner of some 200 slaves (and the erudite advocate of parting the Indian from his land) who had exclaimed to the world that all men were created equal, Jefferson was never very good at squaring his personal example with his political idyll.

Power/Thomas Jefferson/Piracy

The Barbary pirates that dogged American merchantmen in the Mediterranean in Jefferson’s day anticipated our endless woes with the Muslim World of the present day. Jefferson’s solution—to build a bigger navy—also anticipated the remedy of military force that we continue to apply to our tragically dysfunctional relationship with the Muslim world. Didn’t work then, doesn’t work now. But then, who cares about the lessons of history, right?

Power/Thomas Jefferson/Native Americans

Jefferson was a dreamer, and the American idyll portrayed by his extensive personal correspondence spoke more explicitly—and truthfully—to his dream of America as a white man’s nation, and seldom went without mention of how his fledgling republic might finagle the Native American out of ever more land. But the uglier facts of life were never his forte, and the hardball political realities of the sort that frequently reared their ugly heads in politics ill accorded with his vision of America as the pristine and uncorrupted triumph of Republican virtue—an agrarian nation of gentleman-farmers, order without discipline, security without military, property without regulation, freedom without license. As detached as Jefferson was from the political process that, by way of the Declaration of Independence, brought this nation into being, it’s a wonder that he chose to become embroiled in the factionalism of party politics by running for the presidency. Perhaps he felt that he could set an example that would change the hearts and minds of America; truth be told, as the owner of some 200 slaves (and the erudite advocate of parting the Indian from his land) who had exclaimed to the world that all men were created equal, Jefferson was never very good at squaring his personal example with his political idyll.

Power/Thomas Jefferson/Slavery

It may never have occurred to Jefferson that slaves were the sort of human beings that he contemplated in his Declaration of Independence. It was almost certainly true as well that Jefferson—with his prepossession with the construction and maintenance of his beloved Monticello and its extensive orchards, farms, and vineyards (yes, he was determined to replicate the Old World vintages that we had become obsessively fond of during his long stay in France), that the lifestyle was impossible without his contingent of 200-some slaves. And, it is certainly true that hypocrisy is as much a part of the human condition as breathing and eating.

Power/Andrew Johnson

Cleaning up after the holocaust of the Civil War was nearly as promethean an undertaking as the war itself. Andrew Johnson’s obdurate opposition to Congress’s various efforts to reintegrate southern states into the Union–and the black man into free society—very nearly made for the first and only firing of a U.S. president. The Civil War did not destroy the old order of the South without entrenching and institutionalizing the generalized animosity toward the blacks (Johnson’s included) who had without a doubt (in the eyes of southern whites, at least) been responsible for this whole can of worms. The end of slavery was just the beginning of a long uphill struggle for American blacks for social, political, and economic equality. The worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead, long after the surrender at Appomattox. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Power/John F. Kennedy/Assassination

There are few Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories that don’t take Lyndon Johnson into account in some way or another. Johnson must have been one of the most nakedly ambitious politicians that we’ve ever hatched, and from the time he could string five words together, those words were: “I’m gonna be president someday.” (No kidding.) He stopped at nothing in his obsessive pursuit of power, and knowing Mr. Johnson as well as I believe I do, it is entirely conceivable that he might have struck any bargain—with the Pentagon to “give ‘em their goddamn war” in return for the highest political prize of all: the White House. What a shame that he squandered so much of the drive and determination that won him that prize on an unwinnable war, rather than investing it in his Great Society program (which, with better funding and follow-through) might have accomplished worlds of good instead of reaping a whirlwind of malice and mayhem.

Power/John F. Kennedy/Foreign Affairs

One wonders if the various muddles–the Bay of Pigs, Berlin, Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis–that President Kennedy got us all into with such lethal implications weren’t the result of having gotten himself in over his head. After, JFK had wanted to be nothing so much as a journalist, and it was only upon the death of his brother Joe in the Second World War that his overweening father anointed him—by default–as heir to the nascent Kennedy political dynasty.

Power/Leadership

Trust me on this: America always delivers the leadership it needs when the going gets rough. Consider George Washington during our dire and nearly hopeless struggle against the British; Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War; Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II; Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights struggle.

Power/Abraham Lincoln

Father Abraham’s struggle for national union and freedom for the slave should reassure us of our ability to summon the talents of men and women of integrity, compassion, wisdom, and leadership when the going gets tough–to wit: Washington, FDR, and Martin Luther King. Today, with the politics of divisiveness sowing hatred between Red and Blue Americans, we need such a leader more than ever. George W. Bush has polarized American society to an extent unseen since the Vietnam War. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.

Power/Abraham Lincoln

If anything, Abraham Lincoln was a reluctant savior to the slave; while he might well have been willing to continue slavery in order to preserve the union, and while he himself had no faith in the ability of slaves to integrate themselves with white American society, the struggle for national union and freedom for the slave that he found himself irrevocably committed to should reassure us of our ability to summon the talents of men and women of integrity, compassion, wisdom, and leadership when the going gets tough–to wit: Washington, FDR, and Martin Luther King. Today, with the politics of divisiveness sowing hatred between Red and Blue Americans, we need such a leader more than ever. George W. Bush has polarized American society to an extent unseen since the Vietnam War. It’s quite impossible to conceive of any middle ground between the adulation of Mr. Bush as the champion of conservative, faith-based mainstream American values on the one hand, and the assessment of the man as the most prodigious One-Man Wrecking Crew–of the economy, the environment, of civil liberties, of trust, of America’s global image and relations–that Americans have ever installed in the White House. Perhaps it’s time to revisit Winston Churchill’s words that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Perhaps there is a higher and better form of democracy, wherein the vote is no longer a birthright, but a right available only to those who can demonstrate that they are well informed on the issues, the lessons of history, and their implications. The policies of this nation—and their consequences–are too important to entrust any longer to sectarian politics.

Power/Machine Politics

I’m not sure that anything much has changed since the machine politics of the ward bosses. They were reviled as criminals, but at least they delivered their patronage to those constituents that needed it the most. In a sense, it was politics at its most straightforward and equitable! Politics are in many cases no less corrupt these days, with politicians beholden to corporations, political action committees, and other big contributors, but the payoff from the politicians is delivered to the constituents that need it the least… resulting in a hideous distortion of representation.

Power/William McKinley

William McKinley had the bad luck (as the Chinese would have it) of living in interesting times, a man who warmed only reluctantly to the dubious glories of both gold and empire. Having whetted its appetite for dominion by stealing the Hawaiian Islands at gunpoint, America at the dawn of the 20th century was an empire in the ascendancy, adding Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to its portfolio as a result of its “splendid little war” with another empire, Spain, that was clearly on the way out. With Open Door policy in hand, it seemed destined to make the Pacific an America lake, one that abounded with fat fish in the form of the hoped-for China trade. Alas, the Philippine adventure came to grief in a nasty guerrilla war that anticipated the horrors of Vietnam, and the plummy vision of cashing in on the China market crumbled with the Japanese theft of Manchuria. For all the perils of empire, William McKinley was a man whose vision—unlike that of William Jennings Bryan—was invested in the future.

Power/William McKinley/Assassination

I think that any understanding of anarchism has to proceed from the premise that violence is the last resort of the truly helpless. What is it about the late 19th century, then, that gave rise to not only anarchism and the likes of Leon Czolgosz, but to the tectonic forces that would unleash the Great War and its sequel, World War II? The late 19th and early 20th century witnessed the zenith of those forces of monarchical state authority and the jostling for Great Power status that caused Europe to burst from its boundaries in the Great Land Grab that gave rise to colonial empires. Anarchism would have appealed to individuals who felt helpless to assert themselves against national and imperial forces of such stature, and it wouldn’t be until the end of the Second World War that democracy would offer any palliative. Meanwhile, those tectonic forces collided along the fault lines that opened up amongst the empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottomans, and when the dust finally settled, democracy flourished: only six nations were democracies at the end of the war; today, some 120 are. But is that the end of anarchism? Keep in mind that one out of four people in the world today lives on less than a dollar a day, and for many such people who occupy that most helpless of estates in life, terrorism holds an irresistible appeal.

Power/Missouri Compromise

In the end, the Missouri Compromise that admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state worked little better than any other “committee solution,” in that matters of high moral purpose such as the future of slavery will—given the great depth to which opposing beliefs about such things are rooted—usually be resolved only by force. The 620,000 lives sacrificed to such beliefs and values in the Civil War says it all.

Power/James Monroe/Era of Good Feelings

It’s quite odd when America enjoys a stretch of unruffled prosperity such as we had under Monroe’s administration or more recently, during the 1990s. The Main Story of America’s history has always been upheaval: the ordeals faced by the Pilgrims, the Revolution, opening the West and the decimation of the Indians, slavery and the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Struggle and the ferment of the 60s… and 9/11 and who knows what to come. Upheaval and struggle defines us, and is what makes possible the hothouse growth that makes America the most dynamic society on earth. In a sense, war is a masterpiece—like a painting of some horrific battle scene that hangs in the museum; war brings out both the worst and the best in people. The good times, while they last, are aberrations and seem unnatural to the character of our society.

Power/Ownership Society

The Ownership Society, if it ever comes to pass, would surely rank as of the greatest upsets of entrenched interests ever. Ever since FDR enacted the New Deal to ameliorate the hardships of the Great Depressions, Americans have enshrined the Culture of Entitlement–with its premise of government as the ultimate guarantor of society’s well being–as a birthright. It’s a vastly expensive proposition that’s becoming ever more difficult to fund in the face of the tax cuts that Mr. Bush used to fund his leveraged buyout of the 2000 election (if you’ll indulge me), but taking it all away is likely to prove vastly more difficult.

Power/Panama Canal

The Panama Canal was the heroic product of its time, when a self-styled hero—Teddy Roosevelt–stalked the global political arena with Big Stick in hand. An unabashed imperialist, Roosevelt summed up the White Man’s Burden in declaiming: “No man is worth his salt who does not believe that the growth of his own country’s influence is for the good of all those benighted people who have had the misfortune not to be born within its fold.” In response, policymakers began to use the full range of tools at their disposal, in manipulating arms sales, financial aid, and diplomatic recognition, and in so doing, modern America would become hostage to the consequences of old-fashioned imperial overstretch. But the biggest tool in the box was by far the Panama Canal, which made possible the projection of Manifest Destiny to its logical limits and made the Pacific an American lake.

