Every country expects its historians to construct a national narrative casting it in a light most favorable A nationalistic, patriotic story is needed, it is believed, to instill unity, loyalty and pride and to provide a credible historical basis for the prevailing structures of authority.
For a long time the United States conformed to this tradition of celebrating the past. American history as presented in our standard textbooks whether in high school or college offered an upbeat story about the glorious American Experiment that emphasized the growth of freedom and the spread of Democracy, the expansion out West, the rise of industry, the emergence of an enterprising urban middle class, the advance of universal education and the rise to prominence of the U.S. on the world stage. Authors supported the idea of “American Exceptionalism”, suggesting that our society was distinctive, even superior to those established elsewhere.
But the landscape began to change. Particular events may help explain what happened. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy caused some to ask whether we had long been a violent society. Our involvement in Vietnam and our support of dictatorships overseas led to questions about the motives behind American actions abroad. The Civil Rights movement prompted many Americans to revisit the tortured history of our race relations while the widespread protests against the war in Vietnam brought to light our experience with popular political movements. In sum, contemporary events were encouraging a more thorough and searching investigation of our past.
Meanwhile, many professional historians began to alter their approach. They insisted that instead of writing history from the perspective of those in authority (“top down”) who possessed the power, influence and social standing , it was time to reverse course and tell the stories of those occupying the lower rungs of society. It became known as history “from the bottom up.” It was a challenge to produce such a narrative because many of the protagonists were “inarticulate”, rarely left extensive written documents, but it presented a vast new field for exploration. After all, toward the bottom of the social heap were immigrants, slum dwellers, workers, farmers, African Americans, Native Americans and lots of women and children. Moreover, the standard triumphalist history usually did not apply, for here were people struggling, often exploited, frequently discriminated against and denied the “American Dream”.
This approach was presented most forcefully and persuasively in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United states (1980)”. He began by challenging the hero worship surrounding Christopher Columbus (who, he wrote, was responsible for “conquest, slavery and death”) and kept up this unorthodox, unflattering assessment of America’s past throughout his work. Most professional historians attacked him for his “tortured reasoning” and for producing a “deranged fairy tale” and an”absolutely atrocious agit-prop”. But students at both the high school and college levels were enthusiastic as were legions of adult readers. Zinn had violated existing taboos and included a cast of characters rarely if ever recognized in such works and also punctured the notion of American benevolence and exceptionalism. And “People’s History” became a runaway best seller with sales that continue to increase and whose influence easily exceeded that of any other textbook in American History.
As a consequence American history has become a keenly contested battleground. Conservatives have fought back on many a school board and curriculum committee across the country. They have insisted that the approach taken by Zinn and others be kept out of the classroom. Students ought not, in their view be exposed to a one-sided, distorted “radical” tale of grievance and conflict, an account that promotes skepticism of established authority, casts doubt about our adherence to America’s professed values, and views capitalism at times as a destructive, inhumane system. History, they insist, is best employed to promote loyalty and patriotism, to encourage unity, not fragmentation, to support those who govern and not cater to mindless “nay-sayers” who seek to tear down, not build up.
So, who is right? Those who sugarcoat our history, or writers who’ve brought to light the less savory aspects of our past. The answer, of course, is to let the chips fall where they may. America’s story is grand enough, unique and successful enough to stand on its own. We have achieved much and have long been a magnet for people across the world. Along the way, however, there has been destruction, exploitation, political corruption, failure and the deliberate exclusion of substantial segments of the population. So, is the glass half empty or half full? If you’re thirsty, half full is unacceptable. If not, the water level is no problem.
Time for a quick and timely history lesson. “Why?” you ask. Because we’re living through a period in which our national government appears deadlocked, unable to act on any number of vital legislative fronts. While the general public favors compromise, wants both major parties to collaborate and get America moving, Senators and Congressmen in D.C. locked into unyielding partisan positions appear incapable of the give and take that can produce significant legislative initiatives.