Power/Parties

I’m not sure whether the answers to the burning issues of the day really differ much depending on which political party addresses them. The important thing is that there’s lots of room in the American political process for the full range of opinion. Dissent has led to the downfall of regimes in large part because of the suppression of such dissent… in the same manner that violence is the ultimate expression of helplessness. If dissent is left helpless and without a voice, violence will ensue, as inevitably befalls tyranny. The greatest strength of democracy is that it allows all voices to be heard, power to be checked, and radical sentiment to be mitigated before it transforms itself into violence.

Power/Parties/Whigs and Democrats

Whither the Whigs? It’s odd that even in their present-day Republican Party iteration, so little has changed. They’re still the party of the wealthy, the commercial oligarchy, the conservatives and the anal-retentive. With priorities that permit hundreds of billions for an unnecessary war and so little for the homeless, our latter-day Whigs continue to define their political virtues along the moneyed side of the Great Divide that increasingly separates the Haves from the Have-Nots in American society.

Power/Pendleton Act

The development of a competent civil service–relatively immune to corruption and whose positions are based on merit, not connections—is probably the most important step (next to free elections) in building a functioning democracy, and the stuff that separates a mature democracy from third world monkey business, where civil servants largely amount to some politician’s private entourage of vote-riggers and purveyors of patronage. But having built a meritocratic civil service and a mature democracy, is not our political process now at risk of being fatally compromised by lobbyists, corporate money, and congressmen on the take? Our congressmen, after all, are functionaries (like any other civil servant), who supposedly get out of bed in the morning not to fatten their campaign chests, but to serve the citizens they represent. In this sense, the Pendleton Act remains a work in progress.

Power/Pure Food and Drug Act

Bismarck once observed that there are two things that one should never watch being made: sausage and diplomacy. With respect to the former, Upton Sinclair went where no man was so bolds as to go before, and got himself hired onto a slaughterhouse so that he might observe firsthand the gruesome process that inspired Bismarck’s remark. The novel that resulted, The Jungle, succeeded not only in swearing off countless Americans from sausage (and meat in general), but in almost single-handedly bringing about the enactment of the Pure Food and Drug Act as well. Even today, it’s reading that one would be ill advised to undertake on a full stomach—without a bucket and mop handy in any event.

Power/Red Scare

Combine a flu pandemic, widespread labor unrest, political persecution, race riots, hyper-inflation, an apoplectic president, women agitating for the vote and—worst of all—not a drop on tap (thanks to Prohibition) to soothe the savage breast… and you’ve got the makings of revolution. Small wonder that people imagined spies beneath every bed—who else would put this kind of grief on us but our worst enemies!

Power/Revolution/Conditions

We had it backwards: the American Revolution began not as a social or political revolution or protest against British rule… but as a tax protest. Little political nationalism existed before the Revolution; where many revolutions arise out of a desire for political unity; in our case unity offered the only hope of defeating the British. Nationalist sentiment came later, only after the experience of war had forged those bonds among the colonies. The British brought it on themselves with their greed for empire that was stoked by territory they acquired from the French and Spanish in settlement of the first true world wars: the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War (of French and Indian War) that were played out in India and North America. The vast increase in British territory brought with it a vast increase in the financial burden of maintaining that empire, which the British in their infinite wisdom decided that the American colonials should helped shoulder (since presumably the North American skirmishes were fought in their defense). This led to various levies beginning with the Sugar Act (which taxed imports like sugar), the Stamp Act (which taxed internal documents and publications and which led to screams of taxation without representation), the Townshend Duties (more import taxes), and the Declaratory Act (by which the British in essence told the Americans to like it or lump it). The ensuing boycott of British goods by the colonials led to the quartering of British redcoats in Boston, and to the inevitable clash that became known as the Boston Massacre. The Tea Act incited the Americans to dump said tea into Boston harbor, which then led to the Coercive Acts that weakened colonial legislatures and judiciaries… and which also produced the first united colonial opposition to British rule. From then on it was all downhill.

Power/Revolution/Benjamin Franklin

Franklin, renowned for his common sense, was also a philosopher wont to tinker with all matters sublime and mundane. But the turmoil of the times compelled Mr. Franklin to lay down his Philosopher’s Stone and take up the Revolutionary Cudgel… reminding us that civilization is a luxury whose cost is denominated in blood, sweat, and tears.

Power/Revolution/Loyalists

The question might better be: Why did some people cease to be Loyalists? A great many colonists regarded themselves throughout the Revolution as being British… and proud of it. The Revolution was an afterthought. We had it backwards: the American Revolution began not as a social or political revolution or protest against British rule… but as a tax protest. Little political nationalism existed before the Revolution; where many revolutions arise out of a desire for political unity; in our case unity offered the only hope of defeating the British. Nationalist sentiment came later, only after the experience of war had forged those bonds among the colonies. The last thing that the gentry wanted was social upheaval that might cast a pall of confusion over their ownership of land and the conduct of their businesses. A colonist’s identity with Mother England offered and citizenship in the British Empire, the protection of British law and a market for his products, and commonality with the English cultural heritage.

Power/Revolution/Loyalists/Motives

It’s important to keep in mind that the American Revolution was not a nationalist uprising at first; it was a tax protest, and hardly a revolution at that. Most colonists regarded themselves as loyal Englishman, and proud of it. As to why many remained loyalists, it’s like any other mystery, the answer to which will usually be found on the bottom line (the one with the dollar sign next to it). Many owned property and businesses, and had good reason to wonder what would become of all that with a change of regime, so to speak. Many businesses depended on trade with Mother England, and with a changed relationship would come tariffs, and perhaps trade boycotts. Many held well-paid positions in the employ of the Crown. And what passed for colonial culture was a poor substitute for the deeply rooted cultural affinity that many felt for England. In fact, had not the British bungled it by so antagonizing the colonists with their troops and tax policies, it’s hard to imagine that there would have been much if any sympathy among colonists for independence.

Power/Revolution/Motives

A great many colonists regarded themselves throughout the Revolution as being British… and proud of it. The Revolution was an afterthought. We had it backwards: the American Revolution began not as a social or political revolution or protest against British rule… but as a tax protest. Little political nationalism existed before the Revolution; where many revolutions arise out of a desire for political unity; in our case unity offered the only hope of defeating the British. Nationalist sentiment came later, only after the experience of war had forged those bonds among the colonies. The last thing that the gentry wanted was social upheaval that might cast a pall of confusion over their ownership of land and the conduct of their businesses. A colonist’s identity with Mother England offered and citizenship in the British Empire, the protection of British law and a market for his products, and commonality with the English cultural heritage. Most colonists regarded themselves as loyal Englishman, and proud of it. As to why many remained loyalists, it’s like any other mystery, the answer to which will usually be found on the bottom line (the one with the dollar sign next to it). Many owned property and businesses, and had good reason to wonder what would become of all that with a change of regime, so to speak. Many businesses depended on trade with Mother England, and with a changed relationship would come tariffs, and perhaps trade boycotts. Many held well-paid positions in the employ of the Crown. And what passed for colonial culture was a poor substitute for the deeply rooted cultural affinity that many felt for England. In fact, had not the British bungled it by so antagonizing the colonists with their troops and tax policies, it’s hard to imagine that there would have been much if any sympathy among colonists for independence.

Power/Revolution/Thomas Paine

Humiliation, bankruptcy, and oblivion–an ironic reward for the man who abandoned a glorious career in corset-making to take up the cudgel of revolution on our behalf. Having just finished reading the collected works of Thomas Paine, I can tell you that the man was well named (in fact, he only later in life added the “e” to his family name)… and it’s no surprise that had so few friends to show for all his trouble. But that’s so often the cost of a good conscience.

Power/Revolution/Victory

As usual, whenever there’s a mystery, the answer will be found on the bottom line (the one with the dollar sign next to it). We had it backwards: the American Revolution began not as a social or political revolution… but as a tax protest. Little political nationalism existed before the Revolution; where many revolutions arise out of a desire for political unity; in our case unity offered the only hope of defeating the British. Nationalist sentiment came later, only after the experience of war had forged those bonds among the colonies. The last thing that the gentry wanted was social upheaval that might cast a pall of confusion over their ownership of land and the conduct of their businesses. What’s more, a great many colonists regarded themselves throughout as being British… and proud of it. The Revolution was an afterthought.

Power/Revolution/Women

To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it. And what better examples of this than the role of women in Revolutionary America! Since schools were for the most part lacking back then, it was the women who looked after their children’s learning, educating them to ensure that they measured up the standard of enlightened citizenship that would be required of a republic in which everyone was expected to participate in the political process. And, while they were at it, they did a pretty commendable job of looking after the family farm while their men were away doing the fighting; their determination to substitute homespun textiles for British imports anticipated Mahatma Gandhi’s spinning wheel as the symbol of India’s boycott of British goods during its own independence movement.

Power/Eleanor Roosevelt

In many cases, women in history were not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its many complications (war and much more), and exert their influence in more subtle ways. Women often occupy a badly underestimated role in history, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exert on men who lend a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft may just as easily be found behind the throne as upon it. While Eleanor Roosevelt could hardly have eclipsed the outsized destiny that her husband was called upon to fulfill, her influence in helping to establish women in the halls of American political power was singular, and if Hillary Clinton is elected president one day, she’ll have Eleanor’s precedent of the power behind the throne to rest her laurels on.

Power/Franklin Roosevelt/Election of 1936

Truth be told, Roosevelt was as clueless as the next man as to how to deal with the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s genius lay in leadership—however poorly he understood fiscal policy and other measures to lead with—and he appreciated the supreme importance of doing something. In reminding the nation that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he saw helplessness as the handmaiden of despair, and that taking action of some kind served to change the all-important psychological dynamic from helplessness to helping ourselves. Much of FDR’s New Deal may well have been a hodgepodge of misguided make-work programs, but for the ordinary down-and-out American, the New Deal meant a job of some kind and a toehold on dignity and self respect, and it restored to the common man the belief that if we kept trying, with whatever means we had at our command, we could beat this thing. In the 1936 election, FDR’s opponent Alfred Landon may have had a better idea, but the president’s personality had captivated the country and the gratitude of countless Americans who saw Roosevelt as having reached out to each of them in a way that Big Government, however intelligently conceived and administered, never could.

Power/Franklin Roosevelt/New Deal

Truth be told, Roosevelt was as clueless as the next man as to how to deal with the despair of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s genius lay in leadership—however poorly he understood fiscal policy and other measures to lead with—and he understood the supreme importance of doing something. In reminding the nation that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he understood that helplessness is the handmaiden of despair, and that taking action of some kind changed the all-important psychological dynamic from helplessness to helping ourselves. FDR’s New Deal may well have been a hodgepodge of misguided make-work programs, but for the ordinary American, the New Deal meant a job of some kind and a toehold on dignity and self respect, and it restored to the common man the belief that if we kept trying, with whatever means we had at our command, we could beat this thing. In fact it took the cataclysm of World War II to shake America out of its torpor, but it was our experience in dealing with the Depression that gave us the realization that we could rise to, and overcome, the even more desperate challenge of the War.

Power/Teddy Roosevelt

The teddy bear’s namesake was anything but cuddly. An unabashed imperialist, Teddy Roosevelt summed up the White Man’s Burden in declaiming: “No man is worth his salt who does not believe that the growth of his own country’s influence is for the good of all those benighted people who have had the misfortune not to be born within its fold.” In response, policymakers began to use the full range of tools at their disposal, in manipulating arms sales, financial aid, and diplomatic recognition, and in so doing, modern America had become hostage to the consequences of old-fashioned imperial overstretch. TR’s vision of Manifest Destiny made the case for our right to judge and instruct other peoples, and all the revolutions abroad that had gone wrong only confirmed the racial or cultural inferiority of the revolutionaries, and underlined their need for American tutelage. While Teddy’s bombast and Big Stick seems to have embraced by yet another cowboy in the White House, his passion for safeguarding the environment and promoting the interests of the ordinary American, sadly, have not.

Power/Star-Spangled Banner

Francis Scott Key’s inspired take on an old drinking song—which became our national anthem—commemorated our time-honored spunk by thumbing our nose at the British bombardment of Fort McHenry. The War of 1812 may well have been a comic opera in itself, but its real significance lay in the fact that it enabled America to overcome the obstacles that the British had posed to determining our national boundaries, and awakened America’s appetite for expansion. This then became Manifest Destiny, which made the case for our right to judge and instruct other peoples—and if need be, to obliterate them (most especially the American Indians). We saw the objects of our civilizing mission as either half-breed brutes, a perception that could be used to justify contemptuous aloofness or predatory aggressiveness; as feminized, inviting us to either court them or save them; or as infantile, in which case our tutelage and stern discipline ranked as a parental obligation. Teddy Roosevelt summed up the White Man’s Burden in declaiming: “No man is worth his salt who does not believe that the growth of his own country’s influence is for the good of all those benighted people who have had the misfortune not to be born within its fold.” In response, policymakers began to use the full range of tools at their disposal, in manipulating arms sales, financial aid, and diplomatic recognition, and in so doing, modern America had become hostage to the consequences of old-fashioned imperial overstretch.

Power/Thaddeus Stevens

The story of Thaddeus Stevens makes one nostalgic for the day when (at least some) politicians were leaders and men of integrity and vision, and not just hacks, political operators, and pawns of corporate interests. Steven’s twin handicaps of poverty and physical repulsiveness were, as they would prove to be in Abraham Lincoln’s case, certain guarantees of the sort of determination that would serve him and his country very well indeed. Things were simpler, clearer, and more straightforward then, and alas, Steven’s vision of universal public education as the Great Equalizer in American society seems to have blurred. From the late 19th century, we were willing enough to bring the children of immigrants into our public schools on the same footing as the children of the wealthy and powerful… though black children didn’t even figure in the equation until 1954 with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. Better late than never, but the social chasm continues to widen along the public school/private school divide. What’s the point of a level playing field for kids if we continue to play in separate leagues?

Power/William Howard Taft

At 400-plus pounds, William Howard Taft was perceived not only as a major marshmallow—not just by virtue of his girth, but most of all in terms of his soft-headed policies that must have paled in comparison with the hard-punching, Rough-Riding Teddy Roosevelt. Ultimately, he just wasn’t green enough: his firing of National Forestry Chief Gifford Pinchot—an appointee and personal favorite of Teddy’s—came as a personal affront to Teddy (who, as you’ll recall, is the man behind our national parks system and a great lover of the great outdoors). And that’s what inspired Teddy to jump back into presidential politics with his independent Bull Moose Party, which resulted in a three-way race and a pluralistic victory (more or less by default) by Woodrow Wilson, a high-minded academic with no business being in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

Power/War/Civil War/Robert E. Lee

The career of Robert E. Lee—whose birth should never have been—reminds us that we humans are not the creatures of luck and circumstance that we so often seem to be… but of will and intent.

Power/War/Civil War/Lincoln’s Election and Secession

Everything means something, and there was never a more potent political symbol of the issues that formed the background to the secession crisis than the presidency. Lincoln had done his utmost to assure the body politic of his intentions to avoid forcing the issue of slavery where it already existed, but by 1864 the South had built up a welter of hostility and paranoia over what they saw as the Northern determination to end slavery on its terms. The most pregnant of all Southern positions on secession was the status of slavery in the territories, since it signified whether the Peculiar Institution would thrive or die as the nation grew. The election of Lincoln, whose position on slavery in the territories was anathema to Southern interests, affirmed the South’s worst fears.

Power/War/Civil War/Nevada Statehood

War is usually waged in the name of some noble cause or another, and the fact that statehood for Nevada gave Lincoln both the necessary political and financial muscle to wage the war should remind us that in politics, nobility of purpose is usually beholden to the bottom line.

Power/War/Civil War/Reconstruction/Compromise of 1877

The hardest part of so bitter a conflict as the Civil War may well be the making up. The Compromise of 1877 reflected the realization that military conquest only goes so far, and does nothing to win the hearts and minds of the people—the ultimate aspect of military victory. The first part of the Compromise, which required Unions soldiers to vacate—the idea being that you can’t heal the humiliation of defeat as long as its most visible source remains foursquare in your face. The second part, having to do with encouraging industrialization, stood to remedy a root cause of the war: economic inequity and the South’s perceived need for a slave-based economy. And the third part, having to do with restoring political balance, addressed the preponderant monopoly of political power by the party of Abraham Lincoln (Satan himself to the South). Such was the stuff of building confidence—the thing that most needed rebuilding from the ruins of the war.

Power/War/Civil War/Reconstruction/Freedman’ Bureau

The worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead, long after the surrender at Appomattox. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. The accomplishments of the Freedman’s Bureau—a modest beginning albeit–were evidence of the change of heart that took America’s worst war to accomplish. Wisely, it started with establishing schools, since only education (in the classroom and in the School of Hard Knocks) can cause people to listen to themselves and make the commitment is made to change; and with that, everything else is detail. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Power/War/Civil War/Republican Party

The worst fight of the Civil War still lay ahead, long after the surrender at Appomattox. The Civil War defined Americans in terms of their right to live in equality, much as the Revolutionary War defined us in terms of living free of foreign oppression. The struggle to live in equality, obviously, is far from over, but the Republican Party at least gave freed slaves a toehold in the political and social process that will forever be a work in progress. The Klan, Jim Crow, and the pervasive social and economic inequality of blacks and other minorities are all manifestations of the hardest part of the war: the battle to change hearts and minds. The accomplishments of the Freedman’s Bureau—a modest beginning albeit–were evidence of the change of heart that took America’s worst war to accomplish. Wisely, it started with establishing schools, since only education (in the classroom and in the School of Hard Knocks) can cause people to listen to themselves and make the commitment is made to change; and with that, everything else is detail. In a sense, race defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Power/War/Civil War/Sectionalism

It would eventually take the Civil War and 620,000 deaths to settle the sectional differences that had been sowed with the importation of the first slaves early in the 17th-century. Much has been said of the Civil War as a war over states’ rights to decide for themselves such things as slavery, tariffs, land sales and what not. Whether it was that or a war over slavery, the Civil War ultimately defined this nation in terms of whether states’ rights and sectional interests would prevail over federal authority and a coherent national vision. Otherwise there would have been no United States—just 50 bickering principalities.

Power/War/Civil War/Women

To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it. And what better examples of this than the role of women during America’s early wars! The role of women in the Civil War, whether as combatants, agents, historians, or healers—is little appreciated. But what is least appreciated of all is the all-important role they played as nurturers of the new generation that would emerge after the chaos of the war to assume the reins of the newly reconstituted republic. Since schools were for the most part lacking back then, it was the women who looked after their children’s learning, educating them to ensure that they measured up the standard of enlightened citizenship that would be required of a republic in which everyone was expected to participate in the political process.

Power/War/Cold War/Containment

Containment was the byword of the Cold War, and America bottled up its own civil liberties and civic culture in much the same way that we did the Soviets. McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia contained America’s conscience and voice of protest as effectively as any tyrant. The containment ethic of the Cold War applied as well to containing women in the home. Kids grow up, and the prospect of living out the rest of their lives in the sterile context of suburbia must have caused countless women to despair. The absurd preoccupation of America’s foreign policy with the specter of a monolithic international communist conspiracy led us into the lethal quagmire of Vietnam and into myriad Third World intrigues and entanglements that we reap the consequences of even today. It all begs the question of whether the Cold War, as glacial as it was, wasn’t a Pyrrhic victory after all.

Power/War/Korean War

It does seem that in some respects the imbroglios in Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam represented the final blows for empire that brought an end to the era of colonialism that began with the Portuguese and Spanish forays into the New World in the 16th century, and culminated in the carving up of much of Asia into British, French, American, and Japanese possessions through the 19th century and continuing into World War II. Korea was a war fought by proxies of the United States and Soviet Union–knowing as the superpowers did that any direct confrontation between them could easily result in nuclear holocaust. While the perception of FDR’s diplomatic and domestic political acumen was considerably more heroic than the reality, Truman seemed a very common and small-minded politician by comparison–at a time when the most crucial rearrangement of geopolitical forces of the 20th century made vision and magnanimity so essential.