Might recalling a chapter from our history contribute to breaking the stalemate? At the beginning of our nation and for decades thereafter, the United States moved forward and avoided serious conflict because political leaders cultivated the arts of compromise. As every school boy or girl knows, there’d be no United States of America without the Great Compromise of 1787, which offered enough to mutually distrustful large and small states to get them to approve the Constitution. The large states, given their sizeable populations, would hold sway in the House of Representatives while the smaller states (e.g., Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut), gained equal representation in the Senate. Less well-known was the compromise that assured ratification of the Constitution. Because many feared the new Federal Government might become tyrannical they urged the Constitution be rejected. When, however, pro ratification spokesmen assured them that a Bill of Rights would be added, such fears receded and the Constitution gained passage. Continue reading →
Take the long view of immigration in the United States (not the current mess) and our nation looks pretty good. So many other countries these days (especially in Europe) are terribly stressed out over the issue. We, on the other hand, have from the very beginning, taken considerable pride in the waves of immigrants who arrived on our shores. They brought their skills, their energy and their determination to make new and productive lives for themselves here. The United States would not be the world’s leading nation today without their enormous contributions.
That’s certainly true, but we should temper our self-congratulations and acknowledge that the immigrant story loses some of its luster when one gets down to cases. In fact, in most instances, these newcomers were resented, many deemed unworthy and not up to American standards. And, furthermore, were viewed as representing a threat to the stability of our nation. In light of this for us to take immense pride in our immigration heritage is a little like parents who rejected and abused their child but later step forth and take credit when that person nevertheless achieves wide acclaim.
Still, has any other nation in the world had so many individuals who though born outside the country rise to prominence, as is the case in the United States? It just hasn’t happened elsewhere: Americans for their part hardly give it a thought and, if pointed out, express satisfaction, not resentment. Continue reading →
Early settlers to America were notably uneasy because of its limitless spaces. No matter how many people sailed over they barely left a mark given the vastness of the land. There was too much “wilderness”, a place occupied by the Devil and his minions, where individuals could all too easily descend into savagery. With so much space, Indians could roam free, prove elusive, but still threaten isolated communities at any time. Servants and slaves could run away and find plenty of room to elude captors. Moreover, British government officials feared the colonists would spread out far and wide and settle in areas so remote as to be ungovernable. To that point, Tom Paine, author of the famous revolutionary era pamphlet “Common Sense”, wrote how absurd it was for a huge continent to be governed by a distant island.
But size also had its advantages. Because land was remarkably plentiful, enterprising folks could acquire large plots for themselves and thus more independent land-holding farmers sprang up here than existed in any other part in the world (and once they owned land they could vote!) Newcomers, moreover, had a choice of where to settle. If Massachusetts somehow didn’t suit them there was New York or Pennsylvania, Virginia or South Carolina, or elsewhere. Quakers banned from Massachusetts could nevertheless find sanctuary in Pennsylvania or Delaware. The larger the territory the greater the opportunity for diverse economic pursuits – fishing, fur trapping, iron mining, lumbering, cattle raising, wheat cultivation, also tobacco and rice. Later on the West, whose true dimensions remained unknown, until Lewis and Clark and many other explorers ventured out there to map its vastness, would excite millions of would be pioneers eager to stake their claims to these distant lands.
The Founding Generation had trouble with America’s outsized dimensions. The political philosophers they read preferred small homogeneous territories where a commonality of interest prevailed. Jefferson himself considered a population of 30,000 to be about right for effective governance. His contemporaries could not help but notice the divergences that existed among the 13 original states and the clash of interests that followed. James Madison, however, observed that while the nation’s large territory produced a broad range of interests these would neutralize each other and prevent the emergence of a tyrannical central government. And so our forefathers established a central government, one that was not very powerful and allowed the states to retain significant local authority. They also made provision for the entry of new states into the union, thus increasing the likelihood that the United States of America would in time grow even larger.
And so it did, becoming among the largest (by land mass). What were some of the consequences of such immense size? One pressing need was to figure out how, despite the vast distances, to knit the country together. Accordingly the U.S. put immense resources into constructing transportation and communication networks, starting with canals, turnpikes, railroads and the telegraph and later developing extensive road networks, telephone technology, the airplane and the automobile.
Our size virtually guaranteed that we could not be conquered (not that anyone tried). What power could possibly overrun and occupy so vast an expanse? Because we expanded from coast to coast, we enjoyed immense stretches of coastline and therefore could become an important maritime and trading nation. Given our size, we increased the chances of having natural endowments aplenty. Indeed, we had it all – water, lumber, fertile soils (located in different climate zones) minerals of every variety, navigable rivers, oil, gas and gold. Because there was so much land we could set aside large chunks of it and create a national park system for generation after generation to enjoy.