Power/War/Spanish-American War

What’s ironic about all this is that it wasn’t the Spanish that blew up the Maine—more than likely, it was its own boilers. But it served the purpose, nonetheless, of launching the Spanish-American War and America’s appetite for empire. With its theft of the Hawaiian Islands at gunpoint, America at the dawn of the 20th century was an empire in the ascendancy, adding Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to its portfolio as a result of its “splendid little war” with another empire, Spain, that was clearly on the way out. With Open Door policy in hand, it seemed destined to make the Pacific an America lake, one that abounded with fat fish in the form of the hoped-for China trade. Alas, the Philippine adventure came to grief in a nasty guerrilla war that anticipated the horrors of Vietnam, and the plummy vision of cashing in on the China market crumbled with the Japanese theft of Manchuria.

Power/War/War of 1812

The War of 1812 may well have been a comic opera in itself, but its real significance lay in the fact that it enabled America to overcome the obstacles that the British had posed to determining our national boundaries, and awakened America’s appetite for expansion. This then became Manifest Destiny, which made the case for our right to judge and instruct other peoples—and if need be, to obliterate them (most especially the American Indians). We saw the objects of our civilizing mission as either half-breed brutes, a perception that could be used to justify contemptuous aloofness or predatory aggressiveness; as feminized, inviting us to either court them or save them; or as infantile, in which case our tutelage and stern discipline ranked as a parental obligation. Teddy Roosevelt summed up the White Man’s Burden in declaiming: “No man is worth his salt who does not believe that the growth of his own country’s influence is for the good of all those benighted people who have had the misfortune not to be born within its fold.” In response, policymakers began to use the full range of tools at their disposal, in manipulating arms sales, financial aid, and diplomatic recognition, and in so doing, modern America had become hostage to the consequences of old-fashioned imperial overstretch.

Power/War/War of 1812/Women

To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it. And what better examples of this than the role of women during America’s early wars! Since schools were for the most part lacking back then, it was the women who looked after their children’s learning, educating them to ensure that they measured up the standard of enlightened citizenship that would be required of a republic in which everyone was expected to participate in the political process. And, while they were at it, they did a pretty commendable job of looking after the family farm while their men were away doing the fighting; their determination to substitute homespun textiles for British imports anticipated Mahatma Gandhi’s spinning wheel as the symbol of India’s boycott of British goods during its own independence movement.

Power/War/World War I

No nation can exist in a vacuum in this global community of ours. With the First World War, we can date the beginnings of our modern global community and the new awareness of the implications of disorder in one part of the world for nations far removed from the scene. Americans developed their isolationist streak as a result of the entanglements with European powers that had bedeviled us from the days of the Revolution onward, until finally the Monroe Doctrine in effect told the Europeans to stay out of our hemisphere, and we’ll stay out of theirs. With two immense oceans on either side of us, and an abundance of everything we needed, it was easy to stick our heads in the sand and whistle Dixie. Until, that is, we became the victims of our own success; for us to sit back and enrich itself by selling to the European belligerents in World War I was just too good to last. Not even isolationist America could resist being drawn into the turmoil, any more than Russia could resist the contagion of revolution that had its inception at Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna.

Power/War/World War II/Japanese-Americans

The internment and abuse of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War was one of the worst transgressions of civil liberties in American history. The abuse of Japanese-Americans was certainly not as egregious as the systemic abuse of America’s black population; after all, the Japanese-Americans were conspicuous only because they resembled a temporary enemy, and not because they evoked the far more enduring demon of the shame of slavery and the near-genocidal oppression of the black race. What we hate about others is what we hate about ourselves, and it may well be that the spleen we vented on our Japanese-American community during the war reflected the shame of our legacy of racial intolerance. America has become the world’s country, a melting pot of the world’s best, brightest, and boldest, and either we embrace our most conspicuous differences—and enrich ourselves in the bargain—or we will be overcome by them.

Power/War/World War II/Navajo Code Talkers

It’s surprising that the Navajo Code Talkers—like the Japanese-Americans of the 442nd who demonstrated legendary bravery under fire—would reward with unflinching loyalty the nation that had enacted genocide against their people. Many Americans take for granted the blessings of citizenship and civil liberty that others have defied the forces of history to assert their right to.

Power/War/World War II/Pacific Battles

The comeuppances of Coral Sea and Midway put paid to the once-grand ambition of Japan to redress the historical humiliations inflicted upon it by the West and assume its rightful place in the first order of the nations. The Japanese gave lots of reasons, ranging from the American embargo of oil to the racist immigration policies of the American government, as to why they were forced into attacking America. But most of all, the Japanese were determined to wage war in the cause of building an empire, believing that they were destined to assume their rightful place as lord-emperors of their benighted Asian brethren. Japan had long suffered from its perceived inferiority relative to the Western powers–a legacy of its humiliation from the time it was opened up by Commodore Perry. It knew from the game that was played by the Great Powers that one could only become a Great Power by knocking off a Great Power, and with its victory over Russia in 1904, Japan became a Great Power–and that opened the door for building an empire. Korea became its first colonial prize shortly thereafter, then Manchuria, then China, where Japan’s unspeakably brutal behavior virtually guaranteed a confrontation with the West sooner or later. Say what they might, the Japanese saw Pearl Harbor coming from the day they clapped eyes on Perry’s Black Ships.

Power/War/World War II/Pearl Harbor

The Japanese gave lots of reasons, ranging from the American embargo of oil to the racist immigration policies of the American government, as to why they were forced into attacking America. But most of all, the Japanese were determined to wage war in the cause of building an empire, believing that they were destined to assume their rightful place as lord-emperors of their benighted Asian brethren. Japan had long suffered from its perceived inferiority relative to the Western powers–a legacy of its humiliation from the time it was opened up by Commodore Perry. It knew from the game that was played by the Great Powers that one could only become a Great Power by knocking off a Great Power, and with its victory over Russia in 1904, Japan became a Great Power–and that opened the door for building an empire. Korea became its first colonial prize shortly thereafter, then Manchuria, then China, where Japan’s unspeakably brutal behavior virtually guaranteed a confrontation with the West sooner or later. Say what they might, the Japanese saw Pearl Harbor coming from the day they clapped eyes on Perry’s Black Ships.

Power/Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson, who won the 1912 election, no doubt wished that he hadn’t. Wilson offers us a good example (and a cautionary tale to boot) of what happens when a high-minded, well-intentioned academic gets into the ugly business of politics: the real world is a very different place from the ivory tower. His altruistic pursuit of “open diplomacy” and a compassionate settlement at Versailles would never square with the determination of France, Italy, and Britain to extract their half-gallon of blood from the Germans, and his dream of America leadership of the League of Nations was sacrificed at the altar of political partisanship. And what did he get for his trouble? Apoplexy! Moral of the story: Stay in school.

Power/Women/Emma Goldman

Clearly, women in history have been not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its many complications (war and much more), and exert their influence in more subtle ways. Women often occupy a badly underestimated role in history, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exert on men who lend a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft may just as easily be found behind the throne as upon it. Sometimes, though, they need to come out of the woodwork—as Emma Goldman did–and kick ass, take names, and otherwise assert themselves on behalf of peace and civilization. To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it.

Economy


Economy/Automobiles

Henry Ford’s assembly-line revolution turned the Old World’s tradition of craftsmanship on its ear, and would accomplish the same result for tract housing with the proliferation of post-World War II Levittowns (as it would for manufactured goods of all kinds). But the same ingenuity that has made mass-market consumerism possible may now be coming round full circle… to bite us on the nose. With big-box economies of scale demanding hyper-productivity and the lowest possible unit costs, we’ll soon be driving Chinese cars on our way to the unemployment office.

Economy/Big Business

We Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with big business. We anguish over how big corporations de-humanize the work environment, how they cover the land with cookie-cutter malls and housing developments and corporate fast food; we bemoan their complete lack of loyalty to employees; we deplore how their ruthless competition puts small businesses out of business, and so much more. Yet with every dollar of business we give them, we vote in their favor, and we’re grateful for the low prices and product selection that come with bigness. If 19th-century Americans suspected that corporations would have little empathy for the little guy, they were right… but Big Business is what has made the blessings of the most gigantic economies of scale accessible to each of us. What’s more, it’s making it accessible to the whole world as part of globalization, with the trade-off being (you guessed it) a complete lack of empathy for the host culture of the little guy, wherever he may be.

Economy/Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie was born into a hothouse robber-baron economy that was so exuberant that you’d have to ask: What didn’t we have going for us! Blessed isolation from the eternal quarrels of Europe; a bottomless well of cheap immigrant labor; a free market, sky’s-the-limit work ethic; the freedom to rise above the class one was born to; an endless ocean of fertile land; boundless mineral wealth and stands of timber; and nothing to stop us from plundering it all to our heart’s content. Social Darwinism–survival of the fittest–seems to have been the name of the game with opening up the American West and in general with the development of early America’s economy. “Survival” meant plundering the riches of the New World—whether of indigenous peoples, timber, gold and silver, grasslands for open ranching, or real estate as it was snapped up by land-grant railroads—and set the pattern for the robber-baron capitalism that shaped American monopoly capitalism as it has been practiced ever since. An essential part of the character of this nation, with its mindset of boundless optimism, was formed in the bargain. Carnegie and Big Steel was just one case among many; consider Standard Oil, the big utilities and the early retail giants… and most recently Ma Bell, IBM, Bill Gates! But the America of limitless possibilities is coming to realize that there are limits—and consequences—that attend the exercise of Social Darwinism in the global arena.

Economy/Coal Mining

Black lung, methane explosions and mine fires, cave-ins, water pollution… coal’s a dirty business, albeit one that was no less tainted than so many other enterprises that helped fashion a functioning society from a howling wilderness. The beauty of civilization is only skin-deep, and scarcely conceals the legacy of plunder–whether of the environment, indigenous peoples, timber, gold and silver, grasslands for open ranching, or real estate as it was snapped up by land-grant railroads—that formed the pattern of robber-baron capitalism that inspired the hothouse growth of the American economy. An essential part of the character of this nation, with its mindset of boundless optimism, was formed in the bargain. Consider Standard Oil, Big Steel, the big utilities and the early retail giants… and most recently Ma Bell, IBM, Bill Gates! But the America of limitless possibilities is coming to realize that there are limits—and consequences—that attend the exercise of Social Darwinism in the global arena.