America thus grew into its borders, filled in most of the livable spaces and yet remained in the end, one of the least densely populated nations of the world. With 318 million people (no other nation is in the 300 million bracket) we are quite comfortable with our population numbers. Some nations are difficult to manage because they have too many people (China, India, Indonesia, Brazil) and some remain largely inconsequential because they have too few (Netherlands. Denmark, Belgium, Austria, etc.) No longer do we worry that America is too big. We are, most assuredly, just the right size.
Enemies never get a break. But then why should they? – They’re the enemy. And to justify the battle against them they must be viewed as irredeemably evil. Deviant, brutish, uncivilized, fanatical – they’re everything we’re not. So don’t expect a fair or reasoned assessment of our enemies during the many wars we’ve fought.
It was difficult, however, to demonize the English, our adversary in the War of Independence. After all, they were much like us though we railed against the foreign Hessian mercenaries that the King had recruited, and England’s brutal heathen Indian allies. Our “Mother Country” had clearly broken faith with her American offspring.
The United States fought against the “Indians” on and off throughout the 19th Century. They were, we declared, despicable savages who spread terror far and wide. These red-skinned devils attacked with blood curdling screams, showed no mercy and killed (and scalped) many an innocent settler. The situation required Indian extermination (“The only good Indian is a dead Indian”.) or forced assimilation to assure the advance of white civilization. The Mexican War pitted our brave boys against “half breeds” and “greasers” while the Spanish American conflict was presented as a “civilizing mission” justified by Spanish cruelty and evidence of widespread brutalities in Cuba. Before and during World War I Americans were treated to a coordinated propaganda campaign against the horrible Huns, fiendish German enemies whose submarines sank defenseless passenger ships in the Atlantic and who unleashed poison gas on the battlefield with gruesome effects. Later, in World War II, while German soldiers were not demonized, they were feared as goose-stepping efficient Nazi killers under the sway of Adolph Hitler, a demented madman. Continue reading →
Nowadays we receive considerable information about households thanks to an abundance of social surveys, census compilations and via ongoing consumer-oriented research. The pace of household formation, composition, incomes, debt, consumption patterns, entertainment preferences – there’s extensive data on all these topics. Because households in one form or another have been closely associated with human life on earth I wondered about how they evolved over the centuries.
Let’s reconstruct certain basic elements of those early households. People once inhabited castles, caves, cabins, dugouts, tents, huts, farmhouses, barns, attics, rooming houses, etc. These spaces were cramped, barely lit, with furniture and decorative features distinctly limited. People slept on the floor, on straw or mats, hammocks, or shared beds. Water was brought in from nearby wells, taken from local streams or rivers or collected as rainwater. “Bathroom” arrangements were located outside the residence. Maintaining a fire either for heating or cooking was always a challenge. Where possible, animals were kept (or hunted), certain foods grown nearby or otherwise obtained through barter or purchase. Most clothes were produced, and repaired, by hand by members of the household. Families, often extended and multigenerational, lived together, frequently augmented by servants, slaves, apprentices and borders.
Over time, how have these arrangements changed? For many, living space expanded. Separate rooms became common, the young often segregated from the adults. Servants (except in wealthy households) departed as did apprentices and boarders, and extended family members. Separate cooking areas emerged. (Fire is dangerous; best kept at a distance.) A reliable outside water supply eventually entered the living quarters, thanks to a network of pipes and pumps. Continuous reliable illumination became available as well, the result first of gas lighting, followed by electrical transmission.
The Industrial Revolution helped fill living quarters as never before. Inexpensive furniture, carpets, chairs, tables, beds, curtains, dishes, cookware, instruments and decorative objects, could now be purchased, and reliable stoves installed. Self-sufficiency gradually declined. Foodstuff could be purchased nearby and consumed at home. Clothes as well. The home could become a showplace, visitors invited in.
What are American households looking like these days? Less traditional than ever. Single individuals live alone. Heterosexual or same-sex couples reside together outside of marriage. “Blended” families as well, the consequences of divorce or death. Single parents and their children represent a growing number of households. Time devoted to cleaning and household chores is in decline (though still performed mostly by women). Members eat “out”, frequently though, thanks to microwave ovens; “fast food” can readily be “prepared” at home. Heating and cooling have become far less challenging (except for their costs), but insurance and security represent more of a burden.