Economy/Depression of 1893

Some things just don’t change… and the Depression of 1893 showed that the timelessness of agriculture is one of them. The farm is the foundation of any diversified economy, no matter how sophisticated and wealthy. It forms the base of the economic pyramid that sustains each other level, on up to the most sophisticated and highly remunerated apex of that pyramid: the knowledge economy. As humble and dumb-as-dirt as farming might seem, it has nonetheless proved to be as reliable a leading indicator of economic health as the most sensitive and ingenious economic model. History has shown that when the nation’s farmbelt is in trouble, the rest of the economy will inevitably follow. What better example of that than the fact that, even when the rest of the nation was reveling in the Roaring Twenties, the farms were in a world of hurt. And once the base of our economic pyramid had eroded away into dust, the economy lay there in the dirt with it. As for the gold and silver controversy, the same debate over inflation that informed that controversy obtains in the present day with respect to interest rates and the money supply. There is a delicate balancing act involved in keeping economic growth from careening off into the hotbed of inflation or the chasm of deflation, and the controversy always hinges on whose ox stands to be gored in the bargain. Deflation is the worst nightmare for those who owe lots of money, since income and business revenues decline while their debt burden remains nominally the same, but proportionally greater. Inflation, on the other hand, erodes the buying power of cash and fixed incomes. We all need for the economy to grow, but somebody has to pay the price for growth.

Economy/Factory System

The abuses of the factory system that were a commonplace of the Industrial Revolution pointed up the need for government to regulate private industry—and for labor to organize–in the interests of the common good. This reflected a fundamental change in capitalism’s orientation: much as we realized that society could no longer afford to allow robber-baron capitalism to plunder the social and natural environment at will, we realized that capitalism had to accommodate more than just the demands of the market. As the biggest and best companies today have come to understand, it is no longer enough to be guided purely by the Invisible Hand of market forces; ultimately, the market—and the production processes that support it–must work as well for the workers who comprise the supply side, as it does for the demand side of the equation.

Economy/Gold and Silver

The same debate over inflation informed the controversy over gold and silver that obtains in the present day with respect to interest rates and the money supply. There is a delicate balancing act involved in keeping economic growth from careening off into the hotbed of inflation or the chasm of deflation, and the controversy always hinges on whose ox stands to be gored in the bargain. Deflation is the worst nightmare for those who owe lots of money, since income and business revenues decline while their debt burden remains nominally the same, but proportionally greater. Inflation, on the other hand, erodes the buying power of cash and fixed incomes. We all need for the economy to grow, but somebody has to pay the price for growth.

Economy/Great Depression

Both the best and the worst things that will ever happen to you will come as complete surprises. Certainly this was true of the Great Depression—who’d have thought it possible that such a thing could happen to America? Was this not true with the Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, Vietnam and Korea, and September 11th? And because we couldn’t imagine the Depression, we lived—during the Roaring Twenties—in defiance of every law of economic inevitability… and gravity. Hoover’s response was in keeping with this incredulity, thinking perhaps that if he ignored it, it would go away. But it would not go away, not for twelve long years… until finally it was subsumed by the even greater horror of World War II.

Economy/Great Depression/Isolationism

Americans developed their isolationist streak as a result of the entanglements with European powers that bedeviled us from the days of the Revolution onward, until finally the Monroe Doctrine in effect told the Europeans to stay out of our hemisphere, and we’ll stay out of theirs. With two immense oceans on either side of us, and an abundance of everything we needed, it was easy to stick our heads in the sand and whistle Dixie. Until, that is, we became the victims of our own success. By the early 20th century, America’s economy had become so productive that many Americans were convinced that without foreign markets to absorb our products, capitalism as we knew it would choke on its own effluvia. Which in turn got us involved in the outside world, and brought us to the realization that we could no longer subsist in a vacuum. Globalization has since made certain that we will be forever entwined in the affairs of everywhere else. The Roaring Twenties, like so many wretched excesses, concealed massive inequities in the distribution of wealth. The greatest imbalance lay in the concentration of wealth in the great business combines that attracted so much attention on Wall Street, and in the hands of the magnates who ran them. With little government regulation to intervene, the pattern was set to run its inevitable course that would lead to the countervailing forces of the Great Depression.

Economy/Great Depression/Dust Bowl

Some things just don’t change… and the timelessness of agriculture is one of them. The farm is the foundation of any diversified economy, no matter how sophisticated and wealthy. It forms the base of the economic pyramid that sustains each other level, on up to the most sophisticated and highly remunerated apex of that pyramid: the knowledge economy. As humble and dumb-as-dirt as farming might seem, it has nonetheless proved to be as reliable a leading indicator of economic health as the most sensitive and ingenious economic model. History has shown that when the nation’s farmbelt is in trouble, the rest of the economy will inevitably follow. What better example of that than the fact that, even when the rest of the nation was reveling in the Roaring Twenties, the farms were in a world of hurt. And once the base of our economic pyramid had eroded away into dust, the economy lay there in the dirt with it.

Economy/Gold Rush

Gold is the stuff of lust. Gold did things to people that paper money couldn’t: it inspired visions of owning one’s one South Forty, of starting a business or a new life somewhere over the rainbow, of living well, of being admired and being the object of every young woman’s eye, and much more. It was the means of fulfillment of all those desires that motivated men to cross blazing deserts and icy mountain ranges, and of braving cholera, Indians, and unnamed hazards of every kind… to come up (in most cases) empty-handed for all their trouble. But they had one hell of an adventure, and (as an afterthought) fulfilled America’s vision of Manifest Destiny in the bargain. And that’s something you couldn’t have bought with all the paper money in the world!

Economy/Imperialism

America’s heavy investment in global markets could only be sustained with the enormously expensive military muscle needed to protect its interests in those markets. With the onerous expense of empire compounding the post-war derangement of the colonial order, America had lost the magic… and the legitimacy, economic dominion, and hubris needed for hegemony. The long, slow ebbing of hegemony that followed Vietnam was not only the result of imperial overstretch, but of the abandonment of the gold standard and dollar supremacy in favor of floating currency exchange rates and competitiveness that globalization demanded. In short, hegemony rests on both military and economic power, and America cannot sustain both. The decline of America’s hegemony in world markets has given way to naked aggression that may soon open America’s war on terror into a much wider and infinitely more intractable war on Islam, and the monolithic mercantilism of the American corporate state has been replaced by countless global players who contend and cooperate in production alliances and markets worldwide. America’s new doctrine of pre-emptive security clearly does not square with the global economy and the spirit of multilateralism that it has come to depend on. America no longer owns markets that it must protect; there is no longer an enemy that can be confronted with overwhelming force. It seems that the train has left the station… and we haven’t even noticed.

Economy/Industrial Development

What didn’t we have going for us! Blessed isolation from the eternal quarrels of Europe; a bottomless well of cheap immigrant labor; a free market, sky’s-the-limit work ethic; the freedom to rise above the class one was born to; an endless ocean of fertile land; boundless mineral wealth and stands of timber; and nothing to stop us from plundering it all to our heart’s content. Social Darwinism–survival of the fittest–seems to have been the name of the game with opening up the American West and in general with the development of early America’s economy. “Survival” meant plundering the riches of the New World—whether of indigenous peoples, timber, gold and silver, grasslands for open ranching, or real estate as it was snapped up by land-grant railroads—and set the pattern for the robber-baron capitalism that shaped American monopoly capitalism as it has been practiced ever since. An essential part of the character of this nation, with its mindset of boundless optimism, was formed in the bargain. Consider Standard Oil, Big Steel, the big utilities and the early retail giants… and most recently Ma Bell, IBM, Bill Gates! But the America of limitless possibilities is coming to realize that there are limits—and consequences—that attend the exercise of Social Darwinism in the global arena.

Economy/Industrial Revolution

The genius of America’s Industrial Revolution lay in the ability we developed over the generations to come up with things that worked! Making the New World work required more than the ethereal constructs that populated the intellectual landscape of the Old World. It wasn’t so much the theory of political liberty that freed us from the British or the doctrine of eminent domain that enabled us to fend off hordes of hostile Indians… but the genius of the assembly line and mass-produced rifles. Necessity has well and truly proved to be the mother of invention, and American inventiveness–and nothing breeds necessity like being without, as we were for much of our early history.

Economy/Kuwait’s Abandonment of Dollar Peg

Everything means something, right? With Kuwait’s abandonment of its currency peg to the dollar, what they are saying is that the dollar (i.e., its continuing deterioration) is bad for their economy. What is their economy? That’s a no-brainer: it’s oil sales. Therefore, the dollar is bad for oil sales. Might this portend the imminent abandonment of the bargain struck long ago with the U.S. government to price oil in dollars in return for America’s security guarantee? (One wonders if America’s worsening entrapment in Iraq has altered their assessment of our ability to continue to honor our end of that particular bargain.) Insofar as Kuwait has been America’s most steadfast ally in the Middle East, would not the Saudis and other oil producers look around them and wonder: if America’s best friend in the ‘hood are giving up on the dollar, what are we doing holding the bag? If so, are not energy prices poised to go ballistic… and along with them, inflation and the price of gold? Might this be the straw the breaks the camel’s, the dollar’s, and the equity and credit markets’ back? Is this an inflection point, or am I merely beholding a mirage in the deserts of Araby?

Economy/Labor/Changes in the Workplace

Wage earners, especially in the mining, manufacturing, and transportation sectors, experienced the full impact of industrialization. Skilled industrial workers were generally quite well off, but unskilled laborers found it difficult to support a family on their wages alone. As machines replaced human skills, jobs became monotonous.  Further, work became more regulated as machines set the pace of work, and the time clock marked the workday. Large-scale industry decreased contact between employee and employer, and relations between them became increasingly impersonal. The costs of capitalization reduced the worker’s opportunity to rise from the ranks of labor to ownership. Workers became subject to swings of the business cycle: as markets became better populated with producers and consumers alike, competition increased and prices fell, and as prices fell, revenues dried up, businesses went out of business, and workers got thrown out of work. Wage earners lived, but always perilously and at the mercy of the business cycle.

Economy/Labor/Leaving the Farms

As a nation’s workforce becomes better educated, more highly skilled, and more sophisticated, it sheds its basic industries like textiles and steel by sending them offshore to lower-wage, less sophisticated workforces. And as farmers migrate to the cities, its farmlands become consolidated in fewer hands, leading to an improved economy of scale and eventually to corporate agribusiness. Both phenomena speak to how economic assets, whether steel mills or farmland, are constantly reconfiguring themselves to the demands of an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

Economy/Labor/Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

The catastrophe of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was a good example (if there are “good” examples of this sort of thing) of the hideous complications of life in the urban stews that held the promise of America and the immediate future for most immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The fire at least had the salutary effect of drawing needed attention and reform to the dreadful conditions of sweatshop labor, and much to their credit, many of these wretched souls managed to not only survive the sweatshops, but to rise above their squalor to contribute all that they had brought to the new country (which, apart from the shirts on their backs, wasn’t much more than themselves and their determination for a better life). Immigration defines America: America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

Economy/Labor/Failure of Unions

It’s only as an economy matures that workers are able to address themselves to the business of wresting a living wage and job security from their employers. In the early going, companies are still small enough for differences to be settled amicably; production technology is still primitive and not much of a threat to human skills; and the business cycle has not matured sufficiently to rear its ugly head and throw people out of work. At that early stage, unions are seldom even a consideration, much less an effective force. But as markets and the economy of scale grow larger, things get more complicated. Family businesses become corporations, and the costs of capitalization reduces the opportunities for workers to rise from the ranks of labor to management and ownership; machines begin to fill in for human labor; and the boom-and-bust of the business cycle increases job insecurity. Add to that the peculiarly American phenomenon of immigration, and the willingness of immigrants for work for low wages (to the delight of employers), and you have conditions ripening for unionization.

Economy/Labor/Unions/Trade Unions

It took a while for American labor to grow out of the idea that unions were for craftsmen rather than the rank-and-file laborer. What’s more, American workers hated the idea that they might be blue-collar for life, without any reasonable prospect of rising into management or the owner class and a better way of life. But as technology—and the level of vocational training that it demands–becomes more sophisticated, blue-collar tradesmen are increasingly able to command the same rewards as white-collar workers.

Economy/Labor/Working- and Middle-Class Families

The two things that formed the Great Divide between working and middle class families were the roles of women and children. The middle-class family had fewer children, and it took better care of them, thanks in large part to the ability of women to stay home. For most of history, children were regarded as economic assets from the time they were able to perform the simplest chores, and as miniature adults that were held to the same standards as their betters. Childhood, like romantic love, is a modern phenomenon and a luxury for those who can afford to thumb their noses at the economic imperatives of the family business and arranged marriage.

Economy/Lowell

It seems that economies worldwide take pretty much the same path in their development, and at some point, that trajectory involves women working in sweatshops making clothing. Still, the significance of the Lowell system lay in the opportunity that it afforded young women to leave home and achieve some measure of independence, albeit under the watchful eye of dorm proctors. Much the same thing is happening in China today, as girls from the villages pour into the factories to take up needle and thread on behalf of their families back home. The view from a window of a factory dorm—while seeming like the worst sort of drudgery to the modern observer—presents the very picture of affluence to those for whom the view from behind a plowhorse had always been the same.

Economy/Manufacturing and the Rise of Cities

The geography of American cities was shaped by the same organizing principles of industrial production that guided the factory system. Zoning, largely a New World phenomenon, was based on the idea that the form of cities should follow function, and in a sense, the organization of cities as economic, more than as cultural or political entities, reflected American priorities—that the business of America is business.

Economy/J. P. Morgan

J.P. Morgan was the living, breathing symbol of Big Money and all of its unsavory connotations. Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Bill Gates all rank as some of the most notorious figureheads of American capitalism. Morgan was the product of an era where “survival” meant plundering the riches of the New World—whether of indigenous peoples, timber, gold and silver, grasslands for open ranching, real estate as it was snapped up by land-grant railroads, or the myriad independent oil producers swallowed whole by Standard Oil, or in Morgan’s case, running Wall Street and the banking system as if it her his own—and it set the pattern for the robber-baron spirit that guided American monopoly capitalism as it has been practiced ever since. An essential part of the character of this nation, with its mindset of boundless optimism, was formed in the bargain. What didn’t we have going for us! Blessed isolation from the eternal quarrels of Europe; a bottomless well of cheap immigrant labor; a free market, sky’s-the-limit work ethic; the freedom to rise above the class one was born to; an endless ocean of fertile land; boundless mineral wealth and stands of timber; and nothing to stop us from plundering it all to our heart’s content. But the America of limitless possibilities is coming to realize that there are limits—

Economy/Samuel Jones

Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones would have found himself the odd man out in the company of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil who–along with Big Steel, the big utilities and the early retail giants, Ma Bell, IBM, and Bill Gates—may well rank as some of the most notorious robber barons of all time. Social Darwinism–survival of the fittest–seems to have been the name of the game with opening up the American West and in general with the development of early America’s economy. “Survival” meant plundering the riches of the New World—whether of indigenous peoples, timber, gold and silver, grasslands for open ranching, real estate as it was snapped up by land-grant railroads, or the myriad independent oil producers swallowed whole by Standard Oil—and it set the pattern for the robber-baron capitalism that shaped American monopoly capitalism as it has been practiced ever since. An essential part of the character of this nation, with its mindset of boundless optimism, was formed in the bargain. What didn’t we have going for us! Blessed isolation from the eternal quarrels of Europe; a bottomless well of cheap immigrant labor; a free market, sky’s-the-limit work ethic; the freedom to rise above the class one was born to; an endless ocean of fertile land; boundless mineral wealth and stands of timber; and nothing to stop us from plundering it all to our heart’s content. But the America of limitless possibilities is coming to realize that there are limits—and consequences—that attend the exercise of Social Darwinism in the global arena. and consequences—that attend the exercise of Social Darwinism in the global arena.

Economy/Real Estate Bubble

Look at it this way: retail sales are the main engine of the consumer-driven U.S. economy. For the last seven years or so since the bursting of the stock market bubble (remember the NASDAQ high-tech craze?), the housing bubble has been merrily inflating, and people have been using their homes as ATMs, taking home equity loans out for not just add-ons to their residences or financing junior’s college education, but for all kinds of stuff: vacations, SUVs, vacation homes, and any other fluff you can think of. What happens to retail sales as housing values decline and home equity dries up? What happens to all those jobs building homes… when there are no more buyers?

Economy/Oil/Rockefeller

John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil—along with Big Steel, the big utilities and the early retail giants, Ma Bell, IBM, Bill Gates—may well rank as some of the most notorious robber barons of all time. Social Darwinism–survival of the fittest–seems to have been the name of the game with opening up the American West and in general with the development of early America’s economy. “Survival” meant plundering the riches of the New World—whether of indigenous peoples, timber, gold and silver, grasslands for open ranching, real estate as it was snapped up by land-grant railroads, or the myriad independent oil producers swallowed whole by Standard Oil—and it set the pattern for the robber-baron capitalism that shaped American monopoly capitalism as it has been practiced ever since. An essential part of the character of this nation, with its mindset of boundless optimism, was formed in the bargain. What didn’t we have going for us! Blessed isolation from the eternal quarrels of Europe; a bottomless well of cheap immigrant labor; a free market, sky’s-the-limit work ethic; the freedom to rise above the class one was born to; an endless ocean of fertile land; boundless mineral wealth and stands of timber; and nothing to stop us from plundering it all to our heart’s content. But the America of limitless possibilities is coming to realize that there are limits—and consequences—that attend the exercise of Social Darwinism in the global arena.

Economy/Railroads

More than anything, it was the railroads that opened up the American mind to the possibilities of doing things in a big way. The railroads made it possible to open up the limitless expanses of the West, and for Americans to make this continent-size country work. The land that was given to the railroads by the government was sold off to settlers, and made it possible for them to farm and ranch with an economy of scale that in turn was made possible by the access that railroads gave them to distant markets. Railroads were the first big corporations, and the conglomeration of smaller rail systems into huge trans-national systems–as well as their bankruptcies and re-formation into monopolies—formed a pattern for much of American industry to follow. Railroads were at the heart and soul of the American way.

Economy/Social Security

It took the horrors of the Great Depression to cause Americans to abandon their long-held ethic of self-reliance and come around to the view of government as the ultimate guarantor of their well being. Which is all well and good: Social Security helps ensure that the dignity of old age should never be forfeit to the indignities of poverty. But with corporations now turning to the government to assume their pension obligations, it seems we’ve come full circle: for beneficiaries affected by these bailouts, the stingy amounts they’ll now collect from the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation are sure to return many of them from the dignity of a comfortable retirement to dire straits.

Economy/Retailing

The consolidation of industry in the latter half of the 19th century—whether with the railroads, Rockefeller’s oil patch, Carnegie’s Big Steel, the utilities, or America’s first big retailers—set the pattern for American monopoly capitalism as it had been practiced ever since. The new departments stores, with their economies of scale, the huge advertising budgets, their satisfaction-guaranteed warranties of their merchandise, the convenience of having all manner of consumer goods for sale under one roof—-sounded the death knell for the Mom n’ Pop store that had been the hallmark of small-town America. But for all its ingenuity, could retailing have possibly anticipated the Internet Revolution? It wasn’t that long ago that most folks were reluctant to buy anything off the Web for fear of credit card fraud and the uncertainties of dealing with unknown vendors. But for all that’s changed since, we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg. Consider the implications of an electronic economy: for starters, we wouldn’t have to handle much cash anymore—some of the bills in our wallets are filthy enough to qualify as biohazards. And, electronic money could provide a foolproof audit trail that would drive the underground economy out of business overnight and make possible a more equitable system of tax collection. Businesses and consumers would save enormous amounts from not having to contend with bad checks anymore, and credit checks for things that really shouldn’t require a credit check would be a thing of the past—either the beans are there or they’re not. Severing our ties with paper money will hasten the day when life becomes virtually virtual. The Internet will almost certainly go down in history (if it doesn’t re-fashion history completely, that is) as as great a revolution as the printing press—and we’ve only just begun! Imagine websites as virtual domains; strap on your virtual reality helmet, and experience whatever you like: sex, Singapore, or a ’63 Puligny-Montrachet. It’s just a matter of bandwidth and processing speed before we’ll be able to replicate anything that the physical senses can experience. What will it do to relationships and marriage, for example, when we can keep the company of a virtual companion who never says no? Or have virtual children that don’t need to have their diapers changed? What will become of travel when you can (virtually) go anywhere, anytime, without visas, jet lag, shots, or Delhi Belly? What about work and the quest for material rewards when, with the click of a mouse, one can change one’s shabby little dive into a sumptuous abode replete with kid glove leather sofas, rare Persian carpets, designer kitchen filled with virtual delicacies, and an 84-inch LCD TV for viewing all of your virtual favorites? Imagination has always been the matrix upon which the stuff of physical reality is formed… but in this case, the Internet will have taken all the work out of it! The question will not be whether money is paper or electronic or something else altogether; rather, the question might well become whether there will even be a need for money anymore. If we don’t have to pay for any of this stuff and can just have it all virtually, what will happen to the work ethic, and to the economy as we know it?