The household today is more complicated, but manageable because members rely on a broad array of outside services. As a result, paying bills becomes a central task each month, as checks go out to satisfy the mortgage, credit cards and other loans, for telephone, electricity, cable and internet services, repairmen, bottled water, health and auto insurance, medical bills, charitable donations, etc. In a majority of households, women handle these chores as they do when it comes to interior decorating. Furnishings, wall décor, curtains, carpets, cookware, etc., generally reflect their tastes, men largely acquiescing in the choices made. Households have also become entertainment centers for family members and guests. Whether entering the home via satellite, cable, internet, smart phones or land lines, a bewildering variety of information sources, video games, emails, movies, sporting events, and pornography are instantly accessible and allow young and old to spend countless hours busily engaged.
The household advanced and was transformed as it moved from the cave to the condo. That this process will continue seems all but guaranteed.
I recognize that we’ve become a predominantly service economy. The number and variety of services available to meet our every “need” is staggering. But just as so many once popular products are no longer around – think buggy whips, rubbers for rainy days, wooden tennis racquets, kitchen ice boxes – the same is true of specific services once readily available but which have largely disappeared. Let’s call it “service obsolescence”.
Remember when you drove into a “service” station and expected its employees to man the gas pump and not only “fill ’er up” but clean the windshield, check the water in the radiator and battery, with a dipstick to monitor oil levels, and also pump air into the tires, if needed? You’d remain comfortable in the car and watch them perform these many tasks. Today, rain or shine, hot or cold – you’re on your own.
Once upon a time in most cities you could locate shoeshine parlors where, climbing onto a chair, you’d look on as expert hands applied a variety of liquids on your shoes, then buffed them into a radiant shine. Or you’d spot shoeshine boys toting their boxes and imploring you to “Shine ‘em up, mister?” Where did they all go? Sure, lots of folks are wearing “sneakers” these days, but that can’t fully explain the demise of the shoe shining profession.
In many countries the parts don’t fit together comfortably, i.e. regional differences and rivalries produce deep divisions and ongoing mistrust. The Scots may prefer to go their own way and leave Great Britain; Northern Italians don’t much care for their Southern countrymen; Kurds in the North of Iraq barely belong to the rest of the country; and what keeps Belgium together is an ongoing mystery.
And in the United States, let’s not forget the South. That region has long been a problem. Southerners welcomed the Revolution and gave us George Washington (although they also joined the ranks of the Tories in large numbers). Southern states endorsed the Constitution (largely because of its three-fifths rule, which gave enhanced power to the South by allowing them to include their slaves in a population count which determined representation) and supplied all the early Presidents (except the Adams’s) until 1828.
But while the North freed the slaves in the years after 1800, the South encouraged the growth and spread of slavery. A South based upon slave-grown cotton came increasingly to resent an industrializing North and the growing number of vocal abolitionists there. As a result Southern adventurers began plotting to invade and annex territories (which would be open to slavery) to the South – especially Cuba and parts of Central America. When these schemes failed and Lincoln was elected President in 1860, the South chose to secede from the Union. And so the war came, by far the bloodiest we’ve ever fought.
Though it lost, the South resisted Northern demands that the recently freed slaves, now U.S. citizens and able to vote, be treated fairly. White supremacist groups, such as the KKK and the Knights of the White Camelia, instead turned to attacking black communities and murdering those who resisted. Ultimately black voting essentially ended in the South and a system of racialized social segregation was imposed in one Southern state after another. Blacks who resisted (often consigned to chain gangs or sent to toil in a convict labor system) also risked being lynched before approving white crowds which, on occasion, then rampaged through black neighborhoods or communities. It would come as no surprise then when, beginning in the first years of the 20th Century, the “great Migration” of blacks out of the South and to the Northwest gained momentum.
As we move through those years, the South remained the poorest region of the U.S., as well as a section attracted to fundamentalist religion and an area bitterly opposed to labor unions. It was also the “Solid South,” i.e., uniformly loyal to the Democratic Party. In Congress this meant that Southern representatives were repeatedly re-elected which gave them seniority and with it the chairmanships of many powerful Congressional committees. From there they wielded considerable influence over New Deal legislation, usually voting to limit the scope of the laws and to ensure that they did not threaten racial “arrangements” in the region.
After World War II, the South (always supportive of the military) signed on to the Cold War, and the Anti-Communist Crusade, backed the Military Industrial Complex and the creation of the Security State. But, the Civil Rights movement became the main focus of attention with the South reacting with “massive resistance” to desegregation and voting rights for African Americans. This resistance fit neatly into the South’s narrative about the coming of the Civil War. Once again the Confederacy (Confederate flags became even more popular in the south in this period) would, they said, need to stand up against Northern oppression and rise to the defense of “States Rights”.