Economy/Roads

Nothing served to better unite the United States than its investment in roadbuilding. What’s more, these roads were a creature of the federal government, a political system that could not itself have existed without the political revolution that established a central government for thirteen virtually sovereign states. In that sense, nothing defined federalism—nor girded it better—than our national highway system. Today, the same end of tying our nation together is accomplished electronically, thanks to the global revolution in telecommunications and the Internet that spreads American popular culture with mind-numbing homogeneity. But that’s the stuff of which empires are made, and the more its subjects sign onto the same slate of values, the sturdier they are.

Economy/Sherman Antitrust Act

Both the Interstate Commerce Act, which sought to restrain competition, and the Sherman Antitrust Act, which sought to restrain monopoly, came about in response to the jarring realization that capitalism could not be allowed to hold sway without ameliorating its swashbuckling nature. ‘Til then, survival of the fittest seems to have been the name of the game with opening up the American West and in general with the development of early America’s economy. Survival meant plundering the riches of the New World—whether of indigenous peoples, timber, gold and silver, grasslands for open ranching, or real estate as it was snapped up by land-grant railroads—and set the pattern for the robber-baron capitalism that shaped American monopoly capitalism as it has been practiced ever since. An essential part of the character of this nation, with its mindset of boundless optimism, was formed in the bargain. Consider Standard Oil, Big Steel, the big utilities and the early retail giants… and most recently Ma Bell, IBM, Bill Gates! But the America of limitless possibilities is coming to realize that there are limits—and consequences—that attend the exercise of Social Darwinism in the global arena. We Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with big business. We anguish over how big corporations de-humanize the work environment, how they cover the land with cookie-cutter malls and housing developments and corporate fast food; we bemoan their complete lack of loyalty to employees; we deplore how their ruthless competition puts small businesses out of business, and so much more. Yet with every dollar of business we give them, we vote in their favor, and we’re grateful for the low prices and product selection that come with bigness. If 19th-century Americans suspected that corporations would have little empathy for the little guy, they were right… but Big Business is what has made the blessings of the most gigantic economies of scale accessible to each of us. What’s more, it’s making it accessible to the whole world as part of globalization, with the trade-off being (you guessed it) a complete lack of empathy for the host culture of the little guy, wherever he may be.

Economy/Steel

What would America have been without the steel that provided the backbone for skyscrapers and railroads? A strictly local and low-level affair, methinks, absent the vision of Manifest Destiny that welded a far-flung continent into a nation. At a time when the spirit and values of the Enlightenment were fueling intellectual discourse in Europe, Americans were left to the very grubby business of fashioning a functioning society in a raw and hostile environment. We needed to come up with things that actually worked—whether the instructive homilies of religious services, assembly-line rifles that could dispatch hordes of ill-intentioned Indians, laws that derived from common precedent rather than juristic sophistry, or steel that kept its spine—thereby producing that can-do spirit of pragmatism that defines an essential aspect of the Yankee character.

Economy/The West/Open-Range Ranching

The proposition that a $5 calf could be turned loose on open rangeland, then rounded up a few years later and sold for $45—with no further investment of time, labor, or materials needed—proved irresistible to the hordes of speculators who jumped into the game. Predictably, the game came to grief with confusion and bickering over land titles and water rights, and the inevitable oversupply of beef. In the meantime, it helped define the salient fenced-off character of the American West and hasten the demise of the American Indian as a result of the limitations that barbed wire imposed on his way of life. Survival of the fittest seems to have been the name of the game with opening up the American West and in general with the development of early America’s economy. Survival meant plundering the riches of the New World—whether of indigenous peoples, timber, gold and silver, grasslands for open ranching, or real estate as it was snapped up by land-grant railroads—and set the pattern for the robber-baron capitalism that shaped American monopoly capitalism as it has been practiced ever since. An essential part of the character of this nation, with its mindset of boundless optimism, was formed in the bargain. Consider Standard Oil, Big Steel, the big utilities and the early retail giants… and most recently Ma Bell, IBM, Bill Gates! But the America of limitless possibilities is coming to realize that there are limits—and consequences—that attend the exercise of Social Darwinism in the global arena.

Economy/Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties, like so many wretched excesses, concealed massive inequities in the distribution of wealth. The greatest imbalance lay in the concentration of wealth in the great business combines that attracted so much attention on Wall Street, and in the hands of the magnates who ran them. With little government regulation to intervene, the pattern was set to run its inevitable course that would lead to the countervailing forces of the Great Depression.

Economy/Trade with Europe

The genius of America’s Industrial Revolution lay in the ability we developed over the generations to come up with things that worked! Making the New World work required more than the ethereal constructs that populated the intellectual landscape of the Old World. Necessity has well and truly proved to be the mother of invention, and American inventiveness–and nothing breeds necessity like being without, as we were for much of our early history. Northern society placed a premium on resourcefulness and encouraged experimentation, and industry in that region grew rapidly in the decades before the Civil War.  The factory system made great strides, and a shortage of skilled labor led businessmen to substitute machines for trained hands.  Westward expansion made new resources available, and the expansion of agriculture produced an increasing supply of raw materials for the mills and factories. A relaxation of earlier prejudices against the corporation made possible larger accumulations of capital. With the industrial plant, raw materials, and capital that we needed, what more did we need from Europe? Labor, for one thing, and that fueled the immigration boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and markets for our surplus production, for another, which would shape the spirit of Manifest Destiny.

Economy/Taxation

Both Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion showed once again that social upheaval is seldom so mysterious that its causes cannot be found on the bottom line (the one with the dollar sign next to it). The American Revolution itself began not as a social or political revolution or protest against British rule… but as a tax protest. Little political nationalism existed before the Revolution; where many revolutions arise out of a desire for political unity; in our case unity offered the only hope of defeating the British. Nationalist sentiment came later, only after the experience of war had forged those bonds among the colonies. All this should remind us that governments must tread lightly in such matters, lest the serpent of oppressive taxation turn its ugly head to bite the boot that reposes on the taxpayer’s back.

The West


The West/California/Society/Denims

From a utilitarian standpoint, the durability of denim is undeniable. From a fashion standpoint, it may have something to do with “invidious display” (as Thorstein Veblen put it)—rich people deliberately dressing down as a perverse parody of their wealth (in order to incite contempt from others); to the rest of the world, is there anything more emblematic of America than the cowboy (and his jeans)?

The West/Myth of the West

As with any myth, the myth of the limitlessness of the opportunity out West proved to have fatal limitations. The over-production brought on by the Cattle Rush drove beef prices into a ruinous collapse, and the fencing off of the land for cattle raising wrought mayhem with land titles and contributed to the destruction of the Indian way of life (as did the wholesale slaughter of buffalo); the plunder of timber and metals ruined the land; and homesteading proved unfeasible for the individual and resulted in the default of much of the lands involved into corporate hands.

The West/California/Diversity

Small wonder that, with so much diversity in population, economy, topography, and just about everything else, California embodies the American Dream—being that either we embrace that diversity and are enriched by it, or we are overwhelmed by our differences and wind up impoverished in the bargain.

The West/Mission Secularization

History has a long fuse, and the trail of powder that led to the secularization of the missions in California ultimately led back to the exhaustion of Spain’s predatory presence in the New World, and to the Mexican independence that resulted. The bullion that Spain sucked out of the New World was never enough–just as Napoleon, with all of his power, couldn’t stop himself from going that one fatal step further and installing his brother on the throne of Spain. In truth, empires, no matter how mighty, must eventually go away. Consider the British in North America, the Spanish in Latin America, the Mexicans in California, the Americans in Vietnam: once a colony acquires its own sense of political identity, it is no longer of one piece with the colonizer; and the colonizer, no longer at home, must eventually—whether in ten years or a hundred–go home.

The West/California/Donner Party

There’s a college somewhere in California that named its campus dining hall after the Donner Party… which reassures me that a good sense of humor can be used to both commemorate and overcome the kind of incredible adversity that the Donner Party faced.

The West/California/Fur Trade

It’s amazing how fashion can lead to the extinction of a species in the bat of an eyelash: the beaver was very nearly wiped out by the vogue for beaver-fur hats, and the otter didn’t fare much better (nor do certain species of seal at the hands of club-wielding Canadian brutes). But an animal doesn’t really even need to have much of an economic value in order to merit wholesale slaughter; consider what happened to the bison, many of whose numbers were just blown away for the fun of it. Well, I suppose we take some grim consolation from the fact that the importance of ecology, the consequences of global warming, and the interdependence of species is at long last starting to dawn on us.

The West/California/Gangs

Judging by the record’s of Rome’s rapid disintegration (and of the disintegration of every other empire in history), it’s not entirely inconceivable that gangs will be the nations of the future. Aren’t people already referring to their fellow Americans in terms of “red” of “blue”? I’m not sure, but aren’t those the colors of the Crips and the Bloods, or some such thing?

The West/California/Los Angeles

What began as a lawless cow town and ended up as the Holy Grail of the American lifestyle has since become an ironic symbol of what Mexico lost in the war with the Americans over 150 years ago, and is now being regained by the growing preponderance of Hispanic peoples in southern California. Not that California will become Mexican, but especially with its growing Asian population, Los Angeles will become a melting pot where’s everyone’s as welcome as anyone else, and where any culture goes. What comes out of it—whether Golden Child or Frankenstein Monster–is anyone’s guess, but that’s the nature of the American Experiment: immigration defines America, and America is the world’s country–we draw the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world (90% of all American Nobel Prize recipients have been first- or second-generation immigrants), and Americans must learn to either embrace our most conspicuous differences–and become enriched in so doing–or we will be overcome by them.

The West/California/Mexicans

It’s ironic that what Mexico lost in the war with the Americans over 150 years ago is now being regained by the growing preponderance of Hispanic peoples. Not that California will become Mexican, but (especially with its growing Asian population) that it will become a melting pot where’s everyone’s as welcome as anyone else, and where any culture goes.

The West/California/Ranchos

Everyone knows about the Gold Rush. But the Cattle Rush, even though it’s every bit as emblematic of the greed that characterized the opening of the West, isn’t quite so well known. Back then, all you had to do was buy a calf for $5, brand it, turn it loose to graze and fatten for five years, then go out and collect it and sell it for $40. With money that easily made, naturally everyone and his uncle got into the business, causing a huge oversupply of beef, and prices crashed. Such is the character of capitalism. The ranchos represented a higher (and presumably better version of Cattle Capitalism: restraint and management of supply.

The West/California/Scurvy

It’s ironic that the early Spaniards would experience such privation with scurvy en route to the land of oranges and endless vitamin C. But that was not the worst of what they brought to the New World: a veritable Pandora’s Box that included, among many other things, smallpox—which wiped out the population of the Americas from an estimated 113 million at the time of contact with the conquistadores to just several million when the Pilgrims landed a hundred years later (which is why the Pilgrims encountered a depopulated pristine wilderness).

The West/California/Spanish missions

While Columbus made his voyages to the New World with financing by the throne, Spanish conquistadors like Cortes and Pizarro were privately financed. As such, there can be little doubt as to which of the Holy Trinity of “gold, God, and glory” motivated them. Entire Amerindian civilizations—whether Inca, Aztec, or North America—were felled by the Pandora’s Box of disease they brought with them. With all that said, it’s nice to know that there were altruistic motives that prevailed to impel the Spanish missions throughout the New World to accomplished what good they did.

The West/California/Spanish Missions/Father Junipero

While Columbus made his voyages to the New World with financing by the throne, Spanish conquistadors like Cortes and Pizarro were privately financed. As such, there can be little doubt as to which of the Holy Trinity of “gold, God, and glory” motivated them. Entire Amerindian civilizations—whether Inca, Aztec, or North America—were felled by the Pandora’s Box of disease they brought with them. With all that said, it’s nice to know that there were altruistic motives and folks like Father Junipero that prevailed to impel the Spanish missions throughout the New World to accomplished what good they did.

The West/Cowboys

Everyone knows about the Gold Rush. But the Cattle Rush, even though it’s every bit as emblematic of the greed that characterized the opening of the West, isn’t quite so well know. Back then, all you had to do was buy a calf for $5, brand it, turn it loose to graze and fatten for five years, then go out and collect it and sell it for $40. With money that easily made, naturally everyone and his uncle got into the business, causing a huge oversupply of beef, and prices crashed. Such is the character of capitalism.

The West/Fertility and Cheap Land

The 160 acres provided under the Homestead Act was an impossible proposition. It wasn’t enough land to work economically, given the poor quality of the soil that usually obtained, and given the fact that the settler often did not have the tools, experience or manpower to make it work. Even when the allotment was later doubled to 320 acres it was dubious. Still, it’s rather amazing to contemplate a time, once upon a time, of horizons whose only limit was the reproductive capacity of husband and wife, and when children were an economic asset, and not a six-digit liability!

The West/Horace Greeley

Greeley was best known for his exhortation: “Go West, young man, go west.” While much of the young nation followed that advice, he himself did not. Greeley was more typical of a very different demographic pattern—the movement of ambitious men and women from the farms to the cities. Those who followed his advice bought into a hard-scrabble proposition that rewarded their initiative with a lifetime of hard labor and hazard, while at least some of those who followed his example found the true El Dorado.

The West/Homestead Act, Dawes Severalty Act

Both acts failed in their goals of facilitating settlement. The Homestead Act failed mainly because the amount of land it awarded was too small to grow anything economically in most of the areas it applied to, and the settlers it meant to attract had neither the money to buy farming implements nor the farming skills to make it work. The Dawes Severalty Act failed in part because it too failed to anticipate how ill adapted its beneficiaries would be to farming. With the land allocated by the Dawes Severalty Act, whatever land was left over from what the Indian beneficiary used was then made available to white settlers, and it that sense, it accomplished the same purpose as the Homestead Act of facilitating white settlement. Another thing the two acts had in common was that the land ultimately wound up in the wrong hands, with the whites getting the land that was intended for the Indian under the Dawes Severalty Act, and the big corporations getting much of the land that was intended for individual settlers under the Homestead Act. Furthermore, both acts were subverted by fraud: in the case of the Dawes Act, corrupt agents took advantage of the requirement that the Indian beneficiary change his name to an American name to register claims for the agent’s family and friends; in the case of the Homestead Act, the big corporations used front men to acquire the land.

The West/Indian Training Academy

I might add that for those Indians who did not understand just how to adapt to the white way of life, there was also on offer to the Indian a scholarship to the Indian Training Academy in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which made it its business to turn out authentic replicas of white men! Oh, how their hearts must have fluttered with joy…

The West/Lewis and Clark Expedition

Yes, there were the usual hardball considerations at work in Jefferson’s decision to acquire the Louisiana Purchase: Napoleon’s plans for empire in North America, the worrisome Spanish presence at New Orleans, a place to re-settle the American Indian, the fur trade, the China trade, and more. But thankfully, Jefferson was a dreamer, too, and his heart was where his mind was: up in the clouds somewhere. The idea of the Louisiana Purchase as a vast storehouse of natural wonders and scientific curiosities doubtless appealed to Jefferson immensely. In a sense, it must have embodied his vision of America as the pristine and uncorrupted triumph of Republican virtue—an agrarian nation of gentleman-farmers, order without discipline, security without military, property without regulation, freedom without license. In sponsoring the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Jefferson would have licensed the spirit of philosophical inquiry and of man’s benign relationship with his environment that underpinned that vision of America.

The West/Mountain Men

You really gotta love the sheer misery of it all to be a mountain man in the West in the mid-19th century or so: immersed in icy streams grubbing for gold; playing tag with grizzlies and wolves; being cagey enough with the local Indians to both trade your skins and keep your scalp; the abject isolation; the total absence of urban amenities… Hey, the more I go on about this, the more fun it sounds—maybe I’m in the wrong profession!

The West/Native Americans

What accounted for the genocide of the American Indian was the utter impossibility of integrating the lifestyle and values of the Indian with the culture of white America. Consider the murderous hatred of the Jews by ancient Romans and modern Germans alike; of the Muslim minority by the Slavic majority of the Balkans; of the overseas Chinese by host-country Indonesians, Malays, and Filipinos—while here in America, immigrants of diverse cultural provenance got along as well as they did because everyone more or less subscribed to the same American Dream and cultural standard. Nothing sows such terror and savagery in the human breast as the enemy within—the perceived threat of a stand-apart society to the shared values that form culture and the rules by which it safeguards itself.

The West/Native Americans/Geronimo

Geronimo was the defiant last gasp of the American Indian. What accounted for their genocide was the utter impossibility of integrating the lifestyle and values of the American Indian with the culture of white America. Consider the murderous hatred of the Jews by ancient Romans and modern Germans alike; of the Muslim minority by the Slavic majority of the Balkans; of the overseas Chinese by host-country Indonesians, Malays, and Filipinos—while here in America, immigrants of diverse cultural provenance got along as well as they did because everyone more or less subscribed to the same American Dream and cultural standard. Nothing sows such terror and savagery in the human breast as the enemy within—the perceived threat of a stand-apart society to the shared values that form culture and the rules by which it safeguards itself.

The West/Native Americans/Sand Creek Massacre

The massacre at Sand Creek came as an almost gratuitous afterthought in the destruction of the American Indian. What accounted for their genocide was the utter impossibility of integrating the lifestyle and values of the American Indian with the culture of white America. Consider the murderous hatred of the Jews by ancient Romans and modern Germans alike; of the Muslim minority by the Slavic majority of the Balkans; of the overseas Chinese by host-country Indonesians, Malays, and Filipinos—while here in America, immigrants of diverse cultural provenance got along as well as they did because everyone more or less subscribed to the same American Dream and cultural standard. Nothing sows such terror and savagery in the human breast as the enemy within—the perceived threat of a stand-apart society to the shared values that form culture and the rules by which it safeguards itself.

The West/Native Americans/Trail of Tears

The Trail of Tears led to a predictable dead end for the American Indian. What accounted for their genocide was the utter impossibility of integrating the lifestyle and values of the American Indian with the culture of white America. Consider the murderous hatred of the Jews by ancient Romans and modern Germans alike; of the Muslim minority by the Slavic majority of the Balkans; of the overseas Chinese by host-country Indonesians, Malays, and Filipinos—while here in America, immigrants of diverse cultural provenance got along as well as they did because everyone more or less subscribed to the same American Dream and cultural standard. Nothing sows such terror and savagery in the human breast as the enemy within—the perceived threat of a stand-apart society to the shared values that form culture and the rules by which it safeguards itself.

The West/Topography

There’s so much about the opening of the West that defined the character of Americans, and one of the biggest challenges to our eternal can-do confidence was the character of the land out west itself. Getting to the Promised Land of California required finding one’s way through the most formidable mountain ranges and deserts on earth, and once there, the settler was sure (or so he thought) of instant wealth and ease. As usual, things didn’t turn out quite as planned for the majority, but that didn’t seem to put much of a dent in the American Dream. I’m not sure how well this optimism will serve us once the oil runs out, but the Gold Rush and other resource grabs out west ought to offer some sort of moral of the story.

The West/Poncho Villa and Jesse James

The West was populated with all kinds of larger-than-life characters—Jesse James and Poncho Villa notable among them. And that’s what made the West the mythical drama that it was, ensuring that it occupies a space in the national psyche even larger than its boundless physical expanse.


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