One result of the ensuing turmoil was to turn the solidly Democratic South into a bastion of the Republican Party. In state after state Republicans replaced Democratic officeholders who were now tainted by the passage of Civil Rights legislation during the Johnson administration. In time traditional Southern Conservatives morphed into hyper Conservatives and super patriots, organizing around such issues as abortion, guns, religion in the schools, gay rights, creationism and at the Affordable Care Act. The “White Man” was once again defending the nation from its detractors and from those prepared to curtail “freedom” and scuttle traditional values.
Even before Secession in 1861, the South had often been on the wrong side of history. There is, as we’ve seen, considerable evidence that since then not much has changed.
It happens all the time, but no one can predict when it will. The “past” yields its secrets at its own pace; still it never stops giving. The “stuff” it reveals was once buried, sunken, hidden away or lost. But then it surfaces and mostly we welcome it, benefit when it adds to our stock of knowledge. Not always, of course. Consider the unexploded bombs from World War II that occasionally are unearthed (and then often defused). Also the thousands of hidden land mines that maim and kill those who unwittingly detonate them. And let’s not forget the mass graves of murder victims that we stumble upon. By and large, though, we value what comes to light. For example, at numerous locations within the United States, it’s no great challenge to “discover” Native American artifacts (often arrowheads) lying about.
There are people dedicated to this task, whose life work it is to discover and uncover what they suspect may lie beneath the earth’s surface (not including the legions of geologists and other scientists who seek out “new” deposits of precious metals, coal, oil and gas). One could spend considerable time discussing the quixotic quests of “fortune hunters”, amateurs usually, often beguiled by the prospect of hidden treasure. Many are those who’ve accepted widely circulated tales of pirates (or bandits) burying their loot and mapping the locations of these treasures. Then there are the “professionals” who, after diligent and painstaking research attempt to locate sunken ships either because of the valuables assumed to be on board or because of significant historical interest in these vessels. Few are unaware of Mel Fisher’s sixteen-year quest for the Spanish Galleon which sank off Key West Florida in 1622. The payoff came in 1985 when the ship (Atocha) was located and contained some $450 million in gold, silver, jewelry, etc. Millions of other vessels are believed strewn along ocean floors all over the world. Many have been brought to the surface, fortunes found and valuable information obtained. Of course, the most famous of all wrecks, that of the Titanic, which sank in 1912, was later discovered in 1985. Since then artifacts of all sorts have been recovered and an entire “industry” formed around this “celebrated” sinking including the aftermath of this disaster. The epic Civil War naval battle between the Monitor and The Merrimack, the first clash of iron-clad ships, ended inconclusively, but sometime afterwards, the Monitor sank. The wreck was discovered in 1973 and parts of it recovered in 2002. Hundreds of other historically significant ships remain under the waters of America and the surrounding ocean depths. Many of them will eventually be retrieved once funds become available to underwrite these operations.
The following is intended mostly for mature audiences able to recall life “back then”, and who are thus in a position to testify as to how much it has “improved”, or at least become more convenient. We’re talking not about monumental, game changing innovations viz. robots, cloning, self-driving cars, “amazing” apps, but rather more mundane developments that together, “old timers” will agree, altered the quality of their lives. Here’s what’s likely to come to mind.
Long-distance telephone calls once were epic events. Everything, everyone stopped as the party being called rushed to the phone while everyone present wondered and worried who it might be. That’s because such communications were relatively rare and therefore assumed to be important, maybe even urgent. Thus, they were expensive. (One often instructed the long distance operator to cut in after, say, three minutes, lest overrun costs mount rapidly). Today, the long distance call no longer belongs in a special category, no longer inspires awe, nor involves a mad dash for the receiver. One simply lifts the cell phone to the ear and begins a conversation with someone around the corner or across the world. In such exchanges time and distance are of little concern or consequence.
On line at a grocery checkout counter often could involve extensive delays. The price sticker on each item had to be located, read and then entered into the cash register. If a particular item lacked a price tag the process came to an abrupt halt. A nearby cashier might be asked for the correct price. Or a manager summoned, or an employee instructed to return to the aisle for a price check. Then there were “sales” items methodically entered at regular store prices. That produced further delay and a variety of strategies to rectify the situation. Today bar codes rule. The clerk need only pass the item, each sporting a bar code, in front of the scanner and the price is instantly recorded while sales items and special deals are automatically recognized and accounted for. More often than not check outs are a breeze. It was once quite another matter.